Shadows (by freyakendra)

Summary: Men who hide in shadows can be the worst kind of monsters, as Joe discovers one night when he’s home alone.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:   MA (Violence)
Word Count: 13,500


Shadows

 

1

There was something about an empty house Joe thought he might never get used to. He had always been surrounded by his pa and brothers. During those rare times when the family was scattered, Hop Sing would at least be there. Someone was always there.

Still, that in itself should not have unnerved him. He could handle a night alone. He’d often even looked forward to it. No. Maybe what bothered him most about this particular night was the fact that he was not supposed to be alone. Pa had been due back from Sacramento on the noon stage, but hadn’t made it. A telegram ensured Joe he had no reason to worry. Even so, something…something was gnawing at him from the inside, turning and twisting his stomach in ways that had nothing to do with the fact he’d had to eat his own cooking for the past two days, Hop Sing having left to join Hoss and Adam on the cattle drive to take over the chuck wagon from an ailing Cooky.

Yep. This night Joe should have enjoyed another of Hop Sing’s fine meals together with his pa. Instead, he’d taken a supper of sandwiches to the porch, where he’d eaten alone, listening to the sighing secrets in a shifting breeze. He thought he might have smelled rain in the air, but by dusk the clouds had parted, making way for a night so full of bright stars a man would be hard-pressed to hide himself in the shadows.

Of course, Joe had no reason to believe anyone would be trying to hide in tonight’s shadows. Reason didn’t stop him, however, from imagining someone might be doing exactly that.

“Don’t be a fool,” he told himself. He’d outgrown his fear of shadows years ago. He was a long way from being a child needing his father’s protection.

So why did he feel like he needed his father there with him now?

When he went to bed, the absolute quiet of the night weighed thick and heavy around him. He began to feel almost as though he would suffocate from it. Despite how many times he had prayed Hoss would stop the racket of his snoring, tonight Joe would have relished the sound. He came to believe any noise at all would comfort him.

Desperate to find some sound, somewhere, he cued in on the ticking of the clock and then instantly wished he hadn’t.

tick…tock…tick…tock….

It crept up the stairs like a lazy, old woodpecker, intent on reminding Joe how slowly time was passing.

tick…tock…tick…tock….

Sighing, Joe opened his eyes. It didn’t matter that he was exhausted from the day’s work. He was wide awake nonetheless.

tick…tock…tick…tock….

A white, ghostly glow filled his room. It drew his gaze toward the window, where a half moon was spilling its light across the sill and dripping down to the floorboards below.

tick…tock…tick…tock….

“Pa?” He remembered asking once, long ago. “Why do monsters only come out at night?”

Pa had laughed softly. “Joe, you know there is no such thing as monsters.”

Joe had thought long and hard about that. “I think there are,” he’d decided.

“Joseph—”

“No, Pa. Really. I think wolves are monsters, don’t you?”

“Well, I suppose—”

“Wolves hide in the shadows and howl at the moon and attack other animals for no reason at all.”

“They do have a reason, Little Joe. They do it because they are hungry. They need to eat, just like you do.”

“But I don’t hide in the shadows and attack anything when I want to eat.”

Joe smiled at the memory even as he felt chilled by the realization he hadn’t been wrong way back then. It made a sort of sense to think anything that hides in the shadows could be considered a monster. That meant wolves were monsters. It also meant men with wolf-like thoughts could be considered monsters, men such as raiding Apaches, Commancheros and common bandits.

tick…tock…tick…tock….

A lonely howl somewhere in the distance seemed to give credence to this new insight.

“That’s it,” Joe decided. Sleep wasn’t going to come easily tonight.

Throwing back his covers, Joe turned up the bedside lamp to chase away whatever ghosts were haunting him all of a sudden, and then he chuckled. He actually wished it were ghosts that worried him. Unfortunately, he was more inclined to believe it was the threat of human monsters, a threat he had no reason to believe existed but couldn’t seem to shake nonetheless.

He figured he might as well get dressed and check things out. Maybe then he could prove to himself his worries were nothing more than a resurgence of the wild imagination he thought he’d left behind with the passing of his childhood. If not, he’d try some warm milk, or maybe one of Hop Sing’s teas.

*****

2

The breeze had picked up some since supper, awakening the woods beyond the yard with the creaks and clicks of tree limbs bending and scratching against one another. A stray gust hit the bell hanging from the porch ceiling, moving it just enough to cause it to ring softly. Joe felt that gust too. Chilled, he drew his right arm across his ribs and held the lantern higher in his left, though its dim light seemed to create more shadows than it chased.

A moment later, Joe went back inside to retrieve his jacket and gun, after which he made a ridiculous effort to close the door behind him as quietly as he could. Why? There was no one inside for him to worry about awaking.

Shaking his head and chuckling yet again over the childish nature of his sudden fear of shadows, Joe glanced toward the barn and decided he’d check there first. One look at a calm, resting Cochise would ease his mind considerably.

He started in that direction, moving quickly until an owl hooted nearby. The sound drew Joe’s nervous gaze and caused him to shorten his stride, slowing his steps. Next he heard something rustling in the bushes around the side of the barn, out of sight. He stopped altogether, once again raising the lantern though he knew it would reveal nothing except the barn’s wood plank walls.

When the sound did not return, Joe stepped closer to the door and then stopped to listen once again. The trees continued creaking. The soft whispers of pine boughs chasing one another managed to soothe Joe’s racing heart. Those were the only sounds he heard. Whatever had moved in those bushes must be gone now.

Relaxing, Joe opened the door to step inside.

Cochise reared up, shrieking at the intrusion. Buck, too, was agitated, though not quite as vocal.

“Easy, Cooch!” Joe called out softly as he approached. “Easy, boy. Shhhh. It’s okay.” But was it?

Joe set the lantern down briefly to focus his attentions on quieting the pinto.

“Shhh. Easy, boy. Easy.” He started stroking Cochise’s muzzle. “Easy. That’s it.”

A moment later, leaving the horse huffing and scratching at the ground, Joe took up the lantern again and began to look into every one of the barn’s various shadows. It didn’t take long to discover the barn was empty except for the two, skittish horses. Whatever was bothering them—and obviously Joe himself—must still be outside.

While Joe’s trek to the barn had enabled him to shed what he’d considered to be childish fears, the wariness he’d found in Cochise told him his own instincts were correct. Something was wrong. Warm milk or calming tea was not going to help him. What he really needed to do was to find out what sort of trouble was hiding in tonight’s shadows.

Steeling himself, Joe shifted the lantern to his right hand and flexed the fingers of his left, preparing himself to reach for his gun if needed. Then he opened the door, stepped back outside, and focused again on the sounds around him.

Hearing nothing unusual, he cautiously pushed himself away from the barn’s own shadows and let his gaze sweep across the yard, going first to the line of trees beyond and then moving to the house itself.

The front door was wide open.

Joe’s breath caught. He drew his gun before taking another step, and then scanned the area around him once more. He seemed to be alone out there. Whatever monster had been lurking in these shadows must have elected to move inside.

Into the sanctuary of Joe’s own home.

Extinguishing the flame in the lantern, Joe set it down onto the sandy ground and then moved purposefully forward. His focus locked entirely onto the house in front of him, Joe prepared himself to face whatever he must. If it came to gunplay, then so be it. He was ready for anything. He was sure he was ready.

