Word Count: 14,274
The street was lined with spectators all waiting to see what the youngest member of the Cartwright clan was aiming on doing. They wanted a showdown, but not me…I’m the youngest member of that Cartwright clan and I had no intentions of answering the challenge made by the young punk outside.
I remained at the bar and continued to sip my beer. The foam on the top had died and the ale was too warm for my liking, but I knew if I moved to go outside where the big-mouthed kid waited for me, someone would die. And I wasn’t aiming on that somebody to be me, but I wasn’t so sure I could outdraw him either. The boy was young, two years younger than I am and I’m only nineteen. He’s been dogging me for over a week now, ever since he’d rode into town and singled me out. My older brother, Adam, said he had seen the stranger the day of the shooting match late last week. The kid was watching from the sidelines, as if summing up all of us that were participating in the little event. It was all for fun, a few bets were made as to who was the fastest draw among a few of us young bucks. Luck was, I managed to outdraw the others and claimed the $50 prize money. No one seemed bothered by the fact, most were already aware that I was pretty quick on the draw so nothing was said when I walked away with the loot. No one was angry and we all marched down the street together kidding one another and laughing as we went into the saloon where I bought a round of drinks for all the boys.
I thought that was the end of it, but then later that afternoon while in the Silver Dollar Saloon, this kid comes in and starts harassing me. I saw right off that he was young, and cocky…sort of reminded me of myself back a couple years ago. Then the name-calling started but I ignored him for as long as I could, I even managed to hold my temper in check when he called me a yellow-bellied coward. I bristled though and Adam must have sensed it because it was about that time that he suggested we head on home. When I hesitated, he placed his arm about my shoulders in a brotherly way and everyone standing nearby thought nothing was out of the norm, but the pressure I felt as my brother squeezed told me that I’d be wise to do as he suggested. So, I conceded, tipped my hat at the stranger and we left. As Adam and I stood at the hitching post ready to mount up, the kid, followed by the patrons inside, all moved outside onto the boardwalk. I’d already swung up into the saddle and turned Cochise toward home when the kid yelled out at me that ‘there’ll be another day’…
I pulled my horse to a stop and turned around. I noted the fiery glow in his eyes and the thought flashed through my head that this kid, whose name I learned later was Lonnie Stokes, could kill me in a blink of an eye and have no regrets. The vision I saw then of me lying dead in the street and my father bent weeping over my body, sent shivers of dread…or maybe it was fear…racing through my veins. Lonnie stepped down off the boardwalk and took the stance, eyeing my every mood. I saw the tips of his long slender fingers brush the butt of his Colt 45 that rested easily on his hip. His piercing eyes never moved from my face. He was actually hoping that I’d be stupid enough to make a play for my gun. I’ll admit, it unnerved me some, his being so young yet so daringly explicit in his demands.
I recalled how hard it was to swallow, but I nodded my head at my challenger a second time and muttered something stupid like, ‘not today’ and then turned and rode out of town.
“Joseph, I want you to stay clear of that young man, do you understand me?”
Pa and I were at his desk, he sitting behind in his chair while I was sitting on the edge of the wide mahogany desktop. Pa had found out about Lonnie Stokes from Adam and since had about worried himself into a condition. I had been trying to assure him that I wasn’t going to start anything with the kid…after all, I told my father, Lonnie was just a boy…I couldn’t very well go about town getting into shoot-outs with boys. Pa gave me one of ‘those’ looks cause he didn’t think it was funny or that he’d found anything amusing about the situation. Well, hell…I hadn’t either. I didn’t tell my father, but the boy worried me some, probably more than he should have.
That wasn’t to say I was afraid of him, I’ve met very few men that I actually feared. Take my brothers, for instance. There’s Hoss, he’s just a big old easy going fellow, compassionate and kind to just about everybody…except when he’s riled. It takes a lot to rile him, but when he gets mad…you’d better stay clear. His fists are huge and he’s as strong as an ox; if he ever hit you, it wasn’t likely you’d be jumping up right away. Most folks here about know him as the gentle giant, which he is. Strangers usually take one look at him and avoid him, ‘cause he looks big and mean, but he ain’t, not really, least ways to me and my family he ain’t. But because of his strength and the power he packs, he could put the fear of God in a man; I’ve seen him do it a few times myself.
Then there’s Adam. If he weren’t my brother, and if I didn’t know him as well as I do, I’d probably have to count him as one of those men I’d fear. He has a temper…sort of a dark side to his personality, at least to those who don’t know him well. And he’s quiet, which is unnerving to some men. His eyes say it all, when he’s mad and he looks directly at you…shoot, I can barely keep from squirming myself when he looks at me like he does when he’s mad at me about something. Yep, most men walk softly when my older brother’s around and avoid him like the plague when he’s out of sorts. It’s the wisest thing to do, if you want to live another day.
But it was different with Lonnie Stokes. He was nothing like Adam or Hoss. They take it to heart when they’ve been forced to kill a man, especially Hoss with his big tender heart and all. Adam broods over things but Hoss is open with his emotions and takes everything personal. He hates any sort of arguing or fussing and rarely takes part in it, unless pushed into it. The boy, Lonnie Stokes, he strikes me as the type of young man that would take pleasure in killing someone. There’s something about the kid that’s unsettling and causes me to wonder exactly how many men, if any, that he’s already killed…and why. I mean, he certainly tried his best to draw me into a gun fight with him and for no good reason other than he wanted to prove he was better’n me…and faster. I wonder if he used the same excuses on the other men he’s had showdowns with. Doesn’t seem like much of a reason to want to kill a man. Pa says men like that just get a thrill from killing; they don’t have to have a reason. It’s as if they enjoy watching a man die. It sickens me.
That’s how it was in the beginning, when Lonnie Stokes walked into our lives, changing us forever. As I sit here with my brother Adam, watching him struggling just to stay alive, I don’t think about how many men Stokes might have killed, I only think about whether or not my brother is going to live…or die. I think back to that day when Stokes called me out and instead of me meeting him in the street, Adam was there…taking a bullet in the back that should have been in mine. I feel like it’s my fault that Adam is where he is right now. I’m not sure I’ll be able to live with myself if he should…die…he laid his life on the line for me and though he meant well, it leaves a gnawing guilt down in the bottom of my gut that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to forget. One thing for certain though, and I’ll never tell Pa or Hoss this, but if Adam dies…that boy’s gonna die too.
“I promise, Adam, Lonnie Stokes is gonna pay for what he’s done to you…to me…to our family…I give you my word!”
“Pa…don’t worry, I’m not going to let that kid goad me into doing something stupid. I’ve heard the talk around town he’s been showing off, trying to prove how fast he is…”
“He is fast, Little Joe,” Adam announced as he strapped on his gun, “Roy Coffee saw him showing off and said he’s never seen a man faster…ever…that’s why I’m riding into town with you…”
I remember how that announcement made me feel a bit like Adam thought I was too immature to handle the situation and I remember letting him know how I felt.
“I don’t need a babysitter, big brother…”
“No, you don’t…I didn’t mean to imply that you did…I have to go into town anyway to see Herb Larson about that new holster I ordered, so I might as well ride in with you,” Adam had hurried to explain. “Besides, I’d like the company.”
I couldn’t help but cast off my anger, I could tell by the lopsided dimpled grin on my older brother’s face that he meant what he said, so I agreed, pushing thoughts of Lonnie outta my head for the time being. “Alright…and since you want my company so bad, perhaps I can talk you into buying me a beer when you finish your business?”
Adam laughed softly. “I was sort of hoping you’d buy me a beer.”
As we walked out the door, Pa followed us, watching.
“How’s about we flip a coin, heads you buy, tails I buy?” I asked my brother.
I pulled a coin out of my pocket and flipped it into the air, letting it land in the dirt at our feet. Then I leaned down to look.
“Heads,” I grinned.
Adam groaned softly as he mounted up. “You didn’t use that two headed coin of yours, did you?”
I quickly put on a stunned expression on my face and looked over at Adam. “You cut me deeply,” I told him.
