Neighbors and Friends (by PSW)

Summary: A missing child brings together the Coffees and the Cartwrights, as well as a young Dr. Paul Martin.
Category: Bonanza
Genre: Western
Rating: PG
Word count: 28,370


 

Historical note:  As has been noted multiple times in other stories, Bonanza history is not exactly the same as real history. This prequel story doesn’t quite fit into real history either. Taking the Cartwright’s general ages during the first season (in 1859, I believe) and working backward, this story should take place about 1846. Obviously Virginia City and Carson City weren’t around at that point … however, Eagle Station (at the sight of what eventually became Carson City) didn’t actually appear until 1851 or so, either. For the purposes of this story, I have pushed that up about six years – I figure, if Bonanza can play with the timeline, so can I. 😉

*****

Prologue

October 1846

The lights of home beckoned to Roy Coffee from the darkness, and he smiled. He was no farmer—or rancher, or whatever it was he was pretending to be these days—but he had to admit that there was something satisfying in seeing that yellow glow in the distance and knowing that Mary would be there too, waiting for him. A beautiful wife, a warm supper to fill his belly, a warm bath to chase away the dust and aches … Life was far better than any man had any right to expect, even here in the middle of nowhere, Nevada.

The middle of nowhere, Nevada.

Roy sighed and turned the dun toward the house. He was a lawman. Always had been, always would be, no matter what he had promised Mary about starting fresh – about trying his hand at something that did not require facing down armed, desperate men on a regular basis. He understood her fears, of course. It was a hard thing for a woman, knowing each day when she kissed her man goodbye that this might be the night he did not return. She had only asked him to consider it—not begged or pushed—and that only twice. He had known, though, that she was unhappy and afraid, especially after that incident with the Trager brothers. It had been so close…

At any rate, he had agreed. He had promised her that he would give this new life a real, honest to goodness try, and he meant it. Even if this ranching, this spending his days chasing cows and his nights running cougars away from their corral, was not what called to him, he would put his heart and soul into it. It made Mary happy, and she was his life, after all—more than law enforcement, more than Nebraska, more than the home and family they’d left behind.

He worried for his wife, out here away from people and civilization (though, he couldn’t rightly apply that word to the last town they had called home, neither). It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Mary’s brother and his wife had started out with them, and made it most of the way along the trail before the baby had come early and died. John had given it up then, taken Caroline and turned back. “I ain’t gonna put her through it, Roy, and if you’re smart you won’t put Mary through it either.” They had nothin’ to go back to, though, and so here they were now, alone on a tiny ranch (if you could call it that) with nothin’ but mountain and scrub and Indians around for miles.

Her safety, out here in untamed nowhere, was one concern. His Mary was the wife of a lawman, though, and she could shoot rifle and pistol well enough to keep most any troublemaker second-guessin’ the wisdom of takin’ her on. No, it was the lack of company that really got to him—he worried about her gettin’ lonely away out here on their own. Mary just laughed, and patted his cheek, and said that she was just fine not havin’ to share him with an entire town who always needed somethin’.

Wasn’t much he could say to that. He enjoyed the time alone with her, too … but in his more honest moments, Roy admitted to himself (never to her) that he missed the bustle of town far more than his wife ever would. He was a social man. He enjoyed the walkin’ and the chattin’ and the bein’ in the center of it all. He liked stoppin’ to shoot marbles with the kids and shoot the breeze with the old men out front of the mercantile. He lived for the interruptions that pulled him out of his notice-strewn office, even if it was just to chase the dogs outa the saloon and the drunks outa the livery.

He snorted softly. “Who’da known you were such an old woman, Roy Coffee?”

Well, he’d just have to get used to it. This was their home now, and their life. And things wouldn’t be wild and unsettled here forever—there were new people comin’ in every month. All right, not every month. But, he’d heard of a few, one or two, last time he was down to Eagle Station. There were the prospectors too, of course … but they were a rough, solitary lot. Roy didn’t expect much in the way of company out of them.

The lights were getting closer, and he could just smell supper cookin’ even though there was no way a scent could carry this far out. The evening air was crisp, but not as cool as Roy might have expected so late in the year. He had expected late October to be cold already in the hills. Still, all he knew were the stories about the bitter winters in the mountains of Colorado and Montana. Maybe the real cold came later here. Maybe it didn’t come at all. The Sierras were not the Rockies, and his little scrub farm—ranch, he was a rancher—in Nevada was definitely not Denver. He wouldn’t waste many tears if they didn’t have to spend the winter digging themselves out of three feet of snow every couple of days.

Roy was glad for his warm coat all the same, and he flipped up the collar to protect his neck from the wind that occasionally threatened to buffet him from his horse. That was cold, even if the air itself wasn’t too bad. After a day of checking on his stock—few and sad though they were, but he supposed a man had to start somewhere—he had dust in his hair and his eyes and his teeth and … well, there was dust in places that just didn’t even see the sun. Another gust caught him smothering a yawn, and Roy grimaced, spitting off to the side. He wasn’t gonna get this taste out for …

Now, just what was that?

He pulled up the dun and gently tugged his rifle from its scabbard. It was smallish, whatever it was, and kinda weavin’ along the center of the track. A coyote? Didn’t seem likely—and didn’t seem to be botherin’ his horse none either, if that was so. The shape wasn’t right, either. It wasn’t shaped like anything out here, was more like a …

Roy slammed the rifle back into his scabbard and slid to the ground, tossing the reins toward a patch of low brush nearby.

“Boy?”

The small figure startled, and turned, and tripped over his own feet. He hit the ground hard, and a muffled sobbing drifted up from the huddled form.

For a long moment, Roy stared. What on earth was a child—couldn’t be more than four years old, if the dusk wasn’t playin’ tricks on him—doin’ out here? There wasn’t anybody else around for miles. Roy moved forward cautiously and crouched near the little heaving shoulders.

“Boy, my name’s Roy.” He waited. There was no response, other than a tightening of the little form, a curling in. He tried again. “I’m Roy, and that up there’s my place. What’s your name?”

Roy didn’t really expect any response—it was possible he’d have to get Mary out here before the little guy would trust them enough to answer—but after another few sobs, the head of wild curls rose and two tear-filled eyes glinted in the moonlight. “J-J-Joe.”

“Joe,” he breathed, and reached out a gentle hand to ruffle those curls. However the boy had got here, all on his own, he couldn’t stay out here. It might only be chilly for an adult, but this wind could be downright dangerous for a little boy. “You cold, Joe? You want to wrap up in my coat?”

The small head nodded, and a few more sobs escaped. Roy removed his coat, gritting his teeth against a particularly rough blast that nearly knocked him over from behind, and leaned slowly forward. He wrapped the heavy material firmly around the bony little frame, then gathered the child up to his chest before the boy could protest. Joe stiffened for an instant, then his hands crept up to clutch at Roy’s collar and a fresh outpouring of tears stained the man’s dust-laden shirt.

“All right, then.” Roy petted the tangle of hair and looked helplessly around them once again—across the pastureland, into the low trees, back down the faint track. Nothing, no one miraculously appeared to explain little Joe’s presence. “All right. You’re gonna be all right. How’d you get out here, Joe? There anyone else with you?”

The boy began a babbling into Roy’s shirt, punctuated with shivers and sobs. Roy understood almost nothing of it, except for one word that kept repeating throughout the narrative. He couldn’t quite … it sounded like …

“Horse? You gotta pony out here somewhere?”

No child of four was gonna be out here with a horse alone unless—

An impatient shake of the boy’s head interrupted that thought.

“No horse?” Another shake, then a low whisper. Still sounded like ‘horse’ to him … “Okay, you know what, Joe? My wife’s up in that house, her name’s Mary. She’s got supper ready, and a fire. You hungry?” Joe hesitated, then nodded against his chest. “Good. Me too. Why don’t we go up and get somethin’ to eat, then? You can get warmed up, get somethin’ in your belly, and maybe we can try talkin’ again after. How’s that sound?”

Joe strained up to peer over Roy’s shoulder, back along the track.

“Joe?” Reluctantly, the boy returned his gaze to Roy and nodded. “All right. We’ll get you all set, don’t you worry.” Roy tightened his grip, snagged the dun’s reins from the brush, and started them all off down the road. The lights were closer now—he could make out the shape of the house, even—and he could almost feel their warmth from here. Mary was there, and food and fire, and somehow they would get this little mystery figured out. Against him, Joe’s breathing deepened and the boy sagged in sleep. Roy patted the fine curls again and sighed, turning his eyes once again to the wild land stretched around them. “Where did you come from, boy?”

*****

Chapter One

Ben Cartwright’s spread was one that deserved the description, not like his own little patch of dirt. It was well-maintained, with wide tracks and solid fences, and it supported a good profitable herd. It also boasted the largest acreage of any ranch in Sierras. Roy had crossed it more than once on his way to and from Eagle Station—it was the quickest route to the trading post from his own place, and so far no one had ever run him off. He’d only met the man himself once. Coming back from his first trip to the Station after he and Mary had got situated, he’d turned off on the spur up to the house and found both Ben and his wife Marie at home. They’d been right friendly, asking after Mary and how the new ranch was getting along. A son in his mid-teens, Adam, had been visible across the corral. Mrs. Cartwright had indicated they also had two younger sons who were off somewhere—fishing no doubt, she’d added, with a lift of one delicate brow which told him all he needed to know about the frequency of that pastime. They’d offered dinner, which he’d declined (anxious as he was to get back to Mary), and a hand any time he was in need … which so far, he hadn’t had to take them up on either.

Roy hadn’t been back to the house since—ranchin’ did keep a man right tuckered out—but he remembered the way well enough.

The wagon thumped hard as the wheel hit a hole. They hadn’t had much in the way of rain here for goin’ on a month, but a sudden fierce downpour a couple days back had cut up the track pretty good in places. Roy suspected, given their little guest, that Cartwright’s attention had not been on road maintenance yesterday.

He cut a glance over to Mary and little Joe Cartwright, huddled together beside him. His wife was adjusting her seat, looking pained, but the boy might not have even noticed—Joe had caught sight of his home down the way, and was jumpin’ up and down with the excitement. It was all Mary could do to keep the boy from divin’ off the side, and so the little guy contented himself with hangin’ from her arms and callin’ for his mama (in a surprisingly loud voice, after the whispers of the past night) before they ever even rattled into the yard.

Not surprisingly, Marie Cartwright got to them long before they reached the house.

“Little Joe!” She snatched the child from Mary’s arms and pulled him close, sobbing openly as she kissed his face and curls. “Where have you been? We thought you were lost, we thought you were hurt, we thought you were … Where have you …” Marie looked up then, eyes widening. She skimmed the Coffees, then her gaze settled on the wagon bed. She hurried forward, peering inside. “Hoss?” Not finding her other child, Marie pulled away and frantically eyed the ground around the wagon, as if the boy might already have climbed out. “Hoss?

“He ain’t here, Mama.”

Joe’s voice dropped again to a whisper. Marie’s face, already white but for the deep purple hollows of fear and fatigue beneath her eyes, paled further. Roy exchanged a heavy glance with his wife, then climbed wearily down from the seat and reached back for Mary.

It had been a long night, and it was going to be a long day. For everyone.

“Hoss?” Marie’s voice dropped, and tears pooled in her eyes. Mary hastened to reassure her—as much as that was possible, given the situation.

“No, he’s not … we would have … we don’t know.”

It wasn’t much, and it wasn’t even exactly true—but it wasn’t news her boy was dead, either. Right now, that would have to do. Marie stared into the other woman’s gentle eyes, and shuddered, and pulled Little Joe closer. Roy stepped forward.

“Your husband anywhere close, ma’am? Somewhere I can go get him?”

She nodded. “Fire three signal shots, they’ll come. They’re … they’re searching the … the creek.” Her voice broke over those words, and Mary put a tight arm around mother and son.

“Well, they’re not there, anyway.”

Marie nodded and leaned her head briefly into the other woman’s shoulder, her long slender fingers playing restlessly in Joe’s curls. The boy cuddled in, silent but wide-eyed. Roy dug into the wagon for his rifle and fired off three shots. Seconds later three more shots sounded, faint in the distance, and Roy nodded, returning the gun to its place. “All right, then. They’re comin’.” He lifted an eyebrow at the women. “Mebbe we could all sit down while we wait?”

“Yes, of course.” Mrs. Cartwright nodded briskly, straightening. “Of course, I’m sorry. Come in, and I’ll make us all some tea. I’ve been …” Her eyes trailed over the yard, and Roy noted the abundance of drying laundry—bedding and clothing and towels—strung over every possible line and fence. He didn’t need Mary to tell him that the poor woman had been keeping herself busy any way she knew how. His wife turned Marie gently, and started them all toward the house.

“You show me where your fixin’s are, dear, and I’ll make the tea. You just have a seat and hold onto your boy for a while.”

Mrs. Cartwright uttered a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob, and reached around to grip Mary’s hand. “Thank you.” She included Roy in her gaze. “Thank you, I don’t know how to—”

“Ain’t no need.” Mary tweaked Joe’s nose, and the boy giggled softly. Marie ruffled his curls again, and Mary pressed the other woman’s elbow. “I’m Mary Coffee, by the way, and you might remember my husband Roy—he was out this way a few months back.”

“I do. Hello again, Mr. Coffee.” Marie nodded in his direction, and Roy muttered to himself about forgettin’ something as simple as introductions.

“Roy, please ma’am.”

They entered the house, a nice-sized single story structure with a large front room and several doors off to the back. It, like the rest of the Cartwright ranch, was well-built and well-kept, with a touch of elegance that Roy assumed came courtesy of the missus. Mary quickly found kettle, water, and tea and set to work. Marie sank onto a cushioned seat, pulled an unresisting Joe close, and turned to Roy. She was steadier now, despite the pale face and disheveled hair, and Roy found himself wondering about Ben Cartwright’s wife. Not countin’ the emotion of the past minutes—and he’d like to know who wouldn’t produce an emotional display, in this woman’s shoes—Marie struck him as an elegant and self-possessed woman. Her neat tones displayed a hint of some accent, French maybe, and Roy wondered where and how Ben Cartwright and his wife had met.

Not that it mattered right now, or at any other time. But Roy Coffee was a curious man. His wife called him an incurable gossip, but he only partly agreed. He didn’t tell no lies or trade in nothin’ viscous, like so many did. He just liked to know people, and know about them. Who could say … maybe it was just all them years of bein’ a lawman. Knowin’ about people certainly helped him in the job.

When that was his job. Didn’t do nothin’ for helpin’ him chase down stray cattle.

“Mr. Coffee—”

“Roy, ma’am.”

“Roy, then.” Marie offered a strained smile. “Where did you find him? He couldn’t have been so far out as your place. How did you—”

“Ma’am …” Roy turned his hat in his hands and spoke gently. “I think we oughta wait until your husband gets here.” He nodded toward Joe, watching with half-closed eyes. “You know how it is trying ta get any solid information outa young’uns like that, and I think it’s best if you hear as much as he can tell right from him. Best if we don’t try ta make him go through it more than once.”

She nodded, biting her lips. “Oh … yes, of course. You’re right.” Marie stroked Joe’s hair again, and tears welled suddenly in her eyes. “Oh, Hoss …” she breathed, and Roy held out a hand.

“Now, ma’am …”

Marie Cartwright nodded and pressed her free hand over her mouth. Silence fell, thick and downright uncomfortable. It lasted until Mary appeared with a tray of tea and at the same time the door banged open behind them, revealing Ben Cartwright and his oldest son, Adam.

“Marie, what …” Cartwright’s eyes landed on the boy in his wife’s arms. “Joseph!” He strode quickly across the room and lifted the child for a fierce embrace. Adam followed, gaze lingering on Little Joe for a brief instant before turning to survey the room’s remaining occupants.

“Hoss?”

Not seeing his middle brother, Adam turned dark, questioning eyes onto Marie, then (finding her occupied with his father and Joe) onto Roy and Mary. Startled from his own embrace of his youngest child, Ben too lifted his head and scanned the room. His dark brows furrowed, and tension returned to his broad shoulders.

“Marie?”

She pressed a hand to her mouth and stood. “Ben, Hoss isn’t here.”

“What do you mean, he’s not here?” Ben thrust Joe into Adam’s waiting arms. “Where is he?” Receiving no answer, Cartwright looked to their guests. Roy slouched into that relaxed, reasonable posture he’d always found so necessary in dealing with distraught individuals. “Coffee, isn’t it?” Roy nodded. “You brought Joe back?” Another nod. “Where is my other son?”

“Well now, Mr. Cartwright.” Roy shook his head slowly. “We don’t rightly know.”

“You don’t rightly—”

“We ain’t seen him.” Roy held up calming hands, and Ben Cartwright took a long breath. His fists found his hips, but (Roy was relieved to see) the man wasn’t really angry—least, not at him. “We ain’t seen him, but your little’un was able to tell us a few things, and my wife and I think we were able to work out a few more. We’ve been waitin’ until you got here to discuss it with your missus, we didn’t want ta put too much pressure on the boy.”

Cartwright nodded. “All right, all right … that’s good.” He turned on his heel. “Joseph, do you know where your brother Hoss is?”