He was wrong.

*****

3

“Drop it,” a familiar, raspy voice demanded. “Unless you want me to spill your brains on your pa’s fine floor, here.”

Joe felt more than saw the barrel of the gun poised mere inches from his left ear. He heard the distinct, soft click of the hammer pulling back.

His eyes scanning the seemingly empty room before him, Joe eased his grip on his own gun and let if fall from his hand.

“What do you think you’re doing, Josh?” Joe asked without turning his head. “You and I have never had a problem before.”

Josh Miller kicked Joe’s gun across the floor. “I reckon not,” he said. “Don’t matter. This ain’t about anything like that.”

“Then why don’t you tell me what it is about?”

“Convenience. Coincidence. Circumstance.”

“Those are big words,” Joe scoffed. “What do you—”

A hand grabbed Joe’s arm and pushed him forward. “Just get on inside.”

Joe stumbled further into the room as he heard the door being kicked shut behind him. Finally his gaze landed on another figure, slumped to the ground behind Josh and leaning against the sideboard. It was Josh Miller’s brother, Jeremy. There was blood on the younger man’s shirt, at his waist.

“What kind of trouble did you get into?” Joe asked.

“You were there,” Josh said then. “You saw that fancy man getting off the stage today. We figured he’d have some money on him. We were right.”

“You robbed him?”

“Got a thousand greenbacks for our trouble. But we didn’t figure on him having that Derringer.”

“Your brother needs a doctor,” Joe said. “If he was gut shot—”

“He weren’t gut shot. And you know we can’t get no doctor. You’re gonna fix him up yourself. And I’m gonna watch you every step of the way. He dies, you die, too.”

*****

Joe did what he could for Jeremy, but not because of Josh’s threat. Jeremy was a few years younger than Joe, and he’d never been a bad kid. It was a shame he didn’t have someone like Adam or Hoss looking out for him. Instead, he had Josh, a man who was more concerned about finding the easy way to live than looking out for his little brother. John, the oldest of the three, was more of a ghost than a reality in his brothers’ lives, spending more time on the trail than at home.

After they settled Jeremy into the bed in the guest room by the kitchen, Joe prodded for the bullet and then stitched up the damage to Jeremy’s side, all the while finding his thoughts moving to his own older brothers. In those moments, he came to appreciate—perhaps more than ever—all they had done, and all he knew he could continue to count on them to do for him. They kept him out of trouble. With the Millers, Josh sucked Jeremy right into it. In fact, Joe really shouldn’t be surprised Josh Miller had decided robbing would be an easy way to get money.

Joe was surprised, nonetheless. There was no reason for this to happen. No reason at all.

“Like it or not,” Joe said as he pulled the blanket over the youngest Miller boy, “you’d better get him a doctor. You waited too long to take care of that wound. It’s already hot with infection, and he’s lost a lot of blood.”

Josh looked worried. Maybe he cared more about Jeremy than he’d let on.

“It wasn’t about waitin’,” he said, scratching his head with the butt of his gun. “It was about getting clear of the sheriff.”

Joe gave him a long, hard glare. “I hope that thousand dollars was worth your brother dying.” He moved past Josh to step out into the great room, ignoring the weapon—ignoring whatever threat the other man still posed.

“Shut up!” Josh called out behind him. “Shut…up. He ain’t gonna die.”

A moment later, Josh walked out of the guest room as well, though he left the door open and his gaze kept slipping back inside. “I told you, he can’t die. He dies, then so do you.”

Setting himself down into the red chair beside the fireplace, Joe was skeptical. “What good will that do? It won’t help Jeremy. Killing me will just put a rope around your neck.”

“No more than killing that dandy.”

“What?” Joe gave Josh his full attention. “You…you killed the man you robbed?”

“What was I supposed to do? He shot Jeremy! So I shot him right back!”

Josh was scared, Joe realized then, and not just because his younger brother could die. He was scared because they could both hang for what they’d done.

“Josh….” Joe started, but then found himself unable to say more. What Josh Miller had just admitted to was unthinkable. Suddenly someone Joe had known for most of his life was shifting—right there before him, even as Joe watched—from a man to a monster, a wolf hiding in shadows.

“You murdered a man,” Joe finished then, his voice breaking on words he could never have imagined himself saying.

“I had to!”

Shaking his head in disbelief, Joe found himself feeling sorry for this particular monster.

“No, you didn’t have to,” Joe said, keeping his voice low. It was strange how he started to remind himself of his pa then. Pa had used similar tones when Joe had done something especially wrong as a young boy. Those low tones taught Joe far more effectively than the switch. They made it clear Pa wasn’t just angry, he was disappointed.

“All you had to do was get a job,” Joe went on, using those same tones. “What did you think? You could rob a man and still go on living as though nothing happened? What would John say if he—”

“John’s the one told us to do it!” Josh shouted.

“What?” That made less sense than the robbery itself. John may have been absent for most of the last few years, but whenever he had been around, he’d always been responsible. He had even worked at the Ponderosa for a while, and was one of the best drovers Pa had ever hired.

It was odd to hear Josh laughing then. He plopped down into the settee as though Jeremy had been forgotten, Josh’s thoughts seeming focused on what should have happened rather than what did. Before saying another word, he planted his left leg on the coffee table, hitting the wood so hard with the heel of his boot he shook off a shower of dried mud that would have made Pa furious.

“What do you think he’s been doin’ all these years?” Josh said, grinning like he’d just beat the devil. “Riding herd?”

The dirt didn’t matter. Any potential damage to the coffee table didn’t matter. What mattered to Joe was what Josh was implying about his oldest brother, John.

“Hasn’t he?” Joe asked, despite what Josh was suggesting.

“Ain’t no money in that,” Josh answered. “Just bruises and broken bones. Nah. He come back a week ago, happier than I’ve ever seen him. Said he was ready to show me and Jeremy how it’s done.”

“How what’s done?”

Josh’s grin died in an instant. He turned cold eyes on Joe, and brought up his gun as though he was ready to pull the trigger, sending a bullet straight to Little Joe’s heart.

“Using this,” Josh said, “to get rich.”

“Josh!” Jeremy’s voice called out weakly from the guest room

The sound eased the ice in Josh’s gaze, but did not soften his touch on the gun.

“Josh! Help me!” Jeremy pleaded.

“Get on in there,” Josh ordered Joe. “Settle him down.”

Joe made no effort to move. “You’re his brother. He needs you, not me.”

Josh pulled back the hammer. “I said get!”

Sighing, Joe rose to tend to the youngest Miller boy, once again appreciating his own family.

*****

4

Jeremy did not settle easily. During some moments he recognized Joe, but mostly he seemed confused. He called out for Josh again and again, clearly afraid. But Josh would not come into the room. Joe caught glimpses of the middle Miller brother pacing beyond the doorway, and figured Josh was afraid as well. Perhaps he was afraid for Jeremy, perhaps just for himself. Whatever the man feared, he was unwilling to face that fear. To face it would require him to see what his young brother was experiencing.

