Summary: Returning the outlaws to Virginia City to face justice initiates a chain of violent events.
(8,634 words) Rating: K+
Harvest Dance Series:
Danny was sweating–an odd reaction given the chill in the morning air. It seemed that the posse had only just ridden out of town in pursuit of the outlaws and their hostages, and already a rider was back –charging through the main street shouting for someone to fetch Doc Martin. Danny edged toward the crowd surrounding the fellow and listened as everyone begged for news.
“Look, I don’t have time to stand around and jaw with you. I need to bring the doctor just as quick as I can. Someone run down to the livery and bring up a buckboard.” A kid broke from the crowd and hightailed it down the street.
“Tell us what you know!” a female voice demanded.
“All right, Miss Susan, all right. I guess you’ve a right to know. It looks like the Cartwright boys found the kids. There must have been a hell- There must have been a fight. Both of them youngsters are covered in blood, one of the outlaws is dead and another is shot up. Earl’s bringing the corpse along behind me. Come on, folks, let the doctor through. ”
The now silent crowd parted respectfully for the doctor, his medical bag in hand. The wagon delivered so hastily was loaded with blankets and straw to soften the bed. Both wagon and driver were soon on the way back out of town.
“Danny!” Cookie shouted from inside the hotel, “these dishes won’t wash themselves.” He gave himself a mental shake, turned on his heel, and went inside.
Ben leaned back in his chair, studied the glass of brandy he held, and swallowed it in a gulp that would have surprised his sons. The suite was quiet. Adam and Hoss were sharing one bedroom. Joseph was asleep in the room Ben would be sharing with him in a few minutes. He shuddered slightly from the burn of the liquor and thought ruefully that he would need more than one glass to erase today’s memories.
Who would have thought that a dance would have ended in such a crisis? The robbery itself had been beyond bold. The crime had been so well planned and executed that the gang members had insinuated themselves into the crowd and taken control before anyone had any idea what was happening. Everyone had been efficiently robbed of their valuables. Then, clearly following a plan, hostages had been taken-Little Joe and his friend, Anne Marie.
It had been a nightmare for Ben to watch that girl pulled from the crowd and struck down for no other reason than to shock the crowd into submission. He’d been horrified, but not really shocked, to see his impulsive youngest son throw himself at the attacker in a gallant but hopeless gesture. The oulaw had beaten Joe to the floor merely to convince the onlookers of the depths of his brutality. Even now, Ben shook with fury at the memory of helplessly watching that beating.
Adam and Hoss had escaped through a window moments after the outlaws left with their hostages. Their horses had been among the very few that hadn’t been scattered by the gang. They had tracked the outlaws in the dark and found their little brother and his friend.
Miraculously, they had all survived an attack on their campsite. When the posse had met them on the way into town, their appearances had been appalling-none more so than Little Joe. All of his sons were exhausted and in no condition to be questioned about what had happened. Adam had explained briefly that Little Joe had been forced to kill one of the men. Instead of pestering his boys into giving him the answers he desperately wanted, Ben had settled them all into a sheltered area and encouraged everyone to sleep while they’d waited for the doctor and wagon.
Ben had focused on doing those things that he could do for them- mainly caring for their physical needs. When they had finally arrived back in town, he had obtained a suite at the International knowing it would be easier for Joseph and spare him the long trip back to the Ponderosa.
Impossibly, Hop Sing met them at the hotel with fresh clothes and his own ideas of necessities. How he could have known so quickly what had happened and what was needed had been baffling. Ben decided to never ask and just accept the cook’s appearance as another miracle.
The day had been spent tending to Joe’s injuries and resting from the ordeal. Paul Martin had assured Ben that Joe would recover. Most of the injuries were the result of the beating everyone had witnessed- a couple of cracked ribs, a slight concussion and a colorful array of bruises. The rest of the ill effects, other than a large bruise on the inside of his right leg, could be explained by riding injured and spending a cold night outside without warm clothing. Really, it was a miracle that the boy hadn’t been hurt worse.
Now, Ben was doing his best to settle his own troubled mind to sleep. He swallowed the last of the brandy and dimmed the lamp. Ben wasn’t surprised to hear the sounds coming from the bedroom. They were unmistakable. Murmured distressed words. Frantic movements. Breathing that started out ragged and quickly became choked. Finally, at the very moment he reached Joe’s side, there were distinct cries for help. It seemed his son had survived the ordeal but not without suffering repercussions .
Danny had been watching the street from the window of his attic room for a good part of the day. He had seen the posse take three living members of the gang to the jail and three dead men to the undertaker. He’d been sitting and drinking atop the lumpy bed all afternoon and into the twilight. Hugging the bottle of rotgut to his chest, he renewed his muttered oaths.
What the hell had happened? The robbery had gone perfectly. When Ronny had grabbed Joe Cartwright and Anne Marie Wentworth from all of the kids available in the crowd, Danny was certain that his cousin was the luckiest son of a bitch ever to point a gun. All that was left was for Danny to meet the gang in Placerville and plan their next job. Now that same cousin was locked in Coffee’s jail, and Danny wasn’t feeling all that optimistic about his own chances of avoiding the same fate.