“Yeah…I see the pain in your eyes…” he said laughingly as he nudged Sport. “One…that’s all; I’ll buy you one beer…after that, it’s your turn.”
I giggled as I swung into the saddle, agreeing to the deal.
The ride into town was long and hot as it usually is in mid-August. The grass was brown and dried by the sun and the earth bore deep wide cracks from lack of rain. By the time my brother and I reached the out skirts of town, we were drenched with sweat and felt as if we were dying of thirst. We stopped in front of the bank.
“You get those papers signed for Pa; I’m heading on down to see Herb and I’ll meet you at the Silver Dollar.”
“Alright, Adam, I won’t be long…don’t you.”
“It’s too hot to dally. I’ll be along; you just order me a beer…and Joe…”
“Stay out of trouble…” Adam laughed lightly. He knows me so well.
I gave big brother a cocky grin and then turned and went inside, Mr. Garrison, the banker, was expecting me. Adam moseyed on down the street.
When I finished my business and was on my way over to the saloon, Lonnie Stokes suddenly appeared before me. I stopped in my tracks and quickly glanced around. I hadn’t noticed until that moment the small group of spectators that had been following along behind me. Apparently, they had suspected that something was about to happen. I chided myself for not being more alert to what was going on around me. Lonnie stood with his back to the sun, putting me at a disadvantage. His legs were slightly apart, his hand midway to his sides. He glared at me, daringly, and I glared back but for only a moment and then moved on to the other side of the street. From the corner of my eye, I could see Lonnie moving along with the growing crowd that was now following us.
I tried to ignore him. I wondered where Adam was as I moved slowly in the direction of the saloon. The kid on the street was growing frustrated because I kept moving away instead of stopping and facing him.
I stopped. The fine hairs on the back of my neck bristled slightly. I stared straight ahead, knowing in my heart that the folks of Virginia City that knew me knew I was no coward. But the word cut into me like a finely honed knife. I swallowed down the thickness that collected in my throat and walked on. A man, a stranger stepped from the crowd and blocked my path. His eyes were dark and daring as he silently challenged me. A second man joined him, completely blocking the boardwalk.
“LOOK AT HIM…HE’S TOO YELLOW TO EVEN TURN AROUND AND FACE ME!”
There was no way to go around them so I stepped down from the boardwalk into the street but the men in the group moved as if they were one and formed a semi-circle around me. I couldn’t believe it; they were all wanting to see a gunfight. They could already taste my blood! But I wasn’t going to be forced into it; after all, I’d promised my pa I wouldn’t let Stokes goad me into one. But my way was totally blocked and I when I tried to push my way through, they pushed back.
I’d had enough of the name-calling and slowly I turned around. By now I had moved far enough down the street that the sun was to my back. Funny that I noticed its warmth beating down on my shoulders. I wondered if today was the day that I was going to die. Lonnie Stokes sure looked as if he could kill me; the grave expression on his face told me that he was plenty ready to.
I swallowed hard, knowing that the people would think it true that I was afraid of him, but I stood firm, folding my arms across my chest, well out of reach of my .45
“I said no…I’m not going to shoot it out with you…”
The kid was losing his cool. He wasn’t sure what to do.
“No…it’s just too hot. Why don’t you let me buy you a beer?”
“I DON’T WANT A DAMN BEER…I WANT YOU TO DRAW!”
“Alright…alright, break it up…”
I looked over to my right and saw the sheriff shoving his way through the crowd.
My attention was suddenly drawn from the sheriff to the kid. He went for his gun and in self-defense I went for mine. I heard the blast from his pistol and instantly felt a burning pain pierce my upper right arm. My pistol was knocked from my hand as I was spun around. When I fell, it was to my knees but almost before I could catch my breath, hands were helping me to stand. My left hand covered the wound as blood seeped from between my fingers. I sucked in a chest full of air in an attempt to ward off the searing pain.
“Are you alright?”
I looked up then, into the dark worried eyes of my brother. I glanced down at my arm and then realizing it was only grazed, nodded my head.
“Yeah, I think so,” I told Adam, wondering how he had gotten to me so quickly.
By that time, Roy had the kid’s gun and had his fingers wrapped tightly around Lonnie’s arm, leading him toward us. The crowd parted to let them through. The sheriff stopped in front of Adam and me.
“You alright, Little Joe?” the sheriff asked.
“He only grazed me.”
Roy was angry about the whole thing; you could tell by the dark scowl he wore.
“I’m gonna lock this fool kid up…you come by my office after you get Doc Martin to tend to that arm, and I’ll have the complaint filled out and ready for you to sign.”
“Complaint?” I asked.
“Yeah…you are going to file a complaint, ain’t ya?”
I glanced at Adam, not sure if I should press charges or not. In the back of my mind I was thinking that if I did, it might make things worse. Lonnie would feel he had a reason to come gunning for me, if I did. But if I didn’t…
“I don’t know, Roy…I’ll think on it…”
Roy didn’t like that answer. He didn’t put up with gunfighters coming into his town and trying to stir up trouble. I could tell he was plenty ready to get rid of this kid, even if it meant sending him off to prison for a spell for attempted murder.
“You think on it real hard like, Little Joe…ya pa ain’t gonna like this…ya know as well as I do, he wants this here kid outta town. He’ll expect ya to press charges…”
“Roy’s right, Joe. Roy, we’ll come by the office after I get Joe’s arm taken care of.”
“Have it you’re way…but I’m lockin’ this hoodlum up for now…”
“It’s not much more than a scratch, Little Joe,” the doctor told me.
I was watching the doctor as he wiped away the dried blood and cleaned the wound. Adam was standing on the other side of me and when I looked up at him, I could see the worry etched into the fine lines of his handsome face.
“You still owe me a beer,” I said to him. “A deal’s a deal…ain’t that what you’re always telling me?”
“I think I should get you home…forget the beer, Joe.”
“No…you promised to buy me a beer.”
Adam frowned as he looked over at Doc Martin.
“A beer won’t hurt him, Adam.”
“Well…alright, but just one, Joe. After that, we’re stopping by the sheriff’s office, you’re gonna press charges and then we’re going home. That should be enough excitement for you for one day,” Adam said, but then he grinned at me. “You were lucky, kid…that boy was fast…”
“You saw him?” I hadn’t been aware that Adam had been anywhere about.
“I was just coming out of the harness-makers and saw the crowd. Somehow I knew you’d been in the middle of it. I got there just as Stokes pulled his gun…Joe…he could have killed you. You barely got your gun out of your holster.”
I scratched my head and glanced up at my brother. What he said was true…that loud-mouth kid was about as fast as any man I’d ever seen.
“Fast, yeah…but he sure was a poor shot…” I said, hoping to relieve some of the tension I saw in Adam’s face.
“I don’t think he intended to kill you…”
“Just what I said; I think he only aimed on winging you…to…make you mad enough to seek him out the next time…but there’s not going to be a next time…” Adam seemed adamant about that.
I hadn’t thought of it that way, maybe Adam was right. Perhaps Lonnie had only intended to wing me, but just the same, if I pressed charges against him, wouldn’t that give him more of a motive to seek me out? And if I didn’t…would he be tempted to finish what he started? Either way, it seemed to me that things were slowly moving toward a showdown, no matter what I did to avoid one. Lonnie was determined to have his way. Maybe I should try talking to him. With him behind bars, locked up in Roy’s jail, he’d almost have to listen to me. I could reason with him, try to explain that I wasn’t afraid of him, but that I didn’t see any point in one of us getting killed just for the sole purpose of proving who was the faster draw. I decided right then that’s what I would do, talk to the kid…then, if he wouldn’t listen to reason, I’d have no other recourse but to let the law handle it.
“You’re right, Adam, there’s not going to be a next time, not if I can help it. Thanks, Doc…just send the bill to Pa,” I said with a cheeky grin. “Come on, Adam, let’s go see Roy; I have an idea…”
I walked out of the doc’s office not knowing what to expect when I got to the sheriff’s, but had my mind set on trying to reason with the boy. I wasn’t prepared for what lay ahead…none of us were. I found myself stunned by the coldness within the boy’s heart.
