Choices (by Doolittle)

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Summary:  Adam and his family deal with the consequences of a difficult choice. A WHN for the episode “Death At Dawn.”

Rating: PG  (132,800 words)

 

Choices

CHAPTER I

 

Choices are the hinges of destiny.

~ Edwin Markham

 

Joe stood blocking the door, his fingers tightly gripping his brother’s arm. “Adam, you can’t be serious!” His eyes were wide with fear and panic.

 

“Joe….”

 

“No, Adam! It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t have a choice. He shot Pa…He could have shot you.”

 

“Joe, please.” Adam tried as gently as he could to pull himself out of his brother’s frantic grip.

 

“You’re not going alone. I’m going with you.” His voice was pleading, his tears threatening to fall.

 

“You can’t, Joe.” Adam replied reasonably, trying to calm his brother by the tone of his voice. “You have to stay with Pa and tell Hoss what happened when he gets home.”

 

The irony of the situation didn’t escape him. How many times had he lectured Joe, urged him to use his head, to think things through. This time, however, it was Adam who had acted first, hadn’t thought things through. No, that wasn’t entirely accurate either. He had thought it through…long ago.

 

Adam had always known that there was a part of him that was capable of doing what he had done. Maybe that’s why Kane’s taunts had affected him so deeply. He had claimed that Adam could kill, could murder, and Adam knew he was right, no matter how hard he fought to deny it, particularly to himself. The odd thing was that it was almost a relief to have it out in the open, to expose for the world to see what Adam had known about himself for such a long time.

 

And he had always known that this was the one thing that could put him over the edge. His father…the man had almost murdered his father. Pa’s life still hung in the balance. He cringed when he remembered a similar incident, long ago. How proud and relieved his father had been that he hadn’t accomplished his mission, hadn’t killed his man. But that was different, he justified, that time he wasn’t sure if the man he had found was truly his father’s killer. This time, there was no doubt in his mind.

 

“Adam, much as I hate it, I’ve got to take you in, boy.”

 

“No, Roy! He was forced to do it…you can’t take him! It was my fault, my idea….”

 

“Joe…” Adam’s calm was a direct counterpoint to Joe’s near-hysteria.

 

As Adam turned to offer his wrists to the sheriff’s handcuffs, he looked his brother directly in the eye.

 

“Joe…the choice was mine alone.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER II

 

To do what ought to be done but would not have been done unless I did it, I thought to be my duty.

~ Robert Morrison

 

Roy swallowed hard as he heard the click of the handcuffs locking around Adam’s wrists. The sound was as familiar to him as his own name. In the past it had always given him a sense of accomplishment, of finality; a job well done. Today it left him with a sickening feeling; he had let his friends down, had let himself down. More than once, he had heard Ben say “Old fools make poor fathers.” Today he had learned that they also made poor sheriffs.

 

He couldn’t help feeling responsible for the disastrous turn of events. Ben had practically pleaded with him to take the situation in hand; even Adam had warned him, but he put them off, citing rules and regulations. Rules…he had once promised himself that the day he put his faith in rules over his own instinct was the day that he would turn in his star for good. It seemed that day had come.

 

Roy was disgusted with himself; he should have known better. Since when had a Cartwright ever felt strongly about something that didn’t turn out to be true? It certainly wasn’t the first time the he and the Cartwrights had been at odds and he had been proven wrong. When Bill Enders had murdered Toby Barker in Goat Springs Adam had been so certain of his guilt, unshakable in his conviction no matter what facts got thrown in his way and he had been proven right.

 

He thought of all the times that the Cartwrights come to his aid, the countless posses that they had served on at a moment’s notice. When the town council had tried to force him out of his job in favor of a younger man with a faster gun, Adam stuck loyally by his side. Roy had sworn an oath to uphold the law, but he couldn’t forget the fact that he owed this man and his family his life several times over.

 

Roy looked up at his friend. He knew that the reassuring words and the calm facade that Adam wore were for his brother’s sake, that underneath he was shaken, upset and confused by the situation he found himself in. But, no matter the circumstance, nothing could erase the proud bearing, the stature of the man before him. Roy couldn’t help comparing him to the no-account that lay dead on the dirt floor not ten feet away and had a strong, sinking feeling that Adam would prove to be the less fortunate of the two.

 

Roy considered the measure of the man before him. Was Adam Cartwright capable of murder? He was well known across the county as a formidable opponent, both with his fists and his gun. He had a sharp intellect, which made him very dangerous when he chose to be, but he was also one of the most self-controlled individuals Roy had ever known. He also knew, however, that flowing beneath the calm exterior was a temper that, when unleashed, was an amazing thing to behold. And if there were ever a situation in which Roy could expect Adam to lose control of his temper it would be this one; his father gunned down and left to die in the street. Yet he was aware of similar circumstances in which a family member had been in mortal danger and Adam had been the calm center in the eye of the storm. There had been the time when Sam Bryant had taken Ben hostage and threatened to hang him if Adam didn’t release Bryant’s man. He had been out of town that time, but Ben had filled him in on the details; how, even though both brothers were initially unsupportive of his decision, Adam did what needed to be done, had saved his father and still upheld the law.

 

And more recently, when Willie Twilight’s brother shot Hoss with a buffalo gun, Red, Adam had, once again, been the voice of reason. Without him Joe would most likely have ruined his life by killing Twilight, and in the process destroyed his family as well. Thinking back on it, he hadn’t been in town that time either. Roy shook his head sadly…how he wished that somehow he could have missed this one, too. Maybe another sheriff would have taken matters more in hand, would have done what needed to be done.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER III

 

How are the mighty fallen.

~ 2 Samuel 1:27

 

As they opened the large stable door and the sunlight streamed in, Roy saw Joe pause. In one direction lay the jail, in the other, his father. He could see that the boy was torn…which way should he go? Who needed him the most? Roy wished with all his heart that Hoss were here to help Joe shoulder this burden. As Joe looked back to his brother, the indecision and anguish was clearly written on his face.

 

Adam smiled gently at him and nodded. “Go to Pa, Joe. I’ll be alright.”

 

Joe began to protest, “Adam…”

 

“No, Joe. Someone has to stay with Pa.” Adam’s voice caught in his throat. “I need you to do that for me, Joe…please?”

 

Roy knew that Adam had said the one thing that would have made Joe leave willingly and, in saying it, had made it nearly impossible. How could the boy leave his brother at a time like this?

 

Roy stepped up and put a supportive hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Son, why don’t you go on to Paul’s and see to your Pa. I’ll take good care of Adam. And when you get there, maybe you ought to send him back over to the jail. Looks like your brother could use a little doctorin’.”

 

Joe’s voice virtually spat venom as he wrenched his shoulder away from Roy’s gentle grip. “As if you care! This is your fault. If you had only listened when Adam asked for help…” Joe turned quickly away, afraid to say anymore lest he lose his tenuous hold over his emotions.

 

“Joe, you know I’m just doin’ my job,” Roy said quietly.

 

“Right… now you’re doing your job! If you had done your job earlier, this wouldn’t have happened!”

 

Joe turned back to Adam and for the next few moments there was no one in the room but the two of them. He could clearly see the fear for his father in his brother’s eyes, along with a healthy dose of fear for himself. Joe recognized it easily because it mirrored the fear in his own.

 

“Don’t worry, Adam. Hoss will be here tomorrow on the stage and I’ll take care of Pa until then. It’ll be alright…together we’ll figure a way out of this mess.”

 

Adam looked gratefully at his younger brother, offered him a small, reassuring smile, and nodded.

 

“Sure we will, Joe. Now…get out of here.”

 

Roy led Adam a few feet out of the stable and stopped. “Can you give me a reason why I don’t need to be doin’ this, son?” His voice was hopeful, almost pleading.

 

Adam looked down at the handcuffs locked tightly around his wrists and raised his head to meet his old friend eye to eye.

 

“Just do what you have to do, Roy.”

 

Roy shook his head in sorrow and frustration. “You know this is just about gonna kill your Pa.” He bit his lower lip and nervously rubbed his chin with his hand, immediately regretting his choice of words.

 

Adam’s eyes grew hard as he faced the long street that led to the jail. Of course, he knew what it would do to his Pa, there was little else on his mind. But he did what he felt had to be done. He had known the risks and would take responsibility for his actions. His biggest regret now was that he couldn’t be by his Father’s side as he fought to hold on to life.

 

With an audible sigh, Roy motioned with his pistol for Adam to lead the way.

 

The word was out all over town. As the two made their way toward the jail, the noise and bustle ceased and people came out of shops and saloons and lined the street. Some looked on in shock, others in sympathy. For most of the citizens of Virginia City this was a day they were sure they would never see.

 

Adam felt the stares of the crowd hitting him like sharp stones but held his head high and kept his eyes straight ahead. The sheriff picked up the pace, determined to get Adam off the street as quickly as possible, out of the view of the prying eyes.

 

Roy couldn’t get the thought out of his mind…that unless something happened quickly to change the known facts, his last act as sheriff would be to hang his best friend’s son.

 

*********

 

CHAPTER IV

 

For, what other dungeon is so dark as one’s own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one’s self!

~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

 

As the door closed softly behind him, Adam breathed a sigh of relief and, for the first time since leaving the stable, let his head droop and his shoulders sag. The dim light of the jail was a blessed relief compared to the unrelenting sun that had made his eyes water and his head throb. The distance from the stable to the jail had seemed to take an eternity; an eternity filled with shocked gasps, pointed fingers and barely concealed whispers.

 

Roy unlocked the door to the inner room that housed the cells and apologetically motioned him to the nearest one. He withdrew the keys to the handcuffs, unlocked them and stepped back as he waited for Adam to enter the cell.

 

“I can’t tell ya how sorry I am about this, Adam.”

 

“I know, Roy. You’ve told me.” Adam was barely successful in keeping the bitter overtones from his voice. He knew Roy was just doing his job and that it wasn’t a very pleasant one, but he had little energy to spare for anyone’s problems but his own right now and the forgiveness that Roy was seeking just wasn’t in his power to grant.

 

Adam stepped in and stood with his back toward the cell door. As it closed and he heard the distinctive sound of metal connecting with metal, the reality of the situation hit him like a fist in the stomach. He wasn’t here to bail Hoss or Joe out of jail for a drunken barroom brawl; he was under arrest and the charge was murder. It didn’t seem possible; not more than 48 hours ago his life had been “normal.” He had been in town taking care of business and now…now his father was fighting for his life and he was in a jail cell arrested for murder. His world had careened violently out of his control with no chance for a graceful recovery.

 

Suddenly, the room spun and lurched and Adam put his hand against the wall to steady himself. As Roy quickly moved back toward the cell door, eager to assist, Adam shot him a glare that clearly said that help would neither be necessary or appreciated. Then, with a slight stiffening of the spine and a barely noticeable shudder of the shoulder blades, he managed to regain a fragile control.

 

Roy paused at the cell door as if to say something more, thought better of it, shook his head sadly and left Adam to face his fate alone.

 

The door to the cell area closed and Adam listened as Roy’s footsteps softly retreated into the outer office. He scowled; there it was…he had seen it in Roy’s eyes. Pity. It was one of the things he most dreaded. He could endure anything but pity. As Roy had looked on, Adam’s pride had given him the strength he needed to resist the urge to collapse, but now…now that he was alone, exhaustion, coupled with the aching in his head and the tenderness of his ribs finally won out and he sank back on the cot, covered his eyes with his forearm and retreated gratefully into a temporary oblivion.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER V

 

The miserable have no other medicine but only hope.

~ William Shakespeare

 

Paul rushed in through the door and glared at Roy. The idea that his old friend could even suspect Adam Cartwright of committing murder, much less arrest and charge him for it, infuriated him.

 

“I’d like to see Adam, Roy.” Paul said, his voice tinged in anger.

 

“Now, Paul, that’s just what I’d suspect you were gonna say. Just follow me,” Roy said reasonably, grateful that the doctor had come so quickly.

 

Paul waited as Roy unlocked the inner room that housed the cells. He frowned to see Adam lying dejectedly on the cot with his arm draped across his eyes, his face battered and cheek swollen, his breathing shallow.

 

Roy unlocked the door to the cell. “Adam, Doc is here to see you.”

 

Adam heaved a sigh and emitted a small, involuntary groan as he proceeded to sit up on the bed, bracing his ribs as he did so. Paul pulled a chair from near the wall and brought it to the side of the cot. On the other side of the cell door Roy stood nearby, eager to know for certain that Adam was going to be all right, physically at least.

 

“Roy, I’d like some privacy with my patient.” Paul said, somewhat harshly, unwilling to forgive Roy for the part he was playing in this ridiculous situation.

 

Roy threw up his hands in a gesture of surrender and said, “I’ll be right outside the door if you need me.”

 

Turning back again to Adam, the doctor visually inspected the abrasions and bruises on his face. Dusting off his best bedside manner he cheerfully asked, “How are you doing, Adam?”

 

Adam raised one eyebrow as he looked at the doctor and said quietly through his swollen lip, “I’m fine, Paul.”

 

Paul snorted knowingly, inwardly congratulating himself on his ability to predict Adam’s answer. “Since when is a Cartwright ever “not fine?”

 

Paul sobered quickly as Adam glanced sharply at him. They were both all too aware of a certain Cartwright who was anything but fine at the moment. Adam asked softly, “How is he, Paul?”

 

The doctor positioned himself to examine Adam further. “Here, lift your shirt and let me take a look at those ribs.”

 

“You’re stalling, Paul,” Adam said, but did as he was asked, grunting softly as Paul’s probing touched a particularly sensitive spot.

 

“I wish I could give you better news, Adam.” Paul reached into his bag to produce several long strips of cloth and began to bind Adam’s ribs. “This will give them some support; they’re not broken, but badly bruised and two are possibly cracked.”

 

“Paul…”

 

Paul signed, “Adam, you saw him before…” he glanced around the jail cell, “Well, before this. Nothing has changed. He’s still unconscious and the longer he remains that way, the worse his chances of a full recovery will be.”

 

Adam nodded; it was what he had expected. Paul came down to Adam’s level and peered closely into his eyes with a slight frown. He held up one finger in front of Adam’s face. “I want you to follow this with your eyes only,” he said as he moved his finger across Adam’s line of vision.

 

Adam attempted to do as Paul asked, but his dizziness and impatience won out and he moved his head to the side so that he could see past Paul’s finger.

 

“And Joe?”

 

Frustrated with Adam’s typical lack of cooperation when it came to his own health, Paul answered, “Your brother is beside himself with worry, both for your father and for you.”

 

As he continued his examination, both Paul and Adam grimaced as the doctor’s fingers gently probed the back of Adam’s head. When he pulled them away they were sticky with drying blood. Slightly alarmed, Paul demanded, “Adam, did you lose consciousness at any time?”

 

Frustrated with his inability to focus, to put his thoughts into some semblance of order, Adam reluctantly admitted, “I don’t know, Paul. I’m not sure what happened. One minute we were fighting and the next…the next I was standing over him with my gun in my hand and he was lying on the ground, dead.” Adam buried his throbbing head in his hands. “I just can’t remember.”

 

Paul was grateful that Adam’s head was bowed as he tried to mask the shock and sympathy he felt for his friend. Taking refuge in professionalism, he opened a bottle of dark liquid and wet a cloth. As he dabbed it on Adam’s wounds he said, “You’ve got a mild concussion. Nothing serious, but it’s interfering with your memory right now. When it clears up, your memory will probably come back. Then again, it may not. We can only wait and see.”

 

Adam eyes met Paul’s knowingly. He said softly, “It has to come back, Paul, or I’ll hang for murder.” Adam didn’t add what he knew they were both thinking. Even if his memory did come back, the possibility existed that he may still hang.

 

Paul thought about what this family had endured in the past couple of days and of what they would be forced to endure in the future. Together they had always managed to face whatever was thrown their way.

 

“Too bad Hoss isn’t here. When will he be back?”

 

Adam smiled slightly at the thought of his brother. What they all needed was a healthy dose of Hoss’ optimism right about now. “Tomorrow, the three o’clock stage. I wired him last night after…” He swallowed hard, then looked around the cell and sighed, “He has no idea about this.”

 

Paul began packing his things in his bag. “That head injury will be painful, but it doesn’t need stitching. It’ll do you some good to lie back and get a little sleep, though.” Paul looked at him sympathetically. As he stood he gripped Adam on the shoulder and asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you, Adam? Anything at all?”

 

Adam smiled at him gratefully. “Just take care of Pa, Paul….and Joe.”

 

Paul squeezed his shoulder. “You know you don’t even have to ask that, Adam.” He turned towards the cell door.

 

As he was about to call for Roy, Adam stopped him.

 

“Paul, one more thing.”

 

“Sure, Adam. Name it.”

 

Adam shook his head. He couldn’t believe that things had come to this, yet there was no denying the facts.

 

“Could you please send for Hiram Wood? I think I’m going to need a lawyer.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER VI

 

Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.

~ Richard Lovelace

 

Alone again, Adam sat on the edge of the cot, holding tightly to the mattress as the room continued to spin and whirl around him. Closing his eyes only seemed to make the undulation of the room worse. Finally, reluctantly, he conceded defeat. After all, what was one more humiliation heaped upon those he had already endured today?

 

“Roy!” The sound of his own voice echoed his head, sending sharp, searing pains across his skull.

 

Roy entered the room quickly, as if he were anticipating Adam’s call.

 

“What can I do for ya, Adam?” he asked somewhat eagerly. As he peered closely at the younger man’s face, he shook his head. “You’re lookin’ a mite green, boy.”

 

Adam glared at him. Embarrassed and shamefaced, he replied, “I think you had better get me a basin, Roy.”

 

Roy nodded knowingly and left quickly to do as Adam asked.

 

Adam tried to control the rising nausea he was experiencing by breathing in and out slowly and deeply. Gradually, it subsided slightly and he managed to lay gingerly back upon the cot. Although the day had been warm, he found himself shivering and covered himself with the blanket that was draped over the end of the cot. Whether the shivering was simply a reaction to his injuries or to the overwhelming events of the day made no difference as the stone walls of the cell seemed to leach the heat from his body. Against his will, his eyes closed and he drifted off again, exhausted.

 

Adam awoke sometime later to the sensation of a blanket being draped across his body. He jerked upright, regretting it immediately, as his head and ribs screamed in protest. The shadows in the jail cell were lengthening as evening approached.

 

“You’re still lookin’ a mite peaked, Adam.” Roy sat a tray containing what appeared to be dinner on the chair next to the cot. “Doc says you got a concussion and I should keep a close eye on you.”

 

Adam looked skeptically at the tray, seriously doubting that he would be able to tolerate food. He found himself becoming slightly annoyed that suddenly everyone was concerned about his welfare. He relented a bit when he saw that the blanket that now covered him was thicker and of a higher quality than the threadbare one that he had covered himself with earlier. Realizing that Roy had given him his own blanket made him feel slightly ashamed of his reaction and he managed to offer him a small, grateful smile.

 

Trying his best to shut out the aroma coming from the tray that was only fueling his nausea he asked, “Any word from Hiram Wood, Roy?”

 

“Yessir, his daughter come by when you was asleep.”

 

Adam glanced at him sharply. “And you didn’t wake me?”

 

“Now, Adam, didn’t see no reason to wake you. Seems Hiram is out of town until tomorrow. She said she’d be sure to have him come over first thing.”

 

Frustrated, Adam carefully raised himself off the cot and began to pace slowly across the short confines of the cell. As Roy watched him, he was reminded of a wild animal in a cage…his breathing rapid, his eyes bright, the tension in his body palpable, as if he were ready to jump out of his skin. Roy had seen countless men do the same thing in the very same cell, but none appeared more out of place here than Adam Cartwright.

 

“Adam, I sure hate to see ya….”

 

There it was…the pity again. Adam’s head snapped around, cutting off Roy’s comment with a steely look, and prepared to offer a sarcastic retort. At the doleful look on Roy’s face, however, he softened the tone of his voice. “Thanks Roy…and thanks for dinner.”

 

Roy nodded, recognizing that Adam wanted to be alone, and left him once again.

 

As Adam continued to pace, he felt his frustration build. He was a man accustomed to being in total control of his life and having that control taken out of his hands was infuriating. He couldn’t be with his father and brother, he couldn’t leave the cell, he couldn’t speak with his lawyer. He had never felt more alone.

 

Suddenly, the sense of frustration overwhelmed him and, for a few brief moments he allowed himself the luxury of giving in to his anger as he pounded both fists against the wall of the cell. Then, resting his aching forehead against the cool surface, he struggled to regain control as he concentrated on taking slow, deep breaths. Eventually, with what felt like a monumental effort, he peeled himself away from the wall and let himself sink down onto the cot again.

 

Frowning at the plate of untouched food, Adam picked up the cup of coffee that Roy had left him, took a sip of the now cooling liquid, and resigned himself to wait. As he sat listening to the sounds of Virginia City that drifted through the open bars above his head, something a friend had said to him once came unbidden to his mind… We wait and think…of many things. That is the final refuge for man when he is completely alone. The circumstances he found himself in were drastically different, of course. At that time he was buried under a layer of rock and wooden beams in the belly of a mine, but the feeling of isolation, loneliness, uncertainty, of not being in control…they were shockingly similar.

 

Thinking…that was what frightened him, for if he had the time to think, what would he discover about himself?

 

**********

 

CHAPTER VII

 

Those dreams that on the silent night intrude, and with false flitting shapes our minds delude…

~ Jonathan Swift

 

A voice called to him, repeating his name over and over, softly at first and then with an increasing intensity. He felt a desperate, overwhelming urgency to reach the voice, but when he frantically attempted to move toward it he felt himself restrained, bound with invisible ties. The more he struggled, the tighter they became, and still the voice called his name…

 

“Adam…Adam!” Roy called gently, but hesitated to touch him. Even in sleep, Adam’s body seemed coiled with tension, ready to strike out, and Roy had no desire to be on the receiving end when it did.

 

Adam’s eyes opened slowly, clouded with confusion.

 

“Roy?”

 

For a brief moment he was disoriented, had forgotten where he was and why. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Doc said that I was to wake you every couple of hours ‘cause of that concussion. You doin’ okay, Son?” Roy asked skeptically. It had been obvious from the way Adam was tossing and turning when Roy entered the cell that he was in the grip of a nightmare but the sheriff had thought better than to mention it.

 

Adam exhaled softly as reality intruded on his consciousness once more and he remembered with a sickening feeling where he was. “Yeah, Roy…I’m fine.” He ran his fingers through disheveled hair, “You go on back to sleep.”

 

Roy nodded, “You see that you do the same, Adam,” he said as he turned down the flame on the lantern in his hand and turned to leave the cell.

 

For a long while, Adam lay with his eyes open, slowly becoming readjusted to the darkness after the intensity of Roy’s lantern. The moonlight streaming in through the windows cast dancing shadows of bars onto the wall opposite of the cot. As he focused on them, he struggled to grasp the elusive images in his dream, but he was left with just a residual feeling, not a true image. A voice, his father’s voice, calling to him…just out of reach. He tried to reach for him…reach out once more, as a whirling cloud of dust enveloped him and he was carried away.

 

He stood alone, peering down a long, deserted street. The wind gusted around him, blowing up clouds of dust that would rise from the dry ground, swirl and spontaneously disappear. Each time the dust would clear he would catch a faint glimpse of someone standing at the other end of the street. An eerie, plaintive whistling filled the air. Whether from the wind or something else he couldn’t tell. As he made his way slowly down the street toward the figure, the wind picked up, buffeting him from side to side. He reached out to take support from railings and posts, but each time he reached for one, it would disappear under his hands. As he neared the end of the street, the dust settled for a brief moment and he could clearly see that the person – his father – was just yards away. He smiled in relief, but the expression on his father’s face shocked him…grief, anguish, despair were all clearly written there. Just as he got close enough to reach out to him, suddenly he found bars blocking his way, shimmering, wavering bars, but when he reached out to touch them, he found them solid and impenetrable. He turned in an attempt to go back, to find a different way, but bars had appeared on all sides. Turning back toward his father, he reached desperately for him, could almost touch him. The wind picked up, the dust swirling with renewed vigor, scratching and tearing at his eyes, blinding him. When finally the dust cleared he opened his eyes, only to stare at the empty space before him in shock and disbelief…

 

“Pa! No…Pa!” Adam called out as his head tossed and turned on the thin pillow, his blanket wrapped and twisted around him. Beads of sweat stood out on his head and his breathing was rapid.

 

This time, Roy didn’t hesitate in grasping Adam’s shoulder and shaking it gently. “Adam…Adam, wake up!”

 

Adam jolted awake, breathing heavily. Embarrassed to be caught in the throes of a nightmare, he turned away to face the cell wall. Struggling to compose himself, he said lightly, “I’m sorry, Roy. Doesn’t look like you’re going to get any sleep at all tonight.”

 

Roy wasn’t fooled by the casualness of his tone. He could only imagine the thoughts that were running through Adam’s mind. It was no wonder the boy was having nightmares. “I’ve done without before. Reckon’ it ain’t gonna hurt me none.” Tentatively, he offered, “Well, seein’s how we’re both awake, how’s about I fix us up a pot of coffee?”

 

As much as Adam dreaded the idea of sleep, he hated to burden Roy any further. Smiling, he replied, “Thanks, Roy, but no…please, you go on back to bed.”

 

Roy hesitated, but Adam nodded again, indicating that he was fine. The sheriff could sense that Adam was putting him at arm’s length, telling him in so many words that, while he appreciated Roy’s concerns, he couldn’t have it both ways. Most of Adam’s life, Roy had been like a second father to him, but now, when he needed a father the most, Roy had lost that privilege. They were on opposite sides and the sheriff had a job to do…one that might even include ending the life of the young man who was like a son to him. Roy nodded in sad acceptance and left the room.

 

Adam fought sleep for as long as he could, dreading a return to the shadow land of dreams, where nothing was as it seemed and events spinned out of his control. Eventually, however, exhaustion overcame him once again and his heavy eyelids drifted closed.

 

Sunlight streamed in through cracks in the roughhewn planks. As he stood silently in the center of the room, suddenly a figure stood before him, near his height, but slighter in build, familiar and yet unfamiliar… he stood, leaning on one of the massive posts supporting the structure. His mouth was moving and words were formed, but they were garbled, made no sense. A laugh, a sadistic, maniacal laugh filled the air and he felt an overpowering rage well up in him. Suddenly he heard the unmistakable report of a pistol firing and the acrid scent of gunpowder filled the air. When the smoke cleared, he stared down at the pistol in his hand. Its weight and balance were familiar and it felt comfortable in his grip. Yards away, a body lay on its side, facing away from him. Curious, but with a strange feeling of detachment from the events transpiring around him, he wondered calmly who the person could be…why he lay so still. As he reached the body, he was mildly surprised to see it saturated in blood. Reaching down, he rolled the lifeless form over, and stared into the lifeless eyes of his father….

 

Adam gasped and bolted upright, his eyes snapping open. For several moments his breath came in rapid gulps and he trembled as the vision of his dream took shape in his mind. He felt the unfamiliar feeling of panic welling up in him as the barrier between the dream world and the waking world seemed fragile, intangibly thin.

 

Finally, he could hold back no longer and leaned over the side of the bed, grateful for the basin that Roy had placed there earlier in the evening as he retched miserably, repeatedly. Drained, he lay back on the cot and willed himself to relax, to control his breathing and the churning of his stomach.

 

Adam waited for Roy’s appearance, almost certain that he had cried out in his sleep. He was amazed that the sound of his sickness didn’t wake him, but realized that the sheriff was probably exhausted as well after the night that they had both had. When Roy didn’t arrive after several minutes, Adam allowed himself to try to recapture the illusive images but, unlike the other dreams he had had that night, this one didn’t retreat into the dark shadows of the night. This one was clear, more vivid, more real. It left him with one haunting question: Was it truly a dream?

 

Adam lay back on the bed and knew with absolute certainty that there would be no more sleep for him that night.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER VIII

 

True is it that we have seen better days.

~ William Shakespeare

 

As the sun rose the next morning and struggled to pierce a thick layer of gray clouds, Adam was awake to greet it. He lay on his back on the cot, his right arm resting behind his head. The images from the dreams of the previous night were fleeting, ephemeral; just wisps of memory that swirled in his mind and refused to coalesce. He remembered the last dream, however, with frightening clarity; the one that woke him in the pitch black of predawn and left him sick and shaking. When he closed his eyes, the vivid colors, sounds, and smells returned to assault his senses and he felt the blood in his veins run cold. Opening his eyes, he realized that the nightmares hadn’t ended and that the waking one, the one that refused to be intimidated by the light of day, was still there, insistent and demanding. It wasn’t going to go away.

 

After his second visit to the cell that night, Roy had left the door to the outer office open. Now he entered, attempting a precarious balancing act between a large basin of fresh water and a steaming cup of coffee. Adam allowed himself a small smile at the sight of the crusty old sheriff, towel draped across his arm, which gave the appearance of running a Five-Star hotel instead of a jail.

 

Roy handed Adam the coffee, which he accepted gratefully and placed the basin of water and the towel on the washstand. Straightening, he took a close look at Adam’s red-rimmed eyes and haggard face and didn’t much like what he saw.

 

“Looks like you had a pretty rough night, Son,” he remarked.

 

Adam expelled a humorless chuckle at the immensity of the understatement. Roy’s eyes were as tired and bloodshot as Adam imagined his own must be. He replied, “Looks like we both did, Roy.”

 

Glancing down, Roy noticed the offending basin on the floor by the cot that, earlier in the evening, had remained unused. Nodding his understanding, he wordlessly picked it up and left the room only to return a few minutes later carrying a small mirror, shaving mug, soap, and razor.

 

“Adam, I’ll be goin’ over to the hotel to pick up your breakfast. Anythin’ special I can get you?”

 

Adam knew by the eager expression on Roy’s face that he was trying, in any small way he could, to make up for his part in this situation. Still, he hadn’t the heart to disappoint him and, although he strongly suspected that his stomach would revolt at the smell of food, Adam offered Roy a small smile and replied, “Thanks, Roy. Anything will be fine.”

 

Roy nodded. “I’ll be right back, then.”

 

As he turned to leave the cell, Adam stopped him.

 

“Roy?”

 

“Yes, Son?”

 

Adam cringed at Roy’s use of the familiar term of endearment and thought dismally of his father, lying wounded and unconscious in Paul’s back room.

 

“Could you please find out how Pa is doing for me?” he asked quietly.

 

Roy grimaced at the mention of his old friend. It was bad enough for a man to outlive his own son, but to lose him to the gallows was a horror the sheriff couldn’t even imagine. He found himself wondering if it might be more merciful if Ben didn’t regain consciousness; to wake only to see his eldest son die at the end of a hangman’s noose.

 

Roy rubbed his hand nervously across his mustache and nodded. “I’ll sure do that, Adam.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER IX

 

This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.

~ William Shakespeare

 

Wearily, Adam draped the towel over his shoulder and walked, slowly and somewhat stiffly, to the washstand. As he stood over the basin of water, a shaft of morning sunlight broke through the clouds, gray and heavy, and danced on its glassy surface. Gazing down, Adam was startled at the image he saw reflected there; a gray complexion highlighted by red-rimmed and bloodshot eyes. Gently probing his cheek and jaw, he winced, noting that the swelling and ugly dark purple and blue discoloration had intensified from the day before, as had the throbbing pain.

 

A slight, almost imperceptible breeze from the barred window overhead touched the water and created a gentle, rippling motion across its smooth surface. Adam watched as his features slowly changed, becoming twisted and distorted; they seemed to mock and taunt him. He closed his eyes, attempting to capture the illusive images from the dream once more, but they danced just out of reach. Glimmering phantoms without substance, all of them except one … the one that showed him a gun in his hand.

 

With a sense of urgency, he angrily plunged his hands into the cool water in an attempt to disperse the image, then bent down to wash the shreds of the dream from his mind. As the water escaped through his fingers, it ran, unchecked, in rivulets down his wrists and forearms, forming puddles that followed the grooved surface of the wooden floor, eventually seeping through the cracks to be absorbed into the dry dust below.

 

Suddenly, his injuries, worry for his father, and a nearly sleepless night took their toll as the room lurched around him. He felt the chill of a cold sweat break out between his shoulder blades and tasted the bitter tang of bile build in the back of his throat. Eyes clenched tightly shut, he forced himself to breathe, deeply and rhythmically, while gripping the edges of the washstand until his knuckles were as white as his complexion beneath the dark stubble. As the dizziness threatened to overtake him, the thunder of the blood rushing in his ears was replaced by laughter, a sadistic, hysterical laughter that he knew instinctively he had heard in his dreams.

 

In a final, furious effort to dispel the shadows from his mind, he reached out and angrily swept the basin off the washstand, sending it crashing to the floor. The sudden expenditure of energy left him sick and shaking and, as the gray weight of fatigue descended upon him, he sank wearily onto the cot, burying his face in his damp and trembling hands.

 

**********

 

Joe walked in to the jail’s outer office, glanced around the room, and breathed a sigh of relief. His anger with Roy hadn’t diminished, but he had to admit that the sheriff was going out of his way to be amenable. When Joe had passed him on the street, Roy had agreed to give him the key to the jail on the condition that Joe hand over his gun. Joe had agreed reluctantly, knowing it was a small price to pay to have some private time with his brother; time he knew they both desperately needed.

 

Quietly, he opened the door to the cell area and drew in a quick breath; his eyes immediately taking in the shattered crockery, the water saturating the floor and the huddled form of his brother on the cot, eyes covered with his hands.

 

In shock and disbelief, Joe exclaimed, “My God, Adam!”

 

Lost in himself, it took Adam several moments to register that there was someone else in the room. Eventually, he slowly raised his head, still breathing heavily, and forced his eyes to focus on his brother. His heart sank, immediately reacting to the despair that he saw in Joe’s eyes and knowing instinctively what must have placed it there. Unable to bear the anguish on his brother’s face, Adam looked away and, swallowing convulsively, gathered his courage.

 

“It’s Pa, isn’t it Joe?”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER X

 

They also serve who only stand and wait.

~ John Milton

 

Hour after interminable hour he waited. Waited for the smallest perceptible twitch of a muscle, the softest groan, the flexing of a finger…anything that would lift the curtain of despair that had descended upon him and give him some hope that his father was still somewhere within reach of coming back.

 

Head bowed over folded hands, he tried once more to do what he had seen his father do uncountable times, anytime he or one of his brothers had been sick or injured. He prayed; prayed for his father’s life and, incredibly, now for his brother’s life as well. The age-old prayer came mechanically to his lips, the cadence of the familiar words soothing to both his ears and tongue. But it seemed that, no matter how tightly he clenched his hands or how fervently he recited the words, somewhere along the way his heart had lost touch with their meaning…they were words, nothing more.

 

**********

 

Joe reflected on his conversation with Adam earlier in the day. His brother’s haggard appearance and obvious depression had shocked him and it had taken him several tense moments to reassure Adam that they hadn’t lost their father, not yet, at least. His condition hadn’t improved, but neither had it deteriorated. They were locked in a waiting game, totally out of their control, and there wasn’t a Cartwright yet born who could claim to be good at that. Adam had peered into his eyes and Joe knew he had been searching to find the truth there. Apparently satisfied that he wasn’t holding anything back, Joe saw Adam relax perceptibly and lean back on the cot so that his back was propped against the wall, his eyes closed tiredly.

 

Adam’s demeanor had shaken Joe to the core. This was not the brother that he had relied on his whole life, the one he would come to when he needed a clear head and a logical solution to his problems. This Adam seemed lost and unsure of himself, almost cowering against the wall beside the cot. Suddenly, it seemed to Joe that his whole world had tilted, that its axis had shifted and sent it wobbling out of his control, and he felt an unfamiliar and heavy burden settle on his shoulders. He found himself in the position of being the one his family needed to lean upon and, with a tight feeling of doubt planted firmly in his stomach, he fervently hoped that he was up to the task.

 

Joe watched impatiently as his brother lay on the cot, not sleeping, but not speaking either; Adam had closed off, retreated into himself. Joe had seen the pattern repeat itself with his brother many times over the years when Adam didn’t want to burden his family with his problems or his needs. Frustrated, he felt the anger, his old defense mechanism, snap into place.

 

“Adam, there must be something we can do…something I can do. Maybe if I go to Bryant…”

 

Suddenly Adam’s eyes snapped open, fear for the danger his brother could get himself into pulling him out of his despondency.

 

“Joe,” Adam’s voice was low but vehement, “You’ll do nothing of the sort, you hear me? You’ll go back to Paul’s, stay with Pa and wait for Hoss to get home. Let Roy handle this.”

 

Joe’s eye’s flashed with anger at the mention of Roy’s name. “Adam, you can’t think that Roy…”

 

Adam cut him off mid-sentence and Joe could clearly hear the fear in Adam’s voice couched beneath the anger. “You’ll do as I say, Joe.”

 

Joe knew by the hard look in Adam’s eyes that there would be no more discussion on the subject. For a moment, he felt the familiar flash of defiance threaten to surface. His brother was still treating him like a kid; when would it ever stop? But truth be told, he had never felt more like a kid, never felt so desperate for someone to take over, to step in and assume the burden.

 

He looked once more at his brother and hid a smile, swallowing his angry retort, and relieved that a small glimmer of the old Adam, the overbearing, overprotective Adam, had shown through. If letting his brother boss him was all that he could do to help restore Adam’s sense of being in control of some small part of his life again, it was a small enough price to pay.

 

Nodding, Joe replied, “Okay, Adam…we’ll do it your way.”

 

**********

 

After holding a sleepless vigil at his father’s side all night, Joe’s eyelids were heavy. His head jerked upright once more as his exhausted body fought for sleep against his will. Resolutely, Joe did the one thing that he could do to help his father and his brother…he began the prayer again.

 

“Our Father, who art in Heaven…”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XI

 

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.

~ Mark Twain

 

Hiram Wood had no sooner hung up his hat when his daughter had rushed into the foyer with the disturbing news; Ben Cartwright had been gunned down and left for dead and Adam had been arrested and charged with murder. So, without even taking the time to brush the trail dust from his vest, Hiram turned and hurried out the door.

 

Hiram decided that his first stop would be Doctor Martin’s office, where he would inquire as the to condition of his old friend and perhaps have an opportunity to speak with Hoss or Joseph. As he neared the doctor’s, he reflected on the debt he owed the Cartwrights, and Adam in particular. He knew that they had just cause to question his abilities, although not his loyalty, after the disturbing incident with his daughter’s fiancé, Jerome Bell. Hiram was well aware that, if it hadn’t been for Adam’s logical and analytical mind, the outcome of that situation might have been drastically different. Joseph would have been hung for murder, his daughter would, no doubt, have gone through with the marriage to a man that they later discovered to be a cold-blooded killer, and Hiram’s reputation as a lawyer in Virginia City would have been forever tarnished. He was gratified to hear that Adam had requested his services personally, for it spoke highly of Adam’s faith in him; a faith that he was not inclined to betray.

 

After stopping at the doctor’s, only to learn that Hoss was out of town and Joseph was at the jail, Hiram altered his plan in order to give the brothers some time alone. He was dismayed at seeing the condition of his dear friend, Ben Cartwright, lying pale and seemingly lifeless on the bed. For a brief moment, he silently congratulated Adam on ridding the world of someone so vile that they could commit such a wanton act. A lesser man would have… but Hiram stopped the thought before it went any further. Adam Cartwright was not a “lesser man.” His client was innocent, perhaps not of the killing, but certainly of premeditated, cold-blooded murder.

 

As he strode past one of the saloons, he wasn’t surprised, despite the early hour, to hear the raucous laughter and piano music drifting from within. It seemed Virginia City never slept. He knew from experience that the rumor mill was undoubtedly already churning, grinding out as much fiction as fact. Rumor and innuendo spread as quickly as a fire through a Virginia City mine, and it was true what they said, that inside every rumor was a modicum of fact. It was his job, as a lawyer, to separate the fact from the fiction; to use the fact to help his client and to prevent the fiction from wreaking too much havoc.

 

He hesitated briefly outside the swinging doors, debating whether to go in. He knew it would seem rather uncommon for a man of his reputation to visit a saloon so early in the day, and he suspected that all discussion on the subject of the killing would most likely cease as soon as he entered the door. He had no doubt, however, that inside wagers were already being made as to the outcome of the trial and, if it did come to trial, from among these men would come the jurors. The Cartwrights, as a wealthy family, acquired as many enemies as friends; enemies whose loyalty could be purchased for the price of a bottle of whiskey by someone unscrupulous enough to want ensure that Adam hang. Hiram felt it was vital that he get a feel for the mood of the town, so he decided to continue on to the International House, which would be soon be filling up with the breakfast crowd, hoping that the clientele there would provide him with some of the information he needed.

 

**********

 

Hiram sat at his table near the window and slowly sipped his third cup of coffee. The time had not been wasted as several people had approached him, aware that he was the Cartwright’s lawyer, and offered their opinions; some supportive, others with somewhat less altruistic motivations. Hiram took note of each, friend or foe, knowing that the information could prove useful if and when the case came to trial.

 

He glanced up as a yet another person cast a shadow on his table and was not surprised to find Roy Coffee looking down at him. Due to their chosen line of work, the two men had often been on opposite sides, but despite this, they still harbored a grudging respect for one another.

 

“Mind if I join you, Hiram?” Roy asked, not waiting for a response as he pulled the chair out to sit down.

 

Hiram nodded, motioning to the waiter to bring another cup of coffee for the sheriff.

“I cain’t tell ya how glad I am to see you back so soon, Hiram. Adam could sure use your help.”

 

Hiram closed his notebook and put on a professional air. “Yes, Roy, I’ll want to speak with you about the evidence you’re planning on presenting against my client.”

 

Roy glanced sharply around at the room, aware that most of the eyes were focused on them in curiosity. “Yessir, I’d be happy to oblige you, but not here. How about you meet me over to the jail?”

 

Hiram nodded his understanding just as a waiter came to their table and presented Roy with a tray covered with a white napkin.

 

Roy stood back up. “And seein’s how you’re planning on heading over there, I wonder if you’d take this tray over with you? I promised Adam I’d get word on his Pa.”

 

At the mention of Ben Cartwright, Hiram’s face became grim. “I’ve just come from there, Roy.” They looked knowingly at each other and nodded; despite their differences, they were of one mind when it came to their mutual friend, Ben Cartwright.

 

“You’ll be wanting to spend some time alone with Adam, I’d expect. If you head on over there now, you might be just in time to catch Little Joe. Anyway, I want to have a word with Doc about Adam’s condition and see Ben for myself.”

 

At the mention of “Adam’s condition,” Hiram looked up curiously at Roy, but the sheriff had already started for the door.

 

As Hiram headed over to the jail, tray in hand, his mood began to brighten. Despite the facts; facts that he had yet to be presented with, he was confident that he could successfully defend his client. He knew from experience that, in any jury trial, ten percent of a juror’s decision was based on fact and ninety percent was based on perception. It was his job to ensure that the jury perceived his client to be innocent, and if there was ever a man that Hiram could trust to present himself coolly and confidently on a witness stand, it would be Adam Cartwright. His reputation as an honest, law-abiding citizen would certainly stand him in good stead.

 

With a lighter step, he opened the door and entered the jail. Setting the tray down on Roy’s desk, he called for Joseph. Hearing no response, he opened the door to the cell area and stopped short. Adam sat on the cot, his head in hands. As he raised his head, Hiram’s heart fell. Adam didn’t look like a man filled with righteous indignation at being falsely accused of murder. He looked like a man who was facing a crisis of conscience. Adam Cartwright looked like a guilty man.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XII

 

I’m very brave generally, he went on in a low voice: only today I happen to have a headache.

~ Lewis Carroll

 

Adam raised his head slowly as he heard the door open once again. At the sight of Hiram Wood standing before him he breathed a sigh of relief.

 

“Hiram.” He stated with satisfaction.

 

As Adam pushed himself off the cot Hiram took a brief moment to compose himself, to cover the shock of seeing Adam Cartwright beaten and broken, defeat written across his face. He had always contended that there wasn’t a lawyer worth his salt who wasn’t also a good actor, and Hiram Wood considered himself to be a very good lawyer. By the time Adam was upright, Hiram’s face was set in a carefully constructed mask, professional, yet concerned.

 

As they shook hands through the bars, Hiram said, “Adam, I want to express my deepest sympathies for your father. Both my daughter and I are praying for his swift recovery.”

 

“Thank you, Hiram, and thank you for coming.”

 

“Not at all, Adam, not at all.” He paused briefly. “Oh, I’d forgotten. I’ve brought your breakfast.” Hiram turned toward the outer office, oblivious of Adam’s sudden loss of color. When he returned to the cell he was nonplussed as he stared at the bars before him. Looking at the plate piled high with food, he felt utterly foolish.

 

Looking up apologetically, he said, “I’m sorry, Adam. I suppose it’s difficult to remember that you’re….well…” He cleared his throat. “Neither Roy nor I thought about the key to the cell.”

 

Adam expelled a humorless sigh, doubting whether he would ever get used to it, either. Of course, if things worked against him, he wouldn’t have long to worry about it. With determination, he shrugged off the morose thought.

 

“Don’t worry about it, Hiram. I’m honestly not hungry.” At the sight and smell of the food, he felt the nausea again threatening to resurface.

Hiram picked up the fork and looked at Adam questioningly. “Perhaps I could…”

 

Adam put up his hand to cut him off quickly. He would rather starve to death than to endure the humiliation of being fed like a child through the bars of the cell. “No, no…Hiram. That won’t be necessary. Maybe just some coffee and a slice of toast. Feel free to eat the meal yourself, if you like. Compliments of Roy Coffee.”

 

Hiram offered Adam a small smile as he handed him the toast and a cup of coffee. He pulled up a chair next to the cell as Adam sat down and began to sip the steaming liquid. In his most reassuring tone, he said with quiet determination, “Adam, we’ll take care of this, don’t you worry.”

 

Don’t worry? Adam couldn’t remember ever hearing a more ridiculous statement uttered in his life. He didn’t put much stock in Hiram’s words. It was what all lawyers told their clients; simple platitudes, reassurances meant to instill confidence and to ease doubt and worry, and for some reason he was unaccountably grateful to hear it now.

 

“All right, Adam. Let’s begin.” Hiram opened his satchel and retrieved the sheaf of papers on which he had recorded his earlier notes. He peered at Adam’s battered and bruised face, the split lip, the swollen cheek, and said, “Roy mentioned something about talking to Doctor Martin about your ‘condition.’”

 

At this Adam’s head snapped up, exposing a flash of raw emotion; anger or simple annoyance, Hiram couldn’t be sure. He forged onward.

 

“It’s obvious from the bruises and swelling on your face that you were the recipient of a severe beating, Adam, but is there anything else that I should know about your physical condition?” He paused, looking at Adam pointedly, and added, “Anything at all?”

 

Adam shook his head. “I’m fine, Hiram.”

 

It was evident to the lawyer that Adam was not “fine.” His posture alone suggested that he was most likely in a good deal of pain. He sat hunched over, left arm bracing his ribs, and when he moved it was with measured and deliberate motions. A faint lingering aroma in the air gave evidence that not long ago he hadn’t been “fine” either. Hiram glanced knowingly at the uneaten piece of toast on the small plate and nodded in understanding.

 

“Adam,” he said with an edge of frustration in his voice. “I’m your lawyer, I’m on your side and I’ll defend you to the best of my ability. But you must tell me everything you know, no matter how small or insignificant, or I can’t do the job that you’ll be paying me so handsomely to do!”

He met the younger man’s eyes with out flinching. ”Now…is there anything else I need to know about your physical condition?”

 

Adam acquiesced, with an effort pushing aside his natural reticence to admit to injury or show physical weakness. “I’ve got a couple of cracked ribs and a pretty bad headache, I suppose.”

 

“Hmm…’pretty bad headache’ as in concussion, perhaps?”

 

Adam reluctantly nodded as Hiram began to take notes. “Adam, I want you to tell me everything you remember about the shooting…leave nothing out.”

 

Adam attempted to take a deep, cleansing breath and stopped abruptly as his cracked ribs screamed in revolt. His eyes shut tightly as he rode out the spasm of pain.

 

Voice shaking perceptibly, he began slowly, haltingly. “I remember opening the door to the stable…looking around, waiting for…waiting for…” He shook his head, brows furrowed as a stab of pain lanced across his forehead. Hiram watched Adam’s hand on the coffee cup, noting the tremors that caused the black liquid to quiver and dance.

 

“Waiting for?” Hiram prodded.

 

Adam let out an exasperated sigh, “That’s just it. I can’t remember anything after that; not until the smoke cleared and Roy and Joe found me standing over the body.” Beads of sweat broke out on his upper lip and forehead and his breathing, although shallow, was quickening.

 

Hiram frowned in consternation. “Surely you can remember something else. Think, man!”

 

“That’s it, Hiram,” Adam’s voice rose in volume as his agitation increased. “I’ve been doing nothing but thinking since this happened. I’ve been trying to remember but I get nothing.” Nightmares don’t count, he thought bitterly.

 

Slowly, Adam forced himself to stand and began nervously pacing the confines of the cell. Hiram could see that every step was an effort but waited quietly as his client attempted to make some sense out of his sparse and jumbled memories. When Adam began again, it was softly, as if talking to himself, and Hiram found he had to strain to hear him.

 

“I walked to the stable…opened the door…walked in…walked in…” Adam repeated himself, laying out the sequence of events in his mind over and over, something he felt he had been doing constantly since yesterday. Each time he hit a brick wall, a brick wall that was too high to climb and too solid to break through. Suddenly the room began to tilt and he reached out instinctively for the bars to steady himself.

 

Hiram jumped from his chair, but with the cell door locked, there was little he could do to support his client. “Adam, please sit down,” he urged, “We can go over this another time, maybe when you’re more rested.”

 

He used his most soothing tone of voice. Adam recognized the tone. It was the one Hoss used when he was trying to calm a wild animal when it was frightened or out of control. He shot Hiram a glare that said, in no uncertain terms, that he would not tolerate mollycoddling or being patronized in any way.

 

Hiram smiled in spite of himself, gratified to see that there was still a lot of fight left in the young man. Fight that he knew Adam would need in the coming days.

 

“All right Adam, let’s try this another way. If you don’t remember the shooting, do you remember the events that led up to it?”

 

Adam turned toward Hiram and nodded, grateful that at last he could make some small contribution to his own defense. He sank back down on the cot and began.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XIII

 

One man in a thousand, Solomon says,

Will stick more close than a brother.

But the Thousandth Man will stand by your side

To the gallows-foot — and after!

~ Rudyard Kipling

 

Roy walked down the now bustling Virginia City sidewalk, greeting citizens with a deceptively casual air but, try as he might to clear his mind of the despair and guilt that crowded it, he had little success. He couldn’t shake the images from his mind; Ben Cartwright’s white face as his life’s blood flowed unchecked from his still form, Adam standing over a dead body with a smoking gun in his hand. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead but, although the day was already promising to be unseasonably warm, he felt a chill pass through his body and shuddered involuntarily.

 

Seeing a good friend in the shape Ben was in was something no man should ever have to go through. Anyone who had been a lawman for as long as Roy had was sure to collect a long list of enemies. Roy always figured that that made him count his friends that much more dearly, and none had been closer to him than Ben Cartwright. Not only did the sheriff have a genuine affection for the man, he had a deep, abiding respect for him as well. He had lived an honorable life, built the Ponderosa into an empire, and almost single-handedly raised three sons that any man would be proud of. He paused, shook his head sadly, wiped his forehead again, and then resolutely continued down the street. Ben Cartwright still had three sons he could be proud of …very proud, and Roy refused to believe any differently.

 

As the sheriff reached the door of the doctor’s office, he paused. The weight of dread planting itself firmly in the pit of his stomach. Quietly he opened the door, entered the main room and hung up his hat. In the corner, Doctor Martin sat, writing at his desk, and glanced up as Roy came in the door. Paul looked at the sheriff and nodded curtly.

 

“Roy.”

 

“Doc.” Roy shifted uncomfortably and cleared his throat. “There been any change?”

 

Paul relented a little when he saw the sincere concern written in the lines on Roy’s face and softened his tone. He shook his head sadly and motioned toward the hallway. “He’s in the back room if you’d like to see him.”

 

Roy hesitated. “Little Joe back there?”

 

Paul nodded. Roy took a deep breath and walked softly down the hallway.

 

At the first door he hesitated, knocked lightly and entered without waiting for a reply. Near the wall, Joe sat, swaying slightly over his father’s bed, his bowed head resting on interlocked fingers. Roy stood, silently watching the deep and steady breathing, and felt his heart go out to the exhausted young man, whom he knew must now feel completely alone for the first time in his life.

 

Outside the world was bright and warm, but here, with the curtains drawn and the window closed, the room had already taken on the pall of death. Medicinal odors hung in the thick, stale air, threatening to suffocate him. In the utter stillness of the room, each small sound stood out starkly against the backdrop of silence, the ticking of the clock on the bureau, the creaking of his boot on the loose floorboard.

 

Roy froze, his second boot raised in the air, but it was too late. Joe’s head jerked upright and he turned with the reflexes of a gunfighter to confront whoever had entered the room. On seeing the sheriff, his eyes flashed and his anger flared.

 

“What are you doing here?” Joe demanded.

 

“Now, you just simmer down, Joe.” Roy whispered, “I just come to pay my respects to your Pa, is all.”

 

Joe’s clenched and unclenched his fists as his anger threatened to overcome him. He stood up quickly, knocking the chair down in his fury. “Respect?” he laughed harshly. His eyes went cold as the accusations dripped from his tongue. “You don’t have any business being here, Roy. My Pa is lying on that bed because you refused to do your job.”

 

Roy looked past the angry young man to the still form lying on the bed and shook his head sadly in acknowledgment of Joe’s words.

 

“Well, Joe, I guess there’s plenty of guilt and blame to go ’round in this. I ain’t too big a man to accept my share.”

 

Joe was momentarily deflated by Roy’s unexpected agreement, but refused to let it douse the flames of his anger.

 

“So what are you gonna do about it?” he demanded.

 

“Little Joe, you just keep your voice down.” Roy warned. “After I talk to Paul I’m gonna start askin’ some questions ‘round town.”

 

Joe jumped on this. “I hope your first stop is Sam Bryant’s.”

 

Roy sighed, frustrated. “Joe…”

 

Mistaking Roy’s hesitation for reluctance, Joe’s voice became louder and more insistent. “Roy, if you don’t bring in Bryant, I’ll take care of this myself.”

 

Roy signed, not surprised that it had come to this. He had been patient for as long as he could, realizing that Joe was understandably distraught, but finally he had had all he could take. Without realizing it, his voice had risen to match Joe’s.

 

“Now you listen here, Little Joe. I’ve half a mind to keep this here gun of yours and to lock you up in my jail for your own protection. ‘Course, once your brother Adam figures out why you’re locked up, it may be him I gotta protect you from!”

 

Joe felt a pang of guilt at the mention of Adam. He had temporarily forgotten the promise he had made to his brother, but he had every intention of keeping it. Roy’s insistence on doing things by the book, dotting every ‘I’ and crossing every ‘T’ was not Joe’s style, but if that’s what Adam wanted him to do, that’s what he would do. He just never said that he would like it.

 

Paul opened the door and quickly came in the room, his anger unmistakable. “What the devil is going on here?” he whispered fiercely. He looked back and forth at the two men, apparently at a standoff.

 

“Roy? Joe?”

 

Roy stood, arms folded and eyes boring into Joe’s. Finally Joe, breathing heavily and with nostrils flaring, turned back to his father. Roy realized that he had won a small victory, but took no pleasure in breaking the spirit of the young man, particularly now.

 

Paul looked apologetically at Roy. He wasn’t without sympathy for the sheriff, but his first priority had to be for the good of his patient and, by extension, his patient’s family.

 

“Roy, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” he said, his tone allowing no arguments.

 

Roy nodded his head, glanced once more at Ben, but stopped as he turned to leave. “Just one more thing, Doc. One of the reasons I come by was to talk to you about Adam.”

 

At the mention of his brother’s name, Joe turned back around, his curiosity piqued, as well as his worry for his brother. Although he still refused to meet Roy’s eyes, he hung on every word the sheriff said.

 

Paul was immediately concerned. “What about him, Roy?”

 

“Well, Doc, seems he ain’t doin’ so good. I doubt if he got more than twenty winks last night, what with all them nightmares and tossin’ and turnin’.”

 

Paul frowned, but Roy’s revelation wasn’t unexpected. “Had he had anything to eat, Roy?”

 

“No sir, I brought him supper last night, but he couldn’t bring hisself to eat a bite.”

 

“Any nausea, Roy? Vomiting?”

 

Roy nodded, “Sometime early this morning, near as I could tell.”

 

“Joe, why didn’t you mention any of this?”

 

Joe was startled out of his thoughts. “Adam didn’t say anything to me about being sick,” he said in his own defense. “I mean, I knew he was really upset, but he refused to talk about it.”

 

Paul hmphed quietly. “Far be it for a Cartwright to tell anyone how they’re feeling, even if they were at death’s door.”

 

Joe glanced sharply at the doctor and then down to his father. Paul noticed the look and bit his lip. “Well, I’ll come by in a bit and check him over. Seems that concussion may have been worse than I originally thought.”

 

“What about his pain, Doc?”

 

“Normally for pain I’d give a small dose of laudanum, but with a concussion, I wouldn’t risk it. Besides, laudanum can have some pretty interesting side effects and, if what you say is true, Adam doesn’t need another bout with nightmares. I’ve got some medicinal herbs that can sooth the stomach and maybe help him to sleep a little. I’ll bring them by shortly.”

 

Roy turned to leave the room once more. “I’ll be lookin’ for ya later then, Doc.” He glanced back at the young man in the corner and nodded, “Little Joe.”

 

Joe had listened quietly to the exchange between the doctor and the sheriff. He felt a pang of jealousy when he realized that Roy had been there for his brother, had seen the telltale signs that Adam was more hurt than he let on, signs that Joe had missed. Then, as he looked down at his Pa once again, frail and unconscious, the reality of the situation hit him. He couldn’t be in two places at the same time. His father needed him. What was more, Adam needed him to be with their father in his stead.

 

Joe glanced up at the sheriff. The fondness that Roy had for his brother showed clearly in the older man’s eyes, as did the worry. Joe found himself feeling grateful that someone had been there for Adam, had woken him from his nightmares and kept watch over him.

 

Joe grudgingly offered Roy a slight nod in acknowledgment. “Roy.”

 

Roy walked down the hall and toward the front door, shaking his head. Not for the first time, he wondered how such different personalities could all come from the same Pa. He was glad that Hiram had arrived. Adam needed someone on his side right now, someone he could count on, someone calm and steady, not like Little Joe, who could only serve to distract him and sap his energy. Roy surely wished that Hoss would get home. If anyone could ride herd on Little Joe, short of Adam, it would be Hoss.

 

Standing on the doctor’s porch, Roy took out his pocket watch and checked the time. Hiram had been with Adam for about an hour. He decided he would give them another hour before interrupting them. He knew Hiram would be anxious to talk to him, but he felt a strong urge to put it off as long as he could. Roy was in no hurry to divulge what he knew…that one piece of irrefutable evidence he possessed that would nail the lid on the coffin of Adam Cartwright’s defense.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XIV

 

Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.

~ Voltaire

 

Roy walked down the street, oblivious to the passers by, lost in his own thoughts. After all these years, he knew he should be accustomed to Joe’s temper; the boy was long on loyalty, but short on fuse…an often explosive combination. This time, however, he couldn’t deny that Joe had good reason for his anger. His instincts told him that Ben was right that day when he stormed into his office and demanded action, but his pride had gotten in the way. He shook his head ruefully. If he couldn’t trust his instincts, he knew he should have at least trusted his friend, and if Joe lay the blame of Ben’s injury solidly on Roy’s shoulders, well…maybe that was just where it belonged.

 

**********

 

Buried alive. That’s what it felt like, being buried alive. But it wasn’t six feet of dirt that covered him, it was a mountain of paperwork. He grimaced as he mentally counted the piles, multiplying them by the amount of time it would take to deal with each and figured that he just might make it out of the office by Christmas…if he was lucky.

 

He had been pushing the stacks around all morning, taking from one and adding it to the other. Ever since his deputy got laid up with that bullet wound to the leg, things had been piling up…and up. It wasn’t a bad wound, but Roy had given the young man some time off to recuperate. The sheriff thought about the week that Adam spent with him, how the piles seemed to miraculously disappear, each into it’s own appointed spot, all neat and tidy. An idea hit him and he began to smile. That was who he needed around here. Maybe when Hoss got back from his trip in a few days, Ben would see clear to let him deputize Adam, just for a short time, just until he caught up. It ever there was someone that Roy could trust to do what needed to be done and not get in his way, it was Adam Cartwright. That boy would make a good lawman, he thought fondly. With a tentative plan in mind, he grudgingly went back to his efforts to make a small dent in the mountain of paperwork with renewed vigor.

 

Roy heard the heavy, purposeful footsteps echo on the wooden sidewalk that ran in front of the sheriff’s office and knew that, whoever it was, he was on a mission. Inwardly he groaned at the inevitable distraction from his paperwork and, as the door flew open, he didn’t take the time to look up.

 

“I’ll be with you in just a minute.”

 

“Roy, I need to talk to you.”

 

Roy smiled to himself. Ben Cartwright just saved him a long trip out to the Ponderosa. He could tell by the tone of his voice that Ben had a bee in his bonnet about something. He just hoped it wasn’t the same thing he had been badgering him about for the last couple of weeks.

 

“Just gimme a minute here, Ben,” Roy repeated as he blew the wax dry on the letter he had just sealed.

 

Ben frowned at Roy’s seeming dismissal and plunged forward. “Roy, when are you finally going to do something about Bryant? Do we have to wait until he takes over the whole town again before he’s stopped?”

 

Roy expelled a long-suffering sigh. He looked up to meet Ben in the eye. “Ben, we been over this time and agin’. Bryant’s paid his debt to society, he’s opened a legal gamblin’ hall.”

 

Ben started to object, but Roy put up a hand to forestall him.

 

“Now, I don’t like the man any more than you do.”

 

“I find that highly doubtful, Roy.” Ben interjected.

 

Roy continued unabatedly, “And until he does something illegal there ain’t nothing I can do.”

 

Ben slammed his fist on Roy’s desk, sending the neatly arranged piles flying, and bellowed, “You don’t call extortion illegal?”

 

Roy cringed as he saw the results of several hours of work floating to the floor. “Now, Ben,” he said calmly, attempting to placate his old friend as he picked up a wayward letter, “Until I got proof, I cain’t go accusin’ nobody or they’ll be having my head for slander, you know that.”

 

“Roy, since when are you more interested in your own neck than the people of Virginia City?”

 

Roy’s patience was wearing thin. All thoughts about recruiting Adam as temporary deputy were abandoned. He stood up and faced his friend.

 

“And what kind of evidence do you have for me to show a judge, can ya tell me that? There ain’t one person willing to step up and say anythin’ agin’ the man and until there is, my hands are tied.”

 

“If you’re not going to do something soon about Bryant, Roy, this time I’ll agree with the recommendation of the council and we’ll bring in someone who will!”

 

Roy realized that it was just Ben’s frustration talking, and, truth be told, he was frustrated himself. Often in his job, he found that he was prevented from doing what he knew was right. But he justified it by telling himself that the rules that sometimes seemed to help the guilty were the same rules that often protected the innocent. It was a bitter trade. Today, however, he was in no mood to deal with Ben’s accusations. He had a million things to do and Ben had succeeded in getting him riled.

 

“Ben, you just head on back to that ranch of yours and I’ll run my town the way I see fit! Now, I got a mile of paperwork that ain’t getting’ done any faster with your help!”

 

The two old friends stood, matching each other glare for glare, like two Bighorn sheep, sizing each other up before they butted heads once more. Then, with a very audible humph, Ben shoved his hat back on this head, turned and left, slamming the door in his wake, the breeze from the door sending the few remaining piles into the air. Slapping one hand to his forehead, Roy shook his head in exasperation.

 

**********

 

As he continued down the street, Roy chastised himself. He should have realized where Ben was headed that day. He should have dropped all the blasted paperwork and joined his friend. If he had, maybe Ben wouldn’t be lying near death, their last words spoken in anger. Maybe Adam would be sitting over in his office right now, trudging through the mountain of paperwork instead of sitting in a cold cell waiting to learn his fate.

 

“Sheriff! Sheriff Coffee!”

 

Roy was pulled from his thoughts by the sound of someone calling his name. Inwardly, he cringed. He knew that voice and it was one of the last he wanted to hear today. Taking a moment to plaster a benevolent smile on his face, the one he used when he talked to politicians, he turned to face the man who was quickly crossing the street to meet him.

 

“Sheriff Coffee, is it true what I’ve heard?” Mr. Weems demanded, as he stopped to catch his breath.

 

Roy sighed. To even a casual observer, it would be obvious that the two men harbored a mutual disdain for each other. Roy had always seen the banker as a man overly concerned with appearance and his own sense of importance. Unfortunately, there was no use pretending he didn’t know what Weems was referring to, the news was certainly all over town by now, but Roy decided to try anyway.

 

“Well, now, Mr. Weems, I guess that depends on what you’ve heard, now don’t it?”

 

Mr. Weems scowled at the sheriff, whom he had always thought of as unsophisticated and provincial. But, although personally he didn’t think much of the man, he knew Roy Coffee had his finger on the pulse of the town.

 

“You know perfectly well what I’m talking about, Sheriff. Do you or do you not have Adam Cartwright in your jail on murder charges?”

 

Roy tried to maintain his calm demeanor. It served no purpose to get a man like Weems riled, he had friends on the town council and had the ear of the mayor, but Roy was tempted…sorely tempted.

 

As politely as he could manage, Roy said, “Mr. Weems, you ought to know that I cain’t discuss particulars of a case with a citizen, especially not out in the middle of a public street. Now, it’s true that Adam Cartwright is in jail, but as for the charges, that’s between the parties involved. Now, if ya don’t mind…”

 

Roy nodded and turned to take his leave when Weem’s hand quickly shot out and clamped onto his forearm. The sheriff froze, looked pointedly at the hand on his arm, and then back to Weems. His eyes promised that if the banker didn’t remove his hand, he would no longer have a hand to remove.

 

Grudgingly, Mr. Weems complied, but his tone didn’t soften.

 

“See here, Sheriff. The Ponderosa is big business in this town, BIG business. I don’t have to tell you that. With Ben Cartwright seriously injured, and Adam going on trial for murder…well, that doesn’t bode well for business. Now, if it were just Ben, I’d say that Adam could run the ranch and their other holdings himself, but with Adam out…well, you know as well as I do that those two younger boys don’t have the head for business that their Pa and brother do….”

 

Roy stood listening to Weems, the heat rising in him until it was ready to boil over. “Now, let me see if I understand you,” he began, “You’ve known Ben Cartwright nigh onto twenty years, that about right?”

 

Weems nodded, a skeptical look in his eye.

 

Roy continued. “You’ve done business with the man, probably shared a drink or two at the saloon on a Saturday night, worshipped next to him on Sunday, ain’t that right?” Roy’s voice had been steadily rising and several people had stopped on the street to watch.

 

Weems glanced around in mute embarrassment. The sheriff was showing every intention of making a public scene, something the banker always tried his best to avoid.

 

By this time, Roy’s voice could be heard inside the shops and saloons. “And you mean to tell me that the best you can offer is ‘I hope Ben don’t die and his son don’t hang because it’ll be bad for business’? Roy glared at Weems with disgust.

 

“Seems to me that it’s times like these that a man gets a true reckonin’ of who his real friends are, don’t ya think?” he asked sarcastically. “Now, I got more important things to do with my time than to stand in the middle of the sidewalk listenin’ to some popinjay banker!”

 

Roy could see the daggers shooting at him from Weems’ eyes. It was clear he hadn’t made a friend today, but he hadn’t lost one either. And, while he may indeed have jeopardized his job, Roy wasn’t sure that his job was something he was so anxious to hold onto, anyway. So, without giving Weems the time to respond, he turned and walked away.

 

It took Weems a minute to regain his composure. Around him, a crowd of twenty or more people had stopped to watch the spectacle, the town sheriff yelling at the top of his lungs at one of Virginia City’s most respected businessmen.

 

With contempt in his voice, he called to the back of the departing sheriff, “Coffee, what about you? Do you honestly think when Ben Cartwright regains consciousness, he’ll still consider you his best friend, after you’ve hung his son?”

 

Roy’s only visible reaction was a slight stiffening of the spine as he walked down the street. The banker’s words cut him to the quick, for there was more than a little truth in them. He knew with a sickening certainty that he had traded his job and his duty for his best friend.

 

*********

 

CHAPTER XV

 

Now is the winter of our discontent…

~ William Shakespeare

 

“All right, Adam. Let’s start with the day your father was injured.”

 

Adam closed his eyes in an attempt to concentrate and was gratified when the memories began to flow unbidden to his mind. A small smile played on his lips as he though about how the day had begun…

 

**********

 

The two brothers sat in the barn across from each other, each intent on the task at hand, Adam fixing the leather on a broken harness and Joe polishing his saddle. They worked in companionable silence. Suddenly, Joe spoke up.

 

“Adam, I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”

 

Adam sighed deeply before he looked at his brother. He didn’t have to be told what Joe was referring to, it was written on his face.

 

“Joe, I thought we agreed not to talk about it? Talking about it only makes it worse and it doesn’t change anything.” Adam said reasonably.

 

Resigned, Joe nodded and resumed his task. Suddenly a very audible rumble was heard and Joe looked at Adam apologetically.

 

“I can’t help it, Adam. I’m hungry! Who’s bright idea was it to send Hop Sing on a vacation anyway?”

 

Adam chuckled, “Only made sense, Joe. He was long overdue for one, and with Hoss gone the timing was perfect. You remember how miserable Hoss was the last time Hop Sing went on vacation? He was almost impossible to live with. This way, everyone’s happy.”

 

Joe’s stomach rumbled again. “Well, I’m not happy. If only Pa….”

 

“Pa does his best, Joe.” Secretly, he wholeheartedly agreed with his brother. Ben Cartwright was a wonderful father, a skilled businessman, a successful rancher; however, if there was one thing he was not, it was a gourmet cook. “If you’re so hungry, I’m positive there are some leftovers from lunch,” Adam said with a sly smirk on his face.

 

“Very funny, Adam.” Like most cowboys, his father could manage for himself quite satisfactorily when out on the trail, but that was where his culinary skills ended. How many different ways were there to prepare jerky and beans? Joe was terrified that they would soon find out.

 

“Maybe if we sort of suggested that he not try to make the food so…” Joe searched his mind for the appropriate word, “….interesting.”

 

Adam looked pointedly at Joe, “Do you want to tell him?”

 

Joe hung his head, acknowledging his defeat, and silently resigned himself to two more weeks of jerky and beans.

 

Suddenly, his stomach rumbled more forcefully and when they looked at each other, both brothers burst out laughing.

 

“What’s so funny, gentlemen?”

 

Abruptly, the laughter ended, each immediately wondering just how long their father had been outside the door and how much he had overheard. They both knew from bitter experience that their father was not above eavesdropping when it suited his purpose.

 

“Pa.” Adam said, his tone instantly neutral. It was obvious to him from the expression on his father’s face that he had, indeed, been eavesdropping and knew precisely what they had been discussing.

 

“Hi, Pa.” Joe added, swallowing nervously.

 

Ben squinted his eyes in suspicion at his two sons. Adam had always been a master at controlling his facial expressions, only letting people see what he wanted them to see. Joe, on the other hand, was an open book, and right now it clearly read guilt and embarrassment.

 

Ben could hardly keep his face straight as he said, “Boys, I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at another bean again.” He looked pointedly at the two eager faces. “How about treating ourselves to a good meal at the International House tonight? We haven’t been to town in a while, and we are expecting a telegram from Hoss. What do you say?”

 

Adam and Joe looked at each other with shocked delight and, more quickly than Ben would have thought possible, three saddled horses were heading down the road to Virginia City.

 

**********

 

As he recalled that afternoon, Adam realized that it had been one of those nearly flawless moments, the ones one only recognized in retrospect. It had been a beautiful day, the ranch was thriving, and they were happy and healthy. Together they had ridden side by side, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. It reminded him of the last perfect day of Indian summer, just before the first chilling winter winds. But this time, the winds weren’t announcing a change in season, they were ushering in a change in his life, one without the promise of an early spring. He wondered wistfully if this was destined to be his last happy memory. If so, it would have to sustain him, sustain him through the gray winter that loomed on the horizon.

 

“Adam? Adam?”

 

Adam shook his head as Hiram’s voice broke through his reverie. The lawyer wasn’t interested in perfect days and sustaining memories. He needed facts, dates, times…tangible things on which to build his case.

 

“Sorry, Hiram. What did you say?”

 

Hiram looked worriedly at Adam but continued, “I asked what you did when you got to town.”

 

Adam shrugged slightly as he took a sip of his coffee. “Things had been busy on the ranch with Hoss gone. None of us had been to town in quite a while so we all had things we needed to take care of. We decided to meet at the International at 6:00 for dinner, then we went our separate ways.”

 

“Can you tell me where each of you went and for how long?” Hiram asked as he scribbled his notes.

 

“I went to the telegraph office to check on word from Hoss, Pa went off in the direction of Michelson’s Mercantile and Joe….” He paused, a brief flicker of concern crossing his face. Was his memory failing him again, even on details as simple as this? He closed his eyes and concentrated. No, he hadn’t known where Joe was headed that day. He breathed a small sign of relief. “I think Joe probably went to the saloon, but he didn’t say at the time.”

 

“And then?” Hiram encouraged.

 

“After an hour or so, I was walking down the street and I saw Pa standing outside Michelson’s store with a look on his face that I knew meant trouble.”

 

Hiram glanced up from the notes he had been scribbling. “Trouble? What made you think it meant trouble?”

 

Adam smiled and chuckled quietly, “My brothers and I have spent our entire lives trying to avoid that ‘look.’ Believe me, when I say it meant trouble, it meant trouble.”

 

Hiram smiled as well, accepting Adam’s answer. Ben Cartwright had a reputation of being a loving but stern father.

 

“And who was the unfortunate recipient of this ‘look’…do you have any idea?”

 

Adam nodded and answered quietly, “There was a man walking down the street in the opposite direction, about 50 yards away.”

 

“Any idea who he was?” Hiram prodded when Adam seemed reluctant to continue.

 

Then, very quietly, Adam replied, “It was Oren Tate.”

 

Hiram hesitated, “Oren Tate? The man…”

 

Adam glanced up sharply and looked him straight in the eye. “Yes, Oren Tate…the man I killed.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XVI

 

Mine honour is my life; both grow in one; take honour from me and my life is done.

~ William Shakespeare

 

There was an uncomfortable pause as lawyer and client looked at each other. Finally, Hiram spoke. “Adam, I’m not prepared to believe you committed murder.”

 

“You can believe it or not, Hiram, but you and I both know that it may be true.” Adam took another sip of his coffee, scowling when he realized that it had gone cold.

 

Hiram didn’t respond. He knew the dangers of allowing his client to get mired down in destructive emotions and he was beginning to recognize the telltale symptoms in Adam. First came self-blame and then self-pity, both a waste of precious time – time that they didn’t have to spare.

 

Hiram firmly continued. “Adam, did your father actually say that Tate threatened him? Physically threatened him?”

 

Adam glanced up sharply, the question hanging in the air between them. A simple question with a simple answer – yes or no, and yet both knew the answer could be critical to the outcome of the case. If Tate had threatened Adam’s father with bodily harm, a jury would possibly be more sympathetic, would understand a young man avenging the attempted murder of his father. He may still be convicted, but he might escape the noose.

 

It would be so easy to say ‘yes,” Adam thought wearily. One little word…and after all, what was one small lie compared to the crime of murder he’d supposedly committed? And if the blame shifted to Tate and Bryant…well, wasn’t that where it belonged?

 

Adam believed that it was Tate who shot his father, and that Bryant was behind it. He had seen the look his father had directed toward Tate as he walked down the street that day; it was burned into his memory. Could he give the lawyer facts, repeat threats directed at his father and his family? Ruefully, he admitted to himself that he could not, but that didn’t change what he felt in his heart to be true.

 

The temptation that washed over him was strong, almost too strong to resist in his current condition – just say ‘yes,” and maybe this would all somehow go away…and he desperately wanted it to go away, wanted to leave this cold, stinking cell and rush to his father’s side where he belonged.

 

So, Adam thought, this is what it had finally come down to – lying to defend himself against a crime that he may very well have committed. Suddenly he was filled with an overwhelming sense of self-loathing. He had spent an entire lifetime priding himself on taking the moral high ground and now…now that his own neck was at stake, he watched the foundation that he had built his life on crumble, turning from bedrock to dangerously shifting sand. He felt adrift, lost at sea, with no compass to help him find his way. Bitterly, he thought of his father. What would Ben Cartwright think of his son now?

 

**********

 

Hiram watched in curious fascination as the battle waged itself on Adam’s face. This was the critical moment, one that he had witnessed many times, the moment when a man had to make the decision which way he was going to go, a lie or the truth. In his experience, the majority chose the lie. He sat back and patiently waited to see how it would play out this time.

 

Adam, swaying slightly, closed his eyes tightly as his head began to throb again in earnest. Concerned, Hiram called out softly, “Adam? Adam…”

 

Adam heard a voice calling his name, but it wasn’t Hiram’s or even his own. It was his father’s voice; age-worn and full of wisdom and compassion, a voice he was afraid he would never hear again. With a surge of relief Adam realized that he hadn’t lost his compass after all, it was with him, would always be with him, as long as he was his father’s son.

 

Adam took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and looked Hiram directly in the eye.

 

“No, Hiram, Tate didn’t threaten my father.”

 

Hiram let a small smile come to his face; he was both disappointed and delighted at the same time. Adam’s answer wouldn’t make his job any easier. A jury would have been far more sympathetic if Tate had actually threatened Ben Cartwright. Guilty or innocent, Hiram would have defended Adam either way; it was his job as his lawyer. He knew, however, that any man who struggled that hard and came out on the side of telling the truth, even though it may hurt him and those he loves, could not have committed the crime of which Adam was accused.

 

As he looked at the man before him, rumpled, beaten and ill, he knew in his heart that he was looking at an innocent man.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XVII

 

A false friend and a shadow attend only while the sun shines.

~ Benjamin Franklin

 

Continuing down the street, Roy rebuked himself for losing his temper with the banker. He wouldn’t be doing Adam any favors by antagonizing every citizen that approached him. He had to keep his emotions in check – it was his job, his duty, but knowing how he felt about Adam and what his friend was going to face, he also knew it would be one of the hardest things he had ever had to do.

 

The evidence was strong, overwhelming, in fact, pointing squarely in the direction of Adam’s guilt. Both Roy and Joe had seen him standing over the body of the dead man, his gun in hand, not another soul in the stable. It was an “open and shut” case, and no jury worth the dollar a day they were paid would spend more than ten minutes deliberating before reaching a “guilty” verdict.

 

There was just one little problem; this was Adam Cartwright, and Roy knew Adam Cartwright. Rock solid evidence or not, something just didn’t set well with him. A man didn’t go against a lifetime of beliefs without a powerful good reason. Roy scowled; Little Joe was right, it was time to start asking some very serious questions, and he thought he knew just where to start.

 

With more purposeful strides, Roy turned the corner and was gratified to see Mrs. Michelson on the sidewalk outside of the store, arranging a display of buckets and brooms.

 

He approached and took off his hat. “Mrs. Michelson, how do, Ma’am?”

 

Rosalie Michelson looked up, startled at seeing Virginia City’s sheriff standing in front of her, but quickly regained her composure.

 

“Oh, Sheriff Coffee, I’m fine, just fine,” she replied.

 

Roy’s brows furrowed as he detected a slight tremor in her voice. He knew that the Michelsons were good friends of the Cartwrights. Ben had even invited their son, Albert, to stay at the Ponderosa while he was preparing for the examination to enter the Naval Academy. Even so, after his previous encounter with Weems, he decided to tread lightly and carefully.

 

“And how is that son of yours doing out there in Maryland? Hear from him lately?”

 

Rosalie Michelson’s face took on the universal look of pride that a mother has when talking about her son. Roy inwardly smiled when his plan succeeded and she began to relax.

 

“He is very busy with his studies at the Naval Academy, but we received a letter last week.” She would have gone on, but just then Samuel Michelson came out of the mercantile, wiping his hands on his apron. He looked suspiciously at Roy, gave him a small nod, then turned to his wife. “Rosalie, what are you and the sheriff talking about?”

