Beyond Clear Sight (by Starling)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  47,000


Doctor Martin walked out from the room as Ben and Adam rose to meet him at the door.

“Ben, everything is fine. Roy just needs a little rest and down time.”

“Pneumonia, Paul?” Adam had pushed his black hat back a little further back as he stood looking past Paul into the room behind him.

“Afraid so, Adam. But Roy is tough, and with rest and a little time, he should be fine.”

“Thanks, Paul.” Ben Cartwright had placed his hand upon the doc’s shoulder. “Can we see him?”

“Ben, I think what Roy needs right now is quiet. I don’t mean to lessen the severity of his condition, Ben.” Paul stepped over and began thoroughly washing his hands. “Ben…Adam, Roy is going to be out of commission for at least a month. If you hadn’t happened over by the jail this morning, Adam…well, no telling how long it would have been before someone else finally came upon him like that. He is really a pretty sick man.”

Ben gave Adam a reassuring nod. “You said things just didn’t feel right the last time you saw Roy, didn’t you, son.”

“Pa, you know Roy. He’s so stubborn he won’t ever admit to needing help or not feeling well.”

“Sound like someone else I know, Ben. How about you?”

Ben let out a small laugh and looked over at Adam. “Sure does.”

“Well, if we are going to stand here and cast stones, gentleman, I feel the sudden need to duck for cover and call it a night.” Adam sarcastically bowed to Paul and Ben as he backed towards the door.

Ben looked back towards Paul and said, “The martyr has spoken. I think we had all best call it a night and get some rest.”

“Ben, Adam. One last thing before you go. I am going to recommend to the mayor tomorrow that the city needs to find a temporary fill-in for Roy till he gets back on his feet.”

Ben and Adam both stood in the doorway. “Adam and I will stop by the mayor’s house on the way home and see if we can get an emergency meeting tomorrow to elect a fill-in for Roy.”

“Good idea, Ben. And oh yeah, Adam…” Paul stepped forward and took Adam’s hand. “You really did save Roy’s life today. He wouldn’t have made it much longer on that jail floor as sick as he was.”

“Paul, you worked the miracles; I just happened by.”

“Adam?” Paul questioned without lessening his grip on Adam’s hand. “It’s okay to accept that Roy is here because of you today. It’s okay to be a hero for a day.”

“I am no hero, Paul.” Adam looked up with a smile to his Pa and Paul. “Hell, I just stopped by to see if an old friend wanted to grab a beer.”

*****

“I am telling you all that there is no extra money in the city funds to go out and hire another sheriff for a month,” Wade Manvel, one of the four councilmen at the table, snapped.

“Look, I know Roy is sick and needs rest, but surely Ace can handle it by himself for a couple weeks,” another councilman chimed in.

“Now gentleman, we all know Ace is a fine upstanding man but we all know Roy just keeps him on to help watch the jail and man the office when he is making his rounds. He is not able of fulfilling the duties of a sheriff.”

“Well, mayor, just what do you suggest then?”

“Everyone just calm down.” Ben had his head in his hands as he listened to the small council argue back and forth with the mayor over and over again. “Why don’t we just get someone from our own city to step in and help for a while?”

“That’s a great idea, Ben,” Mayor Gibbons said, turning slightly in his chair to now stare directly towards Ben. “You know, I actually went over and spoke briefly with Roy this morning and he seemed to agree on the same solution.”

Adam sat forward in his chair for the first time during the entire shouting session. “Really Mayor…Roy thinks that someone here locally can handle being Sheriff for a month?” Adam glanced over at Ben “Roy must still be feverish.”

“Adam,” Ben snapped at his son.

“Funny you say that, Adam, but Roy seems pretty adamant about who he thinks could do the job. He even thinks this person could do a better job than an outsider.” The mayor continued smiling at Adam.

“Well, please do tell then, sir.” Adam had a condescending smirk on his face as he glanced over at his Pa, waiting for the mayor to let everyone in on his and Roy’s little secret.

The mayor looked around the table and then gingerly crossed his arms and looked directly at Adam “You!”

*****

“No, No, No” Adam said as he slammed the door of the mayor’s office and stormed down the wooden planks of the sidewalk towards Paul’s office.

“Adam, calm down.” Ben was right on his son’s heels. “You know Roy is still really sick, son.”

“I know, Pa, I know. But I have to hear it from Roy’s own mouth.”

“Fine then, son. But you can’t go roaring into Paul’s demanding to speak with Roy like this.” Ben grabbed Adam’s arm as his son put his hand on the door handle to Paul’s office. “You have to calm down first.”

“You’re right, Pa.” Adam let go of the handle and turned to face his Pa with his back against the door. “I don’t take responsibilities like this softly, Pa. The entire council seems to be making a joke about the seriousness of Roy’s replacement. I don’t think they have any real idea what this man does each and every day.” Adam breathed out slowly and removed his hat and he ran his fingers though his raven hair.

“Son.” Ben stood with his arms crossed looking at his son. “Let’s just talk with Roy first. I am sure this entire thing is all a misunderstanding. Roy thinks very highly of you, Adam, but I don’t think he would want to put such a weight on your shoulders.”

“Your right. Pa.” Adam felt a smile go across his face with a small laugh behind it. “I am sure Roy got a big kick out of it when he gave my name to the Mayor. You know how the council and mayor have always had such an… attachment to me.”

Ben laughed to as he opened the door for them both to walk through. “Yes, needless to say, you have always been the one to ruffle their feathers just a bit.”

“Ben, Adam. Nice to see you both.” Paul rose up from his office chair to greet the two Cartwright’s as they entered his office. “How’s the council meeting going?”

“Well, Paul…” Ben shot a look over to Adam “That’s why we are here actually.”

“Oh really!” Paul tried to avoid eye contact, hoping to not have to admit that he had heard the conversation between the Mayor and Roy earlier this morning.

“Can I speak with Roy, Paul?” Adam took his hat off. “It’s kind of important.”

“Sure, Adam, go ahead. But Ben, I think it’s best if you stay out here with me.” Paul stepped forward and opened the door to Roy’s room, motioning for Adam to go ahead in.

Ben caught a quick glance from Paul and suddenly felt his stomach tighten just a bit. “Sure, Paul. Adam, you go on in.” Maybe Paul was holding back on something.

Ben sat out in Paul’s office, trying to make out the brief, elevated voices coming out of Roy’s room. Everything would be quiet for a minute or two, then he could hear his son’s voice grow louder. Paul tried to not make eye contact as he felt Ben’s all-knowing gaze burn through him as he realized Ben knew that Paul was aware of the conversation going on behind the closed door.

“You…you knew about this!” Ben muttered as his faces redden.

Paul pretended to act busy rummaging through his desk. “About what?”

Suddenly Ben heard a crash from the other room like a glass hitting the wall. Then…quiet.

Ben stood up and began to pace as he pointed nervously towards the door that separated Adam and Roy from them. “You know…” Ben stammered. “THAT…!!!”

Paul stopped for a moment then went right back to rummaging. “Nope.”

The slight turn of the door opening magnified through the office like the boom of thunder echoing on a stormy night. Ben stopped in his tracks as he saw Adam slowly emerge from Roy’s room. Paul quit his rummaging and raised his eyes to look upon Adam standing before the both of them in silence.

“Son…you okay?” Ben quietly asked. “I mean, did you and Roy clear things up and put an end to all this silliness?”

Ben could see Adam trying his best to keep calm as he stood biting his bottom lip and his right hand draped across his brow. “Oh yeah, Pa. We spoke. Everything is all cleared up now.”

“Good then” Ben said as he let his breath out and whipped the sweat from his brow. “Let’s go home.”

“Can’t,” Adam said, shaking his head back and forth slightly as he rolled his eyes.

“What do you mean you can’t?” Ben questioned Adam with a concerned smirk across his face.

Adam dropped his hand from his brow and pulled back his yellow weather worn coat to show a nice shiny Sheriff’s badge. “Just can’t, Pa.”

Ben shot a glance over towards Paul and he watched his friend the doctor’s uneasily slide down in his chair.

*****

“Adam, you can’t be serious about this.” Ben and Adam had walked all the way back to the sheriff’s office without saying a word. Now that they were behind the safe doors of the jail, Ben felt he could finally ask he son just what he was thinking. “Remember what you said on the way to Paul’s. And now here you stand right where you swore you wouldn’t be.”

Adam placed both hands down on Roy’s desk and stared into the large stack of papers that where strewed across the top. “Pa, please…you weren’t in the room with me. You know Roy…” Adam straightened up and grinned mischievously. “Shoot, Pa, you know I didn’t have a chance against Roy alone.”

“Well, I’ll go right over there and tell Roy that you’ve changed your mind. That…that…you’ve had a change of heart.” Ben turned to walk.

“Pa,” Adam said quietly to his Pa. “It’s okay. I’ll do this.”

“Son, are you sure? You know that this is for real; it’s not being Roy’s apprentice. All this will be on you.” Ben turned his gaze to look directly into those dark eyes of his son’s that always seemed to hide so much. “Son, Roy will understand.”

“No, Pa! Roy has always been there for us…for me. When we were little and you had to go away on business, Roy was there. When Marie died and you needed time to yourself, Roy was there. Silently watching over us. Making sure we were safe.” Adam walked stoically over to where Roy’s gun belt hung along the wall. He reached up and ran his fingers across the cold steel of the barrel. “Now I am going to be here for him, Pa.”

Ben stood looking at his eldest son; he seemed to witness the very moment of his son changing in his eyes from a boy to a man. “Roy has a good friend in you, Adam. I know he is just as proud of you as I have always been.”

Adam never turned to face his Pa. “I only hope he stays that way.”

*****

“Hey, Pa,” Joe said as he quickly removed his feet from the coffee table and straightened up. “Didn’t hear you ride up.”

“Joseph.” Ben replied in a distant manner.

“Pa, you okay?” Joe sensed that something was concerning his Pa’s mind heavily.

“Oh, sorry, Joseph. I guess my mind is still kind of spinning from today.”

“Everything go alright at the council meeting?” Joe was leaning forward now on the burgundy colored sofa looking towards his father with concern.

“Huh? Meeting? Oh yeah, sure…” Ben was clearly flustered over the whole day’s events. “Hey, where is Hoss?”

“You should have walked right by him, Pa. He is outside repairing an old wheel for the buckboard.” Watching his father’s strange behavior began to concern Joe. “Pa, you okay? You want me to go get Hoss?”

Ben removed his hat and loosened his neckerchief from around his neck. Walking over to the mantle, he reached up and poured himself a nice glass of Cherri. “Joseph…” He let the first sip warm his throat before he finished his sentence. “…go ahead and get your brother. There is something I need to inform you both of.”

“Hop Sing,” Ben called out.

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright.”

“I need you to pack a few things for Adam. Seems like he is going to be staying in Virginia City for a little while.”

*****

“Adam did what?” Hoss echoed across the living room as he stood in front of the fireplace shaking his head.

“Sheriff!” Joe couldn’t help but laugh as he tried to picture Adam’s face when Roy confronted him with his idea. “And you thought our brother’s head was big before, Hoss.”

“Joseph!” Ben blared out. “This is no laughing matter. Your brother doesn’t take this responsibility lightly and neither should either of you.”

“But Pa…Sheriff? Doesn’t Adam know that wearing that badge makes his a target for every drunk and low-life that comes through town? And Pa, let’s face it…Adam’s not the most easy to get along with person we know. His patience in dealing with such might be a little…limited.”

“Hoss, I can assure you that whatever opportunity we see in your brother thick-headed, stubborn attitude has made Roy think him to be the perfect choice.” Ben was trying to convince himself that Adam wouldn’t let himself get pushed too far.

“Well then…” said Joe, getting to his feet and heading up to his room. “I had better go pack a little bit for myself. Somebody has got to stay in town and keep an eye on big brother.”

“Joe, there will be no need in that. The last thing your brother needs right now is the added distraction of his youngest brother on his heels.” Ben had finally calmed himself enough to light his pipe and somewhat recline in his red chair. “But since you are so all-fired up to look in on the new sheriff, you can take the change of clothes and other supplies that Hop Sing has packed for Adam into Virginia City first thing in the morning.”

“Pa, how about I ride in with little Joe in the morning too?” Hoss had walked over to Joe and put his arm around his now pouting brother. “I would hate for Joe here to get side-tracked and not make it back in time to help me repair the fence in the North pasture.”

“Thanks, brother,” Joe said with a smirk on his face as he started up the stairs.

“You’re welcome, little brother.” Hoss glanced over at his Pa and gave him a reassuring smile as he retired to the upstairs as well.

Ben sat back and watched as Hoss and Joe headed off to bed. The house just seemed not right without his eldest there this evening. Sure, Adam had been away before, but something just felt different this time. Maybe he was just tired; after all, it had been a long day.

“Coffee, Mr. Ben?” Hop Sing interrupted Ben’s thought.

“Oh no, thank you, my friend. It’s been a long day and I think I will turn it.”

“Mr. Adam is going to get too skinny away from my cooking. He best hurry home.”

Ben laughed and patted Hop Sing on the back. “I am sure he will miss your company too, Hop Sing, as well as your cooking.”

“Wonder what Mr. Adam is doing now?”

“Don’t worry, Hop Sing. If I know my son, I am sure he has got everything under control.” Ben got up from his chair and let the smoke from his pipe slowly roll off his lip. “Yes…everything under control.”

*****

“Alright, you two, break it up!” Adam roared as he suddenly realized that he had moved just a little too slowly and was met with a sharp punch to his right eye. The sound of breaking glass echoing above his head served as the warning to duck from the next round,

“Oh Adam, I am so sorry,” Julia said as she quickly realized that her punch had missed her intended target Shannon and connected with Adam instead.

“Let me see what this dollar tramp did to you, sweetie,” Shannon ever so softly chimed in as she whipped her stray tresses from in front of her eyes with one hand and went to inspect the now stern yet handsome face of Adam Cartwright.

“Don’t touch me!” Adam said as he tried to regain his composure from the punch and his dignity as the saloon crowd laughed over his failed attempt to stop the two young ladies from their disagreement.

“But Adam…”

“Nope …stop right there.” Adam had stepped back and raised one finger up in the air towards the two saloon girls as they attempted to put their most innocent face forward.

“Not our fault we had a little tiff over who gets to sit with the new sheriff…” Julia had turned on her sweetest voice as she slowly slide up next to Adam and ever so gently reached up to touch his now swelling eye. “That’s all, Adam.”

“Especially one of those handsome Cartwright men.” Shannon had taken Adam’s raised hand and brought it down to rest upon her chest and whispered into his ear, “I think I am going to be getting in a lot of trouble the next month.”

“Now ladies,” a soft yet firm voice said gradually getting louder. “Our new sheriff’s cell is not even going to keep you safe from me if you don’t take your hands off my friend right now.”

Adam hadn’t seen Sally come down the stairs with all the excitement, but the minute he heard her voice, he couldn’t hide his smile. “Now ladies, I would do as the young woman has asked. After all, she does look pretty serious.”

Julia and Shannon slowly slide their hands off of Adam and flashed a playful glance over at Sally.

“It’s okay, Julia,” Shannon said as she suddenly turned and reached up towards Adam’s ear once more. “You still got two bothers and a Pa, right.”

Adam smiled and gave a slight wench from his hurt eye. “Are they not safe either, my dear?”

Shannon gave a giggle and a slight toss of her skirt and she glanced back over her shoulder. “Nope, Sheriff.”

“Wow, Adam.” Sally was now standing directly in front of him, admiring the nice shinny blackened eye. “You got a better plan for defending our town than you did stopping two saloon girls from fighting?”

Adam suddenly reached down and put his arm around Sally’s waist as he pulled her down the hallway, out of view from the still snickering saloon onlookers. “Want to know how I treat unruly ladies, ma’am?” Adam tightened his grip around Sally’s waist and lowered his lips to her neck, then slowly trailed them up to her ear.

Sally suddenly felt warm all over and her knees started to weaken. “Why, Sheriff,” she whispered as she nuzzled her neck into his warm breath. “I think there is gonna be a long line of girls misbehaving if this is the punishment.”

Adam smiled then slowly lowered his lips to meet those of Sally’s. Adam and Sally had a special place in each other’s heart. They were from two different worlds but more alike in their heart and souls than anyone else that they had ever known. They were each free to have relationships with others, but the love they felt for other was beyond that. Adam would often ride into town on Saturday nights knowing that he would end up in the room of the auburn haired beauty. Some nights were all together physical, but most nights she would lie in his arms, quietly listening to the hypnotic sound of his voice reading from her collection of novels lining her shelves. Late night horseback rides down to the lake were also a special time for them. Adam didn’t ask Sally a lot of questions about her past, but he did know that she had developed her love for the arts and riding while attending university. She had never offered him the reason that she was now here in Virginia City working as a saloon girl. The way Adam thought was that when she wanted him to know she would tell him. But for now they would just enjoy their little piece of paradise here together amidst the carouse of the west.

‘Sheriff Cartwright,” Sally asked looking up into those big dark eyes. “Will I see you later tonight?”

Adam looked down at Sally once more and leaned in and brushed his lips against hers. “Wait for me,” he said then stepped back and straightened his hat and turned and walked out.

“Damn you, Mr. Cartwright,” Sally said closing her eyes and leaning into the wall.

*****

“So, let me get this right.” Joe had reclined back in the chair facing Roy’s desk with his arms tucked smugly behind his head. “The sheriff — that would be you, Adam — got that shiner from a couple of saloon girls while trying to break them up from a fight.”

Joe couldn’t hold it back any longer. He let go with his charming little laugh as he held his sides and tried to catch his breath as he called out to Hoss. “Maybe we ought to hire him some old ladies from church to ride shotgun on his important cases.”

Even Hoss had to turn and face the wall so his older brother couldn’t see the tears running from his eyes due to him trying to hold back his laughter.

“Real cute, Short Shanks,” Adam said rising up and putting his gun belt back on. “Sure am glad you two could ride in here from all your work and offer your support.”

“Support…” Joe burst out again. “You better support some ice under that eye so it doesn’t swell anymore.”

“That’s it!” Adam said with a start as he walked over and kicked the legs out from under Joe’s chair, sending Joe to the ground with a thud.

“Ha! Ha!” Joe had to let out another as he tried to catch his breath. “Saloon girls teach you that tough move.”

“Joseph…” Adam stood at the door way “Better be on the lookout; they were asking about you as well.”

“Me?” Joe stopped laughing and gaze a shallow gulp.

Hoss grinned as he looked at his little brother suddenly become concerned. “It’s okay, little brother; I’ll protect you when you go get a beer.”

“What are you smirking at?” Adam remarked one more time directing his remark towards Hoss without turning around. “Your and Pa’s name was also in the hat.”

Hoss and Joe looked at each other “Hey wait a minute, brother.” Joe shouted towards Adam as he dusted off his back side. “Can we walk with you on your rounds?”

Adam didn’t look back. “Are you done with your smart remarks?”

“Aw, Adam, I was just funning with you.” Joe now stood in front of Adam on the side walk. “Besides I would be really proud to walk next to my brother…the sheriff.”

Adam smiled and put his hand atop Joe’s shoulder.

“Besides” said Hoss “Somebody has got to look out for rouge saloon girls.”

*****

“Morning, Paul,” Adam said as he lightly knocked and opened the door to the doc’s office.

“Good morning, Adam.” Paul had already risen from his chair and started pouring a cup of coffee for his friend and new Sheriff, Adam. “Getting kind of fond of these early morning visits, Adam. It’s nice to have a little friendly intellectual conversation in the morning to get my day going.”

Adam grinned and thanked Paul for the hot coffee as he took a sip and walked over to look back out onto the early morning streets of a waking Virginia City. Since taking over for Roy, it had become a ritual for Adam to stop by Paul’s in the morning and not only share a quick cup of coffee and a chess game but to also see how Roy was doing. The chess game seemed to be progressing at about the same speed as Roy’s recovery — slow and steady. “How’s our patient this morning?” Adam said as he sipped his coffee and studied the board, wondering what move he would make this morning.

Paul sat back staring at Adam, wondering if he was actually going make a move today or merely look at his options and save his chess move for another day. “You know, Adam, at this pace, I think our patient will recover before we finish this game.”

Adam smiled and took another sip of his coffee. “Probably,” he said and got up to walk over and poke his head in at Roy. “Morning, Sheriff.”

“Morning, Sheriff” Roy said back. “You not tearing up my town now, are you, son.” Roy had straightened up himself in the bed so he better see his visitor.

“Just as she was when you turned her over to me, Roy.” Adam pulled up a chair next to Roy’s bed and continued sipping his coffee as he lowered his elbows upon his knees.

“You know, Adam, I never thanked you for what you have done for me. I know that you didn’t really want to do this, but, son…” Roy gave Adam a reassuring smile “…you are the only one I trust to watch over my family when I am out.” Roy had never had any children of his own, and over the years, he began to think of Virginia City as his family.

“Well, Roy, I’ll see to it that they all are put back in your hands the same way you left them. You just concentrate on getting better. Doc says about two more weeks and you will be good as normal.”

“Two weeks?” Roy shouted as he looked past Adam and out into the office where he knew Paul could hear him. “Two weeks! You told me one, you old saw bones.”

Paul stuck his head into Roy’s room “As you can see, Adam, he seems to be recovering just fine.”

Adam laughed and gave Roy a pat on the shoulder before turning to walk out. “Well, friend, some of us have to work around here.”

“Take care, Adam, and be careful,” Roy called out to the young Cartwright as he closed the door behind him. “Please be careful, boy.”

Stepping back out in the streets, Adam couldn’t help but to feel a sudden chill. Pulling his coat together, he shook off the sensation that suddenly ran up his back. He looked down both sides of the city before stepping out on to the dusty street. “Two more weeks,” he mumbled. “Two more weeks.”

*****

Adam hadn’t realized just how much he had missed his family until he looked up and saw Cochise, Buck and Chubb cantering down the street. He smiled to himself because he was sure that his Pa would say that they had come to town for business, but he knew why. “Come by to check on the new Sheriff, Councilman?” Adam smirked as he reached up and grabbed Buck’s bridle and stroked the golden horse’s mane.

“Well, seems like that’s the least a responsible councilman could do these days,” Ben said hopping down and pulling his eldest son into a tight hug. “Oh…it is okay for the father of the sheriff to greet him this way, right?”

Adam wiped a smile from his face as he stepped back and straightened his hat again. “Good to see you too, little brother.” Adam reached out and gave Joe a firm hand shake as he gripped his forearm tightly.

“Aw, you aren’t too important to give your middle brother a hug, are you now, Adam?” Hoss had reached across Joe and brought Adam up off his feet. “Feels like you get a might skinny there, brother.”

“Sure…Hoss…” Adam tried to muddle out as he tried to find a little space in his lungs for air as Hoss continue to hug him. “

“Come on, son; let me buy you a good meal. You get any thinner and Hop Sing will have both of our hides if he thinks you haven’t been eating right.” Ben knew that as intelligent as Adam was, basic things like rest and eating would go by the wayside when he was focused.

“Well, I was on my way to make my afternoon rounds Pa, but I tell you what.” Adam held up a hand as he began quickly walking backwards down the street. “You all go ahead. I’ll get Ace on the rounds and I’ll join you in a bit. Okay?”

“Hurry, will you,” Hoss called out as Adam picked his pace up heading down the street. “I smell roast beef.”

*****

Ben couldn’t help but feel blessed once again as he sat at the table having a meal with all three of his sons. Of all the times he and the boys got together, he treasured these simple moments at the table the most. It was here that the boys always seemed the closest. Their natural love for each other was apparent as they picked and laughed with each other over a good meal. It was always good to see Adam smile.

“Well, Pa, I would love to spend all day visiting with you, but I really need to check in on Ace. It’s Saturday night and pretty soon the streets are gonna start filling up.” Adam had pushed his chair away from the table but still hadn’t risen. Even though Adam was his own man, he sat there still waiting for a loving glance of approval from Ben to say that he understood. He respected his father greatly, and no matter how old he was, Adam would never forget to respect the man that had taught him so much in life.

Ben rose from the table and walked over to give his son a quick embrace and a firm handshake. “Hoss and I are gonna head back to the ranch, son. Cochise lost a shoe on the way in today, so Joe is gonna stay overnight and ride back tomorrow when Jim gets a new shoe on him in the morning.” He shot his youngest a quick fatherly glance. “Joseph promised to say out of trouble and will be heading out first thing in the morning. After all, that north fence will not mend itself. Right, Joseph?”

“Message heard, Pa.” Joe dropped his napkin to his plate and jumped up.

“Catch you later tonight, big brother,” Joe called back as he headed out the door. “Got to go stable Cooch and find a room for tonight.”

“Excuse me, Adam.” Hoss said as he pushed his chair away from the table. “Couple things I need to pick up before heading back with Pa.” Hoss reached over and gave Adam a firm pat to his back. “Can’t wait to have you back home, big brother. You take care of yourself.”

Adam gave his brother a quirky smile and a nod. “Miss you too, Hoss. But you just make sure that you and little brother get all that fence work done before I get back, okay?”

Hoss just smiled. “Meet you back in front of the mercantile, Pa?”

“Don’t be late, Hoss. No stops by the saloon,” Ben replied as he watched Hoss disappear through the doors of the International.

“Adam.” Ben had stopped and turned once more to his eldest. “I stopped by Paul’s today and he said that Roy was moving back into his own place Monday and was doing much better. He felt like he should be back to work by month’s end.” Even though Adam seemed to be doing a fine job sitting in for Roy, Ben couldn’t help but to worry about his son just as much as he missed him.

“Yeah, Pa; I have been checking in on Roy each day as well. Believe me, no one is as ready for him to return to work as…as I am.” Adam hadn’t noticed that Sally had made her way down the stairs until her familiar scent of roses hit him causing him to look up and see her standing at the banister.

As soon as Sally realized that it was Adam and his father Ben standing at the table, she turned her back, hoping that Adam hadn’t noticed her so she wouldn’t bring any embarrassment to him in front his father.

“Excuse me for one moment, Pa.” Adam momentarily excused himself from the table and walked over to Sally. Gently lifting her hands up to his face, Adam gently kissed her palms as he looked up into her eyes. “Come with me.” He felt Sally gently pull the opposite way. Leaning forward, he whispered into her ear “Please?”

“Adam…I…” Sally rolled her eyes upward and blew her soft trusses back from her face. “You sure?”

Adam just smiled and wrapped his arm around her waist as he partially walked with and partially dragged her to meet his Pa. “Pa I would like you to meet…”

“Miss Sally,” Ben said reaching out to take her hand with a warm smile. “The rumors of the beautiful woman that has smitten my son are true.”

“Well, Mr. Cartwright.” Sally smiled at Ben and then looked back towards Adam. “I now know where Adam gets his gift of flattery.”

“Miss Sally, I would love to speak with you longer but I really must let my son get back to work, and I also have a little responsibility of my own to attend with back on the Ponderosa. Do you mind if I have one last word with my son in private before I return home?”

“My pleasure, Mr. Cartwright.” Sally smiled and winked at Adam as she turned to leave. “It was wonderful meeting you, Mr. Cartwright. Adam, I will see you later.”

Adam stood watching Sally hurriedly disappear through the hotel doors that she called home. “Sorry, Pa, I would have introduced you earlier. It’s just that…”

“Son, you are a grown man. You don’t owe me any explanations. She seems like a wonderful girl. And besides, any woman that can make bring a smile to my son’s face like that has to be something special. I am glad you found her.”

