Summary: Joe and an injured Adam struggle to return a murderer to justice, but someone will do anything to get revenge. A WHN for “The Hanging Posse.”
Rated: K+ (14,695 words)
A Thousand Little Things
“Joe,” Adam said wearily. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to stop.”
Joe looked back. Even in the dark, he could see that Adam’s face was pale, and he swayed slightly in the saddle. If Adam’s asking, Joe thought, he likely should have stopped hours ago.
He looked back at their prisoner. Marks didn’t look too good, either; his face was flushed red and eyes glazed with pain. The blood that had seeped through the bandage on Marks’ shoulder had long since dried into a brown patch. Marks leaned forward slightly, hunched against the pain. And he was quiet; the absence of that obscene laugh was something that Joe was grateful for, but it was a likely sign that the wounded man was either ill or planning something.
Joe turned his horse’s head and tugged at the reins of Marks’ pony, leading toward a sheltered spot among the rocks, out of the incessant wind. He swung his leg over and hopped down to help Adam off his horse, settling him with his back against some rocks. He then pulled Marks off his horse and pushed him to the ground, tossing his bedroll at him without looking at him further. He started a fire, piling wood near Adam’s reach, and then tended to the horses. By the time he turned back to the fire, Marks was dozing on his blanket and Adam was boiling some water in the coffeepot as he stirred a pot of beans on the fire.
Joe knelt and gently removed his brother’s hat.
“Let me see that head of yours,” he said. He feathered his fingers through the dark hair, easily locating the lump on the back of Adam’s head. Adam’s breath hissed at even this light touch.
“No wonder you went down,” Joe said. “That’s quite a bump you got there. Didn’t break the skin, though.”
Joe rummaged in his saddlebags. “I’ve got the willow bark tea Hop Sing asked me to pick up in town. He says it’s good for pain. I’ll brew it up for you and Marks.”
Adam merely closed his eyes and nodded oh-so-slightly in response. Marks groaned and rolled over on his bedroll, turning his back to them.
For a while the only sounds were the clinks of tin cups and metal coffee pot and the crackling of the fire. Joe poked at the fire, and leaned over to stir the beans. When the tea was ready, Joe poured a cup and handed it to Adam before pouring a cup for himself.
“Thank you.” Adam sipped the tea and sighed.
Joe poured another cup and held it in both hands to warm them. His own head was pounding and his jaw ached from the fight. He looked over at Marks, who lay on the other side of the fire with his eyes closed, bound hands held tight to his wounded shoulder. Joe stood and moved warily toward their prisoner, quickly set the cup of tea near Marks’ blankets, and retreated back to sit by Adam. He stared at Marks for a long, long time.
“It was easier to think of protecting him before,” Joe said after a while, “when we weren’t sure. Before he admitted killing her.”
Adam started slightly; he had been near to dozing in the warmth of the fire, but he heard the question in Joe’s voice and answered very pointedly.
“The principles are the same, whether we are sure of his guilt or not. We are not executioners.”
“Joe, we’ve already argued this out.”
“I’m not suggesting we hand him over to Flint Johnson. I’m just saying I have a hard time shooting at my neighbor, a man I’ve known for years, to protect a killer. Flint is a man driven by grief, and it’s a grief that I understand.”
“He didn’t have a hard time shooting at us. He didn’t hesitate to have me hit over the head, and he would have shot us down, if the others had backed him.”
“Yes, but they didn’t. And then he thought better of it.”
“I’m not so sure he did. He might be out there, following us, just biding his time.”
Joe shook his head, but did not press his argument. His brother looked like he had a pounding headache and he did not want to make him feel any worse.
“How can there be men like him, Adam?” Joe asked softly, looking over at Marks. “How can he kill a woman like Vannie Johnson and then talk about it later like it was no different than target practice?”
Adam rubbed his forehead with the palms of both hands. “I don’t know, but consider that even his own comrades split with him. None of them were saints; they were hard cases and they made some bad choices, but even the other two wanted nothing to do with Marks. Maybe the answer is simple; some people are just pure evil, through and through.”
The silence stretched between them as the fired burned lower and turned to embers. Blackie Marks smirked at them from across the fire.
“Why are you called Blackie, anyway?” Joe asked, looking at Marks’ reddish brown hair and blue eyes, truly curious.
Marks laughed, the annoying cackle a little more high-pitched than usual, making Joe sorry he had asked.
“My dear mother saw something dark in me, she said,” Marks laughed again. “When I left home. The fellas I was ridin’ with thought it was funny, and started callin’ me that.”
“You must have done something to make her say that,” Joe said.
“We’d robbed a store, shot it up some. But it wasn’t my fault that the storekeeper’s kid got in the way! I seen the kid go down and I figured we’d better run, fast and far. We stopped at Ma’s place to get some grub.” Marks stared into the fire, his eyes glittering with fever, and something else Joe couldn’t name. “She grabbed me by the chin, and just looked at me, with those judging eyes.”
Marks reached over and picked up his cup. He took a long look at the contents, clearly wishing it was something else, and then set the cup back down again.
“My Pa, he told me to get out and never come back,” Marks said. “But Ma, she just -just looked at me. Then she said it.”
Marks looked at Joe, and laughed again. “Everyone thinks they know you, and nobody does. Everyone’s judgin’ and decidin’. But when I judge, people take notice. When I decide things, those things are decided final. People back off or I ride over ‘em.”
He almost sounds proud, Joe thought in astonishment.
“Is that what happened with Vannie?” Joe said softly. He knew he was pushing, but his utter contempt for Marks made him reckless. “She wouldn’t back off?”
Marks looked puzzled. “She would have been just fine, everything would have been fine if she’d just been a little nicer to me. But she picked up that knife. When I took it away from her she grabbed at my gun, and I had to shoot her.”
Joe stood up, fists clenched. “She must have felt threatened to pick up that knife! There was no kinder woman than Vannie if you needed help, but likely she could see your true nature, too.”
“True nature!” Marks said. “That’s sounds like Ma! ‘You’ve a black, black soul, Davy.’ My own Ma, telling me that. Sayin’ that made me think-why not? If my own Ma thinks so, why not let it be true?”
Joe narrowed his eyes, and then turned away. He saw Adam’s dark eyes watch Marks’ confession, and then glance back to him. Joe held his brother’s gaze for a long moment. If he drew strength from his brother’s approval, maybe it was possible that someone like Marks could get weaker if he was denied that approval.
“So this is all your mother’s fault, Blackie?” Adam said, and his sarcasm cut through Joe’s thoughts. “You’re bad because your mother said you were?”
Marks’ giggle rang out again, and he collapsed back onto his saddle. “It’s a sad story, ain’t it?”
Joe sat back down on his bedroll. Marks was a liar and a killer and who knew what else. Would it have made any difference in the path Marks chose if his family had been kinder? He shook his head and settled back beside his brother.
“How’s the headache?” He asked, looking Adam over carefully.
“The tea helped, thanks,” Adam said absently.
Joe watched him for a few minutes, and then spoke in a taut, low voice, as if he couldn’t hold his words back any longer.
“Everything is so clear, so black and white to you, Adam. How do you know this is the right thing to do?”
Adam set his cup down with deliberate precision. “We’ve come this far, seen the folly of misjudgment, and you ask me that? After what has already happened? Stop rethinking it all! We’ve made the only choice possible for civilized men.”
“But when you consider that he admitted killing Vannie-“
“We are not judges. We are not executioners. We are bringing the man back for a legal trial. Yes, he admitted killing her. And we can testify that he said it.”
Marks’ head came up abruptly. “I’m not in the habit of leavin’ witnesses,” he said, “and when my friends catch up, they will make sure you don’t get back to town to say anything about anything.”
“Shut up, Marks!” both brothers said, then grinned faintly at each other.
Joe reached over and put his hand on his brother’s arm. He smiled a half-smile, warm eyes capturing Adam’s gaze. “Get some rest,” he said. “I’ll keep watch.” He kept his hand on Adam’s arm until he felt the muscles relax a little, then patted the arm and stood up.
Adam merely nodded and slid lower on his blankets, resting his head gingerly back onto the upturned saddle that served as a pillow. He settled his hat over his eyes. He could hear Joe moving among the horses, murmuring to them, using his hat to give them some more water.
Adam smiled at the sounds. He was suddenly very proud of his little brother.
When the deputy asked for their help, Joe had spoken for them both, not with an adventure-seeking, impulsive agreement, but a with a solid, feet-on-the-ground dismissal: “Man-hunting’s not our kind of work,” he had said, after looking for Adam’s reaction. Joe saw what might come of an angry mob of a posse, and he wanted no part of it. It was Adam who reluctantly agreed to help when Deputy Clanton begged him.
The irony was not lost on him. Ben would have approved of his youngest son’s response; Adam was very sure that Ben would not have approved of his oldest son’s decision to join what turned out to be a hanging posse.
In the last two days, Joe had shown unswerving loyalty to Adam. When he disagreed, he didn’t blurt out childish accusations or hotheaded arguments; he asked about the morality of the situation and listened to Adam’s answers. He was clearly torn between loyalty to his neighbors and the justice of the law. Adam remembered his midnight conversation with Joe-was it only last night? -when Joe had sought him out with the young voice of an uncertain boy, but asking the ethical questions of a thinking man.
