Summary: A serial killer is wreaking havoc in the surrounding area. When a dying woman, a victim of such an attack, gives Adam Cartwright’s name as her killer, there’s only one person alive that can dispute her claim. But Joe Cartwright knows the woman isn’t lying because he’s a victim too and he was present when the crime took place. Should he believe what his eyes tell his mind he witnessed, or should he follow his heart?
Rated: PG13 for violence (13,700 words)
Death Rides a Black Horse
The night was dark and dreary; not a creature stirred. The pines and oaks were motionless, as if fear had gripped its fingers around their mighty trunks, refusing to let them voice their fright. Even the moon hid behind the dark clouds, refusing to light the path that led up to the front of the whitewashed, clapboarded farmhouse, making the unknown fathom pick and choose his way carefully.
High on a perch amid the branches of a tall Ponderosa pine, an old hoot owl watched the night stocker moving like a ghost through the shadow less gloom and round the corners of the outbuildings until he stood at the bottom step of the front porch.
The face was covered with a hood that obscured his distorted features; a cloak covered his body and hid from prying eyes, the black shirt and pants he wore. Nothing of his features could be seen, even in the darkness, it was impossible to tell the color of his eyes. His eerie like presence would have made the bravest of men shiver with fear so dismal was his appearance.
The black-gloved hand reached for the door and slowly, silently slid the thin bladed knife under the latch until it rose enough that the door was pushed gently opened. Inside, Carl and Martha Langley had just blown out the lamps and had begun to make their way up the narrow steps that led to their bedroom on the second floor of the house.
The stairs creaked, resounding in the hollow of the winding staircase and adding to the suspense that was quickly building within the house. Martha led the way, holding tightly to the lone candle where the soft glow of light was barely enough to light their way. Carl followed behind, until he suddenly stopped, feeling the fine hairs on the back of his neck bristle, filling him with an unknown dread. Turning abruptly, he was shocked to find the hooded figure behind him.
Before he could shout out a warning to his wife of thirty years, Carl was grabbed by the front of his shirt and sent hurdling down the narrow stair well. Cries of agony rose to a screeching high pitch as he bounced downward, hitting each of the hard wooden steps with a resounding thud. At the bottom of the stairs, Carl laid dead, his body lying in a twisted and mangled position that spoke of his doom.
Martha screamed hysterically, momentarily stunning the intruder. Fearing for her life, the frantic woman darted quickly up the remainder of the steps and into the first room, slamming and locking the door behind her.
The cloaked figured said nothing, but his deep, evil laughter rang with venom as he took his time climbing the stairs. Once he reached the locked door, he paused, grinning wickedly. The dimple in his cheek deepened, momentarily softening his otherwise wicked appearance.
One fierce kick with his booted foot shattered the lock making the door swing open. Martha saw the dark silhouette shaped like a man enter the room and stop, obviously searching the dense blackness for his next victim. She held her breath, daring not to breathe or move and thus giving herself away.
The shrouded form moved deeper into the room, twisting and turning his head, desperately seeking the woman. Martha had practically stopped breathing. The man was inches from where she huddled behind a chair.
The intruder sniffed the air and then Martha heard his heinous laughter for the second time. Fear seemed to have an odor all it’s own and a keen nose could easily pick up its scent. Unexpectedly, hands grabbed her from behind. The terrified woman had only a split second to scream before one hand moved to cover her mouth, halting any further sound from spewing forth.
Martha struggled, but in vain. She felt the hands guiding her, the overpowering body of her tormentor pushing and then shoving her forward, onto the bed. Another second and the sound of ripping material and wicked, evil laughter rang loudly in her ears. Flaring nostrils picked up his scent…the scent of death! Martha’s body began to convulse as the stabbing pain of the intruder’s attack began its assault. One final, piteous plea for help and it was over. The fruitless cries died on death’s uncaring ears; life slipped quickly from its housing as Martha’s soul joined her husband’s in life hereafter.
“Dear God, Roy,” stammered Ben Cartwright. “Any idea who might have committed such an atrocious crime?”
“Nope, not a clue,” answered the town’s sheriff.
“Nothin’ atall?” Hoss asked.
The sheriff shook his head back and forth.
“This here murder has got the whole town riled up, Ben. I got more’n twenty men out looking for…anything…that might give me a clue to who might have killed that old man and woman.”
The disgusted look on Ben’s face showed his repulsion. “Anything Hoss and I can do to help you, Roy?”
“You might keep an eye opened for anything out of the ordinary…and report any strangers you see hanging around. You hired any new hands lately?”
Ben shook his head. “I haven’t…Hoss, do you know if Adam’s done any hiring?”
Hoss looked thoughtful and then nodded.
“Come to think of it, he did hire two men…but that’s been more’n two maybe three weeks ago.”
“You don’t say?” muttered the sheriff. “They here abouts?”
“Naw…they’re both working up at the number one lumber camp, Roy…that’s where Adam sent them,” explained Hoss.
“They got names?”
“Yeah…let’s see…Jessie Wells and…hmm…Davie…something or other,” stammered Hoss with a thoughtful look.
“That’s alright, Hoss…I might just have to ride up there and talk to them.”
“Say, Roy, you needn’t bother, Adam said that Sam Harrington over at Carson City said that they were friends of his and that they would be good workers, that’s why Adam hired them, they came highly recommended,” explained Hoss. “Old Sam would have known if’n they’d ever been in trouble.”
“Well, that’s good to know, I’ll take old Sam’s word for it, he’s an old friend of mine, too…say, Ben…is Adam around?”
“No, he and Joe left this morning. They went over to Gold City to pick up a couple of horses he was planning on buying from some fellow. They won’t be back until suppertime,” Ben explained. “Do you want me to tell him you’d like to talk to him?”
Roy mounted his horse as he prepared to leave. “Don’t bother, Ben, I’ll ride back out this way tomorrow. I just want to find out more about those men he hired. See ya…”
Ben tossed up his hand, waving goodbye at his friend as Roy rode off.
“Golly, Pa…I wonder why on earth someone would want to murder that nice old man and woman?” Hoss questioned.
“I don’t know, son…I just don’t know. But we’d best keep our eyes opened…the murderer could be anyone, and until Roy finds some lead…no one hereabouts is safe,” Ben cautioned.
Three nights later a howling wind rattled the windows of nearly every house in the district. A pounding rain, driven by the fierce winds, beat down crops, broke limbs from treetops and pelted the roofs of each house and barn that was made to suffer under the torrential rains.
From the dark shadows a lone figure, clad in a long, hooded robe-like coat watched as the farmer hurried into the barn to tend to his stock. Unaware that he was being stalked, Lester Gamble went about his business. When the barn door creaked, he paid no heed to the sound, blaming the banging of the door on the harsh winds and driving rain. The big roan gelding in the stall with Lester, snorted loudly, it’s ears twitched nervously. The farmer ran his hand gently down the long smooth neck as he whispered soft words in an effort to calm the animal. Lester dumped some oats and grain into the feeding trough and waited until the horse began to munch on its supper. Satisfied that the animal had calmed down, Lester moved from the stall and put away the feed sacks.
Picking up his lantern and blowing out the flame, the tired farmer headed toward the door, ready to settle in with his wife and prepared to read the nightly passages from his worn out Bible.
As Lester’s hand grabbed the latch on the barn door, hands from out of the darkness suddenly covered his mouth and nose. The startled man began to struggle as he felt his body being dragged deeper and deeper into the darkened barn. A sharp, stabbing pain pierced his side. Lester’s muted cries went unheeded as he slipped slowly to the ground. Death had claimed another victim. Minutes later a forth soul would wing its way to heaven…Anna, would be among the dying.
“Wonder what’s going on?” Joe Cartwright asked his father as they rode into town together.
“Couldn’t say, son. Maybe Roy found out who killed the Langleys. Come on, let’s go talk to Roy,” Ben said as he nudged his horse into a quicker gait.
Ben and his son dismounted in front of the sheriff’s office. The crowd of bystanders was thick and the Cartwrights were forced to elbow their way to the door. Pushing the door opened and practically being shoved inside, Ben and Joe faced the local sheriff.
“Howdy, Ben…Joe. Say Joe, what happened to ya arm?” Roy asked, noticing for the first time the sling that held Joe’s right arm.
Joe laughed in a mocking way.
“I fell off my horse…don’t ask, Roy…it’s a long story,” the young man snickered.
“Roy…what on earth is going on?” Ben asked in a demanding tone. He nodded his head toward the door and the crowd that had gathered.
“Did you find out who killed the Langleys?” Joe blurted out before Roy had time to answer the first question.
“No…No…it’s much worse…”
“What do you mean?” Ben quizzed, glancing at Joe with a worried look on his face.
“There’s been another murder, Ben…two in fact,” Roy groaned.
“What! Who was it this time?”
