Summary: Missing Man Challenge – Add Adam into an episode as if he has always been there. I have chosen an episode from Season 12:6, Gideon the Good.
Rated: T Word Count: 8,148
Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
The Scales of Justice
It was supposed to be a simple ride through to Warbonnet to meet up with his father and brothers. As far as Adam knew, all three of them would already be there ahead of him and they’d take the horses they’d picked out back home together. It would have been that simple if he hadn’t decided to head there via Black Water and run into an angry posse a few miles out of town. Adam found himself staring down several rifles as he slowly raised his hands into the air.
Two days earlier.
Joe was enjoying the sunshine on his back as he pushed towards the next town. He grinned to himself as he considered what day it was. Pa and Hoss should be in Warbonnet by now and he could just picture Hoss’ face when he found out his little brother hadn’t made it there yet. Hoss wasn’t happy that he’d convinced Pa to let him take a side trip, just as Adam had been allowed to head off for his own reasons. Hoss had glowered at him from under his hat and pointed a meaty finger his way.
“You just make sure you ain’t late in showin’ up, little brother! We ain’t drivin’ those horses all the way home without you while you’re sippin’ cold beer in some saloon and losin’ all your money at cards!”
“Don’t worry, it’ll never happen, Hoss.” Joe slapped his brother on the shoulder as he climbed into the saddle. “I never lose at cards!”
Joe laughed out loud as he recalled his father’s head shake as he galloped away. He had no intention of being late, but it sure was fun to wind Hoss up. Easy too.
Suddenly a single shot rang out nearby and Cochise pranced sideways at the unexpected noise. He pulled in on the reins and had just begun to move again when another horse and carriage came barrelling towards him. He could see it was a woman driving and Joe shouted at her to watch where she was going. She neither responded nor slowed down, but she was gone in moments as the trail twisted out of sight.
It only took a few minutes to find the reason for the gunshot as Joe continued back up the trail. A dead man with a clear gunshot wound lay sprawled on the ground in front of him.
Joe slid down from the saddle and reached to check for a pulse. He didn’t expect to find one and wasn’t surprised as he saw the blood seeping into the ground. He sighed as he pulled a blanket from the man’s bedroll and began the gruesome task of rolling the body into it and hoisting it onto the nearby horse.
It was only a few miles to reach the small town of Black Water and Joe felt the weight of the stares as he road into town, trailing a horse and body behind him. He asked directions for the sheriff’s office and somebody nervously pointed the way. Before long, he was standing with Sheriff Gideon Yates and one of his deputies, explaining how he came to be hauling a dead body with a hole in it. The sheriff and his deputies were nothing if not efficient in looking for the stranger’s identity and sending the body off to the undertaker’s office.
Joe glanced around at the dusty little town as he made his way inside the sheriff’s office. It looked just like a thousand other little towns that struggled to exist in the harsh reality of mining booms and busts.
The sheriff pointed to a chair as they entered the office and Joe slid into the seat. Truth be told, he was glad to be rid of the responsibility of the dead body and would be very happy to give his story and get back on the road as soon as possible. Any thought of Hoss being annoyed at him was no longer as funny as it had seemed a few hours earlier.
Before he could begin, another man wandered out from the cell area. The smell of sour whiskey hit Joe from clear across the room and it was obvious the man had been left to sleep off a bender. Joe watched with interest as the sheriff spoke with the man and even tucked a few dollars in his pocket before sending him out the door. It looked very much like something Clem would do, having learned well at Roy Coffee’s side and Joe smiled slightly as the man sat down beside him.
“Now, suppose you could give me anything more on this woman you said you saw? It may not look like it out there on the streets, but there’s a lot of women around these parts that could fit your description.”
Joe shook his head as he considered the comment. “Sorry, but I’d know her if I saw her again. I only got a glance at her, but she … well she certainly made an impression!”
Gideon wondered at the tone of the comment, but let it slide. “I’m going to have to organise an inquest and I’ll need you here as a witness, I’m afraid.”
“Not a problem. I’ll just wire my family and let them know what the hold up is.”
As Joe stood up to go, the sheriff reached to stop him. “I’m going to ride out there shortly. I’d appreciate it if you’d come with me and show me what you saw.”
“Sure.” Joe already had his hat planted on his head and was moving for the door.
As he thought back on things later, Joe wished he’d refused the request. Maybe if he had, he wouldn’t have found himself bleeding from a serious leg wound and a fugitive from the law. Instead, he did what his father had raised him to do and he helped the local sheriff.
