Word count: 12,860
“Little Joe, come on. It’s getting late.”
“I don’t wanna.”
Hoss rolled his eyes. “Doesn’t matter. You gotta.”
“No, I don’t. We could just not go.”
“We’re going, Joseph, I don’t intend to be late.”
Little Joe opened his eyes and studied his elder brother as Adam took a last swipe with the razor. “It’s not like we’ve never missed services before. We didn’t go to service last Sunday.”
Adam wiped the last bits of shaving cream from his face and turned to place his full glare on the boy in the bed. “Last Sunday, attending church services was an impossibility. At last count, San Francisco had eighteen churches, and one of them is less than five blocks from this hotel, so we will be attending. Now, get out of that bed and get dressed.”
Little Joe sat up and pushed away the bed covers. “Thought this trip was supposed to be a birthday present. Seems like…”
Adam’s eyes darkened at his brother’s muttering. Hoss reached out and swung his little brother from the bed setting him on his feet two steps from the wash basin. “Get a move on, Short Shanks. I want time for a mighty fine breakfast before we head out. Can’t have my stomach growling during the sermon.”
Little Joe sloshed water from the pitcher into the basin. “Listening to Adam preach at me most every day should…”
Raising his voice to cover his younger brother’s, Hoss stepped into Adam’s line of sight. “Why don’t you go down to the dining room and order us up some eggs and flapjacks and bacon, maybe ham, and biscuits, and, ummm, well, whatever they got that sounds good while Little Joe and I finish up. We’ll be down directly. Quicker than spit in fact.”
Adam made a single attempt to look around Hoss before sighing. “That’s probably the best idea. See he has on a tie and his hair is brushed.”
“I will, I will. And you know that I’ll have us down before any of that food can even start cooling.” Hoss smiled and edged his older brother toward the door.
Adam took two steps back and then turned. Proceeding to the door, he paused to address the youngest Cartwright without looking back. “Fifteen minutes, Joseph, not a minute more.” He closed the door behind him quickly enough that hearing any response from either brother would be an impossibility.
“He means it, Joe, so shake a leg.” Hoss walked over to the dresser and picked up his own string tie.
“I am, I am. Don’t you go griping at me too.” Little Joe rolled his eyes as he wiped his face. “Some present this trip is turning out to be.”
“Now, you best re-think that attitude. Pa and Adam let you come along because you done turned thirteen and you wanted to come so bad, but it ain’t like there weren’t half a dozen other gifts from Pa and Adam with your name on them. It ain’t like they promised you could have everything your way either, just because it was partly…”
“I know.” Little Joe pulled his nightshirt over his head and tossed it on the bed. He plopped down beside it and sighed. “I know.” The second declaration was softer and absent of whining.
“Then get yourself dressed, so we can get down to the table. I’m getting powerful hungry.” Hoss’ stomach chose to punctuate his declaration with a loud rumble.
Little Joe giggled, shook his head, and then managed to dress in less than the fifteen minutes allotted.
Little Joe lifted his eyes from his empty plate and bit the corner of his lip. “Umm, Adam, umm, if you want the morning paper, I could fetch one for you. They have them at the front desk, but the man said sometimes they sell out.”
Adam set down his coffee cup. Breakfast had been pleasant, and Little Joe had made no complaint about anything that had or had not been ordered. His eyes traveled to the open doorway through which he had a clear line of sight to the front desk. “I’d appreciate your fetching one then. Here.” Adam reached into his pocket and held out a coin to his brother.
Little Joe smiled, jumped to his feet, and took the coin. “Be back in a snap.” He headed toward the desk with a light, quick step.
“He was tired this morning, Adam. He ain’t been sleeping well, not being in his own bed, and…”
“And I think, well, I think he misses Pa most at night.”
Adam’s finger ran from the tip of his nose up to the spot directly between his eyes and rubbed. “I suppose so.”
“You know being tired makes him irritable, and, well, Little Joe ain’t never been very good in the morning, not like you.”
“That is an understatement.” Adam took another sip of coffee. “I want this trip to be a good one for him, for you, for all of us.” He shifted in his seat and leaned forward crossing his arms on the table. “It’s not just that Pa would have fits if he found out we just decided to shuck off church and go hightailing around the city of a Sunday morning. It’s, well, it’s the right thing to do.”
“Little Joe knows that. He’d be feeling guilty pretty quick if we did just up and skip service. Pa saw to that with all of us some time back.”
“Yes, but when Little Joe’s conscience started in on him, he’d just tell it that it wasn’t really his fault because, after all, I was the one who decided we didn’t have to go.” Adam leaned back and pick up his coffee again as Little Joe re-appeared newspaper in hand.
“Here, Adam.” Little Joe handed the folded newspaper to his brother. “And here’s the change.”
“You can keep it.” Adam set the cup down again and rose. “We best get going. They say the preacher is quite a speaker, and attendance is very good.” He smiled at his brothers. “We don’t want to arrive so late that the only pew open is the one in front.”
Little Joe settled his eyes on the stained glass window behind the altar. The depiction of the crucifixion had a very emaciated Jesus hanging on a cross guarded by an impressive Roman soldier and gazing at the weeping women below him. The colors were strong and backlit by the morning sun. Little Joe murmured his approval to Hoss, who mumbled agreement as Adam shushed them both. Between the stained glass pictures at every window, the elaborate carvings on the altar and pulpit, numerous statues, and the massive German pipe organ, Little Joe had decided that attending service was not quite the burden he had felt it would be earlier. He settled against the back of the pew, squirming into a more comfortable position as the reverend mounted the steps to the raised pulpit. If the preacher kept the sermon short, he would be able to truthfully mention to Pa that he had enjoyed attending church in San Francisco.
“Brothers and sisters…” The Reverend Alcott was an impressive man with a deep bass voice that immediately drew the attention of every person in the church. “Today I take as my text Matthew Chapter 23 verses 27 and 28.” The reverend opened the large Bible before him and raised the volume of his voice a notch.
Little Joe jumped as the preacher slammed the Bible closed and pointed his finger outward.
“Full of hypocrisy and iniquity!” The words condemned, and Little Joe blinked. “There are those in this city, even within these walls, who stand with those Pharisees and hypocrites full of iniquity and evil. I say unto them — unto you all — as the Lord said unto those before him, ‘Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ Will they hear? I pray; I hope; but I fear not. Many of them will face the fire and repent only when the flames begin to lick at their feet. They have pledged their lives to Lucifer and lucre, creating within a city named for a saint a Sodom of sin and transgression awaiting the judgment of Almighty God.” The reverend’s voice descended from its roar to a softer, sheepish tone. “Not I; it cannot be I to whom he speaks. I have not raised up temples of evil, filled the streets with harlots, twisted justice and the law for my own benefit. Perhaps others have, but not I. Not I, Lord, not I.” The voice stopped, and the entire church rang with the silence. Then the deep roar once again filled the sanctuary to its corners. “Yes, you, all of you who have seen the vile black beneath the whited walls and allowed it to remain. Not only remain but to grow, to prosper, to thrive and gain control of this place we call home. Each and every one of you who have allowed hypocrites and henchmen of Lucifer to be voted into office time and again without rising up with righteous indignation as did our Lord when he drove out those who defiled the temple and made of His Father’s house a den of thieves. You share the blame, the condemnation, and you shall stand with them in the flames of eternal damnation if you do not join the fight against the sin and corruption that holds this city in its grasp.” The Reverend Alcott placed both hands on the pulpit and leaned toward the congregation. Little Joe pressed against the back of his pew in an effort to distance himself from the reverend’s glare, but he could not drop his gaze from the man’s face. In fact, for the first time in his thirteen years on earth, Little Joe Cartwright sat through an entire sermon with rapt attention and without restless movement.
