Summary: The finale of the Moment series and What Happens Next for the episode “Vengeance”
Word Count: 9700
The afternoon sun ducked behind the slowly gathering clouds giving the current temperature a slight dip, enough to cause Adam Cartwright to pull up the collar on his yellow coat and button up the front. After all he’d been through on this lovely trip to Bud Turley’s, he wasn’t planning on catching a cold on top of all the bumps, bruises, aches and pains he’d already collected.
Adjusting Sport’s cinch brought a grimace to his tired face, leaving him to stand there looking off distractedly into the trees. He knew if he waited a moment or two, the stinging pain in his left hand would dull enough for him to continue.
Never wear just one glove while trying to break a crazy horse!
Finally able to move again, Adam finished the job and lowered the fender, pulling a few burrs from Sport’s mane just as his brother, Hoss, came to stand quietly next to him.
“Ya doin’ all right there, older brother?” Hoss whispered, hoping not to draw the attention of his father and younger brother standing a few paces away. “I’m askin’ ’cause yer lookin’ a bit peek’ed. Squeeze yer cheeks or somethin’ or Pa’ll be all over ya.”
“Thanks,” Adam answered just as softly, running a hand across his face then looking back toward Hoss for approval.
“Now ya just look cold.”
“Well, I am.”
“Perfect then,” Hoss grinned, drawing a lopsided one from Adam.
This trip to visit Bud Turley had been like all the rest – a long trek through tree-filled country with magnificent views of mountains, valleys and meadows, all ending up on his 1500-acre ranch, The Sierra, nestled between two snow covered peaks and filled with foot high grass. Bud’s wife, Claudine, found this large piece of land just outside Barrett’s Pass some thirty miles north of the Ponderosa by looking for an errant colt nearly forty years before. They’d staked their claim and The Sierra began its climb to a well-earned reputation for excellent horseflesh and fair dealings.
Ben Cartwright first met Bud on the last wagon train he, Adam and baby Hoss joined on their journey west. With Bud’s three girls and Ben’s two boys, they’d hit it off and a lifelong friendship had been born. Each savored the other’s success, even though there was a bit of competition between the two that had morphed into a competition between Ben’s sons and Bud’s men as the two men got older. And while Ben claimed it was all in fun, the boys knew it meant more than that to him.
As to Bud, he just thought of it as part of life. The harder you fought for things, the easier it was to succeed, and living out here in this pristine wilderness that gave the impression of being out in the middle of nowhere, you fought for everything. When a little settlement sprouted up some ten miles to the east not ten months before, you’d of thought the world was coming to an end, according to Bud.
And so a good portion of the first two days of the Cartwrights’ visit was filled with Bud’s obvious dislike for progress or his yearning for, as he put it, ‘the good old days’ when you survived on the land and didn’t need a General Store to support you through the winter. Whatever kept his mind off him, Adam went right along with it, sighing with relief that first night and then the second when he’d made it to bed without mention of any type of contest that would surely kill him. Maybe Bud had grown out of these little escapades.
It wasn’t until that first weekend that it all started going downhill.
Over the years, Adam wondered what it was that made his tongue disobey his brain out here in the wilderness. He’d often thought it was the higher altitude but Denver never seemed to bother him. Perhaps it was the water but it was just as pure as what ran through the Ponderosa. He’d even gone so far as to think maybe his hat was too tight! But he’d had this hat long enough to break it in so that couldn’t be it either. The more he thought on it, the less he understood, so he just gave up. But this time he had an ace in the hole – Hoss. He knew his brother would look after him and keep him out of harm’s way because he’d promised, and a Hoss promise was one to take to the bank.
Hoss, on the other hand, was wondering if he’d be able to uphold that promise. Oh, he was more than willing to do what was right to keep his wayward brother from killing himself, but that was proving difficult as the one-upmanship got worse as the days passed and he realized that, aside from tying Adam up and tossing him into the bunkhouse, there was very little he could do.
Of course. both Joe and Ben hadn’t really helped when they expressed their desire that Adam ‘hold up the Cartwright name’. Some help they turned out to be. Shaking his head in defeat, all Hoss could do was pledge to be there when it all came crashing down. And crash it did. Later he was heard to say it was like watching a train wreck – something horrible that you just can’t take your eyes from.
All the boasting and bragging, done mostly by Ben himself, eventually led to how many horses could be broken in an hour. A shake of the hand, a quick whiskey to get started, and on they plowed. It wasn’t until 20 minutes into it that Adam’s brain finally detoured back into his head, awakening him to the fact that this fine spread filled with tough horses and tough men was probably going to kill him! In fact, before it was even over, he felt that those tough horses had run over him . . . more than once.
The cheering from the Cartwright clan was almost as loud as Bud’s three girls and all his men for his foreman, Pete Sibbald, but all that noise only incited the already restless horses and made for much wilder rides than either Adam or Pete were used too. But on they rode, determined to prove they were better to their respective audiences, both getting dog-tired as the clock clicked slowly toward the top of the hour, each beginning to make mistakes as both were dumped to the ground time and again. Limping and dirty, they made their way back to the chute for more, the Cartwrights’ yelling a bit more subdued the slower and more hunched Adam walked.
It was just before the hour was up when it happened. A particularly nasty bay began to sunfish then decided against it, turning left then right in quick succession, flinging Adam headfirst toward the corral fence. Putting out his left hand to break his fall, he could feel the splinters ramming into his ungloved hand right before his head made contact with not one but two rails, followed by a hard landing in that foot-tall grass outside the corral to lay unmoving. He didn’t hear Ben immediately call a halt to the contest and concede on his son’s behalf, nor feel Hoss’ hands gently turn him over, or see the worry drop across everyone’s faces . . . including Bud’s. After a tense couple of minutes of trying to rouse him, Adam finally opened crossed eyes and tried to get up, Hoss holding him down. It was then Bud announced the hour was up before Adam left the saddle, thus completing the contest in his favor and awarding him all the horses broken within the timeframe.
