Word Count: 13,500
The thought of hopelessness was briefly replaced with a fleeting feeling of panic as he struggled to fill his lungs. He knew this breath would be his last. His only consolation was watching the crimson stain that spread across the shirt of his adversary. He tried to speak but the blood that filled his lungs wouldn’t allow it. A faint smile twisted his lips as he fell forward onto the muddy street.
Adam Cartwright stood in the middle of Virginia City’s main roadway, his gun hanging loosely at his side. The skirt of his black broadcloth coat was pulled open by the wind. He looked up at the ominous sky. Lightening streaked and what had been a low rumble of thunder now became louder as the rain fell harder. He looked at John Hatcher’s still body and knew that he was dead.
Adam let out a deep breath that became a shudder as he thought of his part in the death of another human being. Suddenly, a sharp pain caught in his chest and caused his breath to shorten. He looked down to see the bright red stain that marred the front of his pristine white shirt. Letting his gun drop, he raised his hand to touch it. He watched as the rain and blood mixed on his hand than fell in droplets to the thirsty ground below.
A shout caught Adam’s attention and he looked to see his two brothers and his father running toward him. With legs that would no longer hold him, he fell to his knees. All thoughts were crowded out of his mind now but one. He wanted, needed to tell his family that he loved them. Hoss and Joe knelt at his side, one to the left, one to the right. His father was on his knees in front of him. He turned to each of his brothers and smiled. Knowing he had little strength left, he saved his words for his beloved father. Looking into the deep brown eyes, he mustered a crooked grin and said, “Thanks Pa, for everything. I….” The grin faded and he fell forward into the waiting arms.
A crack of thunder shook the house and lightning illuminated the night sky. But Adam Cartwright was already awake. He sat bolt upright in bed, sweat running in paths down naked flesh. The dream had come again.
July had dressed the Ponderosa in the deep greens of mid-summer. There had been plenty of rain that spring so any signs of drought were hidden behind rushing streams and tall, lush grass. Adam Cartwright was a man with a mission. A mission to go into town and tend to ranch errands and to find himself the tallest, coolest beer money could buy. He remembered with a smile the faces of his younger brothers when his father had asked him to go. Joe was on the verge of saying something to his father when he was silenced with a look. He let Sport have his head.
Adam argued with himself as he rode down Virginia City’s main street. Should he do those errands first or satisfy his craving for that cool beer? Normally, there would be no contest. Adam rarely let what he wanted interfere with what was needed. But today pleasure won out and he tied Sport in the shade of the porch overhang of the Silver Dollar. He mounted the steps two at a time and walked through the half-doors. “Make it tall and cool Sam,” he said. Sam O’Brian was the owner and bartender of the Silver Dollar and a friend to each of the Cartwright brothers.
“Adam, it’s nice to see you. Where have the three Cartwright’s been hiding? Sam asked.
“Not hiding, Sam, just buried in a ton of work. I’ll tell Joe and Hoss that you miss them, though.” The honey colored liquid arrived and Adam lost no time raising the beer to his lips. As he did, he looked in the mirror in front of him. There, in the reflection, sat Danny Flynn. He was in a poker game with three other men. Adam recognized two of them as down on their luck farmers but the third man was Jake Maguire, a professional gambler and gunman.
He knew Danny Flynn as an arrogant and self-absorbed young man who had gone to school with Joe. As Adam recalled, both boys got into more than their share of trouble. The difference was that Joe had grown up but Danny remained the spoiled son of Caleb Flynn, indulged by his father and three older brothers. Adam let out a small sigh than went back to his beer.
“You cheated. I saw you take that last card off the bottom.” Danny Flynn directed his anger toward Jake Maguire and got to his feet. Both of the hapless farmers moved quickly to the other side of the room. “Get up, Maguire, or I’ll shoot you where you sit.” The gambler didn’t move.
Adam put his beer down and turned to watch the unfolding events. Before anything else could happen, Sam put a shotgun between the two men. “They’ll be none of that in here. Pick up your winnings Danny and go home, otherwise I’ll call the sheriff.”
After a moment’s hesitation, the young man started to pick up the pile of money before him. Adam relaxed and took the last swallow of his beer. “Thanks, Sam,” he called out. “I’ll tell Hoss and Joe you said hello.” He walked out into the bright sunlight and untied Sport. Scratching the horse’s chin, he said, “You need a long cool drink too, old boy? Well, no beer for you; someone needs to get us home.”
The sound of the gunshot made Adam jump forward, hitting his hip on the railing. He turned and ran back into the saloon. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust after being in the bright light. When they did, he was greeted with the sight of Danny Flynn lying on the floor. A pool of blood crept from beneath his body and started to run across the floorboards. Adam didn’t need to look for any signs of life. He knew there couldn’t be any with that much blood. He knelt beside the body of not Danny Flynn the troubled youth but Danny Flynn the boy who spent his school days with his younger brother. He had held the same promise as any other young man. But now the youth and the promise were gone. Adam reached over and Danny Flynn’s eyes were closed for the last time.
Adam stood up. The angles of his face hardened into sharp edges. He stared at Jake Maguire and said, “Why, why would you kill a boy?”
Before Maguire could answer, Sam said, “He didn’t have a choice, Adam. The boy turned and drew on him.” Adam changed his stare to Sam. “That’s the honest truth. I got no reason to lie.”
Sheriff Coffee talked to all the witnesses in his office. Adam sat quietly in a corner, only adding to the conversation when asked a direct question. “All right,” Roy said, “I guess there ain’t much else to say. You can all go now.”
Adam got up but Roy put a restraining hand on his arm. “Would you wait just a minute, Adam?”
After everyone had left, Roy said, “You blamin’ yerself? You couldn’t have known Danny would make a fool play like that.”
“If I’d just stayed a little longer, maybe I could have done something. The kid would be safely on his way home, instead of dead.” Adam walked toward the door.
“I’m goin’ out to tell Caleb now. You go on home.” Roy put on his hat and followed Adam to the door.
“I’ll go with you. I’d like to…,” Adam started to say.
Roy interrupted. “You go on home like I told ya. It’ll be hard enough telling yer own family.”
Adam gave Roy a sad half smile and walked through the door.
Ben watched his eldest son ride toward him and wondered why Adam had chosen to meet him. Even as he came closer, nothing gave him any indication that something might be wrong. He smiled and said,” Thought your old man couldn’t find his way home?” When Adam didn’t react to Ben’s kidding, he knew there was something on his son’s mind.
“No, I came to tell you there’s been a shooting. Danny Flynn is dead.”
Ben thought he could detect a tremor in his son’s voice. “Danny? What happened?” Ben was astonished at Adam’s news. He knew that Caleb Flynn loved his boys as much as he loved his. He also knew that Caleb let young Danny do just about anything he wanted, regardless of the consequences.
Adam took a deep breath than relayed what had happened in the Silver Dollar. When he finished telling his father, he added, “I’ll never know— if I had just stayed until the boy was on his way home.”
“Adam, don’t do this to yourself. You’re not responsible for what happened in that saloon. How were you to know he would try to draw on Maguire?” Ben could see the toll Danny’s death was taking on his oldest.
“What am I suppose to tell Joe? How do I explain it to him?” Adam reined Sport toward home.
Adam had gone to his room as soon as he and Ben reached home and put away their horses. Ben sat waiting for dinner and for both of his younger sons to return. He picked up his pipe and let out a small sigh. He hoped a little time would allow Adam to see things more clearly. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of footfalls on the porch.
Hoss and Joe tried to squeeze through the door at the same time but Hoss’ sheer bulk sent Joe flying forward. Joe’s laughter filled the room. He came to rest in front of his father’s chair. Ben stood up.
The laughter faded when Joe saw his father’s face. “What is it, Pa?”
Hoss joined them.
Before Ben could answer, Adam’s deep voice floated down from the stairs. He stood on the landing and said, “Danny Flynn was killed today in a gunfight.”