Adam gave the driver their destination and stepped into the hansom cab, taking the seat opposite his brothers.
“Now, that’s the kinda preaching that keeps a body from sleeping through the sermon.” Hoss nudged Little Joe. “Almost worth getting up out of bed, uh, Sleepyhead?”
Little Joe shoved Hoss’ elbow away and snorted. “He was a powerful preacher, that’s for sure.” Little Joe looked across at his elder brother. “Are folks in San Francisco as bad as he was making out?”
Adam looked at the boy. “Not most of them, but, well, a lot of the elected offices are filled with men more focused on making money for themselves than the welfare of the citizens, and some of them — well, quite a few actually — aren’t above engaging in unlawful acts or at least getting paid to look the other way.”
“That’s not everybody’s fault, though, is it?” Little Joe looked at Adam expectantly.
Adam tugged his left ear. “No, no, of course not. In fact, San Francisco has been growing and changing. More men have brought their wives and children to live here — good men who want a safe place for their families to live. They are starting to band together to fight against the vice and corruption they see ruining the city. There is a James King of William who started a newspaper, The Daily Evening Bulletin, who seems to be leading the charge or fueling the fire at least.”
“And that reverend there — he thinks folks should stand up for what’s right, maybe join a group or something?” Hoss’ gaze had also settled on Adam.
“From what we heard, I would think so. I didn’t know any of the clergy had taken to speaking so openly, especially… Well, a number of city leaders attend that church. It’s the largest and finest Protestant church in the city.”
“So the reverend could get in trouble saying what he did about hypocrites and serpents and damnation?” Little Joe’s eyes had widened.
Adam rubbed his chin. “Speaking out in truth has brought trouble down on many a man, Little Joe, but I don’t think you need worry about the good reverend, not at the moment anyway. Besides, now that we have done our duty as good Christians, I feel the Lord would not frown on the Cartwright brothers enjoying some of the fine sights the city has to offer.” Adam smiled. “I thought we’d go down and have a look at the sailing ships in the harbor first. It should be a bit quieter down there of a Sunday.” He did not add the words “and a bit safer” but gave Hoss a look that assured that both of Little Joe’s big brothers would have him in sight at all times.
Little Joe’s eyes lit up. “There should been some real clipper ships, shouldn’t there? And maybe, well, just maybe we could go aboard one and look around just a little and…”
“Short Shanks, a body can’t just go walking onto a ship. Why, they are…”
“Actually, I heard that the Green Dolphin is in port. I’m acquainted with the captain, so there may be a chance…” Adam was interrupted by Little Joe’s overly loud exclamation of delight, and his dimples deepened even as he reminded the boy to lower his voice.
“Little Joe, set your boots outside the door, and they’ll be picked up and shined.” Adam hung his suit coat up and turned toward his brothers.
“Yours and Hoss’ too?” Little Joe had his boots in his hand and was looking around the room.
“If you please.” Adam reached over without comment and picked up Little Joe’s suit coat hanging it beside his own.
“Wouldn’t mind if that happened to home.” Hoss handed his boots to his little brother. “This is one fine hotel you have us staying at, Adam.”
Adam smiled. “Pa wanted us in this part of town, and, well, sometimes it does no harm to enjoy the finer side of life.”
Little Joe returned from depositing the boots and plopped down on the settee beside Hoss. “And we can ‘cause we’re rich.” Then he sat up. “Adam, just how rich are we? I mean, well, when I say anything about being rich, Pa always starts in on money being the least of what makes a man rich, and family, and all that. You know.”
Adam exchanged a glance with Hoss. “We do.”
“But we’re the money kind of rich too, aren’t we? Folks in town are always saying things about them rich Cartwrights.”
Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Pa has worked hard and has a good head for business; he… Actually, Little Joe, we are what most folks would consider rich when it comes to money and land. Not the richest by far, but much more comfortable than most.”
“Not just, Pa; you too, Adam. I heard Pa say as how you have a head for investing more than once.”
Adam cleared his throat. “I learned from Pa. Hoss, and pretty soon you, would do well to do the same.”
Hoss shook his head. “The ranch and such, well, I’ll learn all I need to see to that, but I’m thinking as how I’ll let you see to the investing and such.”
“What I’m saying, Adam, is dividing things up and each doing what he is best at seems a good way.”
“I’ll see to the horses; Hoss can see to the beeves. We can both help with the timber while you see to the mines and the money. Things will work just fine.” Little Joe settled back with his feet in Hoss’ lap. It was clear that he considered the matter well settled.
Adam cocked his eyebrow. “And Pa?”
“Oh, Pa will be seeing to us and playing with his grandkids. Like you said, he’s worked hard, really hard; he deserves to lay back a bit soon as I get grown.”
“Well, I can’t fault you there, little brother. In fact, I expect you and Hoss to do your share tomorrow morning while I’m at my meeting concerning the timber contract.”
“What do you mean?” asked Hoss.
“Pa sent a list with us of things to buy and have sent back to the ranch. Quite a long list and I have divided it up. There are some things I think Hoss and you would be best at choosing, so tomorrow morning…”
“Hoss and me? You’re really going to trust Hoss and me to go out and choose things for the ranch without you?”
Adam looked down at his brother. “Why wouldn’t I? Hoss is entirely capable, and he will have you to help. Some things, well, in all truth, I think for a few things you and Hoss are the best men for the job.” Adam watched both his brothers chests expand, and their backbones straighten.
“But, well, Pa…” Hoss shot Adam a questioning glance.
“Would skin me alive if I let the two of you wander around alone in parts of this city, but I intend to give you a list of places to go, and if you stick to them, well, you shouldn’t have a problem.” Adam saw the sparkle in Little Joe’s eyes, and bit back the warning he had intended to add.
“And if we don’t, you’ll skin the both of us and send the carcasses home to Pa.” Hoss’ tone was teasing, but his eyes caught Adam’s and gave a serious promise.
“Well, that goes without saying. Then I thought we would meet for lunch. After that, Pa wants us all to get new suits and some shirts and things, so we have an appointment at the tailor’s.” Adam paused listening for a reaction from Little Joe, but it was Hoss who sighed.
“Did Pa say I had to get a certain color?” Little Joe had always had his own ideas about how to look his best.
“No, he felt you’re old enough now to make your own choices — with some guidance, that is. Then tomorrow night we’re going to the theater.”
“The theater?” The question came from both the younger Cartwrights with the same hesitancy.
“To a musical revue. Jim Allerton told me that one of the respectable theaters was having a musical revue that was appropriate even for older…umm…young men like Little Joe, so I purchased tickets today.”
“What kind of music?” Little Joe spoke softly.
Adam shook his head. “Not a symphony. Singing and dancing, popular music, comedy, a few skits. You’ll like it, I promise.”
Little Joe smiled. “We’ll trust you then.”
“Good. Now, best get to bed.” Adam saw the protest forming in his little brother. “We all need to rest up; tomorrow will be a long day. We’ll be out quite late.”
“Yeah, Little Joe, I don’t want you snoring through the music.”
“You’re the one who snores, you big galoot.” Little Joe gave Hoss a shove, but rose and finished changing for bed.
Later, Adam felt the bottom corner of his bed give under the weight of a body. “I thought you were asleep.” He sat up and peered through the darkness at his little brother.
“Nah, Hoss is, but I knew you weren’t yet.”
“Is something wrong?” Adam could make out the shaking of Little Joe’s head.
“I just…ummm…I just… The other morning, Sunday morning…I…I didn’t mean, well, I didn’t mean some, most of those things I said. I just…”
“I know. It’s fine.”
Little Joe shook his head again. “I shouldn’t have. Pa wouldn’t have let it pass.”
“Perhaps not. Brothers can, though.”
“I…I wanted you to know I know that you are trying real hard to give me a good time.”
“You and Hoss. I want us all to have a good time.”
