The Shootout (by Becky)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,700


 

It would have made a wonderful picture, if only there had been a photographer in town. The four Cartwrights were bunched together in the middle of the street, guns drawn. Hoss and Ben stood behind Adam and Little Joe, who were crouched on one knee. Hoss was a few seconds from firing, Adam was thoughtfully taking careful aim, Ben’s gun was coming up and Joe’s was at the ready. The intense concentration on all of their faces showed their determination to defend the town, protect the innocent, stand together against all odds…

Their target was a spinning wheel. A large wheel of red and black squares that hung on the side of the livery stable. The rules were clear, one shot at a time, in order, up to six shots each, but any shots taken had to hit their target, for points were deducted for misses.

Sheriff Roy Coffee stood to the side of the wheel, one hand on the curve of the wood, all set to start it turning. He got ready to move: as soon as the wheel started spinning he knew Hoss would fire the first shot, and as much as he trusted all of the Cartwrights’ aim, he still didn’t want to be standing anywhere near the target of four determined gunmen.

The crowd quieted, the other six teams of four shuffling a bit. There was a temptation to try to distract the team that was up, but it didn’t live much beyond the thought of Joe’s hair-trigger reflexes. Startle that boy and you never knew where he’d fire, only that he’d hit what he aimed at.

Roy took a deep breath, balanced on the balls of his feet, spun the wheel for all it was worth and ran. The sound of gunfire filled the air and smoke obscured the Cartwrights.

*****

Absolutely not!” stated Ben Cartwright firmly.

“Aww, c’mon, Pa,” Joe pleaded.

Ben narrowed his gaze. “I will not stand out in the middle of a Virginia City street like a sideshow attraction, just so you can win a prize and impress the girls in town.”

Adam’s snort of amusement could be heard from across the living room. He was ensconced in his favorite chair by the fireplace, book in hand, but was deriving far more entertainment from his two brothers’ attempt to get their father involved in the annual Virginia City Days Shootout.

“Hey, Adam, tell Pa he’s gotta do it with us,” called Hoss from where he and Joe stood at his father’s desk.

Adam raised an eyebrow in uncanny imitation of his father. “Us? And what us is it you’re talking about, younger brother?”

“Adam, you have to do it, too!” cried Joe. “Each team has to have four men on it.”

“I don’t have to do anything of the kind,” Adam replied and reopened his book. “I know how well I shoot, and I don’t need to prove it.” He waved a hand negligently at them, engrossed in his reading again. “Go ask one of the boys from the bunkhouse. Tim would be glad to show off for all the girls.”

“Tim can’t hit the broad side o’ the barn with a scattershot rifle,” grumped Hoss.

Ben leaned back in his chair, relieved for the moment that the boys had turned their attention to Adam. He couldn’t deny the Shootout was for a good cause—raising money for a new schoolhouse—and he knew his three sons were among the best shots in this part of Nevada. He was no slouch either, he was honest enough to admit at least to himself, and the Cartwrights would stand a good chance of walking off with the prize. He just couldn’t reconcile himself to the exhibition aspects.

Joe opened his mouth but Ben quickly cut him off. “That’s enough, Joseph. Adam and I are together on this, so you’ll just have to find two other men for your team. Now let’s all turn in; we have a busy day tomorrow.” He rose from his chair and made his way to the stairs with the distinct sensation of having made a narrow escape. He was too tired tonight to deal any further with their determination. Let them get an idea in their heads…

Adam made his way to the stairs quickly as well, knowing the best way to cut off his brothers was to disappear. “Yeah, I want to get an early start looking for those missing cows. See you in the morning, Pa.”

Hoss and Joe gazed at the empty stairs, then turned to each other.

“We gotta do something,” said Joe. “There’s gotta be some way to convince them.”

“Well, you know Pa,” answered Hoss gloomily. “Once he gets his mind set, and ‘specially if Adam backs him up—”

“Then we’ve gotta work on Adam. If we can get him to change his mind, Pa’ll reconsider.”

Hoss scrunched up his face. “How’re we gonna convince Adam? He’s as stubborn as Pa.”

Joe scowled. “More stubborn, if you ask me.”

They sat next to each other on the settee and stared gloomily into the dying fire.

*****

They still hadn’t come up with any ideas by morning so they saddled up cheerlessly to join Adam on his hunt for strays. They spent the first part of the ride to Spooner Lake trying to talk him into entering the contest, but finally he pulled a leather-bound book out of his saddlebags and began to read out loud:

Were there, below, a spot of holy ground
Where from distress a refuge might be found,

Hoss abruptly trotted ahead and Joe was quick to join him. “He’s poetizing again,” Hoss complained. “How’re we gonna convince him when he won’t even let us talk to him?”

Joe rolled his eyes as their oldest brother repeated the last line with a slightly different inflection before going on:

And solitude prepare the soul for heaven;
Sure, nature’s God that spot to man had given

“We’re just gonna have to wait,” Joe said. “Something will happen.”

Hoss turned a considering look on his younger brother. “You always say that.”

Adam’s voice took on the dramatically round tones of an orator:

Where falls the purple morning far and wide
In flakes of light upon the mountain side;

Hoss winced.

Joe raised an eyebrow at him. “And I’m always right, right?”

“Yeah, somethin’ always happens,” Hoss scowled. “It’s just not always what we want to have happen.”

Where with loud voice the power of water shakes
The leafy wood, or sleeps in quiet lakes…

Joe poked him in the arm and smiled. “It’ll work out. Trust me.”

His brother sighed and looked heavenwards. “Where have I heard that before?”

*****

Two silent men sat on horseback in a grove of trees above the meadow the Cartwright boys were riding through. Once the three riders below had disappeared from sight, the tall skinny man on the buckskin asked nervously, “You think they’ll find the herd, Red?”

The redhead on the sorrel thought some, then replied, “Yep. Unless we do something.”

“Like what?”

“Depends on if they split up or not. I dunno who he is, but that last fella ain’t exactly payin’ attention. He goes off on his own we can take him easy.”

“What about them other two?”

Red shook his head. “Don’t want to mess with them. That’s Hoss and Joe Cartwright. Stay outta reach of the big one, and don’t surprise the small one. He’s real slick with a gun.”

Slim scratched his head. “So what do we do?”

“I figure we take out the dreamer, the other two’ll be busy takin’ care of him and that’ll give us time to clear outta here.”

“They ain’t exactly riding together, you think they’ll care that much?”

“Hell, yeah. Them Cartwrights are always sayin’ how they take care o’ their hands. They’ll help him out right enough. That’ll give us a head start, but then we’d better be outta here ‘cause they’ll be after us.”

“We better go, then. They’re headed right for the draw where we stashed the cattle.”

Red reined his horse around. “Let’s cut over the ridge. That’ll save some time for us, keep us above ‘em. Then when they cross that creek you drop that fella. Now, don’t kill him. He’s dead they got no reason to stay with him. Got that?”

Slim nodded. He wasn’t much for brains, but he was one of the best shots Red had ever seen. Satisfied, Red moved out.

