The Rational Man (by gaerwn)

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Summary:  A peaceful afternoon is shattered by violence — but that’s just the beginning. The Cartwrights find themselves in a fight to protect an old family friend.

Rated: T (18,835 words)

The Rational Man

 There was nothing he could do.

Paul Martin hesitated for a long moment before he drew the coverlet up and over his patient’s face. The girl had been pretty once, slight and dark-haired. Belatedly, he realized he’d never noticed the color of her eyes and he found himself wondering: were they dark, like her hair or light, like the pale skin? His curiosity would go unsatisfied. While he’d pried open her eyelids during his desperate bid to save her life, he wouldn’t do so now just to sate misplaced curiosity.

He rested a hand on the edge of the table, idly running his thumb over the hem of the sheet. He’d seen a lot of death in this town, a good many injuries and many of them inflicted by man. Shootings in cold blood and shootings in self-defense and far too many as a result of a brawl in the saloon or in the street, but this? He’d seen this before but it never failed to rattle him to his core. She was a young woman who’s life had ended far too abruptly and far too violently. He’d seen the marks on her hands, the shattered jaw, the split-open cheek; violently beaten, the girl probably never had a chance to save herself.

Cause of death? Well, that was pretty obvious and Paul hated what was coming. It was one thing when someone died of natural causes — or died after being gunned down in self-defense. He had little sympathy for those who would draw down on the undeserving. (It was during those times that he had to consciously remember that he’d taken an oath to treat all patients equally.) Out and out murder, though, that was a hard thing and harder still when the perpetrator might still be roaming the streets.

Maybe having a drink in celebration. Maybe conscientiously washing the blood from his hands.

Paul was startled from his morbid reverie by the sound of the front door opening and closing. He didn’t turn, but his hand flattened the wrinkled sheet. There was a cautious knock on the doorframe behind him and Roy Coffee, sheriff of Virginia City, quietly cleared his throat.

“You’ll be wanting the full report, sheriff?” Paul didn’t turn.

Roy shifted on his feet behind him, coming to lean against the wall on one shoulder, arms crossed in a deceptively mild, casual pose. “Figure I can tell well enough what happened, just by lookin’ at her. Still…”

“Beaten to death.” Paul wasted no breath on formalities. “And then beaten after death. She tried to defend herself; bones in her hands are broken.” Never to be healed. That was the most horrible part of it all. These injuries would never heal. “She suffered, Roy.”

Silence fell, heavy and dark. “Had a feeling,” the sheriff finally said. “She was dyin’ in an alley. Ain’t no place for a girl like that.”

Paul answered the unspoken question, wanting to give both himself and his old friend a little peace. “Wouldn’t have done much good, if she’d been found sooner.”

Roy hummed in assent, leaving the obvious unspoken: would have done a world of good if she’d somehow been kept from whoever raised his hands to her. Letting the moment go, he changed tack. “Any idea about who done it?”

At this, Paul finally turned around. “You know this is an inexact science.”

“Give me your professional opinion anyway.”

The answer was quick; Paul had been mulling it over for a good long time. “Likely a man, you know that much. He wouldn’t have had to be much bigger than her to do this, but you’re looking for strength. She fought back; he had to be strong enough to hold onto her. Assuming he beat her in the alley, he’d have to be quick, too. There’s a hell of a hit across her back. Piece of wood or something; maybe a rifle, that’d be my guess. Maybe that was the first, took her by surprise. It’s hard to tell.” He shook his head. “I know it’s not much. I’ll keep looking for something, but I can’t guarantee a damn thing, you know that.”

“I know it,” Roy responded. “Can’t hurt to ask.”

“Suppose not.” Paul hesitated for a moment, gaze drawn to the covered body before flickering back to Roy. “Might want to ask what you know.”

At that, Roy pushed off the wall with a frown. “Not much more than you, to be honest. Whoever killed her, he up and disappeared pretty good.”

Paul’s frown was even more pronounced, etched deep into the lines of his brow. “City folk won’t like that.”

“I don’t like it.”

Paul nodded toward the door, then slid past Roy and into the front room. He’d had enough of talking about the girl over her lifeless body. Her specter could haunt him just as well out here. Bypassing the water pitcher entirely, Paul headed straight for the decanter of brandy adorning the desk. It wasn’t often it was out, but the day had already been long one and he’d been looking forward to a snifter of the warm liquid before he retired for the night.

Then he’d been called to a deathwatch.

He poured one for himeslf, then held another out for Roy. The sheriff, usually somewhat temperate in such matters, took the glass without comment.

“Can’t really call up a posse without someone to go running after,” Paul commented.

“No,” Roy drawled. “Would be difficult.”

“How’re you gonna go about this one?”

Roy’s slow smile never reached his eyes. “Reckon I’ll have to stoop to detectiving.”

Paul snorted humorlessly and drained his brandy in one swift gulp. Here’s to dectiving, then, he thought as he set the glass on the desk without care. The soft clink of glass on wood seemed preternaturally loud. “I’ll let you know if I find anything else.”

The sheriff nodded, one finger absently smoothing down his thick mustache. “You do that, Paul.” He set his own glass down — the brandy untouched, Paul noted — and turned his hat over in his hands before setting it on his head and departing without another word.

Detectiving, indeed. Paul picked up the untouched glass, swirled the brandy around, and down that one too. He had his own work to do and it seemed he might be up all night anyway.

 

——-

 

Adam’s bootheels drummed a staccato beat on the wooden sidewalk; Joe’s complaints fell neatly into rhythm and, despite the situation, his lips quirked upward in a quick, amused smile. It fell away quickly, though, and Adam breathed a sigh. Joe’s mumbling grew louder. Adam waited for it to boil over.

“That no-account snake.” Joe’s voice rose half an octave on the last word as he looked back toward the office of one William Bledsoe. “He can’t do that. Adam, he can’t do that.” There was a pause. “Can he?”

“Well, he can try.” In contrast to Joe’s temper, Adam’s voice was smooth, almost soft with careful amusement. Despite it, he was angry by the attempt by Bledsoe to renegotiate contract terms to the Ponderosa’s detriment. He just knew Bledsoe couldn’t get away with it. At all. They had other timber contracts they could bid on; Bledsoe was far from their only buyer. It might cause some trouble to walk away from this one in the short-term, but Adam would rather not deal with, well, a snake.

“Yeah and he’s tryin’.” Joe gestured toward the office they’d just left and looked for all the world that he wanted to stalk right back into the room and start shooting. Probably best to start steering him out of town, which was just what Adam was about to do. He’d almost rather not; that meant breaking the news to Ben about the broken contract sooner than Adam was ready to.

Maybe he’d let Joe do it. Joe couldn’t seem to stop talking about it anyway.

“We should march right back in there–”

Adam caught Joe’s arm as he made to turn on his heel. It wasn’t easy, catching his quick-footed brother like that, but at least Adam had both size and surprise on his side. “Oh, no you don’t.”

Joe stumbled as his momentum was effectively halted. Still gesturing wildly with one hand as he staggered, his gaze shot to Adam. “He can’t do that to us.”

“No,” Adam said. He had enough pity on Joe to help him stay on his feet. “He can’t. So we won’t deal with him.”

“That’s it?”

Adam shook his head at Joe’s incredulous tone. “I’ll tell you something, Joe, and listen good. There’s not a man in this town who’ll do business with someone who tries to pull one over on a Cartwright.”

Joe just blinked at him, obviously not following Adam’s train of thought. “So?”

“So,” Adam said, setting Joe squarely on his feet and brushing imaginary dust off his shoulders, “we’ll just make sure everyone knows what Bledsoe tried to pull.”

There was silence for a moment and then Joe’s dumbfounded expression melted into an easy, predatory grin.

“That a plan you can work with?” Adam asked.

“Best one I’ve heard yet.”

“Well, good. Then you can tell Pa about it.”

Joe’s smile fell away as easily as it had come. “Oh, no. No. See, this is your contract, brother. Yours. Which means you get the, ah, honor of telling Pa how it all worked out.” He spread his hands wide, grin coming back in impish force.

Adam’s look was less than pleased but he said nothing about it. Instead, he urged Joe to turn around with a mild push on his arms and canted his head toward the Silver Dollar. Perhaps if he bought Joe a beer, he’d leave behind this wild idea about telling Ben exactly how the deal fell through. (Not that Adam wouldn’t tell him; he’d just rather not do it. And if he had to? He’d rather have beer first.)

“I hope,” Joe said as he went along with the shove, “that you’re thinking of stopping inside the saloon before we go anywhere.” He gave a pointed look toward their horses on the hitching rail outside and Adam snorted.

“You say it, you buy it, little brother,” Adam countered.

Joe groaned good-naturedly and kept walking. He took three steps before he stopped; Adam had to do something resembling a fancy little jig to keep from running him over. “Uh. Adam?”

Adam’s hands came down on Joe’s shoulders as he tried desperately to regain his balance. Trust Joe to throw his normally sure-footed brother off balance. “If you’re about to say you don’t have any money-”

“Look.”

Adam glanced in the direction Joe indicated with a nod, eyes widening at the flash of silver metal. It wasn’t an unusual thing to see a rifle in town — their own tack held scabbards, after all — but it was rather unusual to see someone scurrying into an alley with a rifle. It took him half a second to process what he was seeing and another half a second to follow Joe, who was already moving in that direction. Two quick, long steps and he settled his hand on Joe’s shoulder, grabbing his attention long enough to nod off to his right. “Thirty seconds,” was all he said but it was enough to get the point across. Joe trotted to the edge of the alleyway, ducking up against the wall of the adjoining building so as to remain unseen while Adam slipped around the block to the back end of the alley.

It was probably the longest thirty seconds in Joe’s life, Adam mused as he slipped into position. Revolver drawn and held in a deceptively loose grip, he rounded the corner and saw Joe do the same in the shadows at the other end of the alley. Between them, something vaguely human-shaped moved in the afternoon shadows.

“Hold it.” Joe’s voice rang in the silence. Adam sidestepped to the edge of alley; if there was going to be a crossfire, he’d rather not be caught up in it. Better to stay out of Joe’s way.

The human-shaped thing in the middle of the alley drew himself up; Adam could see that he was rail-thin. There was a nervousness about him and his hands fumbled at the rifle when he startled. In the shadows, it was hard to make him out, but there was a certain familiarity about him. It wasn’t until the figure groaned after Joe repeated his demand that realization slammed into Adam.

Adam’s gaze rolled skyward for a moment, seeking patience from above. “Lonnie, who are–”

Apparently, Lonnie had no idea that Adam was there. He jumped and whirled clumsily, somehow managing to cock the rifle in the process. Thankfully, he’d foregone aiming and Adam scrambled backward even as a bullet embedded itself in the wall… somewhere at hip level to his right. Joe’s angry shouts for him to drop the rifle and Lonnie’s shrill panicked apologies were almost as loud as the single shot. (At least, thought Adam wryly, as he gingerly stepped back toward the alley, the shot was a single burst of sound. The shouting could stop anytime now.)

The rifle clattered to the hard-packed dirt and Joe stalked forward. “Are you crazy?” he snarled at Lonnie as he snatched the rifle. “Adam?”

“I’m fine.” Better to answer right away than give Joe any excuse to actually shoot the poor idiot. Adam holstered his revolver and stalked forward himself, less than amused. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Lonnie swallowed hard, his prominent adam’s apple all the more obvious for the movement. His wide mouth twisted in chagrin as he motioned helplessly back in the direction Joe had come from. “Miss Faye–”

Adam groaned. Figured. Faye was a rather… obnoxious one who, inexplicably, had her eye on Lonnie. As far as he was concerned, they deserved each other. “Were you late to meet her or trying to avoid her?”

