The Letter of the Law (by freyakendra)

Summary:  Joe makes an instinctive, impulsive decision to help a widow and her family, bringing his own family along for the (bumpy) ride.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: MA
Word Count:  24,500


When the stage arrived, Little Joe Cartwright gave no attention to the stranger who stepped out into the road. A gray man in a gray suit with no predominant features, he was the kind of man who was easily overlooked, and Joe wasn’t the only one to do so. No heads turned as the gray stranger dusted himself off with a scoff that fell just short of arrogance. If they had, they might have taken notice of the cold sheen in his gray eyes. Like the thin veil of clouds preceding a summer storm, it could be easily — regretfully –dismissed. It wasn’t until later, after Joe made his way to the Virginia City Bank, that the gray man stirred his interest.

“You can’t seriously expect me to give you every last dollar from Mrs. Hansen’s account.”

Hearing Floyd Whittaker’s startled yet soft complaint, Joe turned his attention away from the teller to find a stranger seated in front of the bank manager’s desk. Mr. Whittaker was holding a slip of paper, one that seemed far too small to cause the look of dismay he was giving back to his visitor.

“Mr. Cartwright?” the bank teller called out.

“Hmmm?” Joe did not bother turning.

“What can I do for you today, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Oh. Right. Sorry,” Joe apologized, suddenly realizing he was holding up the line. He tipped his hat to the scowling man behind him and then handed the teller his bank note. “Who is that talking to Mr. Whittaker?”

“I can’t say.”

Smiling, Joe prodded. “Sure you can. You can trust me.” He even winked, hoping the effect would help draw attention to his honest nature.

It didn’t seem to matter.

“I mean I really can’t,” the teller repeated. “I don’t know who he is.”

“Hmm.” Joe took his receipt and moved away, trying to appear casual as he approached Mr. Whittaker’s desk. The bank manager was starting to look pale.

“You can’t do this,” Mr. Whittaker said.

“Of course, I can,” the stranger countered. “I have every right…”

“By the letter of the law, perhaps,” Mr. Whittaker went on. “But for the sake of human decency, basic ethics and common morality…”

“The letter of the law, sir, is all that counts in this matter.”

“But this will ruin a fine woman who’s still mourning the loss of her husband. How will she eat? How will she feed her children?”

“Are you a preacher or a businessman, Mr. Whittaker?”

“Why, a businessman, of course.”

“Then hold yourself to doing business and let the preachers worry about feeding widows and orphans. Now that paper proves the money belongs to me. Tomorrow’s stage is scheduled to leave at noon. I intend to be on it. I also intend to have that money with me when I go.”

“But Mr. Gainsby, surely you can’t…”

“Do I need to involve the sheriff, Mr. Whittaker?”

“The sheriff?”

“Legally, that money is mine. Therefore any attempt you make to prevent me from taking it will be illegal.” The stranger stood up. “I’ll be by in the morning to collect it.”

The sadness reflecting from the bank manager’s eyes caught Joe’s attention and held it even more than the gray stranger who had caused it. Joe was oblivious to the stranger’s departure until he felt a bump at his shoulder.

“Get out of my way, you backwater cowpoke!”

Stunned less by the encounter than by the conversation he’d just overheard, Joe watched the stranger move past him. What kind of business could make a man believe he was justified in taking money from a widow like Mrs. Hansen? Little Joe could find no rational answers as he stared after the man Whittaker had called Mr. Gainsby. He stepped numbly to the door, finding himself both confused and disturbed to see how casually Mr. Gainsby moved down the street, as though he had no concerns — and no conscience. As though filling his pockets with a dead man’s life savings was nothing more than a day’s work for him.

“Close your mouth, Joseph,” Pa’s voice erupted beside him. “How many times do you have to be reminded it is impolite to stare?”

Joe glanced at his pa, but then swiveled his attention back inside the bank, to Mr. Whittaker. “Who was that man?” Joe asked.

The bank manager’s eyes were locked on a business card in his hand. “Mr. George Gerard Gainsby. He…he’s from a Philadelphia investment company.”

“And he can do that? He can just take that money?”

“He’s got legal papers, all signed up proper by Luther Hansen himself, before he died.”

“What’s this all about?” Pa asked.

“The widow Hansen,” Joe answered without looking away from the obviously troubled Mr. Whittaker. Then he did turn to his pa, half hoping Pa could help him make sense of the situation. “That man who just walked out of here. He claims he’s got the legal right to all the money she has in the bank.”

“He does have the right,” Mr. Whittaker corrected.

“That’s a terrible shame,” Pa said, his brows pulling down in consternation. “But,” he shook his head, “if he’s got the legal right to it, there’s nothing you or I or anyone else can do to stop it. Now, did you deposit that bank note like I asked you?”

“Yeah, Pa. But how can he do that? I mean, it didn’t bother him at all when Mr. Whittaker said the widow wouldn’t be able to feed her children without that money.”

Pa sighed as his gaze met Mr. Whittaker’s. After a moment he turned back to Joe and wrapped his arm around Joe’s shoulders. “There are many different kinds of people in the world, son. Not all of them share your sense of…of compassion. It might even be said that some can’t afford to. They have to attend to business matters that might not always be particularly pleasant. They can’t allow their personal feelings to get in the way of doing what they have to do.”

“I know, Pa. I suppose I knew that, anyway. But I just don’t understand it. I guess I just…I’ve never seen anyone be so…so callous about it.”

Pa patted his shoulder. “It’s time we went home, don’t you think?”

“What about the widow Hansen?”

Pa turned. “Floyd? Let her know we’ll help in any way we can.”

It bothered Joe to see his pa take the matter so lightly. Pa didn’t even wait for Mr. Whittaker’s reply. His hand at Joe’s back, he seemed in a hurry to push Joe out of the bank.

Joe could understand to some extent that Mr. Gainsby had the law on his side, and laws were there to protect all people, not just those you wanted to protect. Yet Joe felt sure he would never truly comprehend how anyone could accept that it was okay to bring about the financial ruin of a widow with children to feed.

Maybe that was why Pa was in such a hurry, because Pa couldn’t comprehend it either. If so, that was fine with Joe. It just proved Pa was nothing like Mr. Gainsby. Nothing at all.

*****

“Legally, that money is mine. I’ll be by in the morning to collect it.”

Mr. Gainsby’s words haunted Joe through the night. Just by having been in that bank, just by having overheard Gainsby’s conversation with Mr. Whittaker, Joe found himself burdened with a sense of responsibility for Mrs. Hansen — as though he was the only person in the world who could help her, even if he had no idea how. Before night’s end, he knew he needed to be in town when Mr. Gainsby came to collect the money. He also knew his pa would disagree, which was why he left at the barest hint of dawn, well before his pa or brothers would give any thought to looking for him.

*****

Mrs. Hansen arrived in town shortly after Joe. He had finished a light breakfast at the International House and was taking care of Cochise when she passed, driving a buckboard loaded up with her four children, all dressed in their Sunday best.

“Mr. Cartwright.” She smiled and nodded, sitting up straight as she could.

“Ma’am.” Joe tipped his hat to her. He wished he had some words to offer, but none seemed fitting.

It startled him to see a good sized trunk in the buckboard, along with a number of bags. Not even a full day had come and gone since Mr. Gainsby’s appearance at the bank, and already it appeared the widow Hansen was set to move out. Had she known Gainsby was coming?

Curious, Joe watched as she pulled in front of the Wells Fargo station.

“Tomorrow’s stage is scheduled to leave at noon.” Mr. Gainsby had said. “I intend to be on it.”

Had Joe misread the entire situation? Was the widow Hansen planning to run off with Gainsby? Was that all this was about?

Feeling like an absolute fool, Joe allowed his uncertainty to fade as he let in a more familiar and comfortable emotion: anger. His breaths coming harder and faster, he found himself clenching and unclenching his fists, more eager than ever to get a hold of Mr. Gainsby. But what would that accomplish? After all, Gainsby had done nothing more to Joe himself than toss out an insignificant insult about a backwater cowpoke. Besides, as Gainsby had proved yesterday, he was more likely to call in the sheriff than settle his own disputes.

No. Gainsby wasn’t worth the trouble. Instead, Joe decided to have a chat with Mrs. Hansen.

“But that trunk must go with them,” Mrs. Hansen was saying to the clerk when Joe reached her. “It’s their heritage. It’s all they have. And my brother…”

“There is simply no room!” The clerk hollered back. “We need room for the mail, and there’s plenty of it today. Besides, it’s twenty-five pounds per passenger. That’s a hard and fast rule, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

Unable to argue more, Mrs. Hansen turned from the clerk — and right toward Joe. Closer now than when he’d been on the street, Joe could see her eyes were red-rimmed, as though she had been crying for quite some time, and more tears were building. She raised a shaky hand to wipe them from her cheek as they started to fall.

“Mrs. Hansen?” Joe asked, his anger all but vanquished.

She tried to smile, but no longer seemed able to hold the posture she’d shown while driving the buckboard. “Oh, it’s alright. What do children need with history anyway? It’s just a bunch of useless heirlooms. This is the west, right? A place for new beginnings.”

“I’m sure we can find a way to get that trunk shipped to wherever you’re going.”

She shook her head. “That would cost money. Money I don’t have.”

“We could figure something out.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright, but it’s just not worth it. Not anymore. The important thing now is to get my children out to San Francisco. It really is a whole different world there. They’ll get along just fine without all these…memories.”

“What about you?” Joe found himself asking.

“All I have are memories. I suppose it makes sense to leave them here with me.”

“Here with you? Aren’t you going?”

“My brother is in San Francisco. He and his wife have been eager to spend time with the children. I’m sure they’ll absolutely dote over them.”

“But what about you?” Joe asked again.

She glanced toward the buckboard where four young sets of wide, worried eyes were avidly watching the exchange. “I really must finish preparing the children for their trip. Thank you for your concern, Mr. Cartwright.”

Joe listened for a moment as the woman began to give instructions to her oldest son, a boy who couldn’t be more than eleven, about the care of his three, younger siblings.

“Remember, Martin, she’s barely four. You’ll need to keep an eye on her. Don’t let her wander off. And try to keep James from bothering the other passengers. It will be a very long trip. You must pay close attention to…”

Disgusted once more with Mr. Gainsby, Joe refocused his attention to the bank up the street. As he walked away, his anger grew with every step.

*****

Gainsby wasted no time getting his hands on Mrs. Hansen’s money. He was already leaving the bank by the time Joe got there.

“Mr. Gainsby?” Joe called out.

The man stopped and turned, but made no attempt to answer.

“I wonder if I could have a word with you.”

“Why?”

“I’d just like the chance to understand why it was so important for you to take that money from Mrs. Hansen.”

“What business is it of yours?”

“You can think of me as a concerned neighbor.”

“Well then, take your concerns elsewhere, neighbor. This particular matter is of no concern to you.”

“I disagree.”

Mr. Gainsby huffed and turned away, sounding every bit like an angry bull but looking more like an overfed and ill-tempered mule.

“Mr. Gainsby!” Joe called louder.

“What are you going to do, boy? Shoot an unarmed man for conducting honest business? They’ll hang you for sure.”

“I’m not here to fight you. I just want to talk.”

“Well go ahead and talk then. I’m sure someone will listen.” Gainsby walked away, leaving Joe fuming and unable to do anything about it.

“Mr. Cartwright?” Hearing Mrs. Hansen’s soft voice behind him, Joe turned. “Why have you taken such an interest in all of this?”

“I think it’s wrong what he’s doing. That’s why.”

She smiled. This time, it appeared to be genuine. “You’re obviously a very kind and caring young man, Mr. Cartwright. I admire what you’re trying to do.” She shook her head. “But there’s no cause for you to do anything at all. My husband made a mistake. He gambled on a business deal and then had the bad fortune of dying before he could follow through with it. Mr. Gainsby is simply collecting on a debt owed.”

“Maybe some debts just aren’t worth collecting. It’s obvious you need that money more than he does.”

“That may be. But it doesn’t change the fact that he has more right to it than I do.”

“More right to it? How can he? Your children have a right to it. Your children have a right to stay in their home, with their mother.”

“I wish life could be that simple. But we both know it’s not.”

“There has to be a way to fight this.”

“There isn’t. And even if there were….” She shook her head slowly. “I’m afraid I haven’t any fight left in me. I’ve been fighting for fifteen years, Mr. Cartwright. Fifteen years struggling just to survive in a land that fights back at every turn. I just can’t do it. Not anymore.”

“Then let me help.”

“You really are very sweet.” Her smile returned. “You remind me right now of my husband all those years ago. He was just as determined then as you are now. But determination alone isn’t enough, I’m afraid. And you need to save yours for fights that matter to you.”

“This does matter to me.”

“Go home, Mr. Cartwright. Go home to your family, where you belong. Count your own blessings. Leave me to mine.”

“What about your children?”

“They will do well in my brother’s care.”

“They need you.”

“Good day, Mr. Cartwright.”

She turned away, leaving Joe no more certain what he should do than when he’d first arrived in town.

*****

Shortly before noon, as the stage was loading up, Joe watched Mrs. Hansen adjust her daughter’s bonnet and usher all four children into the coach. When he saw Mr. Gainsby walk by, Joe decided it was as good a time as any. He pulled Mrs. Hansen aside.

“I purchased passage for one more,” Joe told her. “You need to go.”

She studied him for a long moment, seeming unable to speak. Her eyes began to glisten again with unshed tears. Slowly, she began to shake her head.

“I…can’t,” she said.

“You have to.”

“I need to…to finish things here. I just…I just can’t.”

“You can’t let your children ride all the way to San Francisco with no one but Mr. Gainsby for company. They need someone to look after them, and I have no doubt Mr. Gainsby….” Joe looked up at the man, seeing nothing but gray steel. “He won’t,” Joe finished. “Please. Go. Whatever you need to do here, let me do it for you.”

Her tears were falling now. “Not this. This is something I need to do. Me. No one else. Just…me.”

“Either you go or I will.”

Her eyes wide, she stared more deeply into his. “You would do that?”

“Someone has to.”

Gasping, she wrapped her arms around him. Her grip was weak yet intense, as though, having lost all of her strength she needed to cling to his. When she pulled away, she wiped frantically at her eyes, seeming desperate not to cry. “How can I ever repay you?”

“Just take care of your children.”

“You’ll watch over them? Make sure they’re safe?”

Now it was Joe’s turn to stare.

“When you get to San Francisco,” she went on, “Martin has all the information you’ll need to contact my brother. He can tell you what…”

“You…you’re still refusing to go?”

“I can’t. I told you. I truly can’t.”

She was serious, Joe realized. She was really counting on him to go to San Francisco with her children. How could he? Pa would be furious. Yet how could he not?

“God bless you, Mr. Cartwright,” Mrs. Hansen said. “I owe you so, so very much.”