The two men scoured the area that Joe had pointed out. The pool of dried blood was all too clear to both of them. Joe had already handed the sheriff the gun he found along with the dead body and it seemed they had done all they could. Suddenly Joe caught a glimpse of something and he reached for it. A woman’s lacey embroidered handkerchief had no business being there in the long grass.
“Hey, take a look at this will ya?”
The sheriff turned as Joe handed him the piece of cloth and he barely held a frown in check as he ran a finger over the embroidered “L” on one corner.
“Well, maybe that helps narrow things a bit. I guess this woman’s name begins with an L.”
“First name. Last name. It’s gotta be hers. I can’t see why it’d be out here otherwise.”
The sheriff shrugged as he climbed back into the saddle and Joe stayed silent as he watched the man’s reaction. They were a good way down the road before he tried again.
“You got anybody in mind?”
“The name. Starting with L. Any ideas?”
Gideon shrugged again and stared off ahead of him as if deep in thought.
It was a quiet trip back into town and Joe wasn’t surprised when the man cut him loose as they arrived at the edge of town. He was surprised the sheriff didn’t head straight for his office and turned up a side street instead.
It was all he could do not to push his horse into a gallop from the minute he’d seen the incriminating piece of cloth, but Gideon nudged his horse into a canter as soon as he was sure Cartwright was out of sight. He pulled up in front of his home and ran for the front door, barely managing to tie his horse off to the hitching rail.
Joe was beginning to feel the weight of the day as he pulled up in front of the livery. He’d teased Hoss about taking his time, but he wished he could just get on the road and be in Warbonnet already.
A young Mexican lad walked out of the livery as he was about to call out and he began to ingratiate himself with the new customer.
“Buenos dias, senor! What a magnificent animal you have there. It would be an honour to have such a magnificent one in my humble stable.”
“And how much will this great honour be costing me?”
The boy clutched his hat to his chest and grinned as he bowed. “For you, senor … just a dollar a day! And that includes feed too!”
Joe was tugging at the gloves on his hands as he watched the performance.
“I’ll make it a dollar and a half, if you will do something for me.”
“Put your hat back on your head, stand up straight and stop with the silly theatrics.”
For a moment, the young man stared at him, but Joe just smiled back at him. Finally he grinned back at the stranger as he replaced his hat on his head.
“Better. Now, where’s the telegraph office?”
“That way, just around the corner.”
Joe nodded as he clapped the boy on the shoulder. “Thanks.”
Luis watched the stranger leave before tugging on the horse’s reins. It truly was a magnificent animal with its distinctive pinto colouring, but still that wasn’t what made him straighten his shoulders. He was used to being looked down upon by the locals, no matter what El Jefe said. It was unusual for anybody to treat him with such respect, especially without wanting anything in return. He glanced again at the beautiful horse and noted the brand on its rump. It wasn’t one he recognised and figured the stranger must come from some way away, as he knew all the brands for miles around.
Gideon sat on the lounge beside his wife and listened as she hesitantly filled him in on what had happened hours earlier. Fear clutched at his chest as he realised each word she spoke dug a bigger hole for the both of them.
Harry Loomis was supposed to be long dead, not newly dead with a bullet hole in his chest. His wife had been widowed years before he met her and her no-account husband was a memory best left in the past. Except he wasn’t dead and he wasn’t content to stay in the past.
“I truly thought he was dead. I could never have done this to you on purpose. I love you!”
“I know that.”
Lydia grasped at her husband’s hand, fearful he would see something in her actions that would cause him to leave the room, or the house or even to go so far as to have her convicted of murder.
“He tried to force me into the wagon and said he was taking me back with him. I couldn’t go anywhere with him! Not again.”
Tears trailed down her cheeks as Gideon stroked them away. He knew all he ever wanted to know about Harry Loomis. The man had thought his wife was his property and he had beaten her into submission any time she dared speak her mind. Of course, Lydia had barely been eighteen when her father had made the “good” match and she had suffered through three miserable years until one day the man had been shot and killed in a card game gone wrong. At least that was the story that filtered back to his widow and she had been only too pleased to accept it as truth. He had no idea where the man had really been holed up, but prison would be his best guess.
“We’ll think of something. Don’t worry.”
“But … but everyone will think I killed him on purpose because our marriage isn’t legal. We could both be arrested for bigamy!”
“Well that issue is taken care of.” Gideon muttered the words to himself, but his wife’s face drained of colour.
“Surely you don’t …” Gideon wrapped his hand around his wife’s fingers and shook his head.
