Summary: It was one of the only times Joe Cartwright had ever dreaded coming home.
Word Count: 8775
It was one of the only times Joe Cartwright had ever dreaded coming home. Riding into the ranch after a long journey was usually cause for a celebration, at least a little whooping and hollering at the sight of the house. Today, all Joe could manage was a tired sigh.
Four long weeks had passed since he’d last seen his pa and brothers, but it seemed like a lifetime. Maybe it’d take another lifetime to set it all right.
Joe reined in at the hitch rail, slowly dismounting, then pausing to rest his head on Cochise as he wearily patted the horse. To an onlooker, it would appear as if the young man was merely tired after a long journey. In reality, Joe needed the time to get his emotions under control. The fire still burned in his side, though with less intensity each day. The pain burning in his heart would be harder to extinguish. He couldn’t bear to transfer that pain to his father, so for the final time, he won his own argument. He’d tell the lie to Pa.
A month had passed since Ben sent Joe to Landers. It wasn’t unusual for one of his sons to be away from the ranch that long, but usually when Joe was gone, there’d be an occasional telegram or even a quickly penned letter. This time, there’d been nothing, no word at all, and Ben was beginning to worry. He’d even toyed with the idea of sending his own message to Matthew Simon. But pride, and yes, trust in his son, had held him back. Joe would contact him if there was any need.
It was a simple errand, an answer to a plea for help. Their old friend, Matthew, had written about some trouble he’d been having and reluctantly asked Ben for money.
Simon and his family had been in the wagon train Ben organized years ago. It had been Simon’s horse that Inger helped with along the trail, and Mrs. Simon had helped with Hoss in those first days after Inger’s death. They’d settled not too far from the Ponderosa and had been good friends and neighbors for years. Their decision to move away a few years ago was still somewhat puzzling to Ben, but Matthew had been adamant that the new ranch was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. So when the request arrived, Ben gladly sent the money. And his son.
From the tone of the letter, Ben suspected that Matthew could use more than money to get his horse ranch operating smoothly again, so it seemed natural to pack the bank draft in Joe’s saddlebags and send his youngest south to help out for a few weeks.
But the time had dragged on, with no word from Joe. Ben hoped that his recent worrying could simply be attributed to a doting father missing his son. Suddenly frustrated with this personal tormenting, Ben opened his ledger and picked up his coffee. He’d read yesterday’s notes, finish this cup, then go out and check on the fencing crew.
Footsteps on the porch interrupted his musing and Ben set his cup back on the desk, sure that Hoss was coming in with the mail.
Ben almost spilled the coffee in his haste to get to the front door. “Joe, good to see you son! I was just wondering about you. Didn’t hear you ride up, though. Usually hear you galloping in.”
Ben knew he was jabbering. His excited words belayed his wounded heart as he greeted his haggard son. At the last minute, he pulled back the hearty slap aimed for Joe’s back, instinctively aware that his son was hurting. Instead, he reached for Joe’s hand, shaking it warmly then quickly pulling his son close for a gentle hug. “What is it, boy? Are you all right? What’s happened?”
Joe tiredly removed his hat and jacket, slowly unbuckling his gunbelt as he tried to smile reassuringly. “I have some bad news, Pa. Maybe we should sit down so I can tell you about it.”
Ben nodded, the worry jumping up to lodge in his throat. He reassured himself with the knowledge that Joe was here, safe at home. Hoss was in town and Adam out checking on the branding crew. His sons were safe. Everything else took second place. Still, the look on Joe’s face gave him pause enough, and Ben gladly followed his youngest to the settee. Joe didn’t stay there long, though, getting up almost immediately to pace the room. He looked tired, but more than that. Before Joe could start, Ben stood up to join him. “Where are you hurt, boy?”
“I’m fine, Pa, really. Roughed up a little, but I’ll heal.”
“Maybe we should get Doc Martin out here-”
“I’ve already seen a doctor in Landers. He said I’d be fine in a few days. Just need some time.”
Joe sat stiffly on the hearth, effectively ending Ben’s attempt to look him over. “Let me tell you about this, Pa. I know it’s going to come as a shock.”
Ben slowly settled in his favorite chair, watching Joe closely. The telling only took a few minutes.
“I took the money to Mr. Simon like you asked. He was in some financial troubles but the money was going to help. But that was before… See Pa… Mr. Simon died before we could…”
“Died? What? What happened? Matthew was healthy as an ox.”
Joe seemed almost to cringe for a moment then straightened to finish his story. “Doc said it was his heart. Must’ve just given out on him.”
“Yeah, just slumped over right there in the barn.”
Ben studied Joe, waiting for more details, but his son remained silent. The father in him wanted more. “I just can’t believe Simon’s gone, but how did you get hurt? Did that have anything to do with Matthew?”
“No, just a coincidence. Had a run-in with a couple of fellas, that’s all.” Joe fidgeted slightly. “Mrs. Simon decided to sell the place and settle any debts, then move back east to live with her daughter. I stayed on awhile to help out. Didn’t think you’d mind.”
“No, no that was fine. How long before she’ll be leaving?”
”I think she was hoping to leave by the end of the month, if everything could be settled by then. Oh, and I have something for you.”
Joe slowly retrieved his saddlebags, searching through them for a moment before returning with an envelope. “Mrs. Simon said I should give this to you.”
