The Game (by freyakendra)

Summary:  An old college rival of Adam’s takes competition to an extreme, playing chess with Cartwright lives. SJS, SAS, JAM, ESA, ESH…let’s just say lots of hurt, comfort, angst and mystery.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: MA
Word Count:  26,666


 

The explosion was loud enough to make Joe duck instinctively, and close enough for him to feel the ground vibrate into his bones and right up to his teeth.

“There they go!” Mike, the lumber camp foreman said. “I saw ’em bring a wagon-load full of gun powder just yesterday.”

Joe gazed in the direction of the blast, as though he could see through the trees. “If they keep up like that, they’ll bring down half the mountain.”

“Could bury us all if they’re not careful. At least, turn half your lumber into kindling.”

“I won’t let any of that happen. You just keep the men working.”

Joe was riding in an instant, pushing Cochise as fast as the animal could possibly move on the rough terrain. In a matter of minutes, he could see dust clouds gathering overhead. Not long after that, he caught a glimpse of the crew cutting their way into the rocky surface of the mountain. When Joe’s eyes landed on a man in a gray suit standing well away from the work, he had no question as to who was in charge.

Joe drove Cochise forward. Waiting until the last second to pull the reins, Joe caused the animal to kick up a fresh cloud of dirt aimed at the gentleman’s fine clothes.

Mister Jackson!” With an exaggerated show of wiping dust from his sleeves, the gentleman shouted toward a man in work clothes who had been studying an engineering drawing. “I told you I expect you to keep your ruffians under control! I demand you get this one away from me at once!”

Joe recognized the gentleman’s companion as Jake Jackson, the foreman for the largest mining operation in the territory. Jackson glanced up at Joe, shook his head in apology and then looked away. “He ain’t one of ours, Mr. Whitfield.”

“Whoever he is, get rid of him!”

Joe dismounted. “Mister, you’re not going to get rid of me until you stop tearing into that mountain.”

The gentleman gave Joe little more than a passing glance. “Mister Jackson, do as you’re told or you’re fired!”

“Fired?” Joe looked to the foreman. “You’re not working for Mackay anymore?”

Jackson shook his head. “Whitfield here is payin’ more’n anyone.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Joe replied. “Because if Mr. Whitfield is paying you to blast into this mountain, your job ends now.”

“By whose authority,” the gentleman scoffed, “do you presume to make such demands of any man under my employ?”

“My own. My name’s Joe Cartwright and that’s Ponderosa timber just the other side of those rocks.”

Whitfield’s eyes widened for an instant. Joe noticed the man’s nose curl in disgust before he offered the hint of a smile. “Joe Cartwright of the mighty Ponderosa,” he said softly. “Well, isn’t that fascinating?”

“What’s so fascinating about it?”

“I am acquainted with your brother, Adam, although I must say I would never have imagined someone like you to be of any relation.” Whitfield’s eyes swept disapprovingly over Joe, assessing everything from the tip of his hat to his boots.

Joe gave the man his own disapproving glare. “If you’re acquainted with Adam, then maybe you’re also acquainted with the fact that your operation is threatening Ponderosa timber.”

“My operation, as you call it, is not on Ponderosa lands.”

“It’s close enough. You’re risking hundreds of acres of prime timber and the lives of our lumbermen.”

Whitfield smiled in an arrogant display of haughty authority. “Neither is of concern to me.”

“Well, it ought to concern you. I’ll make sure it concerns you.”

“Why, is that a threat?”

“No,” Joe answered casually as he mounted Cochise. “I don’t make threats. I can promise you once my pa hears what you’re doing you’ll have a fight on your hands.”

“Your ‘pa’.” Whitfield laughed. “What a charming moniker.”

Trying to focus on Cochise, Joe avoided the man’s gaze as he turned the animal around.

“Oh, do be a good boy and give your brother, Adam, my regards!” Whitfield shouted as Joe rode away.

Joe intended to do just that. He wanted nothing more than to have a good long talk with Adam about his choice of acquaintances. Actually, he did want one thing more than a chat with Adam. He wanted to punch Mr. Whitfield right in the nose. Unfortunately, that would result in nothing good. Whitfield would probably file assault charges, considering the man’s character. Even a talk with Adam would have to wait. Joe’s oldest brother was scheduled to be in San Francisco for another full week yet.

Sighing, Joe took out his aggravation by coaxing Cochise to ride like no other Ponderosa horse ever could. Before long, he felt like he was flying, and for at least a short while, nothing mattered but the wind.

*****

“Pa!” Joe shouted the instant he rode into the yard. He was surprised to see Adam hurry through the door instead.

“Adam?” Joe dismounted and then quickly wrapped Cochise’s reins around the hitching post. “Is something wrong? Shouldn’t you still be in San Francisco?”

His brother shrugged as he took Joe’s hand in greeting. “I finished early. I guess I just figured I didn’t want to spoil myself with any more fine dinners than necessary.” He nodded toward Cochise. “I suppose I should be asking you what’s wrong.”

“Someone’s trying to blast away half the mountain.”

“What?”

“A man named Whitfield. He’s tearing up that parcel old man Pedersen always refused to sell.”

Alfred Whitfield?”

Joe bobbed his head once in acknowledgement. “He said he knows you.”

Adam sighed. “He knows me alright. We were in the same class at Harvard.”

“If all your classmates were like him, I’m more impressed than ever you stayed long enough to get that college degree.”

“They weren’t,” Adam answered, smiling absently. “He was about as bad as they come. He used to expect people to address him as Lord Alfred.”

Joe looked at him, curious.

“Some sort of British pedigree,” Adam explained. “Although rumor had it his family was exiled to Canada, or at least encouraged to leave Britain.”

“Then what’s he doing here?”

“Nothing good, apparently. I had the misfortune of running into him in Sacramento on my way down. He said he was heading out this way, representing a group of investors. I guess I was hoping he’d be gone by the time I got home.”

“I don’t think he’s planning to leave any time soon. It seems his investors are trying to open a mine. He’s hired a whole crew, even Jake Jackson.”

“Jake knows better than to blast up there.” Adam gazed outward, his expression one of consideration and curiosity.

“My guess is he’s earning enough to stop him from caring.”

Adam shook his head, more to dispel his own thoughts than Joe’s. “I suppose I’d better pay Lord Alfred a little visit.”

“I’ll go with you,” Joe offered. “Where’s Hoss, by the way?”

“Out back. Why?”

“Are you kidding? Lord Alfred,” Joe repeated. Then, giggling, he patted Adam’s shoulder and moved away. “Hoss is not going to want to miss this!”

Joe didn’t have to go far. He found Hoss coming toward him from the corral wearing an expression even more dumbfounded than Adam’s had been.

“Harvey and Boone both up and quit,” Hoss said, pointing back over his shoulder with his thumb and drawing Joe’s attention to three riders heading toward the distant trees.

“Who’s that with them?”

“Stranger,” Hoss answered. “If I had a guess I’d say he was some sort of hired gun.”

Joe tensed. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

“I didn’t like the looks of it neither. Strangest thing, though, was they gave me these.” Hoss opened his hand to show Joe two black, wooden figures. They looked like chess pieces, like two black pawns. “Said their new boss would want Adam to have ’em.”

Joe shook his head, feeling as dumbfounded now as his brothers, and far less focused on Adam’s old acquaintance, Lord Alfred.

“Who hired them?” Yet the instant the words left Joe’s mouth, he was sure he already knew the answer.

“Someone name of Whitfield.”

“That would be Lord Alfred to the likes of you,” Joe said softly, the joke seeming far less funny than it would have moments earlier.

Hoss took off his hat and scratched his head. “Joe, you’re starting to sound as dadburned crazy as them two. Is it just me, or has the whole world gone loco?”

“Oh, it’s just you.” Joe winked, and then he playfully slapped at Hoss’ arm. “Come on. Adam’s ready to go have a talk with this Lord Alfred Whitfield. I’m sure you’ll find him plenty loco.”

“If that’s true then, maybe we’re better off stayin’ away from him than riding right to him.”

“I think we’re better off finding out just what kind of game this man is playing.”

Hoss looked at the chess pieces again. Then, shaking his head, he dropped them into his pocket and followed Joe to the barn.

*****

Lord Alfred was having tea when the three Cartwright brothers arrived. They found him sitting on a straight-backed chair beside a folding table laid out with a set of china. Joe had a hard time figuring out how they could handle both china and explosives at the same time — or why they would bother to try. From Hoss’ expression, Joe wasn’t alone.

“Ah! Master Adam!” Whitfield called out in greeting. “Your timing is splendid. Won’t you join me?”

Adam dismounted and gave his reins to Hoss. “I am not a child and neither are you,” he said as he stepped closer to Whitfield. “So why don’t you just stop this charade and tell me what you’re really doing here.”

“What I’m doing here, old friend, is exactly what I shared with you in Sacramento. I am representing a group of investors who expressed an interest in mining.”

“An interest in mining should not have to involve destroying Ponderosa timber. If you leave now, before any real damage has been done, you might be able to protect those investors of yours from losing everything.”

Whitfield’s expression changed so rapidly and so completely Joe almost shivered at the feel of the man’s cold eyes on him. Yet Whitfield looked away nearly as quickly, and his expression changed again as he rose from his chair, eyeing Adam with something more comical than sinister.

“My dear, old friend,” Whitfield said with a practiced smile. “Your concern for the well-being of my investors is commendable, particularly since you know nothing of who they are. But I assure you, my investment is secure.”

“And I assure you it isn’t. We will fight you on this.”

“Splendid!” Whitfield’s smile grew wider. “I shall look forward to giving it the old sporting try. You always were such a challenging competitor.”

Adam turned to look at his brothers, frustration evident in the glare he threw their way and the firm set of his jaw. “This isn’t a sailing competition,” he said as he swiveled back to face Whitfield.

“Of course, it isn’t.” Whitfield laughed. “But it promises to be a challenging competition nonetheless, wouldn’t you say?”

His chest heaving, Adam turned again. In just a few heavy strides, he grabbed the reins from Hoss and mounted up. “If you have any concern for your investors at all, you’ll stop that blasting.” He eased his horse forward a couple of paces. “I’ll be back,” he warned. “With the sheriff.”

“Splendid!” Whitfield repeated as Adam tugged the reins to turn his horse toward home.

If Lord Alfred said anything else, the Cartwrights were already too far away to hear it.

While Adam and his brothers went to see Alfred Whitfield, Ben paid a visit to George Pedersen to find out why Whitfield was on his property. An old fur trader, Pedersen lived in a small cabin at the foot of the mountain beside a stream fed by snow run-off. The stream was mostly dry now, with just a thin trickle of muddy water. Ben gazed at it and then tied his horse to a tree a short distance away. He would get Buck to a better water supply after they were finished there.

“Cartwright?” the old man called out from somewhere behind the cabin. “That you?”

“It’s me, alright.” Ben stepped over to meet him and held out his hand. “How’ve you been, George?”

Pedersen wiped his hands on his pants, but then held them there instead of taking Ben’s. “How long it been?”

Ben chuckled. “A year or more, I suppose.”

“Why you here now?”

Sighing, Ben gave in to the fact that social pleasantries had no bearing with a man like Pedersen. They never had. “That parcel of land you own up the mountain.”

“Used to own, you mean, and good riddance to it.”

Curious by the comment, Ben went on. “Yes, well, that is why I’m here. Why did you sell it? I’ve offered you a fair price for it time and again; you always refused.”

“Price got nothing to do with it, fair or not.”

“Then why sell now? Why to a stranger? If you were ready to sell, why didn’t you let me know?”

George pointed his finger almost accusingly at Ben. “Because that land and that man go together, that’s why. That land wouldn’t fit you, none. But with him, it fit just fine.”

“Shouldn’t I be the judge of whether a piece of land I want to purchase fits me or not?”

“I ain’t gonna swindle you with somethin’ you can’t see. That land,” George shook his head. “Somethin’ ain’t right there. Even the Paiute won’t set foot on it. I seen ’em often enough, watching through the trees. Like they know what it done to Gibb. Maybe it done the same to one of their own. No sir, I weren’t gonna let it do nothing like that to you and your’n.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Rockslide buried Gibb must be a dozen year ago.”

“That doesn’t mean the land is…is cursed or any other such nonsense. It’s unstable, certainly. That’s one reason I wanted to purchase it, to make sure no one tried anything as foolish as what that man is doing right now, that man you chose to finally sell it to!” Realizing his voice rose in volume as he spoke, Ben closed his eyes, took a deep breath and then cleared his throat in an attempt to calm himself.

“Don’t you worry about it none, Cartwright. That land’ll take care of itself. It’ll bury that man for sure, soon enough.”

“No. No, it won’t. It might bury the men he’s hired. It might even bury our lumbermen. But a man like that?” Ben shook his head. “No. It won’t touch him.”

“It will. Just wait. You’ll see.”

“I can’t wait! I have a lumber contract to fulfill. I have to get him to stop blasting now!”

George gazed at him suspiciously. “I reckon maybe that land already got to you.”

Losing his patience, Ben started walking toward Buck.

“Oh. Cartwright? I plum near forgot.” George caught up with Ben. “The man give me this. Said it was for Adam.” George dropped something into Ben’s palm. It looked to be a black chess piece. A rook.

“What this about?”

“Don’t know. He didn’t say.”

Shaking his head, Ben dropped the piece into his saddle bag, and then mounted up. “You sold to the wrong man, George.”

George laughed. “No. No, I don’t think I did. You take care now! Say hello to your boys.”

As Ben rode away, he could only hope Adam was having more luck with Whitfield.

*****

Roy Coffee seemed apologetic but shook his head nonetheless. “I’m tellin’ you, Adam, there’s nothing I can do. You said yourself you checked the land office and his ownership of that parcel is clear as day. What he does with it is his business.”

If Adam gritted his teeth any harder they’d shatter. “When what he does with it affects the Ponderosa, that makes it our business.”

“Of course. And if you can prove that to me, I can stop ’em right now. But if there’s no actual damage for me to see, you got to wait for the judge to come by next week.”

“Next week,” Adam repeated softly. He was seething, ready to explode. There was something about Whitfield that had always gotten under Adam’s skin, like an itch that got worse and worse the more you tried to scratch it. Adam knew he should let it go. He should wait for the judge and do what needed to be done using the proper channels. Anything less would fuel Whitfield’s pride and make that itch insufferable. And yet Adam had made a promise. Failing to follow through would be just as bad.

“Fine,” Adam said tersely. “But at least ride up there with me. Maybe by the time we get back there, we’ll both be able to see some actual damage. If not, then he’ll still know we mean business.”

“Now that’s somethin’ I can do. How ’bout first thing in the morning?”

“Morning?” Adam’s voice rose. “What’s wrong with right now?”

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with right now. Right now is less than two hours from sunset. By the time we get up there, they’ll be done for the day and I’d just as well be done myself. Morning won’t change anything.”

“Fine.” This time Adam held his lips so tight he practically hissed, spitting out the unwanted word. “I’ll be back at dawn.”

“I’ll be here.”

When Adam slammed the door behind him, he caught sight of his brothers eyeing the saloon. “Not now!” he shouted in his most commanding tone.

“What?” Joe asked innocently.

“If I have to haul your hide out of a saloon tonight because you got on the wrong side of the wrong stranger, you might as well go run and hide behind Lord Alfred Whitfield, because I assure you, you are not going to like what I’m bound to do!”

Joe’s eyebrows rose, lifting his hat higher on his head. “Sounds like you could use a chance to relax some.” He turned to Hoss. “Don’t you think it sounds like he could use a good, cold glass of beer right about now?”

“Yep,” Hoss answered, seeming serious. “I reckon he does.”

“No one needs a beer,” Adam insisted. “We are going home.”

Joe exaggerated a sigh. “Well, that’s too bad. I thought maybe you’d like to have a chat with Sam.”

“And just why would I want to do that?”

Hoss and Joe shared a glance, and then shrugged, practically in unison.

“Maybe because that hired gun who just walked out might’ve said something about that Lord friend of yours.” Joe smiled.

“Hired gun?”

“Well,” Hoss chewed on his lip and shook his head. “We don’t really know he’s a hired gun. What we do know is he’s the one Harvey and Boone left with today.”

“He is, is he?” Adam looked toward the saloon. A moment later he sighed. “Fine,” he said softly. “Let’s go have a beer.” He started walking ahead of his brothers and then turned quickly, pointing his finger right at Joe. “That’s one beer. One.”

