Trust and Tight Spaces (by PSW)

Summary:  WHIB/WHN for The Silence at Stillwater; or, a wrongful arrest and its aftermath, as told by the reluctant arrestee.
Category: Bonanza
Genre: Western
Rating: PG
Word Count: 17,757


 

Prologue

When people ask why I’m a drifter, I can name a dozen quick reasons without even thinkin’ hard.  In the end, all those reasons really boil down to just two — trust and tight spaces — but those ain’t ever on the list.  Those ain’t anybody’s business but mine.  Lately, since I went on the Cartwright payroll, I’ve been letting myself start to think that maybe they don’t have to be my business, either … but I shoulda known better.  Layin’ here on the ground under the moon, drunk and aching, without a fire or a bedroll or anything but my saddle to call my own (even my horse is technically stolen, though I doubt Mr. Cartwright will send the law after me), I do know better.

Trust and tight spaces.

Maybe I don’t get to leave those two behind.

***** 

Chapter One

I was riding along toward a little town called Stillwater that morning, minding my own (and Mr. Cartwright’s) business, when I met them on the road—five or six men moving at a pretty good pace.  My own horse had lost a shoe and I was mounted on an unfamiliar gelding who seemed not much happier with the trade than I was, so when I saw the tin badges and realized they were a posse of some sort I didn’t pull up to talk like I normally would have.  It was a mistake … though in the end I’m not sure how much difference it would have made.

They had me surrounded in about five seconds flat.

“Hey, fellas.”  I grinned and tried to calm my restive horse, fighting back a wave of unease.  There was nothing that said they weren’t just looking for information, but there was also nothing particularly friendly about any of them.  “What’s goin’ on?”

“Where you been this morning, boy?”

The speaker was probably not five years older than me.  In the interests of self-preservation, I didn’t make an issue of it.  “Back that way.”  I nodded over my shoulder, and saw that two of them now sat squarely in my path, guns drawn.  My mouth dried and I looked back around, forcing my grin wider.  I’ve found it throws people off, smilin’ when there’s nothing funny.  “What’s this about?”

The speaker drew his pistol as well.  “You’re gonna need to come with us.”

Oh, not a chance.  I shifted in my saddle, ready to pull around and skedaddle (as Hoss would say).  “Why don’t you just tell me what’s goin’ on, and then we’ll—”

One of them crowded close and grabbed for my reins.  I jerked away, snapping, “Hey!  Hands off!”, and that’s when another one of them shot me.

It was just a graze across my right arm, but it bled pretty good and hurt like he’d just hit me with a branding iron.  The leader started yellin’—that apparently hadn’t been part of the plan, if they even had one—and I wheeled the horse, thinking to run while they were distracted.  The next thing I knew all five pistols were pointed straight at my head.  I did the only thing I could do.  I dropped my reins, raised my hands, and asked again.

“Fellas, what’s this about?”

I would ask that question a dozen times that day, and not one of them ever gave me an answer.

The speaker told me to throw down my pistol and my rifle, which I did.  “Look, is there somethin’ I can clear up for you all?  Whoever you’re after, it ain’t me.”  They ignored me completely, now that I was no longer a threat.  Somebody collected my weapons, then they herded my horse around and started down the road.  Since we were going toward Stillwater, which was the direction I was headed anyway, I didn’t make much of a fuss.  Once we were there, I figured, maybe the sheriff (I didn’t see any sheriff’s badge among them, only a bunch of deputies) would be more inclined to listen to reason.  Barring that, the Cartwrights were due into town later that day.

So naïve.  I would laugh at myself now, if only there was anything funny about it.

They set a ground-eating pace, and we were sitting in front of the Stillwater jail in no time.  I started to dismount, but the next thing I knew three of them grabbed me and yanked me down, pulling me off balance and leaving me sprawled on my back in the dirt.  I landed on my wounded arm (of course), and it sent up a fresh wave of nausea and protest.  I glared up at the leader while one of them led the horses (including mine) away.

“Hey!  There’s no need for that!”

No response.  Two of them yanked me to my feet, and I’d had enough.  Lightening quick, I sent my fist crashing into the nearest jaw.  The deputy cursed, and one of the others slammed a blow into my bullet graze.  My knees buckled, and it was all I could do to stay upright.  They tugged me toward the door, and I just stumbled along inside, hopin’ the sheriff didn’t mind me bein’ sick all over his desk—my stomach was rolling like a wagon wheel.

The sheriff was sitting with another man.  I would realize pretty quick that whatever was happening here centered around his friend, but for the moment I only cared about one thing.

“Sheriff!”  I jerked away from the grip on my arm and stalked across the room.  “These men are out of line.  They came out of nowhere and just—”

His eyes moved past me, and he nodded.  A sharp blow slammed my kidney.  I stumbled forward into the desk, knocking pens and paperwork every which way, and then I came around swinging.

Apparently, dialogue was going to get me nowhere.

I met with a fist in the face, but that had never deterred me.  All four ‘deputies’ were moving in, so there were at least plenty of targets.  I got in a couple of good hits before taking a punch to the jaw and one to my bullet wound at the same time.  Explosions went off behind my eyes, and my fists dropped.  That was all they needed.  All four were on me then, punching and kicking until the world narrowed to the wood grain of the floor in front of me, and then went black.

All this, and I still didn’t know why I was even there.

*****

I been fightin’ my whole life.

It ain’t that I don’t like other people.  I do.  I like people a lot.  I just don’t like all of them—and definitely not all of them like me.  There’s something about the blunt truth that seems to rile people.  When you grow up on an army base, though—especially when you’re on your own for a good bit of that growin’ up—you learn not to let people’s dislike get under your skin.

And you learn that fightin’s just another way to get things done.

When I was young, it was the other kids.  Things are different for army brats—at least, they were for me and most of the others I knew.  With all the shuffling around, the coming and going of soldiers and families at Fort Despair (Delaney), there was never time to know any of the other children for very long.  That sense of ease and loyalty that comes from growing up side by side never came for us.  It was a fend-for-yourself type of world, and we did.  We fought out personal grievances, we fought for our place in the pack (when there were enough kids to bother), we fought to defend the little ones from the older (when there was a need, and there often was).  We fought when we were bored and there was nothing else to do on a hot summer afternoon.  It was as good as any other form of entertainment, and though sometimes a passing adult would make a half-hearted effort to break things up, for the most part we were left to our own devices.

When I got older—after my pa died and I was thrust into a strange sort of half-life that was part abandoned child, part desperate man, and all brash front—it was the younger soldiers.  Some of them weren’t that much older than me, really, and I was already smarter than a good few.  Neither of those facts were always to my advantage, but things worked out my way often enough that I kept coming back for more.  I learned a lot from them (and not only about fighting—about how to survive, and how not to survive), even if they didn’t always intend to be teaching me.

When I became a man—different people had different ideas about just when that happened, but I was convinced it had occurred far before anyone else, fool kid—it was the other men (of course).  Soldiers, drifters, town folk, gamblers, saloon patrons.  Whoever and whenever.  Oh, I didn’t go out of my way to start any fights.  I also didn’t go out of my way to avoid them, especially after I left the Fort and struck out on my own.  When you drift, it’s important for the people in any new place to know two things if you intend to keep yourself in one piece and out of jail:  you’re not there to cause trouble, but you’ve also got no problem finishing it.  This generally tends to keep you both on the sheriff’s good side, and off the troublemakers’ list of potential targets.  Of course, if there is a brawl the sheriff will probably throw you out of town regardless of how it started—but that’s just life.

There’s always another town.

Somewhere along the way, I also learned somethin’ else.  Not all fights are fought with fists, and the ones that aren’t are generally the more dangerous.  Bruises fade, broken bones knit, but when a man gets inside your head the results can be … unpredictable.  That’s where the real danger is, especially when you’re on your own, and plenty of men know this.

Yep.  A good fist fight is a far better thing.

That being the case, you figure out pretty quick to keep any potential weakness—and every man has them, don’t let anybody try ta fool you—away from prying eyes.  After a while, it gets so you don’t have to even think about it anymore.  It’s just second nature, and it’s safer that way.

Trust is a funny thing when you don’t have home or family or friends.  You can (and do) learn to trust your life to another man’s (or woman’s) hands—the barest of strangers, even.  There’s no other choice.  It’s the only way to stay alive in a land like this.  But you never learn to trust yourself to him.

***** 

Chapter Two

I’ve been in my share of jails over the years (I used to blame it on drifting, but having heard some of the Cartwrights’ stories, I’ve decided there must be an element of just pure chance involved, too), and Stillwater’s was not like most.  I don’t know if the building started out life as something else or if the builders were just paranoid, but the small space and tight windows (not to mention the number of cells, which I didn’t see until later) gave off more of a prison feel than a jailhouse.  In any case, there definitely wasn’t much room to pace.

I woke to a doctor bandaging my arm and one of the ‘deputies’ pulling off my boots.  Neither did anything to control my fast-increasing dread.  The doc said there was ‘nothing much wrong’ with me, though a bullet graze, a pounding, whirling head, a churning stomach, and a dozen throbbing aches between my head and feet sure didn’t seem to back up that statement.  The ‘deputy’ surveyed my boots, then dropped them like they weren’t worth his trouble.  I don’t know if he was lookin’ for evidence (of what?) or just checkin’ if they would fit him.  Either way, I was glad he didn’t take them.  No man likes to be without his boots in time of trouble.

Still nobody would tell me what was happening, or why I was there.  I must have asked five times before they locked me in and disappeared, arguing with the doc over something and not paying me a lick of attention.  Even the crazy old drunk sharing the cell seemed to know more than me, though I never did decide how much of what he said was true and how much was just him tryin’ to get under my skin.

Could have told him he didn’t need to do any tryin’.

Five paces across, five up and down.  Five across, five up and down.  My world had shrunk to a small dim cell, a babbling drunk with a boot obsession (and a wife-beater, I found out later, adding whole new levels to his charm), the voices (and rock-throwing kids) outside the tiny barred window, and my own feverish imagination.  They brought in another man after a while and locked up him down the hall.  I tried to call out, compare notes, but somebody cut us off pretty quick and I was back to pacing.  Not good.  Already, the little room seemed smaller with every lap … but if I didn’t move, it would smother me where I sat.

Henry Young, he was hung, awful young.

I didn’t know Henry Young, and right then I didn’t care—but the words scratched into the stucco wall gave my careening brain something to lock onto.  I still wake up repeating them in a crazy sort of loop in my head, and it’s been two weeks since we left the place.  I’m only glad my mindless attempt at finding a rhyme for my own name fell flat.  That would have been so much worse.  Luckily, there’s not much pertinent that goes with ‘Candy’.