Roy started to protest—this was no way to question a child—but the boy’s eyes widened and he ducked his head beneath Adam’s chin. “Ben!” Marie chided, moving to take Joe from his brother, and her husband breathed out a long sigh, nodding.

“Yes, I know. I’m sorry.” He reached out to rub Joe’s hair as his wife moved back to her chair. “It’s all right, boy, I’m sorry. It’s all right.”

Everything wasn’t all right, of course … but Roy didn’t see how any man could not be agitated, knowin’ one son was still missing and that any clues they had to his whereabouts were comin’ from his frightened four-year-old brother. Cartwright sat in the chair beside his wife then, and the Coffees took nearby seats. Adam alone remained standing, holdin’ up the wall on the far side of the room. Roy folded his hands, leaned forward, and nodded to Joe.

“Now Joe, why don’t you tell your mama and pa just what you told us last night?” One eye appeared from Marie’s collar, and Roy chuckled. “It’s okay. You remember what you told us last night?” The tousled curls nodded, and Marie stroked the boy’s hair.

“Come now, my darling. It’s all right. Tell us what happened to you and Hoss.” Joe mumbled something into her chest, and Marie shifted him around. “So we can hear you, love.”

The child studied his lap for a minute, then cast a glance a lowered glance toward his pa. “We was diggin’ worms beneath the big rock. It has the best worms!” he added quickly, as Ben sat back and studied his small son. Cartwright’s response, when it came, was weary rather than terse.

“The big rock up by the track, where you two aren’t supposed to go unless one of us is with you?” Joe nodded, chin trembling. Ben sighed and leaned forward to ruffle the boy’s hair, offering a half-hearted smile. “Well. We won’t worry about that for now.”

Joe offered his pa a teary smile. “Hoss was holdin’ it up, and I was pickin’ up the worms from underneath—he said I was goin’ too slow, and I had ta hurry up cause he was gonna drop it on me, but they were wigglin’ away and I—”

“Joe …”

“A man came in a wagon.” Joe looked down, and snuggled into his mother. Ben straightened.

“A man?”

“Uh huh. He stopped and Hoss put the rock down, and he said Hoss was strong.”

Ben pulled in a breath and glanced toward Roy. He nodded silently, and Cartwright’s face blanched a sickly grey shade. “Strong?” Ben finally prompted Joe in a choked undertone. The boy looked up at his mother, who hugged him tightly.

“Hoss said we had ta go home. Then the man said his ma was sick and his pa’s leg was broke, and he … he needed more hands?” Joe looked confused for a second, but plowed on, “and that he wasn’t gonna hurt us but Hoss had ta come with him.” Marie uttered a little sob. Ben Cartwright’s face was dark. “Hoss grabbed my hand and we ran, but I wasn’t fast and I tripped, and the man grabbed me and Hoss had ta come back.”

Ben rose from his own chair and knelt beside his wife’s. “Did he hurt you?”

The wild curls shook forcefully. “Uh-uh. I only got a little bruise.” He held up one arm. Ben seized it and pushed up his sleeve, revealing the dark finger-shaped marks that Mary had carefully bathed in cool water after last night’s dinner. Marie crushed Joe to her and began to cry, soundless. Roy looked awkwardly away and reached for Mary’s hand, feeling like an intruder in this family’s fear and grief. Her fingers caught his and held. Ben swore softly.

“Joe?” Cartwright’s voice was low now, controlled. “What happened after Hoss came back?”

“We had ta go with the man in his wagon. He wouldn’t let me sit in back with Hoss, though, I had ta sit up front with him.”

Roy felt sick himself, listenin’ to it all through again. It had always been the worst part of a job he otherwise loved, the missin’ and stolen kids … Tears were tracking Joe’s cheeks, but Roy leaned forward to catch the boy’s eye, offering an encouraging smile. “You’re doin’ good, boy. Real good. Why don’t you tell them what was in the wagon with you?”

Joe nodded and looked back to his pa. “Little bags, and funny pans with lots of holes in ’em, and a sharp axe with a long handle, and—”

“A prospector?” Ben shot to his feet. Roy rose with him, thrusting his hands into his pockets.

“Seems likely.”

Silence fell, thick and suffocating. If the boy had been taken by a prospector to be put to work on his claim, there was no tellin’ where they might be now. Prospectors in the Sierras were thicker than mosquitoes in the spring …

“How did you get away, love?” Marie whispered into Joe’s hair.

“We rode for a long time, and it was startin’ ta get dark, and then we saw Mrs. Mary’s house. Hoss asked the man if they could put me down.” Joe shook his head. “I didn’t want to, but … but Hoss said I should, and he promised if the man would stop he wouldn’t try ta run away.”

The words sucked what was left of the air right out of the little room. Ben Cartwright uttered a low, soft groan. “Oh, Hoss …”

Joe might not have even heard his pa. “The man … the man said I couldn’t help anyway, and Hoss said ta go to the house and knock and say my name. So I did, ‘cept Mr. Roy found me first, but …” Joe’s chin quivered. “I want Hoss ta run away, but we gotta keep our promises, right?”

Adam Cartwright pushed abruptly away from the wall, the first he had moved or spoken since his little brother’s tale began. “Some promises aren’t for keeping, Little Joe.” He stalked to the door and snatched a rifle from against the wall, checking it roughly. Ben rose and followed.

“Adam …”

The dark head stayed down, focused. “It rained a couple of days ago, there might be some tracks. I’ll go out to the rock and—”

“Adam!” Cartwright caught at his son’s arm. “You stay in this yard.”

Adam looked up finally. His face was closed—expressionless, almost—but there were a lotta things goin’ on behind them eyes. “Pa—”

“Do as I say!”

Adam took a long breath, muttered, “Yessir,” and reached for the door. Ben pressed his arm.

“Stock our saddlebags.”

The boy nodded, and pulled away, and was gone. Roy drifted closer to Ben Cartwright, who stood staring into the yard with blank, unseeing eyes. The clock ticked, loud in the stillness. A horsefly droned overhead. Behind them, the women murmured softly.

“Hoss is strong,” Ben whispered suddenly, thrusting his hands into his pockets. “A fine, strong boy. Big, too … I forget sometimes that he’s ten and not thirteen …” His head came up, his jaw tightened. “No grubby prospector is going to steal my son and put him to work like a mule.”

Roy stepped to his neighbor’s side. “I’ll go with ya, Ben. We’ll find yer boy.”

Cartwright looked around. “Mr. Coffee, I—”

“Roy. The tracks out by my place are good, I checked ’em before we came. We can start there, it’ll save some time.”

“I can’t ask you to do this. I don’t know how long we’ll be, and you have your own place to—”

“Ben, I been a lawman for goin’ on twenty years, before Mary and I came out west.” Something like … relief? gratitude? … flickered in Cartwright’s eyes, and Roy could see that he had already won. “I’ve already been on more posses and search parties than you’ll probably ever even see, and I never once put livestock ahead of people. I ain’t about to start now.” Roy shrugged, snorting a little chuckle. “If somethin’ does happen while I’m gone … well, we ain’t got that much anyway. Won’t be the first time this year we’ve started over.”

Ben Cartwright gripped his shoulder. “If you have to start over, you won’t do it alone.” Yep, these were good people out here in the west—except for a few prospectors Roy could name. Or, couldn’t. Ben’s eyes slid away, and his tone was … almost pleading. “Roy, I … I believe in the law. Even out here, where there is none. When we find them …”

All right. That was clear enough—and a relief, too. It was gonna be hard enough trackin’ a missin’ boy around these parts without havin’ to head off a vendetta, too. “How bout, you ride herd on that boy of yours, and I’ll ride herd on you?”

His neighbor’s chuckle was odd and strained, but it was real. “Thank you, Roy.” Ben took a deep breath and thumped him on the shoulder, then stuck his head out the door. “Adam! Saddle up another horse!”

*****

Chapter Two

He hoped Little Joe was safe.

The final path down to the claim (though path was stretchin’ it some, Hoss couldn’t rightly see how ol’ Rocky knew where they was goin’) was so steep that his feet woulda slid right out from under him, if it hadn’t been for his death-grip on the mule’s packs. As it was, Hoss ended up hangin’ from that mule a coupla times, and the animal didn’t seem none too happy with him when they finally reached solid ground. Hoss couldn’t rightly blame the poor creature—she had enough ta carry as it was, with all them supplies Rocky was bringin’ back from Eagle Station—but he hoped after a few days she would forget and he’d be able to win her over.

He figured he was gonna needed a friend here.

When they finally made it down and Hoss turned to peer back up the hill, his heart sank. There just really wasn’t no path—it was all brush and outcroppings and steep little rocky slides, for a right long way to the top. If he was ta run off, he didn’t know how he’d make it without breakin’ his leg or his neck. And even if he did manage ta get all to the way up … Hoss took a shaky breath and wiped at his eyes and didn’t think about it no more. So what if he was completely lost? His pa and Adam would be comin’ for him, soon as they found Little Joe. He just had ta wait for them.

Long as Joe had made it up ta that house all right.

What if somethin’ had happened to him, though? It was a long trek for a little guy like Joe, and there were lots of animals out at night …

“Bring the mule.”

Rocky strode away without lookin’ at him. After a minute Hoss fumbled for the lead rope, tugged gently, and followed. The mule came along easy enough, and he was glad—he wasn’t up for no tug-o-war right now. They crossed a gritty, rocky sorta beach over to a stream that started as a fall from between a couple of high up rocks and turned into a nice-sized little creek. It was a pretty enough place, Hoss realized as he took in the hills rising on all sides, the blue of the morning sky, the sparkle of the sun off of the falls and the stream. The layered dark of the rocks around the base of the waterfall, where they was always bein’ splashed and dryin’ and bein’ splashed again. The sounds o’ birds and water. It was … nice, if a person really didn’t want ta be around no one else.

He hated it.

“Unpack. Leave the pans and half the bags in this box here,” Rocky nudged at a battered wooden box with his boot, “then put the rest up in the lean-to.” He hefted the food sack over his shoulder, turned on his heel, and walked away.

Okay. Well, that wasn’t so hard.

Hoss pried apart the knots that held the packs together, taking care not to slice himself on the sharpened pickaxe at the top. Then he unpacked the bags and laid out the supplies, separating them into one pile that would stay and one that would go back to the lean-to. Wherever that was—he hadn’t seen any sign yet of anything that could be called a lean-to. There was a little one room cabin set right back against the hill, though. Maybe that lean-to was on the other side.

There were wolves out at night, and cougars. It was the reason Hoss had stayed close to the wagon overnight, rather than try to run—bein’ lost, and after dark, and out in the wild, his chances of gettin’ himself eaten and killed were just as good (better, prob’ly) as his chances of gettin’ safe away. But it hadn’t been that dark yet when he’d put Little Joe over the side of that wagon. Surely Joe woulda had time ta get up to that house before …

If Joe had gone right up to the house. The kid had always been one for takin’ the longest way to get anywhere. But … he wouldn’ta done that this time. Right?

Hoss tumbled the bags and pans into the wooden box, and then realized his mistake. He shouldn’ta took everything outa the packs. Now he was gonna have to either repack everything, or carry it all one by one. Sighing, he set about stuffing the rest of the supplies back into the bags.

The lean-to was out back of the cabin, right where Hoss guessed. He hauled the packs into its rickety shelter and dropped them, hopping around on one foot when the heavy pickaxe smashed onto his toes. Least it didn’t cut them off or nothin’. Then, Hoss drifted back out to stand again by the wooden box. What was he supposed to do now? Rocky hadn’t come back, and he didn’t … The mule still stood patiently by the stream, nose and tail down, halter dangling from her boney head. Hoss hobbled over to her (his toes were gonna be all black an’ blue in the morning, dang it) and took her lead rope again. After a little coaxing, she allowed him to pet her nose.

“I ain’t got no treat for ya, sorry, but why don’t I get you all brushed down an’ fed? You been workin’ hard, you’ll like that, won’t ya?” Hoss turned and squinted across the little claim. “If ya can tell me where round here you live …”

He found her stable area in a shallow hollow—more a dent in the hill, really. It didn’t offer much shelter, and Hoss got to wonderin’ about that house he’d sent his little brother up to last night. (Was it only last night? It felt like weeks ago …) What kinda shelter did Joe find there? Were the people who lived there nice? Would they feed the little fella, help him get home again? What if they were more like Rocky than like his pa and mama? (He wanted his pa and mama. Bad. Maybe it made him a baby, but he really wanted them …) There were always some strange people around, Pa said. But … Pa also said most people were good people, when you got down to it. So …

Hoss prayed whoever was in that house was good people, and dug around until he found some hay that didn’t seem moldy. He never did find a curry brush, but the mule seemed to like it just fine when he scratched her nose and ears.

“What’s takin’ so long?”

Rocky’s shadow blocked the light, and Hoss skittered away from the mule. He opened his mouth to protest—how was he supposed to know what was next, the man hadn’t said anything ‘fore he went and left Hoss down by that stream—but then he thought that might not be such a good idea. This wasn’t Pa, after all. (He wanted Pa …) Rocky jerked his head toward the cabin and strode off, leaving Hoss to follow in his wake.

So, Hoss followed.

The cabin was dark (only one small covered window) and cluttered, and smelled of people and burned food and … blood. Hoss covered his mouth and tried not to gag—he wasn’t aimin’ to make Rocky mad, but his belly just rolled and he couldn’t breathe. When Hoss’s eyes adjusted, he saw the old man laid out on a cot in the corner, bloody bandage wrapped around one leg. An old woman slumped in a battered rocking chair nearby. A cook stove with a scorched pan and three sets of tin dishes took up the opposite corner, and another bedroll was crammed along the far wall. The door wouldn’t open all the way, and there was barely room to slip inside around the corner of the stove, but Rocky tugged Hoss through and nudged him toward the cot.

“I gotta change Pa’s dressin’. Hold him down, he don’t like it.”

Hold him?

No. No, no … Hoss shook his head and tried to back away, but there was nowhere to go and Rocky just nudged him back toward the old man’s head.

“You hold him.”

Bony fingers gripped Hoss’s shoulder, and he yelped, ducking around. The old woman squinted into his face, swollen knuckles still clutching his arm. “What is this, Jimmy? This ain’t no doctor.”

Jimmy? It was … just a normal name. Hoss didn’t know why he was surprised. He’d taken ta callin’ the prospector ‘Rocky’ in his own head because … well, because prospectors spent a lotta time with rocks, didn’t they? Jimmy. Okay. But, Hoss didn’t want ta call him Jimmy, or even think it. He didn’t want Rocky to be somebody with a real name. Maybe … he’d just keep callin’ him that, then. In his own head, of course. Not that anybody seemed real anxious for Hoss to do any talkin’ out loud, anyway. He was happy with that, though—he sure didn’t have much he wanted ta say.

“Naw, the doc was gone out.” Rocky flung a heap of clean(ish) bandages onto the cot. “I gotta go back in a couple o’ days, if Pa’s still around.” He shook his head and knelt painfully. “Sure don’t know what use a doc is, if he ain’t around when you want him.” Probably, Hoss thought, somebody else had wanted him too … “Anyway, saw him,” Rocky nodded to Hoss, “on my way back in, and brought him along ta help out.”

Hoss waited for her to ask who we was, or where he was from, or wouldn’t nobody be out lookin’ for him. Instead, the woman looked him up and down, then asked, “Can you make soup, boy?”

S … soup? He squinted back, puzzled and a little frightened. What did soup have to do with … with anything? “Ma’am?”

“I ain’t no ma’am!” She shook his arm. “You make soup?”

“Uh …” Hoss scrambled for the answer. “No ma’am, I guess not.”

“Don’t you be callin’ me that!” She shook Hoss again, then released him. Hoss leaned away and resisted the urge to rub at his shoulder. “Why don’t you make soup?”

Hoss glanced at Rocky, but the prospector’s attention was on the bloody bandage and not this strange exchange with the old woman. Hoss gulped, and admitted, “Well, I … I reckon I just never learned.” He helped his mama with the cookin’ sometimes (he missed his mama, he wanted ta go home). He liked bein’ there ta smell the food and snack on the scraps, and he liked spendin’ time with her … but even then he mostly just stirred and mixed and such. He’d never just … made soup before.

Why did it even matter?

The old woman snorted. “Jimmy, he cain’t even make soup.”

“Well, Ma.” Rocky didn’t look her way. “That wasn’t really top o’ the list, was it?” He pointed Hoss toward the old man’s arms. “He jerks a lot when I unwrap him. Keep him steady.”

Rocky’s pa was sweaty and smelled, and Hoss didn’t want to

He inched closer and placed tentative hands on the man’s shoulders. Rocky started pullin’ at the bandage, and the old man muttered, trying to knock them both away. Hoss lost his grip, and Rocky snarled, “Hold him, boy!” In desperation, Hoss flung himself across the man’s upper body and squeezed his eyes tight shut, trying not to feel the bucking form beneath him or hear the weak curses against his ear. Thankfully, he didn’t remember much after that—only that when he finally sat back there was a pile of soiled bandages on the floor and silent tears coursing down his cheeks.