“A-avoid.”

“With a rifle?” Joe’s tone was incredulously loud.

Lonnie had the grace to drop his gaze, staring a hole through his scuffed boots. “Well. That weren’t related to it.”

Joe looked ready to come apart at the seams; Adam stepped in, voice mild. “You might want to explain that one a little better, Lonnie, if you don’t want Joe to just start shooting in your general direction.” When Joe rolled his eyes, Adam wasn’t sure if it was directed at him or Lonnie.

Swallowing hard, Lonnie chucked a thumb over his shoulder. “Was takin’ this thing to the gunsmith. Have a bit o’ trouble with the lever.”

“Coulda fooled me,” Joe muttered.

“I saw Miss Faye and I just…” Lonnie trailed off, hands gesturing nervously. “She scares me!”

Silence met the proclamation. Adam rubbed his jaw while Joe looked ready to throw the rifle at Lonnie’s head. After a long — and somewhat tense — moment, Adam pointed back the way Lonnie had come. “Go.”

“But Miss Faye might–”

This time it was Joe and his voice was bordering on incredulous. “Go.”

“But my rifle–”

“You can pick it up later at the sheriff’s.” Adam none too gently shoved at Lonnie’s shoulder. “Get out of here before I change my mind.”

Lonnie hesitated for one second, as if he might argue, but quickly gave up when he saw Joe still holding the rifle like he might start clubbing the nearest person over the head with it. He scurried out of the alley, all clumsy movement and nervous looks. Adam pinched the bridge of his nose while Joe just looked at the rifle in his hand.

“So. Sheriff?”

“Yep,” Adam drawled. So much for the beer. By the time this was finished, they’d need to head home if they meant to get all that they wanted to get done today even started.

 

—–

 

It was nearly an hour gone before they’d managed to get Lonnie’s rifle secured with the deputy. Sheriff Coffee, it turned out, was out and the reasons for it sobered the brothers as quickly as anything else could have. This was still a wild place — they held no delusions in that — but it wasn’t often that they heard news of a young woman’s brutal murder and no one was suspected. Both Joe and Adam had, by the time they had dropped off the rifle and talked over the news, near forgotten the promise of a few minutes spent in the saloon.

They just wanted to go home.

Standing between Cochise and Sport, Adam absentmindedly checked the cinch (and noted Joe doing the same on the other side of Cochise.) Joe was talking to his horse, in low tones that kept Adam from making out the words. That he was rattled was clear. So was Adam but there was nothing tangible that should make them so. Frowning, Adam unwrapped the reign from the rail and smoothed his hand over his horse’s neck. There was trail dust and dirt there; Sport needed a good brushing. He was more the color of old dust than bright sorrel after today’s trips. With a light pat, Adam silently promised the animal care when they returned home and mounted, then reigned the horse around to follow Joe’s easy trot down the street.

They hadn’t gone far at all when Adam reined his horse to a stop. Cochise ambled on for a few more steps before Joe halted. What made Adam stop, he didn’t know. Holding the reigns in his left hand, he adjusted his hat with his right and looked up, narrowed eyes taking in the rooftops and the sky beyond. Something wasn’t right and hell if he knew what, but he couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched closely.

“What’s wrong?” Joe asked as he wheeled around.

That’s when the shot split the still air. At first, Adam was absolutely sure he’d been hit; call it paranoia thanks to that ill sense of being watched. Sport squealed in the same instant. The fractious animal reared and tried to bolt, which jolted Adam more than he’d like to admit, given that he’d been staring at the sky merely a second before. That, coupled with the way Sport managed to collide into Cochise and the fact Adam didn’t want to be on a horse when people were shooting at him anyway, went a long way toward unseating him.

By the time he managed to, however ungracefully, let himself fall from the horse, he’d figured out he hadn’t been shot. That was a relief, at least. But his foot caught the stirrup and his knee twisted on the way down and the explosive crack of pain that came with that was almost enough to convince him that maybe he had been shot. Unwilling to let a twisted knee be the catalyst for his death, Adam set his jaw and rolled to his hands and knees. Joe was there by then, one hand gripping his older brother’s upper arm as he urged him to his feet.

A second shot rent the air and out of the corner his eye, Adam saw old Jake Gillum fall without a sound, a crumpled form in the dusty street. He hadn’t even drawn his gun. Wanting desperately to go and see if he needed help, Adam instead pushed to his feet and limped along behind Joe to the nearest flimsy shelter they could reach. Perhaps ironically, it was the very same alley they’d trapped Lonnie in not long ago. A third person followed them, and it took Adam a moment to realize who it was. Etta Gillum, Jake’s wife, transferred her grip from Joe’s arm to Adam’s as the three of them nearly fell against the wall and she valiantly tried to offer him some support, though he stood a full head taller than she.

“I’m all right,” he told her. He settled her against the wall behind him and let Joe take the corner for the time being. If she hadn’t seen her husband yet, maybe they could shield her for a little longer. Perhaps it wasn’t fair to her, but it was all he had. Given the way she quickly wiped a hand over her cheek, to wipe errant tears away, they didn’t even have that. Adam had never once thought of Etta Gillum as particularly vulnerable, but today, despite the lines in her face and the gray streaked at her temples, she looked very much like a frightened girl.

She nodded at his statement, offered him a tremulous smile, and squeezed his arm; for a moment, Adam marveled at it. Here she was, having just watched her husband gunned down and offering reassurance.

“Are you hit?” Joe had his back pressed to the wall, gun drawn as he tried — and failed miserably — to peer both at Adam and into the street.

“No.” He’s almost rather admit to taking a bullet than what he was about to say. “Just landed wrong.” He took Etta’s hand off his arm and, once more, pressed her back against the wall behind him. Silently, she acquiesced.

Joe snorted. “Not surprised, older brother. Your horse nearly unseated me.” Silence fell as Joe’s feigned amusement melted away. “We’ve got to get out there.”

Carefully, Adam flexed his knee, face drawn in pain he couldn’t quite suppress. Right. He’d get them both shot if he tried running anywhere. “Can you see where it’s coming from?”

Joe nodded. “See that glint on the roof, across from the Silver Dollar?”

So that’s what caught his eye earlier. Adam hadn’t even realized what he was looking at when he’d drawn his horse up. Even as he spotted it, the glint of a rifle disappeared. “He’s moving.”

“Good.” Joe started forward and both Adam and Etta reached for his arm.

“Wait.” It was Etta who spoke, leaning in over Adam to peer into the street. “Just wait, please.”

Joe turned an unbelieving gaze on her; it was her husband he wanted to go help after all. Adam, though, saw what she did. She pointed in Jake’s direction. “Look.”

Joe wilted visibly — in relief, Adam presumed — when he saw what both Adam and Etta had seen. Jake had rolled over onto his stomach and now held his revolver in hand. Hurt, yes, but alive and likely cognizant. As much as Adam didn’t like just leaving him there, he could wait if need be.

Adam’s gaze traveled to the rooftop, now conspicuously empty. Around them, silence had once again fallen on the street, after the initial boom of screams and shots. People were huddled in corners, men had guns in hand, and everyone seemed to be looking in the same direction. “Joe,” he said. “Go down the alley and come around behind the building. You might be able to come up on him. I’ll cover you as much as I can from here.” Which wasn’t much, but it was about all he had. His knee throbbed so badly that he was leery of putting much weight on it at all.

“Yeah, I can do that.” Joe holstered the gun before pushing away from the corner. His gaze lingered on Adam and his brother could almost see what he was thinking.

“I’m fine. Now get.”

With a nod, Joe started down the alley. Etta settled her hand on his arm as he passed and wished him a quiet “good luck.” He spared a grin for her and jogged into the shadows. Adam couldn’t shake the feeling that they were still being watched.

 

——

 

For all the chaos that had erupted earlier, the town was entirely too quiet. It was as if they were all holding their breath, just waiting to see what would happen next. Near twenty minutes had passed since the last shot, but it wasn’t enough time for people to draw a breath in relief and go about their lives. All illusion of peace had been shattered in an instant, when the first shot knocked Adam right off his horse. What Joe hadn’t told Adam was that he knew exactly what had prompted Sport’s wild reaction, given his vantage point when Adam’s horse had plowed right into Cochise in a panic.

He honestly didn’t want to tell Adam that that rifle shot had grazed his horse. He had enough problems to deal with without Adam going off on some righteous mission to take down the man who’d shot Sport — and Adam had enough problems with that knee of his. It hadn’t taken Joe long to see right through that facade and into the pain-etched lines around his brother’s eyes. Maybe he was overreacting, because he honestly thought Adam had taken the hit as he’d fallen. Scared him more than he’d like to admit, but that was the way of it. It wasn’t too often that Joe fell into the role of protector when his big brother was around, but when it happened, he did it with ease and zeal. So much so that Adam would eventually balk at the hovering.

Besides, Sport would be fine and they’d catch the shooter and all would be well.

Really, it would. Had to be. Because luck would go Joe’s way and things would fall into place — despite all evidence to the contrary or prior experience.

Joe edged around behind the building opposite the Silver Dollar, gun in hand, and tried not to think of all the ways this could go wrong. For all he knew, the shooter was long gone, having climbed down the second he’d withdrawn. As it was, Lonnie rounded the corner opposite him at almost the same instant and Joe, nerves shot, nearly put a bullet in him right then and there. “Lonnie!” he hissed.

He was almost satisfied when Lonnie started as badly as he had. “It wasn’t me!”

Maybe he should have shot him. Joe grunted in nothing but plain annoyance. When he spoke, it was in urgent, low tones. “We took your rifle, remember?” Besides, he was absolutely sure that Lonnie didn’t have the temperament for cold-blooded murder. Accidental, sure. Cold-blooded? Not so much. “You see anyone come this way?”

“No, sir.” Lonnie shook his head emphatically. “Don’t mean he ain’t gone another way, but not through here.”

“Yeah, all right.” Joe motioned for him to fall in behind him. “Come with me and holler if you see something.” Lonnie probably wasn’t the back-up Adam had envisioned when he demanded Joe find someone, but he had to be better than nothing.

As it was, Joe’s relief was immense when he and Lonnie came upon Sheriff Coffee. Apparently, Roy had had the same thought Adam did: sneak around behind buildings, out of the direct line of fire, and try coming up on the shooter from behind. Roy’s expression seemed to indicate he was somewhat of mixed feeling upon joining up with Joe and Lonnie. Joe wanted to think it was relief that Joe was there and anxiety over Lonnie’s involvement, which was pretty much how Joe was thinking in the first place. Roy quietly issued orders and, with a horrible sense of relief, Joe realized that sending Lonnie inside the building and into the upper floors while Joe and Roy went up the back stairs toward the balconies and the roof kept Lonnie out of the way.

See, this is what Adam had in mind, Joe mused: Roy Coffee watching his back. Not jittery ol’ Lonnie.

As it turned out, though, Joe ended up watching the sheriff’s back as they slipped up the stairway on the side of the building, guns drawn and gazes sharp. They saw nothing, but heard the shot. Alarmed, Joe and Roy glanced at each other and then, as one, bolted down the stairs. That shot had come from inside the building.

Joe hit the ground first, Roy only two steps behind him, and rounded the corner in a dead run. So wrapped up in getting inside the building, he plowed into Lonnie before he realized he’d even seen him. Lonnie went down and Joe stumbled over him. He fell to his knees as Roy skid to a stop at Lonnie’s feet. Scrambling around, Joe leveled a glare at the prone man. “Lonnie!” His tone was exasperated, in a direct counterpoint to Roy’s sickened expression.

Then he noticed the blood staining Lonnie’s chest and the wicked gash that ran from temple to chin, nearly laying Lonnie’s hawk-like face wide open. Still on his knees, Joe reached forward with his free hand as if to tend to wounds far beyond his scope of expertise. Under Joe’s hand, Lonnie took a final, shuddering breath.