What was happening?  Why was I there?  I had protested that they couldn’t just arrest a man for no reason—but they could.  There was nothing to stop them.  It wasn’t like I had never seen it happen, and that type of thing generally didn’t go well for the arrestee.

The walls were close, and my mouth was dry.  I don’t think three canteens would have wet it.

*****

It’s not actually tight spaces that bother me, though I can’t say I’m terribly fond of them.  But, they ain’t usually an issue unless there’s no way out.  It’s being trapped that’s the problem.  Has been ever since I can remember.

I don’t know if I was just born this way, or if it’s too many things I’ve seen piling up on each other, or some combination of both.  When I was little I never could stand to have a door closed behind me, not if I was in the room by myself.  I’m guessin’ it drove my mama crazy (thought I can’t say for certain, because I don’t remember that much about her).  She was never able to just shuffle me off somewhere and get her work done.  I always started screaming the second I heard that latch click.  But lots of kids have childhood fears that go away over the years, and I don’t have a problem being in a closed room now—long as there’s an unlocked door or a window for me to climb out.

Being trapped, though, not being able to get away if I need to … that’s a big part of what drives me from place to place, never staying long enough to put down roots.  Roots anchor you in, and I can’t stand that.  No man likes to admit that his fears play such a large (if generally unnoticed—less fear, maybe, and more a pressing restlessness always doggin’ my steps) part in his decisions, but the pattern was set long before I knew it for what it was.

Habits like those are hard to break, even if I wanted to.

If we’re being completely honest, I’m amazed I ever agreed to work for the Cartwrights.  Ben Cartwright’s is the only unsolicited job offer I’ve ever accepted—my only job I haven’t sought out for myself in a work line, or at a ranch house, or outside the saloon in some two-bit town with no name and no future.  I’ve had a few offers, but I turned them down.  Every one.  I pick where I work, and for who, and for how long.  The Cartwrights … I guess they caught me on an off day, with their laughin’ and easy ways.  Ain’t too many men in this country willing on short notice to be friendly with a man like me, and I’d been on my own for a good long stretch.  Maybe I was just ready to hear other voices besides my own.  I’m pretty sure that while Hoss and Joe were laughin’ over my list of stipulations—my employment could terminate any day, any way, on either side—Mr. Cartwright was taking it all in and notin’ down real good that I’m not somebody who rides for the brand.

He hired me anyway.  Maybe that’s why, against all odds and common sense, I’m still there.

My mama felt trapped.  It’s one of the only things I do remember clearly about her.  She hated the army, she hated the fort that was our home.  I remember hearing my folks argue about it, at night after they thought I was asleep.  Sound travels pretty good through a cracked door, but no one was about to shut it behind me.  She wanted out, and many was the time I heard her threaten to take me and go.  She never did, and now she’ll be in that place she hated forever, her grave right alongside the other soldiers and family members who never made it out of Fort Despair.

Pa took me huntin’ not long after she died (more of an excuse to just spend the day with me, I think, since I was too small to even hold a gun, much less use one), and we came on a fox in a trap.  I saw it before my pa could turn me away, leg broken and bloody and made worse for all its efforts to free itself.  Pa put a quick end to the animal—said we couldn’t just leave it trapped.  ‘Trapped’ was a word I associated with my mama, though he didn’t know it, and for months after I had strange, vivid dreams of both my mama and that fox tearin’ themselves up trying to get free—be it from a hunter’s trap or an army fort or, more often, a hunter’s trap inside an army fort.

They went away after a while, only to resurface three years later when the major called me to his office to tell me my pa had been killed along with three other men on a routine supply detail that had been due back into the Fort later that evening.  Pa had been dead for two days already—I’d been an orphan for two days and hadn’t even known it.  Somehow one of the wagons had slid off into a gully, either nobody knew exactly how or nobody was telling.  Pa and the others had been down tryin’ to salvage what they could, not knowing it had been raining hard off to the north.  The gully washer had caught them with no chance to climb out—probably no chance to do anything more than see it coming before they were gone.

The high rock walls and rushing water added a feel of hopeless finality to my mama’s struggles to free herself from the hunter’s trap, while the barking fox ran circles around her in the center yard of Fort Despair.  Funny enough, my pa never showed up in those dreams—only the walls and the water.

That one stuck for a couple of years, on and off.  I’d wake up panting and sweating, with my heart racing, and glad nobody else had heard.  It was hard enough for the major to constantly be finding another family to take me in (deaths and transfers and life itself being what they were), without me causing lost sleep every few nights.  By the time I was fourteen and he decided it was easier to just stick me in a corner of the soldiers’ bunk, I wasn’t dreaming so much anymore, and it didn’t matter anyway.  Most of the soldiers snored or mumbled or spent the night tossing and turning.  A little extra noise wouldn’t have made any difference.

Anyway, that was the year I saw … well, I don’t talk about it—don’t think about it, most of the time don’t even really remember it happened—but it made all those dreams from before seem kind of unimportant.  Childish.  Oh, I was no innocent, living on an army fort and without folks to keep me out of all the things that kids my age shouldn’t see or hear … but that was the year I learned what people are really capable of doing to each other, and that I wanted no part of it.

Any nightmares I’ve had since have been of that.

I still have one every now and again, even all this time later.  Not often—every couple of years or so, maybe—but when they come, I know it’s because I’ve stayed too long in one place.  It’s far past time for me to pack up and move on.

*****

“All right, you’re next.  Come on!”*

I was glad when they finally came for me, even though I didn’t trust them and didn’t have any idea what would come once I left the cell.  Could be another beating, for all I knew.  Didn’t matter.  Surely anything had to be better than this not knowing—this pacing and guessing and tryin’ to pry information out of a crazy old man who made it obvious he wasn’t telling everything and who might not (for all his hinting) actually know anything.

They shuffled me out past that other prisoner on his way back in, and I had time for a good look.  His face wasn’t in much better shape than mine.  I don’t know if they timed it that way on purpose, as a warning, but whatever the case it just added another knot to my gut as we entered the outer office.  The sheriff was there, and that other man—still sittin’ in that same chair by the desk—but neither of them seemed to be in much of a talkin’ mood.  I went to sit down, and the ‘deputy’ jerked me back.  Apparently, I wasn’t allowed to sit until I was told.

Well, I hoped they hurried up on that, because black spots swirled in front of my eyes the longer I stayed upright, and a spot just south of my left kidney was killing me.  Sitting wasn’t any less painful … but at least there was less chance of falling on my face.

What came over the next few minutes was bizarre and frustrating and—I’ll admit it—frightening.  They emptied my stuff onto the desk and riffled through it, payin’ special attention to the money I’d been carrying for Mr. Cartwright.  I bluffed about holdin’ somebody accountable if something out of my bags turned up missing, but they ignored me.  I asked who was in charge, and they ignored me.  They asked who I was and where I was from.  I gave them the truth, hoping it would help.  It didn’t.  After all these years, I can tell pretty well when a man doesn’t believe a word I say.

They asked about the money, and I explained.  They asked if I could prove my story, and I couldn’t—no receipt (why would I have a receipt when it was Mr. Whalin who paid me), no riding partner, no … but wait.  There was that farm at mid-morning, and the old man who traded me a fresh horse.

They seemed almighty interested in that.

“What was his name?”

“Haines, Baines, somethin’ like that.”

“Praise be.  Praise be!  I think my prayers have been answered.”

The man by the desk burst into noisy, almost teary life, and when I asked what was going on, the deputy wrapped my bandana tight around my neck and pulled.

Oh, that got my attention.

They were tryin’ to hang me.

They were tryin’ to hang me, and wouldn’t even tell me why …

Things got tense after that, as if everything before was just a Sunday ride by the lake.  The sheriff hammered me with questions I didn’t understand and had already answered.  My head pounded, and my gut was tight, and fear left a bitter taste in my mouth.  I scrambled for proof, for someone to back up my story.  He didn’t want to hear it.

“Look, if you don’t believe me, ask Sam Whalin!”

“He’s in Big Forks.  We got you here.”

“Mr. Cartwright can vouch for me.  He’s probably at the hotel right now.”

“From what you say, he hasn’t seen you for two days.  He doesn’t know what you’ve been up to.”

How could I prove my innocence (of what?) if they wouldn’t even check my story?  In the meantime, the sheriff had started asking about a partner I didn’t have, leaning close—right in my face—tying my brain and my temper in knots.

“I don’t know what you want!  If you just tell me what you’re after, I know I can straighten it out!”

That wasn’t going to happen.  No one had any intention of telling me anything.

More questions.  They asked again about my partner (who didn’t exist), and my horse (borrowed from that old man).  Halfway through that, a couple more ‘deputies’ dragged in yet another prisoner, and the sheriff asked if I recognized him.

Why should I?  I didn’t know him, and in any case I could barely see straight at that point, around the black spots and the pounding in my head.

They didn’t believe me.

I felt like I was maybe gettin’ close to throwing up again.  The sheriff had a quick exchange with his friend by the desk, and the next thing I knew, the man was headed for the door.  I jumped on that.  If somebody was headed out, into the town, maybe there was still a chance to get this whole ugly mess cleared up …

“Can you please send somebody over to the hotel, see if Mr. Cartwright’s in yet?”

“Uh-uh.”

Why not?

“He’ll come lookin’ for me.”

“Listen.  We are not gonna have any outside meddlin’ right now.  You see, I passed the word.”

That was when I knew I was in real trouble.

I mean, I’d already known—I’m no fool—but … they weren’t just not checking my story.

They were hiding me in here.

Swift panic left a bitter taste in my mouth, and I almost didn’t even feel it when the ‘deputy’ knocked my bullet graze to get my attention.  I rose and followed him blindly back into the cells.  My only clear thought as he locked me in, beyond wonderin’ how they’d managed to pump all the air out of my cell, was that the Cartwrights would be in town soon, if they weren’t already.  They’d figure out eventually I was missing, and (like I told the sheriff) they’d come lookin’ for me.  This whole crazy town might be tryin’ to keep me out of sight … but something I’ve learned.  When three Cartwrights are on the trail of somethin’, you’d best hide it good if you didn’t want it found.  I don’t think that family knows how to give up, and right now I was countin’ on that hard.

I hoped they’d hurry it up, though, because the walls were closing in fast.