“You and Hoss could have a better time if I wasn’t here.” Little Joe’s voice was even softer.
Adam leaned forward. “No.” He reached out and rested his hand on his brother’s leg. “Joe, if Hoss and I were here alone, we’d do some things that we won’t on this trip. If I was here alone, I admit there are some things I’d do that I’d enjoy but that I’ll pass on because Hoss and you wouldn’t. But, well, people can enjoy different things at different times with different people. A good time is a good time; it doesn’t have to be compared to any other good time. I enjoy spending time with my brothers.”
“So you won’t mind going to the musical revue instead of the opera?”
“I enjoy all kinds of music. I promised you we’d enjoy tomorrow night. I was including myself in that.” He reached out and ruffled Little Joe’s hair.
Little Joe shook off Adam’s hand but smiled and cleared his throat. “I promise you something too, Adam. I promise, well, to try to be real good and watch my mouth and not fuss and have manners and not embarrass you.”
“You don’t have to grow wings and a halo. Just…” Adam’s hand tugged his left ear. “Joe, San Francisco’s a big city, and the dangers here… Well, you don’t know them the way you do at home. Just promise me not to wander off, to mind me about…”
“I won’t do nothing to make you worry. Really, I promise not to.”
“Fine. I won’t worry then.”
Little Joe cocked his head and then shook it. “Yes, you will. You always do.”
“I’m responsible for you and for Hoss too. Pa put all his eggs in one basket, and I’m the one carrying that basket.”
“You’re one of them eggs too. Still, you should worry less. Hoss is pretty much grown….”
“All grown and big enough to take care of myself. Big enough to keep both of my brothers from getting shanghaied too, so you both can quit yapping and let me sleep.” Hoss’ voice was muffled, but his intent was clear.
Little Joe huffed but stood to return to his bed. “Well, we’ve got to admit he is big enough.” Stressing the last two words, Joe took a step and then launched himself at Hoss’ bed. Hoss knew his little brother well enough to free his arms and catch Joe as the boy fell on top of him.
“Boys!” Adam’s voice stopped the wrestling. “People are trying to sleep in this hotel.” He watched Hoss set Little Joe on his feet. “Let’s join them.”
Hoss looked over and studied his elder brother as Adam watched the tailor and his assistant take Little Joe’s measurements. He rubbed his hand up and down his thigh and then spoke softly. “Adam, it’s not the first contract that we haven’t got. Sometimes, well, everybody gets outbid sometimes.”
Adam turned his head and tugged his ear. “Of course we’ve been outbid before.” He tugged his ear again.
“It’s something more, ain’t it?”
“Nothing you need to be concerned with.”
“Wasn’t you just saying that I needed to be learning about business? I ain’t gonna be learning much if you and Pa keep on keeping things from me. I ain’t a child.”
“You haven’t reached your majority either, little brother.”
“Near enough. I understand not telling Little Joe…”
“Not telling me what?”
Adam and Hoss both looked up to see their brother standing beside Adam’s chair.
“Where’s Mr. Atherton?” Adam asked.
“He went to get some material to show us. What weren’t you going to tell me?”
“Hoss and I were just discussing business; it’s nothing you would be interested in.”
“It’s always something when you don’t want me knowing, ‘cause you think I’m a baby.” Little Joe’s eyes sparked with indignation.
Adam took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He tugged his ear and sighed. “You know my meeting this morning was to try and get the timber contract with the city for the public wharves that are being built to extend the harbor.”
“You was meeting with a Mr. Mason, some kind of city councilman or supervisor or such.”
“Yes, well, he made it clear that the contract was available to us…” Adam paused and cleared his throat and then lowered the volume of his voice. “Available if we were prepared to pay a, ummm… He referred to it as a special operating fee.”
“A special fee?”
Adam straightened in his chair. “We could have the contract if we paid the highest bride to the mayor’s office and another to him personally.” Adam stood as he saw the tailor approaching with an armful of fabric swatches. “I declined and that was that. Ah, Mr. Atherton, you seem to have quite the selection there.”
“It’s really late, Little Joe, so straight to bed.”
“I ain’t sleepy.” Little Joe flopped down on the hotel bed. “That was a humdinger of a show.” He glanced over at his elder brother. “Thanks, Adam. Thanks a lot.”
“You can thank Pa when we get home; he allotted quite a nice sum for entertainment.” Adam smiled and swung Little Joe’s shod feet off the bed as he passed by.
“Sure were some pretty gals dancing and singing and…” Hoss glanced over at Little Joe and then cleared his throat. “We did have us a fine time tonight.”
“That we did. Joe…”
“I know, I know. I’m changing.” Little Joe stood up and started to unbutton his shirt. “Adam, you did have a good time, didn’t you?”
“I said I did.”
“Yeah, but you’ve been sort of quiet like all night.” Little Joe tossed his shirt on the bed.
“Hang it, please.”
Little Joe doffed his pants and then reached for his shirt. “Is it ‘cause of that timber contract?” Little Joe sat down the bed, clothes in hand, and turned a serious gaze on Adam. “That Mr. Mason, he’s one of those white sepulcher politicians that the reverend preached about.”
“Yes, he is a corrupt politician.”
“The mayor must be too.”
“It would appear so.”
“Is asking for bribes illegal?”
Adam tugged his ear. “Actually it is.”
“So that’s what you been chewing on.” Adam’s eyes swung toward Hoss. “Any use reporting this Mason to the police?” asked Hoss.
“From what I’ve heard and read, there is as much corruption within the police force as within city hall.” Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I could file a report; in all probability, it would simply get lost, so to speak.”
“Then…” Hoss shrugged. “Ain’t much you can do.”
“You could tell somebody else. Somebody who’d do something.” Little Joe sounded naively confident. “Is that what you’ve been figuring on — who best to tell?”
“Umm, well, maybe… Who’d you say that newspaper fellow was? That King William…”
“James King of William. He’s not really a king, Little Joe.”
“But he publishes a newspaper. If the newspaper did a story about you reporting that Mason for asking for bribes, well, then it would be real hard for the police to just lose the complaint.”
“True.” Adam’s right hand tugged his left ear at least three times. “It would be my word against Mason’s.”
“It would be opening a big can of worms, that’s for sure.” Hoss’ voice had grown thoughtful. “We don’t even live here.”
“No, we don’t.”
“Other folks do though.” Little Joe caught Adam’s eyes with his own. “It would be the right thing to do, wouldn’t it?”
Adam shifted his weight from one foot to another. “We’d have very little chance of actually accomplishing anything.”
“If you do the right thing, and other folks don’t…”
“Then the Lord won’t be holding it against you…”
“And neither will I. Tomorrow, I’ll pay a visit to the police and then see if I can speak with James King.”
“We’ll go with you.”
Adam shook his head. “You will not, neither of you.” He sent both his brothers a glare that they had long ago learned meant that Adam’s mind was firmly made up. “Now, we best all get to sleep.”
Hoss and Little Joe exchanged a glance and then continued to prepare for bed without further comment.
“But he don’t have to know. We’ll just follow him, keep an eye, watch his back.”
Hoss sighed. “No. Adam said we was to stay here at the hotel, and he meant just that.”
“He should have somebody watching his back.” Little Joe’s voice was adamant.
“Maybe… Joe, listen to me. We can’t, but I can if you promise to stay put.”
“No, if you go…”
Hoss put a hand on each of his little brother’s shoulders and let his eyes bore into Little Joe’s. “I go or nobody goes. It’s that simple. If you want someone to have Adam’s back, then you promise for real and true — a brother’s promise — that you’ll stay in this room, this room only…” Hoss saw Little Joe’s mouth begin to open and tightened his hold. “If you need the necessary, there’s a chamber pot. Believe me, neither of us is leaving unless I trust your promise.”