Ben slowly opened the missive; surprise reflected on his face as he read the amount of the draft. “Why did she send this?”
“She was determined to give the money back. Said she didn’t want to owe anyone, and that she needed a fresh start. I guess it was real important to her.”
Ben nodded his agreement then turned to study the fire, reassured by Joe’s explanation. He let his mind wander, preoccupied with memories of chess games and friendly bantering.
“You all right, Pa?”
“What? Oh, yes, I’m fine Joe. Just surprised. I never would’ve imagined Matthew to have a bad heart. I’m just sorry to lose such a good friend, even if I hadn’t seen him in three years.”
Quiet stretched between them, both lost in their thoughts until Joe finally broke the silence. “Think I’ll get cleaned up a little. It was a long ride.”
“Of course. You go ahead. I’ll have HopSing fix you some lunch.”
Ben watched Joe slowly climb the stairs, wondering if there was more to the story than his son let on. Still a young man, maybe Joe had been affected by the death of their old friend and neighbor. Regardless, Ben was more than relieved that Joe was safely home. Everything else would fall into place in time.
Ben slowly tucked the letter into the envelope then sealed it securely. Pausing to study the address he’d penned on the front, he finally placed it on the pile of correspondence Adam had promised to mail in Virginia City. Returning to his work, Ben felt good about the decision he’d made. It was the right thing to do.
Several hours passed before his eldest came in, slapping dust from black pants. “Pa!”
“Right here, Adam.”
”Oh, sorry Pa. It took a little longer than we expected, but we finally got the steers rounded up and moved. Hoss is going to stay out there a while longer, make sure everything stays quiet.”
“Sounds good. Are you still going to Virginia City?”
“Yeah, figured I’d ride in now so I can get home before dark. Everything set?”
“All the contracts are here, signed and ready to go.”
Adam grabbed the pile of letters, stopping to stare at the one on top. His voice was quiet when he finally spoke. “You’re writing to Mrs. Simon?”
“Yes I am. I’m sending along some money, too.”
Adam eyed his father thoughtfully, as if considering both the man and his actions.
“Do you have a problem with that?” Ben questioned.
“No, Pa, not at all. Just hope she’ll take it this time. Joe made it sound like she was pretty adamant about not wanting to owe anyone.”
“Yes. He did. Has he said anything more to you?”
“No, he’s been real quiet about the whole thing. Mr. Simon’s death sure seemed to bother him.”
“I noticed. Kind of strange, since he never seemed to be that close to the Simon family when they lived here.”
“Don’t worry about him, Pa. You know Joe, couple days and he’ll act like nothing ever happened. And I’ll make sure this letter gets in today’s post.”
Adam gathered up the rest of the mail then hurried out, leaving Ben to wonder about the recent events. Joe had been extremely quiet since he returned, going about his daily routine without question as if in a trance. Hoss had tried to bring his brother out, teasing him about girls, horses, checkers, anything to get the kid laughing, but nothing worked. And though he insisted that he was all right, Ben wasn’t convinced, constantly aware of the way Joe moved when first getting up from a chair, or climbed the stairs. He’d even tried to have a look at the boy’s side once, but was refused with such forcefulness that he’d quickly backed down. Ben had decided to let the matter lie, for now. He hoped that Adam was right, and that in a day or two, Joe would be back to his old self.
Adam, too, was worried about his brother. For lack of a better word, Joe seemed almost guilty. Yet Adam knew there should be nothing for Joe to feel guilty about. Maybe it was just intuition, years of practice as a big brother, or his instinct for getting to the bottom of a problem. Whatever it was, Adam suspected that there really was more to the story. He just didn’t know how hard to push, or if it was worth finding the answer this time. Something told him it might be better to let things alone.
But Adam Cartwright wasn’t a man prone to letting things alone.
It was late that night when he finally closed his book and banked the fire. The rest of the family had already turned in, first Joe then Hoss and Pa. The house had been quiet for several hours and Adam suspected that his family was sound asleep. So he was surprised to see light coming from under Joe’s door as he walked quietly towards his room. Pausing for a moment, Adam tapped quietly on his brother’s door, waiting only a moment before opening it slowly.
Joe stood before his bureau, shirt off, pants dropped low on his hips. It was the towel held to his side that stopped Adam short.
“What the hell?”
Pushing the door shut, Adam moved forward only to be stopped again, this time by Joe’s angry glare. “What are you doing in here?”
“More important, what happened to you?”
Joe moved the towel a little higher while still holding his ground. “I told Pa that I had a little trouble with a fella in Landers. It’s nothing serious. I still want to know what you’re doing in here.”
Adam stepped closer, his hand reaching out only to be batted away. “You told Pa it was a couple of fellas that roughed you up. Looks like a gunshot wound to me, and it’s infected.”
Whether it was Adam’s repeating Joe’s story or the concerned look on his face, the result was instantaneous. Joe seemed to give up, a little too quickly in Adam’s opinion.
With a moan, Joe turned back to the bureau and picked up a fresh bandage. Adam took advantage of his brother’s silence and moved to stand beside him. Reaching for the towel, he pulled it away and gently fingered the wound. “How long?”
“Couple of weeks.”