*****

Chapter Three

For all that I wanted to strangle him myself and earn my place in that jail, the crazy, boot obsessed, wife-beating drunk gave me the first ray of hope I’d seen—after he got done informing me my name was more suited to a horse or a lapdog.  I added ‘woman’ myself, just to beat him to it.  I’d heard them all (and others beside), so it was nothing new.  It didn’t even upset me, not anymore.  I told him my name had taught me how to fight, and it was (among other things) the honest truth.  I’ve developed an appreciation for that name over the years.

Still doesn’t mean that being compared to a saloon girl is something I generally enjoy.

By that point, things had gone from bad to worse.  I wouldn’t have thought that possible, after being beaten and questioned and threatened … but that was before they came back with a little boy bandaged up like an Egyptian mummy I saw once in a slideshow.  I heard them talking to the guy down the hall, and then they came and opened the door to my cell.  The poor kid was burned and dazed, but he looked right at me and said I was the man he saw.

(“Yeah, I think so … Yeah … Yeah, I’m sure.”)^

Even without knowing anything, I knew that was bad.

His pa (Burnham, the name was Burnham) went for his gun.  With no place else to go, I dove for a corner and prayed.  The sheriff and ‘deputies’ wrestled him down and dragged him away, leaving me shaking and shaken.

What?  What was happening here?  What had I supposedly done?

Lonnie the drunk scurried over as soon as they were gone to pester me for details I didn’t have … but that worked out all right.  In the course of telling him for maybe the fourteenth time that I didn’t know, I managed to learn that old man Haines was Burnham’s father-in-law.  It didn’t explain anything, but it was something.

And then Lonnie mentioned he’d be going home soon.

It was like the sun had shone directly into our stinking little cell.

I grabbed on.  Of course, counting on a man like Lonnie the drunk could still end badly, but it was the only good news I’d had all day.  I all but begged him to find the Cartwrights, and promised him my employer would pay him for his trouble.  It wasn’t even a promise I was hesitant to make—Ben Cartwright would do it, without question or argument.

He was that kind of man.

*****

I told Mr. Cartwright once, “When I first met you all I couldn’t believe it.  The way you are, the way you care about each other.  I guess I just wasn’t used to it.”  We had been trapped in a dark mine shaft together for weeks at that point.  We were out of water and time, or I never would have said something like that out loud.

That doesn’t make it any less true, and there are still times it catches me off-guard.

I owe him my sanity from those days, though I’ve never told him so.  He probably knows anyway—Ben Cartwright knows a lot of things about a lot of people.  The only reason I didn’t go completely crazy, imprisoned in my own worst nightmare, was that every time I started to panic he would throw that aggressive calm of his over me like a blanket, and itwould smother me instead of those walls.  Sounds stupid, maybe, but that’s as close as I can get to explaining.  Even that couldn’t hold me completely—I tried to blow myself up before the end, and ended up sobbing on the ground with my employer rubbing circles on my back like I was his baby boy instead of a hired hand he’d known for less than three years.  In contrast, almost the last thing he said to me before lack of water overwhelmed us was that he was worried about Hoss and Joe.

We were the ones dying, and he was worried about them.

I’ve never met anyone like the Cartwrights—not in the army, not after.  At first, they made me downright wary.  They assume the best about a man right off.  You don’t have to worry about earning their loyalty, only losing it … and they give with both hands.  With a Cartwright at your back, you don’t need to look over your shoulder.

You’re covered.

What is there about that to distrust?  I know it sounds strange.  In all my years, though, I’d never seen that kind of open generosity, especially directed at strangers or hired hands.  It’s unusual enough among family and people who have known each other for years.  A man in my shoes has to be cautious, has to take care of himself.  Sure, you learn to give and take a kind of temporary loyalty in order to stay alive in country like this.  You count on your fellow hands during a cattle drive, or when you’re branding steers, or when you’re out huntin’ down rustlers.  It’s a dangerous life.  You might even be able to count on them during a saloon brawl or a problem in the little town at the end of the line.  But for the most part, the real loyalty I’ve seen has been fairly exclusive—meant to protect and establish, whether it’s freely or grudgingly given (and believe me, there’s as much of the second as the first).

It isn’t that way with Ben Cartwright and his sons.  You have their protection, their friendship, their affection even (the open, obvious affection baffled me the most … I hadn’t known that from even my ma and pa, much less anybody since) right there at the start.  Oh, they’re not naïve, as I first thought, or weak.  They know the risks and watch for them.  But it’s a risk they take, and from what I can see, it pays off more often than otherwise.  Might not seem like it on the surface, with the number of crazy situations that family finds itself in … but not everyone can be a jackass or a madman.  Most people, in fact, aren’t.  For myself, I know it didn’t take long before I was responding in kind—probably long before I even realized I was doing it.

Mr. Cartwright would say something about the Good Book and the Golden Rule, Hoss would compare it to gentling some wild thing, and Joe would just laugh.  Whatever the case, why ever they do it, it’s good to have somebody to really count on for a change, and it’s good to know that kind of man trusts you to do the same for him.  The drifting still calls to me—I don’t know if it will ever be out of my blood completely—but I know when I do go, it won’t be the same.

Maybe that should make me nervous, but it doesn’t.  Not yet, anyway.

*****

It seemed to me like forever before they released him, and I paced a rut in the floor waiting.  The possibility of finally alerting the Cartwrights to my situation was so close, and I thought I might crawl out of my skin with any more delay.  Lonnie ignored me for the most part—no more complaints about my boots (which were not as cheap as he claimed) or questions about what I had done—and I was just as happy for it.  I wanted his help, not his chatter.

I heard them come for Vern down the hall, and when they brought him back I called to him through the little window in my cell door.  After hearing what he had to say, I almost wished I hadn’t—things were bad enough without knowing they were bribing men to offer false testimony against me.  I believed him when he said that he was sorry for it, but his apology didn’t do me much good.  The walls were gettin’ stronger, the cell smaller.  The air was so thick I could barely swallow.  There wasn’t much time to dwell on that, though, before I overheard a whispered conversation outside the other window, with the other prisoner—the one they’d been trying to pin on me as a partner.  I couldn’t quite follow it, but I heard enough to know he was guilty of something … even if it had nothing to do old man Haines.

And then, finally, they released my cell mate.

They came for me not long after, dragging me back into the outer office for more ‘questions’ (which were soundin’ less like inquiries and more like accusations all the time).  The sheriff and Burnham didn’t give the talking too much chance this time, and I figured when a couple of the ‘deputies’ dragged me off into a side room that had been the plan all along.  They were losing patience, and ready to force the issue.  Only, I wasn’t playing that game.  Silence was the only defense I had left, and it would take a lot more than fists and boots to make me break it.  Their blows had taken on a new kind of viciousness, and on top of the pains and bruises I already had, it wasn’t too hard to fake a semi-conscious state before they could do any real damage.  I might have been surprised when they dumped me in with that third prisoner instead of taking me back to my own cell … but I was past that point.  I had stopped expecting anything sensible out of them, and was just doing my best to hang on for the ride.

As soon as I rolled over and saw that my new cell mate was free of bruises, I knew something wasn’t right.

John was quick to talk, and it seemed to me that he knew a little too much about everything—temporary deputies, their heavy-handed tactics, and finally (finally) the reason behind it all.  The look on his face when he told me about the robbery and murder of Mr. Burnham’s wife and father-in-law, and the burning of the man’s place … well, if I hadn’t been ready to pin it on him before, that reminiscent little half-smile went a long way toward convincing me.

And here he was, unbeaten and comfortable in his cell.  Which meant what?

It meant somebody—one of those temporary ‘deputies’, most likely—knew.

When John produced a knife from his boot, claiming it had been overlooked and spinning escape plans, I went right along with him.  Now, I’m not stupid—far from it, I like to think.  It was a risky play, but it was also becoming blindingly obvious that if I stayed where I was, I was going to hang.  I was pretty sure that John and whichever of the ‘deputies’ might be his partner (I had my suspicions about that, too) didn’t intend to let me just walk out of this place … but I’d worry about that as it happened.

I trusted the Cartwrights to do everything they could to help me.  The thing was, I didn’t trust Lonnie to go to my employer, even for twenty bucks—not after hearing the sheriff warn him to keep quiet.  I also couldn’t guarantee they’d be able to help me even if he did.  For whatever reason, the sheriff and Burnham seemed determined to pin things on me no matter the evidence, so working within the law (as Mr. Cartwright surely would be) would get them nowhere fast.  I was feeling like that trapped fox from so many years back, and I was startin’ to understand perfectly that little fella’s willingness to sacrifice a limb to escape his fate.

I only hoped my own attempts went better than his.

*****

Chapter Four

It was the work of a few seconds to overcome the two ‘deputies’ who brought our dinner, take their guns, and lock them into our cell.  It took even less time than that for me to turn the tables on my new ‘ally’.  He really had no idea I was on to him.

“You first,”** I told him, nudging him toward the outer door with my gun in his ear.  When he dragged his feet and started calling to somebody named ‘Jim’ before he ever even stuck his head out, I knew I’d figured the right of it.  John had barely cleared the door frame before a shot sounded.  He fell back, clutching his arm, and I dragged him inside, slamming the door behind us.

“He tried to kill you, mister!”

I didn’t want him dead.  This man knew what was going on—he could get me out.

No way was I letting him get killed for a coverup.

Of course, with a shot sounded, everyone and their great aunt Nelly would know there was a problem down at the jail, and we would be surrounded in no time flat.  Time was short, and I needed some sort of bargaining chip.

“All right, mister.  Start talking!” I barked, shaking him … and he did.

It was pretty much what I expected—everything the sheriff and Burnham had been trying to pin on me for the past day, except with John and that deputy Jim (the one who really enjoyed the hitting) substituted for my role in the whole stinkin’ mess.  I’d never been a rich man, but how anyone could murder an old man and a woman, then set fire to a house with a little boy inside just for eight hundred bucks was more than I could understand.

The gunshots outside were gettin’ closer and comin’ faster.  I knew the truth now, but I didn’t know what to do with it—how to get that gunfire stopped, or how to convince the sheriff and his pal Burnham to give me a fair hearing.  I was crouched beside John, thinking furiously around my pounding head and aching ribs, when I heard my name bellowed across the din.

“Candy!”

Oh, please.  Please …

I scrambled across the room to the window.  “Hoss?”

“Yeah!”

Well, that was one of the sweetest sounds I had ever heard.  The tension eased in a blinding rush, washing me over with ringing ears and a wave of lightheadedness.  I sagged against the wall.  The situation wasn’t settled, not by a longshot, and there was still a good chance of getting shot again before it was all over … but I had help.  Even if things went south in a hurry, at least I was no longer so desperately alone.

