The Empty Box (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  18,815


 

Ben stood before the roaring fire. His entire body trembled as he stared blankly at the paper clutched in his hands.  Behind him, Joe watched, waiting for his father to turn around and acknowledge that he was still there.

“What does it say, Pa?” Joe said, moving closer.

It was then that the young man noticed the trembling of his father’s body. Frightened, Joe placed his hand on his father’s shoulder.

“Pa?” he whispered.  “What’s wrong?” Joe asked, his own voice beginning to quiver.

Ben turned slightly toward his youngest son.  His large brown eyes were wide and had filled with tears.  When he blinked, the collected moisture slipped over the rims of his eyes and rolled slowly downward.

Joe, his own eyes filled with apprehension, took the telegram from his father’s fingers.  His eyes remained fixed on his father’s expression a moment longer before looking down at the written words.  He quickly scanned the message, drew in his breath in shock, and glanced up once more at his father.

Ben had turned away, unable to meet the hazel eyes that he knew would instantly fill with unasked questions.

“Pa…this has to be a mistake…or some kind of sick joke…surely,” stammered Joe, his quivering voice barely louder than a soft murmur.

Joe read the telegram a second time, still not wanting to believe the message.  He moved closer to his father, standing behind Ben.  He heard his father sigh deeply, and when Ben turned around to face his son, Joe could see that his father’s heartbreak had reached full proportion.

Joe’s chin began to quiver in earnest as he fought against the anguish that threatened to spill forth.  As predicted, his eyes filled with tears; he opened his mouth to say something but the only word that escaped from the back of his throat was a piteous cry of sorrowfulness.

“NO!” he screamed, falling into his father’s arms.

Ben immediately wrapped his arms about his sobbing son as each clung desperately to the other.  Ben’s own tears dripped down the front of his face, falling noiselessly into the thick mass of chestnut curls that he held pressed against his chest.  For several long moments, father and son cried for the sudden and unexpected loss that had all at once filled their lives. They stood locked in disbelief of how the few simple words, scribbled on a wrinkled piece of paper, had affected their lives.  Life as they had known it, only minutes before the telegram had been delivered, would never be the same.  Life without Hoss would forever leave a gapping hole in their lives that could never be filled.

**********

“Pa?” Joe called softly from the doorway.

He had his hat already on his head, his gun and holster was strapped to his hip.  He closed the front door behind him and moved through the room to the fireplace where Ben had been standing all morning, staring into the ashes, for the fire had been extinguished.

“Pa, everything’s ready…are you?” Joe asked, almost timidly.  “We need to get going.”

Ben had been extremely quiet all morning.  He had moved about the house as if in a daze, hardly speaking to those who had gathered to offer their condolences.  Breakfast had been pushed aside; nary a bite had been eaten, for Ben had claimed a loss of appetite.

Joe had worried about his father.  To see the man he most admired reduced to the heartbroken, defeated man he now resembled, added more heartache to the one making the observation.  Joe had cried himself out the night before.  By morning, his head was pounding, his eyes red-rimmed and the emptiness in his heart ached like no other pain he had ever before felt, nor ever wished to feel again.

He had yet to resign himself to the fact that his brother was gone, that Hoss would never again be home…or at least not as before.  The gentle giant was coming home, for Joe and his father were about to embark on a journey to fetch the tenderhearted giant back, to where he belonged, back to the land he loved, and so obviously was a part of.

Joe had forced himself to put aside his own grief, for his father’s sake.  He had seen Ben age over the last few hours in a way that frightened his youngest son.  Joe feared for his father’s well being and for his state of mind.  Mostly, Joe feared that Hoss’ death might very well be the cause of his father having an emotional breakdown.

Joe remembered how his father had silently grieved when Adam had chosen to go away for good, to live his life elsewhere, other than on the ranch Ben had built from nothing, for his sons.  He had prayed that Ben would have the strength to move beyond his current sorrowfulness, but it was too soon to expect such results.  Days of mourning and gloom lay ahead for them both.  They would go to Placerville, together, and retrieve their loved one’s body and return Hoss to his home, to be buried beside the step-mother that he had adored and loved as his own mother.

Joe had been so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he had failed to hear his father speak his name. It was only the soft touch to his arm that jarred him from his pondering.

“Joseph, I’m ready son, if you are,” Ben said with little emotion.

“What?  Oh…I’m sorry Pa,” Joe said, offering a forced smile.

Ben collected his hat from the peg behind the door and placed it firmly on his head.  He strapped on his gun and holster and as Joe opened the front door, Ben stepped out into the morning sun.

The air was cool, and the scent of pine hung heavy in the air.  Ben paused at the edge of the porch and inhaled deeply, letting his breath out slowly.  Joe stopped beside his father, placing a hand on Ben’s shoulder.  The father glanced at his son, noted the telltales signs around the hazel eyes that told of the boy’s grief.

Ben forced himself not to turn from the sadness that shone from Joe’s eyes, for the heartache he witnessed on his youngest son’s face was almost more than he could bear to see.

“We’ll get through this Joseph,” Ben muttered in a low voice.  “I’m not sure how…but we will.”

Ben saw Joe swallow and nod his head.  The hazel eyes clouded with tears that threatened to spill over.

“He wouldn’t want us to grieve,” Joe whispered in a voice choked with emotion.

“No…no, Hoss wouldn’t want us to do that, son.”

Joe’s chin began to quiver.  He made a sniffling sound with his nose.

“Then we’ll try not too.  But I…I…” Joe had a hard time swallowing back the grief he felt rising to the surface.

Ben placed a loving hand on Joe’s arm, “You what, Joe?”

“I already miss him so dang bad…I tried to think what it would be like, with him gone…but I can’t seem to visualize it.  Hoss has always been here…been here for me…for you…for all of us. He’s such a part of this place, Pa; it’ll never be the same without him.”

Joe’s voice cracked as he fought against succumbing to his sorrow that he thought he could put aside.  How wrong had he been, to think that it would be so easy!

“What…what are we gonna do, Pa?”

The well of tears was too full, and one by one, they dripped over the rims.

“I don’t know if I can…do this…oh Pa!”

Ben encircled the sobbing boy with both arms and pulled Joe to him.  He struggled with his own tears, knowing in his heart that no matter how many tears he shed, there would never be enough to bring back into their lives, the one for whom they wept.

For Joseph, this was the first real loss that he had experienced as an adult.  In fact it was the first family death since the demise of his mother.  Joe had only been a child when Marie had died and had not fully understood the concept of death, but now, as a young man, Joe was being exposed to an inner hurt so intense that it could very well destroy him.  For the death and grief of someone whom you loved as Hoss and Joe loved one another, could very well be the breaking point in a young man’s life.

Ben pushed aside his own grief, for wasn’t he a seasoned veteran of agony and loneliness?  His concern now was for his youngest son, and helping Joe through, what Ben considered, one of the hardest times in his young life.

Ben’s fingers entwined themselves amid the thick curls.

“That’s it, son, cry it all out…get it all out of your system,” whispered Ben, glancing up toward heaven and whispering a silent prayer for God’s mercy and grace at such times.

After several moments, Joe pulled back, brushing his hands across his face to dry the lingering dampness.  He tried, but not too successfully, to smile.

“I’m sorry, Pa…I just couldn’t help it,” Joe stammered.  “I thought I’d cried it all out last night, guess I was wrong,” he said in a sad voice.

“Doesn’t matter.  Crying is good for the soul; it purges it of the sorrow…at least for the time being.”

Ben still had both hands on Joe’s shoulders.  “Joseph, never be ashamed of your tears, son.  To cry for the loss of your brother only shows others how deeply you felt for him.”

Joe nodded his head.  “I’m not ashamed, Pa…I’m angry…I’m hurting…and I promise you this much…when I find the man or men, who killed my brother, I’m going to…”

Ben’s eyes immediately grew dark and his fingers squeezed firmly into the flesh of Joe’s shoulders. “You’ll do nothing…do you hear me?  Nothing!  This is a job for the law, and we will let them deal with this matter…”

“But Pa…”

“No buts, young man…I want you to promise me, right here and now, that when the persons responsible for your brother’s death is found…you will not raise a hand against them!  Promise me now, give me your word of honor…or I go without you!” Ben said in a tone that spoke of both his own anger and his own deep desire to do exactly as Joe wished to do.

Joe lowered his head, unable to meet the ebony eyes that scrutinized his face.  Joe felt as if his father could read his mind.  When he hesitated, Ben gently shook the boy.

“Joseph!”

“I promise,” Joe said in a near inaudible voice.

Ben leaned his head down just enough to look up at his son’s face. “I didn’t hear you,” he said.

Joe raised his head, his own eyes dark with passion. “I said, I promise, alright?”  Joe’s voice softened as he glanced into his father’s worried eyes.  “Can we go now…the sooner we get there, the sooner we’ll know exactly what happened?”

Ben turned Joe toward the waiting wagon and gently guided him in that direction. “I agree. Are you alright now, son?”

Joe bobbed his head up and down.  “As fine as I can be, how about you?”

Ben climbed up into the seat of the wagon and picked up the reins.  He waited for Joe to settle himself in next to him on the hard-boarded seat and then turned toward his son. “We still have each other, son.  We aren’t finished as a family yet!”

“And Adam, let’s not forget older brother,” Joe said as his father clicked to the team.

“Of course not.  Just because he doesn’t live here with us anymore doesn’t discount him as family. By the way, Joe, did you send him a telegram?” Ben asked.

“I had Hank ride in with one first thing this morning,” answered Joe.

Joe turned his head, glancing off into the horizon.  Thoughts of his oldest brother’s reactions, when he read the telegram informing him of Hoss’ death, filtered through his mind.  He sighed deeply, regretting that Adam would be alone when he got the news.  Joe glanced at his father, glad that he had the man beside him to help shoulder the burden, for their loss was a heavy cross to bear.  Neither father nor son were aware that at the moment, each was silently making themselves a promise to put aside their own grief in order to be strong for the other.

***********

Adam wiped his hand across his face and took a deep breath to still the churning of his stomach.  He walked to the window and pulled aside the heavy drapes that shielded the hot sun from the room.  As he leaned down to pull the window open wider, he noticed that his hand trembled a bit more than slightly; in fact it shook.

For several long moments, he stood before the raised window, allowing the sun’s rays to coat his face.  He basked in the warmth that saturated into his flesh.  In the air there lingered the scent of roses and gardenias.  The roses were faint; their delicate perfume almost overpowered by the strong fragrance of the white gardenias that bloomed just below his window.  Adam looked out across the fields of grass and the hundreds of head of cattle that grazed peacefully and suddenly, his heart yearned for home, and for his father.  His sigh was deep as he lowered his head, thinking of the brother that was now, no more.

Alone in his room, without the eyes of prying observers, Adam felt the rush of tears that converged upon his eyes.  There was no one to watch, no one who might think of him as weak or unmanly should they see him cry.  He had no one, other than himself to hear the heart wrenching sobs that poured forth from deep down within his gut.  Hands that trembled covered his face as he all but fell backward, into a sitting position, onto the bed and let his grief commence forth.