The old woman poked at his shoulder. “Stop that.”

Hoss sniffed, and quickly swiped an arm across his face. Rocky stood, blew out a long breath, and motioned down toward the mess at his feet. “Boil those, we’ll need ’em again. And fill the water barrel beside the door.” Then, without another word, he ducked outside and was gone.

Hoss shuddered, looking away. He couldn’t touch those, he just couldn’t

“Those dishes need scrubbed.” The woman leaned forward to peer at him, and Hoss could see in her eyes that something wasn’t … quite … right. Better ta just do what she said, then, without tryin’ ta say much back. He nodded, just stopped himself from responding “Yes’m,” and stood. He could clean dishes. Anything to get him back outside.

The pile of old bandages lay between him and the door.

Almost anything.

Hoss skirted around them without looking, snatched the pot and plates and tin mugs from the stove top, and dove out the low doorway. The bowls were heavy with thick, cold beans, and whatever was in the pot had burned a couple o’ different times. The combination of sight and smell was finally too much, on top of everything else. Hoss cast the dishes away, ducked around the cabin, and was violently sick behind a scrubby little bush.

Surprisingly, he felt a lot better when it was over. Hoss approached the water barrel—which was near ta empty—and scooped a handful out of the bottom ta wash out, and considered.

His pa and Adam would be comin’ for him. It might take ’em a few days, since they didn’t know where he was, but they’d be here. So, he’d better just get along until then—keep low, do as he was told. No use makin’ any more trouble than he was already in.

All right, then. Water barrel, dishes, and … bandages. Hoss swallowed hard. Probably he could find some kinda sticks or somethin’ to pick those up with, so it wouldn’t be as bad as he thought. Yeah, he could surely work somethin’ out. The dishes could wait, too … couldn’t nothin’ else get done until he filled up the water barrel. Hoss searched around until he found a bucket on the other side of the barrel, and held it up to the light. It was not that big, and had a couple of little holes here and there. Hoss peered from the small bucket to the big barrel, then down to the stream, and wrinkled his nose glumly. It was sure gonna take a lot of trips.

Well … no use puttin’ it off. Hoss tugged his hat down onto his head and trudged out into the sunlight.

He sure hoped Little Joe was safe.

*****

Chapter Three

“Nothing, Pa.”

It was what Roy had been expecting—not hopin’ for, naturally, but he’d always had a good feel for this kind of thing and right know he knew way down deep that all the searchin’ in the world wasn’t gettin’ them any closer to that missin’ boy. Roy sighed. It seemed like the time for that little talk he’d been dreading was just about here. It had been four days since they’d started out from Cartwright’s Ponderosa, and it was time ta change the way they were goin’ about this.

Problem was, Ben Cartwright wasn’t gonna like it. Not one bit.

Ben paced away from the edge, plowing over a couple of scrubby bushes as his son dragged himself out of this latest ravine. Good man though his neighbor was, Roy had discovered right quick that Cartwright’s fear and grief made him gruff to the point of rudeness. He eyed Adam for any sign of resentment at his pa’s brusque dismissal, but as usual the younger Cartwright gave very little away. Roy shook his head. That boy … the honest truth was, Roy just wasn’t sure what to think of that boy. He’d never seen such a poker face on someone so young. Heck, he’d rarely seen professional gamblers with a poker face like that. There was an uncommon lot goin’ on inside that head, weren’t no doubt about it, but danged if Roy knew what. It was downright uncomfortable sometimes … but Roy had experience with all sorts of men, and he weren’t gonna let no teenager get under his skin. One thing he did know—he liked people and he liked a challenge, and he intended to have Adam Cartwright figured out by the time they found that boy’s brother.

Course, that wasn’t really the point.

Hoss Cartwright was the point, and now Roy was back to bravin’ Ben Cartwright’s wrath with his next suggestion. Didn’t matter none, he supposed—it was what needed to be done.

Better to let things settle down a bit first, though. Roy stuffed his hands in his pockets and rocked slowly, gazing down across the harsh landscape while his neighbor paced. These had been rough days, and he didn’t know how he’d be holdin’ together in that man’s boots.

The wagon tracks had been good for several miles out past the Coffee place, and the they’d followed hard into the afternoon that first day. Even for a while after the deep ruts faded the sign had been easy enough to pick up—no trouble guessing which way the prospector had headed with young Hoss in reluctant tow. By early evening, though, the grazin’ land had changed ta rock, and the scouring wind and rock falls and deep gullies made trackin’ almost impossible. They’d finally been forced to admit that from that point on, it was all a guessin’ game.

Hadn’t done anything for Cartwright’s temper.

These last days had been nothin’ but a game of hide and seek, and them the undisputed losers. There was just too much ground to cover—too many hills and ravines, too many nooks and crannies. Too much land that all looked the same, so that you didn’t rightly know if this was the same patch of scrub you’d already searched this morning or if it was a new one that just looked mighty similar. They’d done found three beat-up old wagons tied off near steeper drop-offs, and followed the sound of water into at least five different claims. They’d been shot at and threatened twice, and even after they’d explained their purpose, only bald threats had gotten them into that last one. No, prospectors they hadn’t been short of … but not the right prospector. Least, not that they’d been able to tell. They’d turned those camps pretty well inside out, though—even Cartwright had been forced to admit that none of them held any trace of his boy.

Now they were back ta searchin’ blind … and they could be doin’ that for weeks in these hills. Yep. It was time ta change things up.

Roy took a deep breath and swung around. “Ben, let’s talk.”

Cartwright looked around, and Roy saw something like regret flicker in the man’s eyes. Then Ben advanced on him, holding out one hand. “I know you’ve got to get back to your own place, Roy. You’ve already given us more time than I expected, and we appreciate everything you’ve done for us.”

Roy stared at the outstretched hand, then smiled faintly and shook his head. “Now, I said I would help you find your boy, and I aim to do it.” Ben let his hand drop, a puzzled frown drawing his dark brows together. “To that end, though … I think we need a different plan.”

“Oh?”

The question was wary, and Cartwright squared around as he spoke. Gearin’ up for a fight, he was—and Roy was pretty sure the man didn’t even realize it. Didn’t make the situation any less touchy. He glanced toward the younger Cartwright, hoping to get a feel for whether he’d be up against one or two here, but Adam just studied them calmly from his stance against a nearby boulder.

Right. He shoulda’ known better.

Best to hit this head on, he supposed. “Ben, we’re not doin’ any good out here. You know it too, if you stop and give it some thought. What I think we need to do is head for Eagle Station.”

Ben’s jaw tightened. “I’m not leaving my boy.”

“Now, that ain’t what I meant.” Roy shook his head, annoyed. “Sure ain’t what I said.”

“Roy, you might not have noticed, but Eagle Station is a day’s ride in the wrong direction.”

He ignored the sarcasm—the man was suffering. “Well, not if it gets us what we need.”

“What we need is my son, and it’s not going to get us that.”

Roy raised calming hands. He didn’t want his neighbor riled up … but he also had no intention of backing down on this. “Neither is this, is it?” He plowed on before Cartwright could answer that. “Look, your prospector went this way, sure, but he came from back that direction, and the most likely place for him ta be comin’ from is the trading post.”

“So?”

The man wasn’t exactly thinkin’ things through right now. Well, that was only ta be expected.

“So, there’s people at that station, right? A good few of ’em. Which gives us a better than even chance that Mankins or Hall or one o’ the wives or some drifter who hired on for a few bucks at the ranch or somebody might remember this fella. Might even be able ta point us in the right direction.”

Ben’s eyes were hard, shadowed. “If they do remember him, they’ll point us right back here. And we’ll have lost two days for nothing.”

“Ben, you don’t know that.” Roy shook his head. “Look. Your young’un said the man was talkin’ about somebody havin’ a broken leg, right?” Cartwright nodded reluctantly. “Well, could even be it was a trip in to see the doc, then—you know they’ve got that young fella from the East stayin’ out back now, coverin’ parts of the area. Maybe he’ll know somethin’.” For the first time, Ben Cartwright’s carriage relaxed—just a touch, but it was better than nothing. Roy pressed on. “I’ve been doin’ this kinda thing for a long time, Ben, and I wouldn’t be sayin’ this if I didn’t think it was our best option.” He raised one eyebrow. “If I didn’t think it was your son’s best option.”

Cartwright scowled, but he was also thinking now. Thinkin’, and not just reactin’. Mentally, Roy let out his breath. That, he’d learned, was half the fight right there.

Might be, he’d get outa this without gettin’ punched in the face after all.

“Mr. Coffee’s right, Pa.”

Only fightin’ one, then—and Roy had an ally ta boot. Things were lookin’ up.

Ben turned his scowl on his son. “Oh you think so, do you?”

Undaunted, Adam pushed away from the rock. “I do. It makes good sense. Better than what we’re doing now, anyway.” The boy waved a hand at their barren surroundings. “There’s no way we can cover the entire Sierra by ourselves, Pa. We could look for a year and not find him. We could miss some sign by less than three feet, and never even know it.”

Ben Cartwright studied his son for a long moment, then turned away. The man stood silent, gazing across the dry, tumbled wilderness with a longing that tore at Roy’s heart. It was easy enough to say that this was their best plan, to urge a return to the relative civilization of Eagle Station and whatever they might find there … but to actually break off the search, turn around and head away from that missing boy? It would tear at a father’s heart. Of course it would. Roy had no children of his own—Mary’d never been able ta carry a babe to term, and it had broken them a little more with each try—but he was under no illusions. Riding out of here would be one of the hardest things Cartwright had ever done, in a life full of hardships.

“All right, then.” Abruptly, Ben pivoted and stalked toward his horse. “We’ll go back. We have enough daylight left to get a good start—we should reach the ranches by evening. We can check in on the women and Little Joe, you can see to your stock. We’ll spend the night at home and head out for Eagle Station in the morning.” He stopped, fiddling with his nearly empty saddlebags. “Roy, I …” Ben looked around and smiled—both strained and genuine. “Thank you for sticking with us. I do appreciate it, more than I can say.”

“I wouldn’t have it otherwise, Ben.”

Cartwright nodded once, swung onto his horse, and pulled the animal around, urging the gelding back the way they had come. Roy sighed and moved toward his own mount, aware of young Adam Cartwright doing the same. They settled in, and exchanged a long glance.

“Mr. Coffee, I hope we’re doing the right thing.”

It was the first open admission of uncertainty he’d seen from the boy. Mostly, Adam tended to just keep his mouth shut and move on ahead as if they all knew exactly where they were goin’ and what they would find when they got there. Somehow, Roy guessed now that the younger Cartwright was not one to want or appreciate false comfort.

“Roy. And …” He grinned wryly, glancing after his disappearing neighbor. “So do I.”

The flicker of an answering smile touched Adam’s lips. The boy nodded, then swung around and followed his father up the hill. Roy urged his own horse after them.

*****

Paul Martin stirred the tiny fire in his woodstove and the tiny pot of soup warming on top, then fell back onto his pine needle-stuffed mattress and stretched, uttering a groan of pure relief. It had been a long week—a lot of walking, a lot of climbing, and not much in the way of food or shelter in between. But his patient, a young prospector who’d taken quite the blow to the head when some badly placed dynamite had knocked him halfway across his claim, was going to live. The lad wasn’t seeing double anymore, and even knew his brother’s name again. So, all in all a successful foray into the Sierra wilds.

It was a far cry from the life he’d envisioned, back when he’d entered medical school.

He chuckled, closing his eyes. No, when he’d entered school his path had been set—study hard, graduate, marry Louisa, work for her father, eventually take over his practice. It was his only chance with her, the condition that Dr. Jackson had set if he was to even consider allowing someone of Paul’s distinctly lesser class to offer for his daughter. ‘Louisa must have a provider! She’s never wanted for anything, and I intend that she never will!’

For a young man of Paul’s meager means, the high-handed decree had been a once in a lifetime opportunity. He hadn’t wasted any breath protesting—on his own, he would have never been able to afford something like medical school. The tuition alone was laughably beyond his reach, and then there were books and board and all the miscellanies that would accompany a medical student throughout his college years. He had thrown himself into his new life—studied hard, earned good grades, built up a solid rapport with Dr. Jackson. He had done everything required of him.

Everything, that is, except remain in love with Louisa Jackson.

In the end, his (former) fiancée had saved him from a difficult decision by announcing her own engagement to Paul’s roommate, two weeks before their graduation. He had known, of course—Louisa wasn’t the type of woman to treat a man quite so harshly as all that—and the three remained close friends. It was really best for everyone.

Paul promised full repayment of his debt to Louisa’s father, but Dr. Jackson refused outright. ‘You’ll be a smashing doctor, lad. It’s an investment well worth the coin.’

In Paul’s own mind, the debt was not yet settled. For the time being, though, he had allowed the matter to drop. He would pay Dr. Jackson back. It would be in his own time and way—but he would pay him. Just because he intended to serve the rural people of an unsettled land, Paul Martin did not also intend to be penniless and dependent upon the charity of others forever.

Even without the incentive of marriage to his daughter, Dr. Jackson had offered Paul a place at his practice upon graduation—making it quite clear as he did so that the proposal was in no way mandatory. With his newfound freedom and the whole world before him, however, Dr. Paul Martin knew that a lifetime of treating rich, elderly women and overindulgent gentlemen was not for him. No, he was grateful, but could not accept that generous offer. He’d been reading about the west—the prospectors and settlers who were even now making the long, hard trek to California and Oregon, and the predictions of many more in future years. His blood stirred. They would need doctors there. Cities would build up, of course, but they would need trained men to serve these first settlers, to teach in the new schools and form a new generation of frontier medical men.

He wasn’t afraid of dirt or hard work, and he intended to be a part of it.

He stayed long enough to serve as best man when his (former) roommate married Louisa Jackson, then bid farewell to his sister and her family and set out with nothing but a pack on his back and his boat fare in his pocket. The trip had been … Paul shuddered now, basking in the warmth of his little fire. The trip had been enough to send him screaming back home, if he’d had any inclination, and he’d prefer to forget those months of his life as if they’d never happened. He’d arrived intact, though—if not quite hearty and hale—and had spent a few months in San Francisco sounding out prospective living situations and employment.

How he had settled for the moment here in Eagle Station, living in a lean-to and serving the few-between settlers of a rocky, rural land, was nearly as much a mystery to him as to anyone else—the tale involved another medical man, an elderly prospector, three mules and two fifty-pound barrels of molasses, and was all but incomprehensible told beginning to end. Suffice it to say, he’d saved more than one life with that trip out here. But then … he’d stayed.

He’d stayed. Oh, Paul still didn’t intend to put down any real roots here, but he’d found a need out in these hills from which he’d been unable to just walk away. He also, he was somewhat surprised to discover, found a real satisfaction in his work here. The men and women of these hills were fiercely independent, and Paul knew the value of their sparely given trust. He was proud to be the man to whom they turned in need. It was as frustrating as fulfilling much of the time—he was often called out far too late to do anything but help dig the grave and remonstrate with the surviving kin not to wait so long next time, and even when he arrived early there was no guarantee that his patients would follow his instructions. He felt, though, that he was slowly making an impression here. A difference. And if it meant trudging all over the Sierras (such as he had been for the last week) in order to reach his patients, if it meant carrying a rifle to calls and taking goods rather than coin in trade … well, for now he was content.

And he was more than content to sleep in his own bed tonight, small and prickly though it might be. His whole body ached from the past days, and his eyelids were heavy …

The soup boiled over at the same time a fist pounded on his door. Paul scrambled up, groggy and confused, and burned himself getting the soup pot off of the stovetop before he fumbled the door open. His visitor, a grizzly middle-aged man with the look of a prospector and the frayed patches at his knees to match, offered no discernible reaction to Paul’s flustered arrival.

“You the doc?”

Paul shook his burned hand and nodded. “Dr. Paul Martin.”

“My pa’s leg is broke.”

Broken leg. That was never a good thing, and especially not out here.

“You have him here?”

“Naw, he’s back at the claim. Couldn’t get him up out of there, not the way he is.”

That was even worse. Looked like another long walk was in his near future. Paul shut away the call of his mattress and the spilled soup, blinking into the moon-washed yard.

“All right. I’ll be ready at first light.”

The prospector’s gaze was flat and unfriendly. “Already waited most of a week. You wasn’t here last time I come in.”

He wanted … he wanted to go now? At night?

“It’s not safe to travel these hills at night. You know that, sir. I—”

“I travel ’em just fine at night.” The man jerked his bearded chin toward the sky. “Moon’s out.”

Well, yes, but …

“Bone’s stickin’ out.”

His mother wouldn’t have approved of the words running through Paul’s head, but it seemed that he was backed into a corner—figuratively, at least, although the man was clutching a rifle and Paul got the distinct impression that his visitor wouldn’t hesitate to make the metaphor literal as well. He cast a last longing glance at his bed, then turned back to his visitor.

“Let me get my bag.”

Looked like he was in for another long one.

*****

Chapter Four

He didn’t remember ever being so tired.

