Tumbleweed (by freyekendra)

Summary: Two brothers plagued by accidents and misfortune, one young man haunted by his own brothers’ deaths, a deadly outlaw with no conscience…and the Cartwright family caught in the crossfire. Follow the trail of the Nevada Territory’s most notorious outlaw through the words of Tumbleweed, a writer aiming to turn a killer into a legend, until that trail dead-ends on the Ponderosa. After the shooting stops, will tragedy be avoided, or simply rewritten?
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: MA
Word Count: 14,900


 

Two local townsmen were shot dead when they tried to stop Burt Ramsey and his gang from robbing the bank in Dun Glen. Both men would still be alive today if they had just not gone and tried to draw on Ramsey. It is a well known fact that Ramsey only pulls the trigger when someone crosses him. When he does shoot, he don’t waste his time with wounding. He always shoots to kill. –letter to the editor of the Territorial Enterprise, signed by Tumbleweed.

*****

Dark clouds had been rolling in for hours, but it wasn’t until Joe and Adam had already started toward home that the sky opened up. Quickly drenched in the deluge, they pushed on in determined silence, well aware the only real shelter was back at the Ponderosa. It wasn’t until they finally rounded that last bend and the barn was within reach that either attempted to say a word.

Joe shouted toward his brother, “I’ll get the horses. You go on and tell Pa.”

Adam must have heard him. Joe’s oldest brother nodded and then dismounted in a jump that landed him in slick mud, nearly toppling him. Steadying himself, he tossed his reins to Joe and started a slow, sluggish run toward the house.

Joe was glad to have the shorter route to dryness. “Whooee!” he exclaimed to no one but the horses the moment he found himself under the protective roof of the barn. “That is some rain.”

Shaking his hat and poncho as well as he could to rid them of whatever moisture hadn’t already seeped deep inside the fibers, he laughed at all the water. Then he made quick work of settling Adam’s horse in its stall. By the time he got to his own horse, Cochise had grown far too unsettled to work with him.

“What’s the matter, boy?” Joe asked as the pinto backed away from him. “What’s got you so…”

The sound of metal sliding across wood swung him around, gun already in hand. “Who’s there?” Joe called out.

Hearing Cochise huffing behind him, Joe scanned the nearby stalls. He appeared to be alone. Still Cochise was disturbed. “Shhh,” Joe soothed absently. “It’s alright, boy.”

But it wasn’t. He could feel it somehow, a sense of unease he came to share with the pinto.

As Joe made another slow turn, a shadow moved to his left. He raised his gun, feeling his heart pound out in warning. Too late. The shadow flew toward him, taking the shape of a… shovel. The word barely materialized in his thoughts as the shovel connected with the side of his head.

Inside the house, Ben Cartwright paced the width of the main room as Adam explained the recent events in Virginia City. Hoss leaned forward on the settee with his elbows on his knees, listening intently to his brother’s story.

“I’m telling you, Pa,” Adam said as he warmed himself by the flames. “It was them. Charlie and Ezra Boyd. We saw them riding out with Ramsey’s gang after they robbed the bank — and not thirty minutes after we deposited the money from the sale of those heifers.”

Ben Cartwright shook his head in frustration and rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. “It just doesn’t make sense. They’re trouble, yes, but I never figured them for falling in with someone like Burt Ramsey.” He stopped pacing. Then pushing past his own inner musings, he returned his full attention to Adam. “How much did they get?”

“I don’t know. We didn’t wait around for details. We hightailed it after them before Sheriff Coffee had time to form a posse.” Adam sighed. “Unfortunately, we lost the trail in the rocks just before it started raining.”

“You’ll never pick it up now,” Hoss added. “Not with this soaker.”

“Tell me about it. There’s not a stitch on me that’s dry.”

Ben nodded. “Why don’t you go up and get changed.” Almost in afterthought, he turned toward the door. “And what’s keeping that brother of yours? He’ll catch his death out there.”

Adam followed his father’s gaze. “I don’t know. He should’ve had the horses bedded down and been halfway up to his room by now.”

Disturbed, Ben went to the door. Pulling it open, he focused his attention on the barn, but saw nothing at all to indicate just what could have gotten Joe so preoccupied. In fact, the yard and the barn itself seemed particularly quiet.

“Joseph?” Ben shouted. “Joe? Come inside.”

Hoss joined him by the door and waited with him for the hoped for response. It never came. “I’ll go check on him,” Hoss said.

But Adam gripped his shoulder, holding him back. “No, that’s alright. I’m still wet. I might as well be the one to go back out into the cold…hard…rain. You can stay in here where it’s nice and dry. Just stoke the fire up a bit, will you?”

“Joseph?” Ben shouted even louder than before as he watched Adam make his way through the downpour.

When no sound other than the pounding rain came back to him, Ben turned a concerned gaze toward his middle son. It was enough to send Hoss hurrying after his older brother.

The barn was thankfully dry, but disturbingly quiet.

“Joe?” Adam called out.

“Hey, Adam,” Hoss patted his brother lightly on the arm when he spotted Joe’s familiar pinto safely ensconced in its stall. “Cochise is here.”

Adam nodded absently, keeping his attention on the rest of the stables. “Joe?”

“Alright you,” another man’s voice responded instead. The words were followed by the distinct sound of a shotgun being cocked. “Get them hands up where I can see ’em.”

The double-barreled weapon came into view as a figure pulled itself free of the shadows –the figure of a man in a familiar ragged gray coat.

“Well, if it isn’t Charlie Boyd.” Adam’s answer had a casual, sarcastic edge to it as he carefully pulled his hands away from his body. “I have to admit I never figured you’d be stupid enough to rob a bank. But to come back here afterwards is just…”

“I did not rob that bank!” Charlie shouted. “I swear to you it wasn’t nothin’ I would ever do!”

“Never mind that for now,” Hoss said. “Where’s Little Joe?”

Charlie’s gaze slid to Hoss and then quickly to the ground, his shoulders sagging and his shotgun forgotten. “He didn’t mean it,” Charlie said then. “I swear he never did mean to do it. He was just scared, is all.”

“What did Ezra do, Charlie?” Adam asked, reflecting Hoss’ own suspicions that the ‘he’ in Charlie’s words had not been meant to refer to Joe.

“He hit him. He…” Charlie shook his head. “He just doesn’t know his own strength sometimes.”

“What are you saying?” Hoss struggled against images of banged-up cowboys on the Ponderosa who had found themselves on the wrong end of Ezra Boyd’s failure to recognize his own strength. The last one had ended up with what surely would be a permanent limp. That had been the last straw for Pa, who had fired the Boyds on the spot.

“Ezra!” Charlie called behind him. “You can come on out now. I won’t let them hurt you.”

A giant of a man, bigger even than Hoss, lumbered up behind Charlie. He held his hat in his hands and was sliding his fingers along the rim, giving the appearance of an overgrown child caught breaking the rules. “I didn’t never mean to kill him,” the man said. “But I…I took care of his horse.” A hopeful look flashed in his eyes, as though stabling a horse might be enough to compensate for his crime.

Stabling a horse. Joe’s horse?

I didn’t never mean to kill him.

Hoss felt a sharp sting in his gut as he shared a cautious look with Adam. “Where’s Joe?”

When the larger man tilted his head in the general direction of an empty stall, both Cartwrights hurried forward until their eyes caught sight of what the Boyds had sought to conceal.

Adam, arriving first, instinctively if absurdly threw his arm outward, as though that action alone would be enough to protect Hoss from seeing the image that had already turned the sting in his belly into a sharp knot.

Joe lay crumpled and unmoving on the hay, the left side of his face coated with dark blood.

“You’re a dead man, Ezra,” Hoss said coldly, his eyes locked on his brother, his hands curling into tight fists. He was distantly aware of Adam slowly lowering himself to the ground, seeming desperate to avoid finding the answer they both expected.

“I will kill you myself,” Hoss went on. “I swear it.”

“He’s alive.”

Adam’s words fell like an angel’s whisper come to lift an unbearable weight from Hoss’ shoulders. He swallowed whatever else he had been about to say and closed his eyes to send out a brief, silent ‘thank you’ to the heavenly messenger.

“Let’s get him to the house.” Adam was already starting to lift their young brother from the ground, but Hoss stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

“I got him, Adam.”

“He really ain’t dead?” Ezra asked.

“No, thank Heaven,” Hoss answered tersely as he scooped Little Joe into his arms. “Now get out of the way.”

“I can carry him.” Ezra’s offer had a pleading tone.

It had an unintended effect on Hoss. As he rose with his new burden, Hoss icily met the man’s oblivious gaze. “You back off,” he said in a deadly whisper. “You ever lay a hand on him again, I promise you will end up looking a whole lot worse than he does now.”

“No,” Charlie brought his shotgun up once more, though the attempt seemed half-hearted. He angled it absently toward Adam. “This ain’t right. I can’t…” Charlie swallowed hard. “They’re out there.”

