Summary: What Happened In-Between/What Happened Next for the episode “Vengeance”
Word Count: 3250
“Far enough, friend,” came Red Twilight’s voice from atop the stairs.
Many times in his life Adam Cartwright had faced down an opponent’s gun; many times he’d sidestepped death. But now, as his dark eyes took in the muzzle pointed directly at him, he actually thought that this might be it.
“Maybe I didn’t do a hundred percent job on your brother the first time,” Red continued, “but I guess it’s better this way – two for one. First I get you, then I finish him. Now drop the gun.”
It was funny how time seemed to slow down to nothing when death lingered nearby – sounds became muted and drawn out, movement flowed as if through a deep and unwieldy mud and thoughts drifted to memories long ago catalogued and filed. Adam had heard of such things but never truly experienced it before. Until now, that is.
He smiled – at least he thought he’d smiled – at the fields of wild lavender interspersed with blue bonnets and marigolds that spread across his memory. Fields of color, he’d told Hoss as he grew older, that filled your eyes with wonder and streams of the deepest blue packed with trout as fat as the horses that pulled the wagon. All those little priceless things popped into his head in these short milliseconds before his life would be wiped out by a crazy man standing on the stair.
For a passing moment, he remembered the gun in his hand but knew he’d never raise it in time. It bothered him that he’d failed to protect his middle brother as he’d promised Inger all those years ago, promised her as he watched his father hold her lifeless body, promised a newborn who didn’t understand a word he said. But he knew what those words meant; he knew what a promise meant and that he would fulfill it until the day he died . . . which seemed to be just a few breaths away.
- . . i . . . c . . . k. Ah, there was proof that time had slowed. The Grandfather clock sounded like a low moan as the echo of a second elapsed. A second? He had to have been standing here a good five minutes, five minutes of staring into the business end of a gun while his thoughts roamed through unconnected dots of time.
Focusing on this moment was what should be occupying him now — the moment but not the face of the one who held his life in his hands, for that just wasn’t important. He didn’t really want that face to be the last thing he took from this life. He’d much rather remember his wild rides on Sport through the tall pines, or helping Hoss learn to dance and working with Joe on his times tables. Those were much better things to remember than the face of his killer.
Besides, what would it matter when he was dead? A quick trip from the other side wasn’t necessarily in the cards and it’s not like he had to tell anyone anyway. Joe was upstairs and would soon see his predicament and, even though it would be too late for him, his brother would get this man who’d disrupted their lives; he could close his eyes to this world knowing that Roy Coffee would take care of everything once Red Twilight was turned over to him.
Of course this was his little brother — his brother whose temper was well known and basically uncontrollable. Only their father had any sort of influence over the boy and even then just barely. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to think that Joe would handle this with Roy and not with his gun. After all he was trying to protect Hoss and everyone knew how close those two were and how he would be avenged much to the detriment of Joe’s own life. Maybe he shouldn’t give up so readily even though the odds were stacked against him; maybe if he just turned slightly to the left the bullet would by-pass him or wound him and not kill him and give him a moment to yank that boy off this man before he did something he’d regret.
Now there’s a thought.
As those last words filled his thoughts, time erupted around him and his eyes widened as Red’s gun came to life. A rampage of sound encompassed the room and the muzzle flash filled his vision followed by a blazing trail of pain that furrowed along the side of his head, pushing him backwards to slam against the wall. Sliding to the floor, he lay stunned, eyes closed, unable to move as the sounds of a scuffle reached him. Someone struck his boot then the noise disappeared and he suddenly became aware of hands on his shoulder, forcing his eyes open to search the space in front of him.
“Adam!” Mary’s voice shouted and he cast a surprised look in her direction when he realized he was still alive. Quickly picking up his gun, he looked back to her.
“You stay here,” was all he managed as he heaved himself to unsteady feet, trying to keep his eyes from crossing as he made it out the door, stumbling over the rocker and leaning a hand against the wall, shaking his head to clear it.
The sight of Joe battering Red Twilight in the yard then chasing after him into the barn found him, and he shoved away from the wall, the distinct sound of a hammer being cocked meeting him as he made the barn door. Spying Joe’s hand wrapped in Red’s hair, yanking his head back to expose his neck, Adam tensed and forced air into his heaving lungs.
“Joe! Don’t!” he urgently called, fear for what his brother was about to do filling his belly.
“Now you stay outta this, Adam!” Joe ordered, fury permeating every word, every muscle twitch on his sweaty face as he pushed his gun against Red’s cheek.
It suddenly occurred to Adam that his earlier thoughts were right – there was more than anger on his little brother’s face – there was vengeance. Slowly, he stepped toward Joe, gun hanging loosely in his hand, never taking his eyes from his brother’s face. “All this time you intended to kill him?” he asked, hoping he was wrong.
“I made a promise to Hoss and I’m gonna keep it,” came Joe’s pinched voice through clenched teeth as his gun bit deeper into Red’s face.
Adam blanched. “You got his confession,” he said, desperation creeping into his voice. “That’s all the evidence the sheriff needs.” He had to get through to him before he ruined his life.