“What—Danny? But Danny was my age. We went to school together. How could he be dead?” Joe moved to the cold hearth and sat down. His face betrayed his shock.
Adam came down the stairs and stood before his youngest brother. He told Joe what happened in as few words as he could than waited for his reaction.
“I don’t know what to say. Maybe if you’d stayed until Danny left but….”
Before Joe could finish, Adam said, “I’m going for a walk. I won’t be late.”
Ben stated to say something but thought better of it. The door closed quietly.
Joe continued to sit in confused silence while Ben’s gaze stayed on the newly closed door. Hoss stepped forward and said, “Don’t worry, Pa. You know how Adam has to study things over every which way before he can understand them.” Ben smiled at Hoss’ observation of his older brother. “He’ll come around. It’ll just take him a little time to chew over what’s happened.”
“I don’t want him to think it’s his fault,” Joe added. “He shouldn’t be blaming himself.”
“Just tell him that when he comes home, son. That would be the best thing he could hear right now.” Ben placed a hand on each son’s shoulder and said, “Let’s go eat. Adam will come back soon.”
But Adam didn’t come back right away. It was dark and it appeared as if everyone had gone to sleep when he opened the front door. He knew Hop Sing would have left him a plate in the warmer. Summer or winter, between cooking and baking, the stove was always warm. A lamp had been left burning in the living room, no doubt by his father. He picked it up and walked through to the kitchen. Between the lamp and the bright moon, the small room was bathed in light. He pumped up a glass of fresh, cold water and took the still warm food off the stove. A smile came to his face when he sat at the small table. There had been more than one night when he and Hoss had been banished from the dining room to the kitchen. Their father had told them if they insisted on acting as children than they could just eat at the children’s table.
Just as he started his meal, he heard footsteps. Adam looked up to see his younger brother standing in the doorway. “Want some company?” Joe asked.
Adam pushed out the opposite chair with his foot and said, “Be my guest, that is, if you don’t mind sitting at the children’s table.” A sly smile slid onto his face.
“I remember crying and having a fit because you and Hoss were in here and I wanted to be with you two. Poor Pa didn’t know what to do.” They both chuckled.
“Adam, I wanted you to know that I don’t blame you for what happened to Danny. Yeah, I admit I was shocked there for a minute, but you couldn’t have known.” Joe waited.
Adam put down his fork. “Thanks Joe, I appreciate that. He was just so young. Maybe he could have turned himself around, in time.” He took a minute to gather his thoughts. “But now there is no more time.”
“Danny seemed headed for trouble since we were kids,” Joe replied. “I know I got into some too but Danny never seemed to learn from the trouble he got into. Maybe that’s because his father and brothers were too busy trying to cover things up or making excuses for him.” Joe serious face turned into a grin. “I don’t remember Pa ever making excuses for us!” Adam just shook his head.
“Well, we need to get to bed. There’s still plenty to do,” Adam remarked. “And I’m bone tired.”
“Do you think the funeral will be day after tomorrow? Joe asked.
“Yeah, I imagine so. I’m not quite sure what to say to Caleb Flynn,” Adam answered.
A little surprised by Adam’s reply, Joe said, “Are you going?”
“Of course! Why wouldn’t I go? They’ve been neighbors for years.” Adam felt himself getting angry and he didn’t really know why.
“Ok, I just thought that maybe under the circumstances, you would….”
Adam interrupted him. “I’ll be there Joe. Now let’s get to bed.” Adam picked up the lamp and ushered his brother into the living room and toward the stairs. “Joe wait,” he called and lifted the lamp between them. The light brought their faces out of the shadows. “Thanks.” Both brothers smiled in understanding.
The beauty of high summer was beginning to disappear behind the oppressive heat. Far off in the mountains, thunder rumbled, keeping alive the hope of a cooling rain. The Cartwright buggy stopped in front of the Flynn ranch house. They could see family and friends gathered at the top of a grassy knoll beside a mound of freshly dug earth.
The four men got out and started up the gentle incline. They were met halfway by Caleb Flynn and his three sons. “Ben, you and your boys are not welcome here as long as you have that coward with you.” Flynn’s gaze seemed to burn through the air as he stared at Adam.
“Now look here, Caleb…,” Ben started to say, but Adam stepped forward and held up silencing hand to his father.
“Mr. Flynn, I can only tell you how…” Adam felt himself knocked backward by a sharp blow to his mouth. He staggered but remained on his feet. Joe and Hoss moved to his side and the three Flynn boys stepped closer to their father.
The muscles around Ben’s mouth tightened and his voice was harsh with self-restraint. “Caleb, my heart cries for you at the death of your son but blaming mine won’t bring Danny back. Adam was not responsible for the decisions your son made.”
“My boy died alone on a dirty barroom floor. Your son was there, Ben. He could have stopped it but he didn’t. He walked out and left a kid to die.” Flynn turned his attention to Adam. “You mark my words, Adam Cartwright. Before this summer ends, you’ll be fodder for the undertaker.” Before anymore could be said, Flynn and his sons turned and started walking back up the hill.
The Cartwright men returned home.
July slid into August and Caleb Flynn’s threat seemed to be just that. Adam refused his father’s plea to stay close to the ranch. Time had helped him come to terms with Danny Flynn’s death. And although he would always wonder if the outcome would have been different had he not left, he realized that the young man had made his own choices and had, unfortunately, paid a steep price for them.
The heat seemed endless and the air hung heavy with unfallen moisture. Adam had left the house early to check on the herds pastured on the western part of the ranch. Joe and Hoss planned on coming with him but when he awoke, everyone was still asleep and he didn’t have the heart to wake them. Sleep had become a rare commodity in the dog days of summer, so he let them be. Adam smiled. He’d get his “digs” in when they showed up.
Fortunately, the grass was still plentiful despite the excessive warmth. Adam rode between bunches of cows noting that this years crop of calves looked well fed and healthy. He saw dust rising from the trail. He had been waiting for his brothers to show up. Now his thoughts turned to how best to tease them about sleeping in.
Adam continued riding. Suddenly he heard the sound of a rope cut through the still summer air and felt it tighten around his body, pinning his arms to his sides. The rope became taut and he was pulled backward off his horse. Momentarily stunned, he lay on the ground looking at the legs of several horses. It tightened again and he felt himself being dragged across the pasture. He stopped abruptly and was yanked to his feet. Adam closed his eyes for a moment, waiting for his head to clear. When he opened them, he was looking into the face of Caleb Flynn.
“Think I’d forgotten about you, boy?” Flynn asked. His fist snapped Adam’s head to the side. Still bound by the rope and held by Flynn’s sons, he was unable to defend himself. He could feel the line of blood as it slid slowly from his lip to his jaw.
“You really think you’ll get away with this?” Adam asked as he stared back at his attacker.
Flynn looked around at his boys and laughed. “Why, we don’t have to do nothing, Cartwright. You ever heard of a gunman named Hatcher?” Adam didn’t answer but like everyone else in the territory; he knew Hatcher’s reputation as a fast gun. “No? Well don’t worry. He’s heard of you. I hear tell he can be bought to kill any man, for enough money.”
“And what makes you think I’ll go willingly to the slaughter or that I won’t involve the law?” Adam said.
“Your kid brother and my Danny use to run together in school as I remember. It’d be a shame if something happened to him, being so young and all.” Flynn’s sons joined him in laughing at Adam’s response.
“Leave Joe out of this!” Adam shouted. He struggled until the rope bit through the material of his shirt and imbedded itself into the flesh of his arms. “He had nothing to do with your son’s death.”
Flynn grabbed Adam’s shirt and dragged him closer. “We’ll leave him alone just as long as you keep your appointment with Mr. Hatcher.” Flynn gave him a twisted sneer. “And keep the law out of this!” He signaled for his sons to tie Adam to a lone cottonwood. “Why don’t you give the coward a taste of what will happen to his brother if he doesn’t do what we ask?”
