Summary: A brutal attack on the Cartwrights leads to an unlikely lesson about family.
Rated: K+ WC 8500
Everything They Had
Emily Higgins’s brother was not a good man. It had been a long time since he cared much about anything or anyone other than himself. That was why his interest in the Cartwrights was such a surprise. They were good men – even Higgins knew that. Crowded together in front of the hearth, their tragic situation wouldn’t have concerned him, except that he was the cause of it. The fact that he felt bad was also a surprise. Higgins’s conscience had been buried for so long that when it came rooting up like a prairie dog checking the weather, he wasn’t sure if he should welcome it back or kick it down again.(Don’t do this, Johnny.)
Damn. Emily’s voice was in his head again; he’d have thought it would be gone by now. It had been a long time since she’d died, and he knew she’d have been disappointed in the way he turned out. He didn’t want to think what his little sister would say about this – the wounded men on the floor, the empty safe and the money in his pocket. The blood splattered everywhere. He was responsible for all of it, but the whole situation would be over, one way or another, soon enough. Surely, he could banish Emily’s voice for a little bit longer.
“Pa, we have to get this bullet out. He doesn’t have much longer.”
Adam Cartwright was talking again. The man made Higgins more than uncomfortable. He had inscrutable eyes, and he was staring at Higgins like he’d just as soon spit him out like spoiled tobacco. Higgins would have preferred anger rather than the cold calculation he saw in those eyes. The man was a thinker – definitely the most dangerous kind of enemy, as far as Higgins was concerned. Adam’s face was blue and black and battered from the beating he’d taken earlier, but Higgins could tell the man was still thinking, even though he should have been pounded senseless. Higgins almost wished they’d shot Adam Cartwright instead, just so he’d stop looking at them like that.
“Take whatever you want,” Ben Cartwright entreated the outlaws. He was close to begging, but it was a type of begging that had nothing to do with weakness. Even Johnny Higgins could recognize strength when he saw it. Cartwright had been pleading the same thing for the past hour, and it was clear that he was definitely used to getting what he wanted. The old man would have reminded Higgins of his own father, except for one thing – this was a father who loved his sons. That one difference made every difference in the world.
Higgins’s men were getting restless. They wanted to take their plunder and get out of there. They were common thieves, yet they’d been nervously making tracks over a lot of spilled blood. They were more like tumbleweeds than killers, out of their league, and they knew it. Timmy, Scott, and Billy. Higgins called them “men,” but in reality they were his childhood friends and they’d never bothered to address each other by anything but their boyhood names.
“Come on Johnny,” pleaded Timmy. “We got the money, so let’s get out of here. Those fellas are gonna die on us, if we wait too long, and I don’t wanta get stuck with no murder charges…”
“Shut up!” Higgins turned on his friend with a scowl. “We’ll do it my way. We don’t have enough yet.”
“What more do you want? We have the money,” Billy urged. “We ain’t getting no more from them, Johnny. The safe’s empty. We’ve gone and taken all they have.”
We’ve taken all they have.
That was certainly true enough, even though the least important thing they’d taken from the Cartwrights was money. Ben Cartwright seemed to shudder at Timmy’s words, but Adam was still studying them so coldly you’d have thought he was in control again. Higgins felt his anger rising again. Damn spoiled son of a rich man… thought he could have his way no matter what happened. Not this day. Today, the Cartwright’s good luck had gone bad, and the trail of blood around the room stood as a lurid reminder of that.
“We have crystal, silver.” Ben had already inventoried the contents of the house for them. He would obviously have offered them anything they had, just to get out and let them take care of their wounded.
Although Adam was keeping his cards close to his vest, it was clear that Ben Cartwright was a desperate man. He was poised between his sons, the big man propped on one side and the kid lying at the other. Blood had soaked into Ben’s shirt, making him look like he’d also been wounded. In actuality, Ben was the only man who hadn’t been hurt by the bandits.
Adam Cartwright had his handkerchief pressed against the boy’s side. He wasn’t giving anything away, but Higgins truly believed that Cartwright would rip out his heart if he came any closer. Nobody was coming near his brother.
The hearth was empty, and the men were cold, soaked through with blood. It was hard to see where one man’s blood left off and the other’s started. A sight like that was a foretaste of hell, but Higgins had been heading in that direction for a good long time. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone that the life he’d been living would lead to this. Ironically, with all his thoughts about hell, Higgins could feel the cold spreading through his own blood. The room was large and open to the rafters. He almost wished he’d let Adam start a fire when he’d asked earlier.
“I don’t want your silver,” Higgins muttered, suddenly uncomfortable with the way Adam and Ben were staring at him. His pockets were already heavy with their money. Unexpectedly, he felt weighed down by Cartwright money, as if it could pull him down with it. They were a powerful family – those Cartwrights – yet, much of that power rested in places that Higgins had never encountered before.
“If you don’t want more of our money, then what do you want?” Adam Cartwright sounded irritated, like he’d been interrupted in the middle of a busy day. Higgins couldn’t figure him out. Whatever Cartwright was thinking about, Higgins admitted that the man hid it well.