“When did you grow up, kid?” Adam murmured beneath his hat, too softly for anyone to hear.
Careful to keep his eyes from the fire to preserve his night vision, Joe looked over at his brother for the twentieth time since he started his watch. Adam slept as he always did, still and heavy, as sure of his dreams as he was of his daytime thoughts. His brother’s familiar, steady breathing, Cochise’s restless shifting, Sport’s tossing head against the tie-down-all the trail sounds were as familiar as home.
The night birds were quiet tonight, the coyotes restless. Joe shifted on the rock he had chosen for his watch point. It was uncomfortable, but still held some of the heat of the day. He looked over to where Marks shifted uneasily under his blanket. He was starting a fever, Joe thought. Marks’ bullet wound was through-and-through, and Joe was glad of it-glad that he and Adam didn’t have to dig the bullet out of him.
Joe’s thoughts circled again, remembering how just two nights ago he had gone to Adam with his doubts about their role in the posse. His brother’s voice, firmly reasoning, slightly exasperated, reminded Joe that they should not jump to judgment before the facts were known.
“Nobody knows anything for sure!” Adam had said. Adam saw things clearly. Adam knew the right road to take. Joe, uncertain and shaken after talking to the sobbing Billy, laid his head back down on his saddle, able to relax at last.
The facts were known now; they knew for sure that Marks had killed Vannie Johnson. Joe looked up at the stars, solid and timeless in a vast and mysterious black sky. It was simple, really. Adam still knew the right thing to do. He would back his brother in everything, no matter what.
“Luck. Pure luck, and all of it bad.” Paiute Scruggs, lingering at Lil McSween’s roadhouse, was glad to talk to anyone and everyone about his recent experience.
It was a slow day at Lil’s. A man sat at a checker-cloth table, nursing a glass of whiskey; otherwise, the saloon was empty.
Paiute was happy to warn the stranger about the remnants of the posse that would likely be returning this way. The stranger had been flatteringly interested in Paiute’s opinions about hanging a man right on the on the spot to save the time and expense of a trial.
“Paiute’s the bes’ there ever was!” Lil said, her round face flushed and sweating. She sloshed half her drink across the bar as she struggled to bring the glass to her lips. “He knows what to do to men who take innocent mothers away from their families. He knows what’s best for everyone!”
The stranger didn’t say much. He was a tall man with weary eyes, and his lean cheeks were seamed and careworn. He kept his distance from the crude old man, but he watched him intently, weighing his every word.
“You know, I surely am glad that there are men like you around to bring justice to women-killers,” he said. “Tell me again how you hanged that man.”
Paiute wiped his greasy buckskin sleeve across his nose and squinted at the man. “Now, hold on, we didn’t hang nobody.” He reeled and leaned into the bar. “Flint Johnson shot down two of them, a kid named Kurt and an old coot named Schuster. But them crazy Cartwrights stopped us from stretchin’ Marks’ neck, even though he’s the real murderer. Them Cartwrights are bringing him in for trial-a trial, mind you, that won’t take place if Flint Johnson has anything to say about it!”
“This Flint Johnson-he the one whose wife was killed?” the stranger asked. Lil looked him over, noting his worn-at-the-heel boots and low-slung revolver.
“Honey,” she said, hooking one arm through the tall stranger’s arms and one through Paiute’s. “Don’t you think that anyone who helped get rid of Vannie Johnson’s killers deserves a free drink?”
“My name’s Nate,” the stranger said. “I’ll gladly buy you another drink if you’ll tell me more about these outlaws.”
Nate took a much-folded letter from his vest pocket.
Kurt had only written him once in his whole life. The letter had followed him through at least four towns, judging from the crossed out list on the envelope. At each stop, some kind soul had recognized his name and forwarded the letter, until it reached him in Dodge City about three months ago. The irony was, Nate couldn’t even read. But he’d had someone read it to him a couple of times, and he pretty much knew it by heart. Lulabelle, one of Lil McSween’s girls, read it aloud for him as he drank away Paiute Scruggs’ description of how his little brother died.
I don’t know if you’ll get this, but I’m hoping you do. I have to let you know a few things.
First off, Ma and Pa are gone. Pa died in an accident in the mines, and Ma, well, she joined him a few months later.
All the girls are married now. Susan married the youngest Parker kid, Jake, and they moved to St Louis. Marcy married John Tatum and Sarah married Reverend Sugarman. They both live here in Stone River and have made you an uncle four times over. Charlotte ran off with a peddler about a year ago-don’t know his name, and I’m not sure where she might be.
I’ll bet you are the tough lawman you always said you’d be. I hope you and Sam ran into each other. He left home about a year after you did, and said he’d look you up. Knowing Sam, you probably had to arrest him for shooting up the town or something. Go easy on him if you did, he was just following after you.
I’m leaving home, too. There’s nothing here for me, never was, really. I just stayed around to help Ma with the girls, but they got their own husbands now, and Ma, well she ain’t got any worries any more.
You remember Billy Watkins, from over to Stillwater? Says he’s got a friend who we can meet up with, so we are heading to Nevada Territory, maybe find us some gold. Wouldn’t that be something? What would be even better is I could run into you and Sam. I’d surely like that. You two was the best big brothers a little kid could have.
Your little brother,
Lulabelle handed the letter back to him, tears shimmering in her eyes. Nate ran his fingers over the letter, then folded it and slid it back into his vest. I would have liked that, too, Kurt, he thought. I surely would.
“Adam? How are you feeling?”
Adam looked around, blinking in the low morning light. He ran his hand over his face, and smiled tiredly at his brother.
“Little bit of a headache. Otherwise, fine. How are you feeling Joe?”
“Fine.” Joe said absently, rolling up his blankets. Adam noted the bruised cheek, but Joe was moving easily, without any stiffness. The kid was apparently none the worse for having taken on the entire posse by himself.
He looked over at their prisoner. Marks still snored restlessly on his blankets. Joe paused in his movements, noting Adam’s attention.
“Adam, do you think Blackie Marks was telling the truth about the way his ma treated him?”
Adam rolled out of his blankets and reached for the coffee pot. “The only thing we know for sure about Blackie Marks is that he is a liar and a killer.”
“I know, but I was wondering about how he got to be that way.”
Adam leaned back on his heels, looking straight at his brother’s troubled eyes. “I think for someone to be the way Marks is-well, I don’t think it happens because of something someone says.” He leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees. “I think it takes a thousand little things, day after day, starting small, with lies or petty thefts. It’s day after day filled with small hurts to people who love him, like drops of water filling a bucket.”
“What do you mean?” asked Joe, puzzled.
What do I mean? Adam thought. How does a man become Blackie Marks?
“I mean it’s never just one thing. Little by little, a man becomes who he is. Sure, his family and experiences shape him, and his own nature plays a part. But he chooses for himself, thousands of times, day after day. No one makes him what he is-he makes himself.”
He could see that Joe was troubled about this.
“But what if he doesn’t have a choice?” Joe asked.
“There’s always a choice, Joe. It might seem like sometimes there isn’t, because a man’s nature or experiences blinds him to any other possibilities. But he always has a choice, if he looks hard enough. Refusing to see any other options is a choice in itself.”
“Like Flint Johnson.” Joe looked off down the trail, his brows twitching a little, reflecting his uneasy thoughts. Then he stood, picking up his saddle. “What you just said makes my head hurt,” he complained. “My choice is to not think about it any more.”
Adam laughed and tossed a coffee cup at Joe, who caught it in his left hand and tossed it back. Adam flipped the cup around, and filled it from the coffee pot.
“Let’s get going, then. The sooner we get Marks back to Virginia City the better.”
“Joe, how much water do you have?” They had dismounted to spell the horses, and Adam leaned heavily against his saddle, his knees shaky. They left Marks mounted; neither of them was inclined to help the wounded outlaw on and off his horse. The sun was high and hot, making Adam squint as he rubbed his aching head.
“I filled my canteen and yours, and one for Marks, before we left the cabin,” Joe said. Adam could feel Joe’s eyes on him, and he straightened a little.
“How much food?”
“Some trail jerky, couple of hard rolls I got at Lil’s.”
It wasn’t much, and it had to last them two more days.
“Yeah, Joe?” Adam put the stopper back in his canteen and looked up.
“Why didn’t you-when Jeb Clanton asked you to join the posse, I expected-why didn’t you send me home?”
Adam looked startled. “It never occurred to me.”
Joe turned his head and squinted into the distance.
“Really.” Adam reached out a hand to Joe’s arm, pulling his brother’s attention back. “I had an idea what Flint might-what might happen. I knew you would back me no matter what.”
“I thought-” Joe began, troubled, then his face cleared and he smiled, the first true, unfettered smile Adam had seen in days. “‘Course I would back you; that goes without saying. I just thought, what with all your haircut overseein’ we might not have time to-“
Adam cuffed Joe’s hat from his head. “Yeah, and look how successful I was at getting that chore finished.”
Joe grinned. “I’d rather face a hanging posse than that scalpin’ barber, any day.” He looped the strap of his canteen over his saddle horn. “Do you think the rest of the posse will come after us?”
