The Long Picnic (by HazelMom)

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Summary:  They blamed everyone but themselves, and dragged the Cartwrights into their revenge.

Rating:  T  (22,340 words)

Author’s note: IThis story is PG-13 because a rape happens in it. The assault is not described, but it is part of the story. This is a Hoss story but all others (Ben, Adam, Joe) are featured prominently.

 

 

                                                          The Long Picnic

Danny Tucker was lynched for nothing more than running the family business. It was his misfortune that the family business happened to be robbing banks. It shouldn’t have taken a tremendous bit of reasoning for the Tucker family to understand that others wouldn’t look kindly on their trade. Still, they’d gotten away with robbing and shooting for several years now without a single consequence. Old Pa Tucker made sure they always followed three simple rules: never settle in any one place, don’t make friends, and just do the job and run. First banks had been in Alabama and Mississippi. In the waning years of the Civil war, they were easy marks — always in towns short of men folk, particularly the kind of men folk who would fight for what was theirs.

 

Arkansas and Kansas were a little trickier as those homesteaders were real serious about what little they had. Pa had to shoot three bankers and one hero, all in the course of a single month. They barely got out of Kansas alive. Pa had to pull them all down Mexico way where they sat in a Pueblito and ate beans for six months.

 

First bit of bad luck came when Pa Tucker came down with a fever. He tossed and turned on a blanket for two days before he let out a cry and fell back dead. His four boys watched with equal parts amazement and fear. They never thought anything was tough enough to take their Pa. They sat around for a week, getting drunk off what little money was left. They never got around to giving their Pa a proper burial. Covered him in less two feet of dirt. Wild dogs dragged him out the second night.

 

The Tucker boys had no experience making decisions. Pa never allowed them to think for themselves. Danny was the oldest, in his late 20’s, and the only thing that distinguished him was a long streak of meanness. Still, the Tucker boys had a legacy to uphold, and so they went back to work. Robbing banks in Colorado and then Nevada had proven to be something of a challenge without Pa. Plus, it seemed that everyone west of the Mississippi wore guns as natural as they wore shoes. In Colorado City, a woman even chased them down the street, getting several rounds off in an old rifle as long as she was tall.

 

Danny found that he needed to refine Pa’s approach. It was best not to even reason with hostages. He often shot most of them before the money was even in his dirty hands. Younger brothers, Evan, Alfred, and Possum, picked up on this, and soon their dealings resembled massacres more than bank robberies.

 

They were in Centreville when the Tucker tradition suffered a blow. Danny’s horse took a bullet on the way out of town. The horse collapsed on top of Danny. With townsfolk on their tails, the brothers had no time to rescue him. The last they saw of Danny was the dust rising when townsfolk descended on him.

 

Tucker boys weren’t much on skills other than shooting and drinking, and so they found an outpost about fifty miles north of Centreville, and set to drink up the profits. The stagecoach came through most days, and it was ripe for robbing if the remaining Tucker boys had even a bit of ambition left in them. Instead, they drank all day under the hot sun, and fought over the town’s only saloon girl, Erna. For her part, she romanced all three of them and was stacking up a fortune in bank loot which she put in a canvas bag she had buried at the town crossing.

 

One day, a newspaper came through reporting that Centreville was getting ready to hang Danny Tucker. None of the boys had thought he’d survived the mauling the townspeople were giving him last they saw him. Now, all of sudden, it was like brother Danny had come back to life. For an afternoon, they shook their heads and pulled at their whiskey bottles. They knew they had some sort of responsibility to their kin, and without clear leadership or planning, they managed to saddle their horses and head back to Centreville.

 

It took them two days to travel the distance, but none of them had the guts to ride into town. They settled on a ridge above the frontier town and watched as the gallows went up. Plans were halfheartedly hatched, but none of them had any teeth. They mainly wished they’d brought more whiskey and supplies. On the third day of camping, the two older ones literally pushed Possum onto his horse and sent him into town.

 

Possum was the youngest Tucker. He’d been born with a Christian name, but his Pa had taken to calling him Possum from his early years. It wasn’t real clear to him what his original name was anymore. Pa had been reluctant to talk about it in recent years, mostly because he’d forgotten what it was. A couple of years ago, Danny told him he thought it was either Earl or Clarence. Picking from the two was more than Possum was willing to do, so he officially introduced himself as Possum, and wasn’t shy about throwing down with anyone who made face.

 

Surprisingly, nobody in town paid him any mind as he rode in. He got needed supplies, and then found a saloon for a few bottles of whiskey to drag up the bluff. Folks seemed friendly, so he dropped onto stool and ordered up a shot. As expected, the topic of conversation was the hanging that was going to happen the next day. Possum listened for details, and was surprised folks were treating it like a coming celebration. A few fellers said they were bringing their families in to see it. A sick feeling rose in his gut, and Possum leaned intently over his whiskey.

 

Next to him sat a large man with a booming voice who drank a beer down in a single gulp. The big man let out a huge laugh, and Possum felt it vibrate through the wooden stool he perched on. All of a sudden, the big man turned in his direction and smiled broadly, his face big and wide. Possum hugged the whiskey glass closer to him.

 

A hand slapped him heartily and sparkling blue eyes peered at him. “Hey there, feller. You new in town?”

 

It took everything Possum had inside him to not jump and run away. He swallowed hard. “I’m not from these parts.”

 

“Me neither.”

 

Possum nodded carefully.

 

“I can never get comfortable around hanging talk. I had a bad run with that a couple of years back. People thought I was a bank robber, and they wouldn’t do a thing to prove it otherwise. I felt that rope around my neck. It was only for a few seconds, but I ain’t forgot it none. I don’t like the idea of people bringing in their families to watch. It don’t sit right with me.”

 

Possum nodded, struggling with the bile rising in his throat.

 

The big man extended a hand. “Anyway, my name is Hoss, and it’s right nice to talk to someone who ain’t so eager to hang a man.”

 

Possum coughed wildly into his hand.

 

Another slap on the back. “You doing okay there, little buddy?”

 

Possum coughed a few more times until he cleared his throat. Then he nodded.

 

“Where you headed?”

 

The man was steering him in new territory, and Possum wildly considered names he’d heard over his time in this region. “I ain’t quite sure. I’m thinking Reno or Virginia City.”

 

The Cheshire Cat himself couldn’t smile as wide as the man in front of him. “My family has a ranch outside of Virginia City.”

 

“Sounds nice,” he stammered.

 

The man’s nose twitched. “Let me buy you a drink. Look’s like whiskey’s your poison.”

 

Possum gathered up what was left of his voice. “Thanks, but I gotta’ go.”

 

Hoss frowned. “If you’re looking for work, I gotta’ tell you that this ain’t the right time of the year to get work on ranches. You got to come out in the spring for round up time.”

 

“Good to know.” Possum could no longer navigate the waters. He climbed off the stool and gathered the bottles of whiskey into his coat. “Gives me food for thought.”

 

“I never got your name.”

 

Possum blinked wildly. “Folks call me…Possum.”

 

Hoss’ eyes grew big. “Now that’s a name. I thought mine was funny, but yours takes the cake.”

 

Possum backed out toward the door. “Yeah, it’s a funny name.”

 

“Be seeing you, Possum. Stop out at the ranch if you come out Virginia City way. Family name is Cartwright.”

 

Possum nodded and stumbled out of the saloon. He slung his sack of foodstuffs over his saddle, and was halfway the street before he got both feet in stirrups.

 

**********

 

Hoss watched his exit with an odd feeling, but then he caught sight of the bartender and signaled another. A familiar shoulder nudged him. “Who’s your friend?”

 

Hoss turned to his older brother. “Feller named Possum. Can you imagine?”

 

“Let’s not forget your name.” Adam smiled.

 

Hoss nodded jovially. “I reckon my name sounds just as funny to a person who don’t know any other Hosses.”

 

Another face on the other side of Adam leaned forward. “There are no other Hosses. Model was definitely broke once you got made.”

 

Hoss reached across Adam to swipe at Little Joe, but Joe was too quick, leaping off the stool and grinning at him madly.

 

A stern voice sounded behind them. “Let’s not start a brawl, boys.”

 

Adam turned to his father. “Is the deal done?”

 

“Bank’s short. We’re going to have to wait another two days. Seems that robbery really left them in a bad way.”

 

Hoss frowned. “I don’t want to stay.”

 

“It can’t be helped, Hoss.”

 

Joe approached. “Just ‘cause we’re in town doesn’t mean we got to attend the hanging. We’ll go fishing or something.”

 

Hoss blushed. “You fellers don’t have to worry about me.”

 

Ben shook his head. “While I like the idea of fishing, we’ve still got to get the measurements on those steers. It’s going to take most of tomorrow.”

 

Adam patted Hoss on the back. “I got an idea. You go fishing. We’ll finish up those steers.”

 

Hoss shrugged him off. “I’ll pull my weight.”

 

“It’s a good idea, actually. Hoss, you can be responsible for bringing in some trout for dinner tomorrow night. I’m sure the hotel would fry ‘em up for us, and I can’t think of a better treat.”

 

“Pa, I…”

 

“It’s decided, son. You are in charge of catching enough to fill our stomachs tomorrow. You hear?”

 

Hoss smiled and looked down at his beer. There was so much that could remain unspoken between all of them. He didn’t need to explain a single thing. They knew he didn’t like hangings, and they also knew his sensitivity extended years before his bad experience. Truth was that Hoss was born with a tender heart. It didn’t matter what crimes a man committed, he had never been comfortable seeing a man executed. The idea of redemption and forgiveness ran deeply inside his soul even when his brain told him otherwise.

 

“You sure you don’t need help with that fishing, Hoss?”

 

It was Adam’s turn to swipe at Joe. “You are the last one we’d send along. If I wasn’t around to keep you straight, you’d turn every day into a fishing day.”

 

Joe laughed. “You, Adam, could use a few more fishing days in your life.”

 

Adam shook his head and ordered another beer. “What are we going to do with that one, Hoss?”

 

Hoss nodded. “You gotta’ be patient. You just gotta’ grab him when he’s not expecting it, and then he gets real sorry.”

 

Joe rolled his eyes at both and then strategically placed himself on the other side of Pa before he ordered another beer.

 

**********

 

It was Evan who saw opportunity the next morning when he spied a wagon full of children driving out to the grove north of the town. “It looks like the teacher is taking her kiddies out for a picnic.”

 

The other two crowded around and watched. They counted nine kids, an elderly man driving, and a woman sitting straight and prim in her seat. “It sure looks like a schoolmarm.”

 

Possum puzzled. “What do we want with a schoolmarm?”

 

Evan punched him in the arm. “If we took those kids, the town would sure enough give us Danny back.”

 

Alfred narrowed his eyes. “This is a whole new territory for us, Ev. We don’t know nothing about kidnapping. Not sure it’s a good idea.”

 

“It’s simple. We grab ‘em, but send one of them back to town and tell ‘em that they kill Danny and all of these young’uns are going to die too.”

 

“And then what?”

 

Evan sighed. “You two got oatmeal for brains. It’s easy. The kid tells the town that they gotta’ release Danny. We’ll head out and wait for him.”

 

Alfred frowned. “How’s he going to know how to find us?”

 

The three of them grew silent for a while. Finally, Possum spoke. “The kid will tell them Danny has to ride north. We’ll hide out in one of the canyons. One of us can stand watch. If we see him riding alone, we’ll release the kids. If we see the sheriff or townspeople, we’ll run.”

 

Alfred slapped him on the back much like the big man had in the bar. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

 

Ev nodded. “You skipped the most important part. If Danny don’t make it, we’re going to have to kill those kids.”

 

Possum froze. He had no illusions about being a Tucker, but killing kids was nothing he’d ever considered. He’d shot kids in banks, but then they’re nothing but bank customers.

 

Alfred pushed him. “Don’t get sour on us, Poss. If they kill Danny, then we got rights to kill their kin. An eye for an eye, just like the bible says.”

 

Possum winced. He hadn’t heard the bible brought in since his Ma died from bad water when he was 10 years old. She’d been the only gentle presence in his whole life, and he felt her loss this moment more than he had in years.

 

His brothers started breaking camp. Possum swallowed hard and went for the horses.

 

**********

 

Hoss rode out to the creek just as the sun was rising. Getting up early was something he did very well. His eyes always seemed to pop open just before the sunrise, and he liked stretching his long limbs and contemplating the tasks of the day. His brothers were known for their surliness in the morning, but Hoss was a different breed. He loved the early morning. It was filled with possibility. He liked going to the barn and talking to the stock. Chub seemed to hang on his every word. He liked doing chores, and then coming in to find his brothers groping their way down the steps, stuffing in shirttails and rubbing their sleep-filled eyes. Hoss liked breathing in the air coming out of the kitchen, and waiting for the large breakfast Hop Sing would bring out.

 

This morning he’d had to go with just a couple pieces of jerky and a handful of biscuits the hotel cook gave him. It was enough to fuel him for a day of sitting and fishing. Townspeople had directed him north to a small lake surrounded by a grove of trees. Hoss settled himself in for a long quiet day.

 

**********

 

Hazel Jones looked back at the children bouncing up and down in the back of the buckboard. So far, they weren’t causing too much mischief. She mopped the moisture on her brow, and looked into the glare of a new day sun. It was going to be a hot one. Another reason this would be a long, long day. She had nine students for the next ten hours. The schoolhouse sat in direct sight of the gallows, and she knew that there was no way she could ever compete with a hanging. A picnic seemed like the best way to get them away from the spectacle. Old Ernie was driving, and though she’d liked to think he’d be of some use, she knew he’d probably find shade, take out a pint bottle, and sip the day away.