I grinned back at my reluctant companion.  No doubt John was less excited by the timely arrival of the Cartwrights than I was, but at the moment I didn’t care.  I really, reallydidn’t.

“Tell them to hold their fire!  We’re comin’ out with our hands up, we got somethin’ to tell the sheriff!”

Muffled yelling and a silence that seemed to stretch on for years, and then Sheriff Austin’s voice.  “Everybody, hold your fire!  Prisoners are coming out.”

This was it, then.  I had no idea what would happen when we stepped out that door, but I sure wasn’t staying in this jailhouse any longer.  Pushing John in front of me, we edged outside.

A gunshot and breaking glass above my head greeted our appearance.  More shots, and men running every which way … and then a couple of people dragged Jim from the saloon, and the sheriff and Cartwrights were converging there on the porch.  I’m not sure I even really registered how close I’d just come to being shot in the head—my one goal was to get John to the sheriff and get the truth out.  I gripped his arm and dragged him across to where the others were gathered.  A few heads turned toward us, Joe’s hand landed briefly on my back as we passed (it was nice to not be slugged or manhandled for a change), and then we were facing the sheriff.

“Sheriff, that’s one of your killers.  This is the other one.  He’s ready to talk.”

Well, that news certainly set the crowd buzzing.  Austin looked for a second like he’d been poleaxed … but then he jumped right in, motioning to two of the men crowded around (neither one was wearing a tin star, which was fine with me—I’d had enough of badges lately).  “Get these two over to the jailhouse.”  He looked around at me.  “You too, Canaday.”

It was the first time he’d called me by name since I’d met him.  I suppose that meant something, but just then I didn’t care.  I shook my head.  “I didn’t do anything, Sheriff.  I’m not going back.”

“Look here.”  His eyes were hard, his jaw set.  “All I got so far is your word.  Can’t hang a man on that, ‘specially not one I’ve known as long as Jim Hale.  Nobody’s goin’ anywhere but my office until we figure out just what—”

“You were going to hang me on less!”  No way was I setting foot in that jail again.  “I already know how you ‘figure things out’, Sheriff, and I’m not—”

A hand gripped my shoulder, and Mr. Cartwright stepped up beside me.  Joe and Hoss flanked us on either side, casting dark glances between me and Sheriff Austin.  I’d almost forgotten they were there—strange, since I was so glad to see them, but my mind was scattered in a hundred different directions.  “Sheriff, we will come to your office long enough for you to get a statement from Candy.”  I wasn’t going back there.  I tried to jerk away, but his hand was like steel on my shoulder.  “He will go no farther than your front room, and we will be there to witness the entire proceedings.”

Something in my employer’s voice or expression backed Austin down.  He nodded once, then turned and crossed toward the jailhouse without even looking at me again.  I started to shake my head—I wasn’t going back there—but Mr. Cartwright squeezed my shoulder.

“Candy, let’s get this all straightened out so there are no more questions.”

Apparently, Sheriff Austin isn’t the only one who backs down when Ben Cartwright talks.  I was nodding along before I ever even intended to agree, and wondering at the same time just how the man does that.  In the end, I guess it just made sense.  Realistically, I probably couldn’t expect to leave town without stepping foot in the jail again at least once.  If nothing else, I’d need to make sure John stuck to the same story he’d told me.  At least this time I had some backup.  I took a long breath, steeling myself.  Mr. Cartwright pressed my shoulder again, and Hoss gripped the other.

“You all right?” he muttered as we started across the street.  “What’d they do to you?”

Was I all right?  No, but I would make it.  Sometimes, that’s all a man can really hope for.

“Their questioning methods lack finesse,” I finally admitted.

I felt their eyes on me—Joe’s and Hoss’s, at least.  Mr. Cartwright was already five steps ahead of us, striding into that jailhouse looking loaded for bear.  I didn’t so much as glance at them.  I knew how I must look, but I didn’t want to talk about it just now.  I couldn’t, actually—at this point, I only had enough energy and focus for the task at hand.  One thing at a time.  Next minute, we were ducking through the door into a room full of people and chaos, close walls and heavy thick air, and there was no more time for questions.

Not their questions, anyway.

Sheriff Austin and Jim Hale were faced off over the desk, both yelling and both gettin’ pretty red in the face.  They were also doin’ their best to ignore my buddy John, but he was bound and determined to get his two cents into the din.  He wasn’t goin’ down alone.  No, sir—he’d make sure of that.  The sheriff saw me enter, and jerked his head to the men holding the prisoners.  They dragged Jim and John into the next room.  Austin hesitated only long enough to stab a finger at a chair and order me to, “Stay!” before following them in.  I sank into the nearest seat, shuddering a little.

I knew what went on in that room.  I had a dozen deep, good-sized bruises and several awfully tender ribs to prove it.

The thick door slammed, muffling but not completely blocking the sounds of renewed argument.  I ignored the noise—as long as it wasn’t me in there, I didn’t really care to hear it.  Mr. Cartwright paced toward the closed door, hands on his hips.  Joe looked back around in time to see me wince as I settled into the chair.  My back, my kidney was killing me.  Maybe sitting wasn’t such a great idea.  I rose again, shifting back and forth to try to find a comfortable position.  No such luck.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

I shrugged.  “Coupla kidney shots.”

“Let me take a look.”  Before I could even protest, Joe had the back of my shirt yanked up.  He sucked in his breath, and Hoss’s muttered, “Candy …” had me craning over my shoulder, even though I knew I’d never be able to see.

“That bad, huh?”

Hoss’s fingers lightly brushed the most tender spot.  “Ya bleedin’?”

When a man does work as prone to injury as ranching, such questions cease to be embarrassing.  I couldn’t answer him, though.  “Don’t know.”  I shrugged.  “Ain’t had any water since this morning, it hasn’t been an issue.”

Joe peeled away and went slamming out the front door.  Hoss shook his head after his little brother, then helped me work my shirt and vest back down.  “Somethin’ in here can help?”  We surveyed the room, and it was Hoss who discovered the ragged pillow on a cot in the corner.  He snagged it and stuffed it into my chair, then I lowered myself slowly back down.  I admit that the thought of sitting on the pillow Sheriff Austin might be sleeping on tonight gave me a sort of childish amusement.  Joe came back in with a canteen and thrust it toward me.  I took a long drink, and that warm, stale water was like liquid gold.  I drained what was left, and Joe swapped out that canteen for another.  I took another quick swig then corked it, resting it on my lap.

They were still going at it in the next room.  Mr. Cartwright leveled an irritated glare at the closed door, then joined us.  “Candy, what’s been going on here?”

I gave them a quick summary of the day’s events, heavy on the facts (or their lack) of the murder investigation and light on the gory details.  They didn’t need those, anyway—they could see it all for themselves.  My employer shook his head when I finished.  “Utterly ridiculous.  What kind of a lawman just grabs a man off the road and beats a confession out of him?”

It happened more often than you’d want to think about.  We both knew that.

“He didn’t get any confession out of me!” I protested, and he smiled faintly.

“No, I’m sure he didn’t.”  Mr. Cartwright patted my shoulder absently, then drifted back toward the closed door.  The noise levels had dropped, though I didn’t know if that meant anything.  I looked up at Hoss and Joe.

“Did Lonnie find you?”

Hoss snorted.  “Better you than me, in a cell with that man all day.”

I chuckled softly, rubbing when it pulled my sore ribs.  “Well, he kept things from getting too quiet on me.”  Which was truer than they knew.  Even as downright exasperating as that crazy old drunk had been, it was still better than staring at those four walls alone, trying not to think about what might or might not be coming.  “He—”

The back door swung open, and Sheriff Austin appeared.  I closed my mouth, and Mr. Cartwright rounded on him.  “Sheriff, what—”

“It’s over, Jim confessed.”  Austin held up a hand, and the smile he offered my employer was nothing short of ingratiating.  “I wouldn’t of thought it, not of Jim Hale.”  He turned that forced smile on me, and it was all I could do to not stand and smash my fist into it.  “Won’t need a statement, Mr. Canaday.  Got everything we need from Jim and his partner.  You’re free to go.”

And that was it.  After everything, this man was just going to grin and shoo me out the door.  The turnabout was so sudden it left me swaying.  I felt more than saw the Cartwrights trading glances behind me, but for the minute I was only interested in one thing.  “Where’s my stuff?”

“Right!”  Austin grinned again, head bobbing.  “I’ll just grab that for you.”

“Yeah.  You do that.”

He dumped the contents of my saddlebags out onto his desk, and I snatched up Mr. Cartwright’s money first thing.  An awkward silence fell while I counted it—at this point, there was no way I was going to trust that it was all still there.  Of course, it was my employer’s money and he could have done that himself … but it had been my job to deliver it safely, and I was glad he didn’t take it from me before I was ready.  It felt like at least one thing right out of such a terribly wrong day.

The Cartwrights lined up at the desk, radiating disgust in that way only the Cartwrights can.  It was too much for Austin, whose grin was starting to look downright painful—served him right—and he finally started babbling to break the silence.  I could have done without it, but I had no plans of speaking to him again long enough to tell him so.  I was shocked out of my count long enough to turn a disbelieving glance on the man when he mumbled that it, “Turned out all right.  Right men in jail, nobody hurt.” … but by that point I was pretty much done with the money, and done with this place.  I handed the cash to Mr. Cartwright and grabbed for my gun belt.  I rejected Sheriff Austin’s forced apology with a few sharp words—it was more annoying than his silence, and I wished my employer had just left the matter alone—and headed for the door while Mr. Cartwright lectured the sheriff about presumption of innocence in a tone that Joe probably remember well from when he was about eight.  They caught up with me standing in the street, unsure of where to go or what to do next.

“Let’s get you over to the doc,” Mr. Cartwright said, coming up beside me.

I shook my head.  “Don’t need him.”

They stared at me.  “Candy, that’s just ridiculous.”

Okay, maybe.  Still …  “I’m not going there.”

“What are your plans for getting home, then?  I know you won’t be riding like this.  You—”

“The man told me there was nothing much wrong with me while I could barely sit up straight and a thug with a badge was busy yanking my boots off, then he just walked out like the whole thing was none of his business!  And I’m guessing he didn’t tell you he knew where I was?”  I had no doubt they’d checked with the doctor right at the beginning of the search—the town doc was always one of the first places you looked for a missing man.  Mr. Cartwright shook his head.  I nodded.  “I’m not going there.  Where’s my horse?”

