Summary: Heroism comes in all shapes and sizes, as the good folks of Virginia City discover when Sam Dawson and his notorious gang of outlaws hold the whole town under siege—all because Joe tried to help a woman in need and Adam was thirsty for a beer.
Word Count: 37,000
A quick stop at the saloon, that’s all it was supposed to have been. Adam had wanted a beer. Just one beer. It was the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, in the middle of summer, and he’d figured one beer was not going to prevent him from getting home with the mail in time to finish his work at the corral.
He should have quenched his thirst on his canteen instead. By the time he’d awkwardly climbed back into the saddle, he could barely see out of his left eye, swollen as it was. And that wasn’t the whole of it. He jaw was throbbing, his nose was bleeding and he was concerned he might have cracked a rib or two. Still, what troubled him most was what could happen to Little Joe.
A drunkard had slammed his fist into Adam’s jaw back at the Bucket of Blood simply because he’d heard Adam’s last name was Cartwright. Adam had tried to be civil about it. He’d talked to the man like a father with an unruly child. Then he’d made the mistake of telling the stranger to go sleep it off.
“Don’t you go tellin’ me what to do!” the drunk had challenged. “That’s all you Cartwrights ever do, ain’t it? Like that Little Joe tellin’ my girl she don’t need me.”
Sighing in frustration—believing that Little Joe’s insatiable interest in the fairer sex had simply raised the ire of a rival—Adam had continued his attempts at rationalizing with the irrational drunkard. “Sounds to me like you need to have this discussion with my brother. I’d still suggest you sober up before you go and do something you’ll regret.”
“I’ll tell you what I already regret,” the man had shouted back at him. “I regret I didn’t put a bullet in that no good weaselin’ piece’a scum when I had the chance.”
A crowd had formed around the two by then. From the sound of their laughter, Adam knew Joe would be facing a good amount of ribbing next time he went to town.
“Look mister,” he’d said as politely as he could, considering the anger that had been welling up within him since the man’s fist had first made contact with his jaw, “if you want to insult my brother, at least do it to his face so he can have the pleasure of defending himself.”
“Why?” the man had shot back. “You too yellow to take it for him?”
“No. I just happen to know he would find it more satisfying to handle you himself.”
Adam had been ready for the man’s fist then. He’d grabbed the drunk’s arm and started twisting it. “I’m going to tell you this one more time. Go sleep it off before you do something you’ll regret.”
“All I regret’s my brother’s not here right now to blow you away.”
“Yeah.” The drunk’s smile at that moment had held way too much pleasure in it for the position he’d been in. “Sure you’ve heard of him. Name’s Sam. Sam Dawson.”
It’s amazing how quiet a crowd can become when shock seeps in. That saloon might as well have been deserted at that moment, silent as it got. Dead silent.
The drunk had been right. Everyone knew Sam Dawson. His face was on wanted posters clear across the territory. The Dawson Gang was about the deadliest group you could ever have the misfortune of encountering. And this man—this drunk who had just made it known he’d like to see Adam dead and was holding a mean grudge against Little Joe—this man was Sam Dawson’s brother.
The same shock that had silenced the crowd had not left Adam unaffected. He’d dropped his guard enough to let Sam Dawson’s drunk, grudge-bearing brother squirm away from him. An instant later Adam had felt that fist again as it cracked against his nose. Adam had known then he would have to let the fight start in order to end it. And the sooner he ended it, the sooner he could get home and warn Joe about the trouble that was surely on the way.
But ending the fight had been no easy task. And now Adam was finding it increasingly difficult to stay in the saddle. His damaged ribs were stealing his breath and his head was spinning. Dawson was in even worse shape. Adam had left him lying unconscious on the floor. Eventually, though, the drunken brother of the meanest outlaw in the territory was bound to rouse himself enough to ride out and fetch Sam Dawson. How long before the Ponderosa was invaded by the Dawson Gang? Sam Dawson would probably be as eager to avenge Adam’s fight with his brother as his brother had been to get revenge against Little Joe.
It didn’t help that Sheriff Coffee was out of town and the coward he’d deputized had refused to go anywhere near the Bucket of Blood the minute Adam had told him Sam Dawson’s brother was there.
Adam’d had no choice but to ride home fast and hard to warn his family—no matter how much pain it caused him. Joe’s life might well depend on it.
“Come on, Hoss!” Joe looked from the checkerboard to his brother sitting across from him on the porch. “Move already!”
Pursing his lips appraisingly, Hoss’s eyes suddenly narrowed. “Hey! What happened to that piece there?”
“The one that was sittin’ right there.” Hoss pointed to a square on Joe’s side of the board.
“I don’t remember seeing a checker there. Now come on and make your move so we can finish the game. I’ve got work to do.”
“We both got work to do.”
“So make your move.”
“I wanna know what happened to my checker.”
“Oh, for—” Joe’s complaint was cut short when Adam came riding into the yard at a full gallop.
“Pa!” Adam hollered out. “Joe!” He dismounted fast—too fast—and lost his footing the instant he touched the ground.
Joe was already running toward him, alerted as much by Adam’s unnatural arrival as by the blood spattered across the front of his torn shirt. “What happened?” Taking hold of Adam’s arm, Joe reached across his back to support him. “Who did this to you?”
Adam looked toward him with one, unfocused eye; the other was swollen shut. His mouth opened wordlessly. Joe couldn’t tell if he’d forgotten what he was going to say or he simply didn’t have the strength to say it.
Then Pa called out from the front door, “Adam!”
And then suddenly Hoss was there as well, taking hold of Adam’s other arm. “What in tarnation happened?”
“The Dawson Gang.” Adam’s answer came in a rasp. “They’re….” The rest of his words were lost as he went limp in his brothers’ arms.
But he’d already said enough to stir up acid in the pit of Joe’s stomach. Holding his breath, Joe cast an anxious look toward his pa.
“Get him inside, Hoss,” Pa directed. “Joe, would you—”
“I’ll ride to Virginia City,” Joe decided, forcing his thoughts back to the moment. “I’ll see what Sheriff Coffee knows about this, and make sure Doc Martin—”
“Joe?” Pa stopped him as much with the sharpness in his eyes as his tone. “What do you know about this?”
“What could I know about it?” The answer came out harsher than it should have. He drew in a deep breath to calm his rising nerves.
“Joseph?” Pa’s voice grew softer. “I saw that look you gave me just now. What’s on your mind?”
“It’s nothing, Pa,” Joe softened his own tone to match his pa’s. “It’s just…. There was a girl in Salt Flats. The man she was with…. He was hurting her. I told her she needed to get away from him. She deserved someone who would treat her better.”
“What has that got to do with—”
“His name was Dawson.”
“What?” Pa’s eyes grew wide before something that looked like fear turned his brow.
“Jim Dawson, Pa. Not Sam. He was a mean cuss, but he was alone in town. It was just him and his girl. He never mentioned anyone else. I had no cause to think he was any relation to Sam Dawson. But now….” Joe looked toward the house where Hoss had taken Adam. “I’m not so sure.”
Pa sighed. “Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Besides, it’s been well over a month since you were in Salt Flats.”
“If I ride fast, Doc should be here by nightfall. I’ll—”
“Roy’s not there,” Pa answered absently.
“Sheriff Coffee had some business in Carson City.” Pa rubbed his chin, lost in thought. “Talk to the deputy,” he said after a moment. “Tell him to get a telegram out to Roy, if he hasn’t already.”
“Right.” Joe was already turning toward the barn, eager to saddle Cochise, when his pa called him back.
“Joe? Maybe Hoss ought to go instead. If this is more than coincidence, at least Hoss won’t be recognized.”
“I’ll get there in half the time, Pa. You know Hoss can’t ride fast as me.”
Although Pa nodded, he still had a distant look in his eyes, like he was puzzling something out and just couldn’t seem to find the answer.
“I’ll be careful.” Joe smiled, trying to offer a sense of assurance he didn’t really have to give. A sick feeling was already settling in his gut, as though he knew the appearance of the Dawson Gang in Virginia City was anything but a coincidence.
Pa tried to smile back before turning a concerned gaze toward the house. “I know you will, son. But….”
“But if we keep jawin’ about it I’ll never get to town,” Joe quipped.
Pa’s smile was still there when he pulled his attention from the house and gave it back to Joe. He looked about as worried as Joe had ever seen him.
Joe wished he could put his pa’s fears to rest. But that was kind of hard to do when his own were about as wide awake as they could possibly be.
Joe decided to avoid the road, cutting through the trees instead. The familiar but meandering path added so much time to his ride he found himself questioning whether he should have let Hoss go, after all. Hoss could at least have kept to the road. That in itself might have gotten him into Virginia City faster than Joe.
Dang it all anyway, Joe complained silently as he drew closer to town. He’d encountered nothing to suggest a violent gang of outlaws was anywhere between the Ponderosa and Virginia City. All that time he’d spent worrying had been wasted. Adam needed a doctor, and there Joe was, taking the slowest trail he could find.
Yet when Joe arrived, his worries returned a hundredfold.
Virginia City was quiet. Too quiet.
The mercantile was already closed for the day, the Bucket of Blood was all but deserted, and the streets were disturbingly empty. As Joe nudged Cochise forward, he also came to realize nearly every window he passed was tightly shuttered or closed up, with shades and curtains drawn. The further up the street he traveled, the more he noticed thin, dark gaps in some of those curtains, gaps just large enough for prying eyes to steal quick views of his passage.
The town was scared, all right. Joe didn’t feel a whole lot better himself. Apprehension pulled his spine arrow straight and burned like acid in his chest. His right hand curled more tightly around the reins, while his left moved to his gun, coming to rest on the grip.
He needed to talk with that deputy. But Doc Martin’s office was closer. It was just ahead. Surely the doc could tell him what was going on.
Dismounting quickly, Joe hitched Cochise up to the rail in front of the doc’s office, and then turned a slow circle, looking for signs that anyone besides him was willing to come out of the shadows. He didn’t find any. Even so, he knew someone was out there, watching, and he was none too eager to turn his back on whoever it was. He moved sideways and backwards up the stairs and toward the front door, keeping his eyes focused on the road.
Joe’s heart beat an urgent patter against his ribs and climbed high into his throat. When he reached for the door with his right hand, his kept his left hovering warily over his gun, ready to draw in an instant. He felt more than looked for the doorknob, refusing to pull his attention from whatever threat was looming in the shadows of Virginia City. His hand brushed across the metal of the nob. He wrapped his fingers around it.
But he didn’t even have to turn it. It started to twist on its own.
An instant later, the door flew open with a rush of air that seemed to steal Joe’s breath right out of his lungs. He moved with it, anxious to get inside and slam the door behind him.
Expecting to see the doc’s face staring back at him from the threshold, the little breath Joe had caught stayed locked within him when the man looking back at him was a face straight off of the wanted posters.
It was the face of Sam Dawson.
“Don’t do it, boy.”
Joe’s fingers slid along the grip of his own gun while his eyes shifted from Sam Dawson’s dark gaze to the barrel of the revolver pointed at his abdomen. It was already too late to draw, but that didn’t mean he was ready to give up on the idea.
“It’s clear you got more guts than brains,” Dawson added. “If you want to keep those guts where they belong, you’ll get your hands up and away from that sidearm.” The look in his eyes said he wasn’t bluffing.
It was enough to convince Joe to do as he was told.
“That’s probably the smartest thing you done all day.” Dawson reached forward and took hold of Joe’s gun, testing its heft in his left hand before slipping it into the belt of his holster. “A damn sight smarter than what you done riding in here. Or maybe it’s providence what sent ya’. Sure saved me the trouble of goin’ after you myself.”
“You don’t even know who I am.”
Dawson smiled. It was about the deadliest smile Joe had ever seen. Then he nodded toward where Cochise was hitched. “Rides a paint horse…,” Dawson said.
The gesture reminded Joe the door at his back was still open and renewed his interest in the shadows outside. They were coming to life, he realized. He could hear the rattle of spurs in the cadence of approaching footfalls. Someone coughed. Someone else spat—a splatter of tobacco juice, most likely. And finally, there was an anxious nickering from Cochise.
“…Wears a left-handed gun,” Dawson went on. “I know who you are all right. Joe Cartwright, the man responsible for the death of Evelyn Saunders.”
Evelyn Saunders? Evy? That was the name of the woman Joe had spoken with in Salt Flats. “What?” he asked aloud, the sick feeling in his gut growing a hundredfold.
“My brother had to knock some sense into her after she tried to run off. Show her how dangerous the world can be for a woman on her own. Trouble was, none of that knockin’ got through. Not after you got to her.”
“He beat her to death?” Joe’s voice caught in his throat, his words barely a whisper.
“Did what he had to do. Was you caused it. It’s only right I arrest you for murder.”
Joe couldn’t make sense of what Dawson was saying. “Arrest?” he asked, confused and distracted by the news of Evy’s death until he recognized the absurdity in what Dawson had said. “You’re about as far from a lawman as anyone could be.”
“I’m the only law this town has right now. Even got me a whole mess of deputies to prove it.”
When Dawson nodded to the men gathering behind Little Joe, Joe turned his head just enough to get a glimpse of Dawson’s gang. That glimpse was enough to prove to him the gang might be better described as a small army.
“Where’s Deputy Morgan?” Joe asked then, giving his full attention back to the leader of that army.
Dawson’s eyebrows shot up and he pulled his lips comically downward. “Was that his name? Never bothered to ask. Have to take your word for it though. Too late to ask him myself.”
“You…you killed him?”
“My deputies cleaned out the former sheriff’s office. Don’t much matter to me how they went about it.”
Growing sicker by the minute, Joe closed his eyes briefly, forcing his thoughts back to the person he had actually come to see. “Where’s Doc Martin?” he asked then, suddenly cold with worry about what sort of answer he might receive.
“Where is he?” Joe repeated.
Dawson gestured toward a closed door on the other side of the office. “Back yonder. You’re to blame for that, too. Might’ve been another Cartwright what done it, but it’s all on account of you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My brother, Jim. Folks around here tell me some Cartwright bashed his head in. Doc says he might never wake up. ‘Course, doc knows now he’d better get Jim to wake up, ’cause if he don’t, doc won’t never wake up again neither, not after we’re done with him.”
“You can’t blame the doc, for—”
“‘Course I can!” Dawson shouted back. “Doc’s supposed to heal people. He don’t heal Jim, then he ain’t no kind a’doctor worth havin’ around!”
Joe’s eyes strayed to the closed door and then held there, his thoughts torn between concern for Adam and concern for Doctor Paul Martin, the last man on earth you could ever blame for someone dying. If there was any chance at all of living, Doc Martin would find it.
“Deputy Parker,” Dawson called to the crowd behind Joe. “This man is under arrest for the murder of Miss Evelyn Saunders and the attempted murder of my brother, Mister Jim Dawson.”
Joe’s gaze swiveled back to the outlaw in front of him, but he bit back every argument that came to mind. If Sam Dawson was going to blame someone for that fight with Jim, it might as well be Little Joe. He sure didn’t want Adam to get any more involved than he already had.
“Take three men with you,” Dawson went on, “and escort him to the jail. Lock him nice and tight in one a’ them there cells.”
A man grabbed Joe’s left arm.
“The rest a’you,” Dawson added then. “Search all these houses around here ’til ya’ get enough able-bodied men to get us a gallows built up. I don’t want no scrawny gents. I want strong, young men, the kind ya’ got to keep an eye on. Any one argues with you, shoot ‘im.”
The pull on Joe’s arm grew more demanding. He stumbled backward, as much from the pulling as from the dizzy state of his mind. Part of him tried to accept the fact that it was good he’d come into Virginia City. If he hadn’t, this gang would have gone to the Ponderosa, and Joe wouldn’t have had a chance to protect his family. Here, his family was protected, but at a cost to the good people of Virginia City—people like Doctor Paul Martin.
When another hand grabbed Joe’s right arm, the two men started dragging him backward across the threshold, refusing to wait for him to get his feet beneath him. But Joe was every bit as stubborn as they were. He wasn’t about to allow them the satisfaction of dragging him all the way to the jail. He planted his feet firmly on the ground and struggled just enough to turn himself around. Then he marched forward right along with them, all too aware of the futility of trying to fight off an entire army, however small that army might be.
He found himself looking once again into the dark gaps where curtains had been drawn just enough to give folks a glimpse of what was going on, a glimpse of Little Joe Cartwright, a law-abiding citizen who’d been arrested for murder by the gang of outlaws actually responsible for the crime. It was a paradox sure to make every paper in the territory when it was all over—and just as sure to be talked about for years to come. Unfortunately, Joe himself probably wouldn’t be alive to read the first article.
Matt Burke was good at this: watching without being seen and listening without being heard. He’d grown up right along with Virginia City and knew all her secret places better than just about anyone. He had hidey-holes most people were oblivious to, and used passages few others might ever notice. Sure, he was coming up on fifteen, and the way he was growing lately would put some of those hidey-holes out of his reach before too much longer. But the fact was he could use them today, and today was when he’d needed them more than ever before.
Knowing all those hidey-holes also meant he knew a whole lot of Virginia City’s secrets. Most he kept to himself like private treasures, pulling them out only when there was clear need for it—like the time he’d had to tell Sheriff Coffee when he’d come upon two strangers talking quietly about getting into the bank long after it had been closed for the day.
The secrets he’d learned just now were like that, only bigger. Big as any could ever be. And there were two people Matt needed to share them with right away: Sheriff Coffee and Ben Cartwright. Trouble was, Sheriff Coffee was in Carson City and Ben Cartwright was way out there on the Ponderosa.
Matt was going to need to recruit some of his friends to help him; and he couldn’t do better than Smitty and Polk. Harv Smitty could run almost as fast as Matt himself. And Polk, well, he was just crazy enough to make a run for it right when Sam Dawson was looking straight at him. Matt would have to rein him in so he didn’t go and get himself killed. But once that was done, Matt knew he could trust his friend Emmett Polk to have the gumption to do whatever needed doing.
Soon as he heard the door click shut above him, Matt slithered like a desert snake to squeeze himself out of that tiny space between the dirt and the steps to Doc Martin’s office. Then he went straight to Smitty’s, slipping in through Smitty’s bedroom window before Dawson’s men had even reached the first house.
Smitty was easy to convince. So was his ma. Smitty’s ma liked the idea of her boy getting out from under Dawson’s eye, and helping Matt to reach Ben Cartwright and Sheriff Coffee would do just that. Reaching Polk without getting spotted was a bit more of a challenge, but convincing him was as easy as it had been with Smitty.
By the time Matt and Smitty got to Polk’s, a couple of Dawson’s men were already in the next house over. Matt could hear Missus O’Brian clear as day from where he and Smitty crouched out in the alleyway. She was carrying on about how they’d be damned to try and take her oldest boy, Liam. Of course, Polk heard her too, and it was a good thing Matt got there when he did. He hightailed it through the window, catching Emmett Polk right when he was getting ready to head on over to the O’Brian’s and give those outlaws what for—no matter that Liam O’Brian was older and stronger than Polk was himself.
“They just want him to build a gallows, is all,” Matt explained loud as he dared while keeping a tight hold of Emmett’s arm. “Long as Liam helps build it, I’m sure they won’t hurt him.”
“Who they gonna hang?” Polk asked.
“Little Joe Cartwright.”
“Little Joe Cartwright?” Polk’s eyes went wide and his mouth gaped open.
“Yup. I didn’t hear all the whys and what-fors. All I know is we got to stop it.”
“If they can’t build a gallows, that’ll stop it!” Polk threw Matt a wide grin, looking like he’d just solved some sort of epic riddle.
“Don’t be daft. They want to kill ‘im, they’ll kill ‘im one way or another. You know that. And they’ll kill men like Liam too, just for not doin’ what they want. The only thing we can do to stop ’em is to get help.”
“From where?” Polk’s grin slipped away.
“From Carson City and the Ponderosa. You with me?”
The grin came back wider than before. Emmett Polk smiled like he thought Matt’s idea was the best thing he’d ever heard.
An instant later the two boys joined up with Smitty back in the alley, barely making it out of the house before Dawson’s men came pounding on the Polk’s front door. After that, getting to the edge of town was no problem for the small group of resourceful, young men. The hardest part was waiting for dusk, when shadows would give them enough cover to slip out without catching the eyes of any of Dawson’s men.
The body of Deputy Morgan was propped up in a chair in front of the Virginia City jail. Little Joe might almost believe Morgan was just sitting there watching townsfolk pass by—if that hole in the man’s forehead weren’t so prominent, and if townsfolk were actually passing by rather than cowering in their homes.
The sight burned its way into Joe’s stomach until that uneasy feeling he’d had since riding into town began to catch fire. Virginia City had long since lost its reputation as a lawless mining town. Good folks had moved in, setting down roots for their families—Deputy Morgan among them. Now the deputy was dead, and the rest of those good folks were likely wishing they’d never left where they’d come from.
“You could at least give him a proper burial.” Joe put as much acid into the words as he could, stopping cold at the door and refusing to go any further.
The man to his right grabbed his arm so hard it felt like he’d dug right down to the bone.
Joe didn’t budge. “You can’t just leave him out here!”
Without letting go or even loosening his grip, the outlaw brought his face close enough to Joe’s that Joe could smell jerky mixed in with the tobacco on his breath. “We can do anything we damn well please. And that includes settin’ you right there next to him, just as stiff and just as dead.”
“No,” Joe put no volume into his argument. He simply spoke the truth in a low, deadly tone. “I don’t think you can. Not unless Sam Dawson says you can.”
The outlaw gave him a glare that said Joe was maybe partly right, but not completely. “You want to see what I can do?” he said icily as he released Joe’s arm. “I’ll show you what I can do.”
