Wolf in the Wind (by freyakendra)

Summary: Seeking shelter in a line shack during an early spring ice storm, Joe encounters a family of moonshiners he doesn’t stand the chance of fighting. He can do nothing but hold to the thin hope that his family will reach him in time.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: MA
Word Count: 25,000


 

 

Ice pelted the windows. It scraped at the door like claws; Joe imagined a hungry wolf slashing at the wood, as determined to get in as he had been moments earlier. The incessant wind that had been whooshing and whistling through the small line shack even seemed to growl now and then, making Joe almost believe his wolf might not be entirely imaginary.

The turn of his thoughts made him shiver. It was bitter cold, even in there. The line shack had nothing to insulate it from the chill outside. It had also been hastily constructed with wooden planks that fit poorly together, leaving cracks and crevices for all that wind to seep through. Truth be told, being indoors wasn’t much better than being outside, if all you cared about was the temperature. But Joe cared a whole lot more about the wind and ice he’d come in to escape. He preferred the idea of being cold inside over being blown around out there and getting wetter and more frozen by the minute.

Sure, the shack was breezy. But it was sturdy. Those planks were solid oak. It would take more wind than what was blowing around today to tear it apart. The shack also had a stove. If Joe could find enough wood to get it started, he might be able to chase away at least some of the chill.

But when he looked in the bin, what he saw made him as angry as he was cold. He could get a fire started, all right. But it wouldn’t last. It would burn itself out so fast it was hardly worth starting at all.

If Joe really wanted to warm up, he would have to go back outside. He shivered again just thinking about it. His jacket was wet, nearly soaked through. Much more of that ice and his shirt would end up wet, too. And then what? What if he couldn’t find enough dry wood to start a fire?

As if in answer, a heavy gust rattled the door and sent a wave of frigid air through the shack. A loud crack outside told Joe that same gust had also broken a limb off of a nearby tree. The storm was getting worse. If it didn’t stop soon, Joe would be stuck there through the night, and it didn’t look like it was going to be stopping any time soon.

Shivering, frustrated and angry, Joe started to pace, short, jagged step by short, jagged step. He hoped maybe the movement would help him to warm up some. It didn’t. Instead it made him anxious to do something more. Stopping, he took a long look at the cold stove. Then he turned his attention to the door, watching it bumping and bouncing around from the onslaught outside.

Almost before he even realized he’d made a decision, Joe took three strides toward the door, lifted the wooden latch, and plunged out into the wind.

*****

“Don’t be a fool, Joe!” he could almost hear Adam yelling as he wrapped his jacket around an armload of twigs and logs. “You’ll freeze half to death!”

But Joe didn’t feel any colder without his jacket than he’d been wearing it, and he figured if he did freeze half to death, at least he would have a fire to thaw himself out. All he had to do was keep that wood from getting any wetter than it already was.

He cradled it in his arms like a living thing as he trudged back to the line shack, fighting against the wind and cringing at the ice falling like needles on his exposed skin. When he reached the door, it was a struggle to push it open, as though the wind had decided he would not be allowed back inside — as though he had only been given one chance, and coming back now was one chance too many.

He cursed, fighting with the door and nearly dropping his treasure in the slush at his feet, until, finally, the wind eased up just enough to let him stumble inside. Every muscle in his body gave out at that moment. His arms went slack, letting the wood tumble to the floor ahead of him as he fell to his knees, exhausted and struggling to catch his breath.

The wind pulled at the door again, seeming intent to lock out any other stray cowboys or wolves that happened by, but now Joe was in the way. The door pounded against his hip, determined to push him back outside while ice continued to sting his back.

He had to move. He knew he should drag himself all the way in. He wanted to. He needed to gather up those twigs and logs and finally get a real fire started. But he was tired…so very tired…more tired than he could ever remember being.

“Come on, short shanks!” he could hear Hoss egging him on. “You can’t give up now! You already did the hard part!”

“Joseph!” Pa said then. “For heaven’s sake! Get that blasted door closed before you give us all our death of cold!”

Sorry, Pa! Joe answered — or he thought he did, anyway — as he pulled himself to his feet using the door frame for support. The door came back on him, hitting him again and again until he twisted enough to allow it to finally slam closed. And then he leaned against it, aiming to drop the latch. But that, too, seemed like too much work. Instead, he slid back to the floor and allowed himself to close his eyes — just for a little while…just until he could muster up the strength to get that fire going once and for all.

The howling he heard then might have been the wind, or it might have been a wolf locked out in the frigid air. Either way, it seeped into Joe’s dreams, pulling him deeper and deeper. It was like a living thing that saw him as its treasure and wrapped him up as tight as he’d tried to wrap the logs now abandoned on the floor — or like a wolf in the wind that already had him in its hungry jaws.

*****

“Joe! Start that fire, Joe!” Hoss’ shouts pulled Joe slowly out of the darkness, out of the warmth of his murky, dreamless sleep. “Come on, Joe! You got to get up and get movin’!”

“In a minute,” Joe answered — or he thought he did, anyway.

Now, Joe! Come on! You’re runnin’ out of minutes.” Hoss nudged him, pushing at his back as though he intended to roll Joe right out of bed.

“I said in a minute!” Joe shouted. His eyes shot open, instantly seeking out his brother in anger.

Only…his brother wasn’t there. Joe was alone in a line shack, miles from home, miles from the warmth of his bed. He thought of his own soft mattress and suddenly the floor beneath him seemed harder, miserably so. He tried to picture himself nestling deep into his sheets and pulling the thick, quilted coverlet up to his neck.

“Ain’t no use pining over somethin’ you can’t have,” Hoss scolded, nudging again at his back.

No, Joe realized. That wasn’t Hoss. It was the door. He’d forgotten to close the latch. He was alone, Joe reminded himself yet again. Hoss wasn’t real. Joe’s bed wasn’t real. The only thing real was this line shack, and that miserable storm. And if he ever wanted that bed of his to be real again, Joe was going to have to start the fire Hoss had been all fired up about getting him to start.

No, not Hoss! Joe shouted into the fragments of thoughts storming through his fog-filled mind. Hoss isn’t here! What was wrong with him, anyway?

He pushed himself upward, confused by the numbness in his hands and feet, and clumsily set the latch back into place. That would hold, he decided. It would hold against the wind, and the wolves, and maybe even…maybe even moonshine-addled lunatics like Jonas…like….

“Jonas T. Schultz is the name,” the old man said, smiling around a mouth only half-filled with dark, rotting teeth. He held out his hand, and Joe was startled by the sight of leather-wrapped bones.

Joe did not accept the greeting. He didn’t even dismount. He stayed astride Cochise and edged his own hand over his gun. “Well, my name’s Cartwright, Mr. Schultz. Joe Cartwright. And this property isn’t yours to build on.”

“That right?” Mr. Schultz looked around and scratched at the scraggly gray hairs barely clinging to his balding scalp. “But if there ain’t already somthin’ built on it, I sure don’t see the harm. All I’m tryin’ to do is give myself a little shelter here, next to the finest still this side of the Mississippi.” He reached for a jug, and then handed it up to Joe. “Best moonshine you’ll ever taste, son,” he said, smiling wider now. “Best there is, or my name ain’t Jonas T. Schultz.”

“You’ll have to find another place to set up your still, Mr. Schultz,” Joe said, making no effort to take the jug. “You’re on Ponderosa land.”

“Son,” Schultz’s smile faltered. “A man offers you up his own hard-made moonshine, you take it.” He thrust the jug forward once more.

Joe kept one hand on Cochise’s reins while the other continued to hover over his gun. “You might as well hold onto it,” he said sternly, “because it’ll be the last batch you make until you set up somewhere else, away from the Ponderosa.”

The old man met Joe’s gaze for a moment, and then nodded, slowly turning away. “First,” he said, keeping his back to Joe, “you insult the fruits of my labor by refusin’ it. And then you threaten that labor di-rectly.” He continued shaking his head. “Ain’t right. You got to know that just ain’t right.”

A rush of wind swirled around the man. It howled through the crevices of his leathery smile as he swiveled back toward Joe flashing the yellow eyes of a wolf and sporting a mouth full of canine fangs. “Ain’t right, boy!” he growled.

An icicle plunged into Joe’s arm, throwing him from the saddle. He hit the ground with a start, the door rattling behind him.

“Not real,” Joe told himself. “Not…real.”

The only thing that was real was this line shack, that storm outside, and the fact that Joe had to start a fire. He had to get warm. For an instant, he let his thoughts slip back to his bed, but he didn’t let them stay there. He couldn’t. Hoss was right. There was no point to pining over something that wasn’t real.

But it was real, though. He knew it was — as real as Jonas T. Schultz and the most deadly moonshine this side of the Mississippi. It was all real. Even Hoss was real. He was just…out of reach. For now. After the storm Joe could make his way back home. He could finally put that lunatic, Jonas, behind him. He could put all of it behind him. After the storm. Yes, after the storm. After the–

“Joe!”

“After…after the storm, Hoss.”

“There ain’t gonna be no after if you don’t get a fire goin’!”

Joe opened his eyes again and found himself staring at the jumble of dropped logs. “A fire,” he whispered. “Have to build…a fire.”

How long it took, Joe would never know. Time came and went — even reality seemed to come and go in intervals of sanity and lunacy, as though Joe had somehow become Jonas T. Schultz…or been infected by him. But no, that wasn’t right. The trouble was, he didn’t know what was right, not anymore. He didn’t know anything for sure at all anymore. He knew only that the wind was still blowing, its icy daggers pelting the wood and the windows around him, and somehow…somehow he had managed to get a fire going. He sat on the floor, staring into the flames and wondering what he was forgetting.

“Your primary concern was to get warm,” Adam said. “What was secondary?”

“I don’t…I don’t know.”

“Think about it, Joe. You had two things to take care of when you came here. What were they?”

“To get warm,” Joe answered.

“And what else?”

“To…to get out of the rain.”

“Come on, Joe!” Adam argued. “You can do better than that! Getting out of the rain was all part of getting warm. What else did you have to do?”

“I don’t remember.”

“You have to remember, Little Joe!”

“I don’t…I can’t.” He stared at the flames, not even bothering to close the iron door in the belly of the stove. The fire mesmerized him, comforting him as nothing else could.

“What else did you have to do?” Adam shouted.

“It…doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, Joe! It does!”

“No.” Growing drowsy, Joe lowered himself to the ground. He didn’t want to argue. He was too tired to argue.

“Joe!” Adam hollered.

Joe pulled his legs toward his chest, curling up to absorb as much warmth as he could.

“What else, Joe?”

Joe wrapped his arms around him…and felt that icicle ripping into his bicep once more. His eyes shot open. He stopped breathing…only for an instant, only long enough to let the pain subside, and then he reached a numb, shaking hand to his right arm.

“Ain’t right, boy!” Jonas T. Schultz had scolded him. The next instant had been a rush of lost breath and white-hot pain as a knife plunged itself into Joe’s arm and threw him from the saddle.

And now…now the knife was gone. Cochise was gone. Even Jonas T. Schultz was gone. But Joe was here in this line shack. And just as he was finally starting to get warm, he was also finally starting to realize he had to find some way to treat the wound.

“Hypothermia, infection and blood loss,” Doc Martin said. “Any one of them could kill him, Ben. Add all three together, and….”

“And Hoss was right,” Joe said. “Ain’t gonna be no after the storm…not if I don’t…don’t spend more time on this side of reality.” Or was it sanity?

“Ain’t right, boy!” Jonas T. Schultz flashed him a toothless, fanged grin.

“No,” Joe said softly. “It isn’t.”

He couldn’t close his eyes. He knew he couldn’t close his eyes. He just needed…just needed a moment to catch his breath.

*****

Hoss flicked another card into the basket someone had left at the foot of the stairs and then finished off his third mug of beer. “I sure wish we’d stayed home and let Joe head into town like he wanted to in the first place.”

Adam was leaning back in his chair, with his arms crossed in front of him, his legs stretched out under the table and his hat pulled low over his eyes. “Would have served him right.” He spoke slowly, clearly in no rush to get his words out. “The way he was carrying on you’d think his life depended on a poker game, a pretty girl on his knee and a round of beers for every miner in town.”

“Well, he’d of had a short life here tonight. Ain’t a soul comin’ into town with all this rain.”

“Nope. No one but us.”

“Yeah. Lucky us.” Hoss tossed another card into the basket. “If it’d had the decency to start rainin’ before we left home, we’d never have left. We’d be there right now.”

“Yep.”

“Sittin’ beside a nice, warm fire.”

“Yep.”

“Sippin’ on warm brandy.”

“Yep.”

“Instead we got us a cold, empty saloon and warm beer.” A card hit the side of the basket and bounced to the floor.

“Yep.”

“Reckon Joe and Dusty made it home before it got too bad up there?”

“I imagine so.” Adam took a deep breath, nudged his hat up off of his forehead and stretched. Then he leaned into the table and took another drink of his own beer. “Joe’s probably sitting in front of our nice, warm fire and sipping our warm brandy right now.”

“Don’t you mean Pa’s brandy?”

“It’d be ours if we were drinking it, which we’re not.”

“Or maybe Joe didn’t make it home, an’ he’s just sittin’ in that ol’ line shack even more miserable than us.”

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s too stubborn to be miserable. If he is in that line shack, he’s probably got the stove all stoked up and has already started roasting whatever they’ve managed to shoot.”

“What sort of game do you think they might find out in this weather? Gotta be ten degrees colder or more up there. Could even be snowin’.”

“Oh, I don’t know. A nice, fat, snowshoe hare would do.”

“Yeah.” Hoss nodded. “I reckon it would at that. A steak would be even better.”

“He’s hardly likely to butcher a steer.”

“I was thinkin’ ’bout us. We could get us some steak over at the International House. Reckon we ought to call it a night?”

Adam sighed. “Might as well. Everyone else has.”

“A meal like that’ll warm us up.”

“I’d settle for a warm bed.”

Hoss started to rise, turning his gaze to the downpour outside. “Trouble is, to get there we got to go through that.”

“Yep.”

“Didn’t even bring my slicker with me.”

“Nope.” Adam buttoned his coat, pulled up the collar, marched over to the swinging doors…and stayed right where he was.

“Well?” Hoss said, coming up behind him, his own coat buttoned up as tight as it would go.

Taking a deep breath, Adam gave his head one slow shake, pulled his hat down lower and resolutely stepped outside.

*****

The more miserable it is outside, the less likely folks are to pay much attention to one another. Everyone tends to be more interested in just getting where they’re aiming to go. A night like that, with all that rain, there’s sure wasn’t gonna be a whole lot of ‘how do you do’s’ going on. Maybe that’s why Hoss thought it was peculiar to see a small crowd forming out by Mr. Maybourne’s hardware store.