It had been four whole days (Pa and Adam were comin’, he knew, but it seemed like maybe they were lost too), and Hoss was plumb tuckered-out. Pa said everybody had to pull their weight around the Ponderosa—even Little Joe had chores, though his were more ta get him used to the idea than any kinda anything that really needed ta be done—but Hoss had never had to just work from the second he opened his eyes to the minute he curled back into his bed. His muscles were sore, and his arms and legs were heavy, and somethin’ hurt real deep inside his shoulder. It had started while he’d been haulin’ water two days ago, and what with all the haulin’ and shovelin’ and holdin’ down Rocky’s pa for dressing changes, it was just hurtin’ pretty much all the time now.

Course, Rocky’s pa hadn’t been movin’ all that much lately—but Hoss didn’t really think that was such a good thing, either.

The sun was warm on his face, and Hoss opened his eyes. It was later than he’d been allowed to sleep the last few days, but Rocky was probably still gone gettin’ the doctor, and no one else ever left the cabin. Rocky’s ma would call for him every once in a while to come do somethin’ like stir the beans or check on her husband or bring her sewing (she didn’t have any sewing, but got real upset and started shoutin’ when he didn’t bring it). She never got outa her chair to do it, though. She just sat there and called for ‘that boy’ until Hoss was close enough to hear her or Rocky growled at him to go on inside. So he could probably get away with sleeping some more if he wanted, but …

Hoss sighed and pushed off of his bed of limp straw, makin’ sure he didn’t put any weight on his hurt shoulder. But he didn’t know when Rocky was comin’ back, and he didn’t want to make the prospector mad at him. So far the man had never hurt him or yelled at him—barely even talked to him, which was just fine with Hoss—but so far Hoss had been good. He didn’t know what Rocky would do to him if he wasn’t, and he didn’t want ta find out. He was still lost, and now he was tired and hurtin’ and might not be able ta climb outa this place even if there was a good path.

If he had to try to run away, he didn’t think he would make it.

So he just had to keep bein’ good until Pa and Adam found him. His eyes watered, but Hoss pretended it was the bright sun and just swiped at them with an impatient arm. Once he stopped thinkin’ and got ta workin’, things wouldn’t be so bad.

He reached up to pat the mule, forgettin’ for a minute that she was gone with Rocky back ta Eagle Station. In the absence of his usual morning conversation partner, Hoss stretched carefully and leaned back against the little hayrack to rest his eyes for just a minute or two more. He’d been happy when Rocky had said he could sleep outside ‘stead of in the cabin if he wanted—he had trouble breathin’ in there, and he didn’t like for any of them to know when he had bad dreams. Course, none of them really noticed, but that wasn’t the point. He threw up most times after he left the cabin too. Hoss didn’t know if it was really the smell or if it was just how his belly would get all tight while he was inside, but it seemed better not to go in if he could. He felt bad for Rocky’s pa and ma—they were sick, and they needed help … but he couldn’t stay in there. He didn’t wish any bad on them, but he just couldn’t be nice to them like sick people deserved.

Well. Time to get going. Hoss climbed to his feet, eyed the little claim, and wondered where he should start today. There was always chores aplenty—haulin’ water and washin’ dishes and boilin’ old bandages and feedin’ the mule and choppin’ wood and playin’ fetch when Rocky needed somethin’ down by the stream … and when all of that was done, there was the diggin’.

The diggin’. It was the best and the worst part of the day. Rocky had decided early on that since he was losin’ so much panning time in lookin’ after his pa, it would be better if he didn’t have to go searchin’ out into the stream while he was at it. “I want ya ta dig up the silt along the center o’ the stream bed—I ain’t been out there yet, been stickin’ ta the sides.” He had handed Hoss a shovel and pickaxe that first evening, motioning out into the running water. “Put it over here in piles along the near bank so I can go through it all when I got the time. Be faster that way.” He wandered back to the cabin and his coffee pot, leaving the boy behind him to stare glumly at the tools and the rippling stream.

It wasn’t too deep … but it did reach up above his knees and the bottom was rocky, uneven. His pants were always wet now, except for maybe in the morning when they’d had all night to dry. He’d tried it both with his boots and without, and decided to leave them on. They were wet all the time too now, but some of the rocks were sharp and he’d cut up one of his feet the day he’d gone without. The rock and silt was heavy, even when he took small loads—probably because of all the water—and his shoulder hurt something fierce. But Hoss just kept his mouth shut and plowed on, because as long as he was down in the stream, he wasn’t anywhere near the cabin or Rocky’s family.

He didn’t want Rocky’s family. He wanted his own family.

He hoped Little Joe had made it home. Even if Pa and Adam couldn’t find him

“Dadblamed sun.” Hoss rubbed at his eyes again and started toward the porch, where the water pail sat beside the barrel. Would probably be best to get the bandages boiled first, as the fire pit was up near the cabin. He didn’t know when Rocky would be gettin’ back with the doctor, but he did know Rocky didn’t want him anywhere close by while the doc was here.

‘You stay away from him, boy, hear me? I don’t want ta see you talkin’ to him none.’

He heard, all right.

So, he’d boil the bandages and fill the water barrel first, and then once the doctor was here he could feed the mule and chop wood and shovel dirt and all them other chores that would keep him away from the cabin. Be good, keep Rocky happy.

Or, not mad anyway—he didn’t know if Rocky was ever actually happy.

Stayin’ away from the doc, though … No, Hoss didn’t think he was gonna do that.

He didn’t want ta get on Rocky’s bad side, for sure. But … this might be the only chance he had, out here in the middle of nowhere. And maybe this doc could help him. If Hoss could just sneak close enough at some point to tell the doctor his name without Rocky or Rocky’s ma noticin’ … then maybe the doc would take a message back ta Eagle Station, and maybe somebody there could take a message to his pa, and maybe then they’d find him quicker.

Maybe.

The whole idea was … well, it scared him half ta death, because if it didn’t work … If Rocky saw him or heard him or if the doc didn’t understand or believe him …

Hoss swallowed, snagged the water bucket from the porch, and marched toward the stream. Didn’t matter if he was scared. Didn’t matter none about them other things, either. He was a Cartwright, and Cartwrights didn’t just hide away when things needed doin’. It was what his Pa always said. There wasn’t nothing he coulda done before, but now there might be and so he had to keep his eyes open. If he could do something ta help Pa and Adam find him … well then, he just had to.

Even if it scared him.

Didn’t matter. Everything scared him these days.

As he dipped the first bucket into the stream, Hoss looked up (as he always did) toward the rock wall where his Pa and Adam would surely appear. Rocky, the mule, and another man (the doc – Hoss’s belly twisted) were workin’ their way down the steep track.

*****

Chapter Five

It was good to sleep in his own bed again, with Mary tangled in his arms.

Roy was plumb beat, and there were more long days to come. Still, he lay in the dark and listened with drowsy interest as Mary told him how things had been with the women and Little Joe since he had headed out with Ben and Adam to search for the middle Cartwright boy.

“I’ve been mostly spendin’ the nights over at the Ponderosa. Seemed like the thing to do, with all the menfolk gone.”

“Were you worried about bein’ out here by yourself?” His wife had never before expressed any kind of reluctance to overnight on her own, and he wouldn’t have expected it. Mary shook her head.

“Course not. It’s for moral support, really—Marie’s holdin’ up well enough, but she don’t need ta be tryin’ ta get by all on her own right now. The more time she has with just herself and the little one, the more time she had to fret. Anyway, it’s good for her ta have someone ta help with that boy of hers, too. He’s a pistol, is that one.” Roy laughed softly. Somehow, that didn’t surprise him about Little Joe Cartwright. “I come over here during the morning, check on things and do what needs doin’, and then head back over in the late afternoon.”

He nuzzled at her neck. “Yer a good woman, Mary Coffee.”

She snorted. “Get on with you. It’s what neighbors do. And anyway, I like Marie Cartwright. She’s younger than me, and from New Orleans—did Ben tell you?—but we get along just fine. I think we’re gonna be friends.”

“Good. I don’t like ta think about you out here alone for months on end, without another woman ta gab with about dresses and curtains and such.”

He liked Ben Cartwright, too—least, he thought he did. Was hard ta be sure, with the man’s sole focus these days on findin’ his son … but that was as it should be. In fact, Roy would be right concerned were it not. He thought, though, that when everything was said and done—and Roy prayed daily that young’un would be safe with his family sooner rather than later (or than never, but he wasn’t gonna start thinkin’ that way yet)—he would likely get along right well with Ben Cartwright. The man had a shorter temper on him, for sure, but their values and opinions seemed to line up pretty well. He liked Cartwright’s oldest boy too, right through that deadpan Adam usually wore. The young man was a thinker, with a sound head on his shoulders.

Probably the smartest of the lot, truth be told.

Mary turned into him and snuggled against his chest, laughing. “Since when have I ever gabbed about curtains, Roy Coffee? Do you see any in this house?” Roy chuckled soundlessly, then kissed her well and good. His Mary was no seamstress, that was sure. When they lay still again, she sighed. “I hope you find that boy soon. I can’t bear ta think of him out there, scared and maybe hurt.” She was silent for a long minute. “Maybe dead.”

“He ain’t dead, Mary.”

“I hope not.”

He did, too. There was no reason to think otherwise, of course, not when that prospector had clearly wanted young Hoss for his strong back. Still, until they knew for sure …

There was really nothin’ else to say—on that subject or any other. Drawing comfort from each other’s arms, Roy and Mary Coffee drifted off to sleep.

*****

Adam was mounted up and ready when Roy and Mary arrived at the Ponderosa. Ben, however, still stood before the front door, holding a sobbing wife and wailing son in his arms. Adam lifted a wry eyebrow as the Coffees pulled up beside him.

“We’ll be a minute.”

Mary sighed. “I was afraid it would be hard for her to let you go again.”

The young man hesitated. “It’s not … quite that.” He turned dark eyes back onto his family. “Joe’s … he’s having a hard time, and that makes it hard for everyone else.”

Ah. Mary had told him about that last night. “He asks questions about Hoss all day long, and then he doesn’t sleep at night. He wakes up cryin’ and yellin’ for his brother, and of course I can’t do anything for him. He wants his mama, poor boy, and who can blame him? But between Little Joe and her own worries, Marie hasn’t had a wink of good sleep since you all left.” Roy nodded, and Adam seemed relieved that he didn’t need any more explanation.

“We’ll leave as soon as we can.”

Mary, of course, wasn’t content to leave things at that. “What happened?”

Adam shook his head. “We were getting ready to walk out the door, and Little Joe says, ‘Pa, even if Hoss is dead you’re gonna bring him home, right?'” He winced. “Marie started crying, and that set Joe off, which just made things worse for her.” The young man sighed. “Joe didn’t mean anything by it. He’s just so scared Hoss isn’t coming back …” Anxiety flitted across his own dark features, and his eyes drifted back to his family. Mary dismounted quickly and patted Adam’s knee.

“I’ll handle this. You two go on, and I’ll send your pa after you.” Young Cartwright hesitated, but she pushed gently on his leg. “Go on now. He’ll be there shortly.”

Adam looked to Roy, who nodded. “Mary’ll get this all settled, boy. Anyway, none of your people need ta be worried about whether we’re back here watchin’.”

That did the trick. Adam pulled his horse sharply around and followed Roy out of the yard. A glance back showed Roy his wife approaching the scene with brisk determination, and he nodded with satisfaction. She would get things calmed down, no doubt about it. His Mary was just that kinda person—weren’t none better.

Ben Cartwright joined them about twenty minutes later, and though he didn’t speak the nod he directed at Roy was at once greeting and gratitude. He fell in beside his son, and they all picked up pace. It would be early afternoon before they reached Eagle Station as it was, and that left no time for dawdling.

The ride was accomplished in grim silence for the most part, each man left to his own thoughts. Roy spent a good deal of that time observing his neighbors and wondering how he would be handling himself in the same situation. How Mary would be doing. They had never been blessed with children of their own, but Mary had exposure through her ma’s boarding house—she’d done plenty of lookin’ after the little ones in her girlhood. She loved each and every one of ’em—their sticky grins and loud whispers and catching laughter. Roy just loved people, and children were all a part of that. They wormed their way into a man’s heart and stayed there. No, he couldn’t imagine the strength it was takin’ Ben Cartwright ta sit that horse for days on end, ta follow one cold trail after another without breakin’ down and just screamin’ from the sheer horror of it all, and then ta take a stranger’s advice that movin’ away from his son just might get them closer. One thing was sure. This was an impressive man, and Roy liked him better every day.

He sent up another prayer for Cartwright’s boy. A little repetition, he figured, never hurt anything.

They reached Eagle Station about an hour past noon. The trading post was a cluster of buildings—store and small hotel, stables and blacksmith and outbuildings—with about thirty acres of farmed ground to one side. It boasted an odd assortment of folk at the best of times, and this day was no different. Roy spotted several other settlers and a few prospectors with whom he was acquainted stocking up on last-minute supplies before the winter set in hard. A few hands from nearby Eagle Ranch were ambling into the main store, no doubt headed for the beer barrel in the back corner. There were even six wagons sitting together a good bit off from the rest, and Roy raised an eyebrow.

“They’re late,” Cartwright muttered, and Roy saw that Ben was eyeing the wagon train as well. He nodded. This group was late indeed, if they intended on heading to California yet before winter settled in. It was a gamble to assume they would make it through the mountains before the snows hit, blocking the passes and offering frozen death for unwary travelers. Roy hoped that these people were either staying put for the winter or knew the risks. Too many didn’t, and paid with their lives.

It didn’t seem likely, as the three dismounted and tied off to one of the hitching posts. Several unfamiliar men were gathered around the smithy with Andrew Forson, the blacksmith, discussing a cracked wagon wheel. Another left the main store as they approached, hauling a sack of supplies over each shoulder. Ben turned to watch him go, but only shook his head and looked away, catching Roy’s gaze upon him as he did so. It was a hard thing, to let people head off into the unknown without being sure they were getting themselves into. Still, Mankins and his people looked out for the new settlers – it was likely they’d already heard more than they cared to about the dangers of the mountain passage in winter.

Roy nodded toward the corner of the store. “Doc’s got a lean-to round back, I think.”  Ben pressed Roy’s shoulder and strode ahead, leading the way around the building.

The doctor wasn’t home. Roy supposed it hadn’t really been all that likely, bein’ a small space and the middle of the day, but now the question became whether the man was here, around the Station somewhere, or off who knew where on a call. He hoped for the first, but feared the second. More patients than not would be long distance around these parts. There was nothing for it but to ask, though, and so they went back around front and entered the dim confines of the trading post store.

“John!” Ben Cartwright greeted the man at the counter, sending a nod toward the ranch hands grouped in the corner and lifting his hat briefly to the unknown woman bartering with John Mankins for a large packet of jerky. Roy lingered with Adam near the entrance. “Excuse me, ma’am,” Ben addressed the woman, “this is an emergency.” She nodded skeptically, but Mankins stepped immediately away from his merchandise, face sober.

“What is it, Ben?”

“Is the doctor around?”

Mankins shook his head regretfully. “Fraid not. He went off last night. Saw him leave with someone—prospector, maybe—while I was out back afore bed.”

“After dark?”

The Eagle Station proprietor lifted one shoulder, as if to acknowledge the near insanity of traveling these parts after the sun had set. “It’s what I saw, and he ain’t been around today.” Mankins pursed his lips. “One o’ yours needin’ him?”

“What?” Ben pulled himself visibly away from his disappointment, and shook his head. “Oh, no. I … well, I’ll tell you John, I was hoping to talk to him. My …” He hesitated, then plowed ahead. “My middle son has been stolen, and we were hoping—”

“Kidnapped?” Mankins exclaimed, and most of the other conversation within the store fell away as patrons and ranch hands alike gave their attention to this news. Ben glanced around, noting that he was now the center of attention, then continued on. It was just as well, Roy thought. If anybody here knew anything, now was their chance ta speak up.

“Yes—by a prospector, we believe.” Murmuring swept through the store, and the woman at the counter pressed one hand to her heart. “My youngest was with them, but was allowed to leave. His account is a bit jumbled, of course—he is young and frightened for both himself and his brother—but from what he says of the incident and the wagon’s contents, we believe my son has been taken by a prospector to work his claim.”

The grumbling rose, and the store’s occupants shifted restlessly. Feeling between the settlers and the prospectors was not always warm, and the thought that someone’s child had been taken for such purposes was sure to raise tempers. Roy shifted one hand closer to his gunbelt, but remained still otherwise. Likely it would be nothing but talk—blowing off steam and raising a ruckus were two entirely different things.

It was, however, always best to be prepared.

Mankins waved irritably for silence. “What makes you think the doc’s got any news about your son?”

“From the direction they were traveling, it seems as if this prospector must have been making his way back to his claim from the Station, and from what my youngest says, the man spoke of an ill mother and a father with a broken leg. We thought maybe—”

“Jim Layton,” a voice spat from across the room, and all eyes shifted. Another prospector, thin and bearded with patched knees and a battered felt hat, set aside his mug of beer and crossed to join Ben and Mankins. The proprietor winced.

