Echoes of War (by Morgan’s Crest)

Summary:  This story is the result of ten authors responding to a challenge of the minds. So, sit back and enjoy the latest adventure of the Cartwright family.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   35,000


 Part One: Nanuk

Stay awake.

Adam Cartwright stumbled along the road, his mind blank, the bruises and cuts on his whole body drawing strength he didn’t have. His right hand broken for all he knew, he didn’t feel like he would make it much longer.

Already the birds were eyeing him as carrion, were regarding him as the new meat on their plates. It was not that he blamed them. He felt exactly that, he thought – if he had been able to feel anything at all that was. But his mind was empty and somehow hollow, the pain in his back detached from him, stored somewhere far away in his mind. The butterflies were nice, he decided, watching them as they fluttered around him, making him dizzy. Their little wings were a curious blood-red, and they danced in front of his eyes like pearls on a string in a thunderstorm.

”Just a moment longer,” he thought, “A little moment longer. It’s not going to be much longer.”

Stay awake.

Wasn’t that what his father had always been telling? To stay awake in an emergency so that help could be recognized when it arrived? It must have been something like that, but Adam didn’t remember. He didn’t remember anything, to be exact. As far as he was concerned, there was a big hole where his memory was supposed to be … but he didn’t even remember how that hole had gotten there or when he had lost what had been stored. All he knew was that he had to make his way home to warn his family – of whatever it was that would happen.

Stay awake.

And he did.

He stumbled into the house and looked at his family as they were seated at the table. Then he lost consciousness and fell, gracefully as a tree.

Part Two: Doolittle

 “Adam!” Ben bolted from the table and rushed over to his son, lying unconscious on the floor. Hoss and Joe were immediately by his side, worry and fear etched on their faces.

Ben leaned down and put his ear to Adam’s back, desperately straining to hear a heartbeat, no matter how faint. “Joseph, get the doctor—hurry!” Ben said, his attention never wavering from Adam’s battered body.

“Yes, Pa.” Joe hesitated for an only fraction of a second to gaze once more at his brother, praying it wouldn’t be the last time he saw him alive, then rushed out the door.

As Hoss knelt beside Adam and gently began to examine the lacerations and bruises that covered his bare back and face, he was overwhelmed with a wave of disgust for anyone who could inflict this kind of abuse on another human being, let alone his beloved brother. It made him almost physically sick. His face, usually so gentle and open was set in grim lines, a mixture of anger and hatred that seemed out of place on his normally placid features.

“Hoss, it that…?”

Hoss looked knowingly at his father and replied, “Yeah, Pa—it’s a Paiute arrow.”

Ben almost shook in alarm at seeing the arrow protruding from his son’s back. The shaft itself was broken, as if Adam had fallen against something or perhaps had tried to remove it himself, but the point was deeply embedded. Ben was torn between the need to get Adam to bed and the fear that any movement of the arrow would cause further damage. Hoss recognized the agonizing indecision written across his father’s face.

“Don’t worry; I’ll take ‘im up, Pa.” With infinite care, Hoss picked up his brother and carried him up slowly up the stairs.

Upon reaching Adam’s room, Hoss gingerly placed him face down on the bed and gently turned his head to the side as, together, he and his father bathed the numerous wounds. Despair threatened to overwhelm them as they attempted to ease the cuts together to stop the flow of blood and fluids. The flesh surrounding the arrow was hot and inflamed and still seeped a small but steady stream of blood. His fever was beginning to rise and his body was quaking in reaction to the trauma inflicted upon it. Hoss pulled the blanket up as far as he could to keep his brother warm in an attempt to ward off shock. There was nothing more they could do until Joe returned with the doctor.

Adam struggled somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness. In his fevered delirium, vibrant images swirled in his mind, making it impossible to separate reality from fantasy. Paiute braves were charging toward him on horseback as he lay hobbled to the ground, twisting as much as the leather straps that cut through his wrists allowed to avoid being trampled by the horses, his body resonating with the impact of their blows until he could no longer even feel the pain, and over it all, laughter, sadistic laughter.

Home. Somehow, through pure luck or instinct, he had made it home to the safety of his family. Gentle hands and soothing voices, like a balm on his battered body and tortured mind, murmured over him. Their anxiety was palpable and he strived to find the strength to reach out to the voices, to pull him back to them. Suddenly, a sense of panic pressed upon his mind. There was something he had to do, something he needed to remember…he needed to warn his family about…but what? Then, as the images from his dream began to merge with reality he remembered. The fear that he was too late was the catalyst that finally propelled him toward consciousness.

Hoss looked sadly down at his brother, “Pa, what could have happened here? Adam and Mike was just goin’ up to the Paiute camp to deliver those head of beef. What cause did they have to do this?”

Ben shook his head in bewilderment and disbelief. “I don’t know, Hoss, I don’t know. I can’t believe Winnemucca…”

“Dead.”

“Adam?” Ben leaned forward, straining to hear his son’s feeble whisper through broken and cracked lips.

“Dead, Pa…Winnemucca’s dead.” Adam’s entire body seemed to spasm with pain and he gasped for breath.

“Easy, son—” Ben reached out to place a reassuring hand on his Adam’s back and struggled to bite back tears when he couldn’t find any place not bruised or broken. “Please, stay still, save your strength.”

Beads of sweat broke out on Adam’s forehead as he tried to control the pain that was threatening to overwhelm him. “Pa…need to tell you…”

Hoss moved closer and took his brother’s uninjured hand. “Adam, you and Mike was going up to the Paiute camp, is that right?”

Adam nodded his head slightly. “When we…got there…found…Winnemucca had…died.”

Hoss spoke up. “Adam, where’s Mike?”

“Dead. Paiutes…killed him. Black Cloud is….new chief of…Paiutes.”

Hoss and Ben shared a look across Adam’s back. The implications of Winnemucca’s death could be far reaching but Ben was loathe to tax his son’s waning strength.

“Adam, this can wait until after the Doctor has taken care of you.”

Adam shifted his head slightly so he could make eye contact with his father. He couldn’t rest until he was sure his family knew that they would protect themselves.

“Pa…Black Cloud blames us…for Young Wolf…Sharp’s Peak….” Adam’s voice was becoming thinner and more strained. “Young braves…support him…want revenge for…his brother.”

“Adam, please….”

“No, Pa…now…before…” A feeble cough interrupted his thought. Adam was desperately thirsty, but lying on his stomach was unable to raise his head to drink. Ben wet a cloth and gently placed it against his son’s lips.

“Killed Mike…didn’t need him…sent me back as…warning. Said to tell…kill Cartwright brothers…to avenge…Young Wolf.”

“Adam, what happened to your hand?” Adam’s right hand was black and blue and grotesquely misshapen.

“Hobbled me…to the ground…horse stomped…”

Hoss made no attempt to hide his disgust. “I thought them Paiutes had more honor than that. And to shoot a wounded man in the back with an arrow…”

“Apparently, Paiute honor died with Winnemucca,” Ben answered dispassionately. He would miss his old friend and was more than a little concerned what it would mean if his second son, Black Cloud, always hot-headed, slow to think but quick to act, took on the role of chief, determined to avenge the death of his older brother, Young Wolf.

Adam had expended the last of his reserves and the blackness that he had been holding at bay began to claim him. Suddenly, he realized that there was one familiar voice that had been absent all evening.

“Joe? Pa…where’s Joe?” Adam’s breathing quickened and he shook with pain as he strained to lift his head to see around the room.

Ben rested his hand on Adam’s head, gently but firmly restraining him. “He went to fetch Paul, Adam. Don’t worry, he’ll be back soon.”

“No…Paiutes waiting…Pa…trap…they knew you would send…it’s a trap…” Finally, the pain from his injuries overwhelmed him and even his fear for his family could not prevent Adam from lapsing mercifully into unconsciousness.

Ben stared wide-eyed at Hoss, for once in his life almost paralyzed with fear and indecision. If Adam was right, then Joe was riding into a trap. Perhaps they could get to him in time to prevent it. If Joe didn’t get to Virginia City and get the doctor in time, Adam would surely die.

Part Three: debpet

Ben and Hoss stared at each other, appalled at the dilemma that confronted them

“What are we gonna do, Pa?” Hoss said, his voice shaking. “We can’t let Little Joe ride into a trap. But even if we go after ‘im there ain’t no guarantee we’ll catch up to ‘im in time. And somebody’s still gotta get through to the doc and bring him back for Adam, or else—”

“We’ll lose him.” Ben concluded the sentence that Hoss had been unable to finish. His voice was dull and his eyes seemed to be staring into a void as he faced the bleak possibly of losing not one, but two of his sons. He sat down heavily on the chair next to Adam’s bed and buried his head in his hands trying desperately to think.

“Pa,” Hoss pressed him urgently. “One thing we ain’t got here is time to waste. Now what do ya want me to do?”

Ben raised his head, determination showing in his eyes. “Hoss—who is the fastest rider among the hands?”

It didn’t take Hoss but a second to consider. “I guess it’s prob’ly Jackie Wade.”

“The new man?”

“Yeah, Pa. I understand he did some race ridin’ back in the East before he came out this way. He was pretty good at it too, ‘til he grew too big for it.”

“Hoss, I want you to have him take the fastest horse available and ride as quickly as he can into Virginia City to get Doc Martin, but not by the main road. Tell him to take the path that winds around by Sanders’ Creek and comes out onto the main road just outside of town.”

Hoss shook his head skeptically. “That’s a pretty rough ride, Pa. And it’s quite a bit longer.”

“I know son, but with the Paiutes waiting along the main route it may be the only way anyone can get through. In the meantime, you take some of the other men and try to catch up to Joe.” He looked at Hoss with a piercing gaze. “And I don’t have to tell you to hurry.”

“Yes sir.” Hoss put his hat on his head and turned toward the door. But then he stopped. However great the need for haste, there was one thing he simply had to do. Hoss moved to stand beside Adam’s bed. He leaned over his unconscious brother, grasping his uninjured hand, and spoke quietly in his ear.

“Now you listen to me, Adam. You ain’t finished with everything you’re s’posed to do in this life. I just know it. So you gotta hold on until we can get help. And you gotta fight. You hear me? You ain’t never let me down, Adam. Never. So don’t you make this the first time. ‘Cause I’m countin’ on findin’ you’re still with us when I get back. Hang in there, brother.”

And with a squeeze of Adam’s hand, Hoss stood up. He quickly moved to the door and disappeared after casting one final glance back at the brother he was praying he’d see again.

*****

Jackie Wade felt the wind whipping through his hair as he urged his mount to maximum speed. It was exhilarating to be racing again, even if it was against time. And he was well aware of the urgency involved in this race. The stakes were nothing less than a man’s life. Jackie had grown to like the Cartwrights a great deal in the relatively short time he had worked for them, and he was deeply gratified by the confidence they were placing in him in this critical situation. He hoped fervently that he would be able to justify it.

It was taking all his concentration to follow the twisted, rock strewn trail. The path followed the general course of Sanders’ Creek, which flowed along the bottom of a deep gully that ran parallel to the path on his left hand. But there were places where it veered away from the gully, following the contour of the terrain, only to come back to it slightly farther on. Looking ahead, Jackie saw a place where the path ran dangerously close to the edge of the gully as it turned sharply. Afraid that he was going too fast to take the curve, he attempted to rein in his mount slightly. But it was too late. He felt his horse’s hooves begin to slip in the loose rocks that covered the trail. Fighting to recover his footing, the horse slid slightly to the left. And almost before he knew it, Jackie found himself slipping over the edge and beginning to slide down into the abyss.

*****

Joe Cartwright was riding down the main road into Virginia City as fast as he could, but that was not quite as fast as he had hoped. He had been only about a third of the way into town when he had begun to feel a roughness in Cochise’s gait and was forced to stop briefly. He discovered that Cochise’s right front shoe had lost a nail and was starting to come loose. Under the circumstances there was no way he could do anything about it immediately, but there was also no way he could turn back. He was forced to go on his way at a reduced speed, praying every minute that his horse would not lose the shoe altogether. And the delay was playing havoc with his emotions. The thought that he might be too late and it could cost his brother’s life was pounding in his head like a hammer. It made him want to shout out his frustration to the heavens.

Joe thought he heard the sound of someone calling out his name. He looked back and caught sight of his brother Hoss with several other men on horseback hurrying up the trail toward him at top speed. Hoss raised his hand to wave to him and called out his name again. At the same moment there was the sound of a gunshot that came from the other direction and a bullet whizzed past his head.

Joe jerked his head around again. And there, farther up the trail next to a tree, he caught the glint of light on the barrel of a rifle—held in the hands of a Paiute brave.

*****

Ben sat next to Adam’s bedside with his head bowed. He had not moved from the chair since Hoss had left. He was oppressed by the thought that his sons were in danger and the sense that he was helpless to do anything about it.

He occupied the long minutes by alternating among praying fervently for all of his sons, wanting desperately to know what was happening to Joe and Hoss and Jackie Wade, and looking anxiously down at the bed where his oldest son lay. Every few minutes or so he would lay his hand on Adam’s cheek to check his breathing, but the faint movements seemed a little weaker every time he did so and it gave him no reassurance. He gently brushed his hand along the side of Adam’s face.

“Hoss was right, son. You’re not finished with what you’re meant to do in life. Nowhere near it. And your brothers and I still need you. Stay with us, son…please…just stay with us.

Even as Ben was pleading with his son, he noticed that Adam’s breathing was taking a turn for the worse—threatening to cease altogether.

*****

Part Four: Grimesgirl

A lone buzzard circled slowly, silhouetted against the sky. It was soon joined by two more. They made their way along the winding trail, far below, looking with hungry eyes for carrion. Deep in an abyss one of them spotted two dark shadows. With a flip of its wings, it swooped low to investigate. The larger object was motionless; however, the smaller object was trying to regain its footing. The buzzard, joined by its mates, settled on a high rock and waited to see what would develop.

Slowly the smaller thing dragged itself onto the trail and began a long walk. The buzzards waited until the figure had disappeared in the distance and then fell to feeding on the larger object. Soon they were joined by other vultures and several hawks. A pair of coyotes circled the death scene and, chasing the scavengers away, fell to the feast.

*****

Jackie Wade, aching in every joint, made his way toward Virginia City. He knew now that he would probably be much too late to help the oldest Cartwright son. But, he had been given an assignment and, by golly, he would carry it out if it was the last thing he did.

*****

On the main road to Virginia City, the two younger Cartwright sons and the ranch hands that had accompanied Hoss crouched behind rocks and tried to make a plan that would foil the Paiutes ambush.

Hoss tried to count the hiding braves, but he could only pick out five or six. He knew there were almost certainly many more, but he also knew that he would probably never be able to ascertain just how many there were. The Paiutes were masters at blending into the surrounding countryside.

Joe wanted badly to start the fight and get it over with. He knew his oldest brother needed the doctor and he needed him now. Even though Hoss had told him that Jackie had been sent for the doctor by a different route, something inside of him told him that it was he who had to make that trip, not one of the ranch hands.

Time seemed to stand still as they waited for the Paiutes to make their move.

Suddenly, seemingly from every direction, came shrill shouts and battle cries. The air was filled with arrows and two of the ranch hands fell before they could react to the attack.

Hoss pushed his brother down and, taking aim, started to try to pick the charging braves off one by one. Joe shrugged Hoss’s hand away and joined his older brother in shooting as many braves as he could.

*****

Ben rose from the chair and walked to the door of Adam’s bedroom. He went out to the top of the stairs and quietly called for Hop Sing.

The little Chinaman hurried from the kitchen with a questioning face.

”Mr. Cartlight want Hop Sing?”

”Yes, Hop Sing, do you have anything, anything at all that will help Adam breathe? He’s struggling with every breath. I’m beginning to feel that each breath he takes might be his last. We have to do something. I’m afraid he won’t with us when the doctor finally does arrive.”

Hop Sing thought a moment and then, with a quick nod, made his way into the kitchen and down into the storeroom. He rummaged through some cans and bottles until he found the one he was seeking.

Quickly he hurried back up the stairs, grabbed a bowl and the boiling water that he had fixed earlier and, at almost a run, crossed the great room and climbed the stairs.

He paused at Adam’s door and his heart sank. Indeed, Adam’s breathing did sound as though he was close to death. His body hardly moved as the shallow breaths seemed to grow quieter and quieter.

Ben looked up with such hope in his eyes that Hop Sing, for a moment, wondered if his remedy would really do any good. Mr. Cartlight was depending on him to help his boy as he had done so many times in the past. But, what if this didn’t work? Would he ever be forgiven?

Hop Sing shook those thoughts from his mind and, setting the bowl on the bedside table, poured in the herbs that he had collected and dried months ago. A pungent aroma rose from the bowl and seemed to soon fill the room. Picking up a towel Hop Sing tried to fan the fumes across Adam’s battered body. With each wave of the towel, he sent a prayer to the gods that this small effort would ease Adam’s breathing and keep him with them until help arrived.

 *****

Part Five: Nanuk

Ben watched Adam.

There was a shadow line on his back that shivered softly whenever Adam moved. It was the best indicator to show him that Adam was still alive.

The line moved softly, just the barest inch, when his son breathed. It ran down from the wide planes of the shoulder blades over the hollow of his spine, then down Adam’s side over powerful muscles to where the arrow shaft protruded from his son’s flesh. Still, there was a shallow trickle of blood constantly soaking the towels, and Ben swallowed despair and bile when he laid his hand on Adam’s back, felt the tremor running through the body of his flesh and blood.

There was nothing he could do, and he knew it.

The waiting was the worst.

Hop Sing’s herbs had helped Adam breathe. He had calmed down, and the rattling in his lungs had stilled. Too deeply unconscious to notice either way, Adam’s body was relaxed, the muscles untensed. Ben changed the towels for the umpteenth time, then got up and walked over to the window, growing restless. He didn’t know how often he had done that in the last few hours either.

The yard was empty, bereft of any horses, and Ben shivered when a sudden feeling of dread washed over him that he wasn’t able to explain. Within seconds he had turned back towards the bed, back towards Adam, had searched for the shadow line with his eyes, had listened for the tiniest sound of Adam’s breath, and had placed his palm on the too warm skin of his son’s back. Yes, there it was the soft rasp in the silence.

Ben took a deep breath. Suddenly and with absolute clarity he knew that the doctor would be too late.

He looked up when Hop Sing entered with a fresh armful of towels.

”Have you ever taken out an arrow?” he asked.

*****

Part Six: Doolittle

Memories of an all too similar situation invaded Hoss’s thoughts, memories of another place, another time. A hot, dry valley, pinned down with no food or water by a band of Indians while his brother’s life hung in the balance.

The great Apache chief, Cochise, had proven to be a wise and honorable man that day, not unlike Chief Winnemucca. If Adam’s current condition was any indication, they could certainly not expect the same from Winnemucca’s son, Black Cloud. Hoss grimaced when he thought of Adam. From what he had seen of his brother’s condition, they would be lucky if…Hoss shook his head to chase away the memories and his fear for his brother; they could prove to be deadly distractions.

He and Joe fought on, each firing in a slightly different direction. Both men felt the keen frustration of shooting at phantoms. As soon as they would aim and fire, their target would disappear behind a tree or rock, or even into thin air, it seemed, as if it had never existed, wasting precious ammunition.

Although two of the hands had been wounded, they seemed to be successfully holding off the Paiutes. Joe ducked instinctively as a bullet ricocheted off the rock he was hiding behind, narrowly missing his face. Hoss anxiously glanced over at him. Somehow…somehow he had to get Joe to safety.

He called lowly to his brother. “Joe, get over here. I got me an idea.”

Joe took a second to fire once more over the rock and threw himself toward Hoss’s position, rolling on the ground and firing at the same time while Hoss covered him by firing shots over his head. Chest heaving from the effort and rush of adrenaline, Joe hunched down behind the rock.

“I sure hope it’s a good one, brother, because we are between a rock and a hard place here.”

