Summary: Two unexpected visitors arrive at the Ponderosa within hours of each other: Adam’s favorite professor from college and a blue-eyed Indian with a skewed understanding of Paiute ways and a twisted view of good vs. evil. Join the Cartwrights as they struggle to get through a night of savage terror that marks Little Joe as a target—and his scalp as a trophy.
Word Count: 28,000
Joe laughed so hard his stomach hurt. Professor Brodermann made Adam sound a whole lot more naïve and gullible than Joe could ever have imagined.
“I presented lies as though they were facts,” the professor said pointedly, “until he began to believe every word.”
Adam’s jaw went tight and his lips, thin. “You said those facts of yours had been based on the latest scientific studies, about which the public had yet to be informed.”
“I said it to prove you neither did nor could know everything you believed you knew.”
Sighing and looking like he’d just lost a chess match, Adam admitted, “You said it to put me in my place.”
“Quite right. You were trying much too hard to prove yourself when what you really needed to do was open your mind.”
“Quite right,” Adam repeated flatly.
Throughout the conversation, Joe had noticed the professor taking frequent glances toward the window across the room. Now the man pulled out his pocket watch. “Well, my friends, I’m afraid it’s time for my medicine, and I am forced to admit I could not find it amongst my things when I unpacked.”
“I wish you would have said something sooner,” Pa answered. “We could have sent for Doctor Martin in town to—”
“No, no,” the professor countered. “There was no need to trouble anyone. It might simply have fallen out of my valise into the yard. Young man,” he added, turning to Joe, “would you be so kind as to check for me?”
“Of course,” Joe said, jumping to his feet. “And if I can’t find it, I’ll head back to town and see what Doc Martin can do for you.”
“Sure you will,” Adam said as Joe headed for the door. “And you’ll also see what a beer or two can do for you down at the Bucket of Blood.”
“All I ask is that you check the yard, dear boy. If the bottle is not there, I shall be fine until tomorrow.”
Joe was still giggling after he closed the door behind him. The professor’s tales about know-it-all Adam made it clear Joe’s oldest brother didn’t know everything, after all. Joe couldn’t wait to tell—
Something sharp slammed into him as he stepped down off the porch. He stumbled, barely keeping his feet as he looked at the shaft of an arrow that had embedded itself in his chest. Where…? How…? It didn’t make sense. He was at his own home…and Winnemucca wouldn’t….
Think, you idiot! But the point of that arrow seemed to have skewered his thoughts.
Part of him knew he should dive for cover and shout a warning to his family. But he couldn’t seem to do either. The “Pa,” that formed on his lips found no volume. And diving was given over to spiraling downward until….
He lay on his back, gazing up at a blood-red, evening sky and listening to Hoss’s belly laugh. It spilled out of the house like a bucket of cold water, and was just as chilling. He had to warn them, had to….
“Pa,” he tried again, but his pa was laughing almost as hard as Hoss; and Joe’s soft cry was nothing to all that laughter.
Then that blood-red sky went black.
And everyone in the house was still laughing.
Bradley Decklin, journal entry, page 51:
Tooonugwetsedu. That is my name now. The name chose me, as my teacher, Tabuaggena Nuunuawunu, said would happen. A cougar appeared in the rocks above us. Tabuaggena Nuunuawunu saw it and was sui’hoo: He was afraid. He pointed toward it and named it Tooonugwetsedu. I was not sui’hoo. I had no fear of the creature. I met the tooonugwetsedu’s eyes. When it saw me it growled, swished its tail and then turned away. Tabuaggena Nuunuawunu looked at me then with eyes almost as wide as a round-eyed white man. He pointed to me as he had moments earlier to the cat, and repeated the name, Tooonugwetsedu.
I knew then that I was ready. I had proved myself to one Paiute brave, one member of the tribe I had chosen to emulate. It is time to initiate the next part of my plan.
Adam was glad his favorite professor had paid him a visit, unexpected though it was. He’d had no idea the professor was coming until the Purcell’s dropped him off at their front door.
“He arrived on the stage this morning,” Mr. Purcell had told them. “We were in town, and our boy, Billy, heard ‘em ask someone for directions to the Ponderosa. Seemed only fitting for us to take him back here with us.”
“That was very considerate of you,” Pa had answered while five-year-old Billy clung tightly to his own father’s leg. “Thank you.”
It was the auburn haired Mrs. Purcell who’d replied. “Oh, it’s you we have to thank, Mr. Cartwright! That cabin in the valley is such a lovely spot!”
…The cabin in the valley Joe had once intended to make his own. Yet it had been Joe, himself, who had offered it to the Purcells.
“Don’t get too used to it,” Mr. Purcell had scolded his wife. “We’re only there until our own place is finished.”
“Why, of course!” Mrs. Purcell had looked stricken, as though her words had been completely misunderstood. “I didn’t mean to imply—”
There’d been no real misunderstanding. The Purcells were good neighbors, and considerate, as Pa had said. It was certainly neighborly of them to ferry the professor to the Cartwrights’ front door. As to the professor, himself, Adam certainly appreciated the surprise visit, although he would have been happier if the stories of his first term at Harvard had been left to the two of them. He was finding it uncomfortable to hear his family laughing about an awkward time he’d kept hidden from them until now…especially Joe. Little Joe’s incessant giggle was bound to taunt him in the days—and weeks, maybe even months—to come.
While Pa wiped a new round of tears from his eyes and Hoss doubled over with a hearty guffaw, Adam finished the last swallow of coffee in his cup, and then reached for the pot on the table in front of him. As he did so, he noticed Joe’s cup sitting cold and untouched. Surely Joe should have been back by now. Frowning, Adam glanced at the door before deciding he had the perfect excuse to separate himself from the professor’s unintended mockery, if only for a few minutes. He would go out and see just what was keeping his young brother.
Those brief moments as he walked to the door, moving himself out of the center of attention, helped Adam to breathe easier. It also helped him to remember how much he appreciated the professor’s visit. After all, the man had traveled a long way specifically to see Adam. Considering that fact alone served to build Adam’s spirits, giving him some assurance that Professor Brodermann had not been “presenting lies as though they were facts” when he’d acknowledged Adam as a favorite student.
By the time he pulled the door open, Adam had relaxed enough to draw his lips into a small smile. He might even be able to withstand Joe’s humor in another minute or two. But just as he was about to call out to his little brother, Adam’s gaze landed on a horrific image that stole his voice and jabbed a dagger of ice into his spine.
Joe was on his back with an arrow in his chest, and…worse…an Indian had one hand tangled in Joe’s hair, yanking Joe’s head back. A knife in his other hand hovered near the top of Joe’s forehead.
Adam was one heartbeat away from watching his little brother get scalped.
Bradley Decklin, journal entry, page 96:
Have those few weeks under Tabuaggena Nuunuawunu’s tutelage changed me so much, so quickly? Though I had had no fear of the cougar, I discovered an overwhelming sense of fear for the man running toward me from the house. I was, at that moment, sui’hoo. I was afraid.
Months of planning and weeks of learning at Tabuaggena Nuunuawunu’s side had clearly made a Paiute out of me, to fear a white man so intensely. I was close, oh, so very close to retrieving my trophy, and yet I hesitated when the eldest of the brothers shouted out the name of the youngest before calling to the others inside the house.
The names shall not be repeated here. I must not think of them as men. I must be Tooonugwetsedu, the cougar. Only then can I prove out my theories. The proof, however, can only come once I have completed the tasks to which I have dedicated myself. I must succeed to show the truth to the world. I cannot fail, yet that moment of fear threatened to be my undoing. I froze, my heart pounding beyond my breast and into my throat, threatening to choke me. My breath was coming too hard and fast to lend strength to my spirit and purpose to my actions. I should have finished the task. I knew I must, and yet I could not. My fear was paramount. I could do nothing more than turn and run back into the sanctuary of the trees.
“He had blue eyes.” Even as Adam said the words, he had a hard time believing them. His gaze strayed from the window to the settee, where he could see the arrow shaft protruding above the festive red and white upholstery. Joe, himself, was hidden from view and so quiet Adam could almost pretend he wasn’t even there. The shaft barely quivered with movement under Pa’s gentle ministrations while he tried to see where the arrowhead was lodged.
“A blue-eyed Paiute?” Hoss asked in a quiet voice that sounded as disbelieving as Adam’s. “We’d a’known by now if Winnemucca had a white man in his tribe. Wouldn’t we?”
Adam looked out the window again. The evening was growing thicker around them, the shadows, deeper. “I can’t help but wonder if he was acting alone.”
“You don’t think maybe they were forcin’ him to do it?”
“Why? And how? He seemed more afraid of me than of anyone else who might have been hiding in the woods.”
“Afraid a’you? You weren’t even armed.”
“None of us were. We were so focused on Joe they had every opportunity to kill you, me and Pa before any of us thought about taking cover or arming ourselves. They didn’t even try.”
“No. No, they sure didn’t. I wondered about that, too.”
“And,” Adam added, “that Indian could easily have taken Joe’s scalp before he ran.”
Hoss looked as sick as Adam felt. “Why do you reckon he didn’t?”
“Why did he want it in the first place?”
“Joseph! No!” Pa’s urgent shout pulled Adam and Hoss both away from the window. They didn’t need to speak to tell each other they’d never catch sight of Indians even if they were still out there.
Besides, if those Indians had wanted the rest of the Cartwrights dead, they’d be dead already.
“Leave it, Joe!” Pa demanded as Adam rounded the settee to see that Joe was not only awake, he was flailing about, seeming intent to pluck the arrow out himself. “Get it out!” Joe cried softly. “Please…can’t….”
“We’ll take care of it, son, but you must leave it be!”
Joe’s chest was heaving erratically, in halting, catching breaths. “Can’t…. Can’t breathe.”
“Easy, Joe,” Pa said as he grabbed hold of Joe’s arms. “Easy.”
The window forgotten, Hoss and Adam stepped in to help quiet their brother.
Bradley Decklin, journal entry, page 97:
The trophy is still out of reach and somehow the target has survived. Although the arrow struck true, it did not penetrate into the heart. It is strange to imagine I miscalculated. My skills at archery have been proved time and again. I had every reason to expect those skills would augment my goals in these endeavors. I, therefore, gave no consideration to compensating for such a failure.
It is difficult to see the interior of the house through my spyglass. The large window in the dining area has been sealed. The narrow window at the front provides only a glimpse inside, but it is enough to show that the household is focused on keeping the target alive. I shall need to formulate a new plan, one that allows for a degree of improvisation that shall surely test my prowess in the absence of my teacher, Tabuaggena Nuunuawunu.
When the professor drew Ben Cartwright toward the dining table, Adam left Joe in Hoss’s more than capable hands to join the conversation.
Brodermann seemed relieved to see him. “Adam,” he said the moment Adam was close enough. “You know I’m good friends with Frederic Beaumont, one of the finest surgeons in Harvard’s teaching staff?”
“I have audited his lectures and demonstrations often enough through the years to practically call myself a surgeon, had I a mind to…except for one very important thing.”
“I have never made the attempt nor would I ever deign to try to hold a surgeon’s knife.”
Ben drew his shoulders back. “I had no intention of asking you to—”
The professor held up a hand. “Please, let me explain.” He waited for Ben to close his mouth, glance back at Joe and Hoss, and then give the man his impatient nod. “I provided you this glimpse into my background to make certain you could recognize I speak from a degree of experience to warrant your respect with regard to the…observation…I feel it necessary to provide.”
Joe’s pain-wracked cry further tensed Ben’s already taut shoulders. “Just tell me what it is you are trying to say!” he complained. “We don’t have time for—”
“That arrow,” Brodermann said, “lodged where it is, could very well be the only thing keeping your son alive.”
“That’s absurd! You can’t expect us to leave it—”
“No. You’re right. I fully admit that it must come out. However, I feel an obligation to warn you of what I believe might be a terrible risk. If the point of that arrow has embedded itself in his lung, then that lung will collapse the moment the pressure is released, and your son will suffocate. There is nothing that can be done, should that occur.”
Adam felt as though his own lung collapsed at hearing that statement.
His father looked no better. “But…but we don’t know that’s the case. Do we?”
“His breathing is labored, which could indicate one of three things. Either he is simply experiencing a degree of shock and pain to cause the difficulty, or the lung is punctured…or the arrow is causing pressure to be exerted against the lung. If the latter is true, then a careful surgeon stands a good chance of succeeding in removing it, but a careless surgery could in fact drive the arrow deeper before removing it, in which case the lung could yet be punctured.”
“Then it’s decided,” Adam said. “We need to get Paul out here.”
“We can’t!” Ben replied quickly. “At least,” he added an instant later, his shoulders sagging, “not until morning, when we stand a better chance of seeing the men responsible for this.”
Or the man, Adam added in his thoughts.
“Hoss!” Joe cried. “Help me…please! Get it…out!”
“We can’t wait that long,” Adam decided. “Joe can’t wait.”
Ben nodded slowly. “I’ll go.”
“Joe will do better with you here.”
“I won’t risk this happening to you!”
“Hop Sing go,” the Ponderosa’s alternate patriarch announced.
Stunned, both Ben and Adam shouted, “No!” in unison.
“If I may?” Professor Brodermann interceded. He waited for all three men to look at him, and then added, “From what I understand, most Indians will not attack at night. Is that true?”
“Usually,” Adam said.
“Not always,” Ben added.
“Well then, the risk is at least minimized. And since Adam is younger and leaner, and will no doubt ride more swiftly—”
“Thank you,” Adam cut in before swiveling around to hurry toward the front door.
“Maybe I ought to go along and watch your back,” Hoss called after him.
Adam stopped for a moment to watch the calm but uncompromising way Hoss held Little Joe, and then smiled sadly. “Then who will watch yours? No, Hoss. You stay here with Joe. I’ll be faster on my own, anyway.”
“You be careful!” Hoss hollered as Adam closed the door behind him.
Ben said nothing, but his silence made his own concern very clear.
Of course, Adam had no intention of letting a stray arrow find him. But intention wasn’t exactly armor. And the only thing that caused the next arrow to embed itself in the barn door instead of Adam’s flesh was the expertise of the man who’d shot it—a fact that was made very clear when Adam saw that a piece of paper had been affixed to the shaft.
It was a note. The words, written in pencil lead, might have been impossible to see in the fading light if they hadn’t been scrawled in large, capital letters. But the message was clear enough to Adam. “YOU LEAVE, YOU DIE.”
For a long while, no one wanted to give voice to the disturbing thoughts the note had inspired. Adam looked from his father to the professor to Hop Sing, and then finally to Hoss, who continued holding tight to Little Joe although their young brother had gone still again. “Clearly,” Adam said to break the silence, “he can see us, but we won’t stand a chance of knowing where he might be until the sun reduces his options for hiding.”
“He?” Ben asked.
“One Indian,” Hoss answered, “who ain’t even an Indian.”
“How can you be so sure?” The professor’s question sounded off somehow. Adam looked at him and was puzzled by the way he was wringing his hands, a gesture that emphasized the unusual sag of his shoulders.
“That he’s alone?” Adam asked in response. “Or that he’s not an Indian?”
“Well, both, I suppose.”
Hoss gently pried himself away from Little Joe and rose to his full height. “A blue-eyed Indian who shoots arrows with notes ain’t any kind of Indian I’ve ever known.”
“But why?” Ben asked. “Who would do a thing like this?”
Adam kept his eyes on the professor. Brodermann was not the man Adam remembered. In fact, he wasn’t even acting like the same man who had sat in that room barely two hours earlier, telling stories at Adam’s expense. Where was his confidence? His arrogance, even? “Professor?” He waited for the man to sheepishly meet his gaze. “You know something about this, don’t you?”
To Adam, it was a telling sign when the professor glanced away. “What?” he tried to sound indignant, but his eyes danced about too much. He refused to let Adam look into them any longer. “Heavens, no. I couldn’t poss—”
“Why did you send Joe out there when you did?” Adam’s voice rose with each word. “In fact, why did you even come here? Now of all times?” Rage was building within him.
“Adam.” His father’s hand fell lightly on Adam’s shoulder. He didn’t see. Surely Pa wasn’t seeing guilt in the man’s posture, and, more tellingly, in his eyes.
“Just tell me,” Adam pressed. “Why now?”
“I had put off this trip for far too long.” The professor pulled his shoulders back with an air of superiority Adam was suddenly remembering with less enthusiasm than he’d known years before. “I’ve been wanting to see this great Ponderosa of yours, and I—”
“You decided on a whim,” Adam argued softly, “to finally venture west, after all these years?”
“Adam.” Pa’s grip tightened.
