All the Butterflies Have Broken Wings (by McFair_58)

Summary:  A WHN for both the episode ‘A Time to Step Down’ and ‘The Lonely House’. Five years have passed and Trock has been released from prison and returned to marry Lee Bolden. Little does the former bank robber know, but his past is about to catch up to him – and Joe Cartwright – in the form of a man whose dark secret only Dan Tollivar knows.  A note for the Adam-gals, your feller is home for a visit.

Word count: 61,659

Rated: PG-13 for adult situations and innuendo, torture, and typical Western violence and brutality

 

All the Butterflies have Broken Wings

 

PROLOGUE

Autumn light streamed in the window of  a rundown cabin nestled deep in the woods, striking the floorboards and washing them with rosy hues of red-gold and pale pink-orange.  Before it could strike the low bed shoved up against the cabin’s back wall, the gleaming light brushed the shoulders and quavering form of a young woman who knelt beside it.  She said her prayers every day as her mother taught her, though she knew they went unheeded.  God did not hear them.  He would not reply.  Each new day he turned His face from her as He had done for the last six years, for God knew everything.

He knew what she had done and what she had become.

She had few memories of her childhood.  It had been tumultuous at best.  Born back East, her family had pulled up roots and heeded the call of the West, traveling all the way to California where they bought a few acres up north and began to farm.  She’d been three at the time and by the time she was eleven she had had enough – enough of back-breaking labor and sleepless nights, of poverty and privation – enough of sitting at the family table with her silent mother and brow-beat siblings drinking water and eating stale bread for which her overly-religious father insisted they give thanks.  Her father ruled their house like a tyrant.  Her mother was completely subservient and, out of fear of retribution, most often silent.  The petite woman was of mixed heritage – half-Chinese and half something ’else’ that was called American.  As she grew, her mother sensed her unrest.  One day, shortly before she left, she’d told her to count her blessings.

Blessings.

And so, at the age of twelve, she ran away, hitching a ride on a stage by batting her eyelashes and letting a strange man put his hands where they shouldn’t be.  She should have known better – should have seen the writing on the way – but she didn’t.  She was beautiful in an ‘exotic’ sort of way, he told her, and she supposed it was true.  Like her mother she had long, slightly wavy black hair and big brown eyes and the kind of slender childlike figure older men liked.  Unlike her mother, her figure had waves as well – her ample breasts were the one gift her father’s line had given her.  She’d learned to use all of her assets to get what she wanted on that trip south, and even more so when she landed in San Francisco.

She met a man in the city.  He said he loved her.  He rescued her from the streets and took her to his home where he fed her and cared for her, dressing her and treating her like a queen.  For about a month.  Then, he used her – which wasn’t so bad – until he told her he ‘owned’ her and began to ‘rent’ her out.

And so it began, this thing she called a career.

After the man tired of her, he sold her to the owner of a place situated on the Barbary Coast.  It was run by a man from China.  A month after she got there, she’d tried to kill herself, but being inexperienced at just about everything other than being used, she’d failed.  While she lay recovering, one of the older women came to her and told her she could teach her things that would keep her safe – how to bring pleasure to a man without being violated for one, but also – and this was the most important – what to do to bring a man to the point where pleasure became pain.  Her newfound ‘talents’ served her well and kept her alive, but at a cost.

That cost was her soul.

The word ‘Amen’ escaped her lips as she rose to her feet and headed for the kitchen area.  This run-down cabin in the woods was a far cry from the life she had once envisioned for herself.  As was the man who kept her now.  She’d gotten into trouble in San Francisco when she used her ‘skills’ on a high-ranking official and the man had gone to the authorities.  Ahab had happened along at just the right time, taking her under his wing and helping her to flee the city.  At first, she’d thought maybe God had heard her prayers.  At first the older man treated her well and wanted noting more than companionship.  But then, like it always happened, he began to use her.  Oh, not like the other men – not for what she was, but for what she could do.  She was the bait; her fine white skin, shining black hair and ample breasts, the hook.

And her hands, the weapon that extracted it.

The pattern was always the same.  They would move into an area and spend a few days asking questions, learning what they could about its richest men and their liabilities.  Most often Ahab chose one with a young son or daughter – someone who was an easy mark.  She’d expected it would take them some time to work through Virginia City’s elite.  After all, there were so many fabulously wealthy men in the fast-growing Western metropolis.  Surprisingly, there had been no reconnaissance at all.  Instead, Ahab took her straight to a large home made of hewn logs with white chink and pointed out a well-muscled young man with a head of chestnut curls who stood beside a pile of chopped wood, leaning on his axe.  She watched as the handsome cowboy ran a hand over his brow, wiping away the sweat, and then headed toward another man who was exiting the barn; an older man with gray hair going white, whose rolling stride marked him as an ex-sailor.

‘That’s the mark,’ Ahab said as he placed a hand on her shoulder.

She’d turned to look at him and asked, ‘Which one?’  Though it was routine for them to kidnap the children of the wealthy and hold them hostage, there had been times when her procurer deviated from what was normal.

Times she preferred not to remember.

‘Which one do you fancy?’ he’d asked.

Her eyes had rolled at that.  She was nineteen, after all.  There was no need to ask.

‘The handsome one.’

‘He’s yours then.’

‘And the other one?’ she’d asked as she watched the pair embrace thinking, surely, this was the younger man’s father.

‘That’s the great and mighty Benjamin Cartwright,” the man who owned her snarled.  “He’s mine.”

Passing through the kitchen  the young woman moved on to the common room and halted before a cracked mirror hanging on the wall.  She was attired in emerald-green today – in a gown that showed everything she had.  It had a matching box hat with a feather and a little reticule.

Today, she was a lady – a beautiful young lady who had been done wrong by her husband and left at the side of the road.  In other words, a damsel in distress.  That young man with the chestnut hair was taking a stage coach ride today.  It was her job to get him to leave the stage behind and take her home.

And then to break him.

 

 

ONE

It never ceased to amaze him that a man could get more saddle sores riding in a stage coach than on the back of a horse.

Joseph Francis Cartwright, youngest and most charming – at least in his book – of Benjamin Cartwright’s three handsome sons glanced at the coach window and blew out a sigh as the mountains bounced by.  He’d done everything but grovel to get his pa to let him ride Cochise to Lee’s house, but Pa wouldn’t hear of it.  Joe’s gaze dropped to the waistband of his green corduroy coat.  Underneath it he still wore a bandage.  If it had been anything other than him being shot, Pa said, he would have considered it, but with the wound in his side just healed Pa didn’t trust him on the road alone because of highway robbers, desperados, outlaws, plague, famine, pestilence, and just about anything and everything else Biblical the older man could conjure up out of that overly-protective, vexed, and highly imaginative mind of his.

Come to think of it, he had groveled.

So, here he was, making what would normally have been an enjoyably short jaunt on Cochise in a stifling, cramped coach smelling of smoke, sweat, and too many men.  What the heck they were all doing heading to Platt City he had no idea.

Maybe the town was having a contest to see who could knock a man down at ten paces by sheer stink alone.

Joe sighed as he leaned back in his seat and pulled his Stetson down.  He should have been there by now.  Since Lee knew he was coming, she’d have prettied herself up.  She’d probably be wearing deep red like she liked to in order to show off those big blue eyes of hers and that raven-black hair – and have a smile and a fine supper waiting on him.  He looked forward to the time he would spend in her company.  It had been kind of awkward at first since she wasn’t quite old enough to be his ma and a little too old to be his sweetheart, but after a rough start five years back they’d become good friends.  Joe chuckled at the thought of how he’d fought his pa the first time the older man sent him out to check on Lee, shortly after her first husband died.  Here he was thinking she was gonna be some stuffy old lady with gray hair and at least one double chin.  He had to admit he’d been mighty surprised when the door  opened to reveal a beautiful, trim young woman –

Pointing a rifle straight at him.

Joe glanced again at the jostling scenery and then reached over the man sittin’ next to him, who was dead- drunk and snoring, to pull the shade down against the light of the setting sun.  Truth to tell since he’d taken that bullet, his head had ached just about as much as his side.  He’d never be so happy in his life as when he got out of this bouncing, jiggling, torture chamber called a ‘coach’ and put his booted feet down on solid ground.  Turning his head, Joe looked out of the window on the opposite side of the stage. The light was nearly gone.  Nothing remained of it but a few blood-red streaks near the horizon.  Stars were twinkling in a sky grown dark as his father’s eyes and the moon was rising.  All in all it was a pretty sight – ‘sweet’ as middle brother would say.  The curly-haired man snorted as he adjusted his position again and elbowed the drunk into the corner of the coach.  Older brother Adam would have pronounced it ‘beautiful as the seraph’s dream’ or some other such nonsense.

The thought of Adam wiped the smile from his lips.  Brother Adam had been gone for two full years and he’d found that, while he missed him, Adam’s departure had – well – freed him to be himself.  Pa had put a lot of trust in him, turnin’ over the horses and all that went with them to him, letting him handle that part of the family business as he saw fit.  Since Adam had come home for his ‘visit’, older brother had made it damn clear that he still saw him as a snot-nosed little kid who couldn’t wipe his own back end.  He didn’t know what it was with the two of them.  He’d talked to Hop Sing about it and the little man had said it was because the two of them were too alike.

He’d put out his hand and checked to make sure the little man didn’t have a fever.

A disgruntled noise brought him out of his musing.  He thought it might have been the stage driver, Charlie, cussing, and if it was, he wanted to know why.  Leaning over the drunk, Joe snapped open the blind and stuck his head out the window.

“Hey, Charlie, what’s going on?”

Charlie Martin was an old hand at stage runs.  Heck, Charlie was an old hand at just about everything.  The older man had worked for his pa when he was a little boy and been one of those hands who’d let him get by with way too many things, so they had been and still were good friends.  After workin’ on the Ponderosa, Charlie’d tried his hand at banking.  Well, that wasn’t quite right.

He’d robbed one actually.

Charlie got five years for the crime, but it was reduced to two for good behavior.  When the state let him out, he came back to the ranch and asked for his job back.  Pa hired him again, but after that it seemed like they were never alone.  Adam or Hoss or one of the other trustworthy hands was always around to see that neither of them got into any trouble.  Charlie was older than Adam and younger than Pa.  Probably somewhere around forty.  It was hard to tell exactly how old he was due to the time he’d spent in prison and the fact that he currently spent most of his days bein’ baked by the sun.  In prison they’d cut Charlie’s pale yellow hair short and he found he liked it that way.  The older man looked like he’d been scalped and survived it.  A knife fight or two since he’d been released had added scars to his thin face that made him look – at least, according to Maggie at the Bucket – slightly rakish.

Yeah, he knew what that word meant too.

“I ain’t sure, Joe!” Charlie called back.  He liked the fact that the older man never called him ‘Little Joe’ even though he’d known him since he was a spud.  “There’s somethin’ in the road.”

“You want me to come up top?”

There was a pause.

“Yeah.  I’m thinkin’ that might be a good idea.”

Charlie had slowed the coach but not brought it to a stop.  Joe disentangled his boots from those of the inebriated  man next to the window and stepped over him to catch the handle of the door.

“You’re just plain stupid for going out there, kid,” one of the passengers – a man in a dark gray business suit with a black string tie and matching bowler hat – growled.  “They aren’t paying you to put yourself in danger.”

Joe paused to tip his tan hat.  “No need.  That’s somethin’ I do for free,” he answered with tight grin.

The man studied him a moment before pronouncing, “You’re an idiot.”

The curly-haired man bit back his anger and his desire to say, ‘It takes one to know one.’  “Guilty as charged,” he said instead and then swung out into the night.

Charlie was waiting for him when he dropped down onto the weathered seat next to the older man.  Turning his face forward Joe squinted into the night.

“I don’t see anything.”

“It’s a ways off yet.  When you do this for a livin’ you gotta have vision sharp as a hawk’s.”  Charlie’s profile was clear against the risen moon.  His jaw was set and his lips tight.  “You got that pretty pearl-handled lady with you?”

Joe patted his hip, reassured by the feel of his revolver beneath his fingers.  “Sure do.”

The lean man’s pale eyes rolled over to meet his puzzled gaze.  “I’d be wakin’ her up and gettin’ her out of bed if I were you.”

“What do you think it is?” Joe asked, squinting harder as he drew his pistol.

The older man turned toward him.  His white teeth gleamed in the moonlight.

“Just what you ordered, boy,” he said with a grin.  “Trouble.”

 

“Pa.”

Ben Cartwright dropped his newspaper to the top of the rugged wooden table he sat behind and looked up at his oldest son, still not quite believing he was there.  Adam had only recently returned.  Two years before, at the age of thirty-five, his eldest had declared the need to find himself and made it clear that he felt he had to leave the Ponderosa to do so.  Though he had written faithfully, chronicling their day to day lives as well as anything out of the ordinary and sending the letters to Adam’s various ports of call, his son’s replies had been sporadic at best.  So it had come as quite a shock when he opened the front door and found the boy standing there with his hand raised as if he had hesitated to knock.  He’d just left Joseph’s room where he’d been sitting at his youngest’s side, praying for the fever that wracked his ravished form to abate.  He’d been expecting Paul Martin.  The physician’s visits had been regular as clockwork since the debacle with Dan Tollivar that had left Joseph gravely wounded.

Adam explained that he had been in California working when he’d received the letter telling him of Dan’s betrayal and Joseph’s close brush with death.  At the time he wrote he hadn’t known that the wound would become infected and threaten Joe’s life.  In spite of that, Adam had headed straight home, driven by some inner demon he had yet to explain.

Ben’s dark eyes went to his eldest child.  Adam was standing on the other side of the table, facing into the yard.  Perhaps he was being too harsh.  Perhaps there were no demons.

It was possible Adam had been driven home by love.

His eldest’s strong form blocked his view of the barn.  Still, he knew it’s interior was lit.  Dan Tollivar was working late.

Making amends.

Leaning back in his chair, Ben acknowledged his son with a nod.

Adam’s full lips were pursed.  “Pa,” he repeated.  “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

Never one to beat about the bush, that was Elizabeth’s son.

“About what?” the older man inquired, though he knew full well.

“About Dan.”

Ben sucked in the sigh that sought to escape.  “You know what your brother said.”

“Yes, and I know another thing.  Dan Tollivar almost got Joe killed.  If you ask me – and neither of you have – I don’t think either of you are thinking straight where Dan’s concerned.”

The rancher hesitated and then said, “Son, I would have expected more of you.”

“More of me?  What ‘more’?  You mean you expect me to forgive and forget and put my trust in a man who kidnapped my brother, betrayed my father, and then stood by while Joe was shot!?”  His son paused to contain his temper.  “Perhaps you would care to explain to me just what is wrong with my having a slight…problem with that?”

“Son, the Bible teaches us to forgive –”

“It also says to be of sober spirit and on the alert,” Adam snapped, “for our adversary prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour!”

Ben rose to his feet and planted his hands on the table.  “I didn’t teach you to bend the scriptures to suit your own prejudices, boy!”

Adam’s jaw grew tight.  Rage was written into every line of his lean form.  “This is why I left!  I’m not a boy, Pa, but you seem to be unable to accept that.  I’m nearly forty.  Older than you were when you and I headed west!”  His son’s voice had risen with his temper.  He stopped, sucked in air, and visibly struggled to rein it in.  “I happen to love my brother and I for one don’t believe a leper can change his spots.”

The rancher shook his head.  “I thought I taught you better.”

Adam snorted.  “Pa, you taught me that family comes first.  I’m sorry, sir, but I think your friendship with Dan Tollivar blinds you to the obvious.”

“Do you think your brother is blind too?  Joe has forgiven Dan –”

“Has he?  Has he really? Adam snorted.  “Have you asked him?  Or have you just assumed Joe thinks like you do?”

Ben opened his mouth to reply, but shut it just as quickly.  Had he?  Had his decades-long friendship with Dan blinded him to the obvious?

No.  Joe had gone with him a few days before.  The two of them sat on their horses and watched while Dan taught one of the younger hands the ABCs of roping and wrangling.  He could see his youngest laughing, encouraging the older man.

“Of course he does.”

“Pa,” Adam’s tone softened, “Joe loves you.  No, he worships you.  He’d do anything to make you happy.”  A flicker of something – it might have been fear – colored Adam’s hazel eyes darkening them to brown.  “Even forgive a man who tried to kill him.”

It wasn’t true – at least not technically.  Joe insisted Dan had saved him.

After he had allowed him to be kidnapped, brutalized, and shot.

Ben fought to still his indignation; to listen to his son.  So far as he knew Dan Tollivar had been a model hand for the last month since…the incident.  Perhaps Adam knew different.

“Has Dan done something to arouse your suspicions?”

Elizabeth had done the same thing, pursed her lips and given him that ‘look’ when she knew something and knew it for sure, but had no idea how she knew.

“…no.”  Adam glanced toward the barn again.  “But I don’t like the way he watches Joe.”

This was news to him.  “What do you mean, ‘watches’ your brother?”

“It’s hard to say, Pa, but you know how it can be,” his son replied as he turned back to face him.  “When a man’s done something wrong – and his conscious pricks him – sometimes he comes to resent the…reminder.”

“The ‘reminder’ being your brother?”  Ben frowned.  “Are you sure?”

“No, Pa, I’m not sure.  I wish I was.  It’s just that I’m….”  His son shrugged and his lips curled up on the ends with chagrin.  “I’m scared.   Joe….  Well, he could have died and I wouldn’t have been….”

Adam had a right to be scared.  They had almost lost Joe.

When Joe and Dan rolled into the yard in that wagon and his son debarked, Joseph had been on his feet and talking.  Joe explained what had happened and insisted he was ‘fine’ as he walked him up the stairs and put him to bed.  The boy had pleaded that he let Hop Sing attend him and not call in Paul Martin in, since doing so would spread the tale all over town.  He had reluctantly agreed.  At first, it seemed the wound was just a glancing one, more blood than bite, but two days later – in the middle of the night – he had heard his son crying out.  When he went in to check on Joe, he found him nearly delirious with fever.  By the time Paul Martin arrived his youngest was the color of the sheets and barely conscious.  From the time he had been a little boy, Joe had been a healthy, robust child – when he was healthy.  But when the boy was sick, he was sick.  For someone only a few years over twenty, Joseph had tread the path between life and death more times than he cared to count.

This last time it had been very close.

“All right, son,” he said at last.  “I’m not dismissing your concerns, but I would like to know what  your other brother thinks.  Have you asked Hoss if he’s noticed anything odd about Dan’s behavior where it concerns Joseph?”

Hoss had been away handling some business in Carson City and only returned the night before.

“You know Hoss, Pa,” Adam said.

Yes, he did. Where his eldest was wary, his giant of a middle son was willing to see the best in any man.

Still, if it meant Joseph was threatened….

“Where is Hoss?”

Adam shrugged a look over his shoulder.  “In the barn…with Dan.”

Ben moved out from behind the table.  As he passed his son, he placed a hand on his arm.  “Adam, I want you to know that I am not dismissing your concerns and,” he drew in a breath, “I do see you as a man – a man I had no idea how much I had come to rely on until he was gone.”  As he lifted his hand, Ben looked at the barn.  “Maybe I’ll just go pay the two of them a visit.  Oh, and Adam?”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“Forgive me?”

They had been through everything together – feast and famine, hardship and danger, loss, grief, and more things than he could name.  They were, in some ways, two halves of a whole – him and his eldest.  One day, he knew, his son would leave again and he knew as well that it would tear him apart.

He just hoped it wasn’t today.

Adam’s callused hand closed over his.  “There’s nothing to forgive, Pa.”

Ben stared into his son’s eyes, nodded his head, and then began the short walk to the barn.

 

They were rolling forward…slowly.  The wheels of the stage coach squeaked as they moved, marking off the yards toward….

What?

The moon was high in the diamond-pierced sky now, but a bank of clouds had drifted in, masking it and tossing shadows across the road.  Whatever was in the middle of it – or right beside it – was small.  About the size of a deer, or maybe a young steer.  Joe squinted his eyes as he mentally ticked off the distance they’d traveled.  Charlie had fallen silent.  The life of a stagecoach driver was straightforward.  When a ride went well, it was easy money in his pocket.

When it didn’t, well….

It didn’t.

“Can you tell what it is?”he asked, his voice breathy with anticipation.

Charlie was squinting.  He was chewing his lip too.  “Don’t look like nothin’ I’ve ever see’d afore.  Funny kind of shape.”

“Like a steer?”

Suddenly, Charlie reared up and snorted.

“Or maybe a filly!”

Joe looked.  A beam of moonlight had broken through the clouds.  It shone down on a small bedraggled figure sitting at the side of the road in the midst of a pile of suitcases.  It was a woman all right, or more likely a girl.  He couldn’t tell for sure.  Joe started to call out, but Charlie’s hand on his knee stopped him.

“Could be a trap.  I seen somethin’ like it before.”

He hadn’t thought of that.

“You think so?”

“No, but it don’t hurt to be careful.”

As his friend spoke, the stage coach rolled to a stop. The woman didn’t move.

“You want me to go check on her?” Joe offered.

Charlie’s eyes were roaming the land before, behind, and to each side of the coach. There wasn’t much cover, but there was enough to mask a man on a horse – or two.

“You, or me,” his friend said.

Joe put his hand on the older man’s shoulder.  “Charlie, no offense, but one look at you and, whoever she is, she’s gonna think an Indian looks good.”

Charlie was still laughing when Joe jumped off, landed on his feet, and headed for the figure beside the road.

At first, she didn’t seem to notice him.  In fact, it seemed she hadn’t heard the coach at all.  Then, as she lifted a tear-streaked face and looked at him, he saw that she just didn’t care.  He couldn’t really tell how old she was since the moon was still playin’ hide and seek, and he only got a glimpse of her face before she turned away, but she was pale, dark-haired, young, and….

Lost.

Joe stopped about five feet out.  “Hey, there,” he said.  “You look like you could use a friend.”

For a moment she said nothing.  Then, only, “Go away.”

The curly-haired man blinked.  “I don’t think I can do that.”

“Look,” she snapped, “I didn’t ask for your help.  Leave me alone.”

Joe glanced over his shoulder at Charlie where he sat in the driver’s seat.  He gave his friend a shrug and then turned back.  “Well, I hate to tell you, but you sitting here beside the road in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night….  Well, it ain’t such a smart thing to do.”

The girl shot him a look.

It could have killed a cougar.

Joe took his hat off, ran a hand through his hair, and then along the back of his neck before trying again.  “Look, Miss…?”

“Missus.!”

“Okay….”  He sucked in a breath and a bit of temper along with it.  “Look here, Missus….?”

“For the record it’s Mrs. Jones, and thank you very much for your concern, but I’m just fine.”  She sniffed again s she looked him up and down.  “And pardon me, but I don’t need Sir Galahad riding in on a horse to save me!”

His temper was straining the reins to the point of snapping.  “Well, pardon me, but if you’d paid attention you’d know I don’t have a dang horse!”

He saw the edge of one lip quirk.  The smile was brief.

“Please, go away.”

Joe plopped the hat back on his head and then plopped right down on the ground beside her.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked as she scooted back and away from him.

He crossed his legs Indian fashion as he settled in.  “You know a law says I can’t sit here?”

The young woman had cocked her head and was looking at him.  The moon was shining again and he was thinkin’ maybe she wasn’t tellin’ the truth about being married.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you that you’re not supposed to ask a lady her age?”  She scowled.  “How old are you?”

“Twenty-five,” he said.  “You next.”

“Twenty,” she replied with a roll of her dark eyes.

He looked her up and down.  “Try that again?”

Almost twenty.”

It might have been the truth, though he doubted it.

“And I really am married,” she went on.  “Well, I was…for about a month.”

Joe eyed the suitcases.  “He leave you here?”

“That’s just like a man!” Mrs. Maybe Jones snapped.  “You’re all alike!  No, he didn’t leave me.  I left him!”

Joe hid his smile.  “Right here?  In the middle of nowhere?”

She turned away so the shadows masked her face.  “I packed up and left.  He came…after me.  I told him I didn’t want to go home, and he….”

“He left you here.  In the middle of nowhere.”

Tears entered her eyes.

A second later, a voice came out of night.  “Hey Joe, I know you’re one for the ladies, but do you think we could get a move on it?”

The young woman’s eyes went to the coach.  “You better go back to your friends.”

Joe snorted.  “Friends?  That bunch?  You know, I’m surprised you let me sit next to you.  You gotta be upwind.  I ain’t never nosed me a sorrier bunch of drunken cowpokes and pomaded dandies than that lot.”

A small smiled curled her lips.  “You do kind of…reek.”

He looked mightily offended – and half meant it.  “That’s what a man gets for being turned into a pillow for a two ton soused louse.”

“Joe?”

Rising to his feet, he took a couple of steps toward the coach.  Then he looked back.  “You got any sort of transportation?”

Joe was sure she’d call him an idiot again, but instead she nodded.  “My carriage.  It’s back there a ways.  My husband, he said he’d take me to town, but a wheel came off and so he left me.”

“Carriage got a horse?”

“My husband unhitched one and took it.  The other is still there.  I left him tied to a tree,” she replied.  “I walked to the road because I figured someone would come by…eventually.”

He looked at her luggage, which was about enough to contain an entire house. “You carry all this by yourself?”

“Of course, I did!” she answered, indignant. “What do you think?  My husband deserted me and then politely agreed to help me tote my bags?”

This was going to prove interesting.

“You stay here,” he said.  “Now, I mean it.  Don’t you go anywhere.”

Her eyes rolled again. Then she saluted.  “Yes, sir!”

Joe did some eye rolling himself as he walked back to the coach and then mounted the rungs to talk to Charlie.

After he’d explained everything, the older man said with a shake of his head, “I don’t know, Joe.  You’re pa ain’t gonna be happy with me if he hears I let you go off in the middle of the night with a strange woman without so much as a by your leave.”

Joe suppressed a sigh.  “Charlie, I’m twenty-five.  I can make my own decisions.  No one will blame you.”

The older man eyed him.  “Your pa won’t blame me.  He’ll just take it out of my hide if somethin’ happens to you.”

“What can happen?  I fix a wheel, I get Mrs. Maybe Jones and her luggage in the carriage, and I take her home and see if I can help straighten things out.”

“Where’s home?”

He ran a hand along the back of his neck.  “Uh, I forgot to ask.”

“What about Miz Bolden?  Wait, that ain’t her name anymore, is it?”

Lee had married again.  Her name was Throckmorton now – a fact he had a tendency to forget himself.

“Can you take her a message?  Tell her I’ve been delayed and should be along tomorrow?”

“After you deliver Mrs. Maybe Jones who is married to ‘you don’t-know-who’ but isn’t. to ‘you-don’t-know-where’?”

“Well, then, tell Lee I’ll be along…sometime,” he growled.  “I was plannin’ on stayin’ a week or so.  Pa won’t know any different if I take a little…detour.”

Charlie was staring at him – just like Adam did when he thought he was hare-brained.  “Just make sure it’s a ‘little’ detour, okay, Joe?  I wouldn’t want anythin’ to happen to you.”

“You know me, Charlie,” Joe answered with a smile as he grabbed his bag and began to descend.

This time he got the look that Pa always gave him.

The one that said Charlie knew him only too well.

 

 

TWO

Ben halted just outside the barn door at the sound of Dan and his middle son laughing.  It took him back.  Dan Tollivar had been with him since he’d come out West.  The older man had taught him much of what he knew about ranching and – if the truth were known – saved his life a couple of times in the bargain when his youthful arrogance had caused him to take chances that were anything but wise.  At the time Dan had been  in his mid-forties.  Now, over thirty years later, his old friend was an old man.

Just as he would soon be.

Perhaps that was what gave him more tolerance.  Maybe that was why he had been able to forgive Dan when he had warned him – no, promised him – that if anything happened to Joseph due to his irresponsible actions, he would take it out of his hide.

No, that wasn’t it.

He had forgiven Dan because that was what Joe wanted him to do.  His brilliant, bonny boy had lain in that bed, fighting for his life; those green eyes of his wide and pleading, begging him to promise that he would.

How could he have said ‘no’?

Ben’s gaze returned to the barn door.  Inside shadows shifted as if his middle boy and his old friend were hard at work.  Hoss was always the first to forgive, though this time it had been a choice and not a given.  Hoss and Joseph were two halves of one whole and Dan’s betrayal of both him and his brother had hurt the gentle giant.  Still, once Hoss had made the decision, he stuck with it and didn’t look back.  Hoss treated Dan now like he had treated him before – as a beloved uncle.

The rancher frowned as he turned and looked toward the gate.  He could still see his youngest sitting there in the wagon, waiting on Hoss to come and drive him into town.  Joseph had been laughing and joking, but looked less than his usual self.  His youngest was still hurting.  The bullet wound in his side was – for all intents and purposes – healed, but the fever brought on by infection had left him weak.  He’d hesitated to let him go to Lee’s but then changed his mind, deciding a little motherly care would be good for the boy.  As Joe and Hoss left, Dan Tollivar had walked from the corral to the barn.  He’d been surprised at his reaction to the sight of the old wrangler smiling and waving goodbye to his youngest.

He’d been furious.

Ben sighed and ran a hand along the back of his neck.  If he was honest, he’d have to admit that he was still incredibly angry about everything that had happened.  For Joseph’s sake, he had buried that anger deep, layering decency and understanding and clemency and pardon over it until it turned into forgiveness.

But he hadn’t forgiven.

Not really.

The older man closed his eyes for a moment and drew in several long, calming breaths. Then he looked to the sky and to his God before laying a hand to latch and opening the barn door and stepping in.

“Hey there, Pa!” Hoss called cheerfully when he saw him.  His son was using a pitchfork to toss hay into one of the stalls.  “What’re you doin’ out here?  Night’s fallin’ and it’s gettin’ so cold the cows are gonna give icicles soon.”

He had noted the chill as he walked from the house.  His thoughts had gone immediately to his youngest.  There was a lot of barren land between Lee’s and the Ponderosa.  Still, Joseph should be at her house by now, or – if he wasn’t for some unknown reason – secured in some way station for the night.

Dan Tollivar had stopped what he was doing and was staring at him.

He decided to cut to the chase.

“I wanted to talk to Dan.”

Hoss looked at Dan and then back at him.  He could see the wheels turning in his son’s head.  Hoss was curious, but too well-trained to question him.

“We’re just about done, Ben,” Dan said.  “I could come up to the house in a few minutes.”

He held out his hand and indicated the pitchfork.  “No.  This is fine.  Hand me the fork, son.  I’ll finish up.”  When the boy hesitated, Ben added with a smile, “I definitely caught the scent of fresh baked cookies coming from the kitchen.”

Hoss’ brilliant blue eyes lit up.  “Was they chocolate chip by any chance?”

The rancher chuckled.  “That would be my guess.”

His son handed the tool to him and then rubbed his hands together.  “Hot diggity!  And I won’t even have to turn that little brother of mine upside-down and shake ‘em out of his pockets to get one since he ain’t home!”

Ben was facing his son, but watching Dan Tollivar.  At the mention of Joe, a shadow darkened the older man’s countenance.  It was hard to tell what it meant.  The look could have been anything from anger to shame.

“If you will, son, check in on Adam when you get inside.  He went up to his room a little bit ago.”

Hoss pursed his lips.  “Why?  Was he upset about somethin’?”

Again, his middle son was too well-trained to ask if they’d gotten into it.

“I’m not sure.  Just see that he’s all right.”  Again, Ben’s gaze returned to his old friend.  Dan had moved into the room adjacent to the stalls where they kept the horse liniments, extra saddles and such, and taken a seat at the table.  “We can’t afford any discord with the drive coming up.”

“Sure thing, Pa, but you know older brother.  Even if he’s got somethin’ caught in his craw, he’ll think himself right out of it by mornin’.”

“I hope you’re right.”  As his son turned to leave, he called him back.  “Hoss?”

“Yes, sir?”

Ben winked.  “Save a few of those cookies for your old man?”

Hoss’ bellowing laughter followed him all the way into the house.

His exit left him and Dan alone.

They hadn’t spoken for a few  days.  It had been shortly after Joe was well enough to sit in a saddle that they’d gone out to watch Dan work, and since then time and tide had kept them apart.  Even though Joseph had begged him to forgive the older man, he’d been startled by his son’s willingness to act as if nothing had happened.  Joe had laughed and egged Dan on as the older man worked with a nineteen-year-old greenhorn, teaching him the basics of roping that Joe himself had mastered by the age of ten.

Dan, of course, had taught him as well.

The old wrangler finished what he was doing and then, with a sigh and a shift of his shoulders, pivoted on his seat to face him.  “We’ve known each other too long, Ben.  You may as well come out with it,” he said without preamble.

“Come out with what?” he asked.

Dan sighed as he nodded toward the table.  “I know you didn’t come out here to commend me on how well I mend harnesses.”

Taking hold of a chair, the  rancher turned it around and sat down.  “No.  No, I didn’t.”

“You’re lettin’ me go.”

That caused him to pause.  Were his feelings more apparent than he realized?

“Why would you think that?”

Dan shook his head.  “I know that oldest boy of yours thinks you should.”

“Adam?  How would you…?”  Ben frowned.  “Were you listening earlier?”

The wrangler’s head shook.  “Didn’t need to.  I seen how he watches me.  Like he don’t trust me.”

Ben drew a breath and let it out with the words.  “Should he?”

For a moment anger flickered in his old friend’s eyes.  Quickly, Dan dropped his gaze.  “I guess he don’t have any reason to.”  When the older man looked up again, there were unspent tears in his eyes. “I did him – and you wrong, Ben.”

“You did Joseph wrong,” he said softly.

Dan had picked up a length of braided leather from the table.  His fingers worked it as he spoke.  “I did, and I’m sorry for it.  I’m right sorry for it.”

“Are you?”

The wrangler’s eyes went wide.  Ben sensed astonishment rather than anger.  “How can you ask that, Ben?  You know I am.  I near got that boy killed!”

His fingers gripped the chair’s arms as he fought for control.  “Yes.  Yes, you did.”

A silence fell between them, broken only by the sound of the horses’ evening conversation and the jingle of harnesses as a few of the men rode in from the range.

“I better go,” the old wrangler said at last.  “I tried it for Little Joe’s sake, but it ain’t gonna work.”

Dan’s words surprised him.  “For Joe?”

“Ben, I love that boy.  You know that.  I just…well…I lost my mind.  I can’t explain it any other way.”  His old friend paused.  When he spoke again, the raw emotion in Dan’s voice surprised him.  “You know I had a life before I met you.”

He nodded.  The older man had spoken little of his youthful days and he had honored his wish to keep the past to himself.

“I had a…boy, Ben.  One a lot like Joe.”

He sat up and leaned forward.  This was new.  “What happened to him?” he asked.

Dan hesitated.  “Let’s just say we…came to a parting of the ways.  One day he up and decided he knew everythin’ and I didn’t know nothin’ at all.”  The wrangler sighed as he looked toward the open door and the house beyond.  “I ain’t never felt so betrayed in all my days.”

“And when Joseph…turned on you….”

Dan shook his head.  “You and I know the boy did no such thing, but I gotta admit, that’s how I saw it.  Little Joe and Mal, well, there’s a lot about them that’s the same.  Mal had his ma’s hair.  It was curly like Joe’s ‘cept it was golden as honey.   He was a smart boy too.”

Ben’s lips twisted with an unexpected smile.  “With a smart mouth?”

The old wrangler nodded his head.  “Just like Little Joe.  That boy’s mouth ran a mile ahead of his brain.”

When Dan fell silent again, he prodded gently, “What happened to him – to Mal?  Do you know?”

“Ain’t got no idea.  He headed off and never looked back.”  His old friend paused.  “The next winter his mother died and I took off  too.”

Ben leaned back in his chair and ran a hand over his chin.  Dan’s words brought him some hope.  Perhaps what Adam sensed as Dan’s resentment of Joseph was nothing more than a deep regret.  It was obvious his youngest reminded the wrangler of his own long lost son.  No wonder he had taken such an interest in Little Joe when he’d been a boy!  It could possibly also explain the anger and resentment Dan felt when Joe fired him – an anger and resentment that drove him to make what had to be the biggest mistake of his life.

A mistake that had almost cost Joe his life.

“You ain’t forgiven me, have you?” Dan asked out of the blue.

The rancher hesitated and then decided to be honest.  “No.”

“Well,” he said with a slap of his knees, “I’ll pack up and be gone in the mornin’ then.”

“Dan, wait.  Sit down.”  When he remained standing, Ben added, “Please.”

The wrangler hesitated and then did as he asked.

“Dan…this is hard for me.  I have taught my boys that in order to be forgiven, a man has to forgive.  My son – Little Joe – it seems has learned that lesson better than I have.  Joseph has forgiven you.”