 

Rosalie’s smile quickly disappeared as her eyes cast downward.

 

“Samuel, we was just talkin’ about how young Albert was doin’ at the Naval Academy.”

 

Samuel’s eyes did not lose their wary look as he glanced down at his wife.

 

Roy noticed this and decided that he had better move things along. “I was wonderin’ if I could ask you and your wife a question or two if you don’t mind.”

 

“Questions? Questions about what, Sheriff?”

 

“Well, sir, questions about the day that Ben Cartwright was shot.”

 

Rosalie quickly glanced at her husband as he frowned and shook his head at her almost imperceptibly. Roy carefully followed the Michelson’s reactions, filing the information away.

 

Samuel looked nervously up and down the street before murmuring under his breath.

 

“Not here, please, come into the store.”

 

Roy gave Samuel an understanding look then followed them through the curtain and sat down. Placing his hat on the table, he couldn’t help but notice again how uncomfortable the Michelsons appeared in his presence. Mrs. Michelson busied herself with preparing coffee and placed a plate of cookies on the table in front of Roy.

 

“Thank you kindly Mrs. Michelson.” Roy said conversationally.

 

“Sheriff,” Samuel began brusquely, “I don’t understand why you would need to talk to us. We know nothing about how Ben Cartwright became injured.”

 

Rosalie interrupted, concern plainly visible in her eyes, “Sheriff, how is Mr. Cartwright? Will he…” she let her sentence fall off.

 

“Rosalie, I ain’t one to ever count Ben Cartwright out, but right now it don’t look good…don’t look good at all,” Roy said.

 

Rosalie nodded, biting her lower lip while her hands were unconsciously ringing the hem of her apron.

 

“Sheriff, again I ask you, what do you want from us?” Samuel asked impatiently.

 

Roy forced himself to take on a casual air, picked up a cookie and dunked it into his hot coffee.

 

“Well, sir, Adam come by my office about eight o’clock the night of the shootin’ fit to be tied. Seems his Pa was late meetin’ him and Little Joe at the International for supper and…”

 

“Sheriff, I still don’t understand…” Samuel began, and Roy again got the feeling that the Michelsons were anything but happy to have him sitting at their kitchen table.

 

Roy put up his hand to forestall the question. “Adam said that he had seen his Pa outside your store that afternoon. Said that his Pa got the idea that one of Sam Bryant’s men was causin’ some trouble in your shop.”

 

Roy watched as Rosalie Michelson’s eyes quickly darted to her husband’s and then looked away. “Anything you can tell me about that? Or about a man named Oren Tate?”

 

Mrs. Michelson opened her mouth to speak when her husband cut her off with a look. “Sheriff, of course we have heard the news about Adam Cartwright and this Tate, but it has nothing to do with us. Ben Cartwright must have been mistaken.” His voice had taken on an appeasing tone that Roy knew from experience meant Samuel Michelson was hiding something.

 

Mrs. Michelson finally gathered her courage and spoke, despite her husband’s disapproval. “Sheriff, please, is there anything we can do for Adam? He has done so much for our Albert, we would like to help him in any way we can.”

 

“Well, Ma’am, unless you can tell me something about that afternoon….”

 

Once again, Mr. Michelson spoke up, but this time Roy detected the sadness and regret in his voice. “We’re sorry, Sheriff. We can tell you nothing.”

 

Frustrated, Roy nodded his head, stood and put on his hat, struggling to keep control of his temper. “Samuel, Mrs. Michelson,” he said tersely, as he pulled the curtain aside and took his leave.

 

**********

 

As soon as she heard the small bell on the door that told them Roy had left the shop, Rosalie Michelson turned to her husband with a look of anger on her face.

 

“Samuel, how could you lie like that? And to the Sheriff?” she said in disgust.

 

“Rosalie, we’ve discussed this, we’ve made a decision.” Samuel sternly reminded her. “I feel just as badly about it as you do…”

 

“But these are the Cartwrights, Samuel! They’ve done so much for us, for Albert. How can you just….” Her voice broke as tears of anger and frustration threatened to fall.

 

Samuel’s demeanor softened as he looked at his distraught wife. She didn’t understand, he realized. They had faced prejudice before, they had dealt with discrimination, but this was very different. This time, the men they were dealing with were not targeting them because of their faith, they were targeting them simply because they were evil men and Samuel was afraid…very afraid.

 

“Rosalie, you’ve heard their threats. They won’t hesitate to carry them out.”

 

“But the law…”

 

“The law!” Samuel responded bitterly, “The law cannot help us. One minute, one match….that’s all it would take to destroy a lifetime of hard work. How can the law protect us from that?”

 

As Rosalie looked at her husband, it was for her as if she was seeing him for the first time, and she found that she was ashamed of what she saw.

 

“Samuel,” she replied in contempt, “You are speaking of ‘things,’ a building, pails and brooms! I am talking about a man’s life! Adam Cartwright’s life!”

 

Samuel shook his head and replied sadly, “Adam Cartwright would understand.”

 

**********

 

For the second time that day, Roy found himself almost grateful that Ben Cartwright was unconscious. At least that way he wouldn’t feel the bitter sting of knowing that the people he considered his close friends were disappearing like rats deserting a sinking ship.

 

Roy’s instincts told him that the Michelson’s knew much more than they were willing to admit, but they were afraid, and he had a pretty good idea of who was causing that fear. Somehow, he needed to earn their trust; Adam’s life could depend on it. He couldn’t help but think of the old saying, “With friends like these….”

 

Roy was almost two blocks down the street when someone calling his name interrupted his thoughts.

 

“Sheriff! Sheriff Coffee!”

 

He turned and waited as Rosalie Michelson hurried down the sidewalk. A glimmer of hope sprung up in him, only to be dashed when she began to speak.

 

“Sheriff, could you please take these cookies over to Adam? It’s the least we can do.”

 

As he looked back toward the store, he nodded his head in understanding. Samuel Michelson stood on the sidewalk watching them with a guarded expression. Rosalie followed his gaze. Turning back to Roy, she shoved the plate of cookies into his hands, and whispered under her breath, “I’m sorry, Sheriff, so very sorry.” Turning, she quickly walked away.

 

Roy stood on the sidewalk, staring disbelievingly at the plate of cookies in his hands and sadly shook his head. It certainly was the ‘least’ they could do.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XVIII

 

How fast has brother followed brother, from sunshine to the sunless land.

~ William Wordsworth

 

“Mr. Cartwright? Mr. Cartwright?”

 

Hoss had been lost in thought, staring out the window of the coach as the monotonous landscape seemed to creep by. He turned his attention back to the elderly woman who had shared the stagecoach with him for the past several miles and smiled politely.

 

“Yesm’ Miz Elnora?”

 

“I said it certainly is a warm day, isn’t it?”

 

“Yesm’, it surely is,” he replied. Warm didn’t begin to describe it, Hoss thought as he wiped the sweat from his forehead. He had begun to think that the inside of a stagecoach was the hottest place on earth. When the shades were drawn they had some relief from the glaring sun but the lack of anything resembling a breeze was stifling. When they raised them, a layer of thick dust would coat their clothing and lodge in the back of their throats and eyes until they watered and burned.

 

He frowned as Elnora fanned her flushed face with her lace handkerchief.

 

“Ma’am, are you alright? Hoss asked, voicing his concern.

 

“Oh, yes, Mr. Cartwright. It’s just this heat. I’ll be quite relieved to reach Virginia City.”

 

Hoss nodded in agreement while he pulled a rumpled telegram from his vest pocket and read it once more. He didn’t really know why he bothered, the meager contents had been committed to memory long ago, but feeling it in his hands gave him something to hold on to when it seemed like everything around him was falling apart.

 

“Pa shot. Condition grave. Come home now. Adam.”

 

Never a man to use two words when one would do, Adam had outdone himself this time and, frustrated and worried, Hoss was left to read between the lines. Adam had left out the specifics, but Hoss could sense the urgency in the tone of the wire and it made his blood run cold. Only one thing was certain; his family needed him. So, abandoning business, he booked passage on the next stage headed west.

 

Worry for his father consumed him, but his concern for his brothers wasn’t far behind. Adam, no doubt, had his hands full, not only with their Pa, but with Joe as well. Hoss knew his little brother. If someone had intentionally hurt their father, Joe would move heaven and earth to ensure they paid a heavy price. The incident with Red Twilight was proof enough of that. Hoss shuddered to think of what might have happened if Adam hadn’t been there. His younger brother’s temper could have very easily ruined his life.

 

Now, in the final few miles of what seemed like an endless journey, the nervous energy that had been building became almost unbearable as he mentally urged the horses to pick up the pace. Finally, mercifully, they reached the outskirts of Virginia City.

 

Before the stage had come to a complete stop at the depot, Mike, the attendant, was there to meet it. Hoss, no longer able to contain his impatience, had already opened the door and hopped to the ground even as the stage was rolling to a stop.

 

“Miz Elnora,” Hoss said with feigned patience as he reached in to assist the women off the stage.

 

“Howdy, Mr. Cartwright,” Mike, the stage attendant said laconically as he began to unload the luggage from the upper deck.

 

“Mike.” Hoss replied distractedly as he scanned the busy street.

 

Neither of his brothers were waiting at the depot, but Hoss wasn’t concerned. He had managed to catch an earlier stage and hadn’t had time to wire them so they wouldn’t be expecting him until much later in the afternoon. Besides, Hoss knew exactly were they were, where he would soon be – at his father’s side.

 

Still, there was something different, something unusual. Hoss couldn’t quite put his finger on it. As he helped Mike with Mrs. Huxley’s cumbersome trunk, suddenly it hit him – Roy. Roy Coffee met virtually every incoming stage. It was one of the ways he kept an eye out for possible trouble in his town. It was a sure-fire guarantee… if a stranger was in Virginia City, the sheriff knew about it. An incoming stage without Roy to meet it was like a wedding without a bride.

 

Setting the trunk down heavily on the sidewalk, Hoss turned to the elderly woman who was brushing off the layer of trail dust and smoothing the travel wrinkles from her dress.

 

“Ma’am, it shore has been a pleasure travelin’ with you. I hope you enjoy yer stay here in Virginia City.” Hoss tipped his finger to his hat, nodded his head, and reached hurriedly for his travel bag.

 

“Um, Mr. Cartwright…”

 

Hoss turned around again, sighing inwardly. “Yesm’ Miz Elnora?”

 

“I hate to trouble you further, Mr. Cartwright, but I wonder if you might direct me to a nearby hotel?”

 

Hoss tried to hide his growing impatience. The sense of urgency to be at his father’s side was overwhelming. The telegram he had received from Adam was now over two days old and there was no telling what could have happened in that amount of time. Yet it would only take a few minutes to escort the woman over to the hotel; what was a few minutes more? Hoss looked at Miz Elnora, leaning against the trunk that was almost the same height as her as she dabbed the perspiration from her brow and sighed resignedly. If there was one thing he knew for certain, sick or well, wounded or whole, his father would have his hide if he left this elderly woman alone in the middle of the sidewalk.

 

“Miz Elnora, I’m forgettin’ my manners. The International House is just up the road a piece. It’s as nice as they come.”

 

Hoss’ reward was the relieved smile on Elnora Huxley’s face. As he hefted the massive trunk and shifted it awkwardly to his shoulder, he called around to the front of the coach where Mike had just begun to unharness the team.

 

“Hey, Mike!”

 

Mike poked his head around the side of the stage. “Yessir, Mr. Cartwright?”

 

“Do me a favor, will ya? Take my things into the depot for me. I’ll be back to fetch ‘em later.” Hoss turned to catch up with Mrs. Huxley as she started across the busy street.

 

“Sure thing, Mr. Cartwright.” Mike called at his back. “By the way, sorry ‘bout your brother.”

 

“Thanks, Mike,” Hoss replied over his shoulder as he dodged an oncoming wagon. Suddenly, what Mike’s words registered with him and he paused in the middle of the street. Brother? He shook his head and glanced back, certain that he had misunderstood what the attendant had said, but both Mike and the luggage had already disappeared into the depot.

 

“Are you coming, Mr. Cartwright?” Mrs. Huxley called from the other side of the street.

 

“Yes’m, I’m comin’ Ma’am.”

 

**********

 

“There ya’ go, Miz Elnora. All checked in.” Hoss smiled as the desk attendant blew the ink dry in the registry.

 

“Thank you so much, Mr. Cartwright. I really don’t know how I would have managed without you.”

 

As he stood waiting for the bellboy to take Mrs. Huxley’s things to her room, Hoss could hear the large clock in the parlor of the hotel, ticking away the precious minutes.

 

“It weren’t nothin’, Ma’am. Now, if you’ll just excuse me…”

 

Elnora Huxley reached out and took hold of Hoss’ arm. “Ever since my beloved Richard passed, I’ve had to rely on the kindness of strangers…”

 

Hoss rubbed his free hand tiredly across his face and a wave of dread washed over him. He had heard all about poor Richard at least twice before on the stage. He felt sorry for the lonely woman, traveling across the country to join her sister after being widowed, but he knew if he were ever going to get to his father’s side, he would have to risk being rude.

 

“Miz Elnora….”

 

Just then, the bellboy arrived with help to hoist the trunk up the flight of stairs to the waiting room.

 

“Are you ready, Ma’am?” the bellboy asked politely.

 

“Oh, well…certainly. Thank you again, Mr. Cartwright, and I do so hope you receive better news about your father.” She patted his arm once more and followed the bellboy up the stairs.

 

“Thank you, Ma’am.” Hoss stood, smiling pleasantly until she was out of sight. Then, hurriedly, he bolted out the door, all thoughts of his luggage abandoned temporarily. He had the ominous feeling that too much precious time had been wasted already.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XIX

 

We boil at different degrees.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Hoss walked hurriedly down the street, lost in thought. As he passed, acquaintances called out cautious greetings while others turned their heads away. Hoss was oblivious to them all as he pondered the question of his father’s shooting.

 

Who could have hated his father enough to attempt murder? The question had been plaguing him ever since receiving Adam’s telegram. As successful ranchers, the Cartwrights would always have their share of business rivals, but most of their competitors had a great deal of respect for his father. Some, like Barney Fuller, even considered themselves to be close friends. No…Hoss refused to believe that it could have been one of his father’s business associates.

 

Upon receiving the telegram, Hoss had immediately suspected Sam Bryant, but had just as quickly discounted it. He knew his father had suspected that Bryant was up to his old tricks again, had even gone to Roy with accusations. At the time, Hoss had agreed with Roy that Ben was overreacting. Although no one had believed Bryant’s claims that he had come out of prison a changed man, neither did they believe he was stupid. Why would Bryant risk everything he had just to get revenge on Ben Cartwright? It didn’t make sense.

 

Adam’s telegram had been sufficiently vague; all Hoss knew for certain was that his Pa had been shot and that his condition was serious. The possibility still existed that it could all have been some sort of horrible accident. Hoss knew that his Pa had always said not to go borrowing trouble, but what of Mike’s comment at the depot? “Sorry about your brother,” he had said. Was that an honest mistake or did Hoss now have to fear for the safety of his brothers as well?

 

“Well, lookee here, Davy…we got ourselves a Cartwright!”

 

Distracted, Hoss hadn’t noticed the group of four men standing outside the Lucky Ace Saloon until he was upon them. He scowled as he recognized them…Bryant’s men. One on each side, they effectively blocked his path.

 

“Them Cartwrights think they own the street; ain’t that right, Cartwright?”

 

As the men closed ranks around him, the stale reek of cheap cigars and even cheaper whiskey permeated the air. Hands clenching and unclenching, Hoss struggled to contain his temper.

 

“Ain’t ya goin’ the wrong way, Cartwright? Jail’s over that way,” one of the men taunted, which set off a round of howling laughter.

 

“Nah, Ed, he’s probably goin’ over to see about his Pa. Heard tell old Ben Cartwright’s just about ready to be measured for his own pine box.”

 

Again, the men erupted in a fit of laughter.

 

“Fellers, you better be dang sure you want the trouble your buyin’,” Hoss said menacingly, his eyes smoldering.

 

At the look on Hoss’ face, a wise man would have turned tail and run, but Bryant’s men were filled with courage; the false courage that cowards enjoyed when they had had too much to drink and knew that the odds were stacked heavily in their favor.

“Yeah? Well, couldn’t a happened to a nicer feller, in my opinion.”

 

That did it – Hoss had held his temper longer than he would have thought possible under the circumstances. He was worried, frustrated, and sick and tired of delays. As he looked at Bryant’s men, laughing and taunting him, he was reminded of something Adam had once told him…sometimes the only way out of a situation was through it. Well, Hoss thought, he was going to plow straight through these men if they didn’t move real soon and they had better hope that there was something left of them when he was done. Someone should have told them that, even at four to one, the odds were definitely not in their favor.

 

**********

 

As Hoss stood up, he dusted off his hat and placed it triumphantly on his head. His upper lip was streaming blood and his right eye was already beginning to blossom into a rainbow of colors, but he felt exhilarated. It had only been five minutes, but those five minutes had been enough to relieve most of the pent up nervous energy that he had been harboring for days. That it had been at the expense of Bryant’s men was not of his choosing and therefore, he reasoned, not his problem.

 

He scowled as he surveyed the pile of human flesh that lay groaning at his feet. As Bryant’s men, they, no doubt, would be reporting this to their boss. He may have just bought his family more trouble, but right now there was nothing he could do about it. Hoss had other things to worry about, and he was beginning to suspect that his younger brother was one of them. If Joe had had a run-in with Bryant’s men, he thought, it didn’t take much smarts to figure out what his reaction would have been.

 

“Dadburnit, Little Joe,” he thought to himself. “What sorry mess did you get yourself into now?

 

**********

 

By the time he had reached the doctor’s house, Hoss was almost at a full run. He entered without knocking and called softly for his brother. “Adam? Adam…you here?”

 

When he heard no response, Hoss headed quietly for the back room that Paul used for his patients that needed extra care. He knew it well…only too well. How many times had he sat in that room, waiting for one of his family members to live or die? How many times had they done the same for him? Pausing, he took a deep breath, torn between desperation to see his father and dread at what he would find on the other side of the door. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself, turned the knob and stepped in.

 

The stillness of the room, the heavy scent of laudanum permeating the air, the pallor, the barely perceptible rise and fall of the chest, they were all things that he had expected and had tried to prepare himself for. The reality, however, still came as a shock and Hoss felt the heaviness that had been weighing on his heart suddenly increase tenfold.

 

“Pa,” he whispered as he walked softly up to the bed and sat beside it. He picked up his father’s hand and almost recoiled at its unnatural weight. “Oh, Pa.” Hoss closed his large hand gently around his father’s and brought it up to his face, wiping his tears with the back of his father’s hand. All thoughts of Bryant and his men scattered like tumbleweed on the desert sand.

 

“Hoss?”

 

Hoss turned quickly at the sound of his brother’s voice.

 

“Thank God you’re here,” Joe whispered, the relief evident in his voice.

 

“Little Joe?” he stared at his brother, then moved his head in an attempt to see past Joe to the hallway beyond. Finally realization hit, followed by a sinking feeling that things had just gone from bad to a whole lot worse.

 

Afraid to hear the answer, Hoss knew he couldn’t put it off any longer. “Joe…where’s Adam?”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XX

 

To die, to sleep; to sleep: perchance to dream…

~ William Shakespeare

 

“Adam? Adam?”

 

Adam shook his head to clear it once again. It seemed that he had been doing nothing but trying to clear his foggy brain for two days now and he was becoming increasingly frustrated by it.

 

Hiram grimaced and began packing up his notes. “I really must insist that we resume this a little later, Adam. It’s obvious that you need some rest.”

 

Before Adam could resist, a voice from the direction of the outer office interrupted them.

 

“I’ll second that!”

 

Both men looked up to see Doctor Paul Martin leaning on the doorframe. Paul smiled in light amusement at the two vastly different expressions that greeted him – Hiram’s obvious relief and Adam’s predictable annoyance.

 

“Hiram, would you mind excusing us while I examine my patient?” he asked casually.

 

Hiram gratefully got up and walked toward the door, passing Paul, who murmured under his breath, “Wait for me in the office, Hiram. We need to talk.”

 

Hiram nodded his understanding and closed the door softly behind him.

 

“So, Adam.” Paul began conversationally, “I hear you didn’t have the most restful of nights.”

 

“Don’t you have somewhere else you have to be?” Adam replied irritably.

 

Paul’s eyebrows rose, but he remained unruffled as he peered closely at Adam’s eyes, frowning.

 

“Shouldn’t you be with my father?” Adam demanded.

 

Paul took no offense at Adam’s comments. He had known the young man for most of his life and he knew that worry, pain, and lack of sleep were the primary causes of his foul temper.

 

“I was with your father, now I’m with you.” Paul replied calmly as he parted the hair on Adam’s scalp to examine his wound.

 

Adam pulled away and glared at the doctor suspiciously. “What is it, Paul? What aren’t you telling me? And how come no one has said anything about Pa’s condition? I haven’t had any word since you were here yesterday. What are you keeping from me?” he demanded.

 

Paul frowned in confusion and replied, “Adam, Joe was here just this morning, don’t you remember?”

 

Adam paused, slightly startled. He knew that Paul was not above keeping things from him for what he considered “his own good,” but he had never known him to be intentionally dishonest.

 

“Um hmm, I see.” Paul nodded knowingly. He opened his bag and began mixing some powdered herbs in a glass of water. “You need to sleep, Adam. That concussion is a bit worse than I originally thought. Here, drink this.”

 

As Paul would have predicted, Adam immediately began to balk, convincing the doctor that, although he may be having difficulty remembering events, the disturbing visions from his nightmares were still quite vivid in his mind and he was in no hurry to relive them.

 

Paul continued placatingly, “Just a little something to soothe your stomach and help you sleep.”

 

“Paul…” Adam protested.

 

Paul sighed and smiled a little as the familiar battle played itself out, but it was a battle he had no intention of losing. “Adam, you’re going to take this and you’re going to sleep.”

 

Adam opened his mouth to argue the point, but Paul cut him off.

 

“Listen to me, Adam,” The doctor replied firmly, “Concussions are tricky things and complications can occur. You’re doing your father and brothers no good by making yourself even more ill.” He knew it was a bit underhanded, but guilt had always been the best way of getting through to Adam. If he thought he was harming his family in any way, he would give in. Besides, Paul justified, it was the simple truth.

 

“Just get some uninterrupted sleep and things will look a bit brighter,” he said.

 

Adam sighed, suddenly too tired to argue. Looking skeptically at Paul, he took the glass and reluctantly admitted, “It will take a lot more than what’s in this glass to make things look brighter, Paul.”

 

He drank Paul’s concoction, handed him the glass, and then softly asked, “How is he, Paul? How is he really?”

 

“He’s holding his own, Adam. We won’t know any more until he regains consciousness.” Paul replied truthfully.

 

Adam nodded and accepted what the doctor said. Paul squeezed his shoulder, gently pushing him down into a reclining position at the same time. “Good,” he said, “now just lie there and let the medicine do its job.”

 

As reluctant as he was to return to his dreams, Adam found that he didn’t have the energy to fight it any longer. He closed his eyes as his body gave in to exhaustion. Within a few short minutes, he was sound asleep.

 

Paul gazed down on his patient and shook his head sadly.

 

“Sleep well, my friend.”

 

**********

 

As Paul opened the door to the outer office he found Roy and Hiram quietly conversing. They both looked up expectantly when he entered the room.

 

“I’m glad you’re here, Roy, now I can talk to you both.”

 

Roy looked at Paul with a worried frown. “How’s he doin’, Doc?”

 

Paul went over to the stove and poured himself a cup of coffee. As he was blowing on it to cool it down, Roy impatiently cleared his throat.

 

“Ah, Doc…”

 

“Take it easy, Roy. He’ll be fine,” he reassured the sheriff. “The concussion is causing some complications. Memory problems, not just of the shooting, but of more recent events.”

 

Roy and Hiram shared a concerned look.

 

Paul looked at them both pointedly. “I wouldn’t take much stock in anything Adam says, gentlemen, as least for the next couple of days.”

 

Hiram frowned, his brows furrowing. This was not good news, not at all. If he were to prepare a proper defense, he needed all the facts and he needed them soon.

 

Suddenly, the door swung open and all three men looked up, startled, as Hoss Cartwright stormed into the jail, wearing an expression that none of the men had ever seen on his face before – rage, pure, unmitigated rage. He barreled past Paul and the lawyer until he was standing directly in front of the sheriff.

 

“Roy, I want to see my brother and I want to see him now!” Hoss demanded.

 

Roy took a step back as Hoss towered over him and shook his head. “I cain’t let you do that, Hoss. But it’s good to see you back in town. Your family sure could use you ’bout now.”

 

Ignoring Roy’s placid tone, Hoss became, if possible, even angrier. “Little Joe done told me everythin’ and now you’re gonna let me in to see my brother or I’m gonna tear this place apart.”

 

“Now you just simmer down, Hoss.” Roy looked to the doctor for help. The last thing he wanted was to antagonize Hoss any further. Paul, understanding Roy’s wishes, came forward and placed a calming hand on Hoss’ arm.

 

“Hoss, I just got Adam back to sleep after a very rough night. Believe me when I tell you, it’s the best thing for him.”

 

Paul felt some of the tension, but none of the anger, drain from Hoss’ body as he focused on the doctor. “Is he gonna be alright, Doc?”

 

“He’s going to be fine, Hoss.” Paul reassured him. “He’s exhausted and worried. That, coupled with a concussion and some cracked ribs, means you need to let him sleep now. Why don’t you go spend some time with your father and Little Joe. They need you, too.”

 

Hoss looked wistfully at the closed door leading to the cells and then back to the three men. “Doc, I just need to see if he’s alright for myself. I won’t wake him, I promise.”

 

Paul, realizing that Hoss was suffering just as much as his father and brothers, acquiesced. “All right, Hoss. Just a few minutes, though.”

 

Hoss rewarded him with a small smile, then, noticing the lawyer for the first time, he said, “I’m sorry, Hiram. I guess I just ain’t in the mood for pleasantries, but I sure do appreciate what your doin’ for my brother.” His gaze shifted back to the doctor. “That goes for you too, Doc.”

 

Shooting Roy a scathing glare, Hoss turned his back on the three men and went to join his brother.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXI

 

My heart is true as steel.

~ William Shakespeare

 

Hoss waited in angry silence for Roy to unlock the door to his brother’s cell. Pausing, Roy apologetically nodded his head toward Hoss’ gun belt. Fuming at the implication, Hoss nevertheless removed his pistol and shoved it angrily at the sheriff. As soon as the iron bars had opened, Hoss entered the cell as quietly as he could. He turned to glare once more at Roy, silently insisting that the sheriff allow them their privacy. Roy accepted Hoss’ demand reluctantly, but without protest. Leaving the cell door open, Roy quietly closed the door to the outer office and Hoss could hear the turning of the key as the door was locked behind him.

 

As soon as the sheriff left the room, Hoss’ demeanor changed entirely. Quietly he walked the few steps to where his brother lay facing the wall and looked on him with an expression of tenderness that his family would have known well. Hoss couldn’t resist laying his hand softly on Adam’s shoulder as he leaned over the cot to get a closer look at his brother’s face.

 

“Lordy, Adam!” he whispered under his breath when he saw the bruises, cuts and swelling that all but obliterated Adam’s features. Doc was right, he thought, sleep was obviously the best thing for him. Hoss was tempted to sit next to his brother, but was dubious of the cot’s ability to hold both his and Adam’s weight. Not wanting to take the chance of disturbing him, Hoss sat down in the chair that stood by the head of the cot.

 

Hoss shook his head sadly. “I sure do hate to see you in here, big brother,” he said softly. He could tell by his breathing that Adam was deeply asleep, but it comforted him to be able to talk to his brother, whether or not he could hear him.

 

“I don’t want you to worry, Adam. We’ll get you out of this mess. Shucks, it ain’t like we ain’t never been in tight scrapes before.” He leaned over Adam once again to make sure that he was still sleeping soundly. “’Course, maybe they ain’t been quite as tight as this one.”

 

“You remember that time when we was after them rustlers, Adam? When we all thought Pa ought ta stay home ’cause he was getting’ up in years? Now, that was a tight spot!” Hoss chuckled to himself at the memory, how the brothers had all agreed, but when it came down to telling their father they each stumbled and sputtered over the words like a nervous man proposin’ to his bride. “And in the end it was Pa that had to come rescue us!” His face sobered as he realized that his father couldn’t help them out of the mess they found themselves in now.

 

He sat in silence for a few moments, taking in the steady breathing of his brother and felt the anger build in him again. “This ain’t right, Adam. I don’t for one minute believe that you murdered that no-account Tate. I ain’t sayin’ that I’d blame you if you did, mind you. Joe says that you think he’s the one who shot Pa.” Hoss’ voice became unsteady as he thought of his father, the injuries he’d sustained and his still as yet uncertain future. “I know you, Brother, and I know that if you think somethin’ is so, then it’s so, and I ain’t never lost any money bettin’ on you yet.”

 

Adam shifted in his sleep, emitting a small groan as he rolled onto his bruised ribcage. Hoss waited, hopefully anticipating that Adam might wake himself up. He desperately wanted to speak with his brother, but Adam’s breathing resumed its steady pace and he remained in a deep, healing sleep.

 

Hoss stood up, stretched stiffly, and began to pace the length of the small cell. “Adam, I just cain’t help but think about that last run-in we had with Sam Bryant.” Hoss still had difficulty remembering that time without feeling the sting of shame and regret. “Me and Joe was wrong not to trust you that time, brother. You was right, as usual.” He paused and looked down at Adam. “I told myself then that, was I ever in a similar place, I wasn’t never gonna doubt you again.”

 

Hoss’ voice took on a determined, steely edge. “I’m promisin’ you now, Adam. I’m gonna get you out of this, one way or another.” He stared at the open cell door. “Don’t make much difference to me what I gotta do to do it, neither.”

 

Adam showed no signs of stirring and, as reluctant as Hoss was to leave him alone, he knew he should be getting back to Joe. His younger brother no doubt needed a break, maybe a good meal, and definitely some sleep.

 

“Well, Adam, I’m gonna head back over to Paul’s to spell Joe and keep an eye on Pa for you, okay? I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Once more Hoss placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder and squeezed it lovingly. “You take care now, you hear?”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXII

 

Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.

~ Henry David Thoreau

 

Hoss knocked lightly on the door to the outer office so as not to wake his brother. When Roy opened it, Hoss shot him a look of disgust and walked past him without a word. Once the door had closed, he turned in fury, fists clinched, and glowered at the sheriff.

 

“Roy, now you’re gonna open up that cell and let my brother out of there!”

 

Roy peered suspiciously at Hoss’ face, wondering curiously as to the cause of the swelling and purple bruising around his eye, but at Hoss’ obvious temper he judiciously decided not to mention it.

 

“Hoss, you know there’s nothing I’d like better than to do just that, but I cain’t.” Roy shook his head, “I just cain’t.”

 

“Come on, Roy! Adam looks like he lost a fight with a mama grizzly!”

 

When Roy didn’t respond, Hoss continued sarcastically, “It sure don’t take a sheriff with your years of experience to see that it had to be a case of self-defense, pure and simple.”

 

“Well, I’d be the first to agree with you, Hoss, ‘cepting for one thing.” Roy said, swallowing nervously.

 

This was it. Roy had been dreading this moment, but Hoss had the right to know the truth and it couldn’t be postponed any longer. The tension in the room was palpable as the three men stared at him, impatiently waiting for him to continue.

 

Roy steeled himself for the inevitable explosion. “Seems Oren Tate didn’t have no weapon on him, Hoss.” He paused as his words took effect. “Your brother shot and killed an unarmed man.”

 

For a brief moment there was no sound in the room. The doctor and lawyer shared a dismayed glance as Hoss’ mouth hung open, dumbfounded.

 

Suddenly, as Roy had expected, the room erupted with Hoss’s fury.

 

“You’re a flannel-mouthed liar, Roy Coffee! That ain’t the truth and you know it!”

 

Roy, determined to keep his temper under control, walked over to his desk and reached for something on the floor behind it. “Hoss, I got me a sack here containin’ all of Tate’s personal effects and there just ain’t no weapon in it.”

 

He held the out cloth sack for Hoss to examine. Hoss grabbed it roughly from the sheriff and began to rifle through it.

 

“Now, unless you’re accusin’ the Undertaker of bein’ in cahoots with Bryant, you’re just gonna have to accept it, Son.”

 

Hoss scowled angrily as he failed to find anything even resembling a weapon among Tate’s scant personal belongings. Slamming the sack on the desk, He glanced once more to the door behind which his injured brother still slept.

 

“Roy,” he said, his voice breaking with the anger and betrayal he felt, “I shore hope you can live with yourself after all this is over, cause you done lost the Cartwrights as any friends of yours.”

 

Hoss turned on his heel and stormed out the door.

 

As the door slammed, Roy sadly hung his head. Hoss’ words had cut him deeply, but he had no doubt that they would prove to be true.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXIII

 

“I must lose myself in action, lest I wither in despair.”

~ Alfred Lord Tennyson

 

Hoss paused on the sidewalk outside the jail, chest heaving in rage; the echo of his harsh words to Roy still filling the air. Several people on the street had obviously overheard his tirade in the jail and stared at him with a mixture of curiosity and pity.

 

Struggling to gain control of his temper he started blindly down the street, no destination in mind, both his thoughts and his world in turmoil. Since he had gotten off the stage, he had been bombarded with one disaster after another and now he was desperate for a few moments alone to collect himself and decide on a course of action.

 

Passing an alley, Hoss ducked in behind some stacked wooden crates and leaned against the cool brick of a building. The shadows were a welcome respite, both from the heat of the noonday sun and the curious stares. Hearing footsteps, Hoss glanced over to see Roy standing on the sidewalk, eyes squinting as he scanned up and down the length of the street. Hoss took a silent step back, further concealed by the shadows.

 

Roy’s betrayal had been a stinging blow. As long as Hoss could remember, the sheriff had been a steadfast presence in his life. How many times had Roy shared a holiday meal with his family, or kept vigil with them when one was sick or injured? How many posses had they served on together, trusting each other with their very lives?

 

Despite his own bitter disappointment in Roy’s actions, Hoss knew that this had to have come as even a more crushing blow to his brother. Hoss had always admired and respected Roy, both as the sheriff and as his father’s best friend. Roy and Adam, however, had shared a special relationship that they had cultivated on their own, a relationship that was solidified when Adam had served as Roy’s deputy against the Wagner Gang.

 

Hoss shook his head in bewilderment. Roy had always been fair minded and levelheaded. He had a well-earned reputation as a sheriff that didn’t let personal involvement sway his decisions. He wouldn’t jump to conclusions, wouldn’t arrest someone without solid evidence. In fact, Hoss had always seen a similarity in the way Roy and Adam approached things. He suspected that was one of the reasons Adam had such respect for Roy. Hoss swallowed hard as he realized it was also one of the reasons Roy’s reaction unnerved him so much.

 

He crouched down behind the crates and rested his head in his hands. Rage, worry, despair, fear…the emotions welled up in him, all vying for position. Each one alone could easily overwhelm a man, make him do something he might regret; together they were almost insurmountable.

 

He thought of Adam, lying in his cell. No matter what Hoss was feeling, he knew that his brother must be feeling the same things tenfold. Was it possible that Adam…? Hoss quickly clamped down on the disturbing direction his thoughts had taken. He couldn’t even begin to allow doubt to creep into his mind, Adam would sense it right away. No…his brother was innocent, there was no other interpretation of the events that Hoss would ever believe.

 

He had made a promise that he would help his brother, and it wasn’t just a ‘promise.’ It was a Cartwright promise and that meant something more; something you could depend on, like money in the bank or the spring thaw. He had made a promise and he would let neither his brother nor his family down.

 

It was up to him. Hoss closed his eyes and concentrated, trying to still his mind and determine a course of action. He pictured his brother lying battered and bruised in the cell, his father, pale and still, his little brother’s eyes sunken in exhaustion and fear. As he focused on his family, Hoss felt all the emotions, the fear, the anger, the despair and worry, felt them all coalesce and transform into a firm, unyielding resolve.

 

It was time to pick himself up, dust himself off, get out of the shadows and get about the business of helping his family.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXIV

 

So shines a good deed in a weary world.

~ William Shakespeare

 

Once his decision was made, Hoss was spurred into action and traveled purposefully down the alley. Upon reaching the back entrance to Michelson’s Mercantile he reached up to knock, then hesitated briefly as he scanned the narrow passageway to be sure that he hadn’t been seen or followed. Sam Bryant had men everywhere and, if Adam’s suspicions were correct, Hoss knew that he could be putting the Michelson’s in danger if they were seen talking to him. Images of Mr. Cameron, shot down in cold blood by Farmer Perkins, sprung to mind and he had no desire to expose the Michelsons to a similar fate.

 

Hoss knocked softly on the door and waited impatiently. Frowning, he knocked again. Finally, the door slowly opened a fraction and Rosalie Michelson poked her head cautiously through the crack. Seeing Hoss Cartwright, she breathed a sigh of relief and opened the door all the way.

 

“Hoss!” she exclaimed, wiping floured hands on her apron.

 

“Afternoon, Miz Michelson.” Hoss politely tipped his hat.

 

Rosalie looked nervously up and down the alley. “Hoss, my husband is in the front shop, I’ll go get him….”

 

Hoss put his hand up to forestall her. “No need, Ma’am. It’s you I’m needin’ to talk to, if that’s all right.”

 

Rosalie’s face took on a wary expression as she replied coolly, “And what can I do for you, Hoss?”

 

“Well, Ma’am,” Hoss said, ignoring the change in Mrs. Michelson’s tone, “accordin’ to my brother, you was one of the last people to see my Pa the day he got shot and I was wonderin’ if maybe you saw somethin’ or heard somethin’ that might help us find out who was responsible.”

 

“No, Mr. Cartwright.” she replied, her voice flat, devoid of emotion. “As we already told the sheriff, we didn’t see or hear anything suspicious that day.”

 

“Ma’am,” Hoss said with soft determination, “I don’t mean to be unmannerly, but things are goin’ real bad for my Pa and my brother and I think maybe you and your husband…”

 

“I’ve told you,” she replied tersely, “there was nothing out of the ordinary that day. Now, as I have many things to do, you will please excuse me.” As she began to shut the door, however, she was shocked to find a large boot in the way, preventing it from closing.

 

Hoss could clearly detect the fear in her voice. He could understand that fear, but he found he was getting mighty tired of reminding his father’s “friends” of the responsibilities that went with that friendship. He also got the distinct impression from Mrs. Michelson’s demeanor that there was more here than met the eye and he was determined to find out what it was, one way or another.

 

“Ma’am,” his voice took on a soothing, more conversational tone, as he tried a different approach, all the while keeping his boot firmly rooted to the ground, forcing her to stay and listen. “I’ve always been one to bring home strays, nurse feed ‘em and nurse ‘em back to health. Sometimes they was stray critters, and other times they was stray human bein’s. My brothers always make it a point to tease me about that.” He chuckled lightly at the memory. “I don’t pay no nevermind to ‘em, though, ‘cause I know they’d do the same thing. We all got that from watchin’ our Pa.”

 

“Pa was always the one to help folks that needed it, help ‘em pick themselves up by their bootstraps and make somethin’ of their lives.” He paused and looked pointedly at Mrs. Michelson. “Like openin’ up his home to help a young man earn hisself a place at the Naval Academy, for instance.” Her eyes dropped quickly to the ground, and Hoss nodded in satisfaction as he continued.

 

“Some folks might think that was foolish, but Pa never thought like that. He didn’t do it for the gratitude, just did it ‘cause it was the right thing to do.” As he spoke, Hoss realized that, somewhere along the line, he had begun to refer to his father in the past tense and immediately felt ashamed.

 

“And now it seems when he needs his friends the most, they ain’t no where to be found,” he said bitterly. “Maybe those folks was right after all.”

 

Rosalie looked up and was saddened to see the disappointment and disillusionment on Hoss’ face. Both seemed so out of place on the usually gentle, optimistic young man.

 

There was an uncomfortable silence, and then Hoss said, “Well, I done took up enough of your time, Ma’am. I’ll be goin’ now.” He tipped his hat once more and started back down the alley.

 

Rosalie Michelson watched him go, the feelings of guilt warring with the promise to her husband to stay out of the situation. Impulsively, she called out. “Mr. Cartwright…Hoss, please wait!”

 

Hoss stopped in his tracks as a small smile played upon his lips. He turned around to face her and innocently asked “Yes’m?”

 

Rosalie glanced quickly behind her toward the shop beyond the kitchen. Then, having made her decision, she closed the door behind her and joined Hoss in the alley.

 

“Hoss, I don’t know how much it will help, but I’ll tell you everything I know.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXV

 

Trust your instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Paul and Hiram walked together in silence back to the doctor’s office. The news that Oren Tate had been unarmed was shocking and upsetting to both of them.

 

Hiram was surprised, to say the least, but the news hadn’t altered his conviction that Adam was innocent of premeditated murder. It certainly added a wrinkle to his defense, however, for how was he to argue ‘self-defense’ when it would soon become known that the man Adam had allegedly killed hadn’t been carrying a weapon? Paul didn’t know what to think. He had known Adam for most of his life and the facts as Roy laid them out after Hoss had left the jail just didn’t tally with the young man he had come to know and respect.

 

Together, they entered the doctor’s office to find Joe as they had expected to find him: sitting next to his father, his head bobbing on his chest as he unsuccessfully denied his exhaustion.

 

“Joe,” Paul said softly as he gently touched the young man on the shoulder.

 

Startled, Joe’s head jerked up and he squinted, bleary eyed, at the doctor. Turning his head quickly to his father, he breathed a relieved sigh that, while he had been asleep, his father had not left him. He turned back to Paul.

 

“Adam?” Joe asked in trepidation.

 

“Fine, Joe. Adam’s is sleeping comfortably. Hoss is with him.” Paul said soothingly.

 

Hiram glanced sharply at the doctor, but Paul shook his head almost imperceptibly. He saw no reason to concern Joe at this point. The boy had enough on his plate to deal with. If Hiram wanted an accurate account of the night of Ben’s shooting, Paul thought it best to keep the details about Hoss’ encounter with Roy quiet for the time being.

 

“Joseph,” Hiram spoke up. “I’d like to ask you a few questions about the night your father was injured. Would you kindly join me in the kitchen for a cup of coffee?”

 

Joe hesitated for a moment. Paul, suspecting what was on the young man’s mind, said reassuringly, “It’s all right, Joe. I need to examine your father and change his dressings. You go on with Hiram.”

 

Nodding reluctantly, Joe brushed his hand lovingly over his father’s arm, took a deep breath, and stood to join the lawyer.

 

**********

 

As Hiram prepared the coffee, Joe sat, nervously drumming his hand on the table. He had had strong reservations when Adam informed him that he was hiring Hiram Wood as his lawyer. Joe had never fully trusted the man’s abilities after the time he himself had been accused of murder and Hiram had defended him. But, he told himself, this was Adam’s decision, not his. If Adam trusted Hiram, that had to be good enough and Joe, for once, had kept his opinion to himself.

 

Hiram placed the cup of steaming coffee in front of Joe and sat across from him. Once more, he unearthed the sheaf of notes from his satchel and prepared to take Joe’s statement.

 

“All right, Joseph. From what Adam was able to tell me, the three of you had gone into town that day and had arranged to meet for dinner at the International House at 6:00 p.m. Is that correct?” Hiram asked.

 

Joe nodded. Talking to lawyers had always made him uncomfortable. He worried that he would say the wrong thing and possibly make things even worse for his brother.

 

“Yeah,” Joe replied. “We were supposed to meet at 6:00, but I was running a little late.”

 

“And why were you running late?” Hiram looked up curiously from his notes.

 

Joe’s face betrayed him as it quickly turned a deep shade of scarlet. “I was visiting with…well, a girl, and sort of lost track of the time.”

 

Hiram smiled indulgently at the young man and continued his questioning. “Your father wasn’t at the International yet by the time you arrived?”

 

Joe nodded his agreement. “It was about 6:30 by the time I got there and I was sure that Adam would have my hide. He’s real touchy about things like bein’ on time,” Joe said with a sheepish grin.

 

“But Adam didn’t ‘have your hide,’ as you say?” Hiram prodded.

 

“No, and that alone should have been enough to tell me something was going on.” Joe replied thoughtfully.

 

**********

 

Joe frantically pulled his pocket watch out and checked the time. 6:25! Adam, he knew, would be furious. His brother had, on more than one occasion, lectured him about punctuality and now he knew for certain that he was in for another tongue-lashing. His father wouldn’t be any more pleased, Joe thought miserably as he ran the final few blocks to the hotel.

 

Stopping in his tracks, Joe cringed as he saw Adam pacing back and forth on the sidewalk. This was going to be worse than he thought.

 

Walking quickly up to his brother, Joe decided to take the offensive. Although this technique often worked with Hoss, and sometimes even with his father, he knew from experience that it would probably be wasted on his older brother.

 

“Hey, Adam. Sorry I’m late, but before you start in on me I want you to just listen to what…”

 

Adam, looking back and forth down the crowded sidewalk, didn’t even seem to notice his younger brother had arrived.

 

“Adam?” Joe tried again.

 

“Oh, Joe, you’re here,” Adam finally answered.

 

Joe, realizing that, for some reason, he was ‘off the hook’, almost exploded in exasperation. “Well, of course I’m here! You said to be here on time and I’m here.” He knew he was pushing his luck by mentioning the time, but he had the sense that Adam was too distracted for some reason to notice.

 

“Joe, have you seen Pa in the past few hours?” Adam asked.

 

Joe was slightly taken aback. He had assumed that his father was already in the hotel, perhaps enjoying a glass of wine, while his brother had waited outside to give Joe a lecture on tardiness.

 

“No, I haven’t seen him since we separated early this afternoon.” Joe answered. He could sense that his brother was worried, but didn’t understand why. Their father had countless friends and business acquaintances in town, any one of which could have delayed him.

 

“Aww, Adam, I’m sure he just stopped to talk to someone and lost track of the time.” Joe said, then, with a sly smile, added, “It happens sometimes, you know.”

 

Reluctantly, Adam agreed. “You’re probably right, Joe. Why don’t we go inside and get a table. I’m sure he’ll be along soon.”

 

The brothers entered the hotel restaurant to a host of greetings from some of the other patrons. The waiter prepared their table and brought a bottle of wine as both Adam and Joe politely conversed with friends and acquaintances.

 

“So, Joe…what were you up to today?” Adam asked conversationally, although Joe could sense his distraction.

 

Suspicious that Adam had somehow found out about the new girl he had been sparkin’, Joe cautiously began recounting the details of his day in town, leaving out pertinent details that he was hoping his brother would let passed unnoticed.

 

“That sounds like fun, Joe.” Adam responded when it seemed that Joe had finished speaking.

 

Confused, Joe looked suspiciously at his brother. Joe had just told him how he had gotten sidetracked by Widow Johnson and ended up helping her stack firewood for an hour. Why in the world would Adam think that sounded like fun?

 

“Adam, what’s up with you? You didn’t pay any attention to anything I was sayin’, did you?” Joe demanded.

 

Adam, who had been watching over Joe’s shoulder at the doorway, broke off his gaze to answer his brother. “I’m sorry, Joe. Guess I’m just a little distracted.” Adam glanced over to the larger Regulator clock hanging on the wall as it chimed seven times.

 

“You sure you haven’t seen Pa today?” Adam asked.

 

“No, I already told you, I ain’t seen Pa since we split up this afternoon!” Joe answered, exasperated.

 

Adam nodded as he absently took a sip of his wine. Then, with a forced casualness, he asked, “Joe, what do you know about Oren Tate?”

 

“Tate?” Joe asked, confused at the sudden change in topic. “Why do you want to know about him?”

 

“Just tell me what you know about him.” Adam answered.

 

Joe collected his thoughts. “Well, you know I ain’t stupid, Adam. I don’t go near Sam Bryant’s place.”

 

Adam nodded in agreement. The Lucky Ace Saloon was not a place that any Cartwright would be welcomed. He had warned both of his brothers to steer clear of it when Bryant came back to town, but the warnings had proven unnecessary. His brothers, as Joe had said, were not ‘stupid’.

 

“But you’ve heard people talk?” Adam asked.

 

“Well, sure.” What was his brother getting at? Adam, he was sure, kept his ears open about what went on in Virginia City, just as he and Hoss did. Particularly when it came to anything having to do with Sam Bryant.

 

“And…” Adam prodded.

 

“Well, I know that Tate wasn’t a month out of Territorial Prison before he joined Bryant at the Lucky Ace. Word has it that they met up there.”

 

Adam nodded his agreement, what Joe had just said was common knowledge.

 

“People also say that he ain’t the smartest person in the world. Kind of ‘simple,’ you know what I mean?” Again, Adam nodded.

 

“But I also heard that he makes up for it by bein’ real mean. Rumor has it that there could have been a murder or two he was guilty of back in Carson City, but the law couldn’t make the charges stick.”

 

Adam’s eyes shot up at Joe’s remark; this he hadn’t heard. “And you’re sure you haven’t seen Pa?” he asked, with an urgency in his voice that hadn’t been there before.

 

“Adam, now you’re scaring me! All this worry about Pa and now you want to know about Oren Tate? What’s going on?”

 

Several heads turned towards the brother’s table at Joe’s outburst. “Shhhh…keep it down, Joe,” Adam admonished.

 

Adam looked once more toward the doorway of the restaurant and then back to his brother. Joe could clearly see that Adam was struggling with the decision of whether or not to share what was on his mind. This couldn’t be good, Joe thought anxiously. Again, more quietly this time, he asked “Adam, what’s going on?”

 

“Okay, Joe,” Adam took a deep breath and began, “Earlier today I met up with Pa outside of Michelson’s store. “He paused and then looked pointedly at his brother. “He was wearing ‘the look’.”

 

An involuntary shiver went down Joe’s spine. He was well acquainted with what he and his brothers always referred to as ‘the look,’ having been on the receiving end of it more often than the other two. He waited impatiently for Adam to continue.

 

“When I asked him what was wrong, he pointed down the street…at Oren Tate.”

 

Joe felt himself shiver. Now he was beginning to understand his brother’s concern.

 

“Apparently, Pa was in the store at the same time as Tate. He said that Mrs. Michelson was acting strangely…frightened, nervous…like she wanted Pa to leave.”

 

“That doesn’t make any sense, Adam. If she were frightened of Tate, why would she want Pa to leave?” Joe asked.

 

“That was what Pa wondered, too, but Mrs. Michelson wouldn’t say a word. Just to be on the safe side, Pa followed Tate out and watched to be sure he left without causing any trouble.”

 

“Did Pa say anything to him?”

 

“No, but Pa did say that he was going to go talk to Roy about it.” Adam looked at the clock again as it chimed the half-hour. “He’s had suspicions that Bryant was up to his old tricks again and since Tate is Bryant’s right-hand man…”

 

Joe looked up sharply at this. He hadn’t been aware of his father’s suspicions and felt a surge of anger at being left out once again. He impulsively lashed out at Adam. “And you didn’t go with him?”

 

Adam winced at Joe’s implied accusation. “I had already made an appointment with Weems at the bank, Joe. Pa just said he was going to talk to Roy, nothing else.” Even as he defended himself to his brother, Adam knew that, if things turned out for the worse, Joe’s question would haunt him for the rest of his life.

 

At the look of pain on Adam’s face, Joe immediately relented. “I’m sorry, Adam. You had no way of knowing what Pa was up to. We still don’t know…he could just be delayed.”

 

“You’re right, Joe. No sense jumping to conclusions.”

 

“Right,” Joe replied with a forced cheerfulness. “After all, Pa’s not the kind to take the law into his own hands.”

 

Both brothers fell silent as Joe’s last statement hung in the air. Slowly, they raised their heads and their eyes met, perfect understanding passing between them.

 

Adam put down his wine glass and reached for his hat as Joe did the same.

 

“Right,” he said, as Joe nodded in agreement. “Let’s go.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXVI

 

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will.

~ Walt Whitman

 

“And this was when you went to Sheriff Coffee?” Hiram asked as he refilled Joe’s cup.

 

“Thanks.” Joe took a sip of the steaming coffee. “Yeah, we met up with Roy on the sidewalk outside the jail. He was just getting ready to do his evening rounds.”

 

Joe would never forget the look on Adam’s face. “Adam was furious when Roy admitted that Pa had come by asking for his help and Roy sent him away. I don’t think I can ever remember him being so mad.”

 

Joe immediately regretted his words when Hiram glanced up sharply. Knowing how angry Adam was surely couldn’t help his case. He scolded himself, vowing to be more careful next time.

 

“It’s all right, Joseph.” Hiram stated calmly, “I need to know all the facts if I’m to defend your brother, even the unpleasant ones. What happened next?” He could see that Joe was beginning to become upset as he relived the events of that night so he gently added, “Just take your time.”

 

Joe nodded gratefully and continued, reminding himself that Hiram was on their side.

 

**********

 

Joe stood back, watching in awe as his brother verbally attacked the town sheriff.

 

“Roy, what you’ve done…or NOT done, I should say…borders on incompetence. At the very least it was irresponsible!” Adam was fuming, sparks of anger shooting from his eyes.

 

“Now, you look here, Adam,” Roy began to defend himself. “Your Pa didn’t have nothin’ to base his accusations on…not a dadblamed thing!”

 

“Roy, you’re not blind! You know Bryant’s back to his old games. If you can’t see that maybe you should reevaluate whether or not you’re up for this job!”

 

Joe winced at his brother’s angry accusations. He knew those words, particularly coming from Adam who had always been one of Roy’s staunchest supporters, had to sting. This was a side of Adam that he had rarely seen but always knew existed, and he was supremely grateful that his brother’s fury wasn’t directed at him this time.

 

Roy tried a different tack. “Adam, I can see you’re worried about your Pa, but there ain’t no cause…”

 

Adam cut him off. “How can you be sure, Roy? You didn’t even offer him help when he asked. Even if you couldn’t help him “officially,” would it have been too much to ask for you to help him as his best friend?”

 

Adam’s accusations hit home and he knew it. Joe watched Roy’s face fall as he realized that he had nothing more to offer in his own defense.

 

Suddenly, a commotion in the street caused all three to turn their heads. They were startled to see that a small crowd had formed to watch the argument between the sheriff and the Cartwright brothers.

 

A man pushed his way though the crowd, “Sheriff! Sheriff!”

 

“Simmer down, Dooley. What’s your trouble?” Roy asked, momentarily grateful for the distraction.

 

Dooley glanced nervously from Adam to Joe. Reluctantly, he said, “A couple a’ fellers found Ben Cartwright over in an alley off D Street, Sheriff. Seems he was shot. They’re takin’ him over to Doc Martin’s right now.”

 

Adam and Joe looked at each other, stricken, and immediately started for the doctor’s, all thoughts of Roy abandoned as their worst fears had been realized. Roy, shaking his head miserably, followed the brothers down the street at a discreet distance.

 

**********

 

In the doctor’s front parlor Adam and Joe sat side by side, not speaking. Each was lost in his own thoughts…his own memories of their father. Roy sat alone on the other side of the room. He knew he should be out there, looking for facts, finding clues as to who shot Ben Cartwright, but he couldn’t drag himself away. He needed to know firsthand if his best friend was going to live or die.

 

Paul came out of the back room, wiping the blood from his hands on a cloth. He glanced over and nodded to Roy, then approached the brothers. Adam and Joe stood up expectantly.

 

“It’s a bad wound, boys. The bullet entered right about here.” The doctor indicated an area on the lower abdomen. Joe felt his stomach turn as if the bullet had penetrated him as well.

 

“I got it out, but he’s lost a significant amount of blood.” Paul hesitated. This was definitely the hardest part of his job, talking to the families of patients, trying to remain optimistic even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

 

“In fact,” this time the doctor included the sheriff in his gaze, “I’d venture to say that, considering the blood loss, this must have happened sometime earlier in the day.”

 

Joe saw Adam shoot a scathing look at Roy but the sheriff wouldn’t – or couldn’t – meet his eyes.

 

“And there’s more,” Paul continued reluctantly. “Somehow he’s taken a severe blow to the head as well. It’s fractured his skull and for now he’s in a deep coma.”

 

Joe looked at the doctor in despair. He tried to speak but the words wouldn’t form. Understanding, Adam gripped his brother’s arm firmly in support. “What exactly are you telling us, Paul?”

 

“I’m saying it’s touch and go, Adam. If he survives the blood loss, there’s always the risk of infection. The longer the bullet was in, the greater the risk. As for the coma, only time will tell.”

 

Joe felt himself begin to shake uncontrollably and knew he was on the verge of breaking down. Adam gripped his arm tighter and Joe felt the quaking ease perceptibly. He tried once again to focus on the doctor.

 

“The sooner he comes out of the coma, the better, but even then there could be complications…” Paul’s eyes met Adam’s and he nodded in understanding as they both looked at Joe. The list of possible complications could wait until the initial shock had worn off. “Now, I need to go back in and finish up. Excuse me, boys.”

 

“Thanks, Paul.” Adam said.

 

Joe looked up, eyes red-rimmed and brimming with tears, “Yeah, thanks Doc,” he managed to whisper.

 

After the doctor had left the room Joe, still unsteady on his feet, sat back down, expecting his brother to join him as they waited through the long night together. When Adam remained standing, Joe looked up curiously.

 

Roy and Adam stood facing each other. Roy’s face was a portrait of guilt and sorrow. Although furious himself at the sheriff’s part in the tragedy, Joe couldn’t help but feel a small pang of sympathy for him.

 

When he looked at Adam’s face, however, Joe blinked in shocked surprise. For a brief moment, Adam looked so much like his Pa that Joe was mesmerized. He suddenly realized that his father wasn’t the only Cartwright who had cultivated ‘the look’, and Joe knew precisely what that ‘look’ meant.

 

Trouble.

 

**********

 

Joe paused to collect his thoughts as Hiram scribbled furiously, struggling to keep up.

 

“All right, Joseph, what happened after Adam…?

 

Suddenly, the door opened and Roy Coffee entered the kitchen.

 

“Joe, Hiram…sorry to interrupt. He looked around the room. “I ‘spect Hoss is in the back room with your Pa?”

 

Joe’s eyes widened at the sight of the double-barreled shotgun Roy held in his hands and looked at him nervously. “I thought Hoss was with Adam.”

 

“Well, he ain’t with Adam no more,” Roy said, “and if he ain’t here, I got a sneakin’ suspicion I know where he might be.”

 

Joe looked once more at the shotgun and back to the grim expression on Roy’s face. As their eyes met, they knew that they both had just one thought in mind.

 

“Sorry, Hiram, this will have to wait. Let’s go, Roy.”

 

As Hiram watched Joe quickly leave the room with the sheriff, he heaved an exasperated sigh. It was long past time, he decided, that he was told the complete story. Picking up his notes, he placed them in his satchel and headed back to the jail once more.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXVII

 

“Will you walk into my parlor?” said the Spider to the Fly.

~ Mary Howitt

 

Hoss stepped up to the saloon, determined to beard the lion in his own den, and read the sign hanging above – “The Lucky Ace – A Gentleman’s Club.” He almost laughed out loud at the pretentiousness that prevented Bryant from calling his new gambling house what it was – a shallow attempt at a respectability that he hadn’t earned and didn’t deserve.

 

The two large doors were etched and beveled glass, the wood gleaming and polished; quite a contrast to the ubiquitous rough hewn swinging doors of the Bucket of Blood, the Silver Dollar or any of a dozen other establishments that ran the length and breadth of D Street. As he walked into the main room, Hoss whistled under his breath. This was just the kind of place that, a few years back, would have drawn his little brother in like a moth to a flame. Sparkling chandeliers illuminated the ceiling and shiny brass spittoons rested on clean, carpeted floors. Hoss had to admit that the Lucky Ace would have fit in comfortably among the swankiest gambling houses of San Francisco. Despite the lavish surroundings, Hoss felt his anger burn even stronger, for everything that Bryant had, he had gained by extortion and intimidation of honest, hard working people like the Michelsons.

 

If there was such a thing as a ‘den of iniquity,’ Hoss felt for sure that he had fallen feet first into the middle of one. Women with rouged cheeks and plumes of feathers on their heads circulated around the room, offering men whatever they could afford to pay for. Many of the men he recognized. They might be wearing fancier duds and smoking thinner cigars, but they were the same group of no-accounts that used to cause trouble at the Bucket of Blood. All of that had changed when Sam Bryant came back to town and organized them into some of the best-dressed thugs that Virginia City had ever known.

 

It was in the back of the main room that Hoss spied Sam Bryant, with cigar in hand and a woman on his knee, seemingly absorbed in what appeared to be a high stakes poker game. He weaved his way through the crowded, smoke-filled room until he until stood, towering over the table, his massive frame casting a shadow over the cache of money and poker chips below. As Bryant looked up, Hoss saw a brief flash of surprise register on his face, which disappeared as quickly as it came as Bryant’s eyes took on a ominous gleam. Hoss instantly felt himself the center of attention as the conversation abruptly ceased and all eyes turned to him.

 

“Well, if it isn’t Hoss Cartwright. Look, boys, it’s Hoss Cartwright!” Bryant said, with feigned enthusiasm.

 

As derisive laughter erupted around him, Hoss glanced from side to side and noticed that the crowd had closed in, effectively blocking any means of retreat. He chastised himself for coming in without a solid plan in mind. Suddenly, Hoss wondered what he had been hoping to accomplish. Had he wanted to see the look on Bryant’s face when he accused him of being involved in his father’s shooting? Had he just wanted Bryant to know that he knew that he been involved? Whatever the reason, it hardly mattered now, because, as Adam had often said, ‘The dice was thrown,’ and there was no turning back. Staring into Bryant’s contemptuous sneer, Hoss swallowed hard as he finally realized the true meaning of that phrase, and its possible consequences.

 

“Well, Cartwright, have you come to pay your respects?” Bryant’s question was met with another outbreak of laughter.

 

Hoss furrowed his brow. Bryant, seeing the confusion in his eyes, bared his teeth in a cruel imitation of a smile and explained, “We’re holding a little impromptu wake for our good friend, Oren Tate, ain’t we boys?”

 

A round of “To Oren” could be heard around the room, followed by raucous laughter as glasses were raised in toast to their fallen “friend.”

 

Disgusted by the drunken display, Hoss made an effort to ignore the crowd and turned his attention back to Bryant. “Listen, Mister, I ain’t got no respect for you, nor for anybody who works for you.”

 

“That’s mighty self-righteous, coming from a man whose brother is a cold-blooded killer.” Bryant answered, sarcasm dripping from his tongue.

 

At the cutting words, an involuntary shudder went through Hoss’s body. Even as he struggled to contain his temper, he felt the fingers of his right hand brush the leather of his holster, and for a moment, he was tempted…so tempted.

 

The slight movement didn’t go unnoticed by Bryant. Leaning back in his chair, he pulled open his jacket, a gesture that clearly indicated his lack of any type of weapon. Smiling a conciliatory smile, he said, “As you can see, Cartwright, I’m not wearing a gun. Or is it just a habit of the Cartwrights to shoot unarmed men?”

 

Unable to hold back, Hoss took another step forward, unsure of exactly what he intended to do, but determined that he would see that smirk erased from Bryant’s face.

 

“Bryant, you’d better just hope that…”

 

At an almost imperceptible nod from Bryant, the room was filled with the unmistakable click of several hammers being drawn back simultaneously. Hoss froze in place, cursing himself for playing the fool – because Bryant now had him exactly where he wanted him. Hoss knew with certainty that if he had drawn on him like he had been so tempted to do, he would have been dead before he hit the floor and Bryant, pleading self-defense, would have gotten off scot-free.

 

Bryant, seeing that his efforts to goad Hoss weren’t wasted, smiled in satisfaction. “Well, now, Cartwright, it seems that you’ve gotten in a little over your head,” he said.

 

Hoss felt the beads of perspiration form on his forehead as his heart pounded furiously in his chest. Suddenly, the door slammed open, rattling the hinges and threatening to shatter the expensive, custom-made glass.

 

“Put your guns down,” Roy Coffee stood in the doorway, a double-barreled shotgun poised in his hands.

 

Hoss felt the relief wash over him but still he didn’t dare look back; didn’t dare move a muscle lest one of Bryant’s men view it as a play for his gun.

 

The men, each possessing that often lethal combination of loyalty and stupidity, kept their weapons raised, looking to Bryant for guidance. As he opened his mouth to issue an order, there was a thunderous crash as Roy fired a round of buckshot into the air. The shattered crystal of the once opulent chandelier came raining down on their heads as Roy repeated himself, more firmly, “I said put the guns down.”

 

Calmly, Bryant nodded. “Lower your guns, boys. There won’t be any trouble here today.” Almost in unison, the hammers of the guns were released. Glancing up at the chandelier that was now merely a remnant of its former glory, Bryant addressed Roy.

 

“You’ll pay for that, Sheriff.”

 

Taking the veiled threat in stride, Roy called out over his shoulder, “Little Joe, you take your brother here back on over to the jail.”

 

Hoss glanced behind him to see Joe standing in the doorway, gun drawn, eyes narrowed and face set in grim lines. “Hoss,” he said, quietly but firmly, his tone leaving no room for debate, “Hoss, come with me.”

 

Backing out the way he came, Hoss reached Roy and hesitated, unwilling to leave the sheriff so outnumbered and outgunned. Roy eyes never wavered from Bryant’s, but he sensed Hoss’ reluctance and reassured him. “Don’t you worry, Son. I’ve got this well in hand. You just go on over to the jail now.”

 

After Hoss left the room, Bryant turned on Roy. “Sheriff, what kind of justice is this?” he demanded. “Jail is where the Cartwrights belong. This is harassment, plain and simple. I’m a law abiding businessman running a legal gambling hall…”

 

Roy shook his head in disbelief at the gall of the man ranting before him but Bryant continued undeterred. “First, Adam Cartwright shoots and kills an unarmed man in my employ, then his brother, Hoss Cartwright, assaults four of my men minding their own business on a public street. Now he has the audacity to come into my establishment and accuse me…”

 

Roy put up a hand to interrupt him. “Bryant, I’ve heard about as much of this bellyachin’ as I care to. As far as I can see, I just saved you from a charge of attempted murder. You’d best quit while you’re ahead.”

 

Biting back his next words, Bryant glared at Roy with the irritated look of a man who has just realized that he has seriously underestimated his opponent.

 

**********

 

As the doors to the Lucky Ace closed behind them, Joe finally let the emotions surface that he had kept under tight control for so long. Grabbing Hoss’ arm, Joe turned him around, erupting in anger. “What in tarnation do you think you were doin’ in there – tryin’ to get yourself killed?”

 

Hoss turned away from his brother. “Joe, just leave me be.” He realized with a pang of guilt that Joe had a legitimate complaint; his “plan” to confront Bryant had been foolhardy. If it hadn’t been for Roy, things could have turned out very badly and Joe would have been left alone to pick up the pieces.

 

Joe released Hoss’ arm, judging by the look on his brother’s face that this was neither the time nor the place to press the issue. As they both turned down the street toward the jail, however, he couldn’t resist murmuring under his breath…

 

“First Adam, now you…and they say that I’m the one with the hot temper!”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXVIII

 

Like our shadows,

Our wishes lengthen as our sun declines.

~ Edward Young

 

Adam stretched gingerly, testing his battered body, and found to his surprise that he felt a bit better. The sleep seemed to have done its job as the persistent throbbing in his head was reduced to a manageable ache. More importantly, the fuzziness that had clouded his thoughts since the shooting seemed to have lifted somewhat.

 

Contributing to his improved outlook was the knowledge that Hoss was finally home. Adam was certain that, while he slept, he had heard his brother’s voice, felt the weight of Hoss’s reassuring hand on his shoulder. That, more than anything else, served to give him peace of mind and relieve the burden that had been weighing so heavily upon him.

 

Hearing movement in the outer office, Adam stood up slowly and called out, then waited in eager anticipation. Almost immediately, the door opened and Roy’s deputy, Cal, came in, favoring his right leg and carrying a tray. Adam peered past him, but when it became evident that Cal was alone, his face fell in disappointment.

 

“Oh, Cal…it’s you,” Adam said dejectedly as he sat heavily back down on the cot. It wasn’t just the fact that his brother wasn’t yet here; Adam knew it was only a matter of time before Hoss arrived. His frustration came from wondering if he would ever again be able to trust his own mind. It seemed to be deceiving him at every turn.

 

Cal, seeing the crestfallen look on his Adam’s face, attempted to lighten his mood.

 

“Now, Adam, I know I ain’t the prettiest sight to see, but you done look like you just lost your best friend!”

 

Attempting to mask his disappointment from the deputy, Adam replied, “No offense, Cal. I just thought that maybe Hoss was back in town, that’s all.”

 

A smile played upon Cal’s lips, happy to be able to lift Adam’s spirits with a bit of good news. “Just so happens, Adam, that Hoss is in town. He was here earlier while you was sleepin’ but Doc thought it best not to wake you.”

 

Adam’s clamped down on his irritation. He was getting very tired of people making decisions for him. “Where is he now, Cal?” he demanded.

 

“Now, just where do you think he would be if he ain’t here? He’s over to the Doc’s with Little Joe and your Pa. When Roy gets back, I’ll go fetch him for ya.”

 

Adam’s face brightened visibly as he offered Cal a grateful smile.

 

“Now, how about you eat some of this lunch that I brung ya?” Cal said as he balanced the tray in one hand and unlocked the cell door with the other.

 

“You know, Cal,” Adam replied, “Suddenly I think I could eat a horse!”

 

**********

 

Adam was halfway through with his sandwich when he heard the door to the jail open. Recognizing Hiram’s voice, he struggled to curb his disappointment once again. He had hoped to talk things over with Hoss before he had to face Hiram again, but it seemed that what he wanted lately was of little consequence. Wiping his mouth with his napkin, he set his food aside and stood up to greet the lawyer.

 

Hiram was pleasantly surprised when he walked over to the cell. “My, Adam, you’re certainly looking a great deal better than you were earlier today!” He glanced down to the tray resting on the cot. “I see your appetite has improved as well.”

 

Adam ignored Hiram’s comments and impatiently asked, “Have you talked to Hoss yet, Hiram?”

 

Smiling, Hiram realized why Adam was looking so much better and he felt his hopes begin to rise. Perhaps with Hoss back in town, Adam would finally be able to relax enough to concentrate and maybe, just maybe, his memory of the shooting would return.

 

“I spoke with him earlier, Adam,” he said, “but now we need to talk.”

 

Hiram pulled up a chair next to the cell and motioned for Adam to sit down. He fervently hoped that he could distract Adam enough that he wouldn’t inquire as to the whereabouts of his brother. He could only pray that Roy and Joe were able to find Hoss in time to prevent another disaster from occurring.

 

Reluctant to relive the nightmare of that night, Adam knew he had no choice. With a deep sigh, he sat down and prepared himself for Hiram’s questioning.

 

“All right, Adam. Joseph told me what he could about the night your father was injured, up to and including Paul’s diagnosis of his condition. Now I’d like to hear your recollection of the events.”

 

“You’ve seen my father, Hiram? Is there any change?”

 

Hiram could hear the distress in Adams voice and shook his head sadly. “Unfortunately, there’s been no change in his condition.” He had to be careful, he realized, or Adam would once again become mired in despair – something they couldn’t afford. Time was of the essence.

 

“Now…about that night…”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXIX

 

Strong reasons make strong actions.

~ William Shakespeare

 

As the interminable hours stretched long into the night, Adam sat beside the bed …waiting, hoping, praying. If there was such a thing as a waking nightmare, he felt that he was living it as his eyes followed the faint rise and fall under the heavy bandages. The moonlight that streamed in through the window cast a silvery glow on his father’s face, broken every few moments by Joe’s shadow as he paced nervously back and forth. Each time he turned, Adam could sense Joe’s level of anger and frustration build. He could understand how his brother felt; he was feeling it himself, but Joe’s pacing was beginning to wear on his already taut nerves.

 

“Joe, could you please just sit down?” Adam asked, his voice strained with weariness and worry.

 

Joe turned to face his brother. “We can’t just sit here, Adam. Someone out there tried to kill our father and we need to start finding out who it was.”

 

Adam sighed resignedly. He knew from experience that, when it came to situations like this, his younger brother’s volatile temper often got in the way of his common sense, and it was better to just hear him out than to argue with him.

 

“And just what do you suggest we do?”

 

Encouraged by his brother’s response, Joe came quickly over to his side and laid out his plan. “I could go to the Lucky Ace…” he began.

 

“No, Joe! That would be suicide and you know it.”

 

“This would be the perfect time, Adam,” Joe pleaded. “Bryant’s bound to be asleep by now and you know that somebody there has to know what happened.”

 

“And what makes you think they would talk to you?”

 

Joe shrugged. “Money talks, Adam. You know it does. If I just offer…”

 

Adam stopped him with a firm shake of his head. “No, Joe. It’s too risky. We’ll just have to find another way.”

 

Scowling at his brother, Joe turned his back to the window and resumed his pacing.

 

Adam wasn’t fooled by Joe’s seeming acquiescence to his decision. He knew that, beneath the surface, Joe’s mind was churning, concocting some harebrained scheme that would likely put him in a great deal of danger, if not get him killed outright. Adam knew then what he had to do. It was the only way to protect his brother from himself.

 

Rubbing gritty eyes, Adam got up and went into the kitchen where he found an exhausted Paul Martin, elbows on the table and head in his hands. As Adam nudged his shoulder, Paul awoke with a start and looked at him blearily. “Ben?” he asked.

 

“No, Joe.”

 

Paul looked at him in confusion.

 

“Joe’s wound tighter than a clock, Paul. He’s exhausted, but there’s no way I’m going to get him to go to sleep. Is there something that you could give him to…well, help it along a little?”

 

Paul grimaced, but nodded his assent and left the room for a moment. When he returned, he mixed a small amount of a fine white powder into a cup of strong black coffee. “Your brother won’t thank you for this, you know, Adam,” he warned.

 

“As long as he gets some rest, I can handle his temper. I need him sharp and functioning in the morning. He’s not going to be that way on worry and no sleep.”

 

A while later, Paul came into the living room after checking on Ben. “You’ll be happy to know that your brother is sleeping like a baby, Adam. You were right, he was almost out on his feet.”

 

Adam was just finishing up checking his gun and placed it firmly in his holster. Then he removed Joe’s gun from his holster, tucked it in his waistband behind his back and tugged the leather vest into place so that the gun was neatly concealed.

 

Paul looked suspiciously at him. “And just what are you up to?”

 

Adam’s eyes wouldn’t meet the doctor’s as he said grimly, “Take care of them for me, Paul.”

 

Filled with apprehension, Paul gripped Adam’s forearm. “Adam, what are you going to do?” he demanded more insistently.

 

Adam paused, his eyes resting on the doctor’s hand. When he looked up his eyes were filled with a steely determination.

 

“What I have to do, Paul.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXX

 

When shall we three meet again?

~ William Shakespeare

 

“And was that when you….”

 

Hiram’s question was interrupted abruptly as the door to the jail flew open and the sound of an argument, already in full swing, filled the room.

 

“Dadburnit, Little Joe, I done told you I ain’t gonna talk about it no more!”

 

“Shhh, you don’t have to yell so loud, do ya?” Joe said at the top of his lungs, “You’re gonna wake Adam!”

 

Adam couldn’t help but chuckle softly. There was no mistaking who the combatants were and, even raised in anger, the voices were music to his ears. Ignoring Hiram’s question, he stood up and walked over to the bars, a bright smile lighting his face. As the door was unlocked, Hoss pushed his way past the deputy and walked quickly over to the cell, extending his hand to his brother.

 

“Hi, Adam,” he said softly.

 

“It’s about time you got here.” Adam replied, his voice slightly strained but laced with a glint of humor.

 

As Adam stood, clasping Hoss’ hand, he felt a wave of relief so powerful that he had to resist the urge to cling to the cell bars for support. With Hoss at his side, Adam suddenly felt that somehow the situation wasn’t quite as dire as it had been just moments before.

 

“Hey, Adam…”

 

Adam glanced away from Hoss to greet his little brother and frowned to see the dark circles under Joe’s eyes and the gray weight of fatigue reflected in his stance.

 

“Joe…any word on Pa?” Asking the question had become almost a reflex for Adam in the past two days. Since his father’s shooting, he had experienced enough pain and humiliation to last a lifetime. It all paled in comparison, however, to the agony of being separated from his father when he needed him the most.

 

“Paul says no fever yet, Adam. That’s a good sign, isn’t it?” Joe asked, his voice reflecting both hope and apprehension as he looked to his brother for reassurance.

 

“Sure Joe, it’s a good sign.” Despite Joe’s words, Adam heard the slight tremor in his brother’s voice. He reached through the bars to squeeze Joe’s shoulder affectionately and was rewarded when he felt the taut muscles relax under his hand.

 

Adam had been so proud of Joe throughout this whole ordeal. He had held himself together, had behaved just like the man his brothers knew him to be. Now, however, Joe seemed more than willing to relinquish the responsibility that he had been forced by circumstance to assume. Hoss was home and Joe slipped quickly back into his role as youngest brother. Adam didn’t blame him; Joe certainly deserved a break after everything he had been through.

 

“Ahem,” Hiram cleared his throat. “Gentlemen, if we could just move this along?”

 

Startled, all three brothers looked at the lawyer as if they had forgotten he was in the room. Hoss glanced meaningfully back to the deputy, who was leaning on the door frame, watching the brothers’ reunion.

 

“Oh, right.” Cal replied, and hurried over to unlock the cell door.

 

Hoss, pulling in two more chairs from the outer office, placed them near the cot and proceeded to sit down.

 

Adam looked uncomfortably at the chairs and, directing his question to Hoss, asked, “Shouldn’t at least one of you be over with Pa?” Silently, he added…If I can’t be.

 

“All in due time, Brother. I wanna hear what Hiram’s got to say about all this. Besides, Paul’s with Pa and he sure knows where to find us if there’s any change.”

 

Joe’s eyes narrowed as he glared at Hoss. Adam looked back and forth between his brothers. He could sense the tension between them, but he was hesitant to mention it front of Hiram. Adam knew with a certainty that his brothers wouldn’t hide news about their father from him and anything else could wait until they could speak privately. So, nodding his assent, he sat down on the cot opposite his brothers.

 

“All right, where were we?” Hiram began, reviewing his notes. “Oh, yes…you had just convinced Paul to give Joe a sleeping powder and you were preparing to leave the doctor’s office.”

 

At Hiram’s careless remark, Joe’s head shot up and Adam cringed, knowing just how his younger brother would take the news. He looked at Joe apologetically, and for a long moment his brother refused to make eye contact. When Joe finally did turn, Adam was taken aback. He had expected his brother to be angry, but he wasn’t prepared for the depth of hurt he saw in Joe’s eyes. Adam held his brother’s gaze for as long as Joe would allow, but realized sadly that he had possibly done severe damage to their relationship. He fervently hoped that the damage wouldn’t be irreparable, but only time would tell.

 

Heaving a resigned sigh, Adam directed his attention back to Hiram’s question. Adam looked sheepishly at the lawyer. “I took Joe’s idea,” he said softly. “I went to the Lucky Ace to make an offer of money for information.”

 

Hiram’s eyebrows shot up. “I have to say, Adam, I’m surprised at you. You’ve always had a reputation for having a cool head…to undertake such a harebrained scheme….”

 

Adam shot a quick glare at Hiram and nodded his head toward Joe. His brother didn’t need to add ridicule to his list of grievances. Joe, however, seemed unaware as he studied his eldest brother, a look on his face that Adam couldn’t quite decipher.

 

From the corner of his eye, Adam could see Hoss shaking his head in disapproval, but he was reluctant to meet his brother’s eye. He knew without a doubt that he would always have Hoss and Joe’s support, but he also knew that, if he did somehow manage to get out of this mess with his hide intact, there would still be hell to pay.

 

“Oh, no, Hiram. Our older brother here is perfectly capable of pulling a crazy stunt like that. ….remind me to tell you sometime about a little run in we had with Cochise,” Hoss said, with a mixture of exasperation and affection in his voice.

 

Adam sighed. That was the only downside of having his brothers together, he thought; they could remind him of his foolish mistakes.

 

“Hmm, sounds like a story I’d be interested in hearing when we have more time…” Hiram said, attempting to move things along. “Now, what happened when you went to the Lucky Ace?”