Roy sighed deeply before responding.
“Lester and Anna Gamble.”
“How Roy…how were they murdered?” Joe demanded.
“Lester was killed while out in the barn…he was…knifed. Ben,” Roy said with such a downcast expression that Ben was forced to place a calming hand on the lawman’s arm.
“It wasn’t pretty…the way that Lester was carved up.”
Joe closed his eyes, pushing a mental image from his mind.
“What about the woman?” Ben asked.
Roy shook his head slowly. Ben could see the remorse that shrouded his friend’s face.
“Same as Martha Langley, butchered,” he muttered in a low tone. “The entire town’s out for blood, Ben…they’re like wild animals, ready to hang the first stranger that rides into town.”
“They’re scared,” explained Ben.
“I know that…and they’re angry…and that anger is beginning to direct itself at me.”
“Why’s that?” Joe inquired.
“Cause boy, I ain’t got the first clue as to who is going around killing our neighbors, that’s why!” exclaimed Roy in exasperation.
“Well, they can’t blame you for that…you’re doing all you can…aren’t you?”
“What do you think? Of course I’m doing all I can…but without a witness…there’s just no way of knowing who is doing all the killing, Ben.”
“Couldn’t you find anything? No tracks, no…”
“Nothing…whomever is doing this, is smart…and sly…he knows his way around and he moves quickly and quietly. From what I can tell…there’s no forewarning that this madman is any where around until he strikes…it’s a puzzle to me, Ben. And I need help with this…before it gets any more out of hand!”
“We’ll help,” declared Joe. “Just tell us what you want us to do…oh…and Hoss and Adam will want to help as well.”
“Good…that’s what I need right now…men I can trust,” Roy proclaimed with a sigh of relief.
For two nights and two days, nearly fifty men combed the county for clues to the murders. On those nights, nothing out of the ordinary happened. Among the group were the four Cartwrights, the Devlin’s, and Cass from the mercantile, Roy Coffee, Clem Foster, the Pruett’s…and still no clues were discovered. Discouraged, Roy ordered the men home, instructing each one to keep a close eye on what was going on around them. Better yet, Roy informed them, was to post a guard around their places, just in case.
“What about the widow Thompson?” Joe asked after everyone had departed and gone their separate ways.
Ben and his sons were grouped together, riding slowly back toward the ranch when the subject of the elderly woman was brought up.
“I suppose one of us could ride over to her place…maybe stay the night, you know, keep watch,” suggested Ben.
“I’ll do it,” Joe volunteered.
“Aw…dadburnit,” grumbled Hoss.
Adam snickered. “You’re just pouting because you know the widow makes the best apple pies around,” teased Adam.
Joe laughed as well. “I’ll save you a piece…what about the rest of you?”
“I’ve got a horse to finish breaking to saddle,” Adam admitted.
“Yeah, and that’s some horse, too,” Hoss added.
“He is a beauty, isn’t he? The man had a matching pair, but said that before I got there some other fellow made him an offer on one that he could not refuse. So, I had to settle for just one of them…but he sure is something isn’t he?” Adam said with a touch of pride.
“He sure ‘nough is. I don’t reckon I’ve ever seen a horse that black,” Hoss stated.
“I’ll see you guys later,” Joe said as he turned Cochise off the main road toward the Widow Thompson’s place.
“You be careful, Joseph,” Ben warned.
“Don’t worry about me, Pa…I can take care of myself,” Joe called with a grin.
“Sure you can,” muttered Adam under his breath.
“I heard that!” Joe called and then giggled.
Ben watched as his youngest son headed off in the opposite direction and then hurried to join Hoss and Adam.
“I think I’ll ride over to the Willard’s…just to check and make sure everything’s alright there,” Ben informed the duo.
“That’s a good idea…seems like this mysterious murder picks the older couples for his victims,” Adam commented.
“Yeah…old and practically helpless. Mr. Langley was crippled in one leg, and Mr. Gamble had a bad arm…”
Ben pulled his horse to a quick stop, staring opened mouth at his middle son.
“Hoss, hold up,” he ordered, bringing both Hoss and Adam to a stand still.
“What’s wrong, Pa?” Adam asked.
“What Hoss just said…”
“What’d I say?”
“About Lester and Carl…each man had a handicap of some type…the murderer seems to be singling out the near helpless…” Ben said in a thoughtful manner.
“Pa…you might be on to something,” Adam was quick to comment. “We need to think about who else hereabouts might be handicapped in some fashion…they could be our next victim!”
“You’re absolutely right, son. Hoss…why don’t you ride back into town and tell Roy what we were considering, in the mean time, Adam, you ride back to the ranch and keep an eye out on things,” ordered Ben.
“What are you going to do?”
“I think I’ll ride over to Hank Marshall’s place, he fell and broke both legs last week…”
“You thinkin’ ole Hank might be the murderer’s next victim?” Hoss asked, alarmed at the thought.
“It’s possible, Hoss, it’s possible.”
“Tell Roy I’ll be into town to talk to him later, as soon as I make sure Hank’s alright. I think I’ll try to talk him into staying out at the ranch with us for a spell,” Ben said as he nudged his mount.
“Be careful, Pa,” Hoss called out after his father.
Ben tossed his hand up into the air as he rode out of sight.
“Well…guess I’d best get into town,” Hoss said to Adam.
“I’ll meet you back at the ranch. I think I’ll take the black out for a run,” Adam explained. “He needs some exercise.”
“Alrighty big brother, but remember what Pa said, keep your eyes opened,” Hoss cautioned his brother.
“I will, you do the same.”
“That’s about the best apple pie I’ve ever had, Mrs. Thompson,” Joe mumbled as he swallowed the last bite and wiped his mouth with the red checked napkin that the kindly old woman had set next to his plate.
“Why Little Joe Cartwright, I do declare…you are a flatterer!” Mrs. Thompson snickered.
Joe blushed pink but returned her smile with one of his own. Slowly he pushed back his chair and faced the woman.
“It’s the truth, ma’am. Even Hop Sing, our cook, would be jealous.”
“Oh really, Joseph, you’re as bad as my Ernest used to be. He was such a charmer…why, he could charm the hat right off’n a man’s head if’n he had the notion. And I suspect, ya could do the same, if’n ya a mind too,” she laughed as she began to clear the table.
“I don’t know about that…but…shh…” Joe suddenly cautioned, frightening the woman.
“What is it?” she whispered in a trembling voice.
“Someone’s on the porch,” replied Joe moving with caution toward the sound.
Joe put his finger to his lips, motioning for the woman to remain still. His eyes scanned the room, finding his gun belt hanging from a peg behind the door. Leaning over, Joe blew out the flame in the lamp and signaled for the lady to move to the far corner of the room.
The creaky sound of the latch on the door being raised caused the fine hairs on Joe’s neck to rise suddenly as he quickly moved to reach for his pistol. A loud clap of thunder rattled the windows in the cozy little house and it’s rumbling lingered on a bit longer. Joe pressed his hand to the latch and yanked the door opened.
In the doorway stood a dark figure, looking as if he had no face. The hooded villain’s form was outlined only by the remnants of light that lingered from the fading of day. His long, flowing cloak waved gently by the slight breeze that struggled to make it’s way into the cabin but was blocked by the intruder in the doorway. The sound of heavy raindrops beat against the tin roof, but Joe was barely aware of the dinging sound, his eyes were fixed on the image of the man standing before him.
“Adam,” Joe breathed in a long sigh of relief, “you just scared the life out of us,” he said as he holstered his pistol and turned to light the lamp.
From across the room, Mrs. Thompson stepped into the soft glow of the lamplight. Her face was a mixture of fear and relief and then suddenly she screamed at the top of her voice, sending cold chills surging down Joe’s spine. The woman extended her arm, pointing at the man standing directly behind the young Cartwright.
Joe spun around, startled at what he was seeing. Before Joe could collect his muddled senses, he felt the butt of the man’s pistol slam down hard across his shoulder blade, sending him screaming in pain to the floor. A swift movement from the man’s boot sent another agonizing jolt of pain into his mid-section. Joe groaned painfully as he tried to get up. Halfway to his feet and another hard wallop to the side of his head caused the younger man to slump forward, hitting the hard floor. For only a second, everything in his world spun and then it all disappeared into nothingness as Joe lay unconscious in the middle of the room.
The intruder moved forward, grabbing for the woman as she tried to retreat.
“Adam…no…no…please,” she begged. “What’s gotten into you…why are you doing this…NO…NO…”
The woman fought against the hands that pawed at her body. She tried to pull away, but the man was too strong, she too feeble to ward him off. Her body was slammed down across the bed. Screams filled the night.
In the deep recesses of his mind, Joe could hear the piteous cries for help. The sound awakened in him, a keen sense of self-preservation that called him back from the ebony hole in which he had sank. As his world began to take shape, the cries became more urgent, giving him the power over the pounding pain that riddled his body, to rise to his feet.