“Well, we ain’t got ourselves enough men or ammunition to hold ‘em off much longer, that’s for sure. Listen, Joe—so far we’ve kept ‘em from circling us and cuttin’ us off. I’m thinkin’ that the only way out of this mess is for one of us to ride back to the ranch for help.”

Joe looked at his brother as if he had lost his senses. Hoss recognized the look and wasn’t sure that he didn’t agree with him. “I know what your thinkin’, Joe, but if we was to wait till dark and make a diversion, one of us could sneak out and it ain’t but a mile or so to that trail that leads down around Sander’s Creek. There won’t hardly be any moon tonight, but the main road is still too open. The woods would be good cover.”

“Pa tried that once, Hoss, remember? And whoever goes is likely to fare just about as well as he did.” Apparently, Joe had been reliving the previous incident with the Apaches as well.

“I shore hope you’re wrong, little brother, bein’ you’re the one that’s goin’” Hoss fired again while he waited for the inevitable explosion from Joe.

“No way, Hoss! I’m not leaving you here. And aren’t you forgetting about Adam? I gotta get to Virginia City to get Doc or Adam’s gonna die.”

“Dadburnit, Little Joe, how many times I gotta tell ya? Jackie’s already on his way to town to get the Doc. By the time we get back home, Adam’ll be all stitched up and fit as a fiddle.” Hoss prayed that what he said was true, but in reality he had little hope of any of them getting out of this alive. He stubbornly wouldn’t let his mind contemplate the thought of what losing all three sons would do to his father.

Joe knew that his brother was right. With two men already injured and their ammunition running low they didn’t stand much of a chance. Jackie was a good man and a fast rider. If anyone could get to Virginia City in record time, it would be him. Still, there was something that tugged at him, a sense of unease, foreboding. He tried to shake it off, to chalk it up to the circumstances they found themselves in. Things were certainly bad enough without him imagining them being worse.

“You’re right, Hoss. Somebody has to go, but it won’t be me. Cochise was starting to lose a shoe. That’s why I was slowing down when you caught up with me. Send Dave—he’s got a flesh wound anyway, the doc could see to him, too.”

Hoss knew that Joe was making sense. He was torn between his responsibilities to his men and his overwhelming fear of what Black Cloud would do to Joe if he were caught. Joe had left for the doctor immediately after Adam had fallen, unconscious, to the floor. He wasn’t there when Adam awoke, when he shared the story of his torture and Black Cloud’s threat of vengeance against the remaining Cartwright brothers. The haunting images of Adam, arrow protruding from his back, his hand broken and swollen, swayed Hoss’s decision.

For one of the few times in his life, Hoss invoked his “big brother” status and said, in a voice that allowed no further argument, “Nope, Little Joe, that ain’t gonna work. You’re the fastest rider and Dave’s injury might slow him down. He can still fight with us, but I can’t take the gamble that he’ll get back to the Ponderosa in time.”

Before Joe had the chance to argue further, Hoss said “Cover me, Joe” and sprinted over to the low rise that Dave, the horses, and three other hands had taken refuge behind. Then he motioned for Joe to follow as all five fired volleys over his head toward the position of the Paiutes.

Once Hoss had explained the plan to the others, there was nothing to do but wait for the sun to set. They had decided to save as much ammunition as possible, holding off until it was time to create the diversion Joe needed to slip safely away. It seemed that the Paiutes had a similar notion as an eerie silence had descended on the valley. The rest of the afternoon crept by as they waited in tense anticipation, every nerve on end, flinching at every snapping twig or scurrying ground squirrel.

As Hoss sat leaning against the rock, every sense strained to its limit, suddenly it was as if a dark cloud had passed over him and he felt an uneasy chill. Looking up to the highest ridge overlooking the valley, his eyes widened in awe at the terrible, beautiful sight of a lone rider silhouetted against the setting sun. He was mounted atop a powerful horse, its tail dusting the ground. In his right hand he held a lance; the feathers adorning it dancing with the wind that swept over the ridge. His bearing was both proud and fearsome—Black Cloud.

*****

The sky had darkened enough so that Joe, on Dave’s horse, would hopefully be able to slip away unseen. Although it was the last thing he wanted to do, he mounted up and waited for Hoss to give the signal. The brothers looked each other in the eye but, as usual, words weren’t necessary. They both knew instinctively what the other was feeling. If this didn’t work, it would be the last time they saw each other in this life.

Lips pressed tightly, determination written in every line on his face, Hoss nodded to the men. At his signal, the night erupted with a cacophony of gun fire and Joe, digging his heals deep into the horse’s side, took off toward the woods and, past them, the ravine that led back to the Ponderosa. Although Dave’s horse wasn’t much to look at, she was sure-footed and ran like the wind. Joe could tell that Dave wasn’t pleased with the idea of someone else riding his horse; at one glance at the look in Hoss’s eyes, though, the hand had wisely kept his opinion to himself. Joe understood how he felt; he, too, missed his favorite mount. Cochise was swift and seemed to know his rider’s intentions instinctively, reacting at the slightest nudge. He chided himself that he should be thinking about his horse when both his brothers’ lives were in danger.

After what seemed like an eternity, the volleys of gunfire from Hoss and the return fire from the Paiutes had stilled and Joe had reached the cover and relative safety of the pine woods bordering the valley. As he slowed slightly to listen for pursuit, the night had again become eerily quiet. Then, as it had happened once before, the quiet was pierced by the heavy beating of a drum and the plaintive wail of the Paiute braves calling to their gods, asking for strength and protection in the upcoming battle.

Almost against his own volition, Joe turned his horse back toward the valley. He took a few steps and then stopped in anguish, torn by the equal necessities of standing by his brother in battle, fighting by his side to the death, or making it safely back to the Ponderosa to bring help and ammunition. And still, in the back of his mind was the lingering feeling of foreboding that Adam’s life was also in his hands, despite what Hoss had told him. Indecision pressed on him from all sides.

Joe bit down on his lower lip and abruptly turned his horse into the woods, in the direction of home. This is what Hoss had asked him to do; and he was counting on Joe to make it through. The image of Hoss smiling gently up at him with confidence was almost his undoing and he was grateful for his mount’s sure-footedness through the trees as thick tears blurred his vision.

Once through the dense trees, Joe picked up his pace, riding along the bottom of the ravine. He could have taken the trail that ran along the top, but he had traveled it recently and knew that the loose rock and hairpin turns had made it treacherous and would be made even more so by the almost moonless night. At the speed he needed to go, he knew he could make better time below.

Suddenly his horse, already nervous by the breakneck pace, dark night, and unfamiliar rider reared back on her hind legs—eyes wide with panic. A lesser rider would have been thrown but Joe managed to keep his seat. As he talked softly to the horse in an attempt to calm her, he nudged her forward. In front of him, blocking the trail was a large dark figure. Joe drew his gun as a precaution, but as he got nearer he could make out that the shape was a horse. The scavengers that fed on the carrion had made a good meal and the horse was essentially unrecognizable. He glanced around quickly, but there was no immediate sign of a rider, injured or otherwise. Under different circumstances he would have attempted to search for the rider and to render assistance, if necessary, but the need for haste was driving him on.

As he began to remount, out of the corner of his eye he noticed the saddle still strapped to the horse and he felt his heart go cold. It was a racing saddle, smaller and lighter than the saddles normally used for work with cattle, and there was only one man in the territory that Joe knew who owned a saddle like that.

With a sickening feeling settling in his stomach, Joe realized with a certainty that there would be no doctor waiting at the Ponderosa when he arrived. It had been hours and Adam had received no medical aid. Hoss had only a few more hours before dawn broke and the battle, with its inevitable outcome, would begin.

As panic threatened to overwhelm him, Joe was faced with the most impossible decision of his life—which brother would he save?

*****

Part Seven: AdamFan16

Adam would never forgive him if he found out that Joe had gone for the doctor over getting reinforcements for Hoss. Joe gave a sad smile; on the other hand, Hoss would never forgive himself if he knew that Joe had a chance to help Adam and hadn’t taken it.

Seconds stretched inexorably into minutes, time would not allow him to linger over this choice. He had to decide, and once he did, there would be no going back. Adam. Hoss. Images danced sickeningly through his mind: Adam collapsing on the floor of the great room. Hoss riding to his rescue. Which brother?

Joe’s jaw set. With a vicious nod, he jerked the reins and sent his horse down the path.

*****

”Thank you, Hop Sing.” Ben said automatically, taking the tray from him. There was a hollow in his gut, a hollow that seemed to have swallowed all emotion, all reactions to what he was about to do.

Hop Sing looked down at the bed, “You want me hold Mistah Adam down?”

Ben looked at the knives on the tray, and then back at his son, “I don’t think he is close enough to this world to feel anything.”

The knife gleamed wickedly in the lamplight. Adam’s one window faced east, darkness already lurked in the room although it was still afternoon. Ben mechanically put the blade to the heated flesh around the arrow, flinching along with the weak movement of his son.

However deeply unconscious Adam was, the pain went deeper. As Ben clutched the knife in a sweaty palm and probed gently, a garbled moan escaped Adam. The arrow shifted, dragging an outcry from him.

Hop Sing placed his hands on the sweating shoulders, looking up at his employer in concern, “You work fast, Mistah Cartlight.”

Ben nodded, wrapping his fingers around the handle once more. The arrow went deeper than he had originally thought, driving into hard belts of muscle. The hollow feeling in his stomach grew. His hands were fast becoming slick with his son’s blood.

At last the point was in his grasp. “Hold him, Hop Sing.”

In one wrenching movement, the point was free. A hoarse yell erupted from Adam, his back arching with the pain. He curled into himself, a reflexive action his father well recognized. His hands balled—or one did. Ben watched, frozen in agony, as the misshapen, discolored right hand twitched, but didn’t curl into the tense fist of his left hand.

Hop Sing reached for the fresh bandages, “You did good, Mistah Cartlight,” he assured, but his round face had all but lost its olive tint.

Ben dropped the arrowhead on the tray, reaching to wipe the sweat from his face. His brushing fingers left a swath of blood across his forehead.

May his blood be on my head. The sudden thought chilled him, cooling the beads of sweat still visible on his face. The hollow grew until it filled his throat, pushing the acid from his stomach with it. Ben swallowed, looking down at his crimson hands, trembling at the mere thought.

”I’ll finish that, Hop Sing.” The voice was his, yet it seemed to come from outside of himself. Ben cleaned his hands quickly and reached for the cloth Hop Sing was applying to the wound.

”I go look for doctor coming.” Hop Sing bustled out of the room.

”He’s not coming, Hop Sing.” Ben shook his head, “Neither one of them got through, I’m sure of it.”

*****

Part Eight: Doolittle

After he had traveled half a mile, Joe reined his horse to a stop, breathing hard. In the pit of his stomach he knew that, in returning to the Ponderosa, he was sacrificing Adam’s already slim chance for survival, if he wasn’t dead already. Joe shook his head violently. No, he refused to accept that. His brother was still alive—he had to be. His mind was turning in ever tightening circles, the responsibility for both his brother’s lives weighing heavily upon him.

“Think, Joe, think—what would Pa do? What would Adam do?”

He willed himself to take deep, calming breaths, to think the situation through logically. Adam often chided him for acting from his heart, not his head. Well, this time his heart was pulling him in two different directions. Surely there was a way to save them both. The outcome of this awful night didn’t have to be inevitable.

They needed the doctor desperately, but they also needed men and ammunition. Returning to the ranch made sense when they thought that Jackie Wade was safely on his way to Virginia City, but now that hope had been dashed. With sudden clarity of thought, Joe reined his horse around and dug his heels into her sides.

By the time he had reached Virginia City, he had formulated a plan. First he would head to the saloon to gather the “help” he needed. Joe had thought of going to the sheriff, but he knew that Roy would never approve of what he had planned, would insist that things be done the proper way. With his brother’s lives at stake, Joe didn’t have time for “proper.”

That being done, he would send someone over to escort the doctor back to the Ponderosa. He doubted that Paul would be able to find the alternate trail by himself and, of course, the main road was out of the question.

Although it was very late, he was certain that the saloons would still be filled to capacity. With the mines in full operation, Virginia City had become a town that never slept. Joe had no illusions as to the type of men he would find in the saloon at this hour. A few would be friends, willing to help just because he asked. Some would be men who didn’t care one way or the other for the Cartwrights, but would never turn down a little excitement, especially if it came with a few dollars or a couple of bottles of whiskey. Some, Joe knew, would jump at any chance to kill Indians; the same sort who were responsible for the insane killing at the battle of Sharp’s Peak.

It sickened Joe to think that his brothers’ lives depended on the innate ability of man to hate his fellow man, but he felt he had no choice. It was a gamble; he knew from experience that men like these were not easily controlled and things could quickly escalate. He cringed to think of what Adam’s reaction would be, how he would feel if his injuries served to be the catalyst for a full-scale war with the Paiute. Sharp’s Peak all over again. Joe only hoped and prayed that Adam would live to argue with him over it someday.

And what would his father think of his solution? His father who always had great respect for the Indians, who had supplied the Paiute with beef to see them through the winter, had been a friend to Winnemucca for years. His father who tonight sat vigil over a son near death, tortured and beaten by Winnemucca’s own son. He recalled his father’s words to Captain Johnson, just before going to parley with Cochise. “To save the life of my son, I would talk to the devil himself.” Yes, Pa would understand.

As the doors to the saloon swung open, Joe stepped in, resolved to make his own deal with the devil—for all their lives.

*****

Part Nine: dbird

Joe staggered out of the saloon, with the howls of bloodlust and coiled up violence at his back. He was already stinking from the cloud of smoke that hung over the swarm of drinking men like a shroud. But it was no matter. He had accomplished what he had come to Virginia City to do. At least, half of his task was finished. There was no going back now. A couple more rounds of drinks, which he had already directed the barkeep to provide courtesy of the Cartwrights, and Joe would have his reinforcements to help Hoss. His plan had been a rousing success.

Another hateful cry rose up from the saloon, as he walked away. Joe wished he could have stayed for another round of whiskey, himself. He had belted down a single drink simply to give him the resolve that he needed. It also let the underbelly of Virginia City know that he was one of them.

He was one of them, all right. It was like his pa always said. You make a deal with the devil, soon enough the devil’s going to come around collecting his due.

Running his hand through his filthy curls, Joe forced himself along toward the doctor’s office. He was stumbling as much as he was running, and he knew he looked a sight. Covered in dust from head to toe, his eyes ached with grit and worry and other things he just couldn’t put a name to. Joe chided himself for those feelings. One thing at a time, first he needed to fetch a doctor for Adam. Then, he could try to figure out how he was going to live with himself for the rest of his life.

Joe cut through the alley that led from C Street to Doctor Martin’s home and office at the other side of town. He had purposely chosen the seediest watering hole he could find to rouse up his “troops.” Hoss always said that the tarantula juice they served in those places was strong enough to make a grasshopper fight a rabid wolf. With that in mind, he hoped it would be strong enough to carry them to battle against the Paiutes.

Joe rarely ventured in those types of saloons, on ordinary occasions. He remembered sneaking in once when he was sixteen and being foolish enough to leave his pinto hitched up outside. Adam had caught him, of course, given him an earful, and threatened to give him a whole lot more, if he ever went into that type of establishment again. Joe smiled, remembering that Adam never did tell Pa where he had found his kid brother. You could count on Adam for that. No matter how bossy and overbearing he might have seemed when Joe was a boy, his brother had always been there for him to watch his back. Both of his brothers had always been there for him, hauling him out of whatever mess he had stumbled into. Now it was his turn to be there for his brothers.

With his body aching and near exhaustion, Joe had to stop for a moment and try to catch his breath. He leaned against a rough planked wall and tried to get his thoughts in order as well. He was almost at Doctor Martin’s. He would wake up the doctor and lead him back to Adam. Then he would ride, like the devil was at his tail, back to the ongoing battle. He would fight alongside Hoss.

Joe knew he had no right to it, but he cast up a prayer anyways, for Adam, for Hoss, and selfishly for the state of his own soul. His pa had taught him enough about mercy that he knew there was hope for the worst sinner, and at the moment, Joe was pretty sure he could qualify. He couldn’t get the drunken mob out of his mind. For just a moment, he was tempted to go back, to plead with them that it had all been some kind of a mistake. It was what Adam would have done, and for the first time, Joe realized that he might not ever be able to look his oldest brother in the eye again.

Adam. Joe thought of Adam the way he had left him, drained from blood loss and struggling for every breath. There had been so much damage and so much pain. How likely could it be that his oldest brother was still alive?

Shrugging off those thoughts, Joe got his breathing in order and continued his mission for the doctor. Adam could not die. He wouldn’t let him. Any guilt from his decision would rest on his own shoulders. Joe prayed again, not for himself, but for his brothers. As he turned the corner, he forgot that there were many different ways that prayers could be answered.

He did not see the shifting shadow in the darkness of the alley. He did not see the glint of metal in the moonlight or the weapon raised high. He did not see the smirk of the drifter as he slammed his pistol down hard on the back of the Cartwright kid’s head.

Joe felt pain exploding, as he dropped to his knees and then to the ground. He felt his pockets being pilfered and his pearl-handled gun being slipped out its holster. As the darkness closed around him to a circle of light, Joe had one last thought. He had failed.

He had failed, in every way possible.

*****

Part Ten: Cressida

Ben lifted the corner of the cloth and looked at the wound. There was less blood this time, but even the sluggish flow that welled up when he released the pressure would need to be stopped. He crossed to the door and called to Hop Sing.

How many times have I watched Paul do this? Ben wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. Everything was washed and set next to the bed. No more delays. Adam’s breathing was shallow and ragged, and there had not been as much as a whimper from him since that last strangled gasp of pain.

Taking a steadying, deep breath, Ben picked up the threaded needle. The procedure, once he’d started, was not as bad as he’d thought. He briefly contemplated the irony that his own hands were still nimble enough to perform the delicate work. When would Adam be able to even pluck at the strings to his guitar, let alone pick up a gun?

He tied off the last stitch, satisfied with his handiwork.

Hop Sing silently handed him a clean, wet cloth, and he gently dabbed at the neat row of knots. An inch and a half of sewing up his own boy…

“Mr. Cartlight, Mr. Cartlight!”

Ben shook his head, dazed, and wondered what he was doing on the floor.

Adam!

“You sit in chair and drink this. Not eat, not drink, just worry. No more worry.” Hop Sing pushed a cup of hot, fragrant tea into his hands.

The brew was sweet and strong, and brought him fully back to his senses.

“Is he…?”

“Quiet. His breathing is good. Look…” Hop Sing twitched back the covers. The broad back rose and fell with a steady, deep rhythm that seemed reassuringly normal. Hop Sing leaned down to pick up the cloth Ben had dropped. “I clean—you sit.”

“His hand—,” Ben stared at his son. “And we need to bind up the rest of those lacerations—I don’t think anything else needs to be stitched.”

Hop Sing nodded as he gathered the bloodied cloths and implements Ben had discarded and put them into an empty basin. He cast a brief glance at this employer. The worry over his other two sons was very apparent in his face. “Boys come out okay—good boys. Good men. They smart— ‘know all the tricks’.”

Ben’s lips lifted slightly at the quote from his youngest and he dragged his eyes away from Adam. “Yes, they are,” he whispered, hoping the boys’ native wisdom would be enough to get them through.

“Pa?”

It was more a sigh than even a word, but Ben leaned forward eagerly. Adam’s hand lay in a basin of cold water. He’d been bathed, bandaged, and shifted to lie partly on his back, propped on one side by pillows to relieve the pressure on his wounds. He’d not stirred once, and a heavy fear lay on Ben’s heart that Adam would simply fade away, his injuries too grievous to survive.

Thank God, that was not to be, it seemed. “I’m here, son.”

“Joe…”

“Joe’s in town.” I hope.

“No, no… don’t let him…trap…”

Ben put a steadying hand on his son’s bare shoulder. “Adam! Joe will be fine. Hoss took a whole company of men, practically.”