Sightless eyes still seemed haunted by pain.

 

—-

 

From where Joe was standing, he wasn’t sure if Adam or Sport was the more cantankerous patient. But then, Adam wasn’t the patient — yet. He’d tried everything he could think of, short of clubbing Adam over the head and dragging him over to Paul Martin’s, to get him to get some attention for his knee but his oldest brother just flat refused. Joe could see pain deepening the lines around Adam’s eyes and mouth, could see his hands shaking as he carefully dabbed at the graze over Sport’s rump.

Concern prompted Joe to speak. “Why don’t you hold his head? I can do that.”

“I got it,” Adam grunted.

“Oh, come on, Adam–” Sport chose that moment to make his opinion known. With a snort, he tossed his head, very nearly clipping Joe’s chin in the process. Joe reached up and rubbed a hand over the velvety nose. “Hey, hey. That’s enough.”

“Easy.” In one word, Adam’s voice had gone from a pain-filled husk to soothing baritone. (To Joe’s horror and amusement, he found himself relaxing just as much as the horse did.) Adam carefully backed up a step — or, well, a hop — to lean against the stall.

With one hand still absently lightly scratching along the edges of the horse’s blaze, Joe spoke quietly. “You all right?”

“Yes, Joe. I’m all right.” Adam’s voice was rampant with barely contained impatience.

Joe somehow kept from a churlish retort. Snorting, he patted Sport lightly between the eyes. He was too worn to fight about much of anything at this point. Less than hour ago, Virginia City had been rattled and Joe right along with it. It was hard to believe that all of three shots had been fired; it seemed like, for all the fright that had been caused, it should have been far more than just three bullets. But every bullet had done damage: Adam could barely walk, Jake Gillum wounded, and Lonnie Jackson dead. While Joe and Roy had unsuccessfully tried to track down the culprit, some kind soul had managed to corral both Sport and Cochise and bring them to the livery stable.

How Adam managed to get to the livery stable, Joe had no idea. For all he knew, his mule-headed brother had crawled there. (That begged another question: how did Adam know to go to the livery stable?) Joe, for his part, was there because Etta had waved him down and told him where Adam had gone off to, after helping her get Jake off the street. (Again, another question begged to be answered. Adam could barely walk. How had he managed to to help Etta with Jake?) Roy had rounded up a few men in an effort to track down the shooter.

No one had any idea which way to go first, though. Joe was doing just as much good standing in the livery with a frightened horse and a irritable brother as the posse was. Speaking of…

“How is he?” Joe asked.

Adam rubbed a hand over his face. “It’s just a crease. He’s all right.”

“Frightened him pretty good.”

“Can’t say as I blame him.”

A familiar voice rang out from the entrance of the stable. “You could say that about most of the town right about now.” Joe’s smile was forced but genuine as he turned to greet Paul Martin. The doctor picked his way through the stable, until he came to stand next to Joe, at the horse’s head. He looked drawn and worn. “I hear my services might be needed here.”

Judging by the look on Adam’s face, he dearly wanted to walk away right about then. Joe couldn’t find it in himself to feel sympathy, especially so since he couldn’t actually walk. Adam’s drawl was almost lazy. “My horse was grazed.”

“And according to Mrs. Gillum,” Paul retorted, “you were rather spectacularly unseated when it happened.”

“Well… ” Adam trailed off and managed a small shrug. “There’s that.” It couldn’t be denied if half the town saw it. “How’s Jake?”

“He’ll be all right, given time.” Paul shrugged one shoulder, looking as if he wanted nothing more than to stretch out and nap. “What about you?”

“He twisted his knee, I think,” Joe supplied helpfully, blissfully ignoring Adam’s glare.

“And you’re standing on it?”

Adam gestured helplessly toward his horse. Paul, however focused he wanted to be on his patient, did follow the gesture and when his gaze landed on the still blood-streaked coat, his expression softened. He may not have been the best horseman around but no one could deny that he held a particular soft spot for the animals given to the care of men. Joe knew it and couldn’t help but think Adam had exploited it as a diversion here. Running a hand over the horse’s bare back, Paul gestured for the damp cloth that Adam was holding.

Before Adam could hand it over, Joe cleared his throat. “He’s still standing on it,” he pointed out.

“We’re already right here,” Adam said.

“Adam–”

“Enough.” Knowing full well — and Joe knew it, too, despite his protesting — Adam wouldn’t be torn from the responsibility toward the horse, Paul took the proffered damp cloth and lightly ran it over a streak of dried blood. Angling a hard gaze toward Adam, he spoke quietly, mindful of the jittery horse they all stood next to. “You don’t move. Joe, hold his head.” With that, he turned a practiced eye toward the bloody crease. Paul hadn’t even touched it when Sport lashed out.

A piercing whinny — right in Joe’s face — was a warning a mere split second before Sport hopped and kicked. Paul backed up a step, hands raised in a gesture most humans would recognize as supplication. Sport didn’t seem to care; a moment later, Joe yelped. Paul turned to see why and bumped into Adam’s side. Normally, a jar from a smaller man wouldn’t be much problem but when Adam tried to catch his already tenuous balance, he ended up sitting down hard in the straw. Joe, hand clasped to the side of face, was absolutely sure that Sport would step on the injured man; he moved to try to shove the horse to the side, knowing full well it wouldn’t do much good. For all his protesting, though, Sport swung his head free, looked back, and, as carefully as you please, gently set his rear hoof in the space between Adam’s knees.

For a moment, they were all still in the strange tableau: Paul next to the horse with his hands raised and a bloody cloth dangling from one hand, Joe reaching for the halter and shoulder and sporting a blossoming bruise on his cheek, Adam on the ground with a hoof planted deliberately near his knee, and Sport craning his neck to look back at his human. Finally, Adam broke the silence. He slowly leaned forward and patted his horse carefully on the leg. “Thanks, boy.”

Paul glanced at Adam before peering at Sport’s back again. “It’s not bleeding again. Not even after all that. He’ll be fine.”

Joe harrumphed as he stared at them. “Oh, good. The horse is fine. Now that we’ve figured that out, maybe we can have a look at my brother.”

Adam looked up and gave him a crooked half-smile.

 

——

 

“Etta’s stronger than she looks.”

There was a moment of silence before Joe’s incredulous answer. “That’s your explanation?”

Adam shrugged from his place on the bed. After about two minutes of consideration, he and Joe had taken a room at the hotel. Adam could have rented a horse from the stable to ride home, but his knee would never have let him do that and, in all honesty, he was just too exhausted to even think about the drive, had they rented a buggy. With Joe on one side and Paul on the other, he’d limped over to the International House. As soon as he’d dragged himself — and been dragged by his brother and the doctor — up the stairs, he’d known he’d made the right decision. Now, he reclined on the bed with his left knee carefully propped up on a mound of pillows. He was sure he looked a sight, with one boot off and one pant leg cut. (He hadn’t been too fond of that, but it was the most expedient way of getting to his knee.) Joe had been right: his knee was sprained and twisted, with the swelling to prove it.

“What did you do, then? Crawl to the livery?”

“I can walk.”

“Not very well.”

Adam, in an all too obvious attempt to change the subject, pointing into the sitting room, where Paul Martin was sprawled unceremoniously on the settee and occasionally snoring. “You’ll wake him if you don’t shut up.”

Joe ignored him. “How did you know I was even there?”

“I didn’t.” Adam sighed and shrugged. “I thought that if anyone caught our horses, that’s where they’d be. If not, then we could rent a couple horses or a wagon or something to track them down.”

There was a moment of silence. “So it was just chance?”

“Yes.”

“… How did you manage to help get Jake off the street?”

Another shrug. “Like I said, Mrs. Gillum is stronger than she looks and generous to a fault. She should give herself more credit.”

Joe seemed somewhat mollified by the answer. Mindful of his brother’s knee, he sat on the corner of the bed and tried to make himself comfortable. Silence reigned as Joe peered at Adam’s wrapped-up knee, then craned his neck to look at Doctor Martin. Paul had been so exhausted after prodding at Adam’s knee that he’d fallen asleep almost as soon as he’d sat down. Joe hadn’t even managed to pour him the glass of water he’d asked for before he was snoring. Neither brother had the heart to wake him; they’d mutually decided that if any of his other patients needed him for something — namely Jake — then something would be said. Adam planned to give the doctor another half an hour or so before he woke him and asked.

“How long,” Joe asked quietly as he turned back to Adam, “do you think it’ll be before Pa comes riding into town looking for us?”

“Well…” Adam shifted a little, grimacing as his knee sent tendrils of sharp pain up and down his leg. “Considering we were supposed to be home a handful of hours ago? I expect him to come walking in that door any minute now.”

“Still gonna try to make me tell him about the contract?”

Adam snorted. “No mercy for the injured party?”

Joe threw his own words back at him. “You can walk.”

The knock at the door was light, but it was still enough to wake Paul. Joe glanced at him on the way by, calling for the visitor to identify himself. Roy Coffee’s voice was a welcome thing, and Joe opened the door without a second thought. Behind Roy, Ben Cartwright gave his youngest son a questioning look. That most likely meant that Roy had explained things, since Ben (thankfully) wasn’t angry over having to come to town to collect his sons.

“Sheriff.” Paul’s voice was sleep-fogged. Standing slowly, he rolled his neck. “What brings you here?”

“Think I have some information. Gotta check something with you, Paul. Mrs. Gillum said you might be here.”

A whispered conversation with Joe had Ben squeezing past Roy and into the suite’s bedroom. With an apologetic shrug, Joe followed. As Paul looked at Roy with questions clear in his expression, he motioned to follow. “Figure it concerns them too, all things considered.”

Paul nodded and, within moments, they were all in the bedroom. Adam looked a little put out by the invasion — if only because Ben was hovering a bit — but looked expectantly at Roy. “Information?” he asked.

Roy wasted no time getting down to business. Arms crossed, he took a position next to Paul standing at the foot of the bed. Joe seated himself carefully on the mattress, just as he had before Roy arrived. Ben stood with a hand on Adam’s shoulder — and they all looked at Roy. “Five days ago, four passengers came on the morning stage. I wasn’t there to greet ’em; heard about ’em though. Three men, one woman. Think it’s the same woman killed.”

“Description fit?” Paul asked.

Roy nodded. “She would have had a scar running the length of her forearm. Sound familiar?”

“That’s her.” Paul’s voice held a note of unabashed relief. Maybe he could finally put a name to the woman who haunted him. “So we have a name?”

“More than,” Roy said. “One of the other passengers came t’see me just after the bullets started flyin’. Seems the man with her seemed awful… well, off.”

“In what way, Sheriff?” Adam sat up and drew his good knee up to rest his arm on.

“He said this guy gave him a very bad feeling. Kept after this girl like he was obsessed. Girl’s name was Jolene Masters, accordin’ to the book here. She had a room.” Roy held up a hand. “Now I know it ain’t exactly detailed, but it’s somethin’.”

“You think this man knows who killed her?” Paul asked.

Adam’s voice was low. “Or is the man who killed her.”

“Ain’t sayin’ either way. Don’t have enough information for it, but I need to figure out who he is.”

“What about the shooting? Is it related?”

“Could be,” Roy said with a shrug. “Same man said he saw that off guy skulkin’ around just after the excitement.”

“We were all kinda skulkin’ around,” Joe put in. “Didn’t know when the next bullet would come.”

“Yeah,” Roy drawled, “but you weren’t carryin’ around no rifle.”

That effectively brought the conversation to a halt. Ben, silent so far, raised a narrow-eyed gaze to Roy. “How do we find him?”