Easing him slowly to unsteady feet, Hoss held onto his brother, wrapping an arm about him as Bud approached. Holding out a hand to the dusty, disheveled and bleeding young man, Bud waited as Hoss pushed up Adam’s hand, then heartily shook it, congratulating Adam on winning the contest. Adam squinted at Bud, trying to keep his spinning eyes in focus and thought he saw a sparkle of . . . could it be . . . respect in those gray eyes? He wasn’t sure but figured he could clarify the truth the next time they made this trek, for he wasn’t foolish enough not to think there wasn’t going to be another trip.
Mumbling something incoherent in response, Adam had no choice but to let Hoss half walk, half drag him back to the house where Claudine Turley shooed out the men, gave her husband a hard look, and took charge of Adam for the rest of the day. No one was allowed near him (even his father) until two days later and even that was supervised.
And now, after saying their goodbyes and heading on home, Adam was within spitting distance of his bed and, after spending the last three nights sleeping on the hard ground and his collection of bruises upon bruises, he just wanted that luxury NOW! And home was a lot closer than Virginia City, which was where his father apparently wanted them to go. Or at least, that’s what Adam thought he’d said. (His ears still rung a bit.)
“. . . do you say?” came the remainder of Ben’s question to him.
“Huh?” came out before Adam could stop himself.
“You all right, son?” Ben asked, still a bit concerned about that bang on Adam’s head and the deep bruise that was turning a wonderful shade of green and yellow across his forehead.
Fortunately, Hoss stepped in. “He’s fine, Pa. Now what was ya sayin?”
Thank you, Hoss.
Narrowing his eyes, Ben watched Adam a bit longer, thinking he looked cold, then shook off the thought. “I said how about we go into town and I’ll treat everyone to a round of beers. Need to celebrate our victory over Bud. What do you say?” Ben finished, smiling away at his family. Adam gave Hoss a pained look as he turned back toward Sport.
“I’m game, Pa,” Joe piped up ready to go on another trip already.
That boy never seems to run out of energy.
“Sounds like fun, Pa,” Hoss started glancing at his older brother, “but I’m thinkin’ Adam and I are gonna head on home.”
“Everything all right?” Ben asked worry again clouding his face.
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong, Pa,” Hoss answered, patting Adam on the back who carefully pulled himself into the saddle, re-wrapping the lead rope attached to his string of five horses about the pommel. “We havta put up these horses. Don’t wanna drag them all the way into town and back.”
“Well, that’s true,” Ben conceded.
“Why don’t you just admit that Bud wore you out?” Joe said, giving Adam a wicked smile. Hoss shifted a glance toward Adam as he checked his own string of horses then mounted, pulling his coat closed against the afternoon chill.
Adam just smirked at his younger brother. “I admit to nothing, little brother.”
“All right then,” Ben said with a shake of the head. “Joe and I’ll go pick up the mail and check in with Roy, then come on home.”
“Tell Roy hey,” Hoss said as Ben nodded.
“Have fun,” Adam added with a slight wave as he gratefully followed after Hoss on the road toward home. Joe moved on ahead as Ben watched the two for a few seconds then turned Buck toward Virginia City, smiling when he heard Adam’s clear deep voice rise in song, Hoss joining in as they rode away.
“Welcome back, Ben,” came Isaac Bloom’s high-pitched voice, holding out his hand for the elder Cartwright to pump. The banker was always happy to see his biggest depositor – morning, noon or night.
“Isaac. Good to be back,” Ben said as he returned the handshake.
“Pa, I’m gonna go collect the mail,” Joe called as Ben nodded.
“I’ll meet you over at Roy’s,” Ben answered, turning back toward Bloom. “I hope it’s not too late to make a deposit, Isaac.”
Bloom smiled happily. “It’s never too late for you, Ben,” Bloom answered leading him toward the bank’s doors, smiling from ear to ear. Stepping aside to allow entry, Bloom’s smile faded a bit when he realized he’d lost Ben’s attention. Peeking around him, he spotted the Sheriff running towards them at a quick clip.
“He’s running,” Bloom noted, fidgeting with his watch fob as Ben abandoned the banker and moved toward his friend. “He never runs.”
“Roy?” Ben called, his walk turning into a trot, seeing Joe out of the corner of his eye turning Cochise and heading back for them.
“I’m right here, Roy,” Ben answered, grabbing hold of his friend as he came to a sliding stop, leaning over to catch his breath. “What’s the matter?”
Roy held up a hand to give him a moment as Ben traded looks with Joe, who’d dismounted and hurried over, both waiting impatiently for Roy to continue. Bloom was right – Roy never ran unless it was important.
The sheriff coughed a few times then straightened up fixing Ben with a serious stare. “I got news, Ben, and it ain’t happy news neither,” he said, taking off his hat to wipe the sweat from his brow.
“What is it?” Ben asked, not knowing if he should be worried or terrified.
“It’s Red Twilight, Ben,” Roy began, a cough stopping him for a moment.
“What about Red?” Joe asked, his heart suddenly doing the two-step in his chest.
“He ain’t dead.”
The news hit them square between the eyes and Ben’s brows flew up.
“What?!” Ben exclaimed.
“Roy, you said Red was killed in an accident,” Joe stated, all the lightheartedness from their trip gone in an instant.
“And that’s what I was told,” Roy answered, looking at them both. “I even sent a telegram ta the warden ta make sure that nothin’ had been missed. Everythin’ was covered.”
“What happened then?” Ben’s voice was as hard as nails as all the old fears raised their ugly head.
“Like I said before, Red was on a prison work detail and a landslide took out the wagon he and three other inmates was in.”
“We know all that, Roy,” Ben exclaimed. “Why do they think he’s alive?”
“There was three guards and four inmates. Seven bodies was found. The tally matched. Well, it turns out there was another guard. He was headin’ home and since the work detail was goin’ his way . . .”
“He hitched a ride,” Joe filled in as Roy nodded.
“No one knew ‘til about a week ago when a cousin came ta visit that guard at his new place and found no one had been there. He started checkin’ and found he’d left the prison the same day as Red’s work detail. Someone finally put two and two together when the friend described the guard – about the same height and looks as Twilight, with a head full of red hair. That’s all they needed.”
“My Lord,” Ben cursed.
