Darkness Falls (by Morgan’s Crest)

Summary:  Ten writers – third story.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  26,000


 

Part One: Doolittle

The last couple of days had gone from bad to worse. First a bank robbery and a killing, then an eyewitness that claimed to recognize one of the gang of robbers that headed east out of town. He couldn’t believe it…refused to believe it. But he was the law, and until he found evidence to the contrary, all signs pointed to the guilt of the young man he now had locked up in his jail.

So they followed the meager trail, followed it over meadow-land and forest. They followed it until they reached a rocky hillside where the sun was hot enough to bake the leather from the soles of his boots. Squatting on the parched ground, he searched for signs; signs that he knew in his heart just weren’t there. In frustration he ran his hand over his mustache and chin….but it wasn’t any use…the trail had gone cold – cold as the feeling in the pit of his stomach.

He hesitated before looking up to the men waiting impatiently on their mounts. Shaking his head sadly from side to side, he confirmed what they feared to be true and watched hope die in their eyes. He couldn’t remember a time when that silver star felt heavier on his chest. Other men were allowed to fail. It may mean less money in the bank or a poorer crop or explaining to the missus that you lost your wages in a poker game, but for him, failure just wasn’t an option.

“I’m sorry, Ben,” was cold comfort to a Pa who was going to lose his youngest son to the gallows’ noose.

*****

Part Two: Dbird

Adam leaned against the door of the jail and tried to stretch out his back. It ached from the hours he had spent at his father’s side, waiting in Roy Coffee’s front office. The sheriff hadn’t let them into the back cell to keep Joe company; and the air was thick with the heat of an August night and their frustration.

“What do you think I’m going to do, stage a jailbreak? I just want to sit with my boy,” Ben Cartwright roared, but Roy was implacable.

“I’m sorry Ben,” he replied, not without sympathy. “But I start granting you favors and folks will start talking. There’s already talk around town that a Cartwright can’t get a fair trial in Virginia City. Talk like that gets folks riled up, and pretty soon you’re looking at someone deciding to take things into their own hands.”

“It may be true that a Cartwright can’t get a fair trial in Virginia City,” Adam said, his voice edged in bitterness. “But not in the way you’re thinking.”

“Now Adam, that just ain’t true! I’m doing everything I can to find some evidence to clear Joe. You know that! But I can’t find evidence that’s not there, and you know that too!”

Adam leaned across the lawman’s desk and pointed a finger at their old friend. “Then tell me who this mysterious eyewitness is, Roy. We can’t do anything to protect Joe, unless we know what he’s up against. Hoss is out scouting around the bank for evidence, but we don’t even know what we should be looking for. Someone’s trying to set Joe up, and I want to know why.”

“I think you’re wrong, Adam,” Roy said quietly. “This eyewitness has nothing against Little Joe… let’s just say the witness couldn’t be much more sympathetic.”

“For Heaven’s sake, Roy,” Ben sputtered. “Just tell us who this witness is!”

“All right, Ben, I’ll tell you. But you have to promise me that your two boys will mind their manners and not go harassing my witness.”

“My boys aren’t going to go harassing anyone,” Ben protested.

“All right then. Her name is Lucy Watkins. She entertains at the Bucket of Blood, and she’s only been in town for a couple months. Came all the way from San Francisco. She’s the one who saw Little Joe at the scene of the crime.”

“But how would she even know Joseph?” Ben asked. “Why would her identification prove anything?”

“She knows him,” Roy replied quietly. “By all accounts, she knows him pretty well, Ben.”

“That’s ridiculous! Joe is still a boy. He’s seventeen years old,” Ben protested, but the sheriff had returned to his paperwork, effectively shutting out the Cartwrights and their troubles.

“Don’t worry, Pa. I’ll take care of things. I won’t let anything happen to Joe.” Adam reached for his hat and smiled reassuringly at his father. He didn’t have to say where he was going.

Once at the saloon, he tried to compose himself, as the lilt of a fiddle and a burst of laughter welled out from behind the swinging door. Think logically, he commanded himself, but it wasn’t easy. The events of the past couple days had come at them with such confusion and disorder that he could hardly make sense of what they meant. Roy arresting Little Joe for bank robbery and murder certainly made no sense, but the sheriff was standing behind his accusation.

Adam knew without a doubt that Joe could never be involved in something like that. It was true that Joe had been kind of wild lately. He had taken to staying out all night, and more often than not, came home smelling of stale smoke and cheap perfume. He’d been losing most of his wages as quickly as he earned them, and several barroom fights had taken care of the rest.

Adam had strongly believed that their father needed to step in and take control of the youngest Cartwright while he still could and had told him so. But Ben had reminded his oldest son that he had also gone through a wild period when he was that age. He was right. However, at seventeen Adam had been on his way to study at the university, not living under his father’s roof and under his father’s authority. Looking back on it, Adam was rather glad that his youthful indiscretions had taken place without a built in audience to witness all his mistakes. Joe had the misfortune of being born the youngest in a family of opinionated men. Nobody was willing to let him get off too easily.

Adam entered the saloon, and without a word, the barkeep gestured toward the back of the room, where a young saloon girl sat alone, tracing the rim of a whiskey glass with her finger. Approaching slowly, Adam took a moment to consider the sole eyewitness who stood between his brother and the gallows. She was a pretty thing, painted features notwithstanding. With a start, he realized that she was awfully young, probably not much older than Joe. She looked up at him then and pulled out a chair, like she had been expecting him all along.

“Adam Cartwright,” she said. “Joe said you would be the one to come.”

“Joe is in jail,” Adam said, with some confusion. Oddly enough, he felt like he had entered in the middle of a conversation but was sure that he had never spoken to the girl before. “How could he have told you I’d come?”

“He told me before I told the sheriff what I saw,” she answered. “Before he was arrested. He said that you would try to get me to change my story.”

“I don’t understand,” Adam said, and he really didn’t. His intention to interrogate the young woman had fallen completely apart during the single minute he had been talking to her.

“After the robbery, I went to Joe and told him what I saw,” she said, tears forming in her eyes. “He told me to stick to my story, no matter what. He said I had to do what was right, no matter what it cost.”

“Miss Watkins, you’re making it sound like my brother wanted you to testify against him,” Adam protested.

She could hardly keep looking him in the eye, but she continued anyway. “Joe believed in me. I loved him; I think I’ll always love him. But Joe told me that I had to say what I saw, no matter what happened after I said it. I would have lied for him, Mr. Cartwright, but Joe just wouldn’t let me.”

Adam stared at her, his hopes as heavy as the air in the stifling room. For the first time in a long time, he had absolutely no idea what he was going to say next.

And the pretty saloon girl, who loved his kid brother, covered her face with her hands and cried.

*****

Part Three: GrimesGirl

Adam sat silently for several minutes. Slowly the young girl’s sobs died away. She raised her tear stained face and studied the man across from her. She had seen him on several occasions since she had come to Virginia City. He had impressed her with his good looks and confident ways. She could tell that he, as she did, cared deeply for Joe. But she had promised not to lie.

“Mr. Cartwright, I want to help Joe, I really do. But I saw what I saw,” she said in a trembling voice.

Adam studied her through narrowed eyes. “Alright, Miss Watkins, let’s start by telling me exactly, and I mean exactly, what you saw.”

Suddenly Lucy didn’t look so confident. “Well, it was like this. I had just left my room over at the boarding house to come to work. I was walking on the opposite side of the street when I suddenly heard shouting. Someone was yelling ‘stop them, they’ve robbed the bank’. Well, at first, I couldn’t think and then I got scared. I ducked into the alley by the general store and knelt down behind a barrel.”

“Behind a barrel?” Adam queried. “May I ask exactly what you could see while hiding in an alley behind a barrel?”

Lucy seemed to draw back for a moment. Then, she straightened her shoulders and continued.

“Well, I could see the horses as they ran down the street and the legs of the men that had run out of the bank. I saw Joe’s legs and that pinto he rides all the time.”

Adam stopped her and asked, “Joe’s legs? How would you know Joe’s legs? And he doesn’t have the only pinto in these parts you know.”

Lucy nodded and answered, “I know that Mr. Cartwright, but it was Joe’s legs. I saw that left-handed gun and he’s the only person I’ve ever seen that rides a pinto and is left-handed.”

“That’s it? Is this what you told the sheriff? I think this is rather flimsy evidence to hang a man.”

“Hang…you don’t mean they’ll hang Joe. Oh, Mr. Cartwright they can’t do that. I tell you what, maybe I can tell Sheriff Coffee I was wrong.”

“No, Miss Watkins, you can’t go changing your story now. I still think you’re mistaken but we’ll leave that for now. But, before I leave I want you to tell me exactly why Joe told you not to lie. I have to know the whole story if I’m to help my brother.”

*****

Part Four: Kaatje

Joe stared at the ceiling, wondering if he’d ever sleep again, or if it mattered, considering the likely outcome of all this. If wishing could make the difference, the last few days would never have happened. Why hadn’t he listened to Adam and Hoss? Sure they were on his back lately, but he saw now they’d had reason to be. Why hadn’t he gone to them when he’d first heard the news? They could have helped him think this through. It was too late now. He could well remember his annoyance, especially with Adam. Anyone would think his brother had lived a parson’s life at Joe’s age, from his scowling expression and folded arms when Joe had returned to the house in the early hours of the morning. Adam even had the nerve to discuss his habits with Pa, and to suggest he be confined to the ranch for a while. Joe gave a humorless chuckle, wishing Pa had agreed, now. If only he had been confined, then he wouldn’t have run into Carter, and his bunch of so-called friends.

Hoss hadn’t been any better. His gentle brother had actually cornered him in the barn as he was saddling Cochise for a night on the town. Hoss had threatened to clobber him if he didn’t make it home on time for a change. Joe shook his head again. While he didn’t think Hoss would’ve followed through, even a clobbering would have been preferable to this.

As for his father, his time and attention had been greatly occupied by the gracious and elegant Anne Harrison. It had almost been fun to watch his father acting like a schoolboy, lighthearted and eager to please, to sometimes catch the serious-minded Ben Cartwright dreaming, staring into the middle distance with a small smile. Joe sighed. It had looked as though his father had a chance for happiness again. There were long odds of that happening now.

His stomach seemed tight, no matter how he tried to relax or move, and the feeling wasn’t about to go away anytime soon. Somehow the muscles managed to tense more as he heard Roy speaking. “I’m tellin’ ya, Ben, I’m gonna have to supervise any visits, exceptin’ those with a lawyer. And ya can’t have all night to talk to the boy either.” Roy was firm.

“Roy, I don’t see why I can’t be in the cell to talk to him,” Ben was arguing.

“Now Ben, we’ve been all over that. You want to visit Joe; this is how it’s got to be.” Roy’s voice held a note of finality. A heavy sigh of exasperation followed these words.

“Joseph.” The deep mellifluous voice of Ben Cartwright was like soothing music to his ears, for a little while.

“Pa.” He tried to keep the emotion out of his tone but thought his father might pick up on the slight quiver. He cleared his throat.

Roy eyed him sharply as he reached through the bars to clasp his father’s hand. Joe looked into the liquid dark eyes of this man, his father. Was there anyone in the world who meant as much to him?

“How are you son?” Ben asked.

“I-I’m well enough, Pa.” Joe forced himself to disengage from the handshake. “How are all of you?”

“Concerned about you. Your brothers are doing what they can to look into the matter. The truth will come out and then we’ll get you out of here, son.” Ben reached through and squeezed his left shoulder. “Joseph, is there anything you can tell us that will clear this matter up? Surely you were somewhere else at the time. Someone must have seen you.”

Joe pulled away and turned slightly, looking down. “Pa. I can’t tell you anything about it.”

“Joseph! Son, if you’re protecting someone —“

“No! Pa, I don’t know anything that will help.” Joe’s eyes closed tightly, and he cringed inside as he anticipated the next question.

Ben’s voice lowered to a whisper, a sound that still conveyed his growing dread. “Joe. Son! Don’t tell me you did it.”

Joe’s voice sounded strangled in his own ears. “No, Pa. I didn’t.”

“Then tell me the truth, boy.” A pleading note entered Ben’s voice.

Joe turned his back and stepped away, crossing his arms tightly, no longer trusting himself to say a word. His eyes burned and his throat felt tight. How could he tell the truth when it would destroy his father?

*****

Part Five: Nanuk

It was a very silent group that made its way home that night. Forcibly thrown out by Roy Coffee despite his protests, Ben had reluctantly complied when both Adam and Hoss had tugged at his shirt sleeves and guided him outside.

They had hardly spoken at all since starting out from Virginia City, but there hadn’t been any need to. Everything that could possibly have been said had been mentioned that afternoon – and Ben cringed at the memory.

He still couldn’t understand what had really happened. He had tried to calm Joe down enough to get him to talk, and for a very tiny moment his hopes had soared and his hands tingled in anticipation when his son admitted that he hadn’t done it. But before Ben could even ask what “it” was, Joe had lifted his pale face, and Adam, whom Ben hadn’t even heard entering, had quietly said from behind him, “He was there, Pa.”

The shock had shot through Ben like fire.

Buck stumbled in the darkness and Ben was abruptly brought back to the present as he regained his balance. Adam and Hoss, who had returned from the bank with empty hands and dashed hopes, still rode in front of him, dark and silent as the mountains in the distance, and lost in misery.

Even so, Ben couldn’t help throwing an irritated glance at his son’s straight back. The minute look of relief Joe had thrown Adam in the cell hadn’t gone unnoticed by him and had only served to raise his anger. But no one had seemed able to explain to him what was going on, and the reluctantly muttered, “He was really there, Pa” that Ben had extracted from Adam on the way home had been less than satisfying.

Again Ben’s eyes wandered to Adam, who had managed to avoid any further discussion by staying stubbornly three paces ahead, his back a stone wall a mile high. Ever since this ordeal had started, Adam, though inquisitive and obstinate as ever, had been keeping his thoughts to himself, but Ben was sure that his son was trying to hide something from him.

He frowned, then looked up when he saw the lights of the ranch house gleaming in the distance. Secrets were swirling around him like mist, and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it one bit. His son was in jail, accused of a murder Ben was sure he hadn’t committed. But he didn’t think he had seldom been more afraid.

By the time they reached the yard, his body was stiff, his mind weary. He tried not to think of how he was supposed to be spending the evening when every second his thoughts strayed to his absent son. But from the lights he judged that Anne was already waiting for them, and he threw his reins to Hoss’s offering hand with a grateful nod before heading after Adam.

Just as Adam reached the porch, though, there was a crash inside. Ben turned his eyes toward the illuminated opening of the door where he could just make out the dark shadow of his oldest son, who stood frozen. Then he heard the shot.

And Adam flinched.

*****

Part Six: Arien

Ben felt his heart lurch when his oldest son flinched, and automatically pulled his weapon, his breath catching as he saw Adam fall to the ground. He was afraid to move, afraid of the damage he was sure to find. The spell, however, was broken a moment later as Hoss barreled past him with his pistol at the ready.

“Son, are you all right?” Ben hurried to Adam’s side, grabbing the other’s arms and pulled his son out of the line of fire. He ran his hands over the red clad chest, searching desperately for a wound. “Tell me where you were hit?”