Dan nodded.  “I know that.”

“And he has asked me to do the same.”  Ben’s smile was weary.  “I am…trying.”

“I know that too.  Just like I know Hoss don’t hold nothin’ against me.”  Dan’s lips thinned.  “Adam is another story.”

“Adam is protective of his little brother.”

“And I nearly got him killed.”  The wrangler sighed.  “Since Adam’s back, it ain’t gonna work, Ben.  I might as well go.”

He could see his old friend had made up his mind.

“I’m sorry.  Maybe I shouldn’t have brought this up.”

Dan looked toward the house again.  “Nah.  It’s okay.  I been thinkin’ about it anyway.  I appreciate your takin’ me back on, Ben, and I enjoy workin’ with the young’uns, but I been thinkin’ maybe it’s time I see if I can find my own.”

“Your son, you mean?  Do you have any idea where to look?”

“I got a few letters.  Not from Malachi, but from my wife’s sister.  Seems the boy mentioned California when he was visitin’ her.”

“How long ago was that?”

The wrangler shook his head.  “Bought as long as that youngest of yours has been walkin’ the earth.”

So the boy – no, he would be a man now – could be long dead.  Ben eyed his old friend and saw in him a broken, defeated man.  He couldn’t consider him a threat.

And yet, Adam was seldom wrong.

“Why don’t you wait until spring?” he suggested.

“What good would that do?”

“We need your experience to train the new men for the drive, for one thing, and you’re not going to make much progress beginning a search just as the snow flies and winter hits the mountains.”

Dan thought about it a moment.  “Adam won’t want me on the drive.”

“Adam doesn’t make the decisions around here.  I do.”

There was a flicker of something in his old friend’s eyes – a remembrance, perhaps, of how he had put Joseph in charge and let his young son make the fateful decision to fire Dan; a decision that had put into play the events which ended in the old wrangler’s disgrace and his youngest son’s close call with death.

Or was it that he was seeing what Adam saw when Dan looked at Joe?

His old friend looked down and then raised his head and met his eyes.  “I’ll stay ‘til spring.  No longer.”

Rising to his feet, Ben held out his hand.  “You won’t regret it,” he said.

He only hoped he wouldn’t either.

 

A knock on the door of his bedroom brought Adam Cartwright’s head up.  He’d been reading Henry Maudsley’s ‘The Physiology and Pathology of Mind’.  Maudsley, a Yorkshireman, had spent his early years working in sanitariums and lunatic asylums and had recently become the co-editor of the English Journal of Mental Science.  In his current book he advanced what was known as the ‘degeneration theory’.  Maudsley believed that inherited “taints” were exaggerated through succeeding generations.  In other words, drunkenness in a man could lead to idiocy in his offspring by the fourth generation.  He wasn’t sure what he thought of the man’s ideas, but found the idea of the psychology of the mind fascinating.

And a bit frightening.

Closing the book, he placed a hand on the cover and then said, “Come in.”

The door opened to reveal his big, beefy brother.  Hoss looked at the room and then at him, and then shook his head.  “I gotta admit, I still ain’t sure you’re not a ghost,” he said.

Adam chuckled.  “I can assure you that I am quite substantial.”

“Do you mind if I come in?”

“Of course not.”  He turned and placed the book on the side table.  “Was there something in particular?”

Hoss took a seat.  His brother paused and then said, “Pa’s in the barn with Dan.”

“Oh?”

Hoss dropped his hands between his knees and looked at him.  “What do you think about it, Adam?”

“It?”

“Dan.  Pa.” Hoss sighed.  “Little Joe.”

It had been interesting home-coming, to put it mildly.  In the time he’d been away his little brother had grown into a man – and into quite a competent and determined one.  When he’d left, he’d assumed – foolishly, it seemed – that everything at the Ponderosa would remain the same.  That whether he was gone a day, a week, a year, or a lifetime, Pa and Joe and Hoss would go on about the same routine, and that when he chose to return – if he ever did – he would slip right back into his old place.

The truth was, he wasn’t sure he had a place anymore.

Adam pursed his lips.  “I don’t think Joe was too happy to see me.”

“Now, Adam, don’t you go sayin’ that.  You just…surprised him.”

The man in black’s words were soft.  “Little Joe surprised me too.”

He had arrived at the height of the crisis.  He learned later from Hop Sing that Pa had been at Joe’s side for nearly thirty-six hours straight, hoping for the best and fearing the worst, and had just been ordered out of the room by Paul Martin.  After Pa greeted him, the older man had excused himself and gone to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee – obviously intending to ignore the doctor’s orders that he get some rest.  A moment later an exhausted and exasperated Paul Martin had appeared at the top of the stair.  The doctor had greeted him as well and then told him point-blank that it was a good thing he’d chosen to come home when he did because, if things went on as they did, it was going to be just him and Hoss running the Ponderosa because Little Joe would be dead and his Pa was going to kill himself grieving.

Some things, it seemed, never changed.

“Adam, there weren’t nothin’ you could have done if you’d been here.  We couldn’t have guessed in a hundred years that Old Dan would – ”

His hazel eyes pinned his brother.  “You know I never felt the same about Dan as the rest of you.”

Hoss leaned back.  “Yeah, and I never understood why.”

It was hard to explain.  Perhaps because he saw the world in grays rather than in black and white like his father and brothers, he tended to mete out trust in inches rather than miles.  Dan Tollivar had a secret.  He was sure of it.  And that secret had almost gotten his brother killed.

“I don’t believe Dan’s ever been honest with Pa,” he said.

Hoss shook his head.  “Pa’s a good judge of character.”

“When he’s seeing clearly.  He’s never seen clearly where Dan is concerned.”

Thinking back, he remembered the first time he’d met the older man.  He might have been eight, but more likely, seven years old.  Like most cowpokes Dan Tollivar had come and gone, working just about every spread in the area.  On that particular day, Pa had loaded him into the wagon and headed to the settlement.  His father was on the hunt for someone to handle the horses he’d just purchased.  While Pa could do it, he admitted wrangling wasn’t where his talents lay – that was in organization and empire building.  Dan heard through the grapevine that Ben Cartwright was looking and came by to show him what he could do.  Just like that, Pa took him on.  The Ponderosa had been a very different place in those days.  Pa was often gone and that left other men in control.  It was when Pa took his trip to New Orleans, to seek out Jean De Marigny’s widow, that he had seen the wrangler’s true colors.   There had been a hand – a young man, full of himself – who had challenged Dan’s authority.  He’d been in the house with Hoss and Hop Sing, but he’d heard the argument.  Later, he’d watched as the young man – who was barely able to stand – limped out of the yard, taking his tack and bedding with him.

He’d never forget being awakened in the middle of the night by a sharp knocking on the door.  Pulling on his robe, he had followed Hop Sing down the stairs and to the door and been just as surprised as their cook to find Sheriff Olin standing outside.  Robert had come to tell them that he’d found their former hand lying by the edge of the road, not that far off their land.

Dead.

Of course, he had no proof that Dan had anything to do with the young man’s demise.  He’d tried to talk to his pa about it, but he was eleven years old at the time and Pa had told him in no uncertain terms that Dan was his friend and he expected him to respect that.  He’d respected it all right.

But he’d never trusted Dan.

Hoss was staring at him. “So you think old Dan’s been hidin’ somethin’ all these years?  And maybe, well, maybe Little Joe firin’ him…triggered it somehow?”

Adam glanced at the book he was holding.  They knew so little about the mind.  A man could appear to be sane, but harbor some dark secret deep within that would cause him snap.  All it took was the right trigger.  Maudsley had documented case after case.

Shifting back, he sighed.  “I don’t know what I’m thinking other than that it was a mistake to come home. Joe’s threatened by me and Pa…well, it’s like I’m the one who is twenty-five.”

“You came  home‘ cause you were afeared Little Joe was gonna die, didn’t you?  Not ‘cause you wanted to.”

Adam closed his eyes.  As much as he and Joe disagreed – as different as they were – there was a tie of blood between them.  He loved his little brother with a love as deep as the roots of the Ponderosa Pines that surrounded the house, and as towering as the mountains that shadowed them.

He just wasn’t sure he could live with him.

Or in the shadow of his pa.

 

Dan Tollivar walked slowly away from the Cartwright’s barn; his head down and his hands thrust deep in his pockets.

He was a tormented man.

How could he tell Ben the real reason he’d gotten mixed up in that hair-brained scheme to kidnap Little Joe and hold him for ransom?  Oh, he’d done a right good job of convincing the older man and everyone else that he wanted the money for himself – that he believed the Cartwrights owed him and he was gonna make them pay – especially Joe.  He didn’t mean none of it.  That’s why it took him so long to work up the courage to tell Ben what he was about when the rancher opened the door and greeted him like a member of the family.  He loved that boy.  There weren’t no way in Hell he wanted him to come to harm, but he needed that money.

And then, when it came to it, he found he couldn’t do it.  When he’d seen Little Joe – a boy he’d cared for since he’d been born – layin’ in a pool of his own blood, he just plain couldn’t do it.  If he took the money he had to leave the boy, and if he left the boy, the odds were Joe would have died.

He almost did die.

The old wrangler stopped beside the fence that corralled the horses – a spot he’d stood on many a day and for many a year.  Gripping the top of one weather-worn post, he steadied himself.  He had to leave.  He just had to.  He’d meant to go right after it happened, but then Joe had taken that turn for the worse.  He’d tried again when he knew the boy would make it, but Little Joe’d asked to see him and begged him to stay – like it was somehow his fault that he was goin’.

It weren’t Joe’s.

It was Malachi’s.

Dan closed his eyes and sighed.  He could see it all unfolding again.  His long lost son – a son he had given up for dead – showin’ up late one night, catchin’ him outside the bunkhouse.  There were men after him, Mal said, men who were gonna kill him unless he came up with near ten thousand dollars.  He’d thought about askin’ Ben Cartwright for a loan – and knew he’d give it to him just like he said – but Ben was a good man and would have had nothin’ to do with savin’ a low life like what his son had become.  Seems the boy had gambled away his good name and everythin’ else he had, and the men he owed meant to take the debt out of his hide.  He’d gone to town after that to see if he could scare up some money.  When he couldn’t, he’d picked up a bottle and gone back to his room at the hotel to drown his sorrows.  That was when he met Temple and Sand.  He turned them down at first, but then, it seemed like it could be a God-send.  The older man blew out a sigh.  He knew now he’d been green as a fresh hand who wouldn’t savvy cow unless it was served up as stew.  He wouldn’t never have gone along with their scheme if he’d thought any harm would come to Ben’s boy.  Truth to tell, he had been a mite mad at Little Joe.  He’d thought – just maybe – showin’ the boy he wasn’t quite the man he thought would teach him a thing or two.  But then it all went wrong.  The men he trusted turned out to be no better than his good-for-nothin’ boy.  They meant to kill Joe all along.  That night, after he’d returned the boy and his pa’s money, he went lookin’ for Malachi to tell him that he’d failed and found his son’s camp empty.  There were signs of a struggle as well as smears of blood on the ground, and he figured the boy had finally reaped what he sowed.  So, when Ben said all was forgiven and offered to take him back, he jumped at the chance.  It had all been goin’ well until Ben’s oldest boy returned with those suspicious eyes of his.

Just about the same time Malachi rose from the dead.

Dan glanced around before reaching into his pocket and pulling a crumpled envelope out of it.  His eyes went to the Platt City postmark before he turned it over and opened it. That was up near where Ben’s youngest was headed.  Malachi’d sent the letter a few days back, tellin’ him he was alive.  He’d found a place, Mal said, and was gonna hold up there until he brought him the money.

The money he didn’t have.

The old wrangler scanned the written words on the paper again, tryin’ to read between the lines.  He’d been a wild one in his younger days too, before he met Ben Cartwright and decided he wanted to be a decent man.  Malachi’s ma had been a fancy woman.  She’d birthed the boy and taken off less than two years later.  He’d done his best to rear his son alone, but most of the time it meant leavin’ that rearin’ to others so’s he could make money for them to live.  He’d made some poor choices of who those ‘others’ were.  The boy’d grown up wild and, unlike Ben’s youngest who was of a like type – headstrong and reckless – Mal had no one to set his compass.  While Ben’s boy had his feet planted firmly on the ground, his own son had sown the wild wind and was reapin’ the whirlwind.

He just hoped that wind didn’t blow the Cartwrights down.

Folding the letter, Dan returned it to the envelope and placed it back in his pocket.  He’d promised Ben he’d stay, but it had been a lie.  He was leavin’ tonight.  He had to find Malachi and tell his son he’d get no help from him; that he’d had to make a choice and that choice had been that he wouldn’t let Joseph Cartwright die for his sins.

No.  He’d have to leave that to his son.

 

 

THREE

“How far did you say it was to this place of yours?”

The woman, well, girl beside him sniffed.  She turned on the padded carriage seat, glared at him, and then faced forward again.  “I didn’t.”

Joe studied her profile in the rising light.  She was pretty, with a pert little nose that turned up at the end, creamy white skin, and wide near-black eyes that reminded him a lot of his pa’s and a little of Hop Sing’s.  Her hair was ebony as a desert night without stars and hung about halfway down her back.  Her traveling dress was modest, but saucy enough to show him she had a lot going on upstairs.

Just as that thought crossed his mind the horse pulling the carriage shied ‘cause a rabbit popped out of the foliage to peer at them.  Fighting back a sigh, Joe corrected the animal with a few sharp words and got them back on course and then, with a glance at his annoyed passenger, urged it to give him a little more speed.  In his opinion the nag would have been better suited to pulling a plow then people, and the way the horse kept glancin’ over its shoulder at him with a baleful look, he thought it probably agreed.  After a few hours of rough sleep – him on the ground and Mrs. Jones in the broken down carriage – it had taken him about an hour to fix the wheel and then another hour to get the plow horse hitched up and moving – if what they were doing could be classified as moving.

At this rate he’d be twenty-three before he got to Lee’s.

“You keep doing that,” Mrs. Jones said.

It seemed ridiculous to call a would-be-twenty year old Mrs. Jones, but she had yet to tell him her Christian name.

“Doin’ what?”

“Sighing.  It’s irritating.  You need to stop it.”

He wanted to tell her that her less-than-grateful attitude was a sight more irritating, but he resisted the urge.

Instead, he sighed again.

“You’re doing that just to annoy me!”

Joe drew a breath as he drew in on the reins.  He waited until the rig had rolled to a stop and then turned and looked straight at her.

“You know what?” he asked, his tone sharp.  “I’m beginning to understand why Mr. Jones left you sittin’ in the middle of nowhere!”

Her nose wrinkled.  She blinked.  And then she did that thing girls do that makes a man feel about a foot tall.

She started crying.

“Oh, come on.  Don’t do that!” he protested even as he reached into his coat and scrambled about, trying to find his handkerchief.  “I didn’t mean it.”

“Oh, yes you did!” she wailed.  “You think I’m a terrible person!”

Next, she reduced it to an inch.

She began to sob.

“Hey, hey!”  The handkerchief miraculously leapt into his fingers.  Joe pulled it out and thrust it toward her.  “Here!  Blow your nose or somethin’!”

The sound made the plow horse turn back and look at him again.  He thought about telling it to keep its opinion to itself, but decided it wasn’t worth it.

“I’m sorry…I….”  Mrs. Jones gasped and then let out a little sigh.  She patted her nose before holding the handkerchief out to him.  As he shook his head, insisting she keep it, she went on, “I’m sorry.  I haven’t been entirely honest with you.  I…. Well, I don’t really want to go home.”

He’d talked her into it.  “You’re afraid your husband is still gonna be angry.  Is that it?”

She shook her head.  “No.”

“Then you’re afraid he won’t be?”

Her head was down.  Her thick black lashes brushed her pale cheeks twice –  languidly, in a somewhat seductive manner – and then she focused on him.  Mrs. Jones looked him up and down, her dark eyes taking in his face and chest before settling on the bits below the belt.

“Not really.”

Joe scooted back as far as he could – which was about six inches.  “Ma’am – Mrs. Jones – what do you think you’re…thinkin’…?”

He hated it when his voice squeaked.

She scooted closer and her hand went to his thigh; her fingers brushing his inseam.  “I’m thinking, Joe Cartwright, that I’m all alone in the middle of nowhere with a handsome cowboy from Virginia City who probably wants to have his way with me.”  Those eyelashes batted again.  “You do?  Don’t you?”

And then, before he could do anything, she kissed him.

Deeply.

The words his pa would have wanted him to say were on his lips when he came up for air.  Unfortunately, a second later someone cleared their throat and he felt the barrel of a pistol press into his side.  As it did, he remembered he hadn’t told her his Christian name either, or where he came from.

Two seconds after that, he knew he had been had.

 

Several miles away a dark-haired beauty whose lithe body, slender waist, wide blue eyes and long black hair made her appear younger than her years, leaned on the fence at the edge of her property.  She had left her bed, pulled her robe on, and come outside in her nightgown to watch the sun rise.

She was completely content.

It wasn’t that life had been easy.  In fact, it had been downright hard.  She and her husband had come out West to build a life together and then he had been taken – suddenly – in the midst of a Typhoid outbreak.  Tom Bolden had assured her that day, when he went off to care for the sick, that the Almighty granted a special dispensation to doctors and he’d be fine.  She’d watched him pull away in his buggy never suspecting that it would be the last time she would see him alive.  Saying ‘goodbye’ had taken her over three years and it had come at a price.  She’d closed herself off from the world, refusing to enter into it, caring little for the living and living on her memories.  It had taken the arrival of Ben Cartwright’s young son, Joseph, to force her into the open.  She’d behaved badly, doing everything she could to drive him away as well, and might have succeeded if a storm had not arisen.  Joseph had been forced to take shelter in her barn.  While there, he’d been accosted by a desperate man with a gun who had taken him – and her – hostage.

That man held her hostage still.

Paul Throckmorton – his friends called him ‘Trock’ – was asleep in her bed.  He had come back to her as promised.  At first she had feared him, and then she had loathed him, and then, finally, loved him.  Along with the other men who held her and young Joseph Cartwright hostage for two days, Trock had robbed a bank in Virginia City.  He was a wanted man.  She’d held a gun on Ben’s son at the end, ordering Joe to let the bank robber escape, but he’d returned.  Trock stood in her doorway and told her that he had no place to be unless it was to be with her.  The judge gave him five years in prison.  He’d asked her as he was taken away if she would wait.

She’d waited. God, how she had waited.

A month ago he had returned.

It was the sheriff – an old friend – who had delivered Trock to her place, and it was the sheriff who united them in marriage that very day.  They spent the first week in each other’s arms and then slowly, Trock began to bring her place back to life.

Just as he had her.

A sound behind her made Lee turn and look.  Her handsome husband, with his coal black hair, sparkling blue eyes, and rugged, intelligent face was walking toward her.  His navy shirt was open, exposing that muscled chest that she had come to know so well.  She could just see the edge of the little white line on his shoulder. It was all that remained of the scar from the surgery she’d performed to keep him alive.  As she’d removed that bullet, she’d come to know him – to know the losses he’d suffered. They were as deep as her own and had left him just as lonely as she and her house had become.

Trock had arrived.  He circled her waist with his arm and kissed her on the nape of the neck before asking, “No sign of Joe yet?”

He knew she was worried.  Joe had been due the night before.

“No,” she replied.

“Should I be jealous?” he asked, teasing.

“Joe’s a boy,” she said as she turned in his arms and pressed her body into his.  “You’re my man.”

“He might have been a boy five years ago, but he’s a man now.”  He smiled.  “I saw the way he looked at you.  I have every right to defend what is my own.”

There was still danger in him.  Trock had not been completely tamed.  Still, she knew – where Joe Cartwright was concerned – that he was playing with her.

“Just promise me you’ll wait and see what kind of a man he has become before you shoot him,” she replied in kind even as she kissed his chest.

“You keep me busy enough and I won’t care.”

Trock caught the back of her head in his hand and crushed her to him with a kind of desperation, and then kissed her hard on the mouth, taking her breath away.

It was at that moment that she heard the rolling noise of approaching wheels.

“Odd that the stage would come all the way out here,” he said as he released her.

“A stage coach?” she asked.  “How can you tell?”

Her husband frowned.  “Practice,” he replied as he placed himself between her and whatever was coming.

Sure enough, a moment later a red and black overland stage coach rolled into view.

“It’s empty,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

Trock opened the gate and moved to stand beside the sign that said ‘Bolden’.  They hadn’t changed it yet.  “It’s riding too high.”  Trock lifted a hand to block the sun from his eyes.  “Charlie’s driving.”

She knew Charlie.  He was an old campaigner and a friend of her late husband, as well as Ben Cartwright and his boys.

“Joe’s not with him?” she asked as she joined him.

Trock shook his head even as Charlie shouted ‘whoa!’ and reined in the team.

“Mornin’ Lee,” the blond man said.  “Trock.”

They didn’t go to town much, but Charlie and her husband had met.

The driver wasn’t too sure about him.

“Where’s Joe Cartwright?” Trock asked without preamble.

“That’s what I’m here for,” Charlie replied.  “I promised the boy I’d bring Lee his regrets.”

“Joe didn’t make it?” she asked.

The driver shook his head.  “He was on the coach.  He just took a little detour.  He wanted me to tell you he’d he here…eventually.”

“What kind of detour?” Trock asked, his tone wary.  “What did it have to do with?”

Charlie looked right at her.  “What would you expect from Joe Cartwright?”

She grinned.  “A pretty girl?”

“Yep!” he laughed. “Leave it to Joe to find one smack dab in the middle of nowhere.  She was sittin’ by the side of the road.  Needed someone to see her back home.”

“And Joe volunteered.”  It didn’t surprise her.

“Where did this girl live?” her husband inquired.

“Seems the boy forgot to ask.  Don’t think he cared particularly.”  Charlie picked up the reins again.  “Well, now that I delivered his message I best be on my way.  I’m due back in Virginia City tomorrow morning.”

“Are you going to tell Ben?” Lee asked.

The driver shrugged.  “Joe said he’s old enough to make his own decisions.”

She nodded.  Then, as a sudden chill shivered through her, she added, “Still, it wouldn’t hurt to let his family know.”

Charlie nodded.  “You take responsibility and I’ll do it.  That way Joe can be mad at you.”

“I do,” she replied.  “And tell Ben again how thankful I am for all he’s done for me….”  She reached for  Trock’s hand.  “For us.”

“Will do,” the blond man said as the coach began to roll.  “See you later, Lee.  Trock.”

As the stage moved off into the distance, she turned to her husband.  He had an odd look on his face. Almost as if he’d seen a ghost.

“What is it, Trock?  Do you think something’s wrong?”

“I knew a man once,” he said, speaking slowly.  “He had this gambit.  He’d choose a mark and then would leave his woman – along with suitcases and trunks – alone beside the road.  When the man came along, she claimed she’d been deserted and asked him to take her to town or home.  Along the way she’d work him into a compromising position and then….”

Lee’s hand went to her throat as the chill returned.  “And then?”

Trock looked at her and then, without a word, headed for the house.

“Where are you going?” she called after him.

“To get my gear and then head out to look for Joe,” he replied.

“Trock, why?  Tell me why!”

He stopped just outside their door and turned back to look at her.

“It looks like Joe Cartwright might just end up owing me his life again.”

 

He felt like an idiot.

No, twice over an idiot.

First of all he’d failed to notice that the girl in the carriage had used his name when he hadn’t told her what it was and, secondly, he’d fallen for one of the oldest ruses known to man.

A pretty face with a sob story.

Joe reeled back from another blow and tasted blood.

His wasn’t so pretty anymore.

“Stop it!” the girl shouted.  “We need him alive!”

Her name was Jezebel, or she went by Jezebel, or at least that was what the brute she was with called her every time he shoved her or hit her or ordered her around.

Joe remembered Adam telling him that Pa had said there were different kinds of love shortly after Adah Menken had gone back to John C. Regan; the ex-prize fighter who had nearly beaten him to death when he was seventeen.

He didn’t want to know anything about this kind.

The bully halted with his hand in mid-air to glare at her.  He wasn’t a tall man, but he was compact and powerful.  He reminded Joe of the sailors he’d seen working the wharves in San Francisco.  His hair was curly but, unlike his, the curls were cropped and lay close to his head like a sheep’s skin.  They were the dull, dirty yellow-gray of unwashed wool.  The man’s eyes were the color of steel and they sat in a face that was at once ordinary and unsettling.  There was something about him – about the way he moved, about his voice – that struck a chord of familiarity, but he couldn’t place it.

Probably because the guy kept hitting him and driving it out.

“I want him dead,” he growled.

“I know you do,” Jezebel agreed. “But later.  After we get the money.”

Joe couldn’t help it.  He groaned.

Not again!

“Something wrong, boy?”

His mouth was gagged, which was probably a good thing since it kept him from saying something smart that most likely would have gotten him killed.

So he let his eyes do the talking.

Which earned him another blow that set his head to reeling.

“If not for him I’d already have the money,” the brute snarled.  “So much for the ties that bind!”

Jezebel was standing with her hands on her hips.  She looked from his tormentor to him and back. “You can’t blame the old man.  If I had a choice, well, anyone with eyes would pick Joe here over you.”  The dark-haired beauty sashayed over to him.  She stared at him a moment and then took hold of his chestnut curls and pulled his chin up.  Running a finger along his jaw line, she sighed, “You sure are pretty.”

Joe sighed.  There were times – they weren’t many – but there were times when he wished  he was ugly as a mud fence.

“And if I had a choice, I would have left you flat on your back in San Francisco where your ‘talents’ were appreciated.”  Joe winced as the man caught Jezebel’s arm in his fingers and reeled her around.   “Look at him!  Do you really think a rich boy like him would have anything to do with a wasted slattern like you?”

The girl was stronger than she looked.  She broke free of the brute’s grip and, using both hands, shoved him hard so hard he teetered for a moment before finding his footing.

Joe slammed his eyes shut.  He didn’t want to see the blood.

Riotous laughter opened them a moment later.

The man was bellowing and the girl, instead of being dead, was grinning from ear to ear.  She shoved the brute again and then turned back toward him.  Crossing the room in a few quick strides, Jezebel stopped in front of him and then –  in one graceful if…er…bold move – tossed one leg to either side of him and straddled him and the chair.

As she began to undo his string tie, she leaned back and looked at her companion who was wiping tears from his weathered cheeks.

“Now you be a good boy, and go somewhere else while I see if I can get Mr. Cartwright here to cooperate and write that letter to his pa telling him to bring the money.”

They’d demanded he write it before.  He’d refused.  That was what the beating had been for.

Joe pulled his head back so he could look into Jezebel’s eyes as she settled on his lap.  Her hands were at his belt now, unbuckling it.

“Do you want to know where I worked in San Francisco, Joe?” she asked, her voice quiet now – sultry and sad.  “It was on the waterfront.  That’s where I met Ahab.”

Ahab and…Jezebel.  So, most likely, the name wasn’t her real one.

“I have certain…talents.  He decided I could be useful.”  Jezebel leaned in until her words were a soft whisper on his lips and her body a weight at his hips that his involuntarily began to respond to.  “I learned how to pleasure a man and, do you know what else I learned?”  The movement was swift and without warning.  Her weight shifted. Her fingers twisted.

Joe gasped.

“I learned just how close pleasure is to pain.”

A second chance.  That’s what the warden had said when he’d handed him his release papers – one year early – that he had a ‘second chance’.

Trock let out a deep sigh.  He could see it as if it was happening at that moment.  He’d been sent for and ordered to the warden’s room with no explanation.  Prison was a harsh place.  Nearly impossible to survive.  There was plenty he’d done while he’d been there that he wasn’t proud of.  As he walked the corridor, he’d wondered just which offense it was that was to be thrown in his face and how many more months would be tacked onto his sentence.

And whether Lee would wait.

‘Paul Edward Throckmorton, you’ve been an exemplary prisoner.  That, along with the testimony given at the parole hearing by Joseph Cartwright of Virginia City concerning not only your change of heart regarding the money you had stolen, but the fact that you saved his life, has earned you an early release.

“You’re free.”

Free.

Trock eyed the road ahead, which was rosy with the dawning light, and then reined his horse in and reached for his canteen.  The night was over and the day was dawning.  It had been an unpredictable September, hot as late August one day and cold as early November the next.  Today promised to be one of those in the middle and that usually meant a storm – sometimes a wicked one.  He wasn’t much of a farmer, but it didn’t take much of one to know that a hard rain this early in the game was not going to improve his chances of a good crop come spring.  He was doing his best, but his…talents…lay far afield from repairing outbuildings, mending fences and tossing seed.  He was willing to learn, but as an ex-con, there were few who were willing to teach – or help.

Other than the Cartwrights.

It puzzled him still, Joe Cartwright speaking up for him.  The truth was, if Lee had agreed, he would have tied Joe up and left him in her house while he and she rode away with the money from the robbery.  He’d had no scruples about taking and using it.  That had been Lee.

The truth was, you could take the man out of the business of robbing banks, but it took a whole lot more to take the bank robber out of the man.

Oh, he intended to go straight for Lee.  He loved her more than he loved a life of ease – and that was saying a lot.  Still, when he watched her working her pretty fingers to the bone, struggling to make ends meet, or waited for her to come out of the mercantile after selling a few dozen eggs, it was almost more than he could take.

One job.  One quick job in a town far away and he could take care of her like a queen.

Trock made a face and spit out the tepid water as if cleansing his soul of some taint.  No.

No.

He had put that life behind him.  He’d promised Lee.  Hell, he had even promised Joe Cartwright.  He owed not only his life but his marriage  – and maybe his soul – to that young man.

And now he was missing.

As he made a kissing sound, Trock put his spurs to his mount’s side and urged him on.  He didn’t know where he was going other than that he was backtracking the route the stage had taken.  The story Charlie, the stage coach driver, had told struck a nerve.  A while back he’d run with a gang in California.  The leader was a former dock worker turned crimper who had to flee the city when the local constabulary busted up his racket.  The man was shrewd and a bit off his nut.  He went by the name of ‘Ahab’, though whether that was a reference to the Biblical king or to Melville’s Great White Whale he wasn’t sure.  While on the wharves Ahab had used the same gambit – find a pretty girl, make her his ‘partner’, and then use her to lure men in so they could be shanghaied.  One night he remembered Ahab laughing and saying that stage coaches were just ships of the desert and why shouldn’t he try it in the West?  Of course, he wouldn’t be shanghaiing them.  He’d take them and hold them for ransom.

As he moved along, watching the ground for clues, Trock cast his mind back to the time he and Ahab parted.  Though he had been somewhat uncomfortable with the man’s modus operandi, it worked, and so he had gone along with it.  At the time he was desperate for money.  A bank heist had gone wrong and the law was on his tail.  He’d needed to get out of the country for a while and figured Mexico would do.  Jez – Ahab always called his current squeeze ‘Jez’ – had hooked a big fish the night before; the son of the owner of one of the biggest shipping companies in the city.  They’d demanded twenty thousand for him and the kid’s old man had paid it without batting an eye.  Ahab was supposed to take the boy out of the city and let him go.  Stupidly the kid tried to escape and, in the attempt, saw his captor’s face.  The next night, when he asked Ahab where the boy was, he said he’d put him on a ship and sent him to Jamaica.  Two days later the newspapers ran an article about how the young man’s body had been fished out of the water by the pier.

Ahab had missed the boat.

That was it.  He decided right then and there that it didn’t take that much money to live in Mexico and he’d taken off and laid low for nearly two years.  The bank robbery Joe Cartwright thwarted in Platt City had been his reintroduction to crime.

Apparently the Almighty intended for him to go straight.

Trock halted his horse and dismounted.  After ground tethering it, he moved off the road a little ways and bent to examine the ground.  It was plain as the nose on his face that a buggy had been parked there and was listing to one side as if a wheel had come off.  Casting about, he found the prints of a woman’s shoes and a small pair of men’s boots.  From what he remembered, Joe Cartwright was on the sleight side compared to a lot of the men in the West and not particularly tall.  He thought Ahab was about the same height, but anything he lacked in stature he more than made up for in muscle.  They’d gotten into a fight one time and, though he topped the other man by several inches, he’d gotten the worst of it.  His former partner was not only explosive but unpredictable.  In fact, Ahab was a lot like Gavin, the blond who had worked that last robbery with him.

Gavin who didn’t like mouthy kids like Joe Cartwright and would have taken Joe’s head off if he hadn’t been there to stop him.

Rising to his feet Trock turned and looked in the direction the buggy had gone.  Ahab didn’t work his schemes on just anybody. They had to have money.  Somehow, he must have known Joe Cartwright was on that stage and known the kid was the type to fall for his live ‘bait’ – which meant he had been watching Joe.

Trock blew out a sigh.

That boy found trouble quicker than Hell could scorch a feather.

 

 

FOUR

“Adam, what you got there?”

The black-haired man’s head jerked up.  He lowered the telegram he’d been perusing to his lap and looked up to find his giant of a brother, Hoss, looking down at him.

“And don’t you say nuthin’,” the big man added, suspicion in his voice.

With a sigh, he replied, “Well, obviously, it is ‘something’, but I fail to see why my reading a telegram would surprise you.”

Hoss’ blue eyes shifted to the table beside him where, plain as day, a large envelope lay.  Upon its surface was written, ‘For the eyes of A. Cartwright as regards his inquiry into D. Tollivar’.

“You hired yourself a detective or such?” Hoss asked.

“As a matter of fact, I did.”

“To look into old Dan?  Whatever for?  We know’d him practically our whole lives.”  Hoss paused. “Pa ain’t gonna be happy.”

Adam pinched the bridge of his nose.  He felt a headache coming on.  The black-haired man drew a breath to calm his nerves and let it out slowly before answering, “First of all, ‘Pa’ doesn’t rule my actions.  Secondly, since I am thirty-seven and Dan is near or over seventy, that means he was close to forty years old before Pa met him.”  He looked at his brother.  “Have you never wondered what he was doing all those years?”

The big man was scowling.  “Pa knew’d him afore that.”

He shook his head.  “Pa met Dan after I was born.  You have to face it, Hoss, there are nearly four decades of the man’s life that we know nothing about.”

“Adam, why would you do this?”  His brother indicated the envelope on the table.  “It ain’t…right.  A man’s past is his past.”

“Even if there is something in that past that would allow a man to stand by while one of his ‘nephews’ is killed?”

“Now, that ain’t what Joe said –”

“I know what Joe said!” he countered.  “I also know that Joe can be as…gullible as Pa.”

There, it was out.

Hoss’ eyes were wide.  “Don’t you let Pa hear you call him that.”

“All right, then, as ‘overly trusting’.”  Adam tossed the telegram to the table and rose to his feet.  “Face it, Hoss, there’s something here that doesn’t add up.  I understand that Dan felt Joe had done him wrong by refusing to take him on the drive – especially after he’d kept Joe from that beating the day before.  Still, that isn’t enough to make a man who is practically family turn to crime.  Dan had to be criminal to begin with and what Joe did…well, exposed it.”

“A man can change Adam.”

“Yes, yes, he can.  I believe that.” He paused and looked at the stair, remembering his baby brother not all that long ago, laying in his room, fighting for his life.  “And maybe Dan has, I’ll give him that.  But it bothers me that it took very little provocation for him to…revert.”

“Pa says we gotta give a man a chance and forgive.”

He threw up his hands.  “Pa says. Pa says!  Pa is not God.  He’s a man, Hoss, and like any man, he can make a mistake.”  His voice and temper had risen so the words came out rapid fire with no time to think better of them.  “And that mistake almost got Joe killed.”

“Is that what you really believe, Adam?”

They both froze.  The voice had come from the doorway, which had just opened to admit their father.  He’d been gone handling some timber business in another town and chosen…well…a rather inopportune moment to return.

The black-haired man sucked in air and reminded himself that he was not a little boy.  He did not have to back down just because he and ‘daddy’ disagreed.

“Yes, Pa, that’s what I believe.  I told you years ago that Dan Tollivar was not a man to be trusted, but you trusted him anyway and look where it ended.  I said it when I arrived two weeks back and I’ll say it again – Dan Tollivar should be in jail for what he did and not working on the spread.”  He paused for emphasis.  “If it was me, he’d have been tried for attempted murder and kidnapping as well.”

“Son,” his father said as he approached, “when did you grow so hard?”

“Not hard, Pa.  Realistic.  Would that the world was peopled in the way you think, with those who helplessly stumble into evil; who make poor choices and mistakes they regret and then choose to do what is right and don’t look back.”  He sighed.  “Sadly, that is not my experience.  Men are evil unless they choose to do good and even then, it is a struggle.”

“So you would give no man a second chance?”

“I would a man who has earned it.”