Adam started to thrash around on the bed. “Not enough. Joe. They want to kill…Cartwrights. War…”

“Adam! Be still—you’ll tear open your stitches.” The last thing Ben wanted to do was sew up his son again.

Adam calmed a little as his father’s words sunk in. “Paul…was here?” His fevered mind tried to make sense of that fact. Maybe the renegades had been quashed? No, too many and the army was too far away. Black Cloud was out for revenge—long years of resentment had driven him almost insane with hatred. Hatred that had started long before Sharp’s Peak…the white family that dared give what wasn’t theirs to give. He blinked up into the lamplight. It was dark beyond the pool of yellow light. “Where—what time…”

“It’ll be dawn soon,” Ben said quietly, not answering the question about the doctor, not wanting to admit that no help had gotten through.

“Send to Carson…wire Major Chittock…no other way.”

Ben pulled the covers back over Adam’s shoulders. “Yes, yes. That’s what we’ll do. But you need to rest.” He measured a small amount of laudanum into a glass of water. The hot, dry flush that suffused his son’s face was a change from his previous deathlike pallor, but it indicated a fever and agitation that brought its own set of worries. “Here, drink this.”

Adam batted at the glass. “Joe an’ Hoss…”

“Adam, none of your nonsense! Neither of us can do anything for them right now. Drink.”

Adam submitted to the sharp tone and meekly accepted the cool liquid, grateful for the relief it brought to his parched throat. “Have to…”

“You have to rest. Unless you think your old father isn’t up to fighting Indians anymore.”

“No, Pa.” The agitation faded in Adam’s eyes as the words sank in.

“Let’s look at that hand while you can tell me where it hurts.”

Adam grimaced as Ben gently dried the discolored and still swollen skin. Ben wouldn’t meet his eyes and he felt his own worry increase. Mangled hands didn’t go far doing ranch work, or doing much of anything else that he loved… He gasped sharply as his father started to manipulate his thumb. Ben would never do this if he thought Paul was going to make it through. His heart sank at the thought. “Pa did…ach…that’s dislocated,” he finished between clenched teeth. “Go ahead, pull it out and pop it back.”

“Adam…”

“Do it, Pa. Paul will never get here…tape the rest…of it…together, but splint the thumb…” Too drained to fight the drug, he succumbed to the tug of sleep, his father’s soothing deep voice in his ears.

“I know, son. Hold still—just a little pressure…”

*****

Part Eleven: Doolittle

Hoss shivered as he shifted his position behind the large boulder. It had become increasingly uncomfortable as the night had turned bitterly cold. Without the benefit of a fire, the remaining men had huddled together to ward off the worst of the chill. They had decided to take turns keeping watch, spelling each other off so that the wounded could get some rest. Throughout the night, the incessant drumming continued until it seemed to Hoss that his heart had begun to beat in unison with it. In the waning hours of predawn, its intensity and speed increased to a fevered pitch.

As the hours crept by, Hoss’ hope faded along with the darkness. Even as he strained his ears to detect any sign of help, he knew with a sickening certainty that something had happened to prevent Joe from reaching the Ponderosa. Had the Paiute followed him? If so, Hoss shuddered to think of his brother’s fate.

Although he had no illusions as to the chances of his own survival, his thoughts were not for himself, but his father and brothers. Adam—his last image of his brother was of Adam lying, deathly still, and an arrow protruding from his back. He wished with all his heart that he could erase that image from his mind, and his father, sick with worry, hovering over one son, thinking of the other, fearing for the lives of both.

As dawn broke, the continuous beating stopped abruptly and an ominous silence fell upon the valley. Hoss’ eyes met those of the others in silent communication. On the highest ridge, the lone figure on horseback slowly raised his spear toward the rising sun. Suddenly, the air was filled with the din of thundering hoof beats and Paiute war cries. Hoss raised his rifle, nodded to the men as they did the same, and prepared to meet his fate.

As the Paiutes attacked in earnest, Hoss and the others struggled to defend themselves, but the odds were heavily in the favor of the advancing Indians. Then, no sooner than it had begun, the attack inexplicably broke off. Although gunshots still rang through the air, Hoss found that the majority were no longer being directed at them. Confused, he took a chance and peeked over the boulder. From his vantage point he viewed the valley before him, the Paiutes scattering, some running for cover, others turning back the direction they had come, firing furiously as they went.

From over the ridge in the direction of town, Hoss saw the prettiest sight he had ever hoped to see as a large group of riders descended into the valley, whooping and hollering, all the while volleying shots toward the scattering Indians. His face split in a grin from ear to ear. That could only mean one thing…Joe!

*****

Gradually consciousness began to return and with it pain. Joe succeeded in opening his eyes halfway as he tried to take in his environment. The shelves filled with labeled bottles and the odor of antiseptic in the room told him he was at Doc Martin’s, but beyond that he found it impossible to form a cohesive thought. From beyond the partially closed door he could hear the sounds of someone moving quickly around the room. He shut his eyes, as even the muffled sounds of footsteps and clinking bottles were enough to make his head throb. Although the room was fairly dark, there was a small shaft of sunlight streaming in through a tear in the window shade. As he tried to sit up, he was immediately met with severe pain, dizziness and nausea and he let out a low groan.

Alerted by the movement, a rather harried looking Paul Martin entered the room. Seeing that Joe was awake, he put on his most reassuring face and went over to his bedside.

“Well, Joe—nice to see you back with us.”

Joe tried to focus on the doctor, tried to make sense of what he was saying, with only marginal success. He tried to speak, but his throat was incredibly dry. He cleared his throat and tried again. “What am I…?”

“Now, take it easy young man. You’ve got a nasty bump on your head but you’re going to be fine.”

“What happened?”

“Well, seems Jonas Wills found you lying in the alley off of C Street on his way into the livery this morning and brought you over here. Roy and I were sort of hoping that you might be able to fill in some of the blanks. Your wallet and gun are missing, so it could have been something as simple as a robbery.”

Joe looked at him in confusion, his brows furrowed in pain as he tried to remember the events of the previous evening. He vaguely recalled something about a saloon and a sinking feeling took residence in his stomach, Oh, no, Pa would kill him if this was the result of some drunken barroom brawl!

Paul saw the frustration and pain written across Joe’s face and smiled gently, “Don’t try too hard, Joe—it’ll come to you in time.”

Joe frowned as he looked up at Paul. “Pa’s gonna really be…”

“Roy sent Clem out to the Ponderosa to tell your father where you are, but…” Paul hesitated, not eager to finish his thought.

At the mention of the Ponderosa, a sudden fear overwhelmed him and he sat bolt upright, heedless of the room’s spinning and the rolling of his stomach.

“Adam!”

Doc Martin put two restraining hands on Joe’s shoulders and gently pushed him back down to the bed. Concern on his face, he asked “What, Joe? What about Adam?”

Joe was breathing hard and a cold sweat had broken out on his forehead. He was unable to concentrate on anything for more than a brief moment and was beginning to panic. From the light coming in the window he realized that he had to have been unconscious for at least several hours. What could have happened to Adam during those hours?

“You’ve got to get out to the Ponderosa right away, Doc. Adam’s hurt bad, real bad!”

“Easy, Joe, easy—what happened to Adam? How was he hurt?”

Joe tried to concentrate, remember…but all that he knew was that Adam was seriously wounded and he had been sent to get the Doc. When Paul showed no signs of getting up, Joe became angry.

”What’s wrong? Why aren’t you going? I told you that Adam was hurt bad.”

A look of frustration and concern passed over Paul’s face. “I can’t go, Joe,” he said apologetically. “I’m needed here.”

Joe couldn’t believe what he was hearing. His anger, fueled by his fear and pain, flared.

“What do you mean? You’re a doctor! I’m fine; you don’t have to stay for me.”

“It’s not that, Joe. You’re right, you’ll be fine.” Paul hesitated, unsure if, in the state Joe was in, he would be able to handle what Paul had to tell him.

He proceeded cautiously. “Joe—when you were found hurt, Roy sent Clem to the Ponderosa to tell your father.”

“You said that, Paul,” Joe said, frustrated that the doctor didn’t seem to be in any hurry to save his brother. “Adam doesn’t have time for this!”

Paul ignored the impatience in Joe’s voice and continued. “Clem didn’t get but half way there when…”

His voice broke off as the images that Clem had related threatened to overwhelm him. A valley strewn with bodies, most dead and some still dying, buzzards already circling overhead. Paul had certainly seen his share of death, but such wholesale slaughter of human beings still sickened him. He took a deep breath to compose himself.

Joe was struggling to take in what the doctor was saying. It was too much, too overwhelming.

”…Roy has no idea what set the Paiute off…”

Suddenly, everything came back to Joe in a blinding flash. Adam lying on the floor of the ranch house beaten and bloody with an arrow in his back, Hoss and the others pinned down, waiting for reinforcements from the ranch that would never come, the time spent in the saloon recruiting the men necessary to save his brother. Overcome with pain, fear and guilt, Joe couldn’t hold off any longer and quickly turned his head over the side of the bed and began to retch.

As Paul supported Joe’s head, he shook his head in sorrow at the thought of the heartache Ben would experience this day. First Adam, then Joe—now this. He swallowed his fear for his friend as he tended to his son. Joe lay back on the pillow breathing heavily, left arm resting over his eyes as Paul quietly told him the rest.

“The wagons should be arriving any minute with the injured and dead, Joe. That’s why I can’t leave.”

As soon as the words had left his mouth, both men could hear the first of the wagons pull up to the doctor’s house.

“Stay here, Joe—rest.”

How could he rest? Apparently, the men at the saloon had been drunk and stirred up enough not to heed Joe’s instructions to wait for his lead. They had headed out themselves and Lord knows what happened next. If what Paul said was true, then the consequences of Joe’s actions had been disastrous.

Ignoring Paul’s instructions to stay put, Joe got up slowly, a hand to the back of his bandaged head. He proceeded to make his way across the room, using each piece of furniture for support as the world tipped and swayed before him. Finally, making it to the opened front door, he blanched to see several wagons lining the street in front of the doctor’s house, followed by horses, bodies wrapped in burlap strapped to their saddles.

So, this was the price that the devil demanded? It was steep—too steep.

As four townsmen struggled to lift the first bloodstained body from the wagon, Joe caught a glimpse of a large cream-colored hat. His blood ran cold.

*****

Part Twelve: Debpet

Joe continued to stand by the door staring as Hoss was borne in. Blood soaked Hoss’ left shoulder and streaked his face, while his distinctive hat had been placed on top of his torso to be carried in with him. Paul Martin directed the four men who were carrying him to place him on one of the two examining tables in the front room of his office. He turned impatiently to Joe, who was attempting to follow them, and laid a hand on his arm.

“Joe, I don’t want you collapsing on me. Now please go and sit down in that chair over in the corner and just try to rest. As soon as I know anything about your brother I’ll let you know.”

He wasn’t really surprised when Joe hardly seemed to hear him. And he didn’t have time to press the issue. Other injured men were beginning to arrive in a steady stream through his door. He had to try to evaluate at a glance how serious each man’s condition was and determine where he should be placed. There was another examining table and a couch in the front room as well as three beds in the back room. There were also a number of cots in a storage area that could be brought out in case of an emergency. And this certainly qualified, Paul thought grimly. He could only hope that his facilities would prove sufficient. Rolling up his sleeves he turned to examine the next patient being brought in.

Meanwhile, Joe pulled up a chair next to where Hoss lay and painfully sat down. His head was throbbing.

“Hoss…hey, Hoss,” he managed in a weak voice. “You want to wake up, brother? Please, Hoss. I really need to talk to you.”

Hoss’s head moved from side to side and he made a small groaning sound. Finally his eyes slowly fluttered open.

“That’s it, Hoss,” Joe encouraged him. “Can you hear me?”

Hoss’s eyes focused on his brother’s face. “That you, Joe?” he croaked out.

Joe was almost weak with relief at hearing his brother’s voice. “Yeah, it’s me, you old galoot.”

“Dang it, Joe, when I saw all those men ridin’ up I was sure you had ta be with ‘em,” Hoss said. “I kept lookin’ for ya, but I never did see ya. ‘Course everything was pretty confused out there. What happened to ya anyways?”

Joe found himself averting his eyes and swallowing a lump in his throat. “Don’t worry about that right now, Hoss. There’ll be time for that later. The important thing is that the men got there before the Paiutes massacred everybody.”

Hoss grimaced with pain. “Yeah, they got there in time to drive off the Paiutes, but they didn’t stop ‘em from keepin’ firing back at us as they was ridin’ away. That’s how I got this bullet in my shoulder. Sure does hurt. Seems to be bleedin’ pretty bad too.”

“Well, you just hold on, big brother.” Joe tried to keep his voice encouraging. “Doc Martin’ll get around to you as soon as he can and he’ll fix you up as good as new.”

Hoss sighed and settled back onto the table. Then something occurred to him and his eyes grew wide. “The doc’s here. But that must mean…it must mean that Jackie Wade never got through…an’ nobody ever went out to take care of Adam.”

He looked to Joe with eyes that almost begged him to deny it.

But Joe couldn’t do that. With great reluctance he nodded his head. “That’s right, Hoss. Nobody ever did,” he said, his voice trembling. They continued to look at each other in silence, while the thoughts of both of them were filled with dark apprehension.

It was at that moment that a noise was heard at the door, and they turned their heads in time to see a figure appear there. The man was dirt covered and bedraggled and obviously exhausted. He held his arm as though it were injured. But none of that prevented Joe and Hoss from recognizing him.

“Jackie!” Joe exclaimed. Ignoring his own pain he got to his feet and began to move toward the man. Jackie Wade looked at him with a dazed expression that finally turned to recognition as Joe approached him.

“Mr. Cartwright,” he choked out, “I’m…sorry.” And with startling suddenness his eyes closed and he collapsed to the floor.

Doctor Martin was there almost immediately, kneeling at his side and checking for a pulse. He bowed his head for a moment, then looked up at Joe and spoke quietly. “I’m afraid he’s dead, son.”

Joe also bowed his head and he closed his eyes. He heard his brother speak softly from where he lay on the table.

“I guess he made it after all,” Hoss said.

Joe thought of all the men who had been killed or injured in the Paiute ambush, and of the brother back at home who, even now, might very well be dead. And now the death of Jackie Wade added one more to the grim toll.

How many victims would this dark dawn claim?

*****

Back at the Ponderosa, Ben Cartwright stood by the window of his oldest son’s room, his face illuminated by rays of early morning light. The beginning of a new day was usually a hopeful time, but right now he was finding it very hard to hold onto hope.

He turned his head and looked back to where Adam lay stirring restlessly in his bed. Since the arrow had been removed from his body, his wounds had been stitched or bound and his badly injured hand had been treated as best Ben knew how, Adam’s condition had not improved as his father would have wished. His breathing might be a little easier because of the herbs Hop Sing had administered, but his fever was increasing alarmingly despite their best efforts and he seemed unable to settle down. His low moans and incoherent murmurings had a disturbing effect on Ben. He didn’t know what more to do to help his son, and he feared that what he was doing now would not be enough. And on top of his anxiety for Adam there was also the fact that there had been no word of Hoss or Joe for many hours. Ben Cartwright was not a believer in the old axiom that no news was good news. He could not help but fear that the lack of news was ominous.

With a sigh, Ben resumed his seat by Adam’s bed. For the moment Adam seemed to be quieter. Then Ben noticed, with a start, that Adam’s eyes had opened. For a second he felt his heart leap with gladness, but he quickly realized that Adam was not truly awake. Rather, his eyes were simply staring, unfocused, at the ceiling. Still, it was the first sign that might indicate returning consciousness. Ben reached out to grasp his son’s uninjured hand.

“Adam…Adam…do you hear me, son?”

Slowly Adam’s eyes shifted over to look at his father. Ben tried to smile at him encouragingly, but it didn’t seem to register. Adam’s eyes moved back to the ceiling. Then he began to speak in a barely audible whisper.

“She’s there, Pa.”

Ben was startled. “What do you mean, son?”

“She’s smiling at me…holding out her hand to me.”

Ben shook his head, still confused. “Who is it, son?”

Adam did not respond immediately. A gentle smile played across his face. Ben felt the tension within him being stretched to the breaking point. Finally Adam spoke again, in the same low whisper.

“My mother.”

At those two words Ben felt his heart freeze up within him and a tremor flow through his entire body.

“She wants me to go with her. She’s waited such a long time…,” Adam continued.

“No Adam!!” Ben’s voice was frantic and his hand gripped his son’s with all the strength in his body. “You can’t go, son! Remember what your brother said about counting on your being here…and about not letting him down? And there is so much that you still have to do! The time will come for you to join your mother…but not now! Not yet! Please, son!”

Adam continued to stare at the ceiling and gave no sign as to whether he would heed his father…or not.

*****

Part Thirteen: Doolittle

Joe sat next to his brother, holding a cloth tightly against his bleeding shoulder. Hoss lay still, his eyes tightly shut and obviously in a great deal of pain. Doc Martin was busy dividing his energy between treating the worst of the wounded and directing the several volunteers that had arrived to help.

Joe glanced nervously down at his brother. “Hoss…Hoss…”

Hoss slowly opened his eyes. “Yeah, Joe.”

“I keep thinking about Adam….”

Hoss looked up at his brother with understanding, his eyes filled with pain from more than his wound. “I know what you mean, Joe. And it ain’t just Adam. I can’t even imagine what Pa’s goin’ through right now. One son hurt real bad and the other two missin’.”

“I can’t just sit here waiting, Hoss. I gotta do something!” Joe stood up and began to pace nervously in the close confines of the room. Near the opposite wall, Doc Martin struggled to remove a bullet as gently as possible as his patient screamed in pain. Two volunteers were attempting to hold him down, but with the wounded virtually piling up, there was no time for the niceties of ether.

Joe walked unsteadily over to him. “Doc…Doc….about Adam…”

Paul didn’t take the time to look at Joe as the wounded man twisted and turned in agony. “Hold him down, boys!”

“Doc!”

Exasperated, Paul snapped, “Joe, can’t you see I don’t have time for this!” He immediately regretted his words and glanced back at Joe with sympathy. “Just give me a minute here, Joe,” he said in a gentler voice.

Joe went back Hoss and tried to sit still with little success. When Doc had finished with the bullet wound, he went over to the Cartwright brothers, wiping the blood from his hands as the volunteers hefted another bleeding and unconscious man onto the examining table.

Hoss’s eyes opened wide as Paul began to probe his wound. “Hoss, Joe…I know what you boys want, but you can see what I’m dealing with here.”

“Aw, we know, Doc. It’s just that Adam’s hurt real bad and Pa ain’t had anybody but Hop Sing to help ‘im”. As the doctor proceeded to clean his wound, Hoss filled him in on Adam’s injuries, the lacerations, the disfigured hand, and the arrow in his back. At the mention of the arrow, Paul looked up sharply.

“A Paiute arrow?” Perhaps Adam’s injuries were somehow related to the near-massacre that had left wounded men all around them. Paul put the thought out of his mind temporarily. He just didn’t have the time or the energy for speculation.

“Yeah, Doc, it’s been in him since early yesterday.”

Paul expelled a breath in frustration. “Boys, I can’t leave but maybe we could send someone to the ranch. At least we can give Adam some morphine injections to help with the pain. But if that arrow’s been in as long as you say….” His eyes met Hoss’s and silent understanding passed between them.

“I’ll take it, Doc.”

Joe was anxious to get home, to see his father. It was almost an instinctual need. Even though he was a grown man, part of him still felt that, if he could see his father, talk to him, everything would work out. Pa would reassure him that he had done the right thing. But had he done the right thing? Joe shook his head in despair; so many dead and wounded; even his own brother, and for what? He still wasn’t any closer to helping Adam than he was before.

He felt guilty leaving Hoss but knew his brother was in good hands. Hoss was right, Pa was probably at the end of his rope and needed word that at least two of his sons were, for the most part, alright. And if morphine was all that the doc could do for Adam, well…there was some small comfort in knowing that he would no longer be in any pain.

