Whatever the Cost (by faust)

Summary: To what length will Adam go to prove a stranger’s innocence? Winning story of the 2015 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9600


 

I.

“He didn’t do it.”

It elicits some reaction, breaks their routine of the past two days. It’s almost a relief.

Well, it certainly is a relief for him to finally say it out loud, and it might be one for the others to have their attention diverted from the sickbed, if only for a moment.

And divert their attention it does. All heads shoot up, even Paul’s, although up to now the doctor seemed completely absorbed in taking Joe’s pulse. (Although Adam hasn’t, not even for a second, believed that Paul had truly been preoccupied with counting heartbeats. It is merely a mannerism, a habit adopted over the years; a way to pretend that he is doing something, that he can do something, anything at all, for Joe. Which, as they all are aware, he cannot. Could not from the moment they had carried Joe to the doctor’s office and deposited him on the bed on which he still lies without having stirred consciously even once ever since.)

It is Pa who voices their combined…bewilderment.

“Pardon me?” Edgy. He’s edgy—no wonder after the past days.

Adam sighs, then repeats a tad louder, a tad more pronounced, a tad on the defensive side already, “He didn’t do it.”

It’s a familiar feeling, to know he thinks something no one else thinks, something no one else would dare think.

“Will Kettler,” he adds because he feels the need to be precise, to be abundantly clear about this, lest they can pretend they only misinterpret his words. “He didn’t shoot Joe.”

“He was caught with the smoking gun in his hand,” Pa says in an overly even voice. “Perhaps that has slipped your memory.”

Pa isn’t prone to sarcasm; he resorts to it only under certain circumstances. Acerbic remarks are Adam’s realm, and while in general he ardently welcomes intruders, now he feels almost ambushed by Pa’s invasion. Their roles are solidly set: he is sarcastic; Pa endures it. Not the other way round. Pa’s transgressing here is like poaching in Adam’s lands, and it unsettles him. And of course, exactly that is Pa’s intention: to unsettle, to put in defense, to quieten.

Adam acknowledges the move with a twitch of his eyebrow. (Unspoken sarcasm, he’s a master of this. Even if Pa tried, he wouldn’t get a foot on that ground.) “That doesn’t mean he shot it before,” he replies then, just as calmly. “He could have picked it up.” Or someone could have given it to him…but who? And why? Ah, no, the ‘why’ would be quite obvious, right?

“He was caught coming from where the shot must have been fired,” Paul points out, after a worried glance at Pa.

“And everybody knows he was mad at Joe for beating him in taking Carole out. He even fessed up to spying on them.” Hoss stands and crosses the room to grip Adam’s shoulders, to squeeze them, and to try and manoeuver him to a chair and push him down onto it.

It may be meant to calm and pacify, but all it does is annoy Adam. They’re trying to handle him. Put him out of one of his strange notions. But he will not be handled. Or led from his chosen course of thinking. He wonders why they even try.

“But that’s just it,” he says, twisting out of Hoss’s grasp. “Why would he admit spying on them? Why admit to even having been there? He could have claimed he’d come from somewhere else.”

“He had the gun in his hand.” Now Pa’s strained tone indicates he’s speaking to an imbecile.

Adam clenches his teeth. Pa has not left Joe’s bedside for longer than needed to see to his most personal matters during the past two days. Without sleep and proper food, he has kept up his constant watch although both Hoss and Adam have repeatedly tried to relieve him, have actually begged him to let them take over. But, no, Pa will not be removed from his position at his youngest’s side. He has hardly taken his eye off Joe’s fever-flushed face lest he miss any change, for better or worse. He’s close to the end of his endurance, and so Adam concedes him leniency this once.

“It could have been any gun,” he grinds out, deliberately not even glaring at his father. “We don’t know if it was the one with which Joe was—“

Pa, on the other hand, doesn’t seem inclined to grant him leniency. He glares at him as he all but bellows, “It was still smoking, in case you’ve forgotten.”

So apparently there is some strength left in him. But then again, Pa’s roar has never been affected by exhaustion, sickness, or anguish.

Adam’s leniency has its limits, too, but before he can open his mouth to respond in kind, Hoss intervenes.

“Adam, Will said he was gonna get back at Joe. Me and you heard it when he was boasting how he’d put Joe in his place.”

Yes, he had been there in the saloon, had heard how Will had drunkenly ranted. How he’d said that Joe might think being a “cattle baron” made him a better man than Will, that he might think money could buy him everything, even the love of a girl, but that he, Will, would show Joe that a “high and mighty” Cartwright could easily be bested by a humble Will Kettler, that a modest tinker was worth no less than a filthy rich rancher’s son.

People had tried to reason with Will. Had pointed out that Joe and Carole had been friends for a long time already, since long before the hawker had come to Virginia City, and that even though Carole admittedly had shown a certain interest in Will, he should be aware that Horace Miller sheltered his precious only child from everything he deemed not proper for a young lady, which, as was well-known to everyone, was almost everything outside of the Millers’ own four walls. It was more likely that a camel would fit through the eye of a needle than for Carole’s father to allow her socializing with someone the likes of Will Kettler anyway. After all, Will was a vagrant, a craftsman travelling from town to town, repairing pots and pans and never staying for longer than he was needed—and whose father would want his daughter be associated with a man like that?

But still, even considering all that… “It doesn’t mean he’d shoot at Joe. He was drunk, Hoss, disappointed. He needed someone to put blame on—I think he really cares for the girl, and he realized she’d never be his. So he got drunk, and he let off steam. It was drunken speech, that’s all. Can’t you see that?”

The doctor pats Pa’s arm, then he says what Pa would say—only without rage. “But can’t you see that all evidence speaks against Kettler? He’s got a motive, he was heard threatening Joe, he was at the right place at the right time, he was found with the gun in his hand. What makes you think he didn’t do it?”