Joe gazed at the stagecoach and then back to Mrs. Hansen. “If…if I really am going to San Francisco, then I…I guess I’ll need for you to do me a favor.”

“Of course. Anything.”

“Tell my pa I’m sorry I didn’t talk to him first, and…and I’ll see him in about a week.” He tried to smile, but thoughts of his pa turned a grin into a grimace.

*****

“San Francisco!”

Ben Cartwright’s voice was loud enough that Mrs. Hansen could hear him over the rattle of the buckboard and the soft thump of the horse’s hooves on the road. He’d been pleasant enough when she’d delivered Little Joe’s message, but now that she had left his house, he no longer had to hide his true reaction behind the etiquettes of hospitality.

While Mrs. Hansen had come to see Joseph Cartwright as her own angel of mercy, it was clear he would have hell to pay when he returned home to his own family. She really did owe him her life. Sadly, all she could do was pray Joe would someday understand that was one debt simply not worth collecting.

**********

At first, the children were equally wary of both Joe and Mr. Gainsby. The four of them sat together on one side of the carriage, stone-faced, glancing from one of the two strange men sitting opposite them to the other. Joe could only imagine what thoughts were going through their young minds. Yet, even despite their fear and uncertainty, the youngest two, Mary and James, began giggling when they were still barely a mile out of Virginia City, clearly surprised by the constant jostling of the bumpy ride that kept tossing them right off their seats. They warmed up to Joe for the way he giggled along with them. The other middle boy, Matthew, started smiling before too long, though the oldest, Martin, tried to remain stern.

Joe felt sorry for that boy. At just eleven years of age he’d been thrust into the role of man of the house, and now he was being forced to play mother to his brothers and sister as well. Joe found himself wondering if Adam had looked so severe after Hoss’ mother died. The thought made him work especially hard at pleasing young Martin. That boy needed to have the chance to be a child for a while longer.

Matthew’s giggles came when Joe started pulling faces to imitate Mr. Gainsby’s gruff expressions. Soon both Matthew and James were pulling faces as well, and giggles became full, gut-busting laughs that had the children bouncing more than the bumpy ride. After a while, even stern Martin joined in, by which time Gainsby’s expressions grew gruffer still, clearly showing his displeasure at having to share such a long journey with a bunch of loud, bouncing, bothersome children — Little Joe included.

But the game could not keep the children content forever. About four hours into the journey, the endless bumps and the increasing heat in the coach made the ride less appealing for everyone, and young Mary’s giggling shifted to whimpering. Joe noticed Martin watching her. The boy clearly didn’t know what to do. Joe wasn’t too sure himself. Games can only turn their attention so much. There would always come a time when their mother’s love was all they really needed. Even so, Joe’s own experience had taught him the love of an older brother could work some pretty strong miracles, too. He was about to encourage Martin along those lines when a particularly spectacular bump bounced Mary nearly to the ceiling. An instant after she landed back on her rump, she cried out in such a high-pitched shriek Joe figured his ears would be ringing for days afterwards.

The limits of Mr. Gainsby’s tenuous patience had been shattered. “If someone doesn’t shut that child’s mouth, I certainly will!” he shouted above the girl’s subsequent wailing.

“Don’t you dare touch her!” Martin hollered right back at him.

Joe nodded his approval to Martin and shot Gainsby a look intended to remind the man Joe was still wearing his gun.

“Come on, Mary,” Joe said softly, reaching out to pull her toward him. “Why don’t you ride with me for a while?”

“It’s okay,” Martin said. He grabbed his baby sister and took her to his lap. “I’ll take care of her.”

Smiling at the boy, Joe winked. “Of course you will.” And then he sat back.

The children were adjusting fine. It was Gainsby who concerned Joe the most now. Joe was feeling increasingly disturbed by the man’s character — and increasingly eager to confront him under rules Joe himself understood.

*****

As the journey progressed, the children’s boredom grew, as did Mr. Gainsby’s discomfort, a fact made known to everyone aboard due to his persistent grumbling. Yet boredom and irritation weren’t the only issues affecting the children. The constant swaying motion of the coach combined with the day’s heat was taking a toll on them as well. In the desert just beyond Dagget Pass, James and Mary both started complaining of nausea.

Mr. Gainsby, oblivious, lit a cigar.

“You’d better put that out,” Joe told him.

“Why?”

“Because Mary’s about two breaths away from vomiting, that’s why!”

Gainsby eyed the girl, his lip curling in disgust. “And what has that got to do with me?”

“The smell of that cigar will make her sick!”

Gainsby looked away and took another puff.

“I asked you to put it out!” Joe made a grab for the cigar with his right hand. He’d barely pinched it between his finger and thumb when the coach took a turn that thrust Joe right up against Gainsby. The cigar fell, briefly searing Joe’s palm before he lost all sense of where it might have landed.

“Get away from me, you filthy saddle tramp!” He tried to push Joe away from him, but the motion of the coach worked against them both.

Struggling to right himself, Joe reached behind him with his left hand, hoping to make connection with the seat and gain leverage. The action caused his right elbow to dig into Gainsby’s abdomen.

“Why you…” Using both hands now, Gainsby heaved Joe up and away from him just as the coach hit another large bump.

The motion threw Joe into the south facing side of the coach, his lower back connecting with the bottom of the window-frame and his head bouncing into the iron bar at the top. Dazed, he wasn’t sure if was losing his sense of balance or the coach was starting to lean and wobble. His answer came when they hit one more bump.

The already unsteady coach toppled sideways.

In the next moments, Joe found time passing in a bizarre, desperately slow silence. It was as though the air went still, or maybe the whole world went still while the coach itself moved on. It scraped along the trail, dragging Joe with it, battering his back, his arms, his neck against the wood and sand beneath him while shoes and elbows rained down from above. And then, even time stopped, as Joe succumbed to the stillness.

*****

Mary was the first to find her voice, some moments after the coach finally came to rest. While a small dust cloud began to settle, her frightened cries called the coach’s occupants, one by one, back into reality. They slowly extricated themselves from the heap they’d fallen into, both pushing against and holding onto one another until each could find a sense of balance. Martin quickly took charge of his family, lifting first his sister and then each of his brothers to the driver’s waiting arms before climbing out himself.

When it was Gainsby’s turn, he hesitated, grumbling that he couldn’t get to his satchel.

“Leave it,” the driver, Jebediah Ralston called down to him.

“I can’t! It’s too important!”

“It’s more important now to make sure everyone’s alright.”

“That satchel is important!”

“Mister,” the guard, Ed Burke shouted from behind Ralston, “I don’t give a good goddamn about your stinkin’ satchel! You get your hide out of there right now or I will remove you myself!”

“How dare you!”

Burke cocked his shotgun to make an exaggerated show of his daring. Gainsby scoffed, but finally gave in, half pulling himself and half allowing himself to be pulled from the damaged coach. Finally, only one passenger yet remained.

“Joe?” Ralston shouted.

“Mr. Cartwright?” Burke added.

When it was clear Joe wasn’t rousing, Burke jumped down into the coach to check on him.

“He…he ain’t dead. Is he?” Martin asked in a small, worried voice.

Minutes passed before the guard finally responded. “No. He ain’t dead.”

And then Burke carefully passed Joe on up to Ralston, who held onto him, waiting for Burke to climb back out and help him lower Joe to the ground.

The whole activity seemed to be taking far too long for Mr. Gainsby’s patience.

“Now that you know everyone’s alright,” he shouted down to Burke, still in the belly of the fallen coach, “you get me that satchel before you come on out of there!”

Ralston shot him with a chilling glare. “Everyone ain’t alright, Mister. Joe Cartwright ain’t alright.”

“Just have your colleague get me that satchel!”

But Burke ignored him. When he climbed out, his hands were free to help Ralston with Joe.

*****

A child was crying. It was a tired sound, as though the tears were not new. A horse huffed somewhere in the distance. He heard the rattle of a harness.

Opening his eyes to a fire in the sky that seemed intent on singing his eyeballs, Joe closed them right up again, scrunching down tightly as though that might somehow help to fortify them for his next try.

“Mr. Ralston!” a boy called out.

That was Martin, Joe realized. And the crying child was Mary. The odd events of the day starting to come back to him, Joe forced his eyes open again. Two children were accounted for, but what about the other two?

“Hey, Little Joe!” Jeb Ralston’s voice was right next to him. “Good to see you comin’ around. These kids you’re lookin’ out for won’t let me get any work done.”

“Are they okay?” Joe’s voice was strained. “All of them?”

“Bumps and bruises.” Ralston sounded easygoing about it. Joe took that to be a good sign. “No broken bones. It’s you they’ve all been wonderin’ about.”

“I’m fine.” Joe figured if he said the words, maybe they might prove to be true. Yet when he tried to sit up, the world started spinning around him.

“Yep. You’re fine, alright.” Ralston chuckled.

Lying back down, Joe closed his eyes again and willed the whirlwind to stop. “How’s the stage?”

“I was just about to find out. Burke’s been settling down the team, and ’til now I’ve been caught up here on account of you.”

“Yeah, well there’s no need to fuss over me. Why don’t you see to that stage?” The idea of spending the night in the desert with four children turned Joe’s stomach maybe even more than the dizziness. At least in the stagecoach he wouldn’t have to worry about any of them wandering off or running into nervous snakes.

“Fire!” Gainsby shouted from somewhere off to Joe’s left. “The stage is on fire!”

Joe’s eyes shot open. He rolled carefully to his side and then gingerly propped himself up onto his elbow. Seeing smoke puffing from the interior of the stagecoach, he was immediately reminded of Gainsby’s cigar, and his palm stung anew from where it had burned its mark. Joe had no doubt that cigar was the cause of this fire now.

Mr. Gainsby brought nothing but trouble, nothing at all. And Joe wanted nothing more than to give Gainsby back some trouble of his own. Feeling helpless and furious, Joe could only watch as Burke and Ralston worked frantically to get the money box and as many mailbags as they could away from the flames.

Gainsby worked against them at every turn. “My satchel!” he shouted repeatedly. “You must get that satchel!”

“Those flames is inside the coach, mister!” Ralston shouted back. “Ain’t nobody going inside right now!” He grabbed two more mailbags and tossed them one by one to Burke.

“But you don’t understand! My money is in that satchel. Your guard over there is duty-bound to protect all valuables aboard.”

Burke shouted back. “I am duty-bound to protect the treasure-box and the mail. If you wanted that money of yours protected, you should have told us about it right off so’s we could put it where it belongs.”

“What? And subject it to robbers?”

Both Burke and Ralston ignored him.

“I demand you retrieve that satchel!”

Neither responded.

“I will have both of your jobs for this!”

Joe watched Burke stop where he was. The guard straightened his back and then turned, approaching Gainsby with slow, deliberate steps.

“You think you can do this job, Mister?” Burke was less than a foot away from Gainsby when he spoke.

Clearly uncomfortable by the man’s proximity, Gainsby backed away. “I wouldn’t even think of it,” he sputtered. “I was merely suggesting someone else would surely do a superior service to their passengers. At the prices you people charge for these fares, you should do everything in your power to please us.”

“Us?” Joe shouted toward him. “Or just you?”

Gainsby stared back at him. Burke tipped his hat. By the time both men returned their attention to the stage, flames flickered from the windows and were beginning to lick away at the surrounding wood. It was clear they’d removed everything they could. Nothing else would be saved — not even the money Mr. Gainsby had legally stolen from Mrs. Hansen.

Joe lay back and closed his eyes, as comforted by Gainsby’s loss as he was saddened by Mrs. Hansen’s.

*****

“Little Joe?”

When Ralston’s voice pulled at Joe’s awareness, it bothered him to realize he’d fallen asleep. He blinked to find the sun lower than it had been just a few moments earlier — or what seemed just a few moments to Joe. A quick glance around helped him account for each of the children before he gave his attention to the driver.

“I’m headin’ to Peter’s,” Ralston explained as soon as he saw Joe looking toward him. “The station’s just back yonder a ways. One of them horses and me, we get on just fine. He’ll take me quick enough; should be before full dark. We’ll get word back to Virginia City and see if there’s any chance of a replacement rig.”

“And if there’s not?”

Ralston shrugged. “It’ll get figured out. Least ways the company’ll know what happened. I’ll head back out here at sun-up, and if Gordo’s, in I’ll have him come out with me to check on you.”

“Gordo?”

Ralston grinned. “Gordo’s real good with the horses. Sometimes does doctorin’ for folks, too.”

“I suppose I ought to be glad I didn’t break my leg.”

As Ralston moved away, Joe experimented with propping himself up on both elbows. The stress to his muscles told him right away he had bruises he was only beginning to discover. He figured if there was any good from all of this, at least he’d provided a soft spot for the children to fall upon when the stagecoach tipped over. His only real regret was he’d provided a soft spot for Gainsby as well. Too bad it hadn’t been the other way around.

Actually, Joe did have one other regret. He regretted the fact that the world was still spinning, although he was glad it seemed to have slowed somewhat.

Holding himself in that partially upright position and ignoring complaints from his chest all the way to his backside, Joe watched as Martin pulled a doll out of one of the bags that had been salvaged thanks to the fact it had been thrown from the stage during the accident.

“I’m sorry, Martin,” Joe found himself saying.

The boy looked his way as he closed up the bag. “For what?”

“I’m not doing a very good job of taking care of you.”

“I can take care of myself just fine.” He looked toward his sister. “Hey, Mary!”

The girl’s eyes widened when she saw the doll in her brother’s hands. She ran to him and took it gently into her arms as though it was the most important thing in the world. Joe and Martin both watched her move back to the rock she’d claimed as her own, hugging the doll so fiercely Joe could almost imagine her squeezing the stuffing right out of it.

“I know you can take care of yourself,” Joe said then, his gaze still focused on Mary. “But that’s a lot of responsibility, taking care of your brothers and sister too.”

Martin shrugged and then reached for a canteen, walking over and handing it to Joe. “Everybody’s got to take care of their own.”

Joe took a grateful sip of water and passed the canteen back to the boy. “It takes a special kind of man to look out for others while he’s at it.”

“Is that why you came? To prove you’re that kind of man?”

“I wasn’t talking about me, Martin. I was talking about you. I came along to make sure you were all okay; but look at the way it’s turned out. Now you’re looking out for me.”

“I’m not a man yet.”

“Could have fooled me.”

“If I was a man, I’d gun down that miserable Mr. Gainsby.”

Joe stiffened as he heard something of himself in Martin’s words. “No, you wouldn’t,” he said, feeling as though his pa was right there, whispering over his shoulder. “That would be murder. You can never let a man like that turn you into something even worse than he is.”

“Murderin’s not worse than him. He killed my pa.”

“Your pa got sick. Mr. Gainsby didn’t have anything to do with that.”