 

Adam hesitated before he spoke. “Let’s just say that they weren’t very receptive to the idea,” he said with a humorless chuckle. “Actually,” he admitted reluctantly while looking straight at Joe, “I was lucky to get out of there alive.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXXI

 

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

~ John 15: 13

 

Joe sat across from his brother, his head turned away. He could feel Adam’s eyes focused on him but he stubbornly refused to acknowledge him, refused to meet his brother’s piercing eyes. The hurt that he initially felt at Adam’s deception was quickly turning into anger and resentment. Once again, Joe felt that his brother had treated him like a child.

 

At Hoss’ mention of Cochise, however, Joe’s head shot up as an image came unbidden to his mind; his brother lying unconscious as the blood from his side saturated the hot desert floor, bullets flying overhead. Even years later, Joe had been unable to expunge the image from his memory; it haunted his dreams. When he had finally regained consciousness, Adam had used what little strength he had to quietly but firmly admonish Joe for risking his life to save him, all the while the gratitude in his eyes belied his words. Joe smiled at the thought. It seemed that Adam wasn’t the only Cartwright to do foolish things in the name of helping his family.

 

Joe chastised himself as realization set in. Here he was wasting valuable time being angry with his brother for treating him like a child, when, at the first provocation, he proved Adam’s point by acting like a child. Now was not the time to allow petty issues to create a rift between them. Indeed, he realized miserably, if things didn’t work out the way they hoped, there might be very little time left. So, although Joe was still unhappy with Adam’s methods, he knew in his heart that his brother had done what he thought was necessary to help his family. How could Joe fault him for that?

 

Slowly Joe looked up, not surprised to find that his brother had not altered his gaze, and offered Adam a small, forgiving smile. As Adam offered his own smile in return, Joe expelled the breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding and nodded for his brother to continue…

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXXII

 

Alea iacta est. (The die is cast)

~ Julius Caesar

 

Adam stood up slowly, absently flexing his shoulders and wincing slightly as he massaged the muscles in his neck. Walking over to the window, he stared past the bars for a long moment, saying nothing. Would his family understand why he did what he did that night? Would they understand his indecision, his fear? And, more importantly, would they ever forgive him for it? Turning back to face his brothers, he began…

 

**********

 

Adam stood outside of the Lucky Ace. In the early hours of predawn, the dark street was all but deserted, but inside the lights burned brightly and strains of music filled the air as the self-indulgence raged on.

 

As he looked at the sidewalk that separated the street from the saloon, separated what was moral and decent from what was decadent and corrupt, a peculiar feeling came over him; he had been here before. Oh, not at this particular saloon. Like his brothers, he had never set foot inside it, but the situation he found himself in was strikingly familiar. Once again, he was preparing to enter a saloon to attempt to coax Bryant’s men to turn against him. That time he had had the comfort of knowing that his brothers waited in the street, ready to back him up if it proved necessary. This time, he wouldn’t be afforded that luxury, but it didn’t change what he knew he had to do.

 

Hesitating, he contemplated his options. He realized that the repercussions of a wrong decision could be very costly; not only would he agitate Bryant and his men, but the real culprit would still be out there, unpunished and free to strike again.

 

Adam knew that he had no evidence, no credible facts to support his claim. It was only pure instinct that told him he was right: the look on his father’s face outside the Mercantile, the knowledge of the kind of man Bryant was. His intuition told him that the answers to all of his questions lie just beyond those doors.

 

The time had come. He could either trust his instincts or he couldn’t, but a decision had to be made. One last time, he checked to ensure that his gun rested loosely in his holster, the one behind his back within easy reach. Then, squaring his shoulders, he took a deep breath, stepped across the sidewalk, and into the Lucky Ace Saloon.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXXIII

 

The bravest sight in the world is to see a great man struggling against adversity.

~ Seneca the Elder

 

Returning to the cot, Adam sat down heavily; shoulders slumped, resting his head in his hands. The only sound in the room was the scratching of Hiram’s pen on the paper as each man contemplated the ramifications of Adam’s story. Joe and Hoss exchanged a grim look. Knowing their brother, each suspected that Adam had chosen to leave out some of the more graphic details of what had happened to him at the saloon: details that would, likely as not, have had his brothers headed out the door seeking revenge. As they caught each other’s eye, an unspoken vow passed between them. Adam had risked his life for his family. Whatever the cost, they would not let him pay the ultimate price.

 

“When I got back to Paul’s, Joe was still sound asleep,” Adam continued, his voice flat and lifeless. “I was pretty exhausted as well, so I checked on Pa and then I guess I fell asleep in the chair. When I woke up, Joe was gone.”

 

Hiram shot a quick glance at Hoss and then back to Adam, an edge of excitement in his voice. “I see…and what did you do with Joe’s gun?”

 

Hoss had picked up on Hiram’s excitement, as well as the reason behind it, and held his breath, anticipating Adam’s answer, praying it would be the one that they needed to hear.

 

Adam blinked in mild surprise at the unexpected question and hesitated as he searched his memory. “I…uh…I put it back in Joe’s holster.” He offered his brother a small, sheepish grin. “After all, Joe, I figured what you didn’t know couldn’t hurt me!”

 

Joe shook his head in exasperation as he shared a smile with his brother. “I wouldn’t bet on it, Adam,” he said, warningly, but lacking the heat he would have given it earlier.

 

As the two brothers gratefully shared a brief, light moment, they were oblivious to the grim, deflated look that passed between Hoss and Hiram. With a weary sigh, Hiram put his hand to his temple, massaged the burgeoning headache that was forming there, and resumed his questioning.

 

“And then what did you do, Adam?”

 

Adam hesitated and shook his head slightly. “I…um…” Picking up the glass of water that rested next to his partially eaten sandwich, Adam took a small sip, unaware of the trembling of his hand as he set the glass back down on the table.

 

“I went back to Paul’s.” Adam continued, his voice thin and strained. “Uh…I must have fallen asleep. When I woke up, Joe was gone.”

 

At this Hiram’s pen stopped abruptly and all three looked at each other in surprise. For the brothers, the surprise only masked the concern that was growing underneath.

 

Adam looked back and forth between the lawyer and his brothers. “What?” he asked, confusion on his face. “What’s wrong?”

 

Shaking his head, Joe reached over and patted his brother on the arm and smiled indulgently. “I’ll take it from here, Adam.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXXIV

 

Why are we weighed upon with heaviness?

And utterly consumed with sharp distress…

~ Sir Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 

The piercing whistle that announced the end of the mine’s third shift jarred Joe from a deep but uneasy sleep. Stifling a yawn, he stretched carefully. As he worked the kinks out of his body, he shook his head in wonder that he could sleep for a month on the hard, cold ground during a cattle drive and not wake with the stiffness that he felt from sleeping one night upright in a chair. He rubbed his temples with both hands, surprised at just how sluggish and disoriented he felt.

 

The house seemed quiet…deathly quiet, although how Adam had managed to sleep through that blasted whistle, Joe had no idea. As his eyes fell upon the pale, still form on the bed a sharp pang of despair assailed him as he realized that his father hadn’t stirred at the sound of the whistle, either.

 

The angle of the light streaming in the half raised shade told him that it was considerably later than he usually met the day. Blinking to clear his vision, his eyes found the clock that rested in the center of the mantle. 8:30! Joe was stunned. Although he had a reputation of never turning down an extra hour or two of sleep, he knew Adam would be mortified to find that he had slept half the day away…particularly this day.

 

The aroma of coffee brewing alerted Joe’s senses as a sharp squeeze in his stomach reminded him that he hadn’t had anything to eat since…he thought back…noon yesterday at the ranch. With a pang of regret, he recalled the conversation that he and Adam had shared in the barn; how they had laughed and joked lightheartedly about their father’s cooking. It seemed like a lifetime ago, he thought bitterly. If only they hadn’t complained; if only their father hadn’t overheard, they wouldn’t have even been in town yesterday. Their father wouldn’t have been at Michelson’s, he wouldn’t have been shot, and he and Adam wouldn’t be sitting here wondering if their father was going to live or die. If only….

 

No. Joe firmly clamped down on the self-incrimination that he knew was pointless. They needed to move forward; they needed to find the person who shot their father and they needed to make him pay. Last night, every raw instinct Joe had was screaming for revenge. Now, in the cold light of day, he could admit to himself that Adam had been right; storming into the Lucky Ace in the temper he had been in would have been tantamount to suicide.

 

Reaching over to nudge Adam awake, his hand stopped in midair, slightly taken aback as he looked from father to brother. In repose, their features were so strikingly similar, something that Joe didn’t often have occasion to notice. He frowned as he studied his brother’s face more closely. Adam looked absolutely exhausted. Joe knew that Adam was as worried about their father and possibly even angrier at Roy than he was, but there was something more…

 

Stepping quietly over to the window, Joe raised the shade. As the light streamed across his brother’s face, he squinted in confusion at the slight swelling on Adam’s cheek and the purple shadow beginning to form around his eye. He searched his memory, trying to recall if anything had happened the night before that would account for them, but it was no use; his fuzzy brain wouldn’t cooperate. Shrugging his shoulders in resignation, he reached under the bed to locate his boots and pulled them on as quietly as possible. Then, taking his own blanket off the chair, he carefully draped it over his brother’s sleeping body and tucked it in.

 

Another pang from his stomach reminded him that Adam would, most likely, be as hungry as he was when he awoke. So, after placing a hand lightly on his father’s forehead to satisfy himself that there was, as yet, no fever, Joe headed off to find the doctor and see what he could rustle up for breakfast.

 

With no sign of Paul in the outer office, Joe continued on to the kitchen. Grateful that the doctor had thought to put coffee on to brew, he inhaled deeply and eagerly reached for one of the mugs Paul had set out on the counter for them. As he picked up the mug, his hand brushed a small, folded piece of paper, sending it fluttering to the floor. Joe tensed automatically as he read his name written in the doctor’s small, precise script.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXXV

 

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

~ William Shakespeare

 

Joe stood up and attempted to relieve his nervous energy by pacing the length of the small cell. Even with the door open, the walls seemed to close in on him, making him tense and edgy. He could only imagine how his brother was coping with it.

 

Hiram, eager to conclude this part of the investigation, prodded insistently. “And the note, Joseph?”

 

Joe stopped and turned to face the lawyer. “It wasn’t what I had feared,” he said, recalling the relief he had felt as he scanned the contents of the note. “There hadn’t been any change in Pa, one way or another. Paul had some patients to see and he left word where he would be and that he would be back in a couple of hours.” Joe was still amazed that the doctor had apparently been in to examine their father without waking either him or Adam.

 

“And then?” Hiram indicated with a rolling motion of his hand that he was impatient for Joe to continue.

 

Realizing that they were all on edge, Joe struggled to keep the irritation that he was beginning to feel for the lawyer’s manner out of his voice. He was only marginally successful. “I figured that Adam would be waking soon, so I thought I would go pick us up some breakfast from the International House.”

 

At this, Adam, who had been sitting quietly throughout Joe’s testimony, raised his head. “For which I shall be eternally grateful,” he quipped.

 

“Ha! You got that right, Brother!” Hoss grinned in amusement at the twinkle in Adam’ eye as they shared a small joke at Joe’s expense.

 

At the confusion on Hiram’s face, Hoss couldn’t help but chuckle again. With a wry smile, Adam explained. “It seems that, when it comes to Joe and cooking, like father, like son.”

 

Anyway….” Joe replied emphatically, feigning annoyance. It hadn’t escaped him that Adam was becoming more tense and quiet as the afternoon wore on. The effort to recall what had happened and, in essence, relive it was obviously wearing on his brother. If he could relieve Adam’s stress by becoming the butt of a little joke, Joe was more than happy to oblige. He caught Hoss’ eye and gave him a quick wink.

 

“On the way there, I decided to wire Hop Sing in San Francisco,” Joe said, and then added defensively, “I didn’t want to be the one he came after when he found out no one had told him about Pa.” Both Adam and Hoss looked at him gratefully, realizing that, with everything that had happened, neither of them had given a thought to Hop Sing.

 

“When I got to the International House, it was packed.” Joe recalled, remembering how surprised he had been to see that so many people were just sitting down to breakfast at what for a rancher was practically the middle of the day. As Joe had waited for his food to be prepared, a strong sense of foreboding had come over him. He had tried to shrug it off as ‘just nerves,’ but, by the time his food had arrived, he had been almost in a panic to get back to his father and brother.

 

Something was wrong. Joe was certain of it.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXXVI

 

Oh what a tangled web we weave

When first we practice to deceive.

~ Sir Walter Scott

 

His elbows on his knees and his head once again in his hands, Adam kneaded his throbbing temples.

 

“What was that, Adam?” Joe paused in his testimony to look at his brother worriedly.

 

Adam’s head came up slowly, his eyes dulled with pain. Unaware that he had spoken out loud, he cleared his throat and, a little reluctantly, repeated himself. “Could have left a note.”

 

At that, Joe’s eyes flashed with anger. “Like the one you left, Adam?” he spat out accusingly.

 

Adam hesitated, searching a memory in which he was increasingly losing confidence. Drawing a blank, he replied, “I didn’t leave a note.”

 

“No, Adam,” Joe said, his anger now laced with sarcasm. “You’re right. You didn’t leave a note.”

 

Adam looked at him questioningly, but Joe refused to meet his gaze.

 

Hoss glanced back and forth between his brothers. It was obvious that Joe fighting to hold his temper and, for all Hoss knew, he had a right to be angry. “Joe, you just settle yourself down,” he said. Turning to Adam, he said gently, “Adam, how about you tell us what you two are talkin’ about.”

 

Sighing heavily, Adam nodded…

 

**********

 

He woke with a start, his eyes snapping open. Emitting a small groan as his abused muscles screamed in protest, he attempted to stand but quickly sat back down, breathing heavily as the room seemed to take a lazy dip around him and his stomach threatened to retaliate. Biting his bottom lip, he gathered his determination and pushed himself out of the chair. Finally, after several uncomfortable moments, the spinning of the room subsided and he moved cautiously to his father’s side.

 

Gazing down at his father’s still form, he allowed his shoulders to slump in defeat. What had he expected, Adam thought bitterly. That his father would be awake and alert? That everything would be back to normal? That this would have all just been a very bad dream? No, he had never been one to allow hope to override logic and he had always been too realistic to allow himself to believe in miracles. But, as he reached down and laid his hand gently on his father’s forehead, gauging his temperature, Adam found himself wondering for once if, perhaps, reality wasn’t highly overrated.

 

After checking his pulse, he lifted his father’s blanket to check for evidence of fresh bleeding. Satisfied that he was no worse than before, Adam turned his attention to his younger brother. Joe’s hat and gunbelt were gone, but the welcome aroma of fresh brewed coffee coming from the kitchen reassured him that his brother hadn’t gone far. After all, it was only…his eyes found the clock on the mantle and opened wide in shocked surprise. 8:45! Adam shook his head is disbelief, trying unsuccessfully to recall another time that he had allowed himself to sleep so late. Joe would never let him live this down, he thought ruefully, cringing as he admitted to himself that oversleeping was tame in comparison to all of the other things he was attempting to keep from his brother.

 

Mindful of his aching muscles, Adam slowly walked the few steps to the washstand. As he looked at his bruised and swollen reflection, he realized in dismay that there was no possible way to hide the evidence of his night’s work from Joe. As soon as his brother saw his face, Adam knew he would have to face the music.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXXVII

 

Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame.

~ Benjamin Franklin

 

Over and over, Adam splashed the cool water on his face in a vain attempt to clear the cobwebs from his mind, wincing again as his fingers brushed his swollen cheek. As he gripped the sides of the washstand, his head bowed and water from his face dripping into the basin below, Adam’s thoughts returned to the previous night.

 

**********

 

He stood in the doorway and carefully scanned the room. Although Adam recognized several familiar faces, they were acquaintances only, no employees of the Ponderosa or anyone he would have considered a close friend. A couple of the saloon girls were familiar to him as well. He couldn’t fault them for leaving their low paying jobs at the Silver Dollar or even the Sazarac; some had families to support and Adam suspected that Bryant paid top dollar for his employees.

 

Making his way through the thick fog of cigar smoke, Adam stepped up to the front of the room and stopped next to the piano, standing straight and still. Within seconds, the piano player had noticed him and the music stopped abruptly, the conversation gradually following as people nudged each other and pointed in his direction.

 

Adam waited until he had the attention of the room and then laid out his offer of cash for anyone willing to offer information that led to the arrest of the person responsible for shooting his father. He waited, trying to hide any outward sign of nervousness, but the silence that followed his offer wasn’t encouraging. Taking a deep breath, he cleared his throat and amended his offer to include a guarantee of protection from any retribution.

 

Suddenly, taking their cue from a group of men that Adam knew to be Bryant’s, the room erupted in laughter. Adam waited, jaw clenched, hoping that it would die down on its own. Then, spurred on by Bryant’s men, the laughter and ridicule quickly turned to threats and the room exploded as they descended upon him en masse. Taking several punches to the stomach and face before he could pull himself clear, Adam finally managed to draw both guns and, head spinning and gasping for breath, leveled them at the crowd, and backed out the way he came.

 

**********

 

Adam raised his head and stared once more into the mirror. He knew that it was only his reputation with a gun and the knowledge that he was willing to use it that had gotten him out of there alive. He shuddered to think what could have happened if he had allowed Joe to go to the saloon. And, if he were honest with himself, what had he really achieved, other than get himself beat up and rile Bryant’s men? After the reaction of the crowd, he calculated the probability that one of Bryant’s men would take him up on his offer to be about zero. Adam shook his head, wondering how he could have had such a lapse in judgment. Then, glancing back at his father, he realized the answer.

 

As Adam passed his hand tiredly across his face, he knew that a shave was out of the question. Desperate for a cup of strong, black coffee and knowing that he was only postponing the inevitable, Adam turned and, with another lingering glance at his father, made his way to the kitchen to find his little brother.

 

**********

CHAPTER XXXVIII

 

Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice…

~ William Jennings Bryan

 

“When I got to the kitchen, I found the coffee, but no sign of Joe or Paul,” Adam said, then admitted reluctantly. “I…um…I guess I thought maybe Joe had gone out looking for trouble.”

 

“That’s rich, Adam,” Joe spoke up sarcastically, “After what you just…”

 

“Joe!” Hoss said sharply, frowning and shaking his head. At the look on his brother’s face, Joe grudgingly acquiesced.

 

“Go on, Adam,” Hoss gently encouraged.

 

**********

 

He poured himself a cup of coffee, trying to decide how long to wait. He was loathe to leave his father alone, but knew that if Joe didn’t come through that door in the next five minutes…

 

A knock at the front door interrupted his thoughts. Wishing he had put on his gun belt before going into the kitchen, Adam went to the window and pulled back the heavy drape. Unable to see anyone on the porch, he cautiously turned the knob and, slowly opening the door, exhaled in relief.

 

“A man told me to give this to a Mr. Adam Cartwright. You him?”

 

Adam smiled down at a young boy, and nodded. “Yes, I’m Adam Cartwright.” He reached for the note and, keeping his tone casual, asked, “Son, do you know the man who gave you this note? Could you describe him?”

 

“No, Sir. I don’t know ‘im, but he was kind of a young feller, bit smaller than you.” The boy, whose ankles stretched well below his threadbare, patched pants, looked up expectantly. “Said that if I was to get you this here note by 9:00 at Doc Martin’s house, you would…” the boy scratched his head, trying to remember the exact words, “reward me handsomely. That’s what he said.”

 

As Adam fished in his pocket for a coin, and, handing it to the boy, he chuckled in relieved amusement at his brother’s audacity – sending him a note and then forcing him to pay for it himself. As he quickly scanned it, however, his smile abruptly disappeared. When he looked up, the boy had already taken off down the street, coin in hand.

 

Turning on his heels, Adam rushed back into the house and went straight to his father’s room. As he quickly gathered up his hat and gun belt, the clock on the mantle chimed nine times. He glanced down once more and murmured under his breath, “Sorry, Pa…no choice.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XXXIX

 

The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.

~ Maimonides

 

Adam took a deep, shuddering breath. “When I got to Main Street, I saw Joe coming out of the International. I waited until he passed and then headed to the livery.” He looked up at Hiram. “The rest you know.”

 

“And after you got to the livery…” Hiram continued to prod.

 

Adam sighed deeply, realizing that Hiram wouldn’t be satisfied until he had divulged every last detail. “I don’t remember much after that. I got to the livery, went in…” Adam paused, desperate to piece the sparse images that came to his mind into some kind of cohesive picture. The more he tried, the more his head throbbed. The room was becoming stiflingly hot and beads of sweat were beginning to break out on his forehead.

 

Hiram, oblivious to Adam’s increasing difficulty, continued. “Was anyone there? Did you see Tate?”

 

“There was someone there. I remember laughter…”

 

“But no face? You can remember laughter, but not the face of the person doing it?”

 

Adam winced as Hiram’s voice increased in pitch and intensity.

 

Hoss, who had been watching his brother closely, put a gentle hand on Adam’s shoulder and said softly, “That’s enough, Adam.”

 

Hiram’s mouth dropped open in protest. Hoss, meeting the lawyer’s eyes, repeated more firmly, “That’s enough.” He’s done told you what he can. Now leave him be.” As his brother shot him a grateful look, Hoss felt an easing of the tension in the shoulder under his hand.

 

Nonplussed, Hiram closed his mouth. He had seen a demonstration of Hoss’s temper firsthand and had no desire to be on the receiving end of it. Regrouping, he turned to Joe. “Well, Joseph? Is there anything you can add?”

 

“Joseph?” he repeated, a little louder.

 

Lost in his own thoughts, Joe started. Then, realizing that all eyes were on him, he cleared his throat and said, “Well, like I told you before, when I was at the International House, I got this feeling…” He looked down, slightly embarrassed by his admission. “It sounds silly, I know.” Joe looked from face to face, but no one was smiling so he continued. “I knew something was wrong and that I had to get back to Paul’s…I just knew it.”

 

“When I got there, I hollered for Adam and when he didn’t answer, I went back to Pa’s room.” Joe paused. “That’s when I found the note on the floor by Pa’s bed.”

 

Adam’s head shot up, his eyes questioning. Joe shrugged. “I guess you must have dropped it, Adam. Anyway, after I read it, I didn’t know what to do. I hated the idea of leaving Pa alone, but it was already 9:15. I thought if I didn’t hurry, I could be too late.”

 

“You could have just trusted me to handle it on my own, Joe.” Adam said, knowing as he spoke that his words rang hollow.

 

“Like the way you trusted me, Adam?” It was more of a question this time than an accusation. Joe wished with all his heart that his brother had come to him, confided in him; things might have turned out so differently. But it was too late to change anything now and he, like Hoss, could see that Adam was in no shape for another argument.

 

“Just never mind that now, Joe,” Hoss said, his voice stern but his eyes filled with sadness for what his entire family was being forced to endure. “That kinda talk ain’t gonna get us nowhere.” He looked at Adam, his head down and his shoulders trembling slightly. “And Adam, you oughn’t to know better, too. Joe couldn’t no more wait for you than you coulda for him.”

 

Adam glanced up at Hoss and accepted his scolding with a slight grin. His brother was right, as usual. Joe nodded and, taking a deep breath, continued…

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XL

 

Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.

~ Napoleon Bonaparte

 

Joe closed his eyes for a brief moment. Then, making a decision, he reached over and quickly squeezed his father’s hand. “Don’t worry, Pa… I’ll bring him back, I promise.”

 

He opened the front door and, stepping down the few wooden steps to the street, paused to withdraw his pistol from his holster, spinning the cylinder. Satisfied that he would be ready for whatever awaited him when he found Adam, he snapped it shut.

 

“Joe Cartwright!”

 

Joe swore softly but fluently under his breath as he looked up to see Roy Coffee making his way straight for the doctor’s house. Desperate to reach his brother in time and not eager for a confrontation with the sheriff, Joe glanced around quickly for a means of escape.

 

“Little Joe!” Roy called again.

 

It was too late; there was nothing to do but wait. Joe was still angry with the sheriff for his lack of support the day before, but at the moment, that anger was taking a backseat to his worry for his brother. Once again, he cursed the delay.

 

“Little Joe, I come to talk to your brother and check on your pa.”

 

“Adam isn’t here, Roy,” Joe responded tersely, hoping that the sheriff would accept his answer and come back later.

 

“Now, that don’t seem likely. I just run into Doc and he told me there was no change in Ben’s condition.”

 

Joe could feel Roy’s piercing gaze but stubbornly refused to meet the sheriff’s eyes.

 

Roy continued undeterred. “You appear to be on your way someplace in a mighty big hurry,” he said, nodding toward the gun that Joe had yet to place back in his holster. “Don’t stand to reason that you’d leave your Pa all alone, now does it?”

 

Joe stood silently, indecision tearing at him. His instinct was telling him that he needed to find his brother, and soon, but Roy’s persistent questioning was quickly eroding his stubborn determination to handle this on his own.

 

Then, in a tone so like the one his father would have used, Roy urged gently. “Come on, Son…why don’t you tell me what’s goin’ on? I cain’t help if I don’t know.”

 

Joe felt his resolve crumble completely. He hesitated just a moment more and then, on impulse, reached in his pocket and drew out the note he had found on the floor, shoving it hastily toward Roy before he could change his mind.

 

Pulling his spectacles from his vest pocket, Roy quickly scanned the note, his expression changing from surprise to one of grim determination. He checked his pocket watch, nodded, and looking at Joe, said brusquely, “Well, what we waitin’ for? Let’s go, Little Joe.”

 

Suddenly Joe wondered if he had made a terrible mistake. He reached out a hand and grabbed Roy’s arm as the sheriff turned to go. “Wait, Roy…the note says ‘no law.’”

 

Roy stopped and, turning back to Joe, looked him straight in the eye. “Boy, we can stand here debatin’ all day, or we can go help your brother.”

 

*********

 

CHAPTER XLI

 

The world is governed more by appearances than realities…

~ Daniel Webster

 

Joe stood up and began to pace the confines of the cell once again. He knew that the next part of his story was going to be difficult for Adam to hear. In truth, he was in no hurry to relive it himself. He wished he could just run away, run away from the facts that he knew he had to divulge. Facts that, in retrospect, only enhanced his brother’s appearance of guilt. For that was all it was, Joe told himself firmly, an ‘appearance’ of guilt. He shook his head in disbelief that something that could seem so clear, so obvious one moment, could become so twisted and distorted the next.

 

He exhaled a shaky breath and, stalling for time, reached for the glass of water by Adam’s cot to take a sip. He saw both Hoss and Hiram’s eyes on him; Hoss’ filled with understanding and concern, Hiram’s with eagerness and impatience. Accepting his brother’s support and ignoring Hiram, Joe shifted his attention to Adam, who was sitting on the cot with his head still resting in his hands.

 

“Adam?” Joe asked hesitantly, needing reassurance that his brother was all right before he continued.

 

At hearing his name, Adam raised his head slowly. Meeting Joe’s gaze, he gave him a small, encouraging nod. “Go on, Joe. Putting it off isn’t going to change the facts.”

 

**********

 

Together, they started quickly down the street, not speaking, each harboring their own fears about the possible outcome of this day. As Joe became increasingly frustrated with the slower pace of the older man, he finally exploded. “Roy, can’t you hurry it up a little?”

 

Red faced and breathing heavily, Roy gave Joe a long-suffering look and picked up his pace a bit, mumbling under his breath. Joe caught the words “impertinent” and “youth” and almost smiled. If the situation hadn’t been so grave, he would have been amused, but all his attention was focused on reaching his brother before….

 

The faint but unmistakable report of a pistol firing stopped both men in their tracks. Although still several blocks away, there was no doubt in their minds from which direction the shot came. Refusing to wait any longer, Joe sprinted down the street, drawing his weapon as he ran.

 

“Little Joe! You hold up, you hear?” Roy called after him. Drawing his own gun, he redoubled his pace.

 

Joe pulled up short as he reached the stable doors, trying desperately to calm his nerves and still his racing heart. He listened intently, but no sounds came from within the stable. Taking a deep breath, Joe cocked the hammer on his pistol, quietly lifted the latch and opened the door.

 

Stepping inside, Joe stopped short. Evidence of a struggle was everywhere: stools and buckets were overturned and tack was strewn haphazardly across the floor. His eyes, rapidly casting back and forth, took in no movement, save that of his brother standing near one of the stalls, slightly swaying, a pistol hanging loosely from his hand. The acrid scent of gunpowder permeated the room as the sunlight streaming in illuminated the filaments of smoke that were still hovering in the air.

 

Lying on the ground beneath his brother’s gun was the body of a man that Joe recognized immediately as Oren Tate. He exhaled in relief as he released the hammer and reholstered his pistol. It was obvious to him what had taken place here. For his brother’s sake he wished it hadn’t happened, for he knew how Adam reacted each time he was forced to take a life, however justified. Joe didn’t care; he was just grateful that his brother was the one still standing and not the other way around.

 

From behind him, he heard the footsteps and labored breathing that told him that Roy had finally caught up. Turning, he watched as the sheriff took in the scene. The body lying on the floor, the gun in Adam’s hand, the swelling on his brother’s face and the blood streaming from his brow and down the back of his neck. For once, Joe was grateful for Roy’s presence. With the sheriff on the scene, there could be no question from the public as to what had actually happened.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XLII

 

Time alone reveals the just man…

~ Sophocles

 

Both men moved toward Adam at the same time, Joe stepping carefully around a pitchfork that lay in his path. He grimaced when he realized that the handle was smeared with blood and, by the look of his brother, Joe had no illusions as to whose blood it was. It was obvious that neither man had planned on going down without a fight. As he reached Adam, Joe gripped his brother’s arm with one hand for support and, taking his chin with the other, turned Adam’s face into the light.

 

“Adam? Adam, it’s Joe…look at me,” Joe said, frowning at the glassy, unfocused look in his brother’s eyes.

 

“Just take it easy now, Adam.” Roy, approaching slowly from the other side, took Adam’s hand firmly in his and carefully pried the gun from the younger man’s vice-like grip. All the while, Adam gave no indication that he was aware that his brother or the sheriff were in the room; his brows were furrowed in confusion as his eyes fell upon the body on the floor.

 

Immediately upon releasing the gun, Adam staggered and reeled, as if his grip on the metal in his hand had been the only thing keeping him upright. With his hands empty, the tension left his body and his legs would no longer support him. Joe carefully lowered him to sit on a crate, his back and head resting on one of the sturdy, upright beams.

 

“Adam, you wait here for a minute. Don’t move,” Joe said, relinquishing his grip on his brother’s arm.

 

Joe hurried out the back door of the stable to the pump and returned, carefully balancing a dipper filled with water. Holding it to Adam’s lips, he encouraged him to drink, pulling back as Adam coughed and sputtered and pushed the dipper away. Taking a moistened handkerchief, Joe gently bathed the blood away from the deep cut on Adam’s forehead and his split and swollen upper lip.

 

Wincing as the pain finally registered with him, Adam pulled away. “Joe?” Adam looked at him questioningly, then his eyes cast about the room. “What…?”

 

“Don’t worry, Adam. It’s over…Tate’s dead,” Joe said reassuringly. “Just sit here for a minute and then we’ll take you over to Doc’s.”

 

Breathing heavily, Adam closed his eyes and nodded, leaning his head back gratefully against the beam. Suddenly, his eyes snapped open as the reality of Joe’s words sunk in. Pushing against his brother’s restraining hands, Adam struggled to stand up and, staggering from post to post, made his way over to where Roy was kneeling over the body, looking up at him with eyes filled with sympathy and regret.

 

Almost without conscious thought, Adam reached down and felt for his pistol. As his hand met the empty holster, Joe watched in concern as his brother’s face blanched, the color leaching out until his complexion had turned a sickly shade of gray. Adam eyes went back and forth from the gun in the sheriff’s hand…his gun, to the body that lay on the ground. Joe caught him as he began to fall…

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XLIII

 

I am on the edge of mysteries and the veil is getting thinner and thinner.

~ Louis Pasteur

 

“Adam!”

 

Joe lurched forward, connecting with his brother’s arm just in time to prevent him from toppling to the floor. Through his tight grip, Joe felt a deep shudder ripple through Adam’s body. For a long moment Adam leaned into Joe’s support, accepting it gratefully, but his mute gaze never left the body that lay sprawled at his feet. Finally, with what appeared to take a supreme effort, he slowly straightened his spine, squared his shoulders and lifted his head.

 

As his eyes met those of his brother, Joe inhaled sharply. The glassy and unfocused look that had so worried him moments earlier was gone, replaced by a look that, if possible, caused him even greater distress. If the eyes were truly the windows to the soul, then Joe knew he had even more reason to fear for his brother. Adam’s eyes had always been warm and expressive, often dancing with a glint of intelligent humor, sometimes dark in bridled fury. The eyes that now held Joe’s were the eyes of a stranger, cold, sterile, and devoid of any feeling.

 

Joe realized, with renewed dread, that he had seen this look in Adam’s eyes once before, long ago, when Adam had returned from his disappearance in the desert. His brother had been distant then, unapproachable, and it had taken their father over a week to gather up the courage to confront him. When he finally did, Adam’s eyes had held the same look as Joe saw now, as if what he had seen or done had been beyond what a sane man could bear and, in self-preservation, he had closed himself down from anything that could inflict more pain.

 

Joe instinctively tightened his grip, as if he were clinging to more than just his brother’s arm. In that brief moment, he realized that they had all just suffered a sea change; that everything that had been before was irrevocably gone and their lives could never be the same.

 

Adam hadn’t said a word as he stared fixedly at Joe. Suddenly, Joe recoiled with shock as he, with utter and undeniable clarity, realized what his brother’s eyes were telling him. In denial, he shook his head.

 

“No…” Joe pleaded, in a voice barely more than a dry whisper.

 

Slowly, hearing the plea, Adam’s eyes began to soften and he once again took on a shadow of the brother that Joe knew. Adam reached over and gently took Joe’s shoulders in his hands, completing their connection, and allowed a small, supportive smile to play on his lips.

 

“Joe…” he began.

 

“No, Adam!” Joe’s voice was high-pitched and frightened. His heart racing, Joe released the grip on his brother and took a few steps back, pulling away from Adam, as if distancing himself could change what was he knew was coming, what he knew he had no power to prevent. As Joe stumbled blindly, Adam reached out and gently supported him.

 

“It’s all right, Joe….take it easy.”

 

Joe could barely hear his brother’s soothing tones over the rushing of the blood in his ears. As he willed his breathing to still, he looked beseeching at Roy, standing patiently by the stable doors, but the sheriff shook his head, his expression of sadness and regret falling far short of the reassurance that Joe craved.

 

Adam turned and, with a look of determined resignation, began making his way over to the sheriff. Realizing again with sudden clarity what his brother intended, Joe rushed over to block Adam’s path.

 

“Adam, you can’t be serious!”

 

“Joe…”

 

Joe shook his head vigorously, rejecting his brother’s attempt to placate him. As far as he was concerned, Adam had merely defended himself against the man who had shot their father and, from the look of the stable around him, apparently had tried to kill Adam as well.

 

He clung to his brother in desperation and pleaded, “No, Adam! It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t have a choice. He shot Pa…he could have shot you!”

 

“Joe, please.” Adam tried as gently as he could to pull himself out of his brother’s frantic grip.

 

In the dim light of the stable, Joe took in Adam’s battered face, swollen and bleeding, as they faced each other and found himself cursing the circumstances beyond their control that had swept them up and carried them away.

 

No…his brother had suffered his share for this and Joe was determined that he wasn’t going to suffer anymore. If he were truthful, he was more tired than he could say of his brother’s tendency toward nobility as, once again, Adam seemed determined to take all the responsibility, all the blame onto himself.

 

“You’re not going alone. I’m going with you.” Even as he spoke the words, Joe knew what Adam’s response would be.

 

“You can’t, Joe,” Adam replied reasonably, “You have to stay with Pa and tell Hoss what happened when he gets home.”

 

The frustration that Joe felt with the maddeningly calm, logical tone that Adam had adopted was made worse by the fact that, inwardly, he knew Adam was right. From the corner of his eye, he saw Roy extracting his handcuffs.

 

“Adam, much as I hate it, I’ve got to take you in, boy.”

 

“NO….Roy!” Joe tried once more to forestall the inevitable. “He was forced to do it…you can’t take him! It was my fault, my idea….” He could hear the hysteria that had permeated his voice, and he knew it was only a shadow of the panic he was feeling inside.

 

“Joe…”

 

As Adam turned to offer his wrists to the sheriff’s handcuffs, he looked Joe directly in the eye. Joe turned away, as if, by not looking at his brother he somehow would not hear the words that he knew Adam was going to say; the words that, once spoken aloud, could never be taken back.

 

“Joe…the choice was mine alone.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XLIV

 

Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.

~ Friedrich Nietzsche

 

“If you’ve spoken to Roy, then you know the rest,” Joe said, directing his comment to Hiram.

 

Hoss frowned in concern. Joe’s voice was flat and lifeless and Hoss couldn’t recall a time that he had ever seen his younger brother looking more drained and defeated. Nothing he had just heard was news to him, but Hoss had still held out hope that, in Joe’s retelling, he would pick up something that they had all missed, some minute, overlooked detail, something that would exonerate his brother. Now that Joe had finished, Hoss had to admit to himself that the situation appeared bleaker than ever.

 

Joe had always been the easiest brother for Hoss to read, and it didn’t take much to see how upset he was at being forced to relive the whole ordeal. Hoss was grateful that this task, at least, was over. Then suddenly the reality hit him; if the case went to trial, then Joe, Adam, his whole family, would be forced to relive it again and again. As much as he tried to deny the possibility, Hoss knew that if Adam were convicted then, for their family, it would never be over.

 

Hiram made some final notations, and then frowned as he reviewed his notes. Apparently unsatisfied with the information he had received, he turned to question Adam once again. “Adam, is there anything else you can add?” he urged. Glancing quickly over to Hoss, he softened his tone as he saw a frown form on the larger man’s face. “Anything at all?” he added, more compliantly.

 

Adam’s head had remained down, cradled in his hands, and Hoss wasn’t even sure if his brother had heard Hiram’s question, let alone the testimony that Joe had just given. Hoss didn’t much care for the way Adam looked. Throughout Joe’s statement, he had noticed that Adam’s breathing had grown quicker and more irregular and he would bet that, if Adam would ever get around to looking up, his face would be very pale as well.

 

Hoss decided to take charge of the situation. “Right…” he said, with an air of finality, “Joe, I think it’s ’bout time you headed on back over to Pa. I’ll stay here with Adam for a spell.”

 

Joe hesitated, glancing over to Adam. Hoss saw the look on Joe’s face, a look of overwhelming guilt and regret, and realized sadly that his little brother was hurting just about as bad as his older one was. As Joe stood to go, Hoss walked over to him and put his hand on his shoulder, squeezing it reassuringly.

 

“Joe, ain’t no reason for you to feel the way you do.” he said softly under his breath. “You ain’t the one what caused this situation. You did what you could to help Adam and you ain’t no more responsible than I am for how it turned out.” As Joe raised his head, Hoss felt his heart squeeze in sympathy for the obvious anguish in his little brother’s eyes. Hoss patted him a bit harder and said, good-naturedly, “You get on out of here now. I’ll be along directly.”

 

Joe offered Hoss a feeble smile of thanks and turned once more to his oldest brother. “Adam?” For a long moment he waited but when there was no response, Joe nodded in sad acceptance and turned to leave. As he neared the cell door, however, he stopped abruptly.

 

“Wait a minute…” Joe began.

 

Hoss watched in curiosity. Joe had the look on his face of a man trying to sort out a problem in his mind before saying it aloud and possibly making himself out to look the fool. “Wait a minute!” Joe repeated, more loudly.

 

“Joe? What’s got into you?”

 

Joe turned and faced his brothers, unable to contain the growing excitement on his face. Hoss was shocked at the transformation in his brother’s demeanor from only a moment ago as he now stood before them, smiling from ear to ear.

 

“It’s so obvious, I don’t know why we didn’t think of it earlier!” Joe said, enthusiastically.

 

“Joe,” Hoss said impatiently, “If you got somethin’ to say, you need to just say it.” Did his little brother actually notice something in his own testimony that Hoss had missed? Was it possible that there could still be some way out of this mess for all of them?

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XLV

 

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

~ John Adams

 

With Hoss and Hiram’s eyes fixed on his, Joe’s sudden burst of confidence began to falter. He swallowed hard and said, “I was thinking…what if we were to compare Tate’s gun to the bullet that shot Pa? If it’s the same caliber bullet, that would help Adam’s case, wouldn’t it?”

 

The silence that followed was deafening. As Joe looked expectantly back and forth between his brother and the lawyer, he couldn’t help but be deflated by the unexpected lack of enthusiasm that greeted his suggestion.

 

“I mean, I know it’d be circumstantial and all, but…”

 

Joe paused confused, his sentence hanging in midair. He hadn’t missed Hiram’s sharp glance at Hoss and how his brother responded with a scowl and a quick shake of his head. Now Hoss avoided looking him in the eye, while Hiram was finding something in his notes that suddenly demanded his undivided attention.

 

“What? What is it?” Joe demanded, a trace of anger finding its way into his voice. This was, after all, the first idea that anyone had had to help his brother and to get to the bottom of this situation. He could understand Hiram’s reaction; the lawyer didn’t really have a personal stake in this, unlike Joe and his brothers. Hoss’ reaction, however, surprised him. Hoss was looking down at his boots as his toe scuffled on the floor. Having known his brother all his life, he knew that this was a surefire sign that Hoss was holding something back.

 

In frustration, Joe glanced over to Adam, although he hadn’t really anticipated any support from him in his current condition. As he looked at his brother, however, Joe was startled for, of the three men in the room, only Adam showed the slightest spark of enthusiasm for his suggestion. For the first time since Joe had begun his statement, Adam lifted his head and spoke, his voice thin and unsteady, but unable to mask the small ray of hope hidden within it.

 

“I think Joe’s got something there, Hiram.”

 

The other two men started when Adam spoke, almost as if, in his silence and their distraction, they had momentarily forgotten that he was in the room. Joe nodded at Adam and offered him a smile of gratitude. When Adam returned the smile and added a small wink of his own, Joe felt unaccountably better, knowing he had his brother’s support.

 

Returning his attention to Hoss, Joe repeated his question with more force. “Something is going on here, Hoss; what is it?”

 

Heaving a deep sigh, Hiram shook his head and directed his comment to Hoss. “They have to know, Hoss. There’s no use putting it off any longer.”

 

With the look of a man who longed to be any place else in the world other than where he was right now, Hoss nodded in agreement. Yielding to the inevitable, he looked straight into Adam’s eyes and broke the news.

 

“We cain’t check the gun, Adam.” Hoss paused as his brother cocked his head and furrowed his brow. Joe couldn’t blame Adam, for Hoss’s words had confused him as well.

 

“Hoss…” Hiram prompted.

 

Hoss shot the lawyer an irritated look and swallowed nervously. Beginning again, he said, “Adam, we cain’t check the caliber of the gun ’cause there weren’t no gun to check.” Hoss paused as he watched his brother try to process the information he was given. Finally, Hoss straightened up, looked Adam in the eye, and said plainly, “Adam…Tate was unarmed.”

 

Joe felt as if an iron fist had just found its way to his stomach and he couldn’t contain the eruption of anger that forced its way to the surface. “That’s impossible, Hoss!” he protested vehemently. “Who told you that?”

 

“Joe!” Hoss’ voice was sharp and firm, his eyes filled with concern for their older brother. As Joe’s gaze followed Hoss’, he saw the shock in Adam’s eyes as he shook his head almost imperceptibly in utter bewilderment.

 

Joe knew, for his brother’s sake, that he needed to get a grip on his temper, but at the present time that skill seemed beyond his capabilities. Anger unabated, he paced the length of the cell, fists clinched and breathing heavily, struggling for control. Reaching the end of the narrow cell once more, he spun around and demanded, “I want to know who told you that, Hoss? Roy? Was it Roy? And you just believed him, I suppose?”

 

“Dadburnit, Little Joe. I know Roy ain’t been the most obligin’ feller lately, but he sure wouldn’t…”

 

Joe was poised to respond when a faint movement in the corner of his eye drew his attention. Abruptly, he put a hand up, cutting Hoss off in mid-sentence and nodded toward their brother. Adam was leaning heavily on the chair next to his cot; his face drained of all color. Beads of sweat covered his forehead and the knuckles that gripped the chair were nearly as white as his face.

 

“Adam? ADAM? You okay?” Not waiting for a response, Joe immediately abandoned his argument with Hoss and moved toward his brother. Hoss, however, was closer, and reached out to grasp Adam’s arms just as his iron grip on the chair had failed and he began to fall heavily to the floor.

 

Hoss looked up and said grimly, “You best go get the doc, Joe.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XLVI

 

We understand death for the first time when he puts his hand upon one whom we love.

~ Madame de Stael

 

Paul sat next to his old friend and frowned. He had tried everything he could think of. There was some relief in the knowledge that Ben’s bullet wound, so far at least, had shown no signs of infection, but the head wound had him troubled…very troubled. As much as he had tried to be optimistic around Ben’s sons, the simple fact of the matter was that the longer Ben remained unconscious, the less hope there was for a complete recovery or, he reluctantly admitted to himself, any recovery at all.

 

Paul was well aware that there were some members of the medical community who were of the opinion that, even unconscious, patients were possibly aware of things going on around them. He, himself, had had patients that had uncanny recollections of things that had been said in their presence while unconscious, so who was he to discount them? All day he had sat at his friend’s bedside, trying every tactic he could think of. At first he encouraged, then pleaded, and eventually resorted to threats. Now it was time to try the next tack…guilt. If it worked on the son, he reasoned, maybe it would work on the father, too.

 

Clearing his throat, he took his friend to task. “Ben Cartwright, I never thought I’d see the day when you would lie there shirking your responsibilities.” Paul inwardly laughed. Just the thought of Ben shirking his responsibilities was absurd. “Leaving your sons to take care of that ranch while you take it easy….”

 

He carefully scrutinized Ben’s face. Seeing no visible change left him dispirited, but he refused to give up on his friend so easily. ”Those boys of yours are counting on you to come back and get to work, and come back as cantankerous as you were before. Are you going to let them down?” Raising his voice and hardening his tone, he continued. “Well, that’s not the Ben Cartwright that I know. They may be grown men, but those boys of yours still need you, Ben….” Under his breath, he added more softly, “Adam needs you.”

 

As Paul stood and walked over to the window, his thoughts turned to Ben’s eldest son. He cringed when he considered the myriad of ways that this situation could end…most of them badly. Try as he might, though, he just couldn’t conceive of a solution and, if it were proven that Adam had indeed shot and killed an unarmed man, the ramifications would be disastrous. Paul didn’t envy Hiram – or Roy, for that matter, and he found himself relieved that it was their responsibility, not his own, to find the evidence that would exonerate Adam. It was his responsibility, however, to ensure that, if and when Adam was finally released, his father would be waiting for him, well and whole again.

 

Feeling weighed down by that charge, Paul made his way back to his patient, on the way stopping to collect the fresh bandages he had prepared earlier. As he neared the bed and his eyes surveyed his friend’s face, however, he started. Unsure if what he had seen had been just a trick of the late afternoon light, Paul quickly put down the bandages and took Ben’s face firmly in his hands.

 

“Ben? Ben! Come on, Ben!”

 

Paul patted his patient’s face while continuing to call his name, stopping only long enough to feel for the pulse in his friend’s limp wrist. Frowning, Paul put his ear to Ben’s chest and waited for several tense moments, scarcely breathing himself.

 

Finally, in sad defeat, he slumped back in the chair, exhausted, and let his head drop into his hands.

 

**********

 

Joe felt nothing less than miserable as he raced toward the doctor’s office. All through his testimony he had been plagued with guilt over the many things he felt he should or shouldn’t have done, as if the outcome of the situation had somehow rested solely in his hands. And now Adam had, once again, collapsed. Although Joe knew in his heart that Adam would be the first to argue that none of what happened was his fault, he couldn’t help but berate himself. He couldn’t shake the notion that if he had held his temper, remained calm, maybe Adam might have reacted differently, as well.

 

As he reached the doctor’s house, Joe burst in without knocking. Two steps inside the door, however, he froze as his ears picked up the unmistakable sound of voices emanating from the direction of his father’s room. Hope sprang to his heart at the thought that perhaps, finally, his father had returned to them.

 

As he neared the room, however, Joe felt those hopes dashed. Close enough now to distinguish what was being said, he realized, with a sinking feeling, that the voice he had heard was not his father’s, but Paul’s. The urgency he detected in the doctor’s voice made him shiver with renewed dread.

 

“Ben? Ben! Come on, Ben!”

 

Standing in the doorway, Joe’s eyes widened in alarm as he witnessed Paul’s frantic efforts, his expression changing to horrified disbelief as he saw the doctor slump in his chair, defeat written on his face.

 

“Oh my God, Paul, he’s not….?” Joe begged, his voice barely more than a whisper.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XLVII

 

Death may be the greatest of all human blessings.

~ Socrates

 

At the sound of a small gasp behind him, Paul quickly turned to see Joe Cartwright standing, slumped against the doorframe, his face stricken. Paul immediately came to the realization that the young man had witnessed his attempt to revive Ben and had jumped to the wrong conclusions. He rushed over to Joe’s side and gripped his arm in a gesture of support and reassurance.

 

“Joe…”

 

Although stunned, Joe attempted to shrug him off, but Paul held firmly to his arm and led him over to Ben’s bedside.

 

As he stared at his father’s pale, still face, Joe took a deep, steadying breath and, voice trembling, asked, “Paul, is Pa….?” Unable to finish the thought, Joe buried his face in his hands.

 

Smiling softly, Paul guided him to a chair and forced him to sit. “No, Joe, you’re father’s not dead…quite the contrary.”

 

Slowly Joe raised his head and looked hopefully into the doctor’s eyes. Paul smiled again and nodded.

 

“Then what…?

 

“Joe.” The doctor pulled up another chair and sat next to him. “I don’t want to get your hopes up here, but maybe…just maybe, mind you…things might be looking up as far as your father is concerned.”

 

As Joe glanced over to his father and back to Paul, the doctor could see that he was struggling desperately to regain his self-control. Paul waited patiently. Finally, after a few short moments, Joe took a deep breath, expelled it slowly, and said, “Tell me, Paul…please.”

 

Satisfied that Joe was now prepared to hear what he had to say, Paul nodded. “A bit earlier, right before you came in, in fact, I thought I saw your father’s eyelids flutter, just once.” Paul endeavored to keep his tone professional and matter-of-fact, loathe to plant any seeds of false hope in the young man.

 

As Joe leaned forward, Paul could sense his eagerness and hated himself for what he knew he had to say next. The doctor had already realized some time ago, with no small amount of guilt, that he and Adam had purposefully kept Joe in the dark about the possible consequences of their father’s head wound and subsequent coma. At the time, it had seemed the sensible thing to do. Ben had just been shot and Joe was very upset and on the verge of shock himself. Now Paul faced the uncomfortable task of explaining the prognosis, the possibility, however remote, that the Ben Cartwright they knew may be forever lost to them. As a doctor he had done this countless times. As a friend, Paul wondered, heavily, if it was ever going to get any easier.

 

As he watched Joe absorb the information, however, Paul couldn’t help but be impressed with the way the young man was handling himself. He was reminded that this wasn’t the hotheaded, reckless and temperamental youth that he had watched grow from infancy. This Joe Cartwright had matured into an impressive, responsible young man. Ben had every reason to be proud of him. Sadly though, Paul wondered, how much the events of the last few days had contributed to Joe’s newly discovered maturity.

 

They sat in silence for a few minutes, giving Joe the time he needed to come to terms with what he had been told. Paul was relieved to see that his news apparently hadn’t extinguished Joe’s optimism that his father would make a full recovery. He feared that Joe would need to rely heavily on that optimism in the coming days, as would both of his brothers.

 

As his thoughts turned to Adam, Paul asked, “Joe, how does your brother seem to be doing?”

 

Nothing could have prepared Paul for the look of shock that appeared on Joe’s face and the doctor’s professional alarms began going off.

 

“Adam! Oh, God, Doc… I forgot about Adam!”

 

“What about Adam, Joe?” Paul pressed urgently.

 

Guilt stricken, Joe answered, “He’s passed out again, Doc. Hoss sent me to fetch you.”

 

Nodding as if the news wasn’t totally unexpected, Paul collected his bag and gripped Joe’s shoulder reassuringly. “I’m sure he’ll be all right, Joe. Stay here with your father. Keep talking to him.”

 

Looking up at the doctor, Joe asked, “And that will help?”

 

Paul heard the undisguised hope in Joe’s voice but could offer him only a small shrug in return. He had no promises to give today.

 

*********

 

CHAPTER XLVIII

 

The worst is not, so long as we can say, “This is the worst.”

~ William Shakespeare

 

Paul hurried down the street, muttering under his breath as he prepared to make what would amount to his third “house” call at the jail in less than two days. From what Joe had been able to tell him, he had a pretty clear idea of what to expect when he arrived and he couldn’t help but feel frustrated that Adam’s overzealous lawyer was thwarting all of his good efforts. At this rate, he thought grimly, Adam wouldn’t even be in shape for his own trial.

 

Turning down the bustling Main Street, Paul passed under a swinging sign, carved in the macabre shape of a coffin, that identified the local Undertaker’s shop. By force of habit, he glanced through the window, noted that there were no customers inside and nodded with grim satisfaction. Whether he liked it or not, his profession and that of the Undertaker had always been inextricably linked and when one was thriving, the other suffered. Today, however, Paul was determined to deny the Undertaker any new business, particularly Cartwright business, although that seemed to be getting more and more difficult to guarantee. There was one customer, however, who Paul didn’t begrudge the Undertaker…Oren Tate.

 

As he entered the jail, Paul nodded briefly to the deputy and proceeded through the open door and into the cell area, where he took in the scene with a quick glance. Adam lay on the cot, eyes closed, his body covered with a blanket. Hoss paced nervously back and forth, his head bowed, while Hiram sat on a chair in the corner of the cell, calmly leafing through papers and scribbling notes.

 

“Do I even have to ask what’s going on here?” Paul scolded.

 

At the sound of the his voice, both men looked up, the expressions on their faces quite telling to the doctor’s keen sense of observation. Hoss’ eyes, predictably, were clouded with worry and guilt; Hiram, on the other hand, appeared more irritated than concerned, as if this latest episode of Adam’s was merely a hindrance to his investigation. Paul clamped down on his own annoyance, reminding himself that this man was here to help Adam in his own way, just as he was. It was unfortunate that Hiram’s way of “helping” seemed to be at odds with his patient’s well-being.

 

Relief flooded Hoss’s features as he immediately ceased his pacing and, covering the length of the cell in two long strides, reached the doctor. Taking Paul by the sleeve, he guided him over to Adam’s side.

 

Smiling inwardly at Hoss’ impatience and concern for his brother, Paul allowed himself to be unnecessarily steered toward the cot. When he reached Adam, however, his amusement faded. Adam was still unconscious, his complexion gray and wan with a sheen of perspiration on his forehead. Paul immediately lifted the blanket to withdraw Adam’s wrist, feeling for the pulse with one hand as his other expertly peeled back an eyelid.

 

Hoss hovered worriedly over the doctor’s shoulder. “He just stood up and passed out agin’, Doc.”

 

Paul shook his head in frustration, certain that he was not getting the entire story, yet remained focused on his patient as he opened his bag and withdrew a small bottle.

 

“Any signs of difficulty before this, Hoss? Headache? Confusion, perhaps?” Paul questioned.

 

Hoss nodded vigorously as the doctor described his brother’s symptoms. “Yessir, he looked like he didn’t feel so well and a couple of times he even repeated hisself, like he didn’t remember what he just said.”

 

Paul nodded knowingly and, drawing both men in with his eyes, said tersely, “I thought I had made it clear earlier that Adam needed to rest. That stress was the worst thing for him.”

 

Hoss glared angrily at Hiram for a moment, then turned his attention back to Paul. “Is he gonna be alright, Doc?”

 

Paul recognized the guilt in his voice; guilt he knew was most likely undeserved. Knowing Hoss, he had undoubtedly done all he could to shield his brother from the lawyer’s interrogation. And, if Paul were to be fair, he admitted to himself that Hiram probably wasn’t fully to blame, either. Adam Cartwright was a determined young man when he wanted to be and, right now, he was his own worst enemy.

 

Evading an answer to his question, Paul indicated for Hoss to restrain his brother’s shoulders. Once prepared, Hoss nodded and Paul waved the small bottle directly under Adam’s nose. A few moments passed with no reaction. Frowning, Paul waved the bottle again. Suddenly, coughing and sputtering, Adam’s eyes flew open as he regained consciousness.

 

Struggling to sit up, Adam groaned, his face suddenly set in a look Paul knew well. Reaching quickly for the basin that sat on the floor near the head of the cot, he held it under Adam’s head as, together, he and Hoss supported Adam as he wretched miserably and repeatedly. Eventually, shaking and breathing heavily, Adam allowed Hoss to lower him back on the cot.

 

“You take it easy, Adam….just lie there and take it real easy.” Hoss said reassuringly.

 

“Adam?” Paul took Adam’s chin gently in his hand and turned his face toward him. “Adam, can you tell me where you are?”

 

Adam didn’t respond as he looked up blearily, but the confusion on his face told Paul everything he needed to know. He leaned down and peered closely at Adam’s eyes. “How about the date? Can you tell me the date, Adam?”

 

Again, Adam offered no response, merely wincing at the sound of the doctor’s voice.

 

Understanding, Paul lowered his voice. “Listen to me, my friend. You are going to lie there and get some rest. No arguments.” His admonishment was unnecessary, for Adam didn’t look to be in any shape to offer one. As the doctor turned to retrieve some medication from his bag, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

 

Hoss, indicating his brother, said in a whisper, “I don’t think that’s gonna be necessary, Doc.”

 

Glancing back at his patient, Paul nodded in satisfaction and snapped the latch shut on his bag, for Adam was fast asleep.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XLIX

 

But Nature cast me for the part she found me best fitted for, and I have had to play it, and must play it till the curtain falls.

~ Edwin Booth

 

Roy Coffee sat behind his desk, only pretending to concentrate on the mountain of paperwork before him, while every few moments he stole an anxious glance toward the closed door across the room. Having completed an errand that left him worried and discouraged, Roy had returned to the jail, only to be informed by his deputy that Adam had collapsed and that the doctor had been summoned once again. Now, the telltale sounds of sickness that emanated from behind the door made him cringe in sympathy and he struggled to resist the urge to abandon the paperwork and barge in to see for himself just what was going on.

 

Roy sighed sadly; his heart ached, not only for Adam and his family, but for himself as well. He shook his head in bewilderment that things had changed so quickly. Only yesterday he would have been welcomed at his friend’s side, but as long as the lawyer was with Adam and Roy wore a silver star on his chest, he knew his place was out here, on this side of the door; the Cartwright brothers had made that abundantly clear. And so he waited, biding his time.

 

Finally, just as he had set himself to task once more, the door swung open and three men emerged from the cell area. As Paul firmly closed the door behind them and turned to face the group, Roy took the opportunity to carefully scrutinize the doctor’s face. Reading anger and frustration, but not the look he had feared, he breathed a sigh of relief.

 

“I’m glad you’re here, Roy. You may as well hear this, too.” Paul fixed his eyes on each man in turn, pausing until he was sure he had their full attention. “Gentlemen, this has simply got to stop,” he said, the authority in his voice unmistakable.

 

The sheriff eyed the other two men suspiciously. Hoss was glaring at the lawyer, while Hiram pointedly avoided any eye contact. Roy raised his eyebrows in curiosity, but kept his tongue. Something had been going on in his absence and, if the look on Hoss’ face was any indication, things didn’t bode well for the lawyer. Roy couldn’t help but feel a small measure of sympathy for Hiram. He knew, from bitter experience, that although Hoss Cartwright was a man slow to anger, when he was in the grip of it, it was a fearsome thing.

 

“What you don’t seem to understand here is that we’re not talking about a simple broken bone.” The doctor’s voice commanded Roy’s attention as he continued to admonish them sternly. “Adam has suffered what amounts to a traumatic injury to his brain. That’s not going to go away in a day’s time…”

 

Hoss looked up, opening his mouth to speak, but the doctor put up a hand to forestall him.

 

“I know what you’re thinking, Hoss. Adam has been hit on the head before and come out of it all right. Well, you can see for yourself that, this time, it’s significantly more severe. Add to that the stress of your father’s injury and the murder charges and, frankly, your brother’s in a bad way.”

 

Swallowing nervously, Hoss asked, “What can we do, Doc?”

 

Paul softened his tone. “The most important thing for him is quiet and rest, and that means no more questioning…none.” His voice took on a hard edge again as he looked pointedly at Hiram. “Have I made myself clear?”

 

Red faced and indignant, Hiram scowled at the doctor. Obviously, the lawyer didn’t appreciate being scolded as if he was a recalcitrant schoolboy and, despite the seriousness of the situation, Roy found that he had to cover his mouth to stifle a grin.

 

Paul, however, made no such effort to disguise his exasperation. “Gentlemen, I’m not trying to be an alarmist, here. Adam may very well be fine in few days. I’m just saying that I’ve had patients who still experienced difficulties even months after the initial injury: memory problems, headaches, dizziness, trouble concentrating. I’ve even had patients who have suffered convulsions and seizures.”

 

Roy was taken aback by the gravity of the doctor’s words, but he trusted Paul Martin. He knew that the doctor wouldn’t exaggerate the situation and, if they wanted to help Adam, they needed to know exactly what they were dealing with.

 

Hoss’ eyes had snapped up, stunned by the doctor’s prognosis. “Won’t nobody bother him, Paul,” Hoss promised, looking straight at Hiram as if daring the lawyer to challenge him. “I’ll see to that. Adam done told us all he knows, anyhow.”

 

Roy followed the interaction between the two men with keen interest. The determination in Hoss’ voice would have thwarted all but the most foolhardy. Clearly Hoss and Hiram had reached an impasse, each feeling that they had Adam’s best interest at heart, each determined, in their own way, to protect him, yet finding themselves at odds.

 

Clearing his throat to break the uncomfortable silence, Roy directed his question to Hoss. “You tell him ‘bout the gun yet?”

 

Hoss looked up, his blue eyes clouded with misery and nodded. “Weren’t no other way.” His words were an equal measure of explanation and apology. “Once he got the notion to ask, there just weren’t no way not to tell ‘im.”

 

Roy nodded, understanding. “How’d he take the news?”

 

The glare he received from Paul Martin spoke volumes. Roy sighed, deeply regretting the role he had been handed. His gut told him that the news he had to share wouldn’t get any better for simmering, but he dreaded stirring the pot.

 

“Well, if that’s how he took it,” Roy said softly, “Then what I got to say is gonna just about kill ‘im.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER L

 

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

~ William Shakespeare

 

“TWO DAYS!?”

 

Paul shot him a warning glance and Hoss immediately lowered his voice. “Roy, you ain’t tellin’ me that my brother’s trial is gonna be in two days?” he demanded incredulously.

 

“No, I ain’t tellin’ you that a’tall. I’m sayin’ that the Circuit Judge is due here in two days.” Roy forced his voice to convey a calmness he didn’t feel; it wouldn’t do to let Hoss get more riled than he already was. “When he schedules the trial is up to him.”

 

Hoss opened his mouth to speak but Roy put up his hand to forestall the inevitable backlash. “Ain’t nothin’ I can do about it, Hoss.”

 

Hoss was livid; his anger quickly renewed as he searched in vain for a way out that simply didn’t exist. “You can wire ‘im… stall ‘im!”

 

Roy heard the desperation in the young man’s voice and shook his head in sympathy. “Now, just where do you think I been all afternoon?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “I was over to the telegraph office waitin’ for an answer from the Sheriff in Placerville. But it ain’t no use. The Judge already left and he’s on his way. Ain’t no way to get word to him between here and there.” He looked up apologetically. “Just ain’t no way. Like it or not, in two day’s time Judge Randall…”

 

Hoss interrupted him, a confused frown on his face. “Judge Randall?”

 

“Judge Josiah T. Randall.”

 

All eyes turned to Hiram as he stepped out of the corner of the room. Once again in his element, the lawyer’s voice took on the imperious tone that Roy had so often heard him use in the courtroom. It had always left a bitter taste in the sheriff’s mouth, but if it meant that he didn’t have to be the bearer of this bit of bad news, then Roy was content to step back and let Hiram be the center of attention, a position that the lawyer obviously relished.

 

“What happened to Judge Scribner?” Hoss asked, dread replacing the anger in his voice.

 

“Judge Scribner has recently retired.” Hiram replied dryly. “Apparently a bullet in the leg helped convince him that sentencing people to prison wasn’t the healthiest way to make a living.”

 

Roy knew this would come as a heavy blow to the Cartwrights. Judge Scribner was a good man: honest, smart, and fair. What was more, he had been on hand the last time there had been dealings with Sam Bryant and his gang. The judge had known Ben well and would have undoubtedly offered a measure of sympathy for Adam that a new judge very likely wouldn’t have. It seemed the Cartwright’s weren’t going to be afforded any breaks in this case at all.

 

Hoss interrupted Roy’s thoughts as he reluctantly voiced the question that was on all of their minds.

 

“What’s this here Judge Randall like?”

 

“Well….” Hiram paused dramatically as he moved into the center of the room.

 

Roy, with no patience for grandstanding and knowing Hoss was on the end of his tether, spoke up. “Just get on with it, Hiram. You got somethin’ to say, just say it.”

 

Hoss offered him a grateful glance and Roy returned it with a nod and a sigh.

 

“Well,” Hiram repeated again, disdain for the sheriff showing clearly on his face, “I’ve not had the opportunity to deal with him myself, of course, but I have spoken with several colleagues, both in Placerville and Carson City….”

 

Roy scowled in irritation. All lawyers, in his experience, were notoriously long-winded and apparently enjoyed nothing more than the sound of their own voice.

 

“It seems that Judge Randall has the reputation of being a prickly sort of fellow, not easily impressed with money or power. As he’s new to the area, he is undoubtedly interested in making a name for himself. Let’s just hope that this time it’s not at Adam’s expense.”

 

“You’d better be danged more sure of yourself than to just “hope,” Hiram!” The vehemence in Hoss’ voice, so out of character for him, stunned everyone in the room but, if the truth be told, Hoss hadn’t said anything that Roy and the doctor weren’t thinking themselves.

 

The tension hung heavy in the air and for several moments no one uttered a word. Finally, Hiram said, “Yes, well…if that’s all, Gentlemen, I must be going. There’s a great deal to do in two short days.” Gathering his shattered dignity, the lawyer turned and walked stiffly out the door.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LI

 

God is not averse to deceit in a holy cause.

~ Aeschylus

 

Paul, who had remained a silent, although concerned, observer throughout the drama that had just ensued, finally spoke up.

 

“Hoss, don’t worry. Hiram Wood is one of the most respected lawyers in Virginia City. I’m sure…”

 

Hoss turned and addressed the doctor. “Doc, you’ll forgive me for sayin’ this, but that don’t give me a whole lotta comfort right now.”

 

Paul nodded, understandingly. The doctor looked up at him, a small smile playing on his face and said, “Well, maybe this will.”

 

Hoss scrutinized the doctor’s face. “You got news about Pa, ain’t ya?” Hoss said, obviously trying not to get his hopes up but failing miserably.

 

Paul’s face broke into a full smile. “Maybe things are starting to look up, Hoss,” he said and proceeded to fill them in on what he had witnessed earlier in the day.

 

Almost before the doctor had finished speaking, Hoss had turned to make his way back to the cell where his brother lay sleeping. Paul reached out and grabbed his arm. “Just where do you think you’re going?” he asked, already anticipating the answer he would receive.

 

Hoss looked at the doctor as if the answer to his question should have been obvious. “Adam needs to hear this, Doc. It’s the best news we’ve had in days!”

 

Paul looked at him incredulously. “Did you not listen to anything I said earlier? You absolutely cannot go in there and tell Adam this news!”

 

“Doc, you sure cain’t mean that! Adam needs every bit of good news he can get right now. This would do him a world of good.”

 

Paul hated to battle with Hoss, but Adam was his patient and his responsibility. Whatever it took to ensure his recovery, Paul would willingly do it. If that meant posting an armed guard at the door to protect Adam from his own family, then so be it.

 

“Paul, Adam is my brother. I think I know what he needs.” Hoss’ voice was firm and unyielding.

 

“Well,” Paul’s voice was equally firm. “Your brother is also my patient and I’m telling you, he can’t handle any more disappointments, not right now.” Paul saw that Hoss was wavering and pressed his advantage. “You saw how he reacted when he learned about Tate being unarmed. Do you want to risk a repeat of that?”

 

“But you said that Pa…”

 

Taking Hoss gently by the arm, Paul steered him away from the cell and over to one of the chairs near Roy’s desk, somewhat surprised that the big man had allowed it.

 

“Hoss, I’ve already spoken to Joe about this and now I need you to understand something, as well.”

 

Paul paused, waiting until he was sure that Hoss was actually listening to what he had to say. Hoss nodded for him to continue.

 

“Your father’s head wound is even more severe than Adam’s, and we’ve all seen the kind of trouble that can cause, right?” As Hoss nodded his agreement, Paul continued. “Comas are very tricky things and each individual reacts differently to them. Some people recover quickly while others come back more gradually. Sometimes a person will seem to be able to see and hear what’s going on around them, maybe even understand to some extent, but not be able to respond.”

 

Paul could see that Hoss was unnerved by what he had heard and decided that now was not the time to tell him that, in his experience, most people who suffered comas never recovered at all. They would cross that bridge if and when they came to it. Right now it would be enough if he could impress upon him that, although they had reason for optimism, it was far too early to burden Adam with the news…just in case.

 

The room was silent for a few moments, and the doctor could see Hoss was trying to process the information he had been given. Finally, he seemed to come to a decision.

 

“You’re right, Doc. If Pa don’t recover all the way or…” Hoss swallowed and forced himself to continue. “Or maybe don’t recover at all, then we cain’t let Adam know about it, least ‘ways not until he’s able to handle it.”

 

Paul relaxed; the tension he had been feeling lifted. He should have realized that Hoss, whom he knew to be far more intuitive than he was often given credit for, would read between the lines and understand what he had been trying to say without words.

 

“Much as I hate it, Doc, you got my word.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LII

 

This peck of troubles.

~ Miguel de Cervantes

 

It was well after dark when Hiram stepped up to the doctor’s door and, after giving a perfunctory knock, turned the knob and entered the foyer. The parlor lamps, although burning steadily, were turned low as if the house were already in deep sleep. Hiram called the doctor’s name softly. When he received no reply, he made his way to the back room where he knew he would find one, if not both, of the Cartwright brothers, keeping vigil at their father’s bedside.

 

Standing silently at the open door, Hiram peered inside the darkened room. The younger brother, Joseph, reclined in a nearby chair, snoring softly, his limbs extending over the arms of the chair. Hiram couldn’t help but think that it was an impossibly uncomfortable position in which to sleep; unless, of course, you were overcome with exhaustion, as was undoubtedly the case with the young man. Hoss sat slump-shouldered next to the bed, elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. If he wasn’t asleep already, Hiram expected he wasn’t far from it. Keeping his voice to a whisper he called out.

 

“Hoss….Hoss.”

 

Hoss’ head jerked upright and, instantly alert, turned his head in the direction of the door. Hiram watched, almost amused, as the large man attempted to erase the grimace that immediately came to his face at seeing the identity of the late night caller. Inwardly, he shrugged it off, refusing to let it affect him. Whether or not Hoss Cartwright liked him personally was of no account. He had a job to do.

 

Hiram motioned with his head toward the hallway and whispered, “Hoss, we need to talk.”

 

Nodding reluctantly, Hoss stood up slowly, taking a moment to roll his shoulders and work out some of the kinks and stiffness that had accumulated as he sat for the last several hours in the unforgiving chair. Sparing a backward glance at his father and brother, Hoss followed the lawyer down the hallway.

 

Upon entering the parlor, Hiram turned to Hoss and motioned for him to have a seat. Hoss eyed him warily but, too tired to stand just for the sake of argument, sat down heavily on the sofa and rubbed the grit from his eyes.

 

Taking his place in the adjacent chair, Hiram inquired, “I assume the doctor has been called out?”

 

“Yup, been gone ‘bout an hour now.” Hoss answered curtly.

 

“And your father? Has there been any change in his condition?” Although Hiram was anxious to get to the business at hand, he schooled his voice so that no trace of impatience would slip through. The next few days were likely to be difficult enough without having to butt heads with Hoss Cartwright at every turn. Hiram was shrewd enough to realize that showing a sincere concern for his father’s condition might go a long way to softening Hoss’ stance toward him.

 

As he had hoped, Hoss’ features softened immediately as he replied, “Yessir, Little Joe said that, while we was gone, Pa’s eyelids fluttered a couple more times.”

 

Hiram nodded. “Well, that’s some good news, anyway. We could all certainly use it.”

 

“Ain’t been no other change, though,” Hoss added, with obvious disappointment. “Doc said it could be a long time comin’.”

 

“Yes, well….” Hiram let the sentence trail off; there really was no consolation he could offer that would make any difference to the young man. For a few moments they sat, not speaking, each now unsure as to where they stood with the other, but at least finding common ground in their concern for Ben.

 

Finally, clearing his throat, Hiram broke the uncomfortable silence.

 

“Hoss, I need your help here. I was over at the jail just now and Adam…”

 

His anger snapping neatly back into place, Hoss swiftly stood up to tower over the older man. “You was over to see Adam? After Doc done said that nobody was to disturb him?”

 

As Hoss glared angrily at him, Hiram watched the fragile truce they had achieved only moments ago crumble around him. Unwilling to be intimidated, he stood to face the much larger man, although not quite eye-to-eye, with an equal amount of determination. Drawing himself up, he threw down the gauntlet.

 

“Hoss, you and I need to come to an understanding here. Your brother, Adam, retained my services and it’s to him that I will answer. Not to you or your younger brother, and certainly not to Paul Martin!”

 

His anger only fueled by the lawyer’s decree, Hoss continued unabated. “Who let you in to see him?” he demanded. “I cain’t believe after what Doc said that Roy…”

 

Hiram was quickly growing weary of the pointless bickering between them and put up his hand, interrupting Hoss’ tirade with one of his own. “Roy Coffee understands the reality of this situation.” He looked directly into Hoss’ eyes, challenging him. “Do you?”

 

Hoss continued to glare at him, his expression furious and unforgiving. Exasperated, Hiram almost shouted. “Use your head, man! Surely the potential for a bad headache pales in comparison to swinging at the end of a rope!”

 

There was a moment where both men stood, eyes locked in silent combat, both unwilling to back down. Finally, apparently weary of the struggle and realizing the truth in the older man’s words, Hoss sighed deeply and sat heavily back down on the sofa.

 

“Alright,” Hoss said resignedly, “You might as well go ahead and tell me what it is Adam said.”

 

Realizing that he had just won the battle, although not by any means, the war, Hiram softened his tone. “We’ve got trouble, Hoss…real trouble.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LIII

 

The best way to keep one’s word is not to give it.

~ Napoleon Bonaparte

 

Hiram sat down once again and faced the distraught man, grateful that at last he seemed ready to listen. He was well aware that he needed Hoss on his side for, despite his litany about answering only to his client, the point was moot if said client refused to speak.

 

“All right.” Clearing his throat, Hiram began. “I went back tonight because I needed to discuss a possible idea for Adam’s defense.”

 

Hoss looked up at him questioningly, but Hiram forestalled him. “We can discuss that tomorrow when your younger brother is with us. Right now what worries me is Adam’s state of mind.”

 

“Well, what do you expect? Just stands to reason that an innocent man, facin’ what Adam’s facin’, is gonna be bitter,” Hoss said.

 

“Bitter?” Hiram shook his head. “Hoss, in my 30 years of being an attorney, I’ve seen countless men facing the gallows. I can tell you without reservation, they’re all bitter. Bitterness is normal; it’s expected. Believe me when I say that what I saw from your brother tonight was not bitterness.”

Hiram watched as, once again Hoss’ anger was replaced with worry as he asked, “Well, what then?”

 

“Hoss, your brother refused to discuss his case. Simply refused…wouldn’t even look at me. He just sat there in silence, his head in his hands, as if resigned to his fate.”

 

Hiram waited, trying to project at least the illusion of patience as Hoss digested this new information. It was common knowledge that the Cartwrights were a tightly knit family, closer than most, and if anyone could get through to Adam, it was Hoss. However, Hiram knew that now his greatest challenge would be to convince Hoss to return to the jail tonight against the doctor’s expressed orders. If he could play on Hoss’ worry for his brother, impress upon him the need… Hiram’s train of thought was interrupted as Hoss spoke.

 

“I think what Adam needs right now is a good night’s sleep. In the morning…”

 

Hiram felt his advantage slipping away and exclaimed, “Good God, man! We don’t have the luxury of keeping banker’s hours here. Judge Randall is on his way!”

 

“I done give Doc Martin my word that nobody was gonna disturb Adam,” Hoss said, indecision obviously pulling him in two directions.

 

Exasperated, Hiram gestured around the room. “Look around you, Hoss. Do you see Paul Martin?”

 

He wasn’t surprised at the distaste that appeared immediately on Hoss’ face. The Cartwrights valued honesty and honor and he was well aware that his suggestion that Hoss break his word to the Doctor went against the Cartwright “Code of Ethics.” But, in his profession he had learned long ago that concepts like “honor” and “truth” were malleable, to twist and shape to suit to his own purposes. He was preparing to argue his point further when a voice from the other side of the room spoke up.

 

“I think Hiram’s right, Hoss.”

 

In the door frame, running a hand through tousled hair, stood the youngest Cartwright. Obviously Joe had been awakened from his sleep by their argument and had come to investigate. Hiram inwardly sighed in relief that at least in this young man he seemed to find an ally. Whereas Hoss, for some reason, seemed to naturally distrust him, Hiram knew that he would seriously take his younger brother’s words into consideration.

 

“We can’t just let Adam sit over there all alone, Hoss. You know how older brother is….” Joe came over and sat down heavily on the sofa. “Left alone, Adam’ll work himself into a mood the likes of which we’ve never seen.” He paused and Hiram could see the strain around the young man’s eyes. “Hoss, you’ve always been the one that Adam listens to when he gets like this…well, next to Pa, that is.”

 

The two men waited as Hoss pondered his brother’s words. It was obvious from the expression on his face that he was less than pleased at being forced to choose between his word and his brother. Finally, the decision apparently made, Hoss let out a deep sigh and pushed himself up from the sofa.

 

Suspecting that the outcome of Hoss’ deliberation was never really in dispute, Hiram stood up as well and patted him on the back. He felt the heavy muscles tense under his hand but, having gotten his way, he conveniently ignored it.

 

“Good man, good man!” He walked over the front door and opened it. “Joseph and I will wait right here for your report.”

 

Hoss grimaced at the lawyer’s impatience, but nevertheless made his way over to the door. “Adam didn’t say nothin’ when you told him about his defense?” Hoss asked as he buckled on his gun belt and reached for his hat.

 

“Two words, Hoss…he said only two words…” Always playing the part of the lawyer, Hiram paused for effect and met the younger man’s eyes. “Surprise me.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LIV

 

Be near me when my light is low…

~ Sir Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 

Despite the late hour, the streets still pulsed with activity as Hoss made his way back to the jail. Walking quickly down the main street, he kept in the shadows, hoping to avoid more of the inevitable prying questions disguised as heartfelt concern that would only serve to delay him in reaching his brother.

 

He had broken his word.

 

Although in his heart he believed that the cause was more than sufficient, Hoss despaired at the thought of breaking his word to anyone, much less an old and trusted friend like Paul Martin. If the truth were known, however, he had regretted making that promise the minute it left his mouth and now he was almost grateful that Joe had convinced him into going back to the jail. Hoss knew that the Doctor and, he grudgingly admitted, Hiram and Roy, had Adam’s best interests at heart, but sometimes it seemed that nobody understood Cartwrights like Cartwrights. Adam needed him and that’s where he would be…it was as simple as that.

 

As he rounded the corner, Hoss wasn’t at all surprised to see a soft light glowing from the window of the jail. As he quietly entered the office, Roy, who appeared to have been ‘resting his eyes’ at his desk, looked up at him and, without comment, reached for the keys and led the way to the locked door.

 

The cell was illuminated with nothing more than the moonlight that streamed in through the barred window, but nevertheless, Hoss could easily make out the form of his brother, lying on the cot with his arm crooked over his eyes. In the cold light, Adam’s half-hidden face appeared unnaturally pale and Hoss suppressed an involuntary shudder.