His brother, with his back to the younger man, was savagely beating the woman. Joe moved with sluggish steps toward the bed, where he grabbed the shoulders of the man and wrenched him from the woman.
The heavy dark hood had fallen away, giving Joe a distorted perception of the man’s facial appearance. Though his mind was still in a fog, the finely chiseled features were somewhat familiar, yet there remained a nagging doubt in the back of Joe’s mind. Something wasn’t right…it couldn’t be his brother…but…there he seemed to be, larger than life.
With his movements hindered by the beating he’d taken, Joe tried to push his brother away. He doubled up his fist and swung.. His aim totally missed the man’s chin and Joe was off balanced just enough that it caused him to stagger forward, directly into the arms of the one standing before him.
Blow after blow was hammered into his face, his stomach, his sides, until he could take no more. Joe’s body crumbled to the floor. The man turned to go; Joe inched his hand toward his pistol. His fingers brushed the cool metal as Joe drew his gun and aimed. His brother had become an animal, he had to stop Adam before he could kill again.
“Adam…” Joe cried in a weak voice.
Adam paused at the door, turned, his pistol drawn. As he pointed it directly at the younger man, Joe’s fingers squeezed the trigger at the same instance that the other man’s firearm discharged. Joe saw Adam stagger backward, bright red blood flowed from the wound in his brother’s left shoulder.
Joe tried to push himself upward, but the burning sensation he now felt in his lower side, caused him to hesitate slightly. The last thing he would recall much later was the sight of the wounded man as he turned to flee into the darkness of night, disappearing into the shadows.
Ben stood before the old grandfather clock. It was the forth time in less than twenty minutes that he had checked on the time. Hoss, who sat in the blue chair cast anxious eyes over at his father, concerned that Ben seemed so worried that Adam had not yet gotten back from his ride on the new black horse he had purchased in Gold City just a few days ago. Finally, Ben opened the door and gazed out into the darkness. It was several long moments before he closed the door and walked back to his chair.
“I wonder what on earth is keeping that boy?” Ben muttered, more to himself than to Hoss and Hank Marshall, who had agreed to be their houseguest for a few days.
“Aw..he’ll be alright, Pa. Adam can take care of himself,” Hoss said, trying to reassure his father.
Ben lit his pipe, taking a long drag before making any response.
“I know that, Hoss…it’s just that…well, with this storm brewing and everything that’s happened, I don’t like him being so late.”
“Maybe he stopped off at the Widow Thompson’s and decided to ride out the storm there, with Joe,” Hoss suggested.
“It’s possible, but not likely. Adam knows enough not to make me worry when things are such as they are. No, he’ll be home later.”
Ben took another long drag on the pipe and blew the smoke out of his lungs. He was getting impatient. Too many strange things had been going on over the last several weeks and with things as they were, Ben was prone to worrying.
“Hoss, saddle our horses, please,” stated Ben in a matter of fact tone.
Hoss glanced up at his father.
“Where are we goin’?”
“To find your brother, and then over to the Widow Thompson’s place…I want to make sure that she and Little Joe are alright…”
“Course they’re alright…Pa, what on earth is wrong with you tonight? You’re as jumpy as frog in hot water…”
Not finding his son’s remark the least bit comical, Ben glared at his middle son.
“Something’s wrong, Hoss…I feel it in my bones…and I aim to find out what it is, now are you coming or not?” growled Ben.
“I’m sorry, Pa…I didn’t mean to rile ya. Sure, I’m comin’, but what about Hank?”
“Oh…never ya mind about me, Hoss…I’ll be fine right where I’m at. Besides, Hop Sing and I have to finish off that chocolate cake he baked earlier,” laughed the old timer.
“And ya pa said himself, Adam should be back any minute…you two run along and check on the widow and the boy…I’ll be alright,” Hank explained to the Cartwrights.
“You sure, Hank? I could go myself and leave Hoss here with you…”
“No…no…you take your son with you…can’t never tell, ya just might need him,” assured Hank.
“Alright then, we won’t be long. If you need anything, Hank, just ask Hop Sing, he’ll get it for you.”
“Sure thing, Ben…don’t ya fret none about me…now get goin’!”
“Pa…slow down,” Hoss called as Ben finally pulled back on his mount’s reins.
“I’m sorry, son,” Ben apologized.
He waited until Hoss caught up with him. “I’m just worried…”
“Look, Pa…I know things are bad, but I really don’t think we have anything to be worried about…”
“You don’t understand, son, there’s something that’s been bothering me…”
“What?” Hoss asked as he pulled up next to his father.
It was hard for the younger man to see the worry etched into his father’s expression in the dark, but he knew the fine lines were there. The unease caused his father’s voice to tremble slightly when he spoke.
“Remember Hoss, we were talking about this murderer attacking and killing only the elderly and the handicapped?”
“Sure…but Joe’s with the Widow Thompson and he ain’t handicapped,” Hoss stated.
The rain had stopped for the present, and in the gentle rays of moonlight, Hoss saw his father shake his head back and forth.
“Think again, son…Joe’s arm is in a sling.”
“Yeah…but that don’t mean he’s…Pa…what are you thinking…that this monster might attempt a killin’ at the Widow’s place?” he stammered.
“I think it’s possible, Hoss. Another thing that’s been on my mind…besides being older and handicapped…what else do these people have in common?” Ben asked, putting voice to his inner fears.
“I don’t know…what?” Hoss replied.
“That’s just it, son…I don’t know either, but my gut tells me that these murders all have something in common…I just don’t know what that common factor might be,” Ben explained.
“Come on, let’s ride.”
Half an hour later, Ben suddenly jerked back on the reins, causing Buck to rear up slightly.
“Whoa!” demanded Ben of the animal.
He pointed straight ahead.
“Isn’t that Adam’s new black horse?”
“Sure looks like it!” answered Hoss, nudging his mount on up ahead of his father.
Hoss quickly and easily slid down from the saddle, easing his way toward his brother’s black horse, which eyed him nervously.
“Easy now, big boy,” Hoss cooed.
He moved slowly toward the animal until he was able to grab the reins that dangled down. Ben had spotted a man lying face down on the ground. His stomach churned with dread, for deep within he knew the lifeless figure was his eldest son, Adam.
Ben gently turned the young man over, moving aside the hooded poncho that shielded his face.
“Adam?” Ben said lowly, his heart beating rapidly. “Can you hear me, boy? What’s happened to you?”
Hoss tied the black horse to the same branch where Chubb and Buck were tied and hurried to join his father.
“What happened…is he alright?” he said in a rush of words.
“He’s been shot…in the shoulder,” Ben explained.
Adam made a groaning sound and forced his eyes opened. He was surprised to see his father’s face looming above him.
“Pa…” he muttered weakly.
“I’m here, son…what on earth happened…who shot you?”
Ben and Hoss watched as Adam swallowed and struggled with his words. Slowly and with great effort, Adam raised one arm and pointed into the darkness.
Hoss scrunched up his face and glanced worriedly at his father. He could see the same disbelieving, confused look on Ben’s face.
“Did he say, Joe, shot him?” stammered Hoss.
“That’s what I thought he said…but I don’t understand…why? I mean…why would Joe shoot his own brother?”
Ben glanced down at Adam.
But Adam had passed out.
“Hoss, do you think you can manage to get your brother home? His shoulder seems to have stopped bleeding…”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to find Little Joe and see if he can explain…this to me,” he stated, glancing down at his son. “You take Adam home and send Hop Sing into town for the doctor, I’m going to ride over to the Thompson place.”
“Alright, don’t ya worry none, Pa, I’ll see that Adam’s taken care of…help me get him on my horse…”
The instant that Ben rode into the yard, he knew things were not as they should be. The house was dark, there was no lamp burning and for the time of evening that it was, he knew the house’s occupants had not yet retired for the night. Quietly, he tossed the reins around the hitching post and approached the house. Ben could see that the front door was standing wide opened, which caused a sense of foreboding to wash over his being. Slowly, he pulled his gun from the holster strapped to his right hip and inched toward the door. For several long seconds he stood still, letting his eyes adjust to the interior darkness of the small house.
“Joe?” he called out in a muted whisper.
Anxiously Ben waited for a response. When none was forth coming, he stepped side ways into the main room, his body tense and ready for action, should there be any thing or any one lurking in the darkness. His heart thumped loudly in his chest and Ben was certain that the pounding sound would give away his presence.
“Mrs. Thompson?” whispered Ben.
Still, there was no answer; but Ben did pick up the sound of soft moaning. Being sure that no one was in the house that might be a threat to him, Ben found the lamp on one of the corner tables and striking a match, set the wick to burning. Carefully, Ben picked up the lamp, holding it over his head as he took in the ransacked condition of the room. It was obvious that a fight had taken place within the close quarters. Chairs were missing legs, the table was overturned and dishes lay broken in the floor. As Ben turned the opposite direction, he saw what he had feared he might find. Lying face down in the far corner of the room was the crumbled body of his son.