*****

Adam eventually put his poetry away, Joe and Hoss tacitly agreed not to bring up the Shootout for fear he’d start declaiming again, and they all concentrated on finding strays. It was hot, dusty work that took a lot of mental and physical energy as they tried to outthink a bunch of what Joe was starting to call under his breath misbegotten, mangy, miserable cows. They were working their way over to Crystal Creek, Hoss down in the meadow, him up on the western slope in the trees, and Adam way off to the east where the land started to break up into gullies and draws before dropping dramatically to the Carson Valley Plain below. Joe halted Cochise and pulled his canteen off his saddle. He took a long drink, then poured a bit of water into his gloved palm and slapped it against the back of his neck.

He was just thinking how great a bath tonight was going to feel when he heard a distant shot. He scanned the meadow as he automatically drew his gun, saw Hoss running Chub hard for cover. He squinted, trying to spot Adam, but couldn’t see him. Probably behind the rocks. He wound his way carefully downhill, well aware that his pinto didn’t blend at all with the countryside. He could see where Hoss had gone to ground, and relaxed when he saw Adam’s horse standing next to Hoss’. Grateful for Cochise’s speed and surefootedness, Joe skirted the meadow, always staying within the trees, and it wasn’t too long before he came up on his brothers’ hideout.

“Hoss, Adam!” he whispered.

“Joe, get over here quick,” Hoss called back.

Joe tied his horse near the others and clambered over the rocks to where he’d heard his brother’s voice. The big man was bent over, his bulk concealing something on the ground.

“Gimme a hand, Joe, I cain’t watch for bushwhackers and help Adam at the same time.”

Joe’s heart skipped when he saw Adam motionless on the ground, blood streaming down his face from a deep cut over his right eye.

“Is he all right?”

A groan was his answer as Adam lifted a hand to his head. “No, I’m not all right, though I’d be better if you’d stop shouting.”

Joe couldn’t help a twisted grin. If his brother was complaining, he couldn’t be too badly hurt. “What happened? I heard a shot—”

“Here, Adam,” interrupted Hoss as he pushed a wadded kerchief against the wound. “Hold that tight a minute.” He disappeared in the direction of the horses.

Adam’s eyes were still shut, but he held the cloth in place. “I asked you to stop shouting.”

Joe sat down next to him and slid an arm under his shoulders, lifting his head onto his lap. He took off his kerchief and tied it around Adam’s forehead, holding the cloth tightly in place. Adam’s arm dropped limply, his hand resting on his chest.

“Take it easy,” Joe said, “we’re not shouting. You just got whacked a good one. Your head hurt?”

Adam opened one eye to a squint and glared at his youngest brother. “What do you think?”

“Yeah, I’d say it hurts. Hoss,” he called, “you got a canteen?”

Hoss came back into the cul-de-sac, saddlebags over one shoulder and a canteen in the other hand. He passed it over to Joe who held it to Adam’s mouth. “Not too much.”

Adam swallowed, then relaxed into Joe’s arms. “I know, I know. I’m the one who taught you, remember?”

Hoss gently untied the kerchief and looked under the bloody cloth. “Lessee how you’re doin’ here. Yep, just about stopped bleedin’.” He soaked Joe’s kerchief with water from the canteen and gently cleaned up the worst of the blood.

Adam winced and tried to wave Hoss’ hands away from his head, but Hoss just said calmly, “Now you settle down, an’ let me take care o’ business here. Sooner we get you fixed up the sooner we can go after them fellers what shot you.”

Adam stopped in mid-wave. “Shot me?”

“Now, why’d you have to go and tell him that,” Joe complained.

“Somebody shot me?” Adam tried to sit up, but Hoss held him down easily with one hand on his chest.

“Yep, an’ if you’ll just stay put I’ll finish up here, an’ then Joe ‘n me are gonna go get ‘em.”

“You mean we are going to go get them,” Adam said.

“Nope, you’re stayin’ here, if’n I have to tie you down,” Hoss replied firmly as he folded a clean cloth into a pad and tied it against the wound. “You ain’t up to ridin’ yet an’ you’ll only slow us down. We’re gonna take a look around, be back for you in about an hour, so you just get yourself a short nap an’ you won’t even notice we’re gone.”

Adam tried again to sit up, but this time Joe held him down.

Hoss was the voice of reason. “Adam, if you cain’t even get out from under Little Joe, you’re in no shape to ride with us an’ you know it.”

Adam glared at his brothers, but when he saw they weren’t going to back down he sighed and settled back onto Joe’s lap. He draped his arm over his eyes and said, “As much as I hate to admit it, you’re right. Just make sure you aren’t gone more than an hour.”

“Now, that’s bein’ sensible.” Hoss went back to the horses, untacked Adam’s horse Sport, and brought the saddle back to where Joe was now propping Adam up a bit. They tucked it, leather side down, behind him for a pillow and eased him back into the fuzzy warmth. He relaxed gratefully and closed his eyes. They draped the horseblanket over him for warmth, left a full canteen at his side, and made sure his pistol was in his holster.

“One hour,” Adam murmured a reminder.

“Don’t you worry none, we’ll be back,” Hoss answered.

Joe nodded as well, but once they were away from the camp he grabbed Hoss’ arm. “You sure he’s okay to leave?”

Hoss frowned. “I think so, but see the thing is, if’n we don’t find these fellers soon we ain’t gonna find ‘em at all. Before you know it, there won’t be a safe place to ride on the whole Ponderosa. Once the word gets out that a Cartwright got took down an’ nothin’ happened to the men what did it, we’ll get all kind o’ drifters through here.”

Joe’s face hardened. “I see what you mean.”

“He’ll be all right for an hour, an’ by then we can have a good idea of where they went and what they’re up to. Then you take Adam back to the house, an’ ride back here with men and supplies as fast as you can. I’ll keep tracking ‘em.”

“Makes sense. Let’s get going, then. Sooner we figure this out, the sooner we can get Adam home.” He vaulted up onto his horse, and once Hoss was settled on Chub, they set out to find the tracks of the men who’d attacked their brother.

*****

Slim and Red were watching from the same hillside where Joe had been when he heard the shot. They’d hidden in the rocks until the two Cartwright boys were fully occupied, then rode to the stream as if they were going to head east, but turned and rode west instead. Now they could see the entire valley.

Slim shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. “Red, they’re both leavin’. You said they wouldn’t leave that man unless he was dead. I didn’t mean to kill him, Red.”

Red sat silently. This didn’t make sense.

“Red?” his partner asked plaintively.

“Take it easy, Slim, I’m sure he’s gonna be all right. Them Cartwrights probably just went to get help.”

“But their ranchhouse is the other way, Red.”

Slim’s nervousness was beginning to bother him. “Well, I guess we’ll have to go see, then.” He started his horse down the mountain, Slim following carefully.

They approached the unsaddled horse quietly, leaving theirs ground tied next to him. Slowly, softly, they made their way through the rocks, until they came to a small clearing where they found their target. Red drew his gun and held it ready as he approached.

The dark-haired man was settled into a camp bed and seemed to be sleeping. Judging by the clean bandage around his forehead, the other two had fixed him up a bit before they left, so he’d be all right, then. Red started to back away, but Slim was right behind him and he tripped, taking them both down.

Red was up on one knee in an instant, his gun trained on the man under the blanket who was just opening his eyes.