His weeping was soft, almost reverent as he mourned the brother with whom he had shared his childhood and young adult life.  He cried for what had once been, and for what would never be, again.  In his sorrow, Adam wept for what he had missed during the year since he had left home, for regret of not having been there for his father and younger brother in their time of need.  Adam cried until he felt as if his eyes would never again be able to shed tears of any sort, happy or unhappy.

The grieving man lay back against the pillow, closing his eyes, only to rest.  When he woke, hours later, it was dark within the walls of his room. He stared for several moments at the ceiling, wondering if it had all been a nightmare. With a smidgeon of hope in his heart, Adam pulled himself upright and lit the lamp. On the bed next to his pillow was the crumpled piece of paper that had sent the arrow of remorse into his heart.  Angrily, he snatched the paper from the bed and wadded it tightly, into a ball.  Screaming out in anguish, he flung the paper across the room, bouncing if off the wall on the opposite side.

His hand brushed down his face as he drew in a deep breath, feeling as if he were smothering.  Silently Adam walked to the closet, opening the door and pulling out his satchel.  He wouldn’t need much, just a change or two of clothing, his shaving articles, a few personal items and a book to read while in route to meet his family. Briefly, Adam wondered about the book, would he be able to concentrate, could he focus his mind on anything other than this ache in his heart?  He’d have to try, he’d have to prepare himself for meeting his father and younger brother; he’d have to be ready to be strong…for them.

***********

It was late when the wagon rolled into town.  Few people were on the street at such a late hour and it was up to Ben and Joe to find the livery stable on their own.  Joe pulled the team to a halt at the end of one long street and glanced down one side and then the other. “Guess we’ll just have to move along until we spot it,” he told his father.

Ben had been quiet for a long spell, speaking only when Joe had asked something that required an answer from him.  Now Ben pulled himself straight and pointed down the street. “Should be on the main street.  Since it doesn’t seem to be on this end, try the other,” Ben ordered.

Joe clicked to the team and headed to the far end.  Much to his relief, the livery was about mid-way of the street, just as suspected.  He yanked back on the reins and tied them off to the break before jumping down.  “You sit still, Pa; I’ll see if there is anyone around,” Joe suggested.

Ben shook his head no and climbed down from the wagon as well.  Reaching into the back, he grabbed their personal items and turned to Joe. “You tend to the horses, son. I’m going over to the hotel and get us a room.  I don’t know about you, but I’m bushed…and hungry,” Ben said, forcing a small smile.

Joe returned the smile, glad to hear that his father had an appetite again.  Two days on the road having to eat beans and jerky was enough to give any man a hunger for some good home cooked food. “I hope we can find something decent to eat, this late,” Joe said.

“Maybe the hotel has a dinning room; if not, we can always go down to the saloon and get a steak.  A nice cold beer would go well right now, too. You hurry and I’ll wait for you at the hotel,” Ben said, heading down the street.

Joe watched for a moment as Ben made his way down the boardwalk and disappeared from sight.  He turned to the door and pounded, calling out for the stable boy.  A young man who looked as if he had just been awakened answered his call a short time later. “What you do want?” the stable boy asked in a not so friendly tone.

“I want to bed down my team,” Joe answered, becoming slightly agitated.

“Do you know how late it is?” the boy demanded.

“I’m well aware of the hour.  Look mister, I’ll pay you double, for tonight if you’ll just bed down my team and see to my wagon. I’ve been on the move for two days and I’m tired and hungry and want a nice hot bath. What’ll you say?”

The boy seemed to be thinking and then finally nodded his head in agreement.  Yanking hard on the door, the young man pulled it wide.  He then extended his hand forward, waiting for Joe to drop the coins into his opened palm.

Joe pressed his lips tightly together and dug in his pocket for the correct amount and then dropped them one at a time into the man’s waiting hand. “There…that should cover it.  Make sure you rub them down good; they’re as tired as I am. Thanks, I’ll be back tomorrow sometime,” said Joe, as he turned to follow the same path as his father had taken.

Joe paused, turning back.  “Where’s the undertaker’s?”

The man looked up, puzzled and then laughed, making a snorting sound through his nose. “What’cha want with the undertaker’s?” he asked.

Joe sighed at the man’s question, but refrained from making a snappy retort.  Instead he explained. “I…or rather, my father and I, are here to pick up my brother’s body.  We’re taking him home to bury,” Joe said as the sadness washed over him once more.

“Ya brother?  What happened to’em?” the noisy man questioned.

“We’re not sure,” Joe said, his agitation beginning to show.  “Just tell me where I can find the undertaker’s.”

“Down the street, about half a block and turn right.  Second building on the left.”

“Thanks,” Joe said, turning to leave.

“Hey mister.”

Joe stopped, taking a deep breath before turning to face the stable boy.  “Yeah?”

“What was ya brother’s name?”

The boy moved closer into the light.  Joe noted the strange look the younger man wore but in his weariness, paid no further attention.

“Hoss…Hoss Cartwright, why?” Joe asked.

Joe could have sworn that the boy paled, but in the soft light he couldn’t be sure.

“No…reason…hmm…guess I’d better get them horses…hmm…tended to,” the stable boy stammered.  “Night,” he called as he pulled the barn door closed.

Joe stood in the darkness for a moment, slightly taken back by the boy’s sudden departure.  Down the street he could hear the sounds of laughter coming from the saloon.  He quickened his steps, remembering that his father was waiting for him at the hotel, to join him for dinner.

Joe found Ben sitting in the lobby.  His father had nodded off and was snoring softly.  Joe hated to rouse his father, but he couldn’t spend the night sleeping in the hotel lobby, which left Joe with no other recourse but wake Ben up.  Gently he put his hand on his father’s shoulder and shook.

“Pa…Pa…wake up,” Joe said in a voice low enough not to attract attention from the other patrons who walked through to the dinning area that was still opened.

“Hmm?”  Ben opened his eyes and looked up.  “Oh,” smiled Ben, “I must have dozed off.”

“You’re really tired, aren’t you Pa?” Joe asked with concern.

“Yes, but I’ll be alright.  You hungry?  They’re serving until mid-night.” Ben informed his son.

Ben stood to his feet and stretched.  “Come on, let’s eat and then we can go upstairs.  The clerk said he’d have us each a hot bath waiting for us.”

“Sounds good.  I’m so hungry I could eat a whole side of beef,” Joe said, smiling and feeling the temporary relief of his burden.

Ben nodded his head, placing his arm across Joe’s shoulders.  “There is only one man I know of who can actually eat a side of beef and that’s your brother, Ho…” Ben, his laughter subsiding, glanced at Joe.  “I’m sorry son…I didn’t mean…”

Joe had stopped and turned to his father.  “It’s alright, Pa…it helps to talk about him.  We can’t start acting like he was never a part of us…he would want us to remember him…”

“You’re right, of course.  Come on son, lets eat,” Ben smiled again, though it was only superficial, for there was no gladness in his heart nor any shine in his eyes, for his joy of life had been temporarily stamped out.

**********

Adam closed the book.  It was no use; he just could not keep his thoughts focused on the words.  He was aware that he had turned half a dozen of the golden embossed pages, yet he had no idea what he had just read.  It seemed as if the words went into his mind and right out the top of his head, and the constant chatter of the lady who sat across from him, did nothing to help his concentration.

His head was beginning to pound and Adam wished for nothing more than the peace and quiet from which he had departed.  He had enjoyed his stay in Paradise.  The ranch where he had been residing and working lay at the tip end of Lake Oroville where the waters from Lake Almanor drained downward along the North Fork Feather River.  The land was fertile and rich and Adam had been hired to construct a bridge across the river to provide the owner with easier access to other fields flowing in golden wheat.  It was the first time since having gone away to college that Adam’s education was challenged by something other than what he tended to back home, on the Ponderosa.  He had thrived, and had felt an uplifting of his spirits by the opportunity.  And, reasoned Adam, he had not been so far from home that he could not visit, had he a mind to do so.  But a whole year had passed, and he had yet to return home, now, sitting in the hot coach, listening to the non-stop banter of the talkative woman, he yearned for not only his home, but his family as well.

Adam gazed out the window; they would be stopping soon, in Grass Valley, the halfway point.  With any luck, the woman’s journey would end and he could continue in peaceful solitude for the rest of the way to Placerville, where he was to meet his father and Little Joe.  He wondered how his father was holding up, and Joe, Adam wondered how his little brother would bare the loss; for Adam knew that his middle brother and his youngest brother had been very close.  Adam almost snickered, thinking about the two, for his father had often remarked that Hoss and Joe must have been joined at the hip, for usually where one was, the other was close by.  His heart ached for both his brother and his father, for he knew they would feel the loss so much more than he, for the year of absence from his family had begun to sever the ties that had bound him so tightly that he had felt smothered.  But with Hoss and Joe, it was different, they belonged together; they were one with the land and one with each other.

Adam sighed.  He and Hoss had been close, confidents, friends, more than mere brothers and he had missed the big man fiercely.  With Joe it had been different; true he missed the scamp, missed the boy’s infectious laughter, his practical jokes, hell, he even missed the lad’s hot temper, his spontaneous outbursts.  Adam grinned, thinking about Joe, the boy had finally grown up, much to the relief of his family, and had become the man that Adam had always known lay lurking deep within the boyish exterior.

When the stagecoach finally stopped, the woman’s babbling ceased as well.  He swung open the door and stepped down from the coach, glad to be in the warm sunshine once more.  Adam offered his hand to the lady as she attempted to step down, smiled graciously and then bid her farewell.

“We’ll be staying the night here, mister,” the driver called to Adam.  “Do ya want ya bag?”

“Yes, please, if you don’t mind,” Adam called, glancing quickly around for the nearest hotel.

The driver handed the satchel down to Adam and nodded his head toward the center of town.

“Hotel’s just across the street; we leave at 10 A.M. sharp.  Be here on time or wait for the next stage,” he informed Adam.

“Thank you,” Adam nodded and then stepped behind the stage and into the street, carefully making his way around oncoming buggies and wagons.

He glanced around at his surroundings, taking in the people that milled about.  Grass Valley was a small community; the town had one main street, a hotel, saloon, jailhouse, and the livery, a mercantile, a church at the far end of the street and several little shops in between.  It was what he would consider, an out of the way type of place, rarely frequented by anyone of importance and giving the appearance of just the right place to be, should you not want to be pestered by too many people, which was exactly what Adam was wanting.

He entered the hotel and was greeted by the clerk, who smiled a warm welcome.

“Howdy stranger,” the clerk said, spinning the registry around so that Adam could sign in.  “Just passin’ through?”

“Yes, I’ll be leaving first thing in the morning,” Adam explained as he signed his name in the book.  He glanced around the lobby.  “Do you have a dinning room?  I’m starved.”

“Well…yes sir, but it ain’t opened this late.  If’n ya want a good steak, try the Lazy Dog saloon, it’s just a couple doors down and across the street…Mister…Cartwright,” the clerk said, looking down to see who his newest guest would be.  “Room 6, at the top of the stairs and down the hall to the right.” The clerk handed Adam the key.

“Thank you,” Adam muttered, picking up his satchel and taking the key in his other hand.