Instantly, Ben righted the table nearest to the body lying in the floor and set the lamp down.
“Joe!” he cried, carefully turning his son onto his back. “Joe…can you hear me, son?”
“Pa…” whimpered the battered young man.
“I’m here, son, I’m here…”
“The…woman,” cried Joe, weakly pointing toward the door that separated the rooms. “Dead…he…killed her…”
Ben glanced toward the partly opened door and then down at his son who was his first concern.
“Who killed her…who…did this to you?”
He watched the expression harden on the battered face and was taken back by the tears that flooded the hazel eyes. In the pit of his stomach, Ben could feel the churning picking up momentum and he suddenly felt nauseous.
Joe squeezed his eyes tight, dreading having to tell his father who had beaten him so horribly and who had killed the Widow Thompson. In his heart of hearts, he still refused to believe who he had seen commit such atrocious acts.
Before Joe could make his confession to his father, another moaning sound that came from the other room drew Ben’s attention momentarily away from his injured son.
Helping Joe into a sitting position, he leaned down, whispering.
“Stay put…” he cautioned.
Ben drew his pistol from the holster and crept silently to the door of the room. When he peeked inside, his heart felt as if it leapt into his throat. On the bed, lay the Widow Thompson, battered and broken, whimpering softly.
Holstering his gun, Ben rushed to the bed. The woman was covered in blood, her clothes tattered and torn lay tossed about the room. Quickly, Ben grabbed the blanket from the foot of the bed and covered the unsightly scene that shook him to the very core of his being.
“Sarah?” Ben said, gently taking the woman’s head in his hands and lifting her slightly.
Old, frightened and blackened eyes searched for the soft, deep voice. The elderly woman tried to stifle a cry.
“Sarah…please, can you tell me who did this to you?” pleaded Ben.
The woman’s eyes finally found what they were looking for. She stared up into Ben’s face, recognizing him as her long time friend. Like Joe’s, her eyes filled with tears. She forced herself to speak.
“I’m…so…sorry…Ben,” she muttered weakly.
Ben knew that the woman’s life was ebbing fast. But he had to know…he had to have a name…the name of a serial killer, so that he could put an end to the senseless murders.
“Do you know the name of the person responsible?”
Sarah Thompson nodded her head.
“Who, Sarah…who was it?”
Sarah’s eyes locked with Ben’s. Tears streamed slowly down from the corners as she spoke the name.
The wind rushed from Ben’s lungs. Surely the woman was mistaken; there was no way that he’d believe his oldest son capable of doing what this woman claimed he had. Ben left sick to his stomach, so sick that he was forced to swallow repeatedly to keep down the rising bile that threatened to spew forth.
“Sarah…you must be mistaken…Adam could never do this…think again, please, please tell me that you are wrong!” Ben pleaded with the dying woman.
“I’m…sorry…Ben…but it was…your…Adam.”
Sarah drew a deep breath and when it expelled from her lungs, life slipped away. The Widow Thompson died in Ben’s arms, her deathbed confession naming his son as her murderer.
A movement at the door caused Ben to look up. The glow from the lamp on the table in the other room highlighted the tears that glistened in his dark eyes. Joe leaned heavily against the doorframe; minuet droplets of water lingered on his bruised cheeks. Behind him stood Roy Coffee. Tenderly, Ben rested the widow’s head on the pillow and covered her face with the blanket used to cover her body.
As if he were toting a ton of weight on his shoulders, Ben moved slowly to the door where Joe and the sheriff waited. His expression clearly showed his distress.
“Joe…you need a doctor, son,” he said as he slipped his arm about his son’s slender waist.
“I’ll be alright, Pa.”
“Roy…what are you doing here?”
“I was on my way out to see you, when the storm struck. I was closer to here than the Ponderosa so I figured I’d just stop and pass the time with Little Joe here,” Roy explained. “Seems like my services are needed, I…heard what the Widow Thompson said, Ben…that it was Adam…what done the…”
“She was mistaken!” growled Ben.
He refused to accept the confession of the woman who targeted his son as a murderer.
“There’s no way that Adam could do something like this…no way, you’ll never make me believe it…never…besides, Joe was here…tell him son…Adam had nothing to do with this, or with beating you!”
Joe’s knees were getting weak and he begun to lean heavier and heavier against his father. His senses were still somewhat muddled, refusing to acknowledge what his eyes had seen, what had registered in his mind but had yet to convince his heart.
“Let’s get you to a chair. You can rest while I look at this wound and then we’ll get you home.”
Ben led Joe to the nearest chair that had not been broken and eased the young man down gently. While he ripped open Joe’s shirt, Roy fetched some water from the pump at the sink so that Ben could cleanse the wound.
“It’s just a graze, son, you should be fine in a few days, and after a long rest.”
Ben looked up at Joe, noting the pain that creased his handsome face. The boy had become quiet, almost sudden. Ben glanced around for the sheriff, but Roy had gone to saddle Joe’s horse and prepare a wagon in which to transport the body of the dead woman, back to town.
“What happened, son?”
Joe swallowed hard.
“I heard a noise…so I blew out the light…and then the door started to open…” Joe paused and looked down.
“Go on boy…what happened after that?” Roy, who had just returned, stood in the doorway.
Joe hesitated slightly, looking at his father with such pain in his eyes that Ben knew the answer without even waiting for Joe to respond to the sheriff’s question.
“Was it…Adam, son?” Ben asked quietly.
Joe swallowed again, shrugging his shoulders.
“What do you mean, you’re not sure?” Roy asked. “The Widow saw him…”
“No…I mean…” Joe sighed deeply. “I…don’t know…what I mean…”
“Joseph, this is important, son…very important. Did you see the man’s face?”
Joe nodded his head up and down. Ben waited with baited breath, but Joe said nothing more.
“Was it…your brother?” Ben asked again.
“Pa…I can’t be sure…”
“You can’t be sure…you know your own brother, boy,” Roy stated with a bit of anger. “Don’t try coverin’ for him, son…you’ll only get yourself into trouble…now think, was it Adam what done all this?”
Ben saw his son’s chin begin to quiver and the sad, pleading eyes that stared at him. Ben was forced to swallow as Joe had done moments before. The rumbling in his gut sounded loud to his own ears and he briefly wondered if the others could hear it too.
“Joe…just tell the truth, son. Whatever happened, we’ll get through this…together…all of us,” Ben said as he placed a gentle hand on his son’s shoulder.
“I jerked the door opened…there he was…” Joe sniffled. “I was shocked to see him there again, but relieved at the same time…”
“Then it was Adam?” Roy demanded.
“What?” puzzled Roy. “Was it or was it not your brother?”
Joe’s eyes overflowed. He lowered his head, unable to meet his father’s questioning eyes.
“I don’t know…I…mean…it…looked like Adam…but…Pa…” sobbed Joe, “it couldn’t have…been. Adam wouldn’t…do this…I…just…can’t be sure…I’m sorry…I’m sorry…”
Ben pressed his fingers deeper into Joe’s shoulder. His own head was bowed, his heart heavy with grief with all that had been happening and now with this…this possibility that his own son, his flesh and blood could be a suspect…and that’s all Adam was at that point, a suspect.
“It’s alright, Joe…we’ll figure it all out later. Right now I need to get you home while Doc Martin is still there…”
“Doc Martin’s at your place?” Roy asked, surprised at the information.
“Yes…Hoss and I were on our way over here…just to check on things and we found…Adam…he’d been waylaid by someone…”
“What is it, son?” Ben asked, turning his attention to tying the bandage he’d wrapped around Joe’s middle to protect his side where he’d been grazed by a bullet.
“Was Adam hurt?”
“Why, son…should he have been?”
“I…I…was forced to…shoot at him…when he…ere…the intruder was leaving…I knew I had to…stop him. That’s how I got hit…I’m almost positive…I hit him in the…left shoulder.”
Roy stepped forward to help Ben ease Joe from the chair. He studied his friend’s face.
“Well, Ben…was Adam hurt?”
Slowly, Ben nodded his head. The sick feeling that had gnawed at his gut for hours, was reaching a climax.
“He’d been shot,” muttered Ben.
Joe’s eyes grew wide with fresh fear.
“Where?” he stammered.
Ben took a deep breath…everything seemed to be pointing at his son, yet in his heart, he knew it was impossible. He looked first at Roy and then at Little Joe.
“In the left shoulder.”
He felt Joe’s body sag to the floor, instantly becoming dead weight.
“Help me get him into the wagon, Roy, he’s fainted.”
Minutes later, both Joe and the Widow Thompson were settled in the bed of the wagon and on their way to the Ponderosa.