Joe half expected Josh to go outside, to get as far away from Jeremy’s struggle as he could. But instead, Josh kept pacing, moving from one part of the great room to another. Joe could hear him even when he couldn’t see him, by the creaks of weary floor boards and the heavy thumps of the man’s boots.

It was strange then for Joe to realize the entire house had gone silent again a few hours later. Jeremy had finally fallen into a deep sleep, one that stilled his restless thrashing and ended his agonized cries. And Josh…. Josh had stopped his pacing, leaving the outer room as silent as this one.

Exhausted and disturbed by what Josh and Jeremy had done, Joe sat beside the bed for a long while, studying the younger Miller and wondering about the older one.

Could Josh pull the trigger?

He shot Jeremy!” Josh had said earlier. “So I shot him right back!”

That meant Josh Miller could shoot a stranger, but could he shoot someone he’d known for as long as he’d known Joe? Someone he’d shared a beer or two with now and again down at the Bucket of Blood?

Joe wanted to believe he couldn’t. But wanting to believe something didn’t make it true.

Whether caused by the course of his thoughts or his weariness, the silence grew thick around Joe again, thick and stifling. He tensed, finding it difficult to breathe, and for a brief instant he was sure he sensed someone watching him through the window. His head shot up, his gaze flying toward the glass, his heart pounding hard against his chest. But he saw nothing. More importantly, he saw no one looking in.

He rose, keeping his eyes on the window, and then moved closer. The stars were fading under the ghostly glow of pre-dawn. Even in that ethereal light, Joe could see the porch and the yard were both empty. There were no more monsters, he told himself. And soon there would be no more shadows for them to hide in. Joe knew exactly what he had to fear, whom he had to fear. There was nothing else out there. Everything he had to worry about was already in the house.

Although he was starting to wonder…. What had become of Josh?

Joe stepped into the main room to find the lamplight also was fading, untended wicks having burned too low to sufficiently chase away shadows. Yet the shadows that held were not so dark as to hide a man. No. It was clear there was no one there. The great room was as empty as the yard.

Curious and concerned, Joe almost called for Josh, but decided to hold his tongue. There was something about the current silence that was rapidly becoming as unnerving as the previous one, the silence that had first alerted him to the presence of human monsters.

Joe went to the kitchen, thinking perhaps Josh had decided he was hungry. But the kitchen, too, was dark and empty. Tempted to go outside to check the barn again and see how Cochise’s nerves were faring, Joe decided instead to go back into the main room. He needed to know where Josh had gone.

It was unlikely Josh was upstairs. Joe doubted the man would attempt to sleep given the circumstances, and going upstairs would leave Joe unguarded—if in fact Josh was truly concerned about what Joe might do.

Where then?

Joe stepped cautiously through the dining room until his gaze reached the settee. There, he found Josh Miller stretched out, the gun loosely held in his right hand, which was resting upon his chest. The man’s eyes were closed, his chest moving steadily up and down in slow, deep breaths.

Allowing himself a slow, deep breath of his own, Joe watched Josh Miller for a moment longer. Josh’s mouth fell open, emitting a light snore. He wasn’t just resting then. He was sleeping—perhaps even soundly enough to give Joe an opportunity to regain control of his home.

Joe crept closer in slow, measured steps.

At one point, he thought he heard a noise in the kitchen. Perhaps a stray gust had rattled the window pane. Pausing to listen, Joe found the noise did not repeat itself. Nor did he hear anything else.

Stop it, he told himself silently. There were no more monsters, no more wolves waiting to attack. They were both right here where he could see them.

He pressed on until he stood beside the settee. Finally, Joe reached down to take Josh Miller’s gun.

“Back away,” a voice called from the direction of the kitchen. “Nice and slow.”

Joe looked up as he heard two weapons being cocked, the one he’d just been reaching for, and another in the hands of the third and final monster, John Miller.

*****

5

“What the hell did you think you were doin’?” Josh Miller jumped up from the settee, tightening his grip on the gun so hard his knuckles were going white.

Joe backed away as slowly and carefully as he could. Josh was nervous. Adding that fact to a cocked weapon made for a dangerous combination.

Unfortunately Josh’s tenuous hold on his trigger finger wasn’t the only danger Joe faced. The further he backed away from Josh, the closer he found himself to John. And rather than nervous, John looked to be very much in control.

It was hard to tell which brother represented the greatest danger.

“You got no cause to complain, Josh,” John scolded, though his gaze never moved from Joe. “Don’t blame him for your own carelessness. You’d be dead by now if I didn’t come in.”

“No, he wouldn’t.”  Joe said. “All I meant to do was get rid of his gun. I had no intention of using it.”

“Then you’re more a fool than I’d ever figured you for.” John’s dark eyes seemed absolutely black at that moment. “You put a gun in your hand, you damned well better use it. ‘Cause if you don’t, someone else will.”

“Is that what you’re gonna do now? Shoot me?” Joe prodded as anger rose up within him, his fists clenching and his chest heaving with it. “What happened to you? My pa respected you. Adam respected you.”

“Respect? What the hell good did that ever do a man? Respect,” he spat the word as though it left a vile taste on his tongue. “Your pa respected my pa too, right up until Pa’s eyes went bad and his hands got crippled and he couldn’t earn a livin’ no more. The bank like to respect him too, right up until he didn’t have enough money to pay his mortgage.” John waved his gun toward Joe. “You want to know the kind of respect that matters in this world? It’s the respect a man gets for what he’s got. It’s the respect you Cartwrights get for having all of this. That’s the kind of respect I aim to have.”

“No one respects a man who steals to get what he wants.”

John shook his head slowly back and forth. “All that matters is that a man have money. No one ever asks where it come from.”

“They’ll ask alright,” Joe argued. “Folks like the family of that man your brother killed today. Folks like the sheriff. You can count on them asking. And then they’ll send you straight to prison, while Josh hangs for mur—”

“No!” Josh shouted. “I ain’t gonna hang! John he…he won’t let them hang me!”

“He won’t have a choice when he’s in jail.” Joe kept his gaze locked on John, making sure the oldest brother knew exactly what sort of debts he was helping his younger brothers to owe.

“John!” Josh panicked. “Tell him what you said. Tell him how it ain’t—”

“Shut your mouth or I’ll shut it for you!” John shouted back, seeming to have finally lost his composure. “That goes for you too, Cartwright. No more talkin’. You already said enough. You said enough back in Virginia City to let me know we have two full days to lay low, and Friday morning besides ’til your pa gets in on that stage. Until then, this house is ours, not yours, and I’m the boss. Right now, I aim to get some sleep, seein’ as how my brother here already got some of his own. But I’m not as trusting as he is. So I’m gonna see to it you sit nice and quiet right there in that chair until I come back and tell you you can move.” He pointed to the red chair.

Joe made no effort to move.

John didn’t seem to care. He turned his attention to Josh. “The horses are in the corral out back with them wild ones we heard him talkin’ about in town. Saddles are in the barn. There’s rope in there, too. Go get it. And get that lantern he left out in the yard while you’re at it. Don’t leave anything where it don’t belong.”

“Afraid the sheriff might stop by?” Joe asked.

“What’d I tell you about your mouth?” John glared at him. “I was thinking it’d be easier to keep you around, but maybe I was wrong about that.” He stepped closer and then planted the barrel of his gun at Joe’s temple. “Do you think Adam would learn to respect me again if I put a bullet in his little brother?”