“It gets worse, Ben,” Roy answered catching Ben’s eye. “I gotta telegram from the Sheriff over in Genoa just yesterday. Mary Wickham was found dead, stuffed in a barrel – strangled. The boardin’ house proprietor said someone came callin’ last week and that she hadn’t seen Mary in a few days and, by the description . . .”
“Red Twilight,” Joe stated.
“Yup,” Roy answered, looking directly at Ben. “We know he ain’t smart enough ta disappear and start a new life. He ain’t forgot what Hoss did ta Willie and he’s gonna remember that Adam’s testimony helped send him ta prison. I reckon he’s gonna come gunnin’ fer yer boys, Ben.” As soon as the words left Roy’s mouth, Ben’s eyes grew wide and connected with Joe, who turned and vaulted aboard Cochise, hurrying to retrieve Buck. “Where are they, Ben?” Roy called to Ben’s retreating form.
“We left them,” Ben tossed over his shoulder. “We left them on the road home not an hour ago.”
“There’s no sayin’ he’s gonna be there waitin’, Ben,” Roy said, trying to calm the situation as he followed after him.
“And there’s no sayin’ he won’t. We’ve been gone. I’m sure he knows we’re back and I’m not going to let my boys ride right into a gunfight.”
“Ben, are you sure Mr. Twilight will come back here?” Bloom nervously asked, fidgeting with his glasses now as Joe tossed Buck’s reins to his father. “He’s free.”
“We ruined his life, Isaac,” Ben explained as he mounted. “He wants revenge, plain and simple. Damn! We just got everything back into place.”
“Let me git my horse, Ben,” Roy called, “and I’ll come out ta the ranch with ya just ta make sure. Don’t go nowheres ’til I git back.”
“We’re not waiting, Roy!” Ben yelled as he followed Joe down the street.
Roy cursed under his breath and high-tailed it toward the livery.
This is too much running for one day.
A big, fat yawn overtook Adam just as they made the yard of the ranch house, bringing a smile to Hoss. His brother’s singing had stopped about ten minutes before and Hoss knew without even turning around that he’d fallen asleep in the saddle.
Hoss just didn’t know what it was about Bud Turley that so bamboozled him. Hoss suspected Bud was a bit worried this time when Adam laid there like a wet sack of flour before he came to, asking to be put on another horse, and felt that this time, Bud might actually have gained some admiration, real admiration, for his older brother.
Adam, on the other hand, was thinking only of his nice soft bed to ease the aching body that came with that admiration. The thought brought him a faint smile then a frown when he remembered they still had to put up the horses. Maybe he could talk Hoss into taking care of them. Chuckling, he knew he wouldn’t let these horses go untended, especially Sport. It wasn’t in his nature to let his favorite mount want for anything and he needed a good rubdown after this long trip as much as Adam needed a close encounter with his pillow.
Okay, maybe a kinda sorta partial rubdown would do for now.
Easing stiffly out of the saddle, Adam limped after Hoss as they led their bounty to the corral at the side of the barn, urging the horses through the gate. He broke up a nearby hay bale and tossed it inside as Hoss filled the water trough.
Watching them settle in, Adam was struck with a flicker of pride. Even though he’d been breaking horses for years, it always made him feel like he’d accomplished something when a few weeks down the line these horses would carry men safely to their work and prove themselves worthy.
“These are fine lookin’ animals, Adam,” Hoss said as he leaned on the corral railing next to his brother. “Yup, ya done good.”
“Well, Joe’s already picked out the best ones for his breeding program.”
“That boy’s gotta passion for that, don’t he? Once Pa gave the go ahead, he took off and didn’t look back.”
“Well, I hate to admit it but he’s a fine judge of horseflesh.” The words had barely left Adam’s mouth when he turned toward Hoss and waited. Feeling those dark eyes upon him, Hoss glanced over noting the intense stare. “You will keep that under your huge hat right?”
“Huh?” Hoss answered, a bewildered look scrunching up his face that slowly relaxed to one of understanding. “Ah, right. Don’t want him gettin’ a big head.”
“Exactly,” Adam answered as he yawned again and rubbed his face.
“Ya want me ta put ‘em up?” Hoss offered, pointing to their mounts.
Adam opened his mouth to accept then reconsidered just as his stomach growled. “I’ll make you a deal. If you go get Hop Sing started on supper, I’ll start Chubb. I’m awful hungry,” he said rubbing his stomach.
Hoss smiled broadly, noting his own belly grumbling. “Just give me a minute,” he answered, tossing Chubb’s reins over Adam’s shoulder and hurrying toward the house.
Clicking to Sport, the three headed toward the barn, Adam smiling as he heard Hoss calling for Hop Sing even before he’d cleared the front door.
Leading Chubb to his own stall, Adam released the cinch and slid the saddle from the Morgan’s back. Placing it on its rack, he beat out the blanket against the stall and ran it over Chubb a few times before draping it over the saddle, replacing his bridle with a halter.
“Don’t go anywhere,” Adam said patting him on the neck. “Hoss’ll be right back.”
Running a hand over Chubb’s rump, he slowly limped toward Sport, seeing him already waiting in his own stall. Letting loose a small laugh, Adam patted the big chestnut and unhooked the chest collar then reached for the cinch. “You know,” he began sliding the saddle off Sport’s back, “once I get cleaned up and feel halfway descent, I’ll bring you both some sugar and apples. What do ya say?” Both animals snickered and he grinned. They deserved to be treated special.
Humming, Adam picked up a currycomb and hurriedly ran it along Sport’s coat trying to get at least some of the top layer of trail dust off him as quickly as possible. Yawning again, he stretched, trying to work out the kink in his back, wondering if the little headache that sat behind his eyes would soon blossom into something bigger before he could get himself to bed. “To bed, to bed,” he mumbled, ears perking up as someone entered the barn behind him. He didn’t even turn around. “What’s Hop Sing got planned? Anything special?”
“That depends,” came an all too familiar voice, making the hairs on Adam’s neck stand on end and his hand stop in mid-motion. In an instant, the fatigue that hung from him evaporated like rain on a hot day and he swallowed, trying to push his heart back down into his chest. All those doubts, all those nagging feelings that both he and Hoss shared were true.