One thing Danny had learned over the years was that it was a good thing to make friends in the right places. A few flattering words in the ear of the town gossip had paid dividends in interesting information about the well-heeled and vulnerable members of a community. Striking up casual friendships with saloon keepers had kept him apprised of any competition from card sharps or con men. And he had long ago learned that a badge didn’t necessarily guarantee integrity or intellect. Danny made these friendships as an investment against the time when he most needed an edge. Now was the time to cash in on one of those investments.
Ronny Murphy had plenty of time to think over mistakes made and opportunities lost while cooling his heels in his cell. Damn, he knew he should have killed Rufus Lawson himself that night. When Rufe and Ernie Winters had slipped away from the gang, they had brought the whole operation down. He should thank the kid for taking care of Rufe for him. Ronny figured the boy was tough, but he never dreamed he could get the drop on the moron. To learn that the kid was Ben Cartwright’s youngest was enough to make him bite nails. “You can’t take Mr. Ben Cartwright’s horse; he wouldn’t like that.” You would have thought butter wouldn’t melt in that boy’s mouth. That same boy had put a bullet right into Rufe’s heart. It served Ernie right to get himself shot up in the fiasco, too. Ronny knew the man was handcuffed to a bed in the room next door while recuperating from his wounds. Ronnie hoped the back stabber died a lingering death for squealing on the hideout location.
The sheriff let Ronny and his two remaining men know to expect trial on Thursday when the circuit judge would be in town. The old man seemed real pleased to have recovered the loot and have prisoners to be brought to justice. Well, let him feel satisfied for the moment. Ronny still had an ace up his sleeve.
A day of rest and a good breakfast were going a long way to restoring Adam and Hoss. From the sounds of the argument between their father and little brother, Joe’s energies were also being restored. The discussion that filtered through the thin walls was as clear as if their father and brother were sitting at the table with them. It seemed Joe didn’t want to eat breakfast, and if he did want breakfast he sure didn’t want oatmeal, and he was just fine, thank you, and why couldn’t he get up and go home?
Adam and Hoss smirked and chewed their breakfast and waited for the inevitable explosion. Their patience was rewarded, and they noted that their brother had been reduced to sullen silence.
When their father firmly shut the bedroom door behind him and strode to the breakfast table, they were finishing up. Adam jerked his head toward the door suggesting to Hoss that they make a fast getaway.
“Where are you two going?” Ben grouched. He sat and helped himself to the eggs and flapjacks remaining on the table.
“Pa, if you don’t mind, I thought we would take care of some business while we’re here in town. Get the mail of course, check with Hiram about those timber contracts and so on. I’m sure there are some supplies Hop Sing would appreciate since we’re in town.”
“That all sounds very productive. I suppose the “so on” would include a couple of beers in a saloon.”
“You never know,” Adam replied blithely. “We’ll see you for supper. Come on, Hoss.” Hats in hand, they scurried out, nearly running over Paul Martin who had arrived to examine Little Joe.
When they reached the street, Hoss put his hand on Adam’s arm. “What’s on your mind? All of that stuff put together won’t take but an hour or so.”
“Hoss, let’s take a walk. I’m trying to figure something out.”
Anyone who knew Adam Cartwright knew he was a logical man. He looked for order in chaos, and he expected that two plus two would always equal four. However, the more Adam considered the events of the weekend, the less things added up in his mind.
It was a pleasant stroll in the autumn sunshine to the community hall. Adam and Hoss were stopped several times and congratulated on finding the hostages. Although everyone was flattering and admiring in the extreme, most of the well wishers tried to pump the brothers for as many grisly details as possible concerning Little Joe’s shooting of the desperado. At their best, the townsfolk were curious and concerned. However, in Adam’s opinion, too many people were inappropriately morbid.
Approaching the community hall, they managed to detach themselves from the conversational clutches of ladies of a certain age whose main interest concerned the possible impropriety of teenagers spending the night around a campfire. Hoss blushed furiously at the implications while Adam’s caustic replies to their questions were delivered in such withering tones that the ladies left shamefaced.
Sheriff Coffee was waiting for the Cartwright men in front of the community hall as they tipped their hats to the departing ladies. The sheriff had tucked a piece of raila couple of feet in length under his arm.
“Boys, it’s nice to see you out and around. You two looking for something you left behind the other night?”
“Actually, I wanted to take a look at the place in daylight. Something’s been bothering me about what happened.”
Roy snorted and pulled his hat off to wipe his sleeve across his brow. “Well, Adam, considering the circumstances, I can see how things might be bothering you.”
Hoss stepped in before the men could begin fussing at each other. “Roy, what’s that you’re carryin’?”
“Hoss, almost before you and Adam hit the ground the other night, Mitch Devlin was out that window behind you. He ran to the front doors, and this stick of wood was jammed into the door handles. He pulled it loose and helped everyone out while Seth hunted me down.”
“Where were you?”