Joe tensed, struggling to hold himself back. He wanted to rip that gun right out of John Miller’s hands. He also knew he’d never get that far.

“You know perfectly well Adam would hunt you down,” Joe warned.

“So he could put a bullet in me just like Josh put a bullet in that fella’ in town for shooting Jeremy?”

“It’s not the same, and you know it.”

“‘Course it’s the same!” John jabbed the gun harder against Joe’s skin with each shouted word. “It’s exactly the same! It’s about a family lookin’ out for its own. That’s all I’m doin’. And if you get in the way of that, I will pull this trigger, your brother’s hunting be damned.”

Joe had never seen any of the Millers as red as John was at that moment. In fact, there was nothing about the man that looked the slightest bit familiar. It was like all the things that had made him worthy of respect before had been burned out of him by whatever rage was taking control now.

That was when Joe realized John Miller hadn’t been in control before. He was being controlled. By his own anger.

Joe’s anger died then. Fear took its place, fear of the shadows hidden in this familiar stranger, and the monsters those shadows might still be hiding.

*****

6

Keeping his eyes locked on John Miller, Joe hoped to find something of the man who, barely more than three years ago, had been too nervous to ask Eloise Harper to marry him.

“What if she says no?” Joe had overheard him complaining to Adam.

“She won’t,” Adam had said.

“You can’t know that.”

“I know she blushes whenever you looks at her.”

Joe had never heard anything more about it. Eloise’s pa died a week later. Two weeks after that, she was on her way back east and John Miller hit the trail.

The eyes that glared back at Joe now seemed far too cold to have ever fancied thoughts of settling down with the likes of Eloise Harper, a shy, handsome woman whose heart had always seemed too big for her tiny frame.

Eloise would be afraid of John Miller now, Joe realized as he met that almost devilish stare.

“As I recall,” John said icily, “I told you to sit. I ain’t gonna tell you again.”

Joe believed him. At the same time, he was hesitant to turn his back on the man, although he would have to in order to reach the chair John had pointed to a moment earlier.

Sighing, Joe dropped his gaze and turned away. He had barely taken one step when John’s hand grabbed his shoulder, fingers digging deep into his flesh. The larger man spun him around so fast he could hardly keep his feet.

“Just who the hell do you think you are?” John shouted.

Confused, Joe was still struggling to keep his balance when John’s fist slammed into his left cheek. He fell backwards, colliding with the chair at the end of the dining room table and then pulling it to the ground with him.

“Forget it, Cartwright,” John went on as he crossed to where Joe had fallen. “Forget who you think you are. It don’t matter no more. You’re nothing while I’m here, you got it? Nothing!”

He kicked Joe hard in the ribs, and then reached down to grab him by the hair.

“Don’t you ever look at me like you’re better than me again.” John’s dark eyes flared as though with the devil’s fire, and his face went even redder than before. “Because you ain’t. You never were, no matter what you think. Now, next time I tell you to do something, you do it right off.”

Releasing his grip, he threw Joe away from him, bouncing Joe’s head against the fallen chair beside him.

The world spun and Joe’s ears roared from the pressure. Somewhere in the foggy deluge in his mind he thought he heard the front door open.

“Tie him up.”

The words sounded distant.

Joe felt hands under his arms, starting to lift him up.

“Don’t bother.” John’s voice was almost too low for Joe to hear him. “Leave him right where he is.”

Before Joe could find enough breath to protest, his hands were bound tightly behind him. A moment later, his feet were also bound.

“Gag him,” John said then. “I don’t want his yapping to keep me awake.”

Joe watched the elder Miller climb the stairs to the bedrooms above until Josh blocked his view. The middle brother still had fear in his gaze, but there was something else in it as well, something that may have been almost apologetic as he wrapped a neckerchief around Joe’s mouth. Then Josh turned away, saying nothing at all.

Laying his head back, Joe closed his eyes, suddenly exhausted from what had to have been about the longest night of his life—even as the first rays of the rising sun cast its warming touch on his forehead.

Two and a half days, he told himself, feeling a strange sense of hopelessness. He had two and a half days before his pa would get home. It might as well be an eternity.

*****

Silence. Joe craved it now. Despite how unsettled it had made him in the night, now, in the bright light of a cloudless day, he wished he could return to it rather than endlessly endure the racket brought on by the Miller brothers. The clipped snores of a devil in the guise of John Miller, the pain-filled cries of young Jeremy and the nervous rambling of their middle brother, Josh, were too much for Joe to bear. It was like a nightmare that refused to end.

He wished it were a nightmare. He wished he could sleep long enough to experience a nightmare. But sleep was impossible. His arms ached from the way they were positioned behind him. His side hurt with every breath, thanks to the rock-hard toe of John Miller’s boot. And Josh wouldn’t give him even a moment’s peace.

“I don’t know what to do!” Josh complained beside him yet again. “Tell me how to make him stop!”

Joe looked at him, incredulous. Did Josh actually think Joe could answer with that gag in his mouth?

Apparently, it didn’t matter. Josh turned away again. “He’s dyin’, Joe. I just know he’s dyin’.”

Joe dropped his head back once more. Josh was probably right. Jeremy probably was dying. Why? Because John Miller thought it was time to teach his brothers how to get money the easy way.

Suddenly another oddity occurred to Joe. Not once…not once since John Miller had come into the house did he look in on or even ask about his youngest brother.

Joe glanced toward the stairs and then closed his eyes again. Thank you, Adam, he said deep inside himself. Thank you for not being anything like him.

*****

7

Jeremy Miller died just after five that afternoon.

The clock chimed the hour in low, steady tones, calling Joe out of an unsettling dream. He had found Adam looking down at him and then turning to the stairs as though nothing was wrong, as though Little Joe belonged there on the floor, bound and gagged, and watched over by a nervous, pacing and seemingly trigger-happy Josh Miller.

As the last traces of the dream faded away with the dying echoes from the chimes, Joe scanned the room around him. His gaze landed on John sitting in the blue chair beside the fireplace. Joe watched for a long moment as the elder Miller cleaned his gun. There was nothing odd about John then, nothing to show the strange anger that had come over him that morning. Joe could almost believe he should call out to John—or at least grunt through his gag. He could imagine John looking up in surprise, as though he had forgotten Joe was there, and then hurrying to Joe’s aid.

At the same time Joe remembered the way John had earlier turned from calm to enraged in an instant. Joe could almost feel John’s fingers curling around his shoulder again, spinning him around to face the man’s fist. Joe’s cheek, now stiff and swollen, burned from the memory.

“No,” Josh’s voice echoed out from the guest room then. “Dammit, Jeremy! You listen when I talk to you! Jeremy?”

Joe saw John look up from his gun. The elder Miller turned toward the sound of his brother’s voice. His posture stiffened. Somehow his expression stiffened too. Or maybe it hardened. John rose from the chair then. As he pulled himself to his full height, he seemed to grow in both size and intensity.

Suddenly Joe did not want to be noticed. He almost wished he could shrink in on himself, drawing away from John’s sharp gaze.

Fortunately John never looked his way. His eyes were locked on the guest room.