Helpless to do anything against the blows that punished his body, Adam concentrated on not giving them the satisfaction of hearing him cry out. Finally, the beating stopped and he heard the sound of retreating hoof beats. He leaned forward into the rope’s embrace and let his head hang down. It occurred to him that Joe and Hoss would soon be there. He couldn’t tell them the truth. What would he say? He let himself drift into the void.
“Why do you suppose Adam let us sleep in this morning?” Hoss asked as he wiped a handkerchief across his sweat streaked face.
Joe looked up into the sky, hoping to see some sign of relief. “Got me, but I got a feeling we haven’t heard the last on the subject.”
They rode on, finally reaching the western section of the Ponderosa range. Joe saw Sport in the distance, loose and grazing contently among the cattle. “Now that’s odd. Look at Sport. Adam won’t just let him go that way, especially still bitted like that.”
“Yeah, it is kinda strange at that. Adam!” Hoss shouted. “Hey Adam, where are ya?”
They both remained silent to listen but heard no returning call. “Let’s have a look around,” Joe said. The brothers went in different directions.
Joe was the one who saw him first. The picture of his brother tied to a tree, head hanging down, stopped Joe in his tracks. Recovering, he ran forward, calling for Hoss as he did. Gently, he lifted Adam’s head in his hands. Speaking softly, he hoped for some kind of response. “Adam, it’s Joe. Adam—can you hear me?”
Slowly, Adam’s eyes opened. He lifted his head and tried to smile when he saw his younger brother’s face. “You two finally make it outta bed?” His eyes closed and he dropped his head into Joe’s hands once more.
Hoss pulled his knife and cut the ropes. “Oh Lordy, Adam, who did this to you?” They eased him to the ground and Hoss held him while Joe ran for a canteen. Adam began to come around and both of his brothers breathed a sigh of relief.
“What happened?” Joe asked again.
Adam hesitated only a moment. “Rustlers—caught them trying to move the herd.” He put a hand to his damaged face. “They decided to have a little fun before they left.” He tried to push away from Hoss but the pain made him stop. He gasped and blinked hard. “They must have heard you coming and decided not to take a chance.”
Looking at his battered brother, Joe’s green eyes turned dark with anger. “They couldn’t have gotten far.” He rose. “Trailing them should be easy.”
Adam struggled to get up. “No,” he shouted. “You’re not going anywhere.” The effort left him breathing hard and sweat broke out on his face.
“Adam’s right, Joe! What you gonna do when you catch up with them?” He started to help his older brother to his feet, keeping a steadying hand on his arm. “Besides, I need ya to help me get him into town.”
Adam jerked his head up. “Town—why would I be going to town?”
“Cause you need ta see a doctor, that’s why,” Hoss answered.
Adam pulled away from his brother’s hand and straightened up as much as his body would allow. “I don’t need to see a doctor. I’ll be just fine at home.”
“Now most of the time I’d agree with ya but this time you can’t see what you look like. You really want Pa to see you like this? He’ll have a fit.” Hoss waited for his brother’s logical mind to mull over what he said.
“We can’t just let them get away with beating Adam and trying to take the herd,” Joe said.
“We ain’t. We’ll talk to Roy when we get Adam into town. Now come on, you two. I ain’t arguing all day.” Hoss enjoyed his moment of authority and neither brother disagreed.
Adam sat slumped forward with his legs dangling off the side of Paul Martin’s examination table. His whole body ached but he knew there was no serious or permanent damage. “Where’s my shirt?” he asked no one in particular.
“I’d like you to stay overnight,” Paul said as he went to retrieve Adam’s tattered shirt.
“You were roughed up pretty badly and I’d feel better if I could keep an eye on you.”
“Thanks Paul but I’ll feel much better at home. And you know Pa; he’s not about to let me too far out of his sight.” Adam reached for the torn and blood splotched shirt.
“Joe, why don’t you go over to the mercantile and get Adam a new shirt?” Hoss said.
Joe watched as Adam was about to protest his going and said, “What’s the matter with you? First you don’t want me to trail those rustlers, now you don’t want me going across the street?” He was having a hard time holding on to his temper and trying to understand his brother’s behavior.
“It’s not that,” Adam snapped back, “It’s just—-oh hell, go. And don’t be all damned day about it either!” He wrapped his arms around his arching ribs and fought through the pain.
Hoss and the doctor gave each other a questioning look. “He’ll be a few minutes. Why don’t you lie down and rest until he comes back?” Paul offered. Adam didn’t fight the idea or the helping hands.
When Joe returned, he helped his brother to sit up. “See, I’m back and all in one piece. Think of that,” Joe said. His smile was bright again as he couldn’t resist teasing his older brother.
Adam sat up and smiled back. “Don’t take advantage, kid. I won’t be down all that long.” He slowly slipped into the shirt and began buttoning it.
“Sorry, they only had black,” Joe said.
“That’s ok, it matches my mood. Hoss back yet?” Adam asked.
“Not yet,” Paul said as he took his patient’s pulse once more. “Sure you won’t…?
Joe interrupted. “Where’d Hoss go?” he asked.
Adam slid off the table and leaned back until he was steadier. He stiffened at Joe’s question. “He went to tell Roy what’s going on. Come on— let’s go home.” He picked up his gun belt and hat. “Thanks Doc.”
It was Adam’s turn to interrupt. He gave the doctor a warm smile. “I promise Paul.”
“Can I help an old man to the door?” Joe’s eyes sparkled as he asked.
“I’ll let you know if I need you, boy,” Adam said as he passed his brother.
By the time they got home, it was getting dark and Ben came out on the porch to meet them. The shadows hid the worst of Adam’s injures but they could not hide the grunt of pain when he dismounted nor the guarded posture when he walked.
“What is it, son? What happened?” Ben asked.
Afraid that if he stopped, his abused body would give in, Adam kept walking. “I’ll tell you inside, Pa. I’m afraid I’m about done in for one day.” His foot hit the porch and he staggered. Ben reached out and placed an arm around his son’s waist. He guided him through the door and to the settee.
Adam lay down and closed his eyes. He decided even his eyelids ached and the last thing he wanted was to try and find the strength to lie to his father. Instead he kept quiet and let Hoss and Joe relay what had happened. The three voices seemed to swirl about him than fade as he began to feel detached from what was going on. His mind drifted back to Flynn’s face. Adam had no doubt that the man would carry out his threat just as he had no doubt that he’d do anything to protect Joe.
The voices became louder again. Beyond exhaustion, Adam struggled to sit up. “I’m tired. Can we continue this in the morning?”
Ben looked guilty for a moment then replied, “Of course, son. I’ll help you upstairs.
Adam rose and leaned against his father as they walked up the stairway and into his room. Seeing his bed, he felt as if it had never looked better. He sat down on the edge and started to reach for a boot.
“Let me help you, son,” Ben said as he bent and quickly removed both of Adam’s boots.
“Thanks, Pa, I can take it from here.” He unbuttoned his shirt and winced as he took it off.
Ben drew in a quick breath when he saw the purple and deep blue bruising that crisscrossed his boy’s body. He drew himself up and said, “We’ll get them, Adam, I promise.”
Adam held his father’s eyes. He wanted desperately to blurt out the truth. But instead he turned his head and said, “Goodnight, Pa. I promise I’ll call you if I need anything.”
Ben stepped forward, wanting to touch his son but he knew the gesture would only make Adam uncomfortable. Instead, he stayed his hand then said, “Alright, son. I’m here if you need me.” He closed the door quietly when he left.
It was that night, amidst the distant thunder and lightening, when the dream came for the first time. He remembered feeling as if he was being pulled by something from the edge of an abyss and found himself sitting upright in his own bed. The dream didn’t fade with his waking.
Adam heard the argument before he saw the opponents. He was just coming down the stairs when Joe’s higher-pitched voice rose over the lower rumble of his father’s. “If we don’t go soon, we won’t have a chance to catch whoever it was that hurt Adam and tried to steal the herd. Just what are we waiting for?” Joe’s frustration mixed freely with his anger and fear.