“Yes.” The professor’s eyes challenged Adam to find fault in his answer.
“You decided to just pack up and come out here,” Adam went on, “without giving us any advance notice, not even a telegram saying we could expect you on today’s stage, relying entirely on the kindness of our neighbors, strangers to you, to deliver you.”
“Why, your invitation was open, or so you repeatedly insisted.”
“It was,” Pa said.
“But why now?”
“Adam,” Pa pleaded in a soft, but demanding tone.
“And why Joe?”
Pa’s grip fell away.
“What?” the professor asked.
“Why did you send Joe outside?”
“It was time for my medicine. I needed—”
“What kind of medicine?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“What is the name of the medicine? What condition does it treat?”
“Why…it…it’s for my heart. It’s—”
Adam moved closer to the professor until he was standing right in front of the man. “There isn’t any medicine, is there?” he accused. “Admit it! You sent Joe outside on purpose! You’re responsible!”
The professor went pale.
Adam turned sideways and pointed toward Little Joe. “Look at him, professor! Look at him! That’s my brother lying there with an arrow in his chest! If he dies, are you prepared to hang for it?”
Bradley Decklin, journal entry, page 98:
This task must be completed tonight. It shames me to admit that I panicked when I saw the eldest going into the barn. It was possible he was simply planning to care for the horses. I feared, however, he was instead planning to ride out in search of help. I could not risk involving more men.
I was a fool. It would have been hours before he returned. In the interim, the numbers against me would have been diminished by one. Now I have played my hand. I must get inside. I must attain the trophy. Only then will I prove my worth to the tribe, and only then can I prove the truth to the world.
“I had no idea.” The professor dabbed his sweating forehead with a handkerchief. “I could never have imagined anything like this to be within his capability, let alone his plan.” He swayed on his feet, as though ready to collapse.
Adam ignored the man’s obvious discomfort. “Who is he, professor?”
“A student. A brilliant…brilliant young man.” He attempted a weak smile. “He reminded me quite a bit of you, Ada—”
“A student?” Ben exploded with all the rage Adam had felt moments earlier. His hands balled into fists at his side. “What sort of madness would turn a student into something so…so savage?”
The professor shook his head and dabbed it once more. “Last year, our group’s discussions focused on the subject of educating Indians. We spent hours debating the possibility of turning savages into civilized men.”
“Whoever attacked Joe,” Ben argued, “is more of a savage than any Indian I have ever encountered!”
The professor inclined his head in agreement. “Which could in fact prove out the reverse—that it is possible to turn a civilized man into a savage.”
Adam noticed the professor’s confidence returning. “What are you saying?”
“Bradley Decklin, the student to whom I was referring, has for many months insisted both hypotheses could prove true. Frankly, I’d been rather proud of his tenacity…as well as his sense of compassion for Indians. Once he learned Sarah Winnemucca had attended school in California, he spent weeks developing a theory on the subject, one that favored the education and…enlightenment of Indians.”
“How…exactly…does enlightening Indians have anything to do with trying to kill my brother?”
“I wish I knew. I wish…I wish I had known sooner. If I had, perhaps I could have prevented this. Dear me, I wish to heaven I could have prevented it.”
“And yet you caused it, instead.”
The professor shook his head. “I had no idea what Bradley was planning. He simply asked me to provide him with an opportunity to encounter your young brother privately, to talk with him—or so I presumed—about Sarah Winnemucca. In one of your letters you told me young Joseph had attempted to court her.”
“You had no right to share that information with anyone!”
“I saw no harm in doing so. Believe me, Adam…and Ben…I had no idea what Bradley Decklin had planned. None at all. I didn’t want to know; I didn’t want to influence the results of Mr. Decklin’s…experiment.”
“An experiment? He tried to kill my brother! Not to mention almost scalping him! You call that an experiment?”
“Indeed not. I call it madness. I never suspected his intentions could involve anything so horrific. To be honest, I thought he might simply ask Joseph for an introduction to Chief Winnemucca and his daughter.”
“Then you’re slipping professor.” Adam kept his voice low and cold.
“Surely you used to be intelligent enough,” Adam’s voice started rising again, gaining volume word by word, “to realize it is far easier to ask for an introduction by first introducing yourself with a knock on the front door!”
“Yes. Well. I also suspected he wanted to keep you—and perhaps your father also—unaware.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t want—”
“Hoss!” Joe’s voice pulled them all back to the settee, where he was once more thrashing about. Like the professor, he, too, was beginning to sweat—although Adam knew the implications were far more significant with Joe.
“We can’t wait any longer, Pa.” Hoss’s didn’t even have to voice the words. They could all tell it was true.
Bradley Decklin, journal entry, page 1:
All of mankind is of one author. The troubles of the world are the direct result of failed translations. How else can one explain such differences between concepts of right versus wrong or good versus evil? The concept of evil is not universal. Why this simple truth is not universally understood utterly confounds me. It is for this reason I have decided to perform an experiment of cultural significance. The Indian tribes of the west are frequently referred to as savages, and yet civilized men are seen as savages in their eyes in turn. What can explain this effect other than failed translations? The translations of which I write are not limited to the language of words, but are inclusive of the language of culture. I shall, therefore, attempt to immerse myself in the culture of a savage tribe. I shall ingratiate myself to them. I shall embrace their ideals. What they see as evil, so shall I. What they see as good, so shall I. In the end, I shall provide the world with a translation the likes of which no man has ever attempted.
Bradley Decklin, journal entry, page 98:
I have considered a variety of diversionary tactics. Sparking a fire in the barn would certainly draw attention, pulling members of the household away from the target in order to save the horses and protect the house from subsequent conflagration. Fire, however, is an unpredictable beast. It burns with a fury no man can hope to control. It could turn against me or even cause the target to burn. Either way, my work would be forfeit.
There is but one tactic that yet gives me hope. There is a young family living in the valley near to the ranch house. I mentioned them in the first pages of this journal, when I had been making note of the surrounding environment. This family can now be brought into use.
Indeed, I must admit to feeling a thrill of excitement at the thought of executing this new plan. Tooonugwetsedu is growing hungry.
Ben Cartwright insisted on performing the surgery himself. Adam knew it had nothing to do with his father’s inability to trust anyone else. Adam and Hoss could both be trusted to work with the same concern for precision as Ben. Whatever kind of man Professor Brodermann might be, he was right about the risks associated with the position of that arrowhead. Little Joe’s life could very well depend on absolute precision. And that was why Ben couldn’t let anyone else take the responsibility. If his youngest son were to die when the arrowhead was removed, he wasn’t about to allow his oldest boys to know the guilt of having caused it to happen.
What Ben didn’t know or simply didn’t acknowledge was that Adam already felt a degree of guilt that would grow a hundred-fold if Joe didn’t survive, no matter who held the surgeon’s knife. It was Adam’s professor, his letters and his invitation that had resulted in Joe being attacked. It was his fault, even if he had yet to understand why. …Even if he never came to understand.
“Adam,” his father’s soft but commanding tone pulled Adam’s gaze from the damnable arrow in his brother’s chest. “Get as much of this into him as you can.”
Taking the glass from Pa, Adam lowered himself to his knees and gently slipped his arm behind Joe’s head and shoulders. A thin moan made it clear Joe had no energy left to struggle as he’d been doing. His lids fluttered but remained closed. “What do you know, Joe?” Adam said lightly. “Pa opened up that special bottle of brandy of his. He’s giving you the first taste.” But when he held the glass to his brother’s lips, there was no reaction. “Come on, Joe. You know you’ve been anxious to give it a try.”
Finally, there was a trace of movement, even the slightest quiver of a smile. Joe looked at Adam through glazed and bloodshot eyes, gave the hint of a nod, and took a small swallow. It was a show of trust. Absolute trust.
“Just a little more, buddy,” Adam encouraged, swallowing a bitter sense of unworthiness as he tilted the glass slightly to ease the liquid past his brother’s lips. Like the trusting, little brother he was, Joe did as he was told.
Then Adam saw that knife in Pa’s worn, but steady hands draw a new, thin line of blood across Little Joe’s flesh. And he realized he was grateful for his father’s insistence.
Bradley Decklin, journal entry, page 99:
My hands shake. These words are not easily written. I am not worthy of my namesake, Tooonugwetsedu. I performed my task fittingly, targeting the family in the valley mentioned earlier in this writing, but it left me with an ill sensation. The adult male was easily dispatched, the arrow placed exactly as it should have been for my original target. The cries of the female were equally easy to ignore. The creature levied scratches upon my arms. I did not, however, dispatch her. Since she had a role yet to play, I did nothing more than stun her with a single blow. Indeed, it was neither of these actions that Tooonugwetsedu would shun, but rather the next.
I took the hair of the male as trophy. This prize was not meant to compensate for my failure with the original target, as there can be no substitution. I took it merely because it was mine to claim. This male was, after all, my first confirmed kill as Tooonugwetsedu. The trophy, however, did not feel like a precious thing in my grip. The texture was not the same as that to which I had grown accustomed among the cadavers I took to hand at the school for medical arts in Boston. The blood was fresher, certainly, and perhaps that was the principal cause. The effect ravaged my stomach, the contents of which were left beside the male’s remains. Clearly, the translation is not yet complete.
My resolve is steeled therefore to conclude this night with my primary trophy in hand. The male pup I carried back will surely help to enable my success.
The arrowhead had been caught between two ribs. Wedged against the thin bones on either side, the point was buried in muscle. That didn’t mean it couldn’t move, edging further downward, driving deeper toward Joe’s lung. Still, Adam could see the relief in his father’s eyes and hear it in the slow release of his father’s too long held breath. It wasn’t until the next breath that worry took hold again. Pa could not get a firm enough grip to pull the arrowhead free. Joe’s blood made his fingers slip with each cautious tug.
Clenching his teeth and steeling himself for what was to follow, Adam nudged closer to get into a better position. “Let me try,” he said softly, dropping the now saturated cloth he’d been holding close to the fresh wound. Whether it landed on the floor or on Hop Sing’s tray, he neither knew nor cared. He focused instead on pressing a new cloth against the steady flow of blood, and then…on reaching inside. He sucked in his breath, wrapped the wet cloth around the arrowhead…and pulled.
“Dammit!” There was a sharp sting on his finger and a wash of new blood.
He heard something then, something beyond the harsh, rapid pounding of his own heart. Hoof beats outside, perhaps. It was not an unfamiliar sound, and he gave it no further thought. He had to try again. This time, discovering that the arrowhead was looser, he risked rocking it back and forth, biting further into each rib in an attempt to work it free.
Joe bucked upward and let out a cry that overrode every other sound around Adam, even that incessant, damnable pounding.
“Hold him still!” he shouted in a voice he could barely believe was his own.
“I am!” Hoss hollered back. “I press any harder I’ll break his collar bone!”
“Easy, boys,” Pa commanded softly.
Adam saw his father’s hand, the fingers dry but stained with red, come to rest on the other side of Joe’s chest, just beneath Hoss’s dirt darkened nails. Joe heaved beneath both with rapid, unsteady breaths. Low, agonized moans came with each exhalation.
And then Adam saw his eyes. Joe seemed to be looking at him through the thin, blood-red slits of his eyelids. What Adam couldn’t see of Joe’s gaze he couldn’t help but imagine: A loss of trust.
I’m sorry, Joe, he shouted into the new silence in his head. God, I’m so sorry!
Then he pulled again. And, finally, the arrowhead broke free.
Bradley Decklin, journal entry, page 100:
The female followed me, just as I had expected. Soon, she will draw the others outside. I need only watch for my opportunity to move in unchallenged.
A woman’s voice, pleading and desperate, broke into Adam’s thoughts. Turning his gaze from his father’s own desperate attempt to sew Joe’s wound closed, Adam saw Mrs. Purcell standing in the open doorway with the professor. Her dress, the same one she’d worn earlier, was dirt covered and torn; one sleeve had been nearly ripped away, exposing her soft shoulder.
“Close the door!” Adam commanded the instant his mind started working properly once more.
He pushed himself from his seat on the coffee table, where he’d collapsed only seconds after Joe had gone still again. The cloth Hop Sing had pressed into his hand briefly stole his attention as it started to fall away. He drew it around his knuckles and pulled it tight to stem the flow of blood at the base of his finger, a result of his struggle with the arrowhead, and then strode purposefully toward the Ponderosa’s latest visitors. Slamming the door shut, he confronted the man he’d once believed knew everything there was to know in the world. “That brilliant student of yours is still out there! And that is precisely where I intend to keep him!”
“Please!” the woman cried out, grasping Adam’s arm. “You’ve got to help me find him! You must help me find my boy!”
Only then did Adam fully accept that this disheveled young woman had just come in from where that brilliant student had been lying in wait. There was a thin cut on her forehead and a large, red bruise on her cheek. “Did he do this?” he asked softly, cupping his good hand beneath her chin and dimly noticing that his fingers were still red with blood—his brother’s and his own.
“An Indian,” she sobbed in reply. “He k-killed Paul! He killed my husband! And he took my boy! Please, you must help me find him! He has my son!”
Bradley Decklin, journal entry, page 100:
A moment ago, the door came open again. Four adults have emerged, three males and one female, each armed with a lantern. Surely they will begin the search, leaving only two adult males inside, one of whom will surely work in my favor. My success is finally assured.
“Be careful,” Adam advised unnecessarily. “And stay alert.” He met his father’s gaze and held it for a moment longer than was wise. The door was open again, and they were all clustered together there at the threshold—Adam, his father, Hoss, Hop Sing and Mrs. Purcell. A group target would be hard to miss. The only question would be who among them would be the first to be hit if Professor Brodermann’s savage student had the inclination to attack.
“Don’t worry about us,” Pa said sternly. “You just stay with your brother.” It was something he’d said many times through the years, but never before had it struck Adam such a blow, one that fell upon his shoulders with the weight of foreboding. Of course Adam would stay with Joe. But would Joe stay with Adam?
A gentle squeeze from Pa’s hand chased away some of that weight, but only for a moment. Then the door was closed, locking Adam safely in the house with the professor and Little Joe, while the rest went out into the night, in search of a small boy who should never have been brought into this—whatever it was—a small boy whose father was now dead because Adam had said things in a letter he should have kept to himself, and had issued an open invitation to a man he should have left behind him when he’d returned from college.
“It could be a trap of some sort,” the professor had said while Hoss and Hop Sing prepared four lanterns.
“Of course, it’s a trap!” Adam had shot back. “But it doesn’t matter, does it? There’s a child out there. Would you have us leave him to that man’s savagery?” He’d regretted the words the moment he heard them. If only he’d spoken softer…soft enough to prevent Mrs. Purcell from hearing them.
“He won’t harm Billy, will he?” she’d asked, anxiously tugging at the frayed threads in her tattered sleeve.
Yes, he very well might. But Adam was now wise enough to finally hold his tongue.
“If he was going to harm your boy,” Ben answered instead. “I doubt he would have taken him.”
“I’ve heard…Indians take children to…to—”
“He’s not an Indian,” Adam had quickly corrected.
“What? Of course he was an Indian! He was shooting arrows. He had a knife. And he…he….” Her words had grown quick and tremulous until they stopped altogether. “He scalped him,” she’d added a moment later. “He scalped my husband! And you say he’s not an Indian?”
“My dear,” Ben had said, taking her hand in his. “I’m sorry to say he is a very troubled young man. But he is not an Indian, and perhaps that will be in your son’s favor. Now, why don’t you let us do what we must? We will find him, I promise you that. Meanwhile, it truly would be best for you to stay here with Adam, and—”
“No!” she said sternly, pulling her hand from his. “I need to be out there with my son!”
Despite all of their misgivings, she had been as insistent as a mother bear prepared to protect her cubs. Now she was outside carrying a lantern, just like Pa, Hoss and Hop Sing. The professor’s savage student would have no trouble attacking—killing—any one of them. Or all of them. So why was it Adam felt as though every one of them was still safer than Little Joe?
“Take this,” he told the professor, selecting a shotgun from the rack beside the fireplace and a box of bullets from the drawer beneath. “Do you know how to use it?”
But when he tried to hand the weapon to the professor, Brodermann pulled his hands back, his eyes going wide. “You certainly cannot expect me to…to shoot young Bradley! Do you?”
Whatever love Adam had once had for the man died at that moment. “I expect you,” he said in a low but commanding voice, the likes of which he could never have imagined using on a man he’d respected almost as much as his father, “to do whatever it takes to keep my brother, my family and the Purcells safe!”