He turned his attention to the men who had gathered behind Joe. “You, wrap some ropes up yonder.” He pointed toward the eaves overhead, and then looked to the man on Joe’s left. “Shed him of that shirt.”
Within moments, Joe, shirtless, was left to stand facing the deputy’s body right there on the porch. With his own back to the street, Joe’s wrists were secured to ropes draped across two of the rafters above him, and then pulled up and away from his body. When he heard the crack of a whip behind him—once, twice, a third time—he braced himself, anticipating the feel of the next blow, or perhaps the one after that. He tried not to flinch, but the effect was inevitable as the outlaw tested his aim again and again and again. Joe counted nine, ten, eleven cracks before he finally stopped flinching.
That must have been what the outlaw had been waiting to see. Number twelve sliced into Joe’s back, crossing from his left shoulder blade to his right hip. The fire it raised stole his breath and curled his hands into tight fists that pulled instinctively down on the ropes, bringing a far smaller sting to his wrists.
Number thirteen went higher, coming just short of choking him as it flicked hungrily at the nape of his neck like a snake with a razor-edged tongue.
Number fourteen caught his right shoulder.
He stopped counting after that, focusing instead on how thankful he was that the Dawson gang was there in Virginia City while Joe’s pa and brothers were safe and secure on the Ponderosa. Stay there, he prayed. Stay right where you are. Soon he found himself joining them, and gazing into a roaring fire in the great room. He wondered briefly how he’d managed to fall into it before he surrendered to the comfort of soothing blackness.
Wooden planks. Joe could hear the crack of one being stacked upon another, over and over again. It almost sounded like the crack of a whip.
He jerked awake to a sharp, burning pain across his back.
“There ain’t enough,” a strange voice shouted somewhere behind him. The words swirled through the fog of Joe’s awakening thoughts along with the memory of an outlaw’s whip.
There ain’t enough what? Cuts on Joe’s back? Sure had to be enough of those. More than enough.
“I can go to the mill,” another voice said, this man’s tone sounding calm.
Wood, Joe figured. There ain’t enough wood.
I can go to the mill, the man had said—as though he was planning out the materials for building a house or a barn.
Joe knew better. All that activity behind him, all that wood being stacked, it could only be for one thing: the gallows Sam Dawson had ordered the town to build. The gallows meant for Little Joe.
Yes, the fog was already lifting. He almost wished it wouldn’t, almost wished he could have stayed lost in the luxury of unconsciousness. His back, all the way from his neck to his hips was burning from the sharp sting of what felt like a thousand cuts and gashes. He tried to think beyond it.
Focusing his thoughts outward, he began to hear a soft buzzing mixed in with the voices behind him. But the buzzing wasn’t behind him. It was…all around him. Curious, he raised his head. His gaze landed instantly on the deputy’s corpse and the small, black things flitting around it. Flies were already being drawn by the smell of death. How long before they began to swarm? How long before they found Joe’s own, burning back?
“Was plenty wood there yesterday.” The voice behind Joe gained volume—or maybe Joe simply found it more compelling to listen. He realized he should know the person speaking. The sound was familiar. There was the touch of an accent.
Liam, he decided. Liam O’Brian.
Liam was close to Joe in age, though a bit younger and a whole lot more hot tempered, as far as Joe was concerned. Adam often said Liam was just like Joe, but Joe figured Adam only said it to make him angry. In fact, Joe and Liam were about as different as two men could be. All they ever did was rankle each other’s nerves. They’d even come to blows now and again.
It figured. Liam was helping Sam Dawson.
“No one’s goin’ anywhere!” the stranger shouted. “Tear it off a’some houses for all I care.”
“No,” Liam argued, sounding like he could, like Dawson’s men would listen to him.
Joe found his breaths coming harder as rage seeped in through each of those cuts on his back. Liam was a part of this. Joe had been right all along. It was Adam who’d been wrong. Liam was nothing like Joe. Nothing at all.
“No one deserves to give up their house for the sole purpose of hangin’ an innocent man.”
What? Those words came out through Liam’s voice, but they could as easily have come from Joe. They made Liam sound…compassionate. It even sounded as though…as though Liam knew Joe was innocent. As though he was actually standing up for Joe, rather than against him.
“Then tear it off the church.”
“No God fearin’ man’s gonna do that,” Liam countered, once again sounding like he knew Dawson’s men would have to listen.
“Ya’ ought’ta be more a’feared a’me than God.”
“You can’t touch my mortal soul.”
“I can sure as hell touch yer flesh and bones.”
“You can burn in hell, is what you can do.”
Joe heard a different sort of crack then, followed by a soft grunt. The stranger must have hit Liam. And from the sound, it had been a hard blow. A murmur of hushed cries rose up, men telling Liam to take it easy, clearly not wanting him to fight back. They might as well tell the trees not to shake in the wind. You could no more hold back a man like Liam O’Brian than you could hold back….
Joe took a deep breath, one that made his back begin to scream as he forced himself to consider that maybe Adam had been right after all. Maybe Liam really was a bit like Joe….
…Because Joe knew he’d be saying the same things and racing toward the same hopeless fight.
…Because you could no more hold back a man like Liam O’Brian than you could hold back Little Joe, himself.
“You got a dangerous mouth on you, boy,” the stranger said.
Joe could imagine Liam’s arms held firmly by friends trying to keep him out of trouble, and Liam’s eyes glaring with rage.
“You don’t come to yer senses, ya’ might just find yerself sharing the whip with that Cartwright over there. Now get back to work!”
Listen to him. Joe willed Liam to heed his unspoken words. This fight isn’t worth it.
Joe had never figured Liam for a friend, but he’d never really been an enemy either. He was just someone Joe tended to disagree with. He didn’t deserve to have Dawson’s gang go after him. And he sure didn’t deserve to be whipped.
Joe wouldn’t wish Dawson’s wrath on anyone. Maybe Liam felt the same way. Maybe that’s why he was willing to make it known Joe didn’t deserve to hang.
No one deserves to give up their house for the sole purpose of hangin’ an innocent man. Joe focused on Liam’s words, appreciating the truth in them—and appreciating Liam in a way he never had before. If by some miracle both Joe and Liam managed to survive their current predicament, Joe would look forward to buying Liam a beer or two—or as many as it would take to help Joe forget the searing agony in his back.
Dusk found the boys more than ready. Armed with nothing more than canteens and jerky, Matt and Smitty split off into two separate directions: Matt to the Ponderosa and Smitty to Carson City. Both started on foot, figuring it wouldn’t be worth the risk to try sneaking horses from the livery. Heading out on foot would also make it a whole lot easier to hide from the scouts Dawson had posted on the edge of town. They each planned to visit homesteaders to see about borrowing horses, but if no horses were to be had that wouldn’t stop either of them from making the journey—it would only delay them from getting to where they needed to go. It could take all night, but they would get there one way or another.
Emmett Poke, on the other hand, would remain in Virginia City. They needed someone to keep an eye on things. When Sheriff Coffee and Ben Cartwright arrived, Emmett would be able to tell them exactly what was going on so they could plan out whatever they needed to do to take back their town and save Little Joe from hanging. Meanwhile, all three of the boys were eager and excited to carry out their own plans. Young, strong and blessed with the invincibility of youth, they were partially inspired by thoughts of greatness; it was a sure bet they’d end up as heroes. But in their hearts they all knew it was more than that. None of them wanted to see anybody else in Virginia City get hurt on account of those outlaws.
For Matt and Smitty, their eagerness was sure to move them faster than they’d ever run before. But Emmett Poke wasn’t so lucky. He had to rein his eagerness in, and that got harder and harder for him to do as the night wore on. Anxious as he was, Emmett had to sit tight. He couldn’t run. He couldn’t fight. He couldn’t even argue. Instead he spent most of his time focusing on the jailhouse, watching as men like Liam O’Brian made stupid mistakes and did everything else they could to delay completion of the gallows. It was laughable really. Emmett even found himself snickering now and again—especially when Mister Howard and Mister Glenmore started arguing about every little detail, from placement of the first boards on up. Both men knew darn well how to build a gallows. They’d worked together on one barely two months earlier when Judge Roberts had sentenced that murdering cattle thief Bart Sandoval to hang.
Yep, Emmett sure found it entertaining to watch the most poorly run building project ever undertaken in Virginia City—until he let his gaze wander over to Little Joe himself. And the more Emmett looked, the less he was able to smile about anything at all. Instead he just got a sick feeling down in his stomach.
Little Joe’s back was a mess of red welts and blood, and it was clear he was having a hard time standing there. Every now and then Emmett saw Little Joe’s knees buckle and his head drop, making it look like he would fall right to the ground if his hands weren’t tied up like they were to the rafters. And then, a few moments later, something would rouse him. He would raise his head, his attention seeming drawn to the ropes around his wrists, and his knees would straighten, his heels settling back down against the floorboards. It went on like that over and over again. Each time Joe sagged, Emmett’s thoughts grew darker and darker, just like the night around him.
He had to do something. He didn’t know what, but he had to do something.
As much as Ben concentrated, as hard as he listened, the only sound he heard was the ticking of the clock. What he wanted to hear was a rider. At least one rider. But it was already two o’clock in the morning and no one had come.
No one was coming. Not the doctor. And not Little Joe.
Why had he allowed Joe to ride off like he had? Ben had known all along, right from the moment Joe had mentioned the name of Jim Dawson, that trouble was in the air.
No, he corrected himself. Ben had known as soon as Adam had said the Dawson gang had somehow been involved with his beating.
Yet none of the newspaper accounts of Dawson’s crimes had ever reported that the outlaw had a family. Nor had Ben ever heard the name of Jim Dawson before this day—or rather yesterday, he realized as his eyes strayed once more to the grandfather clock near the front door. He’d had no reason to consider Joe’s encounter with a man named Jim Dawson in Salt Flats could have had anything at all to do with the Dawson gang.
He’d had no reason until now.
Now Ben couldn’t even be sure Joe had ever reached Virginia City. If he had, then surely Doc Martin would have come. Or someone…someone would have come. Joe would have sent word even if he’d decided to…to join a posse or fetch Roy Coffee, or any number of other things he might have done. Yes, Joe would have sent word. If he could have.
When the clock struck the hour, Ben closed his eyes in silent prayer, feeling the vibrations resonate through his body like the pulse of his young son’s heart, a pulse his memory conjured in the form of a small boy, a child eager for his father’s warmth, climbing up into Ben’s lap and wrapping his thin arms around Ben’s neck.
And then the clock went silent, as though that pulse had never been—or perhaps never would beat again.
“Hey, Pa!” Hoss called out from the top of the stairs. “He’s awake, Pa! Adam, he’s comin’ around.”
Ben took a deep, grateful breath as he finished his prayer for the protection of one son by offering up his heartfelt thanks for the blessed return of another. And then he hurried up the stairs. Maybe Adam could finally tell him what Joe might have ridden into.
Joe tried to fight the pull of sleep, but he kept losing. He would find himself nodding off, succumbing to what should have been the bliss of oblivion, only to be reawakened to a fresh sense of pain as his shoulders were wrenched upward and his wrists chafed anew by the ropes holding him where he stood.
It had been easier to stay awake when the sun was high and he was serenaded by the buzzing of flies and the bustle of activity surrounding the building of the gallows. But the work had stopped an hour or so after sundown—maybe because it was too dark to see, but more likely because Dawson’s men preferred raiding the saloon over guarding a crew of unwilling workmen.
Now even the flies had grown quiet, and the burning sting in Joe’s back was comforted by a soft, night breeze. Sleep taunted him, calling him deeper and deeper until he could almost believe he would fall deep enough to ignore what that falling would do to his wrists and shoulders.
His eyelids were beginning to slip closed once more, maybe for one last time, when a cacophony of explosions yanked him fully awake.
No. Firecrackers. Dozens of firecrackers were going off somewhere nearby. And then came the shouts, followed by the distinctly different sound of guns.
Guns battling firecrackers?
Joe was struggling to put the pieces together in his head when he felt hands grip his arms. There was an urgent tugging above him, and then Joe felt himself falling—truly falling now, without the ropes to stop him. And yet he never hit the ground. Instead someone grabbed him, hoisting him over a narrow shoulder like a sack of grain. An arm wrapped itself across his back for leverage, seeming to tear open every raw wound that outlaw’s whip had dug out of him, but Joe held quiet. There was no point to screaming out, no point to struggling. Whoever this was, it wasn’t one of Dawson’s men. Joe was being rescued.
Blackness threatened to engulf him, though it was dispelled somewhat by the flashes he caught in the corner of his eye as someone beside him fired back the way they had come. He blinked hard and fast, trying to force the blackness away. He couldn’t give in to it. Not now. He had to know what was happening—or at least be alert enough to discover what had happened as soon as the moment came, the moment when the shooting stopped and he could finally see the faces of his rescuers.
It couldn’t be Pa and Hoss; if they had come for him, Hoss would be carrying him now, not this…this small, but obviously strong stranger. Maybe Sheriff Coffee had brought a posse…but he would say something, wouldn’t he? And that familiar smell…that comforting smell of cigars and pipe tobacco Joe had come to recognize as distinctly Roy Coffee…it wasn’t there. It wasn’t anywhere around him.
Blinking again, Joe gave up on guessing. Just as there had been no point to struggling, there was also no point to trying to make sense of the chaos surrounding him. His life was in another man’s hands at that moment. Without even knowing who that person was or who else was around him, Joe accepted that simple truth. There was nothing he could do except allow them to do whatever it was they had planned.
He noticed then that the sounds of firecrackers were beginning to fade away behind them. But a new volley of shots erupted closer than before. He heard a grunt, as though someone had been hit, someone running along behind him, but the person carrying him never slowed.
They made several turns, slipping through narrow spaces before the dark night began to give way to the dim glow of lamplight; and the echoes of Virginia City’s streets became muted behind a thick, wooden door—and then another, and still another.
Finally, Joe was deposited with more urgency than care onto a thin mattress that did nothing to soften the impact to the shredded flesh on his back. Once more he worked to blink away the pull of oblivion. Before his vision cleared, he began to hear the familiar sound of words he felt he could almost but not quite understand.
Chinese. Three men were speaking—with hurried, desperate tones—in the language of Hop Sing’s native country. And then another voice joined in, one that was just as clearly not Chinese.
“We did it! We got ’em!” It sounded like a boy—or not quite a boy, but not quite a young man either.
“Now the true fight begins,” a man replied, his accent more refined, less pronounced than Hop Sing’s.
Joe opened his eyes to find himself in a small, windowless room, barely large enough for the three men and two boys who were sharing it with him. “Thank you,” Joe said, his own voice constrained by the dryness in his throat.
An older man with a thin, long, gray mustache turned toward him and offered a slow, respectful nod. “The boy was insistent,” he said.
The man indicated toward a brown haired, freckled teenager, who looked back at Joe with wide eyes.
“Do I know you?” Joe asked.
The teenager shook his head. “It was wrong for them to keep you there like that. I didn’t want to wait for Matt and Smitty.”
“Matt and Smitty. They went to fetch Sheriff Coffee and your pa. They should be here by sunup, but I didn’t think you could wait that long. And besides, that’s when they planned the hangin.’”
Joe wanted to smile. Sheriff Coffee and his pa. They were coming. That was all Joe needed to hear, all he wanted to hear. But it wasn’t all the boy had said. “This was your idea?” Joe asked.
“Nuh-uh. All I thought about was the firecrackers. But when I went to get ’em from Chin,” the teenager pointed a thumb toward the Chinese boy behind him, “he said we should talk to his uncle. And then his uncle said we should talk to his grandpa, and then they helped us figure out what to do.”
Joe did smile then. “But you started the whole thing?”
The teenager shrugged. “Guess so.”
“Thank you.” Joe’s smile grew into a full grin, despite the fire in his back. Then he looked back toward the old man, and even his smile dropped away. “And thank you,” he added. “But I’m afraid you might have brought yourself more trouble than you can imagine.”
“Do not underestimate the trouble I can imagine.” The old man did not smile.
Joe accepted his words, nodding back. This man had left a lifetime behind him in China, a lifetime that could well have been marked by more kinds of trouble than Joe might ever come close to imagining.
“Someone was hit,” Joe said, moving past thoughts that had no bearing on what truly mattered at that moment.
The man nodded. “Li Desheng.”
“Is he all right?”
“Soon we will see.” Offering no more explanation, the old man turned away, saying something in Chinese to one of the other men in the room. “Zhing Zhi will administer to your wounds,” he said afterward, without giving Joe another glance. And then he left, followed quickly by one of the men and both boys.
Joe stared at the door for a long while after they’d closed it behind them, his thoughts torn between admiration and fear for them. Sam Dawson would be after blood, and he’d be looking long before sunup. Joe couldn’t just sit there and let anyone else get hurt—or worse—on account of him. That old man should never have listened to that boy. Joe was grateful he did, but horrified all the same. People might still die tonight. And all because a boy Joe had never even met before had decided to save Joe’s life.
It was hard to breathe. If Adam inhaled too deeply, his bruised ribs felt like knives in his chest, but too little left him gasping and weak.
He opened his eyes to meet Hoss’s concerned gaze, and then closed them again when his head protested against the light flickering in the lamp at his bedside. Intending to massage his temple, he found that his hand, too, was throbbing. Curious, he held his hand before his eyes to study the thick bandage encasing it.
“Busted,” Hoss said. “You must’ve really walloped the man who done this.”
“Hardly a man,” Adam answered in a strained voice that didn’t sound like his own. “More like an animal. A rabid animal. Or….”
Adam flashed him a quick, small grin. “A berserker. From the Viking legends. Men who fought with the strength of ten, and who seemed to feel no pain. He…he wouldn’t stop coming. No matter how hard I hit him…he wouldn’t stop coming.”
“He very nearly stopped you.” Pa’s voice called his attention to the doorway. “We were worried sick, Adam.”
Adam tried another grin, but it was smaller than before. “I’m fine, Pa. I think the ride just…left me a little more winded than I expected.”
“I’m afraid it had more to do with those blows to your head than being winded. You were out for hours, Adam. Hours. I wish you would have stopped by to see Doc Martin before attempting that ride.”
“I had to get home. Joe needs…. Where is Joe?” He scanned the room with his one, good eye, finding it hard to focus but easy enough to see Joe was not there.
“He went to get the doc,” Hoss answered.
“He went to get the doc for you. And to send word to Sheriff Coffee.”
“How long ago?”
“Soon as you got home.”
“You said that was hours ago. What time is it?”
“It’s well past midnight,” Pa answered.
Adam fumbled with his blankets and tried to push himself up.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Pa asked.
“To get Joe.”
“Adam,” Hoss gently but firmly pressed him down again. “It’s too late for that.”
Fear stopped Adam more completely than Hoss possibly could. “What?” His voice was barely a whisper.
“We told you he left hours ago. He’s already got where he aimed to go; you can be sure of that. It’s just he ain’t got home yet. Might be he rode on to Carson City, or maybe joined a posse or somethin’ like that.”
Hoss sounded so calm, so convincing. Adam tried to believe it. He wanted to believe it.
“Adam,” Pa said. “Before you passed out, you mentioned something about the Dawson gang. Are they the ones who did this to you?”
“Jim.” Adam let his head slip back into the comfort of his pillow. “Jim Dawson. Said Sam was his brother. He also said he had a score to settle with Joe. Something about stealing his girl.”
Pa’s eyes closed and his shoulders slumped, as though Adam had said the last thing he’d wanted to hear.
“Pa?” Adam asked, concerned.
Before his father could answer, Hop Sing called up from downstairs. “Someone here!”
“Must be the doc,” Hoss said.
“Thank God!” Pa sounded strong again. He pulled his shoulders back, straight and sure as ever. Still, Adam knew there was something his father needed to tell him, something about Jim Dawson and Joe.
Hopefully Doc Martin would ease all their minds with news of Joe. Or maybe Joe himself was about to walk through the front door.
Sighing, Adam watched as both Hoss and Pa stepped out of his room, heading down to greet Doc Martin. Then he closed his eyes. He would find out soon enough.
It was just a boy. Ben paused on the stairs, watching as Hop Sing scurried past the boy and out the front door.
“Where your horse?” Hop Sing asked when he came back inside, dumbfounded.
“I walked,” the boy answered.
“Walk? From where?”
Startled, Ben turned, catching Hoss’s eye before moving forward once again.
“Are we to understand,” Ben said when he drew near enough, “that you walked all the way here from Virginia City in the middle of the night?”
Nervous brown eyes looked back at him from beneath unruly—and too long—rust-colored hair. “Yessir.” The boy nodded. “But I ran some of it.”
The boy shook his head. “Ya’ gotta come, sir. It’s the Dawson gang, sir. They took over. Even killed the deputy.”
“What?” The word came out too loud. Ben saw the boy cringe; he almost seemed to cower.
“And, s-sir?” The boy’s brow furrowed, his gaze more anxious than before. “That ain’t all.”
“Well, go on, boy,” Ben urged, trying to keep his tone calm. “Say what you need to.”
“It’s Little Joe, Mister Cartwright.” The boy’s eyes moved between Ben and Hoss. “Sam Dawson himself…he’s plannin’ to hang him.”
Ben felt his knees weaken. He reached a hand out, wrapping it around Hoss’s arm in as firm a grip as he could muster, and forced himself to breathe. “When?” he asked.
“At dawn, sir. First thing.”
“Hoss,” Ben said without pulling his attention from the boy. “Go to the bunkhouse. Gather as many men as you can. If we can get there before sunrise, we might be able to use the darkness to our advantage.”
“Sure thing, Pa.”
Reluctantly, Ben took his hand away, and then watched Hoss hurry outside. “Hop Sing,” he said then. “Get this boy something to eat. And then see to it he gets some sleep. He must be—”
“No, sir,” the boy interrupted.
“I need to come with you.”
“Absolutely not! You’ll be safe here.”