Adam looked at his Pa in awe. Was this the same man that scolded him for staying out too late and reminding him of his language, even though he was a grown man? Maybe I have misjudged my Pa all these years after all, Adam thought to himself.

“Son, I really have to be getting back now. But before I go, I really do need you to promise me that you will take care of yourself. You only have two weeks left, so please get some rest and don’t forget why Roy wanted you here.” Ben put his hand on his sons shoulder. “Be safe, Adam.”

“Don’t worry, Pa; I’ll be just fine.”

“I am sure you will, son. Sure you will.”

*****

Adam sat with Ace on the front porch of the Virginia City Jail, contemplating their long night ahead of them as they watched the Friday night pace begin to pick up on the streets of the city.

“What do you think, Adam?” Ace partially yawned as brushed his hat back. “You think it’s gonna be a quiet evening?”

Adam was still reclined back with his hat basically pulled down over his eyes as he quietly listened to the sounds of the streets before him. “You know Ace… ‘by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” (William Shakespeare, Macbeth)

Ace stopped and looked at Adam. ‘You know, Adam, sometimes I just need a simple yes or no.”

Adam smiled beneath his black brimmed hat. “Oh surely, it will be a quiet one.”

“Evening, Ace.” Joe had made his way from the International over to the jail to speak with his brother.

“Evening, Joe.” Ace reached over and gave Joe a swat on the shoulder. “You sit with your brother for a while. Sometimes he kind of spooks me.”

Joseph smiled back as Ace took off on his rounds. “You not reciting your poetry to folks again, are you, Adam?”

“Who am I to turn a deaf ear to a man’s need for a little formal education and culture?”

“Jeeze, Adam, it’s Ace. Not some scholar passing through on his way to California. Take it easy on the poor guy.”

“Well, little brother, it’s good to see you, but I thought by now you would have already made your way over to The Bucket of Blood, enjoying a nice cold beer with a lovely lady on your lap and a winning set of cards in your hand.”

“Actually…” Joe had his usual charming boyish grin spreading across his face “I was just on my way there and was wondering if you might have a chance to join me? You know when the Cartwright brothers team up, it always makes for an exciting evening. Besides, I saw Sally heading over just a while ago, looking especially beautiful. And, well, brother, if you’re not gonna be there tonight…” Joe crossed his arms and leaned playfully against the window pane next to his brother.”

Adam pulled his hat down a little further down over his face as he reclined even further in the uncomfortable wooden chair. “While as much as I would love to join you, brother, I don’t think it would be too smart of an idea to leave Ace alone on a Friday night…do you? And as far as Sally goes, brother, why would you suffer yourself to such rejection in front of all your friends?”

Joe had already stepped back on to the street and was walking backwards as he called back towards Adam. “Stop by and join me for a beer at least later. Sorry, though, no promises on your girl.”

Adam couldn’t help but to laugh as he watched Joe disappear down the street to the saloon. Joe’s sense of cockiness was the perfect balance to Adam’s over-objective self. “Watch yourself, little brother,” Adam called out once more as Joe continued down the street.

All of a sudden, Adam felt a chill run through the air. Standing up, he pushed his hat back and ran his fingers through his raven hair. The sky was beginning to darken as the last hues of the sun framed itself against the rise of the mountains off in the distance. Adam stood silent for a few more moments as he momentarily lost himself in the beauty of the hues in the sky.

“Ready, Adam?” Ace had appeared back at his side.

“Hmm… oh yeah, sure,” Adam said snapping back into the now suddenly. “Hey, I’ll take the next watch. You take a little rest and go get something to eat.”

“You sure, Adam?”

“Yeah, I got it for a while. Pretty quite right now.” Adam took a step down onto the streets as he straightened his gun belt. “Get some rest, Ace…rest.”

*****

The night seemed to be rushing by for Joe. He had met up with Tim Rogers and Dave Henderson on the way over to the saloon, and now the long-times friends were sitting back, enjoying a friendly card game. The three boys had known each other all their lives and were having the time of their lives at the card table as they reminisced while enjoying a nice cold beer and puffing away on cigars like they were years beyond their actual age.

The saloon was always a pretty wild place on the weekends, so Adam could easily use the excuse of having to quiet things down a little as he nonchalantly checked on Joe. Trying his best to go undetected so Joe wouldn’t feel like he was being spied on, Adam quietly moved along the side in the bar. “That’s my little brother,” Adam mouthed to himself as he watched Joe enjoying his night with a beautiful brunet whispering in one ear and his good friends in front of him.

Suddenly Adam felt the air stir behind his ear as a sultry voice whispered. “Can I help you, sheriff?”

Adam felt his face suddenly heat up as he tried to maintain his composure among the crowd in the saloon. Without turning around, Adam reached behind him and grabbed Sally’s hand, pulling her tightly behind him as they quickly disappeared under the stair case.

Turning her sternly so he could look directly into her blue eyes, Adam lowered his lips to the nape of her neck as he secured both her hands behind her back and suddenly pressed her forcefully against the darkened wall. “You play unfairly, madam.” He breathed passionately against her neck as he continued to hold her and press his body against hers.

Sally opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out. She felt totally breathless as Adam continued to hold her against the wall. Whatever spell this man held against her was undeniable and she was totally at his mercy. “Don’t…” Sally mouthed “…don’t let go. Please.”

Suddenly she felt Adam pull her in even tighter and the touch of his soft lips to hers made her legs go completely numb. His arm wrapped around her waist was holding her up as they totally lost their selves in the moment.

Breaking apart, Sally touched her fingers to her lips, tracing the warmth from his touch. “Now who is playing unfairly, sir?”

Adam backed away and smiled. He slowly reached to her forehead and lightly brushed her auburn hair from across her face. “Now we are even.” Adam gently kissed her forehead and backed out again into the dim light of the saloon. “Sally?”

Sally looked up at Adam, still trying to gain her breath back. “Yes.”

“Keep an eye on Joe tonight for me will you.”

“Sure, Adam.” Sally smiled as the handsome man in black turned and walked out the doors of the saloon. “Sure.”

*****

“Look, Dave, I have already told you once you once that no one can beat me.” Joe was kicked back in his chair. “But if you want Miss Julia here to deal you out another hand, well… who am I to deny you another loss.”

“Well Joe…” Dave took a draw off his cigar and slowly let the smoke rise from his lips. “…the way I figure, no one’s good luck can last all night. And, by the way, I figure with three winning hands and a real nice looking lady on your lap, surely your luck is due to run out any minute.”

“You boys are too rich for my blood,” Tim said as he reached over and grabbed his beer. “I think I am done.”

“Aw, boys,” Shannon said as she pulled herself up a little higher on Joe’s lap. “Julia and I were just starting to have a little fun. Come on, y’all — one more game.”

Julia leaned over towards Tim as she fanned herself with some cards from the deck. “How about buying you and me something good and cold to drink.”

Tim tossed some money on the table. “Okay, sweetheart, a round for the whole table.”

Julia gave Tim a kiss on the cheek and danced off to the bar top. “Hey Sam, I need a bottle of bourbon for the table please.”

“Wow. Now Tim, you can’t be showing off in front of the girls here,” Joe chimed in as Shannon reached over and lit up another cigar for him.

“Boys, boys.” Shannon blew out the match and turned Joe’s chin towards her. “We have all night, right?”

Even though Joe was grown he felt himself suddenly blush like a kid again.

“Evening, gentleman.” A tall, slender, well-dressed man suddenly appeared in front of the card table. “Mind if I sit in on a game or two?”

Everyone at the table suddenly got quiet. “Will Mitchell,” Joe said as he pushed out a chair with his foot and motioned for the man to take a seat. “I thought you would be out tending to stock on your new ranch.”

“Well, Joe, you know old habits are hard to die.” Will took off his hat and hung it on the back of his chair.

Dave’s face changed to a scowl as Will took his spot at the table. “Isn’t there another table with an empty seat down the street at the other saloon? You know some place that doesn’t mind hired guns playing a hand?”

“Dave!” Joe shouted out sternly. Will Masters moved to Virginia City about three years ago. He came into the town with quite a reputation as a gambler and gun slinger. He stood out like a sore thumb among the local town folks. Of course, Virginia City had its share of roughnecks but none had the melodramatic reputation that preceded Will. He dressed big city and mostly kept to himself. Rumor had it that Will had hung up his gun belt after a gunfight gone badly in another city out West. The Cartwright’s had gotten to know him when Adam stepped forward and took a stand for the stranger that everyone seemed to shut out. Adam told his Pa that he could relate to someone that felt out of place, and that someone had to step in and give the man a chance.

Adam and Will never spoke about all the notches that Will’s belt had, and shortly after purchasing a small ranch on the outside of Virginia City, Will took off his gun belt and never wore it again.

Will picked his hat up. “You know, Joe, your young friend over here is right. You boys finish playing your game. Didn’t mean to disturb you. Thanks anyway.”

“Whoa now, Will. My brother would have my hide if I missed an opportunity to win back some of all the money he has lost to you.” Joe stood up. “Please join up.”

Will looked around at Joe’s companions.

“I guess a hired killer’s money spends just as good,” Dave mumbled and looked up at Will

“Bye, Joe.” The tall lean man had already turned his back to the table and started walking away.

“Wait, Will.” Joe turned back towards Dave. “Dave, apologize or the night ends right now.”

“Dave…” Tim reached over towards his friend’s chair. “He’s a friend of Joe’s and he hasn’t ever done anything to any of us. Give him a chance, Dave.”

“Besides,” Julia broke in to try and calm things a bit. “You know house rule is that the last one to join the game buys everyone a round.”

“Well then, I can see I am out-numbered.” Dave motioned for Julia to bring another round. “Have a seat, friend.”

Will tipped his hat and sat down at the table

*****

“Well, boys…” Will pushed his chair back from the table and finished off his last shot of bourbon. “Seems like our young friend Tim has put a small but noticeable dent in my savings, so I think I shall call it a night. Thanks for the evening.”

Dave sat across from Will fuming. Part from the losses he had suffered that night, but mostly from the effects of the alcohol and its effects on a 19-year-old. “Where do you think you’re going, Mister?”

Will sat quietly and lightly lifted his eyes towards Dave. “Well, son, I thought I had already told everyone.”

Dave lowered his voice and quietly mumbled, “You’re not going anywhere until I say the game is over.”

“Come on, Dave,” Tim said placidly, trying to calm his friend down. “It’s getting late and we all need to be heading home anyway.”

“Yeah, Dave.” Joe was starting to feel some of the effects of the alcohol as well. “Besides, Will and Tim already have all our money.”

“Okay, boys; thank you once again for a nice evening…”

“I said it’s not over ’til I say.” Dave rose from his chair and briefly ran his hand across his gun belt.

Will slowly leaned forward, laying both of his hands on the table, trying to ease the sudden tension that was arising. “And when do you figure on allowing me to call it a night, son?”

Glancing between the three men at the table, Dave inwardly bit his lip and said “One more game. Game of 21 and winner takes all.”

“Come on, Dave,” Joe sternly turned to his friend Dave. “You just said while ago that you were out. Nothing left to bet with.”

Dave indiscreetly moved his hand from his gun belt to his hind pocket and bitterly slammed his hand to the table. “I changed my mind. I suddenly found a little something.”

“Dave, that looks like three one hundred dollar bills.” Tim could see the bills layering each other just enough to see the numbers on each bill.

“Come on, Dave, this is crazy.” Joe found himself suddenly sobered up. “Where did you get that kind of money?”

“Think you Cartwright’s are the only people that have money, Joe?” Dave shouted at Joe.

“Okay, boys, okay. I have had enough. I am going home. Thanks again for the game. Joe, tell Adam I said hi.”

“Sure thing, Will.”

Will turned to walk towards the door and then a sudden click silenced the entire saloon.

“I said no one leaves this table ‘til I say so.” Dave stood with his gun drawn and pointing towards Will.

No one noticed Sally as she backed her way out of the saloon doors.

*****

“Adam …” Sally gasped as she burst through the doors the jail.

Adam was already half way around Roy’s desk before Sally could take another breath. “Sally…Sally, calm down…talk to me. What’s the matter?” Adam had taken Sally by the shoulders, trying to hold her up as she stood trying to catch her breath.

‘Adam…it’s Dave Henderson. Adam, he…he pulled a gun on Will Masters.”

“Will Masters?” Adam had turned to look towards Ace, who was already strapping his gun belt on.

“Got you loud and clear, Adam,” Ace said, unlocking the rifle cabinet and tossing one to Adam.

“Sally, you stay here.” Adam sternly directed her to a chair and handed her a glass of water as he knelt down to look her in the eyes. “Sally…how about Joe? Where is Joe?”

“”Oh, Adam.” Her hands trembled as she held the glass. “He is right in the middle of the entire mess.”

Adam gave Sally a light kiss on the forehead and then turned towards Ace. “You follow my lead. Don’t fire unless I say.”

Sally couldn’t help but jump as the door slammed behind the two men as they left.

*****

“Turn the card over.” Dave’s voice was low as directed Will to turn over the last card in his stack.

“Son, this is not gonna get us anywhere.” Will stared back into the eyes of Dave as he watched the beads of sweat run down his face.

“Come on, Dave, this has gone on long enough.” Joe was the older one of the three friends, and he was trying to use his influence to snap Dave out of what ever had suddenly possessed him.

“Joe, you keep out of this. What’s on your card, old man?”

Will slowly rose from his chair. “You know, son, it doesn’t matter what’s on my card. You aren’t here to play a game. You just want to make a name for yourself.” Will leaned forward into Dave’s space. “You are just a boy, son. I fold; go home.” With that, Will picked his card up and ripped it into several pieces, raining them down all over the table. “Looks like you win, boy,” he said as he pushed the table’s money in front of Tim.

Dave stood there dumbfounded as he watched Will slide the money in front of Tim.

“What are you gonna do now, boy…shoot your friend?”

“That’s it, that’s enough!” Dave shouted as he once again raised his revolver to face Will.

“Put it down, Dave.” Adam had stepped cautiously into the now empty saloon. “Games over, son…just put it away.” Adam had his hands raised in the air as he approached the four men in a non-threatening way. “Let’s just all calm down for a minute, okay?”

You could hear the creak of the wooden floor as Adam continued making his way across the room.

“Mind telling me what’s going on here, boys?” Adam had methodically worked his way over, placing himself practically between Will and Dave’s pistol.

Joe charismatically interjected, “Nothing…right, boys?” Joe looked over at Dave, nervously trying to get his attention. “Just a little misunderstanding, right, Dave?”

“Yep, Adam, — nothing to see here. Just got tired of losing and decided to call it a night.” Will shot Dave an unnerving glance. “Just saying our goodbyes, right, Dave?”

Trying to minimize the effects of the alcohol on him and his rising temper, Dave painted a big grin across his face and twirled his revolver clumsily before tucking it back into his holster. “What’s a matter, Adam? Don’t think a few friends can work out their differences on their own?”

“Not if your definition includes pointing revolvers at each other.” Adam continued to stand between both men with his arms folded.

Tim slowly raised his hand and rested it on Dave’s shoulder. “Come on, Dave; your Pa is gonna skin you alive if you’re not back in time to get up early tomorrow and separate that herd with him.” Tim’s simple ways of talking and looking at things was just the thing to snap the tension.

Joe placed his hands on the card table and leaned in towards Dave. “Come on, let’s all call it a night. Tim’s right; we all have work tomorrow and it’s getting pretty late.”

Adam turned slightly to look at Dave. “Is all your business here finished tonight, Dave, or do we need to do so across the street in my office?”

“No sir, Sheriff.” Dave put his hat on and nodded towards Will. “I think I am ready to put this night to an end. If your friend the ex-hired gun feels like he has his fill of cheating for the night.”

Adam turned directly towards Dave, and in one swift motion, secured both hands behind his back and landed him on the table. “Son, I don’t know which would be worse for you — a night in jail or me delivering you to your Pa and informing him of your adventures tonight.”

“Adam, Adam…” Will stepped forward and placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Let the boy go. I shouldn’t have stopped by here in the first place tonight. I will head out and let’s just all say no harm done. Okay?”

“I don’t need you to rescue me, murderer!” Dave belted out, still laying face first onto the table.

“Go on, Will.” Adam laid a little more pressure into the young man lying on the table. “I am gonna let our little friend here sober up a little before sending him home.”

Ace walked through the door, and Adam told him to give Dave a nice cot in the jail until he sobered up some. “I’ll be over in a bit to check on him.” Adam raised Dave up off the table as he slipped on a pair of cuffs. “You behave yourself and do as Ace asks, and you’ll be heading home in a few hours. If not, I can have your Pa come pick you up in the morning.”

Dave slumped his head down and headed out the door with Ace.

“Adam, what did you go and do that for?” Joe had bounded up next to this brother. “You know Tim and I could get him home just fine. He’s just talk, Adam. All talk.”

“You call it talk, Joe, and I say the boy has a smart mouth that’s gonna get him in trouble one day.” Adam took his hat off and ran hands across his stubbled face as he exhaled loudly. “You boys need to straighten up here and call it a night. Joe, you already got yourself a room at the hotel right?”

“Yeah Adam but I think I am gonna make sure Tim and Dave get home safe tonight.” Joe reached over and slapped Tim on the back playfully. “Tim’s got some pretty big winnings here and don’t need to be traveling alone. And well…” Joe looked over at Adam and smiled. “And I have to make sure Dave gets home safe before his Pa misses him and tans his hide.”

“Cochise is in no shape to ride yet, so I guess you can take Sport, as long as you are careful.” Adam knew that it would be best for Joe to probably stay in town but Joe was a grown man and had to make his own choices. Besides, he knew that Pa would give him and earful in the morning anyway. “Stop by in about an hour and pick up Dave then. I think an hour behind bars with the looming threat of a beating by his dad will be enough to sober him up.”

Joe smiled and snapped up his hat from the table. “Thanks, big brother…oh, I mean, sheriff.” Turning towards Tim, Joe motioned towards all his winnings that still lay on the table. “You gonna leave all that there for the next players or are you gonna cash it in with the barkeep?”

Tim stood with his hands on his hips, grinning from ear to ear. “You know I think I am gonna buy me one of those fine Cartwright horses I hear you brag about that you bust.”

Joe and Adam couldn’t help but notice the light in Tim’s eyes as he pictured buying himself his very own riding horse instead of borrowing his Dad’s plow horse to come into town. “I am sure we will have a right fine one for you, Tim,” Joe replied.

“Why don’t you come out to the ranch in a few days and pick one from the new herd Joe’s been working with.” Adam slipped Joe a sarcastic smile as he put his hat back on and pulled it down to his eyes. “I hear that there is a real nice black in the bunch that Joe has been trying to break.”

“Adam…” Joe nervously brushed his feet across the floor.

“What’s a matter, little brother, got one that you need your big brother to break for you?” Adam was doing his best to catch up on some teasing that he had gotten behind on since being in town.

“Not the black you showed me the other day, Joe? Well, he is perfect.” Tim stood wide-eyed, glancing back and forth between Joe and Adam.

“Sure, Tim… no problem; consider him yours.” Joe shot a glare at Adam that made his brother turn to hide his laughing. “Thanks, big brother.”

“No problem, Joe.” Adam turned and headed back towards the jail. “See you in a little while.

*****

Stepping back into the Virginia City jail, the first thing Adam noticed was Sally standing in front of Dave’s cell with a pot of coffee in one hand and the other hand resting firmly on her hip.

“Arresting babes are we now, Sheriff Cartwright?”

“Well, Miss.” Adam strolled past Sally and collapsed into the chair behind Roy’s desk. “Only the ones that like to point guns and can’t hold their liquor.”

Sally handed Dave a cup of fresh coffee and turned, looking at Adam from across the room. Adam stared back — both just staring at each other.

Ace stood resting against the window as he continue watching the traffic on the streets while he tried to stay out of the way of the burning glances being shot across the room. “Well, you two are too talkative for me.” Ace put his hat on and reached for the door handle as he looked at Sally then back at Adam. “Shoot twice if you need help, Adam.”

Sally turned and threw the pot at the door.

Ace laughed as he closed the door just in time to miss the flying pot.

“Well, Miss…” Adam propped his feet up on the desk as he reclined back further in his chair. “You get prettier when you get mad.”

“Adam Cartwright!” Sally called out as she slammed the wooden doors that divided the cells from the office of the jail.

Adam could hear the sound of her heels striking the wooden floor as she made her way over towards the desk. Putting both hands in the middle of the desk Sally leaned in and stared at Adam as he pretended to not notice behind his black hat which he had pulled down to the brim of his nose.

Sally must have kept that pose for at least two minutes before she finally spoke. “Well, are you gonna just sit there and not speak?”

Adam slowly raised his hat and looked into the fiery eyes of the redhead staring directly at him. “Well, actually, ma’am…” Adam said as he seductively raised his hat and pulled himself forward only inches from the woman leaning across his desk. “I was just enjoying the view.”

Sally suddenly looked down and realized that leaning across the table as she was and the cut of her dress probably provided the sheriff a view that most men would be charged for. “Ugh,” she said as she stomped her foot and tossed the papers lying on the desk towards Adam.

Suddenly, Adam stood up and pulled the beautiful high-tempered woman across his desk and spun her around, facing him; she felt her knees straddling both sides of the sheriff as he stood at the desk leaning into her. “Now one more time, Miss.” A seductive smile crossed Adam’s stern face as he placed an arm on either side of this fiery red head, surrounding her wholly, allowing his breath to suddenly warm her neck. “What is your complaint?”

“Hey brother, we’re ready.” Joe bounded into the jail office without the inkling of a knock.

Sally slid off the desk like a bolt of lightning and tried to regain her composure as she straightened her dress and blew the few stray locks aside that had fallen across her lips.

Adam straightened up a little as he lowered his hat a bit to hide the grin that shot across his face from the entire situation.

‘Ready, huh, brother.” Adam stretched forward and reached into the top desk drawer, looking for the cell key. “Well, if I can excuse myself from matter at hand with Miss Sally, I can check in on our little rebel rouser.” Adam flashed a look towards Sally as she stood with her arms crossed biting her lip. “All matters taken care of for now, ma’am?”

Sally looked up towards Adam with a piercing glance. “Oh yes, sheriff.” With a quick turn, she nodded towards Adam and marched over towards Joe and Tim as they stood, redden somewhat, at the door. “Boys…you will have to excuse me, please.”

“Oh sure, ma’am.” Joe politely tipped his hat as Sally stood at the door waiting for the young men to move aside.

“Oh Joseph.” Sally stopped next to Joe and looked back towards Adam playfully.

“Yes, Miss Sally?” Joe tried not to let the close proximity of the attractive lady standing in front of him forget that she was his brothers girl.

“Just call me Sally.”

Suddenly, Sally reached up and grabbed Joe by the face and pulled him into to her soft lips, kissing him long enough to let Joe arms find their way around her waist and pull her in close. Looking up towards Joe, Sally broke off the kiss tenderly with slight moan, then turned towards Adam.

Joe stood dumbfounded as he found himself suddenly grinning from ear to ear. He watched Sally step out on to the streets and head back to the saloon.

“Done now?” Adam thundered loudly as he glared at his brother.

“Hey, brother, that was her, not me.” Joe felt every muscle in his body tighten as he expected his brother to come across the desk at his with everything he had.

Suddenly Adam just laughed and lowered his head. “Let’s get your friend out and get you boys home.”

“Adam…” Joe still stood nervously trying to figure out his big brother. “You sure?”

“Look, Joe, it’s getting late, and if you three insist against my better judgment of going home, then you had best head out now, before it gets any later. Dave has sobered up some but I am not sure he can sit a horse very well, much less arrive home to his less than understanding father.” Adam walked over to the double wooden doors separating the office from the cells and put the keys into the lock securing Dave. “I want all three of you to head home directly, okay? That means no stops for anything. There’s a full moon tonight, boys, so the trails home should be lit up pretty well.” Adam stood back as Dave walked to the cell door. “Dave, I have nothing to say to your Pa as long as you three do as I have asked. Just straight home…okay?” Adam gave Dave a stern yet loving pat on his back. “You gonna be okay, Dave.” Adam turned the young man to face him as he stood at the cell doorway. “Your father is gonna be pretty sore when you arrive home still smelling of alcohol. You sure you want to brave Lyle’s temper?”

“Yeah, Adam…” Dave still sounded angry but he knew that letting Adam know that he was still fuming about his unfinished confrontation with Will would do him no good tonight. Besides, he knew Adam and Will were friends, and thought for sure that Adam would cover for Will in any circumstance. Even worse, how was he gonna explain how he had lost the $300 that his Pa had given him to put in the bank?

Still fighting the lingering effects of the liquor, Dave tucked his hands in his pants pockets, trying to steady himself. “You done with me now, Adam? ‘ Cause I really would like to go home, if you don’t mind.”

Adam stood his ground and nodded towards the door where Tim and Joe still stood. “Don’t make me regret giving you this chance, Dave.” Adam jingled the keys around his hand, trying to get Dave’s attention one last time. “Home!”

*****

Will stood at the side entrance to the stable as all three boys walked into the stable. If those three were heading out now, Will figured he would hang out in town a little while longer. Putting a little distance between himself and that young hot-head Dave would probably be the wisest thing to do anyway.

“Oh well,” Will said as he stood looking towards the Bucket of Blood. “Surely I can find something or someone to help me kill a little time.”

*****

“That was awfully nice of Adam to fix us up with some horses for the ride home.” Tim sat on top of a pretty black horse with a white stocking on one foot. “Kind of reminds me of that black you have back at the ranch, Joe.”

“The one you have been begging me to break for you, Tim?” Joe smiled at his friend. “If you can part with some of your winnings there, money bags, I am sure we could make a deal.”

“Wow, Joe, you really mean it?” Tim sat up a little straighter in the saddle. “Dave, did you hear what Joe said about the black?”

Dave had already led his horse out to the street. “Yep, that’s great. I mean, with all your winnings and such, you ought to buy yourself something really nice.” He threw himself awkwardly up in the saddle and turned back towards his Joe and Tim. “Thanks for the fun evening, boys, but I am gonna head on out.”

Joe took a few steps towards Dave. “Dave, remember what Adam said — be careful, okay.”

“Sure, Joe.” Dave turned his horse with a start and tore off down the street.

“I shouldn’t have bragged about the winning…huh, Joe?” Tim leaned forward in his saddle as he watched his friend disappear into the evening.

Joe took Sport’s bridle and led him out of the livery. Knowing Cochise still had to be shoed in the morning, Adam had trusted no other steed to get his brother safely home. “Don’t worry, Tim.” Joe pulled himself up onto the saddle, taking note suddenly of just how tall Sport was. “Whoa, boy,” Joe spoke quietly as he adjusted himself in the saddle.

“Your brother sent these too.” Ted walked out from the livery office and tossed Tim and Joe up a coat. “Said his Pa would have his hide if you boys caught your death in the chilly night on the way home.”

Joe grasped the yellow coat and draped it over his shoulder. “Always the big brother Adam,” Joe murmured to himself as he brought Sport up next to Tim’s black.

The trip home was pretty much uneventful for the two friends as they rode home that evening. Mostly Joe and Tim talked about the black that Joe was gonna break for him and all the places that Tim could go on his own horse. “You know, Joe, the way I figure, I will have enough left to buy a really fine saddle as well, and maybe even a nice pair of boots. Don’t you think?”

