A Man That Studieth Revenge (mcfair_58)

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Summary:  A WHB & WHN for ‘The Last Haircut’, ‘Marie, My Love’, and ‘The Hayburner’ with a nod to ‘The Truckee Strip’ and ‘The Crucible’. Everyone in Virginia City knew Duke Miller had gotten away with murder, but there were few who knew he had done it before. At the heart of his hate lay one man and but a single goal: the complete and total destruction of Joe Cartwright.

Rated PG-13 for Western brutality and lots of angst and SJS

Word count: 72,114

A Man That Studieth Revenge

 

‘This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge keeps his wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.’  Francis Bacon

—–

Interlude One – Autumn 1862

“Joseph, son. Hold on. I’m right here with you. Little Joe…do you hear me? Joseph, you have to hold on.”

He didn’t know how he’d made out that one voice. There were a whole passel of them circling him like buzzards on the wing, swooping and diving; coming close and fading away.

Everything was fading away.

“What the…happened?

“Where did…come from? …anyone see?”

“There! …from there!?”

“Where….?”

“…bad…someone…for…the Doc.”

“…shot….”

“Who?”

Me, Joe thought. Shot…me.

I’m shot.

Something touched his head – a feather-light touch like a dry, brittle leaf brushing his skin – the kind that turned to dust.

Dust to dust.

“Where’s your brother?” one voice rose above the clamor of the kettle of buzzards to ask. “Where’s Hoss?”

“…went to get….”

“Good Lord!”

Yeah. The Lord was good, and that was a good thing. He supposed he was gonna see Him soon.

That was, after the buzzards got done picking his bones.

Another leaf fell, brushing his shoulder this time.

This one must have been made of lead ‘cause it hurt like Hell.

“He moved. Adam, did you see?”

It had to be late in the season, ‘cause the leaves kept falling. One landed on his forehead.

“Joe….listen to me. Fight. Damn it! Fight! You’re not allowed to….”

Die.

That’s what he was doing, wasn’t it?

Dying.

That’s why the leaves were turning to dust and everything was vanishing. Someone had shot him and left him like carrion on the street for the buzzards to pick clean. They weren’t hovering anymore. They were right there with him. Their wings beat against his face.

Their breath smelled of death.

His death.

“…move aside! Get…my way!”

Whoever that was, was mighty upset. Maybe they didn’t want him to die.

Maybe it was Hoss, but no, Hoss was gone.

Like he’d be gone.

Soon.

“Can you hear me? Little Joe? Blink, if you can hear me.”

He could hear whoever it was, but he couldn’t blink. Not only was everything fading, but everything was shutting down like the Palace after the final show.

Someone had put the lights out.

“…serious.”

“…save him?”

“…in…deep….bleeding out…”

Another leaf fell on Joe’s shoulder. This time it didn’t hurt, even when it sliced open his skin and reached inside.

Nothing hurt. Everything was…

Fine.

“Paul…what?”

“God God!”

“No, Joe!”

“Joseph, no!”

He wished he’d had the energy to snort. He’d never been good at following orders.

Opening his eyes, Little Joe Cartwright took one final look at his father and brother. It took all that was left in him, but he managed a smile and a single word.

“Yes.”

 

——

Part One – The Set-up, Early Spring 1846

ONE

 “Oui.”

“I don’t get it.  ’We’ what?”

Exasperated, Marie Cartwright rolled her eyes.  “’Oui’ means ‘yes’.”

“Then why don’t you just say ‘yes’?  Seems to me you could save a lot of time.”

“Why don’t you learn French?” she snapped back.  “It seems to me that would save a good bit of time!”

“Now don’t you go getting’ all high-handed and uppity with me, you –”

“Marie?  Is there a problem?”

The beautiful blonde woman turned toward the doorway.  Silhouetted in it was her handsome husband of five years.  The sight of Ben Cartwright, with his thick head of silver-black hair, velvet-brown eyes, and physically powerful figure never failed to elicit a sigh – or bring a thrill.

Non,” she replied as she turned back with a little smile of triumph.  “Mister Maitland was helping me choose a new hat.”

“Oh?” Ben asked as he stepped into the milliner’s shop.  “May I see it?”

Actually, she hadn’t settled on one yet, though the tall top hat fashioned of pleated green velvet, with its profusion of black and crimson feathers that Mr. Maitland held was calling out to her.

In French.

Ben came over to the haberdasher and held out his hand.  “May I?” he asked.

Barney Maitland quailed in her husband’s presence.

As rightly he should.

“Certainly, Mister Cartwright.  Anything for one of my best customers.”

The Maitlands’ shop catered to both men and women.  She usually dealt with Mrs. Maitland, who was by far a superior human being to her husband – and not just because Sarah approved of her.  Though that was a plus since so many in the settlement did not.   Sarah was a cultured woman who had been reared in Philadelphia before coming out West.

Which begged the question of why she had married Barney Maitland whose idea of culture was a magic lantern show at the Palace.

“Marie?”

She blinked.  “Forgive me, mon cher.”

Her husband tapped the end of her nose.  “Remember what I told you.”

She did,  some of the time, except when her mind wandered – which was most of the time.

Marie drew in a breath and said it with him.

“Focus.”

Ben smiled as he took hold of her shoulders.  He turned her toward the looking glass on the counter and then picked up the hat.  A moment later, he put it right back down.

“No,” he said.

“No?” she asked, peering at him in the mirror.

“Everything in its proper order,” Ben replied and then took hold of her shoulders again, spun her around, and kissed her on the lips.

There was a round of applause.

She knew it wasn’t from Barney Maitland.

“You think maybe we should be expectin’ another baby…er, Little Joe soon?” a young voice asked.

“Don’t you think one is enough?” a slightly older voice answered.

Marie looked over her husband’s shoulder.  Two handsome young men occupied the doorway of the shop.  For a second, panic seized her.  Then she realized her mistake – it was three handsome young men.

“Adam, let me down!  Let me down, Adam!” her son cried.  “I ain’t no baby!”

The blonde woman winced as her gaze shot to her husband.  Ben was a stickler for speaking correctly.  She would have to have a chat with Hoss about his grammar soon – though if the truth be known, her own suffered a tiny bit from her French upbringing.

Her husband opened his mouth, but Hoss beat him to it.

“’Ain’t ‘ain’t a word, Little Joe!  Don’t you know that?”

Adam sighed.  “Talk about the pot calling the kettle black….”

“I don’t see no pot,” her son replied.

Marie glanced at her husband.  Ben’s look was stern – but it was faux as well.  His lips drew into a line and then they began to tremble.   The poor man’s eyes filled with tears and he began to laugh – a big hearty laugh that even had the dour Barney Maitland smiling.

Ben knelt and held out his arms.  “Come here, you little scamp!”

Adam held her son tightly.  As Joseph squirmed, he turned to Hoss and asked, “So, which one of us is the scamp?”

“I’s the scamp!” her petit Joseph proudly proclaimed as he wriggled free.  Marie gasped as the four-year old’s feet hit the ground, for he almost toppled over.  Her smile returned as her little boy dashed across the shop and hurled himself into his father’s arms.  “I is Papa’s little scamp!”

Ben rose with Joseph in his arms.  As he carried their son to her side, Marie heard Adam remark wryly to his brother, “I wonder how many years it will take Joe to figure out just what ‘scamp’ means?”

“Beloved,” she said as she ruffled her son’s golden-brown curls.  Pressing her lips to his forehead, she repeated, “Beloved.”

Joseph wrinkled his nose.  Then he rolled his eyes.

“No more kissin’.  Big boys don’t gets kissed!”

This time Adam laughed.  “I’ll have to remember that.”

“I like it when Ma and Pa kiss,” Hoss said.

“Me too!” Joseph proclaimed.  “Kiss Mama now, Pa!”

“Yeah, Pa!  Kiss Ma again!” Hoss shouted.

Ben put Joseph’s feet on the floor.  He turned toward their boys and took a bow.  “Your wish, my fine young gentlemen, is my command.”

And then he kissed her again.

About ten seconds later Barney Maitland cleared his throat.

Ben swung her around and looked over her at the boorish little man.  “Yes?”

“Do you or don’t you want to buy the hat?”

Her husband frowned.  He picked the top hat up – and put it on his head.  Pivoting, he looked at Adam and Hoss.

“What do you think, boys?”

As the pair snickered, Joseph tugged at his papa’s pants’ leg.

Ben looked down.  He was careful not to dislodge the hat.  “Yes, son?”

“You look funny.”

Her husband cocked his head and looked in the mirror.  “Really?  You think so?”

Marie sighed.  Ben actually looked quite rakish in that green velvet top hat.

“I think mama ought to wear it.  She’s prettier than you.”

“Joe’s right, Pa,” Adam said solemnly.  “Marie is prettier than you.”

“Critics!  Everyone is a critic!” her love said.  Then he turned to Barney Maitland, the feathered hat still jauntily perched on his head.  “Do you have an opinion?”

Barney spluttered.

“The…the customer is always right?”

Ben thought a moment and then nodded.  “True.  So true.  And this customer thinks that this hat is perfect for his fair and lovely lady.”  Her husband took the hat off and plunked it on her head.  He studied her a moment and then adjusted it a smidgen to the right.  “C’est magnifique!”

Marie cocked her head and turned to look at the haberdasher.  “Oui?” she asked as Ben opened his wallet and drew out a large roll of bills.

Barney eyed the roll and then eyed her.

Oui.”

 

It was later in the day, mid-day, in fact, when Ben Cartwright rode into the yard to find the Ponderosa had visitors.  He’d been out in the fields talking to the man he’d put in charge of moving their current stock to fresh pastures.  It was also calving season, so there’d been young ones to feed and dry amidst the background cries of their slightly older siblings who were being weaned away from their mothers.  Ben couldn’t help but smile.  That was something he had never experienced until now.  His two older sons had lost their mothers in infancy, so if there was any weaning to do, it had been away from him!  With Joseph the Almighty had allowed nature to take its natural course.  The boy was four years old and just beginning to exert his independence.  Well, that wasn’t quite true.  Joseph had always been independent.

Ben snorted as he pulled up on the reins and brought his horse to a stop.

To put it mildly!

Still, Petit Joseph, as his mother preferred to call him, was still attached to his mother’s apron strings.  And that was all right.  His older sons had missed out on that sense of grounding a woman brought to a child’s life.  While fathers were made by God to teach their sons to be good and useful men, to bring them up with an understanding of right and wrong, and to prepare them to take on the world, a mother’s role was different.  A good woman was a man’s sanctuary; the place where he knew he was completely accepted – as he was – and safe.  Joseph was unlike his brothers.  He had a need of that.

A deep need.

“You gonna sit up there on that damn horse lookin’ like a king all day, or you gonna come down here and mingle with us common folks?” a wry voice asked.

Ben met his friend’s cynical stare with a smile.  “Hello, Enos.  What brings you out to the Ponderosa today?”

“I heard tell you got yourself some broken-down old horse meat you’re wantin’ to be rid of.  As a friend, I thought I’d take a look.”  Enos grinned.  “I might just take pity on you and take them off your hands.”

That was Enos Milford.  Short, stocky, sandy-haired and ornery as ever.  Enos knew full well the horses he had for sale were top of the line.

Ben slid off the saddle and walked his mount to the hitching rail where he quickly tethered him.  Turning, he met Enos’ cocked eyebrow with a raised one of his own.

“Do you have a compliment of soldiers at your place?” he asked.

Enos’ other brow popped up to match the first one.

“Have you gone mad, Ben?  What in Tarnation are you talkin’ about?”

Ben was pulling off his gloves.  “Well, I figured if you need that much horse ‘meat’, Cora must be cookin’ up enough mince pies to feed Kearney’s army.”

Enos stared at him for a moment and then burst into laughter.  “Palamino pie?” he snorted.

Ben was laughing too.  “How about Pinto pie?”

The older man snorted.  “You ask Cora, she’d tell you she’d be right happy to mince up a thoroughbred.”

The rancher motioned his old friend over to the table on the porch and then indicated they should sit down.  There was already a pitcher of cold, clean water on its surface and he poured them both a glass.

“Cora still giving you grief over buying that race horse?” Ben said after he took a sip.

“That old lady ain’t stopped talkin’ about anythin’ else.”  Enos affected an air.  “Enos Milford, you old fool!  You’re gonna get yourself killed, and then what in the world am I gonna do?!”

Ben was smiling.  “What did you tell her?”

“Well, I told her she weren’t pretty enough to sell herself, so I figured she’d have to take up washing clothes.”

“Good grief!” Ben exclaimed.

Enos was nodding his head. “Yeah.  Anyhow, sleepin’ in the barn a couple of nights was kind of peaceful, if you know what I mean?”

Ben shook his head.  Women were a whole other country.

“Anyhow, Ben, where’s these horses you’re wantin’ to get rid of?”

“Sell, you mean?”

The sandy-haired man leaned back in his chair.  “How about a trade?”

“You offering me that race horse?” he asked, knowing full well his friend knew what he thought about a ranch horse that couldn’t pull its own weight on a ranch.

“She ain’t for sale.  Love of my life.”  Enos leaned in. “Now don’t you go tellin’ Cora I said that.”

Ben crossed his heart.  He shook his head.  “Never.”

“I just happened me into some supplies the other day.  Funny you should mention the army.  A load of them boys was goin’ past my place.  They were lookin’ to shed some of their goods since they only had a day or two of ridin’ left.”  Enos grinned.  “I got me a barrel-load of nails and tools, pots and pans, rope and just about everythin’ else you can think of includin’ about a dozen rifles I’ll give you at a good price.”

Ben’s eyebrow stance matched his friend’s.  “Rifles?  The army let go of rifles?”  His head was shaking again.  “Enos, I find that hard to believe.”

“I did too.  But they showed me the paperwork signed by their sergeant.  Looked official.”

“Looked?”

Enos was scowling.  “Well, I ain’t exactly an expert on army signatures, now am I?”

Ben was thinking hard.  He could certainly use the rifles.  Many of the ones he’d carried along the westbound trail and brought to the Ponderosa were old and outdated.  And the pair of horses Enos was eyeing were surplus  stock.

Still, it sounded fishy and he knew Enos was not one to ask questions if the outcome of the conversation was to his benefit.

“Enos, I will be honest.  I could use the supplies – especially those rifles….”

“But?”

“I’m…uneasy about how you obtained them.  Are you sure these men weren’t deserters?”

“Why in the name of Sam Hill would a deserter sell off his rifles?  Use you noggin, Ben!”

Ben winced.  His ‘noggin’ was hurting.

“How about this?” he said with a sigh.  “You bring a couple of the rifles and the bill of trade, and we’ll discuss it.”

“Tomorrow?” Enos asked.

Ben thought a moment.  “Yes, that will do.  How about somewhere around ten in the morning?  That way we can get it done before noon.”

The older man stuck his hand out.  “You got yourself a deal, Ben Cartwright!”  As Ben shook it, Enos rose to his feet.  “Now, I suppose I better go get the old woman and head for home.”

“Cora’s here?” Ben asked, surprised.

“She sure is!”  He held a hand to his ear.  “Can’t you hear her fillin’ the ear of that pretty little filly you found in New Orleans with all of her nonsense?”

Cora Milford was one of the most wonderful women he knew – and Enos knew it too.  The common dynamics between husband and wife never failed to befuddle and bemuse him.  Cora and Enos acted, at times, like they would rather be anywhere on the face of the Earth than in each other’s company, and yet he knew they loved one another deeply.

It was a game he and Marie had never learned to play.

“Where are those young’uns of yours, Ben?  Seems strange to be at the Ponderosa without at least one of them showin’ their face.”

“Adam is helping move the cattle and Hoss is  assisting Dan with the calving,” he replied.  Dan Tollivar had taken his middle son under his wing.  Dan was a wrangler but, for him, he’d agreed to take eleven-year-old Hoss into the field.  His middle son loved animals and had a natural way with them.  It would be good for Hoss to learn the ins and outs of the life cycle of their main source of income.   “Dan will bring both of them home later today.”

“And Little Joe?”

The boy had been taking a nap the last time he saw him.  Joseph had recently moved to his ‘big boy bed’ much to the chagrin of his mother.  Marie had cried for hours the first night Joseph was absent from the room adjacent to theirs.  They had moved him down the hall, closer to his brothers.  He’d opened the door and gone in for a moment, careful not to disturb him, and watched his son sleep.  For once it had been peaceful.  Mama’s Petit Joseph was prone to restiveness, as if his body and mind continued at a gallop even when his body slowed to a walk.  The boy had nightmares as well.  But this day, he had been sleeping soundly and looked like an angel with his sweet face and head of golden curls.

“Joseph is as – ” 

He’d learned long ago that making an assumption usually led to disaster.

Today was no exception.

As he answered Enos’ question, Ben headed for the door.  At that very moment it opened inward and a white whirlwind exploded outward, roiling like a tempest to strike the back of his knees and send him flying into the air.  Most of the wind was driven out of him as he landed hard on his backside.

What remained fled when his four-year-old son landed on top of him; his small fingers clutching his pale blue shirt in a death-grip.

“I didn’t mean to do it, Papa!” Little Joe cried, tears streaking his powder-white face.  “I promise, I didn’t!  You gotta save me!”

Ben didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, his son looked so pitiful.  He gathered what breathe he had left and managed, “Save you…from…what?”

“Where is that little imp!  Little Joe!”

Now Cora Milford had an…unusual voice.  It put one in mind of nails on a chalkboard, especially when she was upset.  She also had a certain tone.  Little Joe hadn’t experienced it yet, but his older sons knew it well.  Cora sounded like a maiden school teacher in a very bad mood.

“When I get hold of that boy, I’m gonna….”

Ben turned and looked behind him.  Cora was in the doorway.  She too was covered in flour.  He, of course, could see the slight smile lighting the older woman’s eyes.  Joseph, with his head buried in the fabric of his shirt, could not.

“Don’t let her eat me, Papa,” he squeaked.

The rancher’s hand went to his son’s head.  The poor little fellow was shivering.

“Now come on, old woman, the boy can’t have done anythin’ that bad,” Enos remarked as he came closer.

“That bad!  That bad?  That little imp not only knocked every sack of flour in the kitchen over, but the shelf that held the honey too!  You should see it!”  She sputtered a bit at the end.

Ben sputtered too.  Not because of the lost flour, but because he knew what Hop Sing would say when he got back from town.  Not only would his Asian housekeeper be unhappy that Cora had been in his kitchen, but the fact that it looked like a snowstorm with sticky honey icicles would probably mean no supper for a week!

Turning back, Ben pulled his son a little bit clear of his shirt and asked – in his ‘pa’ tone – “Joseph, is this true?”

The little boy shivered and then nodded his head.  “It’s true, Papa, but I didn’t mean to do it!”  Joseph hiccupped with fear.  “I…was just tryin’ to help.”

He glanced at Cora, who rolled her eyes.

“Mama said she needed some flour and I know’d wheres it was,” Joseph said into his shirt.

Mama.

Ben turned back to Cora to ask where his wife was and had to stifle a laugh.

Marie looked very good in white.

“Joseph!” his wife said sternly, with a little stamp of her foot.  “You will come to your mama

immédiatement!”

Joseph’s fingers found his flesh this time.  “Save me, Papa,” he whispered.

Marie’s eyes did not hold quite the smile that Cora’s did.

Ben wrapped his arms around his little boy and rose to his feet – somewhat slowly.  He held Joseph close as he faced down his rather irate wife.

“Now, Marie, he’s just –”

“ ’Now, Marie’, my foot!” she exclaimed, stamping hers again.  “This little…coquin…found the ladder in the storeroom and while I was busy making pies with Cora – behind my back – pushed it up to the shelf above the fireplace, made his way to its top, and then climbed onto the shelf to get the flour!”

Marie was…well…hopping mad to put it mildly.

And amazingly beautiful.

Mon cheri,” he tried.  “Marie.  Joseph is here and safe.  Please calm down.”

Marie’s jaw set as her hands went to her hips.  Then, her nostrils flared.

Never a good sign.

“Calm down!  Calmez-vu?  He could have been killed!”

While that was true, in fact, he was kind of proud of the little scamp.  Such a maneuver took a lot of courage and spunk.