Joe repeated the gesture, holding his own finger upward toward the sky rather than outward toward Adam. “One beer,” he repeated, grinning. “That’s plenty enough for me, brother.”

“That’s what worries me.” No, Adam realized. What really worried him had nothing to do with saloons or beer, and everything to do with Alfred Whitfield. Back at Harvard, Whitfield had pressed him constantly for information about the Ponderosa and his brothers. Whitfield had even made it known how much he would love to meet Adam’s kin, the word always said with a mocking twang. Now, all these years later, Whitfield really was here. And he had already had a confrontation with Little Joe.

It occurred to Adam that’s what bothered him most of all. He didn’t want his brothers having to deal with Whitfield’s pettiness. He didn’t want Joe goaded into doing something foolish. One punch could be enough to land the youngest Cartwright in jail, and Whitfield would be more than happy to send him there.

No, beer was the least of Adam’s concerns.

*****

Hoss ate well at dinner that evening. No one else was much interested. Pa was all fired up about old man Pedersen selling out to that no-good Whitfield. Adam was even more fired up about Whitfield himself. And Joe couldn’t stop talking about that gun Sam had described, the one Whitfield’s hired man had been wearing over at the saloon.

“It looked like pure silver,” Sam had told them. “The handle was ebony, and there was ivory embedded into it, the picture of a white horse rearing up, with a rider on its back.”

They’d gone back to see Sheriff Coffee after that, to make sure he knew there was a hired gun in town.

“I know there’ve been a couple of strangers about,” Roy had answered. “I’m keepin’ my eyes on ’em. But we don’t know for sure either one’s a hired gun.”

“When a man wears a gun like that,” Adam had shouted, “it’s either because he never uses it and it’s just for show, or he uses it all the time. I have a pretty good guess which kind this stranger is.”

“And that’s all it’d be, Adam!” Roy had shouted back. “A guess. Now won’t you please head on home and get yourself a good night’s sleep? This whole business has got you as riled as I’ve ever seen. I’m hopin’ you’ll be back to your usual good sense tomorrow, because if you’re not, I’ll be going to see this old college friend of yours without you.”

Adam about tore the door right off its hinges after that. He was still jabbering on about it at dinner.

Hoss figured it was probably going to be a long night for his older brother. It would take more than a couple snifters of brandy to settle that mess of nerves he had going on inside him. Pa, too. Joe would be alright, though. That boy could sleep through just about anything.

*****

Joe awoke to the feel of cold steel pressing against his temple. He knew it was the barrel of a gun the instant he heard the click of the hammer.

“What do you want?” Joe’s voice was harsh, breathless, as though he had been running. In a way he had been running: he’d been chased out of a dream and right into a nightmare.

He blinked and then cast his gaze further, discovering the shadow standing next to him was not alone. There were four of them, four dark figures without faces. All had sacks pulled low over their heads.

A hand grabbed Joe’s blanket and tossed it aside. The gun pressed harder into the soft flesh near his eye, digging toward his skull.

“What do you want?” Joe repeated.

One of the shadows threw Joe’s trousers onto his chest.

“You expect me to get dressed?”

The shadow beside him withdrew the weapon from his temple and used it to nudge Joe’s head, subtly demanding that he rise.

“No.” Joe’s chest heaved, his heart hammering hard against his ribs.

Rough hands wrapped tightly around his arm. He was yanked out of his bed. As soon as he was standing, the barrel of the gun forced his chin upward. He could smell the stench of old whiskey and something rancid in the breath of the shadow before him.

“Go ahead.” Joe’s voice shook. It was a struggle to speak. The pressure of the gun seemed on the verge of choking him with each word.

The shadow breathed faster; its stench grew more intense. Joe knew he was one click from having his head blown apart.

Then, suddenly, the gun was drawn away. Just as suddenly, it came back in reverse, slamming butt end against his jaw. Joe tasted blood in his mouth as hands grabbed him from behind, forcing him upright while the world fell out of focus around him.

“What are you…” Joe shouted angrily until the gun hit him once more, harder than before — hard enough to send him back into the deepest part of the night. The last thing he saw was a silver barreled gun with a white horseman on the handle.

*****

Adam heard something. He wasn’t sure what exactly, but something. He lay in bed, struggling to push away the remnants of sleep and focus on whatever it was that had called him awake.

“What are you…”

Joe’s voice, though muffled by walls and distance, held an urgency that pulled Adam from his bed in an instant. Scant seconds passed before he was down the hall, throwing wide Joe’s bedroom door. Even so, it wasn’t quick enough. Joe was nowhere in sight. Instead, Adam found two masked figures. One was climbing out the open window. The other turned and fired his gun.

Adam fell against the door frame, gasping from the shock of the bullet burying itself in his arm. Confused and stunned, he watched as the shooter bounded through the window, disappearing behind his companion.

“Adam!” Pa called at his back.

At Pa’s concerned touch, Adam shook his head. “Go after them!” he shouted. “They’ve got Joe!”

Hearing heavy footsteps running down the stairs, Adam closed his eyes against the pain, grateful for Hoss’ quick action and Pa’s reluctant yet almost equally quick acceptance of Adam’s command. Then Adam took a few deep breaths to steady his thoughts as he listened to the commotion below, as he scanned the room, trying to make sense of the scene he had interrupted.

“Hey!” Hoss shouted from somewhere just outside, below the window. It must’ve been Pa who rang the bell then, intent on waking the hands, counting on them to give chase.

Swallowing hard, Adam’s gaze swept the room once more as he tried to make sense of what was happening. He saw something incongruous on Joe’s pillow, a small, black object. He moved purposefully forward and turned up the wick on the lamp at Joe’s bedside. A moment later he held a chess piece in his hands. A black knight.

*****

Hoss paced restlessly in front of the fireplace. Every new turn drew his eyes to the clock. It might as well have stopped ticking altogether. Time wasn’t moving. He was starting to believe this night really would last forever, and until daybreak. there was nothing he could do to find Joe. It was too dark to track the men who’d taken Hoss’ little brother.

Finally, movement on the stairs pulled his thoughts upward.

“I have to say, Ben,” Roy Coffee was saying as he and Pa came down, “this is about as peculiar a story as I’ve ever heard. It’s pretty clear this Whitfield fellow is at the heart of it. With those first chess pieces linking back to him, it’s a fair bet that knight will too. Come dawn, I’d like to take a couple of men with me up to see him. At the same time, we’ll need a posse to see about tracking down whoever it was took Little Joe. I’ll have to deputize someone.”

“I’ll do it,” Hoss said.

Roy nodded. “I guess I figured as much.”

“I’ll get some of the hands to go along,” Pa said. “Roy, why don’t you stay here for what remains of the night, and then I’ll go with you to see Whitfield? Hop Sing can look after Adam.”

Hoss’ gaze returned to the top of the stairs. “How is he, Pa?”

“He’ll be fine. He just needs a little rest. Doc gave him something to help him sleep.” Pa smiled sadly. “I imagine by tomorrow afternoon he’ll be arguing with Hop Sing and…”

Hoss followed Pa to the desk at the side of the room, where four chess pieces had been laid out, side by side. Pa picked up the one piece that stood out from the others, both for its dirty appearance and for the way it had suddenly come to represent Little Joe. Unlike the other pieces, which appeared to have been carefully polished, the black knight was encrusted with dirt and dried clay.

“And,” Pa went on, “trying to puzzle out exactly what all this means.”

*****

When Joe came to, he found himself slung carelessly across the saddle of a dark horse, like a sack of grain. The only thing holding him there was the man sitting awkwardly behind him. Fortunately, the lead rider — the man with the silver gun — called a halt as soon as they were out of shouting distance of the Ponderosa.

Hearing Hoss’ voice fade to nothing left Joe feeling hollow and empty.

His rage returned when he was tossed to the ground just like that sack of grain would have been. Yet when his clothes were tossed on top of him, he decided it was best not to argue. He put on his trousers in silence, staring all the while at the masked men who were staring down at him. He then dropped his nightshirt to the ground, in favor of the work shirt that would offer more protection and flexibility. “What now?” he demanded to know.

One of the men dismounted and handed Joe his reins.

“What?” Joe asked defiantly. “You expect me to ride away?”

The man grabbed Joe’s wrist. Joe twisted, knocking the man to the ground. Before he could do anything else, a knife tore into the side of his bare foot. Shock stole Joe’s breath long enough for another rider to dismount and tie Joe’s wrists together with a length of rope, while the first man pulled the knife free, bringing another piercing wave of pain.

Joe didn’t struggle as they lifted him into the saddle. He was too winded. And with this wound, he knew he had lost his opportunity to run. He would have to go along with them for now. Still, he found some consolation in the thought that his blood might provide a clearer trail for Hoss to follow. Then he heard the sound of cloth ripping. A moment later, when someone started wrapping Joe’s foot in strips from his discarded nightshirt, he was both relieved for the sake of his foot, and sickened to lose another scrap of hope.

When they started riding again, one man was left behind. By morning, Joe figured nothing of their trail would remain. Unless they meant to be found, even the blood would have been wiped away. And no one would go to this kind of trouble if they meant to be found.

*****

Dawn had barely broken when Hoss and five ranch hands took off to follow the trail of Joe’s abductors. It seemed far too easy. Then he found a silver-hilted knife left lying on the ground, as though someone had wanted him to find it.

There was blood on the blade.

“Hey, Hoss!”

One of the men called his attention to a small piece of cloth stuck to the branch of a tree about a dozen yards south of where he’d found the knife. It was soaked in blood. Even so, there was enough of the pattern visible for Hoss to know it was from Joe’s nightshirt.

“There’s a trail here,” another man said. “Just one rider, looks like. Heading east.”

One sign said east, another south, and yet Hoss found himself gazing toward the west, where there were no signs at all. He knew better than to follow his gut. He also knew better than to ignore it.

“Let’s go,” he said. And then he led the men westward.

*****

Adam awoke to an empty house and a foul mood. His pa had gone after Whitfield with Roy, while Hoss led a posse made up entirely of Ponderosa men. Meanwhile, Adam was stuck at home with his arm in a sling and Hop Sing banging away at pots and pans in the kitchen, as though he was as frustrated as Ben Cartwright’s number one son.

When he couldn’t take the noise any longer, Adam went to the kitchen and started yelling at the cook, who started yelling right back at him in Chinese.

“Why do you always do that?” Adam shouted. “You know I don’t understand a word you’re saying!”

Surprisingly, Hop Sing closed his mouth and stared at Adam. “Xiangqi,” he said flatly a moment later.

Adam felt his face burning as his anger mounted. “I told you…”

Hop Sing shook his hands in front of him as though he was erasing a chalkboard that wasn’t there. “No, no, no. Chess.”

“Chess?”

“Xiangqi. Chinese game. Like chess.”

Adam took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. “And why do…”

“Whit-a-field,” Hop Sing went on.

Curious, Adam studied the man before him, waiting for Hop Sing to explain.

“Why he play chess with people?”

“We don’t know for sure that’s what he’s…”

Hop Sing cut him off with more Chinese words. “We know,” he proclaimed then. “We know,” he repeated with a firm nod. “Little Joe black knight. Ranch hands pawn. Pedersen rook.”

“So it seems.”

“Then what you? What Hoss? What Mr. Cartwright? What pieces you take from him?”

Each question pierced Adam’s jumbled thoughts like a lumberjack poking at a logjam. The last question finally loosened the key log.

Saying nothing further, Adam went into the great room and set up the chess set, being sure to keep spaces free for one black knight, two pawns and a rook. Each missing piece represented one move, four moves in all. But chess is a game for two players. Every move is countered by an opponent. If Whitfield was truly playing a game of chess, and Adam truly was his opponent, Adam had to have made at least four moves already, whether he’d realized it or not. Alfred Whitfield was known to cheat, but not blatantly. He would not issue a challenge without giving Adam equal turns. So what moves might Adam have already taken? What had he done to subject those particular pieces to capture?

“What are you…”

Joe’s muffled cry echoed in Adam’s thoughts. He closed his eyes against it. He needed to focus himself on the game. He needed to understand his previous moves before he made his next. He needed to figure out how to protect his other pieces from capture.

I’m sorry, Joe, he said silently. It was too late to protect his first knight. And Whitfield was not likely to hurt Joe — at least, not with his own hands. Adam’s thoughts strayed to the hired gun, but he dare not allow himself to get distracted by possibilities. He needed to focus on probabilities. There was still another knight out there, and other critical pieces as well.

“Then what you?” Hop Sing had asked. “What Hoss? What Mr. Cartwright?”

What, indeed? Adam stared at the board. He had to concentrate on the most important chess game he had ever played.

*****

Dawn found Joe back at Whitfield’s blast site. Two of the men pulled him from his horse and then forced him toward a small cavern set deep into the rocks. Joe’s struggles did nothing but aggravate the wound in his foot as they resorted to dragging him, leaving a thin trail of blood in the sandy soil. Once inside, they tied the rope around Joe’s wrist to one that already encircled a small, somewhat jagged outcropping overhead.

Throughout it all, no one said a word. Why?

A thin spear of light piercing the rocks from somewhere above shone on a belt buckle Joe recognized. It took him only an instant to realize from where.

“Jasper Boone,” Joe said.

The man froze. He met his companion’s gaze through the small holes they’d cut into the sacks covering their faces. When the other gave a small shake of his head, Boone’s shoulders bunched in response.

Joe braced himself for the inevitable. He expected a fist. He received a backhanded slap instead.

After spitting out a mouthful of blood, Joe pressed further. “Then you must be Gabe Harvey,” he said to the other man.

Harvey always had been stronger of will than Boone. Now, unlike Boone, he neither tensed nor slowed, although he did make an exaggerated show of tightening the final knot while Boone wrapped another rope around Joe’s ankles.

“You’re pretty serious about keeping me here,” Joe said as Boone tied the longer ends of this new rope to the one around the outcropping, just like Harvey had done with the other. “The least you could do is tell me why.”

He didn’t receive an answer. He hadn’t expected one.

“How much money are you getting for this?” Joe went on. “You really think it’s worth it? You really think you’re going to get away with it? You’ll be on the run for the rest of your lives. And then you’ll be at the end of a rope.”

Harvey grabbed Joe’s jaw, forcing his mouth open. He stuffed a knotted cloth into it and tied the ends around Joe’s head. The thickness of the center knot made for an effective gag. Joe couldn’t even try to speak without feeling as though he would choke on the fibers tickling the back of his throat.

And then, without a backward glance, Boone and Harvey disappeared through the entrance, abandoning Joe in a tiny, deep cavern in rocks Lord Alfred Whitfield had seemed intent on tearing right out of the mountain just the day before. Joe found himself wondering whether this meant Whitfield had given up on his plans for blasting, or simply wanted to rid himself of the irritant he had found Joe to be. Yet if that were the case, then what about Adam? Surely he’d see Adam to be more of a problem than Joe.

Whatever Whitfield’s plans were, Joe was determined to ensure they failed. He set to work trying to saw away at the rope dangling from the jagged rocks above him.

*****

Staring at the chessboard, Adam moved the white king’s pawn two squares toward the center. It was a common first move, and one he had seen Whitfield himself make in years past. But what did it represent? Adam thought back to how he had run into his old college adversary in Sacramento. Had that been Whitfield’s first move? If so, how had he known Adam would be there?

No, Adam decided. That could not have been the first move. Whitfield would have to be playing the role of the king. No other piece made sense. The king ruled the game. Losing the king meant losing the game. Yet as the king, Whitfield himself could not have made the first play. Only a pawn or a knight could make the first play. And the move currently on the board, the most common opening move, involved a pawn.

Pulling these thoughts together, Adam decided Whitfield’s first move had to have been to send a pawn out here, to scout ahead and discover information about the Cartwrights. This pawn must have found out about Adam’s trip. If Whitfield had known about the trip, then he must also have known about the lumber contract — which also meant he had known about the trees that would be harvested for that contract.

Whitfield’s second move must have been to buy Old Man Pedersen’ property. But what chess piece performed that action? Could it have been Whitfield himself? No. With the current set-up, the king was still in no position to take a black piece. If Peter’s property represented the black rook, what piece could take a rook in the second move of play?

The king’s bishop, Adam decided. That would be the only possibility, and it would be possible only if Adam’s first move involved moving his own first pawn away from the king’s rook, and his second move involved moving that rook forward two spaces. It was a stupid succession of moves, but it was the only way.