“Joe, you shouldn’t even be out of bed. You have a concussion and….”

Joe stared at him, steely eyed.

Paul had seen the look before; it was one that all the Cartwrights shared when one of their own was in danger. “Right,” he nodded, “Well, I tried. Let me get you the morphine. Jonas took your horse over to the livery after he brought you here.”

As Paul prepared the syringes of morphine, Joe sat once more by Hoss’s side.

“You sure about this, Joe? I don’t like the idea of you riding so soon after a bad thump on the head.”

Joe smiled thinly. He knew Hoss needed to voice his concerns, but he also knew equally well that his brother would have done the exact same thing in his place. He gently squeezed Hoss’s good shoulder. “You just take care of yourself, Hoss.”

“I’ll be fine, Little Brother, you just mind your own advice.” Hoss hesitated, “Joe, tell Pa I’m alright and I’ll see him soon.” And with an optimism he didn’t really feel, he added, “And tell Adam the same thing.”

Joe smiled, collected the syringes from the doctor and started out the front door.

Outside cries of fresh grief echoed through the street as women searched for their husbands among the dead and dying. Overtones of anger and murmurs of revenge permeated the air. He paused and shook his head miserably. He had only wanted to help his brothers. How could it have come to this?

As he walked, shoulders slumped, towards the livery a voice called out, “Joe! Joe Cartwright.”

Lost in his own thoughts, Joe was unaware until he felt a light tap on his back. Spinning around, his hand instinctively went to his holster, only then remembering that his gun had been stolen the night before. Roy Coffee stood beside him, squinting in the noonday sun.

“Take it easy, Joe.” Peering into Joe’s face, he said, “Well, you look a mite better than you did last night. How ya feeling, Little Joe?”

“I’m fine, Roy.” Joe answered impatiently, “Listen, I can’t stay and talk. I’ve gotta get back to the Ponderosa.”

Roy shook his head and said, “I’ve got me a pretty angry town on my hands, Joe. Folks are all stirred up and talkin’ revenge on the Paiutes. What I can’t figure is why the miners and cowboys had any mind to go take on them Paiute in the first place.”

Joe nervously looked up and down the street, anywhere except Roy’s eyes and, for the hundredth time that day, wished that his Pa were here.

Roy watched Joe’s reactions carefully as he continued. “Now, I heard tell from a few folks that you might know just a little bit about that. Why don’t you come on down to the jail with me for a little while and we’ll talk about it.” Roy put a light, but restraining hand on Joe’s arm.

Joe, nerves and patience strained to the breaking point, jerked his arm out of Roy’s light grip.

The look in Roy’s eyes allowed no argument. “Now, ya see here, Joe…I ain’t just askin’ ya, I’m tellin’ ya.”

*****

Part Fourteen: AdamFan16

The groans around him were making rest impossible. Hoss shifted to ease his shoulder, wondering yet again where Joe was on his ride home. He wanted so badly to accompany his little brother; he had almost ignored doctor’s orders and attempted it. But the wave of pain that swept over him each time he attempted to sit up assured him that the last thing Pa needed was another son dragging home half-dead.

He had failed. He was simply supposed to keep Little Joe from getting hurt, and look what a horrible mess had resulted. The Paiute war-cries, mingled with the drunken yells of the rabble from Virginia City, rang in his ears. And Black Cloud, back straight even as he turned in defeat, a Paiute curse on his lips.

”Black Cloud!” Hoss exclaimed the name aloud, “DOC!”

Paul came at a run, his fraying nerves straining across his face, “Hoss, if you don’t calm down, I’ll give you something that will do it for you. I don’t have time to worry with you Cartwrights right now…” his sharp tone changed when he saw the expression on Hoss’s face, “That’s a full-time job on a good day.”

”You gotta’ get someone to ride after Little Joe! Black Cloud got away…”  A sudden spasm of pain cut off the frenzy of words, “He was headin’ straight back to the ranch! Joe’s gonna’ run right into him!”

Paul rubbed a hand over his heavy eyes, “I’ll send someone over to tell Roy Coffee. “ He turned to go, muttering, “I don’t think I want to know how this whole mess got started.”

”You surely don’t, Doc.” Hoss heaved a sigh, attempting to relax, “You surely don’t.”

*****

Adam lay still, slowly drawing a shallow breath. Anything deeper sent him back into the stygian darkness from which he had just awakened. This light was so wonderful; he didn’t want to go back.

It was strange, he could see Pa, and he knew Pa was holding his hand, talking to him, but he couldn’t hear him, and the touch was vague and illusionary.

There was a barrier, a wavering, transparent barrier, separating him from the world, from his family. It was like being underwater, everything jumbling and in motion, nothing solid. He wanted to let Pa know that he wasn’t in pain, that he was alright…but somehow he knew talking would propel him out of this wonderful nimbus and back into the pain.

He would have to make a choice; the foreboding was like a dark shadow ahead. Pa’s hand was the last thing holding him to that world where pain and confusion reigned supreme. It didn’t seem worth going back…not when this blissful light beckoned.

”Son.” Suddenly Pa’s voice was very clear. “Not yet, Adam. Winter’s almost over, the Ponderosa is stirring toward spring again. You have to be here to see the new grass pushing up, the crystal beauty of the lake. Remember? This year it will be even more beautiful than ever before, if you’ll be here to see it.” There was a catch in Pa’s voice, Adam wasn’t sure why. “I’m planning on talking to old Grierson about that piece of property just north of us, but I’ll need you to negotiate that contract with me. And those ledgers…don’t you think we’ve both avoided them long enough? We need you, son, don’t just walk out on us now.”

The barrier was beginning to crumble, the hand holding his was becoming tighter. Pa reached up the other hand to touch his face. The cool brush was almost painful against his heated skin. Adam fought it, trying to go back to the light. He drew in a deep breath…and darkness enveloped him once more.

*****

Part Fifteen: Grimesgirl

Roy pushed the door closed behind him and, with a firm grip on the youngest Cartwright’s arm, steered him to a chair and firmly told him to “Sit.”

”All right, now Joe. I want you to tell me what you know about this…this battle, fight, attack, or whatever it was. I have a pretty good idea that you know exactly what happened and you ain’t goin’ anywhere until you tell me everythin’ and, I mean everythin’ you know.”

Joe bowed his throbbing head and tried to organize his thoughts. He knew he had to get home. Adam needed him. But, knowing Roy, he also knew that he was going to have to tell him something.

”Roy, please, you gotta let me get back to the ranch. Adam’s hurt bad and Doc’s given me some morphine for him. You just gotta let me go. Look, why don’t you ride with me and I promise I’ll tell you what happened. Well, at least as much as I can. I did try to gather up some people to help Hoss. He and some of our hands were pinned down and I needed to get some help and get it fast. But, believe me; I don’t know what happened after I left that saloon. I woke up in Doc’s house. You can ask him. He’ll tell ya that I ain’t been anywhere but his place for the last several hours.”

Roy looked thoughtfully at Joe. He’d known this young man all his life. He knew that the Cartwrights could be depended on to tell the truth. Oh sure, Joe had his share of run-ins what with his liking of poker and his seeming ease to end up in the middle of any fight. But, he had never known him to lie about something as important as this situation.

”First of all, Joe, what’s this about Adam? I know Hoss is over at Doc Martin’s, but I didn’t know that Adam was in this fight, too.”

”No, Roy, Adam is at the ranch. This is how this whole thing started. The Indians took him and hurt him bad. He’s got an arrow in his back and Doc Martin says he can’t go to him now. So he gave me something to help the pain. Now do you see why I gotta go?”

“All right, Joe, I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do. You and I are going to get us a few men together. Then we’re gonna ride back to where this fight took place and while we’re doing that you’re going to—“

”Roy, you don’t understand. I need to get home. Going back to that place is just gonna delay me getting this medicine home to Adam. Please can’t we go to the ranch first? After I see about Adam, I promise ya, I’ll go with you to where we were ambushed and tell you all I know.”

”Okay, Joe we’ll do it your way. Now you wait right here. I’m gonna go and get a couple of men I can trust and we’ll get on our way.”

*****

”Adam, son can you hear me?’ Ben bent over his son. Adam’s grip on his hand was slowly relaxing and Ben shook it to try to draw Adam back to him.

Hop Sing watched from the doorway. He had come just back with fresh water and towels. It seemed like he had spent the last several hours drawing cool water from the well and carrying it upstairs. Adam was not improving. For once, Hop Sing was at a loss as to what to do. Usually his herbs seemed to perform magic. True, those that he had used earlier had helped Adam’s breathing, but the others had not eased his pain or kept down the fever. Where was Doctor Martin? It wasn’t like him not to come. It had been much too long since that young ranch hand had ridden away. Had something happened in town that had kept the doctor away? And where were Joe and Hoss? They, too, should have returned hours ago.

Ben raised his head and motioned for Hop Sing.

”We’re losing him Hop Sing.” Ben’s voice shook with worry. “He’s slipping away moment by moment.”

”No, Mr. Cartlight, Mistah Adam strong. He fight hard. He no go away.”

”No Hop Sing, he—he just told me he saw his mother. I think he wants to go. I think he was free of the pain then and I’m afraid that he wants to go back to that place. Hop Sing, I can’t reach him anymore. God help me, I can’t reach him,” Ben’s voice broke on a sob and the tears spilled down his face.

*****

Part Sixteen: PRj

Ben shook his head as he lowered it and whispered, “I can’t reach him. Please, Lord, let him stay!”

Hop Sing left the room as he heard horses coming into the yard. As he left, he glanced at Ben, noticing his unawareness of the horses and was consumed with angst over his sons’, all of his sons. He’d never seen his friend in more torment or sorrow. He left the room thinking he could deal with what ever had rode into the yard.

Adam drew a deep breath.

Ben found comfort in the deep breath his son took, even though he could tell it brought his son nothing but anguish. He closed his eyes and listened to Adam’s breathing, feeling a father’s pain every time his son breathed in a shallow drawn breath. He sighed and wished he could take the pain from his son. Wondering if he was selfish in wanting his son to stay with him and not go with his mother.

He opened his eyes and gazed at the spot in the ceiling where Adam was looking and had said his mother was waiting for him. He cleared his throat and said, “Not yet, Elisabeth. I still need him.”

Ben felt a tight grip on his hand. He looked over at Adam’s face, his heart dropped as he squeezed his son’s hand to offer him the only comfort he could.

Adam’s face was tight with torment as a wave of pain, originating in his back, quickly spread in all directions, consuming him, and drew him from the dark escape of unconsciousness. He held tight to his only life line, the only thing that kept him from staying in the peacefulness of the other world that was still calling for him, his father’s hand.

Hop Sing burst into the room his face a shade lighter then usual and the look of fear on his face. “Mister Cartwright, some men are here. They say they’re from town and want to talk to you, about Mistah Hoss and Little Joe.”

“I can’t leave Adam right now. Tell them to wait, and then come back.” Ben felt torn. He wanted news about his sons but could not leave Adam in the state he was in. He prayed that this spasm of pain would end soon. Not only for Adam’s sake but also so he could go and learn any news the men might be offering about what had happened to Joseph and Hoss.

*****

Part Seventeen: tbuster

The depth of hell was grasping his body with a pain that even heaven couldn’t seem to help extinguish. The tears that fell from a father’s love above did nothing for the suffering that consumed him. Rather they burned deeper than the pointed arrow that brought him here. He turned again to her loving familiar face. The same beautiful brown eyes shown with a radiance he had missed all of his life but for his dreams and longed once again to join her. He turned his own beseeching eyes to her comforting gaze as if she could help him with the struggle that seemed to be left entirely to him. The lure of a peaceful and promising existence over the painful reality of the other.

Yet, the later seemed to have a stronger hold as Adam watched her moving on the wings of angels further away. He called and her only response was a smile, tender and reassuring, as she stayed only close enough for him to want more of her ethereal offerings. Raking, agonizing flames spread across his body, reminding him he was not finished with the darkness that kept stealing the light each time he reached out for her. He cringed with the added responsibility that even at death’s door he could not ignore. A voice more anxious and needing called him back to arms. Opening his eyes, he squinted in painful resolve to stay where he was needed most and responded to another familiar and just as loving face.

“Pa?”

*****

Part Eighteen: Cressida

Ben raised his head, not sure that he’d heard right.

“Adam,” he whispered. “Son…”

“Where’s…she was here.”

Ben let go of Adam’s hand and touched his cheek instead—still hot.

“Who was here?” he asked, wanting to hear a clear answer from his son.

Adam looked around the room, eyes glittering with fever, but without the wild, pained-crazed gaze of a few minutes before. Something had changed and Ben wasn’t sure it was for the better.

“You said…Liz…,” Adam sighed and his eyes closed. “You needed…”

“Yes, Adam, I said I needed you. We all do. Hoss, and Joe…”

“Joe…” A slight frown creased Adam’s brow and then a glimmer of a smile shadowed his face. “Joe…Hoss?”

“I don’t know.”

The door opened quietly behind Ben, but only the cool air from the hall made him aware of it. His thought was for more cloths and fresh water, and another glass—Adam had knocked the last one to the floor. “Hop Sing, bring some—”

“It ain’t Hop Sing, but I’m more than willin’ ta go an’ get him if that’s what you want.”

Ben turned a little to give his friend a weary look. “He didn’t say—didn’t tell me you were here, Roy.”

“We had trouble along the trail. I come up behind a bit.”

Heart heavy with what Roy’s presence had to mean, Ben asked the burning question. “Joseph?”

“He’s with Hop Sing.”

Ben rose from his chair, some of his fear lifting before he realized that Joe would be in the room if he could be. “He’s with Hop Sing? Why didn’t he come up?”

“Ben—he’s—Doc wouldn’t let him ride, but he must have snuck on out after us. I laid back on the trail and caught him when the rest went on ahead. S’pose he’ll spend more time than he likes in bed, but he’ll live.” He nodded towards Adam. “How ‘bout him?”

Ben dunked a clean cloth into the basin of water, squeezed it out, and dabbed at Adam’s forehead. “He’s half out of his head with pain and fever. Gave him some laudanum last night—early this morning, but I was afraid to give him too much without Paul saying what he really needs. Where is Paul? And where is Hoss?”

“Now, Ben—you’re gonna give yourself apoplexy. Hoss is in town, with the doc. He has him all fixed up—shot in the shoulder, is all. Hurts, and I don’t who’s going to do all the work around here for a fair bit, but there’re none of your boys gonna come out of this less than he was.”

“Pa…Joe?”

Roy looked over at Adam at this and then dropped his eyes to the floor with a slight shake of his head.

“Yeah,” Ben threw the cloth on the table. “Stay with him, Roy—I want to see Joe.” Ben strode over to the door, turning once to look at his eldest.

*****

Part Nineteen: PRj

Ben went down the hallway and heard voices coming from Joe’s room as he neared the door.

“I don’t want to lay here, Hop Sing, I need to see Adam!”

Ben walked through the door. “Joe! Thank God!” He went to his son’s bed and took his hand. “What happened to you, son?” He noticed the bandage around his head.

“Pa, I’ll be fine. I need to see Adam. Please, let me see Adam, Pa,” Joe pleaded.

“After you tell me what happened to you.” Ben raised his eyebrow and sat down on the bed not letting go of his son’s hand, feeling a third of his angst leave him.

“Pa, please…” Joe saw the pain his father was in and relented. “Okay. I was riding into town after Doctor Martin…” He settled himself into his pillows and recounted the tale from when Hoss and the ranch hands caught up to him right up to passing out in the hallway nearing Adam’s door and waking up to find Hop Sing hovering over him bandaging his head again.

“Please tell me I did the right thing, Pa.” Joe closed his eyes. “I need to hear I did the only thing I could.”

“Joe, you did the right thing.” Ben took his son’s hand in both of his. “If the Paiutes would’ve overrun Hoss, they wouldn’t have stopped there. They would’ve continued their deadly rampage and who knows how many would have been killed. No one was safe, Joe. Not the people of Virginia City or the ranchers and farmers that live around it.” He sighed. “I’m glad you were able to save Hoss, Joe.”

“Hoss? What about Adam, Pa? He’s not…”

“Joe,” Ben held him down. “He’s still alive for now. His running a high fever and is in a lot of pain. I wish the doctor was here. I had to remove the arrow from his back and stitch him up.” He had a faraway look to him.

“Pa, can I please go see him now?” Joe looked deep into his father’s eyes. “Please, I’ll take it slow and you can help me over to his room but I have to see him, Pa. Did Roy give you the morphine injections for Adam that doc sent home with me?”

“No,” Ben stood to his feet and helped Joe stand. “Adam needs them.”

They walked down the hallway to Adam’s room.

Joe peered in and closed his eyes. He couldn’t believe how ashen Adam was. As they drew closer to the bed, he noticed purple around his eyes and lips. He sighed as his father helped him sit down in the chair next to the bed.

“Roy, do you have the morphine for Adam?” Ben asked.

“No, I don’t have it. I thought Joe had it.” Roy looked up from beside the bed as he took the washcloth from Adam’s head and rewet it.

“Oh, Pa, I left them in my saddlebags!” Joe started to stand.

“I get them. You stay.” Hop Sing called from the door. He’d heard and watched everything; never to far away too be helpful and ready should he be needed again.

Ben closed his eyes, thankful his son was going to sleep easier, thus bringing better healing to his ravaged body.

*****

Black Cloud watched as smoke rose from the Ponderosa house. He recalled the events that had just played out in his enemies’ camp. Going over everything so he could plan his next move without forgetting what the last battle had taught him.

He had recognized some of the men that were waiting in the yard from the surprise attack that came from Virginia City. He’d watched as the Cartwright’s cook came out and talked with them and then went back inside. He was surprised to see Joe and the Sheriff come in with more men. He had been hoping one of his men had killed the youngest Cartwright.

He shook his head and squinted his eyes, “Where has my plan gone so wrong?” he asked himself.

He felt the rage stirring up inside him. Adam was the cause of my brother’s death and now he’s ruined my plans for vengeance. He thought as he cursed.

“I hope you’re dead, Adam Cartwright. If you’re not, I’ll be seeing you again and this time I won’t let you go half dead. I’ll finish what I start.”

Some of his men joined him in his watch.

“What is our next move, Black Cloud?” A brave asked.

“We take our fight right to the source of our pain.” He pointed to the house. “We only have to wait for the right moment and then we attack.”

*****

Part Twenty: Grimesgirl

Black Cloud sat apart from his remaining warriors. The hatred in his mind seemed to grow with each passing moment. He thought back to his younger days with his brother Young Wolf. Adam Cartwright had been a friend to his brother. Adam Cartwright had stolen the hours that should have been his. Adam Cartwright was the reason his brother had died at Sharp’s Peak. His resolve to make that hated man suffer made his stomach twist and his heart restrict so that his breath came in short gasps.

He remembered the two or three times he had come to the ranch house with his brother. He closed his eyes and tried to picture where his enemy’s room was located. He looked again at the building below. There were so many lighted windows. If only he could remember. He again closed his eyes and traveled back in time.

*****

Ben watched Joe as his head started to nod. Quickly he was beside him.

”Joe, come with me, son. You need to be in your own bed. Hop Sing will be back with that morphine and after I give it to your brother he’s going to be out of it for a while. You can’t do anything for him. Come, let me help you.”

Joe started awake. “No, Pa. I want to stay here.”

”Joe, you’re going to fall out of that chair. You can’t keep you eyes open. Now, be sensible. Get a few hours sleep and then you can sit with Adam. I promise.”

Joe looked at his brother and shuddered. He looked even paler than when he had first come into the room. He knew his father was right. His eyes were refusing to stay open and his head was about to explode.

”Alright, Pa, if you promise. I’ll go lie down. You stay here. Don’t leave Adam alone. I can make it on my own.”