Somehow he didn’t think Marie would agree with that assessment of events.

Looking down, Ben saw nothing but those glorious golden-brown ringlets.  The sight about melted his resolve.

“Joseph?  Look at your papa.”

There was another shudder and then his son did as he asked.

“Are you sorry for disobeying your mama?”

There was a sniff.  The curls nodded.

“And do you promise you will never do such a thing again?”

Another nod.  Another sniff.

By this time Cora was smiling.

Marie, was not.

“Now, Joseph, I’m going to put you down.  You need to apologize to your mama.”

The fingers clutched his shirt.  That little head shook from side to side.

“…scared.”

He didn’t blame him.  At the moment Marie looked like a stallion ready to defend his brood.

“How about if I go with you?” he asked.   “I’ll put you down and then I’ll take your hand.”  He knew his youngest boy was tactile.  The touch of his hand would lend him extra courage.

Or so he hoped.

It took a few seconds.  There was another nod and then, slowly, the grip on his shirt lessened.   He placed his son’s feet on the ground and took his hand.  When the naughty boy didn’t move, a little pat on his cub’s backside sent him to face…reluctantly…his mama bear.

Joseph stopped directly in front of his mother.  He sniffed and then turned his tear-streaked face upward; his glistening green eyes shining through a veil of golden curls.

“I’s…sorry, Mama.”

Marie’s jaw twitched.  “What are you sorry for, Petit Joseph?”

“For getting’ the ladder when you told me not to.”

“And?”

“And spillin’ all the flour.”

“And?”

Joseph was thinking hard at this point.  He frowned.  “For makin’ Hop Sing mad?”

Ben cloaked his chuckle with a hand.

Marie drew in a breath and let some of her anger out with it.  It was a sign of what was to come.  Heaven help them when the boy got older and did something really wrong.  That angelic face, those eyes, and the look out of them were formidable weapons.

They could have melted a glacier.

“What about making your mama mad?” Marie demanded.

Joseph thought a moment.  “I’m sorry for that too, but I’m sorrier about Hop Sing.”

His wife looked surprised.  “Quoi?”

He wanted to know ‘what’ too.

His son drew himself up to his full but rather petite height.  “You and Papa,” he glanced at him, “will spank me and send me to bed.  But Hop Sing won’t make me no cookies for a whole year!”

There weren’t enough hands to stifle the snickers that heartfelt comment engendered.

Marie melted just like that glacier.  She opened her arms and invited her little boy in.  Joseph ran to his mother and dove into the embrace gladly, sending a cloud of flour up and into the air like a smoke signal.

“I love’s you, Mama!” Little Joe declared as he snuggled up against her.  “I promise I won’t never do nothing to make you mad ever again. Never!”

Ben sighed.  He really was going to have to talk to Hoss about his grammar, though why Little Joe chose to imitate Inger’s boy’s speech instead of Elizabeth’s he would never understand.

Marie was smiling at last – at him and over their son’s shoulder.

“A promise is made to keep, my petit one.   Do you mean to keep this one?”

Joseph nodded.  “Yes,” sniff, “mama.”

Cora finished exchanging a glance with her husband.  She turned to his young son and said, “Little Joe.”

Joseph peered out from under those curls.  “Yes, ma’am?”

“I don’t know about Hop Sing, but how’s about you help your mama and me finish up those pies?  Then you can have a piece.”

“Of the cherry one?” his son asked, visibly brightening.

“Sure thing.  You can even pit some of the cherries.”

There was another thing his son had that was going to cause trouble in the future – his smile.  It could stop your heart.

“Can I, mama?” Joseph asked, twisting and looking up at his mother.

“As a reward for telling the truth,” Marie said, careful to keep her tone stern.  “And not as a reward for doing what you were told not to.”

The boy ducked his head again.  “Thank you, Mama.”

Lessons.  They were so hard to learn.  Children were born with all the sins of mankind written upon their souls.  It was their parents task to wipe that slate clean and engrave upon it all that was necessary  for them to grow into a responsible, loyal, and loving man or woman.  His wife was doing a good job.  Marie was there for all his boys.

She was as needed as she was loved.

“Well, Ben, now that the crisis is over,” Enos said, an ironic twist to his tone, “how’s about you and me go take a look at that horse meat?”

Ben looked down.  Like his wife – and Enos’ wife – he was covered in flour, and a bit of honey too.

“That’s fine, Enos, but I’d like to change my clothes first, if you can wait.”

“The pies ain’t even baking yet, Ben,” Cora said.  “You men-folk have plenty of time.”

“Papa?”

Ben knew what was coming.  “Yes, son?”

“Can I come look at the horses?”

He hated to deny the request as the pair they were going to look at where tame, but there had to be consequences.

“Do you think I should let you?”

Ben watched his youngest son’s great love of horses war with his sensibilities.  Finally, he pouted.  “I s’pose not.  I was bad.”

“You did what you weren’t supposed to,” he corrected.  Walking over to son and mother, Ben reached out a hand and tousled his son’s curls.  “You are not bad.  You are a good boy.  You just…forgot that for a moment.”

Oui,” Marie breathed lightly as she kissed those curls.  “You are my bon boy.”

Little Joe stuck out a finger and touched his shirt.   Then he popped it in his mouth and beamed.

Ben looked down at the trail of honey dripping off of the top button.

He really did need to change.

 

——-

TWO

Marie Cartwright wiped her hands on her linen apron as she left the kitchen behind.  It had been quite a job to clean it up and quite necessary to keep the peace in their household.  Even though she was sure every speck of flour had been found, she was just as sure that Hop Sing would still manage to figure out what had happened!  Petit Joseph had been such a dear.  The little boy had carried a damp cloth and crawled under every table and chair in order to make sure the floor was without blemish.  So determined was her young son to make right his wrong, that he kept working as she saw Cora Milford to the door and bid her goodbye.  Ben had changed his mind and decided to travel to the Milford’s home along with the older couple to take a look at the rifles Enos had obtained from the army.  Marie could tell something was wrong.  Her beloved was preoccupied.  He even forgot to kiss her goodbye!  Ben mentioned something as he walked out the door about how it seemed odd that the army would let any rifles go – even nearly spent ones – and he wanted to make sure Enos had not been swindled.  After bidding the trio goodbye, she returned to the kitchen. The light was fading by the time she did and as she looked around, Marie panicked.

Joseph was gone!

Or so she thought.  Her sweet little boy had fallen asleep under the work table.

She’d picked her son up, kissed his tiny furrowed forehead, and carried him into the great room.  After placing Joseph on the striped settee and pulling a blanket up to his chin, she ‘d returned to the kitchen to complete her work.  It took her longer to finish than she’d hoped.  By the time she did, the light was nearly gone.  She and Cora had made a half-dozen glorious pies with everything from cherries to gooseberries.  She did not cook often, but it was something she enjoyed.

She would also enjoy the look on their Asian housekeeper’s face when he sampled her wares!

With one last glance at the kitchen, to make sure it was in proper order, Marie headed for the great room.  As she reached the settee she let out a little sigh of relief.  Joseph was there, laying on his left side with his face to the sofa back.  His covers were twisted about his little legs and his thumb was perilously close to his rosebud lips.  His papa had forbidden him to suck his thumb and he had done his best to obey, but there were times when need won out over will.  She did not mind.  Joseph was growing up too fast.  Only yesterday he had been an bébé, and tomorrow he would be a young man.  The time she’d spent married to Benjamin Cartwright had flown fast as light.  It did not seem possible that it had been nearly five years.  The Almighty had blessed her in so many ways, removing her from Hell and giving her Paradise.  Marie breathed in a sigh and let it out slowly as she sat beside her boy and reached out to touch his curls.

In her darkest moments, she feared it could not last.

Just as she reached toward Joseph, the beautiful blonde heard a sound.  Marie pulled her hand back and rose to her feet.  One thing she had learned quickly after coming to the West was the need to be ever wary.  They were twenty miles out from the nearest settlement and many came to their door with needs – some of them legitimate and others not.  With a glance at Joseph to make certain he was still sleeping, Marie went to her husband’s desk and opened the bottom right hand drawer. Drawing out a box, she opened it and lifted the small silver derringer from its velvet bed.  Ben kept it there just for her.

Just in case.

Pistol in hand, Marie crossed to the front door.  She rested her fingers on the latch and listened.  There were ranch hands without, coming and going, who should stop any trouble before it reached their threshold, but one could never be sure.  From what she had seen when she  last looked out the kitchen window, the yard had been empty.  It was near dusk and the hired men were about their chores.  Ben said he would pick up Adam and Hoss on his way home from the Milfords, which meant a detour to one of the higher pastures.  Hop Sing had not yet returned.

She was alone.

Except for her son.

Marie drew in a breath and waited.

There it was!  The sound.  Like someone…crying?

The beautiful blonde bit her lip.  Someone was in pain.  Or, were they?  Could it, perhaps, be a ruse?  She and her family were known for their Christian hospitality.  They could not abide to see anyone go hungry or without a bed.  There could be highwaymen waiting on the other side of the door.

Something fell, or someone stumbled.  The crying increased.

It nearly broke her heart.

“Mama?”

Marie pivoted to find a little face cresting over the settee back.  Joseph’s golden curls were still powdered white, as was his nose.  He was rubbing one eye with a fist, also white.

Her son yawned.  “Mama,” he said, “somethin’ woked me up.”

Marie considered the door and then crossed to her son.  Joseph’s eyes went wide as she reached out for him.

“How come you got Papa’s gun?” he asked with just a trace of fear.

She’d placed the pistol in her apron pocket. The pearl handle was showing.

Rapide, mon petit,” she said as she opened her arms and beckoned him into them.  “Quickly!  There is someone outside.  I do not know who it is or what they are about.”

Joseph came running.  “Are they bad men?  Will they hurt us?” he asked as she picked him up.

She shook her head.  “No one will hurt you, mon cher, not while your mama is here.”

Marie balanced her son on one hip.  She had a thought to leave him on the settee, but the thought was brief.  She did not want to be separated from him.  She and Ben had discussed it.  All of the boys were vulnerable, but Joseph most of all.  They were not rich, but they were well off.  Ben had showered her with silver and china and many lovely gifts.

There was always the threat of kidnap.

As they reached the door, she said, “Mama is going to put you down.  You will take my hand.”

He nodded and did as he was told.  “Yes, ma’am.”

Marie couldn’t help but smile.  So formal.   As she planted a kiss on the little boy’s forehead, she said,  “Je t’aime, Petit Joseph.”

His little hand touched her cheek.  “Je t’aime, Mama.”

The blonde woman sniffed back unexpected tears and then, slowly, opened the door.  Outside it was nearly dark.  It was spring and the days were growing long, so the light was still there, but it was a watercolor wash of purple and pink that did little to illuminate the yard in front of the house.  While holding Joseph’s hand, Marie pulled the pistol from her pocket and pointed it at –

She knew not what.

“Who is there?” she called out.  “Qui?”

For a moment there was nothing.  Then she heard someone shift.  The movement was followed by a stifled sob.

S’il vous plait, who is there?”

The answer was odd.

“No one.”

Marie frowned.  She could not be certain, but she thought the speaker was a woman.  She glanced about the yard and saw no horse.  Whoever it was had to be on foot.

On foot in the middle of nowhere.

Marie released her son’s hand and knelt beside him.  “You will stay here, close to the door.  Do you understand?”

His green eyes were wide.  “I’m afraid.”

She reached out to touch his cheek.  “I know you are, mon petit, but do not worry, Mama will take care of you.”

He shook his head.  “No,” her son said, his jaw setting in defiance.  “You need me, Mama.”

Marie blinked.  “Excusez-moi?”

“I’m not gonna let anyone hurt you!”

This time a tear escaped to trail down her cheek.  As her son reached up to wipe it away, she met his bold stare.  She knew him.  If she did not take him with her, Joseph would follow, determined to make certain she was all right.

Marie nodded.  “Together then,” she said as she clasped his tiny hand in hers and, together, they moved to the  far end of the porch.  The voice had come from there, somewhere in or behind the bushes.

Marie stepped off the porch and headed into them.  Whoever was there shifted farther back, deeper into the leaves’ embrace.

“No,” the stranger warned.  “You must go away!  He’ll know.  He will know!  Please, go away!”

“Who?” Marie asked as she parted the leaves with her free hand to reveal a pale face swimming in a pool of wild black hair.

“Lem!” she exclaimed.

Marie couldn’t see her well, but the woman’s blouse was white with some sort of colorful shawl tossed over the shoulders.  The golden fringe on the shawl was as tangled as her hair and entwined with all manner of bracken.  Her blouse appeared to have been torn.  One shoulder was exposed.

The flesh was bruised.

Marie glanced at her son.  Joseph was standing beside her, staring at the woman and chewing his thumb.  She wished he was in his bed asleep, but the Almighty had not seen fit to make it so.  In his tender years he had never been exposed to such a thing

“Is Lem your husband?” Marie asked softly.

The woman hesitated, and then nodded.

“Has he done…this…to you?”

The stranger looked at Joseph before replying.  She even reached out toward him.  There was a sadness in her eyes that spoke volumes.  This was a mother.

This was a woman in need.

Si.”

The next answer would dictate her movements.

“Does this…Lem…know you are here?”

“He…he’ll track me,” she breathed.  “I must go.”

Marie stood up.  “Oui.  You must.”  She reached out.  “Take my hand.”

For a moment the woman was at a loss.  Then she allowed herself to be drawn up and out of the leaves.   While keeping hold of her hand, Marie caught Joseph’s as well and began to draw them both inside.

The woman dropped her hand.  “No!  I won’t put you and your family in danger!”

Marie rounded on her.  “You are putting me in danger, and my son as well!”  She glanced at the dark shadows overtaking the yard.  “The longer we remain outside, the better chance of this man arriving.   Now come inside!  My Benjamin is due home soon and he will know what to do.”  When she still hesitated, the blonde added softly, “You are a mother, oui?”

The look out of her eyes was heartbreaking.

Si, Senorita.  I had to….”  She sucked in air like a drowning woman.  “I had to leave….  I had to leave my son behind with…that madman!”

Of its own volition, Marie’s hand reached for her crucifix where it lay hidden beneath the ruffle of her high-necked blouse.  ‘Saints and angels, protège nous!’ she thought.

Her next thought was, ‘Benjamin, come home soon!

 

Ben Cartwright ran a hand over his chin and sighed. “Enos, I’m still uneasy about this.”

He was uneasy about other things as well.  The ride to the Milfords had taken twice as much time as it should have as the older couple’s buggy had lost a wheel and they’d had to repair it before they could move on.  He’d meant to pick up Adam and Hoss long before this and be on his way home.  While Marie was quite capable, the rancher never felt comfortable about leaving his young wife home alone after dark.  She knew where the gun was and knew how to use it, but Marie was a slender wisp of a thing.  It wouldn’t take much to overpower her physically.  And should someone come into the house and threaten Joseph, well, she might lose her head.  Marie was impulsive and quick-tempered and prone to leap before she looked.  She would meet any threat to their son head-on and likely place herself in danger as he would if it came to any of their boys.

Or his beautiful wife.

“I’m tellin’ you, Ben, these fellers were right glad to get rid of all this.”  Enos pointed to the sacks laying in the corner of his barn and the dozen or so rifles leaning against its rough-hewn walls.  “Said they wanted to travel light.

Enos Milford was a friend of many years.  He was a bit of a character.  Adam had likened him to a snake oil salesman once and, though he had reprimanded the boy for a lack of respect, he had inwardly smiled at his son’s shrewd assessment.  Enos was an honest man who pushed the word to the nth degree of its meaning; just next to its opposite.  He was a wheeler-dealer and Ben had seen him – more than once – pay out for what ended up being a white elephant.

Ben eyed the rifles.  They were clean and fairly new.

Or a fraud.

“Where did these men say they were heading again?”

“Back to one of them eastern forts.  Kansas, I think.”

“And they left their supplies behind?”

“Ben, I’m telling you, they had other supplies!  These were surplus.  They wanted the money and didn’t want to be bothered with carryin’ them!”

The rancher looked around.  Like him, Enos and Cora lived in the middle of nowhere.  But then, just about everyone in the Nevada territory did.  The older couple was isolated.

Vulnerable.

“Have you looked inside any of the sacks?”

“What for?  Them soldiers told me what’s in them.  Extra provisions and such.”

“Do you mind if I take a look?”

The older man eyed him as if he was crazy.  “Be my guest,” he said with a gesture of his hand.

Ben crossed over to the nearest pile. There were about a half-dozen sacks.  He knelt and lifted one and was surprised by its weight.  With a frown, he undid the tie and reached in.  At first his fingers encountered nothing but grain, but then, there was something else.  He fingered the hard metal before drawing a handful out.

Holding a handful of coins up to Enos, he said, “Do you suppose they forgot where they put this?”

Enos’ mouth was hanging open.   “Money?  There’s money in them sacks?”

It was becoming increasingly clear to Ben what had happened.  Men, masquerading as soldiers, had relied on Enos’ naiveté and used his barn as a holding place for their stash, which meant they were coming back.

And meant as well, that they most likely planned to kill both Enos and Cora.

The truth was dawning on the older man as well.  “But…they was young men, ‘cept for one.  Nice fellows, all dressed up in uniforms.”

If circumstances had been different, it would have been amusing – the con man being so easily conned.

“Enos, you know as well as I that’s it’s not that hard to obtain uniforms.  Were they calvary?”

He nodded.

There had been hundreds of soldiers moving through this region over the last five years, many slaughtered by the Indians.  Most likely these outlaws had been in contact with the natives and obtained the uniforms that way.

“You…you think they’re comin’ back?” Enos asked, his voice trembling.  “I ain’t worried for me, but Cora….”

Yes, they were coming back, which meant Ben had a problem.  He had sent word by one of the hands to Adam and Hoss that he would meet them mid-afternoon.  He was already late and his sons would be wondering where he was.  But then Dan was with them, and if he had to trust anyone with his family’s welfare, it would have been Dan Tollivar.  He knew the man as well as he knew himself.

“Can you send Cora anywhere?” the rancher asked.

“I ain’t goin’ nowhere, Ben Cartwright!” Cora’s harsh voice proclaimed as she came down the steps that led up to the house. “What’s the old fool got himself into now?”

He hid his smile.

“Now, you shut your mouth, old woman.  I ain’t got myself into anythin’….”

Cora crossed her arms over her chest.  “So, what’re you gonna send me away for then?  A week’s vacation?”  She shook her head and sighed.  “I sure could use it, after puttin’ up with the likes of you all these years!”

“Why, you – ”

Ben put up his hands.  “Enos.  Cora.  We have more important things to worry about.”

“Like what?” she snapped.

He looked at the barn and thought a moment.

“Like setting up our own little con….”

 

Marie had wanted to put Joseph down for the night, but she was afraid.  So, instead, she left him sleeping on the settee and took the woman into the dining room.  Earlier she’d taken Renate – that was the stranger’s name – upstairs to the bedroom she and Ben shared to clean up and laid out some clean clothes for her to wear.  While Renate refreshed herself, she’d come back down and put on a pot of coffee.  When she heard the woman descending the stair she’d brought it, along with some bread, meat and cheese, to the table where they now sat talking.

At first Renate had refused to eat, but then she relented.  The poor beleaguered creature filled her plate half-full and began to pick at it, eating between sobs and sighs and furtive glances at the door.   While she ate, Marie studied her.  Renate was about her own age, in her mid to late twenties, though she appeared older.  There was an obvious scar at the edge of one eye and a long poorly healed cut along the cheek on the same side.  It looked like she had fallen and hit something.

Or something had hit her.

Renate’s waist-length hair was ebon-black with a deep blue sheen, like the coat of the splendid horse Ben had given her for her last birthday and then regretted.  The black was a spirited mare with a mind of her own.  Sadly, her reluctant visitor appeared to be no such thing, though the fact that she had run from a desperate situation seemed to belie her submissive air.  Her large expressive eyes were black as well, blacker than Ben’s.  They were set in a face that had once been beautiful, but was now wasted.  Renate’s Spanish heritage was apparent, not only in her name but in the cast of her skin, which was tanned by nature.  There was about the woman a restiveness, like a caged bird seeking escape.  It was all Renate could do to sit still.