“Bad enough. Doc Stevens got the bullet out okay, and the infection didn’t get too bad.”
“Why didn’t someone wire us? Why all the secrecy?”
“No reason to worry Pa. Doc was right there and Mrs. Simon didn’t need anything else to worry about. And there’s no secret, Adam. I told Pa I’d been roughed up, just didn’t tell him how.”
Adam’s grin reflected in the mirror and he was relieved to see Joe finally relax enough to do the same. “You never cease to amaze me, little brother. Here, let me give you a hand.”
With care born of practice, Adam covered the wound then wrapped the white bandage several times around Joe’s torso, successfully protecting the healing wound. When the job was done and Joe had pulled on his nightshirt, Adam sat on the end of the bed, trying once more to complete the picture. “I think you should tell Pa about this.”
“Nothing to tell, Adam.” Joe replied adamantly. “He’s upset enough about Mr. Simon’s death, and the whole thing is over. No sense to bring this up now.”
“But you were shot, Joe.”
“Yeah, and the sheriff took care of the situation. Just let it go, Adam. Please.”
Adam reflected quietly, weighing the pros and cons. Joe was a man now, and although sometimes hard, Adam had to respect that his brother had the right to make his own decisions. With reluctance, he finally nodded his assent. “You’ll say something if that gets worse?”
“Yes big brother, you’ll be the first to know.”
Joe’s grin of relief was obvious. Adam merely patted his brother’s arm as he got up. “Get some sleep.”
And closing the door behind him, Adam knew it wasn’t just for helping with the bandage. Sitting on his own bed minutes later, Adam allowed himself to think about the possibilities. If Joe lied to Pa about his injuries, what else had he lied about? Was there more to the story? What really happened in Landers? Adam’s head was filled with questions, but there were no answers. In fact, there was no proof that anything unusual had happened. There were only his suspicions, and as Adam finally climbed under the covers, he convinced himself that they were unfounded. Probably.
Cleaning stalls was a chore to most men, and in all fairness, it wasn’t on the top of Hoss’s list either. But there was also something good about the job, a feeling of fulfillment, of completing something basic and important. Caring for their mounts, making sure they were fed and bedded down in a good clean stall. There was something simple but right about it, a task that made him feel that the world was right.
Hoss forked another clump of hay into the manger before stopping to survey his work. Across the aisle, his brother was quietly going about his own work. But where Hoss felt at peace, his brother seemed at odds with the world. Watching him now, Hoss noticed the set of Adam’s shoulders and realized his brother was either working through a problem, or working himself into one. Quiet at the moment, Adam was leaning on the shovel, and looking out the door.
“Something you want to talk about?” Hoss asked tentatively.
Adam turned quickly, as if surprised to find there was someone else in the barn with him. “What? Uh, no. I mean…well…”
Hoss almost grinned at his brother’s stammering. “Sure must be some kind of problem.”
Adam slowly leaned the shovel against a wall, his face conveying uncertainty and doubt. It surprised Hoss, who’d started out thinking only to tease his brother.
“What is it, Adam?” He questioned again, his voice calm but low.
Fiddling with a piece of straw, Adam kept his focus on his hands rather than face Hoss. “Not sure it’s anything at all, but I just can’t get it out of my head. Guess if I tell someone else, maybe it’ll make more sense to me.”
Adam paused a moment, looking out the door again, almost like he was checking to see if they were alone. Hoss found his brother’s actions to be more than a little strange. “Might as well get it out. Gonna pester you until you do.”
“You’re probably right. I’ve been wondering about the trip Joe took, and the story he told us about Matthew Simon’s death. Did it seem a little. . . contrived to you?”
“Contrived?” Hoss could hear the disbelief in his own voice. “Now why would it sound like that, Adam? Joe came back with bad news, that’s all. I wouldn’t have been in his shoes for nuthin’. Havin’ to be the one to tell Pa about Mr. Simon’s passin’. You know how Pa felt about the Simons. Them bein’ the ones that traveled out here with you and Pa, and knowin’ my Ma. Just made ‘em kinda special to Pa, I think. What makes ya think there’s more to it than the tellin’ of bad news?”
Adam paced a few steps away then back, one hand rubbing the back of his neck. “Have you noticed how Joe’s been favoring his side?”
“Sure I have. He told Pa about those two fellers he had the run-in with. Nothin’ special about Joe getting’ into a scrape. He’s been doin’ that since he was five.”
Hoss started to laugh at his own joke, but let it die in his throat. Adam was not amused, and it finally struck Hoss just how worried his older brother looked. “Ah come on, Adam. What’s got ya so worked up?”
Adam stopped, looking Hoss square in the eye for the first time since they walked into the barn an hour earlier. ”Joe wasn’t just roughed up, Hoss. He was shot.”
“Shot?” Hoss stepped forward, one hand instinctively grabbing Adam’s arm. “What’re ya talkin’ about? He said he was just. . .” Hoss’s voice trailed off. “You sure?”
“Saw the wound myself.”
“How come he told you?”
“He didn’t. Well, not on purpose anyway. I walked in on him last night when he was attempting to bandage his side. Looks like it was pretty serious.”
“Did he tell you what it was all about?”
“No. Just passed it off as a simple disagreement that the sheriff took care of.”