“Yeah, what do you want, Johnny?” Scott echoed their captive’s question.
“I don’t know what I want.” Higgins surprised himself with his own admission. It was the first honest thing he’d said in a long time.
So, what did he want? Why wasn’t he leaving and hightailing it for the road? The longer he stayed in the ranch house, the more risk he was taking in getting caught and strung up for a crime that could possibly amount to murder. It wasn’t what he’d planned for. It wasn’t even what he wanted. A man never knew what the day might bring, but honest to God, John Higgins never thought the day would turn out like this…
It was supposed to be an ordinary robbery, just like the other countless jobs they’d done over the past few years. They weren’t big time outlaws like the Dobson gang outside Sacramento, but they’d done well for themselves, working small jobs from Placerville all the way to Virginia City. They’d finished a job in Carson City and had lived off the profits for a couple months, but had found themselves with empty pockets after too many poker games and too many loose women. Time to get back to work. They found themselves drifting along the outskirts of Virginia City, even though they tried to stay away from the upstart silver town. Rumor had it that a man actually hung for his crimes in Virginia City. Higgins preferred a town that kept a slack rope.
But, squatters outside of the Comstock had told them about the Ponderosa. Said the Cartwrights were the wealthiest family in Nevada and had a house to prove it. The squatters said that the four men all had enough money to be called “mister.” Paid their hands well and kept a lot of money on hand in their safe. It sounded good to Higgins and his men. The Ponderosa was far enough from Virginia City that they could be on their way without a posse on their trail. Higgins agreed, and that was good enough for his boys.
They watched the ranch house for a full day before they decided to move forward the next morning. The ranch was just about deserted. From what they could gather from the squatters, the Cartwrights and their hands were gone at a roundup. Only the oldest son had been left behind. Just to be sure of things, they spent some time watching the dark-haired man who seemed to be in running the ranch alone, although he’d spent a good long hour sitting out on the porch swing reading a book at midday. Higgins had no use for a reading man. But, at least, the man wouldn’t give them any trouble. Rich men were all the same… soft. Life came easy to them. What did they know about the hardship that trod over ordinary men?
Even though it was simpler to rob a deserted house, Higgins and his gang had always handled things fine before when they’d had to confront their victims face to face. It was a matter of pride, in fact. Higgins had never had a robbery turn bad on him yet. He and his boys had been lucky enough not to have to kill anyone, but it was only a matter of time. Potential bloodshed was part of the job, and he’d learned better than to have his gun stick. However, he’d like to avoid murder if he could help it. The stakes were too high with a killing; a hanging was a downright permanent ending to an otherwise uneventful life of crime. Higgins and his boys simply weren’t that ambitious. True, he’d doled out his fair share of beatings and pistol whippings. Inflicted pain had always been enough to secure cooperation. Most of his victims had more money than guts. In the end, that’s what threw him off, what made him underestimate what this crime would require of him. As it turned out, the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa were unlike anyone he’d ever stolen from before.
From sunrise, they’d been watching the house from the copse of woods that surrounded the yard. The house was still, the bunkhouse deserted. It seemed as good a time as any to make their move. Besides, Timmy and Scott were getting hungry, and they’d almost gone through their jerky on their stakeout. They lived from one burglary job to the next, and they were almost out of money again. So they made their move.
Higgins and Billy came through the kitchen, while the other two came from the front. His gun drawn, as soon as he walked into the main room of the house, Higgins knew for sure that this was going to be the job that changed everything. It wasn’t just about money, although the squatters had been right. The house was well appointed. Even though it wasn’t nearly as gilded, he suspected it would prove as profitable as any of the fancy houses that Higgins had robbed in Placerville and Carson City. He felt good about robbing from a house like this. It made him sick- how easy life was for some people.
Billy was tampering with the lock to the safe, when they heard a commotion come from the kitchen. They could hear pans banging, and a whistling, a tune that Higgins didn’t recognize. It was a surprise, and for a moment, they froze. They hadn’t seen the Cartwright son all morning and had just about figured he’d gone to join the others. Higgins and his boys eyed each other, and then Higgins shrugged. Then they drew their guns, and Higgins gestured towards the doorway. They were all right with getting caught. Only made the job more interesting.
Obviously hearing something, Adam called out, “Hey, you’re home early,” as he ambled through the door from the kitchen. “I was right. I told Little Joe you’d be home in time to help with the fencing -“
Adam turned the corner and stopped short. Higgins had to give Cartwright some credit. Even with the unexpected sight of four pistols aimed at his head, the man hardly flinched. Instead, his hand instinctively reached down toward his right hip, but he wasn’t armed, something they already knew. They’d found his gun on the credenza by the front door, and Higgins had confiscated it. Whatever Cartwright had been doing that morning, he hadn’t been expecting an ambush.
“Stop or I’ll put a hole through you damn quick,” Higgins told him, calmly. He meant it, even if shooting a man wasn’t something he’d done before.