“There you go, Adam,” Doc Martin said, smiling. “You should be fine in a couple of days…just stay in bed and rest until I tell you otherwise,” he said as he went about gathering up his things.
“Don’t worry, Doc, I’ll make sure he don’t go no where,” laughed Hoss, relieved to see his brother sitting up in the bed.
“Just make sure that you do, Hoss…and tell your father…”
The sounds of an approaching wagon drew the doctor and Hoss’ attention to the window.
“Is that Pa?” Adam called from the bed.
“Yeah…and he’s got someone with him…Joe’s horse is tied to the back of someone’s wagon. I’d best go see what’s up,” Hoss called over his shoulder.
He was already on his way out. Paul Martin remained at the window a moment longer.
“Oh my,” he muttered.
“What’s wrong?” Adam wanted to know.
“Hoss and your father are carrying Little Joe inside.”
Paul turned from the window and pointed his finger at Adam who was already trying to get out of bed.
“You stay put young man…and that’s an order. Hop Sing,” Paul called to the small servant who lingered behind. “Make sure he doesn’t get out that bed, I don’t want that wound to break open and start bleeding again, he’s already lost too much blood.”
“Yes sir Doctor…I make sure Mis’ter Adam stay put.”
Hoss helped his father put Joe in his bed and then stepped back, appalled by what he saw.
“What happened to him, Pa? Who done this to the boy?” the big man demanded as he fought to control his anger.
“We’re not sure,” Ben said, eyeing the sheriff with a stern, silent warning.
Immediately, the physician was at the bedside, tending to the young man’s wounds. His first concern was Joe’s side where the bullet had grazed him. He focused his attention there.
“Ben, if Adam’s awake, I’d like to question him,” Roy stated in a matter-of-fact tone.
Ben glanced over his shoulder at the sheriff and then at the doctor for his approval.
“He’s awake, Roy,” stated Paul. “But he’s lost a lot of blood, don’t talk to long, he needs to rest,” the doctor cautioned.
“This won’t take but a minute and then I’ll have to take the body into town.”
Hoss’ eyes widened and Paul momentarily paused working to turn and stare at the sheriff.
“Body?” both Hoss and Paul cried at the same time.
Roy nodded his head.
“Not Widow Thompson?” stammered Hoss as he quickly glanced over at this father.
“I’m ‘fraid so, Hoss…”
“Then whomever is responsible for all these killin’s, killed the Widow and beat up Little Joe?”
“Looks that way,” Roy affirmed Hoss’ assumption.
“But who…who would do such a thing?” Hoss asked.
He just couldn’t fathom one man going about the countryside killing and attacking elderly, helpless ladies. He wanted nothing more than to get his hands on the person or persons responsible.
“From what Sarah Thompson said right before she died…and what Joe claims to have seen…I’m afraid your brother is responsible…”
“Who?” Hoss inquired.
The shock was evident in his tone.
“Adam, Hoss…Roy seems to think that Adam is responsible…” Ben answered in a gruff, somewhat disgusting tone.
“WHAT!” shouted Hoss, instantly anger showed in his blue eyes that had suddenly turned dark and dangerous. “Ya gotta be outta ya mind, Roy…there ain’t no way that Adam could do these things,” snarled Hoss, taking a threatening step toward the sheriff.
Ben moved to his son’s side, placing a strong handhold down on Hoss’ arm.
“Of course it wasn’t Adam…we both know that…but Hoss…things don’t look to good for your brother. Come on, let’s go talk to him, see what he has to say about this,” Ben suggested, releasing his hand from Hoss’ arm and leading the way down the hall to his oldest son’s room.
When the trio entered, Adam was leaning his head back against the soft stack of pillows. His eyes were closed and at first glance one might think that the handsome young man was sleeping.
“He’s sleeping,” whispered Ben.
“No I’m not, Pa…it’s alright, come on in,” Adam called as he opened his eyes and watched the men move about his bed in a semi-circle. “I was just resting my eyes, trying to think. What’s going on? How’s Joe…?”
“Why don’t you tell us what’s going on?” Roy asked, his tone dark.
Adam’s brow furrowed slightly as he studied the long faces.
“I don’t know what you mean, Roy,” Adam said, eyeing the sheriff. “And I’m not sure I like your tone…”
“Adam,” Ben said quickly as he moved to the head of the bed and leaned down closer to his son. “Why don’t you tell us how you got shot…and who did it…and…why? Where were you heading…where had you been…”
“Pa…please, one question at a time,” Adam said in a pleading voice.
He touched his fingers to the bridge of his nose, a sure sign that he was stressed.
“I took the new black horse out for a run…just like I told you I was going to. I wasn’t going anywhere in particular…just letting him run, that’s all. I was going to stop by to check on Joe…”
“Then you were there?” Roy quizzed.
“Yes…I mean…I think so…I told you, I wanted to make sure he and Widow Thompson was alright,” Adam explained, glancing around at the worried faces.
“And were they?” Ben asked.
“Yes…the best I can remember…why?”
“We’ll explain in a minute, son, go on, what happened after you saw your brother?”
“I heard the thunder rumbling so I pulled my slicker on so’s not to get wet. I was headed back home when I heard what sounded like gunfire…”
“Where you close to the Thompson’s place, son?”
“Yeah…I hadn’t ridden far. It sounded as if the gunfire might have come from there, I thought Joe might be in trouble, so I headed back that way…I think…but I got stopped…”
“What do you mean, you think? And who stopped you?” Roy asked.
“I…don’t know…I couldn’t see the man’s face…”
Adam’s expression was beginning to show signs of stress. His father knew that his son was trying to sort the facts, to put the events in correct order, but was having a hard time doing so.
“What happened then, son?”
“I’m not sure, Pa…everything happened so fast. One minute I was stopped and the next minute I was shot and lying on the ground…I don’t remember anything else…”
Adam scrunched up his face, as if in pain.
“Are you sayin’, boy…that you did or you didn’t make it over to the Thompson place?” Roy questioned.
“I’m saying, I don’t remember…I only remember heading that way…I want to say I got there, that I saw Joe and that everything was alright…but…I’m just not sure.”
Adam glanced at his father. “I don’t know if I was actually heading over there…or coming back…I can’t remember…everything is all jumbled up in my head.”
Ben smiled and placed his hand on Adam’s arm.
“It’s alright, son. You rest, we’ll worry with all of this later,” Ben assured his son as he stood up.
“Pa…what’s going on…what happened that you’re not telling me?” Adam demanded.
“Don’t lie, Pa…”
Ben sighed deeply, there was no reason to withhold the truth from his son.
“Widow Thompson was murdered tonight…and your brother was badly beaten…”
“Dear God,” cried Adam. “How is Joe?”
“Don’t you know?” Roy snapped.
Adam’s eyes, though weak, glowed with anger.
“Should I?” he snarled.
“Adam, there’s been some mistake…”
“What do you mean, Pa?”
“The Widow Thompson didn’t die easy, not instantly,” Roy explained. “She gave your father the name of the man who beat her and who she knew would be her murderer…and who nearly beat your brother to death…”
Adam’s eyes, if possible, grew darker.
“Who was he?”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence that filled the room. No one wanted to tell the injured young man that he had been named as the one responsible for beating and killing the widow and who, most likely, had killed the others.
“Pa?” Adam demanded when the silence grew unbearable.
Ben took a deep breath.
“Son…as I told you, there’s been a horrible mistake…but Sarah Thompson…and Little Joe, both said that…you…”
“ME!” shouted Adam. “That’s impossible…Pa, you know better than that….I could never…”
“I know, Adam, I know…I don’t think for one second that you could have done those things…”
“Then why did Joe…”
“He was mistaken, Adam. He was nearly beaten to a pulp…he wasn’t thinking coherently…”
The look on Adam’s face was almost more than his father could bear.
“Son,” he began.
Adam held his hand up, silencing his father’s words.
“I can’t believe that Joe would honestly think I could do such things,” he stammered, leaning his head back and closing his eyes.
“He doesn’t ‘think’, Adam…but he claims you were there…yet he says he isn’t sure…he’s very confused,” Ben tried to explain.
Adam opened his eyes and looked at his father.
“Confused or not, it’s what he should know in his heart…and if he doubts me…I could hang for what he and that woman claimed they thought they saw.”
Adam turned his face away from the prying eyes. His heart pounded heavily in his chest, his emotions had suddenly drained him. He wanted to be alone…to…think and to try and remember. His mind raced, trying to fill the void where lapses in memory suddenly haunted him, faces flashed before his weary, pain filled eyes. Fear seized his soul and caused him to moan softly.
“Please, I’m tired…leave me alone…”
Ben pressed his lips firmly together.
“Alright son…we’ll talk later.”
Ben saw the sheriff to the door.
“Ben…I’ll have to take him in, you know that…as soon as he’s well enough,” Roy said with remorse. “I’m sorry.”