Little Joe pulled away from Hoss and turned his back to his brother. You stubborn galloot! You mean it, and when you look like that, you’re as stubborn as a Missouri mule, stubborner than anybody. “I could…” Little Joe turned back to his brother. “Please let me come. I can’t just sit here waiting. Pleaseee!” Hoss remained silent, his eyes giving not an inch. “Okay, okay, I promise.”
Hoss drew in a deep breath and released it slowly. “Say it all. Say it all and swear on Mama’s grave.”
Little Joe gasped. “Hoss! Mama’s grave!”
Hoss nodded. “On Mama’s grave.”
Little Joe gulped, huffed, and let out a slow sigh. “I promise on our Mama’s grave that if you go after Adam, I won’t leave this room for any reason, well, unless the hotel is burning down or collapsing or some such.”
Hoss bit the corner of his lip. “Some such ain’t no out for you following me. I won’t forgive you if you break this promise. The spirit of the promise, you have to be in real danger if you stay before you can think of leaving.”
Little Joe’s knees buckled; he sat down abruptly on the end of the bed. “I won’t. I…I promised Adam too that I wouldn’t do nothing that would worry him. I’ll stay put, so get going.”
Hoss walked over to his traveling bag and reached inside. Taking out his gun belt, he buckled it around his waist, grabbed his hat, and hurried out the door.
Little Joe looked at the clock on the mantle and saw that barely three minutes had passed since his last glance. He paced across the room again, figuring exactly how many minutes his brothers had been gone and estimating the time it might take to file a police report and to talk to a newspaper publisher. Then he shook his head and walked to look out the window at the busy street below. After a few minutes, he strode over to the armoire and opened it. Three sets of saddlebags lay where they had been placed on arrival. Adam’s saddlebags were on the bottom. Little Joe caught hold of the edge and tugged. Adam had worn his gun belt, but Little Joe knew his brother. The saddlebags hit the floor with a thud. Little Joe squatted down. A quick search revealed a smaller, older revolver and a box of bullets. Little Joe chewed the corner of his lip. You carrying a loaded gun is something Adam would worry about. He’s the one taught you to shoot, well, mostly. Maybe he’d worry more about you being alone with nothing to defend yourself. Maybe if the gun wasn’t loaded? What good is a gun that ain’t loaded? You ain’t got no gun belt, a gun in your pockets or your pants… If I have the gun and the bullets separate, I could load it quick but couldn’t shoot nothing on accident or ‘cause I fell or got knocked or nothing. Little Joe picked up the gun, checked automatically that it was unloaded, tried it in his pocket, and then stuck it in the waistband of his pants at the small of his back. Putting on his jacket, he checked in the mirror to see if the gun was noticeable, and a small smile tilted the corner of his lips. He then placed the box of bullets in his pocket, checked in the mirror, shook his head, took the box from his pocket, removed a handful of bullets, placed the bullets in his jacket pocket, replaced the box in Adam’s saddle bag, and then turned to check the clock once again. His stomach dropped as he realized how long it was before he could even consider expecting his brothers to return, and once more he began to pace.
Adam paused at the top of the steps and studied the street. He frowned, took two steps down, and then stopped. He looked across the street, and as a delivery wagon rolled forward, caught the scene reflected in the window across from the steps of the police station where he stood. His eyes widened, his nostrils flared, and he was down the steps in less than three seconds. Four seconds more and his hand was gripping the collar of his younger but larger brother, forcing him against the brick wall of the station.
“I’ll kill you myself!” The words were not shouted but hissed. “Where’s Little Joe?”
“Back at the hotel. He’s fine; he promised to stay put.”
Instead of loosening, Adam’s grip tightened the material at Hoss’ throat. “Is that so? And I suppose you believe he’s gonna stay put better than you.”
“I didn’t promise; he did.”
“He’s broken promises before — bent them anyway.”
“It was a brother promise, and he promised on Mama’s grave. He promised you too.” Adam’s hand dropped to his side. “You needed someone watching your back. I’m grown, and Little Joe’s safe. Be as mad as you want, but I’m here, and I’m staying.”
“Too big for you to drag back to the hotel.”
Adam’s expletive was extremely rude. “I knew it would come to this the day you were born; everybody said you were the biggest baby they’d ever seen.”
“Accept it then; Joe had to accept staying put. I settled my mind on things.”
“And once settled…” Adam shook his head. “There will be retribution, make no mistake about that.”
“I know; that’s what I’ll have to accept. Did you tell them that Mason was asking for bribes?”
“The chief of police himself took the report of Mr. Mason soliciting bribes for himself and in the name of the mayor’s office. Actually, only Mason can truly be accused; there is no proof that the mayor knew or encouraged his actions, or that any of the bribe money would ever have gone to him.”
“The police chief himself, that’s good…”
Adam shook his head. “If there is corruption in the police force supporting the commissioners and mayor, it is far more likely to be the leaders of the force than the lower officers.”
“Guess that’s right. Do you think…”
“I think the paper I signed would have been destroyed already if I wasn’t an important businessman and hadn’t mentioned I would be making my accusation public.”
“So now we go speak to that King fellow?”
“I sent a message to him this morning, and he is willing to see me at eleven.” Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You’re certain Little Joe won’t leave the hotel room.”
“He won’t. I wouldn’t have left him if I didn’t believe that.”
“Well, then, you might as well come with me. We’ll catch the trolley at the corner.”
“This is our stop.” Adam rose, and Hoss followed. Adam paused a moment and then took the two steps down to the street. As his foot touched the bricks, he felt a hand in his back push hard. As he hit the street face down, he heard a gunshot. His gun was in his hand in a second. Then he spotted the glint of sun on metal in the shadows of the alleyway, sighted, and as another gunshot rang out he fired. The screams and shouts of the witnesses circled him. He rose, keeping his gun in his hand and trying to check his surroundings. The man he had shot had fallen forward into the light and lay unmoving. “Hoss…Hoss? HOSS!” His brother lay head on the street and feet on the trolley steps, blood pooling beneath him. Adam moved instinctively, kneeling next to his brother, locating the wound, calling orders to the bystanders who had cautiously begun to approach, pressing a pad of folded handkerchiefs firmly against the flow of blood, and convincing the policeman who appeared to commandeer a wagon and help him to accompany his brother to the nearest hospital. It was not until the doctors took charge and forced him into a seat that his hands began to shake.
Dear God, he can’t die. Do you hear me, God? My brother cannot die! He can’t. Pa…oh, my God, it will kill Pa and Joe. Good God in heaven, Little Joe. He’s all alone; I have to… Adam stood and took two steps. But Hoss… I can’t leave him alone; I…oh, God, if he should die alone… He isn’t going to die; I won’t allow it. Do you hear me, God? My little brother is not going to die. Adam closed his eyes and drew in his breath slowly, trying to still the shaking of his hands. I need to… What about Joe? What can I do about Little Joe? They wouldn’t… They can’t know, can they? He’s dead. He was just a hired gun. Mason…Mason has no idea about Joe. Joe’s alone; I should… But Hoss…. Oh my God, what if he should die?
“Mr. Cartwright?” Adam looked up and focused on the doctor before him. “Your brother needs an immediate operation to stop the bleeding and repair the damage. We will be taking him into the operating room momentarily. If you wish a moment with him…”
“I’ll be going with him.”
“No, Mr. Cartwright. That will not be possible. Only hospital staff is allowed in the operating room. We have a very well-trained staff; your brother is in good hands.”
“You have to let us do our jobs, Mr. Cartwright, and since this job needs to be done quickly…” The doctor motioned to the stretcher where Hoss Cartwright lay in obvious pain. Adam moved to his brother’s side and picked up his brother’s hand in both of his. He was surprised when Hoss’ eyes fluttered open.
“You…” The word was a barely croaked question.