It’s a reasonable question. It’s a reasonable way to sum it all up. Put like that, only someone insane would object to the only possible conclusion that Will Kettler must be guilty of shooting at Joe from an ambush, and according to Dr. Martin’s prognosis, most probably murdering Ben Cartwright’s youngest son. Nothing speaks against it. Nothing. But…

Adam pinches the bridge of his nose and takes a deep breath, then he sets his jaw and replies, “It doesn’t…feel right. It’s all coming together too smoothly, too easily. Something just feels…fishy. And Will Kettler, he’s never appeared the type, has he? Doesn’t even wear a gun…” He shrugs. “I’m aware I’ve got no positive proof, but…I just know he didn’t do it.”

He’s surprised he doesn’t hear a collective groan, which would be the usual reaction to him saying “I just know it.” Instead, they just stare at him.

Remarkably, their silent disapproval is worse than groans or even outbursts would be, and Adam almost wishes to take his words back, to concede to their sentiment, but he can’t because he will never divert from the path he deems right for the sake of consonance—and suddenly the room is too crowded, the air too thick with looming death, and Adam has to get out, get away, get into action, get…clarity.

It hurts to rip himself from his family, from their united vigil at Joe’s bedside, but once he’s in motion it’s surprisingly easy to bolt out of the room and out of lethargy.

Finally, he’s got a job to do.

*****

II.

Hoss is already on his feet, ready to follow Adam, to make him come back and see reason—but then he notices Pa’s face. There’s anger in it, tiredness, and hurt. As if this conversation with Adam has robbed Pa of his last reserves. It’s plain that right now Pa needs him more than Adam. Even though his older brother isn’t half as unaffected by Pa’s disapproval as he wants to let on, he will get along on his own very well for the couple of moments it’ll take Hoss to calm Pa.

And so Hoss redirects his steps to Pa’s side and crouches down next to him. “Adam didn’t mean it,” he says.

Pa snorts. “Oh, I think he did mean it all right.”

“Yeah, well, maybe just now he did. But he’ll soon run outta steam, and come back and…” Of course, Adam will not run out of steam. If anything, he will work himself up into a real frenzy, and nothing short of a miracle will be able to deter the mule that is Adam Cartwright from following his intended course. But dang it, Hoss doesn’t happen to have any miracles on hand right now.

No, Adam is not Joe. He hasn’t left because his temper got the better of him and he won’t come back once he’s got himself back under control. Hoss knows that, and Pa, too.

“He won’t.” Pa shakes his head. “He’s been brooding ever since we got here. I should have seen it coming—but who’d have thought he would come up with something like this?”

Hoss knows he’s not expected to answer. No one can ever tell what will come from Adam’s brooding. It started right after Roy had told them the culprit was already under arrest and who it was. Adam looked surprised, asked Roy for details, and then fell silent.

The arrest didn’t surprise Hoss, though. Will Kettler had arrived at Virginia City four weeks ago with too wide a smile on his face and too bright brand new paint on old Meriwether Kettler’s ancient prairie schooner. He’d taken over the wagon and the business after his uncle had retired after more than fifty years living a vagrant’s life. Meriwether Kettler had come to Virginia City every year since the time before the town got its name, and had been well respected by everyone. Will’s eyes were sharper than his uncle’s had ever been, his fingers nimble and skilled, and his personality open and friendly—but he still was a complete stranger, seemed too eager to make friends, too curious about people and dealings; and so business had been slow and difficult to start. In the end, however, the need for repairs won out over the initial mistrust, Will’s bright smile and charming words at least won him the inclination of the town’s women, and he made good money—which he spent for beer and cards, and for Carole Miller, whom he’d met when he’d come to the Millers’ to mend a hole in the kitchen sink.

To everyone’s surprise he turned out to be a serious competitor to Joe, for Carole wasn’t immune to his rough charms. But then Joe played a card the tinsmith couldn’t: he invited Carole to go to the theatre, thus fulfilling her greatest wish. Of course, Will could have invited her, too—only Carole’s father would never have allowed her to go with him. As a matter of fact, he forbade Carole going with Joe, too. But Joe had two of Virginia City’s best negotiators at his hands, and when even Pa’s father-to-father talk didn’t change Mr. Miller’s heart, he just turned to Adam for help. It took Older Brother less than an hour to make Horace Miller see that refusing his daughter this might make her turn her affection from Joe to Will.

Joe, of course, was over joyed and pledged Adam eternal gratitude, and Will got himself drunk and vowed eternal revenge against his rival.

Then, on Joe’s and Carole’s great evening, on their way to the theatre, Joe got shot. Shot in the back, at medium distance from somewhere in the bushes next to the street. The bullet caused a small wound in Joe’s back, shattered two ribs, grazed his lung, and ripped a gaping hole where it exited on his front. Even though by some miracle it didn’t fatally damage anything vital inside of him, Joe almost bled to death even in the short span of time that it took to bring him to Paul Martin’s office. By sheer luck the doctor was at home—otherwise Joe would already be dead.

It still isn’t clear that he will survive, but Joe’s a fighter, and he has hung on for much longer than estimated already, and Hoss just knows his little brother will make it.

He will.

It’s in no way a consolation, but still, to know the man who’s responsible for Joe’s suffering won’t go unpunished is satisfying.  And he will be punished. Will Kettler might be insisting on his innocence, but he’s lying right through his teeth, of that Hoss is sure. Hoss, Pa, Paul Martin, Sheriff Coffee, the whole of Virginia City are sure of that—only Adam isn’t.

“Sometimes,” Pa’s voice jolts Hoss back to the present. “Sometimes I wonder what’s going on in that college-educated mind. Why everything is a question for Adam, even the things that are abundantly clear to everyone else.” He sounds puzzled, and also forgiving. Fond, almost.

And so Hoss tries a lighter tone. “You know how he is,” he says. “It’s typical; he thinks just the opposite of what everyone else thinks. And then he goes and fights his case and annoys everybody on the way, right up until he’s proven he was right from the beginning.”