“My pa worked himself to death on account of Mr. Gainsby. He might as well’ve shot my pa as work him to death. It’s no different to me.”

“There’s a world of difference, Martin. It might not seem like it now, but believe me. It’s true. Mr. Gainsby doesn’t hurt people, not directly. I doubt he’d have the courage to even try. But what he does might be even worse, because what he really does is turn us against ourselves. He causes us to do things we shouldn’t. Like your pa did.” Joe gazed inward, still hearing his own pa. “And like I did,” he found himself admitting.

“What did he cause you to do?” Martin stared at Joe. His brows were pulled down low over his eyes, showing an innocent sort of confusion that made him appear more like the child he was and less like the man he felt he should be.

“He made me angry, Martin. He made me so angry I wanted him to fight me. All I needed was a reason, just one good reason. And then he lit that cigar. If I hadn’t struggled with him over that cigar we probably wouldn’t be stuck out here like this. That stagecoach would still be on the road, getting you closer to your uncle in San Francisco every minute.”

“You don’t know that for sure.”

“You’re right. I don’t. Just like you don’t know for sure whether or not your pa would have gotten sick if it weren’t for his obligations to Mr. Gainsby. Sometimes bad things just happen. We can’t always stop it from happening. What we can do is stop ourselves from doing bad things because of what happened.”

“I can’t stop myself from hating Mr. Gainsby.”

“Me neither. But we can both stop ourselves from acting on that anger.”

“Can you, Mr. Cartwright?”

“I have to keep trying. That’s all any of us can do.” Joe took a deep breath and smiled despite the discomfort all that air brought to his ribs. “Why don’t you just call me Joe?”

“Why?”

“We’re friends, aren’t we? I like my friends to call me Joe.”

“Momma says it ain’t right for me to call men by their given names until I’m as growed as they are.”

“Okay, then. How about Uncle Joe?”

“You’re not my uncle.”

“Not by blood, maybe. But after all we’ve been through today, and the way we’ve been looking out for each other, don’t you think it’d be okay to pretend we’re family?”

Martin seemed to shrink in on himself, his shoulders sagging out of the straight posture he’d held since he’d proclaimed his desire to gun down Mr. Gainsby. “I’m not so good at pretendin,'” he said in a soft voice. “Not anymore. I used to pretend my pa weren’t dead. That didn’t last too long. Then this morning I tried to pretend my ma would meet up with us in San Francisco. But I know better.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I saw it in her eyes when she was sayin’ goodbye. It was like a forever kind of goodbye.”

Joe sighed, disappointed the boy had been perceptive enough to voice Joe’s own concerns — and disturbed to consider that while Martin and Joe were looking out for each other, who was looking out for Mrs. Hansen?

*****

His own breakfast only half finished, Adam paused to look over at his pa. Ben Cartwright was digging through his eggs every bit as aggressively as Hoss ever could, but with none of Hoss’ enthusiasm for the meal. Last night’s dinner had been no different. Pa had been in a foul mood since Mrs. Hansen’s visit. At the moment, those eggs seemed to be taking the brunt of his anger, but as the day progressed, Adam had no doubt both he and Hoss would be on the receiving end themselves.

Glancing quickly at his middle brother, Adam saw that Hoss was watching Pa too, and appeared to be as concerned as Adam himself.

“I’m riding back into Virginia City,” Pa announced loud enough to startle Adam right out of his thoughts.

Hop Sing must have been startled too, judging by the way he came scurrying from the kitchen. “What wrong with breakfast?”

“Nothing,” Pa shouted back before lowering his voice to say, “it’s fine. Just fine. Thank you, Hop Sing.”

“Then why you yell?”

“No reason. Everything’s fine. Thank you.”

Hop Sing shook his head and headed back to work, complaining as only he could with words none of the Cartwrights would ever understand.

“What’s so important in Virginia City?” Adam dared to ask a moment later, while Pa was finishing off his coffee.

Pa’s cup slammed back onto the saucer so hard it was a minor miracle both didn’t shatter. “We still need those supplies. I was in such a hurry to get your brother away from that Hansen business, we came straight home.”

“I’ll take care of it.” Adam wiped his mouth and then set his napkin on the table.

“No, Adam. You’ve got plenty to keep you busy here, especially with your brother gone.”

Adam rose, making it a point to show he really did intend to ride to town. “I need to see Charlie Miller about that lumber contract, anyway.” Of course, they’d actually worked out the terms of that contract a week ago, but Adam was counting on his pa being so focused on Joe and the Hansens that small fact wouldn’t occur to him. If Pa figured there was no need for him to go back to Virginia City himself, maybe his temper would ease some.

What Adam had not been counting on was Pa deciding to ride along with him. Clearly, there was more on Pa’s mind than supplies. Adam suspected he was hoping to get word from Joe, a suspicion that was proved true when they guided the buckboard past the telegraph office a few hours later. Pa’s gaze focused on it so thoroughly Adam was sure he’d stop right in front. Instead he waited until they reached the mercantile.

“You start taking care of things here,” Ben told Adam. “I’ll be right back.”

“Sure, Pa.” Adam smiled as he watched his pa stroll back the way they had come. Joe was sure going to get an earful when he returned.

“Hey, Adam!” Sheriff Coffee’s shout pulled Adam’s attention to the other side of the street.

“Roy,” Adam nodded. He stepped down off the rig and watched the sheriff’s hurried approach. Something in the set of Roy’s shoulders caused Adam to stiffen his own, and the closer Roy came, the more Adam could tell he wasn’t looking for pleasant conversation.

“I was planning to head out to see you,” Roy said as he took the last few steps.

“What about?”

Roy did not answer right away. Instead, he looked over to where Pa had gone a moment before. “Word came in last night from Peter’s Station,” he said finally. And then he met Adam’s gaze. Adam could almost swear he had to force himself to do it. “There was an accident with the stage, just the other side of Dagget Pass.”

The words hit Adam almost like a physical blow. “How bad?” he asked, bracing himself for an answer he was afraid to hear.

“I hear the stage is lost, though they managed to save most of the mail and the money box.”

Adam studied the sheriff. Roy was clearly holding something back. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“Adam,” Roy took a deep breath and shook his head before going on. “Message said one of the passengers was banged up pretty bad. We’re still waiting on word to see just what that means.”

“One of the passengers?”

Roy gave a quick nod in response.

“Do we know which one?”

“Adam, I…”

“Is it Joe?”

Roy blew out a lung full of air. “I’m afraid so.”

Taking a deep breath of his own, Adam shifted his gaze back to the telegraph office. “We’d better go see if that word has come through yet.”

They had barely taken a step when Pa rushed out the door. “Adam!” he shouted.

“I heard, Pa!” Adam shouted back as his pa hurried toward him. “Any new messages come through?”

Pa shook his head. “Nothing.”

“I’ll get a fresh horse from the livery and head out there.”

“They could all be on a new stage by the time you arrive, Adam,” Roy argued.

Adam shrugged. “Then I’ll know Joe’s okay. Won’t I?”

“I’ll go with you,” Pa said.

“Pa…,” Adam started. But what should he say? How could he tell his pa the ride might be another waste of time, and just another reason for Pa to get even madder than he already was? If Joe wasn’t seriously hurt, it would be better for both Joe and Pa if Pa stayed back to calm down. On the other hand, if it really was serious, then it might be better for Pa to wait a while and prepare himself to face whatever it was rather than riding blindly out without knowing anything at all.

“Speak up, Adam!” Pa shouted. “What is it?”

“Ben,” Roy said before Adam could choose his words. “Don’t you think maybe you ought to wait for more information? If it was real serious, I’m sure Jebediah would have said something more about it. Don’t you?”

“I’m not sure of anything right now, Roy! I don’t know anything! And I’m not going to wait around to maybe hear something when I could already be there and seeing for myself before any conclusive information is provided!”

“Of course, Ben. I understand.” Roy cocked his head, seeming to consider something else. “I imagine poor Mrs. Hansen might feel the same way, don’t you?”

“What?”

“Her children were on that stage. We know they’re okay, I suppose. But they would have ended up spending last night in that desert. Gets mighty cold up there at night. I imagine they’d be pretty scared, bein’ on their own without their ma.”

“Just what are you getting at, Roy?”

“She doesn’t even know about the accident yet, Ben. I wonder if maybe you’d consider riding out and letting her know.”

Pa’s gaze shifted outward. Still, he waited a moment to answer. “There should be no need to worry her with so few details.”

“There’s no harm to two parents sharing a bit of worry together,” Roy went on. “Is there? I mean, you could keep each other company waiting for more information — which I will gladly provide as soon as it comes in.”

When Pa glanced Adam’s way, Adam found himself offering a small smile, appreciating Roy’s suggestion.

“What are you trying to do now, Roy?” Pa still sounded angry, but his voice was far softer than it had been. “Play matchmaker?”

“Not at all, Ben. I’m just sayin’ it makes a bit of sense, don’t it? That Mrs. Hansen is in a mighty lonely place right now. You or anybody else ridin’ in and sayin’ her children have been in an accident and then ridin’ out again isn’t gonna do her any favors.”

Pa sighed. “You’ll let me know as soon as you hear anything? Anything at all?”

“I will, Ben. That’s a promise.”

“And Adam, you’ll send word just as soon as you can?”

“You know I will.”

Shaking his head, Ben Cartwright gave his oldest son a familiar if worn look, one that spoke so loudly there was no need for words. Be safe, it said. And take care of your brother, as I know you will.

*****

James was missing.

At some point in the middle of the night, with Gainsby on watch, the boy had wandered off. Now, hours after daybreak, they seemed no closer to finding him.

Joe dropped to one knee and rested his forehead against the walking stick Martin had salvaged from the stagecoach — the lever for the foot brake. It helped to keep Joe upright even as the world shifted dizzily around him, but it was useless at fighting off the nausea or the black holes that kept trying to swallow his vision.

“You’re in no shape for this, Cartwright.” Burke’s voice swam up from somewhere nearby.

“We have to find him,” Joe said in a whisper. He was struggling to breathe while his heart beat angrily against bruised ribs.

“And we will,” Burke answered, “long as we keep looking for him rather than looking out for you.”

“So stop wasting time with me then!” Joe shouted. The effort stole more of his breath and his vision. “Just find James!”

Joe sensed more than saw Burke ease away from him, and then closed his eyes. He didn’t have time to feel this way. He needed to find James. He needed to protect the other children. He needed to do so much, but he couldn’t seem to do anything at all. Not a damned thing.

Joe had known it would be a long night. He’d known Gainsby couldn’t be trusted, and Burke would need help on watch. For that, Joe had tried everything he could to stay awake, hoping to provide the help Burke needed. But his head had felt like it was being worked in some blacksmith’s forge, with that blacksmith hammering away endlessly, pounding so many dark spots across Joe’s vision he could almost believe he’d wake up to find himself turned into one of Hop Sing’s cast iron skillets.

While Joe had focused on ways to chase away his blacksmith, Burke and the children –with little help from Gainsby — had gathered up the mailbags, luggage and valuables to set up a small camp. At some point, Martin had brought over some of the softer bags for Joe, and he’d gratefully used them to prop himself up, hoping the position would help him to stay more alert and aware of what the others in the group were doing. It also eased his breathing, taking some of the pressure off his sore ribs. With any luck, he’d hoped it might even help him to stay awake. There were plenty of things to worry about in that high desert, anything from mountain lions to rattlesnakes to highway bandits. And while Burke was good at his job — one of the best on the line, in fact — he was just one man. Every man needed at least a couple hours of shut-eye. Who would give Burke those hours? Gainsby?

That had been what Burke had counted on, anyway. Unlike Joe, who had never believed it possible, Burke had been intent on forcing Gainsby to pull his own weight. As dusk fell, the guard had talked to Gainsby out of ear-shot of the children, figuring he could scare the self-absorbed easterner into taking his turn at watch seriously. Joe had looked on, keenly aware of the kind of stories Burke would be sharing about the fearlessness of hungry wolves or the slow, painful way a man could die from rattlesnake venom.

When Gainsby had returned from that conversation, his face had been about as gray as his suit. Joe had found himself smiling, thinking if only for that one moment maybe Burke’s plan would work. Yet the moment had passed quick enough. Joe had known better then, and he sure as hell knew it now. Nothing would ever make Joe put his own life or the lives of the children in Gainsby’s hands — nothing except a concussion that kept causing Joe to doze off without even realizing he was doing so. And at some point when the night was at its darkest Joe had done just that, dozing off when he’d been needed the most.

“James!” Martin cried out again from somewhere in the distance. “If you don’t come out right now, Momma’s gonna whoop you good!”

Joe pushed all of his weight against that stick, forcing himself back to his feet. Unfortunately, the world pushed back.

*****

Joe was lying back against his stack of mailbags and soft luggage when he heard a horse ride in. He opened his eyes, at first confused and then disturbed to find himself back where he’d started. It also bothered him to find the sun much brighter than it should be. He hurriedly tried to shut it away again; but it just kept burning fire right through his eyelids.

“Hey there, Joe!” Jebediah Ralston called out. “Where is everybody?”

“James,” Joe said in a voice that somehow seemed too distant to be his own. “He wandered off.”

“Oh, hell,” Jeb complained as he moved closer. “That’s kids for you. You gotta watch them ever’ second. Always gettin’ into things.”

“It’s Gainsby’s fault.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me none. No, sir.”

“Did you bring that horse doctor of yours?”

“Well, no.” Jeb hesitated. “Gordo weren’t there. I’d a been back quicker, but I was waiting to see what the company might do about all this. Turns out they’re sending a stage up from Carson City to collect these folks. I asked to see if they could put a doctor on it. Should be here before nightfall.”

It didn’t matter, Joe realized. No doctor was going to be able to get him back on his feet quick enough. “You’ve got to help them find James. Gainsby’s worthless, and Burke…he’s too focused on the other children. That boy could be anywhere by now.”

“How long he been gone?”

Joe shook his head slowly. It was just once to each side, but enough to wake up that blacksmith. “Don’t know. Sometime last night.”

Jeb whistled. “Well,” he said then, “he’s just a small one, right? How far could he go? I’ll find him for you.”

Joe wished he could feel as confident as Jebediah Ralston.

“Hoss,” he whispered hopelessly after he heard Ralston moving away. Hoss would be able to find James. If Hoss were there, they’d have nothing to worry about.

And Adam.

And Pa.

But none of them were there, were they? Joe had gone off on his own. He had allowed himself to get pulled into another family’s misfortune, and was likely to blame for the accident that had left them all stranded. The misfortune had been Gainsby’s fault. But the accident might well have been Joe’s. And James would never have had the chance to wander off if it hadn’t been for the accident.

“I’m sorry,” he said to whatever spirits might be listening in the warm desert breeze.