Adam Cartwright lifted his hands slowly and took a small step back. Smart man. Clear head, good decision. Higgins gave him that. Practically speaking, there wasn’t much Adam could do but surrender. It seemed like it would all go according to plan. Higgins made his demands clear. He wanted money. Everything they had. At first, Adam flat out refused. First claimed he didn’t have the combination to the safe. Even Higgins was impressed that one hell of a beating hadn’t coaxed the combination out of him. Timmy and Scott knew how to pistol-whip the truth out of a man, but they’d never met anyone stubborn like that. They beat him until he was reeling, coughing, and spitting out his own blood. Adam Cartwright’s face was swollen from his eye to his jaw; blue and black bruises were already in bloom, but he wouldn’t give in. Stubborn. Said the money didn’t belong to him to give. Was for the payroll, plain and simple. He owed it to his men.
Higgins had sighed. Didn’t want to kill the man, and besides, what good would that do them? “Fine,” he said. “If you won’t open it, then I suppose we’ll have to wait around for someone who will.”
That hit a nerve. Higgins watched as the man’s countenance changed. Even under the blood and swelling, he could see the calculations taking place in that book-learned brain. One of Higgins’ men laughed out loud. They could see it too. His little band of outlaws wasn’t particularly astute, but they were good at sensing desperation.
“Nobody’s due home until the end of the week,” Adam said.
“Don’t believe you,” Higgins replied. “You seemed to think I was someone home early. Said something about Little Joe and the fencing. I expect whoever might be coming back to help with the fencing might just know the combination. Even if it does take some ‘convincing’.”
Surprisingly, that was all it took to break a stubborn man.
“All right,” Adam said. “I’ll open the safe. Then, I want you out of here.”
Higgins had to scoff and shake his head. The man stated his terms like he was the one in charge. It took a man who’d been born rich to be so presumptuous. Higgins had stolen from his kind before. And yet as he studied Cartwright, he sensed something else, something different than a typical man who had been born into money. There was an undercurrent of hunger that Higgins knew all too well, and he resolved to keep an eye on Adam Cartwright. He knew better than to underestimate a hungry man. But Higgins wanted that combination to the safe. Cartwright’s reluctance to open it, only meant there was more than he’d even been hoping for.
So Higgins agreed. “Give us what we’re after and we’ll be gone.”
“Fine,” Adam said and wiped the blood trickling from his mouth with his sleeve.
“Your family won’t know we were here,” Higgins said, and the calculating look he received from Cartwright took him by surprise.
Despite himself, Higgins was curious. He wondered who Cartwright was so desperate to keep safe. His family, he supposed. Higgins didn’t care much about families. The one he’d grown up in hadn’t exactly amounted to much. His father had been a mean old devil, and his mother had always let her husband have his way to keep the peace. Higgins’s older brother had left home as soon as he could shake the dust off his heels and sit a horse. Johnny Higgins had stayed home longer than he should for his little sister’s sake. Emily had been good enough to keep a rebellious young boy from getting even worse, but she’d died, and after that, he found it hard to care about much any more.
Families. Higgins was done with all that. He simply wanted his money without complications or explanations. Once his pockets were full, he and his boys would tie up Adam Cartwright and be on their way. They’d be over the mountain pass before anyone made it back to Virginia City to find the sheriff. Higgins wasn’t all that worried about getting caught. Small time outfits like his weren’t worth pursuing. Folks like the Cartwrights always had more than he could take anyway.
Adam was hunched over by the safe, when the front door swung open. Higgins hadn’t heard anyone coming. Apparently, neither had Adam Cartwright.
Under his breath, Adam muttered, “Damn.” Without getting to his feet, he launched himself at Billy, knocking him off balance. He’d obviously hoped to give his family a chance, but the other three bandits had their guns drawn before anyone walked into the room. Higgins managed to land a brutal kick at Cartwright’s side, and the man drew his knees up, gritting his teeth hard with pain.
Then the other three Cartwrights walked through the door. What happened next was a surprise to Higgins, who hadn’t started his day thinking he might end it as a murderer. Whatever he’d been expecting from the wealthy Cartwrights, it wasn’t heroics. The way he saw it, rich folks were cowards. They’d gladly trade their worldly possessions for their lives. Didn’t take much to scare them neither. The only real resistance Higgins had ever encountered, besides the Cartwrights, was an eighty-year-old widow in Placerville who’d hit him over the head with her cane when he’d demanded her wedding ring. Even though he still wore a scar above his left eyebrow, it made him smile when he thought of her. Much to his gang’s befuddlement, he’d let her keep everything, even as blood trickled down his face. He’d walked out of her miner’s mansion whistling. Johnny Higgins had always liked a scrapper.
So, he should have known that the rules had changed when the kid burst in first, with his gun drawn. Immediately, Higgins heard a deep voice thunder from behind him.
“Joseph, stop! Hold off – stay down!”
Good advice. But Joseph Cartwright was apparently not one to heed good advice. Higgins barely had a chance to get a look at the young man. He was a brave one – you could tell by the way he barreled through the door. Higgins had seen his kind before. He’d gladly die standing up, and despite being small of stature, he had the potential to beat the hell out of much larger men. But Higgins had one thing the Cartwright kid didn’t. He had the barrel of his gun aimed at Adam Cartwright’s head. To make his point, he pulled Adam up by the collar and cocked the hammer. Still wheezing from the kick he’d taken to the ribs, Adam aimed a warning glare at his little brother.