He unlocked the door and pushed it opened.  The heat that had lingered in the room hit him in the face as he stepped inside and closed the door behind him.  Tossing his bag on the bed, Adam went straight to the window and unlocking it, pushed it open as far as the window would permit.  He pulled back the drapes and secured them so that the evening breeze would have full access to the room.  Adam lit the lamp, turning it down to the lowest point and walked out of the room.  It was much too hot to remain inside until the room had time to cool off.

Back out on the street, Adam made his way toward the Lazy Dog saloon where he had been told he could get a good steak for a good price.  He hoped so; he was hungry for it had been hours since his last meal.  Breakfast hadn’t done much to satisfy him, the biscuits were hard, the eggs runny and coffee cold.  He shuddered and whispered a soft prayer, hoping that the steak he would order would be more filling.

Adam paused in the doorway, his eyes making a quick surveillance of the interior and of the small crowd of patrons.  Eyeing a table in the back corner where he could be alone and unseen by observers, Adam make his way around the tables until he reached the corner.  Putting his back to the wall, he pulled out the chair and sat down.

Almost immediately, a young woman, scantly dressed in a black and pink outfit, made her way over to him.  She smiled, and Adam noted the blue hue of her eyes, the curve of her body and when she leaned down, afforded himself a grand view of her ample breasts.

“What’ll it be, handsome?” she smiled and batted her lashes, obviously flirting with him.

“Steak, a big steak.  And fried potatoes and a nice cold beer,” Adam answered, returning the smile.

“Comin’ right up, sweetie,” she replied, lightly tapping the end of his nose with one long slender finger.  She smiled down at him and then moved slowly away.

Adam’s eyes roved up and down her body, his own body stirring with desire.  He was lonely, though he hated to admit it, and it had been weeks since he had last indulged himself with the fairer sex.  He continued to watch as the comely woman moved from table to table, occasionally glancing his way.

A short time later she returned, carrying in her hands, his dinner.  Carefully, so as not to dump the platter in his lap, she set his order down before him.

“Want some company?” she cooed, not waiting for his answer as she pulled out a chair and made herself comfortable.

“Reckon so,” Adam said as he cut a bite of steak and placed it in his mouth.  “Not bad.”

“Gavin’s a good cook.  Never had the first complaint,” she bragged.  “My name’s Lucy, what’s yours?”

Adam took a swig of his beer to wash down the bite of steak.  “Adam,” was all he said, taking another bite.

“Nice to meet you…Adam.”

“Same here…Lucy,” he said, his eyes beginning to twinkle.

She kept him company until he’d finished his meal and then she cleaned away the mess.  She leaned down close and whispered in his ear.

“See ya later, hopefully,” she muttered, turning to go.

He started to reach out to her, but stopped himself.  An overpowering feeling of despondency crept into his bones and he felt his body tremble as the fine hairs on the back of his neck seemed to stand on end.  And then he heard it, the voice, so familiar, so alive…so much like…HOSS!

“Goshdangit, Lucy…where ya been hidin’ ya self?  I’m plum near starved to death, ya got my dinner ready?”

Adam looked about the room, searching with his eyes as he shoved back his chair, knocking it to the floor in his haste to stand.  There it was again…clearer, louder, the voice, the hearty laughter that he knew so well.

“I’m so hungry, I could eat half a steer!”

“HOSS!” Adam shouted, spotting the big man standing brazenly in the doorway bigger than life.

A hush fell over the room as Adam quickly made his way over to his brother.  Adam could feel the rush of excitement as the adrenaline pumped through his veins.  His relief at finding Hoss alive was overpowering him; his heart beat rapidly as it sang out his joy…his brother was alive!

“HOSS!” he shouted a second time as he stood face to face with the one whom he had believed dead.

Adam quickly embraced the stunned man, who stood looking down at him as if he were seeing a total stranger.  When Adam felt the rejection of his welcome, he pulled away, stunned by his brother’s aloofness.

“Don’t know who ya think I am mister, but I ain’t him,” the man laughed.

“Hoss…what’s wrong with you?  I know who you are…but obviously you don’t,” Adam said, looking puzzled.

“Hoss?” the man laughed, glancing around at the folks watching.  “What kinda name’s that?”  The man stepped around Adam in a way that made it clear to Adam that he had just been dismissed.

Stunned, Adam grabbed the man by the arm and spun him around.  He reckoned that he might not be the brightest man alive, but he sure as hell recognized his own brother when he stood face to face to him.

“Hold on just a minute, Hoss…” began Adam.

The man thought to be Adam’s brother, yanked his arm free from the stranger’s grasp. “I dun told ya…I ain’t this Hoss fella.  Mine name’s John…John Carter.  Now if’n ya know what’s good fur ya, ya’ll leave me be!” growled the giant of a man.

“Now you listen to me…”

Adam never saw the fist coming at him until it was too late.  He stumbled backward from the force of the blow and tumbled out the double swinging doors and into the street.  Instantly he jumped to his feet and headed toward the half doors.

The big man blocked his path.  He stood tall, large beefy hands planted firmly on his hips as he glared menacingly at the dark stranger. Adam brushed the back of his hand across his lips, tasting the blood from the broken skin.  He stared into the man’s blue eyes, wanting to speak, but something about the way the giant looked at him, caused Adam’s words to strangle themselves deep within his throat.

Instead, he picked up his hat, dusted it off and topped his head with it.  He glanced up at the man and the group of gawking observers and without saying another word Adam turned and walked off down the street.

For several moments afterwards, the big man stood on the boardwalk and watched as the dark stranger moved further and further away from him.  He waited until the man who thought he knew him had disappeared into the hotel and out of sight.  A lump the size of coal formed in his throat, making it difficult for the man to speak.  After swallowing half a dozen times, he sighed deeply, brushed his hand lightly over the front of his face and returned to the saloon and the girl who waited inside for him.

**********

“Joseph, time to get up son, there’s a lot to do today,” Ben called from the doorway that separated his room from that of Joe’s.

“Oh…it is morning already?” groaned Joe, slowly rising and pushing back the covers.  “I only went to sleep a few hours ago,” he said, standing barefooted, dressed only in his long john bottoms.  He raised his arms high over his head and stretched. “Hey,” he said, seeing his father through the opened door.  “You’re already dressed and shaven.  How long have you been up?” Joe called. The pitcher was filled with cool water, some of which he poured into the China basin and splashed on his face.

“All night,” said Ben, moving to the door and propping against the frame, watching Joe start to shave.  “I couldn’t sleep…I suppose I had too much on my mind.”

Joe glanced at his father’s reflection through the mirror.  “I didn’t sleep very well either, and what little I did sleep, I had these dreams about…about Hoss…” Joe paused and turned around to face Ben, shaving lather still covered half his face.

“I kept seeing his face and he was grinning at me.  He called my name and reached out his hand like he was waving at me and…he kept repeating the same words over and over.  It was spooky.”

Joe turned back to the mirror and finished shaving.  His father moved further into the room and took a seat on the edge of the bed.

“I think I was afraid to sleep,” muttered Ben.

“What do you mean?”

Ben pinched his lips tightly and lowered his head.  “I think I was afraid I’d see his face as well…and maybe in my sub-conscious mind I thought I might not be ready for that…Joe, what was Hoss saying to you, in your dream?”

Joe slipped on his shirt and buttoned it up, tucking the tail into his trousers that he put on minutes earlier.  He sat down on the only chair in the room and pulled on his socks and then his boots.

The strange feeling that had consumed him the night before had washed over him again, and Joe gulped. “ ‘I’ll be back, Joe…I’ll be back.’  It was like he was trying to tell me something and every time I’d reach out to him, he moved away, like he didn’t want me to touch him.”

Joe’s eyes took on a sad countenance and he turned his head away, not wanting to upset his father by the tears that had unexpectedly filled his eyes.

Ben moved to place his hat on his head, muttering softly so that Joe would not hear him.  His heart ached something fierce and the emptiness he felt was almost overwhelming. “If only that were true…if only…”

**********

Ben and Joe were just about ready to leave their room to go down to the lobby for breakfast.  A soft but steady rap at the door caused the pair to exchange glances.

“Wonder who that could be?” Ben said, going to the door to answer the knock.

“Howdy,” a man said. “I’m Sheriff Norton; you Ben Cartwright?”

Ben quickly made a sweeping glance of the man, noted the badge pinned over the man’s heart.  He nodded his head in response. “I’m Ben Cartwright.  What can I do for you?” Ben asked, as Joe joined his father at the door.

The sheriff glanced around behind him, acting somewhat nervous and then glanced at both of the Cartwrights. “Mind if I come in…I’d like to talk to you, in private…if’n you don’t mind?” the sheriff explained, removing his hat.

Ben stepped aside, glanced questioningly at his son and then waved the sheriff in.

“Have a seat,” offered Ben.

“No thank you, I’d just as soon stand,” Norton said, watching Joe.

Ben saw the sheriff eyeing his son and quickly spoke up.

“This is my son, Joseph,” Ben introduced Joe to the sheriff.

The sheriff took Joe’s offered hand and shook it. “Nice to meet you, Joseph.”

“Same here…what is it that you want to speak to us about?” Joe asked, anxious to find out the reason for the unsuspected visit.

The sheriff took a deep breath and let the air out slowly. “Sheriff Coffee wired me that you’d be coming.  I heard early this morning that you and your boy here, were in town…the stable boy told me,” he explained, seeing the silent exchange between father and son. “I expect you’ve come for your other son’s body?” he asked, almost reluctantly.

“You understand correctly.  We were just on our way out, in fact, we were headed over to the undertakers,” Ben told the man.

Sheriff Norton gulped and lowered his head.  “Umm…Mister Cartwright…that won’t be necessary,” he stammered.

Joe’s eyes widened and he glanced at his father, speaking before Ben had a chance to collect his thoughts.  He turned to the official, a near scowl crossing his brow. “Why is that?” he demanded.

The sheriff gulped again and raised his head, looking Joe in the eye. “’Cause your brother ain’t there, that’s why.”

Ben’s brow furrowed as he came forward.  His eyes had grown dark and the sheriff felt a measure of unease as he looked into the ebony eyes that glared at him. “What do you mean, my son’s body is not there?  Just where is it?”

“Gone…”

“GONE!” stormed Ben.  “WHAT DO YOU MEAN…GONE?” shouted Ben, turning to Joe as if his son could explain what the sheriff was trying to tell them.

“I mean…gone…as in not there anymore…and…”

Joe grabbed the front of the man’s shirt and drew the sheriff’s face into his own.  Norton could feel the hot breath of the younger man and his unease increased. “Someone took the body…the morning after your brother was kilt…” he stammered, trying to free his shirt from Joe’s clutched fingers.

“WHAT!” bellowed Ben, forcing himself between the sheriff and his youngest son.

Joe’s hand slipped from the man’s shirt and he stepped back, giving his father room to stand nose to nose with the sheriff.

“You have about five seconds to tell me what in blazes is going on around here!” Ben said in a low voice underlined with annoyance.  His finger wiggled fiercely under the sheriff’s nose.

Joe stood with his arms folded across his chest, a sick feeling deep down in his gut.  He watched his father and wondered just how much more Ben would be forced to endure.