 

Hazel liked teaching. She was new to it, and despite several days that can only be described as trials, she felt she was actually making some headway with them. Still, she’d only been in town a couple of months, and carried a stiffness with her of someone who wasn’t aware of all the rules. Single women in frontier towns without family were always under great scrutiny. Every move she made seemed to set tongues wagging, and while she tried her best to be correct, there was always something scandalous about what she did or wore or said. Taking the students out of school for a day was proving to be another controversial decision. Some thought they should stay and participate as the rest of the town did. Others thought she should just close the shutters on her single room schoolhouse and tend to the business of education.

 

Just this morning as she was loading supplies into the wagon, three different citizens stopped her to weigh in on their thoughts about taking the students on a picnic. As expected, every one of those of opinions veered from the decision she’d made. Hazel knew that she couldn’t please everyone. Her only option was to make the best decision she could and hold her head high.

 

Ernie pointed to a meadow next to the lake. “I reckon we’ll put up right over there.”

 

Hazel nodded, reaching for the strings of her bonnet swinging in the wind.

 

**********

 

Hoss lay on the cool ground, his hat over his face. He’d fall asleep every few minutes, and then lazily wake. There was a certain decadence to toying with sleep like this, and Hoss thought it was maybe the best part of a good fishing day.

 

Splashing and squealing broke his reverie, and he sat up, scanning the shoreline. He saw a couple of boys running through the shallows, splashing water on a group of girls on the shore. Two more boys jumped in, and joined the ruckus. A woman came into view scolding the boys loudly, but they ignored her protests.

 

Hoss set his pole in the wet sand and got up. It took only a minute to jog over to them. He waved his hat at the woman and she stopped. The boys noticed, and turned to see what she was seeing.

 

Hoss smiled. A big man like him needed a friendly smile in situations like this. “Howdy, folks!”

 

She smoothed her skirts, and slowly approached, hand extended. “Good morning, sir. I’m Miss Hazel Jones.”

 

He looked around. “Is there a sir around here somewhere? You can’t be addressing a regular feller like me.”

 

She cleared her throat and shook his massive hand. “I’ve brought my students out for a picnic. We’re sorry if we disturbed you.”

 

“Not a problem, Ma’am. I just thought I’d come over and introduce myself. Name is Hoss, Hoss Cartwright.”

 

Her flowered bonnet caught the wind and flew off her head. She squealed and caught one of the strings before it dropped into the water. Thick, red hair appeared shining like copper in the blazing sun. She wrinkled a nose covered in freckles and looked away as she struggled to pull the bonnet back on her head. Hoss didn’t say a single word, but felt a wave of disappointment as her fiery hair was once again contained.

 

Hoss caught himself staring and shook his head. “I noticed these young fellers teasing the girls.” He threw stern looks at the boys who stood knee high in the water like statues. “I just wondered if you needed any help.”

 

Hazel glanced back at Ernie who was already asleep under a large maple tree. “I can manage.”

 

“I count nine of ‘em.”

 

“We were just about to set up the picnic.”

 

Hoss nodded at the boys. “Who likes fishing?”

 

Four eager hands shot up.

 

“Ma’am, why don’t I take these young wranglers down to the fishing spot I got. I’ll keep ‘em occupied for however long you need.”

 

Hazel pursed her lips. “Really, there’s no need.”

 

Hoss nodded. “You got a lot on your plate. You can’t set up a picnic if you got to keep an eye on a bunch of rascals like these. It’d be a pleasure for me to have some company.” He motioned to the boys. “Come on, fellers!”

 

Not waiting for further protest, he set out back to his spot, four rowdy boys splashing in his wake. One of the girls bit her lip as she watched them leave. She turned her head to Miss Jones who sighed and nodded reluctantly. A smile spread on the girl’s cheeks, she picked up her skirts, and took off after them.

 

**********.

 

Losing solitude didn’t bother him. Hoss liked kids, and pretty soon he had four fishing lines set up. Then he turned around and found a little girl, hair as blonde and fine as corn silk. She looked at him and then at the boys fishing. One of the boys caught sight of her. “Go away, Glory. This is men only.”

 

She frowned, and cut at the soft ground with the toe of her shoe.

 

“You like fishing, lil’ princess?”

 

She nodded, her eyes still fixed at her feet.

 

He smiled. “Well, I’m going to set you up right next to me.”

 

She looked up and smiled. The boys groaned, mumbling threats under their breath. Hoss shot them a cross look before sitting down with the girl. “Don’t pay them no mind. Boys are downright scoundrels at this age. We’re going to have to just ignore ‘em.”

 

**********

 

The little princess named Glory took his hand and pulled him over to the spot on the grass where the picnic lunch was set. He protested, claimed he wasn’t hungry, but the little girl was very determined. Miss Jones saw his predicament, but sided with the child and soon he was deposited on a blanket in front of sliced ham, bread and butter pickles, biscuits, and watermelon.

 

This was a tricky situation for Hoss. At home, he could pile what he wanted on his plate, assured that there would be more than enough for everyone. However, his father had always cautioned him to tread lightly at the table of another. He accepted only one piece of ham and a biscuit, protesting along the way that he couldn’t possibly eat another bite. Taking food out of the mouths of children was about as heathen a behavior as anything he could imagine.

 

Hazel waited until all of the children had finished and run off to play at the lake. She put the last piece of ham on his plate.

 

Hoss shook his head vigorously. “No ma’am, I really couldn’t.”

 

She laughed. “You can not convince me that a cowboy your size eats like ladies at a tea party.”

 

“Save it for the young ‘uns.”

 

“They don’t want it. If you don’t eat it, I have to take it back to Mrs. Hightower and she’s not going to be happy about leftovers.”

 

“In that case…,” Hoss smiled broadly at her and then attacked it.

 

“Thank you for keeping an eye on my students.”

 

“Not a problem, Ma’am. It’s just natural for boys that age to explore. Not fair to expect you to handle them on your own.”

 

“Where are you from, Mr. Cartwright?”

 

He nodded. “I’m from up near Virginia City. My family owns a ranch called the Ponderosa.”

 

She narrowed her brown eyes. “I do believe I’ve heard of the Ponderosa.”

 

“It’s probably the biggest ranch in Nevada territory.”

 

She cocked her head. “You don’t strike me as a wealthy landowner.”

 

He blushed. “I imagine that’s true. My Pa believes in hard work. My brothers and I have been working cattle since we was old enough to walk. We really ain’t men of leisure, you see.”

 

Hazel looked past him, a frown on her face. Hoss quickly turned, and saw three men striding toward them, each holding rifles. Hoss was a big man, but he was also quick. His hand found his gun and he was on his feet. “Miss Jones, you gather up the children right now. I’m going to talk to these fellers.”

 

An odd feeling flooded her gut. “Do you know them?”

 

He looked back sharply. “Ain’t no time for questions. Gather up the young ‘uns.”

 

She got to her feet, and ran off toward the lake. Hoss turned back to the men. He still held the gun in his hand, but he kept it down by his thigh. The men coming toward him didn’t slow, and he could feel the wrong of it all the way to his toes. Nevertheless, he strode forward to meet them. “Hey fellers, what can we do for you?”

 

No one responded. Hoss’ hand tightened around his gun. “Need to ask you fellers to slow down. This is just a friendly picnic.”

 

In one fluid movement, the man in the middle swung his rifle up and shot. The bullet hit Hoss high on the left side of his chest throwing him back into the grass. His gun fell to the ground beside him.

 

There was a shout, and old Ernie was up, pointing his six shooter. The men caught sight of him, and several shouts rang out. Ernie fell back, three bullets in him.

 

There was a scream, and the men turned to a woman surrounded by kids. One of the boys saw the guns and took off running along the shore. One of the men raised his sidearm and shot him in the back.

 

**********

 

Joe mopped his brow. “Man, I’d give anything to be fishing with Hoss about now.”

 

“I need numbers, boy. Numbers!”

 

Joe glared at his eldest brother. “57 inches.”

 

“Keep going. Two more steers and we’re done for the day.”

 

Joe slapped the steer on the back, and took off in search of another.

 

**********

 

The man lay still, save an occasional moan of pain. He was unconscious, had been for the last 36 hours. The sweat on his brow told a story of fever and infection.

 

“Wake him up, Doc. I swear to God, we just need him healthy for half an hour.”

 

Doctor Hanson chuckled. “It don’t work that way, Sam. He’s not going to walk up to those gallows for you.”

 

“We just have to keep him alive long enough to hang ‘im.”

 

“You should really hear yourself. The fact is that this boy received severe internal injuries when the horse rolled over on him. He’s been slowly dying ever since.”

 

“Doc, I got maybe 200 voting citizens in town today, whooping it up and waiting for a hanging. How am I supposed to go out and tell them that this fool bank robber cheated them out of justice?”

 

The doctor packed his bag and sat back. “I think you should tell them that he has been dying in agony for the last three weeks. There ain’t a hanging in history that could beat that for justice.”

 

“Damn it, Doc.” The sheriff glared at him from the door to the cell.

 

“The only other thing I can think of is to hang somebody else. You been saying that Deputy Riley’s getting on your nerves.”

 

Sheriff rolled his eyes, and a howl of “I heard that!” issued from the front room of the jailhouse.

 

Sheriff nodded at Danny Tucker. “How long has he got?”

 

Dr. Hanson shrugged. “A few hours maybe. A day at the outside.”

 

**********

 

A minute into her sobbing over the boy with a bullet in his back, Hazel Jones realized that she had responsibilities. She took a deep breath and sat back in the sand next to his body, working to settle the sobs heaving out of her. She rubbed the moisture from her eyes, and saw her other students staring at her. They were paralyzed by the terror in front of them. The men were there, guns drawn. One of them stepped forward. “Get a hold of yourself. We ain’t got time to be grieving over a child who don’t know enough to keep still.”

 

Hazel slowly got to her feet. She had no knowledge of anything other than the situation in front of her. Everything felt hazy and distant, but she sensed an urgency to her presence, and she shook her head against the fog in her head.

 

“Wake up, lady! We need you to talk to these here kids.”

 

She reached out her arms, and eight bodies came rushing at her. They hugged her tightly. She turned to the men. “What do you want?”

 

“They’re going to hang our brother today in your town. We ain’t having it. They kill ours. We kill yours.” Evan felt a sense of power growing in his gut. Bankers and bank customers were fearful like this, but the focus was always on the money. Here, he could focus on the total control he had over life and death, and it fascinated him.

 

She caught breath. “I didn’t know…we don’t have anything to do with that.”

 

Evan nodded. “Don’t care whose fault is whose. Your people have a chance to give back our brother in favor of your lives. It’s a pretty good deal.”

 

There was groaning in the grass behind them, and Ev turned to Possum. “Finish off that big ‘un.”

 

**********

 

Hoss felt a fire raging in his left shoulder. His head had cleared enough to hear the angry voices in the distance. Even though his vision was spotty, He tried to roll himself over on to his right side, and make his way upright. The fire exploded with movement, and he couldn’t muffle all the pain in his throat. Still propped on his right arm, he saw a man walking toward him in the grass. The man stopped and raised his rifle. Hoss knew this was his final moment, but couldn’t clear his mind enough to respond. He waited a long moment for the final bullet. Then the gun lowered and the man squinted at him. “Didn’t I meet you yesterday?”

 

Hoss’ vision started to clear. “Is that you, Possum?”

 

“Sorry. It’s Hoss, right? We had no idea we were gunning for folks we knew.”

 

“What’s happening?”

 

Evan threw his hat on the ground and ran over. “Possum! What in creation are you doing?”

 

Possum nodded. “I met this here feller in the saloon yesterday. He was real friendly. Invited me out to his ranch.”

 

“Honest to God!” Evan swung his rifle up and aimed at Hoss. Another voice screamed at him.

 

He turned the rifle in that direction and saw the schoolmarm peeling children off her skirts and head in his direction. “You can’t kill him. Don’t you know who he is?”

 

Anger boiled over in Evan. Not only were his brothers useless, but his prisoners were in direct revolt. He blew a hole into the ground in front of her. “Shut up, woman.”

 

Hazel froze, breathing heavy. She waited for him to send the next bullet through her, but he just glared. She took a deep breath. “If you’re trying to do a prisoner exchange, you’re going to want to keep Mr. Cartwright alive. He’s one of the richest men in these parts. Why get just your brother out of this exchange? Why not get some money too?”

 

Evan swung back at Hoss. “Is she telling the truth?”

 

Hoss narrowed his eyes and nodded.

 

Evan poked him in his bad shoulder with the rifle. “You don’t look rich.”

 

Hoss howled. When his body settled from the explosion of pain, he glared at Evan. “My family runs the Ponderosa. Probably the biggest ranch in Nevada territory.”

 

“I don’t believe you.”

 

Hoss extended his body toward Evan. “Listen up! I ain’t trying to convince you of nothing. You keep me alive, and my pa will pay dearly for it. If you don’t believe me, it’s your problem, not mine.”

 

Possum swallowed. “He told me he had a ranch. Didn’t say nothing about being rich, but he sure was handing out drinks.”

 

Evan stepped back. This plan was growing complications, and he wasn’t sure of his next move. Alfred sidled over. “It won’t hurt to haul him in the back of the wagon. It’d be nice to walk out of this with a nest egg.”

 

Evan nodded to his brothers. “He sure is a big ‘un. I wouldn’t want him to get too healthy or nothing. We could end up with real problems.”

 

Alfred shook his head. “Man can’t even stand. I ain’t worried about him.”

 

Possum nodded and knelt next to Hoss. “Give me your good arm, Hoss.”

 

Hoss made them set him sitting upright against the sideboard. It was going to be painful however they laid him, and there was no time to act like he was ailing. He looked down at the frightened children and their teacher.

 

Alfred herded the rest of them on the wagon. He grabbed the biggest boy and kept him on the ground. He was probably 14 years old, but the look on his face was that of a little boy needing his mama. Alfred pushed the boy toward the road. “Listen up, boy. You’re going to be our messenger.”