“Who’s out there, Charlie?” Adam’s guarded tone echoed the growing concern in Hoss’ own thoughts.

“Ramsey.”

Damn. Hoss felt that weight begin to bear down on him once more. He ignored it. No matter how heavy it got, there was no way he was going to let it keep him from caring for Little Joe. Squaring his shoulders, he steadied his grip on his brother and listened as Charlie explained further.

“He’s after us. That’s what you saw back in Virginia City. We was running from Ramsey, not from you.”

“Why?” Adam prodded.

“Like I told you. We never did rob that bank. But we was in the alley when Ramsey came out. One of the men, he knocked me down and Ezra… Well, Ezra don’t like no one messing with me. Ezra punched him. He dropped his money bag. I grabbed it. I figured I could give it back — to the bank, I mean. But they was gonna kill us both, so we just started running.”

“You stole money from Burt Ramsey?” Adam’s tone was incredulous.

“We took money back that he stole from Virginia City.”

“If that’s true,” Hoss added, his grip on Little Joe tightening, “then we got us a whole heap of trouble coming our way.”

*****

Burt Ramsey should be declared a hero for not shooting dead the mayor of Humboldt City. The legendary outlaw had only stopped to quench his thirst in the local saloon when the mayor made threats against him, aiming to call for the sheriff. Ramsey settled for breaking the mayor’s jaw on account of the fact the mayor was too yellow-bellied to make good on any threat he had ever been known to make. When the room full of likewise thirsty miners started taking sides between Ramsey and the mayor, the ruckus helped Ramsey to ride out of town unaccosted. –letter to the editor of the Territorial Enterprise, signed by Tumbleweed.

Ben tensed when he saw Hoss amble out of the barn with the still figure of Little Joe cradled in his arms. A sense of heaviness washed over the elder Cartwright, drenching him more thoroughly than rain ever could. He took two unsteady steps toward the edge of the covered porch and then leaned into a column, needing its support until he took notice of the men following his middle son.

Adam and the two others with him cast their eyes anxiously toward the open areas around the ranch house, seeming intent on watching for some danger Ben had yet to know — or simply avoiding Ben’s gaze. When Ben realized the two strangers were the Boyd brothers, he could understand their avoidance. Weariness gave way to rage.

“Lay him on the settee,” Ben insisted the moment Hoss reached him. Then he looked past Adam, grabbing Ezra by the shirt collar with no thought given to the younger man’s much larger girth. “What have you done?” he demanded to know.

“Pa.” Adam placed a hand on his father’s arm. “We need to get inside. Ramsey could be out there.”

“What?” His mind blindly focusing on Ezra’s string of careless accidents on the Ponderosa, Ben had already managed to forget Adam’s story about the bank robbery. Old fool, he chided himself inwardly.

A moment later, they were all inside, with the Boyd brothers left standing by the door as the Cartwrights gathered around the settee, assessing the extent of harm that had come to Little Joe.

“He hasn’t moved, Pa,” Hoss said, concern leaving a shadow in his gaze. He was kneeling beside his young brother, pressing a neckerchief down to stem the bleeding from a gash on the side of Joe’s head. “Not even a twitch.”

Ben, coming to stand behind Hoss, rested a hand on his middle son’s shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. “Adam, get some bandages and water,” he commanded without turning. “Make sure it’s cold. We need to keep down the swelling. Hoss,” he said then, more quietly. “I’ll take care here. You go on and watch those two. I don’t trust them.”

“No, sir,” Hoss replied without actually disagreeing. “I don’t see why you would.” He gave one quick nod and then rose, meeting his father’s gaze for an instant that needed no words before moving away to take charge of the Ponderosa’s uninvited guests.

In addition to watching the Boyd brothers to make sure they didn’t do anything more harmful than they already had — intentional or not — Hoss knew he also had to watch out for the Ramsey gang. He decided to kill two birds by putting the Boyds to work as lookouts. Ezra was set up at the dining room window, well away from weapons or even objects that could be used as weapons. Charlie took the small window behind Pa’s desk.

Hoss paced back and forth between the two as well as making regular trips to the kitchen and the upstairs bedrooms, where the higher elevation provided for much better panoramas of the Ponderosa lands. The constant movement was good for him, he realized. It helped to keep his mind from focusing too intently on Little Joe.

“Shouldn’t we have rifles?” Charlie asked, eyeing the impressive collection beside the massive fireplace.

“Not a chance,” Hoss shot back. “All you need to do is tell me if you see anything movin’ out there. You don’t need to go starting up a firefight willy-nilly.”

Midway through his tenth pass through the kitchen, as the rain finally faded from a steady pounding to a rhythmic trickle, Hoss heard a sound outside he could not quite place. He went to the window and stood silently for a long minute, searching with his eyes and straining with his ears to give substance to the sound. Hoss found his answer when the business end of a shotgun moved into his line of sight just the other side of the window. He dropped to the floor, his heart pounding far faster and heavier than the current beat of the rain on the roof.

The Ramseys had arrived. And despite all the looking out Hoss and the Boyds had undertaken, they had failed to catch sight of the gang until it was already too late. The Ramseys weren’t just on the Ponderosa, there were at the house, only a shotgun blast away rather than the rifle shot Hoss had been targeting.

Keeping low, Hoss hurried into the main room where he saw Pa and Adam had apparently finished tending to Joe’s head wound — at least for the time being. Pa was sitting on the low table in front of the settee, gazing at his youngest son with eyes that seemed lost and unfocused. Adam, at the fireplace again, tossed a reddened cloth into the flames, anger and bitterness evident in the set of his shoulders and the force of the throw. The sight hit Hoss like a punch to his gut. For all his pacing and window-gazing he hadn’t made a damned bit of difference. Little Joe was no better off than he’d been when Adam and Hoss had first caught sight of him in the barn, and the wolf was at the door, just a shotgun blast away.

Keenly aware he could not afford to let his thoughts distract him, Hoss called out in an urgent whisper, “Adam! Pa! They’re right outside.”

Adam jumped as though startled, but wasted no time going to the rack of rifles on the wall beside him. Pa, though slower to react, was equally resolute in preparing for a fight. He grabbed the rifle Adam handed to him before Hoss could explain it was not necessarily an appropriate choice of weapon.

“A sidearm might be more like it,” Hoss said.

Adam responded with a questioning gaze.

Hoss nodded. “At least one, right outside the kitchen.”

“Ezra,” Adam said then.

Hoss looked to the dining room window. The larger Boyd was gone.

“He went into the kitchen,” Adam explained.

Hoss had barely taken a step when a deafening barrage of gunfire erupted outside. He ducked instinctively at the sound, recognizing it to include everything from the crack of rifles perhaps thirty yards away to the heavier boom of shotguns close by.

“Ezra?” Charlie called out, glancing frantically toward the dining room.

Hoss met his gaze and shook his head.

Charlie’s eyes widened in realization. “Ezra!” He shouted, rushing from his spot by the desk to the front door.

In a handful of long strides, Hoss intercepted him, bodily forcing him to the floor. “Don’t be a fool.”

“But Ezra’s out there!”

“And there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it right now without getting yourself and maybe all of us killed. You hear me?”

Ben all but threw himself atop the settee, intent on shielding Little Joe from the glass shattering around them as bullets began piercing the windows. Adam crouched low in front of the same piece of furniture, rifle aimed at the entryway — just in case.

A moment later, with the last echoes already fading into a heavy silence, Adam’s instincts were proved correct as the door exploded inward. But there was no point in taking a shot. Five men rushed in, with five weapons ready to fire and Hoss a perfect target right there in front of them.

*****

Folks should appreciate the fact that Burt Ramsey only had to kill three of the four men passengers during his recent meeting with a stage on its way out of Carson City. The fourth man was too cowardly to be a problem, and the driver knew well enough to give Ramsey what he asked for. Ramsey figured he did the woman passenger a great service because it is never good for a woman to travel alone with so many men. He gave her a gentlemanly bow in acknowledgment of her gratitude before leaving her and the others to go on with their journey. –letter to the editor of the Territorial Enterprise, signed by Tumbleweed.

*****

Thunder. It was all around him, booming like cannons from the water-soaked skies and accentuated by loud cracks of lightning strikes nearby. Too nearby. He had to take cover, and yet… Had he? Had he taken cover? He felt dry, no longer drenched. How could the storm be so close if he was dry? And warm. And there was no wind with this storm, just the thunder and lightning — lightning he heard but did not see. The world was dark around him, empty but for the sound of the thunder and the scent of…of his father.

Pa?

He could feel his father’s closeness, right in front of him, right…above him. The soft touch of cotton brushed his cheek, his nose. Something encircled his head — something warm, comforting. Pa’s arm? Pa was embracing him, or…shielding him. Shielding him from what? From the rain?

Pa? You’ll catch your death. Why don’t we both just get out of the rain?