“As it happens, about the time the outlaws were robbing you folks, a kid ran into my office yelling that a cowboy was being chased down in the Chinese section of the town.”
Adam squinted at the sheriff in the morning sunlight. “That would be almost as far from here as you can get and still stay in town.”
“Yessir, it would.”
“Roy, how many outlaws are accounted for now—between the jail and the undertaker?”
“Eight men, Hoss. Every witness I’ve talked to counted eight men in the community hall.”
“So, why you carryin’ that stick around?”
“’Cause this stick ain’t from any fenceor porch railing I can find around here. Looks like these boys carried it here knowing that they would need it.”
Adam scowled, “Looks like everyone isn’t accounted for after all.”
By the time Adam and Hoss returned to the suite, the lamps had been lit throughout the hotel. Despite their best efforts all day, they hadn’t been able to find the lad who had drawn Roy into Chinatown on the evening of the robbery.
When they stepped through the door, the first thing they noticed was the unnatural silence. No one had ever accused Little Joe Cartwright of being the quiet type. When he was bored, he usually pestered anyone nearby into distraction.
The second thing the brothers noticed was that their little brother was fast asleep on the parlor settee with a quilt tucked around him. Their father was also fast asleep in a chair with his chin propped in his hand. Anne Marie Wentworth was in the other parlor chair, but she was wide awake reading a book by the lamplight.
As the brothers stepped into the room elbowing each other in amusement, she held her finger up to her lips to shush them and tiptoed to the door.
“They’re both really tired. They fell asleep while I read aloud.”
Adam couldn’t resist teasing, “Are you the baby sitter?”
She ignored that remark. “This morning when Dr. Martin stopped by to check on me, your father came by as well. Since my sister was busy today, he suggested that I join him and help keep Joe occupied. Could you please let them know I have gone back to our own suite? My sister should be back soon, and I like to have supper ordered. Tell them I’ll be back tomorrow if they’ll have me.” She slipped out the door down the hall to the suite she shared with her sister.
The two brothers waited until they could see Anne Marie enter her suite and close the door behind her. Moving as quietly as they could wasn’t enough to avoid waking their father who shifted in his chair and stood to stretch out the kinks in his neck and back.
“You have a hard day, Pa?” Their father walked over and placed a hand across Joe’s forehead. Apparently satisfied, he stroked the boy’s hair for a moment and then indicated that they should all move across the room.
“Frankly, it was one of the easiest days I have ever spent caring for Joseph. He and Anne Marie chatted all morning. She told us about her voyage to San Francisco, and he regaled her with stories about the Ponderosa. By the way, he promised her that the three of you would find her a nice pony this spring and teach her to ride.”
“That’ll be fine, Pa. She seems like a nice little gal. How’d she end up here for the day anyway?” It seemed like an innocent enough question to Hoss, but he could see at once that his father was riled.
“Her sister!” His whisper was as good as a shout. “When Paul went over there to check on her, she was by herself. Naturally, I went over so that he wasn’t alone with her. She informed us that her sister had left for the day to attend to obligations in the mining camps. Apparently, Susan ministers to indigent families-she writes letters for them, distributes food and clothes, nurses the sick, and so on.”
“Well, Pa, that sounds admirable,” Adam chimed in trying to calm him down. It didn’t seem to help.
“What would be admirable would be to tend to her sister. It has been barely a day since all of you returned. How could anyone leave the girl alone? Anne Marie hadn’t eaten and told us she’s never hungry until supper. I wasn’t about to leave her alone for the day while we were right here, so I brought her over.”
Hoss took a turn at joshing his father, “So did the mother hen get those scrawny chicks to eat a good meal?”
Ben harrumphed a little at the “mother hen” remark, but said merely, “Well enough. After lunch, we were visited by a little delegation from the school house. Mitch and Seth brought over school work as well as a little stack of perfumed notes for your brother.” Ben looked disapproving but resigned. Adam and Hoss turned to hide smiles. It seemed that this adventure was going to be good for Little Joe’s standing with the girls.
“So, what did you two do all day?”
And just like that their good mood was gone.
Hoss and Adam met Roy in front of Silver Dollar. Together, they decided that they would check every mine office, storefront, and stamp mill likely to attract boys looking for work. If they could find the boy who had sent Roy off to Chinatown Saturday night, maybe they could get a lead on the man they all felt was still on the loose.
Many hours later, none of them had turned up any information. It seemed the boy had vanished into thin air. They had visited every place they could think of that employed or might attract boys. They had approached every cluster of kids they came across. Adam had even steeled himself and visited the school house to question Abigail Jones. He returned to the sheriff and Hoss with no new information and complaining that he had barely escaped from the school teacher.
It was both puzzling and worrisome. It only seemed to make sense that the boy had been sent deliberately to distract Roy from the robbery. If they could just find him, perhaps the lad could lead them to the missing man. Of course, the fact that they hadn’t found the boy might just mean they hadn’t looked in the right places. Unfortunately, it was getting hard to believe that there wasn’t a more sinister reason for their failure.