His father pulled off his gloves and tossed them onto the credenza.  “And just who would be the judge of whether or not he has earned it?” the older man asked as he moved past, headed for his chair. “You? Adam, you are not God either –”

“That’s my point, Pa!  Neither of us are.  We can’t see into a man’s soul….”

“And so we trust no man?  We are suspicious of all?  That’s not a world I want to live in, son.  Neither should you.”  The older man paused as if considering his words.  “Adam, what’s happened?  What brought this on?”

How could he explain it when he hardly understood it himself?  He could still feel the raw emotions that had all but overpowered him when he read his father’s letter detailing Dan Tollivar’s betrayal.  He knew it was bound up with his own feelings of guilt and remorse.  He’d gone away and look what had happened!  His father betrayed.  His little brother kidnapped, brutalized; nearly killed.  They were too innocent, the three of them.  Hoss, Pa…Joe.  One day someone would take advantage of them and he wouldn’t be here to warn them or to stop it and one of them would die and…

It would be his fault.

“Son…”

He held up a hand. “I have to go, Pa.”

His father rose to his feet. “Where? Why?”

“I just….” Adam headed for the door.  “I just have to go.”

He saw Hoss look at his father.  The same question passed through both their eyes.

Was he coming back?

As the door slammed beside him and he headed for Sport, Adam had to admit –

He didn’t know.

 

Ben Cartwright dropped into his deep crimson chair and stared at the door through which his oldest son had just disappeared.

“You think he’d comin’ back, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t know, son.  I imagine he will.”  The older man paused and a slight smile curled the corner of his lips.  “After all, his books are upstairs.”

“Sometimes….”

Ben looked up.  “Go ahead, son.  Say what you are feeling.”

“Sometimes it seems them dang books mean more to older brother than any of us do!”

“I’ll admit that it does look that way, but I think you’re wrong.”  He paused. “Do you want to know the real reason I think your older brother left us?”

Hoss came around the settee and sat down. “I sure do.”

“Since he was a boy, Adam has wrapped himself in indifference.  It’s a sort of defense – his ‘armor’, you might say.  He has spent decades building it up layer upon layer until it is nearly impregnable.  But there is a chink in it.  One he has spent the last two years attempting to remedy, apparently, to no avail.”

“And what would that be, Pa?”

The older man sighed.  “Family.”

“You make it sound like a bad thing. At least to older brother.”

“Not bad, but, I believe Adam perceives it as a weakness.”

Hoss looked puzzled.  “You mean…loving each other?”

He nodded.  “Loving someone makes you vulnerable.”  Ben rose then.  He crossed to the door, opened it, and looked out just in time to see his eldest fly out of the yard as if the devil himself were on his tail.  “I think, when Adam received my letter about Dan and…what happened to Joe…that it terrified him.”

His son had come to his side.  “But Joe’s okay.  I mean, he ain’t in any danger.”

“I didn’t mean Adam was terrified of Joe dying, though I believe he was.”  Ben braced himself with a hand on the door jamb..  “I meant it terrified him to realize just how much he loved Joe and feared losing him.”

Hoss was shaking his head.  “You’re paintin’ a mighty sad picture, Pa.”

Yes, and he had painted it.  Every day when he had called upon Adam to be an adult before it was time, he’d added another stroke to that sad picture.  Each time the boy had to endure the death of someone he had come to care for on the way out West – as the child Adam was became first Hoss’ mother, and then Little Joe’s surrogate father when he abdicated that responsibility.  With a wide brush, his own selfish needs had white-washed those walls of indifference his son erected, proclaiming them clean and acceptable.  Solid Adam.  Steady Adam.  Deep-thinking, responsible Adam.

His eldest was a study in contradictions – a man who showed little feeling but felt things so deeply he felt the need to run from them.

“Dear God,” Ben breathed softly.  “What have I done?”

“Pa?”

At that moment, when the last thing he wanted to do was answer another question, God or fate intervened.  A lone rider appeared at the end of the yard.  At first he thought – hoped – it was Adam returning, but then Ben realized the man was blond and older and…out of place.

“Pa, what’s old Charlie doin’ out here?” Hoss asked as they both moved onto the porch.  “I don’t see Joe with him.”

“You’re brother should be at Lee’s by now,” he replied.  “Maybe he sent a message.”

“That makes sense.  I sure hope she’s all right.”

He did too.  He knew from Lee’s letters that Trock had returned – the bank robber who had both threatened and saved Joseph’s life – and that they had married.  He had no reason to question her choice, though it had surprised him. After all, Joseph had felt strongly enough about the man that he had gone to testify at his parole hearing.

“Ho, Charlie!” Ben called as he moved into the yard.  “What brings you out here?”

“Can’t a fellow make a friendly call?” the stage driver answered, thankfully with a wink and a smile.

“My son didn’t give you any trouble, did he?”

“If you call splittin’ my sides on the trip to Platt City trouble,” the lean man replied as he  dismounted.  “That young’un of yours, when the Lord poured in his brains someone must have jangled his arm!”

“So, if it’s not  Joseph,” the rancher chuckled, “what it is brings you to the Ponderosa?”

“Oh, now, I didn’t say it wasn’t that boy of yours what brought me out here.  Was in a way, though the message I’m deliverin’ is from Lee.”  Charlie’s thin lips pursed as he shook his head. “I told that pretty woman she’d have to take the responsibility.”

Ben scowled.  “Did Joseph do something to upset her?”

“You might say so and you might not.”

His head was beginning to hurt.  That was the trouble with stage coach drivers.  They spent so much time alone that when they got to talk, it was hard to stop them.

“Well, what did Joseph do?” he demanded.

Charlie grinned, knowing he had succeeded in getting under his skin.  “He got off the stage.”

Hoss was frowning.  Apparently his head hurt too.  “You mean somewhere’s other than Lee’s?”

“I mean smack dab in the middle of nowhere!”

Ben blinked.  “I beg your pardon?  In the middle of nowhere?”

“Was there a pretty girl involved?” his son asked.

It wasn’t much of a leap.

Charlie placed his thumb on his nose.  “Kee-rect!  Pretty little thing sittin’ by the side of the road all by her lonesome.  Joe said he knew you’d want him to see her home.”

Ben captured his sigh.  After all, he had trained the boys to be gentlemen.  “Well, I suppose so.  And where was home?”

“Joe forgot to ask.”

“He…forgot to ask?!”

The blond man was squinting.  “I told Joe you wouldn’t like that part.  And then he told me he was twenty-five and could make his own decisions.  Didn’t see as it was my place to argue with that, me not bein’ kin of any kind.”

“Of course not.” Ben exchanged a glance with his middle son and then suddenly remembered himself.  “Charlie, you must be hot and thirsty. Would you like to come in for a drink and something to eat?”

“Much as I love Hop Sing’s cookin’, I got me a stage to catch!”  Charlie laughed at his own joke.  “Gotta take off in about six hours for San Fran.  I just come by to tell you about Joe.  Now, Ben,” he began, noting his look, “that boy’s old enough to look out for himself just like he said.  After all, what trouble could one itty bitty pretty little gal be?”

A moment later Charlie rode out of the yard.

He and Hoss stood for a moment considering what the stage driver had said, then they turned and looked at each other.

“I’ll tell Hop Sing to pack two bags,” he said.

“And I’ll saddle up the horses,” Hoss replied.

Unfortunately – where Joseph was concerned – they both knew just how much trouble that could be.

 

Dan Tollivar glanced at the map he held in his hand, and then up into the hills where the trail drawn upon it led.  Malachi had included it in his letter so he’d know where to deliver the money.  There was a lake close by to the ‘X’ that marked the spot, which didn’t surprise him.  Mal had spent nine years of his life living on the wharfs; the first few with his wife and her..associates, and the rest moving from boarding house to boarding house as he sought employment.  The boy had a mind quick as his smile and he’d fallen into petty crime fast enough.  In order to put a  stop to it, on Mal’s tenth birthday he visited the boy and announced the two of them were heading West.  His son fought him.  Mal knew the city and how it worked, and knew how to use it to get what he wanted.  The idea of wide open spaces – of just the two of them and the land and a dozen head of cattle – held no appeal.  He’d always heard tell boys took after their mothers and that sure enough was the fact with his.  Beryl, that was the name he knew her by.  Never knew if it was her real one.  Beryl lived in the badlands where the lights were red and the carpets soft.  Men said there was somethin’ in the blood could be passed down.  The Good Book called it the ‘sins of the fathers’.

More like the sins of the mothers.

He’d loved her.  Or at least he thought he did.  She was a looker and he’d never been, so when she took interest in him, well, he just fell arse over head.  Might as well have been blind – or blind-sided.  Found out later the whole time she was with him she’d been seein’ other men.  He always figured one of them offered her somethin’ better and that’s why she left.  Left him.  Left her son.

Left them both with nothin’.

Mal came West ‘cause he had no choice and stayed with him for around five years.  That was ‘til he was fifteen and old enough to make it on his own.  Then the boy disappeared.  He hadn’t heard from him in nigh onto forty years.  He’d been a young scrubber barely older than his son when he fell hard for that fallen woman.  After Mal left, well, he wandered through the land lookin’ for the boy.  That was how he met Ben Cartwright.  Ben had a son too and truth to tell, he was drawn as much to Adam as to his pa, though he and Ben soon became fast friends.  He tried to make friends with Adam too, but that boy was a hard one – hard to pin and harder to get to know.  Seemed like he was always watching him with those amber-green eyes of his.  Maybe he’d tried too hard.  Maybe he’d wanted to make Adam into Mal and the boy’d resented it.  Whatever it was, they’d never got on, not like he and that youngest one of Ben’s.

He hated himself for what he’d done to Little Joe.  The boy didn’t deserve it.

And so here he was.  He’d taken all his gear and belongings ‘cept for his saddle and spurs and pawned them in the town. Came up with about fifty dollars.  It wasn’t much – and it sure wasn’t enough to pay off the debt to the man Mal owed – but maybe it was enough that his boy could run somewhere, maybe to Mexico.  Once in Mexico Mal would be safe.

And the Cartwrights would be safe too.

Folding the map over, Dan tucked it back into the pocket inside his coat.  He reached up then and pulled the collar close around his throat.  The day had been hot, but the night was pushin’ in and the wind that was pushin’ in with it was bitter cold.  It was like that in Nevada.  A man had to pack for every season since he never knew which one he was gonna get.  He was gonna miss it, but he’d made up his mind that once he saw Mal, he was leavin’ for good.  He didn’t know where he’d go.  Maybe to Mexico too.

Or maybe just to Hell.

 

Adam held out his hand and caught the fast-sliding glass just before it could clear the counter.  He turned and flashed a grin at Sam, the bartender, before raising it to his lips and downing half of its golden contents in one gulp.

“On the house,” Sam said. As he tipped his black hat in gratitude, the big man went on.  “What brings you back to town after two years absent?  Last time Hoss was in he said they’d gotten a letter from…San Francisco, was it?”

The black-haired man turned so his back was resting on the counter’s edge and surveyed the crowd.  It was the usual mix of miners, loggers, cowboys and card sharks.  The sun was down and trouble was bound to show up.

“It was,” he said.

“Said you had a big project there.”

Yes, he had, and he had abandoned it to come home.  Not very professional of him.

In fact, it had been downright irrational.

The city was still in recovery from the last quake that hit the Santa Cruz mountains and effected the bay area.  One of the city’s wealthiest men had a building that collapsed due to stress fractures incurred in an earlier quake.  He’d decided to build new rather than restoring what he had and had employed him to make sure the fresh structure was sound and could withstand the pressures common to the area.  He’d written his father and brothers to let them know he was in the States again, but had given no indication as to whether or not he would come for a visit.

And then the letter had come about Joe and Dan Tollivar.

“I do,” he answered at last.  “And I need to get back to it.  I came into town to check the stage coach departures, but the office was closed.  I’m going to get a room at the International for the night so I can go over first thing in the morning.  I heard there’s a stage heading to California before noon.”

“You heading back so soon?  After what Little Joe said the other day – ”

He’d been sipping his drink.  He stopped to ask, “What’d Joe say?”

Unfortunately, he asked it so quickly Sam’s brows popped up toward his hairline.  “Only…that he was happy you were home.  He was talking to one of the girls and told her how much he’d missed you.”

“Joe?  Missed me?”

Sam snorted.  “You seem surprised.”

Adam sighed.  “Well, to tell the truth, I am.  Joe and I have done little but knock heads since he’s been on his feet.  If you ask me, I’d say that little brother feels he doesn’t need an older brother around anymore.”

“Now, you know that ain’t true, Adam,” a familiar voice remarked from close beside him.  He turned to find his brother Hoss standing with one hand on each of the batwing doors, spreading them wide.

“Don’t you think I’m a little old to have you trailing me?” the black-haired man snapped as he signaled to Sam, indicating he wanted another drink.  “Shouldn’t you be out looking for the youngest Cartwright?”

“If you’d stop thinkin’ everythin’ was about you, Adam, you’d see that’s just what I’m doin’.”

Adam scowled over the edge of his freshly-filled glass.  “What do you mean?  Joe’s at Lee’s.”  He swallowed and then asked, “Isn’t he?”

“Maybe. Maybe not,” the big man answered as he sidled up and leaned on the bar beside him.  “But then, if you’re takin’ off again, I guess you don’t rightly care.”

“Were you listening outside?” he asked as Sam offered his brother a beer and Hoss turned it down.

“I don’t need to listen to nothin’.”  The big man paused.  “You might as well have not come home, Adam.  You ain’t been here – least not since the night Joe turned the corner.”

“What do you mean?”

Hoss eyed him for a moment.  “Older brother, you know I never did think I would say this to you, but seems to me you’re a bit of a coward.”

The word was like a slap in the face.  His temper flared.

“What?”

“It’s easier, ain’t it?  Livin’ far away and thinkin’ of no one and nothin’ but yourself.  It’s all…clean…like Hop Sing’s kitchen late at night.  But you know what, Adam, livin’ starts in the mornin’ when the taters are peeled and the eggs broke and it’s real messy.”

“You’re not making sense!”

Hoss took hold of his arm.  “Yes, I am, older brother, but you don’t want to admit it.  You don’t want to admit all of them emotions churnin’ in your guts.  It’s easier just to walk away and pretend they don’t exist!”

“Let go of me!” he demanded.

His brother’s blue eyes narrowed.  “Why?  Cause you’re mad enough to take me on?  You know what, Adam.  That’s messy too!”

His jaw was clenched and a cold fire burned in his gut.  “You will unhand me.  Now!”

“Hoss, let him go.”

Adam turned his head.  His father was standing in the door.

The look on the older man’s face took the fiery wind out of his sails.

And the rumpled tan hat in his hands sank the ship.

 

Ben let the doors go.  He drew a breath as they swung to behind him and faced his sons.

He and Hoss had decided to come into town, hoping that town was where Adam had gone.  He’d also wanted to check in with Roy before they headed out to Lee’s.  Roy had just returned from Platt City where he’d been called to give a deposition.  He had hoped that, perhaps, the lawman had run into Joseph somewhere along the way.  He’d started toward the jail only to be hailed and turning, found that Roy had been looking for him.  An abandoned rig had been found by the road a few miles out from Lee Bolden’s place – no, make that Lee Throckmorton’s.  He had to remember she had remarried.  There had been signs of a struggle as well as a trail that indicated someone had been dragged off.

Joseph’s hat had been found lying by the side of the rig.

He’d left Roy and headed straight for the saloon where he’d asked Hoss to wait for him.  They’d seen Adam’s horse tethered outside the International House and he’d gone there first to see if his eldest had rented a room.  The man at the desk indicated Adam had headed out for a drink and so he had come to Sam’s place expecting to find the two brothers seated at a table in the corner affably sharing a beer and enjoying each other’s company.

Instead he had found them at each other’s throats.

“Hoss, let him go,” the rancher said as he stepped into the establishment.  “We have other things to worry about.”

His eldest was staring at the hat in his hands.  It was hard to miss the condition it was in, which was trampled.

“Where’d you get that, Pa?” he asked.

“Like you’d care,” Hoss muttered as he shoved past.  It was meant to hurt and Ben watched the verbal dart strike his oldest son.  Once he was at his side, his middle boy reached out to touch the tan Stetson.  “Joe?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” he answered honestly, and then he explained what Roy had told him.  “It’s possible your brother simply lost it.  It looked like the rig had run off the road.  If he was busy helping the young lady, well…you know your brother.”

“What ‘young lady’?” Adam asked.

Ben looked from one son to the other.  Their common concern about their missing brother seemed to have smoothed over their disagreement.

For the moment.

“I’d like to get on the road, Adam,” he replied. “Roy told me where to find the rig.  I’ll explain as we ride.”  The older man paused.  The man at the desk had told him of his son’s plans.  How Adam intended to catch a coach in the morning and head back to San Francisco.  “That is, if you don’t have other plans.”

“Of course, I’m coming,” his eldest replied as he shifted his hat forward on his head and pulled his collar up.  “I can’t wait to see what predicament the little scamp has gotten himself into this time.”

 

 

FIVE

“Did he write the letter?” Ahab demanded.

His current Jezebel – it amused him no end to call all of the trollops he took under his wing that – shook her head as she sidled over to him.

“I heard Ben Cartwright bred them tough,” she sighed.  “Joe Cartwright may look like a pretty boy, but there’s nothing soft about him.”

Ahab’s salt and pepper brows peaked toward the stocking cap he wore pulled low on his wrinkled brow.  “Nothing, eh?” he asked, leering.

“So I get to enjoy my work from time to time.”  The slut’s full lips pursed and then a slow sneer spread across them.  “He didn’t.”

Jezebel’s real name was Hadley Marie Jones – or so she said.  A name as ordinary as she had once been.  When she was child, her family had moved to California to homestead.  By the age of eleven, she knew it wasn’t for her and ran way.  Of course ol’ Jez had no idea what life was like for a woman alone in the West and by the age of fifteen, she was selling herself to stay alive.  When he found her she was a cheap whore turning tricks in a crib.  That was where he trolled for his companions, picking up women who had no hope and would snatch at any morsel of life offered them.  He’d take them under his wing, train them and use them in his schemes, and then – when he got tired of them – offer them a way out.

A permanent way.

His current Jezebel had been with him for about six months and he figured she was good for a few more.  The girl knew her stuff.  The cathouse he’d lifted her from was run by Orientals who dabbled in the crimping game.  The Madame there was known for her…unusual appetites.  She taught her girls well.  They knew how to bring pleasure and inflict pain.

It was the latter Jez excelled at.

She was turned to one side now, looking back toward the room that held Joe Cartwright.  Ahab eyed her up and down.  Hadley was no heavyweight in the brains department, though what she lacked on the upper floor was more than made up by those below.  He kept her fed and clean and she made a good show.  He fought the vile laughter that bubbled up in him as he watched her take a step toward the back room.  In spite of everything she had seen and done, Jez was naive.  She’d actually believed him when he assured her he had no intention of killing the Cartwright kid.  Just like every other damn female on the face of the earth, her head had been turned by the brat’s good looks.

At least as a woman she couldn’t help it.  Women were plain no good.  Never could depend on one.  His father was another story.  The old man had chosen to save Joe Cartwright’s life and damn him to Hell and there was just no excuse for that.

He knew.  He’d been watching.

“You’re very quiet, Ahab,” Jez advanced, a slight tremble in her low, husky voice revealing her apprehension.  “Are you mad at me because I didn’t get Joe to write the letter?”

Ahab rose and moved closer to her.  Once there, he stopped and waited, enjoying the scent of her rising fear.  She had no idea if he was going to cuff her or kiss her.

He liked that.

Reaching out, Ahab took the girl’s chin in his hand.  He waited until her deep brown eyes met his.

“Nah,” Ahab said.  “That just means now it’s my turn.”

 

Joe Cartwright woke to a world of pain such as he had never known.  As he rolled from his back to his side and curled into himself, he remembered their father’s warnings about visiting the Barbary Coast.  It was the first time they’d gone to San Francisco on a business trip as a family and they had an evening free.  Pa had spoken sternly to the three of them before he let them go their way, telling them of the dangers of the coastal city and its less than admirable districts.  As they started to leave, he caught him by the arm and pulled him aside to give him a special warning.  He’d been pretty young at the time – still in his teens – and he’d bristled at the fact that his father singled him out.

That had been nothing compared to how embarrassed and mortified he’d been when the older man explained why.

‘Joseph,’ Pa began, ‘this is going to be hard for you to hear, and – in truth – for me to say.  I know you’re angry.  If you ask your brothers, they will tell you this is not the talk I had with them when they were younger.’  When he’d started to protest, his father continued, “Facts are facts, young man. You have a slight build like your mother and,’ Pa had held up a hand to stifle his protest, ‘while I have every confidence that you can handle yourself under normal circumstances, the Barbary Coast is anything but ‘normal’.  It is the bottom of the barrel – the place where the flotsam and jetsam of humanity coalesces and rots.  A young man like you….”  Pa reached out to touch his face before starting again. ‘A beautiful, slender, and seemingly vulnerable young man like you will be a target for every slaver and crimper on the coast.  These are people who will not see you as a human being with worth,  but only ‘worth’ what they can get from and for you.  There will be woman – stunning, enchanting women.  Some of them will be what they seem – poor abused creatures who have been reduced to selling themselves to make a living.  The threat from them is bad enough.  But there will be others, son, women who belong to men who use them for their gain and in their games.  Women who are schooled in…certain things.  Women who can bring a man incredible pleasure and will do so to possess him.

‘These women, son, can also bring incredible pain.’

That talk was part of the reason he fought so hard – why he pushed himself so far and went out of his way to prove he was tough and just as strong and physically powerful as his big, brawny brothers and father.  He’d been taken advantage of before – by men like Sam Wolf, by John C. Reagan….

But never as he had just been taken advantage of.

He was no innocent.  Oh, even though he’d hinted enough about dalliances with the women who populated Virginia City’s pleasure palaces, that was just talk.  His pa had taught him better than that – to use women just for a moment of pleasure.  But there had been the women he meant to marry.  Women he loved deeply and had known joy with, even though they’d taken care.  Julia.  Amy.

Laura.

A tear escaped Joe’s swollen eye to trail down his battered cheek.  He didn’t know if he would ever know that kind of joy again.  If he ever could….

Not after Jezebel.

Joe lay on his back, fighting to calm his breathing.  It wasn’t like they’d made love.  It was…what she’d done while makin’ him feel the things he’d felt before.   He groaned as he felt the myriad inch long slashes on his skin – some in places she had no right to go.  The thought of what she’d done to him brought tears to his eyes, which shamed him, and then –

It made him mad.

Closing his eyes, Joe fought for control and then pushed it all to the back of his mind.  Lifting his head, he studied how Jezebel had left him.  He was still tied to the chair, but there was a little give in the ropes on his wrists.  Probably because he’d struggled so much.  His ankles were still bound tightly, but if he could get his hands free, maybe – just maybe- he could escape.  Nothing that woman had…done…had really harmed him.  At least, not so’s he couldn’t make an escape attempt.  No, what she had done could be put aside to be dealt with another day.

A day when he was slingin’ a sledge hammer and drivin’ posts into the rock-hard ground might be a good one.

Uncurling his fingers, which had formed themselves into fists, Joe began to work at the loose rope that was hanging down onto his palm.  His hands were slippery with blood from the trails left by those little itty-bitty irritating cuts, but he did his best to work around that.  He’d been cut before when he was bound and he’d never let it stop him.

He was Joe Cartwright.  He never let anything stop him, and he wasn’t about to begin now.

After all, he had people counting on him.  His Pa had already been through so much with what happened with Dan.  And Lee, she was probably beside herself.  If Lee sent word to Pa, then it would be last month all over again.  And then there was Adam.

Even though he didn’t exactly know ‘where’ Adam was where he was concerned.

Still, older brother had left his all mighty important job in San Francisco to come sit with him while he recovered.  That had to mean something.

Even if they did still fight like hell-roosters.

So, for Pa, for Lee, for Hoss – and especially for Adam, he had to escape.  He couldn’t – he wouldn’t put all of them through it again.

Not if he could help it.

Joe had just freed one hand when the door to the room he was in opened.  He looked up expecting to find Jezebel standing there, eying him like a slab of meat ready for the butcher’s knife.

Instead, it was Ahab.

Looking at the hulking brute of a man , Joe swallowed hard over his fear.

‘God’, he thought as he gritted his teeth and steeled himself for the first blow.  ‘Please, help me help it.’

 

The beautiful young woman who, once upon a time, had been Hadley Jones, cringed as she watched the man who owned her step into the room that held Joe Cartwright and close the door.  She knew what Ahab was capable of.

She’d borne the brunt of his anger all too many times.

She also knew what he wanted from her and she gave it to him – the fierce proud look, the saucy swing of her hips – the hard, cruel words that bespoke of a heart just like his, one without mercy; with no pity.

The truth, hers was a heart with no hope.  In the forest of her life, it was very dark.

All the butterflies had broken wings.

Hadley shoved a lock of her raven-black hair back from her slightly oval face.  She’d had no hope since the first man who pretended kindness and then betrayed her, shattering her dreams.  She’d been a child set adrift on the streets of a city that swallowed up children.  The man – she didn’t even remember his name – had taken her in.  He’d fed her and clothed her and given her a warm place to live and promised her a job.  ‘The work is easy.  You’re just right for it,” he said.  “You’ll make a good wage for doing practically nothing.”

The young woman sighed.  ‘Practically nothing’.

Just selling her soul.

At first, she’d worked inside where the lights were red and the beds soft.  But then she’d fallen ill and been unable to work.  Every day she missed was another year added o to her sentence.  By the time she recovered she’d lost weight and, with it, her figure.  Her hair had been cut off to speed her recovery and so she looked like a boy.  No one wanted her.

That was when they sent her to the cribs.

She knew from experience that the crib girls had short lives.  They either died of disease or were murdered by the men who used them – and no one cared.  Not their owners.  Not their families.

No one.

Ahab cared.  He’d treated her kindly that first time and then, a few days later, offered to take her away from it all.  He was  hard man – she’d known it then – but he seemed fair.  He wasn’t young or a looker, but that was okay.  Too many young lookers had used her and not looked back.  Ahab was of middling height, with blondish-gray hair and a face that looked like he’d spent most of his youth in brawls.  He had a bandy-legged sailor’s walk and a mouth to match.  His eyes were pale – some might have called them gray, though she thought they were blue – and he had a hard mouth, like a piece of twine pulled taut as it would go.  He seldom smiled or laughed.

When he did, you paid attention.

She’d been with him about half a year now and in that time they’d taken several rich men for all they were worth.  It had been kind of fun at first and definitely better than the cribs.  Of the men who had used her, the rich ones were the worst.  They expected everything and paid nothing.  She and Ahab would enter a town and cast out a line and then, when they found their mark, arrange an ‘accidental’ meeting between her and the son of some banker or lawyer or railroad president who had thousands to spare.  Once they had the fish on the hook, they would either blackmail the son or take him hostage and demand a ransom from his father.  It was an old game for Ahab.  One he had been playing for years.  She knew there had been other ‘Jezebels’ before her.  He did nothing to hide it.

She didn’t ask what happened to them.

Walking over to the window, Hadley looked to the West.  In some ways she missed the big city with its noise and excitement.  Being out here – in the wilderness with nothing to do – left too much time to think.  She still didn’t really understand it.  They’d been in San Francisco back in the spring, working the game and making money hand-over-fist, when suddenly Ahab pulled up stakes and headed east.  He didn’t tell her why, but one of the girls she knew from before told her there was a man after him.  She’d hated the cold mountains and the rough journey, but Ahab assured her that once they hit the West there would be fresh pickings; new-made men whose fortunes made those of the men in Frisco look like a penny-ante pile on the table.  Simple naive rich men they could fleece.  Timber barons.  Mine owners.

Ranchers.

She thought now that their departure might have had more to do with the young man tied to the chair than with the promise of that money.  For whatever reason, Ahab hated Joe – and his family.  She’d thought he was half-crazy when they were on the Coast.  He liked to play it fast and loose.  Ahab took chances.

Now she knew he was all crazy.

Hadley started as she heard the sound she’d been expecting – that of a hard fist slamming into flesh.  There was a grunt.  Then, a shouted curse – it didn’t come from Ahab.  The curse was answered by an inhuman sound, like the bellow of an infuriated grizzly.

Then, Joe screamed.

Hadley closed her eyes and her heart to the sound.

There was nothing she could do for the young man Ahab’s fury was being spent on; nothing she could do for Joe Cartwright.

As there was nothing she could do for herself.

Except walk a little deeper into that forest.

 

Joe was doing his damndest to remain upright in the chair.  His freshly bound hands were in front of him, braced on the table as if in an aspect of prayer.  He was breathing heavily and fighting to remain conscious.

He didn’t want to write a note to his father.

He had to write a note to his father.

Pa would never forgive him if he got himself killed.

Joe stiffened as the shadow of his tormentor loomed over him, casting his broken body and the table into darkness.  He’d taken it – everything this man and his Jezebel before him had handed out – and he hadn’t given in.  After all, he’d been beaten before.  Badly.  In a way, he supposed, he’d even been tortured.  He wasn’t afraid of dying.  He knew who was waiting on the other side.   He could see his mama standing with her arms out, welcoming him.

Unfortunately, the image of his father standing with his head hanging low; tears on his cheeks and one quaking hand on the gravestone that bore the inscription ‘Joseph Francis Cartwright, beloved son, gone too soon’, loomed larger.

‘There are times, Joseph, when a man has to humble himself,’ he could hear his pa saying.  ‘A neck that is too stiff, too soon snaps.’

A pen was inserted between his bloody fingers.  Ahab’s hand remained wrapped around his own.

Joe bit his swollen lip.  He spoke, cleared his throat, and tried again.  “What do you…want me to write?”

“You won’t catch me so easy, lad,” the brute replied.  “Use your own words – and no tricks.”  The pressure increased on his injured fingers.  “I know all of them.”

‘Pa wants you to live,’ he reminded himself.  ‘Those who run away live to fight another day,’ he heard Adam say.

Hoss?  God, Hoss….

‘Pa,’ he wrote. ‘I’m sorry.  I was stupid.  I’m being held and they want money.  Ten…’  Joe looked up at Ahab who sneered as he nodded.  ‘Ten thousand dollars.”  He closed his eyes for a second, wondering again about this next part.  It made no sense to him.   Or he didn’t want it to make any sense.  “The man who has me says to send Dan Tollivar with the money.  No one else.  Anyone else and,” his hand trembled, ‘he’ll kill me.

The pen dropped from his shaking fingers.

Ahab pressed it into them again. “Sign it!” he demanded.

Joe closed his eyes.  He knew he was signing his death warrant.  Money or no money, Ahab intended to kill him.

“Sign it!” the brute yelled, punctuating the order with a slap on the side of his head.

Tears fell from his eyes, striking the paper and mingling with the drops of blood that dotted it – blood that would make his father do just what this horrid man wanted him to do.

Your loving son,’ he wrote. “Joseph Cartwright’.

Ahab snatched the note from under his fingers and then he began to laugh.

No, laughter was a gift of God – a beautiful, joyous gift – and one he had been blessed by his entire life.  Ahab chortled, nearly choking on his immoral glee, and then he bellowed out his triumph.  Seconds later a pair of burly hands caught his shoulders, turned Joe in his chair, lifted him up and threw him across the room.  He struck his head on the wall and slumped down into near darkness.

“That will teach the old man!” Ahab roared.

As Joe lost consciousness he wondered – which old man?

His Pa.

Or Dan Tollivar?

 

Hadley had been outside the cabin when Ahab finished with Joe Cartwright.  Her owner struck her for her cowardice in passing, just before he mounted his horse and took off into the darkness, headed for the nearest town.  The note he had forced Joe Cartwright to compose would be delivered before dawn.  Ahab had a way.  She didn’t know how he did it, but he always did.  While in San Francisco, she’d learned about the Free Masons. They were a group of men that supported one another no matter what. You never betrayed a fellow Mason, even if he’d broken the law.  While Ahab wasn’t a Mason, he was a member of a fraternity of men just as secretive but, instead of being sworn to do good, they were the servants of evil.  No matter what town they went to, they were there – liars, cheaters, pimps and crimpers, thieves and worse.  They helped one another – until they turned on one another.

Ben Cartwright would know one more night of peace.  Tomorrow his world would change forever.

The weary young woman ran a hand along her neck before turning back to look at the cabin they were holed up in.  Joe Cartwright had a family that loved him.  She’d heard about the Cartwrights in Reno.  They were well known and liked there.  Ben Cartwright had three sons by different mothers – Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe.  The oldest had been gone for a while, or so the gossip went, and just returned.  Rumor had it that he and his powerful pa had fallen out and that was why he left.  She’d wondered at first, when Ahab chose the Cartwrights as their next mark, which son he would use to make his play.  After scouting out the Ponderosa, they’d gone to Virginia City and rented a room.  Then they went to the local saloon and occupied a table at the back where they could keep watch.  No one paid them any attention.  Who would notice a gnarly old wreck of a man and his whore?  The second night the Cartwright brothers made an appearance.  The eldest, Adam, was a handsome man in his thirties, self-assured and well-controlled.  And, even though he was not as big physically as Ben Cartwright’s middle son, Hoss, who accompanied him, he looked like a dangerous man.  Joe Cartwright had come in shortly after his brothers, laughing and carrying on with his friends.  When she saw him up close, she understood why Joe was the one Ahab chose as their ‘mark’.  ‘Little’ Joe, as they called him, was the youngest and slightest of the trio, just the type Ahab liked – and liked to pound.  Still, it was odd.  The moment Ahab saw Joe something overcame the man she often called her ‘procurer’. She would have named it ‘anger’, but it went way beyond that.

The only word for it was ‘hate’.

This job was different for the brutish man.  It was personal.  Hadley shuddered and wrapped her arms about her shoulders.  It was going to end like it had that ‘other’ time – the time it all went wrong.  She just knew it.

Joe Cartwright was as good as dead.

 

The sound of the door opening and a soft footfall as someone moved across the floor didn’t wake him. He’d been awake before.  But it did surprise him.

And terrify him.

Joe shuddered and inched back toward the wall – away from the beautiful and venomous woman who had just entered his torture chamber.  As he did, he heard someone whimper.

Shame flooded through him when he realized it was him.

A moment later a hand brushed his cheek moving the curls, which were clotted with blood and sweat, away from his face.  It was followed by a cool cloth.

What new treachery was this?

Joe shifted back again but came up short when he ran into the cabin wall.  Something snapped in him when that happened and he struck out with his bound feet, catching the woman in her stomach and thrusting her away.

Pa would never forgive him.

He struck a woman.

Panting, breathless, Joe turned eyes filled with hate on his tormentor and found her crying.

Crying.

Jezebel was crying.

“I know what…you are!” he shouted.

She said nothing.  Jezebel just stared at him; the bloody cloth still in her hand.

His strength was ebbing.  “I know…what you are,” he repeated, quieter this time and with more meaning.

Tears slid down her cheeks.  “I know what I am too,” she replied.

He knew the game.  Brutalize a man and then pretend sympathy.  It was a way to break him.

Well, Joe Cartwright would not be  broken!

“Get..away from me!”  Joe snarled as he forced his badly abused body into a seated position.  “Don’t touch me!  Don’t you ever touch me again!”

She started as if he had struck her.  The girl’s eyes went to the bloody cloth she held and then she looked over her shoulder toward the door.  A moment later she came to a decision.  Rising, Jezebel went over to it and pushed it to.

Joe panicked as the key turned in the lock.

“Get out!” he cried. “You…get out of here!”

Jezebel turned to look at him.  Her near coal-black eyes were wide with expectation and they were fastened on him.  Joe grew physically sick at her approach and fought to rise to his feet.

He would go through her and the door before he let her near him again.

Halfway across the room, the girl halted.   He couldn’t tear his eyes from her.  She was beyond beautiful with her silken black hair, pale skin, and wide pensive eyes; not to mention her full lips and curvaceous hips and breasts.

Beautiful as a rattler in the sun.

She met his gaze and said, her tone curiously flat.  “He’s gone.  Let me help you while I can.”

He’d written that he was stupid, but he wasn’t that stupid.

“Once bitten,” Joe snarled between clenched teeth.

The girl winced and then nodded.  “I understand.  You have no reason to trust me.  What I did….”  Her jaw grew tight.  “He was watching.  I had to –”

“Humiliate me?  Debase me?!”  Joe blinked back the tears that formed.  God, he hated her for what she had done!

Jezebel took another step.  “He would have killed me…and you….”

“Maybe I’d rather be dead.”

Another tear fell.  “I know I would.  But you have to understand.”  She opened her hands wide.  One of them still held the bloody cloth she had used on his face. “I have nothing – no one else.  I have to do what he tells me.  I don’t want to, but I have to…”

Joe sneered.  “…dance with the Devil?”