The words were there, in his head, but somehow he could not bring them to his lips. He could not speak at all. He could not see. He could not even move.

Pa?

And then the thunder stopped, although clouds still filled his head. Nor did the booming entirely vanish; it simply changed, filling his ears with a high-pitched hum that unnerved him, making him feel as though he was deep under water — like that time he had tried to show Adam how far he could dive only to realize the deeper he dove, the farther he had to swim to get back to the surface. He remembered trying to gulp in huge lung-fulls of air but only being able to catch a dozen quick puffs.

“I told you the lake was deep, didn’t I?” Adam had shouted from a great distance, his voice barely breaking through the pressure in Joe’s ears.

And then there was pressure on his arm. Adam. He was squeezing Joe’s arm. How had he come from such a distance so quickly?

“Darn, fool kid,” Adam said. “You could’ve drowned!”

The air was coming better then. It seemed safe enough to talk. “But I didn’t, did I?”

He started laughing. He could hear Hoss laughing too, from somewhere on the shore. It was a sound that made Joe laugh harder.

“Bet you I can swim faster than you!” Joe challenged, breaking free of Adam’s hold and putting all of his wild energy into pulling and kicking at the water before Adam could think quick enough to respond.

But Joe wasn’t pulling or kicking now. Instead, he was floating, maybe even sinking. He could feel the depths of the lake reaching out to him, challenging him as he had challenged Adam.

No, he decided. Not this time. I’m not…I’m not diving.

Adam? He longed for the feel of his protective, older brother grabbing his arm in that firm, steady grip, refusing to let go, refusing to let him go back to the depths. Please, Adam. Come and get me. I don’t want to…I don’t want to dive.

But there was no responding pressure on his arm. Adam wasn’t there. And Pa… even Pa had moved away, his scent now out of reach.

I don’t want to dive.

He didn’t have to. The lake was pulling him deeper all on its own. And he was powerless to fight it.

*****

“Isn’t this cozy?” The man who spoke was square jawed, sandy haired, lean and about as mean as they come if you could believe all the stories. Even so, he wore a smile that dug dimples deep into his cheeks and added life to his dark green eyes. He leaned casually into the door frame, arms crossed in front of him, handguns holstered at both hips.

He looked exactly like all the wanted posters bearing his name, and held himself exactly like that newspaper letter writer described — the one who went by the name of Tumbleweed and claimed to ride with the outlaw’s rough-tangle gang.

“Burt Ramsey,” Hoss said without moving from where he still straddled Charlie Boyd in front of the door.

“Now, sir, I do believe you have me at a disadvantage.” Ramsey spoke with the soft, southern lilt he’d carried with him from his native Tennessee. “I haven’t had the pleasure of an introduction, least ways not quite like your boy Charlie Boyd there.”

“You ain’t gonna get one, neither,” Hoss said, ignoring Ramsey’s sneer as he pushed himself off of Charlie. Hoss rose cautiously to his feet, glaring at Ramsey all the while and ignoring the outlaw’s fellow gunmen. With a man like Ramsey around, they simply didn’t matter.

Ramsey shrugged without losing his smile. “I don’t really care which of you Cartwright’s is which anyway. Charlie’s the one I come for. Ain’t that right, Charlie?”

“Where’s Ezra?” Charlie responded in a dangerous, grating whisper as he rose to stand beside Hoss.

Ramsey’s eyebrows shot up in mock surprise. Then he nodded and tilted his head slightly to indicate the porch behind him. “Oh, he’s just out yonder.” Ramsey curled his nose. “But it’s a might messy. I don’t reckon he looks much like himself anymore, what with all the holes he’s got in him.”

“Why you no good…”

Hoss grabbed Charlie by both shoulders and held firm to prevent him from lashing out at Ramsey. It was not an easy task. Charlie was as mad as a man could be. As Hoss’ thoughts strayed to his younger brother on the settee, he imagined how he would feel if Ramsey had said the same about Little Joe. The thought brought bile to his throat and caused him to tighten his grip on Charlie.

Ramsey laughed. Charlie’s shoulders stiffened into solid rock.

“Ain’t you a pistol,” Ramsey said. “All fired up on account of my men killed your brother. Truth of it is, he about killed two of mine before we brought him down. Big as a buffalo, that one. It cost us a whole lot of lead. But you’re gonna pay us back, ain’t you? You want to get fired up about something, make it about getting me my money.”

In one quick blink, Ramsey’s handguns were out, cocked and aimed at both Charlie and Hoss. The man’s smile disappeared just as fast, replaced with the cold gaze of the ruthless killer everyone in Nevada territory knew Ramsey to be.

“Now I’m gonna count to three,” Ramsey went on, “and you’re gonna tell me where that money is or I’m gonna start shooting. I figure for starters that’ll be a bullet in your knee, and another in his head for good measure. One…” Ramsey adjusted his aim to match his words. “Two…”

Charlie’s shoulders began to shake. Hoss stood stock still, his gaze locked on the barrel of the gun pointed at him.

“Thr…”

“Alright,” Charlie called out, sagging in defeat and changing from rocks to bones in Hoss’ grip. “I’ll tell you. Just don’t… This is between you and me. Leave the Cartwrights out of it.”

“It’s you brought these Cartwrights into it, not me.” Ramsey laughed again, but he kept both guns at the ready. “So start talking.”

“I buried it. Under some rocks. In the canyon.”

“You buri…” Ramsey swallowed the rest of his words, stopping to clench his jaw so tight Hoss could see the bones bulge out from his cheeks. An instant later, the outlaw shouted, “Dang fool idiot! We got a posse out there, a trail with rocks as slick as ice and enough mud to hobble everything from a jackrabbit to an ox and you go and… Why of all the dumb, fool…”

Clamping his jaw shut once more, Ramsey holstered his guns and began pacing. He moved from Hoss to Adam to the rack of rifles and back again, his gaze finally landing on Little Joe.

“What’s this we got here?” He asked.

“It’s none of your concern,” Pa answered, rising to his full height and placing himself between Ramsey and his youngest son. Since Ben Cartwright was a good two inches taller and a fair amount wider than Ramsey, Pa’s stance would have caused most men Ramsey’s size to back down.

But Burt Ramsey was not like most men. Instead, he got more confident.

“Ain’t it now,” Ramsey said softly as something in his head worked toward a solution, just like Adam was always doing — just like Adam was doing even now if Hoss read his older brother’s eyes right.

“Ain’t it just.” Ramsey moved around Pa to where he could get a good look at Little Joe.

Something dark was going on behind Ramsey’s eyes as they gazed at Joe, and then Pa, and then Adam before straying back toward Hoss. What reflected out of Pa’s eyes was darker still. Hoss found himself holding his breath, waiting for the next move. When he started to exhale slowly, it was almost as though that exhalation ignited a fuse. The darkness in Ramsey was lightened, but it was a cold light that first gave Ramsey back his smile and then widened it into a deadly grin. He slapped Pa on the shoulder as though they were old pals before meandering his way back toward Hoss like a lazy river in no hurry to be anywhere at all.

“Alright, here’s what we’re gonna do. You two are gonna go out there and get me that money. The rest of us will hole up right here. Now don’t you dally and don’t even think about hooking up with that posse. You get back without us ever seeing hide nor hair of that sheriff and his boys, and we’ll be on our way. You don’t,” he shrugged, “then we’ll light out of here but you’ll be coming back to a house full of the stink of death. And don’t you fret none neither, ’cause even if you don’t give a hoot about these good folks, you’ll never outrun me, and I swear I will make you pay.”

*****

Burt Ramsey was sorry he had to leave a whole slew of dead men behind when the town of Placerville tried to run him out, especially since his visit would have been for the good of the town. If folks would have paid him the kindness extended to other visitors, he would have surely helped out the local economy. The fact is, he was planning to spend some of his hard-earned money at a whore house in the nearby vicinity. –letter to the editor of the Territorial Enterprise, signed by Tumbleweed.

*****

Outside, with the air still wet from a cloud-filled sky showing mere hints of the sun, Charlie Boyd stopped cold when he caught sight of his brother lying face down in the mud. A steady stream of red water was trailing toward the Cartwright’s barn.

“Ez?” He called out desperately — hopelessly.

Hoss reached toward him, but then pulled back. The man needed this moment, this one last look at the brother Charlie had tried so hard and for so long to protect.

“Ez,” Charlie said again as he dropped to his knees on the wet ground. He started sobbing softly, a thing more seen than heard in the awkward up and down movements of his shoulders. He seemed to have to work up the strength to turn his brother over, and then, with a gentleness Hoss had never seen in him before, Charlie tried to brush the mud from his brother’s face and eyes.

“Oh, Ez,” Charlie sobbed. “I guess I always knowed. Somehow I always knowed this would come to be. You never wanted to hurt no one, but you always did.” Strangely, Charlie laughed. “It’s true, Hoss. He just never could reckon how easy it was for him to hurt folks.”