 

Hoss locked eyes with the boy and nodded. The boy’s body relaxed. Hoss gestured at Evan. “Hey! Don’t send that boy alone. Send more of the children. Send them all. You only need me.”

 

“Shut up!”

 

“Children are going to slow you up. They don’t got the ability to handle risky situations.”

 

Evan marched at Hoss, face red. “You shut up or we go back to the original plan.”

 

Hoss didn’t blink. He stared into the dangerous man’s face. “You don’t need seven children with you. It ain’t smart.”

 

“Ev, the big ‘un’s right. This is a lot of cargo.”

 

Evan turned to Alfred. “Pick out two or three to kill. Then we can be on our way.”

 

Hazel grabbed whom she could reach and pulled them tightly to her.

 

Hoss shook his head. “This must be your first kidnapping then, ‘cause that’s a powerful bad idea.”

 

Alfred got there in time to get between Evan and Hoss. “Now just back up, brother. He’s got a sharp tongue, but it ain’t worth killing over.”

 

Hoss sighed deeply and proceeded with his argument. “You already killed a boy and that old feller. You let these townsfolk find any more bodies and they are going to know that you ain’t serious about handing over living children. They ain’t going to trust that you’re capable of a fair trade.”

 

Ev glared at Alfred. “Why are we listening to him? He ain’t trying to help us.”

 

Hoss nodded. “The smarter you all act, the better it is for the rest of us. There’s still a chance we can all sit to dinner with our families again if we don’t get too hasty with these decisions. Send more young’uns with the boy. Town will be grateful. They’ll trust that you’re not just a bunch of stone cold killers.”

 

Evan pulled away from his brother and stalked away in the grass from all of them for a few moments. Then he turned his head. “Pull three of ‘em.”

 

Alfred reached for the closest, and Hazel started screaming. Hoss kicked at Alfred. “Don’t touch ‘em, you killer!”

 

Evan blasted his rifle into the air. “Stop! I hear one more word, everybody dies! Listen up! We’re pulling three kids off and sending them back to town with the boy.”

 

Hoss took a deep breath and turned to Hazel. “Calm down now. They’re letting ‘em go. Just calm down.”

 

Alfred pulled the smallest boy, but his sister started screaming so he pulled her too. Then he grabbed another girl. Hoss realized it wasn’t Glory. She was still huddled against Hazel. A pang ran through him, but he’d pushed too hard already; Evan wasn’t going to welcome any more of his ideas.

 

The four children were pushed toward the road to Centreville with a set of instructions. Hoss tried as hard he could, but a hazy veil took him, and he was unconsciousness before the children disappeared down the road.

 

**********

 

John Smith was urging his team to trot a little faster. He’d had an ailing steer, one of his best breeding stock, and it had kept him occupied all day. If he didn’t hurry, he wasn’t going to make it into town for the big doings. He urged the two old workhorses forward. There wasn’t much entertainment in the life of country farmer, and events like a hanging were gruesome to be sure, but all of his neighbors would be there and there would be celebrating and drinking.

 

He turned a bend in the road and found himself bearing down on a group of young’uns just standing in the middle of the road. Panicked, he pulled the team sharply to the right. The old wagon groaned and then it was teetering on two wheels. John Smith and his wagon parted ways as he was launched into the air.

 

**********

 

Danny Tucker died 45 minutes before he was set to hang. The Sheriff punched the wall, and stomped out of the jail. Doc Hanson shook his head slowly, and then went about the business of covering the corpse.

 

Sheriff Rosen found that disappointing folks was easier than he thought. People were just glad for an opportunity to get together. Soon, he was pushed up to the bar, and handed a beer. He began to realize that the hanging was second to justice for the townspeople. He finally gave in. It seemed that someone was always buying him another beer. Within an hour, he was loud, boisterous, and making campaign promises he’d never keep. It would have been a wonderful finish to a truly awful situation if Mr. Perkins hadn’t sidled up next to him and noted that Old Ernie hadn’t yet returned with Miss Jones and the school children.

 

***********

 

Joe drained another beer. “Hoss doesn’t show up soon with some trout, I’m going to pass out.”

 

Adam pushed his hat back, and watched as the sheriff detached himself from his neighbors and unsteadily lurched toward the door. “I know. You don’t suppose Hoss’d be sore if we headed over to the hotel for a nice steak?”

 

“You know your brother, Adam.” Ben gestured for three more beers. “It’d break his heart if he thought we wouldn’t wait for him.”

 

“Well, he should have been back by now. “

 

“Let’s give him another hour.”

 

Joe made a face. “Aw Pa! You’re going to have to carry me to the hotel in an hour.”

 

Adam sighed and gestured at the crowd around the bar. “Nice that folks could celebrate even without a hanging.”

 

“I know. Hangings are bad enough without folks turning it into a picnic.”

 

“Yeah,” Adam leaned back. “I can’t get used to them. I’m a little relieved that he never made it up those gallows.”

 

Ben sighed. “At least you weren’t there in Dutchman Flats when they went crazy and tried to hang Hoss. I’ll never forget that. I almost didn’t go, you know. Didn’t want Hoss to think he couldn’t handle business on his own. If I hadn’t been there at that moment…I just don’t know. I still get nightmares.”

 

“Well, if I meet someone from Dutchman Flats, he’s going to know just what I think of his little town,” Joe declared.

 

Ben looked at his youngest. “That isn’t any good, Joe. We can’t blame the whole town for what a few people did on a very hot day.”

 

“I’ve never been able to get Hoss to tell me about it.” Adam finished off his beer, but put shook his head when the bartender tried to draw him another.

 

“I doubt he ever will, Adam. He didn’t talk to me at all the first two days after we left the town. When we got home, he took off riding fence, and didn’t come home for a whole week.”

 

“It’s probably good I was in San Francisco at the time. It’s hard when Hoss is like that. I can’t stop seeing him as my little brother, always looking to me for answers. I probably would’ve ridden after him. It not easy to remember that both my brothers are men now.”

 

“Tell me about it,” Joe drawled. “I never thought you’d get there.”

 

Adam winked at Joe. “Don’t rest easy, brother. You’re still only a few years out of short pants. I’ll be watching you like a hawk for some time to come.”

 

“Pa!” Joe groaned. “I ain’t ever going to catch a break in this family.”

 

“Be grateful, Joe. I’d hate to imagine a life without a family to watch out for one another.”

 

Adam smiled. “It makes me think back. Before you were born, Joe. I’m thinking of Hoss as a little boy. He was so chubby and blonde and blue-eyed. And you know how Pa and I are darker. People used to think we’d stolen him or something.”

 

Ben nodded. “Adam and I had been through so much, and we were sort of a solemn group. And then he shows up, and he was so happy all the time. Adam used to complain that Hoss was trying to drive him crazy with that ever present good cheer.”

 

Joe settled back and waited. His Pa and Adam weren’t much given to nostalgia so when it came, it was important to give them the space to talk. Soon enough, they’d remember that they were serious men who weren’t given to sentimental thoughts, and the reminiscing would stop and Joe would go back to wondering about the years his family had before he was born.

 

“He followed you everywhere,” recalled Ben.

 

Adam nodded. “Everywhere.”

 

“And then you went off to town school, and he tried to follow you there too.”

 

“Yeah, you had to put your foot down, and he was inconsolable about it for the longest time. He used to sit in the middle of that old trail waiting for me to come home in the afternoons — just sitting in the dirt waiting for me to show.”

 

“And then Joe was born, and you thought you were going to be saddled with two shadows.”

 

“At the time, I couldn’t see it for what it was.”

 

Ben turned to Joe. “When Hoss was eight, I sat him down, and told him he was in charge of you. I told him that he was to be for you everything that Adam was to him.”

 

“It was what I thought I wanted.” Adam looked off into the distance.

 

Joe frowned. “Why are you talking about it like it was a sad thing?”

 

Still staring at a place on the wall behind them, Adam said, “He took to it so seriously, and he sort of disappeared from my life. He was too busy chasing after you. I guess I got to missing my shadow.”

 

A weird feeling ran through Joe’s gut. There was a truth buried in there that he’d never known before. Before he could ask another question, a scream rose up out on the main street. The three of them grabbed their hats and trotted out to see the commotion.

 

**********

 

The Sheriff had been bothered by the tardiness of Miss Jones and her students. He couldn’t help it. His only living child, Glory, was on that trip. His wife and his two boys had died two years ago of the swamp fever, and now he was trying to raise a delicate little girl all by himself.

 

He was heading out for the lake when he spotted lanky John Smith walking toward him on the dusty road; two children clinging to his neck and two more trotting alongside him. They were schoolchildren, alright, but none of them were Glory.

 

**********

 

Townspeople crowded around the sheriff as he pushed toward the jail. He needed a quiet place where he could get answers he could make sense of out of the sobbing children. People, some of them parents, were shouting at him, but he continued to burrow his way through. Finally, his less than diligent deputy showed up and shot a rifle into the air. People froze, and Sam hurried past them, the children in tow. Doc Hanson emerged from his office and trotted after them.

 

**********

 

Ben watched the spectacle, and a feeling of dread grew in his gut. Something in the chaos told him that Hoss was a part of this, and he followed the crowd down the street to the jail. Joe looked at Adam who shrugged his shoulders. The two of them followed.

 

**********

 

Confirmation came when the deputy came out and called out to anyone knowing the Cartwright family. Ben Cartwright was a big man, and he plowed right through the crowd and into the jailhouse, Adam and Joe trailing behind him.

 

The Sheriff sat on a chair facing a boy in his early teens. Doc Hanson had the rest of them all sitting on a desk while he probed for injuries. The boy’s face was red from crying, but the tears had long since stopped running. Instead, he looked at the Sheriff Rosen with dark, unblinking eyes. Sheriff looked up at Ben. “You Mr. Cartwright?”

 

Ben nodded.

 

Rosen let out a breath. “Don’t know where to start. We got a nightmare on our hands.”

 

Adam could see the Sheriff struggling to ground himself. He stepped forward. “Take it slow, Sheriff. We need to know what’s going on.”

 

“Brothers of the dead man, Taylor– man we was gonna’ hang. Brothers have come to take revenge. They took the children and the teacher…and they got a fella named Cartwright. Cody here says they shot him up good, but he was still breathing when the boy last saw him.”

 

Ben realized he was chewing on his lower lip. “You’re talking about the Tucker brothers, the bank robbers you got posters for all over town.”

 

Rosen nodded. “They killed old Ernie and little Billy Shanks. They shot your son, but the boy thinks he was still breathing. They took the children and the teacher…and the boy says your son was still…alive.”

 

Sam Rosen was overwhelmed, and couldn’t quite circle in on what needed his attention most. Adam knelt in front of the boy, and felt the heat coming off the stressed, panting child. “Son, what did they tell you before you left?”

 

The boy breathed in sharply. “They were bad men. They killed, and didn’t think a moment of it. Shot Billy in the back.”

 

Adam nodded slowly. “Tell me what they said.”

 

The boy squeezed his eyes for a moment. “They said that if the town killed their brother, they would kill us. They told me…told me to come to town and tell you this. Said that you gotta let the bank robber go. Said they were keeping us until they did.”

 

Adam patted him on the knee. “Good work. They told you more, Cody. Didn’t they?”

 

The boy blinked. “It was confusing.”

 

“Take it slow.”

 

“They shot the big fella’. He took us fishing, but then they shot him. After a bit, he started moving again, and they were going to finish him, but Miss Jones said he was a rich man. She told them that his family would pay them money. They dragged the fella’ up, and stuck him in the wagon.”

 

Adam closed his eyes for a moment to center himself again. “What did they tell you, Cody, about where they were going?”

 

Cody stared into Adam’s eyes like they were the only two people in the room. “They’re going to hide. They want the bank robber to ride out north. Said they’d be watching for him…They said that the robber should bring $10,000 with him.”

 

Rosen groaned. “We can’t raise that much.”

 

Ben shook his head. “They’ll get the money.”

 

Cody seemed to lose focus, and Adam shook a bit. “You’re doing good, Cody. Did they say more?”

 

The boy licked his lips and struggled to concentrate. “They said to make sure and tell you that if they didn’t see their brother in two days, they’d shoot everybody. They also said they’d shoot everybody if they saw anyone other than the bank robber brother coming from the south.”

 

Adam let out a deep breath, and reached up, patting the boy on the cheek. “You came as fast as you could, Cody. We’re all grateful to you.”

 

Joe backed until he felt wall. It was a lot to process. Adam was the cool one as usual, acting like he didn’t have anything personal at stake. Joe wanted that coolness in him too. Instead, he was all fire, his gut already burning from the things he was hearing. More than anything, he wanted to run outside, and ride Cochise to the north as hard as he could. He wouldn’t worry about a plan ‘cause the whole thing would come to him when he saw the wagon. He saw Adam push the boy over to the Doc. Then he took the chair facing the Sheriff. Ben found another, and Joe knew they would soon be feverishly planning a response.

 

Joe thought about joining them, but he wasn’t built for the kind of thinking they were going to do right now. The fire in him was still too hot. Instead, he stayed against the wall and waited. His eyes travelled the room. The Doc was patching up kids. Cody sat quietly with a faraway look in his eyes. Joe suspected that the boy would never again look on the world around him with the innocence of a child.

 

Joe noticed sheet covering a dead body in one of the back cells. It suddenly dawned on him that this must be the body of Danny Tucker, and more fear filled his gut. There would be no Danny Tucker riding north to meet his brothers. The enormity of it took his breath. He slowly walked over to the open door to the cell. The body was starting to odor. Joe reached over and pulled the sheet back. The man was pale and stiff, his hair and eyes dark. He wore a black shirt and dungarees. For a second, he reminded Joe of Adam, the man being of similar size, coloring and build. He looked back at his brother, catching his eye. Adam furrowed his brows, and got up. Joe spoke quietly. “You could pass for him, Adam.”