Adam wiped the inside band of his hat with his bandana. “Paiute Scruggs is done; you saw Schoehoffer take off. They have no stomach for this business any more. Those two strangers, Buck and Blue, headed toward Carson; I doubt they’ll be seen around here again.”
“What about Flint?”
Adam didn’t answer.
“Do you think Flint is done? Done chasing Marks, I mean?” Joe persisted.
“No,” Adam said. “I think he still wants to kill the man who murdered his wife.”
“What about Billy?”
Adam looked over at Joe, considering. “Billy’s been sickened by all this. I think he might head home. But whether he will stay there, knowing what Flint is capable of-“
Adam was startled to silence when Marks suddenly dug his heels into his horse’s sides, sending the animal careening off the trail and across the rocky desert floor.
Before Adam could mount his horse, Joe was after him, racing at an angle to cut Marks off. Adam joined the chase, cursing his slowness to mount. Marks turned, and seeing Joe over his shoulder, yanked his horse’s head hard to the right.
The violent yank unbalanced the horse and it stumbled, tripping and going to its knees, falling heavily. Marks flew over its head, landing hard on his bad shoulder, and he screamed in pain.
Joe’s horse skidded to a stop and he jumped down, gun in hand, as he ran the last few steps toward Marks. But his gun wasn’t needed; Marks was moaning loudly, clutching his shoulder with both bound hands. Joe holstered his gun and turned to inspect Marks’ horse. The sorrel was back on its feet, trembling, but its legs seemed sound. Joe breathed a sigh of relief.
Joe turned back to Marks, and held out his hand to help him to his feet. Marks took his hand, then suddenly jerked Joe hard, yanking him forward to sprawl on top of him. Joe felt the outlaw pawing for his holster and he rolled frantically away, but Marks had grabbed his gun. As he raised his hands, Joe grabbed at the gun with both hands, pushing desperately to keep it away from his body. Marks pressed forward, using his superior weight to force Joe over onto his back.
Suddenly Adam was there, gripping Marks’ bandaged shoulder hard. Marks yelped and let go of the gun, rolling over and away from Joe. Adam followed him over, kneeling with all his weight on Marks’ wounded shoulder. When Adam saw Joe move back, he released Marks and stood warily over him as he rolled back and forth in pain.
Joe stared at Adam, wide-eyed, panting. Kneeling on Marks’ wounded shoulder-that was the cruelest thing he had ever seen his brother do. Adam’s face was stony, a tight knot of muscle at the corner of his jaw.
“You all right, Joe?” Adam’s teeth were tight on the words.
Joe stood up and picked up his gun. He considered Blackie Marks, Adam’s hard expression, their shortage of water. He laughed shakily, but with genuine mirth.
Adam stared at him. “What could possibly be funny, Joe?”
Joe smiled with weary mischief. “Just thinking about how a few days ago, my biggest worry was how to avoid gettin’ a haircut. You think Pa’ll think this is a good excuse?”
Adam looked at Joe’s pale face, the tension that dulled, but did not extinguish, the sparkle in the green eyes. Despite his own worry, he felt his mouth curve in response.
“No,” Adam said.
Joe’s smile grew wider, but he shook his head mournfully. “Didn’t think so. ” He looked at Adam, noting his pale face and the lines of pain around his mouth. “Jumpin’ on and off horses isn’t helping your head any is it? Let’s get you back on the trail. The sooner we’re home, the better.”
Now that he knew they had to conserve water, Joe was thirstier than ever. Adam had suggested putting a pebble in his mouth, but Joe decided to save that trick for later. To take his mind off his thirst, he reviewed the horses waiting at home to be broken, the top choices he and Charlie were considering for the remuda, and the others they would likely sell to the army. He played a game of checkers in his head with Hoss, but ended up knocking the pretend checkerboard into the pretend fireplace three moves into the pretend game. His thoughts kept circling back to what he might have to say at Marks’ trial, describing the last few days’ events.
He kept a close eye on his brother, watching for signs of pain, narrowing his eyes when Adam rubbed his forehead. But he thought better of suggesting they stop and rest. Adam wouldn’t admit to any weakness, and would be thinking only of getting them home and Marks to jail, rather than any personal hurts.
Seeing his brother struck down had shaken Joe. He remembered the feeling of helplessness, the sharp stab of worry, and then he was overcome by the posse himself. One of his so-called neighbors held him back while the rest of the posse hauled Marks toward the nearest tree. Adam lay still, knocked out cold, in front of the shack, but Marks’ screams were terrible to hear. He knew what his brother would expect him to do.
Rage and fear had made his muscles as tense as coiled springs and he pulled free of the man holding him back. He had wanted, with all his soul, to knock down Flint, the lying hypocrite who used Adam’s friendship to knock him out. He had wanted to wipe the evil smile off Paiute Scruggs’ laughing mouth as he sat and whittled in anticipation of the hanging. Most of all, he had wanted to just to back off and let them hang that guilty, rotten excuse for a man, Blackie Marks.
Clear as a rifle shot, he had heard Adam’s voice in his head saying, “but we can’t do that,” when Joe had suggested it would be easier to turn Marks over to the lynch mob.
So Joe had stopped them. He wished to God he hadn’t had to, but he had stopped them from hanging the man who, by his own admission, had killed Vannie Johnson in cold blood. His brother’s remembered voice calmed him, and his hands were steady as granite as he took Marks away from the posse. At that moment, he could have held an army at bay, because his brother had shown him the right thing to do.
The relief he had felt when he saw Adam sitting up in front of the shack nearly undid him. He had wanted to run his big brother like he had when he was a child wakened by nightmares. However, seeing Adam rub the back of his head and struggle to his feet reminded Joe that he had to be the strong one now. He had barricaded the three of them back inside the shack. They would head out at dusk, and they would make it back to town, if he had to fight each and every man in the posse.
Joe smiled a little, remembering. He had surprised the men in the posse with his ferocity, but he had surprised himself even more.
Nate chose the spot for his ambush well.
He set himself up on a sheltered vantage point, above the narrowest part of the trail, where the posse would have to spread out and approach a blind corner one by one. Once he was in position, he settled in to wait. He’d learned patience a hard school, and he was patient now.
He knew enough about grief, posses, and Blackie Marks to fill his thoughts while waiting. He wished he knew as much about his brother.
Kurt was nearly ten years younger than him. Nate had left home long before Kurt was grown, driven out by hopelessness. Nate had watched his stepfather work too hard, watched his mother bear child after child, with no time for anything but toil. He had wanted more. Adventure, excitement, money-none were things his family could provide. He saved his money secretly, keeping some back from his earnings even though he was expected to turn over his earnings from the mine each week.
He told himself he would be one less mouth to feed, that he was doing his family a good turn. He thought his mother understood; he remembered the knowing look on her face when he rode away. He thought it was Kurt who stood next to her, waving goodbye, but maybe it was a trick of memory.
It was strange to think that he was chasing his brother’s killer by tracking two brothers, who, by Paiute Scruggs’ description, were tightly bonded in their intent on returning Marks to the hangman.
Nate shook his head. This wasn’t about the Cartwrights. This was about how a kid like Kurt ended up chased and dead in the dry lands. This was about his brother and how he died. This was about Blackie Marks and his gang of misfits. This was about justice.
The first shot kicked dirt up in front of Adam’s horse. He reined him in abruptly, calling back to Joe. “Ambush! Take cover!”
Adam had his rifle out before the echo of the shot cleared their ears. Joe grabbed Marks’ reins and stopped where he was, looking about wildly. He pushed his horse forward, trying to get nearer to his brother.
“Joe!” Adam shouted. “Take cover behind those rocks!”
“Where are they?” Joe called, still riding toward Adam. “Can you tell where that shot came from?”
“Hold it boy,” a deep voice said from above them. “Everyone just stop where they are, and keep your hands where I can see them.”
A man stood on the rocks above their heads, pointing a rifle at Adam. Adam looked from the man to the rocks, gauging his chances of getting off a shot and dodging for cover.
“Hold your rifles out one-handed and drop ’em,” the man growled, “Nice and easy. Or it’s the last thing you’ll ever do.”
Adam held his rifle out, and Joe did the same. Both rifles clattered on to the rocky trail.
“Now the sidearms,” the man said, still silhouetted against the sky. Two handguns joined the rifles. The man stepped down to a lower position on the rocks, but still stood high enough to cover all three of them easily.
“Well, h-howdy there, N-Nate,” Marks said, shifting uneasily in the saddle.
“Blackie,” acknowledged the man.
Adam narrowed his eyes, looking from Marks to Nate, then back again. “What’s the matter, Marks?” he asked. “You don’t seem happy to see your friend.”
“Shut up, mister,” Nate said. “I expect to get all the talk I can stand from Blackie here.”
Joe nudged his horse a step further on the trail, and his lead rein tightened, pulling Marks’ horse forward with him.
“You’ll stop that horse moving, boy, if you know what’s good for you,” Nate said.
Joe slacked on the reins and held both horses stock-still.
Nate looked over at Marks. “Where’s Kurt, Blackie?”
Blackie Marks shook his head, affecting a sorrowful posture. “Dead, Nate, dead, I’m sorry to say, your little brother was killed by this here posse.”
Adam’s eyes snapped to Nate’s face at the words “little brother.”