Adam’s gaze fell to his young brother, resting quietly on the settee. The arrow shaft was gone and all signs of that horrific surgery were now hidden beneath a clean sheet and a warm blanket. But Joe’s coloring was pale…ashen, even, lending little contrast to the gray wool of the blanket. You just stay with your brother, Pa said again in Adam’s thoughts. He wished his father could return at that moment to repeat those words to Little Joe.
“Whatever it takes,” Adam repeated aloud, returning his attention to Professor Brodermann and once more pressing the shotgun toward him.
The professor was hesitant. He took the weapon, nonetheless, freeing Adam to check the condition of his handgun. If the only thing he could do for his brother was protect him from further harm, Adam was determined to do exactly that. Whatever it takes.
Bradley Decklin, journal entry, page 100:
I expected the patriarch to remain inside with the target. It was, however, the eldest offspring that remained instead. There is a bandage around the eldest’s right paw (yes, in this translation, a choice of words truly does matter; I must remain in the mindset of Tooonugwetsedu). My studies in recent days have already proved to me that this creature’s right paw is dominant. Perhaps this injury, its cause as yet unknown to me, shall work in my favor.
Adam was pacing. His gaze moved from the clock to his brother, while his steps took him across the room and back again. Thirty minutes had passed, and he’d heard nothing from outside. No shouts, no cries, not the slightest sound to remind him anyone was nearby. And Joe was growing restless. The professor had been tending to Adam’s brother, mopping Joe’s brow with a wet cloth. But the professor wasn’t there now. Adam had noticed him taking the pitcher to the kitchen, indicating he’d gone for fresh water. That had been a while ago, hadn’t it? He looked to the clock again as the minute-hand eased forward. Ten minutes, perhaps. Yes. Ten minutes.
He took a step toward the kitchen when Joe cried out, “Hoss!” Little Joe was thrashing around again, not as wildly as before, but wild enough to risk falling to the floor. “Get it out! Get….”
In an instant, Adam was beside him. “Easy, Joe! It’s alright! It’s out, Joe! It’s out! Easy!”
“Pa! It’s…. Get it out!”
“It’s gone, Joe! It’s out!” Joe’s shoulders beneath his hands felt warm. Then Adam noticed Joe’s face was growing red. “Professor!” he called out. “Get in here! Professor!”
Professor Brodermann said something. Adam was sure he’d heard the man’s voice. But he was too focused on Joe to hear the words.
“Professor!” he shouted again. “I need you in here, now!”
Joe twisted beneath him. “Get it out!”
“Easy, Joe. I promise you, it’s out! It’s gone!”
“Adam?” Joe stopped moving. He turned his face toward Adam. His eyes opened to slits.
Relieved, Adam smiled down at him. “It’s okay, Little Joe,” he said softly. “It’s all over. You’re going to be—”
Joe’s eyes widened with a look of panic. He tensed.
“Easy, Joe. It’s—”
“Adam!” Joe wasn’t looking at his brother anymore. He was looking beyond him.
At that realization, Adam turned. For a split second, he saw the butt end of the shotgun rushing toward him. And then he saw nothing at all.
Adam heard voices.
“Don’t be absurd, Mr. Decklin! I am talking about men’s lives!”
Professor? The word swam through the whirlwind in his head. It never reached his lips.
“This is bigger than any man!” a stranger replied. “Surely you can understand that!” Adam could not give this new voice a name.
“Any man’s death diminishes me.” That was the professor again. He was quoting John Donne. “You once believed in those words. What happened to you?”
“I was enlightened, professor!” Was it a student? Another student from Harvard? “Thanks to you! Thanks to our group’s discussions!” Whoever he was, whatever his name, he was excited. “I realized every war this world has ever known has come about because what one nation sees as good another sees as evil. Good and evil are not static. They are variable. They change and shift depending on the perspective of the person looking to define them. John Donne offers just one perspective.”
For an instant, Adam was back in college, sipping coffee and joining in on an animated discussion about philosophy.
“You killed a man, Mr. Decklin! You murdered him in cold blood! Murder, dear boy! That is a crime punishable by death!”
Bradley Decklin. The name was pulled to the surface as the whirlwind subsided. It was the name the professor had given the false Indian, the man who’d come so close to killing Little Joe.
“Whose death?” the unfamiliar speaker asked. “Bradley Decklin’s? Or Tooonugwetsedu’s? And does it even matter, as long as the translation becomes complete?”
Adam was confused. If the stranger was Bradley Decklin, why was he speaking of himself as though he was talking about someone else? The confusion pulled Adam closer to realization. He was in his own home. Yes. He was lying on the hard, wooden floor. There was a gentle trickle of moisture from his forehead into his hair. It tickled his scalp as it slid across stray strands. And the bottoms of Adam’s feet felt warm…warmer than his knees…as though they were closest to the fire. He must be behind his father’s chair, halfway to the dining table, judging by the distance of the heat. But…he couldn’t move. He was restrained…trussed up like an animal. Hogtied.
“You’re mad!” The professor’s voice rose in volume. He sounded nervous. Afraid, even. “Absolutely mad!”
“I suppose it doesn’t matter.” The stranger went on talking as though the professor had said nothing…as though he was trying to understand something in his own mind…as though what didn’t matter was whether the professor understood. “Bradley Decklin never killed anyone. And Tooonugwetsedu only kills animals.” Was the stranger either of those men, or neither? “He would never kill a fellow Indian unless it was a sanctioned battle. And besides, Indians are not tried in white men’s courts.”
“Of course, they…. And you are not an Indian!” There it was. The professor’s authoritative tone.
Adam clung to that familiar—comforting—voice…a voice that had helped him during those early days when he’d missed his father’s guidance. He used the voice to help dissipate the foggy darkness in his vision.
“But I am!” the stranger insisted. “I am an Indian! Look at me! I’ve learned everything about them! I wear what they wear, eat what they eat. I even earned an Indian name!”
Adam blinked the stranger into focus. His skin was pale, his clothing, leather. It was Joe’s attacker. The blue-eyed Indian. And he was pacing in front of the settee…within a hand-grasp of Adam’s little brother.
“How?” the professor shouted. “By scalping that poor Mr. Purcell?
Suddenly alert, Adam struggled with his bonds and was relieved to find the rope subtle and smooth. Clearly, it had been softened with use. Decklin must have taken it from the pile that had been tossed behind the barn, a pile of old, useless rope that was being discarded.
“Who?” Decklin asked, sounding confused.
“The man from the cabin!” the professor hollered back. “The one who was so kind as to take me here! That little boy’s father!” He pointed emphatically toward the front door. “Mr. Paul Purcell!”
The rope was soft, but Adam was still having trouble with it. His movements caused a sting at the base of his finger where the arrow had bit into his flesh. He could use that, couldn’t he? If he could work some blood into the rope, he might even be able to slip at least one hand free without fighting awkwardly with the knots.
“Stop!” Decklin’s shout made Adam freeze. He held his breath and lifted his gaze, expecting to find the blue-eyed Indian staring at him. Instead, he saw that Decklin’s eyes were tightly closed, and his hands were clamped against his ears in the manner of a child having a tantrum. The fingers of his right hand were fisted around the antler hilt of a Paiute hunting knife. “They cannot have names!” Decklin added as he panted out quick, panicked breaths. “Don’t give them names!
“I beg your pardon?” the professor asked quietly.
Decklin pulled his hands away and turned his head once to the side. His eyes came open. His forehead smoothed as he took in a deep breath. “Tooonugwetsedu,” he said, calm once more, “attacked an adult male. It was a necessary diversion. He…I…needed a chance to get inside here.”
“Why?” The professor tensed. “To speak with me?” The question seemed an afterthought.
Decklin blinked at him with the puzzled look of an innocent child. “No.” He shook his head and turned to continue his pacing. “Not yet. I wasn’t expecting to meet with you until later, when I’m ready to present my results. But since you were here, I figured you would help me…I mean, help Tooonugwetsedu.”
A sudden turn at the far end of the settee had Decklin facing the professor again. “I need to finish what I failed to do earlier.” He shifted his gaze to Little Joe, shaking his head again, in slow, pensive movements. “He was not supposed to survive.”
Adam worked the moisture from his blood into the rope at his wrist. Keeping his eyes on Bradley Decklin, he was disturbed to find the man’s moods and facial expressions as variable as the winds of a winter storm. When Decklin spun back again, Adam froze once more, but the student continued to ignore him; his eyes were locked on Professor Brodermann.
“Oh…it wasn’t your fault, professor, not at all!” He smiled, his gaze grown soft and apologetic.
“My fault? What—”
“You timed it all perfectly well, and I can’t thank you enough. You did exactly what I asked. It means more to me than I can say that you thought enough of me…of my theory to help me prove it out.”
“Obviously, I did not know enough about your theory! I would never have—”
Decklin looked down at Joe again. Adam took that opportunity to give his brother a closer look, himself. Why was Joe so still now? Little Joe had been awake when he’d warned Adam that Decklin was behind him. Had Decklin already done something more to him? In a surge of energy fueled by desperation, Adam pulled his thumb inward as far as it would go, and yanked hard against the blood soaked rope.
“I don’t know what went wrong, really,” Decklin said softly. “That shot should have been a bulls-eye. If it had been a competition, I would request an investigation to see if—”
“Will you listen to yourself?” the professor demanded. “You sound as though you’re speaking of a…a wooden target!”
Decklin spun back to him. “He is a target. He’s my target. I need his scalp.”
“His….” The professor’s eyes widened just as Adam slipped his right hand free. “You are mad!”
“It’s all part of the translation,” Decklin explained, smiling again. “The scalp of Joe Cart….” He stopped and looked at Joe. “Of this target…,” he corrected, “will be known to Sarah Winnemucca. It will show her that I understand what she values.”
“She will value the scalp of her former beau where it belongs! On his head!
Keep talking, professor! Adam pleaded silently. The blood was now making it as hard to get a grip on the knots as it had been to get a firm hold on that arrowhead. But at least this time it was his own blood. And rather than weakening him, it seemed to be giving Adam strength.
“You need to read my journal, professor! I don’t have time to explain it all. Not now. Not here. But when I’m finished with my book, it will all make perfect sense.”
“It will never make sense! Not after all these horrific things you’ve done!”
“That’s it, exactly!” Decklin pointed his knife forcefully, excitedly toward the professor. “What you consider horrific, Indians see as heroic! It’s all a matter of translation!”
“It is a matter of lunacy!”
Adam froze a third time when the professor turned to face him.
“Now,” the professor added, neither meeting Adam’s gaze nor giving any indication he noticed that Adam’s position had changed. “I must insist that you stop all of this right now!”
One knot had come loose, the one securing Adam’s left wrist to the rope tying his legs. He was within moments of being free enough to take action.
“Help me untie this fellow,” the professor said, “and we shall all see to it that you are—”
And suddenly Decklin was there, too. He grabbed the professor’s arm. “Step away from him, professor! You can’t insist anything! Not until you understand the full translation! And I cannot finish it until I bring that scalp to Sarah Winnemucca. Please professor. I don’t want to hurt you. You mean too much to me. But Tooonugwetsedu…. He needs that scalp. I assure you, he won’t allow anyone to get in his way, not even you.”
The professor stepped backward, opening a gap between him and Decklin. It was a gap Adam could use. He threw himself clumsily against Decklin’s legs as the sound of a cat’s yowling cry reached them from outside. Unbalanced, Decklin fell backward, into the settee. Wood scraped on wood as the force pushed the settee against the table behind it. A heavy figurine crashed to the floor. And Joe….
Joe cried out in pain. The sound drove Adam forward. He grabbed Decklin before the younger man could rise, taking a fistful of soft leather and rawhide in his bloodied fingers and then throwing a wild punch with his left hand. The blood-spattered rope still dangling from his wrist whipped outward, striking Decklin in the neck as he fell to the floor. Adam couldn’t tell if the bloody line that formed on Decklin’s pale flesh was smeared from his own or newly drawn. He stood above the madman, panting, as the room began to tilt beneath him.
And then, suddenly, he saw that Bradley Decklin had somehow come to be standing over him. No. Decklin was standing near Adam, but he wasn’t looking at Adam. His eyes were focused on Little Joe. He was gripping that Paiute knife in his right hand again. The fingers of his left hand began to snake into Joe’s hair.
“No!” Adam shouted as another cry pulled Decklin’s gaze toward the door. It was a child’s cry this time, not a cat, as Adam had first thought. They must have found Billy. They’d found him and were returning. “They’ll kill you where you stand,” Adam threatened with a confidence he didn’t feel. They would kill Decklin, yes. Pa and Hoss would both shoot the moment they opened that door and realized what was happening. But one, quick swipe of that knife in Bradley Decklin’s hand would ensure his own killing came too late.
Heavy footsteps reached the porch. A soft, metal chink told of fingers on the door latch.
Bradley Decklin knew he’d run out of time. He wasn’t capable of a quick swipe. No. He wasn’t anything close to a real Indian. Giving up, he turned and ran out of Adam’s view.
Through it all, Adam didn’t breathe—not until he heard his father’s voice beside him. “Are you alright, son?”
He started to nod and then to shake his head. Both confused and unconcerned about his real answer, he asked a question of his own instead. “Joe?”
“He’s bleeding again,” Hoss answered. “And workin’ up a pretty good fever. But it don’t look like that fella’ hurt him anymore’n he already was.”
Relieved, Adam laid his head against the floor—still wondering how he’d arrived to be in that position—and closed his eyes. For a moment, the sound of a crying child made him wonder why Pa had punished Little Joe, and whether that was Marie making all that noise in the kitchen. When the moment passed and he knew he would never get it back, he couldn’t prevent himself from shedding a single, wayward tear.
Bradley Decklin, journal entry, page 101:
Once more, I have failed. I was so certain that the professor would understand. At first, he acted as though, indeed, he did understand. He did not announce my presence to the eldest. He even gave over a shotgun that the eldest had put into his possession. The professor is not a man for shooting. This I knew. It was almost amusing to see him holding it in an awkward grip. This meeting, however, was not for amusement.
The professor was there because I had requested him to journey west. I wanted him to be present for my final victory, my triumphant completion of the translation. I wanted him to know what successes he had helped me to accomplish.
I had shed myself of Tooonugwetsedu just long enough to make a visit into Virginia City, a place I attest is fraught with more evil than any Indian camp, although I have yet to help the professor recognize the significance of appropriately translating the meaning of the word, “evil.” I sent a telegram requesting his presence, and then left instructions in a sealed envelope that was to be given over to him at the stage owner’s station. He followed those instructions perfectly, sending the youngest out into the yard, alone, just before sunset. It is for this reason I expected him to assist in my correcting the failure of my own role. Instead, he expressed objections to what I was to do.
He does not understand because he has not yet seen the translation. Sadly, there was no time for me this night to provide him with the necessary details. I wasted time with argument, and, in so doing, I once again have failed. I lost my opportunity. The trophy remains out of my reach.
My new plan requires that I hold Tooonugwetsedu quiet. This night he must shelter in the confining walls of a white man’s dwelling, away from the peace of the stars.
I, Tooonugwetsedu, have secured myself in a shadowed corner on the uppermost floor of the target’s house, and here I shall wait for what must surely be my final chance.
Adam could hardly think past the throbbing in his head. He didn’t stand a chance of watching over Little Joe. He couldn’t even sit up without inviting a whirlwind that threatened to empty his stomach.
“He’ll be back,” he said over and over again. “Don’t let him get to Joe.” It was as much of a warning as he could provide.
While Hoss cleaned and bandage Adam’s head and hand, Adam watched Pa and Hop Sing working together to re-bandage Joe’s wound. No one was watching the windows and doors. The professor had taken to pacing as though he was lost, and Mrs. Purcell was busy trying to quiet her son. From what Adam had heard, the poor kid had been left in the bow of a tree, high up off the ground with his hands tied and a gag in his mouth.
“Don’t you worry about Joe none,” Hoss promised Adam. “Ain’t nothin’ else gonna happen to that little brother of ours. I’ll make sure of that.”
But how could he? How could any of them make sure of it? They had no idea how much of a madman Bradley Decklin had actually become.
“Tooonugwetsedu…needs that scalp.” Decklin’s words echoed through Adam’s mind. “I assure you, he won’t allow anyone to get in his way.”
Not even the professor was safe from Decklin’s madness. But Adam could do nothing to help. He couldn’t argue when Pa and Hoss supported him up the stairs to get him to his own room, and his own bed. All he’d managed to accomplish before willingly collapsing on the mattress was to insist they leave his bedroom door open so he could keep an eye on the hallway…and for Hoss to provide him with a loaded weapon. He might not be able to move too quickly, but he could still shoot if he saw someone in that hall who didn’t belong…someone who dressed like an Indian but acted more like an animal.