“No, I don’t. But you need to stay inside because that Cartwright fella can identify you.”
He leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead before standing up.
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.” He had no real idea just how he would do that, but his first plan was to get the only one who could identify his wife to leave town.
Joe sat at the table in the only restaurant in town and tucked into a good steak. Of course, it was nothing on Hop Sing’s steaks, but it would do. He looked up to see the sheriff coming towards him and he gestured towards the vacant seat.
“Cartwright.” Gideon nodded at the man as he sat down. He hated what he was about to do, but it needed to be done. The man needed to leave as soon as possible.
“Sheriff.” Joe nodded as he cut another strip of steak. “Have a seat.”
“I just came to let you know we’ve got a name on the dead man – Harry Loomis. He’s from Denver so I’ve sent a wire to get any information on why he might be here or who might want to kill him.”
Joe swallowed the mouthful of steak and nodded.
“So I just wanted to say there’s no need for you to stay for that inquest after all. We know who the victim is and we’ll wait on the wire to find out more. No further information you can give us since I’ve already got your statement.”
Joe frowned at the man. Clem would have been only too keen to keep a witness in place until he had his answers.
“I could still identify that woman if she shows up. I don’t mind staying a bit to see if she does.”
Gideon rubbed at his lower jaw as he considered the man in front of him. Men of integrity were few and far between as far as he was concerned. It was one of the reasons he’d worked so hard to hold his town together and build a community.
Something wasn’t adding up, but Joe couldn’t see what.
“Well, I already wired my father so he’s not expecting me for a few days. I think I’ll stay a couple more days and see if she shows up.”
Joe watched as the sheriff headed for the swing doors. He frowned as he tried to make sense of what had just happened. Something certainly didn’t add up.
Adam stirred the coffee into the pot before placing it back against the coals to heat through. He rubbed at his neck as stretched out along the bedroll. He should have been in Warbonnet already, but Sport had caught his leg on a length of wire and the graze was deep enough that he didn’t want to risk putting any weight on it. Instead, he’d been forced to buy another horse and wait two days before setting out with Sport on a lead rope. It felt strange to be riding another horse, but he wasn’t prepared to risk permanent injury.
He could smell the coffee was brewed and he leaned forward to snag the pot from the fire. He carefully poured a cup and settled back again against his saddle. It was a clear night and he glanced up at the sky again. The stars he’d looked at all his life twinkled back at him. For all the years he had travelled across the country alongside his father and then Inger and Hoss, he’d watched those same stars. He knew the names of the constellations and the patterns that altered with the seasons. It was a part of his father’s heritage that had become theirs. He smiled as he gazed upward. It may not be the hotel room he was expecting to be bedding down in, but it wasn’t too shabby.
Joe wandered down the main street of Black Water. Everything was shut up as he expected it would be in a small town. The only thing still open had been the saloon where he’d eaten his meal, but even that was almost ready to shut up for the night. He felt strangely restless and not ready for bed, even though his body was telling him it was time to rest. He glanced up at the night sky and smiled as he picked out a couple of constellations. It was such an ingrained habit and it always made him smile. Whether it was his father telling him seafaring stories when he was a child and teaching him about the stars or Adam and Hoss drumming it into him to learn to navigate by them, it was a comforting thing to know. No matter where he went, he always had an intangible connection to his family.
Joe pulled himself back to the present as he stopped in front of a shop window. He would never know why he stopped there. It may have been something that caught his eye or it may just have been co-incidence, but whatever it was, it was the moment that nearly cost him his life. Right there, behind the glass window was the face of the woman who had nearly run him down on the road. The woman who had most likely murdered a man and left his body for the scavengers. He stared at the photo for a minute before moving to the door of the building and hammering on the door. When nobody answered, he turned and looked back up the street. The sheriff’s office was one way and a house with a light on was the other way. The house was closer and he turned back to head that way.
Across the street, Gideon watched as the stranger headed straight for his home and his wife. His hand twitched at his holster as he fought himself on what he was about to do. As Cartwright drew closer to his front door, he pulled his gun from its holster and fired across the street.
Joe heard the noise a spilt second before he felt the fire in his leg. He rolled with an instinct born from years of wrestling with two brothers and many other young men. He felt the pain explode in his thigh as he scrambled back into the alleyway, trying to find where the shot had come from. He staggered across into the relative safety of the darkness and clambered over a fence before heading for the livery. He needed to get to his horse.