Hoss laughed shortly.  “You ain’t seen your back, but I have.  You ain’t gettin’ on a horse any time soon.”

What, then?  I wasn’t staying here another hour, let alone another day …

My employer sighed, then crossed his arms.  “Candy … all right.  We’ll rent a wagon.  You ride back to the Ponderosa in there, and when we get home you’ll sit still for Doc Martin.”  I started to protest—not for any real reason, but just because I was feeling ornery and out of sorts—but he cut me off.  “Or we head straight to that doctor’s office right now.”

And he’d do it, too.  Mr. Cartwright sometimes forgets himself—I’m his employee, not his son.  Still … most of the time it’s nice to know they care.  I guess I can’t really expect to have that without putting up with the rest.

Besides … riding horseback right now sounded like the purest form of torture.

“Okay.”  I nodded, slinging my saddlebags over my shoulder (and wishing I hadn’t, when they hit about three different bruises).  “Let’s go home.”

***** 

Chapter Five

It was coming on to evening by the time we pulled out of town, but no one suggested staying overnight.  There are times when an hour’s travel and a campfire are a far better option than a bed in the finest hotel—and Stillwater’s hotel was definitely not that.  My battered self didn’t appreciate the ride too much, even well-padded with straw as the wagon bed was, but there was no question that it was my only choice.  My ribs and kidney were killing me, and I was still getting a few dark spots when I stayed upright for too long.

Even with all of that, I was asleep by the time we made camp.  It had been one heck of a long day.  The first thing I knew about stopping was when Joe shook me awake to eat.

“Take it slow and easy,” he warned (unnecessarily) as he helped me out of the wagon bed.  Even that short time of inactivity had every bruise and pulled muscle well on its way to locking up, and I was panting with the effort by the time I settled near the fire.  “Would have just left you there,” Joe apologized, “but it’s gonna get cold tonight.”

I nodded, taking the plate of beans and cup of coffee from Hoss.  And … yep, there it was—the ever present can of peaches.  I don’t think we ever go anywhere without one or both of them packing a can along.  It’s mostly a joke because of that first day we met, when I strolled into their camp past the guards (pathetic guards—Joe always protests that he was posted across camp, but I lump him in with the rest since it gets a rise out of him every time) and asked for peaches instead of water or coffee or beans.  I never turn them down, though, when I find a can sitting next to me at supper.

I like peaches.  And they dull the taste of Joe’s coffee.

After supper they attacked me with alcohol and bandages (someone must have visited the doc before we left town).  I wanted to just leave it, but that wasn’t a fight I was going to win.

“Now, we’re at least gonna wrap them ribs and look at your arm,” Hoss told me in a voice that brooked no argument—so I didn’t.  They unwrapped my bullet graze and cleaned it again, though the doc’s original bandage had held up well enough.  Then they helped me out of my shirt and vest, and spent a while staring like I was the bearded lady in a traveling carnival.

“You gonna get to it, or do I just sit here and freeze all night?” I finally snapped.  That shook them out of it.

“Sorry,” Hoss muttered.  Joe was a little more direct.

“You look awful.”

“Yeah, well, I feel awful, so at least there’s that.”

There wasn’t much anybody could do about most of it—bruises tend to just stick around until they’re ready to fade, no matter what you try.  They wrapped up my ribs, which made me feel a little better, and offered a dose of laudanum (someone had definitely been to the doc).  After a moment’s hesitation, I took it.  I don’t like being drugged, and I really don’t like it out on the trail—but I just hurt all over.  Besides, with all three Cartwrights camped out around me, it was a pretty fair bet that I’d be safe enough overnight.  Better to sleep as well as I could tonight, because the trip home tomorrow wasn’t going to be any hog-killin’ time, that was sure.

I could barely move when I woke in the morning.  It was warmer by the fire, true, but I wondered if the trade-off of sleeping on the solid ground had been worth it.  It took both Joe and Hoss to get me back on my feet.  I shook them off long enough stumble behind a bush (I was bleeding, turns out, but they didn’t need to know that), then let them pull me back up into the wagon.  The straw that had seemed so deep yesterday didn’t help much today, and every position I tried just found a new spot that hurt.  I thought it was going to be a long, long ride back to the Ponderosa … but the next thing I knew, Hoss was shaking me awake in the yard.

Huh.  Apparently I’d been more exhausted than even I knew.

“Joe’s already gone to town for Doc Martin,” Mr. Cartwright told me as I eased to the ground.  “You just head up to bed.  Hoss, go with him.”

“I’ve got it,” I objected, taking a few slow steps.  The Cartwrights do hovering better than any old maiden aunt, and I was startin’ to feel a mite smothered.  Oh, they had a reason, I could admit that—but I’d spent the last day in a cell the size of a saddle bag, feeling trapped and close on to panicked.  I needed the space.

“Candy …” my employer started, but I cut him off.

“I’ve got it!”

I felt more than saw the glance they exchanged, but I didn’t care.  I started toward the house, and was relieved when neither one followed.

I continued to be relieved until I reached the foot of the stairs.  Then my bedroom started to seem a long way up, and I wished for a minute that I still lived in the bunkhouse with the rest of the hands.  That didn’t last long—it was a given that my bed in the house would be a far sight better than any cowhand’s bunk, once I reached it.  Still, I had to get up those stairs first.

“You still got it?”

Hoss’s drawl from the doorway was part annoyed, part amused.  If he’d sounded concerned I would have toughed it out, so I was glad he didn’t.  “Get over here, you big lug.”

He chuckled and ambled over.  “Okay, then.  Slow and—”

“Easy.  Yeah, I got that part.”

The trip up the stairs was as much as I could handle, and I collapsed facedown across my bed—oh, my bed was heaven—without even feeling what that did to my ribs.  After a second I felt somebody tugging at my boots.  I knew it was Hoss, but even so panic flashed and I kicked out hard.  It was too much like waking in that cell with my head spinning and a doctor pouring alcohol on my gunshot wound and that ‘deputy’ trying to take my boots …

“Sorry,” I gasped, when he protested.  “Just leave them.”

“Candy, you can’t—”

“Leave ‘em!”

For a minute Hoss was still, then he just wandered back out the door, muttering and shaking his head.  I didn’t even watch him go—I was asleep before he made the hall.

The next interruption was Doc Martin.  I dragged myself up and mumbled something I hoped sounded like ‘thanks for coming’, though I would have been just as happy for him to leave again so I could go back to sleep.  I shooed him (and Joe, standing in the doorway) out of the room so I could take care of personal business before we got started—there was no way I was doing those stairs again today—then eased back onto the bed and called him in.

“You just go on downstairs,” I told Joe when I caught sight of him still in the hall.  “Don’t need any audience for this.”  The doc shut the door firmly behind him, putting an end to that conversation before Joe could so much as nod.  Paul Martin surveyed me for a minute, rubbing thoughtfully at his jaw, then shook his head and crossed to the bed.

“It’s this house, isn’t it?  I always thought it was Ben and the boys themselves, but now I see it’s anyone who takes up permanent residence here.”  He set the bag beside me, snapping it open.  “I’d suggest running before it was too late, but—”

“I think we’re already there, Doc.”  I grinned, ignoring that suggestion of ‘permanent’.  I had made a deal with myself a long time ago that it wasn’t a topic I planned to think too closely about, and so far I was still happy with that.  Doc Martin chuckled.

“I’m afraid it does seem that way, young man.”  He leaned close to peer into my eyes for a second, then stood back and crossed his arms.  “Well, let’s have it, then.”

I told the doc about yesterday in detail, unlike the Cartwrights—there was no point in dragging the doc all the way out here and then not taking advantage.  He checked me as I went.  The head injury wasn’t bad—probably a minor concussion, but nothing serious.  The bullet graze wasn’t too bad either, and it had already been cleaned out twice.  Hoss’s wrap job on my ribs was good enough, no need to put either one of us through redoing that.  He barely even glanced at most of the scrapes and cuts and bruises … but when he got to the kidney bruise, I could tell he wasn’t happy.

“Is this from one hit?” he asked, running light fingers over it.  I shrugged.

“I don’t know,” I confessed.  “There were a lot of boots involved.”

Doc Martin just looked at me for a long minute, then sighed, squeezed my shoulder (on an unbruised spot), and knelt beside the bed.  I wasn’t sure at first what he was doing, but when he pulled out the chamber pot I scowled and looked away.

There’s no embarrassment quite like being a patient.

He shoved it back under quickly enough, but I didn’t like his expression when he stood.  “Doc?”

“Candy … I’ll tell you, I don’t like the look of that.  I want you in bed for the next week, then we’ll—”

“A week?  Doc, come on, I—”

“A kidney laceration like this one is nothing to take lightly.”  Paul Martin could look fierce as the toughest gunfighter, if he needed to.  “You’re bleeding now, and if that turns out to be the worst of your problems I’ll be happy.  But with injuries like this, there’s a possibility of infection, and of leakage.”  Leakage?  Well, that sounded … not pleasant.  “I can’t stress how important it is for you to rest and not put any more stress on that kidney.”

A week in bed.  I’d go insane …  “And after a week, you think it’ll be all right?”

“After a week, you might be able to get up.  Injuries like this can take over a month to heal.”

“A month?”  No, no …  “I can’t just sit around for a month, Doc.  I’ve got work here!  I—”

“Well, someone else will have to do it.”

My bedroom suddenly felt a whole lot smaller.  “Look, Mr. Cartwright is payin’ me to—”

“Ben Cartwright won’t turn out any hand with an injury, much less one he thinks of as the next thing to family.”  The doc snapped his bag closed again, and glared down on me.  “Do I need to have one of them come in here and ride herd on you all week?”

Well, that threat backed me down—all the more because I knew he’d do it.  “No.”  I forced myself to relax, sinking back onto the bed.  “No, I’ll be fine.”

He surveyed me again, and the touch of a grin reappeared.  “Don’t let them get to you.  They mean well, and they don’t know how to recuperate alone.”

I let out a long breath, thinking of my employers (my friends).  Finally I shrugged, returning the grin.  “I know.  And I appreciate it—I ain’t had anybody or a place like this for a long time.  Maybe ever.  But, alone is what I know how to do.”

“Well …”  Doc Martin paused in the doorway.  “I’d get over it, if I was you.”

Probably good advice, for the time being—but easier said than done.  I thanked him.

“I’ll leave some more laudanum with Ben.  I don’t like to have any at the bedside for the first couple of days at least—too easy for the patient to wake up confused and overdose.”

That made sense, too, although it gave them all legitimate access to my room.  I’d never get them out.