Joe smiled as he listened to Tim picture himself on his new horse and clothes. “I think you might even be able to tuck a little bit away too, Tim. You know for emergencies.”

“Joe…” Tim spoke lightly as he gently brought his horse to a stop and looked over towards Joe. “Dave’s gonna get a real beating from his Pa when he finds out that Dave lost that money.” Tim pulled out the small bag he had in his coat pocket and gave it a little squeeze. ‘Shoot, Joe, I just wouldn’t feel right knowing that I could have stopped it.”

“Tim, you won that money fair and square, but if you want to give it back to him, that’s your choice.” Joe sat looking at his friend. All this time, people had said Tim was simple; he had been the one to stumble upon why Dave was probably acting like he was. That $300 that Dave had pulled out when he blew up at Will was probably causing all the trouble right now. Had Dave lost money that wasn’t his? Why had that amount not sent red flags up to Joe to start with? “Hey Tim, I tell you what. If you want to give that $300 back to Dave, I will go with you right now. I am sure we can catch him.”

Tim’s face light up. “Sure, Joe. Race you.”

The bright moon lit the trail for the two young friends as they raced through the night, each taking a turn letting the one another out-ride the other. Tim smiled to himself as he raced, content in his decision that he couldn’t let a mere $300 come in between their friendship and Joe knowing that, one way or another, the black would be on Tim’s door step by the week’s end.

*****

Dave had left his friends behind in a blind fury as he was so upset about not only feeling like he had been humiliated in front of everyone by Will and Adam, but also how would he explain losing the $300 dollars to his Pa. He knew that his Pa would beat him within an inch of his life. He could feel the sweat breaking out on his body as his heart began to race in fear. He brought his horse to a stop and decided to take a break under a tree. Maybe the cool air and the bright light from the moon could help clear his mind from the remainder of the alcohol and allow him to think this out. He rested his head back against the tree as he tried figure out what he would tell his father.

Then, off in the distance, he heard the sound of riders approaching. Crawling to a boulder that was right beyond the tree, Dave looked off towards the sound of the approaching hooves. All he could make out was two riders. Who would be coming this way this time of night, Dave thought to himself. He strained harder to see. “Sport,” Dave mumbled to himself. He shook his head as the residual effects of the alcohol still circled in his thoughts. “Adam…” Dave stood and watched as the familiar auburn colored horse approached with its rider in his worn yellow coat and another on a black right beside him. All he could think as he watched the horses get closer was that Adam had lied to him all along and now he was on his way out to see his Pa and tell him all about how he had lost the $300 and pulled a gun on Will. Why, that was probably Will with him. “No way, Cartwright,” Dave mumbled to himself as he stumbled up further on the boulder, reached alongside his thigh and carefully removed his pistol. He had a plan.

*****

As the two horses slowly cantered by the large boulder, neither rider ever expected the unmistakable thunder that knocked Joe from Sport and brought him crashing to the ground.

“Joe!” Tim screamed as he fought to control his horse and bring him to a stop. Tim had slide down from his mare and tore off to kneel at Joe’s side in what felt like one swift move. “Joe…Joe…talk to me, Joe.”

Dave turned his back to the boulder and collapsed against as the echo of Tim’s voice calling out Joe’s named roared through his mind over and over. “Joe…Adam’s jacket….Sport…” Dave buried his hands in his face and tried to get himself together as he listened to Tim calling out to Joe trying to wake him. “Think, Dave, think…that’s it!”

Grabbing the jacket that Adam had hung over his saddle horn earlier, Dave quickly wrapped it around his face trying to cover as much as he could so as to not be recognized. “Hold it right there,” Dave called out to Tim as he emerged from around the boulder with his gun drawn.

Tim froze as he heard the words called out to him behind his back. He still was kneeling down besides Joe, trying to keep pressure on the wound that had pierced his friend’s shoulder. Tim lowered his head as he once again heard the words called out to him.

“Back away boy and no one gets hurt.” Dave was stepping cautiously, trying to maintain what little control he felt he had.

Tim tilted his head slightly as he slowly stood up and said “Dave? Dave, is that you?”

“Stop, no… don’t turn around.” Dave shouted back.

“But Dave…” Tim had already turned to face his friend. “Dave somebody shot Joe; I am so glad you are here.” Tim shook his head slightly. “Dave, what’s wrong? What’s wrapped around your face?” The glimmer of the gun barrel caught Tim’s attention. “The gun… Dave, why the gun?”

“Stop, boy. Listen, I don’t know who Dave is. Just step away and throw me your saddle bag.” Dave pulled the wrap further up on his face.

“Dave…did you shoot Joe?” Tim started to move slowly towards Dave. “If it’s the money, Dave…”

“Stop now. I said stop!” Dave stood with his gun pointing directly at his best friend as he felt his heart beating in his chest like it was going to explode. He took a step back and…

Tim looked down at his hand on his chest and stared down as he saw the blood running through his fingers. He suddenly felt his knees weaken and he dropped to the ground. “Dave…Dave…please…” Tim raised his hand as he saw his friend approach.

Dave knelt down with tear-filled eyes as he watched Tim trying to struggle to breath. Tim reached up and put his hand on top of Dave’s. Dave froze for a moment then stood and backed away slowly, tearing Tim’s grip from his hand.

Tim felt the warmth spreading across his chest and he could taste the warm salty liquid that began to run from the corners of his mouth. He watched as Dave slowly bent down to him once more and watched as he lowered his hand into his pocket and pulled out the small brown bag with his winnings from the card game. “Dave…” Tim gargled “Take…it…please. We were…on our way… to give…to you. Cold…Dave…” Tim reached up to take Dave’s now trembling hand. “It’s okay, brother…” Tim’s body began to shake as his body started shutting down. “I forgive you…”

Dave stood in horror when he realized that he was the very reason that his friend was fighting for his last breaths. He wanted to help him. “No… Tim… I am…sorry…I…” Dave slowly walked away watching his friend’s eyes follow him.

“Tim…” Joe was starting to wake. He could hear Tim gasping sounds as he realized sickenly that his friend was drowning in his own blood. It was like he was in a cave and echo’s bouncing all around him. “Someone…please…Tim, I am coming.” Joe fought to come out of the darkness and into consciousness but he was in too deep.”

Dave had been so concerned with Tim that he had no idea how long Joe had been awake. Had Joe heard Tim speaking? Had he seen him? Dave shook his head and stepped away from Tim, back further into the night. “I can’t let this happen. Joe, I can’t let you tell.” Dave slowly raised his gun as he moved towards Joe.

Joe opened his eyes and saw a familiar shadow lurking behind his dying friend. “Dave?” Then darkness.

The shots that echoed above his head brought Dave to a standstill as he realized that someone else was approaching. Taking one more look at Joe, Dave watched his friend’s chest rise and fall with a struggle for each gasp. Dave slowly backed away. “I am sorry, my friend….so sorry.” He felt there was no need to waste time or another bullet. He grabbed the bridle to his horse and turned back towards the road.

*****

As Will made his way slowly home through the night, he could not help but to stop for a moment and look up at the bright moon that hung overhead. He couldn’t think of the last time that the moon had light up the night the way it was now. He buttoned up his jacket a little more before taking a deep breath and stoking the mane of his horse. “Come on, boy, I know it’s beautiful night, but we still have a good little ways to go.” Will took one more glance across the valley as he momentarily admired the silhouettes of the pines against the night. “Ummm…perfect,” he whispered, then gave a little click of the tongue and urged his mount to a trot.

He had just rounded a bend in the road when the loud blast from a gun sent echoes through the stillness. Will quickly brought his horse to a stop and brushed his hand across his revolver. “Whoa, boy, whoa.” Will tried to steady his horse as the animal began to prance from side to side at the sudden boom. Then suddenly, once again, another shot sent more echoes tearing through the quite of the evening. “Aw, damn,” said Will as he reined his horse towards the direction of the gunshot. “Looks like we got no choice, buddy. Someone has gone and ruined a beautiful night.” With that Will and his horse tore off at full speed, sending caution to the wind as they tore down the worn road.

As Will and his horse tore down the road, it didn’t take long before he could see the outline of a horse approaching them at a frantic pace. Will quickly pulled his horse to the side as the panicked, rider-less Sport tore past him.

“Sport! Adam, what have you gotten yourself into?” Will had already turned his horse and tore off after Sport, trying to catch the panicked horse before he hurt himself. Pulling up alongside his friend’s mount, Will stretched himself out and grabbed a hold of the rein as it whipped freely in the wind. “Whoa, boy; whoa, Sport,” Will called out calmly as he brought both animals to a gradual stop. Hitting the ground solidly, Will made his way over to Sport as the dust continued to swirl around them. “Whoa, now boy…” Will stroked the prancing horse, trying to get him to calm down as he inspected the horse and saddle for clues of his missing rider. “Where’s Adam, old boy? Damn!” Will jerked his hand back as he realized that he had come across a sticky fluid on the back of the saddle. “Blood.” Jumping back onto his horse, Will continued to hold Sport’s reins as he turned both horse back towards the direction that Sport had come from. Pulling the rifle from his scabbard, Will fired off three warning shots, hoping his friend was still alive to hear that help was on the way.

*****

“Joe…Joe…you there?” Tim was barely conscious as he heard the sound of boots softly approaching.

Will stopped in his tracks as his hands gently slide down from his saddle He suddenly froze.

“Don’t…no… please. Help us…don’t leave me…Joe…Dave.”

Will stood in horror as he saw the same boy that he had played cards with that lying in the dirt looking up towards the stars.

“Please don’t…shoot…mister…I’m…hurt.” Tim laid clutching his middle as he felt the tears slide down his cheek.

Will slowly approached the boy. His heart began to pound merciless as he slowly recognized the red stain seeping from the boy onto the ground. Dropping the cold steel of his rifle from his hand, Will approached the young boy and knelt down by his side. “Boy! Can you hear me?”

Tim’s eyes fluttered open and he turned his head slightly to look up at the man kneeling over him. He tried to straighten his legs out but a sudden stabbing wave of pain filled every piece of his body.

Will leaned in closer to Tim and spoke gently to him. “Son, it looks like you are hurt pretty bad.” Will could see the boy’s eyes almost begging him for relief of some kind. “Just lay still and let me get you some water.”

Suddenly Tim’s left hand shot up and grabbed onto Will’s sleeve. “No…” His voice wavered. “Just…stay here.” He tightened his grip on Will’s arm one last time “Here…”

Will looked down at the dying boy and shook his head yes. “Right here…Tim, isn’t it.” Will smiled at the boy as he continued looking down into his face, trying to offer some kind of comfort.

“He…didn’t…mean…it…scared…” Tim’s eyes closed and his breath seeped from his lips one last time.

Will brushed his hand across the grip that the young man’s dead hand still had on his jacket. He looked up at the sky and brushed a tear from his eye. “Sorry, son.” Will straightened up and started to back away.

“Don’t move, mister.” Will stood still as he heard the familiar click of a revolver at his back.

‘Wouldn’t even think about it.” Will raised his hands and slowly placed them on his head.

Joe stood in a dizzying fog as he watched a man standing over his dead friend. “You are gonna pay, mister.”

“Joe.” Will thought to himself. Joe Cartwright. Suddenly, Will spun around. “Joe, we have to find Adam.” A round popped off over his head and Will took a step back. “Damn it, Joe, I just found Sport and he’s got blood all over the saddle.”

“I said stand still.” Joe tried to focus on the man in front of him as he tried to steady himself against the dizzying pain and nausea that was over taking him.

“Joe, it’s me…Will.” He could see the red stain on the jacket that Adam usually wore. “Joe, you’re hurt. Let me help you.”

“Help me like you helped Tim?” Joe wiped the sweat that was falling in his eyes as he tried to focus on the Will standing in front of him. “Adam…” Joe fought to keep his balance as the felt the world swirling about him. “Adam trusted you…he believed in you.” Joe’s hand began to get heavy as he tried to keep the barrel pointed towards Will.

“Why, Joe…you don’t think I did this?” Will was starting to think that in Joe’s confusion he had thought that he had done this. “Joe, I heard some shots and came up on Sport running loose.” He could see Joe losing his battle with consciousness the young man began to sway. “Joe, you need some help, boy.” Will stepped forward.

Bam! Joe squeezed the trigger as he felt himself suddenly jarred back from the pressure of the pistols blast.

Will saw Joe stumble backwards and hit the ground before he even felt the bullet pierce his own side. Will took a couple steps back and looked down at his side as the blood began to spill over his belt and darken his tan pants.

“Damn it, Joe.” Will shook his head and dashed over towards his best friend’s little brother lying out oblivious to everything around him. He looked at the boy and knew that he had to get him to a doctor quickly. “Joe, you are gonna be alright, son…I promise.” Will reached up and took his jacket off, ripping the sleeves off in long strips. Refusing to acknowledge his own wound, Will worked on Joe, trying to stop the bleeding from his shoulder. “Looks like it’s through and through, boy, so that good news. Just let me bandage you up enough to slow that bleeding and I will get you to the doc.”

Finally getting the bleed under control, Will picked up Joe and carried him to his horse. Joe moaned some as Will lifted him up onto the saddle. “Joe, I need you to hang on a minute for me, boy.” Will reached up and took Joe’s hands and placed them over the saddle horn. Gripping his hands on top of Joe’s, he squeezed Joe’s tightly around the horn. “Like this, Joe; I need you to hold tightly.” Letting go, he saw that Joe was somehow maintaining the grip even though he was unconscious

Will backed away and walked back over towards Tim. For a brief moment, Will stood looking in the face of the young man that now lay dead in front of him. He thought that by moving here to Virginia City, he would be able to get away from all the death that he had been surrounded by all his life. And now, here he stood once more, looking into the face of a young man who had done nothing wrong that night but choose to ride home on a beautiful evening. “Sorry, my friend.” Will lowered his head and let out a deep breath as he brushed his hands across the dead boys eyes closing them forever.

Walking back over to Joe, Will grabbed hold of the saddle horn and threw himself up behind the injured boy. Joe let out another soft moan, and Will wrapped his arms around him, letting him lean back against his chest. He turned his horse, moving toward Sport and the black, and gave out a big yell and a stern swat to Sports backside sending the horses off in a dead run through the night. “You two get yourself home and let me worry about Joe.” Will knew that he was starting to feel the effects of the gunshot from Joe and he had to hurry if he was gonna get the boy into town before he fell out himself.

*****

“Pa,” Hoss said as he opened the front door to the house starting his day. “Why didn’t you tell me we had a visitor last night?” Hoss had already bound past his Pa and started up the stairs on his way to Adams room to give him a welcome home wrestling match that was long overdue.

Ben stood to the side of the stairway as Hoss flew by him. “Well, son, I didn’t know we had any such visitors.” Ben tightened up his robe a little more as he made his way across the living room to close the door that his son had left wide open. Staring at Sport standing loose in the middle of the yard, Ben couldn’t help but to holler back up to Hoss “And please remind your big brother that we don’t have a livery hand around here so everyone must take care of their own horse.”

Ben strolled on out in the yard towards Sport but slowly stopped as he looked upon the horse; the animal stood in a full lather and hanging his head in exhaustion. “Whoa, boy.” Ben extended his arm and slowly walked towards his son’s horse.

“Pa…” Hoss walked out the door with a puzzled look on his face as he watched his Pa stroking Sport trying to calm him down. “Adam’s room hasn’t been slept in.”

Ben stood staring at his hand as Hoss walked up to his side. “Pa, did you hear what I said?”

Ben looked down at his hand as Hoss stood staring at the red stain that now covered his Pa’s hand. “Go saddle the horses.” Ben looked up at Hoss. “We are going to town.”

*****

Adam had let himself into Sally’s room. The early morning sun was beginning to rise, and while others in the town might just be starting their day, it was the perfect time for a Sheriff to get a little rest. Sally laid there with her eyes closed as she heard the door open and the sound of the familiar boots and their stride cross her floor. She smiled to herself in a sense of relief as she felt Adam’s weight on the side of the bed as he removed his boots and laid his gun belt in the chair. She had barely turned in herself as she purposely kept herself busy all night so she could help keep a watch out for the new Sheriff. She heard him let out a tiring sigh as he laid back in the bed and brought the covers up over his shoulders. Sally laid there for a moment more before she rolled over and wrapped her arms around the handsome man that was now resting by her side. She gave him a warm kiss on the cheek and tightened her arms around him once more. “Night, Adam.”

“Night, Sally.” He lifted one of her hands from around his waist and touched it softly too his lips.

They slept for only one hour.

*****

“Adam…Adam.” A harsh pounding on the door woke Adam and Sally before they even thought to recognize the voice. “Adam…please.”

Sally sat up in the bed as she watched Adam roll from the bed and appear at the door running his fingers through his raven hair. “Ace!” Adam stood at the door looking at his deputy, who looked like he had just seen a ghost. “Ace…” Adam stepped out into the hallway and closed the door behind him. “What’s the matter?”

“Adam, it’s Joe.”

Adam’s face turned pale, almost showing that he knew what came next.

“Adam he’s been shot.” Ace grabbed Adam’s arm as he saw Adam’s eye’s fill with the unknowing. “Adam, wait…”

Adam had started turning back to the door to grab his boots and gun belt.

“Adam, there is something else I need to tell you.” Ace was trying to let Adam know the whole picture of what he was about to walk into before he went flying off to Doc Martin’s.

Adam’s face was pale as he turned to look at Ace once more. “What is it, Ace? Tell me.”

“Adam, Will brought him in.” Ace took a breath. “Will’s got a bullet in him too — Joe’s.”

Sally was now standing next to the bed, holding Adam’s gun belt and his boots as he returned to through them on before tearing off to Doc Martin’s. She had heard part of Ace’s conversation with Adam but not all.

“Adam?” Sally stood next to Adam as he grabbed his boots from her hand and stepped into them. “Is it Joe?”

Adam snatched the belt from her hand and took off towards the door. Suddenly he stopped and lowered his head. “It’s my fault.”

Sally stepped forward and tried to take his hand. Adam snatched his hand back and tightened his belt once more. “I never should have let those boys ride out.”

“Adam!!” Sally shouted as she watched him run down the hall and down the stairs.

*****

Adam bolted into Doc Martin’s like a man possessed. “Paul, where is he?”

Doc Martin was standing outside the examination room, wiping his bloodied hands with a cloth. “Adam,” he said as he tossed the stained red cloth off to the side, “I need you to calm down.”

“Calm down!” Adam roared as he now stood in front of his friend. “You let me in to see my brother.”

“Adam, I need you to listen to me.” Paul placed a hand on Adam’s shoulder as he backed up against the door, using himself as a barrier between Adam and Joe on the other side. “Joe has lost a lot of blood and he is weak. But the shot is through and through and it looks good.”

“Paul, please, just let me through.” Adam had calmed some now and was trying to absorb what Paul was telling him. “Paul, I am asking as a Sheriff and not your friend. I need to get in to see Joe.”

Paul looked up at Adam and couldn’t help but to read the pain that was in his face. “Adam, I will let you in, but please remember I haven’t cleaned him up yet and it’s gonna look a lot worse than I wanted you to see.” Paul stepped to the side a little and continued on. “He’s drugged up pretty heavily and rambling a lot. Don’t try and prod him too much, Adam. He needs his rest.” Paul opened the door. “Two minutes and nothing more.”

Adam took his hat off and stepped into the room. Joe laid on the examination table with blood-soaked blankets and bandages all around. Adam stepped in a little closer and timidly raised his hand to stroke the stray strand of brown hair that laid across his brother’s face. Joe turned his head a little and began mumbling. Adam lowered his ear to Joe’s lips as he tried to hear what his brother was trying to say.

“Get away…no. Stop…aw…Tim… no…” Tears began to roll out of Joe’s eyes. “Will…step away. Will…I’ll shoot. No!!!! Oh God…Tim. Will, you killed Tim.”

Adam felt his body go numb. “Will?” He laid his chest over Joe, trying to keep him still. “Joe, calm down. It’s me, Adam. I’ve got you little brother; you’re safe.”

Joe began tossing and turning and trying to get up off the table. Adam held him tightly, wincing at the thought of holding his brother too tight and doing more harm. “Joe, stop it; you have to stay still.”

Paul burst in the doors with his assistant Nancy. “Adam, step away from him. Nancy, help me hold him down.”

Adam stepped back in horror as he watched the Doc and Nancy fight to hold Joe down. “Nancy, pass me the morphine please.”
Nancy turned loose of Joe and started stirring through Paul’s surgery tray. “Here, Paul,” Nancy called out as she handed Paul a small syringe.

Paul thumped the end and quickly stuck it in to Joe’s thigh. “There you go, son.” Paul laid across Joe’s chest to subdue him until he felt the morphine begin to work. “There Joe…much better.” Paul turned to look at Adam as he saw his friend backed up against the door with his eyes filled with tears. “Adam, it’s just the shock. Joe is gonna be fine.”

Adam shook his head and turned his eyes towards the ceiling as he tried to regain his composure.

“Okay, Nancy, let’s go have a look at Will.”

Suddenly Adam turned with a start and approached Paul like a man possessed. Will…where is Will?”

“Look, Adam, you need to calm down. I am the doc here, and if you can’t stand to the side and let me do my job, then I will have to ask you to leave.” Paul could tell by the tightness in Adam’s jaw that he wanted nothing more right now than to get his hands on Will. “The man has been shot too, and spent half the night on a horse bringing Joe in. Right now, his health in my concern. You can question him later.”

Adam didn’t seem to hear a word that Paul had spoken. Within three steps, he had approached the door behind which Will Masterson now lay with a bullet wound from Joe’s gun. Tossing the door open, Nancy quickly turned to face Adam as she stood over Will, trying to clean his wound. “Adam Cartwright,” Nancy’s voice thundered across the rom. “Get out of here this instant.”

Adam ignored the orders from Nancy and Paul as he stood looking down over Will, noting the crimson that now stained the bandage to his friends’ side.

“Adam.” Will raised himself off the table with a slight grimace. “I am sorry about Joe. How is he doing?” Will continued to look at his friend with a puzzled face as Adam stood looking down at him making no remarks. “Adam? Joe’s okay right? Doc Martin said the wound looks a lot worse than it is.” Will’s voice suddenly lowered. “Adam, you don’t think… I mean, you’re not like the rest of the town folks that greeted me when I rode into town with Joe, are you? Awww…” Will’s face began to tighten and he let a small smirk appear across his lips. “You are, aren’t you, Adam. You think I killed that one boy and put a bullet in Joe.”

Adam felt the anger welling up inside himself as he looked down at Will and saw nothing but the blood-stained notches on the ex-gunslinger’s belt that still hung around his waist. “Doc said it’s a clean wound. Just a flesh wound.” Adam reached over to remove the revolver from Will’s belt.

“You’re looking for my guns, aren’t you, Adam.” Will grabbed Adam’s hand from his belt and pushed it back. “Haven’t worn it since the day I rode in to Virginia City, Adam.” He let out a pained breath as Nancy continued to apply pressure to his side. “Just the belt…just the belt, as a reminder. You know that Adam.”

“Adam,” Doc Martin snapped. “This man needs my attention. Now I want ask you again to leave this room.”

Adam turned briefly to face his friend once more. “You leave this room before I get back and I will see to it personally see to it that I return the bullet that the doc just took out of my brother.”

Will raised himself up further on the table. “Adam, I am the same man that rode into this town one year ago, and you alone took a chance on and called me a friend.” He let a slight breath whisper through his lips. “I haven’t changed, Adam. Deep down inside, I think you know that. But all I have is my word” Collapsing back onto the bed, he flinched again as Doc began probing for the bullet. “My rifle, Adam; it’s still on my horse.”

Adam bit his lip and brought his hat over his eyes as he stood at the threshold of the doorway.

Paul could see the pain etched across Adam’s face as the weight not only of being the Sheriff but brother and friend came crashing down on him. “Adam, as a friend, I am telling you that you best get out there and do your job as Sheriff and quiet this town down before they try and have a lynching. All anyone knows for sure right now in Virginia City is that three boys rode out last night, and now one is stretched out on my table mumbling about how Will put a bullet in him and killed another.”

Adam lowered his head and rested his right hand atop his revolver. The words that came from his mouth were low but clear. “Paul, you take care of Joe. Give my brother anything he needs.” Resting his other hand atop the door frame of the room in which Nancy and Doc now tended to Will, Adam turned towards Paul. “Which one, Paul? Which boy is dead?”

Paul turned ran his fingers through his thinning hair and let out a deep breath. “Tim. Adam, it was Tim.”

“Adam.’ The door to Paul’s office flew open and Ben stood looking at his eldest with pain etched across his face. “Adam, are you okay? Sport came in with blood on the saddle. And I thought….” Ben had already reached Adam’s side and grabbed his son by the shoulders as he looked into his eyes.

“Pa, its Joe. Not me. He’s shot and it’s all my fault.” With that, Adam tore loose from Ben’s grasp and tore out through the door.

Ben turned behind him and watched his oldest son disappear through the door.

“Pa, Adam’s okay. I just saw him running off towards the livery.” Hoss stepped in to Paul’s office and shouted out towards his Pa.

Paul walked over to Ben and nodded his head for Hoss to come closer. “Ben, it’s not Adam that has been hurt. It’s Joe.”

“Joseph…where is he?” roared Ben. “Paul!”

“Calm down, Ben; I am just finishing up with him. Give me a moment and I will catch you up on what I know.”

Ben continued staring blankly towards the Doc.

“Ben, he is gonna be fine. Just needs a little quite and time.”

*****

“Cartwright!”

Adam had just stepped up to the office door as he heard his name called.

“Adam Cartwright.”

The sound of his name broke the haze that had suddenly clouded his mind. Turning towards the voice that called his name, Adam felt his heart drop even further. There in the middle of the street stood Sam Henderson, calling his name over and over again. “Did you see what that murderer did to my boy, Cartwright? Sheriff, I am talking to you.”

Stepping back onto the street, Adam made his way over to the mourning father. He was wrestling with himself, feeling the pain of a friend who stood in front of him, mourning a murdered son, and the level-headiness role of the sheriff. “Sam, I don’t know what to say about Tim.” Adam stood in front of the Sam.

“Don’t know what to say! How about let’s string that murdering excuse for a man up? That’s what you can say, Adam.” Sam stretched his arms forward showing the stains of his son’s blood on his sleeves and hands. “You see…you see…” His knees started to collapse and Adam quickly bent forward and caught him.

“Sam…” Adam stared into the man’s eyes that looked back at him numb with lose and pain. “Whoever killed your boy will be held accountable, Sam. I promise you that.’

“Whoever? Adam, it’s the same man that put a bullet in your own brother. It’s Will Masterson.” Sam’s voice started to rise in anger. “No sense in the doc wasting any time helping him. You go get him, Adam, and string him up right now.”

The streets had started filling now as citizens lined the streets watching the scene unfold between Adam and Tim’s father.

“Yeah, Sheriff. You not gonna try and protect that murder even when he put a bullet I your own brother, are you?” The shouts were getting louder as the crowd continued to grow.

Ace had just started heading back from taking Tim to the undertaker when he saw Adam being confronted by all the local town people. “Well, well, Adam. Old friend, we are gonna see what your made of,” he whispered to himself.