Hoss tucked his hands in his pockets, silent as he contemplated what his brother had shared. “You don’t believe him?”
“I’m not sure, Hoss. Joe hasn’t given any real explanation, but he insists that I don’t tell Pa. Says he doesn’t want him to worry about anything else. But why would Pa be worried about something that’s already over with? And what reason would there be for Joe getting caught up in gunplay? He was simply supposed to deliver a bank draft and help around the ranch for a few weeks.”
“Doesn’t make sense, Adam, that’s for sure. Landers is a quiet town, pretty stable around there, with mostly ranchers and a few farmers. Don’t think they have more than one saloon in the place.”
“Exactly. So what would happen to make someone shoot Joe, and if it was something simple, then why won’t Joe talk about it?”
Hoss relaxed a little as he ran through the different scenarios in his head. When several minutes had passed and he still hadn’t answered, Adam stopped pacing, his stance showing that he expected an answer.
“Look, Adam, I know you worry about Joe. Heck, we all do. But I think you’re over-thinkin’ this thing. Joe’s just tryin’ to make his own way, be a little independent. Just ‘cause he didn’t tell us all the details doesn’t mean anything, ‘cept that he’s old enough to make his own decisions, whether we like it or not. Nah, as long as he’s healin’ up and we can see that for ourselves, I think we just gotta trust him.”
Adam’s dark eyes and fierce expression showed clearly that he wasn’t convinced by Hoss’s simple explanation. But the truth was, he didn’t have anything more to go on and they both knew it. Older brother’s vigilance was all well and good, but in this case, that’s all it was. That and speculation based on a young man’s colorful exploits. It took several minutes, and Hoss laying his arm across his brother’s shoulders, but in the end, Adam sighed resignedly and tried to relax.
“You’re probably right. I don’t have any reason to suspect anything else. Just worried for the kid, you know?”
“Sure you are, Adam. We’ll both keep a closer eye on him for a few days. But I have to agree with Joe on this one. There’s no use worrying Pa for somethin’ that’s over and done with. Whatever trouble Joe got himself into, he got out just the same.”
Adam grinned faintly, nodding at his larger brother’s succinct explanation. “You’re probably right; I’m probably worrying over nothing. We’ll keep his secret. Little that we know of it.”
“Come on, Adam. Let’s see if HopSing has supper cookin’. I’m hungry enough to eat a whole steer.”
The two brothers walked toward the house, conversation easy between them. Neither of them aware they were being watched from an upstairs window.
Joe’s side was still tender, but he’d done his best to keep it from his father. Bad enough that Adam had discovered part of his dirty secret; he’d do anything to make sure Pa didn’t find out. If Ben had any indication that his son was suffering from more than a few bruised ribs, there’d be more explaining to do, and that was something Joe wasn’t willing to risk. So he stayed off the broncs, used his right hand more often than not, and tried to keep the cheerful banter going. Anything to hide what he was really feeling, both physical and otherwise.
Stepping away from the window, Joe slowly buttoned his clean shirt, carefully tucking the tails into his trousers before heading to the hallway. Supper would be on the table soon, but he was more worried about the conversation going on below than filling his stomach.
Quietly pulling the door closed behind him, Joe stood in the hall for a moment, listening intently. Hoss was mumbling about something, probably the supper that wasn’t ready yet, and Adam’s easy laugh filled in the quiet moments. There was no sound of his father’s voice, and Joe wondered if Pa was as curious about his brothers’ discussion as he was. But then, why would Pa be curious in the first place. He hadn’t seen the two talking, and even if he had, there was no reason for him to suspect anything. There was no reason for Joe to suspect anything either, but he did. Something in the way Adam had looked at him earlier when Joe rode in from the north pasture made his hackles rise. He was sure older brother wasn’t convinced about his story, and Joe had a gut feeling that Adam was talking to Hoss about his suspicions. If that were true, they’d soon be talking to Pa.
“Are we having supper up here tonight?”
Joe whirled around to face his father, surprised to find Ben standing outside his own bedroom door. “Pa. I didn’t know you were upstairs.”
Ben laid an arm across his shoulders, warmly pulling Joe along toward the stairs. “Just cleaning off a little of that trail dust before HopSing bans me from the table. I don’t mind the ride to Placerville, but this time of year, it gets a little dry. How did things go with the new fence line? Long day, son?”
“Yeah, but everything is coming along. We should be done by the end of the week.”
“Good. Think you’ll be up to working that string of horses by then? I noticed you’re still favoring your side a little.”
Joe unconsciously moved a hand to cover his wound, and his quick reply sounded overanxious even to his own ears. “Sure Pa, I’m fine.”
Ben merely nodded as they headed down the steps, and Joe scrambled for something to say. Anything to cover what he hoped wasn’t doubt in his father’s mind. “Just a little sore today, but a good night’s sleep will help.”
Joe almost cringed at his own words. They sounded much to close to what Ben might’ve said, given half a chance.
“I’ll be able to handle the horses, Pa, no problem.”
Ben still hadn’t responded, but Joe felt the questioning look, even if he didn’t see his father’s face. He was never so happy to hear Hoss greet them, and Joe hurried down the last few steps to join his brothers.