Ben’s eyes narrowed as he stared at his youngest son. In a quiet, barely controlled voice he said, “Young man, you’d better rein in that temper. We will go as soon as Hoss and I are ready. If you are in such a hurry, then make sure the men are ready to ride while I check on Adam.” Joe turned away than headed toward the door. He stopped when he heard his father’s voice again. “And Joseph, I suggest you think about how you address me in the future. Is that clear?”
“Yes sir,” Joe said, mustering a contrite reply. “I’ll go see to the men.”
“No Joe, don’t go.” Adam proceeded down the stairs as Ben, Hoss and Joe all looked at him, waiting for more.
He stood in front of his family and confessed his lie. “It wasn’t rustlers— it was Caleb Flynn.”
Stunned, the three men stood speechless. Finally, Ben spoke up. “But why—why tell us it was cattle thieves?”
Adam moved away and stood in front of the hearth. After a moment, he turned and faced them. “Because if I don’t do what they ask, they’ll hurt Joe.” He took a breath. “I thought it would be easier if I just did what they said without anyone knowing the truth. I was wrong.” He sat down heavily on the cold stone.
“Hurt me? Why would they…?” Joe stopped when his father held up a hand.
“What is it they want you to do, son?” Ben asked.
Hoss moved closer to his older brother. Adam looked up and gave him a faint smile than answered his father’s question. “They want me to meet John Hatcher in Virginia City.” The words came out flat— no anger, no fear.
It was Hoss who spoke first. “John Hatcher has killed every man he’s ever faced. Has Caleb Flynn lost his mind?” His voice held anger and disbelief.
Adam response was calm and measured. “No, I don’t think so. He’s a man who’s lost a son and he blames me for his death. He thinks it only fair that I die too.”
“Hoss, Joe—please go outside and tell the men we won’t be riding out.” Ben didn’t take his eyes off his eldest.
“I’m not afraid of Caleb Flynn or his boys,” Joe announced.
Hoss put a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “We know you’re not. Come on now and let’s do as Pa asked.” He guided his younger brother to the door.
When they had gone, Ben asked, “Oh Adam, do you think so little of your family that you’d prefer to face something like this alone?”
Adam heard the hurt in his father’s voice. “It’s not that, Pa—it’s Joe’s life we’re talking about. I can’t take that kind of chance.”
“And I won’t let you take that kind of chance with your life! John Hatcher is a killer. And as fast as you are, you’re not a professional gunman. You don’t kill men for money.” Ben stopped for a moment. “Your principles would get in the way of your gun.” Adam didn’t have an answer.
Hoping he’d gotten through to his son, Ben said, “Come on now, let’s go see if Joe’s calmed down yet.” Father and son walked outside and found Hoss and Joe at the corral fence.
“We sent most of the men out to the hay fields,” Hoss said.
“And I’d like you to join them, Joseph, while I go into town.” Ben waited to see if his youngest would object.
Joe glanced at his brothers than looked back at his father. “Alright Pa but like I said, I’m not afraid.”
Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and said, “I know, son but I am. Please be careful.” Joe mounted and rode out toward the east meadow.
“I’m going in to see the sheriff. I’ll be home before supper.” Ben started for the barn to saddle Buck.
“Maybe I should go with you.” Adam stepped in beside his father. “Roy will want to talk to me.”
“You know you shouldn’t be riding that far. I’ll take care of this.” Ben was adamant.
Adam knew he should argue the point with his father but he didn’t have the strength, especially since he knew he would lose this battle. He let his father continue to the barn by himself.
It was quiet now, since everyone had left. Adam and Hoss kept a companionable silence as they did the morning chores. Finally, Adam sat down to rest, unconsciously rubbing his aching ribs. He looked up at his brother and asked quietly, “Do you think I’d have a chance against Hatcher?”
Hoss stopped working and leaned on his pitchfork. There was no hesitation before his answer. “No Adam, I don’t think you would.”
Adam just gave him a half smile and shook his head in agreement. “Come on, let’s go see if baby brother is working or just playing boss.”
“I don’t care Roy. I want the man arrested!” Ben Cartwright was shouting loud enough to be heard outside the sheriff’s office and a small crowd stopped to listen.
“Now Ben, I said I’d go and see Flynn but you know as well as me, that he’ll have an alibi and it’ll be his word against Adam’s.” Roy Coffee was trying to keep his temper. He understood Ben’s anger, knowing that two of his sons had been threatened.
Ben paced the office in front of the sheriff’s desk. “Talk to him— that’s not good enough! I want him locked away!” Ben stopped moving. “And Hatcher—what about him?” The crowd outside inched closer when they heard the gunfighter’s name. They knew he was in Virginia City for a reason; they just didn’t know who.
“I’ve had a conversation with Mr. Hatcher already. He denies being in town for any particular reason. I can’t arrest a man with no paper out on him or who hasn’t caused any trouble. All I could do was warn him.” Roy’s own frustration was beginning to show. “Now that I know about Flynn’s threat against Adam, I’ll go talk to him again.”
“Talk? My son’s life is at risk! I’ll not see Adam shot down and bleeding to death in the middle of Virginia City’s main street!” He stopped walking and moved closer to the sheriff. His voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “If I have to, I’ll kill him myself. No matter how I have to do it, I’ll kill him.” Ben moved away and started for the door.
“I’m telling you now, Ben—stay away from Caleb Flynn and John Hatcher. Let me do my job.” Roy Coffee watched as his oldest friend continued out the door.
The crowd scattered as Ben stepped onto the porch of the jailhouse. Without speaking, he mounted Buck and reined him in the direction of Caleb Flynn’s ranch.
It had taken some hard riding and deep breaths before Ben could calm the thudding heartbeat that exploded in his chest. He reined Buck in and found that they were standing on the hillside where Danny Flynn was buried. The grass was trying to cover the newly turned dirt but the recent lack of rain left only sparse patches. He looked down the hill at the Flynn ranch house. Glancing once more at the grave, he set his shoulders and moved Buck forward.
“Flynn—Caleb Flynn,” Ben shouted. He didn’t bother to dismount. “Come out Flynn or are you afraid to face a man without his arms pinned by a rope?”
The door opened slowly and a smiling Caleb Flynn walked onto the porch surrounded by his three sons. “What can I do for you, Cartwright?” he asked.
“Let’s not play games, Flynn. You’ve beaten one of my sons and threatened another.” Ben was trying to contain his rising anger, but the memory of the bruises and cuts that covered his oldest son’s body fueled his rage. “Now you’ve hired some cheap gunfighter to goad Adam into a fight. Well, it won’t work Flynn. Stay away from my family or I swear, you and yours will be decorating that hillside before it’s all over.” Caleb Flynn’s laughter followed him as he rode away.
Ben had taken his time riding home. The confrontations with Roy than Flynn had left him exhausted and depressed. The heat, without rain, only added to the charged atmosphere that seemed to surround his family. He stopped by the lake. This had all started because a hot-headed young man had gotten himself into a situation that was beyond him. To be honest, all of his sons had tested their limits at one time or another while growing up but they had been lucky enough or smart enough to escape any severe consequences. Danny Flynn had not. He swung Buck around toward home.
It was several days later and Ben had begun to relax a little. He rode into the yard and stopped to watch as his three sons worked to unload a wagon of hay into the mow. They had stripped to the waist and donned heavy gloves. Their work hardened muscles glistened with sweat and hay chafe stuck to the moisture that rolled off them. He was sure the trio would visit the lake before the day was over. Their good-natured teasing rang in the air and he was glad to see they had forgotten Flynn’s threats, at least for the moment.
“Well, it’s nice to see you boys working so hard,” Ben said as he pulled Buck up next to the wagon.
“Ah, come on now, Pa, we always work hard—well at least I do,” Joe answered. His broad smile lit his eyes.
Adam just shook his head but Hoss said, “Yeah Pa, Joe has worked real hard today. That’s because Adam and me have been right next to him all day long. He couldn’t have sneaked outta work even if he’d tried.” Hoss laughed.