“Now Zeke, you just stay calm. I don’t want no—”

“He was here, though. Not quite a week back. I remember he was, we had us a nice chat.” From the curl of the man’s lip, Roy somehow doubted that ‘nice’ was much of an appropriate description. The prospector, Zeke, speared Mankins with hard grey eyes. “Ain’t I right?” Mankins nodded reluctantly. “And he was goin’ on about needin’ the doc for his pa, wasn’t he?”

John Mankins sighed and returned his attention to Ben. “He was, Ben, and I remember him talking about needing the doc for a broken leg.” He paused, brow furrowed. “Come ta think of it, it might have been him I saw with Doc Martin last night. Was the right shape, anyhow.” The proprietor shook his head. “He was right annoyed the doc wasn’t in, that was sure. Said he had too much ta do ta be makin’ this trip so many times.”

Zeke growled. “Wouldn’t have nearly so much ta keep him busy, if’n he’d stayed on his own claim where he belonged and—”

“Get off it, Zeke!” a voice called from the bunch around the beer barrel. “That weren’t no more your claim than his, up to that point.”

The prospector spun, advancing on the crowd of ranch hands. “You listen here! I’d been set up there for a good three days, and he cheated me outa—”

“He didn’t cheat you outa nothin’,” a second voice snorted. “You were too drunk ta—”

Ben seized Zeke’s arm, tugging him back around. “You know where this Layton’s claim is? You can take us there?”

Zeke forgot his adversaries in the corner and looked Ben over, his gaze calculating. Roy’s gut tightened. “Yeah, I know ‘his’ claim.”

Cartwright’s shoulders slumped with relief. “And will you take us there?”

The prospector pushed his felt hat back on his head and offered a gap-toothed grin. “Well now, I reckon if I do there’s bound ta be somethin’ in it for me. Am I right?”

Unbelievable. Fury washed over Roy. A spat of heckling burst from the crowd in the corner, and Mankins protested, “Now, Zeke …”

“You want something from me? For your help in rescuing my son?” Ben Cartwright’s eyes had gone dark, and his voice dropped to a velvety softness. Roy moved to go to his aid—he wasn’t about to just sit back and watch a man be extorted for the sake of his missing child—but a strong hand suddenly gripped his wrist, holding him fast. He pulled away and turned a glare on Adam Cartwright, wondering why the boy wasn’t already on the way to help his pa … and was stopped cold by the grim smirk playing at the corners of the younger Cartwright’s mouth. A second later, stools thudded and crockery shattered as Ben Cartwright seized the unfortunate Zeke’s soiled shirt and heaved the man bodily onto the counter, leaning over him to glare into his eyes. “What you’ll get from me is the chance to volunteer, sir, rather than be hogtied over that mule you mentioned and dragged along facedown across half the valley.” He shook, hard, and the prospector’s head cracked against the counter. The woman uttered a little shriek and Mankins an unconvincing protest, but the lot around the beer barrel was clearly enjoying the show. “My son is ten years old. If he’s been hurt when I find him, and you stand in my way, I’ll consider you as responsible right along with your friend Layton.”

The silence held for a full five seconds, and then the prospector laughed thinly. “Yeah, I’ll show you Layton’s claim. Didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Ben eased back, pulling Zeke along with him, and returned the man to an upright position. “We leave in five minutes.” He gave the prospector a none-too-gentle shove toward the door and followed him out, calling back over his shoulder, “I’ll pay for the damages, John. Write up a bill.” He halted in the doorway and looked back around. “Ma’am,” he addressed the woman, “it’s late to be starting into the mountains. Think it over real well.” Then he was gone.

Well. It wasn’t how Roy would have chosen to handle the situation, but Ben Cartwright’s way was certainly … effective. He glanced toward Adam, catching the flash of amused pride in the young man’s eyes before they shuttered once again. Apparently, Ben was not one to take a threat lying down.

Good enough. This wasn’t a situation that called for too light a touch.

He gripped Adam’s shoulder and quirked a humorless grin, receiving the same in return. Together they ducked out the door, trailing Ben and their new guide across the yard and back to their mounts.

*****

Chapter Six

Paul pulled in a long, deep breath as he ducked out of the ramshackle cabin into the cool, crisp air of approaching evening. He didn’t have any real reason to step outside, but he needed a break from the overwhelming closeness and odor within. Stretching, he wandered in a circle for a few minutes, clearing his mind. Then he leaned back against the rough boards, fixed his eyes on the boy stumbling back and forth between the bank and the center of the stream, and pondered his day. So far, it had been … disturbing, in more ways than he cared to admit.

His patient was going to die—probably by morning. Paul had done all he could for the elder Layton, but the situation was out of his hands now. It was unfortunate that his attendance here had been delayed for so long … but it was also entirely likely that in the end it would have made no difference. The leg was a mess, and had obviously been broken for longer than could be accounted for by the four-day delay Layton claimed. Chances were good that the old man’s son had bound it himself and tried to nurse his father along for at least several days without outside help. Many of the settlers and prospectors in the area, Paul had discovered, were loath to seek out a doctor at need, either from unwillingness (or inability) to pay or from just plain stubbornness.

Not only that, but the man’s lungs were some of the worst he had ever heard. The old prospector obviously had severe breathing problems that long preceded the injury. Between the struggling lungs and brutal injury, then, there was very little to be done for a man of his patient’s years even if he had been on the scene at the time of the accident. As neither God nor just plain luck had so far interceded, though he prayed for all of his patients as he worked, Paul expected that another grave digging was in his immediate future.

The thought was disheartening, but if he was the type to become despondent over every lost patient he would have specialized in podiatry and remained back East.

Even with all of that, however, his patient was (ironically) the most straightforward part of the situation at Jim Layton’s claim. Layton’s mother—Marcia, the elder Layton’s wife—was far gone in dementia, and in no fit shape to be keeping house for a couple of men in the wilds of the Sierra. In truth, Paul was surprised, as he watched her puttering around the cookstove, that she had not burned the place down already. The poor woman’s grasp on reality was tenuous at best. She did not always seem to realize where she was or what she was doing. Even if she recognized her son when he entered, or expressed concern over her husband one moment, her mind would flit away the next to some world in which only she existed. She should be in a safe, secure environment, being cared for rather than expected to pull her weight in a place such as this.

He would talk to Layton about her before he left. Even if the prospector wasn’t willing to leave his claim to care for her himself, perhaps one of the local families could be persuaded to take her in until other arrangements could be make. Paul knew of several of settlers who would, he hoped, be more than willing to open their home to a woman in need. He suspected that Layton might not be amenable to such a suggestion … but it was worth a try. Marcia Layton was just not truly safe here.

And that left the boy. Paul sighed, and sharpened his focus on the child down in the stream. The boy—the most troubling piece of this particular puzzle.

The child stuck out like a sore thumb here. The Laytons were small people — spare, lean specimens whittled down by a hard life until nothing but bone, sinew, and cussedness (it was not a part of his vocabulary from back East, but Paul had heard the term the day he stepped off the boat in San Francisco and had immediately adopted it for his own) remained. The boy who had worked so diligently and silently around Layton’s claim throughout the entire day was a big, strong child, obviously well fed and well cared for. His clothing—stained, torn, and filthy as it was—was of a completely different quality than those Jim Layton and his family wore. His hair was well-cut and shaped rather than simply hacked off at the ends. His teeth, from what Paul had been able to see, were in much better shape than any of the Laytons’.

At first sight, as they had entered the claim, Paul had assumed the child to be Layton’s son, or possibly some other younger family member. Now, though … now there was no avoiding one glaring, uncomfortable truth. This boy could not possibly be related to Jim Layton and his people—or even have been living here with them for any length of time.

So. What did that mean?

What did it mean? Still watching the figure down in the stream, Paul sifted through whatever other small facts he’d gathered over the course of his visit. The child hadn’t taken any break from his tasks all day, other than a quick bite at midday that couldn’t possibly have been enough to fuel his industriousness from sunup to sundown. The chores were heavy work—too much, all together, for a child of that age (Paul had guessed twelve at first, but a closer look at the boy’s face had him revising that estimate down a couple of years). The boy was obviously exhausted (he couldn’t walk without stumbling, even when not up to his thighs in water) and in some kind of pain (he’d been favoring his left arm all day). Layton ignored him completely, other than to assign him some new task whenever the old one was complete.

And … the child was frightened. Paul sighed, scrubbing one hand across his sandpapery chin. Out of the whole disquieting list, that was the part that really twisted in his gut. The boy kept his head down when Layton spoke to him, obeying the prospector’s directives without a word or even a nod to show that he understood. The one exception had been late that morning, when Paul had decided to clean what infection he could out of the old man’s leg in order to assess the damage beneath. He had been setting out his supplies, mentally reviewing for the task at hand, when the door flew open and Layton had appeared, pushing the boy before him.

“You be ready to hold him down, now.”

He nudged the boy toward the elder Layton’s head. The child had inched forward, eyes wide and white with fear, and the hand he reached toward the old man’s shoulder was visibly shaking. Horrified and disgusted, Paul caught it and pulled the boy gently away from the sickbed.

“There’s no need for that.” He didn’t dare give the old prospector any laudanum, not in his shape and with his lungs, and he didn’t know how they were going to keep the man steady through the coming procedure—but it was not going to involve this terrified child. Paul forced a smile for the boy. “I’m Dr. Martin. What’s your name?”

The blue eyes came up swiftly and locked with his for just an instant, startling in their directness and obviously begging his attention. Layton stepped forward then and the child moved away, his gaze skittering off into a corner and his shoulders slumping.

“Don’t want him talkin’ ta no strangers.”

Paul eyed the boy for a long moment, and decided that while there might be (probably was) something here that needed his attention, now was not the time. “All right. But we don’t need him here. Send him back outside, away from this.” It was an order more than a request, and after a moment Layton motioned the child out. The boy scrambled for the doorway, and just before Layton slammed the door shut behind him, Paul heard the sounds of retching from the yard.

His gut twisted a little tighter.

What had he stumbled into here?

A splash drew his attention back to the present. Paul refocused, and saw the boy struggling to right himself in the flowing water. Apparently the child had tripped and gone completely under—he was drenched from head to toe. That solid blue gaze flashed in his memory, another quick punch to the gut.  He looked around to ensure that Jim Layton was nowhere in evidence—the prospector had gone hunting, Paul thought, but couldn’t be sure—then stepped away from the cabin and strode down to the stream.

The boy saw him coming. He swept a sharp glance of his own around the little claim and then struggled toward the bank, coming to a shivering, dripping stop before Paul.

It was too late in the year for this kind of thing. The weather had not been overtly cold as of yet, but the October breeze was chilly and it was no time to be wet outdoors. Paul shrugged out of his coat and snugged it around the boy’s shoulders. “Are you hurt? What about your arm?”

The child eyed the coat, then Paul himself, then ducked his head almost bashfully, pulling the heavy material tight around him. “Naw, I’m … fine,” he muttered, obviously untruthfully.  Paul was about to try again but the boy looked up suddenly, catching his eyes with that forthright blue gaze. “I’m Hoss Cartwright.” Cartwright. The name was familiar to him—if he remembered right, Cartwright was one of the … one of the ranchers in the area. But that meant …  Before Paul could even begin to consider the implications, Hoss continued.  “When ya get back ta the Station can ya tell them I’m here? My … my pa’ll be lookin’ for me.”

The quiet, wistful words stole his breath away.

Moving slowly, Paul placed a gentle hand on each small shoulder, taking in up close the purple hollows beneath Hoss Cartwright’s eyes, the lips white with cold and pain and fatigue. And fear. “He took you away from your home?  Layton?” Hoss nodded. Tears swam, but didn’t fall. “How long?”

“Five days.”

The boy had been counting—and why wouldn’t he? Hoss might have added more, but suddenly his eyes darted behind Paul and then he stumbled back, away from Paul’s grasp. Paul started to turn, but was bumped roughly to one side as Jim Layton plowed past, rifle clutched in one hand.

“I told you not ta talk ta him!”

The prospector seized Hoss, nearly lifting the boy from the ground with the force of his grip, and stalked back toward the cabin. Hoss stumbled and shrieked, whether from fear or pain or both Paul couldn’t tell. Layton certainly had that bad arm twisted nearly above the boy’s head. He should have been paying attention! Scolding himself roundly, Paul bolted after them. He stumbled over his own coat, crumpled into a dark heap where it had fallen, righted himself, and finally caught up about twenty feet from the cabin. Paul seized Layton from behind, wrenched him around, and flung him away from the sobbing child.

Hoss yelled out again as he fell.  Paul spared the boy a quick glance, and when he looked back around—barely a second later—Layton’s rifle was pointed squarely at him. Paul froze, hurling silent imprecations at both the prospector and himself. Had his misspent youth entirely abandoned him?

Rapid, panting breaths drew his attention back to Hoss Cartwright, still curled into a tight ball on the ground. “Hoss?” Cautiously, the blue eyes appeared. Layton growled.

“I told ya—”

“Get up, get behind me.” If possible, the boy’s eyes widened further, flickering between Paul and Jim Layton. The prospector moved abruptly toward Hoss but Paul stepped with him, keeping himself between the man—the gun—and the child. Layton scowled. Hoss whimpered, and the sound both tore at Paul and stoked his fury. With difficulty, he managed to keep his tone soothing. “Hoss, it’s all right. Come on, boy, get yourself up and get behind me.” Again, the child hesitated, and Paul added, “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

How he was going to manage that, he had no idea. It was, however, a promise he would keep.

Layton had no right, none at all …

Hoss crept to his knees. When Paul moved once again to block Layton’s advance, the boy scrambled behind the doctor in a rush of elbows and legs, slamming into him and fisting his hands tight into Paul’s shirt. Paul felt forehead and nose buried in his back, the entire trembling length of Hoss Cartwright’s frame tucked tight against him.

Alright, then. He looked back around to meet Jim Layton’s eyes.

“His family will be after him. They might already be close. It would be better for you if you allow us to just walk out of here.”

He didn’t expect it, and it didn’t happen. Layton only settled the gun more tightly into the crease of his shoulder. “I need that boy, and my pa needs you. You ain’t neither of you goin’ anywhere.”

“You don’t need him, and you’re not getting him. I’m not letting him out of my sight.”

What he would have done had Layton pressed the matter, Paul had no idea. After a long moment, though, the prospector spat a stream of tobacco juice to the side, stepped back, and jerked the rifle toward the cabin doorway. “Inside, both of ya.”

The matter of young Hoss Cartwright was not over in the prospector’s eyes — Paul had no doubt at all. But the immediate battle had been won (survived, at least). Hopefully, Paul would have time to decide their best course of action before Layton made his own next move. For the time being, though, they had little choice but to play along. He glanced back over his shoulder, catching just the top of the tangled brown locks pressed against him. “Come on along, Hoss.”

He felt the child take a deep breath, then Hoss peeked out from behind him. Paul almost laughed aloud, despite their predicament, when the boy’s nose wrinkled in disgust at the cabin. Hoss followed along into the structure without argument, though. Jim Layton motioned them down against the wall. Paul slid to the floor and leaned back against the rough boards, tucking a tight arm around young Cartwright.

“Stinks in here,” Hoss mumbled, and Paul laughed silently, ruffling the boy’s filthy hair.

“It does indeed.”

The boy sighed. “I’m awful sorry.”

“About … ?”

“Gettin’ ya inta trouble.” Another sigh. “I just shouldn’ta said nothin’.”

Paul shook Hoss gently. “Not true. You did absolutely right.” They watched in silence as Layton poured himself a cup of burned, foul-smelling coffee, paced over to his bedroll, and flung himself down, rifle at hand. Hoss shivered, pulling his knees tight beneath this chin. He might have been chilled from his earlier dunking in the stream—but Paul knew that wasn’t it. He squeezed the boy’s arm. “It’s going to be all right. I promise.”

Even if he had no idea how he was going to make that happen.

*****

Chapter Seven

“Hoss?” He thought he heard his name, but that didn’t really mean anything. His pa and Adam had been calling him all night, their voices echoing above and around the little claim but never coming any closer. It didn’t matter—there was no way out, and they couldn’t hear him over the roar of the waterfall anyway—so Hoss just kept on haulin’ water buckets and burnin’ endless strips of bloody bandages and shovelin’ boulders out of the streambed, while Rocky’s ma tipped the water barrels out onto the floor of the cabin and Rocky hisself rolled the boulders back into the stream. He was so tired, and he felt sick, and it was hard to breathe. “Hoss, wake up. I know you’re tired, son, I know it hurts, but you need to get up now.”

A hand touched his arm.

Hoss scrambled away and struck out. Pain flared along his arm and shoulder, and before his head stopped spinning the hand was back again.

“Hoss, wait! It’s me, it’s Dr. Martin. You’re all right …”

He pulled away again, but it was just reflex this time—he was starting to wake up, and Hoss recognized the voice. Dr. Martin had helped him last night, had kept Rocky from hurting him when he tried to talk to the doctor and got caught … Hoss took a long breath, and rubbed at his hurt shoulder, and finally offered a sheepish whisper.

“Sorry, Doc.”