 

An oil lamp sat on the stool next to Adam’s cot, a comfort that Hoss had not recalled from his own infrequent but memorable nights spent as a guest in Roy’s Coffee’s jail. As the door to the cell area was closed again and the sheriff’s footsteps faded, Hoss reached over to put a match to the lamp when he heard the soft, strained voice.

 

“Don’t.”

 

Hoss let his hand drop, automatically bowing to his brother’s wishes. Adam shifted on the cot and winced slightly. “How’s Pa?”

 

Hoss hesitated. He had anticipated the question; it was the same one that Adam asked of everyone who came to see him. What he hadn’t anticipated was the overwhelming guilt he felt at having to lie to his brother, but he had agreed with Paul that Adam should not be told about their Pa until they had more positive news and he stubbornly refused to break his word twice in one night.

 

The arm that had been covering his brother’s eyes dropped slightly as Adam peered suspiciously at him. Hoss turned his head, unable to meet Adam’s piercing gaze, and replied softly, “He’s ‘bout the same, Adam.”

 

Adam’s suddenly sharpening gaze made him fear that he had hesitated a fraction too long and, hoping to distract his brother, Hoss quickly changed the subject.

 

“Looks like you ain’t touched you supper, Adam. How you feelin’?”

 

The deep, hitching sigh that escaped Adam’s lips told him more than any words could. Hoss pulled a chair up near the bed and sat down next to his brother.

 

“Adam, you got to eat somethin’ or else…”

 

“Have to look my best for Judge Randall, huh?”

 

Hoss let Adam’s words roll off him. Like Joe’s hot temper, sarcasm had always been Adam’s first line of defense against situations in which he felt a lack of control. Hoss could well imagine Hiram’s reaction, however, on getting his first taste of Adam’s biting sarcasm; it was little wonder the lawyer had been unnerved. He frowned as he realized the implications of Adam’s words.

 

“Did Hiram tell ‘bout you that?” He demanded, the irritation he had for the lawyer threatening to resurface once again. Receiving no response from his brother, Hoss said, half under his breath, “Hiram didn’t have no cause to tell you that.”

 

“You would have told me yourself, anyway,” Adam replied, and then paused, looking up at Hoss curiously. “Right, Hoss?”

 

“Sure, Adam…I was gonna tell you ‘bout Judge Randall tomorrow, after you got a little more sleep.”

 

“Hoss…” Saying each word slowly and deliberately, Adam repeated his previous question. “How’s Pa?”

 

Hoss squirmed under his brother’s scrutiny. “Aww, Adam, I done told ya. Pa ain’t no worse.”

 

A half-truth was no better than an out-and-out lie and Hoss felt the knot in his stomach tighten as the lies piled, one on top of the other, once begun seemingly out of his control to stop. The trust Adam’s eyes as he nodded, apparently content with the reply, only added to Hoss’s misery.

 

In a futile attempt to lighten the mood, Hoss patted his brother’s leg and said, “Now, you and me gotta be thinkin’ about gettin’ you out of here so’s you can be home when Pa does get better.”

 

When Adam didn’t respond, Hoss decided to broach a subject that had been weighing heavily on him ever since he had learned that Adam had been arrested. He hated to add to his brother’s worries, but if a decision was going to be made, it had to be made soon.

 

“Adam,” Hoss began tentatively, “about Hiram Wood…do you really think he’s the best lawyer to handle your case? Because, brother, I been havin’ my doubts.”

 

Heaving a sigh, Adam brought his arm all the way down and slowly swung his legs over the side of the cot, cradling his tender ribs. Hoss reached out a supporting hand as his brother struggled to sit upright. Breathing heavily at even the slight exertion, Adam said softly, “It doesn’t matter.”

 

“How can you say that?” Hoss demanded incredulously.

 

“Hoss, it makes no difference who my attorney is or even who the judge is…”

 

Adam’s voice, although heavy with exhaustion, was under tight control. The biting sarcasm, so typical of the brother he knew, had been almost a comfort, a reassurance. Now it was gone, replaced with a coldness and determination that gave Hoss even more cause for concern. If this was what Hiram had seen when he had been here earlier, then maybe the lawyer was more perceptive than Hoss had given him credit for.

 

Struggling to quell his rising worry, Hoss tried again.

 

“Adam…”

 

His brother cut him off with a look.

 

“Hoss, I’ve been thinking about Obadiah Johnson.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LV

 

Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

~ Proverbs 16:18

 

Adam had woken up to find himself alone in the small cell. The lengthening shadows on the wall told him that he had been sleeping for some time and he vaguely remembered the sheriff coming in and placing a tray on the small table beside the cot. To his credit, Roy had only gently squeezed his shoulder as he said softly, “I brung ya some supper, Son,” before turning and quietly exiting the cell.

 

Later, when Hiram had arrived, Adam had attempted to feign sleep but it was to no avail; his lawyer was nothing if not persistent. Finally, he had sat up and pretended to listen to Hiram’s explanation of the defense he had concocted. After several minutes, Hiram had paused and, sensing a response was expected of him, Adam had said the first thing that had come to his mind. He knew he had shocked the lawyer and hadn’t done himself a service by ignoring him, but he desperately wanted to be left alone to think. The squeezing band of pain that had encircled his head made concentrating difficult enough and Hiram’s insistent demands on his attention had only exacerbated his discomfort.

 

Finally, exasperated, Hiram had left and Adam found himself once again alone. In the silent stillness of the cell, he had begun to come to some conclusions. Unsettling, frightening conclusions, but ones his logical, analytical mind wouldn’t allow him to discount. He wasn’t surprised when, what seemed like mere moments later, he looked up to find his brother at his side.

 

**********

 

Hoss’ brow crinkled in momentary confusion as he searched his memory, trying to place the familiar name. Suddenly, his eyes opened wide in shocked realization as he succeeded.

 

“Obadiah Johnson? That feller that was on trial when you and Joe was….?” Hoss swallowed hard. “You never did say much about what happened out there in the desert, Adam,” he added softly.

 

No, Adam thought with regret, he hadn’t opened up to his family about what had been, up until now, the darkest time in his life. He had told himself that he had had good reason, that he couldn’t burden them with what he had been through, the shame and humiliation, that he could handle it, and then had drawn into himself, struggling to find his way alone.

 

He had been aware that his family had walked on tenterhooks around him for weeks, anxious and worried, while he battled his solitary demon. And finally, when he had fought his way through and had come out the other side, he knew he wasn’t the same man that had left on the cattle drive. In fact, he hadn’t known then who he was; only that he was no longer the man that he had always envisioned himself to be…and that unnerved him. But throughout the whole ordeal, the one constant had been his family, watching, waiting, steadfastly supporting him.

 

Now, as he slowly lifted his aching head from his hands and looked at Hoss, he realized that nothing had really changed. Here was his brother, patiently waiting, not pressuring him or expecting anything of him, only offering his silent support. Adam wondered, admittedly not for the first time, why he always felt the need to distance himself from his family when he was in trouble, to erect a facade of total independence. What had he gained from it? Whatever it had been, it wasn’t worth it anymore. He wondered why he had ever thought that it was.

 

“Adam?”

 

Pulled back from his thoughts Adam answered his brother. “No, I didn’t talk much about it.” Quietly, he added, “You and Joe must have discussed it, though.”

 

Hoss hung his head and answered, noncommittally. “Yeah, I guess we discussed it some.”

 

Adam shook his head and continued, as if he hadn’t heard Hoss’ reply. “The issue was so clear cut for me then, so black and white. ‘He’s guilty, he’ll hang…that’s the law.’” He looked up at his brother, but Hoss didn’t offer a reply, just continued to sit patiently, content to let Adam to go at his own pace.

 

Adam chuckled humorlessly. “I was so certain that I could never be in Obadiah’s shoes because no one could ever drive me to murder.” He paused, shaking his head again in disbelief. “God, I was so arrogant!”

 

“Aww, Adam…..” Hoss was at a loss for the words to say that would comfort his brother.

 

“I had thought…hoped…that I had already paid the price for that arrogance.” He looked up at Hoss, a small, rueful smile playing on his lips. “Seems fate had other plans.”

 

“Adam, Joe said that Johnson feller got off light, though. Only got five years.”

 

Finally the bitterness that Adam had struggled to suppress forced its way to the surface. “Well, I suppose he didn’t have Judge Josiah T. Randall!”

 

At seeing the stricken expression on Hoss’ face, Adam immediately softened his tone. “Hoss, I remember what I told Joe in the bathhouse in Eastgate.” As his eyes focused on the dancing shadows on the wall cast by the flickering flame of the lamp, Adam’s voice took on a distant, impersonal timbre as if he were reciting words penned by a stranger. “A man’s responsible for what he does. He loses control of himself, then he has to be punished. That’s the way it is.”

 

And now, although he found it incomprehensible, he was in the same situation. He had apparently succeeded in doing the unthinkable, had lost control of himself and committed murder. It made his ordeal in the desert seem like child’s play in comparison. Adam found himself wondering how often a man could live through something like this and keep his sanity intact.

 

“Adam, you cain’t be so hard on yourself. Any man can make a mistake.”

 

Adam accepted the familiar platitude for what it was, Hoss’ attempt to lighten Adam’s burden of guilt. He hesitated, knowing his next words would be met with resistance. “But that’s just it, isn’t it? I didn’t make a mistake, Hoss. I was right. Just because it’s me this time and not some stranger doesn’t make it any more acceptable.”

 

Hoss’ opened his mouth to respond but Adam cut him off.

 

“Hoss..,” Adam said slowly and deliberately, his voice carefully devoid of emotion. “I shot and killed an unarmed man.” Adam suppressed a shiver as saying it aloud only served to cement the reality in his mind. “If the circumstances had been different, if it had been you, or Pa or Joe, that had been killed by Tate, I would be the first to demand that justice be served. How is this any different?”

 

“Well, it is different, that’s all.” Hoss said stubbornly.

 

Adam looked into his brother’s face. He hated doing this, he hated forcing his gentle brother, whom he knew loved him without reservation, to come to terms with the reality of the situation, but it had to be done. The irony of the situation hadn’t escaped him. Now, when he was finally willing to admit that he needed the help of his family, there was nothing that they could do.

 

“Hoss…,” he began again.

 

“No, Adam. You just listen to me.” Hoss demanded firmly. “I done listened to you, now it’s your turn.”

 

Adam smiled and accepted his brother’s gentle scolding. Resigned, he set himself to hear what Hoss had to say.

 

“Adam,” Hoss began. “Them things you just said, about shootin’ and killin’ an unarmed man and how you’d be the first to demand a hangin’ if it’d been one of us….” He paused and met his brother’s eyes. “Well, them’s just the things that tell me you couldn’t have done it!”

 

Hoss’ expression was a mixture of compassion and determination, and in his eyes Adam saw a glimmer of hope that hadn’t been there before. Suddenly, he found himself wanting to cling to that hope as if it were a lifeline.

 

“Adam, you no more could’a killed an unarmed man than you could’a shot me or Joe or Pa….it just ain’t in ya, and nobody’s gonna convince me different.” Hoss grinned and patted Adam on the knee. “‘Specially not no bullheaded older brother!”

 

Then, as if thinking out loud, Hoss nodded to himself and said confidently, “Nope…there’s somethin’ else goin’ on here. All we gotta do is figure out what it is.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LVI

 

It is the trade of lawyers to question everything, yield nothing, and to talk by the hour.

~ Thomas Jefferson

 

Hoss stayed with Adam for several hours, speaking to him in a soft, reassuring tone, until his brother had finally fallen into a fitful sleep. As he watched Adam toss and turn on the thin, hard cot, he reviewed their earlier conversation. Nothing that Adam had said had really surprised him, for Hoss knew his brother well. That Adam would feel obligated to pay for his mistakes was part and parcel of the honorable man that he was and Hoss had never respected his brother more.

 

This time, however, Hoss earnestly believed that Adam’s nobility was misplaced. He had tried to reassure him, to convince him that he was incapable of committing the act for which he was accused, but only time would tell if his brother had accepted his reassurances.

 

Finally, lost in thought, he made his way down the dark, deserted street to the doctor’s house. Turning the knob, he suddenly remembered with a groan Hiram’s enthusiastic promise to wait for his return. Quietly entering the parlor, he removed his hat and gun belt and breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of his brother, sprawled out on the sofa, snoring softly, and the lawyer nowhere in sight. Although Hoss’ night had been anything but pleasant, he felt a twinge of amused sympathy for his younger brother and wondered how long the tenacious lawyer had remained at the doctor’s house before giving up. There were all kinds of hell in this world and Hoss could easily imagine that making small talk with Hiram Wood for several hours would surely be one of them.

 

Yawning heavily he nudged his brother’s foot. “Joe….Joe!”

 

Joe jerked upright, bleary-eyed and disoriented.

 

“Wake up, Brother. You and me gotta talk.”

 

**********

 

The early morning light streaming through the window was his only indication that a new day had begun. For Hoss, it seemed that the long night had never ended; perhaps it never would end.

 

The knock at the front door drew his attention and he grimaced as he heard the doctor open it and exchange pleasantries. There was no denying who the early morning caller was and Hoss steeled himself to face Adam’s lawyer once again. Exhausted from a nearly sleepless night, Hoss hadn’t yet had his morning coffee, let alone eaten and, even-tempered as he was under normal circumstances, even Hoss’ family tended to walk softly around him before he had had his breakfast.

 

“Ah, Hoss!” Hiram’s voice broke the silence of the room. “Good. Let’s get down to business.”

 

Hoss sighed heavily as the lawyer sat in an empty chair and proceeded to pull out page after page of notes from his leather satchel.

 

“So? How did you fare last night?” Hiram began eagerly. “Did you convince Adam to discuss his defense?”

 

Hoss shot a quick glance at his father, reminded of Paul’s suggestion that Ben may be able to hear what was being said around him. Putting a finger to his lips, he nodded toward his father and said, “Shhh…not here.”

 

Hiram’s eyes opened wide with astonishment. “The man’s unconscious, Hoss! You certainly don’t think that he can….”

 

Hoss glared at the lawyer and, struggling to control his temper, repeated through gritted teeth, “I said ‘Not here.’”

 

Something in Hoss’ demeanor must have registered with the lawyer. Nodding his acquiescence, Hiram motioned for Hoss to precede him through the door.

 

Little Joe and Paul Martin met them in the parlor. Hoss gratefully accepted the steaming mug that Joe offered him as they sat together on the sofa across from the lawyer.

 

“Gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me,” Paul said as he began to replenish the supplies in his black bag. “I’ll be off on my rounds and leave you to talk.”

 

Hiram quickly spoke up. “Paul, I’d prefer if you stayed. There’s something we need to discuss that may require your expertise.”

 

Paul looked over to the brothers and, at Hoss’ nod, lowered himself into an empty chair.

 

Satisfied, Hiram began. “All right, so this is what we know….”

 

Sensing a speech in the making, Hoss cut him off. “We know what we know, Hiram!” For a man who was always talking about the lack of time, Hoss thought testily, he sure did seem to waste his share of it. His stomach rumbling and his patience at a breaking point, he demanded, “Cain’t you just get on with this?”

 

Somewhat taken aback by Hoss’ fractiousness so early in the morning, Hiram put up a hand. “Gentlemen, please, hear me out.” He waited for Hoss’ resigned nod and continued. “Alright, we have what appears to be an open-and-shut case, and not in Adam’s favor, I might add.”

 

Hiram’s tactless remark earned him another glare from Hoss as he noticed his brother’s eyes widen in fear.

 

“There was a clear motive; Adam believed that Tate had shot his father. Dozens of people in the Lucky Ace had witnessed him making threats and accusations towards the victim and the victim’s employer, Sam Bryant. Later, Adam was found standing over the dead body by none other than the sheriff and his own brother, still holding the murder weapon in his hand. To make matters worse, we find that the victim was unarmed. Adam, himself, cannot offer much in the way of his own defense, conveniently claiming that he ‘can’t remember’.” He looked back and forth at the brothers and then included the doctor in his gaze. “A clear open-and-shut case.”

 

Filled with pent-up anger and frustration, Joe shot up and stood over the lawyer. “You’re supposed to be on Adam’s side!” he accused. “You sound more like you’re working for the prosecution!”

 

Unflustered, Hiram responded. “Every good defense attorney must think like a prosecutor, Joe.”

 

As his brother opened his mouth to respond, Hoss cut him off. “He’s right, Joe. Now just settle down and let’s hear what else he’s got to say.”

 

Joe was unappeased but, for his brother’s sake, he made an effort to keep his temper in check. “But last night you said you came up with a defense,” he demanded. “Now it’s an open-and-shut case? How can that be?”

 

Hiram’s face took on an inscrutable expression as he regarded the young man. “It is an open-and-shut case, Joe….unless….”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LVII

 

That is the bitterest of all, to wear the yoke of our own wrong-doing.

~ George Eliot

 

Stunned silence filled the room as Hoss and Joe stared at each other, wide-eyed with disbelief. Even the doctor’s brows were raised in mute surprise at Hiram’s announcement.

 

“That’s it?” demanded Little Joe incredulously. “That’s supposed to be Adam’s defense?”

 

Hoss said nothing. Whatever he had expected, it certainly wasn’t this. He heard Adam’s voice echoing in his head. Adam had said that a man was responsible for his own actions. Those words were like a creed to his brother, words he had lived his life by, and Hoss knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what Adam’s reaction to this would be.

 

Hiram’s voice cut through Hoss’ thoughts and he forced himself to focus on what the lawyer was saying.

 

“I’ll admit that I would be more comfortable with something stronger, gentlemen, but unless someone steps up with additional evidence in your brother’s favor I’m afraid….”

 

“Did you tell this to Adam last night?” Hoss asked. He couldn’t help but notice Paul’s sharp, disapproving glance from the corner of his eye.

 

“Your brother, Hoss, was in no mood to listen to anything I had to say last night.” Hiram said, his frustration clearly evident. “I had hoped you would have fared better than I.”

 

Hoss cringed as now Paul’s scowl shifted in his direction. He shook his head. “I don’t know, Hiram. I cain’t help but think that Adam ain’t gonna react too favorably to your idea.”

 

“Favorably?” Joe interrupted. Favorably? Hoss, you know there ain’t a snowball’s chance that Adam is gonna go for this!”

 

“Joe, I’m just sayin’…”

 

“I know it’s not much, but there has been precedence…” Hiram added, suspecting that the youngest Cartwright brother was beyond listening rationally to anything he had to say. His suspicions were confirmed when Joe continued without pause.

 

“Hoss, why are we just waiting for somebody to come up with some evidence? Isn’t that Hiram’s job? And Roy’s?” Joe began to pace back and forth across the length of the parlor. “I say we stop waiting…go out there and find Bryant! Make him tell us….”

 

Joe’s voice had been rising in volume and intensity and, in the interest of his patient in the nearby room, Paul decided to put an end to the debate before it escalated any further. “Hiram, do I understand that you plan to present your defense to Adam this morning?” he asked calmly.

 

Hiram sat up straight and squared his shoulders. His voice held no apology as he solemnly replied. “I do.”

 

“Well, in that case,” Paul said decisively, as he stood and reached for his medical bag, “I’ll need to be there.”

 

Hoss and Joe looked at the doctor, then at each other. They nodded in unspoken agreement.

 

“We all need to be there.” Hoss said.

 

**********

 

Adam lay on the cot in his cell, his fingers cradled on his chest, as he allowed his eyes to slowly trace the long crack that traveled the length of the ceiling above his head. Roy had come and gone, bringing him coffee, breakfast, hot water and a razor for shaving. For the first time in several days, Adam had found that he actually had an interest in the food. And, after looking in a mirror, had come to the conclusion that a shave would be welcome as well.

 

He couldn’t explain his change of mood. Perhaps it was because, after a few hours of uninterrupted sleep, the pain in his head seemed to have been reduced from a continual sharp stabbing to a tolerable dull ache. Or maybe it was that his stomach had finally stopped churning at the mere mention of food. More likely, however, it had to do with his brother’s visit the night before.

 

Adam had been lying in the dark feeling sorry for himself and angry at the world when his brother had arrived. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Hoss always seemed to know instinctively when Adam needed him – and he had needed him last night, perhaps more than he ever had before.

 

Not naturally optimistic by nature as his brother was, Adam often found that he relied on Hoss to prevent him from becoming mired in his own negativity. Hoss had a way of seeing the positive aspect of any situation and then badgered everyone around him until they saw it, too. Of course, Adam was too much of a realist to believe that his circumstances had somehow changed overnight, but his brother’s confidence was contagious. In the light of the new day things seemed to have a way of looking less grim, less overwhelming, and he felt his spirits rise.

 

His attention was drawn to voices in the outer office, speaking lowly, and the sound of several sets of boot heels coming in the direction of the cell. As the keys jangled in the lock, Adam, still cradling his tender ribs, sat up on the cot. Looking up, he was surprised to see not only his brothers and the lawyer, but the doctor, as well. As they filed past him, one by one, squeezing into a tiny cell never meant to accommodate five full-grown men, Adam scanned their faces and felt his newly discovered optimism begin to evaporate.

 

Something was definitely up. Hiram’s face, of course, offered no clues. His emotions were solidly hidden behind a mask of professionalism. As Adam looked to Hoss for an explanation, his brother uncharacteristically turned away, refusing to meet his eyes and Adam was immediately seized with renewed worry for his father. A sharp glance at the doctor, however, eased that fear. As Paul offered him a smile and nod in greeting, Adam read concern and sympathy on his face but nothing more and allowed himself a relieved sigh.

 

As Joe entered the cell, however, and Adam’s eyes fell upon his youngest brother, the sense of unease returned with a vengeance. Joe was never one to successfully hide his emotions. Now, one look at his brother’s face and Adam knew with a certainty that something was wrong…very wrong, and he felt his world come crashing down around him once more.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LVIII

 

Let the punishment match the offense.

~ Marcus Tullius Cicero

 

“No.”

 

“Adam, you really need to hear me out.” Hiram sternly replied as he looked to Hoss for support.

 

“No.” Adam’s voice was low and hard as tempered steel.

 

Hoss had anticipated this reaction and sighed heavily, cursing the circumstances that had put him at odds with his brother. Reluctantly, he stepped over to Adam and, putting a hand on his shoulder, flinched in shocked surprise as he tensed beneath his touch. Tentatively, he asked. “Adam, don’t you think you outta just listen to what Hiram has to say?”

 

Adam turned, offering only a cold glare in response as he pulled away from Hoss’ grip. Hoss drew back, feeling the sting of his brother’s eyes as intensely as if it had been a physical blow.

 

“Adam…” Joe began as Adam turned his back on his brothers and retreated to the furthest corner of the cell.

 

“Joe.” Hoss shook his head sadly. “Just leave ‘im be.”

 

Hiram observed the interplay between the brothers with professional interest. He had suspected, after experiencing Adam’s reaction the previous evening that his client would be less than receptive to the defense he had devised. Unfazed, he turned his attention to Hoss and Joe.

 

“There has been a precedence set, Gentlemen.” The lawyer stated matter-of-factly. “In 1856, a young man named Philip Key made the unfortunate choice of engaging in an illicit love affair with the wife of Congressman Daniel Sickles. The Congressman shot him two times, thereby killing him.”

 

Although Hoss’ eyes were still locked on Adam, Joe’s attention had turned toward the lawyer and Hiram suppressed a satisfied smile. Perhaps, he reasoned, he had been approaching this the wrong way. It had been Joseph who, despite Hoss’ vehement objections, had successfully convinced his brother to visit Adam in jail the previous night. If Hiram could convince Joe that this defense was in Adam’s best interest, in all of their best interest, then he could sit back and let Joe do the arguing for him.

 

“What happened to the Congressman?” Joe asked warily.

 

“The lawyers argued that their client had experienced an uncontrollable frenzy leading to the shooting and pleaded temporary insanity, Hiram replied. “The Congressman was acquitted.”

 

“And if this works for Adam?”

 

“If this works, Joseph, then your brother will go free.”

 

The doctor, who had been silently observing the interplay, spoke up. “I’ve heard about this case, Hiram. It seemed rather thin to me. I can’t imagine that any juror who knows Adam is going to believe…”

 

Hiram interrupted him, keen that the doctor didn’t undermine his fragile influence over the youngest Cartwright. “I’m not going to pretend that it wasn’t a controversial defense, Doctor, and with the added uncertainty of Judge Randall there are no guarantees,” he said. “However, we have one additional advantage.”

 

“And what exactly is that?” Joe demanded, becoming impatient with the lawyer’s verbosity.

 

Hiram turned to him and smiled indulgently. “We have your testimony, Joseph, and Adam’s as well, that he had sustained injuries in his altercation at the Lucky Ace on the evening before the shooting. I intend to argue that it was these injuries, in addition to the mental anguish of your father’s shooting, that initiated the temporary insanity.”

 

Paul looked pointedly at the lawyer and admonished him. “Hiram, you know as well as I do that I hadn’t examined Adam before he went into the stable. I can’t testify as to the existence of any previous injuries.”

 

“Ah…but did you or did you not, Doctor, inform us in the sheriff’s office the day after the shooting that Adam’s concussion was significantly worse than you had originally diagnosed?”

 

Before Paul could formulate a reply the lawyer continued.

 

“And, with a second, even more severe blow to the head, coupled with the stress of his father’s injuries and the belief that he was confronting the man who had caused those injuries, I contend that Adam was not responsible for his actions that morning. The fact that he is still experiencing a lapse in memory is further testimony in favor of the insanity plea.”

 

To the casual observer, Adam exhibited no visible reaction to the lawyer’s discourse as he stood in the corner of the cell, stoically gazing out through the iron bars. Hoss, however, was not a casual observer; he had been watching his brother his entire life. He didn’t miss the clenching of the jaw or the tightening of the fist each time the word “insanity” was mentioned.

 

As Adam had shown no inclination to offer an opinion beyond his initial rejection of Hiram’s defense, Hoss decided to speak on his brother’s behalf. “Hiram, there’s got to be somethin’ else we can do here. There’s got to be somebody out there who knows what really happened and I think we ought to be goin’ about tryin’ to find ‘im.”

 

“Of course, Hoss! Adam is innocent of the murder. We all know that and we’ll make every effort to prove it until the very last minute.”

 

Hiram realized that he had to tread lightly. He needed the younger Cartwright brothers working in unison if they were to have any chance of success at swaying Adam. Hoss was the wild card in the equation and Hiram knew that the best way to alienate him was to behave as if he thought Adam were guilty.

 

“But just in case,” Hiram continued, “every good lawyer has a contingency plan.”

 

“But to expect him to plead in front of a judge and twelve other men, men he’s probably known most of his life, that he weren’t responsible for his own actions…” As Hoss quoted Adam’s own words from the previous night, he felt a wave of guilt assail him and glanced apologetically at his brother.

 

Feeling the pressure of the time constraints placed on him by the imminent arrival of Judge Randall, Hiram decided to be forthright. “Hoss, I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Unless we can convince a jury that Adam was not in his right mind when he went to meet Oren Tate at the livery, and thereby not responsible for his own actions, your brother will hang for murder.”

 

Hoss scowled, still unwilling to accept the verdict as inevitability. “I don’t know, Hiram.”

 

Joe, who had been standing quietly for the last several moments, stepped forward. “Hoss, didn’t you just hear what he said?” His eyes were wide with fear. “If Adam doesn’t do this, we could lose him. And with Pa…” His voice broke and he swallowed hard before he could continue. “Hoss, we could lose both of them.”

 

Hoss looked at him sternly but with compassion in his eyes. “Little Joe, we ain’t gonna lose neither of ’em. And we sure ain’t gonna lose both of ‘em. Now, you just get that out of your head.”

 

Joe couldn’t be placated. He stepped past his brother and stood in front of the lawyer. “Hiram, how are you going to prove that Adam was insa….” He stopped mid-word, glanced quickly over to his brother, and rephrased. “That Adam wasn’t responsible for himself?” he finished sheepishly.

 

Inwardly, Hiram smiled, realizing that half of the battle had just been won. Now, if Joe could convince Hoss, together they might convince their brother and Adam might have a chance of walking out of this cell unscathed. “I didn’t say “prove,” Joe…I said convince a jury. They are two very different things, believe me.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LIX

 

To be, or not to be: that is the question.

~ William Shakespeare

 

Adam made his way to the farthest corner of the cell, wishing it were miles instead of just a few steps, and turned away from the others. He felt trapped, felt the control of his own life slipping through his fingers and every instinct in his body stubbornly rebelled against it. They could force him to stay in this cell, to not see his father, to question whether or not he committed murder and even to stand trial, but they could NOT force him to accept this…not this.

 

Suddenly it felt as if the walls of the already overcrowded cell were closing in on him and he abruptly spoke up. “Paul, can I speak with you for a minute?”

 

As four sets of eyes turned immediately to him, he added, “Alone?”

 

Hoss, his face etched with concern, crossed the cell and attempted to peer into Adam’s eyes. “You feelin’ all right, Adam?”

 

“I’m fine, Hoss…just fine.” Adam tried his best to offer his brother a reassuring smile, but it was plain to see that Hoss wasn’t fully convinced.

 

Reluctantly Hoss accepted his brother’s words and, as he gathered the rest of the group with his eyes, nodded toward the open cell door. “Come on, folks. You heard ‘im.”

 

As Joe reached the door, he hesitated. “Adam?”

 

Adam met his youngest brother’s eyes and saw the fear in them, the desperation.

 

“Adam….please…consider what Hiram said.” Joe lowered his head and bit his lip. Then softly enough that only Adam could hear, he added, “It may be our only chance.”

 

**********

 

After his brothers and the lawyer had exited the cell, Adam turned and walked over to the high, barred window. He was well aware that the doctor was carefully scrutinizing him, examining him with his eyes, looking for signs that he was falling apart. Inwardly, Adam laughed bitterly; perhaps he was falling apart.

 

Temporary Insanity. The phrase sent a shudder of revulsion through him.

 

Over the past few days he had spent countless hours lying alone in his cell with nothing to do but contemplate his fate and, if he were truthful, Hiram’s defense hadn’t been totally unexpected. What was unexpected was the sharp sting of betrayal that he felt knowing that not only had his brothers supported Hiram, but that they had actually encouraged him to accept the defense the lawyer proposed.

 

As Adam remembered the look that Little Joe had given him when he left the cell, however, he cringed in shame. His brothers hadn’t betrayed him. Was it a betrayal to want him to live…to keep their family intact? He reminded himself that, although the ultimate price would be his, he wasn’t alone in this; he never had been. If his father…Adam hesitated, then forced himself to carry the thought through to its completion…if his father succumbed to his injuries, then Hoss and Joe would be left to cope alone. And if his father did survive, how could they expect him to go on, knowing that his son had been hung for murder? Could he really put his family through that hell?

 

Reluctantly, Adam admitted to himself that Hiram’s defense might be his best – his only – chance to walk away from this a free man, but at what cost? He couldn’t bring himself to envision what life in Virginia City would be like for him after the trial if they were successful. Would he ever be able to walk down a street again without arousing either suspicion or sympathy in those he met, or worst of all, pity? Could he still command respect from others if he had none left for himself?

 

There were no easy answers, only impossible questions. He wondered what would require more courage, to stand by his principles and face a hanging or to live with the consequences of an insanity defense. And where did his responsibility lie, with his principles or with his family?

 

As his thoughts coiled and trailed around themselves like a tightly wound spring, Adam felt his head begin to pound once again and sat down heavily on the cot. Massaging his throbbing temples, he sighed, perhaps more tired than he knew of living up to his “responsibilities.”

 

**********

 

Paul leaned against the wall, silently waiting until Adam was ready to speak. He had had strong reservations about Hiram’s decision to present Adam with his defense this morning. In his opinion, Adam needed more time to recover but, as the lawyer was fond of reminding them, time was in short supply.

 

Upon entering the cell, the doctor had been relatively satisfied that his patient, physically at least, was doing better. Adam’s color had improved and the lines of pain around his eyes had eased. Now, however, as Adam sat on the cot with his head in his hands, Paul could see that the headache that had plagued him since the shooting had returned with a vengeance.

 

“Paul,” Adam said softly, “Paul, I need to know….”

 

As Adam looked up, Paul read the unspoken question in his friend’s eyes and sighed. “Adam, if you’re asking if I believe that a bad concussion can make a man forget things that he’s said and done…well, of course. You’re living proof of that.”

 

When Adam didn’t respond, he continued. “If you’re asking if I believe that a man would do things that are normally outside of his character to do, well…I suppose it’s possible, but you’d have to show me some pretty strong evidence of that.”

 

Although Adam did his best to mask it, Paul could see the desperation in the young man’s eyes. For a brief moment, the specter of Ross Marquette lingered in the room and the doctor, realizing that Adam certainly had to have been thinking of him as well, was determined to lay that ghost to rest.

 

“But, if you’re asking me if I think that makes a man insane…” Paul paused until he was sure he had Adam’s full attention. “The answer is ‘no.'”

 

There was a long moment of silence as Adam thought about what Paul had said. The doctor knew that Adam desperately wanted – needed – to believe him. When Adam finally spoke, his voice was so soft that the doctor had to lean in to hear him. “Paul, I shot and killed an unarmed man and have no memory of doing it. If that’s not insanity, then what is?”

 

Paul scowled. He didn’t like the direction that this conversation was going – didn’t like it at all. “Adam, I’ve been a friend of your father’s for a long time and I owe him a great deal,” he said sternly, “and I won’t stand by and watch his son argue himself into a hanging.”

 

Paul waited for a few moments and, looking at him sympathetically, added, “Adam…insanity…it’s a word, nothing more.”

 

Adam shook his head. “Hell of a word, Paul,” he sighed.

 

Conceding Adam’s point, Paul nodded. “You know, Hiram actually may have something. Your concussion is worse than I originally diagnosed. It’s possible that a new injury, on top of a preexisting one…” He paused. “Adam, do you remember getting hit over the head at the Lucky Ace?”

 

Adam simply raised his eyebrows and offered him a sardonic grin. “Are you kidding?”

 

Paul smiled and chuckled lightly, “Right…sorry.”

 

Adam slowly drew himself up and walked the length of cell, pausing to gaze at the brilliant blue sky beyond the bars, and muttered under his breath.

 

“What was that, Adam?” Paul asked, although he knew with an absolute certainty that he wouldn’t like the answer.

 

Heaving a deep sigh, Adam turned, his voice laced with bitterness.

 

“A man is responsible for his own actions, Paul.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LX

 

To spread suspicion, to invent calumnies, to propagate scandal, requires neither labour nor courage.

~ Samuel Johnson

 

“Adam Cartwright Arrested for Murder”

 

Adam Cartwright, eldest son of wealthy rancher, Ben Cartwright, awaits trial in the Virginia City Jail, accused of the heinous crime of murder…

 

Roy scowled as he as he read the headline, plastered as big as day across the front page of the latest edition of the Territorial Enterprise, and slammed the paper down, upsetting the cup and saucer balanced precariously on his knee. Cursing under his breath as he dabbed at the hot liquid, he glared again at the headline. The press had apparently anointed itself judge and jury, convicting Adam before he had even made it to trial.

 

It was inevitable that anything involving a wealthy, important family like the Cartwrights would be big news, but Roy worried about how the publicity might affect the outcome of the trial. He’d like to think that those who had known Adam for years would stand by him and wouldn’t be swayed by what they read in the paper. His confidence sagged, however, when he recalled the Michelsons and their curious reluctance to divulge what they knew about the day Ben was shot. It sure didn’t bode well for Adam if longtime friends started behaving like enemies, and Roy’s instincts told him that there was more going on there than met the eye.

 

He couldn’t shake the suspicion that everything that had happened somehow came back to Sam Bryant. The man had managed to get a chokehold on the town again- his town – and now held it in a grip of fear. When did that happen? When had he become so complacent that he had let it happen? Ben had warned him, Adam had warned him, and where did it get them? With half the town in cahoots with Bryant and the other half apparently scared out of their wits, what were the chances of finding twelve impartial jurors in Virginia City?

 

Roy didn’t believe for one minute that Adam had committed cold-blooded murder. That belief was solidified in his mind yesterday when he had gone to the Lucky Ace and found Hoss looking down the barrel of a dozen pistols. Bryant had been so sanctimonious, so self-assured, demanding satisfaction for all of the perceived wrongs done to him. Roy had never trusted a man who wouldn’t look him in the eye, but worse still was one who could look him dead on and tell him ‘white was black’ without flinching. Sam Bryant was such a man.

 

As if his worries about Bryant weren’t enough to keep him up nights, Roy was also having some pretty powerful reservations about how a few other things had been handled lately. He had been there when the doctor and Hoss had decided not to tell Adam about Ben’s condition. If one thing was for certain, Adam would be madder than a wet hornet when he found out that he had been kept in the dark – if he found out, Roy amended sadly.

 

Earlier in the day, when he had been preparing to go out on morning rounds, Little Joe and Hoss had shown up at the jail with Hiram and the Doc in tow. By the grim look on all their faces Roy had sensed that, whatever they had come to do, none of them were particularly happy about it. He had looked at them questioningly, but each one was as closed-mouthed as the next. Adam’s lawyer had the right not to tell him a thing and he knew it wasn’t his place to ask. Funny, the sheriff thought ruefully, how lately a lot of things involving the Cartwrights “weren’t his place” anymore. So, leaving his deputy in charge of the jail, he had quickly excused himself and had eventually ended up here, in the doctor’s back room, watching and praying for his wounded friend.

 

Roy set the paper aside and sat back to study the still figure. It appeared as if Ben was just sleeping peacefully, not locked in a coma from which he may never emerge. His face wasn’t pale, there was no flush of fever from the bullet wound; he simply didn’t wake up. Roy found himself wondering if his friend ever would and, if he did, what he would wake up to.

 

There were so many unanswered questions and with the imminent arrival of Judge Randall time was quickly running out. They needed to find the answers to some of those questions, and fast. Roy prayed that Hiram Wood was equal to the task, but between the lawyer, the judge, the press, and Sam Bryant, he feared it was a horse race as to who had the potential to do Adam the most harm, even unintentionally.

 

The sheriff had a strong notion that it would all come down to him and he was feeling the full burden of that knowledge. As soon as Paul or one of the boys came back he would set himself to task again – another trip to Bryant, perhaps, or maybe he could try the Michelson’s one last time.

 

Reaching down to smooth the covers on the sleeping form, Roy’s eyes opened wide. “Well, I’ll be!” As he heaved a satisfied and relieved sigh, a large smile lit his face.

 

“Welcome back, Ben.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXI

 

All human wisdom is summed up in two words: wait and hope.

~ Alexandre Dumas

 

No sooner had Roy finished speaking when he heard the front door open and the heavy footfalls of several men entering the parlor. Taking great relish in the notion that he would be the bearer of happy news for a change, he smiled at his old friend and said, “You just hang on now, Ben. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”

 

Roy headed down the hallway with a lightness of heart that had been sorely missing for several days. Although it certainly didn’t solve all their problems, he couldn’t help but think that Ben’s recovery would be a turning point for the Cartwrights and that maybe, just maybe, their luck was changing for the better.

 

As he entered the parlor, however, the brief surge of hope quickly disappeared. The faces that met his were as grim as those he had seen earlier, if not more so. Little Joe still avoided meeting the sheriff’s eyes, but Hoss offered him a solemn nod of greeting.

 

“Roy.”

 

Roy almost winced at the despair that was evident on the young man’s face. It was apparent that whatever had happened at the jail had cast a pall over the entire group. Glancing from brother to brother, he decided that the time was long overdue for some good news and, with a twinkle in his eye, said, “Well, I sure hope you get shed of them gloomy faces before you go in to see your pa.” A grin lit his face. “I wouldn’t want him to see you lookin’ like that.”

 

Paul, who had been putting away his medical bag, stopped mid-reach and turned to Roy. “What are you saying, Roy? Has Ben regained consciousness?”

 

Joe’s head shot up as he gaped at the sheriff in disbelief. Before Roy had a chance to reply, however, both Cartwright brothers, wearing matching looks of eager anticipation, pushed past him and headed down the hallway. Smiling indulgently, Roy and Paul followed close behind. As they reached the small back bedroom that they had come to know so well, however, their faces fell.

 

Ben lay as he had before, his body still, his eyes closed. Joe turned to face the sheriff, the bitterness returning. “I thought you said he was conscious, Roy,” he hissed between clenched teeth.

 

Roy shook his head in resignation. The accusation in Joe’s tone had become so commonplace that Roy knew he should be accustomed to it by now, but he wondered wearily if there was anything in this world that the young man didn’t blame him for.

 

Ignoring the interchange between Joe and the sheriff, Paul moved swiftly past them and, reaching the bed, took hold of his patient’s wrist. Hoss, who had taken a position on the opposite side, followed the doctor’s hands with his eyes as Paul expertly checked Ben’s pulse.

 

“Hmmm…” Paul mumbled noncommittally.

 

His patience worn nearly threadbare, Hoss shared an anxious glance with Joe and urged, “Doc…”

 

Smiling slightly, Paul gripped Ben’s shoulder and gently shook it. “Ben? Open your eyes, Ben.” When there was no response, the doctor repeated his effort and added an edge of authority to his voice. “You need to wake up now, Ben.”

 

For a long moment there was no sound save the steady ticking of the clock on the mantle as they waited in nervous anticipation. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the doctor’s efforts were rewarded as Ben’s eyes fluttered and slowly opened. A collective sigh filled the room.

 

Joe, smiling through unshed tears, gripped his father’s shoulder. “Welcome back, Pa.”

 

Reaching down to complete the connection, Hoss echoed his brother’s sentiment. “Hey, Pa.”

 

Roy, suddenly feeling as if he were intruding, stepped into the far corner of the room. Propriety told him he should leave, that he should give the family their privacy, but as he watched the reunion being carried out before him, he found that he was unable to drag himself away. After everything that had happened in the past few days, he wouldn’t have missed this for all the money in the world.

 

The doctor, trying his best to administer to Ben while his sons hovered over him, finally said with exasperation, “Gentlemen, could you please step aside while I examine my patient?” Sheepishly, Hoss and Joe smiled to each other and backed away, their eyes never straying far from their father.

 

“Ben.” Paul had moved slightly so that he was in Ben’s line of sight and tried to capture his patient’s attention. “Ben, can you tell me how you’re feeling?” Frowning when he received no response, the doctor tried a second time. “Ben, can you look at me?”

 

Roy watched in dismay as the doctor’s repeated attempts to urge a response from Ben met with futility. Something in Paul’s tone alerted him and, glancing at the brothers, he saw their expressions transform from grateful relief to apprehension once more.

 

“Somethin’ ain’t right here, is it, Doc?” Hoss asked lowly, his voice filled with trepidation.

 

The guarded look that the doctor gave Hoss in return confirmed Roy’s suspicions that something, indeed, was “not right.” Sighing heavily, Paul stood and motioned the brothers to the corner of the room, away from their father’s bed, where Roy had been anxiously waiting.

 

“Paul, tell us what’s going on here,” Joe demanded.

 

“Joe, Hoss….” Paul began, his calm, soothing voice a direct counterpoint to Joe’s burgeoning panic, “Let me remind you that your father has just come out of a deep coma and we need to give him time.”

 

“Just what is it, Doc?” Hoss asked anxiously.

 

Paul shook his head. “As I said, Hoss,” he continued, “it’s too early to be sure, and I’ve only seen a case or two myself, although I have read about it…”

 

The doctor’s uncharacteristic stalling only served to heighten Roy’s sense of unease and, knowing that neither Hoss nor Joe would be satisfied with anything less than the whole truth, he finally spoke up. “Paul, why don’t you just tell us what it is!”

 

“Roy,” Paul said, “It’s far too premature…”

 

Roy glanced meaningfully toward Joe, who had turned to anxiously stare at his father. The boy was obviously at the end of his tether and, although Hoss was managing to outwardly maintain his composure, Roy was sure that he wasn’t far behind his brother. “Premature or not, Paul, knowin’ is better than not knowin’.”

 

Hoss sent him a grateful smile, which Roy returned with one of his own as they steeled themselves for the doctor’s answer.

 

Signing heavily, Paul nodded his acquiescence. “All right,” he said reluctantly. “Do you remember when I told you earlier that there could be complications?” The brothers nodded in response and he continued. “Well, sometimes when a person suffers a serious blow to the head like Ben has, they have difficulties afterwards, speaking, understanding what’s being spoken to them…things like that.”

 

Hoss moved closer to his brother and said with determination, “Go on, Paul. Tell us all of it.”

 

Focusing his gaze on Joe, Paul continued. “Now, before you get yourself all worked up, you need to know that sometimes this problem clears spontaneously within three to four days. If that’s what’s happening here…and I repeat, if…that’s what’s happening with your father, he could be back to normal within the week.”

 

No one in the room missed what the doctor wasn’t saying.

 

“But maybe it won’t clear itself up? Is that what you’re telling us, Paul?”

 

As Joe’s voice rose in pitch and intensity, Hoss glanced back at their father, whose eyes had closed again, and admonished his brother. “Hush, Joe. Paul…is that what you’re sayin’?”

 

“I’m not going to tell you that it’s not a possibility, but please, let’s just focus for now on the fact that your father has woken up. That, in and of itself, is a blessing, believe me.”

 

As Paul offered them a reassuring smile, Roy found himself wishing that the doctor could offer them more hope, but he knew that Paul would never promise anything that he couldn’t reasonably guarantee. It was one of the reasons that the folks of Virginia City put so much faith in him.

 

“As for the rest,” the doctor continued, “we’ll just have to give it some time.”

 

Unfortunately, time was the one thing they didn’t have in abundance.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXII

 

How good it feels, the hand of an old friend.

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

As each effort to cajole a response from Ben met with failure, Roy felt his anger and frustration intensify. The brothers had been working with a single-minded determination but, although his eyes were open, there had been nothing – not a word, not a nod of the head – nothing to indicate that their father was aware of their presence.

 

Roy had always considered himself a God-fearing man, had always assumed that he and God were on the same side about most things. Now, however, as he stood helplessly watching from the corner of the room, he found himself cursing the injustice that would offer hope one moment only to cruelly snatch it away the next. For a man who had spent the better part of his life working to bring about justice, the fact that he could do nothing to help his friend was a bitter pill to swallow.

 

The sheriff opened his mouth to take his leave and then closed it again. He doubted that the brothers were aware he was still in the room and suspected they would take even less notice if he were gone. With a heart heavy once again, Roy left Hoss and Joe to their father and softly closed the door. Reaching the parlor, however, he was surprised to hear a soft voice from behind him call.

 

“Roy, can I speak with you a minute ‘fore you leave?”

 

Roy turned and almost winced when he saw Hoss’ face; the smile that he had sported for his father’s sake was gone and all that remained was exhaustion, worry, and despair.

 

“What’s on your mind, son?” he asked gently.

 

“Roy,” Hoss began haltingly, staring down at his boots for a moment, uncomfortably shifting from one foot to the other. “Roy, I just wanted to tell ya, well…thanks for bein’ here for Pa…and for us, too.”

 

Surprised and touched, Roy stood quietly and waited, sensing that Hoss had still more to say. He could see that choosing the right words was difficult for the young man and was content to let him go at his own pace.

 

“I know I been sorta givin’ you a hard time and I just wanna say…well, it weren’t right to say that you weren’t on Adam’s side or Pa’s side neither.”

 

“Son, there ain’t no need…” Roy protested, but Hoss put up a hand to forestall him.

 

“Now, just let me say my piece,” Hoss took a deep breath and continued. “Fact is, I’m ashamed of the way I been actin’ and I’ll bet that Pa would be ashamed of me for it, too. You been a good friend to us for a lot of years and I know you’re in a tough spot.”

 

At that Roy could hold his tongue no longer.

 

“Hoss, now you just get that notion out of your head,” he admonished. “I’ve known your Pa for a lot of years and I know for a fact that he ain’t never had one minute of anything but pride in you…in all three of you.”

 

Hoss gave him a smile that said, although he wasn’t that sure he agreed with Roy’s words, he appreciated the sentiment behind them.

 

“Roy,” Hoss continued earnestly, “about Little Joe…he don’t mean nothin’…”

 

Roy grinned and interrupted him. “You don’t gotta be explaining to me about Little Joe. Ain’t one man in the territory that don’t know about that youngin’s short fuse. Don’t you fret, Hoss. I ain’t took nothin’ he’s said to heart…not one word.”

 

Hoss heaved a relieved sigh and, smiling his first real smile in days, looked as if he felt once again at home in his own skin. Roy decided that it was a horse apiece as to which one of them was more relieved for, although it was Hoss who had apologized, Roy felt a small portion of the heavy weight of guilt lifted from his shoulders as well.

 

“Son, I know this sounds kinda peculiar, considerin’ the circumstances with Adam and all, but when your Pa got hurt, well…I sorta felt like it was my job to fill in for him temporarily, until he was on his feet again.” Roy reached for his hat and turned toward the door. “But since I cain’t seem to do nothin’ for him, I’ll be danged if I ain’t gonna try to help your brother. Now, it’s time I got out there and started doin’ my job.”

 

Hoss followed him to the door. “I sure do appreciate it, Roy, and I know that Joe and Adam will too when things get back to normal.”

 

“Son, I sure am sorry things are workin’ out this way. I just know your Pa is gonna come out of this right as rain.” Roy knew it was a meaningless platitude, but he felt compelled to offer it nonetheless.

 

Hoss looked wistfully back toward the room in which his father lay, his responsibilities to both his father and his brother warring with each other. “Think maybe I oughta go with you, Roy?” he asked.

 

Roy smiled and shook his head. “You go on back to your Pa and brother, Hoss, and leave the sheriffin’ to me.”

 

Reluctantly, Hoss nodded his agreement. “What ya got in mind, Roy?”

 

“Well, I’m thinkin’ that there’s a few people out there that I ain’t spoke to yet that might know something, maybe heard somethin’.” He rubbed his hand across the whiskers on his chin and said thoughtfully, “I’m of half a mind to go back and talk to the Michelsons again. They was actin’ a mite jittery when I…”

 

“Dadburnit!”

 

Surprised by Hoss’ outburst, Roy stopped mid-sentence. “What is it, Son?”

 

“Dadburnit,” Hoss repeated, shaking his head in disbelief. “With everything that was goin’ on with Adam and Pa I just plum forgot. Dadburnit!”

 

Schooling his voice so that at least one of them remained calm, Roy asked again, patiently, “What’s got you so riled, Hoss?”

 

His eyes shining with excitement, Hoss replied, “Roy, I done had me a little talk with Mrs. Michelson yesterday.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXIII

 

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

Roy stared out through the large picture window that overlooked Main Street, absently watching the bustle of people going about their daily business. As the stage coach passed by on its way to the depot, Roy was slightly taken aback to realize that it had been two – no, three – days since he had met the stage, a task he had always considered to be part of his responsibility as sheriff. For him, the past several days had consisted of little more than the jail and Doc Martin’s back room and, with the lives of his two dear friends hanging in the balance, it was a little surprising to realize that, for the rest of the world life had gone on as before.

 

Sighing wearily as he sipped his cooling coffee, Roy began to feel the exhaustion that he had held at bay begin to overcome him. It was no wonder, he thought, considering the gamut of emotions that he had experienced that day, from elation and relief to despair and crushing disappointment. And now, as he watched the lengthening shadows play across the table, Roy began to feel more discouraged than he ever had before.

 

He had spent the last several hours doing just what he had promised Hoss he would do, questioning anyone and everyone that could have been in a position to have seen or heard something having to do with the Cartwright case. It had proven to be an exercise in futility, however, as he ran into one brick wall after another. Most folks he tried to talk to simply refused him outright and those who would speak with him denied knowing anything that could help.

 

By late afternoon Roy had found himself once again at the Michelson’s store where, frustrated and in no mood to put up with any more shenanigans, he sat them both down and demanded that they tell him everything that they knew. By the time he had left, he had actually managed to feel some sympathy for Mrs. Michelson as, under the glaring eye of her husband, she recounted what she had told Hoss the previous day. In fact, once she had begun speaking, she seemed more than eager to share anything that she could, despite her husband’s disapproving stare.

 

But in the end, what good had it accomplished? Yes, Mrs. Michelson had seen Tate wearing a gun the day of Ben’s shooting. She actually remembered it quite clearly, shuddering as she recalled how Tate had caught her eye and drawn it down to the weapon when Ben Cartwright had entered the store, the evil smile he wore as he patted the holster and nodded to her menacingly.

 

Roy had listened sympathetically as Mrs. Michelson gave her statement. It was obvious to him that it had been a heavy burden for her to submit to her husband’s wishes not to speak and he could see by the look on her face now what a relief it was for her to finally be able to ease her conscience and tell what she knew. When she had finished, she looked at him with such hope in her eyes that he didn’t have the heart to tell her that, although he appreciated her honesty, her testimony wouldn’t make one iota’s worth of difference in Adam’s defense. The fact that Tate was wearing a gun one day and not the next, although curious, was purely circumstantial. Legally, it didn’t amount to a hill of beans, and no matter what the implications, it just wasn’t against the law for a man not to wear a gun.

 

Roy swirled the dregs of his coffee and took a final swallow, feeling that once again he was back at square one. There had to be something else. Some small detail that he was missing that would make all the difference, would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Adam was innocent. Maybe he had been coming at this thing from the wrong way. He wondered briefly if his emotional involvement with the Cartwright family had somehow clouded his judgment as sheriff. With a renewed determination born of necessity, Roy pulled out a pencil and a small pad of paper, leafed past the scant statements he had taken that day, touched the tip of the pencil to his tongue and prepared to jot down his thoughts.

 

Was it possible that, for reasons known only to him, Tate had gone to meet Adam that day intentionally unarmed? There was no doubt that Tate knew Adam’s reputation with a gun; it was common knowledge that Adam had one of the fastest draws in the territory. Maybe Tate figured that Adam would have reason to be murderously angry and that he stood a better chance if he came unarmed; after all, no Cartwright would ever shoot an unarmed man.

 

But why would Tate demand to meet with Adam at the livery in the first place? It certainly couldn’t be to admit to shooting Ben; that made no sense. What sane man would put himself at risk like that? Or, more likely, was it to give Adam information that he possessed on who the actual shooter was? There was no way that Tate wouldn’t have been aware of Adam’s late night offer at the Lucky Ace. Maybe Tate, knowing who the shooter was, asked to meet Adam with the hopes of collecting the reward money and decided to play it safe by coming in unarmed. There was, however, still one small problem. How did Tate end up dead?

 

As Roy quickly jotted down his notes, he began to feel a burgeoning excitement that maybe he was finally on to something. The theory made sense and, although each question just led to more questions, at least his investigation now had some sense of direction. But would two days be enough to find the answers to those questions?

 

Feeling the pressure of time, Roy tucked his notes into his vest pocket and dropped a coin onto the table. As he stood to leave, however, he noticed a tall, thin gentleman, obviously fresh off the stage, judging by the layer of dust adhering to his traveling cape, speaking with the waiter near the door. The waiter pointed in Roy’s direction and, nodding, the man began to weave his way through the crowded restaurant.

 

As he reached Roy, the man took off his hat. “You’re Sheriff Coffee?” he asked.

 

“Yessir, what can I do for you?”

 

Offering his right hand to the sheriff, the man replied, “I’m Judge Randall, Sheriff. Judge Josiah T. Randall.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXIV

 

It cannot rain but it pours.

~ Jonathan Swift

 

Cursing fluently under his breath, Roy entered the jail under full steam. He was oblivious to the rattling hinges as he slammed the door back into the wall, upsetting the precariously balanced chair behind his desk, as well as the occupant within it.

 

“Where’s the fire, Sheriff?” Cal complained as he attempted to mop up the hot coffee that now stained the front of his shirt.

 

“Nice to see ya made yourself at home, Cal.” Roy offered sarcastically. “Now, I’ll thank ya to keep your feet off my desk, and when ya done that, find me them files on Adam’s case before…”

 

“Roy, is that you?”

 

Roy blanched at the sound of the weary voice coming from behind the closed door and softly cursed again. With the judge’s early arrival and his own race to get back to the jail, Roy had temporarily forgotten what awaited him there. He made an effort to compose himself as he walked over to the door; there was no need to add to Adam’s worries, particularly since the young man was powerless to do anything to change his circumstances.

 

“Sure is, Adam,” he said as cheerfully as he could muster. “What can I do for ya?”

 

“Have you heard anything more about Pa?”

 

Roy knew he should have anticipated the question. Frowning, he turned his head away from Adam and, keeping his voice low, inquired, “Ain’t Hoss or Little Joe been over here yet this afternoon?”

 

“Nope, Sheriff, been real calm here. Ain’t been nobody all day,” Cal replied.

 

Scowling, Roy shook his head at the deputy’s words, knowing that, despite Doc Martin’s earlier warnings, if there had been something positive to report, Hoss would have certainly come to share the news with Adam. The fact that there had been no visitors didn’t bode well for Ben and left Roy with a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach. This secrecy, in his opinion, had gone on just about long enough. On the other hand, he thought regretfully, it wasn’t his place to tell Adam anything that his brothers didn’t want him to know, no matter how much he may disagree with them.

 

So, desperate to find a way to dance around the truth without completely stomping it into the ground, Roy carefully replied. “I ain’t heard of no change in your Pa’s condition since I been there this morning, Adam.”

 

Nodding, Adam returned to the cot and sank down, his shoulders slumped in despair.

 

I’m sorry, Son.”

 

Roy knew his words were small consolation but they were all he had to offer. For a long moment neither man spoke, for there was simply nothing more to say. Suddenly, with a start, Roy pulled out his pocket watch and scowled. The judge had given him just thirty minutes to return to the jail and collect all of his files on the Cartwright case, fifteen of which had already passed. Apologetically, Roy said, “Adam, I hate to do this, but I got me a real important meetin’ in just a few minutes and I got the feeling this feller ain’t the sort to be late.”

 

Not waiting for Adam’s acknowledgment, Roy gently closed the door and turned back toward his desk. “Ain’t ya got them files yet?” he demanded, his voice gruff.

 

Just as Cal had retrieved the necessary file, however, the door opened and a tall, thin frame entered the jail. If figured, thought Roy bitterly…the judge was early.

 

“Sheriff Coffee,” Judge Randall said succinctly by way of greeting.

 

Roy took the proffered papers from his deputy’s hand and, indicating the man at his side, said, “Judge Randall, this is my Deputy, Cal Foster.” At the mention of the man’s name, Cal’s jaw dropped and he glanced nervously back toward the cells.

 

Offering the deputy a perfunctory nod, the judge returned his attention to Roy. “Do you have the report in order, Sheriff?”

 

“Yessir, I sure do. But you’ve had a long trip, Judge. Don’t you think it might be better if you had a nice, hot meal and a good night’s sleep first? Tomorrow’s soon enough to…”

 

“Sheriff,” the judge interrupted Roy with a trace of impatience in his voice, “I have a tight schedule to keep and many responsibilities, as I’m sure you’re aware.” He held out his hand to the deputy. “Now, if you don’t mind…”

 

Reluctantly, Roy nodded to his deputy to release the papers. “Cal,” he said, “maybe you can go on back and sit with Adam for a spell, keep him company.” Roy hoped that the deputy would have the presence of mind to understand his intention, as the last thing he wanted was for Adam to overhear his conversation with the judge.

 

“Sure thing, Sheriff,” Cal replied.

 

After the deputy had left the room, Judge Randall, now seated behind Roy’s desk, began methodically pouring through the document before him. For Roy, the tension in the room surged with each frown, each “hmmm” that the judge murmured. He found himself pacing, unable to control his rising consternation. Finally, when he felt that he could stand it no longer, the judge put down the file and pushed his chair back from the desk.

 

“Well,” Randall said, “it seems that the accused has a rather long history with the law – arrested twice before, here in Virginia City, both times on murder charges.”

 

“And both times them charges was thrown out, Judge,” Roy reminded him.

 

Dismissing the sheriff’s comment, Judge Randall reopened the file and began to leaf through it once again.

 

Suddenly Roy found himself bemoaning the loss of Judge Scribner as he endeavored to defend his friend. “Judge, I know you’re new to the territory, but you got to know that the Cartwrights are a good family. You’ll never find a more honest, respected man than Adam Cartwright!”

 

At Roy’s statement, the Judge’s eyebrows crept up and he stopped reading. Holding up the report in his hands, he replied, “That’s not what this seems to indicate, Sheriff.”

 

“Now wait a minute, Judge. Just ‘cause a piece of paper says…”

 

The judge interrupted him. “Sheriff, I’m a firm believer in the old adage, Where’s there smoke, there’s fire, and you must admit that there aren’t many “honest, respected” men who are arrested for murder…three times.”

 

Roy opened his mouth to protest but a hand came up to forestall him. “Sheriff Coffee, please, say no more. I’ve been a judge for many, many years and I’ve certainly seen my share of wealthy, powerful people who attempt to use their influence to circumvent the law. I’ve no patience for it,” he said sternly.

 

Roy, dander up and eyes flashing, blurted impulsively, “Judge, I’ve known Adam Cartwright nearly his whole life. His pa is just about my best friend in the world and…” Cringing, he broke off, hardly able to believe the words that had just come from his lips. It was too late for self-censoring, however, for once uttered, the words couldn’t be taken back. A moment of uncomfortable silence passed during which Roy wondered miserably if there was anything more he could do to sabotage Adam’s case.

 

Judge Randall nodded knowingly. “I see,” he said and, coming around the desk, positioned himself directly in front of Roy. “Sheriff, it appears that your are rather personally involved here. If you can’t bring it upon yourself to do your job impartially, perhaps it would be best if you recuse yourself from this case.”

 

Roy realized that, in the span of just a few short minutes, he had somehow managed to find himself firmly planted on the judge’s bad side. Knowing he could be of no use to Adam if the judge insisted he step down, he gritted his teeth and reluctantly replied, “There won’t be no problem, Judge.”

 

Acknowledging his victory with a simple nod, Judge Randall continued. “Now, everything here appears to be in order. I’d like to schedule the trial for tomorrow morning, ten o’ clock sharp.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXV

 

I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.

~ Abraham Lincoln

 

Roy blinked twice, hard, and felt his jaw drop. “Tomorrow? But Judge, that’s….”

 

Disregarding the sheriff’s obvious consternation, Randall placed the report securely in his satchel as he reached for his hat. “You’ve had several days to form a case, Sheriff, and the defense has had equal time to prepare.” Turning toward the door, he continued. “Now, since I’m expected in Carson City by the end of the week, I’d like to move this along.”

 

Roy struggled to think fast. If the trial were held tomorrow, there was no doubt in his mind as to what the outcome would be. Forcing his voice to convey a calmness he didn’t feel, he said, “Judge Randall, I know that you’re a busy man, but if you could just see fit to postpone the trial for a couple of days…”

 

Holding up the satchel, Randall said, “I don’t see the need, Sheriff. Everything here seems to be in order. And unless there is something else…”

 

Roy jumped at the opportunity the judge’s words provided. “Yessir, in fact, there is something else. Some new evidence that just come to my attention today. Evidence I ain’t had time to put in the report yet.”

 

Roy waited nervously as the judge contemplated his statement, obviously trying to decide if he should believe what the sheriff was telling him or if it was merely a ruse to buy more time for his friend. Roy knew that the judge would, of course, question the nature of the new evidence so, hoping to catch him off-guard, boldly decided to take the offensive.

 

“And don’t forget, Judge, we got ourselves not one victim, but two.”

 

Eyebrows raised, the judge looked at him, his curiosity piqued. “Two victims?”

 

“Yessir, Oren Tate was murdered, but we cain’t forget that Ben Cartwright was also shot and left for dead.”

 

“I was under the assumption from your report that it was Tate who shot Mr. Cartwright. Are you now telling me that you have evidence to indicate that there was another assailant?” The judge sounded skeptical, but at least, for now, willing to listen.

 

Roy hesitated. “Well…I wouldn’t go so far as to call it evidence, exactly,” he hedged, “but it sure does seem to fit most of the facts.”

 

Judge Randall grimaced and turned once again for the door. “I see…most of the facts. Well, if that’s all, sheriff…”

 

Realizing that, if the judge walked out that door, the life of his friend would be as good as forfeit, Roy reached out and brazenly gripped the man’s forearm. Randall stopped in his tracks and glared at Roy’s hand, startled at the audacity of the sheriff. Roy, however, shrugged it off; as far as he could tell, there was nothing left to lose.

 

“Sheriff, my only interest is in seeing justice served.” The judge’s words were clipped and irritated as he added, “…in a timely fashion.”

 

Releasing his grip, Roy looked Randall in the eye and said earnestly, “Judge, don’t let nobody say that I was one to slow up the wheels of justice, but it seems to me that when a wheel gets turnin’ a mite too fast, all sorts of innocent people tend to get run over.”

 

He paused, encouraged to see that the judge actually seemed to be considering what he had said, then continued. “I cain’t help but think that Ben Cartwright knows something that might just shed some light on this whole thing.”

 

Minutes seemed like hours as the judge considered Roy’s plea. Finally, heaving a deep sigh, he relented. “One day, sheriff. I’ll give you one more day. But you’d better be prepared to show me evidence that can be admissible in court.”

 

“Judge, Ben Cartwright just come out of a coma only this mornin’!” Roy argued. “It’s gonna take me more time than…”

 

“Roy!”

 

The voice behind him sounded closer than it had any right to be and Roy cringed, instinctively knowing what he would find behind him. Surrendering to the inevitable, he reluctantly turned and, as he suspected, there stood his apologetic deputy, and behind him the door to the cell area stood wide open.

 

Shaking his head in dismay, Roy mouthed silently, “Did he hear?”

 

Cal nodded affirmatively and whispered back. “Sorry.”

 

With resignation, Roy addressed the judge. “S’cuse me for a minute, Judge.” Dreading what he had to do and knowing it would only serve to worry and infuriate Adam, Roy walked over to face his friend, standing at the cell door, his hands clutching the bars.

 

“What’s going on out there?” Adam demanded. “Did I just hear you say that Pa was awake?”

 

Roy winced at the accusation in Adam’s tone and knew that he would be paying a price for his subterfuge, but the price would have to be paid later. “Son, I’m sorry. I just cain’t talk to you right now. I’ll be back when my meetin’s over.”

 

“Roy…”

 

But Roy just shook his head as he gently closed and locked the door. He paused for a brief moment, his hand leaning on the wall for support. Then, feeling drained, Roy walked back over to the judge.

 

“Judge, please,” he said simply.

 

Randall looked him in the eye for a long moment and then, with the look of a man doing something against his will, nodded. “All right, sheriff. You have your two days. Just be sure to make them count.”

 

“I sure will. I appreciate it, sir.”

 

Roy knew that he was fortunate to get any concession at all from the judge and managed to manufacture a grateful smile. Inwardly, however, he doubted that the two days he had been granted would make a difference as Paul Martin’s diagnosis echoed in his ears.

 

“One more thing, Sheriff. I run a taut ship. No courtroom theatrics, just the law, plain and simple. I imagine, being that the Cartwrights are a well-known and influential family, the trial will be well attended. It’s up to you as Sheriff to see that things are kept in order.”

 

“Yessir, you ain’t got to worry ‘bout that, Judge. You got my word.”

 

Nodding curtly, the judge proceeded out the door.

 

Suddenly, with the sense of witnessing a stagecoach wreck and being unable to do anything to prevent it, Roy watched in shocked disbelief as a large shadow filled the doorframe. Roy’s unvoiced shout of warning died on his lips as the brick wall that was Hoss Cartwright collided headlong into the willow-thin judge, sending him stumbling and sprawling to the floor. Roy’s disbelief turned to horror as, apologizing profusely, Hoss bodily picked the judge up against his protests and dusted him off, all the while the judge angrily swatted his hands away.

 

Being set to rights, Judge Randall gave both men an angry glare before storming off down the street. Hoss, turning to Roy, asked innocently, “Who was that feller, Roy?”

 

Exasperated, Roy threw up his hands. “Hoss Cartwright, you beat ever’thin’, you know that? Of all the people in the territory for you to knock to the ground, you just had to pick that one, didn’t ya?”

 

Having the good grace to look embarrassed, Hoss opened him mouth to respond, but Roy put his hand up to forestall him. “Never mind, Hoss, never mind.” Knowing that Adam wouldn’t be put off much longer, Roy motioned Hoss into the office and closed the door behind him. “Now,” he said, “Tell me ‘bout your Pa.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXVI

 

Thou wert my guide, philosopher, and friend.

~ Alexander Pope

 

Hoss’s look of embarrassment quickly turned to dismay as he sank down heavily in the chair next to Roy’s desk. “There ain’t been no change, Roy.”

 

“What’s Paul say?” Roy asked sympathetically.

 

“The same thing he’s been sayin’ for days. Just give it time.” Hoss ran his fingers through his hair in a gesture of frustration. “But we done give it time, Roy. Every time Pa woke up today, me and Joe was there talkin’ to him, tryin’ to get him to answer, but things just ain’t gettin’ any better.”

 

It wasn’t the news Roy wanted to hear, but like it or not, it was the hand they had been dealt and, if his opinion counted for anything, it was past time that Hoss dealt with it.

 

“And now you come to tell Adam?” Roy asked hopefully.

 

Hoss hesitated before answering. “Joe and me decided that if Pa wasn’t any better by this evenin’ one of us was gonna tell him.” He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “But now I ain’t so sure. There ain’t that much that’s really changed and Adam hisself still ain’t quite up to snuff…”

 

Roy realized that Hoss’s reluctance probably had a great deal less to do with Adam’s health than it did with his own dread of giving his brother the uncertain news about their father. If there was ever a time that Hoss needed a parent’s guidance, it was now.

 

“Son,” Roy said sternly, “Your brother has been sittin’ in that cell for days, not knowin’ whether he’s gonna live or die or whether his Pa’s gonna live or die, and not able to do a thing about it either way. That don’t set too well with most men, but with a man like Adam Cartwright…he’s ‘bout ready to go plum crazy, I’d expect.”

 

The look on Hoss’s face said that he knew that Roy was right, but he would rather have been facing the noose himself than to face his brother.

 

Roy, his eyes filled with compassion for his friend’s son, said softly, “Hoss, Adam deserves to know the truth about his Pa.”

 

Hoss rose out of the chair and began to nervously pace the room.

 

“But Roy…”

 

“Roy?” Adam’s voice, although muffled behind the closed door, still managed to sound impatient and angry. “Hoss? Is that you?”

 

Glancing over his shoulder to the still-locked door and then back to Hoss, Roy shook his head. “Hoss, I’m afraid you ain’t got a choice.”

 

**********

 

At the sound of the door opening, Roy looked up from the paper work he had only been pretending to do and his heart sank. One look at Hoss’s face told him everything he needed to know, but for some reason he couldn’t stop himself from asking anyway.

 

“How’d he take it, Son?”

 

Once again, Hoss sank down heavily in the chair in front of the sheriff’s desk. “How do you think he took it, Roy? He’s worried and a whole heap of mad at both Joe and me for not tellin’ him sooner about Pa.” Roy met Hoss’s eyes and Hoss nodded, knowing what was on the sheriff’s mind. “Yup, you ain’t in the clear neither; Adam’s mighty upset. ‘Course, he’s got cause.”

 

Although Roy had realized all along that he wouldn’t escape unscathed, with the news that Adam held him partially responsible, the feelings of guilt that he had temporarily managed to submerge found their way to the surface once again.

 

Seeing the look on Roy’s face, Hoss spoke up quickly. “Aw, Roy…you know I didn’t mean it like that…”

 

Roy sighed heavily and opened the drawer on the side of his desk. Drawing out a small bottle, he poured an ample measure of the amber liquid into a glass. Hoss’s eyebrows raised in mild surprise.

 

Roy put up his hand to forestall Hoss’s question. “I only keep it for medicinal purposes,” he said as he pushed the glass toward Hoss. “Now, don’t argue with me and drink it. I cain’t say as I’ve ever seen somebody who looked like they needed it more.”

 

Hoss accepted the drink but left it untouched as he mused, “Roy, I cain’t help but think that if Pa saw Adam it might be just the thing he needs. Adam’s always had a way of gettin’ through to him.”

 

Roy regretfully shook his head. “I’ll admit to thinkin’ the same thing, Hoss, but I cain’t do it. If Judge Randall saw me givin’ what amounts to special favors to the Cartwrights, it’d do Adam more harm than good, that’s for sure.”

 

“Roy…Judge Randall ain’t here. There ain’t no way he would ever know.”

 

Somewhat surprised that Hoss would suggest something dishonest, no matter how justified the cause, Roy replied, “Just who do you think it was you knocked to the ground?”

 

Hoss gulped nervously, his expression a mixture of shock and dread. “You cain’t mean…”

 

“That’s right, Son,” Roy nodded and managed to hide a slight grin as Hoss reached for the glass of whiskey and downed it in one swallow.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXVII

 

Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without defeat.

~ Sun Tzu

 

In the nearly moonless night, the light from the street lamps barely penetrated the long, narrow alley, making it almost as pitch black as a mineshaft. Not that he minded; the darkness suited his purposes. For over an hour he had waited patiently in the shadows and finally was rewarded as he spied a lone figure making his way down the alley. The man walked with a confidence and purposefulness of stride that said that, even in a town like Virginia City, where a man’s life could often be counted as cheap, this man knew he had nothing to fear.

 

Reaching the back door of the building, the man shifted his cigar from his hand to his mouth and fumbled in a vest pocket for the key. The glowing point of the cigar illuminated the man’s face, telling his observer that this, indeed, was the person for whom he had been waiting.

 

He stepped out of the shadows.

 

“Evenin’, Sam.”

 

Bryant tensed for a brief moment, his hand moving surreptitiously to his holster. Upon recognizing the voice, however, he let his hand drop to his side.

 

“Good evening, Sheriff Coffee,” Bryant answered guardedly. “And what can I do for you?”

 

“I was just wonderin’ if you and I could have a little talk,” Roy replied.

 

Bryant merely nodded as he discarded the cigar and ground it under his heel, ushering Roy into a room nearly as dark as the alley that led to it. As Roy stood inside the door, waiting for Bryant to light the lamp, he registered the mix of scents emanating from the room: cigar smoke tempered by the rich aroma of well-tanned leather, alcohol, and a lingering trace of a pungent odor that was irritatingly familiar.

 

It didn’t escape him that Bryant was intentionally taking an unwarranted amount of time to light the lamp. Roy recognized the gesture for what it was, a subtle attempt at intimidation, and it amused him. Finally, as the room was bathed in a warm glow, Roy’s trained eye immediately took in its layout. At the far end, opposite the door, was a large, fully appointed desk. His eyebrows rose as he noted the bookshelf that lined the back wall. It hadn’t occurred to him that Bryant would be a man of letters and he found himself curious as to whether the man actually read the books on the shelves or if they were merely put there to impress others.

 

Seeing a large, leather-bound volume on the desk, the memory of a conversation he had had with Adam Cartwright when the young man had acted as his deputy flashed in his mind. Roy had admitted to not taking much stock in what Adam called “classic literature,” favoring the Territorial Enterprise or an occasional dime novel. Adam had gently chastised him, claiming that one could tell a lot about a man by the books he read. At the time Roy had simply smiled indulgently at him, but now, as he committed the title of Bryant’s book, Moby Dick, to memory, he realized ruefully that, perhaps, that had been yet another time he should have given Adam’s opinion more credence.

 

Taking a seat behind the desk, Bryant asked, “Well, sheriff, what is it? I’m a busy man.”

 

“I’ve been meanin’ to ask you a couple of questions about the Cartwright case,” Roy said levelly.

 

Roy noted that Bryant hadn’t bothered to offer him a seat and got the sudden impression that he had just entered into a chess match with this man, one in which the stakes were higher than any he had ever played for before and something told him that Bryant would be a difficult opponent to beat. Roy would have to play his best game if he had any hope of entangling Bryant in what he suspected were a web of lies.

 

Bryant merely scoffed. “I’ve already answered all of your questions on that issue, Sheriff. And, as you well know, I have an ironclad alibi for the time that Ben Cartwright was shot.”

 

“Oh, I know all about your alibi, Bryant, and just how ironclad it is.” Roy paused, carefully scrutinizing Bryant’s face for any reaction. “What I want to know is where you were about nine o’ clock the followin’ mornin’.”

 

“Nine o’ clock the next morning?” Bryant repeated, momentarily confused. As realization set in, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Wasn’t that just about the time that Adam Cartwright shot and killed Oren Tate?” he countered.

 

“Well, now, that’s one way of lookin’ at it,” Roy answered noncommittally.

 

“And you’ve got another way, Sheriff, is that it?” Bryant asked. “If so, then I’d like to hear it.”

 

“Just questionin’ your whereabouts, is all.”

 

“Sheriff, if you’re accusing me…” Bryant began defensively.

 

Roy put up his hands in a gesture of appeasement. “Now, I ain’t accusin’ nobody of nothin’, mind you, just askin’ a simple question.”

 

Bryant reached across his desk and opened an intricately tooled leather box. Withdrawing a fresh cigar, he bit off the tip and spit it on the floor, the discarded portion landing next to Roy’s boot. Lighting the cigar, he took a heavy draw and exhaled the smoke in the sheriff’s direction. Refusing to be baited, Roy resisted the impulse to turn away as the thick smoke swirled around his face. If Bryant’s attempts at intimidation had progressed from subtle to overt, perhaps Roy had succeeded in riling the man more than he had hoped.

 

“One thing you seem to be forgetting here, Sheriff, is that Tate was my man.” He glared at Roy before continuing. “I’m loyal to my men.”

 

It didn’t escape Roy that Bryant had succeeded in leaving his original question unanswered. The man was a master player; Roy had to give him that.

 

“The way you was loyal to Farmer Perkins?” he asked.

 

Bryant’s eyes hardened. “I did everything I could to help Perkins,” he replied.

 

“Everything you could,” Roy interrupted, “That would be kidnappin’ Ben Cartwright and holdin’ him hostage in exchange for Perkins’ life?”

 

The sly smile returned to Bryant’s face. “You have your way of showing loyalty, Sheriff. I have mine.”

 

As Roy shook his head in disgust, Bryant laughed derisively and continued. “The fact is, he wrote his own epitaph the day he took it upon himself to shoot that stupid storekeeper.” He took another long draw on the cigar. “That idiot Perkins caused more trouble than he was worth,” he added contemptuously.

 

Bryant paused and then looked the sheriff directly in the eye. “I don’t suffer fools lightly.”

 

The look Bryant gave Roy caused him to inwardly shudder at the coldness of the man before him. Roy forced himself to hold his tongue, however, knowing that losing his temper at this point would be counterproductive.

 

“Sheriff, why are you wasting your time here?” Bryant demanded. “Everyone in town knows that Judge Randall arrived on the afternoon stage.”

 

Pretending not to be surprised and dismayed at the network of informants that Bryant must have in place in his town, Roy asked curiously, “Just what do you know about Judge Randall?”

 

“Judge Josiah T. Randall? Believe me, Sheriff, I’m well acquainted with the reputation of Judge Randall. Stickler for the law, that one is.” Bryant laughed in amusement. “In fact, quite a few of my previous associates had occasion to become personally acquainted with the good judge.”

 

Roy couldn’t resist a derisive snort at Bryant’s use of the word “associate” as a euphemism for “inmate.”

 

“When you was in the Territorial Prison, you mean?” Roy prodded.

 

“In prison, where the Cartwrights put me,” Bryant replied hotly.

 

Roy interrupted, allowing his own contempt to rise to the surface. “Where you put yourself, Bryant!”

 

Regaining his composure, Bryant merely shrugged and smiled. “Whatever you say, Sheriff, whatever you say. All I know is, you don’t have a thing you can link to me that will stand up in a court of law, and without solid evidence, Randall won’t give you the time of day.”

 

“You’re tellin’ me, then, that you’ve got another alibi for the morning Tate was shot?” Roy demanded.

 

Bryant looked at him with mock innocence and replied, “But, of course, Sheriff. Did you really suspect I wouldn’t?”

 

To Roy’s disgust, Bryant appeared positively gleeful at the prospect of Adam facing Judge Randall, as if his wildest dreams were coming true. Suddenly, Roy had the sinking feeling that, if Bryant didn’t have an alibi for the morning Tate was shot, he surely would purchase one in time for the trial.

 

Roy scowled as Bryant continued, speaking to himself almost as if he had forgotten that the sheriff was in the room. “Poor Cartwright,” he sneered, insincerity permeating his tone. “Doesn’t have a prayer.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXVIII

 

Forgive many things in others; nothing in yourself.