“I need to come with you, sir,” the boy repeated. “I can tell you what you need to know.”
“You can tell me right here.”
“But my friend, Emmett Polk, he’s keepin’ a lookout in Virginia City. He’ll be lookin’ for us to come back. He’ll fill us in on whatever I’ve missed to come out here.”
“Tell me where you planned to meet.”
“He’ll be lookin’ for me.”
“He will be looking for you to ride in with me. Am I correct in assuming he knows what I look like?”
“Then he will find me without you.”
“But, sir, I—”
Ben put his hand gently on the boy’s shoulder. “Son,” he said softly, “you’ve done a very brave thing by coming out here. You’ve done exactly what you needed to do. Now it’s our turn to do what we need to do, and I can’t do that properly if I’m worried about your safety. Can you understand that?”
“I can take care of myself!”
Ben smiled, finding the boy’s defiance to remind him of Little Joe at that age. “I believe you,” he said. “But you’ve just walked a good twenty miles in the dark. You have to be tired and hungry. Any man would be after a journey like that. You can’t afford to be tired if you plan to face a man like Sam Dawson.”
The boy looked at him with sad eyes.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Matthew, sir. Matt. Matt Burke.”
“Thank you, Matt Burke. You might just have saved my son’s life, and for that, I can’t thank you enough.”
“I hope so, sir. ‘Cause they…they….” The boy went from nervous to frightened in an instant.
“They whipped him, sir.”
The words pulled Ben’s fingers tightly around the boy’s shoulder, squeezing hard. Too hard. As soon as he realized what he was doing, he loosened his grip. The boy hadn’t even winced.
“Whipped him bad,” Matt went on. “I just hope they ain’t done nothin’ worse since I been gone.”
“I make sandwich,” Hop Sing said, finding just the right moment to interrupt, the moment when Ben went numb, the moment when he lost his voice and his words. “Boy come now, into kitchen. Hop Sing fix big roast beef sandwich.”
Hop Sing took the boy’s arm and tugged him along. And then Ben stood alone in shocked silence until the shouts of men outside roused him into action.
Joe had not intended to fall asleep. He needed to stay awake and alert. Virginia City was in more danger now than before. The Dawson gang would be as riled as a hive of angry hornets, but far more deadly, all on account of Little Joe. The town had taken him right out of Dawson’s hands. Oh, maybe not the whole town, but enough of it to bring Sam Dawson’s wrath down on any one of Virginia City’s citizens.
So Joe needed to stay awake. He needed to know what was happening.
But there must have been something in that tea Zhing Zhi had insisted he drink while the Chinese man had prepared to dress Joe’s wounds. Lying on his stomach with his head cradled on his folded arms, Joe found it harder and harder to keep his eyes open. The air around him was growing darker, calmer—quieter. Whatever was going on outside seemed to move further and further away. And then, finally, Joe didn’t hear anything at all.
Matt Burke had finished off two roast beef sandwiches and was mostly done with a chunk of apple pie bigger than his momma would ever have cut for him when Adam Cartwright showed up in the kitchen. He was dressed in a black shirt that was only partially buttoned and not quite tucked into his trousers.
“Why Mister Adam out of bed?” The Chinese cook shot up from where he’d been sitting at the table and went after Mister Cartwright’s oldest son shaking a finger like he was scolding him—like he was the master of the house and Cartwright was the cook. “Mister Cartwright say number one son no get out of bed! Be very angry with number one son!”
Matt would have laughed, but he was afraid the cook would just turn that finger on him instead.
Adam Cartwright didn’t seem bothered by it at all. “He’ll be too busy fighting a small war to worry about whether or not I stay in bed.” His words were slurred, though Matt was pretty sure it was on account of his busted lip rather than being drunk. One eye was swollen shut, but the other looked like he was dead sober. When he turned that eye on Matt, it was clear he was thinking real hard on something. He reminded Matt of that fancy poker player Matt had watched from the window of the saloon a few weeks back. That player never drank a drop, but he always got the drop on whoever played against him. And he always had that same look in his eye, the one Adam had now.
Matt found himself wondering who it was Adam planned to get the drop on.
“You’re Matt Burke?” Adam said, giving him a slight nod.
Figuring he probably ought to stand, Matt pushed his chair away from the table and got to his feet before answering. “Yessir,” he said then.
“You told my father Sam Dawson’s gang is holding my brother, Joe.”
“Yessir, I did.”
“What else did you tell him?”
“Well, I…I told him my friend Emmett was keepin’ a lookout. And Smitty was goin’ to Carson City to get the sheriff. And—”
“Where’s the rendezvous?”
Matt wasn’t sure if he’d heard right. Whatever Adam Cartwright had said, round-ay-voo didn’t sound like a real word at all. “Sir?”
“This friend of yours, Emmett, where was he planning to meet back up with you?”
“No!” the cook shouted as he pushed himself right in between Adam and Matt. “Mister Adam not go Virginia City! Number one son go to bed! Not fit to fight outlaw!”
“Hop Sing!” Adam shouted back, suddenly looking far angrier than the cook; that glare sure seemed more threatening than the cook’s finger. But he didn’t hold it for long. He closed that good eye of his so Matt couldn’t see him glaring or figuring like that poker player did, or anything else what might be going on inside his head. Adam tried to take a deep breath then too, but it didn’t go too well. Matt saw him sort of bow down, almost like those Chinese folks do when they greet each other in the streets of Virginia City. Only Matt was pretty sure Adam wasn’t greeting the cook. It really just looked like he was hurting.
Matt was also pretty sure the cook was right. Adam Cartwright wasn’t fit at all to be trying to fight the likes of the Dawson gang—or anyone for that matter.
“I am not staying here,” Adam said maybe a minute later in a voice that sounded kind of raspy and raw, “when Little Joe and Virginia City need as much help as they can get.”
“Mister Adam need help!” the cook scolded. “No can give help when need help!”
“You find that funny, boy?”
Matt realized Adam was talking to him, probably on account of the fact that Matt was grinning. He pulled a straight face and cleared his throat. “No, sir. It’s just…what he said just now, well, it sounded like what your pa said to me before he left. It was just kind of funny hearin’ it from him, and him sayin’ it to you.”
“Oh? Why don’t you tell me how it was my pa said it to you?”
Matt sighed. The small bit of amusement he’d felt was gone in an instant as he thought back on Ben Cartwright’s refusal to let him go to Virginia City, like he was a child rather than the man he knew he could be, the man he wanted others to see in him. “I wanted to go back with him, but he told me he couldn’t do what he needed to do if he was worried about me. I told him he didn’t have to worry about me. I can take care of myself, but he still wouldn’t let me go.”
“No,” Adam said. “He wouldn’t. And he was right not to.”
“How can you say that?” Now Matt was growing angry.
“He told me you walked here.”
“Yeah. So? Men walk places all the time. That don’t mean nothin’.”
“It means you’ll be too tired to have a clear head when you need it.”
“Way you look right now,” Matt dared to say, “your head won’t be any clearer than mine would.”
“Maybe not, but that’s my brother Sam Dawson is threatening to hang. I have to do something.”
“And that’s my town he’s taken over. And my family lives in that town. I have to do something, too.”
“You did do something. You came here.”
“It ain’t enough.”
Somehow Matt had the gumption to meet the glare Adam threw his way. He figured if he was playing poker, he’d have to back down. But he wasn’t playing poker. And he sure wasn’t bluffing. And maybe…just maybe Adam Cartwright would see that.
“All right,” Adam said after a long while.
Matt was startled enough that he had to back down. “All right?” he parroted, confused and upset at losing the stare-down.
“All right. You can come.”
“Yes. But you do whatever I say. If I tell you to take cover, you take cover and you stay there until I tell you otherwise.”
“No!” Hop Sing shouted. “Both stay on Ponderosa! Mister Cartwright be very angry if—”
“Then I suppose you’d better come too,” Adam interrupted.
“What?” Hop Sing looked dumbfounded.
“If you come and keep an eye on both of us, Pa won’t have anything to be angry about. And neither will you.”
“Hop Sing not angry.” The cook turned away and crossed his arms in front of him. His stance looked headstrong. His eyes looked wary.
Adam grinned. “Yes, you are. You’re angry because half of the Chinese in Virginia City are your cousins. If you come with us you can see for yourself that all of those cousins are okay, so you won’t have anything to be angry about.”
And that was that. Next thing Matt knew, he was saddling horses to ride back to Virginia City with a man who was so beat up he could hardly stand and a Chinese cook. He found himself grinning again. This was about as crazy as the plan he’d worked up with Smitty and Polk. Maybe that’s why he figured it was going to work out just the way they’d wanted it to all along.
Joe heard something. The sound lacked clarity in his sleep-fogged mind. Maybe only his dreams had painted it as someone calling out. It didn’t matter. He felt an urgent need to respond. He came awake with a jerk and forced himself upright—a move that was too sudden given the state of his back. A cloth the Chinese man had placed upon him in lieu of a bandage fell away, tugging further at the already shredded skin as it slipped to the mattress.
Sucking in his breath, Joe drew himself to the edge of the cot. He sat there for a short while, holding silent and still while he focused on slowing the cadence of his heart, desperate to ease its furious pumping. Every beat forced fire into each of a thousand furrows the outlaw’s whip seemed to have dug out of him.
After a moment, the throbbing was almost tolerable. After another, Joe was able to look around the room. He waited a moment longer to see if the blackness surrounding him was real or simply the effect of pain. Real, he decided. He was beginning to see the shadowed outlines of walls in the tiny, windowless room when he heard another shout, one that could not be mistaken for a dream.
Joe’s gaze shifted to the room’s only door where the flicker of a tiny flame reached underneath, licking fleetingly across the floorboards before fading. Someone carrying a lamp must have passed by in the hallway beyond. More shouts followed, each growing in intensity though the volume was muted, perhaps coming from the street outside.
Rising cautiously, Joe stepped to the door. He set one hand against the wood to steady himself and the other on the latch, but he didn’t open it right away. First, he listened for anyone stirring in the hallway beyond.
He heard nothing.
Finally, he pulled the door open and stepped out…into the path of Zhing Zhi, the Chinese medic. Zhi seemed both surprised and panicked to see him. He rushed toward Joe holding a finger to his own lips, urging silence. Then he grabbed Joe’s arm before turning his attention toward a door at the near end of the hall.
Joe noticed a general rumbling sound then, as of a hundred voices, all calling out at once. It was the sound of a crowd. And it was drawing closer.
Zhi mumbled something in Chinese. He shook his head, discouraged. “You come,” he said then, shoving Joe ahead of him into the deeper tunnel of the narrow hall.
They’d taken perhaps three steps when the door behind them was thrust open, banging against the inner wall. Several anxious Chinese men burst through, rushing toward Joe and Zhing Zhi. Before he could make sense of what was happening, Joe was caught up in their wake. He was grabbed and pushed and pulled, every contact ripping at the wounds in his back. Still somehow Joe was also able to keep his feet—maybe only because this small throng of men was partially carrying him along with them.
They pushed through several doors, their numbers growing as they went. Somewhere along the way, someone deftly fitted him with a Chinese shirt, its sleeves long and wide. Someone else set a cap on his head.
And then suddenly they were back on the streets of Virginia City. Joe could hear the shouts of a crowd moving away from them—perhaps toward the small room he’d just fled. He waited a moment, catching his breath while the men with him spoke softly to one another in Chinese.
“You go,” Zhing Zhi said then. “We take you to edge of town. You run. Get away before sun rise.”
“Thank you,” Joe answered, relieved at the help these men had already given him. But then he looked toward the center of town, where he saw the half-built and half-burned gallows. There was a crowd gathered around it, staring up at the silhouettes of three men and two nooses.
Two men were about to be hanged.
“Who?” Joe asked, feeling acid in his stomach.
Joe was pushed, but his feet held firm. “Who are they planning to hang?” he insisted.
The old man who had spoken with him earlier in the night pressed through the small crowd. Joe felt the hold on his arm loosen as others gave this man space, respectful. When the man stood directly in front of Joe, his eyes met Joe’s, his own reflecting wisdom and resignation.
“Liam O’Brian,” the old man said, “and Doctor Paul Martin.”
Someone might as well have punched Joe in the gut. He couldn’t breathe. “What?” The question came out as a whisper. “Why?”
The man simply looked at him.
“Them or me,” Joe said. “Is that it?”
The man gave him one, small nod.
“It is why they come for you,” Zhing Zhi said beside him.
“Why didn’t you let them?” Joe argued. “You should have let them take me! You can’t let them hang two innocent men to protect me!”
“We will not let anyone hang.”
“What if you can’t stop it?”
Zhi held Joe’s gaze for a moment longer. Then he looked away. The old man kept staring at him.
“I can’t leave,” Joe said. “Not like this.”
The old man said nothing.
Joe reached up and pulled the cap from his head, handing it blindly to someone beside him. He shrugged himself out of the loose shirt and let it fall.
Taking as deep a breath as he could, he nodded to the old man, who nodded back. And then Joe walked resolutely toward the gallows.
Crudely constructed and then partially burned, the gallows erected in the heart of Virginia City was a rickety assembly of plywood and nails. The only parts that seemed reasonably sturdy were the supports and the overhead beam intended to bear the weight of the condemned men.
The condemned men. Liam O’Brian and Doctor Paul Martin.
Joe could see them clearly now, though no one had yet taken notice of him. The pale glow of pre-dawn made it impossible to see much of anything too clearly, and rather than looking outward across a darkened town, every eye was focused inward on the gallows, where lanterns cast enough light to effectively illuminate Sam Dawson at the front of the platform, making him look taller and meaner than ever.
“I say to you now,” Sam Dawson shouted out to the people who had gathered, “all you good citizens of Virginia City, this man who claims to be a doctor ain’t got the know-how of a tadpole.” He thrust his arm outward, stabbing an accusatory finger at Doc Martin. “He kill’t my brother every bit as much as that Cartwright who hit him. My brother, my flesh and blood is dead on account of him.” The way he raised and lowered his voice, as though trying to impress his audience with the intensity of his emotions, reminded Joe of an actor on a stage or an overly zealous preacher on a pulpit.
Joe placed his hand on the shoulder of the man directly in front of him, Frank Rogers, respectfully trying to press himself through the crowd. Rogers glanced at him quickly, looked toward the gallows and then swiveled back to face Joe, his expression shifting from shock to terror. He shook his head, and even made an attempt to shield Joe from Dawson’s view; but Joe gripped his arm, silently demanding Rogers to let him pass.
Joe received similar reactions from others. Whether he knew them or not, everyone seemed to know Joe—probably more due to the fact he’d been tied up in front of the sheriff’s office all afternoon than to the anything else. He received a few scowls as well; those were probably folks who valued Doc Martin far more than they did Little Joe Cartwright; and that was okay with Joe, too. He figured the most vocal of that particular group had been in the mob that had gone after him in the Chinese part of town. Those folks should be back any time now, seeing as how they wouldn’t find Joe there. He hoped they’d be back. The only thing that would keep them in that part of town would be if they decided to take out their anger on the Chinese. Joe didn’t like that thought any more than he liked the idea of Doc Martin being hanged.
“And that is why, I, Sam Dawson,” the outlaw continued, “by the power vested in me by me, sentence this man to hang by his neck until he’s just as dead as my brother.”
“Let him go!” Joe shouted as he pushed his way through the final two rows of people.
“Well, I’ll be danged.” Dawson grinned down at him. “You got even less brains than that doc does, don’t you? Comin’ right at me like a lamb to slaughter.”
“Let them both go,” Joe said.
“Why should I?”
“Because it’s me you’re after.”
“You givin’ yourself up for them?”
Dawson’s grin widened. “Ain’t you the hero! The brave fool willin’ to lay down your life on behalf of these poor souls?”
“Just let them go.”
Dawson seemed to give Joe’s demand some small amount of consideration. “No,” he said a moment later.
“They haven’t done anything!” Joe shouted.
The grin died as a rage came over that false preacher on his pulpit. “Ain’t done nothing? Ain’t done nothing? You’re damned wrong there, boy! That one there,” he pointed to Liam, “he’s done nothing but wrong since we put him to work today. And that doc? You already heard what that doc, done! He kill’t my brother is what he done!”
“You know that’s not true! Doc Martin would have done everything he could to save your brother. If Doc Martin couldn’t save him, no one could.”
“A brave fool and a dim-wit, too. You act like there’s something special about this man, like you believe ’cause he calls himself a doctor then that’s just what he is. I tell ya’ what. How ’bout you come on up here and join ’em? Maybe we’ll even save you for last, so you can watch these two go kickin’ and see for yourself there ain’t nothin’ special about either one of ’em.”
When Dawson’s men moved into the crowd to come after Joe, some of the townsmen made an effort to shield him, but he refused to let anyone else get hurt on account of him. He let himself get pulled away. The pain of his wounds was easy to ignore now, despite the way he was roughly pushed up the stairs. His thoughts were too cluttered with figuring how to stop this pointless killing to think of any pain of his own.
Forced to stand beside Doc Martin, Joe met the older man’s gaze. Pa’s old friend looked truly old now. His eyes were strained with a look even more hopeless than when Joe had seen him deliver bad news to good folks. How many times had Joe seen that man’s eyes when Doc Martin had to say someone was dead or dying? Yet now…that someone was going to be the doc himself, and that hopeless look…well, there was something more complete about it there on that platform…as though there, one final time, the doc was actually accepting the hopelessness…as though, no matter what, he could fight it before, he could fight it right up until then, until that moment.
Joe had to keep fighting it. He had to find a way to fight it for the doc. For both the doc and Liam O’Brian.
Joe was barely conscious of the third rope being fixed to the beam above him. His attention was drawn to Sam Dawson as the outlaw continued to play to the crowd, his speech now on the sins committed against him in that godforsaken town. It wasn’t until Joe’s arms were grabbed and pulled violently backward and a rope tied securely around his already chafed wrists that his thoughts began to shift back to himself. And then, as a noose was fitted around his own neck, he began to wonder about the construction of those gallows. It had been built for one man, not three. Joe looked to the floor, finding no trapdoor at his feet. Nor was there one under the doc’s. There was only one trapdoor; it was fitted squarely under the feet of Liam O’Brian.
“Unhand me you good for nothing scoundrel!” A woman’s voice, heavily accented with an Irish brogue, pulled Joe’s attention toward the stairs. “You are not goin’ to stop me from doin’ what I must.”
Even Sam Dawson stared in amazement when an old woman’s face appeared at the top of the stairs, her hair as white as the hottest desert sun.
“I come to talk to you, you ten gallon braggart.” She pointed a finger at Sam Dawson. “You can lord over this miserable town to your heart’s desire, but you will not hang these men lest you hang meself right along with ’em!”
“Get this woman out of here!” Dawson yelled to his men.
Two men on the platform came forward, but both seemed unwilling to take hold of her.
“Well?” She stood right in front of Dawson then; and though she had to look up to see his eyes, the fire in her own made it almost seem as though she was looking down on him instead. “Are you going to let them go?”
“You got no business here,” Dawson said. “Now get down before you get hurt!”
“Are you going to let them go?” she repeated.
“Very well, then.” She moved toward Liam O’Brian, stopped briefly to catch his eye, and then placed herself beside him. “Fetch another rope. You hang my son, you’d better hang me as well. I’ll have nothin’ left to live for, ‘cept to work me poor, withered hands to the bone. His sainted father passed five years ago, rest his soul, and ’twas his own due to see me through my old age. Without himself beside me, you’re sealing my own death warrant. I’d prefer you do it quick now than suffer the indignity of a drawn out demise.”
“Get her out of here!” Dawson repeated.
Still, his men dare not touch her.
“Fetch another rope, I said!” Missus O’Brian demanded.
And suddenly another woman reached the top of the stairs, a young woman with white-blonde hair. She moved to stand beside Missus O’Brian.
“You might as well hang me, too,” she said. “Liam and I were to be wed come March. Without him, I face a dark future, indeed.”
Next came an elderly man who insisted he owed his life to Doc Martin, and if Doc Martin must hang, then so must he for failing to pay that debt.
Before long there were so many people on the platform, all insisting they, too, be hanged, that the rickety boards began to protest against the weight. The platform creaked and groaned. Joe found himself figuring it wouldn’t matter that there wasn’t a trapdoor beneath him. If that platform gave way, he’d be hanged even if Sam Dawson himself decided against it.
Adam looked up at the eastern sky. Hints of pink and red sent ripples of anxiety burning through him. The kid had said Dawson planned to hang Little Joe at sunrise. If that were true and Dawson hadn’t decided to move ahead of schedule…well, sunrise was coming. But no one was moving.
His brother’s would-be rescuers had managed to pull together a small army, thanks to both Matt Burke and his friend Harv Smitty. Roy Coffee had arrived with a posse drawn from the concerned citizens of Carson City; Pa had arrived with a contingent of Ponderosa ranch hands; and then there was Adam with Hop Sing. All together they might come close to matching Dawson’s gang in numbers. The battle could become bloody; but it would be a battle worth fighting, one they all knew needed to be fought—and not just for Little Joe. If Virginia City could be taken over by outlaws, Carson City might be next. Every man amongst them had worked hard to bring law and order to the territory. None were willing to let it all come to an end at the hands of Sam Dawson.
And yet they were not moving. They were waiting.
“I don’t like this, Hoss,” Adam said without pulling his eyes from the sky. “We’re waiting on a kid who might have gotten too scared to do what he said he would.”
“Or who could’a got caught doin’ it.”
Adam did look at Hoss then. “Could be,” he said, liking Hoss’s idea even less than his own supposition of cowardice. “Whatever the reason, he’s not here, and I don’t think we can wait any longer.”
“No, I don’t reckon we can.”