Susan contemplated the coffee in front of her. Why was this conversation so difficult? She had asked him to meet her after all. Ben had agreed with her that the inquest should be held in a closed session. It seemed the sheriff thought it would be possible to hold it here at the hotel in the morning. However, it was clear that Ben Cartwright had something else on his mind.
“I shock you.” Susan Wentworth was accustomed to being direct. Even so, she recognized that she was being a tad blunt.
He met her gaze with an emotion she couldn’t identify. He chuckled, “Yes, a bit. But perhaps not in the way you assume.” When she said nothing, he continued. “I feel like I should apologize for bringing Anne Marie to visit without speaking to you first. She has been good company for Joe and since she was alone anyway . . .” He faltered then and seemed unsure of how to go on. Now she understood. Ben Cartwright disapproved of the way she cared for her sister.
“There’s no problem. Anne Marie isn’t a child. She is quite capable of deciding for herself who she visits.”
Susan watched him struggle with his reaction to her comment. Clearly he did consider Anne Marie a child to be watched over and closely guarded. It wasn’t in her nature to sidestep uncomfortable issues, so she pressed on.
“You have heard something about me, about us, I suppose?” He merely shrugged noncommittally. “You were aware of the yellow fever epidemics back east? Two years ago, while I was traveling, my entire family contracted the disease. Mother, father, twin brothers and Anne Marie all fell ill. My sister was the only survivor.
Ben’s face was so sorrowful that Susan found she couldn’t continue to meet his eyes.
“By the time I returned, everyone was buried. Anne Marie was . . . not well. She was the youngest, the darling of the family. She could not accept their deaths. When we left the house, she would run away from me, insisting that she saw one of them in a crowd. She would leave the house in the middle of the night to search for them.”
When Susan paused and glanced up, she saw Ben swallow hard.
“We needed a change. Virginia City is famous, as you know. I realized there could hardly be a better place for me to pursue my work. I considered a boarding school for Anne Marie, but she insisted that we stay together, so here we are.”
“Miss Wentworth, I am so sorry. You don’t have to explain anything to me.”
“Mr. Cartwright,” she leaned forward. “Our family disappeared in the blink of an eye. My sister and I have money, social position, and education—and as you can see it is no protection at all. I intend to raise Anne Marie to take care of herself no matter what happens.”
It had been ridiculously easy to fool the deputy. When Danny brought fresh coffee to the jail that night (compliments of the International House), he chatted the man up a bit and blandly suggested the deputy take a break while Danny watched the store, so to speak. The deputy had a sweetheart he hadn’t seen for a couple of days, and it wouldn’t take very long to say hello. As soon as the deputy scampered out of there without a backward glance, Danny stepped into the cell area. He didn’t say a word to Ronny- just raised his hand in a quick salute. A few steps more took him to the makeshift infirmary, and he was at the bed side of Ernie Winters. Ernie’s chest was bandaged, and he was cleaner than usual. He was propped up with a thin pillow on a decent bed that the good citizens of Virginia City didn’t think he deserved. He would have probably considered himself reasonably comfortable if it hadn’t been for the shackle from his ankle to the bedpost.
Ernie didn’t look nearly as pleased to see Danny as a person might expect.
“I ain’t said nothin’ about you.”
“I appreciate that, Ernie, more than I can say. How you feelin’? You doin’ all right?”
“Hurt a little.”
“Well, I hate that. Would a little more of this painkiller help?” Danny grabbed the bottle of laudanum from the bedside table. He offered it to Ernie who nodded in thanks. Gently helping the wounded man, Danny lifted the bottle to Ernie’s lips and encouraged him to drink deeply. The man’s eyes closed and his breathing slowed. A hand across his mouth and a pinch to the nostrils finished the job. Danny stepped back. Ernie Winters didn’t deserve a death that easy, but it looked better this way.
It hadn’t taken too long to transform the room to a more appropriate arrangement. Judge Burton Delaney scanned the rather crowded space from the writing desk he had commandeered. The hotel staff had supplied extra chairs, and at last everyone was seated. Before him sat the entire Cartwright clan, including the teenage boy involved in the shooting. The girl and her older sister were also there, as were Sheriff Coffee, Doctor Martin, and Hiram Woods, who was present to observe the proceedings and presumably advise Ben Cartwright.
Delaney cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention and began the proceeding.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Every witness has been sworn in. This hearing will consider the shooting of Rufus Lawson and determine whether there is need for trial in that case. I’ll ask the questions—Mr. Woods, I don’t expect to hear from you at all. Understood?”
Satisfied that he was in control of the room, the judge continued, “I don’t want to hear about the robbery. I expect that will be testified about tomorrow. I am most concerned with the events that led to the shooting in question.” The judge had positioned Joe and Anne Marie in chairs just a few feet away –right in front of him. He took a few moments to study them. He knew Ben Cartwright, of course, but he had never met the youngest son. The kids, both of them thin and boasting plenty of dark curly hair, favored each other more than Joseph resembled his own brothers. The boy and girl in front of him looked about as sick with dread as two kids could look. They also looked like they had been at the rough end of someone’s knuckles, especially the boy. Ben Cartwright sat behind his son and would occasionally touch the young man’s arm or back. Susan Wentworth sat near her sister.