“Pa, I’m all right.” Adam said after a moment’s hesitation. “The bullet hit the doorframe. I was already at a disadvantage and just dropped to get out of the way of more shots.”

Ben searched the dark eyes in front of him and saw the truth they held. Reassured, he turned and walked through the open door knowing Adam was close behind. He could hear the raised voices of his son and fiancé before he saw them behind the settee. Hoss held a small revolver in one hand and was holding Anne up with the other.

“Anne!” Ben shouted, trying to make himself heard over the din of voices. “Anne, what in blazes is going on?”

“Ben?” she asked, her dark hair falling down from its stylish coif and her green eyes beginning to swim with tears. “Ben, I…”

Hoss watched as his father took the distraught woman into his arms. He would be the first to admit to being amazed at the thought of his father marrying the young Anne Harrison. In her middle thirties, she had moved to Virginia City to open a dress shop and promptly found his pa.

He moved away from his father to Adam’s side, allowing the couple a moment of privacy. He wasn’t sure what had happened to cause Anne to shoot at the first person through the door, but he knew it would be a few minutes before she was calm enough to talk.

“You all right?” he asked, remembering the fear he had felt at seeing his brother fall to the ground like a dead weight.

Hoss watched as some unidentifiable emotion flickered behind the hazel eyes before being hidden again. Reaching out, he lightly touched his brother’s arm. “Adam, you okay?”

“I’m fine, honest, the bullet hit the doorframe,” he explained, looking away from his father to meet Hoss’s eyes.

Looking at his brother, Hoss said, “Aw, Adam, you know she didn’t mean nothin’ by it. She was just scared, that’s all.”

Adam did not answer immediately, instead watching Anne with his father. After his lengthy conversation with Lucy, he had been disturbed to find out that a woman fitting Anne’s description had been seen near the saloon several times, exchanging papers and hushed words with a man.

He wasn’t sure where the information would lead, but he aimed to find out.

*****

Joe lay on the hard mattress in his cell, arms pillowed behind his head, staring at the ceiling. There had been a deep sense of relief when he had heard Adam’s quiet “He was there, Pa.” It had turned his father’s focus from him to his oldest brother. The distraction had kept him from caving into the entreaties of his father.

When Roy had led Pa and his brothers out of the jail, he had almost given into the desire to tell the whole truth, anything to wipe the look of bitter regret from the faces of his family. The door had shut behind them with a finality that echoed in his soul. He had realized there was no turning back—wherever the path he had chosen led, he would have to deal with the consequences.

Alone.

“Joe, you sure you don’t want some dinner or somethin’?” Roy Coffee’s voice broke into his reverie. The sheriff was standing at the door and had a look of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Joe shook his head, looking away from the older man he had known most of his life. He took a deep breath before speaking. “Roy, if-if things go the way I think…can you look after Pa? I’d ask Adam or Hoss but they’ll need someone to look after them, too. Don’t let them blame themselves.”

Roy felt the deep thrum of grief in his heart as he listened to the worries of his young prisoner. Approaching the figure stretched out on the cot, he said, “Joe, why can’t you tell me what happened? The circuit judge won’t be here for a month. That’s a mighty long time to be sittin’ in jail if you don’t have a need to.”

Joe sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, and moved to the small window. His hands gripped the bars so hard his knuckles turned white. He heard a sigh behind him and the quiet steps of the retreating figure. With the soft click of the door shutting, he allowed his head to rest against the cool stone. A month was an eternity and a blink of an eye, not enough time with his family but too long to wait for the judge.

*****

Part Seven: PRj

Ben held Anne’s hand and gently sat her down on the settee before going to get her some brandy. Adam moved over to the blue chair and casually sat down while Hoss had moved over in front of the fireplace to sit on the ledge.

Anne cautiously regarded Ben’s eldest son. His eyes held hers, but his face gave nothing away, and feeling suddenly uncomfortable, she moved her eyes to Ben as he poured the brandy, gratefully accepting the glass he held out to her. After pouring glasses for his sons and himself, Ben sat down next to her, giving her arm a soothing pat.

“Are you feeling a little calmer now, Anne?” Ben asked after she had several sips.

“Yes, I feel better now. I’m sorry I fired at you, Adam. Some of the people in town have been awful to me and I’ve been a bit nervous since Joe killed that poor young man who used to hang around with that Carter fellow from town.”

“Joe didn’t kill anyone,” Adam corrected her with a deep, almost cold tone that just barely avoided being uncivil.

“You’re right, I’m sorry I misspoke. Please forgive me.” Anne softly smiled at Ben.

“It has been a crazy few days. No wonder you’re scared.” Ben took her hand to reassure her. “You’re trembling, my dear; maybe I should make up the guest room and you should stay here tonight.”

“Oh, Ben, what would everyone say? I’m only your fiancée, not your wife.”

“They will say I was taking good care of you. I’ll go and make the room ready for you. Then I think you should go to bed.” Ben stood up.

Anne sat nervously, unaware her gaze had strayed to the desk in the study, until she felt someone’s eyes on her. She quickly turned towards Adam to see if he was looking at her, but he appeared to be only looking at Hoss. It was Hoss who was watching her.

“Are you sure you’re okay, Anne? Can I get you anything?” Hoss asked.

She turned to Hoss, and like many before who had underestimated this gentle man, thought that he looked like a puppy wanting to play. She returned her attention to Adam and studied him surreptitiously out of the corner of her eye, whilst acknowledging Hoss’s concern. “I’m fine, Hoss. I’m sorry I’ve caused such a fuss this evening; not at all what Ben and I had planned.”

“You never really said why you took a shot at me,” Adam quietly reminded her, as he crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair, looking deceptively relaxed.

“Didn’t I?” She slowly turned towards him, acting like she was thinking it over. “I thought I had.”

“No, you said some people in town were mistreating you, and that you were scared.” He schooled his handsome features into a half smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “That doesn’t answer why you felt it necessary to shoot at who ever walked in the door.” The casual façade was carefully controlled as suddenly a terrifying thought entered his mind. Had she been shooting at him? Or had she been thinking that his father would enter the door first?

He waited for her response, his face remaining implacable. Easing further back in his chair, he held her in the strength of his gaze, pinned like a trapped insect in amber. He sensed her discomfort and viewed it with some satisfaction. It confirmed in his mind that she knew something. Maybe her unease would cause her to let something slip. He maintained the silence; waiting for her to respond.

Anne felt unnerved by the way both Cartwright sons were scrutinizing her. She had already decided that Hoss would not be a serious threat, but Adam was likely to be a different matter. She knew that Adam could mess up her plans, wondering just how much he had figured out, and what it was that Joe had told him. She pulled herself together and nervously answered.

“I fired because of Carter. He has been harassing me and telling me he was going to come out here and get some ‘easy’ money.”

Adam imperceptibly raised an eyebrow. Anne saw the fleeting reaction and inwardly cursed the astute man in front of her, who was so hard to read. She knew that she could easily understand and manipulate most men, but Adam Cartwright she’d have to deal with. She only hoped that he would ignore her remark about Carter, but that hope was dashed in the next second.

“When was Carter bothering you?” Adam casually enquired; a little too casually, Anne thought. “He hasn’t been seen around town for the last few days.”

Just at that moment Ben came down the stairs.

“Oh, Ben,” she stood up, happy to escape any more of Adam’s questions. “I feel so tired. Could I go up and rest, if the room is ready?”

“Of course, we’ll talk in the morning. It has been a hard few days on all of us.” Ben followed her up the stairs. “Maybe we should all try to get some sleep tonight so we can be fresh in the morning.” He glanced at his sons, but knew none of them would rest easily until Joe was free.

Adam waited until he heard the bedroom doors open and then shut. He turned to Hoss and quietly asked.

“Hoss, where did you find Anne?” His mind held a mental picture of the bullet hole that was lodged in the door’s frame just under the hinge. He adjusted himself near the stairs until he was in line with where he thought Anne had been standing when she fired, and then glanced around at his surroundings. His concentration was broken when his brother finally spoke.

“What?” Hoss had been lost in his own thoughts, and was surprised by Adam’s unexpected question.

“I wondered where you found Anne when you came into the house,” Adam said, as his eyes trailed across to the study.

“She was comin’ at me from where you’re standin’, why?”

“No, reason,” Adam replied, heading for the object that had held Anne’s attention, just after their father had left the room.

Hoss followed and watched as Adam opened the drawers to his father’s desk, wondering what his brother was up to.

“When Pa and I came in you were standing near the settee,” Hoss nodded. “Now think back before you answer; then tell me exactly what happened.”

Hoss closed his eyes, and sighed. Then let his mind wander back to when he’d barreled into the house; his gun at the ready.

He took a deep breath. “Well,” he cleared his throat. “When I came in, Anne was movin’ towards me.” His eyes popped open, but the scene was still being played over in his mind. “I can’t tell you how close I was to shootin’ her.” His eyes looked deep into his brother’s. “Comin’ straight at me like she was…” He paused. “When she saw me, she started yellin’ or somethin’, but I still couldn’t tell ya’ what she was sayin’. I holstered my gun and took the revolver Anne was holdin’ out to me. Then she went all weak in the knees; so I took a hold of her, and led her to the settee. That’s when you and Pa came in. Why, Adam? What are you thinkin’?” he looked down at the opened drawers to the desk, and watched as Adam adjusted some of things in there.

“I’m not sure yet.” Adam put a reassuring hand on Hoss’s shoulder. “Hoss,” he paused until his brother was once again looking him in the eyes, “Hoss, you didn’t fire. She’s fine.”

Hoss nodded, as he blew out a breath he was surprised he had been holding.

“When we were tracking the gang with Roy and lost their trail in the rocks…” Adam started, then paused, not sure he wasn’t about to make a mountain out of a mole hill. “You seemed like something was bothering you, and then just before I went in with Pa and Joe, I heard you talking to Roy about the trail we’d followed. Did he say anything at all about it?”

“Well, I didn’t want to say nothin’ until I had some proof, but some of the tracks had me puzzled…” his voice trailed into silence.

Adam waited for Hoss to continue, but his brother took so long that finally he prompted, “Puzzled, how?”

“Well, remember that new ranch hand we took on last month?” Hoss scratched his head, as his brother nodded. “Remember me tellin’ ya he has less experience than he’d said, ‘cause I caught him shoein’ his horse, and the way he was doin’ it was going to leave it all marked up?”

Adam had placed his hands on the desk and hung his head low between them. He nodded, while wishing his brother would get to the point.

“Well, I wouldn’t want to accuse him and have no proof, as I’ve not really seen his horse’s prints up close, but I’m sure when I do…they’ll match. So tomorrow I plan on findin’ some, and seein’ if I’m right. We’ve not been around much lately, and I’ve not really seen him either, it could all fit together somehow.”

Adam raised his head and Hoss noticed his eyebrow was already up. His brother was in ‘deep thinkin’ mode’ again and wouldn’t be answering any of his questions any time soon, despite the dozen or so Hoss had. He watched Adam close the drawers, and headed for the stairs.

“Good night, Hoss,” Adam called, as he went up to his room. “Let me know what you find tomorrow, before you tell anyone else.” He paused on the stairs, and looked at Hoss, “Even Pa,” knowing his brother would do as he asked, even if he didn’t like it.

With that Adam went up the stairs, leaving Hoss to wonder what had prompted such questions.

*****

Adam lay on his bed, his hands laced, behind his head; eyes semi-focused on the ceiling; his mind racing from one thought to the next. Faces flashed in front of his eyes. So many small clues, but nothing linked them together, and Joe… a single thought was suddenly brought to the forefront of his mind. Joe, who are you trying to protect?

Adam bit his lip, he was thinking round in circles. He needed some answers but knew that, as much as his father disliked being left out, he had to find them on his own.

Turning his head towards the wall mentally running through his list of citizens, Hong entered his mind. If there was anyone that would know about the woman that had been seen near the saloon exchanging papers…it was Hong. The Oriental man had been washing the saloon’s laundry for a year now and knew just about everything that went on around town.

Adam knew that most folks around Virginia City hardly took notice of the Chinese population and would act as if they weren’t even there. So he knew the odds were good that Hong would know something.

He shook his head and cursed himself for not talking to Hong when Joe was first arrested, but his focal point had been on finding out who the witness was and getting Joe out of jail. Sitting up in bed, he felt a heaviness fill the air around him. Loosing his focus again could cost the life of his youngest brother and maybe his father.

Adam slowly lay back down; his mind drifting back to the swirling pool, trying to remember when he had last slept. He knew the one thing he needed the most, and had the least of, was time. Joe wasn’t being forthcoming with information, and in fact seemed intent on being a hindrance, which meant valuable time being wasted on leads that went nowhere because of Joe’s obduracy.

Adam closed his heavy eyes. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if he let even more time slip away from him. Every moment’s delay felt like an eternity, and yet he could feel the precious seconds ticking by with every beat of his heart.

*****

Part Eight: lijebeck

A grim-looking Hoss was waiting for him in the barn the next morning. Sport was already saddled and his brother was in the process of pulling a bridle over Chubb’s head.

“I made a point of visiting the bunkhouse before the hands headed out,” he said, stretching the leather band behind the horse’s ears and tugging bits of forelock out from under it. “Pa wanted me to check in with the fellas, seein’ as we’ve all been kinda distracted lately. I got a good look at them tracks when they mounted up for work.” He turned to heft his saddle up off its tree.

“And?”

Hoss settled the saddle on the horse’s back. “They match sure enough,” he said reaching under Chubb’s belly for the cinch. “And, guess who just got back from workin’ alone ridin’ fence on the east range for the past week?”

“It would’ve been real easy for him to take a little trip into town to do some banking,” Adam said. He took up Sport’s reins and led him out of his stall, stopping to adjust his own saddle just outside the barn door. Hoss followed him out, leading Chubb.

“That’s my thinkin’. They’re gonna be clearin’ ditches over in the south pasture today. Let’s go have a talk with him.” Hoss turned to put his foot in the stirrup.

“No, not yet,” Adam said, halting him with a hand on his arm. “Don’t say anything yet, Hoss. He obviously doesn’t think he can be connected to the robbery. Otherwise, he wouldn’t still be around. I’d like to check into a few other things before we confront him.”

“Well, maybe I’d better just keep a close eye on him for the time bein’ in case he gets nervous and decides to high tail it after all.”

“That’s a good idea. You’ll also be able to notice any unusual visitors he might have. Just be careful not to tip our hand. Act like everything’s normal, alright?”

“Normal,” Hoss repeated glumly. “Ain’t nothin’ been normal around here for some time and it won’t be until…” His voice trailed off as his eyes traveled to the stall where Cochise stood idle. “Dadburnit, Adam, it plain riles me knowin’ that fella is roamin’ free on the Ponderosa while our little brother sits in a jail cell.”

“I know.” Adam gave him an encouraging slap on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’ll get Joe out of this one way or another. A jail break is still a possibility, if I don’t start getting some satisfactory answers soon.”

Hoss smiled half-heartedly as his brother adjusted his saddle and swung up into it. “I’m with ya if it comes to that,” he said. “Where are you off to then?”

“Town. I need to see a man about some dirty laundry.”