“Would you like more coffee?” Marie asked, knowing it was a safe question.  The woman had refused to answer most others.

Renate looked up.  She blinked as if coming back from somewhere.  Then she held out her cup. “Yes, please.”

“You said you had a boy?” she suggested as she poured it.

The woman frowned as if she didn’t remember their earlier conversation.   “Si,” she said after a moment.  “One son.”

“How old is he?”

Renate’s gaze flicked to the settee where Joseph lay sleeping before returning to her.  “He is ten.  Almost eleven.”

“My son is four,” she remarked as she returned the pot to the table.

“Josef,” the woman repeated.  “My son’s name is Duardo, though his father calls him Duke.”

Renate’s tone suggested she did not approve.  “Oh?”

“Duardo means ‘prosperous guardian’.”  She made a face.  “His father would turn him into the beast that steals the treasure.”

Marie thought of Ben, of his gentleness with both her and their sons.

“I’m sorry.”

A tear spilled from her eye.  “So am I,” Renate said softly.  “I do not know…if, for the boy, it is too late.”

“Is that why you ran?  Your husband’s….”  Marie winced.  “His brutality?”

Renate pushed the plate away and rose to her feet.  She began to pace like a caged lion.  “He would have killed me.  When he drinks….he is even more of himself.  Lemuel is a cruel man, but he is cruelest when under the influence of el whisky.”

“Has it been this way since you married?”

Renate stopped.  She looked at her.  “I did not know.  He was…a different man…until the day we wed.  Once he owned me….  Querido Dios!

“Did you think of leaving, before this, I mean?” Marie asked.

“Many times, but I have stayed for the boy.”  Renate crossed to the settee and looked down at Joseph.  “Such a beautiful boy.  My boy was beautiful too….once.  I thought….”  She turned back.  “I believed I could save him.”

“But, now, you are not sure?”

“The boy he does things.  Such evil things.”

Marie frowned.  How could a ten-year-old be ‘evil?’   “What ‘evil’ things?”

“Duardo is bold.  Callous.  When he is angry, he takes his anger out on animals.”  The Spanish woman paused.  “I think he has even killed.  I have found birds…hares….”

Marie’s eyes went wide.  “Not on purpose, surely.”

Renate placed a hand to her head as she leaned on the closest chair back.  “I am not certain.  I….fear for him.”

Marie shot to her feet.  “I am wearing you out with all these questions. Forgive me!”  She indicated the door nearby.  “I’ve laid out one of my night dresses in the guest room.  Please, put it on.  Get some rest.”

Gracias,” Renate murmured.   She turned again toward the settee.  “Your little one?”

“I think I will have Joseph sleep with me tonight,” the blonde woman replied.  If the truth be known, not only was she afraid to leave Joseph alone in his room, but she wanted to hold her precious son close – to feel his heartbeat, to know he was there and safe.

“Do you have only the one child?” Renate asked.

“Of my own.  I have two step-sons.”  Marie frowned.

“Is something wrong?”

“No.  Well, yes.  I’m a bit concerned.  They should have been home by now, as should their father.”

The other woman paled.  “Madre du Dios!  I pray nothing has happened to them.”

Marie felt panic rise up within her, but no, she would not doubt.  Her love and her boys were in God’s hands, even as she and Joseph were.  Ben had gone to help Enos.  It could have taken longer than he expected, and the boys were with Dan Tollivar, whom she would trust with her life.

“I’m sure they are fine.  Now, you need to – ”

Marie stopped.  She’d heard a sound.  Renate had heard it too.

Her visitor looked terrified.

She’d locked the door behind them, she was sure of it.  Still, just to be certain, Marie crossed to it and took hold of the latch.  As she did, a blow fell on the thick wood that made it rock.

“Are you in there bitch?” a harsh voice shouted. “Damn it, woman!  How dare you run off?  How dare you think you could get away from me?!”

Renate was shaking from head to foot.  Joseph had awakened.  Her small son was rubbing his eyes and looking at her, a puzzled expression on his cherubic face.

As the blows and the vile words kept falling.

——

THREE

Ben shifted uncomfortably behind the bale of hay that hid him.  He had been kneeling for some time and was growing weary.  Earlier, he and Enos had persuaded Cora to go to the settlement to alert Sheriff Olin and Deputy Coffee as to what was happening.  Their main purpose, of course, was to get her out of harm’s way.  She had protested mildly, as was to be expected, and then taken off in the couple’s wagon just as the sun set and darkness fell.

That had been a few hours back.

The rancher looked around and then grabbed a small milking stool from close behind him. Sitting on it, he stretched out his legs, massaging the left one whose calf was threatening a Charlie horse.  It wouldn’t do him much good to fall flat on his face when he tried to stand up!  Ben looked toward the door and then at the older man sitting beside him, his back propped up against the hay bale.  He was softly snoring.  Enos Milford was capable enough, but if this was what he suspected – a band of outlaws and renegades who had left their stash behind with the intention of returning to pick it up – then his friend would be out of his element.  The men would come, no doubt, under the cover of darkness.  Perhaps they meant to pick up the money and guns and run.  Maybe, whoever they were, they had no intention of harming the Milfords.  But if they felt threatened, well, things could go bad.

Very bad indeed.

Settling back against the stall wall, Ben thought of his wife and smallest son and how his desire to help his friends had left them vulnerable.  It concerned him that there were outlaws in the area.  One never knew what they were capable of.  At times the temptation of a soft bed and a warm meal was all the incentive it took to prompt desperate men to attack a far flung homestead such as his.  He was concerned about his two older boys as well.  There was no way of knowing if Dan had camped out with them for the night or decided to head for the Ponderosa.  If it was the latter, then the three of them were on the road.  They might run into the men who had duped Enos.  Ben smiled as he ran his knuckles along his extended leg again.  He was sure Hoss would have pleaded to remain in the camp.  His middle son loved sleeping out under the stars.  Adam did too, but he was a thoughtful boy with fine sensitivities and would much rather have been at home with his nose in a book.  Adam had begun, of late, to express a desire to go to a college back East.  As a father he knew there was more at the heart of that request than a simple desire for an education.  His eldest son had been his good right hand all these years, but the boy wanted more.

He feared one day that siren call would lure Adam away and he would never return.

Ben shook himself.  “What an old fool!” he said softly, to no one but himself.  Adam wasn’t quite seventeen and here he already had him traveling the world and falling off the face of the earth.

Of course, that was what he had done at just about the boy’s age.

With a glance at Enos, Ben leaned his head back and closed his eyes.  It had been a long day and promised to be a longer night.  Still, he daren’t fall asleep.  ‘Let the eye of vigilance never be closed,’ Thomas Jefferson had said.

Ben wondered just how many nights of sleep Jefferson had missed!

Just as he settled back, a sound brought him to attention.  Ben stiffened and sat up. He listened for a moment and then reached out and gently shook Enos’ shoulder.

“Huh…what?” the older man sputtered.

Ben put a finger to his lips.  “Shh.  Someone is coming.”

Enos was awake in a second.  He caught up his rifle, pivoted, and then raised up, looking over the bale of hay.  “I don’t see anyone.”

“I don’t imagine you will.  Not yet.  I heard hoof beats. “  The rancher paused.  “Multiple hoof beats.”

“You think it’s them outlaws?” the older man asked, his fingers going white against the gray gun metal of his weapon.

Ben was listening,  He counted four, maybe five horses.  Two had drawn to a halt and the riders were dismounting out front of the barn.  They stood talking in hushed tones while the others milled about for a moment and then moved away.

“Them varmints!” Enos declared, a little too loudly.   “They’re headed for the house!”

“Enos!  Lower your voice.  They’ll….”

Too late.  The barn door was opening.

Ben heard the click of a hammer being pulled back and then a man shouted.  “Whoever’s in there, throw any weapons you got down and come out with your hands above your heads!”

Ben blinked.  He knew that voice.

“Roy?” he called back.

A familiar figure entered the barn.  “Who’s that?  Who’s there?”

“I’m going to stand up, Roy.  Behind the hay bale.”  The rancher did so and then rounded the bale.  “It’s me.  Ben Cartwright.”

Roy cocked his hat back on his head and let out a whistle.  “Ben?  What in Tarnation are you doing here hidin’ behind that there bale?”

“It’s a long story, Roy,” he replied as he approached his friend.

Roy took him at his word.  “You wouldn’t happen to know where Enos Milford and his wife are, would you?” the lawman asked.  “We checked the house and it’s empty.  I’m worried –”

“Leave the worryin’ to the women!” Enos declared as he stood up.  “I’m right here!”

Roy chuckled.  “And here we thought those varmints had taken the pair of you with them.  Good to see you, Enos!”

“We?” Ben asked as he came forward.  “Who’s with you, Roy?  Is it the Sheriff?”

“Robert ain’t here, Ben.  He’s backtracking the jailbirds we’re huntin’.”

“Jail birds?  Are they escapees?”

Roy nodded.  “They’re a bad lot, Ben.  Burned a farmhouse out just over the border.”  The deputy’s eyes narrowed as they met his.  “Had a woman and boy in it.”

Ben’s heart plunged to his toes.  He pushed past Enos and headed for the door.   “I have to get home, Roy.  Marie and Little Joe are there alone.”

“You’ll have to wait a moment.  Mr. Cartwright, is it?”

The rancher turned toward the new voice. He was surprised to find it belonged to a man in uniform.  A sergeant, by his stripes.

“You can’t hold me here,” Ben said.  “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

The soldier’s eyes went to the guns leaning up against the barn wall, and then to the sacks.  “Your close proximity to the supply of missing army goods says different.”

The  sergeant was about his age, mid-thirties he would have guessed, and seasoned like venison.  His hair was prematurely gray; his skin, tough and leathery from a lifetime of exposure to the sun.  The soldier’s blue eyes were a narrow fissure.  The thought behind them, just as deep – and just as impassable.

“Come now.  You can’t believe I was a part of this.”

“I don’t know what to believe, Mr. Cartwright, seein’ as how you’ve been caught with several thousand dollars worth of stolen goods.”

Roy was looking from the one of them to the other.  He winked.  “You gotta admit, Ben.  It don’t look so good.”

“Roy!” he blustered.  “For goodness sake!  You know me better than –”

He may, but I don’t,” the sergeant said.  “So why don’t you explain it to me?”

Ben wanted to strike the man down and march right past him, but he knew his resulting  trial and imprisonment would do Marie and Little Joe little good.

“Ben’s one of our most upstanding citizens,” Roy said.  “Got himself a spread outside of town called the Ponderosa.  Several hundred acres, cattle, timber, and more.”

“So you can see I would hardly be wasting my time stealing a few sacks of grain and a half-dozen rifles.”

The sergeant spat tobacco.  “Might of done it for the thrill,” he said, one eye narrowing even more.

The rancher drew a breath and sucked in his indignation.  “Enos Milford came to me this morning with an offer.  He’d bought some supplies off of a group of army men and wondered if I would be interested in trading a pair of horses I have for some of the rifles.  I smelled something rotten and came to check it out.”  Ben tried to control his temper, but there was a rising fear within him that made his words curt.  “When I saw what Enos had and discovered money in one of the sacks, I realized the outlaws had used him for a patsy and most likely intended to return under the cover of darkness to retrieve their loot.”

“Hey!  Who you calling a patsy!?”

Now, can I go?”

“What’s got you in such an all-fired hurry to get home?” the sergeant asked.

“If you must know, I left my wife and my young son home alone.  With all that is happening, I am more than concerned for their welfare.”

The soldier thought a moment before nodding.  “And rightly so.  These are desperate men, Mister Cartwright.   Some of them are deserters.  They’ve stolen from the army and they’re facing a firing squad if found.  They’ve got nothin’ to lose.”

“Good Lord…” he breathed.

“Now, Ben, we don’t know that they’re headed your way,” Roy interjected. “Odds are, they aren’t if they’re plannin’ on comin’ back here for what they left.”

“I have a half-dozen men, Mister Cartwright,” the sergeant said.  “We will assist Mister Milford and make sure he comes to no harm.  You’re free to return home.”

“Thank you,” he said and started to move.

“Ben, you want I should come with you?” his friend called out.

Ben glanced at Roy and then back to the sergeant.  “Would that be all right?”

The soldier nodded.  “We got us another deputy here.  Just so the local law’s represented.”

He was curious.  “Why, since these are army men you’re hunting?”

“Only some of them are, Ben,” Roy explained.  “They got some outlaws with them too.  Not sure why.”

“Wolves run in packs,” he snarled.

“How far to your place, Cartwright?” the sergeant asked.

“About ten miles.”  Ben glanced at the sky.  By the position of the moon, he knew it was near midnight.  If God was gracious, Marie and Joseph were safe and asleep in their beds.

He needed to take a deep breath and try to calm down.

The sergeant was watching him.  He must have sensed something.  “How’s about I give you an escort, Mister Cartwright.”  He turned and looked over his shoulder and shouted.  “Johnston! Get your scrawny hide over here!”

“I say….”  Ben paused, thinking of the best way to say he’d rather not.  “I appreciate the offer, but it’s quite unnecessary.”

The sergeant pivoted back.  One grizzled eyebrow was raised.  “And I’m sayin’ it is.  You look about as jumpy as a long-tailed cat under a rocker.  Nervous men make mistakes.”  The soldier met his defiant stare.  “These men don’t care much what they do, kill, loot…..”  He paused.  “That wife of yours pretty?”

Ben paled.  “Very.”

“That woman in the burned out house?  She was pretty too afore they did what they did.”

Point taken.

“Let me check in with Will and I’ll be right back, Ben,” Roy said.  “Won’t take me a minute.”

The sergeant turned, his eyes following Roy.  The soldier reminded him of a wary old stallion, too experienced to be caught off-guard.

“Sergeant?”

“Yeah?”

“You didn’t tell me your name.”

The man grinned.  “Reckon I didn’t.”

Ben stuttered.  “So…so is it just ‘Sergeant’ then?”  He’d never known of an officer in the United States Calvary that didn’t go by a name.

“Wish it was.  It’s not.”  The man raised a hand and waved one of the soldiers forward.  Johnston, at a guess.  “Name’s Zeke.”

“You have a last name, of course.”

Zeke snorted.  “Have it.  Don’t use it unless I have too.  Ain’t too proud of the other men wearin’ it.”

“They’re not in the army?” he asked.

“Not exactly.”  The soldier snorted.  “It’s Miller.  Ezekiel Erasmus Miller.  Now ain’t that a mouthful!”

“And your…brothers?”

Young Johnston had come alongside them.  He was in his early twenties, tall and lean, with wavy blond hair and a handsome if long face.

“Tell the man my brothers’ names, lieutenant.”

“Elijah, Samuel, Jedidiah and Lemuel.”

Miller nodded.   “And tell him what you think of them.”

Johnston’s unusual gray eyes shot to the sergeant’s face.  “Permission to speak my mind, sir?”

The sergeant nodded.

“Villains, every one of them but Samuel.  They’d as soon shoot you as look at you.”

There was a story here.  One he did not have time for.

“Guess them Bible names just didn’t do their job,” Zeke said with a sigh.

“You have a Bible name, sir,” Johnston ventured with a hint of a smile.

“And I’m just as ornery a cuss as the rest of them.”

“Sergeant…Zeke….”  Ben interrupted.  “I’d would appreciate it if we could get on the road.”

At that moment, Roy Coffee returned.  “I’m ready, Ben.  One of the boys is coming with us too…just in case.”

Just in case.

Just in case.

In case the worst had happened.

 

Dan Tollivar glanced to his off- side at the bone-weary boy weaving in his saddle, and then to the near side at the one lookin’ straight ahead, so goldarn dead-set in his ways that he should have been in a rockin’ chair, and let out a sigh.  Young’uns!  Any sensible man with his head hangin’ down like a pantin’ tongue would have looked at the sky, seen the stars smilin’and the moon risin’, and known the best thing to do was call it a night, bed down, and say his prayers.  But then, Adam Cartwright weren’t quite a man.

He was a boy, worried about his kin.

Things had started out all right.  When their Pa didn’t show, he and the Cartwright boys had decided to make a night of it.  They’d pitched their tent and got a fire going.  Even had time to put a pot on to boil.  Both of Ben’s boys liked his stories, mostly because they were about their Pa back when Ben didn’t know how to rope or ride or do much of anythin’ else it took to run a ranch.  He’d taught him.  Just like he was teachin’ these two.

Dan let out a sigh.  Now, if he could just teach that oldest one a little patience.

“I appreciate you doing this, Dan,” Adam said.  “I know you’re tired.”

“I gotta admit, I do feel limp as a wrung out fiddle string,” he said with a sigh.  “Calving ain’t what I do best.  All them little wrigglin’ young’uns….”

“Maybe you should have stayed at the ranch and taken care of Little Joe.”

Dan turned to look at Hoss.  The boy was near big as his brother, but – at eleven – he was one of them young’uns.  The poor kid was plumb wrung out.  The older man grinned.  At least, now that he was talkin’, he had less of a fear that Hoss would fall right off of his horse.

“I imagine Dan would rather wrestle a dozen calves, at once, with his hands tied behind his back,” Adam said with a smirk.

Those two – Little Joe and Adam – they was interestin’ to watch.  Adam sure enough loved the boy.  You could see it in his eyes and sometimes – just sometimes – even in a little smile on his lips.  The pair of them was contrary as a black horse in a field of white clouds.  While Adam was the calm after a storm, Little Joe was the lightning that struck without warnin’, scatterin’ all the steers.

“Now, Adam, don’t you go sayin’ nothin’ bad about little brother,” Hoss countered.

“If by ‘bad’, you mean ‘atrocious or dreadful’, I would have to agree,” Adam replied, just getting warmed up.   “However, if you mean ‘misbehaving and naughty’, I would tend to disagree.”

Ben should never have bought that boy a dictionary.

“Joe ain’t naughty!”

“By definition, that would be – disobedient and mischievous.”  Adam tossed a look at his brother.  “Seems to me that defines little brother pretty well.”

“You’re just an old stick in the mud, Adam,” Hoss pouted.  “Little Joe just likes to have fun.”

“Like the time he decided he wanted to cook a meal for Marie?  When Joe tied on an apron, spilled half of the contents of the kitchen into the fire, and then decided to chase down Hop Sing’s favorite kettle and nearly ended up getting roasted himself?”

Hoss was mumbling.  “Leastways, Joe knows he ain’t perfect.”

“And I think I am?” Adam snapped.

He ought to stop them.  But a little heat was just what the pair needed to warm them up – and wake them up – enough to make it home before the cows did.

“I know the ‘definition’ of perfect, Adam,” Hoss growled.  “Miss Jones talks about it often enough when she’s handing out ribbons.   ‘Excellent beyond practical or theo…theor…’  Dang it!”

“Theoretical improvement.”

“You think you’re better than me and Little Joe.”

That brought Adam’s horse to a halt.

So much for getting’ Ben’s boys home before dawn.

Ben’s oldest boy, he was close.  Adam was good at hidin’ what he was thinkin’.  Why, he’d be danged if one day he didn’t grow up to make a million playin’ poker!  Anyhow, the boy wasn’t hidin’ his feelin’s now.  He looked like someone had kicked his shin and walked away without apologizin’.

“Do you really believe that?” he demanded.

The eleven-year-old should have been quakin’.  He would have in the wake of that voice.

“You’re mean to Little Joe, and even though you ain’t mean to me, you’re always…doin’ what you’re doin’.”

“And what precisely is it that I am ‘doin’’?”

“That!  Makin’ fun of the way I talk.”  Hoss’ voice was rising.  “Correctin’ me in front of the hands and makin’ me feel ‘bout as small as Joe!”

“I never make fun of you.”

“Yeah, you do.  You just don’t see it, Adam.”  Hoss paused.  “Sometimes I ain’t sure you see anybody but you.”

Ben’s older boy was blinkin’, and probably thinkin’ too.  It took a moment before he replied.

“I’m…sorry, Hoss, if you feel that way.  Truly I am.  I would never….”  Adam choked.  “I care about you and Little Joe.”

Hoss was staring right at his brother.  “Yeah, I know you do, Adam.  What I ain’t so sure of sometimes, is if you love us.”

Dan was looking from one to the other.  Now how in Tarnation did he get caught up in the middle of this?