Adam led the way toward where their pa and Sheriff Coffee were standing. When Hoss lagged behind, he knew why. Hoss wanted to look him over like he would a stock animal, determining whether or not Adam could pull his weight in the fight they’d soon be facing. Of course he couldn’t, but Adam wasn’t about to let Hoss see that. He kept his strides even and held his back straighter than his ribs approved. So what if he was in pain? It was nothing to what Joe had to be feeling, if he’d been whipped like Matt said.
First whipped and now waiting to be hanged.
No, there was no way Adam was going to delay so much as a minute longer. Most of the men might have come for the sake of Virginia City. But Adam, Hoss, Pa—and even Hop Sing, despite all that talk about cousins—had come for Little Joe.
Emmett Polk couldn’t believe what he was seeing. A whole slew of women and old folks had the gumption to defy Sam Dawson, demanding to be hung right along with the doc, Liam and Little Joe Cartwright. Emmett found himself grinning—right on up until Sam Dawson reminded him of the danger every one of those folks was facing. The outlaw moved up close to Missus O’Brian. Then he drew his gun and aimed it straight at her head.
“Where in tarnation did those boys wander off to?” Adam heard Sheriff Coffee complaining as soon as he was within earshot. “I ain’t seen hide nor hair of either of ’em since we first rode in here!”
“I told that boy to stay on the Ponderosa!” Pa was talking to Roy, but he looked straight at Adam. His brows were drawn into an angry scowl.
“Sorry, Pa,” Adam said. “I didn’t see the point to leaving him behind when he has about as much at stake here as any of us. Besides, he shared some good information on the ride in.”
“What sort of information?”
“Well, for starters—”
“Mister Cartwright!” Matt Burke called out from somewhere behind Adam.
“Sheriff Coffee!” Harv Smitty shouted at nearly the same time, equally loud.
Both boys bounded up beside Adam.
“They’re all gathered out front of the jailhouse!” Matt went on, breathless from running.
“Who all?” Roy asked.
“The whole town!”
Adam saw Pa’s eyes move toward the growing field of orange in the sky.
“We’d better ride,” Adam said.
“Not you, Adam,” Pa said.
“I’m not staying here.”
“You are in no shape to—”
“I’m not staying here.”
Pa glared at him, but he didn’t have time to argue any further. That fact became as clear as the sunrise the moment they heard the first round of gunfire explode from the streets of Virginia City.
Gunfire. It was all around him. Joe couldn’t make full sense of where it was coming from or even where it was aimed, but the way the sound vibrated in his own skin told him some of it had exploded from the guns right there on the platform beside him. He didn’t think Dawson had managed to shoot Missus O’Brian. At least, he hoped that hadn’t happened. All he knew was someone else had fired first, and by the time Dawson’s own weapon went off his aim had to have been off too, judging from the spray of blood Joe had seen spout from the man’s shoulder before smoke and people started to block Joe’s view.
Emmett was shaking. Suddenly, he’d found himself in the middle of a fierce gun battle. It had started after a horde of men—both white folks and Chinese—came swarming out of three different alleys on their way to the gallows. Next thing he knew, one gun went off. And then another. And then ten more. And then he saw men falling. He even got splashed by someone’s blood. He hoped it was from one of the outlaws as he wiped a trembling hand across his forehead to keep it from dripping into his eye.
This was it, he told himself as he tried to quiet the raging beat of his heart. This was what they’d been working all night to plan out. Mister Fong had even managed to convince those white men to join forces with his Chinamen, just like he’d said he would. It was all coming together.
Well, most of it anyway. The rest depended on Ben Cartwright and Sheriff Coffee. Where were they?
He started to worry that Matt and Smitty were still waiting for him. But they couldn’t be. They should know better than that. They’d agreed to wait only so long—and everything depended on Ben Cartwright and Sheriff Coffee riding in before it was too late. Everything depended on them. Sam Dawson had confiscated most of the guns in Virginia City, and even the Chinese had only so much ammunition. They would run out soon.
Emmett looked up and down the street, struggling to see past all that smoke and dust. Finally, he caught sight of men on horseback. They’d made it! They were coming!
He let himself breathe and felt his heart pound a little softer against his chest. Then he cast another glance over at the gallows. He could swear he saw the platform quivering.
The boards shifted under Joe’s feet and the rope pulled a little tighter at his throat. He was running out of time.
Fortunately, the chaos on the platform was starting to abate. Dawson was gone. Maybe he’d fallen. Maybe he’d jumped. Joe couldn’t be sure. All he knew was there was only one of Dawson’s men still up there. The outlaw was wrestling with three women: one was on his back, her fingers clawing at his face and chest; another had grabbed hold of his left arm; the third kept trying to trip him. It was almost laughable. But the more that rope scraped across the skin at Joe’s neck, the less he felt like laughing.
His wrists burned from his futile effort to loosen the knots securing his hands behind his back. He started to think maybe he’d have more success once the rope got wet enough from his blood. Trouble was, he didn’t think he could wait that long.
Glancing over at Doc Martin, Joe was glad to see someone pulling the noose from around the older man’s neck. And then that someone turned toward Joe. It was the boy, Emmett Polk.
Joe smiled, grateful for the help. Emmett didn’t smile back. His face was as serious as could be as he started reaching for Joe’s own noose. Joe felt the boy’s knuckles on his throat as thin fingers curled around the rope.
And then the floor gave way beneath them.
A war had erupted in Virginia City; but with neither side in uniform it was hard to tell friend from foe. Ben felt half blind riding into the midst of it without having a clear idea exactly what was happening. He found himself using his gun more to warn and threaten than to cause harm. His first goal was to reach Little Joe. After that, the rest could be sorted.
He heard someone call out in Chinese. It was a thin sound against the roar of shooting and horses’ hooves pounding against the hard dirt of the street. Even Hop Sing, close as he was, sounded miles away when he shouted back.
“Gallows!” Hop Sing yelled to Ben in English an instant later.
Ben felt the air grow thicker around him, stealing both his speed and his energy. His stomach began to rise up in protest. Were they already too late?
“Pa!” Hoss’s shout pulled Ben’s eyes toward the jailhouse.
The gallows were coming into view.
They were a monstrous, lopsided affair positioned right in the middle of the street. As Ben drew closer, he saw several people atop the platform. One looked to be Paul Martin. Closer still and Ben began to make sense of a cluster that appeared to be a wrestling match between two women and a man. Strange as that was, when Ben drew close enough to see the ropes hanging down from the highest beam, that’s where his attention was drawn.
There were three ropes altogether. Two were dangling loose. Empty. A man was secured to the third. Shirtless, his back was too red against the paler skin of his arms, which were tied behind him. Sickened to see so much red, Ben started to look away—wanted to look away—refusing to believe it could be Joe.
“They whipped him, sir,” the boy had told him. “Whipped him bad.”
But when Ben saw a mirror of his own horror in the faces of Hoss and Adam, he knew he couldn’t deny it. That man was Little Joe.
He kicked Buck into a wild race, ignoring the battle around him, his gaze locked on his youngest son. Fast as he tried to go, he wasn’t fast enough. He was still a good thirty yards away when the gallows collapsed.
Ben watched his youngest son fall as the boards at Joe’s feet clattered to the ground.
And then the rope went taut.
Emmett was sure his arm had been ripped clean off. That’s what it felt like. Or more than that. Like it had been ripped and yet somehow just kept ripping.
He was hanging by his arm, he realized then. Or…by his hand.
He blinked hard—once, twice, a third time—trying to clear away the fog. Only it wasn’t fog. It was dust. Road dust and sawdust. Looking up past all that dusty fog, he saw his hand had been trapped in the grip of the noose. Funny though, he couldn’t feel his hand. Or maybe not so funny. What he could feel was white hot pain way down deep in his shoulder where he could see now that his arm really was still attached.
He tried to reach up with his other hand, but he couldn’t get it up high enough to touch the rope. He tried again and again, straining and grunting and groaning each time, trying to get higher and higher. He just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t do much of anything at all except hang there feeling his arm getting ripped right off his shoulder. He couldn’t even hardly breathe. It hurt too much to breathe. It hurt to even think. But he went ahead and did it anyway. He thought about what it would have been like if he hadn’t grabbed the noose from around Little Joe’s neck when he had. Then it would be Joe hanging there rather than him. But Joe would be hanging by his neck, not his hand. Emmett wondered what that would have felt like. Would Joe think his head had been ripped clean off?
Don’t be such a lame-brained fool, he silently scolded himself. If you hang like that you don’t feel much of anything. You just die.
“Not always,” Matt would probably tell him if he were there now. Matt knew about things like that. His pa had seen a whole lot of hangings.
“My pa says sometimes they die real slow,” Matt had said when they’d been waiting for Bart Sandoval’s hanging a couple months earlier. “The fall’s supposed to break a man’s neck, but sometimes it don’t. And then they gotta choke to death instead.”
Sandoval must have been lucky. His neck snapped soon as that noose pulled up tight on him. Matt figured his hand must be broke just like Sandoval’s neck had been. That rope sure did pull tight to hold him up like it was. Happened so fast, he couldn’t even really remember getting that noose up off of Little Joe’s head. All he remembered was grabbing hold of it. And then falling. And now hanging there like he was.
“Joe!” he heard someone calling. Sounded like one of them Cartwrights—the big one, the one they called Hoss. “Little Joe!”
There was a ruckus of boards being pulled away, and then finally the fog started to clear. Emmett could see the sky. It was bluer, brighter than it had been just a few minutes earlier. Sun sure had a way of rising fast once it started poking itself up over the horizon. Emmett was glad of that, because it made for enough light he could see the big man poking his own bulk up over the horizon of those piles of broken boards. Emmett might have been afraid it was another of those Dawson men if he didn’t see a big old grin rising up on that Hoss Cartwright’s face.
“I’ll be doggone!” Hoss said as he stepped across the debris. “You’re sure a sight for sore eyes!”
“Could you…maybe…cut me down?” Emmett said through raw scratches in his throat. He must’ve screamed when he fell. He sure hoped no one had heard him.
“Boy, you just saved my brother’s life! Don’t you worry about nothin’. I’ll take care of you just fine!”
Joe heard his brother’s voice. He was sure of it, even if he wasn’t sure how that could be. Did you still hear voices after you died? He was supposed to be dead, wasn’t he? That noose had to have hung him. But just as he was sure he heard Hoss’s voice, he was also pretty sure that voice had said someone saved his brother’s life. Joe’s life?
Joe blinked, and then realized he could. He could blink. That had to mean he wasn’t dead. He couldn’t see anything, but he blinked. And he could feel it, the feel of grit scraping across his eyes each time he lifted and closed his lids. He started to feel more than that, then. He felt grit scraping up against his face, slipping between his lips. He could taste it, and smell it, too. Not just grit. Sand. Dirt. Sawdust from sturdy hardwoods and softer pine.
He was on the ground, lying face down in the dirt.
He lifted his head just the smallest bit, just enough so he could try to look around, but the movement did something to his back. It felt like…like something shifted, sliding across him. Wood, he decided. It felt like he’d been buried under a pile of wood. And as the wood shifted, it ripped open his back. It felt like fire. Like fire and knives. Like he’d been skinned alive.
He’d been whipped, he remembered then. First he’d been whipped, and then he’d been swallowed up in an avalanche of wood, an avalanche that must have left a whole mess of splinters behind, digging into the already raw spots in his back.
Maybe he groaned then. He wasn’t sure. He heard it more than felt it. Feeling was now focused on his back, as though that was the only part of him that mattered. Trouble was, it mattered too much. He found himself wishing he’d never lifted his head, so his back would never have screamed at him like it was. At the same time he was glad, because at least he knew he was alive.
Even so, now that he knew, he wished he could forget.
“Joe!” Pa’s voice sounded a whole lot closer than Hoss’s, like Pa was right there next to him.
But Joe wasn’t going to make the mistake of lifting his head again. Instead he closed his eyes and let Pa and Hoss do the lifting. An instant later, when it felt like he was being skinned alive again, Joe sank back into the comfort of a dark, empty oblivion, where forgetting was the most important thing of all.
When the gallows collapsed, the shooting stopped. Why that might be was of no concern to Ben. All that mattered to him was getting to Joe.
He could hear others around him coughing and muttering softly as they rose. A quick glimpse of Paul Martin caught him limping, but the doctor responded too quickly to Hoss’s call for help with the boy to have been seriously injured. In fact, no one except the boy appeared to have suffered more than scrapes and bruises.
No one except the boy and Joe.
Ben heard a soft groan. It swung him around to a pile of debris in time to see it shift ever so slightly.
“Joe!” he called out even before he’d lifted the first board.
With each new board he pulled away, the damage to Joe’s back became clearer and clearer. It was so raw Ben had to fight against the urge to shudder, an urge nearly strong enough to have him writhing in imagined agony. He couldn’t begin to fathom what his young son must be feeling. It was almost a comfort to find Joe quiet and unmoving.
“Joe?” he said softly this time as he knelt to the ground. With Joe’s face turned away, it took a moment for Ben to see his son’s eyes were closed, and yet another to notice the abrasive marks at Joe’s chin and cheek that looked as though they might be rope burns.
Rope burns. It had been that close.
Swallowing bile, Ben glanced toward the boy who had saved Joe’s life. Someone had fitted a piece of wood between his teeth and Hoss was holding him firm. Paul’s hands were on either side of the boy’s shoulder. Dislocated, Ben guessed. The force of the plunge, the pull of the rope…. Had Joe’s neck still been in that noose, it would most certainly have broken.
Ben closed his eyes an instant before the boy’s shout made it clear Paul Martin had pulled the shoulder back into place.
“Thank you,” Ben prayed quietly, intending the words as much for Emmett Polk as for God Himself. And then he placed his hand on Joe’s head, needing the connection.
It disturbed him that Joe did not stir at his touch. At the same time, it gave him some relief. The effort to move Joe somewhere safe where Paul could treat him properly…well, it would not be easy with Joe’s back in such a sorry state. It was better this way, Ben decided.
Rising, Ben’s gaze landed on Adam. His oldest son was clutching his bandaged hand to his stomach; the other was wrapped tightly around the hitching post just this side of the jail. But his eyes…Adam’s eyes were focused squarely on Little Joe.
Ben had asked Adam…simply asked him to stay behind while he and Hoss dug into the debris of the gallows. Ben had said nothing more than “please,” but with that plea had come a look even his stubborn, first-born son must have recognized. Ben was worried enough over Joe and Adam was already injured. Ben couldn’t bear to worry over Adam as well.
Adam could have argued with words. You don’t need to worry about me, he would insist. But Ben would worry, no matter what Adam said. And Ben’s eyes made that clear. Please, son, that look had said, reading the lines straight from Ben’s heart. I’m begging you. Don’t make me have to worry for you as well.
And Adam had listened. And now he stood at that hitching post, holding onto it as though his own life depended on not letting go. Or even perhaps…perhaps willing such thoughts into Joe. Because now it was Adam’s eyes that were reflecting messages from his heart, messages that said very clearly his concern for his young brother had not ended at seeing that taut rope around Emmett Polk’s wrist rather than Little Joe’s neck.
“Hoss,” Ben called. It was time to get Joe to safety.
But an instant later Ben was pulled toward another cry as the other boy, Matt Burke, shouted Adam’s name. Ben returned his attention to his oldest son in time to see the boy barrel into him, knocking him to the ground at the very second the shooting began again.
Or rather…a single shot, one that knocked the hat right off of the boy’s head.
If Adam’s ribs hadn’t been cracked before, he was pretty sure at least a couple of them were now. He could barely breathe. “Wha…what…?” Finding it a struggle say even a single word, he blinked several times, hoping to bring the world back into focus through all the white flashes and black spots swimming across his vision.
“Dang, that was close!” Matt Burke said as he pushed himself off of Adam. “It’s okay, now. He rode off.”
“The one that killed Dawson’s brother and whipped yours.” Matt wasn’t looking at Adam anymore. He was looking at his hat and pushing his finger through the fresh hole. “I’d a’figured him to have better aim than this.”
Adam used his good hand to pull himself toward the hitching post, and then leaned his back against the nearest support. After a moment, he seemed to have caught enough of his breath to try speaking again. “He saw you…. Didn’t he?”
“‘Course he did! But he was aiming for you. I couldn’t just—”
“I mean at the saloon yesterday. When you saw him hit Jim Dawson.”
“What’s this about Jim Dawson?” Ben’s voice came as a surprise.
Adam closed his eyes, frustrated at his inability to stay alert to what was around him. First he’d been so focused on Joe he’d ignored the fact that Dawson and his men were still close. Now he was so focused on…on breathing and figuring out what had just happened, he hadn’t seen his own father approaching.
But when he felt Pa’s hand on his shoulder, at least some of his frustration began to melt away. He opened his eyes again, attempted the deepest breath he dare take, and then decided to put off Pa’s question long enough to get an answer to his own. “How’s Joe?”
Adam watched his father glance back toward the fallen gallows. Ben clenched his jaw and jerked his head to the left. It wasn’t quite a shake. Still, it wasn’t the kind of answer Adam had either hoped for or expected.
“Hoss is going to bring him into the jail,” Pa said then. “It’s the closest….” He closed his eyes for a moment before continuing. “It’s clearly not safe enough to go anywhere else just now.” Pa’s attention shifted once more to Adam. “What about you, son?”
“Better than Joe,” Adam answered absently, his thoughts focused on far more important things. “Pa, the man who fired that shot just now, Matt said it’s the same man who whipped Joe.”
Ben looked to the boy, his eyes briefly brightening with urgency. Adam could imagine him telling them all to mount up and go after the outlaw, mirroring what had gone through Adam’s own thoughts until he’d realized he could hardly catch his breath, let alone chase after someone who would fight back without restraint.
Then the moment passed and Pa’s gaze darkened once more. “Well, there’s nothing we can do about that right now,” he admitted softly. “Let’s get you—”
“Pa, there’s something else you should know.” Adam waited for his father to give him his full attention. “On the ride in, Matt told me…. Pa, it wasn’t our fight that killed Jim Dawson. It was that outlaw, Sam Dawson’s second-in-command. He hit Dawson’s brother with a rifle butt after I left.”
“Is that true?” Pa said to Matt.
“Yes, sir. He was sittin’ in that saloon with two others through the whole thing. I don’t think Jim Dawson knew who they were. Maybe they didn’t even know who he was ’til he told Adam he was Sam Dawson’s brother.”
“Where were you,” Adam asked, “when you saw all this?”
“Outside. I was lookin’ in over the doors.”
“Could they have seen you?’
Matt scrunched his face up. “I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Maybe. I suppose he might’a.”
Adam stared at him. “He wasn’t aiming at me just now.”
Matt stared right back, clearly confused. “‘Course he was.”
“I don’t think so. Look at your hat. My bet is he was aiming at you.”
“Me? What would he go after me for?”
“For being a witness. Because you saw him murder Sam Dawson’s brother.”
“He’s kill’t lots of folks. Why would he be so worried about that one? If he ever goes to trial, the law will be lookin’ for him to pay for all the honest folks he’s killed first.”
“He’s not worried about the law. He’s worried about Sam Dawson.”
Adam watched as the truth of his words began to find their way into that young man’s thoughts. Before long, Matt’s eyes grew wide as he turned toward the alley where the outlaw had been only moments earlier. The boy’s face visibly paled. “You mean he’s worried I’ll tell Sam Dawson?”
“He’s worried about Dawson finding out. Who else might have seen what happened in that saloon?”
“There wasn’t no one else in there. Even the bartender lit out. Folks heard the name of Sam Dawson, they didn’t want to stick around.”
“Good,” Ben said. “Now as for you, young man,” he pointed at Matt. “You stay close to us. You’ll be safe enough in the jail for now.”
Adam couldn’t exactly agree. “Roy’s going to need those cells before too much longer, Pa. It might not be a good idea to have either Joe or Matt in there when he starts bringing in Dawson’s men.”
Pa looked at Adam for a long while. Adam could almost believe his father was waiting for him to come up with viable alternatives. Trouble was, he couldn’t.
“Well,” Pa said then, dropping his gaze. “It’s all we can do for now. Let’s get you both inside. Hoss is….”
Adam watched his father stiffen. Curious, he followed Pa’s line of sight. Hoss was carrying Joe on his shoulders, one hand gripping Joe’s arm, the other wrapped around Joe’s leg. He met their eyes as he approached, his own looking both angry and sad. Then he shook his head, making it clear he didn’t like any part of this. Not having to carry Joe like he was. Not having to bring him into the jail. And probably more than anything else, Hoss sure wouldn’t be happy about the fact he couldn’t go after the men who’d hurt Joe—at least, not yet. The time would come though….
Adam could almost pity that outlaw once Hoss got a hold of him. Almost. But not quite. Actually, Adam was about as eager for that moment as Hoss.
The whip licked out at him like a snake with a razor tongue. Fangs spat venom that ate into the skin of his back as effectively as acid. Joe fought to pull away, to free himself from the bindings at his wrists. He could do it; he had to. And then he would turn around and kill that outlaw with his bare hands.
Rage built up within him, burning past the pain, giving him the strength he needed. Before he even knew he was free, he found himself pushing against…a wall? He didn’t try to understand. That he was free was all that mattered. He turned without thought, lashing his left arm outward. Connecting with someone else’s arm, his hand wrapped around it on instinct.
“Joe!” someone shouted. He heard it more than once, and…it sounded like Pa. Hoss, too, but neither made sense. They were far from him. They were both home, safe on the Ponderosa.
No. Couldn’t be them. Joe kept his grip and struggled for enough balance to let him put his other fist to good, solid use.
“Joe!” The shout was repeated. Or two shouts, maybe even three.
Joe was lying on his belly. Someone’s hand was wrapped around his left arm. Whoever it was, he had an impossibly strong grip. Another hand started to gently…gently?…pry Joe’s fingers loose from the arm in his own grip.