“Hey, Adam. What do you think’s goin’ on over there?”

Like Hoss, Adam was curious enough to stop moving despite the rain. “Isn’t Mr. Maybourne still out of town?”

“Last I heard he was.”

“That horse….” Adam’s back straightened in a way that made Hoss’ own spine tingle, as though he already knew something was wrong.

Puzzled by Adam’s mention of a horse, Hoss tried to get a better look. Sure enough, there was a horse mixed up in that crowd. Some of it was as dark as the shadows, but there were patches of white showing through. “Cochise?” he wondered aloud.

Adam took a few steps forward, slow and steady, and Hoss followed right along with him. The closer they came to the crowd, the clearer they could both see that horse. It was Cochise alright.

What was Joe doing to get a crowd all worked up in the middle of a rainy night like that?

Then someone turned and started running right toward them. In a few seconds they could see it was Mr. Avery. That’s when Mr. Avery could see it was them, too. He stopped, shaking his head. “He’s one of yours, Adam. It doesn’t look good.”

“What do you mean one of ours?” Adam asked.

“The man back there. Barely made it to town as it is. Half froze, all cut up. Fell right off his horse. I was goin’ for the sheriff.”

“What about the doc?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t know that there’s much point.” Mr. Avery looked behind him for a moment, and then continued on his way.

“It ain’t Joe,” Hoss told Adam. “Can’t be Joe. If it was Joe, Mr. Avery would have told us it was him.”

“If it’s not Joe, why was he riding Joe’s horse?”

In an instant they were both running over slick mud through the icy rain, all thoughts of warm fires, brandy, snowshoe hares and juicy steaks forgotten.

*****

“What I can tell so far….” Doc Martin started talking without looking up from his patient, a ranch hand who went by the name of Dusty McGraw. “He’s been shot at at least seven times.”

“Shot seven times?” Hoss questioned from the other side of the table. “How’s that possible? He’d a never made it…”

“I said shot at, Hoss. Bullets just skimmed him. Enough to hurt and slow him down, but not really enough to bring him down.”

“Well, I guess it’s a good thing whoever done it had bad aim and worse luck.”

“No!” Dusty called out suddenly. He started rolling his head back and forth across the pillow, and then tried to push himself up.

“Easy there, fella,” Hoss said, pressing him back. “You gotta let the doc take care of you afore you go runnin’ off anywhere.”

“Wasn’t bad aim, Hoss!” he said, breathless and weak. “Not bad aim. They…had good aim. Perfect aim.” He blinked a few times and then tried to focus on Hoss; there was a glassy look to his eyes. “Didn’t want to kill me. Not that way. Too…too easy. Too quick.” He closed his eyes again.

“What do you mean ‘too quick’?”

“Couldn’t…couldn’t be an easy death. That’s what they said. Couldn’t be…. They’re animals, Hoss. Monsters. Worse’n Indians. I never seen…I ain’t never….”

“Who are you talkin’ about?” Sheriff Coffee asked then.

“They thought I was Joe. Called me…called me Cartwright. Said I…I killed him.”

“They thought you killed Joe?” Adam asked then.

“No. Thought I was Joe. Said Joe killed…killed their pa.”

“Where is he?” Adam asked. “Where’s Joe?”

Hoss met his older brother’s gaze while something awful started churning up his insides; it looked to him like Adam felt it, too.

“Don’t know,” Dusty went on. “Couldn’t…couldn’t find him. Just his horse. Mine…. Had to shoot mine. Had to…had to put him down. Legs were broke. Those…monsters.”

“What can you tell us about these fellas, Dusty?” Sheriff Coffee asked next. “Tell us about the men who shot at you.”

“They…they wasn’t like men. More like…like animals. I found…found Cochise. Started lookin’ for Joe…and those…those monsters…They come after me. Just saw me…or maybe…maybe Cochise. Maybe it was Cochise they saw…but it was…was like seein’ that horse worked ’em into some kinda…a frenzy. Like a pack of rabid wolves. No. Worse’n wolves. Worse. I’d rather…rather face a wolf. Rather….” His voice softened to a whisper, and then to nothing at all, his last word expelled in a single, long exhalation.

Hoss never did see him breathe in again after that.

Doc must’ve noticed that, too. He listened to Dusty’s heart and then shook his head. “Sorry, boys. He’s dead.”

Hoss was the first one to speak up. “I don’t like it,” he said, looking pointedly at Adam, at the sheriff and then at his brother again. “We gotta go up there, Adam. We gotta find Joe.”

Doc Martin answered instead. “All you’re likely to find tonight is your death of cold!”

Hoss glared back at him, his decision solidified thanks to the doc’s own words. “That’s what I want to make sure don’t happen to Joe.”

“Or worse,” Adam said, looking over to Sheriff Coffee.

“It’d be wiser to wait ’til mornin’.” Roy said it more like he felt it was something he had to say than like he believed it was what they needed to do.

“Yeah, but,” Hoss said, “I got a feelin’ mornin’ll be too late.”

Roy nodded. “I’ll go with you, but I gotta tell you boys, you be on your guard up there. I sure don’t think we’re lookin’ for monsters. We can’t hardly believe everything Dusty just told us. He was half out of his mind, an’ we all know that. But….” He scrunched up his forehead and shook his head again. “Somethin’ bad happened up there. And somethin’ bad might still be happenin’, and…”

“And whatever it is,” Hoss cut in, “Joe’s right in the middle of it.”

*****

Barkin’ at a knot: doing something useless; wasting your time trying something impossible

Hair in the butter: a delicate situation

Hobble your lip: shut up

Nailed to the counter: proven a lie

Pulling a kite: making a face

Scarce as hen’s teeth: extremely rare or hard to find

Velvet couch: cowboy’s bedroll

*****

The wolf was in the line shack.

No, it wasn’t just one wolf; it was a whole pack of them. How had they gotten in? Joe had set the latch. He knew he’d set the latch. Hadn’t he?

The walls rattled around him, shaken by a wind that shrieked and howled through every crack.

Or maybe it wasn’t the wind howling. Maybe it was the wolves. They were there…a whole pack of wolves was right there beside Joe, surrounding him. He would never be able to fight them all off.

He had to lie still. Maybe if he held himself completely still, they wouldn’t attack. But he was so cold…he couldn’t stop shivering.

Adam! he called out silently. Shoot it, Adam.

But Adam wasn’t there, was he? That had been another time, another place. And Joe hadn’t been so cold then. He’d been hot, so hot he couldn’t think straight.

He was thinking straight now, though. He could feel them all around him. Two began nudging him with their muzzles, trying to turn him to his back.

No, Joe pleaded silently. Can’t…can’t show them my throat. Can’t….

One started clawing at his arm. Red fire flared from the wound.

Adam! He struggled to keep the shout from escaping, almost seeming to strangle himself with the way his efforts constricted his throat. Hoss!

But Joe knew he was on his own. It would be up to him to fight them off, to get away. Somehow, he had to find the strength. And then he would have to be fast. Too fast. Impossibly fast. They would be on him in an instant, every last one of them. They would be on him just as soon as he opened his eyes.

Pa!

Joe wanted to pray, but he knew no prayer would be strong enough. No one would come to save him. If he were to pray, the only thing he could truly ask for was courage. And yet…that would mean giving up. He wasn’t ready to give up. As hopeless as it was, he just wasn’t ready.

He should have realized facing the inevitable had nothing to do with being ready. Before he could steel himself, the plank walls rattled in a wind so fierce it shrieked across Joe with fingers of ice that shook him right to his bones…or maybe it was his bones that had rattled. He shivered in a violent spasm that drew a rumbling growl from one of the wolves. Joe could feel its hot breath on his face. It smelled of…moonshine?

*****

Adam had never experienced a colder, wetter, more miserable ride, and he couldn’t blame it all on the weather. He kept hearing Dusty’s last breath in the wind. Worse, as rain changed to ice and then to snow, he could not shake the image his thoughts painted of his youngest brother lying broken on the ground, his body half submerged in mud and then frozen in place, the snow thickening around him…covering him…burying him.

Every mile made the image clearer, driving more ice into Adam’s already chilled heart. He wanted to curse, to argue, to rant…but what was the use? Ranting against the snow would not stop it from falling. And there was no one with whom he could argue, except maybe God.

He’d argued enough with God in his life to know it never did any good.

The wind brought a different sound to Adam then. He could swear he heard not only Dusty’s dying breath, but his living voice. “Just barkin’ at a knot is what you’d be doin’. No point to it. Knot’ll still be there. All you’ll do is bark yerself hoarse.”

Adam felt a bitter smile forming, one that would have had Dusty asking why he was pulling a kite. But he wasn’t the only one making faces. To his right, he could see fear contorting Hoss’ brow. To his left, worry was etching lines into Roy Coffee’s forehead deeper than his age had ever shown. Adam could almost believe Dusty McGraw was riding the wind to whisper his prairie wisdom at each and every one of them.

But Dusty was dead. And it was more than likely Little Joe was dead, too. They would all be fools to think otherwise. Dusty had ridden in on Joe’s horse; that meant Joe had been alone, on foot, chased as much by an early spring storm that had caught the whole territory by surprise, as by a group of men out for vengeance, men who might as well be monsters — if any of what Dusty had said could be trusted.

Adam had a hard time believing Dusty McGraw would have said anything that wasn’t true. Dusty had proven long ago to be more reliable than just about anyone Adam had ever known. Even with his thoughts addled by pain and cold, if Dusty McGraw had said men were after Joe, Adam had to believe it was true.

“Don’t do no one no good to go stringin’ a whizzer,” Dusty had said often enough. Most cowboys like tall tales, and the taller, the better, but not Dusty. Stretching the truth, even for the sake of telling a good story had no business in Dusty’s life. He would call out any man for saying things that didn’t quite measure up to reality, though his sort of showdown never involved guns. Instead, he would aim to prove the lie, and since no storyteller ever liked to be nailed to the counter, it didn’t take long for the rest of the ranch hands to stop telling stories when Dusty was around.

They’d never come to hate him for it, though. Dusty was a hard man to hate. His matter-of-fact manner just kept men honest — or at least, more honest than they might otherwise be. That was one reason why Adam had always preferred it whenever Little Joe was paired up with Dusty for the day. The man was a good influence on Adam’s youngest brother. Hoss and Pa knew it, too. They all breathed easier when Dusty was with Joe.

At least, they used to.

Now, Adam wasn’t sure he could breathe at all.

*****

The wind grew stronger as they climbed, driving snow and ice so brutally against them it became hard to breathe. Adam pulled his neckerchief over his nose and mouth, and noticed Hoss and Roy doing the same. His eyes burned with cold crystals of fire, but there was nothing to be done for that.

“We got to stop, boys!” Roy shouted.

Though the sheriff was right next to him, Adam could barely hear his words.

“Line shack’s just up yonder!” Hoss hollered from Adam’s other side.

Adam doubted his brother had heard the sheriff. Hoss had simply shared Roy’s good sense. They all knew they had reached their limit. They wouldn’t find anyone or anything in this storm. They were more likely to freeze to death themselves. Adam’s coat had been fairly well soaked through by the time icy rain had changed over to snow; now it was stiff and heavy, half frozen. Roy and Hoss were both right. They had to stop. The line shack would at least let them dry out some.

Adam squinted through the snow, trying to see past the trees ahead. Despite the hour, the whiteness of the storm cast an ethereal glow all around them. It was a haunting sort of glow, the kind sure to bring along its share of ghosts, lighting up the woods almost as though it was day — an other-worldy, ghostly, gray day — rather than the deepest part of the night.

Again, Adam’s thoughts turned to Dusty. “Weather like this,” his ghost seemed to howl with the wind, “sure makes a man want to curl up into his velvet couch.”

Again, Adam saw the image of Joe curled up into the ground, covered by a blanket of snow.

“Smoke!” Hoss shouted then. “See that?” When he slapped Adam’s arm in emphasis, Adam was too numb to feel it. “It’s chimney smoke!”

It was, Adam realized. It was smoke, a steady stream of darker gray twisting upward through the white of the snow and the lighter gray of the glow it cast.

“It’s Joe!” Hoss whooped in excitement. “He made it, Adam! He made it!”

Adam could see his brother kick his horse’s flanks, but it was a wasted effort. Even if it wanted to, that horse wasn’t moving any faster against the raw force of the wind and the layers of snow already coating the icy ground. They had no choice but to trudge wearily, slowly forward.

“I’m feelin’ warmer already!” Hoss called out, gazing up at that smoke like he had nothing to worry about except reaching that line shack. In no time at all he would be cozy as a toad under a cabbage leaf, as Dusty would say.

But when Dusty’s whispers in the wind blew Adam’s way they held a different message entirely. Joe hadn’t been the only person they had come up here to find. What if it wasn’t Joe in that line shack at all? They could very well be about to meet Dusty’s monsters.

“Careful, Adam,” Dusty’s voice wailed, “you already knowed this ride could end up bein’ dangerous as walkin’ quicksand over hell.”

Roy’s thoughts — perhaps influenced by Dusty’s whispers — must have taken the same course as Adam’s. When Roy’s hand grasped Adam’s other arm, he turned to see the sheriff pointing through the trees.

“Woo-hee!” Hoss shouted.

Adam grabbed his brother’s coat sleeve, as much to quiet him as to draw his attention to what the sheriff had discovered: horses. There was a string of horses secured to the hitching post in the lee side of the shack, crowding together under the extended roof to keep as far out of the snow as they could.

Best hobble your lip, Hoss,” Dusty would have said. “Looks like we got some hair in the butter, now.”

Adam watched his brother’s smile spread out into a grimace, and knew he didn’t have to say anything at all. Hoss must have heard Dusty just fine.

And suddenly the icy wind felt even colder. Adam prayed Joe was in that shack, dreading the alternative. At the same time, he dreaded the very idea of Joe being trapped in there with men Dusty McGraw referred to as a pack of rabid wolves…

…Because if that’s what Dusty thought of them, then that’s exactly what they were.

*****

Frigid wetness stole Joe’s breath and forced his eyes open. He found himself staring into hard, varicolored eyes while icy water dripped from his hair and slid beneath the collar of his shirt, eliciting shudders he could do nothing to control. He couldn’t even draw his arms to his chest for the scant warmth it might provide; his hands were locked in place at his back, his arms pulled tightly against the wooden slats in the chair where he found himself sitting. The position tugged brutally at the knife wound that had been left gaping and raw.

And he couldn’t even remember….

One moment he had been lying on the floor of the line shack, surrounded by a pack of hungry wolves. Now he was seated in a stiff chair, as wet as he’d been when he’d first come in from the icy rain, and surrounded by men, not wolves…although the eyes glaring down on him were almost more wolf-like than human. Part brown and part green, they were riddled with specs of amber that made them look almost feral.