“The next morning after your son was kilt…someone broke into the undertaker’s back room, where he had the boy all laid out, nice and proper like…and stole the body…don’t know why anyone would do such a thing.  Me and my deputy looked high and low, but as of yet, we ain’t found no trace of your son…and we ain’t got no ideay who might have snatched the body…or why,” the sheriff explained.

Ben stood, stunned at the news.  It was bad enough to have learned of his dear son’s death, murder in fact…now he was faced with more heartache.  His son’s body was missing and this man standing before him could give him no hope of even finding Hoss’ body.  He was infuriated; he turned from the man and stomped across the room, standing with his head bowed low and his back to the sheriff.

“Sheriff,” began Joe, “do you know who killed my brother…and why?” Joe asked, keeping an eye on his father, for Ben had not moved from the spot where he stood, nor had he spoken.

“I have a pretty good idea; I just can’t prove it…”

“Who was it?” Joe said in a demanding tone.

“I said I have an idea…I didn’t say I knew for sure.  Let me explain something to you, to both of you,” the sheriff said as Ben turned around and joined Joe.

“Your brother got into town about noon on the day he arrived.  I was standing at the window of my office and I saw him ride into town.  I watched as he dismounted and went into Simon Quinn’s office…the lawyer.”

“That’s right, he was here to be a witness in a murder trial,” Ben injected the information into the conversation.

“Yes I knew that; Simon Quinn informed me that he had a surprise witness…well your son stayed there, at Quinn’s office, for quite sometime before coming out.  I saw him walk down the street and go into the saloon.  That’s the last time I saw him. The next morning, I was summoned to the back alley behind the saloon.  That’s where your son was…he’d been shot in the back…” the sheriff paused. “I’m sorry Mister Cartwright…there was nothing that could be done for him…he bled to death.”

Joe heard his father wince and saw Ben pinch his lips tightly and knew that his father was thinking of Hoss lying alone, bleeding, with no one to help him. He could picture it himself, in his own mind and he felt that same type of helplessness that he knew his father was feeling at the moment.

“I had him taken over to the undertaker’s and began trying to find the person responsible, but so far I haven’t found anything that would point to any one person.”

“My son was to be the chief witness in a murder case against Lamar Sanderson…could he have had anything to do with my son’s death?” Ben questioned.

“Mister Cartwright…believe me when I tell you that I believe Sanderson had everything to do with your son’s murder, plus the murder of two more witnesses that were to testify against him…but I have no proof, just a gut feeling,” the sheriff explained.

Joe and Ben swapped startled expressions.  Joe turned to glare angrily at the sheriff. “Are you saying that two more men who were to testify against Sanderson have also been murdered?”

“That’s right, Jed Black and Nell Corbin…both were found murdered the night before the arraignment.  Jed had been shot in the back, same as your brother, and Nell was strangled in his sleep,” Norton told the Cartwrights. “The trial was put off and put off, had the whole town in an uproar…what with the killings and all…but now Sanderson’s lawyer seems to be most anxious for the proceedings to begin. Without the three primary witnesses, it could be the fastest trial on record. There’s nothing, or no one to point the finger of guilt at Sanderson. What I don’t understand is, how did Sanderson and his men…and possibly his lawyer…know about your son?  I didn’t even know about him until I spoke with Quinn after your son left his office.”

Ben walked across the room for the second time and then paused, looking out the window. “Well someone had to know,” he muttered, turning around.  “My son was killed because of what he knew…by a person or persons working for the accused…but why steal his body?  What purpose does that serve?”

“I wish I could tell you, sir…but I have no clue.  The men I suspected of doing the killing for Sanderson, both had a sound proof alibi.  The pair of hooligans, that’s what I call’em, were in my jail, visiting with Sanderson.  I was witness to the fact.” The sheriff grunted his disgust and twisted his hat around in his fingers.  “I’d have to swear to that, Mister Cartwright, in a court of law,” he explained reluctantly.

“Of course you would,” Ben said.  “It’s fortunate for them, to have the sheriff siding with the accused.  It leaves things wide open then as to why my son really was murdered and who murdered him.”

“Maybe it was just a coincidence…perhaps it might have been a robbery…we did found his wallet laying next to him,” the sheriff said.

“Or made to look as if he were robbed,” Joe stated.

Ben stared at his son, as did the sheriff.

“What do you mean by that, young fella?” the sheriff quizzed.

“Simple…Sanderson had Hoss murdered to keep my brother from testifying against him.  But the murder was made to look as if my brother was killed because he was robbed, to draw suspicion away from Sanderson and his men.  Sanderson had his men visiting him while in jail and in your presence while a third man killed my brother.  It’s the perfect setup; all we have to do now, is find out who the third man is,” Joe stated.

Ben placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder, staring in disbelief. “Son, I think you’re right.  What about you sheriff…any idea who the third man could be?”

“No sir, not a clue, Mister Cartwright, but I ain’t afraid to ask.  Let’s go; I think it’s time for me to have a little talk with Sanderson myself.”

***********

Adam lurked within the dark shadows, hidden behind the stack of boxes placed upside down in the alley just down the street from the Lazy Dog Saloon. From his vantage point, on the opposite side of the street, Adam could easily make out who came and went to the local tavern. He had been standing in the same spot for about forty-five minutes before he saw the big man emerge from the establishment.  Adam watched as the man paused just outside the doorway and glanced around him, as if he were looking for someone.  When the man began making his way down the boardwalk, Adam followed along, being sure to stay well within the protection of the darkness.

Once, Adam’s toe banged against a chair leaning against the wall of one building.  He froze, not making another sound.  Across the street, the man Adam knew as his brother stopped and pressed his large frame into the dark doorway of the building he stood in front of.  For several moments, Adam held his breath until at last he could see the lone figure hurrying across the street, moving toward the hotel.

Adam waited until he saw Hoss enter the business and hurried his steps, only to pause and watch as Hoss lumbered up the stairs and around the corner.  Quickly glancing at the clerk, who was busy with other matters, Adam took the steps two at a time.  At the top, he stopped, peering around the corner just in time to see Hoss open a door at the end of the hall and disappear from sight.

Hurrying, Adam tiptoed down the same hall to the door and stopped.  He pressed his ear against the wood not hearing a sound beyond the closed door Adam silently eased the door opened.  He took a deep breath and held it as he peeked into the opening.  Surprised to see another staircase, Adam slipped behind the door and closed it softly.  Using caution, he pulled his pistol from his holster and as silent as a panther on the prowl, climbed the steps to the top. A small landing at the top of the long stairs offered him space to catch his breath.  A lamp on the wall burned low, giving off just enough light that Adam could see a second door just feet away from where he stood.  Noiselessly, Adam crept forward, his pistol ready, should it be needed.  A board squeaked and Adam froze, barely breathing.  He inched forward a step, and then two, another, and a fourth.

Suddenly the pistol was yanked from his hand, a fist shot through the dark and landed on the end of his chin.  Adam groaned and staggered backward against the wall, his head slamming against the wall with such force that his world spun before him and then went black.  His body, pressed tightly against the wood, slid downward but was caught before hitting the floor by the man who had clobbered him.

The unseen person tossed Adam’s unconscious form onto his shoulder and carried him the short distance through the dimly lit hallway and through a passageway into a large room where Adam was placed on a bed.

The man turned to the lamp, quickly placing a match to the wick and bringing a soft glow of light into the room.  He blew out his match and returned to the man on the bed.  His eyes opened wide in disbelief as he stared in awe at his victim.

“Adam…” the man muttered.

Pouring water into a basin, he wet a cloth and dabbed at Adam’s brow.  He also cleaned the scrape mark on Adam’s chin where his massive fist had marred the flesh when he had hit his victim.

“Goshdangit,” he whispered.  “Adam…Adam, can ya hear me?”

Adam made a groaning sound and then slowly opened his eyes.  His hand moved to the back of his head where it had hit against the wall and he moaned again, softly.  Adam felt the tender touch as the cool cloth was replaced with another.  He grabbed for the hand that held the cloth and clutched it tightly.  His eyes located the face of the man before him and he squinted his eyes, trying to bring the image into better focus.

“Adam, it’s alright, boy,” the familiar voice said.  “I didn’t know it was you following me.  I’m sorry I hit ya so hard,” Hoss said.

“Hoss?  Is it really you?” Adam stammered, releasing his fingers from around his brother’s arm.

Adam could better see the man now; he could see the wide grin spreading across the jovial face of his middle brother.  He returned the smile and pulled himself upright, swinging his legs off the side of the bed. “Hoss…damn…it’s good to see you!  I thought…I mean…I got a telegram from Joe saying that you were dead and I was to…Wait just a minute, what the hell’s going on?” he growled, his smile suddenly lost, only to be replaced with a frown.

Adam stood to his feet and circled around Hoss who looked as guilty as sin and reminded his older brother of when they had been kids and had been caught by their father doing something they should not have been doing. “Hoss, Pa and Joe…they believe you’re dead…so did I.  Do you have any idea what you have put us through?  Do Pa and Joe know you’re here and that you’re not really…I hope to God you have a darn good reason for this charades.  And why are you hiding out up here in this attic?”

Hoss slumped down onto the bed, sighing deeply.  When he looked up at Adam, who stood towering over him, his brother could see the swell of tears that threatened to overflow.  He pulled up a chair to the bed and sat down.

“It is good to see you,” smiled Adam, his throat suddenly thick with emotion.

He lowered his head, hiding his own tears.  Both young men were uncommonly quiet for several minutes before either could find their voices.  Hoss was the first to speak up.  His voice quivered slightly when he spoke and Adam could hear his brother’s pain in every word he uttered. “I know I’ve hurt’em…and you…terribly, but I had to do it.  I didn’t have a choice, really.  I’ve thought about all of ya, everyday and how much hurt I’ve caused.”  Hoss sniffed his nose, brushing his arm beneath it to dry the moisture.

“I thought long and hard about what I was doin’.  I thought about Pa and what he would do, if’n he’d been me, and I knew that he’d want me to do what was right, so…I lied, I let everyone…think I was dead.”

Adam watched the unhappiness that showed in the blue eyes that silently begged his forgiveness and understanding.  But Adam was having a hard time trying to understand his brother’s motives.  As of yet, the big man had not given an explanation as to why he had caused his family such sorrow in allowing them to think him dead…murdered.

Adam tried to mask his growing ire at his brother. “Why, Hoss…why are you doing this?  And what now…now that I know you’re alive?  What about Pa and Little Joe…are you going to tell them?” Adam quizzed.

“NO!” Hoss’ head shot upright as he looked into the hazel eyes of his brother.  “At least…not yet.  I cain’t Adam…”

“Why…just tell me why you are making them grieve for you like they are…and you know they are, Hoss.  Pa must surely be heartbroken, and Joe…you know as well as I, that if he thinks someone has murdered you, he’ll be out for blood.  Are you willing to risk that?  He’s so impetuous, and hot tempered, he’s liable to do anything…”

“I know, I know…don’t ya think I’ve thought about all of that?”  Hoss stood to his feet and began pacing the floor.  “I’ve thought about all of it, how Pa must feel, how Joe must be stewing, how ya…how ya feel…I’m sorry Adam…honest,” Hoss said, his voice lowering.