“I know, Roy…I understand you’re only doing your job…but you don’t really think Adam could do this, do you?”
“Of course not, Ben…but with the Widow Thompson’s deathbed confession, and Little Joe seeing Adam there…believing that it was his brother that beat him…what can I do…I’m duty bound.”
“I understand Roy…and I appreciate the fact that you believe in my son. We’ll get to the bottom of this somehow…we just have too,” Ben added as an anxious after thought.
The next couple of days proved to be about the most stressful that Ben could remember. Joe’s condition worsened. His injuries had proved to be more serious than first thought. Not only did Joe have some broken rips, he complained constantly of severe headaches from the blows he’d received during the beating. The pain in his head was so intense at times that the young man was barely able to open his eyes or say but a few words at a time. Ben constantly was going back and forth from Joe’s room to Adam’s. By the end of the week, Adam was in much better shape than his younger brother. Before Roy could escort him back to town, Adam insisted that he be allowed to see and perhaps talk with his younger brother.
He entered the room quietly. Joe was resting his head against a stack of pillows, halfway propping his battered body in an upright position. His eyes, darkened by the bruises that circled them, were closed. Adam pulled up a chair, close to the bed and sat down. Joe’s hand was on top of the covers, and seeing it, Adam could not refuse the urge to reach out and place his own hand atop his brother’s. Almost instantly, Joe’s eyes opened. Looking first at the hand that covered his and then the man sitting at his side, Joe pulled his hand away from under his brother’s.
Adam’s lips tightened. The hurt and disappointment was hardened into his expression.
“For whatever you think happened, Joe…I’m sorry,” he muttered softly.
Joe turned his head, unable to meet the probing eyes that looked so intently at him.
“Joe…please…look at me…look at my face,” Adam begged.
Reluctantly, Joe slowly turned his head and looked at his brother, he had yet to utter a word.
“I didn’t do it, little buddy…I couldn’t…”
“I saw you,” Joe whispered in a low voice.
Adam lowered his head, squeezing his eyes tightly, forcing the memory to return, but he was denied yet again.
“You think you saw me…I wasn’t there…I swear…”
“But I saw you!” Joe said with more force, for he was still in a weakened condition and his head was pounding something fierce.
“Alright…I admit, I might have been there…but I didn’t do what you think I did, Joe…I couldn’t have,” he sighed.
Adam raised his head slowly, studying his brother’s face intently. Joe seemed so sure…had he been there…twice? No, screamed his brain…once perhaps, to check on things…but not for…murdering!
“Joe…” Adam said in a strained whisper, “do you really think I could kill a woman and beat my own brother half to death?”
Joe pushed his head into the pillows, closing his eyes. A tiny tear was squeezed from the well of one eye and rolled unceremoniously down the front of his face. With great pain, he shook his head from side to side.
“Thank God,” murmured Adam.
Joe opened his eyes. More tears streamed down his face as he finally looked deeply into his brother’s troubled eyes.
“I’m sorry…” whimpered Joe. “I don’t know…who…or why…or what happened, Adam…all I can remember is…seeing your…face…when I opened…the door…and then again…when you tried to…leave. I…I…shot…you!”
“No, Joe…you didn’t shoot me…that’s just it…someone else shot me. It was a man in a hooded cloak that stopped me on the trail…He’s the one that shot me…”
“Then…who did I…shoot?”
“I don’t know, Buddy…but it wasn’t me!” Adam declared. “You have to try to remember, Joe…”
This time, Joe squeezed his eyes tightly shut, trying to remember, forcing himself to put the missing pieces together, but nothing seemed to work.
“I can’t, Adam…I can’t seem to get passed the door…when I jerked it opened.”
“Adam, it’s time, son,” Ben said as he stuck his head into the room, interrupting the conversation. “Roy’s waiting.”
Adam gave his brother a tight smile as he stood up. Joe reached his hand out, allowing Adam to clasp it in his own.
“I’m sorry about all of this, Adam…”
“It’s alright, Joe…we’ll get through it. I’m just glad to know you believe in me.”
Adam squeezed his brother’s hand a little tighter and smiled a little broader.
“You just get better, I’m going to be needing you soon.”
Joe returned the gesture and with a forced laugh, he told his brother, “Boy, that’s a switch, you needing me…usually it’s the other way around!”
The crowd that had gathered around the porch of the sheriff’s office was unbelievable. Ben had ridden into town with Roy and Adam, just to be sure that nothing went wrong and seeing the angry gatherers that waited to catch a view of the mass murderer, Ben was glad that he had accompanied his son.
“News sure does travel fast,” Adam muttered as they slowed their pace upon seeing the by-standers.
“Of course, especially bad news,” answered Ben. “And these folks are mad…I hope this doesn’t turn ugly.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when the crowd spotted the trio moving up the street. Several men turned and began shouting out threats; talk of a lynching could be heard between the vile names that were slung at Adam. Ben moved his mount closer to his son’s. His hand had already moved to his gun and as Ben’s fingers brushed the cool metal, he felt rather than saw the tightness in his son’s body as they came nearer to the angry mob.
Roy pulled his horse slightly ahead of Ben and Adam’s and pointed his long barreled rifle at the crowd.
“Everyone stop right where ya are!” he shouted.
The two men at the front of the group halted their advance as the others circled around the three men still on horseback.
“We was wonderin’ when ya was goin’ to bring the murdering scum in, Sheriff,” one man shouted.
“Yeah…it’s about time…I say we hang the bastard right here and now!” someone else yelled.
The mob began to inch forward. Ben’s pistol was in his hand. Roy moved his horse forward, placing himself between the group of on-lookers and his prisoner.
“There’ll be no lynchin’!” he shouted. “Adam Cartwright will get a fair trial…now I want all of you to go home…there ain’t nothing for you to do here…now go on…get!” he said, pointing his rifle in their direction.
“He ain’t gonna get away with them murders, Sheriff…his own brother will have to testify against him…the Langleys and the Gambles and the Widow Thompson were all our friends, they was good people…and that murdering scum killed them all…I say we hang’em!”
Cheers went up from within the crowd. Things looked as if they might get out of hand. Roy fired a shot into the air to silence the group. He then pointed his gun at the man who seemed to be the leader.
“I’m warnin’ all of you…get off the street. Go home before there’s more trouble, more killin’. This here man’s gonna stay in my jail…Ben, you take Adam on inside,” Roy ordered as he slowly slid from his horse, his rifle still aimed at the men.
Quickly, Ben led his son inside to the sheriff’s office, where he stood guard at the door.
“Ya ain’t gonna let him get away with it, are ya sheriff?” some one called.
“Adam’s gonna stand trial…if’n he’s found guilty, he’ll pay…just like anyone else…I give you my word,” Roy promised. “Now go home, sober up…tomorrow, you’ll see things differently.”
“Come on men…ain’t no use all of us standing around here. But be warned Ben Cartwright…ya boy’s gonna pay for what he done to those fine folks.”
“Yeah,” a voice called out. “At least with the murderer locked up in the jail, the rest of us can get a good night’s sleep.”
“Let’s all go over to the saloon and have a beer!”
“Sounds good to us, Sheriff, ya take real good care of that prisoner, ya hear? We wanna see him hang for what he’s done!”
“That crowd is only going to get worse, Roy,” Ben complained after seeing that Adam was safely locked in a cell, protected from the angry towns people who seemed to have already tried and found him guilty.
“I’ve a good mind to stay in town tonight, Roy,” Ben said as he stood at the window in the sheriff’s office and watched the angry mob.
“I’d appreciate that, Ben, but what about Little Joe and Hank?” Roy inquired.
“Hoss is with them, and Hop Sing…they’ll be alright, I’m more concerned for Adam’s safety right now,” Ben said, turning from the window.
“You rest now, Shortshanks, I got chores to do and then I’ll come back and sit with ya for a spell; how’s that?” Hoss asked.
“Doesn’t look like I have a choice, Hoss,” Joe said solemnly. “I just wish…” he paused, as if thinking.
Hoss understood how his younger brother felt. Joe was feeling guilty about Adam having to go to jail. He’d worried all evening about not being able to unscramble the pieces about what had happened several nights ago. It was causing the youngster to have nightmares and Joe’s eating had slacked off, not to mention the fact that he was as cross as a mama bear.
“Look, Joe…Adam don’t blame ya none…so don’t go blaming ya self,” Hoss said, trying to reassure his brother.
“I know, Hoss, it’s just that…well…I just wish I could remember. I know Adam couldn’t kill those people…my God…what reason would he have? None…but someone had reason…reason enough to kill five people…”
“Yeah, me and Pa was wondering what those people might have in common…other than being a bit older and all being handicapped in some way…strange, ain’t it?”