“Jeremy?” Josh’s voice grew softer. Joe could hear pain in its tone.

As John strode toward the sound, Joe found himself imagining a general marching into battle, knowing it would be his last.

“I can’t…. He won’t….” Josh stammered after John disappeared into the room.

The silence that followed filled the house with a heaviness that made Joe feel like an interruption. He didn’t belong there, not now. He yearned to walk away.

The best he could do was to turn his attention. Focusing on the clock, he listened to its slow, steady rhythm.

tick…tock…tick…tock….

He’s dead, the ticking seemed to say. He’s dead. Over and over again.

he’s…dead…he’s…dead

Joe closed his eyes, wishing he could close his ears as well.

he’s…dead…he’s…dead

His world became that sound, that realization, until he felt a soft vibration on the floor. Opening his eyes as the vibration became footsteps, as the footsteps came to match the cadence of the clock, Joe raised his gaze to meet the dark, cold eyes of John Miller.

“You’re going to bury him,” John said, his face like stone, emotionless as a statue. “Out back. In Hop Sing’s vegetable garden.”

Drawing a knife, John sliced through the ropes binding Joe’s feet.

“Won’t look out of place there,” John went on then, as though he felt he owed Joe an explanation.

Who was this man? Joe wondered yet again. John Miller—or what had become of him—was an enigma, a mystery Joe could not figure. An instant of softness touched the man’s eyes before he reached behind Joe to free his hands. But when John drew away again, he had returned to stone. He grabbed
Joe by one arm and pulled him forcefully—painfully—upright.

“Take him out through the kitchen,” John ordered. “Keep near the house. You even look like you’re wandering away, I will bury you right on top of him.”

Joe found himself holding his breath under the scrutiny of that dark gaze. Unable to find his voice, he nodded, knowing he had no choice. And then he headed toward the guest room, feeling as though he was now that general. He only wished he knew what sort of battle he would soon be facing.

*****

8

Josh Miller was tense. He stood by the house, keeping to the shadows as John had ordered him to do, and watched as Joe began digging in the farthest corner of the garden the brothers would allow. Josh’s eyes held to Joe like there was a rope between them, keeping them linked; and though his gun was in his holster, he held a rifle at the ready.

There was no point to it really. Joe might normally have been encouraged to run for the cover of the woods, but the ache in his ribs from John’s boot would have made such an effort too great a risk. Instead he kept to the grueling task of digging deep into the hard-packed soil beneath the tilled surface. Each shovel full of dirt seemed to dig deeper into Joe’s side as well, cultivating the ache into a knifelike pain. By the time the hole was six feet long yet only about two feet deep, Joe was struggling to breathe. He could not fill his lungs without feeling as though someone was stabbing him. Finally, he planted his shovel into the dirt beside him and bent forward, leaning both arms against the handle.

Panting, Joe let his gaze move to the fiery glow of the setting sun, keeping his back to the house and the sentry posted there. For one liberating instant, Joe managed to forget about why he was even digging the hole. He simply let himself drift into that fire in the sky.

The instant died with the crack of a rifle and a spray of dirt hitting Joe in the face like dry rain. He turned to find Josh Miller taking careful aim. Keenly aware the next bullet would be meant for him, Joe hesitated for only a brief second before grabbing up the shovel again and returning to his agonizing task.

Breathing in short, clipped breaths, Joe lost track of time after a while. He lost track of everything, even the pain. He focused every bit of himself into the motion of plunging his shovel down into the earth, lifting up a clod of dirt, and tossing it to the ground beside him. He became so engrossed in those repetitive actions the purpose of the hole no longer mattered. Nor did its size or shape. Nothing mattered but the digging.

He jumped when a hand gripped his shoulder.

Blinking, Joe struggled to clear the fog in his brain until he saw John Miller’s granite eyes above him. It took a moment longer for Joe to realize dusk had set in. The sun’s fire had already been extinguished—or buried somewhere beneath the distant horizon.

“Sheriff’s comin’,” John said icily. “You go out front and tell him everything’s fine. Get rid of him.”

Wheezing now, Joe stared at the man, trying to make sense of his words.

“You hear me, Cartwright? Get rid of the sheriff, or he will be dead before he hits the ground.”

Realization came slowly, but it did come. Joe nodded, and then pulled himself out of the hole. In stiff, sluggish steps, he plodded back toward the house, skirting around the kitchen to reach the front yard.

“Joe?” Sheriff Coffee sounded wary as he dismounted. “You okay, son?”

Forcing a smile, Joe gave one, quick nod in answer. “What brings you out here, Sheriff?” The words were more breathed than spoken, but they sounded clear enough to Joe.

“What’s happened to you, Little Joe?”

“Happened?” Joe acted confused. “No.” His smile deepened. “Nothing happened. Just…working.”

“Working yourself to death, I’d say. Now Joe, your pa might expect certain things to get done, but you and I both know he don’t expect you to kill yourself doing ’em.”

Joe shook his head. “Some things I wanted to….” He stopped to catch his breath. “…Finish…before it’s too dark.”

“Well, it’s about that now, I’d say. Wouldn’t you?”

“Maybe so. What about…you, sheriff?” Joe took another breath. “What brings you here?”

“How ’bout we go inside first? You look like you’re about ready to fall over.”

Joe tensed. “No.” He hoped he didn’t say it too harshly. “If I get too relaxed,” Joe added then, “I’ll never get things cleaned up for the night.” The words came in a breathless rush, but he hoped his smile looked genuine.

Roy studied him for a moment before nodding. “Alright. Joe, I come out here to ask if you’ve seen the Miller boys since you left town yesterday.”

“No. Why?”

“‘Member that man who come in on the stage? That dandy from back east?”

“Yeah.”

“Seems the Miller’s shot him down.”

Joe drew his brows downward, hoping to appear both concerned and surprised about the news. “Doesn’t sound like them.”

“Maybe not Josh or Jeremy, but John….” Sheriff Coffee shook his head. “That man’s changed since he come back. And we got three witnesses sayin’ it was them that done it. We been on their trail ever since, but they must have doubled back to cover their tracks.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

The sheriff didn’t seem to have heard him. Roy was looking hard at Joe’s face.

“You get into a scuffle, Little Joe?”

“What? No. Why?”

“I know it’s gettin’ dark, but looks to me you got quite a bruise under all that dirt.”

Joe turned away from the scrutiny. He tried to smile again. “I was clumsy. I tripped.”

Roy Coffee did not appear to be convinced. It was surprising then when he turned abruptly away, heading back to his horse.

“Well, you keep a look out, Little Joe,” he said as he mounted up. “And take care of yourself. I don’t like you working so hard you get careless. Your pa won’t like it none neither.”

Joe wanted to say he didn’t like it much himself. “Don’t worry,” he said instead.

For the sake of Sheriff Roy Coffee, Joe was relieved to see the man ride away. At the same time, he couldn’t help but feel as though he had been abandoned.

Suddenly every ache and pain struck him with compounded intensity. He didn’t know how he could possibly finish the job John Miller had appointed him to do. He also knew he would have no choice.

“Your pa might expect certain things to get done,” the sheriff had said, “but you and I both know he don’t expect you to kill yourself doing ’em.”

John Miller, on the other hand, just might expect exactly that.