“Then explain to me why…did we do something?  Was it my leaving?  Joe…did he…or Pa maybe…”

“No…it’s nothing like that, really.  Look Adam,” Hoss said, quickly returning to sit on the side of the bed. “I went to Placerville to testify against a man, Lamar Sanderson.  He’s some rich dude over that way, what’s involved in a murder of a local man and his son.  Frank Taylor, that’s the man what got kilt.  I was there to look at some horses he had for sale, me and two other fellas.  We was in the back of the barn, at the corral checking out the horses when we heard the first shot.  Naturally, me and them other two fellas took off runnin’ for the house, but we was too late.  Sanderson had his gun pointed at the man’s son and afore I could get an aim at him, he done shot and killed the boy.  The man, Mr. Taylor, was still alive, trying to get to his son, but Sanderson shot him again, killin’em.  We exchanged fire, but Sanderson got away.”

Hoss took a deep breath and continued. “The sheriff hunted high and low for the man, but never did find him.  He allowed me to leave, to return home, but with the understanding that I’d have to come back and testify if’n they caught the murderer.  Them other two fellows lived nearby, so’s they didn’t have far to go.”

Hoss stood up and began pacing the floor again.  “I got a telegram from the sheriff over in Placerville requestin’ my return.  He caught Sanderson and they was agonna have a trial.  So’s I got ready to go, but afore I got there, someone kilt them other two witnesses.”

Hoss turned to face Adam. “Pa and Joe, they didn’t know about that, but Roy did.  He wired the prosecuting attorney, Simon Quinn, and together with the judge, they came up with this here plan to keep the same thing from happenin’ to me. See Adam, they think Sanderson and his men kilt them other two witnesses. If’n I was to show up in town, Roy was afeared the same thing might happen a third time, so they concocted this here plan to fake my death. I was to be seen about town, and then murdered…in an alley, makin’ it look like I was robbed.  It worked too; Sanderson and his men had a hard time tryin’ to hide their pleasure at learnin’ I wasn’t gonna be testifying agin’em.”

“Hoss…do you mean that Roy was in on this, and he didn’t say a word to Pa?” Adam asked.  He was stunned by what he was hearing.

“That’ right.  The sheriff in Placerville wasn’t even told.  Quinn and the judge had it all arranged.  I was ‘shot’ in the back and taken to the undertaker’s.  There, my body was stolen and I was brought here to stay until I’m due to testify, and…”

“No one knows you’re here?”

“No one but Quinn, the judge, Roy and the sheriff here.  He has two men guardin’ me around the clock…come to think of it…I wonder how ya got past them fellas?” Hoss said, suddenly realizing that Adam had slipped through his protection.

Adam stood and moved to the window.  He eased aside the shade ever so slightly to peer down into the street.  It was dark, and had it not been for the movement of the man standing in the shadows below, he might not have seen him.

“Hoss, come here,” Adam, said softly.

Hoss came to stand next to his brother, peeking over his shoulder.

“That man, standing to the left of the second building, is that one of your guards?”

“Yep…that’s one of the deputies,” answered Hoss.  “Why?”

“Because, he’s coming this way,” Adam said, dropping the shade back into place.

Hoss picked up Adam’s hat and handed it to him as he looked into the eyes of his brother. “Ya best hightail it outta here, big brother,” Hoss said in a low voice.

He inched his way to the door, followed by Adam, who twisted the rim of his hat around in his hand.

“Are you sure, Hoss…sure that you’ll be alright?” Adam questioned.

Hoss had his hand already on the doorknob.  He bobbed his head up and down, trying to smile. “I’ll be fine, don’t ya worry ya self none about me…but remember, Adam…ya cain’t tell a soul I’m here…not even Pa and certainly not Little Joe,” Hoss whispered.

“I understand,” Adam said, placing his hat on his head. He paused in the opened doorway and turned to his brother.  When he smiled, his dimple was more pronounced.“I’ll be close by, buddy.  It’s good to see you, ya big ox!” Adam teased, giving Hoss’ arm a brotherly squeezed.

“It’s good to see ya too. Now ya best hurry; there’s another little door to the right, use it and then…”

The door at the end of the steps screeched when it opened and then the sounds of hurrying footsteps could be heard rushing up the stairs.  Hoss tried to pull Adam back into the room and out of sight, but his reflexes were off and the guard who had brought along his partner, burst through the second door at the top of the stairs, just as Hoss yanked on Adam’s arm.

The two deputies, thinking that Hoss was in danger, lunged at both men, ripping Adam from Hoss’ grip.  Before either could react, one man shoved Hoss backward, into his room while the other knocked Adam to the floor.  The door was slammed in Hoss’ face while both deputies hammered away at Adam.  Adam struggled to right himself, but the force of both men was more than Adam could handle at a time.

Within a heartbeat, Adam was pinned to the floor face down with both arms drawn tightly behind him.  He felt the cuffs encircle his wrists and heard the snap when they were locked into place.  Instantly he was hauled to his feet, each arm held by both officers.

“Alright mister, I don’t know who you are, or what you think you’re up too, but you’re coming with us,” the older of the two deputies informed Adam, who had stopped struggling and who stood passive, waiting for the men to take him away.

“Luke, you check on Mr. Carter, I’ll take care of this fella,” one of the deputies said.

“Ain’t no need to check on me,” Hoss said from the doorway. He stepped out into the hall, his frustration showed on his face. “And ain’t no need to take him away; he’s my brother,” Hoss confessed.  “Now git them cuffs off’em.”

The two men looked at each other and then at Hoss.  “Your brother?” the one named Luke asked.

“That’s right, my brother…”

“Oh…” moaned the man.  “The sheriff ain’t gonna like this,” he proclaimed.

“I ain’t gonna like what?” came a voice out of the darkness.

All four men turned to see who had crept up the steps so silently that they had failed to be alerted of his presence.

“And who is this?” the sheriff asked, looking Adam up and down.  He turned to Hoss, disgust clearing etched on his face.

“He’s my brother,” Hoss said for the second time.

“Your brother?  And just how did your brother know you were here?” the sheriff asked in a gruff tone of voice.

“Well…he…um…” stammered Hoss.

“I was on my way to meet my family, in Placerville, to…” Adam hesitated, glancing at Hoss.  He was unsure just how much to tell the man.

“He thought I was dead,” Hoss supplied the information for his brother.  “That’s why he was meeting our father and younger brother…he’s here because…” Hoss turned back to Adam, scratching his head.  “How did you end up in Grass Valley?”

“The stage made a stop; I wondered into the saloon and…let’s say I was shaken to the core to come face to face with a man I presumed was dead,” Adam said, cutting his eyes back to the sheriff.

“Well…I must say it is unfortunate…that Mister Cartwright was recognized, even if you are his brother.  We were hoping that no one learned the truth about his death until he was to appear at the trial.”

“You don’t have to worry about a thing, sheriff.  I know how important it is that Hoss remain where he’s at and that information does not leak out that he’s alive.  I have no intention of spreading the word, trust me,” Adam assured the sheriff.

“I have every intentions of seeing that you don’t.  Luke, take the cuffs off this man.  Homer, see to it that another bed is brought into this room and Mister Cartwright’s brother is made comfortable, he’ll be staying a couple of nights…”

“Wait just a minute,” Adam said, rubbing his wrists.  “What are you suggesting?”

The sheriff turned toward Adam and pointed to the open door.  “Inside, both of you,” he ordered. Hoss entered the room, followed by Adam and the sheriff.  The two deputies went to do the sheriff’s bidding. “I cannot let you leave…ere…what did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t…but it’s Adam…Adam Cartwright.”

“Well, Adam, as I was saying, you will be staying right here, until the trial.  I cannot take a chance on someone finding out that your brother is here and perhaps endangering his life, or yours now that you know all about this.  You’ll just have to remain here.”

“It won’t be so bad, Adam; shucks, we get free food, all the cold beer you’d ever want to drink, a nice clean bed and hot baths…they even brought some books for me to read…”  Hoss stopped and grinned at his brother.  “It’s sorta like a short vacation.”

Adam rolled his eyes and looked at his brother.  “A short vacation…are you out of your mind?  Pa and Joe are in Placerville waiting to take your corpse home to bury, they’re grieving their hearts out for you…and you call this a short vacation!”

“Oh…dadburnitall Adam.  I forgot they’s athinkin’ I’m dead.”  Hoss scrunched up his face.  “What about you?  Wonder what they’re goin’ to think when ya don’t show up?”

Adam’s expression turned to one of shock as he faced the sheriff.  “What about that?  Surely I can wire them and give them some excuse for not joining them?”

The sheriff shook his head.  “I’m sorry son, but I’m afraid you can’t do that…”

“But why?  My father and brother are expecting me, if I don’t show up sometime tomorrow they’ll be worried sick.  I can’t let them go through more grief, thinking something has happened to me!”

“Mister Cartwright…I’m sorry for what your family has had to go through.  I understand your concern, but believe me it is vital that no one, not even your father…learns the truth until after your brother appears to testify.  Lamar Sanderson has gotten away with more crimes than I can count on both hands.  This is the closest we’ve ever come to being able to bring this man to justice.  I don’t think, from what I’ve been told in regards to your father, that he would want his son, your brother here, to do things differently than from what he has chosen to do…now, do you?” the sheriff questioned.

Adam sighed deeply and sat down on the bed.  He lowered his head, pressing his fingertips to the bridge of his nose. “No,” he said softly, looking up.  “He’d want Hoss to do exactly as he is, regardless of how the rest of us are grieving.”

“Then you agree to stay here, with your brother?”

“It appears that I have no other choice.  So yes, I agree.  At least this way, I can keep an eye on him myself,” Adam said, giving Hoss a smile when he saw the big man looking his way.

“It’s settled then.  Mister Cartwright…both of you…please make yourselves comfortable.  Adam…have you had supper?”

“Yes…but I could use some of that beer my brother was telling me about,” Adam stated firmly.

“I’ll have one of my deputies bring it up when they finish setting up your bed.”  The sheriff moved out the door.  “Please, it’s late…don’t leave the room again until one of my men comes for you in the morning.”

The sheriff closed the door.  For several minutes Adam and Hoss sat in silence, each one lost in their private thoughts.  After a while, Adam stood up and crossed the room to where Hoss was standing, looking out the window.

“Hoss,” Adam said softly.

Hoss turned around, surprised that Adam stood so near. “Yeah…”

“I’m glad you’re alright…I mean…I was…hurt when I got the telegram.  I…” Adam’s voice became thick with emotion, making it hard for him to go on. “I…couldn’t believe that you were…dead.  It was like a nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from.  I just want you to know that…I’m glad I finally woke up.”

In a rare show of sentiment, Adam embraced his brother and as he did so, Hoss’ arms folded around his brother.  He could feel the slight tremors that coursed their way through his older brother’s body and in that instant, Hoss Cartwright had the first inkling of what his family must surely have been suffering because of him.

“I’m sorry Adam,” Hoss whispered, finally pulling back.  “I guess I didn’t really think how my decision would affect all of ya,” he confessed.

“It’s alright buddy…it was the right decision. Pa and Joe, they’ll understand, once they learn the truth.”

“Gosh…I hope so…I mean, I know Pa will, but that little brother of ours, he’ll never forgive me for worrying him so, ya just wait and see.”