Inside the house, Lydia heard the shot ring out and she ran for the front door. She watched as her husband chased somebody down the alleyway and she knew without needing to see his face, just who that somebody was.
Joe heard the sound of his pursuer as he awkwardly climbed up onto a porch roof and tried to slow his wild breathing. His watched as the sheriff stalked underneath him and disappeared back into the night. Nobody would believe him up against the town’s respected sheriff and he tried to work out how to get to the livery and out of town without being caught. It was a long shot, but the only one he had.
Men piled out of the saloon door, having heard the shot too. It was an uncommon enough occurrence in their little town and the murder of a stranger had them all on edge and wary.
Luis pulled the livery door closed as he stepped back inside. His hands were shaking as he considered what he had just witnessed. He paced across the livery floor, debating what he should do. Finally he slipped out the door and headed for the saloon where he could hear voices. El Jefe was speaking to a group of men and sending them out to find the stranger. At first, he thought maybe he had been mistaken in the dark and somebody else had fired that shot, but the sheriff’s next words confirmed his fears.
“This Cartwright fellow could be handy with a gun. I don’t want anyone being hurt here tonight so if you find him, leave him to me.”
Gideon pointed to several of the men closest to him. “I want you to head over to the livery and take all the horses out to Colton’s ranch. Get any horses off the street too and he can’t get away from here.”
Luis slunk back into the shadows as he turned and scrambled back along the street towards the livery. The sheriff was posting men around the town and he wondered where the man could be. As the appointed men strode into the livery, Luis stuck with them. It was his job to feed and care for the horses and he had no idea what his customers would say if they came to get their horses the next day and they were all gone.
“Wait! What will I tell the owners when they come for their horses?” He pleaded with the man nearest him.
“You tell them they are at my ranch.”
“But senor, that is a long way to walk to get them back!”
“Yep and you keep an eye out for that Cartwright fella. He’s bad news.”
Luis watched as the beautiful pinto was walked out the door with the other horses and he sighed again. Deep inside, he’d hoped the stranger had gotten to his horse and made it out already. He turned back to turn down the lantern when he spotted the blood on the ladder that led up to the loft. He glanced upwards and for a few moments, he debated walking out the door and pretending he knew nothing. He growled at himself as he began to climb the ladder instead and soon found himself facing the wrong end of a shaking gun.
Joe huddled up against the wall and tried to will his hand to stop shaking. He couldn’t afford to fire a shot with the men so close outside, but he couldn’t risk the boy giving him away either.
“Where are they taking my horse?”
“Senor, they have taken them all to Senor Colton’s ranch. Maybe four miles from town. El Jefe told them to take them.”
Joe stared at the boy. He was scared, but for some reason he had still climbed the ladder to the loft.
“Why’d you come up the ladder?”
“There was blood on it.”
Joe frowned at him. “So why didn’t you give me away to those men?”
Luis pulled his hat to his chest and sank to his knees in the straw as he reverted to his usual grovelling manner around white men.
“Stop that!” Joe demanded.
Luis licked his lip before he answered the question. “I do not want to be involved.”
“Involved in what? What’s going on out there?”
“El Jefe said that you ran away from him when he questioned you about the dead man.”
“Making me look guilty! It seems they believed him too.”
“Everyone.” Luis stared at the straw as he fiddled with his hat.
“What about you?” Joe stared at the young man who hadn’t given him away. Yet.
Luis squirmed under the scrutiny. “El Jefe helped us when my father died. He gave my mother a job and then me! He has always …”
“You saw what he did out there! Didn’t you?”
Luis chewed at his lip and refused to answer.
Luis finally nodded, his face a picture of misery.
“You were heading towards his home. Maybe he thought you would rob him or something. His wife was home alone.”
Luis was clutching at straws and he knew it, but he could not reconcile what he knew of the town’s sheriff and what he had seen only an hour earlier.
“His wife?” Joe pushed himself upright and felt his leg scream in protest. “What’s his wife look like?”
“She is beautiful. Miss Lydia is the most beautiful woman in Black Water.”
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place and Joe sagged back against the wall. The fine, upright sheriff was a legend in the area and nobody would defy him, especially not for a stranger. The frightened young man in front of him was torn and Joe knew it. Besides, who would believe him against his powerful and respected patron?
“I will not turn you in, but I do not know how to get you out of here either.”
Joe closed his eyes in defeat. He had no ideas either.
Adam stared at the men who still had their rifles aimed his way.
“Care to tell me what the problem is, gentlemen?”
“Any reason you got two horses there?”