“Was you done it, wasn’t it?” The voice behind those eyes spoke with a growling rumble, spewing out more alcohol than air.

Joe’s head spun in a wave of dizziness that made him feel as though he’d swallowed a whole bottle full of whiskey — or maybe…maybe a jug full of moonshine.

Jonas T. Schultz. That was the moonshiner’s name, wasn’t it? Or…it had been his name. The man was dead now. He was dead because he had come at Joe with all the wildness of a rabid wolf. He’d thrown a knife, knocking Joe from his horse. And then….

Fire…fire had seared through Joe’s arm as the knife was pulled away. He’d lost his breath in the fall, the world gone dark…and then that fire…the fire had pulled Joe’s eyes open then as much as the icy water had just a moment ago…and the eyes he’d faced then were no different than the ones before him now…wild…feral.

“You killed ‘im.” The words smelled strong enough to knock a man out cold, just like…

Jonas T. Schultz… He’d pulled the knife mercilessly from Joe’s arm, the action so forceful Joe could believe the blade had drawn bits of bone as well as the blood that had still been dripping from its edge as Jonas T. Schultz raised it up, crosswise above him. He’d been preparing for a backhanded slash, one that would drive that knife right into Joe’s throat.

There had been no time to think. Joe had gone for his gun on instinct. He’d fired before he even remembered aiming, his bullet catching Jonas T. Schultz in the hollow of his neck before the man’s knife could start its downward plunge.

“It was…” Joe gasped, “him or me. I didn’t have a choice.”

The wolf’s eyes yellowed to a luminescence that emphasized the similar coloring in its teeth as the human animal before Joe now drew back his lips in a snarling sort of smile. “See there, Buck,” the creature growled without turning his eyes from Joe. “Told you was this one what done it.”

He raised up one hand, and Joe was grateful to see it empty, eerily reminded of the position Jonas T. Schultz had taken with his knife. But as that hand was brought down in a backhanded slap that connected the man’s knuckles with Joe’s jaw, gratitude was forgotten in an instant. Joe’s head snapped sideways, momentum tipping his chair until someone grabbed his arm to keep him upright…thick fingers dug into his wound, pressing almost as deep as the blade on Jonas T. Schultz’s knife.

They wouldn’t even allow Joe the luxury of oblivion. Icy water was again thrown in his face.

“That was my pa you killed, boy.” Those yellow eyes burned like fire. “Now you’ve got hell to pay.”

Joe knew in that moment it was the devil himself he was facing. And he realized he was finally ready to pray for courage…not just to face the inevitable, but to endure it.

*****

May Words: Simon, Blind, Butter, Leap, Cradle

Simon Bullnose Walker was a hunter. He hunted to survive. But sometimes, as now, it wasn’t about survival at all. It was about something else, something…bigger.

Some might call it vengeance; others, justice. Still others might call it murder. Simon didn’t much care if it had a name. Names were just words. And words were the creation of men. The world was much bigger than words, and words restricted men’s thinking, locking them into seeing only what they could define. Words made men blind to the bigger reality, the truer reality around them.

It was a lesson Simon had learned early in life. Folks were always looking for words to say what he was. Whatever word they chose would dictate how they would talk to him, how they would respond to him — and how they would treat him. Those who called him darkie expected him to do their fetching; when he walked away as though to oblige them, he just kept walking, and never looked back. Those who called him Mexican expected him to be a thief, and so he took what was theirs, and then disappeared into the night, leaving them to chase nothing but shadows — because the word they’d used had no reality within it. Those who called him Indian expected him to be a savage, and so he was. No one ever used any of those words on him more than once.

Simon didn’t much care if there was a word that spoke truly about him. The old trapper who’d found him had always said Simon shouldn’t abide by men’s words, because Simon was more than just a man. In fact, according to that trapper, Simon might not even have been born of woman. He’d been found caterwauling in a cradle in the middle of the forest, an infant child left alone and hungry. When no human soul came forth to claim him, the trapper took him in. He was called Simon for the trapper’s baby brother, whom the trapper had abandoned to venture west in search of something that had always seemed so elusive in the society of men, something grander than words could ever describe — something Simon had found even when the trapper couldn’t; he’d found it whenever he gazed out over things no man could ever create — or recreate — valleys and gorges and waterfalls that defied even the greatest artists’ pallets…or the greatest poets’ words.

Simon’s second name came about as he grew into the man he would become. His wide face and nearly equally wide, flat nose earned him the name Bullnose. Like Simon, it was a name he had never been inclined to argue against. Like Simon, there was a purpose to it. It was a name that gave him strength, and he wore it well.

His third name, Walker, came about much later, after the old trapper had died and Simon was left to walk in the world alone. It was then that he became a hunter. He lived in the forest with the other animals, and he came to respect them as they came to respect him. He would not use an animal to serve him. Just as he would not fetch for those who called him darkie, he would not expect an animal to fetch for him. He rode no horse. He conscripted no mule to haul for him. And though the trapper had been good to him, Simon did not respect what the trapper had done. Trapping was not hunting. Trapping took animals. Hunting was different. Simon hunted only those animals who called to him, those that were willing to give what they had so that he might survive. They gave him food. They gave him clothing. And sometimes, as now, they gave him shelter.

At the first signs of rain, Simon had tucked himself into the niche between the rocks he’d taken as his home as soon as he’d caught up with his recent prey. The niche was small enough for most men to overlook, yet large enough to enable him to stretch out in comfort. And throughout the storm, that’s exactly what he’d done. He’d pulled a thick bear skin over the opening, providing him with warmth as well as protection, and he’d settled into a sleep deep enough to revive his body as well as his spirit.

When he woke, he could easily sense the change in the weather. The smell was crisp, the sound…soft. The lonely howl of the wind might seem hard to most men, but to someone like Simon, a man so unlike other men, it was comforting. It was the kind of howl that reminded Simon he was where he belonged, the kind that sang to him like a lullaby — the only lullaby he had ever known. He breathed in that crisp scent, that soft lullaby, and then he pulled aside his bear skin door to find the entrance of his niche nearly obscured by new fallen snow.

It was a sight that gave him succor. Dawn was hours ahead yet, but it would be a good dawn, a good day. Weather such as this made other men weak, men such as the two-legged prey he’d been tracking by smell for the past three weeks. Yes, they would be weak, but he was now rested, and strong as the bull that had given him his second name.

The day to come would surely mark the last day of his latest hunt.

*****

“He’s in there, alright.” Hoss forced the words past the thickness in his throat. He’d managed to get a peek at the inside of the shack through cracks in some loose boards, and though he’d only caught a glimpse of Joe, it had been enough to show him his brother’s face was bloodied and swollen. And that wasn’t all. Joe’s hair was sopping wet, and his shirt looked to be drenched with about as much blood as water. Wet as he was, that boy was libel to catch his death of pneumonia — if them monsters in there with him didn’t outright kill him first.

Hoss could swear his heart swelled up into his throat when he saw his little brother like that. He didn’t even feel cold anymore, not compared with how cold Joe had to be feeling.

“How bad is it?” Adam asked, his voice sounding almost as raw as the wind.

Talking was easier now that they were off the trail and surrounded by a stand of trees that protected them from the worst of the storm. They’d even been able to pull down their neckerchiefs; now Hoss could see Adam’s face was as raw as his voice.

Yep. Talking was easier. But finding words seemed harder than ever.

“We got to get him outta there,” Hoss said when he couldn’t bring himself to describe exactly how Joe had looked.

Adam sure seemed to understand, though. Hoss’ older brother had always been pretty good about reading Hoss’ eyes, and the look in Adam’s right then made it clear he didn’t like what he saw this time.

“We gotta get in there, first,” Sheriff Coffee said, his voice stronger but no less raw than Adam’s had been. “How many guns they got?”

Hoss shook his head slowly, his gaze moving again to the shack. “I counted four men and a boy, fourteen, maybe fifteen. Only side arm I saw was Joe’s.” Hoss had spotted Joe’s gun on the floor, still in the holster, looking like it had been carelessly tossed there, like it was a useless piece of junk. Somehow, seeing Joe’s gun like that made it clear to Hoss that’s just what those men in there expected to do with Little Joe — toss him aside like he was nothing. But Joe sure wasn’t a piece of junk; he was Hoss’ little brother, and a decent man besides.

Taking a long, icy breath that swam through his head like frigid rapids, Hoss knew he had to finish answering the sheriff’s question. “They got at least three shotguns and two rifles. Could be more; it was hard to tell. They’re pretty scattered.”

“Good,” Adam said. “Sounds like they won’t be expecting company.” He was looking at the shack now in that calculating way of his. Usually when he looked like that, it set Hoss’ heart at ease. Whatever needed figuring, Adam was the one to do it. He’d lay out the plans, and then Hoss would do whatever those plans said he needed to do.

But this time Hoss didn’t feel at ease at all, because Adam looked older than he should. And not just older, but…plumb old. The way he squinted into that unforgiving wind when he looked toward the shack etched creases deep enough to gather snow. Even his eyelashes were snow covered, making them more white than black. It was as though the ride they’d just made had been hard enough to age him by twenty years or more.

Frankly, Hoss felt a whole lot older, too, and it wasn’t just from being scoured by that icy wind. It was from seeing his little brother tied to that chair with his head lolling forward. Hoss could almost have believed Joe was already dead to see him like that, but a man had been standing over him and shouting about how much Joe needed to pay for what he’d done. No man would shout like that to a dead man. Would he?

“At least we know we have the element of surprise in our favor.” Adam’s voice drew Hoss’ attention away from the worrisome image, but only for a second — just long enough to enable him to conjure an equally troubling thought, a thought so disturbing he couldn’t answer right away.

But then Adam looked at him, and Hoss felt better for seeing his brother’s eyes. They were as clear and sharp…as strong as ever.

Everyone had always said Hoss was the strongest of the Cartwrights, but Hoss knew that wasn’t true. Adam was a whole lot stronger. Adam’s strength counted a whole lot more than Hoss’ anyways, because it was the kind of strength that could keep them going, no matter what…just like he’d done when Joe’s ma had died. Even though he’d barely been more than a boy himself, Adam had kept them going. He’d ignored his own grief to help both Joe and Hoss get past theirs, and their Pa’s besides. Hoss had seen pain in his brother’s eyes back then, but he’d seen something else, too. He’d seen then what he saw now: courage.

“Maybe so,” Hoss said finally. “They sure ain’t expectin’ anyone. But….” He swallowed past the lump of his swelled up heart, his gaze moving again toward the shack. Danged if he wasn’t a coward compared with Adam.

“But what?” Adam prodded, his tone as demanding as it was concerned.

“There’s one man in there….” Hoss tried to shake the image of the fire poker the man had been holding, its point glowing red. “He’s keepin’ real close to Joe. Too close.” Hoss made sure Adam was looking right at him before he went on. “He’s hurtin’ him, Adam. He’s doin’ things no man ought ever to do.”

While Hoss locked his gaze with Adam’s, it was Sheriff Coffee who spoke. “Then we’d better move fast.”

“Can’t,” Hoss argued. “We go rushin’ in there, he’s libel to kill Joe before we even know what he’s doin’, maybe even before heknows what he’s doin’!”

“What do you suggest?” Adam asked.

If that question had come from anyone else, maybe Hoss would have admitted he didn’t know. Or maybe he would actually have been able to figure something that might work. But it hadn’t come from anyone else. It had come from Adam, Hoss’ older brother, the brother who always knew what to do. And suddenly Hoss couldn’t say anything at all.

An instant later, it didn’t matter. Sheriff Roy Coffee’s voice pulled at his attention…and then Roy’s eyes stole Hoss’ focus.

“What in the world…?” The sheriff was looking over Hoss’ shoulder, his brows curling as he spoke. And then his eyes went wider than Hoss had ever seen them, like whatever was behind Hoss had startled or maybe even scared him.

Hoss had never seen Sheriff Coffee scared of anything, so if Roy was scared of whatever he was looking at, it was enough to get Hoss downright terrified. He swiveled around as fast as he could, though his movements were stiff, his feet hampered by the deepening snow. When he finally did make it around, his own eyes must’ve gone as wide as Roy’s. He even shivered, suddenly feeling far colder than he’d been…maybe even as cold as Joe.

An animal unlike any Hoss had ever seen was standing straight up on its hind legs in the trees not ten yards distant. It looked like a giant, fur-covered man, the kind of monster grown men weren’t supposed to believe in. But Hoss found it hard to not believe in what was right there in front of him. Besides, even Dusty had talked about monsters; and a man who’d never told tall tales sure wasn’t going to tell his first one on his deathbed.

As the monster walked toward Hoss, it grew wider and thinner by turns, and each step it took was as solid and sure as if he’d been walking on the hard-packed ground. How could that be, when every step Hoss had taken moments earlier to get back from the shack had driven his feet through the snow as though he’d been walking through soft butter?

Hoss raised his rifle. He wasn’t sure he wanted to wait for an answer.

“I got no quarrel with you,” the thing said when it got close. Its voice was low and deep, sounding too much like Pa for Hoss’ liking.

Hoss had heard Indian tales about shape shifters; now he found himself wondering if things like that could shift voices, too. But as it moved closer, Hoss could see it was a man after all, a dark-skinned man of Adam’s height and Hoss’ girth, wearing an even darker cloak of fur that was salt speckled with snow and billowing around him in the wind.

“Name’s Walker. I just come to ask why you’re here.”

Snowshoes, Hoss realized then. That’s how the stranger had walked so easily; he was wearing snowshoes.

“We should ask the same of you,” Adam said while Hoss was focused on the man’s feet. “This is our property.”

The stranger’s head tilted slightly, seeming respectful. “Then your name be Cartwright.”

“Then you already know you’re trespassing,” Adam answered.

“I know the men in that line shack are trespassin’. I aim to rid you of them.”

Hoss’ grip on his rifle loosened. He looked to Adam as the furrows in his older brother’s brow grew deeper, collecting more snow and making him look old again.

“Why?” Adam asked.

“Those men are a blight on this earth.” He spat out the word ‘blight’ like it left a bitter taste in his mouth. “They’ve left a trail of ruined land and rotted carcasses from here to the Ozarks down Arkansas way.”

Roy didn’t seem inclined to believe him. “I don’t recollect seein’ anythin’ come across the wire on any trouble from Arkansas.”

“You wouldn’t,” the stranger said. “Their blight ain’t touched folks anyone would miss…leastways, not until now.”

“Until now?” Adam asked.

The man looked from Roy to Adam, and then back again. “Yesterday, they hounded a man right down off this mountain. Way I figure it, that man should’ve reached Virginia City some hours ago, and the way I figure it, that’s why you’re here now, sheriff.”