Whatever his father and brother might believe, Adam knew Bradley Decklin could very well make an appearance in that hallway. He would have to, because Joe had been moved upstairs also, under the assumption he could rest more easily there—an assumption that made it clear Adam couldn’t rest at all.
“Tooonugwetsedu needs that scalp.”
So far, only Hoss, Pa and Hop Sing had slipped across Adam’s vantage. At the moment, Adam saw no one, but he could hear his father and brother perfectly well.
“Don’t you smell that?” Hoss’s voice rode in on a wave of nausea.
“What? No, Hoss, I don’t smell anything.” Pa’s answer was dismissive, his thoughts elsewhere. “How is he? Has he come around at all?”
“No, sir. Not really. He just mumbles Adam’s name now and again, like he’s tryin’ to warn him. You sure you don’t smell that?”
Adam closed his eyes, remembering the frantic look he’d seen in Joe’s when his young brother had cried out in warning. How could Adam have allowed Decklin to get so close? How could he have been so unaware?
“Animal might have got in through that weak spot in the roof,” Hoss went on when Adam started listening again. “Could be a raccoon in the rafters, I reckon.”
“Just be sure to call for me if Joe comes around,” Pa said, clearly unconcerned about either the roof or stray raccoons. “Hop Sing is getting the Purcells settled in my room.”
“It’s just the professor downstairs?” Hoss’s cautious tone stirred up acid in Adam’s stomach as a resurgence of fear began welling up inside him.
“For the moment, yes. I’ll be joining him as soon as I’ve checked on Adam.”
“Do you think it’s a good idea leaving the professor alone, Pa?”
“The professor is well aware of—”
“Mr. Cartwright?” a woman’s voice broke into the conversation an instant before Hop Sing knocked on Adam’s open door.
“Why Mr. Adam no resting?” The cook asked over the almost symphonic dialogue beyond Adam’s room, where Pa’s smooth baritone volleyed with Mrs. Purcell’s light alto.
“I’m fine, Hop Sing,” Adam answered, hoping the high-pitched soprano of young Billy’s terrified cries had been truly silenced for the remainder of the night. The sound had been excruciating. Besides, the boy needed sleep. He needed his father, too, but he would never see his father again, would he? Bradley Decklin had taken Billy’s father from him.
An image started floating through Adam’s mind, one he couldn’t bear to see. Nor could he ignore it. Hoss’s mother had been struck down by an arrow. She was there in Adam’s thoughts now, lying on the floor with that arrow in her…that damnable arrow…just like Little Joe. It was too similar. Heartbreakingly similar. The memory began to take on new life within him, crushing another life, a different life right out of him. He could almost believe his brother was already gone…even as he could almost believe Inger had never been at all…or that she’d been nothing more than an angel gracing their lives just long enough to bring them Hoss.
A hand started fussing with the cloth on his forehead, chasing the image away. Grateful, Adam gave his attention back to Hop Sing in time to see him nod, looking satisfied by what he saw. “No more bleeding.”
“I don’t like what I see when I close my eyes,” Mrs. Purcell said down the hall, her words a perfect reflection of what Adam felt in his heart.
“Mr. Adam rest now,” Hop Sing commanded over Pa’s soft reply.
“I’ll rest,” Adam answered, “when I know Bradley Decklin is safely behind bars.” His voice broke from an ache that had nothing to do with the blow to his head.
“Why no one ever listen Hop Sing?” the cook admonished. An instant later he started up a softer than usual tirade spoken partly in English, partly in Chinese, and certainly impossible to follow in either language.
“Please,” Mrs. Purcell’s voice began to override Hop Sing’s as the cook bustled back into the hallway, taking his tirade with him. “There must be something I can do to help.”
“I understand,” Pa said softly. “I’m sure we—”
A banging on the front door downstairs stole the rest of Pa’s words—and all of Adam’s breath.
“Why don’t you stay here with Joe?” Hoss demanded more than asked, just before the banging sounded again.
There was a flurry of thumping footsteps, telling Adam both his father and Hoss were hurrying down to address the unexpected—and undoubtedly unwelcome—late night visitor, and then a swish of skirts that suggested Mrs. Purcell might be pacing just outside Joe’s bedroom door. Surely she would be torn between watching Joe and ensuring her own boy was safe from whatever madness was about to take place.
“Tooonugwetsedu needs that scalp.”
The swish intensified and then dissipated to the patter of a soft, urgent footfall, making it clear the woman’s first allegiance was to her son.
“Tooonugwetsedu needs that scalp.”
At another bang on the door, Adam realized his family was taking the wrong approach. Whoever was outside, it couldn’t possibly be Bradley Decklin. No. He would never announce himself so plainly. He would find another way in…an unlatched window, perhaps.
“Animal might have got in through that weak spot in the roof,” Hoss had said moments earlier.
Dear God, no! Adam stumbled out of bed only to find the floor moving beneath him, twisting his thoughts…his stomach…his legs…until he tumbled down upon it and closed his eyes, praying for the vertigo to pass.
Adam heard the swish of fabric again while he struggled to pull in enough fresh air to soothe the storm in his head. Then came the sniffle of a child and a mother’s soft shushing. Mrs. Purcell had returned to Joe, taking her son with her. And Adam’s prayers intensified…because Bradley Decklin—or Tooonugwetsedu—had already vowed not to let anyone get in his way. A woman he’d already attacked and a child he’d snatched away once before wouldn’t stand a chance.
Bradley Decklin, journal entry, page 102:
The woman The female is sitting in the room with the target. She has placed her offspring upon the bedding with the target. The offspring and the target are sleeping. The female, however, is alert. Her stance is that of a mother of any species, eager to protect her offspring. The tilt of her head indicates that she is listening intently to the bark of voices trailing up the stairs from the entryway below.
I am Tooonugwetsedu. I have no interest in the voices. My focus is on the target.
Adam forced himself to move slowly, feeling all the while as though the earth itself was working against him. Unwilling to give in to the drumming in his head, he focused on the conversation he could hear from downstairs while he made his way to his open bedroom door, the weight of the gun in his hand giving him a tenuous sense of security.
“Lean Knife have no fight with Ponderosa,” a deep voice proclaimed. “We have common enemy. Ben Cartwright enemy, Lean Knife enemy.”
The drumming stole Adam’s attention for a moment. He leaned against his dresser, catching his breath and struggling to listen outward.
“He claims to know Paiute ways!” Pa’s booming thunder pulled Adam through the fog. “He pretends to be a Paiute. He tried to kill Little Joe!”
“If only try, not kill,” Lean Knife’s answered, driving Adam forward again, “then Ben Cartwright know this man not Paiute brave.”
Bradley Decklin, journal entry, page 102:
I am Tooonugwetsedu.
I will claim my trophy. I will present this gift to Sarah Winnemucca. I will be welcomed into the tribe. I will make the translation complete. These things I will do for the good of mankind. There is no greater goal. I am Tooonugwetsedu.
I am Tooonugwetsedu.
“Of course I know that!” Pa shouted. “But how is it he believes he knows your ways?”
“Tabuaggena Nuunuawunu was brother, wannnga’a, of Lean Knife. Wannnga’a leave Winnemucca’s camp. Return after one moon. Wear white man clothes. Stink of white man’s firewater. Say white man take Paiute clothes. Bring shame to Winnemucca. Lose name. Lose place in tribe.”
“That white man, Mr. Decklin,” the professor said, “said he earned an Indian’s name. He called himself To-oo-nug-wet-sed-u.”
“No!” Lean Knife barked back so fiercely Adam could almost believe the house shook from the force of that one word. “Deck-lin have no right to such name! Deck-lin have no honor!”
I am Tooonugwetsedu.
I am Tooonugwetsedu.
Adam reached the hallway. Steadying himself with one hand on the wall, he eased his way forward.
“Your brother saw this white man kill Mr. Purcell?” Hoss’s voice rose up from the room below while Adam stared at shadows spilling into the hallway ahead of him, shadows cast out of Joe’s open door by a lantern in his room.
“Winnemucca send wannnga’a away,” Lean Knife said. “No honor. Not welcome in Winnemucca’s camp. But wannnga’a return. Risk life to tell Lean Knife he saw this. White man pretend to be Paiute, bring more dishonor to Chief Winnemucca.”
The shadows moved jerkily…frantically. There was a shuffling sound…the now familiar swish of fabric…and then a dull thud.
The sounds from downstairs lost all meaning to Adam at that moment. He hefted the gun in his hand, surging forward until he could grasp the familiar doorframe. Pulling himself the final distance, he leveled the gun before he could see anything—or anyone—to take aim against. And then…a scene from a nightmare. Mrs. Purcell was standing with her back to Joe and Billy, who lay side by side in the bed. Her stance was one of defense. The thin lady in a torn dress and empty hands was prepared to fight a lean, blue-eyed Indian with a hunting knife in his grip and savagery in his heart. The bedside chair, fallen over, was the only thing separating them.
Hunched down and looking like a cat preparing to pounce, Bradley Decklin held a knife toward Billy’s mother. There was a sudden jerk, indicating Adam’s arrival had startled him. But Decklin recovered quickly, tossing the chair toward Adam and grabbing the woman’s arm. By the time Adam had regained his balance, Bradley Decklin was holding the knife to Mrs. Purcell’s throat.
“There is no need for me to harm you,” Decklin told Adam, “or this wo…female.” He sounded rational but looked confused. The way he drew down his brow and gingerly pulled the woman against him made it appear as though he was afraid to touch her…perhaps as though his Eastern gentleman’s upbringing made him loath to lay his arm against a lady’s breasts as he must to keep Mrs. Purcell secured. “You take her,” he demanded then.
Yes, Adam thought, that would be the easy solution, wouldn’t it?
“Take her and go. You know what I’ve come for. It’s all I want.”
“It,” Adam hissed, “is not a possession for your or anyone else’s taking. You’re talking about my brother!”
“It is something Sarah Winnemucca values. I must give it to her to prove my worth.”
“All you’ll prove is that you’re insane.”
“No, sir. Not at all.” Decklin sounded like a schoolboy addressing his teacher. “This is not a matter of sanity; it is a matter of translation.” He looked downward for a moment, shaking his head and then shrugging. “You would have to look through the eyes of an Indian, as I have, to understand. But if you’ll just wait a few more weeks, I will finish my book. It will all make sense to you, then. Be patient.” He smiled. “I assure you it will come to make sense.”
“You killed a man!” Adam shot back. “You struck him down while his family watched! Do you honestly expect Mrs. Purcell to ever make sense out of that?” Adam couldn’t look at the woman. He couldn’t meet her gaze. He felt as though he was betraying her by reminding her—even as he knew she did not need to be reminded. He kept his gaze locked on Decklin’s, watching as the younger man’s enthusiasm melted into confusion, and then horror.
“No names!” Decklin demanded. He pointed the knife toward Adam like an accusation.
Mrs. Purcell momentarily forgotten, Adam noticed her slipping out of his field of vision, but he never let his attention drift from Decklin. “What about Billy, their son?”
“I said no names!”
“You stole Billy’s father from him,” Adam pressed. “I am not about to let you take his mother, too. Or my brother.” A movement on the bed almost stole Adam’s attention, but he resisted the instinct to look. He needed to keep Decklin in his sights.
Simply watching Decklin, however, could not stop the man from spinning to his side in one, fluid, dizzying motion and grabbing Joe by the hair. “I only want the trophy!”
Joe moaned weakly. A hand rose slightly—not even high enough to swat a fly, let alone turn away his attacker.
Adam glared murderously at Bradley Decklin. Nausea filled his mouth with saliva as blackness swirled on the edges of his vision. He swallowed hard, struggling to keep his own hand from shaking, and then drew back the hammer on his gun. “Step away from him or by God I will kill you where you stand!”
“I must take it. I have to finish the translation.”
Adam saw the knife move toward Joe’s forehead. His finger rested against the trigger. He started to pull. And then—
A shrill scream and a blur of movement tilted the floor beneath him again. He fell into the doorframe, his arm jerking upward just as the bullet left the chamber.
By the time he could make sense of what he was seeing, he realized young Billy Purcell had climbed across Little Joe’s chest and was now attacking Bradley Decklin. The boy’s arms were swinging wildly about, landing punches on Decklin’s chest and arms. Trapped under the boy’s light weight, Joe had no strength to push him off. He moved his head back and forth across the pillow, his low moans somehow reaching Adam behind young Billy’s high-pitched cries and his mother’s panicked shouts. Adam felt a moan rising in his own throat in response. He had to move. He had to—
Adam jumped when a firm hand wrapped around his arm, pulling his attention toward Hoss. They were upstairs now, all of them: Hoss, Pa, Professor Brodermann and a small Paiute war party led by Sarah Winnemucca’s husband, Lean Knife.
Relieved, Adam allowed his strong brother to ease him into the hallway, making room for the others. A quick nod showed Hoss he was fine; it was Joe—and the Purcells—who needed help now. Hoss nodded back, righting the chair Decklin had flung away and pressing Adam gently into it.
And there Adam sat in the background like an observer at a theatrical production, watching, praying…and holding his gun ready.
Bradley Decklin had Billy now. He held the boy against his chest, his knife poised at Billy’s throat. The child’s mother knelt at his feet, her hands clasped and raised as though in prayer—a supplicant pleading for mercy.
Did Bradley Decklin know anything of mercy? “Good and evil are not static,” he’d told Adam and Professor Brodermann. “What you consider horrific, Indians see as heroic! It’s all a matter of translation!”
“Mr. Decklin!” Professor Brodermann’s voice rang out beside Adam, commanding enough to make him—and Bradley Decklin—flinch. “You are to release that boy at once! Do you hear me?”
Decklin’s grip loosened. He lowered the crying boy by inches, his knife slipping downward but remaining dangerously close. “You have to let me finish.” He sounded like a schoolboy again, his enthusiasm lost now to a self-pitying pout. Then, with a determined intake of breath, he pulled back his sagging shoulders and hefted Billy a little higher in his grip. “Take this one,” he said, “and the female downstairs with you. And leave me be!” He sounded authoritative in that moment…and composed. Not at all like a disheveled man dressed as an Indian and holding a knife to a child.
“Leave you be?” the professor answered. “To do what?”
“What I came here to do. Please,” he added graciously. “You’ll understand when I complete my research. I’ll be famous. We both will.” His smile was sickeningly normal. “They’ll be writing about this for decades to come.”
“All they shall be writing about, young man, is how you attacked innocent people who’d had no quarrel with you whatsoever. Do not add this boy to the mix.”
“No! It’s about perspectives! It’s about…about creating a philosophical translation, one that allows white men to see through the eyes of Indians and—” Decklin’s own eyes went wide.
Adam followed his gaze to where Lean Knife had separated himself from the small crowd. “You are the white man who took Paiute clothes from wannnga’a, brother to Lean Knife?”
“I gave him my own in return,” Decklin argued in defense. “And whiskey,” he added, grinning.
“Firewater!” Lean Knife shouted. “You bring shame to wannnga’a. You bring shame to Chief Winnemucca!”
Decklin looked confused. He shook his head. “No. I— Hey!”
Billy sank his teeth into Decklin’s arm, causing Decklin to release his grip. The boy was wrapped up in his mother’s arms the instant his feet touched the floor—and Lean Knife had Decklin wrapped up in his before Adam had even noticed the Indian reaching for him. Decklin’s own blade was now pressed against the madman’s throat.
Panting in terror, Mrs. Purcell rushed out into the hallway holding her young son close. She briefly met Adam’s gaze, her own reflecting loss, fear…uncertainty. But Adam realized he didn’t feel any of those emotions. Not anymore. He felt only sadness for the manner in which that woman had lost her husband, and anger for what had happened to Joe.
And he was no longer willing to remain a distant observer. Adam levered himself to his feet and stepped into the room. If he’d thought he’d been forgotten, Hoss proved otherwise in that instant, moving himself protectively in front of Adam without ever turning his gaze from Lean Knife and Bradley Decklin. Adam started to follow that gaze while Lean Knife spoke.
“You make white men believe Paiute kill for no reason.”
Before Adam’s eyes landed on the Paiute, he saw Joe moving and kept his gaze there. Joe was rolling from one side to the other, his knees rising and dropping, his back arching in pain.
“When Paiute kill,” Lean Knife said coldly, “always there is good reason.”
Whether Joe had come around or was thrashing his way through a fevered dream, Adam couldn’t tell. He knew only that Joe needed help, and he didn’t deserve to go without it for the sake of Bradley Decklin.