“I don’t try to sneak outta nothing, ya big ox,” Joe shot back. With that, a lively back and forth ensued between the two youngest. Adam pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped it across his sweaty face. He sat down on the side of the wagon emitting an involuntary grunt of pain. His father’s head instantly swung toward the sound.
Ben’s voice stopped the bickering. “Adam, you really shouldn’t be doing hay! Paul told you to take it easy.”
Adam held out his hand to his father. “And he was probably right. How about helping me down?”
Ben’s mumbling could barely be heard by his sons. “You’d think he’d be old enough by now to know how to take care of himself. Do I have to be here every minute?”
Adam smiled at his father. “What was that you said Pa?”
“Never mind. Get down here and get cleaned up. You should be resting.” Adam let Ben fuss knowing any protestation would just make the situation worse. He looked back at his brothers as he walked into the house and winked. His brothers grinned back at him.
After a cooling bath, Adam realized just how tired he really was. The dream had been coming every night and sleep began to be elusive. Dressed only in jeans, he slipped into the living room and lay down on the settee. Just for a few minutes, he thought to himself. I’ll just close my eyes for a few minutes.
When he opened his eyes, Adam knew that more then just a few minutes had passed. He could see the lengthening shadow of Marie’s grandfather clock stretch across the floor. And he could hear Hop Sing as he deposited the plates and glasses on the table for dinner.
He glanced around and saw his father sitting in his favorite chair, reading the latest edition of the Enterprise. A faint smile crossed Adam’s face. His father—the one and only constant in his life. It didn’t seem to matter what situation, what trouble; his father was there for him. And he, in turn, felt the same toward his brothers. He would do anything; sacrifice anything, for their wellbeing. He only hoped he wouldn’t have to.
Ben put down his paper and Adam sat up as they heard the sound of horses in the yard. They waited for the brothers to come through the door but instead were greeted by Hoss’ yell for help. Both men rushed outside. Joe was leaning heavily on his older brother. His left thigh was tied with a crude bandage. Blood seeped through the layers and dripped slowly downward.
Adam quickly supported Joe from the other side while Ben led the way into the house. Hop Sing met them at the door. “Have one of the hands ride for Doctor Martin,” Ben said. They proceeded up the stairs toward Joe’s room.
Beads of sweat formed on the young man’s face, joining and running down pale cheeks. They helped him undress and get into bed. “It’s not that bad, Pa,” Joe said through gritted teeth. “I think the bullet just took off a little hide.”
Ben placed the back of his hand on Joe’s face and gave him a faint, reassuring smile. “Paul will be here soon, son. I know it hurts, but try not to move around too much.”
Hop Sing entered with hot water and bandages. Adam and Hoss left while he and Ben tended to the youngest Cartwright. The door had barely closed when Adam asked, “What happened?” He didn’t try to control his anger.
“I don’t really know! Joe and I had just gotten outta the water and gotten dressed when there was a shot and he went down. I looked around but I didn’t see nobody. I needed to get him home before he lost anymore blood.” Hoss took a breath. “There was only one shot.”
Adam’s eyes darkened and the muscles around his mouth twitched. “Well, I know!” He turned and started down the stairs. He felt Hoss’ hand holding on to his shoulder.
“Now you just hold on there. I’m as mad as you are but we don’t have no proof of who it was.” Hoss held tight to Adam’s shoulder. “You ain’t gonna do yerself or nobody else any good if you go ridin’ over to Flynn’s.”
Adam shrugged off the hand that held him and started down once more. Hoss’ words stopped him. “Don’t do it Adam. You’ll get yourself killed and that’s just what they want.” He moved forward and placed his hand lightly on the same shoulder. He felt the muscles underneath stiffen. “Don’t give ’em the satisfaction.” Hoss heard Adam push out a long, deep breathe and felt the muscles under his hand relax.
Adam turned and looked up. His voice faltered as he said, “You could’ve just as likely brought him home over his saddle. I can’t let that happen. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I know that but not tonight. Tonight Joe needs you and Pa don’t need to worry about you doin’ something stupid. Come on now and pour me some of that brandy you and Pa are so fond of.” They walked down the stairs to wait for the doctor.
Later that night Adam awoke, drenched in sweat from the heat and the same dream. He sat with his eyes closed for a moment, reliving the terror the vision had brought. Finally, he got up and walked to the open window, naked flesh hoping for the relief of a breeze. Flashes of lightening lit the distant hills and were answered by bursts of thunder. He grabbed his pants off the back of the chair and pulled them on.
The light coming from Joe’s room led him down the hall. He watched as his kid brother slept peacefully, only occasionally wincing in his sleep. Doctor Martin assured them that Joe would be just fine after a few days rest. He looked over and saw his father in the rocker. His face was relaxed and the ravages of time and trials were hidden beneath the mask of sleep. How many times had the man sat next to one of his sons, wondering if they’d see the morning? They had been lucky this time but what about the next time? He knew he couldn’t let there be a next time. He walked to Joe’s side and placed a hand on his brother’s arm. “No on will hurt you again— I promise,” he whispered. He looked over at his father once more then walked out the door and down the stairs.
The sun was a fiery orange ball just lifting itself over the horizon when Adam opened the barn doors. Determined that Joe’s life would no longer be in danger, he’d go to Flynn and tell him that he’d meet Hatcher. He knew they wouldn’t hurt him. No, they had waited too long for their scheme to take root. They weren’t about ruin things now.
Adam smoothed the saddle blanket on Sport’s back, careful not to leave any wrinkles. He stroked the long silken neck and felt some of the tension leave him. Just as he reached for his saddle, he heard the doors open once again. Ben Cartwright stood framed by the first beams of sunlight. As he walked further into the shadows of the barn, Adam could see the look of concern that marked his face. Trying to pretend that he was up early to start the day’s work would be useless, so he made no excuses.
“Is Joe…?” Adam asked.
“Joe’s just fine. He slept all night,” his father replied. Changing the subject, Ben said, “It’s a little early, even for you. Why the rush?”
“Let’s not play this game, Pa. You know where I’m going. I just hoped I could leave before anyone was up.”
Ben stepped closer to his son. “You go up against Flynn and his boys and you’ll be killed.”
“Caleb Flynn is not interested in killing me himself, just seeing me dead.” Adam pulled the cinch tight and looped it into a saddle knot.
“So you’re going to tell him that you’ll meet Hatcher. Is that your plan?” The angrier Ben got the quieter Adam became.
“What would you have me do, Pa? Wait ’til they kill Joe or maybe just cripple him for life?” Adam led Sport out of is stall and past his father.
“I’m his father! I can protect him.” Ben’s voice shattered the early morning stillness and seemed to keep ringing in the air even after he finished speaking.
Adam turned to his father and said, “What are you gonna do, Pa, tie the kid to the house forever? They won’t give up. And they don’t want you, they want me.”
Ben’s shoulders sagged and the fight seemed to pour out of him. Desperation crept into his voice. “Adam please—don’t do this.”
Knowing there was nothing more he could say, Adam led Sport out through the doors. His attention was drawn to the house as he saw Hoss walk through the front door. He cursed himself for not rising earlier.
Ben followed his son outside and was about to try reasoning with him once more, when he saw Hoss walking toward them. He gave a small sigh of relief. Of all of them, Hoss was most often the one who could reason with his oldest brother. Hard times had made fast friends.
The sound of riders coming in halted any further conversation. Adam was the only one who was armed. His hand brushed the top of his gun, removing the leather loop that held it in place. As the riders rounded the barn, he relaxed at the sight of Roy Coffee and his deputy. The three stood together, knowing the sheriff wouldn’t be coming out this early with any good news.
Roy dismounted and greeted the three Cartwright men. “Ben, boys,” he nodded at them.
Hoss answered, “Yer up pretty early this morning Roy. Anything wrong?”