Adam slowly lowered a hand to point back towards Sport’s bandaged leg. “My horse got cut up on some wire. I needed to get to Warbonnet and couldn’t wait for him to heal up and didn’t want to risk laming him either. I bought another horse and have been walking him on a lead rope.”
The trio looked at each other as if weighing up his answer. Finally the one who seemed to be leading the group lowered his rifle and the others followed suit.
“Can’t be too careful, mister.”
“Yeah. We got ourselves a murderer on the loose.”
Adam dropped his other hand to grasp at his reins again and looked at the three men in front of him. If what they said was true, he didn’t want to be out on the road come nightfall.
“A fella what rode into town and brought his victim in on the back of a horse, all the while tellin’ the sheriff that some woman had killed the other fella. Never did sound right to me! I mean, women don’t go around killin’!”
The other two riders nodded in agreement as they stowed their rifles back into their scabbards.
“This fellow got a name?”
“Called himself Cartwright. Didn’t catch his first name, but it don’t matter. We know what he looks like.”
Adam barely managed to keep himself in check. “What’s he look like then? Wouldn’t want to run into him out here, you know?”
“Well, he’s got longish hair and he was wearin’ a green jacket and a tan hat and he did have a pinto horse, but the sheriff took all the horses out of the livery so he don’t got that anymore. Course, he’s most likely on foot.”
Adam rubbed a hand across his face as he clutched at something to say. “Well I’ll be sure to keep an eye out. I’ve got to get this horse into town and give him a rest.”
He tugged at Sport’s lead rope as he nudged the other horse forward. For a moment he feared the men would not let him pass, but they said nothing further as he headed towards the town. He forced himself to keep an even pace instead of breaking into a full gallop as he wanted to. How could Joe possibly be the subject of a manhunt and wanted for murder? His mind was racing with questions as he headed closer to Black Water where he hoped he’d find answers.
Joe knew he was in trouble. He could feel the heat rising in his leg and the slightest movement felt like somebody was sawing on his leg with a blunt saw. The sheriff’s bullet was deep in his thigh and there was no chance he was going to see a doctor any time soon. Luis had returned a while ago with a bag of food and a canteen of water, but it wasn’t going to help much if he couldn’t get the bullet out.
He sagged back against the straw and closed his eyes. It was getting harder to keep them open and he wondered if it wouldn’t just be easier to give in.
He heard sounds below as the wooden door swung open and somebody was bringing horses into the livery. Luis had said that Yates had still insisted there be no horses in town except those being used by posse riders so he figured it was one of them returning. He grasped at his gun, but felt his sweaty fingers slip on the metal. Suddenly he heard Luis’ voice and he opened his eyes, trying to hear the words.
“Senor! You cannot bring horses in here!”
“It’s a livery, isn’t it?”
“Si, senor. But the sheriff has made a ruling. No horses in town.”
“Well, my horse needs tending and I don’t want to see him pull up lame.”
Joe pushed himself up onto his elbows as he heard the voices. It couldn’t be!
“Senor, please! I will lose my job if I do not do what I am told!”
Joe could hear the pleading in Luis’ voice and he had not doubt the boy had his hat in his hand and clutched to his chest.
“I’ll speak to the sheriff if there is any trouble. You won’t lose your job!”
Joe hauled himself upright and felt the room sway in front of him. He had to get to the edge of the loft and see for himself. If he could just get up he’d be able to do it.
Adam began to undo the cinch strap of his saddle when he heard a loud thump above him. Luis looked like he was about to jump out of his skin and he ran for the ladder as Adam moved towards it. With no other kind of weapon at his disposal, he reached for the rake and waved it in Adam’s direction.
“Who’s up there?”
“Rats! Biiig rats! They knock over the grain bags.”
Adam pushed him aside as Luis swung the rake towards him again. “You do not want to go up there, senor! Those rats, they bite!”
Adam was already half way up the ladder before Luis could stop him. The young man dropped the rake and stared up at the stranger who would no doubt turn his friend into the sheriff. Then he would be charged with whatever it was to help a fugitive and his mother …. his mother would be disgraced and ashamed of him.
As Adam reached the top of the ladder, he could see the body lying in the straw and knew it was Joe even before he reached him.
“Joe! Joe, can you hear me?” He reached to pull his brother towards him and was alarmed to hear how laboured his breathing was. “Joe!”
Luis appeared at the top of the ladder and stared as the stranger shook his friend and called him by name.
“You know him, senor?”
“He’s my brother.”
Luis felt profound relief wash over him as he felt hope rising for the first time in days.