~ Ausonius

 

Joe stood and stretched, one hand attempting to massage away the stiffness that had settled deep in his neck and shoulders. He reached for the pitcher of water on his father’s bedside table and poured himself a drink, savoring the soothing coolness as it ran down his throat. Talk to him, Paul had said, and so Joe did. He had talked to his father for what felt like an eternity, until his voice felt scratched and rough and his throat was raw. He had talked about anything he could think of: the Ponderosa, Lake Tahoe in autumn, his brothers, stories he had heard of his father’s adventures on the sea…anything.

 

But none of it made any difference. His father lay on the bed, an insentient, distant stare replacing his once lively eyes, not comprehending, not trying to comprehend. Finally, however, he had drifted off to sleep and Joe allowed himself a sigh of relief. At least while his Pa was asleep, Joe could evade the reality that faced him each time he looked at the man lying on the bed. He could tell himself that, when his father awoke, everything would be back to normal again.

 

Joe quietly walked over to the window, pulling back the shade to allow some of the mid-afternoon sun to penetrate the room, and let his thoughts turn to the events of the past day.

 

He had been grateful when Hoss had volunteered for the unenviable job of telling Adam about their father. It was past time, they were agreed on that, but neither of them was anxious to face their brother’s fury when he discovered that they had been keeping their Pa’s condition from him. They had told themselves that it was for his own good, but Joe highly doubted that Adam would appreciate their altruistic motives.

 

He had been doubly grateful after Hoss had returned to Doc’s and recounted what had happened. It just goes to show you what can happen when you set out to deceive someone, Joe thought, it always seems to blow up in your face.

 

After giving Adam a night to sleep on it and hopefully simmer down, Joe had decided that it was his turn to face his brother so, bright and early, he had made his way over to the jail.

 

**********

 

Cal gave Joe a look of sympathy and encouragement. ”Go on, Joe. Adam’ll just be finishin’ up his breakfast.”

 

“Less to throw at me,” Joe thought, as he swallowed nervously. Managing a weak smile in return, he nodded for Cal to unlock the door.

 

“Adam, ya got a visitor.”

 

Adam stood near the window, gazing absently through the iron bars. At Cal’s announcement, he turned his head and, seeing his youngest brother in the doorway, acknowledged him with a slight nod.

 

“Joe.”

 

Joe was taken aback at Adam’s demeanor. On Hoss’ warning, he had steeled himself to face his brother’s wrath. However, everything about Adam, from the expression in his eyes to his posture and bearing, conveyed a hopelessness that tore at Joe’s heart to witness.

 

As Cal opened the cell door, Adam heaved a sigh and turned to sit down on the cot, while Joe moved to sit at his side. For a moment neither brother spoke as they waited for Cal to leave the room. When the door closed behind the deputy, Joe gathered his courage and began.

 

“Adam,” he paused, cleared his throat, and began again. “Adam, I’m sorry that we didn’t tell you earlier about Pa.”

 

When Adam didn’t reply, Joe continued nervously. “I know you had a right to know, it’s just that Hoss and I thought, well, with the way you were feelin’ and all…” he faltered, looking down at his feet, the floor, anywhere except his brother’s eyes.

 

“Joe, let’s just drop it, okay?”

 

Startled by his brother’s response and confused at being let off the hook so easily, Joe tried again. “Aw, Adam…we were only doing what we thought…”

 

“Joe…relax,” Adam said calmly, “I’m not mad.” He allowed a small grin to reach his lips. “Well, not anymore.”

 

Joe blinked in surprise. “You’re not? But Hoss said that yesterday…”

 

“That was yesterday. I’ve had a little time to think since then.“ Adam rubbed his eyes tiredly. “It didn’t seem to make much sense to stay mad.”

 

He looked up at Joe, a hint of ruefulness in his tone. “We all make choices, Joe. And, right or wrong, we have to live with the consequences.”

 

Joe eyed him suspiciously. Adam’s voice sounded sad and far away, and Joe suspected that he and his brother were now talking about two very different things.

 

Adam took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, as if in an attempt to shake off the melancholy mood that had descended upon him.

 

“Tell me about Pa, Joe.”

 

Joe shook his head. “He’s the same, Adam – no change.”

 

Although Adam quickly attempted to conceal it, Joe saw the flash of doubt in his brother’s eyes. Adam may have forgiven him his deceit, but it was obvious that some of the bedrock trust that Adam once had in him had been eroded. Perhaps this was one of the consequences of which his brother was speaking.

 

With as much sincerity as he could muster, Joe said, “Honest, Adam, he’s the same. His eyes are open, but he doesn’t answer anything we say, doesn’t even act like he hears us, or if he does, he doesn’t understand…”

 

Joe’s voice caught in his throat and felt his brother’s hand gripping his shoulder in support. For a few moments, neither brother spoke, each lost in his own thoughts, sharing the same fear.

 

“Joe,” Adam hesitated, looking down at his boots and Joe sensed that, whatever Adam was preparing to say, he was having a difficult time finding the words. Joe was equally certain that, whatever it was, he was sure that he was not going to want to hear it.

 

Adam began again. “Joe, you know Pa as well as I do. When this is all over, he’s going to blame himself for what happened.”

 

Joe, anticipating Adam’s next words, pulled away from his brother’s grip, and began pacing the cell as if, in doing so, he could prevent Adam’s words from reaching him. If he didn’t hear them, then they couldn’t come true.

 

Adam continued, undeterred. “You and Hoss are going to have your work cut out for you to keep him from losing himself to grief and guilt. I’m counting on you to….”

 

Joe stopped in mid-stride and turned angrily on his brother. “Stop it, Adam! Just stop it!”

 

“Joe…”

 

Joe shook his head adamantly. “No! I don’t want to hear it, Adam. When this is all over, the four of us will go back to living our normal lives…all of us!” Joe turned away, breathing hard. Damn Sam Bryant! Joe thought vehemently. Damn him to Hell for this!

 

Adam lowered his head and Joe felt a wave of guilt wash over him. Was he being selfish, not letting Adam say the things he felt he needed to say? Joe shook his head…no, to hear his brother speak in such a fatalistic tone, as if he were preparing his family for what he now saw as inevitable was something that Joe just couldn’t bear. Adam looked up at him with a sad but understanding smile.

 

“Sure, Joe. Whatever you say.”

 

“Adam,” Joe began with anger and determination. “When this is all over, I promise you, Sam Bryant will either be in jail or dead.”

 

Adam looked up in alarm. “Joe, you made me a promise before, one I expect you to keep. You agreed to let Roy handle this and I’m holding you to that promise.” Their eyes met, Joe’s angry and defiant, Adam worried but determined. “Now and…after.”

 

**********

 

Joe turned his back to the window and gazed at his father, who appeared to be sleeping peacefully, his breathing deep and steady. Returning to the bedside, he lowered himself once more into the chair and gently clasped his father’s hand in his own. Although he knew that his words would go unanswered, he found that he couldn’t hold them back.

 

Alone, Joe lowered his forehead to rest on his father’s hand, his shoulders shaking. “I don’t think I can do this, Pa. I’m not strong enough.” Tightening his grip, he added under his breath, “How can anyone watch their own brother hang?”

 

Closing his eyes, Joe struggled to regain his composure when, unexpectedly, he felt the fingers of his father’s hand, the ones he had been clinging to so fiercely, respond with a weak, but definite squeeze of their own. His head snapping up in surprise and disbelief, Joe searched his father’s face. The dark eyes that, only an hour earlier, appeared vacant and hollow were now open and Joe realized with a start that his father was looking at him. For the first time since emerging from a coma, Joe felt a glimmer of hope re-ignite at the awareness he saw in his father’s eyes.

 

“Pa!” Joe, his voice rising in pitch, exclaimed. “Pa, can you hear me? Can you understand what I’m saying?”

 

Joe’s elation quickly turned to concern, however, as he watched Ben’s brows furrow, whether in pain or confusion he couldn’t tell. Suddenly, Joe’s eye’s widened in fear as, breathing rapidly, his father’s head began to thrash from side to side in obvious distress. Frantically, Joe rushed to the door and yelled down the hall.

 

“Paul, Paul come quick!”

 

Within seconds, the doctor was at his father’s bedside and began to assess the situation, one hand on Ben’s wrist as he checked his pulse, the other on his shoulder as he gently restrained him.

 

“Ben, Ben…you’ve got to calm down!”

 

Sparing a quick glance back to Joe, Paul demanded under his breath, “Joe, what happened here? What did you say to him?”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXIX

 

I will indulge my sorrows, and give way to all the pangs and fury of despair.

~ Joseph Addison

 

Hoss skillfully dodged ruts and puddles as he crossed the virtually deserted street on his way to the jail. A heavy rain the night before had given way to one of the bluest skies that he had ever seen, the kind of day when it was a joy just to be outside, working with his brothers in the fresh air and sunshine. Hoss felt a sharp pang of homesickness; he missed the ranch, he missed his Pa, he missed his life. It was as if the sun itself was mocking him. If there were any justice in the world, he thought miserably, the weather would match the dark cloud that had been hanging over their heads all this week.

 

Justice, Hoss thought bitterly, would he ever again believe in justice?

 

Upon arriving at the jail, he wasn’t surprised to see that the sheriff was already waiting for him, chomping at the bit to present Adam with his new theory. After sharing the idea with Hoss yesterday, Roy had been insistent that they immediately question his brother. Hoss had been equally insistent that it wait until morning. It was late, he had reasoned, and Adam had been understandably very angry and upset with them. He knew, from experience, that sometimes all it took was a good night’s sleep for Adam to regain his perspective and, reluctantly, Roy had allowed himself to be persuaded. Now, however, they both felt the press of time. Unless Roy’s idea produced some results, they had all but run out of options.

 

Adam didn’t acknowledge them as they entered the cell. Standing near the window, he looked out at the blue sky and Hoss didn’t have to guess to know what his brother was thinking.

 

“Adam…Adam?”

 

Hoss had to speak twice before Adam turned to face him and, when he did, Hoss felt a wave of despair wash over him. His usually meticulously groomed brother hadn’t shaved for at least two days and the rumpled shirt Adam wore spoke volumes about his state of mind. On the chair next to the cot, the fresh shirt that Joe had brought him from the mercantile the day before lay neatly folded, untouched.

 

“Me and Roy wanna talk to you for a minute, Adam.”

 

Nodding wordlessly, Adam turned from the window and sat on the edge of the cot, with Roy and Hoss exchanging a worried glance before joining him. Hoss eyed Adam carefully as the sheriff laid out his theory of a possible second gunman, watching for any glimmer of recognition, but his brother seemed distracted, his attention returning frequently to the open window.

 

When Roy had finished, no one spoke for several moments. Finally, impatient and a bit disgruntled at the lack of interest Adam had shown, Roy broke the uncomfortable silence.

 

“Well..?” the sheriff demanded.

 

For a long moment, Adam said nothing. Then, looking back and forth between his brother and Roy, he replied. “Well, what?”

 

The frustration on Roy’s face was unmistakable. “Well, ain’t ya got nothin’ to say?”

 

Adam hesitated and then shrugged. “It’s a plausible idea, but…” His voice trailed off.

 

Roy completed his sentence for him. “But ya ain’t got no memories of nobody else in the stable.”

 

Adam looked him in the eye, then shook his head apologetically.

 

Exasperated, Roy threw up his hands. “Hoss, I’ll meet ya out front.”

 

Hoss watched in sympathy as Roy left the cell. Silently, Adam got up and returned to the window. Without turning, he said softly, “I’m sorry, Hoss.”

 

Hoss had to strain to hear the words, but there was no mistaking the sincerity behind them. “Aw, what ya got to be sorry for, Adam?”

 

Adam turned to look at him. “I’m letting everyone down.”

 

“Adam, now you just get that thought outa your head.” It almost killed Hoss to think that, after what his brother had gone through, he should feel that he was the one letting them down. “Just means that me and Roy got our work cut out for us, is all.”

 

Hoss came up beside Adam, put his hand on his shoulder and said reassuringly, “Don’t you fret about it, Adam. Everythin’ gonna turn out. You just wait and see.”

 

Adam said nothing, but simply returned his gaze to the window.

 

Heaving a sigh, Hoss sighed and squeezed his brother’s shoulder in silent support before he, too, turned to go. Reaching the cell door, though, he couldn’t resist looking back once more. Adam had told him once, “Don’t worry, they never kill off the hero.” Hoss sure hoped that the twelve men on the jury read the same books Adam did because, even disheveled and dispirited, no one looked more heroic to him at that moment than his big brother.

 

**********

 

In the soft light of dusk, Hoss paused on the sidewalk in front of the International House and breathed in deeply and appreciatively. The heady aroma of roast beef and potatoes had stopped him in his tracks, reminding him that it had been more hours than he could count since he had had anything close to what Hop Sing would have considered to be a decent meal.

 

He watched wistfully as patrons came and went, smiling and laughing, and was sorely tempted to throw his responsibilities aside and join them. A hot meal, a cup of coffee, an hour of normalcy in a day that had been memorable only for its frustration and disappointment; the allure was almost overwhelming.

 

At the image of Joe, however, sitting alone at their father’s bedside, a pang of guilt overrode the rumbling of his stomach. Hoss knew that, no matter how difficult his own day had been, Joe’s surely hadn’t been a picnic, either. His brother would, no doubt, be anxiously awaiting him, eager for any news. So, after indulging himself in one more deep breath, Hoss resolutely turned away and trudged once more down the street to the house on the edge of town that had become the center of all of their lives.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXX

 

If it were not for hopes, the heart would break.

~ Thomas Fuller

 

Upon reaching the doctor’s house, Hoss let himself in, having long ago dispensed with the convention of knocking, and called softly for his brother. Hearing no response, he wearily removed his hat and gun belt, but paused before heading down the hall to the back room in which his father lay. Somehow, these last few feet seemed like the longest he would walk all day, dreading what he would find when he reached the end.

 

He opened the door a crack, being careful not to disturb his father or Joe should they be sleeping, and peeked in. Was it his imagination or was his father breathing a little more easily, his face a shade less pale? The low light emanating from the lamp on his Pa’s bedside table made it difficult to be sure. Hoss found himself reluctant to allow even the smallest glimmer of hope to take hold; the past several days had been so wrought with disappointment that he didn’t dare. When had it happened, he wondered. Usually the first one in the family to see the bright side of a situation, when had he become so wary of hope?

 

With his father resting comfortably and with no sign of Joe, Hoss left the room, determined that nothing short of a stampede would stand between him and the cup of hot coffee he craved. Entering the kitchen, however, he stopped short, unable to believe his eyes. On either side of the table stood his younger brother and the doctor, virtual mirror images of one another, arms crossed with matching glares on their faces as if poised for some weaponless shootout.

 

Instinctively stepping out of the line of fire, Hoss opened with the obvious question. “Somebody wanna tell me what’s goin’ on here?”

 

“You want to tell him, Joe, or should I?” Paul encouraged.

 

His anger fueled by the doctor’s sarcastic tone, Joe’s glare increased in intensity, but he offered his brother no explanation.

 

Hoss looked back and forth between the two, his patience waning with every passing second. “Well, somebody better tell me what’s goin’ on, and quick, ‘cause I ain’t in no mood for foolin’ around.”

 

Hoss knew that his tone hadn’t intimidated the doctor in the least, but it served its purpose as far as his younger brother was concerned. Joe looked up and, biting his lower lip, said haltingly, “I sorta…sorta…”

 

It was obvious that Joe was having a difficult time gathering the courage to say what he needed to say so, forcing himself to display a patience that he didn’t feel, Hoss softened his tone and urged his brother to continue.

 

“Sorta what, Joe?”

 

Joe swallowed hard. “I sorta told Pa about Adam,” he said in a soft voice, then immediately turned away, unable to bear the look of stunned disbelief on his brother’s face.

 

“DADBURNIT, Little Joe!” Hoss exploded. Of all the things he had feared that his brother could have told him, he would have never expected this. “If you don’t beat all!”

 

Despite his own annoyance, Paul quickly stepped up to Joe’s defense. “Now, let’s just simmer down, here.” Moving to put himself between the brothers, he turned to face Hoss. “In the first place, I’m not totally convinced that Ben truly understood everything that Joe said. It could have been a reaction to Joe’s tone of voice or his obvious upset.”

 

Through his anger, the doctor’s words began to sink in and Hoss looked at him with a mixture of hope and disbelief. “Are you tellin’ me, Paul, that Pa’s come back to hisself?”

 

Paul quickly put up his hand to forestall the younger man. “Now, before you go getting too excited, he’s not himself yet by any stretch of the imagination. He became very agitated and Joe and I had quite a time settling him down. I didn’t want to give him a sedative…not so soon after finally waking up.” Unable to disguise his own sense of relief, Paul allowed himself a small grin. “But yes…I would say that now it’s simply a matter of time.”

 

Hoss grinned and nodded, content with even such a cautious diagnosis; as long as it was good news he was more than happy to accept it. Suddenly something struck him and he looked at the doctor in confusion.

 

“Doc, if you believe Pa’s gettin’ better, and you don’t think he really understood what Joe was sayin’, then why are you and Joe in here mad as a couple of bandy hens?”

 

Joe grimaced and looked away, leaving Paul to answer the question. Hoss could tell by the way the doctor hesitated that he wouldn’t be pleased with his answer.

 

“Your brother, Hoss, has decided that Ben should be told everything. About Adam, the shooting, the trial…everything.”

 

Hoss’ jaw dropped and he slowly turned to stare at his little brother in astonishment. “Little Joe, you sure you ain’t a bit tetched?” he exclaimed, shaking his head. “Seems to me that we dodged ourselves a bullet here, and now you wanna go in there and get Pa upset all over again? You better have some powerful reasonin’ behind ya to even suggest somethin’ like that, Little Brother.”

 

“Hoss,” Joe began earnestly, “Pa suspects something is goin’ on already. What if he finds out accidentally, like Adam did? You were there, you saw how he took it. At least this way we could be there for him, we could explain.”

 

Hoss could see the sincerity written clear as day on Joe’s face, along with a good measure of fear. As much as he sympathized with his brother, unfortunately this time he couldn’t let Joe have his way, there was just too much at stake.

 

“Joe, ya ain’t thinkin’ straight here. Pa ain’t in no shape to deal with this, not by a long shot. ‘Sides, between us, Paul and Roy…” He stopped in mid-sentence, seeing the grimace on Joe’s face and knowing precisely what put it there.

 

“Now, you get that look off your face, Joe,” Hoss sternly chastised. “Whether or not you wanna believe it, Roy’s on our side in this thing. He’s Pa’s best friend and he’s doin’ everythin’ he can.”

 

Joe looked down, having the grace to appear ashamed of himself, and Hoss’ heart went out to his brother once again. It wasn’t Roy who Joe was angry with, he understood that. As was typical with his little brother, when Joe was upset he tended to lash out. Hoss glanced at the doctor, who offered him a sympathetic smile, and went over to his little brother, resting his hand on Joe’s shoulder. He took it as a positive sign when Joe didn’t immediately pull away.

 

“Joe, Adam and me done talked this over. He don’t want Pa to know nothin’. At least not until after…” Hoss’ voice caught in his throat. Taking a deep breath, he continued. “Don’t you think that this ought be Adam’s decision? Don’t we both owe him that?”

 

The two brothers locked eyes for a long moment before Joe forced a smile and nodded his agreement.

 

Hoss smiled as well and, draping his arm over his brother’s shoulders, said, “Atta boy, Joe. Now, let’s go in and see if we cain’t undo what you done!”

 

Paul heaved a sigh of relief, but then cautioned, “A minute or two only, boys. Just long enough to reassure him. We can’t afford to let him get upset like that again.”

 

Grimacing, Hoss shook his head. “I’m afraid I cain’t oblige you there, Doc. Pa may know somethin’ that can help Adam and, frankly…” He hesitated, not wanting to burden Little Joe, but knowing that his brother was man enough now to deal with the truth. “Frankly, we ain’t got nowhere else to look. I gotta ask Pa some questions. There just ain’t no more time to wait.”

 

**********

 

Nearing the bed, Hoss steeled himself to do something that he had never willingly done in his adult life…lie to his father. As he looked down at the peacefully sleeping man, he realized that Hiram was right. Sometimes there was no clear cut “right and “wrong.” Sometimes you just had to do what you had to do and worry about the right and wrong of it later. Offering Joe a reassuring smile, he reached down and gently squeezed his father’s shoulder.

 

“Pa…Pa, wake up.”

 

For a moment there was no response. Hoss gave the shoulder a gentle shake and tried again. “Pa, it’s time to wake up now, come on,” he encouraged.

 

As his father’s eyelids fluttered and then slowly opened, Hoss breathed a well-satisfied sigh of relief. “Welcome back, Pa,” he said, his smile reaching from ear to ear.

 

His father looked up at him with sleep-filled eyes, but Hoss could immediately see the difference in them. Where before they were disturbingly vacant, now they showed a definite awareness as they searched Hoss’s face, then moved past him to land on Joe. Suddenly, Hoss felt his father’s body tense under his hand and he could sense that panic wouldn’t be far behind. Tightening his grip he said reassuringly, “Pa, now don’t you go gettin’ upset. You had a little accident, but you’re gonna be just fine. You’re at Paul’s and me and Joe’s right here.”

 

Hoss watched his father’s brows furrow in confusion as his mouth formed a wordless question. He nodded in understanding. “No, Pa. Adam ain’t here right now.” Intentionally keeping his tone light, he added, “Dadburn older brother lit out on a trip to Sacramento right before the accident. We wired him, though, and he’ll be here soon as he can.”

 

Hoss was exceedingly uncomfortable under his father’s scrutinizing gaze, but forced himself to wait it out, knowing that it was necessary. Finally, he felt the tension drain away from his father’s hand and he allowed himself the smallest sigh of relief.

 

“Pa….Pa, you cain’t go back to sleep on me just yet.” Hoss hated doing this, hated being forced to weigh his father’s needs against those of his brother. “I just need to ask you a question or two.” Hoss could see that it was a struggle for his father to keep his eyes open, but it couldn’t be avoided. From behind him he heard the doctor clearing his throat, a subtle reminder that he was against this questioning and that Hoss should hurry it along.

 

“Pa, I need to know if you remember anything about what happened.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXI

 

Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.

~ Matthew 6:24

 

Hoss lingered over his cup of coffee and allowed his eyes to wander across the sparsely populated dining room. Judging by their dress and manner, the clientele consisted mostly of people like him, ranchers or outlying farmers who, for one reason or another, had come into town and ended up spending the night. Unlike the throngs of city dwellers who would soon fill the room, these folks tended to mind their own business and that suited Hoss just fine. The few who knew him offered a sympathetic nod or two, but that was the extent of their intrusion.

 

Debating whether or not he had time for a second cup of coffee, Hoss glanced at the large clock on the wall. It was still early, he rationalized, and his brother would, no doubt, still be sound asleep. Hoss had left at the crack of dawn, telling Joe that he just needed a little time alone to think before going to see Adam. But, as the waiter refilled his cup and Hoss inhaled appreciatively, he admitted to himself that an equal motivation had been to avoid another morning of politely forcing down the doctor’s hair-raising brew. As he took a cautious sip of the hot liquid, savoring it as it went down, he found himself wishing ruefully that the disappointments of yesterday afternoon had been as easy to swallow.

 

In reality, he knew he should have anticipated it; his father’s shooting had taken place hours before the incident in the stable. It would have been the wildest stroke of luck if his father had had any knowledge of the events leading up to it and lately none of the Cartwrights could boast of having that kind of luck. Not that his father had actually been able to say much of anything when they questioned him. A simple nod or shake of the head was the most they had received but Hoss reminded himself that it was only just a day before when they had been uncertain if their father would even survive his injuries. He knew he should be grateful, and he was, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that locked inside his father was some information that would help Adam…if they could only get to it in time.

 

**********

 

Hoss had arrived just as the sheriff had been unlocking the door. “Roy.”

 

“Mornin’, Hoss. Care for a cup a’ coffee?”

 

Hoss smiled but politely declined. If possible, Roy’s coffee was even more unpalatable than the doctor’s. Glancing toward the cell door, he hesitantly asked, “How is he this mornin’?”

 

Roy shook his head. “He ain’t but said two words to me.”

 

“He gettin’ any sleep?”

 

Roy rubbed his hand across his mustache as he considered how to answer Hoss’ question. “Well, now…he goes to sleep right enough. Just don’t seem to stay that way for long.”

 

Although the sheriff was as precisely dressed as always, collar buttoned to the top, vest neatly pressed, Hoss could see the telltale circles around his eyes and suspected that what Roy had said was probably true of both of them.

 

“You plannin’ on doin’ more investigatin’ today, Roy?”

 

“I’m gonna try, Hoss, you know that, but I don’t…”

 

As his words fell away Hoss nodded. There was no mistaking Roy’s meaning, that despite their best efforts, they had simply run out of options.

 

Entering the cell, Hoss noted, without surprise, that Adam looked even more haggard than he did the day before. Paul had warned him that his brother was probably still suffering some of the effects of his concussion, but Adam refused to acknowledge it and Paul had cautioned them not to push. He would continue to keep an eye on Adam, but there was really little they could do beyond making sure he rested, ate well, and…impossible as it would seem…try to keep his spirits up.

 

“Mornin’, Brother,” Hoss began with as much cheerfulness as he could muster.

 

Adam responded by offering him a small, halfhearted smile. “Hoss.”

 

“Now, before ya ask it, Pa’s doin’ a bit better today.” Seeing that he now had his brother’s full attention, Hoss nodded. “Yup, Paul’s careful not to promise too much, but Pa’s comin’ back to hisself, Adam. Seems to recognize us. He’s a mite confused still, but Paul thinks it’s only a matter of time now.”

 

Hoss’ reward was the first genuine smile that he had seen from his brother in days, confirming his belief that, despite Adam’s own impending trial and its potential result, his brother’s main concern had always been their father’s well being.

 

“Did he say anything, Hoss?”

 

At the tone of hopefulness in Adam’s voice however, Hoss inwardly cringed. He hated like the blazes to lie to his brother once again, but knowing him as he did, Hoss was certain that Adam felt a large measure of guilt at not being by their father’s side. It would only add fuel to that guilt if he knew that the sole word that their father had uttered in days had been his brother’s name.

 

Hoss shrugged, avoiding looking Adam in the eye. “Nah, nothin’ to speak of, but he seemed to understand some of what we was sayin’ to him.” Adam was quiet for a moment, but the vacant, distracted look in his eyes had eased somewhat, and Hoss fervently hoped that his brother would be satisfied and leave it at that.

 

Suddenly, Adam spoke up. “What day is this, Hoss?”

 

The question confused him, and even startled him a bit but, after looking around at the cold and monotonous walls of the cell, Hoss could understand how, in this place, his brother could easily loose track of time. What day is it? There were so many ways to answer that question, Hoss thought bitterly. It’s the day before your trial…the day before we learn if our lives will be changed forever. Forcing the morbid thought away, he answered simply, “It’s Thursday, Adam. Why?”

 

Adam pondered Hoss’ answer for a moment, then turned to him and said, “Hoss, I need you to do something for me.”

 

It was the first time since the shooting that Adam had asked anything of him, and Hoss was eager to comply with any request. He felt that he had certainly done little enough for his brother in the way of finding answers that would save him from the gallows. “Sure, Adam. Anything…you just name it.”

 

“I need you to go back to the ranch.”

 

Despite his promise, Hoss immediately revolted. His plans for the had day included sticking like a shadow to Adam’s side or looking for more clues for his defense. The thought of spending his brother’s last day before the trial on a lengthy trip back to the ranch seemed like a monumental waste of time.

 

Before he could respond, however, Adam cut him off, obviously reading the look in his eyes correctly, and said, “Tomorrow’s payday, Hoss. The men will be expecting…”

 

Hoss interrupted, “Aw, Adam. The men’ll understand if we’re a bit late. They know what we’re dealing with here.”

 

Adam shook his head firmly. “No. If what you say is true, if Pa truly is coming back, it’s up to us to see that he has something to come back to.” Adam looked away but his voice was like tempered steel. “There are people, Hoss, who would love nothing more than to see this bring down the Ponderosa. I won’t let that happen…not if it’s the last thing I do.”

 

If what you say is true… Although Hoss doubted that Adam had chosen the words intentionally, they nevertheless cut him to the quick. Obviously, despite having told Joe that he wasn’t angry with them, Adam still harbored some resentment toward his brothers over their deception. Well, Lord willing, there would be time to work through it later, but right now Hoss had more pressing issues.

 

He was tempted to try once more to convince Adam to let one of their hands handle it, but he knew what his brother’s answer would be. Both Adam and Pa had always insisted that it be a Cartwright who dealt with the payroll, and inwardly he knew that his brother was right. It would send a clear statement to anyone tempted to take advantage of their situation that the Ponderosa…and the Cartwrights… would survive.

 

Reluctantly, he nodded his agreement.

 

“I’ll be quick as I can, Adam.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXII

 

One need not be a chamber to be haunted;

One need not be a house;

The brain has corridors surpassing material place.

~ Emily Dickinson

 

After a long, lonely ride, which afforded him far too much time to think, Hoss was relieved when he finally pulled up to the ranch house. Home again, Home again, jiggity jog… The lighthearted rhyme that his father had taught him as a child had always come to mind when he reached home. This time, however, it seemed trite and sadly inappropriate.

 

At Hoss’s arrival, several men who had been working around the barn and bunkhouse stopped what they were doing and looked up in anticipation. Feeling slightly ashamed of himself, Hoss realized that Adam had been right. Despite what they were going through as a family, they still had responsibilities toward the ranch and their employees that they couldn’t ignore. Although, technically, it wasn’t yet payday, Hoss knew he’d get no complaints as he called the foreman, Tom, over and instructed him to gather the men to form a line while he retrieved the payroll ledger from the house.

 

Upon entering, Hoss walked purposefully toward his father’s desk then paused, unable to resist the urge to stop and turn around. Everything was the same as the day that he had left, yet seemed strikingly different at the same time and he had the unnerving sensation of being a stranger in his own home.

 

The hearth was barren, stone cold, and despite his earlier wave of homesickness, being home seemed to do nothing to alleviate it; if anything, the feeling had intensified. All of the things that had made this house feel like home were nowhere to be found and Hoss had a sudden, almost overwhelming urge to leave immediately and race back to town.

 

He scolded himself for behaving like a child. If his brother could think practically at a time like this, then he could certainly do no less. It would be foolish to have come all this way and not at least pick up a change of clothing for each of them. Their father’s had been ruined in the shooting and Joe, he knew, would appreciate a fresh shirt or two. Adam…well, Adam was no doubt beyond caring about his appearance if what Hoss had seen this morning was any indication.

 

In the unnatural stillness of the house, the creaking of the steps was like thunder as he headed up to the bedrooms. Strangely enough, he had never noticed it before. After collecting what he needed from Joe’s room and his own, he proceeded to his father’s. Aside from sleeping, his father actually spent very little time in this room. Although richly appointed with a large four-poster bed and several comfortable chairs, he preferred to spend his time working at his desk or sitting before the fire sharing the company of his sons.

 

Hoss’s eyes spied the Bible that was always kept on the bedside table. He picked it up, running his fingers along the tooled leather cover, worn almost smooth by years of being caressed by his father’s hands. Hoss had tooled it himself when he was nine years old and had given it to his father as a birthday present. Adam, fifteen at the time, had made a comment about the sacrilege of putting a steer on the cover of a Bible. Hoss hadn’t understood his comment, but he had understood the look of pride in his father’s eyes as he told him that is was one of the finest gifts he had ever received.

 

Later, as they grew, it had been this Bible that was his father’s constant companion as he kept vigil at the bedside of one or another of them, praying for their recovery from whatever injury or malady had befallen them. It would be this Bible that his father would look to for solace if…. Unable to complete the thought, Hoss firmly tucked the book under his arm and offered his own fervent prayer that it wouldn’t be necessary as he gathered the clothing that his father would be needing for his much anticipated journey home.

 

Adam’s room offered no surprises; Hoss knew that it would look the same whether he had just come down for breakfast or had been gone a month. Adam’s room was his domain, and its contents spoke volumes about his brother. It was always kept “shipshape.” Books were stacked neatly on shelves that Adam had built himself, organized, not by size or color as Hoss would have, but in some incomprehensible system of Adam’s own devising.

 

On one of the shelves sat the music box that had belonged to Adam’s mother. Although he and Joe had been forbidden to touch it as children, they had found that, if they pestered their brother long enough, he would often give in and play it for them. Hoss opened the lid of the fragile box and let the familiar melody escape into the room for just a moment, then carefully closed it again.

 

As he turned to the bureau, he opened the top drawer to reveal several stacks of crisply pressed, white handkerchiefs and socks. He smiled, noting the stark contrast between Adam’s drawers and his own, and shook his head in amazement that his brother’s fastidiousness went so far as to include the folding of his socks. After removing the items that he thought Adam would need, Hoss was startled to find, at the bottom of the drawer, a book almost identical in size and shape to his father’s Bible, even down to the leather cover. He realized that he had been wrong; his brother’s room had contained a surprise. He would never have suspected that Adam kept a Bible in his room, no matter how well concealed.

 

It went without saying that Adam and his father were far more interested in the written word than he and Joe were, but their tastes had always been vastly different. Where his father had favored the “Good Book,” the books that Adam treasured were often ones that challenged authority and questioned traditional beliefs. He recalled one particularly memorable occasion when Adam had come back from town with a new book that he had purchased by a man named Darwin. Hoss remembered with a chuckle that the “discussion” that had followed had nearly raised the roof.

 

As he flipped through the pages, however, he quickly realized his mistake. Instead of the familiar chapter and verse, Adam’s precise script filled the pages and Hoss was reminded again of the similarity between his father and brother. Once, while tending an ailing horse, his father had accidentally uncovered his old journal in a trunk and they had passed the night reminiscing about the trip out west. Hoss swallowed hard as he recalled one of his most treasured memories of time spent with his father.

 

Closing the book carefully, Hoss placed it back where he found it. It gave him some small comfort to know that, should the worst happen, he would still have access to his brother through the private thoughts expressed in his journal. But now, in addition to being an invasion of Adam’s privacy, reading the journal would seem like tempting fate, however foolish and superstitious that thought may have been. His brother was still with them, very much alive, and Hoss wasn’t going to let himself give in to believing that Adam’s fate was already sealed.

 

As he reached the door, Hoss scanned the room one last time. Unlike his father’s Bible, he realized that Adam’s things, although no doubt important to his brother, were just that…things; and that nothing short of his father’s complete recovery and his own acquittal would offer his brother any manner of consolation. Impulsively, Hoss strode back to the wardrobe and, riffling through it, removed one final item. Draping it over his arm he left his brother’s room, closing the door securely behind him.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXIII

 

The leaves of memory seemed to make

A mournful rustling in the dark.

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

After reading the same paragraph for the third time, Joe gave up, put down the newspaper and stood up to stretch. The forced inactivity was wearing on him. He was accustomed to vigorous work and was no stranger to exhaustion, but nothing compared to the gray weight of fatigue that pulled at him from sitting day after day.

 

He eyed the clock on the wall, somewhat surprised at how long it was taking for Hoss to return. Joe had understood Adam’s reasons for wanting someone to go back to the ranch, but he also understood Hoss’s reluctance. Loathe to leave his father’s side, Joe had been relieved that it was Hoss whom Adam had chosen to send, but now, after doing little more than sitting and waiting for yet another day, Joe found that he actually envied his older brother. What wouldn’t he give for a change from these four walls…a little fresh air, a ride through the countryside, and a chance to escape the constant reminders of what was soon to come.

 

It had been a relatively good day as far as his father was concerned. Between the two of them, Joe and Paul had managed to coax him to drink a little broth. Although still very weak, Joe could see the questions in his father’s eyes. He tried as best he could to reassure him that Hoss was taking care of things at the ranch and that Adam would be with him as soon as possible. After his father, seemingly satisfied, had drifted off to sleep, Joe tried to convince himself that, technically, he had told his father the simple truth. Unfortunately, his efforts had met with little success.

 

Joe would have liked to spend some time with Adam, but Paul hadn’t yet returned from seeing his other patients. If there was one thing that Joe had learned from spending a week at Paul’s house, it was that a doctor’s schedule was not his own. So he waited, counted the cracks on the wall and listened as the clock chimed the hour, hounded by the feeling that time was slipping away.

 

Suddenly, with a loud thud, the front door swung open and Hoss walked in, toting a large bundle.

 

“Well, it’s about time you got back,” Joe said, relieved that his brother had finally arrived.

 

Hoss stopped in his tracks, Joe’s words immediately putting him on edge. “Why? Somethin’ go wrong ‘round here?”

 

“No, no…everything’s okay.” Joe answered reassuringly.

 

Hoss put up his hand. “Then don’t you start on me, Little Brother,” he said with a humph as he relieved himself of his burden. “I know I been gone the whole dadburned day.” He untied the bundle and let its contents spill out on Doc Martin’s sofa. “The men wasn’t expectin’ to get paid today and most had to be rounded up. Then old Tom had near a thousand questions he wanted answers to. I like to have never got out of there.”

 

Hoss paused, then looked over at Joe. “’Course, they all wanted to know how Pa and Adam was doin’.”

 

Joe nodded his head in understanding, his envy for his brother evaporating like dew in the desert. Attempting to lighten the mood, he nodded toward the sofa.

 

“So, what’cha got there?”

 

“Aw, I just brought us back a few things that I thought we might be needin’, is all.”

 

But Joe’s attention was no longer on his brother. He was staring at the items that Hoss had dropped on the sofa. Among the shirts and socks rested his father’s Bible and he swallowed hard. Leave it to Hoss to realize that they might be needing that soon.

 

As Hoss separated the clothing, Joe spied the black broadcloth and his breath caught in his throat. It was the new suit that Adam had had made just a few weeks earlier. A small smile tugged at his mouth at the memory of how his brother had taken an inordinate amount of time dressing the first time he wore it. By the time he had come down the stairs, both Hoss and Joe were grumbling that they would be late for the dance and all the best cards would be filled. When they saw their brother, however, they realized glumly that it wouldn’t matter. With Adam looking the way he did, there wasn’t much chance of anyone paying attention to them anyway. They had coped with the combination of disappointment and admiration the way brothers usually did – by teasing him mercilessly all the way to town.

 

Suddenly, a vastly different image intruded upon the first, dispersing the happy memory, and Joe almost gasped in stunned surprise. In his mind’s eye, he saw the great room at the ranch, decked out in splendor with white flowers. The image was so real that he could almost smell the sickeningly sweet aroma as it threatened to suffocate him. The room was crowded with friends and neighbors, murmuring to one another in low tones and casting sideways, sympathetic glances toward him. Slowly they paraded past, one by one, their somber expressions belying the beauty of the room as they paused and bowed their heads to pay their respects. Joe wanted to scream, to tell them that they were mistaken, but he found that he had no voice. Although every instinct in him rebelled, he forced himself to turn, to see what they were seeing; his brother, lying in state, clad in the beautifully tailored black suit once more…for the last time.

 

“I guess it was just foolishness,” Hoss said, apparently noting the object of Joe’s intense gaze. “I was figurin’ that Adam could wear it to the trial, but we don’t even know if Hiram wants him to get all gussied up…”

 

Joe, however, was beyond hearing what his brother was saying as the walls that had threatened to close in upon him all day had finally succeeded.

 

“Joe? You alright, little brother?” Hoss asked, concerned at his brother’s sudden pallor.

 

Joe shook his head and blinked his eyes, trying to clear his mind of the vision, but it was to no avail; the all too possible image of his brother’s wake was not easily dismissed. Abruptly, he turned and bolted for the door, collecting his hat and gun belt as he went.

 

Hoss reached out and grabbed his brother by the arm. “Little Joe, you tell me where you’re goin’.”

 

Joe stopped and turned to glance once more at the seemingly innocent suit that lay on the sofa as a shudder rippled through his body.

 

“Out, Hoss. Just…out.”

 

Joe pulled his arm from his brother’s grip and disappeared through the door.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXIV

 

In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.

~ Sir Francis Bacon

 

Joe wandered aimlessly down the streets of Virginia City, to eventually find himself standing on the sidewalk outside of the Silver Dollar. More from habit than actual desire, he stepped through the swinging doors and entered the saloon. He scanned the room, relieved to find only a small group of patrons drinking and playing cards, none of whom he knew well, which suited him fine. He just wanted…no, needed, a little time someplace that wasn’t a doctor’s house or a jail cell to try and clear his head.

 

Hitching his boot heels on the low brass railing, Joe took a seat on one of the stools at the end of the bar. Not looking for company, he lowered his head and hoped the look on his face would be enough to discourage any of the working girls who would normally flock to his side. Lost in thought, he was slightly startled to see that a glass containing a generous shot of whiskey had appeared on the bar before him.

 

“This one’s on the house, Joe.”

 

Joe looked up and, meeting the bartender’s eyes, nodded his thanks. The sympathy he found there, however, was almost his undoing. It was obvious that Pete didn’t know what to say and, for Joe, that was just as well; he wasn’t in the mood for questions for which he had no answers. A good bartender knew when to keep the customer talking and when to leave them alone so, after a brief moment, Pete turned and went about his business.

 

Joe stared at the amber liquid as he turned the glass around and around in his hand, wondering why he had ended up here. He certainly didn’t feel like drinking his troubles away. A humorless chuckle escaped his lips; and he speculated whether that would even be remotely possible. The sight of Adam’s black suit had been like a punch in the gut, making him face a reality that he had been trying to deny, and his first instinct had been to run away. But now he realized the futility of his actions and chastised himself. He hadn’t chased his demons away. All he had done was waste precious time, time he would never get back sitting at a bar feeling sorry for himself when he should be with his family.

 

A thick, slurred voice from the back of the room intruded on his thoughts, forcing his attention.

 

“Ain’t one man here thinks Cartwright’s gonna get what he deserves, is there?”

 

Joe resisted the urge to turn around. He had promised Adam to stay out of trouble and he had every intention of fulfilling that promise. He tried to place the voice and failed. The man sounded young; young and stupid…and very drunk.

 

“You know, I’ll bet Cartwright’ll buy off that judge. Or maybe his daddy’ll do it for ‘im!”

 

His comment was rewarded by raucous laughter from the others at the table and Joe’s grip tightened on the glass as he struggled for control. Without looking up he could feel Pete’s presence as the bartender joined him in silent support.

 

Apparently annoyed that his comments hadn’t gleaned the results from Joe that he had intended and unwilling to be ignored, the young drunk raised his voice and tried once more.

 

“Guess if the law cain’t take care of it, we’ll just have to finish the job ourselves, right fellas?”

 

Only a few nervous murmurs of agreement could be heard from the back of the room this time. Men who were, only moments before, willing to have a good laugh at a Cartwright’s expense suddenly became nervous at the sinister direction the young man’s tirade had taken.

 

Joe, sensing the man’s frustration at losing his base of support, smiled to himself in satisfaction. On any other day, he would have been more than happy to be given the opportunity to teach this man a lesson. Today, however, Joe was more proud of himself for his show of restraint, refusing to allow the drunk to goad him into a fight.

 

“You want me to throw him out, Little Joe?” Pete asked in a low voice. From the look on his face, the bartender would have enjoyed nothing better than to do as he suggested, but Joe shook his head.

 

“No, Pete.” Joe couldn’t resist raising his voice just enough so that the young man had no choice but to hear his next words. “His kind ain’t worth your trouble.”

 

Picking up the whiskey, he downed it in one gulp. “Thanks for the drink, Pete.”

 

Nodding, the bartender reached to take the glass.

 

“Little Joe, look out!”

 

**********

 

Joe became aware of the young man’s fist the moment it impacted with his face and retaliated in kind. His assailant was young and strong, but he had chosen the wrong target that day as Joe struck out with the full force of the frustration he had kept bottled up all week. Joe hadn’t looked for this fight, hadn’t started it, but surely his brother wouldn’t begrudge him the satisfaction of ending it…he hoped.

 

In the melee that followed, neither man was left unscathed as the other patrons formed a circle, voicing their support to whoever seemed to have the upper hand. Before he knew it, Joe felt someone grab his jacket and pull him back, restraining him, as someone else did the same for his opponent. Breathing heavily, blood streaming from his lip and nose, Joe noticed with no small amount of satisfaction that the physical damage was not all one-sided.

 

Pete held the young man’s arms behind his back as he struggled to free himself and Joe got his first good look at him. Although not one of Bryant’s core group of henchmen, he was a “hanger on” and Joe had seen him on occasion with Oren Tate. Despite the pain of his injuries, the knowledge gave Joe a certain measure of satisfaction.

 

“Little Joe Cartwright! What have ya got to say for yourself?”

 

Joe cringed, easily recognizing the voice of the person restraining him without having to turn around.

 

“Now, Sheriff, Joe didn’t have nothin’ to do with it. This feller here was the one who goaded him on and threw the first punch.”

 

Joe tried to smile his gratitude at Pete, but found that it only increased the pain in his upper lip.

 

“That true, Little Joe?” Roy asked, but even as he voiced the question, Joe felt the grip on his jacket loosening, becoming more one of support than restraint.

 

Joe didn’t answer as he and his opponent exchanged matching glares. Roy, pulling him aside, spoke to him under his breath. “Joe, is what Pete’s sayin’ true? Did this here fella start the fight?”

 

Finally breaking eye contact, Joe looked at the sheriff and gave him a small nod. Letting out a deep, angry sigh, Roy said, “Well, then, it’s up to you if you want to press charges. I could fine him for disturbin’ the peace or lock him up for twenty-four hours for drunk and disorderly conduct…it’s your call, Little Joe.”

 

Joe could see how eager Roy was to carry through with at least one of his threats and found his anger toward the sheriff begin to dissipate.

 

“No, Roy,” he replied softly. “The last thing Adam needs tonight is to have this creep locked up in the cell next to him.” And the last thing Joe needed, he thought to himself, was for Adam to learn that he had gotten into a fight with one of Bryant’s men, no matter how inadvertently.

 

Joe raised his voice and responded for everyone to hear, his tone intentionally patronizing. “No, Sheriff…I think by the looks of him he got what’s comin’ to him.”

 

The young man, who had been struggling against Pete’s iron grip, became still, his eyes shooting bullets of pure loathing, allowing Joe no illusions that he had just made an enemy.

 

Roy shook his head dubiously. “I understand your reasonin’, Little Joe, but I sure do hope you ain’t makin’ a mistake.” Shrugging, he reluctantly nodded to the bartender. “Let ‘im go, Pete.”

 

**********

 

“You didn’t have to go out of your way, you know. I could have made it on my own.” Despite his protestations, Joe had been leaning heavily on the sheriff for the last several blocks.

 

“Weren’t out of my way a’tall,” Roy huffed, struggling under the boy’s weight. “Just so happens that I was on my way over to see your Pa when I heard the ruckus in the saloon.”

 

Joe gave him a suspicious, sideways glance. When they reached the doctor’s front porch, Joe grimaced as he tried to take most of his own weight and, grinning sheepishly at the sheriff, said, “Thanks, Roy.”

 

Roy’s returned Joe’s grin and added a quick wink. Reaching for the doorknob, both were surprised when the door flew open, revealing a very distraught Hoss Cartwright.

 

“Little Joe! What the devil happened to you?”

 

“Now, before you go getting all worked up,” Roy admonished, red faced and breathing heavily, “why don’t you give me a hand here?”

 

Hoss quickly slid under Joe’s other arm, relieving the older man of his burden and helped his brother over to the doctor’s sofa. Trusting the sheriff to explain, Joe gratefully sat back and closed his eyes,.

 

Hoss turned back to the sheriff. “Roy, what happened here?” he asked worriedly, “or don’t I want to know?”

 

Roy sat down in a chair at the end of the living room and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe his brow.

 

“Your brother just had a little altercation over to the Silver Dollar,” he answered in a calm, mollifying tone.

 

Hoss turned back to his brother, angry and exasperated. “Dadburnit, Little Joe! You know this weren’t the time…”

 

”Hoss!”

 

Roy’s rebuke got Hoss’ attention and the younger man turned back to the sheriff. Roy knew that Hoss’ reaction stemmed primarily from worry, but Little Joe had been through enough without having to endure a tongue-lashing from his older brother.

 

“It wasn’t his doin’. I’ve got witnesses say that Joe was sittin’ at the bar, mindin’ his own business when this fella sucker punched him.”

 

Roy watched as Hoss’ concern transformed back into anger, but this time it wasn’t directed at Joe. With a look on his face that would frighten most men, Hoss walked over and looked down on his brother who, although not asleep, was resting with his eyes closed. He saw his bruised face and split lip, the blood splashed across his collar and the front of his shirt. Turning back to the sheriff, he demanded in a low menacing voice, “Tell me who it was, Roy.”

 

With a look that said that the question was unnecessary, Roy nodded his head. “Yup, it was one of Bryant’s men. A friend of Tate’s, it turns out.”

 

Roy could well imagine what Hoss was feeling as a war of conflicting emotions played out upon his face. Battling obligations and priorities, there was no doubt that he wanted to exact revenge for his brother…for both of his brothers, but now was not the time.

 

Hoss went over to the sheriff and sat down next to him. In a low voice, as not to let Joe hear, he said, “Thanks for takin’ care of Joe, Roy.”

 

Although the thanks warmed his heart, Roy shrugged and simply replied, “Just doin’ my job, Hoss. With Bryant gettin’ the town all worked up and Joe’s temper bein’ what it is, I figure trouble was brewin’ sooner or later, so I been sorta keepin’ a weather eye out, if ya know what I mean.”

 

At the mention of Joe’s temper, Hoss looked back over to his brother and the sheriff got the impression that Joe still wasn’t off the hook. Once again, Roy felt obligated to come to the young man’s defense.

 

“Don’t be too hard on him, Hoss. From what Pete at the saloon said, Joe handled himself real well…showed a lot of restraint.”

 

“It’s not me he has to worry about, Roy.”

 

Roy nodded as their eyes met in understanding. “You just let me take care of that, Hoss. You get Joe doctored up, then come on over to the jail.” He pushed himself up from the chair and headed for the door.

 

“I’ll have myself a little talk with Adam.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXV

 

Never make a defense or an apology until you are accused.

~ Charles I, King of England

 

For the third time since they had left the doctor’s house, Hoss found himself stopping to wait for his little brother to catch up. Worried about the seemingly unnecessary dawdling, he asked, “You feelin’ okay, Little Joe? Them ribs hurtin’ ya that bad?”

 

Joe reluctantly shook his head. “No, I’m fine.”

 

“Then git a move on, little brother. Time is one thing we cain’t afford to be wastin’ right now.” Hoss turned without waiting and began the last block to the jail.

 

As he neared the door, however, he realized that that the only footsteps that he heard echoing on the plank sidewalk were his own. Exasperated, he turned and retraced his steps until he reached his younger brother.

 

“That’s it, Joe,” he said, with a voice that brooked no argument. “You tell me right now what’s eatin’ you.”

 

Little Joe stared at the sidewalk for a few moments before answering softly. “I broke my promise, Hoss.” He looked up and Hoss cringed at the anguish he saw in his brother’s eyes. “I broke my promise to Adam,” he repeated miserably.

 

His irritation dissolving immediately to sympathy, Hoss said, “Aw, Little Joe, you didn’t break no promise, leastaways not on purpose.” With everything that the family had been through and had yet to face, the thought that Joe would have the added burden of believing that he had let his brother down was one that Hoss couldn’t allow.

 

“You ever think that maybe you ain’t givin’ ol’ Adam enough credit, Little Brother?” Hoss said with a small grin as his large hand gently squeezed the scruff of Joe’s neck. “He might just surprise you, ya know.”

 

Joe couldn’t help but grin back with a look that said, “Are we talking about the same Adam Cartwright?” but reluctantly allowed himself to be steered toward the door.

 

Entering the jail, they found the sheriff and his deputy sitting on either side of Roy’s desk, deep in discussion. As the brothers approached, the conversation ended abruptly as Roy looked up. Nodding amiably, he greeted them. “Hoss…Little Joe.”

 

As Joe turned and looked nervously toward the door to the cell area, Hoss caught Roy’s eye, his eyebrows raised in silent query. Roy responded with a conspiratorial nod, followed by a smile and a wink. Satisfied, Hoss turned to his younger brother and said, “Come on, Joe. Ain’t no sense puttin’ it off.”

 

Sighing ruefully, Joe stepped aside as the sheriff unlocked the door, then hung back, allowing the other two men to enter ahead of him.

 

At the sound of the key turning in the lock, Adam had risen from the cot, eager to satisfy himself that what Roy had told him was the truth. Squinting as he scrutinized his brother’s face, Adam asked anxiously, “Joe, are you all right?”

 

In his nervousness, Joe missed the concern in his brother’s voice. Hoping to stem the tide of reproach that invariably followed incidences such as these, he fell back on his tried-and-true strategy and took the offensive.

 

“Adam, before you say anything…”

 

With a look that was a combination of impatience and long-suffering, Adam ignored his younger brother’s appeal and turned to Hoss. “Is he alright, Hoss?”

 

“Sure, Adam. Doc says it’s just cuts and bruises. Be right as rain in a day or so.”

 

“Adam, just let me explain…”

 

But Adam only put up a hand to forestall his brother. “As long as you’re okay, Joe,” he said, nodding in relief.

 

Hoss grinned as Joe, dumbstruck, stared at his oldest brother in startled disbelief. Deciding to take charge before Joe stuck his foot in his mouth and caused Adam to exchange his relief for anger, Hoss signaled for Roy to unlock the cell as he grabbed two chairs and set them down near Adam’s cot.

 

“Right. Now that that’s settled….” Hoss took off his hat, unbuckled his gun belt, and sat down heavily on the chair, indicating that Joe should do the same.

 

He could see the protest forming on Adam’s lips before he voiced it. “Now, before you ask, Doc is plannin’ on stayin’ with Pa tonight.”

 

Adam opened his mouth but Hoss cut him off.

 

“And if he gets called out, Mrs. Miller next door is set to take over.”

 

A slight smile began to play on Adam’s lips.

 

And… Mrs. Miller’s boy knows where to find us, if’n Pa needs us.”

 

As Adam simply closed his mouth, nonplussed, Hoss smiled, satisfied that he had covered every possible contingency. Nothing would keep him from spending this night at his brother’s side, not even Adam’s own protestations that at least one of them should be with their father. Hoss felt secure in the knowledge that, if their father knew the circumstances, he would have wholeheartedly agreed.

 

Roy, patiently observing the interplay between the brothers, chuckled softly in wry amusement as Hoss got in the last word, something he suspected didn’t happen often. When it was apparent that everything had been resolved, Roy spoke up. “I was just fixin’ to send Cal over to the hotel to pick up some supper for Adam. You want he should see if they got any of that cobbler you take such a notion to, Hoss? And I’ll heat up a fresh pot of coffee.”

 

Hoss smiled his appreciation. Roy knew that it was, in all likelihood, going to be a very long night for all of them.

 

As the sheriff turned to go, he paused next to the door to the second cell and, scratching his whiskers, said as if thinking out loud. “Thursday nights sure can get kinda dull around town.” Catching Hoss’ eye, Roy nodded toward the cot in the second cell, then toward Joe, who was unconsciously cradling his aching ribs. Roy surreptitiously unlocked the second cell and said, “Looks like you boys’ll be havin’ the jail to yourselves tonight.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXVI

 

But the waiting time, my brothers, is the hardest time of all.

~ Sarah Doudney

 

The night wore on.

 

Cal had come and gone, bringing Adam’s dinner, although it soon became apparent that their brother had little appetite. Roy came in on a regular basis, wordlessly refilling their cups with his strong, black coffee, and then exiting just as silently.

 

Hoss made a valiant effort to maintain a conversation. Quietly, he talked about the ranch, things he had discussed with the foreman earlier in the day, mundane topics that were impossibly inadequate to the task for which they were intended, to keep his brothers’ minds off of the upcoming trial. Eventually, Hoss realized that the conversation had become largely one-sided. The uncomfortable silences stretched longer and longer, and he conceded defeat; there was so much to say, and yet there was nothing to say. He found himself wishing that the interminable night would end, then realized with a wave of dread that the alternative was far less desirable.

 

Near midnight, Joe finally gave up in his efforts to stifle his yawns. Certain that their younger brother’s injuries were beginning to take their toll, Hoss and Adam urged him to rest on the cot in the adjoining cell. Joe agreed, albeit reluctantly, and within minutes, they heard his breathing become deep and even as he succumbed to a much-needed sleep.

 

Sitting on the edge of the cot, elbows on his knees, Adam finally broke the thick silence.

 

“When did it happen, Hoss?”

 

Hoss’s head jerked up, startled and ashamed that he had allowed his eyes to close, if only for a moment, and followed Adam’s gaze to their younger brother. Hoss knew his brother well, and therefore instinctively knew what Adam was thinking. Their little brother no longer needed their tending, their protection. He had become a man.

 

“I guess he done it when we wasn’t lookin’, Adam,” he replied, shaking his head in wonder.

 

The silence once again threatened to descend. After several moments, Adam spoke, his voice strained and thick with emotion that he attempted, unsuccessfully, to mask.

 

“I’m sorry, Hoss.”

 

Here it comes, Hoss thought. He had been steeling himself for this all day and now the time had come. He had suspected that, if Adam had anything that he needed to say, it would happen now, in the depth of night when their little brother was sound asleep. For, despite Joe’s adamant insistence that he was no longer a child, and Hoss and Adam’s reluctant acceptance of the fact, Hoss knew that the instinct to protect Joe ran deep in his older brother and likely would until the day he died.

 

So Hoss had waited, biding his time, and now that time was here. He was determined that, whatever it took from him, no matter how hard it would be to bear, he would listen to what his brother had to say; he would be there for him, support him, never let him down.

 

“Aw, Adam…you ain’t got nothin’ to be sorry for. This weren’t your doin’, none of it.”

 

Adam glanced once more over to his sleeping brother. “This has been hard on him.” He paused and then looked apologetically at his middle brother and added, “On all of you.”

 

Hoss grimaced. It was so typical of his older brother to think of his family, first and foremost, and ignore his own feelings.

 

“And on you, Adam. Ain’t one of us don’t see how hard this has been on you.”

 

Heaving a deep sigh, Adam nodded his head almost imperceptibly and, his voice barely a whisper, conceded his brother’s point.

 

“And on me.”

 

The silence closed in and, again, Hoss waited.

 

“Hoss…” Adam paused, cleared his throat, and began again. “Hoss, after the trial tomorrow…” He hesitated, looking down at the floor. “I’m worried about Joe…how he’s gonna react, what he might do.”

 

Hoss had heard enough. He had vowed to listen to what his brother needed to say, but Adam was talking as if the outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion. Refusing to let him give up hope, Hoss pushed himself off his chair, went over to the cot, and sat down next to his brother.

 

“Adam,” Hoss began tentatively, knowing that he would be stirring up memories that his brother had undoubtedly had a hard time laying to rest. “You remember that time in Alkali, when we all thought we was for sure gonna hang?” He glanced over to ensure himself that Adam was listening. “And thanks to little brother there we all walked away free men.”

 

Adam’s response was a small smile and a nod. “Joe really came through for us that time.”

 

“He sure did.” Hoss replied, then continued, determined to make his point. “And then that time when you and Pa was about to be hung…a man cain’t get much closer to meetin’ his maker than the two of you came that day.”

 

Staring straight ahead, lost in memories, Adam wordlessly nodded his agreement. Then, with sudden impatience, he demanded, “Is this going somewhere, Hoss?”

 

Hoss put up his hand and said, “Just hear me out, Brother, hear me out.” He repositioned himself so that he could look straight into his brother’s eyes, if Adam would only look up. “Twice you been as close to a hangin’ as a man can get and twice you walked away. I just ain’t gonna let myself believe that this time is gonna be any different, Adam…I just ain’t.”

 

He paused, then added with a small, wry grin, “You got the luck o’ the Irish in you, Brother, that’s for sure.”

 

At this, Adam looked over and, raising an eyebrow, said skeptically, “Hoss…I’m not Irish.”

 

“Now, I ain’t never said that you was, did I?” Hoss retorted, his efforts rewarded as Adam seemed to relax just perceptibly.

 

The lighthearted moment didn’t last long, however, as Adam stood and began to pace the short distance that the small cell allowed, leaving Hoss to worry what would come next. He didn’t have to wait long as Adam stopped, turned abruptly, and whispered dismally, “Hoss, this is gonna kill Pa.”

 

Hoss remained silent; anything he said would be meaningless and hollow. They both knew without a doubt that what Adam had said was true. Their father was strong; he had survived things that would have brought a lesser man to his knees. This, however…this would be the one thing that even Ben Cartwright would not be able to bear.

 

“Hoss,” Adam began again earnestly, “I don’t want Joe at the hanging. He can’t see it…I wouldn’t be able to…” Adam’s voice caught in his throat, but Hoss could clearly hear the determination in it.

 

Shocked at his brother’s request and the vehemence behind it, Hoss opened his mouth to protest but Adam cut him off.

 

“No…you’ve got to promise me, Hoss! Joe can’t be there. I don’t want any of you there.”

 

Every instinct Hoss had screamed in revolt. How could he agree to Adam’s request? How could he agree to abandon his brother at the time when he needed him the most? It was too much…Adam was asking too much.

 

“Adam…” Hoss’ voice was pleading.

 

Suddenly exhausted, Adam sank down on the cot and put his head in his hands. Hoss could barely hear his next words but the misery in his brother’s voice was unmistakable.

 

“I just need to know that you’ll all be okay,” he murmured desolately.

 

Hoss’ anger flashed but he tried to hide it from his brother. That Adam could possibly think that they would all simply go on as before, as if this had never happened, as if the heart hadn’t been ripped from their family, incensed him. He looked away, fists clenching as he struggled to maintain control. Forcing himself to look back, he faced his brother. At the sight of Adam, broken and beaten down with despair, Hoss realized his plea for what it was, the desperate hope of a man who had lost all hope, and didn’t have the heart to admonish him. Softly, he put his hand on Adam’s shoulder and squeezed it in silent support.

 

“I promise, Adam. If that’s what you want…I promise.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXVII

 

Anyone can carry his burden, however heavy, until nightfall….

~ Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Adam stood by the high window, his mind numb as he stared at the night sky through the iron bars. When he was a child, he had spent countless nights with his father watching the stars cross the vast expanse of the sky, their patterns becoming as familiar to him as old friends. They were a constant in a little boy’s uncertain world. As a man, he had often relied on those same stars to help him find his way home. He felt a kind of kinship with them, as if they had journeyed side by side. Tonight, he watched wistfully as, one by one, they emerged, sojourned for what seemed like a brief moment, and then disappeared beyond his field of view, leaving him far behind. Adam envied them. He envied their freedom to wander across the heavens unchecked, without destination, without responsibility, without struggle.

 

As the predawn light quenched the last and brightest star, Adam heaved a reluctant sigh and turned away from the window, rubbing the grit from his eyes. It had been one of the longest nights of his life, a night filled with painful realizations; ghosts that he had long believed buried had resurfaced to haunt him once again. Adam felt that he had been through a battle, a war with his emotions and in the end there had been no clear-cut victor, only a fragile, ephemeral truce.

 

Hoss was right, he thought, recalling a similarly long night they had spent together in a jail cell Alkali. It was strange what went through a man’s mind when he knew he was going to die. His brother’s words were always so simple and at the same time so profound.

 

In the dim light, he could just make out Hoss’s form, leaning back in the chair in which he had fallen asleep, his mouth open as a soft snore marked his position as clearly as if it were a target. As a boy sharing a bedroom, Adam had fallen asleep every night to the accompaniment his brother’s snore, often with a pillow covering his own head, he recalled, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. Now he closed his eyes and allowed himself a few brief, blissful moments to bask in the comforting familiarity of the sound, clothing himself in the warmth that the memory provided.

 

Abruptly, Adam shook his head and brought himself back to the present, dispersing the bittersweet memory, and berated himself for his indulgence. It wouldn’t do to let himself become mired in nostalgia, even for a moment. Nostalgia was dangerous. It conjured up images and emotions that Adam didn’t think he had the strength to handle right now; memories that were best put to rest, happy memories that paled when held up to the grim reality of the cold cell and the upcoming trial.

 

Adam turned his gaze to his youngest brother, sleeping soundly on the cot in the adjoining cell. He realized ruefully that both of his brothers, but particularly Joe, would feel guilty and ashamed that they had lacked the stamina to remain awake with him throughout his vigil. In his mind, he could already hear the hurt in Joe’s voice, usually disguised as anger, that they had allowed him to fall asleep. Adam knew that Joe would feel that he had failed him and the thought rent his heart. If anyone could be accused of failure, Adam thought morosely, it was he. He had failed his brothers. He had failed his father. He had failed himself.

 

Over the course of the long night, Hoss had forced him, through patient prodding and gentle urging, to relive what for most men would have been the darkest time in their lives, times that he had stood on the gallows with the shadow of the hangman’s noose dangling before him. Adam knew that for him, however, there had been even darker times, times when he would have preferred a scaffold and a trap door to what he had been made to endure. There had been times when he had faced his fears alone, no family at his side. Those had been his darkest times…until now.

 

It hadn’t taken much effort for Adam to conjure up the images of those previous trips to the gallows; they haunted his dreams. He had woken up in a cold sweat every night since the shooting, lungs heaving and heart pounding, the images burned into his brain. Finally, in desperation, he had tried to simply stop sleeping, but even at that he had failed and now the images were relentless, haunting his daylight hours as well. Each time he closed his eyes, he relived the dream. He felt the cold iron close around his wrists, the long, humiliating walk through the city streets, felt eyes following him, mouths whispering, the hollow, lonely sound of his boots as they slowly climbed the last thirteen steps. Turning around, the hangman, whose face in Adam’s dreams was always obscured by shadows, placed the roughhewn rope around his neck, tightening it until it choked him and he fought for air.

 

Throughout it all, Adam would stand with his head held high, his jaw clenched, allowing no stray emotion to betray him. Then, just before the order to release the trap door was spoken, it would happen. He would look down into the crowd and his eyes would fall upon his brothers, supporting each other, looking at him with naked anguish in their eyes, trying and failing to stem the flow of tears.

 

Adam sank down onto the cot, a cold sweat beading his brow. Wiping his hands across his face, he realized that they were trembling violently. He stared at his hands in mute surprise, willing them to stop, but they wouldn’t obey his commands, as if they belonged to someone else. In desperation, he gripped the edges of the thin mattress and held on tightly, glancing over to make sure that Hoss and Joe were still asleep, that they hadn’t seen.

 

He was terrified.

 

In the early dawn, with his two brothers sleeping soundly next to him, Adam could finally admit it to himself. His heart pounding like a drum in his chest, he struggled to slow his breathing, to ease his trembling. Falling back on old habits that had usually served him well, and so he forced himself to root out the reason for his fear, to analyze it and, in doing so, to hopefully gain at least a tenuous control over it.

 

Why was he afraid?

 

Others, no doubt, would say that the reason was plain enough to see – what man wouldn’t be afraid of facing the gallows? But for Adam there had to be more; there was always more.

 

Was it death? He realized that, for most men, death was the ultimate fear. They lived their lives in fierce denial and when death came, as it inevitably did for everyone, they were always shocked, unprepared. Adam, however, had come close to death so many times that he was no longer under the illusion that it would not, someday, come to stake its claim.

 

No, it wasn’t death.

 

Was it pain? He had, by circumstance, been forced to witness his share of hangings. If done “correctly,” he knew – hoped – that the pain would be fleeting. A trap door opened, a rope tightened, a bone snapped, a life was extinguished. Quickly, efficiently. He had, however, also been present at hangings where the victim fought for every last moment of life, struggled, twisted and turned until, inevitably, the last breath was ripped from their body, rendering it finally and forever still. Those hangings had haunted him for days and left him cursing the rough, sometimes cruel manner of justice on the frontier.

 

But, he realized bitterly, there were other, more debilitating kinds of pain. The pain that he had felt when he insisted that Hoss keep his family from attending the hanging was stronger than any physical pain he had ever felt before. Adam’s mind screamed that he needed them there, steadfastly by his side; needed them as he needed air to breath. He had almost hoped that Hoss could have convinced him to change his mind, but it was not to be. The image of his brothers watching in horror as he hung, feet swaying, above the street below, made him almost physically ill. He knew then that, in insisting that his family stay away, he wasn’t merely protecting them but himself as well. He would never be able to do what he needed to do, what he had no choice but to do, with them watching. Besides, he reasoned with himself, this was the way it was supposed to be; a man was meant to face his demons – and his death – alone.

 

No, it wasn’t pain.

 

A lone dog barking in the distance drew his attention back to the window and he found himself getting up to gaze out of it once again. Soon the town would begin to wake up, people would begin to go about their daily business, and life would go on as it did before. In a few days time, however, he would no longer be a part of that life. And, as time went by, would anyone carry a memory of him? Would they speak of him in hushed, embarrassed tones, if they spoke of him at all? Would his imprint be found anywhere, or would it be as if Adam Cartwright had never existed?

 

Adam realized in disgust that he had begun to wallow in self-pity, but he couldn’t help it. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, he thought. He was the eldest son of Ben Cartwright, the most respected, esteemed man in the territory. All of the advantages in life had been his, advantages others had been denied. Some he had embraced, others he had let slip away. Adam knew that some people had thought it a waste of his expensive education to come back and work the ranch with his family. He hadn’t put much stock in what they thought. He had always known that, someday, he would go out into the world and use the education that he had striven so hard to achieve; he would make his father proud. Feeling the heavy weight of regret, Adam turned from the window once again and stretched out on the cot, his hands folded behind his head.

 

Lost…it was all lost. Maybe he would have never done any more than he was doing now, perhaps it would have been enough for him. Probably not, he admitted to himself, but now he would never know, and with bitter regret he cursed the wasted opportunities, the lost potential.

 

When he got out of here… He cut off the thought abruptly and scowled. The only way he was going to get out of here was in a pine box. He knew it, the sheriff knew it. He saw it every time he looked into Roy’s eyes. Actually, it had been a relief knowing there was one person with whom he didn’t have to pretend. With his brothers he had tried, no doubt unsuccessfully, to keep up the facade that he sensed they needed to see; the illusion that he still had hope, so that it didn’t crush theirs. Hope…that was his worst enemy. It was more dangerous than Tate had been, more dangerous even than Sam Bryant. With hope came inevitable disappointment.

 

Adam cringed as he thought back on the conversation he had had with Hoss. Not one to indulge in soul barring, he had found that, on the rare occasions that he did, it had always left him feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable. This time, however, he had realized that, despite his discomfort, his younger brother had needed to be there for him last night, needed to be the one to offer him support. So, setting aside his natural reservations, Adam had opened up to him, revealing emotions that he had always tried so hard to hide, emotions that he suspected Hoss had long known existed anyway.

 

Hoss had said that Adam had walked away a free man before, but Adam knew that his brother was wrong. He may have escaped the punishment, but no man walked away from a hanging unchanged, if he walked away at all. Adam had known it the time he and his father had nearly been hung for a murder they didn’t commit. Despite his horror at the realization that his father, too, was soon to die and he had been helpless to stop it, there had been a certain camaraderie that existed standing next to a man as the noose was tightened. A bond had been forged – stronger even than the bond of father and son. He and his father had not discussed it afterwards, but the bond had remained, nonetheless. At that time, Adam had felt a surge of pride that, although innocent, he had faced death like a man, with his father by his side. This time, however, he felt no such pride and the specter of guilt hung over his head. Would he be strong enough to walk up the gallows steps with his head held high…did he even have any right to?

 

The image of his father filled his thoughts. He would, in all likelihood, never see his father again and the realization was a crushing blow. And if, by some miracle, they did meet again, would he be able to bear it? Would the sadness in his father’s eyes outweigh the shame?

 

Adam shuddered, a chill permeating him as he realized with sudden, cold clarity the source of his fear. It wasn’t pain, it wasn’t regret, or even dying. It was shame…the shame of a dishonorable death, a death that would forever stain his name and that of his family, a death that would cause his father to remember him with pity and humiliation instead of love and pride.

 

Adam stood and began to pace the short length of the cell, suddenly filled with a nervous energy that he couldn’t suppress, making him feel as if he could jump out of his own skin. As he passed his younger brother, his eyes froze as they fell on Hoss’ discarded gun belt and, for the briefest of moments, Adam found himself wishing that Roy hadn’t relieved them of their weapons. As he pondered the unthinkable, he began to marvel that, perhaps, it wasn’t really unthinkable after all. What was the difference? Just a day or two, maybe even less, and at least this way it would over, finished, at his bidding and on his terms. He found himself wondering if it wouldn’t be preferable to this inexorable waiting.

 

No, he rejected the thought, albeit reluctantly. It was bad enough that his death would be one of disgrace without adding the brand of “coward” to it. Besides, his dishonor would be fleeting. A few moments facing a fascinated crowd in the Virginia City street, the releasing of a trap door, and it would be over, snuffed out along with his life. His family’s shame, however, would endure long after he was gone and Adam hated himself for being the cause of it.

 

Feeling utterly exhausted, Adam returned to the cot. He wasn’t even pretending to sleep when, a few minutes later, the door to the cell opened.

 

“Boys,” Roy said, his voice tight with regret, “It’s time to get ready for the trial.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXVIII

 

How much of human life is lost in waiting.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Roy pulled angrily at the thin piece of cloth and scowled in frustration. For the third time he had struggled to get the ends of his best string tie to hang evenly and, for the third time, his fingers had refused to obey him. He flexed the stiff joints for a moment and tried again, then sighed heavily, dropping his arms to his side in exasperation.

 

The day had finally come. No amount of dreading it or wishing it wasn’t so could change the fact.

 

As he had unlocked the door to the cell earlier, Roy hadn’t been surprised to see Hoss and Joe jerk awake, wiping the sleep from their eyes, disoriented and no doubt wondering where they had spent the night. When he looked at Adam, however, he shook his head in dismay. From the paleness of his face and the dark circles under his eyes, it was obvious that the young man hadn’t slept a wink all night. Roy wondered skeptically if Adam would be able to make himself presentable for the trial, or if he would even try.

 

The two brothers had quickly excused themselves to head back to Doc’s, eager to check on their father, and Roy went to fetch hot water and a razor for Adam to shave. When he returned, Adam wearily stood up and met him by the washstand. As Roy offered him the razor, however, Adam paused, his eyes locked on the cold steel blade. Something in his expression made Roy hesitate, reconsidering whether or not he should leave Adam alone, even for a minute. Chiding himself for being overly protective, he had opened his hand and Adam had relieved him of the razor with a polite but silent nod.

 

As beads of sweat formed across his forehead, Roy fingered his collar, tight as a noose around his neck. Even though it was still early, the day already had the makings of a scorcher and he knew that, as sheriff, he would have to be on his guard. The courtroom would be packed. Roy wished, ruefully, that there would be no spectators today but, like it or not, a trial was a public venue, just like a hanging, and he didn’t have the authority to keep them out. The judge’s words weighed heavily on him. It would be his responsibility to see that there was no trouble and, with the rising heat, he knew tempers would be short and hot as well. The jury would, no doubt, be very uncomfortable too and, in Roy’s experience, an uncomfortable jury usually spelled a short deliberation. Whether that would be in Adam’s favor or not, only time would tell.

 

He picked up the silver star from the small table next to his cot and turned it over in his hand, running his fingers over the word that was deeply inscribed on the front. He had always worn the badge with pride, had always willingly accepted the responsibility that wearing it entailed. Now, it felt like an albatross around his neck.

 

“Roy…we’re back!”

 

Startled, his fingers slipped and the sharp pin missed its mark, embedding itself squarely in his thumb. Old coot, cain’t even pin on your badge anymore, he cursed under his breath as he placed the thumb in his mouth to stem the flow of blood. Roy couldn’t remember when he had been so jumpy before a trial. Of course, there had never been this much at stake before. Not only would this day determine Adam’s fate, but the fate of the entire Cartwright family as well.

 

Roy looked in the mirror once more and studied his reflection, seeing, perhaps clearly for the first time, the graying and thinning hair, the deeply etched lines, the age in his eyes. It was the face of an old man.

 

“Be right out, Hoss.”

 

**********

 

As the door opened onto the Virginia City street, Roy shook his head in dismay. The plan had been to leave as early as possible in hopes of avoiding the inevitable crowd of curious onlookers. As he squinted into the bright glare of the morning sun, however, he realized they might as well have asked a pig to fly.

 

He turned to address the four men anxiously waiting behind him. “I guess there ain’t no puttin’ it off.” The sheriff’s voice betrayed his nerves as he added, unnecessarily, “Keep in close, boys.”

 

Taking point, Roy walked purposefully, a double-barreled shotgun poised in his hands as he warily scanned the crowd. Years of being sheriff had honed in him a sixth sense for trouble and today he felt it all around him. It made his skin prickle and the hair on his neck stand on end. The town had been stirred up and was in an ugly mood. Someone had done their job well and it didn’t take much guessing to tell Roy just who that someone might have been.

 

Hoss and Joe flanked either side of their brother. Roy had returned their weapons to them, knowing he could trust them to defend Adam with their lives. The grim look on both of their faces should have been enough to warn potential troublemakers that any foolish move they made would be their last.

 

Cal, matching shotgun in his hands, took up the rear. The Deputy’s eyes flit from side to side, nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, and Roy could do no more than pray they made it to the courthouse before Cal shot himself in the foot.

 

As the sheriff glanced back to his charge, he couldn’t suppress a surge of almost parental pride. Adam walked, shoulders squared, head held high, undaunted. All traces of fear and worry had been resolutely banished from his face. Roy doubted that anyone but family and the closest of friends would recognize the underlying stress and fatigue that he had been under for days. It reinforced what he had always known, that despite the circumstances, this was not a man to fall apart in the face of adversity. Roy also knew, as he suspected Adam did as well, that it was this attitude, this proud bearing, which fueled such animosity in his enemies.

 

Heat rose in waves off of the street as the silent procession made its way toward the courthouse, still several blocks away. For Roy, it was all too reminiscent of the time, nearly a week ago, when he had led Adam from the stable to the jail and their nightmare had begun. Folks had lined the street then as well, but those faces had been full of shock and pity. Today, any faces that would have born sympathy for the young Cartwright were conspicuously absent.

 

Suddenly a voice called out from the crowded street, breaking the thick silence.

 

“Cartwright! You gonna try to buy your way outa this one?”

 

The catcall initiated a wave of appreciative laughter from the crowd, encouraging the instigator to try again.

 

“Ain’t so tough now, are ya, Cartwright?”

 

Roy glanced quickly around, trying to pinpoint the location of the voice when another rang out from the opposite direction.

 

“Ain’t gotta be tough to shoot an unarmed man!”

 

Unable to prevent the harsh insults from penetrating their ranks, the brothers moved in closer to Adam, their hands hovering near their weapons.

 

“Roy…” Hoss called softly.

 

The sheriff, however, didn’t need any urging. “I’m with you, Hoss,” he replied. “Come on, men, let’s pick up this pace.”

 

When the courthouse finally came into view, they breathed a collective sigh of relief. Hiram, waiting nervously on the steps and also apparently sensing the hostility of the crowd, motioned for them to hurry. Together they whisked Adam away to an upper room where, in the stifling July heat, there was nothing left to do but wait.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXIX

 

This is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice.

~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

 

As the clock chimed the three-quarter hour, Roy opened the tall, double doors to reveal a courtroom filled beyond capacity with spectators, mumbling in low tones as they waited for the trial to begin. He stepped aside, allowing Hoss and Joe to enter first as he hung back to escort his prisoner. Immediately inside the door, however, Joe balked, stopping dead in his tracks.

 

Hoss barely had time to check himself before running headlong into his brother’s back.

 

“What’s he doing here?” Joe hissed between clenched teeth.

 

“Dadburnit, Joe!”

 

Hands clenched in fists of barely bridled contempt, Joe repeated angrily, “What’s he doing here, Hoss?”

 

Hoss reached out and took his brother’s arm, firmly steering him toward the second row of chairs where Paul Martin had been waiting, saving their seats.

 

“You just keep yourself movin’, Little Brother.”

 

“But Hoss…”

 

Hoss’ voice was calm, reassuring. “Don’t pay him no never mind, Joe.”

 

It had been a foregone conclusion that Bryant would attend the trial. Roy would have been willing to bet his life on it and would have been comfortable with the risk. But it was also a guarantee that, with Bryant’s presence in the courtroom, the difficulty of the sheriff’s job had just increased tenfold. He offered Hoss a grateful nod. If only Hoss were able to keep Joe in line throughout the trial, Roy could devote his attention to the rest of the crowd.