*****

He found Hong bent over a tremendous steaming kettle stirring a batch of sheets with a thick wooden paddle. Beyond the fire stood row upon row of clothesline draped with sheets, bar towels and assorted clothing in varying stages of drying in the morning sun. The stocky little man paused at his work and bowed low when he saw the black clad Cartwright approaching.

“Good morning, Hong,” Adam said, tipping his hat and sliding gracefully down off his horse.

“Mr. Cartwright, what brings you to my humble home?” Hong said by way of greeting. Dark eyes full of curiosity studied him.

“I have some questions about events that have happened around the saloon lately. I thought you might be able to help me.”

Hong nodded thoughtfully and bowed low again. “Ah, yes. So sorry to hear of your family’s troubles. Your brother, Joseph, is not a bad boy. He is guilty only of the poor judgment of youth. Let us hope the true culprits will be found.” He smiled and gestured invitingly. “Come, I just prepared my morning tea.” He led the way into his tiny yet solidly built shack. Adam followed, removing his hat before ducking down to enter through the low doorway. Inside, a small neatly made up cot was tucked in one corner. In the center of the room stood a small square table and two chairs on which the tea was laid out, but his gaze was captured by the shelves full of books that filled every bit of available wall space.

“All in English,” the Chinese man said proudly as he carried the pot from the diminutive stove in another corner of the room and poured two cups of fragrant tea. “I have very few material needs and no family, so I am able to give myself this luxury.”

Adam eased himself into one of the chairs and accepted the tea. “Books can be as essential as food and water.”

“Very true.” Hong sat down opposite him and sipped from his cup. “You did not come for literary discussion, though.”

“No, I was hoping you might be able to tell me about the woman who was seen exchanging some sort of papers outside the saloon. Lucy Watkins described her to me and she sounds very much like my father’s fiancée, Anne Harrison.”

“It is as you fear. I, myself, saw Miss Harrison meet with a gentleman there on several occasions. I could not hear what was said, but each time she gave him some papers.”

“And who was the man?”

“I did not recognize him, but I did recognize the other man who would come to meet with him after Miss Harrison left.”

Adam set down his cup. “The other man?”

“It was young Mr. Tomkins, the bank clerk your brother is accused of killing.”

*****

Part Nine: debpet 

Adam stared at Hong for a moment.

“Are you sure of that?” Adam’s voice was tense.

“Oh yes,” Hong replied, nodding. “Each time I would see Miss Anne meet with the man, sure enough, Mr. Tomkins would come along a few minutes later.”

Adam leaned back in the chair, his mind in a whirl. There was something about someone that young Tomkins was known to hang around with…wasn’t there? He strained to remember, and then it came to him. It was what Anne had said. What were her exact words? “I’ve been a bit nervous since Joe killed that poor young man who used to hang around with that Carter fellow from town.” That was it. Tomkins hung around with Stan Carter. And Carter was the man that Anne accused of harassing her and making threats against the Cartwrights. Could the mysterious man that both Anne and Tomkins met with be Carter? He leaned forward again, placing his arms on the table and directing a piercing stare at his companion.

“Hong, this is very important,” Adam said. “Can you tell me what this man who met with Anne and with Tomkins looked like?”

Hong’ face was thoughtful as he made the effort to remember. “Short man, heavy built. Not much hair, but always seemed to need a shave. He was always scowling. His clothes were always dirty.” Hong’s mouth turned up with a trace of a smile. “He could have used my services.”

Adam was stunned. That sounded like Stan Carter all right. He tried to remember what else he knew about Carter, and he couldn’t come up with much. The man seemed to have a somewhat unsavory reputation, but Adam was unaware of any specific illegal activity in his background. Thinking of it now, it was rather surprising that the mild mannered, always neat bank clerk Allen Tomkins should have been friendly with such a man. But then, the world was full of even more unlikely partnerships, so who was he to say? The question now was – what was going on among Tomkins, Carter…and his father’s fiancée? And what, if anything, did this have to do with the bank robbery and Tomkins’ death?

It suddenly occurred to Adam that, if Joe had discovered something questionable about Anne Harrison that would go a long way toward explaining his brother’s reluctance to talk. He could be trying to protect their father from some devastating revelation. That would be so like him.

Adam’s attention was caught by the gentle touch of Hong’s hand on his arm.

“Mr. Cartwright, is anything wrong? Forgive me, but you seem…distracted.”

“I was just thinking, Hong. There are just a couple of more questions I’d like to ask you. About the papers that Anne Harrison exchanged with the man. Did you hear or see anything that would shed some light on what they were?”

Hong shook his head. “I only know that she always gave him an envelope and he always gave her another one in return.”

Adam raised his eyebrows. “Envelopes? Then you don’t really know what was in them?” He paused. “One of them could possibly have contained money.”

“It is possible,” Hong conceded. “I cannot say otherwise.”

“When was the last time you saw them do this?”

It happened about every two weeks for the last couple of months. The last time was just a few days…maybe three days…before the robbery.”

“Yes, about the robbery. What did you see on that day, Hong?”

“The honorable Sheriff Coffee has already asked me this. I’m afraid I was not able to be of any help. On that particular day I was making a delivery at the time the actual robbery took place. I did not see anything.”

A flicker of disappointment passed across Adam’s face at that. But it quickly disappeared as he rose from his chair. Hong also rose.

“You’ve been very helpful, Hong, and I thank you,” Adam said with a respectful bow of his head.

“It is a pleasure to serve you.” Hong bowed his head in return. Then he seemed to hesitate. “I just wish to say that I hope facts will soon come to light which will prove the innocence of your younger brother in this most unfortunate matter. I know it would be most distressing to the honorable Hop Sing if anything were to happen to the young man.”

Adam regarded him with troubled eyes.

“I hope so, too, Hong. I hope so, too.”

*****

A few minutes after leaving Hong Adam was sitting on a bench in front of the newspaper office, thinking about what he had learned and trying to decide what to do next. There were a number of leads in the case that he was eager to follow up. Then, of course, there was their recently arrived hand, whose horse’s distinctive tracks Hoss had noticed among those they had attempted to follow. What was the man’s name anyway? Adam had not had much contact with him, but he still felt as though he ought to remember. But the thing that intrigued him most of all at the moment was this question of the relationships among his father’s intended wife, the man she accused of harassment and threats, and the young bank clerk who had been killed. Adam was convinced that, if he could understand what had been going on among those three, everything else about the case would somehow fall into place.

He had to admit to himself that he had a personal interest in the matter of Anne Harrison’s actions. When she had taken a shot at him, however accidentally it may have been, something had started to nag at the back of his mind and now, after Hong’s words had connected her to Carter, the suspicion grew deeper. Now it seemed that there had been some kind of questionable dealings between those two in the weeks leading up to the robbery. How could he discover the truth? The key seemed to be Carter’s friendship with the dead clerk, Allen Tomkins.

Tomkins had been an unmarried young man who had lived with his mother in a small house a couple of streets over from the bank where he had worked. Surely she was the one who would be most likely to have the information he was seeking. The thought of intruding on her in her time of grief did not sit well with Adam, but the need to get to the bottom of things was too pressing for him to hesitate. With a sigh, he got up from the bench, put on his hat and set off.

In short order he found himself passing through a yard full of roses as he followed the stone walk that led up to the door of the Tomkins house. The wreath trimmed in black ribbons that hung there was a sobering indication of what he might be letting himself in for. He stepped up to the door and hesitantly raised his hand to knock. It was a long moment before the door was opened by a petite middle-aged woman dressed in black. Her light brown hair, streaked with gray, was pulled back into a tight bun.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Tomkins,” Adam said quietly as he removed his hat in respect. “I’m sorry to impose on you at this time, but I really do need to speak with you. I’m…”

“Adam Cartwright. I know,” she interrupted him in a flat, emotionless voice. “Everybody knows you Cartwrights. Why are you here? I suppose you’re trying to find something to clear your brother of killing my son.”

Her directness left Adam a little taken aback. “I’m just trying to find out what really happened, Mrs. Tomkins,” he replied. “I’m sure you want to see justice done, to see whoever actually killed your son be held responsible. Well, that’s what I want, too, believe me. And I think you may have some information which could help explain some things that I’m wondering about. I would really appreciate it if we could talk for just a few minutes.”

Her red-rimmed eyes stared into his face, seemingly trying to estimate his sincerity. Then, finally, she stepped back and gestured him to enter.

“Come in,” she said.

*****

Part Ten: Lily of the West

The room was cold and dim. A thick smell of old cooking grease permeated the air, and mingled with it, a whiff of alcohol. Iris Tomkins slipped into a large armchair by the empty fireplace and pulled an old knit blanket over her knees. She did not look at Adam or invite him to sit.

“So. What do you want?” she said. The fireplace was dead and Adam saw that it was filled with empty whiskey bottles, some whole, most broken.

Adam hesitated for a moment, but then decided that this woman would not likely suffer him for long. It was best to get straight to the point.

“Mrs. Tomkins, I believe…no, I know that my brother did not kill your son.”

She snorted. “Naturally. You Cartwrights never do no wrong.”

“I wouldn’t say that, Mrs. Tomkins. I won’t say Joe isn’t capable of killing. He’s a hothead sometimes, but I also know that, if he had killed your son, he would admit it. He would not lie.”

She twirled an end of her blanket between her fingers and still did not look at him. “What difference is it to me? My Allen is dead. What the hell do I care about Little rich Joseph Cartwright?”

Adam stood silent for a moment. Then, making a decision, he smoothly slid in front of her chair and sat on the cold stones of the fireplace. They were knee to knee now.

“Mrs. Tomkins, please look at me,” he said.

She looked up at him for a moment, before letting her eyes fall back to her blanket.

Adam continued. “You care because you believe in justice and truth, like any good person. You care because you’re a mother and because you wouldn’t want somebody else’s son to be innocently hung when you yourself may hold the key to his freedom.”

She looked at him now. “Me? What key?”

“Has your son ever mentioned someone by the name of Stan Carter?”

She shook her head. “Never heard that name.”

“Well, some folks have observed that Allen met with Carter near the saloon.”

“So?” she shrugged.

“These meetings happened briefly after Carter had met with a woman named Anne Harrison.” He watched her face for a reaction and was not disappointed. Her eyes shot up to his and became hard and narrow.

“Did you say Anne Harrison?”

Adam sat up straighter. “Yes. What do you know?”

Her face grew dark. “That floozy. Allen met her in San Francisco. Brought her to Virginia City and said he was going to marry her. I told him she was only playing with him; ‘She’s too old for you, son,’ I said. ‘She’ll grow tired of you the way a cat grows tired of a mouse she has caught, and then she’ll eat you’. ”

Adam’s head was swirling. “Allen had a relationship with Anne Harrison?”

“She was flat broke when she latched on to him in San Francisco. Said she wanted to leave town because some old obsessed lover was pursuing her – puh. My foot, I tell you. Allen, the silly, soft-hearted boy, believed every word she said. He bought her a ticket for the stage and brought her here. Two days in town, and she grew cold as a dead fish. She never wanted nothing from him except a passage out of Frisco. Broke his heart. He wasn’t the same after that.”

Adam forced his jaw back up and swallowed. “Do you…do you know where Miss Harrison is now?”

Mrs. Tomkins shrugged. “What do I care? Off to New Orleans, St. Louis, or someplace to find her next victim.”

Well, no,’ Adam thought. ‘She’s found her next victim, all right, but she didn’t have to go that far.’

He sat silently and ran his hand through his hair. If Anne dumped Allen and ‘latched on to’ Pa, to use Mrs. Tomkins’ words, did this mean that Allen had a grudge against Pa and somehow conspired with Carter to harm the Cartwrights? Or was he out to harm Anne? What was in the envelopes exchanged between Carter and Anne? Was anybody being blackmailed? Had Allen hired Carter to do this? And what on earth had Joe to do with all this? If Joe had gotten wind of this and confronted Tomkins… Adam groaned and sank his head into his hands; he’d just stumbled across a fine motive for Joe to have killed Tomkins.

Adam stood up abruptly. “Mrs. Tomkins, you’ve helped me a lot. I…I thank you very much.” He turned to go, but paused at the door to look back at her, slumped in her chair under her smelly blanket, pale and slightly drunk in that cold, dark room. Adam forced himself to slow down. He was in a hurry but could delay a few more minutes.

“Have you got any firewood?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Out back.”

He brought in the wood, cleaned the broken bottles from the fireplace and lit a large fire. He stacked several days’ worth of wood next to her chair. She smiled a little in the orange glow and let her blanket slid off her knees to the floor.

“That was kind of you, Mr. Cartwright,” she said. And as he slipped on his hat to walk out the door, she called after him, “Would you…would you come back sometimes? I could tell you some more about Allen. He was a good boy, really. A fool, maybe, but he had a kind heart.”

Adam smiled back at her and nodded. “I’ll visit again. I promise.”

*****

Adam found Joe stretched out on his cell bunk, staring sullenly up at the ceiling. He’d been thinking hard on his way over to the jail, and had decided the best way to shake the truth out of Joe was to poke him in a few sensitive places.

“I know about you and Anne,” he said without preamble.

Joe slowly peeled himself from his cot and sat up, blinking. “You know what?”

“I also know that Anne was with Allen Tomkins before she went to Pa. And I think Allen hired Carter to blackmail Anne, and you got real mad at Allen. What is it, Joe? Do you have it in for Anne? Have you and Anne been having some secret thing behind Pa’s back? Is that why you’re not talking? Because Anne belongs to Pa?”

Joe stared at him. “You’ve gone mad, brother.”

“I’ve gone mad? I’m not the one in jail for murder and bank robbery.”

Joe shook his head incredulously. “You know I didn’t do those things.”

Adam took a long step towards the cell and grabbed the bars with both hands. “I know no such thing, Joe. What I do know is that my hotheaded little brother has a temper that’s gotten him in trouble more times than I can count, and that this time he’s gone too far. C’mon, Joe, you went to the bank to confront Allen, and you lost your head. And then you robbed the safe to cover up the murder. Admit it. I know it’s true.”

For a moment, Joe’s face scrunched, and he looked ready to pounce against the bars. But then he suddenly laughed and pointed a finger at Adam.

“Nice try, older brother. I ain’t sixteen anymore, you know.”

Adam grunted and let his head thud against the bars. “Joe, I’m tired of this nonsense. You did know about Allen and Anne, didn’t you? I do believe that Allen was up to no good, and that you went to the bank to confront him on the day of the robbery.”

Joe was silent for a while, and then sighed, as if he’d come to a decision. He sat up and smiled crookedly at Adam. “Brother, I think old age has finally wilted that great brain of yours. You got it all wrong. You see, Allen was an honest soul. He thought that Anne was using Pa in the same way she had used him, he told me so. In fact, when I asked him, he warned me about her.”

“And Carter?”

Joe shrugged. “Allen had observed a few meetings between Anne and Carter. He saw materials pass between them, envelopes. He confronted Carter a couple times afterwards. Carter told him to stick his nose where the sun don’t shine, or something like that.”

“And the robbery?”