“Shhhh, I’m fine. Don’t talk. The doctors are going to operate and fix you right up.”
“Sure.” Hoss’ eyes lids fluttered, and then he pushed them open to focus on Adam’s face. “If…”
Adam leaned over and spoke into his brother’s ear. “You will not die, Eric Cartwright, do you hear me? I forbid you to die, and… I’ll…I’ll never forgive you if you do.” His voice broke.
“I’ll mind you.” Hoss’ eyes closed, and Adam let his hands drop to his side as they took his brother away.
He sat down and dropped his head into his blood-covered hands.
“Mr. Cartwright?” Adam looked up. He doubted that the man standing before him was a doctor. “You are Adam Cartwright?” At Adam’s nod, the man who had spoken extended his hand. “I am James King of William.”
Adam stood reflexively. “How did you…”
“A man is shot to death and another wounded almost on the doorstep of my newspaper. If I didn’t know the details in minutes, heads would roll. And when I am waiting to meet with a Mr. Cartwright about the corruption in our city, and the wounded man’s name is Cartwright, I would be remiss in not seeing to the matter myself.”
“Yes. Of course.” Adam ran his hand over his face. “I … Right now I can’t. My brother…”
“I have spoken with the hospital officials. They are operating on your brother now?” Adam nodded. “I extend my sincerest regrets on your brother’s shooting. I know the head of the hospital and have spoken with him. I assure you that your brother is in the best of hands. There are none finer in the country. This is the most advanced hospital in the city. A private room has been arranged, and your brother will be given excellent care.”
Adam sighed. He knew that sometimes it was who you were and who you knew that made the difference, and for Hoss, he would use any advantage at hand. “Thank you.”
“I have an important question. I know this is not the time for a full discussion, but do you believe that this shooting was connected with what we were going to discuss?”
“Yes, I do.”
“The city is crime-ridden. Could it have been simply…”
“No. He…from ambush…he was aiming for me.”
“Yes. Well, I thought as much. Please, please sit back down.” Adam sat reflexively, and James King took a seat on the bench beside him. “Is there anything … Perhaps someone who should be…”
Adam sprang to his feet. “My brother…”
“I assure you again…”
“No, no, my baby brother, Little Joe. He’s only thirteen. He’s… he doesn’t know.”
“He is here in the city with you?” James King rose to his feet.
“At the hotel. He’s alone. I haven’t…I…”
“You needed to be here, of course, and I’m sure he is entirely safe. Your hotel?”
“The Bay Regent.”
“The safest part of town and the hotel maintains its own security staff.” King placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “I’m sure he is fine, but no doubt you would like him here with you.” Adam nodded.
“James.” Adam and James King both turned at the sound of a bass voice. Adam recognized the Reverend Alcott approaching.
“This is the Reverend Abraham Alcott. I thought that some pastoral support might be welcomed. I presumed to send for the reverend. I attend his church.”
“We were at services Sunday. I… Thank you, thank you for coming, reverend.” Adam offered his hand.
Reverend Alcott took it in both of his. “Your brother is in my prayers. Perhaps later we can pray for him together.”
“Mr. Cartwright and I were discussing that his younger brother is alone at their hotel and as yet unaware. I was just going to offer to go myself and bring him here.”
“Little Joe, he…he might be afraid. I mean, he doesn’t know you, and he’s expecting Hoss and I… He knows there may be some danger. I just don’t know.” Adam ran his hand through his hair.
The Reverend placed a hand on Adam’s back. “You said you were at my church Sunday. Your brother was with you?”
“Yes, he…yes, we were all there.”
“The boy would recognize me then?”
“Yes, yes, he would. He, well, he focused on your sermon better than I’ve ever… Yes, he would recognize you.”
“Then, if I carried a note from you, he would not fear coming with me?”
“He… yes, he’d come.”
“Then I shall go and fetch him.”
“Would you? Would you, please? I’ve been…I didn’t…”
“Concern yourself no more.” Reverend Alcott patted the back beneath his hand.
“I’ll send Prescott with you, Abraham. I don’t think there will really be a need, but we will be prudent.” King saw the question in Adam’s eyes, and gestured to a tall man standing near the outside door. “Prescott works for me. He is a former soldier, and an upright and trustworthy man — a friend really. I would — in fact have — trusted him with my life. More importantly, I would trust him with the life of any of my children. He is an excellent shot.”
Adam let out a slow breath. “I’ll write a note then.” James King produced pencil and paper. Adam sat down on the bench. Taking a deep breath, he began writing.
There has been a problem, and I need you to come to me. The reverend will bring you, and I’ll explain when you arrive. Things will be fine. Just come quickly. You are released from your promise to Hoss but not from your promise to me.
Adam drew in another deep breath and released it as he folded the note. “This should do it. Thank you so much, Reverend.”
“I’m glad to help. Since we’re coming to the hospital, I’ll have to tell him your brother has been hurt, but I’ll also tell him you need to be the one to explain. He’ll be most anxious, so we’ll be as quick as possible. Perhaps by the time we return, there will be encouraging news.” The reverend and King walked over to Prescott. The two men departed, and James King returned to Adam’s side.
“I know your mind is occupied, but time may be important. I thought, perhaps we could wait in the room that will be your brother’s, and you could give me some details. It might do well to distract your mind.”
Adam straightened. “Yes, yes, of course. If you know the way…”
James King motioned with his hand. “I know who to ask.
Little Joe heard the knock and turned from his vigil at the window. He started toward the door and then stopped. Hoss or Adam wouldn’t knock. Who? Someone from the hotel? What if…” Little Joe touched the gun at his back. The knock was repeated, and Little Joe completed the walk to the door. “Yes?”
“Little Joe, Little Joe Cartwright, your brother Adam sent me.”
“Adam!” Little Joe had the door unlocked and opened before it occurred to him that doing so might be unwise. He took a step back when he recognized the man at the door. “You’re, you’re that preacher.”
The reverend nodded reassuringly. “Yes. Yes, I am the Reverend Abraham Alcott. Your brother Adam, well, he has been, umm, detained, and asked that I bring you to him. He sent this note.”
Little Joe snatched the offered paper and unfolded it. His eyes widened as he read. “Is… is he…is Adam hurt?”
“No.” The reverend swallowed. “Adam will explain everything if you come with me and Mr. Prescott here.” Reverend Alcott was startled by Little Joe’s rapid movement through the door and down the hall, but Prescott quickly caught the boy around the waist.
“Woe, lad, wait…”
Little Joe struggled against the restraint. “I’ve got to go to Adam. I’ve got to…”
“And we’ll take you as quickly as possible, but you have to stay with us. Where were you heading?”
Little Joe blinked at the realization that he had no idea where his brother was. He stilled. “Hurry, hurry, please, I think he needs me.”
The reverend pulled the hotel room door closed. “Come, lad, we’ve a carriage waiting.”
A hospital doesn’t mean nothing, not here in the city. We’ve been to Dr. Paul’s lots and lots. Hoss is strong; he’s the strongest. Adam didn’t come get me. Hoss is strong, real strong. Little Joe sat on the edge of the seat and mentally cursed each person and vehicle that impeded the carriage’s progress.
“We’ll go in the side entrance.” Prescott gave instructions to the driver. As the horses slowed, he turned to see that Little Joe had already jumped down and was heading up the steps. “Wait!” He sprang down and caught up with Little Joe as he opened the door. “Hold up, boy. We need to find which room your brother is in. You need to stay with us.”
Little Joe slipped from beneath the hand on his shoulder and darted inside. “ADAM! ADAM!” His voice echoed down the long hallway.