*****

When Ben arrived at the Hansen’s just outside of town, the place seemed empty. There were no animals about and the cottage itself had a coldness to it that suggested long abandonment, although it had been little more than twenty-four hours since the children had been sent away.

“Mrs. Hansen?” Ben called out.

Receiving no answer, he stepped to the front porch and knocked on the door. “Mrs. Hansen?”

Still getting no reply, Ben tested the door. It was open.

“Mrs. Hansen?” He stepped into a darkened house. Every curtain and every shade had been drawn, blocking out the sun. “Hello? Mrs. Hansen? It’s Ben Cartwright.”

In the kitchen, he found the stove cold.

“Mrs. Hansen?”

Reaching a rear door, Ben stepped outside to the back of the cottage. It was there that he found the woman. She was sitting on the ground beside a tiny flower garden, leaning against a tree where a child’s swing swayed in a soft breeze.

“Mrs. Hansen?”

She turned her head lazily toward him without lifting it from the trunk of the tree. “Luther?” Her hair was in disarray, pulled and tangled by the bark that held some of it even now, and teased by the same breeze that played with the swing.

“It’s Ben Cartwright. I’ve come with news about…about the stagecoach.”

“Cartwright?” Her eyes opened wider, but still seemed to lack focus. “Mr. Cartwright,” she repeated then, as though the repetition would help her to remember the name. “I’m sorry. I’m just…so tired.”

“How long have you…have you been out here?”

She looked toward the barn. “Someone came for the horses. Yesterday. Yes. Yesterday afternoon.”

“You’ve been out here since yesterday afternoon?”

Her attention moved to the garden, and then she smiled. “This has always been my favorite part of the house. These flowers, they were the only things that always…always came back. And oh, how Mary loved this swing.”

Ben moved closer until he could kneel beside her. “Mrs. Hansen?” he said, gently touching her shoulder. “Why don’t you come inside with me now?”

The smile faded as she rolled her head slowly back and forth, heedless of the pull of the bark on her fine, auburn hair. “No. This is where I want to be. Just leave me right here, let me rest right here. Always.”

“Mrs. Hansen, you need to come inside.”

“Please.” A tear spilled down her cheek, cutting a trail through a fine layer of sand. “No. There’s nothing left in there.”

“Let me help you.”

“It’s too late. I’m too tired.”

“Then come inside and get some rest.”

“Rest. I’ve waited so long. So long. It…it just never got any better.”

“It will get better, if you let it.”

“No. No it won’t. For fifteen years I told myself that very thing. It will get better. It never did.”

“There’s always reason for hope.”

“I used to believe that.”

“What about your children? Surely they give you hope?”

She listlessly swiped at her tears, her hand quivering like the leaves in the tree above her. “Any hope belongs to them. I only hope…they can forget me, forget this place. They deserve…so much more.”

“They deserve their mother’s love.”

“They don’t deserve their mother’s curse.”

“You’re not cursed.”

“The past fifteen years have proved that I am.”

“When bad things happen, it doesn’t mean someone is cursed. It just means you need a little help. Let me help you.”

“Don’t you understand? It’s just too late. I’m tired, Mr. Cartwright. I’m so very, very tired.”

“Everyone gets tired now and then. It’s no reason to give up.”

“Of course. You can say that. You need to say that. Even I…I used to say that. When Luther died, that was the worst…the worst thing of all. Still, somehow I knew I had to keep hoping. It was no reason to give up. I had to…to keep trying. For the sake of the children if not for myself. But….” She started to sob. “How can you? How much can you give to your children when there’s nothing left inside of you? No hope, no…no hope at all.”

Ben gently squeezed her shoulder.

“When that man came,” she went on, “to collect on Luther’s business dealings, that just…it ended for me. It ended it all. It was the last miserable thing I could let touch those…those beautiful babies of mine. I had to send them away. Don’t you see? I just had to.”

“No,” Ben said. “You didn’t have to. What you needed to do was ask for help. Now please, let me help you. You need those children as much as they need you. Why don’t I take you to them?”

When she gazed up at him, Ben saw a glimmer of hope in her eyes. “But it’s too late.”

“Come inside. Let’s get some food into you. And then we can talk about whether your children belong with you here, or you belong with your children in San Francisco.”

She stared back at him, seeming lost.

“Come.” He rose, guiding her gently by the elbow to ensure she would rise with him.

Minutes later, he stoked up her stove, his concerns about Joe certainly not abandoned, but set aside, because they could be, because Adam was on his way, and right now Mrs. Hansen needed Ben too much to allow him to turn away.

*****

Adam was nearing Peter’s Station when he glimpsed movement on the hill ahead. He could almost believe the rocks themselves had shifted. Maybe the wind had stirred up a tiny whirlwind of sand.

No. The air was too still.

Slowing to a canter, Adam studied the hill. After a moment, he started to make out the image of an animal — a mountain lion. It was crouched low and advancing toward something below. Tonight’s dinner, probably. Adam should just keep to the road and leave it be. Instead, he was drawn on by a bothersome sense of alarm. He kept edging forward, following the creature’s line of sight until he spotted a dark figure amongst the rocks. Closer still, and Adam began to realize the figure was not an animal. Worse, it was a child.

“Hyah!” Kicking his horse into a full gallop, Adam shouted and whistled, waving his hat and hoping to scare the beast away — or at least let it know this prey would not be the easy catch it had anticipated.

Clearly startled, the animal dropped to its hind quarters. It raised a paw to claw at the air, and opened its mouth wide, obviously voicing complaints Adam couldn’t hear over his own ruckus. Yet as Adam advanced, the creature’s defiance seemed to falter. It took a few steps backward, its head sinking low.

It could be a ploy. Adam knew he hadn’t won yet. Refusing to drop his guard, he neither slowed nor quieted.

Angered again, perhaps by Adam’s own defiance, the mountain lion started a slow run in his direction.

Good. At least it had lost its focus on the child.

Adam dropped his hat and reached for his sidearm; but before he could take aim, the animal pulled back and dashed toward the distant hills.

It might still be a ploy, but Adam doubted it. The animal would have to be starving to keep waging an attack on prey that fought back. Still, Adam kept his eyes on it as he approached the huddled figure. It wasn’t until the creature disappeared into the distance that he jumped from his horse and hurried toward the child. “It’s alright,” he said to announce his approach. “It’s gone.”

The boy was curled up into a small ball with his arms over his head. Adam could only imagine he had been trying to hide, like Joe used to do when he’d been that age, pulling the bed covers over his head so the monsters in his nightmares couldn’t see him.

“You’re safe now.” Adam gently touched the child’s shoulder.

Slowly, the boy raised his head. “Are you sure it’s gone?”

“Yes. I’m sure.” Adam smiled. “What’s your name?”

The boy sniffed. “James.”

“Well, hello James. I’m Adam.”

“Adam?”

“That’s right.”

“Adam Cartwright?”

Adam cocked his head, curious. “Yes.”

“You’re Mr. Cartwright’s brother.”

“You mean Joe?”

The boy nodded.

Adam chuckled. “Yes, I’m Joe’s brother. And I’d guess your last name must be Hansen.”

The boy nodded again.

“Well, James Hansen, what are you doing way back here? I didn’t expect to run into you for a few miles yet.”

“You were looking for me?”

Adam nodded. “I was looking for all of you, including my brother.”

The boy pointed west. “They’re back that-a-way.”

“How far back?”

He shrugged. “Pretty far.”

“Then what are you doing here by yourself?”

The boy pulled his shoulders back and tried to sit up straight. “I’m going home.”

“Home? You mean back to Virginia City?”

“That’s right. I’m going home.”

“All by yourself?”

“I can do it. All I have to do is follow the road.”

“Of course you can. But wouldn’t you rather be with your brothers and sister?”

The boy shrugged and looked to the ground. “Yes. But I want to be with momma, too. I don’t like it out here. I want to go home.”

When James started whimpering, Adam tucked his finger under the boy’s chin. “Why don’t we go back to see your brothers and sister first? How’s that sound?”

“But I don’t want to go back there. I want to go home!”

“Don’t you think they’d like to know where you are? To know you’re safe?”

James shrugged.

“My guess is they’re pretty worried about you by now. So why don’t we go and let them know you’re alright?” Adam rose and held out his hand, silently inviting the boy to take it.

James stared up at him, sniffling. “Will you take me home, then?”

Adam knew he couldn’t make a promise like that. Still, there was something he could do. “How would you like to send a message to your mother?”

“A message?”

“That’s right. There’s a way station just up ahead. You would have passed it a little while ago to get out here.”

James gazed up the road and nodded.

“Well, they have a telegraph machine. We can use that to tell your mother you miss her, and you want to go home.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. We’ll send the message, and then we’ll go see your brothers and sister while we wait for a reply.”

Finally, the boy raised his hand, grasping for Adam’s.

*****

Adam met up with Jed Ralston shortly after leaving Peter’s Station.

“Hey there, Adam!” the driver called over to him. “I was lookin’ for a stray. Looks like you found ‘im for me.”

“Sure did.” Adam smiled. “I understand you have a stray of mine.”

Jed nodded. “Little Joe.”

James Hansen swiveled himself around on the saddle to look up at Adam. “Why do you call him ‘little’?”

“I suppose it’s because he was little when we named him.”

“He ain’t little now.”

Adam’s smile widened as he imagined Joe standing alongside Hoss, but he simply said, “Names have a way of sticking with people.”

“Boy,” Jed said when they caught up with him, “that older brother of yours like to chew your head off when you get back there. What were you thinkin,’ wanderin’ off like that?”

His lower lip curling out into a pout, James silently moved his eyes to the ground.

“He’s just a little homesick,” Adam said in his behalf.

Jed turned to Adam. “How’d your brother get his self involved with those young’uns anyway?”

“Let’s just say his heart thinks more than his head sometimes.”

Jed laughed. “Well, I got to hand it him. He was doin’ a fair job of it up ’til the wreck.”

The wreck. That one word completely refocused Adam’s thoughts. “What exactly happened?”

“We hit us a couple of mean ruts, but I don’t think that’s what done it. Way the kids tell it, that Gainsby fellow started a fight with Little Joe over a cigar.”

“He’s a bad man, Mr. Adam,” James said then. “His cigar was makin’ Mary sick. Me, too. But he wouldn’t put it out. Then he started wrastling with Mr. Cartwright over it. And then we hit a bump that shot me clean up to the ceiling. And then we started fallin’ all on top of each other.”

“Sound like you had quite a bit of excitement,” Adam said.

“Mary was crying, but not me,” James announced proudly.

“I’m sure you weren’t.” Adam looked to Jed. “How does Joe tell it?”

“Can’t say as I’ve got around to askin’ him, yet. But that Gainsby fellow, he says Joe grabbed his cigar and then threw him out of his seat, slammin’ him up against the side of the coach, and that’s what knocked it over.”

“Nuh-uh,” James chipped in. “That’s what the bad man did to Joe. I mean Mr. Cartwright.”

Jed nodded. “Seems more like. It was Joe ended up underneath all of ’em, not Gainsby. Joe took the brunt of it; that’s for sure.”

“How bad?”

“Nothin’s busted as I can tell. But he’s hurtin.’ His head’s the worst of it. Can’t stand for too long on account of it.”

“So much for going to San Francisco.”

“He’s a mule that brother of yours,” Jed went on. “And about as protective of these young’uns as a mother bear. He tried to go after this one afore I got back from the station. I hear he didn’t get too far. Then he made me promise I’d find ‘im.”

“Well, if I know Joe,” Adam gazed into the distance, as though he could see across the remaining miles to where his brother was waiting. “He’s going to keep trying.” Adam turned his attention back to Jed. “We sent a wire to Virginia City. I wonder if you’d mind waiting for a reply while I get James back to his family?”

“Don’t mind at all, Adam.” He tipped his hat.

Adam nudged his horse forward, and then held tight to James in preparation for as fast a ride as he dared.

*****

Mrs. Hansen’s eyes were beginning to gain a small spark of hope. The meal and the friendship Ben extended seemed to be pulling her slowly back to life. Yet it was clear she would have a long road ahead, one she would need help traveling.

When Sheriff Coffee arrived, Ben met him outside. If Roy had brought with him any more bad news, Ben wanted to shield Mrs. Hansen from as much of it as possible, at least for a short while.

“How is she, Ben?”

Ben gazed toward the house and slowly shook his head. “Not well. But with a little help, I’m sure she’ll be alright.” He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. A moment later he asked, “Did you hear from Adam?”

“Sure did.” The sheriff pulled a slip of paper from his pocket, handing it to Ben. “It doesn’t say much, but should set your mind a bit more at ease.”

Ben read the message several times before pulling his eyes from the cryptic words.

ARRIVED PETERS STATION. FOUND STRAY. JAMES HANSEN. HOMESICK. DOC FROM CARSON COMING FOR JOE. JEB SAYS NOTHING BROKEN.

Despite Roy’s expectations, the message did not set Ben’s mind at ease. He still had no idea as to the type or extent of Joe’s injuries. And if the stage line was sending a doctor, that fact in itself gave Ben reason to worry.

“What do you suppose all that is about a stray?” Roy asked.

“What?” Distracted by his concerns for Joe, it took a moment before Ben recognized Roy’s question. “Oh. Yes. A stray child, I presume. Maybe Mrs. Hansen’s son James strayed from the group to try to make his own way home.”

“Maybe so,” Roy nodded. “You okay, Ben?”

Ben glared back at the sheriff. “Don’t you worry about me.”

He let his eyes move toward the house once more, and then made a hasty yet necessary decision. “Would you do me a favor, Roy?” he asked. “Send another message to Peter’s Station when you get back to Virginia City.”

“Now don’t you go thinkin’ about adding ‘messenger’ to my list of duties during the next town meeting!”

“You’re no more a messenger than I am a nursemaid!” Ben smiled for a brief moment. Mrs. Hansen needed more help than he could give — a different kind of help than he could give. “Just tell them to send the children back on the next stage in.”

“Did Mrs. Hansen say that’s what she wanted? She had her reasons to…”

“Right now, Roy,” Ben interrupted, “it’s what they all need. To be home, right here, together.”

Roy hesitated, studying Ben as though to assess whether his old friend was in his right mind.

Ben used that moment to add one more request. “And see if Mrs. Johnson might be willing to come out here to stay with them for a few days.” The widow Johnson could help this poor woman in ways Ben himself had no hope to understand.

*****

Adam spotted the makeshift camp about thirty yards into the desert, in the lee of a group of boulders. As he approached, he made note of the small piles of mail bags and luggage that were arranged almost like furniture in a sitting room, gathered around the remains of a campfire. But it was one particular pile that held his attention, the one that provided support for the still form of Little Joe. It disturbed him to see that Joe did not stir. His youngest brother had always been alert on the trail, as quick to register the sound of an approaching rider as he was to spot a wayward calf. So why wasn’t he responding now? Surely he could hear there was a rider coming.