“Define ‘love’!”, Adam shot back.

“Gosh, Adam.  You know what I mean.”

“No.  I don’t. “  His little brother didn’t hear it, but Dan could – there were tears in the older boy’s voice.   “If by ‘love’ you mean letting you get away with whatever you want to do in spite of any danger, then ‘no’, I don’t love you.  If you mean giving you everything you want, when you want it, and damning the consequences, then ‘no’ again.”  Adam straightened in the saddle.  “Or maybe it means not caring about how you speak or dress, or what other people think of you because of it, when I know full well how judgmental and cruel the adult world is!”  The boy sucked in air.  He took a moment to calm his temper.  “But, Hoss, if you mean by ‘love’,  that my world would end if anything happened to either you or Little Joe…then, yes, I do.”  He sought his brother’s crystal clear blue eyes.  “I do love you.”

Hoss didn’t hide his feelin’s.  He had tears streakin’ down his freckled cheeks.

“I…Adam….  Adam, I’m sorry.”

Adam stared at his brother a moment before turning to look at him.  “Dan, you bring Hoss.  I’ll meet you at the house.”

And with that he kicked his horse’s sides and took off.

There was silence for a full minute before Hoss spoke.  “I made him mad, didn’t I?”

Dan made a motion and both of them dismounted.  “Come over here, boy,” he said as he took a seat on a downed tree.  Hoss joined him a moment later.  The old wrangler turned and looked at the boy, who was of his height, and reminded himself that this was a child he was speakin’ to.

“Little Joe ever made you mad, boy?” he asked.

Hoss nodded.  “Lots.”

“He ever done somethin’ you knew he should’nt ought to?  Somethin’ that would have got him hurt?”

The boy let out a sigh.  “Lots!”

“And what’d you want to do about it?”

Hoss thought for a moment.  A small smile curled his lips.  “Strangle him?”

“Why?”

The boy looked incredulous.  “’Cause I love him and ‘cause I don’t want him to get hurt….  Oh.”

Dan circled the big boy’s shoulders with his arm.  “Adam’s a big brother, but you’re a big brother too.  You ever think of that?  That should give the two of you some kind of understandin’ rather than makin’ you fight like two old women.”

Hoss was frowning.  “I guess, well, you know, so much of the time it’s just me and Joe.”

“You think maybe Adam is jealous?”

“Jealous?”  There was a lot going on behind those blue eyes. “Of me and Little Joe?”

“Of how you’ve had time, you and Little Joe, to be together.  Adam ain’t quite a man yet in years, but he’s been a man since he was about your age in every way that counts.”

“I know Pa counts on him.”

More than you know.”

Hoss nodded.  “Adam never got to be a little boy like Little Joe, did he?”

“Adam was on the trail out West when he was just a little older than Joe.  He had to grow up right fast.”

“The trail was bad, wasn’t it?  Pa’s told me a little bit about it.”

“It was bad, boy.  About as bad as it gets.  There’s an awful lot of little boys buried along that trail, that didn’t make it.”

“Cause they didn’t have a big brother to look out for them like I did?”

“Maybe.”  He lifted his arm.  “And maybe, ‘cause they didn’t know the definition of love.”

They sat there in silence a few moments before Hoss turned to him.  “Can we go home, Dan?  I’d….  I’d like to talk to Adam.”

“Soon said as done, boy,” Dan answered as he rose to his feet.

“Thanks Dan. Thanks for bein’ our friend.”

The older man nodded, fighting tears of his own.  “Always, son,” he said.  “I’ll always be here for your brothers and you.”

And he meant it.

 

The moon was high in the sky and the night, bright.  All the better to travel fast.  Adam Cartwright pushed his horse to reach the Ponderosa in record time.  Just short of the house, he reined in his mount and ran a hand over his face.

It was damned hard to ride with tears in your eyes.

What was it about him?  Why couldn’t people…see how he felt?  The irony was that he was a lover of words – practically an inamorato – and yet they failed him when it came to expressing his innermost feelings.  He loved his little brothers, his father and step-mother, deeply, passionately, and yet, he found it almost impossible to tell them.

Maybe he should write them a letter.

Adam snorted as he struck away the last of the tears as if, somehow, he could wipe away the shame he felt with them.

Yes, shame.

It had begun with Inger’s death, this need to shut off his emotions.  Pa was always busy and that left him with a growing baby to look after.  Oh, there was a wet nurse, but she had her own children to feed and most of the time it was just the two of them in the back of the wagon, jostling and bumping across on the unending trail to the West.  He had to clothe and change Hoss, make sure he was fed – and that was practically a full time job! – as well as keep a constant watch out the back of the wagon, looking for trouble.  Pa expected him to be a man and all he did was cry.  Hour after hour, day after day, he cried.  He knew Pa saw his red-rimmed eyes, but then Pa’s were not only red-rimmed but  blood-shot from fatigue.  Pa was good to him.  He gave him all he had.  But it wasn’t the same as a mother’s touch.

The touch he had known so briefly and craved so deeply.

And so, one day, he decided enough was enough.  They’d stopped in a one-horse town, if you could call a collection of three buildings and a well a town.  It was in the middle of nowhere and was there to provide a moment’s respite; a cup of coffee, a bit of company, and a place to refill the empty barrels in the water wagon.  He’d spent the last few hours pumping and pumping, bringing sweet fresh water up from the hidden spring, when a thought entered his head.  To this day he had no idea where it had come from.  Maybe watching the water trickle down the side of the trough while the tears trailed down his face.   He looked at the well and then up to the heavens and begged God to make his well go dry.  He needed to be strong for his pa, for Hoss – for all the people in the train.  He had to be a man.  He had to stop being that little boy who couldn’t stop crying.

And so he did.  He stopped crying and became a man.

At the age of seven.

Hoss didn’t understand.  How could he?  He’d been a baby on the trail, and known a certain amount of security once they reached Nevada and built their first homestead.  And Little Joe?  Little Joe was the child of his father’s old age, doted on, and born to privilege and comfort.

Adam sucked in air as he nudged his mount to start moving again.  There were times when he envied them both – resented them even – but the moments were brief and usually came when he was tired after a long day of a man’s work.  Hoss and Little Joe hadn’t written his history, that was God.  Adam’s lips quirked at the ends.  And that was something he intended to take up with the Almighty when they met at last.

There was something else, he realized as he rounded the stable, that he was going to need to take up with God.

The front door of the ranch house stood open.  Light spilled out of it and onto the yard where there were men moving about.   And inside….  Inside….

His stepmother was screaming.

—–

FOUR

Fifteen minutes before Adam Cartwright arrived at the Ponderosa to find the front door standing wide open, the scene inside his home had been very different.

Marie stood with her back to the closed and bolted door.  She’d known when she took Renate in that there was a risk the woman’s husband would come looking for her, and that he might well be enraged.  She’d had no idea that her charitable  action would place not only her life in danger, but her son’s.   Renate had retreated, moving as far away from the door as she could.  She stood with her back up against the hearth, her fingers entwined and her lips moving in prayer.

Marie fingers sought and found the crucifix that hung about her neck.  She closed them around it and did the same before asking the frightened woman, “You know who it is, don’t you?”

“Si, Senorita Cartwright!  It is my marido, Lemuel.  You must not let him in!  He will kill us!”

Renate was terrified and, while she had no intention of letting whoever was without the house come within, Marie wasn’t quite sure how she was going to stop them.  Hands and boots continued to strike the heavy wooden door, demanding access.  Harsh words accompanied the blows; words with the power to make her blush and she was no innocent.

Renate was not the only one who was terrified.

“Mama?”

She’d been heading toward the office.  Marie stopped and turned back.

“I want Papa!” her petit Joseph cried as he started over the arm of the settee.  “Where’s Papa?!”

“Stay where you are!” she ordered, her tone harsh.  “Joseph!  Do not move!  Listen to Mama!”

Joseph was a sensitive child, quick to pick up on other’s emotions.  He stopped what he was doing, looked up at her through a fringe of golden curls, and began to cry.  She so wanted to go to him, but first she needed to secure the small gun she had foolishly returned to her husband’s office.  As Marie turned away, her son began to sob.

“Do what you have to do,” a voice grown suddenly strong said from behind her.  “I will take care of the little one.”

Renate moved to the settee and picked Joseph up.  As she spoke soft, comforting words to him, he buried his little head in the pale fabric of her blouse and grew quiet.  Marie whispered a quick prayer of thanks as she turned back and headed into her husband’s office.

A moment later the gun was in her hand.

After making certain it was primed and loaded, Marie headed for the door.  Once she reached it she paused, waiting for a moment of silence.  When it came, she gathered her courage and shouted, “My husband has men watching this house.  They will shoot you where you stand!”

“You mean that young’un and the two old geezers?” a harsh voice replied.  “They’re dead!  Just like you’re gonna be dead if you don’t send Renate out!”

Marie glanced at the woman holding her son.  Renate dropped her head, unable to meet her eyes.

Dead?   Jim and Thom?  Young Josh?

It was more than her heart could bear.

Something struck the door again, making her jump.

“Open the door!  You don’t want to force me to take it down!  You ain’t got anyone here to protect you!”

Marie’s temper flared.  She opened her mouth to remind the man that her husband would be home soon and that, once Ben knew what he was about, the villain would regret the day he was born!  But, she thought better of it.  Ben would have Hoss and Adam with him.

Her beloved husband, his boys…they could be killed.

Marie took a step back and pointed the gun at the door.  “I’m armed! “ she called out as the door shuddered from another withering blow.  “If you enter my house, I will shoot you where you stand!”

She held her breath, waiting for the man’s reply.

Laughter.

It was…laughter.

The next blow to the door backed her further away.  This time, it came from something other than a hand or foot.  Perhaps a sawed log from the woodpile or a fence rail wielded as a battering ram.  Even as her lips began once more to move in prayer, Marie realized it was only a matter of time before the door gave way.

Then, a thought occurred to her.  What a fool she had been!  The chance was slim, but – perhaps – they could escape out the back!  Why, oh why, had she not thought of it before?  Pivoting on her heel, Marie headed for the woman holding her son.  It was a good thing too.

Otherwise she would have been crushed as the hinges gave way and the door was thrust in.

Marie froze as a small army of men poured into the house.  They spread out quickly, like a blight; several running up the stairs to the second floor, while the remainder moved about the first and headed into the kitchen wing.  A single man followed the inrush.  He halted just inside the door and sought her gaze before removing his sidearm from its holster and pointing it – not at her – but at Renate.

Renate, who was holding her son.

Marie deliberately stepped between them.

The man sneered as he faced the small pistol she held.  “This it?” he asked one of the men coming down the stairs.

“Seems like it.  Upstairs is empty.  It’s just the two women and the boy.”

Their leader was a tall unpleasant-looking man with raven-black hair and skin burnt nearly as dark as Renate’s from the sun.  There was something about his eyes.  They were too close together and put her in mind of a jackal or coyote.  His mouth was a thin cruel line bordered by a scruff of hair she supposed to be a mustache.  He was the only one not wearing a uniform, and was full of swagger and of himself.

His whiskey-brown eyes narrowed as he approached her.  “You’re Cartwright’s woman.”

It was a statement, not a question.

Marie’s hand was shaking.  “Oui.

The man, whom she assumed to be Lemuel Miller, took his eyes off her and deliberately looked around the room, slowly taking in everything they owned from their fine silver to the expensive rifles in the gun cabinet.

“Seems to me there’s a lot I could take,” he remarked casually, as if he was discussing the weather, “but there’s only one thing I want.  Here’s what you’re gonna do, Mrs. Cartwright.  You’re gonna give me that gun and then you’re going to give me my wife….”  The point of the gun shifted from the woman behind her to her son who was wide-eyed in Renate’s arms.  “If you know what’s good for you and your boy.”

Madre de Dios,” Renate breathed as she gathered Joseph closer.  “Sálvnos!”

Mother of God.  Save us! 

“Renate is not yours to take, like a piece of silver!” Marie countered.

“But that’s where you’re wrong, Missus.  Renate is mine.  She’s Mrs. Lemuel Miller, my lawfully wedded wife.”  The outlaw came to her and held out his hand.  Marie considered shooting him, but in the end surrendered the  small weapon knowing it would do her little good against a half-dozen men.  Lemuel sneered as he tucked it behind his waistband and moved past her, heading for Renate.  When he arrived at his wife’s side, the outlaw surprised her by reaching out and taking hold of several of Joseph’s curls.  The evil man shifted her son’s head back before planting the nose of the pistol under his chin.  “Cute kid,” he said.  “Be a shame if anything happened to him.”

For the first time, fear nearly undid her.

“Looks soft,” the man pronounced as his attention shifted to her visitor.  “Not like our little Duke, eh, Rena?  Duke’d make mincemeat of this one right quick.”

Marie couldn’t help herself.  “Leave my son alone! “ she demanded.  “He is just a little boy!”

Miller snorted.  He removed the gun from under her son’s chin and returned it to his holster before heading back to her.  Once at her side – when he was so close she could smell the whiskey on his breath – Lemuel fell to studying her.  He reached out to touch her hair and fingered the chain around her neck.  Marie held her breath as the seconds passed, uncertain of his purpose.  It became clear a moment later when the outlaw caught hold of the front of her blouse with both hands and tore it open, exposing her underpinnings.  Then he placed his hands on her breasts.

Marie gasped.  God, help her, she uttered a cry!

That was all it took for her tiny son.  Joseph wriggled free.  Within seconds his tiny boots were kicking Lemuel’s shins.

“You let my mama go!  You made my mama cry!” her petit one shouted as his fists flew and he pounded the man’s knee.  “You’re a bad man!”

The outlaw caught Joseph by the back of his collar and effortlessly lifted the little boy off his feet.  Lemuel held him at arm’s length, laughing as her brave little boy continued to fight.

Until he struck Joseph across the face, drawing blood.

“I heard tell you were a hellcat,” Lemuel sneered as he looked over his shoulder at her.  “Guess it’s in the blood.”

“Lem,” Renate begged, finding her courage at last.  “I will go with you.  Let the boy go.  Por favor, let them both go!”

He was still looking at her.  “You gonna let that stand, Mrs. Cartwright?”

Marie blinked back tears.  What could she do?  It was her Christian duty to intervene – to help – but her son’s life was at stake.  She could aid Renate later by telling the sheriff all she knew and setting the law on the villain’s tail.

“Please,” Renate said softly, “let me go.  It is not worth the bebé’s life.”

Nothing was worth her son’s life.

She nodded.

Marie felt more than saw the beleaguered woman move past her.  She had eyes only for her son.  Lemuel Miller had dropped Joseph to the floor where the little boy lay shaking and crying.

She knelt and held out her hands.  “Joseph, come to your maman.”

Her son started to respond, but the outlaw put his boot on his back and stopped him.

“No.  I don’t think so,” he said.

Marie’s slender form went rigid.  “You will release him.  You will give me my son!”

Lemuel Miller caught hold of Joseph’s collar again and pulled him to his feet.  He circled the little boy’s waist with his arm and lifted him up.  Blood dripped from her son’s nose and lip where he had been struck and he had gone silent.  “You know, I’ve grown pretty fond of this little pup.  I think I’ll just take him along.  He’ll make a good buddy for Duke.”

“You will not take my son!” Marie declared.

The outlaw pointed his gun directly at her.  “I’d like to see you try and stop me.”  When she said nothing, Lemuel turned and called out to his men, who by this time had dispersed throughout the house to loot  it.  “Time’s up!” he shouted, and then said to the closest one, “Take Rena with you and mount up.”  As the man pushed the terrified woman out the door, Miller returned his attention to her.  He eyed her exposed breasts with a lascivious sneer.  “I’ve grown mighty fond of you too, little lady.  Maybe I should take you along as well.”

Her eyes were on Joseph.  He seemed to be stunned.   “Yes,” she breathed.  “Take me with you.  I will do whatever you want me to.  Just don’t hurt my child.”

Lemuel considered it.  He shook his head.  “Nah.  One hellcat is enough.”  And then, without warning, the outlaw backhanded her so hard he sent her crashing into the settee.  She let out a shout as she fell.

The last thing Marie Cartwright heard was her son, screaming out her name.

 

Adam dismounted quickly. Careful to hug the shadows, he moved toward the house.  He was beside the stable when something tripped him and caused him to fall to the ground.   His stomach lurched when he realized it was one of their hands lying face-down in the shadows.  Adam gripped his shoulder and gently turned him over.  It was Josh Barnes.  Josh was nineteen.  Only a little more than a year older than him.

He’d been shot.

Not knowing if the man was dead or alive, Adam leaned in close and whispered, “Hey!  Can you hear me?  It’s Adam.”

His reply was a moan.

Feeling like a heel, he shook the wounded man gently.  “Josh, it’s Adam.  Can you tell me what happened?”

At the mention of his name, Josh stirred.  He moaned again and one eye opened.  “A…dm….”

“Yes.”  He glanced up, checking.  No one seemed to have noticed he was there.  “Yes, it’s Adam.  I need you to tell me….”

Adam inhaled sharply as a cry rang through the night.  It was his baby brother calling out for his Mama.  The teenager rose and stepped over the wounded man, unbuckling the strap on his holster as he did.  He pulled his sidearm out and began to move, but was stopped by a feeble grip on his ankle.

“Men…Adam,” Josh panted.  “There’s…there’s a lot…of them.  You can’t hope….”

Josh’s fingers fell away.  He didn’t know if he had passed out or passed on.  Leaving the wounded man lying where he was, Adam hugged the shadows as he worked his way along the fence to a better position, where he could see what was happening.

He’d spotted two or three men before, but now he could see that Josh was right.  There were at least a half-dozen in the yard.  Most were in uniform.  All were mounted.  Someone gave a curt command and they all began to move.

All but one.

He was a civilian.  He’d just come out of the house and was carrying something.  The man stood for a moment, staring back into their home, and then turned and headed for his horse .  As he did the moonlight struck him and he stood fully revealed.  Adam clamped a hand over his mouth to stifle his exclamation.  The ‘something’ in the man’s arms  was his little brother.

The fact that Marie was not in the doorway screaming for him to stop nearly had the power to stop his heart.

Adam raised his gun, placed his finger on the trigger, and took aim.  Unfortunately, he was so angry, his hand was shaking.  If he was going to shoot, he had to be damn certain of his target.  The man had shifted Little Joe up and into his arms after he mounted.  His brother’s golden curls shone against the outlaw’s rawhide vest.  Adam drew in a breath and held it and took aim a second time.  Wait, he thought.  Wait for a clear shot.

Damn!

It was too late.  Little Joe’s kidnapper had driven the rowels of his stirrups into the flesh of his horse and darted away.

The silence that followed was deafening.

Into that silence bled a single sound – a hard thumping; a loud pounding.  It took Adam a moment to realize that it was the sound of his heart hammering against the wall of his chest.  He remained still for a moment and then, he began to run.  He ran, not toward the house, but back toward his horse.  Dan Tollivar was on his way with Hoss.  He really wanted to wait for the older man to arrive, to take some solace from his presence and his words, but with each second that passed – with every thud of blood against bone – his baby brother was being carried farther and farther away from them.

Adam looked back toward the house as he settled in the saddle.  Marie still had not shown.  He wanted to check on her, to see if she was all right, but he knew what she would say if he did.  Marie would gladly give her life for Little Joe.  The teenager sniffed back tears as his jaws tensed.  Maybe she already had.  If the worst had happened, his step-mother’s  sacrifice would be in vain if Little Joe died too.

The young man sat for a moment, drawing in air and letting it out slowly.  Then he turned his back on his home and rode hell-bent for leather after the men who had shattered his world.

 

Ben Cartwright reined in his mount just in time to avoid a collision with another horse that had appeared out of nowhere and stepped onto the trail.  He was about to chide the man when he realized it was Dan Tollivar.  Dan gave him a nod and then turned back in the direction he had come.  To his relief Hoss appeared behind him.  Ben waited for Adam to do the same.  When he didn’t, any relief he’d felt vanished in a mist of fear.

“Sorry about that, Ben,” the old wrangler said.  “I heard men comin’ and told the boy we’d best make ourselves scarce ‘til we saw who it was.”

“Where’s Adam?”