*****

9

By the time Jeremy was laid down into that hole, even dusk was done. Full night had fallen. Though the moon had yet to rise, a thousand stars filled the sky, bathing the world in ghostly shadows.

Joe found himself wondering if Jeremy might be among those ghosts.

Before filling in the grave, Joe stood over it, trying to find the right words to say and enough breath to be able to say them. But no words would come. Instead, he thought about what had led him here, to this moment. He found himself blaming John— not for what Joe himself had endured, but for what Jeremy had. Jeremy Miller’s own brother had pushed him to rob a man; he might as well have pushed him right into that grave. Yet John expressed neither guilt nor grief. He wasn’t even present for the interment. He had left the burial entirely to Joe and a distraught, angry Josh.

Now, at this inappropriate gravesite at the edge of Hop Sing’s treasured vegetable garden, Josh Miller stood across from Joe. Josh’s gaze was rendered soft from the starlight reflecting in his unshed tears, but the set of his jaw and the squared line of his shoulders made it clear he was eager for revenge. Trouble was, the man who shot Jeremy was already dead. Maybe that was why Joe wasn’t at all surprised when Josh drew his gun, pulled back the hammer and aimed it right between Joe’s eyes.

“You done this,” Josh said. “You’re goin’ in there with him.”

Joe met his glare. “I had nothing to do with Jeremy getting shot. I tried to save his life.”

“No. You done something when you were digging out that bullet. You wanted him dead.”

“Why would I want him dead?”

“You’d like to see us all dead, I’ll bet. Just because this is your house and you don’t want us in it.”

“You’re right in saying I don’t want you here. But I don’t need to see you dead—not you, not John, and least of all Jeremy. He was just a kid. He didn’t deserve this.”

“I don’t believe you!” The more he spoke, the more Josh’s voice rose. But his next words came low and deadly. “You’re gonna pay for Jeremy dyin’. But….” Josh seemed to consider something else. He lowered his gun and looked away for just an instant. “It ought to be slow,” he said then. “Slow and painful, like it was with Jeremy. Maybe exactly like with Jeremy.”

Josh started to raise his gun again. When it was barely waste high, he pulled the trigger.

Fire seared into Joe’s right side. Shock stole his breath and blackened his vision. He was vaguely aware of falling, and then found himself in a bed of feathery, green carrot leaves. He wasn’t sure how long he lay there. It seemed a long while before he heard John’s voice echo above him.

“You calf brained imbecile!”

Joe heard the crack of a fist against flesh.

“I’m sorry!” Josh cried.

“That shot like to bring the sheriff right back here, if he ain’t here already!”

“He rode away!” Josh sounded desperate to justify what he’d done. “We watched him ride away!”

“What kind of half-wit are you? That posse weren’t goin’ any farther tonight. They’re probably camped no more’n a mile from here. They’ll be here by daybreak, now. You can bet on that.”

“Then we gotta get outta here!”

Joe closed his eyes and focused on regaining his breath as he waited to hear John’s answer. Yes, he thought to himself. Yes. Go. Just…go.

A moment later, hands grabbed him under the arms, pulling him upright. The fire seared him anew.

“What are you doin’?” Josh asked when Joe couldn’t.

“Bringing him.”

Joe felt himself half carried and half dragged through the garden. No, he tried to say. But his voice wasn’t cooperating.

“Why?” Josh asked.

“Sheriff’ll think twice before shooting once his sees Little Joe Cartwright’s in the way.”

“I won’t…,” Joe found himself calling out, “last ten miles…like this.” The effort left him breathless once more.

“Don’t matter,” John answered. “Sheriff won’t know that.”

Joe lost track of time and distance until he was deposited on a stack of hay inside the barn.

“I’ll start saddling these two,” John said. He could only be referring to Buck and Cochise. “You go out to that corral and get one of ours. Be quick.”

If John was serious about taking him, Joe was going to have to figure out how to stay alive—and preferably conscious—long enough for Sheriff Coffee to find them. From the sting at his back and the feel of dampness beneath him, Joe was sure the bullet had gone clean through. That meant for better odds against infection. On the other hand, it also increased his odds of bleeding to death. Without treatment and forced to ride as fast as the Miller brothers would need to, Joe doubted he’d see sunrise.

The only thing he could think to do was close his eyes and pray John would change his mind.

*****

10

Trussed up in the bandages John had unexpectedly applied and ropes to keep him secure in the saddle, Joe had neither the strength nor the ability to guide his own horse—or rather, the horse he had been given to ride. Josh was riding Cochise, which made Joe seethe way down inside; but there was nothing he could do with his anger. He kept his gaze instead on John, who had taken Buck and was leading Joe’s nameless horse through the rough trail.

John Miller continued to surprise Little Joe. After saddling the horses, he had turned, seeming to recognize only then that Joe had been shot. That apparent discovery had sent him rushing out to the house, returning a short time later with bandages and water. Though he’d hurried through the process of cleaning and dressing Joe’s wounds, during that whole while Joe saw something that looked like concern in the man’s eyes. And then, when he was finished, John was as gentle as could be lifting Joe to the saddle.

Yet that action had seemed to mark the end of his caring. John’s eyes went back to stone then. He had ordered Josh to tie Joe’s hands and secure them to the pummel, while John himself trussed up Joe’s legs so he wouldn’t fall if he passed out—or worse. From that point on, John wouldn’t even let his eyes meet Joe’s. He acted like he was leading a supply horse, and Joe was nothing more than a sack of something he might eventually find useful.

Now, under the ethereal light of a half moon mostly hidden by the canopy of trees, John Miller was just a dark figure astride a horse Joe knew nearly as well as his own. There were times, when Joe’s focus was fading, that he came to believe it might even be his pa guiding him. Those moments made the ride almost bearable. But then his horse would miss a step or otherwise jolt Joe back to full, agonizing consciousness, forcing him to endure the constant feel of knives digging into his abdomen and his back to the rhythm of his horse’s gait.

He could hardly breathe, and had long ago lost the ability to recognize where he was. The trail seemed to be taking him on an endless journey through woods filled with shadows. His companions were like voiceless specters in the midst of those shadows, one riding ahead, the other behind, heard only by the plodding of the horses’ hooves on the hard packed ground. In time, Joe stopped understanding why they were riding or where they were going. That was when he found himself enveloped by the deepest shadow of the night.

He fell into the blackness without a struggle.

*****

“Leave him here.”

Joe heard the voice as though it were hovering above him.

“What about the sheriff?”

Another voice came from somewhere to his left.

“We put enough miles behind us by now. I reckon if he hasn’t reached us yet, it’s likely he won’t. Probably not even broke camp yet.”

Joe was on the ground. It felt strange. He knew he should be riding, though he couldn’t figure out why.

“Let’s go then. I don’t like sittin’ here.”

Josh? Was that Josh Miller’s voice?

Joe started to remember.

“You don’t like nothin’.”

That was John. It sounded like he was moving away, stepping closer to Josh.

“You never have,” John went on. “You’ve never been nothin’ but a whining, no-good, lazy—”

“What the hell you comin’ at me, for? It’s him got us into this.”

Him? Did he mean Joe?

“No, it’s you got us into it, you and that snot-nosed brat who never could do nothin’ right.”