“If you know all that,” Adam said then, “why’d you ask?”

The man looked to Adam again. “Figurin’ somethin’ don’t make it true.”

Hoss lowered his rifle. “Look, mister, we ain’t got time for riddles. Are you really after those men in there?”

“I am.”

“Then the way I figure it, we ought to work together for now.”

“Hoss,” Adam warned, shooting a look at him that would have chilled his blood if he weren’t numb already.

“He ain’t one of ’em.”

The man inclined his head in appreciation.

“You don’t know that,” Adam argued.

“Yeah. I do.” Even while he answered Adam, Hoss kept his eyes on the stranger. “I don’t know how I know. Call it a leap of faith if you want. But I know he ain’t one of ’em.”

They all stood like that for more heartbeats than Hoss was willing to count, though he felt every one of them pounding against his chest. He could almost believe there was something alive inside him, pushing him to move, to take action…to get Little Joe away from the monsters in the shack. Now that another monster was standing right in front of him, it had to mean they had a better chance of doing that, didn’t it?

“We ain’t got time for waitin’ around like this,” Hoss said finally. “You can keep at it if you want to, but I’m gonna start makin’ my way back over to that shack. Little Joe’s in there, an’ I don’t mean to make him suffer any more’n he already has.”

Hoss swiveled around again, just as slowly as he had moments earlier. But he’d taken no more than a couple of steps forward when he saw the door to the shack come open. Instinct dropped him low to the ground to avoid being seen if whoever was coming happened to look this way. Yet as he watched, it was clear he’d overreacted. Only the boy stepped out, and as soon as he did, someone slammed the door behind him.

“That’s it,” Adam said as the boy headed for the trees opposite them.

“What’s it?” Hoss asked, turning to see both Adam and Roy were crouching down now, too. Even the stranger was on his knees, with one hand pressed against the ground, and the other clutching a knife. And suddenly that man looked so much like an animal, Hoss started to wonder if he’d been wrong to turn his back to him after all. There was a wild look to the man, the kind of look that made it clear no one stood a chance of taming him — the kind that marked Hoss a fool for taking that leap of faith of his.

Even so, Adam kept talking as though nothing had changed — or as though everything had changed so much he was already accepting Hoss’ argument about the stranger. “If we draw them outside, we’ll stand a better chance of getting to Joe.”

“How do you reckon we draw ’em out in this weather?” Sheriff Coffee asked.

“The boy.” It was the only thing the stranger said. He didn’t even wait to see if they understood. He just up and started running, right into the wind, right toward where that boy had gone.

For an instant, Hoss felt a pang of sympathy for a kid who was about to discover he was being chased by a monster. And then he reminded himself that boy was a monster, too.

*****

Joe opened his good eye, or his better eye, anyway, to the extent he could. He couldn’t see much more than a smoky murkiness. Was he underwater? Was that why he was cold? His hands were so numb he couldn’t even feel them anymore. He sure couldn’t use them to pull himself to the surface. Couldn’t use his feet to push himself up, either; they felt weighted, too heavy to be of any use.

He was drowning. Must be. Serves him right, he supposed. It was far too early to go swimming. Snowmelt was still winding its way down off the mountain. It was never good to go swimming when the lake was chilled by snowmelt. Of all the dumb, fool things he’d ever done, this had to be about the dumbest. He couldn’t even remember diving in, but that didn’t really matter, did it? For whatever lame-brained reason he’d done it, well…he’d done it. Now he was paying the price.

He didn’t consider the fact that he was still breathing until he saw a boy’s face come floating into view. Startled, Joe gasped…and realized he’d sucked in air instead of water. He wasn’t drowning after all. He wasn’t even in water. Neither was the boy.

Who was that boy, anyway? His cheeks were smooth and round, like he’d been starting to grow out of childhood but hadn’t quite finished the job. That was odd, because there was an old look to the boy’s eyes. They were almost like Pa’s eyes. Almost. They had a touch of green in them — not much, just the smallest bit, just enough to make Joe think of a dried out, dying pine bough tossed out to the wood pile after Christmas.

Christmas was long past. Months ago. Maybe years ago. Joe tried to remember Christmas. All he saw in his mind was the Christmas after his mother had died. Joe had been sure he would wake up to find her sitting beside the tree. She had been the only thing he’d wanted that year. But she wasn’t there.

Was she here?

Joe tried to look around him. He couldn’t see anything that might indicate his mother was nearby. If she was, he would see something good, something…special. But he didn’t. There was nothing special in that room, maybe not anything good, either, just a bunch of brown-clothed folks in a cold, brown line shack that stank of wood smoke and moonshine.

One of the men carried a long iron poker, the tip glowing red. Joe stared at that red tip, mesmerized by it. He felt fear rising up within him, like a tidal wave was forming behind him, gradually tugging his breath from his lungs as it grew. But then the boy moved into his sight again, and that glowing red, mesmerizing tip was hidden from view…and Joe found he could breathe once more.

Thank you, he wanted to say to the boy for giving him back his breath. It was about the best gift he could hope for right then.

Joe got to wondering if that boy had ever gotten the kind of gifts he’d wanted. Had he ever had a good Christmas? Or had they all been like that year Joe’s momma had died? The boy’s eyes sure made it seem like he’d had plenty of bad Christmas’s. That chubby cheeked boy had such old looking eyes Joe couldn’t imagine them ever coming alight on a Christmas morning; maybe that was because the boy was supposed to have been the New Year’s baby, the one who takes over from old Father Time — only the old man hadn’t been willing to let go.

Joe chuckled, suddenly imagining a fight between a little baby and an old man.

“You got no business laughin’, boy!”

Thick knuckles slammed into Joe’s cheek. He licked at the fresh blood on his lip and wondered why. The man had complained about a boy. So why did he hit Joe? Joe wasn’t a boy with chubby cheeks and old eyes. Joe was….

What was Joe? A cowboy? A killer?

“That was my pa you killed, boy.” The wolf had said that — the wolf with yellow eyes.

Don’t be stupid, he chided himself. Wolves don’t talk, except in fairy tales. Joe was long past being a little boy who could believe in fairy tales, even if that wolf had called him one. Danged if that wolf wasn’t the only one who’d called Joe that, either. Jack O’Callaghan had called Joe a boy, too, last year, when they were felling trees for that timber contract with the Blackstone mine. O’Callaghan had been among the first to sign up, but when he’d caught sight of Joe he’d said he wasn’t going to take orders from a boy.

“Yer jest a wee babe in the woods! Fresh outta the cradle, you are!” O’Callaghan had told him.

Joe hadn’t had a choice. He’d had to punch O’Callaghan square in the nose to prove him wrong. It didn’t matter that Joe had ended up with a bloody nose, too. Or maybe it did matter. Maybe it was on account of both of them bloodying each other’s noses that they’d ended up as friends, and O’Callaghan had agreed to take orders from him after all. They’d celebrated together, too, once all the logging had been done. They’d agreed to buy each other’s beer — although Joe had put down far more cash than O’Callaghan. That man sure could drink. He would have drunk that saloon dry if Joe’s brothers hadn’t dragged Joe — and his cash — out of there when they did.

Whatever happened to Jack O’Callaghan? He’d just up and left one day, like so many folks on the Comstock tend to do.

“I got better ways to ply my time’n bein’ some dumb lumberjack.”

“I ain’t no dumb lumberjack!” Joe said. Or he thought he did anyway…only…he didn’t hear the words.

“Sure’n yer not!” Jack told him, laughing that hearty laugh of his. “Yer jest a wee babe in the woods….”

Something hard hit Joe’s nose. He was pretty sure it wasn’t O’Callaghan’s fist.

“You answer me when I talk to you!”

Confused, Joe looked toward the voice, expecting to see Jack O’Callaghan — or a chubby cheeked boy with old eyes. Instead he saw a man with fiery eyes and tobacco juice stuck in the stubble of his week-old beard.

What sort of man had fiery eyes? Joe wasn’t even sure he looked like a man. His edges were blurred, and through Joe’s watery vision he moved funny…undulating somehow, sort of the way a snake moved. Or one of Hop Sing’s dragons….

Hop Sing had told Joe stories about the legend of the Chinese dragon. Despite its fiery eyes and breath, it was supposed to be a good dragon, benevolent, not like other dragons Joe had read about in books.

“You got no business laughin’!” the dragon spat.

No, whatever this creature was, it sure wasn’t one of Hop Sing’s dragons. There was nothing benevolent about it. And Joe sure wasn’t laughing, especially when it shot fire right into his belly. The pain was so fierce Joe cried out like a wee babe might. He didn’t even care what Jack O’Callaghan might say.

*****

Joe’s cry rode the howling wind right into Hoss’ heart, and about pulled a cry out of him, too. He stopped to look at the shack, fighting harder than ever against the urge to bust on in there and get his little brother away from them monsters. Then he heard another cry, a sound that chilled him more than the wind was doing right then. In fact, the wind had died down considerably. The storm might finally be blowing itself out.

Hoss followed the sound of that second cry, one that had come from the trees rather than the line shack. Seconds later, he finally caught up with that giant of a mountain man. That’s when he saw Walker had caught up with the boy.

The boy was sitting on his behind looking up at that big fella, and leaning back on two wobbly arms. There was terror and — sickness? — in the boy’s eyes. When the wind shifted, Hoss noticed an odor rising up with it. He saw then why the boy was wobbly. The kid had vomited into the snow.

“We can’t do it, Adam,” Hoss said as his brother moved up behind the kid, though Hoss never took his eyes from the boy. “We can’t hold him out here. He’s sick.”

“I ain’t sick!”

Another shout, this one from the line shack, almost drowned out that boy’s denial. “Buford!”

The boy’s eyes shifted nervously to the side, and then back toward Hoss. “I ain’t sick,” he repeated in a softer tone.

Glancing curiously at Adam before returning his attention to the boy, Hoss indicated toward the vomit with a nod of his head. “That there says you are.”

“Just because I got sick don’t mean I am sick.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Ain’t no business of yours!”

“Buford!” came another shout from the cabin. “Buford Sampson Schultz! You answer me, boy!”

The boy started panting as his attention wavered between the men surrounding him and the line shack.

“That your name?” Hoss asked. “Buford?”

The boy looked up at him and nodded.

“That your pa callin’?”

The boy shook his head. “My pa’s dead. The man in there, he killed ‘im.” There was more fear in the boy’s reply than sadness.

“Can you tell us why?” Sheriff Coffee asked.

The boy shrugged. “Lots of reasons, I guess. Don’t much matter.”

“Buford! You get yerself back here, boy, or there’ll be hell to pay!”

“Who’s that callin’ you?” Hoss asked.

“My brother, Jasper.”

“You gonna answer him?”

“You gonna make me?”

Confounded by the boy’s words, Hoss watched Adam crouch down beside the kid.

“You’re afraid of him, aren’t you?” Adam asked in a gentle tone, the kind he’d always used when Hoss or Joe was upset over something and needed older brother to make things right again.

The boy looked at him for a long while, and then he looked up at Hoss; he seemed intent on avoiding meeting Walker’s gaze, as well as the sheriff’s. After a moment, the boy nodded. “He’ll beat me if I go back there now. I shoulda answered right off.”

“Why didn’t you?” Adam asked.

The boy shook his head.

“Are you more afraid of him than you are of us?”

The boy held silent for another long while. Then he nodded.

“Is that what made you sick?”

The boy nodded at Adam again. “I can’t…can’t stomach it.” When he looked up at Hoss this time, there were tears in his eyes. “Ain’t never could stomach it. All that blood. Ain’t no good to it. Ain’t no good at all!”

“You’d better be dead or dyin’, boy!” Jasper Schultz shouted, sounding closer than before.

Walker tapped Hoss on the arm and nodded toward the shack. Two men had stepped outside, shotguns in hand. They were heading out to find Buford.

That meant there were only two men left in the shack. Hoss couldn’t hope for a better opportunity to get to Little Joe.

*****

That bear of a man, Simon Walker, took off running again. This time, he ran toward the shack. Hoss hadn’t figured on that. He’d figured it would be up to Adam and him to go. After all, Joe was in there. Joe wasn’t Walker’s responsibility. Walker and the sheriff should stay back to handle those two coming after the boy, Buford. But Walker hadn’t waited to talk to anyone about a plan. He’d just started running. And Sheriff Coffee was already heading out after him.

“Dadburnit!” Hoss complained when he clumsily tried to join them. He just couldn’t move well in this snow. Already unbalanced, he nearly toppled when a hand grasped his arm from behind.

“Stay here,” Adam said as soon as Hoss turned to face him. “I’ll go.”

Mad as Hoss already was at everybody else, he didn’t like the idea of getting mad at Adam, too. But he couldn’t help it. “I ain’t stayin’ out here when I know what Joe’s goin’ through in there!”

“I’m faster in this weather than you. I’ll go.”

Trouble was, Adam’s eyes were as commanding as his words. And as much as Hoss wanted to look away, to ignore Adam, he couldn’t. He’d spent too many years counting on his older brother to help him know what to do when things got so rough he couldn’t think straight. Right now, all Hoss could think about was getting to Joe. But Adam…well, maybe Adam actually knew how to do it. Safely. Without getting Joe or anyone else killed.

Hoss gave his brother a quick nod. He felt Adam loosen his grip. And then, with a gentle pat on Hoss’ arm, Adam scurried away, like the snow wasn’t a problem to him at all.

*****

Joe could feel the hot, summer sun searing his skin. It stole all the moisture from his mouth, turning his throat into a well gone dry. He couldn’t see it. His eyes were too raw, his lids too thick…too heavy. But it was there. He knew the sun was there, drawing all the water from inside him, coaxing it to the surface to form rivers of sweat that flowed so hard, so fierce they cut him as they passed, carving canyons into his arm…his face…his belly.

His belly….

He couldn’t help but scream out against the agony as the blistering sun pierced his belly with a red-hot icicle formed of sweat, and then he prayed he hadn’t. As the scream passed the dry well of his throat, it carved another kind of canyon, one that ran too deep, drawing rocks from the heights to bury the dead river in limestone and dust.

“Please,” he said, feeding the word with nothing more than a wisp of breath. Please, end it. He didn’t care how; he just wanted the pain to stop. He’d already given up on praying for his pa…his brothers…Dusty…anyone at all to find him, to help him. Now, he just wanted it over. He prayed for darkness, unfeeling emptiness. He didn’t think of it as death. He thought only of…nothing. Please!

And then he heard another scream, one that had not been pulled from his own ragged throat. It sounded raw and primal…inhuman. It wasn’t like the wolf in the wind that had been haunting him; there was nothing ghostly about it. In fact, it wasn’t like anything he’d ever heard before. When it came again, he started to believe it was the sound of pure terror.