“He’s okay, Pa.  Adam went on home ahead of us,” Hoss told him as the boy pulled his horse up alongside his own.  The boy met his gaze and then hung his head.  “He’s probably there by now.”

Ben reached out to touch his son’s shoulder.  Something had to have happened to make Adam rush ahead.  He was guessing by Hoss’ demeanor that the pair of them had gotten into a fight.  Whatever it was, he was grateful for it.  It lifted his spirits to know that his oldest boy was already at the house.

“Did you and your brother have a disagreement?” he asked.

Hoss’ eyes widened.  “Gosh, Pa, how’d you know?”

‘Because I’m ‘Pa’ to both of you’, the older man thought.

“The boy got a little riled, Ben.  Weren’t nothin’ really.  Adam’ll be right as rain after a little food and a good night’s sleep.”

“As we all will be,” Ben agreed with a sigh.  He hesitated, his eyes on Hoss, and then asked as casually as he could.  “Have you seen anyone else out and about, Dan?”

The old wrangler caught his drift instantly.  Of course, Dan’s discernment was aided no doubt by the fact that Roy Coffee had just caught up with him.  Lieutenant Johnston was off on his own tangent and had promised to join them later at the house.

“Evenin’, Roy,” Dan said with a tip of his hat.  “Good to see you.”

“You too, Dan,” the lawman replied.

“In answer to your question, Ben, me and the boys ain’t seen nary a soul.”

That was good.  That meant the outlaws hadn’t used this path.

“Pa, can we go home?” Hoss asked, sounding very much like the eleven-year-old he was.  “I’d really like to say howdy to my bed.”

Ben smiled reassurance at his boy.  “Me too, son.  Let’s go home.”

 

It wasn’t far to the house.  No more than twenty minutes at a quick walk.

They did it in ten.

As they grew closer a nagging doubt began to eat away at Ben.  It became stronger with each mile; so strong, in fact, that by the time they reached the rise before the house it had eaten away at his resolve to not frighten his son.  A growing fear drove him to spur his horse forward at a gallop and he soon left the others in the dust.  When he reached the Ponderosa, the rancher slowed his mount and entered the yard at a normal pace.  The first thing he noticed as he did was the fact that Adam’s horse was absent from the hitching post.  The second, the front door was standing wide open.

And the third?

Jim Miller, his current foreman, lying face down in the dirt; his body partially hidden by the trough.

Ben dismounted quickly and dropped the reins where he stood.  He  moved to the trough and knelt at his foreman’s side . There was nothing he could do.  The man was dead.   Before his knees had time to give way, the rancher was up and on his feet.  Ben ran toward his home with his heart in his throat.

The sight that greeted him when he crossed the threshold stopped him in his tracks.

The settee was askew.  The heavy table behind it lay on its side; its contents scattered about the room. In the midst of the wreckage….  In the midst of the wreckage lay his beautiful wife.  Marie’s golden hair had broken loose.  It lay in a glorious halo about her pallid face.  Her lips were red with blood.  A thin line of it trailed from her mouth down her chin and onto her blouse, which had been ripped and torn to expose her corset.  As he started toward her, Ben heard a horse enter the yard.  He paused, unsure of what to do, and then left the house to meet whoever it was.

“That young’un of yours,” Dan said as he dismounted.  “He heard some animal.  Figured it was in trouble.  He’ll be along in a minute.”  The wrangler looked at him. “Ben, is something wrong?”

He nodded.  “I have no time to explain.”  He stepped back, so his foreman’s body was exposed.  “It’s Jim.  He’s dead.”

“Dead?  Ben, what…?”

“There’s no time.  Meet Hoss.  Take him into the barn and tell him I’d like him to tend his own horse.”

Dan nodded slowly.  “You want me to send Roy ahead?”

He’d been looking back toward the house.  “What?  Oh, yes.”

His friend’s gaze was on the house.  “The missus?  She okay?”

Ben ran a hand over his face.  “To be honest, I don’t know yet.  I need to go back in.”

Dan mounted back up and turned his horse’s nose toward the path.  “You do that.  I’ll take care of the boy.”

As he turned to enter the house, Ben heard the sound of another horse.  Seconds later Roy Coffee appeared.  It only took the lawman a moment to spy the body.

“Ben!” he declared as he dismounted.  “What happened here?”

Ben shook his head as he started toward the door.  “Hide the body, Roy, so the boy….”  He sucked in air.  “Then, come inside.  I may need help with Marie….”

Within two heartbeats he was at his wife’s side.  As he knelt, Ben hesitated to touch her.  What if she was cold?  What if that spark of life – so impulsive, so unpredictable and yet so endearing – had fled?  But no, the blood was running down her chin.  Marie’s chest was rising and falling.

She was alive!

Roy had come in.  The lawman stood behind him as he took his wife’s hand and touched her face.  “Marie.  Darling, can you hear me?”

At first there was no response.  Then, Marie’s fingers opened and closed and she moaned.

He pressed them to his heart.  “Marie.  It’s Ben.  I’m home.”

“I’ll look around, Ben,” Roy said.  “See what else I find.”

The rancher nodded, but was barely conscious of what his friend said, so intent was he on watching his wife.

“Marie?”  Ben shifted a lock of golden hair away from her forehead.  “Can you open your eyes for me?  Please, my love.”

Marie’s eyes rolled behind their lids.  She moaned again as she fought toward consciousness.   Her lips parted, but what came out of them was not his name.

It was their son’s.

“…Joseph….”

Ben stiffened with guilt.  He hadn’t thought of his son!  Good Lord, what kind of a father was he?!

“Roy,” he called out.  “Roy?”

The lawman appeared at the head of the stairs.  “Yes, Ben?”

“Little Joe!  See if you can find my son!”

Roy answered him, but the words were lost as Marie moaned a third time and her eyes opened without focus.

“Marie?”

“Joseph,” she breathed again and then began to struggle.  “Joseph, no!

“There’s no one up there, Ben,” Roy said as he quickly descended the stairs.  “Though someone’s been through everything.  It’s a mess.”  The lawman stopped beside him.  “How’s Marie?”

“Fighting,” he said.  “Alive.”

“I’ll go check outside.  Might be the boy’s hidin’ somewhere.”

Ben shook his head.  “Not with his mother lying here.  Joseph would never leave her side willingly.”  A new pain struck him.  “Dear Lord!  Suppose the outlaws…took him.”

Roy’s hand came down on his shoulder.  The lawman didn’t say anything.

Ben swallowed over his rising fear.  “Make sure Dan….make sure Dan took Hoss to the bunkhouse.”

“They boy will want to know why he can’t come in.”

He closed his eyes.  What would work?  “Tell Hoss…it’s a reward.  He’s been asking to stay with the men.”

“I don’t know, Ben.  The boy’s already suspicious.”

“Then tell him…. “ Ben sighed.  “Tell Hoss I asked him to.”

Roy lifted his hand.  “I’ll make sure the boy’s settled and come back.”

The ranched nodded.  Then, he thought better of it.  “Roy, no!” he said, turning to look at his friend.  “I need you to go to town.  Find Paul.  Bring him here.  Marie needs a doctor.”

“Perhaps I can be of service?” a young voice asked.  “I have some medical training.”

Lieutenant Johnston’s long, lanky frame filled the doorway.  The soldier moved forward quickly to kneel at his side.  He took Marie’s wrist in one hand while he lifted one of her eyelids with the other.

“On the plus side, her heartbeat is strong, but she appears to have a concussion.”  Johnston nodded toward the up-turned table.  “I imagine she struck her head when she fell.”  The lieutenant reached in his pocket and produced a handkerchief.  “May I?” he asked as his gaze shifted to the blood on his wife’s chest.

A smile flickered across his lips at the soldier’s gallantry.  He nodded.

“Continue to speak to her,” the soldier said as he began to soak up the blood.  “See if you can rouse her.”

“She spoke earlier.”

He nodded.  “Good.  Try again.”

Ben took his wife’s hand and touched her face.  “Marie, my love, can you hear me?”

Marie sighed and her eyelashes fluttered.  After a second, her head turned toward his touch.  Then, her eyes opened.

“Ben?”

“Yes,” he sighed with relief.  “Yes, it’s me.  I’m here now.  Everything will be all right.”

Marie lifted her hand toward his face.  Then, she went rigid.

“Joseph!  Mon Dieu!  That monster took Joseph!”

It was all he could do to keep her from getting up right there and then and running out the door.

“Mrs. Cartwright, please!  You will do your son no good by placing your own life in jeopardy,” Johnston said in a pretty fair imitation of Paul Martin’s usual exasperation.  “You have a severe concussion and your wounds are still bleeding.”

His wife fought him a moment longer and then seemed to lose all her strength.  Marie slumped and fell back to the floor.  At first he feared the worst but then, in spite of her injuries, she curled into a ball and began to sob.

The sight of his beloved spitfire losing hope nearly unmanned him.

“Joseph.  Mon petit bebé,” she wailed.  “He took…him.  That…horrid man took him!”

Ben placed an arm around her back and gently lifted her into his arms.  “Marie, you must tell me.  Who  took Joseph – and why?”

Marie said nothing.  She continued to moan.

“Your wife is in shock, Mister Cartwright,” Lieutenant Johnston remarked.  “Do you have a medicine chest in the house?  It would be best if I gave her something to sleep.”

Ben was astonished.  “But our son!”

A weary voice spoke from behind him.  “Ben,” Roy Coffee said, “it’s pitch black out there.  If there are tracks to follow, it’s gonna be mornin’ afore we can do it.”

A hand landed on his arm.  The rancher looked up to meet Lieutenant Johnston’s disarming eyes.  “The medicine chest?”

“I know where it is, son,” Roy said.  “Come on.  It’s in the kitchen.”

The soldier rose to his feet.  He started to follow Roy, but then turned back.  “Mister Cartwright, I know you are concerned about your son, but it would be best if you take your wife to her bed where she can rest.  Her injuries are not severe, but coupled with the shock, they may take a toll.”

“Yes.  Yes, of course,” he said as he ran a hand through Marie’s tangled hair.

“Ben.”

He thought it was Roy, but turned to find Dan Tollivar standing in the doorway.  “Hoss?” he asked.

“The boy’s in the bunkhouse, Ben.  He’s sick with worry, but he’s promised to stay put.”  Dan’s gaze fell on Marie.  “The missus?”

“Alive,” he answered.

The wrangler’s gaze traveled over the room.  “The little feller?” he asked.

“Someone took him,” Lieutenant Johnston replied, saving him from having to say it.  “I imagine it was that band of deserters and outlaws we were seeking.  They must have caught wind of our movements and detoured this way.  That’s the reason I left you.  I spotted something on the trail.”

Marie had grown quiet.  He wasn’t sure if she had fallen asleep or unconscious.  As he laid her back down, Ben said, “I need to find Little Joe.”  He turned to the soldier.  “Please, take care Marie.  When she wakes…tell her I’ll come back as soon as I can.  I have to find my son.”

Dan cleared his throat.  “Ben, you ain’t quite thinkin’ straight.  You got yourself another problem.”

He scowled.  “Of course, I’m thinking straight!  For God’s sake, Joseph is four years old!  Whatever the other problem is, it will have to wait.  I have to find him!”

“Ain’t you forgettin’ about somethin’, Ben?”

The rancher’s fingers clenched into fists as he fought to control his anger.  His house had been violated.  His wife attacked and brutalized.  His baby  son kidnapped by vile, violent men.

What else was there?

“We found Thom and Josh too,” Roy said.  “Josh’s gonna make it.  The boy woke up long enough to say a few words afore we put him in the bunkhouse to wait for the Doc.”

His patience was wearing thin.  “What words?  What did Josh say?!” he demanded as he looked from Dan to the lawman.

Dan gave him a look of pity.  “Josh was right upset. He said, ‘Tell Adam…men…so many men.’”

Ben’s heart sank.

How could he have forgotten?  The first thing he’d noticed as he pulled into the yard was the empty rail and  the fact that Adam’s horse was nowhere in sight.

His eldest son was missing as well.

Ben reached out to brace himself.  God Lord, was it possible ?

Had he lost half his family in one night?

——

FIVE

“What’s wrong with your hair?”

Little Joe sniffed and looked up at the older boy who was standing over him.  He didn’t care about his hair.  All he cared about was his mama who had been lying without moving on the floor.  Mama was never quiet.  She was always talking and singing and laughing and doing.  Still, he knew he had to answer.  In the short time he’d been in the bad man’s camp he’d learned one thing – even badder things happened when he didn’t.

Joe pushed out his lower lip and sniffed.  “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with my hair.”

“How do they cut it?”  The boy grabbed one of his curls and twisted it.  “Does the barber take hold of them one at a time like this?”

“Ouch!”  Joe reached for his hair and the offending fingers.  “Cut that out!”

A second later there was a shining silver blade in front of his eyes.

“Your wish is my command,” the boy said with a wicked grin.

“Duardo!  Para!”

Joe didn’t know Spanish, but the boy snarled and pulled the knife away, so he guessed the sad lady who came with them had told him to stop doin’ what he was doin’.

“He is just a little boy!” she scolded as she picked him up and held him in her arms.  “Madre de Dios!  What is wrong with you?”

The older boy was looking at him all funny, like he’d done something wrong.

“Lem says you can tell the make of a man by two things.  One’s his shoes and how he takes care of them, and the other is his hair.”  Duardo’s gaze returned to his head.  Joe didn’t know what was wrong with having curls, but for some reason the older boy didn’t like them.  He nodded in his direction.  “From the look of him, I’d say he ain’t worth much.  His hair looks like a sheep that needs sheared and he doesn’t have any shoes.”

Joe’s jaw set.  “I ain’t got shoes ‘cause your pa didn’t let me put any on ‘fore he took me outta my house!”  The little boy sucked in air.  He didn’t want to cry, but the tears came anyway.  “He’s a bad man!  He hurt my mama!”

“Be quiet, small one,” the woman said softly.  “You do not want Senor Miller to hear you.”  She turned to the boy.  “And as for you, Duardo, you should not call your papa ‘Lem’.  It is not respectful.”

“I told him to,” a gruff voice said.  “Now, put the Cartwright kid down and go fix me some grub.”

Joe shuddered as the man Duardo called ‘Lem’ joined them.  The older man had gone off into the woods about an hour back and he’d sighed a big sigh of relief when he did.  Joe didn’t really have words for it, but when the man was around he felt – well – he felt the same thing he felt when he was sittin’ on his bed waitin’ for his Pa to show up with the strap.  Not that Papa really hit him.  The waiting was the worst thing.

Joe eyed Lem.  Somehow, he didn’t think the waitin’ would be the worst thing with him.

The bad man watched until the sad lady disappeared into a tent.  Then he left Joe standing in the grass as he walked to his son’s side.  Lem studied the older boy from head to toe and then barked, “Attention!”

Duardo, or Duke, went rigid.  He snapped to attention just like those soldiers who had visited their house a while back did whenever their sergeant yelled.  He’d thought it was pretty neat then, watchin’ them go straight as boards.  Now, it was kind of scary.

He bet the older boy was thinking about that strap too.

“Sir!  Yes, Sir!” the boy answered.

“Report, soldier!”

Duardo’s dark gaze returned to him.  “The prisoner is secured, sir.”

‘Prisoner’?

Is that what he was?

The bad man turned to look at him as well.  “Has the prisoner given you any trouble?”

“Yes, sir!”  Duardo’s answer was quick and a complete lie.  “He tried to escape, sir, but I stopped him.”  The mean boy’s chest puffed out a little on that last part.

“What do you have to say for yourself, prisoner?” Lem asked.

Joe swallowed hard.  He was really scared.  He wanted his papa and his mama.

Mama….

“Look at that!” Duardo  sneered.  “The little milksop is crying.”

Lem was a tall man.  He had big shoulders and looked like he was all muscle like Papa’s ranch hands.  He had a way of moving, like a slick, satisfied rooster.  ‘Cock of the walk’, Hoss would have said.   The bad man strutted over to him and crouched before him.

“What’s your name, prisoner?” he demanded.

“J…Joe,” he stammered in return.

“I hear tell they call you ‘Little Joe’.  How’s come?”

Joe eyebrows peaked toward the ringlets dangling across his forehead.  “On account of I’m little.”

Lem stared at him a moment and then threw his head back and bellowed.  “Good answer, kid,” he snorted.  “Smart as a whip, ain’t you?”

He didn’t know how a whip could be smart, but he nodded anyhow.

“Do you know why you’re here?”

Joe thought a moment.  His father had warned him – warned all of them – about men who might come and take them away.  They had to be careful, he said.  Don’t go off alone.  Don’t go too far from the yard.  Don’t go out after dark.

He didn’t do any of those things. He was taking a nap.

“You’re gonna sell me back to my papa.”

Lem let out a little whistle this time.  He turned to look at his son.  “You hear that, Duke?  Kid’s four and he’s smarter than you.”

Duardo had been standing all straight like the soldiers.  When his pa said that, his shoulders slumped and his head hung down like a dog’s.

“Yeah, kid.  I’m gonna sell you back to your papa.  Now, Duke said you tried to escape earlier.”  The bad man held his gaze.  “Did you?”

Joe shook his head.  “No, sir.  I don’t know where to go.”

“But you were thinkin’ about it?”

The little boy’s jaw tightened.  He drew in a breath and let it out slowly.  “I don’t like it here.  I wanna go home.”

“You don’t like me much, do you?”

The vision of this man, striking his mother so hard she fell back into the table and sofa and moved both of them, flashed before his eyes.  He blinked to stop the tears.

His jaw set.  “You hit my mama.”

“Yeah.  Sorry about that kid,” Lem replied as he stood and began to move away.  “She’s a feisty one, your mama.  Kind of like you.”

“What are you gonna do with me?” Joe asked.

The bad man turned back to him.  “Well, I ain’t gonna give you a new pair of shoes.  It’s better this way.  You wouldn’t get very far in the woods barefoot.”  Without warning Lem’s hand shot out and locked in his curls.  Joe fought to break free, but stopped when the bad man tipped his head back so far he had to look into his eyes.  “I ain’t gonna tie you up, kid, unless you try somethin’, and then I will truss you like a hog.  You got that?”

Joe nodded as best he could.

“Duke!”

The older boy came to his side.  “Yes, sir?”

The bad man fingered one of his curls, stretching it out to full length.

“Looks like this young’un could do with a little off the top.”

 

Ben Cartwright sat in his bedroom holding his wife’s hand.  He was waiting for Marie to awaken.  He’d watched her all through the lonely night, looking for the slightest shift, the barest of movements – anything that would indicate she had regained consciousness.  When he grew weary, he would walk to the window and look out and beg his God to command the sun not to stop, as He had on that day so long ago in Jericho, but to move faster; to bring the dawn before the dawn had any right to come.  He was deeply troubled.  Troubled about all of his boys.  Hoss was exceedingly frightened.  It was hard enough to explain to a six-year-old why men did what they did.  Telling him that those same men had kidnapped his baby brother was one of the hardest things he had ever had to do.

After that he’d allowed the boy to sit with his mother for a bit, and then had Hop Sing bundle him off to bed.  The Chinese man returned home late, his buggy riding in the wake of Paul Martin’s.  He’d sent one of the hands to fetch the doctor at Lieutenant Johnston’s insistence. The young man, whose first name he’d found out was Robinson, said his father had been a doctor and as a boy he had learned at his knee.  He was a self-made surgeon, not one educated in a medical college.  Robinson was concerned for his wife and the fact that she had not yet awakened.  Ben’s gaze returned to Marie.  He was concerned for her as well, just as he was concerned for Adam, who still was missing.  Ben sucked in a breath and expelled it very slowly as his gaze returned to the window and the vast lands beyond

And then, there was Little Joe.

In spite of his son’s lusty protests whenever the word was used, Joseph was still a babe in arms.  Like most children of the West, his son was older than his years and far wiser than a boy raised in a town or city would have been.  But he was still only four years old.  He’d taught Little Joe rudimentary survival skills.  His brother’s had shown him how to hunt, and Joseph had even begun to ride.  None of that would prepare him for what had happened.

The boy had no experience of evil.

Or he’d had none until now.