“I only have one thing to say to you, Cartwright…meet me in the street…”
I turned away from the jail cell and walked back into the main office. Roy was sitting behind his desk; Adam sat in a chair facing the sheriff.
“Well?” Adam asked, looking up at me.
I knew I was frowning; I couldn’t help it. Lonnie Stokes refused to listen to reason.
“He claims that no matter what I do, he’s gonna find a way to make me face him,” I explained to my brother and the sheriff.
“Ya best press charges, Little Joe…at least that way he’ll be gone for a while…”
“Lot of good it would do,” I told him as I stood gazing out the window. I turned back around to find both Adam and Roy watching me intently. “He’d only grow bitter with time and be more determined to get me…and if I don’t press charges, he’ll just be waiting for me somewhere…either here in town or out on the road someplace. There’s no way around it…I have to face him…”
“No you don’t!” Adam blared at me as he shoved back his chair and walked over to me. “You can stay out of town for a spell; he’ll grow tired of waiting for you…he’ll not dare come out to the ranch…”
“If’n he does, I’ll have him locked up for trespassing…”
“Oh come on…I can’t hide, Adam, and you know it…I won’t live like that…everyone will think I am afraid of him that’s for sure…”
“Doesn’t matter what others think, Joe…the kid’s fast…you saw that yourself…”
“He’s faster than anybody I ever saw before,” Roy added. “It might be wisest to press charges, Little Joe…that way we’ll all be well rid of ’im.”
I paced around the room like a caged animal. I wasn’t sure what to do.
“Adam…he’s just a boy…he’s barely seventeen…I can’t send him to prison. You know what they do to young boys there.”
I paced across the room and stopped at the door that led into the cellblock. The kid was lying on the narrow cot; one arm was across his face, shielding his eyes from the bright sunlight that shone through the window. I wasn’t sure if he was sleeping or just covering his eyes pretending to be.
Slowly the boy moved his arm away from his face and raised his head to look up at me. “What do you want?” he growled.
“I want this settled,” I said to him.
Lonnie got up, stretched and walked over to me, placing his hands on the bars that separated us.
“I don’t want to send you to prison…that’s where you’re headed if I press charges,” I explained.
“I don’t want to fight you either…”
“No…I’m not afraid of you…”
“Then why won’t you fight me?”
“Maybe I don’t want to die…or perhaps I don’t want to see you die…”
“I’m not scared to die…besides, I’m faster than you are,” Lonnie said, obviously very confident in himself.
“You might be surprised,” I said, hoping to ignite a spark of fear in him, but after a moment I saw it was no use, Lonnie was telling the truth, he really wasn’t afraid of dying.
“I won’t be…you forget, Cartwright, I saw you…I watched that little draw and shoot match you took part in a few days ago. Sure, you’re good…but I’m better…”
I was at a loss as to what to say to the kid. I’d never see someone so young be so fired up about having a shoot out with a man he barely knew. I stood there a minute longer, until Lonnie turned his back on me and walked to the far side of his cell.
“Only way to be rid of me, Little Joe, is to fight me. You can go ahead and press charges if you’ve a mind to…but rest assured, I’ll be back…someday…and we’ll pick up right here…”
I was fighting my temper. I really wanted in that cell with him so I could beat some sense into his thick head.
“Why are you so set on killing me?” I demanded.
“Because I can…and I will,” he snarled. “That little incident outside the saloon should have given you a hint as to how fast I really am…you barely got your gun outta your holster…”
I gritted my teeth and turned to leave, but his next words stopped me cold in my tracks.
“You’ll fight me, Cartwright…I promise you that…someday…you’ll hate me so much, you’ll come gunnin’ for me…and I’ll be waitin’ for you…”
I felt the fine hairs on the back of my neck rise and I shivered involuntarily. I didn’t know exactly what he meant, but something in the tone of his voice warned me that unless I met him in the street, I’d never be rid of him. I glanced back over my shoulder just in time to see him lay back down on the cot.
“Tell your family to watch their backs…”
My blood ran cold in my veins…he was threatening to gun down one of my family members. Anger washed over me as I stomped back to the cell, grabbing the bars. Hate spewed from my mouth as I yelled out at the sheriff.
“LET HIM OUT, ROY…I’LL MEET HIM IN THE STREET!”
Both Roy and Adam came running into the cellblock to see what all the racket was about. Lonnie had gotten to his feet and stood facing me, grinning wickedly.
“Let him out!” I demanded of the sheriff.
Adam and Roy looked stunned and I knew they thought I’d lost my mind. Adam placed his hand on my shoulder and gentle squeezed.
“Don’t be silly…”
I turned and glared back at him, knocking his hand from my shoulder. “He’s threatened the family, Adam…if I don’t shoot it out with him, he’s going to kill one of you…I can’t let that happen…”
“Aw…Little Joe…he’s just babblin’,” Roy said trying to calm me. “I ain’t got no choice; either you press charges or I turn him loose and run him outta town…but there AIN’T gonna be no more gunplay!”
“Press charges, Joe…” Adam hammered at me. “You’ll regret this day if you don’t…”
“No…I’m not sending a boy to prison for thinking he’s a fast gun…”
Adam stood up, glaring at me. I could see the uneasiness mixed with his anger but I stood firm to my decision.
“I have a feeling you’re gonna be mighty sorry, little brother,” Adam breathed to me in a low tone.
I turned and walked away. I’d had enough of Lonnie Stokes, I was tired, my arm hurt and all I wanted to do was go home; the free beer was long forgotten by this time.
“Run him out of town, Roy…you comin’, Adam? I’m going home?”
And that’s where I stayed for the next two weeks. Roy had dropped by the next day after Adam and I had been in town to tell us that he had run Lonnie Stokes out of town for good, with the promise to the young man that if he ever came back he’d go to jail for good long time.
I can’t say how relieved I felt. I saw the same look on the faces of my family too. I hadn’t been aware of how concerned they had been until that moment.
“Hey…what’ll you say we all go into town tonight?” I asked them.
They swapped knowing grins and then Hoss asked a question I knew one of them was going to ask.
I giggled; I felt good…better than I had in a month. “Sure, why not…today’s pay day…you are goin’ to pay us…aren’t you, Pa?”
Even Pa laughed. “Well, son, if today’s pay day…I reckon I have no choice…come on inside and let’s settle up, then we can clean up and go into town after supper! Roy, you want to stay for supper?”
“Thanks, Ben, for the invite, but guess I’d best get back to town; I’m still workin’ ya know…”
“Joe, you and Adam stable the horses down at the livery; Hoss and I’ll go on ahead. We’ll meet you in about ten minutes,” Pa told my brothers.
“Sure ‘nough…you hurry it up now, Shortshanks…’member, you’re buyin’,” snickered Hoss.
“Don’t you worry none…I won’t let him forget,” teased Adam as he looked in my direction.
It sure felt good, seeing my family in such merry moods again. The dark cloud of uncertainty had passed and it was just plain ole nice to have things back to normal. Little did I know that within minutes, our lives would be changed again…this time things wouldn’t look so great.
Adam and I led the four horses into the livery and put them in stalls. After we unsaddled and tossed them some grain, Adam left a note for the liveryman explaining that we’d be back in a couple of hours and would settle up with him then. As we turned to go, a strange, muffled sound caught our attention. We glanced at each other and I saw Adam quickly move his hand down to his side, resting his fingers on the butt of his pistol. He motioned for me to be quiet and pointed to the darkest corner of the barn. We crept along slowly, listening as the odd noise grew in volume. We drew our guns, not knowing what to expect.
When we saw Cletus, the stable man, propped in a corner, his hands tied behind his back and his ankles knotted with thick ropes, Adam and I both gasped. Quickly, we holstered our guns and I started to remove the gag from around the man’s head while Adam struggled to undo the knots in the ropes about Cletus’ feet.
I leaned the elderly man forward a bit and loosened the ropes around his wrists
“Who did this?” I asked him.
“It was…” His words were cut short. He pointed over the top of Adam’s shoulder and we both turned to look. Behind Adam stood Lonnie Stokes, his pistol drawn and pointed at us.