He chuckles, Pa chuckles, Paul chuckles—they’ve all belonged to the annoyed party at one time or the other.

Yeah, being contrary is in Adam’s nature, thinking further and beyond, never being content with the obvious without questioning it at least once. Admittedly, most of the times it turns out he’s right.

…it turns out he’s right. “Dadburnit.”

“Or he’s stirring up trouble,” Pa says at the same time.

They stare at each other for a moment, then Pa closes his eyes and exhales with a groan. “Go after him, Hoss.”

*****

III.

Adam bites down so hard on the matchstick he’s been chewing that it breaks. There are splinters on his tongue now, and that gives him an excuse to walk over to the spittoon and get rid of them, and to not react to what the sheriff just said.

“You know I’ve got a lot of respect for your judgement, Adam,” he hears Roy say into his back. “But believe me, you’re wrong about this here thing.”

Adam heaves a deep breath, takes his time turning around and going back to his seat. “Roy, Iisten, I’ve got—“

Roy raises two appeasing hands. “No, you listen to me, young man.”

Adam wishes people would stop calling him this. He may be younger than Roy, but this has nothing to do with years anyway—which is exactly why it annoys him so. He fumbles for another matchstick, bites down on it, hard, but not so hard that it’ll break, too. This conversation is far from over, and Adam’s matchbox is almost empty. “I’m listening,” he says then with more calm than there actually is in him.

“The judge will be in town in three days’ time, and I expect him to set court immediately, since this is a clear case. If you have any objections to the case, you can have your say in court. And that’s it.”

“If you wait for the judge you’re only wasting time. I tell you Will Kettler is innocent. The real culprit is still out there.” He snorts. “You should be out there, too, trying to find him.”

“Are you trying to tell me how to do my job, boy?”

Now he’s done it and made Roy mad. Not many people are able to rile the sheriff, and most certainly not as fast as that. It’s not a feat to be proud of, but then again, Roy has made Adam mad, too. Boy.

The matchstick cracks. A clean break this time.

Breathe out. Long.

In. Out.

Good.

“I’m sorry,” Adam says through clenched teeth. “I’m not trying to suggest I know your job better than you. But there’s a killer running free, and—“

“I don’t get why you’re thinking Kettler ain’t done it. I’ve never seen a clearer case: He’d said he was going to get back at Joe,” Roy lists, ticking it off his fingers, “he was caught at the scene, and he had the smoking gun in his hand.”

“I know all that. But he wasn’t seen shooting, was he? And I’ve never seen him with a gun anyway. Why would he suddenly have one?”

Now Roy looks positively smug. “He stole it. In the mercantile; it was reported stolen the day before the crime.” He raises a hand again. “And before you ask: it was identified. And I, personally, saw it in his hand. Still hot from the shot. I don’t know what more evidence you need.”

“He was out cold when you got to him, right? Someone else could have stolen the gun and put it into his hand after he lost consciousness.”

Roy leans forward. He narrows his eyes—suddenly he looks every inch the professional lawman that he is. “Now you’ve gotta be very careful what you’re saying here, Adam. Suppose you’re right, then the only one who could have put the gun in Kettler’s hand is the man who clubbed him on his head and then yelled for help and stayed with him all the while till I came.”

It is the only way things could have happened—but only if you grant that what must not be. Adam purses his lips. He steeples his fingers, leans his chin on them. The ticking of the clock on the wall above Roy’s head is the only sound in the stuffy sheriff’s office, and its hand the only thing that moves. Slowly, steadily, almost undetectably, it creeps from one dot to the next. And the next.

He looks up at Roy. Lifts an eyebrow.

“You can’t really mean that,” the sheriff says. “Horace Miller is one of our most honorable citizens. He’s a member of the schoolboard, a church elder; a respected businessman, well thought of around town. Adam, your family is in business with him, ain’t you? Your father and him are practically friends. Do you really think he put the gun in Kettler’s hand? Why would he do that?”

“I don’t know.” That is, of course, not even half-true. Adam has an idea why, but it’s vague—and without any positive evidence it’s no more sustainable than blaming Will Kettler.

“Adam, quit bothering me with that nonsense. Go back to Dr. Martin’s, sit with Joe, speak to your father. And let me do my work.”

Adam opens his mouth—and closes it. There’s obviously nothing more he can say. And anyway, the sheriff already has his nose buried in some letters he’s randomly hauled out of a stack on his desk. For him, this case is closed.

It’s not the first time Roy has deployed this tactic with him, but it’s the first time Adam actually welcomes it. He needs to go collect evidence.

*****

IV.

Adam is on his way to the Bucket of Blood saloon when Hoss catches up with him. He isn’t surprised about his brother’s arrival—as a matter of fact, he’d half expected him at the sheriff’s office. Adam acknowledges Hoss with a short nod and an even shorter smile, which he knows is enough to tell his brother his presence is appreciated. Hoss pats Adam’s back once, then falls into step with him. Not a single word is spoken until they reach the saloon.

There are just a few patrons in, the usual suspects, which, actually, is good—for they are mostly the ones who had been present during Will Kettler’s drunken monologue. They confirm that Will had ranted on for long after Hoss and Adam had left the saloon, and then staggered back to his wagon shortly after the midnight bell had chimed.

“Ainnit funny,” one says. “That he didn’t rent hisself a room with all the good money he made?”

“Or that no one invited him in, like they did his uncle back then?” Sam, the barkeep, adds. “Not even your father, Adam.”

It evokes a lot of nodding and murmuring. Things like “not trustworthy,” and, “He was a loner, that one. Proud of his little wagon, too,” and “Thought hisself better than us.”

Well, actually Pa had offered Will a place, but the tinker preferred to sleep in his wagon. He said he liked to be independent, and that he didn’t need help.

Sam wipes the counter, but his eyes are fixed on Adam. “Why are you asking? You’re not up to something, are you?”