It was one of Adam’s quotes.  ‘If you dance with the Devil, then you haven’t got a clue.  You think you’ll change the Devil, but the Devil changes you.’

He could see she knew it.

Knew it all too well.

With sudden inspiration, he asked, “Is Jezebel your real name?”

“It’s what Ahab calls me,” she replied.  “It’s what he calls all his girls.”

“Then you…made a…choice.” He was breathing hard, damn it!  So much for not showing fear before your enemy.  “You have to f ace it, it’s who you’ve chosen to become.”

Her head shook. “I had no choice.”

“You had a choice.  You made a bad one.”  Joe sucked blood from his lip and spit it out.  “Bad choices usually come out of fear.”

She was looking at him like he’d grown two heads.  So maybe, just maybe, he was getting through to her.

“What’s your name – your real name?”

The girl took a step back.  “I…I don’t have one.”

“Yes, you do,” he pressed. “What is it?”

“No.”

“Yes.  Tell me…what it is.”  Joe tried to stand but gave up as fresh pain shot through him, threatening to take him out again.  “Look, Jezebel or whatever your name is, I think I…might be dying.”  He was saying it for effect, but still – the way his insides felt – he wasn’t so sure it was far from the truth.  “When I meet Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, is that what you want me to tell him?   That the woman who killed me was a scheming, conniving whore with no heart?”

She glanced at the door again and then back at him.  “I don’t want you to die.”

“Well, I’m gonna and…you know it.  Ahab isn’t gonna let me…go.   He can’t.  I’ve…seen him, just like I’ve seen you.”   It was a desperate game he was playing.  If she wasn’t what she appeared to be – and was instead what he had experienced a while back – then he was falling right into her trap and she was going to hurt him like he’d never been hurt before.  “Why don’t you kill me right now?”  Joe sucked in air against renewed pain.  “Kill me, Mrs. Maybe Jones, or set me free.”

For a moment she remained where she was and then, haltingly, moved toward him.  Then, just as quickly, she turned and ran toward the door.

It opened on Ahab.

Joe watched helplessly as the brute’s hand shot out to take Jezebel by the neck.  He held that pose for several seconds and then drew her into an embrace and kissed her hard.

At that moment Joe knew he had been had.  It had all been a game, meant to break him.  Ahab had been outside the door, listening – and probably laughing – all along.

Ahab took Jezebel by the shoulders and thrust her out the door and then slammed it shut behind him.  He locked it before turning back into the room.

“Bet you missed me, didn’t you?” he sneered.  “Pretty boy.”

 

 

SIX

There was one thing you could say for the life of a bank robber.  It honed your senses to a very fine point.  One second’s hesitation and you knew you could be captured.

Or worse.

Trock ran a hand through his thick black hair before placing his hat back on his head.  He had followed the trail from the abandoned rig through the countryside and up into the hills.  When he left prison – and before he joined Lee – he’d taken time to scout the surrounding territory around her place, looking for signs of trouble.  He was no innocent.  Most men were out for themselves and he knew it was now his job to protect her.

After all, look what happened when he first darkened her doorstep.

He’d come on the old cabin in the woods during that trip.  It had showed signs of recent habitation, but been unoccupied at the time.  Using one of his former…skills…he’d picked the padlock on the door and gone inside.  There were indications that it had been occupied by a man and a woman.  From what he’d seen, she was young and probably not the kind of girl Ben Cartwright would have wanted his youngest associating with.  The clothes in the trunk in the corner were flashy and cut to show off everything a woman owned.  There were other things as well, tricks of the trade – rouges and powders and perfumes.

That was one of the things he loved about Lee.  She smelled clean.

Just…clean.

The man was harder to pin.  Older, he would guess – at least older than the woman.  Not a cowboy or ranch hand as the clothes were mostly naval in origin.  Not rich either, though there was evidence of money.  The whiskey bottles he’d found abandoned out back dated to the last century.  At the time of his discovery, he’d thought little of it.  Now, those particular labels sent a chill up his spine.  ‘Ahab’, as his old partner called himself, out of some twisted  sense of destiny and devil’s humor, had a taste not only for doxies but for aged bourbon whiskey, and at least pretended to the life of an ex-sailor.

The former bank robber sighed as he urged his mount to move faster and headed for the cabin.  He and old Ahab had had a grand time of it while it lasted.  The man was a brute, but at the time a brute had been what was needed.  Trock’s lips curled with chagrin.  Sometimes he missed the old days.  There was an undeniable and illicit excitement to the criminal.  Of course, as he had learned when he took a bullet during that last robbery, there was also a heavy price to be paid, and not only by him.  Lee could have died.  Joe Cartwright almost did.

He almost did.

No, he’d been right to abandon Ahab when he did.  The man had gotten completely out of control.  He’d joined up with the crimper for his strong arm and ended up with that arm around his neck – and almost as a noose.  The powerful man who was the father of the boy Ahab killed vowed he would find them all and bring them all to justice.  His kind of justice.

Trock snorted.  Most likely, the noose would have been preferable.

Anyhow, he’d put all that behind him years ago.  Or, so he thought.  With Ahab’s return, he was going to have to face what he’d done.  Lee had no idea that he was wanted in another state for a murder he didn’t commit.  He’d hoped she would never have to know.  If Ahab had left a trail the man could follow, then it might just be that his past was about to catch up to him.  He couldn’t drag her into it or take her down with him.

He loved her too much.

The trouble was, he didn’t know what he could do to stop it that was legal.  If he went to the local sheriff and confessed and led the man to Ahab, it might buy him a lighter sentence – and keep that noose from around his neck – but he was still going to serve time and that was the last thing he wanted to do.  Four years in Hell had been more than enough.

Thank you.

He could kill him, of course.  But then there was the woman and he didn’t want to kill a woman.  Unfortunately, he had no way of knowing whether she was with Ahab by choice or by force.  Knowing his old partner, he imagined it was the latter, but the woman was an unknown quantity in the equation.  She might help him or she might turn him in.

Or maybe just shoot him.

Who could have imagined that going straight would prove so complicated?

He’d reached the edge of the yard that fronted the cabin.  Reining in his horse, Trock dismounted.  He looked around until he found a vantage point from which to watch that he felt was not only safe but defensible, and then made his way over to it.  It had a view of both the front and the eastern wall, plus a bit of the back where he could see a boarded up window.  There were several small outbuildings – a shack and a privy and something else, maybe a chicken coop.  They were pretty evenly spaced, so he could probably make his way from one to the other without being spotted.  If Ahab was a man of habit – and by all means, he was – and he did have Joe Cartwright, then most likely the luckless young man was being kept in the room with the boarded up window.  Ahab had a sadistic streak.  He took great joy in breaking the unbreakable.  That was part of the reason he targeted the poor young man he’d ended up killing.  The boy’s father was a self-made man, hard-nosed, a bit brutal, and almost disagreeably self-assured.  The other part was that Sunders Haywood and his only son were close.  That was another thing about Ahab.  There was nothing that moved him more than the closeness between father and son.

Moved him to murder.

As he lowered himself into a nest of branches, using them and the fallen trunk they sprang from as cover, Trock noticed movement at the other end of the yard.  At first he thought it was Ahab, but then he realized the man couldn’t have aged that much since he’d ended their association.  The build was the same – square, solid, and a bit stout – and the man coming toward him had grizzled blondish gray, but the way he held himself said nothing of power or supreme confidence and everything of despair.  Whoever it was walked with their head down; their steps slow and uncertain.  He muttered as he went.  Trock couldn’t hear what he said, but it seemed the man was arguing with himself.

He snorted.  Seemed like the thing to do today.

Settling back, the former bank robber set himself to watch hoping, but not in the least suspecting, that he was wrong about the pair that occupied the cabin.

And wondering what the Hell he was going to do to save that fool Cartwright if he was right.

 

“Ahab, there’s someone outside.”

Hadley sucked in pain and put a finger to her mouth.  Her lower lip was swollen to nearly twice its normal size.  Once Ahab…finished with…Joe Cartwright, he had come for her and beaten her soundly.  There were times when she was sure he was a mind-reader.  She hadn’t said anything or done anything different, but he knew.

Ahab knew what she was thinking.

It wasn’t that she intended to free their captive.  She was too afraid to do that.  But she’d, well, for some reason she’d started to think of Joe Cartwright as a human being and wanted to do something – anything – to ease his suffering even if only a bit and that simply wasn’t allowed.

Being human, that is, wasn’t allowed.

“What do you mean, someone’s outside?” Ahab growled.  He was at the dry sink washing the blood from his knuckles.  She hadn’t looked in on the man she’d enticed and tormented.

She couldn’t.

“There’s an old man walking up the path,” she replied.

Hadley squinted in concentration.  It was hard to see with her eye swelling shut.  The old man looked kind of familiar.  She thought she might have seen him in Virginia City.  Come to think of it, it had been the day after Joe became their mark . The day Ahab seemed to…well…go over the edge.

Turning she looked at Ahab’s back.  There was a definite resemblance between the man coming toward the cabin and the one at the sink.

Was this Ahab’s father?

Ahab growled again as he threw the blood-stained towel into the basin and stormed across the room.  Hadley moved quickly out of his way.  She’d seen the signs before.  He was at a fever pitch.  One little thing could set him off.

She feared for Joe Cartwright’s life as well as her own.

When he reached the window and pulled back the curtain to look out, Ahab did something that surprised her.  He let out a mirthless chuckle.

“Well, what do you know?” he snorted.  “It must be true that God favors the bold.”

If he meant himself, Hadley doubted God had anything to do with it.

“Who is he?” she asked.

“I’ll let you know once he tells me,” her procurer snarled as he moved to the door.  Before opening it, Ahab turned back.  “Go in the back and see if the kid’s still breathin’.”

“Ahab, no.  I don’t….”  Hadley’s voice trailed off.

“What you don’t do, my girl, is get any high-handed notions about rich boy back there.  Don’t fool yourself that Joe Cartwright sees you as anything other than a slut who betrayed him.  He hates you.”  If Ahab had anything about him that was clean it was his teeth.  Stark white flashed in a deeply tanned face, making him look like a predator.  “He made that clear while we were having our little…discussion”

She opened her mouth to reply but nothing came out.  Seconds later she closed it and nodded.

“That’s my Jezebel.  You might just live to see another day.”

With that, he was out the door.

Hadley stared after Ahab for several heartbeats and then turned on her heel and walked woodenly toward the back room.  At the door she paused, steeling herself for what she knew she would find.  Ahab knew how and where to hit to inflict the most damage without putting a victim’s life in danger.  He would have done everything he could to reduce Joe Cartwright from the cocky, handsome, sure-of-himself man he was to a quivering mass of jelly.

Putting her hand to the latch, Hadley drew a breath and stepped in.  She was immediately assaulted by the stale smell of sweat, vomit, and old blood.  Her eyes darted about the room, noticing the spatter on the walls and then sought out the man she had betrayed.

She expected to find a corpse.

Instead – battered and bruised; his expensive clothing stained with blood, sweat, and the contents of yesterday’s breakfast – Joe Cartwright lifted his head from the floor and looked right at her.  He blinked as he focused on her face – on the bruises and the blood – and noted she looked much the same.

Joe’s green eyes widened.  Those full lips parted.  No sound came out, but she could read the words.

“I’m sorry,” he mouthed.

Just before his head hit the floor.

 

Dan Tollivar halted in his tracks as the door to the rundown cabin opened emitting a ghost.  It had been decades, but there was no mistaking the boy the man had been.  It was like looking in a mirror – except for Mal’s eyes.

They were all Beryl.

“Son,” he said.

“You lost the right to call me that a long time ago, old man,” Malachi Tollivar growled.

He nodded.  It was true.  “Mal, then.”

His son snorted.  “I haven’t used that name since I was fifteen. You can call me ‘Ahab’ like the rest.”

“Ahab?”  There’d been one of them fancy women – a friend of Beryl’s – had read to the boy out of the Bible.  Ahab had been one of Israel’s wickedest kings who’d led the land and its people away from God and to destruction.

The name defined the man.

His son took a step toward him. “You got the money, old man?  You better or my life ain’t worth a plugged nickel.”

Dan cleared his throat.  He looked into those cold, lifeless eyes.  “No, I don’t.  I…couldn’t go through with it.”

“Couldn’t go through with what?” Mal, or Ahab demanded.  “Kidnappin’ Joe Cartwright, you mean?”

“Temple and Sand didn’t want to kidnap the boy.  They was gonna kill him!  I couldn’t let them do that to Ben Cartwright or his boy.  It weren’t right!”

“But lettin’ me die is?”  His son’s face grew dark.  Thunder sat on his brow and lightning flashed in those empty eyes.  “You care more about those high-and-mighty Cartwrights than you do me.”

“That ain’t true.  If you’d of let me, I’d of taken care of –”

“Stow it, old man!  You’re only fooling yourself.  Old man Cartwright took you in so he could take from you what he needed and then let you fall.”  His son had moved to stand before him.  He jabbed a finger into his chest to emphasize his point.  “I asked around Virginia City.  I know all about it – how you had the kid and the money and you turned yellow and let them both go!”

“But they would have killed him!  They would have killed Little Joe!”

The man before him who had been his child, but was now a monster sneered.  “Would have saved me the trouble then.”

Dan paled.  His eyes shot past his son to the cabin behind him. “Joe’s safe at Lee Throckmorton’s place,” he said, his voice hushed with fear.

“Is he?”

“You mean you got him here?  Why, Mal?  Why would you hurt him?”  Tears filled the older man’s eyes.   “He’s just a boy barely begun his life.”

His son’s body was rigid; his face became granite.  “Why, old man?  I’ll tell you why.  Because you chose that snot-nosed prissy son of a rich man over me.  You chose to save his life when you knew it would cost mine!”

“No!  I knew you had a chance.  Together, I thought, you and me…we’d find a way out!”

“That’s a lie and you know it,” his son breathed.  “You think he’s better than me.  More worth livin’ than me.  You wrote me off all those years ago and you ain’t given me a thought since!”

Dan was shaking his head.  “No.  No!  I’m tellin’ you, that ain’t true!”

Without warning, his son’s hand shot out and caught him by the collar of his coat.  He reeled him in closely – so closely he could smell the whiskey on his breath.  “You’re coming with me, old man.  I’m gonna show you what’s left of your precious Joe Cartwright and then….

“I’m gonna kill you both.”

Hadley stood for a full minute, staring at the door to the back room, and then reached out and closed it and turned the key, locking it.  She’d listened long enough to realize she’d guessed right about who the old man was who had come to call.  She knew Ahab had asked his father for money on the pretense that someone was after him who would kill him if he didn’t get it.  That was just another of his schemes, formed to hurt the old man.  There was no one pursuing him, unless it was the father of that boy he had killed and Haywood had no idea where to find him.  She’d seen how infuriated Ahab grew once he realized his father had chosen to save Joe Cartwright rather than do as he asked.  She had no doubt he would kill the old man, but not before he forced him to watch him murder the boy he loved.  Hadley glanced at Joe where he lay semi-conscious on the floor, just beneath the boarded up window.  There had to be something special about him for so many people to care so deeply about his fate.

She had no idea what she could do to save him, but she had to try.

Crossing over to the wounded man, she knelt and fingered his sweat-soaked curls.  When Joe Cartwright mouthed those words – ‘I’m sorry’ – something in her had shattered.  After what she had done he felt…compassion for her.  It was misplaced.  She knew that.  She’d seen the road to Hell her choices had paved and accepted the fact that there was nothing that could be done to stop her descent into the pit.  Like the other fancy women Ahab had bought and used and discarded, she was doomed.

Still.  Maybe – just, maybe – if she committed one selfless act….

Then again, if she thought of it that way, was it truly selfless?

Rising, she moved to the window and began to pry the rough boards loose with her fingers.  Blood dripped from their tips as she did, adding to the  pool of red slowly spreading out from Joe Cartwright’s slender form.  She didn’t know what Ahab had done to him.  Since Joe had regained consciousness – briefly – she prayed the amount of blood was due to the gash on the side of his head.  She knew how scalp wounds could bleed.  As she dropped the first board to the floor, Hadley’s lips opened and she voiced a prayer.

“Please, God.  Please, listen!  I’m not asking for myself this time….”  She looked down at Joe’s pale face.  “Please, God, save this man.  He’s a good man.  He’s done nothing wrong.”

Another of the boards came loose.  Startled, Hadley let out a little yelp as it did and then cast her gaze toward the door.  She could hear raised voices.  For the moment Ahab was occupied with his father, but soon he’d realize where she was – and then, know what she’d done.  And then, like the obsessed seaman in Melville’s tale, Ahab’s compulsion would be to find and kill her.

She didn’t care.

A third board came loose. This time to a small cry of triumph.  When the fourth was out, the opening was large enough to allow her to escape.  She glanced at the man lying on the floor.  Joe was slender, but thicker than she was; his form well-muscled – not a son of wealth, but of hard work and honest living.  Knowing she had to make the opening wider, she reached for the remaining board.

When her hand found not a board but another hand, she let out a distressed cry.

Outside the window a black-haired man stared at her as if she was out of her mind.  He leaned in and used his hand to cover her mouth.  He shook his head and then, with pain in his eyes, inclined his head toward Joe.

‘Help me,” he mouthed.

Hadley nodded and then turned back toward the entry to the room.  She’d heard the front door open and knew, any second, Ahab would be coming.

They were out of time.

 

Dan Tollivar halted on the threshold of the cabin his wayward son occupied and refused to move.

“Tell me what you’ve done to the boy,” he demanded.

Ahab snorted as he continued on toward the back room.  “I’ll show you.  You know what they say?  A picture is worth a thousand words.”

“If all you want to do is get away, Mal,” Dan said, deliberately using his boy’s given name, “you can do that on less than ten thousand.  Run to Mexico, boy.  There’s no jurisdiction there.  That man can’t follow you.”

“You gullible old fool!” his son spat.  “Do you think I actually needed that money to pay off a debt?  It was a test, old man.  A test to see just how much you loved your Malachi – and you failed!”  He shook his head.  “You don’t get it, do you, Pa?”  He nearly spit the word.  “Life means nothing to me except that every day I breathe is another day to take what I want and get what is owed me.”

Tears kissed the older man’s eyes.  “Boy, is there nothing of me in you?”

“You?  Of course, there is something of you in me!  After all, didn’t you jump at the chance to betray your best friend?  And for what reason?  Because his son wounded your pride?”  Mal moved closer.  “I asked around in town.  You let everyone know how much you hated Joe Cartwright for demeaning you; for making you feel worthless. Well, you know what, old man?  Cartwright was right.  You are worthless. Worthless to him, to Ben Cartwright, and to me!  You deserve to die!”

Dan hung his head.  He was right. His boy was right.  Looking up, the old man fixed his long-lost son with a look that spoke of despair and determination.

The only thing left now was to make sure his death counted for something.

 

“Pa, no!  Wait!  We can’t just go charging in there!  We don’t know if there’s any more of them and we don’t know where Joe is.”

Ben Cartwright glared at the hand that restrained him.  He was right.  Adam was right.

Adam had been right about everything.

They’d followed the signs from the abandoned carriage.  About one third of the way along, they encountered two sets of tracks.  One rider did nothing to hide his presence while the other was more secretive.  He made several feints and then his trail disappeared.  Hoss was the best tracker he knew, but whoever it was outfoxed even him.  In the end they abandoned their pursuit of the unknown horseman and returned to the point of origin and took off after the other one.

Hoss believed it to be Dan Tollivar.

Hoss had, of course, tended to Dan’s horse from time to time when the older man came to visit before…before Dan made the choice he made and caused a rift to open up between them.  Hoss was sure the tracks they were following were his as he knew the cast of the black’s shoes and its gait.  His middle son admitted he’d been surprised when they came across Dan’s tracks, though Hoss – with his trusting nature – tried to explain it away, suggesting that, perhaps, Dan was seeking Joseph too.  Adam had agreed, though the two brothers differed in what they believed the end of that seeking was.  Hoss wanted to believe Dan was trying to help Joseph.

Adam believed he had been in on it all along.

His eldest believed that, after his scheme to take Little Joe and hold him for ransom the first time failed, Dan had found a new partner and begun the whole thing again.  A rider had overtaken them on the way.  A young man who carried a note, written by Joseph and sealed in his young son’s blood.  Ben glanced at Hoss who stood stone-faced at his side.  The big man had all but taken the boy apart before he and Adam were able to make him see that the young man was just a messenger and that killing the messenger would do nothing to bring Joseph back to them.

Alive.  He prayed he came back alive.

They had come across Dan’s trail shortly after that and followed to see where he would lead them.  They were not that far out from Lee Throckmorton’s place. Adam remembered an old abandoned cabin in this neck of the woods and suggested they head for it.  Sure enough that was where they found Dan. They’d watched him dismount and approach the cabin, and continued to watch as another man – he could have been Dan’s twin in size and coloring – came out to confront him.  The pair got into a heated discussion, which they had just moved inside.

From the sound of it, they were still arguing.

Ben turned to look at his eldest son.  “Adam, I can’t just sit here while your brother – while Joe may be in danger.”

“I know that, Pa.  I’m just saying, we need a plan.” Adam looked at his brother.  “The cabin has a back room, right?  With a boarded up window?”

Hoss nodded.  “Leastwise it did when the Kelly’s lived here.”  He turned to him.  “You remember, don’t you, Pa?  We stopped there for water once when we were heading to Doc Bolden’s.”

They’d been on their way home. – him and Adam and Hoss.  Joseph was a baby and had remained at home with Marie.  Adam had fallen ill on the trail and they’d stopped to care for him before pressing on to Tom’s home.  Cabins had been few and far between in those days and it was always wise to note where help, if needed, could be found.

“I remember.”  Ben thought a moment.  “I’ll head around the back.  You boys wait for my signal and then go in from the front.”

Adam’s hand caught his arm.  “Pa, Dan may be caught in the crossfire.”

He drew in a breath.  If Dan was innocent, God would preserve him.  If not….

“I know, but your brother comes first.”

“Pa?”

“Yes, Adam?”

“I’m sorry.  I wish I had been wrong.  I know what Dan means to –”

He stopped him.  “No one means more to me than you or your brothers.  Do what you have to do to protect Joseph – and yourself.  Do you understand?”

Adam held his gaze for a moment and then nodded.

What Ben found when he reached the back of the house confused him.  The window of the room at the back had been boarded up, but the boards had been torn away – and recently it seemed.  Blood still dripped from some of the exposed nails.  Kneeling, he fingered the grass and found it blood-stained as well.

There was a mystery here.  One he didn’t have time to solve.

The rancher turned and glanced at the woods behind him.  He sensed no movement, though it was dark and the shadows had shadows.  Deciding he had not time to ponder it, the rancher levered himself up and into the room, passing through the broken out window.

What he found inside brought terror to his father’s heart.

The floor was covered in blood.  Laying in a pool off it to one side, was his son’s ruined green corduroy jacket.  He’d just bent to pick it up when there was a violent attack on the door.  The wood groaned as the lock held.  Even as his mind raced to decipher this new mystery;  why the door to a torture chamber would have been locked from within – and with no one inside – something hit the door again.  At the same instant someone shouted.  There was a harsh outcry.  A shot rang out – and then a second one.

The second time the bullet passed through the door, barely missing him.

A moment later Hoss’ face appeared in the open window.  “Pa!  Pa!  You okay?  Adam just….”  His son’s voice trailed off as he noted the blood on the floor.  “Lordy, Pa,” he breathed, ‘is that Joe’s?”

Ben’s gaze returned to the coat.  “I think so, Hoss, though I can’t be sure.  The room was empty when I came in.”  Something in his son’s demeanor caught his attention.  He looked…sick.  “Hoss, what is it?  Is it Adam? Was he hurt….”

The big man shook his head.  “It ain’t Adam, Pa.  It’s Dan.  You better come quick.”  His gentle giant of a son let out a sigh.  “I think he’s bleeding out.”

 

With Joe’s bloodied coat in hand, Ben left the cabin through the window.  He rounded it to find his friend of nearly forty years lying on the ground.  There was a growing pool of red beneath him and another spreading out over Dan’s stomach.  Adam was leaning over him, his hand on the older man’s shoulder.  It was then he realized Hoss had not been entirely truthful with him.

There was red on Adam’s shoulder as well.

“Son!  You’re hurt!”

“It’s nothing, Pa,” he replied, grim-faced.  “Just a scratch.”

Ben sensed something in Adam’s demeanor; something of guilt.

“We were wrong, Pa,” he went on.  “I was wrong.”

“No…no, you…weren’t, boy,” Dan wheezed.  The older man’s eyelids fluttered and then his eyes opened with remarkable clarity for a dying man.  They fastened on him.  “I…failed you, Ben.  I failed you all.”

Ben took hold of his friend’s hand and squeezed it.  “No, Dan, it was you who saved Little Joe –”

“And put the boy in danger…again.”  Dan’s eyes rolled up toward Adam.  “That man – the one who shot at you, boy – that was my son, Malachi.”  The older man drew in a shuddering breath as he turned his head and looked at him again.  “Ben, that money I took….”

“Don’t worry about it, Dan.”

“You…gotta understand.  It was for Mal.  I thought….”  The older man sighed and his eyes closed.  “I was hopin’ I could…buy…his love….”

Adam’s eyes met his as he placed his fingers at the base of the older man’s neck.  A second later he shook his head.

Ben rocked back on his heels, overtaken with unexpected grief.  Then it hit him.  “Joe,” he breathed.  “Your brother.  Did Mal have him with him when he escaped?”

Hoss’ hand came down on his shoulder.  “No, Pa.  Joe weren’t with him.  Dan told us Joe was in….”  The big man cleared his throat, obviously moved by the carnage he had seen in that room.  “Dan said Malachi told him what was…left of Joe was in that back room.”

It was more than he could take in.  “What kind of a monster….?”

Adam had risen to his feet.  He was staring off into the distance.  “The kind of monster it seems any of us could be.”

“Adam?”

His son looked exhausted.  “How could I have been so wrong about him?  Dan..gave his life to save mine.  His son had me dead in his sights.  Dan…stepped in the way.”

So, Heaven had not moved to save an innocent man – but it had set a guilty one free.

Ben rose to his feet and looked toward the cabin, the image of all that blood still fresh in his mind.  “Dan believed Joseph was still inside.  Poor man.  He had no idea your brother had escaped.”

Adam looked like he might faint dead away. “Joe…escaped?  I thought…because you came back alone that…..”

Hoss caught his brother as his legs gave way and led Adam over to the porch.  Once there his eldest son sat on its edge and leaned forward, placing his head in his hands.

“Goldarnit, Adam!  I plumb forgot to tell you about Joe, what with Dan dyin’….”  Hoss looked mortified.  “Can you forgive me?”

Adam looked up and gave him a small smile.

“Pa?” Hoss called out.

“Yes, son?”

“Where do you think Joe is?  Do you think?  I mean all that blood….  Could he have gotten away on his own?”

From the amount of blood he had seen on the floor – if it all was his son’s – he would have to say ‘no’.  Obviously Joe had help.  He’d spent only a few minutes in the room, but he’d noted a woman’s shoeprints on the floor.

There were mysteries within mysteries here.

“Pa.”

He looked at his eldest.

“Yes, son?”

“Lee’s place is close.  If Joe got away, I imagine he would make for there.”

Yes.  Why hadn’t he thought of that?

“I’ll take care of Adam’s shoulder and then go look outside that window, Pa, and see if I can fix a direction,” Hoss offered.

Ben nodded his agreement and then pivoted on his heel to look at the cabin; his mind’s eye filled with the horrific image of what he had found in that back room.  His heart ached for his youngest and he feared what Joe had suffered at Malachi Tollivar’s hands.  A moment later, the rancher turned to look at the woods.  While Dan Tollivar lay dead at his feet, the man his old friend had given life to remained at large.  A brute of a man who wanted his son dead.

It was not over by a long shot.

 

 

SEVEN

During the night a strong wind had arisen.  Lee was sure it was the herald of an approaching storm.  She stood at the front window of her house, looking out, remembering.  It had been five years before, nearly to the day, that Little Joe had arrived.  Ben Cartwright, her late husband’s old and dear friend, had sent his youngest to her place to bring her the money he claimed he owed Tom.  She knew as well as Joe that Ben was merely being kind.  The investment had failed and the rancher owed them nothing.  Still, she’d been desperate and even though it was charity, it was charity clothed in a gown she could accept.  She’d been hateful to Joseph at first, even accusing him of trying to take advantage of her.  Love had given way to fear in the years since Tom had died and, though she craved a man’s arms around her, she had done everything she could to push every man she  met away, both the good and bad .

Until Trock.

Lee laughed as she dropped the curtain.  In her wildest dreams she could not have cast herself in a less likely role – falling in love with an outlaw.  But there had been something about Trock – a desperation that matched or, maybe even, surpassed her own.  She knew as he rode away that day that Ben’s boy wondered if she had lost her mind and yet, Joe was a kind boy and seemed to understand that desperate times called for desperate measures.  He didn’t have to testify in Trock’s behalf.  In fact, if he had wanted to, Joseph could have spoken for the prosecution.  Trock’s last misadventure had nearly cost the young man his life.

Nearly cost all of them their lives.

Turning back into the house, Lee went to the settee and sat down.  She had a sort of restless energy about her; restless as the night.  She had hoped – no, expected – Trock to have returned with Little Joe long before this.  After all, she was just as sure that her husband was wrong and that Joe’s head had merely been turned by a pretty girl.  Little Joe would see her home and all would be well.

Or would be, if life was a fairy tale.

But it wasn’t.  And she wasn’t a young frivolous thing waiting on her prince charming to return.  She had chosen a complex man with a complicated past and she was only just beginning to understand what that meant.  Trock was hers – in part – and yet, there was a part of him he was unwilling to share.  It scared her at times.  Not because she was afraid of him, but because she was afraid of what it might mean for him.  Was she really naive enough to believe that the bank robbery Joseph thwarted – the one in which her husband had been shot – had been Trock’s first crime?  The road that led to such a bad choice was paved with even worse choices, even if the bricks it was made of were mortared with the best of intentions.

She only hoped his past had not come back to haunt them both.

Lee had just risen, intending to head to the kitchen, when there was a flash of light, followed by a loud clap of thunder.  It echoed off the walls of the house and then rolled down the hills that banked it.  At the same moment someone pounded on the door.  Her heart leapt into her throat and her eyes went to the rifle Trock insisted they keep standing in the corner.  She’d headed for it when she heard the most blessed sound in the world.

Her husband’s voice.

“Lee!  Lee, it’s me!  Trock!  Open the door!”

Relief flooded through her.  He was safe and he was home!

Leaving the rifle and turning to the door, Lee cast the bolt aside, turned the key in the lock, and threw it open.  Then, she gasped.  There was a man in Trock’s arm.  His dark brown curls were sodden and clung to his handsome face just as they had that first night, when the evil man named Gavin who had been with her husband shoved Joe into the house and the boy fell at her feet.  Joe had been covered in mud then..

This time, it was blood.

Trock shouldered past her shouting, “Lock the door, Lee. and throw the bolt!”

“Trock, what?”

“Do it!” he snapped. Then, thinking better of himself, he glanced over his shoulder at her as he laid Joe on the settee she had just vacated.  “Lee, please.  Do it now.”

She nodded, not knowing what to say, and ran to do as he commanded.  Just as she reached the door a young girl appeared – bedraggled, overwrought –

Terrified.

“Trock?”

He glanced at her and nodded.  “Her name’s Hadley.  There’s no time to explain.  Lock the door and then take her upstairs.  The two of you need to make sure every opening into the house is secured.”

Lee looked the girl up and down.  Her clothes were soaked through and her hair was a tumble of black dotted with leaves and bracken.  She appeared to be dazed.  “Hadley?” she asked.  When the girl failed to respond, she tried again, and when that failed to elicit a response, decided she’d best do it on her own.  Walking Hadley over to a chair by the table, she sat her down, and then made her way upstairs.  By the time she returned, the storm had hit in earnest.  Rain struck the house with the force of an arrow let loose from the bow.  The wind screamed like an Indian on the warpath.  Lee went to the window and drew the curtain aside.  What she saw made her draw in a breath.  A cloying white mist had appeared out of nowhere, wrapping the house in a shroud.

“Get a lamp,” Trock said, breathless.  As she hastened to comply, he added, “Damn fool kid!”

“Is Joe all right?” she asked as she returned.

Her husband reached up and positioned her so the light shone on Joe Cartwright’s silent form. “All right?” he scoffed.  “I don’t even know if he’s alive.”

Lee sucked in a breath as the lamplight fell on Joe’s face.  It was pale as the mist outside.  His lips looked blue.

She was afraid they really were.

“What happened?” she asked,

Trock’s hands had been moving, checking Joe for injuries.  “Do you still have your late husband’s bag?” he asked without answering her question.

“Yes.  It’s with Tom’s other things, in the spare room.”

Her husband seemed to consider something and then dismiss it.  “No.  It’s better we keep him here.  Go get the bag, Lee. Or send Hadley.”

She hadn’t looked at the girl.  She did now.  Her stare was just as vacant as before.

Turning back, she said, “I’ll go.”  As she turned, the light from the lamp fully illuminated Joe.  He’d noted the blood before, but not where it came from.  Now she could see that his exposed skin was marked with dozens of small cuts.  “Who did this to him?” she asked.  “Trock, do you know?”

Her husband glanced at Hadley and then at the door.  “You locked it?  And all the windows upstairs and down?”

“Yes.  But why?  Won’t you tell me?”

Trock rose and walked over to the window.  He pulled the curtain back as she had and gazed out, a troubled look on his face.

“Because Lee, sooner or later, the Devil is going to be at our door.”

 

Ben paused glanced out the window at the tempest that had come out of nowhere.  Out of decency, they had taken time to bury Dan Tollivar before attempting to follow the trail of blood his son left behind.  He’d felt a small service was necessary and had spoken the eulogy himself.  Adam stood pale and silent throughout.  His eldest hadn’t spoken much since voicing his relief that his youngest brother was alive, if missing.  Just about the time they were ready to depart, the wind had kicked up and within an hour they had found themselves at nature’s mercy.

The rancher ran a hand over his face, wiping away tears, and looked down at the towel in his hands.  He didn’t know why, but he had to do it.  It reminded him of what he had read about the women of ancient Israel – that the blood of their loved ones was sacred and when it had been shed, they would go and mop it up until nothing remained.  While Hoss tended to the animals and Adam fell into a restless sleep, he had gone to the back room  of the cabin with a basin of soapy water and a load of towels and begun to cleanse it of his youngest son’s blood.

That was, until grief and apprehension and despair had overcome him and he found himself sitting on the floor with the bloody rags in hand crying like a baby.  He told himself it was exhaustion and there was some truth to that.

There was also some truth to the fact that a man could only take so much.

He supposed as well that he had been hit not only by his the reality of his son’s torment, but by the betrayal and loss of his old friend.  The truth was, he had lost Dan Tollivar a month or so back when this all began – on the day he had gently tried to suggest the old wrangler step down.  Oh, he had tried to pretend that the man he’d forgiven was the same man he’d loved and trusted, but in his heart of hearts he knew it wasn’t true.  For forty years Dan had been a friend to him.  More than that, a beloved friend and an uncle to his boys.  Adam was right.  What Joe did – telling Dan that he was too old to go on the drive – might have been enough to make him not speak to the boy, but to engineer Joe’s kidnapping, to put the boy’s life in danger?

No, there had been something dark in Dan Tollivar that he had never known – or had overlooked – and it had almost cost Joseph and Adam’s lives.

He was ashamed.

“Pa? Pa, are you all right?”

Ben sniffed.  He thought about wiping away the tears again, but knew it was pointless.  He’d been found out.  He looked up to see his eldest leaning in the doorway.

“I’m sorry I woke you, son.”

Adam smiled that smile of his, the one so like his mother’s that formed little lines at the ends of his full lips.

“You didn’t,” hi son said as he made his way into the room and then stopped at the sight of the partially cleaned floor.  “Pa, you shouldn’t…. You should have left this to Hoss and me.”

He looked at the rags.  “This blood is…a part of your brother. Maybe all I have left.”

His eldest lowered himself into the chair that was pushed up against a table.  The two pieces were the only furniture in the room.

“You can’t give up hope, Pa.”

He snorted.  “I can.  But I am trying not to.”

Adam was silent for a moment.  “You know, Pa, this is why I went away.”

He drew in a breath.  “I know, son, and I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?  What do you have to be sorry for, Pa?  It’s me.”  His voice rose.  “It’s me!  There’s something wrong with me!”

“There’s nothing wrong with you, son,” Ben said, his tone soft, “that’s not wrong with the rest of us.”