“Just hold it right there, mister,” Red said. “We don’t wanna do no more damage to you, and we won’t if you just lie quiet-like.”

The man froze, then slowly relaxed. “All right,” he said. His voice was surprisingly deep and mellow. “What do you want?”

Slim spoke up. “We just wanted to make sure you was okay. When them two Cartwright boys went off an’ left, I thought I’d killed you.”

He raised an eyebrow at them. “You’re lucky then, you didn’t miss by much. Do you mind if I get a drink?”

Slim looked to Red, who nodded. “Go ahead, but I’ll be watchin’ you.”

The blanket slid down as he reached slowly for the canteen that lay by his left side. He opened it unhurriedly and took a long drink.

“You sure you oughta be doin’ that?” asked Slim. “I got hit in the head once and it made me sick to my stomach. You should be drinkin’ in little bits, just in case.”

“I’m touched you care,” the man said with an edge to his voice.

Slim just turned to Red, confused.

“Don’t you worry ‘bout it,” Red told him. He turned to their prisoner. “He don’t understand,” he said, waving his pistol slightly in the direction of his partner. “God’s greatest talent with a gun, an’ no brains to go with it. I told him not to kill you, an’ he didn’t.”

“So what exactly did you hope to gain?”

“Oh, some time, maybe. I need to know when them boys’ll be back, then we’ll just tie you up an’ scoot outta here.”

“You’d better hurry, then, they should be back soon.”

Red hunkered down in front of his prisoner. “Well now, that just won’t do. We gotta have time to get away.”

The man shrugged his shoulders. “Not my problem. They told me to stay put, and that’s what I’m doing.” He paused. “Not that I could go much of anywhere anyway, not with this headache.”

“Well now, I don’t rightly agree with that. I think it is your problem, ‘cause you’re comin’ with us.”

The man on the ground lifted his eyebrow and Red felt a slow heat rise in his face. He stood and blustered, “C’mon, we’ll help you out, but you ain’t stayin’ here, not when you can be our…our…” He faltered when he couldn’t think of a word.

“Insurance,” said the dark-haired man dryly.

“Yeah, that’s it!” Red said happily. “So come on, get up. Slim, give him a hand.”

Slim handed his gun over to Red, who held both of them on the prisoner. The man carefully lifted the blanket off, exposing his holster, complete with his own gun. Slim pulled it out and set it way off to the side. Then Slim levered him to a sitting position and grabbed the saddle and blanket to take to the horses. Red stood silently while Slim saddled up.

When he returned, he kneeled on the ground and put his arm around the man’s waist, asking as he lifted, “You got a name, stranger? I’d kinda like to know who I shot.”

“Call me Adam,” he said as he swayed slightly. “I gather you’re Slim. You have a real name? I’d kinda like to know who shot me.”

“Oh,” he blushed, “my name’s Hieronymous Walters, but I couldn’t learn to spell it, so’s everyone just called me Slim, ‘cause I’se always so skinny.”

“Much easier,” the man named Adam said with a twisted smile as they set out for the horses.

*****

Hoss and Joe rode back to the meadow, disgusted at their lack of success with the tracking. Hoss was the first to notice Adam’s horse was gone.

“Hey, Joe?” He pointed to the bush where they’d tied their horses. “You don’t s’pose Adam went on home, do you?”

“He didn’t look like he could sit up by himself, let alone saddle his horse.” They dismounted and strode quickly into the rocks. There was no sign of their brother, his saddle, or even the canteen they’d left with him. It was only because of a trick of the sun that Hoss saw a glint on metal.

“Joe, look here!” He reached under some brush and pulled out a gun. “Could be Adam’s; he has one like this.”

Joe took a few quick, edgy strides around the bare campsite. “Of course it’s his. But why would he leave it here?”

“Let’s go back out and see if we have any better luck finding his tracks,” suggested Hoss.

They tramped carefully around the tree where they’d left Sport, Joe finally coming across several sets of tracks. “Hey Hoss,” he yelled.

“Find something?”

“Yeah, I think it’s three horses, and one of them’s Sport.”

Hoss came up beside his little brother and checked over the markings in the dirt. “Well, if it was any of the hands, they’d o’ taken him back home, but these tracks are headed south. That don’t leave a lot of options.”

Joe swore. While they’d been out looking for Adam’s attackers, they’d been back here and had taken him with them. And no telling what they’d do.

Hoss’ expression darkened and his eyes narrowed. “They ain’t gonna get away with this. If they’ve gone and done anything to him…”

Joe placed a calming hand on his brother’s arm. “They must want something else, otherwise they could’ve killed him easy enough. They won’t get far with an injured prisoner, all we have to do is follow.”

*****

Adam was, indeed, making things as difficult as possible. Any time they broke into a trot, he swayed and almost fell out of the saddle so they had to return to a walk. Sport responded to subtle digs in his side by frequently dancing off the trail, and Adam made no effort to guide him back. His hands were tied, then attached to the saddle horn in front of him, so when he moaned and asked for water, they had to stop and hold the canteen for him. He had cause to regret his frequent requests when, as Slim had predicted, his stomach rebelled. The only good thing about his brief spell of sickness, he reflected through a pounding headache, was that it slowed them down even more.

At the next creek crossing, he begged them to stop so he could clean up a bit. He looked so miserable that Slim took pity on him and added his pleas. Red finally gave in and called a halt. Slim undid the short rope from the saddle and eased Adam to the ground. He supported him over to a gentle slope that led down to the water, then loosened the remaining ropes around his hands. Adam shucked them off, knelt, and rinsed his face. He soaked his bandanna, wrung it out, and draped the cold cloth over the back of his neck. It felt wonderful, and he began to feel half-human again. He was careful not to let on, though, and discreetly managed to stumble when getting up. He and Slim got all tangled up together, and somehow Slim ended up in the middle of the creek.

Adam stood shakily on the bank, an appalled expression on his face. “Slim,” he said weakly as he sank to his knees. “I don’t think I can help you…” He propped himself up on one shaky arm.

“Red!” Slim called as he slipped on the slick stones that made up the creekbed and fell again into the water. “Red, get down here!”

His partner appeared at the top of the bank and looked down with disgust. “What are you doin’ takin’ a bath? You had one just last month. Get outta there!”

“I’m tryin’.” Slim stuttered with cold as he crawled to the edge of the creek. He flopped out of the water onto the dirt next to Adam, raising a cloud of dust that settled back down over him and coated his clothes with a veil of greyish brown. He coughed twice and peered up at Adam.

Adam gazed back with an expression that said clearly Don’t look at me, I can’t even keep myself upright.

“All right!” said Red in disgust. He slid down the hill and hauled his partner to his feet. Slim shook his head, and water flew everywhere from his lank hair, showering Red with spatters of mud. Red wiped his face slowly with his forearm, succeeding only in spreading streaks of dark brown across his cheek and forehead. Adam hid a smile behind a cough.

It drew the outlaws’ attention, though, and Red pulled him to his feet. Adam leaned heavily on him as they dragged up the small hill, and he managed to spread mud liberally over Red’s shoulder where he gripped it to keep his balance. He tripped once and took Red down with him. Red landed hard on one knee, Adam somehow on top of him. Red got up cursing and hauled his prisoner to his feet. They continued up the hill, Red limping and Slim trailing behind, solemn and sodden.