Ben rose to his feet once again and walked to the window where he pressed a hand against the jamb and leaned his head on his arm.  Dear Lord, he was weary!  The day had been a long one.  Coming home to what he came home to, had made it unending.  The moment it was light enough he would be on the trail, tracking down the men who took his small son.  Josh had awakened long enough to tell them that he’d seen Adam and spoken to him, so he knew his eldest had made it home.  The fact that Adam had not taken time to make certain Marie was all right before taking off again spoke volumes.  Ben turned to look at his wife.  In the beginning, his oldest boy had a hard time accepting his new stepmother, but their shared love of beautiful things, of books and poetry, soon built a bridge that brought them together.  His son hesitated to call Marie ‘mother’, but that was all right.  Marie understood.  Adam had a mother.  Elizabeth had grown more beautiful and perfect with each year that passed as her imagined presence in his heart filled the absence his first wife’s death had left in her son’s life.

He could only imagine that Adam had arrived on the heels of Joseph’s kidnappers and followed them.  He would not allow himself to think that the outlaws had kidnapped him too.

The rancher ran his free hand over his eyes, seeking to dispel all of the fatigue and most of the guilt he felt.  He should have been home.  He should never have left Marie and Joseph alone.   He’d expected Hop Sing to return before he did, but Hop Sing was a cook and housekeeper and not a man who easily bore arms.  Ben sighed as he turned and balanced his weight on the sill.  He’d left three capable men in the yard.  Three.  Josh was the only one to survive, and the young man would have a long recovery.  He’d been shot as well as knifed.  Paul had managed to save him, but it had been close.

And the man who had done it – Lemuel Miller – was the one who had his child.

He and Roy had spoken before the lawman took off to track down the outlaws.  They could only assume that Lemuel Miller’s gang – for it appeared he was the ringleader – had stolen the rifles and other goods from the army and been heading south.  Something alerted them to the fact that the soldiers were close on their tail and they’d stashed their ill-gotten gains at the Milfords with the intent of recovering them that night.   Somehow the army patrol caught wind of their shift in plans and arrived just in time to avert a catastrophe at the Milford’s.  Ben closed his eyes and fought back tears.

And direct it toward his own.

The men ran in the opposite direction from the army patrol – straight toward the Ponderosa.  What he had yet to figure out was what had brought them inside the house.   There were things missing, but the safe was still in place and loaded with the payroll money.   If it had been Marie – his gaze returned to his wife where she lay unmoving in their bed – then Lemuel’s immoral intent had been thwarted.  Marie had been struck, her blouse torn, but was – thank the Lord! – unmolested.   The only thing that made sense was that Lemuel Miller’s plan had been to kidnap his son.  If that was the case then the question became, how did he know about Joseph?  It was a puzzle with several missing pieces.

Ben looked out the window.

One he could only hope to solve once it was light.

A low murmur brought Ben to his feet and pushed him away from the window.  He returned to his seat by his wife’s side and took her hand in his.  Ben touched her forehead and then lay his hand alongside her face.

“Marie?  My love, can you hear me?”

Marie moaned and shifted.  Her eyelids fluttered.

She was definitely waking up.

“Marie, it’s Ben.  Can you open your eyes for me?”

His wife’s lips parted and her tongue moved between, wetting them.  Ben reached for the glass of water on the bedside table.  He lifted Marie’s head and forced her to drink a bit before setting it back down and retaking his seat.

She whimpered again and her eyes opened.  It took a second, but then she asked, “Benjamin?”

He touched her face again.  “Yes, my love.  I’m here.”

Marie’s eyes roamed the room.  “Where’s…here?”

“You’re in our room, my darling.  Don’t you know it?”

She blinked and a little smile touched those beautiful lips.  “Silly….”

“It’s all right.  You took a bad blow to the head.  You have a concussion.  Things are bound to be mixed up.”

She nodded as she closed her eyes.  “…tired.”

“Go to sleep then.  Paul said you need to rest to recover.”

Marie nodded and sank back into darkness.

Ben sat there holding her hand for some time and then released it to drop his head into both of his own.  He was filled with guilt and shame and dread.  He should have told her about Joseph, but he knew his wife.  Marie would be up and out of the bed before he could say ‘Jack Robinson’ if she knew her precious child was lost.

Marie’s fingers brushed his hand.  They moved to his arm and then brushed the empty place on the bed next to her.  His wife frowned and her lips moved.

‘Joseph?’

Dear God’, Ben thought, ‘let her go back to sleep.  She’s not strong enough – not well enough to deal with the horrors of a madman abducting her son.’

God was not listening.

Marie lay there a moment and then her eyes flew open.  “Joseph!” she cried.

Ben shifted onto the bed.  He took hold of his wife’s shoulders and pressed her back to the bed.  “Marie.  Marie!  Listen to me.  You cannot get out of this bed.  You’ve been hurt!”

The look out of his wife’s eyes was equivalent to that of a mother grizzly eyeing the stranger who had come between her and her cub.  Marie’s fingers feebly gripped the fabric of his shirt.

“Benjamin!  That man – that personne horrible – he took our little boy!”

“I know, Marie.  I know.  I –”

The grizzly’s claws dug into his flesh.  “Mon Dieu!  You KNOW?”

Ben kept his voice steady.  “Yes, my love, I know.  Josh saw it happen.  He told me – ”

“Then, why are you here!?”  Marie pushed him away, seeking to escape his grasp and rise from the bed.  “If you will not go, I will!  I am….  I am….”  His wife stopped.  All the color drained from her face as she lifted one hand to her head.  Her green eyes went wide.  “Mon Dieu, Benjamin,” she breathed.  “What is…wrong with me….”

“Is everything all right, Mister Cartwright?”

Ben looked to the doorway and found Robinson Johnston’s lanky figure filling it.  The young man had laid down in the next room to rest and fallen asleep.

He was awake now.

“Marie woke up.  She…she knows about Joseph.”

His wife’s eyes were trained on him and filled with tears.  “Dear God,” she said in English, “protect my Petit Joseph….”

Ben stroked her hair as he spoke.  “Marie, you know nothing on Earth could stop me from going after our son, but I arrived home after dark.  There was no way to see or follow the outlaws’ trail.  They were long gone by the time I got here.”  He hesitated –  just a moment too long.

“But?”  Marie met his reluctant gaze.  “But?”

He hated to add one sorrow to another.

“Adam arrived home before us.  I believe…he went after the men who took his brother.”

Marie continued to stare at him.  Then she closed her eyes and rested her forehead against his chest.  “Benjamin,” she breathed, “I am sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for, my love.  Your son is missing.”

She looked up.  “Your son – both of your sons – are too.”

He was struck by a sudden vision of Adam at Joe’s age.  He’d lost the boy one day when they were in a fairly large settlement.  He’d been talking with some men and Adam, growing bored, had wandered away, following a passing peddler’s wagon.  The terror he’d known had been beyond description.  In a rough and tumble place such as that a child could vanish without a trace, taken for God only knew what purpose.  It was sundown before he found him safe and sound, sitting on the counter of the local general store licking a piece of peppermint.   He’d gotten quite a scolding from the store owner’s wife.  He deserved it.  He had lost his son.

Just as he feared they had lost Joseph now.

“Adam is as capable as any full grown man I know,” Ben assured both his wife and himself.  “He won’t take any chances.”

“Not even to save his brother?” Marie asked, sympathy in her eyes.

Ben pursed his lips and nodded, acknowledging the fear that gripped both their hearts.

“Benjamin?”

“Yes, my love?”

She took his hands in hers and pressed them together.  “We must petition God for our boys.”

The silver-haired man nodded.  His wife was wise.

Until the sun rose, it was the only thing they could do.

 

It was all he could do to stand by and watch his baby brother humiliated and brutalized.

Adam’s fingers tightened on his rifle.  He’d heard Little Joe’s shrieks ringing through the forest.  They were what had drawn him to this spot.  The teenager sucked in air and let it out slowly as he struggled with his emotions and fought the desire to dash out into the camp and mete out justice like an avenging angel.  The problem was, the madman who abused his brother was not alone.  The risen light revealed two other men standing near a tent, a woman who appeared to be Mexican, and a nine or ten year old boy who – unbelievably – was holding his brother to the ground while a grown man took a knife to Little Joe’s hair.

All around the trio his brother’s golden ringlets lay like a fall of autumn leaves.

Adam sucked his lower lip and thought furiously.  He couldn’t imagine why the man was doing what he was doing, though – in truth – the ‘why’ of whatever had prompted the man to commit such a heinous act didn’t matter.  What mattered was that his baby brother had to be terrified.  Every so often he would catch a glimpse of Joe’s face through the man or boy’s legs.  Little Joe’s eyes were wide and followed every movement of the knife.  Every so often the moonlight would strike the silver blade and flash as the man deliberately brought it close to Joe’s face, pretending to have lost control.  When he did that, the raven-haired boy beside him burst into laughter.

Like father, like son?

With tears in his eyes, Adam shifted into the shadows and began to circle the camp.  If he was going to rescue Joe, he was going to have to create some sort of a distraction – something that would draw the men away and into the trees.  The woman’s body language seemed to indicate her disapproval of what was going on, so he thought it was safe to ignore her.

He hoped it was safe.

As he shifted into position behind the woman, Adam heard his baby brother cry out sharply.  The teenager reached out to steady himself, placing his hand on a nearby tree; his grip crushing the bark.  The woman was close.  So close he was afraid to move and yet he had to.  Little Joe was wailing now.  Adam swallowed hard over his disgust and then, with all the care he could muster, shifted around the tree and moved forward.  Adam closed his eyes before peering through an opening in the undergrowth that masked him, fearing the worst, and almost chuckled with relief at the sight that greeted him.  His baby brother was okay.  The older boy was holding a mirror up in front of him.   Poor Little Joe.  At that age your hair was a part of you.  Joe probably thought it was gone forever and would never grow back.  The kid was a terror when it came to getting him to the barber shop and now, well, Joe looked like a lamb on shearing day.

Adam winced.

Bad use of simile.

Hombre joven?” a soft voice said.

The teenager jumped.  The woman was standing – maybe – three feet away from him.

“You have come to take the pequeño home?,” she asked.  “Si?”

Adam’s gaze returned to the clearing.  The older boy was towering over Little Joe, who lay sobbing on the ground.  The man with him had gone to talk to the other pair.

His gaze still on them, he replied, “Yes.”

“You are his brother?  Adam?”

The black-haired youth pivoted toward her.  “How would you know?”

“Your madre, she was kind to me.”

“You met Marie?”  Then it dawned on him.  “You were at the Ponderosa tonight.”

Si.  It is I who have brought this terror upon your house.  I would repay you.”

He wasn’t sure if he could trust her, but she seemed sincere.  “What is your name?” Adam asked.

“I am no one.”

He permitted himself a tight smile.  “I can’t exactly call you ‘no one’.”

“Renate,” she answered after a moment’s hesitation.

Adam nodded toward the three men who were ducking into the tent.  “So, Renate, who are these men?”

“It is best you do not know, senor.

He wasn’t taking that for an answer.  Adam caught her arm in a fierce grip.  “Who is that man who is terrorizing my brother?”

Renate dropped her head.  “That is my husband, senor.  He is el Diablo!”

A devil.  She had that right.

“Is the boy yours too?”

She nodded.  “Duardo.”

Pity for this woman fought with the fury that rose within him at the thought of what her husband and son had done to his brother.

Adam’s jaw tightened.  “I need to get Little Joe away from them.”

“Such was my son once, un bebé inocente,” Renate said as a tear spilled down her cheek.  “No more.  His father has turned him into a beast.”

“Look, ma’am…I’m sorry for your troubles, but I have to get my brother and get out of here.  I need to get home.  I need to get Joe back and see how Marie is.  I had to leave her without checking.  I – ”

Renate placed a hand on his shoulder.  “She will be fine.  She hit her head, nothing more.”

“You were inside the house?  Why?”

Renate sighed.  “Your madre, she helped me; gave me shelter.  My husband found me there.  He does things such as this….”  She nodded toward the spot where Little Joe was sitting with his arms wrapped around his chest, trembling and crying at the older boy’s feet.  “…to pay back, both me and your madre.”

“For Marie’s kindness?”

The woman nodded.

An immeasurable sadness overtook him.  This woman – this good, kind woman – was as trapped as any prisoner.  She was married to a merciless monster; chained to him by the law and by fear.

Adam reached out to touch her arm.  “Come with us.”

“No, senor.  I will not put you or your brother in danger.”  Renate touched his arm and then, without warning, walked past him and headed for the tent.  On her way she turned back and said, “You will know when.”

Adam held his breath until the woman arrived at her destination.  Once there, she cried out, “Lem!  Lem!  Madre de Dios!  There are men! They are coming!”

Her husband appeared a second later, gun in hand.  “Where?” he demanded.

Renate indicated the trees with a nod.  “There.  I saw a flash of silver and stripes of yellow.  It is the soldiers.  They have come to take us!”

Lem searched the area with his eyes.  “I don’t see anything,” he said as he turned back toward Renate.

“That is because you are blind!” she snapped.  “They are there.  What reason would I have to lie?  I do not want them to come.   I will go to prison.  You will be dead.  And then who will Duardo have?”

Adam looked at the older boy.  For good or ill he was so focused on making fun of Little Joe that he’d failed to notice his mother’s deception.   Duardo had Joe by the collar.  He was shaking him and screaming at him.

God!  If that boy had been a man….

“Go!” Renate shouted at her husband, who so far had not moved.  “Go!  Find them!  Kill them!”

Lem stared at her a moment longer and then called out, “You two in the tent!  Get out here!”

Two dark heads appeared at the same time.  “What’s that woman caterwaulin’ about?” the taller of the men asked.

“Renate says there’s army men in the trees.”

Both men stepped out of the tent and pulled their guns.  “We gonna go see if she’s right?”

Miller turned toward his boy.  “Duke?”

Duardo went martial straight. “Yes, sir?”

“You keep watch over the runt.  He gets away, I’ll tan your hide, you hear me?”

“Sir!”

Adam knew he had only a few minutes.  It wouldn’t take Lem and the other men long to realize that they had been duped.  That gave him time to grab Little Joe, but precious little time for them to get away.  As the men moved out, the teenager circled the camp one more time and came up behind his brother and the older boy.  With regret, he leaned his rifle up against a tree.  He couldn’t very well carry it and his brother.

The teenager drew a steadying breath.  There was nothing for it but to do it.

A second later Adam swooped in like a hawk.  He knocked the older boy off his feet, scooped up his baby brother, and began to run as Duke or Duardo or whoever he was screamed, calling out his father’s name.

——

SIX

Outside the bedroom window a golden glow capped the far off mountain peaks.  Ben knew he should wait until the sun rose above them and it was fully light before setting out, but he couldn’t remain still any longer.  He kissed his sleeping wife goodbye before leaving their room, and then headed down the hall to look in on Hoss.  The boy was awake.  He sat with him a few minutes, taking time to reassure him that his brothers would be all right before he headed out.  He meant what he said.  Adam and Little Joe would be all right.

They had to be all right.

When he reached the yard, he found two of his men already saddled up and ready to ride.  They were friends of Josh and his brother and told him he’d have to hog-tie them in order to leave them behind.  One of the pair had ridden with Deputy Roy the night before.  He knew the direction the outlaws had gone.  The man explained that it had been too dark for Roy to search for tracks, but after he’d dropped off Paul, the lawman had met up with several of the army men who had a good idea of where Lemuel Miller might have made camp.  The older of the pair, a man by the name of Al Hirsch, grinned at his exasperated expression.

“Roy told me you’d look like that when you found out what he done, Mister Cartwright,” he said, glancing at Jacob Kingsley who sat the horse beside him.  “He also told me to tell you that you needed to look out for your wife and family and that you should leave looking out for Lemuel Miller to him.”

Ben put his foot in the stirrup and dropped heavily into the saddle.  “So why are the two of you saddled up and ready to ride?”

“On account of I knew what your answer would be,”  Al said, sobering quickly.  “It’d be the same as me.  I got me a grandson just about Little Joe’s age.”

Ben nodded his thanks for his men’s loyalty.

“Let’s ride.”

As they journeyed, following the trail Roy and the army men had left behind, Ben’s mind raced.  Life was precious but it was also precarious.  A man gave his heart only to have it crushed.  Elizabeth’s loss had been almost more than he could bear and, while Inger had breathed new life into him, her death had diminished him in ways he was only now beginning to understand.  When he saw Marie lying there on the entry floor and thought that God had demanded her life as well, he’d lost not only hope but the faith to keep on hoping.  For just a second he’d believed both his son and Joe’s mother lost to him and he had come close to cursing God.  From his youth forward he had walked with the Lord, through good times and bad.  Even as a child he had questioned whether or not his actions were within God’s will.  As he sat on the floor holding Marie’s hand and knowing Little Joe was missing, he’d made a silent vow.  It shamed him now.  He had vowed – should the worst come to pass – that he was done with God.  Two wives were too much to lose.  Three was impossible.

And should his baby die….

Knowing his mount would carry him forward without guidance, Ben closed his eyes.  He listened to the steady rhythm of his heart and the thunder of his horses’ hooves a moment before asking for forgiveness.  God was not a cruel tyrant, demanding what he could not give.  Marie was recovering.  He was on his way to find Adam and Little Joe.

God was good.

Good.  Yes.

God.

“Mister Cartwright,” Al said.

Ben opened his eyes and looked at the other man.   “What is it?”

“I don’t know,” the older man replied.  “Somethin’.  I saw somethin’ movin’ up ahead in the trees.”

Ben narrowed his eyes and looked.  He saw nothing.  “Could it be an animal?”

“Could be.  But, Mister Cartwright….”

“What?”

“If it is, they ain’t alone.”

 

Adam halted and sucked in air.  He was covered in sweat as well as a myriad of slender ribbons of blood left by the brittle branches that had reached out to strike him, seemingly desperate to stop his passage.  He was also practically choking.  Reaching up, he took hold of his little brother’s fingers and pried them ever so slightly away from his windpipe.

“Little Joe…you…gotta loosen…up….”

His brother didn’t answer, but he felt Joe’s head shake against his own.

He’d tried running with the little boy in his arms but it had proved impossible.  Finally, he’d persuaded Joe to climb up on his back and take a piggy-back ride like he did at home.  Little Joe had scrambled up as quickly as he could, locked his arms around his throat and buried his face in his hair, and refused to let go.  So far, the kid hadn’t spoken a word.  The only sound Joe had made so far was a strangled one as they ran away from the camp.  Lem Miller’s voice had cut through the air like a scythe in answer to his son’s call.  The words were unintelligible, but they were followed by a woman’s curdling scream and then silence.

Renate had paid the ultimate price for helping them escape.

Adam loosened his brother’s grip a bit more and took in what air he could.  He knew he only had moments to recover.  The three men who were pursuing them were close.  He could hear their curses and shouts as they slashed and cut their way through the undergrowth.  He might be less experienced than the men who wanted to hurt them, but he had the advantage of youth.  He was lithe and limber and slim enough to fit through gaps in the rocks they couldn’t negotiate.  That was the only reason they hadn’t been recaptured.  It had gained him, maybe, a five minute lead.

And he wasn’t going to keep it if he didn’t get moving.

“You okay up there, Joe?” he asked his brother as he adjusted the little boy’s weight on his back.

Joe nodded again, and again, said nothing.

Little Joe’s silence frightened him.  A quiet Joseph Cartwright was as great an impossibility as catching the wind with a net.

“It’ll be okay, buddy,” Adam assured him one more time.  “Hang on.  We’re going for a ride!”

 

“What do you think you saw?” Ben asked as he lifted his pistol from the leather holster on his hip.

“Men.  Two, for sure.  Maybe three.  Makin’ their way through the trees,” Al said.

Jacob nodded.  “They were moving fast.  Looked like they were after something.”

Ben stiffened.  Could that ‘something’ be his boys?  Had Adam managed to rescue his brother and escape, only to have Lemuel Miller follow him?

“Did you see what it was they were chasing?”

Jacob shook his head.  “Just the men followin’ behind.”

The rancher’s fingers went white on the handle of his sidearm.   If it was Adam, or both his sons, they were in grave danger.

“Dismount,” Ben said.  “From here, we go on foot.”