“You don’t take a shovel to someone and think it can’t hurt them.” Still reeling from what had happened to Joe, Hoss let the words slide through his lips before giving thought to what they might do to Charlie. But once they were out, they were out. He waited for Charlie to turn around and face him, to argue on behalf of his own brother.

Instead, Charlie nodded, never moving his eyes from Ezra. “You know that. And I know that. But Ezra… Things just make a different kind of sense in his head.”

“Hey!” Ramsey’s shout from the doorway caused Hoss to tense.

“Time’s a wastin’,” Ramsey went on. “First one to die’ll be the one that’s almost dead anyway, by the look of things. Won’t take but a hour if we just lay him out here next to that one, sucking down rain and mud. Don’t think I won’t do it. Ain’t enough chairs for all of us as it is, and there he’s takin’ up enough space for three, four men.”

Hoss swung around, throwing Ramsey an icy glare. “You lay one hand on him and I’ll kill you. There’s no place you can hide where I won’t find you and I’ll kill you with my bare hands. I promise you that.”

Ramsey, smiling broadly, nodded and glanced casually around him. “You come back here with that money and no posse, and you make it right quick, then maybe I’ll let the Good Lord take him in the Good Lord’s time. You don’t, then he’s in my hands. You just think on that a bit while you skedaddle on out of here.”

Ramsey turned his back on Hoss and strode inside, heading for the settee as far as Hoss could tell.

“Come on, Charlie,” Hoss said through the rock that had formed in his throat as he stood gazing through his home’s broken front door. “We’d better ride.”

“I can’t just… Hoss, I can’t just leave him out here.”

The desperation in Charlie’s voice pulled Hoss’ thoughts back to the wet, muddy yard. “Yeah,” he said. “Okay.”

And then together he and Charlie carried Ezra to the barn. They laid him out on a bed of straw and covered him with a horse blanket.

“That’s the best we can do for now,” Hoss said, looking down on poor Ezra with a mixture of emotions, finding it strange to think of the man as a sort of hero. Was he a hero? Had he gone outside in the hope of protecting Hoss’ family or his own brother — or maybe even all of them? Or had he gone out just because it was one of the million mistakes Ezra had been known to do?

Shaking himself from such time-wasting thoughts, Hoss gave his attention back to Charlie — only to find Charlie was no longer beside him.

“Charlie?” Hoss called out. “Come on, Charlie. We ain’t got time to…”

“It’s here, Hoss,” Charlie said as he stepped out from a shadow. A muslin bag was in his hands. “It’s the money from the bank.”

“You said it was in the canyon.”

“I lied. We stuffed it in here. That’s what got Ezra so rattled. It’s why… I’m sorry, Hoss. It’s why he was so scared when he saw Little Joe.”

“Dadburnit, Charlie. You oughtn’t to have lied like that to Ramsey. If you’d a just gave it to him, he could be gone by now.”

“And we’d all be dead.”

“You don’t know that.”

“We both know Ramsey’s repute, Hoss. He’s not just gonna leave us be. We needed time. I figure if we could take ‘em out one by one…”

“Is that what you told Ezra? Is that why he went out there?”

Charlie nodded. “I told him the only way to beat Ramsey’s gang was when they ain’t all ganged up together.”

Hoss took off his hat and scratched his head. This was sure one heck of a mess they had on their hands.

“We don’t even know how many of ‘em there are,” He said.

“Plenty,” a strange voice said.

Two of Ramsey’s men blocked the barn door, rifles aimed at both Hoss and Charlie.

“Now you two are gonna come with us, nice and slow like.”

Hoss was not going to argue with that rifle. For a while, he figured Charlie thought the same. But just as they reached the gunmen, Charlie made a fool’s move. He rammed into the nearest man and swung the muslin bag at the other. Abandoning the money then, despite all he’d done to protect it, Charlie lit off like a madman, somehow running through the mud as though it wouldn’t dare slow him down.

Hoss tried to tussle with both of Ramsey’s men, hoping to build on the advantage Charlie had taken until a rifle butt brought him down, dazing him just long enough to enable both men to take shots at stopping Charlie. Yet by the time they dragged Hoss out of the barn to march him back to the house, he couldn’t catch sight of Charlie anywhere. Maybe he really had gotten away. If so, it was a good thing for Charlie, but not nearly as good for the Cartwrights. After all, Ramsey had his money now. He sure didn’t need them anymore.

Ben was arguing with Ramsey about his need to get fresh water for tending to Joe when Hoss was led back through the main door, blood dripping from a fresh wound in his forehead. “Hoss,” he called out, feeling the blood drain from his own face. Hoss was upright, though staggering slightly, his wound clearly not as bad as Joe’s. But Hoss’ blood was all Ben needed to see to get his own blood boiling.

“I’m alright, Pa,” Hoss insisted.

Even so, Adam was already up and moving toward his brother until one of the new arrivals turned a rifle on him, cocking it and seeming to dare him to continue.

Ben swallowed a heavy dose of fear and closed his eyes in relief when Adam refused to take that dare. Instead, Adam stopped cold with a good six feet still separating him from Hoss.

“This has gone too far,” Ben hollered at Ramsey a moment later. “There is no need for violence. No need. I clearly cannot force you out of my house, but I will not sit idly by and watch you harm my sons.”

“You will do whatever I want you to do, Mr. Cartwright. And I will do whatever I want to do. Because this here says I can.” He waved a six-shooter in front of him.

“Money’s right here, boss.”

A muslin bag was tossed at Ramsey. He holstered his gun to catch it. When he opened it, Ben had no doubt he found it filled with crisp U.S. bills. “Well now. Charlie was holdin’ out on us. You did kill him for it, right? He is dead, because he damn well better be dead.”

When no one answered him, the turn of Ramsey’s expression went from curious to furious. He started to approach the two men in a way that reminded Ben of a lit fuse getting shorter and shorter, leading to an inevitable explosion.

“No,” Hoss answered. “He ain’t dead. He’s gone. Your men couldn’t hit a lame bull if it was standing right in front of ’em.”

The rifle butt caught him on the side of the head this time. Hoss took a couple of unbalanced steps and then fell to his knees. Adam was at his side in an instant, clearly more concerned for his brother than for any gun that might still be aimed at him.

Ben seethed, struggling through a hundred ideas for attacking Ramsey, none of which could possibly bring a good outcome. And Ben might not have been the only one with such thoughts, he realized. All eyes were focused on Ramsey now, the men’s expressions cautious and fear-filled. This observation gave Ben comfort for one, key reason: it took everyone’s attention off of Adam, allowing him to bring Hoss out of the direct reach of Ramsey and within close reach of Ben.

But Ben was also filled with a deeper sense of unease. The outlaw Burt Ramsey was apparently unpredictable, even among his own men. That fact in itself made for a very dangerous situation.

“Is that right, Jimmy?” Ramsey was nose-to-nose with one of the men now. “Did you let Charlie light outta here?”

“He…he got away. But I’m sure we nicked him some.”

Ramsey turned away. “Nicked him some,” he repeated softly, seeming to dismiss the whole matter as insignificant. “You’re sure you nicked him some.” Then he swung back around, striking out with the speed and effectiveness of a rattler, his back-handed blow sending the man crashing to the ground. “Why you no good… Get outta here,” he said next with a suddenness that caught even Ben off guard. “Get on outta here and track him down. Find him and kill him. I want him dead. You hear me? You get him good and dead or don’t you come back here.”

Ramsey went to the doorway and hollered out at the rest of his men. “All of you, go after that Charlie Boyd. You get him dead or you’re dead, every last one of you!”

Returning his attention to the men in the house, Ramsey singled out a tall, blonde man standing in the doorway to the kitchen. “Preacher,” he said, “you’re the only one of these no good imbeciles I put any trust in. You go with ‘em. Make sure they do as they’re told.”

“Don’t be a fool,” Ben found himself saying. “You have what you came for. If you leave now, that posse will never find you.”

“Shut up, old man.” Ramsey’s eyes glared like fire, his face going red by degrees. “Don’t nobody ever tell me what to do.”

At that moment, Ben saw something far deadlier in the legendary Burt Ramsey than any newspaper story could ever describe.

*****

Burt Ramsey stayed with a local Buckland family when he was preparing to do some business with folks at Fort Churchill. It is regretful the family did not see fit to be proper hosts. Ramsey tried to teach them about such things. It was truly unfortunate the men-folk had to die for being such unattentive students. –letter to the editor of the Territorial Enterprise, signed by Tumbleweed.