Why did I let Roy talk me into accepting it?! I knew better!
Slowly, Adam turned, confirming with his eyes what his ears were telling him.
“Red Twilight,” came out as a harsh whisper, drawing a pleased smile across that crazy man’s face.
“Isn’t it nice ta be remembered,” Red answered, moving into the barn, his gun aimed directly at Adam’s chest. “Seems like old times now don’t it, Cartwright?” Red began feeling like he had all the time in the world. “You standin’ there with your mouth open and me holdin’ a gun on ya feels like time repeatin’ itself, givin’ me another chance ta get it right I suppose.”
“You won’t get away with this,” Adam finally said, wondering where Hoss was.
“Oh, I think I will, Cartwright. I’ve got more in my favor this time. Ya don’t have your kid brother waitin’ ta jump me and that other brother of yours, the one that killed Willie, well, I got him wrapped up tight in the house ta do with as I please. Once I kill you, ain’t no one gonna save him this time, not even that Chinaman.”
Adam swallowed down the bile that rose in his throat. It’s hard when you realize you’re on your own, that you’re the only hope to save someone you love and you know this will probably be the end of things. Many things go through your mind, many thoughts and moments and then your mind settles and all fear leaves as if it had never been. Adam took a shallow breath and his heart suddenly calmed and his mind went to work.
The layout of the barn washed through him and all the possible obstacles raised their ugly head. The barn door was out because any direct run for freedom would be cut off with a quick bullet from Red’s gun; Sport and Chubb stood behind him and he didn’t want to endanger their lives by ducking into their stalls. The only open area was a catchall stall to his left, filled with hay, a tack box and a few barrels of tools. There was nothing to hide behind, nothing to use for cover.
It was here, Adam remembered, that time slowed before giving him the luxury of thinking through what was about to happen and changing his tactics, knowing that Red would empty his gun this time, just to make sure the job was done. But for this moment, time moved right along and was about to take him with it. He squeezed his hands into fists and winced as his nails touched his sore left palm and his fingers dug into the currycomb in his right.
What if . . .
All the while Adam’s mind worked furiously, Red watched him, wondering why he wasn’t saying anything, wasn’t asking after his brother. The slight fear he’d seen at the beginning was gone, replaced with determination, and it bothered Red. This Cartwright was looking at him like he didn’t matter, even though he had the drop on him. Worry flirted with anger in Red.
No Cartwright, this one or any other, will ever pass judgment on me again!
“Ain’t ya got nothin’ ta ask me?” Red asked, his gun never wavering from its target.
Brought out of his musings, Adam narrowed his eyes. “Like what?” he calmly asked, as if he was wondering about the weather.
Red’s eyes narrowed as well. “Oh, I don’t know. How about what I’m gonna do ta that big ox once I’ve killed you.”
“I won’t be here to care,” Adam answered with a shrug, raising Red’s dander even further.
“But ya care now, Cartwright. I ain’t never seen a family that cared as much. Ain’t natural.”
“ ’Cause it ain’t supposed ta be that way.”
“You had it with Willie.”
“And your brother took him away.”
Not wanting to venture into that territory just now, Adam turned slightly to lean against Sport’s stall. “How’d you escape?” came the question.
Red’s brow furrowed, betraying his interest. “It was a plain old simple act of nature,” he began, thinking it didn’t make much difference if he answered the question or not. This Cartwright was still dead. “Landslide plowed right into the side of the prison wagon. Seemed I was the only one left alive. So I did what any self-respectin’ fella would do at a time like that – swapped clothes with a red-headed guard, took the only horse I could find, and left.”
“Why didn’t you run? You could’ve been in Mexico by now.”
“Like I said at the trial, I’m gonna kill ya if it’s the last thing I do. I just didn’t think I’d have me a chance so soon but lookee here.” Red smiled, feeling a bit more in control, the look sending a shiver through Adam. “And it seems you and me, well, we’ve played this little game before.”
“And you lost,” Adam stated.
“Oh, for a time I lost but now here you stand, my gun pointed at you. Don’t think I’ll be missin’ this time.”
“Why are you waiting then?” Adam asked, surreptiously moving the comb past the tie-down on his gun and lifting it ever so slightly.
Red just shrugged, that simpering smile lingering on his face, not noticing Adam’s movement. “Thought I’d just savor the moment,” he answered. “We get so few of those in our lifetime. Ever notice that? Ever notice how life just seems ta pass by and, bang, yer old and dried up, with nothin’ ta show for it. Don’t seem right. But when I run across a moment like this, well, I take my time.”
“And what moment would that be?”
“Why, you becomin’ worm fodder of course. That’s mighty pleasant, if ya ask me.”
“No one’s asking,” Adam quipped.
Red barked a laugh at him. “Don’t need ta ask, not when I’m the one pointin’ the gun. Naw, this is just for me and my brother. Once you’re all dead, I’ll be on my way. But right now, I’ll take my time. I took my time with your brother when I back-shot him. Had ta find the right place, the right time to get him in my sights and pull the trigger.”
“But you didn’t kill him.”
“I learned my lesson there. Aim higher.”
“Aiming higher didn’t work with me,” Adam countered, wondering if reminding him of this fact was going to get him killed quicker.
“You moved and that ain’t fair,” Red responded, his smile fading. “You were supposed ta just stand there and take it like a man so I could get my kill. I’d a finished it too, if it weren’t for yer kid brother.”
“Yeah, that kid beat the tar outta you; had you dead to rights until I stepped in.”
“He wouldn’t’ve killed me. He’s too law-abiding. All you Cartwright’s are,” Red said with disgust.
“Not that day,” Adam admitted, switching the comb to his left hand and hiding the wince as it scrapped against his injured palm. “I thought he was gonna kill you and, by the looks of things, I should’ve let him. You’re a lucky man.”
“Luck never shined on me ‘til that landslide. Before that, though, Willie and me was left behind.”
Adam watched Red as his eyes moved from him for an instant as he thought on his dead brother, bringing Adam’s thoughts to his own. Hoss wasn’t coming and he didn’t know if he could keep Red talking much longer. Time was running out and the tack box was going to have to stand in for an object to hide behind. His hand gripped the comb as his body tensed.