“He never checked into the hotel. Seems to be stayin’ outta sight as much as he can. Ain’t gonna be easy.” But then, Roy mused, a Cartwright never seemed to do things the easy way. Neither did a Coffee or a Martin, come to think of it.

“I’ll check with the stage line,” Ben said.

“Aye,” Roy said, “and I’ll find my informant and see what else I can say. Gonna search that girl’s room, too.”

Adam looked up, his brow furrowed. “Let me know what you find.”

“What’s on your mind, boy?”

With everyone looking at him with varying degrees of curiosity, Adam could only shake his head.

 

——

 

Hoss came out of the livery, wiping his hands on a rag and looking at least somewhat pleased with himself. Sport was a cantankerous animal sometimes — Adam would always give one of those crooked half-smiles of his and say that he liked him that way when it was pointed out to him — but this time the horse had stood the tending to fairly well. (Fairly well; he still stamped his feet and tossed his head. Compared to the last time Hoss tried dressing a cut, Sport was a positive angel. Hoss didn’t have bite marks to show for his efforts this time.) The horse was injured and probably not fit to ride just yet, but he’d be fine. Hoss had bedded him down, fed him well, and promised extra attention to make up for the fright.

Cantankerous or not, Hoss couldn’t deny he liked the horse too.

To say that they’d been surprised to be flagged down by a messenger sent from the sheriff near halfway between Virginia City and their home would be an understatement. Both Ben and Hoss had been riding into the town in hopes of meeting up with Adam and Joe; Ben had forgotten to send along a much-needed bank errand and Hoss had ridden along simply because he could. When the messenger had said that there had been shots fired in town and then tacked on that Adam had been injured, they’d immediately thought the worst. Mrs. Gillum had set them straight when they’d both burst into the Doctor’s house at the edge of town. Ben had gone on to the hotel while Hoss decided to check on Adam’s horse.

He caught sight of Roy Coffee striding across the street, looking to be on his way back to the International House, if the direction he was going was any indication. Hoss watched as a couple concerned citizens practically accosted the sheriff in the street; he was too far away to hear what they were saying but the fear on their faces was evident, as was the confident concern on Roy’s. Hoss broke into a jog as Roy sent them on their way. He caught up as Roy began to turn away.

“Hey. Sheriff.”

Roy tipped his head in greeting, but kept walking. Hoss fell in beside him. “You wantin’ word on your brother?”

“Already got it, but if’n you wanna add to it, I’ll take it.”

Roy snorted and clapped his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “He’s itchin’ to get outta bed, I can tell you that much. Ain’t hard to see it.” He let his hand drop; Hoss noticed that his fingers rested lightly on the gun at his hip. He almost commented on it, but Roy spoke again before he could. “Need you to do somethin’ for me.”

“Name it.”

“I’m interested in findin’ a man. Told he’s fairly tall, graying hair, blue-eyed. Could be a soldier, considerin’ what I’ve heard. Can’t tell you much more. Would be mighty obliged if you kept an eye out for him.”

“Awful vague description.” Hoss followed Roy up onto the boardwalk and into the door of the hotel. In the lobby, they stopped. In front of them, Paul Martin was coming down the stairs, still looking tired but at least a little better rested.

“Don’t I know it.” Roy sighed. “Best I got right now. I’m hopin’ to pick up somethin’ useful in the girl’s room.”

That got Hoss’ attention. “Girl? I knew about somebody shootin’ up the town…”

Paul joined them at the bottom of the stairs and answered the question before Roy could. “A girl was murdered yesterday. It could be related.”

“And she had a room here?”

“That’s the way of it,” Roy said.

Hoss fell silent as his mind ground to a halt. He knew full well what kind of violence could happen here, but murder — especially the murder of a woman — left him reeling. Paul nudged his arm; it took a moment before Hoss looked at him.

“You make sure Adam eats something.”

Hoss blinked at him, coming back to himself with a shake of his head. “Yeah. How bad is it, Doc?”

“It’s not,” Paul answered with a shrug. “He’s just itching to get outta that bed and I want to keep him there awhile longer. Your father and Joe are both up there with him. Last I heard, Ben was trying to figure out how Joe’s face being bruised had anything to do with Adam getting thrown.”

That took Hoss a long moment to figure out, but when he did, a slow grin chased away the blank expression on his face. “That horse o’ Adam’s sure does like tossin’ his head, don’t he?”

On any other day, Roy might have laughed. Today, he allowed himself a half-amused snort as he ran his fingers over his mustache.

“You mind if I come on up to that room with you, Sheriff?” Hoss asked. “Seein’ as how my brother don’t need an extra hand and you seem like you might and all.”

Roy looked genuinely appreciative of the offer. “Won’t mind if you do, Hoss.” He started toward the steps, Hoss following. “You comin’ up, Doc? Might be a bit. You could check on Jake in the meantime.” Or perhaps nap, given how tired Paul still looked and Roy made no bones about trying to shoo the doctor out of the hotel.

But Paul was having none of it. He turned on his heel and followed them up. “I’m as curious as you are, Roy.”

“Curious ain’t quite the word I’d use,” Roy muttered and neither Hoss nor Paul called him on it.

It was only a few moments later that they entered the girl’s room, on the same floor as the one Adam had procured for the time being. Paul hung back by the door, leaning on the jamb and letting Roy and Hoss do the actual work of searching. Not that there was much to search: the room was neat and organized. Everything in its place, Hoss noticed. The luggage was neatly arranged, clothes put away, even the pillows on the settee weren’t a smidge out of place.

If they were hoping to find something, Hoss figured they wouldn’t be finding it here. Roy was frowning, as if he knew that as well as Hoss. Roy, though, stood in the center of the room and his frown slowly turned to something else, something a little more thoughtful and determined. It wasn’t the look of a man stymied by a lack of facts; he was looking more like he was seeing something important.

Hoss stopped halfway between Roy and Paul and stared at the sheriff. “What is it?”

“This room don’t seem off to you none?” the sheriff asked without looking at Hoss.

“Can’t say that it does. Might be missin’ something.” Hoss took his hat from his head and began to absentmindedly scratch just behind his right ear.

“Think someone’s been in here since,” Roy muttered, rubbing his chin lightly as he looked around.

“Nothin’ looks outta place.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s cleaner than when it’s waitin’ for someone to check in.” Roy went back to staring, slowly turning in a circle to see every inch of the room. Hoss looked distinctly uncomfortable.

Paul, watching all this with a narrow-eyed gaze, turned away. Better to stare into the hallway at nothing than intrude even on a dead woman’s privacy. He shouldn’t have come up here. Staring into nothing, he almost missed the flash of silver down the hallway. Moving before he thought better of it, he called sharply to Roy and Hoss.

Hoss hadn’t left the room before the shot echoed too loudly in the small hallway.

 

——

 

It was a testament to how incredibly worried (and rattled) that they all were that neither Ben nor Joe immediately stopped Adam from rolling out of bed upon the sound of a gunshot in the hallway. Too bad they hadn’t, given Adam had promptly tumbled face first into the carpet. Scrambling to his hands and knees – one knee, at any rate – he hobbled after his father and brother, pausing only long enough to pull his sidearm from the holster hanging on the bedpost. Given his rather startling lack of mobility, he wasn’t surprised to find everyone else in the hallway long before he managed to get there.

And by everyone, he rather meant it: Roy and Hoss had barreled out of the room adjacent to his. Adam nearly fell out of the door in time to see Ben and Joe dash around the corner and toward the staircase, in pursuit of their mystery shooter. It took Adam a moment to realize that the vaguely human-shaped lump sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall in the shadows was, in fact, a person.

A person he knew very well. Doctor Martin had one hand pressed against his chest, his eyes wide and staring. His breathing was rapid and shallow and yet, Adam saw no blood. Roy knelt in front of him, calling his name urgently and gently shaking his shoulder. Hoss, clearly at a loss, stood above them both, hands twitching at his sides and feet shuffling restlessly; he had no idea where to go or what to do. Adam couldn’t blame him.

Using the wall as a crutch, Adam hobbled in their direction. By now, his knee protested mightily and sharp tendrils of pain shot through his thigh and calf. As it was, he was suddenly glad that they weren’t too far away; a few more stumbling steps and his entire leg might be completely useless. He reached out, fingers lightly brushing Hoss’ arm. That’s all it took for Hoss to turn. In no time flat, his expression went from lost to concerned; he settled a hand under Adam’s elbow. With a grateful nod, Adam let him offer that support without argument.

“Help me down, would you?”

“Adam, you shouldn’t-”

“Just do it.”

That’s all the argument Hoss had in him. While Roy continued to try to get Paul to respond — all the while shooting worried glances in the direction Ben and Joe had gone off toward — Hoss did more than just help Adam take a seat next to the doctor. In fact, Hoss took it upon himself to practically lift Adam off his feet and set him down; Adam didn’t have to do a lick of work. Hoss even took the revolver from his hand and stuffed it in his waistband. Adam wasn’t sure if he was annoyed or thankful for it. Sitting on the floor half-turned toward Paul, Adam took in the waxen face, the wide eyes, and the lack of blood. His gaze traveled upward, brows furrowed, and he found the bullet hole in the wall.

If Paul had sat down where he’d been standing, that bullet would have had to have flown right past his ear. Sudden realization came over Adam and he reached out to catch Roy’s forearm. “Go after them. I’ll handle this.”

Roy didn’t waste breath on an argument he wouldn’t win. He dropped his hand on Adam’s shoulder, squeezed lightly, and then was gone down the hall. Anyone in Virginia City who’d ever said he might be getting too old for the job might have retracted their statements had they’d seen how fast he moved.

Adam turned his attention to the doctor. Hoss stood over them both, hovering to the point of annoyance. Adam ignored him. There were bigger problems. “Paul?”

Nothing. Adam pressed his lips together and reached for the hand on Paul’s chest. “Hey.” Paul’s eyes darted back and forth, never quite finding Adam long enough to stay focused. Grimly, Adam knew that just calling his name wouldn’t help; he needed to brought back to the present. His gaze traveled to the hole in the wall again. Couldn’t be just the bullet that drove Paul into a dazed panic.

It couldn’t. Doctor Martin was nothing if not a steady hand, but then Adam had only seen him dealing with other people’s life or death situations. Unflappable then; might be different when he saw an end for himself.

Well, then, he mused, he’d just have to give Doctor Paul Martin something to hold onto.

He allowed the pain he’d been keeping a tight rein on creep into his voice, inordinately glad that his father wasn’t around to hear it. Hoss would understand what he was trying to do, maybe. If he could look past a brother in pain long enough to see it. “Doctor Martin? Think I’m gonna need your help.”

Hoss looked at him sharply, mouth open to speak. One look from Adam silenced him.

“I fell,” Adam said and, to his own ear, he sounded like a child. “My knee’s killing me.” It wasn’t quite a lie. He did fall and his knee was currently a million points of stabbing pain.

Paul took a shaking, but deep, breath. Relief flooded through Adam.

“I really need a hand, Doctor.”

Paul’s gaze sharpened and focused, settled on Adam’s face, though he seemed drawn to glancing down the hallway. There was fear in his gaze when he did. He swallowed hard and it seemed to take a herculean effort to simply look at Adam. “Adam?”

“Yeah.”

Paul continued to stare at him. “Oh.” Silence fell, aside from the sound of Hoss nervously shifting from one foot to another. “Your knee?”

“Hurts.”

“What are you doing out here?” Paul’s voice was soft, gaining a little strength as he spoke. Adam wanted nothing more than to lay down, right there in the hallway, and nearly sob in relief. It wasn’t often he dealt with anything close to a panic attack. Paul’s hand fell from his chest and he pushed himself away from the wall, to lean over Adam’s knee.