“But Pa, I…”  He drew a breath.  “I don’t…feel.  I look at this….”  Adam indicated the blood.  “And I…it….”

“Hurts.  I know.”  Ben closed his eyes.  ‘That’s why I’m sorry.”  Ben looked at his son, so handsome, so strong – and so desperately wounded.  “I made you what you are.”

“No one made me what I am but me.”

Ben shifted so he could lean his head against the wall.  He didn’t relinquish the bloody rags.  They seemed, at that moment, symbolic of his life.  “I loved your mother so, son.  It was like I couldn’t breathe without her.  And when she died giving birth to you….”

“You resented me.  It happens, Pa.  Women die giving birth and the men who love them blame the child they –”

His eyes shot open.  “No.  Never.”  The rancher paused.  “I didn’t blame you.  I blamed myself…and God.  And a man who is angry at God and himself has nothing left to give.”  He looked at his son.  “I saw the book in your room.  The one by Maudsley.”

“So?”

“I’ve read the journals he writes in.  He advances the theory that what a man is, is formed by the age of five.  Son, you knew nothing of security or acceptance or true love until I met Inger and you were long past five.”

“Psychological poppycock,” Adam pronounced.

He glanced at his son and they both shared an uneasy laugh.

“What about Joe?” Adam asked.  “Marie died before he was five.  Is he scarred?”

It was meant to challenge him, but instead the questions brought him grief.  “Deeply,” he sighed.  “If you remember I abandoned him.  You became his world, Adam.  In many ways, you still are.”

“Me?  Pa, seriously?  Maybe when he was five, but Joe resents the Hell out of me, especially since I’ve been back.”

“Your brother loves you more than you can know.  You are his hero.”

“No, Pa. That’s you.”

“I’m a poor hero for any boy,” he admitted.  “Harsh, overbearing, demanding, with such high expectations no young man could ever hope to reach the bar.  Flawed to a fault.”

“You forgot to add distrusting.”

He looked sharply at his son.  “What?”

Adam smiled again.  It meant more this time.  “Of God, Pa.”  His son straightened up in the chair, shifting his weight and clearly showing that his shoulder hurt.  “God is sovereign.  Everything is either caused of permitted by the Almighty and has a purpose and a reason.  Isn’t that what you drilled into us?”  His son paused.  “Are you abandoning your faith?”

Was he?

Could he?

Ben rose to his feet and walked over to the window.  They had found an old piece of glass and put it in place using the nails and boards that remained – a good thing too since the storm was raging.  He thought about the trail that had been lost due to that storm – a trail written in the blood he held in his hands.  If it hadn’t been, they might have found Joseph by now.  He would be with them and safe.  Could there be a purpose in the Almighty keeping them apart?  Something for him?  He glanced at his son who was watching him.  For Adam?

Or perhaps for Lee and her new husband?

Suddenly, he chuckled.

“What is it, Pa?  Please tell me. I’d like to hear something funny.”

“I’m just laughing at me – at your old man.  I think I’m so wise, and here you are, teaching me.”

“Well, if it helps any, Pa, I just think you’re a man.” Adam paused. “One of the best, but still a man.”

Ben turned to look at his son.  If the storm had not come, they wouldn’t have had this talk.

God did work in mysterious ways.

He walked over to Adam and placed a hand on his uninjured shoulder.

“It’s okay, Pa. Whatever it is, I forgive you.”

Tears filled his eyes.

“I love you, Adam.”

His son’s hand covered his.  “I love you too, Pa.”

 

Where’s…laudanum?  He’s…to…around.”

Joe shifted and then groaned aloud as pain exploded in his head and in just about every other part of him.

He’d been half-conscious for a few minutes and had lain listening to the crash and boom of a storm raging around him.  At first he’d been confused and thought he was back at the Ponderosa. He’d been frightened of storms as a little boy and first his mother, and then Hoss and Adam would always sit with him, holding him until they passed. In that way the memory had gone from one of fear to safety.  Now when he laid awake at night watching the white fire light the sky and heard the thunder rumble, he considered himself blessed.

But he wasn’t at the Ponderosa and he felt anything other than blessed.

What…to…him?  …wounds?”

“…wrong.  …move him….”

“…clean wounds…fever.”

Joe felt a woman’s hand where a woman’s hand shouldn’t be and he came up off of whatever it was he was laying on like a dust devil rising out of the desert floor.

“Joe!  No!”

Everything around him was a blur of motion and light.  A woman was shouting.  Another was screaming.  A man’s voice – deep, sure, commanding – told him to stop fighting, that it was all right – that he was all right.  He didn’t believe them.  He had to…fight.

No one was going to do to him what had been done to him again!

“Joe!” the woman shouted.  “Joe, stop!  You’ll hurt yourself worse!”

How?  How could he be hurt any worse?  As he staggered, falling over furniture in an attempt to escape, it all came back to him – all of it.  That man – the one who was after the whale – he’d hurt him.  So had the woman…the woman from the Bible…the one God had damned and destroyed.

But not fast enough.

Not…fast…enough.

Hands caught him just as he reached the door.  They were strong. They drew him back.  The male voice – the one like God or his father – told him again to stop struggling.  Assured him again that he was safe.  The man after the whale had told him the same thing just before he….

Before he….

Joe slumped and began to sob.

 

Lee Bolden was on one side of Ben Cartwright’s young son.  Her husband was on the other.  Both of them looked like they had been through the wars.  Trock’s face was cut from where Joe’s knuckles had made contact.  Her hair was in her eyes and her blouse ripped and falling, exposing the underpinnings beneath.  The young girl – Hadley – had given a shriek when Joe stumbled off the sofa and headed for her and run up the stairs.  She could hear her now, moving about, slamming doors, even as Joe lost the will to fight and he gave in to sobs. They  wracked his slender form in wave after wave of despair.

What the Hell was going on!?

Her husband knew – maybe not all of it, but some of it.  He’d wanted Joe sedated.

For Joe, or for himself?

Shame flooded through Lee, blushing her cheeks as she realized she was doubting him.

God.  She was doubting him.

She looked into Trock’s eyes and she saw that he knew  it.

“Lee,’ he breathed hard.  “I promise I had nothing to do with this.”

She glanced at Joe who had fallen silent – and maybe unconscious.  “I want to believe you,” she whispered as she tightened her grip on his arm.

“Believe me.  It’s true.  The man who did this – I admit, I knew him before – but I had no part in this.”

She indicated Joe with a nod. “You knew a man – a monster who could do this!?”

Trock’s lips twitched.  “I was a monster who could do this,” he answered quietly.  “Until you saved me.”

It was a strange position to be in, staring into her husband’s eyes with Joe held tightly between them, but she did and she saw no deception in them.  After a moment Lee nodded.

“What is it we’re facing?” she asked.  “Tell me straight.”

“Ahab,” Trock paused, “Malachi Tollivar.  He’s a madman.  We were…partners once upon a time.  I helped him fleece a few rich men by kidnapping their sons and demanding ransom.”

“Rich men’s sons like Joe,” she said, disgusted.

He nodded.  “I’m not proud of it.  Back then, well, I had no one to live for but me.”  Unexpectedly, Trock laughed.  “Damn you and this kid….”

She couldn’t help but smile back.

“One day, well, Ahab went too far.  He took the money and promised to give the kid back, but he killed him.  I…ran.  Went to Mexico.”  Trock held her gaze.  “You have to believe me when I tell you I never saw him again until today.”

Lee hesitated.  “Like I said, I want to believe.”

Trock reached around Joe and took her hand.  “It’s the truth.  When I heard what had happened to Joe, I realized that he was here – that Ahab was here.”  He glanced at the stair.  “He always had a girl with him he called ‘Jezebel’.  Hadley’s the latest one.  She was helping Joe escape when I found him.”

The disheveled girl went up a notch in her estimation.  “She seems…odd.”

“I think she’s lost.  She’s been controlled for so long.”  Trock looked down at Joe where he hung between them.   “Seems our young charmer here worked his usual magic.”

Lee touched Joe’s forehead.  “He’s so hot.  Those wounds near his groin are infected.”  She paused, chewing her lip.  “I don’t like how he reacted when I touched him…there.”

Trock gave her a look.  “I happen to be pretty happy about it.”

She cuffed him on the head.  “It was like he was…afraid.”

Her husband nodded.  “Some of Trock’s girls, well they had, special…talents.”

Lee paled.  “Oh God!  Joe’s so young….”

“And strong.  He’s a Cartwright.  And from what you’ve told me, they are amazing men.  Here,” he said, leaning Joe against her, “brace him until I’m on my feet.”

Lee did and, as she wrapped her arms around Joe and his curls brushed her cheek, she was struck by a memory – something she had completely forgotten.  Ben had come to visit Tom and her often.  Only once did he bring Marie and their young son.  The two of them hit it off right away.  She’d been Tom Bolden’s scandalously young wife and Marie had been Ben’s.  Joe was just a toddler.  That had been a little over fifteen years before.  Now Joe was a young man and a fine one and she wanted nothing more than for him to be all right.  He had been his mother’s pride.

He was hers too, in a way.

“Here, I’ll take him,” Trock said as he bent down.  “I think, since he’s developed the fever, we better put him to bed.  It will be easier for you to take care of him there.”

“Me? What about you?”

He had Joseph in his arms now.  “I have to defend my own.”

“Trock, no.  We’re safe here. All the doors and windows are locked.  No one can get in.”

“No one human, but I’m not so sure that Ahab is that.”  Her husband sighed.  “Seems to me he’s a demon come to plague me.”

She shook her head.  “I won’t let him hurt you.”

He turned toward her.  “Lee, you may have no choice.”

 

Hadley Jones stood at the top of the staircase and watched the two strangers who spoke softly near its foot.  It was obvious they cared deeply for one another and even more obvious that the woman – she was a slender beauty with raven-black hair just like her – was in love not only with the man she called husband but with the man her husband held in his arms.

With Joe Cartwright.

That was understandable.  She was in love with him too, even though he hated her.

Hadley sighed.  She wasn’t even sure it was the love of a woman for a man, though Joe was handsome enough to make her feel things deep within.  She’d lost sight of what that kind of love was long ago.  Ahab had taught her that love was about getting or having or escaping or surviving.  For him, love was a hunger that had to be sated; an empty belly that cried out to be filled.  For her it had become an empty, cold black tangle of trees and leaves that threatened to swallow her whole.

Here there was something different – some sort of a love that she had no experience of.  The man was willing to – probably going to sacrifice himself for the woman.  She was just as willing to die for him.

And both were willing to give their lives to keep Joe Cartwright alive.

It shamed her.

For so long her thoughts were for no one other than herself.  After the first betrayal she had shut down.  She trusted no one and nothing.  Not the first man who had used her, the hundred tricks in-between, or Ahab, though she had come to depend on them to keep her alive.  She had willingly done whatever they wanted and she supposed, in a way, she had thought that was what love was about.  She had given and men had taken.

It had never occurred to her that love might be about someone giving back.

At the sound of footsteps on the stair, Hadley retreated into the shadows. The man came up the steps carrying Joe and the woman followed him into a large room on the left.  She’d explored it.  It contained a bed and a dresser and a few other things including a wardrobe full of men’s clothes.  They didn’t look like they’d fit the man, so she guessed they belonged to someone else.  The couple paid no attention to her as they placed Joe on the bed and went about making him as comfortable as possible.  A few words passed between them and then the man began to undress Joe even as the woman left the room.

She tried to fade into the shadows but didn’t move fast enough.  The woman saw her.

“Hadley?”

She swallowed over her fear and stepped into the light.  “Yes.”

“My name is Lee,” she said. “This is my home.”

“Okay.”

“Trock said – that’s my husband – that you were with that man.  Ahab.”

Hadley nodded.

“What did you….”  Lee stopped and started again.  “What did he tell you to do to Joe?  Why is he afraid of my touch?”  When she said nothing, the older woman’s jaw grew tight and anger entered her eyes.  “I want you to know that that young man in there – who, by the way, is fighting for his life – is one of the kindest, best souls I have ever known.  If you have harmed him, I….”  Lee drew a breath.  She paused as i counting to ten to contain her temper.  “I’m sorry.  I’m sure you didn’t know what you were doing.”

“I knew,” she admitted.  “It’s what I do.  It’s…what I am.”

The older woman looked stunned.  “And what is that?” she snapped.

Hadley’s eyes flicked to the room where Joe Cartwright lay.

“Damned.”

 

 

EIGHT

The storm had not relented, but they set out anyway.

Ben Cartwright turned left and then right, eyeing his two sons who rode to either side of him, their expressions as grim as he imagined his was.  Hoss and Adam had urged him to stay put.  They were worried about him.  In their young eyes he was an old man and they were afraid he would take a chill.  Little did they know a chill had already settled on his heart.  It was no secret that he and his youngest son had a special bond. Adam and Hoss accepted it without jealousy, for which he was eternally grateful.  It wasn’t that he loved Joseph any more than he did his two older boys, it was just that Joseph – well – needed him more.  And not only because the boy was so young.

As he told Adam, Joseph’s wounds went deep.  At times he feared they would never heal and that the constant pain his son felt, and the anger it engendered, would drive his youngest in the wrong direction.  It was why he kept the boy on as tight a leash as he could without breaking his spirit.  Ben grinned, thinking of his youngest dragging in at the end of another long day of thankless jobs.  He would never let on, but he often did that on purpose – gave Joe the jobs that would push him to the point of exhaustion.  Each day that boy fell into bed whole and hearty was another day he gave thanks to the Lord above.

And another step on Joseph’s path to manhood.

As he rode, collar up, hat down, and face into the wind and rain, the rancher considered the three sons the Lord had blessed him with.  He often wondered what each of them would have become if their mothers had lived.  Adam, he thought, would have been much the same – the thinker and scholar, a lover of books and all things artistic.  Hoss, as well, he thought would have remained much as he was, close to nature, gentle, big-hearted and generous.

Joseph?

Joseph, with his impulsive nature, fiery temper and tendency toward self-indulgence, might have turned out to be a very different man.  He had loved Marie with all his heart, but his New Orleans Bell was not like Elizabeth or Inger.  Both had been mature for their age.  Both, wise, well-tempered women.  He had chosen them in his youth when he had been much like his third boy – when he had been the one who needed to learn restraint.  In his old age, he had fallen for a beauty who had begun their relationship by almost running him down with her horse, and ended it by dying under the hooves of her own intemperate steed.

In many ways, Marie had been as much of a child as her son.

He’d watched her with Joseph.  Marie loved the boy more than life and doted on him.  In some ways, she spoiled Joseph as much as he spoiled her.  If Marie had lived – if Joseph had grown up…entitled….  Ben blew out a sigh and watched it float away as mist on the breeze.  He knew young men of wealth like that.

Knew them.  Didn’t like them.

But then again, perhaps he was being unfair to Marie.  She was a good woman – as good as it got.  She had taken Adam and Hoss under her wing and treated them as if they were her own.  Much of what was good in Joseph reflected what his mother had been – passionate, caring, determined and daring.  He loved that boy with all of his heart.

And he knew he was in danger.

When he told Adam that, his older son had snorted.  ‘When isn’t he?’ he’d replied, affection coloring his voice and taking the edge off the remark.

It was who Joseph was – his mother’s son in every way.  He could only pray the Lord saw fit to take him from the Earth before he did Marie’s boy.

“I can see a light, Pa.  I think we might be gettin’ close.”

The rancher peered into the distance.  Nothing looked familiar.  The rain was falling in sheets and there was a thick mist that covered the land.  Their horses were nervous and started each time the lightning struck and the thunder rolled, but they were sturdy dependable animals and they held their ground.

“We’re taking a chance, Pa, ain’t we?” Hoss asked.  “Assuming Joe went on to Miz Bolden’s, I mean.”

Ben glanced at Adam.  His older son met his gaze, his own troubled.

“It’s a fair guess, son.  And remember, it’s Missus Throckmorton now.  Your brother would know Lee would welcome him and that she…”  He drew a breath, “That she would know how to care for any injuries he had.”

“What about that other gal?”

The older man could still see the small, feminine footprints painted in blood.  There was no way of knowing who the woman was – someone being held like Joseph or a cohort of the man who had taken him, though it seemed she had helped his son escape.

Sadly, he knew all too well that appearances could be deceiving.

“We’ll find out when we find your brother.”

The big man turned his face up into the rain.  “I sure wish God had seen fit to give us a dry day for trackin’.”

He did as well, but as well continued to reassure himself that there was a reason and a purpose in their delay.

Which was a good thing, because at that moment a bullet whizzed past within a hair’s breadth of Ben Cartwright’s white head.

Buck – as he had thought before – was a sturdy, dependable animal, but even sturdy, dependable animals can be startled.

Ben hauled back on the reins in an attempt to restrain his mount, but it did no good.  With a snort and a shriek, the buckskin reared. Unprepared, Ben struck out for a handhold.  Finding only the wet sodden leather of his saddle horn, his fingers failed to catch it and he was tossed to the ground.  Instantly aware that death awaited him, the rancher rolled out from under his horse’s thundering hooves.  As he did he heard Adam shout and Hoss reply.  More bullets flew.  Buck reared again and backed up.  Ben put up a hand as he saw a hoof coming toward him.

And then everything went black.

 

Everything was black.

There were no stars.  There was no moon.  There was nothing but mist and darkness and it ate at her soul.

Lee Bolden Throckmorton drew in a deep breath and let the curtain fall.  Trock was out there somewhere. He’d insisted on checking the yard and then fanning out to make certain they were alone – that this Ahab, whoever he was, was not already in place and watching them.  It frightened her that Trock was frightened.  He was a strong man.  She’d watched him face down Gavin, who was like a rabid dog, that first time they met and not even blink when the man threatened to kill him.  Lee shuddered.  Gavin was one of those men who needed no provocation to kill – he simply liked it.  Trock had saved her life that night as well as Joe Cartwright’s.  Gavin had been a devil who had hungered to see Joe dead.

The raven-haired beauty turned and looked over her shoulder at the slender form writhing on the bed she had shared with her late husband.

“Please, God,” she whispered.  “Don’t let Hell have it’s way.”

Leaving the window, Lee moved across the room and took a seat on the bed beside Joe’s sweat-soaked form.  Reaching out, she took his hand and held it as he thrashed from side to side.  It had been nearly five years since she’d taken her late husband’s medical bag out and treated the bullet wound Trock had in his shoulder.  Once, about two years back, she’d gone to town and replaced a few of the items in it, making sure she had what she thought she needed on hand.  Of course, she wasn’t a doctor – just the late wife of a dead one.  There had been certain things she couldn’t replace, laudanum among them since she needed a prescription for it.

Lee’s gaze went to the table beside the bed.  The small blue bottle on it was empty.

There was nothing left to help Joe with the pain.

He was muttering and talking under his breath.   Most of the time the words made no sense, though she caught a few that did.  Joe had called for his pa and his brothers.  He’d groaned and told them it ‘hurt’.  Once, and this had scared her the most of all, he’d spoken a few words in another language.  It took her a moment, but she realized it was French.  Little Joe was talking to his maman.

His maman who was dead.

It had been about that time that Trock had left.  He’d assured her before he did that it was the fever talking and that Joe would be all right.  ‘He’s young’, he said, ‘and strong.’  Well, her Tom had been fairly young and very strong and that had meant nothing in the face of the invisible enemy that cut him down.  Joe’s wounds were infected and there was almost nothing she could do about it.  He needed a doctor – a real doctor – and not a doctor’s wife.  Trock said it was too dangerous to go to town.  That..Ahab…was out there somewhere.  Her husband said he didn’t want Joe to die, but even more he refused to let her die.

A sudden tug on her hand made her look down.  Joe had pulled his legs up and turned over onto his side as if folding into himself might relieve the pain.  Tears filled her eyes as she listened to him moan and felt him shudder.

“I can help,” a small quiet voice said.

Lee turned to look toward the door.  The girl – Hadley – had  retreated to the room they’d given her and had not come out at all, not even to eat.  At times, she thought she’d imagined her.

Lee glanced at Joe and then back to the girl.  “What do you mean, you can help him?”

“I know how to….”  She drew a breath.  “I was taught how to break a man.  How to bring pain and take it away, only to bring it again.”  Hadley bit her lip as her eyes went to Ben Cartwright’s young son.  “The house I worked in was run by the Chinese.  There are certain places you can put pressure.”

Lee hesitated.  She remembered the young man’s reaction before when she had touched him. “ Don’t you think you’ve…done enough?”

The girl wrapped her arms about her slight frame and moved to look out the window.  Lee could see the pounding, pouring rain beyond her.  “Is your husband still out there?” she asked.

“Yes. Why?”

Hadley turned to look at her.  “Ahab is out there too.”

“You don’t know that for sure.  That’s what Trock went out to find – ”

“He’s there.”  She shivered. “I’m here, so he’s there.”

Lee rose to her feet and approached the girl.  “What are you to him?”

Hadley laughed.  “Me?  Nothing…and everything.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m nothing to him.  He would squash me like an insect underfoot – he will for what I have done.”  She laughed and the sound of it was bitter.  “That’s what I mean.  I am everything because he won’t stop until I’m dead.”  Hadley closed her eyes for a moment and then crossed over to where Joe lay.  Gently, like a lover, she reached out and touched his cheek.  “I chose this man over him and he will make both of us pay.”

Lee followed her.  “Joe is very special.”

The other woman held her gaze.  “He’s dying. And it’s because of what I did.”

“What that monster made you do –”

Her dark head shook.  “You’re very kind, but, no.  I did it because it is what I do.  Like I told you, it’s what I am.  What…I have always been.”

“You had another life, before…didn’t you?  Or have you always been with…him?”

Hadley’s fingers moved to Little Joe’s hair, working their way into the thick, dark curls.  “Once, long ago.  But I turned my back on it.  I wanted – I craved excitement and danger.”  She sighed.  “Well, I found both.”

“What about your parents?  Have you tried to contact them?”

The girl’s dark eyes flicked to her face.  “I’m a whore.  They’re good people.”

“Good people who loved their daughter?” she asked, her voice gentle.

“Loved, yes.” Hadley hesitated a moment and said, “Please, sit at his side.  Take his hand.  Talk to him.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I was a child when I was put to work.  At first, there was great pain,” she said as she moved to the end of the bed and sat down.  “The only kindness I knew came from the older women.  They had ways of taking the pain away.” Hadley lifted the cover, exposing Joseph’s legs.  As Lee watched she took hold of his right leg, cupping his heel in her palm.  Then, with her thumbs, she began to apply pressure.  Again, she said, “Talk to him.  He needs to think it is you and not…me.  Joe needs to believe that he is in the hands of someone he trusts.  There’s another thing the women taught me.”

Lee waited and then she asked, “And what was that?”

“That healing comes as much from within as without.”

 

Ben groaned back to consciousness.  As he did, he became aware of a heated conversation going on not all that far away from him.  Lifting his head, he turned in that direction but could see nothing other than a hide wall, suggesting he was in some kind of a tent.

“Pa?  You okay?”

It took a moment.  “…yes.  Hoss, is that you?”

“Yeah, it’s me, Pa.  It’s dark as midnight under a skillet in here, ain’t it?”

He tried to shift and sit up, but found that he was bound in such a way that he couldn’t.  “And just where is ‘here’, son?”

“I ain’t rightly sure, Pa, but I am sure I’d rather be any other place.”

The rancher grunted his agreement.  “What happened?  Do you know?”

“Only that about a half-dozen men came out of nowhere, guns blazin’.”  Hoss paused. “We saw you go down under Buck’s hooves, Pa. Adam and me, we sure was scared.”

“Adam?”  Panic seized him.  “Where is your brother?”

He sensed more than saw his son nod his head.  “That’s him out there, puttin’ up a fight.”

Ben shook his head to try to clear it.  “Adam is arguing with our captors?”

“I don’t know how, Pa, but big brother knows ‘em.  At least one of ‘em.  He called him by name.”

“Name. What name?”

“Haywood.  Sanders, or maybe Sunders.  That was his Christian name.”

It sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place it.  “I can’t say I know him.”

“Adam sure did.  Older brother went white and then red.  You know how he gets when his dander’s up.”

“Why was your brother angry?”

Hoss sighed.  “Sorry, Pa.  I don’t know.  Adam started shoutin’ and then all Hell – pardon me, sir – but all Hell done broke loose.  Adam went for the man and I started swingin’ and then, gol-darnit! if someone didn’t swing back harder.”

“And you woke up here?”

“Sure did – and I can tell you I sure was happy to see you when I did.  Even if you do look a little worse for wear.”

He knew his head had been bleeding.  He could feel blood congealed along his scalp and the side of his face and he had one – pardon him, too! – Hell of a headache.

“You didn’t see your brother – Joseph, I mean – did you?”

“Not a sight or sound, Pa.  I don’t think these men got him.”  Hoss paused. “Matter of fact, I got the impression they was after the same man we was, you know, the one who took Joe?”

“After Ahab…Malachi Tollivar?”  He was still stunned to find out Dan had had a son, and even more amazed that the man was a devil.

“Yes, sir.  That Haywood fellow was shoutin’ right back at brother, Adam, mad as a wet hen.”  His son hesitated.  “Pa?”

“Yes?”

“Joe ain’t here, but that there Sunders feller mentioned him.”

Ben was astonished.  “How would he know your brother?”

“I cain’t rightly say, but seemed to me – and I know this sounds crazy – that he thought Joe was somehow in cahoots with that there Ahab feller.”

Ben’s head was reeling.  “What?”

“I told you it sounded crazy.”

Ben closed his eyes to collect his thoughts.  “Let me get this straight. These men – led by this Haywood – came out of nowhere shooting at us.  They took us captive and then one of them got into an argument with your older brother about your younger brother?”

“Sort of, though they was yellin’ afore Joe’s name came up.  I got me the idea that Adam thought he’d been used somehow.”

The older man sighed.  “Well, I suppose we will have to wait until we can talk to your older brother before we can sort it all out.  Idle speculation will get us nowhere.”

Hoss fell silent for a moment.  “Pa?”

His head was throbbing.  He had lowered it back to the ground.  “Yes, son?”

“I heard that there Haywood feller mention another name.  He was mighty angry when he did.”

“Oh? And what name was that?”

“Throckmorton.  Paul Throckmorton.”

Every muscle in Ben’s body tensed.  He had warned Joe when he went to the territorial prison to testify on the behalf of the man who had held him hostage and nearly gotten him killed that there would be a price to pay.

Paul Throckmorton.  Trock.

Lee Bolden’s new husband.

He could only pray the price would not be his young son’s life.

 

Adam Cartwright was enraged.

No, he was outraged.

“You can’t believe we had anything to do with that!” he exclaimed.  “You’re talking about murder!”

The man standing before him was unmoved.  He was a domineering and powerful man, used to having his way or, if he couldn’t have it, buying it.  He didn’t like him.  In fact, he hadn’t liked him when he had first met him, but he didn’t have to like a man to work for him.  Sunders Symington Haywood was the man who’d employed him in San Francisco several months before to design his new indestructible building.  And now he knew why.  It had nothing to do with his talent.

And everything to do with Little Joe.

“I’ve read the transcripts of the trial and the parole hearing, Cartwright.  I know your brother was an accomplice to my son’s death.”

“Joe was a child when your son died!”

“Was murdered,” the older man corrected, his tone sharp.  “Whether or not he was present at the scene – or a cohort of my son’s killer at the time – makes no difference.  It was your brother’s testimony that got him out of prison.  Now, you explain to me why if he was not complicit!”

Adam’s head was spinning.  Haywood was talking about Paul Throckmorton, the former bank robber Lee Bolden had married and taken to her bed.  Apparently Sunders had hired him so he could learn more about the Ponderosa and Joe. Unwittingly, he had supplied the man with a mountain of information.  He didn’t realize it until now – just how much he had talked about home, as if his heart was still on the ranch in Nevada.

And maybe it was.

“You never mentioned Throckmorton until now,” Adam shot back.  “It was always the other man, the one known as Ahab.”

“Whose father was in your father’s employ and, according to all accounts, one of his best friends.” Haywood’s muddy brown eyes narrowed.  “Really, Cartwright, do you take me for a fool?”

“What possible reason could I or my father or little brother have for wanting your son dead?”

Haywood stepped closer.  He was a big man, probably as tall as Hoss and half as wide.  He was used to using his body as well as his money to intimidate and he tried it now.

“Don’t play games with me, Cartwright.  I know what men of wealth are about – I am one!  I know the games they play; games of intimidation, or power.”  Sunders paused. “Or have you forgotten that you and I met before?”

Adam scowled.  “When?”

“Most likely you don’t remember.  You were just a lad.  Your father had come to Sacramento looking to seal a land deal that would have expanded his growing empire by half.  I bid against him.”  The wealthy man snorted.  “He lost.”

“And you think my father would have harmed your son?  Why?  To retaliate?” Adam shook his head. “What kind of a monster would do such a thing?”

Haywood leaned in so close the man’s breath brushed his day old whiskers.  He tapped his own chest.  “This kind of monster.”

Adam took a step back.  He wondered now if Ahab had been put up to taking Little Joe by this maniac. Maybe Haywood was playing both ends against the middle – using Ahab to get to not only Joe but Lee Bolden’s new husband.  If it was true, in fact, that Throckmorton and Dan’s son had once been partners.

Somehow he imagined Haywood had no scruples about lying.

“Look,” Adam said, “we both want the same thing – the truth.  If Paul Throckmorton was a part of what happened to your son, then he needs to pay for it.  So does this Ahab.”

“And your brother?”

“I know my brother is innocent of anything other than wanting to give a man a second chance.  Let’s go to Lee’s house together.  We can talk it out – ”

“And you can warn your brother.”

“No!  I don’t…. Joe doesn’t need any warning.  He’d done nothing wrong.  Sunders, I’m sorry your son is dead, but this isn’t the way to go about –”

The giant of a man reached out and caught his collar and pulled him up until he was balancing on his toes.  “Don’t you tell me what I’m about!  I know what I’m about!  Throckmorton and Tollivar killed my boy.   Someone helped them to escape all those years ago and I think it was your father.  He hated me for winning out over him.  I’ve watched you Cartwrights, always doing good – always helping. Well, a man only helps himself.  There has to be something in it for him!  Your father sent that pueling little brother of yours to testify and get Throckmorton released, and then set him up with that woman as a reward for services rendered!”  Haywood glared at him and then threw him to the ground.  “And don’t tell me that its a coincidence that Tollivar happens to show up at the same time!”

It was a coincidence – a terrible coincidence.

One that might get them all killed.

 

 

NINE

Lee closed the door to the bedroom Joe Cartwright lay in slowly behind her.

She was at a loss for words.

She knew her late husband, Tom, had had great respect for the healers in the Chinese community, but she had never understood why until now.  Without administering a drug, Hadley had brought peace to the wounded man, almost magically relieving the worst of his pain and sending Joe into a deep sleep.  His fever had not abated, but it had slowed its seemingly inevitable rise and remained about three degrees above normal.  High, but not dangerous.

The beautiful woman lifted a hand to her throat.  She pressed it with her fingers and swallowed and then cleared her throat.  Both she and it were weary.  She had talked non-stop for a good quarter of an hour.  At first Joe had fought her – them – but then she had been able to convince him that he was alone with her and that he was safe.  She’d seen this young man in action.  She knew Ben Cartwright’s youngest on feared very little.

The fact that he feared a one hundred and ten pound girl fresh off the street said a lot about that girl.

Of course, it was that way with men.  They lost their power to strike back when it came to a woman – at least they did if they were decent men.  Another man they could strike battle, maybe even kill if it came to it.  But a woman was the weaker vessel; one men like Joe Cartwright had been taught to respect and to protect at the cost of his own life.

Lee turned back toward the room.  The girl – Hadley – had pulled a blanket from the bed and curled up in the corner, like a lithesome cat.  She’d glanced at her as she left the room, thinking how small, how slight – how defenseless she looked.

But looks could be deceiving.

Lee turned the corner and started down the stairs that led into her home’s common room.  As she did the lightning flashed.  Thunder followed hard upon it.  The storm was farther away now, moving into the distance.  And still the rain fell, striking the glass windowpanes in a staccato beat reminiscent of someone tapping their fingers on a table.

If it didn’t stop soon, she thought she might go mad.

When she reached the floor, Lee paused and then went to the window.  She had promised her new husband that she would stay inside and keep the doors locked until his return.  The raven-haired beauty glanced at the clock, noting it had been almost four hours since he’d left.  Turning back to the window, she looked at the sky.  By the look of it you couldn’t tell the dawn would soon be breaking.  The heavens were scrubbed steel gray and there was not a speck of light – star, moon, or sun.  It was bleak.  As bleak as her heart.

“Trock,” she whispered as she let the curtain fall back into place.  Her eyes closed a moment later as her lips moved in prayer. “Dear Lord, bring him back to me safe.”

Lee’s breath caught as her eyes flew open.  Her late husband had told her to distrust things that seemed to good to be true. What happened at that moment was one of them.

There was a knock at the door.

Overjoyed, she started for it, her hand reaching for the knob, but then she stopped.  Trock wouldn’t knock.

Would he?

Stepping closer, she laid her hand alongside the wood and called out, “Who is it?”

There was a pause and then a deep male voice answered.

“Adam Cartwright.”

Lee frowned.  If she remembered right, Ben’s oldest son was named Adam.  But what would be doing here?   She looked toward the stair.  Could he have come for Joe?  No doubt his family knew he was here, but did they know what had happened?

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I’ll need some proof.”

There was another pause.  She thought she heard another man say something, but couldn’t be sure.  If it was Adam maybe Joe’s other brother – Eric, was it? – was with him.  Or even his father.

“I understand, Mrs. Bolden…Throckmorton.   The West is a dangerous place full of…unexpected…occurrences.  Would it help if I told you about the last time we spoke?”

She wasn’t sure she remembered, but she said, “Yes.  Go ahead.”

“We came to your door – Pa, Hoss, and me. We were looking for…Little Joe.”

There was weight to that last word – to all of them, in fact, as if they were chosen carefully.

“Joe was hurt, if you remember,” he went on.  “We thought maybe he’d come to you since you’d helped him that time before.”

Lee’s teeth were planted in her lip.  “Go on.”

“You told us he wasn’t here.   He had been, but he’d gone away.”

Everything that was in her wanted to move to the window and look out, but some inner sense told her not to.  She remembered that night when Trock first came.  Joe had been in the barn.  Trock had forced him to the house at gunpoint and used Joe to gain entry.

Adam would know that story too.

“I remember,” she said, even as she left the door and crossed to the glass-front book case. Reaching into it, she pulled out her late husband’s service revolver.  It had become a habit to hide it there after what had happened five years before when  Pooch and Gavin had invaded her home.  After closing the door, she looked around for a place to hide the weapon. As she did, her eyes fell on Hadley who was standing about halfway down the stair.

‘Do you know who it is?’ Lee mouthed.

Hadley held up three fingers.

‘Three men?’

She nodded.

Lee frowned.  Three men.  That could be Adam and his father and brother.  But if they were with him, why didn’t he say so?

“Do you know any of them?” she asked, her voice hushed with fear.

This time the girl shook her head ‘no’.

The beautiful woman’s gaze took in every nook and cranny in the room.  Where could she hide the gun? Hadley seemed to know what she was thinking.  She came down the stairs and held out her hand.

Their eyes locked.

‘I know how to use it,’ Hadley’s said.

With a nod, she handed the weapon to her and then returned to the door.  “Is your father with you, Adam?” she called as she got there.  “I’d know his voice.”

“No. Pa’s…tied up.”

She and the other woman exchanged looks.  Neither of them had any idea what was happening, only that it was not good.

“Go back upstairs,” she whispered.  “If you can wake Joe up, get him out of the house.”

“They may be watching the back,” the girl replied as she came close.  “Even if they are not, Joe Cartwright is weak and Ahab is out there.”

Tom would have called it being ‘between two rocks and a hard place’.

Still, it seemed important to Adam that whoever was with him not find his brother at ‘home’.  Whatever waited outside her front door was a ‘known’.  This Ahab – whoever he was – was an unknown.

“Out there, Joe may have a fighting chance.”  She glanced at the door.  “I have a feeling that ’in here’….” Lee came to a decision. She stepped forward and placed the gun in Hadley’s hand.  “Use it if you have to, to make him go with you.”

“Where should we go?”

She hadn’t thought of that.  Lee considered it a moment.  “Are you familiar with the area at all?”

Hadley paled.  She nodded.

“What’s wrong?”

“We have been…watching the Ponderosa.  Ahab and me. We’ve been to every town in a twenty mile radius.”

There was more to this than she knew, but now was not the time to learn.  “Head anywhere but there then.  That’s where Ahab would go, isn’t it?  If he was looking for Joe?   He’d suspect he’d head for home.”