“You make war come to Paiute and white men for no reason!”
Clenching his jaw, Adam turned from Joe to see Decklin’s Adam’s apple bobbing against the blade.
“N-no!” Decklin argued. “Not war. It wasn’t about war—”
Adam reached for Hoss’s arm to get his attention, and then indicated toward Joe with a nod of his head.
“Yes, war!” Pa shouted. “What did you think would happen when news spread that a Paiute war party had struck on the Ponderosa?”
“It wasn’t a war party! I was alone! I—”
“It doesn’t matter!” Pa stepped within an arm’s reach of the two, and Hoss moved in behind him, reaching Joe in two short strides. “People would believe what they expect to be true, not the insanity you’ve shown us tonight! You would have caused a war that no one wants. Not the Paiutes. And certainly not us.”
“I only…only wanted to give Sarah a gift!” The blade pressed into Decklin’s skin.
“You’d be wise to keep quiet,” Adam warned, keeping an eye on Hoss and feeling relieved to know Joe wasn’t alone any longer.
“Is Lean Knife’s wife!” Adam said flatly.
“You bring gift to Lean Knife’s woman?” The blade bit deeper. A dribble of blood spilled to Decklin’s collarbone.
“O-only to show I understood. I—”
“You understand nothing!” Pa said.
“Pa?” Joe called out breathily. The sound was barely a whisper, but it was enough to turn Pa’s head and loosen the granite edge to his stance. “Don’t,” Joe struggled to say. “He’s…he’s….”
“Easy, Joe,” Hoss said back to him. “Pa’s not—”
“Evil,” Joe said. “Thinks…good…evil….No…not….” His thrashing grew worse. Joe’s harsh breaths started coming quick and hard.
“Good and evil are not static.” Adam could once again hear Decklin utter those words through the dizzying clutter in his mind. Clearly, Joe had heard them, too.
“Yes!” Decklin said excitedly.
“No,” the professor interjected, calling all eyes his way. Apparently uncomfortable under such scrutiny, he cleared his throat, pulled his shoulders back and stepped forward to stand beside Ben. “Mr. Decklin, your translation is flawed. Your theory cannot be validated. Certainly not like this.”
Decklin’s odd smile died. “No. The translation is…it’s close,” he said, somehow oblivious to the knife at his throat. “It’s nearly complete. I just need….” Only then did he seem to remember the precarious situation he had fallen into. “I need….” He licked his lips, drawing the blade into his skin again as he swallowed. His eyes shifted sideways, searching for but not quite reaching Joe. “I need the scalp. The…the trophy.”
Lean Knife’s braves looked at one another uneasily. The warrior himself pointed with his knife in Joe’s direction. “Evil, he say. Evil, Lean Knife believe.” He pushed Decklin toward his tribesmen, shouting something in his native language.
“No,” Decklin argued as two braves flanked him, each taking a firm hold of his arms. “It’s not evil. It’s the translation, the one that will make me like you!”
Lean Knife approached Decklin again and held his knife near the bridge of Decklin’s nose. “White man like…bad medicine, evil spirit. Not like Paiute!”
“Not like white men, neither,” Hoss added. A rare nod in agreement from Lean Knife must have encouraged him to say more. “What’re you gonna do with him?”
“Take to Winnemucca. Punish.”
“Why? He didn’t do anything to you. Seems like it’s white man’s justice he needs.”
“He bring shame to Winnemucca! Shame to wannnga’a!”
“But I…I earned my name! Tooonugwetsedu! I am Tooonugwetsedu!”
“He killed a white man,” Hoss said, ignoring Decklin. “And he dang near killed Little Joe, too. Ain’t that worse than shamin’ anyone? Even a chief?”
Lean Knife looked from Hoss to Decklin and then back again, finally giving Hoss another acknowledging nod.
“I am Tooonugwetsedu!” Decklin argued.
“No,” Lean Knife decided, tucking the weapon into a leather band at his waist. “Tooonugwetsedu has honor. You have no honor.” He turned away, giving Decklin his back in a grand show of abandonment. “What white man’s justice will he find?” he asked Pa and Hoss.
“He’ll probably hang,” Adam answered, instead.
Decklin went white. “But I am Tooonugwetsedu!”
“You are a murderer,” Adam told him. “A cold-blooded murderer.”
“Lean Knife?” Joe’s voice, still weak but louder than before, shattered the ice that had started to grow in Adam’s thoughts. “Don’t,” Joe added when it was clear he had the Paiute’s attention. He tried to push himself to one elbow, but Hoss was quick to intervene, reaching behind Joe’s back to support him. As the blanket fell away, Adam could see fresh blood on his bandage. A sheen of sweat covered Joe’s face and the bare skin around the bandage on his heaving chest. It looked as though every breath was a struggle. “Don’t let Sarah know,” he said in a soft, raspy voice. “She doesn’t…doesn’t need to know what he was planning to do.”
Something in Lean Knife’s stance drew Adam’s attention. He saw rage in the Paiute’s gaze, all of it seemingly aimed now at Joe. The Paiute looked to Bradley Decklin briefly and then back to Little Joe. For a long while, the two former rivals for Sarah Winnemucca’s attention stared at one another, as though in silent challenge. It was a challenge Joe had no hope of winning.
But somehow, he must have. Lean Knife nodded and turned away.
And Adam remembered to breathe.
“Two braves will stay,” Lean Knife said as he stepped into the hall, “keep watch.” He swiveled back to look at each Cartwright in turn, finally letting his gaze settle on Pa. “If white man’s justice fails, Paiute justice will not.”
“Adam?” Pa’s voice swept across the waves of Boston Harbor. “Adam? Son?” The words ebbed closer, like a lifeboat come to rescue him from depths too dark to show what lie beneath. He caught a final glimpse of the professor waving to him from the shore…and then Pa’s strong hand grabbed hold of him. Pa drew him to the surface, right into the bright rays of a midday sun. “The doctor’s here, Adam.”
Blinking away the last fragments of the dream, Adam found himself looking into the haggard gaze of his father. Then his father blinked, too, an effort that pulled a warm smile into being. “It’s good to see you awake, son.”
Adam looked to the window for a confirmation he didn’t need to receive. The night was over. Long over. “I don’t….” He turned back to his father, puzzled about the time he seemed to have lost. “Decklin?” he asked before a far more critical question caught his breath. “Joe?”
“Bradley Decklin,” Pa answered crisply, “is in Roy Coffee’s jail.” Then the warmth returned. “And the doctor’s finishing with Joe now. He’ll be in to see you in a moment.” Pa sighed in a heavy, long exhalation, as though he’d been holding his breath for hours. “It was a rough night for all of us, but Paul has put a great deal of work into fixing what we couldn’t. With a lot of rest, Joe should be just fine. That is so long as he’s not trampled by any more young boys trying to save him.” A small chuckle loosened the tension in his shoulders. “You know, that Billy Purcell is a brave little boy. He actually tried to protect Joe, to keep him from being scalped.”
Adam caught the flash of an image before he blinked it away: Bradley Decklin grabbing hold of Joe’s hair before Billy’s small, swinging arms had interrupted him. “I’d say he did more than try.”
Pa’s eyebrows went up. He tilted his head in consideration. “Well then, we owe him—and his mother—a great debt.” He breathed in nearly as deeply as he’d breathed out a moment earlier. “Now as to you, young man, you caused us a bit of worry, yourself.”
“I don’t seem to remember.”
“I don’t suppose you would. I’m afraid that concussion of yours got the better of you.”
“You collapsed, Adam,” Pa said gravely.
Adam grinned back at him. “I suppose I could have guessed that.”
“Your color is looking better now. I imagine a long night’s rest is just what the doctor would have ordered.”
“I imagine that’s true, Ben,” Paul Martin said from the doorway. “Adam, you certainly are looking better than Hoss described last night. How are you feeling? Any dizziness?”
Adam endured the doctor’s examination, although he knew the diagnosis would be just as his father had suggested. He’d slept off the worst of the effects of Bradley Decklin’s distinctively not Indian-like handling of a shotgun.
“Adam!” Joe warned again in his thoughts until Paul Martin’s cold instruments returned him to the moment.
“You’re a lucky man, Adam,” Paul said as he started to put those instruments back into his bag, “I’m happy to say a couple of days in bed and you should be as good as new.”
“And Joe?” Adam asked finally.
Paul shared a stern glance with Adam’s father. “It will be more than a couple of days for him, I’m afraid. But he’s already showing some very good resiliency. Knowing that Cartwright stubbornness you all seem to share, I can’t help but believe he’ll be fine soon enough.”
“No,” Adam said softly. “Not soon enough.” Nothing would be soon enough. Joe shouldn’t have to be in that bed at all.
“Well, Ben.” Paul snapped his bag shut. “I suppose we’d better be going. I’ll stop by again tomorrow to—”
“We?” Adam interrupted, finding his thoughts locked on that one, single word.
It was Pa who answered. “Paul will be taking Professor Brodermann back to Virginia City with him.”
“Why?” Adam asked then, realizing he was more curious to know whose decision it had been than concerned about the professor’s departure. In fact, he was happy to hear the professor was leaving. Wasn’t he?
A quick glance shared between Adam’s father and the doctor ended when Paul Martin cleared his throat. “I’ll just wait for you outside, Ben.”
Once they were alone, Pa settled himself onto the chair beside Adam. “George has a great deal of business to attend to,” Pa started. “He will be getting into contact with Decklin’s family back east, and….”
“And?” Adam prodded when his father left the sentence unfinished.
“And he intends to do everything he can to…to help that young man.”
If Adam had felt betrayed by the professor before, he felt doubly so, now. “Help him? How?”
“By encouraging the judge to recognize that Bradley Decklin has lost the ability to distinguish between right and wrong—or, in his words, between good and evil.”
“I can’t argue that,” Adam said softly, “as much as I wish I could.” But did he? Did he really wish that Bradley Decklin would hang? Yes, he told himself, even as his stomach turned at the thought of seeing any man—even Bradley Decklin—swinging from the gallows.
Good and evil…. Decklin had said it was a matter of perspective. Could hanging ever be considered good? From anyone’s perspective?
“He wants Decklin,” Pa went on, “to be found not guilty by reason of insanity. It seems your professor dabbles in law just as he does in medicine. He intends to cite the McNaughton rule, from that case in England, when—”
“Bradley Decklin,” Adam cut in coldly, unconcerned about the legalities of evil, “had better pray the professor’s legal advice proves better than his surgical advice.”
Pa leaned forward and gently squeezed Adam’s arm. “Yes,” he said distantly, no doubt returning in his mind—just like Adam was—to the sight of Joe lying on that settee, begging for his family to remove the arrow. “But….” Pa sniffed and drew in a deep breath, settling back again. “Actually, his advice in this is pretty sound. I have to say I believe he might stand a good chance of winning.”
Adam looked at his father, saying nothing…waiting for the inevitable explanation.
“It seems Bradley Decklin kept a journal,” Pa provided finally. “That book we heard him say he was writing. Sheriff Coffee found it in his things when Hoss and Lean Knife’s braves turned him in. Hoss paged through it before he left it with Roy to come home.” Pa’s look darkened, grew distant.
“Adam…the things he saw in that journal convinced your brother. And what I saw in Hoss’s eyes convinced me.” He held Adam’s gaze for a long moment, before saying, “Bradley Decklin is well and truly insane.”
From the moment Adam could ride without succumbing to dizziness, he spent his days in Virginia City and his nights in his room. He read through Bradley Decklin’s journal enough times to recite nearly every horrific word. He spent hours consulting with Paul Martin, and also with the family lawyer, Hiram Wood. Adam even spent time with the last two people on earth he ever wanted to see again: Professor Brodermann and the alleged madman himself.
“We need to fight the professor on this, Pa,” Adam finally told his father one evening after supper.
“What are you talking about?” Ben Cartwright did not bother looking up. He kept his focus instead on the papers in front of him.
“He’s working with the lawyer Decklin’s family hired, and he’s still planning an insanity defense.”
“Of course, he is.” Ben crossed out a number and hurriedly corrected the error. “That’s what he said he was going to do, isn’t it? There’s certainly no question as to that boy’s madness.”
“Yes, Pa. There is.”
It took a moment before Adam’s declaration began to sink in. He watched his father’s focus slowly shift away from his calculations. Ben raised his head to look under drawn eyebrows at his eldest son.
“Bradley Decklin,” Adam went on then, speaking low to keep his brothers from overhearing, “is as sane as you and I.”
“That’s cheating!” A complaint from Hoss turned Adam’s attention toward the fireplace. His brothers were arguing over a checker board as they’d done nearly every night since Joe had been old enough to learn the game. There was nothing unusual in their quibbling. Nothing peculiar at all. To look at them now, someone could almost believe Decklin’s attack had never happened…someone other than Adam.
After nearly three weeks, Joe was still sore, a fact made obvious by his stiff movements and the way he held his left arm close to his chest. But Adam supposed being sore was a blessing compared with the pain Joe had been forced to endure when the wound had still been raw.
Yes, Joe’s wound was nearly healed. But Adam had a wound that was as raw as ever, festering deep inside him with a poison fed by the pair of cunning, murderous blue eyes that had so recently taunted him from the other side of the iron bars in one of Sheriff Coffee’s jail cells…and by the clouded eyes of a professor he’d once trusted to guide him in the absence of his father.
“Adam!” Pa’s harsh whisper pulled him back to face a far different set of eyes glaring back at him from across the massive desk. “I asked you,” Pa added icily, “how you could possibly say such a thing?”
At Adam’s back, Joe cackled with laughter, clearly oblivious to the conversation.
“Because it’s true.” Adam kept his tone calm despite the rage he continued to hold at bay. “I’ve watched him. I’ve listened to him, and so has Paul Martin. Paul has consulted with experts from St. Louis to San Francisco. Even Hiram agrees. All the evidence suggests Bradley Decklin knew exactly what he was doing. He not only knew it, he planned it out meticulously over a period of seven months.” Professor Brodermann had provided Adam, Hiram and Sheriff Coffee with that last bit of information. His doing so had given Adam’s former mentor no greater standing in Adam’s heart, for the professor had also made it quite clear he would not stop his efforts to give Decklin a viable defense.
“His own family is abandoning him, Adam,” the professor had pleadingly told him. “They’re sending a lawyer, yes, but they are not coming themselves. I cannot abandon him as well. He is like a son to me, as were you before. Perhaps his true father can turn away, but I…I simply cannot.”
“Before,” Adam had repeated.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I was like a son to you before what? Before your new son tried to murder my brother?”
The professor had gazed at him sadly…pitifully. “You do not need me now as he does. You still have your brother. You have your whole family with you. And you are not facing the end of everything you’ve ever known in life. The end of a life, and so young. So…so very young.”
“He brought it on himself, professor! You owe him nothing! The young man to whom you owe a real debt is my brother!”
The professor had looked stricken. “Yes, indeed. But first, for now, I owe Mr. Decklin the attention I failed to give him back at Harvard. I should have asked more questions. I should have insisted upon reviewing his assumptions. I should have—”
“You should have kept my letters in confidence!”
“Adam!” Pa scolded softly. “Are you listening to me at all? Are you listening to yourself? Seven months planning such vicious, savage things surely proves the man’s insane! No sane man would—”
“You’re wrong,” Adam cut him off, pointedly holding his father’s gaze. Behind him, Joe and Hoss continued their somewhat boisterous checkers game. “Think about it, Pa. Decklin refused to look at Joe or the Purcells as people. He insisted we not call them by name. Instead, he referred to Joe as a target and a trophy. He referred to Mrs. Purcell as a female, not as a woman. And Billy was—”
“You can’t tell me that’s evidence of a man whose thinking is sound!” Pa shouted.
“It is, Pa!” Adam hollered back with equal vehemence. “He knew his actions were wrong! The only way he could follow through with any of it was by pretending Joe was nothing more than a….” Shaking as he tried to quell three weeks of unspent rage, Adam swallowed the word. It was too repulsive to utter.
“A what?” Joe’s asked softly behind him.
Damn! They’d been too loud, after all. Adam should have asked his father to join him outside. Or he could have just told Pa to pay a visit to Hiram and Paul. Both would have explained it better, if far more clinically than Adam.
“A trophy?” Joe asked. “That’s what he said, isn’t it?”
Adam swallowed again, his eyes still holding to his father’s. “A scalp,” he said before turning to find both of his brothers standing close. “Bradley Decklin couldn’t bear to think of you as anything more than a side of beef standing between him and that hair of yours, because….” The words tasted bitter, and he spat them out mercilessly, unmindful of their effect until Joe paled slightly. And then Adam lost his words altogether.