“How did the two of you end up at that campsite?” Delaney listened attentively as Anne Marie related how the gang had put them on a horse together and ridden hard. He smiled a bit when she explained that she had raised her hand and asked the outlaw in charge if they could be released since they had been “good hostages.” Her voice shook as she described how she and the boy had made camp and doctored up their wounds. The judge stopped her before she went further.
“So, I understand that Adam and Eric Cartwright found you at this camp?”
He heard the large young man clear his throat. “Yes, your honor, we tracked them.”
“It weren’t that hard, judge. We knew the direction they left town, and that many horses are gonna chew up the ground and raise a lotta dust. Those fellas were noisy, too. Between all that, the moonlight, and the geegaws that Anne Marie managed to drop during the ride, we were pretty close on them.” Miss Susan gave her little sister a tight smile and pat on the hand for such presence of mind. “When we found the kids, Adam and I decided to sit tight and wait for the posse.”
“Did you expect trouble?” Adam Cartwright spoke up then.
“Joe told us that one of the gang members had disagreed with the notion of letting them go, and that they were afraid he would return.”
“Yes. I suppose that brings me to Ernie Winters’s written statement. Sheriff, can you tell me why this witness is not present?”
Sheriff Coffee leaned forward in his chair and growled, “He’s dead. He died last night in custody at the jailhouse. Doc Martin examined the corpse this morning.” The judge didn’t miss the grim expression the Cartwright brothers exchanged with the sheriff.
Paul Martin spoke up, “Your Honor, Ernie Winters had been shot in the chest during the attack on the campsite. He was recovering slowly from a wound I did not expect to be life threatening.”
“Is that so? What do you think happened?”
The doctor shrugged. “I can’t say. There aren’t any signs of violence. He may have had a bad heart or some other condition of which I was not aware.”
“Sheriff, your jail doesn’t sound too healthy.” Delaney grinned to himself at the scowl that remark brought to the sheriff’s face. Roy Coffee shifted in his chair and muttered something about the incident being under investigation.
The judge sighed and picked up the statement, “This paper says that Ernie Winters admitted that he and Rufus Lawson intended to take Joe Cartwright and Anne Marie Wentworth to San Francisco in order to sell them on the Barbary Coast.”
“Young man,” the judge addressed Joe directly, “Is this the trouble you expected when you warned your brothers?” When the boy nodded, the judge continued, “Tell me what happened. Just be honest.”
He saw the boy glance at his father for reassurance, and the kid was rewarded with a small smile and squeeze to the shoulder. Joseph took a deep breath and winced in pain.
“We were at the campsite, waiting for the posse, like you heard, I was asleep, and I guess you were, too?” Joe looked over at Anne Marie for confirmation. “I woke up; I don’t know why exactly. I could see Hoss, I mean Eric next to me, and he kinda let me know to stay quiet. I could hear someone movin’ around the edge of the camp. Then Hoss grabbed me and flung us behind some cover.” Joe paused to steady himself, and Delaney saw that the boy had taken his friend’s hand.
“We sort of crouched behind a rock during the fight. It seemed like someone was hit, and then my brothers started shouting for the outlaws to surrender. I wasn’t paying attention, and Rufe came up behind us before I knew what was happening.” Joe was wiping the palm of his free hand on his trousers. Anne Marie’s eyes were squeezed shut.
“Rufe threw us back in the clearing. He pinned me down with his knee on my leg, and he pushed Anne Marie on top of me. He had his arm around her neck and his gun to her head.”
Paul Martin interjected quietly. “Your honor, Anne Marie’s neck is bruised and her right temple is burned. Joe has a large bruise on his right leg.”
The judge cleared his throat, “Was the dead man a large fellow? Was he big enough to subdue the two of them?” When the doctor nodded, Delaney turned back to Joe.
“So Rufe was hollerin’ that he was going to shoot Anne Marie. I had her derringer inside my vest . . .” At the judge’s quizzical look, Joe explained, “the gun had been in her pocket, but she gave it to me before my brothers got to us.”
“Judge, I could hardly move, but my left hand was free, and I could get into my vest. I pulled out the gun and pushed it between his ribs.”
“Did you warn him, Joseph?”
“No, sir, I didn’t think he would listen.” When the judge didn’t respond, Joe pressed on.
“I put the gun between his ribs and prayed that I wouldn’t hurt Anne Marie. I pulled the trigger, and his blood poured out all over us, and then he died on top of us.” When Joe looked up, the judge could see that his green eyes were glassy with tears. Ben Cartwright was rubbing slow circles on the boy’s back. The silence in the room was profound-broken only by the girl’s quiet weeping.
“You ever been through anything like this before, son?” Joe shook his head. “Maybe you think you could have done something different to avoid all of that?” Delaney could tell by the look on Joe’s face that he had hit the nail on the head.
“Well, Joe Cartwright, it appears to me that you saved your friend’s life and your own life as well. I can’t think of one thing you could have done different, and I can’t imagine that anyone here could have done better. My ruling is self defense; I see no need for a trial.