Then again, the bickering would be a distraction.  And I wasn’t completely opposed to a game of checkers or two, as long as nobody tried to sleep at my bedside …

“Thanks again, Doc.”

A week in bed, a month (maybe more) recovery.  I thought I might claw my way out of my own skin.  And there wasn’t a thing I could do except make the best of it.

So I did, and I found I didn’t really mind visitors every now and again (or maybe more often), and I slept good those first couple of nights, exhausted and dosed with laudanum as I was.  No dreams.  The pain backed off after a couple days, though, and the dose along with it.  That done, I started to get restless … and I shouldn’t have even been surprised when I woke up a couple days in with screams in my ears and the smell of smoke and blood in my nose and a desperate need to get out.

was surprised, though, and torn.

I had always considered that dream my cue.  Problem was, for once in my life I had found someplace I wasn’t ready to leave.

Turns out, just ignoring it wasn’t the best idea ever.

*****

Chapter Six

If I hadn’t been confined to my bed for that first week and to the house for another, I might have done all right for myself.  Yes, I’m driven by a lot of things, and that dream is one of them … but I’m a man, not a steer.  Sure, you can argue I’ve been taking the path of least resistance for most of my adult life, and you’d probably be right.  I’ve just never seen any reason not to.  I like to think that if push comes to shove, though, I’m still more in control of myself than some stupid dream or any sense that my bedroom was about a third the size it used to be.

I had managed to beat back the restlessness these past years, after all, and that was sayin’ somethin’—if  I’d actually been willin’ to have that conversation.

The thing is, tryin’ to explain ‘restless’—the real thing—to somebody that never has been ain’t all that easy, and after Ann I just decided it wasn’t worth the effort.  Seems like people tend to go around thinkin’ we’ve all got somethin’ that’ll settle us, and that once you find your somethin’, you’ll just naturally be content to sit still with it.

It don’t always work that way.  Who knows … maybe it never does, and no one will admit it.

Ironically, it’s Hoss Cartwright (maybe the most settled man I know) I’ve heard describe it best.  Mr. Cartwright had finished tellin’ me over dinner one night early on about his oldest son Adam, who had gone to Australia for a job opportunity with a startup mining company owned by a friend.

“It’s a good chance for him to use that education of his,” he told me, but I could see that even though he was proud, he was also worried that Adam might find some reason to stay.

Joe snorted.  “A good chance for him to find some fine city with opera and poets and indoor plumbing and plant himself.  You know he misses all them things.”

It was more wry observation than criticism, but Mr. Cartwright scowled.  “Joseph—”  Before he could say anything, Hoss just chuckled and shook his head, forking in another mouthful of prime beef.  My employer turned his glare on his middle son.  “Hoss, you have something to say?”

“Little Joe, where do you think Adam’s gonna find opera and indoor plumbin’ at a minin’ camp?  And Pa, you don’t have ta worry—Adam’ll be back.  This is where he wants ta be.  It was just gettin’ so’s he itched so bad beneath the skin that it was either go for a while, or tear himself apart from the inside.”  Hoss shrugged.  “Sides, it ain’t like that kinda thing comes along every day.”

Mr. Cartwright lifted one dark eyebrow.  “Oh he told you that, did he?”

Hoss met his gaze evenly.  “Matter of fact, he did.”

Yep.  Adam Cartwright sounded to me like a man who knew—and Hoss, I have discovered time and again, is a man who listens.   My big friend might not understand it personally, but he’s willing to forgive it in others.  And if that sounds high-handed, that’s not at all what I meant.  That conversation was a turning point for me, actually—it was when I knew I could relax and let myself start to feel a little comfortable here.

When I eventually went, at least one of them would understand.

Three years, though, and still stickin’.  I been proud of that.

And now this.

It probably won’t come as any surprise that I do my best thinking—my best workin’-through—in the saddle.  I need air, and space, and my own time to wrestle a problem down.  Give me that, and I really think I coulda laughed in the face of that old nightmare and my fast-shrinking bedroom and everything else that’d been followin’ me around since I’d been dragged off the road, falsely arrested, and repeatedly beaten in a two-bit town nobody’s ever even heard of unless they’ve got to ride straight through.  I didn’t have that, though.  I had the inside of a bedroom, then the inside of a great room, and well-meaning friends.

It’s more than a lot of people have—more than I’d ever had, for sure—and any other time I woulda been grateful.

With no work to do, though (Doc was pretty insistent on no heavy lifting, and for people who never follow his advice themselves, those Cartwrights are downright eagle-eyed about makin’ sure other people do), and nothin’ to look at besides the wrong side of four walls, and nothin’ to distract me for a good chunk of the day, it all got to looming pretty large.  In the middle of the night, when I’d wake up two seconds from screaming like I had that day and there was nothin’ ta hear but silence and Hoss’s snores, I had a hard time forgettin’ the images.  In the middle of the day, on the couch or the porch while everybody else was out and there was nothin’ ta hear but silence and Hop Sing in the kitchen, I had a hard time not thinkin’ back on those memories.  And when evening came and everybody else was stretched out around the fire and the checkerboard, restin’ up after a hard day’s work, I was just dreadin’ what was probably comin’ that night.

I was dog-tired and on edge, and exhausting myself even more with pretending that wasn’t the case (because the Cartwrights talk about things, and I just wasn’t going to).  The drive for the open road was so strong by the end of that second week that if I’d been able to sit a horse for any length of time, I’d have been gone as soon as I could get one saddled.  Wouldn’t have wanted to go, but I would have.

And that was the problem—at least, part of it.  I couldn’t, even though I didn’t want to.

I guess maybe at that point I really was more steer than man.  If that analogy holds.

They noticed, of course, no matter what I did.  Probably because of what I did.  They’re none of them blind, and we’ve known each other (and worked together) long enough for them to have a pretty good idea of what’s normal with me and what’s not.  What little amusement I was gettin’ those days, actually, came from watching them try to handle me.  It was so very typical.  Joe’s conversation was filled with the casual—reports of the weather and daily activities—and always worked around to an open-ended, hopeful question about my day.  Mr. Cartwright’s was less subtle, filled with pipe smoke and hints about the need to talk things through.  Hoss never said much of anything, just lounged in the area in case I should be taken with the sudden urge to get something—anything—off my chest.

The Cartwrights really are good folk, and I felt almost bad I couldn’t oblige them.

Almost.

The whole uneasy little dance finally spun out of control when I feel asleep on the couch one afternoon after lunch, safe in the knowledge that the sun was shining and I didn’t have to see my bed for hours yet, only to dream of screams and fire and blood.  I jerked awake, angry at the dream and furious with myself.  Was it not enough at night, did I also have to start fending this off during the daytime?  A scent of burning … something … drifted from the kitchen, and I knew what had set me off.

I didn’t even stop to think.

“Hop Sing!”  I was yelling even as I stalked into the kitchen.  “What is that?”

The little cook was already cussing in Cantonese—I can’t understand him, of course, but you won’t convince me he wasn’t—and turned a glare on me that would have cooled any sane man off right quick.

I kept on.  “It stinks in here.”

Hop Sing slammed a roasting pan down on the table and turned dark eyes on me.  “What you complain about?  Mistah Candy cook his own supper?  No, never!”

Whatever was in the pan—pork?—wasn’t something that I or anyone else was going to be eating anytime soon.  “Maybe I oughta start.”  I eyed the blackened mess.  “What have you been doing in here, anyway?”

It wasn’t fair.  I know it wasn’t.  But just at the moment, I didn’t much care.

“Hop Sing cooking!  Hop Sing get water and wash dishes and peel sweet potato and butcher chicken!  Hop Sing do too much at once, no need Mistah Candy in here telling how to do job!”

“Well maybe you’d better get some help, if dinner’s gonna look like this!”

“No!”

“No, what?  No help?”

“No, Mistah Candy rest!  Not here in Hop Sing’s way while he—”

“I’ve been restin’!”  It wasn’t a bad idea, actually.  No heavy lifting involved in peeling potatoes or washing dishes.  If either of us had thought of it while we were a little less hot, we probably would have been happy with that arrangement.  “I’ve been restin’ until I can’t stand the sight of this place!”

“That your problem!”  Hop Sing picked up the nearest sharp implement—a meat cleaver—and brandished it.  “But you get out Hop Sing’s kitchen!”

“Fine!”

I’d had it.  I’d had it, and I didn’t care that I wasn’t supposed to be on horseback.

“You no come back in here and tell Hop Sing dinner smell bad!  Hop Sing go back to China if no one appreciate his cooking!”

“Yeah, you do that,” I muttered, then pushed out the back door.  It slammed behind me with a satisfying crash.  My little temper tantrum wasn’t fixing anything, for sure, but it felt good to let off some steam.  I stalked across to the tack room, gathered my saddle and bridle, and whistled my horse (someone had retrieved him from the Burnham place, and I was just glad it hadn’t been me) over from the other side of the corral.  By that point, the cook was watching from the doorway.

“Where you going?  Mistah Candy not supposed to be on horse!”

“Well, that’s just too bad.”  I saddled up, ignoring the pull in my lower back.  “I need a drink.”

“Drink in house,” Hop Sing insisted, crossing the yard.  “Mistah Ben have whole shelf good liquor.”

He did.  Far better than anything I was likely to get in town, and he wouldn’t even say anything if I drank it.  Not much of anything, anyway.

“I don’t want to drink here.  I’m sick of this place.”  I swung into the saddle, and caught my breath when the ache in my kidney flared to startling life.  Everything else from Stillwater was healing nicely, I guess I really hadn’t believed this was so much worse than the rest.  Hop Sing grabbed for my reins.

“You stay!”

“Move, Hop Sing.”  I pulled around, making sure not to plow the cook over (he’s my friend, after all) and kicked my horse to a cantor.

I slowed down as soon as I was out of sight—even that little bit of jarring was far more painful than I had expected.  I sat for a minute rubbing at my back, considered turning around, and finally kept on.  It would take forever to get to town this way … but what else did I have to do with my time?

By the time I stopped in front of the Silver Dollar, I almost fell out of the saddle.  That drink was more a necessity now than just a bored desire, and I wondered if I’d be able to actually get back onto the horse on my own.  Course, that was a problem for later.  I staggered inside, dropped into a chair in the back corner, and ordered a beer from the first girl that came by.

It wasn’t as good as I’d wanted it to be, but I didn’t really care.  And quantity eventually made up what quality was lacking.

It was sometime after dark when one of the girls—Evie, a nice gal who could down whisky and deal cards with the best of them—cut me off.