“Who did it? You mister? Or you?” Nate’s eyes moved from Adam to Joe.
“It wasn’t us,” Joe said. “That’s why we split from them. We aren’t part of that posse anymore.”
Adam looked at Joe sharply, and Joe said nothing further.
Nate’s eyes closed for a moment, and then he turned and spit. “Where is he?”
“We buried him about eleven or twelve miles from Pinell Springs,” Adam said. Stating the bare facts seemed the best thing to do.
“I told him he should stay with me,” Marks said, his voice a little stronger. “But he wanted to give himself up. He thought they’d listen to him when he told them he didn’t kill that woman.”
No one looked at Marks. Joe and Adam sat still, waiting on Nate’s next move.
Marks shifted restlessly in the saddle. “Cut me loose, will ya, Nate?”
Nate stood rooted to the trail, looking from Adam and Joe. “Who killed the woman, Blackie?” His hard eyes shifted to Marks, and pinned him in the saddle. “And don’t tell me Kurt had anything to do with it, because you know I won’t believe that.”
“No, Kurt wasn’t even there,” Marks agreed. “Cut me loose, Nate, please?”
“I don’t think that coward Schuster did it either,” Nate said, his eyes on Marks’ face. “So that just leaves you.”
Joe’s horse took a step forward.
“I told you once, boy. You hold your horse still, or I’ll shoot you out of that saddle.” Nate didn’t raise his voice, but everyone froze in position.
“I want to help my brother,” Joe said. “He was hurt.”
“He looks fine to me,” Nate said. “Stay where you are.”
Nate stepped forward, his attention and his rifle alternating between the two Cartwright brothers. “I was talkin’ to an old fool of a trapper who told me about how Kurt and Schuster died,” Nate said. “I want to know if what he said was true.”
“Oh, it was true all right, Nate,” Marks said, turning in the saddle. “The posse shot Kurt and Schuster both, just tracked ‘em down and killed ‘em.”
“Blackie, I ain’t talkin’ to you. Shut the hell up.”
“But Nate,” Marks whined. “Cut me loose! Ain’t that why you came? To set your friend free?”
Nate strode over quickly until he stood in front of Marks’ horse, fist clenching his rifle. “You ain’t now, nor ever have been, a friend of mine, Blackie Marks. You’d be wise to keep quiet until I decide what to do with you.”
“Wh-what do you mean, Nate?” Marks said. “Ain’t you here to set me free? C’mon, cut me loose!”
Nate stood up tall, and crossed his arms, still holding his rifle, over his chest. “I’m here to find out what happened to my brother. You don’t figure much in my thoughts outside of that.”
“Nate!” Marks shouted, and then doubled over, coughing. “I’m hurt and I’m sick! Maybe I ain’t your friend, but I was a friend of your brother’s! I never treated him bad; that’s gotta count for somethin’! Cut me loose!”
“I’ll tell you one more time, then I’m gaggin’ you: shut up, Blackie! I don’t need no more jawin’ from you!”
Nate took his bandana from his pocket suggestively, and Marks abruptly closed his mouth.
“I’m gonna have my own investigation,” Nate said, speaking to Adam and Joe. “I ain’t one for killing for no good reason. Seems like that might be the case with you, too. I can understand wantin’ to kill the man who killed a woman. But Kurt was my brother. And from everything I know about him and everything I’ve heard so far, he wasn’t involved in her killing.”
What the hell are you doing? Nate asked himself. It’s not like he knew his brother that well-he barely remembered the tag-along kid that he had indulged when they snuck away from their chores. Kurt had copied the way he walked and the way he wore his hat and the way he picked his teeth with a broom straw after dinner. He remembered brushing the kid aside, to go off with his friends whenever he could.
But he’d had such a hard lump in his chest since he heard that Kurt was dead. That can’t be all there is, he thought. There has to be something more.
“I’m the one that’s got to tell our family what happened to the boy,” Nate said. “And I ain’t sure what kind of story I’ll have to tell yet. So we’re just gonna get comfortable, right here, while I figure that out.”
He stepped forward carefully, looking intently and Adam and Joe.
“It’s too late to travel much further today anyway. We’ll set up camp. You,” he gestured at Adam. “Get a fire started.” He moved the rifle towards Joe. “You sit still, boy. You just hang on to Blackie’s horse, and you sit still.”
“My brother’s hurt,” Joe said quietly. “He got hit on the head and he isn’t feeling too well.”
Nate looked at Joe under lowered brows. “All right. Get Marks down, but keep his hands tied. See to the horses, set up camp. When you’ve got the fire built, you can help your brother. Meanwhile, I’ll keep him in my sights.”
“No, Nate!” Marks protested.
“Shut up, Blackie.” Nate said. He looked hard at Joe. “You heard me. Get movin’.”
He watched as the younger brother carried out his orders. The older brother waited in the saddle, face pale, swaying slightly. The kid was telling the truth. The older brother was clearly in pain, narrowing his eyes against the evening light. The kid kept darting glances to him as he unsaddled his own horse and then tended to Marks’. He set out bedrolls and dragged Marks bodily to one side. In a few minutes he had gathered enough wood for a fire, and knelt to light the tinder. When the flames caught, he stood, arms crossed, defiant.
“There. I’ve done what you asked. Now let me help my brother.”
Nate nodded and stepped back. He watched as the younger boy went to his brother, helping him down off his horse and murmuring softly. He threw his brother’s arm over his shoulder and steered him over to the fire, helping him sit. He pulled his hat off, looking carefully at the back of his head.
“I’ll make some more of that tea,” he said. The older brother simply closed his eyes.
The younger man set out his brother’s bedroll and unsaddled his horse. He fussed with some packets in his saddlebags and soon had some tea brewing. There was a tenderness about each gesture that was unfamiliar to Nate, and he watched in fascinated curiosity. Finally, reluctantly, Joe tended Marks’ wound, cleaning and re-bandaging it.
“Your name is Cartwright, isn’t it?” Nate said.
The younger man nodded. “I’m Joe Cartwright. That’s my brother, Adam.”
Nate looked at Adam, who was sitting with eyes still closed in pain, and then at Joe, who was handing a cup of tea to Blackie Marks.
“Why do you two care about Blackie Marks?” Nate asked. “It ain’t like you knew him or even liked him much. Yet you protected him from the rest of the posse. For what? Just so he can hang in town rather than out here?”
“We did it because it’s the right thing to do,” Adam said, his eyes still closed. “He’ll be brought to proper justice, with a proper trial.”
“What about you, kid?”
“I’m backin’ my brother,” Joe said. Adam’s eyes opened at this.
Nate scowled. “That has to be the stupidest reason I’ve ever heard for chasin’ a man,” he said. “You always do what your brother says?”
“Yup,” Joe said.
A small laugh escaped Adam. “That’ll be the day, Little Brother.”
Joe just grinned.
Adam watched the man named Nate pace around the fire, then stop and stare down at Marks.
“I don’t get you, Cartwright,” Nate said. “What does justice mean for somebody like him?”
“Is justice different for different people?” Adam asked.
Nate snorted derisively. “Don’t play games. I’ve seen what I’ve seen; you’ve likely been around enough to see a thing or two. It’s what the world is.”
“That’s what we are fighting about,” Adam said softly. “I say justice for Blackie Marks isn’t any different that justice for any other man. Even when we know for sure he killed Flint Johnson’s wife.”
Nate looked at Adam’s calm face. “How do you know he killed her?”
Adam met his steady gaze, more sure of himself than he had ever been in his life. “He admitted it. He laughed about it. He said your brother and his other partner weren’t even there when it happened.”
Nate closed his eyes and turned, angling his face so that Adam saw only shadows.
He didn’t know for sure until now, Adam thought. He had some doubts about his brother, for all his harsh talk.
Adam looked over at his own brother. He would never have doubted Joe. He felt the corner of his mouth turn up slightly. The kid was young, finding his way, but his family had given him a solid moral foundation, in the thousand little things of daily life.
He looked up suddenly and found Nate staring at him intently in the firelight. The look in Nate’s eyes was fierce-angry? No, not just angry, although there was some anger there. Adam watched as Nate looked away, to stare for a long moment at Joe as he tended the fire. Regret, and-envy?-tempered the anger in Nate’s gaze. Adam turned away, unable to bear Nate’s expression any longer.
Nate got up with a curse and walked to the other side of the fire, slapping his hat against his thigh.
A ricocheted rifle shot whined into the fire. All four men ducked.
“Throw down your guns and send Marks out!” The voice echoed amongst the rocks, making it impossible to pinpoint its location.
Another shot punctuated the voice’s statement. Joe looked around wildly; Nate ducked behind a rock, disappearing into the darkness.
“It’s Flint Johnson!” Adam rose up a little, searching for the source of the shots.
“Flint, there’s no need for this!” Joe shouted.
“Joe, get down!” Adam hissed, grabbing at his brother’s jacket.
Joe ignored him. “We’re just making sure Marks gets back for his hanging. He’s admitted to the killing! There’s no way he’ll go free!”
Flint Johnson’s answer was another rifle shot into their camp.
“Flint!” Adam shouted, wincing and grabbing at his head at the sound of his own voice. “We’re all after the same thing-justice! Stop shooting before someone gets hurt! A ricochet could get any one of us!”