Joseph seemed to see Adam before he saw Higgins and his drawn gun. The fury on the kid’s face dissolved into bewilderment, and he stopped short in his tracks.
“Adam,” Joe breathed, with a catch in his voice, “what’d they do to you?”
“Joe, get back,” Adam hissed, with more emotion than he’d shown since being ambushed.
He should have done as he was told. He was outnumbered on all sides. Billy and Timmy already had him in their sights. The kid didn’t stand a chance, but he didn’t seem to care much about that. Every muscle in his body was tensed to fight, like it would only take a shadow of a trigger for him to let loose. Only the sight of the gun leveled at his brother’s head seemed to hold him back. Higgins was so intent on holding the kid off, he’d hardly noticed the other two men who’d come after the kid. Despite the fact that he held all the cards, Higgins took a step back when he took a look at them. The two men were so imposing, they filled the room and not just with their size. But Johnny Higgins still had his gun on Adam, and Billy had his weapon aimed at Joe. The other two Cartwrights dropped their weapons without being told.
“You must be Mr. Cartwright,” Higgins said in as even a voice as he could muster, even though he couldn’t help but feel intimidated by the sheer physicality of the Cartwrights. This family was more than he had reckoned for. For the first time, it occurred to him that he might have chosen the wrong family to rob. “Step back and close the door behind you.”
“You all right, Adam?” the big man asked, and Adam Cartwright nodded.
“I’m fine, Hoss,” Adam said, managing a hint of a smile. “Could have used a little more coffee.” He then nodded towards Joe. The big man grabbed a hold of the boy’s arm, restraining him from God knows what, even while Hoss was glowering in way that Higgins found frightening.
“Who are you?” the old man growled. Ben Cartwright. For a man who had a gun pointed at his chest, Cartwright stood erect and tall. “What did you do to my son?”
Higgins shook his head. “I’m afraid your son took some convincing, Mr. Cartwright, to open your safe. We had to talk some sense in him, but found that he’s a stubborn man.”
He shoved Adam forward a bit as if to demonstrate his point, but Joe Cartwright lunged to break free from his brother’s iron hold and shouted, “Don’t you dare touch my brother!”
Higgins had a sudden impulse to tie the Cartwrights up, count the job as a loss, and get the hell out of there. But instead he called out, “Billy, Timmy – don’t just stand there. Take their guns.”
The big man was still holding his kid brother in a bruising grip. “Let go of me, Hoss,” the kid insisted. He was angry in a wild way that Higgins might have respected had it been a different kind of day.
But the big man shook his head. “You stay with me, Little Joe,” he grumbled. “You aint’ gonna make this worse, ya hear?”
“Don’t let go of him, Hoss,” Adam said authoritatively, even while his words were slurring because of his swollen lips. He turned to his father. “Pa, they’re after the payroll. We can’t give it-“
A brutal backhand cut off Adam’s protest. Higgins hadn’t known he was even going to strike the man, but the need to assert his authority was suddenly overwhelming. He needed to take back control of the situation.
When Higgins struck Adam Cartwright, Hoss instinctively let go of his kid brother to move forward. He shouldn’t have let go, but Adam went down, and Hoss wasn’t thinking straight any more. Higgins had Adam and was about to strike him again with the butt of his gun. He didn’t see the kid coming. In fact, he heard the father’s thunderous, “Joseph!” before he felt the impact from the slight but damn strong body that hurtled him off balance and onto the floor, away from Adam.
The kid straddled him, grappling for his gun. Lord help him, Higgins could feel himself losing his grip on his own weapon, even as he held onto it like his life depended on it. There was shouting around him, both from the Cartwrights and from his men, but Higgins couldn’t afford to pay attention to any of the chaos. He was locked in a battle with the one Cartwright he’d have dismissed in a heartbeat, if he’d passed him on the street.
Desperately, he fought to hold onto his gun. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hoss send Timmy reeling with a powerful punch to the jaw. The old man was throwing himself into the fray, as well, and Adam Cartwright was struggling to his feet. He’d never had victims fight back like this before. Johnny knew damn well that underestimating these men could have cost him everything.
Later, he wouldn’t remember pulling the trigger. The shocking explosion of the gunshot stopped him short. Heat lanced through his hand, and he dropped the gun. The recoil knocked him backwards, and the waft of gunpowder burned his eyes. And the kid stopped fighting.
The Cartwright boy lay writhing on the floor, barely able to hold still. Blood seeped from his belly and through his jacket. Even as he reached for the gun, blood oozed under Higgins’s pantlegs, and he recoiled from it. He could feel the kid’s blood, warm and wet through his trousers, against his own skin. Despite the fact that he could hardly keep his head straight, he pushed himself to his feet and away from the Cartwright kid’s body.
Ben Cartwright staggered forward, and this time, nobody stopped him. “My God,” he breathed, dropping to his knees. His hands groped frantically and uselessly in all the blood. “Help me, I can’t find where it’s coming from.”
Adam had come alongside. “There’s too much blood, Pa. Hold him, so I can try to stop it. Where’s he hit?”