“I’ve been keepin’ tabs on both you,” he snarled at us. “I’ve been waitin’ for you to come to town,” he said as he slowly slipped his gun loosely into his holster and backed up a couple of paces. He spread his arms slightly, taking the stance used when a man is about to make his move.
Adam started to stand up, but Lonnie yelled at him not to move a muscle; Adam stayed in the crouching position, his back to Lonnie. He glanced over at me and shook his head; I was still squatting down next to Cletus. The position I was in put Adam slightly off to one side from Lonnie and I, but I realized that if Lonnie was expecting me to go for my gun, he was the one with the advantage. What with being so low to the ground, I was in his direct firing line.
“Stand up, Little Joe,” Lonnie dared.
“Don’t move, Joe,” Adam warned. He looked me square in the eye. I knew the look was a warning so I stayed put.
“I said get up…I want this fair and square…”
“There’s nothing fair about this…I haven’t called you out,” I snapped in anger.
Before I could blink, Lonnie had gone for his gun and fired. Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen Adam move and then stop as if frozen in time. For a brief moment I thought he was looking at me; I thought I’d been shot, but I didn’t feel anything…there was no blood. Then I looked over at my brother, I saw the strangest look on his face and then he slumped forward, into Cletus’ lap. His pistol lay in the dirt at Cletus’ feet. Lonnie had shot Adam in the back and blood ran red, staining my brother’s freshly laundered black shirt.
I jumped to my feet in order to help my brother, but Lonnie warned against it. “Leave him be…” he commanded. “Stupid fool for thinking he could out draw me! Now it’s your turn Cartwright…you should hate me enough…now…just as I said you would.”
I froze, keeping my eyes on his face. In one swift move, he twirled his weapon and slid it back into his holster. I straightened up, flexing my fingers, watching his every move and not daring to look away, not even did I chance a glance at my brother who lay at my feet. The time had come; I had to draw against him now…I had no other choice, it was draw or die…maybe both, but at least I’d get one chance at killing the murdering son-of-a-bitch!
Out front we heard voices. The sound of men approaching put an end to the gunplay. It seemed as if I blinked and Lonnie was gone, vanishing that quickly. I started out the back door after him, but the piteous moaning that came from my brother, stopped me dead in my tracks. I spun around and dropped to the ground, gathering Adam into my arms.
“Joe?” Adam murmured in a whisper.
“I’m here, Adam,” I cried.
His face was a pasty white. I could feel the warmth of his blood soaking into my own shirtsleeve as I held him close to me. He opened his eyes; they were glazed and I could see the pain etched into his forehead. He tried to speak again but nothing came out of his mouth. By that time, Pa and Hoss were there with me on the ground. I remember looking up at Pa and seeing the horror in his expression, stunned to see his firstborn held in his youngest son’s arms, dying.
“Dear God,” Pa muttered. “What on earth happened? Someone help us!” he issued to anyone in the crowd that had begun to gather. “Hoss,” he yelled, taking charge.
“Yessir,” I barely heard my brother say.
“You men…help Hoss get this man to the doctor’s office…” he said to those who had stepped forward to help.
I don’t remember Hoss and the others taking Adam from my arms, nor do I remember my father’s hands on my upper arms, gently pulling me to my feet. I was in shock, I was speechless and I was scared.
“Joseph…son…are you alright?” Pa, seeing all the bright blood, was concerned that I had been wounded as well.
I raised my head slowly and I think I must have looked my father in the eyes, I’m not sure, but something inside of me broke then and I practically collapsed. Pa caught me and gathered me up in his own arms and carried me outside into the cool air. I buried my face against the soft leather of his vest, determined not to let the spectators see me cry.
It was just a short distance down the street to Doc Martin’s office and we were there almost instantly. Adam had already been carried inside and I was sure Doc Martin was already tending to his patient.
“Put me down,” I whispered to my father. “I’m alright…I can walk.”
Pa set me on my feet but he kept his strong hands on my arms. My head was lowered but I remember Pa lifting my chin with his finger like he used to do when I was a little boy.
“Everything’s going to be alright, Joe…”
How many times over the years have I heard my father say that to me? I couldn’t count them, but things always turned out right, just as Pa had always predicted they would. But this time I wasn’t so sure.
“He’s hurt bad…that bastard shot him in the back…Adam never had a chance…”
“Who, Joseph…who shot your brother?”
“Lonnie…Lonnie Stokes,” I proclaimed, straightening to my full height.
I walked around Pa then and went inside. I had to know about Adam, about how badly he was hurt and if the doctor thought he would live or die…’cause if he died….
It was much later that night, as Pa, Hoss and I sat in the waiting room wishing the doc would hurry up and come tell us something about Adam. I was nervous and couldn’t sit still so I paced the room. I could feel Pa’s eyes watching me, and the thought ran through my head that he probably blamed me for what happened to Adam. No matter, I blamed myself. Adam had been right all along, I should have listened to him and pressed charges against Lonnie Stokes. Had I taken my brother’s advice, Adam wouldn’t be lying in the back room suffering on my account…or perhaps dying.
I was sick with guilt and with grief. My shirt was soaked with my brother’s blood and when I glanced down at my hands, I was stunned to see that Adam’s blood had dried there as well. Strange, how that made me feel, knowing that I actually had my brother’s blood on my hands. I tried not to think about it, but it gnawed at my gut. All I remember after that was folding my fingers into tight balls and backing up against the wall.
Pa had been watching me, and he must have seen that I was about to break down. He rushed over to me and put his arm around my shoulder, pulling me close to him in a kind of hug, tightly. I barely recall looking up at him; I couldn’t see him very well because of the tears that blinded my eyes.
“This…is…all…my…fault…” I babbled as I turned my head into his shoulder and buried my face against him.
I started to sob uncontrollably. It had been such a strain on me, the last month, never knowing where Lonnie Stokes was or when he might show up unannounced, like tonight. I couldn’t stop myself. Pa’s arms tightened about me and I felt another hand on my shoulder squeezing tenderly. I knew without looking or asking that it was Hoss.
“It’s…my…fault…” I uttered again.
“Shh…that’s not so, Joseph…you had no way of knowing that the Stokes kid would be hiding in that barn…”
“Pa’s right, Punkin…no one’s blamin’ you for this…and Adam won’t either…” Hoss said trying to comfort me.
“Joe…come over here and sit down…Paul will be out soon and then we’ll know something…”
Pa led me over to the small sofa and sat down with me; he even handed me his handkerchief. I looked up at him, seeing his anxiety and fear and I felt that much more guilty for what happened. I wiped my eyes just as the door to the back room opened and Doc Martin came over to us. When Pa stood up, I did the same; Hoss was already standing beside the physician. We were all anxious to hear how Adam was.
The news wasn’t the best…and certainly not what I wanted to hear. But Adam had a fighting chance. The bullet had buried itself deeply in his back and Doc Martin had done surgery on my brother to remove the slug. It had taken a couple of hours; that had explained the length of time that Pa, Hoss and I had been left alone to wonder Adam’s fate. A lot of blood had been lost the doc said, more than he would have liked and Adam remained unconscious. The physician assured us that as of right then, Adam wasn’t feeling anything but that once he came around, he would be given some medication to dull the pain. It would take a long time for Adam to get his strength back and that meant many days confined to bed with lots of rest and good food. The good food we’d leave up to Hop Sing, our cook, he’d know exactly what to fix for Adam that would speed his recovery, after all, Hop Sing had been nursemaid to all of us at various times in our lives.
“Can…I see him?” I asked the doctor.
“He’s resting, Joe…he won’t even know you’re there,” Paul explained. “Best leave him be for now…”
“No…er…I mean…please? I won’t bother him; I promise…I’d…just like to sit with him…just for a little while?” I knew it sounded as if I were begging…but if that’s what it would take to get in to see my brother, then I’d drop to my knees and beg if I had too.
I saw the doctor and my father exchange quick glances. I knew Pa would understand how I felt…and why, so I fixed my eyes on him. He smiled knowingly at me and then turned to Doc Martin. “If he promises not to disturb Adam…couldn’t he sit with him for a few minutes?”