As he started to rise, the room took a quick dip and, if not for his father’s arm around his waist, he would have been on the floor.

”Guess maybe I do need some help, Pa,” he said, with a small smile.

*****

Black Cloud had made his plan. He crouched in the shadows beside the bedroom window. He had chosen correctly. He could hear the father talking to the youngest son. He could hear their footsteps on the wooden planks of the floor. He listened as they slowly faded.

He quickly stepped through the window and in two long strides was by Adam’s bedside. His dark eyes burned with hatred. His enemy still lived. But, he vowed, before this day had passed that would no longer be true. But, before that, he would see that this man who had caused his brother’s death would regret the day he was born. He would be sure that this family would see the eldest son suffer and then he would kill him before their very eyes.

He bent and picked up the limb body and started toward the window. Before he could climb out he could feel the trickles of blood from the re-opened wounds.

*****

An impossible thought went through Adam’s fevered mind. He was being lifted. Had his mother returned? Was she taking him with her? No, the hands and arms that held him were not soft. They were hard with muscle and rough from outdoor living.

He couldn’t grasp what was happening. Where was he being taken? Where was his father? Joe?

It was all too much to try to sort out. He again returned to that welcome blackness.

Hop Sing hurried into the house with the vials of morphine. He quickly made his way up the stairs. He smiled as he saw Mr. Cartlight helping Little Joe to his room.

He stepped through the door of Adam’s room and stopped short. The bed was empty!!!

”Mr. Cartlight, come quick. Mistah Adam gone.”

*****

Part Twenty-One: debpet

Ben Cartwright appeared at the door to his oldest son’s room, his face ashen. His first thought on hearing Hop Sing call out “Mistah Adam gone!” was that he meant Adam was…dead. Now, seeing the empty bed, he felt a kind of dizzy disorientation as an entirely different reality presented itself. What had happened here? WHERE WAS HIS SON? And where was Roy? He had left Roy with Adam when he went to see Joe. When he and Joe had come back to Adam’s room Roy had been there standing quietly in the corner. Joe had not even seemed to notice he was there. To tell the truth Ben hadn’t paid very much attention to him either. And now, what had happened to him when Ben left to take Joe back to his own room?

Joe stood next to his father, his face also pale and strained. They had just about made it to his room when Hop Sing’s sudden cry resounding through the upper story of the ranch house caused them to rush back. The fear evoked by that cry had sent a surge of adrenalin coursing through him, lending him the momentary strength to make it back to his brother’s room. Now, he and his father were unconsciously leaning against each other, supporting each other as they strove to take in the scene before them.

It was the sound of a groan that brought their attention to the figure lying next to the wall at the far side of the window. Roy Coffee was attempting to sit up, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. Ben and Joe hurried over to him and Ben went down on his knee beside him. Hop Sing hovered behind them.

“Roy, what happened here?” Ben demanded tensely.

Roy was shaking his head attempting to clear it. “Darned if I know, Ben. When you and Joe left, I came over here to stand beside Adam. I was just standin’ there with my back to the window when I felt somethin’ hit me on the back of the head and everything went black. I swear I never heard anything before it happened. And that’s all I remember.”

Roy began to struggle to his feet with Ben helping him. And then he noticed the empty bed.

“What’s this? Where is Adam, Ben?” he said.

“That’s just it. WHERE IS HE?” Ben returned. The desperation in his voice was painful to hear.

“Pa, look there!” Joe exclaimed pointing to the window sill. Ben and Roy both turned their eyes in that direction.

There on the sill there were marks of some sort of shoe, possibly a soft shoe such as a moccasin. There were a couple of drops of blood next to them and more drops between the window and the bed, and something else. Ben knelt down and picked up a small black feather. With wide eyes Ben held it up, and he, Roy, Joe and Hop Sing all stared at it. A feeling of dismay overcame Ben as he realized that his critically injured son, so close to death already, was now in the hands of his bitter enemy.

They were all silent for a moment, and then Roy spoke up. “Black Cloud must have gotten his hands on Adam. Looks like we’d better try to get after them as quick as we can. They can’t have gotten very far, not with Adam in the condition he’s in.”

Ben shook himself out of his almost trance-like state. “Of course, we need to get going right away.” He grabbed Hop Sing’s arm. “Hop Sing, I need you to get a few medical supplies ready. I’m afraid we’ll need them.” And together the two men hurried out the door, leaving Roy and Joe.

Roy looked at Joe with serious eyes. “Joe, you ain’t in any shape to be ridin’ along with us, and the last thing your pa needs is to have you fallin’ off your horse. But I know you well enough to realize that nothing I say is gonna stop you from comin’ along, so I’m just gonna say be as careful as you can. Understand?”

“I understand, Roy,” Joe replied quietly.

Roy laid a hand on Joe’s arm as his eyes bored into him. “And don’t you think I’m forgettin’ that we’ve still got a long talk comin’ about that battle with the Indians and what you know about how the whole thing got started.”

Joe nodded and swallowed hard. Roy noticed his evident discomfort with the subject—and he didn’t like what it implied. But there was a more pressing matter to deal with at the moment. Keeping a grip on Joe’s arm, he steered him out the door.

*****

As Adam stirred to semi-consciousness, the first thing he realized was that he was no longer being carried. He must have been laid down somewhere. But his pain was just as intense as before, and it made him moan.

Then he saw her. His mother appeared to him again, standing a little ways off in a kind of aura of light with her long dark hair flowing down the back of her loose white robe. But now she was not holding out her hand as though to encourage him to come with her. She looked at him with a solemn expression and her eyes held a touch of what looked like sadness. She seemed to be trying to communicate with him. As before, there were no actual words, but he could somehow grasp the essence of what she was trying to express. She wanted to let him know that she had seen his father’s pain at the thought of losing him, and that she realized it was too soon for him to go.

There was another trial facing him now, as difficult as any he had faced before, but he must be strong and fight to hold onto life whatever happened. She reached out with the assurance that he would never be alone in his struggle. And someday, when the time was right, she would still be there waiting for him. Her hand reached up to her mouth, and she blew him a gentle kiss. He sensed a feeling of warmth and love wash over him as the light surrounding her dimmed and she faded from his vision just before he settled back into unconsciousness.

Watching him, Black Cloud and his companion sensed nothing of what he was experiencing. To them it simply seemed that he moaned, stirred in a feverish delirium and then settled down again.

The companion looked to Black Cloud questioningly. “Should we not have taken him farther away? When they find he is gone, they will be following after us.”

Black Cloud shook his head. “It is good that they should catch up with us. They must see him suffer and die at my hand. Only then will my revenge be complete.” He made a sweeping gesture with his arm. “Place the warriors in readiness around the clearing. We must be prepared before they arrive.”

His companion nodded briefly and turned away to do his bidding.

*****

Part Twenty-Two: Cressida

 “Stop!”

“You would have him die now?”

Black Cloud let the teepee flap drop behind him and struck the vessel from his cousin’s hand. “You succor my enemy!”

“He wasn’t always our enemy. We called him friend.”

“He was always my enemy.”

Falling Water leaned back on her heels and considered the angry man who loomed so large in the tent. “Yes, and that is your sin.”

“My sin,” he spat. “He and his kind corrupted your mind—turned you from the ways of our ancestors.”

“Do the ways of our ancestors require that you kill the sons of your father’s friend?” She nodded towards the unconscious man. “That you attack him and kill his hand. Destroy, when they come to give…”

“They give what is not theirs to give.” He thumped his chest. “It is our land that they grow their beef on…”

“We could grow our own beef if you weren’t so stubborn…”

His hand rose but stopped under her fierce gaze.

“No,” she said. “Even in that you are a coward, a small man, for all your strength. You seek war because it makes you bigger, but it does not. It will lead to our deaths.” She continued her ministrations. “If he dies, you have nothing, not even your ‘revenge’, for he will slip away and never know otherwise. Go, have your council, make your plans—it will not feed your people or keep us warm when the summer goes.”

Black Cloud whirled around and tore open the flap that kept out the chill evening air. He turned back, unable ignore this thorn in his side. “They take our land, our life—I fight for that.”

“No,” she whispered. “You fight for what was our life. Winnemucca looked back because he was an old man. You are young, and should make peace with what will come, with him.”

“I will never make peace with him!” He ducked through the opening and was gone.

She stared at the flap of deer hide, still quivering from the violence of his exit. “No, you will not.” She looked down at the man sprawled at her knees. “But there will be peace; the dead have that, at least.”

*****

Ben sat down heavily next to the campfire. “They moved fast.”

“Yep,” Roy threw the dregs of his coffee into the fire. “Have good horses. Always did.”

“You thinkin’ of going back to deputize more men?”

Roy shook his head. “No. I think there’s been enough deputizing hereabouts lately.”

“He didn’t mean any harm…”

“Meant a lot o’ harm, Ben. That boy raised a rabble. He knew what would happen.”

Ben looked down at his hands, tightly gripped around his knees. “I can’t—I would have lost all of them.”

Roy tipped his hat forward and rubbed at the still aching lump on the back of his head. “Incitin’ a riot, that’s what I’m thinkin’.”

“Roy, that’s…”

“Thirty days. O’ course, I’ll let him twist a bit before I tell ‘im. That boy needs to know there’s the law and then there’s outside the law. He crossed that line and I don’t care who his daddy is or if we play cards come Saturday night, he has to face his punishment.”

“Roy…”

“That’s all I’m gonna say about it, Ben.” He yawned and took his eyes away from the fire, letting them adjust before he took one last walk around to check his guards. “Sometimes I think you Cartwrights could talk yourselves out of a date with the devil himself.”

Ben paled, thinking of how many times they’d been unable to talk their way out of anything.

Roy saw the reaction and patted his friend’s shoulder as he rose to make his circuit. “Adam has friends among the Paiute. Not all of ‘em think like that young hot-head. You rest, and we’ll get an early start in the morning.”

Ben settled back into his bedroll and looked at the stars, so clear in the crisp air of an early spring night. One son lying in Paul’s surgery, a bullet just dug from his shoulder, one concussed, half out of his mind with guilt and fear for his brother, and confined at home, and the other — back in the hands of one who may have maimed him for life. Ben Cartwright raised shaking hands to his face to block out the night, and the vision of what might come tomorrow.

*****

Part Twenty-Three: Cressida

Ben’s rest was anything but peaceful. The last tense confrontation between his son and Roy was as unexpected as it was brief, and he regretted the impulse that had made him order Joe to stay behind. Joe knew the area ahead very well, and he was an able tactician and had a knack for putting himself into his enemy’s shoes. And how he would feel if he didn’t have the chance to his brother one last time—Ben knew the odds of Adam surviving this move, let alone the coming fight, were small. His eyes snapped open as he realized Joe knew those odds, as well. And Joe would move heaven and earth to try to change those odds. He sat up and looked over at Roy, softly snoring under his blanket. Roy wouldn’t—would he?

*****

Many miles away, Black Cloud and his companion had one last quiet conference. Retreating to his camp had made him unsettled, to say the least, but the alternative had been to face too great an enemy in too susceptible a place to have the revenge he sought. That his enemy would choose to bed down for the night surprised him, but the morning light would make the revenge all the sweeter. Ben Cartwright would have a clear prospect from which to view his son’s death.

*****

Part-Twenty Four: Nanuk

Joe’s mind reeled when he thought back over the last few hours. A merciless throbbing had taken hold just behind his forehead, and his eyes were burning with exhaustion and tiredness. He wouldn’t have trusted his mind all that well just at the moment, but there was one thought foremost in his mind that kept his weary body up: his brother was going to die.

The reflection made his stomach quench, and for a second he held onto the stable door until his vision had settled. He knew his father and the sheriff had gone after the Indians who had taken his brother, but he doubted that they would come very far in the Stygian darkness of the night. The moon, which should have been a small crescent, was covered in rapidly piling up clouds, and from the smell of the wind Joe knew they were going to have rain before the morning.

Inwardly he cursed. All their lives had been turned upside down when Adam had opened the door. God, had it only been three days? Three days in which all hell had broken loose because of a decision one man had made? Joe swallowed and tried hard to keep down the bile that was rising in his throat. He squeezed his eyes shut and drew a shuddering breath, but his body flamed with fear and horror and left him breathless.

God, Adam,’ he thought, despairing, ‘you have paid a horrible price.’

His fingers groped blindly for something to hold onto in his distress, and when he heard Sport neigh softly next to him, he buried his head in the warm flank and for the length of a heartbeat found solace in the presence of the other being.

And then he heard it. There was an answering whinny outside.

Joe froze.

For a moment he tried to remember where he had left his saddlebags and the rifle, but then he recognized the sound and the horse and his body drooped.

Hoss.

Hoss was here.

Joe didn’t care how his brother had managed to get here. Hoss was here. His brother was here. There was one tiny light in his darkness.

Joe took a deep breath. Then he went out of the barn and prepared to tell his brother what had happened.

*****

Part Twenty-Five: Grimesgirl

Falling Water entered the teepee with a bowl of cool water. She had already used one bowl trying to bring down the fever of the man that lay lifeless on the well-worn bear skin.

She knelt by his side. Her mind returned to those past years when Young Wolf and Adam had bonded and pledged to remain blood brothers for all time. How could things have turned out so badly? She never could understand why or when Young Wolf began to hate Adam Cartwright. It seemed that after Adam returned from his years back east at that place that had drawn him away from his family and friends, Young Wolf’s distrust and dislike became an almost living thing. He never explained. Had Adam done or said something that brought about the break between them? Or was it the years of separation? Young Wolf never explained and, at that time, she would never have dared ask.

She laid cold cloths on Adam head and chest. The blood was still leaking slowly from the wound in his back. She had tried and tried to get it to stop but the stitches had broken and nothing she did would completely stop the bleeding. She knew that unless that wound was closed again, Adam would surely die. They had no medicine man with them and she had used, to little avail, what little knowledge she had of herbs. She wished now that she had learned more of the ways of the medicine man.

She pushed back the sweat soaked hair and rested her hand on the flushed and burning cheek. Her eyes filled with tears as she thought of the horror that had been inflicted and that which was still to come.

As she continued her ministrations, she heard footsteps approaching the teepee. She knew that the moment was close at hand. Black Cloud was coming for his revenge.

*****

Ben sat staring blankly into the distance. His mind was filled with memories and pictures from the past. He knew he should be making plans, doing something, anything, to bring about the release of his oldest son. But, the worry, the exhaustion had brought, not plans, but indecision to this strong, take charge man. At the moment all he could think of was the moments and years, good and bad, that he had shared with his beloved son.

*****

Part Twenty-Six: AdamFan16

“Pa!” Hoss lifted his head wearily, his voice hoarse, “Joe?”

Chubb stopped by the barn, stretching his neck back at his sagging master. The ride home had taken more endurance than Hoss knew he possessed.

”Thanks, boy.” he muttered, wondering at the silence around him. He knew how Pa was when one of his boys was hurt. The man could go for days without food or rest, always alert to the slightest sound.

The slide from saddle to ground was accomplished mainly by gravity. The jar when his feet landed almost sent him to his knees. His shoulder felt as if the bullet was still in it, burning hot and piercing.

”Pa?” this time the call came as a question.

There were no lamps lit in the house, he realized for the first time. In fact, except for a light in the barn, the ranch buildings were cloaked in darkness.

He reached clumsily for Chubb’s reins, “Dadburnit!” he muttered, trying to focus on them in the wan light.

A movement to his left sent his good hand flying to his hip.

”Who’s there?” he demanded, hoping his voice belied the weakness threatening to overpower him.

The answering voice was as wobbly as his knees felt, “Hoss—you made it home!”

*****

”Again I find you here?” Black Cloud’s question came as an accusation.

Falling Water dipped another cloth into the bowl and gave no indication that she realized Black Cloud was even in the tepee.

His iron fingers arrested her movement, “You waste your efforts on him. The moon already begins to set, it would be better if you slept.”

She sent him a scorching glare, “And it would be better if my cousin would recall all the kindnesses of this man.”

The grip tightened, “You tire me with your rebukes. Why do you persist? He is only one among many whites I have killed. You have never before interfered.”

”It was Winnemucca’s place, not mine.” She attempted to break free, but Black Cloud merely shifted his fingers and waited. “Now he is dead, there must be someone to remind you of your folly.”

”You love this white, don’t you?” The slow smile spreading across his face was pure evil. “That is the reason for this care, is it not, cousin?”

”I would not let an innocent man suffer half of what he already has,” Falling Water straightened, the fire in her eyes cooling to ice. “I am not a monster like you, Black Cloud.”

”You don’t deny it.” Black Cloud persisted, that slow smile reappearing, “Once, when Winnemucca suggested that you would be a good bride for me, you spit on the ground at my feet and declared that you would never marry me, whom you did not love. Why do you not deny that you love this man?”

”I do not love this man.” Falling Water said stiffly, her face a wall of masked emotion.

”You lie!” Black Cloud threw her wrist down, knocking the water bowl over. “Prepare yourself, cousin. Tomorrow you will take part in your beloved’s death!”

*****

Part Twenty-Seven: Nanuk

Ben quietly led the horse away from the small campsite.

Somewhere in the back of his mind he felt guilty that he left Roy behind, and he wondered what his old friend was going to say to him the next time they met. If there was to be a next time, that was. Ben wasn’t sure of that.

Sometime during the long night the sudden flash of a tiny idea had broken through the stupor and waking nightmares; an idea so absurd that either it was going to kill him and Adam or was going to be their last chance. Ignoring the lurch his stomach gave whenever he thought of the fate of his oldest son, Ben was resolved to try. ‘There’s nothing to lose either,’ he thought grimly.

Assuming he was far enough from the small campsite to be able to leave unheard, Ben mounted, then directed Buck towards the Indian camp. If he wanted to save his son, he needed help, but it wasn’t help that any white man would be able to give.

Doubt held his thoughts in a tight grip as he rode. The bridge he was going to set his feet on was just one narrow string of hope, and Ben wondered whether he would be able to cross safely to the other side when the abyss was already looming over his head. Briefly he thought about Hoss and Joe, wondered whether they were safe, and then shook his head resolutely. He had one chance, one chance only, and he needed all his concentration and faith to make it work. Ben was resolved to try.

It was two hours later that he finally reached the crest which overlooked the valley Winnemucca had always called The Valley of Flowers. Ben shivered. There were no flowers visible in the darkness now. A small light-gray band on the horizon indicated that the new day had begun, but Ben doubted they would see the sun today. The wind had picked up already and drove dark heaps of rain-heavy clouds over the sky.

The plan was simple. He had to get into the village without being killed first and speak to the elders. Ben knew they had always respected him, and he hoped that Winnemucca’s death hadn’t turned the table to his disadvantage. From what little he had gathered from Adam’s report and those of Joe and Roy, the tribe had been confused and upset by the death of its chief, confused enough that Black Cloud had been able to claim the leadership as his father’s successor unchallenged. But if Ben was right, Black Cloud hadn’t been elected leader by the counsel of elders—and therefore, wasn’t chief. If he also called on the council of women and appealed to have the ancient traditions honored—traditions which Black Cloud had offended not only by taking the leadership role but also by instigating a war—it could be the slim chance he sought for.

Ben had never known people prouder and more principled than Indians. Provided they let him speak, he might be able to call on their sense of righteousness and honor, and perhaps manage to turn the majority of the tribe against Black Cloud.

If—if only—Ben sighed and started undoing his gun belt. There were so many ifs that they would have lasted a lifetime. Would the tribe hear him? He didn’t know how many casualties the attack of the townspeople had claimed, nor did he know how the mood in the tribe was going to be. If there were only a third of the people still undecided, he might veer some onto his side. If—

If Adam was still alive, Ben thought, he would spill his heart’s blood to save his son. If not—

Icy drops on his skin made him shiver. He cast a quick look towards the sky, then stored his gun in the saddlebags and started down the mountain before the improbability of his undertaking would be able to overwhelm him. Now he just had to find a sentry that would recognize him as a friend. Everything else lay in God’s hands.