*****

Adam stopped cold when he realized Walker was steering away, seeming to abandon Sheriff Coffee, who was now heading toward the line shack alone. What the hell was he doing? It seemed at first Walker was playing it safe, avoiding both the men who’d come out and the ones still inside who might be watching through the ice-coated windows. But then he made a sudden turn, taking a path through the trees that would bring him face to face with one of young Buford’s brothers.

He’ll see you, you fool! Adam wanted to shout at Walker. But then he wondered if maybe that’s what Walker had intended all along. Maybe Walker had been in on everything, and was as responsible as the others for what had happened to Dusty, and what was happening to Joe right now.

Suddenly Adam found himself clenching his jaw to avoid shouting at everyone — at Hoss for insisting they could trust the man, at Roy, for not putting up an argument against it, at himself, for giving in to Hoss’ insistence so easily.

But his anger died when he realized he’d somehow managed to be as foolish as Walker, discovering he, too, was close enough now to see one of the brothers with vivid clarity –or to enable that brother to see him.

Fearful of causing the man to raise an alarm while there were still two others inside threatening Little Joe, Adam pulled back, using an old tree for cover. He found himself holding his breath as he waited…and watched…and prayed.

The man before him was of an age Adam found it difficult to discern. His features were hidden beneath at least a week’s worth of whiskers, but his clothes — too large and hanging on him in tatters — made him seem thin and scrawny, like a youth who had yet to fill out. Their ragged state led Adam to imagine they’d been handed down from brother to brother for years and would soon make their way to Buford, if they didn’t fall away to dust first.

Yet despite such signs of youthfulness, the man’s eyes made him seem far older than Adam, himself. The whites were as yellow as an old drunk who could blame the coloring on decades of drinking strong whiskey. Adam could see those yellowed eyes so clearly from where he stood he was disturbed to note how severely they contrasted with the stark white of the field of new fallen snow beyond — especially when they went wide with terror.

An instant after his eyes widened, the aged youth screamed. It was a sound that was pulled from deep in his throat, a horrific wail that shook Adam to his own depths. The man seemed much younger then, young enough to be startled when he should have been aware and watchful. Perhaps he’d thought he’d been doing nothing more dangerous than tracking his own, younger brother, and so had let down his guard, failing to notice the movement of animals — or bearskin-clad mountain men — in the trees around him until it was too late.

And then Adam was shaken even more when he saw Walker disarm the youth with ease, scaring the kid enough to make him scream out a second time and drop the shotgun without putting up any sort of fight at all.

The lack of a fight didn’t stop Walker from grabbing up that shotgun and bringing the stock down on the youth’s forehead with a sickening crack.

*****

Young Buford looked even younger when that scream came from out of the trees behind him, and if he’d been pale before, he was even paler now. Hoss was probably pretty pale, too. That scream had sounded more like an animal than a man. It was the kind of scream that would make anyone ill and edgy. But it hadn’t come from Joe. It had come from one of Buford’s brothers, one of the animals who’d done things to Joe no man ought ever to do to any critter, animal or human, things that had caused Joe to make an even worse sounding cry only a few moments earlier.

Maybe Hoss ought to feel sorry for whatever Walker had done to cause that critter to scream like that, but he didn’t. He couldn’t feel sorry about it. Not since he’d heard that cry from Joe.

But Buford… Well, Hoss did feel a mite sorry for Buford. He was just a boy after all, a boy trapped in a family of wild men.

Hoss had a hard time figuring that boy. That scared look in his eyes got even worse when he heard that scream. Did that mean Buford was as scared for his brothers as he was of them?

A second scream drove Hoss to stop thinking about Buford altogether.

“What the hell’s goin’ on over there, Beau?” someone shouted an instant later. Jasper. That was the man’s name. The man who’d been calling out for Buford earlier was now calling out for someone else, and he sounded even angrier than he had with Buford.

Jasper had to be the oldest of the bunch, judging from the way he’d hollered out first for Buford and now Beau. It was a sure bet Jasper wasn’t going to scare as easily as Beau. And if either of them younger boys hadn’t already been scared, they sure ought to be now. A whooping from that Jasper fellow was probably a good bit worse than Hoss had ever gotten from his pa, could be worse than any son — or brother — ought ever to get.

“You boys don’t come in this minute, I swear you can just stay out there fer good!”

Hoss looked at Buford. That boy seemed about ready to make a run for it, the way his eyes kept scanning the trees leading up higher into the mountain.

“Don’t do it, boy,” Hoss warned softly. “You stick with us; we’ll see to it you’re taken care of. I can promise you that. But you go out there on your own, I’m not even sure God would be able to make any promises. It’s a rough country, ‘specially in this weather.”

The boy’s eyebrows crunched down over his eyes. “God ain’t never gonna promise nothin’ to me.”

“What makes you say a thing like that?”

Buford’s eyes started to look more cold than afraid. “Folks turn their backs on God, you can count on God turnin’ His back on them.”

“I don’t think you ever turned your back on God.”

“My pa did!” Buford said in a loud, angry voice. “My brothers did!”

It was strange. It seemed like he was starting to change right there, while Hoss watched, from the cowering, sick kid to something…well, something more like what Hoss imagined from the rest of Buford’s family — the ones who’d killed Dusty and hurt Joe.

“But not you,” Hoss said sternly, despite what he was seeing.

“Of course, me! Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because your heart ain’t gone to stone like theirs did.”

“My heart ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.”

“Your heart has everything to do with it. You came out here ’cause you couldn’t stand to watch them hurt my little brother no more. That means you care. And long as you care, you ain’t turned your back on God. And that means God ain’t turned His back on you.”

“Beauregard Caleb Schultz!” Jasper’s shout sounded closer now. “I’m warnin’ you!”

Buford’s eyes widened. “Ma always said I ought to be more a’feared of God than my pa,” he said softly, almost like he was afraid God would hear him. “Maybe I’d be better off if I did turn my back on Him.”

“Don’t you go sayin’ that! Don’t even think it! You should only be afraid of God if you let your heart turn to stone. Long as you care, there ain’t nothin’ to be afraid of with Him.”

“Last chance, boys!” Jasper shouted.

“You promise?” Buford’s eyes pleaded up at Hoss every bit as much as his words.

“I promise.”

“Okay, that’s it!” Jasper shouted. “I’m goin’ back in that shack there, an’ I’m boltin’ the door against you! Stay out in the cold, fer all I care!”

Only…that didn’t happen at all. Hearing a muted crack!, Hoss stepped forward to peer through some branches. What he saw then looked like something out of a frightening story, something that couldn’t possibly be real. Walker was dragging a man through the snow, looking like some half-man, half-bear monster claiming its latest kill. Maybe that oldest brother, Jasper, hadn’t been scared enough to scream like that younger one, Beau, but he must have fallen just as easily.

That left only two more brothers. And Hoss could see both Adam and Sheriff Coffee had made it to the line shack. They were gonna get to Little Joe. Any minute now, they were gonna get to Hoss’ little brother. He could only pray they wouldn’t be a minute too late.

*****

Hugging the wall on one side of the line shack, Adam kept his eye on the front, where two small windows flanked the door. Roy Coffee mirrored him on the other side.

“Don’t like it,” someone said inside, the rough voice seeping through cracks in the walls. “Should be back by now.”

“Call out to him,” another voice answered.

“I ain’t callin’ Jasper! He’ll have my hide!”

Adam glanced over at the trees. He knew Walker was hiding there, watching; but he couldn’t see the man. It was chilling how thoroughly that mountain man could hide. It was equally chilling what he was able to do — what he was willing to do — to help Adam get to Little Joe. Walker had hit that kid hard enough to paint the snow red, causing Adam’s stomach to turn almost as thoroughly as young Buford’s had earlier. Yes, he wanted to get to Joe, but he wasn’t willing to become an animal to do it. And only an animal would bash a kid’s skull in like Walker had done to young Beau.

“Cain’t see him no more,” one of the voices inside said. “Why’s he gone quiet?”

“Maybe he’s found Buford or Beau. Could be out to surprise ’em. We call out there an’ interrupt that, he’ll skin us both.”

No, Adam thought. Your brother didn’t find the others. He ran into Walker, and Adam had run to the shack to avoid having to see a repeat of what Walker had done to Beau.

“I don’t like this quiet no more’n those screams.”

“Hell, Beau probably jest tripped on somethin’.”

“Or somethin’ got him.”

Something got him, all right. Adam flexed his stiff fingers and crouched down beneath the window as he rounded the corner to approach the door.

“Ain’t nothin’ out there but ice an’ snow. If anything got him, it’s jest the cold.”

“I don’t like it.”

I don’t like it, either, Adam thought. In all the time he’d been standing there, listening, he’d heard nothing from Joe. Was his little brother still alive?

Glancing at Roy again, Adam reached toward the latch and slowly drew his gun. He waited for Roy to draw his own and tried to take a deep breath, but the frigid air burned in his chest. He breathed in only a quick swallow; and then, finally, his heart pounding hard enough to choke him, he shouldered the door open.

Nothing beyond the beating of his heart reached his ears when he forced himself inside. Two wide-eyed gunmen stood to either side of a straight-backed, wooden chair where a bloodied and horrifically still Little Joe sat with his arms tied behind him and his head dropped forward. The gunmen jumped, their mouths moving to spout words Adam could not fathom, the sound of them stolen by his own panicked breathing as time slowed around him. Adam’s limbs grew heavy…too heavy to react when one of those gunmen raised the barrel of his weapon to the back of Joe’s head. A filthy, blood-blackened thumb pulled back the hammer.

No! Adam wanted to shout. But he couldn’t. It was as though the sun had stopped moving, turning seconds into hours and minutes into days while he stood locked into a single moment.

In that moment his mind recalled a passage from an old book. “The greatest danger is at the moment of victory.” The passage repeated itself over and over in his thoughts until the gunman’s thumb had completed its work, finally locking down the hammer.

“The greatest danger is at the moment of victory.”

Napoleon had said those words. And the final victory had not been his.

*****

August Words: Official C&S words to use:  Buffalo, Stilton plus 3 additional words (cashing in my 3 tokens earned by using all the cowboy phrases in April) to officially meet the August C&S challenge: Anguish; Betrayal; Icicle

“Drop that gun!”

Roy’s familiar voice behind him pulled Adam from his stupor. He swallowed, hard, to squelch the fear he’d felt rising like bile the instant he saw his little brother drenched enough to have gone swimming fully clothed, and so covered in blood it was impossible to tell exactly how — or how badly — he’d been wounded.

“I’ll kill you where you stand…” Adam said past the choking remnants of his fear; his voice sounded quieter, perhaps deadlier than the sheriff’s. “If you don’t back away from him right now…” His eyes locked on the man threatening his brother until he thought he saw movement at the edges of his vision, beneath that man’s gun. Yes. Joe lifted his head. It wasn’t much, barely a fraction. Still, it proved Joe was alive.

The gunman pushed the barrel of his six-shooter deeper into the tangles of Joe’s hair, nudging Joe’s head down again. For Adam, that action nudged anger into rage by degrees that were growing almost beyond his control.

“Shoot ‘im, Buck!” shouted the man on the other side of the chair where Little Joe was bound.

Adam refused to turn his attention. Roy would handle that one. Adam needed to stay focused on the gunman in front of him…Buck. “Do it and you’re dead,” he said scarcely louder than before. The bile of his fear started to feel like an icicle lodged in his throat.

The man’s arm eased back, pulling the gun fractionally away from Joe’s head, but Adam didn’t dare allow himself any sense of relief.

The greatest danger is at the moment of victory.

“Why?” Buck asked. “This boy mean somethin’ to you?”

“Yes,” Adam hissed.

“Good!” Buck suddenly drew the gun completely away from Joe, loosely aiming it toward the window. “‘Cause those two out there mean somethin’ to me. What’d you do to ’em?”

Relief threatened Adam once more. He forced it back. Buck might have shifted his aim, but he was still armed. If Adam could just get between them, between Buck and Joe…. “Do they?” he asked, inching forward. “Buford seemed more afraid than fond of you and your brothers. Do you think Beau might feel the same way?”

Adam took one more half step before the devil stopped him cold. Yes, that’s what it was…what it had to be. The devil was looking out through Buck’s eyes — and the gun was now aimed right between Adam’s. Despite the fire in that haunted, hateful, evil glare, the icicle in Adam’s throat grew larger, colder. He could barely breathe.

“Buford ‘n Beau ain’t no business of yours!” Buck hollered. “None of my kin’s any business of yours! Now go on an’ get afore I blow this boy’s brains out!” Once again, the man shifted his aim, pressing the gun barrel downward with enough force to push Joe’s chin nearly to his chest.

Adam’s icicle moved to his spine, locking it straight, lending strength like a splint against a damaged bone. “It’s my business, all right,” Adam warned before that strength could evaporate. “You and your family are on my property, threatening my brother. That makes you and your family my business!”

Buck smiled. “That so? Well, then; I’ll give you some business. I’ll give you my own special kinda business. An’ this gun’ll seal the deal.”

“If you drop that gun,” Adam said, surprising himself with the calm sound of his voice, “and step away from my brother, I might just let you walk out of here. That’s the best deal you’re going to get.”

Buck laughed. “Whoo-ee! Do you hear that, Chet? He might jest let us walk out. Shoot, ain’t that about the funniest thing you ever heared?”

Then it was almost as though an icicle had plunged itself into the gunman’s heart. His laughter died in an instant. His eyes went dark, the devil’s gaze suddenly gone colder than the wind that had pummeled Adam during the frigid ride from Virginia City. And when he spoke, it was with the devil’s raw rasp of a voice. “If you want this boy to walk outta here or anywhere else ever agin’, it’s you who’s gonna drop yer gun!”

Adam tightened his grip on his own weapon. His jaw clenched so hard he was amazed he could get any words out at all. “I…will…shoot…you.”

“Adam?” Joe’s voice was less than a whisper, almost too soft to hear and easy to ignore. Somehow it reached Adam even so; it reached him like a blanket, wrapping around muscles locked tight by that damnable icicle.

It was the worst thing that could have happened.

The greatest danger is at the moment of victory.

The blanket of Joe’s voice snuffed Adam’s tension, turning muscles from stone to cotton and almost dropping him to his knees at his brother’s side. He caught himself quickly, strengthening both his stance and his grip. But he was not quick enough to keep Buck from using the reaction to his advantage.

Buck moved too fast. He fired before Adam could even see what was happening.

He didn’t need to see. He knew. In his heart, he knew Joe was already dead.

And then Adam started shooting, although it was already too late. He pulled the trigger over and over again until there was nothing left but the click of one empty chamber after another.

Other shots were fired around him. People were shouting, cursing. Whoever they were, whatever they said, it had no meaning to him. He just didn’t care. He couldn’t bring himself to care. Nothing mattered except…Joe was dead.