Higgins groped for the gun and fumbled to his feet. Had he really fired it? The barrel was hot and smoking. He could smell the blood. It was all over him, his hands and arms, under his feet.
“Johnny, let’s get out of here,” Timmy urged, clearly horrified, but Higgins shook his head. If he was in shock, he could still feel his heart beating. Better than the kid, who bled with every breath, right there where he lay.
Higgins and his men were almost mesmerized, watching the two men and the bleeding boy. That was their mistake. They forgot about the big man. He was as slow moving as wet gunpowder, but was every bit as dangerous. They didn’t know him. Few people knew what it would take to make Hoss Cartwright try to kill a man.
Before Higgins got to see the fury on the man’s face, huge hands came to circle his throat. Higgins felt his legs buckle, the gun fall out of his hand. The man’s hands were so strong, Higgins was sure that his neck would snap. He’d never felt strength like that – not ever. He could hear Cartwright voices calling out, “Hoss!” He could hear his own men calling his name. It had come to this. The world began to darken and narrow to a pinpoint of light. It felt like a short lifetime – the moment of his death – but it was only a moment. Then, everything changed once again.
There was another explosion that sent sparks through his darkness. Again, there was the reeking of gunpowder, and shouts of absolute panic and despair. It made no sense, but the pressure eased and then vanished from around his neck, and Higgins collapsed to his knees, groping almost blindly for his gun while wheezing in huge gulps of air. When his vision returned, he realized what had happened. The big man lay beside him, blood streaming from his head. Scott and Timmy stood a few feet away, guns drawn. They had taken back control of the situation. Good men, Higgins thought reflexively before adding, good Lord, what have we done? He struggled onto his hands and knees. Then, he stood up.
There was blood everywhere. Higgins groped for his gun. He had no desire to fire it again, but there were bullets in the chamber.
“Don’t move,” he wheezed.
But Adam was inexplicably calm. “I need to see to my brother,” he said. “He’s hurt.”
Higgins looked down at the big man bleeding at his feet. His chest was rising and falling. It was almost like magic – that life persisted in the midst of all this blood. That he was the cause of all this blood. He didn’t want to be responsible for this. But Higgins didn’t trust Adam.
So he rasped out with his bruised voice, “You and your father take the kid over by the hearth. Go on. Away from the door. Then you can come back for this one.”
“We can’t move this boy,” Ben Cartwright bit out. His voice was thick with utter despair. “There’s too much blood. We need to stop it, somehow.”
“Move him.” Higgins didn’t know where his own control came from, even while his neck throbbed and the room was still reeling around him. His own men were gaping at him with admiration and something else that almost looked like fear. “Do it now, and then you can come for this big one.”
“Hoss,” Adam said, in a quiet, cold voice. “His name is Hoss.”
“Move your brother away from the door,” Higgins repeated. “Hey Billy, Scott… go help them.”
“We don’t need your help,” Adam informed him, and Higgins shrugged.
He watched as they carefully lifted the young man by his shoulders and legs. He’d never seen grown men touch each other like this -strength and gentleness twined together. When they moved him to the settee, he shook his head. He wanted them all in one place, away from the door. He knew enough about Cartwrights to know they were quick.
“Not there. I want him on the floor. Over by the hearth. Put him on the floor.”
“He’s hurt!” Ben snapped. “For decency’s sake, he’s in terrible pain.”
“The floor,” Higgins repeated, as if bored. But he wasn’t bored. Not in the least. “Put him on the rug.”
They laid him down on the braided rug in front of the hearth and then returned for Hoss. Getting him across the room was much harder. Higgins was convinced that Adam Cartwright was close to collapse. He’d been beaten badly, and the man imagined that nothing short of shock and obstinacy was keeping him going. They struggled and stumbled under Hoss’s weight, but Ben Cartwright was talking to his son gently. Higgins wished he could hear what he was saying, although he couldn’t have said why he cared. He could see the strain in their arms, the sweat on their faces. The big man was awake.
“Joe?” he called. “Pa, take care of Little Joe. I ain’t hardly hurt.”
“We know you’re not hurt,” Adam said mildly, as they finally made it to the hearth, easing him heavily down. “We’re just trying to get you out of the way.”
Blood was streaming down the side of Hoss’s face and he was trying to wipe at it, even while reaching for his little brother. Ben and Adam both leaned out of the way, making room for him. Watching them, Johnny Higgins felt a stirring of something unexpected. Pity. Compassion? Something he hardly remembered. Grief…
Don’t die, Emily. I don’t know what I’ll do if you die.
With a shudder, he shook off that old stirring. But he couldn’t help but stand back and watch. John Higgins was not a good man. He had never been a good man, and nobody’d seemed to care what he was, after Emily was gone. And yet, what was happening in that cold room troubled him.
There was blood everywhere. They were awash in it, hardly seeming to notice that it was ruining everything. Their clothes, the rug, the floor. Trying to find its source. To stop it. The kid couldn’t keep still.
“Easy, boy,” Ben was saying, holding his son’s hand. “We’ve got you now.”
“Those men,” Joe was saying. “They hurt Adam. Where’s Hoss?”