He only prayed that he wouldn’t be too late.

*****

Part Twenty-Eight: Doolittle

Tethering his horse behind a thicket of trees, Ben made his way slowly down into the valley with one thought in mind, to remain undetected until he could reach the camp and then, once there, to find an ally, someone sympathetic to his plea. He knew enough of the Paiute to know that it could not be for his son’s sake alone that he made his petition, but for the welfare of the tribe.

The icy wind and rain served to muffle his footsteps as he all but crawled on his stomach from rock to bush. He would have preferred to attempt this under the cover of darkness, but, as it seemed with everything else the past few days, that option was denied him as well.

As he neared the camp, sounds of the tribe as it prepared to face the new day filled the air. Women collected wood and prepared fires as children filled skins with water from the nearby stream. Dogs wandered about the camp eagerly searching for scraps of food and occasionally sniffing the air, alert for any sign of danger. As the precious vegetation that had been his cover had become more and more scarce and the risk of detection increased, his progress was slowed to a crawl.

Ben’s breath caught in his chest as, not more than a hundred yards away, he caught sight of a familiar face—Grey Owl, brother of Winnemucca’s squaw. Ben knew that, as Medicine Chief, Grey Owl commanded great respect among the tribe and even Black Cloud would be slow to cross him. For the first time in days, Ben allowed a glimmer of hope enter his heart. Grey Owl could prove to be a powerful ally—or a formidable enemy. He would have to take the chance that Grey Owl did not support Black Cloud in his quest to avenge his brother, for it was the only chance he had. He began to inch himself forward.

Suddenly, behind him he heard the ominous snap of a twig. As he instinctively turned toward the sound he gasped as the impact of a rock met with his head. Alerted by his cry of pain, the dogs began to bark wildly and pace nervously back and forth. As he lost consciousness, he was aware of only one other sound…a soft, sadistic laughter.

*****

Ben regained consciousness quickly as his body was dragged by two men toward the camp. The tall grasses left small, stinging cuts on his skin as they whipped across his face. As they neared the center of the camp, curious children ran up to him, laughing and pointing. The morning tasks were temporarily abandoned as everyone gathered around him. Grey Owl looked on from the outer ring of the circle, a dark scowl on his face. As Ben was dropped unceremoniously to the ground, the circle parted to admit a tall, imposing figure. The faces that turned to gaze upon him displayed a mixture of fear and awe—Black Cloud.

As Black Cloud considered his new captive, his lips curved in a tight, grim smile. If he had needed a sign that his quest was ordained by the gods, this was it. Ben Cartwright had been delivered to him and now Ben Cartwright would die—die with his son.

Black Cloud approached Ben and stood directly over him, a visual symbol to the tribe that he held the power of life and death over this man. Ben looked up and held Black Cloud’s eyes for a brief second. He knew he could not show fear, to show fear would be to invite death. Black Cloud quickly broke off the eye contact, not willing to let the white man gain even that much entry into his soul. As a further gesture of superiority, Black Cloud gave him a swift and sharp kick to the back and said but two words. “Take him.”

Ben’s hands were tightly bound behind his back with wet leather straps. He knew from experience that, once the leather began to dry, they would become increasingly tight until they threatened to cut off his circulation altogether. Once again, he felt the men pull at his arms and drag him across the ground as his legs refused to support him.

A tent flap was pulled back and he was once again shoved roughly to the ground, his face making painful contact with the dirt floor. As his eyes became adjusted to the relatively dim light in the teepee, he struggled to sit up. Suddenly, he sensed that he was not alone. As he sat stone-still, he could make out a faint sound coming from the far side of the teepee; someone was breathing, or trying to breathe, a painful, rasping sound that made Ben’s own lungs ache in sympathy. With a sudden sense of urgency he half stumbled, half crawled across the floor.

“Oh, my God—Adam!”

*****

Part Twenty-Nine: debpet

Frantically, Ben scrambled on his knees to reach Adam’s side. He wanted desperately to hold out his hand and touch his son, to gently brush back the hair from his brow, to check his fever…to comfort him. But the more he struggled to free himself from the straps that bound his hands, the tighter they seemed to become.

“Adam, Adam—I’m here, son,” Ben whispered urgently. Adam did not respond. He seemed to be too deeply unconscious to even hear his father. At first that alarmed Ben. But, on second thought, he wondered if it might not be for the best. Would not Adam suffer less that way? For the moment Ben was just grateful to find him still alive.

But how long would he stay that way? That was the question. And Ben had no idea how to answer it. Having been captured before he even had a chance to attempt his plan to contact the elders and try to get them to intervene against Black Cloud, he was at a loss as to what he could possibly do now. Being held prisoner with his hands tied behind him was not a situation that presented many viable options. Wearily he settled back on his haunches, closed his eyes, and bowed his head in near despair.

“Oh, God—help us,” he murmured softly. “God help us.”

Then he heard a sound behind him and he turned his head sharply to see the tent flap opening and a tall figure appearing there. The middle aged man with the lined face and the dignified bearing was familiar to him. It was Grey Owl. At that moment his appearance seemed to Ben almost like an answer to prayer.

Ben felt the eyes of the newcomer staring at him as he stood there silently for a moment. It made him uncomfortable. But somehow it didn’t seem right for him to be the first to speak.

Finally Grey Owl’s quiet voice pierced the silence. “It is a sorry thing to see Ben Cartwright in bonds.” He came to stand directly over Ben and looked down at him solemnly. “Why do you come into the camp of your enemy? Does your life mean so little to you?”

“My life means a very great deal to me,” Ben answered him. He looked down at Adam lying there, still breathing with difficulty and oblivious to everything going on around him. “But my son’s life means even more. I had hoped to speak to you or to some of the other elders, to see if there was a way to stop Black Cloud—to keep him from killing my son.” Ben almost choked on the last words.

“Black Cloud’s anger runs very deep. The desire for vengeance has been burning in him too long and threatens to consume him. His mind is set on killing your son—and on seeing you watch him die.”

“And does he speak for all the Paiute? Do all of you hold me and my son responsible for what happened at Sharp’s Peak and the death of Young Wolf? Do none of you remember how we tried to stop what happened?” Ben’s voice was shaking with an edge of anger. “For many years my sons and I lived in friendship with you. We gave you help when many of your people might have starved. Has all of that somehow become meaningless?”

Grey Owl’s gaze softened. “Do not think us so unfeeling or thankless, Ben Cartwright. There are many among us who do remember, and who would oppose Black Cloud.”

Ben looked up at him pleadingly. “Then you must do something, Grey Owl! How does it happen that Black Cloud came to assume leadership so quickly after Winnemucca’s death? I cannot believe that this was done with the sanction of the council of elders.”

“It was not.” Grey Owl frowned. “Before the rites of mourning for Winnemucca were completed and before the council had a chance to gather, Black Cloud called the young braves together, declared his intention of avenging Young Wolf and aroused their passion. They set out on their mission without our blessing, before any of the elders even knew their intention.”

“So what do you intend to do about it?” Ben demanded. “Will Black Cloud be allowed to flout the authority of the elders in this way? And will he be allowed to exact his revenge on my innocent son while you stand by and do nothing?”

“Calm yourself, Ben Cartwright. This is already being considered. There is agreement among the elders that Black Cloud must be made to acknowledge the council’s authority to bestow leadership. But there is not agreement as to how to enforce this. Since he already has the support of so many of the young braves, this will be difficult.”

“My son has very little time, Grey Owl. He cannot afford to wait. Would you have him die while you sit and discuss what to do?”

Before Grey Wolf could respond, another gentle voice intruded. “There may be even less time than you think.”

Ben and Grey Wolf turned their heads and saw a striking young woman standing at the opening to the tent. She had very long, straight black hair and doe-like eyes.

“What do you say, Falling Water?” Grey Wolf asked.

Hesitantly she stepped inside, moving closer to them.

“I have heard Black Cloud and his men speaking of what they plan.” She paused, and then continued reluctantly. “As soon as the rain has stopped, Black Cloud will have his men build a pyre of wood. He will have Adam Cartwright brought out and laid on top of it. Then he himself will set it on fire. And Ben Cartwright will be forced to stand there and watch as his son is burned to death.”

Ben Cartwright felt the horror of her words overwhelm him and he came close to passing out. With a great effort he fought to pull himself together. He turned to Grey Owl beseechingly.

“You cannot let this happen! Grey Owl, there must be something that can be done! I will do anything in my power to save the life of my son, but I can do nothing without help from you and the others who feel as you do. And I will willingly give you anything you ask in return. But you must help us, I beg of you!

“I also will do anything that I can to save Adam Cartwright,” Falling Water said with quiet determination. Ben Cartwright looked at her with surprise, and she looked back at him with a gentle smile.

“I spoke against what Black Cloud was doing and tried to remind him of the friendship that once was between Adam Cartwright and our people. He became angry and threatened that I should share the fate he planned for your son. He even claimed that I must be in love with him.” A slight blush tinged her cheeks at that. “He has not yet actually made any move to have me bound or held prisoner. Perhaps that is because he has his own plans for me. But I know how volatile he is, and I must take his threat seriously. Anything I can do for you will protect me as well.” She looked down at the young man lying there so still and her blush deepened. “In truth, I do have feelings for your son, and even though I know that there could never be anything between us, I would not see him die. Just tell me what to do and I will do it.”

Ben continued to look at her with a mixture of surprise, curiosity and regard. Then his eyes moved from her to Grey Owl.

“Could one of you please cut the bindings on my wrists? My hands and arms are becoming numb.”

Grey Owl stepped forward, drawing a knife, and did as Ben requested. Ben rubbed his arms to get the circulation going again. Then he turned to Adam and, with great care so as to avoid worsening his injuries, he gently took him in his arms and held him close.

“Hold on, son—please—hold on,” he whispered low and fervently in his ear. “We’ll make it through this somehow. By the grace of God, we will.” And he rocked his son gently.

Grey Owl and Falling Water looked on, moved. Then they looked at each other in silence. Finally Grey Owl spoke.

“The council of elders must be gathered immediately without Black Cloud’s knowledge. There is much to be decided.”

*****

Part Thirty: Cressida

It seemed to Ben that Grey Owl melted through the tent walls, his leaving was so quiet. Grey Owl had always wielded his power with discretion and quiet determination. Ben wondered if that power would be strong enough to overcome the strident cries for more killing. He looked down at his son’s face, peaceful now in deep unconsciousness. If Grey Owl were unsuccessful, perhaps it would be more merciful to let him slip away—

 “No!”

Ben raised his head slowly. He’d forgotten Falling Water. “What?”

The young woman pulled two pouches from beneath the slitted sides of her over blouse. “Your love for him blinds you to what he would want. He sleeps, but he is here, in the place of his youth. He has turned from what was to what will be.”

“What?” Ben stared. The words confused him even as he half acknowledged that Elizabeth’s ghost was ‘what was’. His mind and his vision sharpened all at once, his disgust for his brief wallowing in despair clear in his voice. “Speak plain, girl. Has he been raving again?”

Falling Water knelt on Adam’s other side and she mixed the contents of one pouch with water. Her dark eyes moved over his son’s still form, not seeming to see what was there before her. “He says nothing…but…” She came out of her abstraction and smiled. “He has many words, your son. Great, learned words, that speak to all men.” She flushed. “And all women.” She applied the mixture to the seeping wound in Adam’s back. “The women,” she explained, “prepared this—poultice?”

Ben nodded.

“They dare not approach this tepee—I defy Black Cloud—” Her soft lips trembled in anger. “My grandfather was chief before Winnemucca, and Black Cloud—blusters…” She seemed proud of the word and Ben wondered if she had picked it up from Adam. “…that I am a traitor to love your son, but he wishes me for wife as it increases his standing. He is cruel and filled with anger. He would make a very bad chief.” She gently eased Adam from Ben’s grip. “I have nothing to sew like white man sews—you will cut those stitches later, when he is a little better?”

“A little better?” Ben laid his son carefully on the yielding softness of the bearskin. “There will be no time for ‘better’.”

Falling Water tilted her head a little and listened to the steady drum of rain on taut deerskin. “I think your God sends rain to quench Black Cloud’s fire.” She smoothed back the curls that had been brushed into Adam’s face. “Black clouds for Black Cloud.”

The throaty chuckle startled Ben and his eyes flew to her face to catch her gentle amusement. His gaze sharpened in suspicion. All of those rides out to the tribe—would his son never learn?

He watched Falling Water move to steep the contents of the second pouch over a small fire she kindled in the center of the teepee. He was afraid to ask the question and didn’t want to pry into his son’s business.

“What is that?” he asked instead.

She smiled a small secret smile, as if she were aware of his fear. “It will bring down his fever.” She stared at him. “I spoke the truth—there will be nothing between your son and an Indian girl. I am the little sister. The one who runs after the big brothers?”

Ben frowned, sad for the girl and the ways of man.

She paused, uncertainty filling her features, for once. “There is one—his heart is as light as a young deer. He is strong and loves his people more than himself. He will replace Winnemucca…if Black Cloud doesn’t kill him first. That is my battle, after Adam is safe. He is where my future rests.”

“I’m sorry.”

This time she did smile, full and bright, her beauty so very apparent that Ben could imagine Adam being drawn to her.

“Very few would pity me—he is much like Adam, but not so—” She blushed and ducked her head. “You will see. Winnemucca will have no son to be chief, but he would be pleased,” she finished quietly.

*****

Roy looked out glumly at the drenched countryside. His slicker was sticking to his shirt where he was sweating under the durned thing. A man his age shouldn’t be all exercised like this, but his best friend had gone against his direct orders as sheriff and had snuck off before first light. Ben Cartwright was absent without leave. Cartwrights! He was tempted to haul the whole lot of ‘em before a judge. If they survived.

“What’s that, Sheriff?”

“Nuthin. Let’s go. And take it slow — we don’t want to come up on them too sudden.” Not for the first time, he wished for the one Cartwright that would be of some use to him right now. Well, he could use Joe, too—that boy was worth two in a close fight. But, Hoss. Best tracker he knew. Hoss was safely in town—he hoped. That was the trouble with Cartwrights—they never stayed where you put them…

*****

Part Thirty-One: dbird

Joe fumbled with the lariat he’d been trying to braid for the past hour. The pain that throbbed across the back of his head was muddling its way through his body. It wasn’t enough that his eyes were blurring in and out of focus. Even his fingers didn’t work like they were supposed to.

He was tired. He was so tired he didn’t believe he’d ever feel well rested again. It wasn’t just his body that had suffered from the past few days; his soul was suffering too. Joe had been thrown into an impossible decision and had attempted to resolve it in his own way. Throughout his life, he’d watched his father and brothers face difficult issues. Yet their solutions always seemed neat and tidy. Things always worked out in the end. They never made devil’s bargains like the one he’d struck in that Virginia City saloon. He wondered if the blood of the dead would cry out to him for the rest of his life.

Joe knew he should feel differently, but the truth was that he would have done it again, if it meant saving the lives of his brothers. Of course, as it turned out, he’d done Adam no favors. If his brother was still alive, it was with no thanks to Joe. On the other hand, his action might have saved Hoss. It was highly unlikely that his biggest brother would have survived the night without Joe’s “reinforcements.” The rabble that Joe had stirred up might well have saved his brother’s life. Despite Roy’s grim lecture and threats of jail, Joe couldn’t help but feel for grateful for that one, very real blessing.

But he was tired. Tired in body, mind, and spirit. Most of all, he was tired of waiting. It wasn’t in his nature to sit around and wait for other people to take care of things. Joe remembered a band of gypsies that had wandered along the outskirts of the Ponderosa. They were nomads on the land, destined from birth to keep moving and never put down roots in any one place. They carried their home in their hearts, rather than in a physical location. They couldn’t have been more different than the youngest Cartwright, who had his roots firmly entrenched on the Ponderosa.

Joe had never admitted it to his father, but in a certain way, he could understand their wanderlust. They always seemed to be moving. He was much the same. He’d been that way since he was a boy. Hoss always had said he was part jackrabbit, and there was a bit of truth to it. If he wasn’t moving forward, Joe suspected he might die. It was time to figure out a way to get moving again.

Adam was in terrible danger. He might even be dead. Joe didn’t know if it was possible to save Adam, but he couldn’t just sit around and wait for someone else to find out.

With a frustrated groan, Joe hurled the lariat across the room and watched as it struck the hearth. Hoss looked up, visibly startled. He looked uncomfortable lying down on the settee, but he’d been having trouble sitting upright. Hoss was still awfully pale from the loss of blood and his overall exhaustion. Doctor Martin had left the Ponderosa with strict instructions that both of the youngest Cartwrights needed to get some rest and that they were forbidden to get back in the saddle. Joe’s head injury had been serious, and another blow or concussion could make it fatal. Hoss had lost quite a bit of blood in his determination to make it back to the Ponderosa, and if he re-opened that wound, he might not make it home the second time around. Neither was in any shape to ride in and save the day.

Joe kicked at the neat stack of firewood next to the fireplace and watched as it collapsed. He had always felt a small tickle of satisfaction at disturbing the peace of orderly things. Other people stacked things up; he toppled them down.

“All right, out with it, little brother.” Hoss’s voice sounded so sad and weary that Joe turned and looked hard at his brother. Hoss looked old, like he had lived a couple lifetimes in the past couple of days. It was a look that didn’t sit well on him. Joe had never thought of Hoss as someone who would ever grow old. It was different with Adam. When Joe was little, he’d believed that Adam had been born full grown. He still occasionally suspected that it was the truth. Adam never seemed to stumble into the same disasters that Joe was always dragging Hoss into. Adam always knew better than to fall for one of Joe’s schemes. Hoss, on the other hand…

“All right, Little Joe,” Hoss tried again. “I know you’re planning something. What you got in mind?”

Joe turned and regarded his biggest brother. It was true that Hoss’s face looked like he was clinging to this side of the grave, but Joe would be willing to bet that his older brother had some life in him yet.

Joe Cartwright had always had a gift for looking at the bright side of a situation. After all, his head might be getting better, already. Roy Coffee was already planning to throw him in jail for a month. Another month wouldn’t make much of a difference. Doctor Martin said that he wouldn’t be held responsible if either of them got back in a saddle for at least a week. Well, Joe wouldn’t even think of holding the doctor responsible!

A smile slowly spread across his face.

“Listen, Hoss,” he said. “You sat in a saddle half the night. You reckon you could sit a while longer?”

“But the sheriff and Doc Martin told us…” Hoss started to protest, but stopped when Joe crossed the room and stepped in front of him.

“Hoss,” he said patiently, as if explaining the facts of life to a small child. “Since when have you and I ever done what we’re told?”

Hoss regarded his little brother thoughtfully. Finally, a big smile crinkled his wide face. At that moment, Joe realized, Hoss didn’t look so old after all.

“Little brother,” Hoss said. “You’ve got a point, there. I reckon we ain’t got much to lose. Except Adam.”

Joe reached down and fought his own dizziness, as he tried to pull Hoss to a stand.

“Come on brother,” Joe said, ignoring the throbbing behind his eyes. He gave Hoss a wry smile. “Let’s go and save the day!”

Leaning on each other for support, the two brothers staggered across the room and towards the door. As he closed the door behind him, Joe figured that the two of them would make for an unlikely source of deliverance for his brother.

Adam had often quoted Alexander Pope to his little brother, reminding him that fools rushed in where angels feared to tread. Joe figured that they might be fools, but he didn’t see any angels standing in line to save Adam.

He and Hoss would have to do.

*****

Part Thirty-two: Arien

Oh god, this is never going to work! Joe thought to himself, as he slumped in his saddle. He didn’t want to give Hoss a reason to doubt the bravado that had led them thus far and kept his comment to himself. He had serious doubts as to what a person with a hole in shoulder and another with a concussion would do but it had to be better than sitting at home waiting for word that his brother, father, or both had been killed.