Adam moved the pieces accordingly and tried to determine what he had done or had requested to be done that could represent those chess moves. If Pedersen’ property was the rook, who was the pawn to expose it? It couldn’t have been Joe, if Joe was the knight. No, it must have been someone who met with Whitfield’s first pawn, someone who knew about Pedersen’ refusal to sell his land to the Cartwrights.

It had to have been someone in town. No. Someone Adam had sent to town. Jasper Boone. Yes, that made sense. Boone was a talker. Get a few beers into him, and he would tell his — or anyone else’s — life story to a complete stranger.

Adam recorded some notes on a paper beside him.

How many moves would it have taken for Joe, as king’s knight, to confront Whitfield as the white king? Three, Adam decided; that was presuming the white king made no prior move himself. Adam moved the black king’s knight to the square two spaces in front of the white king, and then tried to determine the quickest number of moves possible for Whitfield to take that knight with one of his own knights. Three again. The queen’s knight could take it in three moves.

Next, Adam focused on his rook’s pawn — Jasper Boone. Whitfield could take it in two moves, if Whitfield moved his own bishop’s pawn forward one square, and Adam countered with another stupid move, moving his own rook’s pawn forward one square, which would have left him open for his pawn to be captured.

Adam recorded more notes. Now he had two of his own moves unaccounted for, and another pawn targeted for removal by Whitfield.

The white king’s bishop could take the remaining black knight’s pawn in just one move, but would expose him to capture by the black queen’s bishop. Adam made the move anyway. That would account for Gabe Harvey’s pawn, and would catch him up to Whitfield’s game.

There were still two moves of Adam’s not yet identified. His pa’s going back to the mountain, and Hoss’ leading the posse represented two moves, but those must follow his knight’s capture. The missing moves happened before. He needed to know what they were. He must determine what the current board looked like before he made another stupid move.

Adam stared at the black queen and bishop. The queen was the most powerful piece on the board. In Adam’s mind, that had to represent Pa. Could the bishop be Roy Coffee, for his role in seeing to justice? With this train of thought, Adam wondered if his missing turns involved moving the black queen’s pawn ahead two spaces. That would leave the queen open for a forward attack, but would provide the bishop with more freedom of movement. Who might have been that pawn? Could those moves been something as simple as having one of the hands saddle Pa’s and Roy’s horses? Adam decided to accept the move.

Now what about his other knight? Adam figured if Joe was the king’s knight, then Hoss must be the queen’s. Like with Joe, three moves would place him at risk of capture. Adam chose two moves that placed him in the center of the board, between the two kings and beside the black queen’s pawn. Now he was caught up. Now it was his move. And he might already have taken two, if what Pa and Hoss were doing were to be counted.

Adam figured he had no choice but to imagine they were not only being counted, but counted upon. Whitfield had been one step or more ahead of him all along. Adam had to take that advantage away from him.

*****

Joe had managed to fray the rope only halfway when he heard voices beyond the cavern mouth. Stopping to listen, he caught a handful of words.

“Light…fuse…fire…blast.”

No, he said to himself, as he began to work faster and harder at the rope. And then, “No!” he tried yelling out loud through the gag. His constrained voice wasn’t enough. His efforts at cutting the rope weren’t enough.

“Take cover!” someone shouted in the distance.

The world exploded around him. Joe swiveled his body as much as he could to face the back of the cavern, and tried to shield his head with his arm.

He knew it wasn’t enough.

*****

Ben and Roy were almost to Whitfield’s site when they heard the blasting. Spurring their horses faster, they reached Jake Jackson while the clouds of dirt and debris were still settling.

“You must stop this immediately!” Ben commanded.

Jake rubbed the back of his neck and looked up from the engineering drawings on the table in front of him. Ben’s eyes locked onto an object in the corner of the drawing, anchoring it from the wind. It was a white chess piece, a bishop.

“I reckon we are,” Jake said.

“What?” Ben asked absently, forcing himself to think beyond the bishop.

“Mr. Whitfield called for one, final blast,” Jake answered. “He ordered that cavern sealed off. Seems a waste to blow rocks out of a cavern and then back into it again.” Jake shrugged. “But he don’t pay me to question his own sense.”

Ben dismounted. “He’s stopping?”

“Reckon so. He’s payin’ the whole crew to stay up here another two weeks — what he calls a fortnight,” Jake laughed. “But he ain’t given us no more to do after this ‘cept wait for him.”

“He’s paying you to just…just wait here?”

“He is.”

Bothered by the incongruity of Whitfield’s plans, particularly given the circumstances of Joe’s disappearance, Ben gazed down at the topmost drawing while Roy started questioning Jake about Whitfield’s whereabouts.

“Can’t say as I know,” Jake said, answering Roy. “I reckon maybe he’s back in Carson City. He’s set himself up in a big house thereabouts.'”

“How long he been gone?” Roy asked.

“Since Adam Cartwright come up here yesterday. Whitfield and that man of his lit off like they had to get somewhere right quick.”

“What man?”

“Name of Griffin. Sam Griffin. Sticks to Whitfield like his own shadow.”

Ben looked up from the drawing. “You said the whole crew has been paid to stay here?”

“That’s right.”

“Is everyone still here? Did any of the men leave for any length of time last night?”

“Whole crew’s here now. I can’t say for sure about last night. I didn’t notice any of ’em go off anywhere.” Jake’s forehead creased as he gazed inward, questioning something in his thoughts. “But…” he started.

Ben tensed. “But what?”

“There was some ruckus near about dawn.” Jake looked toward the morning’s blast area.

“What kind of ruckus?” Roy pressed.

“I thought maybe it was coyotes messin’ around yonder. I didn’t check it out right away on account it don’t matter to me none if coyotes get blown up. When the men was settin’ the charges, we saw a trail of blood headin’ into the rocks there. Weren’t much, but not a one of us wanted to go inside and face a pack of hungry coyotes to see what it was.”

Ben went cold. “Roy?” he asked, his voice weakened by fear. “You don’t think…? You don’t suppose…?” He couldn’t finish. He didn’t have the stomach for it.

“I don’t suppose nothin’ ’til I get all the facts,” Roy said sternly. “I want to talk to all your men here right now,” Roy told Jake.

“What’s the problem, Sheriff?”

“Kidnapping.”

“Kidnapping?”

“Little Joe,” Ben said. “Someone…took him last night.”

“You think it was one of this crew?” Jake’s eyes widened in realization. “You thinking it weren’t coyotes drug something into those rocks?”

“I already said I’m not thinkin’ anything without more facts,” Roy insisted. “Now let’s you and me talk to your men.”

Jake nodded. “Got nothin’ else to do anyhow.” He started to move away, but stopped and turned back. “Mr. Cartwright? Is Adam on his way up here?”

“No. Why?”

“Mr. Whitfield wanted to give him this here drawing,” Jake indicated the one on the table. “And that there chess piece.”

Ben stared at the bishop.

“Ben?” Roy called his attention away. “I suppose you’ll be bringin’ that to Adam?”

For a long moment, Ben felt lost. He needed to find Whitfield. He needed to know if there was any hope Joe might be anywhere other than under those rocks. He needed to… What? What did he need to do first?

“Yes,” Ben answered softly.

*****

“He’s sacrificing his bishop,” Adam said, staring at the white chess piece the lumber camp foreman had brought to him. “Why?”

“Mr. Cartwright?”

Adam looked up.

“Your pa said…” the foreman seemed to struggle for words. “Well, he said he hoped it weren’t true, but might be a chance Little Joe, he…”

“Little Joe what?”

“Well, there was another blast up in them rocks. Supposed to show how it went on that paper there.” He pointed to the rolled up drawing in Adam’s other hand, the one he’d given Adam along with the chess piece. “There was a cavern ain’t there now. It might be…well, it might be Little Joe was inside.”

Ignoring the sudden, unsteady feel to his knees, Adam raced to his pa’s desk and unrolled the drawing. He recognized Whitfield’s sloppy work. Sloppy or not, Adam saw the tiny cavern. He also recognized Whitfield’s marks showing how charges should be set to close it off without collapsing it completely.

Alfred Whitfield wasn’t a murderer. He’d have no outright intent to kill Little Joe. Yet Adam would never have thought him to be sick enough to intentionally trap a man in a rock slide either. And unless he’d changed significantly since college, Whitfield was surely incompetent enough to make critical mistakes in his calculations that could both collapse that chamber and kill Little Joe.

Adam glared toward the chessboard and was tempted to destroy it, to throw it into the fire and tell Whitfield to be damned. How could he play a game without even knowing his own moves? How could he know which moves mattered, and which didn’t? How could he checkmate his opponent if he couldn’t even be sure where the white king was?

“Where is he now?” Adam asked, his voice harsh with worry and rage.

“Who you mean?”

“My pa!” he shouted back. “Where is he?”

“Said he was goin’ to Virginia City to send some telegrams and find out about that Mr. Whitfield.”

Looking back to the chessboard, Adam realized his queen was in Virginia City, his queen’s bishop was up on the mountain, his other knight was leading a posse into who-knew-what, and he still had no idea what other pieces were in play, either on his own side or his opponent’s. Worse, he had no way of knowing whether Whitfield was tricking him, or whether Little Joe had actually been buried in those rocks.

It didn’t matter. Adam knew he had no choice. He had to go up to Old Man Pedersen’s cursed property. He prayed it would be a waste of time, but he had to see about getting Whitfield’s crew to prepare for one more blast, to once again expose the cavern without destroying it completely.

Whatever game Whitfield was playing, it had already gone far beyond chess. Adam had to stop locking his thoughts to the squares on the board. Doing so would doom him to fail, trapping him in a blind game he had no hope of winning.

*****

Hoss knelt to the ground, pretending to focus on some scrub brush that had been crushed into the sand. He waited like that while he listened behind him. And then, in one quick motion, he drew his gun, clicked off the safety and swung around to face…an Indian. A half-breed, more like, dressed in a white man’s shirt and trousers, but wearing a feather in his narrow-brimmed hat and a knife and pouch at his belt. “Mister, you better have a good explanation for why you been following me for the last hour.”

Defiant, the half-breed raised his chin, holding his gaze sharp and his lips thin. “You’re the one they call Hoss Cartwright?”

“Yeah,” Hoss answered slowly. “Who’s askin’?”

“A white man paid me to stop you.”

“Stop me from what?”

“Just to stop you. He makes tricks. I do not trust him.”

“That why you haven’t tried yet?”

“It is why.”

“So what you gonna do about that?”

“I have not decided.”

“Well then, let me help you decide. You go on back to that white man and you tell him ain’t nothing he can do to stop me from lookin’ for my little brother. You got that?”

The half-breed cocked his head, his brows drawn in thought. “He is your brother?”

“You know who I’m talkin’ about?”

The half-breed nodded.

“You know where he is?”

Another nod.

“Then you’d better tell me now, ’cause my finger’s gettin’ awful twitchy.”

“I will show you.”

“Unh-uh.” Hoss shook his head. “I can’t trust you.”

The half-breed reached into the leather pouch tied to the belt at his waist.

“You watch what you’re doin’ there,” Hoss warned.

The half-breed pulled out something white, and tossed it to Hoss. It was a white knight from a chess set.

“Where’d you get this?”

“The white man. He said it was my totem. He said if I lose it, my life is also lost.”

“Then why’d you give it to me?”

“I give you my totem. I give you my life.”

“Why?”

“I have always walked two worlds. I see the white man who gave me this totem, and I see you, and there I also see two worlds. White men have many ways. His way bows to angry spirits. Your way bows to brothers. I choose your way.”

Hoss hesitated a moment longer, but then put down his gun. “All right.” He nodded and glanced around him before returning his attention to the half-breed. “You know I got to round up the other men with me.”

The half-breed nodded back at him.

Hoss raised his gun and fired three shots into the air.

*****

Joe could hardly breathe. The air around him was thick with dust. It seeped in through the gag in his mouth, seeming intent on choking him once and for all.

He blinked his eyes, once, twice. All he saw was darkness. Whatever small splinter had let in the sun before was gone now.

He tried to move and then grunted in pain. His left shoulder was pinned. Only his legs were free — or at least reasonably so. His ankles were still tied together, but he could raise his knees without hitting the rocky ceiling.

How much space remained? Was there anything left of the opening? Had he truly been buried alive?

He tried once more to call out to anyone who might hear him. But he could hardly hear himself, and the effort left him coughing. Even his coughing was hampered by the gag.

It occurred to him he was going to die. There was nothing he could do, nothing his family could do for him. He was already in his grave. And he was going to die.

The worst part of it was — he had no idea why.

*****

The half-breed led Hoss and the posse to the far side of the rocks where Whitfield had done his blasting. Hoss watched him climb nimbly up about twenty yards and then disappear.

“Where’d he go?” one of the men asked.

Not bothering to try to answer, Hoss followed the half-breed’s path until he found a hole in the rocks. It was small — too small. Hoss stood no chance of squeezing through.

“Hey!” Hoss called inside. “Come back up here!”

He heard no response.

“How ’bout me, Hoss?” Bret Jones asked after a moment. “I can go in after him.”

“Sure you can,” Hoss answered. “But I’m not convinced you should.” What if it was a trap? That half-breed could do anything he wanted to anyone who climbed in after him.

Hoss was still struggling with the decision when a shadowy figure started to emerge. It was the half-breed.

“I am sorry, Hoss Cartwright,” the half-breed said when he reached the sun. “It is too late.”

“What do you mean, ‘too late’?”

“The cavern has collapsed.”

“What cavern?”

“The cavern where they put your brother, Little Joe.”

“No,” Hoss said softly. “No. That ain’t true. That can’t be true.” He leaned down into the hole and shouted, “Little Joe!”

He heard nothing, not even the sound of his own echoes. There were just too many rocks in the way.

“Little Joe!” Hoss called again and again. But it was no use.

The half-breed gently placed a hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “I am sorry. I did not wish this to be.”

“But you did it anyway, didn’t you?” Hoss glared at him accusingly.

“I helped to take him, yes. But I did not help to put him there.”

“Why you no good, Injun! I oughtta kill you. I oughtta kill you right here and now.”

The half-breed lowered his head in a show of submission. “You have my totem. You have…my life.”

Remembering the chess piece, Hoss grabbed it out of his pocket. For a long while, he held it in his fist, squeezing so tight he thought sure it would break apart. When it didn’t he threw it angrily down into the hole. “I tell you what I got,” he said, looking down into the darkness. “I got one less brother than I ought to have.”

“Hey, Hoss!” someone shouted up to him.

Feeling bile in his throat, Hoss turned away from the hole. When his gaze fell back upon the half-breed, Hoss glared at him with more hatred than he could ever have imagined feeling.

“Yeah,” Hoss answered tersely, locking his eyes with the brown gaze before him.

“Adam’s down there!”

Adam? Puzzled, Hoss finally looked away. He climbed down to join the rest of the men, and then someone pointed toward the base of the rocks on the other side, where Hoss and Joe — oh God, Joe! — had met up with Whitfield the day before. Adam really was down there. He was looking at a paper and then pointing at people, like he was telling them what to do. It was like he was doing Whitfield’s job — or working for Whitfield.

“Can’t be,” he said aloud.

Whatever else it could be, Hoss had no idea. But he was sure as hell going to find out.

*****

When Hoss arrived, Adam was bent low over a piece of paper and struggling to write with his left hand, since his right one was locked into that sling.

“Adam?” Hoss called over to him.

Adam’s shoulders tensed and his hand stopped moving for a moment. But then he kept right at it.

Reaching his brother’s side, Hoss tried again. “Adam?”

“I can’t trust his numbers,” Adam shouted without turning. He finally stopped writing and lowered his head. “But I trust my own even less,” he said softly. “I’ve got one shot, one chance.” He shook his head. “And that’s it.”

“One chance at what?”

Adam finally turned to face him. Hoss felt gut-punched at the sight of his brother’s eyes. He looked angry and sad and confused, and any number of things Hoss could never have imagined him to be all at once.

“At saving Little Joe,” Adam said flatly, despite the pain in his gaze.

“What?”

Adam looked toward the rocks. “If certain clues can be believed, Whitfield might have…” It was as though Adam had lost the words.

Hoss thought maybe he already knew them. “Brought that mountain down on top of him?”

Sighing heavily, Adam closed his eyes.

Hoss didn’t need any other answer. “Are you saying you have a chance to get him out?”

“One chance.” Adam held up his index finger. “Just one.”

“That’s a whole lot better than that half-breed fella led me to believe.”