Dismounting, Adam eased James to the ground, his gaze not straying far from Joe until he heard a distant, shouted greeting. “Hey, Adam!”

He turned and waved to Ed Burke, who was approaching at a slow jog with three small children running along behind him, each calling out to James.

“Adam?” Joe’s voice was barely audible amidst the children’s high-pitched cries.

“Joe.” Adam moved closer to his brother and then knelt beside him. “I guess that stage bounced you around pretty good.”

Joe kept his eyes closed. “What are you doing here?”

“James!” the young girl shrieked yet again.

Adam glanced up to watch the loud reunion before returning his attention to his brother. “I thought you might need a little help.”

“You found James,” Joe said instead of answering.

“We found each other. He’d gone quite a distance. Might even have made it all the way back to Virginia City if both I and a determined mountain lion would have let him.”

Joe’s eyes shot open, and then narrowed to a squint, his brows knitted in worry. “M-mountain lion?”

As Adam noticed Joe’s focus moving past his shoulder, he felt a presence scurry up behind him. A quick glance downward gave him a glimpse of James’s feet.

“You should have seen it, Mr. Cartwright!” James said excitedly at Adam’s back. “Mr. Adam screamed at it and it ran away.”

“Mr. Adam?” Joe closed his eyes once more.

“Mr. Cartwright?” Adam grinned.

“I … can’t get them to stop calling me that. I…I never thought of trying Mr. Joe.”

“James!” Martin’s voice shouted nearby. “Ain’t you gonna tell me where you’ve been? We were lookin’ all over for you!”

Burke and the other children started to move closer — too close, judging by the way Joe’s brows creased. It was a pretty good indication the noise was making an already significant headache that much worse. Rising, Adam gestured toward Burke, who nodded in understanding, and then the two of them began to corral the children, moving them as far from Joe as they could.

“Isn’t there someone missing?” Adam asked after the children were settled.

“Gainsby,” Burke acknowledged. “Last I saw, he was headed southward.”

“South?”

Burke shrugged. “It didn’t much matter to me. I knew he wouldn’t be any help.”

“South,” Adam repeated. He turned, scanning the area until he spotted what appeared to be a boot sticking out from behind a rock. “I think I’d like to be the one to give Mr. Gainsby the good news about James’s safe return.”

*****

Propping one foot on a rock and resting his elbow on his knee, Adam gazed down at Mr. Gainsby. He was lying on the ground with his hat covering his eyes and his fingers laced together across his chest.

Adam cleared his throat.

Jumping at the sound, the man fumbled to push his hat from his eyes. As he slowly came to awareness, he looked up, his gaze first falling to Adam’s feet, and then rising to his legs. He stared briefly at the gun on Adam’s hip before finally reaching Adam’s face. His eyes grew wider every inch of the way.

“I…I don’t have any money!” he stammered at last. “Not me. I don’t have anything at all!”

Adam stared at him.

“B-but back by the stage, there’s the money box. It’s still full.”

Adam said nothing.

“And I’m sure you’ll find something of value among the other passengers. From what I know, I’m the only one who lost anything in…in that wreck.”

Adam continued studying the man, standing motionless.

“Th-then there’s that Cartwright fellow. I understand his family is worth quite a bit. Even if…if he doesn’t have any money on him, I-I’m sure you could collect a ransom.”

Adam’s glare hardened.

The man’s eyes darted across Adam’s unmoving frame. He was actually beginning to shake. “I swear to you!” he shouted. “I have no money! No money at all!”

Briefly glancing away, Adam took a breath and let it out slowly. “But you expect those children might?”

“I wouldn’t put it past them. They’re a bunch of lying brats, they are.”

“As I understand it, you took everything they had back in Virginia City.”

The man’s face grew ashen. His brows drew downward in something like consternation. “H-have you been f-following me?”

Adam kept his gaze on the man, saying nothing at all.

“I took what was owed to me! But it’s gone. Every last dollar burned up in that wreck. I swear to it!”

Adam continued staring.

“What kind of bandit are you, anyways?”

“What kind of man are you?”

“Wh-what?”

“I’ll tell you what kind of man you are. You’re the kind who takes what he’s owed from a dead man for the sake of his own benefit without giving any thought to what that might do to his debtor’s widow or children.”

“Who are you?”

“You’re also the kind of man who would protect himself from bandits by deflecting their interest away from him, knowingly endangering children and a wounded man.”

“I ask you again, sir. Who are you?”

Adam dropped his foot from the rock and stood to his full height. “Adam Cartwright.”

The man’s eyes widened once more. His face went from ashen to red as he clumsily rose to his feet. “Why, how dare you come up here and pretend to be a bandit!”

“I did nothing of the kind. I came here to inform you that you could stop looking for that missing child. But apparently you’d already stopped — my guess would be you stopped before you even started.”

“Those brats are not my responsibility. They are the responsibility of the stage line –which I might add is also directly responsible for my financial loss.”

“Is that so?”

“It is indeed. They were duty bound to protect my valuables.”

“I understand they did protect the treasure-box.”

“They did not protect my money.”

“Which you were carrying without the driver’s awareness.”

“That is not the point.”

“No doubt.” Adam paused. “So your money was burned in the fire?”

“It was.”

“Do you have any idea what might have caused that fire?”

“Of course not. How could I know what caused it?”

“You were smoking a cigar. Is that right?”

“So what?”

“So…a lit cigar tossed on top of some flammable goods could certainly start a fire.”

“Well then, the fire was entirely your brother’s fault! I shall see to it both he and the stage line are held accountable!”

“I don’t think you want to do that.”

“And why not?”

“You do know they post signs at every way station advising passengers to refrain from smoking cigars when ladies are present.”

“There were no ladies on that stage.”

“What about Mary?”

“Why, she’s just a child.”

“Do you really think a judge or jury is going to see the distinction?”

The man’s face grew red once more.

“As to the fire, you do know the stage line has suffered a financial loss as well, don’t you? After all, they’ll need to replace that coach. I’m sure a new stagecoach doesn’t come cheap. I also hear they have some of the best lawyers in the country representing them. Any claim you file would probably be met with a counterclaim.”

“One way or another,” the man insisted, “I will be recompensed.”

“Is that a threat?”

“Absolutely not. It is a promise.”

“Okay then. Here’s a promise for you.” Adam took a step closer. “I promise, one way or another, my brother will be recompensed for his injuries; and the Hansens will be recompensed for their undue hardship.” He shrugged. “As to the stage line, I can pretty much guarantee they will also be recompensed.”

Gainsby met his glare with one of significantly less resolve. And then, scoffing, he started to walk away.

“I’d stop right where you are if I were you,” Adam called after him.

Though the man did stop, he turned an arrogant glare toward Adam. “Why should I?”

“You might be able to live with your greed, but rattlesnake venom is something else entirely.”

Slowly, his face grayer than before, Gainsby turned his head in the direction Adam indicate until his gaze landed on the coiled snake in his path. “Do something! Shoot it!”

“Why should I? It’s not bothering me.”

“My life is in danger! You have to…”

“I don’t have to do anything. You are not my responsibility.”

“How dare you!”

“How dare I?” Adam raised his voice for the first time since meeting this cold, gray man. “How dare you endanger my brother and those children because of your selfish need to smoke a cigar? How dare you suggest they become the target of bandits just so you could be spared?”

The snake rattled its tail.

“Shoot it, damn you!”

Adam stared at Gainsby, watching the man’s eyes dance left to right in terror. Any minute now, he would start running in panic and the snake, startled, would strike. Would that really be so bad?

Disgusted, Adam made a show of slowly drawing his gun. “I’ll take care of it for one reason, and one reason only.” He took aim. “To prove I’m not the kind of man you are!” He fired the shot and then walked away, leaving Gainsby alone and shaking in a desert, more greedy and unforgiving than even that gray man could ever be.

*****

At the sound of gunfire, Joe jumped. It was just a single shot, but enough to startle him, causing sore muscles to seize as though he had been caught directly in the explosion. Pain erupted all through him, making him wonder if there was any part of his body that hadn’t been bruised.

My fingers, he decided. My fingers don’t hurt.

He’d been lying still for too long. While his lack of movement eased both his headache and nausea, it had the reverse effect on strained muscles, making them stiffer and tighter with each passing hour. He had to try getting up again. He had to move.

Slowly, he pushed himself up to a sitting position, his arms and back burning with the effort. The ground beneath him took on the feel of a ship, the sand undulating like rolling waves. Though he was curious to learn who was out there shooting a gun, and, more importantly, why, he knew it wouldn’t matter anyway. There was nothing he could do except wait for the desert seas to calm. Resigned to that truth, he laid his forehead upon arms folded atop his upraised knees.

Some moments later, while the seas remained rough, Joe sensed someone approaching. Friend or foe, his reaction would be the same. He held his position, making no effort to look up.

“Need a hand?” Adam’s voice called down to him.

Joe took a deep breath, relieved to hear his brother’s steady voice. “I don’t suppose you could dock this ship on solid ground?” He could feel his brother’s eyes on him, surely assessing just how badly he was hurt.

“Sorry Joe.” Adam sounded disappointed. “But I can try to help you get your sea legs.” A moment later, Joe felt his brother’s arm wrapping around his back. “Ready?”

“About as ready as I can be.” Lifting his head, Joe squinted against the bright glare of the sun. Then he took another deep breath, snaked his own arm around Adam’s neck and steeled himself for the agony to follow. Even so, he wasn’t prepared for the pain that knifed through his arm and back as Adam rose, pulling Joe cautiously along with him.

“Stop!” Joe cried out in a rasp before Adam had straightened. “That’s far enough!” The world tilted and spun around him. He was retching before he even felt queasy.

Adam lowered him back to the ground. “Well, that answers that.”

“What?” Joe asked in a quivering whisper as he lay back against his crude pillows.

“You won’t be able to ride anytime soon, but I need to get you back to the way station.”

“I think I’d rather camp out here for a few more days.”

“You’ll be losing those cushions of yours within the next few hours. And the nighttime chill isn’t going to do you any favors.”

Joe said nothing. What could he say? He knew Adam was right. Holding his eyes tightly closed, he could sense his brother rising.

“Rest up,” Adam said. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

“I’ll wait right here.”

He heard Adam’s soft chuckle. “You do that.”

“Hey, Adam? What was that shooting I heard?”

“Snake.”

“So you met Gainsby.” Joe grinned.

“Yeah.” Adam sighed loudly. “Now I can see why he got under your skin the way he did. You know, I have to admit as foolish and impulsive as you were to come out here….” He hesitated. “I’m not so sure I wouldn’t have done exactly the same thing.”

Joe eased one eye open, just a crack. “You—you’re serious?”

“I’m serious.”

Closing his eye again, Joe called out once more. “Hey, Adam?”

“Yeah, Joe?”

“Thank you.”

*****

Some time later, when Joe made another effort to open his eyes, he found Martin sitting on the ground beside him. The boy was using a stick to draw circles in the sand.

“Hey, Martin,” Joe greeted. “How long have you been there?”

“I dunno.”

Stilling his hand, Martin looked up at Joe. His gaze intense, he seemed on the verge of voicing some important question. But apparently he couldn’t figure out how to ask it, because he said nothing further. Instead, he returned his attention to his drawing.

Joe held silent, letting the boy have a few moments to sift through his thoughts using that stick in the sand.

Finally, still focused on the circles, Martin said, “Mr. Cartwright?”

“How about you start calling me Mr. Joe?” He looked toward the remnants of the stage where Adam was talking with Ed Burke. “Like you do with my brother?”

Martin stopped drawing again. His eyes glanced toward Joe and then back to the circles. And then, “Mr. Joe?” he said in a quiet voice.

“What’s on your mind?”

“They say another stage is coming to get us and Mr. Gainsby.”

The name sent a stab of pain across Joe’s shoulders. “That’s right,” he answered softly.

“Mr. Adam says you can’t come with us.”

“I’m afraid that’s right, too, Martin. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t like Mr. Gainsby.”

“No one could blame you for that.”

“I don’t want to go with him.”

Joe didn’t want that either. But the decision was not his to make. How could he say that to Martin? What words could he possibly offer that might ease the mind of a child being sent so far from his mother, his home?

“I’m sorry.” Joe’s voice was soft, his tone, sincere.

“Mr. Adam said he came here because you were hurt, and he’s your brother.”

Joe smiled. “He takes care of me, just like you take care of James.”

Martin seemed to think about that for a moment. “That’s what Mr. Adam said. But I say it’s more than that. It’s not just because you’re brothers.”

“It…it’s not?”

“It’s because you’re family. Like my uncle in San Francisco is family, and Momma said he’d take care of us, because he’s family.”

Joe’s smile felt more genuine as he considered Martin’s words. “That’s what families do. They take care of each other.”

“What you said before,” Martin went on, “about wanting me to pretend you’re family, when you said I should call you Uncle Joe. Did you mean it?”

“Of course I meant it.”

“Then if we start calling you Uncle Joe, will you take care of us, too?”

“I’ll take care of you any way I can, Martin. You should know that by now. Even if you don’t call me Uncle Joe.”

“You’d take care of us, just like my uncle in San Francisco would?”

The question concerned Joe. “Martin, I imagine your real uncle would take care of you just like he would his own children. I can’t do all the same things he could, but I will do whatever I can.”

“As long as we still have our momma, then we don’t really need for my real uncle to take care of us like his own children.”

“I imagine your mother just needs a little help for a while,” Joe offered.

“Maybe you and Mr. Adam could help her. Then maybe we wouldn’t need to go to San Francisco at all. Maybe we could go back home instead. To Virginia City. With you.”

“Martin, that ….” Joe glanced over at Adam, silently willing him to come closer, to help Joe explain why they couldn’t impulsively send the children home. “We can’t just …. Your mother has to make a decision like that.”

“Maybe she will. Maybe she already has.”

“Martin, you can’t…”

“Mr. Adam sent a telegraph!” Martin insisted. “He told Momma James was homesick. When she hears that, I just know she’ll tell us to come home. I just know it. All we have to do is go back to that station and wait to hear what she says.” The boy’s gaze was somehow both defiant and pleading.

Again, Joe felt lost. While he struggled for words, he started to push himself upright, instinctively wanting to draw closer to the boy without giving any thought to why he’d been laying still for so long. By the time he realized what he was doing, he also realized his head was no longer spinning as badly as it had been. He was able to sit without the whole world tilting around him. Yet something else disturbed him. The ground felt strange. He lifted his hand, pressing his fingers against his palm and then rubbing his fingertips over the grains of sand clinging to his skin. He saw the grit. He knew it was there, but he couldn’t feel it. He couldn’t feel it at all.

“Mr. Joe?” Martin called to him, sounding concerned.