“Carter, I think. But I didn’t see him. There was another man, too. They were masked. They busted in just as I was done talking with Allen. I tried to stop them, but I got pinned behind the counter by gunfire. I ran out in the street after them. I guess that’s when Lucy saw me.” He nodded at Adam. “You were right about that one. The bank robbery was just a smokescreen. The idea was to hide the real motive for killing Tomkins. I suppose Carter hired himself some crony to do the job and paid him off with the loot money.”

Adam stood still for a while, absorbing all of this. He rubbed his aching head. “Joe, why in the name of heaven didn’t you come out with this before?”

Joe shook his head. “Don’t you get it, brother? No proof. It’s all hearsay. The only witness is Tomkins, and he’s dead. Can you imagine how it would have broken Pa’s heart if I accused Anne of plotting to get at his money without being able to prove it?” Joe jumped up from his cot and grabbed the bars to look Adam in the face. “And you know what? We could be wrong. Maybe Anne has done nothing wrong and is genuinely in love with Pa. You want to take that away from him?”

“Then what is she doing exchanging envelopes with Carter?”

Joe threw up his hands in frustration. “That’s the question, isn’t it? Either she’s being blackmailed or she’s up to some foul play.” He slumped back on his cot.

Adam sighed and shook his head sadly. “That’s all well and good, little brother, but has it ever occurred to you that it might get Pa’s heart broken if his son gets hung for murder?”

“I guess I figured the proof would be uncovered somehow before it came to that.” Joe shook his head and smiled a little.

Adam rubbed his forehead. “Joe, I admire your optimism. Just how did you think that would materialize?”

Joe shrugged sheepishly. “Well, there’s my very inquisitive and clever older brother. But more importantly, there’s someone else who may have a chance to snap up one of those envelopes.”

Adam’s eyebrows shot up. “Who?” And when he saw Joe’s grin, he guessed the answer. “Lucy?”

Joe nodded. “Carter’s been sweet on her. Goes to the saloon and gets drunk while she sits on his lap. She’ll try to get at one of the envelopes. The proof or disproof of Anne’s guilt is in the envelopes, Adam. I wanted to wait till we got one of those before making any accusations.”

Adam stood and pondered this for a minute. “Well, there’s only one thing to do then,” he said abruptly and turned to leave. Over his shoulder he called to Joe, “just sit tight, brother. With a bit of luck, we’ll have you out of here in a day or two.”

“Where are you going?” Joe called after him, a hint of hysteria in his voice.

“To intercept some envelopes,” was the answer, followed by the sound of Sport’s galloping hooves outside.

*****

Later that night, two shadows crept unseen across the roof of the saloon. They slithered all the way to the edge to peek into the dark alleyway below. There they lay silently. The moon disappeared behind an overcast sky, and the night air thickened with dampness. A light rain began to fall. One of the shadows stirred.

“Tell me again how we know they’ll be here this night, Adam?” Hoss whispered.

“We don’t.”

“We don’t. I see. I’m askin’ ‘cause it ain’t helpin’ Joe any if you and me are lying around here in the rain night after night like two big ol’ garden slugs, just ‘cause our big brother is havin’ himself a notion about strange dealings and envelopes and….”

“Shh,” Adam hissed. “Someone’s coming.”

Listening into the darkness, the two brothers heard a cautious footstep approach through the alley. Silently, they pulled their guns from their holsters and readied themselves for what was to come.

*****

Part Eleven: tbuster

As the torrents above poised to rival the ones that were already wreaking a fearful havoc on her petite frame, she tugged at her cape, pulling the garment in a tighter shield around her auburn hair. A newly painted shingle swung over the dress shop as she turned to lock the door and placed the key into her pocket.

Concern was wearing ruts in her heart as her hand came to rest uneasily against another demanded envelope as she made her way along the streets of Virginia City to yet another ill-fated meeting. Tears began to well as she thought of what she had let herself get involved in. From the moment she had walked absentmindedly into Ben’s way at the bank, he had saved her a fall with one arm and caused her another with his smile.

Her heart had been aching for weeks. Things had gone far beyond what a bit of information could pay for. She wiped at the tears and begged silently for an end. Why wouldn’t he just give her peace? All she wanted was happiness. Was that too much to ask for? How could the mistake of endearing the wrong man cause her so much grief? Just as she asked the questions, she chided herself for knowing the answer and shed her tears in frustration. The ominous sky began to spray a warning that few on this evening would heed.

*****

Roy’s first evening round had been accomplished in relative peace. For the first time in several days, it appeared he might be on the winning end of quiet. By the looks and feel of the threatening black expanse above, he wouldn’t be looking forward to anything less. He watched her lock up the shop and head safely toward home. It was a small thing he could do for his friend in light of the much bigger one he wished he could perform, but letting Joe out of jail even in good faith would rile the town far beyond its restless boundaries.

It was hard enough keeping the law among a transient group of gold diggers but rounding the corner to find the three horses tied up in formation made him realize it was much harder to keep it among law-abiding friends. A deep sigh escaped his chest before he opened the door to find Ben anxiously pacing before a more sedated and obviously satisfied Andrew Morton, Esq.

“Ben…” The greeting was as much a question as it was an acknowledgment and Roy furrowed his brow in displeasured prospect.

“Roy, Mr. Morton has just arrived from Reno with Judge Briggs’ order to release Joseph pending his trial.” Ben’s tone and use of the lad’s Christian name set a boundary on the friendship and imposed a rivaling authority with the document he accepted from Morton’s hands to present.

Setting his eyes in defiance first to Ben and just as deliberately to the offending lawyer, Roy countered, “Is that so?”

Ben was no more determined than before to have his son released from the confines of this jail, as he stood firm in the face of Roy’s expected anger and insisted, “It is so… signed and legally sealed. Now release him so I can take him home.”

The endless contradiction of justice fueled a contained fire. Roy fought to control the wrath he knew others would only be too willing to fan if he didn’t consider, carefully, his options as sheriff. Taking the time to remove his hat and place it with exaggerated care on its hook, he finally made his way to his desk. It was only after slowly getting comfortable that he reached forward to take the orders from Ben’s hand. “Now just let me take a look at this.”

Friendship aside, Coffee was one formidable man when he chose to be. Ben’s apparent exasperation was no reason for him to compromise the principles he held dear. Sound reason was justification enough to look up to the glare that awaited him when Ben impatiently cleared his throat so he contented, “Looks like the judge has put everything in order.”

A sigh of relief bounced back too quickly as Ben smiled in tribute to Morton and said, “Well, let’s get him out.”

“Not so fast there, Ben.” Roy leaned over to open a drawer behind him and shuffled a few files before finding the one he was looking for. “I have some papers to sign myself before Little Joe gets back out on the streets of our fair city.”

Instinctively, Morton started with the warning as Roy picked up his pen, “Appealing this order Sheriff Coffee will only necessitate a few more of these unfortunate encounters.”

Ben’s smile quickly dissolved into a frown and his hands came down hard on the paper positioned on the desk as he obstructed Roy’s intended pen and bellowed, “My son has just as much right to protection under the law as anyone else, and you’re going to appeal it?”

Pushing back in his chair, Roy stood matching the fury that faced him. “You’re darn right I’m appealing this order. That boy’s protection lies right there in that cell. No judge sitting miles away from here knows like I do the temper of this town.”

“And now you’re judge and jury?”

“No, Ben, I’m not paid enough for those jobs, too! We all know Judge Briggs signed this order purely on the basis of the Cartwright name.”

“It’s a name that has stood for right in this town more times than not and it’s not likely to change now!”

“You and I may know that but you insist on taking Little Joe out of here you won’t get him past the first tree…court order or not!”

*****

Voices filtered out into the alley she was expected in as she reached the end of the boardwalk. Cautiously stepping around the side of the building she quickly found shelter up under the eaves as the unfamiliar voice spat her name venomously in the dark.

“You and Miss Harrison fixing to double cross Carter?”

Lucy flinched at the pressure being applied to her arm as Nelson shoved her out the back door into the alley. A dirty aisle already lapping up the rain to form a muddy sludge guaranteed to impede any progress her heeled feet might make in trying to escape. Swallowing hard to control the fear she didn’t want him to see, she argued, “I don’t know a Miss Harrison.”

Jerking her up harder, she stifled a cry as he countered, “You sent her a note didn’t ya?”

Perched on the roof, Adam shot a glance sideways to Hoss, issuing a silent order to hold back and wait. He’d seen Anne step back into the shadows and realized the trap they were all dangerously close to falling into.

Hoss squinted against the increasing rain and motioned with his head back towards the door. Adam held up a hand to emphasize the need for patience and steadied his eye and his gun on the pair below.

“I…”

“Shut up, girl. Carter knows you’re sweet on that Cartwright kid. You don’t think he’s been watching you like a hawk?”

“But I already told ‘em about seeing Joe at the bank.”

Even in the dark, Nelson’s cold-blooded grin could be seen spreading across his whiskered face as he pushed her away into the mud and admonished, “Well, Carter wants you to keep your mouth shut and your nose to yourself. You hear?”

Tearfully acknowledging his order, she moved to stand as he was already making his way toward the street when she saw him abruptly draw his gun and turn back. She heard another woman scream first before she cried out as a searing pain exploded in her chest.

Fleeing into the shadows of the building, Nelson narrowly escaped the bullets fired from the roof. Just as quickly he took the advantage and made his way free and clear from the carnage and the pursuit.

Swiftly scaling down the porch column, Adam headed toward Anne writhing in pain, his gun still in his hand.

“Anne?” Kneeling to assess the wound to her shoulder, he reassured her, “You’ll be alright, Anne.” Though, he wasn’t so sure of the girl that lay so still in the distance. Wadding the end of her cape he pressed it into the burning flesh to stave the bleeding and cringed with the cry that left her unconscious.

Patrons were spilling out of the saloon, both front and back, when he heard someone shout. “Up there…on the roof!” And another voice from were Lucy had fallen, accused, “You just had to kill her!”

*****

Part Twelve: AdamFan16

Adam pushed away clinging hands, moving toward Lucy despite the pressing crowds. The babble of voices faded to the back of his mind as he saw a limp hand and out-flung arm through the sea of legs and boots.

“She’s dead?” he asked harshly, steeling himself against the answer he knew was coming.

“As if you didn’t know, Cartwright.” The hate-filled voice followed the accusation with a string of invectives. The man’s breath ran out before his mantra, but he paused and glared at Adam from a face grown purple with alcohol and rage. “You Cartwrights ain’t known for missing your mark, are you?”

Adam tightened his jaw, willing that voice to fade out as the others had. He had more important things to worry about than false accusations against himself. The slur against Joe slammed into a bruised part of his soul, evoking a more volatile reaction. His fist clenched, a tiny smile stretching his lips as he envisioned the satisfying impact.

Hoss’ arm suddenly blocked his path, his voice rumbling a warning. “Ain’t no cause for talk like that, not when a lady’s just died.”

“Lady? Don’t go settin’ that girl on a pedestal, Hoss.” A slurring voice called out, eliciting a tipsy laugh from the growing crowd.

“You just hush.” Somehow, Hoss had gotten their attention without raising his voice, just letting the cold anger icing his heart flow out of his mouth. The scowl on his face was making even Adam unclench his fist. “It ain’t our place to judge when she can’t defend herself.”

A grumble worked its way through the gathered men. One called out mockingly, “She couldn’t protect herself from your brother’s bullet neither, Hoss!”

The crowd took on a sinister aura in the uncertain light from the windows. Even the falling rain wasn’t deterring the drunken men.

“What reason on earth would I have to kill Lucy?” Adam regretted the explosion the moment it left his mouth. To any outsider, he had every reason to want that girl dead. Only he knew how much his brother’s defense rested on Lucy’s help.

The dirty man who had first accused him charged forward, “I say we don’t wait to find out!”

*****

A rumble of thunder jerked Roy’s attention away from the papers on his desk. The headache he was denying nagged itself closer to a migraine. It had finally materialized when Morton had walked out a few minutes earlier and he was left alone with a very stubborn Ben Cartwright.

“I’d like to get home before this storm gets any worse, Roy.” Ben’s insistent voice pounded in his ears, “with all my sons.”

Roy took his glasses off and rested his head against his hand, fighting the frustration just about to boil over into anger. “Ben, I cain’t guarantee you’ll make it two feet from this jail with that boy without somebody getting’ an itchy finger. I don’t like to have two murders out o’ just one.”

“I’m willing to take that chance.” Ben stood, towering above Roy’s desk. “And now I have the law backing me. Let him out, Roy.”

There was no point in fighting it any further. Roy slowly picked up the keys. “Alright, Ben. You win.”

Joe looked up as they walked in, surprise widening his eyes when he saw the key in Roy’s hand.

“You get to come in for a visit, Pa?” Joe asked, something between hope and fear swirling in his stomach. It was hard enough concealing the truth from his father with the iron barrier between them. He had no doubt of his weakness when that concerned gaze was coupled by a hand on his shoulder and the support Pa so obviously wanted to give.

“You’re goin’ free, boy, against my advice.” Roy fitted the key into the lock, wincing at the slight squeak as it turned.

Joe blinked, his grip on the bars tightening instinctively. “The charges have been dropped? What’s happened?”

“Your pa went out and got a nice legal order that says you can go ‘til the trial. I suggest you stay on that ranch of yours and don’t stray too far from the house. I ain’t promisin’ anything if you step foot in Virginia City before that trial.”

The door swung open. Joe, now without the bars to hold onto, rubbed the back of his neck. “You mean I’m going home?”

Ben gave a half-chuckle, flashing his son a worried look. “Is that so hard to believe? You’re innocent, you deserve to be free.”

Free. Joe shuddered slightly. He hadn’t been free since well before the robbery, ever since that fateful day that Allen motioned him aside to talk to him.

“C’mon, son, let’s get your brothers and…” Ben’s reassuring words were cut off by gunfire.

*****

A fist caught Adam across the temple, blindsiding him from behind. He stumbled, his vision going fuzzy. Hands grasped at his shirt as he began to straighten; the eager babble of the crowd was buzzing in his ears.

A sweeping blow from Hoss struck one man to the ground and scattered the others several steps backward. His left hand reached instinctively to steady his brother while the right remained balled into a menacing fist.

“Now that’s enough of that foolishne–” Hoss’s barked order was cut off as several men rushed toward him.

The mob rushed forward, tramping around those who slipped in the muddy street. The darkness and rain only multiplied the odds against the two desperate brothers. Thunder cracked above them, followed by a brilliant flash of lightning, illuminating a scene of absolute chaos.

Slowly, fighting viciously for every inch of ground they gave, Adam and Hoss found themselves well in the midst of the inflamed mob, heading for a tree at the end of the street – one that had seen more than its share of use as Virginia City began growing.

Another flash showed the brothers to each other. Adam’s lip was bleeding, the small stream mixing with the rain pelting his face. There was steel in his eyes, and his fists were dealing out their fair share of blows. Hoss had a purplish stain already showing on his jaw but that had not reduced its granite set. Let the whole town come, they had reached a point of no return. If they were to die this night, it would not be by hanging.

*****

The wind-driven rain stung his eyes, eradicating what little sight he would have had in the darkness. The sounds were frightening enough as Roy ran from the jail toward the fight, followed closely by Ben and Joe. The babble of voices, jumbled by the rain, carried one distinct message. Death.