*****

Four men. There were only four men left holding the Cartwrights’ hostage in their own home — Ramsey and the three he’d ordered to stay close, two of whom had been stationed outside. All the others, however many there actually had been, were now gone. How long they would remain gone was a question Ben dare not consider. Charlie Boyd had left on foot. He stood little chance of outrunning Ramsey’s men. The chase could be over quickly. Meanwhile, the Cartwrights’ odds of overcoming four men were far greater than Ben would have dared hope. There was only one real problem. Ben, Adam and Hoss had been rendered helpless, each tied tightly to a chair near the settee. And Joe… Well, Joe remained unmoving. He had been that way for far too long.

Ben gave his attention briefly to Ramsey and a young man with him. Both were at Ben’s desk on the far side of the room. The youth, who seemed to be barely more than a boy with red-gold hair and eyes the color of the sky, was perched on a corner, reading from a piece of paper in his hands. Ramsey was leaning back in Ben’s leather chair, his legs crossed on top of the desk in front of him.

“Burt Ramsey and his men,” the young man read, “cleaned out the Virginia City bank with nary a drop of blood shed, which goes to show how much of a gentleman he can be long as no one crosses him.”

Tumbleweed, Ben decided. That youth had to be the anonymous newspaper writer they called Tumbleweed, the one who told stories about Ramsey as though the man was a cross between Robin Hood and Eric the Red. Clamping his jaw in disgust, Ben stopped listening after a few more lines touting Ramsey’s gentlemanly outlaw-heroism. There was no point to listening. What Ben really needed to focus on was his own family. He needed to find a way to get them all out of this mess with no more damage than had already been done.

First it was Joe, and now Hoss. Ben’s second son, sitting by the fireplace, shook his head when Ben caught his eye. The youth’s story had apparently settled no more comfortably in Hoss’ gut than it had in Ben’s. A moment later, Hoss took a deep breath, puffing out his chest in familiar determination. We’ll get out of this, he seemed to be saying. A smirk and a wink solidified the promise.

Ben gave a small smile back, proud and saddened to see that Hoss seemed far more able than Ben to ignore the wound above his eye, which still trickled out a thin line of blood. Yes, Hoss would be alright. Ben was sure of it. He only wished he could be as sure about Joe.

“Pa,” Adam called out in an anxious whisper.

Ben turned his attention to his oldest son sitting by Joe’s feet beside the settee. Ben followed Adam’s gaze back to Joe, hope welling up within him from the gleam in Adam’s eyes. Yet that hope was dashed when he saw no apparent change. What was Adam trying to tell him? Only then did Ben see what was going on beneath the surface, in Joe’s eyes. They were still closed, yes. But they were moving, shifting back and forth under the lids as though he was caught in a dream.

“Hey, Joe!” Hoss said, his smirk slipping into a ready smile.

“Hoss,” Ben called softly.

As soon as Hoss turned his way, Ben shook his head back and forth. Don’t let them know, he was trying to say. Hoss nodded, seeming to understand, his own gaze moving toward Ramsey behind him. Ben wasn’t sure why it mattered so much, but it did matter. Ramsey could not know Joe might be awakening.

“Joe,” Adam began murmuring in a whisper that barely reached Ben, let alone Ramsey on the far side of the room. “I don’t know if you can hear me, but if you can I need you to listen…”

Adam? Joe could hear his brother talking to him, but he couldn’t see him. Why was it so dark?

“Can you do something for me to show me you can hear me?” Adam asked. “Can you move your finger? Move just one finger to show me you understand.”

You can see me? Joe wondered. Why can’t I see you?

“Can you move one finger, Joe?”

Adam? Adam, help me. I can’t… I can’t reach the surface. I need you to pull me up, Adam.

“Just one finger.”

Why? How can that help? But if that’s what Adam wanted him to do, if that’s what he had to do so Adam could help him, he might as well do it. Trouble was, he found it to be a lot harder than it should. Joe had to concentrate, to put all of his attention into trying to move just one finger.

“What’s with all this whispering?”

Who was that? Joe wondered. The voice was strange.

“Tying you up wasn’t enough? Do I need to gag you, too?”

Adam? Who is that? What’s going on?

“Your time is running out, you know,” Adam said. “Charlie Boyd is obviously giving your men a hard time. If you wait here much longer, that posse is going to get here before your men do.”

“Shut up!”

Joe heard the sharp crack of a fist against flesh, and then a soft grunt.

“Stop it!” Pa called out. “Stop this right now. Why don’t you just leave while you still can?”

“Because,” Adam said, “revenge is a lot more important to him than money. Isn’t that right, Ramsey?”

Ramsey? Burt Ramsey? Adam? Adam, you can’t fight a man like Ramsey.

“He crossed me,” Ramsey said. “Nobody crosses me no how and lives to talk about it.”

“You won’t live to talk about it either if you stay here much longer,” Adam added.

There was another crack and another groan, and then the sound of someone spitting.

“Leave him be,” Pa demanded.

“Sure,” Ramsey said lightly. “I’ll leave him be. I’ll leave you all be.”

There was a click. It sounded like a six-shooter being readied to fire.

“Just as soon as you’ve eaten all my bullets.”

“That wouldn’t be very smart now, would it?” Adam asked.

Joe wanted to call out, to tell Adam to stop pressing. Ramsey was a cold-blooded killer. He wouldn’t think twice about shooting Adam down. But Joe was still having a hard enough time trying to move that blasted finger.

“You wouldn’t have any left for the posse,” Adam went on.

Stop, Adam. Look. See! I’m moving my finger, just like you wanted. See? I heard you, Adam. I heard you. Now please, don’t make Ramsey kill you.

“What?” Ramsey asked. “What’re you looking at? This dead man over here?”

Someone pushed Joe then, roughly shaking his shoulder and causing his head to roll to the side. The motion awoke a wave of pain that sent a rush of water through his ears. Suddenly he was back in the lake, diving too deep once more.

Adam! Help me, Adam!

But he knew Adam couldn’t hear him, just as he could no longer hear Adam. The lake was too deep, the water too heavy. There was no more room for sound than there was for light. A fellow could drown in all that water. It was strange though to realize he could still breathe.

“Don’t you touch that boy! Can’t you see he’s hurt bad enough as it is?” Ben demanded.

“This kid ain’t moved one lick in all this time we been here. If he ain’t moved yet, he ain’t gonna move. He’s dead already; you’re just too thick-headed to see it.”

“I’ve already told you, it’s none of your concern.”

“It’s all my concern,” Ramsey answered. “Everything here is my concern. It’s my neck that posse’ll want. And every last one of you, even this dead one, is going to show ‘em that I mean to keep it from being stretched.”

“You’re waiting here on purpose,” Adam realized then. “Aren’t you? You sent your men out after Charlie Boyd just to give you an excuse to stick around. Why?”

Ramsey laughed. “Well, ain’t you a smart one. You’re so smart, you figure it out.”

“I intend to.”

“Well, while you’re thinkin’ on it, you just keep your mouth shut.”

Without another word, Ramsey walked back to Ben’s desk, retook his place in the fine, leather seat and proceeded to clean his gun. The young man named Tumbleweed had gone outside, and a Mexican had come in. The Mexican was now noisily rutting through the kitchen. Adam could only figure he was Ramsey’s cook.

“Pa,” Adam whispered harshly, casting a cautious glance toward the kitchen.

Ben shook his head, urging his son to silence.

But Adam couldn’t hold silent. This was too important. He licked fresh blood from his cut lip — thanks to Ramsey’s latest tirade — and went on. “Joe moved his finger. That’s what I was looking at.”

Ben’s eyes widened as he gaze shifted toward Little Joe. “Joseph?” He whispered. “Can you hear me, son?”

The youngest Cartwright moaned then. It was a disquieting sound, low and pain-filled. It was also the most blessed sound Adam had heard all day. He found himself smiling even as his pa urged Joe to silence.

“Shh,” Ben prompted. “You need to be quiet, Joe. Try to stay quiet, son.”

Maybe Joe heard him, because he did stay quiet then. He stopped moaning, and started moving. First it was his legs. He dragged them up and down across the cushions. Next it was his hands, grasping at the blanket that covered him as though trying to pull it free.

“It’s alright, Joseph,” Ben said softly. “Everything’s going to be all right, son. Just try to stay still.”

Finally, it was his eyes. Joe’s eyelids fluttered open, regarding Adam with a gaze that was unfocused, yet conscious nonetheless. Adam watched as the gaze slid downward. Joe’s brow furrowed ever so slightly as he caught site of Adam’s ankle, where it was tied to the leg of the chair. Several, long moments later, as Joe’s eyes found Adam’s, Adam shook his head slowly.

There’s nothing you can do, Joe, he tried to say without words. Don’t even try. If he said the words, he was sure Joe would take them as a challenge. This way, maybe Joe would listen. It’s not worth the effort. Just lie still and concentrate on getting well.

But Joe being Joe, he didn’t listen at all. Instead, he tried to roll over in an attempt to get himself off the settee. When he promptly fell back again, a soft but agonized groan escaped his lips.

“Lay still, Joseph,” Ben insisted quietly. “You must lay still.”