“It’s okay,” Joe answered absently, giving no thought to what he meant. He was growing numb from all this lying around; that’s all it was. He needed more than ever to get up and move.

“Hey, Martin? Will you do me a favor? Would you ask Adam to come over here?”

Without answering, the boy turned and ran toward Adam and Mr. Burke. The circles he’d drawn were obliterated with his first two steps.

*****

After some coaxing from Joe, Adam agreed to help him stand once more. The only problem was Joe couldn’t. His feet felt too light, or his legs too heavy. And, like with his fingers, he realized there was an odd numbness in his toes, a sense almost as though they weren’t there.

Now it was Adam’s turn to do some coaxing. He and Burke had fashioned a travois to carry Joe back to Peter’s Station. As much as Joe wanted to argue against it, he couldn’t. He couldn’t walk, and while riding might be possible, mounting up represented only one challenge. Staying mounted, holding the reins with numb fingers and guiding the horse with uncooperative leg muscles would make the ride all but impossible. It would require too much of Adam’s help and attention, both of which would need to be focused instead on the four children with them. Burke had to stay with the valuables, and Gainsby had opted to stay with him to wait for the new stage.

Joe had no choice but to endure the journey on his back, dragged along the well-groomed yet still bumpy road. At first every one of those bumps sent stabs of pain across his shoulders and into his neck, rekindling the throbbing in his head. Yet as time passed it bothered him less and less. He was even able to drift off to sleep.

“Joe?” Adam’s voice stirred him out of oblivion. “Come on, Joe. Show me you can hear me.”

He raised his eyebrows. His eyelids required more effort. Someone blew out a rush of air, exhaling loudly.

“That’s it, little brother. The doc’s here. He wants to see your back.”

Joe felt a slight pressure against his arm. He sensed himself turning — or the world was turning around him. Only then did he realize the world around him had changed. The travois was no longer beneath him. Instead, he was on a small cot.

Finally opening his eyes, Joe found himself lying on his side and facing the grizzled features of Slim Morgan, the old man who ran Peter’s Station.

“Well, howdy, Little Joe!” Slim’s wide smile was lost in his thick, white mustache but evident in the deep creases around his eyes. “I wasn’t thinking you was ever gonna wake up! How you could of slept through all that ruckus with those young un’s and two stages comin’ through….” Slim laughed and shook his head.

“Concussion,” another voice said from behind Joe. “That much is certain. What I can’t say yet is whether there are any fractures in your neck or spine.”

Nothing’s broken, Joe remembered someone else saying. Jeb Ralston. And Adam. Adam had said that, too. But if this doctor figured he had to consider the possibility, Joe wasn’t going to argue with him. Instead he focused on the man’s strange voice. It sounded about as thick as Slim’s mustache, full of whiskey and cigars. Joe was thinking he’d have to share that comparison with Adam when something sharp stung him between the shoulders. He couldn’t help but cry out.

“Sorry, young fella! These are some pretty spectacular bruises you have here.”

“Spectacular?” Adam’s calm yet clearly irritated tone buoyed Joe through the wave.

“Well,” the doctor went on, “call it what you like. There’s too much swelling to make a positive diagnosis. From the look of these splinters and scrapes, your brother here must’ve taken about as much of a beating as that stage did.”

The thick-voiced doctor laughed softly. Maybe he was trying to be kind, to help both Joe and Adam relax. If so, he was not being successful as far as Joe was concerned. It sounded like the doctor was drunk.

Still gasping from the shock of whatever the doctor had touched, Joe felt himself being rolled once more to his back. He tried to fight it, to avoid adding to the pain, but the hands pulling at him were too insistent — or he was too weak.

“Easy now,” The doctor cautioned as Joe’s gaze shifted to the ceiling and then to the two men standing beside him: Adam and a stranger with pewter hair and a ruddy nose.

He is drunk, Joe realized. He looked to Adam, wondering why his brother seemed so unconcerned about letting a drunk doctor treat him. Adam responded with a shrug and the smallest hint of a smile, as though to say “sorry, Joe; he’s all we’ve got.”

“I know that must hurt some,” the doctor said then with an unexpected tenderness that sounded more like honey than whiskey and was somehow reflected in his gray-blue eyes.

Despite the ruddy nose and the thick voice, something in those eyes filled Joe with an odd sense of trust. Had Adam seen that, too? Was it enough?

“You’ll be better lying on your stomach when we finish up here,” the doctor went on. “But if you can bear with me for a short while, I’d like to do a few tests. Your brother here told me you were experiencing some numbness,” the doctor said as he pulled a blanket off of Joe’s feet.

“That’s right,” Joe answered softly, his mind still struggling to understand how he had come to be here, on this cot. How had they managed to take off his boots and undress him without Joe being the slightest bit aware?

The doctor pressed something against Joe’s right foot. “Tell me what you feel now.”

“A little pressure, I guess,” Joe answered absently.

The doctor moved to Joe’s left foot. “And now?”

Joe waited.

“Joe?” Adam asked.

“What?”

“The doctor asked you what you feel.”

“I will as soon as he does something.” Joe watched Adam’s gaze move toward the doctor’s. “What’s wrong?”

“No need to be alarmed,” the doctor answered, patting Joe’s leg lightly. “Could be just the swelling. All we did just now is confirm your feet are too numb to sense the point of a needle. Now let’s test the muscles, shall we? Can you lift your right knee toward my hand?”

Joe did as he was told.

“Very good. Now the left?”

Once again, Joe obliged, although it took more effort than it should. His leg didn’t feel heavy, exactly. It just felt…numb.

“Fine, fine,” the doctor said. “That’s just fine. Now let’s see what we can do about getting rid of those splinters.”

As the doctor and Adam repositioned Joe to lie on his stomach, he found himself focusing on the words he hadn’t wanted to consider a moment ago. What I can’t say yet is whether there are any fractures in your neck or spine.

It’s just the swelling, he told himself.

When the doctor began digging for splinters, Joe’s entire back started to burn. “H—Hey, Adam,” he called out, trying to force his thoughts elsewhere. “S—Slim said two stages came through?”

“That’s right. The one from Carson City with the doc, here, and…”

“You didn’t…you didn’t let the children go, did you?”

“As a matter of fact, I did.”

“How could you? Not with that…” Joe started to push himself upward. The movement went counter to the doc’s efforts, causing something sharp to jab into his back. He felt another hand on his shoulder, the calming touch of his brother as Adam gently pushed him down.

“Easy, Joe. It’s alright. They’re on their way to Virginia City. They’re going home.”

*****

When Hoss went with Mrs. Hansen to meet the stage, he was expecting four confused children, not six rambunctious ones. They bounded out making enough ruckus to remind Hoss of a Fourth of July sack race, and their eyes were all lit up like Christmas morning. The sight made Hoss feel good inside in ways he could never have expected.

“You’re Hoss?” the youngest boy asked.

“That’s right.”

“Mr. Joe said you were big, but I never thought you’d be that big!”

“Mr. Joe?” Hoss asked.

“I mean Uncle Joe. That’s what he wants us to call him.”

“He does, does he? Well, I reckon your uncle Joe took real good care of you, if he wanted you to call him that.”

The boy nodded. “Mr. Adam … I mean Uncle Adam did, too.”

“I’m sure he did.”

“Should we call you Uncle Hoss?”

Hoss made a show of pondering the boy’s question. “I reckon you might be obliged to do just that.”

“Obliged?”

“That means it’s something you just have to do.”

“Why?”

“Well, if you call both my brothers uncle, that pretty much guarantees I’d have to be your uncle, too.”

“Why?”

“Because we’re brothers, that’s why.”

“Like Martin and Matthew are my brothers?”

“Just like that.”

“But you’re not the same kind of uncle as Uncle Gunnar.”

“Uncle Gunnar?” Hoss tensed at the memory stirred by the boy’s mention of the name. Hoss’ own Uncle Gunnar had spent many years on the wrong side of the law, and had died after saving Little Joe’s life — after first putting it in danger — at the hands of his own band of commancheros.

The boy nodded. “That’s him, right there.” Young James pointed to the man who had exited the stagecoach behind him.

Hoss hadn’t noticed Mrs. Hansen’s reaction to the stranger before. Now he realized she was clinging to the man, and seemed to be crying on his shoulder.

“Mr. Cartwright?” a woman’s voice pulled Hoss’ attention away from the curious meeting.

“Ma’am?” Hoss glanced beside him to a brown-haired woman in a green dress.

“How do you do?” The woman extended her hand. “I’m Mrs. Andersen. Gunnar’s wife.”

“Uncle Gunnar?” he repeated.

“That’s right. He’s Kari’s brother. Kari Hansen?”

“Mrs. Hansen. Of course. He must be the brother in San Francisco.”

“Yes. That’s right.”

“Adam told me the children were in good hands, but he didn’t say anything about any Uncle Gunnar.”

“There’s not a lot of room for details on a telegram.”

“No, ma’am. I reckon there ain’t.”

“Gunnar and I went down to Sacramento to meet our nephews and niece. It’s such a long trip for them to take, and all alone like that. We wanted to get to them as soon as we could. Our own children — that’s them over there, Agnes and Paul — why, they were thrilled to have such an adventure. Of course, when we received word about the accident, well, we just couldn’t sit there and wait. We had to go find them, those poor dears.”

“They don’t seem too rattled.”

“Fortunately, no. I am sorry about your brother. That was such a gallant thing for him to do, watching over those little ones the way he did.”

“How was he when you met him, ma’am? It’s hard to tell from what comes over that wire.”

“I…I’m afraid we didn’t meet him.”

“Ma’am?”

“He wasn’t …. Well, he wasn’t conscious when we arrived, I’m sorry to say. Your other brother, Adam said Joe had a concussion. The trip from where the accident occurred back to the way station…I suppose it was hard on him. The doctor had only just arrived as we were leaving, so I really can’t provide any more details.”

Hoss took a deep breath and gazed up the road, as though he could see all the way to Peter’s Station. “Least the doc’s there now.”

“You’re very close, aren’t you?”

Confused, Hoss returned his attention to Mrs. Andersen. “We’re family, ma’am.”

“Yes, of course. But….” Mrs. Anderson looked toward her husband and sister-in-law. “Not all families share what you and your brothers seem to have.”

“I don’t know, ma’am. Gunnar and Mrs. Hansen look to be pretty close.”

“They haven’t seen each other in years, Mr. Cartwright. Many, many years. Gunnar was stunned to receive Kari’s telegram, and even more surprised to learn she was sending her children to us. We knew something had to be terribly wrong. Yes, what you are witnessing now is a long overdue reunion.”

Hoss tried to imagine what it would be like to be so far removed from his own brothers’ lives. He didn’t like how it made him feel.

*****

Adam figured the fever had probably been inevitable. He’d noticed hours earlier that the splinters in Joe’s back were already surrounded by the fiery, red haloes of infection. They would need to be removed, but Adam had not been willing to do it out there in the desert. Joe had needed a doctor, or at the very least clean bandages, and preferably some medicine as well. At the station, Joe had all three. Even so, his temperature had also climbed.

“Fever’s mild and holding steady,” Doc Harding said after Joe settled into a reasonably calm sleep. “I don’t expect it to get any worse. He should be fine in a few days.”

“What about the numbness?”

Harding glanced at him. Without answering, he turned away and reached deep into his black bag, pulling out a flask and taking a quick swig. “That’s a good question,” he said after a loud swallow. “One I don’t have an answer for. It’ll go away or it’ll get worse. Only time will tell.”

Adam pulled his arms across his chest, his eyes locked on the flask. It was a struggle to hold himself back. He wanted to knock the thing from the man’s grip. Yet now that Joe had been treated and was resting in some degree of comfort, there was no point to denying the doctor his vice. Adam watched Harding ease his heavy frame into a chair by the fire before setting his attention where it really mattered: on Joe. He found himself another chair, pulled it beside the cot and sat down to wait. He wasn’t sure what exactly he was waiting for — the feel of Joe’s skin to cool, his uneven and too quick breaths to soften, or his eyes to open and his smile to widen as he jumps out of bed, eager for a ride on Cochise.

Adam grinned despite his concerns. Joe had been thrown from enough wild stallions to make Adam believe his brother’s back had been forged of steel. One stagecoach wreck couldn’t do what a dozen horses failed to accomplish. Joe would be fine in a few days. The swelling would subside, and Joe would be back to the impetuous little brother he had always been — admittedly thanks in large part to the ministrations of a doctor Adam had been hard-pressed to trust.

Doc Harding was certainly not the best doctor Adam had ever encountered. He wasn’t the worst, either. In fact, there were far worse doctors in the west, men Adam wouldn’t depend on to remove a splinter from his finger, let alone the flecks of wood that had been embedded in Joe’s back. While Harding had worked on his brother, Adam had clenched his hands into rock-hard fists yet somehow had managed to speak calmly, talking about the children and the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Andersen, hoping Joe would believe Adam had enough faith in the doctor’s skills to allow his attention to wander.

Surprisingly — fortunately — the doctor proved to have a cautious, meticulous touch. He might even have been a fine surgeon in his younger days — before the drinking, before whatever had driven him to find solace in a bottle.

*****

“Harding?” Ben’s shouting could be heard well beyond Dr. Martin’s office in Virginia City.

Hoss heard it the instant he rounded the corner. The volume alone made him want to turn right back again. When Pa was that angry, the best place to be was wherever he wasn’t. But considering what was going on with Joe and all that Hansen business, he figured the doc might need a little help. Besides, Hoss wanted to tell Pa what Gunnar Andersen had said. However much he wanted to turn back, instead he quickened his pace.

“Why, I wouldn’t let that drunkard near any of my sons,” Ben went on. “Or any of my livestock, for that matter! He’s completely…”

“Ben, please!” Paul Martin cut in. “You have to understand, the stage line sent in the closest, most available doctor on the route. I would have gone, had I been in town when they asked.”

“Then go now! Come with me. We’ll ride out there together.”

“Be reasonable, Ben. Think about what you’re saying. It would take hours to get there, and the same coming back. I can’t leave Virginia City unattended for so long when there’s clearly no critical reason to do so.”

“No critical reason? No critical reason! Little Joe’s neck might be broken!”

“Fractured, Ben. There’s a difference. Regardless, there’s nothing more I could do now that Dr. Harding hasn’t done already. Whether you trust his skills or not, he is absolutely correct to say there is nothing to do now but wait and see.”

“Well….” Ben turned toward the door just as Hoss hurried in; but instead of greeting his middle son, he swiveled back to Paul. “I’ll go myself, then! I am not going to…”

“Pa!” Hoss tried to interrupt.

“…stand idly by and wait to find out…”

“Pa!”

“…whether my youngest son is going to…”

“Pa!”

“WHAT IS IT, HOSS?” Ben shouted louder still.