“Candy … look, I know I ain’t supposed to—”

“That’s right, you’re not.  Bring me another beer.”

“You need to go home.”

“I don’t want to go home.  I’ve had enough of home lately.”

“Well, then go find a room somewhere.  This ain’t—”

“Don’t want a room, I want a beer.”

“This ain’t you!  I don’t know what’s goin’ on, but—”

“Ain’t me?  What’s that supposed to mean?”

She gripped my half-empty mug for emphasis.  “I mean that you drink, honey, but not like this, and not alone.  I ain’t never seen you do it.”

“Well, now you have.”  I tried to pull the mug back from her.

Evie held it fast.  “Some guys I’d let it go, but I don’t like to see it from you, Candy.”

“Maybe I ain’t so different from those other guys.”

“Maybe you are.”  She planted her palms on the table and tried to catch my eyes.  “Look.  I’m guessin’ Hoss or Little Joe ain’t in town, I’da seen ‘em already.  Why don’t you—”

“Why don’t you leave me alone?”  I snatched for the mug and ended up knocking it off the table instead.  It shattered on impact, spreading glass splinters and warm beer over my boots and Evie’s heels.  I started to swear roundly, but was cut off by a large hand gripping my shoulder.

“Candy, let’s go.”

I twisted around to glare at Hoss.  “I ain’t leavin’.”

“Yeah, you are.”  Joe rounded the table, tipping his hat to Evie.  “Sorry about the mess.”

She nodded, and I snarled.  “Don’t you apologize for me!”

“Then you do it!” he snapped.

He was right.  Somewhere deep down in my alcohol-induced haze, I even knew it.  But all the beer in Virginia City didn’t have me feeling any less contrary than when I rode in.  I looked from Joe to Evie, then just walked around them and out the door.  Hoss followed on my heels.  Behind me, I heard Joe say somethin’—probably apologizing for me again, darn him.  I didn’t hear Evie’s low reply, and right then I didn’t particularly care.

The open air cleared my head, but not enough.

“I didn’t pay you for an opinion!”  I twisted, dodging but not entirely avoiding Hoss’s iron grip, and flung the words back over the batwings.  “I gave you the price of a beer, and that’s all I want!”

“Go on now!”  Hoss shoved me hard, and I did a nosedive across the boardwalk.  He snagged me before I hit the ground—probably more worried about my kidney than I was—but shook hard.  “What are you doin’?  Ain’t no call ta be sassin’ that little gal.”

I pulled away, stumbled to the hitching post, and began the far too difficult process of unlooping the reins.  Joe reappeared, scowling.  Didn’t matter, I could do that too.

“Don’t you ever apologize for me!”

Hoss batted my hands away from the reins, and I let go ‘cause Joe pulled me around hard.  “What’s your problem lately?”

I stumbled back from him.  “No problem.”  I laughed, wondering just when they’d put Virginia City on a carousel.  “What makes you think I got a problem?”

“Candy.”  Joe tried to take my elbow, but I jerked away.  “What’re you doin’?  Evie’s a nice girl, she’s always been a friend.”

“Yeah,” Hoss chimed in, tugging all three horses away from the post.  “What were you thinkin’, yellin’ at her like that?  That ain’t no way ta treat a lady.”

“She tried …”  Why was I so mad at her?  And why wouldn’t the road stay straight?  And why were the shadows doin’ crazy dances?  “She tried to cut me off.  She said …”

“From what I see, that was a good idea.”

I decide when I’ve had too much!”

“Apparently not fast enough.”

“Look, Candy, let’s go home.”  Joe sighed, and tried to snag me again.  “We gotta talk about this.  You can’t just—”

“You Cartwrights like to talk, don’t you?”  I laughed.  “Talk.  Pour out your souls.  Cry on big Ben’s shoulder.”  I spun out of his reach and staggered right into my horse.  “Not me.”

“Candy—”

“You ain’t even supposed ta—”

“And I ain’t goin’ home.”

It wasn’t a decision I’d actually made.  The words were just out, and I couldn’t take them back.  Didn’t want to … even though I did.

“What?”

Joe and Hoss gaped, and I giggled again.  I dragged myself onto the horse, and wondered why I’d been so worried it would hurt.  I didn’t feel a thing.  “I ain’t goin’ back.  I’m headed out.”

Hoss pushed forward.  “Candy…”

“Sorry, boys.  Tell your pa he can keep my last week’s pay.”

I tipped my hat, wheeled the horse, and bolted.

*****

I don’t remember what direction I went, or how long I rode, or when I finally slid out of the saddle.  I don’t even know if my … oh, wait.  Yep, horse is still here, that’s good.

That’s good.

Nothin’ else is, though.

The ground is cold, and I hurt.  Not sure I could stand up even if I wanted to.  Seems like there mighta really been some reason to worry.

I’m free, though.  Yep.  Ain’t trapped anymore—not by the ranch house or the Cartwrights or Doc Martin or my own kidney.

Hmm.  Never been trapped by a kidney before …

I’m out in the open, starin’ up into the moon, on my own again.

The way I like it.  Wait.  Do I?  Dunno—it’s been a while, things mighta changed.  I mighta changed.

Okay.  The way things should be, then.

Don’t know what I’m gonna do now, though …

*****

Chapter Seven

The scent of bacon and beans and strong coffee woke me.  And my headache.

Boy, did I have a headache.

I tried to muffle my groan, but it must’ve escaped anyway because the next thing I knew footsteps approached and then a strong, bitter scent assaulted me.  Dang it, Joe musta made the coffee.  I batted a hand in front of my face without opening my eyes.  “I’m nauseous enough already.”

“No fatback, then?”

Hoss.  And entirely too chipper to be anything but a deliberate attempt to make me gag.  It almost worked, too … but I managed to keep my stomach in line.  Barely.  I tried to roll away from the coffee odor, but the pain in my kidney was too much for me.  I settled back with a gasp.

“Hey Joe, was he supposed ta be up on a horse yet?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Funny,” I groaned, fumbling (still without opening my eyes) for the mug I knew had to be close by.  “Real funny.”  Hoss closed my fingers around it, and then I heard footsteps retreating.  I laid flat on my back for a few minutes, wondering how I was going to drink coffee without getting up, and then slowly—slowly—opened my eyes.

The sun was up, but fortunately we were in a stand of trees that kept us a little shaded.  From my position on the ground, I suspected Joe and Hoss had just left me where they found me the night before, though somebody had tossed a bedroll blanket over me.  I turned my head cautiously.  A buckboard sat off to my left with the horses.  To my right was the fire, crackling in a little open spot between trees.  Joe sat cross-legged beside it, wolfing down a plate of bacon and beans, and Hoss was just settling back in.  He saw me looking and lifted his mug before slurping loudly.

“You fellas come prepared.”

Joe shrugged.  “You might’ve meant to quit, but you headed back toward the Ponderosa.”  He ate another mouthful of beans, and washed it down with a good gulp of black sludge.  “Almost made it, too—we ain’t but twenty minutes from home.  We had plenty of time to get supplies.”

Huh.  Well, so much for dramatic exits.  “I ain’t quittin’.”  With a hangover, in the light of morning, things didn’t seem quite so urgent as before.  Anyway, I was on the other side of a good long sleep with no dreams at all—though a variety of past observations told me I probably shouldn’t depend on a night of drinking every time I wanted to avoid a nightmare.

“Yeah.  Didn’t think so.”

I got one elbow beneath me and propped up enough to swallow a scalding mouthful.  For a couple of minutes we were all quiet, as Joe and Hoss ate and I wondered just how many hammering miners could fit inside one person’s skull.  My back didn’t even bear thinking about.

Hoss’s question came out of the great wide nowhere.

“Hey Joe, you remember that ol’ hummin’bird last month?”

Well … this oughta be good.  I hoped he would get to the point fast, because my brain wasn’t followin’ too well this morning.

“Yeah.”

Joe’s tone said that he didn’t know either where Hoss was headed, but he was willing to play along.  I took another drink, my thoughts drifting back.

We all three remembered the hummingbird, no doubt.  It was just not one of those things a man runs into every day—unless he knows Hoss Cartwright, that is.  Joe and I had rode in that evening to find Hoss crouched in the loft.  We didn’t even have to ask what he was doin’ up there—he called down to us as soon as we appeared in the doorway.

“Hey!  One of you come take this little guy.”

Joe and I exchanged a curious glance, then Joe handed off his reins and crossed over to the ladder.  He scrambled up a few rungs, then held up a hand.  Hoss dangled over the edge, placing something in Joe’s outstretched palm.  When Joe rejoined me a minute later, a tiny bird rested there.  It was so still I thought at first it was dead, but then I saw the smallest of movements and knew it still hung on.  Sick, then?  Hoss joined us the next minute, carefully lifting the little creature from his brother’s grasp and exiting into the yard.  We followed.

“Been trapped in the barn all afternoon.”  I looked back at the barn doors—the entrance and the loft were both wide open.  He saw my gaze and nodded.  “Yeah, plenty of room for him ta get out, he just couldn’t find it, poor little feller.  Kept missin’ the mark, and he didn’t trust ol’ Hoss ta help him until he was just too tuckered out for anything else.”

We trailed along as Hoss rounded the house and approached the wild honeysuckle crawling in tangled glory up its back walls.  He held his huge hand with its tiny passenger right out to one of the little blooms, and waited.  After a long minute, the bird stirred enough to insert its beak.

“You two can get along now, if you want.”  Hoss spoke calmly, so as not to upset the little guy.  “This is like ta take a while.”

We left him there, waiting patiently for that little bird to drink enough to be able to fly away again.  And eventually it did.

I’d never seen anything like it, so I wasn’t likely to have forgotten already.

I grunted when Hoss’s gaze turned on me.

“Well?”  His voice was expectant—unreasonably so, since I still wasn’t following.  Well what?  I lifted a pained eyebrow, inviting him to get to the point.  “Ain’t you about tuckered out yet?”

I almost laughed aloud.  Might have, if my head didn’t hurt so much.  A hummingbird.  Only Hoss Cartwright could make a comparison of man to hummingbird sound not only reasonable, but downright wise.  Across the fire, Joe was eyeing his brother with that little half-smile of affectionate pride you’ll see from him every once in a while.