Hoss tugs at Adam’s sleeve, as discreetly as he’s able to, which isn’t much, and—as usual—doesn’t stop him. He takes a short look around, then says, “Well, actually I am ‘up to something.’  I’m trying to find the man who shot my brother.”

“He has been found.” Sam frowns.

“I’m not so sure the sheriff has arrested the right man.”

Hoss groans, and then there’s a turmoil of voices in various stages of disgust. “Course he did it,” and “Are ya daft?” and “can’t be serious.” Adam also hears “just a wretched tinker,” and “I don’t like strangers anyway,” and then approving mumbling.

He almost launches into a speech, one of those pleas that never serve to buy him more friends but tend to make people find sudden interest in staring at their hands. But time is of essence, and Hoss is already tugging at his sleeve again and whispering, “Leave them be, Adam,” and really, he should have realized that the answer to his questions will be found somewhere else before he even bothered to go to the saloon.

He nods to Hoss, “Let’s go.”

The drunkards’ ranting doesn’t die down as Adam and Hoss leave the saloon, as if their exit goes unnoticed. Outside, the air shimmers over the dusty street, no breeze is stirring, and yet, compared to the saloon it appears clear and fresh, and Adam gulps it in greedily while they head down C-Street.

It doesn’t take them long to get to the Millers’ house. They are warmly welcomed, offered a lemonade, which Adam declines but Hoss accepts gratefully (making Adam envy him for the rest of their stay).

Mr. Miller appears to understand Adam’s wish for further information, for the details of what has happened to Joe. He readily answers Adam’s questions; his account of the events is in agreement with Roy’s, and reveals even more.

Miller had been secretly following Joe and Carole on their way to the theatre—he can’t really say why, only that Carole is his only daughter, so much like her late mother, and that he is so used to looking after her, making sure nothing untoward happens to her, that he might have overdone it a bit by sneaking through the front gardens that line the street.

“I’ve raised her alone, you see,” he says with a small smile. “My wife died shortly after Carole’s birth. Perhaps I’m a little too protective sometimes.”

It’s nothing Adam can’t relate to. Pa tends to be overly protective at times, too, and having a daughter instead of sons might enhance this trait.

“Then I heard a shot,” Miller continues. “And I saw movement, behind a bush right in front of me. I heard Carole shout for help, but before I could get to her Kettler backed out of the bush, and I…he was unaware of me, so I was able to hit him on his head, knock him out with the handle of my revolver.”

“You had a gun with you?”

“I…yes, of course. I was protecting my daughter, wasn’t I?” There’s less understanding in Horace Miller’s tone now. He shakes his head, the picks up his narrative. “Well, anyway, the sheriff appeared then, someone must have alerted him, and I called him over and…handed him the culprit.”

And then Horace Miller’s understanding evaporates completely when Adam says, “I wonder why he did it. Kettler doesn’t seem the type to settle things with violence. He doesn’t even have a gun on him most of the time.”

“Why he did it?” Miller snarls at that. “What do you expect from a vagabond like that? They cannot be trusted. No one knows why they do things. They are unsteady, have no bonds. They don’t…belong to us. Travelling from town to town, seeking…amusement where it comes. They are not decent people. Kettler wanted Carole…my girl he wanted, for his atrocious— how he dared even thinking…. I would never…. He was jealous, that’s why he shot Joe.”

Hoss opens his mouth, but Adam silences him with a hand on his arm.

“Mr. Miller,” Adam says, leaving his hand on Hoss’s arm, just in case. “Do you know that Will Kettler claims he didn’t have a gun at all? That he says someone put the gun in his hand?”

At that, Miller explodes. It’s almost shocking to see the man fall apart like that. Nothing he says is coherent anymore. “Theatre and vagabonds,” he cries. “Nothing good comes out of that. All lying, thieving, disgraceful folks…they take and take and take…want to corrupt and steal… our daughters…pull them down their detestable roads…”

His face is contorted; he hardly resembles their upright business associate of many years anymore. He grabs Adam’s shirtfront and shakes him. A fine spray of spit hits Adam’s face, as Miller hisses, “Carole should never have been exposed to that. Joe could’ve taken her somewhere else, couldn’t he? I said no, didn’t I? But you had to come and persuade me, giving me no chance to protect my child. You…you…”

Adam wrestles out of Miller’s hold. “Now wait a minute,” he starts. “Joe is in no way—“

“Get out of here, get out!” Miller roars now. “Haven’t you done enough? Go to your baby brother and… Leave me alone!”

It’s almost a relief to be told to go. As they leave, Adam catches a glimpse of Carole, who bolts in the room and after an irritated glance at Adam and Hoss darts to her father, gripping his shoulders.

Once on the street, Adam turns to Hoss. “Thrown out three times in less than two hours,” he attempts a light tone. “I reckon I’ve just broken Joe’s record.”

Hoss ignores him. “You shouldn’t have riled Mr. Miller that way,” he says. “He’s just scared. The bullet could have hit his little girl—no wonder he’s outta his mind.”

Adam purses his lips. “Yeah, perhaps,” he says slowly.

But perhaps that’s only half the truth. Again.

*****

IV.

They don’t head straight to Paul Martin’s place. Adam needs to move to be able to think properly, and they agree that it’s better for him to walk the streets than to drive Pa to distraction by pacing the doctor’s small examination room. Only after Adam declares he’s thought everything sufficiently through do they go back.

They find Joe in the same condition as before, still feverish and struggling for every shallow breath.

Pa is sitting next to the bed, his hands folded in his lap, his eyes fixed on Joe. He appears calm and peaceful at first, but then Hoss sees how Pa’s fingers are gripping each other white-knuckled, as if he wants to break bones. His head shoots up as he hears them enter; he bestows on Adam a glare that would make a lesser man wither, then sets his eye on Hoss.

“What have you two done?”

Hoss blinks. He hasn’t done anything but gone to keep an eye on Adam, as requested.