Adam reached for the canteen lying in the straw and pulled the plug with his teeth as he cradled Joe’s head against his leg. He poured some water into the palm of his hand and wiped it against Joe’s face.
“He’s burning up.” He muttered the words to himself, but Luis heard them.
“He has a bullet … in his leg. I could not get him out of here on my own.”
Adam looked up to see the young man’s anguished expression. He’d taken a huge risk already and he nodded at the boy. “We’ll get him out once it’s dark.”
It would be another hour before it grew dark enough to try and Luis spent the better part of it pacing the floor of the livery, expecting somebody to come and ask why he had horses in there.
Adam passed the time by trying to cool his brother as best he could. Joe had woken after some time and been overwhelmed when he realised that Adam truly was there and not something he’d dreamed up.
“I didn’t do anything wrong, Adam. Honest.”
“I know that, Joe. Just take it easy and we’re going to get you out of here. Just rest up and I’ll let you know when we are ready to move.”
Joe slipped back into an uneasy sleep and Adam felt the minutes to sunset dragging like hours. Finally, Luis climbed the ladder and pointed to the door.
“It is dark, senor. I know where we can take him and he will be safe.”
Adam shook Joe to wake him and watched as Joe slowly came back to consciousness. It took too long for his liking. He eased his brother over towards the ladder and then began to climb part way down. Eventually, he grasped at Joe’s shirt and belt and dragged him backwards across the straw. Joe gasped out loud and immediately tried to clamp his mouth shut. It felt like his leg was on fire and he bit into his lip to stop himself crying out again. Somehow, Adam managed to slide a hand around his chest and hoist him over his shoulder before stumbling backwards down the ladder. He hit solid ground and felt an extra pair of hands grasping at Joe to pull him upright. His brother sagged against him and Adam was alarmed to see that Joe was barely conscious.
“Just gotta get you on the horse, Joe. Just stay with me a bit longer.”
“Not … goin’ … nowhere.”
It was taking far too long and was making too much noise, but between them, Adam and Luis managed to wrangle Joe into the saddle with Adam sitting behind him. Adam would have preferred to spare Sport from a rider, but he’d ride the animal into the ground if it would save his brother’s life. He watched as Luis climbed up into the saddle and Sport snorted and tossed his head against an unfamiliar rider. The boy’s expertise soon became obvious as he pulled the horse into submission and headed for the livery door. He pushed it open and eased out into the darkened street. Adam waited until Luis signalled he was clear and he followed the boy out into the street. He had no idea where Luis was taking them, but so far he’d proven trustworthy in a town that was out for his brother’s blood.
They soon left the confines of the town and Adam noted that they were riding across country. He wasn’t sure if this was to avoid the roads or some other reason, but he was too busy to really care. He held one arm around Joe’s chest and used the other to hold the reins. He could feel the heat radiating off Joe’s back as well as the rate of his heartbeat. His brother was seriously ill and he needed a doctor. Yesterday!
Maria knew her boy had been up to something for the last couple of days. He had been distracted and vague in his answers to her questions. She screamed when he pushed open the door to their cottage and a stranger walked in behind him with another man propped against his chest.
“What are you doing? Why is this man here?”
Luis ignored her and pushed aside a curtain to reveal a bed. Adam eased Joe down onto the bed and gently swung his legs up onto the mattress.
“Luis! This is the man that El Jefe is searching for, is it not?” She stood with her hands on her hips and glared at her son.
“He is, Mama.”
“Have you lost your mind? He can’t be here!” Fear shifted her voice up a notch and she was almost screeching at him.
Luis spun back towards his mother. “El Jefe was wrong!”
Maria stared at her son as if he had gone mad.
“El Jefe is a good man. How can you say such things? Do you not know what will happen if they find this man here?”
“Si, Mama. I know and I am very afraid. But I am more afraid of not helping him. He is innocent and these men hunt him like a rabid dog. What kind of man would I be if I did not help an innocent man?”
Maria stepped back as she stared at her boy. In the years since his father had died, he had been the man of the house. For the first time, she saw him as the man he had become instead of the boy who had sobbed over his father’s lifeless body.
Adam had been ignoring the argument going on behind him but he suddenly pushed his way past Luis.
“Ma’am, I’m truly sorry to bring this trouble to your home, but my brother needs that bullet out of his leg and we can’t get a doctor for him. I need boiling water and a knife and something for bandages.
Maria’s hands flew to her lips as she realised what the stranger was saying. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she shook her head.