Ace approached the crowd and let off a couple of shots to get everyone’s attention. “Now, now, folks, I know everyone has a lot of concerns right now for what happened to Tim and Joe, but getting all riled up and such isn’t gonna help anyone.” Ace took a couple more steps forward and broke through the town’s people and positioned himself right next to Adam. “Now as you can all see, our Sheriff here — Mr. Cartwright — has a lot to do at this moment. So why don’t you all just turn around and let him do the job you asked him to do. Ace looked through the crowd and pointed out towards the mayor. “Isn’t that right, Mayor?”

Mayor Gibbons put his hands in his pockets and walked over to join Adam and Ace. “That’s right, folks; let’s just let our Sheriff do what he needs to do.” He turned to Adam and shot him a concerning glance as he saw the Sheriff brush the dust from his knees where he had knelt beside Tim’s father.

Adam brought his black hat forward and rested his hands upon his belt. “I just need everyone to go home. Let me do my job. I don’t need any vigilantes. I can assure you that the person responsible for all this will pay. But they will pay through the law.”

Adam once again put his hand out on Sam’s shoulder. “Sam, I can assure you I am gonna catch whoever did this. And they will face a legal and fair jury.”

Sam brushed Adam’s hand off with a sharp swipe. “My son was sentenced to death without even committing a crime, Cartwright. What’s fair about that?”

“Sam…” Ace started

“No, Ace.” Adam bit his lip and turned back towards the jail. “Let him go.”

*****

“Well Ben.” Paul had closed the door behind him and walked out into the lobby. “Joe is gonna be just fine. The bullet went right across the top of his shoulder. He lost a lot of blood but the wound itself doesn’t look bad at all.” Paul pulled up a chair across from Ben and gave him a pat on the knee. “He just needs a little rest for the wound to heal. It’s the trauma of losing a friend that’s gonna take the longest to heal, I am afraid.”

Ben lowered his head and wiped a small tear of relief away. “Thank you so much, Paul. Can I go see him now?”

“Sure, Ben. He’s still sleeping, and I would just let him to continue to do so. I would like to keep him overnight at least, and you and Hoss should be able to take him home tomorrow afternoon.”

“Hoss…” Ben turned to grab his middle boy.

“Pa, you go ahead. I’m just gonna catch up with Paul for a moment. I will be right in.”

“Sure, Hoss.” Ben gave him a smile and followed Nancy in to Joe’s room.

“Paul.” Hoss’ face had turned serious. “How’s Adam? I mean I saw him storming out of here right as we arrived. Didn’t even have a chance for a word as he passed by.”

Paul strolled over to the window and looked out across the street towards the sheriff’s office. “You know, Hoss, I think the Sheriff has his work cut out for him. Your brother…well, he…he’s gonna need your support.”

*****

“Pa…Pa. Wake up.”

“Oh Adam, I am sorry, son; I must have drifted off.”

Adam gave his Pa a warm smile and rested his hand across his back as he stared at Joe resting comfortably.

“Paul says we can take him home tomorrow.” Ben stood up and stretched as he continued staring at his youngest, not taking any breath for granted. Suddenly, Ben remembered Sport riding into the ranch earlier that day with his saddle all covered in blood. He turned and gave Adam a warm hug “Oh Adam, how are you, son? I was so worried when I saw Sport. I thought…”

Adam stood in the warmth of his father’s embrace, and even though he needed that touch more than he could ever admit all, he could manage in return was a brief pat to his father’s back. “It’s okay, Pa. Joe’s gonna be fine and I am alright. Pa, I need to ask you for a favor.”

Ben took his arms back again and looked upon Adam, standing looking even more distant than he had ever seen him before. “Son, whatever I can help you, just ask.”

“Well, I need to speak with Joe before you take him home tomorrow. I know it won’t be easy but I have to ask him some hard questions about what he remembers about last night.”

“Adam, I don’t know if Joseph will be ready for that line of questioning tomorrow. It might be too soon.”

“Pa, I am not asking you as Joe’s brother. I am telling you what I need as a sheriff to do my job.” Adam’s voice was almost stern as he continued speaking to Ben. “I have a dead boy at the undertaker’s and another laid up at the doctor’s office. The man responsible could be 10 feet away.” Adam turned and walked towards the door. “I will be back at eight in the morning.”

“Adam.” Ben’s voice had almost taken a stern tone to it as well. He could see how Adam had froze at the door waiting to hear his father’s powerful voice echo through the room with his disappointment in Adam’s brief show of authority. “Eight a.m… Sheriff”

*****

No one spoke any words as Adam fastened the cuffs around Will’s hands and half carried him out of Paul’s examination room. Will had offered his hands freely to Adam when he saw him open the door to his room and stare at him. A brief smirk and head shake was all Will managed as he tried to ignore the stabbing pain through his side as he let Adam and Ace lead him through the room past Hoss and Paul. Ace opened the door from the office that led out onto the streets, and all three men stopped as they looked upon thirty to forty towns people lining the street with torches lighting up the night sky.

The trio hand not made it two steps before someone hollered out. “Murderer!”

Adam tightened his grip around Will’s arm as he felt the injured man trying to carry his own weight across the street. All three men could sense the town’s desire for revenge, and Adam knew that this man’s life was in his hands. Ace cradle a rifle in his arm and then nodded for Adam and Will to continue towards the jail.

Almost within moments, Hoss appeared on Adam’s other side and grasped Will’s other arm, helping to steady the man as they began walking with the three side by side.

Adam stopped and continued looking straight ahead. “Go home, brother. “

“Adam, I ain’t gonna let you walk through this mob. They are just looking for a chance to put a piece of wood upside your stubborn skull and have themselves a lynching right here tonight with old Will.”

“Hoss, I said go home.” Adam’s voice cut through Hoss’ heart like a steel blade.

“Dabburnit, brother. I almost lost one brother today and I am not gonna lose one tonight due to his stubborn, thick-headed refusal to accept a little help.” Hoss had gripped Adam’s arm and was squeezing onto it for dear life. “Now you can have it either way, big brother. I can walk next to you on the way or two feet behind you. But I will be with you.”

Ace looked across at Adam and could see that Adam had only had Hoss’ safety in mind when he had lashed out at him. “Adam, it’s not personal. It’s our job to make sure Will gets to the jail safely one way or the other. I say if someone is offering help right now that we would be fools to not accept it.” Ace looked back towards Hoss and gave him a nod.

Adam took a deep breath and motioned for Hoss to catch up to him. “Stay close.”

Hoss smiled and jumped up next to Adam whispering quietly under his breath. “Love you too, big brother”.

*****

“Take his cuffs off and make sure the cell is locked good and tight.” Adam had closed the doors to the jail and stepped over toward the window, making sure the crowd did not try to rush the office. Ace and Hoss had secured Will behind the bars.

Will sank to the back of the cell as he tried to overcome the dizziness that was playing with his head and the biting pain that still throbbed in his side. He ran his hands together and looked at the red marks that the cuffs had left on his wrist. “Oh, Will…” he mumbled to himself as he gingerly lowered himself on to the cot and looked down on his bandaged side and the small crimson stain that colored the middle of the bandage. He looked through the bars and stared upon the broad shoulders of the man who he had once carried so much faith in him, yet now in truly desperate times, had seemingly thrown all that away.

“Nothing more here to see tonight.” Adam had returned to the doorway and stood in the center of it, calling out to the people who still stood looking towards the jail. “You got what I promised would happen. I have the suspect locked up and he’s not going anywhere tonight. So why don’t all of you turn in and gets some rest.” Adam noticed Sam standing in the middle of the crowd in the same blood stained shirt from earlier that day. “Sam, don’t let your son’s name be tainted by a group of vigilantes. Tell your friend to go home. This won’t help Tim.”

Sam took a few steps forward and turned back to look out over the crowd. “Not tonight, friends. Let’s mourn my boy properly.” He glanced back over towards Adam “There will be plenty of time to hang that no good murdering friend of yours, Cartwright.”

Adam watched the crowd turn and walk away. Sam continued to stand and stare toward the jail, almost as if his eyes were going straight through Adam into the cells behind. “Sam,” Adam called out softly and took a few steps towards Tim’s morning father. “Please let me help you. Let me get you a place to stay in town and get you cleaned up.”

Unable to speak, Sam raised his hand up towards Adam for a moment as he fought to overcome the wave of emotion that suddenly hit him. “No… Adam…no.” Sam raised his tear-stained face and stared deeply into Adam’s darkened eyes. “Haven’t you already done enough, helping that murder make a life here in our town? It’s your fault, Adam Cartwright.” He slowly walked up to Adam and stood in front of him, not breaking eye contact at all. “Here” he said as he ripped the blood stained shirt from his chest. “Now you have the blood of my son on your hands.”

Adam stood frozen as he gripped the stained shirt in his hands and watched the broken father walk away into the night.

“Adam.” Hoss had stepped up to Adam’s side and stood staring at his brother, afraid to touch him, afraid he would break. “He didn’t mean it, Adam; he’s just hurt.”

Adam gripped the shirt and stepped back into the office. “Go home, Hoss. Pa and Joe need you.”

The door slam behind him, leaving Hoss to stand in the deafening quite of the night and wonder how much could go wrong in one day.

*****

Will had heard the words of Tim’s father and saw how the sharp words had cut Adam deeply. He watched as Adam walked back into the office and laid the stained shirt down on top of the desk.

“It’s not gonna get any better staring at that all night, Adam,” Ace mumbled as he tossed his hat across his desk and started securing the rifles back along the gun racks.

“I know, Ace. I guess I am just tired. I know you have to be exhausted as well. Why don’t you turn in for the night and I will just see you in the morning.” Adam ran his fingers through his raven hair and let out a deep breath through his lips. He looked over at Ace still fooling with the rack. “I am serious, Ace. A matter of fact, it’s an order.”

*****

The quietness that filled the Sheriff’s office that night was enough to hear every tick of the clock that hung above the chair behind Roy’s desk. Adam found his body battling with the exhaustion from the past few days lack of sleep and the rhythmic ticking of the clock. So many thoughts came to him as he tried to make sense of the events of the day. He kept picturing Joe laid out on the table at Paul’s, bleeding and delirious. Sam standing in the middle of the street, blaming him for his son’s death. Will looking at him in disbelief as he cuffed him and lead him down the street. Then there was the look in Sally’s face when he had basically pushed her to the side this morning. And how about the way Ben looked at him when he had basically turned his back on him as a son and started barking orders like a stranger? “Aggghh, Adam.” He stood up and crashed his arm across the table, sending everything on top hurling through the air. “How much can I take?” Adam roared and rammed his hand against the wall.

The sound of breaking bone was enough to make Will sit up on the edge of his cot. He knew that Adam was now alone, and knowing Adam like he did over the past year, he could imagine what self-abuse he was berating himself with. He sat silently listening to the short gasp that Adam was making and the sound of his boots pacing the floor. Finally thinking he had nothing else to lose, Will spoke out. “Adam…are you okay.”

Adam grabbed his wrist with his other hand and pulled it tightly into his chest trying to lessen the pain that now pulsed through his arm. He heard Will speak to him, and for a moment, the familiar tranquil tone of the man that had been his friend over the past year helped to calm his thoughts.

“Adam…I don’t know what else to say. I just want to know if you are okay.” Will had pulled himself off the cot now and stood at the bars, looking right through them to find Adam standing, cradling his wrist, looking right back at him. He realized that Adam stood looking at him, trying to see who this man he had called a friend really was. Trying to see past what he had been told today and what every fact pointed to. Adam was trying to see the truth. Will looked up at his friend and said with the last ounce of respect he had in his body. “Adam, you know me better than I have ever known myself. Believe me when I say I haven’t done these things. I can never wash the blood off of my hands from my past, but Adam, I swear I only tried to help those boys. And you have to know I would lose my own life before I let someone take your brother.”

Adam looked through the bars at his friend that he had placed there. He held his wrist and yet was drawn to the red marks that the cuffs had left upon Will’s. No words were said. The two men just stared each feeling betrayed and hurt.

The gentle sound of a fist knocking on the door was the only thing needed to snap Adam back to reality. He quickly turned towards the door, dropping his throbbing wrist to his side.

“Adam?” A soft voice called.

Adam stood quietly looking at the door as he saw it slowly push open to his beautiful Sally standing there. Her eyes met his, and all he could see was the tears that now filled the beautiful eyes that always brought him such peace. Adam just stood there as Sally slowly walked towards him and gently raised her hand to touch his cheek. He felt his head lovingly lean into the touch of her hand as he stood unmoving, just soaking up the warmth of her touch. A reassuring smile began to spread across her lips as she stepped in closer to his body, knowing that he was safe for the first time today.

Adam leaned forward and kissed her forehead lightly as he raised her face upward to look directly into her gaze. “You are like my medicine.”

Sally smiled and stepped in closer running her arms down to his hands. “Awww!”

Adam’s face suddenly turned pale and he bit his lip as he stepped back and cradled his wrist once more.

Sally traced her gaze across Adam’s chest as she stood looking at the multicolored wrist that Adam now held snuggly against his body. “Oh Adam…how…” She turned back around and started out the door. “I’ll be back in a minute. You need doc Martin.”

*****

“Well, Adam, that should make your hand feel much better.” Doc Martin stepped back from his patient for a moment to look at his handy work. “Do you want to explain to me how you fractured that wrist or should I just assume it was an accident?”

Adam brought his wrist back up against his chest and gently cradled it with his other arm. “Accident,” Adam replied as he shot Sally a slight smile.

“Well, it’s gonna be quite painful for a few days, and a good four to six weeks before its healed, so do me a favor Sheriff…” Paul leaned in towards his friend. “Be careful.”

“Don’t worry,” Sally chimed in. “He will” The mischievous grin that she was wearing was enough to convince Paul that Adam was gonna be in good hands.

“Hey Paul, before you go, there is one thing I would like to ask you to do.” Adam walked over towards the wooden doors that opened to the cell where Will was. “Could you give our prisoner a quick check?” Adam knew that, even though Will’s wound hadn’t been serious, he had to be in some pain.

Paul picked up his bag and walked over towards the cell doors. “Sure, Adam.” He ushered his hand towards the lock and Adam turned the key.

*****

Just as Adam had discussed with Ben the night before, he arrived at Doc’s office at eight o’clock to not only check on Joe but to see exactly what he remembered from the day before.

“Morning, son.” Ben turned to greet his eldest when he walked into the office.

“Morning Pa. How’s Joe this morning?”

“Just like Paul said yesterday, Adam.” Ben smiled and walked across the meet Adam half way. “He slept well and seems to be much better today. His color is back and he has had a little broth this morning.” Ben glanced down at Adam’s left hand. “Paul told me you had a little accident last night at the office.”

Adam turned his head somewhat. “Just tired and a little lack of judgment, Pa, that’s all.”

“Well, the wagon’s all set up to take Joe home.” Hoss paused briefly and tilted his hat back showing his famous grin “Well, big brother, see you had a run in with something or someone a little meaner than you.”

Leave it to Hoss, Adam thought to always find a way to lighten the mood. “Close, Hoss…real close.”

“Well, Adam, if you want to speak with Joe, now is the best time. I am gonna take it slow getting him home and we need to get an early start.” Ben opened the door where Joe was half-sitting propped up against the bed. Adam tilted his head towards his Pa and walked into the room.

It brought relief to Adam to see his little brother looking back at him this morning with a brief glimpse of his charismatic smile. Adam pulled up a chair right next to his bed and leaned in, grasping Joe’s hand tightly trying to overcome the sudden rush of emotion that was trying to overtake him at this moment.

“Joe…” Adam felt his voice waver for a moment. Then Adam shook his head and stood up again. “Joe I know this is gonna be hard, but I need to ask you some questions about what happened that night.”

Joe’s eye slowly lowered and he found himself staring into the sheet that covered his legs. “Sure, Adam. I’ll tell you everything I remember.”

Ben had entered the room and stood next to Joe with a hand on his shoulder, knowing that his youngest was going to have to remember things that no one should have ever had to seen in the first place.

As Adam began to question his brother, Joe spoke very openly about the entire night. He spoke about how he remembered feeling the bullet go through his shoulder before he even heard a sound. Joe remembered coming in and out of consciousness and hearing Tim talking to someone, then the sound of gunfire once more. The last time Joseph remembered coming to was when he saw Will kneeling over Tim. “I told him to back away, Adam, but he didn’t.” Joe’s breath started to speed up. “I asked him why but he just kept coming towards me. I felt myself starting to black out again…and then there he was right in my face. He kept trying to reason with me, that I was hurt and confused. I saw his arm reach towards me. Then I fired.” Joe looked over towards Ben as tears began to run down his cheeks. “He killed Tim, Adam; I heard Tim speaking to him, telling him to stop. Tim called out to me to stop him.”

“Joe…” Ben put his hand around Joe’s shoulder. “Thant’s enough for today, Adam.”

Adam saw the pain in his brother’s face and he wanted to stop the questions, then all of a sudden he knelt down by his brother’s side. “Joe, where was Dave?” Adam looked up and saw Ben’s face begin to redden.

“Adam, I said that is enough for today.”

“No. Joe, we can’t stop now. You never mentioned Dave. Where was Dave at?”

Joseph turned and looked towards his big brother as he started shaking suddenly. “Dave? Why, he rode out ahead of us Adam. Why? What are you saying?”

“Joe, you never mentioned Dave. And how about Will? Did you see him pull the trigger? How come he didn’t fire at you and finish you off?” Adam was now pacing the room rattling off questions as they began to flood his mind.

“Adam!” Ben’s voice was now gruff and harsh. “I said stop this. Stop this now.”

“What would he have to gain from shooting you two?” Adam turned back towards his Pa, and Hoss and Paul rushed in.

All three men stared at Adam as he stood looking out the window with his right hand crushing his head against the window. “And why would Will bring you back in, Joe? Why would he carry you all the way back into Virginia City, knowing that he had killed Tim and put a bullet through you?” Adam pounded his hurt fist again the wall without thinking and grimaced in pain as he turned to face the concerned eyes all staring back at him. “It doesn’t make sense…don’t you see?”

“Adam, I am gonna have to ask you to leave.” Paul stepped forward and spoke quietly trying to calm his friend. “Adam, you are upsetting Joe, and goodness only knows how badly you just injured your hand again.”

Feeling the weight of Paul’s words, Adam slowly turned and surveyed the room where they all stood. The look upon Joe’s face showed the horror that his little brother was just forced to relive. “Joe, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just have to know.” Adam looked towards his Pa. “I have to know the truth. A man’s life hangs on the truth.”

“Adam” Tears were running down Joe’s face as he winced from the sudden pain that was shooting through his shoulder. “I told you what happened. Why don’t you believe me?”

“Look at your, brother. It’s too much. Stop it. You heard his account; now just stop it.” Ben now stood between his youngest and eldest.

“I’ll go get the wagon, Pa.” Hoss walked over towards Adam. “Better have the doc take a look at that again.”

“I am sorry, Joe; I didn’t mean to upset you. Pa, I will help get him in the wagon.”

“No!” Joe hollered out. “I don’t need your help.” He pushed himself off the cot and stood up, swaying slightly as he tried to ease the dizziness that filled his head.

“I’ve got you, Joe.” Ben put his arm around Joe’s waist and pulled him in. “Adam, just go back to your office.”

Adam stood motionless as he watched his Pa help Joe out of the room and through Paul’s office. Hoss met them at the doorway and lifted Joe up and into the back of the wagon. Adam could still see the hurt across his brother’s face as his father sat down beside him in the wagon and tried to make him comfortable. “Sorry, Joe,” was all that Adam could manage to let escape from his lips as he watched his family disappear down the early morning streets.

“Now, then,” Paul said as he reached over and gently lifted Adam’s bandaged hand. “Let’s take another look and see what other damage you might have done.”

*****

Walking through the streets of the city on his way back to Roy’s office, Adam could feel the burn of every stare that was cast his way. The attack on Joe and Tim’s death had sent the town into frenzy, and the majority of the towns folks didn’t seem to be in the mood for the law’s so-called due process.

“How long you gonna protect that murder, Adam?” A small group of towns men had meet Adam as he put his hand on the door to the jail.

“That’s right, Sheriff.” A familiar voice started to chime in. “Go on in there and keep your murdering friend safe.

Adam turned the knob and started to walk in.

Dave stepped a little closer, and propping his arm next to the threshold, almost blocking Adam’s entrance into the jail.

“Dave, this isn’t the time or place.” Adam’s voice was calm and steady. “If you have any information concerning what happened, I would love to hear about it. Otherwise, I am gonna ask you to remove your arm and step away.”

“Or what, Sheriff?”

Adam turned quickly standing face to face with Dave. “Dave, I am asking you nicely. Step away.”

Dave smiled and slowly began backing away. “You town folks hear that. The almighty Sheriff has spoken. Might want to keep your friends out of town ‘til Sheriff Coffee’s back. That is, unless you don’t mind them getting bushwhacked by Cartwright’s friend.”

“Dave, I told you that was enough.” Adam had come off the walkway and once again stood toe-to-toe with Dave. “I know you are upset about what happened to Tim and Joe. But this kind of outburst isn’t’ going to help anyone. I am giving you ten seconds to get yourself on the other side of the street or you will find yourself keeping me company for the next few days. Do I make myself clear, son.”

‘You know, Cartwright, I didn’t know you could get so worked up. I guess I will have to turn down your invitation to stay.” Dave looked down and brushed his hat across his thigh. “You see, I have a friend to bury tomorrow.”

Adam watched Dave slowly turn and blend back into the small crowd of people that had been standing behind. “I really need to talk with that boy,” Adam thought to himself as he shook his head and began wondering to himself. “I wonder where you where when Joe and Tim went down?”

*****

“How’s Joe doing, Adam?” Ace had been watching from the office window as the events had unfurled on the street. He knew Adam was perfectly capable of handling himself but he had been at the ready just in case.

“Gonna be fine, Ace. Thanks. Pa and Hoss just left with him a bit ago.” Adam collapsed into the desk chair and threw his feet on top of the desk. “Everything been quiet here?” He glanced over towards Will, watching his friend and prisoner sit quietly in the darkened cell.

“Yep. Real quite. Miss Sally stopped by with some fresh coffee and biscuits.” Ace motioned towards the tray that Adam had straddled when he threw his feet onto of the desk. “Said she would have my head if I didn’t see that you ate something.”

Adam dropped his feet to the floor and lifted the cover from the tray. The smell of the coffee and biscuits was just the thing Adam needed. It wasn’t so much that he was hungry — he actually had no appetite right now — however, he couldn’t hide the smile that crept across his face just thinking of Sally covered in flour, making him biscuits.

“You got a good one there, Cartwright,” Ace remarked as he reached over and grabbed a couple biscuits.

“Hmm? Sorry, Ace, I was daydreaming for a minute. Guess I am kind of tired.”

“No problem, Adam. Just said you got a real good little gal there in that Miss Sally.” Ace reached across his desk and strapped on his gun belt as he enjoyed his last bite. “Going to make may rounds. Need anything?”

“No, Ace. You watch yourself out there. Tempers are kinda high right now.”

“Just what I would expect, Adam, to tell you the truth.” Standing at the door, Ace straightened his hat. “Boy’s funeral is the day after tomorrow, Adam.”

“Yeah, I know, Ace.”

“You going?” Ace kept staring out onto the streets.

“He was a friend, Ace. I will be there.”

“You just be careful, Adam.” Ace turned and gave his friend a brief smile. “Okay?”

*****

“You gonna stare at me all day?” Will’s voice had caught Adam off guard.

Adam said nothing; he just continued looking through the bars, confused by the man he saw and the man that the events from the past few days had painted.

“Not even gonna talk to me, Adam? Or have you already made your mind up like the rest of this town?” Will felt a slight twinge shoot through his side as he pulled himself up. “Well, I guess I ought to at least thank you for letting the doc look at me, and your pretty little lady dropped me off a couple biscuits.”

Adam stood up and walked slowly over towards the barred cell. Laying against the bars was a small tray lined with a few crumbs and an empty coffee up. Adam laid his head against the bars. “Damn you, Will…”

The outburst caught both men off guard.

“Damn you. Why didn’t you just stay in town that night?” Adam stood with his good hand tightly grabbing the cold bars of the cell. “You didn’t have to ride out. But you did, and now look where you are. Every person out in those streets thank you put a bullet in to two boys. And everything points right to you, Will. How can I defend you or believe you when everything points to you, and damn it, Will… Joe saw you standing over Tim.” Adam pushed off from the bars stood frozen looking at Will.

“Adam?” Will was in the middle of the cell, looking broken and spent. “You have always believed in me, Adam, when no one else in the town would. You allowed me a fresh start, free from my past, when others just as soon hang it in my face every day. I have no right to ask you to believe in me now, but I do. If no one else in Virginia City believes me and I go to the gallows for this crime I didn’t commit, I can do so freely knowing that at least you know the truth.”

“The truth.” Adam looked at his friend once more. “Will, I need to know what happened. Tell me.”

“Ask me anything you want to, Adam. I have no reason to lie to you. I could not care less about me losing my life at the end of a rope, but I won’t see you carry the weight of having had me as a friend destroy the rest of your life.”

Adam grabbed a chair and placed it in front of the bars dividing him from Will. “Did you kill Tim?”

“No, Adam, I didn’t. But I can tell you what I saw.”

*****

“Well, Adam, I don’t think I have ever seen this town as worked up as they are today.” Ace had just returned from his rounds and now stood in the middle of the office with his hand resting on his hips. “Looks like your heading off somewhere in quite a hurry.” He took a few steps towards his friend. “Adam, where you heading?”

Adam finished tightening his gun belt and took his hat off the hook behind him. “Making a trip out to the Wilkerson’s.”

“Don’t look like your just riding out for a social visit.”

Adam walked past Ace and put his hand on the door. “Just need to make sure you stay here and keep an eye on Will. Don’t let anyone in ‘til I get back.”

“Adam, what’s going on?”

Adam turned with a snap. “Just do as I say, Ace.”

“Sure, Adam; I didn’t mean anything by that. I was just concerned.” Ace watched Adam walk out the door and head down the street to the livery for Sport. “Well…” he said turning back towards Will. “You want to fill me in?”

*****

Lyle Wilkerson was loading hay into the back of a wagon as he saw the familiar rider clad in all black riding up the house atop his spirited mount. Letting his pitchfork fall to the side, he stepped from behind the wagon and met Adam as he brought Sport to a stop by the barn.

“Afternoon, Lyle,” Adam said as he brought Sport to a stop and slide down from the saddle.

“Thought you would have your hands pretty full in town right now, Sheriff.” Lyle’s tone was dry as he purposely kept an unwelcoming distance between himself and Adam.

“Well Lyle…” Adam took a few steps forward and nodded towards the house. “I actually rode out to see if I could have a word with your son.”

“The boy’s working right now; don’t have any time for talking.”

“The way I see it, Lyle, is being that Dave’s over 18 and not a boy anymore, that would be between him and me.” Adam knew that Lyle had always been a difficult man to be around, and now that he was asking to speak to his son, he knew that this wouldn’t make it any easier.

“You got something to say to my boy, sheriff, you can say it in front of me too.” Lyle turned back towards his house. “Dave…Dave, come here, boy. Seems you have a visitor.”

“Sure, Pa. Who is it?” Dave came to a dead stop as he reached the corner of the house and saw Adam standing there.

Adam could see the young man’s face turn pale as soon as their eyes met. And in that very instant, Dave had confirmed everything that Will had told him without the boy even saying a word.

“Seems like the Sheriff here wants to have a word or two with you, son.” Lyle spoke without batting an eye or moving a muscle. “You hear what I said, Dave?