The boy had held his gaze until then. At that point, Joe dropped his head in his hands. Ben moved to crouch in front of his son, letting the boy’s head rest on his shoulder. Susan spoke in low tones to the girl and patted her hand. The rest of the adults rose quietly from their chairs.
Hoss and Adam patted Joe’s shoulder before heading over to talk to Roy.
“Did Ernie Winters tell you anything?” Adam quietly asked.
“Nope. I never did get him to admit that anyone else was involved.” Roy paused, “There’s more. I found the lad that sent me off on that wild goose chase.”
“What did he have to say?”
“Couldn’t say anything. I found him early this morning under a trash heap behind the Sazerac. His neck was broken.”
Hoss blew out a loud chuff of air. “This feller, whoever he is, stays one step ahead of us. And he sure don’t care about nobody but himself.”
“Roy, there’s got to be something we can do.” Adam’s voice was tight with frustration. “If we question the prisoners again, one of them may decide to talk, especially if the judge offers some leniency in exchange for information.”
“Worth a try. Why don’t we talk to the judge and your pa? We’ll let them know what we suspect, and then we can all head over to the jail.”
As soon as he had finished setting up the chairs for the inquest, Danny had headed toward the jail. There wasn’t a lot of time, but it was enough. He had already obtained three horses that he had saddled and packed with gear. The animals were waiting in an alley not far from the jail.
It didn’t take long to take care of the deputy. The poor guy was a little embarrassed but plenty eager to take a look at the risquế postcards his friend Danny had brought to show him. Danny leaned over the deputy’s shoulder as the racy pictures were spread out on the desktop. Together, they hooted and commented right up until the moment Danny looped the cord around the deputy’s neck and choked him to death.
A few steps to the cell area and a few minutes were all it took to release Ronny and his two buddies. When Ronny paused at the sight of the deputy slumped over his desk, he commented, “Cuz, you don’t do anything half way, do ya?” When Danny answered him only with a glare, Ronny shrugged and didn’t spare the corpse another glance. Danny sent them all to the back door with directions to the horses and a few words of caution about moving slow and acting natural.
Before Ronny followed the boys out the back door, Danny caught him by the arm and asked, “How’d you like to leave town with a nice grubstake? I’ve got a plan.”
I felt as if an enormous burden has been shifted off my shoulders. All along, my pa and brothers told me I had done the only thing possible. I wouldn’t expect them to say anything else. But when the judge said it, I believed him. After all, he’s seen a lot and knows a lot, and his thinking isn’t all tangled up with family loyalty and feelings.
When Pa and my brothers said they needed to talk to Roy and the judge over at the jail, I thought that was just fine. Sitting up on that hard chair and telling our story left me sore and exhausted. When Susan suggested that I join her and Anne Marie in their suite for lunch and a rest while my family took care of business, I was glad to go with them.
Even Susan was smiling and acting as if we had all come out on the sunny side of a stormy day. Those good feelings lasted right up until we closed the door behind us and turned to see Boss and another fellow holding a gun on us.
Danny was determined to wrap this all up quick and clean. He was pleased as punch that the woman was being sensible. With Ronny watching the kids, it was going to be easy to shepherd her down the back stairs of the hotel and over to the bank to make a sizeable withdrawal on his behalf.
The men found a quiet table in the hotel restaurant. Roy informed the judge and Ben of their suspicions of a missing outlaw and about the murder of the boy they had been seeking. It seemed logical to everyone that the next step should be to get one of the prisoners still held in the jail to squeal on the mystery man in exchange for consideration at sentencing. With minds made up, they all headed for the jail.
The sight and stench of the dead man sprawled across the desk set all of them back on their heels momentarily. Roy recovered first. Swearing loudly, he hurried into the cell area and confirmed that the prisoners had escaped.
“Ben, I need someone to go down to the livery and see if any horses are missing, and someone else needs to go find Paul Martin. Hoss, let’s you and me check the back alley for signs.”
Adam sprinted out the door toward the livery while the judge volunteered to find the doctor. Roy and Hoss soon returned. There were definitely indications that horses and men had been in the alley. However, given the number of citizens and drifters through Virginia City, what they’d found wasn’t much to go on.
“What now, Roy? They can’t be far away.”
Adam crashed through the door, panting a little from the run.
“Pete from the livery says he gave three horses and gear to one of the staff from the International. This man, Pete thinks his name is Danny, said he needed the animals for hotel guests and that they would settle up later. That’s not all. Roy, this man was looking for you. Come in here, Josh.”
Adam hauled Josh Harlan, one of the bank tellers into the room.
Josh looked a little shaken, “Sheriff, just a little while ago, Miss Wentworth was at the bank to cash a rather large draft. I didn’t notice right away, but she had written something on the back of the check.” Everyone peered at the slip of paper. ‘Help’ had been scrawled on the draft.
Horror dawned on them all, but Hoss was the first to speak.
“Pa, this feller, he don’t leave witnesses.”