Red shoved Adam back up on his horse and retied his hands, but this time he left them free of the saddle and even hung a canteen over the horn. They rode in silence for a long time, Red shifting in his saddle as he tried to find a more comfortable position for his knee.

The little group had just turned south when Adam suddenly started speaking. Slim didn’t know what to make of it. Their prisoner didn’t seem to expect an answer—which was a good thing, since he didn’t have a clue what the man was talking about. He nudged his horse closer.

…In Nature’s pristine majesty outspread,
Winds neither road nor path for foot to tread:

“That sure is purty, Mister Adam.” Slim inserted admiringly when Adam paused for breath.

Adam turned a quizzical eye on him. “You like Wordsworth?”

“Never met him.” Slim said promptly, then paused and added with a worried frown, “It is a him, ain’t it?”

Adam smiled reassuringly. “Indeed he is. Would you like to hear more?”

“I shore would. Seems like that fella’s been out here, don’t it?”

“That’s the idea.” Adam looked at the mountains around them. “He actually wrote this poem about the Alps, a mountain range in Switzerland, but it works for the Sierras as well.” He continued, in his best orator’s voice:

The rocks rise naked as a wall, or stretch
Far o’er the water, hung with groves of beech;

“Well, not beech here,” he interrupted himself. “More likely pine or aspen, but those don’t rhyme very well.” He paused and said thoughtfully, “Not that beech rhymes either, for that matter.”

“What’s ‘rimes’ mean?” Slim asked.

“Well, that’s when two words sound alike. Like, oh, ‘Slim’ and ‘him’.”

Slim chewed thoughtfully on a filthy fingernail and Adam cringed. “Your hands,” he said.

“What about ‘em?” Slim asked.

“They’re dirty,” Adam pointed out.

Slim looked them over carefully and grinned. “Yep, they sure are! So ‘rimes’ is when words are almost the same. Like ‘Red’ and ‘fed’ and ‘bed’ and—”

“Exactly,” said Adam, looking as pleased as a schoolteacher who’d finally gotten through to a particularly dense student. He continued:

Aerial pines from loftier steeps ascend,
Nor stop but where creation seems to end.

Slim interrupted again. “They got pines in them Alps, too!”

“Hey!” Red interjected. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Adam pulled his horse to a stop. “Actually, I’d say it’s a pretty fair summation of where you’re taking us. How far up do you mean to go?”

Red reined his horse back to where his prisoner was waiting. “Up? We’re not goin’ up. We’re gonna go down Genoa way, once we get our cattle from that meadow with all the berry bushes.”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “Your cattle?” He shook his head, instantly regretted it, and after a pause continued:

Yet here and there, if mid the savage scene
Appears a scanty plot of smiling green…

“Stop that!” demanded Red. “Just say what you’re gonna say and be done with it.”

“But I thought I was.” Adam’s voice was eminently reasonable. He gestured with bound hands at the trail ahead. “You obviously don’t know this area very well. We’re headed straight up into some of the most rugged backcountry in this part of Nevada. Great place if you want to hide, but you’ll need a lot more supplies than I see on your horses. And if you think you’re going to take cattle up there, well…”

No peasant leans upon his pole, to tell
For whom at morning tolled the funeral bell

“Hey, Mr. Adam,” said Slim with great excitement. “Them words rhyme!”

“So they do,” he told Slim kindly. He turned back to Red. “You’re going to end up killing your cattle—um, the Ponderosa cattle—if you keep this up,” Adam said.

“The only funeral around here is going to be yours,” snarled Red.

Adam tried hard to look meek. “I don’t think I’m feeling very well…”

“Now lookit what you done, Red,” said Slim. “You done gone and upset Mr. Adam, and now he’s gonna get sick again.”

Red’s reply was unintelligible, but he pulled himself back together and said between clenched teeth, “And just which trail, Mr. Adam, should we take?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” he replied. “At the second branch, just after we cross the creek, we want to go west. It’ll climb for a bit, but then it crosses over a low saddle and heads back down to the valley. We’ll have to take it slow on the cattle at the beginning or we’ll wear them out, but after that it’s smooth sailing, all the way down to Genoa.”

Red looked at him suspiciously, but his prisoner looked too ill to be playing any tricks. “All right, then. We’ll do it your way. I’m gonna get the cattle, then we’ll head out.” His eyes narrowed. “And you’d better be givin’ me the straight story, or it won’t just be your head that hurts.”

Adam raised his hands in surrender. “I just want to get down off this mountain to a nice, comfortable bed.”

“Huh,” Red grunted. “For your sake, I hope so.”

They continued along the trail and Red dutifully took the second branch to the right. After a while, when they’d reached a rise in the trail where it seemed to cut into the mountainside, Adam drew up again and jerked his head toward a downhill path.

“If you go down that draw there, you can cut a good half hour off your trip to the meadow.”

Red thought carefully, then dismounted and checked his cinch. “Slim, you watch over the prisoner here while I’m gone.”

“Oh, sure, Red,” Slim answered. “We’ll just stay right here, an’ maybe Mr. Adam’ll talk some more of that rime stuff.”

Adam smiled, but his eyebrows were knotted in pain. “I’d be happy to, Slim, but could we do it on the ground? I’d like to lie down for a bit.”

“No tricks,” said Red with a glare of warning as he walked to the dismount side of his prisoner’s horse.

Adam started to dismount, but halfway off he seemed to lose his balance. He tried not to fall but knocked into Red anyway, catching the rustler square on the mouth with his bound hands.

“AHHH!” cried Red, as he went down under his prisoner.

Slim jumped from his horse and ran to his partner. He hefted Adam to his feet and propped him against the nearby wall of rock, then went back and offered a hand to Red.

“You okay?” he asked.

Red pulled himself to his feet, dabbed at his split lip and glared at Adam. Then he shook his head and remounted without a word.

“We’ll be right here,” offered Slim. Red just gave a desultory wave and turned his horse downhill.

“C’mon, Mr. Adam,” said Slim, hooking an arm around his prisoner’s waist. “Let’s find you a place to rest.”

*****

Joe and Hoss weren’t having much trouble following the trail, what with all the sign their brother was leaving, and Hoss was confident they’d catch up with the outlaws by late afternoon.

“They just ain’t travelin’ very fast,” he told Joe as they rode up to a stream and dismounted to water their horses.

“But is Adam holding them back on purpose, or because he’s worse off than we think?” Joe walked down to the water’s edge and filled his canteen. “I mean, it looks like he’s got his horse dancin’ all over the place, but that could be just that Sport doesn’t like carrying a limp body around.”

Hoss came up to him and put an arm on his shoulder. “Well, we both know that horse don’t much like bein’ crowded, but he usually travels at least sort of a straight track. He’s all over the trail today. First he’s in the middle, then way off in the grass on the right, then next thing you know, he’s over in the rocks on the left. That ain’t like Sport, so I’d say Adam’s doin’ it on purpose. An’ that means,” he said reassuringly, “that older brother’s thinkin’.”