And then, between one breath and the next…silence.

A hand wrapped around his arm. “Adam?”

Hoss, he realized. Hoss was there. How could Adam tell him? How could he tell Hoss that Little Joe was dead?

“Adam?”

Adam opened his eyes — when had he closed them? — and looked into Hoss’s trusting gaze.

“No,” Adam said, softly. Anguish…sorrow…betrayal…that’s what he should see in Hoss’ eyes. Adam had failed him. Worse, he had failed Little Joe. “Joe….” He couldn’t say it. He just…couldn’t.

“Joe’s gonna be just fine. You are, too. Don’t you worry about anythin’. I ain’t gonna let nothin’ more happen to either of you.”

“Joe?” He looked deeper into rich, blue eyes that had always been so clear, so honest. He looked deep enough to see Hoss was anxious about something, but…he was not distraught.

“There ain’t nothin’ to worry about now,” Hoss said.

“But…you are.” Adam was confused. There was nothing in Hoss’ gaze to suggest he had seen Joe dead. Something else was there, instead. Hoss was worried.

“Don’t you fret none. You hear me, Adam? We’ll get Doc Martin up here quick as we can. Storm’s near blown itself out anyhow.”

“Buck?” Why was it so hard to talk? It was almost as though that icicle…no, a whole block of ice was sitting on Adam’s chest.

“Dead, thanks to you.” Hoss made the quirk of a…relieved?…smile.

And then…something moved past Hoss — an animal, a beast so huge Adam felt the need to shout out a warning, but he wasn’t sure if he could. Besides, he didn’t dare. It was too close. What was it? A buffalo? A bear? No. A…man.

Simon. Simon Bullnose Walker had shed himself of his fur cloak. He was laying it down across…Little Joe.

“Joe!” Adam tried to push himself to his elbows, but a stab of pain — and Hoss’ hand –held him back. For a moment, the block of ice was back on his chest. It wouldn’t let him suck in any air at all. Blackness swirled around him.

“Easy, Adam. I told you Joe’s gonna be just fine. All you need to do is stay put until we can see about that bullet.”

Bullet? He managed to gulp in one, quick breath. The blackness began to lift. And then Adam followed Hoss’ gaze, looking down to where his coat lay open, exposing the shirt beneath. His shirt…. Adam’s shirt was wet. And red.

The bullet…. Buck’s gun had been aimed at Adam, after all.

Joe’s gonna be just fine, Hoss had told him.

Laying his head back, Adam took a deeper breath, one that invited the blackness to return. It didn’t matter. Joe’s gonna be just fine.

The voices Adam heard around him gained substance then. Roy said Clem would send a posse up here soon, now that the storm had calmed; someone could ride out to meet up with them and send the fastest rider back for the doc. Hoss said they couldn’t wait for that. Simon mentioned something about a doctor who’d been riding the stage when it had reached Stiltonberg Station.

But, none of that talk mattered to Adam. He let it all slip past him as he drifted into the swirling blackness.

Joe’s gonna be just fine.

*****

Hoss was scared as he’d ever been for both of his brothers. Joe was so cold he wasn’t even shivering, and Adam…. Hoss didn’t dare go after that bullet in Adam’s chest. He could tell it had broken a rib going in, but where was it now? What if it damaged Adam’s lung, or even his heart? Or — God help him — what if Hoss damaged either, trying to do a careless surgery?

Watching the piece of cloth under his hand growing redder by the second, he felt hope bleeding out of his own self right along with the life bleeding out of his brother.

“You said the words, but you don’t believe them.” Simon’s voice behind him surprised Hoss as much as the man’s words confused him.

“What are you talkin’ about?” he asked absently.

“You told him they would both be fine.”

Hoss stiffened and turned to face Simon. The furs on the floor caught his eye, pulling his gaze instead to Little Joe, lying near the stove. “They’d better be.” Joe was so bundled up under Simon’s furs, Hoss could not see all the burns and cuts and bruises that had turned his stomach earlier but he knew they were there, and they would need salves and medicines and he didn’t know what else to heal properly. “The nearest doctor’s hours away, even if we could catch that stage you were talkin’ about.”

Simon followed his gaze. “It will take time for Little Joe….” He glanced over to Hoss, earning a small nod to confirm he’d said the name correctly, and then added, “to warm enough for his wounds to be treated.”

“Maybe.” Though he was torn by his need to help both brothers, Hoss knew Adam needed it more at that moment. Frustrated, he turned away from Joe to focus all of his attention on Adam. “But maybe Adam ain’t got that kind of time.”

“Keep him cold.”

“What?”

“It will help to give him the time needed for me to find that doctor.”

“How you gonna reach him? Sheriff said the horses can’t hardly get their footing in all that snow and wet ice out there.”

“I won’t have need of a horse.”

“You gonna walk all that way? Stage’ll be long gone before you get close.”

“If horses ‘can’t hardly get their footing,’ that stagecoach won’t be moving either.”

“Yeah.” Hoss sighed. “Yeah, I reckon you’re right.”

“Faith is powerful medicine. Believe your own words. You might just help to make them true.”

Faith, huh? Could Hoss find enough faith? One man wasn’t much likely to win a foot race against the grim reaper. With that reaper squeezing on Adam’s heart…and the one they had racing against him a stranger who didn’t owe anything at all to Hoss or his brothers…Well, faith and belief were about all Hoss had to go on.

Praying that stagecoach was a whole lot closer than he thought, and that he wasn’t putting too much unfounded faith in a man he’d barely met, Hoss gave Simon a curt nod in appreciation; and then he returned to his efforts at keeping Adam’s blood where it belonged.

*****

Simon was about to step outside when a raw voice pulled his attention back to the chair where Hoss’ young brother had previously been bound.

“Faith ain’t worth a drop of whiskey,” Chet Schultz called after him. The only other Schultz brother, aside from Buford, to have remained unharmed in the aftermath of the Cartwright’s raid had been tied hand and foot just as Little Joe had earlier, sitting in the same chair where the youngest Cartwright brother had been tortured. Its seat was still wet with water, blood…and urine. “Any man worth his salt,” Chet went on, “knows he can’t count on nothin’ and no one but hisself.”

Not bothering to turn around, Simon looked out through the open door to see Chet’s youngest brother, Buford, helping the second youngest, Beau, to his feet. The sheriff had already assured them the oldest Schultz brother, Jasper, was as dead as Buck. Simon wished he could have the chance to send Chet along to join them.

Simon took in a long pull of the frosty air before turning to respond, and then crossed slowly over to the chair. Passing Hoss, who was still hunched down over Adam, Simon kept his eyes further ahead, on the fur-bundled Little Joe. He wasn’t ready to meet Chet’s gaze just yet. He had to make that meeting count. With each step he took, with each creak of every board beneath his feet, Simon allowed other names to fill his thoughts, the names of other men — and women — who had been tormented, tortured, murdered at the hands of a clan of devils who should never have been made to walk the earth among men.

When he reached the chair, Simon took in another long breath, this one tainted by odors stirred up by the devils’ deeds. And then he eased himself down to his haunches until he could face Chet Schultz eye-to-eye. He stared at the man for a long moment, waiting until Chet’s eyes began to dance nervously about. And then, as calm as could be, Simon gave Chet a small lesson in humanity.

“Any man worth his salt,” he said, “knows faith is something no real value can ever be put to. And men like you — and your dead brothers, Buck and Jasper —and your dead pa, are not worth the spit it would take to scrape you off the bottom of a preacher’s boots, let alone a single…drop…of whiskey.”

Chet looked back at him with a mixture of anger and confusion. He did not understand. He lacked the humanity to understand.

“I ought to just kill you,” Simon added, satisfied to see Chet’s eyes go wide with fear at the implied threat, “like you killed all those folks between Arkansas and here.” He lifted his chin toward Little Joe, and then cocked his head toward Adam. “Like you tried to kill these good folks.”

“That one killed our pa!” Chet argued, indicating Little Joe with a jerk of his head. “And besides, weren’t me what done any of it. Was Jasper and Buck.”

“Mister,” Sheriff Coffee’s voice called in from the doorway, “I heard you tell that brother of yours to shoot Little Joe. Now, in my book that makes you a part of all of it. I’ll bet you even fired off some of them shots that killed Dusty McGraw.”

“All’s we did was knick him some!”

“He’s dead on account of all them knicks!” the sheriff shouted.

“Weren’t my doin’! I swear it weren’t!”

“He’s nothin’ but a coward,” Hoss added softly. “Don’t waste your time on him. My brothers need a doctor. That’s all that matters right now.”

Simon glared at Chet for a moment longer. When he rose, he did not like the smug look that crossed that devil’s face. The man thinks he won that round. To prove he hadn’t won anything at all, Simon hit him hard enough to drop the chair — with him in it. And then Simon stepped outside to prepare for his journey, intent on fetching that doctor.

*****

Doctor Reginald P. Edmonds was a man of faith. A prominent physician in Philadelphia for nearly twenty years, he had faith in his skills as a surgeon, as did the senator who had called him to this desolate country to help his youngest boy. But the good doctor also had faith in God’s will, and God did not always will it that Dr. Edmonds would save — or even reach — every patient. Today, God’s will was preventing him from reaching that senator’s son.

There was no point to complaining about the delay that kept him and his fellow travelers trapped in a homesteader’s cabin near the road. God chose to make that road impassible…for the moment. And what a breathtaking moment it was when an unexpected beam of sunlight slipped through a corner of the frosted window, escaping into the room in a tiny rainbow that caused the homesteader’s young daughter to shriek in such delight the doctor could not help but laugh.

Soon everyone moved to the door to see that the storm had truly come to an end. And suddenly, Dr. Edmonds found himself standing in a crust of icy snow, shivering in the cold and yet oblivious to any discomfort. Through puffs of gray clouds, the sun cascaded downward in a handful of wide rays that painted glistening patches over frosted pines and spilled a field of shimmering diamonds across the road.

When the young girl shrieked again, this time in fear, the doctor reluctantly moved his gaze from the glorious vista to the cause of the child’s hysterics: a beast lumbering up the road toward them. However, that beast very quickly became recognizable as nothing more than a very large man in snowshoes.

As the stranger drew closer, Dr. Edmonds was quick to recognize him as Simon Bullnose Walker. The large man with the odd name had interrupted a rather unpleasant meal at the last way station with an even more unpleasant warning about a clan of outlaws. The stories he’d told of the outlaws’ atrocities had left even the doctor squeamish enough to abandon the meal altogether.

Clearly, Mr. Walker likewise recognized Dr. Edmonds, for he quickly locked his eyes on the good doctor. It was enough to make Reginald believe this second meeting had been the reason God had stopped his journey at this particular place.

“You need to come with me,” Walker said.

“The outlaws you spoke of?” Dr. Edmonds began to consider how horrific the situation must be, to send a man alone, afoot, into such daunting traveling conditions.

Walker answered with a nod. “They attacked two men.”

“What is the nature of their injuries?”

Delaying his answer, Walker looked toward the homesteader’s daughter, who was watching him with rapt interest, her eyes wide and her mouth hanging open. “One has been shot,” he said then, returning his attention to Reginald. “A rib is broken. The bullet is still in him.”

“And the other?”

Walker glanced again at the girl before giving his head a small shake.

Surely the second man’s injury was too brutal for the child to hear. Dr. Edmonds cleared his throat to break the awkward silence. “Well, then, we had better get moving. How far must we travel?”

“It is only a few miles.”

“A few miles? In all this snow and ice? Heavens. Well…I’ll be warm enough, I suppose, in my camel hair coat. Of course, I’ve never walked in those contraptions.” He looked to the massive snowshoes on Walker’s feet; and then gave Walker a resigned smile. “Nonetheless, I am game to try.”

“I will carry you.”

“Nonsense! You are not a packhorse, and I, quite frankly, am not a pack!”

“We must hurry. You will move too slowly. I will carry you,” he repeated.

“No need for none of that!” the homesteader interceded. “My dogs’ll take you! Get you there quick, too!”

“Dogs?” asked the doctor.

“They’re sled dogs. Used to haulin’ small freight way up north of here. Them dogs can handle the two of you just fine, with me drivin’.”

Dr. Edmonds was both intrigued and delighted. Game or not, he had not been particularly eager to take a miles long hike in snowshoes. Mr. Walker, however, appeared to be a bit perplexed.

But when they saw that the homesteader’s dogs looked frighteningly like wolves, and those wolf-like dogs cavorted about as though they were eager to be harnessed to the sled, it was the doctor who became perplexed while Mr. Walker became intrigued.

“God’s will,” the doctor told himself quietly. “He surely does work in mysterious ways.”

*****

Hoss was weary in a way that had nothing to do with being tired. He had done what he could to slow the bleeding from Adam’s wound. As to Joe…well, Little Joe needed a lot of looking after. He was shivering and sweating by turns. Both brothers needed more tending to than Hoss could provide, even with the sheriff’s help. But, for the time being, they were holding their own.

After letting out a heavy sigh that rose up in a cloud of steam the instant he stepped outside, Hoss watched the cloud dissipate as though it was the only thing in the world worth his attention—out there in that cold, anyway. Everything that mattered was in the shack behind him.

No, he told himself. Pa mattered, too. And Pa didn’t even know about Adam and Joe. He didn’t know he could lose two of his sons today.

Today?

Hoss’ gaze reached the sky. At first he was confused, and then…surprised to discover not only had the storm ended, the night had, too. Somehow it had all happened without him noticing. He could almost have believed the hell of that night — shards of ice pelting his skin, his nose tingling and burning in the frigid air and his throat tightening against the onslaught while his belly tightened in fear for Little Joe — he could almost have believed it would never end, that Dusty McGraw’s frantic arrival in Virginia City had set Hoss, Adam and the sheriff on a nightmare journey straight into an arctic hell. Yet now the clouds were parting and the sun was streaming through the cracks.

When one, stray beam came straight for Hoss, he could swear it warmed him. One single ray of sunshine could never penetrate all that cold, a cold so intense he’d been sure he’d never feel warm again. Yet, somehow, he did…as though a part of him was melting, as though his very soul was being wrapped in comfort.

It soothed him.

And then, instead of a heavy sigh, he took a breath deep enough to fill the rest of his soul with something that felt very much like hope.

Just before he turned to head back inside, he saw a patch of blue sky; and all those stray beams converged into one great ball of light. He couldn’t help but think maybe it was there to show him his brothers were gonna be just fine, as though that light had come like a benediction straight from Heaven.

“Hoss?” Sheriff Coffee said softly behind him. “You see that?”

Confused, Hoss looked to the sheriff in the doorway, and then followed his gaze out to the road, way back where it met the horizon.