Adam stretched out on the bed that had been brought in and set up for him.  He glanced at Hoss and snickered. “Sure he will, Hoss; Joe will be so happy that you’re alive, he’ll forget all about the fact that you lied, or that you didn’t confide in him, or that I knew and he didn’t…why…” teased Adam.

“Forget it Adam, he’ll never forgive me!” Hoss groaned.  “He’ll throw it up to me every chance he gets…ya just wait and see…the rotten little pest!”

***********

“I’m sorry Mister Cartwright, but you heard him — he claims that he has only two men that work for him…not three,” Sheriff Norton stated as he moved around his desk and sat down.

“He’s lying!” snapped Joe in a moment of uncontained anger.  “You don’t expect him to tell you the truth do you?” the boy stormed.

“Joseph!  That’s enough, son,” Ben ordered. He moved to his son’s side and placed a calming hand on Joe’s shoulder.  Ben gave the boy a tired smile. “Sheriff Norton did his best.  But I agree with you, Joe. I believe the man is lying; however, we can’t prove it at the moment.” Ben turned back to the sheriff.  “When is the trial supposed to begin?”

“Day after tomorrow, bright and early.  I don’t expect it to last much more than an hour or two…not with all the witnesses…I’m sorry Mister Cartwright…I really am,” the sheriff said, standing to his feet.

“It’s alright, Sheriff; you did your best, we couldn’t ask for more.” Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulder. Beneath his fingers, he could feel the tense muscles and sensed that Joe was bordering on the brink. Gently the concerned father guided his son toward the door.

“We will be staying in town for the trial,” Ben told the sheriff when he and Joe had reached the door.

“Yes, I assumed you would.  Perhaps by then we can find out about your son’s body,” the sheriff suggested.

“I think we will walk over to the undertaker’s and see what he can tell us,” Ben said, opening the door.

Joe walked out into the sunlight pausing to look up and down the street while Ben finished speaking to the sheriff.  The sun was bright and warm with a gentle breeze blowing.  Joe pushed his hat back on his head and sighed, suddenly calling to mind other sunny days and gentle breezes when he and Hoss and Adam had been boys, swimming up at the lake on days such as this one.  He remembered Hoss trying to teach him to swim and how he’d finally gotten up enough nerve to swing out on the rope that Adam had tied to a branch that hung high over the water’s edge.  Joe could see Hoss’ face now; hear his voice as he waited in the water for him let go of the rope. ‘That’s it Little Joe…swing way out…there ya go, now let go, ole Hoss is right here.  I won’t let nothin’ happen to ya, punkin.’

Joe had let go of the rope, screaming out in a mixture of fear and excitement, and Hoss had stood good his promise. Joe dropped into the water, barely going under before he felt his big brother’s strong but gentle hands wrap around his waist and pull him above the surface of the water. Time and time again, Little Joe dropped from the rope, always secure in his brother’s promise that he’d be waiting.  Joe, even at the tender age of eight, had marveled at his brother’s patience, his brother’s tolerance…his brother’s love.

Joe felt a pang in his chest and suddenly breathing became labored.  Tears clouded his vision and he was forced to wipe away the telltale signs before the people who passed him by could take note.

“Joe?”

Joe turned quickly at the sound of his name, unaware that his father had been watching while he daydreamed.  He smiled, somewhat embrassed at having been caught.  His father returned the smile, placing a hand to the middle of Joe’s back.

“I hope it was a pleasant memory,” Ben said in a whispered voice.

Joe felt his throat constrict and found speaking impossible.  He nodded his head, swallowing the lump that blocked his words from being voiced. “It was,” he sighed, sniffing his nose. Joe looked longingly into the chocolate eyes that stared so unhappily back at him. His own eyes glistened with tears.

“I miss him…so much,” stammered Joe, glancing away, unable to continue looking into his father’s eyes.

Ben was having his own trouble keeping his tears at bay and more so forming words.  “I know,” he whispered, “so do I…but Joe…we have to go on, we’ll get beyond this, someday,” Ben said, forcing himself to smile at his son.

“Why don’t we go talk to the undertaker, and see what he has to say?  By then, it will be lunchtime and we can get a bite to eat.  Adam’s stage is due in about one o’clock,” Ben suggested.

“Alright…but I’m not leaving this town, not until I find out where Hoss’ body was taken…and not before finding out why it was taken.  Come on,” said Joe, readjusting his hat. He stepped down off the wooden walkway and into the street.  Ben joined him and together they walked solemnly to the undertaker’s.

The little bell attached to the door tingled lightly as they entered.  Joe glanced up at the bell and tapped it again with his finger. He smiled at his father. “I’m glad we never had one of these on the front door,” he said, his mood a little lighter.

“If I had thought about it, we would have.  At least then I’d know what time you boys came wandering in on Saturday nights,” Ben attempted to tease.

“Good morning, gentlemen…may I be of service?”

The undertaker was a tall man, thin and dressed in a black suite.  The first thing that popped into Joe’s mind was Abe Lincoln, minus the top hat.  Joe’s next thought was that the man suited his title and he was forced to smother a giggle.  He rolled his eyes, his mind scolding itself for even thinking that he could laugh or giggle at a time such as this.  He glanced over at his father and noted the fact that Ben was staring at him with a strange look on his face.

“My name is Ben Cartwright, and this is my son, Joseph,” Ben introduced himself and his son.

“Oh…Mister Cartwright, I’ve been expecting you,” the undertaker said.  He appeared nervous and began to fidget with a button on his coat.

So much for Able Lincoln, thought Joe.

“I was wondering if you could tell us what happened, the day my son’s body was brought in…”

“Sir…I’ve already explained everything to the sheriff…” the man stammered.

“Yes, I know, but if you wouldn’t mind…we’d like to hear it from you,” Ben explained.

“Alright Mister Cartwright…there really isn’t much to tell. The morning of the 16th, I was called to the back of the Red Dog Saloon.  That’s where the body was, oh it was awful…so much blood…it was everywhere…and the hole in the man’s back…it was…”

Ben frowned and exchanged glances with Joe who had paled.

“If you could skip the details, please?” Ben asked.

“Oh…sorry.  Anyway, the sheriff and a couple of deputies helped me carry your son into the back room.”  The undertaker looked from Ben to Joe and again to Ben.  “I’ll have you know it was no easy task, carrying that boy.  As I was saying, he was placed in the back room, that’s where I prepare the bodies for burial.  I was unexpectedly called away; my darling wife was in labor, and I was needed at home, so I left for the day.  My associate was to come in later that day and tend to your son.  He never showed up, so naturally I fired him.  I mean, after all…leaving a corpse lying around for such a long time without preparing the body properly…ugh…nasty.  Anyway, by the time I returned the next day…he was gone…the body I mean.  I cannot imagine who could have taken it…after all…he was so big,” the man muttered.  “And heavy, let’s not forget heavy…”

“How did they get in?” Joe asked. He moved into the back room, glancing all around and then at the back door.  “It hasn’t been tampered with,” he told his father.  Joe turned to the undertaker.  “Any broken windows?”

“No sir.  I reckon whomever it was that took your brother’s body just walked right in and right out; ain’t never had that happen before.”

The man watched Joe as he made his way around the back room, stopping to look at the beautifully carved pine boxes.  One extra large box caught his eye and he made his way over to it.  With one hand Joe caressed the smooth wood, intrigued by the handiwork put into something as final as a person’s coffin.

“This is beautiful work, did you make it?” Joe asked, turning around to face the man.

“Yes…I make coffins of various sizes and styles, just to have on hand.  That particular one was to be your…brother’s,” he explained.

Joe’s eyes grew wide as he spun around and looked at the box more closely.  He had to admit the work was beyond most imaginations, for it was exquisitely crafted.  Carefully he lifted the lid.  Inside, the coffin was lined with a powder blue velvet cloth.  A small soft pillow where the deceased could rest their head for all eternity, matched the blue material.  Before his eyes, a vision of the brother he loved and missed, laid resting within the soft folds of the blue fabric.  Joe lowered his head, closed his eyes and fought against the sob that threatened to betray him.

“As you can see, Mister Cartwright, the box is empty.”

The man’s words broke through Joe’s pondering and shattered the vision into a dozen pieces.  He took a deep breath to calm himself and turned around.  Neither his father nor the undertaker noticed how his hands shook or had an inkling of the turbulent gnawing down deep inside the pit of his stomach that made him want spew forth his breakfast.

**********

“Here comes the stage, Pa,” Joe called to his father.

He’d been standing in front of the depot for what seemed a lifetime, waiting for the stage to arrive.  Naturally, it was late, and for a moment Joe wondered why the clerk listed the time schedules, for the stages rarely arrived when expected.

Joe felt his stomach begin to churn once more.  His eyes closed for a brief second trying to visualize what Adam might have felt when he had learned of their brother’s untimely death.  For a second time in as many days, Joe felt nothing but sorrow for his older sibling, having been without family or friend when the news had been delivered.  Joe could only imagine how hard the heart breaking information must have hit his brother.

He straightened himself, shaking the depression away for he was most anxious to see his brother, for he had missed Adam, however reluctant to admit it, even to himself.  Now with Hoss gone, his desire to be reunited with his only sibling had grown to heights that Joe had never thought possible.  Though he and Adam had often been at odds, there still remained between the two, a bond of brotherly love and respect for one another that time nor distance could never destroy.  They had shared so much over the years, all three of them had.  They’d gloried in one another’s successes, lifted each other up when one of them failed, stood side by side, unafraid against foes, shared each other’s happiness, wept at the other’s woes and would without questioning why, go the limit for one or both.  Joe felt the swelling of sentiment deep down, and he lifted his head high, proud of what he and his brothers had shared between themselves, proud to be Hoss and Adam’s kid brother.  At the moment, he’d never been prouder and a sudden urge to tell his brother so, before it was too late, made the waiting that much more unbearable.

At last the stage rolled to a stop.  Ben glanced at Joe and smiled.  The father left some of the burden of his loss lift slightly.  Adam had always been a source of strength for his family and Ben, after days of bearing his heavy cross, was ready to tip part of the burden to the next in command.  His shoulders had grown weary, trying to remain strong for, not just his self, but for Little Joe as well.  Now it was time for Adam, whom Ben knew could ease his grief by just being with him.

The coach door opened and an elderly man disembarked, shoving the door closed as he stepped down from the stepping block.  He nodded his head at the father and son who stood, staring blankly into the empty stage.

“He’s not here,” Ben mumbled, feeling another sense of loss.  His spirits plummeted as he turned and walked away, unable to conceal his disappointment from his younger son.

Joe stood as if he’d been frozen in ice, while the coach pulled away, leaving a fine film of dust floating above his head.  Briefly he was unaware of what was happening around him, until he felt a hand grasp his arm.

“Joseph?”

Joe turned to his father, taking note of the lack of sparkle that once danced joyfully within the depths of his father’s chocolate eyes.  Ben looked broken, almost beyond repair and silently Joe cursed, not God…but what God had allowed to transpire.  Instantly, Joe recalled his unspoken comment and whispered a quick prayer that he’d be forgiven.  His father’s words came back to haunt him, ‘we’ll get through this’, Ben had promised.  Joe forced himself to smile at his father, for if Ben felt so strongly about it, then he’d do as his father, and keep believing.