“Willie was a good man,” Adam commented. “He didn’t deserve a brother like you.”
Anger filled Red’s face. “Why you . . .”
“He’d made a decent life for himself until you came along and destroyed that memory, left Mary to grieve alone.”
“Mary was a whore!” he spat. “She wasn’t any good for my brother.”
“Willie loved her!”
“And I killed her!” Red shouted. Adam’s eyes grew wide, bringing a smile back to Red’s face. “She ratted on me at the trial. I couldn’t let her get away with that, just like I can’t let you get away with it. It was your testimony that sealed my fate, Cartwright. A man don’t get over that.”
Adam narrowed his eyes. “So pull the trigger already. Talking me to death isn’t going to work.” A look crossed Red’s face and Adam heard the hammer draw back as clear as if it was held to his own ear. Now was the time. “HOSS! LOOK OUT!” he shouted, getting the response he was looking for. Red turned . . . but not far enough.
Too late to change his plan, Adam tossed the comb at Red’s face and drew his gun, firing as he leaped. Adrenaline fueled his jump and he missed the tack box by a good eight inches, slamming against a barrel of shovels instead. His shot went wide, slicing through Red’s arm instead of his head. The comb, however, found its mark and Red’s resulting jerk backward redirected his shot into Sport’s stall, tossing the unfettered animal into a frenzy — screaming then rearing and bolting forward, knocking Red off his feet as he fled the barn.
Shaking his head, Adam inched up the wall, wrapping his left hand about his right to steady his shaky aim at the crazy man on the ground who responded in kind. Both guns fired.
Red spun on his knees as a bullet caught him in the shoulder, and thoughts of a grin began on Adam’s face only to die away at the sudden impact that shoved him hard against the barn wall. Feeling every inch of Red’s bullet burrow down the right side of his head, his knees gave way and he hit the ground, falling onto his hands, elbows locking as he refused to give up.
Blinking blood out of his right eye, Adam reached back for the barrel to pull himself up when a fist connected with his chin, sending him flat, arms and legs declining to cooperate this time. A swift kick knocked his gun into the hay and a grasping hand grabbed the front of his shirt, pulling him halfway up.
“This is for my brother!” Red shouted into his face punching him again. “And this is for the trial!” Another punch landed. “And this is just for me!”
Red let Adam go with the last punch and smiled as his head bounced off the ground. Raising a boot, he landed it on Adam’s chest, shoving out any remaining thoughts of moving from his pain-wracked body.
Grabbing at the offending object, Adam made a feeble attempt to push it off, but his strength was failing and his arms slid to his sides.
Red leaned in close. “Well, now,” he began, wiping blood from his nose and aiming his gun at Adam’s head, “I don’t see any of your brothers runnin’ ta save your sorry hide. You’re all by your lonesome. Got any big words to fling at me before we say adios?”
Adam took shallow breaths. He was sure every one of his ribs was cracked and prayed that some miracle would occur to save his brother since he obviously couldn’t.
“You won’t . . . you won’t get away with this,” Adam stated, fighting to breathe.
Red laughed. “Oh, I’ll get away with it, Cartwright,” he said, a smile firmly back on his bloodied face. “I’ll get away with killin’ you and that big ox, then I’ll take out that kid brother of yours. I’ll give him a taste of what he gave me, only this time he won’t be walkin’ away like I did. No, he’ll land face down in his own blood until it all seeps outta him. Then only your old man’ll be left. He’ll shrivel up and blow away without his sons around him and then no one will remember the name Cartwright ‘cept by lookin’ at a tombstone.”
Red stiffened and Adam struggled to raise his head to drag glassy eyes to the owner of that voice and a sigh of relief moved through him.
“I always remember.”
Keeping his gun trained on Adam, Red’s eyes skirted to the side. “You shoot me, Chinaman, and I shoot him. Your choice.”
Hop Sing hesitated, indecision running through him, the gash over his right eye oozing blood down his cheek to drip onto his ripped shirt, an injury received from the butt of Red’s gun as it rained down upon him just before Hoss came calling for supper. Gripping the double-barreled shotgun in both hands, Hop Sing’s focus shifted between Adam and this interloper.
What kind of choice was it – lose Adam or lose Hoss. Neither choice was acceptable.
“Come on, Chinaman,” Red continued. “I’m gettin’ an itchy finger here. Make a choice.”
“Shoot . . . him,” Adam wheezed, gasping as Red pressed down harder.
“Quiet, Cartwright, and let the man think,” Red ordered.
“Whatever . . . he chooses,” Adam began, not taking his eyes from Hop Sing’s, “will be . . . the right choice.” He turned his gaze back to Red. “And you’ll be dead . . . either way,” he finished, the stars floating around him beginning to coalesce into a solid mass, making it more and more difficult to follow what was going on.
“I’ll take my chances,” Red answered, pulling back the hammer.
Glancing one final time toward Hop Sing, Adam let his head drop to the ground. “I’m sorry, mama,” slid from him as he gave in to the dark that beckoned, unwilling to watch what he knew was coming. He’d already seen it a dozen times in his dreams.
Hop Sing shuddered as those three words floated over, dropping on him like a veil to thrust him back to the great room where Adam confessed to Hoss how he’d let their mama down by not protecting her son. He’d heard it all from the kitchen, felt the remorse and guilt from both boys, and he longed to hug their cares away. Instead, he brought them cookies and quickly left to hide his true feelings from those he loved1.
And loved them, he did, these boys whom he’d known since childhood, seeing them still as youngsters always underfoot – one eating his food with great gusto, another listening to his stories of home and one living life to the fullest. He would protect them always. And now here was his chance to fulfill one son’s vow to make sure another son lived, even if it meant his own life was forfeit.
If not to save one, then to save the other.
How can I save both?
He felt his own heart slow to a steady rhythm, felt his own terrified breaths calm as the weight of the shotgun lightened in his hands and a single thought penetrated his indecision.
If I move to side . . .
The whoosh of time maneuvering itself back on track filled him as that pivotal thought passed through, and he unconsciously leaned ever so slightly to the right.