I noticed that the doctor was watching me, and since he’s known me all my life, I suppose he had some understanding of my needs, so he nodded his head in agreement, relenting. “No more than an hour, Little Joe…then I want you to get some rest; you look beat.”
I agreed and quickly, before he changed his mind, I slipped quietly into the back room where Adam was. It was dimly lit with the curtains drawn closed and I had to be careful not to trip over something as I silently made my way to the bed.
Adam was lying on his side. I could see the white bandages that the doctor had wrapped around his middle after removing the slug from his back. The whiteness of the cloth was dimmed by the slight redness of my brother’s blood. I felt my throat thicken like I was choking. Weakness made my stomach queasy and I was overcome with emotion as I sat down next to the bed where I could watch the expressions flickering across my brother’s brow. Forced to lean forward, I covered my face with my hands. Sobs from deep within me, begged to be released, but soon drowned in the hate that sprung forth from deeper inside my soul. Hate like I’ve never known before, born of guilt and remorse and a startling sense of having failed my own brother, of having to watch him suffer because of my doing…or in this case, my not doing. He’d been right all along, I should have listened to him and pressed charges against the murdering scoundrel but now because of my own bull-headedness, my oldest brother might die. I’d have to live with that…there would be no satisfaction left for me for the remainder of my days…except one. And that would be to hunt down Lonnie Stokes and kill him. Sure, it wouldn’t bring my brother back if he died, nothing would…but the gratification I’d get from killing the little bastard would ease the burden of my own guilt. Or so I thought.
The night at last gave way to morning, through gray and dreary. It looked like it might rain, what with the dark clouds billowing on the horizon back toward Carson City. We could use a bit of rain, everything for miles around was beginning to look dried and brush fires were always a major worry for the farmers and ranchers down in the valleys.
I had stayed with Adam all night. Sometime during the wee hours of the morning, I’d fallen to sleep in the chair I’d been sitting in and when I woke finally, I was surprised to see that someone had covered me with a blanket; my guess would be Pa most likely, or maybe Mrs. Martin, the doctor’s wife.
When I went into the waiting room, I was surprised to see my father, Hoss and the sheriff taking together. They all turned and looked at me and each man wore a different expression on their face. Pa walked over to me and put his hand on my arm. His eyes were dark and his bushy brows drawn together. I knew something was wrong.
“What’s wrong, Pa?” I asked him.
“Nothing…not really,” he began. “Roy just stopped by to tell us that…they caught Stokes…”
“He’s over in my jail right now,” Roy explained.
I pulled free of Pa’s grasp and grabbed my hat off the sofa and headed for the door.
I stopped and turned around, his voice was deep and commanding and I knew better than to walk out of that room without responding, but I wasn’t happy about it…I wanted to see for myself that Stokes was behind bars. “What?”
Pa glared at me, the previous expression of understanding disappeared. I had riled him.
“Don’t take that tone with me, young man!”
“I’m sorry, Pa…I didn’t mean to snap at you,” I said, apologizing.
The anger instantly dissipated from Pa’s face. “Where are you going?”
“Over to the jail…”
I sighed…Pa was playing the question game with me again and I was beginning to lose my temper. I took a deep breath. “I want to see for myself that Lonnie Stokes is behind bars…is that alright?”
Roy stepped forward then and gave me a hard stare. “What’s wrong, son? Don’t you believe me?”
“Yes sir, Sheriff, I believe you…I just want to get a good look at his face…”
It was Pa’s turn again; for some reason both he and Roy didn’t like the idea of me going to see the back-shooting son of a… Well, I was going anyway.
“Joseph, there is no reason for you to look at his face. He’s in jail, locked away like he should be and there he’ll stay until there’s a trial.”
“Your Pa’s right, Little Joe…best you stay here with your brother and keep away from my jail…I’ll handle that kid…AND…I don’t need your help…” Roy issued.
“No buts!” Roy said sternly, turning to my father. “Ben…I’m trusting you to keep your boy here away from my prisoner. I know what he’d like to do to Stokes…can’t say I blame him none…but the law will handle this…understand, Little Joe?” Roy turned to ask me.
I wasn’t happy about the demand. I really wanted to get my hands on that varmint…but I conceded for now because just then the doctor came out of the back room and said that Adam was stirring about and I wanted to talk to him. I needed to tell my brother how sorry I was…how badly I felt that because of me, he was wounded, shot…
“I’m here, son,” Pa said in a low voice.
We were all gathered around the bed where Adam was just beginning to wake up.
“Can I talk to him?” I asked anxiously.
“Just a minute, son,” Pa told me. “Adam…how do you feel?”
“I’m here, Adam,” I said, moving closer to my brother. “You don’t have to worry, Adam…Stokes is locked up…I’m still goin’ to make him pay for what he’s done!”
“Joseph! That will be enough of that kind of talk!” Pa reprimanded me.
My lips were pinched tightly as I turned to glare at my father. His own eyes were exceedingly dark and I knew I’d pushed too hard. I looked away, unable to meet the intensity in his eyes.
“Don’t…Joe…let it go…” Adam muttered as he tried to focus on me.
“You needn’t worry, son,” Pa responded, “Joe’s not going to do a thing…are you Joseph!” Pa said, looking up at me.
He expected an answer, but I wasn’t ready to give him one. Adam wasn’t out of danger yet, he might still die…and if and when he did, Lonnie Stokes was going to die as well. But I couldn’t say that to my father or Adam, so instead, I said nothing. Turning, I just walked out of the room, I needed air, I needed to get away for a bit, and so I left.
Once outside, I sucked in a chest full of air. It seemed to help clear my head a bit. My stomach growled reminding me that it had been hours since I’d eaten so I decided to walk down to Daisy’s Kitchen and have a bite of breakfast. As I was going inside, a small boy about eleven or so, came running out and nearly collided with me. I laughed lightly, surprising myself at how easy it came, considering all that had happened in the last few hours, but the boy laughed too.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said, apologizing for being in such a rush.
“That’s alright, kid…say, what’s the hurry?” I asked, seeing that he carried a tray covered with a clean red cloth. “Something sure smells good…what’cha got there?”
“It’s breakfast…for the Sheriff’s prisoner…Mr. Coffee asked me to fetch it over to the jail fore ‘im. He gave me a nickel!” the boy announced happily.
Without warning, anger surged through my veins, making me shiver. I barred the kid’s path as I dug into my pocket, pulling a nickel out.
“Here,” I said, offering the boy the money. “I’ll give you another nickel if you let me take this tray to the jail…”
I knew it was wrong, I knew deep inside of me that Pa would be furious at me for going back on my word…but I couldn’t help myself. I felt driven, I felt…well, I mean…why should that back-shooter be able to enjoy a nice hot breakfast when my brother lay dying, fighting for his life. The only picture that I saw in my head was our breakfast table where an empty chair sat that had once been my brother’s sitting place at the table.
“How about a dime…”
“Why you little…” I almost laughed again, but I dug out a dime and swapped it for the breakfast tray.
The boy tested it with his teeth and grinned up at me. “Thanks, Mister,” he said and then ran off down the street and out of sight.
I lifted the cloth to see what Daisy had put on the tray. The tray contained a short stack of pancakes, a plate of bacon with a container of syrup and another of soft butter sat beside a small pot that contained steaming coffee. The lucky bastard, I thought! I snatched a piece of bacon and stuffed it into my mouth. It was good…too bad Adam couldn’t enjoy a piece.
I pushed the door to the office opened and slipped inside. No one was there; I felt a growing anxiety beginning to gnaw at my middle.
“HEY…IS THAT YOU, SHERIFF? HURRY UP WITH THAT FOOD…I’M ABOUT TO STARVE!” Lonnie Stokes shouted from behind the closed door that separated the cells from the main office.
I jerked back on the door, flinging it wide. The kid was standing at the cell door, hands gripping the thick iron bars. To me, it was a glorious sight.
“Well, well,” he chirped, confident in himself. “If it ain’t Joe Cartwright. I’m surprised to see you doing the sheriff’s chores,” he said with a smirk.