“Your brothers are right here,” Ben answered, struggling to keep him still, so Adam could tamp down on the wound. The blood was still flowing. “You need to hold still, son. Those men are as good as gone. You don’t have to worry about them any more.”
“You fought them off just fine,” Hoss said, his face pale underneath the blood. “You done good, little brother.”
Higgins noticed when Ben and Adam exchanged a guarded look with each other. Even though he didn’t understand everything that was going on with the Cartwright family, Higgins knew well what that particular look meant. It had been a damn fool thing the kid had done, charging at him like that when he’d been holding a loaded gun. Higgins suspected it wasn’t the first time the kid had done something stupid. If he survived, they’d likely let him know all about it.
The Cartwrights were a world unto themselves. In their desperate single-mindedness, they had effectively dismissed the bandits. Whatever harm could be done to them had most likely been done already. Ben unbuttoned his youngest son’s shirt and was searching to see if there was any hope at all. If it was a gut shot, then that would be it. Higgins hadn’t exactly been aiming in any particular direction. He’d been just trying to get his gun back. All the same, he realized that it would be enough to hang.
As if he could read Higgins’s mind, Adam looked up and stared at the leader of the outlaws. The revulsion in his look was palpable. Oddly enough, Higgins felt ashamed. It had been so long since he’d felt that way, that he interpreted the feeling as anger and cocked the hammer of his pistol.
“Don’t go looking at me like that. I still need the combination to your safe.”
“We need to get the bullet out of my brother.”
“I want what’s owed me.”
Adam struggled to his feet. Despite the pain he had to be in, his march to his father’s study was remarkably dignified and steady. He stiffly kneeled in front of the safe. The room was quiet, and Higgins held his breath with each metallic of the lock. Then the safe was open, and Adam pulled the leather billfold that held the payroll.
“Three thousand dollars,” he said. “That’s everything.”
Higgins hesitated to take it but didn’t know why. The money was for the payroll. That was why Cartwright had been willing to take a beating. That shouldn’t have mattered to Higgins. This was the big one he and his men had been waiting for. More money than he’d ever stolen in his life. And yet, it didn’t seem to be enough.
“There’s got to be more than this,” Higgins muttered, ignoring the startled looks of his own men.
“Johnny, it’s three thousand dollars!” Billy exploded, but Higgins lifted his hand, and Billy backed off.
With a tight, controlled voice, Adam said, “Check the safe. It’s empty, except for some documents. Go through my father’s desk. There’s some storage under the stairs. You’ll find some silver there. Look wherever you want – take what you want. Just let us help my brothers.”
With a look as hard as a whetstone, Adam tossed the money onto the desk. The power of his loaded gun didn’t mean a thing. Adam just walked by the leader of the outlaws.
“I’m going to get what we need for my brother. Feel free to follow me,” Adam said, as if he were the one giving orders rather than the one with a gun at his back.
He set off through the kitchen door, with Billy at his heels. Higgins suddenly realized what he would need from the kitchen – a knife for one thing. That bullet in the Cartwright kid was definitely going to need to come out. He could see the wound from where he was standing. The bullet had caught him in the side. It wasn’t like Higgins had been aiming or even intending to pull the trigger. The fact that he’d missed the young man’s heart was either luck or providence, depending on how you saw things. Higgins would have said it was luck, but now he wasn’t so sure. He’d been wearing his guns low and loose for a long time.
It had been years since he’d believed that things happened for a reason. Not since Emily had died that cold, hard winter, and he had prayed himself into crazy grief, begging God to save her… He had stopped believing in God that winter, even though Emily had never given up. She’d died on a moth-bitten cot with “glory hallelujah” on her lips. After she was gone, it had been so quiet you could hear daylight coming. Johnny Higgins had never forgiven her for dying while praising God and leaving him behind.
Adam Cartwright came back from the kitchen. His arms were full with a basin full of water and a couple towels and blankets, and Billy was carrying two sharp knives. Billy shrugged at Higgins.
“He needed help,” he said. “Couldn’t carry it by himself.”
Higgins took a hard look at Billy and then at his other two men. They were still holding their guns, but their heart wasn’t in it any more. Johnny knew that.
Suddenly Scott said, “I can keep water boiling in the kitchen. Figure you’re going to need more of it, by the time you’re through.”
Ben looked up, briefly startled. Then he said, “All right. We don’t have much time. I don’t like the look of that wound. I have a bottle of Scotch in the hutch.”
“I’ll get it,” Timmy said, moving too fast to get behind Higgins. “Which one is it? There’s a lot of bottles. I can’t read too good.”
“Oh, for the love of God, I’ll get it myself,” Higgins snapped, and he grumbled his way to the cabinet. He reached for the bottle and wished he could drink down the contents of it himself. His throat was as dry as a tobacco box from where Hoss had been throttling him.
“Thank you.” Ben took the bottle and turned back to his son.
It was overwhelming, being in that room just then. It almost made Johnny Higgins sick to his stomach, and he was close to retching on it. All that decency tasted like gall to him. And there was more there in that room, even though he couldn’t put a name to it.