Joe smiled. “And when he starts thinking…”

Hoss grinned back.

*****

Sure enough, an hour later they heard something ahead. They dismounted and crept quietly closer until Joe held a hand up. Hoss stopped instantly. Joe listened carefully, and thought he recognized his brother’s deep murmur in counterpoint to a lighter, friendly sounding voice.

Adam, he mouthed silently.

Hoss nodded and searched over the layout of the land. It was rough country, the trail running on the only level spot of a steep rocky hillside that fell down to their left and up to their right. Hoss pressed his lips together tightly in thought. He shook his head at himself, then motioned Joe to head up the hill for a look.

Joe recognized that his brother had wanted to be the lookout, but the simple truth was that Joe was smaller and lighter, and therefore less likely to make noise by disturbing any of the loose stones on the hillside. He moved swiftly but carefully, always approaching a potential ridge from the side so as not to be skylined to anyone below. He couldn’t hear the voices any longer, but couldn’t tell if that was because of his position or if they’d stopped talking.

When he reached a big rock about twenty feet up and eased around it, he found he could see down into a deep ravine where his oldest brother lay asleep or unconscious, watched over by a tall, slender man in absolutely filthy clothes. He swore silently. The way the ravine was laid out there was no way to surprise the outlaw. He slid as quietly as possible back to Hoss.

“Is he there?” his big brother asked softly.

Joe nodded. “But I couldn’t tell how he is. He’s lying awful quiet on the ground, but could be he’s just asleep. There’s one fella watching over him with a gun, and I didn’t see any sign of the other.” He hunched down on the ground and started drawing the layout in the dirt with a stick. “It’s about thirty feet down, and it’s a straight line heading in. No way to sneak up on them without giving him time to shoot Adam.”

Hoss sighed unhappily. “We’re just gonna have to wait, then, till they come out.”

“But what if Adam’s not all right?” Joe asked, worried.

Hoss jerked his head upward. “You better go back up there an’ keep watch. Maybe you’ll see somethin’ that’ll help figure it out. I’ll move the horses back a ways. But if you need to, don’t you wait any to start shootin’. I’m not takin’ any chances with our brother’s life.”

Joe grabbed Hoss’ arm in silent reassurance, then headed back up to his perch.

*****

Adam woke to a pounding headache and nausea. Slim was hovering anxiously over him, patting his face with a cool wet cloth.

“Water,” he managed to croak and though it sounded unintelligible to his ears Slim must have understood because he lifted him gently at the shoulders and held a canteen to his lips.

“You gonna be okay now, Mr. Adam?” he asked, worry creasing his forehead.

Adam sighed deeply and rested against the cowboy’s arm. “I think so. Just moved too fast, I guess.” The churning in his stomach settled a bit, but he closed his eyes again anyway.

“Mr. Adam!”

“I’m still here, Slim, but that sun is awfully bright.”

Slim glanced up, then back at his prisoner. There was shadow a little farther into the ravine, so he grabbed Adam under the arms and started pulling. It was considerably cooler in the new location and Adam groaned with relief and opened his eyes. Slim had run back to get the canteen, and to his pleased surprise Adam saw his youngest brother silhouetted against the sky, a good thirty feet up. He lifted his elbow in acknowledgement, then turned it into a swipe over his sweaty forehead when Slim returned.

Slim kneeled and lifted him a bit again, to offer more water. “I wonder how much longer it’ll be before Red gets back.”

Adam took a couple of sips, then nodded his thanks as Slim set the canteen aside and helped him back to a comfortable position on the ground. He considered the young rustler’s question. “Depending on how many cattle he has, could be an hour, maybe two.”

Slim hunkered down, practically sitting on his heels. “He’s real good with cows, real good.”

That roused Adam’s curiosity. “Then why aren’t you two signed on with a ranch somewhere?”

“Oh,” and Slim swiped at the ground with a stick, “Red don’t hold much with stayin’ in one place. Says people just can’t be trusted not to give a man a hard time.”

“If you’re going to go around stealing their cattle, I suppose they can’t.”

Slim grinned in wry acknowledgement. “So we punch a few cows one place, then move on, do some fence riding another. We get along all right.” He stared at the ground.

“But…?” His attention caught, Adam forgot the throbbing in his temples.

“Well, there was one place…down Arizona way…”

Adam waited patiently.

Slim’s words came out in a rush. “Down in Tucson there was this cantina, see, with the prettiest gals. One of ‘em had hair like…like a field of wheat in the summer sun. Her eyes was the color o’ that lake up there.”

“Sounds like you formed an attachment.”

“A what?” Confused, he mulled that over for a minute. “Well, I dunno ‘bout that, but I sure did like her. And Red liked that Lucy gal.”

“Then why did you leave?”

Slim shrugged. “Like I said, Red always wants to move on. Him an’ me, well, we’re partners, so where he goes, I go along, too. An’ Sally never said she liked me back, so we just up an’ left one day.”

“Hmmm,” Adam said thoughtfully. “Did you have work?”

“Oh, yeah, we was signed up with a big outfit south of town. A good place; bunkhouse had a couple card tables, some chairs down by the fireplace, even had a rockin’ chair for the ol’ segundo. He don’t ride much no more, ‘cause he got tossed in a stampede, but them folks kept him on anyway.”

They fell silent then, both considering Tucson and the ranch due south, but for different reasons.

Adam managed another glance upward while Slim was distracted, but Joe was gone. If he and Hoss were cooking something up… He raised himself on one elbow and Slim came immediately to his aid.

“You take it easy, now, Mr. Adam. Nice an’ slow.” He helped Adam to sit against the rocky wall of the draw and peered anxiously into his eyes. “That okay?”

The world slowly stopped turning around him and he smiled slightly. “Yeah, I think so. You have more water in that canteen?”

Slim sloshed it around. “Sure do, if you think you’re up to it.”

Adam took it from him a bit awkwardly, hampered by his bound wrists, but there was enough give in the ropes that he found he could manage. “In every babbling brook he finds a friend, or, in this case,” he continued, “in a bubbling canteen.”

Slim laughed. “How come you know all them words?”

“I like them,” he answered simply. “And that particular work, well, I was stranded in a mountain cabin one time when it snowed unexpectedly. There wasn’t anything else to do. It’s quite a long poem, but two weeks alone…” He raised his shoulders eloquently.

“Yeah.” Slim shuddered in sympathy. “I know what you mean. That’s another reason I like Tucson. No snow.”

They settled into peaceful companionship again, Adam occasionally taking a sip from the canteen, Slim making idle marks in the dust.

After a while Adam asked, “Why don’t you go back?”

Slim looked up at the sliver of sky between the steep walls of the draw. “I’d like to, Mr. Adam.”

Adam shifted against the wall. “So why don’t you?”

“Fact is,” and he sounded a bit embarrassed, “we don’t got enough cash money.”

“You wouldn’t need much. You have your horses; you can find wild game.”

Slim ducked his head. “We got maybe seventy-five cents between us. That’s why we went after the Cartwright cattle. Sell ‘em, get a little seed money.”

The sudden mooing of a cow brought the outlaw to his feet.

“You stay right here, Mr. Adam. I’m gonna go check on Red, see how he’s doing.”