“Maybe he missed his stage,” Joe hinted.  “We’ll wait for the next one…”

“Of course,” Ben said, trying to change his frown into a smile for his son.  “Why don’t we go over and have a talk with Simon Quinn?  He might be able to fill us in on the trial.” Ben suggested.

“Sure…why not?” Joe agreed, though he had no idea what good it would do.  From what the sheriff was saying, it would be a speedy trial and an obviously guilty man would walk out of the courtroom a free man and once again, justice would have failed.

**********

“You about ready, Hoss?” Adam asked.  “We have a long way to ride tonight.”

“Yep, I’m about set,” Hoss answered, turning to grin at Adam.  “I aint lookin’ forward to ridin’ all night.”

“Me either, but it will be worth it, when that man is proven guilty.”

“Yep, sure ‘nough will.  But better’n that, is seein’ the look on Pa and Joe’s face when they see me walk into that courtroom,” Hoss grinned broadly.

“Sure hope Pa don’t have a heart attack!” Adam stated, stuffing his things into his satchel that had been delivered to his hidden room in the attic over the hotel where he and Hoss had shared the last two evenings together.

“Well I hope not!” snickered Hoss, who sobered suddenly.  “Ya reckon he and Joe are stayin’ for the trial, don’t cha?”

“Knowing Pa, I’d bet on it.  He’d want to see justice served, especially if he thought Sanderson was responsible for your death.  And besides, if the man walks…Pa and Joe will never stop trying to prove the man had you killed.”

“I suppose ya right, Adam.”  Hoss turned his back to his brother and finished packing his things.

A soft knock at the door ended their banter.  Adam pulled the door open slightly and peeked into the hallway.  The sheriff and one of his deputies greeted him.

“You boys ready?” he asked.  “Luke’s waiting in the alley with the horses.”

“Yes, we’re ready,” Adam said, turning to pick up his satchel and his hat from the bed.

He glanced at Hoss, his brother was doing the same thing, except his big ten gallon hat had been exchanged for a different one, as his clothes had been.  The sheriff had made the changes as part of the guise to keep Hoss from being so noticeable when out among the townspeople, as when he was allowed out to have his dinner.

The brothers paused long enough to strap on their guns and holsters before blowing out the lamp and slipping into the darkened hallway to join the sheriff and his deputy.

“You boys stay close and make sure you keep to the shadows,” instructed the sheriff.

“Yes sir,” muttered Hoss as he followed the others to the door at the top of the steps and then moving as quickly and silently as possible, down the stairs, out the side door and into the night.

Keeping to the shadows as directed, Adam and Hoss inched along behind the sheriff.  The deputy, the last in line, kept a close watch over his shoulder to be sure that they were not being followed. The sheriff had taken extra precautions in providing additional men strategically placed here and there to insure their safety.  He had even posted lookouts along the trail toward Placerville as double protection for the single, star witness.

The Grass Valley sheriff and his deputies would escort Hoss and now Adam, half way to Placerville where they would be met by Sheriff Norton and his men.  From there, Hoss and Adam would be guarded and hidden in an undisclosed location, in or near the courthouse until such time as Hoss would be called to testify against Sanderson.  The Grass Valley sheriff had been informed that Norton had been kept in the dark about the fact that Hoss was actually alive and only on the eve of the trial had he been informed of his midnight mission to transport the star witness back to Placerville.

The moon provided just the right amount of light to allow the group of riders to see the trail.  They pushed their mounts hard, stopping only long enough to give both horses, and riders alike, a short break.  At the halfway point, Adam and Hoss bid the sheriff and his men farewell and traded their mounts for fresh horses, provided by Sheriff Norton and his men.

“Good luck son,” the sheriff said to Hoss as he shook the big man’s hand.

“Thank ya sir,” Hoss replied.  “I’ll do my best.”

“I’m sure you will.  Tell your father, once he recovers from the shock of seeing you, that Fred Wilson said hello, he’ll remember me,” smiled Wilson.

“I’ll do it,” agreed Hoss.

“We best be on our way, Mister Cartwright,” Sheriff Norton ordered.

Hoss nodded his head and mounted his fresh horse.  Sheriff Norton watched, still somewhat in shock that he had been completely fooled by the charades that Judge Honeycutt and the prosecuting attorney, Simon Quinn had managed to pull off.  He wondered what Ben Cartwright and his young son would say and do when they saw their family member walk into the courtroom.  He couldn’t keep from smiling. He liked the gentleman and the boy; he had watched for several days now how they had grieved for their dead son and brother.  He admired the way the pair stuck together, comforting the other with a tender touch, or understanding look.  It was rare to say the least, and now that the sorrow was nearing an end, Sheriff Norton was anxious to see the sad faces transform themselves into joyful ones.  Tomorrow would be a big day, a day to remember…in more ways than one.  A father would be reunited with his son, and hopefully justice would serve its purpose and put behind bars a man who had little respect for human life.  The differences in the two men, Ben Cartwright and Lamar Sanderson, were stark to say the least.

***********

Two hours before sunrise, the group entered town via the back alleys where they would be less likely to be seen.  Arrangements had been made ahead of time for Hoss’ room in the back of the courthouse where the star witness would have ample room and plenty of time to rest up before court convened.  By keeping Hoss in the courthouse until court time, he would be under full protection coming from the lower level up to the courtroom where the trial would be conducted.  There would be less chance of anyone seeing him, less chance of someone taking a potshot at the witness.  If all went well, Lamar Sanderson would soon be paying for his crimes, which would bring much relief to those who have had encounters with the man in the past.

“You rest, I’ll have breakfast brought in for you shortly, Mister Cartwright,” Sheriff Norton explained to Hoss once he was settled in the back room.  Norton turned to Adam.  “I’ll send a breakfast for you also…unfortunately you are to remain here as well…orders from the judge.”

“I was hoping to see my father and brother before the trial started,” Adam said.

“We can’t risk it; I’m terribly sorry, Adam.  I know your father and brother are very worried about you and added to their present grief, I feel somewhat responsible, though I had no idea until late yesterday that your brother here was even alive.  I wanted nothing more than to tell your father, to ease his suffering, but I was sworn to secrecy, you understand, I hope?”

“We understand completely Sheriff.  Our father is stronger than you would think; he’s suffered loses before.  In a few hours this will be over and so will his grief,” Adam assured the sheriff.

“I’m glad, for all of you.  You are a remarkable family.  Now, stay put, and I’ll be back soon with something to eat.”

***********

Ben and Joe sat in the furthermost bench from the front, near the door.  Both were solemn, the passing days having begun to take their toll on father and son.  They looked as well as felt tired and both were anxious for this trial to begin and finally end.  Each hoped that justice would be served, but they also had their doubts.  Ben knew that without Hoss’ testimony, or the testimonies of the other two witnesses, it wasn’t likely that Lamar Sanderson would be punished at all.

Joe straightened slightly in his seat as the rear door opened and the bailiff led Sanderson into the courtroom and to his chair in front of the judge’s desk.  A hush fell over the crowd that had gathered as each person became more aware of the proceedings.  The jury was asked to enter and the twelve men walked quietly into the jury box and took their seats.

“Everyone rise!”

The crowd stood to their feet.  The rear door opened once more and Judge Honeycutt entered, looking distinguished in his long black robe.  Once he was seated, he raised his gavel and allowed it to announce the beginning of the trial.

“You may be seated.”

Ben flinched slightly when the gavel was hammered down to silence everyone who had begun to whisper.  He glanced at Joe who was intently watching Sanderson.  Ben had worried about Joe, worried how the boy might react if any evidence pointed to the accused indicating that Sanderson might have had something to do with Hoss’ death.  In the back of his mind, Ben was afraid that Joe might do something rash, something that he might regret later on.  With a bit of anxiety weighing on his shoulders, along with the overwhelming sadness, Ben had tried to keep a close watch on his youngest son.  Hoss was gone now, lost to them forever and there was nothing that Ben could say or do to change that fact, but he still had Joe, still had his baby boy.  He smiled; Joe wouldn’t like it if he had any clue as to what thoughts were racing through his mind.  His sons, Adam…God only knew what had happened to detain him, Hoss…a giant among men, yet gentle and tender…gone and Joe, so wrapped up in his unhappiness that he was like a stick of dynamite with a lighted fuse.  At any given moment, Ben expected Joe to explode into a fit of rage and seek revenge for the brother he had lost. He sighed deeply, unaware that he had done so.

“Pa?” whispered Joe, watching the range of emotions on his father’s face.  Ben seemed lost in thought and had paid no attention at all to the proceedings.  “Are you alright?”

Ben turned, jarred back to the present by his son’s hand on his arm.

“I’m fine…I was just thinking, that’s all,” Ben whispered.

“Mister Quinn, are you ready to proceed with the prosecution?” the judge asked.

“Yes your honor.  I’d like to call my first…and my only…witness, Mister…”

Ben glanced at Joe surprised that Quinn had any witnesses.  “He didn’t mention this yesterday afternoon that he had another witness,” Ben whispered to Joe.

“I don’t know Pa, maybe something happened last night that we don’t know about,” Joe whispered back.

Ben raised his brows and shrugged his shoulders.  “Shh…let’s see who it is.”

“…Hoss Cartwright.”

Ben felt as if the pit of his stomach had hit the floor.  His eyes sought Joe’s face and he noted instantly that the boy had paled and looked as if he might become ill.

The heavy oak door opened, Sheriff Norton stepped just inside the courtroom.  Ben sensed a man standing behind the sheriff, but as of yet could not see the man’s face.  His heart was in his throat…could it be…was it possible that his beloved son was…Ben dared to hope, afraid to look, least it all be a dream and he feared he might wake up and find that Hoss was really…dead.

Joe gulped.  He stared at the door.  On his brow he could feel the tiny beads of water that seemed to have hatched themselves right out of his flesh.  When he glanced at his hands, he saw that they trembled uncontrollably.

Ben saw the sheriff step slightly to the side and look down; he saw the toe of one black boot.  A deafening silence fell over the courtroom.  Joe glanced to the front of the room; Sanderson had stood to his feet, clearly stunned by the appearance of the man shielded from his view.

A movement from across the aisle caught the attention of the youngest Cartwright and as Joe watched in horror, one of Sanderson’s men stood and drew his gun from beneath his coat.  A woman screamed.  A blast ripped through the silence as people began dropping to the floor in an effort to seek shelter from the raining bullets.

The sheriff had shoved the assumed Hoss Cartwright out of the courtroom and into the hallway to safety.  Joe and Ben hunkered down behind the pews with the rest of the crowd.  The firing had stopped and Joe dared to peek over the top of the bench in front of him.  The man he recognized as one of Sanderson’s men was trying to move to the front of the courtroom.  Joe pushed his father aside and stepped over two more persons in his own effort to get to the man.  Sanderson shoved his attorney aside and when his hired gun reached the defense table, both made a mad dash for the rear door.

As they pushed opened the door, Joe saw both men stop and then take a step back, and then another.  Sanderson had his arms held high over his head, a sure sign of surrender, but to whom, thought Joe. And then he saw the man welding a gun in the faces of his prisoners.

“ADAM!” Joe called in surprise.