Adam’s chest was burning.  His legs ached.  So did his back, but there was no way he was going to put his brother down – even if Little Joe would have let him.  The men were close.  Very close.  He could tell by the strength of their voices.  For the hundredth time he cursed himself for not grabbing a sidearm before riding away from the house.  Since he and Hoss had been calving and traveling home with Dan, he hadn’t thought he’d need it, and then he’d had to leave his rifle behind.

With a glance at the sky and the sun rising behind the distant mountains, the teenager ducked into yet another narrow channel of rock.  It was barely wide enough for his shoulders and was filled with shadows that he hoped would hide them.  He’d recognized the area they were in once the light was up.  They weren’t all that far from home though, considering he had three murderous outlaws on his trail, it was far enough.  Pa would come this way if he followed his trail.  He knew the older man would have been on it the moment he could read the signs.  With any luck he and Joe would run into him soon.  Maybe Pa would have Roy Coffee with him, or Sheriff Olin.  Maybe a whole posse.  It was only a matter of time before they found them.

Please God, he thought.  Let them find us now!

“Adam.”

Little Joe startled him by speaking.  He halted and looked over his shoulder at his brother.  “What is it, little buddy?”

Joe shook his head.  He pointed up.

Adam had a very bad feeling about that.

Closing his eyes, the exhausted teen steeled himself and then opened them and lifted his face toward the sky.

Lemuel Miller was standing on the ridge above them, rifle in his hand.

“Lookee here what we got, boys,” the outlaw sneered.  “Appears to be buzzard bait.”

 

Ben Cartwright’s head came up sharply.  He’d heard something.  Looking at Al and Jacob, he could tell they’d heard it too and he was right in what he thought it was.

A single shot.

Ben’s heart plunged to his boots.  “Adam, no….”

“We don’t know it’s them, Mister Cartwright,” Al said.  “Could be those men are just out huntin’.”

A fist of fear gripped his heart.  They were hunting all right.  Lemuel Miller and the villains who traveled with him were hunting his sons.

Grim-faced, Ben signaled the two men forward.  The shot had been close, though it was hard to tell exactly where it came from with the sound bouncing off of the countless trees surrounding them.  There was a ravine up ahead.  If Miller and his men had trapped Adam within it….

Ben jumped as a second shot sounded.  Even closer this time.

And then, he began to run.

A minute later the crack in the earth appeared.  There was a figure standing at the top of the ravine with a rifle pointed down.  Ben halted and raised his firearm.  The rising sun was in his eyes, but he didn’t care.  This wasn’t a man, it was a monster, and he had killed his son!  With tears streaming down his face, the rancher took aim – only to have the weapon struck from his hand before he could fire.

With the fury of God he turned on Al Hirsch.  “Damnation, man!  What do you think you’re doing!?”  When he bent to retrieve his gun, Al covered it with his boot.  Exploding, Ben shouted, “Just who the Hell do you think you are?!”

“Mister Cartwright, look,” Jacob said softly.

It was at that moment that sense returned.  If it was Lemuel Miller, why hadn’t the villain turned  his gun on them?  Ben hesitated and then looked.  Roy Coffee was waving at him.

“Good Lord…” he breathed.  “I could have killed him.”

“Ben!” Roy shouted.  “Ben, get up here quick!”

Terror gripped him once again.  Ben holstered his pistol as he climbed to the top of the earthen bank.  What he saw lying at the bottom of the ravine nearly stopped his heart.  Little Joe lay trapped beneath Adam’s long lanky form.  The child was shrieking.

Adam was silent.

Roy dropped and slid down the side.  When he reached the bottom, the lawman looked up.  “I wasn’t fast enough, Ben.  I got him, but he got Adam first.”

It was only then that Ben noticed Lemuel Miller’s body lying some ten feet away from his sons.  The back of the outlaw’s light blue shirt was stained crimson.

God forgive him.  It made him glad.

Ben followed quickly.  Dropping to his knees beside Adam he asked, “Can you tell where he’s hit?” even as he glanced at Joseph.  The boy was in shock and crying so hard he didn’t realize he was there.  “Well, can you?”

Roy shifted his son’s body, rolling Adam over and onto his side.  “Went straight through the left side,” he said.  “It don’t look too bad, Ben.”

With that good news, his concern shifted from Adam to Little Joe.  It was only as he worked the boy free of his brother’s unconscious form, that Ben noticed the half-dozen cuts on the child’s face and how his hair – those glorious golden curls – had been butchered.

“Joseph?” he said as the child came free, still screaming.  “Little Joe, it’s Pa.  Joseph, look at me!”

Something in his tone must have penetrated the boy’s terror.  Joseph drew in a breath, shuddered, and looked at him.  A second later the boy threw himself into his arms.

“Papa!” he cried.  “Papa!  Mama’s dead!  The bad man killed Mama!”

The sound of his son’s broken heart nearly broke his own.

With his eye on Roy, who was wadding up part of his shirt and applying it to Adam’s wound, Ben pulled his youngest close to his chest and cooed in his ear.  “Joseph, you’re mama is going to be all right.  She’s alive.  She sent me to find you.”

Joe’s little fists were balled up in the fabric of his shirt.  His tears wet his skin.  “Nooooo!” he wailed.  “I saws her.  I saws her fall down!  Mama’s…dead.”

His tone more stern, Ben said, “Joseph, look at me.  Now!”

His small son sniffed in tears before looking up.  Little Joe stared into his eyes as if he would read the truth or the lie that lay behind them.

“Mama’s…alive….?”

“Yes, son.  Your mama is going to be fine.”

Joseph twisted in his arms to look at his brother.  Roy was wrapping a large strip of cloth around Adam’s middle to hold the wad he had formed in place.

“Is…Adam gonna die?”

Ben closed his eyes and drew his son closer to him.  “No, son.  Your brother isn’t going to die.”  The prayer he whispered was a silent one, asking that his next words not turn out to be a lie.

“I promise you, everything is going to be all right.”

 

Ben sent Jacob on ahead to find Lieutenant Johnston while the rest of them made camp.  Paul Martin had gone.  His old friend had left to make his appointed rounds shortly after attending Marie.  He would have looked after Adam himself, but his youngest son refused to release him.  He had no idea what Little Joe had gone through beyond the obvious signs, but it was clear the child was traumatized.  Joseph had returned to sucking his thumb and he let him.  Any small comfort was welcome at the moment.  So far the boy hadn’t said anything else since being reassured that his brother was going to be all right.  Adam had come to for a moment and told his brother the same thing.  The look out of Little Joe’s eyes spoke volumes.

He was far from convinced.

Ben was sitting beside the fire, holding him now.  Several of the army men and one of Olin’s other deputies were with him.  Roy Coffee had taken the two remaining outlaws into custody and left for the settlement.  Lemuel Miller’s body, as it rightly deserved, was draped over a horse, bound hand and foot, and hauled like meat behind them.  He and Roy had found a moment to talk before the lawman left.  From what Roy had learned, it seemed Miller’s gang had robbed an army depot and realized fairly quickly that the property they’d stolen was too hot to handle.  They’d left it at the Milfords, intending to retrieve it the next night.  Lieutenant Johnston explained that he’d not been at liberty to tell them until Miller was dead, but the army had a plant amongst the outlaws.  The man had managed to slip away and get word to them about the gang’s intentions.  Somehow, Lemuel Miller got wind of it and he and his cronies made good their escape.  From what he understood, if not for the fact that Miller’s beleaguered wife had chosen to take refuge at the Ponderosa, they would never have become involved.  Marie, with her generous nature, had taken pity on the woman and let her in.  Lemuel followed Renate to the house and stormed it to take her.  He had been wrong, it seemed.  Kidnapping Joseph had been a crime of convenience and not planned as he had suspected.  Miller’s greed had gotten the better of him and he’d died for it.

Sadly, Renate had died as well, leaving their son an orphan.

The boy was sullen and unruly.  He’d said little as the soldiers mounted up with him and rode away.  Duardo was going to live with his uncle Zeke’s wife in a nearby town.  Zeke was the sergeant he’d had dealings with at the Milfords.  Hopefully  the soldier’s goodness would win out over the evil the boy had embraced and learned at his father’s knee.

Ben shivered.  Adam had wakened long enough to tell him what that ‘child’ had done to his brother.

“Mister Cartwright?”

He looked up to find Lieutenant Johnston standing beside him.

“Yes?”

Robinson sat down.  He indicated Joseph with a nod.  Though the sucking noise continued, his son had fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion.

“How is the little one?”

“Still clinging on for dear life,” Ben said, looking down on his son’s shorn head.  Marie was going to have a fit when she saw what had happened to the boy’s curls!

“Understandable.”

He was almost afraid to ask.  “How is Adam?”

“Doing well,” the soldier answered quickly.  “It was a clean wound.  He has no fever and is sleeping without aid.”

“Thank God,” the rancher breathed.

“I believe it will be safe to move him when he wakes up.  I am sure you are anxious to be home.”

Robinson had informed him that his wife was doing well, though the effects of the concussion were paramount and might last for weeks if not longer.  With a laugh, the young soldier admitted he’d threatened to tie her to the bed if she didn’t stay put.  Marie, it seemed, had insisted on riding out with him.

“I am,” Ben admitted.  “The men who perpetuated the crime are dead or in jail.  It’s time for things to get back to normal.”   He knew he would have to testify at the trial of what was left of Miller’s gang, but that was in the future.  The deserters, of course, would be left to the military’s particular brand of justice.

Robinson was staring straight ahead, his eyes fixed on an unseen point.  “You have a beautiful family, Mr. Cartwright.  It makes me miss my own.”

“Where do you hale from?” Ben asked as Joseph sighed and shifted his position, curling up against him, but didn’t wake up.

“Ohio.  My father has a spread of about two hundred and fifty acres.  He was an agent to the Indians for years.  Until Old Hickory became president.”  The lieutenant stretched his long legs before him.  “He is a good man, Mister Cartwright, just as you are.”

Ben was touched.  “Thank you.”

Robinson pinned him with a stare.  “Sir, I wanted to say one more thing.  I apologize if it seems too personal.”

“Go on.”

“I know you are a believer.  Your beautiful wife told me as much.”

What was this about?

“I am.”

“God has…given me a word for you.  Isaiah fifty-five, verses eight to nine.”

Ben’s mind rolled through the pages of the Bible.  Then he had it.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord,” Robinson quoted.  “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

“What is this about?” the rancher asked.

The young man grinned.  “That, Mr. Cartwright, is between you and your God.”

——

SEVEN

A noise brought Ben Cartwright’s head up from the paper he was reading.  He’d become deeply involved in an article on the trial of the remaining members of Lemuel Miller’s gang, which was being handled by a circuit judge over near Eagle Station.  In the end he hadn’t been required to testify in person.  Instead he’d been asked to submit a statement, which suited him fine.  It was late spring and he was needed on the ranch.  Ben lowered the paper to his knees and glanced up the stair.  Marie was putting their tiny son to bed.  Though her recovery had been slow, she’d suffered no lingering effects from the attack on their home.  Joseph’s hair, while not quite the mountain of riotous curls it had been, was growing out and his small son’s nightmares were beginning to fade.  All in all it seemed they had come off lucky.

No, Ben corrected himself, blessed.

Hearing the noise again, the rancher dropped the paper to the fireside table and rose from his chair.  He had just reached the door when a light knock confirmed the fact that they had a visitor.  He thought what he’d heard before was a horse coming into the yard.  When he opened the door, he was surprised to find Sergeant Ezekiel Miller standing on his porch.

“Mister Cartwright,” the soldier said as he removed his hat and held out his hand.

Ben shook it.  “Sergeant.  Good to see you.  Won’t you come in?”

The older man shifted nervously on his feet.  “I thank you, but I just came by to ask a question.  Then I’d best be on my way.  I’m needed in Eagle Station.”

Two of the men on trial were Zeke’s younger brothers.  His older brother, Lemuel – the perpetrator – was already dead.

“I’m sorry,” Ben said, and meant it.

“We reap what we sow and those three sowed nothing but the wild wind,” the soldier said with a sigh.  “I’m here hoping I can keep another Miller from ridin’ it.”

He knew there was another brother – or two – who had not joined in Lem’s criminal escapades.  Zeke told him they were straight as arrows.  Now, he wondered if the older man had been wrong.

“More trouble?”

“May as be,” Zeke sighed.  “You ain’t seen hide nor hair of that boy of Lem’s recently, have you?”

Ben frowned.   He had a hard spot in his heart for that ‘boy’.  “Duardo?”

“Yeah.  I been lookin’ after him or, I should say, my wife has since I got my duty.”

“I take it he hasn’t adjusted well?”  A modicum of pity splintered the stone hard wall he had erected.  After all the boy did have to live with the fact that both parents were dead.  “Has he run away?”

“Twice now, but this time I can’t find him.  Stole a horse and provisions from our store house.”  Zeke’s shake of the head spoke volumes.  “The stable owner said the boy took a horse and headed out this way.”

His thoughts immediately went to his own small son.  Duardo had shown a marked hatred of Little Joe.  “Why would he come this way?”

“No idea, other than the fact that his folks died near here. “  The soldier returned his hat to his head.  “Anyhow, I’d be obliged if you would keep an eye out for him.  That boy’s got a tough row to hoe.  Lem, well….  Lem was my brother, but he was a hard man.”

“Again, Sergeant, I’m sorry for your loss.”

Ezekiel Miller drew in a breath and let it out slowly.  “Sorry, to say, I’m not.”  He tipped his hat.  “Evenin’, Mr. Cartwright.  God bless you and your family.”

As the soldier walked away, Ben considered the seemingly unfair allotment of happiness in the world.  He had more than his fair share, where men like Zeke – and boys like Duardo – had a deficit.  There were times when it troubled him, and on more than one level.  Nature sought balance.  It was a harsh mistress and cared little for the needs or wants of a man.  And then, there was Job, a man of deep faith who had everything – who considered himself blessed – only to have it all taken away, and taken away by the God whom he loved.

Mon cher?” a soft voice asked even as he felt his wife’s light touch on his arm.

Ben turned to find Marie looking up at him.  Her face was awash with the porch lantern’s glow.  It turned her honey-blonde hair to spun gold.  In her large green eyes he saw reflected all of the things he felt – love, joy…contentment.

The silver-haired man leaned down to plant a kiss on the top of that golden head.

“Is anything wrong?” Marie asked.

He looked to the yard.  There was no sign the sergeant had been there.  He decided it wasn’t worth troubling her, at least not tonight.

“No.  Just catching a breath of air,” Ben replied as he slipped his hand around her waist.  “Is Joseph settled?”

She shrugged.  “I permitted him to sleep with Hoss.  He was…troubled.”

“Oh?”

She pulled in closer to him.  Both sadness and anger were in her voice.  “How could anyone, most especially a child, do such a thing?”

“I’m not sure Duardo ever got the chance to be a child, Marie,” he answered softly.

His spitfire pulled back and glared at him.  “You do not excuse his behavior!?”

“No.  There are reasons, but not excuses.  Most likely it is something in the boy himself, some dark streak that he’s nursed instead of denied.  We can only pray the love of his uncle and aunt will cleanse it.”

Marie leaned her head against his chest.  “I have tried, Ben, but I do not forgive him.”

“You will, my love,” he said as he squeezed her hand.  “In time.  You know what they say.  Time heals all wounds.”

“I do not agree, mon cher,” she said, her tone bitter.  “Our wounds remain.  The mind may cover them with scar tissue and the pain become less, but they are never gone.”

He ran a hand along her face.  Since the attack his wife had been more thoughtful; pensive even.

“You’re tired,” he said.  “Let’s go to bed.”

She drew in a breath and nodded.  “Oui.  Je suis fatigue.”  Marie caught his hand in hers.  “But not so fatigue that I cannot enjoy my husband’s company,” she added with a enticing smile. 

This time, he kissed her on the lips.

 

As Ben took Marie in hand and closed the door, and then led his wife up the stairs and to the bed they shared, a small shadow stirred within the  greater shadows that cloaked the fenced-in area attached to the stable.  The shadow’s owner took a few steps.  They hesitated briefly, and then vaulted over the fence and moved into the yard.  The moon was high in the sky, but cast a cloak of shadows.  Here and there the yard was dotted with light, but mostly marked by patches black as a pox.  The furtive figure darted into one of these and stood staring at Benjamin Cartwright’s ranch house; hatred in its heart.  It was a boy, not yet eleven years old; a boy whose soul was twisted at birth and whose choices had done nothing to uncoil it.  A boy who had been shown evil but instead of running, had embraced it.

A boy for whom there was no hope.

He was young and small and not yet allowed to carry a gun, though he had begged his father more than once to teach him how to use one.  Still, a gun was candid and his wretched soul was subtle.  What he sought was power.  Control.

Domination.

As he stood there fingering the contents of his pocket, a thought took shape in Duardo ‘Duke’ Miller’s mind.  He wouldn’t see its effect, but he would hear of it, and hearing would be more than enough.  He would know.  He would be the only one who knew.

He would be God.

Removing the handful of sharp objects from his pocket, the son of Lemuel Miller tossed them to the ground.  It might take days, but he was sure their effect would be felt – all the way down to Cartwright’s grieving soul.

“For you, Lem,” he whispered.

And then, like the snake in the grass he was, the perverted boy slinked away.

 

The next day dawned bright and golden and full of promise.  It was the end of May.  The trees were a verdant ocean against which fields of brilliant flowers bloomed; red, blue, yellow and white.  The sky was the blue of Lake Tahoe.  Flocks of fat white clouds, like sheep, pranced across it as the scent of the upcoming noontime meal sneaked through the cracks around the kitchen door enticing Ben to return inside.  He’d come outside to escape the boisterous happiness of his young sons; content to listen to their whooping and cheering voices through the open office window.  Hoss and Adam had been deeply engaged in a game of checkers when he fled.  Little Joe had to choose sides and, today, in what came as a mild surprise, he had chosen Adam as his champion.   Hoss and Joe were usually thick as thieves.  Of course, the fact that his oldest brother had been the one to come to his rescue the night before when a night terror woke the little boy up screaming most likely had a lot to do with it.  Even since the incident with Lemuel Miller, Joseph had looked to his oldest brother for strength.

Then again, some of those nightmares were about Adam; about him being shot and not surviving.

All in all, though, life had returned to normal and he was grateful for it.  The spring season was full.  No, not full, Ben chuckled, overflowing!  Not only did they have the calving to contend with, but the daily feeding and caretaking of the calves.  They had to be cleaned and then weaned from their mothers, and then moved from pasture to pasture until the spring grass became summer grass and it was green enough for them to graze on their own.   There was preparation for seeding and for the tasks of the hot months, which would arrive all too soon, as well as all the daily rituals like riding fence and repairing any damage.  Line shacks had to be restocked and on and on.

Ben rose to his feet and stretched his arms wide, breathing in the fresh air.  He paused to listen as his youngest son’s contagious laughter rang out like a bell.  Adam had made some grand move, no doubt.  Probably removing most of his younger brothers’ pieces from the yellow and black checked board in one fell swoop.   It was good to hear Joseph laugh.  For the first few weeks after his abduction the sound had been absent from the house.  Now, five weeks later, the boy seemed truly on the mend.  He had even recovered sufficiently to let his mother out of his sight.  Today, as the sun rose, Marie had saddled her sleek black mare and set out for the Milfords’ place.  They’d gone over to check on Enos’ wife several times in the last few weeks.  Cora Milford was a tough old bird, but the events of that night a little over a month ago had sent her to her bed.  Doc Martin said it was a result of shock.  He knew better.  Cora blamed herself for what had happened to Marie and Little Joe.  Marie had gone to try to reason with her.

Ben glanced over his shoulder toward the Milford place.

“Come home soon, my love,” he whispered.

A creaking sound alerted the silver-haired man to the fact that the door had opened.  He turned to find his young son’s face peering out of the opening.

“Is Mama back yet?” Little Joe asked.

Ben walked to the door and opened it a bit wider, revealing all of his small son.  “No, Joseph, but Mama will be back soon.”

“Are you sure?”

He knelt by the boy and laid a hand on his head.  The short curls that covered it stabbed his heart with fury and a remembrance of that awful night.

“Yes, I’m sure.  She said she would be back before supper.”