Dave still stood at the corner of the house almost frozen. He could tell by the look on Adam’s face that he knew everything. “Sure, Pa…I heard you.” He ran his hand across his face and slowly made his way over to where his Pa and Adam now stood.

The quietness that surrounded the three men as they stood staring at each other brought a chill to the early fall afternoon.

“You gonna stand there all day, Sheriff, or did you have something to ask my boy here.”

“Lyle, I really prefer that Dave and I talk alone.” Adam adopted the same dry tone that Lyle had as he gave him a quick glance.

“I told you once, Cartwright. You talk to my boy, then you’re talking to me to.”

“Alright then, Lyle.” Adam nodded towards the father of the man that he was just about to ask he if murdered someone. “Dave, I need you to tell me where you where the other night when Tim and Joe got jumped.”

“Whoa, now here, Adam.” Lyle threw his hand up and grabbed hold of his sons shoulder. “Just what kind of questions you intent on asking my boy about?”

“I think your boy knows exactly why I am here asking him questions.” Adam looked directly towards Dave, watching him begin to nervously shift his weight from foot to foot as he tightened his grip nervously on the bag in his hand. “You gonna tell me, Dave?”

“Look now, Adam” Dave’s voice began to break slightly. “I don’t know what you are trying to get me to say, but I left them Joe and Tim standing at the livery in Virginia City.”

“You sure, Dave? You sure that’s all? “Adam rested his hands upon his hips as he stepped in a little closer towards the nervous young man. “Sure, you didn’t mistakenly come across them a little later?” Still watching, the young man nervously biting his lip and looking off in the distance.

Lyle suddenly stepped up and shoved Adam back into the rail that lined the corral. “Look, Cartwright, I don’t like the line of questioning that you are directing toward my boy. If you have something against him, then come out and say it. Otherwise, I suggest you leave.”

Adam quickly fought to regain his balance as he gently brought his hands out to his side in a non threatening way. “Dave, I want you to think real carefully now.” He continued looking through the boys’ father and directly into Dave’s eyes. “You don’t have to be scared boy. I know things can happen fast and sometimes accidents happen.” He once again looked over toward the boy and watched as the sweat began to drip from his brow. “You boys had a lot of excitement that night. Is there a possibility that you thought Joe and Tim were somebody that they weren’t and over-reacted out of panic?”

“Last time I’m gonna ask you, Cartwright.” Lyle dropped his hand down to rest on his revolver that hung uncomfortably on his hip. “Don’t really care if you’re one of Ben’s boys or not, but I’ll not let anyone come on my property and accuse my boy of what you are right now.”

Adam saw Lyle’s movement but kept his eye peeled towards Dave. “Go ahead, Dave. Just tell me. Say it as an accident, boy, and I can help you.”

Dave’s face turned pale white and he turned back towards his Pa. “I don’t know what he’s talking about, Pa, honestly.”

“Damn it, Dave, I can’t help you if you don’t tell me the truth.” Adam ignored Lyle’s threat as he reached out towards Dave once more.

The click of the revolvers hammer being pulled back was enough to silence all three men. “Adam…” Lyle now stood with his revolver free from its sheath.

A slight smirk crossed Adam’s face as he glanced from between both men. “Well, gentleman, I thank you for your time today.” Adam now stood at Sport’s side as he brought one boot up into the stir up. “You answered everything I need to know.”

“Leave, Cartwright.” Lyle had placed himself between his son and the glare of Adam. “And don’t come back unless you want your old man to have one less son.”

“Be seeing you,” Adam said with a turn and started to ride off before stopping one last time and turning towards Dave. “Dave, they hang Will. You’ll have the blood of two dead men on your hand.”

“Now, Cartwright…now!” As Lyle watched the sheriff ride off, he walked over to his son and struck him across the face, knocking the boy to his knees. “What did you get yourself into, boy?”

Dave watched Adam ride away as he felt the blood trickle from his lip. “Nothing, Pa… nothing.”

Shaking the sting off from the slap across his sons face, Lyle turned and started walking towards the barn. “Get up, boy; we’re riding to town.”

*****

As Adam approached the outstretch of Virginia City, he slowly brought Sport to a stop. He leaned forward in the saddle and quietly gazed upon the city as the late day sun began to set behind the mountains in the distance. If he was quiet enough, he could hear the hustle and bustle of the busy streets as people made their way through the town, carrying on with their lives. Adam breathed in and let the coolness of the afternoon breeze wash across him. It was moments like this Adam had to soak in to help lessen the weight that often set upon his own shoulders. He calmly stroked the mane of Sport as his old friend gingerly tossed his head up and down, enjoying the coolness of the day himself. “I know, Sport. I know. I am tired myself.” With a gentle touch to the side, Sport picked up his hooves and began a spirited prance, carrying his rider into the city.

“Take care of him real good tonight, Jimmy.” Adam said, tossing the livery hand an extra dollar.

“Yes sir, mister Cartwright.” The young boy stood and stared at the dollar with pure elation. “Come on, Sport old boy.”

Adam started back down the street, once again feeling the stares of passersby as they stopped and stared when he walked by. He wanted so bad to grab each and every one and tell them the truth of everything he had learned that day. But he couldn’t — not yet. They weren’t ready. As he turned toward towards his office, he saw Tim’s father step down from the entrance of the undertaker’s. Adam stopped and watched as the man saw him and slowly made his way to stand directly In front of him.

“Sam…” Adam felt himself struggling to find the right words to the old friend that now stood staring directly into his face. He reached out and took Sam’s hand “I am so sorry. If there is anything…anything at all, Sam.”

Sam eased his hand back from Adam’s grasp and stood back with a gaze that sent chills through Adam’s body. “Don’t, Adam. You’ve done enough. You never should have let those boys ride out that night.” The sonless father’s voice began to shake. “They were just boys, Adam. And now you’ve got the man that did this to my boy protected behind those bars. It isn’t right, Adam, that he’s in there safe and sound and my boy is laying cold in a casket.”

Adam stood in the middle of the street, suddenly finding himself all alone. “Sam, I know you are hurting, but you know the law is gonna take care of whoever did this to Tim.”

“Whoever did this to Tim?” The pain in Sam’s voice reverberated through the street. “Adam, your own brother tells you that he saw Will standing over my boy as he laid dying on the cold hard earth, and you aren’t sure if you have the right man? Maybe you are just like Lyle said; maybe you are trying to protect your friend.”

“Sam, I am not trying to protect Will because he is my friend. I am trying to protect him because it’s my job.” Adam could see a small crowd of onlookers drawing closer.

“Your job, Cartwright, is to protect the innocent and maintain law.” Lyle had stepped from within the crowd and was now standing next to Sam. “Being that Sam’s boy is dead and your own brother’s got a hole in him kind of looks like you have already failed that job.” Lyle waved his finger in the air pointing towards the small mob that had moved up behind him. “Got some boys behind me that could take care of that murderer this very evening, Cartwright.”

Adam’s darkened eyes moved from Sam to Lyle. He sensed exactly what Lyle was trying to do. Adam knew that the man standing next to Sam true intent was not to comfort an old friend but to insight a lynch mob to bust into the jail and haul Will to the nearest tree branch that they could find. Adam cautiously slid his hand down to rest across his pistol. “Don’t need your help, Lyle.” Adam raised his eyes from the man’s cold glare to the group of men now standing behind him. “Nor any of yours, gentlemen. I would encourage each of you to turn around and go home.” Adam couldn’t help but give Lyle one more callous remark as he saw the disappointment crossing the bitter man’s face as he slowly turned and walked away. “Of all people, Lyle, I would think you would be the last one to want to see Tim’s murderer swinging from a tree.”

Lyle’s face turned gray as he tried to wipe the picture of his son hanging from a tree branch. “I would watch yourself, Cartwright. I’d hate for your poor judgment between duty and loyalty to accidently put you in harm’s way.”

Adam tipped his hat as he watched Lyle take a few steps back and then fade back into the dissipating crowd. Suddenly, he realized that he was once again left standing all alone in the street, staring directly into the face of a man that was about to bury his only son. “Sam, you know I won’t rest until I see whoever hurt Joe and Tim stand trial.”

“Is that really what you want, Adam?” Tears begin to dampen the side of Sam’s face as he reached out and placed his hand atop Adam’s that was still resting on his pistol. “I’ve watched your Pa raise you boys for the last part of twenty years, son. I saw your Pa treat Tim like his own son when I went off on business deals and left him with his Ma. I saw you comfort him like only someone who had experienced the same type of loss could when his Ma passed. Adam…” Sam griped Adam’s hand and pulled him closer in to him “I need to believe that you and I want the same thing. I need you to promise me that.”

“Sam, I promise.” Adam knew that once everyone found out who the real killer was that there would be more pain to follow. He choked back the emotion that began to ebb through him as he remembered Dave as a little boy playing at their house too. There was no outcome that could ever bring complete peace to neither Sam… nor him.

With a heavily weighted heart, Sam turned from Adam and walked back to the pastor and mortician who stood almost like statues, waiting to walk Sam towards the dimly lit church. Adam hoped that Sam could find some relief in prayer.

The gentlest of touches suddenly brought Adam back to where he stood. Sally now was now by his side with her arm wrapped tightly around his waist as they both stood silently watching the evening traffic erase their view of Sam as he disappeared further down the street towards the church. Adam lowered his gaze and looked to find Sally staring right back at him. Neither said a word as they walked side by side to the jail.

*****

“And you are sure, Adam. One hundred percent sure.” Ace was pacing back and forth across the jail floor.

“Ace, if you would have been there to see the look on that boy’s face as soon as he saw me… Dave knew the exact reason I was there. I think he wanted to tell me the truth, but he is just so scared of his Pa and what he might do to him.”

“I believe you, Adam, but you just have to be ready for the reaction from everyone when you make those accusations. You know Lyle carries a lot of weight in this town, even if it is mostly out of fear. He’s been a big rancher around these parts for years.” Ace crossed his hands over the top of his head as he let out a heavy breath. “Adam? What are you gonna do about him?” Ace looked over towards Will. “If we turn him lose, half the town is gonna be in an uproar. Most of the town folks have him already tried and convicted in their own minds.”

“Yeah, I know.” Adam got up and walked over to the window, taking note of the small group of men that seemed to have become a regular fixture across the street. In his mind, he knew that if he let Will just walk out of the jail, there would surely be trouble to follow. Neither the crowd nor the town was in the mood to listen to reason right now. They already had their minds made up, and nobody, not even a Cartwright, could make them change what they already thought to be certain. Adam tossed the cell keys up in the air catching them and then once again. “Will, even though I believe the safest place for you right now it exactly where you are, I really don’t have any legal right to keep you locked up.”

Ace looked over at Will as he sat quietly behind the bars, looking like a man who had already accepted his fate. “You know, Adam, you are probably right. But I have a ranch to run, and while it might not be as big as the Ponderosa, it is everything I have worked for.” Will stood up next to the bars and looked over at Adam. “I am a grown man, Adam, and I can take care of myself. I think I would rather take my chances with a lynch mob on my own territory than be locked up behind these walls.”

Adam walked over to the cell that was both imprisoning Will and keeping him safe at the same time, and opened up the doors. Will sat up from his cot and shifted to one side as Adam made himself comfortable on the other side. “I don’t know what to say…” Adam was searching to find the right words for his friend. The words that could erase the doubt that he had placed on Will and the appreciation that he had for him saving his brother’s life. “You knew what would be said when you rode in with Joe, but you did it anyway. You knew you were risking your life.” Adam offered his hand out towards his friend, hoping for forgiveness.

Will never hesitated as he reached out and grasped Adam’s hand in acceptance. “Well, I guess now I am kinda putting mine in yours, sheriff.” Will stood up and started towards the door. “Now, if you don’t mind, Sheriff, I will be needing my hat and rifle back.”

Adam smiled at his friend as he watched him expertly gripped his rifle and tossed on his hat. “Think I better walk you over to the stable myself.” Peering out the window, Adam could see the streets pretty full as the mid-afternoon sun still hung high among the clouds. “I tell you what, Will — let’s wait ‘til it’s dark. No need leading a parade over to the stable.” Adam sat down at his desk and laid out the chess table. “How about a game of chess?”

Will smiled and took the chair in front of the desk. “Seems like a right good idea, friend.”

Adam knew that he had to talk to the one person who could bring an end to all this…Joe.

*****

“Now I wonder who that could be.” Hoss had been sitting at the table, trying to eat as he listened to Hop Sing fuss about only one Cartwright eating dinner when he thought he heard the sound of a rider coming outside the door.

“Hop Sing fix god dinner but only Hoss eat. Mr. Cartwright run, run. Never sit and eat. Mr. Joe need to eat. Not get well if he don’t eat.” Hop Sing tossed his towel in the air and walked back towards the kitchen.

“Now, now, Hop Sing,” Hoss said, pushing his chair back and walking towards the door. “You know Pa and Joe are on their way down to eat. I just thought I would get a head start that’s all.”

Just as Hoss swung the door open, he saw Adam covered in trail dust standing right before him. Hoss wasted no time grabbing his big brother and pulling him in for a hug. Adam and Hoss had always had a special bond, and while most people thought Adam to be distant and almost cold, you could always leave it to Hoss to break those boundaries and get a smile out of his brother.

“Pa… Joe…” Hoss shouted still holding his brother. “Look who’s here!”

Ben appeared at the top of the stairwell and shot his eldest a warm smile as he proudly stood looking down upon his eldest. “Adam, my boy…” Ben quickly made his way down the steps and reached out to take his son’s hand firmly. He stood with pride looking at his eldest son, but he couldn’t hide the concern he had as he quickly surveyed his son’s exhausted appearance. Forcing a reassuring smile, he pulled Adam through the doorway and over to the couch.

“Let me get you something to drink.” Hoss ran into the kitchen. “Hop Sing, looks like you got your wish.”

“Mr. Adam.” Hop Sing bounded out of the kitchen and instantly lit up when he saw Ben’s first born sitting in front of him. “Here, you drink lemonade. Mr. Hoss’ favorite.” Hop Sing stood with his hands on his hips, shaking his head towards Adam.

Adam smiled at his friend as he questioned “What, Hop Sing? What?”

“You too skinny. You play Sheriff, you no eat. Look like no sleep either. Sheriff not good for you. I fix you place to eat.” Hop Sing stood with his arms folded like a doctor making a diagnosis. “But first you shave and get bath. You a mess, Mr. Adam.”

“Hop Sing is right, Adam. Go get a bath and get cleaned up. Then we can sit and have a real family dinner…together.” Ben hadn’t had his entire family together at the table in almost a month.

“I never meant to upset him, Pa,” Adam stood looking at Ben as if asking to be forgiven.

“I know, son.” Ben saw Adam turn with an exhausted gaze as he stared up towards Joe’s room. “No, go get cleaned up and I will tell Joe you’re here.” Ben patted Hoss on the shoulder as he stood relishing the thought of having all his sons with him tonight.

Adam now stood quietly in his room, looking at himself in the mirror. He didn’t recognize the figure that stood looking back at him. He let out an exhausted breath and tossed his hat on to his bed. As he began unbuttoning his shirt, he couldn’t help but just stand still for a moment and feel the peace of being back home with his family. He walked over to his window and stood silently, letting the late afternoon breeze gently sweep across his face. He laughed to himself as he listened to Hoss and his Pa being scolded by Hop Sing as they tried to help finish setting the table. It was good to be home.

“Adam…dinner!” Ben shouted standing at the bottom of the staircase.

“Coming, Pa,” Adam called out as he shut his door and started down to join his family. “Joe!”

There Adam stood face to face with his little brother. Both stood silently just looking at each other, remembering the last time that they had spoken to each other.

“Joe.” Adam stared at youngest brother standing in front of him with his shoulder wrapped solidly in a bandage. “How are you feeling?”

Almost instantly, Joe flashed his charming smile to his brother as he wrapped his arm around his neck. “Oh, Adam, I am just fine, big brother…just fine.” Stepping back, Joe wiped a tear from his eye. “Hey, I don’t know what they are feeding you in town but you look like you could use a good meal, older brother.”

Adam put his good hand around Joe’s waist to balance him as they walked down the steps. “What happened to your hand, big brother?” Joe knew good and well but it was in his nature to ask to antagonize Adam “Wall won, huh?”

Adam looked at his bandaged wrist and then back at this brother. “Depends on who you ask.”

“Might get a more truthful answer out of the wall.” Joe laughed as he leaned in toward Adam, letting his big brother help him down the steps.

“You two gonna yap all evening or are we gonna eat?” Hoss stood next to Ben as they watched the two brothers laughing.

*****

“Hop Sing I think that was the best ever roast I have ever had.” Hoss passed his plate over towards Ben. “I think one more serving will make me certain though.”

Ben laughed as he filled Hoss’ plate. “Well, we must be certain, son…leave no doubt.

“Rivaled any meal from back east, Hop Sing.” Adam raised his glass of wine as a compliment to his friend and cook.

“How about we enjoy our wine in the living room, boys.” Ben pushed his chair back and took his place in his burgundy chair.

Adam stretched and let out a yawn as he made his way over to his chair and sunk down in its comfort as he swirled the last few sips of port.

As Joe and Hoss joined the rest of the family in the living room, an uneasy quietness began to fill the room. Adam had so much he needed to talk to his Pa about but he knew that this was not the place or time. He didn’t want to ruin the mood with talk of things that he knew would come to light by morning. Tonight, he just needed to be Adam, not the sheriff. Knowing the eldest son like they all did, Ben, Hoss and Joe sensed Adam’s need for peace and they all sat quietly listening to the crackling of the fire.

“Mister Cartwright…Mister Cartwright.” Hop Sing dropped the firewood he had been carrying and came running into the house.

Ben bounded out of his chair as his three sons suddenly sat forward in concern. “Hop Sing, what’s the matter? What’s going on?”

“Riders, Mr. Cartwright. Lots of them. Coming this way now.” Hop Sing had barely finished his sentence with the family heard the thunder of several horses coming to a stop right outside their door.

Ben pushed his chair back away from the table and stood at the door. “It’s Lyle Henderson.”

Adam suddenly felt his stomach tightening as he lowered his head down towards the table. “No,” he whispered to himself “don’t bring this here today.” He quickly grabbed his gun belt.

“Wonder what he wants?” Hoss stepped over to his Pa’s side as he watched Adam walk pass them all and stand on the porch.

“Don’t worry, Hoss; I’ll handle this.” Adam stood against the rail of the porch as he struggle briefly to tighten his belt with one hand. He knew the news about Will being released would get out quickly, but he had no idea it would be this quick.

Lyle brought his horse to a stop and slide off the saddle with his rifle in hand. “Well…Sheriff stirs up a little trouble and then goes running back to daddy”

“Leave them out of this, Lyle.” Adam could see Dave sitting atop his horse surrounded by some of his father’s ranch hands.

“Reckoned I’d find you here when I didn’t find you in town, Cartwright.” Lyle stood unyielding as he saw Joe slowly emerge from behind the door. “How’s your arm, boy?”

Joe reached up and rubbed his shoulder where the bullet had left its mark. He felt a chill in the air as he looked up and saw Dave staring at Adam. “Doing fine, Mr. Henderson.”

“Good…glad to hear it.” Lyle suddenly shifted his attention to Ben. “Your boy tell you what he did today, Ben?”

Adam tightened his grip on his gun as he prepared for the outcome when Lyle told of his releasing Will.

Ben continued to stand steady as he watched Lyle continuing to cradle his rifle. “Got a feeling you want to tell me yourself.”

“Seems like your little wanna-be Sheriff took a ride out to my place and basically accused my boy Dave here of murdering Tim and putting a slug in Joe over there.” Lyle stepped in closer towards Ben. “I know our boys have known each other forever, Ben, but I need to let you know. I have no quam about putting a bullet through Adam if he accuses my boy of such again.”

Adam stepped in front of his Pa. “Your problem is with me and not my family, so I suggest you and your boy over there turn around and ride out with the rest of your crew before you do something that you will regret.”

“Adam!” Ben shot his eldest a stern look as he threw his arm up in the air to try and calm the situation. “Lyle, there will be no violence here today. As a friend and fellow father, I am asking you to turn around with your boy and ride out. There has been enough violence and killing. But not here and not today.”

Dave walked slowly towards Adam as Adam took a few steps forward trying to distance his family from the trouble he was now in. “Where do you think you’re going, Sheriff?”

“Dave…” Ben belted out.

“No, Pa.” Adam tossed his gun to the ground and raised his arm back towards Ben. “You gonna shoot an unarmed man, Dave?” Adam continued walking towards the boy, trying to unravel him.

“Don’t give me a reason, Adam,” Dave threatened.

“Come on, boy, then.” Adam had stopped now as his midsection rested against the barrel of Dave’s barrel. “It don’t get easier, Dave.” Adam still stood pressing into the barrel. “Come on, boy, fire.”

“You shut up, Cartwright.” Lyle crossed over and knocked the barrel down from his boy as he stood glaring into Adam’s face. “Come on, son; like Ben says, not here…not today.”

Adam still stood unflinching, staring directly into Dave’s eye. “I can help you, Dave,” Adam said quietly toward the now frozen young man still stood facing him. “Just say it, Dave; say the truth!”

Dave looked directly into Adam’s eyes and slowly shook his head before he suddenly turned to join his father.

“You heard the man. Come on, everyone, let’s go.” Lyle pulled himself back up into the saddle and Dave followed. “We’ll see you in town, Cartwright. Seems like we have a funeral to attend tomorrow.”

Adam stood in silence as he watched the group of men ride off.

“Son, you okay?” Ben walked over to Adam and put his hand on his shoulder.

Adam slowly let out a deep breath as he walked over to the watering trough and poured the cool water over his head.

“Adam?” Joe was still on the porch with his rifle down to his side. “Is what Lyle said true? Did you ride out and accuse Dave of murdering Tim and shooting me?”

Adam shook the water from his head and turned to face his brother. “Joe, I rode out to ask some questions.”

Joe’s eyes filled with tears as he threw the rifle to the ground and ran over to Adam. “How could you, Adam?” Suddenly, Joe shoved Adam back against the wall of the barn. Falling into the wall, Adam felt his head slam against the wooden boards. He said nothing, though, as he stood back up again, almost inviting Joe for another outburst. It didn’t take long. Joe once again came at him with all the force he could muster, slamming his entire body against Adam’s and against the wooden planks of the barn once more.

This time, Adam didn’t recover as fast. Feeling the full force that Joe had knocked into him with, Adam shook his head trying to quiet the dizzying feeling that began to overtake him. He rested his hands upon his knees as he tried to focus on steadying the ground.

“Joe, stop it!” Ben called out as he saw Joe losing control.

Hoss bounded over and snatched his little brother up before he hurt his shoulder again. “Joseph,” Hoss bellowed “That’s enough.”

Joseph dropped to his knees and cradled his shoulder as the tears continued to fall from. “Adam, how could you?”

Adam said nothing as the blood from his brow and lip began to trickle down his face. He merely looked over at his brother as Joe sat spent on the ground.

“Adam, are you okay?” Ben had taken a few steps towards his eldest before Adam raised his hand towards him asking him to stop.

“Don’t, Pa. Leave me alone.” Adam wiped the blood from his lip as he continued trying to focus on his hurting little brother. Slowly he took a few unnerving steps towards Joe. “Think, Joe…just think. Do you really think Will did those things? Do you really think he had any reason to kill Tim or put a bullet in you?” Adam once again ran his hand across his lips stopping the blood as it continued to slowly trickle.

“Adam…son, I think you are hurt.” Ben walked towards Adam and stood in front of him, trying to get a better look at the implications of Joe’s shoving match.

Adam ignored him and continued pushing at Joe. “Damn it, Joe, think! Would Will carry you into town after putting a bullet through you? Just stop and think.” Adam now stood over his brother offering up his uninjured hand to pull him back up. Joe didn’t take Adam’s hand.

“That’s okay, Joe.” Adam reached down and grabbed his brother by the shirt sleeve and pulled him to his feet anyway. “One man is dead already, Joe. Before we condemn one to hang for so-called justice, I just want you to ask yourself what would Will have to gain from killing Tim and putting a bullet into you. Think, Joe.” Adam gently released his brothers’ collar and turned to walk back towards his horse. “I think you know what really happened, Joe, if you just think for a moment.”

“Damn it, Joe. think. It wasn’t you and Tim someone was after that night. It was me, Joe.” Adam rested his head upon his saddle as he felt the pressure mounting in his head from the blow against the barn. “You had my jacket on Joe…and Sport. You were riding Sport.” Shaking, Adam grasped the pummel on his saddle and pulled himself slowly up on to his horse. “Think, Joe. Who would have the most to lose if they thought I was riding out to speak with Lyle that night?”

Joe’s face turned pale as he looked over at Adam. “Are you accusing Dave, Adam? It doesn’t make sense, Adam. Dave would never…” Joe stepped towards his oldest brother and began shaking his head back and forth. “Will…Adam you forget I saw Will that night.”

Adam turned his horse around and looked back towards his family. “I am not asking you to forget what you saw, Joe, but to ask yourself what would Will have to gain by harming you and Tim. Will is my friend, but that has nothing to do with it. You’ve said yourself that Will was a changed man and that he didn’t deserve to be persecuted from his past as a gunslinger. By doing, this he would have nothing — nothing — at all to gain. But think about Dave. Don’t you see? He was scared Joe — scared of what he thought someone might tell his Pa about that night. He was scared of me, Joe. He thought you were me. “

“Adam, do you realize what you are saying?” Ben had gripped the bridle of Adam’s horse as his oldest sat atop, rubbing his hand along his now blackening eye. “Son, you are accusing the boy of a man that we have welcomed into our home for years.”

Adam began backing his horse away slowly breaking off Ben’s grip that had held so firmly to the bridle. “Pa, I am just asking Joe to think and remember.” Once again, Adam turned his focus towards Joe, capturing his younger brother’s heated glare. “Try, Joe. I think you really know the truth, Joe.”

“Adam, get down and let’s talk this out. It’s too late to ride back to Virginia City anyway. And you don’t look well, either, right now.” Ben continued walking slowly towards Adam as his tall mount backed nervously away.

“Let him go, Pa.” Joe stood clutching his shoulder as the wound began throbbing under his grasp. “He’s killed before, Adam. Maybe I was wrong about Will.” He raised his voice even louder towards his brother. “And just maybe, big brother, just maybe you have been wrong.”

Ben turned to Joe sharply. “Joseph. Stop this foolishness this instant. We are a family and this arguing must stop.”

“Sure, Pa, take your oldest’s side.” Joe stood grimacing as he looked towards his brother. “Doesn’t everyone realize that I was the one there that night I was the one who saw my best friend die in front of me while my brother’s best friend stood before me with a rifle drawn.”

Adam suddenly turned towards his brother “That’s right, Joe…a rifle.” Adam’s horse began prancing nervously as he could feel the tension building from his rider. “The bullets that shot you and took Tim’s life came from a pistol Joe, not a rifle.”

Joe took a couple steps backwards and felt a wave of memories starting flooding back to the night that left him bleeding and face down in the dirt. “No… it was Will; I saw him. Maybe I was wrong, maybe it was a pistol. Stop trying to confuse me, Adam. You don’t know; you weren’t there.” Joe’s anger and confusion was taking away all of his strength.