It’s Adam who answers Pa. “Nothing,” he says a tad too innocently. “Just talked to a few people, trying to get a clearer picture.”

“Trying to get a clearer picture? You call that trying to get a clearer picture?” Pa makes a wild gesture with his hand, as if he wants to point to something he suddenly realizes is not there. “Do you have the slightest notion that ‘a few people’ might give your ‘trying to get a clearer picture’ a different name?”

Adam frowns. “I don’t—Why are you so angry?”

“I am not angry. I am…alarmed.”

It turns out a couple of people have come to Pa to complain in the past quarter of an hour or so: the sheriff, Sam from the Bucket of Blood, and Carole Miller on behalf of her father, for whom she’s also asked the doctor to come. Apparently Mr. Miller’s encounter with Hoss and Adam irritated him so much that he suffered something close to a seizure.

“You have to stop this,” Pa says. “What on earth were you thinking? Hasn’t the man gone through enough already?”

“I didn’t mean to annoy him. I just wanted to gather first-hand information, just ask some simple questions. There was no reason for him to react so…irrational.”

“Carole said you practically accused him of…being somehow involved…”

“I didn’t accuse him of anything. Hoss, did I accuse him? Tell Pa I only asked a question.”

This is new. Adam usually doesn’t feel the need to be backed up, he rather fights his case alone.

And because this is so rare an occurrence, Hoss is tempted to comply with Adam’s request. But he never goes against his own convictions, so he bites his lips and squints and shuffles from one foot to the other. “Shucks, Adam, yeah, you only asked a question all right—but that there question was just as good as an accusation.”

Adam looks betrayed—as if he really thinks he just asked a question. Which Hoss doesn’t buy, because usually Adam knows pretty well how his words are perceived…well, most of the time anyway. There are times when what Adam means and what people make of what he says are two completely different things—if they understand him at all. But Horace Miller is an educated man like Adam; he has no problem understanding him, and Hoss won’t believe for a second that Adam didn’t intend everything that resonated in his last question to Mr. Miller. Adam can look as wounded as he wants, but nope—Hoss ain’t buying it.

“He must have misunderstood me,” Adam says nonetheless. And then, in a tone too neutral to not be deliberate, “I wonder why.”

Predictably, Pa bites. “You are not insinuating that Horace Miller has anything to do with the ambush?” Pa’s voice rises. It’s interesting how much being at odds with Adam revives him. Maybe it’s because it gives him something else to think of than fretting over Joe.

“I’m not insinuating anything. I’m just asking questions.” And now Adam can’t keep the smugness out of his face anymore. “If anything, I’m offering…alternatives.”

“Young man…” Pa stabs his right pointer towards Adam. “Don’t you try and play word games with me. And don’t you go around offering ‘alternatives’ for which you have no proof.”

Adam grits his teeth. His jaw must be hurting something fierce by now at the rate he bites down to rein his temper, and Hoss knows it’s not even because Pa doesn’t believe him this time. Young man…Adam hates that—and Pa knows it perfectly well.

“But Pa,” Adam says after a moment of grinding teeth, “if Miller had nothing to hide, why would he react the way he did?”

“Because he was outraged at the insolence of being accused of mur—of, of…shooting Joe.” Pa turns to Joe as if to make sure he’s still with them. He takes the wet cloth from Joe’s forehead, checks for fever, soaks the rag in the basin on the nightstand, drains it, and places it back. Then he shifts his gaze back to Adam. “Out of the blue, without any reason, even though the actual culprit is already under arrest and all evidence speaks against him.” He shakes his head. “I’d be outraged, too.”

“Not all evidence speaks against Will—” Adam starts, but Pa interrupts.

“It’s only his own word speaking in his favor—and your gut feeling, nothing else. Why do you believe Will Kettler, of whom you know next to nothing, more than Horace Miller, a business friend you’ve known for years?”

Adam purses his lips. He closes his eyes, and his hand goes up, thumb and forefinger already forming the tongs that are going to pinch the bridge of his nose, but then he sighs and drops his arm. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t really know. It’s just too plain and easy to be true; and no one ever went beyond the obvious. But life rarely is so easy, is it? And no one actually saw Will shoot; all we have is Miller’s testimony. It all relies on his word.”

“The word of an eyewitness, Adam.”

“The word of one man. Against the word of another man. Why do you insist on holding Miller’s word over Will Kettler’s? Because we’ve known the first for years, and the latter for a scant few weeks? Is time really the criterion for trust?”

“Of course it is. People we know, we trust. Particularly if they have proved to be trustworthy, as Horace has—or else we wouldn’t do business with him, right? Strangers need to earn our trust, and so far, Will Kettler has done nothing to achieve that.”

“But that’s…private, Pa. That isn’t the law, that isn’t the way justice works. Before the law, everyone is equal. Before the law, everyone is a stranger.”

“Then let the law handle this, Adam.  It’s only two more days till the trial, and then Kettler will be judged without bias.”

“He will be judged based on the evidence Roy provides and the testimony of Horace Miller. Which all speaks in his disfavor. He will go to prison for a long time or even hang. If Joe—“ He catches himself in time before he blurts out the unspeakable.

Pa hears it anyway. “Your brother will live.”

“Yeah, Joe’s gonna be all right,” Hoss says before Adam can deliver the “you don’t know that” that’s written so plainly on his face.

As if to prove that he’s still here and fighting, Joe chooses that moment to toss his head and moan—the first movement or sound he’s made in hours. Pa picks the cloth from Joe’s brow and wipes his face, and Adam comes and sits down on the bedside, wets another rag and hands it to Pa. He squeezes Pa’s arm, then bends over Joe and strokes his little brother’s wet curls out of his face. “Hold on, little buddy,” he says softly. “It’s time you wake up. Pa needs to sleep; and Hoss is starving without Hop Sing’s pot roasts. And I…well, don’t tell the others, but I actually miss your hyena laugh.”