Danny jerked Susan to a halt in the shadow of the alley behind the International. The cash made for a satisfactory weight in his pocket.
“Miss, I appreciate your cooperation and good sense.”
Susan had hoped but not really believed that she and the children would be released once Danny received his money. When he raised his arm in what she knew he intended to be a killing blow, Susan instinctively raised her arm as a shield. Her last thought before giving in to the painful darkness was a fleeting prayer that she had taught Anne Marie enough.
Unbelievable! This guy is supposed to be in jail. I feel like I could kick one of these chairs across the room. All we need is a camp fire, and I’d believe we’re right back where we were a few days ago.
Boss was a talker at the dance, but he is a lot quieter today. He’s hardly looked at us or spoken other than telling us to sit down and hush. We all watch Danny hustle Susan out of the room to withdraw money for the getaway.
I look at Anne Marie. Her big gray eyes look enormous in her pale face, and she is wringing her hands. The trouble is that she doesn’t look nearly as afraid as I think she should be. In fact, I can see sort of a rising flush to her complexion, and she is actually glaring at Boss.
Boss paces around the parlor. He peeks through the curtains now and then to check out the street below. He jumps every time he hears someone moving in the corridor. He isn’t being particularly threatening to us; he probably figures it ain’t necessary. It’s not like the two of us can do much to hurt him.
We seem to wait forever. My stomach is all twisted up. One minute I’m praying that my family comes to rescue us, and the next minute I’m hoping they stay safely away until this is all over. I keep an eye on Anne Marie. She’s looking more like a coiled spring with every minute that passes.
When we hear a low voice at the door, muttering “Open up,” I think both of us jump a little. Boss eases the door open and lets Danny in. Susan ain’t with him.
“Where’s the woman, cuz?” Boss sounds like he may already know the answer.
“Gone. I took care of business.”
“Aww, Danny.” Incredibly, Boss sounds disappointed.
“Stow it! I’ve got the money. Take care of these two and we’ll get out of here.”
Danny points the gun at us and tells us to stand up. I try to ease Anne Marie behind me, but it’s like the girl has grown roots into the floor. She ain’t budging.
“You killed her. Just like that. She got you the money, and you killed her anyway.” Anne Marie’s pretty voice is all flat and hard.
“Ronny, finish these two off. Break their necks, knife’em. I don’t care. Best to do it quietly.”
Boss looks at his ‘cuz.’ “Danny, I thought I’d lock’em in one of these wardrobes. No one will find them for hours.”
“What are you, soft?”
I’ve never really met someone before that had a face like Danny’s. He looks all furious and unsettled and off balance.
“If you can’t do it, shove ‘em over to me, and l’ll take care of it.” Danny is pacing around with his fists clenched in fury.
Boss just keeps a steady eye on him and spits on the wide plank floor. “Well, Danny, if it makes you feel any better, they’ll probably smother in there.”
“I’m not going into that wardrobe.” Anne Marie’s voice is determined; she reminds me of Susan. I take a chance and move close to her. I put an arm around her waist and pull her against me.
“I’ll see you dead for killing my sister. If I have to come after you from the grave, I’ll see you dead.”
Danny must have decided that he didn’t care anymore about keeping things quiet. He raises that gun and levels it right at her. I hold on to her and try to come up with some idea to save us.
“Sweetheart, I’ll take my chances.”
As soon as he speaks, I know Danny is going to shoot us. I’m not sure just what happens next. I only know that there is an explosion of gunfire. I grab Anne Marie and knock her to the floor. I throw myself on top of her to protect her. Instead of staying low like she has some sense, she fights to get out from under me. I hang onto her as tightly as I can and make sure she stays on the floor. Even if she’s managed to tuck a Henry rifle in her pocket this time, I know she can’t do anything but get herself killed now.
The shot Danny intended for us explodes in a shower of plaster and lathe over our heads. I raise my head a bit, and incredibly I see Danny fall back to the floor, a bloom of red spreading across his chest.
Boss shot Danny.
Boss shakes his head a little and glances over at the two of us on the floor. He walks slowly over to his cousin’s body, and I think for a moment that he’s going to reach down. Boss is breathing a little hard; maybe he’s a bit out of things himself.
The quiet doesn’t last long. My father bursts through the door like an avenging angel, and I see Boss raise his gun. I shout for pa to watch out, but I know it won’t make any difference. Boss fires at my pa, missing him completely. My pa’s answering shot hits Boss in the gut and he crumples to the floor within inches of his cousin.
Roy and Adam are right behind Pa-running into the room guns at the ready. It’s clear right away it’s all over. Pa runs over to us and lifts me off Anne Marie. That’s when I realize throwing her to the floor and holding her down while she thrashed to get away has rattled my ribs something fierce. There’s a knifing pain in my side, and I’m finding it a little hard to breathe. I keep my hand on her shoulder even so. Anne Marie has her head in her arms, and she’s moaning something I can’t understand.
I know it; we’re too late to save my boy.