“Pa, I come to tell you that Mr. Andersen, Mrs. Hansen’s brother? Turns out, he’s a lawyer, Pa. He says he might have found a way to get that money back from Mr. Gainsby — some kind of loophole or somethin’.”

“And why on Earth should that concern me?” Ben continued to holler. “It’s Little Joe I’m worried about!”

“I know, Pa. I am, too. But it’s like the doc said. There’s nothing we can do for him right now. But, you see…. Well, it’s that money that caused this whole mess in the first place. Don’t you think if we can help Mrs. Hansen get that money back…well, don’t you think in a way we’d be helping Joe, too?”

“I can’t….” Ben’s voice started to soften. “I won’t let….” He turned from Hoss to Paul, and then back to Hoss again. His shoulders started to sag. He closed his eyes briefly, and then gazed out the window beside him.

“What is it this Mr. Andersen needs for us to do?” Ben asked quietly.

“He just wants us to help him sort through some details, Pa. If you could just maybe talk with him for a bit?”

Ben took a deep breath before returning his attention to Hoss. “Fine. We’ll talk.”

As he began following Hoss out the door, Ben turned back to Dr. Martin. “But then I am riding to Peter’s Station!” he added as loudly as he could.

*****

As evening settled in, Slim found the doctor gazing deep into the fire while Adam was attempting to tune an old guitar he’d found tucked away in a corner of the station.

“Next stage is comin’ in early,” Slim said.

Harding, lost in the flames, seemed not to have heard him.

“Doc?”

The doctor blinked. He turned toward the station manager. “Huh?”

“I said the next stage. It’ll be comin’ in early. You can take it back to Carson City tomorrow, if you like.”

“Oh. Yes. Thank you.” Harding returned his attention to the fire as Slim walked away shaking his head and muttering indecipherable words under his breath.

“I appreciate your coming out here, Doc,” Adam said then.

Doc Harding gazed his way, seeming confused.

“I’d like to thank you for helping Little Joe the way you did.”

Harding shook his head. “I’m just…just a tool.” He looked back toward the fire.

“A tool?”

“It’s God….” Harding sighed. “He does what he does…makes me…do what I do. It’s out of my hands. Always out of my hands.”

Adam studied him for a long while as the fire crackled through the silence. The man’s eyes reflected the flames as though they were embers trapped behind glass — as though Harding himself was trapped. But behind what?

“You know,” Harding sighed heavily, his chest expanding and then deflating so much he seemed to sink in on himself. “A doctor…he never can pull down his shingle.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Just can’t…can’t stop doctoring.”

“You’ve tried?”

“Can’t.”

“Maybe that’s because you don’t want to stop. Maybe it’s because you care too much to stop.”

The doctor sat silent for a long moment and then turned his head toward Adam. “Caring’s got nothing to do with it.” His gaze was almost pleading.

“To do with what?”

“It’s God who saves them. Or takes them. I’m just a tool. It doesn’t matter what I do. It…doesn’t matter how well I do it. It’s always — always — out of my hands.”

Harding lifted his right hand from the chair arm and began staring at his palm. He curled his fingers and stretched them out, apparently mesmerized by his ability to do so.

“Who was it?” Adam asked.

“What?”

“Someone you couldn’t save.”

The doctor’s lip turned upward into a small, lopsided smile. “Not just one. If it had been just one….” He chuckled. An instant later his smile died, his eyebrows lifted and his gaze grew glassy and hopeless once more. “No. There’s just too many.”

“I was right, wasn’t I? You care too much to stop.”

“I’m a tool. I’ll do what I do until God himself makes me stop. It’s…out of my hands.”

An ember popped, pulling Doc Harding’s eyes back to the flames. Adam watched as those eyes began to fill, the fire glistening in each gathering drop. In those drops, Adam discovered something he’d been hoping to find since he’d learned about the accident: he suddenly had complete faith in Little Joe’s recovery.

*****

Two days.

Ben had to delay his trip to Peter’s Station by two full days to help Mr. Andersen sort through the details surrounding Gainsby’s claim on the Hansen’s money. Still, he grudgingly accepted that those two days were worth every ounce of his own anxiety. He knew far too well that worrying never accomplished anything. Hovering over Joe would do nothing to impact whether Joe’s neck was fractured or merely bruised. Hoss was right. Dr. Martin was right. Everyone was right. There was nothing Ben could do for Joe except to maybe ease his youngest son’s fears — if in fact Joe had fears. Ben probably had more fear in him for Joe than Joe had for himself.

Joe had faced many battles in his young life, and Ben had experienced fear — real, palpable fear — with each and every one of them, or at least with each and every one that Ben had known about. He had no doubt Joe had kept some battles from him, whether to protect Ben from further worrying, or to protect Joe from Ben’s wrath, or perhaps even for the fact that it hadn’t crossed Joe’s mind that his father might need to or deserve to or simply want to know.

Ben had to remind himself Joe was a man now. He was no longer a child in need of his father’s constant, watchful eye. He was a man, yes, but a young man. Joe was young enough to still believe in his own invincibility. That fact alone gave Ben more reason to fear. It was that sense of invincibility that caused Joe to jump into fights that weren’t his — and to rescue people who needed rescuing, people like Mrs. Hansen and her children. Ben wondered if Joe would ever recognize that sometimes his pa needed rescuing from his youngest son’s sense of invincibility.

Yes, Ben was afraid. He was afraid of Doc Harding’s reputation for drinking, though Ben had been encouraged by both Paul Martin and his own son, Hoss, to recognize the man’s reputation as a physician had never been wanting. In fact, Ben had come to realize he was more afraid of what the stagecoach accident had done to Joe’s neck than he was of Doc Harding’s drinking, despite the unsteady hand such drinking could cause. But Ben had to admit in all likelihood Joe was not afraid — or at least not nearly as afraid as his father. Nor was Joe alone. Adam was there. And Adam had been almost as much of a father to Joe as Ben had himself.

Ben needn’t worry about Joe being afraid. It was more for Ben’s own well-being that he wanted to be at Joe’s side. Yet for the past two days, he’d needed to put his own selfishness aside and focus on the well-being of someone else, someone he’d barely known a week ago, but who had suddenly — through his young, invincible son’s rash decision to jump into a fight that wasn’t his — become almost an extended part of the Cartwright family. He’d had to help Gunnar Andersen in his investigation. While at first Ben did it for Joe, at Hoss’ insistence, it wasn’t long before he realized it was simply something he needed to do — because it was the right thing to do. Joe had known that in a heartbeat all those days ago at the bank. Why had it taken so long for Ben to see it himself?

Now, finally, worn from the long journey and the fear in his heart, Ben’s gaze landed on Peter’s Station. He nearly collapsed with relief when he saw Joe sitting on the porch watching Adam hard at work, chopping wood.

*****

Joe was laughing. Hoss couldn’t hear it yet, but Joe’s face lit up so much Hoss could see it even from a distance. It was good to see, but it was strange, too. It didn’t…well, it didn’t bust Joe up the way it usually did whenever he laughed like that. He should be wrapping his arms around his belly, pulling his knees up tight and maybe even rolling right on out of that chair. But he wasn’t doing none of that. He was just laughing, plain and simple.

From the set of Adam’s shoulders and the exaggerated way he was swinging that ax, Hoss figured Adam was the cause of Joe’s laughter. It probably wasn’t so much Adam being funny. More likely it was Joe prodding Adam. Maybe that was a good thing. Joe was bored. And if Joe was bored enough to start laughing at Adam, that meant he wasn’t angry. And if he wasn’t angry, that meant he wasn’t near as worried about maybe having a fractured bone in his neck as Hoss and his pa had been all this time. And if he wasn’t worried, then maybe that meant there was nothing to be worried about.

“You…just watch…Little Joe!” Hoss caught the sound of Adam’s voice on the wind as they rode in closer. “You…catching up…when we get back home!”

Then finally Hoss heard it: Joe’s familiar, annoying and right then wonderful, gut-busting laugh.

Grinning, Hoss looked to his pa. Pa was smiling too.

“Hey, Pa!” Joe hollered out then. “Hoss!”

Hoss raised his hand to wave. It struck him as odd when only Adam waved back. He also would have expected Joe to jump up and come meeting them at a run, especially when Joe saw Hoss was guiding Cochise. That boy was always a wild bundle of energy. And that horse of his seemed to share it, too. Whenever those two would ride out ahead of Hoss, he wouldn’t see either one of ’em again until he caught up, sometimes hours later. Even Joe by himself never seemed to slow down; he would simply stop, falling into a dead sleep at the end of each day.

Yet right then on that porch at that way station, Joe just sat plain still.

Hoss’ grin faded. He tightened his grip on Cochise’s reins, wondering for the first time since they’d left the Ponderosa whether he was right to bring Joe’s horse along. He’d been so darned sure Joe wouldn’t want to ride a stage back to Virginia City, not after that accident. Or maybe it was Hoss himself who didn’t want Joe taking another stage just yet. But what if Joe couldn’t ride yet? What if…what if he couldn’t ride ever again?

Hoss felt sick by the time he dismounted. He felt like his lunch, his breakfast and anything else his stomach could find to get rid of was going to come right back up on him, all on account of the fears his thoughts stirred around, deep inside. Of course, he tried to ignore it. After he shook Adam’s hand he turned to greet Little Joe, but Joe’s eyes weren’t aimed at him at all. That boy had his focus set on Cochise.

Little Joe’s wide grin faded. He gripped the arms of that chair so hard Hoss could see his brother’s knuckles go white. And then something happened that made Hoss about as close to crying as he’d ever admit. Joe pushed himself slowly to his feet.

“Need a hand there, old-timer?” Adam quipped, seeming unafraid and even somewhat callous.

Joe ignored him. Staring at Cochise, he shuffled forward with the gait of a ninety-year-old, and then raised his arm, clearly intending to stroke the horse’s muzzle. Trouble was, he couldn’t seem to raise his arm high enough. Hoss noticed him wince. An instant later Joe lowered his aim, settling for the horse’s neck.

“You brought him.” Joe seemed more surprised to see Cochise than he was to see Hoss and his pa, as though he’d somehow known they were coming but hadn’t dared to expect they ‘d bring the pinto.

“‘Course I did,” Hoss answered through the lump that had formed in his throat. “How else you expect to get home?”

Joe looked to him, smiling. “Thank you.”

Hoss nodded. “I suppose it’ll be a few more days afore you’re ready for him. But I can sure tell he’s ready for you.”

Cochise raised his foreleg, scraping at the ground with his right hoof, seeming anxious for a run. When the pinto tried nuzzling up against Joe, Hoss expected his little brother to start laughing again. Instead Joe stiffened, cringing and sucking air in through his teeth.

Pa noticed too. He reached over, gently laying his hand on Joe’s shoulder. Though that might have helped Pa feel better, Hoss could see it made Joe feel worse. Joe’s eyes widened and he clamped down on his teeth, making his jaw bulge out rock-hard.

“I told you, Joe,” Adam said in a soothing voice as he lightly pushed Pa’s hand away. “Sitting in that hard chair for too long will make you stiffen right up. Come on.” He wrapped his arm around Joe’s waist and started to pull Joe away from the pinto. “Let’s get you back inside.”

Hoss started feeling sick again. But when he met Adam’s gaze, his older brother winked at him, like he knew Joe really was going to be just fine. That wink was enough to make Hoss breathe easier. He even smiled again. If Adam believed Joe was going to be fine, Hoss figured it had to be true.

*****

Two days after his pa and Hoss arrived, Joe convinced them all he was ready to ride home. It took a lot of effort to stand up straight and hide the ongoing twinges of pain behind a grimace masquerading as a smile. It took an even greater amount to endure the journey. Yet the moment he found himself on home soil, he knew it was all worth it — even when actually setting foot on home soil proved harder than he’d expected. His legs had gone so numb he needed help dismounting.

Two weeks later, things were back to normal — if watching Adam and Hoss playing with the Hansen children and their cousins could be considered normal. Joe sat on the Hansen’s front porch with the rest of the adults while his two older brothers ran around in circles and ferried children across the yard on their shoulders. The youngest Cartwright still wasn’t quite hale enough for running or ferrying. Besides, he had more important things to do. Gunnar Andersen was preparing to present the Hansen’s case against Gainsby.

“In all likelihood, Judge Haynes will find in favor of Kari,” Gunnar explained. “But that won’t be the end of it. In equal likelihood, Gainsby will file a counterclaim. He will have to in order to protect his own finances, since the money he took from Kari was destroyed in the fire. A judge could potentially find in his favor, in which case,  although Kari is entitled, she could still receive nothing. On the other hand, if the judge rules against Gainsby, he will be required to reimburse her from his own bank account. This could encourage him to file a claim against the stage line for failing to protect his money, which would in turn cause them to file a claim against him for causing the fire in the first place. That is where we might encounter our greatest complication with…”

“It all sounds terribly complicated.” Kari Hansen shook her head and gazed out at her laughing children.

Joe agreed. His head was spinning already. How could it get more complicated than that? And did any of it even matter anymore? He noticed the contented look in Kari Hansen’s eyes matched by a small but very real smile. It was a good change, so different from her appearance in Virginia City the day Gainsby took her money.

“I’m afraid the real complications begin with that fire,” Gunnar went on. “It will primarily be Joe’s word against Gainsby’s. The only physical proof we have against Gainsby will be that cigar burn Dr. Harding treated on Joe’s palm. With Harding’s reputation, well… Gainsby’s lawyer can be expected to take advantage, seeking to discredit Harding. A judge could rule the doctor’s deposition invalid, in which case we have only Adam’s witness account attesting to the existence of that cigar burn. And since Adam is not a trained physician, his testimony could also be invalidated. I’m afraid we will have to face the possibility that Joe could even be implicated in a determination of cause for that fire, in which case the judge could find him financially responsible.”

“That’s absurd,” Ben Cartwright complained. “Joe was just an innocent bystander, or at most a…a good Samaritan. Jebediah Ralston and Ed Burke have both agreed to testify against Gainsby. Surely any judge would recognize the validity of their accounts.”

“But neither Ralston nor Burke actually witnessed the scuffle in the stagecoach, and neither can testify to having seen the start of the fire. And as to the children’s accounts, well, because they’re children the judge might not consider them credible witnesses.”

“Well.” Kari tore her gaze away from the laughter in the yard. “If this whole tangled mess could possibly result in a financial loss to the Cartwrights, I cannot in good conscience go forward with any of it.” She met her brother’s gaze. “You must tear up all these papers at once. I will not file anything against Mr. Gainsby.”

Ben Cartwright placed his hand atop hers, pulling her attention. “Kari, please,” he said softly. “Men like Gainsby, they take advantage of the law at the expense of others, people like you. Our only recourse is to use what laws we can against him.”