Adam was growing concerned Joe’s efforts would soon draw Ramsey’s attention, but luck turned in their favor when Ramsey’s men outside began shouting. Ramsey hurried out the door with the Mexican following close behind. Whatever was going on out there, Ramsey seemed both surprised and disturbed by it. Adam could only figure it had something to do with the reason Ramsey had chosen to wait at the Ponderosa. And if whatever it was didn’t go the way Ramsey wanted it to go, that couldn’t bode well for the Cartwrights.

Still, for now, for this moment, it proved to be a blessing, because just as Adam suspected he might, Joe refused to lie still. Apparently realizing getting up the normal way was not a good idea, Joe simply tried a new tactic. First he pushed his legs toward the side of the settee and dropped them to the floor.

“Joseph,” Ben dared a bit more loudly now that the Cartwrights were alone in the house. “Be still.”

But Joe went on, paying no heed to his father’s command.

Sorry, Pa, Adam could imagine his brother saying. But I’ve gotta help.

Adam found himself shaking his head in exasperation as Joe reached out his arm for support and then let his legs pull the rest of him slowly to the ground.

“Joseph!” Ben called out in a low, desperate tone.

For a long while, Joe lay on the floor, unmoving. Adam could see his brother’s chest heaving from the effort it had taken him to get that far. But as the moments passed, the heaving slowed to steady, rhythmic breathing. Finally, Joe opened his eyes once more, his gaze landing on the legs of his father’s chair beside his head — and the rope binding Ben’s ankle to the chair leg.

Joe let his gaze move outward until he found Adam’s. This time Adam nodded, flashing Joe a small, appreciative smile. And then Joe raised his hand to begin working until something stopped him from taking hold of the rope. Adam could almost follow Joe’s train of thought as the youngest Cartwright seemed to reconsider his options. He pushed himself backwards just far enough to get a good glimpse of Pa’s hands where they were tied together behind the chair. Surely seeing that the effort there would be far better spent, Joe began to work on that rope instead.

Adam’s smile widened. Sometimes Joe’s stubbornness wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

*****

Burt Ramsey would like to thank Judge Watkins and Sheriff Dover for their hospitality during his recent visit to the Carson City jail. He would also like to apologize for taking his leave without providing any notice. On the demise of Deputy Miller, Ramsey extends his deep felt gratitude that the sheriff had thought well enough in advance to send a rabbit to guard a rattlesnake. –letter to the editor of the Territorial Enterprise, signed by Tumbleweed.

*****

Burt Ramsey had sent a rider off to Carson City as soon as they had arrived at the Ponderosa. So what if it had still been raining hard and the man was already miserable? Ramsey needed information. Some talk he’d overheard in the Virginia City bank said there would be a load of freshly mined silver headed for the U.S. Mint. If the talk was true, Ramsey knew a man in Carson City who could be persuaded to get him all the details he might need to intercept such a load — a man with a reputation to uphold and a secret Ramsey had been waiting for the right opportunity to make use of. What could be more right than all that silver?

Trouble was, Ramsey’s rider turned out to be about as reliable as rain in the dessert. He came back without ever having set foot in Carson City.

“There was riders,” Ramsey’s man told him. “I didn’t want to run into no posse.”

“So you just turned tail and ran back here?” Ramsey asked, his tone calm.

“Had to.”

Ramsey smiled. “‘Course you did.”

By the time the rider saw Ramsey’s smile turn cold, it was already too late to react. The bullet caught him in the forehead while he was still reaching for his own sidearm.

“You see that, boys?” Ramsey said to his three remaining compadres. “Never send a rabbit when what you really need is a rattler.” He shook his head. “We got us too many rabbits. It’s time for us rattlers to move out.”

“What about the preacher?” The question came from the youth they called Tumbleweed. “He’s still out huntin’ down that Charlie Boyd.”

“He’ll catch up.” Ramsey shrugged. “Or he won’t. Don’t much matter to me either way.”

“I thought you liked the preacher.”

“Oh, I liked him fine up to now. But if he ain’t caught that lyin’ thief yet, then he ain’t the rattler I thought he was.”

“And those gringos inside?” The Mexican asked, jutting his chin toward the ranch house.

Ramsey turned to look. “Take the guns and whatever else you can carry. Then burn it down.”

“Not a good idea,” Tumbleweed said.

Ramsey’s face reddened. He approached the young man with a spark of the devil in his eyes. “What’d you say, boy?”

Tumbleweed took a nervous step backwards. “It… it won’t burn too well, wet as everything is. And all that smoke’ll draw the posse over this way.”

“And we’ll be gone by then, won’t we?” Ramsey’s voice was soft and harsh. It might even be said to rattle.

Tumbleweed hastily nodded. “Yes. Of course. We’ll be gone.”

“I oughta kill you right now.”

Tumbleweed paled, his eyes going wide and making him look more like the child he almost still was.

“Only reason I ain’t,” Ramsey went on, “I like your stories. I want to hear all of what you tell them newspapers about today.”

“Yes, sir.” Tumbleweed sounded like he was answering to his pa.

“Don’t you never challenge me again.”

“No, sir.”

“Save your rattlin’ for the lawmen. You hear me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What about the hombres, hefe?” The Mexican interrupted.

“Kill em first. Or let em burn. Don’t much matter to me.” Ramsey headed toward the barn, not bothering to give the house or the Cartwrights a second thought. They were already dead in Ramsey’s mind. The only men he knew he never had to concern himself with were dead men. He didn’t even miss a step when his boot heel ground the hand of his own dead rider down into the mud.

“Madre de dios,” the Mexican said softly as he watched his leader walk away.

Tumbleweed let his gaze wander toward the house. It was more than his feet could do just then.

Kill ‘em first. Or let ‘em burn.

Dead was dead. Did it really matter how it came to be?

Tumbleweed could almost hear the screams of his three older brothers, who had been trapped in their burning home just a few years earlier.

It’s your fault! His pa told him afterwards. You let ‘em burn!

For a long while he believed his pa. The guilt ate him alive, piece by piece until he couldn’t even feel the gumption to care anymore. Hearing the accusations after that just managed to stoke a fire in his belly. When he realized he’d been burning for a whole lot longer than his brothers did, he decided that was enough, and he planted a bullet into his pa’s temple. He could still remember standing there, staring at his pa’s dead eyes and feeling absolutely nothing at all. That moment had been both disappointing and edifying. He learned then that dead was dead. Whether it was a burning or a bullet, the end came out the same.

Trouble was, he didn’t like death much — not the way Ramsey did. Sure, some men deserved to die. But that rider didn’t. And those Cartwrights inside… Well, there was something in the way that dark haired brother watched over the other two. It reminded Tumbleweed of every last one of his older brothers and the way they had watched over him.

‘Course, none of that mattered now. And Tumbleweed owed Ramsey for taking him in the way he did, with him nothing but a two-bit thief running from the law. Ramsey was his older brother now. Shaking his head, Tumbleweed steeled himself to do what had to be done. Actually, he found it easier to think about once he started to write the story in his mind. In a fiery finale to the Ramsey gang’s finest act, Burt Ramsey rid the Nevada territory of the land-grabbing Cartwright clan…

While the other men were ransacking the house, Tumbleweed stood by himself, absently spinning the chamber in his six-shooter and staring at the Cartwrights. The youngest one had fallen to the floor. That didn’t make much sense seeing as how he’d been as still as death before and seemed the same now. But with him on the floor, that’s where his brothers’ eyes kept landing, and his pa’s, too. Tumbleweed had known that kind of concern once. It wasn’t right that he’d lost it.

It wasn’t right that this young man still had it, even when he was blind to it, halfway to the grave as he was. It wasn’t right at all.

This story was in need of some revision, Tumbleweed decided.

When the Ponderosa ranch house began to burn, Tumbleweed began to work out in his head, the smoke could be seen for miles around. Burt Ramsey and his gang, on their way out of Virginia City, knew there must be folks needing help, so of course they had to stop and give what help they could. It was the youngest Cartwright, the one they called Little Joe, what wouldn’t let them. All young Joe Cartwright could think of was getting his hands on the bounty. He started shooting and wouldn’t stop, even when his brothers called out for his help. By the time Ramsey himself cut him down, it was too late. The rest of the Cartwrights were trapped inside. There wasn’t nothing Ramsey’s men could do to save them.

It was a good story, Tumbleweed decided. And it told him exactly what he needed to do. First, he would empty his six-shooter into young Joe Cartwright. Then he would start the place on fire and ride as fast as he could on out of there so he wouldn’t have to listen to the rest of the Cartwrights’ screams.

Joe had managed to loosen the ropes around Ben’s hands before the effort became too much for him. He seemed to have passed out, but there was nothing Ben could yet do to check on Joe’s condition. The elder Cartwright had barely managed to finish the job and work his way free when three of Ramsey’s men returned. Now Ben was forced to pretend he was still bound until he could find an opportunity to free Adam and Hoss, or to take action against Ramsey on his own. Whichever way it had to go, he was ready. He simply had to wait it out, and strike when the moment was right.