Adam tried again. “If this was your son, would you let him die?”
The image of her husband lying dead in the street, having been gunned down over a mistake, made her breath hitch. Suddenly Maria felt something shift inside her and she strode towards the stove to stoke the fire. If Luis said the man was innocent, she would believe him.
Adam headed back to where he had left Joe and debated whether to rouse his brother or not. Joe’s skin was beaded with sweat and he could hear his brother’s ragged breathing. Three days, Luis had said. Three days his brother had that damned bullet in his leg. Adam unbuckled Joe’s gun belt and laid it on the table beside him before he gently eased the bloodied pants off Joe’s legs. Joe moaned as he did so, but still did not wake up fully. The skin around the wound was red and puckered.
“Senor … have you done this before?”
Adam glanced up to see the young man’s anxious face.
“I have.” He didn’t dare say he had dug a bullet out of Joe’s shoulder many years ago. The memory of that day arose in his thoughts and his lips drew into a tight line. Joe had fought to live despite his poor doctoring skills.
Maria carried a bowl of steaming water in and placed it on the small table beside the bed. She pulled two knives from her pocket and held them out to Adam.
“I have these two for what you need.”
Adam nodded as he slipped both knives into the bowl of water.
“Do you have any whiskey? Or brandy?”
Maria shook her head, but she waved Luis over to a small cabinet. “I have pulque. It was my husband’s and is old, but will that do?”
Adam almost smiled at the thought. Joe’s last run in with pulque had not ended so well.
“It will be fine.” His face sobered as he scooped one of the knives out of the water and wiped it on a cloth. “Now, I’m going to need you both to help me. Joe’s out at the moment, but he’s going to wake up. I need you to hold him down while I …”
“Si, senor.” Luis looked sick as he edged closer, but he knew what was being asked.
Maria crossed herself and whispered something as she moved to the head of the bed. “We are ready, senor. Do what you must.”
Adam stared at the dregs of the coffee in his cup. He couldn’t remember drinking it, but Maria had pressed it into his hands at some point. His body ached with a tiredness that threatened to drop him to the floor and yet he refused to close his eyes. Somehow, he had dug the slug out of his brother’s leg while Joe had screamed and bucked under his hand. Luis and his mother had done their best to hold him still, but Joe was stronger than they expected and he had kicked Luis and knocked the boy to the floor before passing out.
Adam looked at his fingers as if he could still see the blood that had stained them. There was too much blood. He slowly looked up to watch his brother’s chest rising and falling. Joe still hadn’t woken up and a voice kept whispering at him that he never would. Adam shook his head to clear his thoughts and he reached for the washcloth to wipe down Joe’s face and neck again.
A knock at the door startled him out of his thoughts and he heard a woman’s voice outside on the small verandah. He reached for the flimsy curtain and pushed it around the bed space before frantically looking for somewhere to hide out of sight.
Luis shoved him behind a cabinet and Adam held his pistol in his hand as he prayed the woman would go away. Maria’s voice carried through, but he could not make out the words clearly. Suddenly the door pushed open and he could hear Maria pleading with somebody. He saw a small blonde woman in the kitchen and he would have stayed hidden if Joe hadn’t chosen that moment to wake up. His brother’s groan of pain was loud enough that the woman pulled aside the curtain and gasped at what she saw.
“Mistress, it is not what you think!” Maria was pleading and crying as she tugged at the woman’s sleeve.
Adam strode out from behind the cabinet and pushed himself between the stranger and his brother’s bed. He held his gun aimed in her direction, but made no overt move towards her.
“These people have done nothing wrong. I forced my way in here.”
Lydia’s face was as white as a sheet. “This was never supposed to happen. I’m so sorry, but this should never have happened.”
“You mean your husband shouldn’t have tried to kill my brother? You’re damn right about that!”
The implied threat in his tone wasn’t lost on her. “Your brother?”
Lydia’s hands twisted together as she tried desperately to salvage an impossible situation.
“You don’t understand. The man I killed was my husband once. I believed he was dead. He was a cruel and vindictive man and he threatened me. I shot him in self defence!”
Adam had pieced together as much of the story as Luis could tell him, but this part was new. “Then why cover it up? Why not just tell the truth? And why try to kill my brother?”
“I tried to get him to leave town. He’s too stubborn for his own good.”
All eyes turned to see the sheriff standing in the doorway. “Lydia, I tried to deal with this and he should have just left town.”