“Heard the shot,” was all Adam said.

Paul’s head jerked up and he looked at the hole in the wall. Adam followed his gaze. What started as a deeper breath turned to an almost hysterical chuckle before Paul managed to speak again. “You’d think…” He trailed off, then gamely tried again. “You’d think I’d never been shot at before.”

“Have you?”

“Well… no.” He ran a hand over his face. “I saw him, Adam.”

It was Hoss who dropped a hand onto Paul’s shoulder. Paul looked up, staring past them both and down the hallway. The abject fear in his eyes kept Adam silent. When Paul spoke again, there was a certainty in his voice that belied his shaking hands. “I’ve seen death. Looked it in the eye a thousand times. Never seen rage like that.”

It hit Adam so hard he stopped breathing for a moment. The bullet hadn’t frightened Paul so badly; the man who’d fired it had. Questions came on the heels of the realization, but Adam tamped them down ruthlessly. Now was not the time.

“Let’s get you both outta the hallway.” Hoss patted Paul’s shoulder. His voice was strong and steady and Adam gave him a grateful look. Good ol’ pragmatic Hoss. He helped Paul to his feet and then, unceremoniously, hooked his hands under Adam’s armpits and hauled him upward.

… Never mind that gratefulness. Adam swayed and snorted as he got his balance under control. Paul appeared at his side, dipping his shoulder under Adam’s as they hobbled back toward the room. “How much of that was real and how much was trying to get my attention?”

Jaw set with the effort of not showing any more pain than he’d like, he didn’t deign to glance at Paul. After a moment, he answered. “Would you believe me if I said it was all the latter?”

“Not in the least.”

Silence fell. It wasn’t until they were back in the room and Adam in the nearest chair that it was broken. Hoss set the Adam’s gun on the small table next to him and glanced out the doorway.

“You can go after ’em,” Adam said.

Hoss shook his head. Adam could see it clearly in his posture; he was their self-appointed bodyguard. When Hoss closed his eyes briefly, Adam knew immediately was he was doing.

He was praying.

Adam found himself joining him even as Paul prodded his knee with shaking hands.

 

——

 

Ben wasn’t even quite sure when Roy caught up to him. Somewhere between the bottom of the steps and following Joe out of the front entrance of the hotel, Roy suddenly appeared beside him. He came out of the doors in time to watch Joe launch himself over the railing and into the street, hit the ground running, and take off after the shooter, who was still in full view of them. He exchanged a quick glance with Roy — and they both went down the stairs.

Joe was faster than him and always would be. He’d started out life as a toddler faster than Ben, but it didn’t stop Ben from trying his damndest to catch up. His heart was in his throat as he watched Joe’s left hand brush against the gun in his holster; apparently deciding that speed was better than inviting a gunfight, Joe instead sprinted rather than drew.

And he closed the distance.

Pulse pounding in his ears, Ben heard nothing as Joe leaped. The timing couldn’t have been worse: Joe shot forward as the man started to turn and Ben saw visions of his youngest son, shot dead in the street. His steps slowed as he pulled his own revolver free. Close enough to see what was happening clearly but too far to be of any real help — and with Joe right in his line of fire — Ben was reduced to helplessness.

It was not something he took to well.

But then reality caught up with him and he realized the man wasn’t going to be faster than Joe. As it was, the rifle stock collided hard with Joe’s chest, but it wasn’t enough to turn the momentum away from Joe’s favor. They both fell hard, in a tangle of limbs and cloud of dust. Ben still heard nothing but the rush of blood. Beside him, Roy was shouting — he glanced over and saw his mouth moving — but the words didn’t register.

Joe had his hands on the rifle, face set in grim lines as he tried to yank it from the man’s grip, as he struggled to bear his lighter weight down into the man and hold him to the street. He was outweighed by a good few pounds and, while Joe was a fighter, his strength wasn’t in simply pinning someone.

Especially not when he didn’t have a free hand to deliver a mean left hook.

Ben didn’t stop running — though he slowed — when he fired a shot into the air, hoping against hope that it would distract the man long enough for Joe to do something. At least not get himself shot. Roy barrelled past him and wedged a hand into the mess, braced his elbow against the man’s throat, and came down on his knee on the man’s wrist. His hold broken, Joe yanked the rifle free and tossed it aside. Ben came to a stop only a few feet from the man’s head and aimed his gun unwaveringly between the man’s eyes.

He finally drew a full breath; sound came rushing back to him all at once. The man’s heels scraped against the dirt street, Joe’s breath sounded in a soft wheeze, Roy panting with the effort of keeping the man down. The soft creak of belt leather, the rustle of clothes, the grunts of a man struggling to free himself.

And above all, Ben’s steel-laced voice. “You’ll stop.” It wasn’t an order and definitely wasn’t a question; simply a statement that was underpinned by the expectation that it would happen. It wasn’t much louder than the sounds of the struggle, but it gained the man’s attention almost instantly.

He went limp. None of the three of them made the mistake of letting up, though they took the reprieve with a grateful air. Ben’s gaze landed on Joe for a moment, taking in the way he rolled his shoulder, one side of his mouth quirking downward in stiffness and pain. It wasn’t bad and his father’s heart was thankful for it, but the images of what could have been still tried to haunt him. Joe caught him looking and offered him a reassuring quirk of his lips, not quite a smile, and Ben could almost hear what he wanted to say: Just a bruise, Pa. I’ve had worse doing chores.

Roy glanced at Ben, nodding toward the gun, and Ben nodded in response. The gun would stay on the man. The sheriff changed his grip and made to haul him to his feet. “Get up, man. Seems you and I–”

Whatever Roy was going to say was cut off by a howl. Joe jumped, staring at the man and Ben understood exactly why. It sounded inhuman. The howl coalesced into words. “You killed her! You all killed her!” Raw grief and rage fueled his voice, but he remained unresisting as Roy dragged him to his feet. He leaned into Joe, nose inches from his, and screamed again, wordless howls that spoke of a depth of sorrow that had Ben’s heart clenching. Joe, for his part, stumbled backward in surprise, caught only by his father’s hand in the back of his jacket.

Roy tried to ignore the man, but the glances he kept giving Ben spoke volumes. This was not something he wanted to deal with alone. Patting Joe carefully on the back, he nodded in the direction of the hotel. “Go check on your brothers.”

“But–”

“Joseph, please.”

“Pa?”

“I’ll be there as soon as I help Roy lock this one up.” Joe hesitated, clearly torn in his desire to do just as his father had asked and to help them with who he was coming to think of as a madman. “Your brothers, Joe. I saw Adam on his feet.”

Joe blinked at him. “He knows better.”

Ben shoved lightly at his shoulder. “Then go tell him.”

“Yeah. Yeah, all right.” And with a last glance over his shoulder, Joe jogged back toward the hotel. Ben didn’t watch him go; he kept his weapon trained on the howling madman all the way back to the jail.

 

——

 

Joe fidgeted. His fingers tapped his knees, his bootheels drummed the carpeted floor, and he couldn’t seem to look in any one place. Instead, he gaze fluttered from corner to corner, stopping for only brief moments on his brothers’ faces, on Paul’s hands, and then on the closed door. That he was waiting on pins and needles was more than obvious to the other occupants of the room.

Adam pointedly cleared his throat. Joe looked at him and shrugged, his sheepish look shifting to one that spoke volumes to how absolutely unimpressed he was to see Adam pushing to his feet. “Would you sit down?”

“Would you leave me be?”

“Boys.” Even Hoss turned an incredulous, nearly amused stare on Paul at the admonishment. Paul blinked back, expression carefully blank. He may not have been their father, but he commanded respect — and he’d use it for a little peace if he had to.

For a long moment, no one moved. Then Adam hobbled over to the settee — opposite the room from Paul, Joe noticed — and sat carefully. “Tell me again what he said,” he told Joe.

Joe threw up his hands in complete exasperation. “I have. Twice. What more do you want?”

Unfazed, Adam answered the question. “How’d he say it?”

“I told you that, too.”

Paul opened his mouth to issue another exasperated admonishment. Hoss beat him to it. “Older Brother’s onto something, Joe.” Unspoken was the advice that he just answer the question. Adam’s gaze flickered to Hoss, a mute thanks, before settling on Joe once again.

“Fine.” Joe slumped back into his chair. “He screamed in my face. Near knocked me back off my feet, he startled me so bad.”

“Screamed,” Adam repeated.

“Yeah. ‘Bout two inches from my nose. It kinda went from straight howling to words to more howling. Never saw anything like it.”

“What did he say?”

Joe’s patience was obviously wearing thin. His eyes narrowed. “You want to just tell me what’s going through your head?”

Adam didn’t look away, nor did his rather intense gaze falter. “What did he say?”

“You know,” Joe said blandly, “there are times I want to throw something hard at your head.”

Adam quirked a brow.

Joe crossed his arms… then sputtered when a pillow hit him square in the face. As the pillow tumbled to the floor, he turned a betrayed look on Hoss. His bigger brother only crossed his arms and shrugged one shoulder, as if to say told you to just say it. Doctor Martin, for his part, looked studiously out the window with his bottom lip firmly ensconced in his teeth.

Joe kicked the pillow in his direction. “Don’t you laugh.” Paul held up his hand in supplication. Joe turned back toward Adam, who hadn’t so much as twitched during the whole exchange. “All right. Fine. He said ‘You killed her. You all killed her.’ Then he screamed right in my face. That’s all he said.”

“All?”

“Yes, Adam. All. He said ‘all.’ Is there anything else you want me to repeat for you?”

Adam’s voice was dead serious. “One more thing.” He paused and Joe knew something was coming by the way his lips quirked just so. “Tell me again how he managed to knock the wind outta you?”

Joe glared and started looking around for something to toss at his Yankee brother’s head. “Be nice. I can run circles around you.”

“For now,” Adam said mildly.

Paul cut into the banter, a questioning gaze resting on Adam. “What are you thinking?”

“I can’t be sure.” Adam leaned back in the settee, fingers idly scratching behind his ear as he fell into thought. “He’s accusing somebody for a reason and I don’t think it was Joe, or Pa, or Roy exclusively. Wouldn’t have said ‘all’ if that were the case.”

“So who is it?”

“I wish I knew.” Adam’s hand slowly fell to rest on his thigh. “I wish I knew.” After a moment, he turned his gaze on Hoss. “Hoss, I left my saddlebags in the livery; can you get them? There’s a change of clothes there.”

Hoss nodded; at the door he paused as if just registering that bringing a change of clothes to town was rather odd. “You brought clothes? Were you plannin’ on staying over?”

Adam reached up to scratch behind his ear again. “Ah. No. I forgot to unpack a few days ago.”

“So you’re carryin’ stale clothes?”

“Better than cut and torn,” Adam said as Hoss left. He pushed to his feet, much to Joe’s obvious irritation.

“Adam-”

Paul stood. “Adam Cartwright, get off your feet.”

“I need some water.”

“One of us will get it. Sit.” Paul waved toward Joe. “In fact, Joe will head downstairs and get us all a pot of coffee.” Joe nodded wordlessly and nearly bounded for the door. When he pulled it open, he stumbled backward as he tried his level best not to run over the middle-aged woman standing at the door, hand raised to knock. Paul put a hand under the young man’s elbow and Joe found his feet just in time for Etta Gillum to speak.

“Doctor Martin, you’re needed at the jail.”

That’s all it took for chaos to erupt in the room.

 

——

 

Paul was in the midst of earnestly trying to ignore the noise around him. As a doctor, he’d had more than his fair share of experiences where worried family members hovered and demanded answers he didn’t have yet. Sometimes, family members and friends went the way of hysteria and he was inordinately glad he could at least count on the Cartwrights to avoid that particular reaction when one of them was hurt.