“Howdy Joe,” grinned Adam as the bailiff and a guard took charge of his prisoners.

“He did it…he killed that man…and his son.  He told us he did…he bragged about killing the witnesses too…”

“SHUT UP YOU IDIOT!” screamed Sanderson.  Sanderson turned to the judge; he quivered with unbridled anger and hate.  “The man’s a fool, a liar…he has no idea what he’s saying…he’s lying, I’m telling you…lying!” he bellowed.

“I think not!”

Heads turned toward the back of the courtroom as the big man approached the bench.  He spied his family standing in the front and grinned broadly at them.

“Howdy Pa…Little Joe,” said Hoss, tossing his hand up in a greeting.

Hoss turned to the judge.  “Your honor…I was there, at the Taylor place the day Mr. Taylor and his boy was shot down.  I witnessed the entire thing…there’s no doubt, he’s the one what pulled the trigger and gunned that poor man and his boy down in cold blood.”

“ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT…I KILLED HIM…I CONFESS!” shouted Sanderson.  “But you!” he stormed, pointing at Hoss, “you’re suppose to be dead!”

“That’s right, I’m suppose to be, but as ya can see, I ain’t dead now, am I?” snapped Hoss.

“Sheriff, get his riffraff out of my courtroom!” ordered the judge, waving his arm about.  “And see to it that they are locked up good and tight for the afternoon.  We’ll continue this trial after lunch.  Court dismissed until two o’clock,” hammered the judge.

Joe shoved his way around the bystanders to fling himself into Hoss’ arms.

“You big ox…we thought you were dead!” cried Joe gleefully as Hoss wrapped his arms around the boy and squeezed him in a bear hug.  “You sure are a sight for sore eyes…and I mean that too, look at how red my eyes are!” teased Joe, stepping back so that Hoss could see for himself.

“And to think I cried over you!” Joe said, playfully punching his brother’s upper arm.

“I’m sorry Joe…I didn’t mean to hurt ya, or you either, Pa,” Hoss said as Ben moved to embrace his son.

“Hoss…son…thank God…thank God…” whispered Ben in a thick voice, laced with ardor.

For several moments, Ben allowed himself the pleasure of holding his son.  Hoss seemed not to have minded for his own eyes had welled with tears and he used his father’s shoulder to hide them from the curious eyes that watched the reunion.

While Ben and Hoss found joy in their welcoming, Joe stepped up to Adam and grinned. “What happened to you…miss the stage?  You were suppose to be here day before yesterday!” Joe asked, grinning at his older brother.

Adam’s grin was a bit lopsided as he grabbed Joe and wrapped his arm about the smaller man’s neck, preventing Joe from breaking free. “And hello to you too, kid,” Adam said laughing.  Joe giggled and pulled free, smiling at his brother.

“To answer your question, no…I did not miss my stage.”

“Then where in blazes have you been?” Ben turned to ask Adam.  He grabbed Adam’s hand and shook it; his pleasure at having his family altogether was plainly etched into his features.  The sadness had vanished, and the joy he felt in his heart was evident to those who saw.

“With me,” Hoss said, slipping his arm across the back of Joe’s shoulder.

“What?”

“Pa, it’s a long story, and I’m mighty hungry.  Cain’t we go some place and get a bite to eat?” groaned Hoss.

“We can tell you all about it over lunch,” suggested Adam.

“You buying?” giggled Joe.  “Cause I ain’t got no money.”

“I don’t have any money…Joe, how did you ever manage to talk our father into letting you quit school?  You can’t even speak proper English!” laughed Adam.

“Simple, I just asked him and he said yes.  Now…are you buying or not?”

“I’ll buy, come on. Hoss looks as if he might faint from lack of food,” Adam said, watching Hoss rub his stomach.

Together the four Cartwrights marched out the door and into the noonday sun, quickly making their way down the street to the nearest café.  Ben held back when they neared the restaurant.  We watched as his boys marched three abreast, arms locked over one another’s shoulders; Adam on one side, Hoss on the other, and Little Joe sandwiched in the middle.  His smile deepened as he heard his sons teasing and laughing among themselves.  It was a blessed sight and sound that Ben would long remember and hold dear to his heart.  He was happy, truly happy for the first time in weeks.  Silently he muttered a special thanks to the One who had made it all possible.

**********

“And that’s about it,” Hoss finished.

He had spent the last hour telling how he faked being murdered, how Roy Coffee and Judge Honeycutt along with Simon Quinn had planned the whole thing.  Hoss explained that he had to allow his ‘body’ to be stolen so that his father and Joe would remain in town looking for him, and how all of them had prayed that the scheme would work.  It had all been going according to plan too, until Adam had appeared out of nowhere and just about spoiled the entire setup.

“I was never so surprised in my entire life as when Adam called out to me in that saloon.  I was so happy to see’em that I wanted nothin’ more’n to grab’em up and squeeze the fire outta’em, but I couldn’t.  Instead, I hit him,” Hoss said, his smile dying.

“I owe ya an apology for that, too, big brother,” Hoss muttered.

“Forget it Hoss.  The look on your face was worth it.  For a minute I wasn’t sure what you might do.  I thought you acted like you were going to take off running,” laughed Adam.  “I couldn’t figure out why you were acting so strange.  I thought maybe you had amnesia or something worse.”

“I almost dun just that, take off runnin’, I mean.  I sure was scared ya let the cat outta the bag and give away my cover.”

“Well boys, everything worked out just fine…fine indeed.  Do you know how glad I am just to be sitting here with the three of you?” Ben laughed.  “I thought for sure I’d never…never be able to do this again.  Hoss…I’m happy that you’re alright, son.  I missed you something fierce, boy.”

“Same here, Hoss.  I really believed I had lost my best friend.  I’m glad that you’re back…I…” Joe paused and grinned, his eyes had misted.  “I lost a week’s sleep crying over you, you big ox!” giggled Joe.

They laughed, all of them, for Hoss, for each other, and for themselves.  Wasn’t that the way it was suppose to be…when you’re family?

***********

Lamar Sanderson was found guilty of the murders of Frank Taylor and his son, thanks to the testimony of Hoss Cartwright and Lamar’s own blundering confession.  Sanderson’s lawyer pleaded with the court for leniency, but the judge ruled that Sanderson would hang for his crimes.

His cohorts, one of which Adam had already apprehended and locked in Sheriff Norton’s jail, were all convicted of the murders of the two witnesses, Jed Black and Nell Corbin.  Four days later, the three men were hung by their necks until dead.  Justice had at last been served.

***********

Ben, Hoss and Joe stood in front of the stage depot and said their goodbyes to Adam.  They would be returning home without him, much to his father’s displeasure.  Hoss and Joe had given up trying to convince their older brother to return with them rather than to go back to Paradise, but Adam would not be swayed.  He did however, make them a promise.

“Six months,” Joe said, “and you’ll come home?”

“I promised, didn’t I, Joe?” Adam said, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Yeah, I reckon…but I wish…”

“No…don’t Joe, please?” Adam asked in a way that sounded very much like a plea.

Joe sighed, he reckoned he’d never understand his oldest brother, but then he’d stop trying a year ago.  Adam would always be just…Adam…his big brother, his surrogate father, the man he had admired most, next to their Pa, and the man he respected…and loved; the man he had given his blessings to, the day that Adam had left home.  He could not take them back, his blessings, for in his heart he wished nothing for Adam but happiness and contentment and it seemed as if his brother had found what he had been searching for.

“Alright Adam…I won’t say it, I won’t beg you…but if you aren’t home, six months from today…I’m coming looking for you!”  Joe choked back his emotions and smiled.

The stage was coming and it was time to say goodbye.  Ben turned to his oldest son, placing his hand on Adam’s arm.

“I’m coming with Joe, Adam,” he muttered with a smile.

“That goes for me, too,” Hoss added

Adam laughed.  “I have no doubts…I believe you would too, all of you!”

“Good bye, son…take care and…God’s speed,” Ben said as he hugged his son tightly, though briefly.

“Good bye, Pa…you take care of yourself…and these two.  Don’t let up on either of them.  They’ve still got a ways to go yet, before they’re full grown,” Adam advised.

“I’ll see after them,” Ben promised.

“Well Hoss…I enjoyed our stay in the attic,” grinned Adam.  “I always enjoy your company,” he whispered to Hoss when they grasped hands and shook them.

“Yeah…me too, Adam.  Ya be careful…and I’ll see ya in six months!”

Adam turned lastly to Joe, who had turned his head away from the faces of his family.  Adam stood before him, eyes piercing straight into his brother’s soul.  It was hard for the boy to look at the man.  Joe had to swallow before looking up and meeting the intense eyes.

The tears shown in his eyes, but he willed them away.  He was a man now; he had lost one brother and had wept for that loss.  The loss he was about to feel was only temporary, as was the first loss.  Hadn’t Adam promised that he’d come home, hadn’t Adam always kept his promises?

Joe forced a smile and took Adam’s hand.  “Well, big brother…”

His words were silenced when Adam pulled the boy into his arms and held him, whispering so that only Joe could hear.  When he released his arms from about Joe’s body, both were consumed with emotion.

Joe grinned.  “See ya, Adam.”

“All aboard!” the driver called.

Adam pulled open the door and climbed inside, taking a seat next to the window.  “I’ll write,” he promised, waving as the coach pulled away.

“BYE!” shout Hoss.

“THANKS ADAM!” Joe called.

“Good bye, son,” Ben murmured softly, staring at the departing stage.

“Thanks Adam?” Hoss said to Joe.  “Thanks Adam?  What in blazes does that mean?”

“Now Hoss…what do you think, thanks means?” growled Joe as stood face to face with the bigger man.  He had his hands placed on his hips, looking much like a very young Ben Cartwright.

“Ah…dadburnit, Joe…I know what thanks means; I just don’t know what ya meant when ya told Adam thanks…and besides…what did he whisper to ya, anyhow?”

They had been walking down the street, toward the livery where their wagon and team had been housed.

“Yes Joseph, just what did Adam whisper to you?” Ben wondered aloud.

“Can’t tell…it’s a secret,” Joe exclaimed.

“Come on, Joe…ya know I can’t stand it when ya gots a secret!” begged Hoss.  “What did Adam say?”

They had reached the stable and stopped, standing outside the doorway.

“I shouldn’t tell you, ’cause he said it was a secret…but I’ll tell you anyway.  I told Adam thanks because he gave me his silver plated rifle…for my birthday next month…and he said…”

“What Joe?  What?” pleaded Hoss.

“He said…”

“Joseph, for heaven’s sake, what did he say?”  Even Ben was becoming anxious to know Joe’s secret.

“Adam said he’d be finished in about three maybe four months, instead of six, with the project he’s been working on and that he’d….be home then…to stay!”

“ALRIGHT!” shouted Hoss as he grabbed Joe in a hug.

“Praise the Lord,” whispered Ben. He laughed along with Joe and Hoss.

“A full house!” muttered Ben, glancing across the street at the undertakers and then at Hoss.  His heart thumped with overpowering joy and gladness. He raised his head toward heaven and whispered to God.  A lone tear rolled from the corner of his eye and down the side of his face.

“Thank you, God, for the empty box!”

*****End*****

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