“What half-breed?”

Hoss indicated with his chin toward the man standing away from them, silently watching. “One of your white knights.”

Adam’s eyebrows rose. “You know that for sure?”

“He gave me the chess piece to prove it.”

“He just gave it to you?”

Hoss shrugged, feeling suddenly guilty for throwing the chess piece down into the rocks. “Whitfield told him it was a totem of some kind. Said if he lost it, he’d lose his life, too.”

Adam moved his eyes away to something Hoss couldn’t see. “If that’s true, Alfred Whitfield is either not the man I remember or he’s gotten a whole lot better at bluffing.” He returned his attention to Hoss. “So this white knight just decided to switch sides?”

“That’s what he says.”

“What else did he tell you?”

“He admitted to taking Little Joe, but not to putting him in the cave. He said he knew that’s where they were bringing him, though. He tried to show us a back way into it.” Hoss shook his head. “He said it was too late. It was blocked.”

“If Whitfield’s numbers are wrong, it might well be too late.”

“And if they’re right?”

“Then like I said. We have one chance.”

“One chance is better than none, way I see it.”

Adam reached up and squeezed Hoss’ shoulder. “We’d better get to work,” he said after a while. And then Adam called the half-breed over to see what else he might know.

*****

Adam was determined to light the fuse himself. If this went wrong, he didn’t want anyone else to be responsible.

“Take cover!” he hollered, and then ran to join Hoss and Roy Coffee behind a nearby boulder.

The debris was still settling when all three of them were rushing toward what they hoped would be a new opening to the cavern inside. Somehow, the half-breed not only beat them to it, he beat them inside of it. The opening was much smaller than before — too small for Hoss, and possibly Adam as well, though with Adam’s injured arm he couldn’t even consider making the attempt.

“Joe?” Hoss shouted into the small space behind the half-breed. This time there was a faint echo. It was enough to encourage him to believe Joe might actually still be alive. “Joe?” he called again.

*****

Someone was calling his name. Joe opened his eyes to a new kind of darkness, one that was more gray than black.

“Joe?” he heard again.

Hoss? he tried to shout back. Once more, the gag stopped him. He fought against it, both shouting and coughing until his throat burned and his eyes watered at the effort. Even so, he knew it would have been impossible for anyone to hear him.

He closed his eyes again and prayed to hear the sound grow closer.

Instead, someone touched his right arm. It was a hand…a small hand, too small for Hoss. Adam? He tried to shift positions, to look toward the hand, but the movement sent a stab of pain from his shoulder to his chest.

“We must move more rocks away,” a strange voice said nearby.

Joe tried to relax. Soon, he told himself. At least they had found him. But with this new hope came a new, stronger desperation. He needed to get out of there. Every moment made him feel closer to death. He could taste it on that rag in his mouth and smell it in the dust he couldn’t help but inhale.

Finally, he heard a new shifting of rocks. And then more voices came, drawing nearer with every breath. Soon, he thought again.

But then someone started moving the wrong rocks. The one pressing against Joe’s shoulder bore down with greater force. He cried out hopelessly, praying, begging for someone to hear him.

“Stop!” shouted the strange voice he’d heard earlier. “Stop!” the man yelled again. “Move nothing more!”

Clinging to the comfort of that voice, Joe held his eyes closed and struggled to catch his breath through both the pain and the disappointment.

Soon, he prayed. Please, God! Let it be soon!

*****

Adam had a new challenge. They were close, but not close enough. Each rock they moved had to be carefully considered. This was a puzzle with no option for wrong solutions. Worse, he had to rely on the reports and judgment of others. The space was still too tight, and the rocks too unstable for him to venture in and see for himself, limited as he was to the use of one arm.

Jake’s experience with blasting and digging for precious metals, and the half-breed’s lithe form provided for their best hope of getting Joe out alive. Yet both of these men had served Whitfield, one as a bishop, the other as a knight. Both were valuable pieces, rarely sacrificed unless something of greater significance could be gained.

If Adam relied on them too heavily, could it turn against him? Could they turn against Joe?

No. Adam saw no animosity in either of them. And Jake Jackson was a good man, one Adam had come to trust through the years. Adam had to believe these ‘pieces’ had truly fallen out of play. He also had to wonder if that meant another of his own pieces was in jeopardy. Since the most valued person missing now was his pa, Adam began fearing for the black queen.

It didn’t matter. For the moment, he had only one play to make.

He nodded to Jake. “Whatever it takes. Just get him out of there.”

*****

Hoss put his back into every rock he moved, and still it wasn’t enough. When he heard that half-breed holler at him to stop, it about tore his heart right out of his chest to find out Joe was hurting and Hoss was making it worse.

He would dig right through the mountain if he had to, with his bare hands if that’s what it would take to get Joe to safety. Trouble was, Hoss had lost all sense of what was the right way and what was the wrong way to get to Joe. He didn’t know what rock to move next. He didn’t dare choose the wrong one. “Come on, Jake,” he complained. “We ain’t got all day. Joe ain’t got that kind of time.”

Jake studied as much of the layout of rocks as he could see, and pressed the half-breed for details Hoss would never even have known enough to ask. Yet all that studying and considering still wasn’t enough. Jake then had to take that information to Adam, and then both of them had to go and look at numbers. Meanwhile, Hoss and everyone else just had to wait around, relying on the half-breed to let them know every now and again that Joe was at least still breathing.

Four hours had passed since the half-breed had first shimmied out to let them all know Joe was alive. But this time around, Hoss didn’t like the look in his eye.

The half-breed shook his head. “He is silent. He no longer moves to my touch.”

Hoss high-tailed it to Jake and Adam. “We’ve just run out of time, Adam. Whatever we’re gonna do, we’ve got to do it now.”

It was strange to watch his older brother share a look with Whitfield’s foreman that made it seem as though they’d been on the same side all along. It was stranger still to think this whole thing was the result of some lunatic’s idea of a chess game.

When Adam finally nodded, Hoss noticed he seemed awfully pale. He also noticed something he had almost managed to forget. Adam’s arm was in a sling. He’d been shot just the night before, a night that suddenly felt like a thousand years and only ten minutes ago, all at the same time.

And suddenly Hoss found himself once again torn between wanting to tear the hide off of that half-breed for having been there to take Little Joe in the first place, and wanting to shake the man’s hand for being there now and helping them to know how Joe was doing.

“Dadburnit,” Hoss said to no one in particular as he followed Adam and Jake back toward the cavern.

*****

Hoss almost couldn’t lift that last rock. As luck would have it — or not, as in this case — it was bigger than all the rest. He about strained every muscle in his body, but he lifted it alright. He got it out of there just like he was supposed to. And then he got a good look at Little Joe.

He would have cussed out loud in a filthy and vile oath if he could have found his voice. Joe was trussed up worse than they’d ever do to any of the cattle. His face and clothes were an inch thick in rock dust, and both his hands and the cuffs of his shirt sleeves were muddied with blood from deep rope burns and cuts at his wrists — clear proof he’d fought against those ropes right up until he just didn’t have the energy any more.

While Hoss stood frozen, dreading to face the possibility that they had been too slow and had reached Joe too late, the half-breed scurried in to where Joe was, seeming more eager to get Hoss’ little brother out of there than Hoss was himself. And before Hoss could even tell where he’d gotten it from, the half-breed had a knife in his hands and started aiming it toward Little Joe’s throat — at least, that’s what Hoss thought at first. Instead, the half-breed used it to slice away the gag over Joe’s mouth. When he tossed that away and set to work on the ropes, Hoss finally moved. He knelt down at Joe’s side, half-studying the rock pressing against Joe’s shoulder, and half-trying to make sure Joe really was still alive.

“Hey, Joe!” Hoss said loudly as he squeezed his brother’s free shoulder. “Come on, boy. Show me you’re okay, will you? Joe?” When he saw Joe’s brows draw downward, he closed his eyes for a moment in silent gratitude.

“That’s it, little brother,” Hoss said then. “We’re gonna get you out of here.” He patted Joe’s arm and quickly set to work trying to lift away the rock pinning him to the ground.

“Hoss?” The soft, raspy voice hardly sounded like Joe at all, but it was enough to stir Hoss’ heart.

“Someone get him some water,” Hoss called out. He wasn’t even sure who responded; he just grabbed the canteen that was pressed against his hand.

Joe’s eyes were open, but he had a confused look to him, like he couldn’t be too sure whether Hoss was really there or not.

“We’re gonna get you out of here,” Hoss promised again as he gently lifted Joe’s head and raised the canteen to his brother’s lips. “You just hold tight. You’ll be back home giving Adam what-for before you know it.”

Joe had barely taken a sip before he started coughing. It was a painful, dry sound that made Hoss’ own throat hurt to hear it, and the stress to Joe’s muscles worked against the rock on his shoulder. What resulted was agony — that much was clear from the creases around Joe’s eyes.

Hoss had to get that rock moved out of there quick as he could. Trouble was, as soon as he tried, he realized there were still other rocks anchoring it. He could lift it some, but it would take a whole lot more work to get it off of Joe completely.

“Hey, you!” Hoss called to the man beside him while he put everything he had into holding that rock up as high as he could. “Half-breed! Pull him out of there! Pull good and hard!”

Hoss clenched his teeth down tight and could feel the pressure rising clear up to his head at the strain of holding that rock up off of Joe. He wasn’t about to let it go, not until he knew it was going to land on the ground rather than on his brother.

“Hoss!” He thought he heard someone shout, but he wasn’t sure what it meant.

“Hoss!” someone shouted again.

Adam?

“Let it go, Hoss!” Adam shouted again as a hand gripped Hoss’ arm. “Joe’s out! He’s free! You can let it go!”

Still worried about crushing Little Joe, Hoss looked down to the ground. He had to be sure. He had to be absolutely sure before he would even consider dropping that rock.

“Put it down,” Adam said more softly.

When he finally did, Hoss felt oddly light. It was almost as though he’d struggled to hold up the entire mountain only to find out God himself had taken over.

Letting out a deep sigh and another silent prayer, Hoss wrapped his arm around Adam’s shoulders. He felt a strange need to somehow extend that protective sense he’d abandoned by letting go of the rock. And then he found himself facing a new struggle. As his knees grew weak, he grasped Adam’s good arm, putting a strain on his older brother he hadn’t intended to cause.

“Hoss?”

Hoss pulled away and sat himself down on a boulder. “I thought he was dead for sure, Adam,” he confessed a moment later, looking down at the ground but seeing in his mind that dark hole he’d first found high above. “When that half-breed told me about the cave-in, I thought sure he was dead.”

Adam moved beside him and placed his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “Well, he’s not. And I promise you, I’m going to see to it no one else ends up dead, either.” After squeezing his shoulder lightly, Adam pulled away. “Come on. Let’s get Joe home.”

And I promise you I’m going to see to it no one else ends up dead, either. There was something in Adam’s tone Hoss found concerning. “What are you planning, Adam?”

“If I have to take the king to end this game, then I’m going to do just that.”

Hoss watched his brother walk away wondering if Adam actually had murder on his mind — and wondering, too, why it didn’t trouble him at all to think he might.

*****

The moment they stepped through the door, Adam went in search of Hop Sing while Hoss got Joe upstairs with the help of Jake Jackson, who — along with most of the men he’d supervised — had been eager to quit his job with Whitfield after seeing what had been done to Joe.

“Hop Sing!” Adam shouted as loudly as he could, hurrying from room to room until it became evident the Chinese cook was simply not there.

And then suddenly it was Adam’s turn to take out his frustrations by banging pots and pans in the kitchen as he struggled one-handed to get some water heated on the stove — which had managed to burn itself out without Hop Sing there to tend the fire.

“Dammit!” Adam cursed as he fumbled with fresh kindling.

Once the fire was burning again, Adam faced a greater challenge in getting Hop Sing’s biggest stew pot from the pump to the stove. Letting good sense give way to irritation, he threw off his sling and tried to grab the water-laden pot with both hands — at which point his need for the sling became intensely obvious as a sharp, stabbing pain exploded from the wound in his arm. His mouth exploded with equal vigor, shooting off curses Ben Cartwright would have been appalled to hear from any of his sons, let alone the perpetually even-tempered Adam.

“Dadburnit, Adam!” Hoss shouted. “What’re you trying to do to yourself?”

Holding his eyes closed as though that action alone would be enough to dismiss the pain, Adam felt Hoss’ strong arms wrap around him and pull him away from the sink.

“You done busted open those stitches,” Hoss went on. “Doc’s already got enough to do when he gets back, and here you go making him fix you up all over again. What were you thinkin’, tryin’ to lift that? Where’s Hop Sing, anyway?” That last question seemed to come as an afterthought.

“I don’t know!” Adam shouted back as he pushed himself away from Hoss, swept the sling up off of the floor with his good hand and stormed into the great room as furiously as Joe ever could. “I don’t know where he is! He should be here. He should…”

When Adam’s eyes landed on Pa’s desk, he saw six chess pieces. “There should only be four,” he said softly.

“What?” Hoss asked, moving up beside him.

“When I left here, there were only four chess pieces. Four. Two pawns, the rook and the knight.” His voice rose with every word. “Four!” he finally shouted.

His eyes locked on that desk, Adam’s legs seemed unwilling to move him forward. Every step seemed a greater struggle than what he’d endured in the kitchen. By the time he came to the edge of the fine wooden surface, he felt defeated. He picked up the newly added, second rook, and wrapped it into his fist. “Hop Sing,” he said.

“No,” Hoss answered in disbelief. “That Whitfield fella wouldn’t go and take Hop Sing. Would he?”

“After what he did to Joe, do you really need to ask that?”

Hoss fell silent. A moment later, he picked up the other new piece. “Then who’s this?”

Adam didn’t have to look to know Hoss was holding the black queen.

“Pa,” Adam answered quietly.

*****

Adam looked out of the window behind Pa’s desk to do another quick survey. Dusk was bringing with it a thousand shadows, and though there were three men posted around the house, he refused to believe there were enough eyes watching for Whitfield’s next move. No one around him was safe. He knew that now. No one was immune to whatever mad whim Whitfield would call into play next. If three ranch hands were protecting the house, who was protecting them? Would any one of them — or even all of them become captured pawns?

“Still no sign of the doc?” Hoss asked from the stairs.

“No,” Adam said. “I’m starting to believe he’s not coming.”

“‘Course he’s comin.’ Why wouldn’t he come?”

Sighing, Adam turned to face his brother. “Who’s to say he even got Sheriff Coffee’s message that we needed him? Who’s to say he hasn’t become a captured piece himself?” Adam’s gaze moved to the single white and six black chess pieces on the desk.

“Nah. Whitfield wouldn’t mess with the doc. Would he?”

“I honestly don’t know,” Adam admitted. One thing Adam did know about Alfred Whitfield was that he had always hated losing back in college. Now, all these years later, he was doing everything he could to ensure a win. What was it going to mean in the end, if Whitfield really did win this game? Who else was going to be hurt — or worse?

“How’s Joe?” Adam asked, hating the fact that he needed to.

“He’s hurtin,’ but…”

“What?”

“He can’t fall asleep. I don’t think it’s the pain that’s doin’ it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Every time he starts to doze off, his whole body jerks and he gets to lookin’ like maybe he’s worried he’s still under them rocks.”

“I can’t blame him,” Adam said sadly, his eyes straying to the knight. Picking it up, he used his thumbnail to scrape off a bit of crusted dirt. “It was a clue,” he realized then.

“Huh?” Hoss came to stand beside him.

“The dirt on this piece. It was meant to be a clue. Whitfield wanted us to find Joe. Why not Pa or Hop Sing?”

Both the queen and the second rook were in pristine condition, as though brand new.

Hoss gave the thought some consideration, but then shook his head and walked away. “If you ask me, that man’s just plum crazy.”

Stopping in front of Pa’s brandy, Hoss stared at it for a moment. “I…ah, reckon this would be a might smoother on Joe’s dry throat than whiskey.”

Pa’s brandy. Adam understood exactly why Hoss hesitated. It wasn’t because Pa wasn’t there to approve. It was simply because Pa wasn’t there.

“I imagine it would,” Adam replied.

“Maybe it would even help him relax some.”

“Maybe it would help us all relax some.” Adam smiled through the lie, nodding to encourage his brother to pour three glasses. “Might even steady your hand a bit.”

Hoss looked puzzled. “What do I need a steady hand for?”

“Well, if Doc Martin’s not coming, someone has to stitch up Joe’s foot and fix the doc’s work on my arm.”