“My choice,” Hop Sing whispered and squeezed the trigger, the smoke from the barrels curling upward in his face.
Somewhere in the dark, a loud boom threatened to pull Adam from his stupor, making him aware enough to note something whiz past his head and strike the ground next to him. Suddenly, any remaining air pushed from him as a solid weight landed across his chest. He decided it was much safer in the dark.
But his world was continually changing and the weight disappeared and hands moved over him, a buzzing sound permeating the blackness. Weakly, he fought against those hands, only to stop as the buzz coalesced into a familiar alarmed voice.
“Adam! Adam, please tell me I no kill you!”
Adam? Not Mister Adam?
Opening his mouth to answer didn’t work so he pried open heavy eyelids instead, to find his own hands pressed against Hop Sing’s chest.
“It me. Hop Sing. I no kill you?”
Adam attempted a smile, not knowing if he was successful, and let his hands drop away. “. . . not . . . dead . . . yet,” came his groggy answer as he finally found his voice.
Instinct pulled the Chinaman’s hand to Red’s discarded gun and he turned a fearful aim at this new danger lurking at the barn door.
“Whoa, there! I ain’t trouble.”
“Mister Hoss!” Hop Sing called quickly, pulling his aim as the big man lumbered over and sank down next to his brother.
“Adam, ya all right?” Hoss asked, wincing at the damage before him.
“. . . Hoss . . ,” came the whisper, sure he smiled this time as he felt his brother clasp his hand.
“It’s me, brother. Better late than never,” Hoss quipped.
“. . . Red . . .”
“He’s dead, Adam,” Hoss answered looking over at the bloodied corpse, sightless eyes staring up at him. “He’s finally dead.”
“. . . Hop . . . Sing . . .”
“I here, Mister Adam.”
“Yeah, he shot ‘im good. I’m right proud of him,” Hoss nodded as he drifted back to the sight of Hop Sing, smoking gun in hand, as he staggered from the house. “I hate ta think what woulda happened if’n he hadn’t been here.”
“. . . good . . . man,” Adam mumbled, giving Hop Sing a half wink, the barn becoming darker about him. Maybe a little nap would be . . .
“ADAM! HOSS!” Ben’s urgent voice sounded.
“In here, Pa!” Hoss called, wincing at the effort, seeing Adam doing the same as their father and brother ran toward them.
“Good God,” Ben cursed kneeling next to his oldest, hands reaching for his head. “Adam?”
Lazily, Adam blinked up at his father. “. . . missed . . . fun . . ,” he gave him.
Ben quickly pulled off his bandana and wadded it up.
“Red’s dead, Pa,” Hoss announced as Joe put up his own gun and hovered near him.
“Good,” Ben answered, catching sight of both his middle son and Hop Sing’s bloodied faces.
“Hop Sing took care o’ us,” Hoss explained holding his father’s gaze. “Red cain’t hurt us no more.”
“Everythin’ all right in here, Ben?” Roy asked as he loped in, gun in hand, eyeing Red’s body.
“No,” Ben answered truthfully turning back to Adam, noting the bloody nose and split lip to go along with the swelling on his face and the bullet crease to the side of his head. “Adam, son, it’s all over,” Ben comforted pressing the bandana against his boy’s head.
Something appropriate formed on Adam’s lips but a sudden stabbing pain swept through him, making it virtually impossible to form any intelligent words other than a sizable hiss. This new round of pain was all his body could take and his brain shut down, sending him back into the welcoming dark.
“Adam?” Ben called, watching his son’s eyes roll up and his head loll into his hand. For a fleeting moment, he cringed at the thought that he’d been too late again. But the steady rise and fall of his boy’s chest slowed Ben’s frantic heart.
“He’s gonna have a scar,” Roy said as he patted Ben’s shoulder. “That bullet done tracked the same path as the one before.”
“Thank goodness he have hard head,” Hop Sing added as Ben produced a humorless grin.
“Yes. I hate that we have to keep finding that out.”
“Don’t have ta worry no more, Ben,” Roy said as he nodded toward Red’s body. “This one’s finally dead and we’re all lookin’ at the man hisself, so there can’t be no wrong claims this time. And don’t you go worryin’ about nothin’, Hop Sing,” he said, directing his attention to the little man as he and Joe helped Hoss to his feet. “You was protectin’ the family and the homestead. Seems ta me ya had no other choice.”
“I had choice,” Hop Sing answered, “and I took it.”
Roy smiled at him. “Always good ta have choices. Well, I’ll take Red off yer hands, Ben, and send Paul out here. You just take care of yer family. We’ll do the paperwork later. Joe, help me with this piece of trash.”
“Gladly,” Joe answered, the two of them hefting Red’s body out of the barn and over his horse.
“It’s finally over,” Ben whispered, resting his hand on Adam’s arm. “Really over.”
“I’ll help ya with Adam, Pa,” Hoss said, barely able to stand on his own feet.
“Oh, no,” Joe interceded when he returned to the barn. “Hop Sing, get him inside. You both need to sit down.”
“Now, Joe . . .”
“Git!” Joe ordered, pointing toward the house and fixing his big brother with a glare. Watching the two amble off, he turned back to his father. “Come on, Pa,” Joe began kneeling next to him. “let’s get Adam inside.”
“We need to get Adam inside and get him ready for Paul. Come on.” Urging his father to stand, Joe grabbed his brother’s legs while Ben hooked his arms under Adam’s shoulders. Together they carried him across the yard.
“Can’t you Cartwright’s ever just stub a toe?” Paul Martin asked as he sauntered into Adam’s room and dropped his bag on the side table. Eyeing each of them, he returned his attention to the one in bed and sat down, fingers deftly maneuvering around his patient’s head, shaking his own as he caught sight of the large bruise running across Adam’s forehead. He glanced at Ben.
“Fell into a fence,” was all Ben would admit to as Paul glared at him.
“I don’t want to know,” the doctor mumbled, noting the large bruise forming on Adam’s chest as he ran hands along his ribcage then began rummaging through his bag. “Well, he’ll need stitches again. That bullet took the same course as the last one. No doubt he’ll be seeing double again.