 

**********

 

Hoss woke to great pain sometime in the night. The buckboard was still moving. There was a full moon, and he could see the bright eyes of terrified children huddled around him in the back of the wagon. The pain seemed to come from everywhere, and it took him a moment to remember where he’d been shot. The schoolteacher (her name escaped him at the moment) was hunched over him, finishing up some work on his shoulder. He couldn’t see it, but there was a great stiffness, and he felt tight rolls of fabric around his chest. He looked up at her, the question in his eyes.

 

She nodded. “I trained as a nurse. Couldn’t get the bullet out. It would’ve been folly to try in a moving wagon, but you have the remnants of our tablecloth holding that shoulder tight. I rigged it so I could check on your wound from time to time without unwrapping everything.”

 

Hoss struggled to concentrate, sweat beading every inch of his skin. “How far…where are we headed?”

 

She pushed a lock of red hair away from her face. “We’ve travelled maybe 10 hours now. I don’t know this country. I reckon they’re searching for a spot to lay low.”

 

Hoss nodded. His breath rose and fell in ragged bursts. “Don’t mess with these fellers. Do whatever they tell you. It’s your only chance.”

 

Her large brown eyes searched his. “I don’t know that I can do this.”

 

Hoss felt darkness closing in on him again. “You’re doing good, Miss…You’re doing goo…”

 

Her heart fell when he drifted away again. She desperately needed him to help her stay afloat.

 

**********

 

It was almost 4 a.m. before it was finally just Rosen, Ben, Joe, and Adam at a table in the saloon. For hours, it had been only chaos. Minutes after the Cartwrights had muscled their way into the sheriff’s office, the door gave way, and a deluge of people flooded in — parents of missing children, relatives, and neighbors. The emotional energy that ensued lasted for hours. Ben had waded in a couple of times, but folks didn’t know him enough to listen. Finally Sheriff Sam Rosen found his head again, and started barking orders.

 

The crowd thinned, but it was still too large and volatile for any real planning. They ended up at the saloon, exhausted, frightened, and angry. Adam stood against the wall with his arms folded. Men turned their attention his way. It took a couple of hours, but he’d gained a real foothold in the group. Men were starting to listen when he talked. He stayed cool and focused, and finally had the townsfolk convinced he could pass for Danny Tucker.

 

The bigger battle was to convince people that only a small group of men could follow Adam. Too much commotion, and the Tuckers would know that they hadn’t followed instructions. Most of these men were farmers who had literally no experience fighting, tracking, and shooting. It took a lot of work, but Rosen finally packed off his neighbors to their own homes.

 

Ben stayed silent for a long time. He found himself deep in the mystery of how one’s family could be destroyed in the course of minutes. And solution that Adam was fashioning was sure to make that destruction even greater. Yet through everything, he experienced a sense of amazement at Adam’s sense of calm. One would never guess that he was suffering over the possible fate of his brother.

 

Joe slapped the table. “We got only one half of a plan here. We can make you look like Tucker, but what happens when you find them? The rest of us have to stay out of sight. They’ll find you out before we get there. It just ain’t no good, Adam.”

 

Adam sighed deeply. “We can’t keep talking in circles. We really don’t have time for this.”

 

“Boy’s right. You’re riding out there on your own. We have to follow at a distance, keep to the hills. I don’t know that we can get there in time to do much for you.”

 

“I’ll stall them. It’ll give you time.”

 

“Son, you’re going in blind. You have no idea what circumstances they’ll choose to signal you. We’re going to be too far back. I know that country. We’ll have to keep close to a mile back in order to stay out of sight.”

 

Adam shook his head. “Pa, we’re just wasting time here. We don’t get to have a foolproof plan here. This is something bigger than saving Hoss. This is about men taking revenge on innocent children. We have to be as bold as they are.”

 

Rosen nodded. “He’s right. If I could pull it off, I’d be out there instead of him. I can guarantee that.”

 

Ben had already heard from various townsfolk how little nine-year-old Glory was the only family Sam Rosen had left. He had no doubt the man felt the conviction of his words.

 

The clock on the wall began four long bells. Rosen looked up. “Ain’t no telling when we’re going to get sleep again.”

 

Joe snorted. “I couldn’t if I tried.”

 

“Probably best if we started out before daybreak. Less chance folks will be around to complicate things,” suggested Adam.

 

Rosen nodded at Adam. “Mary over to the hotel will fill our saddlebags. Ain’t no use trying to bed down now.”

 

Adam nodded. “Let’s meet out front at half past the hour.”

 

Joe jumped up after him and followed him out. Rosen stopped at the door, looking back at Ben. “I sure hope your boy is doing okay. I mean, I hope he wasn’t shot bad. I’m hoping he’s watching over my…the children. I been thinking about that most of the night. If he’s like your other sons, I reckon he’ll be a big help…”

 

Rosen lost his words, but he just nodded and headed out. Ben swallowed and closed his eyes. They were all precious, all of the children, the little ones and the grown ones. If he lost one, people could always say that he had two more, but it didn’t work like that. They all held such a unique place in his heart. If he lost one, that hole would never again be filled.

 

**********

 

“Mister! Mister! Please wake up, Mister!” The words came over and over again until Hoss started hearing them outside his dreams. With some effort, his eyes popped open and he found himself propped up against a tree. The oldest remaining girl was patting his cheek and furiously begging him to wake. His eyes focused and he looked into her frightened brown eyes.

 

“S’kay. I’m awake, child. I’m awake.” The sun was just rising over the horizon. From what he could see, the wagon had stopped somewhere inside a canyon. Rocks and bluffs loomed in every direction. In their corner were some trees and sound of running water.

 

“Please help her, Mister. Please help her.”

 

Hoss frowned at her. While he could see the other young’uns, he couldn’t find Miss Jones or any of the Tuckers. Suddenly, a cry rose from behind a nearby grove of trees. A shiver ran through his aching body. He knew where they were. The four children clung to him desperately, and he had to push them off. He wasn’t tied to the tree. It was clear they didn’t see him as any sort of threat in his present condition. He leaned against the trunk of the tree with his good arm, and struggled to pull himself to his feet. His stomach heaved as nausea and dizziness competed with pain from his stiff shoulder for his attention. He closed his eyes, resting his cheek against the bark of the tree, and waited for it to pass. After a moment, he lurched forward. The world was spinning around him. He tried another step and fell onto dirt. Another scream rose up from the grove, and he howled in response. He rolled over on his good side and managed to sit up just in time to be face to face with Evan Tucker, his rifle aimed right at him.

 

“You thieving snakes! You bring her back here right now!”

 

“Which one of these babies do you want me to shoot first?”

 

“There ain’t a hell deep enough for you!”

 

“Get back up against that tree. You move again and I pick off a young’un. Happy to do it, in fact.”

 

“I got money, Tucker. I can make you and your brothers so rich you won’t ever have to rob another bank. Do you hear me? Let’s talk about it.”

 

“Boys are just letting off a little steam. Nothing to worry about. Get up against that tree. Now!”

 

Hoss scrambled through the dirt and landed at the foot of the tree. He eased his back against the trunk. Tucker pulled a length of rope off the wagon, and wound it around Hoss’ chest several times. He tied it tightly in knots at the back of the tree where Hoss couldn’t reach. The ropes were tight, and Hoss grunted from the pain as they dug into his skin. As soon as Tucker backed up, the children swarmed him again, and Hoss felt them sobbing into his shirt.

 

Another scream, and Tucker turned his head to the grove. “I reckon I better get back to things.”

 

Hoss watched as he trotted away. He held whomever he could reach with his good arm. He was helpless in a way he’d never before experienced in a situation that tried every belief he had about good and evil. The teacher’s sobs rose again, and a part of him wanted to let go and howl his own pain in response. It was only the frightened children holding onto him that kept him from breaking down and pushing Tucker into killing him. He was sure that life wasn’t worth living in the midst of this horror.

 

The eldest girl sobbed into his good arm, holding Glory in her lap. Hoss turned his attention to her. “Tell me your name, child.”

 

“Sara,” she hiccupped.

 

Hoss took a deep breath. “You’re a real pretty girl. Bet the boys are always chasing you.”

 

She gave him a confused look.

 

Hoss tried again. “Do you go to church, Sara?”

 

She nodded. “Ever’ Sunday.”

 

“Do you like singing the hymns?”

 

She nodded.

 

“That’s a good girl, Sara. Are you a good singer?”

 

She shrugged her shoulders.

 

“What’s your favorite?”

 

She shrugged again.

 

“Okay, now Sara, I need you to do something very important right now. Are you listening?”

 

Her deep brown eyes stared up at him.

 

“I want you to sing a hymn, and I want you to sing it as loud as you can.”

 

She looked away.

 

“Sara, you’re a big girl, and I need your help. I want you to sing your favorite song, and I want you to sing it loud. We’re all going to sing with you. This is very important now. I want you to sing loud. You hear me?”

 

Sara grimaced and shook her head.

 

“Sara, I ain’t asking you. I’m telling you to sing it out loud.”

 

The girl flinched at his tone. Then she closed her eyes and started singing Silent Night in a shaky voice. It wasn’t Christmas, but it certainly was an appropriate sentiment for the moment. Hoss urged the others to join in, and soon a high-pitched emotional Silent Night rang through the trees. Hoss’ bass joined in, off key as usual, and the song began to rise in volume. There was energy in their singing as if they had discovered a temporary reprieve from the madness. Hoss could see Evan Tucker bounding through the grass toward them, already aiming his rifle. Hoss said to the children, “No matter what you hear, you keep singing! Don’t stop until I tell you!”

 

“Knock it off! Stop that caterwauling!”

 

Hoss jumped back into the verse, and sang loud and flat, staring at Tucker the whole time. Tucker raised his rifle and pointed, but Hoss shook his head and kept singing. The children sang as loudly as they could.

 

Tucker fired above their heads, but Hoss kept singing. Then he put down the rifle only to take the butt and drive it at Hoss. It hit him hard in the gut, and he howled in pain, but he shifted as quickly as he could back into the melody. Tucker stood there for a moment, completely unsure of his next step. Finally, he cursed loudly and stomped off.

 

Hoss pushed them to sing for most of the next hour. They lustily sang without regard to the real verses and off key; they sang every song they could think of, from Onward Christian Soldier to Joy to the World. Eventually, the children grew hoarse and sleepy, and as a new day dawned, they fell into a restless sleep like a litter of kittens next to Hoss.

 

A few minutes later, the Tuckers drifted back in without Hazel Jones. The two eldest took their bedrolls and headed off to sleep under a tree away from camp. Possum sat with his rifle nearby, but wasn’t willing to look Hoss in the eye.

 

Hoss glared at him for awhile, warring with himself about whether to engage the young man. Finally, his anger got too great, “Possum, get your sorry butt over here!”

 

Possum startled and got up without thinking. He came over with his head down.

 

“I ain’t got to tell you that you’re going to burn for that, Possum.”

 

Possum shifted uncomfortably. “Weren’t my idea.”

 

Hoss shook his head. “Don’t matter. It was a sin and a crime, and I’d like to see you hang for it, but I reckon I’ll take you apart limb from limb before you ever get the chance.”

 

Possum looked away. “I thought you didn’t like hanging.”

 

“Events of the last day have changed my position on that considerably.”

 

“Wish we were still friends.”

 

“I ain’t friends with savages.”

 

“Sorry, Hoss.”

 

“Sorry don’t mean nothing to me, not unless you got a hankerin’ for some redemption.”

 

“I do, Hoss. Tell me what I gotta’ do.”

 

The boy was highly suggestible, but Hoss knew he had to take it slow. “Okay, Possum, first thing you do is loosen these ropes. I gotta’ enough pain without this rawhide digging into my skin. Next, you need to get a blanket from the wagon, and cover these children. I don’t want the hot sun stealing any sleep from them. Then I need you to pull the saddlebags from my horse. I got some foodstuffs in there that I don’t want your brothers to find. It’s just for these young’uns. You understand?”

 

Possum performed all of these tasks without question. Then he stood hopefully in front of Hoss again. Hoss sighed, “Possum, what did you do with Miss Jones?”

 

“She’s just resting in the grove yonder. She didn’t want to come back with us.”

 

Hoss shook his head. “You got an empty heart, Possum.”

 

Possum looked down. “She’s just resting, is all.”

 

“Well, you’re going to go get her and bring her back here.”

 

**********

 

Adam peered into the rising sun. As soon as it hit noon, he planned to stop and sleep a few hours. He was sure this would be met with complaints from Joe, but his little brother was in the hills to the east with Pa and Sheriff Rosen, and, thankfully, he would not have to hear it.

 

None of them slept the night before, and a few hours under a shade tree could make all the difference in the world when things got dicey. Adam knew he would sleep. While Joe radiating intensity from every inch of his skin, Adam was the epitome of cool efficiency. It was a gift. He’d always been able to separate himself emotionally when the situation called for it.

 

To an outsider, it looked like Adam had no stake in the outcome of this venture. But to know a heart like Adam’s, one had to know him his entire life. His brothers and his father did, but that didn’t stop Joe from looking at him with that silent accusation in his eyes. Joe always warred with him over this. His younger brother could never really understand his emotional control. It always ended up being some sort of indictment of how he felt for his family. Joe’s worry for Hoss was on display for everyone. His father operated in much the same way, but at least his Pa understood that Adam’s battle with fear over Hoss’ fate happened inside his gut. He knew that cool, detached Adam got through these crises with a gut double and tripled tied in knots. Adam might be able to temporarily separate from that, but it came at great emotional cost.