Hoss gazed at him for a long moment. “Nah,” he said then. “Doc’ll be here.”

Adam didn’t bother answering. Instead, he let his eyes stray to the two, new chess pieces on Pa’s desk.

*****

Adam left at dawn. Hoss tried to talk him out of it, or at least get him to agree to taking Jake or someone else with him. But Adam knew he had to do this alone. He also needed to be sure every spare man was watching the house. He needed to know both Hoss and Joe would be safe.

Along the entire ride to Virginia City, he looked for signs that the doc had made an attempt to reach them, but he found no indication. By the time Adam arrived in town, it became obvious why. Virginia City was alive with gossip about two major events that had occurred in the course of a single day, both of which effectively prevented Adam from getting to the people he needed. Doc Martin had been called away to tend to casualties from a cave-in at a nearby mine. And Sheriff Coffee was leading a posse against a couple of men who had robbed the Virginia City bank just before closing time.

Adam had a hard time accepting those events as coincidence.

“Did anyone recognize the bank robbers?” he asked the deputy.

Clem cocked his head. “They recognized the gun one of them was holding.”

“Let me guess. It had a silver barrel and an ebony handle inlayed with an ivory horseman.”

“That’d be the one.”

“He’s Whitfield’s man.”

Clem gazed toward the door to the jail cells. “That’s what your half-breed’s been tellin’ me. I sent a telegram to Carson City for the sheriff there to look in on Mr. Whitfield.”

“You know where he is?”

Clem nodded. “Your pa found out he’s a guest of William Seymour.”

Adam was less impressed by the stature of Whitfield’s host than he was interested in the original bearer of that information. “My pa? When did you see him?”

“Yesterday afternoon. He said he was going to confront Whitfield himself. I told him to wait for Sheriff Coffee to come back from that blast site up at…” Clem stopped himself and gazed curiously at Adam. “How’s Joe, by the way?”

“He’s alive,” Adam said. “He still needs a doctor, though.”

“Lot of folks saying that today. That cave-in’s a mess, Adam. They say could be as many as twenty injured. Two missing, last I heard.”

“Anyone hurt in the robbery?”

Clem shook his head. “No. That man just waved around that fancy gun of his like he wanted to make sure everyone saw it. And they only took the cash from the tellers. Didn’t even ask about the safe. It seemed like they were in a big hurry to get out of there.”

Adam stared at him, puzzled. “Sounds like they were scared. Have you ever heard of a hired gun being scared?”

“You’re thinking that gun wasn’t his, aren’t you?”

“Aren’t you?”

Clem smiled. “That’s why Sheriff Coffee was so anxious to go after them like he did. He figured those two might be easier to take than they’d like us to believe.”

“If there are just two of them, and they’re running scared, why isn’t Roy back yet?”

“Well, now, that’s what I’ve been wondering myself.”

“Think it might be a good idea to go and find out?”

“Sure. But I got a prisoner who needs looking after.”

“The half-breed?”

“Yep.”

“Leave him to me.”

“You?”

“I’m sick and tired of Whitfield and his men getting away with…everything they’re getting away with. Go after Roy.”

Clem studied him for a moment, and then nodded. “Okay. But as acting sheriff, I’ll have to deputize you.”

“I imagine you will.”

Ten minutes after Clem rode out of town, the jail stood empty. Deputy Adam was already on his way to Carson City, with the half-breed riding at his side.

*****

An hour into the ride, Adam paced his mount to move up closer alongside the half-breed.

“What can you tell me about how you met Whitfield?” he asked.

“I was in Salt Flats,” the half-breed answered without hesitation. “A man approached me. He asked if I would like a job.”

“Why you?”

“We worked together once before.”

Adam had a pretty good idea what type of work that might have been. Since it had nothing to do with Whitfield, there was no point to discussing it. “Who was this man?” Adam asked instead.

“His name is Sam Griffin.”

The name was familiar, though it took a moment for Adam to place it. “Yes. I remember now. I saw a notice in Sheriff Coffee’s office. There was no picture. Griffin is wanted for murder. In Texas, I believe it was.”

“It was not murder,” the half-breed said. “It was a fair fight. He was quick enough to outdraw a man who challenged him. His crime was only that his challenger was a privileged son.”

“I see.” Adam studied the half-breed. “So you don’t consider Sam Griffin a hired gun?”

“Of course he is a hired gun. But he was not hired to kill that man. Challengers are common in his line of work.”

“Is that not also your line of work?”

“I have no ‘line of work.’ I take jobs I find interesting when I have use for white man’s money.”

“What interested you about Whitfield’s job?”

“It was…different. He spoke of games. He spoke of chess, a game my father played and my mother never understood.” The half-breed’s gaze turned thoughtful. He shook his head. “The taking of your brother did not match what I knew of my father. Still, I played. And I played well. I stopped your brother from running.”

“The knife wound in his foot?”

The half-breed did not shy away from Adam’s gaze. Yet he did lower his head, as though in respect. “For that, I am sorry. I did not know he was anything other than another challenger. I saw him as no different than the privileged son in Texas.”

They went silent for a long while as Adam pieced his thoughts together. “Why?” he asked then. “Why Joe? And why did you think he was the same as that privileged son in Texas?”

“We were told of his reputation with a gun. We were told he issued a challenge. Griffin wanted to meet it, but Whitfield instead wanted him removed from the game. He said it was too soon. He said there would be another challenge, a better challenge to come.”

Adam wasn’t sure what disturbed him more, the thought of Joe being forced to draw on a hired gun, or the truth of what had been done to his youngest brother. Yet the half-breed’s last statement bothered him as well. There simply was no better challenger than Joe. Adam knew of no one who could outdraw his young brother. Unless Whitfield’s idea of a better challenge was far different from what a man like Sam Griffin would consider fitting.

Adam reminded himself of his own realization that Whitfield seemed to want a sure win. Maybe Whitfield simply wanted a guarantee that the challenger would lose. The thought left Adam cold. Who was that challenger supposed to be?

“Thank you,” Adam said after a moment.

“For what?”

“I appreciate your honestly in telling me all of this.”

“Why would I not be honest?”

Adam contemplated the incongruent innocence in the half-breed’s gaze. “What’s your name?”

For an instant, the half-breed glanced away, as if trying to settle upon a single answer. “Peter,” he said then, “is what some people call me.”

“Just Peter? Or do you have a surname, a family name?”

“A family name is a tradition of white men. It is something that ties them to other white men like a chain across history.”

“What you call a chain I would call a bridge.”

“To say it is a bridge implies there is a chasm that must be spanned, a gap pulling these men apart. Do you have a chasm, Adam Cartwright, pulling you and your father and brothers apart?”

“Right now I do, yes. And that chasm also has a surname. Alfred Whitfield.”

“Alfred Whitfield is a man who has a chasm within himself, one that no bridge can span.”

“Alfred Whitfield is a man for whom your metaphor of a chain might actually be fitting. Or at least a man to whom I would like to be fitting a chain.”

Peter smiled.

“And Peter is a man who has neither a chain nor a bridge,” Adam went on, “but who has clearly received an education from someone. Maybe from someone who tried to help him build his own bridge?”

“No man can build a bridge if there is nothing across from him to provide a foothold. Peter is a man who stands upon a cliff looking out to nothing but the sky and the wind.”

“Maybe your foothold is simply obscured by clouds.”

Peter shook his head, just once. “My father was a white man,” he explained, “with a strong, sturdy bridge. A man of prominence. My mother was a Cherokee who did not follow the Trail of Tears. It might be said her chain was broken by his bridge.”

“What became of her?”

“She believed she could join him in his world. She raised me in the belief he would accept me as his own, and as his heir. When he died, the bridge did not hold.”

“His family didn’t approve.”

“After they turned her away, she and I followed the trail her people had taken. When we found them, they also turned her away. She then sent me away.”

“Why?”

“She wanted to find her bridge to her ancestors and I was too young to walk upon it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“To be sorry is to be apologetic. You have done nothing to require an apology.”

“Your mother taught you well, Peter Nobridge.”

Peter cocked his head, seeming to consider the practicality of Adam’s invented surname. “My father taught her well,” he continued then. “I am only…sorry she did not recognize his true intentions.”

“Which were?”

“You might name it charity or philanthropy. He sought to help her shed her savage ways, to bring her into civilization…to give her humanity.”

“I understand.”

“Perhaps.” Clearly, Peter wasn’t sure he could believe Adam might actually have the capacity to understand. Yet he did seem to want to believe it.

Adam found the man’s uncertainty to be encouraging — as though, perhaps Adam had been right to believe the man would work with him. If Whitfield’s former white knight could be effectively used against him, it might finally enable Adam to checkmate Alfred Whitfield with a move he never saw coming.

*****

Smiling grimly, Adam would have liked nothing better than to call Alfred Whitfield out. If the man even bothered to appear, he would be dumbfounded, petrified and full of excuses. Unfortunately, with Adam’s gun-hand locked into a sling thanks to the bullet Whitfield’s man had put in his arm, together with his own propensity to be the better man, instead Adam climbed the front porch steps to Mr. William Seymour’s many pillared home on the outskirts of Carson City and knocked politely on the door while Peter Nobridge watched the horses and Adam’s back.

“I’m here to see a guest of Mr. Seymour’s,” he said to the woman who answered. “Mr. Alfred Whitfield.”

Perhaps he had been watching for Adam’s arrival. Whitfield was at the door almost immediately. He dismissed the woman and stepped outside, practically preening with the princely air of ownership — as though the entire estate was his alone.

“Why, my dear friend, Adam Cartwright,” he said with flourish. “What a pleasant surprise.”

“This ends now.” Adam said, simply.

“What is this?” Whitfield’s confusion was as overplayed as a stage actor trying to work the audience. “What precisely do you perceive this to be?”

Frankly, Adam was tired of being worked. “This game,” he shouted, “you seem to believe we’re playing!”

“Life, itself is a game. All the world’s a stage, indeed. And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.”

“Shakespeare?” Adam answered in disbelief. “This is no more a stage than it is a game! You are gambling with people’s lives, with the lives of my family. You nearly killed Joe. You…”

“I? No. No, certainly not I. I never touched your brother.”

“You are responsible.”

“He had his part to play in this game, Cartwright.”

“No.”

“As you have yours. As I have mine.”

“Joe was not playing your game. I am not playing your game. And what about my father? What have you done with him? Or Hop Sing? Neither of them was ever playing your game!”

“Indeed they were! Indeed, they still are.”

“Where are they?”

“Tut, tut, tut. That is for you to deduce if you play your role wisely.”

“What part are you playing now, Whitfield? The bastard lordling or the back-shooting scoundrel who’s too yellow-bellied to do his own dirty work? Or is it both?”

There, in Whitfield’s eyes, Adam saw the effect of his words. The man was angry. In his anger, he would grow careless — just like he always had back in college.

“You have never known your place, Cartwright,” Whitfield fumed. “You might do well lording over the people of the Washoe Valley, but…” He paused as another change came about him. Both anger and arrogance gave way to cockiness. “Washoe?” he scoffed. “Such a savage name for a savage land comprised entirely of dullards and ruffians. Who were you to believe you ever had the right to associate with the elite of…”

“Dullards and ruffians?” A booming voice interjected from the doorway to the house.

“Indeed! This is…” Whitfield turned to find Mr. Seymour standing behind him. He visibly paled. “My dear friend, you cannot for a moment believe I would ever deign to include a personage such as yourself in…”

“Of course I can believe it!” Mr. Seymour bellowed. “I do believe it. I welcomed you into my home on behalf of your mother’s good graces, none of which you have proved to possess yourself.”

“But Mr. Seymour, I…”

“Have been a braggart,” Mr. Seymour interrupted, “and an ingrate the entire time you’ve been my guest. Now I shall ask you to leave at once.”

“But, sir, I…”

“Have the perfect accommodations,” Adam cut in, “waiting for you at the Virginia City jail.”

Mr. Seymour eyed Adam quizzically. “Of what other sort of skullduggery is this man accused?”

“Kidnapping and attempted murder.”

“Truly?” Mr. Seymour’s brows shot up in surprise.

“Don’t be too impressed. He orchestrated it, but he didn’t have the courage to do it himself. Mustn’t get his hands dirty.”

Mr. Seymour nodded. “Yes, well… Who was the victim?”

“Victims, you mean. My brother, Joe was the first. Whitfield had him buried…” Nearly choking on the work, Adam clamped his teeth down tightly for just a moment. “In a rockslide,” he added then. “Fortunately we got to him in time. But now my father and our cook are both missing.”

“Ben Cartwright, abducted?”

“Yes.”

“No!” Whitfield’s protest sounded more like a plea. “Ben Cartwright was not abducted. He was, merely, distracted.”

“Where is he?” Adam asked in a soft, menacing tone.

“En route to San Francisco.”

“What?”

“He has some business to address, a certain contract to break, I believe it was.”

“The contract I signed last week?”

“Perhaps.”

“My father would never willingly break that contract.”

Whitfield shrugged. “He willingly boarded this morning’s stagecoach with that purpose in mind.”

“Willingly?”

“Willingly.”

“And was he alone?”

Whitfield smiled. It was about the coldest smile Adam had ever seen. “He had a business associate with him — a gentleman by the name of Sam Griffin, if I recall correctly.”

Adam closed his eyes to control his rage. “Mr. Seymour,” he said a moment later. “As a duly sworn deputy with the Virginia City sheriff’s office, I am taking Mr. Whitfield into custody. I would be…”

“That badge of yours,” Whitfield interrupted, “has no authority in Carson City.”

Mr. Seymour sneered back at him. “And what should that matter,” he said, “when you’re not currently in Carson City?”

“What? But of course, I…”

“Take him, Adam. Get him out of here.”

Adam nodded. “I would be obliged if you could contact the Carson City sheriff’s office, to let them know a wanted gunman is on that stage.”

“Is that a fact?”

“Sam Griffin is wanted for murder. And I have reason to believe he is coercing my father to go to San Francisco under threat of his life.”

“Consider it done,” Mr. Seymour said. “And since murder is a federal offense, I’ll telegraph Captain Stewart. He might just have some troops to spare. The cavalry will stop that stage in no time at all.”

Adam saw something in Whitfield’s gaze, perhaps even the tiniest quirk of a smile that suggested he might have been bluffing. Even so, Adam dare not risk Pa’s life.

“Mr. Seymour,” Adam went on, “Griffin is a hired gun. If he realizes that cavalry is after him, my father and probably anyone else in that stage could be dead before they get close enough to take a shot.”

“Don’t you worry, son. Captain Stewart’s not going to let anything happen to Ben Cartwright.”

“Thank you.” Adam tipped his hat. “Let’s go, Al.”

Alfred Whitfield had always taken offense whenever anyone had the audacity to belittle his good name. Today was no different. “I will not!” he protested.

But Mr. Seymour, as big a man physically as he was politically, had had enough of his guest. He grabbed Whitfield’s arm, twisted it behind his back and pushed him to the steps until Whitfield landed face down in the dirt at Peter’s feet.

Gazing down at him, Adam felt a sense of satisfaction that disturbed him. He tried to shrug it away as he turned to confer privately with Mr. Seymour. There was more at play here than had yet been discussed, something bigger than his pa’s abduction, something more deeply plotted than the robbery at the Virginia City bank. Adam had a strong and worrisome feeling he knew exactly what it was.

*****

“Ho, the house!”

The shout drifted in through Joe’s open window, bringing him back from the brink of sleep. He wasn’t even sure why he bothered to keep trying. Sleep was as elusive as…as the words he was rapidly losing the ability to find in his head. He was too tired to think, and too full of the wrong kind of thoughts to sleep.

“Ho! The house!” the visitor shouted more loudly than before.

Joe realized then how wrong it was for someone to have to call out that way. Hoss had told him there were men posted outside, watching the house against any more of Whitfield’s horrific chess moves. Where were those men, now?

Sitting up more quickly than he should have, Joe closed his eyes to the fire in his left shoulder. He gripped his forearm with his good hand to lend additional support to what was already provided by the sling Hoss had fitted him with.

“You’ve got ’til the count of ten to come on out here!” the stranger demanded. “‘Lest you want to see ol’ Ben Cartwright’s brains splattered across this fine Ponderosa dirt!”

“One…”

Suddenly driven by a different kind of fire, Joe stood up, stumbling from the sting in his injured foot.