“I’m done listening to words like ‘justice’! Where’s the justice in killing a woman for no reason? Where’s the justice in destroying my family?”
Another shot followed, and like the first, it ricocheted, whining off the rocks. Adam threw his hand over his face as shards of rock spattered over him. He felt Joe stiffen beside him, then slump limply forward, falling onto his lap.
“Joe!” Adam caught his shoulders and eased him down, turning him slightly toward the firelight. His eyes were closed and blood flowed freely over his face. Knocking Joe’s hat away impatiently, Adam felt along the wound, heart pounding hard in his chest. Just a crease, through the thick hair above his ear. From the angle of the wound, the bullet had bounced upward off a rock.
Another inch-half-inch, even-and Joe would be dead.
Flint fired again, but this time the bullet went wide. Marks was the only one who ducked.
“You‘ve done it now, Johnson!” Marks called, his inane cackle ringing out. “You killed my partners, and maybe the law would believe that they deserved it, but now you’ve killed a kid! You’re gonna hang right along with me!”
“Shut up, Marks!” Adam said.
“Maybe if you killed us all, you could get away with it,” Marks called, ignoring Adam. “You’ve already done for young Cartwright. You’ll have to kill his brother now, too, just to be safe. No witnesses, that’s what I always say.”
“Joe?” Adam said, holding a bandana against his brother’s face. Adam pressed the fingers of his freehand under Joe’s jaw, searching for his pulse point. The blood made his neck sticky-slippery, and it was a terrible moment before he could confirm his brother’s heart still beat.
The blood flow didn’t seem to be stopping. Adam knew that head wounds tended to bleed a lot, but he was appalled at the amount of blood on his brother’s face. Joe had been limp and motionless since he fell over in Adam’s lap.
There was a series of rapid shots in the darkness. Marks flinched, but Adam barely heard them. He fumbled through his saddlebag for the flask of whiskey and bandages Hop Sing insisted they carry. He poured some of the whiskey onto a bandage and pressed it to the wound. The bleeding was slowing, to his relief. He pressed a new cloth to the raw wound.
Nate loped back into the firelight, panting. “Whoever he was, he lit out after I fired at him,” he said, then stopped short. “What happened to the kid?”
“Ricochet.” Adam rustled through the saddlebag one-handed.
Nate knelt beside him. “Here, I’ll hold it. Has he woke up at all?” Nate asked quietly. Adam found another bandage and began to fold it into a pad.
“He’s stunned,” Adam said. “But it’s just a crease. He’ll wake up soon.” His voice was firm, but the hand he reached to add the bandage to Nate’s hand was shaking.
Joe didn’t move, didn’t make a sound.
“Joe!” Adam said. “Wake up, buddy. Come on. Time to wake up.” He placed his fingers against his brother’s throat again, and was relieved to find his pulse still steady and strong. He cleaned the wound, pressed a pad against it, and wrapped a bandage around Joe’s head.
Marks laughed, rolling back and forth on his bedroll.
“Too bad, Cartwright!” Marks called. “Your brother don’t look too good.”
“Shut up, Marks!” Nate said through gritted teeth.
Marks closed his mouth abruptly and Adam sighed in relief. Marks’ maniacal laugh was bothering him more than he cared to admit.
“Joe,” he tried again. “Time to get up. It’s your watch, little brother, and I’m not taking a minute more than my share.”
No response. The bleeding had stopped, the shallow wound was clean, and the bullet had not penetrated. So why doesn’t he wake up? Adam thought.
Adam’s head throbbed. He thought about his father’s reaction to the news that his young son was shot by his neighbor after joining the hunt for a murderer. Joe had supported his decision to leave the posse and trail after the outlaws without question, and now that loyalty almost got him killed.
Affection and pride for his youngest brother rose up as a lump in his throat. I’m backin’ my brother, Joe had just said. Even though he had acted like a kid when it came to getting a haircut, Joe had been reliable, mature, standing with him solidly throughout the last few days.
Wake up, Little Brother. I really need you to wake up.
Nate picked up Adam’s handgun and slid it back into Adam’s holster. He slid Joe’s gun over too, tucking it under Joe’s saddle blanket.
“Seems like someone doesn’t like you Cartwrights very much,” Nate said mildly. “You’d better have your guns back.”
Adam shot him a slanted look. “We’re taking Marks to town.”
Nate nodded. “And I think I’ll ride with you for a ways. I don’t much fancy bein’ on my own after getting shot at by who knows who.”
“We know who it is,” Adam said. “And he’s after us-Marks, specifically. There’s no reason for you to stick around.”
“Who is it?” Nate asked. “I’m bettin’ it’s one of the boys from the posse, maybe?”
“Maybe,” Adam said. Marks was uncharacteristically silent.
“I figure the man whose wife was killed would have the most reason to chase you and shoot at you in the dark.”
“His name is Flint Johnson.”
“Is he the one that killed my brother?”
“I don’t know,” Adam said, his hands busy on Joe’s wound. “I wasn’t there when your brother was killed.”
“A very careful answer,” Nate said. He watched Adam pull Joe into a more comfortable position, his hands checking the pulse at his neck again.
“Saw a feller act this way once after getting hit in a bar fight,” Nate remarked. “Took him three days to wake up, but he turned out okay.”
Now that Marks’ voice was silenced, Adam began to wish that Nate would shut up, too.
Adam reached for the coffee pot, poured in some water from his canteen, and began to search for another packet of willow-bark tea.
“Cartwright,” Nate said. “Look to your brother. He moved his hand. I think he’s waking up.”
“Thank God,” Adam whispered. He set the coffee pot down harder than he intended. It had been too many long minutes since Joe had fallen limply into his lap. Too damn long.
Adam bent over Joe once more. “Come on, Joe. Open your eyes.”
Joe remained still. Adam pinched the skin on the back of his hand, and felt Joe’s hand twitch away from the small pain.
“Joe. Come on now, open your eyes.” Adam watched his brother’s face carefully, and he could see Joe’s eyes moving behind his eyelids.
“Joe, I need your help. You’ve got to help me, Joe. Please wake up.”
Joe’s head rolled slightly toward Adam’s voice, and he said something, but the sound was a jumbled moan.
Pleased with the result of this strategy, Adam repeated it. “Please, Little Brother, I need your help. Wake up now. Come on, Joe.”
Joe’s eyes twitched, then finally opened slightly. “Wha’ izzit?”
Actual words this time. Adam breathed a long sigh of relief. “Joe, no, don’t close your eyes, I need you to stay awake. Can you look at me?”
Joe blinked, once, twice, three times, struggling mightily to focus his gaze. “Stop yellin’,” he muttered. “And quit movin’ around. Both of you.”
Adam laughed shakily and lowered his voice. “Sorry, Joe. How’re you feeling?”
“Li’ m’ head’s ‘nside a bell.” Joe’s voice was soft, slurred.
“No, keep your eyes open, I need you to stay awake,” Adam said, tapping Joe’s cheek lightly.
“Why?” Joe asked peevishly. “Wassa matter? Lemme sleep.”
Adam felt the tension of the last few hours drain away and his headache faded slightly.
“You got hit in the head,” Adam said. “You need to stay awake for a little while. Here, I’ll help you sit up a little.”
Joe pushed Adam’s hands away, but Adam insisted on propping him up against his saddle. Joe’s pale face lost even more color as he did so.
Nate quirked his eyebrows as the older Cartwright tended his brother. He’d never much cared for anyone himself, and he watched curiously. Clearly the older brother was worried about the kid, felt responsible for him. Earlier, the kid had looked to his brother, following his lead. He’d even done a bit of protecting himself when Nate first threatened them.
“I’ll keep watch,” Nate suddenly heard himself say. “You and your brother get what rest you can.”
“Why should we trust-“
Nate held up his hands, palms outward. “I gave you your guns back, didn’t I? Besides, you’re in no shape to keep watch against a madman creeping around in the dark.”
Joe’s hand slacked out of Adam’s grip, as he sighed back against his saddle-pillow. Adam looked down at his brother, his own head pounding. It would be a relief to have someone else keep watch.
“All right,” he said. “Thanks.”
Nate built up the fire, pulled a blanket around his shoulders against the chill of the desert night, and began a careful patrol of the camp perimeter. Adam watched him for a moment, checked Joe’s bandages, and settled next to his brother, listening to him breathe.
Adam’s eyes snapped open and he reached for the lamp on his nightstand. Joe sounded frantic; he must be having a nightmare. He groped around, but the lamp wasn’t there.
“Adam, where are-we can’t! Why did they do it?”
Joe’s voice came from right next to him. He saw the starry sky and the glowing embers of the fire, and memory snapped almost painfully into place.
“Quiet, Joe, it’s all right-“
“Vannie’s dead, Adam! She had blood all over her dress!” Joe’s hands pulled at the blanket, then at Adam’s restraining grip. “She gave me pie nearly every time I rode past their place. She made the best sweet potato pie-don’t tell Hop Sing I said that. I told her I liked it, and she sent an extra piece to school with Billy every day for a whole week.”
“Easy, Joe, everything’s all right-“
“Shut him up!” Marks said, his eyes glittering. “Shut him up about that damned pie!”