There’s a moment of peaceful quiet. Joe seems to lean into Adam’s touch, Pa whispers, “I think he’s breathing easier already,” and then they all listen to Joe’s breathing; and it is easier, and it’s clear as day for Hoss that now all will be well.

Absently, Adam pats Joe’s hair for a while. Hoss wonders if he’s aware he’s slicking the wet locks back almost in the way that always makes Pa holler at Joe to undo that “riverboat gambler hair style”; if he’s aware he’s still having his hand on Joe’s head at all. ‘Cause Adam’s mind clearly is somewhere else. You can actually see how the wheels are turning in his head, how he weighs this and considers that, and eventually comes to a conclusion.

“You are right,” he says suddenly, patting Pa’s arm once. “I need proof for Will’s innocence.”

Pa looks up. “Adam, what…?”

“I need something I can give the judge. And I’ve got to get it as quick as I can.”

“But how’ll you get your proof?” Hoss asks. “ You’ve done talked to everyone, what else can you do?”

Adam smiles. “Yes, that’s what I think, too. It’s almost impossible to prove Will’s innocence. It might be easier to prove the actual culprit’s guilt.”

“And how’re you gonna do that?”

Pa raises his finger. “You will not harass Horace Miller again, Adam.”

“I won’t. I’ll actually apologize to him.” Adam stands up. “And then I’m going to set a trap. The shooter is still out there, and if what I think is right, then the story isn’t about Joe at all.”

“You don’t think he wanted to shoot Carole, do you?”

“No, of course not. I think he wanted to shoot Joe all right, but not because he had something against Joe. He only had something against Joe and Carole going out.”

“Which points towards Will Kettler,” Pa puts in.

But Adam is undeterred. “And towards…others,” he says.

Joe moans again, and Pa turns around and softly shushes him.

Adam grabs Hoss’s arm and tugs at him. “Come on, Hoss, let’s talk outside. Little Brother here needs his quiet.”

Pa looks up, puzzled, but they are out of the room before he can say anything.

Once in the doctor’s antechamber, Adam speaks up again. “Listen, Hoss, I’ll need you for this. I’m going to ask Carole out, to the theatre tomorrow night. If the shooter is who I think he is, he won’t waste the opportunity.”

“You want to bait him? Adam, are you plumb loco? If you’re right, then the shooter will be lying in wait for you, and he’ll get you like he got Joe.”

“No, he won’t.”

Hoss blinks. Sometimes Adam’s stubbornness makes him speechless.

“He won’t because you’ll stop him.”

“Me?”

“You. You will follow us, keeping a good eye on the bushes at the street, and when the killer shows up you’ll catch him before he can shoot.”

“You’re crazy. He’ll kill you.”

“Not if it’s Will Kettler, sitting in jail.” He smirks. “Or do you finally believe me?”

Hoss groans. “You’re getting yourself killed,” he insists, just in case Older Brother didn’t understand it the first time.

“I’ll be careful. I won’t be caught unaware like Joe. I know something might happen, and I’ll be able to react if necessary. Besides, you’ll be there. I trust you to watch my back.”

“Adam, you can’t do that. It’s too dangerous.”

“Not with you at my back. Hoss, it’s the only way. If I don’t do this, an innocent man might go to prison for a long time.”

Hoss shakes his head, opens his mouth to object again, but then Adam comes with the inevitable, the one thing that he knows will turn the tide to his favor.

“I’ll do it anyway, with or without your help,” he says. “Your choice.”

“Darn, Adam,” Hoss admits defeat. But then he finds he’s got his own trump up his sleeve. “You’ll never talk Mr. Miller around to let Carole go out with you anyway. You’ve heard him.”

Adam taps his finger against his nose, then he smiles. “No, actually I think it’s going to be easier than you think, Hoss.”

*****

V.

It does go easier than Hoss thought, but not quite as easy as Adam expected.

Amazingly, it is Carole who proves to be harder to win over than her father when Adam calls on them the next morning, as the girl doesn’t think it proper behavior to “indulge in frivolous entertainment” while Joe lies sick. “I’m surprised you even ask, Adam. You are his brother! Shouldn’t you be at his side?”

But Adam hasn’t acquired a reputation of being more persuasive with his tongue than with a gun for nothing.

“Joe is on the mend at last,” he says. It’s no lie, no exaggeration, as Dr. Martin has declared Joe out of immediate danger the night before: Joe’s moans and head-tossing were indeed the first signs of recuperation.

He gives her his most innocent smile as he continues, “And he wouldn’t mind me taking you out. Actually, he would expect me to take you to the play,” which, of course, is a l—an exaggeration. Adam pauses briefly, then sets his jaw and plows on. “Tonight is the last performance of the play Joe chose for you, and I know he would be heartbroken to hear you never saw it.” For a moment Adam is appalled by his own ruthless deviousness, but he will make amends later, if necessary. And what does a little deceitfulness weigh in comparison to a man’s life?

In the end it’s half Adam’s silver tongue, half Carole’s prospect of having her heart’s desire satisfied that does the trick.

Her last concern, “But Father will never allow it” is not unfounded, but Adam lives up to his reputation again.

Horace Miller accepts Adam’s apology readily and in return even offers one for his outburst on the previous day.  “I think we both misunderstood each other,” he says. “I am only concerned about my daughter. And your brother, of course.”

There’s nothing left of the raging bull of yesterday, Miller is all friend-of-the-family, amiable and forthcoming. Sickeningly jovial. “I know you’re a good man, Adam. I know that you mean well. You and I, we were only…worrying for our loved ones; neither of us really meant what he said.”

He’s so compliant, so ready to smooth things with Adam, to prove how reasonable a man he is, that he doesn’t even notice how Adam wheedles out of him the permission to take Carole out to the theatre before it is too late to withdraw it.

And so Adam calls at the Millers’ again, dressed in a suit borrowed from Paul Martin and a revolver belt hidden under the slightly too loose jacket, half a day and lots of preparations later. Tickets had had to be bought, streets walked, bushes examined, hiding places sorted out, words slipped subtly, that Adam would take Carole out that very evening.