“Little Joe.” The reverend had caught up with them, and his voice came out in a deep, parental rumble. “This is a hospital, child. You can’t holler like that. The patient’s rooms are on the upper floors. ”
Little Joe swallowed. “My brothers…”
A member of the hospital staff had reached them. Prescott spoke with him; he left and returned within a minute with a number. Prescott led them down the hallway, up a set of stairs, and down other hallway. Stopping at a door with a 26 on it, he told Little Joe to go in. “The reverend and I’ll wait out here a few minutes.”
Little Joe took a second to say “thank you” and then stepped inside. “Adam?”
Adam rose to his feet. “Little Joe! Thank God.” He opened his arms, and his brother ran into them.
“I’ll go and speak with Prescott.”
Little Joe had not noticed the presence of James King and did not register his departure.
“Hoss? Hoss? What happened to Hoss?” Little Joe stepped back to stare up into his brother’s face.
“Sit down, and I’ll explain.” Adam’s explanation was general but thorough. “The doctor should bring word any time now, and they’ll bring Hoss here after the operation.”
“He’s going to be all right. He is, isn’t he?”
“You know how strong that brother of ours is.” Adam reached out and wrapped his arms around Little Joe. He hand patted the boy’s back and then moved down it in a soothing circle. “What?” He reached beneath Little Joe’s coat and pulled out the revolver. “A gun?” He stiffened.
“It ain’t loaded, Adam; it ain’t. The bullets are in my pocket.” He put his hand into his pocket and then held the bullets toward his brother. Adam took them.
“Joseph!” Adam turned a glare on his brother, but breathed in slowly at the look in Little Joe’s eyes. He was scared; he was alone and scared.
“I got worried, and you didn’t come, and…the bullets were in my pockets; it was safe. I thought if I needed it quick I should be ready.” Little Joe’s words tumbled out of his mouth.
Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose. “It made you feel safer.” It was more a statement than a question. “Actually, well, perhaps it was a good decision to be ready.” He checked the gun quickly to make sure that it was completely empty. He can’t shoot himself with an empty gun.
“I’m thirteen now,” Little Joe said softly. Adam handed the gun to his brother who tucked it back into place. The sound of the door opening drew the attention of both. Adam maneuvered Little Joe out of the way and held him back while the hospital staff moved Hoss to the bed.
The doctor entered. “Ah, Mr. Cartwright, the operation went very well. The bullet is removed, and the damaged repaired. Barring infection, there should be a complete recovery.”
“Hoss heals real well, doc.” Little Joe’s words brought the doctor’s attention to the boy.
“Yes, well, that is what a doctor wants to hear. I could tell he was a strong and healthy young man.”
“Little Joe, let the doctor…”
Little Joe squirmed beneath Adam’s hands. “I just…”
Adam’s hands exerted pressure. “How long?”
“If all goes well, in a few days. he should be ready to move. Umm…you are staying in a hotel? Well, in a few days, he should be able to move to the hotel. He will need to recover before any major traveling will be advisable. Mr. Cartwright, there are some new ideas about preventing infection. As they can do no harm, we practice them here. Especially in our private rooms, but in our public wards too. We have a much lower incidence of infection than normal. There is every reason to be optimistic.”
“That means Hoss is gonna fine. That’s what he said, isn’t it, Adam? Hoss is gonna be fine?”
“Of course, Joe; we’ll all see to it that he is up and around as soon as possible. There will be nurses and attendants in and out. I’ll be back to check on him regularly. As this is a private room, you can, of course, remain with him. Mr. King spoke with our administrator about an exception being made for the boy to stay also.”
“Usually children under sixteen are not allowed in the wards or patient’s rooms.”
“Joseph! You said an exception?”
“Due to the special circumstances, he may stay with you, but we ask that he not roam about alone.”
“He won’t be roaming or alone, I assure you.”
“Well, then, Hoss should be waking any time now. I have other patients, so please excuse me.”
“Of course. Thank you, Doctor Hanson, thank you so much.”
Adam pulled the two available chairs to either side of the bed. He and Little Joe sat down to wait.
“Hoss, come on, wake up now. No, no, be still. Here take a sip, just a sip or two. Good. Good.” Adam gently set his brother’s head back upon the pillows.
“You got shot, Hoss. I let you go by yourself, and you got yourself shot.”
“Little Joe, he…”
Little Joe brushed the hair back from his brother’s brow. “But you’re going be fine, just fine. Hear me.”
Hoss’ eyes went to Adam’s face. “You?”
“Not a scratch.” Adam straightened, and his eyes sparked. “You pushed me down.”
“Saw the flash.”
“Ain’t gonna be no next time, or if there is, I’m gonna be there. You two… Can’t let the two of you out of my sight.” Little Joe’s tone grew more exasperated as he spoke.
Hoss exchanged a glance with Adam. “The man?” Hoss’ words seemed to come a little easier.
“I shot him. He’s dead.”
“A hired hoodlum. We assume he was hired by Mason or someone in league with him.”
“I’ve spoken to James King of William. He came here to the hospital. He’s been of a good bit of service. The Reverend Alcott has been here also. He fetched Little Joe for me.”
“Good.” Hoss let his eyes close for a moment and then opened them again. “Pa know?”
Adam cleared his throat. “Uh, no, I…”
“Good. Don’t send no wire yet.”
“Hoss, I have… He has to know.”
“No need him coming here. You know if… Wait to tell him and say there ain’t no need. If he left today, I’d be mostly healed up ‘fore he could get here.”
“But Pa would want to know.” Little Joe’s voice had acquired a demanding whine.
And you want your pa. “I don’t know. Pa racing here… I just don’t know.” Or is it you just don’t want to face him. You told him you’d take care of the both of them. “We’ll see how the night goes.”
“You don’t have to stay. Neither of you.”
“I ain’t going! Adam!”
“We’re both staying.” Adam saw that Hoss was about to speak. “Don’t bother, little brother, my mind is settled on it.”
Little Joe plopped back down in his chair and crossed his arms on his chest. “My mind is settled too.”
Hoss just closed his eyes. Adam stepped to the door to ask the man guarding it to tell the next nurse that passed that his brother had wakened.
“Is there any fever?”
The nurse turned from Hoss to Adam. “Very slight and entirely expected. He’s doing just fine.” She walked over to a washstand and proceeded to wash her hands. “We’ll be bringing in a little something for him to eat in a bit. Until then, keep getting him to drink as often as you can. We have to replace those lost fluids.” She smiled and walked out of the room.
Little Joe settled on the edge of Hoss’ bed. “No fever’s a good sign.” It was both an observation and a request for reassurance.
“A very good sign. Where there is infection, there is fever.” Adam’s voice sound slightly more relieved than before the nurse’s visit.
Little Joe patted Hoss’ arm softly. “I told that doctor you were a good healer. Now you just got to get your strength back, and everything will be fine.”
“Adam, you and Little Joe should go to the hotel and get some real rest.” Hoss’ voice was weak but his words clear.
“Ain’t happening!” Little Joe’s arms crossed on his chest. Adam simply looked at Hoss and shook his head.
“Well, you should at least go out and get some breakfast. Like you said, I’m gonna be fine, so there ain’t no sense in worry about me putting you off your feed.”
“I’m not hungry.” Little Joe looked from Hoss to Adam.
“He needs to eat. You too.”
“He will — okay, we will. I’ll send out for some breakfast. There should be somebody about.”
“There’s no reason…”
Adam cleared his throat. “We’ll make a deal. We’ll send out for breakfast and lunch. If you eat and drink and don’t let that fever go up, well, Little Joe and I will go out for supper, and, umm, we’ll go by and send a wire to Pa.”
“You’re going to tell him not to come?”
Adam cleared his throat and tugged his ear. “Even if I advise him there is no need, he may still come. I expect he’ll wire back either way.”
Little Joe looked down at Hoss. “Why don’t you want Pa to come? I always want Pa when I’m sick.”