Adam waved him away. “I’ll be fine, you go on ahead.”

Once Slim was out of sight, Adam tried standing. It wasn’t as difficult as he’d feared, but he was still too dizzy to climb out of the draw, even if his hands were free. He’d get halfway up and likely fall. Just as he was trying to reconcile himself to an ignominious rescue by his brothers, the lasso end of a rope appeared at his feet. He looked up and saw not Joe, but Hoss at the top of the hill. He grinned, slipped into the loop so it was tight around his chest and, with his brother’s help, started up the craggy wall.

It wasn’t a smooth trip. He tried to keep his feet against the stone but a couple times he swung around and banged into an outcropping—once on his hip, and another time just missing a ringing blow to his head by Hoss’ jerk on the rope. He took that one on the shoulder. He swallowed hard against his stomach’s reaction to the resulting spin, absolutely certain he didn’t want to throw up when he was twisting in circles, suspended twenty feet in the air.

Then he was sliding over the rim, light-headed and limp in Hoss’ arms.

“Adam!” Hoss whispered. “You okay?”

Adam pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. “I don’t think I’m ever going to be all right again.”

Hoss’ usually slow temper sparked at the thought of the outlaws hurting his brother. “What’d they do to you?”

“They made me get up,” he replied testily. “I was comfortable where you left me, but no, they had to drag me along through some of the worst country in this end of the Sierras when I had a headache.” He squinted up at Hoss. “That reminds me. Where’s Joe?”

Hoss snorted a laugh as he pulled out his pocketknife and sliced the ropes that still bound his brother’s hands. “He’s scoutin’ some cows he heard.”

“That would be the strays we were looking for. They weren’t strays at all. Red and Slim drove them into Wildberry Draw.”

“Wildberry Draw?” said Hoss with distaste. “You mean we gotta go fetch them animals outta there?”

Adam rubbed at his wrists. “I wouldn’t think so. Look, can we continue this on the ground? This is a bit high up for me today.”

Hoss studied his older brother carefully. “Yup, you are turnin’ an interesting shade of green. You just keep that rope around you, an’ I’ll let you down easy.”

Adam drilled him with a glare. “You see that you do. I don’t need any more lumps or bumps today.”

“Crabby, crabby,” Hoss sighed as he paid the rope out while Adam descended the hill. “I’m glad he ain’t hurt bad, but I am sure not lookin’ forward to the ride home with him in that mood.”

*****

When Red finally arrived back where he’d left his partner, he was about ready to kill their prisoner. Or at least give him one good clip on the jaw. He was filthy, sweaty, his shirt was almost in rags, his mouth hurt, and every exposed surface of skin was scratched and bleeding. He had the cows, but only his iron determination had kept him driving them forward through the berry bramble bushes.

And ‘Mr. Adam’ had known. He’d known the whole time.

That eyebrow. Red swore at himself. He should’ve realized when he first saw the raised eyebrow back at the meadow, and they should’ve left the man there like he wanted.

Slim was standing at the entrance to the draw when he rode up.

“Where’s the prisoner,” Red demanded.

Slim jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Sittin’ back there in the shade.”

“Well, get him outta there and let’s get goin’. I’ve had enough of this part of the country.”

Slim ran back out of sight, but returned almost immediately. “He’s gone!”

“What do you mean, he’s gone? There’s no way out of there!”

“I know, Red, but honest, he’s not there.”

Red started to swear but he was interrupted by the sound of a gun being cocked.

The deep voice that he’d grown to hate spoke ever so politely, “That’s because I’m out here. Now if you’d be so kind as to get down off your horse…”

Red moved slowly, trying to figure if he could get his gun out while dismounting, but froze at the sound of another gun being cocked.

A lighter voice spoke from above. “I wouldn’t if I were you.”

He looked up. It was Joe Cartwright. And walking up behind their prisoner—ex-prisoner—was big Hoss Cartwright, blocking the trail. Red took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was all over.

He raised his hands. “Slim, looks like they got us. Put your gun down.”

Slim took his gun out of his holster, then pulled Red’s as well, and brought them over to Adam.

Adam holstered his gun and took the two weapons, then patted Slim on the back. “You’re doing the right thing,” he said kindly to him. “Hoss, tie their hands in front of them and get them up on their horses. These two are going to help us drive the cows back down to the pasture.” He went back into the draw to pick up the canteens.

Hoss tied Red’s hands and as he was giving him a leg up into the saddle asked, “What were you all doing headin’ up into the mountains, anyways?”

Red whipped around to face the big man. “Up into the mountains?”

“Yeah. You fellas wanted to take them cattle somewhere, you shoulda stayed on the main trail, not taken that cutoff after Dodd’s Creek. The way you were goin’ you’d be up above treeline by tonight.”

“But he said…” Red looked toward the black-haired man and his words faded away.

Hoss looked over at Joe and shook his head. “Uh-huh. An’ you believed him?”

Joe gave the outlaws a pitying look. “Hoss and I learned a long time ago to be pretty darn careful around Adam any time we upset him.”

Slim spoke up at that. “Mr. Adam ain’t upset. Why, he’s just about the nicest feller I ever met.”

Red just closed his eyes in pain.

*****

They’d ridden for about a half hour when Adam left his two brothers with the herd and edged his way between the two outlaws. He turned toward Slim, ignoring his partner. “By the way, your real name is spelled H-I-E-R-O-N-Y-M-O-U-S.”

Slim’s jaw dropped in admiration. “How d’ya know that?”

“It’s Latin—used by the ancient Romans—means Jerome. And there was a Dutch painter by that name, died somewhere around 1520.”

“A painter? What did he paint, barns?” Slim asked, intrigued that there had actually been someone else saddled with this mouthful.

Adam laughed. “No, he painted pictures. I saw one when I lived in Boston. It was called ‘The Garden of Delights’ and was done up like a shuttered window.” He gestured with his hands, trying to give some approximation of the size. “Imagine you had a window six and a half feet wide, and about seven feet tall.”

“That’s some window!”

“Yes, it is. And imagine you had shutters to cover it. Now when the shutters are closed, there’s a picture painted on the outside of them—a glass ball, takes up the whole space. Half on the right shutter, half on the left. Got it so far?”

“He’s got it, all right,” muttered Red. “He’s got as tetched in the head as you are.”

Adam ignored him and continued. “The way Mr. Hieronymous Bosch painted the glass ball, you can see inside it, and it’s almost like there’s land in there, with trees and bushes. You can’t see it very well; it’s all sort of blue and gray, like things look at night. He called that part of the painting the Third Day of Creation.”

Slim’s eyes were as wide open as a little boy’s on Christmas morning. “An’ then what happens?”

“You open the shutters,” Adam flung his arms wide, catching Red smack in the stomach.

“Ughh!” Red hunched over his saddlehorn.

“Oh,” said Adam with a quick not-very-apologetic glance. “So sorry,” and he turned back to Slim. “Inside is the most beautiful scene of a park that’s all green with trees and lakes and oh, probably a thousand people. On the inside of the left shutter is painted the Garden of Eden, on the inside of the right is Hell. It’s one of the most amazing works of art I’ve ever seen. So you see, that’s a name you can be proud to have.”