I sat the tray down on the little table and turned without saying a word and reached for the keys.
“Hurry up…I’m starving to death!” he demanded of me.
I stopped cold and glared at him. I hated the little punk. Instead of opening the cell, I pulled up a chair to the little table and sat down. Hate’s a hard knot to swallow, you know.
The keys I placed next to the tray that I quickly uncovered. The aroma of food filled the little room. When I glanced over at the prisoner, I saw him lick his lips. Satisfaction was slowly dulling the pain of hate. I pour a cup of the coffee, watching Lonnie from the corner of my eye. I wondered briefly how long it had been since the kid had eaten. I really didn’t care…I didn’t care if he starved.
I held the cup out to him and watched as he stretched out his arm through the bars trying to reach it. I smiled at him.
“Smells good, heh?” I said as I slowly and deliberately raised the cup to my own lips and took a sip. I heard the kid groan. “Sure tastes good too,” I said, taunting the now angering back shooter.
I spread the soft butter on the pancakes and then drowned them in the hot maple syrup. As the syrup ran over the stack of pancakes, I took another piece of the thick, crisp bacon and stuffed it into my mouth.
“Hmmm…good,” I said, grinning at him. “Want some?” I asked, holding a piece out to him.
“Bastard…” Lonnie uttered, causing me to grin back at him. I shrugged my shoulders and dug into the pancakes.
He was furious. I could see the hate in his own deep-set eyes, as he turned away, unable to watch me devouring his breakfast. It only took about five minutes for me to eat everything. I stood up, wiping my mouth on the cloth and then tossed it onto the tray.
“Thanks,” I said as I picked up the keys. “You would have enjoyed that; Daisy’s a fine cook!”
I walked out, leaving the tray where it was and closed the door. The keys I hung back on the peg and then, arranging my hat just so, I left, laughing loud enough that the murdering bastard could hear me. I felt elated, to a point.
It wasn’t until later, after Roy returned to the office and found out what I had done and confronted my father with it, that I began to feel a little guilty about my actions.
“I can’t believe you’d do something so…so…childish!” my father stormed.
We stood in the main office down at the jail. The door between there and the cellblock was shut, but Pa and Roy were shouting so loudly at me, I was positive that Lonnie could hear every word. And to make matters worse, I was just as sure that he was gloating…glad to see that I had been found out and was being fiercely reprimanded.
“How dare you come into my office and interfere with my job!” shouted Roy. “Why…I should lock you up…put you in the cell right next to that boy!”
I swallowed the thickness down that had suddenly sprung up in my throat. That would be the worst possible punishment…to have to be confined so closely with that…that…kid.
“What do you think, Ben?”
“I think that’s a good idea…”
I was stunned. I know my eyes widened and I knew Pa knew what I was thinking. I felt a sudden rush of panic seize me, chewing away at my insides.
“I’m sorry…” muttered, lowering my head in shame.
“Well…you should be!” stormed Roy.
I raised my head slightly, anger beginning to brew again from within.
“I said as much…what more do you want of me?” I threw back at him. I was consumed and couldn’t stop the flood of emotion that had quickly overtaken me. “He tried to kill my brother…he shot Adam in the back…and my brother might well die…and all the while that little punk sits back there gloating…why should he enjoy a good home-cooked meal when Adam can barely sip water from a spoon! I hope they hang the bastard…I wanna see him die….”
I turned in a huff and fled. The sound of my father’s deep voice loomed loudly in my ears.
“JOSEPH, GET BACK HERE!”
I never stopped, I didn’t look back…I had to get away…I ran toward Adam. I needed to see my brother, I needed to be near him…I longed for, I craved his strength…he can’t die, he just can’t my heart cried over and over until I thought I’d scream aloud!
I don’t know how long I’d been sitting beside the bed, but my anger had abated some though the hate still festered. I was feeling drowsy and was almost asleep when the door burst opened rather loudly and banged against the wall. I jerked my head up, glancing down at Adam who stirred slightly and then, hearing a noise behind me, spun around to find my father standing in the doorway, his appearance in disarray.
“What on earth happened to you?” I questioned, hurrying to my father’s side, for he seemed about to collapse. That’s when I got a good look at his battered face.
“Help me sit down…” he mumbled, his words all garbled because of his swollen lips.
“What happened?” I asked as I wet a cloth and helped him to wipe the blood from his lip.
“STOKES?” I nearly shouted and then lowered my voice so as not to disturb Adam.
I saw the troubled look Pa cast my way while cleaning his face. It was mixture of uncertainty, worry and fear. I felt my heart pumping hard as I pushed for an explanation.
“What about Stokes?”
“I AM calm…what about him, Pa…what happened to your face…and how is that back shooting scum involved?”
Pa sighed heavily. “After you left…Roy brought another breakfast tray for Lonnie. I wasn’t there, but came in just as…the boy was running out…”
“Running out…what do you mean by that?”
“Apparently he…got the drop on Roy…”
“That’s what I said…Lonnie got the drop on Roy, knocked him out and was just escaping out the front door as…I was coming in. He hit me with something…I’m not sure what,” Pa explained, running his jaw.
I stood up, all the old anger had returned and sent my emotions reeling. I turned to go.
“Joseph…where do you think you’re going?” Pa growled, standing and grabbing me by my upper arm.
I wrenched free, there’d be no stopping me this time. “I’m going after Stokes…” I answered and turned again to go.
This time, Pa stepped in front of me, baring my exit. “Roy is taking care of that. He’s already sent a posse out to look for the boy.”
“Good, the more the merrier…now, if you’ll excuse me…”
“No!” Pa demanded. “You’re staying right here…I won’t allow you to go off looking for anyone with that much anger burning a hole in your heart…Joe,” he said, calming a bit. “I don’t want you to do something you’ll be sorry for later.”
“I won’t, Pa…you should know better than that…but I just don’t want to see that man get away with what he’s done to Adam…I want to see him pay for shooting my brother in the back…”
“He will, son…he will. But you need to let the law handle this…”
“The law! The law…Pa…sometimes the law messes up…like today, Roy letting that scoundrel get the drop on him…”
“Joseph, must I remind you that would not have happened if you had stayed away from there like you were told to do! But no…you had to do what YOU wanted to do and taunt the boy, making Roy’s job that much harder! If you’d only listen to me once in a while…”
I was furious. “You’re blaming me?”
Pa lowered his head; it must have been hurting something terrible and my bickering with him wasn’t making him feel any better. “No…not entirely…”
“I’m sorry, Pa…I guess I was wrong in doing what I’d done. But…you have no idea how he made me feel…watching him waving that gun of his in our faces…pushing for me to draw on him and then having to stand by and watch my own brother shot down…in the back no less, by some snot-nosed kid whose only ambition in life is to prove to the world how fast he is…so he missed his breakfast…”
Pa walked over to me and put both of his hands on my shoulders. “I don’t know exactly how you felt, but I know how I feel right at this moment. I have one son fighting for his life and one son who’d willingly go out and kill or be killed just for the sake of seeking revenge. I can’t let that happen…if I stood back and let you do what you want to do, I stand a darn good chance of losing two sons instead of one…I can’t risk that…it’s too much to ask of me.”
It was my turn to lower my head. I could barely look my father in the eyes. How could I be so stupid? Adam might well die, true…but we’d get through it, Pa, Hoss and myself, somehow, some way… I felt ashamed… “I’m sorry, Pa…I’ll wait until we hear from Roy…I’m sure he’ll find Stokes…”
“Thank you, son…thank you!”
I’ll always remember that night as one of the longest I’ve ever lived through. Adam took a turn for the worse, his fever spiked and we spent the greater part of our time, keeping him cooled off with damp cloths and cool water. I waited anxiously for word from the sheriff, telling us that he and his men had caught up to Lonnie Stokes, but word never came. And then, after what seemed a lifetime, it was morning, Adam was resting and Pa and I stood outside of Doc’s office, sipping coffee. Hoss had ridden out with the posse and wasn’t expected back for several more hours, but it was a surprise when we heard the sound of pounding hooves and looked down the street and saw the sheriff and his men riding into town. I scanned the crowd for the back shooter but couldn’t find his face among the group of men so I decided to walk on down to the jail and see what was going on. Hoss was just dismounting so I made my way over to him.