“What in tarnation?” Roy’s voice grew softer as they both watched…something…zig-zagging toward them along that roadway at a speed that made no sense at all, given the storm-wrought conditions.

“Is that…?” Hoss stopped himself for a moment, reconsidering his words. But the closer that thing came, the more he was sure of what he was seeing. “A team of dogs?”

“Sure seems like,” Roy answered. “I swear I ain’t seen stranger things in my whole life than I have in the last twenty-four hours.”

“You and me, both, sheriff.” When it was closer still, Hoss saw that dog-team was pulling a sled along behind it, and in that sled he caught sight of that bear of a man, Simon Bullnose Walker. “You and me, both.”

*****

Chilled as much by the lingering dampness from the storm as by the unjustifiable fear in his heart, Ben Cartwright poked at the fire in the great room. His efforts at nudging the flames back to life stirred something inside him as well. Mesmerized, he stared at that charred piece of wood currently impaled on his iron poker. With each breath Ben took, he watched that wood grow brighter, redder, more alive — more dangerous.

Yes. Dangerous. He’d sensed danger out in that storm through the long night — a long, sleepless night spent in worry for all three of his sons. He’d told himself again and again there was no reason for concern. Adam and Hoss would surely have stayed in Virginia City until the storm had passed. And Joe knew well enough to take cover in a line shack. He should know better, anyway. And if he didn’t, Dusty was with him.

Dusty was a good man, the best Ben had. Truly someone to ride the river with, as Dusty himself would say. Yes, Ben could count on Dusty to see to it Joe was safe.

So why is it your holdin’ on like a sick kitten to a warm brick?

Imagining what Dusty would say to him if the man were to find him hovering there by the fire, holding to a nameless, useless fear he had no reason to feel, Ben couldn’t help but smile.

You’re right, he decided, pushing the now glowing piece of wood from the end of his poker and squaring his shoulders to step away. You’re absolutely rightThere’s no point to borrowing trouble. Adam and Hoss would be home anytime now; and Joe…. Well, it might take another day or two for Joe to make his way down off that mountain, depending on how much snow or ice had fallen up in the high country. But he would be home soon enough, undoubtedly safe and sound with Dusty at his side.

Then quit beatin’ the devil around the stump, an’ get on with your day! What you still all balled up about?

Because they are my boys, Ben told the phantom in his thoughts. I cannot help but worry.

But none of ’ems between hay and grass no more. They’re all full grow’d, an’ you know it.

“They may be grown men,” Ben found himself saying aloud, “but they are still my boys.” Drawing in a deep breath, he finally stepped away from the fireplace.

Almost immediately, he heard a horse in the yard, and he quickened his steps to the front door, feeling as surprised as he was relieved. But when he threw the door open to greet his returning sons, he was even more surprised to see his old friend, Dr. Paul Martin, instead. Perhaps stranger still, he was mounted rather than in his usual buggy.

“Paul?” Ben greeted. “What brings you out here? This is hardly a day for riding.”

“I’m not out for a ride, Ben. I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

Ben’s relief died. He felt a burning ember take root in his stomach. “Not…Not Adam or…or Hoss?” He felt fear growing along with that ember as he watched Paul dismount.

“They’re both fine, Ben. At least, they were when I saw them last night. No. No. It’s Dusty McGraw.”

“Well, Dusty’s not here. He’s with Joe, up in…”

“No, Ben. He’s not. He rode into Virginia City last night. Or rather, he was chased in.”

“What do you mean, ‘chased’?”

“Hard to say, exactly. From what we could gather, he had the misfortune to run into a bunch of madmen who did everything short of killing him outright.”

“And Joe? What about Joe?”

“I don’t know. Dusty rode in on Joe’s horse. He said he found the horse, but Joe wasn’t with him.”

“What are you saying, Paul? What’s happened to Little Joe?”

“I just don’t know, Ben. Dusty said he found Joe’s horse, and he was being chased by men who seemed to think he was Little Joe.”

“Surely he had to tell you more than that. Roy must have…”

“He died, Ben.”

“What?” Ben said the word in a rush of breath, feeling as though it had been punched right out of him.

“Dusty died before he could tell us anything more. Clem and a posse headed out at first light; but it’s bound to be slow going.”

Ben found himself nodding, and barely even knowing why. “I imagine Adam and Hoss are with them, then.”

“No. They’re not. They went up that mountain last night, with Roy Coffee.”

“Last night?” Ben said, feeling another punch. “They couldn’t possibly. That storm…”

“They were out in it, I’m afraid. They didn’t seem to think they had a choice.”

Ben’s ember became a raging fire that stole his voice. Not trusting himself to words, he nodded once, as much to himself as to his friend, and then strode purposefully toward the barn.

“I figured you would insist on going up there too,” Paul called after him, “as soon as you heard. I also figured it might be a good idea for me to join you.”

Ben stopped cold, and then turned to look at his friend. Paul Martin was a man of healing, not trail riding. Yet here he was, offering to ride a trail as rough as they come. The thought gave Ben comfort even as it built his fear into absolute terror. Clearly, Paul knew there would be a need for him, because, whether or not Little Joe was hurt up there on that mountain, Adam and Hoss — and Roy — had put their own lives at risk by riding out in treacherous weather to find him. And Dusty….

Dusty McGraw was dead.

For an instant, fear gave way to sorrow. Ben nodded and abruptly turned once more.

Oh, that ain’t no tear squeezer, Dusty said in his thoughts. Everyone’s got to cut his suspenders sometime. This time was mine.

No, Ben thought. It wasn’t. It should not have been.

It was, an’ that’s all there is to it. But it ain’t ought to be Joe’s. If somethin’s gonna clench your gut, it’s got to be thinkin’ of that boy up yonder ways, half froze. Or all three of them boy’s of yours. That just ain’t a toothsome kind of thought any which way.

“No,” Ben said aloud as he lifted a saddle to his horse’s back. “It most definitely is not.”

“What’s that, Ben?” Paul called back from the barn door.

Swiveling around to find Paul standing in the open doorway, Ben realized what he had failed to say moments earlier. “Thank you.”

“For what? Bringing bad news?”

“For not leaving me with it.”

And then, finally, numb and anxious all at once, Ben mounted his horse.

His sleepless night had been justified, after all.

*****

Dr. Edmonds was quick to take charge of both Adam’s and Joe’s care, and Hoss was just as quick to let him. What Hoss didn’tlike was the way the doc tried to shoo him away from his brothers.

“I certainly can appreciate your interest in watching over them,” the doc told him. “I ask you also to appreciate that I have a job to do — a very important job, one that will require a great deal of concentration. I cannot abide any interruptions.”

“I wouldn’t think of interruptin’ you,” Hoss argued.

“You would do so, nonetheless. Family members always do. They have good intentions, of course, when they feel obliged to question my actions or bring to my attention some physical change of which they believe me to be ignorant. Inevitably, all they succeed in doing is wasting precious time neither I nor the patient can spare. So please…step outside, will you? You can send in one of the others to assist me, instead.”

“But doc, I…”

“I’ll help.” Startled by the soft voice calling in from the doorway, Hoss turned to find young Buford Schultz standing there with his hat in his hands. “I’d like to help.”

“You do that, Buford.” Chet Schultz snickered.

Hoss didn’t want to look at the man. And he didn’t need to. Buford’s oldest living brother presented no threat trussed up like he was in that chair.

“You do jest that,” Chet went on. “You help ’em jest the way Pa taught you.” Deranged laughter pulled Hoss’ spine straight as could be and balled his hands into fists.

“I mean it,” Buford said into all that laughter. He locked his gaze on Hoss, ignoring his own brother; and it sure looked like he meant it, too. “I’m sorry for what happened. I’d like to make it right, if I can.”

The laughter died. “You’d better be playin’ em’, kid,” Chet warned. “It’s bad enough to think you’d surrender to these buzzards what killed Jasper and Buck.”

“They were only tryin’ to protect their own.” Buford’s eyes stayed on Hoss. “Same as we’d a’ done.”

“You know better’n that, boy. The one they were after protectin’ killed Pa!”

“He said he had to. You heard ‘im. We all heard ‘im. He said Pa would of killed him if he didn’t shoot.” The boy was getting nervous, twisting his hat every which way.

“Outside, please!” the doctor shouted. “Leave me to my work!”

Hoss sagged, his anger punched right out of him. He’d interrupted the doc, after all. “You help the doc, boy,” he said softly, giving Buford a quick nod. Then he swiveled around; and sucking his anger right back in again, punched it out at Chet to emphasize words Dusty would say if he were here right now — if he were here, rather than back in Virginia City waiting for his grave to be dug. “And you hobble your lip!” For an instant, he wished the finger he stabbed toward Chet Schultz was an Arkansas toothpick so he could shut the man up for good with the kind of knife the pa of all these Schultzs had used to cut Joe’s arm bad as it was.

Don’t go grabbin’ the brandin’ iron by the hot end, Dusty scolded in his thoughts. That’s nothin’ but burro milk he’s spittin’ out. Ain’t no point listenin’.

Hoss dropped his arm to his side. “One more word out of you and I’ll call that Simon Walker fella back in here to finish what he started before he went for the doc.” He thought he felt a moment’s satisfaction when Chet’s pallor went as grey as a Confederate uniform. But then he looked to where the doctor was working on Adam, and he saw his brother was even greyer.

And he knew the only real sense of satisfaction he could hope to get would come when he knew for sure both Adam and Joe were on the mend. And not a second before.

*****

An hour later, Hoss didn’t even notice the cold anymore. He figured that either meant it had warmed up, or he’d gone so numb it didn’t matter. Whatever the reason, he felt fine enough sitting outside on the damp trunk of a fallen tree. Its positioning allowed him to keep his eyes on the line shack while he listened for anyone calling to him from inside; that was all he really wanted to notice.

But after a while he realized he was listening also to Simon Walker, who had taken a place beside him on that log.

Hoss wasn’t quite sure when Simon had started to talk about his life — or why he had –but something about the story kept Hoss’ attention. It wasn’t that he liked the story. In fact, it sure sounded like a lonely life. He tried to imagine himself walking from place to place with no one beside him but animals that couldn’t much want him there, anyhow. And then he tried to imagine himself alone on the Ponderosa, with only his pa beside him. He didn’t like either thought.

“Chet Schultz is your prisoner.”

The abrupt change in subject caught Hoss off guard. He turned his gaze from the shack for the first time since he’d sat down, looking finally to the man beside him. “Huh?”

“Chet Schultz. He is your prisoner until the posse arrives to take him to jail.”

“Yeah?”

“What about Beauregard?”

Hoss followed the man’s gaze to where the second youngest of the Schultz boys had laid himself down on that homesteader’s sled, keeping company with the dogs. The bandage wrapped around his head was already soiled. “What about him?”

“Is he a prisoner waiting for the posse, a patient waiting for the doctor, or a wounded animal left to the mercy of nature?”

“He chose to be there!” Hoss answered defensively. “Said he didn’t want to have to look at Joe anymore.” Hoss still wasn’t sure why. Did that boy regret hurting Joe, like Buford? Or was he angry Joe wasn’t dead yet, like Chet? “He’ll get his time with the doctor soon as Adam and Joe are fixed up as good as can be for now. And then he’ll go with the posse, same as Chet.”

“And Buford?”

Hoss met Simon’s gaze, unsure how to respond. Then he looked at the door to the line shack, where Buford, Sheriff Coffee and that homesteader were all helping Doc Edmonds tend to both Adam and Joe. “I don’t know,” he answered softly. “Only thing he seems guilty of is turning away from his family. I reckon that puts him more on our side than theirs.”

“Are you a judge?”

“You know I ain’t!”

“Then how can you decide innocence or guilt?”

“What are you gettin’ at?”

“There is only one person who can say whether Buford Schultz took part in hurting your brother.”

Hoss threw Simon a bewildered look, saying nothing.

“Your brother.”

Hoss sighed. “Yeah. I reckon that’s true. You think we ought to put Buford in jail with his brothers, unless Joe says different?”

“If you hold to the laws protected by your Sheriff Coffee, you may be obligated to. According to those laws, he is guilty of something, whether it is hurting your brother or standing by and allowing his brothers to hurt Little Joe. Exactly what he is found guilty of will depend on your brother’s statement and a judge’s ruling.”

“How could you think he allowed his brothers to hurt Joe? He wouldn’t have been able to stop ’em!”

“I didn’t say he could.”

“Then if he couldn’t stop them, how could you say he was guilty?”

“I didn’t say he was.”

“Dang-nammit! You’re soundin’ like Adam — talkin’ in circles an’ not makin’ any sense at all!” Hoss’ gaze strayed to the line shack. Had the doc finished his surgery? Maybe he should go back inside and check on his brothers.

I cannot abide any interruptions. The doctor’s words repeated themselves over and over again in his mind. Wasting precious time neither I nor the patient can spare.

He couldn’t, Hoss decided. Much as he wanted to, he just couldn’t go in there and waste the doctor’s time.

Hoss’ frustration faded into sadness, when Simon spoke again. “A topic as wieldy as that of innocence or guilt requires a great deal of consideration.”

Should have been Adam out there frustrating Hoss instead. “You sure you didn’t go to Harvard or some other place like that?” he asked.

“I read.”

“Yeah?” Hoss was starting to feel more angry than frustrated. “Well, I read too, an’ when I consider a wieldy topic, I think it through from start to finish without twistin’ it all around. Now you can’t tell me you didn’t say Bufurd was guilty of something, one way or another.”

“I said he is guilty based on the laws your sheriff protects.”

“There ain’t no other laws.”

Simon drew a deep breath — a lot like Adam would do if he were getting frustrated himself over Hoss’ inability to read through his twisting thoughts. “There are ships in the Atlantic targeting Union vessels. According to Confederate laws, the crews of those ships are privateers; they might even be said to be aligned with the Confederate army. According to Union laws, they’re pirates, guilty of murder and theft.”

“None of that’s got anything to do with what happened to Joe.”

“Sometimes guilt and innocence are as clear as a cloudless sky.” Simon shook his head. “And sometimes it’s more a matter of perspective.”

“Perspective?”

“The way you see it, compared to the way your sheriff sees it, compared to the way the Schultzs see it.”

“How do you see it?”

“My perspective is not the one that matters.”

“That may be so, but I’d still like to hear it.” It was strange. The man looked nothing like Adam. So why was he reminding Hoss so much of his older brother?

Simon studied Hoss for a long while before responding; and Hoss saw Adam in his eyes. Then Simon nodded and looked toward the line shack. “From my perspective, Buford is as guilty as I am.”

“Why would you be guilty?”

“I wouldn’t. I’m not. But I have been found guilty before. Not by judges or courts, but by people who counted me guilty only because of who they believed me to be.”

“You don’t figure we should believe Buford is like anyone else in his family?”