“You’re right, little brother, I wasn’t. But someone thought I was.” Adam could tell that his brother was in pain. “Don’t, Joe. I just need you to think.” He thought back to the day that Roy had asked him to step in for him and how he had battled with himself about if it was the right thing to do. Looking at the agony and hurt in Joe’s eyes, he wished he would have never taken Roy’s offer. Grabbing onto the pummel tighter, Adam felt a wave of nausea pass through him and his head began to throb with pain.

Ben stepped towards Adam and put his hand atop his eldest’s. “Adam, please, son, get down and come inside. I think you took a bigger hit to your head than you think.”

“No, Pa, I will be fine.” Adam pushed away from his Pa and brought his horse up alongside Joe. The exhaustion in Adam’s voice was apparent when he leaned forward and quietly spoke “Sorry, Joe. Get some rest.”

“Come on, little brother.” Hoss said, turning Joe back to the house. “Let’s get you back inside.”

Joe suddenly felt confused as he watched his brother turn and ride away. He knew Adam was in pain; he could tell by the quiet way his brother had turned and ridden off. They had had run-ins several times before, but this one was different. Adam hadn’t fought back at all; instead, he had just stood there and taken everything without even raising a hand to stop him or at least deflect his swings. “He couldn’t,” Joe thought out loud to himself as he suddenly pictured Adam’s wrapped hand. “Pa, he couldn’t fight back Pa. His hand. Think he will be alright, Pa?” Joe asked his Pa as he noticed Ben still standing silently with his hand on the rail watching Adam ride off.

“No, son. You are right that he couldn’t fight back, but it wasn’t due to his hand.” Ben looked back at Joe then turned to watch the last bit of trail dust follow Adam as he rode away. “It’s because he loves you, Joe.”

Ben walked over and put a hand around Joe’s waist, helping Hoss walk him back into the house. “Hoss, after we get Joe settled in, ride in to town and make sure Adam made it in okay. Make sure he sees Paul. Damn stubborn brother of yours thinks he’s indestructible.” Watching Joe painfully cup his hand against his shoulder wound, Ben could only shake his head and growl. “Seems to be two brothers that feel that way.”

*****

“Night then, son.” Ben turned once more before closing the door to Joe’s room. “Joe, you know Adam would never mean to hurt you. It’s not easy for him to have to question you like that, but a man’s life was taken and another’s now hangs in the balance. He has to make sure that you are 100% right about that night.” Resting his head against the doorframe, Ben couldn’t help but beat himself up for allowing Adam to take this job.

“I know, Pa, I know.” Hearing the door close behind Ben, Joe kicked his boots off and laid on his back, staring at the ceiling. How could his brother doubt him? How could Adam believe a stranger that he had only known for a short while against a brother that he had known forever? His mind began to race, reliving the sights and sounds from that horrible night. “Aw, I will never get to sleep,” Joe said as he reached over to his nightstand and grabbed a powder that Paul had left him for his pain. Swirling the mixture around in the small glass of water, Joe finally turned it up and drank it. “Quiet can’t come soon enough,” Joseph said to himself as he laid his head back on the pillow and rubbed his shoulder.

Sometime in the early morning hours, Ben found himself awaken to the sounds of voices and stirring downstairs. Throwing his robe on, he quietly opened his door and softly stepped down the hallway, taking note of Joe’s door being wide open. “Joe?” Ben looked into his youngest room and saw the covers thrown back but no Joe. “Joseph!!” Ben’s voice thundered through the house as he called out once again.

“Down here, Pa,” Hoss called out from downstairs.

Ben hurried towards the stairs and saw his youngest son being gripped tightly across the chest and his waist by his middle son. Joe was struggling against his brother’s hold, fighting with all his strength to break free. ‘Hoss …Joe? “Ben was taking the stairs two at a time. “What is the meaning of this?”

Hoss tightened his grip even more on Joe as he slowly turned them both to face his Pa. “Short Shanks is talking all crazy, Pa.” Taking one hand from around Joe’s waist, Hoss reached back and tossed a gun over on the couch towards Ben. “Caught him half-dressed, heading out the door with this stuck in the back of his pants.”

Ben only glanced down briefly at the gun that Hoss had tossed onto the floor. He quickly approached Joe and put his hands on the boy’s shoulders, trying to calm him as he continued to fight against his brother’s restraint. Words were at a loss as Joe’s face turned pale as his eyes shown with total fear. “Joseph!” Ben’s voice roared as he fought to get Joe’s attention. “Listen to me, son. Stop this. Stop fighting against your brother.” Ben could see Joe’s eye tilt up softly to meet his own as the protective assuring voice of his father began to overtake his fear.

“Pa.” Joe stopped fighting against Hoss’ grip and looked up almost hauntingly into his Pa’s eyes. “Pa…”

Ben motioned to Hoss to let Joe go. “What is it, Joe? Please, son, tell me what’s the matter.”

“Oh Pa, I had a dream and I remembered.” Joe stared blankly at the floor as he slowly walked free from Hoss’ hold. “It was a rifle. Will was holding a rifle, Pa.” Joe began to shake his head back and forth as he raised his forearm over his eyes. “Oh God, Pa, it wasn’t raised, though; it was at his side.” Joe began to finally break down as tears rolled from his eyes. “At his side, Pa — it wasn’t raised.”

“Oh, Joe.” Ben reached out to his youngest and pulled him close. “Son, are you sure?”

“I am sure, Pa.” Joe whipped his eyes as he walked across the room and braced his hands against the wall staring down shaking his head. “But that’s not all, Pa. I heard his voice. I heard him say he was sorry.”

“Who, Joe? Whose voice did you hear?”

Joe turned once more towards his brother and father “Dave, Pa.” Slamming his head back against the wall, Joe slowly slid down against the wall. “Dave, Pa. I heard Dave tell Tim he was sorry.”

Ben knelt down by his son and took him back into his embrace, holding him tightly. “It’s okay, Joe; it’s gonna be okay.”

“No, Pa, don’t you see?” Joe fought against his Pa as he struggled to get back to his feet, the pain from his shoulder almost taking him into unconsciousness. “Dave killed Tim, Pa.” His panicked glance went from his father to his brother who stood motionless trying to soak in everything that Joe had just said. “And shot me.” Joe continued to sit and shake his head back and forth “Why, Pa? Why?”

Ben wrapped his arm around Joe and pulled him into his strong chest tightly. “It’s okay, son; you’re safe now.” Ben could feel the strong heart beat of Joe as he held him tightly. “Thank you, God,” Ben spoke quietly. “Thank you for not taking my boy that night.”

“Pa.” Hoss placed his hand on his Pa’s shoulder as Ben continued to embrace Joe. “Pa, what are we gonna do now?”

Ben slid one arm around Joe’s waist and turned back towards Hoss. “You’re going to help get your brother back into bed.”

“Yes sir.” Hoss quickly appeared by his Pa’s side and put his other arm under Joe’s shoulder. “And what about you, Pa? What are you going to do?”

Assured that Joe was in Hoss’ firm grip, Ben turned with a start and walked towards the veranda and grabbed his gun.

“Pa?” Hoss said. “What are you planning on doing?”

“Just do as I say, Hoss.” Ben’s voice was quite yet strong. “Take your brother upstairs.”

Both boys stood looking at their Pa as he tightened his gun belt and lowered his head. “You’re not planning on riding into town alone tonight, are you?”

“Hoss!” Ben’s voice now thundered through the house. “For the last time, just do as I say.”

*****

By the time Adam reined in Sport to a sudden stop at the hitching post in front of the Sheriff’s office, he could barely keep himself from falling out of the saddle. His head felt every beat of heart as his blood thundered through his veins. He took a moment and rested his head against the saddle as his last foot softly touched the ground. Maybe he should’ve listened to his Pa instead of once again letting his stubborn pride overrule what he knew to be true. “Damn kid.” Adam felt a brief smile cross his face as he realized that his little brother had actually got the upper hand on him this time. Sport started to nervously lift his hooves and toss his head as he felt his injured rider hanging unsteadily on to his saddle. “Whoa, boy…whoa.” Adam softly ran his hand across Sports mane. “Can’t let Joe know he got me this time.” Sport whinnied and turned his head back towards Adam. “You know, boy, you’re right.” Adam turned slowly and began to try and focus on his next step. “It actually wasn’t Joe; it was the barn wall.” He grimaced as he tried to fight off the sudden wave of nausea that began to sneak up on him. Letting go of the saddle, Adam gingerly walked toward the water trough and dipped his hat in it before pouring the cool water over his throbbing head.

“Adam, you look exhausted.” It didn’t take but a moment for Ace to recognize the fatigue marking his friends face as he watched him throw his gun belt across the desk and slowly sink down into his chair. “Wasn’t any trouble while you was at the ranch was there, Adam?”

“Nothing that I couldn’t handle.” Adam reached up and placed his hand to the back of his head rubbing it softly. Fighting back a grimace, he felt a sticky wetness in the spot that had connected against the barn during Joe’s outburst at the ranch. “Damn,” Adam cursed as he looked at the sticky blood between his fingers. Adam slowly pushed back from his chair and tried to stand as he felt a sudden feeling of dizziness take over and pull him against the wall.

“Shoot, Adam.” Ace reached out towards Adam as he watched his friend fall into the wall and try to fight against hitting the floor. Bracing Adam against the wall with his shoulders, Ace raised his friend’s head and could see the small stream of blood slowly oozing from a gash right above his ear. “Damn, Adam, you sure look like you tangled with something. You’ve got blood on the side of your head, Adam, and a knot the size of a shot glass to match it.”

Adam tried to turn to avoid Ace’s prying eye as he almost drunkenly tried to push his friend away. “Leave it be, Ace; I am fine.”

“You need a doc, Adam.” Ace raised his voice as he grasped Adam around the waist and helped him towards the cot in the open cell next to Will’s.

Having heard the stammering around, Will had stood at the entrance of his cell as Ace half dragged Adam across the floor and sat him upon the cot. “What the heck happened to him?”

“Nothing; I am fine,” Adam said as he tried to upright himself on the cot and fell into the wall behind it. “Joe…I tried to explain to Joe.”

“Adam…” Ace grabbed onto Adam’s shoulder and pushed him back down on to the cot. “Don’t move, I tell you. Keep him still, Will; I will be right back with the doc.”

“Adam, you mean Joe did this to you?” Will had seen the two fight before but this didn’t seem like anything before.

“”Tried to tell him, Will.” Adam continued to try and push away from Will and stand back up. “He wouldn’t listen. He was hurt, Will. I couldn’t…” Adam felt the room spinning again. “couldn’t hit him back…”

Will lowered his head in frustration and let out a deep breath. This whole thing was tearing apart the one person that had ever believed in him. The one person that had stood by his side since he first arrived in town. Shaking his head slowly, Will knew one thing this couldn’t go on. “I won’t let it go on.”

*****

The tenderness in the touch of the cool cloth that was softly stroking his forehead was the peaceful way Adam felt himself slowly waking back up. Even half out still, Adam recognized the soft lavender sent and the soft touch as only one person. “Sally?”

“Welcome back, Sheriff.” Sally leaned forward and put a light kiss atop Adam’s forehead.

“Well, if that’s the kind of treatment you get around her for being injured, I think I am gonna get hurt right away.” Ace laughed as he appeared from behind Sally and smiled down at a still dazed Adam. “Feeling any better?”

Adam squinted against the bright light from the moon that was creeping through the window across from the cell where he now lay. “Define better.” Adam slowly moved his hand up try and touch where the throbbing pain in his head was still coming from.

“No, not yet, young man.” Doc Martin put his hand on Sally’s shoulder and stepped beside her as he knelt down by Adam’s side. “Don’t need you to go messing up all my hard work there.” The Doc took Adam’s hand and lowered it back to his side. “You got a pretty good knot up there and a nice concussion to go along with it.” He took his hands and gently straightened the bandage that wrapped around Adam’s head. “You Cartwright’s and your hard heads. I swear you boys go around looking for ways to kill yourselves.”

“It’s a wonder how you even made it into town, Adam.” Sally sat still, gazing at him with tears filling up in her eyes. “Damn you, Adam, you could have fallen off and killed yourself Adam!”

“Sally,” Adam took her hand to his lips and kissed it softly, “you worry too much.”

“Worry too much!” Sally jerked her hand back from Adam and stood up. “Worry is all I can do around you, Adam Cartwright. Just look at you, Adam.” Sally’s voice began to tremble. “You’re hurt, exhausted and got people almost willing to break through these doors to put a noose around Will’s neck and do only heaven knows what to you.”

“Sally, come here.” Adam sat up and reached for her hand.

Shaking her head back and forth, Sally raised her hand to wipe away tears as they started to flow. “No, Adam; I am tired too.” She turned with a start and rushed out the door.

The loud bang of the front door slamming jarred everyone in the room and even caused Adam to grit his teeth as the echo vibrated through the room and into his pounding head.

“Think that blow did more damage to his head than we thought, Doc.” Will had wandered back into the room and pulled up a chair next to the sheriff. “He’s got the most beautiful woman in all of Virginia City in love with him, and all he can do is run her off with one slip of the tongue.”

“Don’t need a lecture right now, Paul,” Adam said as he sat up and gently cradled his throbbing head. “I’d better go get her.”

“No you don’t, young man,” Doc Martin said as closed up his bag and put his coat back on. “You don’t need to go anywhere for the next couple days. You’ve got a pretty bad concussion and gallivanting all over the town to apologize to a woman who already thinks you hung the moon isn’t gonna help matters any more right now.” Doc had watched Adam grow from a quite lanky young boy to a fine outstanding man that still never let anyone in… until now, until Sally.

“Alright, men, that’s enough chatter. As the Doc, I am ordering the Sheriff here to get some rest.” Doc Martin looked over towards Adam. “And that means rest. No getting up and making rounds or chasing some obnoxious drunk out of the saloon. Rest!” Turning back towards the wooden doors dividing the cell from the main office, Roy waved and walked out, closing the doors behind him.

“Thanks, Doc,” Will said as he slowly rose up from the chair behind Adam’s desk.

“You best take care of yourself too, son.” Doc could see the concern on Will’s face and knew that he was putting the blame on himself from Adam and Joe’s fight. “You’ve been around those two long enough, Will, to have seen them tangle before.”

Will ran his fingers through his dirty blonde hair and let out a deep breath. “I know, doc.”

Doc put his hand on Will’s shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. “That man in there believes in you, Will.” Doc turned and walked towards the door and without turning around he continued “And that’s enough for me.”

Watching the door shut behind the doc, Will felt the weight of feeling that he belonged for the first time in his life. He felt the contentment in knowing that he had people who believed in him and stood behind his words and actions. And then he also felt new type of pain that he had never experienced either. He walked to the doors where Adam now laid quietly with his arm still draped across his brow. He felt the pain of seeing someone who believed in him so much that he had put himself in danger and stood against him own brother because of his trust in him.

Ace smiled back and tossed a set of keys over to Will.

“What are these for?” Will passed the keys playfully back and forth between his hands.

Ace stepped out onto the walkway and pulled his hat down. “Gun cabinet.”

Will felt the keys turn chillingly cold as he gripped them tightly and breathed out slowly.

*****

The light wind that blew through the street was just enough to let a bit of coolness run through Ace’s bones. He had been right; that night was abnormally quiet. Only noise in the streets was the distant sound of the piano echoing from the Bucket of Blood saloon. He smiled to himself as he thought about how wrong he and Adam had been about the town being stirred up the night before Tim’s funeral. Maybe old Virginia City had actually listened to Adam’s words. What a nice night, he thought to himself as he inhaled the crisp night air and looked up towards the stars “This old city needed an evening like this.”

The sound of an approaching rider was enough to break up Ace’s train of thought as he looked up and saw the familiar form of Ben Cartwright approaching on Buck. Stepping out into the streets, Ace waved his arm and caught Ben’s attention.

“Whoa…whoa,” Ben called out as he brought Buck to a sudden stop right in front of Ace.

“Ben.” Ace reached up and grasped Bucks bridle and gave the horse a light pat to the neck. “What’s got you riding in so late, Ben?”

Ben’s voice was winded as he stepped down from the saddle “Where’s Adam, Ace?”

Ace removed his hat and gently brushed it along his pants leg and nodded. “He’s at the jail, Ben.”

“Thanks.” Ben turned with a start and headed down the street, leaving Buck in Ace’s hands.

“Hey, Ben!” Ace called out as he watched Ben hurry off. “Ben, wait up a minute, will you?”

Ben stopped and turned back to look at Ace. “What is it, Ace? I really have to speak with Adam.”

“I know, Ben, but I need to give you a heads up.” Ace now once again stood alongside Ben

Ben’s stomach dropped. “Adam? “

“He’s alright, Ben. Just a little…”

“A little what, man?” Ben’s voiced dropped.

“Come with me, Ben.” Ace gave Ben a reassuring pat on the back.

*****

“It’s the quiet that keep you up at night.”

“Hmmm.” Will’s moment of remembering younger, less complicated years long ago was suddenly snapped. “Adam, I swear…even half-dead you can still sneak up on a man.”

Adam had drunkenly appeared through the cell doors and was now leaning against the doors that divided the cells from Roy’s office. “It’s the half of me that’s not dead that wishes it was right now, with this head ache of mine.” Adam gingerly touched his hand to the back of his head and winced when he found the spot that had connected ever so efficiently with the barn wall earlier that day.

Will turned from the window with a sarcastic grin and watched as Adam tried to prove to himself that he was tougher than his concussion. “You know, Cartwright, if you would just listen to doc and others sometime, you might not be feeling like you got hit with a sledge hammer right this minute.”

Adam winced once more and raised his hand in surrender towards his friend. “Point taken.”

Will couldn’t help but to laugh as he saw Adam’s charismatic smile overpower his throbbing head and appear. “Here.” Walking over to the desk, Will pulled out the chair for Adam. “Make it this far, Sheriff?”

“Ha, ha…funny” Adam looked up towards Will and slowly maneuvered towards the chair with one hand in front of him trying to steady the room. “If you would just quit moving it around, this would be a lot easier

“Only thing moving around is your head, old friend.” Will laughed out loud and pushed the chair a little closer towards Adam. “Here you go, Sheriff.”

Adam reached his hand out towards the chair and quickly lowered the rest of himself into it. “Thanks, Will.”

Dragging over the chair from across the room, Will pulled up in front of Adam. “Seriously…Doc will have my hide if he comes back and sees you up.” He sat back and looked at his friend, trying to read those dark, pain-filled eyes.

“Open up, Will.” Ace called from the outside with a light rap.

“I got it.” Adam pushed himself up from the chair and gingerly walked towards the door and turned the knob. “Can’t have the locals seeing you open the door.”

“Adam!” Ben stood in the doorway silhouetted against the night.

‘Pa!” Adam stepped back and ran his hand across his face as he let out a deep breath. “I…wasn’t expecting…”

Ace suddenly pushed Ben in through the door way and closing the door. “Mind stepping on in, Ben. Not really the open invitation we want to send out right now, huh, Adam?”

“So you rode all the way into town like this.” Ben barked at Adam. “So stubborn and proud that you endangered your own life whether than admit you were hurt.”

“Look, Pa…” Adam had backed up against a wall, leaning in for support.

Ben continued on. “And I thought you were the smart one. But you have no more sense than half those damn cattle we’ve got mulling around on our ranch.”

“Listen, Pa…” Adam pinched the bridge of his nose trying to fight off the throbbing headache “If you rode all the way into town to fight with me this late at night…” Adam felt his breath get short and the room began to spin as he pressed his back father into the wall.

“Son!”

“I am fine, Pa.” Adam reached his hand out towards the chair he had been sitting in. “It’s just late.”

Ace poured a glass of water and brought it over to Adam. “I am sure Adam is more than overdue for some lengthy lectures, Mr. Cartwright. But by the way you rode Buck into town, I assume you had something else in mind.”

Ben tossed his hat down on the desk and pulled up across from Adam.

Adam heart began to slow. “Pa? Is it Joe…Hoss?”

Ben smiled slightly and shook his head. “No, son, they’re fine. Both are safe.”

Adams pulled his chair in closer to Ben. “Then what, Pa? “

“It’s Joe, Adam.” Ben squeezed Adam’s arm and looked back over his shoulder towards Will. “He remembered; he remembered what happened.”

Both Adam and Will tuned to look at each other each other and let out a brief smile.

“Really, Mr. Cartwright?” Will stepped towards Ben.

“Yes, son.” Ben smiled back towards Will. “And he’s so…”

“It’s okay,” Will said as he slowly walked over to a chair next to Adam and collapsed into it. “Tell him it’s okay.”

For a few moments, all four men sat silently, reliving the past few days and trying to forgive each other and their own selves for any doubt that they had carried.

Adam looked across the room and noticed the last bit of night starting to fade away. He slowly walked over toward the window and looked out at the still sleeping town. “Unfortunately, we still have a matter of burying a young man tomorrow while his killer walks the streets.”

“What do you think we should do, Adam?” Ace leaned forward resting his elbows on his knees. “Town burying one child tomorrow. Don’t know if they are ready to string up another for murder.”

“Adam, this has gone far enough.” Ben stood up. “We need to be ready. Lyle is not gonna let you bring Dave in without a fight.”

“I know, Pa.” Adam continued staring out onto the streets. “That’s why we are going to go through tomorrow with Tim’s funeral as planned.”

“What!” Ace’s voice almost snapped. “You mean to say we are not gonna do anything? Just let that boy walk around like no one knows that he murdered his friend and shot your brother?”

“Adam. Lyle’s so scared right now that he will do anything to keep his boy safe.” Ben walked over towards Adam and put his hand on his shoulder. “Think, son, think. Joe will come forward and say what he said, and we can put Dave away right now.”

“No, Pa.” Adam placed him hand on long top Ben’s “Tomorrow is not about anyone but Tim. I’ll not make this day any harder for his father by watching me drag his best friend off to jail for putting the very bullet in him that put him in this grave.”

“Adam, are you sure?” Ben asked once more in a foreboding tone.

“Day goes off as planned, Pa.” Turning to look his Pa directly into the eyes, Adam said, “Go back home and tell Hoss and Joe that Tim’s funeral will go on as planned.”

“What about you, Adam?” Will could see the pain from his head creeping up once more and showing in his eyes.

“I’ll be fine once I know all my right hand men have had plenty of rest and are going around covering me without being all edgy and beat.” Adam let a sarcastic grin settle across his face for the first time in days. “Ace, you go home to that beautiful wife of yours and get some rest. Heck, she probably wonders what has happened to you. I’ll stay here and keep an eye on Will.” Adam looked over towards his still stunned friend. “We kept you alive this long. Hate to let anything happen to you tonight.”

“Yeah.” Will laughed as he walked back towards his cell and laid down. “Real shame to mess it up now.”

“Adam, I’ll be in with Hoss and Joe for the funeral in the morning.” Ben reached out and wrapped his arms around Adam. “I am proud of you, son.”

Adam’s voice carried on it the weight of the day that he had just experienced and the unknowing burden of the one to come. “Thanks, Pa.” He stood silently as he watched Ben and Ace walk down the street. “Hope I don’t disappoint you,” he murmured.

Adam sat in silence as he looked around the office that he had visited and occasionally stayed overnight in. Pulling his black hat down over his eyes, he slouched down in his chair and let out deep breath. It was quiet.

He wondered where Sally was.

*****

The early morning bustling up and down the city streets of Virginia City brought Adam around from his much needed rest. He stood tall out of his chair and let a relaxing stretch bring him lazily back to the moment. He walked to the door and opened it slowly, taking in the sounds and sights of the little city before him. He could see the small church at the end of the street and let out a deep sigh realizing that soon the body of Tim would travel from that very church out to a quiet place that his father had laid his mother to rest five years earlier. Adam let a small smile cross his face as he once again remembered the young man as a small boy, running around the Ponderosa, getting into mischief with Joe. How fast things can change, Adam thought as he now pictured the young man now laying cold in a small pine box made from the very pines that he once played behind. “Rest well, Tim,” Adam mumbled quietly.

“I thought I told you to get a little rest,” Ace said catching Adam by surprise.

“Oh…” Adam stood up straight and ran his unbandaged hand across his eyes, trying to wake himself up a little more “Slept like a baby all night.” Adam shot back with a sarcastic grin.

“Sure you did. You Cartwrights run on pure air anyway, right?” Ace put his hand on Adam’s shoulder and pushed him back into the office and closed the door. “The wife sent you some fresh made apple turnovers and good hot coffee.”

Adam slipped the tray out of Ace’s hand and lifted the small towel draped over the still warm turnover. “Ace,” Adam picked up a turnover and took a bite, “did I ever tell you that I think you are the luckiest man alive?”

“I know I am,” said Ace as he reached over and slid a turnover off the tray himself. “And if my ears aren’t playing tricks on me, the familiar click of those heels I hear coming up the walkway tells me that you aren’t doing too bad yourself.”

Adam picked up a cup of coffee and stared at the door, waiting for Sally’s gentle knock to sound on the door. He needed her with him today. He needed her calming smile and reassuring glances to give him the strength to do what he knew lay ahead of him. He just needed her.

He waited by the door waiting for her knock. Sally rested her hand lightly on the door, knowing that the man she loved stood on the other side. She felt a slight chill run through her body as she slowly brought her hand back to her chest. She had hardly slept last night, and something didn’t feel right about today. Letting a small breath seep through her lips, Sally shook her head and swept her auburn hair to the side. Stepping up again, she gently knocked on the door.

“Morning, beautiful.” Adam opened the door and looked down at the pair of ocean blue eyes staring right back at him.

Sally wanted to get lost in the moment and just stand their staring back at this wonderful man that had come to mean the world to her over the past six months. But she knew that today was not the day. “Adam Cartwright. I am sorry about yesterday.” Sally raised her hand and gently outlined the place where the bandage had been only hours before. “Paul say that’s okay?”

Adam raised her hand to his soft lips and kissed it ever so lightly. “Didn’t ask.”

“Adam!” Sally stuck her head in the door and shouted to Ace. “I have a bath and a clean set of clothes for the Sheriff across the street, deputy, if you think you can handle the next few minutes by yourself.”

“Please take him,” Ace chimed back in. “Boy could use a little sprucing up.”

“Thanks for the support, Ace,” Adam said to his friend without turning around.

Adam stepped out and took Sally by the arm. “You lead the way, my lady.”

“Oh no, Mr. Cartwright.” Sally couldn’t help but to pull herself in a closer to Adam, feeling the strength in his warm grip that just made her body go numb. “You know the way. I will never get you there in time if I go with you. Besides, I have some errands to run myself.”

Adam stopped and turned Sally towards him as he slipped his hand under her chin raising her gaze to meet his. “You are coming with me today, Sally?” Adam traced the outline of her cheek with his fingers. “Sally…I need you there by my side.”

Sally took Adam’s hand in hers and stepped back. “Don’t you think we give this town enough to talk about? I believe most people accept your relationship with me when it’s behind closed doors, but Adam showing up with the Sheriff at a funeral. I don’t think so.”

“Sally, I don’t care what anyone thinks. They don’t really know you or me.” Adam crossed his arms and stood back almost as if scolding Sally. “Besides, Sally, when have you ever cared about what people thought about us?”

“Adam, this is different. You have a reputation as a sheriff to uphold. And, well, you already know my reputation. I won’t have people judging you less because you walk into a church for a funeral with a saloon girl on your arm.”

“Sally…” Adam started up again. “We have been through this before. These townspeople have no idea of whom or what you are.” He reached over and grabbed her around the waist and pulled her close to him. “Why don’t you tell me, Sally? Tell me who you really are?”