 

As Adam took his seat, flanked on either side by his lawyer and the deputy, Roy reached into his vest pocket and retrieved the key that would unlock the iron handcuffs around the young man’s wrists. At least, while in the courtroom and for the duration of the trial, Adam wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of being bound like a common criminal.

 

An all-too-familiar voice spoke up.

 

“Ain’t that a sweet sight, boys? Not as good as a noose, of course, but all in due time…all in due time.”

 

Roy heard the chair scraping on the floor and caught the movement in the corner of his eye simultaneously. The sheriff’s head snapped up, but before he could react, Hoss was there, towering over his brother, restraining him. Breathing heavily, Joe faced Bryant with undisguised hatred in his eyes and for a moment the sheriff doubted that even Hoss’ ability to pacify his younger brother would be sufficient. It was a good thing that weapons were not allowed in the courtroom, he thought, or no doubt they would have soon been facing another trial.

 

Bryant, for his part, simply shook his head, a condescending smile upon his lips.

 

“Sit down, Joe.”

 

When Joe made no move to comply, Hoss, struggling to control his own anger, repeated emphatically, “Sit down, Joe! Let the sheriff take care of this.” Realizing that they now had the attention of the entire crowd, Hoss lowered his voice to a level that only his brother could hear. “The last thing Adam needs right now is to be frettin’ about you.”

 

Joe glanced over to Adam who had been wordlessly watching the interplay, his eyes betraying his fear for his brother’s safety. Reluctantly acquiescing, Joe sat down next to the doctor once again.

 

Breathing a sigh of relief, Roy decided that it might be safer to confront Bryant now, and by doing so hopefully head any more trouble off at the pass. As the sheriff stepped up and cleared his throat, the murmuring of the crowd swiftly died down and Roy could feel every eye upon him.

 

“Sheriff?” Bryant prompted, the epitome of innocence.

 

“Bryant, I’m gonna say this one time and one time only…,” Roy began.

 

Bryant looked at him in mock indignation. “Sheriff, I’m just engaging in my right as a citizen of Virginia City to attend this trial, the same as anyone else.”

 

Reluctantly, Roy was forced to concede his point. “You got a legal right to be here, but if you harass the defendant, I’m gonna remove you from the courtroom. You just make sure you understand that.”

 

Donning an obsequious smile, Bryant reassured him. “No need to worry about that, Sheriff.” The smile faded and his eyes became hard as they bore into the back of Adam’s head. “I’ve been waiting years for this. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

 

It disgusted Roy to think that anyone, even someone as vile and corrupt as Sam Bryant, would take their delight at the misfortune of others. That they would do it at the expense of his closest friends was, for the sheriff, the last straw.

 

“Ain’t you got no common decency, man?” Roy demanded, his voice rising with his temper.

 

Bryant, looking slightly surprised, took a moment and pretended to seriously consider the question. “Sheriff, I’ve been accused of many things in my life, but ‘common decency’ has never been one of them, right boys? His response was rewarded with loud guffaws and enthusiastic nods of agreement from the men surrounding him.

 

“Sheriff….Roy!”

 

The doctor’s concerned voice penetrated his anger. Red faced and seething, Roy turned to see Paul looking at him pointedly, sympathetic understanding on his face, but nonetheless determined to prevent any trouble between his friend and Bryant…and Bryant’s men. Sheepishly, the sheriff returned to his seat, somewhat embarrassed that, with all his concern about Little Joe and the mood of the town, the one temper he was having the most trouble controlling was his own.

 

Hiram had crossed the aisle to share a word with Eugene Toohey, the middle aged, bespectacled prosecutor with a penchant for wearing bow ties. Roy was well aware, having dealt with the man many times before, that the mild and slightly awkward mannerisms Toohey displayed were part of a craftily cultivated persona, meant to lull his opponents into underestimating his abilities. In the courtroom, however, Toohey was a rattlesnake, waiting until he found a weak spot so he could strike with deadly accuracy.

 

Roy grimaced as he witnessed Hiram and the prosecutor share a lighthearted chuckle. Clamping down on his irritation, he reminded himself that, for Toohey and, to a somewhat lesser extent, for Hiram, this trial was nothing more than another day at the office. The two men shook hands, wishing each other luck. It was a tradition, a professional courtesy, no more, but it galled the sheriff to think that Hiram would be offering his good wishes to the man who, in a few minutes, would be using his considerable talents to ensure that Adam Cartwright was found guilty. Besides, Roy thought dismally, the prosecutor didn’t need luck. He had other things on his side…like evidence.

 

“Hang in there, Adam.” Hoss had reached forward and placed a supporting hand on his brother’s shoulder.

 

Roy cringed at the well-meaning but unfortunate choice of words, but if Adam registered them, he gave no indication. The young man stoically looked straight ahead, his eyes fixed on the small, bronze statue that sat atop the judge’s bench, that of a woman, wearing a blindfold, holding a sword in her right hand and a pair of scales in her left. Was it too much to ask, Roy wondered wistfully, for those scales of justice to tip in their favor, just this once?

 

Suddenly, the doors opened Roy watched as twelve men filed in and found their seats. He tried to draw on his years of experience as sheriff to determine which way the verdict was likely to go but there were just too many variables. Hiram, for his part, had done an adequate job in the jury selection. The men who filled the jury box were from various walks of life: ranchers, businessmen, and merchants. Most knew Adam and, Roy suspected, most had had reason at one time or another to be grateful to the Cartwrights. The sheriff scowled as he recalled that gratitude to the Cartwrights had never been something his friends could reliably depend on.           It never ceased to amaze him how the good people of Virginia City seemed to scatter to the winds when the tables were turned; when the chips were down and the Cartwrights were the ones in need.

 

This time, of course, there was the added element of Sam Bryant. Without saying a word, the man had the ability to intimidate and generate fear. Most of the jurors had wives, families, and businesses to consider. What would happen if they acquitted Adam? Bryant would still be in town and any protection that the Ponderosa could offer was a long way away. Roy was afraid that, despite their belief in Adam’s innocence, the jurors might vote against him in their own self-interest.

 

Hiram, sitting once again at Adam’s side, leaned over and whispered something in his client’s ear, to which Adam responded with a solemn nod. The residual talking stopped as the bailiff stepped forward and stood before the eagerly awaiting spectators.

 

“The trial of The People of Virginia City versus Adam Cartwright will now begin. Please rise for the Honorable Judge Josiah T. Randall.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXX

 

A jury consists of twelve people who determine which client has the better lawyer.

~ Robert Frost

 

“I can’t believe it.”

 

At one end of the stifling hot, narrow hallway, the deputy sat outside of the door, shotgun poised and ready, anticipating trouble. At the other end, three men stood together, shaking their heads in stunned disbelief.

 

“I just can’t believe it,” Hiram stated again.

 

Glaring at the lawyer, Roy lashed out in irritation. “Cain’t you think of just about anythin’ else to say?”

 

Unintimidated, Hiram matched Roy’s glare with an equally contemptuous one of his own as Paul attempted to knead away the headache that had seemed to take up permanent residence behind his eyes. The doctor was finding that role as peacekeeper between the lawyer and the sheriff was wearing on his already thin nerves.

 

“Roy…” he scolded sympathetically.

 

As the sheriff scowled at him, Paul sighed heavily. The day had been exceedingly long already and it was far from over. They were all exhausted and tempers were understandably short.

 

Guilty.

 

The verdict had come as a crushing blow but Paul suspected that none of them were truly surprised. Each of them had known full well what the outcome of the trial was likely to be but, as he watched Roy pace the hall, watched Hiram lean against the wall, slump shouldered and dejected, Paul admitted that knowing something was a possibility and accepting it as a reality were two very different things.

 

“Temporary insanity!” Roy muttered angrily, not quite under his breath. “Of all the fool notions…”

 

Infuriated, Hiram spoke up in his own defense. “It was certainly the best anyone could do with the meager evidence…”

 

“How’s a body supposed to produce evidence that just ain’t there, you wanna tell me that?” Roy retaliated hotly.

 

“Gentlemen!” Paul positioned himself between them. “This petty bickering is getting us nowhere!”

 

The doctor conceded to himself that, although now a moot point, Roy had a valid argument. From the moment Hiram had initiated the temporary insanity defense, the trial seemed to go downhill. Several of the spectators took it as a cue to ridicule and jeer, with Bryant’s indulgent smile as all the encouragement they needed to continue their assault. Finally, after several warnings, the judge had been forced to evict the perpetrators from the courtroom, but it was obvious that the damage had already been done.

 

Upon seeing the judge’s displeasure at the disruption in his courtroom, the prosecutor renewed his attacks with gusto, painting Adam’s defense as the last ditch, cowardly effort of a guilty man to avoid his just punishment. His success was evident as, one by one, the jurors averted their eyes from Adam, some in pity, others in disgust.

 

Amid the public ridicule, Adam had held his head high. He wouldn’t allow himself even a moment of weakness, but the doctor could see by the strain in Adam’s eyes that it was taking its toll on the young man.

 

Paul shuddered to disperse the painful memory and brought his attention back to the argument brewing in front of him as, refusing to allow himself to be silenced, Hiram countered, “It’s all well and good for both of you, but there’s no doubt that my career in this city is as good as over.”

 

“Your career?” Roy’s voice rose in shrill disbelief. “Your CAREER?” The sheriff turned and came within inches of the lawyer’s face, causing him to step back in surprise. “There’s a young fella in that room whose life is gonna be over tomorrow and you cain’t think of nothin’ but your career?

 

Roy’s words, blunt and unforgiving as they were, were undeniably true. Paul glanced quickly back at the door where the deputy stood guard, concerned that the sheriff’s voice had carried into the room in which Adam was sharing a last few minutes alone with his brothers.

 

Paul had vowed when he became a physician never to place the worth of one human being above another. All life was sacred and, therefore, had value. Today, however, he couldn’t help but compare two men, one whose life had ended a week ago in the stable at the edge of town and one who, tomorrow, would forfeit his life to the hangman’s noose.

 

Adam Cartwright.

 

A young, healthy, vital man in the prime of his life, a man who possessed more honor and integrity than most men ever strove for, let alone attained, would soon be needlessly and brutally put to death. As a physician, every instinct Paul had reared up in revolt. How many times had he kept vigil over Adam, using every ounce of his skills as a physician to keep the young man alive after an accident, bullet or illness had threatened to take his life? How many times had he sat at Adam’s bedside, along with his family, fiercely praying to God when those skills appeared to be insufficient? How many times had it seemed as if they were fighting a losing battle, only to have Adam claw his way back to consciousness, to his family, to his father? Miserably, Paul recalled that, without fail, the first word that Adam had uttered upon opening his eyes each time had been “Pa.”

 

The doctor couldn’t suppress his anxiety at how this would affect Ben, for he knew with utter certainty that the hanging of Adam Cartwright would spell the death of the entire Cartwright family. Adam’s loss wouldn’t be a gentle loosening of the ties that bound them together. It would be a vicious and wanton ripping of the intricate and carefully woven fabric that made these four men a family. Paul knew that he could offer no treatment, no cure, for the devastation that tomorrow would wreak.

 

**********

 

As he wearily closed his eyes, Paul couldn’t escape the vision of the final few minutes in the courtroom. He could feel the undercurrent of anticipation in the room as, after a short deliberation, the jury filed back in. To a man, not one juror met Adam’s gaze and Paul had a sinking feeling in his chest that everything had gone totally and inexorably wrong.

 

The judge, with a look of professional detachment, reentered the courtroom. Taking his place at the bench, he stated solemnly, “The defendant will now rise.”

 

From his position directly behind Adam, Paul watched helplessly as Adam stood, his lawyer by his side, to learn his fate.

 

“Gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?”

 

The courtroom was silent. Next to Paul, Hoss’ eyes didn’t waver from his brother as if, by maintaining an unbroken gaze, Adam would be able to feel Hoss’ concern and support. Joe’s eyes were tightly closed, his lips moving slightly in a silent, desperate invocation.

 

The foreman of the jury stood up. “We have, Your Honor.” As he unfolded the small piece of paper upon which the verdict was written, Paul found himself clinching his hands tightly on the arms of this chair.

 

“We, the jury, find the defendant, Adam Cartwright, guilty of the crime of the murder of Oren Tate.”

 

The reaction in the courtroom was immediate. Friends and supporters gasped in shock, the braver among them even shouting out in protest, but they were quickly matched by the cheers and hurrahs of Bryant’s stalwart supporters.

 

“NO!”

 

Little Joe erupted from his chair. Once again, Hoss was there to restrain and support his brother, all the while blinking furiously in an effort to maintain his own shallow control.

 

And Adam…

 

Paul had to swallow the lump in his throat as he witnessed Adam’s reaction to the verdict. Back straight, eyes forward; the only visible reaction the young man allowed himself was a slight tightening of his jaw as the ominous word…guilty…resonated throughout the courtroom.

 

Judge Randall repeatedly pounded his gavel on the desk in an effort to regain some semblance of control over the chaos that ensued. Finally, Roy and the bailiff managed to return everyone to their seats and the judge cleared his throat to pass sentence.

 

“Adam Cartwright, you have been tried and found guilty of the crime of murder. As Judge, I hereby sentence you to hang by the neck until dead, sentence to be carried out tomorrow morning at dawn.”

 

Judge Randall reached for the wooden gavel and slammed it down once more with a heavy thud.

 

“Court is adjourned.”

 

As the room erupted once more, Paul watched in sadness as Adam slowly closed his eyes and, for the first time since entering the courtroom, lowered his head.

 

**********

 

Paul shook himself back to the present. “Roy, I have to get back and relieve Mrs. Miller. One thing before I go…”

 

The sheriff looked at him expectantly.

 

“You did notice the look on Bryant’s face when I testified as to the nature of Ben’s condition, didn’t you?”

 

Roy nodded, as if he knew exactly to what the doctor was referring. “Yup. I seen it, all right,” the sheriff replied cryptically.

 

Apparently disconcerted at the idea that something significant had transpired in the courtroom and that he had not been aware, Hiram demanded, “Would someone care to enlighten me?”

 

Roy regarded the lawyer with disdain, as if he weren’t surprised at Hiram’s confusion. Paul, ignoring him, addressed the lawyer.

 

“Probably just my imagination, Hiram, but when I mentioned that Ben was slowly but surely regaining his faculties, Bryant looked…I don’t know how to describe it….angry, maybe? A bit nervous?” The doctor hesitated, frustrated at his inability to accurately describe what he thought had seen. “With a different sort of man I would have even said that he seemed frightened of something.”

 

Roy ran a hand over his mustache and the two men shared a look of understanding between them. Frightened, a man like Bryant was like a wild animal and everyone knew that a frightened animal was a dangerous animal.

 

Paul, putting his trust in Roy’s years of experience as sheriff, looked at him expectantly, “Roy, what are we going to do?”

 

Hiram’s ears caught the doctor’s emphasis on the word “we” and he spoke up nervously. “Gentlemen, I cannot be a party to anything illegal. If you and the doctor are planning…”

 

Roy shot him a glare and Hiram’s mouth closed in an indignant huff. “Don’t you worry, Hiram,” he began in a sarcastic tone, “You ain’t gonna have to be a party to anything illegal.” Then, meeting Paul’s eyes, he allowed the fatigue and defeat that he was feeling show on his face.

 

“’Cause there just ain’t nothin’ more we can do.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXXI

 

We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.

~ G. K. Chesterton

 

Hoss sank gratefully into the nearest chair, feeling as if a heavy weight were pulling him down, a weight that he had neither strength nor will to resist. Once again, he found himself in the small, upper room where, earlier in the day, he and his brothers had waited for the trial to begin. Roy had granted them a few last, precious moments alone, claiming that it would be safer to let the crowd disperse before heading back over to the jail. Hoss had easily seen through the sheriff’s transparent motivation, though, and offered Roy a grateful smile as the sheriff left the room, closing the door behind securely behind him.

 

God, he was so tired.

 

For a week he had been in nonstop, perpetual motion as he had searched for witnesses, looked for evidence, and kept vigil at his father’s bedside, all the while attempting to buoy Adam’s spirits, bear Joe’s temper, and deal with the practical aspects of running the ranch.

 

He would have been overwhelmed, except that there had been little time for that luxury; little time to think about himself, only time to react to the events swirling around him. It was almost as if he had been on a ship in a storm, buffeted by heavy winds from all sides, out of control and struggling to keep afloat. Off in the distance he had been able to see a lighthouse, a glimmer of hope and, as long as it was there, he had something by which to steer. With the guilty verdict, however, the light had been suddenly extinguished. He was still being tossed about by angry, dangerous waves but now there was no longer a safe harbor…for him or his family.

 

A derisive snort escaped Hoss’ lips and he shook his head. Hope. That had been the bitterest joke of all. All week he had clung to hope, clung to it through the damning testimony, through the deliberation, clung to it as the jury had filed in. Even after the verdict had been read and the sentence passed down, he still couldn’t let himself believe that it was all over, that he had failed his brother miserably, that there really hadn’t been any reason to hope at all. He felt like he had been duped, hoodwinked into believing in something that had really never existed and that somewhere, someone was laughing at him for his foolishness.

 

Hoss looked over at his brother. Adam hadn’t uttered two words since leaving the courtroom and now he stood by the window looking out with a vacant stare; not angry, not frightened, not displaying any of the emotions that Hoss felt churning inside himself. Then he knew; he could feel it. Adam, the brother that he had always known by heart, was no longer “there.” He had erected a wall and placed himself firmly behind it, beyond even Hoss’s reach. Reluctantly, he forced himself to accept it. If this was what Adam felt he needed to do, who was he to deny him?

 

Hoss ran his hand wearily across his face as images came unbidden to his mind. Images, not of times that he and Adam had shared together, but of ones yet to come, times that now would never be. On the rare occasion that he had been optimistic enough to imagine his own wedding, it had always been Adam whom he had seen standing at his side, a content smile on his face. It had always been a proud Uncle Adam whom Hoss had imagined bouncing his children on his knee. And, in the distant future when, Heaven forbid, their father would be taken from them, he had always imagined that it would be Adam who would be there, comforting them, reassuring them, keeping their father’s dream of the Ponderosa alive. Hoss felt a twinge of guilt as he remembered his little brother. Oh, he still had Joe; but that was different. It was…he paused…it was just different.

 

His gaze fell to Adam’s hands, bound once more by the heavy iron shackles, palms forced together, almost as if in supplication. Then he looked down at his own, slightly startled to see that they were balled into tight, unyielding fists. Suddenly he could feel the overwhelming, red-hot anger that he had held at bay forcing itself to the surface, demanding to be recognized.

 

At the trial, when the verdict had been read, he had wanted to scream. Didn’t these people know what they had just done? Next to his father, Adam was the best person that he knew. Not just because Adam was his brother, but because it was a pure, simple fact. If this kind of thing could happen, if they could do this to the best this world had to offer, then what hope was there for any of the rest of them? He had wanted to throttle them, to make them see, but he couldn’t; Joe needed him. So, like he had always done before, he had pushed his own anger and grief deep down inside to tend to his brother’s needs.

 

Hoss wondered how he would ever be able to walk the streets of Virginia City again. He knew that, everywhere he turned, he would be met with pity. He would see it in the eyes of everyone he passed; but it wasn’t their pity he feared, he didn’t give two bits about their pity. He just wondered how long it would be, if ever, before he could look into their faces and not see the eyes of the people who had murdered his brother.

 

Joe’s frenetic pacing pulled him from his thoughts. He watched his brother for several moments, almost welcoming the distraction, as he took a few steps, turned sharply on his heels and retraced them in the opposite direction, as if he were a sentinel, standing guard between Adam and anything, or anyone, who would try to harm him.

 

Suddenly Joe stopped, shoulders slumped, and stood still for a moment before resuming his pacing. Hoss frowned; his little brother was planning something, he could read the look on Joe’s face almost as clearly as if Joe had announced his intentions out loud. He could feel it radiating through the floorboards with every step his brother took, with every desperate glance that he threw toward the window, estimating, calculating. He could also tell that just by looking that Joe was at the end of his tether. Hoss knew he should do something, step up and do whatever it took to help his little brother cope, but for the life of him he had no idea what that would be.

 

For the first time in his life, Hoss Cartwright didn’t have the energy or will to deal with anyone’s grief but his own.

 

**********

 

The only sound to be heard was the thud of his boots connecting with the hard, wooden floor as he wore a narrow path across the room. With each step, the memory of the heavy pounding of the gavel as it struck the judge’s bench over and over, sealing his brother’s fate, echoed in Joe’s head. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, trying to block it out, but he knew it was pointless. The sound would haunt him until the day he died.

 

He was pacing with his head down, reluctant to meet his brother’s eyes, afraid of what he would see there, terrified that he might see Adam break down. With that realization came a twinge of shame. It was selfish, and even childish, but he knew it was true. Adam had always been the strong one, the logical one, the bulwark who stayed in control no matter what. Joe had always counted on that, depended on it. It had left him free to be the wild one, the impulsive one, knowing that Adam would always be there to bail him out of whatever trouble he managed to find himself in.

 

Gathering his courage, Joe steeled himself and looked over to where Adam stood, leaning against the windowsill, and suddenly felt his temper flare. He had expected anger, despair, even fear but not this, not this blank, impassive mask. Joe felt the urge to go to him, to shake him. Didn’t he realize what was going to happen? Didn’t he know that tomorrow…?

 

Joe forced himself to breathe, to regain control. Of course, Adam knew. Adam had spent the whole week living this nightmare. He wondered what was really going on in his brother’s mind, behind the facade. Joe had been close to death before. The terror that he had felt while standing in front of that firing squad had been very real and often returned to him unexpectedly. He would wake in the middle of the night trembling, in a cold sweat, the shout of “Fire” and simultaneous report of rifles exploding in his brain. He still shuddered to think about it.

 

His eyes fell to Adam’s hands, bound, just like his had once been, and his frustration at his oldest brother dissolved. Each man was entitled to face death his own way, but one thing was certain; Adam wouldn’t be much help to them in the state he was in. Whatever they planned to do, it would be up to Joe and Hoss to get it done.

 

He looked over to his other brother and felt his heart sink. If Adam looked bad, then Hoss, if possible, looked even worse. He sat with his head down, staring at his hands, his head shaking back and forth. Unconsciously, Joe’s own hands formed into tight fists. How could Hoss just sit there? Why wasn’t he doing something…anything? Frustration threatened to overwhelm him and he longed to lash out but, since there was no one to punch, Joe averted his eyes and resumed his pacing.

 

If only his Pa were here.

 

If his Pa were here then everything would have worked out; in fact, probably never would have even gotten this far. Ben Cartwright always had a way of solving problems, of making the people of Virginia City see things his way, often by laying a bit of well-deserved guilt on their shoulders.

 

How could he ever face his father again? How could he tell his Pa that they had let Adam hang, that they hadn’t moved heaven and earth to stop it? The image of his father’s face was like a spur digging deep into a horse’s side, prodding it to action. He could feel Hoss watching him, probably wondering what he was planning, what scheme he had come up with. He only wished that he knew himself.

 

Joe was unable to contain himself any longer. “Well?” His look challenged both brothers in turn. “What are we gonna do now?”

 

Hoss looked at him warily but Joe didn’t care. He had been the good brother, had done what Adam had wanted him to do, but that was before. That was when there had still been a chance that the people of this town would wake up and see that his brother was innocent, that everything that had happened was all Sam Bryant’s doing. Now that the chance was gone, there was nothing anyone could do or say to stop him from trying to save Adam. As far as Joe was concerned, standing by and watching Adam hang didn’t fit into any definition of “good brother” that he knew.

 

“Joe…” Hoss began cautiously, a frown on his face, “What’re you thinkin’ of doin’, Little Brother?”

 

His anger and frustration spilling over unchecked, Joe replied hotly, “Well, I ain’t just gonna sit here twiddlin’ my thumbs until Roy comes to take Adam away!” Joe bit his lip and looked away, shamefaced; knowing that he had stung Hoss with his words.

 

“Joe,” Hoss’ tone was flat, as if he were too exhausted to even argue. “Ain’t you forgettin’ somethin’? Roy and Cal are out in that hall with guns and we ain’t exactly equipped for a jailbreak.”

 

“It ain’t gotta be right now, Hoss!” Joe replied, infuriated at his brother’s resistance. “We could come back tonight, or in the morning.”

 

Hoss shook his head and attempted to reason with him, but the more reasonable Hoss’ tone, the more agitated Joe became. “Don’t you think that Roy might just be thinkin’ along them same lines? That maybe he’s gonna be on his toes tonight, maybe even add an extra guard to keep an eye on things?”

 

Joe had only heard a portion of what his brother had said, however, his mind already searching for a plan. He resumed his pacing. He could do this, he told himself, he knew that he could. If it had to be without Hoss and Adam’s help, so be it, he’d done it before. He’d round up their friends, people who owed them favors.

 

Abruptly he stopped pacing as realization hit him. It wouldn’t do to underestimate Bryant, miscalculate how much fear the man had generated among Virginia City’s citizens. Even the jury had been intimidated, or bought off, maybe even the judge, or….

 

Joe slammed his hand against the wall in frustration, furious with himself for not taking matters into his own hands earlier. But it wasn’t too late, it couldn’t be. One thing he knew for certain. If Bryant were to come through that door right now, there was no way he would be going out alive.

 

He turned to appeal to Adam, but his brother seemed to be in a world of his own, still staring out of that blasted window. Without realizing that he had spoken aloud, Joe murmured under his breath. “Well, then I’ll just have to think of something else, that’s all.”

 

“Joe.” Hoss hesitated. “You just ain’t thinkin’ straight. We still got Pa to consider here.”

 

Abruptly, Joe turned on him, fire in his eyes. “So that’s it?” He could hear his voice, bordering on hysteria, but it didn’t matter, nothing else mattered anymore. “At dawn my brother is gonna hang for a murder he didn’t commit and you expect me to do nothing?”

 

“That’s exactly what I expect you to do, Joseph.”

 

From near the window, a quiet voice, strained but filled with determination, spoke up.

 

Startled, Joe turned to his older brother and pleaded. “Adam, we just can’t let this happen. Pa would understand. He would want us to do whatever it took to save your life!” Joe felt a twinge of guilt, using his father as a tool to get what he wanted, but this was too important a cause to not use any means at his disposal.

 

“At what expense, Joe?”

 

Joe looked at him quizzically, confused by Adam’s question. “I don’t understand.”

 

“At what expense?” Adam repeated. “Those men in the hallway are our friends, Joe. If the two of you try some harebrained rescue attempt, someone is liable to get hurt, probably killed. If it’s not Roy or Cal, then it might be Hoss or even you.” Adam shook his head defiantly. “I can’t…I won’t take a chance of trading any of your lives for mine, Joe. Do you really think that I could live with myself if that happened?”

 

Joe started toward the window. After a few reluctant steps he stopped, unable to look his brother in the eye, the tightness he felt in his chest having little to do with the beating he had received the day before.

 

“Adam,” he began, his voice so soft that both brothers had to strain to hear him, “Tomorrow, when it’s time…” He hesitated and swallowed hard. “I don’t think I can…” Finally, Joe looked into his brother’s face, hoping that Adam would understand the feelings that he was having so much difficulty trying to express.

 

Adam shot Hoss a questioning look and Hoss nodded slightly in response, then turned away, but not before Joe saw the look of pure anguish on his brother’s face. Something was going on between the two of them, something that they didn’t want Joe to know, but before he could question them further his oldest brother was at his side.

 

“Joe,” Adam attempted to raise his hand to grip Joe’s shoulder, but the heavy shackles encumbered his movements and he let his hands fall away. “Joe,” he said again, “Look at me.”

 

“Promise me, Joe,” Adam demanded, his voice low and steady, “Promise me that you won’t try some fool plan that will get you or somebody else killed.”

 

Although every instinct was telling Joe to yield to his eldest brother’s authority, particularly now, he couldn’t. He suspected that, by not dealing with Bryant earlier, he had already made one promise too many. This time it was Joe’s turn to look away.

 

A polite knock on the door broke the uncomfortable moment and he sighed in relief. As Hoss let the sheriff in the room, however, Joe tensed, sensing that any opportunity he had to help Adam had just slipped through his fingers.

 

“Boys, the crowd’s just about all scattered by now. Reckon it’s time we head on back to the jail.” Roy said, apologetically. “Adam, Son…I’m so sorry things turned out this way. If there’s somethin’, anythin’, I can do…” Roy let his voice trail off.

 

It was obvious from the tone of Roy’s voice that the sheriff sorely regretted the part he had been forced to play, but Joe didn’t care. He was angry and frightened and needed to blame someone else as much as he blamed himself. Bryant wasn’t here and he couldn’t take it out on his brothers, so that left Roy, an all too convenient target.

 

“It’s no use trying to ease your conscience now, Sheriff! It won’t work.” Joe practically spat the words. “Adam’s here because of you and it’s too late to…”

 

“Joe!”

 

Joe glared at Hoss and turned away from everyone, his chest heaving with the turmoil he felt inside, unable to see the sympathetic look the sheriff directed towards him.

 

“Adam,” Roy paused, “You ready, Son?”

 

“Roy, there is one thing.”

 

Joe turned back around, curious despite his anger, in time to see Adam glance at Hoss, their eyes meeting in silent understanding. He saw Hoss nod his encouragement and felt a sharp sting of jealousy, as if his two brothers shared something between them that he didn’t and now never would. But, as Adam’s eyes shifted and included Joe in his piercing gaze, the jealousy faded away and Joe felt nothing but a fierce love for his brother.

 

“You name it, Adam,” Roy said, grateful to be allowed even a small opportunity for atonement. “I’ll do anythin’ I can.”

 

Adam turned his eyes away from his brothers and drew a deep, shuddering breath.

 

“Roy, I need to see my father.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXXII

 

It is a wise father that knows his own child.

~ William Shakespeare

 

“Sheriff, the town gets wind of this and you could lose your badge!”

 

Roy scowled as Cal looked around nervously, tightening his unsteady grip on the gun in his hands. In deference to his deputy’s persistent warnings, he had chosen the least traveled streets between the courthouse and Doc Martin’s, but even that precaution didn’t calm the excitable man.

 

Exasperated, Roy turned on him, his irritation rising. “By golly, Cal, I done told ya, we’re doin’ this on my authority!”

 

“But, Sheriff, if Bryant…”

 

“I ain’t gonna hear another word about Sam Bryant!” Roy cut him off in mid-sentence. It infuriated him that his own deputy was more concerned with appearances than in doing what was right and decent. “You was there when Adam give his word that there wouldn’t be no trouble, that’s good enough for me.”

 

It had been at Cal’s insistence that Hoss and Joe had relinquished their guns before leaving the courthouse, with a promise that they would be returned after the sentence had been carried out. Not surprisingly, both brothers had vehemently protested but, in order to pacify his deputy, Roy had agreed. Now, however, in the dim glow of the single street lamp, he admitted to himself that it had been a wise decision.

 

Hoss, walking silently on Adam’s right side, scanned the street for any sign of Bryant or his men. He appeared cautious; wary, but in control. Joe, on the other hand, was a loose canon, flinching at every shadow, every random sound, his hair-trigger reflexes strained to their limit. It hadn’t taken Roy long to realize that if Joe were armed there would be no telling how this night might end.

 

Although he saw fit to keep it to himself, Roy suspected that there would be no real threat from Bryant tonight; whatever else he might be, the man was not a fool. Besides, Roy thought grimly, Bryant had gotten what he wanted. In just a few short hours, Adam Cartwright would hang.

 

As he watched Adam from behind, though, the sheriff couldn’t help but wonder what was going through the young man’s mind. Fear? Worry? Regret? Any word he could think of paled in comparison to what he knew Adam must be feeling, and yet his friend’s son hadn’t allowed a single emotion to betray him. Roy suspected that Adam would keep up the facade until the last possible moment, wear the mask for his brothers’ sake if not for his own. Ben would be proud, Roy thought miserably, Ben would be so proud.

 

**********

 

When they had reached the doctor’s house, Paul met them at the door and ushered them inside immediately, knowing they had little time to waste.

 

“Gentlemen, Adam…”

 

“Paul…” Adam hesitated, swallowing hard.

 

The doctor nodded, realizing instinctively what Adam needed to know but was, understandably, afraid to ask.

 

“He’s resting comfortably, Adam. I assure you, he is improving. It’s just a matter of time.”

 

At the pained expression on Adam’s face Paul immediately regretted his words. Time…there wasn’t enough time and now, for Adam, there would never be enough time. Taking a deep breath, the doctor retreated behind the professional mask that he had cultivated by necessity when, far too often, his patients were also his closest friends.

 

“I believe he understands what is said to him.” Paul saw Adam’s head jerk up in concern and amended his diagnosis.           “Oh, not everything, to be sure, but a great deal.” He could understand the young man’s anxiety. It would be difficult enough for Adam to try to convince his father that everything was normal, in essence lie to his face, when Ben was still confused. To do it when he had most of his senses intact; that would be another thing entirely.

 

“He wants to talk, seems almost desperate to do so, but he just can’t find it in himself yet to form the words. It’s very frustrating for him, and the effort exhausts him. I’d prefer it if he stayed calm, didn’t get upset.”

 

Adam turned, looking wistfully toward the hallway that led to his father’s room. Relenting, Paul reached out and gripped his arm, offering his friend an encouraging smile.

 

“You just say whatever you need to say to him, Adam.”

 

“Thank you, Paul.” Adam nodded gratefully and, looking the doctor straight in the eye, added solemnly, “Thank you for everything.”

 

Simple words, but Paul easily recognized the genuine feeling behind them. Humbly accepting Adam’s thanks, he nodded and motioned toward the hallway.

 

“Shall we?”

 

**********

 

The group proceeded silently, with Adam leading the way. Outside of his father’s door, he stopped. This was the moment he had been aching for, day after day alone in his cell, this was the thought that had kept him from going insane. If he could just hold himself together long enough to see his father, to look into his eyes, then maybe he would feel some small measure of consolation. It seemed like a lifetime ago since he had said a quick ‘goodbye’ to him outside of Michelson’s store and, until Roy had agreed to this meeting, he had been afraid that that goodbye had been their last. There were so many things that he wanted to say to his father, things that he had never said before but needed his father to know, to remember. But how could he be expected to sum up a lifetime’s worth of love and respect in just a few minutes? It galled him to realize that the events in his life would now be measured, not in decades or years, but in hours, minutes.

 

Taking a deep, shuddering breath Adam reached out for the knob and stopped suddenly, his eyes fixed on the metal rings that encased his wrists. Turning back to the sheriff, he wordlessly held up his hands.

 

Roy, looking startled and shamefaced, stepped forward and immediately pulled the key from his vest pocket. “I’m sorry, Adam,” he said as he hastily unlocked the cuffs. “I plum forgot.”

 

Unconsciously rubbing his wrists, Adam willed away the numbness, as well as the shame, inflicted by the tight, iron cuffs.

 

“Sheriff,” Cal hissed behind him. “You cain’t be takin’ off the prisoner’s handcuffs here. The law says that, once a feller’s been convicted….”

 

Roy turned on him, his irritation replaced by blatant anger. “As long as I’m sheriff, Cal, we’re gonna do this thing my way! If’n you’re ever sheriff, you’ll get your say. Now, you just go on and wait out in the parlor. This ain’t for public viewin’!”

 

Offering the sheriff a small nod of appreciation, Adam gingerly opened the door, turning when it seemed that the rest of the group had intentions of following him in. He looked at Roy, his eyes pleading, but the sheriff shook his head ruefully. “Sorry Son, but Cal’s right. Legally, I ain’t supposed to let you out of my sight until the sentence has been carried out.”

 

Roy’s voice was thick with misery and Adam nodded in reluctant acceptance. He had hoped that he would be allowed to spend these last few moments with his father alone, but apparently, along with taking his life, the guilty verdict had stripped him of any right to privacy as well. He knew that Roy had already gone far beyond what the law allowed in letting him see his father and in taking off the despised handcuffs. Not wanting to cause any more trouble for his friend, Adam swallowed his bitterness and replied, “That’s alright, Roy, I understand.”

 

Then, turning from the sheriff, he felt his heart squeeze as his eyes fell on the man sleeping peacefully in the bed. His father was pale, thinner, with several days growth of beard on his face, but he was alive. Crossing the threshold Adam stopped, afraid to believe his eyes as a flood of relief washed over him. Despite what the doctor had told him, despite the assurances from his brothers, he had been reluctant to get his hopes up. Night after long night in his cell, with nothing to keep him company but his own imagination, had taken its toll. Sometimes he had almost suspected that everyone was conspiring to keep him in the dark, that his father had actually not survived the shooting and that, for his own good, they were keeping it from him. Invariably, his good sense had taken over and Adam had chastised himself for his foolishness; knowing they would certainly never lie to him about something so important, so serious. But then he had remembered that they had lied, had kept him in the dark, and his doubts had resurfaced with a vengeance.

 

As he proceeded toward his father, leaving the others to wait in the doorway, all of his doubts faded away. In the small room, lit with only one low glowing lantern, the whole world suddenly became just the two of them; no one else existed, no one else mattered.

 

He stepped over to the bed, treading as lightly as possible and simply drank in the sight of the man that he cherished more than any other on this earth. He wasn’t ready for his father to wake just yet, he wasn’t prepared. He almost laughed at himself. After all this time of anxious waiting, of thinking about what he wanted to say, he was surprised to find that he still wasn’t prepared.

 

Silently he sat in the chair and noticed the Bible that one of his brothers must have placed at his father’s side, knowing that it would give him a measure of comfort. A sad smile played on his lips at the memory of a young Hoss, presenting the gift to his father with all of the love that a little boy could muster. As Adam ran his hand over the smooth, tooled leather, a fleeting sense of peace came over him. Despite his doubts, despite his fears, he knew that he was leaving his father in the best of hands.

 

His eyes shifted from the Bible to his father’s hand. Strong, square, work-worn. If the strength of a man’s character could be etched in his hands, then Ben Cartwright’s spoke volumes. Adam reached down and gently closed his own hand around that of his father. Except for the angry, red welts that stood out on Adam’s wrists, they were virtually identical. Taking a deep breath to summon the courage he needed, he forced a smile to his face and gave his father’s hand a gentle squeeze.

 

“Pa…Pa, it’s time to wake up.”

 

Adam spoke softly, hoping not to startle him. When there was no reaction, he squeezed again, more firmly, and was rewarded as his father slowly, blearily opened his eyes and attempted to focus.

 

“That’s it, Pa,” he encouraged, his forced smile transforming into a genuine one. His father’s eyes lit up as recognition dawned.

 

“I’m sorry, Pa.” Adam found that he had to force his voice through the lump in his throat. “I got here as soon as I could.” A weak squeeze on his hand was his answer, assuring him that he had been understood, and forgiven.

 

His relief turned quickly to concern, however, as his father, brows knit in concentration, moved his lips in a futile attempt to speak. Just as the doctor had warned, the harder he tried, the more agitated and frustrated he became as each effort met with failure. Although no sound was forthcoming, the word on his father’s lips was unmistakable.

 

“Shhh, Pa. It’ll come, give it time.” Adam soothingly lowered his voice, hoping that his father wouldn’t notice how the feeble efforts had shaken him. The thought of never again hearing his father say his name pressed the limits of what he thought he could bear. Adam gave him a reassuring smile and tightened his grip in support. The look of absolute trust that he received in return made him swallow convulsively and struggle to catch his breath.

 

“I hope my brothers kept you in line while I was gone,” he quipped, attempting to lighten the mood. The gentle, teasing tone achieved the reaction that Adam had hoped for as the frown eased, the lines on his brow smoothed out, and the tension gradually left his father’s face.

 

“That’s better,” he said with satisfaction.

 

At the mention of his brothers, memories of the past week flooded his thoughts, conjuring up images of Hoss’ constant presence and silent support, Joe’s loyal defense of him at the trial. The toll this had taken on them was more than he would be able to make up in a lifetime, in several lifetimes. With a sudden intake of breath, reality came crashing down on Adam once again, reminding him with absolute certainty that there would never be a chance to make anything up to them. For the first time since they were born, their lives were out of his hands.

 

He looked down at his father again, using their joined hands as a focal point. “Those two sons of yours,” he paused, uncertain of how to say what he needed to say. “They’re fine men, Pa.” He felt his throat tighten and could hear the unsteadiness in his voice but forced himself to continue.

 

“I’m so proud of them both, Pa.”

 

Adam felt a weak squeeze on his hand again and he needed no words to understand what his father was trying to tell him. Ben Cartwright’s pride in his sons was written on his face for all to see. Inwardly, Adam cringed in shame, knowing that his father included him in that pride. He didn’t deserve it, wasn’t worthy of it. For a long moment he couldn’t bear to return the piercing gaze. If his father only knew what he had done, if he only knew…

 

“Joe!”

 

A crash from behind interrupted his melancholic thoughts, startling him, as Joe bolted out the door. Hoss called anxiously after their youngest brother, reminding Adam, for the first time since he had sat down next to his father, that there were other people in the room.

 

Turning, Adam looked questioningly at Hoss as his brother shrugged his shoulders in apology. “Sorry, Adam. You think I should go after him?”

 

“The boy’s just upset,” Roy offered. “Leave him be for a little while, he’ll cool off.”

 

One brother hurting, the other seeking his advice, even now. Adam wished that he had the energy, the wisdom, to deal with their pain on top of his own, but he had nothing more to give. As he turned back to the bed, his heart fell. Once again, his father’s eyes were closed, having slipped back into a deep, healing sleep. The disappointment was crushing. It was gone, the last chance Adam would ever have to speak to him and he had missed it. There had been so much more he needed to say and he hadn’t even scratched the surface.

 

The temptation to reach out and awaken him was overwhelming, excruciating, but as Adam watched the gentle rise and fall of his father’s chest, saw the peaceful countenance on his face, the realization struck him. Perhaps it was better this way. Maybe all of the things that he felt he needed to say to his father, his father already knew.

 

Squeezing his hand tightly, Adam leaned down until their foreheads almost touched.

 

“I love you, Pa,” he whispered, forcing the words through his parched and aching throat.

 

Granting himself one long, last look at his father’s face, he savored every feature, memorized every line. Then, closing his eyes tightly as if to burn the image in his mind, he took a deep sigh and, on the exhaled breath, whispered, “Goodbye.”

 

Slowly, Adam stood up and turned. Willing his eyes straight ahead, he nodded and, once again, offered the sheriff his hands.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXXIII

 

If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

~ William Shakespeare

 

“Joe!”

 

Joe stopped in the darkened hallway and collapsed against the wall, breathing heavily. The litany of his brother’s words echoed over and over in his mind, each repetition increasing in volume, each striking him like a physical blow. Head in his hands, Joe ground his fists to his ears in a futile attempt to block it out, but there was no escape, nowhere he could run, and the only real safety he had ever known was back in that room, with his father and two brothers at his side.

 

Like a rip tide, the reality that it was all soon to end seized him and he felt as if he were suffocating, gasping for air. Summoning all his strength of will, Joe pushed himself away from the wall and stumbled the last few feet to the parlor.

 

Damn!

 

Near the wall, one finger hooking back the heavy drape, Cal peered cautiously out the window as if anticipating trouble at any moment. Unaware that he had spoken out loud, Joe scowled as Cal turned away from the window and offered him a questioning look. In return, Joe shot him an angry glare, as if daring the deputy to say or do something, anything, which would give him an excuse to vent his anger. Cal, wisely, simply shook his head and returned his attention to the window. Reaching the door in three quick strides, Joe flung it open and stepped through, leaving it to slam in his wake.

 

He had made it only as far as the doctor’s porch when he stopped. Back and forth, back and forth he paced, the tension in his body and mind increasing with each turn. Despite his efforts to shut them out, his brothers’ arguments barraged him. Yes, it was true that to charge in, guns blazing, would likely get people killed, innocent people, maybe even the brother he was hoping to save. Logically, he knew all their rational arguments were right but that knowledge just served to infuriate him even more. The alternative, to do nothing, to let events take their course, was horribly unimaginable. And Hoss was right, he still had his father to consider.

 

Feeling a wave of lightheadedness, Joe stopped abruptly and gripped the porch railing, grateful for the feeling of something solid and secure in his hands. After the stifling heat of the courtroom earlier in the day, the fresh evening breeze that wafted across the doctor’s front porch came as a blessed relief and he closed his eyes, desperately willing his breathing to slow, his mind to clear.

 

Eventually, the sound of voices on the street began to filter in and he opened his eyes, noticing the passersby for the first time. Although the doctor’s house was near the edge of town, the night was still young and the streets were still busy. A couple passed him, nodding politely, and Joe felt a surge of bitter resentment that these people, some of whom had probably been at his brother’s trial, could go about their lives unaffected, untouched.

 

No! His mind screaming in frustration, Joe impulsively slammed his fists down on the railing. The couple, startled by the sound, turned with eyebrows raised. Feeling very conspicuous, he stepped down off the porch and went around to side of the house, taking refuge between some large shrubbery and the doctor’s tool shed. Hidden by the shadows, he leaned against the cool brick of the building and let himself sag, feeling emotionally and physically drained. As his body began to tremble uncontrollably, he slid down the side of the building until he was seated on the ground, and buried his head in his hands.

 

Like the night shadows, disaster was closing in on him from all sides and Joe was powerless to prevent it. He felt the familiar flush of anger again as he realized that that wasn’t entirely true. Adam, by making him promise to stay out of trouble had, in effect, tied his hands. Suddenly, Joe realized what had fueled his anger. If it had just been Adam’s fear that someone he loved would get hurt, Joe would have understood his brother’s reluctance, but things were never that simple where Adam was concerned.

 

The Law, it had always been the law. Joe was surprised and even a bit ashamed at the contempt he felt at the word. The law that Adam had always defended, protected, held such reverence for; it was the same law that decreed that he also be put to death. That his brother could still have such respect for something that could be so fallible, so blatantly wrong surpassed all of Joe’s understanding.

 

For Joe, things were usually simple; he followed his impulses, followed his heart to the exclusion of his head, his brother had often remarked, and his love for his family came before anything else. He didn’t, for a moment, doubt Adam’s own fierce love for his family; his brother had proven it through his actions time and again. Somehow, however, Adam had always been able to look beyond that, to see the bigger picture. His brother never seemed to have any self-doubts, any second thoughts. It was something that Joe had always admired but never quite understood.

 

Reluctantly, he had to admit to himself that, more times than not, Adam had been right. He remembered the time that Vannie Johnson had been murdered. Joe shuddered to think that, without his brother on that posse to talk to, to help him understand, he would have, in all likelihood, joined a lynch mob and helped to kill innocent men. How his brother could take something that, to Joe, had been so confusing and ambiguous and distill it down to simple black and white, right and wrong, would always be a mystery to him.

 

Red Twilight…another time that Adam had saved him from himself. Although Joe knew that his father suspected that more had gone on in the barn than the brothers had admitted to, Adam had never said another word. Later, Joe had gone to their father and admitted the entire truth and was shocked to see the naked pride in his father’s eyes, the same pride that he had seen tonight just before he had stormed out of the room.

 

Finally, there was Sam Bryant. Just thinking about the man sent a wave of raw hate coursing through him. It was as if Bryant were their own private devil, sent to wreak havoc in his family’s life again and again. In his heart, Joe knew that he wouldn’t rest until Sam Bryant was dead; dead and left to rot somewhere. And if it were by his hand? He could almost taste the sweetness of revenge on his lips and realized abruptly that maybe he hadn’t learned as much from Adam as his brother had hoped after all.

 

Never before had the differences between him and Adam been brought into such strong relief as the last time they had been forced to deal with Bryant. Joe had strongly disagreed with Adam that time, believed that his brother had gambled with his father’s life for some abstract principle. The fact that Adam had won, that their father had been released and Bryant put behind bars didn’t lessen the terror he had felt that his brother could have made a fatal mistake that day.

 

Now, with dawn scarcely more than a few hours away, Joe couldn’t escape the sinking feeling that, this time, his infallible brother might have made another mistake in trusting the law, a mistake that would cost him his life.

 

Once again, his brother’s words echoed in his mind… ‘so proud of them, Pa.’ Well, Adam, he thought, his resolve renewed, you may not be proud of what I’m planning to do, but if it works, at least you’ll be alive. It was a tradeoff that Joe was more than willing to make.

 

Joe pushed himself up off the ground and turned to leave when suddenly he heard a faint rustling and the unmistakable sound of a footfall very near by. Cursing himself for his inattentiveness, he instinctively dropped his left hand but his heart sank when his fingers brushed the empty holster. Peering into the darkness, he held his breath as two figures stepped out of the shadows.

 

“Hello, Cartwright.”

 

*********

 

CHAPTER LXXXIV

 

It is not flesh and blood but the heart which makes us fathers and sons.

~ Johann Schiller

 

“Dadburn it, Adam! If that boy went off gettin’ into trouble somewhere I’m gonna pound ‘im myself!”

 

“Hoss,” Adam looked at his brother, his eyes intense, the worry in his voice clearly evident. “You don’t believe he’d do that and neither do I.”

 

Hoss wiped his hand across his chin nervously. “Nah, I guess he wouldn’t, Adam,” he admitted reluctantly.

 

Roy felt a twinge of guilt. Earlier, in Ben’s room, it had been evident that Hoss had been torn between conflicting loyalties, not knowing whether to stay with his father and Adam or chase after Joe. Roy supposed that he should have followed Joe himself but, as excruciating as the scene before them had been to watch, he had found that he couldn’t tear his eyes away. When they had returned to the jail, however, all four men had been surprised to find that Little Joe hadn’t been there waiting for them.

 

Roy turned and quizzed the deputy. “And he didn’t say nothin’ when you saw him?”

 

Exasperated, Cal replied, “I’m tellin’ ya, Sheriff, he gave me a look that pretty much convinced me to mind my own business, then stormed out the front door.”

 

Hoss turned to face his brother, brows furrowed,           “I don’t like this, Adam.”

 

It was clear by the look on Adam’s face that his feelings of apprehension matched Hoss’s, causing Roy to scowl in irritation at Joe’s irresponsible behavior. Didn’t that boy realize that the last thing that Adam needed right now was more worries?

 

“Well, I’m still of a mind that he’s off somewhere, lickin’ his wounds, but I’ll admit that I’d feel a mite better if’n we had some idea where,” Roy said. Then, bowing to the inevitable, he turned to Hoss. “You’ll cover more ground if I send Cal out with you.”

 

“Sheriff….” The deputy began to protest, but with a sharp look from Roy he closed his mouth and motioned for Hoss. “Let’s go, then. You take the east side of town, I’ll take the west.”

 

Reaching the door, Hoss turned around and gave his brother a reassuring smile. “We’ll be back as soon as we can, Adam.”

 

**********

 

Roy followed them out and paused on the sidewalk, peering keenly up and down the street, fervently hoping that what he had told Adam was true and that Hoss would find their brother sitting on a bar stool somewhere with a stiff drink in his hand. He didn’t like to think of the alternatives, but there they were, staring him in the face. It didn’t take his years of experience to know that, should worse come to worse, Joe would try to mount some kind of jailbreak for Adam. Joe had lots of friends in town that he could try to recruit, making the situation that much more dangerous. Roy was certain that, with or without help, it just wasn’t in the young’un to sit by and let his brother hang. He shook his head, able to admire the boy’s loyalty and his fool courage, yet curse it at the same time.

 

The other alternative, Roy realized morosely, was equally as grave. As much as he had doubted earlier that Bryant would cause any more trouble tonight, if he or one of his men happened to run into Joe alone… He shivered and felt his anxiety rise at the probability that this night would somehow inevitably end in bloodshed. Bad as it was going be to try to convince Ben to go on living after one son’s death, he hated like the blazes to think of what it would be like if his friend somehow lost Joe, too.

 

Heaving a deep sigh, the sheriff went back in the office and paused, his eyes drawn to the open door leading to the cell where Adam now waited for word about his brother. Barring any other emergencies, they were alone so, collecting his courage, Roy squared his shoulders and turned toward the cell. He had an uncomfortable confession or two of his own to make to Adam and, as much as he dreaded it, the saying “There’s no time like the present” had never been more true.

 

Hesitantly, he walked up to the iron bars and watched Adam, standing by the tall window gazing out. The vacant stare that Roy had become so accustomed to seeing for the past few days was gone. Like a horse straining and pulling at the bit, Adam’s whole demeanor was one of frustration and impatience as he scanned up and down the street for any sign of his missing brother. Then, as if finally realizing the futility of his efforts, Adam’s shoulders slumped and he sat down heavily on end of the cot, resting his head in his hands.

 

“Adam,” he said softly, feeling inadequate to the task of consoling the young man, but determined to at least make his best effort. “Don’t you fret. Hoss’ll find Little Joe and get him back here in plenty of time for…” He stopped, horrified by what had almost slipped through his lips and cringed, anticipating Adam’s reaction. He was surprised when Adam looked at him for only a mere second before lowering his head once more.

 

“Adam,” he repeated, then stopped to clear his throat and, with an apologizing glance, tried again. “Son, I just don’t know what to say anymore about all this.” Nervously, Roy paced back and forth in front of the bars as he reluctantly began his confession. “I guess I just didn’t see it comin’. You Cartwright boys been in my jail more times than I can count on one hand but whatever the trouble was, it always seemed to blow over, sooner or later.” He shrugged helplessly. “I guess I just figgered this would be another one of those times.”

 

Roy paused, but when there was no response from Adam, he took a deep breath and plowed ahead. “I didn’t take you or your Pa’s warnin’s about Bryant serious enough. Ben saw trouble comin’ a country mile and I was just too pigheaded to listen to him.” His voice was thick with misery and self-loathing. “I know I let you down, Son, and I let your family down. Fact is, I let a whole passel of folk down.”

 

He stopped and leaned against the bars, feeling suddenly drained. “I gotta admit, Adam, when this whole mess first started, I thought that maybe it could end up bein’ a good thing.”

 

At that, Adam glanced sharply over at Roy, the first evidence that the sheriff had that the young man was actually listening to him. Realizing how what he had said would have sounded to Adam, Roy hastened to correct himself. “Oh, not about your Pa! I guess I just thought that, when everythin’ come out, well, you’d be a free man, Bryant would be found out for what he really is, and this town would see that it don’t pay to go a’gin the law.” He expelled a deep sigh. “And now, ‘cause I couldn’t do my job, you’re the one’s gotta pay for it.”

 

With as much conviction in his voice as he could muster, Roy continued. “Adam, I know it ain’t no consolation to ya, but I don’t, not for one minute, believe you was guilty of murderin’ Tate. I know all the evidence points to it, but that don’t make it so, not in my book.”

 

Roy held his breath, waiting for Adam to react. He was anxious, yet at the same time dreading what he would see in the young man’s eyes.

 

For a long moment Adam made no reply. Then, slowly, he turned and held Roy’s gaze. Gradually, the intensity in Adam’s eyes softened as one corner of his mouth turned slowly upward.

 

Relieved, Roy expelled the breath he hadn’t even realized he had been holding. So, it was to be as simple as that; he’d been forgiven. Surprisingly enough, however, the forgiveness that filled Adam’s eyes weighed more heavily on Roy than any blame would have. Grateful but with a heavy heart, he nodded and turned toward the door, wishing that had something that he could offer the young man in return.

 

“Roy?”

 

The sheriff stopped and turned to him, his eyes questioning.

 

“Could you do me one more favor?”

 

Roy recalled the last favor Adam had asked of him, less than an hour ago. Although it had been easy enough to grant, it had also proven to be one of the most painful things that he had ever had the privilege to witness. He swallowed hard, almost fearing the toll another request from Adam would take on him.

 

“I’ll do what I can, Adam, you know that,” Roy replied.

 

“I need to write a letter,” he asked, his voice carefully devoid of emotion. “Could you bring me some paper and something to write with, please?”

 

Roy nodded his understanding; it wasn’t an unusual request for a person in Adam’s situation. Many times Roy had sat outside of this very cell, taking down a letter meant for the parents or sweetheart of a prisoner who could neither read nor write, to be delivered upon their demise. That he would now be granting the same request from Adam went beyond his understanding. However, Adam Cartwright had never been a man comfortable with loose ends, and Roy had seen the bitter disappointment in the young man’s eyes in his father’s room when he had turned to offer the sheriff his wrists to be shackled once again. If only he and Ben had had more of an opportunity to talk to each other, if only Adam could have heard his Pa’s voice say his name one last time…

 

Suddenly, Roy realized that there was something he could offer Adam in return for his forgiveness. Making his decision, he unlocked the cell door and hesitantly took a few steps inside until he was standing next to Adam’s cot.

 

“Adam?”

 

Adam looked at Roy questioningly, his eyes inviting him to continue.

 

Roy pulled up a chair, placed it near the cot and sat down, unsure after the events of the past week how Adam would take what he had to say.

 

“Adam, I told Hoss a few days ago when Ben got hurt that I sort of felt obligated to fill in for him, and I’ve been thinkin’, well, that there’s maybe some things that your Pa would want for you to know.”

 

Looking at the proud young man before him, though, Roy knew the simple truth; it wasn’t an obligation, it would be his privilege.

 

“You and your Pa, Adam, well, I ain’t never known two people more alike. Stubborn and mule-headed, buttin’ heads every chance you get it seems.”

 

Roy shook his head, recalling one of the many times that Adam’s stubborness had seen him in good stead.

 

“You remember that time you got it in your head that Bill Enders killed Toby Barker over to Goat Springs and I done everythin’ I could to change your mind? You wouldn’t listen to me, though, and when it turned out you was right…”

 

Roy stopped and chuckled under his breath, enjoying the memory.

 

“Did I get an earful from your Pa that time! ‘Bout how next time maybe I’d be smart enough to listen to his boy when he told me somethin’ was so.”

 

He grinned when he saw the corner of Adam’s mouth turn up in a small smile, confident that Ben had never before shared that story with his son.

 

“You know, Adam,” Roy paused and swallowed hard, suddenly finding this more difficult that he had anticipated. “There was times I saw Ben look at you and I couldn’t figger out who was luckier, your Pa for havin’ a son he could be so proud of or you for havin’ a Pa who loved ya so much.”

 

Adam heaved a deep, hitching sigh, his shoulders trembling, and the sheriff decided it was time to take his leave and give the boy some privacy. Pushing himself up out of the chair, Roy stood over him. “Well, that’s what I wanted ya to know,” he said gruffly through the lump in his throat. “I’ll be gettin’ your writin’ things now.”

 

A strained whisper reached his ear. “Thank you, Roy.”

 

Blinking hard, Roy reached down and gripped the young man’s shoulder, squeezing it tightly. Then, almost desperate to escape the cell, he turned toward the door. He hadn’t taken two steps when he heard Adam’s voice again.

 

“Roy?”

 

He stopped, unable to force himself to turn around.

 

“You’ll take care of them for me?”

 

Roy visibly stiffened, Adam’s simple request was like a knife rending his heart. Slowly he turned to face the young man who had been the only son he had ever known.

 

“You know I will, Son, you know I will.”

 

**********

CHAPTER LXXXV

 

It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.

~ Josiah Charles Stamp

 

As the door to the cell area closed behind him, Roy slowly made his way over to the desk and gratefully collapsed into his chair, feeling as if he had aged ten years in the past ten minutes. For a moment he simply indulged himself, closed his eyes and leaned back to the familiar, comforting creaking of springs that had been long neglected.

 

The conversation that he had had with Adam had left him severely shaken and for a moment he wondered what had possessed him to say such things to the boy. Had he made things better or worse, or had he, as he feared, merely eased his conscience at Adam’s expense? Unconsciously, he shrugged his shoulders; what’s done was done and there was no going back for any of them.

 

Eventually, Roy opened his eyes and grimaced at the mountain of paperwork that loomed before him. Whether by sense of duty or force of habit, he began absently leafing through the stacks; Wanted posters that needed filing, correspondence that needed answering…it seemed endless.

 

Suddenly finding that he lacked the energy to care anymore, Roy opened his hand slowly, allowing the letter that he had been holding to flutter to the floor. In light of everything that had happened this week it all seemed so trivial, so unimportant. The thought took him by surprise; his job as sheriff had been many things over the years: dangerous, challenging, frustrating, but never before had Roy thought of what he did as unimportant.

 

He grimaced, remembering the day, almost a week before, when Ben had stormed into his office, red-faced and furious, demanding that he deal with Bryant, and in doing so had sent his neatly stacked piles of paperwork flying through the air. With a sick feeling, Roy realized that there would soon be another day, an inevitable day, when Ben would again come to him, this time demanding answers. Would he have the courage to face his friend that day? Would he have any answers to give? If nothing else, Roy could at least give Ben the comfort that Adam had gone to his death knowing his father’s pride. That much he could do for his old friend.

 

Suddenly, the door flew open and Roy, startled, looked up to see his deputy entering the jail.

 

“You find any sign of Joe?” Roy asked hopefully.

 

“Nope, but Hoss is still out lookin’. I come back to see if maybe he’d shown up here.”

 

Disappointed, Roy shook his head as Cal continued.

 

“I run into Ed. He told me to let you know that everything was right on schedule, be ready at dawn for sure.”

 

As the deputy went over to the stove to pour himself a cup of coffee, Roy couldn’t mask the look of disgust on his face at the offhand, seemingly cavalier attitude that Cal had adopted. A young man’s life was going to be ended, a family destroyed, and Roy was infuriated that his deputy didn’t seem to sense the gravity of the situation. However, as Cal turned to lean against the stove, blowing on his coffee, Roy realized that he was doing the young man an injustice. Although sometimes a bit over-enthusiastic for his liking, Cal was simply a man supporting his wife and child, doing his job. None of this was his fault.

 

The same, Roy realized, could be said of Ed. Old Ed Jenkins had been responsible for seeing to the construction and preparation of the gallows for as long as Roy had been sheriff of Virginia City. It was a thankless and gruesome task, but one that unfortunately had to be done. Ed, too, was just doing his job.

 

And what about his own job?

 

Tomorrow it would be his job to hang his best friend’s son.

 

“…time the trap door stuck? Poor feller had to stand there and wait for twenty minutes before he could swing.”

 

In the back of his mind, Roy could hear Cal speaking but, like the droning of an insect, the words were garbled and made little sense. The room, it seemed, had become stifling hot and Roy reached up to pull at his tie, unaware of the trembling of his hands.

 

Cal took a tentative sip of the hot liquid and shook his head. “Guess it’s our job to see nothin’ like that happens tomorrow, huh?”

 

Our job…

 

Gradually, Cal’s words forced their way through the fog that had formed around Roy’s thoughts and, as it lifted, it became clear to the sheriff what he had to do.

 

Roy slowly stood up, the creaking of the chair a counterpoint to the creaking of his stiff joints. He felt a twinge of guilt as, in the corner of his eye, he could see Cal, still sipping on his coffee, unaware that his circumstances were about be dramatically altered.

 

With hands that had become steady once more, Roy reached for the silver star that had adorned his chest for more years than he could remember. Sliding the pin from its position, he loosened the badge and held it, feeling the familiar weight in his hand.

 

Then, heedless of the look of stunned confusion on his deputy’s face, Roy carefully, determinately, placed the badge on the desk and, with a look of grim satisfaction, turned and walked out the door.

 

“Sheriff?” Cal called after him, the confusion in his voice verging on panic.

 

“ROY?”

 

**********

 

For a long moment, Cal just stood, mouth agape, staring at the door in disbelief as the reality of the situation began to sink in. He waited for a minute, then two. Finally, when a full five minutes had passed with no sign that Roy would return, he closed the door and simply stood there, scratching his head, uncertain of exactly what had happened and, more importantly, what he should do about it.

 

Roy had outdone himself this week. Always a mite crotchety, he had snapped at Cal for the smallest infraction, his comments often dripping with sarcasm. Cal had understood, of course; the sheriff had been a longtime friend of the entire Cartwright family. He could be expected to be upset. Cal himself had always been friendly with the boys. Oh, not “Come over for Sunday Potluck” friendly, but he and Adam had enjoyed a beer or two over a hand of cards when the opportunity arose.

 

Like Roy, Cal had held to the hope that Adam would be found innocent but, when the trial had ended and nothing had been brought forth to exonerate him, the deputy had decided it was time to face facts.

 

It wasn’t unknown that Adam had a temper; Cal had witnessed it flare a time or two himself. It was unfortunate, of course, and the town was surely better off without the like of Oren Tate but, well… the law was the law and there wasn’t any amount of wishing that could change that fact.

 

Abruptly, the reality of his new status hit him like a bullet between the eyes. If Roy Coffee didn’t return before dawn, Cal, as acting sheriff, would be expected to carry out Adam Cartwright’s execution himself. He swallowed hard as he realized that the differences…and the responsibilities…of being a deputy paled in comparison to those of being a sheriff. Not quite knowing what his next move should be, he walked over to Roy’s…no, his desk, and sat down, willing his mind to think. There, next to the blotter and inkwell, lay the sheriff’s silver star, staring up at him. He was wracked with indecision; should he put it away? Should he put it on? Angry that now, when he finally had the authority, he couldn’t even seem to make the simplest of decisions, Cal shoved the badge to one side and, elbows on the desk, put his head in his hands.

 

“Roy? Hoss?” Adam anxious voice called out from the cell and Cal let out a muffled groan. Knowing he couldn’t avoid the inevitable, however, he forced himself up and approached Adam’s cell.

 

“Cal, what’s going on? Where’s Roy? Has Hoss come back with Joe yet?”

 

“Uh…” Cal replied, stalling for time as he tried to decide what to do, the speed at which Adam shot questions at him made his head spin. “The sheriff, uh…Roy…he just stepped out for a bit.” Cal put his hand up to forestall the question he could see forming on Adam’s lips. “And ‘no,’ he didn’t say where he was goin’.”

 

Adam tilted his head, eyes squinting. Even behind bars, Adam Cartwright could be quite intimidating and Cal shifted uncomfortably under his scrutiny.

 

“I ‘spect he went out to help Hoss look for your little brother,” he offered, knowing that the statement was, although not exactly a lie, a far cry from the entire truth.

 

Suddenly the office door slammed open, putting an abrupt end to the tense moment.

 

“Sheriff? Sheriff!”

 

Cal rushed back to the front office as a man he didn’t recognize stormed in, breathing heavily and obviously flustered.

 

“Where’s the sheriff?” he demanded as his eyes quickly scanned the room.

 

“He ain’t here right now; I’m the actin’ sheriff,” Cal replied firmly, hoping that, whomever this was and whatever he wanted, he would soon go away.

 

“Well, you’d better come quick then,” the man urged, “There’s been some trouble over at the Lucky Ace!”

 

Cal shook his head firmly. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere. I got a prisoner and I cain’t leave him unguarded. I’m stayin’ right here until the sheriff gets back.” If he gets back, Cal added ruefully to himself.

 

“Are you the law, or ain’t ya?” The man scowled and looked at him derisively. “Now, there’s been a shootin’, and as the law you best get on over there or there’s likely to be some more!”

 

Cal hesitated, cursing Roy under his breath for leaving him in this situation and finding that, suddenly, he was in way over his head.

 

“Cal, what’s going on out there?” Adam demanded.

 

The deputy cringed, knowing before he even turned around that, once again, he had left the door to the cell area wide open. Choosing to temporarily ignore his prisoner, he turned back to the man and inquired, “Have you got the doc…”

 

“Doc’s already on his way, now are you comin’ or ain’t ya?”

 

Frozen with indecision, Cal didn’t know which way to turn. It seemed that, no matter what choice he made, it had the potential to be the wrong one. If Roy did return and found him gone and Adam unguarded, it would mean his badge. If he didn’t go and more trouble broke out…

 

“Deputy,” the man spat angrily, “It’s Joe Cartwright!

 

Sighing, Cal knew that the decision had been made for him. Throwing caution to the wind, he reached in the top desk drawer for the keys to lock the jail and suddenly froze in dismay. In his mind’s eye, he could see Roy walking out the door into the night, the jail keys on a large ring attached to the sheriff’s belt.

 

This just keeps getting better and better, he thought grimly, closing the door firmly behind him.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXXVI

 

The game’s afoot.

~ William Shakespeare

 

“Cal?”

 

Adam stood at the edge of his cell, his hands clutching the iron bars so tightly that his fingers dug into his palms. He held his breath as he strained to hear the conversation that was taking place in the outer office. Although he couldn’t make out everything that was being said, the few words that he did manage to catch struck him with an almost paralyzing fear.

 

“Cal!” he demanded more urgently, “What’s going on out there?”

 

Hearing no response, Adam paused. Just as he was prepared to call again, he heard the distinctive click of the office door closing, and then silence. For a moment, he simply stood in stunned disbelief. Whatever the stranger had said to Cal, it must have been dire, indeed, to convince the deputy, with his fervent attention to rules and regulations, to leave him alone and unguarded.

 

Overwhelmed with frustration and renewed fear, he slammed his fists against the bars. Suspecting that he might already be too late, Adam rushed to the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man… He scanned up and down the street, but he saw no sign of them.

 

Tense as a coiled snake, he paced the length of the cell, stopping occasionally to listen for any sound to indicate that the deputy or Roy had returned. The minutes ticked slowly by and the silence that surrounded him grew more and more ominous as a half dozen different scenarios ran rampant through his mind, each one more deadly than the one before.

 

Did Joe go back on his promise to stay away from the Lucky Ace? In his anger and grief, did he shoot one of Bryant’s men, perhaps Bryant himself?

 

Judging from Joe’s state of mind when they had left the courthouse, Adam had a sinking feeling that anything was possible as far as his youngest brother was concerned. For that matter, from what he had just overheard, there was no way of knowing whether Joe was actually the shooter or the one shot, out there somewhere, wounded, maybe even dead.

 

Adam angrily clamped down on the unwelcome thought. He knew that to allow his imagination to run wild while he was stuck here, unable to go to his brother’s aid, invited madness.

 

And where was Roy? The sheriff had no sooner promised him that he would be there to take care of his family, then had taken off as well. Adam felt what he knew was an irrational surge of disappointment in the sheriff. If Roy wasn’t aware that Joe was in trouble, then how in Heaven’s name would he be able to help?

 

Finally, the sound of a knob turning and the door opening stopped him in his tracks. Almost weak with relief, he grasped the iron bars again for support. His nerves were so raw that any news, even bad news, was preferable to the excruciating agony of ignorance.

 

“Cal?”

 

Silence. He waited a moment more, then tentatively called again.

 

“Roy?”

 

Hearing no response, Adam tensed and willed his breathing to slow, all of his senses suddenly on full alert. One step, then two…the footfalls that were making their way to the cell area were too measured, too stealthy, to be either Roy or the deputy, and Adam had the uncomfortable feeling that he was being stalked, predator against prey. With alarm bells going off in his head and the hair on the back of his neck standing on end, he searched around desperately with his eyes, then almost laughed at the ridiculousness of his situation. In the eight by five foot cell there was certainly no place for a man to hide, even in hopes of taking his stalker by surprise. Realizing that he was as vulnerable as a rabbit in a snare, Adam stood, squared his shoulders, and prepared to meet his fate head on.

 

**********

 

“Bryant.”

 

It was uttered as a statement, the confirmation of a disagreeable fact, but even the mere name left a distaste in his mouth. Somehow, Adam had known that his unwelcome visitor could have been no other, and it was a small consolation that, at least in this, his instincts hadn’t failed him.

 

Bryant casually leaned on the doorframe, taking a long draw of the cigar in his mouth. Exhaling, he sent billows of smoke swirling toward Adam’s cell, while the smile on his face remained deceptively benevolent.

 

“Evening, Cartwright.”

 

Adam shot him a mute glare, but inside his mind was racing. A man like Bryant did nothing without a reason and he was no fool. It could hardly be a coincidence that he had appeared just moments after the deputy had left. Adam wondered why, with Bryant’s goal of a hanging now within sight, he would even take the chance of showing up at the jail.

 

“What’s the matter, Cartwright?” Bryant goaded, with an air of mock disappointment. “You don’t seem happy to see me.”

 

Adam’s jaw tightened as he struggled to control his rage. In his vulnerable position he couldn’t afford to allow himself to be baited into losing his temper. Whatever game Bryant was playing, Adam knew it could be to his advantage to play along, temporarily; to allow Bryant to become comfortable in the knowledge that he had the upper hand. Still, it infuriated him; his brother’s life, not to mention his father’s and his own, were not games to him.

 

“Why are you here, Bryant?”

 

With a smile on his face that could never be mistaken as sincere, Bryant replied. “Why, merely to pay my respects, of course.”

 

“And to provide yourself with a handy alibi, no doubt,” Adam countered.

 

Bryant shrugged and inclined his head, neither confirming nor denying the accusation, and Adam felt his fear for his brother’s life increase tenfold. Bryant had a long arm and enough men to do his bidding. The simple fact that he hadn’t denied the need for an alibi confirmed what Adam had feared since they had returned to the jail and found Joe missing. If he had had any lingering doubts about whether or not Bryant was involved in Joe’s disappearance, Bryant had just erased them.

 

“It will be a pity to lose you, Cartwright,” Bryant continued, “The only man in Virginia City who even came close to being a worthy opponent.” He sighed offhandedly. “Oh, well…can’t be helped.”

 

Despite the distraction of Bryant’s attempts to provoke him, Adam forced himself to clear his mind and evaluate his options, which, he admitted ruefully to himself, were woefully few. He could stall for time, of course. He could keep Bryant talking until Roy or Cal returned, but to what avail? The jail was a public building and Bryant wasn’t committing a crime by being there.

 

There was something to be said, however, for keeping one’s enemies in view and, although Bryant would never willingly implicate himself in any crime, there was always the outside chance that, in his complacency, he could slip and make a careless mistake. When that happened, Adam thought, he would be ready to take advantage of it…in any way he could.

 

Bryant took a few steps toward him and surveyed the cell beyond. “I see it pays to have the sheriff in your pocket,” he said derisively. “I can assure you, the accommodations I enjoyed in Carson City weren’t nearly so posh.”

 

Despite his casual attitude, Adam didn’t miss the bitterness and contempt in his tone. So that was it; that’s what it all boiled down to, retribution for the four years Bryant had spent in the Nevada Territorial Prison, lost years for which he held the Cartwrights responsible. If Adam could somehow use that knowledge, could keep Bryant off-balance…

 

“The way I see it, Bryant, my brothers and I did you a favor.”

 

Bryant shot him an incredulous look, but it held a hint of amusement. With an inclination of his head, he invited Adam to continue.

 

Adam obliged him. “If you would have killed my father, I would have made it my life’s purpose to see to it that you were hanged. You were fortunate to get off with only four years.”

 

Bryant nodded sagely. “Ah…ironic, isn’t it?” He drew his pocket watch from his vest. “But instead, it’s you who is going to experience that unique pleasure.” He opened the watch and studied it. “In just a little over nine hours, I believe,” he said with satisfaction, snapping the lid shut with a theatrical flourish that would have been at home on any stage.

 

As Bryant took a step closer to the cell, the moonlight streaming in from the window danced off of something metallic and Adam found his eyes traveling downward to the gun strapped to Bryant’s hip. Its intricately carved bone handle seemed almost translucent and for a moment Adam simply stared at it, mesmerized. There was something about it, illusive and ephemeral, that unnerved him, like a forgotten name that was just on the tip of one’s tongue.

 

Realizing that he had allowed a moment’s lapse in front of his enemy, Adam shook it off and refocused his mind. He wasn’t surprised that someone like Bryant would choose such an ostentatious display of wealth; wealth gained at the expense of others. He filed the information away for later use; it was another aspect of Bryant’s personality, another piece to the puzzle.

 

“So, you’ve come here to gloat? Is that what this is?”

 

“Oh, gloat is such an ugly word.” Bryant said smugly, “I think “savor” fits the occasion better, don’t you?”

 

Adam felt an almost overwhelming revulsion for the man standing before him. He could think of only one other time in his life when he had been so willing, even desperate, to take another man’s life; a time when he was forced to face the stark reality that his own humanity perhaps didn’t run as deeply as he had always believe it to. He cringed inwardly at the baseness of the thought but, if anything, it had prepared him for the likes of Sam Bryant. Adam understood this man. It wasn’t enough that Bryant had witnessed him being convicted and led away in irons; Bryant’s brand of sadism could only be quenched by personally rubbing his own salt into the wound.

 

Bryant took another step in the direction of the cell. If Adam could just get him to come close enough to the bars, just within reach…if he could get a hand on either Bryant or the gun… Adam held his breath as he anticipated what might be his one and only opportunity, being careful to not telegraph his intentions by glancing down at the weapon.

 

Then, just beyond arm’s reach, Bryant stopped and began to laugh; a heartless, perverted laugh that echoed off the cell walls. Its sound seared a line across Adam’s temple, making his head throb and sending a hand to his forehead as a wave of dizziness washed over him. He forced it back down, stubbornly refusing to show any sign of weakness in front of his enemy.

 

Bryant was toying with him, playing with him like a cat played with a mouse right before the kill, and Adam had lost all patience for the game.

 

“Bryant, where is my brother?” he demanded, his voice cold as steel. “If you’ve done anything to him, if you’ve hurt him, I swear you won’t live to see another day.” It was an empty threat, they both knew it, but regardless, Adam meant every word.

 

Bryant looked at him, the epitome of innocence. “Cartwright, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He donned a mask of sympathy. “Maybe they’ve gone to console your poor, grieving father,” he suggested, his lip curling in a contemptuous sneer.

 

At the mention of his father, Adam’s face blanched.

 

“Do you mean to tell me that he doesn’t know?” Bryant’s voice rose in pitch, filled with surprised delight. “Ben Cartwright doesn’t know that his son is going to hang tomorrow for murder?”

 

Rubbing his hands together in eager anticipation like a child on Christmas morning, Bryant turned abruptly and headed for the door, his maniacal laughter filling every corner of the room.

 

“Bryant?”

 

Adam called after him as the pounding in his head increased, its intensity matched only by his sense of foreboding.

 

“BRYANT!”

 

As the door to the jail closed once more and the sadistic laughter faded into the night, Adam sank down onto the cot, clutching his head as fragments of memories were thrust upon him. Suddenly, like the memory of a vision of hell, what he had once believed to be his worse nightmare had become reality and Adam knew where he had heard that laugh once before.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXXVII

 

We often give our enemies the means of our own destruction.

~ Aesop

 

Bryant turned down a side street and pressed his back against the building, concealing himself in the shadows. The irony of the situation amused him. This was his town, its citizens lived in fear of him, his men saw to it that his orders were carried out. It had been a long time since he had felt the need to slink down alleyways like a common criminal. Tonight, however, was different. Tonight it would pay to be prudent in certain matters. Tonight he had something that he wanted to tend to personally.

 

As Bryant waited for the street to clear so that he could continue unnoticed, he forced himself to remain calm and in control. An underlying current of excitement and anticipation had been building within him all day, but to yield to it, to make haste now, would be reckless. He could afford to be patient; things were right on schedule and going exactly as planned.

 

Better than planned, Bryant thought, as a satisfied smile came to his face. He was a wealthy man, but the little nugget of information that Adam Cartwright had inadvertently dropped into his lap was worth more to him than the richest strike on the Comstock.

 

The Cartwright brothers hadn’t told their father that his precious son had been sentenced to hang for murder! He shook his head, still unable to believe his luck, but the look on Adam’s face had left no room for doubt. He bit back a harsh laugh. He could even feel a measure of sympathy for poor Cartwright, lying there in his driveling dotage as his loyal family kept him in the dark. And for what purpose? To spare his feelings, no doubt. Bryant scoffed; it was that weakness, that sentimentality that would be their downfall. It had simply given him another weapon against them, and they had no one but themselves to blame.

 

Bryant saw his chance and quickly moved down the alley until he was no more than a few doors from his destination. From his vantage point he could see the single lamp glowing in the doctor’s front window and the silhouette of a woman sitting in the parlor. Casting his eyes about, he spied one of his men, positioned near the corner of the house. Nodding, Bryant gave the signal and, crouching low, waited as his orders were carried out.

 

Now, with only moments until his plan came to fruition, Bryant found the wait excruciating. He had spent the last four years waiting…four years sitting in a stinking, cold cell with nothing but the fire of his hatred to keep him warm, a fire that he had tended and nurtured until it consumed him. The Cartwrights had destroyed everything that had taken him so long to build. They had called his bluff, made him appear foolish and cowardly in front of his men and the town. The way Bryant saw it, the old man and his three sons owed him a debt…and now, after four years of little to do but carefully plot his revenge, it was time to pay.