“He doesn’t have any broken ribs,” Paul added, “but we’ll keep an eye on this bruise on his chest. And he’s got a couple of nice lumps on his head this time.” He turned a hard eye toward Ben. “This is what happens when you roughhouse in the barn.” Ben returned the look then they both smiled. “Joe told me what happened. At least that part of your life is over.”
“Mister Hoss hurt, too, Docta Paul,” Hop Sing intoned, drawing both Ben and Paul’s attention.
“Ain’t nothin’, Paul,” Hoss answered from the chair near the window, holding a bloody towel to his head.
“Let me be the judge of that,” Paul answered, feeling around Hoss’ head then noticing the blood on Hop Sing’s face. “Well I can’t believe the most accident-prone Cartwright doesn’t have a mark on him.”
Joe smiled. “Just lucky I guess,” he answered as Paul nodded.
“Let’s get started. Hop Sing, you take Hoss to his room and both of you wait for me there.”
“But, Docta Paul, you need . . .” Hop Sing began as he pulled Hoss to his feet.
“You are a patient now, Hop Sing,” Paul said with a point of his finger. “Do as I tell you or face my wrath,” he intoned in a deep voice. Hop Sing merely nodded and, grabbing his charge, slowly left the room. Paul turned back to see Ben absently pulling hay from Adam’s hair and traded looks with Joe.
“We’ve been down this road before, Ben,” Paul said touching his friend’s shoulder. “The boys will be all right.”
“I know. It was just so close this time and Hop Sing . . . What he had to do . . .”
“He was protecting his family.”
“But at what cost?” Ben asked.
“He did what had to be done. Be thankful for that,” Paul answered.
“I’ve always been thankful for his presence. I guess I should tell him that more often.”
“Well, tell him as soon as he’s had a good night’s sleep,” Paul urged. “Now, let me take care of Adam before I start on the other two.”
Hop Sing had, indeed, been there. It seemed each time his boys needed him, he wasn’t!, thought Ben. When Red first interrupted their lives, he’d let Hoss go away on his own and had almost gotten killed; then he’d left to get the deputy and Adam had nearly been killed. Now, he was going to Virginia City to have a beer and both his boys were nearly killed. A beer!
Mentally berating himself over things that were out of his control was ridiculous. Ben could hear Adam telling him that. What was important was that Red Twilight couldn’t hurt them anymore. That moment had ended; had ended because Hop Sing made a choice and for that he would always be grateful.
He couldn’t figure out who was building something so early in the morning. Why he hadn’t even heard the rooster crow and someone was hammering on something big. It just wasn’t right!
The noise kept up, building to a crescendo, and he just couldn’t take it anymore and thought he should open his eyes and take umbrage with whoever was making such a racket!
It’s probably Little Joe.
But opening his eyes proved a bit difficult. He kept at it, trying until a sliver of light penetrated, producing a tight band of pain that threatened to pop his head right off his neck. That just wouldn’t do.
“Ahhhhhhhhh!” came out through clenched teeth, the only sound, apparently, he could make at that moment.
Instantly, shuffled steps approached and hands moved upon him as he peeked through long lashes to see nothing but shadows leaning over him. Opening one eye a bit further delivered a scene that nearly tossed him from the bed – eight blurry faces doing a rendition of a bucking bronco directly on top of him.
Clamping shut his spinning eye, he felt it coming and shot a hand to his mouth. Vaguely feeling someone lifting him just before he let go, he poured out whatever lay fermenting in his gut. A warm soothing hand stroked his back and a cool wet cloth draped across his neck as his retching continued until he thought he’d just die. The urgent need to stop finally reasserted itself and, with great heaving breaths, he pushed his stomach back into place, having nothing else to concentrate on except the pulsing thump that bounced throughout his overwhelmed besieged head.
“Ahhhhhh,” he groaned again, with a bit less force, and burrowed deeper into the pillow beneath his head, a cool hand pressing lightly against his face.
“Ssh, everything’s all right,” Ben whispered, sure that anything louder would send his boy back to the basin.
After a few moments of short quick breaths, soon to slow, a single eye opened again, trying to focus on just the two faces looking at him and wondering why time would play such a cruel trick and send him back to a world that contained double of everything. He closed his eye again.
“. . . seems . . ,” He started wincing at the grating sound of his own gravely voice, “. . . seems familiar.” Joe’s high pitched giggle shot through him and he braced for a hammer to fall. And it did with a resounding crash.
That boy’s voice could break glass!
“Joseph, ssh!” Ben whispered, holding a stiff finger to his mouth as Adam cringed beneath his grasp. Hoss smacked Joe across the arm and the laughter faded. “Yes, it is familiar, son, and, as you know, it will get better. But right now . . .”
“I feel like . . . warmed-over horse . . .
“Me, too,” Hoss interjected, rubbing his own head in sympathy, thankful he’d been spared the double vision now visiting his brother but wishing his headache would go away.
Ben smiled. “Your left eye is swollen shut and you’ve got a big bruise on your chest. So just relax. Now, I’m going to lift you a bit,” he explained, carefully raising Adam’s head and holding a glass to his lips. “Drink.”
Doing as he was told was far easier than thinking on his own and he drank the bitter liquid informing his queasy stomach to stay put.
“That should help with the headache.”
“Thanks,” he mumbled as Ben settled him back onto the pillow. Adam turned into his hand, its coolness radiating throughout his head.
As the hammers began to ease slightly, Adam remembered that the hand holding his head was the same one that pulled him onto a wagon, was the one that held him when Inger died, and held his own when he’d left for college. All those memories flooded him, soon to be pushed aside by a determined smiling face with white knuckles wrapped about a gun pointed at his head, Hoss nowhere in sight, and Hop Sing’s smoking gun not two feet from him. His eye popped open and he bolted upright shocking Ben almost off the bed.
“Hoss!” came his shout, startling both of his brothers to their feet as Ben shushed him and held on tightly to shaking shoulders.
“Right here, brother,” came Hoss’ voice as he grabbed Adam’s outstretched hand and squeezed hard.
“You’re . . . He didn’t . . . ?” He couldn’t seem to finish a question as he tried to merge Hoss’ two faces topped with a white bandage into one.