“No more, Adam.” Sally smiled and pointed to her parlor. “Now, hurry up and get in and out of there before anyone sees you. Everything you need is laid out for you.” Sally stood still in front of Adam for a minute, hoping that he would just release her and let her walk away before any of the townspeople noticed them. She reached up and ran her hand across his now stern set jaw. “You know where I am, Adam, if you need me later.” As she turned and walked away, she felt shame for the first time since coming to Virginia City. Not shame for herself but shame in what her reputation could bring to Adam. He deserved much more than the saloon girl that she was known as.

Adam watched her take a few steps back and then turn and walk away. “But Sally, I need you now,” he said softly to himself.

*****

The church began filling even earlier than anyone had anticipated. Sam had never had any idea the amount of people that had grown to love his sometime rather simple thinking son. It seemed like everyone in the town was there.

Adam and Ace stood across the street, watching the crowds gathering as the time grew closer. “It’s about time,” Ace said turning towards Adam. “You ready to head on over?”

“Ready as one can ever be for a thing like this,” Adam said as he watched his Pa and brothers riding down the street. “I just want to speak with my Pa before I go in.” Adam had already begun making his way over to his family’s rig.

“Be careful, okay?” Ace shouted out.

“I’ll be fine, Ace. You just don’t let anyone get past these doors while I am gone.” Adam reached over and brought his jacket together a little more to better hide his gun belt. He felt the real trouble would probably come tonight, after the funeral was over and some of the locals started getting in the saloons and talking.

Ben had spotted Adam as soon as he stepped down from the buggy. “Adam. My boy.” Ben turned towards Hoss and Joe as he reached his arm out and put it on Adam’s shoulder. “It’s good to have my boys together again.” Ben bitterly smiled. “Just wish it was under a different situation.”

“I know, Pa.” Adam turned loose from Ben and walked over towards Joe. “You alright Joe?”

“Adam, I am sorry about yesterday. I…I need to talk to you later.” Joe stood before his oldest brother, trying to erase the images of Adam just taking his punches and not even trying to fight back the day before. “I had a dream, brother, that I need to speak with you about but not today, okay? I don’t need a sheriff today; I just need my brother.”

With a reassuring nod, Adam looked firmly into Joe’s face. “Deal, brother; deal.”

“Settled then.” Ben motioned for his son’s to go ahead of him and they walked towards the church steps.

A small line had formed as people stopped by Sam on their way inside offering their sympathy. The pastor stood at his side helping to steady Sam as he tried to absorb what was happening.

“Sam,” Ben said taking his old friends hand and holding it tightly. “If you need anything, anything at all…”

Sam raised his tear-streaked face as he looked at Ben. “Oh, Ben. My son…why?”

Ben pulled Sam in closely. “I can’t answer that. Only the Lord knows.”

“Sheriff Cartwright!” A familiar voice broke through the crowd as people stood in line offering their condolences. “Can’t believe you have the lack of decency to show your face here today.”

Ben looked up to see Lyle Henderson with his son Dave behind him standing in the doorway of the church. “Lyle,” Ben said as he looked up towards the brute of a man standing before him. “Adam is here offering his respects just the same as you and I. We don’t need or want any trouble today.”

Lyle took another step out of the doorway as he looked straight through Ben to Adam. “You have a lot of nerve, boy.” Lyle cast a stare right through Ben, resting his sights on Adam. “Now Ben, you may not have a problem with Adam protecting the man that killed young Tim here as well as putting a bullet through your own youngest, but I don’t intend to let him bring anymore sorrow to my friend Sam over here by showing his traitorous self at Tim’s funeral.”

Adam refused to let Lyle get to him. “Sam, you know I loved Tim like a brother. I watched that boy grow up next to Joe. “Adam stood in front of Sam, seeing only a skeleton of the man that had worked alongside his father for years clearing land and building their dreams. He could feel the pain of this man knowing that his only child now lay dead only feet away from him. “If for any reason you don’t want me here, Sam, just say so.” Adam’s dark eyes were set, looking for some kind of sign from Sam.

“It’s because of you that we are here today, Cartwright.” Still standing on the steps of the threshold, Lyle cast his glare down on Adam as he spoke directly to Sam. “You had no right in right in letting those boys ride out that time of night, knowing good and well that they had been drinking like they had at the saloon. But you did.” Lyle took another step down towards Adam. He didn’t have to carry a blade that day to hurt Adam. His words were doing the cutting. “Hell, boy, your own brother told you how he saw the very killer that you call a friend standing over Tim with a gun in his hand. But you know what?” Lyle looked up at the gathering crowd. “Our fine young Sheriff here don’t even believe the words of his own brother. Got old Will resting all nice and comfy right across the street? Hell, he is probably watching us and laughing right now? Cartwright says he’s got to protect him. Well, where were you Sheriff when young Tim needed protecting, huh? Maybe across the street at the saloon visiting your little barmaid.”

“That’s enough, Lyle; this is not the place.” Ben could see the cooler drop from Sam’s face as Lyle’s comments echoed through the small crowd.

Before anyone could react, Adam had shot past Ben, grabbing Lyle around the collar and shoving him alongside the wall of the church. “I know what you are doing, Lyle.” Adam whispered into his ear. “You’re trying to get everyone is this town to turn on me. Hell Lyle…” Adam glared into the eyes looking coldly back into his. “You basically already have. But remember this — you and I both know who put that boy in the ground. And as soon as this day is over, I am going to bring your boy in for murder.” He tightened his grip once more as he brought Lyle in closer one last time. “I made a mistake that night, but your boy made a worse one and he’s gonna pay.” Letting go of the man that he had before him, Adam stepped back and turned back towards Sam. “Sam, I can only ask you to please forgive me for what happened here today. You know I loved your boy.” Adam took a minute and caught his breath as the reality of the day set in. Looking around, he could see every eye in the town looking at him. Even Hoss and Joe stood looking at their brother, who never lost control. All of a sudden Adam looked human to them. “I’ll leave, Sam; I am sorry.”

Sam seemed to tremble as he stared into Adam’s eyes. He could see Adam was hurting too, but how could he reach out to Adam when his own son lay dead past the white walls of the church. He wanted so bad to reach out to him and pull him in close, hoping to erase the agony that now tore through his own heart. He looked down at his hands then back up towards Adam and then with tearful eyes “How come, Adam? How can you keep that man safe behind those walls? How can you protect him Adam? How?”

Adam wanted so much to shout out to everyone that Tim’s killer stood before them all now. He wanted Dave to try and explain that he had been mistaken that night when he pulled the trigger and took Tim’s life. He wanted Dave to explain to everyone why he was so afraid of his own father that he would rather let an innocent man hang than tell the truth. But Adam did nothing.

“Look, Ben, your boy is doing nothing, just like the night he let those boys ride out and end up getting shot.” Lyle sensed Adam’s guilt and tried to add on.

“No,” Adam whispered to himself “not today.” He stood before Sam and let the man lash out at him with questions that he could not answer today. “Sam, I can only say I was wrong and I am sorry.” With that, Adam turned and slowly began to walk away. He looked over at Lyle and Dave, knowing that they had won today.

Ben knew Adam’s way of thinking and had already started across the street, trying to reach him before he disappeared. “Son…” Ben grabbed Adam’s arm. “Sam’s hurting and doesn’t know what he is saying, boy.” Ben knew that Adam was beating himself up inside now for not making the boys stay in town that fateful evening. “Listen, Adam, like it or not, ultimately those boys put their own selves in that situation that night. If we all went through life thinking what if, we would never be able to go on.”

“Pa, just let me go, okay.” Adam pulled his arm back from Ben “Just let me go.”

Ben wished sometimes that his boys were young again and he could take them into his arms and help lessen their pain. “Adam, it doesn’t have to be like this,” Ben called out one last time. “You can speak up and tell everyone right now and end this.”

Adam stopped but didn’t turn to face Ben; he just stared at the dust that now covered his black boots. “I want to, Pa, but I can’t. That much I owe to Sam and Tim. I owe them just a little peace on this day.” Adam’s voice began to break. “If only I could change that night, Pa… one minute back.”

“Son, don’t you think I feel the same?” Ben stood steadfast behind his son looking at a man feeling broken. “Don’t you think I wish I would have not traveled the path across the plains the way I did with Inger?” Ben spoke up a little more. “What if I had insisted that Marie didn’t go for a ride that day?”

Adam slowly turned to see the tears start down his father’s cheek. “What if Elizabeth and I had waited a little longer before having you? If we could change things by a mere what if, Adam, then a lot of things in everyone’s lives would be different.” Ben kept his eyes still stead fast on his son. “But none of you boys might be here with me right now, either.”

Adam had never heard his Pa speak like that before. He had never thought that his Pa harbored such feeling of regret and guilt inside. Adam shook his head and let out a big breath. “Would it really be such a bad thing for me to not be here right now, Pa?” He stood struggling to find the right words to help erase his Pa’s guilt. Then shifting his weight to one side he lowered his hat and slowly turned around. “Go back to Hoss and Joe, Pa; they need you.”

“Adam…”

“Bye, Pa. I’ve got things to do tomorrow.”

As Adam walked back into the sheriff’s office, he slammed the door tight and leaned back against it. Ace had jumped up from his seat with his rifle at the ready and cursed at Adam out loud as he realized that he had almost pulled the trigger out of instinct. “Damn it, Adam.” Ace lowered his gun and threw his hat on the desk. “Do you know how close you just came to getting a bullet put in you? You weren’t supposed to be back for a couple more hours.”

Adam never looked up. If he had felt how close he had come to Ace shooting him, he never let on. He just kept seeing the wicked grin painted on Lyle’s and Dave’s face. He felt the anger welling up in him. How could those two be so callous to sit only feet from Tim’s body and even reaching out to console Tim’s father.

“Adam?” Ace stepped in closer to Adam. “You okay? Adam, I am speaking to you. Hey, you alright?”

Suddenly Adam snapped back. “Yeah, sure, Ace; I am fine.” He walked over towards his assistant and gave him a firm grip on his shoulder. “If everything is okay here, I think I could use a little fresh air.”

“Sure thing, Adam. Where you going?”

“Thought I might take a ride and try and clear my head.”

Ace slowly got up and up and walked over to Adam. “Listen, Adam, why don’t you do yourself and all of us a favor and stay off Sport a couple days.” He stood closer as he watched Adam carefully place his hand to where he had removed the bandage earlier that day. “Why don’t you go over and visit Sally a spell. That little thing is worried sick about you.”

Adam picked up his gun belt and donned his black Stetson. “You know, Ace, that sounds like a good idea.”

*****

“One minute, I am coming.” Sally was fixing the last tussle of hair that was being stubborn before she headed downstairs to work. Another rap gently brushed the door. Sally turned with a start and stormed towards the door, pulling it open with a rush “I said…” Suddenly she stopped and a somber smile came over her face. She bit her lip inward as she saw the beaten look on Adam’s face. “Oh, Adam.”

He reached down and took both of her hands and closed them together, lowering his head into their grasp. “Can I lay next to you a bit?”

Sally pulled him in tightly as tears began to roll down her face. “Please do, Adam.”

*****

Joe and Hoss leaned up against the wagon as they stood watching Ben talking to Sam. The funeral had ended, and now the two brothers stood silently as the midday sun cast a peaceful shadow over the freshly turned soil that Tim now rested under. Joe weaved the reins in and out of his fingers as Cochise stood in front of him, tossing her head.

“What’s running through that mind of yours, little brother?” Hoss could see that Joe was deep in thought somewhere.

“Oh…hmm. Nothing, Hoss” Joe continued to stare towards Tim’s resting spot as he watched his father place an arm around Sam’s shoulder in comfort. “Just don’t seem right, does it?”

“No sense in trying to reason things like this out, Joe.” Hoss was struggling to find some word to bring his brother a little peace.

“Just a few short nights ago we were a group of friends playing a friendly game of cards at the bar, and somehow we are here now.” Joe turned his gaze down towards the ground and couldn’t help but notice the way the blades of grass tumbled in the breeze. “One friend dead and the other…” Joe looked over towards where Dave and Lyle’s horses had been tied and noticed that they were both gone.

“Tell you what, Hoss.” Joe turned with a start and put his foot up in Cochise stirrup. “”Don’t you find it kind odd that Lyle and Dave didn’t wait around long enough to pay their respects to Tim?”

Concern overtook Hoss’ face. “Maybe the guilt got to them, Joe. Reckon Dave’s gonna run?”

“No. Lyle would rather have him dead than branded a coward.” Joe’s eyes continued to dart around. “None of Lyle’s guys are around either, Hoss.”

“You thinking what I am thinking, Joe.”

Joe reached up and slowly pulled himself up on Cochise, grasping the pommel tightly. “I don’t like this. You wait for Pa and then the both of you ride back into town.”

Hoss reached up and grabbed Cochise’s bridle. “What about you, Joe? Where do you think you’re going?”

“I am riding out to Dave’s and seeing if I can get him alone for a minute, without his Pa standing behind him.”

“Joe, you sure?”

“Sure, Hoss.” Joe pulled back on Cochise reigns making the horse toss his head even higher. “Dave and I have been friends forever. He doesn’t want hurt me, Hoss.”

“Two hours, Joe.” Hoss threw himself up onto of Chubb. “That’s all and then I am riding out there, you hear.”

“Two hours, Hoss.” Joe turned Cochise with a start and called back. “You just get into town and watch over our older brother you hear.”

Hoss didn’t even notice Ben walk up. “Where is he so all fired up heading off to?”

*****

“Anyone home?” Joe called out lightly as he tightened his grip on his side arm once more. The house seemed awfully empty, even though Dave’s horse was still tied up out front. Hearing nothing, Joe stepped around to find himself staring directly into an empty room. “Hello. Mr. Lyle? Dave? Anyone?” Still no answer. Feeling a little more secure, Joe glanced towards the right, staring at the door that led to Dave’s room. Cautiously, he made his way across the floor till he finally stopped at Dave’s room. He took a moment as he looked into his ‘friend’s’ room. Memories of the years growing up with Dave and Tim began to flood Joe’s thoughts.

“Dave?” Joe called out once again. He stood in the room, looking around, unsure of exactly what he was looking for or would find. He needed to talk with Dave. He needed to stop this madness between his family and Dave’s and make everything go back like it was. Standing at the room’s entrance, Joe couldn’t help but to feel a pull into Dave’s room. He took a few steps in and stood in front of Dave’s mirror, looking at the reflection of his childhood’s friend room in the background. Scanning the reflection, Joe looked at the emptiness of the room he was in. He could see the darkened windows and the plain walls, and realized how cold Dave’s life must be. Across the room, he noticed a small cracked picture frame with Dave’s mother’s picture in it. Joe held the picture and noticed the frayed edges and crack that ran from one side to the other. Joe’s face traced the crack as he closed his eyes and remembered his own mother.

“What you doing here, Joe?” Joe had never heard the steps nor the click of the pistol as Dave had made his way in behind Joe. Dave had noticed Joe’s paint tied behind the barn and had watched him since he had first entered the house.

“Dave.” Joe turned with a start and found himself staring directly into the cold blank stare on Dave’s face. “Whoa, Dave. I just stopped by to speak with you.” Joe stepped in a little closer.

Dave stepped back and leveled the gun once more towards Joe. “Should’ve just left well enough alone, Joe. Now what am I gonna do?” Dave stood with the tip of the pistol pointing shakily towards his old friend.

Joe felt his stomach drop as he saw Dave’s hand begin to shake. “Dave, let me help you.” Slowly he stepped in closer to his friend. “I remember, Dave; I heard you. I heard Tim say he forgave you.”

Dave raised one hand up towards his brow and began rubbing back and forth. “No, Joe, no. You shouldn’t have come out here.” Dave felt the room starting to close in on him. “Accident, Joe. I was scared; I thought you were Adam and I couldn’t let you tell my Pa what happened, don’t you see. I just wanted to scare him, though. I never meant to…”

Joe felt his breath catch in his throat it. Suddenly, it sunk in that Dave had been shooting at Adam that night. How terrified of his father must a son be to be willing to shot a man to stop him from telling him about what happened?

Joe shifted his weight and took another deep breath. “It was an accident, Dave. Tim knew that and I know it now. Things just got out of hand and you weren’t thinking clearly.” Joe took a step towards his friend and put his hand as if asking to take the gun. “Please, Dave, we can stop all this now.” Joe carefully put his hand across the barrel of Dave’s pistol as his friend seemed almost paralyzed with fear. “Please, Dave…”

Dave stood staring at the revolver in his hand. He began shaking, remembering the night not so long ago that he had found himself in the exact same position. “No, Joe.” Dave shook his head and took a few steps back. “Don’t you see, Joe? It’s too late.” He flashed his panicked eyes towards Joe “Joe, I shot you. I could have killed you, just like I did…” Suddenly Dave dropped his gun and he sunk to the floor. “And Adam. Like I did…Tim.”

Joe slowly started walking towards his friend. “Dave, let me help you.” Stretching his arm out, he gently touched Dave’s sleeve. “We can’t bring Tim back, Dave — that much is right — but you can save another man’s life by telling the truth to what happened.”

Dave laid his hand upon Joe’s. “Will?”

Suddenly Joe felt a sharp jab to his ribs. “Don’t move, boy. or we will have two funerals today instead of one.” Joe stood frozen as he looked across the room into Dave’s eyes and quickly realized the severity of the situation.

“Well, well, well.” Sean, one of Lyle’s henchmen, now stood behind Joe, pushing the barrel of his rifle uncomfortably into Joe’s ribs. “Looks like the Cartwrights just don’t know when to keep their distance.”

“Dave, what’s the meaning of this?” From behind Sean, Dave saw his father appear. “I leave you alone for a couple of hours and come home to you spilling your guts like some kind of scared wolf pup.”

“Pa…” Dave started to step forward. “I…”

“Shut up, boy.” Lyle bounded across the room and stuck Dave with the back of his hand. sending the young man forcefully into the wall. “You have caused this family nothing but heart ache and shame since the day you were born, and now here I am again trying to protect you from something stupid that you have done.” Lyle reached down and picked his son up by the collar. “Shame, boy…shame, I say.”

Joe felt his stomach tighten even more. “You know…don’t you?” The words escaped from Joe’s mouth before he even realized as he stood staring hauntingly at Lyle. “You’ve known this whole time, haven’t you?”

“Don’t you raise that arrogant Cartwright tone with me, son.” Lyle turned towards Joe and met the young man’s stare with a pair of cold dark eyes. “This whole situation is because that do-gooder brother of yours sided with that murdering hired gun months ago. If he would have just minded his own business and let the town run that animal out, we wouldn’t be standing here today, would we?” Lyle snatched his hat off and threw it across the room, landing at Joe’s feet. “Answer me, boy.” His voice rumbled with hate. “I said answer me!”

Joe’s eyes shot right through Lyle as they focused on Dave standing quietly with his back against the wall with his hand loosely pressed against the steady stream of blood that ran from his lip. “You’re the only animal I see right now.”

Lyle flashed Sean a quick look and Joe hit the floor, never seeing the hard right that connected with his eye. “There, boy, maybe that will teach you to mind your own business.”

Joe lay on the floor, trying to gather his wits as he felt the whole room swimming around him. Opening his eyes, he quickly winced as he felt the burning sting from the blood that now trickled over them. “Dave?” Joe weakly called out, trying to find his friend.

“I said quiet,” Sean roared as he stepped back and placed his boot heel squarely into Joe’s wounded shoulder.

“Get him up and tie him to the chair in the kitchen.” Lyle squatted down once more at Joe side. “Sorry it had to come to this, son. Known you all your life, but if it comes down to one of my own or another man’s wolf pup…well…”

Standing up, Lyle turned and looked back towards his head henchman Sean. “Tell the boys to saddle up and we’ll head into town and finish up business there. We’ll leave Burt and one more to finish up with young Cartwright here.” Lyle looked back at Joe and then over at Dave. “Saddle up boy your riding with me.”

“But Pa…” Dave looked over at Joe, who now sat half way up in a chair trying to kick his way loose. “You can’t let them do this! Please, Pa.”

Lyle walked over to his son and grabbed him by the collar, pulling him in. “You see this mess. Look!” He turned Dave’s head back to look at Joe. “This is all because of you, Tim, Joe, the girl…”

Joe’s face paled even more. “Girl? What girl? Dave, talk to me. Who?”

“Go ahead, Dave, tell him how much your Pa has had to clean up for you. Clean up to save your miserable little life.” Lyle’s voice rumbled through the house. “Tell him!”

Dave turned away and ran both hands down his face as he fought to hold back the bitter bile that was rising up in his throat.

Lyle wouldn’t back down as he kept pressuring Dave. “What’s the matter, boy? Don’t have the guts to finish what you started?”

“Sally!” shouted Dave as he suddenly turned around to face his Pa. “Isn’t that what you wanted?” Dave turned back to Joe. “Sally. They’re gonna use Sally to get at your brother. Gonna break her down so no one will ever want her again Joe.” Rage was overtaking Dave as he began pacing back and forth in front of Joe. “They’ll give him a choice, Joe –Will or her.” Dave stopped and turned his anger towards his father. “But then you’ll kill ’em all…won’t you?” Dave shook his head and began to walk away. “Kill ’em all.”

Joe kicked harder as Lyle’s henchman continued stand over him and hold him back into the chair. “No! Dave! Joe shouted towards his friend. “This isn’t you. Stop them. You can stop them.”

“Shut up, Cartwright.” Sean gripped tighter onto Joe’s arms as he pulled them back and began to secure them behind the chair.

“Dave, listen to me. I am the only witness; silence me and there will never be any proof,” Joe pleaded to his tormented friend. “You’re sick right now, Dave, and not thinking straight. You can end all of this with me…right now,” Joe pleaded out one last time as tears started to run down his face. “Please, please leave Adam and Sally out of this.”

Sean pulled back Joe’s head and started to stretch a gag across his mouth Joe’s mouth. “Dave…”

Standing in the doorway, Lyle reached out and grabbed his son by the shoulder he as passed numbly by his father. “Saddle up and let’s ride, boy.”

Dave jerked his shoulder out from his father’s grip and walked outside without ever turning back. He couldn’t fight the churning of his stomach any longer as he disappeared outside the house and gave up his battle.

*****

Making sure his son had cleared from hearing distance, Lyle approached Joe and addressed Sean standing behind him. “Wait ‘til we are out of hearing distance and take him out to the barn.” Lifting Joe’s chin up so he could look him in the eyes, Lyle bit his lip and then turned away. “He’s a family friend. Make it clean and quick.”

Joe felt a sudden burst of adrenaline fill his body as his heart thundered inside his chest. He closed his eyes and whispered to himself, “Pa, I am sorry…”

Burt stood aside Joe, watching the boy struggle against the ropes as he heard Lyle close the door harshly behind him. Finally, hearing the sound of the hooves riding off, Burt leaned in towards Joe and said, “What you think, boy? Ready for a little fun.”

*****

“You’re sure, Hoss.” Ben and Hoss eased in alongside the barn as they watched the last of the horses disappear over the ridge. The two men had started into town to check on Adam, but Ben couldn’t rid himself of the feeling that Joe was in danger. Now they found themselves on Lyle’s property, looking for some sort of sign that Joe was okay.

“Sure, Pa.” Hoss pointed over toward Cochise tied up loosely along the backside of the house. “He’s got to be in there. Didn’t see him ride out with Lyle and his men.”

“Why would they ride off and leave him…” Ben’s throat tightened as he realized the only reason that Lyle would leave the only witness alone in the house.

“Pa!” Hoss grabbed a hold of his Pa’s arm tightly. “Don’t even think it, Pa. You know Joe’s alive and well and is gonna come walking out of that house any minute now.”

“Yes, Hoss.” Ben reached his hand atop Hoss’ and gave it a reassuring grasp. “You’re right, son…exactly right.”

Suddenly Hoss grabbed his Pa’s arm and quietly spoke. “Pa, look.”

Ben’s eye rose to follow the haunted stare of his middle son. “Joe.” Ben suddenly recognized the figure that had stepped out on to the porch with another man. “Hoss, it’s Joe.”

*****

The light breeze that greeted Joe when he stepped outside almost had a calming effect as it blew around his body, almost cradling from the inevitable that he knew laid before him. He fought to take in a deep breath through his gag as he momentarily tried to forget where he was.

“Pick it up, Cartwright; we’ve got lots of fun planned ahead for you.” Burt gave Joe a shove on the back, sending him falling down the steps.

The burst of pain as his wounded shoulder drove into the ground was enough to leave Joe wincing in agony; he tried to drive his shoulder further into the ground to numb the pain.

“I said up, boy!” Burt shouted as he planted the toe of his boot firmly into the side of Joe.

Joe slowly raised his head and tried to focus through the pain as he looked straight ahead. “Pa,” He whispered to himself as he saw the two familiar shadows suddenly appear from beside the barn.

Burt never had a chance to clear his pistol. He was dead before he hit the ground.

*****

“Son, you’re safe.” Ben brought Joe into his grasp and hugged him tightly as Hoss stood over them both with his rifle still in his arms.

“Pa, Hoss…” Joe suddenly pushed back from Ben as he began fighting to stand up. “Adam…they’re gonna kill Adam.” Joe struggled to try and get to his feet.

“Joseph, son.” Ben stood and looked down at his youngest feeling his stomach began to turn. “Son, you’re hurt; you can’t ride.”

Putting his hand up towards his Pa’s reach, Joe looked Ben straight in his eyes. “I can ride, Pa.” Then shooting a glance over towards Hoss, he insisted, “We have to ride.”

*****

Sally had heard the uproar coming from the bar below as she stood in front of the mirror finishing her makeup and redoing her hair. She couldn’t help but to let a smile overtake her face as she remembered back to earlier in the day as she had played asleep, watching Adam as he dressed and quietly tried to leave her room without disturbing her sleep. She ran a finger over the edge of her cheek where he had kissed her ever so gently good-bye before he left. Now she stood listening to the crowd below getting louder and couldn’t help but to wonder what had the men so worked up this early in the evening. Without a second guess, she pulled the door open and found herself staring right into the face of Lyle’s henchman. “What the…?”

She never got a chance to finish as Sean covered her mouth with his hand and began backing her up into her room. Two more of Lyle’s henchman appeared behind him and closed the door. Sean backed her all the way up against the wall on the far side, continuing to press his hand against her mouth and causing her to twist in pain. “Shh, beautiful.” Sean leaned forward and whispered into her ear as she fought against him, trying to gasp for air. “No use fighting against me like this now.” A grin overtook his face and began to trace his hand along the outside of her thigh.

Sally gritted her teeth and raised her knee sharply to the man’s midsection, causing him to drop her with a thud as he doubled over in pain. “Grab her!” Sean bellowed out to the other two henchmen that still stood blocking Sally’s only way out.

“Where do you think you are going so fast, little lady?” The other two men stood blocking her way through the door.

Sally stopped and took two steps back again. Her breath stopped as she realized that she had backed directly into Sean again. Turning with a start, she found herself looking up at Sean’s cold bitter glare.

With the full might of his hand, he grasped Sally tightly around her jaw and shoved her into the dark corner of her room. “What you gonna do now, beautiful…scream?” Sean laughed. “Who’s gonna think twice about a whore making noise up here this time of night? Gently, he began to brush her hair back away from her forehead until he looked directly into the deep blue eyes that were staring right back at him. He softly brushed her cheek as he leaned in against her body and whispered into her ear. “You know your Sheriff’s gonna die tonight. Die a coward, just like his brother.”