The girl thought a moment and then slowly nodded.

“Lee?”

It was Adam.  “All right,” she called back. “Give me a moment to become decent.”  Then, turning to Hadley, she said, “Go.  Go now!”

 

Joe Cartwright was one confused man.  He had awakened to find himself half-naked and sleeping in a strange bed.  His pants and shirt had been hanging over the back of a nearby chair, so he’d levered himself out of the bed and stumbled over to them.  It took him five minutes at least to get them on and in the end he had left half the shirt buttons unfastened.  His fingers just wouldn’t work right.  On the way back to the bed he’d caught a look at himself in the full-length mirror butted up against the back wall.

To say he looked like Hell was being unfair to the Devil.

He could see that he’d been beaten and his skin looked like a Paiute had taken a knife to it.  He had a gash a good three inches long along the side of his head and it had bled profusely.  Someone had cleaned him up, but his white shirt was just about as red as that one brother Adam used to like so much.  Try as he might, he couldn’t remember how the gash had got there or who had used him as a punching bag.  The last thing he remembered clearly was being on the stage with Charlie and rolling to a stop because of….

Something.

Joe swallowed over his fear.  Middle brother had taken a blow to the head that drove who he was right out of it about five years back.  Funny thing was, he remembered who he was, he just couldn’t remember what had happened in the last hour.  Or day.  Or….  A chill snaked through him as he considered just how much time he had lost.

And how many important things with it.

After working his legs into his pants and arms into his shirt, Joe had gone back over to the bed and sat down on it, figuring he’d stay there until he got his strength back.  He figured that had been about ten minutes now and he was still waiting.  Waiting for strength.  Waiting to remember.

Waiting for…what?

Certainly not what he got when the door opened a second later and a slender young woman walked in.   She hesitated just inside the door and then –

Drew a gun on him.

Joe swayed as he made his way to his feet.  “I’ve seen friendlier ways to say ’hello’,” he commented with a smile.

The girl was staring at him like he had two heads or something.  The gun never wavered.

“You know, a pretty thing like you shouldn’t be playin’ with guns.”  He took a step forward.  “How about I relieve you of it –”

The hammer cocked.

“Or…maybe not.”  Joe licked his lips.  “Look, I don’t know who you are and I don’t know why I’m here or why you have that gun on me, but –”

“Go to the window!” she ordered, her tone sharp.

Joe wrinkled his nose.  “The window?”  He glanced over his shoulder at it.  “That window?”

The girl’s eyes darted from him to it and back to him.  “It’ the only one in the room.”

Joe nodded – and then regretted it.  The room began to swim and his stomach to rebel.  “Say, do you mind if I sit down?”

“Open the window and climb out,” she said, nudging him toward it with the loaded gun.

Joe’s back was just about against it.  He looked out – and down.  “We’re on the second floor!”

The girl was staring at him – staring really hard.  She scowled as she asked, “Do you know who I am?”

He thought a second.  “Sally Scull?  Or maybe, Belle Star?” As she advanced on him, he added, “If not, you’re doin’ a mighty good imitation of a female outlaw.”

The girl’s head snapped up and she looked toward the door.  He’d heard it too.  The sound of a door opening and men’s voices.

One of which he recognized.

‘Hey!  That’s my brother, Adam!” he said. “I gotta –”

The gun touched his middle.  “No.  Out the window.  We have to run.”

“But why, that’s my brother.  Isn’t it?”

“Yes, but he’d not alone.”  She held his gaze and searched his face as if looking for something in particular.

Apparently she didn’t find it.

“Someone’s with him.  Adam made it clear to Lee that you have to get out before they find you.”

It was his turn to frown, which in turn made his head begin to throb again.  “Who is it?”

Her eyes narrowed and she let out a little puff of air.  “No one good, trust me.”

“Why should I?  Trust you, I mean?” After all, she could be one of them.  He had a vague memory of a woman who was trouble.  It could have been her, but then again, the list of women he knew who were trouble was a pretty long one.

The girl was looking over her shoulder again.  She turned back and after drawing a deep breath, said, “Look. I don’t have time to explain.  You and I are..together.  I brought you here because you were hurt.  There’s a man after us.  I think he might just have found us.  We have to go – now!”

Joe sized her up.  She was beautiful in an exotic sort of way – dark-haired, pale skinned, with wide expressive eyes that were years older than they should have been.  He was attracted to her, of that there was no doubt, but there was something….

Something that wasn’t right.

“We’re…together?  Since when?”

“I told you, I don’t have time to explain.  You’re going to have to trust….”

He heard it too.  Shouting.  Someone coming up the stairs.

His brother calling his name.

“Did you lock it?” he asked suddenly.

She glared at him. “What?”

“The door.  Did you lock the door when you came in?”

The girl pivoted sharply, even as she let loose with a curse that would have made a sailor blush.  He was right behind her as she went to the door.  She wasn’t paying any attention to him – all her attention was focused on the knob that was beginning to turn.

Joe caught hold of her hand that held the key, shoved the door to, and turned it.  She pivoted in his arms and raised her knee.  He knew where it was aimed and side-stepped just in time.  She was strong and he was weak from the fever and whatever else had happened, but he was a man and she was a girl and she was no match for him.

A second later the gun was in his hand.

He thrust her behind him as a boot struck the solid wood and then began to back her across the room.

Whether he trusted her or not, that window was looking awfully good right now.

 

Adam Cartwright lay on the floor of Lee Throckmorton’s house, a gun pointed at his head.  That same gun had made contact with his head about thirty seconds before and taken him down.  One of Sunders Haywood’s henchmen had Lee trapped in her kitchen.  The other was halfway up the staircase, headed for the upper floor where his brother was.  The henchman knew that because Lee had told him.

That was the only reason he was alive.

After he and Haywood traded words, the crooked businessman had ordered him to mount up and ride with them.  Since Haywood was holding Hoss and Pa there was little he could do but comply with his demands.  Haywood figured he would be their ticket in and he wasn’t wrong.  He just hoped that what he said to Lee – the words he had chosen – had been enough to get Joe up and out. If his brother was capable of moving, that was.  From the blood back there in the cabin, he had his doubts, but then a head wound could bleed copiously and still be only slight.

He had to hope that was the case.

As he hit the floor, Adam had called out to his brother, hoping to warn him.  He’d received a kick in the kidneys as a thank you from Haywood and a glare that would have dropped a grizzly.  The man from San Francisco ordered his thug up the stairs and the man had gone with two guns drawn.  So far he hadn’t heard any shots.  What he did hear was the sound of someone trying to take down a door.  If Joe was in that room at the top, he could only hope his warning had gotten him up and out the window in time.

Of course, once on the ground, the real battle would begin.  Haywood and his two goons hadn’t come alone.  They’d tried to make him think they had, but he knew at least two men were following close behind them.  He’d heard them talking and caught the scent of their horses.  That meant Sunders had left only two men to guard his Pa and Hoss.  If one of them could manage to get free of their bonds, he was sure they could take them out with little trouble.

If….

Adam closed his eyes, partly out of fatigue and partly to stop his head whirling.  Hoss had been in fair shape when they left, but Pa…someone had taken their anger out on the older man, most likely Haywood.  Knowing Pa he’d challenged the man – probably about Joe – and gotten what the crooked man would have considered his comeuppance.  He sure hoped he was all right.  Pa was as strong as any man he knew, but a beating was a beating and, knowing Pa, he wouldn’t take a minute to rest.

Not while Joe was in danger.

Still, Joe was smart – clever even.  His brother had to expect there would be men watching the house.  After all, they’d been through enough sieges in their short lives.  The trouble was, even though his brother was smart, Joe was hurt and that might effect his thinking.  Tired men made mistakes.

He’d have to be careful or he’d make one too.

Adam opened his eyes and looked around.  Sunders Haywood was standing at the bottom of the stairs, waiting.  There was another jolt – another boot contacting wood –and then the sound of a door splintering.  He heard someone running.  They shouted.  There were shots.

Lots of shots.

A second later an agitated voice proclaimed – loudly.  “Goddamnit!  They went out the window!”

Haywood was breathing steam.  “They?” he demanded.

“Two kids.  A boy and a girl.  The room was empty when I got there.  I saw the curtain flyin’.”  The man drew in a gulp of air.  “I looked and seen them runnin’ across the yard.”   He paused.  “Well, sort of runnin’.  The one was leanin’ on the other.”

“Where were Scot and Jacobs?  I thought I ordered them to watch the back!”

Haywood’s goon shook his head.  “Not a sight or sound of them.  Those kids got clean into the woods.”

“By God, I will have their heads!” the businessman shouted.  “Trent, you get after them!  I want that Cartwright boy!”

Adam was watching them.  He noted that Trent didn’t respond.  He was staring at the door.   Even as Haywood pivoted on his heel, the wounded man turned and looked.  There was a man standing there framed in the open doorway, his gun drawn.  He was tall, with black hair, and had a wild look about him.

“Lee!” he shouted.  “Lee, where are you?  Answer me?”

Adam turned to look.  Sunders’ other henchman had appeared.  He had Lee.  One arm was wrapped around her waist and his gun was in her hair.

It was a stand-off.

 

The girl was behind him, running her mouth as fast as her legs.  She’d called him just about every name in the book Joe had ever heard and a few besides.  Once they’d cleared the window, they’d taken off for the trees.  It had surprised him that whoever was holding Adam hadn’t left anyone to guard the back, but he didn’t think about it too long.

If God wanted to bless him, who was he to argue.

They’d traveled about two minutes into the trees when he had pushed off her shoulder and started to stumble in the opposite direction.  She’d caught hold of his hand and pulled, but he’d used the same technique he did with Hoss and dropped and rolled and came up on the other side of her and then left her sitting in the mud.

That was when she’d started shouting those names.

As he ran, Joe considered who she was. He had no memory of ever meeting her, let alone of ‘being’ with her.  Somehow he didn’t think she was the kind of girl he’d take home to one of Hop Sing’s dinners.  Maybe he’d met her in a saloon.  She seemed the saloon type.  But then again, she didn’t.

She confused him.

Still, puzzled as he was – and he was mighty fond of puzzles – he had other things on his mind like his brothers and Pa. If Adam was being held against his will, then most likely Pa and Hoss were too.  He needed to find them and in order to do that he needed to catch one of the men who had Adam and make them tell him what the Hell was going on.

That was why he was headed back to Lee’s house.

And why the girl was still cussing.

As he finished his arch and came up out front of Lee’s near the barn, Joe skidded to a halt.  He did it so fast the girl ran smack dab into him.  Turning, he placed a hand over her mouth and as he looked into her eyes to tell her to ‘shush’, a shudder ran through him.  He had no idea why.  It was like a summer’s day had suddenly given way to snow.

He started shake and he felt like his knees were gonna buckle.

The girl held his gaze for a moment and then lowered her head.

He might have been puzzled about that too, but at that same instant a man broke from the brush at the edge of the yard and headed for the front door.  It took a second, but Joe recognized him as Trock, the bank robber who had saved his life – after first threatening it.  As Trock moved toward the house he drew his gun.  Joe watched him listen to what was going on inside for several heartbeats and then Trock opened the door and stepped inside.

“What does he think he’s doing?” the girl asked, breathless.

Joe turned and looked, and then looked down.  She was shorter than him and her dress was in tatters and her breasts were heaving mounds cresting above the white cage of the corset beneath.

Joe didn’t answer.  Instead, he asked.  “Who are you?”

Her jaw tightened.  “You don’t know, do you?”

“No, I don’t know you,” he sighed.  “I can’t remember anything since I got on the stage.”

Her gaze went to his hairline.  “He hit you pretty hard.”

“He?” Then he realized, “You were with me?  Who…?”

A shot brought Joe’s head around and his attention back to what was happening in Lee’s house.  He raised the gun he held, clutching it tightly with white-knuckled fingers.  “I have to go.  Adam needs me.”

The girl caught his shirt tail to stop him and wrapped an arm around his middle.  “You’re not well enough.  You’ll get yourself killed!”

Her touch on his skin was electric.

Joe found himself panting.  He began to shake.  His fingers opened and the gun fell from them to the ground.  He staggered a step or two and reached out to steady himself with a hand against a tree.  He felt like he was drowning.  Like he was struggling to rise above the waters.  Or trying to wake from a dream.

Or – no –  from a nightmare.

His eyes returned to the girl.  She looked as shocked as he felt.

Again, he asked her, his voice only the husk of what it should have been.  “Who…are…you?”

Her hand reached out.  She opened her mouth to reply.

Then she screamed.

Just before someone – Joe wondered if it was God – turned out the lights.

 

“Let her go or I will blow your friend from here to Kingdom Come,” Paul Throckmorton growled.

Adam had made his way – slowly – to his feet and stood beside him.  He looked from the former bank robber, the one who had saved his little brother’s life before going to prison, to Sunders Haywood who was staring at Trock.

If looks could have killed….

“Ignore him, Ed.  You answer only to me,” the crooked businessman growled.

“Whatever you say, Mister Haywood.”

Adam saw Trock’s eyes go wide.  “Haywood?” he asked.  “Sunders Haywood?”

“The same,” Haywood snarled.  “The man whose son you murdered, you scum.”

“Trock didn’t kill anyone!” Lee shouted, causing the man who held her to hold her even tighter.

The man beside him shook his head.  “Lee, hush!”

The beautiful woman paled and grew quiet.

Trock hesitated for a moment and then he lowered his gun.  He didn’t holster it or let it go, but he pointed it away from Haywood. “Look, I understand why you think what you think, but I had no part in killing your boy.”

“Just as you had no part in kidnapping him?”

Adam watched the former bank robber’s expression change.  Trock’s eyes went to Lee and then he looked away.  “I didn’t say that.”

“Trock!”

“Lee, look. I was a different man before I met you.  I made…bad choices.  I’ve paid for some of them….”  His gaze returned to Haywood.  “But not all.  I did take part in kidnapping your son and holding him for ransom, but I had nothing to do with killing him.  That was Ahab. When he did, I….” Trock sighed.  “I ran.”

Haywood was watching him.  “Give me one reason why I should believe you.  One reason why I shouldn’t order my man to blow your head off now!”

Adam thought the businessman was talking about Ed, but then he realized there was someone standing behind him.  Trent had returned.

Without Joe, thank God!

Trock turned to look and saw him realize that Trent’s gun was aimed at his back.  Adam watched him close his eyes and then turn back to face Haywood.  “One reason is all I have,” he said.

The businessman snorted.

“And what is that?”

The former bank robber’s eyes were on his wife.  Adam sensed something unspoken pass between them.  Lee seemed to deflate.  She closed her eyes.

“I’m the only one who knows where your son’s murderer is.”

 

 

TEN

“Hoss. Psst, Hoss.  Are you awake?”

There was a sigh.  “Pa, it sure is good to hear you.  I thought that man done kilt you!”

“Keep your voice down, son.”  Ben cast his gaze to the side.  Through the hide skin of the tent he could see the shadow of the man who guarded them.

“Sorry, Pa. Them men just done made me mad pickin’ on someone twice their age!”

The older man hid his smile.  ‘Twice their age’.  That would have made him about seventy-five!  “I’m all right, son.  I’ve been manhandled before.”

“Yeah, but I ain’t had to watch before.”  He heard his son shift his large frame.  “If I could just get my hands free, them outlaws’d find out what’s it’s like to take on someone twice their size!”

“We have to consider your brothers.  Anything we do could have repercussions.  Adam –”

“Adam ain’t here, Pa. That Haywood man took him away with him.  He came to check on us afore he went.  You was unconscious.”

“So Adam is gone?” he asked.

“Yep.”

“And they don’t have Joe?”

“Not so’s I know.”

Ben rested his head on the ground.  It was pounding just like about every other part of his body.  Haywood had had him soundly thrashed and he knew now only a part of it had been about Joe and Dan Tollivar’s son.  Haywood had ordered his men to beat him, but stepped in at the end and made it personal.  As he struck him, he spoke of the time when they had met  – when Adam was just a lad.  Haywood insanely held him responsible for what had happened to his son, Sawyer.  The boy had been kidnapped and then his body dumped in the bay.  Somehow the crooked businessman was convinced that he had had a hand in it – that the boy’s death had been payment for a land deal that had gone sour.

The fact that Haywood believed it was possible for someone to so hate a man that he would kill his son to take revenge for losing a few thousand acres of ground chilled him .

It meant Haywood was capable of doing the same.

During the beating Sunders had mentioned Joe’s name with loathing.  Apparently Trock, the man Lee Bolden had recently married, had once been an associate of Malachi Tollivar. When Joseph’s testimony set Trock free, Haywood assumed Joe was also one of Trock’s ‘gang’ and therefore just as guilty as the other two men.  He bragged about how he had used Adam to obtain information about the Ponderosa and them – especially Joseph – and how he intended to use that information to hurt his son.  Haywood had gloated as he laid at his feet that it had been his intention all along to kill one of his boys – any of his boys – in retaliation.

In the end, it had been Joseph’s good deed that had made him the target of Sunders’ unreasonable hate.

“What are we gonna do, Pa?” Hoss asked in a whisper.  “We cain’t just lay here while that there madman goes after Joe and Adam.”

He’d been thinking about it and he agreed.

“No, we can’t.”

“Well, sir.  Them bad men done trussed me up like a Thanksgivin’ turkey waitin’ to be stuffed.  I cain’t get free.”

Ben smiled at his son’s…imaginative language.  Yes, they’d been trussed up, the two of them, but he had one advantage his son did not have.

His hands were bleeding.

Ben gritted his teeth and made one more push.  It cost him in pain, but he grunted with satisfaction as the blood-soaked rope slipped from his wrists and fell to the ground.

He sat up and looked at his son.

“Hot damn!” Hoss exclaimed when he saw his hands were free and then looked shame-faced.  “Sorry, Pa.”

The older man looked at his hands and then at the shadow of their guard as it headed for the entrance of the tent.

“Oh, I don’t know, son,” Ben said as he climbed to his knees and then worked his way over until he was crouching by the flap.

“I think ‘Hot damn!’ about says it all.”

 

Adam Cartwright looked ahead and fastened his eyes on the back of the man known as Trock.  He wondered what his game was.  From what Joe had told them, Trock had truly regretted his part in the bank robbery five years back and had been on his best behavior so that he could return and marry Lee Bolden and begin to live a normal life.  They’d gotten notice when he was released due to the fact that Joe had testified on his behalf – and the warden of the prison was a friend of his father’s.  The warden said Trock’s conduct while in prison had been exemplary.

Could it all have been a lie?

He’d known criminals to do that – behave as if they were model citizens just so they could obtain an early release.  Still, from what he remembered, Lee was a shrewd woman and one who had been forced by her husband’s death to fend for herself.  Doing that in the West took a lot of nerve.  There were more men willing to take advantage of a widow than ones wanting to help.  Joe had been greeted by the business end of a rifle when he arrived the first time.  It was hard to believe that Lee could be taken in.

Then again, she was a woman in love and love, as the poets said, was often blind.

Trock was riding at the head of their small party.  Sunders Haywood trailed just behind him.  Two of Haywood’s men – Trent and Ed – came next, then him, and then the other pair the businessman had employed to watch the back of the house.  They were none to happy when Haywood put Trock in charge. Seems the former bank robber had taken them both out before marching into the house.  Both sported bruised faces to match their bruised egos and if anyone asked him, which no one had, Lee’s new husband would be wise to watch his back where those two were concerned.

Adam shifted in the saddle and turned to look back.  The names of the men following them were Josh and Tempest.  The latter of them met his gaze and deliberately dropped his hand to the pistol he carried on his left hip.  Adam gave him a smile before facing forward again.

There would be no help in that direction.

As his eyes returned to the enigma riding in front of Sunders Haywood, Adam’ thoughts flew elsewhere.  He’d noted Tempest was left-handed.  There was nothing else about the man to remind him of Joe, but one didn’t see too many men with their holster tied down to their left leg and the sight sent his thoughts flying back to Lee’s house and his missing brother.  He’d managed to catch a moment with her before they left.  Haywood had ordered her to feed them all and sent him to bring in the firewood.  While they were in the kitchen, he asked her about Joe.  His brother was hurt.  She didn’t know how bad.  She admitted that it had surprised her to find him gone – that she thought Joe was wounded badly enough it would have kept him in bed.  Funny how little she knew about his brother, even after spending days in his company.

He doubted anything this side of the grave could keep that boy still for long.

To his horror, Lee had gone on to rattle off a long list of injuries with clinical precision.  There was a blow to the head that had left a three inch gash and bled a lot.  Joe’d been beaten with precision too, Lee said.  Whoever had done it had known just where to strike to cause the maximum pain.  But that wasn’t what troubled him the most.  What troubled him most was the fact that Joe had been cut.

A lot of times.

From her rather graphic description, it sounded like Indian torture, but there were no Indians involved.  Just Dan Tollivar’s immoral son and a slender young girl who went by the name of Jezebel, but was named Hadley.  Lee didn’t say much about her, but what she did say troubled him.  Apparently the girl was an…intimate of Malachi Tollivar and had been partially responsible for the torment Joe had suffered.   She’d also helped his brother escape.

As first dates went, that was definitely giving mixed signals.

Adam looked up and winced.  The autumn sun was high in the sky, but it did little to heat the day.  They were in the middle of a cold snap that threatened to turn into an early winter.  He hated to think of Joe – wounded,  injured – out in it in nothing but his shirt sleeves.  Joe and the girl had fled through the upstairs window.  He’d hoped maybe that his brother had had the presence of mind to grab one of Lee’s late husband’s jackets on the way out, but she checked and no such luck.  Adam snorted.  It was Joe to a ‘T’.

Leap before looking and when you leap, never look back.

Still, physically, Little Joe was about as tough as it came.  Though his youngest brother had been born to wealth, and Joe’s childhood had been a walk in the park compared to his own, the West demanded a special kind of strength and Joe had it.  His brother had survived more than any other man he knew and come out stronger and more determined each time.  This time would be no different.  he and Hadley would elude Ahab – even though, it seemed from the tracks they had spotted, that Ahab was on their trail.

Yeah.

He’d just keep telling himself that.

Without warning, Trock held a hand up and drew his mount to a halt.  He pivoted in the saddle and looked back, and then turned and said a word to Haywood.  The crooked businessman made a noise low in his throat like he was disgusted and then slid from his saddle and began to shout orders.

Trock had done the same and was walking toward him.

The former bank robber came to his side and reached out to grasp his horse’s bridle.  “I told Haywood I needed your help,” he said without preamble.

“Me?  What do you want from me?”

“I told him you’re the best tracker in Nevada.”  Trock hesitated and then a slow smile curled his lips.  “Did I lie?”

“That depends on who you ask,” Adam replied.

“I’m asking you.”

“Well then,” he said with a hint of a smile, “I am definitely the best.”

Trock lifted a hand to shade his eyes as he turned back to look at Sunders Haywood, who was sitting in the shade of a large willow still shouting orders.  The dark-haired man scowled.  “He’s sending Tempest and Josh with us.”

“I take it you didn’t make much of a first impression.”

The other man laughed.  “Oh, I made one all right – just not a good one.”

Adam turned to look at the pair.  They were watching them closely.

Neither was smiling.

“You think maybe he thinks the pair of them will make you tell him where Ahab has Joe?”

“I would have told him already if I knew,” Trock said.  “That kid brother of yours, he can take care of himself.”

“I’m counting on it.”  Carefully, making no sudden moves, Adam dismounted.  Once on the ground, he asked, “Now what?”

Trock smiled.  “We start walking.”

They did.  Josh and Tempest trailed them by some four or five yards, weapons drawn.  After they had walked for a few minutes, Trock knelt and signaled him.

Adam knelt too.  “You find something?”

“Sure. They went thataway.”  He pointed to the south.

“They?  Joe and Hadley?”

Trock looked troubled.  “I thought they were headed for the old cabin, but they veered off.  There’s an abandoned house up this way.  Belonged to the people who owned the land.”

Adam’s eyes grew round.  “So you were working with him?”

The other man sighed.  “No.  Not now.  We were partners years back.”

“So how did you know he had Joe?”  Trock looked surprised.  “Lee told me.  She said you knew instantly.”

“Because of his modus operandi,” Trock said.  “It’s how he caught Haywood’s son – and your brother.”  The other man shrugged. “A pretty face.”

Adam sighed.  “Launched a thousand ships and brought down an empire.”  As t hey began to walk again, he asked, “Who is this girl?  This Hadley?”

“Ahab always has a new one.  No one asks where the old ones have gone.  He calls them all ‘Jezebel.”

“Ahab and Jezebel?”  Adam snorted.  “Has he read his Bible?”

Trock’s brows shot up.  “I doubt it.”

He had.  Jezebel had, in time, brought about King Ahab’s ruin.

“Lee said Hadley saved Joe – got him away from Ahab.”

“She did.”

“After….”

Trock halted.  He turned to look at him.  “Ahab’s girls are talented in certain…arts.  It’s why he chooses them.  Most of them come from Chinatown and since you have a Chinese housekeeper, I imagine you know what that means.”

He did.  Hop Sing had been trained, just as Doctor Kam Lee had been, to use his hands to heal.  But Hop Sing had told him about other Chinese men – and women – who used their hands to bring not only pleasure, but pain.

Exquisite pain.

“What about this girl?”

Trock was kneeling.  “Never met her before.  She’s young – younger than most he chooses.”

“You two need to stop gabbin’ like old ladies and get to it!” Tempest called from close behind them.

Trock eyed the thug.  “Adam, take a look at this,” he said, indicating the ground.

He sounded like he meant it.

Dropping beside the other man, he looked.  There were two sets of footprints – a large man’s and a small girl’s. The man’s prints were driven into the ground like he weighed as much if not more than Hoss.  The thought of his gentle giant of a brother brought to Adam’s mind some of the things he had learned at his younger brother’s side.  Hoss had a way about him – almost a sixth sense that allowed him to read and interpret the faintest of signs.  Adam looked at the track with that in mind.

“Seems deeper on one side.”

Trock nodded.

“He’s carrying someone,” Adam went on.  Then he drew a breath.  “Joe!”

“He must have caught up with them.”  Lee’s husband rose to his feet.  Trock  glanced at the thugs watching them.  “We’ve only got a minute or two before that pair or losers lose their patience and drags us back to Haywood.  We’ve got to make a decision.  I know you want to rescue your brother, but if we lead Haywood to him, we’re all dead.”

And if they didn’t, Joe was dead.

“I can’t leave Joe with Ahab and that…woman.”

“She saved him before.”

“I know, but….”  Adam gnawed his lip.  “Okay.  I agree.  We lead them away from Ahab – and then double back.”

Trock’s smile was grim.  “Any idea how?”

Adam looked at Tempest.  Haywood was yelling and the left-handed man was heading for them with his weapon drawn.

“Pa says I have quite an imagination,” he said, tipping his hat back.  “I’ll think of something.”

 

Ben Cartwright nodded to his middle son as the two of them headed for the corral that held two handsome horses and a pack mule.  Behind them, trussed up like a pair of prize steers, Sunders Haywood’s goons lay bound and gagged in the tent they had just vacated.

“You get the horses, Pa.  I’m gonna see if I can figure out what way they went,” Hoss said as he moved into the trees, his crystal clear blue eyes fastened on the ground.

“I imagine they headed for Lee’s,” Ben said.

“You think they found Little Joe?”

He looked at his son.  The big man’s frame was silhouetted against the rising light.  “Adam will take care of Joe if he’s there.”

“Yeah, big brother won’t let nothin’ happen to that little scamp.”  Hoss turned to go, but then pivoted back.  “What if Joe ain’t there?   Where do you think he could be?”

“I don’t know, son.  I’d like to think your brother is sitting somewhere sipping tea with a lovely young lady, completely oblivious to the fact that we are all worried out of our minds.”  The older man sighed.  “But knowing your brother – ”

“It ain’t likely.”

Ben sighed.  Like his mother, his youngest son was truly blessed.  God had gifted Joseph with good looks, a quick mind, and a winning personality.

He supposed the Almighty had to include something in his makeup to keep him humble.

“You still want me to look, or you just want to head to Miz Throckmorton’s?”

Ben considered it.  If Haywood had gone to Lee’s and found Joseph there, he feared the worst.  Still, Adam was with Joe and he knew his oldest would do whatever it took to protect his brother.  It seemed to him that the thing they needed to do was find Dan Tollivar’s son.

Find him and stop his evil.

“Pa?”

“I think, son, that there is another path we have to take.   Your older brother will look after Joe.  If we go to Lee’s, we will waste precious time.”

“But Pa,” Hoss said, coming back toward him.  “What if Little Joe needs us?”

The older man looked toward the rising sun.  “He does.  Joe needs us to stop Ahab.  Until we do, your brother – and Lee and her new husband – will never be safe.”

His middle boy was troubled, he could tell.  He wanted to ride to the rescue.  Ben did as well, but life had taught him that sometimes you had to set aside what you wanted for what you needed to do.

Hoss lowered his head.  He shoved his hand in his pockets as was his habit, and then looked up.  “If you think it’s best, sir, then I’m with you.  You know that.”

Ben considered his choice.  He had to trust God – and his eldest son.

“I do, Hoss.  Let’s mount up and go.”

 

They were on their way.  Haywood’s goons had ushered them back to the camp and then practically sat on them as they ate and did what was necessary.  The day was pushing toward noon and the crooked businessman was eager to get on their way.  Trock was playing a dangerous game.  He’d seen some tracks leading in the opposite way – away from the house he suspected  Ahab had made for – and he’d drawn Haywood’s attention to them.  They probably belonged to some innocent traveler who was going to be mighty surprised when the crooked businessman and his cronies descended on them like the hounds of Hell.  Adam let out a sigh as he worked his horse around a branch that had fallen across the road.  He’d felt a twinge of guilt, knowing full well that – by complying – he was aiming trouble at some unsuspecting stranger just to save his kid brother.  Of course, he intended to derail Haywood’s plans before they came to fruition.

Unfortunately, the opportunity to do so had yet to present itself.

Trock was in front again, riding with his head to one side and his eyes glued to the ground.  He had his eyes glued to Trock.  The other man was waiting.  Waiting…for something.

He just wished he knew what.

They’d entered an area of dense forest.  Adam thought he recognized it from one of his exploratory expeditions with his father.  The trees were all fairly young and had been planted after a brushfire that had swept through the area when he was a boy.  Pa had been looking at it with an eye to the future as the land butted up against the Ponderosa.  The reminder of home made him long to be there.  Though it had only been a few days, it felt like forever since he’d sat by the fire and strummed his guitar or looked at one of the books he’d left behind in his room.  He’d told himself that he’d left the West behind because, in part, it was brutal.  So far nothing had happened to dispel that notion.  And yet, if he was honest, locality had nothing to do with it.  Sunders Haywood’s son had been kidnapped and held for ransom and then killed in one of the most civilized cities in the United States.

Monsters, it seemed, were everywhere.

But so were good men, like his father – like his brothers – and, likely or not, like Lee Bolden’s reformed lover who was doing everything he could to keep her and Joe safe.

It was risky.  Sunders Haywood was growing uneasy.  Adam could tell it by the way the crooked businessman shifted in his saddle and kept looking at Trock.  They’d have to make their move soon – whatever it was going to be.  At the pace they were going, it was going to take at least half a day to get to the house Trock believed Ahab was headed for.  Pa was counting on him to keep his little brother safe and he couldn’t do that if he was headed in the opposite direction.

Adam closed his eyes and opened his lips.  “God,” he whispered, “Little Joe needs me.  Something has to give.  Make it soon.”

Later, he would recall the moment with astonishment.  Never in his thirty-seven years had a prayer been answered so quickly or completely.

The road they were on ran through those young trees – fledgling trees with shallow roots that had been loosened by the recent deluge.  Trock turned back and looked directly at him as he moved his mount to the left, toward the edge of the rough path.  Adam followed without hesitation.  As he did, the right side of the road began to crumble.  Sunders shouted out his fear as his horse stumbled and then listed toward the edge.  Driven by their desire to make sure the man who lined their pockets didn’t perish in a tumble down the hill, Haywood’s goons headed straight for him.  Lee’s husband continued to hold his gaze and then nodded, indicating the steep slope behind him.  It was a ravine and its bottom was filled with shadows, cast by the sun that was slanting toward the west.  There was little hope that a bullet wouldn’t find them, but that hope was better than continuing on as prisoners.

Adam nodded.

Trock flashed a grin.

Turning their horses’ noses toward the unknown….

They plunged in.

 

It was early afternoon.  They’d just arrived at the place where Dan Tollivar’s body lay in a shallow grave.  The cabin his son had been tortured in was nearby.  Hoss was at the stream refilling their canteens.  His son had grown very quiet as they searched the house for a clue as to where Malachi Tollivar had gone and he had sent him to the stream to give the big man a few moments alone.  The reality of that back room and what it meant was disturbing to him as well.  It was his intention to buy the land the cabin was on and burn it to the ground.

Not a very mature reaction but….

As he waited on his son to return, Ben had made his way to Dan’s last resting place.  He stood now, thinking about his friend.  He’d never seen the shadow Dan’s past had cast.  He wondered now how he could have missed it.  His eldest son had been right.  There had to have been something – some deep flaw in the man – that caused him to snap when Joseph refused to let him go on the drive.  He was shamed now that he’d taken Dan’s part and argued with his son.  He recognized that it was not really Dan he had been fighting for, but himself.  Though Dan was older, it would not be long before they were of an age and it was a real fear that – one day – he would not be able to hold his own.  Though he intended the Ponderosa as a legacy for his sons, he had not considered that – in order for them to claim it – he would have to relinquish his hold.  He would have to surrender..to…step down.

It was a sobering thought.

When he’d met Dan, he’d been younger than his son, Adam, was now.  Where had the years gone?  Each succeeding one seemed to pass faster than the one before, and before long he would be an old man.  He knew Dan had felt that – the fact that he was being passed by.  He’d thought that was what spurred the older man to take such drastic action, to join up with two thugs who were willing to do whatever it took to get what they wanted – including kidnapping his son.   Now he knew there was more to it.  As Adam said, there were nearly four decades of Dan’s life he knew nothing about.

It was unsettling to face the fact that he had made such a monumental mistake.

A rustle of leaves informed him that his middle son had returned.

“Hey there, Pa,” Hoss said as he appeared.

“Are you all right, son?” he prodded gently.

Hoss ran a sleeve over his eyes, wiping away the last of the tears he had shed.  “I’m okay, Pa.  It just…hit me, bein’ in there agin and seein’….  Well, you know.”

He knew all too well.

“While you were away and, before I came here, I went back in.”  The rancher pulled a piece of crumpled paper out of his pocket.  “What do you make of this?”

Hoss took it.  He winced as he noted the blood along the edge.  “You find this in that back room?”

Ben nodded.  “Looks like it fell out of someone’s pocket.  It was laying on the floor in the corner of the room.”

“You think it’s a map of some kind?” his son asked, hope lighting his voice.

“I do.”  The rancher paused.  “I’ve been trying to recall this area.  It’s been a few years, but I doubt things have changed much.  This cabin belonged to the Kelly’s.  If I remember right, Mr. Kelly’s mother lived nearby.  She had a modest house.”

“Old Missus Kelly’s dead now, ain’t she, Pa?  I think I heard that in town.”

“Yes, she died a year or so ago.  That’s why I am wondering….”  He held his hand out for the map.  His finger traced a faint line running from Platt City, up into the hill country.  “I think her home laid along this line.  It was in a little valley.  Sort of a pocket of farmland.”

“How come you know so much, Pa?”

He smiled at the memory.  “Your mother and I came to visit Tom and Lee Bolden.  I think Joe was, maybe, three.   We’d left you at home with Adam and Hop Sing and gone on a short….”  Ben paused and laughed.  “Well, Marie called it a shopping trip. I tell you that wagon was so loaded down I was afraid we were going to get stuck!”  As his son joined in his laughter, he went on.  “Jake Kelly’s wife was from New Orleans.  I took Marie to visit her after we left the Bolden’s.”

His son was shaking his head.  “I don’t know, Pa.  Life seldom works out that way.  You really think Dan’s son’s there, and Little Joe?”

He crossed over to the big man and placed a hand on his shoulder.  “What I think, Hoss, is that we have to have a direction and as unlikely as it is, we’ve been handed one.”

“Pa?”

“Yes, son?”

“Seems to me mighty strange that a man who’s willin’ to do what it takes to have everythin’ he wants, ends up with nothin’.  I mean, Ahab don’t even have his own place to lay his head.  Where’d all that money he got for takin’ Haywood’s kid go?”

“Squandered, Hoss, on wild living, gambling and women, no doubt.”   He sighed,  “That’s why it never ends.  One fortune gone means another needed.”