“Because what?” Joe pressed.
“You already know why.” Hoss met Adam’s gaze and gave a slight shake of his head. You ought to know better, older brother, that shake said, loud and clear. Joe’s just startin’ to be himself again, an’ here you go gettin’ him riled up for no good reason. “Because his mind don’t work right,” Hoss finished before taking hold of Joe’s right arm. “Come on, Joe. You owe me a re-match.”
But Joe wouldn’t be moved. “Adam?”
Adam looked at both of them, and then turned sideways to get his father in his sights, too. “Because he knew what he was doing was wrong. He knew it was evil.”
“Yeah, but, Adam,” Hoss shook his head, “he didn’t think it was evil to the Indians, and he even thought he was an Indian.”
Good and evil are not static, Decklin had insisted.
“Bradley Decklin does not belong in an asylum,” Adam said bluntly. “He belongs at the end of a hangman’s noose. Hiram Wood, Paul Martin and I are going to see to it that’s exactly where he ends up.”
Hoss’s eyes narrowed in disapproval. “But they can’t hang a man when he’s sick. You said it yourself when you were readin’ us that legal mumbo-jumbo about that McNaghten rule.”
“He’s not sick, Hoss.”
“You should’ve spent more time readin’ his journal then, if you think that’s true.”
“Oh, I read it plenty, Hoss. He knew what he was planning was wrong, and he did everything he could to convince himself that it didn’t matter.”
“Because he’s sick!” Pa insisted.
“No! Because he made a calculated decision to let his own misbegotten sense of logic override his sense of humanity!”
Hoss was still unconvinced. “You can’t tell me that ain’t sick. No man in his right mind could—”
“Yes,” Adam countered. “One kind of man could do all of what he did, the kind who knows the difference between good and evil…and chooses evil.”
“Why are we even arguing about this?” Pa asked. “This is absurd. The man is guilty. Isn’t that what matters? Let the judge decide what—”
“No.” Joe’s voice had a tremor to it. And his color was off. Hoss had been right, Adam decided suddenly. He should have waited. He should have— “I believe you, Adam,” Joe went on. “I saw it…in his eyes. When he was standin’ over me, in my room. His eyes looked…I don’t know…like…like…he knew what he wanted. He didn’t look wild or…or rabid. He was….”
“Lucid?” Adam offered.
“I’m sorry, Joe.”
“Because it would be so much easier to accept what he did by just saying he was insane and leaving it at that.”
“Easier to explain maybe. But easier to accept? No. I don’t think that’s possible.” Joe gave him a small smile. And his eyes, deep and green…and open…gave Adam a reprieve from the icy chill of Decklin’s and the angry fire in Pa’s. I believe you, Adam.
You’re wrong again, Pa, Adam thought. That’s what matters. Pa and Hoss just wanted it all to be over. But Adam needed to make it right.
Joe was up before Adam the next morning. He was up, fully dressed and halfway through his breakfast by the time Adam took his own seat at the table.
“What’s this all about?” Adam asked, sharing curious glances with his father and Hoss. “I seem to remember Paul saying you needed at least another week before getting back to light work.”
Clearly, Pa had already initiated a similar conversation. “If you’re so anxious to work, young man,” he said sternly, “you can sort the books for me. I’ve been looking at those numbers for so long I can’t even see straight anymore!”
“Sorry, Pa,” Joe answered with a small, mischievous grin. “I have other plans.”
“Oh you have, have you?” Pa’s tone had softened, but there was a sense of menace within it. “And just what are these plans of yours?”
Joe’s grin remained when he locked eyes with Adam. “I’m going into Virginia City with Adam.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Pa argued. “You know you can’t ride yet, let alone that sort of distance!”
But Joe wasn’t the least bit taken back. “I don’t plan on ridin’ in, Pa. I figure we can take the buggy.”
“No.” The word flew out of Adam’s mouth almost before he knew it was coming. He would have said it, just the same. “That’s an even longer ride in a buggy. I don’t want to lose that much time and you’re not fit enough yet.”
Joe’s grin faded, although Adam was pretty sure his little brother had expected Adam’s argument just as he’d expected Pa’s. “Lose time for what, Adam?” Joe said after a moment. “It’s not like you’re planning to get any chores done. You’re spending so much time in town, Pa’s up to his eyeballs in bookwork and Hoss is having to do three times the chores.”
“Joseph,” Pa scolded quietly.
“Look, Adam,” Joe added, sighing. “I know what you’re doing. It’s no secret. You’re angry and you won’t rest until…well, until the trial’s over and there’s nothing more you can do. But seeing as how it happened to me, I think it’s time I did my own share, don’t you?”
Adam felt his jaw tighten. “The only thing you need to do is get your strength back.”
Joe gave his head a small shake. “No. What I need to do is the same as you. I need to try and figure out why it happened in the first place.”
“And just how do you intend to do that?” Adam knew he sounded bitter. It couldn’t be helped. That was exactly how he felt. Adam had been trying to figure out why ever since that moment when he’d found his brother lying on the ground with an arrow in his chest.
“Well,” Joe shrugged. “The first thing I plan to do is read this journal you all keep talking about.”
“No!” Three voices shot back in unison.
Hoss had watched quietly until that moment, focusing more on his meal than on the way his brothers were trying to out-stubborn one another. But Joe’s mention of that danged journal must have turned his stomach. He threw his fork loudly onto his plate. “Ain’t nothin’ good gonna come out of you readin’ that journal, Joe!”
“I think you’re wrong, Hoss.” Joe’s voice dropped to almost a whisper. “Reading that journal’s about the only way I’m going to know for sure why he singled me out.”
“We’ve already told you everything you need to know,” Adam insisted.
“You’ve only told me what you thought I needed to know. It’s not enough.”
“It has to be.”
Adam realized he didn’t have an answer. He looked into his brother’s eyes and saw something new, something different. For nearly three weeks, Adam had been looking at Joe and seeing the victim of Decklin’s crime and the culmination of Adam’s mistakes, all the things he shouldn’t have done: writing the professor about Joe’s escapades with Sarah Winnemucca; inviting the man into his family’s home; welcoming him despite his failure to provide any sort of advance notice…trusting in him to bring no harm. But now, suddenly, Adam saw Joe as something more. He saw his little brother as a man deserving of the chance to find his own answers, no matter where those answers might lead.
Pa cleared his throat to break the silence. “I’d suggest you both stay home. As Joe correctly pointed out, we need you here, Adam. There is plenty of—”
“Tomorrow,” Adam cut in. “I’ll stay home tomorrow, and then I won’t go back to town until the trial. You have my word on that. But for today, as Joe correctly pointed out, there are things he has the right to see for himself.”
An hour later, feeling his father and Hoss scowling at his back, Adam drove the buggy toward Virginia City with Little Joe at his side…and wondered if he was making the biggest mistake of all.
Adam watched Joe closely during the ride in to Virginia City. For the first few miles, the youngest Cartwright wore an easy smile that almost had Adam smiling, too. Almost. Until Joe made a very simple statement.
“I’ve been cooped up in that house for too long.”
With Joe, those words just proved he was happy for the chance to move forward and start to feel normal again. To Adam, they were a reminder of his own constant, gnawing need to fix something that couldn’t be fixed. The damage that had been done was irrevocable. Sure, Joe was fine…or on the way to being fine. But Billy Purcell had lost his father. And Adam had lost…what? Years of false memories…a relationship he’d been eager to share with his family before…before everything…and trust.
Yes, that’s what he’d truly lost. The one man outside his family he had ever trusted explicitly had defied that trust, had used it against Adam at a cost that far exceeded its own value, a cost Adam’s brother had nearly paid with his life.
“Maybe we ought to ease into things when we get there,” Joe said, stretching one leg out to prop it atop the front of the buggy. He looked at Adam with a genuine—and trusting—grin. “How about we start with a beer over at the Silver Dollar?”
“I was thinking maybe we’d finish with one, instead.” Adam knew he would want to wash out the sour taste the very mention of Bradley Decklin tended to leave on his tongue.
“I was thinking maybe we could do both,” Joe countered, his wink coaxing a smile Adam hadn’t thought possible.
And for a few moments, Adam’s bitterness fell away.
But as they moved further from home, Joe’s impish nature began to fade. His smiles became less frequent and as forced as Adam’s. He also started to shift and twist in his seat, as though he could no longer find a comfortable position.
“I’d suggest the first thing we do,” Adam said after a while, “is find a nice, quiet spot for you to get some rest.”
“You don’t need to treat me like an invalid!” Joe shot back as tense as ever.
Adam didn’t argue. There was no point to agitating Little Joe any more than the ride was already doing. Besides, Adam didn’t have to argue. All he had to do was make alternate plans Joe didn’t need to know about. They wouldn’t stop at the Silver Dollar or any other saloon. They would go straight to Sheriff Coffee’s office. By the time they arrived, Joe would be too tired to complain. And then maybe he could be encouraged to make use of the sheriff’s cot while reading through Decklin’s journal.
Adam had it all pretty well figured out. What he hadn’t figured on was his little brother’s attention getting stuck on Lean Knife’s two men standing like sentries beside the jail. Joe didn’t even notice Adam was pulling up in front until they jerked to a stop. The questioning glance he gave Adam then was easy to avoid when a man hurrying out the door stole the attention of both brothers. Adam recognized him, although he knew Joe wouldn’t. It was Bradley Decklin’s lawyer, Mr. Caleb Jackson.
Jackson’s eyes caught Adam’s and then narrowed into a cold, hard glare before he turned abruptly away and hurried up the street. Adam was still watching Jackson’s retreat when the familiar voice of Hiram Wood called out cheerfully from the sheriff’s doorway.
“Adam Cartwright! Little Joe! Why, I hardly recognize you in that buggy. I could almost say you look positively gentlemanly!”
Curious, Adam jumped down to join Hiram on the walkway, forcing himself to turn his back on Joe’s much slower exit. Considering Joe’s current attitude, ignoring his obvious discomfort was the best thing Adam could do for him, no matter how much discomfort it caused Adam in the process.
“Well, gentlemen.” Hiram gave a slight, gracious bow. “I must say your arrival has been propitiously timed.”
“What’s happened?” Adam asked. “Mr. Jackson doesn’t seem to be sharing in your good spirits this morning.”
“No, and well he wouldn’t. He’s just been fired.”
“Fired?” Adam looked to the empty sidewalk where Jackson had gone. “Decklin found another attorney?”
“No. As a matter of fact—”
“Well, I’ll be!” Sheriff Roy Coffee interrupted when he stepped outside with the circuit judge. “You boys couldn’t a’picked a better time to stop by. You’re savin’ me the trouble of ridin’ out to talk to you.”
Adam shared a confused glance with his brother. “What’s going on?”
“You ain’t gonna believe it, but that boy in there has just given a full confession. Even waived his right to a jury trial.”
“What?” Adam asked, stunned, before another, more important question struck him. “Why?”
“Don’t rightly know why. But Mr. Jackson, Mr. Wood and I have all signed off as witnesses to his confession, right there in front of Judge Waverly.”
“It’s true,” the judge added when Adam’s eyes caught his. “Bradley Decklin has pleaded guilty to the murder of Paul Purcell and the attempted murder of Joseph Cartwright.” His gaze slipped toward Joe and then back again. “There won’t be need of a trial. All that’s left is the sentencing.”
“Yes,” Hiram broke in, “but Decklin has made it very clear he neither expects nor desires the mercy of the court.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Joe asked with a cold edge to his voice that struck Adam as worrisome. From the very beginning, Joe had shown more confusion than anger over what had happened. Everyone else in the house had been angry, even Hop Sing. But Joe…Little Joe had simply wanted to understand how a young gentleman from Boston could turn into a monster who had decided Joe’s only value in life was his scalp…and that without ever having met him.
“He wants to hang,” the judge said, bluntly.
Joe paled noticeably, worrying Adam all the more.
“Frankly,” the judge went on, “the fact that he wants to hang tempts me to sentence him to prison, instead!”
“Prison?” Adam asked. “Not an asylum?”
The judge scoffed. “I can’t sentence a sane murderer to an asylum!”
“So you really think he’s sane,” Joe said softly.
“Yes,” Hiram answered. He took a deep breath, glancing at Adam before returning his attention to Little Joe. “Legally, judgments of sanity are based on whether the defendant recognizes the difference between good and evil, a point which Mr. Decklin clarifies quite well in his journal. Medically, insanity is a chronic disease of the brain that results in derangement or a prolonged change of affections and habits. The evidence here indicates that Mr. Decklin’s affections did not change, but rather he enforced changes in habits based on intellectual reasoning. Nor could we prove—”
“Then why?” Joe interrupted; Adam was sure the only answer Joe had listened to or even needed to hear was, ‘yes’.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Why was he so insistent on doing it if he knew he shouldn’t?”
“His motive appears to have been notoriety. What’s more important from a legal perspective is that he knew attacking you was wrong. He knew it so intrinsically that he recognized the need to think of you and the Purcells not as people but as objects or animals.”
“That’s no explanation,” Joe argued.
“Yes,” a new voice called out from the sheriff’s doorway. “I’m afraid it is.” The professor stepped toward them looking as though he’d aged twenty years since Adam had seen him last. He moved slowly, his shoulders hunched forward. “Mr. Decklin’s sole purpose was to leave his mark in academia. I’ve failed him, Adam.” When his eyes reached Adam’s they held the look of defeat, a look so foreign to the man’s former zeal it made the professor seem an altogether different man than the one Adam had cherished all those years ago. “I’ve failed both of you.” His gaze shifted to Joe. “All of you.” He took a long pull of breath that did nothing to inflate him. “I am so…so very sorry.” Finally he turned in the direction Jackson had gone moments earlier and started to slowly shuffle away.
Adam felt oddly drawn to follow him. Ignoring that feeling was almost as disturbing to him as turning his back on his brother had been. And that in itself disturbed Adam.
“Go ahead, Adam,” Joe said.
“What?” He looked into Little Joe’s eyes, and for the first time in his life honestly didn’t know what he saw there. Perhaps equal parts passion and compassion, rage and fear, and…something else.
“Go after him. Talk to him. You’ve avoided it too long already.”
“I haven’t avoi—”
“Yes, you have. You know you have. Go on and get it over with. Besides, I’ve got other things to do.” Joe looked toward the jail.
“Joe, I don’t want you to—”
“Don’t worry.” Joe’s mouth curled into a mirthless smile. “I’m not planning to read the journal just yet.” He waited a moment before adding, “I just want to have a little talk with Bradley Decklin.”
Adam sat with the professor in the hotel’s restaurant, his eyes straying to the window and his thoughts straying beyond it to the jail he couldn’t see, where Sheriff Coffee had promised to look after Little Joe.
“He’s his own man now, you know,” the professor said.
Adam turned to him, his unspoken question evident in the pull of his brow.
“Your brother,” the professor answered. “He is about the age you were when we met, is he not?”
“Yes.” Adam noticed himself wrapping his hands around the coffee cup in front of him and immediately released his grip, angered at himself for making such a nervous gesture.
“He is quite confident…and competent. You should put more trust in him.”
“I do trust him!” Adam shot back, angrily.
“I said trust in him. He is not a child for you to shield from uncomfortable truths. He needs to find his own answers.”
“Is that what you did with Bradley Decklin?” Adam said, the accusation in his tone unmistakable. “Trust in him to find his own answers?”
The professor’s brows eased upward in a slow show of surprise. “Yes. Yes, perhaps I did. But….” He sighed. “I realize now that young Mr. Decklin never had such confidence as I see in your brother. And…as I saw in you at that age. I was wrong to put my own confidence in him. I don’t know how I could have been so…so blinded.”
“Nor I,” Adam said in a whisper.
“Pardon?” the professor asked.
Adam simply met his eye and said, “Tell me about it…about what you saw in him when you first met.”
Professor Brodermann sat back in his chair, his gaze pulling away as he sought something that could only be revealed from within. “To be honest with you, what I saw in him was arrogance. I took him on because I was reminded of another young man whose unfounded arrogance did not befit him. I suppose I saw what I wanted to see. I misinterpreted his cocky arrogance for something far less…damning.”
“You thought you could open his mind,” Adam said, thinking back to the humiliating stories the professor had told his family three weeks earlier. “And put him in his place.”