“I came out fer two reasons. One ta see if you can tell me anymore about Joe bein shot and….” He turned and faced Adam. “Ta tell you we found Jake Maguire this morning in the ally behind the Silver Dollar. He’d been shot in the back.”
Without Ben knowing it, Caleb Flynn’s name came out on a whisper. He looked at the sheriff and said, “You know it’s him, Roy.”
“I know there are plenty of men who would be glad to see Maguire dead and Caleb Flynn would be just one among ‘em. We’re on our way over there right now but I wanted to let you know about the murder first,” Roy answered.
“I’ll ride with you,” Adam said, speaking to the sheriff but facing his father.
“No,” his father corrected, looking back at his son. “We’ll ride with you.”
The sun was still rising when the small group approached the Flynn ranch. The Cartwright men agreed to Roy’s demand that if they came, they were to ride behind him.
Caleb Flynn sat on his front porch, feet elevated on a post. He didn’t bother getting up. As the riders stopped in front of him, he said, “What brings this distinguished group to my door so early in the morning?”
Roy spoke up. “Where were you last night, Flynn?”
“Why, I was right here sheriff. Is there a problem?” He couldn’t quite carry off the look of innocence that he had pasted on his face.
“I suppose you got witnesses that’ll swear to that?” Roy replied. The Cartwrights remained silent as Roy had requested.
“My boys’ll tell ya. “Jack, Tom, Fred—where are ya?” Two of the Flynn boys walked out of the barn, pushing their guns back into their holsters. The third moved around the side of the house. All three stood next to their father.
They reminded Adam of a bunch of curs that slunk into a pack for protection. He knew their answer before they spoke. “Pa was here with us, all night and all day, for that matter,” Jack Flynn said. “You got a problem with that?”
Roy’s temper boiled over. “I got a problem with anything that ain’t the truth. But I got no proof you weren’t here neither.”
“What’s this all about sheriff?” the elder Flynn asked.
“We found Jake Maguire this morning behind the Silver Dollar. He’d been shot in the back.” Roy waited for a reaction. “He’s dead.”
“Ya see boys—if ya wait long enough, God punishes those who kill innocent young boys.” Flynn’s eyes fixed themselves on Adam. “And those who leave the helpless to the wolf.”
Ben could no longer contain himself. “I doubt very much if God was in that alley last night Caleb. But someone took a shot at my son Joseph and I tell you now, if he had been killed, even God couldn’t protect you.” He reined his horse toward home. Adam and Hoss fell in behind him.
It was during the darkest hours of night that Adam arrived in Virginia City. The pitch black sky was split open by jagged bursts of lightening. The streets were all but abandoned. He stopped in front of the livery stable. Adam knew the owner would be home with his family so he bedded down Sport himself. The cracks of thunder left his mount dancing with nervous energy. He took his time caring for the fractious animal.
Satisfied that Sport had calmed down, he stepped out into the night, carrying his saddle bags over his shoulder.
Adam knew his father would come looking for him as soon as he realized his son was not at home. It had been a week since Joe was shot and Adam had hoped his father believed he was waiting for the law to handle the situation. And he hoped he’d have enough time to do what he had to without his family’s interference.
He woke the sleeping hotel clerk as he entered the International House. For enough money the man would swear he hadn’t seen Adam in a month. He asked for a room that overlooked the street. Tired as he was, if he lay down, he knew sleep wouldn’t come. He took off his gun belt and sat at the small writing desk. A smile played across his face as he started to write but disappeared into a frown of concentration as he continued. When he had finally finished, Adam neatly folded the document and sealed it in an envelope. His bold hand wrote his father’s name across the front.
Getting up, he walked to the window. Distant flashes of light lit the night sky. He gave a snort of laughter as he thought that these might be the last hours of Adam Cartwright, holed up in a hotel room, waiting to face a man who was undoubtedly faster than he. It had always been in his nature to analyze and question but he had neither the strength nor the inclination to review his life. What he wanted more than anything else was not to think about anything. He turned away from the window and picked up his gun belt, pulling the straps tight than pushing the belt down so that it rode lower on his right hip. He finished by tying the leather thong snuggly around his thigh. Picking up the envelope, Adam tucked it safely in his shirt pocket.
The rain they had been waiting for was just beginning to fall. Ben walked outside and stood on the porch, watching the large drops disappear into the thick dust. Joe and Hoss were already on the veranda drinking their morning coffee. It was good to have Joe up and around again, Ben thought. He glanced over at his youngest. A brief catch pulled at his heart, making him hold his breath. What would they have done if they’d lost him? It was more then his mind could grasp.
“What ya thinking about, Pa?” Joe asked.
“Nothing special, just enjoying the rain,” Ben said, his somber look quickly covered by a smile. Joe wasn’t fooled by his father’s feeble attempt at hiding his thoughts.
Hoss interrupted. “Hey, it ain’t like Adam to sleep late like this. Wonder what’s keeping him in bed?”
Ben turned once more to watch the rain. “Your older brother hasn’t been sleeping too well for some time now. It’s probably just caught up with him.”
Hoss could hear the worry in his father’s voice. “Yeah Pa, I’ll bet you’re right. Them dreams have been comin’ every night.”
“Dreams—what dreams?” Ben’s fixed Hoss with narrowed eyes.
“Ahh—I thought he told ya about the dream he keeps havin’,” Hoss stammered. He suddenly felt as if he had somehow betrayed his brother’s trust. Adam had confided in him one day after a particularly bad night and he had just assumed that his father knew as well.
“No, why don’t you tell me?” Ben asked.
Joe saw his opportunity to leave. “Think I’ll go see if Adam’s awake.” A slight limp was the only telltale sign of his injury as Joe hurried to the door.
Ben raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m waiting,” he said. Hoss knew at that moment just where his older brother had gotten that trait.
“Well now, Pa, I think it’s up to Adam to tell ya. I thought that he had or I never would’ve said nothing.” The big man shifted from foot to foot.
Before Ben could answer, Joe pulled the front door open and said, “He’s not there. Adam’s not in his bed.”
Without another word, Ben walked out into the rain, headed for the barn. He’d soon know if Adam had left. He unlatched the door and was greeted by Sport’s empty stall.
He squeezed his eyes shut hoping when he opened them that the rangy chestnut would be standing in front of him. The rain started to drum a pattern on the barn roof.
Hoss and Joe stood behind their father exchanging a concerned glance. Joe spoke up. “He might have gone out early to check on the timber cutting.”
“Yeah Pa, or he might’ve gone out to see if there’s enough water for the cattle in the East Meadow,” Hoss offered.
Ben deep, soft voice offered his opinion. “Or he may have gone to meet John Hatcher.” He squeezed his eyes shut once more.
It was that hazy dreamtime between awake and asleep when Adam reached out and unconsciously stroked her back. Sated and utterly relaxed, her name came out on a sigh— “Maggie.” He felt the muscles quiver beneath his hand and a second later realized what he had done. He pulled his hand back as if the touch of her skin had branded him. He opened his eyes and sat up. Angry with himself, he turned away from the woman who had spent the last hours beside him. In a voice filled with remorse, he said, “Lizette—I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
She sat up and faced him; a tired smile crossed her face. “It’s ok, Adam. It’s not like I don’t know.” Lizette made it easy on him, she always did. He often wondered if he ever gave her anything in return.
“It’s time I was on my way. You make a bed too inviting for a man to leave.” Adam swung his long legs over the side and let his feet hit the floor. He got up and started searching for his clothes.
Lizette hadn’t moved since she sat up. “Adam, would you…?” She stopped.
The sound of her voice halted his search and he turned to look at her. A smile put her at ease. “Would I what?” he asked. His voice was sweet and warm.
“Would you hold me— just a little longer?” He heard the fear in her voice and knew there was nothing he could say to reassure her.
The first rays of morning light hit her unadorned face, making her appear younger then her years. He lay down and reached for her, folding her body into the nooks and spaces of his own. They lay together and listened to the distant thunder and the beginning of the rain hitting the tin roof.