 

He thought back to the time Red Twilight shot Hoss in the back. Adam handled it all as smoothly as a routine event in their lives. He put all of his energy into keeping Joe grounded. But once Hoss recovered, Adam went into a deep depression; for weeks, he was non-communicative and barely civil when pushed. He spent most of his time alone on the range. His fears and worries had been left trapped inside him. It was like a festering wound that had been left untended too long. Hoss used to refer back to these periods as his “stormy times”.

 

Adam knew that he was headed in the same direction this time. He’d hold it together — be strong for his Pa and Joe. He’d be the rational one until this whole thing was over, and then he’d retreat to his pain privately. So far, he’d been saved by the fact that when he returned, it was to his whole family. The idea that this time he might not be greeted by Hoss’ big friendly face would have swallowed Adam whole if he allowed himself to think about it.

 

Adam spotted a large sycamore tree ahead. There was enough cool shade so that he could get a few hours of sleep stretched out next to the trunk. Adam put his gun in the air and fired a shot. It was the pre-arranged signal for everyone to rest. He could imagine Joe up in those hills hearing that shot, and cursing a blue streak that they were stopping so soon. It made him shake his head and smile.

 

**********

 

The children were deep in sleep at Hoss’ feet when Possum brought Hazel Jones back into camp. Her dress was torn, and her red hair hung in a tangle down her back. She had a wild look on her face that reminded Hoss of the crazy fear in the eyes of caged animals. Hoss gestured for Possum to deposit her beside him. He pushed her over to the tree and she dropped next to Hoss reluctantly.

 

Hoss glared at Possum. “Now, you’re going to check if there is a sewing kit in the wagon. Most women carry them, and we’re going to need some fresh water from the creek.”

 

Possum shuffled his feet uncertainly. “I did good, though, Hoss. Right?”

 

“You’re only a little bit less a savage to me than you were an hour ago, but doing a few chores isn’t going to put much of a dent in the crimes you’ve committed.”

 

Possum sighed heavily and walked away.

 

Hazel looked at Hoss with unfocused eyes. “I don’t want to be here. You should’ve left me back there in the grass.”

 

“Hush now, Miss Jones.”

 

“You know what happened to me. I can’t…I don’t want to live. I don’t want these children to see me,” she hissed at him angrily.

 

“You ain’t giving up ‘cause I ain’t letting you.”

 

“I have no life. I have no future.”

 

“We don’t got time for this. I need you. These young’uns need you.”

 

“Do you not understand what happened…”

 

Hoss shook his head. “Yes I do and you survived it! And now you got to keep on living.”

 

The wild eyes started to tear. “It’s not that simple.”

 

With his good arm, he pulled her in closer. “It ain’t nothing but simple. We keep fighting to live because of these babies here.”

 

Hazel broke down sobbing on his chest.

 

He held her tightly. “Shhhh, Hazel. You don’t mind, do you? I just don’t think Miss or Mister quite cuts it right now.”

 

“I…can’t…do this.”’

 

“Listen up, Hazel. If it was just you and me, maybe it would be a different story. A man isn’t much of a man when a woman gets savaged, and he can’t do nothing to stop it. If it was just you and me, I might let ‘em shoot me in the back. Honestly, that don’t sound half bad the way I’m hurtin’ right now. I could’ve died acting like a man, but these children have me all mixed up. My heart tells me our decisions are not our own. We gotta’ put everything into protecting the young’uns until help comes. And its coming, Hazel. Don’t you doubt it for a minute.”

 

Hazel lie quietly on his chest for awhile. Finally she looked up at him. “I don’t know other men like you, Hoss.”

 

Hoss grunted. “Well, I do stand out in a crowd, that’s for sure.”

 

“You’d be different even if you weren’t big.”

 

Hoss frowned. “I guess I don’t know much about that.”

 

“I’ll keep trying.”

 

“That’s right. We’ll both keep trying. Help’s coming, Hazel. My family just don’t sit around and let the grass grow. They’re on their way and they’re a powerful bunch. I promise you that.”

 

He felt her finally relax and then close her eyes, and it seemed as good a time as any for him to close his eyes as well.

 

**********

 

Ben’s muscles groaned with each jerk as Buck struggled up and down hills. There was no doubt that this was a younger man’s game, and that’s why he let Joe take the lead. The boy had more nervous energy than Ben could contain, and so he and Rosen followed as best they could along the rough terrain.

 

The boy was agitated, but Ben still trusted his instincts. Joe was talented at about anything he touched. He was smart, and might’ve rivaled Adam in academics if he’d had any interest. He was quick and handsome and charming. Ben knew the future of the Ponderosa lay in his hands. He didn’t think less of his other sons. It’s just that he knew that Adam wouldn’t be around much longer. He had a restless spirit, and a need to make his own way in the world. Hoss would always be part of the Ponderosa; he knew and loved the ranch better than any of them, but he had no interest in presiding over an empire. He only wanted the simple things that a man could find in his everyday life.

 

Joe was the one who would keep the Ponderosa strong and vibrant for generations to come. He didn’t have the childhood tragedies Adam suffered or the particular challenges a big, open man like Hoss faced. In many ways, Joe was a product of each of them; he’d learned from Ben’s strength, Adam’s wisdom, and Hoss’ kindness. They’d all spent years making sure Joe had what he needed, that he was protected from all the injustices so often found in an untamed land. Losing Hoss would be hard for all of them, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind who needed the big man the most. Hoss had saved Joe from the excesses of youth and a passionate spirit so many times it had become routine. Hoss always there whether Joe wanted him or not; he accepted that watching over Joe was one of his duties in life and he never resented it.

 

Ben saw Joe deftly Cochise up a ridge and then disappeared on the other side. He shook his head, and urged Buck to climb even higher.

 

**********

 

A shrill scream split the air and Hoss jerked awake. Evan Tucker had a hold on Hazel’s leg and was pulling her off of him. Instinctively, Hoss tightened his grip around her torso.

 

“Let go of her. I never said she could come back here. I want her back there in that grove.”

 

“Ain’t going to happen!” Hoss said through gritted teeth.

 

Evan dropped her leg and reached for his gun. “You keep forgetting who’s in charge around here.” Gun cocked, he walked up and buried it in Hoss’ cheek. Hoss leaned away, but couldn’t escape the gun barrel. Hazel clutched him around the chest weeping, and the sleeping children at his feet stirred. “I think it’s about time we started to thin this herd.”

 

Hoss refused to say anything. He just grit his teeth as the gun dug into his skin.

 

A wail started from the one of the children, and then another. All four of them began screaming. Alfred came running up. “What the hell?!”

 

“I’ve had it with this giant hayseed. He ain’t got the right attitude.”

 

“Listen to that caterwauling! You shoot him and we got hours of this. My nerves is already as tight as a newly strung bow.”

 

“I ain’t giving in!”

 

“Ev, it’s time to get to the top of the bluff and wait for Danny. All this screaming hurts us. In this canyon, it’s going to echo all around.”

 

“I’ll kill ‘em all.”

 

“Dang it! Don’t be a fool. We need these children. They’re bargaining chips. Now, just back off. We don’t got time for this.”

 

Ev was sweating hard, his arm trembling. “I just want him.”

 

Alfred pushed him away, stepping in between him and Hoss. “Not now. He’s the only one that can quiet them all.”

 

“You ought not to have done that, Al.”

 

“Or what!?” Al advanced on him. “One of us has got to act smart. You seem to think that killing is the only reward around here.”

 

“I just wanted the schoolteacher for a bit.”

 

Al turned to look at her, clutching onto Hoss for dear life. “Ain’t worth it, Ev. ‘Sides, she’s already used up.”

 

Evan started to relax. “We gotta’ get two of us to the top of the bluff.”

 

“You and Possum go.”

 

“Possum ain’t had no rest. Plus, he ain’t good for much.”

 

“Take him anyway. In a few hours, we’ll have this whole thing done. He can sleep then.”

 

The two men moved away as they continued to plan the next step. Hoss let go of a deep breath. The young’uns and Hazel were still carrying on. “Alright, it’s okay now. Can’t have them thinkin’ I’m no good at quietin’ ya’. Hush now!”

 

**********

 

Adam had a feeling in his gut when he approached the edge of the bluff. He knew it had to be the one. He glanced over his shoulder, studying the line of hills in the distance. This would be the one, but it put Pa and the others farther away than he’d hoped. Once he was signaled, the Tuckers could reach him in a few minutes while it would take close to twenty-thirty minutes for Joe, Pa, and the sheriff to get out of those hills and across the flat plains. There was no way he could carry on a charade that long.

 

Sure enough, a shot went up from the bluff and he saw two men riding toward him. He shot his own pistol in the air to answer, and to warn the others what was happening. He stopped dead in his tracks, and waited for them to arrive.

 

Thoughts raced through his head, and he struggled to organize what might be the trappings of a plan. What emerged was terribly risky, but he could think of no other way to give Pa time to catch up with them. As they trotted up to him, he dropped his gun to the ground, and put his hands in the air.

 

**********

 

Joe stopped dead when he saw Adam surrender. “Pa! What’s he doing?”

 

Ben and Sheriff Rosen rode up beside him. “I can’t tell, but he’s probably stalling for time. Let’s go!”

 

**********

 

Possum grabbed the reins of the horse while Evan pointed his pistol into Adam’s chest. “What kind of fool trick is this?”

 

“We couldn’t think of another way to reach you.”

 

“You hung Danny, didn’t you?!”

 

“No, we didn’t. He’s still alive.”

 

Evan stabbed him with the gun. “Then why ain’t he here!?”

 

“He’s injured. You remember — his horse fell on him after the robbery. Cracked his ribs, broke his leg; he tried to ride, but he couldn’t even make it to the edge of town.”

 

“Lies!”

 

Adam held his breath for a moment, waiting for the man to shoot him dead. When it didn’t happen, he cleared his throat. “He agreed to a plan where I would dress up as him, and get to you before the children were killed. He’s following in a wagon. Should be about a day behind.”

 

“And the money?”

 

Adam relaxed. “I have the money in my saddlebags.”

 

“I don’t like this,” Ev hissed. “Let’s get him to camp while I think on this a bit.”

 

Possum turned and headed down into the canyon, pulling Adam’s horse along behind. Ev studied the horizon for a minute, but his poor eyesight gave him nothing but blurry images. He turned and galloped after Possum.

 

**********

 

Ben watched solemnly from a small grove of trees. He held the bit on Joe’s horse, and could feel the boy’s anger tumbling at him. Rosen shook his head. “We gotta’ catch ‘em.”

 

“We have to follow them. Adam gave himself up to slow them down. We gotta’ stay quiet so we can follow them to their camp.”

 

“Well, we ain’t doing any good just hiding in the trees,” Joe spat angrily.

 

Ben nodded. “We have to stay low; we don’t want them to know we’re following.”

 

Joe yanked the rein back, and Ben lost hold of Cochise. Ben turned on him. “Find some patience, Joseph! We have to do this right!”

 

“What are you thinking, Mr. Cartwright?”

 

“I think one of us goes ahead and scouts. The rest of us will follow at a distance. Surprise is our best weapon. Otherwise, we’re facing an armed camp. It’s just no good.”

 

“Pa!”

 

“I know, Joe, and you’re right. You should be the one to go.”

 

Rosen bristled. “I don’t know about that.”

 

Ben shook his head. “It’s the best idea. Little Joe can scout with the best of them. He’s fast and he’s tricky. I vote that he scouts, and we make up the rear.”

 

“He doesn’t have a daughter in that camp.”

 

“Make no mistake, Sheriff. Joe and his brothers are as close as brothers can be. He’ll take care.”

 

“Pa’s right.”

 

Rosen glared at him. “That little girl is the only thing I have left.”

 

Joe nodded. “I won’t forget, Sheriff.”

 

He turned Cochise and leapt out of the grove before anyone could say another thing. Ben watched him disappear down the bluff. Every one of his sons was in harm’s way now. He’d never been faced with such a situation before, and terror held his heart in check. He closed his eyes and prayed for all their lives.

 

**********

 

His wrists tied tightly, Adam was pulled off his horse and pushed into the camp. Evan Tucker grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, and dragged him to a tree, lashing him tightly to it with a piece of rawhide. Then he wheeled about, and headed back to the saddlebags. Adam ached from his head to his feet. The older one had kicked him sharply a few times once they had stopped to tie his hands. One of the kicks had been to his head, leaving a ringing in his ears and a headache the size of one of Hoss’ boots. It took a minute for him to focus his vision; once cleared, he found himself twenty yards away from his brother. Hoss was surrounded by a schoolteacher, and four very frightened children. Adam could see his brother was badly wounded. There was a blood soaked bandage holding his shoulder, and his face was drained of color. He would have worried that Hoss was even alive if it wasn’t for his tortured breathing. With glassy eyes, Hoss looked straight at him but he didn’t say anything. Adam nodded slowly. Hoss seemed to know that he should wait for Adam to make the first move.

 

Evan Tucker came back with the saddlebags. “There’s only $5,000 here!”

 

Adam grunted. “The rest is coming with your brother, Danny.”

 

“I don’t believe you!”

 

Adam shook his head wearily. “I’m telling you the truth.”

 

“Who are you?”

 

“I’m a farmer. My name is Adam Walker. I have a place outside of Centerville. They picked me because I resembled your brother enough to get close to you.”

 

Evan swung his gun at Hazel. “Do you know him?”

 

She froze.

 

“Do you know him!?”

 

She nodded sharply. “His…children go to my school.”

 

Evan stared at her for a moment, and then looked at the children. “Is she lying?”

 

The children stared back at him. Glory seemed to sense the coming explosion, and she scrambled to her feet and pointed at Adam. “He’s got five girls named Agatha, Abigail, Alice, Amanda, and Anastasia. Alice is my best friend. She has brown hair and green eyes, and she likes to read as much as I do. On Sundays after church, we read Jane Austen to one another.”