Hoss exchanged a glance with his elder brother. “I ain’t sick. Getting yourself shot ain’t exactly the same thing.”
“You think Pa’s gonna be mad?”
“Hoss, this is all my responsibility, all mine. If Pa’s upset with anyone, it will be me.”
“You didn’t do nothing wrong, Adam. You…”
A knock interrupted Little Joe. Adam walked to the door, opened it, and spoke to the man outside. He opened it wider, and James King of William walked into the room.
“I don’t wish to intrude, but the doctor said that your brother is doing well.”
“He is.” Adam motioned to a chair. James King seated himself, Adam took the other chair, and Little Joe settled on the foot of the bed.
“Hoss, Little Joe, this is Mr. James King of William. Mr. King, these are my brothers.”
Little Joe mumbled a polite reply.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. King.” Hoss attempted to sit up a little, but Adam’s hand gently pressed his shoulder back down.
“And I am pleased to be able to meet you.” King turned toward Adam. “The police are conducting an investigation, but the official decision, I am sure, will be that your brother was the sad victim of an attempted robbery.”
“Has, of course, denied everything, and suggested that, due to being the disgruntled loser of a sizeable business deal, you may have misinterpreted something he said.” King shrugged and rubbed his chin. “You are still willing to testify if we manage to see the case brought to trial?”
Adam’s eyes drifted to first Hoss and then Little Joe. “Yes. Has Mason been arrested?”
“Not as of yet. The matter is still quote under investigation. This evening’s paper should exert some more pressure, though.” King glanced at Hoss and then Little Joe before gazing directly into Adam’s face. “You will continue to…umm…take precautions.”
“And I shall keep you apprised of any developments.” King rose. “I’m sure the doctor would not wish me to overstay my welcome, so I will bid you all good day.”
Adam walked with King to the door and stepped out into the hall with him.
Hoss bit his lip; Little Joe leaned forward and patted his brother’s hand. “We know now. We’re being real careful. There’s a Mr. Prescott with a gun outside, and I…”
A nurse walked through the door bearing a tray, and Little Joe slipped to the floor then into the bedside chair.
Adam looked over the book he held open, even though he had not actually been reading for some time. He watched Little Joe walk to the room’s single, small window and look down. He’s been in this room for over twenty-four hours. He set the book down.
“Adam.” Hoss’ voice was a soft whisper that drew only his older brother’s attention.
Instinctively, Adam answered in a whisper also. “What? Do you need…?”
“No. Little Joe needs to get out of this room.”
Adam pinched the bridge of his nose. “I know, but…”
“Is it ’cause you think… To keep him safe?”
“I do think the hospital is the safest place. Still…” He paused as Little Joe came over to Hoss’ bed.
“Are we going to go out for supper?” Little Joe addressed Adam, but then turned his gaze on Hoss. “We don’t have to if you want us to stay with you.”
“We certainly won’t if you don’t want to be alone.” Adam tugged his ear.
“Alone? I’m in a hospital; there’s lots of folks here.”
“But not in this room.” Little Joe flopped down in the bedside chair. “I wish Pa and Hop Sing were here.” He looked at both his brothers. “Well, I do. They’re the ones that know how to take care of us when we’re hurt. Them and Dr. Paul. I like Dr. Paul better than this one.”
“He’s an excellent doctor, Little Joe. We should be grateful that such good medical care was at hand.” Adam’s voice was firm but held no edge. “Though I would much rather be at home with all three of them seeing to things like always.”
“That’s just what I was meaning.” Little Joe looked at Adam from under his lashes. “I didn’t mean…well, not disrespect. I thanked that doctor more than once.”
“I know you did.” Adam stood and paced to the window. “I’ve been thinking. Perhaps…well, perhaps Pa should come. I know, I know. I intend for you to be well on the way to being healed by the time he could arrive, but, well, if things haven’t been settled and I need to stay on a while, well, Pa could take you and Little Joe home.”
“And leave you alone!” Little Joe sprang up, shaking his head.
At the same time, Hoss grunted. “We don’t need Pa to take us home. If we decide it’s best, I can take Little Joe home. I ain’t no kid, no matter what you think.”
“We ain’t going to leave Adam alone!”
“Though maybe Pa coming to fetch Little Joe home while you and I…”
“Fetch me home! NO!”
“Joseph, settle down!”
Little Joe bit his lip and clenched his hands but held his tongue. Adam walked over and settled his hand on his younger brother’s shoulder. “We don’t have to decide anything now except what to put in the wire to Pa and how things will go tonight. Some things may resolve themselves before anybody as to stay or go. And if Pa does come, well, the final decision will be his — that’s for certain.”
Hoss let out a slow if shallow breath. “You nor Little Joe need to sleep in no chair again, or pretend to anyway.”
“You ain’t staying alone all night. While we eat supper, maybe, but not all night.” Little Joe looked up over his shoulder at Adam.
“No, no, he’s not staying alone. You aren’t going to stay alone at the hotel. I don’t even want, well, I thought of asking the reverend, but, no…” Adam sighed. “There’s things we need from the hotel. I think what would be best is if Little Joe and I go to that place just across the street and eat a decent supper. Then I’ll go…” He felt Little Joe‘s response beneath his hand. “I won’t go alone. I’ll have Prescott go with me. I’ll bring what is needed to make Little Joe a pallet there by the bed. That will be at least as comfortable as a bedroll on the ground.”
Hoss huffed. “And one for you.”
Adam rolled his eyes and then rubbed the stubble on his chin. “And my shaving gear and such. It shouldn’t take me very long.” Adam squeezed Little Joe’s shoulder and sent a silent message to Hoss. “Little brother can keep an eye on you.”
The two younger Cartwrights gave grumbles of agreement.
“We’ll go after they bring your supper and you’ve eaten it.”
In order to allow the nurses quick access to Hoss, Little Joe’s pallet had been made against the hall side wall with his head near the door and his feet tucked into the corner. Adam had laid out a pallet on the other side of the door but remained in the same bedside chair where he had spent the previous night. Though Prescott had left after accompanying Adam to the hotel and back, another armed guard named Anderson was seated outside the door. Since all reports from the nurses had been positive, and Hoss had eaten some solid food and grumbled about missing the meals they had been eating at the hotel, the carefully worded telegram Adam had sent his father was as positive as possible. As a reply could not really be expected before the morning, Adam had settled enough to drift into sleep just after midnight, with his ears attuned to the snores emitting from his brother’s mouth.
A muffled sound from the other side of the wall hall wakened, Little Joe. He opened his eyes and tilted his head as the door slowly opened. A small, darkly-shaded lamp near the bed sent a dim light across the room. Little Joe stiffened as that light caught the glint of metal in the hand of the man who walked passed Joe toward Adam.
The opening of the door had awakened Adam, and he turned toward it expecting to see a nurse. Instead, he stared into the barrel of a gun. Before he could react, his heart dropped at the sound of his youngest brother’s voice.
“Drop your gun, or I’ll shoot.” Little Joe’s voice shook only slightly; the revolver in his hand shook not at all.
The intruder glanced sideways, just enough to recognize that a boy sitting on the floor did indeed have a gun pointed at him. “I can shoot your brother, boy.”
“Then he won’t have no reason not to kill you dead.” Hoss’ voice had a coldness Little Joe had never before heard from his middle brother.
Adam’s voice had a different coolness. “We’re country boys. We taught baby brother to shoot when he was, umm, seven or was it six?”
“Six. He was hitting most everything he aimed at by the time he was seven. No way he could miss at that distance.” Hoss had straightened to a sitting position.
“Shooting a man is different than shooting targets or game. Bet you ain’t never shot a man; have you, boy?”
“That depends on if you count that Paiute I shot near two years ago. I do, but you might be one of the folks that don’t.” Little Joe’s hand still held steady, and only his brothers’ knew that was not his light-hearted tone.