“Why, Marks?” Adam asked, running a soothing hand across Joe’s arm. “Don’t you like pie?”
“Why does talk about pie bother you so much, Blackie?” Nate voice came softly from near where the horses were tied. He stepped closer, carrying an armload of wood. He stopped near the fire, letting the wood drop. “There are some sweet things you like better than pie, ain’t there, Blackie?”
“Shut up! Nate, untie me, this has gone on long enough! Untie me, or so help me I’ll grind your face into-“
“That’s no way to treat your friend, is it, Blackie?” Nate said. “‘Specially since you want me to rescue you-“
“Adam!” Joe’s voice cut through. “Adam! Are you all right? They took the prisoner, Adam! Please, wake up! I need to know what to do!”
“I’m right here, Joe,” Adam said, alarmed at his brother’s confusion. “You took care of things, and I’m all right. Lay back down, now, and rest.”
“Adam, are you okay?” Joe asked, his voice wavering and small-sounding. “Please, Adam!”
Adam felt a sting at the back of his eyes at the anxiety Joe must have felt when he stood alone against the posse. He put a hand on either side of Joe’s face and gently captured his gaze. “I’m right here. I’m okay, Joe. You stopped them. You took care of things.”
Joe seemed to see him this time, and sank back onto his saddle pillow. “Oh.” He looked around, still confused, but focused on his brother’s face. Adam summoned a crooked smile, and Joe relaxed back further. “That’s good.” Joe sighed and closed his eyes.
Adam wiped his own face with a shaking hand and sighed his own sigh in relief. He laid a hand on Joe’s forehead, checking for fever.
“You sure watch over that kid.” Nate was crouched near the fire, stirring the embers to flame.
“He’s my younger brother. I’ve watched over him all his life.”
Nate laughed, but there was no real mirth in the sound. “Couldn’t say that myself,” Nate said. “There was nothin’ I wanted more when I was growing up than to be shed of my family. Get away from havin’ to watch the little ones. Soon as I scraped up enough money to buy a gun, I was gone.”
Adam looked up from Joe’s face. “How old were you?” he asked softly.
Joe moaned slightly. Adam eased his head over, tilting it to examine the wound. Fresh blood trickled from under the bandage and he swore under his breath.
“Fifteen,” Nate said softly. “When you’re fifteen, you think you know it all. I only been home once since then, about three years ago. Kurt was about fifteen then.”
He ran a hand over his face. “Stupid kid thought I hung the moon. He had this way of looking at me-well, I just couldn’t admit that I’d been livin hand-to-mouth, takin’ jobs I had no business takin’, just to eat. Kurt, though, he was easy to impress, and I done my best to impress ‘im. If I’d known that meant that one day he’d head out after me-“
Nate threw a short stick into the fire, sending a shower of sparks up into the night sky. “My ma saw through me, though,” Nate chuckled. “She took one look at my broken down boots and my shiny gun, and she knew. She handed me a bandana full of food and told me to go before Kurt woke up in the morning. And that’s what I did. I ain’t seen any of ’em since.”
Adam held a piece of cloth tight against Joe’s head, and then looked over at Nate. He thought about Marks’ mother, and how she sent her son away with food and a new name.
“Cartwright,” Nate said after a long while. “I’d like you to show me where my brother is buried.”
The simple request struck Adam like a knife to his gut. He looked down at Joe’s pale face, and had a sudden need to check the pulse in his neck. Steady and strong, he felt it beneath his fingers, and let out a tight breath.
“All right,” he said. “We put up a marker about five miles from here, a little off the trail back to town.”
Nate nodded and turned back to feeding the fire.
The sound of a boot step crunching on stone froze them in place.
Flint Johnson stood just outside the ring of firelight, rifle in hand. His dirty shirttail was untucked, and there was several days’ growth of beard on his cheek. His red-rimmed eyes darted to Adam, over to Nate, then down at Joe. He ignored Marks completely.
Adam stood quickly, placing himself between Flint and Joe. Nate stood also, and Flint raised his rifle.
“Stay where you are!” Flint said. “You, too, mister. Both of you take your guns out of your holsters and drop them.”
Adam and Nate glanced at each other, but did as Flint asked. Flint took a step closer to the fire. He stared at Joe for a long moment, breathing hard.
“Is he dead?” Flint asked, his voice hoarse.
“No,” Adam said. “But he’s hurt. I’m not sure how badly.”
Marks’ mad laugh rang out again. “No witnesses, Cartwright! He’s going to kill us all!”
“Is Marks right, Flint?” Adam said softly. “Is that what you’re going to do? Get rid of all the witnesses to your revenge?”
Flint Johnson took a step closer and looked down at Joe, his face a stoic mask.
Adam knelt again, holding a bandana against Joe’s head.
Flint looked down at the rifle in his hands. “I don’t have anything to say to you, Adam. The thought that Vannie tried so hard to fight off that no good excuse for a man-I still can’t stand to think on it. I was glad when you and Joe joined the posse. And then you go and take sides with the likes of Marks!”
“I was never on Marks’ side,” Adam said. “I just want justice according to the law. Not a lynching. A legal and fair trial by jury. That’s all we wanted. At the time, I thought it was something worth fighting for.” He ran his hand over Joe’s bloodstained cheek. “Now-“
“According to the law,” Flint said, and spat into the fire. “You Cartwrights! You’re all alike! That’s what your brother said, too!”
“When did he say that?” Adam asked, curious.
“The last night you were with the posse. Billy asked him why he was against us, and Joe said he just wanted to see those men punished according to the law.” Flint sneered spat again.
Adam smiled, in spite of his worry. Good for you, Little Brother.
Flint’s face darkened. “You know as well as I do that the law is slow to act, if it acts at all. Marks could go free-“
“He admitted to the killing to Joe and me,” Adam said. “I think I can speak for Joe and say we are both willing to swear to that that in court.”
“What else are you going to swear to in court?” Flint asked, taking a belligerent step forward.
Adam looked back at him steadily.
“I asked you a question, Adam,” Flint said.
Adam didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “I’ll tell the truth,” he said. He felt Joe’s hand on his arm, and looked down. His brother’s eyes were open again. He looked back at Flint.
“I didn’t see what happened with Kurt,” Adam said, “but I did see you kill Schuster. You shot an unarmed man as he was taking a drink from the water hole.”
“He was trying to escape,” Flint said.
Adam looked from Flint to Marks. “I know what I saw.”
“No witnesses!” Marks’ voice had a singsong quality.
“No jury will see it that way,” Flint said almost casually. “My neighbors know what happened to Vannie. There’s not a man in town that would have acted any different, if his wife had been killed.”
Adam didn’t reply. Flint was probably right. A jury made up of Flint’s neighbors would likely set him free. He sank back on his heels, utterly weary in body and soul. I wish Pa were here to talk this over, he thought. I need to hear him say I’m doing the right thing.
“Your woman was the one that was killed?” Nate asked, addressing Flint.
Flint turned his gaze to Nate. He looked him over, trying to gauge whether Nate was a threat or not. “Who are you?”
“This here’s the man you want, Nate!” Marks crowed, nodding his head at Flint. “He’s the one that killed your brother! He shot Kurt down like he was a wild animal!”
Joe’s head snapped up, and he sought his brother’s eyes. Adam looked back, and his gaze said Wait, don’t move yet. Joe nodded slightly. But if I was standing in front of the man who killed my brother, I would be picking out a spot for my bullet, he thought.
Flint took a step forward, his teeth gritted tight, his body trembling.
“Easy, mister,” Nate said to Flint. “Let’s just all stay the way we are.”
Flint stared back, his rifle held steady across his chest, his eyes unblinking. “Your friend here killed my wife, and his two pals helped him do it! They deserved what they got, and if I have my way, I’ll kill this one, too!”
Despite Flint’s rifle, Nate stepped toe-to-toe with Flint, and looked into the older man’s eyes. “I’m sorry your woman was killed. But that don’t mean you had the right to kill my brother.”
“Your brother was going for his gun,” Flint said in a hard voice. “He was one of the three that done it, and he tried to run.”
Nate shook his head. “My brother was raised to never say a harsh word to a woman. He never touched her; I’m as sure of that as if I had been there to see what happened.” Nate pushed his finger into Flint’s chest. “You tell me true, mister. Was my brother comin’ to turn himself in, like Blackie here says?”
“He was lying! I knew he was going to run!” Flint said through gritted teeth.
“What about it, Cartwright?” Nate said, over his shoulder. “Was my brother tryin’ to run?”
“I wasn’t there when he was killed,” Adam said. “I don’t know.”
“What about you, kid?” Nate kept his eyes on Flint.
“I wasn’t there, either,” Joe said faintly.
Nate shook his head. “Well, it seems we have a stand-off. You say my brother’s guilty, and I say my brother never could have killed anyone.”
Flint’s gaze never wavered. “Your brother deserved what he got,” he snarled.
Nate backhanded Flint, and as he reeled backwards Nate snatched the rifle from his hands and stood over him, cocking the rifle’s lever.
“Cartwright, do you have a rope?”
Adam didn’t answer.
“It occurred to me, Mr. Johnson, that I have as much cause for hanging you as you do for hanging Marks. You killed my brother. You as good as admitted that you done it in cold blood. That’s more evidence that you had against my brother or Schuster.”