Slim chewed on the inside of his lip and studied his bound hands. He looked up shyly. “Mr. Adam?”

“Yes, Slim?”

“Would you learn me to spell it?”

Adam smiled as if this would be the greatest treat in the world, to teach this young man to spell his name. “Of course I will. You’re going to have to practice it a lot, you know. And out loud works best. Start slowly, with just H-I-E-R…”

“H-I-E-R…”

Hoss rode back after a while to see how his brother was doing and discovered he was reciting poetry again. He had to laugh at the two outlaws—it was instantly apparent that Adam had found a disciple in one and someone more of his own and Joe’s perspective in the other. Taking pity on the red-haired fella he rode closer, intending to cut him away to do something more useful than listen to Adam’s poetizing, but a glare from his brother stopped him. He bit down on what he’d been about to say, then reined his horse back to the cows thoughtfully.

“What’re they doing over there?” asked Joe. “Some help with these cows would be nice.”

“He’s up to somethin’,” said Hoss. “I dunno what, but he’s got some notion an’ he ain’t gonna take kindly to any interference.”

Joe sighed. “Well, at least we only have to drive them, we didn’t have to go down into Wildberry Draw for them.”

“That’s what I say, so let’s just get ‘em home an’ get Adam into bed before we all end up with achin’ heads.”

*****

Ben came out onto the porch to find out why his sons had taken so long that they’d all missed dinner, but what he saw left him speechless.

Hoss and Joe were holding guns on two of the most disreputable looking men he’d ever seen. The skinny one was covered with dust from head to toe, just solid gray with the exception of his brown hat, which was the only clean thing about him. The other, the one with red hair, was scratched and battered and streaked with mud and dust and sweat. There was a bloody tear in one knee of his jeans, his lip was swollen, and his eyes were squeezed shut like he had a terrible pain in his head.

Ben’s gaze floated over the group until he found his oldest son at the back of the group, dismounting carefully. “Adam?” he asked. “What’s going on here?”

Adam draped his reins over the hitching rail, leaned heavily on it for a moment, then turned to the group and said quietly, “Hoss, would you take care of my horse when you get a chance?”

“Sure thing, Adam.”

Something in the big man’s attitude finally connected for Red, and he snapped his head around to stare in disbelief at the dark-haired one. “You’re a Cartwright, too?”

The eyebrow raised one last time.

Joe sidled his horse over next to the outlaw and said proudly, “He sure is. That’s my oldest brother.”

Adam bowed ever so slightly. “At your service. So to speak.” Then he walked carefully over to Slim and placed a hand on his leg. “Now, you think you have those lines down?”

Slim nodded. “Sure do, Mr. Adam. Uh, Mr. Cartwright.”

“And you remember how to spell your name?”

“H-I-E-R-O-N-Y-M-O-U-S.” And he was rightly pleased with himself, too. “I’m never gonna forget, neither.”

“Good for you. Even if you choose to stay Slim Walters the rest of your life, a man should know how to spell his real name. Keep practicing, so you don’t forget.” Adam patted Slim’s horse once and walked back over to Red. “Words of wisdom, Red: The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.”

He nodded once sagely at the outlaw, then headed for the house. Ben slipped an arm around him before he’d gone more than a few steps and they started slowly toward the door.

Red groaned. “Nobody said nothin’ about another Cartwright brother. If I’d known there was three of ‘em, I never woulda come near the place. Especially,” he glared at Adam’s retreating back, “if anyone had told me about him!”

Hoss sat his horse thoughtfully. “You know, Mister, you got a point.”

Ben glanced back, his gaze arrested, but then Adam started to sag against him. “Hoss,” he said, “you take those men to the sheriff. Joe, I want you to ride ahead and get Doc Martin out here to see to your brother.”

“Look, I’m fine—” started Adam, but he was cut off.

“No, you aren’t,” Ben said severely, “and you’ll do as I tell you, at least until you’re back on your feet. No more nonsense!”

“Please don’t shout,” Adam sighed and pressed the heel of his hand against his forehead.

Ben glared at him, but his voice softened. “You see?”

Adam flapped his hand in acknowledgement and allowed himself to be helped into the house.

Red stared after the pair and addressed no one in particular, “You mean that old man gets away with talking to your brother like that?”

“Old man?” laughed Joe. “That’s no old man, that’s our Pa.” He saluted with his hat and rode off, still cackling.

Red shivered. “Now I know I don’t want to be nowhere around this part of the country ever again.”

“C’mon, then,” said Hoss. “Let’s get you in to town.”

*****

It was midmorning the next day when Adam asked to see Little Joe. He was still in bed, having slept late as much from sheer exhaustion as the pain medicine the Doc had given him the night before. He knew he needed more sleep, but he couldn’t stop worrying over one last little problem.

Ben scowled at his oldest son from where he sat in the rocking chair next to the bed. Adam was still pale, the bandage around his head only a shade or two lighter than his face, and he had dark circles under his pain-filled eyes. “Son, you need to rest. Now, be reasonable.”

Adam shifted restlessly on the bed and started to pull himself up to sit against the headboard. Ben leaned forward and propped some pillows up behind him. “Pa, I’m not going to be able to go back to sleep until I talk to Joe, so you may as well just get him.”

“What is so all-fired important you have to tell your brother that can’t wait until this evening?”

Adam clamped his jaw shut and stared mutinously out from under lowered brows.

Ben crossed his arms and sat back again. “Well?”

Adam scowled back, but apparently that hurt because he closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, a gesture that had become all too frequent since he’d returned. His voice suddenly shaky, he said, “I need him to take care of something for me in town.”

Ben’s resistance crumbled at these signs of fragility in his normally robust son. “All right,” he said gently. “I’ll get him. It’s going to take a while—he’s out in the East pasture.” Then he poked at Adam’s chest and said gruffly, “And until he gets here you are going to lie down again and go back to sleep, you understand? You nearly did me in last night when you passed out on the stairs.”

Adam relaxed, his expression now almost angelic. Ben bit back an oath. He’d thought he was well past being manipulated by his boys, but in truth Adam had scared him last night, and he found it difficult to refuse him anything that would help him rest and get well.

He was still grumbling when he went down to the living room. He’d have to pull one of the hands off the corral repair, it was going to take time to find Joe and bring him back in, and then this trip to town would likely keep his youngest from finishing his work today. Ben sighed.

He’d promised Adam.

*****

Joe rushed into the house two hours later, breathless, sweaty, and scared. “Pa!” he yelled as soon as he came through the door.

“Shh,” Ben warned from his desk. “Adam’s sleeping.”

Joe threw his hat on the sideboard where it bounced once and fell to the floor. Ignoring it, he strode over to his father. “Is he all right? Tim said you needed me.”

“Oh, he’s all right,” grumbled Ben.

Joe slumped into a chair with relief. “You sure had me worried. What’s going on?”

“What’s going on is some of the best blackmail any of you boys have ever pulled.”

“Huh?”

Ben gestured to the stairs with an irritated hand. “Go on, see what it is he wants. But before you head off to town, we have something else to discuss, so make sure you find me before you leave.”

Joe perked up. “Town?”