Dr. Martin settled back and snorted softly. “No need. And, leave that arm alone.” With gentle fingers, the doctor felt along Hoss’s shoulder and joint and down to his elbow. The man sighed, shaking his head. “I wish we could immobilize this—wrap it tight so it doesn’t move,” he clarified with a chuckle at Hoss’s blank stare, “but we’ve got some climbing to do and I don’t want to throw off your balance any more than necessary.” Climbing? That meant … they were gonna try and leave? Hoss straightened, glancing quickly around the little cabin. He half expected Rocky to pop out from under the cot or behind the stove to stop them, but so far the prospector was nowhere in sight. “Don’t use that arm any more than you have to though, you hear me?” Rocky’s ma was sleeping in her chair, snoring softly. And Rocky’s pa … “Hoss?”

“Is he dead?”

The doc turned Hoss’s head gently away. “Don’t look.”

“But is he?”

Dr. Martin sighed. “Yes, he’s dead. Happened about an hour ago.” He tugged at Hoss’s good arm. “Come on, now.”

Hoss rose obediently, but his belly turned. He’d seen dead men before, of course, but this … this was different. He hadn’t … and now it was too late …

“I didn’t care about him.” Hoss stared at his boots, sick and vaguely ashamed. He couldn’t help it, though, and even now he didn’t feel any different. “I didn’t even want to.” Dr. Martin’s fingers brushed lightly through his tangled hair, but Hoss barely felt them. “I didn’t … I didn’t care if he got better. Is that …” Tears swam, and Hoss swiped them angrily away. “Is that bad? Am I—”

Dr. Martin crouched swiftly, taking Hoss’s head in his hands. His eyes were warm and kind. “It is not bad, Hoss, and neither are you.” They were good words, but Hoss still wasn’t sure. Pa and Mama always said it was important ta take care of sick people, no matter if you liked them much or not. Course, Dr. Martin was a doctor, so surely he would know … The doc kept right on. “From what I’ve seen so far, I think that you’re a very good person. And it’s absolutely all right for you to feel confused right now. Anyone would.” Dr. Martin smiled a little, though Hoss could tell it wasn’t a real smile. “You want to know something? I do, too.”

Hoss sniffed. “You do?”

The doc sighed heavily, climbing back to his feet. “Most definitely.” He took Hoss’s good shoulder and tugged him gently toward the door. “Come on now. We need to go.”

Hoss slunk out the door in Dr. Martin’s shadow, darting anxious glances around the little claim. Still, there was no sign of Rocky—only the stream, and the mountain rising sharply all around them. At that first sight, the reminder of why he hadn’t tried runnin’ already, he wanted ta throw up again. He would try, he would try his best, but how was he ever gonna make it? He was tired—so tired he was clumsy with it—and his shoulder hurt so bad …

A vicious rattle burst from the lean-to, and a string of words Pa wouldn’t ever use. Hoss yelped and skittered closer to the doc. Dr. Martin shrugged, cast a nervous glance toward the battered structure, and hurried him along. “I got a jump on Layton, locked him in the lean-to.” The rotten door slammed against the latch, and the doc grimaced. “He didn’t stay out as long as I hoped.” Dr. Martin picked up their pace, and Hoss panted along behind. “The lock’s not good, I don’t know how long it will hold. We’d best get going before he manages to bust out.”

That was enough to scare some speed into Hoss’s weary limbs. They were almost to the path—least, Hoss sure hoped it was the path and that the doc knew where they was goin’, cause he’d been lookin’ at them big rock walls for days and couldn’t find no trail at all through the drops and scrub and loose gravel—when a loud bray pulled him up short.

He’d almost left without saying goodbye! And she his only friend since he’d got here …

“Hoss!”

“Be right there!”

“Hoss!”

Fingers closed around the back of his shirt as Hoss stumbled to a halt against the mule, burying her soft muzzle in his hands and his own face against her dusty hide. She nudged at him, and Hoss whispered nonsense into her neck, and then the doc pulled him away.

“We don’t have time for this!”

Tears clouded his eyes again. “Can’t we bring her along?” Rocky didn’t do no better by her than he did by Hoss, didn’t feed her no good food or brush her coat or give her a nice soft bed, and he just knew his pa would let him keep her …

“Hoss, we don’t–” Another bellow exploded from the lean-to, and suddenly Dr. Martin’s hands fisted in Hoss’s shirt and around his belt. “Yes! Yes, we can bring her.”

The rough heave surprised him, and Hoss yelped as he flew up onto the mule’s bare back. The doc ripped loose her lead rope from the wood stake and hauled her along behind him, urging them both into a shambling jog. There was barely time for Hoss to get a good grip on her wispy mane before Dr. Martin had them back to the base of the hill, and then no thought for anything but hangin’ on tight as all three of them started up the steep path.

*****

Why hadn’t he thought of the mule? Paul called himself every version of ‘inane idiot’ that came to mind—plus a few made up on the spot—as they crept along the trail, counting on the mule’s sure footing and rote knowledge of the landscape to guide them. He had spent much of the night planning how to get an injured, physically exhausted, good-sized child up a long, steep incline. He had worried over Hoss’s arm—how much weight it could yet take and how to avoid permanent injury during a hurried climb. He had calculated how far he might safely carry the boy on his back (not very). He had racked his brains for memory of any flat(ish) spots where they might rest out of Layton’s rifle sights. He had never once thought of the poor creature tethered outside.

Apparently, stress and fatigue and being held at gunpoint were damaging to common sense. As a doctor, he really should make it a point to remember that.

Paul hesitated, unsure whether to go right around the low scrub, left over a possibly unstable section of large gravel, or just straight ahead over a good-sized chunk of rock. The mule shouldered him aside without stopping, plodded to the right around the small boulder, and continued in a completely unanticipated direction. Hoss lay silent along her back as he had since they had started to climb, clutching the brushy mane with his good arm and keeping a wary eye on the claim below. The boy’s lips were white with fear and discomfort, but Hoss Cartwright was a brave, sturdy child. Not once had he offered any complaint. After a moment Paul saw where the mule was headed, muttered beneath his breath, and followed. It was the second time he would have taken them in entirely the wrong direction had Hoss not insisted on taking leave of Layton’s mule.

Never again would he discount the simple affections of childhood.

He was considering a rest break—the ground was as flat here as it was likely to get halfway up a mountain, and even if the mule could keep on without stopping Paul wasn’t sure that he could—when a bullet pinged off of a rock near his hand. Another followed close behind, brushing so near to the mule that she threw her head up, danced sideways, and let out a startled bray. Hoss seized her mane with a yelp, and Paul snatched at her lead before she could lose her footing entirely.

No rest break, then.

“He’s got out!” Hoss called.

The report was unnecessary. Layton’s enraged bellow was audible even from their precarious perch—for such a small man, the prospector certainly had quite the set of lungs—and another couple of bullets glanced off of the hillside (not so close as last time, fortunately) before the rifle fell silent. Layton was climbing after them, no doubt, and probably moving far faster than they were. They didn’t have much time.

Paul tugged at the mule’s lead, urging her to greater speed, but the animal wasn’t having any of it. She knew these paths better than this strange man, and knew that in these hills, faster was not always better. Briefly Paul considered leaving her and making a break up the remaining incline, but discarded the idea. Hoss wasn’t up to moving any faster than that mule, and Paul couldn’t carry him over the terrain that still stretched before them. They would just have to keep on and hope for the best. With any luck, they would beat Layton to the top with enough time to make up some distance before the prospector, too, reached flat ground.

How did he get himself into these things? The young, ambitious med student that he had been—the one with wealth on his brain and romance in his heart—would have scoffed, presented with the possibility of such a ridiculous predicament. Yet here he was.

Would he trade it, go back if he had a chance?

No. Realization swept him like a tidal wave in the hot western sun, the timing so inappropriate that he almost laughed out loud. It was … ridiculous, actually. He was living in a lean-to, working for trade (at best), hiking miles between patients, burying as many as he was able to save, and (at the moment) running with an abducted child from a crazed prospector with a gun … but no, not for a second would he give it up. A man could stand on his own two feet in this place. Somehow, insane as it might be, this wild, rustic land was where Dr. Paul Martin belonged.

He could wish, though, that he had less chance of being shot in the next twenty minutes.

They might have made it (and with time to spare) if a little alligator lizard, of all things, hadn’t sent the mule into a skittering panic. Poor Hoss, already off balance, tumbled off into a particularly prickly patch of scrub. The landing was painful and undignified, but also a blessing, despite the myriad cuts and scrapes painting the boy’s face and arms. Without that little bush, he might well have rolled halfway down the hill. Hoss was shaking when Paul reached him, but already scrambling up under his own power. Paul heaved him back onto the mule, who nuzzled the boy almost apologetically before putting her head down and trudging warily on. The whole incident lasted for less than five minutes, but it was enough to lose them their hard-won lead.

Paul was panting frantically when they reached flat ground, his breath searing his chest and his legs utterly numb. They had to stop—it was either that, or fall flat on his face. As it was, Paul clambered over the edge and rested on hands and knees, sucking in great lungfuls of air.

“Doc?” Hoss slid off the mule and started toward him. Paul waved him away, still gasping for air and wondering if his legs would even support him again. The boy came anyway. “You just breathe, we ain’t gotta climb no more.” The young voice was soothing, but the hand on his back trembled and the blue gaze fixed on the cliff’s edge. Now that he was paying attention, the rush of the blood in Paul’s ears couldn’t hide the crunch of gravel and muttered curses below.

Below, but far too close. Almost upon them. Why hadn’t he hit the man harder?

Because he’d wanted him out, not dead.

He still didn’t want him dead, but he’d been a fool to think that lock would hold for any length of time.

“Go! Let’s go!” he wheezed. Paul staggered to his feet, steering Hoss back toward the mule. “Back up, go on. I need your—”

A rifle blast pounded his ears, and his leg buckled. Paul hit the ground hard, but he managed to pull Hoss with him and rolled his body on top of the boy. For one wild moment he couldn’t find the shot’s source, and wondered foolishly if somehow Layton had gotten ahead of them. Then a dark shadow against the cliff’s edge resolved into a rifle barrel, and Jim Layton appeared, scrabbling onto the flat ground. Beneath Paul, Hoss was screaming for his pa. Paul’s own head was spinning, but he tried to get his good leg beneath him, determined to meet the man upright.

Layton strode right up to them and hammered the rifle stock into the bleeding wound before Paul knew what was about to happen. Pain exploded—stole his breath and set his ears to ringing—and the little clinical voice in his head wondered how a leg wound could have such a devastating effect on his entire body. Layton reached down and dragged Hoss out by the hair, ignoring the boy’s shrieks of pain and outrage.

“I told you, I need this boy!”

“Not yours!” Paul growled, and the rifle came up again.

Hoss bit his captor and dropped, sending a swift kick into Layton’s shin. The prospector howled, his grip loosened, and the boy tried to scramble away. Layton seized Hoss again and yanked him back, twisting the already injured shoulder at an impossible angle. With a single whimper, Hoss collapsed into a heap. The prospector brought the rifle back up, then froze.

“Jim Layton!” The voice behind Paul was deep, and hard, and completely unexpected. He let out a shaky breath and lowered his spinning head to the packed earth. Whoever it was, he—or they—couldn’t have appeared at a better time. “Drop it! Drop it now!”

Layton obeyed with alacrity – almost before the demand was spoken – but crouched and seized the unconscious child at his feet as the rifle clattered onto the rocks. He stepped back, hauling Hoss Cartwright up to dangle before him.

“All right, it’s done. But we’re still kinda stuck here, ain’t we?”

*****

Chapter Eight

They found the wagon stowed behind a clump of brush. Zeke (the prospector offered no second name, and Roy at least didn’t care enough to ask) stood back and nodded wisely as the others surveyed the rickety cart.

“Yep. Ground starts goin’ down from here, and drops pretty fast up ahead. Can’t get anything that size down the hill.” He motioned with his rifle. “Got a mule, he does. He’ll have packed it all up with supplies and headed down that way.” Zeke scowled. “I was gonna string a rope along, set up somethin’ ta get the supplies up and down without havin’ ta carry ’em all myself, but when that thievin’—”

Cartwright’s face darkened, and Roy stepped in to head off an argument. “This ain’t about any personal vendetta, man. This is about Cartwright’s son. Right now, nobody cares if Layton hogtied you and had his great aunt Fanny cart you outa there over your uncle Earl’s dead body. All we care about is gettin’ that boy back safe.”

Zeke scowled, but fell silent. Ben turned away, shoulders rigid, and Adam drifted toward his pa, murmuring in a low voice. Roy still didn’t know if that boy was really as calm as he seemed or if he was just good at keepin’ himself under control, but whichever it was he was right glad of it. Between Cartwright’s stress and Zeke’s constant stream of complaints, a confrontation was comin’ sooner or later. He didn’t think there was any way at this point to avoid it—he just hoped that those two held out long enough ta get that boy safe in hand before the wheels came off.

“Are we gonna need ropes?”

Roy shook off his dour thoughts. Adam rummaged beneath a canvas tarp in the bottom of the wagon, while Ben peered over his shoulder. A few supplies remained in the bed—probably couldn’t get everything down at once, goin’ from a wagon ta mule packs. Zeke snorted, shook his head, and leaned back into a boulder. “Ya ain’t gonna find anything in there.”

Yep. Real helpful sort…

Roy took a firm hold on his own temper. “”What we got?”

Adam pursed his lips. “Not too much. I—”

A rifle blast cut him off, and a child’s scream.

Roy’s gut turned.

Ben Cartwright paled, clutched at his pistol, and barreled toward the ruckus. The others scrambled along in his wake, stumbling over rocks and brush. Roy tripped, picked himself up, and pressed forward. The shriek settled into a single keening refrain—”Pa, Pa, PA, PA!”–- and Roy’s heart lodged in his throat. Just ahead, so close they could hear it, was that little boy, terrified and maybe fightin’ for his life …

The yells cut off, leavin’ a silence that rang louder than any cry, and then they stumbled around an old rockslide onto a scene of chaos.

A mule plunged past them, knocking Roy into the rocks and Zeke off his feet before slowing to a jittery halt about fifty feet down the path. One man (the new young doctor, Roy thought—they’d never met but Roy had seen him once during a supply run to the Station) sprawled on the ground, clutching at his leg with bloody hands. Red seeped onto the rocks beneath him. A second man (Jim Layton, had ta be) stood over the doctor with rifle cocked.

The boy lay crumpled in a heap at the prospector’s feet.

Adam’s whispered, “Hoss,” drowned out the rushing fury in Roy’s own ears, and then Ben Cartwright was yelling.

“Jim Layton!”

Roy drew his own pistol, and heard the cocking of rifles from Adam and Zeke on either side.

“Drop it!” Cartwright demanded. “Drop it now!”

He didn’t expect the prospector to obey so quickly—it wasn’t generally how these things went. Unfortunately, that lapse meant he wasn’t ready when the rifle clattered down, or when Layton snatched young Hoss Cartwright from the ground and dragged him up to use as a shield.

“All right, it’s done. But we’re still kinda stuck here, ain’t we?”

There was no taunt in the prospector’s voice, only tension, and Roy swore softly (a luxury he only rarely allowed himself). Tension was bad. A man backed into a corner was more likely to do something stupid than an overconfident one – though not by much.

“Layton, put him down!”

The prospector pulled the boy closer. That arm twisted again, and Roy spared a moment to be grateful Hoss wasn’t actually feelin’ anything. “You his pa?”

“I am.” Cartwright’s words were sharp as broken glass. Layton drifted back, and Ben visibly tensed.

“I ain’t got no boy of my own ta lighten the load.”

“He’s my son,” Ben ground out. “He’s worth far more to me than the work he can do!”

Layton snorted. “I bet he does plenty though, don’t he? Strong boy like this, you get your money’s worth.” How did a man become this? What had Jim Layton’s own growin’ up been, ta think so little of this boy’s worth now? “I ain’t got no – ”

“Layton!” The prospector took another step back, nearin’ the edge and haulin’ the boy along with him. Cartwright’s voice rose, but his pistol stayed rock solid. Course, what he was gonna do with that gun — what any of them were gonna do with their guns — was a whole ‘nother question, with young Hoss right in between them and Layton. For now, it seemed they had a draw. “He’s not yours, and you’re not going to — ”

The rifle blast was so close that for a few moments, Roy couldn’t hear anything. He didn’t need to — watching was horrifying enough. Jim Layton stumbled back, blood spattering his chest and Hoss’s pale cheek. Zeke tossed his rifle down with a satisfied grunt. Ben and Adam surged forward, but not in time. The force of the hit took Layton over the edge, dragging the unconscious boy along with him.

Cartwright’s bellow of anguish penetrated the ringing. Ben flung himself face down onto the packed earth and searched frantically. It was only an instant before he shouted, “There!” Adam joined him, craning to follow his father’s gaze. Roy went toward the fallen doctor, much as he too wanted ta head right for the ledge, but the doctor—Martin?—was already up on one knee, dragging himself toward the Cartwrights. Roy took the doc’s elbow to help him along. Martin gasped his thanks, but Roy was already gaping down the hill at the improbable—impossible? miraculous?—situation below.