Nate paced around and around, circling Flint, and Flint’s wide eyes turned to watch his every move.
“Trouble is, there ain’t a decent tree in miles. On the other hand, I don’t need a decent tree. Not for the likes of you.” He paused, looking Flint Johnson up and down, resuming pacing around him. “I just need one a little taller than you.”
Flint was standing steady staring straight ahead, but Joe could see his hands, they were trembling, and gripping each other in an effort to stop the trembling.
Adam gathered his legs beneath him, ready to jump forward, but Joe put a hand on his arm. “Wait,” he whispered.
Nate kept circling around Flint, looking and looking. Joe was reminded of when he went to see the Petrified Man after reading the sensational story in the Territorial Enterprise, and had been disappointed to find only a pathetic human-shaped log half buried in a dry wash. Adam had said when you believe the unbelievable, then the truth looks shabby and small. That’s the way Flint Johnson looks now, he thought. Shabby and small.
Adam tensed again, and Joe’s hand tightened.
“Joe, I’m not going to let him hang Flint, any more than I’d have let Flint hang Marks,” Adam whispered.
“Wait,” Joe said again, looking steadily at Nate. “Just wait.”
“There’s a worn out old bristlecone pine over there,” Nate continued. “A dead tree that’s still standing, branches twisted and reaching, but no green left, no life, just the bleached out trunk and branches. That kind of tree should suit you just fine.”
Nate bent and pulled a rope from the back of a saddle. He slipped a loop free one-handed, and dropped the loop around Flint’s neck.
“How does it feel, Mr. Johnson?” Nate leaned forward and spoke into Flint’s ear. “How does it feel to be just a few minutes from dyin’?”
Flint sank to his knees. “You can’t-Adam, you can’t let him-“
“So now you want to prevent a hanging, Mr. Johnson? You think this hanging is unjust? Is it more unjust than killing my brother? He never killed anyone. But you’ve killed twice, two innocent men. Why shouldn’t you hang for it?”
Adam rose to his feet, shaking off Joe’s restraining hand. “Nate, I can’t let you-“
“Did my brother beg for his life, Mr. Johnson? Did he try to give you his gun?” Nate pulled the loop of rope so that the rope was tight around Flint’s neck as he knelt on the ground.
Flint closed his eyes. “Yes! Yes, he tried to give himself up!” His head came up again, however. “That doesn’t make him less guilty! He rode with a killer, and he’s as guilty as if he pulled the trigger himself!”
Nate threw the rope down at Flint’s feet. “That’s what I thought,” he said. “Once he stopped being scared, my brother would have tried to clear himself, rather than running with the likes of Blackie Marks. I just wanted to hear you say it.”
Flint sat back on his heels, breathing hard, like he had just lost a race.
“What’s happened to you, Flint?” Adam said softly, taking another step to look down at Flint. “I thought I knew you; you’ve been our neighbor for years. But since Vannie was killed, there’s very little left of the Flint Johnson I knew. It seems that when she died, she took your morality and decency with her.”
“Shut up! Don’t you speak about her!” Flint swung his arm toward Marks. “You defended that-that animal! He wasn’t going to just kill her, you know! The bruises on her arms-she was fighting him, trying to stop him from-that’s why he killed her!”
Marks squirmed and pushed himself back against the rocks, trying to escape that gaze.
“I just asked her for some food!” Marks said. “She wouldn’t give me any. When I tried to grab a loaf of bread, she-“
“You’re a liar!” Flint said. “She had sandwiches half made, and there was pie wrapped up. Pie! She was packing a meal. She never turned a stranger away hungry. It had to be for you, ’cause she had just come back from bringing my son and me our dinner in the fields!”
“Shut up! She didn’t know nothin’ about me! Stay outside, she says, like I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t fit to cross her doorstep–“
Marks stopped, feeling everyone’s eyes on him.
“This is the man you are defending, Cartwright,” Flint said, pulling the loop of rope from around his neck. “You’d throw away your life, and your brother’s life, for this-this crawling dog!”
“Not for him.” Adam looked at Flint with all the steadiness he could muster. “For justice.”
“Justice for who? Vannie? He killed her, he admitted it! And he did it for no reason! Yet you say it’s justice to keep him alive?”
“He’ll pay for his crimes!” Adam said. “Do you think Vannie would want her husband become a self-appointed executioner?”
“Don’t talk like you know what my Vannie would think or do! You have no right-“
“And just what you are going to do when this is all over?” Adam asked. “What will you do, Flint, after you execute Marks? After you bury Vannie? If you don’t kill us, you’ll stand trial yourself for killing Kurt and Schuster, and yes, maybe you’ll get off. What will you have then? What will Billy have?”
Unnoticed, Marks crawled toward Nate’s bedroll, palmed a knife, and began to saw at the rope on his hands.
“You’re not the only one who lost her,” Adam said softly. “Don’t let Billy lose both his parents-“
Marks suddenly scrambled sideways, coming up behind Joe, grabbing him by the hair and pulling him in front of him.
“Back off!” Marks shouted. “Back off, or I’ll kill the kid!” He held the knife tightly under Joe’s ear.
Flint dove for Adam’s dropped handgun as Nate brought the rifle to his shoulder. Both of them took aim at Marks.
“Hold!” Adam shouted, desperation making his voice shake. “Hold your fire!”
The only sound that could be heard was Marks’ panting breaths. Joe moved feebly against Marks’ grip, but his hand inched toward the gun under his saddle blanket.
“I’m going to kill you, Marks,” Flint stood and extended the handgun straight in front of him. “Hiding behind that boy won’t save you.”
“I don’t think you’ll risk shooting the kid,” Marks smirked.
“He already did shoot him, you fool!” Nate said. “He won’t let anything stop him from killing you! The Cartwrights are your only chance!”
“Nah!” said Marks, but his confidence was clearly shaken. “He came back to check on the kid. He never meant to shoot him. He won’t do it again.”
“You think you know me, you scum?” Flint said. “You don’t know anything. Nobody knows anything.”
Joe’s eyes darted to his brother, startled to hear his brother’s words repeated by Flint. He turned his head to look at Marks, and felt the sting of the knife under his ear. Marks tightened his grip on his hair.
“Stay still, Joe!” Adam called urgently.
“Let him go, Blackie!” Nate said, walking slowly towards Marks and Joe. He pointed Flint’s rifle unwaveringly at Blackie’s head. “You know I’m a good shot. I’ll take your fool head right off from this distance.”
“You’re supposed to be helping me!” Marks whined, and clenched his fist into Joe’s hair.
“Never said I would help you.” Nate’s voice was cold. “Hell, I didn’t even untie you.”
“Yeah, well I’m helpin’ myself, now!” Marks called. “Cartwright, you got any feeling for your little brother, you’ll go saddle my horse.”
“You ain’t goin’ anywhere, Marks,” Nate said. “Cartwright, stay where you are.”
“I’ll kill this boy! I can cut his throat before you squeeze that trigger!” Marks said, and Joe winced as he pulled his head back further, stretching his neck taut. Joe saw black spots and struggled to keep his eyes focused.
“You never think anything through, do you Blackie?” Nate said softly. “You kill that boy and you won’t survive long enough to stand up, let alone climb into the saddle.”
“You should be going after Flint, not me! Flint’s the one that killed your brother!” Marks shrieked in Joe’s ear, breathing heavily.
“So did you.” Nate’s voice was quiet.
Joe moved his hand under the edge of his saddle blanket, feeling for the gun Nate had placed there earlier. He carefully shifted his leg, readying himself.
“I got nothin’ to lose!” Marks shouted. “Now get me that horse or I’ll spill his blood right here!”
Nate glanced at Adam, and nodded. Adam took a step toward the horses, stumbling slightly, trying to make sure that Marks’ eyes were on him.
Flint strode forward. “You are going to die, Marks,” he said with deadly calm.
Joe flung his head backward into Marks’ wounded shoulder. Marks gasped in pain, releasing his grip on Joe’s hair. Joe yanked at Marks’ hands with one hand, pulling at the knife, while trying to bring the gun out from under the blanket with the other. The knife scored a long bloody cut on the side of his neck.
Flint lifted his arm to fire. Adam dove toward Marks, falling across Joe as he reached for the knife. He tensed his back muscles, expecting to feel Flint’s shot, but instead he heard a rifle shot, and from the corner of his eye saw Flint Johnson fall forward onto his face.
He wrenched the knife away from Marks’s hand and flung it away. Bracing on his brother’s chest, he pulled back his fist and punched Marks in the jaw, putting all the frustration, hatred, and fear he had felt in the last few seconds into the blow. He heard Joe grunt at the pressure of his braced arm as Blackie Marks’ head snapped back and he fell limply away.
“Adam!” Joe wheezed. “Get off, I can’t breathe!”
“Sorry, Joe,” Adam said and rolled off his brother. He took the gun from Joe’s hand, and gripped Joe’s chin gently, turning it so he could view the damage done by the knife.
He let out a relieved breath. “It’s just a scratch.”
“I could have told you that!” Joe gasped. “Let me be, will you? I’m okay.”
Adam looked back to where Nate stood, his rifle still smoking. Flint lay where he had fallen, blood slowly spreading into the sand.