Though it was getting hard to tune out the way Joe snapped questions at the sheriff. Poor Roy didn’t have time to answer before Joe piled another question onto his already over-burdened shoulders. Glancing over there, Paul made a mental note to look at Roy’s arm again; blood was dripping from his fingertips and his right hand was clamped over his left arm, just above the elbow. His expression, though drawn with pain, was alert and very frustrated.

He could wait a few more minutes.

Paul turned his attention back to Ben, one hand running through silver-grey hair to gently probe at the goose-egg forming just behind his ear. He was still out, which was a little worrying but not all that unexpected, if what Roy said was to be believed (and Roy was more prone to understating things than exaggerating them.)

“How is he?”

Paul’s gaze flickered to Adam, who had somehow — and against any advice he’d been given and without one boot on — managed to keep up with Paul and Joe as they’d practically raced toward the jail. Etta had been clear: the prisoner had proved to be difficult to handle. She hadn’t been clear about what had happened, but the aftermath was clear enough. Ben was unconscious, Roy was bleeding, and the prisoner was armed with the sheriff’s gun. Paul’s hand drifted to Ben’s wrist, eyes narrowed as he once again counted off heartbeats, before he answered. Under his hand, Ben’s brow furrowed. “He’s coming around.”

The way Adam set his jaw told Paul everything he needed to know: Adam was unhappy with the non-answer — and unhappy with the situation in general. Paul couldn’t find it in himself to blame him. Before Adam could demand clarification, Paul spoke again. “He’ll be all right. It’s not the first time he’s been hit over the head.” Probably wouldn’t be the last, either. “It’s not the hardest hit I’ve seen him take either.” He glanced at Ben, moving his hand to rest on the man’s shoulder, then looked back at Adam. “Quit worrying,” he chided gently.

Adam gave him a crooked half-smile that didn’t reach his eyes; he appreciated the gesture but could find nothing in him to quell the concern. Joe appeared over his shoulder, peering down at Ben and apparently through with peppering Roy with rapid-fire questions. “Doc?”

Adam reached up and gripped Joe’s forearm as he levered himself to his feet. Joe, without a word of question or complaint, stood as support while Adam found his balance. “He’ll be fine,” he answered for Paul.

Joe ignored him. “Doc?”

Paul barely managed to keep the frustration out of his voice, though his words came out oddly flat. “He’ll be fine.”

“You see?” Adam said. “He’s fine.” It sounded as if he was trying to convince himself as much as he was Joe. “What’d Roy say?”

Behind him, Roy grunted. “Roy said enough,” he commented. “Ain’t much else to say that you don’t already know. He’s slippery and violent; bad combination.”

Paul nodded absently and motioned Roy to sit down, on the floor no less, next to him. When it came to injury, sometimes one just needed treated right where they were. At this point, with a madman out on the streets, he wasn’t about to start parading injured around the streets, no matter how minor the injury. Roy did and Paul took his arm in hand, carefully pulling the torn edges of the shirt away from the wound. Roy hissed quietly.

“Roy?” Adam waited while Roy turned his gaze on him. Even Joe, crouched next to Ben and with a hand on his father’s forehead, looked at him. Paul glanced at him, then turned his attention back to the gash on Roy’s arm. “Roy, what are figuring?”

“You ain’t gonna like it, Adam.”

“I don’t like it anyway.”

“Fair enough.” Roy grimaced as Paul pressed on the edges of the wound. “Doc, that’s–”

“That’s what I gotta do,” Paul finished mildly. “You do your detectiving and I’ll do my doctoring.”

Roy snorted, but answered Adam without further complaint. “He’s nowhere near rational. He thinks he is, but he ain’t thinkin’ clear.”

Adam nodded slowly. “You know who murdered the girl?”

“Sure do,” Roy said, his drawl hiding the seriousness of the words. “He ain’t gonna like knowin’ it.”

“When he does?”

“Then we best be prepared for somethin’ worse.”

Again, Adam nodded. He dropped his hand onto Joe’s shoulder. “Come on.”

Joe gave him a flustered look. “But Pa…”

“He’s in the doc’s hands. No better place for him. We need to find Hoss.”

“But–”

“Now. Come on.”

With one last look at Ben and a considering, confused glance at Roy, Joe climbed to his feet and slowly followed Adam as he hobbled out the door.

 

——

 

Hoss slung the saddlebags over his shoulder and stopped long enough to scratch that place under Sport’s ear that always sent the horse into happy snuffling. The big sorrel leaned his head into Hoss’ hand; if horses could smile, Sport would be doing it now, Hoss thought. “Yer a big ol’ softy, ain’tcha?” He kept scratching, peering over the horse’s withers to the gash that ran cross-ways over his hindquarters. “Lucky, too.”

As if in response, Sport tossed his head. Hoss rubbed the palm of his hand over the horse’s wide blaze. “Wish you could tell me why Adam’s still got clothes in these here bags. Ain’t like him to forget about ’em. Don’t suppose it has somethin’ to do with that late night he pulled a few days back? Older brother sure ‘nough was flustered.” Hoss stopped, both words and his hand, then grinned. “Come to think of it, I ain’t heard him say much ’bout that girl lately, either. What was her name? Victoria? Can’t rightly remember, but if she had him all flustered, then forgettin’ a few clothes is understandable, ain’t it?”

Sport snorted.

“Course it is,” Hoss continued. He adjusted the saddlebags on his shoulder — they were starting to slide — and reached up to scratch behind Sport’s ear one more time. “You just rest up, you hear? Adam’ll be in here to look you over ‘fore long, that I can guarantee. You and him, you’re a lot alike, you know. All spit and vinegar, ’til you’re hit with somethin’ just right.”

The horse’s ears swiveled forward and he raised his head, snorting as he looked beyond Hoss and toward the open doorway of the livery. With a furrowed brow, Hoss half-turned in that direction. “Whaddya–” His question died on his lips as his eye fell on the rifle trained in his direction. Slowly, he turned to fully face the threat as the man stepped from the bright light outside and into the shadows of the stable. Hoss’ hand drifted toward the gun on his hip.

“Don’t.” The man’s voice was rough. There was a hard rasp to it, one that spoke of hours spent screaming in vain. Of stress beyond the bearing.

Hoss’ heart was moved both toward fear and sympathy upon hearing it. The rifle’s barrel gestured to the left; Hoss stepped in that direction. “What’s this about?”

“Justice.”

An odd answer, Hoss thought, as he looked the man over. Tall — near his Pa’s height — and with dull brown hair graying at the temples, he struck an imposing figure. (One that was, in all probability, helped along by the rifle he held without reservation in his hands.) His eyes were clear and hard, a light-colored gaze that spoke of too many dark things seen. Hoss had seen him before, in a glimpse in a hotel hallway. Hands out to his sides in a gesture meant to look non-threatening, Hoss addressed him with a voice often reserved for animals he was sure were about to shy. “Ain’t sure what you’re sayin’.”

It was, apparently, the wrong thing to say. The rifle dipped, but not in any sort of hesitancy; instead, it was anger that could not be contained that prompted the movement. The man stepped forward, gesturing with the rifle as he spoke. “That’s the problem! That’s the goddamned problem!”

Hoss put his hands up, palms outward. “Whoa, easy there. Didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”

“Didn’t you?” The rifle moved again, as the man gestured toward the open doorway. “This whole godforsaken town ain’t worth the dust settled in its streets. Nobody’ll do nothing. Just stand there and let it all happen.”

“Let what happen?” Hoss glanced at the doorway, the rifle, the man, and the doorway again. There would be no way he could move fast enough. “There’s good people here,” he said quietly. “Ain’t a one of ’em gonna walk away from somethin’ that needs doin’. Mister, you gotta grievance, you gotta say somethin’. We’ll help ya.”

Anger bled away from the man’s countenance. The rifle stilled, pointed straight at Hoss now. “No. You won’t.”

To Hoss, the man looked inordinately sad. There was a grief there that seemed to swallow up everything else about the man; everything he seemed to be was steeped in sorrow. That cold, hard gaze? Depthless sorrow. The lines about his mouth and eyes weren’t born from laughter. Everything about the man suddenly looked beaten. “Mister…”

“Shut up.” The anger was back; that was when Hoss knew reason would never get through to this man and when he knew that he might not be bringing Adam’s clothes back to him. Not now. Not ever. The man drew the rifle tight to his shoulder. “Every one o’ you gotta pay for what was done. I’ll shoot you all down. You’ll never see me.”

Hoss backed up a step, hoping the shadows deeper into the livery might sway the man’s aim.

“Vengeance is mine.” The man never moved. Hoss wasn’t sure if the man was even seeing him anymore. He certainly wasn’t listening. “I will repay.”

Saith the Lord, Hoss thought in a wild sort of aside. Why he should be corrected scriptural quotes now, with a rifle aimed at him, he didn’t know. He saw Sport in the corner of his eye, his ears still pricked forward and watching with interest. Hoss hoped he’d be all right; he’d been in the sights of this man once. He rather hoped blood didn’t get on Adam’s clothes. (The strange places a mind will go, Hoss mused, even in the midst of all this.)

The man’s voice rose unsteadily. “She should have lived here. Been everything she couldn’t be with me.”

Hoss’ mind ground to a halt at that. Strange wording.

“I wanted to give her everything.” The man straightened the collar of his jacket, smoothing it into perfection. “I could have been everything. I could have.” An undercurrent of anger gave the near childish plea a chilling edge. “I was.”

He’s gone, Hoss thought. He ain’t even seein’ me no more. That wasn’t a bad thing. Hoss tensed, waiting.

“This godforsaken place took her from me.” The man sighted down the rifle. “They’ll pay. I’ll start with the one who couldn’t save her.”

His finger tightened on the trigger.

Hoss dove for cover.

 

——

 

The shot was so muted that Adam had no idea where it came from. Joe, in front of him on the boardwalk, pulled up short; Adam nearly fell into him. His balance was far gone that he was hard-pressed to walk without falling, much less stop and start suddenly. His hand came down on Joe’s shoulder and he leaned on the younger man without reservation.

“Where’d it come from?” Joe asked, his gaze darting around the quiet street. On any other day, it would have been bustling. Now, Virginia City was quiet as a ghost town.

“I don’t know.” Adam pushed himself back to standing with a grimace. He took a couple deep breaths before he spoke again. “Plan’s the same: find Hoss. Head for the livery.”

Joe tore his gaze from the rooftops and made sure that Adam was standing on his own — if a little wobbly — before starting again. “What were you and Roy talking about?”

“When?”

“When you asked if he knew who murdered the girl.” Joe glanced back at Adam. “I know you. You’ve been thinkin’ on this awful hard.”

“That I have.”

“Don’t do that.”

Adam blinked at Joe, genuinely dumbfounded. “Do what?”

“Focus on the wrong part of the question. You do it when you don’t wanna answer something.” Joe turned and put his hand out, effectively stopping Adam in his tracks. “Look, I’ve been shot at, I’ve seen people die, I thought you were shot, and now Pa’s hurt. You don’t want to answer, fine. But do me the favor of at least being honest about it.”

For a moment, Adam fell into silence. He’d been caught, but Joe’s reasoning was somewhere to the left of the actual answer, though Adam could understand the anger and worry that prompted the little lecture. “It’s not that, Joe. I don’t like the answer.” If he voiced it…

Well, if he voiced it, it might very well be true and it was too horrible to try to comprehend.

“From what you and Roy were saying,” Joe said, “no one’s going to like the answer.”

“That’s true.” Adam sighed and rubbed his hand over his cheek. “Look, Joe, I’m not going to pretend that what I’ve come up with makes any sense. Roy’s hit the same conclusion, I think, and you saw how much it troubled him.”