Carole looks sublime in her pale yellow evening dress—Joe is a lucky boy. First thing she does, despite her obvious excitement about finally going to the theatre, is inquire after Joe’s condition. She’s delighted to hear he’s improved more, has been briefly awake a couple of times and managed to drink some beef broth, despite being only half-lucid. She suggests they go to see Joe after the theatre, which Adam answers with a raised eyebrow and, “That would hardly be appropriate, don’t you think? Your father would kill me if I allowed that.”

The girl bows her head. “Gracious, yes. How silly of me.”

“No,” he says. “Not silly. Endearing. Joe’s to be envied.”

Then he offers her his arm, and they leave the house, walking slowly down the dusky road towards the town’s center.

Hoss is nowhere to be seen, as arranged. He’s lurking somewhere between the houses, gun at the ready, scanning the bushes that line the street for any suspicious movement.

Despite the cool exterior he tries to display, Adam feels his skin crawling. Paul’s suit is unusually warm, and something in the air makes the little hairs on the back of his neck stand. He squints into the bushes, listens into the dimness.

Nothing.

He wonders where Hoss is, if he can see how jittery Adam really is or if Hoss lets himself be fooled by his brother’s tightly composed features.

The street has never seemed so quiet, so abandoned. Not a single breeze moves the bushes, not one cart clatters past them, not one dog barks anywhere.

Where’s Hoss? Shouldn’t Adam be able to hear his brother? Hoss can’t be moving so silently, can he?

“Are you absolutely certain Joe wouldn’t mind me going to the theatre with you?”

Adam almost jumps as Carole jolts his arm. She’s asked the same question a million times already; and Adam doesn’t know if she does it because she’s so concerned about it or because she doesn’t know anything else to say to him.

He should pay her more attention, should try and make conversation, as is expected of a man who’s taking a girl out. She deserves that much. He’s asking enough of her already. She might not be in danger of bodily harm, but—why did it not occur to him earlier? He must have been blinded by his righteous anger about the injustice done to Will Kettler—this all might turn into a very unpleasant experience for her. But there’s no other way, it’s too late to turn back, and considering everything, the benefits outweigh the risks.  Oh, he will have to make amends.

He smiles at her. “I’m confident he doesn’t. I told you: he wanted you to see this particular play. Once he’s better you can go and tell him all about it; he’ll love to hear it.”

“Yes, I’ll do that,” she smiles.

For his life he can’t come up with something to say to that. Or anything at all. His mind is empty but for the one thought: where? Where could a shooter possibly hide?

They walk on in uncomfortable silence.

Adam tries to refrain from too obviously glancing around. But he listens, listens… Through the jacket pocket he discreetly removes the strap that secures his revolver in the holster.

Carole gives him a shy side glance, which he answers with a weak smile—he is distracted, and he is aware it isn’t very polite, he isn’t very polite, and were this a true rendezvous he would never act like this. But it isn’t a true rendezvous, not even a true substitute rendezvous, and… But Carole doesn’t know this is just a ruse, does she?

He turns his head to her, smiles. He will make a serious attempt at polite conversation, no matter what—but then he hears a crunch.

He stops; and the world narrows down to a small bubble. All he sees is the hard-packed sand before him, all he hears is the soft rustling of leaves, and his own thundering heartbeat.

He disengages Carole’s hand from his arm, pushes her gently to the left, and slowly steps right, removing himself from her close vicinity and presenting the lurker in the bushes a clear target.

“Adam, is everything all right?” The girl closes the space between them, and frowns, bewildered, as he moves away from her again. “Adam?”

“No, actually—” More rustling makes him turn his head back to the bushes—and a cat emerges from them, stopping briefly and giving them a curious glance before it stalks past them and disappears between the wood stacks at the other side of the street.

An explosive breath escapes Adam; then he gives Carole a sheepish half-smile.

Her scolding frown melts like ice in the summer. She claps her hands to her mouth, her eyes widen, and then she laughs. “You should have seen your face!”

Her giggles are almost as infectious as Joe’s, and Adam can’t help but laugh, too. It’s mostly because she laughs, a little embarrassment, and something that eases the tension from his shoulders.

“Apparently Father is right after all, saying that the theatre had a bad influence on people. Even you are different tonight, Adam,” Carole says, as they finally stop laughing. Her tone is light, but then she frowns and continues far more seriously, “I just don’t understand why it frightens him so.”

Adam stares at her. “It frightens him?” And suddenly everything falls into place. As if he’s just gotten the one missing part, the one gear that completes the machine. The wheels are turning, one gear meshes with the next, smoothly, without obstruction; and Adam knows.

“Carole, I’m really sorry, but I think we better—“

An earsplitting crack interrupts him, a hard push at his back makes him stumble, fall to his knees and then keel over, headfirst into the dirt. Pain explodes in his back, takes away his breath. Blackness claws at him, from all sides, and all sound fades into nothing. The last thing he is hears is Carole’s shriek. “Adam! No! No, no, no, no! Not again!”

Then the world stops.

*****

VI.

The world returns to him in the shape of too bright light, too stuffy air, and a splitting headache. As he tries to move there’s more pain: his arms and legs are sore, and his back dully hurts from shoulder to hip, with the bonus of a particularly sharp sting somewhere in the area of his right shoulder. The all-over fatigue doesn’t surprise him in the least, for he must have spent days being hunted through a sea of yellow silk by a gigantic black cat. He vaguely remembers being trapped and suffocated by the billowing fabric, and jumped at by the beast.

He groans. Laudanum. Will they ever learn that it does him more bad with the dreams it induces than good with the little pain relief it brings?

He groans again. It is satisfying to groan, to voice his displeasure to the world at large, even though it also hurts his parched throat and makes him even more conscious of the way his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth. He tries to get his left arm under his back to try and push himself up. In his experience there’s always water on the nightstand, so there might be some now, and if he can get up and—

Well, he can’t. Though it’s not his own weakness but two heavy hands on his chest that keep him flat on the bed.