Layton had tumbled down a good half of the cliff, his broken body sprawled over a gravel slide and sharp drop. Somehow, though, Hoss had snagged on a narrow ledge only a dozen or so feet down. It was a straight drop, and Roy didn’t see any way to get to it, but …

Below them, the boy stirred. Cartwright pushed his head and shoulders out over the ledge, and Roy seized at the man’s belt. “Watch it!”

“Hoss?” Ben called. “I’m here, son, Pa’s here! You just stay still, don’t move!” If Hoss heard, he gave no sign. Ben craned around, gasping, “We’ll need a rope, or a—”

A clattering shower of rocks cut him short as Adam slid over the edge and dropped onto the small space beside his brother.

“Adam!” Cartwright snapped. “Adam, not without—”

It was too late, and Ben’s oldest paid no attention anyway. Cartwright fell silent. Adam stretched out alongside Hoss, placing his own body between his little brother and the drop. Then he snaked a cautious arm around the boy. Hoss jerked, striking out. Adam tightened his grip, held his brother still, and whispered into the tumbled brown hair. Whatever he said musta broke through, because after a moment Hoss quieted.

Ben Cartwright breathed a shaky sigh of relief.

“Pa’s right up there, too.” Adam’s voice rose, and he looked toward his father. Ben took his cue.

“Hoss, I’m here, son. Right here.”

Hoss pushed up with one arm, supported by his brother—the other arm dangled crazily from his shoulder, had ta be dislocated—and a pair of bright blue eyes blinked up at them. “Pa.” A faint grin stole across the round face. “Knew you’d … you’d be along.”

Cartwright closed his eyes briefly, and if Roy saw wetness pool briefly beneath them, he thought nothing of it. If any man deserved a few tears, it was this one. Ben opened his eyes again.

“I’m here, son. We’re gonna take you home.”

Anxiety stole across Hoss’s features. “What about Little Joe? Is he—”

“He’s fine, son. Just fine. Safe. He misses you.” Hoss smiled again, but the expression was vague this time, and his eyes slid closed. Ben addressed Adam. “How do things look down there?”

“We’ve got some room, Pa. We’ll be fine until you get a rope. I’ll tie off to Hoss and help you get him up, then I’ll come along after.”

“Roy?”

“Got it, Ben.”

Roy scrambled to his feet and started back toward the wagon and their tied-off horses. He passed their guide along the way, lounging against a jumble of boulders.

“Boy all right?”

Anger surged. The man had shot a rifle at someone using a child as a hostage. He could so easily have missed. He could so easily have hit them both. He could so easily have killed that boy … But now was not the time. Get the rope, Roy. Don’t think about the rest. It’ll keep. Roy forced the anger savagely away, brushed by the prospector, and hurried on.

He snatched rope from his saddle and Ben’s. When he turned, Zeke was there.

“Hey! What about it?”

Roy glared. “He’s alive, no thanks to you.”

Bushy brows pulled down. “Not wait a minute. I—”

“I ain’t got time for this. There’s a kid down a cliff, in case you ain’t noticed!”

Roy stepped around him and hurried back toward the little clearing. He heard Zeke’s footsteps following, but took no other notice. Hoss was waitin’. Cartwright was pacing near the edge when he returned, and snatched the rope from Roy’s grasp.

“Adam!” he called down. “Here’s the rope, son. Make those knots good and tight!”

“Yessir.”

Roy helped Ben anchor the rope to a low scrub growing back from the edge, checking first to be sure the little bush’s roots were firm. That done, they both took a good hold on the rope.

“Adam?”

“We’re ready, Pa. His arm and shoulder are pretty banged up, so take it nice and slow.”

“We will.” Ben peered down. “Hoss, we’ll have you up in a minute, son. You just hold on.”

Roy didn’t hear a response, but it didn’t matter. His job was the same. He followed Cartwright’s lead, drawing in the rope with easy, steady pulls until Ben finally reached down, hauled his boy up over the ledge, and curled the limp form tight into his chest.

“It’s all right, boy. You’re all right.” Roy could barely hear the words, muffled as they were into the boy’s hair. “Pa’s here, you’re safe now.”

Hoss turned his face into his pa’s neck. His voice was slurred. “Knew you’d come, Pa.”

“That’s right. I’m here.” Ben stroked the fine hair, moving back from the edge. “I’m here.”

“Arm hurts.”

“I know.”

“Tired.”

“We’re gonna take you home, get you better. Don’t you worry.”

The boy jerked. “The doc! He—”

“He’s fine, boy. Right here, he’s gonna be okay.”

Roy shot a glance at Dr. Martin. The young man was pale and sweatin’ hard, but had already removed his shirt and was ripping it into strips, wrapping a makeshift bandage around his wounded leg. He was tough, that one. Yep, he’d be all right.

“Okay …”

Hoss’s voice trailed off, and he slumped fully against his pa. Cartwright cradled the boy close and moved off toward the nearby boulders, leaving Roy to take the lead in getting Adam back up onto level ground. It went quick and smooth, and in no time at all Adam staggered to his feet, thumped Roy’s arm, and moved over to join his father and brother.

“Are you all right, son?”

“Yeah, Pa, I’m all right.”

“Good.” Ben frowned. “We’ll talk about this at home.”

A faint smile flickered on the solemn face. “Figured we would.”

“Thank you.”

Adam’s dark eyes surveyed his little brother, asleep in their father’s arms. “Course, Pa.”

“Of course.” Ben looked around, and his eyes landed on their guide. His jaw tightened, and the dark brows dipped. Roy tensed. “Adam?”

“Pa?”

“Sit down.”

His oldest slid obediently to the ground. Cartwright lowered Hoss into Adam’s lap, arranged the injured arm carefully, and soothed the boy’s murmurs with a touch to the cheek and a light palm on his forehead. When Hoss was quiet once again he rose, turned sharply, and locked his gaze onto the grizzled prospector.

“Now, Ben …”

Cartwright brushed right past him, stalked across the clearing, and knocked Zeke back with a solid right before the startled prospector had time to mount a defense — or to run. Ben went down after him, dragged the man back up, and slugged him again, adding a final punch with his left before dropping Zeke to a heap on the rocky ground.

“You broke my nose!” Zeke howled.

Cartwright dropped to one knee, hauling the prospector upright. “Never, never shoot a gun near my son again. Do I make myself clear?”

He shook once, hard, then let go.

“You broke my—”

Ben rose and strode away, uninterested in Zeke’s nose or in any other thoughts from the man. Roy stepped back beside Martin, rubbed his jaw, and exchanged a glance with the young doc as Cartwright rejoined his sons.

“Can’t really blame him,” he murmured.

Martin’s eyes were bleak as he returned to his task. “Got off light, if you ask me.”

“Yeah.” Roy squinted from Zeke, who was plugging his nose with a filthy bandana, to Ben Cartwright, who was once again settling his young son into his embrace, to the doc, who was tying off the bloody bandage around his leg. “Yeah, I guess so, all things considered.” He thought of Jim Layton, lying broken on the rocks below, then shook the image out of his mind and knelt down beside Martin. “Roy Coffee.”

“Paul Martin.” The young doctor fumbled the knot and grimaced. Roy gently batted his hands away.

“Looks like you could use a hand.”

*****

Chapter Nine

Nearly two hours passed before they were ready to leave Jim Layton’s claim.

Paul’s first priority was to get his gunshot wound (he’d been shot) tied off before he lost too much more blood. He suspected the bone might be chipped or fractured as well, but there wasn’t much he could do about that right here and now. The shock of the initial injury did, it seem, have an upside—it kept the pain down for as long as he needed to tie a makeshift bandage in place without causing too much extra discomfort. Didn’t last much past that, though, and pretty soon the entire lower half of his body hurt like … Well. He didn’t use that kind of language anymore, but it hurt.

A lot.

He’d been shot. He’d treated gunshots, even a couple of arrow wounds, but he’d never seriously entertained the possibility of being shot himself. Just one more charming memory to add to this experience, along with crazed prospectors and uphill races and …

Get a grip, man. There are other people who need you.

Paul sucked in a long breath, let it out, and looked to the man crouched beside him. “Mr. Coffee?”

“Roy.”

He nodded. “We’ve got another situation here besides my leg and that boy’s arm. Jim Layton’s elderly mother is below, along with her husband’s body.” Coffee’s eyebrows rose, and the man settled back onto his heels.

“You’ve had a right time of it, haven’t ya?”

Paul bit back a snort of semi-hysterical laughter. It would only hurt worse. “You might say that. He had a broken leg—compound fracture, I never even had a chance.” A strong hand clapped Paul’s shoulder and he blinked, surprised at the rough sympathy. It seemed so long ago now … “But the mother is pretty far gone in dementia. She can’t stay here by herself.” He shook his head. “I wasn’t even comfortable leaving her with just her son, to tell you the truth. I was going to try to convince Layton to allow me to move her someplace she could be looked after, but …” He sighed, and waved a hand toward the clustered Cartwrights.

“Yeah. Boy’s had a hard week.”

“He’s a good kid—good head on his shoulders.”

Roy nodded slowly, then grimaced and peered over the edge. “Well, we’re gonna have ta go get Layton’s mama, then.”

“Thank you.” His head was beginning to throb in sympathy with his leg. Paul squinted, trying to think around it. “If the mule hasn’t disappeared, I’d take her with you. She knows the trail better than any of us, and it’ll save you the effort of carrying Mrs. Layton yourselves. Don’t know that she’ll ride well for the whole trip to the Station, though, I’m not sure how we’ll get her—”

“There’s a wagon a ways back.” Roy clapped Paul’s shoulder, jarring his entire body and sending a shaft of pain through the injured leg up into his head, then stood. “We’ll use that ta take her on in. Won’t make the Station today anyway, but my Mary’ll know what ta do. Her ma was the same, there toward the end.” He lifted an eyebrow. “You too, for the night at least—you sure ain’t goin’ anywhere under your own power.”

Paul hated to be a further burden to any woman who would be taking on the care of Marcia Layton, but what Coffee said was true—for right now, he couldn’t cope with either Mrs. Layton or himself. It was a tremendous burden lifted. “Thanks again.”

Coffee surveyed the clearing and sighed. “Gonna need help, dang it.” He looked back down. “You just leave it to me.” The man’s eyes drifted toward Cartwright, still sitting against the rock fall with young Hoss asleep in his lap. “I know you ain’t feelin’ up ta snuff right now, but that boy’s arm—”

Paul forced a chuckle. “You just leave that to me.”

“That I will.” Roy nodded, satisfied, then strode away. “Zeke, Adam—”

“I’ll need the brother!” Paul called after him. There was no possible way he was setting a dislocated shoulder without at least two assistants, not in this condition. Coffee shot him a sour glance, then waved Adam back and gestured curtly to the final member of their party. The older man continued to dab at his nose, showing no interest in the proceedings until Roy stalked across the little clearing, seized one elbow, and hauled him along behind.

Paul was just as glad he couldn’t hear whatever abuse the man was pouring into Roy Coffee’s ear. Sighing, he worked his good leg beneath him and prepared to make his painful way over to the Cartwrights. Exactly how this was going to work he wasn’t sure, but …

An arm appeared, and he looked up into young Adam Cartwright’s dark eyes. “Need some help?”

“Thank you,” Paul gasped, grasping the proffered hand. Adam all but dragged him to his feet, and the pain was such that Paul knew immediately he would not have made it on his own. As it was, he required a moment to catch his breath before Adam carefully guided him across the tiny clearing and resettled him beside Ben and Hoss Cartwright. The world swirled drunkenly for a moment, and then Paul managed to meet the man’s eyes. “Dr. Paul Martin.”

“Ben Cartwright, my son Adam, and … I believe you know Hoss?” Paul nodded. Cartwright freed a hand and shook briefly, then indicated the bloody bandage. “How’s the leg?”

He tried to laugh the question off, but emitted a rather embarrassing groan instead. “I would never have guessed how much a bullet actually hurts.”

“So I’m told. I’ll be anxious to hear your story.” The dark brows drew together. “This,” Ben waved a vague arm around them, “is not how I would have chosen to meet, Doctor, but I admit I’m grateful you’re here.” His eyes drifted back to his sleeping son.

Paul nodded a weary acknowledgement. Taken on its own, his escape plan might have been counted a disaster … but it had played right into Cartwright’s hands, which was really all that mattered. He didn’t like to think what might have happened had Hoss’s rescuers been forced to descend the steep claim trail, where Layton would have been free to sit back and pick them off like sitting ducks (and he didn’t doubt that the prospector would have done so). That scenario might have ended in multiple dead, and a grieving as well as captive child. Everything had worked out for the best—even with the price of his first gunshot wound thrown into the mix.

First gunshot wound. As if he might have more someday …

“Well, let’s get a look at that shoulder while he’s still asleep.”

Cartwright bared the limb in question, and Paul felt gingerly along the misshapen, inflamed joint. “Dislocated, certainly. It was hurting him already, though, with significant weakness—I suspect he had already pulled or torn a muscle in there.” Hoss’s father growled softly, and Paul looked up from his probing. “Your boy’s been worked hard, Mr. Cartwright—harder than any boy his age should be. He’s exhausted, and his muscles are strained, and he needs a good long rest.”

“He’ll get it.”

Ben Cartwright’s voice was dark, and Paul wondered suddenly if it wasn’t in Jim Layton’s decided favor that he was already dead.

“Well, he’s young and strong. Should recover with no trouble.” He nodded to the shoulder. “Let’s put this back where it belongs, then.” Paul grimaced. “I wish I had something to keep him out while we work, but I left my bag down below. Didn’t want the extra luggage along for the climb.” It had been a blow, leaving the bag behind—it had been a graduation gift from Dr. Jackson—but in the end he hadn’t wanted to spare the attention required to keep track of his things. Looking back, Paul knew the decision had been a good one.

Of course, he’d be getting his bag back shortly …

“He’ll be fine. Let’s get it done.”

A few moments of direction (Paul was relieved to find neither Ben nor Adam squeamish about participating in a procedure certain to cause Hoss no little discomfort) and two attempts later, the shoulder slid back into place and Hoss woke with a startled shriek. Ben soothed him, stroking his hair and murmuring softly until the child settled back into his embrace. Hoss watched through heavy-lidded eyes as Paul fashioned a sling from what was left of his shirt and filled in the two elder Cartwrights on the events of the morning. The boy’s own experiences would have to wait, of course, until he felt well enough and safe enough to talk about them. Still …

“From what I saw, Hoss did everything right. You should be proud of him.”

“I am.” Ben Cartwright squeezed his son gently, then held out his arm for another shake. “Thank you, Doctor.” His eyes were warm and grateful. “Thank you for helping my son. I won’t forget it.”

Paul grinned faintly and ruffled the boy’s fine hair. He was rewarded with a sleepy smile. “I was happy to do it.”

*****

It was comin’ on ta dark by the time they reached the Cartwright home. Roy hadn’t been sure they would make it this far, no matter what Ben said about that boy not spendin’ another night away from his mama, but once they set out things actually went pretty smooth. Doc Martin and Marcia Layton rode in the back of the wagon, both helped along by a good dose of laudanum. The elderly woman had been understandably agitated to be removed from her home by a strange men, and the doc had thought it best to calm her for the journey. “Just a light dose—I don’t like medicating the elderly unless necessary, but it won’t harm her and I think in this case it may actually be better for her than the strain of a wagon ride surrounded by strangers.” Mrs. Layton had drifted off soon after, emitting the occasional snore to remind everyone of her presence.

Roy shook his head, thinking of what Mary would say when he told her she’d been volunteered as nurse for the old lady. That wouldn’t upset her, not his Mary—but she would be flustered that they didn’t have any of the right supplies on hand for the job. An earful and an early mornin’ trip back into the Station was no doubt in his immediate future.

It was gettin’ so’s the place was almost like his back yard.

His patient safely cared for, the doc had been more than happy ta take a dose himself, and he lay stretched out alongside the old lady in the wagon bed. Adam had been volunteered to drive, and despite the narrowed gaze with which he regarded his pa upon that decision, the young man had readily traded saddle for wagon bench. Roy watched him on and off throughout the afternoon, guidin’ the mule carefully over the smoothest bits of track despite his distaste for the task, and thought suddenly how glad he was to know this boy. He’d made very little progress in learnin’ what made the kid tick, but Adam Cartwright was a good, fine young man. If he’d ever had a son …

Well.

That hadn’t happened, but it was good ta know he had such neighbors. Friends, even …

Hoss Cartwright, of course, rode with his pa. It was probably downright uncomfortable, all things considered, but neither Ben nor Hoss had any intention of bein’ separated. In any case, Roy didn’t think the child would have done well in the wagon so near Marcia Layton—he didn’t need that kinda reminder all afternoon. Even though the old lady had nothin’ ta do with actually stealin’ him, Hoss showed a decided preference for remaining far away from her, and Roy couldn’t blame him.

The boy was dozing against his pa’s chest when they turned off the track toward the house, and Ben shook him gently awake. “We’re home, son.”

The boy blinked slowly, then sat up straighter when he recognized the corral and ranch house. A sleepy smile edged the corners of his mouth, turning quickly into a full-blown grin when Marie Cartwright appeared in the doorway, shrieked, and came running toward them.