“But what good will it do? It won’t stop him from doing the same thing again to someone else. And if it costs you…”

“Don’t you worry about me or Joe,” Ben insisted. “And as to Gainsby, well, maybe it won’t stop him. But maybe it will. At the very least, it will cause him to think twice before he tries to go after someone else’s money again. Men like him count on the fact that no one will ever challenge them. Wouldn’t you agree he needs to be challenged?”

Kari Hansen studied him for a long while, seeming unsure what to say. Joe noticed her eyes welling with tears. “I… I’m so sorry you and…and Joe….” She turned her attention toward Joe and then looked down, as though ashamed. “I’m so sorry I allowed you to get involved.”

“I’m not sorry,” Joe responded. “I’m not sorry at all.” He met his pa’s gaze and was happy to see Pa smile back at him.

“Nor am I,” Pa added. “Now, please. Sign those papers. The sooner we let your brother get started, the sooner we can bring this all to a close, once and for all.”

Kari held his gaze a while longer. Finally, she took up the pen Gunnar had prepared for her, and began signing her name.

*****

Joe leaned back against the hard, wooden seat of the buckboard and gave Adam his most serious look. “You do know I almost broke my neck up there at Daggett Pass.”

Adam glared his way before returning his attention to driving the horses. “I know. I was there.”

“It’s only been a few weeks. You really think I’m anxious to go through all that again?”

“Maybe not, but you and I both know you’re too stubborn to think sometimes. Usually all I have to do is tell you a horse can’t be broken, and then there you are on its back, aiming to prove me wrong.”

“It takes more instinct than thinking to break a horse, brother.”

“Hmmm.” Adam studied the road ahead as they drew closer to Virginia City. “Usually it takes more thinking than instinct to break through that thick skull of yours.”

“Usually?”

“This time instinct won out. How else could Hoss know you wouldn’t try breaking that stallion?”

“Hmmm.” Joe stared toward the buildings in the distance, attempting to make it appear he was deep in thought. “Well,” he said after a moment. “Maybe it’s because I’d already told him.” Joe’s laughter drew a heated glare from his older brother.

“You told him?” Adam asked.

Joe nodded. “I told him.”

“Before he made that bet with me?”

Joe winked.

“And you let us make the bet, anyway.”

“Come on, how long has it been since Hoss went to a cotillion in Carson City?”

“You know very well Hoss has never been to…”

“And how long has it been since you’ve been to a cotillion in Carson City?”

Adam sighed.

“I figured it was about time Hoss had an opportunity to dance with some fine ladies for a change.”

“I suppose you also figured it was about time I had an opportunity to pick up a month’s worth of supplies?”

Before Joe could answer, a chorus of children called their attention.

“Uncle Joe! Uncle Adam!”

As soon as Adam drew the horses to a stop, Joe jumped to the ground to accept a bevy of hugs. All thoughts of bets and cotillions forgotten, he lifted Mary into the air, laughing as she squealed in delight. But when Adam went a step further, hoisting Matthew to his shoulders and then lifting James into his arms as well, Joe rolled his eyes and gave his brother an incredulous look. “Show off!” he complained before he noticed Martin standing alone, seeming far too serious. “Hey, Martin!” Joe called to him. “How about we head into the general store and get some of that licorice you like so much?”

Martin’s eyebrows rose. It wasn’t exactly a sign of excitement, but it was about as close as that boy could come these days.

“We’ll have to wait for Momma,” Martin answered then. “She can pay for it after she gets done at the bank.”

Taken back, Joe knelt to meet Martin eye-to-eye. “I offered the candy as a gift, Martin. I’m not asking you to pay for it.”

“But we won’t need gifts anymore,” Martin went on. “Momma’s getting her money back today.”

Now it was Joe’s turn to make a show of excitement by raising his eyebrows. “She is? Well, that’s fantastic! But it doesn’t change the fact that I want to give you the candy.”

“But Momma doesn’t want any more gifts.”

“Think of it as an early birthday present.” Joe winked.

“But my birthday isn’t for another three months yet.”

“My birthday’s before his!” Mary announced.

“Well, then,” Joe said, “We’ll say this is an early birthday party for Mary. I’ll get candy for everyone. I don’t think your mother would mind, Martin. Do you?”

The boy shrugged. “I guess not.”

“Come on, then.” Joe rose, and reached his hand out to Martin.

Though the boy seemed hesitant, minutes later he was smiling as wide as the rest of them — maybe even wider.

*****

While the children were happily gnawing away at various types of candy, Joe watched the bank manager personally escorting Mrs. Hansen up the street toward them.

“Isn’t it wonderful, Little Joe?” Mr. Whittaker said the moment she reached him. “Mr. Gainsby paid her back for everything.”

“Yes,” Joe answered, keeping his gaze on Mrs. Hansen and hoping she knew his smile was meant specifically for her. “It’s wonderful.”

Mrs. Hansen smiled back at him. “What I find hard to believe is none of that…tangled mess of counterclaims Gunnar told us about…, well, none of it is likely to come about.”

“Oh?” Joe turned to Adam, puzzled.

Adam shrugged, giving his own attention back to Mrs. Hansen.

“Yes,” Mrs. Hansen went on. “It seems Mr. Gainsby, well, apparently he’s elected not to sue for his own financial loss.”

“You…you’re kidding.” Joe was stunned. This did not sound like the Gainsby he’d come to know painfully well.

“Not at all.” Mrs. Hansen hesitated, seeming to consider something. “It makes me wonder if perhaps he wasn’t at all the man we’d thought him to be.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Adam cautioned. “You can bet on the fact he has his reasons.”

“I’m not exactly the type to place bets, Adam,” Mrs. Hansen answered. “But if I were, I think I’d prefer to bet on the possibility that maybe he has come to…well, to find a certain degree of compassion.”

“I got to known him pretty well at Daggett Pass,” Adam said. “Up there, he didn’t understand anything about compassion. People don’t change that much, that quickly.”

“I’d like to think you’re wrong about that.”

“I’d like to think so, too. But I’m not.”

Joe noticed the set of Adam’s shoulders and the knowing look in his brother’s eyes.

“You knew, didn’t you?” Joe asked him. “You knew he wouldn’t go through with all that mess about countersuits.”

Adam cocked his head. “Let’s just say up on the pass we showed each other our cards. I had the winning hand.”

“Well,” Mr. Whittaker spoke into the strange silence that followed. “I need to get back to the bank. But I do wish you a wonderful day, Mrs. Hansen. A truly wonderful day.”

Joe pulled his attention away from his older brother and hurried after Mr. Whittaker, although he waited until they’d turned the corner before grabbing the man’s shoulder, causing him to stop.

“You let it happen,” Joe accused him once they stood facing one another. “Why?”

“Whatever do you mean, Little Joe?”

“You never once questioned it. You didn’t hesitate. You just looked at that piece of paper and said Gainsby had every right to the Hansens’ money.”

“He had what appeared to be a legitimate claim. There was no cause for me to question it.”

“No cause?” Joe asked, bothered but not surprised by the man’s statement. “No cause?” Joe repeated. “What about protecting your customers? Shouldn’t that be enough cause for you to question the claims of a…a stranger? A thief?”

“He was by no means a thief, Little Joe. He had a legitimate business claim. How was I to know there might be a way for Mrs. Hansen to challenge that claim?”

“That’s just it. How were you to know there wasn’t? You didn’t even bother to consider the possibility. You just gave him the money. You…gave it right to him.”

“I was just doing my job. You can’t fault me for that.”

“That’s right.” Joe nodded, glancing away. “You were just doing your job. You were just following…the letter of the law is I believe how you put it before.”

“Yes. Precisely.”

“Well maybe that’s the whole problem,” Joe said accusingly. “You’re so focused on the law and your job that you’ve lost sight of what matters. You know….” He hesitated, suddenly recognizing what he’d failed to see before. “In a way that makes you no different than Mr. Gainsby.”

“How can you say that? You heard your brother. Gainsby is not a man of compassion. I’m nothing like him.”

“You keep telling yourself that, Mr. Whittaker. I almost believed it too, back in the bank that day. But it wasn’t compassion I saw in your eyes then. It was weakness. You were too weak to stand up for Mrs. Hansen or anyone else. Another Mr. Gainsby could come to you tomorrow, and you’d hand over my pa’s money just as easily as you did Mrs. Hansen’s.”

“I would never!”

“Wouldn’t you?”

“Of course not!”

“Why not? Is it because my pa has more money in his account than Mrs. Hansen? Is it only because you’d be more afraid of losing Pa’s business than of accepting some strange man’s claim?”

“I resent these implications!”

“Why? Because they’re true?”

“I’ll listen to no more of this!” Mr. Whittaker turned away.

“I tell you what, Mr. Whittaker,” Joe called after him. “The next time you have to tell someone they’re flat broke, the next time you have to foreclose on a piece of property someone has invested a lifetime of work into, you remember what happened to Mrs. Hansen. You remember what you let happen to her because you didn’t stop for one second to question Mr. Gainsby’s claim, because you were just doing your job. Then you can decide whether or not you’re a man of compassion.”

Mr. Whittaker paused for a moment, seeming to consider Joe’s words. But then he walked on, leaving Joe standing alone, breathless with unspent anger, fists clenching uselessly at his sides — just as he’d been weeks ago when he’d watched Gainsby slip away.

Somewhere in his thoughts, Joe found himself remembering Doc Harding, a man who’d had too much compassion. And suddenly Joe was confused — so confused he could hardly think. Feeling numb, he barely flinched when a hand fell upon his shoulder.

“How about I buy you a beer, little brother?” Adam offered.

He didn’t answer. Instead, he let Adam lead him away, thankful for the companionable, compassionate feel of his brother’s arm. It felt good to know he wasn’t alone.

 

Epilogue

For a long while, Ben stood gazing down at the tall, sleek piece of stone marking his late wife, Marie’s grave. How could he speak to a piece of stone? She wasn’t there. She wasn’t in that stone. Yet somehow, she was. He could feel her presence. He could almost smell her perfume in the breeze as it gently brushed his cheek with soft fingers of air so like Marie’s delicate touch.

Finally, Ben took his hat into his hands and started to say the words he needed to believe she could hear.

“I don’t know what to tell him, Marie,” he confessed. “He has so much of you in him. So much. I can’t.…I can’t tell him he’s wrong to do such things. I also can’t tell him he’s right. If he had come to me, if he had asked my permission — or even just my advice –I would have insisted he stay home. He had no responsibility to Mrs. Hansen or her children, none at all. His responsibilities lie here, on the Ponderosa. His responsibilities lie with me.

“And yet,” Ben took a deep breath, gazing up at the trees. “If I had stopped him, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to that woman, to her family. I can’t help but…imagine she would have…died. If you had seen her that day I found her in her garden, if you had…been there…. Only.…” Pausing to clear the heaviness straining his voice, Ben returned his attention to the stone, to the name carved there.

“Joe saw it first,” he went on. “He knew. He knew right away, before he even laid eyes on her. I have no doubt you would have, too. You would have been just as stubborn, just as impulsive. You would never have let those children go off on their own like that. You would have done exactly…exactly what Joe did. I would have argued. But you…you would have won that argument. And…that’s what disturbs me. I could accept you winning. I can’t accept it with Joe. I don’t ….”

Ben’s breaths were coming quicker now. His heart was growing heavier. “I don’t want him to end up like…like Doc Harding.”

“Why would I?”

Little Joe’s soft question pulled Ben around, surprised to find his youngest son standing behind him, one hand holding loosely to Cochise’s reins.

“Joe,” Ben rasped out a terse greeting as he turned back to the stone, confused and unwilling to show that confusion to his son.

“I’m sorry, Pa. I didn’t mean to intrude. I just….” Joe’s voice broke. “I need to know why you think I could end up like him.”

“I learned some things,” Ben answered, still facing the stone, “about Doc Harding in Carson City. Major Sinclair knew him. They were…very close back when they’d first joined the army.”

“Doc Harding was in the army?”

“Yes. Sinclair said he was a good man, among the finest he could ever hope to know. Always concerned about people, about saving people. Sinclair called him passionate. And headstrong. He even went so far as to…to compare Harding as a young man with…well, with you.”

“How could he? I’ve never met Major Sinclair.”

“He knows what I’ve told him. He knows what you did for the Hansens. And…he knew your mother.”

“My mother?”

“You and she are more alike than you know, Joseph.”

“She could never have ended up like Doc Harding. If we’re so much alike, why do you think I could?”

Ben gazed longingly at Marie’s name, and then turned to face his son. “Joe, she had us. All of us. Your brothers. You. Me. We helped temper her…her passion. She did whatever she could for others, of course, whenever she could. But she also recognized there were times she couldn’t help, or shouldn’t help. It would break her heart, but she said just having us near her, it was enough to keep her strong.”

“You think I don’t find strength in you?”

“Maybe you do. I hope you do. But son…. It’s a different kind of strength. And maybe…maybe not the right kind of strength.” Ben glanced out at the lake beyond Joe’s shoulder.

“Joseph,” he went on then, “there will be times when no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, it just won’t make a difference. People will suffer, people you want desperately to help but simply can’t. And times when helping causes a different kind of harm, one you hadn’t anticipated. You need to remain strong when that happens. You need to hold to the fact that you simply could not have done anything different.”

“Of course.”

“Of course,” Ben repeated with a soft, humorless chuckle. “It sounds simple. But if you let your passion drive you too much, too hard, it will start to take its toll. As it did to Doc Harding.”

“Pa,” Joe’s gaze was both sad and baffled. “I’m not Doc Harding.”

Ben found himself smiling at the innocence of Joe’s statement. “No, I suppose you’re not.”

“And I do have you, and Hoss, and Adam, just like my mother did. I also have something she didn’t have.”

Puzzled, Ben waited for Joe to explain.

“I have her.”

Ben raised an eyebrow, considering Joe’s words.

“Sometimes it’s like, like I can feel her watching over me.” Joe smiled, seeming to find solace in his own words though his eyes glistened. “I don’t want to let her down, Pa. I don’t want to let either of you down.”

“I know,” Ben said in an abrupt whisper, no longer trusting his voice. Crossing to his son, he wrapped an arm around Joe’s shoulder. “Now how did you know to find me here?”

“Hoss said you had something you needed to do. After that long ride from Carson City, I couldn’t imagine you thinking of anything other than just getting home. Or maybe…coming up here.”

“Am I really that predictable?”

Joe shrugged instead of answering. “I suppose I’m impulsive enough for both of us.”

“That you are, Joseph.” Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulder and then drew away. “What do you say we head home? I can almost smell Hop Sing’s pot roast from here.”

“I hope you’re not too hungry.”

“Why’s that?”

“Hoss said there wasn’t enough food in Carson City to keep him full.”

“He’s right about that. Well, we’d better hurry up, then.”

It would have to do. This conversation, this moment, it was what he’d needed, maybe what they’d both needed. He could only hope it was enough.

***The End***

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