It was something I’d learned quick about the Cartwright brothers.  A lot of people (not everybody, but enough)  think of Hoss as sort of lumbering along in his little brother’s wake, but it ain’t that way.  Sure, Joe is the face of the Ponderosa right behind Mr. Cartwright, and is the more savvy in business and management.  He’s clever and quick-tongued and good with a gun and (if the ladies are any indication) right charming.  But Joe, maybe more than anybody else, is also as fully aware of Hoss’s (many and varied) areas of expertise as his own, and knows how to hand over the reins without fuss when that gap is crossed.

Joe Cartwright still blatantly adores his big brother.

That lack of petty jealous between the Cartwrights was one of the things that impressed me when I first came here, and convinced me that maybe the Ponderosa was a place worth stayin’ for a while.

All of which had nothin’ to do with the reason both Hoss and Joe were now watching me with barely concealed impatience while I mulled over the moral of Hoss’s hummingbird story.

Tuckered out.  I was at that.

I rested my head back on the ground and stared up into the trees, taking a long slow breath.  This was Hoss and Joe.  They’d proved themselves to me time and again—I guess they’d earned a little better than I’d been givin’ them these past weeks.  All right.  But, it was easier to accept defeat if I didn’t look it in the eyes.  “I don’t handle bein’ … pinned in, is all.”  I realized too late that they’d have every right to be offended—the Cartwrights had been nothin’ but helpful and hospitable—but the silence that followed was thoughtful more than anything else.

“Stillwater or after?” Hoss finally asked.

Oh, I didn’t want to think about this.  “Both, I guess.”

“Candy, your kidney—”

“I know about my kidney, Joe.”  It twinged in time with my throbbing head, and I wondered just what kind of damage I’d done yesterday.  “Trust me.”

“So, you might not like it, but you got no choice.”

Exactly.  But it made me sound like a pouting five year old, put that way.

“Ain’t nobody’s particularly fond of recuperatin’,” Hoss offered, and I struck at the ground.

“I know!”  Talking.  This was why I didn’t do it—because nothin’ ever comes out the way you mean it, and nobody understands what you’re really tryin’ ta say.  “I know it.  But I …”  Slow down, boy.  “I just always been that way.  It’s part of why I don’t stick around.  Part of why I gave your pa all those rules when I hired on.  I don’t like … I just can’t be trapped somewhere.  I gotta be able to … even if I don’t.”  I sounded like an idiot.  “Ah, just forget it!”  I hit the ground again, more angry with my own inability to articulate anything worth saying than at them for forcing the issue.  My head and my kidney both jarred painfully.  “You wouldn’t understand.”

Great fallback.  Eloquence at its finest.

I could feel them exchanging glances—didn’t even have ta look to know.

“Did you know I’m afraid of heights?” Joe asked finally, around another mouthful of breakfast.

What now?  I snorted.  “Joe, everybody knows that.”

“Everybody does know that, little brother,” Hoss agreed, settling back on his elbows and swirling the tar in the bottom of his coffee cup.  Joe pulled a face at his plate, muttering beneath his breath, then reapplied himself to his bacon and beans.

Seemed like we were all bein’ downright religious about not lookin’ at each other.

I was entirely at peace with that.

“Well, they didn’t always.”

He was expectin’ some sort of response.  The least I could do was oblige.  “Yeah?”

“I had no intention of anyone ever knowin’, actually, but it kind of forced itself.  Between the screaming nightmares and my temper I almost drove off my family—”

“Aw, now Joe, you know that ain’t—”

“And all the rest had me feelin’ so insecure I did something stupid and almost destroyed a fifteen year friendship.”

Now I did look around.  “Yeah?”

“Mitch.”

“Huh.”  That woulda been a real loss … Mitch is a good guy.

“Huh.”  Joe glared over at Hoss.  “I open up to the man, and he says ‘huh’.”

Hoss downed the rest of his coffee.  “Huh.”

Joe snorted and returned to his breakfast.  Hoss grinned, then glanced back to me.  “Well?”

I wished they understood just how much my head was hurting.  “Well what?”

“Well,” Joe snapped, looking up.  “Any of that sound familiar at all?”

Ah.  Okay.  I was a hummingbird and … Joe.

Wasn’t sure which was better.

“I ain’t been screamin’.”

“No,” Hoss agreed, “but ya ain’t been sleepin’ neither.”

“You all been spyin’ on me?”

He barked a laugh, almost spilling coffee from the pot onto himself instead of into the mug.  “Your sleepin’ habits just ain’t that interestin’, friend.”  Well, then?  I lifted an eyebrow.  “Even with all that rest, you ain’t exactly been fresh as a daisy.”

Right.  All right.  I scrubbed at my forehead and nodded.

Hoss and Joe, I told myself.  It’s just Hoss and Joe.

“Okay, yeah.  I got my own … dreams.”

They waited, and I muttered a few curses.  How did I get myself into this, again?

Oh yeah.  I went to work for the Cartwrights.

“I … when I was young, I slipped out one day, just me and one of the horses from the Army remuda.  Just ridin’ around, not really doin’ much, but I topped a rise and I saw …”  The memories were fuzzy, indistinct after so many years of trying to forget, but I still knew the basics like they had been burned into my brain that day.  I looked away from Hoss and Joe.  “It was an Apache village.  ‘Bout a half-dozen men, I don’t know who they were.  If they were soldiers, they weren’t wearin’ any uniform.  Drunk cowboys, maybe, or …”  After all these years, who they were didn’t matter.  It was done.  I gripped my mug tightly, glad for the scorching heat of the metal.  “Anyway, they were forcin’ some of the women and children into a coupla those brush wikiups, then they …”  I took a long breath, remembering the bright spark and the billowing smoke.  I had been close enough to hear the rush of air as the dry leaves and brush went up in flames.  “They set the wikiups on fire.”  Joe made a smothered sound, but I ignored him.  “Them Indians were screamin’ and tryin’ ta run, but the men kept shootin’ ta keep them in.  Nobody could get out …”

I stopped there, though the memory didn’t.  I had wanted to bolt, or to even just make myself turn away, but in the end I hadn’t been able to do anything but just crouch there on that hill.  It was a senseless and cruel assault, and I couldn’t understand it.  And then the Apache men had returned, while the attackers still laughed and drank and fired shots into the air, and blood of those men had soaked the ground around those burned huts.

I don’t remember creeping away.  I didn’t sleep for weeks.

“How old were you?”

Joe’s voice jolted me back to the present.  I shook my head, clearing it in a rush of movement and throbbing pain.  “Fourteen.”  I squeezed my eyes shut and pulled in a long breath.  “I spent a long time puttin’ it behind me, I don’t really remember it too clearly.  If things start ta get tight, though …”  Well, there wasn’t any controlling my dreams.

“Yeah.”  Joe nodded slowly.  “I can understand that.”

I was glad they didn’t ask a bunch of questions.  Don’t think I could have handled that.  We just sprawled in silence for a few minutes, listening the crackle of the little fire (so different from the one back then) and the morning bird chatter.  I finished my cup of coffee, and Joe finished his plate of beans.  Hoss might’ve been almost asleep, but I knew better.

To my surprise, I was the one who talked first.

“You’re still scared of heights.”

Joe nodded cautiously.  “Uh huh.”

“So what good came from spilling your guts?  Dragging it all out into the open for everybody?  It didn’t fix anything.”

He shrugged.  “No.  But it’s a lot smaller now.”

Huh.  All right.  That sounded … good, at this point.  I’d have to think about that.

Hoss tossed the rest of his coffee onto the fire.  “We better be gettin’ on in, if you don’t want Pa out here checkin’ up on us.”  That was the last thing I wanted.  I nodded.  He sat up, rested his huge forearms across his knees, and studied me.  “You know you ain’t got any choice but ta sit still for a while.  Ya probably ain’t got any choice ‘bout seein’ Doc Martin again, neither.”

“Yeah.”  I’d done that to myself.  No use to fight it.  It was probably a good idea, anyway.

“So, what do ya need?”

“For what?”

“So ya don’t try ta go runnin’ off or drinkin’ yourself into the ground or quittin’ again.  We ain’t got the time ta keep trackin’ ya down.”

“Guess not.”  I chuckled, and spent a moment picturing Mr. Cartwright’s reaction to that possibility.  No, better to avoid that.  I returned my thoughts to Hoss’s question.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I guess.  “I need somethin’ to do.  Outside.”

He shrugged.  “Okay.”

I stared.  “Okay?”

“Well, it ain’t like ya gotta just sit and stare at the walls, but ya gotta say somethin’.  Seemed ta us like ya needed the rest more than anything else.  If that ain’t the case, say so.”

I snorted a laugh, and wished I hadn’t when both my head and my kidney protested.   Had I really been doing this all to myself?

No, not all of it, I decided pretty quickly.  But some of it.  Maybe even most of it.

“So you’re saying that hummingbird had ways out if he’d looked.”

Hoss chuckled, pleased.  “That hummin’bird weren’t really trapped at all.  He just thought he was.”  He rose, in a smooth motion that didn’t seem possible for such a big man, and ambled off toward the buckboard.  I shook my head after him.

“Where does he get this stuff?”

Joe grinned, standing as well.  “Who knows?  It seems so obvious once he says it, though.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

I knew they weren’t going to let me help pack up camp, and I felt too awful to even make the offer, so for once I just let them do all the work.  I laid there like a slug, watching as Joe put out the fire and scrubbed off the dishes.

“Hop Sing’s got a whole mountain of potatoes behind the back door.  Bet he wouldn’t mind handin’ those off to somebody else.”

I grimaced.  “Hop Sing will probably flay me alive when he gets hold of me.”

“Maybe.”  Joe’s chuckle left no doubt that they’d all heard about that incident.  “But after that, I’m pretty sure he’d be happy to put you to work.  He hates peelin’ potatoes.”  Sounded good.  I nodded, settling back in.  Sounded good for when I could move again at all.  “Course, there’s always big Ben’s shoulder, if you need.”

What?  I stared.  What was he … vaguely, a memory of last night filtered through my pounding head.  Somethin’ about … oh.  Dang.

I groaned, and closed my eyes.  Had I really said that out loud?

“You ain’t gonna tell your pa I said that, are you?”

Joe’s cackle rebounded off the trees, leaving me with the decided impression that ship had long ago sailed.

Maybe there was still time to quit, after all.

***The End***

*Dialogue in chapter 2 is taken from the episode.

^The boy’s dialogue in chapter 3 is taken from the episode.

** Dialogue in chapter 4 through “… This is the other one.  He’s ready to talk.” is taken from the episode.  Dialogue after that is my own. (With the notable exception of “Turned out all right.  Right men in jail, nobody hurt.”  The sheriff did actually say that as beat up Candy stood by his desk counting the money…)

 

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