“Yeah, I saw. Adam, listen. It’s been pretty obvious that this guy is dangerous. He scared the wits outta me when I tackled him. Something’s off about him and I don’t know what.” Joe took a deep breath. “But if you and Roy know something, you need to be tellin’ the rest of us. Not knowing puts us at a disadvantage and you know it.”

Adam opened his mouth to answer, genuinely intending to tell Joe what he was thinking, but movement down the street caught his eye. He looked up, brow furrowed, then nodded toward the figure darting across the street to hop up on the boardwalk down the block. Joe followed his gaze, frowning at the interruption, but expression lightening when he saw who it was jogging toward them.

“Well, we found Hoss.”

Adam clapped Joe on the shoulder and started limping toward his brother. The closer they got, the more obvious it was that something was wrong. Hoss was moving at a fast clip, his eyes too wide, and his breath a little too fast. Adam’s saddlebags were slung haphazardly over his shoulder and his hat was askew. Joe glanced at Adam, a question in his face, and all Adam could do was shrug.

Joe, of course, got to Hoss before Adam did; in his worried haste, Joe forgot to keep the pace slow enough for his injured brother. As a result, he was already peppering Hoss with questions before Adam got close enough to hear anything. He reached out for a post near them, nearly hopping on one foot and out of breath. He forgot his discomfort as soon as he registered what Hoss was saying.

“–saw him in the livery. Feller had a lot to say, Joe.” He looked at Adam then, clearly out of sorts. “I know why Doc was beside himself. That guy ain’t right, Adam. Ain’t right at all.”

Adam nodded slowly, putting his questions aside for the moment with some difficulty. That went a long way toward confirming what he (and he was sure Roy) was thinking. He settled on the one question that seemed most pertinent. All else could be answered later. “Are you all right?”

Hoss nodded, glancing nervously over his shoulder. “Took a shot at me. Sorta.”

“Whaddya mean ‘sorta’?” Joe asked.

“I ain’t sure he was even seein’ me no more.”

Hoss absentmindedly handed the saddlebags to Adam, who wobbled a bit and finally dropped them at his feet. The fact that Hoss didn’t notice told him more than anything else. “What’s that mean?”

“He was just ramblin’. Talked about findin’ justice for that gal. More’n that, though. Talkin’ about vengeance.”

“Who, Hoss? He say who he’s going after?”

If anything, Hoss looked paler than before. “The whole town, he said. Said we’d never see him comin’. Said he’s gonna start with the one who didn’t save her. I ain’t sure what he means.”

“I am.” Adam reached out and physically turned Joe back toward the jail. “Go back, Joe. You gotta get back to Paul.”

“No.”

“Joe.”

“You promised, Adam. Tell me what’s going on.”

He made no such promise, but Adam wasn’t going to quibble. “I think the Paul’s the one he’s talking about.”

Joe paled; Adam was fairly sure he was thinking of who was with Paul, just as he was. “Who killed the girl?”

“He did.”

Both Joe and Hoss stared at him. “Paul?” Hoss asked, his voice rising in disbelief.

Adam was already shaking his head. “No.”

“Wait. Adam, you’re thinking the shooter did it?” Joe blinked at him, looking as if he couldn’t quite figure out the words. “He’s the one demanding justice.”

But Adam turned to Hoss. “What exactly did he say?”

Hoss, still wearing a dumbfounded expression, answered quickly. “He said we all had to pay for what was done.”

“But not what we did. For what was done.”

“You’re sayin’ that because no one stopped him…” Joe trailed off. “That ain’t rational.”

“He’s not.” Adam tightened his grip on Joe’s arm. “Please, Joe. Go back to the jail. If he goes after Paul and Pa and Roy are there…”

“Yeah. What about you and Hoss?”

“We’ll be at Doc Martin’s, just in case you miss him somehow. This guy’s focus is narrowing in on Paul. We have to warn him.”

Joe nodded. “Be careful.”

As he jogged away, Adam gingerly bent to pick up the saddlebags. Without a word, Hoss beat him to it — and left him trying to straighten without undue pressure on his knee. Seemed like the more he moved around, the worse it got. He was a little surprised he hadn’t fallen again and he didn’t want to admit to either of his brothers how close he’d come to taking a header into the dusty street on more than one occasion. Adam grunted when Hoss grabbed him by the back of the coat and pulled him upright.

“Goldarnit, Adam, when you gonna learn you take it easy?”

Arms spread out in an effort to keep his balance, he answered slowly. “When people stop shooting at my brothers. Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Yeah. Sport might never forgive me. Dove headfirst into his stall.” Hoss gave Adam a strained, wry smile. “He don’t like that guy much. Was snortin’ and shiftin’ the whole time.”

“Surely don’t blame him.”

Hoss clapped him on the shoulder, nearly sending him to the ground. “C’mon, older brother. I want this guy caught. He took his shot and took off. Ain’t got no idea where he went.”

“We should get off the streets then. Even if he can’t hit the broad side of a Hoss, I’d rather not give him the opportunity.”

“Again, you mean.” Hoss gave him a shrewd look. “When he hits something, it seems more like a fluke than anythin’ else. The girl was beaten, Lonnie was knifed and shot. Guy seems a mite more successful when he’s… well. Hands-on.” Hoss looked a little disgusted at his own assessment.

Adam blinked up at him as the implications of Hoss’ words dawned on him. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“I think he was looking to shoot you in the back, older brother. Probably aimin’ for ol’ Jake’s head.”

Adam was silent for a long moment as he tried to reconcile the new information with what he’d already figured out; it chilled Adam to the bone. It opened up a few more avenues into the man’s twisted thinking. Adam wasn’t sure he wanted to understand what might be coming — but he had to, if he had a chance of saving Paul (and everyone else) from his quest for misplaced vengeance. “Let’s get inside,” he finally said.

Hoss was quick to agree.

 

——

 

The doctor’s house was dark, one lamp’s small flame gamely flickering in the front room but it did little against the falling twilight. It was apparent that Paul had left in such a hurry when the shooting started: a half-open book perched precariously on the edge of the desk, a pencil on the floor next to the chair that was haphazardly slid back from the desk. A cold cup of coffee left a dark ring on the papers it had been set on. The cupboards behind the leather chaise – a chaise that all the Cartwrights had taken advantage of more than once – had been hastily thrown open and the glass doors left hanging. Adam knew Paul to be meticulous but the jars and packets of medicines in the cabinet sat needing attended to; they’d been shoved to the side, hastily turned to read labels, and pushed out of the way in favor of other potions.

Without thought, Adam carefully pushed the book back onto the desk as he hobbled by. Hoss set the saddlebags on the chair behind the desk and then attended to the lamp, coaxing the little flame to something brighter. As the room brightened, Hoss straightened. The silence was almost deafening now, as he waited for his brother to say something. Anything, at this point, would have been welcome. The confrontation with the man had shaken him to his core; he never would have believed that someone could stand there and look right at him and not see him in the least was possible, but he’d been witness to that very thing. Now, if what Adam was thinking was right, Hoss knew he’d only seen one thin layer of madness.

That thought scared him. Seeing that man in a whole different world had unsettled him. Knowing that man was in a world where vengeance, murder, and justice were all the same thing was beyond disconcerting. It was frightening and Hoss wasn’t afraid to admit to it.

“You know,” he spoke into the silence, just for something to say, “we don’t even know that fella’s name.”

Adam looked up sharply from where he’d been leaning on the desk and looking around the room with a narrowed gaze. “No, I suppose we don’t.” His voice was quiet, almost distracted; something Hoss picked up on right away.

“What’re you thinkin’ on now?”

Adam shook his head. “Nothing important.”

“Older brother, I’m gonna say that everything’s important right about now. Don’t make me ask again.”

Lips quirking in a crooked, self-deprecating smile, Adam shrugged one shoulder. “I was just thinking about him. Wondering what can make a man so turned around inside that he kills a woman and then blames it on the town where it happened.”

Hoss pressed his lips together in a thin line. “You sure that’s it?”

“What do you mean?”

“I dunno, exactly. Just thinkin’ on what he said.” Hoss crossed to the cupboard and began to straighten up the bottles there. His intense gaze, though, was directed inward. His thoughts weren’t for the bottles. “He was right tore up about it all. Was somethin’ awful to see. He’s hurtin’, Adam. He’s hurtin’ bad.”

Adam hobbled over to the chaise and lowered himself onto it. Hoss watched him, frown deepening as he noted how Adam moved: that hitch in his step was getting worse and the lines that pain etched into his expression were more pronounced. “He’s still dangerous, Hoss.”

“Oh, I know that. There’s no doubt about it, in my mind.” Hoss rolled a brown bottle between his hands, then set it down with a soft clink of glass. “I think there’s somethin’ more going on here than what we’re seein’. That’s all.”

Adam shook his head. “That’s not all. Say it, brother.”

Silence reigned for a long moment before Hoss spoke hesitantly. “He said we’d pay for what was done. You said it yourself, Adam: not what we did. Just what was done. I don’t…” Hoss trailed off and gave Adam a troubled look.

Before Hoss could finish his thought, though, Adam picked up on it, sparing him the trouble of saying it. “You don’t think he’s blaming Paul for her death, exactly. You think he’s blaming us for not stopping him and Paul became an easy target because he’s the doctor. He was there when she died.”

“Doctors are supposed t’save people,” Hoss said softly. “I think he knows he’s sick.”

Adam’s tone spoke volumes: flat and strained and without much inflection, it was evident that what he was thinking was beyond simply unpleasant. “He killed her.”

“Killed her and can’t live with it,” Hoss finished.

“So he blamed everyone but himself.” Adam ran a hand down his face. “Blamed a whole town for not seeing what he was.”

“You don’t think…” Hoss’ expression was haunted. “You don’t think he’s doin’ all this so we will catch him?”

“If that’s the case, then why didn’t he just let Roy put him in jail?”

“Maybe he figures that’s too good for him.”

“Hoss…”

He held up a hand. “You didn’t hear him, Adam. He’s hurtin’, like I said. Turned in all sortsa different directions. Head’s spinning and he’s blaming himself and Paul and the town and this gal – whoever she was to him – is dead. Maybe he figures he’s not good enough t’sit in jail and maybe get turned over to some asylum when the whole ordeal is over. He ain’t thinkin’ clearly. Probably not even thinkin’ about gettin’ a trial or nothing.”

Hoss watched as Adam thought it over; he could near see cogs turning as Adam’s expression hardened. He’d seen that particular expression before, when he was poring over his drawings and numbers, or when he was trying to figure out a next move in a tense situation. His eyes went blank, his brows drew together, and his jaw tightened. One finger was tapping the edge of the chaise, in lieu of him resting his chin on his hands. He glanced at Hoss.

“It’s not rational.”

“We already figured he wasn’t,” Hoss replied. “That’s why you can’t get your head around it, I’m thinkin’.”

Adam snorted. “And you can?” He let the implied barb go; now was hardly the time. “If he’s killed in his mission to exact a little revenge, then he can die thinking he’s done something to pay for all this.”

“That’s what I’m thinkin’ and, I’ll tell you, I don’t like it one bit.”

“Paul’s first on his list, Hoss. I don’t think he’ll be satisfied until Paul’s dead.”

“And that’s why he had to get away from Roy and Pa.”

“Yeah.” Adam slapped the chaise softly. “Damn it.”

Hoss nodded. He closed the cupboard door and turned to lean against the chaise. “Still wish I knew his name. Don’t seem right, not knowing.” After a short moment, he spoke again. “What are we doin’ here anyway?”

“I was afraid we’d miss Paul if we all went back to the jail. We’re spreading ourselves a bit thin, but I didn’t want to take the chance.”