“What?”

“You heard me. I come back here outta the goodness of my heart to save my kin, only to find out my kin ain’t worth savin’.”

“You talkin’ about Jeremy?” Josh’s voice was hushed, as though from shock.

“I’m talkin’ about both of you! It should’a been easy. I told you everything you needed to do and just how you needed to do it. But you two went and messed it up so bad I can’t even show my face in Virginia City no more.”

“We didn’t figure on that man havin’ a gun.”

“You gotta figure everyone has a gun! You never figure different. How could you be so stupid?”

“It was Jeremy got shot.”

“Because you let him! He was young enough, stupid’s to be expected. You were supposed to look out for him!”

“I did! I did look out for him! I killed that man shot Jeremy! And I tried …I tried to save him. I tried, I did. But where were you? You never tried no-how. You just…you acted like he was already dead.”

“He was.”

“No. We could’a saved him. I know we could’a. But you didn’t even try.”

“I didn’t try because there wasn’t any point. He lost too much blood. No man can lose that much blood and live. It don’t matter what you do.”

There it was, Joe realized. There was the grief John had been shunning since back at the house. It all came out in that one, softly spoken statement. John Miller didn’t try to save his little brother because he knew there was no hope for him.

Joe opened his eyes to the diffuse glow of pre-dawn. Glancing around, he saw a ghostly figure standing beside the black shape of a tree.

“You….” Joe started to say, but his throat was too dry. He tried to clear it. “You should….” It was no use. Joe couldn’t get the words out. You should have at least let him know you cared, Joe wanted to say. Don’t let thinking about what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can. It sounded like something Hoss would say. Maybe he had said it once. Maybe. Joe couldn’t be sure. His thoughts were almost as full of shadows as the woods.

Joe’s attempt to speak had at least caught John’s attention. He turned to face Joe, though he made no move to come closer.

“Get him some water,” he told his brother.

“What’s wrong with you?” Josh complained. “You wouldn’t even talk to Jeremy when he was dyin’, and he was your own flesh and blood. So why do you care what happens to Little Joe, now?”

“Because he ain’t dyin.’”

“Looks to me he’s lost as much blood as Jeremy did.”

“Just give him the water and stop your bellyaching!”

“No.”

“Don’t you talk back to me, boy, or I’ll leave you right here with him!”

“What are you gonna do? Shoot me?”

“Maybe I ought’a! Maybe I ought’a just—”

The phantom figure shook his shadowy head. He moved away then, returning a moment later with something in his hand.

“Here,” John said, tossing the object toward Joe.

It landed with a thwack in the dirt by Joe’s head.

A canteen.

Feeling momentarily grateful, Joe tried to raise his right hand to retrieve it, only to find his wrists were still tied together. He stared at the canteen for a long while after that, ignoring the brothers, giving all of his attention to figuring out how to work up enough strength to get his hands on that canteen. He had no strength left. None at all.

“No man can lose that much blood and live. It don’t matter what you do.”

As John’s words echoed in Joe’s head, he spread his fingers across his shirt, feeling the dampness of fresh blood. He’d bled clean through the bandage then, and that was just the entry wound. It had to be worse at his back.

“No man can lose that much blood and live. It don’t matter what you do.”

Maybe he was dying. Maybe that was why he couldn’t muster the strength to reach for that canteen.

“…He ain’t dying.” Those had also been John’s words. But how could he believe Joe was in any better shape than Jeremy had been? Joe himself could tell that wasn’t true.

Joe could hear Hoss’s voice in his head then. “Don’t let thinking about what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can.” Whether or not Hoss had ever said those words, Joe was inclined to listen to them now. He decided to use them to find a way to get that canteen.

*****

11

Joe found a stick within reach. It was a struggle to twist his body enough to wrap his fingers around it; but the pull on his side wasn’t nearly as painful as he had expected. He knew that wasn’t necessarily a good sign. Still, he accepted it instead to be a small favor from above. Then, closing his eyes and concentrating on catching his breath, he prepared himself for the next step.

When he turned his attention back to the canteen, he saw something else lying on the ground beyond it. No more than three feet from him lay a haphazardly placed, holstered gun. Jeremy’s holstered gun. It was lying beside a boulder, where Joe could only assume Josh had carelessly tossed it.

Looking to the Miller brothers, Joe considered his odds. If they noticed him reaching for the gun, one or both of them were likely to shoot him dead on instinct alone. If he didn’t try for it, he could find himself abandoned in the woods and falling prey to hungry wolves even before he took his final breath.

He decided he’d rather go as fast as he could, if he had to go at all. And thirsty as he was, he also decided he had to focus first on the gun. The canteen would have to wait.

*****

“John!” Josh’s voice cried out the instant Joe’s hands curled around the handle of the gun.

Joe hurriedly brought it up in front of him, aiming toward the sound of that voice though he found he could barely even make out the specter of Josh Miller anymore. It was as though night was falling rather than day rising. Maybe…maybe he just couldn’t tell what time it was anymore.

Josh’s ghostly arm made a sudden move. Certain that move meant Josh was drawing his gun, Joe fired. He shot off two rounds, letting fate decide where they would land. His arms were shaking too much and his eyes were too unfocused for him to make a conscious effort at hitting any particular target at all.

He saw the specter fall, a black thing in the general shape of a man mingling with the shadows of the burgeoning night until it spread out motionless on the ground.

Mesmerized by the image, it took Joe a moment—perhaps a moment too long—to remember John was out there as well. Joe glanced quickly to the left of Josh’s shadow, where his foggy gaze landed on a statue.

The statue could only be John Miller. Oddly, it made no effort to move. Joe thought John was facing him, but couldn’t be sure. He wished he could see John’s eyes.

“Sorry,” Joe breathed.

“I was giving you a chance,” John answered.

No, you weren’t. Joe wanted to say it—needed to say it—but his throat was too tight, his tongue too dry. You were leaving me here to die.

“Well, go ahead,” John Miller said. “Shoot me.” His tone was casual, like he was telling Joe to shoot a tin can.

Joe’s arms started to shake more fiercely. He tried to blink his eyes back into focus as the statue in front of him grew darker and less defined.

“I said go on!” John shouted. “It’s you or me!”

“Why?” The word came out as a choked whisper.

“Because that’s the way of the world. Everyone has a gun. You shoot first, you live. You don’t….” The statue moved. One black arm snaked toward his waist. “You die.”

Joe pulled back the hammer when that snaking, black arm make a move as though John was drawing his gun. But Joe wasn’t quick enough on the trigger. He heard the shot before he made it, and then held his breath, knowing it would be his last.

The statue jerked strangely sideways. When it dropped to the ground, the direction was wrong. He should have fallen back, not to the right.

As to Joe, he felt nothing at all. He expelled the breath he’d been holding and then drew another. Already puzzled that John could have missed, Joe found more reasons to be confused when he caught a glimpse of movement in the black trees beyond where John had been standing. Almost immediately, that movement was matched somewhere at the edge of Joe’s vision.

Joe shifted his fading gaze, looking all around him to see that he was surrounded now by moving shadows.

He decided it didn’t matter. He couldn’t bring himself to worry about them. Too tall to be wolves, he figured they must be other monsters then, monsters like the one Joe had become himself, hiding in the shadows, waiting to make the kill. That’s what Joe had done, wasn’t it? That’s the only reason Josh was dead. And John….