“Hoss!”

“Mama!” He called happily, trying to wriggle down from the saddle. Ben Cartwright dismounted with haste, slid Hoss carefully from the horse, and set him onto the dusty path. Marie reached them at the same moment and flung her arms around the boy, babbling endearments.

“Oh, my boy. I knew it, I knew it would be today.”

“Mama, my arm …”

She pulled back quickly and her eyes swept him, locking onto the well-wrapped arm. Marie’s lips tightened and her gaze flickered for an instant to her husband, but she only turned back to Hoss, gently but with no less enthusiasm. Tears flowed freely. “I’ve missed you so.”

“I missed you too, Mama.” Hoss’s brow puckered, though, and he patted her with his good hand. “Mama, don’t cry. I’m okay.”

Marie burst into teary laughter. “Oh, my sweet, sweet boy. I am crying because I am so very happy to see you.” Hoss smiled shyly, and tucked his head beneath her chin. Ben joined them then, as if he couldn’t hold himself back any longer, wrapping both Marie and Hoss snug into his arms. It came to Roy suddenly that the last time he had watched his neighbor hold a son and cryin’ wife the situation had been decidedly different—but that just the same as before, he should probably leave them to it. Mary had appeared in ranch house doorway, one hand raised but unable ta cover the smile wreathin’ her face, and though she didn’t join them he was anxious to see her.

“Adam,” he spoke softly. “I’ll be back out in a few minutes. We’re close enough to the house and they’re quiet back there, I think you can leave ’em be if you want.”

Adam nodded and hopped down, setting the wagon brake before drifting closer to his family. Roy looked for Zeke then, and wasn’t half surprised to find the old prospector gone. Probably, the man didn’t want ta take the chance that Cartwright would come after him again, now that the rancher had less urgent matters on his mind. Roy didn’t blame him—in fact, he wished Zeke luck if the two ever bumped into each other at the Station. “Good riddance,” he muttered, and went to kiss his wife.

Roy and Mary spoke softly for a few minutes, though there was no time now to fill her in on everything that had happened since they had left the Cartwright home for Eagle Station. When he told his wife about her new charges, though, she tsk’d at him and hurried out into the yard. “Leavin’ people sick and asleep in the back of a wagon! Roy Coffee, I don’t know what ta think of you sometimes!”

He grinned and was about to step out after her when a small voice spoke behind him. “Mr. Roy?” He turned quickly and found Little Joe Cartwright hoverin’ near one of the bedroom doorways, pillow marks on his face and the dark mop of curls smashed flat against one side of his head. Apparently, the boy had been gettin’ some much-needed sleep. “What’s goin’ on? Where’s Mrs. Mary goin’?” His lower lip began to tremble. “Did ya find Hoss?”

Roy held out a hand before the tears could start in earnest. “Why don’t ya come over here and see?”

Frowning, the boy scurried across the room to take his hand, dangling from it as he strained to peer out the door. When he saw the little group headed for the house, Joe’s hollering put even his mama’s reaction to shame.

“Hoss!” The boy pulled his hand away from Roy and went barreling through the doorway. “Hoss!” He hit his brother like a runaway ore cart and burst into frantic tears. Hoss winced, but dropped to his knees and wrapped an arm around the little guy.

“Hey, Punkin. I sure am glad ta see you.”

Joe’s grip tightened. “I wanted you ta run away,” he sniffled. For a moment Hoss looked baffled, then understanding struck. He rubbed at the tousled hair.

“Well I did, Joe.” Hoss shrugged, carefully—and unsuccessfully—attempting to remove his injured arm from his little brother’s grip. “Just not right away. I didn’t even know where I was. And I needed some help—a real nice doctor helped me.” Marie frowned, unaware of that part, but now surely wasn’t the time ta tell it. Hoss sent his father a pleading glance and Ben stepped forward.

“Come on now, Joseph. We’re all going inside.” He pried Joe away, and the boy sent up a fresh wail. Hoss stumbled up and patted Little Joe’s back, lookin’ distressed.

“Joe, you can sit with me inside, but we just can’t naturally stay out here all night, can we?”

Joe considered this, then he wiped his nose with his sleeve (Marie sighed) and shook his head. He wiggled ta be put down—’You be gentle now, you hear?’ ‘Yes, Pa’—and when his feet hit the ground he seized Hoss’s arm (the uninjured one, thankfully) and dragged his older brother inside the house. By the time everybody else got inside, the two boys were squeezed together into a large red leather chair near the fireplace. Joe’s arms were fixed around his brother’s waist again, but Hoss didn’t seem to mind. (His sore arm, Roy noticed, was free.) Marie smiled and crossed to them.

“Are you hungry?”

They’d eaten some on the trail, but Hoss perked right up. “Mama, I’m always hungry.” His bright grin dimmed some. “There weren’t much food there, and it weren’t very good.” The boy shrugged, lookin’ away. “And I couldn’t keep it down anyways.”

For a minute Marie looked as if she would cry again, but instead she wiped at her eyes and scurried off toward the kitchen. “I have just the thing.” She returned seconds later, bearing a powdered pastry on a red and white china plate. “Do you think you might keep this down, my love?”

“Beignets!” Hoss crowed. His blue eyes shone as he took the plate. “Thank you, Mama!”

Marie beamed, and went to slip her arm around her husband’s waist. “I made them this morning.” Her eyes drifted up to Ben. “I knew that today would be the day.” Ben kissed her soundly, and Hoss bit into his prize, dusting himself white over his dirty face and down his soiled shirtfront. Marie’s laugh again sounded pretty near on to a sob, and Joe’s eyes followed the treat raptly. After a second bite Hoss offered it to his brother, who promptly bit in and then smeared the white powder down his chin and into his hair trying to wipe it away. Hoss’s eyes sparkled as he exchanged a glance with Little Joe, and both of them turned as one to Adam.

Roy got the feelin’ this had been done before.

“Want some?” Hoss held out the … what was it? Some French word. Looked like a donut to him …

Adam’s nose wrinkled as he surveyed the half-eaten pastry, and Roy fully expected the eldest Cartwright son to pass up that opportunity. Hoss and Joe did, too, it seemed—they were as surprised as anyone else (more, probably, considerin’ their faces) when their big brother crossed the room in two quick steps, snatched the donut, and tore off a big bite, dusting his face and shirtfront exactly like their own. When he stretched a big grin down at them before swallowin’ (again, Marie sighed), both of his little brothers dissolved into helpless giggles.

He took advantage of their distraction ta stuff the rest down in one bite.

“Hey!” Hoss protested through his laughter. Marie moved away from Ben, patting Hoss’s hair and tossing an amused, exasperated glance at Adam as she went.

“There are more.” She touched Roy’s arm as she passed. “Enough for everyone. Come and help me carry them.”

Roy tipped his hat. “Thank you, ma’am, but we gotta be goin’. There’s a coupla injured out in the wagon, and Mary and I gotta get them home yet tonight.”

Marie paused, concerned. “Is there anything that we can do? Who—”

“Not a thing.” Roy smiled, nodding back toward her family. “You just take care o’ your boy for tonight. We’ll be over tomorrow, no doubt—got some things ta follow up, and the doc’ll want ta take another look at Hoss’s shoulder.”

Her gaze darkened, but then Marie Cartwright shook herself and turned back toward the kitchen. Seemed like she was determined to keep things light for the time bein’, and Roy thought too it was for the best. Marie touched his elbow. “Well, you will take some home with you, then. Come.” She led the way, and Roy didn’t even bother ta protest. He was curious, he had ta admit—real curious—over this French donut thing … For a second he looked back, taking in the laughing boys and Ben Cartwright, who stood silently by the fire watching his powder-covered sons with an expression of infinite content, then Roy followed Marie from the room.

*****

Epilogue

Hoss was asleep by the time his bath was finished.

Ben sluiced one last cup of water over the boy’s hair, shielding his eyes with a gentle hand, then smoothed the excess away and set the cup aside. That done, he nodded Adam toward the big, thirsty towel folded and waiting on the nearby kitchen table. No one had felt the need to take Hoss all the way out to the bathhouse—he was safely home again, after days of uncertainty and fear, and he would not leave the house again that night.

Adam, who had been holding his little brother’s injured shoulder still for the bath, gently eased the arm into his father’s grasp, then snatched the towel, unfolded it, and sat. Ben hauled Hoss out of the tub and deposited him with Adam, who wrapped the boy up tight while Ben took a second towel and dried his son’s hair as well as he could without waking him.

Of course, Gabriel’s trumpet might not have woke that boy tonight.

He tossed the towel back onto the table and turned, ready to take Hoss back from his eldest. For a moment Ben’s gaze was arrested by the deep bruising on the boy’s soles—Paul Martin had told him Hoss had been shoveling out the center of a rocky streambed, of all the senseless idiocies Layton might have devised for a helpless child—and he forced back the sudden rush of fury. Tonight was not for such feelings. Tonight was for blessings, and thanksgiving, and praise that his son had come back to them alive and (relatively) whole.

Tomorrow he would begin to work through his anger, to pray for the desire to forgive.

One step at a time …

He scooped Hoss into his arms. Adam rose too, moving off toward the kettle of fresh, steaming water over the banked fire. While his oldest re-warmed the baths, Ben carried Hoss across to his and Marie’s room (Little Joe had finally, finally dozed off within the last ten minutes, and neither parent had any plans of waking him). Ben nudged the door open, slipped inside, and deposited Hoss onto the bed, where Marie had laid out fresh pajamas and a long strip of clean linen to replace Dr. Martin’s battered shirt as a sling.

“Will you be alright here?” he whispered. Marie nodded and kissed him, wrinkling her nose.

“Of course. Go bathe, my love.”

Ben chuckled, laid a light hand on Hoss’s head, then ducked back out.

Marie stood still for a long moment, gazing down upon her son in the lamplight—her sweet, kind boy—and found, suddenly, that she couldn’t breathe. How could the man? How could anyone possibly look at this child and see nothing more than a … a tool? Marie Cartwright knew from bitter experience that men—women, too—could be impossibly cruel, yet somehow this … this Jim Layton had managed to take her utterly by surprise …

No. Now was not the time. Not tonight.

Marie blew out a long, shaky breath, wiped her eyes, and brushed a lock of hair away from Hoss’s face with trembling fingers. “Come, my sweet.” She shook him gently. “Let’s get you dressed for bed.”

Hoss roused enough to sit, and was sluggishly compliant as she worked the long nightshirt over his head and arms, careful of the bruised, swollen shoulder. He murmured a couple of sleepy protests, but was obviously still asleep and Marie kept on, dropping the pajamas in place and then wrapping the arm loosely against his body with the linen strips. She didn’t know what was best for his injury—a loose sling or tight, close wrap—so for tonight this would do. Ben told her the new doctor had been with Hoss when they’d found him (thank the Lord), and Dr. Martin would surely know what was best. He, too, was injured (shot, Ben said, and for a moment Marie fought the urge to crush Hoss in her arms again) and was with Mary and Roy tonight, but tomorrow was soon enough.

“All right, to bed.” Marie tugged at his elbow. She expected the same sleepy obedience, and was surprised when Hoss pulled suddenly away and looked up at her, eyes bleary but focused.

“Mama, can I sleep with you and Pa tonight?” The boy’s eyes drifted closed even as he spoke. “I been havin’ bad dreams.”

This time, she couldn’t hold back her tears. How dare the man …

“Of course, my sweet. You will stay right here.” Marie pulled back the quilt and bedclothes, and Hoss slumped bonelessly into the bed, already asleep again. She tucked the coverings tightly around him then stretched out beside him, pulling Hoss’s head against her shoulder. If he woke or dreamed in the night, he would know she was there …

*****

Little Joe was sobbing softly when Ben approached the room shared by his two youngest, intending to look in on Hoss before heading to his own bed. Running quick fingers through his damp hair, Ben peered around the door. He was surprised—and a little concerned—to find Hoss’s bed empty. He wouldn’t have expected to be done with his bath before Marie had finished with Hoss. Joe was crying, though, and he would have to get his youngest boy settled again before could go find Marie and learn if there had been some new problem.

“Joseph?”

His son was still more than half asleep, but the boy crawled into Ben’s lap and rested his warm, wet face against his pa’s chest. “Want Hoss,” he mumbled, and Ben shot another worried frown toward the empty bed.

Yes, he knew the feeling.

“Well, let’s see if we can find him, then.”

Joe woke some as they left the room, but remained heavy and silent in his arms. Ben approached his own door, knocked softly, and stepped inside.

The sight of his wife and middle son asleep together in the big bed, faces relaxed and peaceful in the flickering yellow of the dim lamp, brought a warm rush into his chest and made his knees weak. Just this morning, he hadn’t known if he would ever see such a sight again …

Ben sank onto the stool before Marie’s dressing table, feasting his eyes. In his arms, Joe stirred. “Wanna sleep with Hoss and Mama.”

Yes, he knew that feeling too. But …

“Can you be very quiet and still, Joseph? Your brother needs his rest.”

“I will, Pa.”

“Are you sure? You don’t always stay put in bed.”

“I will, I promise.”

He couldn’t deny the boy—Little Joe had suffered from his brother’s absence as much as the rest of them. Chances were, the child would sleep better here with his beloved Hoss. Also, Ben wanted nothing more than to have his family together there in his arms …

Gently, he lowered Joe down beside Hoss and then crawled onto the mattress beside him. After a single wriggle, Little Joe lay still between his father and brother, one small hand twisted into the neck of Hoss’s nightshirt. “I’m glad he didn’t have to stay with that man,” he offered in a piercing whisper, and Ben tousled the head of wild curls.

“So am I. Quiet, now …”

Joe sighed, and relaxed, and soon his deep, even breathing filled his father’s ears.

*****

Adam wasn’t terribly surprised to find his brothers’ room empty.

He had offered to empty the bathwater after he and his father had finished scrubbing, partly so that Ben could go look in on Hoss again—his pa didn’t seem ready yet to be separated from his middle boy for any length of time, and Adam couldn’t blame him—and partly because he really wasn’t tired. At least, too much from the past days kept circling in his head, and it was hard to make it all settle. He knew he should be worn out—he should be exhausted—but at the moment he was too relieved, and angry, and thankful, and a half a dozen other things all rolled into one to even think about heading for bed.

He looked in on Hoss’s mule before going back to the house, making sure she had plenty of food and water and good bedding. Molly—the name his little brother had bestowed wasn’t terribly original, but it worked well enough—was surely a scrawny, half-fed example of the breed, but Adam suspected that after two weeks in Hoss’s hands she would be glowing with good health. That boy worked magic with animals. Adam dug out a curry brush and pulled it along her neck for a few minutes in companionable silence, leaving for tomorrow the matted patches where wagon harness and halter and too-heavy packs had, over the course of the years, rubbed her thin and raw. It occurred to him as he worked that this was how his little brother would have been treated by Jim Layton, as well, had no one found him—worked hard without any concern shown for comfort or even basic health—and he pushed the bitter thoughts quickly away.

Not now. Not tonight, no matter that all he saw when he closed his eyes was Hoss in a still heap at Jim Layton’s feet …

The mule stood patiently, quietly. Adam brushed her until his hands stopped shaking, then patted her neck, put out the lantern, and went back into the house.

No, he wasn’t surprised to find their room empty. His pa and Marie’s door was ajar, and Adam peeked around it, curious what exactly he would find. A slow grin spread as he caught sight of his slumbering family on the big bed, Hoss emitting light snores from the center of the heap.

His little brother was back. He was safe again.

For tonight, that was all that mattered.

Adam slipped inside and across to the rose-colored chair beneath the window. He sank into it with a sigh, propping his booted feet on the little stool by Marie’s dressing table. She would scold him for the mud, no doubt, but suddenly he was too tired to care. He would clean it in the morning.

His family was all home, right here where they belonged.

Adam Cartwright eyed the silent tangle of heads, arms, and legs for long minute, taking a silent satisfaction in each beloved face that he would not have shown so openly had anyone been present to observe. It was no one’s business how he felt, after all, except his own. Finally, able to keep his eyes open no longer, Adam turned down the nearby lamp and settled back, resting his head against the wall and his hands in his lap. The deep breathing of his family filled the dark room, lulling him, and in less than a minute Adam joined them in sleep.

***The End***

Notes:

1) Until the late 1850s, prospectors in the area were after gold rather than silver. Prospecting in the Sierra seems to have been almost a ‘spin-off’ of the California gold rush, and they approached it with much the same philosophy as in California. These early prospectors mostly stuck to the canyons of the area, with the sand and mineral deposits, and didn’t move up the mountain (to the area around Virginia City) until the gold started to become depleted and some were desperate enough to try to dig it out of solid rock. Then, of course, they found something else to mine. Most of these prospectors didn’t actually arrive until around early 1851-ish … but again, oh well … 😉  ~~from ‘The Roar and the Silence: A History of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode’, Ronald James

2) ‘My’ Eagle Station is a conglomerate of what I have been able to put together from various sources about both Eagle Station and Mormon Station before it. There is also a healthy dose of my own imagination involved. John Mankins was a real person—however, he (as with Eagle Station itself) was not actually around during this time period.

 

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