He knew Roy was itching to put him in jail when this fiasco with Black Cloud was over. Hopefully, by the time Roy realized he was there with Hoss, he wouldn’t send one of the other men into town with him in tow. ‘I guess that’s a bridge I’ll have to cross when I get to it.’

“Did ya say something, little brother?” Hoss asked, his voice slurring. The drugs Doctor Martin had given him were still keeping him from feeling a lot of pain. He wasn’t pain free but he didn’t particularly care, either.

“Hmm, no I was just talking to myself. How are you feeling?” Joe asked. It was a stupid question, he knew. ‘Hoss looks as pale as a corpse,’ Joe thought, pushing the thought aside. He noted that his brother was fairing about as well as he was in staying upright in the saddle.

“Oh, I’ll be around for a while yet. Don’t go given up on me before my time,” came the slightly breathless answer.

“Never,” Joe replied, his voice barely above a whisper. He didn’t want to have caused so much trouble only to have both of his brothers die. He could handle whatever consequences came his way as long as he knew his family would be all right.

Joe continued the plodding journey in silence. It didn’t seem that enough time had passed for the village to be in his sights and decided that he must have passed out for a time. It was getting close to dawn and it had begun to rain. Coming to a stop in the trees, Joe turned to Hoss.

“Hoss—Hoss!” Joe said, trying to get his brother to focus. “Put your slicker on! It’s raining.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I need you to go get Roy and Pa. They’re bound to be around here somewhere,” Joe explained, keeping his voice low. His world kept going from lighter to darker and he wasn’t sure how he would get through this before he passed out. He didn’t bother putting his slicker on since he knew would put him at a disadvantage in a fight. And, at the moment, he needed all the advantages to himself.

“I ain’t leavin’ ya on ya own,” Hoss stated, as he pulled the oil skin over his clothes. He didn’t like the idea of Joe being left to his own devices after a blow the head.

“Hoss, listen to me!” Joe tried again, his voice a harsh whisper. “We need more help and I’m the only one that can get in there undetected. You know that!”

“Joe, I can’t just leave ya!” Hoss exclaimed. He might have been drugged, but he was not completely insensible.

“You’re going to have to, brother. I don’t see any other way to do this. If Roy catches me here, he’s liable to send me off to jail,” Joe said, hoping he could make his brother understand. “I can’t leave here until I know that Pa and Adam are all right. Please, Hoss, go get Roy and Pa. I’ll find Adam.”

For a moment, Joe thought his brother would refuse again. But, at last, he got the agreement he needed. As he watched the retreating back, Joe prayed that this was not the last time he saw his brother alive. He had no fear of death, personally. But the thought of his family’s death was more than he could bear. Dismounting and tying Cochise to a nearby tree, he stopped for a moment to take a few deep breaths to clear his mind. His hands came up and quickly unwound the bandage from his head.

Silently, Joe made his way through the thicket. He stopped for a moment to get his bearings and noticed a hut off to one side. There was a large brave guarding it and, as far as Joe could see, there were no others being guarded. Praying he had found his brother and that his luck would hold out, Joe crept through the silent village, the mud masking his footsteps.

As silently as a ghost, Joe crept up to guard and clubbed him with the gun he was grateful to have brought along. After a brief struggle, he managed to get a good grip on the other man and drag him behind a nearby teepee. ‘Please, don’t let them find him too soon!‘ he prayed silently.

Walking as quickly as his foggy vision would allow, he made his way back to the teepee and lifted the flap.

The last thing he saw, as pain flared behind his eyes and the world went black, was his older brother’s lifeless body and the tears on his father’s face.

*****

Part Thirty-Three: PRj

“Joe, can you hear me? Joe?”

Joe fought the darkness as he heard his father’s voice calling for him. Slowly he opened his eyes but the spinning of his head made him close them again.

“Son, you need to wake up. I’m sorry but you have to wake up, Joseph!” His father demanded.

Joe’s eyes popped opened when he heard the tone of his father’s voice. He felt like he was eight again.

“What did I do now, Pa?” He whispered not sure where he was or if he wasn’t eight.

“Joe.”

“Yes, Pa?” He blinked his eyes.

“Focus, Son. I have many things to tell you and little time to do it in. Grey Owl gave me five minutes to-”

Joe’s head became clearer as he remembered where he was and the nightmare he was living.

“Pa, what are you doing here? Adam?” He sat up.

“Easy, son.” Ben eased him back down. “Let’s just say I was caught trying to talk with the elders.”

“Pa, you’ve been crying?” Joseph took in his father’s face. “Adam? He’s not—”

“I’m afraid so, Joe. We lost him just before you came in.” Ben had to look away from Joe’s face and looked over at his oldest son whose unmoving body lay just a few feet away.

“No, Pa! Not after everything we’ve been through. Please, tell me it’s no so. Adam can’t be dead!” Joe sat up taking his father into his arms, as his eyes focused in on the lifeless body of his brother.

Joe couldn’t help but look for a sign of life in Adam’s uncovered face. He looks so peaceful, he thought. “No, Pa. Please, don’t let him be dead. I can’t—I don’t want to live if we all don’t make it. It’s all my fault, I failed him, Pa.”

“Joe, don’t talk like that! Adam knows it’s not your fault. He’d demand that you go on.” Ben effortlessly moved Joe back down so he could look into his face. Wishing he had more time to comfort his son. “Joe, I need you to sneak back to Roy and tell him to ride in thirty minutes after the rain stops. I don’t know what Black Cloud will do when he finds out Adam died.” Ben sighed. He hated hearing his words out-loud. It made his heart feel as if it was a pincushion. “I feel as if I have to stay here. I need to help the Paiutes find a new leader and put an end to all this madness.”

“No, Pa, I’m not leaving without you.” Joe pulled on his father’s shirt. “Please, I can’t lose you too.”

“Joe, you have too. I can’t have Black Cloud kill another son.” Ben closed his eyes to the pain. “Joe, please go and tell Roy—when the rain stops, give me thirty minutes, and if I’m unable to changes things here he should ride in and stop this madness.”

Joe looked deep into his father’s face tears falling freely from his eyes. He wanted to argue and take his father with him but he could tell his father’s mind was made up. He closed his eyes and sighed.

“Pa, what should I tell Hoss?” He opened his eyes. “He came with me and is waiting with Roy.”

“Nothing, tell him you found us and our plan, nothing else. He’ll need all of his strength to fight the coming battle. I’ll tell him when I see him.” He paused. “How is Hoss doing, Joe?”

“He’s alright, Pa. You know Hoss—nothing will stop that Missouri Mule.” He could hear Adam’s haunting voice calling Hoss a mule.

Ben closed his eyes, happy for the news on Hoss. “Be very careful leaving, Joe. Don’t get caught.”

“I will, Pa.” Joe hugged his father and got to his feet.

He moved over by his brother. He knelt down beside him and touched his face, closing his eyes and saying a silent prayer. He was surprised that Adam still felt warm to the touch.

“He must’ve just passed.” Joe whispered to himself. “I’m sorry, Adam. I’m so sorry.”

He looked once again at his father, nodded, and then slipped out of the tent. Ben said a prayer as he watched his son leave.

*****

Part Thirty-Four: PRj

Ben listed carefully to the world outside the tent. Praying he would not hear the tribe’s cheers if they should catch his son. Seconds seemed like minutes. He closed his eyes.

“Please, Lord,” he begged. “I can’t lose another son.”

He waited and heard nothing. He opened his eyes and looked around the tent, wishing he had some way of telling how much time had passed. He knew it had been only a few minutes but it felt like hours.

The rain showed no sign of letting up anytime soon. He was grateful for that. “At least it will keep most inside and give Joe a good chance at getting away,” he whispered.

He closed his eyes as he heard a dog barking. He listened but the camp remained quiet. ‘When will this nightmare end?’ he wondered.

The flap on the tent flew open and Black Cloud stepped inside and glared at him. The hate in his eyes made a shiver run down Ben’s spin. He couldn’t help but feel sad for Black Cloud who was consumed with his hatred.

Black Cloud broke the stair and moved over to Adam. Kneeling down, he put his ear to Adam’s chest and listened carefully. His eyes squinted as he sat back, then he put his hand near Adam’s nose and tried to feel for any sign of breath. He closed his eyes praying for a sign.

His eyes popped open as he stood to his feet, his rage making him kick Adam hard to the chest.

Ben tackled Black Cloud to the ground and started hitting him. “You already killed him,” he shouted. “Leave him alone!”

Ben felt a blow to the head and slid from on top of Black Cloud, fighting to keep from the consuming darkness. He couldn’t let Black Cloud take his son’s body. He shook his head and pushed himself to his knees placing his body between Adam and Black Cloud.

“Ben Cartwright, your family has ruined my last plan. You will take the place of your son as soon as the rain stops.” Black Cloud stormed from tent.

Ben put his hand out to stop himself from falling to the ground. He closed his eyes.  ‘You can’t give in. Fight it!’ he coached himself trying to get ready for the next move.

The tent flap opened again. Ben pushed himself up ready to fight again if he had to. He sighed when he saw who it was.

Falling Water came to his side and aided him as he sat down next to his son’s body. Ben moved the leather blanket and re-tucked it around Adam. He just couldn’t cover his face, it would hurt too much. He looked up at Falling Water.

“He’s gone.” His eyes filled with tears.

“I know, Mr. Cartwright. Everything almost in place, I have to tell and not time. Understand?” She looked into his eyes.

He nodded, knowing she had news for him.

“Here, this medicine for Adam. Must be given to him when sun is at highest place in sky for his breath to return.” She handed him a small leather pouch. “I have one, too, in case you are not able to give medicine. Mix with water and give.”

Ben looked confused. “What?”

“The medicine I give him earlier not for fever. It makes life look dead.” She raised an eyebrow. “But if this not given at right time Adam will remain without breathe– forever.” She squeezed the pouch in his hand.

He looked from her to his son perplexed at the turn of events. “Adam’s not dead?” Life was returning to his face as her words stitched his broken heart together.

“Not yet, but still in great danger—need this medicine and still has wounds from Black Cloud. At least bleeding stop because of false death. Give us more time.” She smiled. “Listen hard, Mr. Cartwright much to tell—little time.”

“Joe?” Ben sighed. The stitches in his heart were being pulled apart as he remembered that Joe still thinks Adam is dead and blames himself. He cleared his mind from thoughts that couldn’t help him with what he had to face, as Falling Water told him of the plans their allies in the tribe were putting into place.

*****

Part Thirty-Five: Arien

As Ben listened to the plan that Falling Water, Grey Owl, and the elders had devised, he felt a faint glimmer of hope begin to burn in his chest. Maybe, just maybe, his family would survive Black Cloud’s madness. If giving his life for that of Adam was all that was asked, he would gladly make that trade.

He prayed that his youngest had found Roy and the posse. He wasn’t worried for himself but he knew if Joe had made to the posse’s camp, his youngest sons would be safe.

“Thank you, Falling Water. I don’t know what my son or I would do if it weren’t for your kindness,” Ben said. To him, it didn’t seem enough. How did you adequately thank someone for the life of your child?

“I pray to God that our people will one day be able to live in peace with one another,” Ben continued, looking down at his son.

“Your God seems to us to be partial. He came to the white man. We never saw Him; never even heard His voice; He gave the white man laws but had no word for His red children whose teeming millions filled this vast continent as the stars fill the firmament. No, we are two distinct races and must ever remain so. There is little in common between us. I fear that there will never be peace between our people, Ben Cartwright.” Falling Water began. “To most we are savages and do not deserve to live in peace with anyone.”

“Our homes are taken, our people killed, and this is why braves such as Black Cloud rise to power. It is not right but it is the heart of my people breaking. They are fighting against death and who can fault them for that?

“But I have seen the kindness of the white man, Ben Cartwright. You and your sons are known to us and have always dealt fairly with us. This is why Grey Owl and the elders have decided to help you. We want to stop the dying but not in the way set by Black Cloud. For we know, that if you are killed, there will be little mercy shown to us,” Falling Water finished, glancing at the two men at her feet.

For a moment, Ben could say nothing. There was no arguing the merit of the young woman’s words.

“Falling Water, I don’t know what to say. I can only tell you that it is foolish for those, such as Black Cloud, to judge all for the actions of a few,” Ben stated, looking her in the eye.

“There was a time when our people covered the whole land. But that time has long since passed away with the greatness of tribes now almost forgotten. I will not mourn over our untimely decay, nor reproach my pale face brothers with hastening it, for we, too, may have been somewhat to blame.

“When our young men grow angry at some real or imaginary wrong, and disfigure their faces with black paint, their hearts, also, are disfigured and turn black, and then their cruelty is relentless and knows no bounds, and our old men are not able to restrain them.

“But let us hope that the hostilities between the red men and his pale-face brothers may never return. We would have everything to lose and nothing to gain. True it is that revenge, with our young braves, is considered again, even at the cost of their own lives, but old men who stay at home in times of war, and old women, who have sons to lose, know better,” Grey Owl’s voice broke into the quiet that had engulfed the teepee.

“For you, too, have sons to lose. Do you not, Ben Cartwright?” Grey Owl asked, stepping closer to the figure on the ground.

“Yes—yes, I do,” was the hoarse response. “I can’t imagine living my life after one of my children has died. It’s a pain that goes beyond anything I have ever experienced or imagined.”

“The rains have stopped and the time has come, Ben Cartwright, for you to take the place of your son,” Grey Owl stated. “Remember that the braves loyal to Winnemucca are positioned around the village. When the signal is given, Black Cloud will be challenged by Numaga, Winnemucca’s nephew. You will be taken away during the battle and will be reunited with your sons.”

“You’re sure of this?” Ben questioned, almost afraid that this travesty would soon be finished.

“I am as certain of this as I can be,” Grey Owl said, after a moment’s hesitation. “It is up to the Great Spirit who lives or dies this day. Nothing is certain. I am just trying to help the Great Spirit make the right choice. ”

Thoughts raced through Ben’s mind at an alarming speed and, for a moment, he felt light-headed. If, by God’s decree, his life was to end this day, he hoped his sons would forgive him for taking this chance. Far from home and without the comfort of his sons’ embrace, tears stung his eyes and his heart ached for what was to come.

“Adam, take care of your brothers, especially Joseph. He’s going to need you again. Help him pick up the pieces if this doesn’t work. He blames himself, you know. Please, don’t grieve for me. Know how much I love you and your brothers. There’s no one else I would trust them to but you. I know they’re grown but I can’t help but worry about them. You know the scrapes they can find themselves in. I’m trusting you to keep them from robbing any banks,” Ben said, knowing his son wouldn’t hear the last words of his father, and still needing to say them.

Leaning over Adam’s body, Ben pushed the matted hair from the high forehead in a soothing rhythm. “I love you, son. Never forget that and never doubt I did this because of love. Tell your brothers for me.”

Slowly rising to his feet, he turned to Grey Owl and Falling Water.

“You are sure that there will be someone to give Adam the needed medicine to counter what Falling Water gave him?” Ben asked needing to be sure his son would be helped.

“Yes, one of the women will come here to prepare his “body” for burial. She will give him the remedy. Once that has been done, she will wrap leaves and rocks into the wrappings. The elders will hide your son, even as Black Cloud crows of his revenge. We will take your son home once we are sure he is well enough to travel.

“Come, we must go. The pyre has been built and is waiting. We do not wish to draw any unnecessary attention to ourselves,” Grey Owl stated, leading the way from the confines of the teepee.

Upon leaving the structure, Ben was struck by what a beautiful day was before the world. The rains were a fading memory on the land. The sky was clearing and the sun was shining brightly. The village was coming alive with the dawn of a new day.

Please God, he pleaded, let us survive this day.

As Ben was led towards the pyre a flash of tan against the darker landscape, out of the corner of his eye, caught his attention.

Joseph, no!

*****

Part Thirty-Six: Adamfan16

“You sure this is what your pa told you to do, Joe?” Roy looked at the young man skeptically. He had a high respect for the Cartwrights, but the events of the past day and night were enough to shake the good faith of any man.

Joe didn’t even bother turning to look at his companion, his eyes remained trained on the camp, “He said to wait half an hour after the rain, then to come in.”

”And what exactly are we gonna’ do when we get in there?”

”I don’t know!” Joe closed his eyes for a moment as a wave a dizziness followed his vehemence, “Pa said he was going to try and stop this madness, but I don’t know that he really knew what he was saying—Adam had just—“ the word stuck in his throat yet again.

Roy lowered his head. Adam Cartwright had grown from being the son of a friend to a good friend in his own right. Roy had always assumed that the Cartwrights led charmed lives; it seemed none of them were capable of dying. Apparently, he had been wrong.

”Alright, Little Joe. Let me go get Hoss—and by heaven we’ll make a go of it!” Roy turned back to the trees.

Joe squinted at the camp, trying to identify the scurrying figures. The large pyre he had seen before was the center of activity; braves were taking their places about it, while in front of it Black Cloud paced like a caged cougar.

Joe’s breath rattled in his throat; apparently Black Cloud wasn’t satisfied that Adam was dead. Would he burn the lifeless body just for spite? Blinding rage brought on another, stronger wave of dizziness.

He reached down to steady himself, never noticing the icy mud slithering through his fingers. Roy had better hurry or he’d be too late to stop Joe from doing something rash—yet again.

”Joe, are you alright?” Hoss’s concerned voice broke through the swirling wrath within him.

”He won’t even leave the body alone.”

”What are you talkin’ about, little brother?” Hoss crouched and looked into his dilated eyes.

Joe shook his head, a shaking finger pointing to the pyre, “He’s dead and they’re still going to burn him.”

”No, they ain’t.” Roy’s solemn voice joined them. He didn’t risk a look at the Cartwright brothers beside him, “It ain’t Adam they’re plannin’ on burnin’.”

Hoss and Joe snapped their attention to a procession within the camp. In the middle of a group of paint-spattered braves, was the proud form of Ben Cartwright.

*****

Part Thirty-Seven: PRj

Grey Owl walked beside Ben as they started for the pyre of wood. Ben stopped when he saw the cougar.

“What is that for?” Ben looked over at Grey Owl.

Grey Owl shook his head. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “This wasn’t something I was expecting.”

Black Cloud looked up from poking the cougar with a stick.

“Oh, good, Ben Cartwright delivered to me by an elder from the Paiute tribe and his son’s body coming right behind him.” He smiled with a wicked gleam in his eyes.

Ben and Grey Owl were both startled by the news and turned around to see Adam being drug from the teepee towards them. Ben had to close his eyes to the treatment his son was receiving.

Black Cloud had moved in front of Ben and smiled at him as he turned forward watching his precious son being dragged by.

“Since I don’t get the pleasure of watching you see your son burned alive, I thought it would fun to watch you see his body ravaged by a cougar before you yourself die.” He wickedly raised an eyebrow. “I’ll get some satisfaction from that.”

Ben lunged for Black Cloud. “NO!” He cried out but he was grabbed from behind and prevented from reaching his prey.

*****

Part Thirty-Eight: Grimesgirl

Joe stared in horror. How could one man hate so much? Hadn’t Black Cloud done enough to Adam? Adam was dead; why would he want to let a cougar feast on him? He simply couldn’t grasp such an attitude.

He didn’t even realize that he had started to step forward until he felt a firm grip on his arm and a whispered voice in his ear.

”Just you settle down, Little Joe. Don’t go rushing into something you can’t handle.”

With desperation in his voice Joe whispered back. “But, Hoss we can’t let this happen to Adam. We just can’t,” his voice ended in a near sob.

”Now listen to me, little brother, there ain’t nothin’ more gonna happen to ol’ Adam. When you get settled down, I’m gonna have my rifle trained right on that cougar. If they let him loose, he’s gonna be dead before he takes one step.”

Joe nodded and slowly relaxed. Hoss watched him for a moment and then placed himself behind a rock and, raising his rifle took aim at the cougar and waited for Roy’s instructions.

*****

Roy, in the meantime, had slowly gone from man to man telling them what he wanted them to do. He wished he had more men, but then he hadn’t had a lot of time to get a posse together. Many that he had spoken to were still angry at the happenings earlier and refused his request for help.