Adam stared at the man who had so callously tried to murder his brother and was now trying to justify it. He noted the man’s hand on his holster and he lunged towards the sheriff. He could hear screams as he grappled with the man. They were an even match in height and weight and each was desperate, if for very different reasons. Adam felt himself being shoved backwards and he slammed into a shelf full of plates that slipped and shattered on the floor. He pushed back and felt both of them tumbling towards the table. It gave way under their combined weight and Adam suddenly found himself pinned under the sheriff’s knee in his chest. He saw the muzzle of a pistol looming towards him and he tried to push the man off him. He could hear Lydia pleading with her husband to stop before a shot rang out across the small room. The sheriff toppled sideways and his gun clattered to floor. Adam shoved against the man’s legs and scrambled out from under him to see blood trailing down the side of Gideon’s arm.
At first, he thought it was Luis who had fired, but he looked up to see Joe raised up on one elbow with his pistol in his hand. His face was coated in sweat and his hand was shaking violently. Adam was afraid he was going to shoot again.
“Joe! It’s okay. Put the gun down.”
Before Adam could move, two men burst through the door with drawn guns. They took in the scene before them and rushed towards the sheriff. One of them aimed his gun squarely at Adam while the other checked out his boss.
“You okay, Gideon?”
The sheriff sat slumped against the wooden cabinet, amidst the shattered pieces of pottery. He clutched at his arm as blood dripped through his fingers.
“Walt, you need to write up an arrest charge.”
“Sure thing. What’s the charges?”
“Attempted murder. Perverting the course of justice. And whatever I think about on the way back to town.”
One of the deputies was moving towards Adam with his handcuffs as the sheriff waved him off.
“Those charges are for me, not them.” Gideon hauled himself up off the floor with Lydia still clutching his waist. “These men have done nothing wrong besides defend themselves.”
Walt looked at his boss as if he’d gone mad.
“It’s a long story. I’ll fill you in on the way back to town. In the meantime, somebody needs to get that man a doctor.”
Gideon pointed towards where Joe had slumped back onto the bed and Adam hurried over to check on him. His brother’s five minutes of adrenaline had long since subsided and he was once again unconscious.
Ben watched as Hoss fussed with the edge of the blanket again and straightened it across Joe’s shoulders. His middle son was still carrying a world of unnecessary guilt for the hasty words he had spoken against his youngest brother. That first telegram telling them that Joe was delayed had riled Hoss no end. He had moaned that Joe was an expert at wasting time and shirking his share of work and several other things that Ben knew he didn’t mean. The fact Joe had mentioned a coroner’s inquest had him concerned, but his son had assured him there was no need to worry. Now he wished he had followed his gut and left Warbonnet the moment he received the telegram. Instead, he had carried on with their business and kept scouting out new bloodlines for breeding stock.
“Another couple of days and Joe should be ready to travel.” Adam handed his father a mug of coffee and waved a second one towards Hoss. “He can’t wait to get out of here.”
Ben had heard the ugly details of what had transpired and was still amazed at it. A good man had chosen a desperate path to save his wife. He couldn’t find it in himself to condemn the man for his actions. He might have done the same thing himself once. Ben sipped at his coffee and looked at his son sleeping soundly for the first time in days. The same son who had once tried to run from a murder charge to save his mother’s reputation. Love could make a man do some reckless things.
“Did you speak to Luis and his mother yet?” Ben looked across at Adam, who smiled back at him and nodded.
“I hope you like the name El Jefe.” Adam grinned as he recalled the excited response from the boy’s mother as she went off in Spanish. He could only pick out a few words, but her tears of joy told him all he needed to know.
Ben frowned at the words as he knew it was the name Gideon Yates had been known by. He had no wish to be associated with the man in any way.
“I think Mister Cartwright will be just fine, thank you!”
“It might take a while to change that habit.”
Ben nodded as he thought about that while watching his son sleep.
“Pa, did you hear the news about Loomis?”
Adam had been down at the sheriff’s office, dealing with the deputy who had signed off on all his and Joe’s paperwork. “It seems he was wanted with a reward on his head. Dead or alive.”
Ben reached towards Joe’s forearm as he took in the news. What a tangled web he had wandered into!
“So Gideon’s wife could have collected a reward for shooting him, but instead her husband will be going to prison.”
“What a mess!”
Hoss leaned against the window and lifted the curtain as he stared across the street. The young man who had saved his brother’s life was greeting a rider at the door of the livery. He smiled at the thought he’d soon be working on the Ponderosa, helping Joe with the breeding program for their army contracts.
Nothing could ever repay the young man’s courageous choices, but it was a start.