The last of his strength expended, Joe dropped his arms, letting the gun rest against his thigh. He could feel the heat from the barrel, but could do nothing to move it away from him.

“Joe?”

When the voice that reached him sounded like Adam, Joe knew he was dreaming. At least it was a good dream. He closed his eyes and surrendered once again—figuring it would be once and for all—to the shadows.

*****

12

When Joe came awake, nothing made sense. He was still on the ground where the Miller brothers had left him. But now there was a blanket beneath him, and another covering him from his neck to his feet. Something soft had also been placed under his head.

“It was a good thing they didn’t move him.”

Was that Doc Martin talking?

“He was as pale as a ghost when I first saw him yesterday,” the doc went on. “But he’s getting some color back.”

“Thank you, Paul.”

Pa? Joe blinked the sleep from his eyes and looked in the direction where he’d heard the voices. It was full daylight now. He could see clearly that Pa and Doc Martin were standing together right where John and Josh had been conspiring earlier.

“I can’t thank you enough.” Pa had one hand on Doc Martin’s shoulder.

“I’d say it’s Sheriff Coffee you owe your thanks to,” the doc answered. “It’s his quick thinking that made sure we got to Joe on time.”

“I know that, too. Hoss told me everything on the ride out here. Roy will be hearing my thanks for weeks to come, you can be sure of that.”

“It’s a good thing he knows these trails like he does,” Doc said then. “I would never have been able to follow those boys in the dark like he did.”

Pa dropped his arm and then placed both hands on his hips, staring out into the trees. “I still can’t understand why John Miller would have come out this way. He had to know cutting through the woods here would take him straight to the south pasture, right to where Adam and Hoss were leading the drive.”

A flash of black off to Joe’s right made him tense for an instant. He liked this dream. He didn’t want a return to the shadows. But then he saw it was Adam. Relieved, he closed his eyes to listen more.

“My guess is,” Adam said, joining the conversation, “John wanted to be caught.”

“Wouldn’t it’ve been a whole lot safer just to turn himself in?” Hoss asked.

Joe found himself smiling. Yes. He liked this dream. He only wished they would change the topic of conversation.

“Joe?” Pa said then. “Joseph?” He sounded closer this time.

When a hand circled his arm, Joe opened his eyes again to see his Pa gazing down at him.

It didn’t feel like a dream anymore. Joe saw tears in his pa’s eyes. And he was sure he felt Pa’s hand. He could even smell the leather of Pa’s vest, and see the trail dust on Pa’s trousers as he knelt down beside Joe.

“Pa?” he asked, puzzled.

“You had us all worried, son.” Pa smiled.

“Friday?” Joe found himself asking, still confused. Could it be Friday already? If so, he had no idea what happened to Thursday.

Still smiling, Pa nodded and wiped the corner of his eye with his knuckle. “It’s Friday afternoon already, Little Joe. Close to sundown, even. But if you can handle one more night out here, we’ll see you get home tomorrow.”

“See what happens when you sleep the day away?” Adam quipped.

Joe saw Adam move up behind Pa and rest a hand on Pa’s shoulder.

“Adam?” Joe found his thoughts returning to John Miller. “You saw him, didn’t you?”

Now it was Adam’s turn to be puzzled. “Saw who?”

“John.”

“We both saw him, Joe,” Hoss answered instead.

“He wanted…wanted me to shoot him.”

“What?” Pa asked, clearly surprised.

“You’re right, Joe,” Adam said. “It looked like that was exactly what he wanted.”

“Why on earth would he want that?” Pa asked.

“I don’t know,” Adam admitted.

“He…changed,” Joe said then. “Was so…different.”

“I imagine so,” Adam answered.

“He sure wasn’t the man I remember,” Hoss added.

“How can…anyone…change that much?”

“I’m afraid we’ll never know,” Adam said.

“Eloise,” Joe said then, clearly surprising his family.

“Eloise Harper?” Adam asked.

Joe nodded, or thought he did anyway. He was feeling somehow disconnected. “What happened?”

Adam looked to Hoss before returning his attention to Joe, as though Hoss might have an answer he couldn’t find. “Last I saw Eloise Harper was when she boarded that stage three years ago.”

“Before that,” Joe said. “John…he…wanted to marry her.”

This time the look Adam gave Hoss was one of recognition. “No one knows exactly what happened with that, Joe. Neither of them would say. But if I were to guess, I’d say it was because John didn’t seem to care enough when her pa died.”

Joe thought about that for a moment. “Like Jeremy.”

“What do you mean?”

“Jeremy was dying. John didn’t…wouldn’t even look at him. And Josh….” Joe could feel his eyes filling with tears. “When I…I killed him…,” Joe briefly clenched his teeth against his sense of guilt.  “John didn’t look at him, either. He just…just dared me to shoot him.”

“You said it yourself, Joe,” Adam said. “He changed. He wasn’t the man we knew.”

“Sometimes…he almost was,” Joe added, remembering those fleeting looks of concern.

“Sometimes and almost don’t cut it,” Hoss said sternly. “Not with all he done to you. He would’a killed you too, if Adam hadn’t shot him first.”

“Adam?” Joe considered Hoss’s words, and then remembered hearing a shot before firing his own, and seeing John fall sideways. “Did John even…fire his gun?”

This time Hoss looked to Adam.

“No, Joe,” Adam answered. “He didn’t.”

“He never…meant to.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Adam insisted.

“It does,” Joe countered. “He…said he came here to…to save his kin. But…after his brothers died….” Joe didn’t know how to finish the statement. He looked to his own brothers. “It wasn’t that he…he didn’t care. He was…afraid.”

“Afraid?” Pa scoffed. “Afraid of what?”

“You were afraid,” Joe said to his pa. “When I opened my eyes…. You looked….”

“Yes, Joe. We were all afraid.”

“Hoss?”

Hoss nodded, wearing that sheepish look he got whenever he had to admit something he didn’t like.

“Adam?”

Adam nodded, too.

“You thought I might die?”

“It was close, Joe,” Adam said.

“But you didn’t figure I was already dead…like John did with Jeremy.”

“As long as there’s life,” Pa said then, “there’s hope.”

“He couldn’t see that,” Joe said, still puzzled. “He just…couldn’t see that.”

“Ben,” Doc Martin called out, seeming frustrated. “If you would please get your boys out of the way I would like to see my patient while he’s still conscious!”

“Of course.” Pa squeezed Joe’s arm again, and then rose. “Adam. Hoss. Come on, let Paul get in here.”

As Joe watched his family move hesitantly away, he realized John was more a shadow than a man, a shadow afraid of the hope that might lurk in the sunlight he sought to avoid, the complete opposite of everything Joe’s family had always represented to him. If it weren’t for that fear, maybe Jeremy would still be alive. Maybe Josh, and even John would still be alive. Could it be that simple? Could it be that cowardice had killed them all?

Whatever the answer, Joe knew it was nothing he need worry about with his own family. Not one of them could ever be called a coward.

Joe closed his eyes, vaguely remembering Doc Martin said he wanted to see Joe conscious. An instant later, he was sound asleep.

***The End***

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