The next several hours were spent in the usual way. Supper together, reading and checkers after dinner, a quiet evening. And Joe spent the entire time watching and wondering. Hoss had looked several times as if he wanted to ask something, and Adam was brooding over one of his books. It was time for Joe to take action. He just wasn’t sure exactly how to do it.
“I’m goin’ to check on that mare one more time before I turn in. See you in the morning.” Hoss had tucked the checkerboard away and was moving to the door.
Joe knew that this was his opportunity. “I’ll give you a hand. Night, Pa, Adam.”
Outside, Joe realized that Hoss was watching him expectantly as they walked slowly toward the barn. They were at the door before either spoke.
“Don’t mind the company, little brother, but I didn’t really need the help.”
“Well, since I’m already here…”
“You get the light, then, and I’ll check her leg.”
Hoss was looking over the mare by the time Joe turned up the lamp and joined him by the stall. A few minutes and Hoss declared her on the mend. “Leg’s cooling down; few days and she’ll be as good as new.”
Joe leaned over the half-wall, watching his brother closely, comforted by the familiarity of the place and routine. He didn’t want to disrupt the quiet, yet Joe sensed, as he had before following Hoss out here, that this was his chance. “You and Adam have a good talk today?”
“Huh? Yeah, I guess so.” Hoss hesitated, taking stock of the situation in his usual way before finally blurting out: “what are you talking about, little brother?”
“Oh, just thinking about Pa. He sure is upset about Mr. Simon, isn’t he?” Joe hedged carefully.
Hoss shook his head, then leaned against the wall next to Joe. “Yeah, it was a surprise. Thinkin’ about Mr. Simon has sure brought back a lot of memories for Pa. Memories of the journey out here, and times with my Ma. I think the Simons always made that time come back for him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, with Adam’s ma, there’s no one here that knew her, so all Pa has is his memories. That and a few letters he saved from Mr. Stoddard. And lots of people here about knew your ma, so he has lots of memories of Marie to share. But with my ma, there’s no one but Adam that remembers. And the Simons. They kinda helped keep her memory alive for him.”
“Yeah. That makes sense.”
Hoss picked up a piece of straw, watching the mare but clearly thinking of other times. Joe shared the quiet, unsure of how to proceed. Maybe Adam hadn’t said anything. But he had to know. “I didn’t want to have to tell Pa.”
Joe could feel his brother studying him. It was the hand on his shoulder that was the most reassuring. “Ah Joe, don’t waste any time thinkin’ on it. Pa’s tougher than that, and he understands about people dyin’. It don’t make any sense for you to beat yourself up just because you had to deliver the news. Pa thinkin’ that Mr. Simon was healthy and just about to have his fortune turn around, like I said, it was just a surprise, that’s all.”
Joe allowed a faint smile to play across his face, dipping his head a little. “Thanks, Hoss.”
“Come on, Joe, let’s get some sleep. Lots of work waitin’ for us tomorrow.”
“Adam! Adam Cartwright!”
The man in question turned to find the messenger rushing toward him.
“Sorry Mr. Cartwright. Mr. Sanders found another letter that didn’t get put with your mail. Sorry about the inconvenience, sir.”
Adam leaned out of the saddle, accepting the letter with a smile. “No problem, Jake. Thanks.”
Jake was already headed back down the street when Adam slipped the missive into his saddlebag. The flowing script on the front was unfamiliar, but the name ‘Landers’ on the corner was. He knew without looking further, that Mrs. Matthew Simon had penned the address.
There was no name on the envelope; a simple Cartwrights, Ponderosa Ranch, Virginia City was all. That fact bothered Adam all the way home. Had it been sent directly to Ben Cartwright, there would be no question that it would set on the desk until his father returned from Carson City in a few days. But it didn’t have that specific declaration, and although he couldn’t explain it, Adam felt compelled to know what was inside. It was more than simple curiosity. For some inexplicable reason, he knew without a doubt that the answers to his suspicions about Joe’s experience in Landers were held within those pages.
So after several internal arguments, Adam pulled Sport to the side of the road and dismounted. He was shaded by several tall pines, his seat a large rock, the accompaniment of a small stream his only company as he slit the envelope. The first thing Adam saw was the bank draft Ben had sent only days earlier. The reason was quickly revealed in the first few lines of Mrs. Simon’s letter, though it also revealed whom the letter was intended for, regardless of the address.
Thank you for your generosity, but as I told Joe the day he left for home, there is no longer any need for financial help. As of yesterday,
the ranch was sold to a neighbor for a fair price, and I am currently making preparations to move back east to live with my daughter.
I hope that you can forgive Matthew for what he did to your son. The whole situation was so unfortunate, but as I’m sure Joe has
explained, my husband was no longer himself. It is sad that such a wonderful man had such a sad ending, but I resigned myself some months ago to the possibility. I can only hope, now, that his family and friends will remember Matthew as he was, and not the way his life ended.
Thank you again, Ben, for your kindness. I will remember you and your sons fondly.
Adam folded the letter, opened it to reread then folded it again. There was meaning here, something important, but it wasn’t clear. Just more pieces to a puzzle that his mind hadn’t been able to put in the right order.