“Yeah, you got that right…but Hoss…I could have sworn that it was Adam at the door…my brain says it was…because my eyes believed they saw him, but my heart won’t…don’t believe it. It’s impossible…but I saw him…with my own eyes and I shot him…and Adam did have a bullet wound in his left shoulder…still…”
“I don’t know, Joe…the Widow said it was him…you say you saw him, you said he beat you…don’t none of it make no sense to me,” Hoss sighed unhappily.
Joe pressed his head back against the pillows.
“Pa said he might stay in town tonight, didn’t he?” Joe asked.
“Yeah, in case there was trouble. Roy said the folks were really riled up about all of this. He said there’s been talk of lynching Adam…people everywhere think he’s guilty…and he hasn’t even been tried yet.”
Joe looked with sad eyes at his brother, his chin quivered.
“Probably because they know I’m the star witness for the prosecution!”
“Yeah…and that’s a bummer, Little Joe…makin’ you testify against your own brother…say, I gotta get to the barn, the stock probably thinks I’ve forgotten them. You stay put, ya hear? I won’t be long…”
“Promise, Hoss? I…I…really don’t feel like…being…alone,” muttered Joe.
Hoss gave his brother a small smile, nodded his head and turned to go.
“Promise,” he called as he pulled the door closed.
Hoss hurried down the stairs, pausing to say explain to Hank that he had to feed and bed down the stock.
“I’ll be in the barn, Hank.”
Hank looked up from where he sat in his wheel chair and smiled warmly at his host.
“Don’t worry ya self none about me, Hoss…I’m waitin’ for Hop Sing to finish up the dishes, then him and me are goin’ to play some checkers. Say…how’s the boy?”
“Little Joe? Aw…he’s feelin’ a bit down…about what he knows he’s gonna have’ta do…I mean testify against Adam and all…”
“T’ain’t right…makin’ one’s kin testify again their own like that…just t’ain’t right,” muttered old Hank.
“Reckon not,” Hoss said as he put on his hat and opened the door.
In the barn, Hoss groomed the horses, taking special care with his brother’s new black stallion. He made sure that each animal was well fed, adding a bit more to their feeding trough than usual. His mind was on his brothers, thoughts of what might happen to them and to his family caused him to fail to hear the creaking of the barn door; nor did he see the lone figure that slipped through unobserved to hide and wait in the shadows.
“There ya go, Chubb…don’t ya feel better now?” Hoss muttered as he petted the long silky neck of his big gelding.
Hoss backed slowly out of the stall and turned. He was caught totally unprepared for the club that cracked down across his collarbone, rendering him helpless as his massive frame slid to the dirt floor.
Groaning and numb with pain, Hoss tried to push himself to his feet. Once he was on his knees, he looked up at the shrouded silhouette standing over him. The pain in his shoulder raced to his brain, making him weak; he swayed gently as he tried to focus through the fog that seemed to have settled over him. The form moved, raising his hands and the club, high over his hooded head. Only a sliver of light from the soft glow of the lantern that dangled from a peg on one side of the barn, allowed Hoss the only glimpse of the interloper’ face. His eyes widened in total disbelief.
“What in tarnation…Adam?”
Hoss breathed quietly. The big man pushed himself up on one foot; one knee still supported his frame. Once more he glanced up, disbelieving what his mind was trying to tell him. He rubbed one eye with a balled fist, fighting the wave of nausea that boiled in the pit of his stomach. Again tried to stand up, but the villain, the man responsible for all the killings, was not about to let this giant of a man stand in his way, he had one more man to kill, the only witness that could point a finger in his direction, Joe Cartwright!
The club came crashing down across the same shoulder. Hoss screamed in agony, his body trembled from the force of the blow and then slumped forward, everything whirled before him and then the gentle giant lay motionless and quiet, face down in the muck that had collected on the barn floor.
The man with the long black cloak stood over the still form, debating where or not to kill the big man. Before he could decide, he heard voices coming from the front of the house. Quickly he blew out the lamp and stole silently to the barn door and peered out. The Chinese servant, who he had seen before, had just wheeled Hank Marshall out onto the porch; the older man’s legs were covered with a light blanket. From his hiding place, the stranger watched as Hank lit a cigarette and slowly took a puff.
“I go make coffee, then we play checkers, yes?” Hop Sing said to Hank.
“Yes,” laughed Hank, “You go ahead, Hop Sing, I’ll finish my smoke and then wheel myself in, Hoss should be joinin’ us soon.”
“Alrighty, Mis’ta. Hank…” Hop Sing said, turning and entering the house through the side door that led directly into the kitchen.
Hank took another long drag on his cigarette. Leaning his head back and closing his eyes, he blew the smoke from his lungs, totally unsuspecting of the darkly clad scoundrel who had managed to approach him from behind and now stood only inches from him. As Hank tossed down his cigarette, placing both hands on the wheels of the chair, he turned toward the door.
From out of the dark, strong fingers encased his neck, squeezing tightly. Hank reached for the fingers about his neck, struggling with more strength than he had ever been known to have. But the long fingers that had wrapped themselves about his throat were younger, stronger, more powerful fingers. His were old and drawn and no match for the ones desiring to choke the life out of him.
After several long moments, Hank felt life begin to slip slowly from him. His arms fell carelessly to his sides, his body slumped forward. When the murderer released his hands, Hank’s body slipped downward, out of the chair and onto the hard boarded porch in front of the door, used by so many welcomed friends. This night, death stood in the doorway, by no means a welcomed visitor.
The shrouded figured snickered softly and then suddenly stopped, placing his fingers to the bridge of his nose, as if he were hurting. For a fraction of a second, the assassin staggered forward, groaning as he cupped his face in both hands. He drew in several deep breaths and then turned suddenly, hearing a noise coming from within. Pushing back his own discomfort, the dark figure stepped over Hank’s motionless body and opened the side door leading into the kitchen.
Silently, he shut the door. In the corner, the Chinese cook had just sat a pot of coffee onto the stove. The man moved forward, quiet as a mouse. When he was standing directly behind Hop Sing, the man hit the cook over the head with the butt of his pistol. Hop Sing groaned as he slipped to the floor.
As if he knew the lay out of the house, the stalker moved through the kitchen and into the dining area where he paused to scan the room, making sure he was alone. With a twitch of his lips that almost resembled a smile, the man, his hood still covering his head and shielding his face, worked his way around the furniture, his destination, the upstairs bedroom where he knew his next victim lay sleeping.
He appeared smug, sure of himself and his endeavor. The interloper was on a mission, a mission to kill, to remove from personal harm, the one person he believed able to identify him. Once at the top of the staircase and facing the long hall, he paused, seemingly confused by the darkness that swallowed up the hallway, for no lamp had been left burning, there had been no need. Patiently, the observer waited until his eyes became adjusted to the darkness and then he saw what he had hoped to find. The soft warmth of a lamp shone from beneath the door. Sure that his victim occupied the room, the villainous fiend crept cautiously forward, suddenly running into a table that he had failed to notice. A vase, placed on the table was knocked to the floor, making a loud crashing sound in the quiet house. The man froze.
The door was suddenly yanked opened and Joe Cartwright appeared in the hallway. Not giving his prey time to react to his intrusion, the hooded form bolted forward, catching his victim unaware as he slammed his heavy body into Joe’s, sending the younger man toppling over backwards. Before Joe could get to his feet, his attacker charged him again, hammering his upper body with forceful blows that left him badly over powered.
Determined not to give in to his already weakened state, Joe tried to ward off the blows being delivered to his battered body. After the first assault, Joe knew it was worthless, he felt his draining strength begin to ebb away. His assailant continued with such brutality that Joe was barely able to defend himself, and totally unable to retaliate against the man’s viciousness.
Without warning, the attack stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Joe lay on his back, his breath coming in rapid little gulps. His head pounded, his senses dulled by the beating, could barely distinguish between what was real and what appeared to be surreal. He could hear voices, and then shouting…and then there was a ruckus, someone was fighting. Joe heard a table being knocked over and then a cry of agony…a plea…
It was a struggle to do so, but with sheer determination, he pushed himself up on one elbow, shaking his head gently from side to side in an attempt to clear the fog. When hands reached out through the darkness at him, Joe drew back, sucking air into his lungs, ready for the blows to begin pelting his body once more.
“NO!” he screamed in a weakened voice.
“Joe…Joe…it’s alright…it’s only me!”
“Hoss…Oh God…thank goodness,” Joe sobbed.
“Easy, Shortshanks…you’re hurt…” Hoss said as he helped Joe into a sitting position.
He eased his brother gently back until Joe rested against the wall.
“I’m alright…” Joe said, looking into his brother’s face.
“Let me light the lamp…I wanna see that man’s face,” Hoss declared, striking a match to the wick of the lamp that sat on another table, just down the hall.
Both could see the man’s body lying face down. The long black cloak obscured the man’s face and prevented the brothers from seeing it.