Why else had I been given this moment?
“That’s all the evidence I need,” came Joe’s response as he watched Red’s eyes brim with fear.
Perhaps a different tact was needed. “All right,” Adam began, compelling his voice to lose all emotion as he willed his rapidly beating heart to calm. “If you gotta do it . . . go ahead. Blow his brains out. It’ll only bring you down to the same level as the man you’re gonna kill. I hope you enjoy it.” He let his disgust roll off his tongue as he slammed his gun back in its holster.
God, let him think this through!
For Adam, time seemed to slow here, too, but it could’ve been because a bullet had creased his head and his thoughts were swirling about each other with nowhere to perch. He watched his brother closely, watched his white-knuckled hand slowly ease up on the trigger then finally release the hammer, and he felt himself sigh. It seemed so long in coming, that sigh; it was one of thankfulness that all the things Joe had been taught in his young life actually took and that he still held some sway with his little brother.
Joe pushed Red to the barn floor never taking his eyes from his cringing form as he holstered his gun. “Fine . . . fine,” he quickly said, wanting so to put a bullet through that man’s skull. “We’ll take him back to the sheriff.”
“Adam?” came to them and they both turned to see Mary holding tightly to Hoss’ arm, his long nightshirt hanging nearly to his boots.
“Adam!” Joe called, pushing his brother toward Hoss who quickly took up his other arm.
“Joe? Ya all right?” Hoss asked, grateful for the help.
“How’re you feeling?” Joe asked him, ignoring his question.
“What’re you trying to do?” Adam interjected. “Kill yourself?”
“I’m fine,” Hoss answered them both, none seeing Ben and a deputy riding into the yard behind them.
“Hoss!” Ben called as they quickly dismounted.
“I’m gonna be all right now, Joe,” Hoss stated, never taking his eyes from his little brother.
“Hoss,” Ben called again, grabbing his son’s arm from Mary as the deputy moved past all of them and into the barn, dragging a wretched Red Twilight to his feet.
“It’s all right, Pa,” Adam quickly interjected, looking intently into their father’s worried face. “He got down under his own power.”
Ben pulled his eyes from Hoss as the deputy yanked Red from the barn, a relieved gaze shifting to his youngest. “You didn’t . . .” Stopping himself, he had to reconfigure what he’d thought he’d find and was never so glad of it. “I was worried about something else, too,” he finally finished, never taking his eyes from Joe,
Adam followed the gaze. “Now, come on, Pa,” he began, looking back toward Ben with a sardonic grin. “Don’t tell me that’s all the confidence you have in your own son.” He looked back to Joe and they traded a knowing glance.
Ben smiled then, so grateful his worries were unfounded. “Come on,” he smiled nodding toward Hoss. “Let’s get this one back to bed.” Tugging on his boy’s arm, Ben was met with an immoveable object and watched as Hoss reached out a hand to his little brother.
“Hey, Joe,” Hoss began as they grabbed each other. “Joe, I’m . . . I’m glad ya didn’t kill ‘im.”
Adam kept watch as Joe tried to maneuver out of that open statement and tossed out a small chuckle.
“What do ya mean kill him? Think I’d kill a man just because he took a shot at a big ox like you?” The relieved smile came then as Joe’s anger truly left him and he took Adam’s place by his brother’s side.
With great care, Ben and Joe walked Hoss slowly back to the house as Adam followed behind with Mary, gingerly touching the side of his head. Her voice came to him but was lost in the echoes that surrounded it and he wondered when the walk from the barn to the house had stretched into a marathon distance. It hadn’t occurred to him that no one seemed to notice blood trailing down his face and, in fact, he hadn’t either until it dripped onto his neck. It’s quite an odd sensation to have something warm and sticky ooze down your neck and onto your chest and, once touched, bring red to the fingertips.
“Hm,” he muttered at the sight as they all walked through the door leaving him on the stoop.
Unsure how much time had passed, Adam managed to draw his wavering sight from the blood on his fingers toward the open door that seemed to stretch before him like a warm bit of taffy. Odd. Taking a step forward was his next mistake since the sensible thing would’ve been to simply drop to his knees. A hasty grab for the doorframe, which seemed to be just in front of him, missed and he soon found that the floor had suddenly become his best friend – its coolness pressing against the fire burning along the side of his head.
Gentle hands touched him and soft sounds surrounded him but it was all a blur. It wasn’t until his father’s face hovered over him that he was whisked back to the many times he’d awakened to that same face smiling down at him, offering him love and understanding and a warm hand to hold. How pleasant those memories made him feel even as darkness fell about him. He was home, he was safe, and now, so were his brothers.
The morning blew through the curtains like a speeding train, plastering across Adam’s half-opened eyes the beauty that follows the rising of the sun into an early morning sky of a new day. A wide yawn made him wince as he jarred the bandage about his head. Carefully fingering Paul Martin’s work, he lightly followed the bullet trail, the line of death that could’ve taken him from this world, and wondered once again how many times would he be this lucky?
How lucky indeed.