“Yeah, that’s a good id-” Hoss didn’t have a chance to finish his sentence. The whine of a bullet cut him off. He didn’t see where it hit; he’d reacted before he thought, grabbing Adam by the shirt collar and forcing him to the floor even as he drew his own revolver. He ignored Adam’s breathless, pained grunt as best he could as he swung the weapon up toward the stairs opposite them.

There, half-hidden on the landing, crouched the man he’d faced down in the livery. He had to have been hiding, lying in wait for Paul. Stupid, that they’d missed him when they’d come in, but they’d been occupied by morbid, horrible thoughts. Hoss drew a bead on him, hoping against hope that he could get a good shot off; there wasn’t much to hit, the way he was crouched.

Before he could shoot, the front door opened and a familiar, stout figure crossed the threshold.

——

For the second time in a day, Adam was almost sure he’d taken a bullet as he’d fallen. Hoss had been none to gentle when he’d pushed Adam to the floor and Adam’s knee had taken the brunt of it. There was no blame there but there was one short moment when Adam wished wholeheartedly that Hoss had maybe thrown him the other way, onto his good knee. The only reason he hadn’t cried out as his knee banged against the floor was because the pain had taken his breath away. Also, for the second time that day, Adam absolutely refused to let a busted knee be the catalyst for his demise. (It was the morbidly inappropriate image of his own tombstone that did it for him: Here lies Adam Cartwright. His busted knee did him in. What an epitaph.)

To his credit, Adam did go for his gun. It was almost without thought. When bullets were flying, one’s hand automatically went to one’s holster and he felt fortunate indeed that he’d managed to remember it when they’d rushed from the hotel room and toward the jail. Got his gun, forgot his boot. He had a feeling that once the pain in his knee settled a bit, his foot would let him know about all this walking around in nothing but a sock. He glanced at Hoss, saw that he was in one piece and not bleeding, and decided that was about the time he needed to take cover. Let Hoss cover them for the moment; writhing on the floor in pain was not good cover.

Funny, the places the mind goes when it feels like a limb is slowly being twisted right off.

Adam managed to get his left knee under him, ready to lurch behind the desk in one (definitely not smooth) movement. The throbbing be damned; he had other things to worry about. Glancing up the stairs, he caught the door’s movement out of the corner of his eye and watched in mute horror as Paul unwittingly walked right into a madman’s rifle sights. He thought he managed to shout a warning as he lunged forward, his attempt to get behind the desk completely forgotten. Revolver in hand, he barreled into Paul, sharply aware of the report of gunshots behind him.

Hoss had covered him, after all.

This time, he had no one to blame but himself as his knee exploded in pain. He and Paul landed in a leap, up against the wall, and in clear view of the gunman on the landing above them. Jaw clenched, Adam swung his gun up just as the man brought his rifle to bear on him – and on Paul behind him. A flash of horrified realization made his gun waver as he glanced in Hoss’ direction. The sharp report of gunshots, the rifle that hadn’t been on Paul; not all of that had been Hoss firing.

What he feared confronted him then: Hoss was on his knees, his gun on the floor, and his left hand clamped over his right shoulder. Blood welled up between his fingers but his gaze was focused on the staircase; the fingers of his right hand twitched. It was evident he wanted to go for the dropped gun, but Adam shook his head minutely. Hoss nodded once in answer. Not yet; too risky. The exchange was over in a split second.

On the floor in front of Paul, Adam turned his full attention on the man. There was no doubt in his mind that he’d shoot right through him to get to Paul. As Hoss had pointed out, rationality wasn’t in this man’s mind. “Paul?”

The doctor answered promptly; Adam didn’t turn to look. “I’m all right.”

“Stay down.” Adam’s tone brooked no argument.

Above them, the rifle moved slightly. “I’ll kill you. I want him but I’ll kill you.”

Adam’s revolver didn’t waver. “I’ve no doubt.”

“Move.”

“You blame me just as much as you blame the rest of Virginia City.” Adam’s gaze flickered to Hoss for a mere moment, then back again. He had no doubt that he could keep the man’s attention focused on him (and hopefully not Paul behind him.) “I was the first one you shot at. Don’t you remember?”

There was no answer. Adam reached behind him blindly as he heard Paul beginning to move. “I said stay down.” If they were to get out of this without any more bloodshed, everyone needed to stop moving. Stop provoking. Just stop.

Paul’s hand touched Adam’s back, lightly resting between his shoulder blades. “His name is Grant Masters.”

Masters. The same surname. “Wife?” Adam asked. He didn’t ask how Paul knew; Roy had to have found out something and passed it along.

“Sister.”

It didn’t explain much, but that a family could be so completely sundered stole Adam’s breath for just a moment – and in that moment, he felt a frisson of horrified sympathy for the man. What sort of pain was it to know you were sick, to know you’d murdered your sister, and to know that empty revenge and death was the only promise you had? This wasn’t neat or clean. No open and shut case here and no way justice could deliver something satisfying.

There was a gruff edge to Adam’s voice when he spoke next. “Put the rifle down, Grant.”

The rifle wavered.

“Put it down. Please.” Maybe listening to Hoss speak had done something. Maybe Grant Masters wasn’t as far gone as they all seemed to think. Perhaps they could all still walk away from this alive. (All but Lonnie. All but Jolene.)

Hoss’ fingers inched toward the gun on the floor. Paul shifted behind him and Adam had a split second of terrible foreboding: this was about to go all wrong. He tensed, uncertain of what to say or do.

And then any choice was taken away from him.

Paul spoke, his voice wavering. “Mr. Masters, your sister was dead already when I was called in. There was no way I could save her.”

Adam heard Paul’s soft “I’m sorry” but no one else did. Grant Masters screamed wordlessly as he brought the rifle up once again. Dimly – as he prepared to fire – Adam wondered if this was the scream Joe had heard. Rage, denial, grief… So much grief. Maybe it would be kinder to put a bullet in this man. Reason was gone; he’d shoot through him to get to Paul and there was little chance Adam was going to be faster.

He braced himself for what might be inevitable and hoped to God that Grant was still a bad shot.

A shot split the air. Grant’s scream was cut off abruptly, ending in a muted gurgle as he toppled backward.

Adam froze, his finger still on the trigger and his gun as-yet unfired. His gaze cut to Hoss, who was just picking up his revolver. It was the unabashed look of relief on Hoss’ face that clued Adam in and he turned as best he could to the still open doorway. Joe stood there, arm still extended and gun still aimed and expression a peculiar mix of determined and haunted. It was confirmed for Adam then: that was the wordless howl Joe had heard in the street. It was the same rage Paul had seen in the hotel hallway. The relief he felt that this was over was muted and horrible. Wrong, somehow, in the face of it.

Adam felt like he might be sick and he couldn’t blame the pain in his knee for it. “Joe,” he said quietly.

“Yeah?”

“Hoss.”

But Paul was already up and moving in that direction, shakily guiding Hoss to his feet and toward the chaise. Joe holstered his gun with a shaking hand.

Adam, for his part, decided that the floor was a good enough spot to rest. Joe knelt by his side as he leaned against the wall, eyes closed, and focused solely on the throbbing in his knee. Joe brought him back into reality with a soft question.

“You all right?”

He opened one eye and squinted at Joe. “Why are you here?” He wasn’t intentionally avoiding the question; he just felt that this question was the more important one to ask.

Joe chucked a thumb over his shoulder. “Deputy showed up. I decided to follow Paul.”

“Glad you did.”

“Yeah.” Joe glanced up the stairway, then over to Hoss. “Yeah, me too.”

 

——

 

Ben lowered the damp rag he had been holding against his aching head and stared at the collection of frazzled Cartwrights (plus one Martin and one Coffee) in Paul’s front room. When he’s first come in, staggering on Roy’s heels, Paul had been tending to Hoss’ bloody arm, Joe and Adam had been sitting on the floor side by side, and a dead man was sprawled precariously on the stairs. The sight had been chilling and relieving both. All his sons alive if not in good working order and the man responsible for a town’s terror dead. Perhaps not a day to put in the “win” column, but worth something nonetheless.

Now, the mess had been cleaned up, Joe had taken possession of the desk chair, Hoss was reclining on the chaise, and Adam was still on the floor, albeit not right in front of the door anymore. (Ben had a feeling that Roy nearly tripping over him had prompted Adam to move. Not much else would, judging by the near-gray pallor he’d developed.) Paul was fussing over Roy’s arm – a bullet graze when Grant had lifted his gun. He turned his gaze to Joe, who’d been almost disturbingly quiet.

The bruise Adam’s horse had given him earlier stood in stark contrast to his pale countenance. Joe held a cup of coffee which had already gone cold; still, he cupped it in his hands and stared into it.

“You all right, son?”

Joe started, spilling cold coffee over his fingers. He set the cup down, shook coffee from his fingers, and then turned his attention to his father. “Why do you ask?”

There was avoidance if Ben had ever heard it. “You’re quiet,” he said, indulging the question. “You’d usually be fussing over your brothers.”

Joe’s answering smile was small and wan. “They’ll get all the fussing they can stand later.”

“More than, I’m sure,” Ben answered. “Now as to the question…”

“I’m all right, Pa. Honest. Just didn’t like shooting that man.”

Ben nodded slowly. “He terrorized the whole town. Killed two people, including his own sister. Tried to kill Paul.”

“Yeah, I know. And he was so turned all around over it. Felt wrong.”

“He would have killed your brothers.”

“And I would shoot him again to keep it from happening,” Joe said without hesitation.

Ben let silence reign for a few moments, even as he took time to let pride swell at the statement. Fine boys, his sons. When he spoke, his tone was measured and even. “There were no simple answers this time.”

“No, there weren’t.”

“You’ll have to accept that and be grateful no more damage was done.”

“I think I can do that.”

In time, Ben supplied in his mind. In time, Joe could do that. So could Adam and so could Hoss. He gestured to the cup Joe had sat on the desk. “Why don’t you get us both a cup of coffee? Maybe this time, you can try drinking it while it’s hot.”

Joe snorted as he pushed the chair back. “Yes, sir. Want anything else?”

“Supper,” came Hoss’ weary voice. He hadn’t moved from the chaise, hadn’t even opened his eyes. From across the room, Paul chuckled.

“I guess we didn’t eat, did we?” Ben nodded to Joe. “Supper, then. Think you can handle it?”

Joe’s look was eloquent. He could handle supper. Carefully, he prodded Adam’s good leg with his foot. “What about you?”

Without moving, Adam replied, “no food. Bed.”

Ben moved to drop his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “While you’re out, Joe, see that the horses are put up in the livery and get another room at the hotel. We’ll be staying in town tonight.”

Adam opened his eyes to glance up at Joe. “Check on Sport.”

Joe nodded as he gathered his hat and jacket, his step weary as he left the confines of the doctor’s house, but unerring, with no hint of hesitation. They could walk the streets again. Ben wondered at the cost and wondered at the madness that had shattered whatever security was there in the first place. He pulled the chair that Joe had vacated close and sat in it, hand still on Adam’s shoulder.

Whatever the cost paid, it was nothing in comparison to what he still had.

He squeezed his son’s shoulder, leaned his head back, and let his eyes close. In a minute, he’d check on Hoss again. In a minute, he’d try to get Paul to get some much deserved rest. In a minute, he’d get them all situated for the night. And, for that minute, he’d rest and thank God for as good an ending as could have been.

 

–The End–

 

 

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

 

4 thoughts on “The Rational Man (by gaerwn)”

  1. I’ve tried for three days to read this one (don’t you hate it when real life gets in the way?) again and finally finished it! Full of drama and twists and turns… my favorite kind of rollercoaster ride! Wanted to give you a five star rating but landed on four and I can’t change it. I am sorry about that.

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