“You killed him,” Adam said.
“He gave me no choice.” Nate looked away, letting the rifle drop from his hand.
“He was aiming at Marks,” Adam said.
“You jumped in front of him. He couldn’t have hit him without shooting you or your brother.” Nate stepped over Flint Johnson, picked up the knife and stuck it into his own boot. “He was going to shoot you in the back, Cartwright.”
Adam looked at Flint’s body, and saw the glint of his gun caught beneath Flint’s chest. He looked over at Joe, who was still trying to suck in a full breath. “Thanks. I guess you saved our lives.”
“I can’t pretend I ain’t glad I shot ‘im.” Nate waved his hand dismissively. “He killed my brother.”
He walked over to Adam and stared down at the unconscious Blackie Marks. “I saved his damned life, too. I guess he really was born to be hanged.”
“Check his ropes and tie his feet,” Adam said. “I’ve had about all the surprises I can stand tonight.”
Joe sat up slowly, blinking like a nearsighted owl. He shook his head slightly, as if to clear his vision, but with that sharp motion of his head, his eyes rolled up white and he sank back abruptly. Adam leaned over to catch him before his head hit the ground.
“Damn fool kid,” Nate said softly, without heat. “Can’t even see straight, knife held to his throat, and he’s goin’ for a gun.” He looked down at Adam as he knelt over his brother. “Foolishness seems to run in your family.”
Adam glared back. “Get me some water!”
“I’ll get Johnson’s canteen,” Nate said, and moved to where Flint had tethered his horse. “He sure won’t be needin’ it anymore.”
It was just like before: calling his little brother’s name and getting no response. No eyelid twitch or wince away from pain. Joe was rag-doll limp, and the wound in his scalp had opened again, sending blood across his face and ear.
There was a strong pulse in his neck, though; steady, but faster than Adam liked. He bound up the head wound again, ripping the tail off Joe’s spare shirt to use as a bandage. Nate returned and silently handed him Flint’s canteen.
The canteen water was tepid, but cooler than Joe’s face. He sacrificed a small portion of the bandage material, wetting and re-wetting it to clean the blood away. Joe did not stir at his touch, and Adam’s own pulse rate increased.
“There, Joe,” he said, “looks like the cut’s stopped the bleeding.” His voice was shaky, unlike his usual confident tone. “Come on, Little Brother. Don’t do this again. I can’t stand this.”
Joe didn’t move.
Nate hauled Marks over to his blanket, and tied him, hands and feet looped together like a calf roped for branding. Then he dragged Flint Johnson’s body behind some rocks, to be dealt with later.
Adam watched him numbly, sitting back on his heels, his hands limp to his lap.
Nate watched him warily, as if he was a powder keg likely to explode at any moment. “Is he all right?”
Adam shook his head. “I don’t know. I think he needs a doctor.” He kept his eyes on Joe’s face as if counting his breaths.
Nate nudged his shoulder with the whiskey flask. Adam grabbed it with both hands and took a long pull from it. He handed it back to Nate, who took a drink, too.
“I’m sorry about what Flint did to your brother,” Adam said. “He didn’t deserve that.”
“His woman didn’t deserve what happened to her, either,” Nate replied with a sigh. He scrubbed his hand across his lower face. “I was hopin’ that old trapper was wrong, but it turns out everything he said was true.” He looked over at the rocks that hid Flint’s body from view. “It’s funny-the only man I really wanted to shoot is that low-down Paiute Scruggs.”
Adam reached over and took the whiskey flask from Nate’s hand. He tilted it to his mouth, savoring the burning smoky taste on his tongue.
Joe could hear voices arguing over his head, buzzing like insects, but he could not make out any words. Then he heard Adam’s voice-stiff, but not loud, and he tried to anchor his ears to it, hang on until some of the words started to make sense.
“-needs a doctor-“
Doctor? Marks must have taken a turn for the worse. His wound was likely infected. I wonder who actually shot him, Adam or me? He remembered feeling glad at the time that Marks hadn’t been more badly hurt.
What will Pa think of all this? He thought dreamily. It seemed vaguely important that he ask Adam something, but he couldn’t think what.
“-didn’t deserve that-was wrong-“
Joe frowned. Adam sounded worried. He struggled to open his eyes, scrabbling in the dirt next to his side for his gun, reaching down finally, to find that his holster was empty. He kicked his legs sideways.
The voices stopped abruptly. He felt someone brush his elbow, and he twitched his arm in response.
“Joe?” Adam said softly, and Joe felt his brother’s hand on his cheek.
“Adam.” Joe kicked out again, trying to open his eyes. He managed to crack his eyelids. Adam’s face swayed and bucked in front of him.
“Y’okay?” Joe asked. “W’ass goin’ on?”
“Stay still, Joe, it’s all right.” The relief Adam felt at hearing Joe’s voice again made him swallow hard. “Everything’s fine. You just rest.”
Nate watched Adam settle Joe back down on the blanket.
“It’s strange,” Nate said when Joe was quiet again. “I never wanted to do anything but get away from my family. But now I’ve seen what family can mean, what it could’ve been for me-“
Adam nodded. “Flint loved his wife very much.”
Nate stared at Adam.
“What?” Adam said.
“That’s not the family I meant.”
Adam wiped his sleeve across his forehead. “I’m not up to solving riddles. What did you mean?”
“I meant your family. You and your brother. The way you look out for each other. The way he took care to see you comfortable last night. The way you worried about him when he was hurt. And just now-the kid could barely hold his head up, and he still tried to get the drop on Marks when he saw you were in trouble. That’s what I meant.”
Nate looked away, his mouth working as if to hold something back. Then he spoke again, softer this time.
“I never had that with my brother-” he turned further away, cursing under his breath. “He wanted to meet up with me, Kurt did. But I wasn’t around, so he took up with the likes of Blackie Marks.”
Adam shook his head. “I’m sorry. You and your brother-maybe if he had never met Marks-“
Nate smiled, but it was a self-deprecating, inward looking smile. “It wasn’t just him meeting Marks. It ain’t just one thing. It’s a thousand little things, each one pushing you away until you’re so far apart you don’t even know how you got there.”
Adam’s eyes widened. They were the nearly same the older-brother words he had said to Joe.
Nate looked down at Joe. “I’ll bet it was that way with you and your brother, too. Thousands of times pickin’ the kid up, wipin’ his nose, chasin after him when he strayed, keepin’ his feet on the right road. It’s never just one thing.”
Nate stood abruptly.
“I’ll help you get back to Virginia City, help get this mess cleared up,” he said. “Flint’s dead, but just the same, you’ll have your hands full with Marks and your little brother-” Nate’s voice changed on those last two words, and he stopped speaking.
“And then what?” Adam asked.
“I’m goin’ to bring Kurt home, see my sisters. And then I’m going to try to find my brother Sam.”
The wind was rushing, so loud, so loud, and he couldn’t hear his brother’s voice. He had asked Adam a question, he was sure of it, but someone must have opened a window because he couldn’t hear the answer over the rush of the wind. He was cold, couldn’t seem to get warm, and he wanted to hear Adam’s answer to his question. He tried to reach for his blanket, but his arms wouldn’t work. He raised his head, and the pain stabbed from his ear to the back of his head, and he groaned.
“Shh, Joe, stay still, it’s all right.” Adam’s voice. The wind sounds faded as the wave of pain ebbed away.
“Where are we?” Joe asked dreamily.
“We’re home,” Adam said quietly. “You’re safe in your own bed.” Thank God, he added to himself.
“When did we get home?”
“Oh.” Joe thought about this. He crooked his knee restlessly. “I don’t remember getting home.”
Joe’s peevish tone made Adam smile slightly. “You were smart enough to sleep through most of it.”
“So we did it, then?” Joe asked. “We got Marks back for trial?”
“We did. He’s in jail. The circuit judge will be here next week. Marks will have his fair trial.”
“He’s going to hang, isn’t he?”
Joe thought about this, but it was too hard to understand right now, and he had something he needed to ask.
“What was it for, Adam?” he plucked at his brother’s robe sleeve. “We did the right thing, we tried our best, didn’t we? But Nate’s brother and that man Schuster are dead. Flint and Vannie are dead. Billy is God knows where-“
“Billy came home to bury his folks,” Adam said softly. “He’s decided to stay on at his place.”
“I’m glad.” Joe shifted restlessly. “But what was it for?” he asked again. “We did the right thing, but it seems like we made everything worse, somehow.”
“We did our best, Joe. That’s all we could do,” Adam said. “We had no obligation to be perfect, nor to judge anyone else. Our only obligation was to be faithful.”
“Faithful to what?”
“Faithful to our principles. At least, I used to think that was our only obligation.”
“Isn’t it?” Joe asked, yawning. “I thought you said sticking to our principles was more important than anything.”
Adam ran his hand down his brother’s arm. “No. There are some things more important than principles.”
He pulled the blanket up higher under Joe’s chin. “You rest now, Joe.”
Joe sighed and closed his eyes, still listening to his brother’s voice.
Many, many thanks to pjb for helping me ‘kill my darlings’ through ruthless editing. You suggested I delete three useless characters, and the story starting moving again after those changes. Thank you so much, oh Queen of Commas and straightener of wandering storylines!
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
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