“Two…”

Though he grabbed the cane by his dresser, he didn’t bother using it on the stairs. It was faster and easier to use the railing for support and hop down on his good foot.

“Three…Four… Five…”

Reaching the last step, Joe still ignored the cane. He also ignored the feel of stitches popping as he hurried toward the front door.

“Six…”

Panting, Joe grabbed his gun, desperately aware of the fact his aim was less true in his right hand than his left.

“Seven…”

Joe swallowed bile and closed his eyes to the dark spots that were beginning to alter his vision. He started to shiver and sweat at the same time.

“Eight…”

Determination alone took Joe through the door. He stepped outside.

*****

Hoss steadied his rifle against the kitchen window ledge. He hoped the curtain would conceal him long enough to take his shot. He had only one shot. Just one. It had to hit the mark with absolute precision. Even then, if that man moved the smallest bit after Hoss pulled that trigger, his bullet might very well kill his pa instead of the man holding that fancy gun to the side of Pa’s head.

“Steady,” Hoss whispered to himself.

“Nine…” the gunman counted.

Hoss eased his finger on the trigger.

“Drop it!” another voice hollered from the front porch. Little Joe?

The gunman laughed and lowered his weapon — only for a moment, and Hoss was too late to take advantage. He’d lost his shot. He’d lost his concentration.

“Well, now,” the gunman called out. “If I have been informed correctly, you’re the quick-draw in the family, aren’t you, boy?”

“I said drop it!” Joe’s voice wasn’t very convincing. Hoss could hear his brother’s exhaustion. It was also clear Joe was in no small amount of pain.

“Dadburnit!” Hoss complained to himself. Then he pulled his rifle from the window and hurried outside.

*****

Ben was as relieved to find Joe alive and at home, as he was stricken to see the condition of his youngest son. Where were Adam and Hoss? Why was Joe alone?

“Joe!” Ben called out as the gun slinger jumped down from his horse. Clearly the man was no longer concerned about guarding an old man whose hands were tied in more ways than one.

Little Joe was slow to respond. When Ben saw his son’s gaze move lazily toward him, he shook his head, signaling Joe it was hopeless. It’s not worth it, son. He could only hope Joe could understand.

Joe shook his own head, just once, back and forth. Was he refusing to back down?

“That braggart promised me a challenge.” The gun slinger, Sam Griffin, was just a few feet from Joe now.

Ben could see perspiration on his son’s brow. Joe’s eyelids drooped. The gun began to wobble in his grip.

“Look at you!” Griffin waved his gun carelessly in front of Joe as he slowly paced back and forth, assessing the youngest Cartwright.

“I said drop it!” Joe warned.

Griffin laughed. “You’re no challenge. Can’t even hold your gun straight. You’re as likely to hit your own pa as you are to hit me.”

Griffin looked around, absently pushing at the rim of his hat with the barrel of his gun. “But,” he sighed. “I promised the man a showdown with a Cartwright. We go by his rules. You win, your pa’s no worse for the wear. You lose, and you’re both dead.”

Ben met his son’s gaze once more. Joe seemed as lost as he was determined. He also knew. Little Joe knew he couldn’t win. He had no hope of winning.

“Griffin!” Ben shouted as he grabbed hold of the saddle horn and carefully lowered himself to the ground, despite the rope binding his wrists. “You don’t owe Whitfield a thing! You’ve got no cause to do this.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Cartwright. You think of me as just a killer. But even killing’s got rules. The man hired me to do a job. Just because it’s an easy job doesn’t mean I’ve got no cause to do it.” He clicked his tongue. “It’s a shame, though. I do prefer a good challenge. I tell you what, son,” he said to Joe. “I’ll make it clean and quick.” He winked. “For both of you.”

Griffin turned his back to Joe and walked a short distance away. “Now here’s how it’s going to go. I won’t expect you to draw, seeing as how you’ve already got your gun in hand, and wearing that pretty little night shirt of yours doesn’t give you any place to actually draw from.” He laughed.

“So instead of drawing,” Griffin went on. “I’ll just count to three.”

Griffin raised his gun and pulled back on the hammer. “One…”

“You just stop right there, Mister,” Hoss’ voice called out from the side of the house.

Wary, Ben watched Hoss ease around the corner with a rifle aimed straight for Sam Griffin’s head.

“I ain’t in your game,” Hoss went on as he approached, “so I ain’t waiting on three. And if you even think about saying two, you’re as good as dead. I’d advise you to drop that gun on the ground, just like my brother said.”

Laughing again, Griffin released the hammer and holstered his gun. “My, this game really is full of its little surprises, isn’t it? Well, I tell you what. You replace that pea-shooter of yours with a six-gun, then you can relieve that sick brother of yours. Same game. Same rules. Just different players.”

“I told you already, Mister. I ain’t playing your game. Now you just drop that gun belt right there on the ground and we’ll see what kind of rules the sheriff has for you back in Virginia City.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I ain’t fooling with you, Mister. Now drop it!”

“I’m not fooling with you, either, Cartwright. It just so happens I know a few things you clearly don’t. Such as the fact that Sheriff Coffee isn’t in Virginia City right now. And the fact that you start to look like you’re actually ready to pull that trigger, you’ll all be so full of lead your sole surviving brother won’t even recognize you.”

Ben followed Hoss’ gaze to the surrounding trees to see several men step out into the open, rifles aimed and ready. Maybe Joe saw it too. Maybe that’s why he let his own gun drop to the ground, clattering on the sand-covered wood at his feet. Hoss was quick to follow with his rifle, though Ben was sure it had little to do with the threat. Hoss’ attention was focused entirely on Little Joe. He caught his brother just as Joe began to fall, and then turned his back on Whitfield’s gang of paid killers, practically daring them to shoot him while he carried Little Joe into the house. Surprisingly — fortunately — not a single shot echoed behind him.

*****

Whitfield might be an observant man in some situations, but this far removed from his own familiar territory, he was as naïve as he was arrogant. Even while Adam took him toward the foothills, where the terrain was different from the dusty ride between Carson City and Virginia City, Whitfield seemed to have no idea they were veering away from rather than moving toward Sheriff Coffee’s jail. He followed along, oblivious, and seemingly unconcerned, as though he still believed he could prove his own innocence. He probably also still believed Peter was working for him.

Finally, as the trees grew thicker and Alfred Whitfield wound up sandwiched behind Adam and in front of Peter Nobridge, he began to realize something was wrong. “What is this?” he asked. “You said we were going to Virginia City!”

“And you said my father was on his way to San Francisco,” Adam answered without turning.

“Your father’s sojourn has nothing to do with this! You were supposed to take me to Virginia City!”

“Are you really so anxious to go to jail?”

“What I am anxious to do is prove the irrelevance of that silly badge you’re suddenly wearing. Any halfway decent lawyer would laugh at your ridiculous accusations, none of which can be backed up by the smallest bit of evidence.”

“I do happen to have a first-hand witness account, if you recall.”

Whitfield scoffed. “What? A half-breed? No one will listen to a word he has to say.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” Adam said nothing more. He merely kept his eyes forward and followed the trail.

“Tell me where you are taking me!”

“Does it matter?”

“Of course it matters! I demand to know what you have planned!”

Adam pulled on his reins, bringing his horse to a stop. He waited with his back to Whitfield until he could sense both Peter and Whitfield stopping behind him. After a moment, he nudged his horse into a turn and rode up alongside his old classmate, bringing himself as close to the man as he could.

“And I,” Adam said when it was clear he had the man’s full attention, “demand to know what you have planned.” His tone was both calm and menacing.

Whitfield’s mouth worked uselessly until he grumbled and cleared his throat. “All I have done here was to challenge you in a game of chess.”

“Then consider yourself checked.”

Whitfield gave Adam a blank, empty stare. “That’s…” he said a moment later. “That’s absurd. You can’t. It’s just…not possible.”

“Why’s that? Because you never intended to play fair at all? Because your plans were intended to ensure you won every play?”

After another moment of blind confusion, Whitfield looked away from Adam’s gaze and tugged his reins to turn his horse. “This is ridiculous. I’m leaving.” He found himself facing Peter Nobridge instead.

Adam grabbed Whitfield’s reins while Peter unsheathed his knife.

“I suppose you could leave,” Adam said, unconcerned. “If you can dodge that half-breed’s knife, and then manage to avoid getting lost in the woods. But I wouldn’t really recommend either course of action.”

Once again, Whitfield paled. Adam had him exactly where he wanted him. Sadly, that fact provided no satisfaction whatsoever. The game was far from over. Until both Pa and Hop Sing were safely home, and Joe was back to being…Joe, nothing could possibly satisfy Adam.

Perhaps he could at least take advantage of Whitfield’s current caged-rabbit demeanor. Adam was about to press him further about Ben Cartwright’s whereabouts when he heard the soft crack of a rifle fired somewhere in the distance ahead of them — on Ponderosa lands.

In that moment, Adam knew there was no more time for talk, and certainly no more time for games. “Get moving!” he commanded as he urged his horse homeward, setting a pace too swift for any further conversation.

*****

The bullet landed in the ground barely a foot ahead of Ben’s last step, spraying sand high into the air.

“You stay right where you are, old man!” one of Griffin’s men warned.

“Let me go to my son!”

“Stay put or die. Your choice.” He spat tobacco juice near Ben’s feet.

Ignoring the insult, Ben looked to the open door to his home, where Hoss had taken Little Joe. They had been followed closely — too closely for Ben’s comfort — by Sam Griffin.

*****

Hoss could do nothing more than lay his brother down on the settee before a shadow crossed the room, pulling his attention to the doorway. He looked up to see Sam Griffin standing on the threshold — a black figure blotting out the sun, except for a single ray that reflected off of something on the floor and bounced right back toward the man’s icy blue eyes. They were about the coldest looking eyes Hoss had ever seen. Caught in that icy gaze, Hoss stood as still as death itself until rifle fire startled him into action. As he moved toward the door, toward the gunslinger, he heard someone outside threaten his pa.

“Mister,” Hoss said when he reached Griffin, “you better get your men on out of here before I tear you clean apart!”

Just like he had moments earlier, while he himself was threatening Joe, Griffin laughed. “I have to hand it to you Cartwrights. You never do know when you’re beaten.”

An instant later, Griffin had his gun cocked and aimed at Hoss. “Now, this tells me I’m the one to tell you what to do. You’re gonna walk yourself nice and slow on outside so we can do what I came here to do.”

“I ain’t gonna draw on you, Mister.”

Griffin shrugged. “Then stand still and make yourself an easy target. Your decision. That just makes you the first to die. It doesn’t save your kin. They’ll die just as sure as you will.”

Hoss studied the man before him, weighing the odds in his head. He might be quick enough to grab the man’s gun, but Pa was outside, standing alone, surrounded by men with rifles — about as easy of a target as there ever was.

Suddenly, for the first time in his life, Hoss found himself cursing his own disinterest. How many times had both Adam and Joe offered to help him get quicker on the draw? He had always refused, always figured there was no point to it. Why learn something that could just end up getting you into trouble?

He could never have imagined not learning would get him into the biggest kind of trouble there was.

*****

The rifle shot stirred Joe back to awareness. He found himself inside, on the settee. There were voices coming from the doorway.

Hoss?

As Joe listened, it became clear what his brother was planning to do — what his brother was being forced to do.

No, Hoss! You can’t outdraw a hired gun!

But how could Joe stop him?

Glancing toward the collection of rifles by the fireplace, Joe was quick to decide. As he figured it, he had only one option.

He slipped off of the settee, strangely oblivious to the reopened wound in his foot and the blood seeping through the bandage to the floor. Somehow he found himself numb to the pain. It was almost as though his body knew it didn’t matter. The pain didn’t matter. It couldn’t stop him from doing what he had to do.

Looking toward the door, he saw it was still standing open, yet Hoss and the gunman were no longer there. This gave Joe the opportunity he needed. Crouching low, aggravating the injury to his shoulder yet somehow feeling it as little more than a distant ache, he made his way to the rifle rack and selected one with an easy trigger. He loaded it without bothering to grab extra ammunition. If he missed on the first shot, he knew he wouldn’t get a second one. Then he crossed to the stairway, staying as low as he could, fighting black spots and nausea as he climbed desperately to the top landing, no longer bothering to hop, no longer caring about protecting his foot.

Barely aware of moving, thinking only about what he needed to do, Joe was surprised when he found himself at the bedroom window upstairs, looking down on the front yard. Once there, he leaned against the wall, hoping that would be enough to keep him standing.

Finally, Joe looked outside to find a scene from a nightmare. The gunslinger was positioning himself no more than twenty paces from Hoss. Joe’s brother, the gentlest, kindest man anyone could ever hope to know, was being forced into a showdown.

*****

Adam lost track of the riders behind him, focusing entirely on the path ahead — the path to home. And then suddenly Peter Nobridge was overtaking him, the man’s lean body bent low over his horse’s neck, making it appear as though horse and rider were one. An instant later, Peter was racing on ahead, disappearing into the trees.

In that instant, Adam found himself imagining Little Joe riding beside Peter. He could see the two of them racing together, reckless and unafraid, as free as the wind. Joe would like Peter, Adam decided — before reminding himself that Peter had been involved in Joe’s abduction. If it hadn’t been for Peter, would they have succeeded? Would they have managed to get Joe as far as the rocks?

Would he still have been buried alive?

Ill from the course of his thoughts, Adam urged his own horse faster, belatedly wondering what had become of Alfred Whitfield. A quick glance behind him proved Whitfield was gone. Had Peter betrayed Adam’s trust?

Rage and worry fueled Adam’s drive to reach home. Yet just as suddenly as Peter had appeared before, he appeared again, this time riding back toward Adam.

The half-breed slowed and held up his hand.

“There are men ahead,” Peter said softly while Adam studied him, contemplating Peter’s motives. “Surrounding your house. They are well armed.”

Adam tried to look past Peter. They were too deep in the trees to enable a clear view of the house. Without responding, feeling no less certain of his trust for the half-breed, Adam rode forward slowly and then dismounted to walk the remaining steps. When he reached the edge of the tree line, he kept himself low to avoid being seen. Finally, he confirmed what Peter had reported. There were men standing all around the yard. Each was armed with a rifle. Near the center, Adam spotted his father being held back by two men. Directly in the center, Hoss and another man stood facing one another. Something was odd about their positioning. It almost looked as though Hoss and the stranger were planning to draw down on each other.

No, Adam realized then. It didn’t just look like that’s what they were planning to do. It was clear that’s what they were planning. Adam could only assume the stranger was the gunslinger, Sam Griffin. If so, Hoss was seconds away from being shot to death. Adam’s only choice to stop it from happening would be to interrupt it by riding to his own death at the hands of those gunmen surrounding his yard. He turned, ready to do just that when Peter touched his arm. The half-breed was now carrying Adam’s rifle, pilfered from the horse he’d left in the trees behind him.

“You’re part of this, aren’t you?” Adam accused. “You always were. This is what you’ve been planning all along.”

Peter held a finger to his lips and gestured for Adam to wait. Then he crouched low and raised the rifle, aiming it toward the center of the yard — aiming it toward the gunslinger.

*****

Ben struggled. He fought with all his strength to try to win his freedom. He needed to protect Hoss. Whether he put himself in the line of fire or took Hoss’ place didn’t matter. If he couldn’t prevent Griffin from shooting, then he could at least get in the way of the bullet. All that mattered was Hoss. Whatever he could do he would, the instant the men holding him loosened their grips.

“Stop this!” he shouted, refusing to give up fighting with words as well. “There’s no point! There is no purpose!”

******

Joe swallowed, trying to force saliva down his suddenly dry throat. He had to shoot straight. He had to shoot true. And he had to shoot at just the right time. He couldn’t afford to make a mistake.

“All right, Cartwright!” The gunslinger called out. “Stop fussing with that gun belt. Let’s get this over with!”

Cautiously, slowly, Joe opened the window, careful to avoid drawing attention. It was getting harder for him to catch his breath. His chest heaving with the effort, he lowered himself to one knee and eased his left arm out of the sling. With the rifle in his left hand, he tried to raise it to the window.

His shoulder was locked. His arm wouldn’t move.

“No, Hoss!” Pa pleaded outside. Help him, Joe! He might as well have said instead.

I’ll help him, Pa. I have to. He tried to swallow once more. I will.

“Shut up, Old Man!” Griffin responded.

Joe pulled on his left arm with his right hand, forcing his shoulder to loosen up. When it did, he felt something snap inside. He clamped down on his teeth to stop himself from screaming out as blackness tore at his vision.