“Joe! It’s all right, son.” Pa?
No. Couldn’t be. Joe blinked hard, trying to clear his eyes. He had to make sense of the patterns around him, the colors and shadows and…people. He had to…he had to…think.
“Easy, boy. Doc’s not tryin’ to hurt ya’.” Hoss?
Joe turned his head toward the voice, blinking until his older brother came into focus.
It always amazed Joe that a man as big as Hoss could be both the strongest and the gentlest person he knew. He was strong. And he was gentle. And right then he was about as gentle as ever. He told Joe to lay back, his voice as soothing as a soft, spring rain, and he pressed Joe down with a touch that was as firm as it was supplicating. And Joe trusted him. And, trusting him, Joe let his brother push him back down to…what? Joe was surprised to realize there was a thin mattress beneath him. He was perhaps even more surprised to find Hoss was easing Joe’s hand away from…Doc Martin? Yes. Joe had been gripping Doc Martin’s arm.
“Let the doc fix ya’ up, Little Joe.”
Confused and…tired…Joe laid his head down in the crook of his right arm and closed his eyes.
Adam watched from the window as Hoss and Pa got Joe settled. He knew sitting outside in front of the jailhouse put him at more risk than if he’d stayed inside; and both Pa and Hoss had argued against it. But in there he’d been useless, too broken to be of any help with Joe. At least out on the porch he could sit quietly and be watchful, keeping an eye out for any of the scattered outlaws. Nor was he alone. He’d been joined by an old man, a young woman, a saloon girl named Betty, and the O’Brians, Liam and his mother. Every one of them—everyone except Adam—had endured the collapse of the gallows.
Noticing that Betty’s gaze was focused on the window as his had been a moment earlier, Adam watched her until she turned toward him, her too-red lips curling into a small, almost conspiratorial smile when their eyes met. “That brother of yours sure showed up the men of this town.”
“How do you mean?” Adam asked, his curiosity piqued.
“He was free.” She shook her head. “Could have stayed clear. Damndest thing I ever saw. Dawson was gonna hang Liam here, and the doc, too, but Little Joe walked right up to him. Made his way through the crowd and walked right on up, sayin’ it was him Dawson wanted. Told him to let the others go.”
Adam looked again toward the window. “He was free?”
Betty nodded. “The Chinamen cut him loose. Oh, some of Virginia City’s finest joined the party after it started, but if it weren’t for the Chinamen, that brother of yours would probably have still been hanging right here ’til they got him for the real hanging.”
“Hanging? Here?” She wasn’t making any sense.
When she looked up to the rafters, Adam followed her line of sight. “They had him tied up by his wrists. See?” She pointed to the remnants of cut rope hanging from two wooden beams. “There…and there. It’s where they whipped him. And where they left him afterwards. He was hanging like that for hours, poor kid. About broke my heart to watch him, in pain like that. Exhausted, too. And staring at that dead deputy the whole time.”
Adam heard her pause to take a breath. From the corner of his eye he saw her shake her head again, and he turned his attention from those dangling ropes to where drops of blood had dried on the floor boards. He tried to imagine what it had been like for Joe, but he couldn’t. Now that he knew that was Joe’s blood at his feet, he tried, also, to avoid focusing on the sight of it, and was equally unsuccessful. It was far easier to ignore the bench where the deputy’s body had sat for God knew how long until Liam and Hoss had carried him away to the back of the building.
“But no one would do anything about it,” Betty went on. “No one but those Chinamen.”
“It was Emmett.” Surprised by the sound of a new, softer voice, Adam’s attention was finally turned. He looked to the young woman, who had been silent until that moment. She was a pretty gal with rich, blue eyes and white-blonde hair—the kind of gal who would easily catch Joe’s eye and pull him from whatever task he’d been set to do. “That boy, Emmett, got the Chinamen involved,” the young woman went on. “He was with them the whole time.”
She was a curiosity, Adam realized. Despite her petite frame, the shy innocence in her eyes and the modest dress she wore, she held a rifle as though it fit her hand—as though she was comfortable with its use.
“He sure surprised me, that Emmett” she continued with a touch of the south in her voice, “I think maybe some of Liam wore off on him.”
“Me?” Liam asked, pulling his attention away from the corner of the porch where he’d been watching the street.
Adam caught the young woman blushing as she turned away from Liam.
“Of course, you,” she said. “He hasn’t got an older brother, so he looks to you.”
“You’ve lived next door to him long enough. Surely you’ve noticed how much attention he gives you.”
Now it was Liam’s turn to look toward the sheriff’s office, knowing both Emmett and his friend, Matt, were housed inside. “Dang, fool kid. Why’d he want to go and think of me like that?”
“Because a good, strong man you are,” Liam’s mother said then. “And young boys need good strong men to look up to, just like you looked up to your own sainted father.”
These people amazed Adam, every one of them. Missus O’Brian spoke like her words were all that mattered, enough to close any argument. She never even looked away from the street, so sure was she of the truth she’d provided. Like the young woman, she too held a rifle as though she’d been born to shoot.
And then there was the old man. He was quiet, but it was clear from the look in his eye and the turn of his lips that he was hearing and reacting to every word. There was an air of wisdom about him, something that made Adam certain he’d been through battles before—he’d been through them and survived. He may be old and feeble, but Adam found himself feeling a sense of comfort to have him standing guard…to have all of them standing guard, he decided. These people, quiet and stubborn souls Adam had never met, had never had the need to know, represented the heart of Virginia City, a heart that refused to stop beating, and that might even have found new life, thanks to Little Joe’s foolish and courageous willingness to sacrifice his own life in their behalf.
Adam’s gaze strayed once more toward the window, drawn by a sense of respect for his young brother far deeper than he’d ever realized.
“That brother of yours sure showed up the men of this town,” Betty had said moments earlier.
And so have all of these people right here. Adam felt his lips curling upward. Sam Dawson didn’t stand a chance.
Harv Smitty was scared. He didn’t want to be scared. He hated the fact that he was. But truth be told, he was. This was nothing like he’d imagined.
He’d been working right alongside Sheriff Coffee—he was almost a deputy even!—and figured he’d end up with a bunch of stories to brag about once it was all over. They were trying to round up every last one of Sam Dawson’s outlaws; Smitty’s job was running messages between the sheriff, the Chinamen and the townsfolk who were working with both. Sure, he wasn’t fighting exactly. But he was in the thick of the fight. He saw folks getting shot, and other folks doing the shooting, and sometimes it was hard to tell which was which.
Smitty was trapped in an alley, cowering behind a bunch of crates and plugging his ears against the explosive sound of gunfire and ear-popping ricochets. Bullets were flying back and forth so much he couldn’t even keep up with who was shooting whom.
Then it got quiet again.
It was strange, how sudden it went from a raging battle to a silent street. At first he thought maybe he’d gone deaf, but when he pulled his hands away from his ears he heard a soft knocking sound. Looking up, he saw a loose sign swaying in the light breeze and banging up against the building. He could hear, sure enough. So…was it actually over? He pulled his shoulders back, unwrapping himself from the ball he’d found himself in, and listened for something more.
“It’s over, Dawson,” Sheriff Coffee’s voice called out then, “an’ you know it. Now why don’t you just throw down your gun an’ come on out of there before you make things any worse for you than they already are?”
Sam Dawson? Shock gave way to amazement. Smitty soon found himself smiling, even chuckling quietly to himself. The sheriff had finally cornered Sam Dawson. Once they got him, they sure as heck were going to get everyone else. It was over. It really was over.
They’d done it! Smitty and his friends, Matt and Polk, they’d brought down the Dawson gang!
Smitty took a deep breath, trying to tell himself it wasn’t really them who’d done it. But if it hadn’t been for Smitty and Matt going after the Cartwrights and Sheriff Coffee, Dawson would still be in control of Virginia City. So Smitty had every right to be proud of what he’d done, proud enough to crow about it.
The smile came back, even bigger than before. He could hardly wait to tell his folks. Heck, he wanted the whole town to know about it. He figured there would even be a story about him and his friends in the newspaper.
Barely able to contain his excitement, Smitty rose from his hiding place. He started to believe he’d never been scared at all; he’d just taken cover from all those bullets flying around. It was only natural to take cover. He’d have been crazy not to. Right?
Lost in the jumble of his thoughts, Smitty paid no attention to the rest of Sheriff Coffee’s conversation. In his mind, Dawson was already caught. The idea of a standoff never occurred to him. It wasn’t until he took a step out of the alley that he realized his mistake. He heard the kind of sound you never want to hear close up, the sound of a six-shooter being cocked behind him, and made ready to fire.
“Stay right where you are, kid,” a gruff voice said at his back. “Unless you want me to spill some of them lame brains you got in your head.”
The sound of gunfire was closer this time, close enough to draw Ben Cartwright away from Joe and to the door. Matt Burke was just a step behind him.
“Stay inside,” Ben commanded, using the stern voice that had once managed to prevent his sons from doing what they shouldn’t—when they’d been young enough to listen. It must have worked with Matt too; though Ben didn’t watch for the boy’s reaction, he could sense as he strode through the door that Matt was no longer shadowing him.
And then, the moment he stepped outside, Matt was forgotten. Ben’s focus turned to Adam, who was struggling to get to his feet, the effort digging lines deep into his forehead. His good hand was pushing heavily on the arm of the chair, his bandaged one pressed against his ribs.
“Adam!” Ben went straight to his son, concerned as much by the pain Adam was clearly experiencing as he was by the shots that sounded far closer than they had a moment earlier. “Let’s get you back inside.”
But Adam hesitated. His attention turned to the women on the porch with him.
Sighing, Ben shook his head. “We need them and they know it. They’re no different than Inger. Let them do what they feel they must.”
Adam looked to him, the pull of his brow adding fear to the pain that had already been present. In that look Ben saw a much younger version of his son; he saw the frightened child who had watched Ben’s second wife, Inger—the woman Adam had come to know as his mother—die horribly, painfully, because she had chosen to fight rather than cower.
“They’ll be all right,” Ben said in the same stern voice he’d used with Matt. “Now come on. The sooner we get you inside, the sooner I can get back out here and see what’s going on.”
“I’ll take care of him, Pa.” Hoss?
Ben turned toward the sound of his middle son’s voice—Inger’s son. He was wondering how Hoss had managed to approach him so quietly, when a bullet thumped into a wooden post nearby. An instant later, Hoss was pulling Adam away, practically lifting his older brother into his arms and moving him into the safer confines of the sheriff’s office.
Just like that, Hoss had taken over, relieving Ben of his duty to Adam, all the while seeming oblivious to the bullets flying around them—or giving them no more thought than he would the flies that had been a persistent presence even after the deputy’s body had been removed. Hoss had simply done what he’d seen as necessary—just as his mother had all those years ago.
Grief merged with fear in Ben’s gut at that moment. He was afraid for all three of his sons. And then fear became rage. All of this—every bit of it was Dawson’s doing. Whether Sam or Jim, it didn’t matter. The Dawsons were responsible. It was time for the threat the Dawson gang posed to come to an end.
Grabbing up the rifle that had been leaning against Adam’s chair, Ben gave his full attention to the coming battle.
The shooting stopped again. This time, there was something about the silence that bothered Hoss. He couldn’t exactly figure why. Moments of heavy gunfire had been followed by moments of uncanny silence since they’d first arrived in Virginia City. But this time the quiet left him feeling uneasy, as though it wasn’t so much an end to the fighting as it was a beginning to something else, maybe something worse.
Looking over to Joe, he couldn’t much imagine anything worse than what his younger brother had been through—at least he sure didn’t want to imagine it. Still, that didn’t change the queasiness in his gut.
“I’m gonna go check on things out there,” he told Adam, deciding there wasn’t much else he could do anyway.
Adam’s brows pulled downward. It was a familiar look, one he’d always given his younger brothers whenever they were about to do something they shouldn’t. But just as Adam started to open his mouth to argue, Doc Martin put up an argument of his own—one that justified what Hoss wanted to do.
“See if you can ‘check on things’ between here and my office,” the doc said. “I can’t do anything else for Joe here. Some of those splinters are buried too deep for my liking. I can’t get to them without my instruments, and he needs medicine, too.”
Hoss watched as Adam turned toward Doc Martin and Joe. The oldest Cartwright brother had never been one to back down unless he knew he was already beaten. That’s what Adam looked like to Hoss at that moment, like he had been beaten. It wasn’t the bruises or the busted hand that gave him that look just then. It was the sag in his shoulders and the way he let out a long breath. It made Hoss want more than ever to get his hands on the Dawsons—both of them, not just Sam but the dead one too, the one who’d beaten Adam half to death. Somehow it just didn’t seem fair Jim Dawson was already dead. It just didn’t seem fair at all.
Pulling his own shoulders back, making it clear more to himself than to anyone else that Hoss Cartwright was not about to back down, he waited for Adam’s eyes to reach his again, and then he gave a quick nod. It was a small gesture, but the only one he needed. I’ll take care of it, that nod said.
An instant later, Adam nodded back, but his eyes said something else. Don’t be stupid, little brother. When Adam opened his mouth again, this time he was able to say what he wanted without any interruption. “Keep your eyes open. Dawson’s got a lot of men with him”
“Don’t you worry about me,” Hoss answered.
“I can’t help it.” Adam gave him that little half smile of his. It looked kind of silly, buried as it was behind a swollen lip.
It made Hoss smile too. “Yeah, well I won’t give you no reason to.” And then, with another quick glance over to where Joe looked to be sound asleep, Hoss turned away and headed for the door.
“I’ll make double sure of that.” A small voice pulled Hoss back around to find Matt Burke looking at him pleadingly. “If you let me come with you.”
The fool kid was just aiming to get himself killed, wasn’t he? “No.” Hoss gave the boy the sternest look he had and shook his head. “It’s like Adam said. Dawson’s men could be anywhere. And if you come on to the wrong one, he’s likely to shoot you before you ever even know he’s there.”
Matt gave his own head a vigorous shake back and forth. “Not a chance. I know places to sneak up on folks not even the sheriff knows about. No way Dawson or any of his men are gonna know about ’em. They’ll never see me.”
“He’s right,” Matt’s friend, Emmett added. That boy wasn’t looking too good. His face was pale as can be. Hoss knew it was on account of the pain he was in. Trouble was, all they had to give him was whiskey, and he couldn’t even get it down. Emmett coughed it right back up again so forcefully it didn’t do anything but pain him even more. “Matt knows more hidey holes than anyone in Virginia City. I’ll bet he’s even spied on you once or twice, and you never even knew it.”
Matt looked sheepishly up at Hoss before tossing a complaint over his shoulder to his friend. “You ain’t helpin’.”
“Sure I am,” Emmett shot back. “If you want to know about something in this town,” he said to Hoss then, “Matt’ll find it out for you without anyone ever knowin’ he was listenin’.”
“No,” Adam said while Hoss looked back and forth between Matt and Emmett, studying them both and trying to figure out how much of what they said was actually true. “It’s not safe.”
“It’s safer than waitin’ in here for them to find us,” Matt argued. “Let me help. I’ll find Dawson’s men for you. And I’ll find ’em before any one of ’em ever finds me.”
“That’s not what happened out there earlier,” Adam argued right back at him.
“I wasn’t paying attention, then. I didn’t realize I needed to. Now I do. I realize it, I mean. I know it’s not safe. I also know I can help without any of you having to waste your own time lookin’ out for me.”
“He can,” Emmett added.
Hoss took a deep breath. “All right,” he decided. And then, putting that stern face on again, he stabbed his finger into Matt’s chest. “But you listen to everything I say. You don’t do nothin’ without asking me first. You got that?”
Matt’s smile about covered his whole face. “Yes, sir! I swear it!”
“Hoss….” Adam tried to caution him.
“I know, Adam. But dadburnit I believe ’em. I believe both of ’em. I also know we need all the help we can get right now. And not just for Joe. You and Emmett need the doc to get back to his office, too.”
“Don’t you worry about me,” Adam parroted back Hoss’s own words.
Hoss couldn’t help but smile. “I can’t help it.”
Barely a minute later, Hoss, about the largest man you’d ever find in Virginia City, was prowling around back alleys, relying on the expertise of a tiny scrap of a boy and praying he hadn’t just made the worst mistake of his life.
When they started hearing a couple of men shouting out at one another about five minutes later, Matt guided Hoss right up close to where the nearest voice had been coming from. They figured the man doing the talking was just the other side of the barber shop.
“I ain’t bluffin’, sheriff,” the man was saying. “You ought’a know that about me by now.”
Holding tight to the wall, Matt held a finger to his lips, as though Hoss needed to be told to keep quiet. Hoss grabbed Matt and pushed the boy aside before cautiously peering around the edge of the building himself.
“You and me,” Sheriff Coffee called out from somewhere further down the street, “we both know you’ll never make it out of this town alive if you bring any harm to that boy.”
Hoss could see the back of the outlaw. It looked like the man was holding someone in front of him. A kid.
“He’ll be dead before me,” the outlaw hollered back. “You want that?” For a moment he turned his head just enough to make Hoss see he wasn’t just any outlaw; that man was Sam Dawson, himself.
Hoss glanced back toward Matt. He sure had made an awful mistake in bringing the kid. But Hoss couldn’t change the fact that Matt was there now. All he could do was see to it Matt stayed out of the line of any fire that might come about. Vowing to do just that, Hoss gave his attention back to the outlaw. He noticed then Dawson was staggering some, like he couldn’t quite stand still. He probably couldn’t, Hoss decided. In fact, he might be on the verge of passing out. There was blood on his shirt, and it was looking like a pretty good stream of it was flowing down his arm, right onto the gun wavering in his hand. His other arm was wrapped around his hostage, holding the boy tight to his chest.
Maybe they could wait this whole thing out. Dawson would collapse, freeing the boy, and then it would all be over.
“What you got to say, sheriff?” When Dawson shouted out again, Hoss saw that gun hand of his go as steady as could be. In fact, Hoss was amazed at how stiff Dawson got right then. It looked like he was standing taller too, like that blood didn’t mean anything at all.
“I mean it!” Dawson pulled back the hammer, moving the barrel of the gun to the side of that boy’s head. “I’ll kill this boy and it’ll be on your conscience!”
Hoss could see a tuft of dark brown hair. It looked to be shaking in a breeze, but Hoss didn’t feel any kind of breeze strong enough to do that, not then. Poor kid had to be petrified.
“All right, Dawson!” Sheriff Coffee yelled back. “You ride out of here yourself. Leave the boy and you have my word. We won’t come after you.”
Dawson laughed. It was a cold, hollow sound, like it was coming from a man who knew he was already dead…like he was expecting to die. “With my men,” he shouted.
“Now you know I can’t do that,” Roy answered. “Half of ’em are already on their way to Carson City, and some of the rest are in no shape to ride.”
“Stop playing games, sheriff! You got five of my men right there behind you. Let them free and we all head out of here without anyone following. You do that, this boy might just have the chance to grow up enough to see the inside of a saloon.”
Hoss shifted his position, angling himself to get a better view of the crowd behind Sheriff Coffee. When he saw the five men, his eye landed on one in particular, the one that Burke kid said had killed Dawson’s brother—the one who had whipped Little Joe. Hoss stared at him a good long while before he realized Sheriff Coffee hadn’t answered Sam’s latest challenge.
“Tell you what,” Dawson said then. “I’ll give you a count of five. One for each of my five men. If I get to five and they’re not on their way over here, this boy dies.”
He meant it, too. Hoss could see that plain as day.
Hoss turned back, grabbing young Matt. “Think you can get to the sheriff?” he whispered.
“Then do it. Do it fast. Tell him quick which one killed Sam’s brother. Now go!” He watched Matt hightail it back into the alley, praying the boy didn’t forget to keep an eye out for any other outlaws that might be hiding in the shadows.
Hurrying back to the corner of the building, Hoss tried to steady his own nerves, drawing his shoulders back. He could almost hear Adam whispering in his ear. Don’t be stupid, little brother.
“I don’t see no other choice, older brother,” Hoss said softly to himself.
Hoss held his breath until he saw a commotion in the crowd behind the sheriff. He figured—he hoped it was on account of the fact they’d spotted Matt coming at them.
Filling his lungs, Hoss pulled himself up about as tall as he could. And then he stepped out of hiding.
“Go ahead, sheriff,” Hoss hollered past Sam Dawson, right on down the street. At the edge of his vision he could see Dawson swivel around to face him, but Hoss’s eyes stayed focused on Roy Coffee. “Let at least one of ’em go. That one.” He pointed to Jim Dawson’s murderer. “He’s the closest one to Dawson. Might even say he’s like a brother.”
“You know I can’t do that, Hoss!” Roy hollered back.
“You got to, Roy,” Hoss prodded. “Just let that one man go.”
Feeling Dawson’s eye on him, Hoss kept watching Roy until he saw the sheriff lean back toward one of the men with him, looking like he was listening to what the man had to say. When Roy’s man pointed to Jim Dawson’s killer, Hoss hoped Dawson didn’t see the relief in his eyes.
Finally, Hoss turned to face Dawson. “You’ll settle for that, won’t ya’? That one man for that boy?”
Dawson looked confused. Even so, his gun wasn’t wavering at all. It was pressed up tight to that boy’s temple. It was also cocked and ready to fire.
“Let him go, Roy!” Hoss shouted again, never taking his eyes off of Dawson.
The next moments passed like time itself had stopped. Hoss wasn’t even sure he was breathing. He stared into the eyes of Sam Dawson, and all he saw there was death. Trouble was, he didn’t know whose death those eyes were focused on. Maybe Dawson didn’t know, himself. All Hoss knew for sure was someone was going to die right there. Maybe more than one man. He could only hope it wouldn’t be either of those boys, not the hostage, and please God, not Matthew Burke.