What did Mrs. Simon mean, forgiving Matthew for what he did to Joe? And if he died from a sudden attack as Joe said, then why had she resigned herself to his loss months before? The letter only confused the issue instead of resolving it. Adam slowly tucked the letter inside his vest, wondering at the motivation he felt to open what was obviously Pa’s private mail. If it weren’t for the worry and confusion it would cause Ben, Adam would’ve been full of regret. Instead, he was relieved that he’d followed his instinct. This was a letter he didn’t know if Ben should ever see.
With more questions than answers, Adam mounted up and headed for home. It wasn’t until he rode into the yard that he admitted to himself he needed to talk about all of this. Seeing his brother sitting on the porch, Adam saw the chance to try again to convince Hoss that something strange had happened in Landers.
Patting the letter and bank draft in his pocket, Adam walked slowly over to join his brother. “Hard day?” he started.
“Upstairs. Said he was going to rest a little before dinner. Think that one of those rough ones took the starch out of him.”
“He’s all right, Adam. After what you told me the other night, I’ve been keepin’ an eye on him.”
Adam settled into a chair next to Hoss, each enjoying the coming dusk. It was a good time, a quiet time at the end of the day. But Adam couldn’t let himself revel in the contentment of the day’s closing. “Hoss. I’ve been thinking about this thing with Matt Simon. There’s something wrong with the whole story.”
“No, Hoss, you need to hear me out. There’s more to the story than what Joe told us. I don’t have it all straight, but I know there’s more to Simon’s death than a simple heart attack.”
“I think you’re wrong, Adam. If there was something to tell, Joe would’ve spilled it by now. You know how he is.”
Adam leaned forward in his chair, chin balanced on folded hands. “Not this time, Hoss. He’s covering up. Trying to protect someone.”
“Who’d he be protecting?”
“I don’t know for sure. Pa, maybe. Or Matthew Simon. Maybe Mrs. Simon.”
“Adam, you’re over-thinking this whole thing. Pa sent Joe out to help some old friends. He come home with bad news. News he didn’t want to share for fear of hurtin’ Pa. And yeah, a wound that he wasn’t quick to explain, but that could’ve been the result of a simple misunderstanding, just like he said. I talked to Joe myself the other day, and I don’t think there’s anything to be told, other than the sadness in a young fella who feels like he got caught in the middle of a sad situation.”
Dark eyes brooding, Adam stared out at the yard, his arguments caught behind the protective wall of his big-brother status. What was he going to prove with this? Pushing Hoss was getting him nowhere, and it sure wasn’t convincing Hoss that something unusual had taken place. Joe was the one who had the answers, and it was clear that he, too, wasn’t interested in talking about it.
With a sigh of resignation, Adam straightened up and grabbed the saddlebags he’d dropped on the porch beside his chair. “Maybe you’re right. Think I’ll get this mail sorted out before supper.”
“All right, Adam, I’ll be in soon.”
Adam laid a hand briefly on his brother’s shoulder before heading for the front door.
Joe was tired. Tired of trying to forget. Tired of pretending that everything was fine. And tired of trying to get Adam to leave the whole thing alone.
His brother could be tenacious when he thought there was something being covered up. It wasn’t the first time that Joe thought Adam missed his calling; he’d have been a good lawyer. The time he’d tried to prove himself to Sheriff Coffee and all of Virginia City by riding an almost impossible route, well, that seemed small compared to the pressure Joe was feeling now. Adam was onto his secret. He didn’t know how, but Joe knew he was right. Maybe that’s why he felt justified now, to follow his brother, peering after him when Adam settled in front of the fireplace and slowly pulled a long envelope from inside his vest.
Hoss was already asleep and Pa away on business, it was time to try once again to convince Adam that he was wrong. Quietly edging down the stairs, Joe stepped up behind the blue chair, almost surprised when Adam turned to face him.
“Thought I heard you coming down.”
“Thought I was being quiet.”
Adam grinned, then motioned for Joe to join him. “Can’t sleep?”
“Something you want to talk about?”
“Yes. I want to know what happened today. What made you go all quiet on us at dinner, and caused you to stare at me while I beat Hoss six times at checkers.”
Adam dropped his gaze, trying to cover a grin.
“Is it something in that letter?”
The grin was gone when Adam lifted his head again. “Perhaps.”
“If it’s something about me, then I have a right to see it.”
Adam fingered the envelope hesitantly. “It’s a letter to Pa,” he finally mumbled.
“Then why does it look like it’s been opened?”
Adam pursed his lips, then quietly handed Joe the packet.
Joe looked over the bank draft then unfolded the letter. It only took a few moments to read, but in that short time, Joe felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room. He had to read the letter a second time, just to allow time to get his heart beating at a more normal rhythm. Mrs. Simon’s message was clear to him; he could only hope it was still a little muddy to Adam. And more important, that none if it would ever be revealed to Pa. When he finally thought he could keep his voice steady, Joe held both papers out to Adam.
Adam flashed a quick look of disbelief. “Nice letter?”
“Sure. I tried to tell Pa that she didn’t want the money. Glad the sale of the ranch went through though. I know she’s anxious to get things settled.”
“What about the other part? Why would Pa need to forgive Mr. Simon, and what’s all that about him being remembered well?”
“Doesn’t seem strange to me. Just sounds like the comments of a wife in mourning. And that thing about me, well, that’s probably just because of the scrape I got in. Nothing special about that.”