*****

In the camp, Ben still struggled against the men who held him.

”Grey Owl, you must stop this. You can’t stand by and let Adam by savaged by a cougar. Please, I beg you, you must help my son. I’ll gladly give myself to Black Cloud. Make him take me instead. I’ll face the cougar, I’ll let him burn me, just don’t let him do anymore harm to my son.”

Grey Owl looked into the dark and pleading eyes that seemed to grow more desperate with every passing second. How could he stop Black Cloud? The chief was now approaching the rope that tied the cougar to the tree. In another moment, the cougar would be free and it would be too late to take action.

*****

Part Thirty-Nine: PRj

Grey Owl watched closely as Black Cloud approached the rope that held the cougar at bay. The cougar pawed at its quarry, pulling on the binds that kept it from reaching Adam. Black Cloud smiled wickedly as he drew near.

“In a moment you’ll give me the gratification of watching two Cartwrights suffer.”

Falling Water called to him just as he placed his spear on the rope that would free the cougar.

“Black Cloud!” She stood near Grey Owl, “if you do this, I will never join with you. If you keep the cougar from harming Adam’s body in any way, I give my word that I will marry the new chief of the Paiute tribe.”

She couldn’t help her glance at Numaga, knowing her future was now completely woven into the success of their plan.

Black Cloud pulled his spear way from the ropes and looked down at his tormenter’s body. He couldn’t believe that even this last bit of pleasure was being taken away from him. He always wanted Falling Water as his wife. She not only held his heart but a union with her would mean more power for him.

He stared hard at Adam, feeling his need to watch him suffer, even in death, depart, “Agreed, Falling Water.” He walked away from the cougar. “But his body will remain where it is until we are married.” Black Cloud squinted his eyes as he neared her.

Taking her arm into his hand, he whispered to her, “Maybe, a part of him will watch and see his father burn in his place.”

Falling Water had no words for him any longer, only pity. She glanced at the placement of the sun, knowing their time was drawing short and that Adam would need the remedy soon so that his breath would be able to return.

She looked towards Ben and watched as he was being tied into place on the pyre of wood. His eyes were pinned on his son who lay near the cougar. Ben looked up at the sky and sighed.

*****

“Pa?” Adam’s voice screamed in his head. “No!”

*****

Part Forty: Cressida

Joe?

“Roy?”

“Yep. I’ve half a mind to put you in jail for a year. What can you see from there? I can’t make out a dang thing.”

Joe swallowed the bile that rose in his throat. “Pa…” He tried to squelch the fear in his gut. “They’ve got Pa tied to a pyre. Adam is out. Black Cloud has that cougar of his tied near Adam.” ‘I’m gonna kill ‘im. All the talk of brotherhood and Black Cloud does this–‘

“I’m gonna tell the men…”

“Hoss has a bead on the cougar.” Joe shifted his gaze to the sheriff and caught his eye before ducking his head low to the ground again. “I’m sorry. He’s my brother…”

There was a silence, and the familiar voice returned. “You two could stay where a body asked ya to—Joe, he’s almost the closest thing I have to a—you boys are almost family,” the sheriff ended on a whisper. “Well…” Roy bowed his head for a second, but brought it up with renewed determination. “Tell Hoss I’m going to bring the men around the lower part of the clearing. I think I got them spread too thin tryin’ to cover everyone. Watch for crossfire if we need to attack…

“Roy! You’ll hit…”

But Roy was gone, old Indian hunter that he was, and his men with him. Joe would just have to be ready…

*****

Voices. Pain? A slow rushing in his ears. His breathing was restricted somehow. ‘Pa?’ Joe. Joe was here. Had to warn…

*****

Ben stared at the people at his feet. They were people, after all. Not red men. Not Paiute, but his brothers, under their skin of a different hue. Heresy to his friends in Virginia City, of course, but this was something that could be solved, he thought, by logic and self-interest. “Black Cloud–”

“Silence!”

“No!

I have fought for your interests, your people, too many times to not speak now. You do wrong. This is wrong — not just for me, but for the red man. Do you not think this will be told everywhere the white man lives?”

*****

Part Forty-One: Cressida

“In your hate you hurt your own.” Ben pulled against his bonds, turning slightly so he could see Falling Water. “I speak not for my own life, but for the lives of those you seek to rule.”

The braves standing behind Black Cloud tensed and a couple moved their hands towards their knives.

“You, standing with Black Cloud — do you follow with anger as well? Do you wish to bring destruction on your tribe? Is there none among you who will act with wisdom? None who will oppose Black Cloud and save his people?”

“I will oppose him.”

Grey Owl folded his hands into his cape, content to have others say the words. Ben looked at him suspiciously and then returned his gaze to the young man who had stepped out of the shadows.

Black Cloud scowled. “You, Numaga?” He looked the young brave up and down contemptuously. “You are traitor to the tribe—you go to white man’s school—you leave us to travel in white man’s company.”

Numaga smiled slightly. “It is better to know the wilderness where one hunts.” He peeled off the buckskin jacket he wore and revealed the traditional garb of the son of a chief. “I, Numaga, son of Running Deer, challenge you, Black Cloud, son of Winnemucca.”

*****

Part Forty-Two: Nanuk

Ben let out an imperceptible sigh.

It was out. The challenge had been spoken; the wheels had begun to turn. He cast a quick glance at Black Cloud; saw how he mockingly pulled up his lips over his teeth. A quicker glance at Adam let Ben mumble another prayer under his breath. If possible, his son’s face was even paler then he remembered, but that might have been the light of the new day. He didn’t know.

Ben wasn’t sure there was anything he still did know. He only hoped that the approach of Falling Water’s friends, who were carefully gathering around Adam, would go unnoticed by Black Cloud.

The chief’s eyes were on his opponent. His eyes clearly showed his disgust at the interruption, but Ben was sure he also detected a tiny hint of fear on the arrogant face. It may have been the mumbling of the people all around them which told Black Cloud to act carefully, Ben mused.

Then Grey Owl stepped forward and the discussions died at once.

”The chief has been challenged.”

Ben saw how the older man’s eyes flickered over the crowd until they came to rest on Black Cloud with a cool and appraising gaze.

”Tradition says you have to respond. What will your answer be?”

There was a moment of silence when everyone held their breaths. Ben could almost hear the air crackle with tension.

Black Cloud’s eyes narrowed in suspicion and Ben suddenly knew for certain that he had seen through their plan. Still, the challenge was out there, and Black Cloud knew that he couldn’t very well refuse and still be chief.

He drew himself up to his full height, cast Ben and Nugama a look that was filled with hatred and said clearly for everyone to hear:

”I accept.”

*****

Part Forty-Three: Nanuk

It seemed that Grey Owl had been appointed master of ceremonies by general consent.

Ben, who was watching the proceedings with a carefully impassionate face, knew that the elder was hurrying things along, and Ben couldn’t help but cast Adam another fleeting glance. Midday, Falling Water had said. That left about two hours to get him to safety.

The rough leather of the strings was cutting into his wrists, but Ben couldn’t keep them still. It seemed that time had been their main concern ever since Adam had stumbled into the house bearing his terrible news.

Ben cast another look at the sun, and then inconspicuously searched the shrubbery surrounding the campsite. He clearly remembered what he had told Joe and wished for the umpteenth time he had any control over what was going to happen.

If Numaga succeeded to overthrow Black Cloud, then Roy wouldn’t need to attack. If he didn’t, then the sheriff would be the only chance his son had left. Involuntarily Ben clenched his fists. He only hoped that Roy was near enough to judge for himself whether his intervention was necessary. Another massacre was the last thing they needed.

Then a sharp call brought Ben’s attention back to the cleared area in front of him. A log had been rammed into the middle, and just as he watched, ropes attached to it were being bound to the left hands of the opponents. The axes were already within reach.

Ben cast another look towards the sky and began to pray.

*****

Part Forty-Four: Cressida

Each man stood still and unbending as elder tribesmen removed Numaga’s regalia and lifted the simple necklace from Black Cloud’s shoulders. Another cry rang out and the men backed away to the longest extent of their tethers. Numaga moved first, dipping gracefully to pick up his ax.

Black Cloud followed, his eyes never leaving his opponent’s face.

Ben looked to the shrubbery again and risked a brief shake of his head. Would Roy and Joe understand that he wanted a delay? They certainly knew what was happening.

Black Cloud moved around the far side of the poll; Numaga shifted in the other direction.

“Are you a coward, Numaga?” he taunted. “And where are your white friends?”

Numaga’s lips lifted into a wry smile and he spoke loudly, in English. “They see and wait. If I win, there is no battle.”

Black Cloud snarled. “You would make us all slaves to the whites.”

Numaga saw his opening and lunged, narrowly missing the shorter man.

“I only wish to feed my people,” he gasped as he pivoted away from Black Cloud’s downward strike.

Ben breathed a small sigh of relief. Numaga understood, at least, what was at stake today, not just in the future. He tried to assess each man’s chances. Both were about Adam’s age, young and fit, strong and well-formed. His gaze went to his own son again. Adam seemed shrunken somehow, his body still and no longer with the living. His skin almost looked blue in the bright morning sun. “Adam,” he whispered. He remembered last week—Adam had been strong and fit then, his skin gleaming with the sweat of honest work as he goaded his brothers into finishing one more section of fence while the late winter warm spell held. His fervent wish was to be able to come upon them again like that—tears started to his eyes. How much death would there be today if Numaga didn’t succeed…

The gasp from the women brought him out of his emotional perambulations. Falling Water’s face was averted, eyes shut tight, and Ben looked reflexively towards the fight. Numaga was on his feet, but clutching at his bloody side as he crouched in a defensive posture. Black Cloud came at him swiftly and Numaga twisted his torso away, leaving his leg straight and low to trip his opponent. Black Cloud tried to catch himself but Numaga moved too swiftly for him and he fell into the sudden up thrust of the sharp weapon.

Black Cloud hissed at the pain as his momentum brought him to a rolling stop at the end of his tether. He made no move to cover his wound, angry and defiant to the last. His eyes stayed on Numaga as the elders rushed to his side. “You are the victor, brother, but even you cannot bring peace. I wish you joy of the struggle.”

Numaga watched impassively as the tribesmen tended to the fallen brave and then turned his attention to the rest of the assemblage. “It is better to struggle for peace than to fight the battles of the past. My brother spoke with a forked tongue to have his private vengeance.” He nodded to the women. “Revive him, and free Benjamin Cartwright.” He stared down each of the young braves who had stood with Black Cloud. “Will you kill again at one man’s whim—and set Paiute against Paiute? Do we not have a council to select a chief and decide on war?”

Ben rubbed at his wrists, ignoring the impulse to rush to his son’s side. “Numaga,” he called softly.

Numaga turned slightly and inclined his head. “Tell your men to stand down, Benjamin Cartwright.” He picked up his bloody weapon and drove it deeply into the ground at his feet. “The battle is no more.”

Ben raised one eyebrow and complied. “Roy. Hoss, Joe—tell the men to put down their weapons.” Slowly, painfully so to Ben, men stood and dropped their rifles.

Numaga nodded and Ben turned to hurry to his son’s side. He barely heard the buzz of noise behind him as the camp came alive with activity. His eyes were only for Adam, still and unmoving; skin stained blue, bloodless lips not touched by the lightest of breaths. He raised his eyes to Falling Water’s face. “He’s not—”

Falling Water looked at him, her features as calm and serene as ever. She asked a sharp question of the women who sat at her back. The answer was short and apparently welcome, for she smiled briefly.

“He will live.” She laid one hand on his forehead and pulled a blanket of rabbit skins over his chest with the other. “He sleeps.”

“He’s not breathing, Pa!”

Ben turned to see his ever-stealthy middle son at his side. “Hoss!” He took in the pale face and the strained, worried features. “You won’t be breathing if you don’t take it easy.”

“I have to see him, talk to ‘im. He can’t go an’ die on us. Not after all this.”

*****

Part Forty-Five: Nanuk

 “But Pa …he’s not breathing…”

Ben softly touched Hoss’s arm, then tightened his grip until his son finally tore his eyes away from Adam.

”He’ll live, Hoss.” There was a slight catch in his voice, but all he could see at that moment were the unbelieving and scared eyes of his middle son.

”He’ll live,” he repeated forcefully, pushing the words out of his throat that was suddenly constricting, but he smiled nevertheless. It was a small, wavering smile that hurt his lips, and in his chest beat a heart that he had never known could go so fast. Still, he smiled, because they had survived against all odds.

”Pa?”

Joe’s pale face appeared at the edge of his vision, the stiff line between eyes dark with pain telling a story of its own.

Ben lifted his gaze and the smile widened, and only when he looked at Hoss again did he dare to take a deep breath.

”You don’t think that Adam would want to miss any more of this, do you?”

*****

After that, everything happened in a blur.

Later, Ben would remember the soft contrast of Falling Water’s hands in Adam’s jet-black curls as she gently lifted his head to give him the medicine. He remembered two bolts of lightning hitting his heart when he watched the joy break out on his sons’ faces as they watched their brother breathe. He remembered that he had to squint his eyes when a slight touch on his shoulder made him look up into faces of Numaga, Grey Owl and, suprisingly, Roy Coffee.

There wasn’t much he remembered afterward.

Roy must have sent his men back to town, but whether he himself left to get Doc Martin, Ben couldn’t tell. The doctor had been there, though, suddenly appearing next to him in the tent they had brought Adam to. He had chased all of them out, the scowl on his face daring them to disagree, and Ben had a sudden flash of déjà-vu that sent shivers up his spine.

Ben shifted softly, stiffling the groan that built in his throat when his backside protested.

They had gone home after that. Ben knew he would forever be grateful to Roy for sending a buckboard out for them. Hoss and Paul Martin had been riding with him in the back, trying to keep his freshly stitched oldest son as still and comfortable as possible.

Wearily Ben rubbed his head. He remembered darkly that Paul had told him of the council of elders that had been summoned to a meeting to confirm Numaga’s claim of leadership, then sighed. Roy Coffee and he would ride out there later in the week to pay the new chief their regards.

For just a second, Ben closed his eyes and listened, and then he felt the smile spreading out on his face. Yes, his sons were safely under his roof again, and for the moment, he even knew where all of them were. Chuckling softly at the thought and wondering about the last time he could have been so sure, he leaned forward when the fragile body on the bed stirred.

”Welcome back,” he said softly.

*****

Part Forty-Six: Doolittle

EPILOGUE

“Come in.”

Joe paused for a moment to savor the sound of his brother’s voice, the voice that he had feared he would never hear again. It was thinner, weaker, less robust than before, but still beautiful to his ears. He softly pushed the door open and entered the dimly lit room.

Adam lay on his stomach, under strict orders from Doc Martin to allow the wound in his back a chance to heal properly. His head was turned to the side facing away from the door, and one arm hung casually over the side of the bed, fingers almost touching the floor. Joe hesitated. He knew what he had come to say, what he needed to say, so why was he having so much trouble getting up the courage to say it?

“Joe?”

“Yeah, Adam—how did you know it was me?

Adam chuckled softly and winced as even that much movement pulled on the stitches in his back. He had been able to identify each of his family’s footsteps from long years of practice; his father’s sure, purposeful stride, Hoss’s heavier tread and Joe’s light-footed, almost dance-like step. It had come in handy more times than he could count. Now, Joe’s step was slow and halting, always a sign that he had something weighing heavily on his mind.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” he asked softly, “Come over here.”

Joe picked up a chair and moved it near the bed and sat so that Adam could see him without straining. He peered as closely at his brother as the dim light would allow. Adam’s complexion was still very pale, only partially disguised by several days’ growth of beard. The fever, which had threatened to take him even after they had brought him home and tended his wounds, had broken the day before and his family was finally beginning to allow themselves the luxury of believing that he would make a complete recovery.

“Adam, if you’re tired, I could come back later.”

Adam sighed heavily. His brother was stalling and he understood why. His last conscious thought before waking up in his own bed was the terror he felt knowing that Joe was riding into Black Cloud’s ambush. His father tried his best to reassure him, but, even in the grip of fever, Adam could tell that there was more, something he wasn’t telling him. Finally, concerned that Adam wouldn’t rest until he knew the truth, the whole truth, his father reluctantly filled him in on everything that had happened.

Adam tried to make his voice light in an effort to put his brother at ease. “No, Joe, I’m not tired. I’m bored. Can’t even read like this.”

Joe smiled, “Yeah, I guess that would be kinda hard, ‘specially with your hand all wrapped up like that.”

An uneasy silence settled in the room.

Finally, after several moments, Joe cleared his throat, “Adam—I need to tell ya somethin’.”

“Joe…” Adam said softly.

“Adam, please, just let me say this, okay?”

Adam silently nodded his head.

“I messed up, Adam. I messed up big.” Joe ran his fingers through his hair in a nervous gesture but once he started, the words seemed to tumble over themselves in an effort to be heard.

“I was so scared. You were hurt so badly and then we were ambushed by the Paiute. Hoss wanted me to get help—I didn’t want to leave him there, but we were pinned down and there didn’t seem to be any way out of it. Then I saw Jackie’s horse and knew that it was all up to me.”

Joe’s thoughts were jumbled and fragmented, but Adam could make out enough of what he was saying to piece the events together in his mind. The picture it painted made his stomach tighten with pain for what his brothers had endured.

“Then I got to Virginia City—I didn’t know what to do, Adam. I knew we didn’t have time to spare, and you know how Roy is with doin’ things the proper way. So I went to the saloon.” Joe hesitated, swallowed hard, and then reluctantly continued, “I can’t say that I didn’t know what could have happened—I did. I just didn’t see any other way out.”

Joe realized that his voice was becoming edged with anger, although whether it was because he felt he had to defend his actions to his brother, or that he had chosen to take those actions in the first place, he didn’t know.

“I know Pa told you all this already, Adam. I just kinda felt like it needed to come from me, too. I know that you wouldn’t have done it the same way, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how you would have handled it, and I really tried, Adam. I tried to think like you.” Shoulders slumped and head bowed, Joe fell silent.

Adam grinned lightly at this. He wondered briefly if Joe had realized the compliment that he had just paid him. He turned his head slightly to look at his little brother. His strength was rapidly failing him but he needed to say this, almost as much as Joe needed to hear it.

Adam had too much respect for his brother to pretend that what he had chosen to do might not have had serious, far-reaching consequences, but Adam needed Joe to know that he supported him in his decision; that he acknowledged that Joe was a man now and didn’t need to seek approval from his big brother for the decisions that he made. His heart was in the right place, and in the end, the Paiute would be better off. Adam might not have made the same decision had he been in Joe’s place, but he refused to second guess his brother, especially when his intentions had been to save the lives of his family.

“Joe, who’s to say what would have happened if you hadn’t done what you did? Sometimes—most times—there is no one perfect solution. Black Cloud’s hate ran far deeper than the Cartwrights. He hated all white men. Eventually, that hate would have destroyed the Paiute.”

From his position in the doorway, Ben listened to the conversation. He feared for the toll it was taking on Adam, but he was loathe to interrupt, knowing that Joe needed his brother’s forgiveness and understanding. He saw Joe breathe a sign of relief as he accepted Adam’s absolution from guilt, then saw his head rise and his back straighten as Adam acknowledged him as a man. Not for the first time, Ben felt that his heart wasn’t big enough to contain the enormity of the pride he felt for his sons.

As the low voices continued, Ben turned quietly and retreated down the hallway. Hoss, meeting him on the stairway, was immediately concerned at the strange look he saw on his father’s face and the misting in his eyes. His first thought was of his brother.

“Pa? What is it? There ain’t nothin’ wrong with Adam is there?” he asked anxiously.

Ben glanced back to the open doorway where he could still make out the now much lighter conversation of his two sons, then reached out to gently squeeze the good shoulder of his third son and breathed a long-overdue, relieved sigh.

“No, son. I think everything’s going to be fine—just fine.”

***The End***

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