“I’m telling ya, Pa. I seen him myself. Came in long after dark and went right to the International House.” Jack Flynn reported Adam’s arrival in Virginia City to his father.
Caleb Flynn let a slow smile of satisfaction spread across his face. “Ya done good, boy.” He sipped his morning coffee. “So the coward’s finally walked into the trap, has he? Get the horses ready. I want to be there when Hatcher takes him down. I want to stand by and do nothing, just like he did when Danny was cut down.” He got up and buckled on his gun belt. Looking up, he raised his fist in the air. “I swear Danny, before this day ends, Adam Cartwright will be judged by his Maker.”
Paul Martin had been up most of the night. His thoughts turned to the young mother who he had just helped deliver a beautiful baby boy. He let out a long sigh and thought how fortunate it was that he wasn’t a drinking man or this would have been one of the times he’d definitely partake before noon. It was her first child and a big child at that. Before he could get there, the baby had started his way down the birth canal. The doctor had done everything he could to save both of them but in the end, the child had suffocated and he was unable to do anything about it. The mother was torn and bled badly. He only hoped she wouldn’t suffer the same fate as her child. Paul knew medicine would advance someday and was sorry he wouldn’t be around to see it. Enough of this, he told himself. I need my bed and some uninterrupted sleep.
Just as he started to climb the stairs to his bedroom, a brisk knock stopped him. It wouldn’t do any good to pretend he wasn’t in. His horse and buggy would give him away. Resigned, he turned and walked downstairs again. He was surprised to see the eldest Cartwright son at his door. “Adam—come in. Is everyone ok at the ranch?”
“Everyone’s fine but you look like you’ve had a long night,” Adam said. He waited to see if Paul wanted to talk.
“Just part of being a doctor— the very worst part. But enough— can I offer you some coffee?” Paul asked. “Won’t take me a minute to make it.”
“No thanks, I’ll only take a moment of your time.” Adam waited then reached for the paper he had put in his shirt pocket the night before. “I need a favor Paul. Would you hold on to this for me?”
“Sure Adam, but I can see it’s addressed to your father,” Paul replied.
Not wanting to explain, Adam responded, “Yes, it is for my father but I want you to hold on to it in case— in case something should happen to me. If it does, then give it to him.”
Paul took the envelope. “And if not?”
Adam smiled. “You may burn it with my compliments.”
“I don’t like this, Adam, not at all. I know—I’ve heard what’s going on with Caleb Flynn and his hired gun. Don’t be a fool! The man’s a killer.” Frustration spilled over in Paul’s voice. “Just how much do you expect out of a country doctor?”
Adam knew there was more behind the doctor’s words then a warning. He reached out and put a hand on Paul’s arm. Smiling, he said, “And a damned fine country doctor.” He put his hat on and said, “Thanks Paul,” and walked out.
The rain started coming down harder now. John Hatcher looked over the bat-winged doors of the Bucket of Blood. A kindly saloon girl had identified Adam Cartwright for him. Flynn had described him well but he needed to make sure. After all, he was only being paid to kill one man and it was a waste of time, effort and money to kill the wrong one. A shame really—killing this Cartwright fellow. He had heard what happened to the Flynn boy and it seemed he’d gotten what he’d asked for. Idiot kid! But Hatcher had little time for sentiment and killing Adam put money in his pocket. He watched his adversary leave the small house at the edge of town and return to the hotel. He looked once again at the cryptic note in his hand—30 minutes, in the street. He walked back inside, sliding his gun in and out of his holster.
Adam had changed into black dress pants and a white shirt. He topped it off with a long black coat and a thin black ribbon at his throat. It occurred to him that at least he could look the part even if he didn’t have quite the skills to go with the look. He checked his gun once more and slid it into the holster. He put on his hat and left the room. He hoped that by calling Hatcher out early, Roy Coffee wouldn’t be out yet. He saw no reason for the lawman’s life to be endangered because of him.
With the storm’s growing intensity, the sky became an eerie yellowish-green highlighted against the thick, black clouds. Adam walked into the street, the sound of rain drumming in his ears. It hadn’t escaped him that this was exactly as it happened in his dream but he made himself concentrate on the present. He had to give himself whatever advantages he could and fearing a vision, no matter how real it seemed, diverted his attention. The cold sweat of apprehension gathered and began to soak through his shirt along with the warm rain. His hands hung loosely at his sides. Hatcher slid quietly into the street. They looked at each other for a moment then both men walked forward.
The Cartwrights and the Flynn’s arrived at opposite ends of town within minutes of each other. Caleb Flynn and his sons stood in front of the Bucket of Blood watching and waiting for their final revenge. Ben, Hoss and Joe were just turning the corner when a clap of thunder rattled the glass in the windowpanes and the two shots could barely be heard above the noise. Both families froze.
The gunman knew immediately that he had been hit. He struggled to speak but the bullet had destroyed his lungs and they filled with blood at every heartbeat. Even as his vision narrowed, he could see the crimson stain that marked the shirt of his opponent. His mouth twisted into a smile as he died, lying face down in the mud of Virginia City’s main street.
Adam dropped his gun and raised his hand to his chest. Blood and water mixed, thinning the color to a soft red. He lifted his head to the sound of someone shouting his name. His legs betrayed him and he found himself on his knees in the mud. He watched as his family appeared before him. Suddenly glad he wasn’t alone; Adam smiled at his brothers and tried to say something to his father. But the words became lost and he only remembered the warmth of his father’s body before there was no more.
Ben held his son close, rocking him in his strong arms. He kept chanting his name over and over— “Adam, Adam.” Joe was about to run for Doctor Martin when a cry of nooooo exploded in the air. Caleb Flynn rushed into the street, gun drawn. His sons followed and the four men bore down on the Cartwrights. Caleb intended to make sure that the promise he had made to his son would be kept. Ben instinctively held Adam closer and covered his boy’s body with his own.
Hoss and Joe closed in around the helpless pair. A bullet hit the ground between them. They returned fire and two of the Flynn boys dropped to the ground. A sudden groan came from Hoss as a shot tore through the muscle of his upper arm. Joe’s quick reactions brought Jack Flynn to his knees. The oldest Flynn son dropped his gun and soon followed it.
In the confusion of the fight, both Hoss and Joe had lost sight of Caleb Flynn. When they looked around, they saw that he had circled to the left and was moving toward their father and brother. Ben saw him too and clutched Adam’s still body closer to his own, bringing a soft moan from the injured man. Joe was about to fire when a warning shout stopped him.
“Stop right where you are, Flynn.” Roy Coffee’s voice rang above the sounds of the storm. He walked toward the man, gun ready to fire. Flynn stopped and looked at the sheriff. Without a word, he turned back and kept moving toward the two helpless figures in the street. A single gunshot caused Flynn’s body to buck but he kept moving forward. Flynn aimed his gun for the last time but before he could fire, the sheriff ended his life.
All movement seemed to cease. The only sounds were those of the elements that churned about them. Finally, Joe pulled himself off the ground and knelt beside Hoss. “You alright?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Joe helped Hoss struggle to his feet. “But Pa and Adam…?”
Joe saw the raw pain in Hoss’ eyes and he took a deep breath, trying to control his own emotions. “Come on.”
Roy was already at Ben’s side. “You alright, Ben? You been hit?”
Ben stared back with unseeing eyes, as if unable to comprehend his friend’s question. He looked away from Roy than turned to Hoss and Joe. They were met with the same look of confusion in the deep brown eyes.
A crowd started to gather around the little group kneeling in the mud. “Come on Pa, let’s get Adam outta the street,” Hoss offered.
Ben loosened his grip and Adam’s head fell away from his father’s chest. Ben raised a hand and tried to push the wet curls back into place. “Yes, yes—Paul will help him.” Roy got up and signaled for some men to pick Adam up and take him to the doctor’s house. Ben relinquished his hold and stood up. Joe and Hoss walked on either side of their father as the small procession moved to the little house at the edge of town.