The pain doesn’t matter, he told himself. It doesn’t matter. Panting now, sweat flowed freely toward Joe’s eyes. He blinked it away.

Keep him talking, Pa. Please, just keep him talking. Just long enough so I can get ready.

“If it’s money you’re after,” Pa went on as though he’d heard Joe’s request, “I’ll pay you. I’ll hire you. I’ll pay you twice as much as Whitfield!”

Joe raised the rifle, pressing it against his bad shoulder.

“You still don’t get it, do you, Old Man?” Joe found it hard to comprehend how the gunslinger could sound so amused. “Once you’re dead, I’ll have your money anyway.”

Lightly laying his finger on the trigger, Joe got the gunman in his sights.

*****

Ben glared at Sam Griffin, stunned despite everything, lacking words and suddenly also lacking hope. Going numb, he went still. “You can’t do this,” he pleaded softly, feeling as though the world was collapsing beneath him.

But Griffin had stopped listening. He took his position opposite Hoss, spreading his legs just enough to hold himself steady. He lowered his hand toward his gun.

“This is it,” Griffin said. “Any last words for your pa?”

Ben found and then locked with Hoss’ gaze.

Hoss looked as defeated as Ben felt. He slowly shook his head. “I’m sorry, Pa.”

It was all he said, probably all he could say, and more than Ben could say himself. A moment later, Hoss turned away. He lowered his hand, holding it ready over his own gun.

This can’t be. Ben cried deep inside himself. It just can’t be.

The sound of gunfire undid him. He closed his eyes, feeling winded and broken. Like a child, he told himself. Just like a child. But he wasn’t a child. He was an old man, too familiar with tragedy to believe he could will it away by refusing to face it. Stealing himself, he forced his eyes open.

The first thing he saw was Hoss standing right where he’d been, staring ahead of him in disbelief. Then Ben realized the men beside him had drawn away, belatedly giving him the freedom he’d begged for only a moment earlier. Finally, he looked toward the gunslinger.

Sam Griffin was lying in a growing puddle of blood.

*****

When there had been no time to make a calculated decision, when instinct had set his decision for him, Adam had chosen trust. He had blindly, instinctively trusted Peter to make the shot. The distance seemed too far, the odds of missing too great, and yet Adam had trusted him. Standing there now, watching his father and brother move toward one another, watching as Hoss began to untie his father’s bonds unchallenged by Griffin’s suddenly confused followers, Adam lost himself in a moment of utter disbelief.

“We must go,” Peter said.

Adam turned toward him, stunned, unable to respond.

“The men will soon react,” Peter explained. “Some will run. Others will remember your father’s offer of money.”

Finally, Adam could think. Finally, he could move. Both men retrieved their horses and then rode cautiously toward the house. This was not a time for speed or surprise. Any sudden move could inspire someone to begin firing, and if even one man pulled a trigger now, the rest would respond as Adam had moments earlier. Instinct would drive them. Adam had no doubt they would react in defense, like cornered cougars or hungry wolves. They wouldn’t stop to think. They would simply start shooting.

Adam watched the men watching him as he approached. Some, he recognized, but most were probably transient miners, easily recruited with the promise of cash. When he was close to Pa and Hoss, he met their eyes, all three sharing thoughts without need for words, before he returned his full attention to the others gathered around them.

He stayed mounted, knowing it gave him an edge. “Griffin is dead,” Adam announced pointedly. “There’s nothing left for you to do here.”

He saw some of the men fidgeting, indecisive.

“Anyone who stays here and continues to threaten my family will end up either dead, like Sam Griffin, or in jail.”

Adam hoped he sounded sufficiently threatening, despite having one arm in a sling. He knew he couldn’t outshoot anyone right then, but Peter was still clutching the rifle. The half-breed raised it high over his head in a gesture of triumph. Hoss and Pa also took his cue. Hoss held his handgun ready, while Pa grabbed hold of Sam Griffin’s fancy, silver gun. Seeing that gun triggered Adam to accept that the Virginia City bank robbery really had been a ruse, staged for one reason only: to get the sheriff out of the way, to prevent Roy Coffee from interrupting this very attack. Somehow Griffin had met up with the robbers even while they’d been evading Roy and his posse. That meant they knew; they had always known exactly how they were planning to mislead their pursuers. Roy had been caught up in a chase he didn’t stand a chance of winning.

Looking back to Griffin’s men, Adam noticed several were slipping away, disappearing into the trees just as he’d suggested. Yet an instant later, they were coming back with their hands held high, coerced by soldiers wielding rifles of their own.

Mr. Seymour had come through with the promise he’d made privately back in Carson City, responding to Adam’s earlier hunch. The cavalry had arrived.

Adam dismounted and then wearily leaned against the hitching post, feeling as exhausted as he could ever remember being. Hoss and Pa now stood with him, watching the soldiers round up ten prisoners, ten men who had gathered on the Ponderosa to see Cartwrights die. All three of them — Pa, Hoss and Adam himself — were quiet, content to let the soldiers take charge, content to stand together, grateful for the fact that they could.

“Whitfield,” Adam said then, his thoughts finally coming back into focus. He looked toward the trees. It was time to find the man responsible for…everything.

“What about him?” Pa asked, tension showing in the set of his shoulders.

“Something happened in the woods. He disappeared.” Adam glanced around for Peter Nobridge, but he couldn’t see the half-breed anywhere.

“Then let’s go find him,” Hoss said, his own shoulders tightening with determination.

Maybe Whitfield wasn’t concerned about facing Adam’s anger, but one look at the rage in Hoss Cartwright’s eyes at that moment was likely to turn that arrogant madman into a quivering fool.

Adam watched as Hoss started to make his way toward the barn. Both turned when Lieutenant Schaffer called out to Adam.

“I thought you said it was one rifle shot that brought this man down.” The lieutenant was kneeling beside the body of Sam Griffin.

“That’s right,” Adam answered.

“Then why are there two wounds?”

Adam met Hoss’ questioning gaze and then all three Cartwrights walked over to join the lieutenant.

“See here?” he pointed out. “With this one, the angle’s right. It matches where you said you and the half-breed were standing. But look here. This wound’s deeper. Whoever made this shot was a lot closer. And the angle,” The lieutenant looked up at the house, his gaze landing on the upstairs bedroom window. “Looks like someone was shooting down at him, not straight out.”

“You think it came from the house?” Pa asked.

The lieutenant nodded. “Had to.”

“Joe?” Hoss seemed unbelieving. “But he wasn’t in any shape to do a thing like that.”

Pa was already heading for the front door. Adam and Hoss followed quickly behind him. Once inside, it was impossible to ignore the trail of blood leading up the stairs.

*****

Adam gazed into the front bedroom from the doorway to see Little Joe unconscious on the floor beneath the window, his hair matted down with sweat, his nightshirt dampened with blood. If his shoulder hadn’t been broken before, it was a fair bet to say it was broken now. Normally, Joe wouldn’t even notice the kind of recoil he’d get off of a rifle like the one laying on the floor beside him. But today was far from normal. Joe’s shoulder had been badly bruised and the skin slashed with cuts from the jagged rock that had pinned him down. He had done more than he should have — probably more than most men would have been able to do, given the injuries he’d suffered in that rock slide. He had done it to save Hoss’ life. And what had Adam done? He had watched from a distance, relying on the aim of a man he didn’t have the right to trust, a man who had been a part of Whitfield’s scheme and who could be no less held to blame for what Joe had endured — was still enduring — than the others who had abandoned Joe in that cavern.

“Adam,” Pa called out as he and Hoss lifted Joe carefully to the bed. “See if Lieutenant Schaffer has a medic.”

Not bothering to answer, Adam hurried downstairs, feeling every step like a great vibration in his soul. His arm hung heavy in the sling as though the black fabric was carrying a weight far more burdensome than it reasonably should be able to hold — the weight of three lives, Joe’s, Hoss’ and Pa’s, each of which had been threatened for no reason other than the fact that Adam had had a rival back in college, a classmate he’d never befriended and had so easily forgotten until now, all these years later.

After Adam found the lieutenant, he asked for a medic. A moment later, he was riding back into the trees, determined to discover what had become of Whitfield — determined to end the man’s hold on him and his family once and for all.

*****

Peter Nobridge was just inside the tree line. Perhaps he’d been waiting for Adam, or perhaps simply hiding from Schaffer and his troops. Adam couldn’t bring himself to care. He looked to the dangerous stranger for an answer that had nothing to do with that moment. Seeming to understand, the half-breed acknowledged Adam with a quick nod and then turned away to retrace the path the two of them had taken moments — or hours? — before, until they came upon Whitfield, his wrists tied together and secured tightly to the thick trunk of a sturdy, ponderosa pine tree.

“How dare you!” Whitfield shouted as they approached. “How dare you do this to me! Untie me at once!”

Adam slowed his horse and then stopped, staring at his old classmate. At that moment, Adam found himself numb, devoid of emotion. It bothered him to lose his rage, yet even that sense was no more bothersome than a pesky fly.

“Don’t just sit there!” Whitfield continued. “I said untie me!”

“Why should I?” Adam asked.

Whitfield blinked at him. Adam was reminded of a mindless cow, seeing him as a minor anomaly, something that didn’t belong out amongst the grasses where it was grazing.

“Why…” Whitfield huffed. “This is absurd. Even in your brutish existence, you must know a man of my stature is owed… I deserve… You just don’t tie a man to a tree!”

Adam glanced away casually, and then slowly returned his attention to Whitfield. “Your own existence is far more brutish than mine.”

“What? How dare you say such a thing! Why, I…”

“Tied my brother,” Adam cut in, “to a jagged rock in a mountain cavern.”

“I did no such thing!”

“You planned it. You ordered your men to do it. You might as well have done it yourself.”

Whitfield’s temper eased then. “You have no proof,” he said in a calm voice.

Adam gazed upward, his eye landing on a sturdy branch just above him. “I don’t need proof.”

“If you dare to make such accusations, you had better have proof. Otherwise I shall sue you for slander.”

“You sure do talk a big game for a man who’s tied to a tree in the middle of the woods in the middle of my family’s property.” Adam dismounted.

“Am I to presume now that you are going to accuse me of trespassing?”

“No.” Adam reached across the saddle to grab a coil of rope. “I am only concerned with two of your crimes, kidnapping and murder.” He turned to Peter. “Do me a favor and tie an end of this rope to that trunk.”

“Nonsense,” Whitfield said, seeming oblivious to Adam’s actions. “I shall take you for everything you have, Adam Cartwright. That you dare to slander a man of my…”

Whitfield went silent as Adam tossed the remaining end of the rope around the branch he’d spotted earlier. “What are you doing?”

“I assume you know the sentence for murder.” Adam turned once more to Peter. “Can you make a noose out of this end?”

“Wha…what?” Whitfield stammered. “You can’t be serious! Without a trial, without judge and jury, you yourself would be committing murder.”

“Consider me your judge, and Peter your jury.”

“That isn’t legal!”

“Neither is murder.”

“I had nothing to do with it!” Whitfield shouted. “That gunslinger went after your family entirely of his own accord. He’s the one who killed them, not me.”

Adam froze. He’s the one who killed them. There was Adam’s proof. Whitfield had clearly known about the attack on the Ponderosa. What Whitfield didn’t know — what he couldn’t know — was that Griffin had failed.

“He’s a hired gun,” Adam went on, trying to remain as unfeeling as before. “He was working for you.”

“You don’t know that. You can’t prove that.”

“Can’t I?” Adam stared hard at Whitfield long after the man awkwardly pulled his own gaze away.

“Aside from my brother, Hoss,” Adam went on, “and my father, we have ten men who will be eager to tell the courts everything they need to know to put you away. Blaming you will be the only hope those men have to avoid a lengthy prison sentence, or worse.”

Now Whitfield did hold Adam’s gaze, his own reflecting shock and confusion.

“That’s right. My father and brother are alive. And ten of Griffin’s men — your men — are now in the custody of the United States Army.”

“The Army?”

“You saw to it that the sheriff was preoccupied, so I went to the Army. You do know bank robbery is another hanging offense.”

Whitfield said nothing. It might as well have been yet another admission of guilt.

“Where’s Hop Sing?”

If Whitfield was confused before, he was now utterly dismayed. “What? Who?”

“My Chinese cook. My friend. Hop Sing. Where is he?”

“The Chinaman?” Whitfield scoffed. “What difference does it make?”

“Where is he?”

“Who cares?”

“I care. He’s my friend. Where is he?”

“I don’t know. Some mine somewhere. Ask Griffin. I told him to….” Whitfield stopped himself. “Whatever happened to the Chinaman, Griffin took care of it.”

“Griffin’s dead. Where is Hop Sing?”

“Dead?”

“Dead.”

“But that’s not possible. He’s the best there is. No one can outdraw Sam Griffin.”

“So you admit you hired him to have a showdown with someone in my family?”

“I admit to nothing! You have no right to…to… Untie me!”

“Where is Hop Sing?” Adam checked the strength of the noose.

“I don’t know!”

“Then who does?”

“Sam Griffin!”

“And who else?”

“I don’t know!”

Feeling. Adam was feeling again. He was feeling rage, as pure, as intense as ever before. “Well, you damned well better think of someone!” He seethed. “Because if you don’t, I have no good reason not to stretch your neck right this minute.”

For a long moment, Adam even believed himself.

*****

Adam was tired. Deeply, bone-crushingly tired. Yet sleep evaded him perhaps as much as it had evaded Little Joe after they’d brought him home from the mountain. The fever and Doc Martin’s medicines had finally given Joe the sleep he needed to heal. With Adam, it was different. He’d returned home to the welcome sight of Doc Martin’s buggy, and the unwelcome absence of Lieutenant Schaffer’s men. Adam had counted on them to still be there so he could hand over another prisoner, Alfred Whitfield, and enlist their aid in retrieving Hop Sing.

“I’ll take care of it, Adam,” Hoss had insisted nearly as soon as Adam had ridden back into the yard with Whitfield in tow. “You just get on inside and let Doc Martin have a look at you.”

“I’m fine,” Adam had argued. “I’d just as soon take…”

“No, Adam.” Hoss’ gaze gained intensity. “I can’t let you do that. You’ve just about wore yourself out to nothing. I’ve seen enough hurting in Little Joe. I don’t mean to see it in you, too.”

And so Hoss had gone, and now Adam was home, sitting by the fireplace, listening to the grandfather clock ticking away by the door, reminding him how much time had been wasted chasing after Lord Alfred Whitfield’s macabre clues while Adam’s family was being pulled apart.

“He’s no more a lord than you or me, Adam,” Pa had said afterward. “Before I tried, foolishly, to approach him myself, I sent several telegrams back east. The replies I received explained so much. He’d been disinherited, and his so-called investors were accusing him of theft. He came here to ruin you, Adam, because he had already ruined himself.”

“Why me?” Adam was still struggling to understand. “He practically considered himself royalty. In his eyes, I was a peasant, undeserving of an education.”

Pa had smiled sadly. “Perhaps you’ve just answered your own question. I’d wager you received more respect at that college than he ever received in his life. Come now. Head up to bed. Doc Martin’s nearly as worried about you as he is about Joe.”

“I’m fine, Pa,” he’d said once again.

And once again he was told otherwise. “No, Adam. You’re not. The way you’ve been running around these past few days despite that wound, you haven’t done yourself any favors.”

“I haven’t done you, or Hoss, or Joe any favors either. Or Hop Sing.”

“None of this was ever your fault, Adam. You know that. And Hop Sing is as much a fighter as any one of us. He will get through his own ordeal. At least now we know where to look.”

“Slavery, Pa.” The idea had turned Adam’s stomach. “Whitfield sold him into slavery!”

“Yes, well, if he thought of you as a peasant, you can just imagine what he thought of Hop Sing. But the Army knows about it now. They’ll put an end to it. When Hoss and Lieutenant Schaffer get Hop Sing out of that mine, he won’t be the only one they’ll rescue. Something good will come out of all of this. More lives will have been saved than just our own.”

Adam closed his eyes and leaned his head against the back of the chair, and there he saw the images again, as vivid as ever. Little Joe buried beneath a mountain. Hoss standing opposite a gunslinger. Pa hopelessly watching, waiting for his son to die.

Once again, Adam’s eyes flew open. Angrily, he rose from his chair and headed toward Pa’s brandy. That, too, retrieved a memory. He saw Hoss worrying over Little Joe, upset that Doc Martin had yet to arrive.