There was nothing simple, however, about waiting. The sound of Ramsey’s young writer playing with his gun wore on Ben’s patience. It ate away at his nerves with the effectiveness of a clock ticking away minutes when he had no minutes to lose. And yet, strangely, when the sound stopped Ben found the silence to be even worse.

He could sense the young man approaching, and turned his head to look. Tumbleweed, or whatever his real name was, moved slowly across the back of the settee, his eyes locked on Little Joe. There was something in the youth’s gaze that was frightening. Ben felt himself growing cold at the sight of it. When he reached the back of Adam’s chair, Tumbleweed stopped. And then, with slow deliberation, he raised his gun.

The direction of his gaze, still focused on Joe, made his intentions terrifyingly clear.

This was Ben’s moment. He had no idea if Ramsey’s other men were currently in the house or not. It didn’t matter.

“Adam!” Ben shouted as he lunged forward.

In that very same instant, apparently equally aware of the youth’s plan, Adam threw his back against his chair, causing himself to fall backwards into the young outlaw and sending them both in a heap to the ground.

Ben scrambled over the top of them to reach for Tumbleweed’s gun. He was surprised when it didn’t take much effort for him to grab the gun away. When he saw an even greater amount of surprise as well as confusion in the young man’s eyes, Ben was reminded of his earlier assessment. Tumbleweed was still barely a man. There was a great deal of childhood yet within him, and judging from the youth’s chosen path, something in that childhood had left him lost, perhaps tumbling through life until Ramsey had taken him in.

Tumbleweed’s eyes began to gain renewed focus then, along with renewed rage. From the sound of excited shouts just outside, Ben knew he had no time to deal with Tumbleweed’s inner storm. One quick blow to the side of his head caused those eyes to close just as Ben’s attention was pulled to the door. He got off two shots, hitting the Mexican full in the chest before Ramsey’s other man started shooting back. Two more shots took that man out as well. Now the only one left was Ramsey himself.

Ben made quick work of freeing Adam and Hoss. They were three to one now, but Ramsey was fully armed while the Cartwrights had only one gun between them, a six-shooter with four bullets already spent. Every other gun in the house was out of reach, thanks to the scavenging work of Ramsey’s bandits.

“You’re a dead man, Cartwright,” Ramsey called from somewhere outside. “All of you Cartwrights. You’re all dead.”

When a lantern flew through the dining room window to splash a trail of kerosene and flames across the table and to the floor beyond, Ben’s concern about guns began to lose significance.

*****

When the escort of the lovely Miss Abigail Horn abandoned her on the dance floor at the Grantsville town fair, Mr. Burt Ramsey, being the noble gentleman he is, extended her the honor of his companionship for the remainder of the evening. It is unfortunate that her gratitude was so poorly shown this fine gentleman, particularly when he provided her with substantial recompense for the ruination of her dress. Even so, he would like to extend her a further courtesy by informing her of her errant escort’s demise. The dishonorable Mr. Harrison Gilmore was hanged for the crime of abandonment and interred in an unmarked grave somewhere south of Carson City. –letter to the editor of the Territorial Enterprise, signed by Tumbleweed.

*****

The storm had returned. Little Joe heard thunder booming, and then the loud crack of a lightning strike close by. There was a new smell of fire, something other than the low burning flames in the fireplace.

“Pa?”

The word this time sounded real, as though he had finally succeeded in passing sound through his lips. The water’s hold on him was slipping.

“Adam?”

He still wanted to feel his brother’s strong hand gripping his arm, pulling him back to the surface. But he remembered seeing Adam tied to a chair — Pa, too. And Hoss. He had tried to free Pa, hadn’t he? Did he succeed? Why couldn’t he remember?

Little Joe struggled through the fog of awakening until he was finally able to blink his vision free. Still, there was a new fog forming around him, the fog of smoke that burned his eyes.

“Pa?”

He looked to the chair beside him, grateful to find it empty, and then toward where he expected to see Adam and Hoss. Both were gone. Taking comfort from their absence even as he felt a pang of solitude, he closed his eyes to give a quiet prayer of thanks.

Another loud crack pulled his eyes open once more. He could feel the flames growing closer, hotter.

“Adam!” Pa called out. “Get more blankets. Hoss, get some water over on that chair.”

They were in trouble, Joe realized. They were all in trouble. He needed to help them.

Putting one hand on the table beside him and the other on the settee, he pulled himself upright — too quickly. The motion caused the world to spin dizzily around him. He knew he should lie back down and try again, more slowly. But there wasn’t time. He gave himself just a moment to close his eyes, hoping to stem a growing wave of nausea. Yet somehow the darkness seemed to make the world spin faster. He opened his eyes again and steeled himself for the consequences.

Feeling like a drunken sailor at sea, Joe pushed and pulled himself to his knees. It took all of his strength to hold himself in that position while he emptied his stomach on the floor in front of him. After he was spent, he dropped his head to his arm on the table for a long while, trying to work up enough energy to go on. When he finally dared to raise his head again and look out at the whirling world around him, he found himself looking at a young man, maybe even younger than Joe was himself, with red-gold hair and light blue eyes.

Like Joe, the youth was sitting on the ground. Unlike Joe, he did not appear to be struggling with staying upright. He sat cross legged, resting his elbows on his knees as though patiently waiting for something. And his eyes, they stared so hard at Joe he could almost swear they were looking right inside him.

“You’re supposed to be dead,” the youth said softly.

“Well, I’m not,” Joe said even softer.

“I would have killed you myself.”

“So why didn’t you?”

“Your pa and brother stopped me.”

Joe let his eyes close for just a moment. He felt himself swaying, and wishing his pa and brothers were there right now. But he could still hear them behind him, battling the flames.

“You’re a lucky man,” the youth went on.

Joe blinked in lieu of nodding. It was as much of an answer as he could muster.

“It ain’t fair, men like you having all that luck — a warm safe house and a family to take care of you.”

Well, I’m sorry about that, Joe thought. He didn’t bother to try saying it out loud.

“He’s going to kill you all, you know. But it’s probably better that way.”

“What?”

“It’s better if you all die, all at the same time. Like I shoulda done, when my brothers died.”

“I…I’m sorry.”

“What do you have to be sorry about?”

“Your brothers.”

“I don’t need no sympathy from a dead man.”

“I’m not dead yet, and… I don’t aim to be any time soon.” It was more words than Joe would have thought himself capable of saying all at once. The effort left him out of breath and even dizzier than before.

“You will be. Soon enough. And so will your pa and brothers. Ramsey will see to that.”

“Yeah? Well, you said we were lucky.” Joe’s vision was growing dark again. He knew he would not be able to hold his position much longer. He also knew he had to hold it. “If we’re so lucky,” he struggled to say, “then he can’t kill us.”

The youth smiled. “You’re half dead already. I could kill you right now, with my bare hands. It would take no effort at all.”

“Then why don’t you?” Joe challenged, though he knew the foolishness of it. He had no strength, no hope to even attempt to fight back. Why invite trouble? All he knew was he couldn’t seem to stop himself.

The youth lifted one eyebrow, as in consideration. “Maybe I should.” Still, he made no move toward Joe.

“Well, go on then.” Joe wasn’t sure his words were real anymore. The world tilted, forcing Joe backwards until he found himself looking up at the ceiling again.

A moment later, the youth stood over him, looking down on Little Joe as though from a great height. Like Goliath trying to crush David, Joe watched the youth raise his foot and then bring it down onto Joe’s throat. There was nothing Joe could do to push him away, nothing at all. Joe saw the youth’s smile darken into a grimace as the foot pressed down on Joe’s windpipe. He couldn’t breathe. And then he couldn’t see. The world, which had already been growing dark, swirled into a black chasm where no sun could ever shine.

Adam, he said deep inside himself. Pull me up. I need you to pull me back up.

The next sound he heard was another loud crack of thunder. And then there it was, that grip on his arm. The grip held there, firm and unyielding, until the world swam back into view. The first thing Joe saw then was Adam looking down on him, ready to scold him for diving too deep.

Joe smiled. “It’s about time,” he said in a ragged whisper.

Two lanterns and three flaming branches had come through the window before a disturbance outside apparently pulled Ramsey’s attention away from burning out the Cartwrights. Maybe it was the rest of his men returning. Ben didn’t have time to consider how to beat such impossible odds. He, Hoss and Adam were too busy fighting a desperate battle against the flames that kept growing around them. When they finally seemed to be making headway, Adam called out.

“Pa!”

Adam was already moving — away from the flames and toward Little Joe.

And then Ben saw why. The young man, Tumbleweed, was standing over his youngest son. As Ben looked closer, he realized Tumbleweed was pressing his foot down onto Joe’s throat.