Light spilled from the saloon doors and windows, the only establishments still doing business in the storm Roy stopped short as a woman’s crumpled form materialized almost under his feet.

“Anne!” It was Ben’s ragged voice, his fumbling hands that reached to steady her as she stood. A thrill of terror coursed through him as he took in the blood-stained cape she was clutching to her shoulder. “Anne, what’s wrong?”

She was limp in his arms, her lips forming into a soft pout as she peered up at him. After a tense moment, she murmured, “Adam – Hoss…there were shots…”

She glanced toward the middle of the street with a shudder. Following her gaze, the three men encountered Lucy’s body, still sprawled where she had fallen, forgotten in the rampage that had followed her death.

Joe took off toward the end of the street, shouting over his shoulder. “You’d better come now, Roy, or there’s gonna be two more murders!” He didn’t wait to hear Anne’s further explanation.

Ben started to release Anne, but she clung to his arm tenaciously, “I – I don’t think I can stand.”

Ben glanced at Roy helplessly, trying to quell the rising panic in his chest. Roy just shook his head and turned toward the ominous gathering, doing his best to force aching joints into a solid run.

“Hold me, Ben.” Anne whispered weakly, her fingers digging into his forearm. “It was awful….poor little Lucy…”

Shaking with the force of the warring loyalties within him, Ben guided Anne to a bench. “Just stay there, dear. I’ll come back for you.” With that, he wrenched free and rushed down the street.

Roy drew his pistol and fired into the air, vaguely surprised that more guns hadn’t gone off. The mob stumbled to a startled halt, the hubbub subsiding as Roy strode toward Hoss and Adam.

“What in tarnation is goin’ on?” he shouted, looking around him at the flushed and bruised faces. “Cain’t this town have one night of peace?”

“Not with them Cartwrights around!” A voice came from the dim sea of faces.

The commotion began again, people shouting out accusations from all sides. Ben pushed through the crowd to stand by his sons.

Roy’s pistol barked again, silencing them. “What proof says either of these boys was the one that killed Lucy?”

“They was up on the roof of the saloon, and when Adam came down, his gun was in his hand.” One brave man pushed the front and pointed at Adam, who stood panting beside the sheriff. “That one’s smart, alright, but he didn’t plan it so smooth this time.”

“I didn’t shoot Lucy – I was aiming at the man who shot her!” Adam protested his voice hoarse with the exertion.

“Who was it that done the killin’ then, Adam?” Roy asked hopefully. He knew only too well where this was headed.

“Nelson, a man we hired on about a month back.” Adam glanced at his father apologetically as he made the accusation. They hadn’t told Ben of their findings, and a look at his father’s incredulous face said that it had been the wrong decision.

“You saw his face then; could positively identify him?” The optimism had picked up in the sheriff’s eyes.

“No, I didn’t see his face,” Adam admitted, “but it was his voice, and the man I saw was his build.”

“It was dark, Cartwright, and with the storm – you expect us to believe that?”

“Did you hit him, Adam?” Roy queried, praying for an affirmative answer.

Adam slowly shook his head. “He got away.”

“String him up! He’s nothin’ but a filthy murderer!” The cry came from all sides.

“Alright, all of you!” Ben’s roar caught their attention. “There’ll be no lynching tonight! It’s only your assumptions against Adam’s word, neither of you has any real evidence!” He put a hand on Adam’s wet shoulder. “Now just go on home.”

The crowd murmured, discontent rising to mix with the rain that had begun to slack off a bit.

Roy looked into Adam’s blackened eyes and slowly held out a hand. “Your gun, Adam.”

Something flickered behind the exhaustion for a moment, a spark of defiance. Then he reached into his holster and handed the gun over, butt-end first.

“Let’s go, son.”

“Roy, this is preposterous,” Ben protested, “you know that Adam didn’t kill Lucy.”

Roy shook his head as he took Adam’s arm. “I know one thing, Ben, and that’s that there’s been a murder, an accusation made, and I’ve got a suspect to lock up. And if you want this son of yours to outlive the night, you’ll let me.”

“Listen to him, Pa. He knows what he’s doing,” Adam said quietly, appealing to Hoss with a glance.

“Adam’ll be fine overnight. He can keep Joe company in that cell tonight.”

“Joe is out of jail until the trial…” They were moving out of the middle of the crowd, and Ben looked around worriedly. “Where is Joe? He got here before either of us.”

“I’m right here, Pa.” Joe appeared quite suddenly from the shadows of a building. “I didn’t see the point in advertising a free shot in the middle of that crowd.”

“Good thinking.” Adam nodded approvingly. “No point in making it easy for them.” He stopped suddenly, turning to his family. “You three go on home. I’ll be fine with Roy overnight. You’d best get Younger Brother here out of town before he’s spotted.”

“But…” Ben attempted to protest, but Hoss put a hand on his shoulder.

“Aw, Pa. Adam knows what he’s doin’. Let’s get Joe home before somethin’ else happens.”

“I have to see to Anne first.” Ben agreed reluctantly, his mouth settling into a firm line. “You and Joe go get our horses and bring them to the doctor’s house.”

Adam and Roy continued silently down the street, aware with every step of the still – scattering men behind them.

“I sure am sorry it came to this, Adam, but I’d rather have you where I can keep a good eye on you….” Roy said, voice fading as he realized how familiar the words sounded.

“I understand, Roy.” Adam mustered a humorless smile. He was tired, battered in more ways than simply physical. “I don’t mind saying I’ll feel a bit safer with a locked door between that mob and myself. After all –”

A shot rang out behind them. Roy instinctively dropped, jerking a willing Adam to the ground with him. Hoss’ frantic voice carried through the darkness.

“Joe? Boy, are you hurt bad?”

A low moan was the only reply.

*****

Part Thirteen: Firi

It was a warm summer night despite the rain, but a deadly chill shook him. A moment ago he had been panting from exertion, now he couldn’t breath. He had been just starting to become aware of his many painful bruises. Now he felt nothing.

Lightning streaked across the night sky in a sudden display of light.

Adam swiftly rolled onto his back away from Roy – the pounding of his heart blotted out the rumble of thunder. His eyes pierced through the hindering rain to see the puissant figure of Hoss kneeling in the thickening mud and holding a still form.

Adam ran – mud sloshed around his boots, splattering onto his already soiled clothing. He could now see the paleness of Joe’s face. Hoss had a strong hand pressed down firmly on their younger brother’s chest. Rivulets of rain mixed with blood were pouring over Hoss’ fingers.

Adam dropped to his knees by the figures on the ground, and lifting his eyes, he met the worried eyes of his middle brother. Without speaking, he placed two fingers on Joe’s neck, searching for a pulse and letting out a groan. The pulse was much weaker than he had hoped to find.

“Where did the shot come from?” Adam asked, surprising even himself at the cold fury in his voice.

“A man in that alleyway there.” Hoss nodded to the side.

Quickly turning his head, Adam barely made out a figure of a man at the entrance of the alley beside the mercantile before the man disappeared into the darkness of the night. As he turned back to Hoss, some part of his mind marked the arrival of Roy and the voice of his father down the street.

“Get him to Paul quick before anyone sees him,” Adam ordered, reaching out to help Hoss lift their younger brother. Despite their efforts to be gentle, Joe moaned as they raised him.

“Sorry, Joe.” Looking pained, Hoss carefully adjusted his brother’s weight in his arms and hastily started down the street, mindful that the mob could reappear at any moment.

Adam turned to face the tired and concerned looking sheriff.

“My gun, Roy.”

The older man winced. “I don’t like to remind…”

“Roy.” The command would not allow refusal.

Sighing, Roy held out Adam’s gun. This night seemed to have taken all the fight out of him. “Don’t make me regret this, son.” The heaviness in Roy’s voice betrayed the weight of his heart.

Without a word, Adam took the gun and darted towards the alley. Roy watched after him, but the dark form rapidly vanished in the rain that was falling heavily again.

It never rains but pours. The saying randomly came to Roy’s mind as he stood in the middle of the road, feeling torn. Was it his duty to follow Adam or to make sure Hoss got Joe to the doc’s unimpeded?

“Joseph!”

Ben moved to Hoss’ side, openly displaying the worry he felt as his hands clutched at his youngest.

“I’ve got him, Pa. You get Miss Harrison to the Doc’s.” Hoss tried not to sound brusque, but the concern and need for haste outweighed the need for reassurance.

“Of course,” Ben mumbled distractedly as he ran a hand over Joe’s soaked hair. Guilt mingled with the fear that gnawed at his heart.

Roy knew what he needed to do.

“Come on, Ben.” Putting a hand on Ben’s arm, Roy pulled him out of the way of his sons with a steadiness he did not feel. Although Ben allowed himself to be led, his eyes did not leave Hoss’s hurrying form. Following his friend’s gaze, Roy felt suddenly grateful for the dense rain. Hoss stood a great chance of making it to the doc’s.

“It’s my fault,” the choked statement burst from Ben. “You were right. If only I hadn’t insisted on….”

“Now, Ben, I ain’t gonna hear this. You could spend your whole life on ‘if only’ but it won’t never help ya none.” The light rebuke silenced Ben, but Roy still saw the anxiety in his friend’s eyes. This was a time when triumph held no appeal to Roy.

Suddenly Ben froze, stiffening in horror. Startled, Roy looked at his friend, but Ben shook his head and pointed a trembling finger towards the saloon.

“Anne.” Though whispered, the shock in Ben’s tone frightened Roy. Snapping his head around to see what disturbed his friend, a flash of lightning revealed the bench outside the saloon to be empty.

*****

Adam sped down the alleyway, hoping he had a chance to catch the villain, and praying that Joe’s wound wasn’t as serious as it had seemed. The rain beat against his face, obscuring his vision, but he ignored it. The fire that burned through him would carry him through this pursuit.

Cautiously, he approached the edge of the mercantile and peered around it – nothing. Looking the other way, he barely saw a man turning the corner of the stables. In the blink of eye, Adam was after him. He didn’t worry about stealth, knowing the sounds of the storm would cover his approach. What he needed now was speed.

He reached the stables just as the door swung shut. Adam raced forward, throwing his shoulder against the closed door. As he forced the entrance open, he heard someone gasp as the heavy wood rammed into them.

Light from a lantern dimly lit the room, but it was bright enough for Adam to identify the man who was standing across from him, holding his side.

Gun aimed, Adam slowly stepped into the small storage room, carefully watching his opponent.

“Nelson.”

“Cartwright.” Glancing at Adam’s gun, Nelson reflexively reached for his own.

“Don’t try it.” The quiet click of the gun hammer being cocked sounded ominous in the still room.

Nelson waited a beat before slowly raising his hands in surrender. A sarcastic grin ghosted across his face. “Now just what can I do for you, boss?”

“You can answer some questions,” Adam said evenly, showing no outward emotion.

“Well I can give that a go.”

“And then you can come with me and repeat those answers to the sheriff.”

Lightning flashed, briefly illuminating the savage glimmer in Nelson’s eyes.

“Come again, Cartwright?”

Steeling his face into stone, Adam didn’t answer.

Thunder cracked, emphasizing the wrath Adam felt.

Staring back, Nelson grinned wolfishly. Alarm flared through Adam. Nelson was too confident.

“You Cartwrights are a close lot. Your concern for your kid brother seems to have mucked up your wits a bit, boss.”

Nelson had purposefully waited at the alleyway to make sure Adam saw him before fleeing. It was a trap. Adam cursed himself for his rashness – now he was alone with a known killer.

A footstep sounded behind him, and he heard someone moan weakly. Adam began to turn, but it was too late. Blinding pain shot through his head as he slumped to the floor.

*****

Part Fourteen: Dbird

The rain came down in slanted sheets across the street, punctuated by the bright veins of lightning. It had turned into a violent storm. The road was treacherous in the rain. Ben had already slipped and fallen twice, the last time resulting in a badly twisted ankle. He had no choice but to slow down. The street was churned up and rutted with mud, and it was almost impossible to see where he was going. Briefly, he fretted over Anne, wounded and alone in the storm, but he shook that off quickly. He was a father first, something he had set aside recently. His mind settled uneasily on his youngest son.

It wasn’t hard to blame himself. Seventeen-year-old boys still needed attention, and Joseph had been making poor decisions for quite a while. Ben had been too quick to dismiss the rumors about the late nights his son had spent in town. Adam had warned him, to be sure, but Ben had brushed it off. Young men had always sowed their wild oats, but if he was being honest with himself, it was also a matter of poor timing. Anne’s arrival in town had made Ben feel like a young man again and had made him forget his responsibilities. He shook his head, ignoring the rain streaming in his eyes. There was nothing sorrier than an old fool in love, too distracted to see the trouble gathering on his own doorstep.

Ben didn’t believe his boy had anything to do with Tomkins’s death. No judge and jury across the territory would ever convince him of that. So what was Joseph guilty of: youthful indiscretion, perhaps, or a lack of judgment? However, he shared those sins with plenty of other young men. Joe had always pushed the limits, more than his other sons put together, but he meant well and had a kind heart. Ben had always suspected that his youngest son’s good intentions would get him into more trouble than his bad temper.

He started to quicken his pace, gritting his teeth against the pain in his ankle, but his boot caught again, and he fell. Thoroughly drenched under his oil slicker and caked with mud, Ben struggled to stand. It was still a distance to the doctor’s little white house, sandwiched between the emporium and the tobacco shop. The rain seemed to be slackening, the lightning easing up as well, but it made the night even darker. He struggled to keep his footing. How would Anne possibly make it to safety in this storm? When he thought of Anne, other questions came to mind. He would have to think about all those things later, when he was sure that Joseph was all right.

Setting his jaw resolutely, Ben picked up his pace. Nothing was going to keep him from his son. The darkness around him was deep, but that had never been enough to stop a father.

*****

Hoss was fretting. He was a patient man by nature, but he felt as edgy and restless as his little brother. He glanced out the window again, desperately praying that he would see the approaching figure of his father. At the rate Joe’s condition was deteriorating, he’d be gone before the doctor got back to tend him.

He gazed miserably at Little Joe, who lay on the cot with his knees drawn up with pain. The boy had barely moved during his desperate trek across town. Hoss had practically been running, and it was a miracle he hadn’t fallen along the way. Mrs. Martin had helped him stop the bleeding, but that bullet had to come out right away. The good woman had insisted on fetching her husband from the other side of town. In their preoccupation with Joe, the Cartwrights hadn’t even heard about the accident at the sawmill. Paul Martin had been laboring all afternoon and night to save Jeb Wilson’s life after he had lost his hand to the blade. Hoss had protested that he should be the one to go out into the storm, but the doctor’s wife had pointed to his gun in its holster.

“Seems to me that you’re needed here,” she said pointedly, and he knew she was right.

It had seemed the right thing to do, but in the short time that had passed, Hoss had come to believe that his brother was dying. Time was running out, and Hoss knew that he could fetch the doctor quicker than anyone. What if something had happened to Mrs. Martin? There were plenty of people who wanted Joe dead, and detaining the doctor would be as efficient a lynching as a rope and a tree.