“He just popped me one over the head. That cain’t do me no harm. Ya know that.” Adam just stared and held onto his warm hand. “I’m fine, Adam.”
“Settle back now, son,” Ben tried but Adam wasn’t through.
“. . . sorry . . .”
“For what?” Hoss asked.
“I couldn’t . . . couldn’t stop . . .”
“Don’t matter none. Ol’ Hop Sing was there.”
“Hop Sing . . .” Adam closed his eye and shuddered a bit, the pain that was receding beginning to rush back. “Hop Sing?”
The little man quietly approached and touched his shoulder. “Right here, Mister Adam,” he answered.
Adam squinted at him and his bandaged head. “All right?”
“Hop Sing fine,” came the answer.
“. . . awful . . . choice,” he tried, his breath coming in quick gasps as more pains made themselves known.
“It work, Mister Adam. Your vow intact.” He patted Adam’s shoulder knowing he didn’t know what he meant . . . at least not yet.
Instead those damn hammers were taking up his concentration as they rushed to the forefront and arced through his head like a thunderbolt, making him grab his father’s shirt in a tight grasp.
Ben folded him into his arms. “It’s okay, son, just relax. Hoss is fine. Hop Sing is fine. Joe is fine. Red Twilight is dead. It’s all over.”
Everyone’s fine. Red is dead and everyone’s fine.
He kept repeating that like a mantra, using it to steady himself, feeling the magic of Paul’s pain medication begin to take a more solid hold.
It was over. No longer did he and Hoss have to look over their shoulders; no longer did they have to pretend all was well. Red was dead. They were alive.
My vow is intact . . . oh, that’s what Hop Sing meant.
Thank you, Hop Sing
A small smile barely touched his lips just as he felt himself getting heavier, felt his hands loosen from his father’s shirt and finally let go. It was time to sleep.
Ben raised a hand to the back of Adam’s head and gently eased him onto the pillow, a hand lingering on his boy’s face for just a moment, careful of the bruises, evidence of the danger they’d recently found themselves in. He straightened Adam’s hair around the bandage on his head and sat back thinking how lucky they all were once again.
“I go start dinner,” Hop Sing announced, his hand resting on Hoss’ back as his eyes lingered on Number One son a moment longer than necessary before he stepped away.
“Hop Sing,” Ben called reaching out for him, looking into those caring eyes, those eyes that had seen their fair share of Cartwright life. “Thank you. Thank you for their lives.”
A lump formed in his throat and Hop Sing nodded. “They my life too,” was all he said as he made a quick retreat. “Dinner. Fifteen minutes.”
They all watched him leave then silently turned away, each lost in their own thoughts.
“I wish he didn’t have to . . .” Ben’s voice trailed off.
“Adam’s like his own, Pa,” Hoss said. “Me and Joe, too. I couldn’t help. He was the only one who could. I’m just glad Adam taught him how ta use a shotgun.”
“That was a couple of years ago wasn’t it?” Joe asked leaning against the end of his brother’s bed. “When he went out to Bud’s with Pa and Adam?”
“Yeah,” Hoss nodded. “Cora Turley surprised Hop Sing one day by shootin’ an egg outta a nest some twenty paces away. Didn’t put a crack in it. She claimed that’s the only way ta collect robin’s eggs so’s ya don’t get pecked. Well, Hop Sing wouldn’t stop pesterin’ ol’ Adam ‘til he’d showed him how ta shoot.”
“Can he do that?” Ben asked. “Shoot an egg out of a nest.”
“Don’t rightly know, but whatever he learned, I’m gonna thank ol’ Adam once he gets his bearin’s. It sure came in handy.”
“Which reminds me,” Ben began, smoothing out his son’s bedcovers as he pulled up a chair and settled in. “He’s going to be seeing double again and have a mean headache for awhile, so I don’t want any shouting in the house for a few days. All right?”
“Ah, we know what ta do this time,” Hoss began, his eyes shifting over to Joe. “Or not to do, as the case may be.”
“Yeah,” Joe piped up with a shake of his head. “We won’t mess with his head this time and jump around the room.”
Ben’s brows practically lifted off his head at that statement. “You did what?!” Ben asked, pulling his gaze from his oldest to his youngest.
Realizing his confession was about to get him put on the floor, Joe stepped away from his brother’s bed and gave his father a sickly smile, his mouth opening and closing but no words coming out.
“Weren’t nothin’, Pa,” Hoss quickly interjected stepping in front of his brother to maneuver him toward the door. “Jest somethin’ he was . . . Weren’t nothin’, Pa. We’ll go see if’n Hop Sing needs any help with dinner.”
Motioning Joe out the door, Hoss shielded him as Ben harrumphed, then turned back toward Adam to watch him sleep. A little color was seeping back into his son’s pale visage to offset the stark white bandage about his head. He let out a heavy breath.
Red Twilight was dead, in the ground dead, and would haunt them no longer. His boys were safe all because Hop Sing was there.
Thank you, friend.
“Joe, what’d’ja go and say that ta Pa for?” came Hoss’ attempted whisper from the hall perking up Ben’s ears. “He’s gonna think ya really did that ta poor ol’ Adam.” Pause. “Ya didn’t did ya?”
“No. That’d be cruel,” came Joe’s answer.
“I see that look, Joe.”
“That innocent one that always gets me in trouble.”
“I didn’t do it.”
“There it is again.”
“Now don’t ya go draggin’ me into this. I ain’t coverin’ for ya,” Hoss said as his voice began to fade off. “I’m still recoverin’, ya know. Ain’t got time for yer shenanigans.”
“Hoss, I didn’t do anything. I swear!”
“I don’t wanna hear it.”
Ben shook his head and grabbed a book off the nightstand, eyeing Adam one more time. “You boys will be the death of me yet,” he muttered. “Bud always said having girls was much easier. I’m beginning to believe him.”
Author’s Note: I want to thank everyone for requesting continuations to my “A Moment” series. It was intended solely as a one-act story which blossomed into six. I’m so glad you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them. Thanks for all the encouraging comments. Hope you like this final act.
1 Scene from Part 3 of the “A Moment” series – “A Moment Later”