“He jumped me while I was in the barn,” Hoss explained, squatting down next to Joe. “I caught a glimpse of his face, Joe…and I swear…I mean…I thought…Adam had broke jail…”
“Adam?” stammered Joe, moving along the floor toward the man’s body. “Hoss…it’s probably the same man that…look,” he uttered, moving the cape from the man’s face, Joe helped Hoss turn the man onto his back.
“Dadgum! Will ya look at that?” stammered Hoss as he turned to look at Joe.
Joe’s eyes met his brother’s; both wore stunned expressions on their faces.
“Joe,” whispered Hoss, “I ain’t never seen anything like it…this could be our big brother’s twin…”
“Yeah…” Joe said slowly, “except for the hair…this man’s is lighter…look, he’s coming around, better tie him up.”
“Yeah,” said Hoss, racing into the bedroom and grabbing the tiebacks from the drapes.
He returned and pushed the man into a sitting position, pulling his arms behind his back, Hoss tied the man’s wrists tightly.
“That should hold’em,” he said.
He hauled the man to his feet with one hand and with the other he helped Joe get up.
“Who are you?” Hoss demanded, but the man refused to answer.
“Fine, have it your way, but you’re going to jail…Joe, you get back in bed and stay there, I gots work to do…”
“What about Hank…and say, where’s Hop Sing?”
“I found Hank on the front porch, this here scoundrel broke his neck…he’s…dead, Joe.”
Joe swallowed hard, he had liked the old man and so had everyone else. It galled him that the crippled man had been so ruthlessly murdered.
“What about Hop Sing?”
“I found him in the kitchen. He’d been slugged, but he’ll be alright…he’s takin’ care of Hank. I’m goin’ to take his body into town and this dude to Roy Coffee’s jail,” explained Hoss.
“Then I’m going with you,” Joe stated.
“Oh no you ain’t…you’re going back to bed…”
“No, Hoss…I’m fine, really, just sore. I gotta be there…when Adam is set free…please?”
Joe wore such a forlorn look on his face that his brother hadn’t the heart to refuse him. He knew what it meant to his kid brother, to be present when the serial killer was turned over to the sheriff and their brother turned loose.
“Alright, but get dressed, we’ll be down stairs,” Hoss said, finally grinning at his younger brother.
Joe’s face, battered and bruised, his eye blackened from the previous beating and his side bandaged from the bullet wound, returned the smile.
“Thanks, big guy,” he said as he disappeared into his room to dress.
Hoss shoved the stranger into the office. Ben and Roy sat at the desk, chatting. Adam, Hoss knew, was locked away behind closed doors, safe for now from the mob that had begun to gather and follow them down the street.
“Hoss…Joe! What on earth are you doing out of bed and…”
Ben had stood up the instant that his sons had entered. His dark, worried eyes now rested on the stranger’s face. Slowly, Ben moved around the man, eyeing the man curiously. He glanced at his son’s faces, both showing signs of being in a fight, and then glanced at Roy, noting the sheriff’s startled expression.
Roy nodded, with his head, toward the man. He directed his question to the Cartwright boys.
“Ya wanna explain this?”
“Ain’t nothin’ to explain…’ceptin’ this here fella bonked me on the head, killed old Hank…”
“WHAT?” shouted Ben; his eyes glowed with anger.
“Yeah, Pa…sneaked up behind the old gent and broke his neck…he then commenced to knock Hop Sing out cold…but don’t fret…he’s fine…and then this varmint snuck upstairs to…well, I suppose he was gonna kill Joe…”
Ben’s eyes darted to Joe’s face. He reached out a hand and gently touched the bruised cheek.
“I’m alright, Pa…don’t worry,” Joe assured his father.
Ben turned back to Hoss.
“Go on son.”
“Well, I came to…ran to the house, that’s where I found Hank, on the porch. The kitchen door was standin’ opened, Hop Sing was layin’ on the floor…I heard a ruckus upstairs, so’s I rushed up there…Joe was fightin’ a losin’ battle with this here fella…so I put a stop to it…and…here we are.”
“Well, well, well…what do you have to say for yourself, Mister?” demanded the sheriff.
The man stood rigid, saying nothing, just staring off into space.
“Suit yourself, stranger, but you’ll talk…sooner or later…now come on…I gotta lock ya up.”
Roy linked his fingers about the man’s arm and led him into the cellblock. As soon as the door was opened, Adam stood to his feet. His face wore the same stunned expression as the other’s had when they had first laid eyes on the man who had resembled Adam Cartwright so much so, that his likeness was enough to send Ben’s eldest son to the gallows for six ghastly murders.
Once his new prisoner was safely locked in a cell, Roy handed the key to Joe.
“Why don’t ya do the honors, boy…” the sheriff smiled.
“Don’t mind if I do,” laughed Joe as he turned the key in the lock, making his brother a free man.
“Guess ya free to go Adam…thanks to Little Joe…and Hoss.”
Adam nodded his head, taking another look at the prisoner. He turned his attention to his younger brother.
“Joe…is your mind clear now?”
“Yeah…finally…but Adam…I want you to know something,” Joe said.
“My mind might have been confused…my eyes might have lied to me…but in my heart…” Joe swallowed down his rising emotion and continued. “In my heart…I always knew the truth…”
Adam, his hand gently behind his brother’s neck, pulled the younger man to him, clasping his warmly in a brotherly hug.
“Thanks, buddy…I’m glad you listened to your heart…”
Days later, the trail of Lennie Newel was over. The young man had been found guilty, by his own admission, to the murders of Hank Marshall, the Widow Thompson, Carl and Martha Langley and Lester and Anna Gamble.
When asked why…why had he killed six of Virginia City’s finest citizens, Lennie Newel only laughed and screamed at the court that revenge was sweet. Revenge for what the judge had demanded.
The name, Newel, had suddenly sprung from the past. Twenty years ago, when Lennie had been only a boy, his father, Charles Newel had killed a man. It had been a drunken fight, but Charles had gunned down a young man in cold blood. Half the town had been witness to the killing; Hank Marshall had been the star witness. Carl Langely and Lester Gamble had sat on the jury that convicted Charles Newel.
Why kill the women folk the prosecution had demanded.
Lennie’s expression drew dark; his eyes seemed wild as he fired his answer back at the attorney.
“That old widow woman poked fun at my mama. You know, she died of a broken heart. All those do-gooders…those high and mighty women…they turned their noses up at my ma…she couldn’t even walk down the street after my pa was hung, lessen them fancy women turned their heads, or moved to the other side of the street.”
Lennie made a snarling sound.
“Those bitches got what they deserved!”
And Joe Cartwright?
“Simple…he was the only one who knew my true identity…I had to kill him, with him out of the way, his brother would hang…for my crimes…and I’d be a free man…what I didn’t foresee…was that big galoot…Hoss Cartwright. If he’d minded his own business that night, Joe Cartwright would have been a dead man, Adam would have hung and I’d be on my way to Mexico”
“It’s unbelievable, the grief that one man can cause,” muttered Ben as he and his sons stood outside the courthouse. “Such a waste, too…from what I’ve learned about Lennie, when he left here to go back east and live with his grandfather, he became a very well educated man…practically a genius from what Judge Whitaker tells me.”
“Guess you can never tell about some men,” Adam commented.
“Reckon not…say, Adam…what’s gonna happen to that black horse that matches yours?” Hoss asked.
“I was told that it was being sent to the auction over in Carson City next week. I might just go over and put in a bid, being as how Lennie Newel was the one who bought him out from under me.”
“A pair of matching blacks…I’d think twice about that, Adam,” smirked Joe.
“Oh…why’s that?” quizzed Adam.
“Haven’t you heard what folks are saying? ‘Death rides a black horse’, just what you need to get you into twice as much trouble,” laughed Joe.
“Joe…that black horse is as innocent as…I was. He didn’t do anything. But speaking of matching blacks, have you looked in the mirror lately?” Adam said with a touch of sarcasm.
He winked at his father, making Ben smile.
“Yeah, this morning, why?” Joe asked, puzzled at what his brother was getting at.
“You have a matching pair of blacks, yourself.”
Joe scrunched up his face.
“Yep…a pair of matching…black eyes!” laughed Adam.
Ben and Hoss joined the laughter. Hoss clamped his beefy hand down on his younger brother’s shoulder.
“That makes two of us!”
Joe laughed, turning to study the face of his brother; it was true, Hoss had two black eyes as well!
“Alright boys, there’s work to do, we’d best be getting on home…besides, Hop Sing said he was making a special supper just for the two of you,” Ben laughed as he mounted up.
“A special supper…just for me and Joe…what’s he fixin’?” Hoss, anxious to know, demanded.
“He mentioned something about blacken fish, black eyed peas, black berry pie…”
“Aw…dadburnitall, Pa…ya joshin’ again, ain’t ya?”