It hardly seemed like his little brother was breathing, but his lips were moving. Hoss leaned over to try and hear what he was saying, but all he could hear was the relentless wind and rain outside. It was a miserable night, and Hoss needed to get that doctor. He had never felt so alone. Where was his pa, anyway?

Hoss heard the creak of the door at the front of the house, and it wasn’t the wind this time. He reached for his gun, but before he could draw it, Anne Harrison’s lovely profile filled the frame. In the lamplight, he could see the crimson stain at her shoulder, but it didn’t look like she was bleeding anymore. His pa might be in love, but Hoss didn’t trust the woman. He kept his hand on his gun.

To his surprise, Anne simply nodded. She didn’t seem surprised at his distrust, but was crying, and her eyes were swollen and red-rimmed. No longer looking like a gold-digging schemer, she simply looked like an exhausted young woman who had known a great deal of pain. However, when she spoke, her voice was surprisingly calm and steady.

“Let me help you,” Anne said. “Go get the doctor. I’ll stay with him. It’s the only thing I can offer, after everything I’ve done.”

Hoss appraised her suspiciously. He knew he shouldn’t believe her; Adam certainly wouldn’t, and Hoss longed for the presence of his oldest brother. Where was he? Adam knew Joe had been hurt badly, and he should have been back long ago.

Anne approached him and placed her hand on his shoulder.

“Go on,” she said. “I’ll stay with your brother.”

Joe moaned, and Hoss turned back to him. The boy’s breath was coming in desperate wheezes, and Hoss knew there was no more time to decide. The bullet had to come out if Joe was going to live. He couldn’t trust Mrs. Martin to bring the doctor in time. Besides, his pa would be there any minute, and he would be able to look after Joe.

He let go of his gun and reached for his slicker. He nodded at the young woman his father loved. As he headed out the door and back into the rain, Hoss prayed that he wasn’t making the worst mistake of his life.

*****

Joe was dreaming. He knew it was only a dream, but it really didn’t matter. It was a warm summer evening, and the light was golden and lovely by the lake. Lucy was with him. She was holding his hand. Concealed from the world, they were finally free from all their troubles. They were young, they were together, and he didn’t know if they were in love.

They hadn’t had enough time to find out.

Joe could feel pain, like a veil, filtering the dream. Lucy had known so much pain in her short life. He wished he could make it up to her. During his seventeen years of life, he had known an abundance of love and security, but she had been given so much less than that. It wasn’t fair, but Joe was old enough to know that little in life was fair. It was as simple as that.

The pain was pursuing him, demanding his attention. It bayed at him like old Henry’s hounds, and he shooed it away impatiently. He wanted to stay in the dream, in the sun, in the moment with Lucy. He wanted that last snatch of time that life had denied them. So many of their hours together had been spent in the smoky confines of a saloon. He had never brought her to the lake. There hadn’t been time, and already the dream was fading.

He pulled her close to him, and the look in her eyes was enough to make him forget to breathe.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“You made me smile,” Lucy replied. “Don’t be sorry. Now go back to them. Become a good man, Joe Cartwright.”

He didn’t have time to kiss her. The pain took him back, before he could say goodbye.

His eyes flew open, and he awoke to the most garish agony he had ever known. He cried out with it and searched the room, frantically.

“Pa?” he whispered.

His pa wasn’t there, but he suddenly understood that he wasn’t alone. Someone was in the room with him, and his disordered mind struggled to understand who it was. He squinted into the dim light, before he saw her. For a moment, he thought it was Lucy, miraculously risen from the dead, but life wasn’t that fair. Anne Harrison turned slowly from the window and looked over at him.

And she smiled.

*****


Part Fifteen: Grimesgirl

The pelting rain almost obscured Hoss’ vision. It seemed like the ride to the other side of town was taking a lifetime. His thoughts were with his little brother and the fact that Adam had never returned after pursuing the person who had shot Joe. It wasn’t like Adam not to come back and check on Joe. He knew how badly their youngest brother was wounded. Hoss only hoped that Adam hadn’t gotten himself into trouble as well.

Had he made a mistake in leaving Anne with Joe? He still couldn’t get straight in his mind exactly why she had taken that shot at Adam. Her explanation didn’t make a lot of sense and he knew Adam had his doubts about her.

Hoss peered through the pounding rain. He was sure that was Mrs. Martin’s buggy in front of the house. He pulled Chub to a halt, dismounted, and started up the path. The door opened, and Mrs. Martin stepped onto the porch.

“Hoss, I was just ready to start back. Paul’s been called out to the Peterson ranch. Seems the baby is coming sooner than expected. Mrs. Peterson had so much trouble with her last one that Paul felt he had to be there when this baby came. He was afraid he could lose them both. I arrived here just after he left.”

“You mean he doesn’t know about Little Joe?” came Hoss’ worried question. He couldn’t believe his ears – the doctor was headed miles out of town. He closed his eyes in despair, knowing Joe was going to die.

“Hoss, calm down; if you hurry, you can catch up with him. Explain how badly Joe needs him. I’m sure he’ll come back with you. I’ll head over to the house and see if there’s anything more I can do.”

Hoss nodded, touched his hat and hurried back to Chub. He would head through town, past the livery and take a shortcut he knew to the Peterson ranch. He just hoped he could catch up to Paul before it was too late.

*****

Joe tried to focus on Anne but his vision seemed to be fading in and out. He wondered why she was smiling. She seemed happy to see him, and he was puzzled why the sight of the blood did not seem to bother her.

“Anne, have you see Pa?” Joe asked, hardly recognizing his own voice it was so weak.

“Yes, your father will be along shortly.”

Joe let his eyes close, feeling reassured Pa would be along soon. He felt waves of pain radiate from the wound and gasped sharply as the intensity of it took his breath away.

Anne watched him for several minutes, before approaching the bed and reaching out her hand. As she moved to lift a pillow, footsteps sounded outside, and the door was flung open, startling the younger woman. She whirled to face the door. “Ben, oh Ben, I’m so glad to see you, darling!”

Ben hurried to the bed and placed his hand on Joe’s forehead. “Where’s the doctor, Anne?”

*****

The two men stood looking down at the dark figure at their feet.

“Well, now what do we do?” Nelson asked as he shifted from one foot to the other in nervousness.

“We get rid of him. He’s on to us. We can’t let our little scheme be foiled because of one nosy Cartwright,” stated Carter, shrugging.

“Get rid of him? You mean murder someone else? No, I won’t do it. I killed Lucy for you and tried to kill that youngest Cartwright for you. I won’t do it again,” Nelson shot back in anger. “What if Joe’s already told everyone about us? What good would killing him do then?”

“Us? I’m not sure he knows about ‘us’, just you, Nelson,” Carter sneered at the other man. “Besides, with him gone, what proof do they have? The words of a dead man can’t prove a thing.”

Nelson shook his head and turned away. How he gotten into this mess? He knew it was too late to back out, but another death? But, then, they could only hang him once.

Carter could see the hesitation and tried one last time to convince his partner. “Look, we get her to get us one big payoff, and then we’ll take off. Go to Mexico. They can’t touch us there.”

“Alright, what do you propose we do?”

“Well, what about a little fire? No one’s seen us come in here except him. We can make it look like an accident. We’ll put him in the loft and, after the floor collapses, it’ll look like he was caught in the fire while looking for the shooter.”

“A fire? It could burn the whole town,” Nelson protested, not wanting to cause innocents to die.

“In this rain, don’t be foolish. The rain will put it out before it can spread. But it will burn enough that we’ll be rid of Cartwright. Now, let’s get him into the loft.”

The two men bent and lifted the limp, dark-clad body between them. They carried Adam to the foot of the ladder, and Carter helped Nelson lift the eldest Cartwright over his shoulder. Nelson pulled himself up the ladder and dumped the unconscious man in the hay. Carter climbed up behind him, and – striking a match – threw it into the dry hay near the loft opening. The flames caught quickly, and smoke began to roll.

“Come on, let’s get out of here before we get caught in it,” Carter called out, motioning for Nelson to follow him.

The two men scrambled down the ladder, made their way to the door and peered out. The horses behind them were getting restless at the smell of smoke and were starting to mill around in their stalls.

Nelson followed his friend through the door, closing it firmly behind him. In the barn, the fire was quickly spreading and was creeping closer to the unconscious man who lay oblivious to the danger.

*****


Part Sixteen: Kaatje

Danny heard the voices and slunk farther back under the hay. He might have known he wouldn’t be alone for long. It had been sheer luck, finding the stable door open and no attendant present, just as the rain started. Compared to some of the places he’d slept recently, the soft hay of the loft was sheer luxury. It was scratchy, that was true, but so soft under his aching bones. It hadn’t taken him long to fall asleep.

One of the men’s voices was low and threatening. The other was sneering, taunting. Danny was more determined than ever not to be heard. There seemed to be a fight brewing, and the last place Danny Nash wanted to be was in the middle. Not at his age.

*****

Anne’s eyes filled with fresh tears as she answered softly, “Hoss went to fetch the doctor.”

Ben blinked as if trying to clear a fog, some of the tension leaving his body. He nodded and took the pillow from her, carefully easing it under the one on which Joe was resting. Joe’s eyelids fluttered, and he gave a weak groan.

Ben placed a reassuring hand on his cheek. “It’s alright, son.”

Joe appeared to lose consciousness again, his formerly healthy complexion sallow. A seventeen-year-old boy should never look this way. Ben’s throat tightened as he touched his son’s hair, again feeling remorse that it had come to this and praying the doctor would arrive soon. Thunder rumbled ominously and the rain beat against the house with renewed vigor.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and heard Anne sigh. Ben looked at her, taking in her red rimmed eyes and bloodstained dress, her damp hair in disarray from the rain and wind. For all that, she seemed to be strong enough now, if a little pale. Perhaps the reason she had appeared so weak before had been simple shock over Lucy’s murder. He put an arm around her, accepting her weight as she leaned against him.

“You should lie down. You’ve lost blood at the least.” Ben advised gently. He guided her to the edge of the other cot, watching as she settled herself. He then sat down next to Joe, as carefully as he could, relieving some of the painful throb in his ankle. A thought struck him. “Anne, why did you leave?”

Her eyelids, which had been closed, fluttered open. “Oh Ben, I didn’t know what to do. I was—”

Ben, I’m so glad you’re here.” Winifred Martin stood in the door. “I just spoke to Hoss.”

“Win, where’s Paul?” Ben couldn’t imagine his friend wouldn’t rush to Joe’s side if he knew.

“On his way to the Peterson ranch. Hoss is riding out to find him and let him know about Little Joe.” Her eyes widened as she glanced at Anne. “Miss Harrison, are you injured?”

“She was shot.” Ben answered for her. “If you could help her, Win….”

“Of course.” Winifred’s tone was brisk. “I’ll set the water to boiling again, then I’ll be back to help her out of those wet clothes.”

Anne flushed. “I’ll be fine. You needn’t bother helping.”

“You will listen to Mrs. Martin, young lady.” Ben chided her, but absently. His attention had returned to Joe, watching each breath as it came. He took Joe’s hand, clinging to the hope that Hoss would catch up to Paul soon. His neglect of his youngest son over the last few months haunted him. It was true that Adam and Hoss were used to keeping an eye on their little brother, but he had needed a father’s watchful eye. Ben sighed as he realized he hadn’t listened to anyone about Joe. He had been too hardheaded to give weight to Adam’s concerns, and too stubborn to listen to Roy. As his thoughts turned to Roy, he wished him Godspeed.

*****

Ben Cartwright had to be the most mule-headed man Roy had ever known. Well, unless he considered Adam. He could be every bit as stubborn as his father, if not worse. Roy would also have to say Joe was proving to be mighty headstrong, young as he was. Even Hoss, easygoing as he generally was, had his fair share of stubbornness. Once the big man was set on something there was no more changing his mind than there was a chance of picking him up and tossing him. It was in their blood, pure and simple.

Roy snorted with exasperation as he tried to see through the downpour. The only time he could really see well was when the lightning flashed. He only hoped Ben would be able to get himself to Paul Martin’s house, as he’d insisted he could. The man had taken too many blows in too short a time, and Roy hadn’t liked the sound of him when his fiancée disappeared, topping the whole thing off. As soon as Ben knew Adam had gone after the shooter, nothin’ would do but for Roy to follow. Not that he minded following, but how was he supposed to find anything or anyone in this dad-blamed flood?

The truth was he’d wanted to follow, even though he had his worries about Ben. This was his job, after all. Even though Adam could handle himself with the best of them, there were never any guarantees. A man could be fast and smart but sometimes that wasn’t near enough to get him through alive.

As he neared the livery, a new flash revealed two men crossing the street. One of them was that no good Stan Carter. Roy smiled briefly. At least he was gettin’ a bath for once. He squinted, trying to make out who the other character was. He was a tall man with shaggy dark hair who was about halfway between a shave and a beard. Roy didn’t know him. He called out to them, thinking they might have seen Adam pass this way, but the men didn’t turn or slow. He could hear the horses kicking up a racket inside the stable, probably spooked by the storm. Noting the door was closed, he suddenly wondered if Jeb Rankin had seen anything. The stable hand usually kept the door open for air, and it wasn’t unlike him to keep an eye on things. Could be he’d just closed up. Roy reached for the door.

*****

Part Seventeen: Nanuk

“Anybody in here?”

Clamping his bandana tightly down over nose and mouth, Roy tried in vain to peer into the raging heat screaming at him from the stable, convinced his ears had betrayed him. Most of the horses had almost run him down when he had opened the door; their cries still lingered in his mind even though their stampeding feet must have carried them already far past the town’s boundaries. There had been one, lying trampled and helpless, and Roy, over his husky shouts for help, had entered the blazing building to put the panicking animal out of its misery.

The heat was intense. Even several feet away from the loft where the fires seemed the hottest, Roy felt the scorching heat dry and crack the skin of his face and singe the hair on his body. Already he could smell the penetrating odor of burned flesh, making him choke.

Almost panicking himself, Roy turned back to the doors where men and women were queued with buckets of water, but suddenly a painful shout caused his hair to stand on end, and several men were frantically pointing behind him, their eyes huge and frightened.

Heart beating in his boots, Roy turned, swallowing hard, afraid of what he might see.

“Oh my God.”

Shadows were moving through the orange inferno, dark shadows, their outlines blurred by the waves of heat. For a moment Roy couldn’t help but stare, taken aback by the strange sight. In the next, he grabbed a bucket from the man behind him and rushed forward to douse the two emerging men with water. It was difficult for him to recognize Danny Nash who looked about ready to collapse, and even more difficult to make out the dark form on his shoulders, but it took only seconds to get them both outside, and Roy knew that he had seldom been so thankful for the floods from above as he was in that moment.

Fifteen minutes later, the fire was still roaring, but the combined efforts of the rain and the men already promised success. Not that there was much to save from the sorry remains of what had once been the town’s livery stable, but the inhabitants of the adjoining houses, if not already awakened by the noise, had been warned and evacuated. Guards had been posted to watch the progress of the fire, and the bucket chain, now much more organized than just moments ago, left Roy a little time to have a look at the men they had pulled from the blaze.