The professor looked at Adam…deeply, as though he wanted to reveal something beyond words. “Adam,” he said in a soft, sad tone, “you were arrogant because you thought it necessary. Your frontier upbringing marked you as something less than your classmen. That wasn’t true, of course. Your father raised you to be a gentleman, not a naïve cowpoke. I saw that in you, but you did not. Your attempts to prove yourself something better were misplaced in a show of arrogance that simply did not suit you. I had great faith in you and…great admiration.” He inhaled loudly and sat back again. “When I’d heard that Bradley Decklin hailed from San Francisco, I expected…no, I wanted to find similar character traits in him. But they simply weren’t there. Bradley Decklin’s arrogance was genuine…and bone deep. I would never have been able to cut through it, no matter how hard I tried. But I misread him. More importantly, I misplayed him.”
“You make it all sound like a game.”
“It was…for a time. With you, it was a game of chess, and a fascinating one at that. But with Mr. Decklin, what I mistook for chess was actually a game of poker. For all my calculated moves, he countered with bluffs. And I never even knew.”
The professor’s admission struck home for Adam, making him see the professor far differently than ever before. The professor was a man out of his element, a naïve academic unschooled in the art of poker—a mainstay for ‘frontiersmen’ like Adam…and Bradley Decklin. “Now that you do, what can you tell me about this latest bluff of his?”
“He’s still playing.”
“How can he be? He is in jail, soon to be…to be….” The professor swallowed hard, beads of sweat suddenly marking his high forehead as his face reddened. “Oh, dear. The boy is going to hang, and it’s my fault.”
“It’s his fault, professor, not yours. And I promise you, he is still bluffing.”
“He has dismissed his attorney! He has signed a full confession! By God, Adam! He cannot bluff his way out of the gallows!”
“Don’t be so sure. Judge Waverly is considering denying his request.”
“Decklin said he wants to hang. The judge seems to think giving him what he wants would not be a suitable punishment for what he’s done.”
“If he truly is bluffing, he is taking an awfully dangerous risk.”
“You’re already forgetting what you said about him, professor. He’s cocky. Men like that never believe they’ll be held accountable. And trust me, they never stop playing.”
The professor looked deeply at him once more. “I do, Adam. I do trust you. In fact, I trust you more than I trust myself anymore.”
Again, Adam saw something different in the man before him, something very…human. “Then how about we work together to end this game of his once and for all?”
“By playing his bluff.”
Two hours after leaving the professor at the hotel, Adam returned to Sheriff Coffee’s office, surprised to find only one Paiute sentry standing guard in the alleyway when two had been present since Decklin had first been brought in. It was almost as surprising to see Joe resting on the porch. Little Joe was reclining in a chair with his feet stretched out in front of him. One ankle was crossed over the other and his hat was pulled low over his eyes.
“You just gonna stand there and stare at me,” Joe said without moving, “or are you gonna tell me where you’ve been all this time?”
Startled, Adam cleared his throat. “So you are awake.”
“Of course, I’m awake. How’d you expect me to sleep sitting in a hard chair like this?”
“I wouldn’t exactly call that ‘sitting.’”
Attempting a deep breath, Joe stopped before his lungs were filled. He cringed, holding the air he’d taken in until whatever had pained him began to subside. Adam felt just as relieved as Little Joe must have been when Joe let that air out again. Then Joe lifted his hat and stiffly pulled himself upright. “Well, I wassitting when I started. But you took a whole lot longer than I’d figured you would.”
Adam barely stopped himself from asking why Joe hadn’t bothered to make use of the sheriff’s cot. “Sorry,” he said instead. “I had some things I needed to work out.”
“What kind of things?”
“First,” Adam planted one foot on the seat of the chair beside his brother and rested his arms on his upraised knee, “I’d like to hear what you and Decklin talked about.”
A trail of emotion quickly crossed Joe’s features, ending with a downward pull on his brows. “I’m not really sure,” he admitted.
“Did you read the journal?”
Joe shook his head slowly. “I couldn’t.”
“Let me guess: What he said bothered you enough to steer clear of it.”
“I suppose you might say that. But not in the way you think.” Joe paused, looking out into the street before meeting Adam’s gaze. Then he gave a small smile and shrugged, looking away again. “He wants me to read his journal, Adam. And that’s…that’s why I can’t.”
Sighing, Adam nodded, although Joe wasn’t looking to see the gesture. “I see.”
“Seems like,” Joe went on, “nothing can be my decision in all this.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You, Pa and Hoss don’t want me to read it. Decklin does. No matter what I want, I’m gonna end up doing what someone else wants.”
Adam studied his brother. “You’re still making a choice,” he offered.
“What?” Adam prompted when Joe said nothing further.
“You know why he chose me?”
“I told you what he wrote,” Adam shot back defensively…instinctively…his stomach churning at something the professor had told him, something that somehow made sense, even when it had no sense to it at all. “It was my fault, my letter to—”
“Stop it, Adam!” Joe jumped to his feet, only the creases at his eyes reflecting the pain that action awakened. “You didn’t do anything wrong!” Joe added. “Maybe the letter gave him an idea, but it wasn’t your fault the professor shared it with him. And I’m tired of talking about that. It’s…it’s him.” Joe’s tone softened, his breaths coming shorter. “Not you. Not even the professor. It’s Bradley Decklin.”
“Joe—” Adam stopped himself from telling his brother to sit down.
“He’s sick, Adam. You say he’s not. Even the professor says it. But no one could think like that. No one.”
“What’d he tell you?”
“He said….” Joe shook his head and swiped his hand across his hair. “We…Sarah and me…we could have been his Romeo and Juliet.” He flashed Adam a brief, nervous smile.
And there it was. Adam closed his eyes for a moment, wishing he could still shield his brother from those uncomfortable truths the professor had mentioned. “That, too,” Adam added sadly, “was an idea he’d taken from my letter. I’m the one who first compared the two of you to Shakespeare’s young lovers.” When he met Joe’s eyes again, he was surprised to see no anger there, only more confusion.
“We were never in love,” Joe said, speaking as though it was a fact Adam should have known all along. “We never had the chance to—”
“I know, Joe. I know. But I made the comparison, nonetheless. And that’s why he went after you. He finally explained it all to Professor Brodermann. In Decklin’s twisted…translation…he decided if Sarah couldn’t have you beside her, she could at least have a…part of you,” Adam said those last, hardest words through nearly clenched teeth, “to keep with her always.”
Joe shook his head, as puzzled as ever.
“I’m so sorry, Joe.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, you didn’t do anything wrong?” But there seemed to be less conviction to Joe’s words than before. His thoughts had turned inward, his gaze, distant. “Anyway,” Joe added, shaking himself back to the moment, “if he did try to give this scalp of mine to Sarah, she would have looked at him like he was the devil or something.” Joe smiled, his tone suddenly lighter despite the uncertainty in his eyes.
“I’m sure that’s true,” Adam answered. “I don’t see how he would ever have left Winnemucca’s camp alive.”
Joe nodded thoughtfully. “I don’t know if he would have cared.”
“Why do you say that?”
“He just…. It’s like he wants to die. He said something about the stories that survive the ages…. I don’t know, something about it being only the great tragedies that are remembered. He wants his life story to be remembered, Adam. And he’s got some crazy notion that the more tragic it is, the more memorable it’s likely to be.”
“In a way, he’s right.” Adam met Joe’s bewildered stare, and then sighed heavily. “That’s what he’s after, Joe. Immortality.” Adam closed his eyes again, remembering a passage Professor Brodermann had shared with him, something he’d said Decklin had referred to during several of their recent conversations. “This is what is sad,” Adam quoted aloud from memory, “when one contemplates human life, that so many live out their lives in quiet lostness. They live away from themselves and vanish like shadows. Their immortal souls are blown away, and they are not disquieted by the question of its immortality, because they are already disintegrated before they die.”
Joe stared at him, waiting for an explanation.
“It’s a passage from a Danish philosopher,” Adam offered, “Soren Kierkegaard. The professor told me Decklin seems to have become obsessed with those words.”
Joe shrugged, clearly oblivious to the point Adam was trying to make.
“The one thing on Earth Bradley Decklin fears the most is the idea of disintegrating, of losing himself and being forgotten. He needs for his life to have meaning, not just to himself, but to the world. If his death is tragic…if he hangs for an offense that he believes academia will recognize as a noble cause, then he will be remembered, maybe even martyred.”
Joe nodded as though he understood. “That’s the way a sane man thinks, alright.”
Adam gave his brother a sad smile, undaunted by his sarcasm. “Tragic stories do get remembered across generations. Of course, Decklin didn’t come here looking for a tragedy. He came to make a great philosophical discovery, to make himself remembered for showing the world that the only real difference between Indians and us is rooted in the language of culture. He believed that discovery would give him immortality.”
“He was going to make this great discovery by killing me and giving Sarah my scalp.”
Adam inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Failing that, he decided a tragic end would be just as enduring.”
“And you still say he’s not insane.”
“I’m certain of it. His journal makes it very clear he knew exactly what he was doing and why.”
“It all comes back to that blasted journal, doesn’t it? But if I read it, I’m doing what he wants. And I can’t, Adam. I can’t give him what he wants.”
“That’s your choice, Joe. Your decision. It happens to be one I agree with.”
“He smiled when he told me to read it.” Joe sighed. “It was like…like he already knew I would do just as he said.”
“He’s too arrogant to think otherwise.”
Joe looked at him again, this time nodding to show that at least part of their discussion was making sense. “If he hangs, what then? Is he going to have that same sick smile when….” Joe bit off the rest of his words.
“Maybe, but….” Adam noticed Mrs. Purcell walking toward them.
“But what?” Joe asked.
“I’m hoping,” Adam started, returning his attention to his brother, “we can drive that arrogance out of him; force him to see that the tragedy in all of this lies in the people he hurt, not in him. I intend to show him that the way a man is remembered is based on the perceptions of the people around him, not his own.”
“Little Joe!” Mrs. Purcell greeted cheerfully as she climbed the stairs. “It’s so good to see you up and about!”
But when her eyes met Adam’s, the shadows there made it clear Bradley Decklin had wounded her to the core. Adam could only hope what he’d asked her to do now would help her to find even the smallest bit of healing…and Little Joe to find enough satisfaction to quiet his search for answers that could never be complete.
Mrs. Purcell was the first to enter the sheriff’s office. Behind her, Adam raised an eyebrow at his brother and extended his hand toward the door, his way of saying it would be a good idea for Joe to go in as well. He wished he had time to provide an explanation, but Joe would understand soon enough.
The moment they stepped inside, Adam was happy to find Judge Waverly already there, and surprised to discover Lean Knife there as well. Both brows raised now, Adam nodded at the Paiute while Mrs. Purcell offered her greetings to the sheriff and judge. Equally surprising, Lean Knife gave a terse nod in return before crossing his arms at his chest and pulling his back straight to listen to the discussion soon to follow.
“Mrs. Purcell,” Roy said, stepping around his desk. “I’m sure sorry to trouble you like this.”
“I understand the need for such formalities, sheriff.” Her glance toward Adam made it clear she knew this was not entirely a necessary formality. But she also knew the intent, and it suited her just fine.
Roy cleared his throat. “I reckon so, ma’am. I’ve made a fresh pot of coffee, if anyone is so inclined.” He was clearly not surprised when no one accepted. “Alright then, I suppose I might as well offer some up to my prisoner, if you’ll all just give me a moment.”
Joe looked Adam’s way, his brows drawn down to show he knew there was a charade taking place, but had no idea why. Adam nodded back. Patience, little brother, he thought, even while he felt guilty for failing to consult with Joe before putting the charade into play.
Seems like nothing can be my decision in all this, Joe had complained only moments before.
I’ll make it up to you, Joe. Adam hoped his brother could read the vow in his eyes. But when Sheriff Coffee opened the door to the cells, calling out his offer of coffee to Bradley Decklin, Joe tensed and turned away, his full attention given over to the man who’d drawn him into a twisted, deadly path toward immortality.
“Why, thank you, sheriff,” Decklin answered, sounding more like a visitor than a prisoner, his tone calm and almost pleasant. “Yes, a cup of coffee would be splendid.”
Adam saw him come into view, moving to the corner of the cell directly opposite the open door. Their eyes met an instant later, and Decklin smiled like a man who knew he was in control. Adam smiled back with equal confidence.
Moments later, with the door to the cells left open, Decklin remained where he stood, sipping the coffee Roy had handed to him through the bars and studying the small group gathered around the sheriff’s desk.
“Mrs. Purcell,” Judge Waverly began, pulling out a piece of paper Adam had already come to recognize, “as I believe Adam Cartwright has made you aware, Mr. Decklin has signed a full confession and waived his right to a jury trial.”
With another glance Adam’s way, the woman nodded.
“All that remains,” the judge went on, “are the formalities of sentencing and making arrangements for the distribution of his property.”
“Yes, judge, I understand,” Mrs. Purcell answered politely.
“Very well. Then I would like to read to you his confession, if I may.”
At her silent nod, Judge Waverly turned to Joe. “This affects you, as well, Mr. Cartwright.”
Joe met Adam’s gaze, but quickly returned his attention to the judge, not waiting for Adam’s response before giving his own, brief nod of agreement—his own decision, Adam was happy to realize.
Next, the judge looked toward Lean Knife. “There is also the mention of your tribe, Mr. Lean Knife.”
The Paiute’s eyes narrowed, but he, too, nodded.
Finally, the judge cleared his throat, settled his glasses in place, and began to read the words Bradley Decklin himself had written. “It is with a heavy heart that I humbly confess to the murder of Paul Abraham Purcell and the attempted murder of Joseph Francis Cartwright. The crime against Mr. Cartwright was, in fact, premeditated. The crime against Mr. Purcell was an act of opportunity. I plead guilty and hold myself fully accountable to both. I shall no longer require an attorney, and I make no request for leniency. Based on the brutal nature of these crimes, I neither beseech nor expect forgiveness. I make no excuses. My goal in carrying out these acts was grand, if misguided. I assure you, however, that my sanity remains sound.”
The judge paused, looking to those gathered around him. Adam saw Joe’s eyes dart nervously around as well before landing on Adam’s and settling there as the judge continued.
“I ask you not,” the judge read further, “to accept Professor George Brodermann’s request to question my ability to recognize the difference between good and evil. I am quite capable of making such judgments in the context of the civilization and society among which I was raised. It is within this context that I am labeled, and rightfully so, a criminal.”
The judge paused again, focusing his attention on Lean Knife before reading on. “I can, however, make no such judgments in the context of Paiute tribesmen. It is within this context that I have failed utterly. I believed myself capable of defining a pure translation while the breadth of my knowledge regarding the language of the culture was yet thin, and far from complete.” The judge waited then, expecting a reply from Lean Knife.
“What,” the Paiute asked after a moment, “is meaning?”
Adam was the one who answered. “He’s saying he thought he knew what it meant to be a Paiute. He thought he understood what your people consider to be acts of worthiness and honor, but he’s admitting he was wrong.”
Lean Knife’s responding glare was not meant for Adam. “Deck-lin know nothing of Paiute honor! Deck-lin dishonor wannnga’a, brother of Lean Knife!”
“Yes,” Adam acknowledged. “And he will be punished.”
“White man punishment is weak,” Lean Knife spat back.
“Different, perhaps,” Adam said, “but death by hanging is not a weak punishment.”
“Death by hanging is an easy death.”
“If I may continue?” the judge interrupted, looking at both Adam and Lean Knife to make sure they said nothing further. Then he cleared his throat once more and continued reading. “I pray that your decisions regarding sentencing shall be quick and severe. I go to the gallows willingly. Regardless of the nature of my final sentencing, please provide all funds and possessions of value that I currently hold to the family of Mr. Purcell. Should it please the court, I urge you also to extend my sincere apologies to the families of both victims for the grief and suffering they have endured as a result of my actions, and also to the Paiute tribe under the leadership of Chief Winnemucca, for making assumptions that impeded my learning of their ways and caused me to misrepresent them libelously and violently. With deepest regrets, Bradley Hershel Decklin.”
The judge took off his glasses, setting them carefully on the sheriff’s desk. “Mr. Lean Knife, white man’s justice, as you have named it, accepts this confession as a full admission of guilt. Mr. Decklin has admitted to the crimes of murder and attempted murder against white men, and also to a crime of libel against the Paiutes. In other words, he originally claimed his actions followed Paiute ways and is now admitting that the things he did were wrong, even among Paiutes. Do you under—”
“Words!” Lean Knife shot back. “Just words! When punish?”
“I will hold a sentencing hearing tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow Deck-lin will hang?”
“No. Tomorrow we will decide how he will be punished.”
“You decide Deck-lin hang.” Lean Knife nodded to indicate his people would accept nothing less from white man’s justice against the man who dishonored Chief Winnemucca’s tribe, and particularly Lean Knife’s own brother.