 

Everyone seemed startled by her declaration. Adam’s eyes widened a bit at how she’d created a whole world for him. He hoped no one would ask him to repeat all those names.

 

Evan shook Glory. “Are you lying to me, girl?!”

 

She shook her blonde head desperately. “His wife is pregnant with number six. Everybody in town is betting on whether or not it’s another girl. He has a pony for each girl, and they’re named…”

 

“Glory, that’s all the man needs to know!” Hoss couldn’t believe that the child had such an active imagination. If she didn’t slow it down, she was going to tell more lies than they could handle. “You can let her go now, Tucker. She’s told you everything.”

 

Adam could sense exhaustion and sadness in his brother’s voice. Evan Tucker glared at Hoss, but Hoss seemed not to care. “The child doesn’t stop talking until I tell her.”

 

Hoss bristled. “You’re bruising her, you stupid fool. Let her go!”

 

It was then that Evan noticed how tight he was holding onto the child. He pushed her away in the direction of Adam, keeping his attention with Hoss. “You and I are gonna’ dance very soon, big man.”

 

Hoss glared back. “I ain’t stopping you, Tucker.”

 

Evan slung the saddlebags over his shoulder and stomped away. Adam wished he were closer to Hoss; he wanted nothing more than to lean over and talk to him. Hoss was hurt and tired, but even worse, he had that dangerous glint in his eyes. It was a look Adam had seen before, the kind of look Hoss got when he’d been pushed too far. Hoss could be an immovable force when he got this angry; he might lose all connection with his fear. The thought of he might push back at the Tucker brothers without thinking it through left Adam cold. He felt the presence of Glory as she curled up next to him rather than risk the twenty yards back to Hoss.

 

“That’s right, Glory. You just sit with me for awhile,” Adam murmured at the child.

 

She pulled up her sleeve and showed him the angry bruise growing on her arm. “Wait ‘til my daddy sees this. He’s gonna’ beat them up and then hang them.”

 

Adam shook his head. “Listen to me, Glory. You don’t say another thing to that man unless I tell you. You understand?”

 

She nodded and then leaned over. “We should come up with names for all the ponies though. Just in case.”

 

Adam regarded her in surprise. Then he whispered back. “Don’t tell him another thing about ponies or my five daughters or my pregnant wife. Promise me!”

 

Her small brow darkened a bit, but she nodded. “Will you take me home, Mr. Adam? I miss my daddy.”

 

**********

 

Joe crouched behind a boulder about 1000 yards above the camp below. It was hard to see details, but his young eyes could pick out Adam. He squinted hard, and focused on the other man, largely hidden behind the bodies of children. It was Hoss. He couldn’t see him clearly, but he felt sure of it. A feeling of relief flooded his gut. His precious, overgrown big brother was alive. Tears stung his eyes, but he didn’t feel any shame. He had no clue on how he would ever make it through life without that big, friendly man by his side. He backed up slowly, and jogged back to Cochise, a smile growing on his face. He couldn’t wait to tell Pa that Hoss was alive.

 

**********

 

Hoss eased the bag from behind him, and pushed it at Hazel. She opened it, and quietly distributed dried venison to each of the children. She nodded at Glory, who gathered up her skirts and ran over. None of them had eaten in almost two days, and Hoss figured he’d held the chow as long as he could before the children started getting sick. Glory grabbed two pieces and ran back to Adam.

 

She grinned. “We ain’t had nothing to eat in forever.”

 

“Sweetie, put those in your skirts. You don’t want them to find out you got food.”

 

Glory started to stuff them in her skirts when all of a sudden she was plucked into the air. Evan Tucker reached into her skirts and found the venison. He pitched the girl onto the ground, pulled out his gun, and pointed at her. “I’ve had it with this crew and their lyin’, cheatin’ ways. Shooting one or two of ‘em is just the thing.”

 

“Leave her alone!” Adam pulled desperately at his ropes.

 

Hoss pushed Hazel away, and struggled to his feet; the ropes Possum had loosened fell away. “Over here, Tucker. I’m the one you want. I was the one holding onto the grub.”

 

Ev Tucker straightened up and shook his head. “So you ain’t tied up anymore.”

 

“Don’t touch that child. This is my fault, my responsibility.”

 

“I’ve been itchin’ to pull this trigger all day, and you’ve been giving me nothing but reasons.”

 

Hoss sagged against the tree and glared at him. “Then do it so you can get it out of your system.”

 

Adam held his breath. Hoss was at his breaking point. His anger left him dug in deep like a mule, damn the consequences.

 

“Don’t shoot him!” Adam’s voice was dry and cracked. “Don’t shoot him!”

 

Tucker turned to him. “It’s too late, farmer. The big man’s gotta’ go.”

 

Hazel pulled herself up and gripped the big man around the middle. Hoss tried to push her off. “Sit down, Hazel! Let go!”

 

“No! If he shoots you, he shoots me!”

 

With his good hand, Hoss grabbed her hair and turned her face to his. “Those children need you! Now get off!”

 

Hoss pushed her as hard as possible and she tumbled onto the ground. Then he straightened up and looked at Ev Tucker. “I ain’t beggin’ you for nothin’, but you gotta’ leave that woman and these children alone. I’m praying that there’s something human left inside you. You have to return them to their families. Please!”

 

“Hoss, let me handle this!” Adam was yanking at his ropes as hard as he could, blood smeared all over his arms.

 

Ev Tucker ignored him and aimed at Hoss. Out of nowhere, Possum came barreling in and knocked Ev off his feet. The young man stood over him. “Don’t touch him, Ev. He’s my friend.”

 

“Possum, you idiot!”

 

“I’m the one that got the foodstuffs from the saddlebags. I fetched the teacher from the grove. I’d do anything for Hoss. He’s gonna’ teach me how to atone for what I done.”

 

A shot rang out before Possum could say another word. Possum’s head tipped back, and he crumpled to the ground, a hole in his forehead filling with blood. Alfred came running over and knelt next to the boy. Then he looked up, “You’re an animal, Ev. He was your brother.”

 

Ev stood like a statue. “He was helping them. He was betraying us.”

 

“He was a boy! He didn’t have the stomach for this. We knew that. We always knew that about him!”

 

“I gotta’ shoot the big man,” Ev said without moving.

 

Alfred got up, walked over to his brother, and wrenched the gun out of his hand. “You’re done killing for today. Right now, you have to drag this boy down to the creek so we can dig a grave for him.”

 

Ev started to protest, but Alfred shook his head. “You killed your brother. Now, you gotta’ bury him.”

 

Ev took a deep breath. He went over, grabbed Possum under his shoulders and dragged him down to the creek. Alfred shook his head and followed.

 

With the two of them gone, the tension started to drain out of the air. Glory got up, and scooted back to Adam. He sighed with relief as she hugged him tightly.

 

Hazel got to her feet and looked at Hoss. He closed his eyes. “I ain’t ever been rough with a woman before, and I know what you’ve been through.”

 

Her red hair was wild around her head and she stepped forward. “Let me help you sit down again.” She held him around the middle and helped him sink back to the ground.

 

“I’m sorry, Hazel.”

 

She shook her head. “It’s okay, Hoss.”

 

“I’m responsible for the death of that boy.”

 

She screwed up her face. “Possum? Do you really feel bad about that?”

 

“I figured he was trying…”

 

“Well, that’s what you remember. I remember a savage man taking my dignity from me. I’m not a bit sorry he’s gone.”

 

Hoss nodded, and then his eyes found Adam. “It’s been rough, Adam.”

 

“I know, Hoss, but you have to let me take over. I have a clear head for this and you do not.”

 

Hoss chuckled. “I love how you still use the King’s English even when you’re pretending to be a hayseed farmer. I’m surprised they believed anything you said.”

 

Adam blushed. “Yeah, you’d think I could let up on that, wouldn’t you. I’ll have to try harder.”

 

“And you’re right. You can make better decisions than I can.”

 

Adam cocked his head and let a grin tug at the side of his mouth. “When you get stubborn, brother, you are really something.”

 

Hoss chuckled. “I ain’t helping nothing, am I?”

 

“Not sure about that. You have kept them alive this long. That’s really something to be proud of.”

 

“Hazel and I did it together.” Hoss smiled at the bedraggled teacher.

 

Adam frowned. “You’re not looking so good, little brother. How’s that shoulder?”

 

Hoss sighed. “It’s about twice the size it was last time I saw you.”

 

“You gotta’ rest, Hoss. I want you to close your eyes, and let me do the thinking for awhile.”

 

Hoss relaxed. “You’ll take care of things, huh?.”

 

“Just rest, little brother. I got it from here.”

 

Hoss shook his head. “You keep calling me that. I must’ve been in short pants last time I heard that on a regular basis. You must figure I’m dying.”

 

Adam snorted. “We don’t have time for you to die. ‘Fraid you’re going to have to knock that idea right out of your head. Biggest bunch of nonsense I ever heard.”

 

Hoss chuckled softly. “You’re right, brother. Dang fool thing to bring up. Forget I ever said anything.”

 

Adam watched Hoss relax his head against the tree and close his eyes. Hazel sat next to him on his good side, and let him drop his head onto her shoulder. She smiled tightly at Adam, and positioned her body to hold the big man up while he slept. Adam prayed silently that this not be the last time he ever spoke to his little brother.

 

**********

 

Hours later, the sun had set, and it was quiet save the crickets chirping and an occasional expletive from one of the Tucker brothers who were sharing a whiskey bottle around a campfire next to the creek. Earlier, they’d fought over Adam’s story about Danny coming a day late. Luckily the whiskey was pulled out by then. They soon lost interest on the veracity of Adam’s claims. Now, they were toasting poor dead Possum as if he’d accidentally stumbled off a cliff, ignoring the fact that one of them had shot him only hours earlier for very little reason at all.

 

Adam had lost most of the skin on his forearms from fussing at the knots. Glory had reached in with her little fingers, and tugged at it for a while, but he’d gotten nervous that she’d be caught, and so he banished her back to Hoss’ tree. His arms ached as if he’d burned them over an open fire, and the idea of pouring cold water on them had become a growing fantasy.

 

As if by magic, he heard the rustle of skirts, and Hazel dropped down next to him with some wet cloths. Her brown, anxious eyes darted this back and forth as she reached for his knots. He leaned over, “Get out of here. They’ll catch you.”

 

Ignoring him, she wrapped a wet towel around each forearm, and Adam was greeted with relief beyond anything he had dreamed. It would be short lived; his warm, raw skin would heat the towels and steal their coolness, but for now it felt extraordinary. She began to fumble at his knots and he hissed at her again. “Hazel, go back. I can do this myself.”

 

“No.”

 

“If they see you…”

 

She stopped and stared him in the eyes. “They’ve already done their worst to me.”

 

He sighed deeply. He had guessed the truth of it earlier, but here she was inches from him, and it was if he could see down into her soul. “You’re going to be okay, Hazel.”

 

She snorted. “That’s what your brother says.”

 

Adam closed his eyes. He knew Hoss was the kind of man to fight for someone who’d stopped fighting for himself. He’d seen him do it since he was old enough to climb into other people’s business. It always amazed him how Hoss could take on all the worries of another man’s life within hours of meeting him. He could imagine that Hoss had been using what little energy he possessed to keep Hazel Jones from losing faith. “How is he? How is my brother?”

 

She didn’t look at him right away. “I can’t tell. He’s breathing, but he’s hot. He hasn’t opened his eyes for hours.”

 

He nodded. “That’s good, Hazel. He needs the rest.”

 

“I would have lost all hope without him.”

 

Adam chuckled softly. “He has that particular gift.”

 

She gritted her teeth, and tore at the last knot. “What’s the plan once I free you?”

 

He shook his head. “I don’t know exactly, but I expect a raid in the night. You and the children have to be ready to run.”

 

She grunted as the last knot gave way. “What about Hoss?”

 

“Don’t worry about him. You worry about the children. I’ll take care of Hoss.” He sighed as the ropes slipped from his wrists.

 

Hazel took each towel off and flipped it over. The coolness on the other side would give him a few more minutes of respite. When she finished, he nodded at her. “Get back to the children. I’ll be fine.”

 

When she left, he pulled the towels off his arms. There was no time for attention to anything but the situation at hand.

 

**********

 

Ben couldn’t believe how close they had gotten to the camp after dark. The three of them were probably only a hundred years from the campfire. If they had the right angle, they could pick off two of the Tucker brothers easily.

 

“I still can’t figure where the third one is,” Joe said. “There were three of them earlier.”

 

Ben grunted. “We’ve watched them for two hours already. The only thing I can think is that he’s sacked out somewhere.”

 

“I say we don’t worry about him. I don’t want to wait another minute.” Rosen was fixated on the campfire below.

 

“It’s risky.”

 

“I don’t care.”

 

“I’m with him, Pa.”

 

“Great! You think we should engage in a gun battle in front of children? I don’t think so! We have to make sure that they are out of the way.”

 

“Your Pa’s right.” Rosen sat back.

 

“How are we going to…”

 

Ben looked at Rosen. “He’s fast and he’s small. He can get in there, and pull them out before any shooting takes place.”

 

Joe kicked the dirt. “Aw, Come on!”

 

His father walked up to him. “You think this is going to be easy? You have to sneak in there, and get a teacher, four children, and your two brothers out of there before any gunplay. You think that’s going to be easy?”

 

Joe looked down at the dirt. “No, Pa.”

 

“The future of our family and Sheriff Rosen’s family rests on your ability to get in there quiet and get them out. Can you do that, Joe?”

 

Joe nodded. Ben patted his cheek. “I’m counting on you, son.”