 

While he waited in the shadows, biding his time, he contemplated his enemies. Regardless of how long Bryant had studied the man, Ben Cartwright still baffled him. No one, in his experience, could have built an empire the size and scope of the Ponderosa without ruthlessness and intimidation. Old Cartwright must, at one time, have been a force to reckon with. Somewhere along the way, however, he had become weak, soft. He had catered to the whims of his friends and neighbors, giving away land that had cost him his own sweat and blood and dispensing his largess to people who could offer nothing in return. It was the type of benevolent “do-goodism” that made Bryant’s stomach turn.

 

The middle boy was a simpleton, of no consequence. He shrugged dismissively. Granted, he was as big as a mountain, but Bryant wasn’t intimidated by physical strength. He had learned as a young man to never use his fists when he could use a gun. And later, never to use a gun when he could hire someone else to use it for him.

 

The youngest, Joe, was a hothead; impetuous and unpredictable. Men like that tended to think for themselves, to not follow orders, and they ultimately caused more trouble than they were worth. Bryant had seen his share even in his own organization, Farmer Perkins, Oren Tate. Sooner or later, they had to be dealt with. If one were smart, he thought to himself, it was possible to deal with them and still come out smelling like a rose.

 

Adam Cartwright, however, had surprised and intrigued him. Never, in his wildest imagination, had he anticipated that the eldest Cartwright boy would have had enough backbone to stand his ground, to keep his word and hang Perkins, even with the threat of his father’s life hanging over his head. Bryant had to admit to himself a grudging respect for the man. In the end, though, Adam, too, had proven himself to be a fool. The man had money, power, and influence, the town sheriff was a close friend, yet he had naively allowed himself to be put on trial, trusting in the law to prove his innocence of murder.

 

Bryant grimaced in disgust. If the Cartwrights were that stupid, then they didn’t deserve the lifestyle they had enjoyed. This evening’s work would leave him no regrets and tomorrow, at dawn, Bryant would be the first in line to watch Cartwright hang. He knew he would savor every moment of it.

 

Bryant focused his attention as his man approached the front door and knocked. Almost immediately, the woman cautiously opened it and they exchanged words. Suddenly, her hand flew to her mouth in horror and, within moments, she had collected her wrap and was hurrying down the street in the opposite direction. Bryant, chuckling quietly in her wake, smiled in satisfaction as he left the shadows and silently covered the last few yards to the doctor’s house. It was amazing, really, how easily people could be manipulated, could be made to believe whatever one wanted them to believe. Reaching the front door, Bryant dismissed his man with a curt nod and entered the doctor’s house alone.

 

Stepping over to the windows, he immediately drew the heavy drapes and cast a furtive glance around the room. The house was silent as a tomb and a slow smile came to his face; his men had indeed done their jobs well. Passing through the parlor, he turned the corner and entered the long hallway. Light, streaming like a beacon through the open bedroom door, led him straight to his quarry.

 

He stopped in his tracks and felt a thrill of exhilaration run through him. There, on the bed before him, eyes closed in sleep, Ben Cartwright lay helpless as a newborn babe. Or, more appropriately, Bryant thought with a wolfish grin, as a lamb to the slaughter. He took a few steps toward the bed as his eyes took in the soft pillow, the warm quilt, the bowl of soup on the bedside table. All the niceties, he thought bitterly. He spied the leather bound book that lay near Ben’s hand and curiously picked it up. Opening the front cover, he scanned the inscription. “To the best Pa in the world. Happy Birthday, Love, Hoss.”

 

He scowled at the heartfelt words, written in a child’s simple scrawl. As a boy, Bryant had feared his own father as any child would. As he grew, he had developed a burning hatred for the man. It wasn’t until he was older and had his own men to control and manipulate, that he had learned to appreciate the example his father had given him.

 

Bryant grimaced as he recalled the repugnant displays of affection, the blind devotion, the cloying sentimentality between Cartwright and his sons. There had been a time when he had thought it all a farce, a ruse. It certainly didn’t resemble any reality that he had ever known. Eventually, however, he had learned to appreciate it for what it truly was; the Cartwright’s Achilles heel…and he would use it to bring them to their knees.

 

With deliberation, he held out the book and let it fall from his hands to drop heavily onto the bed, causing its occupant to wake with a start. Ben Cartwright’s eyes grew wide with trepidation as recognition dawned.

 

“That’s right, Cartwright.”

 

Bryant expelled a mirthless laugh and, taking a step closer, loomed over the bed, his shadow falling like a specter on his adversary below.

 

“Cartwright,” Bryant’s smile evaporated as he abandoned all pretense. “I said it once before, and I’ll say it again now…”

 

He paused, his voice becoming low and lethal, his eyes brimming with contempt.

 

“You never looked so good to me.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXXVIII

 

Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

~ John Donne

 

He stood alone, peering down the long, deserted street as the bell in the distant courthouse turret pealed nine times. The wind, gusting around him, blew up clouds of dust that rose from the dry ground, swirled, and then spontaneously disappeared, carrying with them the dying echo of the last dissonant overtones.

 

Whoever it was, they had chosen well. The stable, located at the end of town, was in an area comprised mainly of stockyards and a few vacant buildings with boards that covered shattered windows. The perfect place for a clandestine meeting, with little chance of interruption or discovery.

 

Swallowing his apprehension, he loosened the leather strap that freed his pistol and, with economy of motion, drew it smoothly from the holster. After one last wary glance up and down the street, he took a deep breath and slowly opened the roughhewn, wooden door.

 

Taking a cautious step forward, he stopped. Frail filaments of sunlight, streaming in from the upper loft where boards hung precariously from loosened nails, illuminated geometric spider webs like the stained glass of a chapel window. With the groan of warped and rusted hinges, the stable door swung shut behind him, its dull thump striking against his already raw nerves.

 

As his eyes adjusted to the diminished light, he took stock of his surroundings. The stable had apparently not been in use for quite some time and had fallen into disrepair. Crates, used for storage and stacked four to five feet high filled the stalls, while rotting tack and broken tools littered the floor. Finger poised on the trigger, he stepped forward once again, his senses taut, but nothing save the plaintive wail of the wind whistling through the cracks permeated the otherwise silent space.

 

The note had said ‘nine o’ clock’; it had said ‘no law.’ He had followed the instructions to the letter, yet apparently there was no one here. A sense of acute discomfort filled him. He didn’t like being at the mercy of anyone, alone and exposed, but he had initiated this plan and now there was little he could do but wait to see how it would unfold.

 

As he moved toward the center of the room, a sudden movement caught the corner of his eye. Instantly tense, he spun on his heels, gun at the ready, then released a shuddering breath as a lone barn swallow swooped down from the rafters to land on the stall below. With a small, nervous laugh he shook his head, feeling slightly foolish, and chastised himself for his overreaction.

 

“That’s far enough, Cartwright.”

 

At the unmistakable click of a hammer being drawn, Adam froze, his body tense in anticipation. It seemed that he wasn’t alone after all.

 

“You just drop that fancy pistol right there.”

 

Adam did as he was told, having decidedly lost any advantage, but resisted the urge to turn around lest he find a bullet in his back. The voice was familiar, but only vaguely so. It didn’t matter, he decided. If whomever it was had information about his father’s shooting, than nothing else was important, and to avenge his father, Adam would deal with the devil himself.          

 

“Kick it out of the way.”

 

Having little choice, Adam once again complied. Someone certainly wasn’t taking any chances. Suddenly, he got the sinking feeling that any information he managed to obtain would be paid for dearly and with far more than mere money.

 

“Now, turn around real slow.”

 

Hands held shoulder high, Adam turned.

 

Standing in the middle of the stable, leaning casually against one of the wooden beams, stood a man slightly taller than himself, a chaw of tobacco wedged in his lower lip, a pistol pointing straight at his head. Adam recognized him immediately.

 

“Oren Tate.”

 

Tate smiled in satisfaction. “I see you got my little note.”

 

Adam hesitated, his mind racing to analyze the situation and weigh his options before he was forced to take any action. After the way his father had stared at Tate in the street outside the mercantile, Adam had suspected that the man had had something to do with his father’s shooting. In fact, he would have been willing to bet that it had been Tate who had pulled the trigger.

 

Certainly, Tate wasn’t foolish enough to incriminate himself, Adam reasoned, yet here he was. For the first time, Adam entertained the notion that perhaps Tate wasn’t responsible, but had knowledge of who was, and that it was information that he was more than willing to sell. With enough Cartwright money in his pocket, it would be possible to make a fresh start for himself somewhere else, out from under Bryant’s iron thumb.

 

Even so, Tate was no choirboy and Adam dare not let his guard down, even for a moment. After all, he was still staring down the barrel of Tate’s gun.

 

“You have information about my father?” Adam’s voice was cold, but steady.

 

Looking amused and decidedly pleased with himself, Tate pulled away from the support of the beam he had been leaning on and nodded. “Well, I guess you could say I’ve got a heap of information about your Pa.”

 

Tate was stalling, Adam realized suddenly, drawing out the suspense for his own sick enjoyment, but he had no choice but to endure it. He could feel the man’s eyes upon him, gauging him to see if the tactic was having its desired effect. Adam could have assured him that it was. His nerves were as tight as wire as he forced himself not to shift from foot to foot in impatience.

 

Tate laughed. “I guess I could tell you how your Pa ought to have kept his nose where it belonged.” He spit the tobacco on the floor. “Ought not to butt in and see things he ain’t got no business seein’.”

 

Adam swallowed hard, his hopes falling around him as he realized that he had been set up. In his desperation to find his father’s shooter, he had willingly walked right into a trap.

 

“Or,” Tate continued cheerfully, “I could tell you all about the look on his face as that slug took him square in the gut. I swear I ain’t never seen nobody look so surprised.” Tate chuckled out loud at the memory.

 

Blood boiling and heedless of his own vulnerability, Adam took a quick step forward.

 

“Not another step,” Tate warned, tightening his grip on the weapon leveled at Adam’s head.

 

Tate’s expression had transformed from wry amusement to a hard, malignant stare, effectively convincing Adam that any move on his part may very well be his last. They stood for a long moment in sharp contrast; Adam, breathing heavily, his eyes flashing fire, and Tate, cool and in control, his eyes frozen pools of ice.

 

Suddenly, Tate’s countenance changed as his face broke into a mocking smile. “I ain’t quite finished.”

 

He came closer, circling, forcing Adam to watch him from the corner of his eye.

 

“I ain’t yet told you about the sound your Pa’s head made when I dumped him off that horse onto the street.” He shook his head, smiling, clearly relishing the reminisce as well as the torment he was currently inflicting.

 

“Almost like a melon just split in two.”

 

Despite his efforts, Adam couldn’t help but do exactly what Tate had intended for him to do; picture his father at the mercy of this callous, twisted, sadistic animal. Loathing rose like bile to the back of his throat as he felt the same things that he knew his father must have felt: helplessness, futility.

 

“I gave you your information, Cartwright,” Tate taunted, “So when do I collect my reward?” Without waiting for a reply, Tate’s mirth spilled over and erupted into raucous laughter.

 

As if suddenly propelled by some inner force, fueled with murderous rage, Adam lunged at Tate, his hand clamping like the jaws of a steel trap on the man’s wrist. Tate, taken unaware, tried in vain to pull free. Eyes locked on his opponent, Adam squeezed until the muscles in his hand spasmed and Tate’s hand opened.

 

The glittering of the bone handle as it passed through the thin shaft of sunlight caught Adam’s eye, diverting his attention for a mere second. It was enough. Suddenly, he folded with a shocked gasp as a knee to the stomach forced the air from his lungs. For an agonizing moment he was helpless, arms cradling his waist, aware of little but the panic of his lungs desperately struggling to suck in air.

 

A shadow of motion was his only warning as Tate followed quickly with a kick intended to shatter bone. With a sickening snap, Adam’s head was thrown back, his vision erupting into a riot of colors, sparkling and swirling, then fading to gray as his consciousness threatened to desert him.

 

Without a second’s respite, a hand grabbed his shirt, yanking him roughly from the floor. In disbelief, Adam found himself being flung into the stacked crates like a ragdoll, collapsing almost gratefully to the floor as the white-hot pain of ribs meeting wood seared his chest.

 

For a long moment he lay amid the debris of splintered wood and struggled to regain his senses. Taking an experimental, hitching breath, Adam slowly opened his eyes, quickly forcing down a wave of nausea as the room spun like a violent vortex around him. His brain told him not to give in, to get up and continue to fight, but the weight of defeat held him down and Adam knew that more than his body had been beaten that day.

 

Squinting into the light, he could make out the blurry outline of Tate, standing over him, chest puffed out in arrogant superiority. His mouth was moving, forming words, but the blood rushing through Adam’s ears, as loudly as the roughest rapids he had ever known, prevented him from making out the words. The violent shaking of Tate’s shoulders and the sadistic smile, however, told Adam all he needed to know. Sheer loathing permeated him as he realized that Tate was laughing, laughing at his defeat, at his father’s defeat.

 

Suddenly, from some reserve deep within him, a fervid rage rose up, consuming him, and heedless of the screaming pain in his ribs and the spinning of the room, Adam launched himself like a projectile. As his head impacted with its target, the blinding pain threatened once again to rob him of consciousness. His force of will triumphed, however, as Tate, taken totally unaware, was hurled backward into a heavy wooden support beam and slid lifelessly to the ground.

 

Like a man possessed, Adam quickly closed the distance, grabbing a stunned Tate by the collar and jerking him upright. With a satisfied sneer on his face that his own family wouldn’t have recognized, Adam drew back his fist and focused all of his fury into an explosive blow to Tate’s jaw. Spinning on his heels, Tate collapsed once more to the ground and lay still.

 

For a moment, Adam simply stood over him, his chest heaving like a bellows, shaking as the force of the impact still reverberated throughout his body. Slowly, though, reality returned and, exhausted, he stumbled unsteadily over to the gun that lay half-hidden amid the straw on the stable floor.

 

Tate, on his hands and knees, was struggling to stand as Adam returned. Grasping him once again by the shirt, he drew Tate up until they were face to face. Shaking with rage, Adam ignored the throbbing pain in his knuckles as he closed his hand tightly around the butt of the gun. Slowly, deliberately, he pulled back the hammer, his quivering index finger resting precariously against the trigger.

 

Blood streaming steadily from the blow to his head, Adam watched Tate’s face anxiously, almost eagerly. This was the man who tried to kill his father, the man who laughed as he threw his father’s unconscious and bleeding body to the street with less compassion than he would that of a dead animal. Adam wanted to make him pay. He wanted to see the same look of fear in Tate’s eyes that his father must have known. He wanted it so badly he could taste it. As their eyes locked, Adam felt a twinge of shame. Although his struggle with Tate might be over, he realized that the struggle within himself had only just begun.

 

Then he saw it, the shadow of fear that, for the briefest of seconds, clouded Tate’s eyes. Releasing the shirt as if the mere touch of it defiled him, Adam let Tate drop unceremoniously to the floor.

 

“Tate, I’m taking you to the sheriff.” His tone offered no hint of apology.

 

“You’re going to stand trial for the attempted murder of my father.”

 

Tate, gazing up at him through a rapidly swelling eye, seemed unconcerned, even amused. Adam’s brow furrowed in confusion. Had he missed something? Although attempted murder wasn’t a hanging offense, it still offered a hefty prison sentence, one he was sure that Tate would be eager to avoid.

 

Glancing over Adam’s shoulder, Tate nodded and began once again to laugh; a shrill, almost maniacal laugh that seemed to echo off the rafters of the stable. A cold sweat broke out on Adam’s back as, from behind him, another, more sinister voice joined in.

 

Knowing with a sinking feeling that it was too late to alter his fate, Adam turned at the exact moment that something as unyielding as tempered steel slammed into his head with a crushing force. As all light seemed to fade, the chimes of the courthouse bell tolling the quarter hour mixed with the fading laughter in his head, completing the counterpoint to Tate’s malevolent fugue.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER LXXXIX

 

To the last I will grapple with thee; from Hell’s heart I stab at thee…

~ Herman Melville

 

The air in the small room lay heavy and thick, weighed down by the oppressive heat that had doggedly persisted even hours after the sun had set. As if standing before an open furnace, each breath was an effort, yet Bryant found it curiously satisfying. He would gleefully stand at the threshold of Hell itself for the opportunity to see the expression of naked fear that he now saw reflected on Ben Cartwright’s face.

 

Reluctantly, Bryant forced his attention away from the bed, his eyes carefully taking in the space around him. There was no movement in the room, save that of a solitary moth, drawn by the alluring siren of the lamp’s flame. As it dipped and circled, its shadow, magnified to grotesque proportions, performed a macabre dance against the far wall.

 

The drapes hung listlessly, without the trace of even a feeble breeze to stir them. Bryant frowned as he noted the open window and quickly made his way across the room. He closed it with an irrevocable snap, cutting off the symphony of summer insects in mid-chorus and, by contrast, amplifying the mute silence of the room.

 

As he prepared to draw the drapes, Bryant caught his own reflection in the window, his features twisted and distorted by the ripples in the glass, the pernicious sneer a harbinger of his true intentions. Replacing it with a benign smile, he turned and faced the bed.

 

“It wouldn’t do for you to catch a chill now, would it?” Bryant asked, feigning concern.

 

Returning to the bedside, he once again gazed down at his adversary. Cartwright looked past him, eyes darting from side to side, as if frantically searching for something…or someone. Bryant shook his head sadly at the invalid’s pathetic efforts.

 

“If you’re looking for Mrs. Miller,” he offered innocently, “I’m afraid that you’re wasting your time.” Bryant almost laughed aloud as Ben’s face fell. “It seems that her son was the victim of an unfortunate accident and she had to leave.”

 

He reached down and pulled the blanket further up under Ben’s chin, fastidiously smoothing it with a reassuring pat. “But we assured her that we would take good care of you.”

 

He straightened back up, admiring his handiwork. “And that’s exactly what I intend to do.”

 

Spying a rocker on the far side of the room, Bryant moved to retrieve it, all the while maintaining his one-sided conversation. “You know, Ben,” he began apologetically, “You must forgive me for being so remiss in my manners. I should have come to see you days ago, but with the trial and all…well, I’m sure you understand.”

 

He glanced back over his shoulder to catch the expression on Cartwright’s face and smiled in satisfaction. The confusion and curiosity mixed with a large measure of distrust and pure, honest hatred was all the verification he needed to assure him that, indeed, Cartwright was ignorant of his son’s impending fate.

 

“I was actually quite surprised that at least one of your boys wasn’t here with you, Ben,” he continued casually, “but I suppose they’re over at the jail spending these last, precious hours with their brother.”

 

Bryant pulled the rocker near the bed and sank into it with a contented sigh. “I’ll admit, it was quite a shock,” he said, acknowledging the confusion on Ben’s face. “A man like Adam, so upstanding, so law-abiding…” Bryant struggled to keep a straight face as he shook his head in a gesture of exaggerated sympathy. “To shoot down an unarmed man…”

 

Ben’s eyes widened for a brief moment, then narrowed in stubborn disbelief.

 

“Do you remember, Ben, I asked you once what it felt like to know you were going to hang?” Bryant’s voice assumed a wistful tenor as his hands moved slowly up to his neck, absently caressing it. “To feel the rope getting tighter and tighter, so tight that you feel your throat swell, you struggle to breathe…” A calculated shudder ran through his body.

 

“I suppose it’s some consolation to know that your son will die at the hands of such a near and dear friend as Sheriff Coffee.”

 

Bryant’s smile widened as he watched Ben’s breathing become ragged and labored. Rewarded by the consternation and horror he saw on Cartwright’s face, he congratulated himself. His words had struck their mark with precision. Now, all that was left was to drive the knife in deeper.

 

“And, of course, the great irony is…” Bryant paused, his eyes melodramatically sweeping back and forth across the room as if to thwart any potential eavesdroppers. Seemingly satisfied, he bent down near Ben’s ear. With their foreheads nearly touching he whispered conspiratorially, “Your son is an innocent man!”

 

Bryant threw back his body, not even attempting to curb the unbridled burst of raucous laughter. Cartwright, for his part, lay on the bed, eyes wide in paralyzed fear, like a wounded animal that had no recourse but to surrender and wait for the killing blow. Bryant watched, fascinated, as Cartwright’s fingers quivered with intense effort, slowly, painfully forming into loose, ineffectual fists.

 

For the briefest of moments, he felt a flutter of disappointment. There was little sport in taunting a defenseless invalid; it required no more skill and finesse than shooting fish in a barrel. But as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone. It didn’t really matter. After all, the animal that fed on carrion savored its meal no less than the one who had stalked and killed it himself. And, like a wild animal, Bryant could almost smell the heady, intoxicating aroma of fear emanating from his prey. Now, having tasted first blood, he felt exhilarated and hungry for more.

 

“Besides,” he chided, “You have absolutely no one but yourself to blame, you know.”

 

Bryant chuckled at the look of confusion that had clouded Ben’s face. “If you hadn’t barged into my office that day, this whole messy situation could have been avoided.”

 

He leaned back in the chair and began to slowly rock, observing Ben’s face closely as they both relived that day. For Bryant, it had been nothing out of the ordinary, an itinerant gambler who had welshed on his debt, an example that needed to be set for others. After all, that was why he had hired Tate. The man had been a bit slow and tended to act first and think later, but he had done his job with a relish that even Bryant occasionally found slightly disquieting.

 

They had just been completing their ‘transaction’ when the door to the alley had burst open and in had stormed Ben Cartwright, full of fury and righteous indignation. The slamming of the door coincided with the sharp report of the pistol as Tate completed his task. The gambler, held in place only by the cords bound tightly around his wrists, had slumped forward in the chair lifelessly.

 

Bryant remembered the look on Cartwright’s face when he stopped in mid-sentence, his jaw slack in shock at what he had just witnessed. Then, before Bryant even had had time to react, Tate had turned and, with a sardonic sneer, had emptied a second chamber of his gun. The effects of the bullet impacting at close range had been unmistakable as blood stippled the walls and floor. Cartwright’s look of shock had transformed into one of disbelief, quickly followed by agony as he sank to the ground, writhing to the accompaniment of Tate’s feral laugh, before becoming deathly still.

 

As Cartwright’s lifeblood pulsed and flowed unchecked to the floor, Bryant grimaced; it was another complication…and he hated complications.

 

Returning to the present, he sighed, his voice imbued with regret that managed to sound almost convincingly sincere. “I wish you hadn’t done that, Ben, I truly do. If you had just minded your own business…” Bitterness crept back into his voice. “But, then, that’s not the Cartwright way, is it?”

 

Leaning over, Bryant peered into Ben’s eyes with genuine curiosity. “Was it worth it, Cartwright? All this because of a two-bit gambler who didn’t amount to the price of the bullet that killed him?” Not expecting an answer, he shrugged and reached over to the bed, retrieving the book he had dropped earlier. Absently, he began to leaf through the pages.

 

“Of course, this does leave us with one small problem,” Bryant continued, his tone carefully neutral.

 

For a protracted moment, the room was once again bathed in heavy silence. Even the moth, having become lethargic from the warmth of the lamp, had ceased its hypnotic dance and come to rest on the bedside table. However, like the calm before a storm, the quiet was delusory, suffused with apprehension and anticipation.

 

Finally, Bryant’s voice, low but with an edge like the rumbling of distant thunder, invaded the silence. “That makes me an accessory to murder, doesn’t it?”

 

Slowly, deliberately, he closed the book. Then, with an abrupt gesture, he slammed it down on the table with a resounding thud. Throwing his head back, he laughed appreciatively at Ben’s startled flinch, as well as the insect’s impromptu execution.

 

With an amused smile lingering on his face, Bryant pushed himself out of the chair and slowly stood to gaze down on his adversary once again. Noticing the beads of perspiration that had formed on Ben’s brow, Bryant reached into his jacket and pulled out a large kerchief. With an almost paternal gesture, he leaned down to wipe the perspiration away, the tense, defiant clenching of Ben’s jaw merely adding to his amusement.

 

“Tate was a fool to shoot you, Ben,” he began conversationally. “It was sloppy. And worse, left me with a mess to clean up.”

 

“Of course, the man never did have any imagination.” He grimaced with distaste. “Do you know, that idiot actually believed that I had intended to kill Adam in that stable?” He chuckled and shook his head. “No imagination,” he repeated, almost to himself.

 

“I must say, Ben, the look of shock on Tate’s face when he took that bullet…it actually rivaled the one on yours,” Bryant continued with a delighted smile. “The best part, of course, was planting Adam’s gun in his own hand!” Unable to contain himself, Bryant laughed heartily, laughed until the tears streamed from his eyes, oblivious of the horrified expression on his adversary’s face.

 

When the laughter had finally subsided, he looked apologetically down at Ben. “Oh, I realize it’s in poor form to gloat, Cartwright, but so rarely do things in life go exactly as they’re intended…I’m sure you won’t begrudge me the satisfaction of a perfectly executed plan, hmm?”

 

Bryant stood unmoving for a moment, savoring the memory. “I only wish I would have been able to stay for the sheriff’s arrival,” he added wistfully. “What I wouldn’t have given to see the expression on your son’s face as he found himself holding the smoking gun.”

 

Finally, as he knew it eventually would, Bryant’s relentless taunting achieved its purpose. Ben’s face was a study in desperation. His mouth, contorted and twisted, struggled to form words, any words, but succeeded in expelling only a paltry few, unintelligible sounds.

 

Bryant viewed him with a mixture of disgust and pity before turning away, as if the sight of such a once vital, powerful man, reduced to the pathetic mumblings of an infant, was more than he could bear to witness.

 

His back to Ben, Bryant began slowly and deliberately wrapping the end of the kerchief around one hand, gripping it tightly in his fist. “Believe it or not, Ben,” he continued, “Adam actually did me a favor by hanging Farmer Perkins all those years ago. I can’t abide my men taking their own initiative. It tends to create problems; little mistakes like the one that landed you here.”

 

Perspiration had broken out on Bryant’s forehead but it was deceptive, a result of the oppressive heat, nothing more. There was no nervousness in him, no hesitancy, only the sweet taste of revenge in his mouth, so sweet that it almost erased the bitterness formed by years of festering hate…almost.

 

“Tomorrow, he’s going to do me another favor when he takes my place on the gallows.”

 

As with all battles, there came a time to deliver the coup de grâce. Bryant carefully twisted the loose end of the kerchief tightly around his other hand. He pulled the cloth taut, gauging its strength before turning to face his enemy one last time.

 

“But now it’s your turn to do me a favor, Cartwright.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XC

 

Honorable retreats are no ways inferior to brave charges…

~ Major General Sir William Napier

 

Single-minded of purpose, Hoss quickly made his way down the long, nearly deserted street, barely able to quell the instinct to break into a full run. At each juncture he would slow and peer down the corridor, his eyes straining, but the dim light from the street lamps barely pierced the darkness of the narrow alleyways and the shadows stubbornly refused to divulge their secrets.

 

It was the stuff that nightmares were made of, and Hoss had been having the same one all week. Over and over he found himself in a race against time, knocking on door after door in a relentless, fruitless search until his knuckles bled, but each time the door had remained steadfastly closed. Sometimes he could sense that he had been searching for his father, other times for Adam. This time, however, it was his brother, Joe…and the nightmare was all too real.

 

He had been everywhere it seemed: the Sazerac, the Bucket of Blood, the Silver Dollar, all the places that his brother had been known to frequent. Small, subdued groups of men, nursing their drinks, would look up as he walked through the door and conversations would abruptly cease. Invariably, words of sympathy and support would be offered, but in the end it was the same story, no one had seen or heard from Joe since the trial.

 

Now, Hoss stared up at the large sign that hung over the sidewalk and absently dashed the stinging perspiration from his eyes. He supposed he had known when he set out to find his brother that there would, eventually, be only one place where his search would finally lead him. As much as he tried to deny the possibility that Joe would be foolish enough to come here, Hoss also knew that he couldn’t return to Adam without at least having explored the possibility. So, taking a deep, steadying breath, he pushed open the heavy, etched glass doors and stepped into the Lucky Ace Saloon.

 

Once inside, Hoss paused to take in the room, wrinkling his nose as a nauseating haze of swirling cigar smoke and cloying perfume immediately enveloped him. In the packed saloon, patrons stood virtually shoulder-to-shoulder, laughing and drinking as barmaids struggled to pry their way through the sea of men without spilling their wares. The piano player added to the frenzy with a hectic tune as the party raged on at a fever pitch, uncommon even for the Lucky Ace.

 

Hoss took another cautious step, hoping that, with the heavy crowd, his presence would go unnoticed while he scanned the room for any evidence of his younger brother. His eyes traveled upwards. The gaping hole that had been created when Roy unloaded his shotgun earlier in the week had already been repaired and a shiny new chandelier now hung in its place. Hoss scowled bitterly; he should have anticipated that a man like Sam Bryant would never allow any evidence to remain that he had been bested. So, while Hoss’ family had been shattered, shattered like the thousands of crystals that had rained down upon them that day, Sam Bryant had barely been inconvenienced.

 

As he continued to survey the room, one of the barmaids spotted him, a pretty young girl whom Hoss recognized from her previous job at the Bucket of Blood. Suddenly, the sound of breaking glass penetrated the din as, in her surprise, she let the tray fall from her hands, sending the drinks flying through the air. While angry patrons mopped the liquid from their clothing, she mouthed her apology to Hoss. The fear and warning in her eyes reinforced his suspicion that a Cartwright wasn’t the most welcome of customers at the Lucky Ace Saloon.

 

Hoss smiled sweetly at her, nodding his reassurance, but it was too late; the damage had been done. Eyes that had turned at the sound of the crash were now either opened wide in surprise or narrowed in distrust and unveiled hatred. Almost immediately, like a wildfire alighting from treetop to treetop, the word spread throughout the saloon.

 

Even without turning around, the hair rising on the back of Hoss’ neck told him that the crowd had closed in behind him, blocking his egress. Silently, he cursed himself, knowing he had once again gone in without a clear plan of action and now had little recourse but to wait and allow events to unfold. However, with Roy at the jail with Adam, Cal on the other side of town, and Joe missing, Hoss realized ruefully that this time there would be no Cavalry to come riding up the hill with reinforcements. This time he was truly on his own.

 

Hoss steeled himself for the inevitable. Once again, he knew he would find himself standing face to face with Sam Bryant; face to face with the man who had been responsible for all of the misery that his family had suffered, and for the misery they would suffer in the future.

 

As if on cue, the murmuring died as the crowd began to part. Hoss, squinting through the thick smoke, watched in surprise as two men, walking side by side, approached him. Although much different in stature, the men bore a striking resemblance to each other, right down to the cuts and bruises that adorned their faces. As they got closer, his surprise turned to dismay and he swallowed hard, not at all certain if his chances to leave the Lucky Ace in one piece had just gotten better – or worse. The younger and smaller of the two was a stranger to him. The older one, however…

 

“This is a private party, Cartwright.”

 

Hoss inwardly winced. He supposed that, with the way his luck had been running, it would have been too much to hope that the altercation he had had with Bryant’s men earlier in the week would go unanswered. The bruises had faded somewhat, but there was no mistaking the eager anticipation in the man’s eyes, and the satisfaction in the knowledge that this time a Cartwright was at his mercy.

 

Despite being woefully outnumbered, despite the crowd closing in from all sides, even despite the hands of the two men before him, hovering near their pistols, Hoss had too much at stake to allow himself to be intimidated. He took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. If it was time to pay the Piper, then so be it.

 

“I come lookin’ for my brother.” Hoss’ voice was low, determined.

 

The two men looked at each other for a moment, then simultaneously burst out laughing.

 

“Well, you’ll find him down at the jail,” the younger of the two chimed, “Only you best not wait too long!”

 

As several men joined in the brother’s joke, Hoss struggled to contain his temper, refusing to give in to their feeble attempts to rile him. By now, he was fairly certain that Joe wasn’t in the crowd, but he couldn’t shake the small itch that told him that his brother was still somewhere nearby, maybe restrained, maybe even wounded. Blocking out the derisive laughter, Hoss peered over the large crowd as he would a herd of cattle and spied a door against the far wall, well-armed men flanking either side. If Hoss’ suspicions were correct, then that heavy oak door with the Private sign painted in fancy gold leaf led straight to Sam Bryant’s office…and possibly even to his brother.

 

Hoss glared at the older of the two men. “I want to see Bryant.”

 

It was impossible for anyone listening to mistake the threat that Hoss’ cold, hard tone implied.

 

“You hear that, boys? He wants to see Bryant!” The older man’s words prompted another round of mocking laughter.

 

“MR. Bryant don’t see nobody lest I say, or he sends for ’em hisself.”

 

Chest puffed up in self-importance, he shot Hoss a look that clearly said that, no matter how much Hoss might hate him, those feeling were returned tenfold.

 

Suddenly, the ominous but unmistakable click of a hammer being drawn back captured Hoss’ attention and he tensed, his muscles constricting instinctively as they prepared to meet this new threat. In front of him, the younger man’s hand eagerly caressed his pistol, his index finger shaking slightly as it sat poised on the trigger. Before Hoss could react, however, a hand shot down in a gesture of restraint, the older man wielding his authority with an almost imperceptible shake of his head.

 

“Cartwright, if you’re smart, you’ll turn tail out of here before I let my brother have his fun,” he warned with blatantly shallow concern. “That is, unless you don’t want to be around to watch your brother hang tomorrow!”

 

Miserably, Hoss admitted to himself that there was little he wanted less than to be around to watch his brother hang. Tonight, however, his first priority was to find Joe; Adam was counting on him and Hoss had no intention of disappointing his older brother.

 

Despite the long odds, Hoss yearned to barrel his way through the crowd, past the shiny brass spittoons and polished wood tables, to use his formidable strength to tear the place apart in search of Joe. As his hands balled into fists of utter futility and rage, however, he came to the realization that this was one fight he couldn’t handle alone. If ever there was a time that he needed Roy Coffee, it was now.

 

Hoss allowed himself one last glance over the crowd to the door on the far side of the saloon. Somehow he knew that, like the endless doors of his dreams, there would be little point in knocking. This one would remain forever closed to him. Reluctantly, he turned to leave.

 

“Cartwright.”

 

Hoss’ back stiffened, stopped by the voice that he had, in such a short time, learned to despise.

 

“We were just about to raise a toast to your dear, soon-to-be-departed brother. Sure you won’t stay for a drink?”

 

As the crowd erupted once more into raucous laughter, Hoss felt the sharp sting of failure. Like Bryant, however, his pride refused to allow him to show it. So, shoulders squared and head held high, Hoss pushed open the large, double doors and stepped once again out into the night. Shaking the dust of the Lucky Ace from his heels, he turned down the dimly lit street, back toward the Virginia City jail…and his anxiously awaiting brother.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XCI

 

But for us there are moments, O, how solemn, when destiny trembles in the balance, and the preponderance of either scale is by our own choice.

~ Mark Hopkins

 

Knuckles white and hands trembling with effort, Adam clutched the thin mattress as the room spun violently around him.           Volley after volley, the memories that had been so elusive now barraged him, sending shafts of searing pain through his head until he feared it would burst. With each throb of his temple a single word echoed over and over, so persistent that he almost dared to believe it.

 

Innocent.

 

Gingerly, Adam released one hand from the cot and wiped the sweat from his forehead, wondering just how much of what he had remembered was reality and how much was merely the desperate wish of a condemned man. He took a deep, steadying breath and forced himself to analyze what he had seen, to sort through the impressions, some vivid, some frustratingly convoluted. Bryant had been in the stable, Bryant had knocked him unconscious, and when he had woken up, Tate had been dead. True, he hadn’t actually seen Bryant’s face but, like a cold fist in the pit of his stomach, the echo of the man’s laughter had lingered in his dreams. Tonight, Adam had heard that laughter again; there could be no other explanation.

 

Almost giddy with relief, he allowed his body to sag, then hastily pulled himself back together when his stomach threatened to revolt. It seemed impossible that, after so many days and nights of torment, believing himself guilty of killing an unarmed man, preparing to face the gallows and the inevitable shame it would bring to his family, that he now knew the truth. He was innocent; he hadn’t killed Tate.

 

Adam’s head snapped up and his body instinctively tensed at the sound of someone opening the door to the jail for the second time that evening. As the unknown visitor approached the cell area, however, Adam released the breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding and relief flooded through him. This time, the footsteps were unmistakable. With steely determination, Adam forced himself unsteadily to his feet and staggered toward the door of the cell to meet his brother. For the first time since his arrest, he was grateful for the solidity of the sturdy iron bars as he leaned heavily upon them for support.

 

“Hoss…Hoss, get in here!” Adam called out urgently.

 

Hoss wasted no time coming in the room, but as he approached the cell, Adam saw him frown and felt Hoss’s eyes closely scrutinizing him. Judging by the way he felt, Adam suspected that the look of concern he received was probably justified.

 

“You okay, Brother?”

 

Impatiently, Adam waved off the concern. “Bryant, Hoss…it was Bryant!”

 

Hoss’ brow wrinkled in confusion. “Adam, just slow down and tell me what…”

 

“No!” Adam cut him off, desperate to make his brother understand; there was no time to ‘slow down,’ no time to waste. Breathing heavily, he tightened his grip on the cell bars as Hoss’s face swam in and out of his unsteady vision.

 

“You tellin’ me Bryant was here?” Hoss prompted, struggling to make sense of his brother’s disjointed words.

 

Adam nodded, relieved that Hoss had understood what he, for some reason, was having so much difficulty expressing.

 

Hoss’s eyes narrowed in fury as he peered closely at Adam once more, visually examining him for any previously unseen injuries. “Did he do anything, Adam?” he demanded, “hurt you somehow?”

 

Adam shook his head dismissively and immediately regretted it as nausea gripped him once more. “Bryant killed Tate, Hoss.” His voice implied a certainty that, if he were honest with himself, he was still struggling with. “He killed Tate and now he’s on his way over to Paul’s.”

 

Hoss held Adam’s eyes for just a brief moment before wordlessly turning toward the door. In that moment, however, Adam witnessed a transformation as his brother’s eyes became hardened steel. No matter how much Adam may have understood and appreciated the reasons for it, it pained him to see his gentle brother so consumed with hatred. He suspected that, if Bryant hurt their father in any way, it would push his brother over the fine edge he had been balancing all week. If that happened, he feared that Hoss wouldn’t stop until either he or Bryant were dead. Miserably, Adam wondered if there would be any Cartwrights left standing when this night…this nightmare…was over.

 

Without hesitation, Hoss took several large, hurried strides toward the door, his hand already reaching toward his holster.

 

“Hoss, wait!”

 

Whether is was the authority in his voice, or merely a lifetime of acceding to his brother’s wishes, Adam didn’t know, but he exhaled in grateful relief as Hoss stopped in his tracks and turned back toward him.

 

“Hoss,” Adam demanded through gritted teeth, “Get me out of here.”

 

Adam had always been able to read his younger brother’s thoughts as clearly as if they had been printed on a page. Now he easily recognized the struggle that manifested itself on Hoss’s face as he debated his very limited options. Adam wasn’t fooling himself. He was well aware that, in his current condition, he could easily prove to be more of a liability to his brother than an asset if things got out of hand.

 

It simply didn’t matter.

 

Despite the spinning room, despite his pounding head and the churning of his stomach, he could see disaster closing in on them from all sides. His family was under siege and he refused to sit idly by and watch it be destroyed. For Adam, there was only one solution and he had to seize it, for all of their lives.

 

Finally, loyalty and faith in his brother shining in his eyes, Hoss nodded his acquiescence.

 

“You got it, Adam.”

 

After his brother left the room, Adam clung to the bars and closed his eyes for a moment as he tried to collect himself. He found it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that in just a few minutes he would be free. Despite his newfound memories, however, Adam realized soberly that there were no guarantees. A lack of solid evidence had led many an innocent man up the gallows steps and there was an even chance that the morning could find him right back where he had started.

 

“Hoss! Hurry it up!” Adam urged impatiently as he felt the walls of the cell close further in upon him.

 

As Adam waited, from the outer office he could hear Hoss rifling through Roy’s desk, slamming drawers in a desperate search for the keys that would release him from his metal cage. He only hoped that it wasn’t too late. He wondered ruefully what Joe would say, now that the jailbreak that his little brother had so strongly urged and that Adam had so vehemently resisted was now imminent.

 

Suddenly, at the thought of his little brother, another memory joined the others, this one much more recent but no less disturbing. Adam felt his heart sink. Although he prayed that this was one memory that wasn’t true, the cold fact had to be faced that Hoss had returned to the jail alone.

 

Deep in thought, Adam started slightly as Hoss rushed back in, not even attempting to hide his panic.

 

“Adam, I can’t find ’em!”

 

Adam stared at his brother in stunned disbelief, devastated that the opportunity that had been within their grasp only moments ago had now been cruelly ripped away.

 

Hoss held something out toward him. “But this here was sittin’ on the desk.”

 

Adam reached out and took the smooth, silver star into his hand. That was it, then, they were on their own…Hoss was on his own.

 

“Hoss,” Adam began reluctantly, “A man came here earlier to get Cal.”

 

Hoss’ brow’s furrowed in confusion at his brother’s sudden change in demeanor. “Adam, we ain’t got time for this,” Hoss argued, “If Bryant…”

 

“Hear me out.” Adam could easily tell that Hoss was chomping at the bit to leave the jail, to get to their father. But, as much as they both felt time pressing upon them, Adam knew he couldn’t keep this from his brother. Hoss had a right to know.

 

“Hoss,” Adam said, trying to temper the urgency in his voice, “There was a shooting at the Lucky Ace tonight.”

 

Hoss’s eyes narrowed as he took in his brother’s words. Adam swallowed hard and nodded, suspecting that Hoss already knew what he was going to say.

 

“The man said it was Joe.”

 

Adam grimaced as he saw the reality of the situation register on Hoss’s face. Save their brother or save their father; it was an impossible choice. Now, however, with Bryant and their father at one end of town, and the Lucky Ace and, quite possibly, their little brother at the other, it was a choice that had to be made.

 

Adam felt his heart wrench as Hoss looked at him in agony, his eyes pleading for him to do what he had always done, to find the solution, to have all the answers.

 

Adam shook his head miserably. The undeniable truth of the matter was that, after tomorrow, Hoss could very well be the only one in their family left to deal with the consequences of this decision. Adam couldn’t add to his brother’s burden with his own wishes. No matter what he decided, Adam knew that this would haunt Hoss for the rest of his life. It had to be his choice.

 

For what seemed like an eternity, the brothers’ eyes locked in silent communication. Finally, Hoss nodded grimly and, turning on his heels, quickly but wordlessly exited the jail.

 

As much as he rebelled against the idea, there was absolutely nothing Adam could do to help any of them now; his life and that of his father and brother were in Hoss’s hands. The thought gave Adam a small measure of comfort, knowing that there was no one’s hands that he could trust more. Exhausted, drained both physically and emotionally, Adam sank back down onto the cot and gazed out the high, barred window. It was always darkest before the dawn, they said. As he stared up into the depths of the Nevada night sky, he realized that dawn was only a few hours away.

 

*********

 

CHAPTER XCII

 

Delays have dangerous ends.

~ William Shakespeare

 

At first there was nothing; no darkness, no light, no sound. He was numb, both in mind and body. Far from being afraid, however, he welcomed it, was grateful for it. From somewhere within, a small but persistent voice warned that there was something weighing on him, plaguing him. Whatever it was, it hadn’t followed him to this place. A door had been closed and this thing that was so terrible that he wouldn’t…or couldn’t…face, had somehow been locked out on the other side of the door.

 

Slowly, to his dismay, the physical world once again began to intrude. Words floated over his head, the faint murmuring of muffled voices, but he found that he couldn’t muster the effort to discern their meaning. The voices were followed by a shrill, scraping whine that his mind registered as the drone of insects. First one, then two, then a whole chorus seemed to join in, the volume of their song rising to a hairsplitting crescendo that was impossible to ignore.

 

He gradually began to be aware of the discomfort of his position. No longer was he floating on air, buoyed by soft swells of dark breezes. Now he was cramped, with sharp objects poking at him from every direction and what felt like stones beneath him.

 

Despite his resistance, he realized that it was useless. The safe, dreamlike state was deserting him, opening him to pain and the reality of a world with a seriously injured father and a brother who was, despite all of their best efforts, soon to be put to death. Suddenly, a sharp thump startled him, silencing the voice from above and jolting him back to full consciousness.

 

Pulling himself upright, Joe gingerly put both hands to his head, hoping that, by the effort he could prevent it from falling off into the bushes. For that was where he now found himself…in the bushes on the side of Doc Martin’s house. As he sat, waiting for the world to stop spinning around him, he cursed himself for his stupidity. Once again, he had stormed off and, angry or upset, it didn’t seem to matter; the results always seemed to be the same.

 

This time it had been Adam’s words to their father that had sent him running out of the room. Joe had heard his brother’s voice, thick with pride, he had seen the reflection of that pride in his father’s eyes. Suddenly, everything had come crashing down on him at once. The reality that Joe had been trying so hard to deny now demanded recognition and he felt as if he the air around him had grown thin as he struggled to breathe.

 

So, as usual, he hadn’t thought, had simply allowed his instinct to run, to deny the pain and shut his eyes to it, to overwhelm him. He shook his head in disgust, stopping abruptly as it sent a stab of pain coursing through him. This was where his instincts had led him, he thought with disgust, lying in the shrubbery with a splitting headache.

 

Suddenly, Joe felt a flash of panic. With a sickening feeling that had nothing to do with the blow to his head, he realized that he had no clue how long he had been unconscious. Adam’s life was now measured in a few, short hours, and Joe miserably wondered how many of those he had wasted due to his own foolishness. Forcing himself to think logically, he looked around him. The night was still very dark; the only light that pierced the alley came from his father’s sickroom window, just a few feet above his head. Joe sighed in relief. It seemed that the dreaded dawn was still several hours away.

 

He tried to stand up, gripping one of branches as the world still revolved around him, and mentally kicked himself. Even wounded, the irony of the situation didn’t escape him. He had been watching Adam like a hawk, determined that none of Bryant’s men would even try to get close to his brother, yet he hadn’t given any concern to his own safety. He had been so wrapped up in his own despair that he hadn’t even heard the two men coming up behind him. For all Joe knew, they could have been there the whole time, waiting. Perhaps they had even followed their group over from the courthouse.

 

Despite the frail light, Joe had immediately recognized the smaller of the two men. Drunk, the young man had clearly been out of his league. Later, stone cold sober and buoyed by reinforcements, he had exuded a lethal confidence. Even as Joe’s hand had instinctively traveled to his vacant holster, he had known it was too late. No sooner had his mind acknowledged the trouble he was in when the gun butt connected with his head and his world exploded in a haze of pain.

 

Finally able to stand on his own, Joe was wracked with indecision as conflicting desires warred within him. Once again, he felt the instinctive need to go back into Paul’s house to be with his father. This time, however, he was determined to subjugate his own needs. There was no doubt that, by now, his brothers would be frantic. He realized guiltily that Hoss would probably be turning the town inside out, searching for him when he should be with Adam. If Joe returned to his father’s room, there was always the real possibility that the doctor would see the state he was in and insist that he lie down, possibly even demand that he submit to stitches. With each stitch unraveling the tenuous thread of time – time that his brother didn’t have – Joe decided that he couldn’t take the risk.

 

Bracing himself on a dubiously strong trellis, Joe stood on tiptoe and attempted to peer into his father’s window, swaying as a wave of dizziness threatened to topple him. Although the drapes had already been drawn, he could see the silhouette of a figure standing like a sentinel over his father’s bed and sighed in relief. Now he could go to his brothers, confident in the knowledge that Paul was with their father, and that there was no one outside of his own family whom Joe could trust more. Besides, he reasoned, Paul was right; his father was getting better every day. God willing, Joe would have a lifetime to spend with him. Adam’s life, however, could be counted in heartbeats.

 

Satisfied that he had made the right decision, the logical decision, Joe pryed himself off of the wall and began to painfully make his way through the dimly lit streets toward the Virginia City jail.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XCIII

 

Guess, if you can, and choose, if you dare.

~ Pierre Corneille

 

Hoss took off at a dead run, the door to the jail slamming in his wake. As the clock in the courthouse turret began to peal, he grimaced, each strike an unnecessary and unwelcome reminder that time was not on his side. At this late hour, the many shops and businesses that lined the normally bustling Main Street were all but deserted. As the last notes faded, replaced by the faint but lively strains of music and laughter wafting over from D Street, Hoss was bitterly reminded that not all of Virginia City was sleeping.

 

He had hated leaving Adam alone, and not only because of the shocking condition that he had found his brother in. Left alone, Hoss worried that Adam still wasn’t safe. Sam Bryant had plenty of men eager and willing to do his bidding and he had a bad feeling…a very bad feeling.

 

Even in his confused state, Adam had been insistent that Bryant was on his way over to Paul’s and that their father’s life was in grave danger. Hoss hadn’t any reason to doubt his brother. Too many things had happened tonight that had been too convenient to be chalked up to mere coincidence: Joe’s disappearance, then Roy’s, the celebration at the Lucky Ace, the man who had come to the jail to fetch Cal, leaving Adam alone to face Bryant. Hoss didn’t yet know what to make of the badge that he had found discarded on Roy’s desk but, all in all, by his way of looking at it, it added up to trouble.

 

Shadows taunted him as he ran as quickly as he could down a deserted alley. His nightmare had returned, this time with a vengeance. As Hoss found himself nearing a crossroads, he stopped reluctantly. This was where the decision had to be made, finally and irrevocably. In one direction lay his father, in the other his little brother; there could be no more postponing. Head down and his hands on his knees, he tried to catch his breath as his chest heaved with exertion.

 

Waiting for his breathing to slow just enough that he felt he could go on, Hoss pulled himself upright. Shaking his head ruefully, he admitted to himself that there had really been no choice all along. Joe, if he were able, would be the first to have his hide if anything happened to their father and he had been in a position to prevent it. It was something the Cartwright brothers had in common. Their loyalty to each other was rock solid, but it was their father who was the cornerstone of that bedrock loyalty.

 

Scowling, Hoss resolutely turned the corner, away from the Lucky Ace and away from Joe, toward the quiet outskirts of town where his father waited, his life literally in Hoss’s hands.

 

He maneuvered as quickly as he could in the fitful light when, suddenly, like the beam from a distant window that barely illuminated the narrow alley way, he felt a glimmer of hope. Just because there had only been one decision, he thought with determination, didn’t mean that he had to like it, or even accept it. Maybe Adam had been wrong. Maybe, in his confusion, he had misunderstood what he had heard. Maybe Joe was out there somewhere, very much alive. Maybe…

 

The memory of the two men, standing like sentinels outside of Bryant’s office brought him back down to reality with a sickening thud. If Bryant was truly on his way to their father’s as Adam had insisted, then what other possible reason could they have for guarding that door unless his little brother… Hoss shook his head to banish the thought.

 

Despondency threatened to overwhelm him but, with the stakes so high, Hoss railed against it. He had made his decision and now he had to focus on the task at hand or risk unimaginable failure. But even as he had made his choice, something inside him wouldn’t admit defeat. Hoss prayed that, somehow, he could still accomplish both; save his father and his little brother. Perhaps there was a way into Bryant’s office from the alley. Hoss couldn’t imagine that someone like Bryant, someone who took no chances, who played every angle, wouldn’t have taken at least the most rudimentary of precautions. If what he had seen inside the Lucky Ace was any indication, Hoss knew that any door to the alley would be heavily guarded. With the cover of darkness, however, and hopefully the element of surprise, he reasoned that, just maybe, he would stand a chance alone.

 

Hoss heaved a sigh bordering on relief, feeling better for having made the decision. He would go to Paul’s house, reach his father in time to save him from Bryant, then rescue his brother from the Lucky Ace. He almost cringed as, in his head, he could hear his brothers’ vocal protests as surely as if there they were standing next to him, and they would be right, of course. It would be tempting fate to go to the Lucky Ace alone again, but with neither sheriff nor deputy at hand, Hoss had no choice. And, he thought sheepishly, it certainly wasn’t the first foolhardy thing he had attempted this week. It would work because it had to work. He had no intention of sacrificing one family member to save another…not if he could help it.

 

Rounding a corner, Hoss was struck with another morsel of agony and, as each footstep brought him nearer to the doctor’s house, his anxiety increased. If, by some miracle, he did manage to get to Paul’s in time to thwart whatever Bryant had planned, would his father ever forgive him for not going to the aid of his little brother first? They had been so worried that they were going to lose Adam, and now it looked as if they might have already lost Joe. How in Heaven’s name would their father cope if he lost both of his sons? Alone, Hoss doubted that he would have the strength or even the will to help his father carry on.

 

With just a few blocks to go, Hoss felt the rock solid fist of hatred building in his stomach until it filled him. The feeling wasn’t a stranger. It had taken up residence in his soul once before, the last time that he had reason to believe that someone had killed his father. Hoss had assumed that, upon learning that his father was alive and well, the hatred had retreated, gone back to the shadows where it belonged, never to be seen again. Now he knew that he had been wrong; it had merely been biding its time.

 

If…he shuddered to think…if he should arrive too late to save their father, Hoss wouldn’t even have to search his soul to know that the outcome would be very different. There wouldn’t be even a trace of the mercy he had shown that day, years before. Arms that could bend an iron bar, muscles as hard as anvils would be put to good use tearing Bryant apart, limb from limb. Hoss was almost surprised at how he relished the thought. He may find himself standing on the gallows next to his brother, but it didn’t matter. Without his family, Hoss would have no reason to go on living.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XCIV

 

The beauty of the soul shines out when a man bears with composure one heavy mischance after another, not because he does not feel them, but because he is a man of high and heroic temper.

~ Aristotle

 

Even in the lingering heat of the day, a gray chill had descended upon him and Adam shivered slightly. He needed to concentrate, to find some way to turn the situation to his advantage, although he bitterly admitted to himself that nothing short of a miracle would do. The room, still spinning leisurely around him, was making it impossible to think clearly. It seemed that, just when he desperately needed his wits about him, they had deserted him at the first opportunity. He needed to think, he needed to…

 

Restlessly Adam stood up and, like a caged animal, began to walk back and forth. He had given up counting how many times during the past week he had resorted to the fruitless action, virtually wearing a path across the narrow length of the cell. Short of putting a fist through the wall, however, there was no other outlet available to dispel his nervous tension. So, with his body taut as a wire and his nerves worn raw, he paced.

 

He was more frustrated and angry than he could ever remember being. Bryant had them over a barrel; they both knew it. He had manipulated them from the beginning, always one step ahead, pulling every string.

 

Adam stopped, his hands clenched in useless fists of rage.

 

The realization galled him. Believing that he had been capable of committing murder had been agony for him. That paled in comparison, however, to the knowledge that he was innocent and still totally useless to his family: He was unable to save Joe or his father, unable to help Hoss, unable to influence any of the events that would shape his family’s future…or his own.

 

Hoss was going into danger, of that Adam was certain. Only moments after his brother had left, it had occurred to him that Hoss would attempt to do what he feared was impossible, to save both his father and Joe. Even as Adam was overwhelmed with love and gratitude for his brother, his heart squeezed in fear. They had no idea of what he would be up against at the doctor’s house, and, if Adam’s suspicions were correct and Hoss attempted to storm the Lucky Ace to find Joe, there was no doubt that he would be heavily outnumbered and outgunned. Miserably, Adam knew that nothing could stop his brother from trying, just as he knew that the results would be disastrous.

 

They desperately needed help.

 

Adam looked mutely at the silver star gripped in his hand, its sharp corners making indentations in his palm. He had forgotten that he was still holding it. Only a short time earlier, Roy had promised to be there for Adam’s family, to take care of them when he couldn’t. Adam had been grateful for his friend’s words. He had believed them because he had needed to believe them. Now it seemed that the sheriff had abandoned them, left without a word, leaving Cal to deal with whatever tomorrow would bring. Frowning, Adam tried to swallow the bitter disappointment that he felt in their old family friend, but it was too large, too fresh. Forgiveness would take time…time that he didn’t have.

 

Almost desperately, he moved to the window and looked out, determined to attract the attention of someone, anyone, who might help them. Adam thought…he hoped…that there were still people in Virginia City who believed in his innocence, who might be willing to take a risk. Abruptly, his thoughts returned to the trial, the laughing and goading of the crowd, the celebration as the verdict was read. Adam closed his eyes tightly as the echo of the judge’s gavel thundered in his head and expelled a mirthless laugh. Perhaps he was deluding himself. Perhaps Bryant’s type of “justice” was what Virginia City had wanted after all.

 

If that were the case, then whom could he trust? If Bryant were true to form, in all likelihood, he had men watching the jail. If Adam made a mistake, alerted the wrong person, then he would be increasing the danger to his brother tenfold. Reluctantly, he retreated from the window. In the end, the point was moot anyway, for the street outside the jail was as quiet as a tomb. Now there was nothing he could do except wait for the sheriff or the deputy to return, wait…and pace.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XCV

 

Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

~ Napoleon Bonaparte

 

With singularity of purpose, Bryant wound the strip of fabric around his hands. As much as he was savoring the moment, he knew that time was short and to postpone the end any longer would be foolhardy. Tighter and tighter he pulled, the veins on his hands swelling in protest, testing the cloth’s strength while simultaneously taunting his victim. Beads of sweat threatened to fall from his face onto the bed below but he resisted the urge to use the handkerchief to stem their flow.

 

He had another, much different purpose for it in mind.

 

Eagerly, he leaned closer, then paused, scowling. Although Cartwright lay mute before him, every line of his face spoke defiance as loudly as if he had shouted it. Reluctantly, Bryant pulled back and studied his victim. He had seen almost every conceivable emotion pass across Ben Cartwright’s face this night, from disbelief to desperation. Every emotion except the one he wanted to see, the one he craved as other men might crave whiskey or women…fear.

 

Without that admission, silent or otherwise, Bryant knew that his victory would be a hollow one, his thirst for revenge not fully quenched. Cartwright was robbing him of his triumph just as he had robbed him of four years of his life and for that Bryant felt his hatred boil. Cartwright was aware of his son’s impending hanging, of his own inevitable death, and yet it still didn’t seem to be enough to break him. Frustrated, Bryant wondered what more would it take to bring him to his knees.

 

He stepped back from the bed, taking stock of the man lying before him. Cartwright had it all: money, land, and sons. Most importantly, he had power, the one thing that Bryant valued above all else, and the one thing that had been just beyond his grasp. Virginia City could have been his dynasty, his Ponderosa, if it hadn’t been for Cartwright and his sons, and now they had threatened to take it from him again.

 

Slowly a smile, totally devoid of any trace of benevolence, began to play on his lips. Satisfied that he had hit upon the one thing that Ben Cartwright valued almost as much as his sons, he turned back to the bed.

 

“I never fancied myself a rancher, Cartwright,” Bryant began, the hunger in his eyes a sharp contrast to the casual, almost conversational tone he had adopted. “But now…well, let’s just say that I’ve taken a notion to acquire a bit of land.”

 

He rubbed his palms together in a gesture of self-satisfaction. “Think of it, Cartwright. Sam Bryant in control of the great Ponderosa! Bit by bit, I’ll take it apart,” he continued. “I’ll destroy your empire like you destroyed mine.”

 

Bryant waited for the reaction he had anticipated, but was rewarded with nothing more than a cold stare. Refusing to be defeated, he added more kindling, stoking the fire of his own hatred. “I’ll mine the land, sully the water, strip the trees…”

 

He leaned down once again, his voice barely more than a hissed whisper. “Then, when I’ve finished, I’ll sit in your chair in that magnificent ranch house and drink a last toast to the Cartwrights…right before I burn it to the ground.”

 

Suddenly, Bryant was interrupted as a sharp thump sounded against the wall of the house and he unconsciously held his breath for several tense moments. Then, upon hearing nothing more than Cartwright’s heavy, labored breathing, he slowly made his way to the window and cautiously peeled back the drapery. As he waited impatiently for his eyes to adjust to the comparative darkness of the alley, the shadow of a man, staggering away from the doctor’s house caught his attention and a flash of fury engulfed him. He had instructed his men to “take care” of the remaining Cartwrights, and yet here was the youngest, his very presence threatening to thwart all of Bryant’s carefully laid plans. Slowly, silently, Bryant withdrew the weapon holstered at his side and stood poised, prepared to deal personally with the unfortunate result of his men’s incompetence.

 

He watched impatiently as Joe Cartwright unsteadily made his way the few steps to the adjacent building and rested heavily against the wall. Every muscle in his body tensed in anticipation, Bryant forced himself to wait and see which direction Cartwright would turn before he took action. Regardless of which way he chose, the decision would seal the young man’s fate forever.

 

He didn’t have long to wait, as Cartwright pushed himself against the wall and turned the corner, leaving his father in Bryant’s capable hands. Reholstering his weapon, a wolfish smile contorted his features and a deep laughter built up within him. Knowing there was now no reason to suppress it, Bryant let it spill forth unchecked as he returned to the task at hand.

 

Standing over the bed, Bryant gazed down at the eyes that, while now questioning, still sparked with defiance. Suddenly, it didn’t seem to matter to him as much as it had just a few moments ago. Cartwright’s defiance had lost its sting, his son’s unknowing and unwitting betrayal had rendered it somehow unimportant. His satisfaction complete, all that remained now was the task itself as, once again, he tightened the cloth in his hands.

 

Unable to resist one final blow, Bryant’s voice became soft, menacing.

 

“Look around you, Cartwright,” he scoffed, “Your precious family, all those loyal friends…where are they now, when you really need them?”

 

A distinctive click cut through the thick atmosphere of the room and Bryant’s spine instinctively stiffened as a familiar voice emerged from the darkened hallway.

 

“I guess you just ain’t lookin’ in the right direction, Bryant.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XCVI

 

I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see. I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my brother, and I found all three.

~ William Blake

 

A sharp thud followed by a hissed expletive caught Adam’s attention as, once again, the door to the jail opened unexpectedly. He gripped the cell bars, his body instinctively tensing in anticipation.

 

“Adam?” A voice called out. “Hoss?”

 

Adam’s face broke into the first genuine smile in days as, breathing a sigh of relief, he sagged against the bars. The heavy weight that had been slowly crushing him all week eased perceptibly. His brother was alive! Vaguely, Adam registered that there was something unusual in Joe’s voice, but he wasn’t given time to wonder about it before Joe staggered into the cell area. One look at his brother and Adam’s relief transformed quickly into alarm.

 

“Joe, are you all right?” Adam demanded. “Where have you been?”

 

Although Joe had arrived at the jail under his own power, it was obvious to Adam that he had reached the end of his strength. His brother’s complexion was waxy and pale, his clothing dirty and in disarray with bits of debris clinging to his hair. As Joe sank gratefully into the waiting chair, he winced sharply, not even attempting to hide his pain. That alone told Adam much of what he needed to know about his brother’s condition. The thin line of blood that ran down Joe’s neck and into his collar wasn’t encouraging and Adam desperately wanted to reach his brother, to examine Joe for himself. Once again, the bars frustrated his efforts.

 

As Joe struggled simply to stay upright in the chair, any hope that Adam had harbored on first hearing his voice was quickly dashed. Whatever had happened, it was obvious that Joe wasn’t fit enough to make it to Paul’s and would only be putting himself, and possibly Hoss and their father, in greater danger if he tried. Adam realized, a little guiltily, that the same could have been said of him just a short while ago when only the locked cell had stopped him from accompanying Hoss. And yet this was different, he told himself; this was his little brother. Adam felt a responsibility to keep him safe and he was certain that, given the circumstances, Hoss would have agreed with him. However, as he looked at Joe, eyes tightly closed and biting his lower lip in pain, he was equally certain that Joe wouldn’t appreciate the difference.

 

“Were you shot?” Adam asked anxiously.

 

“Shot? No.” Joe winced as he touched the back of his head. “Two men jumped me outside of Paul’s. I woke up in Doc’s bushes.” He looked at Adam curiously. “Why would you think…?”

 

“You were just at Paul’s?” Mindless of his decision just a moment ago to keep his brother unaware of the events unfolding at the doctor’s house, Adam couldn’t help but eagerly jump on Joe’s statement. “Did you see anything? Hear anything?”

 

“No, why would I….?” Joe’s voice broke off, his brow creased as he unsuccessfully tried to hide a sharp spasm of pain.

 

If his brother had just come from Paul’s, Adam wondered how he could have missed Bryant. Was it possible that Bryant had been bluffing, that he hadn’t had any intention of harming their father? No matter how much Adam prayed for that to be true, his gut told him otherwise. He had seen the look on Bryant’s face when he had realized that their father had no knowledge of the trial, much less the hanging, and Adam had learned, long ago, to rely on his instincts. They had stood him in good stead and saved his life more times than he could count. He couldn’t afford not to trust them now, not with everything that he counted of value in his life now at stake.

 

“Adam, where’s Hoss?” Joe had taken out a handkerchief and was gingerly dabbing at the gash on his head that still slowly trickled blood.

 

“Out looking for you,” Adam’s answered. Then, being careful not to arouse his brother’s suspicions, he added casually, “I’m surprised you didn’t run into him on your way back from Paul’s.”

 

Joe looked sideways at Adam, embarrassment coloring his face. “I got sort of turned around on my way here,” he admitted sheepishly. “Found myself going up the wrong street and had to double back.”

 

Adam gave a small nod of understanding. For the first time since arriving at the jail, Joe seemed to fully take notice of his surroundings. As the look of pain in Joe’s eyes became replaced with mounting excitement, Adam’s apprehension mounted, as well. He didn’t need to be told what his brother was thinking, and Joe’s next words confirmed his fear.

 

“And Roy? Where are Cal and Roy?” Joe asked.

 

“Joe…” Adam began, the warning in his voice evident. Joe had been advocating a jailbreak almost as soon as Roy had secured the handcuffs around Adam’s wrists it seemed, and now Adam knew exactly where his younger brother might be heading, straight into more trouble than he was currently capable of handling.

 

“But this is it, Adam! This is our chance to get you out of here!” Joe continued as if Adam hadn’t even spoken. Joe began to push himself slowly and painfully out of the chair. “But we’ve gotta hurry, Adam. There’s no telling how long they’ll be gone.”

 

“No, Joe…” Adam spoke as forcefully as his own, still-throbbing head would allow.

 

Joe looked at him, clearly frustrated, and sank back into the chair. He took a deep breath and, through gritted teeth, said emphatically, “Adam, you’re innocent. You didn’t do this.

 

Adam was warmed by his brother’s intense loyalty. He paused for a moment, then allowed the corner of his mouth to rise in a small smile.

 

“I know,” he replied softly.

 

Eyes wide, Joe turned to look at Adam, his jaw dropped. Adam’s smile became even broader at the incredulous expression on his brother’s face.

 

“You know? A few hours ago you were convinced that you were a cold-blooded killer and now…you know?

 

The smile faded from Adam’s face and he nodded soberly. “I remembered, Joe. Tonight…I remembered that Bryant was in the stable. He was the one who shot Tate, not me.”

 

Adam watched as Joe digested the information, knowing how it would sit with his little brother. Bryant had been the catalyst for everything that had happened to their family in the past week and, if Adam hung at dawn, Bryant had, for all intents and purposes, put the noose around his neck. It wasn’t that Joe hadn’t already suspected it but, like it had been for Adam, suspecting something and knowing for certain were two very different things.

 

Joe gripped the arms of the chair and forced himself up. Adam could see by the fresh lines of pain and the beads of perspiration that had formed on his brother’s face what the effort was costing him.

 

“Joe,” he asked warily, “What are you doing?”

 

Joe managed to stand, although shakily, his fury unmistakable. “We can’t let him get away with this, Adam!”

 

Adam heaved a long-suffering sigh. He knew from experience that, when Joe got this way, he was more difficult to harness than a herd of wild horses. Reasoning with him would, most likely, be impossible, but Adam had to try. He schooled his voice, attempting to counterbalance Joe’s impetuosity.

 

“Think, Joe,” he urged. “You’re hurt. You can’t go. It might only make things worse.”

 

“Come with me then, Adam,” Joe pleaded, “You said it yourself. You’re innocent. There’s no reason for you to stay here.”

 

Adam would have given anything if he could have complied with his brother’s wishes, but there was still the small matter of a locked cell and a hanging scheduled to occur within a few short hours.

 

“Let me just find the key and then we can…”

 

“No, Joe…

 

“But Adam…” Joe’s voice rode a fine line between petulance and desperation.

 

“It’s no use, Joe.” Adam sighed heavily. The crushing disappointment he had felt earlier when Hoss had come back to the cell without the keys was fresh once again. “Hoss already tried.”

 

Confusion contorting his features, Joe demanded, “I thought you said that Hoss was out looking for me?”

 

With a tilt of the head, Joe looked at him suspiciously and Adam had the sinking feeling that his brother had finally seen through his attempts at evasiveness. Adam shouldn’t really have been surprised. The brothers were so close that he should have realized that, eventually, Joe would see behind his facade.

 

“What aren’t you telling me, Adam? Where’s Hoss? And where’s Roy? What did you mean when you asked if I had seen anything at Paul’s?”

 

Like rapid fire, Joe shot question after question, not bothering to wait for a reply. With each question, Adam could see that he was becoming angrier, more upset, until finally his injuries asserted themselves and Joe grabbed the cell bars for support.

 

Adam sighed in resignation. As much as he feared for his brother’s safety, as much as he wanted to protect Joe from himself, he had to admit that Joe had as much at stake in this as any of them. A hot temper and a fierce love for his family wouldn’t be enough to protect Joe from Bryant or his men, but Adam knew that he had to let his brother go.

 

Reluctantly, Adam met Joe’s eyes, the loyalty and trust he saw there giving him the courage he needed. Straightly and simply, Adam told him everything: Bryant’s visit, his own memories and fears for their father, Hoss’ hope to reach Paul’s in time…everything.

 

When he had finished, Joe stared at him in mute silence for a brief moment. Then, without a word, turned on his heels and was gone.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XCVII

 

The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

~ William Shakespeare

 

Emerging from the shadows of the darkened hallway, he advanced a few steps and then stopped. Sparing his eyes for only a second, he glanced quickly to the bed where his friend lay.

 

“You alright, Ben?”

 

Ben closed his eyes in visible relief and expelled a heavy breath, managing a slight, uncertain nod.

 

Satisfied, the sheriff refocused his attention on the man who was now his prisoner. Hands that, once stiff and sore, had threatened to fail him were now steady as a rock as he trained his weapon on Bryant’s back.

 

“You just back away nice and slow, Bryant,” the sheriff said calmly, gesturing meaningfully with his gun.

 

Roy’s keen eyes didn’t waver as Bryant, feigning compliance, began to back away. Turning slowly, Bryant’s right hand dropped surreptitiously toward his side, but hadn’t gotten far when Roy spoke up warningly. “Now, you just keep those hands up in the air where I can see ‘em, ‘cause my patience with you is just about worn plum thin.”

 

Disbelief steeped in pure rage colored Bryant’s face as, grudgingly, he raised both hands shoulder high.

 

Roy hadn’t expected Bryant to go peaceably and was somewhat gratified to learn that those instincts were still reliable. He hadn’t survived being a lawman for as many years as he had by underestimating his opponent and, with his own weapon held firmly and carefully out of his prisoner’s reach, Roy relieved Bryant of his gun. As it slid free of the confines of the holster, he nodded in grim satisfaction, the translucent bone handle and intricate carving leaving no question as to the origin of the weapon. It was only then, with the first physical proof of Bryant’s connection with the man who had shot Ben Cartwright firmly in his possession, that Roy could finally allow himself to believe that this nightmare was finally coming to an end.

 

He realized, of course, that the gun was only one nail in the lid of Bryant’s rapidly closing coffin. Although Bryant had conveniently confessed and Roy had heard every word, a judge might require more substantial proof so, protectively, the sheriff secured the gun – Oren Tate’s gun – into his own holster. It might have surprised some folks that Bryant had spoken so freely, admitting his part in the shooting of the gambler, Tate’s murder, and the framing of Adam Cartwright, but experience had told Roy that Bryant’s “confession” was inevitable, it was only a matter of time.

 

Roy had seen his kind before.

 

From the moment he had seen Bryant’s reaction in the courtroom as the doctor had assessed Ben’s condition, Roy had known that it wasn’t just Adam who was in mortal danger, but Ben as well. It wasn’t purely hatred that drove a man like Bryant. It would never be enough for him to merely defeat the Cartwrights. For his triumph to be complete, he needed Ben to know how he had been beaten, and just how thoroughly. Bryant’s kind fed on the recognition, the admiration, of others. They craved respectability and were bitter when they felt it was denied them. Roy suspected that, in some sick sense, Bryant had needed to share his plan with Ben, needed his victim to appreciate the creativity, the “flawless” attention to detail, would perhaps even feel that he was paying Ben a compliment by doing so.

 

It was then that Roy had seen his opportunity.

 

As vulnerable as Ben was, Roy knew that he had taken a calculated but very real gamble with his friend’s life. It had been a risk, but with the stakes so high, it had been one that Roy, grudgingly, had been forced to take. His only consolation had been knowing that his old friend would appreciate the necessity of his tactics.

 

Ben’s sons, on the other hand, had been a different story. Even if there hadn’t been the necessity of searching for Little Joe, there had been no question in Roy’s mind that he couldn’t tell Hoss his intentions. To be put in the position of having to choose between his father’s safety and the chance to exonerate his brother would have weighed far too heavily on the kindhearted young man. Besides, the kind of operation Roy had planned required stealth and Hoss, although as strong as an ox, was arguably equally as graceful as one.

 

His decision not to tell Adam had been considerably more difficult. In the cell earlier, Adam had been as despondent and disconsolate as Roy had ever seen him. It had almost killed him not to ease Adam’s suffering somehow, yet to offer him hope only to possibly see it dashed was something that Roy couldn’t bring himself to do. What was more, he was certain that if Adam had known of his intentions, he would have vehemently disapproved of any plan that might, even for a moment, expose his father to more danger, even if the end result would have secured his own freedom.

 

Roy had promised Adam that he would take care of his family for him, and he had had every intention of keeping that promise. What Adam hadn’t been aware of, however, was that he had made an earlier promise, one that took precedence. A promise to his best friend to take care of Ben’s boys as if they were his very own, made when the young man in the cell was little more than a child. Over the years Roy had tried to remain faithful to that pledge, had watched the boys grow up, had been there for them, often times without their own father’s knowledge. Glancing over at his best friend, he was content in the knowledge that his obligation had now been fulfilled.

 

“You’re a fool, Coffee,” Bryant spat his vitriolic words, “An old fool.”

 

Roy shook his head, pretending to seriously ponder the question. “Well, now, you just might be right about that,” he drawled as he fit the metal rings tightly around his prisoner’s wrists, “But right about now…” Bryant winced sharply as they closed with a satisfying snap, “I’m inclined to think that it might just be the other way around.”

 

Suddenly, Roy heard the front door burst open and he spun on his heels. Moving faster than he had in years, he positioned himself behind Bryant, effectively using his prisoner as a shield between the door and his friend, lying helpless in the bed behind him. With his gun drawn, he stood, poised and ready, as the heavy footsteps quickly moved in his direction.

 

He didn’t have long to wait. Heaving an exasperated but relieved sigh, Roy lowered his weapon.

 

“Hoss Cartwright, ain’t you got no better sense to come thunderin’ in here like that? You like to get your head blown off, boy!” Roy scolded, his expression belying his words as it transformed from anger to delight.

 

“You ain’t exactly the Cavalry, Son, but I ain’t in no position to complain!”

 

**********

 

Hoss thundered into the room, sweat dripping into his eyes and his lungs heaving like a bellows, gun drawn and prepared to deal with whatever he found there. Crossing the threshold, he pulled up short and took in the scene in a glance: Sam Bryant, red-faced with defiance, his hands secured in front of him, the sheriff stepping out from behind him, weapon cocked and ready.

 

All the way over to the doctor’s house, Hoss had been hoping…praying…that this would be the one time that Adam had been wrong, but in the pit of his stomach he knew that his brother’s fears were also his own. Now, upon seeing the broad smile that Roy wore, Hoss finally felt that fear begin to dissolve.

 

“You come just in time to help me get this here prisoner over to the jail.” Roy nodded, offering him a reassuring wink.

 

Still unable to believe that everything was truly all right, Hoss pushed past Bryant to reach his father’s side. He looked down into his father’s eyes, eyes that spoke of relief and exhaustion, but also smiled with joy and Hoss couldn’t help but match the smile with one of his own. He reached down and grasped his father’s hand.

 

“You okay, Pa? Bryant didn’t do nothin’….”

 

A reassuring nod and a weak but definite squeeze of his hand joined the smile in his father’s eyes. Hoss tightened his grip.

 

“You just rest, Pa…me and Roy’ll take care of everythin’.”

 

As he turned away from his father and back to the sheriff, however, the smile evaporated from his lips.

 

“Hoss, if you’ll just take Bryant’s arm here, you and me can…”

 

At the look on Hoss’s face Roy stopped in mid-sentence and squinted questioningly. “Somethin’ else on your mind, Boy?”

 

Glancing quickly back to this father, whose eyes followed his every move, Hoss gestured with his head so that the sheriff would move out of range of his father’s hearing.

 

Not taking his eyes, or his gun, off of Bryant, Roy complied, his own expression now transformed once again into that of concern.

 

“What’s troublin’ you, Hoss?”

 

Hoss lowered his voice and said, “I cain’t help ya, Roy.”

 

Roy started to reply, but Hoss cut him off with a quick shake of his head. “Bryant’s men got Little Joe over at the Lucky Ace and Adam and me got reason to think that he might be hurt.” Hoss couldn’t bring himself to say what he truly feared, that his brother might be more than just “hurt.”

 

“Now that Pa is safe and you got Bryant, I gotta get over there and figger out a way to get Little Joe out of there.” Hoss scowled, knowing that Bryant heard every word he spoke, but it couldn’t be helped.

 

Roy shook his head disapprovingly and Hoss could sense what the sheriff was about to say. He would listen, but it wouldn’t change what he knew he needed to do.

 

“That ain’t a good idea, Hoss, ain’t a good idea at all. Why don’t you help me get Bryant over to the jail?” Roy said, placatingly, “Then you and me and Adam can gather up some men and together we can go over…”

 

“There ain’t no time for that, Roy.” Hoss keenly felt the press of time, knowing that every second that they stood there debating lessened the chances of finding his brother alive.

 

“Hoss,” the sheriff raised his voice, mindless of the ears that strained to hear him. “Use some sense! You got no chance a’gittin’ out of there alive and you know it!”

 

Hoss’s eyes quickly took in the faces that surrounded him, the sheriff’s exasperation and touch of anger, his father’s confusion and concern, and Bryant’s satisfied and mocking sneer.

 

He took a deep breath and expelled it quickly, resolved to do what he knew he needed to do.

 

“I ain’t got no choice, Roy.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XCVIII

 

What makes us so bitter against people who outwit us is that they think themselves cleverer than we are.

~ Francois Duc de La Rochefoucauld

 

“Hoss!” The sheriff’s voice reverberated throughout the doctor’s house. “Hoss Cartwright!”

 

Hoss turned down the darkened hallway, resolutely blocking out Roy’s concern. The sheriff was right, of course, he realized that. Alone, he had little chance of success, but Hoss was driven by the fear that he had already waited too long. To take the time of going back to the jail to lock up Bryant and to collect Adam would take longer than…Suddenly the meaning of the sheriff’s words struck him and he stopped.

 

Adam!

 

A surge of relief washed through him as he realized that, whatever had happened here tonight, it had apparently been enough to convince Roy that his brother was innocent. Hoss hesitated, indecision tearing at him. The temptation to do as Roy had suggested was almost overwhelming. He took a halting step back toward his father’s room, then stopped, reminding himself that Roy hadn’t seen Adam since he had regained his memory, hadn’t seen the shape his brother was in. His thoughts turned to his father, lying helplessly in bed, worried and confused. Didn’t Hoss have a responsibility to assure that at least one of his father’s sons would survive this night?

 

His decision made, he turned and redoubled his pace. Adam would undoubtedly be furious with him, but Hoss would welcome that anger if it meant that his brother was kept out of harm’s way. In jail, Adam was safe. The same, however, could not be said of Sam Bryant. If Hoss’ worst fears were realized and he found Joe wounded…or worse… Hatred rose like bile in the back of his throat. If that happened, he knew with a certainty that even Roy Coffee’s jail wouldn’t be secure enough to keep him from exacting his revenge. It was disquieting to realize how easily, and with how little remorse, the thought occurred to him, forcing him to admit, if only to himself, that he wasn’t the same Hoss Cartwright that he had been a week ago.

 

Rounding the corner to the parlor, Hoss purposefully made his way toward the front door when the sound of slow, measured footsteps on the front porch stopped him dead in his tracks.