Joe kept his voice as close to normal as he could manage, staring into the fire as if he were thinking about the loss of an old friend. He threw up a quick and silent prayer that Adam would just let it go. “Adam, you seem to be real worried about this whole thing with the Simons, but you’re making too much out of it. I was helping out at the ranch. We’d been looking over some stock and got into a disagreement with a couple men that the sheriff took care of. Then Mr. Simon died suddenly, and after I felt good enough to ride, I came home. That’s all there is to it.”
The big-brother look was long and hard, and Joe had the sensation that Adam’s eyes could burn a hole right through a man. But finally, after several intense minutes, Adam dropped his gaze and Joe relaxed. Although he wanted to ask for the letter and draft, anything to keep it away from Pa’s eyes, he let it drop. At least for now. “Night, Adam.”
All the way up the stairs, Joe wondered about the lie he’d chosen to tell. And not for the first time, he wished it had been anyone but him that Pa had sent to Landers.
“You still brooding about that letter?”
Adam’s head jerked up, startled to find that Hoss was standing at the other side of Pa’s huge desk. “What? No. Well, maybe.”
Adam fumbled with the parchment, stuffing it unceremoniously back into the envelope.
“You know, you’re puttin’ way too much thought into this, Adam. Makin’ too much out of nothin’.”
“That’s what Joe told me the other night.”
“And he’s right.” Hoss pulled a chair over, settling in as if his only purpose was to spend the day talking some sense into his brother. “You need to let this go, Adam. Need to make your peace with it before Pa gets home. I’ve talked to Joe again, and we’re both hoping you won’t bring this up to Pa.”
“What about the bank draft? Don’t you think he has a right to know about that?”
“Yeah, sure. But not all the other…suspicions. Please, Adam, just let it go.”
Adam turned the paper over and over in his hands. He wanted to do as Hoss suggested. It made sense. There was no reason to pursue this. Joe was home and safe. Mr. Simon was dead and Mrs. Simon even wrote to say that all was well. And Pa was satisfied with Joe’s explanation. There was no reason to try to prove anything more.
If only he could truly believe that was the right thing to do.
Hoss reached out, laying one large hand on Adam’s arm. “It’s for the best, Adam. You’ll see.”
Adam stepped into the telegraph office, grateful for the respite from the afternoon sun.
“Hot one today.”
“Sure is, Amos.”
“Need to send a telegram?”
Adam didn’t answer, but reached for a slip of paper and pencil off the counter. “Just need a minute.”
It was a little more than that before Adam got the message worded the way he wanted, but the telegrapher ended up busy with several other customers, so there was no hurry. When he finished the last word, Adam held the paper up for one final read-through.
Please provide information regarding death of Matthew Simon. Details also needed for shooting of Joe Cartwright. Respond to:
Virginia City, Nevada
Laying the pencil back on the counter, Adam started to hold the paper out when it was suddenly snatched from his hand.
“What is this, Adam? Can’t believe me, but gotta go behind my back?”
Several sets of eyes turned toward them before Adam grabbed his younger brother by the arm. “Let’s talk about this outside.”
”Fine with me.”
An angry Joe stepped out of the office, the paper still crumpled in his fist. Adam thought he might have a real fight on his hands when Joe whirled to face him, but a tactful glance toward their horses must have been persuasive enough. Joe practically stomped down the steps and over to his horse, wasting no time in leaping into the saddle but waiting for Adam to mount up before riding out of town.
It was the first words Adam spoke since leaving town a full ten minutes earlier, but Joe didn’t answer. Instead, he reined Cochise over to the small grove of trees and quickly dismounted.
“All right, Adam,” Joe started. “We’re out of town now, and there’s no one around to hear our conversation. So answer my question. Why did you feel the need to go behind my back? Why the telegram to the Sheriff in Landers?”
“Why all the secrecy, Joe?”
“What secrecy? I told you everything there is to tell, now answer my-”
“No, you didn’t. You didn’t tell Pa that you were shot. You didn’t explain why Mrs. Simon needed Pa’s forgiveness. And you sure didn’t give any reason why the woman would say that her husband was no longer himself. That’s a very strange comment for her to make. Very strange.”
Adam’s own fists were clenched as he stood before Joe. He’d practically jumped off Sport in his hurry to face his brother. The last few weeks had been confusing at best, and he was tired of Joe’s attempts to cover things up. He knew, without a doubt, that there was much more to the story. He also knew that if his brother was this riled up, one of them would need to calm down or they’d be rolling in the dirt next. “Joe. Why did you follow me into town?”
The sudden twist in the conversation seemed to baffle him, for Joe looked down as if unsure of how to answer. “I…you were…”
“If there’s nothing to hide, then why are you so worried? What made you think I was going to wire the sheriff in the first place? And even if I did, what could he tell me that would change anything.”
Joe continued to look down, first at his boots, then at almost anything else within view. The silence stretched between them as Joe’s anger died, a slow but certain death. When Joe lowered himself to sit on a log, Adam relaxed too, and after a few minutes, joined his brother.
“Tell me, Joe. Tell me what really happened in Landers.”
The wait was so long, Adam wasn’t sure an answer would be given. And when Joe finally did speak, his voice was so soft and low, Adam had to strain to hear.