“Where were you, Adam?”

Adam’s thoughts drew him to yet another memory, an older memory. Little Joe had been a child, frightened by a nightmare that kept coming back, night after night.

“I called out to you,” Joe had cried. “I couldn’t find you. You never came, Adam. I called out to you over and over again, but you never came.”

“Where were you, Adam?”

Adam swallowed his brandy as though it were cheap whiskey. “I was asleep,” he said out loud, clenching his hand around the smooth glass so hard he was almost surprised it didn’t shatter. “I was asleep,” he said again.

He’d been asleep when Joe had needed him, when Joe had been taken from his own room in the middle of the night. He’d been asleep when his pa and Hoss had ridden off, trying to find Little Joe. All Adam had to do was fall asleep, and something else was going to happen; it seemed as inevitable as it was illogical.

“Adam?” Pa’s voice called his attention toward the stairs.

“I’ll be up in a bit,” Adam answered, just as he knew his pa would want him to.

“It’s over, son. There’s nothing left for you to worry about.”

“No. It’s not over.”

“There’s nothing more Whitfield can do to you, or anyone else. It’s over, Adam. You have to believe that.”

“That’s just it, Pa!” Adam said more loudly than he should. “I can’t believe it. Everything I did, every time I turned around… It was all just a game to him. I can’t believe it’s over. How can I believe it could be that simple?”

“He’s in custody. His men are, too. He has no more power, Adam. Not over you. Not over any of us.”

Pa’s hand fell on Adam’s shoulder. “Please, son. Believe it. Accept it. If you can’t, if you don’t, then you’re right. He will still have power over you. It’s up to you to end it now, not him. Don’t let him do this to you, Adam. Don’t give him that power.”

Adam saw his father’s eyes then, and he knew Pa was right. Even so, he just wasn’t sure how. How could he end it? How could he stop his mind from conjuring such disturbing images?

“Maybe it would help if you sit with Joe for a while,” Pa suggested.

No, Adam thought. That won’t help. It can’t help. It will just remind me of all the mistakes I made playing Whitfield’s game. “Maybe,” he said anyway. After all, it’s what Pa would have wanted to hear.

*****

Sunrise found Adam still sitting beside his brother’s bed, where he’d been drifting through the vestiges of sleep since early the night before. As the sun climbed past the trees, a single ray found its way through the window, piercing the darkness like a golden spear. It slashed across Joe’s room and landed on Adam’s knee, where it came to rest more solidly than Adam had for all those hours. The light drew his eye, calling his attention to the window. He rose, stiff and aching. Moving closer, pulled by the fire in the sky, he finally leaned against the window frame and gazed outward, only to find himself…empty.

“Isn’t that about the most beautiful thing you ever saw?” Joe said softly behind him.

Adam turned toward his brother and offered a small smile. “You’re sounding better this morning,” he said.

Joe’s smile was smaller than his own, yet somehow more intense. It was real, Adam decided, unlike his.

“Have you ever seen a painting as pretty as that?” Joe pressed.

“No,” Adam said, still facing Joe. “I don’t suppose I have.”

“You’re not even looking at it. You should. See how it changes, almost from one minute to the next?”

Joe’s fixation on the sun was strange, out of place. “Since when did you get to be so interested in sunrises?” Adam asked.

As Joe pulled his gaze from the window to meet Adam’s, his expression changed, shifting from weary joy to something more like disappointment, or, perhaps it was apologetic. “Since I thought I’d never see one again,” Joe said.

The words pierced Adam far more effectively than that transient spear of light. Yet, oddly, Joe’s smile didn’t vanish. If anything, it grew wider.

“It was dark as can be under all those rocks,” Joe went on, even offering a small tired chuckle at the end.

Despite Joe’s seemingly casual attitude, Adam knew his brother was touching on the cause of his sleeplessness when they’d first brought him home. Joe had been buried alive. They’d been lucky to find him, and even luckier to get him out.

Unable to fathom what his brother had experienced, Adam gave his attention back to the window. “I imagine it was,” he said, his own voice barely more than a whisper.

Several quiet moments passed before Joe asked a simple, stinging question. “What’s wrong?”

Adam closed his eyes, knowing it was a useless gesture. He couldn’t shut any of it away, none of the thoughts that plagued him, none of the guilt that damned him for decisions he had every reason to defend—decisions he still believed in. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he said.

“For what?”

It was such an innocent question, Adam found himself shaking his head. A moment later, he took a deep breath and finally opened his eyes. “There were four men who took you that night.”

“That’s right,” Joe answered, looking at Adam with more curiosity than concern.

“Two of them left you in that cavern.”

“Gabe Harvey and Jasper Boone.” Joe’s eyes grew cold.

“One of the others was Sam Griffin.”

“The gunslinger.”

If it bothered Adam to admit to his guilt, it bothered him more to watch Joe’s demeanor change so quickly and so drastically. He was breathing harder now, his jaw clenching in a rage he could do nothing to dispel. But Joe needed to know. Didn’t he? “The last man was a half-breed, a man who…”

“The one who threw the knife.” The glare in Joe’s eyes might have been as sharp as any knife.

“Yes.” Adam did not look away. “Joe…he…helped Hoss to find you. And he helped me get to Whitfield.”

“So he’s protecting himself,” Joe fumed. “He’s trying to avoid prison.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. He’s still responsible.”

“You’re right. He is. But Joe, when you shot Griffin, yours wasn’t the only bullet to hit him.”

“What?” Anger faded to confusion.

“Peter Nobridge, the half-breed — he also shot Griffin. Both of your bullets killed him.”

‘What are you saying?”

“Joe… I put my trust in Peter when I thought Hoss’ life depended on it. I had no options left. There was nothing else I could do. I trusted him. And despite what he did, despite the fact that he helped to cause you to end up under that mountain, despite what he did to your foot, despite the fact that you nearly died in part because of what he did… Joe, I put my trust in him. And he proved me right. I was right to trust him.”

Joe stared at him for a long while, his gaze softening with uncertainty. “Adam?” He looked as lost or confused as Adam had ever seen him.

“He saved Hoss’ life,” Adam went on, “maybe yours, too. When we were digging you out, he found you first, and he guided us so we could get you out. He made sure we didn’t bring any more rocks down on top of you.”

Joe glanced away, the pull of his brow making it clear he was searching his memories. “He said ‘stop.” Joe said, still looking inward. “I could feel that rock bearing down into my shoulder. When he said ‘stop,’ the pressure eased off.” Joe’s eyes met Adam’s again. “That was him?”

Adam nodded. “Yes.”

“He touched my arm.” There were tears forming in his eyes now. “It was like I knew it was ending. I knew I was going home. I didn’t…I didn’t want him to let go.”

“Neither did I,” Adam said softly. “I couldn’t reach you. And neither could Hoss.”

“Why?” Joe asked then. “What made him change?”

“He made a mistake. And then he realized it had been a mistake.”

“Where is he now?”

“I don’t know.” Adam finally admitted. “When we were bringing Whitfield back, he said he wished us well, and then he rode away. Joe…I…I didn’t try to stop him.”

Joe nodded, distracted. “Good,” he said then.

“What?”

“Good,” Joe repeated, returning his full attention to Adam. “I’m glad he’s gone. It’s enough that we got the others.”

“Is it?” Adam challenged. “Joe, he was responsible. You said that yourself. And we both know anyone who commits a crime needs to pay for that crime.”

“It seems to me he already has,” Joe replied. “If he hadn’t been with them that night, someone else would have. And I don’t think anyone else would have done what he did to make it right. Adam, if it hadn’t been for him, you wouldn’t have had any help getting to me or saving Hoss.”

Adam studied Joe for a long while, seeing as though for the first time the man his baby brother had grown into. Little Joe, always as quick to play jokes as he was to fly to anger, had somehow, at some point, found…balance.

“I’m glad you didn’t stop him,” Joe said then.

Adam shook his head. “I can’t be glad about it, Joe.”

“You don’t have to be. Just accept that it was the right thing to do.”

Finally, Adam let his small smile turn real. “When did you get to be so wise?”

Joe smiled, too. “I guess some of your and Pa’s words must’ve slipped through this thick skull of mine.”

“I guess so.”

“Would you do me a favor, Adam?”

Adam cocked his head in reply.

“Help me get up, so I can go get some breakfast?”

“Nope.”

“N…no?” Joe stammered, shocked.

“Nope. Doc said to stay off that foot for at least two days.”

“B…but Adam; I’m hungry! I mean, I haven’t eaten a real, full meal in… I don’t know how long!”

“Yeah,” Adam said more softly. “I know. I’ll bring something up for you.”

“Not broth, Adam! I’m way too hungry for broth!”

And finally, Adam found himself chuckling. “A bowl or a cup?” he asked with a wink. He ducked out the room just ahead of his brother’s forlorn cry, “Adam? I need food, Adam! Real food!”

Adam’s lightened heart grew heavy again as he thought of the empty kitchen downstairs. They were still awaiting word about Hop Sing. Pa had said it was over, there was nothing else Whitfield could do. But until Hop Sing was home where he belonged, it couldn’t possibly be over. And what if Hop Sing had been injured? What if he’d been tortured? He’d been sold into slavery, for Heaven’s sake. How could Pa or Adam or anyone hope something like that could be forgotten, could be swept away from their memories or their hearts? Could Whitfield’s hold on them ever really be over? Joe seemed different now, fascinated by a sunrise when just a week ago he would have grumbled about waking up too early. How would Hop Sing’s experience have changed him?

*****

As soon as Hoss had sent word that he and Hop Sing would be home in two days, Ben began planning a special feast in celebration. Now that the day had arrived, Ben spent the better part of it fussing in the kitchen, while Joe and Adam played checkers on the porch.

Joe, however, was the only one with his mind on the game. “Come on, already!” he complained, impatient for his brother to make a move.

Sighing, Adam picked up one of his black pieces and moved it forward.

“What’s that?” Joe asked.

“What’s what?”

“That move! You can’t move like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like that! That move you did, there. That piece. You moved it like…” Finally it dawned on Joe what Adam was doing. “Like chess,” he said, then. “You moved it like it was a knight in a chess game.”

Adam’s eyebrows curled downwards as he gazed at the board. “I’m sorry, Joe. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Yeah, well I do.” Joe leaned back in his chair. “You’re thinking the same thing you’ve been thinking for the past week, and frankly I’m sick and tired of it.”

“What?”

“Admit it. You can’t get him out of your head. You’re still playing chess with Whitfield.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Me? You’re saying I’m ridiculous? Come on, Adam. All you do lately is worry what’s gonna happen next.”

“That’s not true.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Hmm.” Using his good hand to push himself forward, Joe started to rise. Instantly Adam was rising as well, and reaching for Joe’s cane in anticipation.

Joe plopped back down in his chair. “You see?” Joe shouted. “You see what you’re doing? You’re treating me like I’m…I’m made of glass or something. Now would you knock it off, already?”

“Joe, I…”

“You’re worried,” Joe cut him off, “about what’s going to happen next. You’re feeling guilty for something that wasn’t your fault to begin with. Knock it off!”

“I can’t just knock it off!” Adam shouted back.

“Why not?”

“What’s going on, out here?” Pa called out from behind Joe.

“Tell Adam to knock it off!”

“What sort of childish nonsense…” Pa shouted back. “I don’t have time for this! They’ll be here any time now, and dinner is…”

“You’re doing it too, Pa!” Joe yelled without thinking.

“What?” That single word came out low and ominous, like the rumble of a building thunderstorm.

“S-sorry, Pa,” Joe stammered. “B-but look at what you’re doing. You’re nervous about Hop Sing coming home. Instead of being glad about things getting back to normal, you and Adam are both so worried, you won’t let anything get back to normal.”

Pa took a deep breath and shook his head sadly. “Joe, son. I can’t even begin to imagine what Hop Sing has been through.”

“So don’t try.”

“What?”

“Pa, you’re…” Unsure how to say what he needed to say, Joe turned his attention back to Adam. “It’s just like what Adam’s been doing all week,” he said then. “Adam, you keep trying to imagine what it was like for me under all those rocks, don’t you?”

“You’re thinking about it, too,” Adam answered. “I can tell you’re still having nightmares.”

Joe shook his head. “But I’m not thinking about it all day like you are. I don’t want to think about it, Adam. Don’t you see that? It’s you who won’t let me forget, because you won’t let yourself forget. And Pa,” Joe returned his attention to his father, “if you try too hard to fuss over Hop Sing, you won’t let him forget whatever he’s gone through. I just want things to get back to normal. I can pretty much bet that’s what Hop Sing is going to want, too.”

“Perhaps,” Pa said softly a moment later. “But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s going to have a good dinner waiting for him for a change.”

“I’m not saying you should make him go straight to work, Pa. I’m just saying he’s not gonna want you to fuss so much about it.”

“Yes, well. He’s just going to have to accept a little fussing for a while.” Pa said sternly before going back into the house.

“Hop Sing’s not gonna like being fussed over,” Joe said to Adam.

“He’ll probably be too tired to argue.”

“Hop Sing? Too tired to argue?” Joe laughed.

When Adam gave him a small, lopsided smile in return, Joe finally started to believe things stood a chance of getting back to normal after all. A few hours later, Hoss followed his nose to Pa’s cooking and Hop Sing followed along behind him. complaining in a mixture of Chinese and English about the state of his kitchen — and then Joe didn’t have to believe anymore. He knew it to be true. Things were truly getting back to normal.

 

Epilogue

The house was finally quiet, dinner long since ended and the dishes long since cleaned. Though Hoss was snoring, it was a comforting sound. Adam was also pleased to find Joe’s and Pa’s rooms both dark and still. Yet, clearly Adam was not alone in his restlessness. There was light reaching out from beneath Hop Sing’s door.

Adam knocked softly. “Hop Sing?”

Sounds of movement inside were quickly followed by the door coming open. “Mr. Adam,” Hop Sing nodded. “You no sleep?”

Adam offered a small smile. “Hop Sing no sleep either?”

The cook smiled and invited Adam into his room. There was a slight catch in his step and he seemed a bit stiff as he settled to the cushions on the floor beside a low table, upon which rested a small sheaf of papers, along with an open ink bottle and pen. He swept his hand outward, inviting Adam to another set of cushions opposite him.

“I’m sorry, Hop Sing,” Adam said finally, after he’d settled himself into position.

“What Mr. Adam do to need apologize?”

“I’m sorry about what happened to you. It’s my fault.”

Hop Sing shook his head. “No. Whit-a-field fault. Not Mr. Adam.”

“If it weren’t for me, you would never have…”

“If not for Mr. Adam, Whit-a-field no come here, but Hoss and Army no save many Chinese people from mine. Hop Sing no find number sixteen cousin, and have no good news to share with family.” He pointed to the unfinished letter on the table. “Also, if not for Mr. Adam, maybe Hop Sing no find job — no find home on Ponderosa.” His voice caught for just a moment on the word ‘home.’

“I wasn’t there to help you.”

“You save Little Joe.”

“Yes, but…”

“Mr. Adam do what must be done. Little Joe home now. Hop Sing home now. No sorry.” Hop Sing shook his head again.

“Well, I can’t help but be sorry, Hop Sing. But I’m also glad you’re home, and… thank you.”

“Why ‘thank you’?”

“I never thanked you for your help in figuring out what Whitfield was doing with those chess pieces.”

Hop Sing nodded. “Mr. Adam no see. Too worried.”

“Yes. I was too worried. You were pretty worried yourself, but it didn’t stop you from thinking.”

“Hop Sing thinking mixed up. Xiangqi not chess.”

Adam smiled. “You still helped. I wonder,” Adam decided then, “if you would consider teaching me the Chinese game?”

“Xiangqi?”

“Yes.”

Hop Sing cocked his head, and then once again nodded. “Hop Sing honored to teach Mr. Adam xiangqi.”

Adam nodded back at him. “Mr. Adam will be honored to be taught by Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing rose then in typical, abrupt Hop Sing fashion, making it clear he saw the conversation as ended. “Hop Sing go now. Make tea to sleep.” He was halfway to the door before he turned around to face Adam again. “Mr. Adam want tea to sleep?”

Finding himself smiling, strangely comforted by the man he’d hoped to comfort, Adam nodded. “Mr. Adam would love some tea to sleep.” And yet, for the first time in well over a week, Adam realized he would probably finally be able to sleep without any help at all.

***The End***

Return to Freyakendra’s homepage

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.