 

“Dadburnit,“ he cursed under his breath, angry that, between his eagerness to save his father and his relief that Adam would soon be freed, he had foolishly overlooked the possibility that Bryant would have men prepared to back him up. His eyes quickly scanned the room, searching for a place from which to mount a defense. Skeptically, he considered the doctor’s small settee and dismissed it, opting for a position behind the door as he quickly withdrew his weapon.

 

Struggling to still his breathing, Hoss waited impatiently as the brass knob began to turn, slowly, cautiously. It was obvious that, whoever was on the other side of that door, they had no intention of announcing their arrival. He cocked his gun, carefully timing the click of the hammer to the release of the knob.

 

“That’s just about far enough.”

 

Seizing the element of surprise, Hoss stepped quickly out from behind the door. In one smooth motion, he grasped the jacket of the smaller man, simultaneously pulling him into the room and spinning him around before pressing the barrel of his gun tightly against his temple.

 

“Little Joe!”

 

**********

 

From deep in his chest, a soft chuckle grew until his whole body began to shake with suppressed laughter. Carefully releasing the hammer of his gun, Hoss returned it to his holster. Then, unable to contain himself any longer, he erupted into spasms of delighted mirth.

 

Joe grabbed his brother by the arm. “Hoss, what’s the matter with you?” he demanded, his tone a mixture of confusion and anger.

 

At the shocked expression on his brother’s face, Hoss dutifully struggled to compose himself, but his efforts were in vain. Adam was still in jail, his father was still incapacitated, and Joe looked as if he had wrestled with a thorn bush. Yet, despite these facts, it appeared that, within the span of a few minutes, virtually everything that had gone so horribly wrong in the past week had been suddenly set to rights. Shaking his head, Hoss was almost giddy with relief as he sank down onto the settee.

 

Wiping away the tears of laughter from his eyes, Hoss finally looked up and said, “Little Brother, you sure got good timin’, I’ll grant you that!”

 

Joe refused to be placated. “Hoss, we’ve got to get to Pa,” he urged, “Adam said that Bryant…”

 

“And Adam was right, as usual,” Hoss interrupted, as his expression became sober once again. Pushing himself off of the settee, he looked Joe directly in the eye. “Bryant’s in there with Pa.”

 

Joe’s eyes widened with disbelief. Wordlessly, he pushed his way past his older brother but Hoss, prepared for Joe’s inevitable reaction, caught his arm, restraining him.

 

“Hold on, Little Brother,” Hoss cautioned, “before you go racin’ in there and do somethin’ we’ll all live to regret. Besides, Roy’s got things well in hand.”

 

Joe paused, his sharp eyes narrowing in confusion. “Roy?”

 

Hoss nodded, mirth once again dancing in his eyes. “That’s right, Joe. Roy must have figgered out early what Bryant had planned and by the time I got here he already had him in handcuffs.” He paused, then added gently, “Roy saved our Pa’s life, Joe.”

 

Under his hand, Hoss could feel the tension in his brother’s body subside, as Joe no longer strained against his grip.

 

“But if Roy knew why didn’t he say anything?” Joe demanded, still apparently unable to accept Hoss’s assurances that things were under control.

 

Hoss sympathized with his younger brother. After everything that had happened in the past week, he knew that Joe was probably feeling embarrassed and not a little ashamed of himself at his treatment of their old family friend. It was something that Hoss understood well, having to admit to feeling a measure of the same thing himself. Smiling gently, he released his hold on Joe’s shoulder and gave him an encouraging pat on the back as he steered him toward their father’s room.

 

“You’re gonna have to ask him that yourself, Joe.”

 

**********

 

The sheriff met them just inside the doorway, his gun still firmly trained on Bryant’s back. From Roy’s expression, Hoss surmised that he had heard at least some of the conversation that had occurred in the parlor and had waited, giving Hoss the time he needed to calm his younger brother. Hoss nodded his appreciation and Roy gave him a smile in return before shifting his attention to Joe.

 

“Son, you sure are a sight for sore eyes.” Roy said, his face filled with genuine pleasure and relief.

 

Unable to meet the sheriff’s gaze, Joe averted his eyes and made his way over to his father. As he passed Bryant, however, Joe paused and looked up, shooting him a look filled with hatred, a look that promised retribution. Hoss’s brow creased with concern. He could only hope that Bryant would be granted a speedy trial and justice would be served before Joe could make good on that unspoken promise.

 

As he approached the bed, however, Joe’s features relaxed. He reached down and laid a light hand on his father’s arm.

 

“You all right, Pa?” he asked. Joe’s question to their father had echoed Hoss’s own and, once again, their father wordlessly replied in kind. Relieved, Joe gave his father’s arm a reassuring squeeze, then, drawing in a deep, steadying breath, slowly turned to face the sheriff.

 

Sheepishly, he looked up, finally daring to meet Roy’s eyes. “Sheriff,” he began haltingly, “Roy…I don’t know what to say about the way I…”

 

Roy put up a hand and dismissively shook his head. “Aw, Little Joe, let’s just say that both of us learned a big lesson this week.” The sheriff smiled paternally. “How ‘bout we just leave it at that?”

 

Shyly, Joe nodded, accepting the sheriff’s forgiveness as gracefully as it was offered. As Hoss watched the interplay between Joe and the man who had been there for them since they were children, he couldn’t mask the pride that welled up in him for his younger, no longer “little” brother.

 

An unwelcome voice cut in, dry and steeped in sarcasm.

 

“How very touching.”

 

Instinctively, Hoss reached over to restrain his brother even as Joe lunged furiously for Bryant’s throat. Roy, however, merely gave his prisoner a not-so-gentle shove toward the door. “I cain’t remember hearin’ nobody askin’ your opinion,” he offered smugly.

 

With his hands still on Joe’s shoulders, Hoss maneuvered his brother toward the chair next to their father’s bed. He hadn’t missed Joe’s bruises nor the dried blood that stained his collar. It was obvious to Hoss that his brother had been functioning on sheer necessity alone. Now that the crisis was over, Joe appeared to be near collapse.

 

Gently pushing him down in the chair, Hoss said, “Joe, me and Roy are gonna take Bryant over to the jail. You stay here until Paul gets back, you hear?” As Joe began to reply, Hoss removed the pistol from his holster and handed it to his brother. “I ain’t too comfortable with the thought that Bryant’s men might try to finish what he started. You keep a sharp eye out, Little Joe.” Hoss knew that Joe, who would bristle if he suspected he was being coddled, would be more than willing to comply if the possibility existed of a legitimate threat to their father.

 

With one last glance to assure himself that his brother was staying put, Hoss joined the sheriff and his prisoner in the hallway.

 

“Roy, let’s you and me go get my brother out of jail.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER XCIX

 

The greatest braggarts are usually the biggest cowards.

~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

 

Adam paused in his pacing to peer once more through the iron bars to the deserted street beyond. He had learned not to put his faith in the shadows cast by the flickering street lamp; more than once they had deceived him, giving the illusion that someone…anyone…was coming; offering him hope and then stealing it away. With each passing moment, the sinking feeling in his heart, the one that told him that they had been too late, that their efforts had been in vain, loomed larger.

 

His eyes felt gritty, as if they hadn’t closed in countless hours. As Adam rubbed them and blinked hard in an effort to clear his wavering vision he found, to his surprise, that his hands were shaking. The dizziness he had experienced earlier had intensified and was joined by a relentless pounding in his head that seemed to throb in time to the beating of his heart. His body was screaming at him for rest and was becoming more and more difficult to ignore.

 

Like a tightly spun top, his mind analyzed all the possibilities of how the night might end. Usually it was an exercise that calmed him and helped him form a course of action. This time, however, it only served to increase his anxiety. Bryant could have succeeded in killing their father, Joe could be injured or dead, Hoss could have already met with a similar fate, and he could go to the gallows an innocent man. The whole Cartwright family could be destroyed in one night.

 

While his brother had been at his side, Adam had still had hope, despite the dire circumstances. When Hoss had left, however, it had been as if he had taken the best part of Adam with him, the part that could still muster enough faith to believe that any of them would survive this night.

 

Bitterly, Adam expelled a mirthless laugh and shook his head. Of all the possibilities, there was only one resolution that was acceptable to him, only one that wouldn’t mean the end of his family as he knew it, but here, locked in this cell, he was helpless to affect its outcome.

 

Perhaps Joe had been right all along, Adam thought wearily. Throughout his entire life, he had placed his confidence in the law. He had trusted it time and again and it had never failed him…until now. The disillusionment he felt was almost palpable, the sting as sharp as if he had been betrayed by an old friend. Perhaps if he had done as his brother had urged him to do, had put his faith in Joe instead of the sheriff…

 

Dejected and exhausted, Adam sank down on the cot and buried his head in his hands.

 

**********

 

“You just march yourself right on in through that door.”

 

Adam’s head snapped up with a startled jerk. Like the shadows, it seemed that his body had finally betrayed him as well and he had allowed himself to slip into an uneasy doze. Disgusted with his own weakness, he blinked to steady his vision and wearily pushed himself from the cot, half-walking, half-stumbling until he reached the support of the iron bars.

 

The sheriff’s gun pressed firmly into his back, Sam Bryant moved protestingly into the cell area, his hands joined by the two metal rings that Adam himself had grown to despise. Stopping directly in front of Adam’s cell, the two men’s eyes met, both cold, both suffused with undisguised hatred for the other.

 

His expression unyielding, Adam matched Bryant’s defiance with a full measure of his own. Inwardly, however, he felt his world come crashing down around him. If the sheriff had Bryant in custody, it could only mean that Bryant had committed an act for which Roy could legally arrest him. The knowledge that that act may have been the murder of his father made Adam want to reach through the bars and strangle Bryant himself. Struggling to swallow his rising fear, Adam instead turned to the sheriff.

 

“Roy?” His unvoiced question hung in midair.

 

Before the sheriff was given the opportunity to respond, however, another voice spoke up.

 

“Pa’s just fine, Adam. Roy got there in time and Bryant confessed to the whole thing.”

 

“Just didn’t realize who it was he was confession’ to!” Roy added, his eyes twinkling.

 

Adam’s look quickly shifted from Roy to Hoss, who had followed the sheriff into the room. Despite what Roy had said, Adam needed to see the truth in his brother’s eyes. Hoss had never been one to hide his feelings, nor did he often seem to feel the need to, and this time was no exception. Even in the fitful light of the lantern, his brother’s broad grin was unmistakable.

 

Sobering, Hoss nodded, confirming what Adam was only cautiously beginning to allow himself to believe.

 

“It’s over, Adam,” Hoss said softly, “It’s finally over.”

 

At his brother’s words, Adam felt a surge of relief so strong that his legs seemed no longer able to support him. Tightening his grip on the bars, he struggled to right himself, knowing that there was still one last question that needed to be asked. By the look on Hoss’s face, however, Adam knew that he need not fear the answer.

 

“And Joe?”

 

Hoss smiled, obviously delighted that he could continue to pass along the news that he knew Adam had been so desperate to hear.

 

“He’s at Doc’s, sittin’ with Pa until we can get over there.” Hoss’s face suddenly became serious once again. “Which I’m thinkin’ we should do as quick as we can, Adam. I don’t much like the idea of Joe over there alone.”

 

Adam looked at the sheriff questioningly as Roy nodded in agreement.

 

“That’s it, Adam. You’re free to go.” Then, with mock seriousness, added, “Hoss, seems I got my hands full here. How ‘bout you take these keys and let your brother out of jail?”

 

Breaking into a grin from ear to ear, Hoss replied enthusiastically. “Yes, Sir…I shore will!”

 

Adam smiled, amused and heartened by the alacrity at which Hoss retrieved the keys from the sheriff. His amusement turned quickly to impatience, however, as his brother tried first one key, then another.

 

“Dadburnit,” Hoss swore under his breath as he fumbled with the next key on the ring. Finally, the unmistakable click of a lock being sprung was heard and Hoss swung open the cell door with a triumphant flourish.

 

His view no longer impeded by the imposing bars, Adam hesitated. The moment felt unreal, as if he were surrounded by the hallucinatory quality of a dream. He found himself almost afraid to go forward, afraid that if he moved, he would awaken and find his freedom once again cruelly ripped from him, would find that the nightmares of the past week were still his reality.

 

Hoss tilted his head, eyeing his brother curiously. “Come on, Adam,” he encouraged, “What’cha waitin’ for?”

 

Bolstered by his brother’s smile, Adam took a tentative step across the threshold, then a second. Finally, clearing the door, he stopped. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, marveling at how, in the space of only a few feet, the air had suddenly become so much sweeter.

 

**********

 

“Now it’s your turn, Bryant,” Roy said, the satisfaction in his voice unmasked.

 

The sheriff glanced back and forth between the two cells in the room, seeming to ponder something. Then, having apparently made up his mind, prodded his recalcitrant prisoner into the cell that Adam had just vacated, slamming the door with a definitive clang.

 

Adam flinched and, for a brief moment, found himself back on the other side of the bars, felt the finality as the door slammed behind him, felt the cold sweat of fear break out on his forehead. Almost immediately, Hoss’s hand reached out and gripped his arm, steadying and supporting him. Offering his brother a grateful, if somewhat embarrassed look, Adam shook himself slightly and, with a strength of will he had thought he had perhaps lost, forced himself to relax.

 

Turning to the sheriff, Adam extended his hand. “Thank you, Roy. Thank you for everything.”

 

Roy immediately reached out and met Adam’s hand with his own. No words were necessary as, for a long moment, the two old friends simply held each other’s gaze in silent acknowledgement of promises made and promises faithfully fulfilled. Adam nodded, the muscles in his jaw tightly clenched, as he gave Roy’s hand a final squeeze. Roy, startled, broke the handshake and stared mutely at the silver star that now rested in his palm. Slowly, he raised his head in disbelief as Adam offered him a grin and a conspiratorial wink.

 

“No, Adam, thank you,” Roy replied gruffly.

 

Blinking rapidly, the sheriff turned his back to the cell door and quickly pinned the badge to his shirt with the ease of long practice. When he turned, it seemed to be with a renewed sense of authority.

 

“Samuel Bryant,” Roy began formally, “As Sheriff of Virginia City, I’m hereby officially placing you under arrest for murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy to commit murder.”

 

As the brothers watched in satisfaction, Roy couldn’t resist adding to the litany of charges. “And if I could charge you for all the trouble and misery you put these folks through, not to mention the entire town, then I’d surely add that as well.”

 

“Sheriff, I demand that you…” Bryant began, red-faced in outrage.

 

“You just save it for the judge,” Roy retorted testily, “’though I suspect he’ll have as little patience for you as I do.”

 

Without giving Bryant the opportunity to respond, Roy turned once again to Adam. “Son, I’ve got somethin’ of yours in the office I think you’re gonna want to have back.”

 

Hoss turned and eagerly followed in the sheriff’s footsteps while Adam proceeded more cautiously. He was still keenly feeling the physical effects of the evening’s events and was determined to hide the bulk of them from his brother, if possible. Suddenly, Bryant’s cold voice intruded into his thoughts once more.

 

“Cartwright.”

 

Almost against his will, Adam stopped.

 

“You know it’s not over, Cartwright.”

 

Even without turning around, Adam could feel the loathing that emanated from the man in the cell, could almost see the self-satisfied sneer on Bryant’s face. He felt the debilitating doubt force its way back in, as Bryant had obviously intended, and he clenched his fists in anger. Could Bryant be right, Adam wondered morosely? Was it possible that, despite everything, this nightmare wasn’t finished, would never be over for him?

 

“Adam?”

 

The simple sound of his brother’s voice calling his name was like a lifeline, one that Adam didn’t hesitate to grasp. Squaring his shoulders, he stepped throught the doorway without a backward glance, leaving Sam Bryant to wallow in the misery of his own company.

 

**********

 

By the time Adam joined his brother in the outer office, the sheriff had already retrieved his keys from Hoss and easily sorted through them until he found the one that unlocked his desk drawer. Withdrawing Adam’s holster and pistol he carefully replaced them with the bone-handled gun that he had confiscated from Bryant and relocked the drawer.

 

“You give your Pa my best, ya hear?” Roy said, smiling as he handed Adam his belongings.

 

Adam gratefully accepted the weapons. The simple act of fastening his gunbelt around his waist and securing his pistol did more than anything else to restore his dignity, his self-respect; to convince him that he was…finally…free.

 

Suddenly, the sound of footsteps on the sidewalk caused all three men to tense and instinctively reach for their weapons.

 

Perhaps Bryant was right, Adam realized. Perhaps this wasn’t over.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER C

 

It is the crime, not the scaffold, which is the disgrace.

~ Pierre Corneille

 

Hoss immediately grabbed Adam’s arm and pulled him to the side, shielding his brother with his own body while simultaneously cocking his weapon. They had not just overcome seemingly impossible odds only to be defeated at the last moment by one of Bryant’s men. If anyone had intentions of harming Adam tonight, Hoss thought with grim determination, they would have to go through him to do it and, as far as he was concerned, his brother had no say in the matter.

 

With speed born of experience, Roy had positioned himself behind the door, his hand resting on the knob as he waited in silence for Hoss to indicate his readiness. Hoss spared a quick glance to ensure himself that Adam was, more or less, safely behind him. Other than a quick roll of his eyes and the raising of one quizzical eyebrow, his brother had offered little in the way of resistance and although Adam had his weapon drawn, he seemed prepared to let Hoss be their first line of defense. That alone told Hoss much of what he needed to know about his brother’s dubious physical condition.

 

He gave Roy a perfunctory nod and steeled himself as the sheriff abruptly pulled open the door, hoping to take whoever it was on the other side by surprise. Then, as he had at the doctor’s earlier, Hoss reached out and grabbed their unsuspecting visitor, yanking him unceremoniously into the room.

 

“What the devil?” A voice sputtered in protest, his words muffled as an arm the thickness of a log squeezed tightly around his throat. “Lemme go!”

 

“Cal?” Roy exclaimed in surprise.

 

Hoss released his chokehold on the stunned deputy as the sheriff reholstered his weapon. Then Roy, hands on his hips, shook his head in exasperation.

 

“Ain’t you got no more sense than to come stormin’ in here like that?”

 

The deputy gingerly rubbed his neck and, indignantly pushing himself away from Hoss, studied the sheriff in shocked confusion. “Storming’ in here? Whaddya mean stormin’…?”

 

”Just where’ve you been, anyhow?” Roy demanded, not allowing time for rebuttal.

 

Frustrated with the futility of his night’s work, Cal replied gruffly, “Aw, some feller had me on a wild goose chase all over town lookin’…” He stopped in mid-sentence. “Wait a minute,” he drawled, “Where’ve I been?” Squinting suspiciously at the sheriff, he demanded, “Where’ve you been?”

 

Adam chose that moment to step out from behind the protection of his brother, smiling benignly at the deputy. “Welcome back, Cal.” Adam’s smile broadened as the deputy’s eyes widened in disbelief.

 

“Adam?” Cal’s eyes traveled down to the pistol still in Adam’s hand and, face blanching, he turned worriedly to Roy. If Cartwright was attempting to break jail, the sheriff certainly seemed to be obliging him. “Sheriff, you cain’t just let him go runnin’ around…”

 

“Sheriff!” A voice from the cell room interrupted him. “Sheriff, I demand to see a lawyer!”

 

Roy shook his head and, under his breath, muttered, “Humpf…and I know just the fella for him.”

 

Cal’s jaw dropped as his eyes became impossibly even wider. “That ain’t…?”

 

As the deputy looked at the faces surrounding him, now all smiling indulgently, he finally threw up his hands in exasperation and pleaded, “Would somebody please tell me what’s goin’ on?”

 

Unable to contain himself any longer, Hoss threw his head back and erupted in a laugh that was nothing short of pure relief and was immediately joined by Adam and the sheriff, only adding to the deputy’s confusion.

 

“Roy,” Hoss said, “This one’s all yours. Come on, Adam, let’s get on over to Pa.”

 

As the two brothers left the jail, Hoss’s arm draped affectionately over Adam’s shoulder, he glanced back to see Roy paternally leading the deputy over to the chair.

 

“You just set yourself down, Cal,” Roy was saying soothingly, “I got me a little story to tell ya.”

 

**********

 

Both brothers were still chuckling as they walked out together into the Virginia City night. Hoss couldn’t help but shake his head in wonder at the way things had turned out. If someone had told him earlier in the day that he would be leaving the jail with his brother a free man, he would have been hard pressed to believe them. When they reached the bottom of the steps, however, Adam’s laughter abruptly ceased and Hoss felt his brother’s shoulder stiffen beneath his hand. Following Adam’s gaze, Hoss swallowed hard and, cursing himself under his breath, unconsciously tightened his grip.

 

The moon had risen, bathing the street outside of the jail in a silvery light. Where before the shadows had been soft, blurred by the flickering candles of the street lamps, now everything stood out in sharp, unforgiving relief. The spidery frame of the gallows threw dark, cold shadows on the ground and Hoss felt himself shiver involuntarily. Everything had been meticulously prepared, the thirteen steps, the platform, the crossbeam. All that was lacking was the hangman’s noose and the man condemned to swing by it.

 

Hoss grimaced in distaste at the knowledge that the people of Virginia City considered a public hanging a form of entertainment, one that they attended with gusto. He realized that, despite his capacity as sheriff, Roy would have fought a losing battle had he demanded a more private, more dignified venue, as if there were, indeed, any way to hold a “dignified” execution. At least the scaffold had been constructed beyond the view of Adam’s cell window… at least his brother had been spared that.

 

The townsfolk would still get their hanging, Hoss thought with grim satisfaction, if not the one they had expected. Roy would see to it that Bryant was given a speedy trial and, with luck, the sentence would be quickly carried out. Any attempt on Hoss’s part to muster sympathy would be futile, he realized, and therefore he didn’t even try. Neither, however, did he relish the thought of anyone dying at the end of a rope, even someone as vile as Sam Bryant.

 

Wordlessly, Adam pulled away and, almost irresistibly, it seemed, approached the structure, stopping only when he reached the foot of the steps. Hoss stayed back, watching as Adam stood alone, staring up at the gallows, and for once was at a loss to know what his brother was thinking.

 

Hoss had been in a similar position before, had faced a hanging more than once, and had walked away grateful that he was still alive. Knowing Adam, however, who had always had a tendency to think on things, to ponder them more deeply than Hoss often thought was good for him, he realized that his brother was undoubtedly feeling more than just simple relief. For several long days, Adam had questioned himself, had believed himself guilty of murder. And now, even though he had been found to be innocent, Hoss expected that his brother was finding it difficult to accept. It pained him to know that, although Adam was a forgiving man, that capacity for forgiveness often didn’t seem to include himself.

 

He took a deep breath and made a decision. Whatever Adam may be thinking, Hoss was of the strong opinion that it wasn’t good for a man to spend too much time in the vicinity of the very thing that had been slated to be the instrument of his death. He walked up and joined his brother, looked at him sideways and, reaching over to put a hand on Adam’s shoulder, gave it a quick squeeze.

 

Adam flinched in surprise and a shudder trilled through him that Hoss suspected his brother wasn’t even aware of, as if he were trying to shake away the specter of death that had, until moments ago, held him in its icy grip, and not entirely succeeding.

 

“You know, Adam,” Hoss began quietly, tentatively, “I guess you was right again. I guess trustin’ the law is the best way to go ‘bout things like this.”

 

Suddenly Adam shot him a dark look and Hoss realized sadly that he could still lose his brother to the gallows, but not in the way any of them had anticipated. Deciding to take matters into his own hands, he gave his brother a gentle tug, attempting to steer him away from the visage of death, but Adam stubbornly stood his ground.

 

“Come on, Adam.” Hoss urged.

 

It took some moments before Adam took a deep breath, slowly released it, and turned to him once more. Not quite defeat, not quite sadness, or anger, or a dozen other things, the look Adam gave him was one that Hoss couldn’t remember as having seen on his brother’s face. Not, at least, in a very long time.

 

Hoss tightened his grip and, with gentle determination, tried again.

 

“Come on, Adam. Pa’s waitin’.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER CI

 

It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.

~ Oscar Wilde

 

Back and forth, Joe paced across the doctor’s front parlor. With each footfall, the throbbing in his head intensified until he was certain that it would cleave in two. The pain, however, served its purpose as a constant reminder of what could happen should he let his guard down again as he had earlier in the evening. The possibility that Bryant’s men could still seek some form of retribution was very real and, despite his protection, Joe knew that his father was still very vulnerable. The night was far from over.

 

He wearily rubbed his eyes, willing them to stay open, but knowing that by now he could have navigated the doctor’s parlor in his sleep, if need be. The room had become as familiar to him as his own home. He had learned, by necessity, which pieces of furniture were comfortable enough to sleep on and which would leave a man aching and stiff in the morning. He had learned to tolerate the ponderous ticking of the mantle clock and where the doctor kept his coffee pot. Yet, despite that familiarity, or perhaps even because of it, he found himself feeling more homesick for the Ponderosa than he could ever recall.

 

Turning on his heels to begin yet another revolution, Joe’s boot landed on a loose board, its creaking protest drawing his attention downward. Absently, he noted that the carpet had worn nearly threadbare in spots, undoubtedly from the hundreds of people throughout the years who had required the doctor’s services. He stared at it for a few moments in wonder, then shook himself, smiling self-consciously as he realized how such a small detail could command his attention when his whole world had been in perpetual turmoil for the past week. Then again, Joe thought ruefully, given what they had all just endured, perhaps trivialities like a creaking floorboard and a worn carpet were about all he was up to handling right now.

 

Suddenly feeling dizzy, Joe realized that, despite his stubborn resistance to give in to his injuries, he needed rest if he were to be in any shape to help his father, should the need arise. Reluctantly, he forced himself to sit down just for a moment, just long enough to ease the unrelenting pain that had begun to feel like a metal band around his head. Nervous energy, however, would only permit inactivity for a few moments before it demanded once again that he move, do something, even if it was something as pointless as pacing.

 

On his feet once more, Joe’s mind turned, as it often had since Bryant’s arrest, to Roy’s role in the whole ordeal; there was still a part of Joe that harbored some anger for the sheriff and he couldn’t deny it. Although he knew he had reason to be grateful to Roy, he found he still resented that the sheriff hadn’t let them in on his suspicions or included them in his plans.

 

Roy had treated him as a child and Joe had a right to be angry. After all, it was his father, his brother whose lives had been at stake, Joe justified. Didn’t Roy understand that he had the right to be involved? Somehow he knew he could have stopped Bryant before… somehow he could have… Unconsciously, Joe’s pace increased to match the intensity of his anger until, breathing heavily, he was forced to stop.

 

Closing his eyes for a moment, Joe took a deep breath and shook his head ruefully as his own sense of justice and fair play finally asserted itself. Perhaps Roy had been right, he admitted sheepishly to himself, perhaps he had been too close to the situation to have handled it with the professionalism that the sheriff had known was necessary to apprehend someone like Bryant. But now, thanks to Roy’s common sense and experience, Sam Bryant was in custody, his plan to murder their father had been thwarted and Adam would soon be free, if he weren’t already.

 

Not for the first time, Joe felt a twinge of shame for his treatment of his father’s best friend over the past week. Roy had forgiven him, of course. There really hadn’t been any question that he would. However, Joe didn’t relish the look of disappointment he was sure to see in his father’s eyes when he found out. The information wouldn’t come from Roy, of that Joe was certain, as neither would it come from his brothers. In fact, his father never really needed to know the details, but Joe knew from experience that, until he had confessed his behavior to his father and received his forgiveness, he would never be able to forgive himself. That much he had learned from the Red Twilight incident. The longer he had hidden the truth about his intentions to kill Twilight, the more it had eaten at him. Every time he had looked at his father, he couldn’t help imagining that his father knew everything and Joe would drop his eyes in shame. Finally he hadn’t been able to stand it any more.

 

Telling his father, hearing his words of understanding and forgiveness was the only thing that had been able to lift the burden of shame that had weighed so heavily upon him. This time he wouldn’t wait, Joe determined. When his father was well, he would tell him everything.

 

Right now, however, Joe just wanted to be home, away from Virginia City, away from the curious stares and whispered comments. The town’s treatment of his brother had left him with a bitter lump that he didn’t think would be easily or quickly dissolved. He longed to be back home on the Ponderosa with his family where things were clear, uncomplicated…

 

Lost in thought, the door opening startled him and he spun on his heels as instinct kicked in, the gun Hoss had left with him cocked and ready. Upon seeing who had entered the room, however, Joe broke into a wide smile of relief.

 

“Adam!”

 

Joe searched his brother’s eyes, noting the dark circles, the obvious exhaustion, but also seeing a small spark that had been sorely missing ever since the evening that their father had been shot. He quickly glanced past him to the doorway beyond. Except for Hoss, Adam had come unescorted, the despised handcuffs were gone. Joe could only hope that with them went the guilt and shame that he knew his brother had been harboring all week. Adam was finally and truly free.

 

Adam took a step forward and Joe eagerly met him halfway. Reaching out, Adam cupped his hand behind Joe’s head and pulled him into a strong embrace. With his head buried against his brother, Joe blinked rapidly, relishing the simple contact finally unimpeded by the heavy iron bars.

 

“Welcome back, Adam,” Joe said softly.

 

As Adam heaved a heavy sigh, Joe was shocked to feel his brother’s body trembling and, instinctively, he tightened his grip. For once his stoic, reticent older brother craved reassurance as much as he did and Joe was more than happy to oblige him.

 

“Thanks, Joe.” Finally releasing him, Adam stepped back and asked the question that had become almost a litany for him. “How’s Pa?”

 

Eager to put Adam’s mind at ease, Joe responded. “Paul got in. He’s in there examining him now, but Pa seemed all right.” Noting the skeptical look on his brother’s face, he added, “Honest, Adam.”

 

Nodding, Adam gazed wistfully toward the hallway that led to their father’s room. Joe, anticipating his brother’s next move, laid a hand lightly on his arm and said, “I wouldn’t, Adam. Paul already chased me out.” He grinned sheepishly. “Said I was hovering,” he added.

 

At Joe’s remark, Adam smiled and Joe was gratified to see more of the tension that lately had seemed to have become etched on his brother’s face visibly fall away.

 

Hoss, who had remained silent, apparently content to be an observer of his brothers’ reunion, now chimed in.

 

“Well, no doubt you were, Joe,” he said teasingly, then added in a more serious tone, “There ain’t been no sign of trouble with Bryant’s men?”

 

Joe shrugged. “No, it’s been quiet.” He neglected to add that the quiet alone had been enough to set his nerves on end.

 

Hoss shook his head, seemingly confused. “That just don’t figger. A feller like Bryant’s bound to have men on the lookout for him.”

 

“I imagine that he did,” Adam replied thoughtfully as he made his way over to the doctor’s chair.

 

“Then where are they?” Hoss demanded. “How come they ain’t come to help him, or at least come to get revenge for him? Don’t make no sense.”

 

Joe watched sympathetically as Adam squeezed the bridge of his nose, an unconscious gesture that his brother had adopted that was always a sure sign that a headache had taken hold. Joe wasn’t surprised. If he was barely able to stay on his feet, he could only imagine what Adam must be feeling by this time.

 

“It makes perfect sense,” Adam said wearily as he sank into the chair. “Look, Hoss,” he explained, “A man like Bryant doesn’t inspire loyalty from his men, he inspires fear. No doubt word that he was arrested got around pretty quickly. Once his men saw that Bryant wasn’t someone they had to fear, and more importantly, that he could do nothing more for them, they were quick to abandon him.”

 

Hoss nodded, easily accepting his brother’s theory.

 

Adam was right, Joe thought, it did make sense. It always amazed him how, even when it was obvious that Adam was physically not himself, his brother could still analyze a situation and come up with an explanation. The explanations didn’t always make sense to Joe, but he was slowly learning that, if Adam thought something was so, chances were better than even that it was.

 

Just then Doc Martin stepped around the corner into the parlor. Barely having just sat down, Adam sprung up. Joe could see that his brother was paying for the quick movement, however, as, swaying slightly, he grasped the chair for support.

 

“Paul…”

 

Smiling, the doctor came toward him, hand outstretched. “Adam, I’m so relieved to see you. Joe told me what happened tonight, that Bryant was arrested.”

 

His voice full of remorse, the doctor added, “I’m so sorry I wasn’t here for your father. But when a man came to the door claiming that Joe was shot I…”

 

Joe’s head snapped toward Paul. The doctor hadn’t shared this information with him and his eyes flashed with anger. To learn that he had been used, even without his knowledge, to lure the doctor away and leave his father exposed to danger infuriated him. Disgusted with himself, Joe wondered what other consequences of his impulsive, childish behavior would surface yet tonight.

 

Suddenly, a sickening realization came over him. If Paul had been called away, then who was the figure whom he had seen standing – protectively, he had assumed – over his father’s sick bed? Tightly, he closed his eyes, struggling to remember, to make sense of the images and sounds that had been filtered through a haze of pain. He seemed to recall someone speaking, vague and far away. Logically, he supposed that it could have been Roy but, in his gut Joe knew that it hadn’t been the sheriff. He shook his head sharply, as if the action would negate the horrifying realization that he had, indeed, left his father in the hands of Sam Bryant.

 

Joe felt a hand grip his arm.

 

“You all right, Joe?” Hoss said under his breath. “You’re shakin’.”

 

Joe didn’t trust himself to respond, merely offering his brother a weak smile that he suspected, from the look on Hoss’s face, was less than convincing. Nodding, Hoss directed his attention back to the conversation, but it was several moments before he released his supportive hold on Joe’s arm.

 

“I understand, Paul.” Adam was saying, “Don’t blame yourself. It seems that Bryant had everything planned down to the last detail.”

 

“He just didn’t plan on Roy figurin’ it out,” Hoss added, still eyeing Joe with concern.

 

Paul nodded, his relief apparent. “Yes, Joe told me how he had confessed and Roy heard everything.”

 

“Hoist on his own petard,” Adam replied cryptically. “Appropriate.”

 

Joe’s eyes narrowed in suspicion as Adam and the doctor shared an understanding nod. Hoss looked at him quizzically, as if to ask if Joe knew what they were talking about, but Joe merely shrugged.

 

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Hoss supplied, “But he shore enough was his own undoin’.”

 

The doctor bowed his head in a feeble attempt to hide an amused grin. Adam winked at him, smiled at his younger brother, and replied. “He sure was, Hoss, he sure was.”

 

His expression becoming serious once again, Adam turned back to the doctor. “How is my father, Paul? Did Bryant being here cause….”

 

“He’s exhausted,” Doc Martin replied. “He tried to fight it but fell asleep soon after I arrived, but he’s suffered no ill effects that I can see. In fact, he’s sleeping more peacefully than I’ve seen in days.”

 

“I want to see him.”

 

Joe could tell by the way the doctor was looking at Adam that he didn’t much like what he saw. Joe couldn’t blame him. The gray complexion, the fatigue, the deceptively casual way Adam was gripping the back of the chair, the white knuckles, all pointed to a man who had long ago expended the last of his reserves. However, Adam had never ceased to surprise any of them. Joe knew, as did the doctor, that it would be pointless to try and postpone the reunion of father and son until morning, after they had both gotten some much needed rest. Right now, their father was foremost on Adam’s mind.

 

Resignedly, Paul inclined his head toward the darkened hallway.

 

**********

 

Together, the three brothers stood in the open doorway of their father’s room. Even in the dim light of the solitary lamp, they could see the steady rise and fall of their father’s chest as he lay in a deep, healing sleep.

 

Turning to the doctor, Adam whispered, “When can we take him home, Paul?”

 

Joe held his breath as Doc Martin absently chewed on his bottom lip, apparently debating the question with himself. Finally, he could wait no longer.

 

“So what about it, Doctor?” Joe urged impatiently.

 

Paul offered him a tired but tolerant smile. “His wounds are clean and healing nicely. I think that any chance of infection is well past, and there’s no doubt that a healthy dose of his family and the Ponderosa would do him a world of good…”

 

As the brothers shared a collective sigh of relief, however, the doctor shook his head. “I’d like him to stay another day or two, at least until he’s able to speak. I’d feel better about letting him go home then.”

 

The look on his brothers’ faces told Joe that, like him, they were bitterly disappointed. Adam, however, simply nodded his understanding and stepped silently into the room. The rest of them watched as, gazing down at their father, Adam quietly pulled up the chair next to the bed and sat down.

 

Shaking his head, the doctor followed Adam into the room and stopped at his side. “Adam,” he whispered admonishingly, “You look like you haven’t slept all week. You could do with some rest.” Glancing back to the brothers as if to gather reinforcements, he continued. “I want to keep an eye on Joe anyway. Why don’t you let him stay here tonight with your father and you and Hoss can come back in the morning?”

 

Joe opened his mouth to protest. True, he may be a little worse for wear, but he certainly didn’t need the watchful eye of the doctor… Before he could speak, however, he felt another tight squeeze on his arm and looked up to see Hoss, frowning as he inclined his head toward Adam.

 

“Uh, yeah, Adam.” Joe offered instead. “I’ll stay here tonight. Why don’t you and Hoss go on over to the hotel and get a good night’s sleep?”

 

Giving no indication that he had even heard Joe or the doctor, much less had any intention of acquiescing to their suggestions, Adam simply continued to stare downward. It was obvious to everyone that, short of a stampede, nothing would convince him to leave their father’s side tonight.

 

Hoss stepped forward and, tapping the doctor on the shoulder to get his attention, smiled good-naturedly while shaking his head. Paul returned the smile, gracefully conceding his inevitable defeat.

 

Closing the door behind them, they left Adam alone with his father.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER CII

 

I count him lost, who is lost to shame.

~ Titus Maccium Plautus

 

The footsteps in the hall faded away and, for the first time in what felt like a lifetime, Adam was truly alone with his father. Closing his eyes, he exhaled and allowed his shoulders to sag. He knew his pretense hadn’t fooled anyone, the worried overtones in the whispered voices of his brothers and the doctor were evidence of that. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered anymore; not his injuries, not Sam Bryant, nothing but the man sleeping peacefully next to him.

 

As he moved the chair closer to the bed, Adam’s thoughts returned to…. God, could it have only been this afternoon? He shook his head in disbelief as he stared down wistfully at his father. There had been so many things that he had wanted to say then, so many things that he had needed his father to know. This time it would be different, Adam told himself firmly. This time there was no one waiting for him by the door with iron shackles. This time he wouldn’t be denied.

 

Still, it was with unusual reluctance and the need for a steadying breath that Adam reached out. As his hand neared his father’s shoulder, however, his eyes caught the red welts that still branded his wrists, making him hesitate. The wave of shame that flooded over him, sudden and unbidden, was nauseating and he watched, shocked, as his hand began to tremble violently. Closing his fingers into a fist, Adam chastised himself that there wasn’t any reason for this. He had been set free, his father and brothers were no longer in danger, and yet the aftershocks from this night apparently refused to go away so easily. Grimacing, he lowered his hand, squeezing his eyes shut as the shudder threatened to consume his entire body. Then, tightening his fist until his fingernails dug painfully into his palm, he desperately held his breath until the tremor gradually subsided.

 

Drained and feeling empty and somehow disappointed in his own lack of self-control, Adam leaned back in his chair and resigned himself to a long, uncomfortable night. It was then that his eyes fell on the Bible that rested on his father’s bedside table. He picked it up, frowning as he did so, and brushed it off, allowing the book to fall open naturally. Flipping absently through the yellowed leaves, Adam strained to read a passage or two, but the low light emanating from the lamp made deciphering the scriptures nearly impossible. It didn’t matter, he justified with regret, suspecting that the solace he craved wouldn’t be found buried within the book’s well-worn pages anyway.

 

Then, almost by habit, Adam turned to the inside cover. He didn’t need light to tell him what was inscribed there, knowing it by heart. As he silently mouthed the words, written when Hoss was only a child, he felt some of the tension in his shoulders and back ease slightly. A weary smile graced Adam’s face as he realized, with no great epiphany, that it wasn’t the prophets’ words, or those of the psalms or proverbs, but those of his younger brother that provided him the comfort he sought…as they always had and as he prayed they always would.

 

And yet, seeing Hoss’s words, Adam was reminded of his brief showdown in the deserted street with the gallows less than an hour earlier. He had sensed Hoss’s distress, sensed his brother’s need to offer something, anything that would be of solace. Now, however, Adam found himself suddenly wondering if Hoss really believed in what he had said, believed that the law had been the correct way to handle Bryant, or whether he had just said what he felt his brother needed to hear. Regardless, Adam knew that he had, no doubt, shocked his younger brother with his visceral reaction. If he were honest, he had to admit that he had shocked himself as well.

 

Adam expelled a small, mirthless laugh, then shook his head wearily. Maybe his brother had been right. Maybe he had needed to hear it… he just didn’t know anymore and frankly, he wasn’t certain that he still possessed the energy to care. In fact, there were a lot of things that Adam had thought he had known, things about himself, about the kind of man that he was, that now, in the face of everything that had happened, seemed frighteningly precarious and uncertain.

 

Piercing the silence, the chimes of the mantle clock intruded on his contemplation, causing him to flinch in startled surprise. As the notes gradually faded to discord, Adam, with an apprehension that he didn’t understand, cast his eyes about the small space, seeing it as if for the first time. The room that had once simply served as Paul’s recovery room had suddenly become alien to him. The furniture, the mantle clock, the pictures on the wall, everything was the same, and yet the comforting familiarity was gone. Suddenly, Adam found himself cursing the doctor’s cautiousness. Logically, he knew that Paul was only doing what he thought was best in insisting that their father remain a few more days. Hoss and Joe hadn’t even attempted to hide their disappointment and, truthfully, Adam had had a difficult time concealing his own. He wanted nothing more than to take his father out of this room, this room that should have been a sanctuary but had now been defiled by the presence of Sam Bryant.

 

Despite the knowledge that he was blocks away, secured behind the same iron bars that had so recently held Adam prisoner, Bryant’s presence here was palpable. He was everywhere. Each tick of the clock echoed his mocking, sadistic laughter. Harmless, amorphic shadows on the wall became twisted and menacing as they took shape, coalescing into Bryant’s form as he stood over his father, toying with him, terrorizing him.

 

Decidedly shaking his head, Adam impulsively reached over and turned up the flame in the lamp in a vain attempt to dispel the shadows. The room had become stifling hot and, with a hand that was once again trembling, he wiped the perspiration from his forehead and glanced at the single window on the wall opposite his father’s bed. Frowning, he noted that the heavy drapes had been drawn shut so, with an effort, Adam pushed himself wearily out of the chair.

 

Unsteady and half-stumbling in fatigue, Adam made his way across the room, supporting himself from one piece of furniture to the next until, breathing heavily, he arrived at the window that had been his destination. Reaching down, however, he paused, a cold sweat breaking out across his back as he found himself inexplicably hesitant to draw the curtain. Illogical though he knew it to be, it was as if the barrier of the curtain offered some thin vestige of protection that, if removed, would leave his father and – he reluctantly admitted, himself – exposed and vulnerable.

 

Vulnerable.

 

The word left a sour taste in his mouth, on his soul, and once again the now-familiar wave of shame washed over him, causing the room to swim and bile to rise to the back of his throat. Suddenly, his heart racing in his chest, Adam experienced a fleeting but almost overwhelming urge to run, to escape, but from what he couldn’t explain, didn’t understand. Disgusted with himself that he had allowed what he knew to be an irrational fear to overcome him, even for a moment, Adam grimaced and, with one swift, angry movement, pulled the heavy fabric aside.

 

Steeling himself, Adam slowly raised his eyes, then drew a quick breath in startled surprise at the reflection that met him in the rippled glass. A thin, almost gaunt face with hollow, haunted eyes stared back at him, sending a shiver of recognition through him. As he stared, mesmerized, at the visage in the glass, a sudden, sharp lance of pain seared across his forehead, causing him to wince and grip the windowsill for support. Images and memories, ones that he hadn’t allowed himself to acknowledge in years, flooded him, barraged him, as the past and the present became inexorably intertwined.

 

Throughout the past week, no matter how hard he had tried to deny it, the specter of Peter Kane had been his constant, unwelcome companion, taunting him, mocking him. Everything he had struggled with, everything he had endured, had been colored with an aching familiarity and now he knew why…he had been here before, had endured this before, had hoped to never endure it again.

 

Shaking, Adam gathered himself to look up once more, to meet his doppelganger face to face and, with a courage that he wasn’t sure he possessed anymore, forced himself to recall what had been, up until this past week, the darkest time in his life.

 

In the wavering glass, he saw past his own reflection to the room beyond and, suddenly, he was back in those days immediately following his ordeal in the desert. He had spent a short time in the doctor’s house then, in this very room, in fact, recuperating from the physical effects of the relentless, unforgiving desert. But, as he looked back on that time now, he knew that it had been more than physical symptoms that he had had to overcome, much more, and it hadn’t been just the desert that had been unforgiving.

 

For three days, he had been told, three days that must have felt like an eternity for everyone, his family had taken turns by his side as he fought his way back from exposure, starvation, exhaustion and, although they had no way of knowing, his own demons. When he tried to recall it now, he remembered it as one would a fevered dream, one long night that never seemed to reach the morning.

 

Constant nightmares had tormented him, although why they were called ‘nightmares’ he couldn’t fathom, because they came during the day as well. Dreams, or what could have been fragments of memories, had haunted him. A laughing, twisted face had mocked him, hands tightening around a struggling throat, then one that seemed not to struggle anymore. A surge of triumph had filled him, immediately replaced by revulsion and, yes, shame once again. In his depleted state, he had not been able to understand what the dreams had meant, only that they had left him shaking and terrified.

 

Eventually, as the long, endless night had become day, Adam had awoken to his father’s anxious, but relieved face. How he had longed to ask, to beg, his father to assure him that everything was all right, that his visions has been only that – visions and dreams and not reality. But he had known he couldn’t, for that would have been to admit to his father what he secretly feared that he had done.

 

As the days passed and he had been finally brought home, it had become obvious to him that his family perhaps wasn’t truly aware of what had transpired in the desert. They had been so solicitous, so grateful to have him back, that Adam found himself reluctant to bring it up. Perhaps, he had thought with a mixture of disappointment and relief, no one knew the answers to his questions; questions that, frankly, he had been too afraid to ask.

 

Unable to face his own reflection any longer, Adam let his eyes drop to his hands, white-knuckled hands that gripped the windowsill so tightly they shook in spasms. As his eyes narrowed in confusion, the windowsill, with its chipped and fading paint, was replaced by the gasping body of Peter Kane. Adam could almost feel his leathery skin, pliable beneath his hands, felt Kane’s throat yielding to his unrelenting pressure, could see the other man’s eyes, bulging but filled with a sense of victory and arrogance that made Adam determined to squeeze even harder.

 

Suddenly, despite his own insistence that he hadn’t wanted to kill Kane, that he had only wanted to get away from him, Adam knew that it was a lie. Knew that, in fact, he had wanted nothing more desperately in his life. With a bitter tang in his mouth, Adam admitted that he had wanted, no…longed, to watch the smugness, the superiority fade from this man’s eyes as he breathed his last breath by Adam’s hand. Trembling, Adam realized, finally, that he hadn’t only lied to Kane, but had been lying to himself for years as well. Perhaps he had been afraid that, had he admitted it, he had then indeed crossed that line that Kane had been so expertly, so maliciously prodding him across.

 

With a shock as if he had grabbed fire, Adam released his death grip on the sill and, having lost his tenuous support, faltered and grabbed at the drape instead, praying that it would support him. Leaning back against the wall, he relished its coolness against his aching head as he waited for the world to settle around him. Then, with a feeling of resignation and lacking the strength to support himself any longer, he let his body slide slowly down the wall and wearily closed his eyes.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER CIII

 

I feel within me a peace above all earthly dignities, a still and quiet conscience.

~ William Shakespeare

 

For a long moment Adam sat, his back against the wall, arms resting on his knees, his mind in turmoil as reality retreated once more. This time, however, it was a more recent, although equally disturbing, nightmare as the doctor’s thin carpet was replaced with the roughhewn, rotting boards of the stable floor. With a feeling of surrendering to the inevitable, Adam looked up once again to find himself looking into the face of yet another nemesis. Relentless laughter echoed in his ears as Kane’s taunting transformed into Oren Tate’s, intermingling until, in Adam’s mind, they were virtually one and the same.

 

No! Adam’s mind virtually screamed. He hadn’t killed Kane. As he had regained his health, images from those days in the desert, ones that he recognized as real, not merely phantoms caused by his physically compromised state, had come back to him. Images of shaking hands securing Kane’s body, his living, breathing body onto a travois, of pulling him through the desert until he had finally collapsed himself. Now he knew that he hadn’t killed Tate, either, although he had to admit that his desire to do so had been equally as strong as it had been to kill Kane.

 

How many times would this happen, Adam asked himself miserably. It was as if he were a pawn in a history that kept repeating itself and he had no control, no means of affecting its outcome. Maybe this was why it had taken him so long to remember what had happened in the stable, he realized. Perhaps, as Paul had suggested that morning in the jail cell when Adam had confessed his fears, it wasn’t simply the concussion that was the cause of his loss of memory. Perhaps he had actually been afraid…afraid that this time he would find that he had actually proven to be capable of the heinous crime of which he was accused.

 

For several long days Adam had believed himself guilty of murder. He knew that it hadn’t been the first time…but would it be the last? And now, in the depths of night, surrounded by the dancing shadows and his own fears, he had to admit the truth; that his greatest fear was of himself, of the potential for murder that he was now forced to recognize was a part of him, of what he was capable of becoming.

 

Abruptly, Adam shook his head to disperse the images as the helplessness and vulnerability that had held him in its grip began to be replaced by an intense anger, the force of which almost frightened him. Suddenly, bile rose to his throat as, unable to resist any longer, the meager contents of his stomach spilled out upon the floor, followed by several misery-filled moments in which his body refused to acknowledge that there was nothing left to expel.

 

Finally, his whole body quaking, Adam wiped his mouth and stared in mute embarrassment at the results of his weakness. He felt empty, hollow…as if his sickness was more than just a physical purging, but a spiritual purging as well. Drained, he leaned back again against the wall, unwilling to muster the energy he knew it would take to get up again. As his eyes began to close, however, a slight movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention and he opened them again. The movement was followed by a sound coming from the direction of his father’s bed. It was small, just a gentle sigh, but it was enough to draw him back, to anchor him and remind him that, despite his own disturbing revelation, all had not, indeed, been lost. His father was still with him, his family was still intact.

 

Adam, taking a deep breath and with an exhaustion that felt like a iron weight upon his shoulders, pushed up against the wall and propelled himself back toward his father’s bed. Once again he had cause to be grateful for the support of the furniture along the way and, reaching the rocker, gratefully sank into it.

 

Now, looking down once again upon the peaceful countenance of the sleeping man, he wondered ruefully what his father would think of him if he knew all the things that, because of pride or shame, Adam had kept hidden from him all these years. Odd, he thought to himself, that two such disparate words could be so inextricably linked, as if they were two sides of the very same coin.

 

He had wanted to kill. Now that he had admitted that to himself there was no turning back. Perhaps a “better man” would be ashamed of those feelings but, under the extreme circumstances that Adam had found himself in, he couldn’t bring himself to quite believe that. The “best man” that he knew was lying on the bed in front of him and Adam thought, hoped, that he knew what his father might say…that there was a world of difference between wanting to kill someone, wanting it so badly that you almost lose yourself in the need to do it, and actually committing the act. Surely the measure of a man was more than his thoughts, but his deeds as well.

 

Adam continued to gaze down upon his father, each slow, steady breath infusing him with a calmness that he desperately craved until, as the minutes wore on, the two men were eventually breathing in unison. As the tension in his body began to dissipate, Adam felt the pain in his head ease, could sense his thoughts becoming clearer, more ordered, more ‘his own.’

 

Yes, he had admitted his desire to kill but now he understood that it wasn’t merely “chance” or “circumstance” that had caused him to go the other way. It was, in large part, the man lying on the bed before him. It was a lifetime of values that his father had instilled in him, in all of them, that had made him choose the right path despite the temptation to do otherwise. It was those values that he knew in his heart that he could rely on again if and when similar circumstances arose.

 

Smiling, Adam reached down to smooth the covers over his father’s shoulders, content in the knowledge that his father would forgive him for being human, that there would be no question of his forgiveness, yet wistfully praying for the day when he could actually hear the words from his father’s own lips.

 

Finally, utterly exhausted but more at peace with himself than he had been in years, Adam lowered his head, resting it upon his father’s hand. Within seconds both father and son were sound asleep.

 

**********

 

CHAPTER CIV

 

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

~ Psalms 30:5

 

A dull but relentless pounding pulled him from a heavy sleep. His head felt thick, his thoughts murky and cumbersome. Coupled with the stale, lingering taste in his mouth, it was enough to assure him that he had, once again, been a victim of one of the doctor’s dubious concoctions.

 

Gingerly, Ben reached up to massage his aching temples, wincing as even the slightest touch exacerbated the pain. Then, stiff and uncomfortable, he braced himself against any unexpected aches and pains and slowly attempted to shift his position in the narrow bed, only to find his efforts hindered by an unfamiliar weight resting against him. Frowning, and with considerable effort, he managed to lift his head off the pillow, then smiled.

 

Even in the diffuse, frail light of early dawn, with the dwindling flame from the lamp offering little to enhance visibility in the room, there was no mistaking the still figure at his side. Flooded with relief, Ben let his head fall back to the pillow and exhaled a contented sigh.

 

It had been a dream after all…a deeply disturbing, nightmarish dream, but a dream nonetheless. There could be no other explanation, for had it been reality, it would have been too horrible to even contemplate.

 

Ben’s relief was fleeting, however, as gradually bits and pieces of his dream began to weave their way to the surface. He closed his eyes tightly in an attempt to recapture some of the elusive images, the confused, disjointed fragments of memories that were apparently unwilling to retreat in the light of day, and saw the face of a man he didn’t recognize slumping forward in a chair, blood pouring from his body, the report of a bullet, followed by a blinding haze of pain.

 

With each new throb of his temple, the line between what Ben suspected to be reality and what he prayed was only nightmare became increasing blurred and indistinct, even as the images became more clear…and vastly more frightening. In his minds’ eye, he saw Sam Bryant standing over him, compulsively twisting a cloth around his hands, tighter and tighter…could see the shadows in the room as they danced across the man’s face, distorting his features and making them appear even more grotesque and menacing…could hear the tremor of exhilaration in his voice as he informed Ben that his son would soon hang.

 

Upset and shaking, Ben’s eyes snapped open, his mind screaming in denial. Bryant had been lying, he told himself firmly, playing his demented games to achieve his own, twisted ends. Breathing heavily, he looked down at Adam, arm outstretched and head cradled in the crook of his elbow. It was all the proof he needed. Adam was at his side, just as he always had been in the past any time Ben had ever awakened from illness or injury. Offering up a silent prayer of gratitude, Ben smiled as Adam shifted slightly, murmured something unintelligible, and then became still once more.

 

Long moments passed as he lay, watching his son’s back rise and fall in a soothing, steady rhythm until, gradually, Ben’s own breathing returned to normal and he felt himself begin to relax. As he watched the sunlight trace a path across Adam’s sleeping form, however, he drew in a quick, startled gasp. Angry, red welts, illuminated by the morning light, circled his son’s exposed wrist, the wounds standing out in stark contrast to the pale skin. An irrepressible shudder reverberated through Ben’s body and he felt his heart sink in dismay as he realized with a cold certainty the origin of the telltale brand.

 

Suddenly, despite his initial reluctance to disturb Adam’s sleep, Ben felt an overwhelming urgency to wake his son, to hear his voice, to see the life in his eyes. Experimentally, Ben cleared his throat and attempted to call Adam’s name, hands curling into fists of utter frustration when, try as he might, he was unable to elicit even the faintest of sounds.

 

Deeply disappointed but unwilling to accept defeat, Ben reached down and laid his hand on Adam’s shoulder and, hoping to rouse his son without startling him, squeezed gently. Stirring only slightly, Adam turned his head toward his father, sighed once, and then seemed to slip back into a deep sleep.

 

Upon seeing his son’s face for the first time, however, Ben once again took in a quick breath, shocked at how drawn and exhausted Adam appeared, even in repose, the deep circles around his eyes testament to several sleepless nights. Ben felt his throat tighten in mute sympathy for what he could only imagine Adam had endured in the last several days and feeling that, somehow, he had failed his eldest son.

 

Moments later, as Ben watched in helpless concern, Adam’s breathing suddenly quickened and his eyes under the heavy, closed lids began to dart back and forth. As beads of perspiration erupted on his forehead, Adam, now fully in the grip of a nightmare, became agitated and restless. Emitting a low groan, he again turned away from his father, but not before Ben could read the single, unspoken word that had formed on his son’s lips.

 

Desperate to prevent Adam from suffering any more than he already had, Ben took a deep breath and, summoning every last ounce of strength he possessed, attempted the impossible once more.

 

“Adam.”

 

The frail, reed-thin sound that resulted both shocked and elated him. It was weak, far too weak to have any hopes of drawing his son from his nightmare, but it was a start. He tried again.

 

“Adam…Son.”

 

**********

 

With one swift, bone-jarring kick, the door swung open, hitting the wall with a resounding thud that upset the thick dust of silence that shrouded the room. Breathing heavily, he burst in and stopped mid-stride, confusion temporarily paralyzing him. He shook his head, unsure of where had he been or why had it taken him so long to get here.

 

Suddenly, an overwhelming surge of fear engulfed him…fear that he had waited too long…a fear that spurred him into action. He tried to call out, felt his mouth forming words, felt a dry crackle in his throat like paper tossed into a fire, but the words never reached his ears.

 

“Adam….”

 

He was astonished when, however weak, however frail, a voice answered his mute call. He frantically scanned the room with his eyes until, with a cold shiver of dread, they landed on the small space on the floor in front of the massive hearth.

 

A tortured plea escaped his lips.

 

“Oh, no….”

 

Swallowing convulsively, he threw his hat to the side and, in a few quick strides, found himself on his knees, pushing the heavy, wooden table aside.

 

Nothing.

 

He sat back on his heels, shoulders slumped in utter defeat. He was too late…again…always too late.

 

“Adam…”

 

His head snapped around at the sound of a voice, even more familiar than the first but equally frail. Suddenly, he found himself drawn irresistibly up the stairs, a glimmer of hope reigniting within him.

 

Turning the corner, however, he stopped in his tracks once again. Door after endless door lined both sides of the narrow hallway, stretching, it seemed, to infinity, until they were engulfed in darkness.

 

Raging against impossible odds, he propelled himself toward the first door. Upon reaching it, a dank, musty odor assaulted his senses, a harbinger of what he somehow already knew he would find on the other side. His suspicions were confirmed when, flinging the door open with a force that threatened to dislodge the hinges, he found himself staring, wide-eyed, at a jail cell…his jail cell.

 

Reeling as if from a physical blow, he pulled back, hastily slamming the door. Nervous but resolved, he systematically began opening door after door, anticipating, yet at the same time dreading what secret each would reveal. No matter what awaited him, however, there was one constant; the heavy iron bars that ran from floor to ceiling, preventing either entrance or escape.

 

With dogged determination he continued, not willing to admit to himself that his hope was waning until, at long last, he reached the final door. Hand trembling on the knob, he hesitated, feeling the weight of finality bearing down upon him.

 

Too late….too late…

 

No!

 

With a violence fueled by fear, he ripped open the door, recoiling as a blast of hot, desert air assaulted him. Eyes watering from the harsh glare of the unforgiving sun, he squinted, straining to make out what lay in the distance, then felt his blood run cold.

 

There was no mistaking this place.

 

It wasn’t much; a deserted campsite on the side of a barren mountain, a place that even God had forsaken, a place that he had hoped…prayed…never to see again. Slowly, as he stood transfixed, the inconsolable moaning of the wind began to swirl and eddy around him, mutating as it did into an almost inhumane laughter, a laughter that he had thought, foolishly, he had vanquished forever. Louder and louder, the volume intensified until, in desperation, he covered his ears with his hands and, swallowing a silent scream of futility, turned his back on the open door.

 

In utter weariness and defeat, he sank to his knees. His search had ended.

 

Just as, years ago, his father had admitted to having finally given up a fruitless search for him, so too did he now have to face the same reality. He had seen the pain in his father’s eyes, had felt the fleeting sting of betrayal, and now, despite his ridiculously inadequate efforts, he had accomplished the same thing. The circle was complete.

 

Then he heard it.

 

“Adam…”

 

For a heartbeat, he held his breath, then shook his head, unwilling to surrender to what couldn’t be true. It was a ruse, a trick to confuse him, to lower his defenses even further. He heard it again, closer this time, and stronger than before. It was a voice that couldn’t be denied…his father’s voice.

 

Slowly, he lifted his head, squinting into the bright light that now permeated the once darkened hall. A shadow with a silhouette that he instinctively knew stood over him, reaching out to him. A shuddering gasp shook him as almost in reflex, he extended his hand in return. Suddenly, afraid to grasp his father’s hand, lest it slip through his fingers, he pulled his own up short.

 

Feeling deeply ashamed, he dropped his head, unable to meet his father’s gaze. He had failed him, in so many ways, he had failed…

 

“Son.”

 

His father’s voice, deep and rich, flowed over him, his hand, strong yet tempered with gentleness, clasped his shoulder in silent support.

 

Taking a calming breath, he found the courage at last to raise his eyes and look into his father’s face. The depth of love, understanding and, most importantly of all, forgiveness, that he found there was his final undoing.

 

“Oh, Pa…”

 

Unable to hold it in any longer, he released a strangled sob and collapsed gratefully, joyfully, into his father’s waiting arms.

 

**********

 

Adam’s eyes snapped open as he woke with a startled jerk, only to close them again in protest of the bright glare streaming in through the room’s only window. Despite the sunlit warmth of the room, he shuddered as a quick chill ran through his body. Apparently, the specter of his nightmare wasn’t ready to release its hold on him quite yet.

 

With his eyes still closed, Adam forced himself to still his breathing, to attempt to recapture some of the elusive, ephemeral images from the night before they faded away, leaving only vague impressions and shadows without substance.

 

It had only been a dream.

 

It had only been a dream and now he had woken up, stiff and sore, to a morning that very well could have been his last. He knew he should be grateful, ecstatic even. Still, he couldn’t deny a small pang of disappointment that some of the images from his dream, ones not of a frantic, fruitless search or a laughing madman, but of his father, well and whole, couldn’t be true as well.

 

Heaving a deep sigh, he stifled a yawn.

 

“Son.”

 

Adam froze, afraid to breathe, afraid to shatter what could only be the final remnants of his dream. Then, still turned away from his father, his face broke into a slow smile as he recognized the familiar, comforting weight that now rest upon his shoulder.

 

The dream had come true.

 

Unable to trust his voice, Adam reached up to cover his father’s hand with his own. Then, turning his head, he broke into a wide grin as he watched his father’s contented smile fill the room, putting the light from the sun to shame.

 

Squeezing his father’s hand once more, he nodded reassuringly. It was finally over.

 

“Welcome back, Pa,” he said softly. “Let’s go home.”

 

**********

 

CHAPTER CV

 

A man’s friendships are one of the best measures of his worth.

~ Charles Darwin

~ Epilogue ~

 

 

Ben glanced over to where his old friend sat, hand absently stroking his mustache as he contemplated the chessboard before him.

 

“You just gonna stare at that all night, or are you gonna make a move?”

 

Rewarded with no more than a brief scowl from the sheriff, Ben stifled an amused chuckle as he unstopped the decanter and refilled the two small crystal glasses. Then, with only a hint of stiffness in his gait as testimony that he hadn’t yet fully recovered from his injury, he made his way slowly across the room to where Roy sat, frowning in indecision.

 

“Checkmate in three,” Ben challenged as he placed the glass on the table.

 

His eyes trained on the chessboard, Roy didn’t bother to look up. “You know,” he answered in a slow, distracted drawl, “Sometimes it ain’t always a good idea to be in such an all-fired hurry.”

 

Reaching toward the board, Roy allowed his hand to hover over a chess piece for a moment. Then, apparently changing his mind, he shook his head slightly and withdrew it again. “Can cause a man to make mistakes,” he added laconically.

 

At the sheriff’s innocent comment Ben’s amusement quickly faded, replaced by a scowl that had nothing to do with the game. Eyebrows furrowed, he lowered himself carefully into his chair and heaved a heavy sigh. “Yes,” he replied under his breath, “All kinds of mistakes.”

 

The kind of mistakes that had almost cost his son’s life.

 

Over the past weeks, as Ben’s body had begun to recover, bits and pieces of memory had begun to return as well. Like a child’s puzzle, he had been struggling to fit them into the correct places, forcing them when necessary, trying to form a completed picture. The effort had often left his head aching in frustration.

 

Ben had recognized his sons’ shared looks, their unspoken agreement not to say too much lest he should become upset. On the one hand, he had been warmed by their concern, their desire to protect and shield him. On the other, he had been both amused and irritated as he realized that his grown sons were now treating him as if he were the child.

 

What his sons hadn’t seem to realize, however, was that their reluctance to openly discuss what had happened had only served to fuel his imagination, allowing already disturbing dreams to turn into nightmares. If the little that Ben had been able to remember on his own was already so horrible, so disturbing, it had secretly terrified him to think of what might be hiding behind those gaps in memory, those things that his sons hadn’t yet been willing to share.

 

Sleep had become his enemy for a time, as, night after night, he had closed his eyes only to find Sam Bryant waiting for him, standing over him, his pretense of sanity belied by the madness in his eyes. Night after night, Bryant had posed the same question…

 

Was it worth it, Cartwright?

 

Often, to his horror, the voice that had emanated from Bryant had not been his own, but Adam’s. Sometimes his son’s voice had been filled with bitter accusation and Ben had found himself struggling to respond, to explain, only to realize that he had had no voice…nor any answers to give. On other occasions, he had sensed only an immense disappointment and crushing sorrow, the depth of which rent his heart. It was on one of those occasions that Ben had awoken, gasping for breath, his trembling body drenched in a cold sweat.

 

In his mind’s eye, he had seen a brave young man, sitting hunched up against the cold in the back of a wagon, his hands bound, his life on the line all because of his own father’s impulsive, unbending, arrogant decision to take the law into his own hands. His heart had squeezed in his chest as he had realized that Adam’s words, uttered so many years ago but never far from Ben’s mind, had virtually echoed those of Bryant.

 

No, Pa! It’s not worth it.

 

Once again, his son had paid the price…his price. When would he stop making the same mistake, Ben had wondered? A mistake that always left others to pay.

 

Unwilling to return to sleep, he had lain in bed and looked out the window at the dark of night, waiting for the dawn to dispel the nightmare. Invariably, morning had found him, bleary eyed and exhausted, still staring out the same window. Wearily, he had made his way down to breakfast, carefully avoiding his sons’ concerned eyes as he had taken his customary place at the table.

 

Ben had known that his lack of both appetite and sleep had hindered his recovery and that his sons had been understandably worried. Eventually, however, surrounded by the comforting familiarity of the Ponderosa and his family, he had begun to accept that the threat to him and to his son was finally over and the nightmares had begun to fade. Finally, on the evening following Bryant’s hanging, the dreams had stopped altogether.

 

“Ben…”

 

Funny, Ben thought humorlessly as he stared down at the chessboard, that, although the nightmares had ended, he still couldn’t seem to quite shake the guilt that had accompanied them. For, as much as he hated to admit it to himself, Bryant had been right. It had been Ben’s own haste, his refusal to allow Roy to do his job, his thoughtless rushing in where he had no business being, regardless of the consequences, that had almost cost his son’s life…again.

 

“BEN!”

 

Startled from his reverie, Ben looked up a little sheepishly to find his friend watching him keenly, a glimmer of concern clouding his face, which slowly transformed into mischievousness as he inclined his head toward the board.

 

“Let’s see ya get yourself outta that one!” Roy announced in a tone as close to gloating as the sheriff dare allow.

 

Following Roy’s gaze, Ben’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.

 

“Hmmpf!” he replied gruffly, then smiled, pretending to study the board although, in truth, he had lost all interest in the game.

 

Reclining in his chair, Roy took an appreciative sip of his brandy. “How are them boys of yours doin’, Ben?” he asked casually.

 

Ben glanced up from the board and frowned skeptically, wondering if there was more to Roy’s question than his casual tone implied. The sheriff had lived through the harrowing experience with his sons, even more closely than he had. Perhaps, he thought, Roy was searching for some reassurance of his own. Absently, Ben picked up a chess piece and made his move.

 

“Hoss and Joe have been hovering like mother hens,” he replied, smiling at the thought. “They’ve been driving Adam and me to distraction.”

 

Ben joined Roy in a chuckle but, unfortunately, there was no denying the accuracy of the statement. During the past weeks, his younger sons had been the embodiment of attentiveness, with both him and Adam as the unwilling recipients. Father and Son had shared many a bemused, and often exasperated, glance while offering the obligatory grousing and complaining that was the Cartwright trademark when ill or injured. ‘They were fine, they needn’t worry’ was the standard response. Anything less than that, both had known, would have been cause for even more concern. The truth was, however, that the incident surrounding Bryant had shaken Ben badly and, this time, at least, he had been secretly grateful for his family’s attention.

 

Enough, however, was enough.

 

Feeling suddenly pensive, Ben stood and, after slowly stretching, made his way over to the fireplace. Placing one foot on the hearth, he reached for the poker and carefully stoked the heavy logs until they cracked and popped with renewed vigor. For a long moment he merely stood, lost in thought, absently watching the glowing embers as, caught by the updraft, they escaped through the tall chimney.

 

This evening had been the first since his return home that Ben had been able to convince his sons to allow him out of their sight. Joseph, in particular, seemed unwilling to accept his father’s reassurances. Ben’s thoughts returned to earlier in the evening when Joe had come bounding down the stairs in his typical fashion, only to stop dead in his tracks at the sight of the blazing fire in the hearth. True, the day had been unseasonably warm, but Ben had justified it by claiming that there was an early chill in the evening air and their guest would appreciated a fire after his long ride.

 

It had been obvious from Joe’s expression, however, that his youngest son was skeptical, seeing the fire as a sure sign that his father was feeling poorly and nothing Ben could do or say would convince him otherwise. Exasperated, Ben had thrown his hands up in defeat.

 

Finally, it had been Adam who had argued that a night away from the ranch would do them all a world of good. Roy would be there for the entire evening, he had reasoned, and, if they could trust anyone to take care of their father, it would be Roy. Certainly the sheriff had proven himself on that account.

 

Ben had offered him a grateful smile, touched by Adam’s selfless gesture. Except for Bryant’s trial, at which he was required to testify, his eldest son had, until now, quietly avoided any occasion that would have taken him into Virginia City, for reasons that were obvious to all of them. Certainly, no one had been willing to press him, feeling that it was Adam’s decision to make and he, alone, would know when the time was right. Tonight, however, his son had realized that Ben needed time alone with his old friend and, as was typical of Adam, subjugated his own needs in favor of the needs of his father.

 

Putting his arm around his brother’s shoulder, Adam had steered Joe reluctantly away from their father’s side, insisting that Hoss wouldn’t wait for them much longer. As he ushered Joe through the door, however, Adam hadn’t been able to resist a backward glance and knowing wink that Ben had been quick to reciprocate. Once again, his eldest son had understood something about his father that his brothers as yet did not; that, while youth raged with a fire all its own, old age often appreciated a little assistance. Certainly countless years around a campfire had taught them both that sharing a fire often provided a comfort that had little to do with warmth.

 

Ben took a deep breath as he whispered a silent prayer of gratitude that this son, with whom he had shared so much, would be with him to share many more campfires in the years to come. Suddenly, he shook off a shudder that had nothing to do with the chill in the air. They had come so close…too close.

 

Feeling his old friend’s eyes upon him, Ben blinked rapidly, blaming the smoke from the fire for the moisture that had welled up in his eyes, before turning around. From the scrutinizing look on Roy’s face, Ben had the uncanny feeling that the sheriff could read exactly what he had been thinking. Roy’s next words confirmed it.

 

“And Adam?” Roy prompted gently, “How’s he been doin’?”

 

Ben’s hesitated before answering. Did any of them really know how Adam was doing, he wondered sadly? Finally, expelling a sigh, he confided, “He’s been quiet.”

 

The sheriff wordlessly raised one eyebrow, causing Ben to smile in appreciation at how well the old sheriff knew his inscrutable son.

 

“Well,” Ben amended ruefully, “Quieter than usual.”

 

Roy nodded knowingly, then, redirecting his attention to the board, shook his head in mock sympathy at what he obviously believed to be an ill considered move on Ben’s part.

 

“You ain’t gotta worry none ‘bout Adam, Ben,” the sheriff said as he easily countered Ben’s move with his own, then sat back in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest. “He’s gonna come out of this just fine, you mark my words.”

 

Ben looked at him skeptically. He wasn’t at all certain that he was looking forward to hearing his friend’s astute, and often annoyingly accurate, observations on the subject of his son. Years of experience, however, had shown him that he had little choice in the matter. Sighing in resignation, Ben returned to his chair and sat facing his friend. Then, eyebrow raised in an unconscious imitation of Roy’s own gesture, he inclined his head, indicating that the sheriff should continue.

 

“You two are two peas in a pod, you know that?”

 

It wasn’t exactly what Ben had expected to hear but, as the saying went, ‘in for a penny, in for a pound.’

 

“Meaning?” he prompted.

 

“Meaning,” Roy continued, “I talked to Doc Martin ‘bout the night you was shot.” The sheriff took a generous sip of brandy, confirming Ben’s suspicion that the memories of that night were ones that even Roy was not anxious to relive.

 

“Doc said that, once Adam knew you was gonna live, he went straight over to the Lucky Ace…confronted every last one of ‘em ‘bout who shot ya.”

 

Ben’s eyes widened, but he kept his tongue. It was yet another detail that his sons had failed to share with him.

 

“Then,” Roy continued, “When nobody’d speak up, Adam offered a reward for information. I ‘spect he knew there weren’t nobody in that place who was gonna go agin Bryant, but that didn’t stop him.”

 

Roy looked at him expectantly, but Ben merely scowled.

 

“Adam took a beatin’ that night, Ben,” the sheriff added, his eyes softening in sympathy even as Ben’s hardened in renewed hatred for Sam Bryant and his men.

 

“Then, that mornin’ in the stable…”

 

Ben waited, steeling himself for more excruciating revelations as Roy reached again for his drink, this time downing it in one swallow. The sheriff gave a harsh cough as the liquid burned its way down his throat.

 

“If it weren’t for Little Joe showin’ me that note from Tate…”

 

Staring into his empty glass, Roy shrugged morosely. “’Course, weren’t nothin’ we could do by the time we got there anyways.”

 

They sat in silence for several moments, each lost in their own thoughts. From his tone of voice, Ben suspected that his old friend was in danger of following the same path that he had of late, of becoming mired down in pointless, meaningless guilt. Strange, he thought to himself, how he could so easily recognize the symptoms in Roy, but not in himself…until now.

 

“So,” Ben offered wryly in an attempt to lighten the mood, “You’re saying ‘Like Father, like Son, hmm?”

 

Roy put up his hands placatingly, the twinkle in his eye belying the gruffness in his voice. “All I’m sayin’ is that the two of you sure do make my job harder.”

 

“And,” he added, “turns out you both was right.”

 

Ben offered him a small, uncertain smile. “Well, at least if I had to act like a fool,” Ben admitted ruefully, “I was in good company.”

 

Roy offered him a look that spoke volumes and, with a quick wink, inclined his head toward the chessboard. “It’s your move, Ben.”

 

“Hmmm?”

 

“I said, it’s your move,” the sheriff repeated patiently.

 

Ben looked down once more at the chessboard. Yes, it was his move and it was past time that he took it. The man in front of him, his friend of countless years, had saved not only his life but the life of his son as well. Roy deserved more from him than a hearty dinner, a stiff drink, and a game of chess. He deserved an apology. That was, after all, what this evening was all about.

 

He considered his friend, uncertain exactly how to say what he knew needed to be said. Very early in his recovery, his sons had shared with him that fact that Roy had taken a good deal of the blame for what had happened to both Adam and Ben onto his own shoulders. It was one of the few details about the episode with Bryant that they were willing to talk about, it seemed. They had also each admitted, to some degree, that they had fueled Roy’s guilt by blaming him as well.

 

Roy had always held his sons in such high regard and Ben could only imagine how dark those days had to have been for the sheriff. To believe that he had lost their faith, their trust, had to have been as cutting as a knife for his old friend.

 

It hadn’t surprised him, therefore, when Joe had come to his room late one afternoon. His youngest son hadn’t even been able to look him in the eye as he confessed that he had blamed Roy, had gone out of his way to take his anger out on him. Joe had confessed other things that afternoon as well; things Ben suspected that his brothers probably would have been happier if he had kept to himself…how he had tried to convince Adam to break jail, how he had unknowingly left his father in the hands of Sam Bryant when he had had a chance to save him.

 

When his son had left his room that day, both had been emotionally and physically drained, but it had been a catharsis for Joe, one that Ben had known his son needed to experience before he would be able to forgive himself and move on.

 

After hearing Joe’s recounting of what had occurred between them, Ben had worried that the relationship between the sheriff and his youngest son would be forever strained. After carefully observing them at dinner earlier, however, he had felt a large measure of relief. It seemed that, somehow, they had managed to mend their fences on their own.

 

Having stalled long enough, Ben cleared his throat and began hesitatingly. “Roy, I’ve been meaning to talk to you…to apologize…”

 

Roy regarded him suspiciously, clearly uncomfortable with the direction that the conversation had taken. “Aw, Ben, now…there ain’t no need…” he protested.

 

“No, Roy, just hear me out.” Ben put up his hand to forestall his friend. “If I hadn’t gone into Bryant’s office halfcocked, if I had waited for you…”

 

“Now, Ben…truth is that if I would’a listened to what you were tryin’ to tell me…”

 

Exasperated, Ben cut him off, the volume of his voice increasing in sheer frustration. “Roy, I should have just let you do your job…”

 

“Ben,” the volume of the sheriff’s voice had risen to match. “If I would’ve done my job, none of this would’ve…”

 

Pounding his fist on the arm of his chair, Ben pushed himself up, infuriated that Roy apparently wasn’t willing to allow him to assume even an ounce of blame for what he knew was largely his own fault.

 

“By golly, Roy, I’m trying to apologize to you!” Ben bellowed with an intensity that threatened to shake the timbers.

 

Not to be outdone, Roy barked back, rising out of his chair. “And I’m a’tellin’ ya there ain’t no need!”

 

The two friends stood glaring at each other, brows furrowed, fuming, for several long moments. Suddenly, realizing the ridiculousness of the situation, they simultaneously broke out in a belt of laughter that continued until they were both breathless.

 

“Couple of old fools,” Ben declared with mock disgust.

 

“Now, that’s somethin’ I can agree with!” Roy said as he pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes.

 

Reaching for the decanter to refill Roy’s glass, Ben’s expression softened. “Well,” he said, “At least you can let me thank you.”

 

Roy sobered immediately and Ben put up his hand to forestall the argument he sensed was imminent. “No, Roy. If you hadn’t been there…”

 

Ben felt a shiver run through him as he thought of the possibilities of what could have happened, had almost happened, if it hadn’t been for the diligence and faithfulness of his friend. “Not only did you save my life, you saved the life of my son…” Ben choked on the words as Roy smiled in understanding.

 

“Ben, you and the boys…well…we been friends a lot of years.”

 

Ben nodded his agreement, the lump that had formed in his throat making it impossible to speak.

 

“Weren’t no other place I could’a been.” Roy added simply.

 

The two old friends’ eyes met in mutual understanding and respect. Each recognized the other’s faults, each knew without a doubt that the other had done their best.

 

Silently, Ben reached over to the table and gently tipped his king to the side. Then, picking up his brandy, he held it up before the sheriff.

 

“A toast?” Ben suggested.

 

Blinking rapidly, Roy nodded his agreement and raised his glass as well. “To friends? “ he suggested.

 

Ben shook his head and held Roy’s eyes for a moment longer.

 

“No,” Ben corrected, “To family.”

 

 

THE END

 

 

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Author: Doolittle

6 thoughts on “Choices (by Doolittle)

  1. What a perfect way to spend a cold rainy day… this was probably my third reading of this story and it grips me every time. The frustration and desperation and hopelessness choke me. It’s a brilliant piece of work. Thank you.

  2. Truly one of the very best Bonanza stories I have read. It kept me in suspense the entire time. Please keep writing as you most certainly have a flair for story telling. Thank you!

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