 

**********

 

Adam struggled to stay alert. He was hungry and aching and the Tuckers were getting dumber by the minute. They’d taken to fighting over the last of the bottle, and he wouldn’t have been surprised if one of them would have landed in the middle of the fire. In fact, he was getting rather hopeful about such an outcome.

 

A small squeal sounded from Hoss’ tree, and Adam’s attention jerked away from the campfire. Again, he heard muffled voices, and a voice trying to shush them all. He got up slowly, careful to check to see that the Tuckers were still engaged in battle over the rotgut. Then he jogged over to the tree. Hazel had disappeared behind the tree, and the children were restless. Hoss still leaned heavily against the tree, unconscious. Adam whispered to the children to lie down quietly until he came for them. Then, he slipped after Hazel.

 

She was standing in the meadow behind the tree, a half moon outlining her form. Adam could see she was not alone and his heart leapt. The un-mistakable outline of the youngest Cartwright stood next to her. Careful not to startle his impetuous brother, Adam called out in the signal they had used since they were kids. Joe’s head whipped around just in time for Adam to pick him up and squeeze him hard. Joe hugged him back fiercely.

 

Adam pulled away. “Good to see you, Shortshanks. What’s the plan?”

 

“I got to pull you birds out of here so Pa and the sheriff can get in there and take care of them. Problem is we can’t figure out where the third one is hiding.”

 

Adam shook his head. “His brother killed him yesterday afternoon.”

 

“Serious?!”

 

“Those two are the only ones left.”

 

Joe nodded. “The schoolteacher is going to get the kids out here, and then we’re going to take the high grass over to that grove. The kids can still run, right?”

 

Adam nodded.

 

“Can Hoss move under his own power?”

 

“Joe, he’s too sick for moving.”

 

Joe frowned. “We can’t just leave him there.”

 

“He’s not going anywhere. I’ll stay with him.”

 

Joe darted past him, and ran crouched over until he got to the tree. His big, indestructible brother lay against the trunk as pale and as still as a ghost. Joe’s breath caught and then he put a hand on Hoss’ face. He was relieved to find that Hoss still maintained the warmth of the living. An arm grabbed him around the torso and pulled him behind the tree. “What are you trying to do, Joe? Why don’t you just trot up and introduce yourself to the Tuckers.”

 

Joe’s eyes were wide. “He’s so still.”

 

“Listen to me. You have to focus. You can’t think about Hoss right now.”

 

“I’m not going to leave him.”

 

Adam grabbed his shoulders. “Yes, you are, Joe. You’re going to take the kids and get them out of here. That’s what you’re going to do.”

 

“And leave him here to die?”

 

Adam shook his head. “I’ll stay with him.”

 

“I can’t…”

 

Adam grabbed his face with both hands. “You get those children out of here! That’s your job. You understand?”

 

Joe’s eyes watered but he nodded.

 

Adam relaxed his grip. “I won’t let them hurt him.”

 

Joe swiped at his wet face with the back of his hand. “You don’t even have a gun.”

 

Adam pushed him. “Take them now!”

 

Joe turned and found that Hazel had gathered the young’uns, and they were all crouching at the base of the tree. They had quite a bit of open ground to cover before they got to the grove of trees. Joe’s eyes flickered to the campfire, and it dawned on him how close they were. Even drunk men could be dangerous. Joe pulled his gun and pressed it into Adam’s hands.

 

Adam started to protest, but Joe had already run off. He signaled to Hazel and she began herding children in his direction. Joe looked back in his direction once more, but he couldn’t find words. He grabbed Glory under one arm, and Sara by the hand. Then he started plowing through the tall grass. An angry cry rose from the campfire, and both Tuckers were on their feet staring at the trees where their prisoners had been. Adam took a deep breath and ran to Hoss.

 

***********

 

Adam knelt next to Hoss’ still form. “Buddy, I’m gonna’ push you over on your side. Sitting up makes you too much of a target.” He gently pushed him over onto his good side. Hoss answered with a groan as his battered body settled onto the ground next to the tree.

 

Adam ran and positioned himself behind a tree. Immediately, a shot whizzed past his head. He answered with a couple of shots. Joe had left him with his gun, but no ammunition save what was in the chamber. He knew he had to slow down and wait for the right shot.

 

One of the brothers came into view and he shot. Joe’s gun was lighter; his trigger was faster but more erratic. The shot missed, and the man darted behind the tree. Adam cursed. He was down to three shots and had yet to do any damage.

 

Adam leaned against the tree. He didn’t know what came next. One Tucker was shooting at him, and the other one had disappeared, no doubt circling around until he was aiming at Adam’s back. And then there was Hoss lying on the ground, a still target for the first Tucker to find him. Adam wasn’t more than just another target if he sat there much longer. He got up, and started to head back to Hoss’ tree when the grove erupted in gunfire. It took everything in him to not start firing until he actually had a target.

 

Alfred Tucker stepped out from behind the tree, and jerked forward a couple of steps before falling to the ground. Adam couldn’t see where he’d been hit, but he had no doubt the man was dead. A familiar call rose from nearby trees, and Adam cupped his mouth and returned it. Ben Cartwright and Sheriff Rosen came running in his direction. Adam allowed himself a second for relief to flood his gut. Then he stepped out to greet them.

 

Ben was breathing heavily. “One down. Means two more.”

 

Adam shook his head. “The youngest one died yesterday. There’s only one left, but he’s the mean one.”

 

Ben arched his brows. “The others weren’t?”

 

Adam shook his head. “It’s just that Evan Tucker enjoys killing more than a mountain cat on a calf. We got to find him.”

 

“The children?” was all Sheriff Rosen managed to ask. Adam pointed in the direction Joe went, and the Sheriff took off.

 

Adam wanted to call out and stop him. Leaving Evan Tucker at large was not good thinking, but yelling was only going to reveal their position. Ben grabbed his upper arm. “Hoss?!”

 

Adam pointed to a large tree off to the right. Ben took off. Adam did the best he could to cover him as he followed.

 

Ben Cartwright put all of his considerable passion into his love for his sons. None of them doubted the truth of it, and Adam felt a lump in his throat as his father dropped to the ground and reached for his middle son. Ben would undoubtedly be relieved that his son was alive, but Hoss’ condition was bad. Adam couldn’t convince himself that his brother would see the light of the morning.

 

Ben looked up. “Can we move him?”

 

“I don’t think so, Pa. I’m worried he might be bleeding internally.”

 

Ben looked around. “We can’t leave him out in the open like this.”

 

Adam shook his head. “Probably best to make him comfortable. Then we need to find the last Tucker.”

 

Ben frowned and returned his attention to Hoss. “We have to do better than that.”

 

Adam put a hand on his shoulder. “Hoss has been working really hard to stay with us, Pa, but I worry that he’s coming to the end of his strength.”

 

Ben took off his coat, rolled it up, and slipped beneath his son’s head. Adam found the blanket on the ground that they used for the children to sleep on. He carefully draped it on Hoss, and then he knelt beside Ben. He reached out to feel Hoss’ forehead once more when the blue eyes snapped open, startling both of them. Hoss managed half a grin before whispering, “Hey Pa.”

 

Ben laid his calloused hand on Hoss’ cheek. “You’re going to be okay, boy. You hear me?”

 

Hoss grunted. “I’m doing the best I can, Pa.” His eyes closed and he drifted away again.

 

Ben had that wild look in his eyes; as a father, he would risk anything to keep his children safe. Adam held his arm. “Pa, getting better is up to Hoss now.”

 

**********

 

At the base of the bluff, Joe found a stand of bushes. He drove through them with his boots to make sure they were free of snakes and other varmints. Once clear, he pushed each of the four children into its depths. He reached for Hazel, but she pulled away.

 

“Ma’am, this is the safest place for you and the young’uns.”

 

“I want to go back. Hoss needs help. I have nurses’ training. I can help him.”

 

Joe shook his head. “No Ma’am. As much as he could use it, we gotta’ keep all of you under wraps until this business is finished.”

 

She looked ready to run, but Joe was as quick as timber rattler, and he grabbed her arm. He was getting ready to shove her in when they heard three shots. She pulled away. “I thought the shooting was done.”

 

Joe said nothing, but he backed up slowly, studying the moonlit landscape. He could see the meadow and the groves of trees, but there was no movement. Then two more gunshots, and he saw the flashes coming from a ledge on the rock wall on the bluff. He jumped onto the lower branches of an old maple and climbed as high as he could. He could see the outline of a man shooting down into the grove of trees. Joe reached for his gun, and then remembered he’d given it to Adam. He cursed and dropped from the tree.

 

“What’s happening?” Hazel whispered harshly.

 

Joe looked up again, and then stepped into the meadow. The wall of the bluff was steep, but it was also jagged enough so that so a man could climb — unless, of course, that man was Joe Cartwright. Heights had always been his Waterloo. Joe felt dizzy and sick every time he had to climb into the hayloft. The face of this steep bluff was more than daunting than anything he’d encountered before. He shook his head when he realized that climbing it was only the first challenge. He had no gun. He had a knife strapped to his calf, but the idea that he would fight with a man at the edge of cliff turned his stomach over.

 

Hazel walked up to him. “One of them climbed up the face, didn’t they?”

 

He swallowed. “He can shoot down at them all night until he picks them off.”

 

“They can’t shoot him?”

 

Joe took her by the arm and pointed. “He’s sitting behind those rocks. It’s a bad angle. They’ll never get him.”

 

Joe let go of her, took off his hat and jacket, and handed them to Hazel. Then he rolled up his sleeves.

 

“What are you going to do?”

 

“I’m going up after him.”

 

She shook her head. “It’s too dangerous. It can’t be done.”

 

“He’s going to kill my family, Ma’am. I got no choice.” Joe squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. Then he ran at the rock wall, and jumped at an outcropping of rocks above. Straining, he pulled himself up onto the ledge. Hazel held her breath as the nimble young man climbed like a cat up the rock face.

 

**********

 

The first three shots startled them. Both Adam and Ben looked around desperately, but saw no movement in the grass. The next two shots hit the ground next to Hoss. Adam cursed and positioned himself in front of Hoss. “They came from above, Pa.”

 

Ben squinted at the rock wall in the distance. “You think Tucker climbed up there?”

 

“And he’s going to pick us off.”

 

“His aim isn’t very good.”

 

Adam sighed. “He’s not aiming for us. He wants to finish Hoss.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“You’d have to know the guy. He’s been gunning for Hoss since this whole thing started.”

 

“We can’t just stand out in the open like this. We gotta’ get Hoss out of here.”

 

“Pa!” Adam didn’t take his eyes off the cliff. “We move him right now, and it’ll kill him just as dead as another bullet.”

 

“You can’t just stand there in front of him!”

 

“Adam.” Adam turned to see his brother’s eyes open again. “Pa’s right. You can’t just stand there.”

 

Adam softened. “It’s okay, Hoss. You just rest. It’s going to be okay.”

 

“Bullet or no bullet: I don’t reckon I’m walking out of here. You know it as well as I do. Don’t be a doggone fool.”

 

Adam shook his head. “You gotta’ stop talking, Hoss.”

 

Ben knelt next to Hoss. “Son, you have to keep fighting. Please, Hoss!”

 

**********

 

Hazel saw movement in the grass, and hid behind a tree. A familiar figure came running through the meadow, and Hazel realized it was Sheriff Rosen. She ran from behind the tree, and almost leapt into his arms. Luckily, the sheriff was too startled to shoot her. He could only get out one word, “Glory?”

 

Hazel pointed at the bushes. Then she turned, picked up her skirts, and ran through the meadow.

 

**********

 

It was the third shot on the next round that got Adam. He grunted and fell over backward.

 

“Adam!” Ben ran over and dragged his son behind the tree. Adam groaned loudly while Ben searched for the wound. It was with great relief when he found a clean hole in Adam’s thigh. He sat back for a minute and sighed. “It’s okay, Adam. Clean. In and out.”

 

Adam struggled to sit up. “I still can’t walk on it. I’m not much use to you now.”

 

Ben chuckled. “You’re alive, Adam. That’s all I care about.”

 

**********

 

The fear in his gut had bled into every part of his body. He could even feel it in his hands and his legs. He had long ago stopped looking down. The fact that the only thing keeping him alive was his tenuous hold on rock was ever present, but he still climbed. He was much higher than Tucker now, but it was necessary to do this so he didn’t get his attention. The trick now was to cross over until he was above him, and then find a way to get the drop on him.

 

There were moments when Joe felt like he would choke on his fear, but then he would remember four innocent children stolen from their families and his brother lying unconscious against a tree and he would reach for another rock.

 

**********

 

Ben almost shot Hazel Jones dead. She came running toward them, and, in the dusk of night, he couldn’t tell who he was. He pulled back his weapon just as she came stumbling in. “Hoss” was all she managed to say before leaning over to catch her breath.

 

Ben blinked. “Ma’am, you ought not to be here. Didn’t Joe find a hiding place for you?”

 

She nodded vigorously and then straightened up. “The children are with Sheriff Rosen. Your son, Joe, is on the cliff.”

 

Ben scanned the rock wall until he saw a tiny figure scaling the rocks above Tucker’s position. “That’s my son?”

 

Adam leaned up on his elbow. “What’s he doing? He doesn’t even have a gun!”

 

Ben shook his head and turned away, eyes closed. This was quickly becoming the most harrowing night of his life. Hazel took that moment to run past him in search of Hoss. She found him on the ground. “Hoss! I’m here, Hoss. I’ll take care of you.”

 

He groaned. “Get out of here, Hazel. Get her out of here!”

 

Another two shots were fired, and dirt flew up around them. Ben grabbed her around the waist and carried her to the back of the tree where Adam was lying. “You shouldn’t be here.”

 

“I can help him!”

 

Ben grabbed her by the shoulder. “You’ll be killed, Miss Jones. You can’t do it.”

 

“I want to help!”