“My God!” There was no time for thought. Ben drew Tumbleweed’s gun from where he’d tucked it in his belt and fired the last two shots.

Adam was the first to reach Joe. He grabbed Joe’s arm as though that action alone could pull his youngest brother away from the grip of death.

Maybe it did. By the time Ben reached Joe’s side, his youngest son coughed and took a shuddering breath. Then, finally — blessedly — he opened his eyes.

Ben closed his own in silent prayer.

“As the Ponderosa ranch house burned,” a halting voice said softly behind the senior Cartwright, “the brothers did everything they could to save one another. But it wasn’t enough. It could never be enough for anyone trying to fight against the likes of Burt Ramsey.”

Ben turned to the dying young man behind him. Tumbleweed’s eyes were focused on the ceiling.

“What’s your name?” Ben asked, compelled to know for reasons he chose not to question. Suddenly, unexplainably, the young man seemed more a boy than an outlaw who had tried to murder Little Joe — a lost, little boy.

“The Cartwrights’ screams could be heard for miles…”

“Pa!” Hoss shouted in excitement. “It’s Charlie Boyd. The posse’s with him. Can you believe that?”

Ben could hear the startled relief in Hoss’ voice. It was over. It was all finally over.

“They died together…” The youth went on.

“It’s fiction, boy,” Ben said. “None of it is true. Ramsey has lost this time.”

The youth’s gaze moved from the ceiling to Ben. “Ramsey can’t lose,” he said. “Ramsey…never loses.”

“He has this time. It’s over.”

“Over?” The youth seemed puzzled. “But the brothers…burned…in the fire.”

“Not today. Not my sons.”

“My brothers,” the youth said. “They burned. I couldn’t…couldn’t save them.”

Ben could not help but feel the weight of the boy’s words. “I’m sure they know you tried,” he offered.

“Pa… blamed me.”

“Did he have reason to?”

“No. That’s…that’s why…” The youth shivered and closed his eyes.

And that’s why you fell in with the likes of Burt Ramsey, Ben finished silently in the boy’s behalf.

“I never wanted to kill him.” Those were the young man’s last words in this life. Ben could only assume he’d been referring to Little Joe.

*****

BOYD BROTHERS BREAK RAMSEY

CARNAGE AT CARTWRIGHT RANCH

The days of Burt Ramsey’s gang terrorizing the good citizens of Nevada Territory were brought to an end at the Ponderosa ranch on Thursday last, with thanks in large part owed to Charlie Boyd and his brother, the late Ezra Boyd. After robbing the Virginia City bank, Ramsey and his gang holed up at the Ponderosa ranch. The Cartwright family barely escaped with their lives, and might surely have perished were it not for the heroic efforts of the Boyds.

*****

Drawn by the sound of Hoss’ voice, Joe climbed out of bed, moving slowly to lessen the effects of the dizziness that was sure to follow. Apparently, his brother was reading aloud from an article in the newspaper. Joe was just as curious as the rest of his family to hear what it had to say. He decided it was worth it to make a cautious trek to the top of the stairs where he could hear the words coming from the main room below more clearly. Once there, he stayed close to the rail and held tight to the newel post. The last thing he needed was to let his dizziness send him tumbling down.

“Give me that paper.” Pa grabbed the latest edition of the Territorial Enterprise from Hoss’ hands.

As Pa’s eyes danced across the page, Joe could see his shoulders tense. A moment passed in frustrating silence until Pa finally began to read aloud as Hoss had done. Unlike Hoss, Pa’s voice gained volume with each word.

“Despite no longer being in the employ of Ben Cartwright, fired for reasons undisclosed, Ezra Boyd gave his life in brave defense of the ranch.” Pa clenched the paper tightly in one hand and slapped at it with his other. “Why, that’s absurd. None of it would have happened if the Boyd’s hadn’t…” Apparently unable to find the right words to describe all the troubles the Boyd’s had brought to his family, Pa said nothing more.

“Let me see that.” Adam gently pried the paper away from his father and took his own turn at reading. “Charlie Boyd single-handedly defeated ten of Ramsey’s outlaw riders, leading them right into the grip of a posse led by Virginia City’s Sheriff Roy Coffee. What makes this incredible feat even more astounding is the fact that Boyd started out unarmed and afoot, and had to unhorse two of Ramsey’s murdering thieves in order to correct that situation.”

Hoss shrugged. “I have to admit, it does sound awful heroic when you put it that way.”

Joe found himself smiling, but neither Pa nor Adam seemed to share his amusement. They cast looks toward Hoss that Joe could only imagine until Hoss dug his hands deep into his pockets and nodded his head, prompting Adam to continue.

“Sheriff Coffee and four members of the original posse — the others having been disposed to the incarceration of the outlaws already in custody — arrived in the nick of time to save the Cartwright house from burning to the ground with the family still inside. The Cartwright’s had been bound as hostages of the youngest member of the Ramsey gang, a man of approximately nineteen years of age known only as Tumbleweed.”

“Preposterous!” Pa shouted. “They make us sound like…like a bunch of infants. Held hostage by a single nineteen-year-old boy? That’s outrageous.”

“Readers,” Adam went on, “will recognize Tumbleweed as the pen name signed to several letters printed in this newspaper over the past six months. Tumbleweed’s turn on words had the effect of building Ramsey into a figure of legendary stature.”

“A legend?” Pa shook his head in consternation.

“Ben Cartwright,” Adam emphasized Pa’s name, “shot and killed young Tumbleweed. Despite the horrific content of the young man’s letters, they provided for much entertainment, as indicated by the many letters from readers this newspaper has also received. His authorship will be missed.”

“So Burt Ramsey is a legend,” Pa said in a voice only slightly less loud than before, “Ezra and Charlie Boyd are heroes, and I shot down in cold blood a young man this entire territory thought of as a fine author. Does it say anything at all about that murdering scoundrel trying to kill Little Joe?”

Adam glanced ahead in the article, and then looked back up at Pa and shook his head. “Not a word.”

“Well maybe it’s time for that newspaper to receive a letter from me…”

“Pa.”

Little Joe’s voice was soft. It didn’t matter. It could have been a whisper and it would still have reached Ben Cartwright’s ears, even above the din of the elder Cartwright’s own tirade. Pa turned and moved quickly to the stairs.

“Joe, you shouldn’t be up. Doc Martin said…”

“Dizzy spells,” Joe interrupted. “I know. I just…” He took a deep breath as his father and brothers climbed the stairs toward him. “I needed to tell you it doesn’t matter.”

“What doesn’t matter?”

“The newspaper,” Joe said. “The story.”

When they came together at the top of the stairs, Joe refused to let them cajole him back to bed until he’d said what he needed to say. He kept his hand on the newel post, gripping it as tightly as he could.

“I’m sorry, Joe.” Ben reached his hand to Joe’s shoulder. “I should not have raised my voice.”

“You were angry. I understand that. It’s fine to be angry. But…”

“But it is not fine to be so angry that I could forget even for an instant you needed your rest.”

“No, Pa. That’s fine, too.” Joe smiled, just for a moment. “But that nineteen-year-old…boy was not a murdering scoundrel. He was just a kid who’d lost his family. He told me…he said his brothers died, and that it wasn’t right for them to die and for him to still be alive. Don’t you see, Pa? He was just lost, alone, and when Ramsey took him in, he must have known none of what they did was right, but he tried to make it seem right. He wrote stories; he created fiction because the reality was just too…wrong.”

Ben was skeptical. “That all may be true. But Joe, he tried to kill you, son. He tried to murder you. And he would have if we hadn’t stopped him.”

“I know, Pa. I know. You did what you had to do, because I’m your son. We’re family. And he did what he felt he had to do because he couldn’t accept the reality that I still had a family while his was gone. And even Ezra Boyd did what he had to do. Maybe it was to protect Charlie. Maybe it was to make something right out of the wrong thing he did when he hit me. I don’t know, Pa. I don’t know why. But he did what he had to do. And if that newspaper wants to call him a hero for doing it, then maybe, just maybe, that will make it a little bit easier for Charlie Boyd to feel like he didn’t have to die right along with his brother to make things right again.”

Joe knew in his heart what he wanted to say, but he could not be sure the words he used were enough to express it. No one spoke when he was done. Instead, his pa and brothers just let their gazes wander between themselves and Joe, as though trying to make sense out of something that was senseless — as senseless as Ezra Boyd hitting Joe with a shovel and a young man lying six feet under now only because he was too unfortunate to die when his brothers did.

“Look, what I’m trying to say is…”

“I know, son,” Pa cut in. “What you’re trying to say is we’re still a family. And whatever happened that day, we, all of us, survived it. That makes us blessed.”

The floor started tilting before Joe could respond. In an instant, Joe found himself sandwiched between his brothers as they half carried and half guided him back to his room.

“You’re a lucky man,” Tumbleweed had told him.

Yeah, he realized. I am.

***The End***

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