“I figure we should count him for who he proves himself to be, and not for the family he was born into.”

Maybe most of the conversation hadn’t made a lick of sense to Hoss. But that last part made all the sense in the world. Buford wasn’t a bad kid; he was just a kid who’d got stuck in a family full of folks who were about as bad as bad could be.

Still, Hoss couldn’t help but wonder — in a sick-to-his-stomach, worried kind of way: Is that how Joe would feel?

*****

Joe opened his eyes to see a round-faced boy looking down on him. The boy’s eyes widened, but Joe was too tired to be surprised. He blinked once, twice, and tried to clear the fog from his thoughts. The boy looked familiar. Joe didn’t know why; he just looked…familiar. And for some reason he reminded Joe of Christmas…of the Christmas after his mother had died. It was not a pleasant memory, so Joe pushed it away.

Who? He tried to speak, but no sound emerged. His throat was too dry. Water. Please?

The boy didn’t seem to understand. His gaze moved from Joe to something off to his side and then back again. That was the problem, Joe decided. The boy wasn’t paying enough attention.

“Water?” Joe forced the word out on nothing more than a thin breath.

The boy stared at him then, his brow drawing down in concentration. A moment later, he stepped away, revealing something red and glowing behind him.

Joe’s muddled thoughts went clear in an instant. He remembered the chair…the pain…the iron poker. Fear rushed in on him, choking him with a swallow of dry, over-heated air. He coughed it back out again, kindling the embers already burning in his throat and sending him toward a darkness watched over by the red-glowing eyes of a snarling wolf.

Joseph?” his mother called to him. “Here, darling. Drink.”

He felt one drop of water — and then another — slide across the flames in his throat. It wasn’t enough. But it was all she would give him.

That’s all right, he said to her in the silence of his dream. It was no more than a thimble full, but as dry as he was, even one drop was better than none at all. Yes, he decided. A thimble full will do.

And suddenly the snarling wolf was gone. In its place, Joe found a warm hearth and his mother’s slender hand stitching up the hole in his sleeve. When she pricked him with her needle, he didn’t care. She was there. Nothing else mattered.

*****

“I’ve done what I can for now,” the doctor said as he rinsed his hands in a basin of water. “We’ll let them both rest for a while.” Grabbing a towel, he looked appraisingly at Little Joe; Hoss couldn’t help but follow his gaze. “Try to get some more water into Joseph if you can. By the spoonful until…”

“Joe,” Hoss interrupted without taking his eyes off of his little brother. “He likes to be called Joe. If he hears ‘Joseph’, well, he’s likely to start thinkin’ Pa’s angry with him. Or…. I just don’t want him thinkin’ anything like that. I don’t want him thinkin’….”

“That’s fine, Hoss. I understand completely. I’ll be sure to both address him and refer to him as Joe from now on.”

Hoss felt a hand on his arm and finally turned to face the doctor. Doc Edmonds was as gentle a man as Hoss had ever met. He had a look of kindness in his eyes; and his hands…well, they sure weren’t a rancher’s hands. There weren’t calloused and rough. No. They were thin and smooth. This doctor had slim, long-fingered hands Hoss figured to be just perfect for…well, for doing things Hoss’ fat fingers would just make a mess of. He got that bullet out of Adam without any trouble at all. And the way he stitched up that awful hole in Joe’s arm looked about as fine as a fine lady’s sewing.

“Hoss?” Doc Edmonds’ hand tightened on Hoss’ arm. “Do you hear me? I said falling ill yourself is no way to help your brothers.”

“I’m fine, doc. Don’t waste your time worrying about me.”

“I don’t waste my time worrying about anyone, my friend. I simply concern myself with their care.”

“Well, you just concern yourself with my brothers then. I’ll be fine enough as long as you do that.”

“I imagine you will.”

Hoss could tell the doctor was about to say something more, but a shout from outside stopped his words before they could come out.

“Drank til the pot was dry, he did!” It was the devil’s voice, coming straight out of Buford’s older brother, Chet. “My pa coulda drunk all of you under the table!” He was laughing. The posse had finally arrived to take him to jail — and his dead brothers to the undertaker — and he was laughing. “You’re all nothin’ but a bunch of scrawny sheep doin’ anythin’ the sheriff says and too yellow to go out in the rain!”

“Sure you don’t want to gag him, Clem?” Sheriff Coffee called back. “I’d say it was justified.”

“Don’t, Hoss,” a much softer voice said at Hoss’ shoulder.

While the shouting continued outside, Hoss gave his full attention to the doctor beside him.

“Don’t let that man’s lack of humanity soil your own good heart.”

“You don’t understand, doc. He and his brothers done this to mine. They could of killed Joe and Adam.”

“Maybe so. But they didn’t.”

“You sure about that?”

“See for yourself. Your brothers are still breathing.”

“Can you promise me they’re gonna keep on breathing? Can you promise they’re both gonna get better?”

“Only God can make a promise like that. But only God could have placed me right where I needed to be in order to help your brothers. And I don’t see why He would have done that if my efforts here were doomed to fail.”

Hoss looked deep into the man’s kind eyes. “I want to believe you.”

“Then allow yourself to do exactly that.” The homesteader’s dogs started barking outside, pulling the doctor’s gaze back toward the window. “I suppose that means Buford failed to convince Beau to accept my help.”

“Yeah. I reckon it does.”

“I’ll never understand it. If he survives the trip back to Virginia City, he had better hope your Dr. Martin is available to help him.”

“Don’t mind me for wishin’ he ain’t.” Hoss was still staring toward the front of the shack when the door opened.

Buford stepped hesitantly back inside. He seemed just as hesitant to speak. “Sheriff told me I could stay, if that’s all right with you, Hoss?”

“What about Beau?” Hoss asked.

Buford shook his head. “He don’t want to be here. Dogs’ll take him back with the posse. I think…I think maybe he’s ashamed.”

“Ashamed of what?”

“I think he feels bad. Same as me.”

“If that’s true, then wouldn’t you rather go with him?”

“I just… Isn’t there something I can do to help?” The boy’s eyes moved to Adam and Little Joe.

“I’d say your brother out there needs you more’n we do. We got plenty enough help here now.”

Buford looked to the ground. “But…but I’m a’feared.”

“Chet can’t hurt you anymore. Clem and his men will see to that.”

In an instant, Buford went from skittish to adamant. “No!” he shouted. “Not Chet! I’m not a’feared of him! It’s…it’s God I’m a’feared of. I need to make it right. I need to…make it all right again.” And then he started crying.

Hoss didn’t hesitate. He stepped forward and enfolded Buford in his arms. “You already did, boy. You already did make it right. If it weren’t for you, we might not have got to Joe in time. I think maybe you even saved his life.

“I…did?”

Hoss nodded. “You sure did.” Then he gripped Buford by the arms and pushed him just far enough away to look at his eyes — and to let the boy see his own. “You see? You got no cause to fear God. I already told you that before. Your heart ain’t turned to stone. And if what you think about Beau is true, then his heart ain’t stone either. Now you go on out there, and you help your brother. I can help both of mine.”

“But he won’t listen to me. He never does. None of ’em ever would.”

“He won’t have much choice now though, will he?”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s hurt, ain’t he?”

Buford nodded.

“Then he ain’t got the strength to fight you about anything. This is your chance to show him how strong you are.”

“But I ain’t strong.”

“Sure you are! You were strong enough to walk out of here and then to stay out even when you thought your brothers would punish you for it. You were strong enough to tell me how afraid you were about God turnin’ His back on you. You been lost, boy. But you don’t have to be that way anymore. You and Beau can stand on your own now. And you got it in you to never get lost again.”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, I do. An’ as a wise man once told me, if you want to believe it, then let yourself believe it. Do you want to believe you’ll never get lost again?”

Buford nodded.

“Then believe it. That’s what faith is all about, boy. An’ that’s why you don’t have to be afraid of God if your heart ain’t turned to stone.”

Buford gave Hoss another tight hug, and then scrambled back outside. A moment later, Hoss heard that young voice of his shouting. “You’re stayin’ right here, Beau! An’ you ain’t goin’ nowhere until the doc says you can!”

When Hoss looked at the doctor again, the man was smiling even wider than Hoss.

*****

Christmas. It was Christmas. That felt wrong, somehow, but Joe didn’t much care, especially when he saw how happy his mother was. She was laughing. And Pa…Pa was singing.

Don we now our gay apparel, fa la la, la la la, la la la.
Troll the ancient Yule-tide carol, fa la la la la, la la la la!

“Joseph? Joe? Please, son.”

Keep singing, Pa. It’s better if you….

“Little Joe? Come on, son. It’s time to wake up.”

“Keep…singing.” Joe felt the words scrape their way out of his throat. It felt like fire, like the words had been dug out of him with a red, glowing, iron poker.

Something was wrapped around Joe’s wrist. Rope?

They were back, Joe realized. The wolves were back. He’d only been dreaming of Christmas. This was real. He was still tied to that chair. And the boy… Where was the boy? He’d given Joe a gift, hadn’t he? He’d hidden the iron poker from Joe’s view. He’d given Joe a reprieve. And Joe had wondered if that boy had ever known a real Christmas. How could he, living with a pack of wolves like that?

“Joe?”

“Pa?” No. Pa wasn’t there. It was just Joe. And the boy. And the wolves.

“Yes, son, I’m here. Now please, Joe. Won’t you open your eyes for me?”

“Wolves?”

“There aren’t any wolves here, son.”

“I don’t know about that, Pa.” Hoss? “That Simon Walker fella’ sort of smells like one, don’t you think?”

“Nah! More like a bear, I’d say!” Sheriff Coffee?

Now Joe knew he was dreaming. But maybe it was better that way. He couldn’t stand to be in that chair anymore, anyhow.

“You’d better open your eyes, Joe.” Adam? “Take it from me, they’ll just keep at it until you do.”

You sound funny. Like maybe you’ve had too much… “Whiskey.” Again, Joe’s throat burned.

“Sorry, young man. But you’re going to have to settle for laudanum, I’m afraid.” What was a stranger doing in Joe’s dream?

He tried to open his eyes, but only one of them seemed to work. And then he couldn’t see too much at all. Must still be night out, dark as it was. The only thing Joe could see was the dim, orange glow of lamplight.

At least it didn’t seem to be windy anymore. Maybe the storm was finally over. That was a good thing. He’d been so cold he didn’t think he would ever feel warm again. And the wolves….

No. They hadn’t been wolves, had they? They’d been… “Moonshine.” Joe’s throat could take no more of that scraping. He started coughing.

“Easy, son. Easy.” The ropes holding Joe down softened…became arms. His father’s arms. “That’s it, Joe. Easy, now.”

“Pa?” Joe opened his good eye once more. A shadow started to form in front of him.

“You’re going to be all right, Joe. Everything’s going to be just fine, now.”

Joe blinked once, and then again. The shadow gained substance. Joe saw white hair. “Pa?” He tried to grasp the familiar leather vest, but his fingers were so stiff he could barely move them at all.

“Yes, Joe. I’m here. We’re all here, now.”

“An’ let me tell you, little brother….” Joe turned his head just enough to catch sight of Hoss. “No line shack was ever meant to be this crowded. ‘Least you got that cot.”

Joe realized Hoss was right as he scanned the small room. Sheriff Coffee, Doc Martin, a small-boned stranger, Hoss, Pa, the boy who’d given him Christmas….

“Adam?” Joe asked, concerned to see his oldest brother lying on the ground, on what looked to be a gray wolf’s pelt.

“I’m all right, Joe.” But he didn’t look all right. He was pale, and there was a sheen of sweat on his brow.

Suddenly Joe was back in the chair again. He’d heard Adam’s voice. But…there was a gun. The wolf was going to shoot Joe. Did he shoot Adam, instead?

*****

“Adam?” Joe felt a cool cloth on his forehead. He opened his eye again to see his pa leaning over him.

“Feeling better now, Joe?”

“He shot…Adam. Didn’t he?” Joe’s throat felt…maybe not better, exactly, but it didn’t burn quite as much as before.

“Adam’s going to be just fine. You both are, thanks to Dr. Edmonds.”

Dr. Edmonds? But Joe had other questions…other…thoughts…to puzzle out. “The storm,” he said softly. “How’d he….” Joe wanted to ask how Adam had made it out there in that storm; and how had he known to come at all? But those were just too many words.

Pa understood, even so. “Dusty made it back to Virginia City.” He was quiet for a moment. Joe thought he saw something troubling in Pa’s eyes, but that was another question, for another time. “Adam, Hoss and Sheriff Coffee all rode up here, right in the middle of that storm after Dusty told them you were in trouble.”

“I’m glad…Dusty made it back.” Joe closed his eye and took a ragged breath, cringing at the pull on his sore ribs. How much damage had those men caused? They’d just kept hitting him…burning him. “They were…like…animals, Pa. I couldn’t…I couldn’t….”

Pa’s hand moved to Joe’s hair. “I know, son. But it’s over now. You’re safe.”

“I killed him, Pa. He was…gonna kill me. I didn’t…. No choice.” Joe once again saw that old moonshiner’s eyes. There had been such hatred in them, such…. “They said he…their pa…but…how…how could…?”

“Shhhh.” Pa rubbed the top of Joe’s head. “Don’t worry about any of that right now, son. You just focus on getting better.”

“Pack of wolves.” Joe’s own voice was sounding distant, even to him. “Howling…not just the wind. I couldn’t….” Joe remembered the door bucking against his back as the wolf tried to push itself inside. He could hear the scraping of claws at the window, the hungry howls in the night, and…the loud snores of men sleeping nearby. Men, Joe realized, not wolves.

This time when he opened his eye, Joe’s gaze landed on the window, where a star shone down through the black night. It wasn’t raining anymore. There was no wind, no ice. And the line shack was crowded with men who were looking out for him. There were no animals, no moonshiners, no….

A shadowed beast passed under that star. Startled, Joe held his breath as the beast looked in at him, and then Joe saw that it, too, was just a man — a man cloaked in animal furs, a man whose eyes glistened but did not burn. The man nodded at him, raised a hand in greeting — or farewell? — and then disappeared back into the darkness.

Pa had been right. It really was over. Seeking out Adam again, Joe saw him bathed in moonlight, and somehow he knew his oldest brother was going to be fine, just like Pa had told him.

“…If you want to believe it, then let yourself believe it,” Joe heard Hoss saying. “That’s what faith is all about.”

But Hoss wasn’t talking, was he? No. He was snoring as loud as ever. It was about the best sound Joe had ever heard, surely a whole lot more comforting than the wolf in the wind.

Joe smiled, settled back against the thin pillow cradling his aching head, and fell into a deep, soothing sleep. His dreams were filled with family…and Christmas.

***The End***

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