“Can’t drink it.” Joe was trying to push the bottle away. “I’ll just get sick, Pa.”
“Ain’t like you to turn down a drink,” Hoss jibed weakly. “And with Pa offering it to you no less.”
“That’s enough of that,” Ben said, but there was no harshness to it. “Trust me and drink it down, son.”
The boy apparently trusted his father. He drank it down. And he curled up into himself, until he was asleep again.
They agreed Adam would be the one. When he took the knife and leaned over his little brother with grim concentration, it was Johnny Higgins who had to look away. He lowered his head and stared at the blood on the floor under his feet.
When it was over, it was almost dark, and still Higgins and his men remained. The Cartwrights were hunched in front of the fireplace. Higgins had allowed the father to go upstairs and lug down the kid’s mattress and a few blankets. Hoss stayed awake for a while, nauseous and dizzy in the big chair, but had finally nodded off by the fire. The wound on his head had stopped bleeding, and his father had spent a good long time cleaning it up and bandaging it after they’d finished digging the bullet out of the kid’s side. Adam was standing guard with his glare, while Ben kept vigil on the floor next to his youngest son, one hand resting on his shoulder. Joe Cartwright was finally asleep, his breathing ragged and shallow. From the sound of it, he was disturbed by his own dreams.
Higgins’s men had helped some, bringing in fresh water from the well, and keeping the supply of firewood stocked by the hearth. After a while, he’d had sent Scott and Timmy out to see to the horses and stand guard in the night. He and Billy had stayed inside, keeping their firearms fixed on the Cartwrights. Higgins kept telling himself that he was waiting until after midnight to make their getaway, even if it made more sense to leave while there was still faint light. One way or another, they couldn’t stay much longer. Adam said the rest of their ranch hands were due to ride in the next day, and for some reason, Higgins believed him. Yet, he couldn’t bring himself to leave the ranch house.
He kept asking himself how it had gone so wrong. If the kid died, Higgins and his men would be wanted for murder. He was a small time robber, a successful one, but he’d never come close to killing before. One way or another, the stakes had changed so dramatically. If only Adam Cartwright had gone and handed over the payroll… if the kid hadn’t charged at him… for God’s sake, he’d been holding a loaded gun, what was Joe thinking? The big man coming after him like that. It didn’t make sense – taking that kind of a risk. They were all half crazy. Higgins couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
“You’ve got your money,” Adam said at last. “Don’t you think you’d better hit the trail before morning?”
The man was right. There was no arguing it. Higgins couldn’t really say why he wasn’t getting a move on. And yet, he was missing something. There had to be more. His pockets were full of the Cartwrights’ money, but still he felt empty.
So Johnny Higgins said, “One thing I want to know.”
“What’s that?” Ben asked, lifting his head. His eyes were red-rimmed and tired. He was covered with his sons’ blood.
“The kid there. I wasn’t trying to shoot him. Why’d he go after me? He knew I had a gun.”
“Because he’s not strong on brains but he’s not short on guts either,” Adam said dryly, surprising Higgins with the sardonic hint of a smile. “Apparently, you don’t have a kid brother.”
“Had a little sister,” Higgins said absent-mindedly and didn’t notice Ben’s raised eyebrow.
“Joseph was protecting his brother,” Ben said, stroking his son’s face. “The way he went about it was not wise, but wouldn’t you do the same for your sister?”
Higgins could feel his men’s eyes burning questions behind him, but for some reason he didn’t care. He hadn’t talked about Emily to anyone since she’d been gone. “She’s dead,” he said. “Been dead bout ten years.”
“Then you understand,” Ben continued carefully, “what it means to lose someone you love.”
“This ain’t about me!” Higgins spat out, suddenly all mixed up inside. He needed to take the money and get the hell out that house, but there was something eating away at him. Something he needed to understand before he left. He was coming to understand that his might be a short life. Before he left, he needed to know how he’d gotten his one short life so wrong.
“Then, tell me,” Ben said quietly. Joe started moaning in his troubled sleep, and Ben stroked his face. “What is this about?”
Adam leaned forward, frowning at his father. “Pa, we don’t have time for this.” He regarded Higgins. “Look. This was a robbery that didn’t go the way you planned. I doubt you planned on shooting my brother. You don’t have to hang for this. Leave. Get a head start. Neither of us is going to hunt you down until we get a doctor back to the house. It could easily take a day before a posse’s on your trail. If you do get caught and taken to trial, Pa and I can testify that Joe went after you and the gun went off. You’d get prison, but you won’t hang. Please. Let us take care of our family.”
“What would your sister have wanted you to do?” Ben asked, in that calm, disarming voice.
It wasn’t a fair question. Higgins began to pace back and forth behind the settee. What would Emily have wanted? Didn’t take much of a man to figure that out.
Don’t do this, Johnny.
“What is bothering you?” Ben asked.
Higgins knew what the man was doing. Knew he was trying to save his sons’ life any way he could. But Johnny didn’t care. He wanted to answer the man’s question. What wasn’t bothering him? Why in God’s name hadn’t anyone asked him this before? Nobody ever talked about his sister. His own ma and pa never said her name out loud.