Hoss spun around, seeing me, he shook his head. “How’s Adam?”
“Resting…what about Stokes, Hoss…what happened, couldn’t you pick up his trail…what?” I was growing impatient again.
“Yeah, we found it alright, over around Half Butte. Roy thought we had ’im cornered, but the little weasel found a back way out and gave us the slip…ya sure Adam’s alright?”
“Yes, I’m sure…how on earth could Roy lose him that way…again!” I grumbled.
“Aw shucks, Little Joe…t’weren’t Roy’s fault. That kid’s smart…that’s all…say, where ya going?”
“None of your business.”
I knew perfectly well where I was going, but I didn’t dare tell Hoss. It was for sure he’d let it slip to Roy, or worse, to Pa and then all hell would break loose. But if Lonnie Stokes had found a back way off Half Butte, I was certain I could too, after all, I had been born and raised in this country and knew just about every rock and tree around…or so the song goes.
Hurrying, I went to the livery and saddled my horse. It was lucky that I just happened to strap on my side arm earlier this morning so I wouldn’t have to worry about going back to Doc Martin’s and getting it. This way I’d avoid a lot of questions and another argument with Pa. I wasn’t going to break my promise to my father…not really, ’cause I didn’t have any intentions of killing Lonnie Stokes, only to find him and bring him back with me to stand trial for attempting to kill my brother. Pa wouldn’t be happy about my leaving and not saying anything to anyone, but I couldn’t worry about that now. I felt bad enough for being the cause of Adam’s near death…and if he died…well, I just didn’t want to think that way right then. All I had my mind on was finding Lonnie and making him pay for what he’d done to my brother.
I rode hard, pushing Cochise to make up for lost time. If, in fact, Lonnie had found a back way off the butte, he could be clear to California by now. Didn’t matter, I thought, I’d follow him to hell and back if need be.
It took more than an hour to reach Half Butte and then I had to stop and rest my horse. Cooch was lathered so I took off my hat and filled it with water from my canteen and gave him a drink…not too much, but enough. Then I soaked my neckerchief and cooled myself off. After I figured my mount had rested enough, I mounted up again and began searching for the back door, so to speak. Another half hour passed, but I found it and was even lucky enough to pick up Stokes’ trail. Sure enough he was headed for California. I’d be darned if he was going to get away, not if I could help it.
I followed the rocky path for several miles and then just as suddenly as I found it, I lost it. I made several circles where it ended but it made no sense to me…it was as if the trail had vanished, or never had been. I got an uneasy feeling down deep in my gut and suddenly recalled my father and older brothers always telling me to follow my instinct. So I dismounted and began walking slowly. Ahead of me was a large group of rocks and I briefly wondered if Lonnie were up there, watching me. I loosened the tiny strap from around my pistol’s trigger that held the .45 securely in its holster.
The sun was hot, beating down on my head; the air was thick and before long I had broke out in a sweat that kept running down my brow and into my eyes. I looked up at the sun and then just as quickly wished I hadn’t for it nearly blinded me. That’s when I heard the sound of rocks falling up ahead. I tried to get my eyes in focus but it was too late. I heard the shot before it hit my right shoulder, just inches from where I was hit the day before. The force of the bullet caused me to stumble backwards. The pain burned but I didn’t take time to try to see how badly I was hurt. I could hear the sound of laughing and knew without a doubt that it was Lonnie. I scrambled behind a boulder and glanced quickly at my upper arm; it was just grazed but it was deep and the blood flowed freely, staining my shirt and jacket. I jerked my neck-scarf off and quickly wrapped it around the wound.
Small rocks rolled down the bigger ones, telling me that Lonnie was somewhere higher up than I was. I scanned the rock formations, hoping to locate my attacker, but he was well hidden. As I glanced around at my surroundings, I was dismayed to find myself at a disadvantage. I was on lower ground and the rocks overhead made almost a complete circle around me; it appeared that Lonnie could move in any direction, catching me from behind or the side and still maintain a perfect shot at me. I suddenly felt like one of those little sitting ducks at a carnival. I scooted closer into the rock where I was hiding but kept scanning the ones overhead. I knew that sooner or later, Lonnie would make his move. I had to be ready; I had to stay alert if I planned on getting out of there alive. Pa’s warning suddenly loomed large before me…today he might very well lose two sons instead of one. I wondered how he’d manage…he and Hoss.
The thought was just passing though my mind when I caught a glimpse of something shining, like the sun had reflected off the end of a gun. I stared at the spot for so long that I was beginning to think I had imagined the whole thing. I had my gun in my hand but slipped it back into my holster just long enough to tighten the makeshift bandage on my arm. I think the wound had stopped bleeding; it hadn’t eased up the hurting though.
“Turn around, Cartwright…slowly…and keep you hand away from your side.”
‘Damn,’ I muttered to myself. I’d let Lonnie get the drop on me after all.
“Do it, Little Joe…at this point, I’d just as soon shoot you in the back as well as that high and mighty brother of yours!”
I was beyond being angry…I was outraged, but most of it was directed at myself. My mind’s eye conjured up the image of my battered father, my dying brother…the sheriff with his skull cracked…if it had been…and festered hatred toward this kid erupted and spilled into my guts. I turned around, my eyes were still burning from the sun rays but I could see him. Lonnie Stokes towered over me, standing high on a rock several yards from where I’d been hiding. He looked older, more mature, more worldly…how many men had he killed?
I kept my eyes on him as he moved downward. His dark ebony eyes never left my face. He was waiting, hoping that I would make a move for my gun, but I wasn’t about to give him that satisfaction…I knew how fast he was…now…and how deadly his game was. The sweat beads were salty as they dripped from my brow. I stood facing the sun…not a good place to be when someone’s expecting you to go for your gun, but I knew the kid had planned it that way. Did he for a fraction of a second fear that I might actually be faster than he?
He’d move down enough that now we stood pretty much even, you know, eye to eye. He was sweating too and I saw him flexing his fingers on his gun hand.
“Your brother…is he dead?” Lonnie asked me.
“I don’t know…he was still alive when I rode out a while ago.”
“It’s your fault, you know…if he dies, I mean…”
“How do you figure that?” Why on earth were we having this stupid conversation? Why not draw and get this thing over with?
“Cause, you should have fought me when I first approached you…you made me shoot your brother…I promised you, you’d face me, eventually…” he gleamed.
“I suppose you did at that.” I swallowed, he lowered his hand just a smidgeon. “I wouldn’t do that, Lonnie…unless you’re ready to die…”
I saw his eyes widened just a bit. “What makes you so sure I’ll be the one dying today?”
“Because…I’m faster…and older…more experienced. You’re still a boy…” God, that sounded like something one of my brothers or my father would say to me!
I noticed Lonnie flinch. He tossed his head slightly to sling the sweat away from his eyes, which he squinted because of the sun.
“Why don’t you just give it up, Stokes? Toss down your weapon and ride back to town with me…I’ll see that you get a fair trial…you haven’t murdered anyone yet…”
Lonnie snickered, but it was only half-hearted.
“You’re shaking, Lonnie…come on, toss down the gun…don’t make me kill you…”
“You might be the one dying…instead of me…” he dared.
“Why take that chance?” I offered, hoping he’d back down. I promised Pa I wouldn’t do anything I’d regret later, but if the kid didn’t give it up, I’d be forced to shoot him…in self-defense…but…
“Get ready to die, Cartwright!”
“NO, LONNIE…DON”T DO IT!!” I shouted, but it was too late, he’d already made his move. I made mine a second later…almost too late. His aim was off because I moved sideways; I heard the bullet whiz over the top of my head. My pistol was drawn but I didn’t shoot…I didn’t want to kill a seventeen-year old boy! I ducked behind the rock. Lonnie screamed at me…something about being a coward…too afraid to face him, man to man. Didn’t the little fool realize I was trying to save his darn life…both our lives?