“Careful here, Adam,” Hoss’s voice says. “You’ve got a fine hole in that shoulder of yours, and the doctor spent a lotta time stitching. You don’t want to ruin all his work, do ya?”

He groans again. Lord, that hurts. “Water,” he manages to croak.

A hand sneaks around his shoulders, carefully avoiding the spot that hurts most, gently lifts him up, and then there’s a glass at his mouth. Cool water. He drinks, a few tiny little sips—he doesn’t need to be told not to wolf it down. He’s had his share of unpleasant reencounters with too hastily drinking water when sick.

“Thanks,” he mumbles as Hoss lowers him back. “How long…?”

“You’ve been out for two whole days.”

Two days prone in bed. No wonder he’s so sore.

“Do you need anything else?”

“No, thanks. Well, a new head, perhaps.”

“There ain’t no spare mule heads around here, Adam. I reckon you’ll hafta settle for the old one.”

“Figures.” Adam laughs softly, but his chuckles soon turn into coughs that shake his shoulder and pull at his stitches; they hurt, and when the coughs finally subside he’s wheezing and tears have collected in the corners of his eyes.

Hoss grimaces. “Ah, shucks. Sorry, Adam.”

“s’ not your fault. Should have known better than to make bad jokes.”

“Naw, I didn’t…” Hoss looks down at his hands for a moment, shifts his shoulder a few times, then looks back up at Adam. “I’m sorry for letting you down.”

“You didn’t let me down.” Adam frowns.

“You got shot. I was supposed to watch your back, and you got shot.”

“Not your fault, either. Was my own brilliant idea to play the bait.”

“But I coulda caught him before he shot. I saw him, Adam. I saw him, but…”

And then Hoss tells the sad tale of how he followed Carole and Adam, crouched low, sneaking through front gardens, until he saw something glinting in the bush at the other side of a bed of lupines. He pulled his revolver, made to dash through the flowers—and was almost startled to death by being held back by a strong hand, which belonged to none other than Sheriff Coffee. The short moment between “Now what do you think you’re doing here, young man?” and “Roy, there’s no time…” already was too long; and the next thing Hoss heard was a shot. He and Roy bolted through the lupines, captured the shooter before he could flee; then Hoss left Roy to handle the legal stuff and broke through the bushes to get to Adam. He found his brother face down on the street, senseless and streaming with blood, with a hysterically screaming Carole at his side.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t quicker.”

“Don’t be, it wasn’t your fault. Just bad luck, is all.” Adam reaches out to pat Hoss’s knee, it’s all he can reach without shifting. “It was Horace Miller, right?” he says then.

Hoss nods. “He’s crazy. Screeched like a madman when Roy collared him. ‘Bout his wife, and Carole; and that you’re Satan himself, tempting her with showing her the theatre. And then the whole bunkum about Will Kettler again. Mostly went on ‘bout his wife, though.”

“His wife?”

“Yeah, turns out she was an actress before he knew her but didn’t tell him. He found out when she got sick after Carole was born. First doctor he called didn’t want to treat someone of her kind. And before the next one came, she was dead.”

It’s even madder than Adam thought. “But that’s no reason to…”

“There’s no reason to it, Adam. I tell you, he’s crazy.”

Over the next half hour Hoss reveals the complete extent of Horace Miller’s madness. Apparently Miller regretted agreeing to let Joe take Carole to the theatre—for he was afraid that being exposed to the “den of iniquity” might corrupt her—but didn’t want to withdraw his permission because he feared that Adam was right saying it would drive her into Will Kettler’s arms. The idea of his daughter befriending a “disreputable vagrant” was more than he could bear. In the end he saw no other way than to follow Joe and Carole and shoot Joe. He didn’t attempt to murder Joe, just hurt him, thus keeping them from going to the theatre.

That he encountered Will Kettler, who was spying on the couple, he considered lucky coincidence, for it provided him with the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. He sneaked upon the young man, knocked him out, and after he shot Joe, placed the gun in the unconscious man’s hand, and called for the sheriff.

In some mad way it all makes sense. It’s interesting how reasonable the train of thoughts can go even though the start of it has nothing to do with reason.

There’s only one thing…

“I wonder why he stole the gun,” Adam says as Hoss has ended his tale. “He could have used his own, right? I mean, he didn’t know Will would be there when he stole it.”

Hoss snorts. “Adam, you keep forgetting he is crazy. He says he didn’t want to soil his own gun with an evil deed.”

Adam frowns. “Evil deed?

Evil deed, that’s what he called it.”

A brief moment of clarity perhaps. Might be Horace Miller’s last moment of clarity for a long time, if Adam interprets things right.

The man almost pities him—if not for…

“And Carole, how’s she?”

Now Hoss rediscovers his grin. “I don’t rightly know, but I reckon she’s fine.”

Adam lifts an eyebrow. “Huh?”

“She ran off with Will Kettler.”

“She…what?”

“You heard me right. She came here, crying, told Joe how sorry she was about her father, and how it was her fault, and how she couldn’t stay in town now. Naturally, Little Brother said it would be all right; but she was too upset and ran out. Next time she was seen was on Will’s wagon on the way outta town.”

“And Joe?”

“Will live,” a new voice says from the door; and then Joe hobbles into Adam’s view, supported by Pa, and lets himself be settled on Adam’s bedside.

They study each other for a while, then Joe grins at him. Broadly.

“Well, don’t you know it,” he says. “Ada Mencken’s in town next month. Do you reckon you want to go to the theatre with your little brother?”

***The End***

A/N:   My words were:   tinker, theatre, bait, murder

With my heartfelt thanks to my wonderful betas Sandspur, who put her finger where it hurt  most and made me do it so much better, and JoaniePaiute, who picked me up when I fell. Both your help was invaluable.

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