 

He looked at Adam propped against the tree out of the line of fire. “My son, Adam, was shot in the leg. Can you stop the bleeding?”

 

She looked at him with weary brown eyes and nodded. Then she crouched down to Adam, and took a loose piece of petticoat and ripped a long piece off. Then she ripped open the torn edges of Adam’s pants.

 

Startled, he got back up on his elbow. “Um…Hazel, be careful that you don’t tear them off me. I’d like to hold onto a little of my dignity here.”

 

Ben went back out, prowling the ground in front of Hoss, his eyes scanning the rock wall ahead. Hazel stopped to watch him. “He’s going to get shot, Adam.”

 

Adam shook his head. “I know. We seem to be taking turns in this family.”

 

“You seem to all care about each other so much,” observed Hazel.

 

“Isn’t that who family is supposed to be?”

 

She blushed and returned her attention to his wound.

 

Adam watched her work. “Hazel, tell me why you care so much for Hoss. Is it just because the two of you have been stuck in this mess?”

 

She snorted. “Well, that would be enough.” She wound the petticoat tightly around his thigh. He laid back and closed his eyes, praying that the sun would rise and take with it this nightmare.

 

After she finished, she sat back. “He didn’t look at me funny…after I was…harmed. He didn’t treat me like I should be ashamed.”

 

Adam nodded. “My brother, Hoss, never gives up on anyone.”

 

She screwed up her face. “When I was on the ground…and they were there, I just wanted to die. I wanted them to shot me dead or hit me with a rock or something. And then suddenly, in the midst of this hell, I heard singing.”

 

“Hazel, you don’t have to tell me this.”

 

“The children sang loudly like it was Easter service or something. They sang Christmas and harvest songs and probably every other song they could think of. I could hear them so clearly. I closed my eyes, and pretended that I was in church listening to that music, and there were moments when it worked.”

 

She sighed and looked down at her hands. “When I got back to the camp and the children woke, they just wanted to know if I heard how good they sang. That’s all they asked about. Who else would have known how to help me and protect those children at the same time? Who else?”

 

Adam took one of her hands. “Nobody else. Only Hoss would have known.”

 

**********

 

Joe clung to the rock tightly. Looking down at Tucker unleashed dizzying nausea for him. He was particularly vulnerable now. All Tucker had to do was look up and see him. It would take one shot, and Joe would fall to his death. All he had to do was get down to the next outcropping, and he’d be close enough. He moved carefully, knowing that a single dropped rock or noise would be his end.

 

**********

 

Ben was captivated by the scene on the wall. His youngest son moved slowly along the wall toward Evan Tucker. He held his breath, fearing for that moment when Tucker turned his head and found someone only yards away. Joe would never have a chance.

 

The only thing in their favor was Tucker and his bad eyesight. The man had very little precision at all, and they were all still alive because he only seemed capable of shooting in their general direction.

 

All of a sudden, Joe let go of the ledge and dropped on top of Tucker. Ben yelled “Joseph!” into the air. Adam struggled to sit up and Hazel jumped to her feet. It was impossible to see much of anything. And then in their struggle for the gun, it started going off. The first two shots were high, and then a shot whizzed by Ben’s head.

 

“Get down!” he yelled to Hazel, but she merely stood there with a puzzled look on her face. He started running toward her when she pitched forward and fell heavily to the ground. Ben reached her as a dark stain began spreading across her upper back. He probed her neck gently for a pulse, but she was as still as a stone. He could feel the heat begin to leave her body.

 

Adam had crawled over. “She’s gone?”

 

Ben nodded.

 

“Damn! She’s been through so much and she was trying so hard.”

 

He gently closed her eyes. “Well now, she can rest, son.”

 

Adam looked beyond his father. “Pa! Look!”

 

On the rock wall, a lone figure stood with a gun. Despite the fact that the dawn was only beginning, both Cartwrights knew with a certainty that the victor of the struggle was their own. Joe was sagging against the wall, breathing hard, but he was on his feet. Ben let out a yelp and waved at Joe frantically. Joe responded halfheartedly. It was clear the boy was still struggling to catch his breath.

 

**********

 

It took Joe another hour before he found his legs again. He’d vomited as much of his fear as his gut would allow. Then he sat down next to the dead man. Joe had only ever killed when he had to, and this situation was no different, but he’d never been stuck with a dead body before. He squeezed his eyes shut, and willed himself the nerve to get on that rock face long enough to find ground.

 

It worried what he might find. Tucker was shooting at them off and on for over an hour before he dropped on him. Still, he hadn’t been raised to hide, and so once he hit ground, he trotted off for the grove where he’d last seen Hoss and Adam.

 

The first person he saw was his father who grabbed him and hugged as hard as Joe could ever remember. Ben had tears in his eyes as he told him how proud he was. Joe wasn’t ready for these words; he still had family to claim. He found his brother Adam sitting against a tree; there was a bullet wound on his upper leg, but he looked fresh and alert. Adam was busy with brother Hoss, carefully taking off the old bandages and cleaning the infected wound. Joe knelt on the other side of Hoss and looked at Adam.

 

“I don’t have much to tell you, Joe. He’s fevering, drifting in and out of consciousness.”

 

Joe wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. “Can I do anything?”

 

Adam looked at him. “I’m taking my time here, cleaning his wound, keeping him cool. I’ll let you know if there’s anything you can do.”

 

“Where’s the schoolteacher?”

 

Adam closed his eyes. “She didn’t make it, Joe. She was shot in the back.”

 

Joe sat quiet for a few moments and then asked. “I was wrestling with that Tucker for a few minutes. He was shooting that gun all over. I worried that he might’ve hurt someone. I worried that it was reckless how it was shooting everywhere. Do…do you remember when she was hit?”

 

Ben heard this and came over. “Son, you saved us.”

 

Joe looked up. “But did she caught by a stray bullet? I had a feeling, but I couldn’t get hold of that gun.”

 

Ben let out a deep breath. “The truth is…”

 

“She died about five minutes before you got the jump on Tucker,” Adam said, looking at him steadily.

 

“Adam!”

 

Adam looked up at his father. “That’s the truth, Pa.”

 

Ben frowned but said nothing. Joe couldn’t quite decipher what was happening, but seemed to sense that this line of questioning was going as far as it ought to. His only choice was to seek comfort in the idea that he hadn’t been part of her death.

 

Sheriff Rosen came over, all four children in tow. Glory clung to his thigh. “I brought all of our stuff down to this camp.”

 

Ben nodded. “It’s going to take most of a day to get that wagon out of here.”

 

“I reckon we oughta’ get some rest before we go anywhere. I can’t remember the last time I slept.”

 

“Families will be anxious, but we’re all dead on our feet. We can’t make a move until we’ve rested.”

 

Adam looked up. “Hoss is not going to travel. The doctor’s going to have to come here.”

 

Ben winced. “Are you sure, Adam?”

 

“I don’t think he can survive a wagon ride, certainly not one that takes him on the rugged roads out of this canyon.”

 

Glory let go of her dad, and tried to climb in between Hoss and Adam. Adam pulled her against him, and grunted as she sat next to his wound. “Sweetie, you can’t touch Hoss right now.”

 

She wrapped her arms around his neck. “Fix him, Mr. Adam. Please fix him.”

 

The child had stolen his heart; he wasn’t sure when she did it, but he suspected it was the moment she gave him five daughters and a pregnant wife. Having her in his arms in this moment wasn’t an intrusion. Rather, it was one of the first moments he had allowed himself any persona other than efficient, logical Adam. He held her tightly and buried his face in her neck. “I’m doing the best I can, sweetie.”

 

“I’m going to be your helper and bring you water and bandages and everything else you need.”

 

A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “That’s just the thing that old Hoss needs.”

 

She untangled herself and stepped away. “Bet you’re needing some fresh water.”

 

He nodded. She grabbed the bucket and ran off, the three others running after her.

 

**********

 

Ben was sitting with Hoss when Joe woke up. The rest of the camp was still knocked out on the grass under the shade of the oak trees. Joe trotted over. “Anything new?”

 

Ben shook his head. “He’s still fevering.”

 

“We got to get a doctor.” Joe looked about ready to leap out of his skin.

 

“I know. I’m going just as soon as you take over here.”

 

“Pa, you should stay. I’ll go. I’ll have a doctor back here in less than two days. I promise.”

 

Ben shook his head and stood. “You need to stay here and help Adam care for him. You’re going to have to hunt and keep camp. Adam can’t do any of that just yet.”

 

“I ride faster.”

 

Ben shook his head. “We won’t argue about this. You need to stay here and take care of your brothers. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

 

“The sheriff?”

 

“He’ll take the children up in the wagon in the morning.”

 

Joe frowned. “I still think I should be…”

 

Ben shook his head. “Go sit with Hoss, Joe. This has been decided.”

 

**********

 

The next day, time passed in inches. It was sunny and peaceful, but a blanket of fear still covered them. The area was crowded with jackrabbits, and Joe shot four of them within an hour. He found some sorrel and wild onions, and then he set to making a stew. He took care with his cooking, throwing in salt, pepper, and a few pieces of jerky. Hoss could make a mean prairie stew, and Joe didn’t want to disappoint his big brother with his efforts.

 

Adam doctored every minute he was awake. His own thigh ached fierce, but he paid it little attention. He was constantly leaning over Hoss, cooling him or tending to his wound. Joe sat with them whenever he could.

 

“Adam, I don’t see why you leave that wound uncovered so much. That don’t seem right.”

 

“Last time I was in San Francisco, I attended a series of lectures on the treatment of bullet wounds.”

 

Joe’s eyes widened. “No kidding?”

 

Adam raised an eyebrow. “The way you two Jaspers are always getting into trouble, I figured it would be time well spent.”

 

“That was a smart move, Adam.”

 

“The new literature says that infected wounds should be left open whenever possible so they can drain. My only job here is to drain it and keep it clean.”

 

“We’re darn lucky you know these things, Adam. You could save his life.”

 

Adam winked at him. “I had to come up with something. After all, you saved all of our lives. I couldn’t let you walk away with all the glory.”

 

Joe blushed.

 

“Joe, we all know how you hate heights, but you climbed that wall and then risked dropping on him without even a gun. That has to be the gutsiest thing I’ve ever seen.”

 

“I guess I couldn’t see another way.”

 

“I thought you’d gone plum crazy.”

 

Joe grinned. “I reckon I was.”

 

**********

 

When he woke, it was late afternoon. Hoss could feel a cool breeze on his cheeks, and it soothed his hot, tired body. He turned his head to the right, and saw an unmistakable dark head snoring softly at his side. He smiled a bit. It was good to have his big brother so close. He turned his head to the left, and saw Joe curled up like a cat near the camp stove.

 

It was rare to see a Cartwright sleeping in the light of day, but he reckoned they’d all worn themselves down to stubs. He couldn’t hear or feel the children nearby, but the air felt so peaceful that he didn’t feel a sense of panic. Something in the air caused his nose to twitch, and he caught the distinct aroma of stewed rabbit. He tried to shift his body closer, but his limbs were stiff and the wound in his shoulder shot pain through him. He grunted and lay back again.

 

Adam stirred. He shook his head and sat up, blinking. When he looked down at Hoss, he saw two bright blue eyes smiling up at him. “Hey!” he shouted.

 

Hoss grinned. “You didn’t figure I’d be ailing forever, did ya?”

 

Joe scrambled over, grinning. “You did it, Adam!”

 

“I guess he’s just too tough to die.” Adam wiped the sweat from Hoss’ cooling brow.

 

Hoss looked up at Joe. “You don’t reckon maybe you saved a bit of that rabbit stew?”

 

Joe threw back his head and laughed. “I should’ve known that the smell of food would wake him up.”

 

**********

 

They carefully propped Hoss up against the tree, and then set about feeding him bits of the cold stew. Hoss wasn’t known for his thinking skills, but he was an observant man. He nodded at Adam. “I see you caught a bullet.”

 

“Yeah, but it’s not bad. Bullet went clean through.”

 

“Anyone killed outside of them Tuckers?”

 

Joe shot a worried look at Adam who thought on it a moment. “Hoss, Hazel didn’t make it. She took a bullet in the back right before Joe got Tucker.”

 

Hoss closed his eyes for a moment. They all waited in silence for his reaction. He reached up with his good arm, and pinched away some tears. “I’d hoped better for her.”

 

“She wouldn’t hide with the children. She wanted to keep you safe. She took care of me when I got shot.”

 

“I remember little bits and pieces.”

 

“She thought you were very special, Hoss.”

 

Hoss swallowed hard. “She was a good woman. Got treated bad, but she didn’t give up. Saved my life too. Convinced ‘em not to kill me in the beginning.”

 

“Those Tuckers hurt a lot of good people. I ain’t sorry to see them dead.” Joe couldn’t hide the anger in his voice.

 

“It’s hard to figure how men like those Tuckers get the way they get.”

 

Adam smiled. For most people, it was easier to understand the meanness of a Tucker than it was to understand the pure goodness in a man like Hoss or the raw courage in a man like Joe.

 

“Pa should be here with a doc by morning light.”

 

“It’ll be good to see Pa.”

 

Joe squeezed his arm. “He’ll be real happy to see you all bright-eyed and such. He was real worried. We were all of us worried.”

 

“Well, little brother, you better get to shooting more rabbits ‘cause I’m about to finish up this stew, and you know how my stomach’s been neglected and such. I’ll be needing nourishment on a real regular basis these next few days.”

 

Joe jumped to his feet. “I’m going to make you the best stew you ever ate.” He took off running for his rifle.

 

Adam raised his eyebrows. “You think we ought to tell him not to over-salt it this time?”

 

Hoss grinned madly. “Ain’t neither of us got the heart for it. I ain’t seen him that happy in a long time.”

 

*****End*****

 

 

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