Ben scowled again. “Go!”

Joe didn’t wait to be told a third time, and took the steps in four bounds.

*****

A half hour later he came back down much more slowly, wearing clean clothes and a rather bemused expression. Hoss and Ben were seated at the dining room table having lunch, so he sat down with them and ladled some soup into his bowl.

Ben looked at him expectantly.

His mouth full with a roll, Joe just shook his head.

Ben sighed. “Well, then, I want to talk to you boys about this Shootout. Something that red-haired outlaw said has been bothering me.”

Hoss set his spoon back on the table. “You mean that if he’d known ‘bout Adam he wouldn’t have gone after our cows?”

“Yes, exactly. You both know how I feel about showing off, but it occurred to me that if the four of us participate and do well, the word will get around and something like this—” and he glanced up toward the second floor “—might be prevented from happening again.”

Joe and Hoss tried to hide their gleeful expressions, but then Hoss asked dubiously, “Will the Doc let him do it?”

“And how are you going to convince Adam?” asked Joe.

Ben rose from the table. “You just leave your brother and the doctor to me. Joe, when you go into town, you enter us in that contest, and make sure everyone knows we’re going to be there and that we intend to win.” He grimaced. “A little exhibitionism will hurt me a lot less than seeing one of you boys laid up or dead.”

*****

Adam,” said Roy two days later on the morning of the Shootout, “I just don’t understand why you won’t press charges.”

The oldest Cartwright son was back on his feet after a day in bed and another confined to the house. Doc Martin had stopped by last night to check up on him and, though he’d had his reservations, after a pointed discussion with Ben he’d pronounced Adam fit to compete as long as he took it easy and stayed out of the sun as much as possible.

Adam tried to think of the best way to explain himself to Roy. “You know what they say,”

Fit retribution, by the moral code determined,
lies beyond the State’s embrace—

“Oh, no,” groaned Joe. “He’s at it again.”

Roy turned a questioning look at Hoss, who was seated in front of his desk and had just dropped his head into his hands.

He moaned, “He was doin’ that all the way down the mountain when we caught those two.”

“I’m making a point, here,” Adam scowled at his brothers and continued:

Yet, as she may, for each peculiar case
She plants well-measured terrors in the road of wrongful acts.

“Is that Mr. Wordsworth again?” called Slim from the jail cell.

“It sure is.” Adam pulled a small leatherbound book from his vest pocket and carried it over to Slim. “Tell you what, you keep this book of mine. Then whenever you want to, you can read it to yourself.”

“Oh, Mr. Adam…” Slim was obviously bowled over by the magnitude of the gift. He quickly wiped his hands on his pants and tenderly took the volume. He opened it immediately and started silently sounding out the lines of another poem.

“Remember, Slim,” said Adam. “Sometimes you just have to speak the words out loud to get the full meaning.”

Joe watched Slim’s expression change to one he’d seen all to often on his oldest brother when faced with something new to read. When the outlaw went to sit down, he had his nose buried so deeply in the book that he almost missed the cot. He started muttering to himself, and suddenly Joe’s eyes widened.

Fit retribution?” he quoted in a whisper and his lips twitched. “Oh…oh, Adam.” He coughed suddenly and covered his mouth with his hand. “That’s…that’s just…” He coughed again, choked and, tears starting in his eyes, suddenly spun around and left the jail.

Well-measured terrors?” Hoss repeated as he, too, seemed to become afflicted with the same cough. The sheriff looked from him to the door in confusion.

“We’ll, uh, see you outside then, Adam,” Hoss said and left as abruptly as his little brother. A few moments later they heard the sound of Joe’s wild laughter accompanied by Hoss’ loud guffaws floating in from the street.

“Roy,” said Adam, “I’m satisfied with the time they’ve spent in jail so far. After all, they did round up all those strays, saving us a lot of time. So let’s just leave it at that, shall we?”

Roy Coffee rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and a corner of his mouth turned up. “Well, you’re the injured party, so I reckon I can, if that’s the way you want it.” He picked up the keys and started to unlock the cell. He gestured to Red, who was standing just behind the bars, bewildered. “You’re free to go, though I’d recommend you don’t stay too long in this town.”

Adam waited for the partners to get their gunbelts back, then put an arm around Slim and asked, “Tell me, do you have any plans for this afternoon?”

*****

The Shootout was a great success. Aside from the entry fees, there was an official pool on the number of points that would be won by each team, and the prize money was drawn from the combined sources. What was left over—the bulk of it in fact—went to the school construction fund.

The Wilson Ranch’s team was a prime contender, and they shot well, but in the end the Cartwrights were more accurate and walked away with the prize, which Ben promptly donated to the schoolhouse fund.

The surprise of the afternoon was the sharpshooter contest, won handily by a skinny stranger with a small leather book sticking out of his back pocket. He was seen later with Adam and Joe Cartwright, the younger of the brothers handing him a small package.

“There’s your seed money, Slim,” Adam said. “Won fair and square.”

Joe handed over a second envelope. “And here’s some more; Adam had me place some bets in your name, since you don’t know anyone around here.”

Slim turned to his partner. “Red?” he asked.

Red stared hard at the black-haired man. Finally deciding this was on the up-and-up, he nodded. “Take it, Slim. It’s yours like he said, fair and square.”

Slim still looked bewildered. “I ain’t never had this much money before.” He handed the envelopes to his partner. “Red, you take care of that for me, will you?”

Red put his arm around his partner’s shoulder. “Sure, Slim. If that’s what you want.”

Adam turned to Red. “Take him back to Tucson,” he advised kindly. “You’ll both be happy there.”

Then the two Cartwrights walked back to their father and other brother, and Red watched them until they disappeared from sight. He turned back to his partner to discover he was also looking down the street, but what he said next for some reason set off alarms.

“Hey, Red,” Slim asked thoughtfully. “Do you know where Boston is?”

EPILOGUE

By the following afternoon Red understood all too well why Adam Cartwright had been satisfied with their jail sentence. He wouldn’t abandon his partner, but he knew in the months and years ahead he would wish many times that he had.

They stopped at a saloon in Genoa on their first leg back to Tucson, and Red fell into conversation with the bartender while Slim sat at a table, slowly working his way through a page of his prized possession.

“Yeah,” Red was saying, “we was warned about Little Joe Cartwright and his quick draw, and that big Hoss fella and how strong he is.” He stared dolefully down into his beer and drew slow, mournful rings on the bar in the sweat that had dripped down the glass. “We even heard ‘bout ol’ man Cartwright and how he don’t cotton to strangers much.”

He finally looked up at the bartender again. “But nobody said nothin’ about the oldest Cartwright boy.” He shook his head and shifted around to sadly regard his partner, who was now speaking out loud, just as he’d been told, trying to imitate the bold, round tones of the man he’d come to idolize:

And, guilt escaping,
Passion then might plead in angry spirits for her old free range,
And the “wild justice of revenge” prevail.

“I tell you, though, don’t make that one mad.” He stared down into his beer again. “Just don’t ever make that Adam Cartwright mad.”

***The End***


Author’s Note: all quotes are from sonnets by William Wordsworth, with the exception of the one about navigation, which is by Edward Gibbon, from The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.

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