Adam was place on the doctor’s table. The men who had carried him in tipped their hats and mumbled words of regret to the Cartwright family. Ben stood at Adam’s side trying not to see the blood as it turned his son’s shirt more red than white. Joe brought him a chair. “Why don’t you sit down Pa?”
Paul Martin bustled into the room, his hair uncombed and shirt half tucked in. Roy had gotten him out of bed. He ignored the Cartwrights. With eyes only for his patient, he muttered, “Young fool! I told him! Why wouldn’t he listen?” He held the stethoscope to Adam’s chest and closed his eyes in concentration. Placing the instrument aside, he ripped the red and white shirt open. Without looking up, he said, “Please leave. I’ll come to you when I can.” Ben started to protest but Paul ignored him.
Hoss stepped forward. “Come on Pa— come wait with us.”
Ben noticed the blood stained handkerchief that circled Hoss’ arm. “Hoss, your arm…”
“It’s ok, Pa. Nothin’ to worry about. We need to leave and let the doctor take care of Adam.” Hoss took his father’s arm and started to guide him from the room.
Paul looked up from his instruments. “Is the bullet still in, Hoss?”
“No doc, it went right on through. I can wait. Just take care of my brother please.” He continued to usher Ben from the room, trying to control the tears that swam before his eyes. Roy followed them out.
Paul called Joe. “Take some clean bandages and wash Hoss’ arm than bind it up. I’ll see to him later.” Joe did as he was told but hesitated before he left. His pleading eyes met the doctor’s.
“I don’t know Joe.” Paul’s frustration was now sadness. “I just don’t know”
It seemed like hours since Joe had shut the door to the Doctor’s surgery. Roy had left early on to take care of the grim task of seeing to the bodies that littered Virginia City’s main street. Ben and Joe had done what they could for Hoss’ arm. But Hoss refused anything for pain saying he needed to be ready in case Adam needed him.
Ben broke the silence, his worry becoming anger. “All this death— an entire family wiped out. And for what— revenge?” Ben got up and started to pace. “What a waste! What a senseless, useless, damnable waste!” He looked at his two younger sons. “And your brother was caught up in Caleb Flynn’s madness.” Ben raised his fist and pounded the wall. “I want my son to live!” he shouted.
Joe stood in front of his father and placed both hands on his shoulders. “Come on, Pa,” he said, his voice a soft whisper. “Come sit down.”
Once Ben was seated again, Joe said, “Adam’s in there because of me. I know he called Hatcher out because he was afraid Flynn would hurt me.” Joe’s face mirrored his devastation. “I could’ve taken care of myself. Why did he do it?”
It was Hoss who answered. “I know you didn’t ask him to Joe—you didn’t have to. Adam can’t help who he is and part of him will always take care of us, whether we like it or not. He just can’t help himself.”
The three men became silent, each lost in their own thoughts.
Paul Martin sat at Adam’s side. Every little while he would reach up to feel the young man’s pulse. The surgery had been long and arduous. The single bullet had splintered on impact. From what the doctor could tell, Adam must have stepped sideways at the last moment. The fragments bounced along his ribs, some penetrating deeply, some not. The greatest damage from the injury was blood loss and it would be awhile before his patient stabilized. Adam came round after the surgery fairly quickly. Paul encouraged small sips of salted water followed by plain water but not too much. Experience had taught him that pushing fluids at this point would only result in them coming back up.
He knew Ben and the boys were suffering, not knowing about Adam’s condition but he felt it more merciful to say something other than I’m not sure, I don’t know yet or we’ll have to wait. His thoughts were interrupted by a prolonged groan followed by a weak cough. “Pa,” was pushed out on a thin breath.
“It’s me, Adam—Paul. I’ll get your family in a few minutes.” The doctor once more reached for his patient’s wrist.
“How bad?” Adam asked.
“Some damage Adam, but not too much. You’ve lost a lot of blood.” Paul answered.
“I didn’t know in the dream…” Adam stopped and closed his eyes against the pain and exhaustion. “I didn’t know if I lived or not.”
“Dream— what dream?” Paul asked but his patient had slipped into sleep once more.
Paul rolled down his sleeves and walked to the door. The three men came to their feet but before anyone could ask, Paul said, “Between the injury and the surgery, he’s lost a lot of blood. It’ll take his body some time to replenish it. I want to keep him here so I can watch him.”
“Then he’ll be alright?” Ben asked.
“I think so, Ben. He’s sleeping and that’s what his body needs most. You and the boys can go on in.” Paul led the way into the surgery. “Come and sit down, Hoss. Let me look at that arm.” Paul cleaned and re-bandaged Hoss’ arm. “That’s gonna hurt some. Joe, you make sure he takes something for pain so he can sleep. The doctor handed Joe a small envelope.
“I’ll sit with Adam,” Ben said as he took Paul’s chair at the side of the table. “Why don’t you boys go get a room? That way you can rest for awhile.”
Joe knew if he stayed there would be no way he’d get Hoss to leave. “Come on, Hoss, let’s do like Pa says. We can come back in a little while.” Hoss frowned at him then looked back at his older brother.
Paul smiled at Hoss and said, “I really think he’ll be ok. I promise to get you if anything changes.”
Hoss walked to Adam’s side. “You just be here when I get back,” he whispered than turned toward the door.
Joe felt his throat close as he tried to say something. Instead he squeezed his oldest brother’s hand than followed Hoss.
The rain’s intensity had dwindled to a light drizzle. The sun had already gone down and the night sounds from town were muffled by the distance of the doctor’s house from Virginia City’s main street. Ben continued to sit at is son’s side, offering liquids each time he awoke. Adam’s pulse slowed and became stronger. Finally, Paul felt safe in going upstairs to rest with a promise that Ben would wake him with any concerns.
Adam’s eyes opened and he found the familiar eyes of his father looking back at him. His normally rich, strong voice was weak and thin as he said, “I’m sorry, Pa.”
“Sorry? What have you got to be sorry for, son?” Ben leaned closer to hear Adam’s response.
“I know you don’t agree…” Adam stopped to catch his breath. “The fight with Hatcher.”
“I’d be lying if I said I approved of your being in a gunfight but I know why you did it.” Ben shifted in his chair. “Caleb must have been mad at the end. He didn’t care if he died as long as he took you with him. And I have no doubt that he would have gone after Joseph again if you hadn’t intervened.”
“Did any of them…?” Adam wanted to know if any of the Flynns had survived.
Ben hesitated to tell his son the truth but he knew he had to. “No, they’re all gone.”
Adam squeezed his eyes shut and turned his face away from his father. Besides exhausted and weak, he suddenly felt empty. What trick of fate had led to an entire family being wiped out? And what part had he played in the tragedy?
Ben thought his son had drifted off to sleep again so he was surprised when he heard Adam say, “Pa, do you believe in premonitions?”
“Premonitions?” Ben repeated. Well, I never gave it much thought, son. Is this about your dream?” Adam gave him a quizzical look. “Don’t blame your brother. He assumed you’d told me.” Ben thought for a moment. “It must have seemed as if you had lived it over and over again and then it came true.”
‘Yes, but I never knew how it ended, not really. I just assumed—- well it doesn’t matter now.” Adam was sure he’d been witnessing his own death but he wouldn’t voice that to his father. The man had been through enough. Besides, what did it matter now? “Tired—think I’ll just sleep.”
Ben kept a vigil over his firstborn, giving thanks that some higher power had intervened on his boy’s behalf. The shadow of death had disappeared with the light of faith.
It had been about a week since the storm had bled the moisture out of the heavy air. Paul Martin was glad to see the grass turning back into the deep greens of late summer again. He watched as the wagon carrying Adam home faded into the distance. The doctor was confident that all his patient needed now was the healing touch of time.
Paul let the curtain fall and walked into the small kitchen. The cook stove burned low but enough to ignite the envelope that he dropped into the burner. He watched as the flames curled around the Last Will and Testament of Adam Cartwright than turned it into ashes.