Ever so slowly, he edged upward to lie against the pillows at his headboard, fighting off dizziness and a massive headache that had planted itself behind his eyes, his sight drawn back to the orange rays that radiated into the cloudless sky slowly turning pink then softening into a cool blue that reminded him of so many things.
It wasn’t so long ago he’d thought this sight would be lost to him forever, lost to a dark muzzle of a gun. Had time really slowed or, in the space of a split second, had his mind conjured up all those memories – his life passing before his eyes as they say – to remind him of what he had and what he would lose?
Philosophically it could be debated for years about the progress of time and memory and whether or not a person had the ability to stop it or change it or slow it down in order for a desperate mind to work out a solution. In the long run, it didn’t really matter because here he was, alive and mostly well; his family was all standing (even Hoss, in a sight he would remember always – oh, that nightshirt) and his little brother wouldn’t be going to the gallows anytime soon. Whatever had actually happened was accepted and filed away for further review at a later date. No need to dwell just yet. And he shouldn’t be lazing about in bed. There was work to do.
Easing back the blankets, thoughts moved to swinging his suddenly heavy legs over the side, when none too gentle hands arrived to push him back onto his pillows. Good thing, too, since the room lurched from side to side and he knew his earlier acquaintance with the floor would soon be a re-acquaintance if he wasn’t careful.
After a suitable time of making sure he wasn’t going to fall out of bed, he pried open his eyes to see his little brother holding onto him, his mouth moving. Adam was sure words were coming forth but the sound just wouldn’t penetrate the roar whooshing through his head at that particular moment. Blinking a few times and tilting his head to ease the ache there, the roaring began to diminish and his brother’s words filtered in.
“. . . want Hop Sing or Pa coming up here to find you sprawled on the floor again. Don’t think your head could take the punishment.” Joe smiled then and pulled the covers back over his long legs, handing Adam a steaming cup of tea. “Drink this. Hop Sing says it’ll make your head feel better.”
Wrapping shaky hands about the mug, Adam slowly sipped the brew, its warmth spreading throughout his aching body. “Thanks,” was all he said, sending out a smile only to see a seriousness grace his brother’s face.
“It’s you I need to thank, brother,” Joe answered, absently picking at the blanket. “You saved me from making a huge mistake . . . again. I guess that’s been about twenty times or so,” he said, trying to make a joke with a forced grin.
“More like one hundred and twenty,” Adam corrected, taking another sip.
Joe nodded and the fake grin disappeared. “Whatever the number, I thank you, Adam. When I saw you lying on the floor, I just couldn’t stand the thought that Red Twilight had killed you and I lost it. I would’ve killed him if you hadn’t shown up in the barn.”
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“Yes, Adam, I would’ve,” Joe answered with a shake of his head. “I was a hair’s breadth away from pulling that trigger, from taking from this world the man who’d nearly killed Hoss and killed you. It didn’t matter that he was helpless. All that mattered was that I rid the world of that murdering bastard. I would’ve gladly gone to jail knowing that he was dead and couldn’t hurt us any longer.” Joe was close to tears and Adam laid a comforting hand on his knee.
“But he would’ve hurt us, Joe, if you’d been taken away,” he quietly explained, pulling his brother’s eyes to him. “Even from his grave, as you stood trial and went to jail or even hung, he would’ve hurt us. I only gave you a moment to think through what you were about to do. I’ll always believe you would’ve taken that moment for yourself even if I wasn’t there.”
“You’ve too much faith in me, Adam,” Joe admitted, wiping at his eyes. “I was angry, angrier than I’ve ever been, and nothing mattered but Red Twilight spilling his own blood instead of my brother’s.”
“It’s not faith, Joe,” Adam answered with a smile. “It’s understanding who you are, how you were raised, and what you’ve learned. You’re not Red Twilight. You would’ve remembered that in time.”
Joe looked at his brother, seeing the same man he’d come to know as a child – giving, loving, loyal – telling him that he didn’t need him. How untrue was that? He smiled then, a genuine smile this time.
“You drink that up and take a nap ‘cause your eyes are still a little crossed,” Joe quipped. Adam chuckled, then finished his mug, handing it off to his brother.
As Adam scrunched down into the covers, Joe pulled them to his brother’s shoulders and watched him close his eyes, hearing the deep sounds of sleep come quickly. “Thank you for all the moments, Adam. I’d have it no other way.” Slipping out, he left the door ajar and headed toward Hoss’ room.
Joe stopped as he passed the stairs and looked toward the Grandfather clock, for an instant seeing Adam lying on the floor. In that instant, his heart had exploded and rage filled him and there’d been only one thing to do. He wanted Red Twilight dead and he would’ve gladly delivered him to Lucifer himself.
Turning away, he sighed. He never wanted to feel that again, never wanted to lose himself to that kind of fury. Thank God for the moment Adam had given him, for now his brothers were safe; Red Twilight was in jail and he wouldn’t be facing a gallows. Besides, he had more important things to do – a game of checkers with the other invalid. His step proved livelier as he continued down the hall, disappearing into Hoss’ room
These were the moments worth cherishing. These were the moments to be remembered.