When I dared to peek over the top of the rock, it only served to cost me my hat. His bullet sent the Stetson flying off my head; quickly I ducked back down and waited. For several moments there was nothing; I raised my head…my hand was stretched out, resting the weight of my pistol atop the boulder…there he was…BANG!
My weapon went flying out of my hand and landed several feet from me. I heard Lonnie laughing and caught a glimpse of him as he darted behind the nearest rock from him. I eyed my gun glistening in the sun and quickly crawled from behind my rock hiding place and attempted to snatch my weapon from its dusty resting place. My fingers brushed the shiny chrome…and then were smashed beneath the weight of a man’s booted foot…Lonnie’s boot. I couldn’t move my hand; his body shadowed the sun from my face as I looked up into his…
Lonnie said nothing, just towered over me, staring down into my face. I knew my eyes must have betrayed my fear, but Lonnie didn’t notice; he just ground his boot harder against my left hand. It hurt like hell and I knew I had to do something, the man was sick…he wanted me dead and I had the sense that now he’d enjoy watching me die…slowly. I moved my legs until I could wrap them about his and pulled with all my strength. Lonnie lost his balance and stumbled backward, losing his balance and dropping his gun. Now the advantage was mine, I ignored the pain in my arm and the stinging sensation in my left hand as I grabbed the front of Lonnie’s shirt and hauled him to his feet. He began to fight me then, taking a swing with his knotted fist, he barely missed my lower jaw. I pushed him back just a pace and then hit him hard with my left fist…OH GOD!!! It hurt…the pain shot up my arm and into my shoulder and neck and finally into my head. I almost screamed!
But Stokes was on the ground, groaning while I took a moment to rub my balled up fist. I failed to notice that when he fell, he fell well within reach of his pistol. I saw him scrambling to get to it and I spun around, looking for mine. I spied it just inches away. I made a daring dive for my weapon, heard the blast from his and felt another surging pain graze my upper thigh, but I had my hand around the butt of my gun. I rolled over; Lonnie was clambering to get up, pointing his pistol again at me. He fired, but this time I managed to roll away, he fired again but this time, I fired back…striking the boy in the chest.
For what seemed an eternity, Lonnie stood frozen to the spot, eyes wide in shock, disbelieving that he’d been struck. I jumped to my feet, gun lowered but still grasped in my throbbing fist.
“Fast…” he moaned. “You…were…faster,” he cried as his body slipped to the ground. Grief and repulsion at what I’d committed washed over my being. I hurried to his side, gently lifting his head into my lap. I felt sick…like I might vomit…blood gushed from the boy’s wound. Common sense told me I’d been justified in firing back…but the fact that here, in my arms was a seventeen-year old boy…a man’s son…someone’s brother perhaps…and I’d just killed him.
I looked down at the boy I thought I hated, but the hate was gone…only sorrow lingered to sop up the remnants of whatever dark emotions I’d been feeling before.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered as Lonnie’s body arched in death and the air was forced to expel from his lungs for the final time. I shut my eyes, squeezing tightly…wishing that I could turn back the clock and…
I swallowed, thinking I’d heard my father calling my name…God…is that how a guilty conscience works?
“Son?” And then I felt tender hands on my shoulders and when I looked up, Pa was behind me, forcing me to surrender Lonnie’s body into the gentle hands of my brother, Hoss. Pa pulled me to my feet and turned me around to face him, I swayed, unable to put my weight on my leg. I had yet to say anything, I couldn’t talk…it was like this whole thing was a bad dream and that any minute now I’d wake up and find my father sitting at my bedside…like he’d been doing for Adam.
“You’re hurt…come over here and let me take a look at that leg…”
I let myself be guided over to a rock, leaning against my father for support and when Pa told me to sit, I sat.
“Doesn’t look too bad, seems to just be grazed…how’s the hand?” he asked me.
I looked up, but it was hard to see his face; blinding tears were making it practically impossible. Pa squatted down in front of me.
“I…didn’t…set out…to kill him…honest, Pa…” I tried to explain. “I…just wanted…to find him and bring…him back…to…town…I…wanted him to…pay for…what he’d…done to Adam…” The tears rolled freely down my face and dripped onto the knees of my father’s trousers.
“I know that, son…”
“No…you don’t…understand…I…didn’t mean…to…kill him…at first, Pa…I did…but then…when you said…what you said about…today you might…lose two sons…instead of just one…well…I…felt…different. I was only…going to make…him come back…with me…but he pinned me down in the rocks. And he shot me for no reason. I tried to reason with him…but he wouldn’t listen. I had…to…kill him, Pa…or…be killed.”
“We know, son…we were riding up the trail and saw what happened. We would have tried to stop this, but we were just too far away…”
“I’m sorry, Pa…for everything…disobeying you…for killing the boy…for getting Adam hurt…”
“Shh…we’ll talk about all that later. Right now, let’s get you back to town and let the doctor take a look at this leg and arm…and this hand. I think you’ve got a couple broken fingers, son…”
I let the weight of my body be supported by my father’s body. I needed his strength, his comfort…I’d just killed a boy…a boy…just two years younger than me and the taste of death left a dull throbbing pain in my heart and a sour, bitter taste in my mouth. My stomach rumbled and I was forced to pull away from my father, turning my head just in time to keep him from being splattered with the vile gush of phlegm that spewed forth from my gut.
“Hoss, get some water,” I heard Pa tell my brother.
Pa wet his neck scarf, rang it out and then handed it to me. I took it, spread it opened and then buried my face in it, cooling me off instantly. I felt horrible…
“Are you alright now, son?”
I could only nod my head. When I wiped my lips, Hoss handed me the canteen and I took a swig to rinse out my mouth.
“Thanks,” I told him. I glanced over at my father; he was watching me closely. “I’m sorry…I just got sick to my stomach…” I tried to explain. The words jammed together in my throat, my eyes watered and then he was there, holding me in his strong arms. It felt good, having my father’s assurance there, in an unspoken gesture of support.
“He…was…just a boy…” I said it over and over and the words rang loud in my ears. “I…killed a…kid…”
“Joseph,” my father said, gently lifting my head so that he looked directly into my eyes. “I know you didn’t want to do it, but if you hadn’t killed him, he would have killed you. You could be the one tied across your horse instead of Lonnie…I could have lost a son today…”
I took a deep breath…I had to ask…I had to know…
“Pa…then you believe me…that I didn’t come out here with the intent to kill him…that I only meant to bring him back to stand trial?”
“Joseph, son, sometimes you worry me…what with that quick temper of yours. I’ll be honest enough to say, the thought did occur to me…but then Adam told me I was foolish for believing that you could actually murder someone…especially a boy…”
“Adam? He talked to you?”
“Yes…and chastised me for not giving you more credit…he said something to the effect that ‘Little Joe is your son…your flesh and blood…can you doubt yourself as well’? It sort of stopped me cold…I apologize for doubting you son, for questioning your motives. Adam was right…”
I couldn’t help but to grin at Pa… “Isn’t he usually?” I muttered, causing my father to laugh lightly.
“I hate to admit that…so, let’s not tell him, agreed…we’d never hear the end of it, you know?”
I limped along with my pa to the horses, relieved that this whole mess was over and overjoyed to learn that Adam was going to be alright.
“Agreed,” I muttered, smiling at Pa, who seldom admitted defeat! It was indeed a rare moment.
“I’ll tell this much,” Hoss said as he gathered Lonnie’s body and his horse for the ride back to town.
“What’s that, son?”
“There’s just too many fast guns ‘round here to suit me!”
“Not anymore,” Pa said, glancing over at the boy who, because of his vanity, now lay dead. “Least ways…I hope not,” he said, looking questioningly at me.
“Not anymore, Pa…” I answered, knowing full well what he meant.
Pa smiled and the relief he felt flooded his eyes and suddenly all the worry I’d seen for days on his face disappeared. “Come on, let’s get back to town…Adam’s waiting for us…I think he’s about ready to go home.”
“So…am…I…” Hoss chirped.
“That makes three of us…” I said, agreeing, I was anxious to get home and have things settled between Adam and I and everything else back to normal.
“Four…make that four!” Pa added, summing up all our feelings.