Hoss shook his head.  “You’d think a man who can swindle another and get away with it ought to be smart enough to do somethin’, well, constructive ‘stead of tryin’ to take what another man’s earned.”

“You think that because you are an honest man, son, satisfied to do an honest day’s work.  There is something wrong deep down inside a man like Malachi Tollivar – greed and a hunger for power are like a cancer that gnaws a man away from within.”

“You mean he’s empty…even when he’s full?”

The rancher nodded.  “A man like Malachi Tollivar is a bottomless pit.  Nothing satisfies.  He feels life has done him wrong and owes him, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to have what he wants.”

“There’s somethin’ you said before, Pa, that’s botherin’ me.”

“Well, out with it, son.”

“You don’t think Dan’s son took Joe just for the money, do you?”

The thought that he had would, in a way, be a comfort.  “No, son, I don’t.  I am afraid your brother’s abduction was more about revenge.”

“Revenge?  Pa, Malachi Tollivar ain’t never even met little brother.”

He had been thinking about it – long and hard.  What Dan had done – kidnapping Joe and demanding thousands of dollars was so completely out of character for the man he knew, he had to wonder why he had done it.  Could it have been for his son?  And when Dan chose to save Joe instead of keeping the money, had his son seen it as a betrayal?

Sadly, it made all too much sense.

“The Good Book tells us not to borrow trouble, Hoss.  Each day has enough of its own.  Let’ just concentrate on finding Malachi and pray we find your younger brother with him – “

“Alive.”

 

 

ELEVEN

Joe Cartwright woke to the sound of voices.  He shifted and attempted to move, only to find out that his hands were bound behind his back and his feet tied together.  He closed his eyes for a second, gathering strength, and then tried to move his feet.  He couldn’t.  The rope had been passed around them and then around the leg of a heavy wooden bed, before being wrapped around his ankles again and tied…again.

He wasn’t going anywhere.

Rolling onto his back, Joe lay there looking at the ceiling for a full minute assessing his situation.  He was in a house.  A real house this time, and not a cabin.  It looked…abandoned.  The bed was about the only piece of furniture in the room and there were light places on the walls where pictures had been removed.  The air was stale and musty as if the house had been  shut up for some time.  As to him, he was laying on the floor and felt like he’d been wrung out, hung up, and left to dry.  As Joe ran his tongue over his dry, chafed lips, he took mental note of everything that hurt and that was….

Everything.

He still had a fever, though it was a low one, and the cuts on his skin were burning as they healed.  The remnants of the first – and second – beating he had taken were still with him, but there was new pain.  It took him a moment to remember, but then he did.  He and Hadley had been running, and then he had run into a fist big and powerful as Hoss’ and gone out.

Oh, yeah, his chin hurt too.

As he lay there, Joe began to listen.  He could hear a man talking.  His voice was gruff and low-pitched, so he couldn’t catch the words.  Every once in a while a woman would speak – well, cry out.  Sometimes it sounded like she was pleading.  Other times, like she was mad.  But there was one thing for sure she wasn’t.

And that was winning.

Suddenly, there was a loud thud.  Something hit the door of the room he was in – hard.  Ten seconds later it opened inward and a woman tumbled in and lay motionless on the floor.  Her face was hidden by the long dark hair that fanned out around her, but he knew who she was.

It was Hadley.  So that meant….

Ahab stepped over her body as if she was a pile of refuse and headed for him.

Joe planted his teeth in his lower lip and levered himself up as best he could.  By the time he finished, he was half-sitting against the bedpost

Anyone would have told you he wasn’t one to face death lying down.

Ahab towered over him.  His eyes were cold but sparked like flint on steel with an unholy joy.

“You know what, boy?” he asked.

His reward for not answering was a kick in the thigh.  Joe planted his teeth in his lip again, bore the pain, and then glared every hateful thing he could think of at his captor.

The bully snorted and then crouched before him.  “High and mighty Joseph Cartwright, son of Ben, bows before no man, eh?”  Ahab turned and looked at Hadley where she lay on the floor.  “How’s about I ask her?”

Joe winced.  “Leave her alone.”

“Answer my question.”

“Okay.” Joe spit out a little blood and then straightened up against the post.  “No, I don’t know ‘what’.  Why don’t you tell me?”

“I always win.”

Joe’s green eyes narrowed.  “Not always,” he countered quietly.

The other man’s yellow-gray brows danced.  “No?”

“No.  The Devil will when I send you to Hell.”

Ahab stared at him and then he threw his head back and bellowed.  A moment later his derisive laughter died away and he grew sober.  “I’m gonna regret killing you, kid.”

“Then why do it?”  Joe paused.  “Let me go.  Once my pa gets me back, he’ll forget about lookin’ for you and you’ll have the money.  That’s what you want, isn’t it?  Money?”

The big man sneered.  “Most of the time, but not this time.”

Joe closed his eyes against the pain that pounded behind them from both the blow to the chin he had taken and this conversation.  He waited for the world to stop spinning.  When he opened them again, Ahab was still there.

“You think you got it all, don’t you, Joseph Francis Cartwright – looks, smarts, a family that loves you, and a rich pappy who’d make a bargain with St. Nick himself to have you back in one piece..“

Joe hesitated and then he said, wistfully, “Yeah.  Yeah, I guess I do have it all.”

Then he braced for another blow.

It didn’t come.  Ahab didn’t move.  He simply crouched there, studying him.

“Some of us weren’t so lucky, kid.  My old man deserted me before he was born.  Oh, he was around, but all he ever gave me was a cuff to the head and a look that said he wished I’d never been born.  But you know how it is with a kid.  I made excuses.  I told myself that if I ever really needed him, he’d be there for me.”  The big man frowned.  “Goes to show how stupid kids are.”

In spite of himself, he wondered.  “What happened?”

“I gave him a little test.  Told him I needed money or I was dead.  I knew he was working for one of the biggest spreads in Nevada.  All he had to do was open the safe and take it.”

“You asked your father to steal for you?”

“He owed me!” Ahab snapped.  “Knew it too.  He agreed…then he changed his mind.”

“Because he knew it was wrong.”

The man’s hand shot out, taking him by the collar and banging his head back into the wall.

“Because of you!  Because of a rich, pretty boy who got everything that should have been mine!  If it wasn’t for you, I’d have my money and be halfway to Mexico and he wouldn’t be dead!”

Joe’s head was buzzing.  He couldn’t think straight.  In fact, he thought he might pass out.  Still, he had to ask.

“How…how did he die?”

A cruel sneer lifted Ahab’ upper lip as he moved in close.

“I killed him, kid.  Just like I ‘m going to kill you.”

 

Hadley had regained consciousness.  She lay on the floor, fighting to keep her breathing under control as she listened to Ahab’ tirade.  It shamed her now that she hadn’t cared before – back when Ahab told her about this job; back on that day when she had admired Joe Cartwright’s rippling muscles as he chopped wood in front of his home.  Then, Joe had simply been another man to be used as she had been used by other men.  Employing her ‘talents’ had served her well in the past, taking her places and getting her the things she wanted.  Now she knew there were men who were unlike any she had ever met.  Adam Cartwright was one of them.  The man, Trock, another.

And then there was Joe.

Since she believed God didn’t hear her it had come as a surprise.  After what she had…done…Joe had befriended her.  Of course, he didn’t remember who she was or what had happened.  To him, she was a total stranger and yet, he’d been willing to risk his life to preserve hers.  She would never forget him stepping in front of her in the bedroom of Lee Throckmorton’s house, placing himself between her and whatever was about to step through the door – and with him injured and barely able to remain on his feet.

She might love him.  Still, that didn’t matter.  If there was one thing she knew for certain, it was that she owed him.

Cautiously, Hadley lifted her head up an inch or so.  Ahab was in front of her.  He crouched, facing Joe.  She couldn’t see Joe’s face, since it was hidden by her procurer’s bulk.   She could see how his body shook.  Not with fear, she knew, but with fatigue and maybe rage.

“I killed him, kid,” Ahab growled. “Just like I ‘m going to kill you.”

Hadley closed her eyes, partly to steady herself, but also in prayer.  “Be careful, Joe Cartwright,” she breathed.  “Please don’t make him mad.”

 

“Okay,” Joe said.  “So you hated your father.  Maybe you even had a reason.  But why do you hate me?  What do I have to do with it?”

“My real name ain’t Ahab.”

“I kind of guessed that,” Joe snorted.  He watched as Ahab rose to his feet and looked down at him before asking, “So, what is it?”

“Tollivar,” he said.  “Malachi Tollivar.”

It took a second.

“Tollivar?  Like in, Dan Tollivar?”  Joe swallowed hard.  He felt sick.  “You mean Dan took that money from my pa because of you?”

“What’s the matter, kid?  You think I didn’t deserve it?” the brute snarled.

Joe’s head was spinning.  At the time he had thought it odd, if not downright incomprehensible, what Dan had done.  Oh, he could understand why the old wrangler was mad at him for refusing to let him go on the drive – maybe even understood what had driven Dan to join up with Temple and Sand to hurt him – but it had never made any sense to him that Dan was willing to betray his father.

This was why.  He’d done it for family.

“Look,” Joe started slowly, “I’m sorry your life didn’t turn out the way you wanted.  I…know what it’s like when you feel something’s come between you and your father.”  Though, in truth, any separation he had ever felt had come from his own pig-headed reaction to the situation and not from the man who had given him life.  “But just because Dan took the money back – ”

Faster than lightning, Ahab took him by the throat again.  “It was because of you!  Because he loved you more than he loved me, you spoiled brat!  That old man wasn’t willing to let you die even when he knew that by saving you he was sealing my death warrant!”

The man’s callused fingers were biting into his neck and cutting off his air.  Stars exploded before Joe’s eyes as his heartbeat increased, galloping apace with his heightened fear.  As the air around him blackened, Joe felt a ridiculous smile curl his lips.   He was going to die and not at the hands of a madman.

But at the hands of a wounded and wanting little boy.

 

Joe’s attention was on Ahab, so she doubted he knew she was awake.  Ahab was toying with him.  She’d seen it before.  He’d talk quiet as anything to his victim and then reach out and snap their neck, feeding off the fear and horror that lit their eyes even as they died.

She couldn’t let Joe die.

In her short span of years, Hadley Jones had done nothing for anyone other than herself.  It had all been about her – about her pleasure, her ease…her survival.  Joe Cartwright was something she could never have expected.  He had challenged everything she thought about men – about the world.  His honesty and integrity, strength and faith, had awakened something in her she had thought long dead.

He’d brought light into that forest and the butterflies were beginning to mend.

Lifting her weary body up by her hands, Hadley peered through the fringe of black hair that hung in here eyes, all but occluding her vision.  Joe was pressed up against the bed post.  The sounds coming from his throat were familiar and frightening ones.

Ahab was choking the life out of him.

Hadley knew she didn’t have much time, so she climbed to her feet and began to move, careful not to make a sound.  There was very little furniture in the room.  There was, however, a broken coat rack sitting just about in the middle.  As she reached the rack, she glanced at Ahab again.  He was in his own world; a world where lust for power and the joy of killing intermingled with loneliness and despair to produce a monster willing to murder.

Taking hold of the rack and lifting it, Hadley Jones – Malachi Tollivar’s ‘Jezebel’ – brought it down on Ahab’s head, splintering the wood.

Stunned, the man who owned her – who had owned her – fell to the floor.  Blood dripped from his ear and eye.  She stood over Ahab, thinking of all that he had done to her – and forced her to do – in her short time with him and then she took her foot and kicked him – and kept kicking him.

She wanted him dead.

“Hadley…no,” Joe breathed as he fought for air and struggled to right himself.  “That’s not…the way.”

“He deserves to die!”

“Yes…he does.”  Joe swallowed.  Talking was obviously hard for him.  “But not…at your hands.  Forget…him.  Help me…get away….”

Hadley glared at him – and then at Ahab.  It was her choice.  The first one she had made since she was free.

Stepping over Ahab’s prone form, she knelt beside Joe Cartwright and began to unfasten his bonds.

She only hoped she didn’t live to regret it.

 

Five minutes later they were stumbling through the trees and headed back toward Lee’s. It might not be the smartest or safest destination, but it was the only one his addled brain would let him think of.  There was nothing in either direction for miles and though he hated to admit it, he needed help.

So did Hadley.

He was leaning heavily on her. He didn’t want to, but he didn’t have much of a choice.  His injuries were not all that bad – he’d had worse – but the cumulative nature of them was enough to take him down.  The fever he had fought off earlier had returned and was licking at the edge of his senses.  He knew from the myriad lectures Doc Martin had given him over the years that something as simple as a paper cut could take a man down if the infection got too much of a head start.  He needed alcohol to cleanse his wounds and he needed rest.

Lots of rest.

Hadley needed rest too.  Though she projected a hard shell, he could tell that on the inside she was a very frightened young woman who had been driven to the brink of exhaustion.  He recalled now how he had hesitated to touch her – had been, in fact, repelled by that touch.  The memory of whatever it was she had done remained locked in his subconscious.  It didn’t matter anymore.  She’d just saved his life at the risk of her own.  If she needed forgiveness, that went a long way toward paying whatever debt it was she owed him.

If it was important enough, one day, God would let him know.

They were both nearly exhausted.  Still, though they had left Ahab trussed up as tightly as the vile man had tied him, he wasn’t taking any chances.  They couldn’t stop.  He needed to get them to Lee’s and then – most of all – he needed what Lee kept in that old medical bag of her husband’s.

That, or a doctor.

Hadley came to an abrupt stop and looked back. “I heard him,” she breathed, her voice robbed of strength by an all too familiar fear.  “I heard Ahab.”

“No.  It…can’t be,” he told her.  “He can’t have…gotten free so…fast.”

“He’s a devil!  I told you!” she countered, and then added in a whisper, “And the Devil takes care of his own.”

They hadn’t searched him.  He supposed the villain could have had a knife in his boot or…something.

“It doesn’t…matter,” he said.  “We have to keep moving no matter what.  Lee’s place…is a good….”  Joe sucked in air.  “A good…eight miles from here.  We can make it…by sundown if we keep going.  We –”

Hadley stiffened and her eyes went wide.  She was trembling from head to foot.  She reached a hand out toward him and then went limp.  As he caught her and lowered her to the ground, he felt something impact his shoulder.  He reached for it and when he brought his hand before his face, Joe saw that it was covered in blood.

“I told you, Cartwright,” a familiar voice snarled even as he realized he had been knifed.

“I always win.”

 

Ben Cartwright stopped and held out his hand, halting his middle son in his tracks.

“Did you hear that?” he asked.

They had been on the trail since sunrise and were, he thought, about two miles out from the Kelly’s.

“I sure did, Pa.  What you suppose it is?”

“I’m not sure,” he answered, lowering his tone.  “Someone moving through the underbrush.  Coming toward us.”

Hoss nodded.  “That’s what I thought too.”

“We’d best get out of sight.”

The light was going and so the sight that confronted them, while shocking, carried none of the horror it would only minutes later.  A large man was walking, leading a horse.  Thrown over the saddle was a body.  Behind the horse – actually tethered to it by a line leading to his neck – was a bedraggled young man.

A bedraggled young man with a head of chestnut curls.

“Joe!” Hoss exclaimed.

Ben gripped his son’s arm as he raised a finger to his lips.  He gave his head a quick shake.  Hoss’ jaw tightened but he nodded, understanding.

The closer the small party came, the more Ben could make out.  The man leading the horse was a broad man, not tall but big and powerfully built.  His hair was a grizzled yellow-gray and there was something familiar about the way he moved.

“Is that Ahab?” he asked his son.  Hoss had seen the man at the cabin.  He had not.  He’d been in the back room looking for Joe.

His son nodded.  “If’n I didn’t know better, Pa, I’d o sworn it was old Dan.”

Ben looked again.  Yes, he could see it, even in the dim light.  So this was Dan Tollivar’s degenerate son, Malachi. The man who went by Ahab.  Ben’s near-black eyes went to the body slung over the saddle.  It was a woman – a slender young woman, he thought.

“What’re we gonna do, Pa?  We gotta save Joe!”

“Wait until they pass.  We can come up from behind – nearer your brother.”  He frowned as he watched the trio’s rocky progress.  “I don’t want him caught in the crossfire.”

Suddenly and without warning, the man leading the forlorn band drew to a halt.  His head moved from side to side and his narrowed eyes darted about.

“Who’s out there?” he called as he reached into his coat.

“Daggone it!” Hoss breathed.  “He must of heard us!”

Ahab was on the move, headed back toward Joseph; a gun in his hand.

Ben’s eyes went to his son.  Joe’s head was down.  He seemed unaware of his surroundings.  The boy made no move to back away or struggle at Malachi Tollivar’s approach.

That, more than anything else, set his heart flying fast.

“What’s wrong with Joe, Pa?   How come he ain’t fightin’?” his middle son asked.

“He’s hurt.  Maybe worse than we can tell.  Joe –”  Ben stopped.  A slight chuckle escaped him in spite of the dire moment.  As Malachi came abreast him, Joseph had exploded into life, nearly but not quite knocking the other man off his feet.

Unfortunately, now Joseph was in the villain’ arms with the business end of his weapon pushed into those glorious brown curls.

“Whoever you are, come out!  Come out now or I blow his brains out!”

Hoss was looking at him.  “Pa?”

“Stay here,” he whispered.  “Maybe he doesn’t know there’s two of us.”  As his son nodded, Ben sucked in a breath and called out, “Don’t harm him!  I’m coming!”

Then he stepped out of the trees and into harm’s way.

 

‘Pa, no!’  Joe’s lips formed the words but no sound came out.

Malachi’s hand was around his throat again.  The free one – the one that wasn’t pushing a gun against his head.  All it would take was for the powerfully built man to constrict his fingers and pull that trigger and he’d be dead.  Still, that would have been all right if it meant the rest of his family was okay.  But his family wasn’t okay.  Hi pa was standing right in front of him.

Pa, the man Dan’s son hated more than he did him for being everything Dan hadn’t been.

“So, the great Benjamin Cartwright at last,” his captor sneered.  “The man my father admired and betrayed.”

“Your father made a mistake, just as have you,” Pa replied.

Pa’s dark brown gaze sought and found his as he spoke.  Joe knew those eyes and knew what they were telling him – ‘Hold on, son.  Your Pa’s here.  Everything is going to be all right.

Joe swallowed as Ahab’s fingers tightened on his already bruised throat and the stars burst back into view.   He closed his eyes, blocking out his father’s concern and fear.

I don’t care if I die, jut save my pa,’ he prayed feverishly.  “Please God, save my pa.”

“Don’t make another one, Malachi.  Let my son go.”

“What, and end this charming family gathering?” the brute countered.  “Aren’t you going to invite your companion to join us?”

Joe saw disappointment flash in his father’s eyes even as the man who held him tightened his grip.  Who else was here?  Adam?  Or no, it made more sense that it was Hoss.  Adam was at Lee’s.

“Come out, Hoss,” his father called, his tone defeated.

As his giant of a brother emerged from the trees, Malachi ordered, “Toss your guns down and kick them my way.  And then put your hands up.  Both of you!”

Hoss complied and then he shot a look his way.  In spite of the darkness that was closing around them, he could see his brother clearly and heard him warn, “You hurt Little Joe and I don’t care how far you run, Tollivar, I’ll find you and break you in half!”

“Not if I shoot you first,” Ahab replied, shifting the gun away from his head to point it at his brother.

Two things happened at that moment.  Joe didn’t know how he did it, but he gripped his captor’s arm and wrenched it away from his throat.  It had been his intent to spin around and take the man out, but it didn’t happen.  The fresh wound in his shoulder screamed and instead, he gasped in air and stumbled and landed on his knees.

It was a good thing too because at that moment a shot rang out, taking Malachi Tollivar in the throat.

From his position on the ground, Joe had just enough wherewithal to turn and look at his Pa and brother.  Their guns were still on the ground and they both looked as shocked as he felt.  He pivoted then, to look behind, meaning to check and see if someone else had stepped out of the trees but the sudden movement – coupled with three days of injuries and the fever he was fighting – was too much.

The last thing Joe saw was his father’s face hanging above him.

The last thing he knew, was that he was safe.

 

Joe opened his eyes on a sky gone red as blood.  For a moment the sight unnerved him, but then he realized it was dawn.  He was laying on the ground, wrapped in enough blankets to make a woolly worm’s winter cocoon, and laying near a fire.  Closing his eyes, he listened.  Yes, there it was – the sound of his older brother sawing logs.  Joe tried to turn his head to look for Hoss, but the movement set off a series of explosions, so the weary young man contented himself with being warm and closed his eyes again.

He must have fallen asleep, because this time when he opened his eyes the sun was cresting above the tree line and the wind felt warmer on his cheeks.

“So  you decided to rejoin the living?” a soft voice asked.

The wounded man blinked and looked up.  Whoever it was had the sun behind them.  “What?”

A hand landed on his forehead.  “Your fever is down,  Are you hungry?”

He thought about it a moment.  “Not really.”

“Well, you should try to eat something soon.  You’re going to need your strength if we’re going to get you home.”

That did it – that fatherly you-better-do-as-I-say- or-there-will-be Hell-to-pay tone.  “Adam?”

The hand lifted.  “Yep.”

“Where’d you…come from?”  Joe frowned, seeking the memory.  “You were at Lee’s….”

His brother shifted from his crouching position and sat beside him.  “I was.  I’m not anymore.”  The hand rested on his arm.  “I’m here with you.  Let’s just concentrate on that, shall we?”

“Is Lee…okay?”

Adam sighed.  “I suppose I will have to fill you in before you’ll quiet down?”   As he nodded, his older brother sighed. “Some things never change.  You always get your way.”

Then he grinned.

“It’s good to have you back, Joe.”

“Where’d I go?”

His brother pursed his lips in that way he had.  “Out, for about twelve hours.”

Joe tried to sit up.  “Where’s Pa?”

Adam’s hand pressed him back down.  “Pa went with Trock to see about Lee.”  At his look, he added, “She was fine when Trock and I left.  Just under guard.”

He remembered the other time Lee had been under ‘guard’ and what that guard had wanted to do to her.  “Do you think…she’s all right.”

“If Trock has anything to say about it, she will be.  He’s gone to rescue her.”  Adam leaned over.  When his brother straightened up, he had a cup in his hand.  “Coffee?” he asked.

Joe shook his head ‘no’.  His stomach was off.  “Just tell me what happened.”

Joe listened in amazement to the tale Adam told of arriving at just the right moment to save both Pa and Hoss and set him free.  He and Trock had slipped out of the hands of the man who held them – someone named Haywood – and were making their way back when they heard the sound of Malachi Tollivar leading them through the woods.

Them.

Joe choked.  “Hadley?” he asked.

Adam’s look was guarded.  “You didn’t ask about Hoss.”

That was right.  He’d been there too, with Pa.  But what did that have to do with Hadley?  Maybe he was off somewhere…burying her.

Tears entered his eyes.  “She…died for me, Adam.  Ahab was gonna kill me and she….”  His voice trailed off.

“Joe.  Joe, look at me.”

He blinked back tears and did as he was told.  “Yeah?”

“Hadley isn’t dead. Or, at least she wasn’t when Hoss took off with her.”

“He…what?”

“She needed a surgeon.  Pa was afraid if Hoss tried to take both of you to town, that…well…Haywood is still out there.”

Whoever Haywood was.

Joe returned his head to the blanket lying under it.  He was really tired.  Tears coursed down his cheeks unbidden.

“I’m glad, Adam.  She…Hadley saved me…more than once.”  He’d happened to glance up and caught his brother’s expression.  It was nonplussed to say the least.  “What’s…wrong?”

His brother checked his forehead again and then rose to his feet.  “That’s something I think you and Hadley are going to have to figure out together…if she lives.”

Joe raised a hand as his brother turned away.  “Adam?”

He looked back.  “Yeah, Joe?”

“Thanks for…staying.”

He saw the look on his brother’s face and knew that Adam knew what he was asking.  His older brother came and knelt beside him and took his hand.

“I’ll always be here when you need me, buddy,” his brother replied and then added, “even if I am living somewhere else.  You know that, don’t you?”

“Are you gonna go away again?”

Adam’s hand moved to his forehead.  “I might, for a while.  There’s a lot of the world to see, Joe, and I’d like to see it.  But….”  His brother looked straight at him.  “I promise you, one day I will come home to stay.  After all,” Adam reached up and ran a hand through his thinning black waves, “I have to see who wins that bet about making it to old age with their hair intact.”

Joe snorted.  “I got that one.  Hands down.”

His brother tousled his brown curls before standing up.

“We’ll see.”

Joe watched his brother walk away and then rolled over onto his side.  The action took his breath away as the myriad knocks and bruises he had taken protested.  When he closed his eyes, he saw Hadley.  She was looking right at him – no, right through him – her eyes fastened on something he couldn’t see.  He saw her reach out and he moved to take her hand, but at the last minute she backed away, disappearing into a mist as if she had never been.

All that remained in sight was her hands.

 

 

TWELVE

It seemed his lot in life – at least as an older man – to hold back eager young ones.  Trock was about his oldest son’s age and just as sure of himself and of what he knew.  And he couldn’t really argue with him.

Lee was in danger.

Ben closed his eyes for a second, fighting fatigue.  He had gotten very little sleep the night before between Trock’s endless pacing , the moans of the young girl they had miraculously pulled from Malachi Tollivar’s horse alive, and dealing with Joseph’s pain.  His son had been fevered when they found him and his temperature had soared during the wee hours of the morning.  Fortunately by daybreak it had broken in a drenching sweat.  They’d cleaned him up then, tended to the multiple wounds he had – a few of which were showing signs of infection – and then swaddled him as if he was a babe in arms.  He’d prepared himself as he ate his breakfast for a fight.  Hoss was going to take the girl to town to a doctor and it was his intention to go with Trock back to Lee’s.

Sunders Haywood was his business.

It had taken Ben some time to remember Haywood and their business dealings, such as they were.  He’d suspected  that the man was crooked and that was how he’d beaten his bid for the land.  He’d been angry at the time and had let Haywood know it, but he’d soon moved on and forgotten all about it.  There was other land.  There would be other deals.

That had been some…ten or fifteen years back.  Joe had been a child, Hoss, a growing teen, and Adam just home from college.  How in his black heart Sunders Haywood had come to focus on Joseph was nearly beyond him.  The only link was the man standing at his side.  Haywood had been fleeced and his son killed by Malachi Tollivar.  Paul Throckmorton had been Malachi’s partner at the time.  Haywood was a powerful man and when Trock was released, he wanted to know why.  The warden without realizing it, had aimed the crooked businessman directly at Joseph by telling him that Trock’s early release had ridden on the back of his son’s testimony.  He might have even mentioned them being friends.

Haywood had taken both facts into account and decided he would have seek revenge on the pair of them.

Thanks to God and his son’s dogged determination, Joseph was safe now.  In the end, though he’d made a show of protesting, Adam had stayed behind with Joe.  He could tell his eldest wanted to.  Adam had come home to find Joe at death’s door, watched him survive the bullet that had nearly killed him, and taken that as his cue to run once again.  What had happened with Malachi and Haywood had tripped Adam up – made him stop and think.  He had no doubt his eldest would go wandering again, perhaps for years, but when it came down to it, in the end he knew Adam would come home.  His son knew now where his heart and happiness lay.

On the Ponderosa.

As Trock shifted uneasily again, Ben forced his attention back to the situation he found himself in.  The night before, while Hoss cared for his ailing brother, Adam and Trock had led him back to where they had parted ways with Sunders Haywood.  From there they had tracked the man back to Lee’s place.  On their way, they’d encountered two of Sunders men – Trent and Ed – but they had no fight left in them.  They didn’t care for the man themselves and when offered money and a chance to escape without prosecution, they took it.

That left Haywood with three men, Josh and Tempest and the unknown one who had remained with Lee all this time.  They’d been watching the house and one of them was stationed outside.  He was being careless and it wouldn’t take much to bring him down.  Odds were he had no more love for Haywood than the others.  Josh and Tempest seemed to be of a different type.  It was Trock’s belief that Tempest was one of those men who enjoyed exercising power and seeing others bend to it.  Josh, he thought, was the other man’s right hand and though less evil would no doubt go along with whatever he said.  So that meant Lee was at the mercy of three merciless men.  Since there were only two of them they had debated what to do before settling on a plan.  He would make a frontal assault which, hopefully, would allow Trock to enter from the back through the root cellar.  The cellar had a lock and Trock had the key.  He always carried it with him just in case.

In case of a moment like this one.

“I say we move now!”   Trock glared at him.  “I won’t have Lee left alone in that house one more minute.  She’s –“

“A strong woman.  I’ve known her longer than you have and Lee can hold her own.”

The dark-haired man’s frown softened into a smile.  “I know she can.  I’ve seen it.”  The smile faded just as quickly as it formed.  “But I’ve also seen what unscrupulous men are willing to do when they want something.”

Joseph had told them about what happened before – how the man named Gavin had turned on Trock and would have killed all three of them – Joe, Trock, and Lee – if, in His mercy, God had not chosen to intervene.

Ben glanced at the sky.  The sun was cresting over a wave of green fir trees.  Soon, it would be directly overhead.

“The man near the barn?”

Trock drew his weapon.  “I’ll take him out.  When you see my signal, you head toward the house.  I’ll go around the back.”

“No killing.”

The former bank robber stared at him.  “I know where your son gets it,” he said enigmatically.  Then he nodded his agreement.  “No ‘unnecessary’ killing.”

Ben nodded too.  “Yes.  Let’s just hope it doesn’t become ‘necessary’.  Bullets are blind.  They don’t care whom they strike.”

His companion paled slightly.  Trock nodded again, and then he began to run.

The rancher counted off the time he thought it would take the other man to get to the barn and then waited another two minutes.  Just as he became concerned, Trock appeared beside the barn and gave him the signal they had agreed upon.  This time Ben pulled his pocket watch out and looked at the hands.  Eleven-thirty-one.  They had agreed that it would take Trock approximately ten minutes to get to the back of the house, open the cellar lock, and move through the underground room and up the short stair to the mud room off the kitchen.  The older man shifted so he was leaning against a tree and settled in.

It was going to be a long ten minutes.

 

“Hoss?”

The big man pivoted on his heel and surprise registered on his beefy face.  “For the love of Mike, what’re you doin’ on your feet, Little Joe?”

His brother shrugged – and then winced.  “I’m okay.  Where’s Pa?  And Adam.”

“Adam’s out takin’ care of business.  And you ain’t okay, Little Joe.  You’re just about anythin’ but okay!” he declared.  He’d come back early morning to find the boy still sleepin’.  Joe was whitewash pale everywhere, except where he was green about the gills.  “You come here, boy.”  He went over to his brother and took him by the arm and led him to a boulder where he forced him to sit.  “You sit down before you fall down.”

“Did Pa go after…Ahab?”

Hoss’ frown deepened.  “Ahab’s dead, Joe.  Don’t you remember?”

His kid brother ran a hand through his unruly hair.  “Oh, yeah,  I forgot.”

“Pa went with Trock to make sure Miz Lee was okay.”  He paused. “Don’t you worry about him none.  He and Trock can deal with that Haywood man just fine.”

He wasn’t sure Joe had heard him.  He was staring off into the distance, almost like he was trying to see all the way to Virginia City.

“Joe?”

His brother jumped. “Oh. Sorry, Hoss. I was thinkin’ about Hadley.”

Now why didn’t that surprise him?

“What about her?”

“I guess I’m confused.”

Weren’t they all?

“About what?”

Joe’s head dipped down, and when he lifted it, there were tears in those great big green eyes of his.  “You promise you won’t tell Pa?

He considered it.  “I promise.”

“Hadley’s…different.  She knows…things.”  Joe wallowed hard.  Hoss, well, I….”  Joe puffed out  breath of air.  “There was pleasure before the pain.”

He’d seen his brother’s injuries – and where some of them were located.  The worst were in his groin area.  They was the ones that was infected and were causin’ the fever to linger.

That had to hurt.

“Joe, you’s only human.  You can’t expect any different.”

He smiled with chagrin.  “You know, she’s really pretty.  Hadley.  And she’s…had a hard life.  I can’t really imagine bein’ left alone in a city like San Francisco when you were just a kid.  Still….”

Hoss went to sit beside his brother.  “”Joe, a man – or woman – does what he has to, to survive.  Ain’t one of us wants to die, not really.  All I can say is….”  He shuddered a little at the sight in his mind’s eye.  That little gal – whatever she’d done to his brother – had paid for it.  He’d taken her to Doc Martin’s office, more dead than alive, and waited while the Doc examined her.  The older man had come out of his back room shakin’ his head.  With the extent of her injuries, it weren’t for certain she’d live.  He hadn’t told Joe that yet.  “Well, I think Hadley’d be right happy you’re alive, no matter what it cost her.”

“She probably thinks I hate her,” Joe said, shifting uncomfortably.  “I’d hate to think she was gonna…die…thinkin’ that.”

So that was it.  “You’re wantin’ me to take you into town to see her.  Is that it?”

Joe chewed his lip.  That was somethin’ he’d done since he was a little kid when he was upset about soomthin’.  Then he nodded.

“Well, you know what, little brother?  For once you’re in luck.”

“I am?”

Hoss stood.  He put his hands on his hips in imitation of their father, and broadened and deepened his voice.  Then he lifted his arm and stuck out a finger and wagged it.  “Young man, the minute your brother is able you and Adam are to put him in that wagon and take him to town to see Paul.  Do you hear me?  Don’t take any guff from him.  Just do it!”

Joe giggled.  “Hey, you do that well.”

“I’ve had a lot of practice,” he replied.  Hoss looked at his wreck of a brother.  They’d tried to clean him up a little the night before, but Joe still had a gash on his shoulder that was oozin’ blood.  His hair was matted with he didn’t want to guess what, so the curls were plastered to his cheeks and neck, and his usually tan skin was pale as a miner’s.  The circles under his little brother’s eyes had circles, and Joe was still sportin’ a fever though – thank the Man upstairs – it was a low one.  “You think you can ride in the wagon to town?  It’s a fur piece.”

“I can ride Cochise.”

“No, you can’t and won’t.”  At his brother’s defiant look, Hoss added with a smile, “Pa, had a ‘young man’ for you too.  He told me to deliver it if you woke up and tried anythin’.”

Joe laughed again. “Let me guess. ‘Young man, don’t you even think about sitting a horse.  You are far too ill!  You will sit in that wagon or you won’t be able to sit for a week!”

Hoss joined in his laughter.  He sobered quickly though and moved to place one of his broad hands on his brother’ shoulder.  He knew Joe would skin him if he could read his thoughts, but the boy was so young and, though he was tough as nails, vulnerable.  He was a lot like his ma.  The big man had been eleven when Marie passed, so he remembered her pretty well.  Sometimes lookin’ at Joe was like lookin’ at her again.  He guessed that was why they all was so dead set on protectin’ him.  Marie didn’t get a chance to live her life.

They wanted Little Joe to have that chance.

“Now you tell me true, little brother, are you up to it?”

Joe didn’t answer immediately.  Then he said, “It’s gonna hurt like hell, jostlin’ in that wagon, but, yeah, I can take it.  I really need to talk to Hadley, just in case….well, you know….”

He did.

“Okay, you just sit there while I get everythin’ ready.”  Hoss started to move away and then he turned back.  “You think you can eat somethin’ before we go?”

He watched him consider it.  “I don’t know,  Maybe some coffee if you got it.”

He’d already won one battle without a fight, so the big man guessed he could skip their father’s other finger-waggin’ ‘young man’ order until later.

“Comin’ right up, little brother.  It ain’t often you get pampered, so you just lap it up while you can.”

 

Ben Cartwright pocketed his watch and walked up to the front door of Lee Throckmorton’s house.  The ten minutes were up.  He sucked in a breath and let it out slowly and then lifted a hand and rapped on the door.

“Sunders.  It’s Ben Cartwright.  I want to talk to you!”

He heard voices; one in particular, shouting profane words.  A few seconds later the key turned in the lock and the door swung inward to reveal one very irate man.

“So, the mastermind at last!” Sunders proclaimed.

Ben ignored the comment.  “May I come in?  I’d like to talk.”

The crooked businessman backed out of his way and said, in a tone that dripped disdain, “By all means.”

With a nod of his head, acknowledging the half-hearted greeting, Ben stepped into Lee’s home.  She was there, sitting on the settee, wringing her hands and looking toward the door.

When she saw him, she sprang to her feet. “Ben!”

“Sit back down,” Sunders ordered.  Suddenly, there was a small snub-nosed gun in the man’s hand.  “Or I’ll put a bullet into Cartwright right now.”

Tom’ wife dropped back into place.   “Please, don’t hurt him,” she implored.