“My little sister was decent,” Johnny said.
“What would she have thought about this life you’ve chosen for yourself?”
“Not much,” Johnny admitted with a bitter smile. “She was mad as a hornet when I lost all my money at a bawdy house. She would have taken this even harder.”
“Then, why don’t you change while you still can?” Ben asked.
“I reckon it’s too late,” Johnny said. “Got myself into a fix this time.” He gestured at Little Joe. “I didn’t mean to shoot that kid. I hope he doesn’t die.”
“To save yourself from a hanging?” Adam asked darkly, his eyes fixed on the outlaw. “He’s seventeen, for God’s sake.”
Higgins looked hard at Adam. So, there was the anger. He’d known it was there all the time. “I ain’t had the same chances that you and he had, but it ain’t right anyhow. I’m the cause of this,” he said. It wasn’t an apology, but it was the closest he’d ever come to one.
“You have a chance now,” Ben said. “This could be a beginning.”
“It’s an ending,” Higgins said. “It’s too late.”
“Maybe,” Adam conceded, “but it’s not too late for my brothers.”
Joe was finally rousing. His eyes were unfocused and confused. There was pain.
“Hoss? Where’s Hoss? Is he all right, Pa? Where is he?”
“Calm down, boy,” Ben was saying, taking hold of his son’s hand. “Your brother’s going to be fine. It was only a graze, and he’s got a headache, but he’s fine.”
But Joe didn’t seem comforted. “Adam – they were hurting Adam.”
“I’m here and I’m fine,” Adam said, almost managing a smile from his swollen lips, when his little brother’s eyes tracked him down. I won’t be much to look at for a while, but I’m fine.” With a flare-up of anger, he added. “Do you know what could have happened? That was a damn fool thing to do, Joe.”
Leaning against the desk, Higgins braced his hands on his knees. He set the gun down beside him. He couldn’t figure the Cartwrights out. In his experience, families ravaged each other with violence or silence. They’d never fought for each other, got mad at each other, and most importantly, they never told each other when they were getting it all wrong. Johnny wondered if his mother or father had even noticed.
“Pa.” The brave fool of a kid was crying. His side was bleeding again, but Higgins understood that wasn’t why he was crying. “I’m sorry. Wasn’t thinking. Could have got you all killed. It’s my fault Hoss got hurt. I’m sorry I let you down.”
The father leaned in. “Son, you didn’t let me down. You made a mistake. But it’s going to be all right now. Now you go back to sleep; you’re all done in.”
Adam crouched beside him. “Joe, can’t you understand this? I couldn’t live with it, if you’d gotten yourself killed like that, trying to help me.” But he had placed his hand over his brother’s hand and didn’t look angry any more.
“I know it, Adam,” the kid said haltingly, but not crying any more. “But I almost had him.”
“Yeah,” Adam said, shaking his head in exasperation. Very, very gently, he cuffed his brother on the cheek. “You almost had him.”
Hoss Cartwright shifted in his own uncomfortable sleep, muttering under his breath. Ben tucked the blanket back around him. The fire was burning down to a bed of coals, and there was a cold edge in the air. Higgins felt himself shiver.
“He’s still out.” Ben reached over to touch Hoss’s cheek. “No fever.”
Johnny couldn’t keep watch any more. His mind tried to take it all in. He had never met a family like this before. He’d thought the Cartwrights were different because they fought back. Refused to give in. How could he have known that was only the beginning? It was too much. Love, and anger, hope and grief. He had turned his back on all that. Counted it as loss. Emily had tried to tell him differently, but he’d never listened.
Billy stepped up. “Let’s get out of here, Johnny. Don’t you want to?”
Johnny wished he remembered how to pray. Maybe he’d remember how in the days to come, with a posse on his trail. If so, he would remember to pray for the Cartwrights.
“All right, let’s get out of here,” he agreed quietly. Ben and Adam Cartwright stared at him, in surprise. Johnny told them, “I hope your boy’s all right. And the big one,” he said, knowing that what he was about to do wouldn’t make sense to his own men. But he emptied his pockets, leaving the leather billfold on the desk, along with a watch and some other coins he’d pocketed. “It’s for the payroll,” he explained. And for Emily, he thought, but he didn’t say it out loud.
“Johnny, what the hell?” Billy began, but Higgins raised his hand. He wasn’t a good man, but he was a leader, and Billy shut up.
“We’ve taken enough,” Higgins said. “I’m taking your guns, but I’ll leave them a mile or two out down the road.”
After he shoved his friend towards the door, Johnny Higgins took a long look back at the Cartwrights. He’d wanted everything they had, but he was leaving with nothing. He couldn’t expect anyone to understand.
As he headed out through the door, he heard the kid ask, “What was he after, Pa? He left all the money.”
Ben Cartwright’s answer hit Johnny like a bullet in his gut, as he staggered out into the cold night.
“I don’t know for sure, son, but I think he got what he came for.”
Other Stories by this Author
- Dividing Line Series – Dividing Line (by DBird)
- Housekeeping (by DBird)
- Too Soon (by DBird)
- Sticking Close (by DBird)
- Another Kind of Ending (by DBird)