“Perhaps.” Judge Waverly turned anxiously away. “Mrs. Purcell?” he said then.
“As you heard, Mr. Decklin is leaving his possessions of value to you. We’ve yet to determine exactly what that means in terms of financial assets, but there is one item the sheriff is holding that can arguably be considered a possession of value.”
Adam looked at Decklin while the judge picked up the blood spattered journal.
“Editors of the Territorial Enterprise,” the judge explained, “and several other newspapers extending as far east as Boston have offered to purchase the publishing rights for this journal authored by Mr. Decklin and providing details of the planning and execution of his crimes.”
Decklin’s smile grew. Adam did not look away. He knew that smile was soon to change.
“This journal has therefore proved to be a possession of value,” the judge went on, “and, by Mr. Decklin’s own written conditions, it now belongs to you.”
Decklin’s smile vanished. “No!” he shouted. “Judge! That journal is meant to go to Professor Brodermann! He’s supposed to—”
“Your confession,” the judge answered loudly, “includes no provision for this journal or any other item under your previous ownership, all of which, by the letter of the law and the stipulations of your own documented statement, the signing of which was witnessed by your own attorney and myself, now rightfully belong to Mrs. Purcell.”
Decklin’s gaze grew cold and sickly.
“Does it matter to you,” Adam asked the prisoner, “whether it’s Mrs. Purcell or Professor Brodermann who benefits from the sale and publication of your life’s work?” He was pleased to see Decklin’s shoulders pull back in haughty approval.
“Sell it?” Mrs. Purcell said then. “Why on earth would I sell something so vile? He killed my husband and…and wrote about it! My heavens! I wouldn’t dream of profiting by….” She stopped to calm her breathing. “Is it truly mine now, judge?”
“And I can do anything with it that I desire?”
“Then will you give it to me now, please?”
When the judge handed her the journal, she took hold of it with a lacy handkerchief, not allowing even her gloved hands to touch it. Then she rose from her seat, strode across the room to Sheriff Coffee’s pot-bellied stove and opened the door.
“No,” Decklin said softly. “No. You wouldn’t. You couldn’t possibly….”
She looked toward him, her jaw set in an angry line. Then she returned her attention to the fire Sheriff Coffee had so recently kindled to brew that fresh pot of coffee of his…and she tossed the journal inside.
“No!” Decklin screamed out. His own coffee cup shattered on the floor at his feet as he grabbed hold of the iron bars standing between him and the stove. There was nothing he could do to save the single most valuable item he had ever possessed or would ever possess, the journal Adam had aptly identified as his life’s work.
Even Lean Knife’s staunch features softened in approval at the horror now evident in Bradley Decklin’s sky blue eyes.
Joe didn’t like to watch a man hang, even when the man deserved it. If any man deserved hanging, it was Bradley Decklin. But that didn’t mean Joe wanted to watch it happen. He had to, though. Adam didn’t want to watch it, either, but he didn’t have any more of a choice than Joe.
It was all on account of the professor. Professor Brodermann just couldn’t get it out of his head that he owed something to Bradley Decklin. Joe had heard Adam try to talk him out of it, but the professor kept saying he was the closest thing to family Decklin had way out there in Nevada. And a man couldn’t turn his back on family, even if someone in that family turned out to be a cold-blooded killer.
He was a stubborn man, that professor. Stubborn and honorable. That’s probably why Adam had liked him so much back in his college days. Adam didn’t like the professor anymore, though. Neither did Pa and Hoss. They all blamed him for sending Joe outside without knowing what Decklin had planned. But Joe didn’t blame him. Not really. It was clear the professor figured Bradley Decklin was like a son to him, and a father ought to be able to trust his sons not to go around killing people for no good reason.
Joe tried to imagine what his own pa would do if Joe or one of his brothers did something as bad, as unforgivable as what Decklin had done. It wasn’t likely, of course. In fact, Joe was sure it was downright impossible. But…what if? Well, it would probably break Pa’s heart—or maybe turn it cold. But Joe still figured Pa would do just what the professor was doing. He would stay to the end. He wouldn’t let his son die alone.
That was why Joe couldn’t help but feel something in his heart for the old professor. He wasn’t a bad man. Maybe the professor had chosen a bad son, but that didn’t mean he agreed with what Decklin had done. In fact, watching how the professor stood by Bradley Decklin, no matter what, made it easy for Joe to imagine him doing the same for Adam all those years ago—under far different circumstances, of course. It made Joe glad to think the professor had been like a father to Adam back when Joe’s oldest brother was clear on the other side of the country and didn’t have Pa to guide him along.
Joe even felt sorry for the professor, knowing Adam couldn’t see all that good in him anymore. But at least Adam didn’t abandon him, either. It was like Adam was doing for the professor what the professor had done for him in college. Adam was looking after him, giving him advice and making sure he was okay. Maybe Adam didn’t much like the professor now, but Joe was pretty sure his brother still saw the man as family. And that’s why Adam had to go to town to watch the hanging, because the professor had to stand by Bradley Decklin. And Joe had to stand by Adam. And…well, three days after Mrs. Purcell had burned the journal, Joe’s whole family ended up making a special trip to town for the occasion.
Chief Winnemucca was there too, standing alongside Lean Knife and four other Paiute braves. There was another man standing away from them who looked like a Paiute but wore a tattered and too short gray wool suit. Must be Lean Knife’s brother, Joe decided; and he found himself hoping the tribe would take him back. He was family, after all.
Looking around at the disturbingly happy crowd, Joe was glad he couldn’t find Mrs. Purcell or her son. They didn’t need to see this. Poor Billy would probably have nightmares for the rest of his life, after what he’d seen happen to his father. Joe knew what it would be like. The vision of Joe’s mother falling from her horse still visited him in the night now and then, all these years later. But her death had been…easy, as Lean Knife would’ve called it, compared with what had happened to Billy’s father. Joe hoped the boy might forget; he even prayed for it. But he doubted it was likely.
An anxious murmur beside the jailhouse pulled Joe’s attention to where Sheriff Coffee was finally bringing Bradley Decklin out to the gallows built especially for him. Joe’s fingers curled anxiously into loose fists. He tried to swallow, but found his throat grown dry. He didn’t want to look. He didn’t want to meet Bradley Decklin’s gaze. Somehow though, he knew it was inevitable. And when it happened, when Decklin’s eyes met his, he saw something that looked a lot like satisfaction. Then Decklin’s gaze shifted toward the professor, and that look of satisfaction grew stronger, pulling the corners of his lips into a small, tight smile.
And Joe understood. Even though the journal was gone, Decklin would still get his immortality. Adam said the professor had promised to tell Decklin’s story. He planned to write all about what had driven Decklin to do the things he’d done. The professor was also going to explain where Decklin had gone wrong, but Joe wondered if maybe Decklin didn’t know that part. Or maybe he just didn’t care. It was only about immortality, after all. That’s all it had ever been about.
The crowd got strangely quiet when Bradley Decklin started to climb the stairs leading up to the rope that would choke the life out of him. It was so quiet Joe could hear every step Decklin took, each footfall clattering against the fresh wood planks like a slow, mournful drumbeat. Joe half expected the Paiutes to match the rhythm with a somber chant. He looked toward Lean Knife’s brother once more, but the man’s jaw was locked tight.
“Professor?” Adam’s voice pulled Joe’s attention back to his own family.
Professor Brodermann swayed where he stood, and Adam wrapped a hand around his arm to steady him. “I’m fine,” the professor said as he dabbed a handkerchief at his forehead.
Someone else started talking then. It was the preacher, Joe realized. He read something from the Bible that Joe couldn’t quite hear over the thumping of his own heart, the neighing of a nearby horse, the ragged breaths of the professor…and Adam’s softly spoken insistence that the professor find a place to sit down.
“…any last words?” the preacher said in a loud voice Joe couldn’t help but hear.
Joe’s gaze was drawn up to Bradley Decklin. He stood high above the crowd with his back straight and his expression calm and untroubled. He still wore the touch of a smile, making him look like he had all the power in the world, like he knew his immortality was assured. Joe figured maybe that was why the crowd got so quiet. There was something about the way Decklin walked, and now the way he stood that was unsettling.
“It was my sole wish,” Decklin said in a loud, clear voice, “to unite our two peoples, the white man and the Paiutes, to show the world our differences are nothing more than a matter of interpretation. Today you stand together, and my heart soars with hope for the future. May God’s forgiveness touch each and every one of you.”
“Forgive us?” Pa hissed at Joe’s shoulder. “That man is impossible, even now.”
“It’s almost as though he has begun to believe he’s the messiah,” the professor said then in a rasp of a voice, “If his hands weren’t tied behind him, I imagine he would try to bless the crowd.”
The statement surprised Joe enough to turn his attention to the man standing at his back, beside Adam. Joe wasn’t alone, either. His whole family was looking at the professor, as much for the insensitive words he’d spoken as for the odd pallor to his skin.
“George,” Pa said, “I think Adam’s right. You really ought to sit down. There’s no need for you to—”
“No,” the professor insisted. “It won’t be much longer. And I simply…I cannot….” His face went ashen, and his knees began to fold beneath him.
Hoss took hold of him before he fell, but with no chair or wagon standing nearby to set him on, all Hoss could really do was lower him gently to the ground.
“Has anyone seen Paul Martin?” Adam asked the small crowd that had begun to form around them.
“I’ll find him,” Joe offered. He pushed his way through to the sidewalk, climbing up to get a better vantage. Still, he could not see the doctor. A quick glance at the professor told him the man had passed out. Pa was fanning his face with a newspaper someone must have given him, Adam was loosening the buttons of his collar, and Hoss had taken up looking for the doc on the other side of the crowd.
“Doc Martin?” Joe called out to anyone who could hear him. “Does anyone know where Doc Martin is?”
No one responded. Most people were still focused on the gallows.
The gallows! Joe jumped from the porch. The jolt sent a wave of pain through his chest. His ribs were still sore; that’s all it was. Ignoring it, he pressed through the crowd. He got bumped and jostled every step of the way until the pain in his chest grew sharp enough to catch his breath. By then, he was at the base of the stairs. He refused to let the pain stop him from climbing up.
“Sheriff!” Joe called out to the platform, noticing only then that the rope had already been pulled tight around Bradley Decklin’s neck. Joe could almost believe his own face went as ashen as the professor’s when Decklin looked smugly his way. “Do you see the doc out there?” Joe said past him, hoping his voice sounded stronger than he felt. “It’s the professor. Something’s wrong!”
Sheriff Coffee quickly looked over to where Joe’s family had been standing, and then slowly looked back toward Joe. A sad shake of his head told Joe it was too late for the doctor.
Joe climbed the last step and looked out to find the small crowd around the professor had parted, moving away to leave the old man lying still and alone. Pa was no longer waving that newspaper. Even Adam had risen from the professor’s side. The set of Adam’s shoulders told Joe it was true. Professor Brodermann was dead.
Bradley Decklin saw it, too.
And for once, Joe found himself wishing he could see Decklin’s eyes, because he knew Professor Brodermann’s lifeless body was the last thing on Earth those eyes would ever see. The hangman pulled the lever. Decklin disappeared through the trap door. And his immortal soul was blown away.
Spent, Joe sat down on the stairs and listened to the heavy pull on the rope swaying beneath the platform. He realized then that hanging was not the easy death Lean Knife had said it would be, not for Bradley Decklin.
Casting a look toward the Paiutes, Joe met Lean Knife’s eye and answered the brave’s nod with one of his own. Then he noticed Chief Winnemucca standing in front of the Paiute wearing white man’s clothes. The chief reached out a hand and set it upon the other’s shoulder. A moment later, they walked away. Together.
When evening fell, Joe was bothered by Adam’s silence. It wasn’t unusual for Adam to keep his feelings closely guarded, to hold quiet about all the thoughts roiling around in his head. Joe was bothered, just the same.
After Adam excused himself from the dinner table to lock himself up behind his own bedroom door, Joe came to figure his concern for Adam was probably selfish—because Joe couldn’t guard his feelings, no matter how hard he tried, and that evening Joe felt an overwhelming need to talk things out with his oldest brother.
Joe tried to play checkers with Hoss, but his thoughts weren’t on the board in front of him. Hoss beat Joe so easily he couldn’t even revel in the win.
“Dadburn it, Joe,” Hoss complained. “If you’re gonna play, play! Don’t just move your pieces any old place.”
“Sorry, Hoss. I guess I’m tired.” His eyes moved to the stairway.
“Go to bed, son,” Pa said, pulling down the paper he was reading to look at Joe. “It’s been a hard day, and you’re still on the mend, you know.”
Joe nodded, giving his pa a small smile. “I guess you’re right.” Then he said his goodnights and headed up the stairs. But he paused at his own door. Hesitant to go inside, his gaze moved further down the hallway to where Adam had locked himself away. And he started to wonder…. What if Adam stayed that way, locked up and silent? Maybe Joe wasn’t the only one who needed to talk. Maybe Adam needed that too; he just didn’t know it yet.
Moving to his brother’s door, Joe knocked softly. “Adam?”
Silence greeted him.
He was about to knock again when Adam finally said, “Come in, Joe,” sounding more tired than Joe felt himself.
Inside, he found Adam sitting at his desk with a pen in hand, a sheaf of blank paper in front of him and several crumpled up pieces on the floor near his feet.
“I just….” Suddenly Joe didn’t know what he wanted to say. He stumbled for words, finally settling on, “I wanted to say…I’m sorry about the professor.”
Adam looked at him for a long while, his gaze shifting from uncertain to…appreciative, Joe decided when his brother took a deep breath and allowed a small smile to form as he let it out again. “You never could bring yourself to blame him.”
“Why would I?” Joe sat down on his brother’s bed. “He made a mistake, and then he blamed himself enough for everyone. He didn’t need me to blame him, too.”
“I suppose he didn’t need all the blame I gave him, either. But I just…I couldn’t help myself.”
“Maybe that’s because you blamed yourself, even more. And I know I’ve said it a hundred times already, but you didn’t make any mistakes worth blaming yourself for.”
“Inviting him here was a mistake. Trusting him was a mistake.”
“No. You’re wrong, Adam. He didn’t betray you. He just made an error in judgment. I ought to know, seeing as how I’ve made a few of those of my own, as you and Pa are always quick to point out.”
Joe grinned, but Adam didn’t seem to notice. He just sighed and looked down at his hands. “The professor’s error in judgment was a pretty big one, Joe.”
“This time,” Joe responded, pulling Adam’s head up to send a puzzled look Joe’s way. “He didn’t make a mistake in judgment when he took you under his wing back in Boston.”
Adam smiled again, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m not so sure about that.”
“I am. And I’m glad you had him to watch over you then.” Joe watched his brother shake his head slowly and then asked, “How many years did he teach there?”
“I don’t know. Twenty-five, maybe.”
“And how many students did he help in all those years? Students who deserved his help, who did good by him?”
Adam’s smile did reach his eyes then. “A lot,” he answered, cocking his head to the side. “At least a hundred. Probably more.”
“Then I can understand why you’d want us to meet him. And I’m glad we got the chance to.”
The smile vanished. “How can you be glad after what happened to you? After what happened to Mr. Purcell?”
Despite the weight of Adam’s question, Joe chuckled. “I didn’t say I was glad about Decklin. But you didn’t invite Decklin. You invited the professor, and that was the right thing to do. It was a good thing to do. Don’t blame yourself for things you couldn’t expect and you couldn’t control. I seem to remember you telling me that a time or two.”
Joe watched Adam’s shoulders relax. “You know, Joe,” Adam said after a moment, “Professor Brodermann was an awfully lucky man.”
“Lucky.” Adam nodded. “He’s as lucky as the rest of us that Decklin’s arrow didn’t kill you.” He paused, his eyes on Joe but his gaze clearly somewhere else, somewhere deep inside him. “Because you just helped me to realize what it is he should be remembered for.” He took another deep breath, returned his attention to the paper on his desk, and dipped his pen into the inkwell. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a eulogy to write.”
Bothered by his brother’s sudden dismissal, Joe rose slowly. He took a few steps toward the door, his gaze trailing to his brother’s back. “Well…g’night then,” he said softly, scratching his head before turning his own back on his brother.
“Goodnight, Joe,” Adam answered. But just as Joe reached his hand out for the latch, Adam added, “Oh, and Joe?”
“Thank you,” Adam added. He had turned around and was looking at Joe again, the smile he wore real enough to show his own wounds were finally starting to heal.
Joe smiled back, realizing only then that he really was tired—maybe even tired enough to finally avoid the nightmares that had been plaguing him since Bradley Decklin’s arrow had first struck home.