Ben surveyed the room as he moved in, taking everything in that he could.  Sunders was by the door with a gun in his hand.  Lee was on the settee.  One of Haywood’s goons was rattling around in the kitchen, getting a cup of coffee or some food, no doubt.  The other was nowhere to be seen.

That one was the wild card.

“Take a seat, Ben.  By the woman.”

He moved to the chair next to the settee and sat down.  With a glance at the man by the door, he asked her, “How are you, Lee?”

“I’m fine,” she said.  “Did you find Joe?”

“Yes.  He’s fine.  He’s with –”

“Enough chit-chat.  Tempest!”

It took a second, but another man – one with his gun holster tied down on the left side – came quickly down the stairs.  Ben recognized him as the one who had beaten him.

“Take the woman and lock her in one of the bedrooms,” Haywood ordered.

As Lee protested, Ben stifled a sigh of relief.  Good.  She would be out of the way of danger should gunfire erupt.

“That shiner improves your look, old man,” Tempest sneered as he pulled Lee to her feet.  “What about him?”

“I’ll take care of Cartwright,” Sunders Haywood breathed.  “Permanently.”

“Ben?  No!”

“Go ahead, Lee,” he said, his eyes trained on that little gun.  “I’ll be fine.”  Ben watched with growing fury as Haywood’s goon manhandled his late friend Tom’s wife up the stairs.   A few seconds later he heard the door slam and a key turned.  He didn’t relax until the man reappeared and headed down the stairs.

“Thank you for keeping Lee out of this,” he said.

“It’s not for me,” Haywood sneered.  “Tempest here fancies her.  I told him he could have her after I killed her husband.”

Haywood, of course, wanted Trock dead as much as he did him.

Ben knew better than to argue with the other man.  It would be an exercise in futility.  So instead he said, “Look, Sunders, I know there was bad blood between us years ago, but I moved on.  I have over six hundred thousand acres of land.  Do you really think I would have hired men to kill your son to retaliate for a loss decades old that holds very little meaning now?”

The man snorted.  “Of course.  I have grudges older than that oldest son of yours. “

“Then I feel sorry for you.”

“Sorry?  And why is that?” Haywood asked as he came to stand beside the settee.

“Hatred eats a man alive from the inside out.  It takes away his zest for life, as well as his reason.”

“I disagree.  I believe it gives a man purpose.”

“What purpose?  To destroy another man – or men?  Let it go, Haywood.  In the end you will only destroy yourself, and how does that honor your son’s memory?  With your wife dead and no other children, you will take all remembrance of him with you to your grave.”

“When I destroy you, Cartwright, Sawyer will be at peace!”

“No.  Sawyer is at peace already.  You are the one looking into the mouth of Hell.”

Sunders glared hatred at him.  “On your feet, Cartwright!  Hands up.  Now!  We’re going outside.”

As he rose to his feet, Ben heard a noise in the kitchen.  If you suspected nothing, it would have sounded like the man in there dropped a pan.  He imagined otherwise.  He believed it meant Trock had made his entry through the cellar door and taken the outlaw out.

At least, he prayed that was what had happened.

With a glance at Tempest, who had moved to the door to open it, Ben started to walk.  He did so slowly, feigning fatigue.

“Get a move on it, Cartwright!” Haywood growled.

He was abreast him now and in a direct line with the window by the front door.  As he glanced out it,  Ben saw a black-clad figure move past, gun in hand.  It was a split-second decision – one he hoped he wouldn’t come to regret.  Pretending to stumble, he fell against Haywood’s gun arm and at the same instant shouted.

“Adam!  By the door!”

His answer was a blast.  The bullet split wood and Tempest went down.  A second later the door was kicked in.

Sunders Haywood was a desperate man.  He knew his game was up.  Like a wild thing, he backed into the corner of the room, till clutching the gun.

“Pa?”

Ben held up a hand.  “Keep him covered, Adam.”  He turned toward the kitchen.  “Trock?”

When the black-haired man appeared, he nodded.  “Lee’s safe.  She’s upstairs in one of the rooms.”

Trock nodded in acknowledgement and then bounded up the stairs to find his wife.

Ben turned to Adam who had his gun trained on Sunders as well.  “Tempest?”

“He’s dead.”  His son didn’t add ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’, but he knew he was thinking it – because he was thinking it.

“And your brother?”

Adam knew which one he was asking about.  “Joe’s holding his own.  I left him with Hoss to take to the doc.”

Turning back to the business man, Ben hesitated, unsure of what to say.  What drove the man – a love of his late son and a need to do right by him – was something he understood.  Sawyer had been murdered, but the man who had murdered him was dead as well and there needed to be an end to it.

“I know you don’t believe it, Sunders, but there was only one man who was responsible for your  boy’s death.  That was Malachi Tollivar and he’s dead.  You can rest easy in that.”

Haywood was staring at him.  He seemed to be considering his words.  The crooked businessman nodded his head and the gun began to lower.  Then he said, low as a snake. “The only way I will rest in peace is if you are dead!”

And he pulled the trigger.

Even as the sound of Haywood’s shot resounded off the walls of Lee’s home, there was another shot.  Ben heard Sunders gasp even as the projectile from the man’s derringer tore through the fleshy part of his shoulder.

Adam moved past him to kneel at Haywood’s side.  He looked over his shoulder at him.  “He’s dead too,” he pronounced.  “Pa?”

“I’m…okay,” he grunted.  “It went clean through.”

Adam rose to his feet and came over to him.  He pulled his cloth shirt aside and winced at what he found.

“Looks like Doc Martin’s going to be pretty busy today.”

 

Joe Cartwright was exhausted, but he’d refused to lay down even though Doc Martin insisted.  The physician warned him that if he didn’t get off his feet and rest – and let him tend to his injuries – he was going to be in bad shape.  He’d put up a fight – thrown a bit of a fit, really – even though he knew Paul Martin’s words were true.

Still, he couldn’t leave Hadley until he knew she was going to make it.

He sat at her side, holding one of her hands and staring at it, struck by the similarity to the hand of the man who had just left that had rested on his shoulder.  Oh, the Doc’s hands were big and powerful, where Hadley’s were small and dainty.  But both of them used them for the same purpose – to bring pleasure…and pain.  The physician didn’t want to hurt anyone, but he did.  He knew that well enough.  But the pain was necessary to bring healing.  You had to clean out a wound that was festering or the patient died.

Joe turned her hand over, examining it.  It was just an ordinary hand.  At least to look at it.  But what she could do with it was anything but ordinary.

He’d started to remember just what she’d done.

Releasing her hand, Joe leaned back in the chair and covered his eyes with his hand. The memory of that…torture…yeah, he had to label it that…was as raw as some of the wounds on his body.  He couldn’t imagine how one human being could do that to another.  Joe lowered his hand and looked at the girl where she lay, her fancy clothing stripped off, a sheet pulled up so close to her chin you might have thought the undertaker had been called.  And yet, he couldn’t hate her.

Hadley’s life was a wound that had been festering for a long time.

“…Joe…”

She’d opened her eyes.  He took that hand again and leaned in to lay his other one on her head.  He gave her a shy smile.  “Hey, you’re awake.”

She wet her lips with her tongue.  Her dark eyes roamed the room.  “Where…am I?”

“At the Doc’s.  My brother Hoss brought you here.  Do you want some water?”

Her gaze shifted to him.  “Why?”

Joe laughed,  “’Cause you’re thirsty?”

Her head moved slowly from side to side.  “No.  Why…are you..being kind to…me?”

He shrugged.  “Maybe because you saved my life – twice.”

“I…”  She began and choked.  Joe got that glass of water and lifted her up so she could drink and then placed it back on the stand by the table.  She nodded her thanks and tried again.  “I…hurt you.  I’m…sorry.”

He couldn’t say it was nothing, because it wasn’t.  So instead he said, “I’m sure you didn’t mean to.”

“I…did.”  Her words made him freeze.  “Then,” she added, her voice weakening.  “Had to.”  For a moment, it seemed she had fallen unconscious, but then Hadley’s eyes flew open in fear.  “Ahab!” she exclaimed and tried to get up.  “Ahab, he’ll…kill you!”

He caught her around the shoulders.  “Hey, calm down.  You’ll bring the Doc in.”  His hand went to her cheek.  “Hadley, look at me.  Look!”  When she did, he told her, “Ahab is dead.  You’re free.”

“…dead?”

Her voice was so small it might have been a child’s.  “My brother Adam killed him.  He’s dead for sure this time,”

Hadley searched his face, as if she was not quite able to take in what he said.  Then, she began to cry.

“Hey.  Hey!”  Joe glanced at the door and then – gingerly – slipped in behind her.  “Don’t cry.  That ain’t fair.”

Her dark eyes flicked to his face and he was rewarded with a little smile.  It faded quickly.

“How…how can you look at me?” she asked.

Joe wiped a tear from her battered cheek.  “I can look at you because you’re beautiful.”  At her look he went on, “Not on the outside, but inside.  You wouldn’t have risked your life to save mine if you weren’t.  Look, Hadley, life’s dealt you some hard blows, but you’ve got a new chance now.  My Pa will help you.”

She was astonished.  “Why?”

“Because you saved me, and…because that’s who he is.”

“What is this, young man?  Paul just told me he’d ordered you to bed.”

Joe knew that voice.  He gulped as he looked toward the door.  “I’m breakin’ the rules again?” he answered with a slight smile.

Pa was moving slowly too, due to his shoulder wound, but Adam told him he’d be okay.

“You certainly are.”  His pa’s dark eyes, so like the ones of the girl he held, went to Hadley.  “And so are you, young lady.  Doctor Martin orders rest for you as well.  There will be time for talking later.”  Pa paused. “Joseph?”

He looked at Hadley. “Guess I got my marching orders.”  As he slipped out, he added, “You take care of yourself.  I’ll come back to see you as soon as I get released.”

 

Ben Cartwright watched his son walk – slowly – out of Paul’s back room and then turned his attention to the fragile young lady on the bed.  From what he had been told, Hadley’s life had been a quick march as well – from one horror to the next.  He sat down beside her.

“How are you feeling, young lady?” he asked.  “Hadley, isn’t it?  That’s a pretty name.”

“It’s really Húdie,” she said softly.

“Hudie?  That’s Chinese, isn’t it?”

“My mother was…part Chinese.  Pa wouldn’t call me that, so…he called me ‘Hadley’.”

He was thinking.  He’d heard Joseph use the word when they were in the garden with Hop Sing.  “I’m sure your mother had a reason for naming you that.  What does it mean?”

The girl grew strangely quiet.  She turned her head and looked out the window.  It was a bright sunny day with just an edge of winter chill to it.  “My mother’s mother told her a story,” she said, her voice growing stronger, but ringing with an unspoken sorrow.  “It was about a caterpillar.  One day, the little caterpillar’s mother had her look up to the sky.  There was….”  She drew a breath.  “…a beautiful butterfly winging over their heads.  ‘One day, my child,’ she said.  ‘That will be you.”  Hadley shifted so she could look at him.  ‘Oh, no!’ the little caterpillar replied.  ‘I don’t want to fly.  I’m too frightened.  I will fall and die!’  ‘Hush,’ her mother told her, ‘don’t you know that you have to die to fly?’

Tear entered his eyes as Hadley fell silent.  After a moment, Ben cleared his throat.  “So your name means ‘butterfly’?”

She had tears coursing down her cheeks too.  She nodded.

Ben thought a moment.  He took her hand and leaned in a bit.  “Hadley – Hudie – look at me.”  When she did, he went on, “Like that little caterpillar, you’ve died to your old life.  You’re not quite a butterfly yet, but you are here – and you have us – so you are wrapped up safe in a cocoon where no one can hurt you until you can emerge as something brand new.”

The tears were streaming now.  “Why are you being so kind to me?” she pleaded.  “You and your son?  After what I did –”

“What you did is dead and buried with that little bug.  It is what you choose to do from this day forward that I – and Joseph – will hold you responsible for.  Do you understand?”

“Ben?”

He’d been expecting it.  “All right, Paul,” the rancher said as he stood.  “I’m leaving,.”

Hadley held onto his hand.  “Mister Cartwright?”

He turned back.  “Yes.”

“My forest isn’t dark anymore and, thanks to you, and your son,  the butterfly’s wings are beginning to heal.”

 

 

THIRTEEN

“Whoo, doggie!  It sure is good  to see other people again!”

Adam Cartwright looked at his middle brother with barely masked – and entirely pretended – disgust.  “And what, exactly, is wrong with the ‘people’ you have seen for the last two months, which would be your father and brothers?”

Hoss’ head was turning from side to side, taking in the sights of Virginia City.  He had to admit – if just to himself – that he understood his middle brother’s enthusiasm.  Being snowed in and cooped up with your family for over two months had its advantages – and disadvantages.

At least he and Joe had managed not to get into any fights.

No real ones, that was.  They had come close to giving Pa a heart attack with a few of their antics, though, like the time Joe got so bored he was decided he was going to walk to town and he put on his hat and coat and declared he was going with him.  Of course, they didn’t go any farther than the second slope before the house.  It was just after Christmas and it seemed the world slept under a blanket of pristine white.  They didn’t even see any animal tracks.  Everything was quiet and clean and pure.

They’d remained on their horses, not wanting to disturb the masterpiece nature had painted.  Adam remembered he’d just begun to shiver when Joe spoke.

“I never told you….”  Hi brother cleared his throat.  Joe was looking ahead, not at him.  “…I never told anyone what Hadley did to me.”

“Not even Pa?” he asked.

Joe shot him a look that said, ‘Especially not Pa.’

When the silence continued, he’d asked him, “Do you want to talk about it now?” Although, if the truth was known his bones were getting older and he was getting cold.

His little brother sucked in a breath and let it out in a white puff of mist that rode away on the gentle breeze.  “I’ve made…peace with it.”

“Have you forgiven the girl?” he prompted softly.

Joe nodded.  “Forgiven.”  His brother flashed him an uncertain smile.  “Forgetting takes a little longer.”

He’d sensed at that moment that his brother was ready to talk.  It was kind of hard to do it on the backs of two restless horses.  Adam remembered scanning around and finding a small alcove cut into a rock wall with a windbreak of trees in front of it.

“I don’t know about you, Joe,” he offered.  “But this old man would like to get out of the cold.”  With his head, he indicated the depression on the wall.  “Let’s go over there and settle in for a bit.  I’ve got a pot and coffee in my saddlebag.”

Joe was staring straight ahead.  He started at his words.  “Yeah, okay, Adam.”  Then his brother favored him with a smile.  “These ‘young’ bones are kind of cold too.”

They’d made a hasty camp.  While Joe went into the trees to take care of business, he’d settled himself in and had a hot pot of coffee waiting for his brother when he returned.  He had some jerky in his saddlebag too and he’d tossed it in some hot water to soften it.

“I didn’t expect a feast!” Joe quipped as he sat down.

“That’s a good thing,” he laughed.  “Because this is far from it.”

After that, they sat in companionable silence for some time.  Just when he’d decided his brother wasn’t going to talk after all, Joe did.

“Adam, why would one person want to…hurt another  one?”  His brother’s eyes – an intense green against the white – fastened on his own.  “I mean, not…kill them, but just….”

His brows lifted toward his hairline.  “That’s a very deep – and very old question, Joe. I’m not sure I have the answer you’re looking for.”

Joe had a piece of leather he was playing with.  He turned it over and over in his hands.  “I remember that one kid at school, Eddie Davis.”

He remembered him as well.  For one year the eldest Davis boy had made his young brother’s life Hell.

“The school bully?”

His brother nodded.  “He did a lot of things to me that…I never told anyone.”

“More than beating you up?” he asked, the older brother in him rising in ire.  It became a norm for Little Joe, at about age eleven, to come home from school nearly everyday with a bloody nose or black eye and, once, a broken arm.  Pa had finally put a stop to it and Eddie had been sent away to live with his uncle in another city.  In time, he became a fine young man.  He had noticed, though, whenever Eddie or Ed as he was called now, came to town, he and Joe had nothing to do with each other.  “What kind of ‘things’?”

Joe winced.  Tears kissed those eyes.  “He told me I was…pretty as a girl and needed to be treated like one.”

“He didn’t….”

His brother’s eyes went wide. “No!  No.”  Joe sighed.  “Not that he didn’t…try.”  His brother snorted.  “He was kind of stupid, really, getting that close and…well….puttin’ himself in that position.”

“I take it you gave it to him where it counted?” he asked with a wry grin.

“He was singin’ soprano the next day in church.”

Adam reached out and placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder.  “Joe, that had nothing to do with you.  That had to do with Eddie.”

“I don’t think he even, well, you know…was like that.”  Joe ran a hand through his hair and then cupped his neck with it.  “I think he just…wanted to hurt me.  To make me feel…less than a man.”

He was silent a moment before he’d asked.  “Is that what Hadley did?”

Joe looked at his hands.  “Don’t tell Pa, okay?”

He nodded.  “Sure.”

“I’m not a…virgin.”

Adam bit back his amusement.   “Joe, I’m sure Pa knows – or guesses.  There are very few men at twenty-five who are.”

His brother’s eyes held the question, but he didn’t ask it.  Instead he said, “I don’t….  I don’t know if I can ever be with a…woman again.”

Whatever he had expected, it wasn’t that.

Good Lord!  What had that fragile young woman done?

Swallowing over his surprise, he’d found the voice to ask, “Can you tell me why?”

“She…Hadley….  I was tied to a chair.  I couldn’t do anything to stop her.  She….”  Joe shot to his feet and began to pace as best he could through the snow.  “She made me feel like I was goin’ to the moon and then….”  Joe sucked in air like a man who had just taken a bullet to his back.  “God, Adam, the pain….”

He was more worldly than his brother.  He’d seen things done to men, especially in the Orient, that he’d prayed neither his brothers or his father would ever have to see or experience.

“So, what you are telling me,” he advanced slowly, “is that…thinking about being with a woman brings you…pain.”

Joe snorted.  “It’s worse than that,” he admitted without turning around.  “It makes me…panic.”

Adam thought a moment before urging, “Joe, please sit back down.”

With a sigh, his brother did as he asked.  “Now what?”

Another moment’s thought brought an image before his eyes.  “Do you remember the first pony you had?”

His brother scowled.  “What’s Cadfan got to do with anything?”

“Not Cadfan.  Comarade.”

He shook his head.

“I’m not surprised.  You were only four.  Marie and Pa got into a holy row about it because he insisted you were old enough to learn to ride and Marie was scared to death for you to climb up on the back of a horse.”  Adam paused.  “Of course, she didn’t know about your little…unsupervised…trips into the barn.”

That made him laugh.  “Pa never told her, huh?”

“No.”  He’d caught his baby brother numerous times in the barn climbing up onto the bare back of a horse big enough to carry Hoss.  Joe had a natural affinity for horses.  Still, Marie had a right to be concerned.  Horses were dangerous.

As they came to find out.

“Pa started you out slowly, but, you know what, Joe?”

His brother shook his head.

“The word ‘slow’ has never been in your vocabulary,” he laughed.  “You had – I think – two or three lessons before you decided you were an able horseman and could handle anything, including a bigger horse.”

Adam could still see it.  Little Joe – and he was little then – atop a 15 hand horse, clinging to its mane with his tiny fingers while the pair flew out of the yard.  The inevitable happened about three hundred feet out from the house.  Joe lost control and the horse threw him.

Threw him hard.

Joe was shaking his head.  “I still don’t remember.”

“Maybe because you hit your head so hard.”  Adam paused and a smile lit his face.  “That day, it was a good thing you’d inherited a little of that ‘Yankee granite head’ from Pa.  You nearly split your skull.”

His brother was frowning.  “Ma was crying….”

“That’s all Marie did.  Cry.  For days, until you were able to sit up and take something to eat.”

“I kind of remember something,” Joe said.  “But what’s this got to do with what we were…talking about?”

“You know how it goes, Joe.  A man gets thrown from a horse and you get him right back up.  Only you wouldn’t get back up.  In fact, every time we got you near the barn, you started to shriek.”

His brother’s brows did the dancing this time.  “I was afraid of horses?”

“Terrified.  Even the sound of them neighing would set you off.  Marie was beside herself.  She wanted pa to sell everything and move back  to New Orleans.”

“To which Pa replied, there’s horses in New Orleans too, I bet,” Joe laughed.

“Just about.”

“So what did Pa…what did you do?”

Adam leaned against the tree at his back.  It was an irony, since Marie died so shortly afterward in a fall from a skittish horse.  “That’s when Pa got you Cadfan.  He was a good steady Welsh pony with a mild temperament.”  The older man paused.  “Kind of like a big happy puppy with hooves.”

His brother nodded.  “I still miss him.  ‘Course, I’d have a hard time riding him now.  My feet would be on the ground.”

“And Cochise would be jealous”  Adam smiled at the memory and then went on.  “Pa didn’t make you ride him.  He didn’t even suggest it.  He just kept the pony in the corral and told you he was yours and then everyday at supper he told you how lonely Cadfan was because he loved you and missed you.  Finally, you worked up the courage to go out and curry him.  You wouldn’t get on his back, but slowly, the two of your became friends and you forgot all about the pain the other horse had caused you.”

Joe’s head was down.  “So, you’re sayin’, if I meet a new girl – one I…like – that in time….”

“Joe, I won’t be glib and tell you that time heals everything.  It doesn’t.  But it does…help.  In time what Hadley did to you will fade.  You’ll have the memory of…” Adam drew in a breath, this was getting personal even between brothers.  “…you’ll have the memory of other hands where hers were.  Loving hands that you’ve given permission to be there.”  He leaned forward and touched his brother’s arm.  When Joe looked at him, he added, “If  you remain in the darkness, Joe, eventually it will become what you are.”

Adam came back to the present with a start.  He turned from Hoss, who was scowling at him, to look at his youngest brother.  Joe had eschewed riding today and was settled in the back of the wagon amidst the empty bags and crates they would be filling at the mercantile.

Neither one of them had ever spoken of the conversation again.

As he watched, Joe climbed to his feet and stretched.  He’d slept half the way in.  “I agree with Hoss.  I’ve had about as much as I can take of middle brother’s snoring, Pa’s complaining, Hop Sing’s ‘everything that’s left in the larder’ stew, and,” Joe waited until he caught his eye, “older brother’s poetry readings!”

“Forgive me, for making an attempt to enrich your rather…dubious…literary experience,” he replied as Joe eased his way out of the wagon.  His brother still had tender…parts.  It had taken the infections a while to clear up, even with Hop Sing’s loving and welcomed ministrations.  As his youngest brother started to cross the street, he called out, “Hey, where do you think you’re going?  We have work to do!”

Joe halted.  “Pa said he’d meet us at Beth’s pie shop.  I was gonna go get him.”

Their father had come in earlier to make arrangements regarding his luggage so he could have the time on the road alone with his brothers.  Adam cast his gaze toward the stage depot.  There was a stage just pulled in that was unloading.  He was set to leave on the next one, which was due in about five hours.  They were going to finish their work and then have supper at the International before he let.

No, not left.  Before he went off to his adventures with every intention of returning home.

One day.

“Pa said we was to load the supplies first,” Hoss chimed in.  “Now, Joseph, you get that tiny little hiney of yours back over here and start unloadin’ this here wagon.

“No can do older brother – brothers,” Joe replied with a slow shake of his head.  “Pa said I’m not to do any heavy work until Doc Martin sees me and gives me a clean bill of health.”

“Now ain’t that just like him,” the big man growled.  “Any other time he’d be pullin’ every trick he could to keep out of Paul’s office.”

“He’s not there yet,” Adam said as he hoped down from the driver’s seat.  Joe had started across the street.  He called him back.

They met on the boardwalk on the other side.

“What is it, older brother?”

“Joe, are you sure….”  He cleared his throat.  “Are you sure you want to go to the pie shop?”

His little brother seemed to have matured in the last month, since their…talk.

Joe placed a hand on his shoulder.  “A man’s gotta get back up on the horse sometime.”

“But, the pie shop?  Are you sure?”

His brother sobered.  Joe nodded.

“Adam, it’s something I need….  No, I ‘have’ to do to go on.”

“Do you want me to come with you?”

He’d expected some sharp reply about being old enough to take care of himself, but instead, Joe said, “Thank you, Adam.  But no.  This is something I have to do alone.”

 

Joe halted outside of Beth Riley’s pie shop and drew in a deep breath.  This would be the first time he had seen Beth since Dan Tollivar’s death.  It was well-known in town that Beth had been sweet on Dan, if not in love with him.  When Dan took that money, even though he took it for his son, he’d offered a part of it to Beth to make her life easier.  She told his pa about it after Pa broke the news to her.  Pa and Adam had made a trip to town as soon as they got back – before the heavy snows flew – to let Roy know what had happened and to speak to Beth.  Pa said she deserved to know.

Joe’s thoughts were interrupted as the bell on the door jingled and it opened out, almost hitting him.  For a moment his father stood there looking at him.  Then he cleared his throat and said, “I thought you would be at the mercantile with your brothers.”

“I will be, but there’s something I…need to do here first,” he replied.

He got that ‘look’.  “Are you sure, son?”

“Boy, you and Adam,” he joked.  “You’re both makin’ a big thing of a man wanting a piece of pie.”

His father glanced over his shoulder at the movement in the busy shop.  “Maybe it’s because of a certain young lady Beth has hired to help her out.”

Joe’s gaze went to the interior as well.  “Maybe it is,” he said quietly.

For a moment it seemed his pa would say something more.  Instead, he patted his shoulder, nodded, and walked away.

Leaving him alone to face his demons.

Or, one particular demon named Hadley.

When Adam and Pa had come to town to talk to Beth, she’d come with them so she could give a statement to Roy regarding Dan’s son.  She wanted to be completely honest and Pa said she was.  He said as well that it was about all he could do to talk Roy out of putting her in jail.  The fact that he had refused to press charges went a long way toward keeping her out.

He couldn’t press charges.  Hadley was just as much a victim as him.

Maybe more.

Steeling himself, Joe pushed the door to the shop open and walked in wearing a smile.  A couple of neighborly folks waved at him and one asked him how he was doing as they’d heard he’d been sick.  He stopped at their table to assure them he was fine and when he turned, it was to find Beth Riley standing behind him, her eyes brimming with tears.

She looked at him for a moment and then drew him into a tug and whispered in his ear. “Little Joe, I am so sorry.  What Dan did….”

This was the first time he’d seen her.  Joe held the hug for a moment and then gently pushed her away.  “I’m fine, Beth.”  He paused.  “And I’m sorry about Dan.  I really am.”

She sniffed and dabbed her eyes with her apron.  “I know you are.  You’re a good boy.”  Beth paused and then laughed.  “A good young man,” she corrected with a motherly smile.  “Marie would have been so proud.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” he replied softly even as his eyes roamed the shop.  “Is Hadley here?”

Beth’s look told him she knew something of what had passed between the two of them.  “I…saw you coming.  I sent her out back to the storehouse.  I thought….”

“That was kind of you,” he said, and it was.  “But I came here to talk to her.”  Joe hesitated. “Is that all right?”

Her expression changed to one of concern.  “If you’re sure.”

“I am, Ma’am. I…need to talk to Hadley.”

The older woman brushed his cheek with her hand and then nodded toward the rear door.  “She’s out back.”  As he started to move, she called him back.  “Oh, and Joe?”

“Yes?”

“She doesn’t use Hadley anymore.  It’s Hudie.”

He was still mulling that over as he rounded the back corner of the pie chop and the storehouse came into view.  For a moment he thought she must have gone somewhere else.  Then, he realized the young woman standing next to the small building, reaching over the fence to pet the nose of a tall brown horse that was tethered on the other side, was Hadley.

Or rather, Hudie.

She turned just as he came to a halt.  A startled, almost frightened look came over her face and he thought for a moment she might bolt like a frightened rabbit.

“Hey,” he said, not knowing what else to say.

She brushed a lock of raven-black hair away from her face and answered the same way, “Hey.”

He wouldn’t have known her.  In the two and a half months since they’d been snowed in, the woman he had first known as ‘Jezebel’ had put on weight – in a good way.  All her curves were filled out.  She had on a lovely white dress with a pattern of blue flowers worked in stripes, and it set off both her pale skin and wide dark eyes.  The ends of her white apron were tucked behind the waistband on each side, forming an apron.

“You come out to get some eggs for the pies?” he asked.

“For the crust,” she said, not looking at him.  Then she began to move past.  “I need to get back inside.”

Joe reached out.  He didn’t know what he expected when he touched her arm, but it wasn’t what he got.  It was just an arm and Hadley – Hudie – was just a girl.

“Let me go,” she said quietly.

“No.”

Her great dark eyes, so like his father’s, darted to his face.  “How can you stand to look at me after….”  The breath of air that escaped her sounded suspiciously like a sob.  “…after what I did.”

There was a bench near that fence too. “Can we sit down for a minute?” he asked.

“I should get back inside….”

He leaned in.  “Beth won’t mind.  I’m one of her favorites.”

After a moment, she nodded.  Removing her apron, she hung it on the fencepost and then came to where he was already seated.  For a moment they sat there in silence.  She spoke first.

“What do you want from me?” Hudie asked.

What did he want?   Joe wasn’t sure.  “I guess….  I guess I wanted to see if you were all right for one thing.”

“Mrs. Riley…Beth, she’s been kinder to me than anyone I have ever known,” the girl said.  Then she added, “Unless it’s you and your family.”

She’d stayed with them a couple of weeks so she could heal, before Pa and Adam brought her to town.  Pa had been his usual gracious self.  His pa was one of the most forgiving men he knew.

If not the most forgiving.

“That’s Beth,” he said.  “She’s a sweetheart.”

“She’s told me I can stay with her…permanently, if I want.”

“And do you…want?” he asked.

Hudie turned from him, so he was looking at her profile.  “I don’t know,” she replied with a little quiver of her shoulders.  “It’s your town.  I don’t want to make you…..”

“Hudie,” he said.  “Look at me.”

She closed her eyes and shook her head.  A tear trailed down her cheek.

“You told me you prayed, so you know about the Bible, right?”

The girl nodded.

“As you forgive, so are you forgiven,” Joe paraphrased.  “I’ve forgiven you, Hudie.  Well, I forgave Hadley.   Seems to me I have a whole new girl sitting here in front of me.”  The young man sucked in a breath.  “One I think I’d like to know better.”

She looked at him then – like he was an idiot.  “How can you say that?!”

“A part of forgiving is…forgetting,” he began.  “God can do it all the way.   We can’t.  I can’t…completely forget.  But if I come to know Hudie, maybe I can….”

“Joseph.”

It was his pa’s voice and it startled him.  Joe rose to his feet and turned toward the sound.  Pa was there – with two other people.  The woman was around his father’s age.  There was a young man at her side who might have been about the same age as his middle brother.

Behind him, he heard Hudie gasp.

The woman was of mixed blood.  It looked like she was part white, part Chinese, and maybe a little something else.  The young man looked white, but he had an exotic pitch to his eyes and his hair was black as midnight.  Both were dressed as Westerners.

Ai nyu,” the woman breathed as she reached out with her arms.

Joe looked from the one to the other.  He knew that first one.  It meant ‘beloved’.

He thought the second one was ‘daughter’.

Joe’s gaze went to his pa.  There were tears in his eyes too.  Pa say him looking and nodded.  Then he said, “The Jones came in on the stage, Joseph.  I took the liberty of hiring a detective to see if he could find them.  The minute they heard…”  Pa’s eyes when to Hudie, who was hiding behind him.  “Well, they were on the first stage.”

“Hadley…Hudie,” the young man said as he moved in front of the woman.  “Pa’s dead.  He can’t hurt you anymore.  We…mother and I…would like you to come home with us.”

Joe felt her head shake against his back .

He turned and took her face  between his hands.  “Look. Hudie.  I’ve forgiven you.   God has forgiven you.”  Joe’s hand caressed her hair.  “It’s time you forgave yourself.”

The older woman had advanced another step.  “Nyu?” she asked, her voice a whisper of hope.  “Daughter?”

Slowly, Hudie came out from behind him.  She glanced at him.  Joe gave her a smile and a little nudge forward.  “I’d say your forest is looking mighty bright right now,” he said softly.

Hudie stared at him, lifted up on her tiptoes and kissed him on the lips, and then ran into her mother’s arms.

 

Later that night, Joe was seated in front of the fire.  Everyone else was in bed.  It had been a good but hard parting with Adam.  He’d come to realize how much he loved and missed his brother over the last few months.  Adam promised that his wandering ways wouldn’t keep him away too much longer – maybe another five years.  Adam had a house in England and a life there and it would take him some time to dismantle it and finish up all his projects.

But he promised he would come home.

Hadley, as he would forever think of her, had left too.  It had nearly broken Beth Riley’s heart, but she understood why the girl wanted to return to her home and the life she had abandoned when she was just a child.  He had such mixed feelings about it.  He didn’t hate her – that was gone – but there was still a fear of Hadley and what she had done – what she was capable of doing.

And yet he had been attracted to her.

As Adam said, while time might not heal everything, it did help.

“Joseph?”

He looked up to see his father standing on the stair in his robe.  It was around 3 o’clock in the morning.

“Sorry, Pa.  I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“You didn’t.  I woke myself,” he chuckled.  “I came down for a glass of milk and, truth to tell, for some of that chocolate cake from supper.”

“You can have the piece I hid in the larder,” Joe said with a wry grin.  “Hoss ate all the rest of it.”

His father finished his descent.  He paused by the blue chair.  “I miss your brother already,” he said.

He hated to admit it, but he did too.  Since he was older, having older brother around hadn’t been such a bad thing.

“He promised he’ll be back in a few years,” Joe offered.

“If I’m still alive then,” Pa said as he settled in his chair.

Joe stabbed the coals with the poker and then placed it by the fire before taking a seat on the edge of the table before it .  “You’re gonna live forever, Pa.”

His father laughed, but sobered quickly.  “Are you all right, Joseph?   With…everything?”

He wondered what Adam had told their father.  He was sure he’d told him something – he was Adam, after all.”

Joe thought a moment before he answered.  “I’m okay, Pa.  Really.”

“I had….”  His father straightened up in the chair.  “I had worried that what you experienced might…alter the way you viewed the world.”

‘And women’, he thought.

“You know, Pa, you’ve taught us all since we were old enough to understand that in order to survive what happens, you have to look for God’s hand in it.  You have to believe there is a reason and a purpose to all of it, suffering included.”

“And do you believe that, son?”

Joe thought about Hadley as he watched her  board the stage with her mother and brother.  There were more siblings at home waiting for her – waiting for the prodigal with open arms.

“I believe….”  He swallowed.  “I believe God can use bad things to make good things happen.  Hadley – Hudie’s with her own.  It doesn’t get much better than that.”

“She was lost and now, she’s found,” Pa said.  “You had a hand in that, Joseph.  When you chose to forgive, you set her free.”

Joe rose to his feet and walked to the window.  It was black outside now, but in a few hours the light would dawn and the new day begin.  Spring was just around the corner and when it came, he would see it with different eyes.  Every time he saw a butterfly, winging high into the sky, he would think of Hudie.

And of how she wasn’t broken anymore.

 

 

Tags: Adam Cartwright, amnesia, Ben Cartwright, ESJ, Family, Hoss Cartwright, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, SJS, torture

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Author: mcfair_58

Welcome and thank you to any and all who read my fan fiction. I have written over a period of 20 years for Star Wars, Blakes 7, Nightwing and the New Titans, Daniel Boone, The Young Rebels (1970s), Robin of Sherwood and Doctor Who. I am currently focusing on Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. I am an historic interpreter, artist, doll restoration artist, and independent author.

If you like my fan fiction please check out my original historical and fantasy novels on Amazon and Barnes and Noble under Marla Fair.

I am also an artist. You can check out my art here: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/coloredpencilart and on Facebook. Marla Fair Renderings can found at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1661610394059740/

You can find most of my older fan fiction archived at: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/marlafairfanfiction

Thanks again for reading!

9 thoughts on “All the Butterflies Have Broken Wings (by McFair_58)

  1. I loved this story and so glad it popped up randomly on my facebook feed! I’m always happy to read some good old fashioned suffering Joe fic, but you took it beyond the predictable. I think my favorite part was the angst – when Joe realized what has happened and he’s found himself being held for ransom (again!), he’s so heartbroken over the trauma it will bring to his family. Big happy sigh. I’m definitely a fan 🙂

  2. McFair, that was one intense rollercoaster, and yet thoughtful and deep. A great read. Once started couldn’t stop until the end. Thank you.

  3. What a tense and amazing story! When I read the summary I just could not see it but you managed to weave everything together to make horrific sense. Your original characters were so real and I loved how you had Adam back as well.
    It was an amazing ride.

    1. I apologize for the time it has taken me to respond to your lovely comment. Thank you for giving the tale a try and for letting me know you enjoyed it!

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