In the general commotion, no one had actually taken much notice of them, and so they had been sat down under a roof opposite the street, to be cared for later. Some women had gotten blankets for them before joining their husbands, and Roy couldn’t blame them. Most of them had their own families and children to worry about.

Soot smeared all over his face and drenched through, Roy Coffee made his way over to the two men so miraculously rescued from the hell on the other side of the road. Two of the women were still with them, and the sheriff knelt down to size up his singed citizens.

“I see ya still got your ears, Danny,” he tried to joke, but the man spoken to just mustered a faint grin, his eyes never leaving the spectacle across the way. His eyebrows had been clear burned off, and the wispy blond hair stood on end where it hadn’t been plastered to his head. Someone had put a mug into his unresisting hands, but to Roy it didn’t seem as if Danny had noticed; the vacant stare in his eyes didn’t need company, and neither did the lips, whispering words Roy couldn’t make out.

Sighing softly, and knowing his presence wouldn’t make a difference, the sheriff turned instead to Adam Cartwright who at the moment very much resembled a drowned scarecrow, the remains of his shirt framing his prone body like shred. Where Danny was at least sitting up, Adam was still unconscious; his features showing the unhealthy pallor of cold marble underneath his reddened skin. Roy almost retched when he took a closer look at his friend’s left side. There was an angry welt over his ribs where Roy suspected bones had been broken, but what truly affected him was the burned area of his arm and chest where the skin had been scorched and blisters were already forming amidst the places where the flesh showed red and raw and angry underneath in the midst of charred skin.

One of the women who knelt on the other side of Adam let her fingers softly glide over his body, searching for additional injuries, but the reaction when she accidentally came near the broken ribs was instantaneous.

Adam groaned as his body instinctively tried to curl into ball. The coughing fit that seized him, however, prevented any movement in that direction. Concerned, Roy watched as one of the women held Adam’s head while he tried to clear his lungs of the thick smoke, then caught his friend’s right arm before he could accidentally roll onto his injured side.

“Whoa there, careful.” Roy shifted slightly, but didn’t let go. “You got a little singed around the edges.”

At that, Adam shot him a look that, however, did more to ease the sheriff’s worries than the manner of the women around them. He might have resembled a castaway, but Roy was sure that underneath the crust Adam Cartwright was very much present. Even so, the man on the ground needed several attempts to finally find his voice, hoarse and croaky as it was.

“Wh…what happened?” His eyes fell on the burning stable, but it was another second before he addressed the sheriff directly. “Roy?”

“Not sure myself, here. Seems the hay caught fire. Dunno how you got to be in there, but Danny here pulled you out.” Again the sheriff swallowed hard as he took a closer look at the burn that had already begun to seep. “That’s how you got the burn. Any idea how you got the bruise?”

“That was me, sheriff.” The words were low, barely audible over the crackling flames, but Roy turned and stared at Danny who nodded in Adam’s direction. “Happened when I dragged ‘im down the ladder and into a trough. Couldn’t think of anythin’ else ta do ta stop the fire burnin’ the rest of him, too.”

“And it sure saved my life.” Adam, injured arm pressed tightly against his side and teeth clenched, was by now fighting to sit up, against the well-meaning concern of the women surrounding him. Beads of sweat were running down his face like rain, but even so he lifted his head and grinned boyishly at his rescuer. “I don’t think I’ll forget this night for the rest of my life, Danny.”

The words were more carried on a hiss than actually spoken, but they nevertheless held a thankfulness that Roy recognized, making him smile despite this mess they all were in. He would have bet his badge that Danny Nash would never have to worry about a place to sleep again.

Then Adam started to push himself up, and Roy stood, making room, his brows raised.

“Think you can walk, boy?” Roy peered critically down on the man who hardly seemed able to stand, but the sheriff knew only too well where stubbornness and determination could get a Cartwright.

“I need to see Joe, Roy.” Teeth gritted, Adam slowly pulled himself to his feet as the sheriff carefully wrapped a blanket around his friend and laid his healthy arm over his shoulder.

“Come on, then. I’m sure ya Pa wants to see ya, too.”

*****

Eyes closed in prayer, Ben sat beside his son, one limp hand held tightly between his own. It had always been easy for him to find relief in prayer; the certain knowledge of a Being that held its hand over his family and himself in the worst situations had often given him the energy needed to do what had been necessary, make the decisions that had marked his path. He knew he had been lucky in life, despite all the hardship and sorrow Life had thrown his way – that alone was reason enough to be thankful.

Tonight, though, even knowing his trust was needed more than ever, tonight when his son was slowly bleeding to death before his eyes, he could barely concentrate. Too much had happened during the last hours to simply ignore it, too much he felt he could have prevented. But Joe’s face was paling, his moans growing weaker, and so Ben bowed his head over their joined hands and started to pray, “Pater noster qui es in coelis…..”

Somewhere in the back of his mind a tiny voice started to question why he used the Latin words he had last heard more than ten years ago, when he became dimly aware of another person entering the room. Then Anne’s hand softly touched his shoulder, and without thinking he leaned back into her embrace, his body welcoming the presence of another human being.

“I’m so sorry, Ben,” she whispered lowly, and he nodded, never taking his eyes off of his dying son. “I wish I had known.”

“What?” Confused, Ben raised his head, but she had already turned away, her hair hiding her face. Throwing Joe’s unmoving form another sharp look and, for the moment, seeing no change in his condition, Ben half-turned towards Anne, only just now taking in her appearance.

The shoulder where the bullet had hit had been tentatively bandaged by Winifred Martin, and a sling had been improvised to hold her arm steady. Ben knew that the bullet had gone through, but from the way she held herself, she didn’t seem to feel too much pain, making Ben distinctly wonder what the doctor’s wife had given her. However, it had been her words that had gotten his attention and started the bells in his mind to ring, and he knew for certain that she was hiding something from him.

“What do you mean you ‘wish you had known’?” His voice, though soft enough not to disturb Joe, still carried easily through the room, and he watched her shiver and clumsily pull the shawl tighter around her shoulders.

“Anne?”

Then she looked at him, her eyes red-rimmed and glassy, but her gaze was soft as she bit her lip, obviously searching for words. Ben got up, Joe’s hand still in his, but when she saw him move, she stepped back defensively.

“I’m not the woman you think I am, Ben,” she said softly.

“Anne?” Not making sense of what he was hearing, Ben shook his head. His mind was spinning, trying to put together what seemed to elude him, but it kept hovering just out of his grasp. However, when he glanced at her again, saw her yearning eyes gently rest on his son, he crossed the few feet dividing them and led her, trembling, to the settee on the wall. Then, kneeling before her, he pushed the errant strands out of her face and traced the line of her jaw with his fingertips.

“Whatever it is, don’t you think you can trust me enough to tell me?”

Her lips twitched in what was almost a smile. Tears caught in the corners of her mouth, making her sniff, then she took a deep breath, clutching his hands.

“I have a child, Ben.”

For it moment, the innocent words rolled over Ben and vanished in the distance. Then their echo returned and their meaning sank in. Ben’s eyes narrowed, but he remained where he was and held her hand while his mind exploded.

“Does that mean you are not going to marry me?” Even before the words had left his mouth, he knew he was trying to buy time to think and ease the tension, but one look at Anne’s face told him he had failed. Finally, he sighed, knowing without a doubt there was more to come.

“Joe didn’t shoot the clerk.”

“Yes, I know that, but….” Confused by the unexpected change of topic, Ben stumbled, but finally her words registered, bringing him to his feet. His voice was cold when he answered.

“How do you know?”

“Which version do you want, Ben?” Her ironic tone made him cringe, but he didn’t miss the fact that she was fumbling with the shawl again, her fingers trembling. “The honest or the polite one?”

“I want the truth, Anne.”

At that, she almost laughed out loud. “There is no truth a woman can afford. You should know that.” Their eyes locked, steal meeting on each side. “Especially with a child to care for.”

Ben unconsciously clenched his fists. “Tell me!”

His raised voice, quickly subdued, made her wince, but she never averted her gaze. Whatever she saw in his face, her voice was calm when she spoke, bitterness only just palpable.

“What is there to tell? I was a young widow in San Francisco, caring for my brother who had fallen ill. Some friends….” her emphasis caused Ben’s stomach to churn, “helped me for a while. One of them misjudged my thankfulness, taking it for love, erroneously thinking I’d marry him.” Her absent gaze sharpened when he snorted, as did her voice. “Don’t judge, Ben. Some men have ways to reach their goals, and sometimes a rape to force marriage wasn’t the worst that could happen.”

He blushed, knowing she was right. His father may have taught him principles based on ethical concepts, and his sons may have grown up with them. But Ben was only too aware that reality was different. He opened his mouth to apologize, but she forestalled him.

“It is of no concern, not now.” As if reading his mind, she went on, obviously not wanting to linger.

“After I had the boy, and the uproar the divorce caused, I knew I couldn’t stay in ‘Frisco, with him. My brother had died, my sister had married, and she was kind enough to care for the child. I did what Andy always said I could do best, so I seduced a man and made him bring me out of town.”

Ben’s ears were ringing. There were noises outside, but he didn’t care. His mind in a whirl, all he knew was that he didn’t want to hear the rest, didn’t want to hear of women who had to sell their bodies to make a living when their neighbors and friends denied them help. He wanted to turn back time, desperately so, wanted to conjure up a doctor for Joe, but he saw that his wish wouldn’t be granted. Helplessly he rubbed a hand over his tired eyes, then faced Anne who had been watching the emotions chase over his features.

“The man?” he croaked, his voice gone – already suspecting but needing to hear it.

She nodded. “Allen Tomkins. When I left him, he was crushed.” Anne shrugged, but Ben could see that her memories held her in the past, recalling another unpleasant parting. Ben sighed. He knew he should have been angry, or hurt, but all he felt was sympathy.

“Did you try to catch my eye because you knew I would care for you and the boy?” His heartbeat was slowly getting back to normal, surprising him. Quickly he checked on Joe, but it seemed that he had fallen asleep, the blood flow ceasing ever so slightly. Absent-mindedly he wondered where his other sons and the doc were, but Anne’s story still held him in its spell. Clumsily he sat back down, waiting.

“Have I ever told you how fast you are?” Her tone was light, but Ben was sure she would have snorted if not for him. “No service offered is for free; every good deed needs to be rewarded.” Her lips twitched amusedly. “My sister needs the money.”

“What went wrong?”

Involuntarily, Anne shivered. “Allen went wrong. He was possessed with the idea of having me, owning me, just like Andy. When he realized that I was happy with you, he hired Carter to blackmail me. And Carter, researching my background, found the perfect evidence.”

Obviously Anne felt Ben shaking his head in denial, because she gently touched his arm. “He thought that if he wasn’t able to have me, he at least could make my life miserable and get some money out of it to boot.”

“That’s hard to take in. I’m not even sure …”

“It was Andy, Ben.” Her eyes were huge with grief as she looked at him, and bitter with irony. “Of all the people Carter could have hired, he brought Andy.”

“But…?”

“Nelson, Pa.”

The new voice, so hoarse that it was painful to even listen to it, filled the room and made them jerk in surprise. Adam Cartwright, leaning in the doorframe, nodded to Anne before addressing his father.

“Andy Nelson. The man we hired two months ago.”

*****

Open-mouthed, Ben stared at his son, hardly able to take in what he saw. If moments ago his mind had been preoccupied with conspiracy, all thoughts daring to linger had been wiped clean the second he laid eyes on his eldest. Barely able to stand upright himself, he leaned heavily against the wood of the doorframe and the sheriff who was only just visible behind him. A blanket covered his body, but Ben could see that his son’s shirt hung in tatters from his hips.

Before he had a chance to react to the ghostly sight, though, Anne was already up and helping Adam to sit down. Carefully she took off the cloth that had hidden the more grievous of Adam’s wounds, unable to prevent a sharp intake of breath when she saw the burns. Adam, however, ignored the fuss and gazed pensively at the bed.

“How is he?”

Ben swallowed his feelings and forced himself to answer. “No change, and the doctor hasn’t arrived, yet. He’s lost so much blood …” His heart constricted as he realized just how much blood his youngest had lost, but before the panic could attack, Ben turned his thoughts elsewhere, trying to evade the pain for as long as possible.

“How long have you been listening?” He searched the face of the sheriff. “Roy?”

“Long ‘nough.” The old lawman twisted the ends of his moustache before thoughtfully turning towards Anne. “What about the rest?”

Ben couldn’t identify the look she gave the sheriff, but she shrugged and got some bandages out of a drawer.

“Not much left to tell. I suppose Adam got too close to them, otherwise they wouldn’t have tried to k…” Realizing what she was about to say, she stopped herself short and went on. “Allan hired Carter, Carter hired Andy. I can only suspect that Carter wanted more money than Allan got through blackmailing me, or that Carter didn’t hand the money over. Anyway, when Allan failed to get enough money to pay Andy and Carter, they decided to rob the bank, with his help.”

Ignoring the stunned expressions of the men, Anne sadly shook her head when she gazed at Joe. “When Carter saw Joe speaking to Allan the day of the robbery, he suspected that Allan had gotten cold feet. I guess he wanted to get rid of his employer.”

Silence followed her words.

Adam stared straight ahead, injuries forgotten. “I can’t believe I had it right all along,” he muttered. Then, pulling himself consciously from his musings, he addressed Anne once again, his earlier suspicion long past.

“It’s not over yet, is it?”

She shook her head.

“They’ll come back for more.”

*****


Part Eighteen: Arien

Hoss struggled through the blinding rain. He felt his horse slip in the mud and forced himself to slow the animal’s gait once again. Hoss knew that at this rate he would never catch up with the doctor. His soul was weary and frightened. Hoss couldn’t remember exactly how long it was since his brother had been shot – the night seemed to move at its own pace.

Lightning blazed across the sky and, in the distance, Hoss thought he could make out the dark shape of Doctor Martin’s familiar buggy. For the first time since he set out on his journey, he felt hope in his heart.

Kicking Chubb into a faster walk, he prayed it wasn’t his mind playing tricks on him, making him see only what he wanted so desperately to find. He wiped futilely at the water in his eyes, trying to see the buggy again. Another streak of lightning flashed briefly, and this time Hoss was certain he could see the Martin’s carriage.

His horse stumbled, nearly throwing him from the saddle. Hoss refused to slow down, not when his quarry was in sight. The wind and rain whipped about him as moved closer to the buggy.

“Doc!”

He was grateful when the doctor pulled the carriage to a stop.

“Doc, ya gotta get back to town.”

“Hoss, I can’t. Mrs. Peterson—”

“Paul,” Hoss said, deliberately using the physician’s first name, “ya don’t understand. Joe’s been shot, in the chest, and Miss Anne’s been shot, too. Mrs. Martin sent me out here to fetch ya. She said for you to come back and help.”

“How bad is Joe hurt? When did it happen?”

“I don’t rightly know how bad he’s hurt. Like I said, he was shot in the chest. He was still bleedin’ pretty bad when I left. I guess that was over an hour ago. Please, ya gotta help him.” Hoss was beginning to feel ready to make a deal with the devil himself if it meant getting Paul back into town.

“What about Anne? Is she as bad off as Joe?” Paul asked, looking into the scared blue eyes.