“No…” Sally began shaking her head back and forth in disbelief of what she had just heard. “Oh, Adam…please, no.” Sally screamed as she clawed Sean’s face and tried to push away.

“You whore,” Sean called back as he swung back at her with all his might, sending Sally slamming against the wall.

Sally fought to keep her feet underneath her as she felt her legs beginning to give; she slid down onto the floor, lying back against the wall as she felt the warm flow of blood began to trickle from her lip. She shakily tried to raise her hand to wipe it away, but the strength left her as she fought to focus on the three figures that now standing in front of her. She felt herself going in and out of consciousness. The bigger of the three figures leaned in closer to her face and softly whispered into her ear, “When all this is over I am gonna see what makes Cartwright think you are so special.”

*****

Lyle stood silently next to Sally as he watched the young woman lay back motionless against the chest of Sean. “How hard did you hit her?” Lyle waved his hand in front of her nose to feel for breath.

“Just enough to teach her some manners about how a lady should behave.” Sean tightened his grip around her waist, pulling her closer to him. He leaned forward and smelled her hair. “She has quite a bit of fire in her, though, Lyle.” Sally started to moan a little as she fought to come out of her semi-coherent state, subconsciously trying to push Sean’s hands away from her. “I can see why Cartwright enjoyed her company.”

“Take her down the back stairwell and meet the rest of the men over by the livery.” Lyle walked over to the closed window in Sally’s room and slowly lifted the glass and let in a breeze that carried a chill which filled the room quickly

Sean sent his boss a quick smile and then draped Sally over his shoulder; he headed for the back stairwell. “Sure, Lyle.”

Lyle let a sinister smirk creep across his face. “Dave! Dave!” he called out the second time without even turning around.

Dave stepped in from the hall way with head turned slightly to the side. He found himself unable to even look upon his father’s outline against the now dying lamp light that had light the room fully only moments ago.

“Did you have the boys do as I told, yes?”

Dave ran his fingers through his dirty blonde hair and let out a deep breath. “Yes sir.”

Lyle slowly turned around to see his son silhouetted across the room. “Speak up, boy!” Lyle’s voiced echoed across the room.

“I said yes.” Dave methodically began shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he answered his father in a tone that normally would have earned his a slap across the face. “Yes! Everything is in place and the girl should be on her way.”

“Good, son.” Lyle slowly walked across the room, letting each strike of his boot echo through the room as he stepped in closer to his son. Standing in front of his only child, Lyle took his hand and raised his son’s chin upward ‘til his son had no choice but to stare back into the cold blue eyes of the father that he had grown to fear. “You know I am doing this for you, boy,” Lyle turned Dave’s chin trying to keep the boys eyes on him. “Don’t you?”

Dave stepped back from his father and turned his head away, breaking free from the touch of his father. “Yes sir.”

“Good.” Lyle said, stepping in front of his son and starting towards the stairwell. “Now let’s see how Cartwright handles someone else having the upper hand.” Putting his hand on the rail, he turned once more to see his son still staring into Sally’s room. “Coming boy?”

Dave looked across the disheveled room and breathed in the sweet smell of lavender that always seemed to follow Sally. Glancing down toward his hands, he could still feel the softness of Shannon’s skin as she had fallen back into his grasp after being struck by another of Lyle’s henchman.

“Coming, boy.” Lyle barked one last time.

Dave backed from the room and pulled the door quietly too. “Yes sir, I am coming.”

*****

“What was that?” Ace jumped from his chair and grabbed his rifle.

“Heard it too.” Adam coolly rose from his chair and made his way towards the door with his hand resting against the cold steel of his revolver.

Both men could hear the unsteady pace of a heels clacking across the wooden walkway right outside their door.

“Sheriff!” Shannon stood outside the office door, trembling not only from strike across her cheek that still had her tasting blood but also from the news she was about to tell the man that stood directly behind the wooden door in front of her. “Adam…please. Please open the door.”

Adam felt his heart drop as he heard the tone in the young woman’s voice that he had known for years calling through the door. “Shannon,” was all Adam could muster out as he snatched open the door and saw Shannon standing in front of him shaking.

She continued to stand there almost frozen as she looked into Adam’s eyes and knew that he already realized what she had been sent her to tell him. “Oh, Adam…” She started to collapse but Adam’s strong arms caught her before her knees hit the ground.

“Ace, help me shut the door.”

Ace raced forwards and slammed the door shut, bolting it behind him as Adam carried Shannon to the closest bench and carefully set her down. “Shannon, Shannon.” Adam grasped the young girl tightly by the shoulders as he fought to keep her from totally breaking down. “Go get Paul, Ace…quickly!”

“Sure, Adam.”

“What’s going on, Adam?” Will now stood in the door way just outside of his cell, looking at his friend kneeling down at the bench with Shannon’s head softly held in his hands. “Adam?” Will darted forward to his friend’s side.

“Shannon,” Adam called out loudly to the girl as she tried to catch her breath. “What happened, Shannon? Calm down and talk to me.”

Shannon looked at Will appearing behind Adam’s shoulder and began to shake her head back and forth as she pushed away from Adam and into the wall behind her. “Adam, they’ve got Sally.”

Adam felt himself go numb as those three words began echoing through his still aching head. Even though he knew the answer to his question, Adam grasped Shannon tightly and brought her forward to him. “Who, Shannon? Who has Sally?”

Wiping the tears from her eyes, she shook her head back and forth. “I am so sorry, Adam. Lyle. Lyle has Sally and he says that she won’t make it through the night if you don’t…” Shannon stopped and turned her head away again from Adam.

“No you don’t, Shannon,” Adam roared as he brought her closer into him almost holding her too tightly. “Don’t quiet up on me now.”

“Stop it, Adam!” Will gripped Adams shoulder tightly, pulling his back from Shannon. “You’re scaring her, Adam. Back away from her and let me try.” Will actually did more than just ask as he pulled Adam backward and stepped in between him and Shannon. “Shannon.” Will looked caringly into Shannon’s face as he tried to calm the girl that sat trembling uncontrollably in front of him. “If Adam don’t do what?”

Shannon lowered her eyes and took a deep breath. “You, Will.” Shannon opened her eyes and stared directly into the man now kneeling beside her. “Lyle’s gonna make sure that Adam never sees Sally again unless he…” Sally caught her breath and let her eyes drop their gaze towards the floor. “…turns you over to him.”

Will let go of Shannon and slowly turned his to see his friend standing hauntingly in the middle of the room with his gaze icily turned downward towards the floor beneath him..

“Adam.” Will rose slowly and turned towards his friend. “Listen, we’ll get her. They won’t get away with this, you hear, Adam?”

Adam said nothing as he walked over towards the gun rack and gazed hauntingly above the pieces of cold steel that stood before him.

“Adam!” Will called out. “Slow down; let’s think this through.” Stepping forward, he reached out and grasped Adam’s hand that rested on the lock that held the rifles. “Don’t you see, Adam, this is exactly what they want.”

“What is there to think out?” Adam turned with a start to face Will “I guess I knew it all along but never could admit it to myself. I thought I was protecting her all this time and now… Now look where I have put her.”

Suddenly from outside. “Cartwright…Sheriff you hear me!”

Adam froze as he recognized the sound of the familiar voice that echoed only feet from the very door that separated them from each other. Adam turned the key to the gun cabinet and ran his hands methodically down the barrel of a rifle as he listened to the voice finish echoing through the room.

“Come on out, Cartwright. You hear me, boy?” Lyle centered himself in the middle of the street, staring directly towards the door that held his prize on the other side, “Just hand him over, Sheriff; games gone on long enough.” Lyle raised his hand and made a motion behind him. “You hear me, Cartwright? It’s up to you. This night doesn’t have to end like this.”

Adam grasped his hand around the cold steel and turned towards the door. How could he have let himself get pushed into such a corner? “Damn it, Adam…think!”

“Come on, Adam.” Will stepped beside his friend. “Don’t rush out there. You know it’s exactly what Lyle wants.”

“Will, please…just get out of my way.” Adam looked over at his friend. “This entire situation is my fault, and I am not gonna have you, Sally or anyone else pay for my mistakes with their life.”

“Adam, all he wants is me, don’t you see? Turn me over to him and he’ll let her go.” Will now stood in front of Adam almost challenging him to go through him. “Give me to him and this is all over.”

“Cartwright!” Lyle called out once more as he turned behind him and watched Sean leading Sally out, pushing her roughly to the ground at his feet. Kneeling down, Lyle picked up a strand of Sally’s hair, and bringing up to his nose inhaled deeply. He took the girls chin and lifted it to his face, smiling coldly into the now bruised and bleeding face staring at his own harden reflection in her deep blue eyes. “Look what happens to your innocent townsfolk, Sheriff.” Smiling one last time, he released his grip from her chin and stood back up. ““Seems like you’ve been too busy protecting a murderer to help keep a watch on all the innocent citizens in Virginia City.”

Adams stomach dropped as he knew without looking who Lyle now had in his grasp.

“I am offering you a deal, sheriff.” Lyle reached down, grasped Sally by the forearm and pulled her up to her feet. “Why don’t you turn that murdering friend of yours over to me and I’ll make sure my boys and I help keep a watch out so no more innocent folks get hurt.”

Sally fought to stay standing on her own two feet, trying not only to overcome the pain that now coursed through her but also the shame of the embarrassment that she felt like she was bringing to Adam. “Don’t do it, Adam!” Sally screamed out towards the Sheriff’s office. “Please, Adam, listen to me. Don’t do…” With a sudden crack across the face, Sally dropped to the ground once again.

“Bastard!” Adam muttered through his clinched jaw as he lowered his head and tightened his grasp around the cold steel of the rifle now clinched in his grasp.

“No, Adam….wait!” Will put his body in between Adam and the door and slowly raised a revolver. “I won’t let you go out there. You’re in no shape to face Lyle and his lynch mob. Don’t you see, you’ll be walking into an execution?” He shook his head slowly back and forth and let a slight grin overtake his face. “These last two years, your friendship has been the one true thing in my otherwise marked life. You believed in me, Adam, from the day that you first met me. You believed that I wasn’t this murdering gun for hire.” Leaning back against the door Will breathed in deeply then suddenly raised a pistol directly towards Adam. “Now here I stand. Maybe they’re right, Adam.” His hand gripped the handle and felt the haunting stir of the lives of all the young men he had stood against in the past. “So it wasn’t me, this one time. This one time I didn’t pull the trigger. But think Adam, just think. Didn’t I really kill that boy that night? if I had just gone home instead of trying to prove myself in a poker game with a bunch of boys?”

“What’s it gonna be, Sheriff?” Lyle’s voiced thundered.

“Let me do one good thing.” Will breathed deeply and looked directly into the eyes of his one true friend.

Adam’s head began to pulse with pain again as he tried to reason out everything that was happening in front of him. “Damn it, Will.” He stepped towards his friend and knocked the revolver barrel towards the floor. “I don’t need a martyr right now. I need someone to cover my back while I go out there and talk this maniac out of trying to put a bullet through Sally.” Without turning, Adam called out calmly one last time. “Now for God’s sake, Will…move!”

Adam found himself backed up against the door and slowly sliding down before he registered that the gun blast had come from behind him. His mind tried to clear and reason what had happened as he felt the warm stream of blood began to trail down his arm. He looked down and slowly raised his head to see Will standing in front of him slowly lowering his barrel. “Will…?”

Will pulled his hat down to hide the pain that he felt in his eyes as he knelt down to Adam positioning his friends own hand for pressure on his shoulder to stop the bleeding. “It’s not meant to kill you, my friend; it’s the one time I pulled the trigger to save the man at the other end.”

“Will…” Adam gritted his teeth as he tried to push himself up. “Will, don’t do this. It’s all over tomorrow. I’ll ride out and bring his boy in and it’s all…all over.”

Will came to a dead stop and rested his head against the back of the door. “Adam.”

“You don’t need to sacrifice your life.” The pain began to shoot through Adam’s body in waves as he tightened his grip against his shoulder trying to stop the blood. “Will, I can save you both. Damn it, Will. Listen to me…please!”

Will stood above his friend and smiled as he laid the pistol down by Adam’s side. “You’ve already saved me. Don’t you see that, Adam?”

“No, Will…” Adam called out as Will stepped over him and stood at the door. Suddenly everything darkened.

Will looked down towards his friend one last time and then slowly pulled the door back. “Coming out, Lyle. Turn the girl loose.” Every head on the street looked up as Will stepped out from the jail with a revolver strapped to his side.

Lyle breathed a sigh of relief as he watched Will appear from the jail. Hearing the voices beginning to rise behind him, he raised his hand up in the air and quieted them all. Cradling his rifle across his chest, Lyle stood steadfast as he watched Will slowly start walking towards him.

“Heard gunfire inside, boy.” Lyle raised his voice a little louder so the small mob behind his could hear. He looked into the face of Will and felt the burning glare unlike he had never felt before. “Saw Ace heading for the doc’s office.”

Will continued to stand before him with his hands to his side.

“Who did you shoot, boy?” A sinister grin crossed his face.

“You know good and well who’s on the floor bleeding in that office, Lyle.” Will’s voice was quiet yet powerful as he spoke. “

“See, everyone?” Lyle raised his voice and called back over his shoulder to the crowd now gathering behind him. “Boy’s done shot the sheriff now. A leopard can’t change his spots.” Lyle smiled, picturing the look on Adam’s face when he realized the very man he was protecting had shot him.

Will looked down past Lyle’s side and saw Sally beginning to stir on the ground. “You gonna let her go when all this is done, Lyle?” Raising his hands up in the air, he walked over towards the softly stirring form and knelt down besides her, ignoring how Lyle’s pistol shadowed his every step. Gently, he moved the soft red strands of hair that had fallen over her eyes and couldn’t help but smile when he saw the clear deep blue eyes looking back at him.

“Will?” Sally’s soft voice sent a brief feeling of calm to Will’s heart. “Adam…?” She reached over and grabbed Wills hand and held it against her chest.

“He’s gonna be fine, Sally.” Will nodded his head reassuringly to the beautiful but bruised face that he held in his hand and gave one last smile before rising back up and turning to face Lyle.

“Girl needs a doc.” Will stared directly into the cold eyes of Lyle without flinching a muscle.

“She will get exactly what she needs as soon as our business is done.” Lyle slowly reached behind his jacket and tossed a revolver on the ground at Will’s feet. “Pick it up.”

All of a sudden everything became clear in Will’s mind. “You’re smart, Lyle.” Will quietly laughed to himself. Looking down at the gun which now lay at his feet, he knew exactly what he had to do to save Sally and Adam.

“Don’t do it, Will.” A voice echoed through the deadly silent street.

“Adam….” The name slipped quietly through his lips a he saw the sheriff standing in the doorway of the jail with his pistol pointed directly at Lyle.

Lyle took a deep breath in. “Well, Sheriff, good to see you’re not dead.” He took a couple steps back as he continued to keep his pistol pointed at Will. “Heard the gunfire and found your prisoner trying to make a run for it. Good thing my boys and I were close by.”

Adam slowly began making his way down the steps, trying to steady himself against the railing as he battled to try and focus on the scene before him. Briefly, he felt his knees weaken and he fell against the railing trying to catch himself.

“Adam…” Sally looked up from where she was till laying and began to push herself up. Tears began to fall across her checks as she saw Adam struggling to stay upright. “Oh, Adam…”

Lyle smiled and nodded to a group of men behind him as they stepped forward. One reached down and pulled Sally up all the way to her feet. “You don’t look so good, Adam. Why don’t you let a few of my boys help you out while we take care of…”

“Stay where you are.” Adam’s gun continued holding steady on Lyle. “I know what you’re trying…to do…Lyle.” Slowly he let go of the railing and began to walk towards Lyle. “Drop your gun.”

“You’re hurt, boy.” Lyle began to eye Adam and slowly move his revolver to find a direct aim on the sheriff now facing him. “You’ve lost a lot of blood and not thinking straight.”

Will began to shift his eyes back and forth, noticing Lyle’s men slowly surrounding them. “Come on, Adam,” he thought to himself. “Don’t do this. Please, Adam, don’t do this.”

*****

The thundering of the three horses coming to an abrupt stop was enough to gain Doc Martin’s and Ace’s attention as they stepped out of the doc’s office.

Ben had already jumped off of Buck and was at Cochise side as Hoss reached up and helped his younger brother slide down from his horse. “Paul” Ben called out “Over here! it’s Joe.”

“Pa, I am fine, just sore.” Joe was pushing Hoss’ hands away as Paul dropped his bag at Joe’s feet and quickly began surveying the cuts and bruises across his face. “You gosh darn Cartwrights,” Paul cursed. “I can’t keep you well from your own lack of good judgment.” Paul dropped his gaze to the red stain that was growing on Joe’s shoulder. “Went and opened up these stitches too, I suppose.”

“Ow!” Joe snarled as he backed away from the doc and fell against Cochise. “”You helping or hurting, doc?”

“Help me get him inside, Hoss.” Paul motioned to Hoss. “Put him in the exam room with some compresses for his shoulder. I am running over to the jail with Ace right now.”

“Jail?” Ben’s face paled. “Ace, is Adam okay?”

“He’s was fine when I left, Ben.” Ace stepped along side of Ben as Paul opened up his bag and took a piece of gauze to dab at Joe’s cuts. “Seems like one of the saloon girls got roughed up by one of Lyle’s men and used her as a message to Adam and Will.”

“What?” Hoss tightened his grip on Joe.

“Adam sent me here to bring Paul back to take a look at her. He didn’t want to leave Will there all alone knowing how worked up the town was today and how much more likely they will be tonight.”

“I’ll go with you. Hoss take Joe inside.”

“No, Pa!” Joe reached over and grabbed Ben’ shoulder. “I don’t feel good about this…message. Remember, Pa? Remember what Lyle said he was going to do.” Joe reached up on his saddle and grabbed his rifle from its sheath. “It’s a trap, Pa.”

Ben’s face ashened. “Grab your rifle too, Hoss. Come on, Ace, we’ve got to hurry. Lyle would do anything to protect his son. “

*****

“Down!” Ben called out to everyone behind him as he rounded the side of the International House and saw the crowd that filled the street in front of the jail. Standing on the street right in the middle of the group was Adam, his eldest. “Oh, son….”

Ace quietly stepped up alongside Ben as he peered around the corner and saw the large group of men silhouetted against the night streets with rifles and pistols in arms. “Damn it, Adam,” Ace slipped out before he thought. “Sorry, Ben. I just…”

“What is it, Pa?” Joe asked as he rounded the corner and suddenly saw what had stopped Ben and Ace in their tracks. “Adam.” Joe throat tightened as he called his brother’s name quietly.

Hoss stood over the other men and placed his hand on his Pa’s shoulder. “Pa, this night isn’t over yet.” Taking a deep breath, he pointed at the shop across the street. “There is a great angle coming off that second floor. Joe, you take that one. Ace, behind that merchandise wagon over there will provide you enough coverage to let me make it to behind the jail and come up through the back entrance.” Hoss stopped for a minute and saw that he had gained the attention of all behind him. “Pa, you wait ‘til we are all in place and call out Lyle by name to try and talk some sense into him.”

Hoss looked past his Pa to see Paul standing there with his arms crossed. “I’ve worked on Adam far too many times to lose him to something like this. Throw me a gun, Hoss.”

Ben reached over and took Paul by the arm. “Paul, are you sure?”

Paul breathed in and looked across all four pair of eyes staring back at him. “You boys are my family, Ben” Paul bowed his head for a minute and then looked back up. “What? You Cartwrights pray, don’t you?”

Ben smiled and gave Paul a pat on the shoulder. “Every day, my friend…every day.”

No other words needed to be said as all five men gave each other a brief nod and began heading for their positions.

*****

Adam stood still in the street. His body was beginning to give into the wound in his shoulder as the red stain continued to grow across his chest. Trying to focus, he raised his hand to wipe the sweat running down the side of his head to realize that the fall from the gunshot must have reopened his head wound from the day before. “Not now,” Adam thought to himself as he felt the world begin to sway. He widened his stance some and took a deep breath. “Focus, Cartwright. I‘ve got to focus.”

“What’s the matter, Sheriff?” Lyle smiled as he watched Adam struggling to stand in front of him. “Let me help you, Adam.” Lyle took a step forward and offered his hand out towards Adam.

Adam shook his head back and forth and steadied his gun towards Lyle once again. “Whoa, that’s far enough, Lyle.” He looked over towards Will. “Ace…Ace will be back any moment.” Suddenly his shoulder spasmed; he gritted his teeth and stepped back fighting the bile that he felt backing up in his throat.

“Adam…behind You!” Sally screamed out as she saw two of Lyle’s henchmen moving in behind him.

Adam suddenly snapped to and spun around to see the two men approaching just as he felt the hard end of a gun barrel pressed into his back.

“You’re hurt, boy, and aren’t thinking clearly.” Lyle stood directly behind him. “My boys and I are gonna get you the help you need.” Lyle pushed the gun harder into Adams back, making him flinch even more as he leaned in closer. “Drop the gun or I’ll see that your little two-timing saloon whore sees your head splattered all over the street.”

Adam stood still and tightened his grip even more on his pistol. “Let them go, and you can do with me as you please. “

Lyle smiled and lowered his gun as he walked around to stare Adam directly in the face. “Now I know you’re crazy, son.” He breathed heavily into Adams face. “Because as tempting as that sounds, you know exactly why I can let that man walk away.”

Adam felt another wave pass through him and he raised his arm out to rest on Lyle’s shoulder. “He wouldn’t make it very far.”

Lyle topped his hand on Adams and grinned. “And how do you know that?”

Adam looked down at the blood that was now pooling on the ground. “Because…he…murdered a…sheriff.” Suddenly his legs gave and he dropped to his knees.

“”Adam!” Will called out as he leapt forward.

“No!” Adam called out and raised his hand back up towards Will. “No!”

‘Let him go!” Sally screamed out as she tried to tear loose from the grips of the men hat held her. She looked around at the people who stood in the crowd. “What’s wrong with you all? Can’t you see he needs help? It’s Adam! Help him!” Sally continued to cry out. “Please, somebody… Can’t you see this is wrong?” Her voice began to waver as she saw the eyes of the on lookers turn down to the ground. Suddenly she saw someone step forward from the crowd.

“That’s enough.”

Lyle looked over to see Dave standing in the middle of the street with a rifle at his side. “What’s the matter, boy?” he said slowly as he watched his boy nervously gripping the rifle.

“It’s just gone on too long, Pa.” Dave began to run his fingers through his hair as he shifted his stance from side to side. “This is wrong, Pa. It’s just wrong.”

Lyle could see that his son was finally breaking. His weak son. He should have known better than to bring him to town. ‘Dave, I think you are really tired today. Why don’t you let a couple of the boys take you home and let the rest of us good citizens take care of this mess.”

Dave shook his head back and forth. “Home!” He shouted. “I can’t go home, Pa. You know what happened there.”

“Dave!” Lyle raised his voice at his son.

“You know.” Dave’s voice began to break as stepped back and began to shake. “Joe, Pa. Joe…I can’t go back there…ever.”

“Joe?” Adam heard his brother’s name and his heart sank. “You son of a bitch.” Adam took a deep breath in as he felt intense anger began to course through his body and he slid his hand up slowly alongside his revolver.

“Adam!” A familiar voice rang in from the side.

“Pa?” Adam fought to keep his voice from breaking.

Ben continued walking in from the side to stand next to Dave. “He’s not dead, Adam. He’s actually watching you right now somewhere safe, ready to put a bullet into anyone that so much as tries to raise a gun towards you, Sally or Will.”

“Don’t listen to him, folks.” Lyle called out to the still growing crowd. “He’s just trying to save the good Cartwright name from being dragged through the mud after all that’s happened.”

Ben continued standing next to Dave. “Come on, son.” He looked directly into the man’s face that now stood beside him as he remembered looking in the same face of an scared innocent young boy who he had watched grow up. “You don’t have to be scared anymore, Dave. It was an accident. Joe told us. You were scared.”

Dave shook his head back and forth as he nervously shifted the rifle from hand to hand. “I just wanted to scare them. I mean, Adam. I didn’t know it was Joe and Tim. I…I was confused.”

“Shut up, Dave!” Lyle hollered towards his son. “You’re not well.”

“Your right, Pa,” Dave hollered back towards his father. “I am not well; I am not at all.” Suddenly Dave stopped pacing and stared directly at his father. “And this…” He stood with his arms out to his side “All of this is because of you.” Tears began to form in his eyes. “I am this way because of you.” He looked over at Ben then towards Adam. “I am sorry, so sorry. You have always been kind to me but…”

“Shut up, boy!” Lyle called back to Dave once more as he continued to stare down at Adam. “You’ve done this, Cartwright. You have taken my only boy and turned him against me.” His voice began to wavier. “Now you leave me no choice, you see.” Lyle swallowed deeply and let out a maddening cry as he turned and raised his rifle towards his own boy.

“No!” Adam cried as he sprang forward with a vengeance and now stood quietly with the smoke rising eerily from his gun barrel.

Joe slowly lowered the barrel to his rifle as he saw the still body of Lyle Henderson collapse atop of his own brother.

*****

“Son, Adam, can you hear me?”

Adam took in a deep breath as he suddenly found himself being pulled back from some deep nothingness. His eyes shot open and he awoken staring directly into the familiar face of his Pa.

“Pa…” Adam fought against a heavy weight bearing down on him to move his hands towards the source of the pain that was now radiating through his body.

“No, son.” Ben took his sons hand and held it tightly. “You need to lie still.”

Adam felt himself losing consciousness once again and tried to fight against it. “Pa… please tell me. Joe…Sally…are they…?”

“I am here, Adam. We are all here.” Joe knelt at Adams side as he fought back to tears that began to fall from his eyes.

“Everyone is okay, Adam,” Ben continued to try and calm his son down as panic began to fill his eldest sons face.

“You sure, Pa? You wouldn’t lie…”

Suddenly Adam felt a soft hand sweep his dampened hair from across his forehead. “Adam…” Sally fought back tears as she bit her lip to quite its trembling. “We’re fine; we are all just fine.”

“Just fine,” Adam mouthed as he finally lost the fight with the darkness. “just fi…”

*****

Thunder seemed to echo from every strike of the hoof that met the ground as the auburn colored steed raced along the top of the meadows edge. Breathing in deeper, the rider leaned in closer on his horse, feeling the wind as he swept by his face. The sun setting behind the mountains reflected majestically on the still waters of the endless waters below.

Grasping on to his steed even more, the cowboy felt the presence of another rider gaining up closely behind him. “Not today, my friend. Not today!” the cowboy called out loudly with a smirk as the air rushed by him. His mind raced back over the last few months, and for a moment, he almost forgot about the here and the now.

“Whoa! Whoa, old boy,” the eldest Cartwright son said as he reined Sport in tightly and slide down from the saddle.

The other rider pulled back on his horse as well, bringing the stead to a sudden stop. Taking his hat off, Will leaned forward and wiped away the sweat. “You got lucky today, Adam.”

Adam looked smiled and looked down towards the lakes edge as Sally and Shannon stood wading knee deep in the cool water waving at them both. “Nope, Will, I think you are wrong.”

Will jumped off his horse and walked over towards Adam. “What do you mean I am wrong?”

Adam put his arm around Will’s shoulder and motioned to the two young women making their way across the cool grass towards them. “I think we are both lucky.”

***The End***

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