“Things weren’t right from the first day I got there. Mr. Simon almost seemed annoyed when I arrived, and when I gave him the bank draft, he got… well, just plain mad. Mrs. Simon kept making excuses for him, saying that he’d been worried about the ranch, that he hadn’t been sleeping much or feeling well. But it was more than that, Adam. He was…different. He wasn’t the friendly man I remember. He was…sullen.”
The word itself didn’t come close to describing the Matthew Simon that Adam remembered. Not a bit. In fact, he’d never seen the man even close to angry or irritable, let alone, sullen. Scratching his chin, Adam leaned forward, silently urging Joe to continue.
“I think Mrs. Simon tried to talk him into accepting the help, which seemed strange to me, since he was the one that wrote to Pa in the first place. But after a day or two, he seemed a little better, even met with the banker and made some agreements. We bought a couple mares and talked about how he could improve the bloodlines. About a week after I got there, he came out to the barn one morning, yelling and accusing me of all kinds of things.”
“Like what?” Adam finally interrupted.
“Said I was going after his wife. Then he started blaming the banker for all the financial problems he’d had about a year back, and accused me of being in on it too. Last thing he said, before he pulled out his gun, was that I’d stolen his prize stallion, and that he was justified for killing a horse thief. Then he shot me.”
Adam felt the blow as if he’d been standing in that barn next to Joe. The haunted look on his brother’s face was so clear now, the final pieces of the puzzle sliding slowly but wretchedly into place. He almost didn’t want to hear the ending, and from the way Joe’s head dipped toward his chest, it was obvious his brother had no desire to tell it. But he did.
“Mrs. Simon came in just as he started to fire and she tried to stop him. That’s probably what saved my life. She ran up to him and I think she pushed him or something. Anyway, the bullet missed the important parts, but I was down on the floor. He walked toward me, and I think he would’ve pumped another bullet in me. Didn’t get the chance, though, ’cause Mrs. Simon was screaming at him and when he turned toward her and raised his gun, I…I…”
“You shot him.”
The breeze moved through the pines overhead, and Adam wondered at the mournful sound. Strange, how the wind matched their mood. Joe straightened again, though, as if now that he’d started the story, he had to finish it.
“Mrs. Simon took care of me, told everything to the sheriff and made sure the doc came out to the house. Strangest part was, no one seemed to be shocked about what happened. It was almost as if they’d been expecting something like this. One night, the Doc told me that he’d tried to help Simon over the past few months. Said that he had his suspicious, like some kind of brain injury from a fall or some such thing. Whatever it was, they all agreed that Mr. Simon was nothing like his old self. So the sheriff agreed with Mrs. Simon about keeping things quiet. She had him buried there at the ranch, and the Doc made up the story about a heart attack. He told me there was no reason to persecute the woman any more, that she’d already paid her dues. With no children around to help out since their son died and their daughter moved east, it must’ve been real hard on her.”
“That’s why you didn’t want to tell anyone.”
“Didn’t seem right. She’d already dealt with so much. It just seemed like the less people who knew, the better off she’d be. That, and I couldn’t stand the idea of having to tell Pa that one of his close friends tried to kill me. Or…or that I was the one who killed him.”
Joe’s head dropped again, this time his gaze focusing on his hands. The white paper was held tight in his grasp, and for the first time in weeks, Adam had no desire to know more. Slowly and deliberately, Adam reached out to take the unsent telegram from his brother. Ripping the paper into small white pieces, he opened his hand and let the wind scatter the bits forever. After the last shred of paper had blown out of sight, Adam dropped his arm across Joe’s shoulders. “I’m sorry, Joe. I didn’t understand. But now that I do, I think you’re right.”
It was only a handful of words; not nearly enough to scrub away the weeks of doubts and accusations, but Joe was clearly satisfied. His face, though damp in places, was alight with relief. “Thanks, Adam.”
“Not even lying to Pa?”
“No, not even that.”
It went against everything they were taught, but Adam felt relieved that Joe was at peace with his decision. Looking at his brother now, he knew for sure, that it was the right decision. And strangely enough, he had no regrets either. “You ready to go home, Joe?”
Standing together, Adam left his arm draped around Joe as they walked to their horses. And for only a moment before letting his brother go, Adam whispered a silent prayer of thanks . . . for the brother who cared enough to risk telling the lie, and more importantly, for the blessing they’d all received in getting that same brother back home, alive and well.
“All right, then, let’s go home.”
Ben looped the reins around the hitch rail, and tiredly pulled his saddlebags from Buck. A ranch hand was already walking toward him, and Ben was happy to relinquish his horse’s care to another. The windows of the house were already ablaze with lamplight, a sure sign that his sons were at home for the evening.
His trip had been uneventful, but after the past few weeks at the ranch, he’d been happy to have a few days alone. Ever since coming home from Landers, Joe had been morose at best, while Adam seemed to be as prickly as an old bear. Only Hoss had remained, as always, the quiet peacemaker. Pushing the door open now, Ben found himself hoping that whatever undercurrents were in place before he left had smoothed out during his absence.
“Good to see you, Pa!”
The chorus of voices was music to his ears, but more importantly, the look of happy surprise on Joe’s face and the way Adam dropped an arm across his brother’s shoulders as they stood to meet him, was the best greeting he could receive.
“It’s good to be home, boys. Good to be home.”