“I think the bullet went through her shoulder, though I don’t know for sure. Are ya comin’ back on ya own or do I have to drag ya back?”

Paul smiled a bit at the image. “No, I’ll head back to town. But, I need you to do something for me: go to the Peterson ranch, tell them what’s going on, and have them bring Mrs. Peterson to town.”

“I’ll bring ‘em by the shortcut I took to catch up to ya,” Hoss said, feeling relieved when Paul nodded at him. He stood in the drenching rain and watched as the doctor turned the rig around, heading back to his office.

Joe’ll be alright now that the doc’s there to help him, Hoss thought to himself. Mounting his horse, he turned away from the direction he longed to go and went to pass on Paul’s message. The sooner he could get the Peterson’s to town, the sooner he would be with his family.

*****

“Why would Joe agree to being in jail for a crime he didn’t commit?” Ben whispered. His mind whirled, unable to keep track of all the talk of conspiracy, blackmail, and murder. The knowledge Joe had been willing to die to keep everything quiet made him physically ill. “I don’t understand.”

“I think he must have seen Anne and Carter together during his forays into Virginia City,” Adam said, trying to gather his thoughts. The burns throbbed mercilessly. “He knew Allen had known Anne from before and went to talk to him at the bank. It was just a coincidence Carter and Nelson decided to rob the bank at the same time.”

Roy had stayed out of the way for the most part, not wanting to interfere with what the new evidence being presented. After Adam’s confession of sorts, he asked, “Why would Carter and Nelson decide Lucy needed to be killed?”

“I was supposed to meet Carter tonight after I had met with Lucy,” Anne said, staring off into the distance. She shook her head slightly and looked at Roy. “Lucy overheard Andy and Carter talking one afternoon. She knew I was engaged to Ben and I would pass along what she’d overheard to him or to you because she didn’t believe anyone would take the word of a saloon girl about such matters – especially after telling you she’d seen Joe after the hold-up. Carter, unfortunately, saw her pass the note to me, assuming it was a double-cross. On the way to see Lucy, I saw Andy follow her into the alley. That was when Andy killed poor Lucy to keep her quiet.”

“Making it look like Adam had killed Lucy was only a bonus for him, I suppose,” Roy said as he reached up to rub the persistent ache in the back of his head. “Lucy’s murder would look like Adam’d killed her to keep her from being able to testify against Joe at the trial.”

“It wasn’t supposed to get this far. When I saw Andy follow her into the alley, I thought I could talk to him, maybe get him to change his mind,” Anne said as she glanced down. “I was foolish to think I could talk to him, and that foolishness is what killed her.”

Ben turned his back on Anne and Roy. He didn’t think he could listen to much more of what had happened. He eased himself down on the chair, next to what seemed to be Joe’s deathbed. His son had become paler since he had last looked, if that were possible, and the skin felt clammy to Ben’s hands. Joe’s pulse beat rapidly against his father’s fingers where they curled gently around the limp hand, thumb absently brushing the back of Joe’s hand.

Winifred Martin stepped into the room, bringing more bandages with her. No one said anything as she changed the dressing on Joe’s chest. She finished her work quickly and as she left, said, “If you need me for anything, just give a yell. I’ll do what I can till Paul gets back.”

Ben nodded his head and looked across the supine form of his youngest son to gaze at his oldest. Adam rested on the second cot while everyone waited for Paul to arrive. The burns had been treated as best as Mrs. Martin was able, the cotton wool standing in stark contrast to his son’s tanned flesh. Ben wanted to be in two places at once but knew Adam would forgive him for lingering at Joe’s side.

Adam looked away from his father’s intense eyes. “When I asked him why he hadn’t told Roy before what had happened, Joe said he didn’t want to be wrong about Anne. Since it was all hearsay, he didn’t want to ruin your chance at happiness by falsely accusing her of something he couldn’t prove.”

The slow rasp of Joe’s breathing was the only sound heard as the room was enveloped in silence once again.

Swallowing thickly, Ben looked down at Joe. Sometime during the past year, when he hadn’t been looking, his youngest son had grown up. A father was supposed to notice these things, not find out about them before …he refused to let himself finish the thought. A slim hand on his shoulder brought him out of his reverie.

“Ben, I-I’m going to go lay down,” Anne said, absently rubbing her injured arm. “You can’t know how sorry I am your sons got caught in the middle of all this.”

Ben simply nodded, not trusting himself to speak. A swish of her skirts and she was gone. Looking up, he was relieved to find Adam finally resting, the medications he’d been given causing him to become drowsy. His eyes roamed the small room before settling back on Joe. God, how long does it take to find one man, Ben asked himself. As if conjured by his thoughts, though, the office door slammed open, admitting the long prayed for doctor.

“Ben! I got here as fast as I could.” Paul entered the room at a near run, unsure of what he’d find. He crossed the room and pulled back the dressing on Joe’s chest. Curing under his breath at the sight of the seeping wound, he began calling out orders.

“Roy, I need you to help Ben get Adam into the other examining room.” Paul was thankful his wife had enough foresight to get the instruments ready for the surgery. He did not look back to see if the other men were doing as he’d said. “Win, we’ll need more bandages than this. Go find as many as you can, will you?”

“Paul?” Ben asked, meeting the other man’s eyes. There wasn’t a need for him to finish the question – the doctor understood him perfectly. He felt his stomach twist because there was so little hope to be found on Paul’s face.

“I don’t know, Ben. I honestly don’t know.”

*****

“I’m telling you,” Carter said as he pulled Nelson further into the shadows, “we’ve got to make sure those two Cartwrights are dead. I still can’t believe that bumbling sheriff managed to find the oldest one in the barn!”

The rain had finally ended, leaving the air feeling heavy with humidity. Distant thunder could still be heard, rolling faintly as the storm passed to the south.

“How are we going to do that?” Nelson asked, rubbing at his face. Everything kept going from bad to worse and didn’t seem likely to get better any time soon. God, he was tired. All he really wanted was to find a soft bed and sleep. “The doctor’s office is full of people, including that ‘bumbling’ sheriff! Besides, what makes you think Anne hasn’t told them what happened already? I don’t think—”

“I’m not paying you to think, now am I? All you have to do is follow orders.”

Nelson narrowed his eyes at the other man. A slow burn washed over him at the dismissive words. He had agreed to the plan because of money – no more, no less. The things Carter had set into motion had yet to really be worth the effort put into them.

“I’ve been following your orders, and where has it gotten me? Two murders, three attempted murders, and money I can’t spend because I’m stuck in town. One more pay-off, you said. We can go to Mexico where they can’t get to us, you said. I don’t see why we can’t cut our losses and be done with it. We’ve got plenty of money, let’s just go. It’s not worth the risk, if you ask me!”

Carter’s fist seemed to appear out of thin air, landing a solid punch to the other man’s chin. Nelson staggered back, his head snapping back into the building behind him.

“I’ve told you, you take orders and that’s it,” Carter snarled, his left hand curled into Nelson’s shirt. He turned his head, spitting out the wad of tobacco he had been chewing. “We’re going to get as much money from Cartwright as we can, and we’re leaving.”

“But how are we going to make sure Cartwright will cooperate with us?”

“He’ll go along with whatever we say, because the doc will be taking a trip to the bank, too. Old man Cartwright will do whatever he has to for Doc Martin to get back in time to save Joe. Simple, isn’t it?”

Nelson nodded his head in agreement. The wind picked up and, for a moment, he wondered if another storm was coming. As quickly as it had started, the air settled.

“Come on. We don’t want to take any more chances that someone will overhear us,” Carter said as he stepped out into the street, casting his eyes about to see if anyone was looking before he pulled Nelson out beside him.

*****

Ben limped as he paced the small confines of Paul’s waiting room. He felt as if years had passed since he had first limped into the doctor’s office. The steady sound of the cane he was leaning on kept perfect time with the beating of his heart.

He heard the door open and, turning, was disappointed to see Roy enter the room. Ben had been hoping Hoss would finally come back from the Peterson ranch. He didn’t want to consider the possibility the mob had reformed and found his middle son.

“Heard anything?” Roy asked as he crossed to his friend’s side. He couldn’t remember a day that had been longer and would be heartily glad to see it end.

“No, nothing,” Ben said and shook his head. He rubbed a hand over his tired face. “I’m not sure whether to be relieved or not.”

Roy sat down in one of the chairs, watching as Ben resumed his pacing. He could see the guilt etched onto the other man’s face. There wasn’t anything else he could have done to keep Joe in jail, and he wished Ben had listened to his warnings of what would happen when the youngest Cartwright was released. Letting his eyes close for a moment, he wished he hadn’t been right.

“I didn’t see any signs of the mob reformin’ while I was out,” Roy said, breaking the oppressive quiet. “Hoss should be fine once he gets back into town. Why don’t you sit down? All that walkin’ around ain’t helpin’ your ankle any.”

“I keep thinking of what a fool I was,” Ben replied, settling next to the sheriff. “I didn’t want to listen to gossips talking about Joe and his ‘wild ways.’ I should have listened, though, because I wouldn’t be sitting here wondering about his fate.”

Roy said nothing, unsure what to say to his friend. He couldn’t deny the truth of the other’s words. If he were honest with himself, he had thought the same thing about Joe. The young man’s behavior of late had gotten wilder as time passed, and he turned a blind eye more than once to the boy’s activities. Perhaps, if he had taken a firmer hand when Joe had broken up more than one saloon in a fight, none of this would be happening. He was sure he could have gotten Ben’s attention easier and swifter if he had visited in an official capacity.

Minutes ticked by with a maddening slowness and each man was lost in his own thoughts. When the door was flung open, both were surprised to see Carter and Nelson standing in the entryway, guns drawn.

Ben rose carefully, keeping a wary eye on the gunmen. He decided to start with the most obvious question first. “What do you want?”

“Money, what do you think we want?” Nelson sneered at the older man. He motioned with his gun. “Sheriff, I’d feel a lot better if you’d remove the gun. Slide it over here, butt first.”

Roy pulled his gun from the holster and carefully shoved the weapon towards the blackmailers.

Ben stared at the men before him. The need for revenge burned in him, but he quashed the feelings. If he gave in to what he wanted, his family and friends would not survive the encounter. Praying his voice sounded calm, he said, “It’s the middle of the night! The bank’s closed.”

“We know, but we’re sure the bank manager is willing to open up for you,” Carter said, glancing between Roy and Ben.

“Frank thinks Joe robbed the bank. What makes you think he’ll open the bank up for Ben?” Roy asked and saw doubt flicker across the faces of the robbers. “Surely you thought about that.”

Nelson fought the urge to just shoot himself and be done with it. The night was going from bad to worse, and he was beginning to have serious doubts as to the wisdom of going along with Carter. He glanced to his left and asked, “I don’t think it did occur to ‘the brains’ that the bank manager wouldn’t be willing to open the doors for a Cartwright.”

“Look, we’re gettin’ that money – one way or another. The head of the bank might not be too please to be up at this time of the night, but I doubt he’ll say no to the owner of the largest spread around. I don’t care what that Cartwright kid is supposed to have done.”

Roy watched the pair. He found it very interesting that Nelson seemed to be getting tired of being the hired help of the duo.

Carter turned to his cohort. “Stay here with them and make sure no one gets in here. I think they’ll be a bit more cooperative if we take the doc with us, too. It’ll just be that much more of an incentive to get back in a hurry, won’t it Mr. Cartwright?”

Ben swallowed and nodded, watching as Carter went into the operating room. He said a silent prayer for the nightmare to be over. When the sound of raised voices could be heard beyond the door where Paul worked, he cringed at the sound of gunfire erupting and a body hitting the floor.

“Guess the incentive didn’t want to go along quietly.” Nelson grinned at the blank faces of the older men. Keeping his weapon on Ben and Roy, he went over to the door and peaked around the corner.

Nothing could have prepared Nelson for the sight of Carter sprawled on the floor, unconscious and a gunshot wound high on his left shoulder. He looked up, seeing the doctor had moved out of the way, and on the operating table sat Adam Cartwright. The oldest Cartwright held the cotton wool over his burns, but his gun never wavered from Nelson.

Raising his hand, Nelson was preparing to fire when a voice spoke from behind him.

“Nelson, I don’t think that would be a good idea right now, do you?” Hoss asked, wrapping a large hand around the other man’s and squeezing. Nelson cried out and the gun clattered to the floor. “Roy, think you can find a nice cell for these two over at the jail?”

Roy picked up his weapon and walked over to Hoss. “As it turns out, I have a couple of vacancies right now. Don’t want to disappoint the judge when he gets here. It’s such a long trip and all. I wouldn’t want him to waste his time.”

Paul didn’t move for long minutes. Shaking himself, he went over to Carter and pulled back the bloody material. “It’s just a flesh wound, Roy. He should come to in a few minutes, and you can take him with you as soon as I get him bandaged up.”

Smiling, Roy handcuffed the unresisting Nelson. “You know something, Andy? It was just plain stupid the way you two kept talkin’ about your plans in all those alleys. You should have at least made sure they were dead-ends. Because it was just a coincidence I happened to be walking past that alleyway you and Carter was talkin’ in. Yes sir, you gotta be more careful.”

*****

“Ben, I just don’t know what to say,” Anne said, staring into the dark eyes, “or how to thank you.”

Smiling, Ben patted her gently on her right arm. “No thanks are needed. Everything will work out for the best, you’ll see. I’ll wire you the money as soon as the dress shop sells.”

Four weeks had passed since the night Carter had been shot. Adam and Joe had been cleared of the charges, due, in large part, to Anne’s testimony. Andy Nelson had managed to work out a deal with the prosecutor to turn evidence against Stan Carter in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Ben stood outside the stagecoach office with Anne as they waited for the driver to finish loading the baggage. She had decided to return to San Francisco to live with her sister and her son.

Ben truly hated that things had turned out as they had. She had brought out a side of him that he assumed had been buried when Marie died. As things stood now, he wasn’t sure he could ever look at this lovely young woman and not see how close his family had come to being destroyed. He knew it wasn’t her fault, she’d been a victim as well, but the reminder of what might have been was too painful and bittersweet.

When the driver yelled out for everyone to board, Anne stood on her toes to press a kiss to Ben’s cheek. Whispering, she said, “You’re a good man, Benjamin Cartwright. I hope you find someone who deserves you.”

She stepped back and climbed into the stage, pulling the door closed behind her. Anne smiled and waved to him as the stage rumbled down the street. He stood for a moment and watched as the coach moved out of sight. Turning, he looked into the faces of his sons sitting in the wagon.

Joe was still a bit pale but on the mend. Paul had said on more than one occasion that it was Providence that had kept Joe from being injured far worse than he had been. Ben’s gaze slipped over to Adam and was sure Providence had kept his oldest from being killed in the fire. The burns, while still tender and red, were healing well due, in part, to the aloe Hop Sing had been putting on the wounds.

Hoss had been the only Cartwright to come out of the fiasco uninjured. Ben smiled, recalling the relief he had felt when Hoss had shown up in Paul’s office in time to keep Nelson from killing more people.

A feeling of contentment washed through Ben as he looked at his sons. While this wasn’t the future he had imagined, he was happy his family was still whole.

“Boys, let’s go home.”

***End***

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