With any luck, it wouldn’t be Hoss, neither.
“Keep your eyes open,” Adam had said.
Hoss’s eyes were open, all right. At least he would be able to see where the bullet was going to come from.
Ben heard shouting, although it was hard to tell what was being said. Following the sound, he looked to where the old man was standing on the far end of the porch.
“Can you see anything?” Ben asked, pulling away from his own position to join the old man.
“Somethin’…,” the old man answered. “Can’t quite tell.”
“A trick, I’d say,” Liam O’Brian added.
Stepping beside the old man, Ben peered out to where the man’s gaze was focused. It was hard to get a good look, and he found himself squinting as he tried to pull some clarity into whatever was going on. Then his eye caught the back of a man moving into view. The man was about as big as anyone could be and was wearing a familiar brown vest. Yes. Suddenly Ben didn’t need to get a good look. He could already tell exactly who was out there.
“Hoss,” Ben rasped out the name. “What does he think he’s doing,” he added in a louder, colder tone, “standing like that in the middle of the street? That fool boy is going to get himself killed!”
“Boy?” The old man chuckled. “Son, he’s a might older than a boy from what I can see! Either that or he sure is a bear of a boy!”
Ben gave the man a small smile. “Mister, if you can call me ‘son,’ I can certainly call that bear out there ‘boy.’ He’s my boy, after all—my son.”
Turning, Ben’s attention strayed to the window of the sheriff’s office where his other two sons were already in need of the doctor’s care. He’d be damned if he was going to let Hoss join them…or worse.
“…Roy,” Hoss’s voice called out in the distance. “…one man go.”
“Mister Cartwright,” said the young woman, who never seemed to stray far from Liam—or to let Liam stray too far from her, “if it is a trick, your son must be falling pretty hard for it.”
“It’s a trick.” Liam nodded, particularly confident with his judgment. “You can be sure of that.”
Ben’s fist clamping down hard around his rifle, he headed for the stairs to the street.
But the saloon girl, Betty blocked his way. “Just like that?” she asked.
“Excuse me,” Ben said brusquely, making it clear he meant it as a demand rather than a request.
Betty’s red lips curled upwards. “You’re gonna just stroll down the street like there’s nobody out there aiming to kill you?”
“I am going after my son!”
Betty tsked at him, rolling her eyes. “And you called him a fool boy!”
“Would you please move aside?” Ben had his jaw set so tight the words barely slipped through.
“How about I do you one better and come with you?”
“It’s been my experience that men have a tendency to see what they want to see and ignore everything else.” She grinned as she moved one hand to her hip and drew her shoulder back seductively. “And believe me, I know what men want to see. You get me out there, showing them what they like to see, then you yourself will all but disappear, right along with that bear of a boy of yours.”
“Let…go, Roy!” Hoss’s voice broke through.
“I don’t have time for this.”
Betty shrugged. “Suit yourself.” But instead of stepping aside, she turned and moved ahead of Ben down the stairs, setting aside her own rifle before her foot touched the ground.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Ben called after her.
“What you need for me to do.” She never even bothered to turn around. She just kept walking right on down that street, exaggerating the sway of her hips in a way that would have rendered Joe mute, blind and deaf all at once. Fortunately, Joe was inside. Unfortunately, it took Ben a moment to realize he’d already gone a bit dumb himself, and was wasting time staring at her.
“Old fool,” he muttered as he hurried down to the street behind her.
Joe was on a cot? Yes, he was lying on his stomach on a cot somewhere, with his nose pressed into a musty smelling pillow.
“Hey, Adam?” a familiar voice pulled at Joe’s awareness. Liam?
Suddenly everything came back in a whirlwind of fire, setting his back aflame. He remembered the feel of rope at his neck, and then air at his feet. How could it be he wasn’t hung? Needing answers, Joe started to push himself up until a hand came down gently on his shoulder.
“Take it easy, Little Joe,” Doc Martin said. “On top of everything else you’ve been through, you got a pretty good bump on your head in that fall.”
“Fall?” Joe found himself asking even as his head started spinning at the memory…the memory of falling through the collapsing gallows…the gallows where he, Liam and Doc Martin had all been fitted with nooses, ready to be hung.
“Joe?” Adam said then. But Adam shouldn’t be there…wasn’t supposed to be there. No, Adam was supposed to be back home. He’d been beaten…beaten near half to death. That was why Joe had ridden to Virginia City. To get the doc. To help Adam.
Pushing himself up again, Joe ignored both the doc and Adam when they tried to make him stay down. He needed to see them and he couldn’t do that lying on his stomach. He needed to put some sense to things. Trouble was, the movement made everything hurt, everything from the rope burns on his wrists to the bump on the left side of his skull. But the worst of it was his back. At that moment it was like Joe was starting to feel over and over again every lick of that outlaw’s whip. It was like that thin, leather strip was curling around his neck once more, but this time it stayed there, its razor’s edge ripping and pulling relentlessly at the thin skin. And the air came back too, the air beneath his feet from when he’d fallen through the gallows.
Joe was falling as a whip curled around his neck. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t catch his breath. He was falling too fast. Too far and too fast. He was spinning and falling.
And then hands caught him. Caught him and held him while his stomach knotted and lurched. He found himself vomiting and then he couldn’t stop, even when there was nothing left to cough up. When he finally did stop there was nothing left of his strength, either. Shaking, he let those hands press him back down to the musty pillow.
“I’ve got him, Adam,” Doc Martin said. “It’s your own self you need to take care of.”
A cloth soaked with cool water was placed at Joe’s lips, and he sucked on it gratefully. He needed to lie still then, he realized. He needed to catch his breath and try to make sense of what was happening. Though he was tired, he was not willing to go back to sleep. Instead, he focused on the voices around him. And the more he focused, the less tired he felt.
“‘Tis sorry I am,” Liam said softly, “if it was me what caused him to come awake like that.”
“It wasn’t you,” Adam said. “He was already starting to come around.”
“I don’t want to be worryin’ ya’ none,” Liam went on, “‘specially after all that. But I thought you might like to know yer other brother’s out there in the middle of the street, and yer pa’s gone after ‘im.”
“What?” Joe could hear enough in that one word to know Adam was alarmed, worried even.
Joe found himself worrying too. Dawson’s men were out there. They were everywhere. Hoss should know that. He should know better than to stand in the middle of the street with them out there.
“Somethin’s happenin’,” Liam continued. “Too far to tell just what, though. I’ve been tryin’ to get the women inside here, to be safe, but the lot of ’em is too stubborn fer their own good. That Betty, she even went with yer pa, she did.”
Joe heard the sound of movement—the creak of a chair, the scrape of a boot, and even a grunt of pain. Adam had been beaten, Joe reminded himself again. He shouldn’t be in town, and he sure shouldn’t be going after Hoss in the middle of the street in the middle of a town swarming with outlaws.
“Now, Adam,” Liam said, “I didn’t come expectin’ ya’ to do anything. I just thought you’d want to know.”
The cloth was pulled away from Joe’s lips. “Adam Cartwright!” Doc Martin sounded angry. “You stay right where you are! Those ribs of yours are likely to puncture a lung if you’re not careful. Frankly I’m surprised they haven’t already. And if that happens I assure you there won’t be a thing I can do for you then.”
“Help me out to the porch, will you?” Adam said, apparently ignoring the doc.
Whatever was happening, it had to be important. Joe couldn’t just lie there and wait for it any more than Adam, hurt as he was, could sit tight inside. Joe just needed a few more minutes to gather his strength. Just…a few more minutes.
Roy Coffee could only hope Hoss knew what he was doing. The sheriff watched Dawson’s partner, Buck Fenner, walk slowly toward where Hoss, Sam Dawson and that boy were all standing further up the street. Everybody watched, guns aimed for Sam or Buck. But, God help them all, Roy didn’t want anyone to start shooting. One shot would lead to a hundred, and Roy knew too well what would happen to both Hoss and that boy then. It would be a mess, is what it would be. And a heartbreaking one at that.
It was strange too, how quiet it got. As that man stepped forward, slow and steady, the air itself got slow. It got thick. Thick as Roy felt. He knew it wouldn’t stay that way though, and that’s what bothered him the most. It would change in an instant, less than a heartbeat. He could imagine all sorts of things it might change into when it did, most of them as bad as bad can be.
But not a single one of the things he imagined came about. Instead, the change that came was in the form of a woman wearing a somewhat less than ladylike red dress. She was moseying on down the street, coming up behind Hoss just as casual as can be, like there wasn’t anything in the world for her to worry about.
“What in tarnation?” Roy’s whispered question was mirrored by a dozen other men around him. Guns wavered and came down, their targets forgotten. Even Buck Fenner stopped his approach; he just stopped right where he was, halfway between Roy and Hoss.
“I don’t know about you boys,” the woman called out, “but all this racket has made me mighty thirsty. Who wants to join me in the saloon?”
Sam Dawson’s attention faltered. His gun came away from the boy’s head just the smallest bit. It wasn’t enough to give Hoss as much of an advantage as he’d like, but he made use of it anyway. Thinking he must look like a charging bull and hoping he’d be as effective as one, Hoss dropped his head low and barreled right into Sam Dawson. He heard a gun go off, but he couldn’t tell if it was Dawson’s or not. It didn’t matter right then, either. There wasn’t anything Hoss could do about it. All he could do was exactly what he was doing, and that was to push Sam Dawson as far from that kid as he could.
An instant later, Hoss was on the ground, pinning the outlaw beneath him. He had no idea what had happened to the boy.
Ben’s heart all but stopped when he heard the sound of that gunshot. Time itself seemed to have stopped. He stared in horror at his son, who was face down on the ground. It seemed an eternity before Hoss finally began to move, pushing himself up far enough to look down on Sam Dawson, his thick fists clamped around Dawson’s arms.
Hoss was alive! Relief unlocked Ben’s knees, driving him forward—until Hoss’s words stopped him cold.
“Roy! Someone get this man away from me before I kill him.” Hoss’s voice was colder—deadlier—than Ben had ever heard it.
An instant after Hoss rammed into Sam Dawson, Buck Fenner started to make a run for it. Crazy fool came right toward Betty. Shaking her head, she reached under her skirt, pulled out a Derringer and aimed it at his head.
“I’d stop right there if I was you,” Betty cautioned.
Buck slowed but didn’t quite stop until he wasn’t much more than six feet away. The grin on his face said he was feeling pretty confident she was bluffing. All she had to do was blink, and he’d be on her.
She winked instead, smiling back at him. “I ought to warn you.” She started to drop her arm. His grin grew wider…and then fell when she made it clear she was targeting his crotch. “I got real good aim.”
Moving slower than he had been, Ben started his approach once more and then called softly to his son. “Hoss?”
There was a shift in the set of Hoss’s shoulders. He cocked his head slightly toward Ben without turning. “I’ll kill him, Pa. I swear I’ll kill him if someone don’t take him away right now.”
“No, Hoss,” Ben said softly. “No. You won’t.”
“I will, Pa. It’s his fault. Every bit of it. What happened to Adam. What happened to Joe. What might’ve happened to that boy. It’s all his fault.”
“No, Hoss. It’s not. It was his brother who beat Adam. And someone else entirely who…hurt Joe. As to the boy…” Ben glanced toward Matt’s friend, Smitty, to see he was staring wide-eyed at the tangle that was Hoss and Sam Dawson. Ben could see some drops of blood on the boy’s shoulder, but he appeared to be mostly unharmed. “What might have happened isn’t enough to kill a man in cold blood. He deserves a trial, same as anyone.”
“He would’a killed ’em, Pa. He would’a killed Little Joe and the doc too. Maybe even Adam if he’d stayed in town.”
“But he didn’t. He didn’t kill them.”
“He tried, Pa. He just got stopped is all. And we got no idea how many other people he’s hurt today. It’s like this whole town was pulled into a war. All on account of him.”
“You bet it was,” Dawson said then, his voice ragged…and chilling. “All on account of me.” The sound started low, but grew until there was no question whatsoever. Sam Dawson was laughing.
“Mister,” Hoss said, his own voice perhaps more chilling than Dawson’s, “I almost swear you want me to kill you.”
“That’s right,” Dawson answered. “‘Cause then I’ll see you in Hell, and I promise you when we get there I’ll have the upper hand.”
“Why you no good—”
“Hoss.” Ben gripped his son’s shoulder. “Let him go. Let the sheriff take him.”
“Come on, son,” Roy Coffee added as he moved up along Hoss’s other side. “It’s over now, every bit of it. He’s the last of ’em. Let me get him to the jail where he belongs. You done what you had to. Now let me do what I have to so we can set things right again here in this town.”
“And so we can set things right again with Adam and Little Joe,” Ben added.
Taking in a long breath, Hoss finally started to rise. But before he was fully on his feet, his eyes moved to Smitty, the petrified, young boy he had just pushed out of Sam Dawson’s reach. Then Hoss froze, keeping one hand on the ground and his eyes locked on that boy. Curious, Ben followed his son’s line of sight. Smitty had pulled his knees up tight to his chest and wrapped his hands around them as though he was trying to make himself as small as he possibly could.
Ben had seen Joe like that once—only once—many years ago, after Marie had died. It had been Little Joe’s first experience with death, and he hadn’t understood it at all. For a short while he had been certain everyone in his life would be taken from him like Marie had been. And then one night Ben had woken to find Joe sitting on the floor of his bedroom, just like Smitty was sitting right now. Little Joe’s frightened young eyes had been staring at Ben that night, all those years ago. Joe had later confided he’d been terrified that if he looked away, even for a moment, Ben would die too.
But this boy was much older than Joe had been back then. And this boy was staring at Hoss, who was almost as much a stranger to him as Sam Dawson or any of his men. And there was something different in the look of this boy’s fear. It was almost as though…as though he was afraid of Hoss, maybe even as afraid of Hoss as he was of Sam Dawson.
“That was a mighty big chance you took, Hoss,” Roy’s voice pulled Ben’s attention. He noticed a couple of men beginning to guide Sam Dawson away.
“I couldn’t think of no other way, sheriff.” Hoss’s voice was soft now, almost apologetic as he shifted his focus away from the boy. He rose to his full height, wiping dirt from his hands.
“Hey, sheriff!” Dawson shouted back toward them. “I need a doctor to dig this bullet outta me. A real doc, not that old fake who killed my brother.”
Whatever softness had started to seep back into Hoss’s eyes was burned away in an instant. “I’ll tell you who killed your brother!” Hoss shouted. “And it sure wasn’t Doc Martin.”
Despite his wound, Dawson struggled against the men holding him, clearly intent on confronting Hoss. Once he realized he couldn’t possibly hope to get that far, he set his back arrow straight and glared at Ben’s middle son.
“Yeah, I reckon it weren’t entirely Doc Martin,” Dawson went on. “It was your brother, too. Your kin has sure been the bane’a mine. One brother killed Jim’s girl. The other killed Jim. Now you want to kill me. Sheriff,” Dawson added without turning his attention from Hoss. “These Cartwrights are every bit as murderous as you claim me and my men to be. You ought to lock them up. Lock them up right with me. I’ll oblige you by sharing my cell.” His smile made him look like the devil himself.
Hoss shook his head slowly from side to side. “You know that ain’t true. I’d like to kill you, all right, for what you done to my brother and the rest of the folks in this town. I don’t know anythin’ about Jim’s girl, but I do know Adam didn’t kill Jim any more than the doc did. The man who killed your brother is standin’ right over there.”
Dawson looked to where Hoss was pointing at his partner, Buck Fenner. The man was standing too close to Betty for Ben’s comfort, although he, too, was in the firm grip of two of Roy’s men.
Sam Dawson clicked his tongue, shaking his own head as though in disappointment. “Now you know that ain’t true.”
“I know it’s true all right,” Hoss answered. “Someone saw him bash your brother’s head in after Adam rode out of town. Adam fought him, sure enough. But your brother was alive when my brother left him.”
“You’re lyin’!” Dawson’s glare hardened.
“No, he ain’t!” Matt Burke broke in. “He ain’t lyin’. I saw him. I saw that man of yours break Jim Dawson’s skull with the butt of his rifle. I saw it plain as day.”
“You lyin’ skunk!” Dawson’s partner struggled to get free of the men holding him. From the killing look in his eyes, Ben knew what would happen if he did. That man would go straight for Matt Burke. The boy had no idea how dangerous of an enemy he had made.
“It’s true!” Matt went on. “I swear it!
Ben found himself moving protectively toward the boy—toward both boys. Matt had come forward to help his friend. Smitty was now standing, his look of fear not quite gone, but overshadowed by a different sort of look, one that made him appear more bewildered than anything else. He seemed…lost. Ben also noticed more blood had pooled on Smitty’s shoulder.
“Why would he?” Dawson shouted. “Wouldn’t have no reason to kill my brother.”
“Don’t ask me,” Matt said. “I can tell you what he said, though. He said your brother should never ought to have come out of hiding. Said he was gonna ruin everything.”
“You’re dead, boy!” Buck hollered. “I ever get near you, you’re dead! You hear me, boy? Dead!”
Ben had no doubt the outlaw would make good his threat if given half a chance. Fortunately, that wasn’t likely to happen. A whole group of men had started leading him on toward the jail. Even if he broke free of the two dragging him, the rest would never let him get to Matt. Besides, first he would have to go through both Hoss and Ben.
Confident the immediate danger was past, Ben gave his full attention to Smitty. “Where are you hurt, boy?”
Smitty looked at him as though…well, almost as though he couldn’t understand English.
“You’re hurt.” Ben reached for the boy’s shoulder. “Can you tell me where?” He pulled on the boy’s shirt collar, and then reached further upward, pushing back the boy’s blood-dampened and too-long hair. Finally he saw the wound. The very top of the boy’s ear was gone, and there was a raw crease along the side of his head.
“So that’s where that bullet went,” Hoss said softly. “And it’s my fault. No wonder the kid’s scared half to death of me.”
“You didn’t do nothin’ wrong, Hoss,” Matt offered. “Heck, you saved Smitty’s life. Ain’t that right, Smitty?”
The boy didn’t answer. He didn’t even react. Instead, his eyes danced around, as though he was anxiously looking for something.
“Smitty?” Matt grabbed his arm, and the boy jumped. “Hey, Smitty! What’s wrong?”
Smitty looked at his friend. While Ben watched, the boy’s surprise faded, but he drew his brows down as deep as they could go, completely puzzled. Ben was sure the boy was in shock, but there was something else going on as well.
Hoss saw it too. He knelt down in front of the boy, gently touching his arm. Smitty jumped again, although not quite as much as before.
“Can you hear me, boy?” Hoss asked. “Can you hear me?” He pointed to his own ear, and then to Smitty’s good one.
Furrowing his brows once more, the boy stuck a finger in his ear, and then pulled it out again. He started to hum, and still looked confused. Finally he let out a loud yell. That was when his brows rose almost to the top of his head, his eyes going as wide as they could possibly go. “I can’t hear,” he said. “I can’t…can’t hear!”
As petrified as he’d looked moments earlier, he seemed even more frightened now.
Adam was the first to see them coming. His searching gaze found and then locked onto one man in particular. The outlaw was held tight between two others and surrounded by a small crowd of what could easily become vigilantes, judging by the angry glares being thrown the man’s way. Adam could hardly blame them.
Liam must have seen Adam stiffen. Coming up beside him, he placed a hand lightly on Adam’s shoulder. “‘Tis a fine sight that. But I can think of one finer.”
Curious, Adam looked toward him and then followed his line of sight to the ropes still dangling from the rafters.
“Give him what he gave, I say,” Liam finished.
Adam didn’t answer. As much as he wanted to agree, he couldn’t. Legal proceedings had to be followed. Only then could sentence be passed, and only by a lawful judge…or so Adam told himself over and over again. He was hoping the repetition would force his thoughts to where they needed to be rather than where they were—on Little Joe and the way his back had been shredded by that very man’s whip.
“Land sakes,” the old man said then. “Look ‘et what’s comin’ up behind that group. They got Sam Dawson, himself! We got our town back, yes-sir-ee. Hee-hee!” The man’s grin grew so wide Adam couldn’t help but smile back.
“Just like that?” the young woman’s question brought Adam’s attention her way. “Seems too easy to me. Don’t you think it seems too easy?” She looked to Liam.
Liam nodded. “I wouldn’t tell any man—or woman,” he looked pointedly at her rifle, “to put up their guns until every one of Dawson’s gang is kickin’ at the end of a rope.”
Adam saw the woman pale. Liam must have seen it too. He reached an arm around her, pulling her close.
“What’s the matter, lass?” Liam asked. “You seemed eager enough to fit yourself with a noose right alongside me, weren’t you now? As my dear beloved betrothed, no less. And you not even knowin’ me. Now that took some courage, I’d say. Courage indeed.”
“What?” Liam’s mother broke in. “Not knowin’ you? Liam O’Brian, have you eyes in your head? Miss Kathleen has been working at the mercantile these past two months, she has!”
“Kathleen, is it?” Liam asked.
The young woman nodded, oddly meek compared with the determined way she had already been wielding a rifle. “Kathleen Mulligan.”
“Is that right?”
Seeing Adam look her way, Missus O’Brian shook her head and rolled her eyes. “Me son only sees what’s right in front of him. He needs a firm woman to guide him, he does.” She winked at Adam.
Adam smiled back at her, but he felt strange. Disconnected. For each of these people, it seemed Sam Dawson’s raid on the town had both pulled them together and come to enough of an end to allow them to move on with their lives. For Kathleen and Liam it might even mark the beginning of a new life. It was almost as though it hadn’t really touched them…or rather, it hadn’t hurt them. But it had hurt Little Joe. It had even hurt Adam himself, if he had to admit it. And he had yet to see what it might have done to Hoss, or even Pa.