“Consider well if you are willing to die to save another man from jail.” Adam rose slowly from his chair. “You may kill me, you may survive my brother’s bullet, but only if you’re very lucky, and the doctors at this hospital are disposed to treat a gunman well.”
A shout from the hall turned the intruder’s eyes momentarily, and Adam, whose own eyes had never left his attacker’s face, kicked at the gun. It flew across the room as two men burst through the door. The following fight ended quickly with the only injuries being to the assailant. Gun in hand, Adam took charge. After the police departed, he walked back into his brother’s room, closed the door, and leaned back against it. Little Joe ran to him, and Adam wrapped his arms around the boy.
“You sure you’re fine?” Hoss was sitting up in his bed leaning forward searching his elder brother for any sign of injury.
“Absolutely. You and Little Joe?”
“I checked him over. Nurses done checked me, so quit worrying.”
Adam pulled Little Joe from him, placed a hand on either side of his brother’s face, and searched his eyes.
“I’m fine, Adam; Hoss told you I’m fine.”
Adam smiled slowly. “Good.” He patted the boy’s cheek and arched his eyebrow. “When did you load that revolver?”
Little Joe’s lashes dropped to shield his eyes. “I…I…I didn’t.”
“You……didn’t?” Adam’s curse was one he had never before allowed his brothers to hear leave his lips. “You held an empty gun on a murderer!”
“I put the gun under my pillow; the bullets were still in my jacket.” All of the brothers’ eyes went to Little Joe’s jacket flung across the back of the empty chair on the far side of the bed.
Hoss groaned and slumped back against the pillows. Adam drew Little Joe to his chest, felt his knees buckle, and found himself on the floor with his brother in his lap. A minute passed in silence before he stated, “I am never going to play poker with the kid.”
Adam simply sat with his eyes on his brothers, and his ears focused on each sound around him. Hoss had been given orders by half a dozen people besides his brothers to rest, and had fallen asleep first. Little Joe, perched on the side of his brother’s bed, had slowly slumped into sleep and now lay curled on his side, his hand resting on the solid bulk of his older brother. Adam detected voices on the other side of the door where two armed guards now stood, rose, and with one hand on his gun, strode to the door and opened it. Seeing James King, he stepped out and closed the door behind him.
“My brothers are sleeping.”
“We’ll not disturb them then, but I do bring news.” King motioned with his hand, and he and Adam walked down the hall to a bench that stood against one wall. “First, your brothers were truly unharmed?”
“Physically they are fine. Well, Hoss is as fine as could be expected; the doctors don’t feel that the…the incident caused any sort of setback. In three or four days, he should be ready to go back to the hotel.”
“If you think that a home would be better than the hotel, mine is certainly at your disposal.”
“That is a most generous offer, but the hotel is quite comfortable. I do appreciate all you have done.”
James King waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “I’ve done little enough.” He cleared his throat. “I was there, though, when your assailant was questioned.”
Adam cocked his eyebrow in question.
“He named Mason. Mr. Cartwright…”
“Adam, Anderson asked me to reiterate his apologies.”
Adam shook his head slightly. “No need, no need at all. No one expected him to be drugged.”
“He feels if he had not drunk that coffee…”
“The sleeping draught would have simply been placed in water instead.”
“Anderson will appreciate that you do not hold him to blame.”
“Charles Mason is the man I blame.” Adam’s voice hardened, and his eyes flashed.
King cleared his throat again. “That is what I came to tell you. There may be a great deal of corruption in our police force, but there are also some fine and honest officers. When your assailant — he gave the name Jake Benson — stated that Mason had paid him to kill you and your brother if necessary — I don’t believe Mason was aware of Little Joe — officers were sent to place Mason under arrest.”
Adam leaned forward. “He is in custody then.”
King cleared his throat yet again. “No, actually, he is dead. It would appear he was the ultimate coward. He committed suicide as the police broke through his study door.”
Adam sat back. “He’s dead.”
“Yes, so the matter is at an end. The mayor will be publically shocked that Mason was using his position to extort money, and appalled that Mason could have had the audacity to pretend that any one at the mayor’s office was involved. There is no evidence that anyone beyond Mason and his henchmen were involved. Benson has confessed and will plead guilty. So, yes, the matter should be at an end.”
“I’ll not need to testify.” It was a statement not a question.
“No, and there should be no further reason for anyone to harm your brothers or you, as you are no longer a threat. In fact, a smart man would realize that harm coming to any of the Cartwright brothers could be counterproductive.”
“It would show that there was someone else involved in Mason’s corrupt practices.” Adam crossed his arms and tugged his ear.
“Exactly.” James King studied the young man before him. “You can return to your ranch and a peaceful life.”
“Having accomplished…” Adam shrugged.
“Doing the right thing.” The bass voice of the Reverend Alcott inserted itself as they looked up to find the preacher had joined them. “I heard what occurred last night. The boys?”
James King spoke up. “The assailant named Charles Mason. Mason committed suicide to evade justice.”
“I see.” The reverend sighed. “I came to make sure you knew that I am available should any of you feel the need for spiritual consul.”
“I appreciate that, Reverend.” Adam chewed the corner of his mouth.
The reverend exchanged a glance with James King.
King stood. “If you are comfortable with the fact that there is no further danger, I’ll go and dismiss the guards. Then I have business to attend. I hope to visit all of you when you return to your hotel and to have you to my home for dinner before you leave San Francisco.”
“We’d enjoy that. Thank you.”
“No, San Francisco owes a debt of thanks to the Cartwright brothers. I would like to meet the man who fathered three such fine sons.”
Adam rubbed his chin. “It is possible you may have the opportunity.” He shifted, and his hand dropped. “If not in the near future, at some later time. Business occasionally brings him to your city.”
“At any time.” King held out his hand and cleared his throat. “This battle may have ended, but the war to save our city will go on, I assure you. Good day.” King shook Adam’s hand and walked away.
The Reverend Alcott took King’s seat on the bench. “You still carry a burden. Perhaps, if you spoke to me of it.”
Adam studied the reverend’s face, then turned his eyes to study his hands. “I promised my father that I would look after my brothers, keep them safe, protect them.” Adam gave a dry, mirthless chuckle. “I put them in harm’s way, and in the end, they each had to save my… save me.”
“Would your father have chosen to ignore Mason’s bribery?”
Adam looked up. “No, he would have reported it.”
“Then certainly he could expect no less of you. After that choice was made, you tried mightily to keep your brother’s from harm.”
“And failed mightily. If Hoss had died… You don’t know my brother, reverend; he knew he’d be hit if he pushed me… And Little Joe. If Pa had lost his baby…” Adam shoulders slumped, and his eyes went to the floor.
The reverend placed his hand on Adam’s back. “As the story was told to me, you were stepping from the trolley, and your brother was behind you. Think for a minute. For that bullet to have hit your brother in the chest, it had to have been aimed at your head. You would have had no chance, no chance at all. Perhaps that is what your brother knew instinctively. I doubt your father would rather have you dead than your brother injured. ” Adam looked up at the reverend. “You all did what you felt was right, and in the end God held you in His hand. Should we offer Him our thanks?”
“Yes, yes, of course, but my brothers, they would want to join us in that thanks.”
The reverend stood. “Then let us join them. We will give thanks and ask for his continued blessing on you all.”
Author’s Note: James King of William (1822–1856) was a crusading San Francisco, newspaper editor whose shooting death in 1856 resulted in the establishment of the second San Francisco Vigilance Committee and changed the politics of the city. Born in the Washington D.C. area, King was the seventh and youngest son of William King, a native of Ireland. When he was age sixteen, he began to style himself “James King of William,” to distinguish himself from other James Kings in the area. King was among the first newspapermen to be honored by the California Journalism Hall of Fame.