I run toward that hotel faster than any man my age should manage. Hoss and Roy turn into the alley to cover the back stairs. Adam and I reach the front doors together. I draw my gun and start up the stairs while Adam warns the front desk clerk to keep hotel guests from coming up behind us. At the top of the stairs, I pause to catch my breath. Roy is quietly coming through the door at the end of the corridor.
“Where’s Hoss?” I whisper to him.
“We found Susan. He’ll be along. Let’s go.”
We are nearly to the suite when we hear gunfire. Roy may be the lawman, but no one is getting between me and whoever is threatening my youngest son. I throw open the door, and I hear Joe shout for me. The man Joe calls Boss is standing over a body. When he sees me, he raises his gun and shoots. Thankfully, his shot goes wide into the door frame, but it is close enough that splinters spray my face. I don’t think; I don’t aim; I merely react. My shot hits him solidly in the gut, and he spins to the floor. Adam and Roy follow me through the door.
My son and his friend are lying on the floor. He’s leaning heavily on her back, and I can hear him gasp for air. My hands lift him up to sit, and I hold him until we both stop shaking. I let Adam and Roy look over the wounded outlaws. I reach toward Anne Marie, but Joseph interrupts me.
“Pa. Is Boss still alive? He shot Danny. He . . . he saved us.” Joseph’s eyes are on the outlaw bleeding out in front of us. I settle Joe against the settee and crawl over to Boss.
The man’s time has come. His head is turned toward the youngsters. He wants to say something. I lean close.
“They okay?” I can barely hear him. I nod, and he relaxes. He doesn’t speak or breathe again. I say a silent prayer of thanksgiving that this violent man could find the heart to save my son.
I turn back to see that Adam is with his brother and Anne Marie. She is no longer on the floor.
“Let go of me!” Anne Marie is shouting and struggling in Adam’s grasp. He doesn’t want to hurt her, but she is determined to break free.
“I have to help her. She needs me. I have to find her.” Her desperate, tear-stained face breaks my heart. Suddenly, she clasps her hands into a fist and cocking her arms back, she elbows Adam hard in the jaw. He releases her more from surprise than pain.
She bolts for the door and barrels into Hoss who is not going to allow her to run any further.
“Let me through!” she shouts at him. Instead, he clasps her in his arms and holds her against his chest while he talks to her.
“I found her, sugar,” Hoss keeps repeating. “She’s with the doc now. I’m gonna take you to her.’
Maybe it’s all about being born back east, like Adam was. It seems that Susan has just about as hard a head as my oldest brother. The doctor said she only survived because she threw up her arm in time to absorb some of the blow. Between the head wound and the broken arm, she has been laid up for several weeks. Something like this would have been enough to scare most ladies back to the city. Susan just said she wasn’t letting a couple of lunatic gunmen decide for her where she and her sister were going to live.
Pa’s good at taking charge, and after a little bit of tussling, most folks give up and let him do it. Doc Martin wanted me to stay in town a few more days, and Pa used the time to take care of business. As soon as Susan was able to be moved out of Doc Martin’s infirmary, Pa had her and Anne Marie moved into a little house in town. Hop Sing’s number five cousin has a daughter that cooks for them and helps around the house. One of our older hands, who busted his knee on a round up, lives over their carriage house now and keeps an eye on things. Pa says if Susan is determined to hang around mining camps then she needs someone to watch her back.
Adam always says the only thing under my hat is hair. He says I don’t listen and think enough. He’s wrong about that. I listen all the time and think a lot about what I hear. One of the things Pa has always taught us is to learn from what happens to us- good or bad. It’s a habit of his that makes us a little crazy sometimes. So, I’ve been thinking about what I can learn from all that we went through.
When I talk to Pa about this, he tells me that there are two lessons-that a family watches out for each other and that even when things look bleak miracles still occur. I’m not sure I see those lessons. After all, didn’t Boss kill his cousin to save us? And Providence sure didn’t provide a miracle to save the boy that Danny killed. Adam says that the lesson is that a man needs to keep his head and wits about him so that he can find a way out of a bad situation. Adam would say something like that. Hoss believes that what happens to folks can’t always be explained, and that we should accept that we can’t control God’s plans for us. Hoss also says that I’m like a puppy with an old boot- I won’t stop chewing on something until I have it in shreds. I talk a lot about all of this to Anne Marie. After all, she was there.
I was talking to her again after school today when she interrupted me.
“Joe, I am through talking about this,” she said. “I am convinced that all this fretting is ruining my looks.”
I just gaped at her. She kept right on, “In fact, I think your looks are suffering as well. If you keep at it, you won’t be getting any more perfumed notes.” Then just like that, she threw a handful of snow in my face and lit out of the schoolyard slipping and sliding in the wagon ruts. I grabbed up a heap of snow and pelted her with snowballs until she fell over into a drift. She lay there laughing until I helped her up.
Of course, I really can’t argue with her logic.
Many thanks to Freyakendra for her beta-read!!
Other Stories by this Author
- Harvest Dance (By Belle)
- Wish (by Belle)
- Restitution (by Belle)
- Comeuppance (by Belle)
- In Absentia (by Belle)