And who else? Adam wondered. Who else in town had been hurt, perhaps even killed, because Sam Dawson had come to take revenge on Adam Cartwright for allegedly killing the brother no one even knew he’d had until now? The brother who had come looking for vengeance against Little Joe?
No, Dawson’s reign might have been a passing thing for these people, but what had happened in Virginia City these past two days would be forever linked with the Cartwrights. And if anyone had been killed or maimed because of it, then that too would be forever linked with the Cartwrights.
The sound of boots on the stairs drew Adam’s thoughts back to the outlaws being brought into the jail. It was time for Adam to move. He needed to be inside with Little Joe the moment they brought those men in. He wasn’t about to let his brother face either of the outlaws alone.
But the door opened before Adam was fully on his feet. And then, moving unsteadily across the threshold was Little Joe himself. Instead of Adam going to Joe, Joe had come to him.
Unfortunately, Joe never even looked toward Adam. His eyes were already focused on the outlaw responsible for what had been done to his back.
Grateful for the shirt Doc Martin had dug out from somewhere in Roy’s office, Joe stood for a long moment in the doorway, staring into the eyes of a man who took pleasure in hurting people, a man who had clearly taken pleasure in whipping Joe right there, on that porch.
That man had had enough pleasure in this town. He wasn’t going to get any more.
Putting all the anger he’d felt since Adam’s beating into his own hard glare, Joe used it against the cold darkness pulsing from the outlaw’s devil eyes. It was rage that kept him on his feet, Joe realized, rage against everything that had happened. It all flooded back in a rush—Adam’s collapse at his feet, the guarded stillness of the town when he’d arrived, the news of Evelyn Saunders’s death, Joe’s whipping and the subsequent hours he’d spent trapped under the hellish gaze of Deputy Morgan’s dead eyes, even the sound of fists hitting flesh when that very outlaw had struck Liam O’Brian.
Joe rode the current of that flood. He used it to buoy him, to keep him standing. That outlaw would see none of the weakness Joe felt, none of the pain that even now made the floor buckle and bend beneath his feet. With the doc hovering out of sight behind him, determined to catch him should he start to fall, Joe waited until the outlaw was barely a step away before moving aside so the deputies could push the man through the door.
Moving wasn’t easy. Joe had to take it slow. He had to concentrate on the effort, hoping the outlaw wouldn’t see it for what it was. Through it all, Joe never once looked away. Neither did the outlaw. Nothing else seemed to even exist around them until a shout from the street shattered the connection, catching them both by surprise.
“Buck!” Sam Dawson called out.
His eyes shifting, the outlaw turned his head just as Joe started to lose his balance. But true to his word, Doc Martin did not let Joe fall. He took hold of Joe’s arm and then stood beside him while they watched for what was to come.
Respecting the strength Joe displayed and praying it would hold, Adam saw his brother waver the instant Sam Dawson called out to his partner. Adam tensed, his body aiming to rush forward on instinct while his ribs sent out stabs of warning against the action. He was grateful to see Doc Martin move quick enough to provide Joe with the support he clearly needed. He was especially grateful for it when his attention was pulled away from his brother. Something was happening. Sam Dawson wasn’t just calling to his partner—he was calling him out.
It happened so fast no one would ever be sure exactly how. One minute, Sam Dawson was staggering, on the verge of collapse, apparently upright only because he was locked in the firm grip of the deputies surrounding him. And then he was standing entirely on his own, aiming a pilfered gun toward Little Joe.
The shooting was almost instantaneous. Ben fired. He saw Hoss raise his own gun beside him, but there were too many shots to keep track of who was actually firing. The only thing Ben knew for sure was Sam Dawson got off at least two shots of his own before he went down.
Joe was falling and there was nothing the doc could do to stop him. His head spun, the world tilted, and suddenly he was on the floor, fighting to stay conscious. He couldn’t be sure how long it took for the shouts to succumb to startled silence or the echo of gunfire to dissipate, but it could not have been long at all. Joe could still smell gunpowder, and when he blinked the black spots from his eyes he could see smoke hanging in the air.
And then he saw something else. The outlaw’s eyes were still staring back at him. Only now they were colder than before—cold with death, just like Deputy Morgan’s.
“Joe!” Hoss called out. “Little Joe!” He forced himself past people without ever once looking at who they were. He simply didn’t care. And then, when he spotted his little brother in a heap on the floor yet holding himself up thanks to the shaky support of one elbow, Hoss couldn’t help but grin. Joe was alive!
“Joe,” Hoss said again as he knelt down beside him. “Where’re you hit, boy?”
Joe didn’t answer. He didn’t even look Hoss’s way. He just shook his head slowly from side to side, his eyes locked on the corpse in front of him.
“Joe?” Hoss examined the shirt Joe was wearing and the floor beneath him. But the only blood he saw was coming up in spots on Joe’s back, the result of wounds he’d already had.
Finally Joe looked up, but his eyes couldn’t quite lock onto Hoss’s, and his face was growing paler by the minute.
“It’s all right, Joe. I got you.” As Joe’s eyes slid closed, Hoss lifted him into his arms.
Ben should have been first to reach Joe. Instead, something caught his ankle, holding him back. He could only watch as Hoss hurried on ahead of him, and then, angry, frustrated and confused, he looked down to find he’d been caught by Sam Dawson, himself. The outlaw was dying, that was plain to see. No man could survive with so many wounds. But he wasn’t dead yet, and he still had enough strength in his hand to take hold of Ben Cartwright’s ankle.
Ben wanted to kick him. He even might have if the outlaw hadn’t confounded him with a name.
“Bagley,” Dawson said in a ragged voice Ben could hardly hear. “Beatrice…Bagley.”
Ben glanced around, looking to see if anyone else had heard. No eyes met his.
“Vermont,” Dawson went on. “Plymouth…Vermont.”
“Why should I care,” Ben growled back at him, “about some woman you left in Vermont?”
“I owe nothing to either one of you,” Ben answered coldly, feeling none of the compassion he would give to any other dying man.
“Not…her fault. Give her…one good son.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Jim. Let her…believe…he came…for me. Not…not with me.” The grip on Ben’s ankle tightened. And then it fell away.
Tugging his foot free, Ben stared at the man. Without knowing why, he waited for Dawson to say something more. It was as though he felt compelled; the man was facing eternity, after all. But it quickly became obvious no more words would ever pass that outlaw’s lips. The realization was enough to end whatever compulsion had held Ben there.
Words, he told himself. That’s all they’d been. Words spoken by an outlaw, the most loathsome outlaw Virginia City had ever had the misfortune of encountering. No doubt every last one of those words had been lies. Beatrice Bagley. Jim Bagley. They were names perhaps, but words nonetheless, words that meant nothing to Ben Cartwright. He pushed them aside, refocusing his thoughts on what meant everything to him instead—his sons.
Ben took two steps toward the crowd that had formed around the jailhouse when he saw Hoss coming to the top of the stairs. He had Joe in his arms.
“He’s fine, Pa,” Hoss said when he reached Ben. “Fine as he was, anyways…. But he wasn’t hit.”
“Thank God.” The relief Ben felt at those words first stole his breath and then gave him more strength than he’d known since arriving in Virginia City hours earlier. “And Adam?”
“I’m fine, too.”
Ben turned to see his eldest son moving toward him. He recognized the lie instantly. It was clear Adam was not fine. He was leaning heavily against Liam O’Brian. But Ben didn’t bother to argue. Instead, he nodded, giving Adam a warm smile that said he both understood and knew better.
At Adam’s knowing shrug, Ben turned his attention back to Hoss. “Take him to Paul’s office. Take them both to Paul’s office,” he added to Liam.
“But Pa,” Hoss said. “Sheriff Coffee said all the wounded should be taken to the church or to that Chinaman’s place. If they’re all together like that, it’ll be easier to treat ’em.”
“Yes. I know. But Paul’s office is closer.” Ben felt a twinge of guilt over his desire to ensure the best and quickest treatment for his sons over the welfare of others, like that boy, Smitty. No one else would have even been wounded if it hadn’t been for Dawson’s demand for revenge against both Joe and Adam. Still, his reasoning was sound. Paul’s office was closer. And Paul would need supplies that would already be close at hand. And if it came down to Paul’s help truly being needed elsewhere first, Joe and Adam could at least have a quiet place to rest while waiting.
Unfortunately, Ben’s sound reasoning could not have prepared him to find Doctor Paul Martin’s office in a complete state of disarray. As it turned out, the entire town was in a state of disarray. The hotel was in a shambles. The saloon was a mess of broken glass and overturned furniture. But more importantly, Doc Martin’s office had been utterly ruined. Everything that could be broken, had been—windows, medical bottles, even furniture had been torn to bits.
There was nothing to be done except what Roy had said right off.
“Hop Sing,” Ben decided, his voice not much more than a weary whisper. “He’s with his cousin. Some sort of Chinese physician. Ching…or…or something.”
“Zhi.” The name fell from Joe’s lips, soft and slurred.
Ben looked toward him to find his youngest son’s eyes were open, but not entirely focused. Joe seemed to be having trouble keeping them locked on anything at all.
“Zhing Zhi,” Joe added. “We’ve met.” Joe gave him a small smile. “He’s a…a good man, Pa.”
Ben dropped his head in a quick nod. “I’m sure he is. Now,” he looked to Hoss and Liam. “Let’s find a carriage or a buckboard to get these boys over there.”
“I can walk, Pa,” Adam argued.
“If my ox of a brother here will put me down,” Joe added, his words still slurred but his voice sounding stronger, “I can walk, too.”
“Not much chance of that, shortshanks.”
“No need,” Liam said. “There’s a carriage in the alley, there. Won’t take but a moment to hitch up a horse.”
“Yes,” Ben nodded as Liam cautiously released his hold on Adam. “Thank you.” And then Ben caught Joe’s gaze following Liam. As grateful as Ben was himself for that young man’s help, he saw something even stronger in Joe’s eyes. It was as though whatever had happened in this town had not only forced them to put their differences aside, it had forged something between them that had turned those differences into nothing at all.
Over the next few days, as the townsfolk worked together to pick up the pieces, Hoss and Matt Burke took up the challenge of getting Doc Martin’s office back in business. Meanwhile, the lack of an office did nothing to stop the good doctor from carrying on with the business of doctoring. He wasn’t even hobbled by the crutches he’d been forced to use until his own turned ankle could heal properly. Fortunately, he didn’t have to worry about carrying his medical bag along his many stops. Chin, Emmet Polk’s young Chinese friend, shadowed him everywhere he went and made sure he had whatever he needed.
“Chin will learn your ways,” Zhing Zhi had said when the boy had first been introduced to Paul, “and also our own. One day he will practice two kinds medicine.”
“I’m sure he will be a fine physician at that,” Doc Martin had respectfully answered.
Now, he found himself once again in the little room Zhi’s family had given over to the Cartwrights until both Adam and Joe were ready to go home. Paul Martin lifted the bandage from Little Joe’s back, and he gained an even greater sense of respect for young Chin’s intended education. “This poultice of theirs has done more for him than I could ever have expected,” he told Adam. “The infection is healing nicely. His fever’s down, too.”
“Doc?” Joe called up from where he lay. “Do you have to talk about me like I can’t hear you?”
Paul Martin chuckled softly. “Sorry, Joe. It’s a habit, I suppose. This is the first you’ve actually been able to pay attention to me for more than a minute or two. Clearly your head wound is also recovering nicely.”
When Joe started to push himself into a sitting position, another force of habit had Paul wanting to keep the young man from moving. But Little Joe truly was well enough now, so Paul instead grabbed his crutches, rose from where he was seated on the bed, and stepped away.
“Will you be honest with me?” Joe went on.
The question confused Paul. He looked to Adam, seeing disappointment and concern darken the other man’s eyes. “I’m always honest with you, Little Joe,” Paul answered then. “You know that.”
“Good. Because no one else has been.” The young Cartwright’s gaze drilled across the room into his older brother.
“What’s this about?” Paul asked, looking from brother to brother.
“He wants to know everything he can,” Adam answered, “about everyone who was hurt by the Dawson gang.”
“And why is that a problem?”
“Because he will feel personally responsible for each and every one of them.” Adam’s eyes were locked on Little Joe.
“That’s what I keep telling him,” Adam said.
“None of it would have happened if I hadn’t come into town,” Joe said then, his eyes locked right back on his brother’s.
“And you wouldn’t have come into town if you hadn’t been worried about me,” Adam replied.
Paul found himself more confused than ever. “Are you arguing about which of you should feel the most guilty about all this?”
Neither Cartwright answered.
“Why, the only ones guilty are incarcerated in Sheriff Coffee’s jail or the jail in Carson City, or are already buried up on Boot Hill.”
“So I keep telling him,” Adam said.
Little Joe sighed, pulling away from his brother’s glare. “I just want to know who was hurt, and…and how badly. I’m going to find out eventually. I’d just as soon know now.”
“Joe,” Adam sighed as deeply as his brother had a moment earlier. “It can wait.”
“Wait for what?” Joe asked.
“Wait until you’re feeling better.”
“If you haven’t noticed, I am feeling better.”
Adam looked to Paul, seeming to will the doctor to validate his reasoning that now was not a good time for bad news. But in Paul Martin’s experience, waiting never made the news any better. And Little Joe had regained his senses well enough to both appreciate and understand the news for what it was.
“I’m sorry, Adam,” Paul said then. “I can give you no medical reason to avoid telling him.”
With another heavy sigh, Adam looked downward. He then gave a quick nod, and pulling his shoulders back, focused his attention once more on his younger brother.
“All right Joe,” Adam’s voice gained a softer tone. “Three men died.”
Little Joe’s jaw tightened. His breaths quickened. But he held himself deceptively calm—like a sea in the eye of a hurricane. “Who?”
“Frank Rogers, a Chinese man named Li Desheng and a stranger, a man named John. So far, no one’s been able to come up with his last name.”
Each revelation seemed to strike Joe a physical blow. He tensed, his eyes already filling with tears. And then he nodded. “Thank you.”
Closing his eyes then, Joe took a couple of deep breaths. “Frank tried to hide me…,” he said softly, “when Sam Dawson was on the gallows. He tried to keep me from pressing through the crowd. But Dawson was gonna hang Liam and…and Doc Martin.” He looked up at Paul and shook his head. The young man’s brow was so twisted it did a good job of twisting Paul’s stomach right along with it. That boy was in a sorrowful state, indeed. “I couldn’t just stand there and let him do it.”
Now it was Paul’s turn to tense. He took his own deep breath. “I know, Little Joe. I know. I hated to see you do it. I didn’t want you to. But I’m grateful you did. If it weren’t for you—”
“If it weren’t for me, Frank Rogers would still be alive,” Joe interrupted, his voice breaking as he looked away again. “And Li Desheng. I heard him, Adam. I heard him get hit. He helped them cut me down. After Dawson’s man whipped me and left me hanging there on that porch…. Li Desheng was one of the men who cut me down. They brought me here. And I heard him…I heard him get hit.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Joe,” Adam stepped closer.
“I need to know about the stranger,” Joe said.
“Roy’s doing what he can to find out more about him. But, Joe, we might never really know who he was.”
“I need to know, Adam. He died because of me.”
Adam knelt down in front of his brother and placed a hand on Joe’s knee. “He died because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can’t blame yourself.”
“And Evelyn Saunders,” Joe said.
Adam looked to Paul, but Paul could only shake his head.
“Who?” Adam asked.
“Evelyn Saunders!” Joe shouted. “The woman I met in Salt Flats! Jim Dawson’s girl. He killed her, Adam. He beat her to death because I told her she should get away from him!”
“Are you going to blame yourself for everything that happens to everyone now?” Adam shouted back. “Come on, Joe! Get it through your head! None of it was your fault!” Adam tried to stand, but clearly his ribs were complaining about the movement. “Except me,” he said through clenched teeth.
“What?” Joe sounded confused.
“You are definitely to blame for what happened to me,” Adam said softly after a little help from Chin got him standing again. “Jim Dawson only threw that first punch because he heard I was your brother. I tried to tell him if he was going to insult you, the least he could to is tell you face-to-face so you could have the pleasure of defending yourself.”
“How…how did he insult me?”
“He called you a…what was it?” Adam looked up at the ceiling. “Let’s see. I think it was a no good, weaseling, piece of scum. Yes. That’s about right.” He was smiling when he looked back at his brother.
“Huh. Well, you’re right. I would have liked to have the opportunity to defend myself. But…thank you.”
“For defending me since I wasn’t there to do it.”
“Who was defending you? I was defending myself! I already told you he threw the first punch.”
When emotional turmoil began to shift toward less serious, more playful bickering, Paul decided it was time to check on some of his other patients.
“Oh, Adam?” he said as he started toward the door. “I have good news for Hoss, as soon as you see him. That boy, Harvey Smith?”
“Smitty?” Adam asked, ignoring his brother’s bewildered gaze.
“His hearing’s just fine now. It was just the shock of that gun going off right next to his ear. Caused some swelling, but no permanent damage.”
“Thank you, Doc. Hoss will be very happy to hear that.”
After Chin shut the door behind him, Paul could hear the brothers’ conversation shift yet again.
“Who’s Smitty?” Joe asked.
“Emmett’s friend, the one who rode to Carson City for Sheriff Coffee.”
“Whose gun went off on him?”
“Sam Dawson’s…. Now, Joe!” The way Adam’s voice rose, Paul Martin could still hear him halfway down the hall. “Don’t go feeling guilty about that, too! Hoss has been feeling guilty enough all on his own!”
Paul found himself chuckling lightly. Yes, those boys were both healing up quite nicely. And Ben Cartwright sure did a fine job teaching each and every one of his sons a sense of responsibility. In fact, he might have done too good a job of it.
Nearly two months after Virginia City’s encounter with the Dawson gang, Liam O’Brian and Kathleen Mulligan paid a visit to the Ponderosa. Adam knew exactly what it was that brought them there. His father knew, too, but that didn’t stop Ben Cartwright from expressing both surprise and exuberance in his response.
“Of course! Of course!” Pa said in that loud, booming voice of his. He pumped Liam’s hand with enough force to pull water clear out of bedrock if that hand had been attached to a well. And then he slapped Liam so hard in the shoulder Adam half expected the young man to fall right over. Fortunately, Liam had a lot more strength to him than his size might attest. He held his footing with only a slight shift in stance.
“We’ll have the biggest party Nevada territory has ever known!” Pa went on.
“My boys will help with everythin’, of course,” Liam said. “From settin’ up to cleanin’ up.”
“Your boys?” Pa asked, clearly confused.
Adam looked over to Joe. His little brother was wearing a grin that was about ready to explode into an outright laugh. When Joe nudged Hoss with his elbow and then gave Kathleen a sly wink, Adam shook his head, finding his own grin impossible to hold back.
“My boys,” Liam repeated. “Emmett Polk an’ his chums.”
Emmett Polk, Matt Burke and Harvey “Smitty” Smith had gained a fair amount of notoriety over the past few weeks for what they’d done to ‘save Virginia City,’ as the Territorial Enterprise had put it. Along the way Liam had taken each of them under his wing, finally accepting his role as the big brother Emmett had wanted him to be all along.
“We can’t thank you enough, Mister Cartwright!” Kathleen added. “The church in Virginia City is simply too small to accommodate everyone. When Little Joe suggested we have the wedding out here in the open, well it just sounded like the most wonderful idea!”
“It will be wonderful,” Pa said.
“Hey,” Joe said, slapping Liam on the arm with the back of his hand. “What about music? We’ll have to have music, and—”
“Aye,” Liam answered. “An’ I’ll take care a’ that!”
“What do you mean you’ll take care of that?” Joe acted offended. “I happen to know the perfect fellas.”
“Are they Irish?” Liam asked.
Joe shrugged. “No, but—”
“Then, like I said, I’ll take care of the music!”
A dark movement from the road caught Adam’s eye, and he turned his attention to an approaching carriage. Pa must have seen it, too. While Joe, Liam and Hoss shifted from arguing about music to demonstrating the key moves in an Irish jig, Pa joined Adam waiting for the carriage to arrive. A man of perhaps thirty was driving. At his side was a woman of an age to be his mother—but when she introduced herself it was clear she was not.
“Mister Benjamin Cartwright?” the woman asked him.
“Yes, that’s right. And this is my son, Adam.”
She nodded to each in turn. “Well, I believe you have already been introduced to my sons.” She aimed her statement directly at Pa.
Pa met Adam’s gaze, curious, before returning to her. “Oh? And who might they be?” He was still wearing the smile he’d given Liam, though it was a bit smaller now.
Her own smile was more polite than anything. “Allow me to introduce myself first, and then perhaps you will make the connection. Mister Cartwright, my name is Beatrice Bagley.”
“It is my birth name,” the woman went on. “I reclaimed it after…well, after certain events made that a necessity. My married name was Dawson.”
While his other brothers were still outside, laughing and oblivious to the identity of the Ponderosa’s latest visitor, Adam and his father sipped coffee in the house’s main room with the mother of Sam and Jim Dawson.
“That is a very fine story, Mister Cartwright.” Beatrice Bagley set her cup down onto its saucer after listening to Ben’s retelling of her oldest boy’s final words. “But you failed to see the truth in it.”
“Excuse me?” Pa shot a bewildered glance toward Adam, standing by the fireplace. Adam answered it with a suspicious one of his own.
Waiting for Ben to give her back his full attention, Beatrice Bagley looked pointedly at him. “Samuel was the good son.”
Adam exhaled heavily, preparing himself to argue—a woman’s, or even a mother’s sensitivities be damned. But Pa put his hand on Adam’s arm. It was a clear attempt to hold the words he had to have known were about to follow.
“Begging your pardon, Miss Bagley—” Pa said.
“Missus Dawson,” she interrupted, “if you will.”
“I’m sorry. I thought you said you had reclaimed your maiden name.”
“I had.” She gave him a brief nod. “And now I am reclaiming my married one.”
“Very well. Missus Dawson.” Pa sat forward in his chair. He shook his head slowly, unsure what to say. “Sam Dawson,” he went on then, “was the leader of the most notorious outlaw gang this territory has ever known.”
And Jim was a raving lunatic, Adam wanted to add. I don’t think either one of them could ever be considered a good son. Instead, he clenched his jaw and waited to see where this conversation would go.
“Perhaps,” the widow Dawson acknowledged. “But he was not evil, Mister Cartwright. His heart was always in the right.”
“He almost hanged three innocent men!” Adam shouted before he could even think about holding back.
When she glared at him, Adam could almost swear he was looking once more into the eyes of that berserker, Jim Dawson. “He did what he did,” she said, “in the beginning, to save all of our lives. My husband was dead and we were starving. Young James was so malnourished I never knew when I sent him to bed each night whether he would even come awake in the morning. Night after night, I expected him to die, and I expected to follow him to my own grave. Samuel knew it, too. He tried to find work, but it was killing him every bit as much as the hunger was killing James and I. And then one day he came home with enough money to feed us all for a year.”
“You had to have known that money came from nothing good,” Pa said.
She shifted her glare to him. “It fed us. It kept James alive. That was all I needed to know. Over time, we were well enough positioned to move back to the civilized east.” Those final words came out in a hiss. But then she shook her head, her gaze wandering, her countenance shifting from anger to despair. “Samuel…refused to go. He said the law would catch him if he did. It was Samuel who insisted I change my name…my name and James’. He said…it was for our own safety.”
“That was probably wise.” Pa’s voice sounded cold, despite his words.
“I should never have listened to him!” the woman spat. “The move ruined young James. It turned him into a monster. All he ever talked about was joining his brother. He refused to even try to get decent work. And his anger…oh, his anger.” She clenched her small hand into a fist, and Adam once again saw Jim Dawson in her. “He fought. Every day he fought with someone. He even killed a man once. Nearly killed me, too. It was after that he left home. I knew he was coming out here, looking for his brother. There was nothing I could do to stop him.”
She took a deep breath, and then, appearing once more like the harmless woman she presumed to be, she gave her attention back to Pa. “When I saw the articles about…about what happened in Virginia City….” She shook her head. “They were wrong. They were all wrong. I knew I had to set it right. Samuel was the good son, Mister Cartwright. And that’s what Mister Pettigrew here is going to tell the world.”
“What are you saying?” Adam asked.
“I am an author, Mister Cartwright,” Missus Dawson’s companion said then. “This fine woman has asked me to write a series of novels about her son. I’ve already sent the first one to the publisher.” He smiled. It was a sickening, childish smile that made him look like a kid with a handful of candy. “The news of Sam Dawson’s death has practically set the world on fire. Imagine how eager people will be to read the man’s real stories, as told by the woman who knew him best.”
That man’s sickening smile merged in Adam’s mind with the image of Sam Dawson’s last moments—moments that could well have been the last ones for Little Joe as well. “You plan to turn him into a hero, don’t you?” The idea churned in Adam’s stomach like rancid milk.
“To me, Mister Cartwright, he was a hero.” And there was Jim Dawson again, in that woman’s eyes.
“He was a cold-blooded killer,” Adam argued.
The woman looked down at her hands, smoothed her dress, and then rose. “I did not come here, gentlemen, intending to sway your opinions of my sons.”
Pa rose then, slow but dangerous, like a mountain rising from the sea in the first hours of creation. His eyes never left the woman. “Then why did you come?” he asked in a rumble that would have frightened most of the women Adam had ever known.
“I came, Mister Cartwright, to provide you a courtesy.” She met Pa’s glare. “The first book will soon hit the market. The final story has yet to be written, but when it is, your family will have the chance to express your own thoughts to Mister Pettigrew.”
Pa’s glare moved to Missus Dawson’s companion. “No. We will not express our thoughts, and you will not identify us in any way in your work of…of fiction.”
Mister Pettigrew clearly did not share Missus Dawson’s nerves. He cowered under Pa’s scrutiny. “I…I can s-simply use the newspaper accountings. They will be enough to legitimize the story.”
“I will sue you for libel if you use our names.”
“Mister Cartwright,” Missus Dawson interrupted. “Think of the fame the story will bring you.”
“Fame? Is that what this is about? Your sons are dead, Missus Dawson…or Miss Bagley or whatever you claim your name is. Your sons are dead. Does that mean less to you than fame?”
“My sons died, Mister Cartwright, protecting me. The least I can do for them now is to tell their true story.”
“Well, you will tell it without me or my sons. And I can say with reasonable certainty you won’t find a soul in Virginia City who will agree to be a part of your lies.”
Missus Dawson smiled. And as she shared a look with Mister Pettigrew, her smile grew. “We have already found three souls, Mister Cartwright—three young boys who played very important roles in the story, and who are very eager for a chance at fame.”
Adam left his horse in the livery, did what he could to beat the dust out of his hat, and then headed wearily toward the International House. His trip to Salt Flats was quick, hard and exhausting. It was also informative. Although he would love nothing better than to eat a comforting meal at home and then collapse into his own bed, he needed to record what he’d learned—so instead he settled for a filling meal at the hotel and then situated himself at the desk in his room.
The writing of this particular letter was harder than he knew it should be. He started and stopped several times, crumpling sheets and tossing them, frustrated, at the floor, before taking a deep breath and deciding to simply write what he was thinking. He had never claimed to be either a journalist or an author, after all. This was just another letter, not significantly unlike others he’d written. At least if he thought that way about it he could get the words written down. The important thing was to forget about the importance of the message.
When morning came, he left the envelope with Mister Perkins at the newspaper office, and then, finally, headed home.
Joe was getting excited about the wedding. Liam, on the other hand, seemed scared half to death. Kathleen practically begged Joe to get Liam thinking about something else for a while, so, eager to do his duty as best man, Little Joe decided to pull his friend into a good, long poker game.
Almost as soon as he arrived in town, he caught the eye of Mary Hampton. Finally, after months of getting the cold shoulder from her, she smiled at him! Even so, he tipped his hat and rode on. Maybe he’d take his turn playing hard to get for a while—although when he felt her eyes on his back as he passed, he started to rethink his decision. But then Rebecca Carlisle smiled at him, too. And then Edna Miller.
As he started to pay more attention, he realized it wasn’t just the pretty girls looking at him; it was nearly everyone, men and women alike. A prickly feeling in his scalp brought back a memory of another trip into town, when he’d felt the stares but hadn’t seen a soul. Now he not only felt them, he saw them.
“Hey, Joe!” Liam called out, easing that prickly feeling, at least for the moment. “What is it about you Cartwrights, anyway?”
“What do you mean?” Joe asked as he dismounted and wrapped Cochise’s reins around the hitching post.
“That brother of yours, Adam. D’you know he’s got me mum wantin’ to tan his hide?”
“Adam? What’d he do?”
“He had no business talkin’ about her, is what he did.”
“Talking to who?”
Liam slapped Joe hard enough on the back to make him stumble forward. “Like you don’t know!” He winked.
“I don’t!” Joe complained. “I don’t know. Now will you tell me what’s going on?”
“Yoo-hoo! Little Joe!” He looked up to see Betty Williams, that gal from the Silver Dollar saloon, come running up toward him. She wrapped her arms around him and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Aren’t you just the cutest thing! Give that to your brother for me, will ya’?”
She patted him on the shoulder. “Why, Adam, of course!”
A moment later he stared after her as she walked away from him. “L-Liam?” he cautiously asked, not bothering to turn his attention from Betty’s retreating hips. “What’s going on in this town?”
“You really don’t know, do you?” With another slap on Joe’s back, Liam grabbed his arm and tugged him into the kitchen of the little house he shared with his mother—at which point Missus O’Brian turned up her nose with a great “harrumph!” and walked outside.
“Here she is.” Liam pulled open a newspaper and then smoothed out a page, setting it down on the table in front of Joe. “Sly dog he is, that Adam! He’s got Emmett all in a fuss, he does. The boy’s insistin’ Mister Perkins stop metionin’ him in his stories.”
“Emmett?” How was that possible? That boy had been loving all the attention Mister Perkins had been giving him in the paper since he’d helped rid Virginia City of the Dawson Gang…saving Little Joe’s neck in the process.
“Read, man! Read!”
Suddenly nervous as a schoolboy who hadn’t studied in weeks, Joe turned his eyes to the paper.
An open letter to the citizens of Nevada territory, sent in the care of the Editor, Territorial Enterprise, Virginia City
It has been over two months since the Dawson Gang brought terror to the good people of Virginia City. With each passing day the tales already grow taller. Before long I fear Sam Dawson himself will begin to be viewed as a legend. His deeds could very well come to be seen as iconic, even heroic rather than horrific. It is for this reason I have decided to write this open letter to all the citizens not only of Virginia City, but of the entire Nevada territory. We must all remember what it means to be a hero.
Those of us who were closest to the events surrounding Sam Dawson’s raid were privileged to witness many fine examples of heroism. Among those heroes we include names that are gaining legendary status in their own right, such as Matthew Burke, Emmett Polk and Harvey Smith. There were also others whom this newspaper has not mentioned, people such as Chin Li, Zhing Zhi, Missus Margaret O’Brian, Miss Kathleen Mulligan and Miss Betty Williams. These people, along with others to whom you have already been introduced, faced down a cold-blooded killer despite great personal risk. I commend each and every one of them for their courage.
There is another story of courage to which you should be introduced. It is the story of a young woman from Salt Flats named Evelyn Saunders. When Miss Saunders encountered a stranger who went by the name of Jim Dawson, she tried to turn away his advances. This is a fact I report to you today with absolute certainty, having made inquiries among Miss Saunders’ friends and neighbors. Despite her obvious lack of interest, Mister Dawson claimed the woman as his own. He took her away with him in a manner that can only be classified as a criminal abduction, and his treatment of her was as horrific, or perhaps even more horrific that Sam Dawson’s treatment of Virginia City’s citizens. When she was lucky, she went hungry. When she was unlucky, she was beaten. Although several people were able to recognize what was happening, their own fear of the man caused each and every one of them to turn a blind eye.
There was one man, however, who could not turn away. He, too, had been a stranger in town. He, too, saw the danger Mister Dawson represented. Unlike Miss Saunders’ friends and neighbors, he could not ignore it. This stranger took it upon himself to help Miss Saunders. Witnesses reported to me that he encouraged her to ride out with him to the safety of Virginia City, where she could take a stage to somewhere far away, somewhere safe. Miss Saunders, however, refused. Claiming she could travel in greater secrecy alone, she convinced the young stranger to leave without her. A confidant of hers reported to me that Miss Saunders made that claim because she feared for the safety of the stranger over that of her own well-being. She chose to protect the man who would have protected her. She did this because she had the heart of a hero.
Miss Saunders made her escape. Sadly, she did not get far. Mister Dawson found her. When he did, he beat her to death. The young stranger, upon learning this news, blamed himself. Stranger or not, he felt it had been his obligation to protect her, because he, too, has the heart of a hero.
That young stranger was my brother, Joseph Francis Cartwright, the same hero who chose to accept a hangman’s noose hoping to save two other men’s lives when he could instead have effected his own escape. He is the same hero who chose to ride into Virginia City, placing himself at significant personal risk at the hands of both Sam and Jim Dawson, because his need to get help for his brother, for me, was more compelling than his need to ensure his own well-being.
If I want to find a hero, I need look no further than my brother. If you want to find a hero, you need look no further than your neighbors, because so many of them were heroes when it mattered. I believe you will all find the greatest heroes are the quietest ones. They will be people the newspapers fail to mention, people who do what needs to be done not for acclaim, but simply because it is the right thing to do.
Neither Sam Dawson nor his brother, Jim, could ever be considered heroes. Reports of Sam Dawson’s dying words caused many of you to reconsider whether he was horrific or heroic because he sought to protect a single woman’s heart. I caution you all not to be fooled. The brother Sam Dawson hoped to cast as a hero in that woman’s eyes has been implicated in at least two deaths, that of a young man of twenty-two, by the name of Theodore Purcell, who was beaten to death for his inability to stop sneezing during a poker game, and that of the courageous Evelyn Saunders.
Let it also be known that just as her sons are not heroes, the mother of Sam and Jim Dawson is not sainted. Already she is seeking to profit from the horrors her sons have inflicted by releasing dime novels of their exploits. It can be presumed these novels will attempt to cast Sam Dawson through a hero’s lens. If you choose to read them, I urge you to remember the true heroes among you, and to never place the likes of Sam Dawson among their ranks. They deserve better, and so do each of you.
Adam Cartwright, Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada Territory
Stunned, Joe stared for a long while at his brother’s words.
“Joe?” Liam called to him softly. “Little Joe?”
He shook his head slowly before responding. “Adam wrote this?”
“That’s his name there, isn’t it?”
Joe looked back at the paper.
“Oh, go on with you, then!”
Another moment passed. Joe had no idea what to say.
“Go home, man! There’s always a game, whether you’re here or not!”
“A promise is a promise,” Joe said, giving him a small smile.
“You promised me a game; you did not say with who.”
“You really don’t mind?”
“Go home, lad!”
Joe started toward the door, but then turned back, reaching for the paper. “Do you mind?”
“Take it and go!” This time his slap helped to propel Joe through the door.
Anxious to get home, Joe rode hard—and yet, as he drew nearer he found himself slowing. Anxiousness started to become anxiety. What did he expect to say when he got there? What words could possibly suffice?
Dusk was dying, the first stars blinking into existence above him. Compelled to look upward, Joe quickly spotted Venus, the brightest light in the night sky. Adam had taught him that. When he was younger, when they had both been younger, Adam had named all the stars for Joe…or most of them anyway. Sometimes, when Joe would point to a small, dim point in the darkness, Adam would turn his attention to something else, a constellation within reach of that tiny, nameless spot.
Joe smiled. Even when Adam didn’t have an answer, he still had an answer. He knew what to say to quiet Joe’s racing thoughts—as well as his racing heart, at least whenever Joe actually listened. It was something that had never changed, something Joe hoped never would change.
Close enough now to see the front of the house, Joe looked at the glow of lamplight in the windows. It was a glow meant to chase away shadows for everyone inside. He felt like a shadow then, a shadow that dare not move into the light, a shadow that was afraid of being exposed.
He was afraid. That’s what it was. He was afraid to face the older brother who had always been a hero to him, afraid because now that brother saw him as a hero. Heroes weren’t supposed to be afraid. The fact that Joe was afraid only proved what he already knew. He was no hero. Adam had to know that already. So why had he written the things he had?
Confused and…afraid…Joe dismounted with the slow movements of a child desperate to avoid his father’s wrath. Then he led Cochise into the barn, where he took far more time than was needed to settle his horse in for the night.
“Ya’ see somthin’?” Hoss strained for a look out the window over Adam’s shoulder.
“Joe.” Adam answered, watching his young brother lead Cochise into the barn.
“Ain’t he supposed to be in town?”
“Since when does he come home early, if he’s got a chance to let off some steam in town?”
“Since now, I suppose.”
“Seems mighty strange to me.”
“To me, too.”
Stepping away from the window, the two older brothers waited for the youngest to walk in and explain just what it was that had driven him to come home.
Thirty minutes later, Adam glanced toward the window before returning his eyes to the book in his lap, although his focus was lost. He couldn’t seem to make sense of a single sentence. After another quarter hour, he looked at the door, expecting it to open at any moment. It didn’t.
“Whatever is he doing out there?” Pa said softly from where he sat at his desk, with that very window at his back.
Adam looked at the clock. Nearly an hour had passed since Joe had walked into the barn.
Closing his book without bothering to mark the page, Adam pushed himself to his feet. “I’ll find out.”
“You sure you want to do that, Adam?” Hoss asked. “Slow as he was movin’, he didn’t seem any too anxious to come in. Might be best to let him think it out for a bit first. You know how he can be if ya’ come up on him before he’s ready.”
Adam smiled. “Yes. I know. But….”
“Let’s just say I have a feeling he might need some help getting ready.”
“Oh?” Pa’s eyebrows went up in that way of his, making it clear he was surprised and perhaps even a bit disappointed. If something was going on, he would have expected Adam to let him know, especially if there was any chance it might cause Little Joe to come skulking home hours early from a much anticipated night in town.
Maybe Adam should have told his father. Maybe he should have warned Little Joe. But…he just hadn’t known what to say.
With a small smile and a quick, apologetic shrug, Adam stepped outside.
His young brother’s hand paused from the gentle strokes he’d been using to brush Sport’s flanks. An instant later, without turning, he took up the motions again, but gentle strokes became vigorous ones, causing Adam’s horse to twitch and nicker in soft complaint.
Adam moved forward and then reached out, covering Joe’s hand with his own to still the brush. “Joe.”
Dropping his arm, Little Joe looked to Adam just for a moment, his eyes expressive with questions. But then he turned away. As Adam watched, his brother’s shoulders began rising and falling with nearly the same vigor he’d applied to the brush. How many times had Adam seen that same stance? Joe’s breaths coming quick and harsh could either mean he was angry or he was hurting. Adam didn’t like to think his letter could have caused either reaction.
“I’m sorry, Adam,” Joe said finally in a voice that was too small.
Adam had no idea what he might have expected to hear, but it certainly would not have been an apology. “Sorry for what?”
As Hoss had said, sometimes Joe might need a bit of time to ‘think it out.’ So Adam waited.
“I don’t know how to…,” Joe added after he’d thought it out—although he apparently hadn’t thought it out enough to form a complete sentence. “To be…to live up to….” As Joe turned his head, Adam followed the direction of his brother’s gaze to the newspaper that had been laid atop a bale of hay.
“You don’t know how to be who you are?” Adam hoped Joe would recognize how ridiculous it sounded. “To live up to what you’ve already done?”
After a long moment, Joe turned. But he barely looked at Adam before he dropped his head. “Adam, I appreciate what you wrote. I do…but….” And then he looked at him. Joe really looked at him. “What I did in Salt Flats got a woman killed. And what I did at those gallows….” He shook his head. “It didn’t change anything. Liam and Doc Martin, they both would have been hung right alongside me.”
Despite his brother’s pain, Adam smiled. Little Joe had just looked him in the eye and told him straight out what he thought he’d done wrong. There were very few men Adam had ever known who had shown him half as much courage. How could he get Joe to understand that? “What you did in Salt Flats gave Evelyn Saunders a chance she never would have had otherwise. She should have accepted your offer and gone with you, but she made a choice to escape on her own. You gave her that choice, yes, and with it you gave her hope. Hope is a gift, Joe. When people have hope, amazing things can happen.”
“Amazing things can happen?” Joe repeated. “Why didn’t they happen for her?”
Adam sighed and moved closer to his brother. “That’s a question best left between her and God, don’t you think?” He placed his hands on Joe’s shoulders. “Joe, we can only do so much, the rest…. It isn’t up to us. It’s doing something that matters. It’s the fact that you did what you could that matters. Whether or not it’s enough…that’s out of our hands. And what you did up on those gallows….” Adam smiled again. “Joe, don’t you realize what you did? You gave people the courage to do what they needed to do, people like Betty and Kathleen and Missus O’Brian. Taken all together, all the little things everyone did made a difference. It made all the difference.”
Joe’s lips trembled, slowly moving into a small smile. Adam was glad to see that smile also reflected in his brother’s eyes. “She’s mad at you, you know,” Joe said.
Adam dropped his hands from his brother’s shoulders. “What? Who?”
“What on earth for?”
“For talking about her in the newspaper.”
“I see. I suppose she would prefer to be among the quiet ones.”
“Missus O’Brian?” Joe sounded incredulous. “Quiet?”
“You’ve got a point there.”
“Adam?” Joe took a long breath. “You know I’ve always looked up to you.”
“Do I?” Adam grinned.
Joe’s lips were still trembling. His smile returned for an instant, but disappeared as quickly as it had come. “I try to do what I think you would do, but…sometimes I just can’t. Sometimes…there just isn’t time to think.”
“No, there isn’t. But you do the right thing anyway.”
“No. Not always. You’re only human, after all.”
“You always do the right thing.”
“Do I?” Adam asked again.
Joe gave him a questioning glare. “Tell me one time when you didn’t.”
Adam draped an arm around Joe’s shoulders, preparing to tug him along toward the house. “We heroes all have our secrets, Joe. You’re entitled to yours, and I’m entitled to mine.”
“How…how am I supposed to handle you calling me a hero?”
“It’s a burden you’ll just have to bear. But don’t let it go to your head. I still consider you the lazy, stubborn, annoying little brother you’ve always been.”
Joe gave Adam a small grin, but it was clear something bothersome was still on his mind. “What about Hoss? Or Pa?”
“Pa could still tan my hide if I called him lazy!”
“Come on, Adam. You know what I mean. Hoss could have gotten himself killed out on that street, and—“
“Joe, that letter wasn’t supposed to be about us. It wasn’t supposed to make our family stand out as heroes. It was supposed to be about everyone, and particularly about what the folks of Virginia City did before they knew help was on the way, when they thought the only hope they had was the hope they could create themselves.” He started pulling Joe toward the door.
But Joe held back. “Adam?”
“Don’t you think Pa and Hoss are gonna want to see that paper?”
“How about after I whoop you in a game of chess?”
“How about after I whoop you in a game of checkers?
“You cheat at checkers.”
“Heroes never cheat.”
“Heroes are only human, after all.”
“Are you saying you cheat?”
“Secrets, Joe. Secrets.” Adam winked as he patted Joe on the back, and then he pulled his brother through the door, leaving the newspaper right where it was.