Little Joe came out onto the porch.  “I miss her,” he said simply.

Ben reached out and pulled his little boy into his arms.  “I do too.”  Changing the subject, he asked his son, “What were you laughing about?”

Little Joe frowned.  The memories of a child were so brief.  Then he grinned.  “Adam moved one of the checkers when Hoss wasn’t looking so he could win.  Hoss was sure mad.”

“He moved one of the checkers?”  That didn’t sound like his oldest son.

“Adam sure did.”  Joe beamed.  “He winked at me and then he moved it and then Hoss started shouting.”

Now he got it.  His two older boys were trying to distract his youngest one.  Apparently, it had worked.

“So what do you think I should do about it?”

Joseph puzzled over the one for a moment.  Then he grinned.   “Give Adam a licking!”

Ben rose with the boy in his arms.  “Maybe I will,” he said in his ‘papa’ voice.  “In any case, I will have to have a stern talk with your older brother.”

Little Joe’s face fell.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I didn’t mean to get Adam in trouble,” Joe sniffed.  “I loves him.”

Ben passed his hand through the boy’s truncated curls and then planted a kiss on his forehead.  “I know you do, and Adam knows it too.”  He tossed the boy in the air, eliciting a laugh.  “Now, let’s go inside and get ready for supper, shall we?”

“Hop Sing’ll be mad if’n we’re late,” his son said solemnly.

“Yes, he will.”

And that was normal too.

 

The light was fading and Ben Cartwright was standing in the doorway looking for his wife.   Her visit to the Milfords’ had taken longer than intended.  It made him wonder if Cora was not doing well.  In any case, it was getting late enough that he was getting worried.

“Are you going to go fetch Marie, Pa?” a young voice asked.  It was laced with a touch of amusement.

Ben turned to find his oldest son standing just within the house.  “You know your step-mother.  If I did, I would never hear the end of it.”

Adam chuckled, dropped his head, and then looked back up.  “You can say ‘mother’, Pa.  It’s okay.”

The rancher held his breath.  Marie had been his wife for over five years now and Adam had yet to call her ‘mother’ or ‘ma’ as Hoss did.  There was a deep tie between his eldest and the woman who had given him birth; a woman he had only known for a few short hours.

Ben stepped into the house and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “Are you certain, son?”

Adam pursed his lips and then nodded.  “I’ve been thinking about it a lot, Pa.  It’s not fair to Marie.  She’s been a good mother to me.  And, after all, it’s just a word.”

“But a word with great meaning.”

Adam’s gaze went to the door and his thoughts past it, flying on a wing of memory toward New England.  “I wish I had known her,” he said with a sigh.

Ben knew his son was speaking of Elizabeth.  As he withdrew his hand, he said, “I hope I have brought your own mother to life with my words – as best I can.”

“You have, Pa.  So well that I feel I knew her.  But….”  His son was a thinker and he thought a moment before continuing.  “Even when I was…less than cordial…Marie accepted me as her own.  I thought….”  Adam snorted.  “I thought when Joe came along it might be different, but it wasn’t.  There’s no difference with her, between Joe and Hoss and me.  You made a good choice, Pa.”

Yes, he had, and though his current young wife had done more than anyone or anything else to change the hairs on his head from black to silver-gray, he wouldn’t have traded the last five years with her for all the riches in the world.

Ben blinked back the moisture in his eyes and then looked around the room.  “Where are your brothers?”

“In the kitchen with Hop Sing.  Fresh baked cookies, you know?”

He could smell them now.  “Chocolate?”

“What else?”

“You want one, Papa?” a small voice asked as fingers tugged at his pants’ leg.

Ben nearly jumped out of his skin.  He looked down to find his youngest son’s chocolate-smudged face looking up at him.  When the boy wanted to, he could move quiet as a mouse and quick as a brown hare.

“Not right now, Little Joe,” he said.

“They’s really ‘licious, Papa.”

“I’m sure they are,” Ben replied as he knelt and ran a thumb over his small son’s chin.  “Now, why don’t you go back into the kitchen and ask Hop Sing for a wet cloth to clean your face.”

“Okay,” Little Joe replied and then asked out of nowhere, “when will Mama be home?”

“Any minute now,” he said as he gave the little boy’s rump a light swat.  “Now, off with you, you little scamp!”

As Joseph headed for the kitchen, Ben headed for his office.  Hop Sing had given the boys cookies since supper was long overdue.  He wondered again about Marie.  She would have known to be home by 5:30 at the latest, otherwise she would have to pay penance to Hop Sing.  Ben smiled as he once again considered his life and how blessed he was.  Three fine sons.  A loving wife.  Hop Sing to take care of all of them.

Yes, he was blessed indeed.

As the silver-haired man picked up his ledger, he heard a familiar sound.  Someone was approaching the house  – at too fast a pace.   He rose and looked out the office window and saw Marie coming around the end of the stable astride the spirited black horse she insisted on riding.  He didn’t approve and she knew it.  The thoroughbred gelding was far more fit for the race track than a rancher’s wife.  Leaving the office, he headed for the door.  Before he reached it, he heard Marie shout and then, the horse squealed.

And then he heard the sound of the front door opening.

Ben halted, confused.  As he did three things happened – the horse reared and squealed again.  Adam shouted something.

And Little Joe ran out the door.

Several apprehensive steps brought him to the porch where his eyes locked with his wife’s.  There was terror in Marie’s – and regret.  Ben watched, horrified, as she pulled the horse’s reins sharply to the left in an attempt to keep its hooves from striking Joseph with deadly force.  The animal fought against her, rearing again as it picked its rear off-side leg up and shook it.

As he stood there, unable to process what was happening, Adam swooped in like a falcon on the chase and caught hold of his little brother.  He had no idea the older boy had left the house.  Adam must have gone through the kitchen door.  The teenager grunted as the pair struck the ground.

And then there was a final sound; one he would never forget.   Later, he would recognize it as the sound of a nearly two-ton weight animal striking the ground hard.

At that moment he felt it as a clap of thunder.

A second later he was on his knees at his dying wife’s side.

Marie’s emerald green eyes fastened on his.  “Joseph…?”she asked through her pain.  “…Adam?”

He glanced at their sons.  Adam was on his knees holding Joseph close.  The little boy was struggling to break free.

“Safe,” he said as he clasped her gloved hand.  It was waving in the air as if seeking something out of reach.

Marie nodded and then her back arched – as much as it could with the weight of the horse atop her.  She grimaced, breaking his heart, and then – unexpectedly – smiled.  The most beautiful, heartfelt smile.

“Marie?” he pleaded.

Her eyes closed as if she was gathering strength, and then his beautiful wife looked right at him.

“Remember, mon cherie,” she breathed.

And was gone.

For a moment there was nothing.  Only silence.  Then, slowly, sound began to bleed into his altered reality.  The sound of a horse shifting, rising, and limping away.  The shouts of ranch hands.  Someone speaking in another language – Cantonese – and a child crying.   And another child.  A child who was shrieking just like that horse.  His child.  Crying for the woman who could no longer hear him.

“Mama!

“MAMA!!”

——

Interlude II – Autumn 1862

 “Mama?”

“Joseph, no.  It’s Pa.  Your…mother isn’t here.”

But he could see her.  Standing there in the fading light.  She was holding her hands out toward him.

“…here, Pa.  Mama’s…here,” he said.

Or at least, he thought he did.

“What is it, Pa?” a voice rough with worry asked.

Joe thought it was Adam.  Adam, who had held him all those years before when he’d seen his Mama fall.   He’d heard her say his name.  He’d wanted to go to her, but Adam held him back.

‘Adam’, Joe thought as pain throttled his world.  ‘Adam, hold me now.’

“Hold on, Joe,” his brother ordered.

“Your brother, Adam,” Pa said.  “If Marie….”

“She can’t have him, Pa.”  Adam’s voice was filled with rage and tears.  “Joe, listen to me.  Tell Marie she can’t have you!  We need you, Joe!  Pa.  Me and Hoss….”

Mama was kneeling at his side now.  She was bending over him.

Mon petit Joseph,” she said, her words a caress he longed for.  “Mon fils, I am here.”

“Mama…?”

He could feel her hand on his cheek; her breath on his face.

It felt good.

Real good.

Better than living.

—–

Part Two – The Confrontation, Spring 1862

EIGHT

Ben Cartwright rolled up his shirt sleeves as he stepped out of the house.  The sudden warmth felt good.  The winter had been a hard one.  He and his sons had toted and carried and laid in enough stock to make it through the harsh winter months, but had not counted on a mid-February snowstorm that rivaled the worst he had known since coming West.  They’d been hungry by the end of it, and so the break in the weather that had come this last week of the month had not only brightened their prospects but bolstered their moods.   Adam and Hoss were just back from a visit to the low country where they’d gone to check on the herd.  His sons reported that nearly every head had made it through the winter.  Little Joe had gone into town to pick up the mail that had piled up over the last two months.  His youngest was late returning home but then, that was to be expected.

The rancher chuckled to himself.   It had also been several months since Little Joe had ‘picked up’ a girl.

The winter had been hard on all of them.  Due to the constant snowstorms, riding hard on the heels of one another, they had been forced to remain inside.  Even men who loved each other as much as he and his sons did could get on each other’s last nerve when so closely confined.  It had been with relief that he had watched the three of them ride away that morning knowing that their departure signaled a return to normalcy.

It also meant spring was on the way.

Moving to the porch table, Ben sat down on one of the chairs.  He had work to do, but found he was distracted.  It was on the wind – spring.  There was a certain scent to it, one that held both expectation and regret.  The rancher closed his eyes and leaned back and let it take him back to a place he wanted to forever deny.

The moment when Joe’s mother died.

He could still see his oldest and youngest sons, seated on the ground.  Nearby Marie lay dying.  Adam knew it.  He saw it in the boy’s eyes.  Hop Sing stood in the doorway behind him, preventing Hoss from leaving the house while the men – his men – came running.  One of them leapt on his horse and galloped out of the yard at full tilt in search of a doctor.

Too late.

Much too late.

When Ben opened his eyes, they went of their own volition to the place where his wife had lain.  He’d searched it afterward, seeking the source of the mishap.  After Marie had been carried up to their room and the doctor had come and gone, after Joseph had finally stopped shrieking and fallen into a restive sleep in his brother’s bed, he’d walked the yard.  Near the spot where the black had gone down his foot hit something.  He knelt and ran his fingers through the grass and found a handful of large pewter jacks; the kind a child played with.  A quick search revealed more scattered about the yard.  Going to the stable where the black had been taken, he’d found another one laying in the stall.

Infuriated that his orders to keep the yard clean had been disregarded, he’d returned to the house ready to vent his anger on the only object it could find – his sons.  Hop Sing stopped him.  His friend reminded him that God was in control and that nothing happened outside of the Almighty’s knowledge and consent.

His acceptance of that fact had propelled him into a very dark place.

The rancher ran a hand over his face.  It had been a long, hard road, but in the end his faith was what saved him.  It had grown deeper and richer over the years and had carried him through some hard times: Sam Wolfe nearly taking Joseph’s life in the desert, Hoss leaving after Margie Owen’s passing; the death of his youngest son’s fiancé.

Peter Kane.

Ben permitted himself a sigh and then picked up the paper he’d been working on.  It was a list of supplies.  Day after day, year after year, the list was the same with little variation and that was all right.  Unlike his young sons, he believed the word ‘routine’ to be a sweet one.  It meant everything was going as planned and a man could look forward to the next day without fear or regret.

He liked routine.

As his eyes returned to the list, Ben heard a ‘routine’ sound, although this one he was not so pleased with.  God bless him, his youngest was so like his mother.  Joseph lived life at a gallop.  Just like Marie, he’d reminded the boy time and again that the Good Book said to not be hasty or impulsive, and just like Marie, Little Joe had listened and then gone about living life at a pace.  The tilted head, the expressive green eyes – that quick smile – were the same, as was his son’s total disregard for what he said.  Ben’s gaze returned to that spot in the yard.  If Marie had listened, she might not have….

No, that way lay madness.

“Pa!” his son exclaimed as he rode into the yard at full tilt.  “Pa!”

And then it happened.  Time slowed to a snail’s pace, just as it had that day so long ago.  One moment his son was seated upright on his horse, handsome, strong; alive.

And the next, he was under it.

As he had fifteen years before, for a moment Ben Cartwright froze.  Then he was on his feet; the chair he’d occupied skidding to a halt against the wall of the house as he thrust it aside and broke into a run.  As he dropped to his knees beside his fallen son, he heard someone call out, asking if anything was wrong.

Yes’, he thought, ‘damn it!  Everything is wrong!’

Taking his son’s limp body in his arms, Ben brushed the curls back from his forehead, noting as he did the bruise that blossomed on the boy’s pale skin – a herald of what else might be wrong.

“Joe.  Joe!” he called as he caressed the boy’s head.  “Joe?”

The reply was feeble.

“…Pa…?”  Joe shifted as if in pain.  His eyes remained closed.  “Pa…big cat.  Big cat up by the herd….”

“Pa?”

It was all he could do to tear his eyes from his son.  Hoss was there.  Looking as lost as he felt.

“Pa?  What happened?”

“Joe’s horse stumbled.  Get to town!  Get the doctor quick!”

As Hoss turned and ran toward the stable, Ben turned back to his fallen son.  When he touched him, there was no response.  Joe’s eyes were closed.  The boy was a ragdoll in his arms.  As gently as he could, the older man placed one arm beneath his son’s knees and the other behind his back and lifted him.  Little Joe’s head lolled against his chest as he rose with him.  A little sigh escaped his son’s lips.  The sound was eerily similar to the last the boy’s mother had made; a sound that spoke of a soul returning to the one who had given it life and had deemed it fit to take it back.

As he moved toward the house, Ben gripped his son tightly to his breast.

“Hold on, Little Joe,” he pleaded.  “Hold on for your pa.”

The door opened just as he came to it.  Adam halted with his hand on the latch and a startled expression on his face.

“Pa?”

“Cochise,” he began haltingly.  “Cochise…fell.  Your brother….”

Adam’s eyes were haunted by the same vision as his own.  “Good God!” he breathed.

God had best be good.

God had best save his son.

“I’ll get Hop Sing.”

Ben nodded as he bore Marie’s son up the stairs, just as he had borne his wife’s broken body up them to the room they shared fifteen years before.  The memory of that day weighed him down, making his progress slow.   The silver-haired man heard the clock by the door chime five.  He heard Adam’s voice and Hop Sing’s startled exclamation, followed by a quick-fire barrage of Cantonese.   Someone outside shouted.  A horse galloped out of the yard.  And then….

Then, it was silent.

Except for the sound of his son’s labored breathing.  Except for the grunt of pain elicited from the boy as he laid him down.

“Shh, Joe,” he said softly.  “Son….”

Joe moaned a second time before his eyes opened.  The boy shifted as if uncomfortable and then looked at him.

“He’s a…big one, Pa,” he breathed.   “Biggest one I’ve…ever seen.  He’s gonna…raise Cain with those cattle up there.”

Joe must have joined the men he had set to watch the herd in the high country on the way back from town.  No wonder he was late!

Ben ran his fingers up and down his son’s arm.  “Don’t worry about that now….”

Joe frowned with pain and then, true to his son, asked about his beloved horse.  “Is Cochise all right?”

“Yeah, she’s all right.”  Ben reached out to touch the nasty bruise forming on his son’s forehead.  It was just below the hairline  “She’s luckier than you.”

“Gee, I don’t…even know what it was,” Joe said.  “I didn’t see a thing.  Must have been a chuckhole or something.”

Hop Sing appeared at the side of the bed.  Ben nodded his thanks as the Asian man placed a basin of clean water beside the bed and handed him a cloth before hurrying out of the room.  After wetting the cloth, he used it to wash his son’s face free of dirt and blood.

When Joe looked at him, his vivid green eyes contained an equal mix of confusion and pain.  It propelled him back to that day again.  Marie’s boy had been inconsolable.

So had he.

“When I saw you fall, Joe…for a moment…it was just like your mother…the same way that afternoon, when she came riding up to the house…”  Ben hesitated.  Little Joe’s eyes had closed.  He shook the boy gently, with no response.   Exhausted, the silver-haired man leaned back in his chair.  “There’s so much of her in you, Joe,” he said, more to himself than to his son.  “So much….”

“Mistah Ben,” a soft voice said.  “How Little Joe?”

The rancher turned to find Hop Sing, carrying his medicine chest.  He shook his head.  “Joe’s unconscious.”

The Asian man placed the chest on the bedside table.  “Bring medicine for when boy wakes.  Mistah Adam say horse fall on Little Joe just like Missy Cartwright.  Such fall bring much pain.”

Ben ran a hand over his face.   Much pain, yes.   To the boy and to those who loved him.

“Pa?  How’s Joe?”

Ben rose to his feet.  He glanced at his youngest where he lay on the bed.  “Hop Sing, keep watch.  Come and get me the moment Joe stirs.”

“Yes, sir, Mistah Ben,” the Asian man said as he sat down in the chair by the bed and reached for Joe’s hand.

The rancher moved into the hall where his oldest son was waiting.

“Well, Pa?”

He shook his head.  “I don’t know how your brother is.  All I know is, Joe’s in pain.”

Adam winced as he looked beyond him, his eyes seeking Little Joe.  “How hard did Cochise come down on him?”

In his mind’s eye, he saw it happen again.  One second Joe was upright and the next, on the ground – with two ton of horse flesh on top of him.

“Hard, son.  Very hard.”

His eldest blinked back tears.  “God, it can’t be happening again.”  As soon as he said, it, Adam seemed to realize just what he had said.  “Sorry, Pa.  I didn’t mean to….”

Ben turned back and leaned heavily on the jamb that led into his youngest’s room.  Joe was pale.  He was breathing hard and moaning in his sleep.  “It’s all right, son,” he said, his voice robbed of strength.  “But we both have to cling on to the fact that your brother is still breathing.  He’s alive.”

Efficient as ever, Adam said, “I’ll go see to Cochise.”

The older man sighed.  “That’s the first thing your brother asked about, whether Cochise was all right.”

“Joe loves that horse, Pa.  You know that.”

Even though she might have murdered him.

He nodded.  “Do that, and then…tell the men.  They’ll want to know.”

Little Joe was loved by everyone who knew him, but especially by the hands who had watched the boy grow from a mischievous scamp into a responsible young man.  As Adam turned to go, he caught his son’s arm.

“Find Dan.  Make sure he knows.”

“I will, Pa.  I’ll make sure.”  Adam paused.  “What are you doing to do?”

He’d done it before to no avail, but he would do it again.

“Pray, son.  I’m going to pray.”

 

It seemed an eternity before the sound of a buggy pulling into the yard broke the silent watch he was keeping.  It was nearly four hours to town and another four back, but Hoss managed to find the doctor and make it home in less than seven.  Paul had been with another patient, but had promised to follow as soon as he could.

Upon his arrival home, Hoss had come up to Joe’s room.  Adam had come with him.  They’d been surprised to find Joe awake and talking.  The three brothers had even jested with one another, Adam making light of what had happened by teasing his baby brother about finding yet another way to avoid haying season.  When asked how he did it, Joseph had answered with a smile and the words, ‘Just lucky, I guess.’

Lucky.

He had thought they were ‘lucky’.  Little Joe seemed to have survived the fall with little effect.

All of that changed as the night wore on.  Joe’s condition rapidly deteriorated.  Shortly before dawn, the boy began to pitch and toss.  Joe vomited several times and then, developed a fever.  It spiked a few hours later and then raged until he feared the worst.  Ben ran a hand over his stubbled chin as he turned back into the room where Paul Martin sat with his son.  The first thing the physician did when he arrived was order them to remove Joe’s clothing, partly to make his son more comfortable, but mostly so he could conduct a thorough examination of Joe’s injuries.  In the dark of night he’d missed it – the storm of darkness moving across his son’s abdomen.

A storm that heralded internal bleeding.

‘Wound shock’, Paul called it.

“Ben.”

The word struck him like a bullet.  The rancher turned to find the physician coming out of his son’s room.  Paul paused to lay a hand on his shoulder and then moved past.  Turning back, he said, “I’d like to talk to you and the boys, together, about Joe’s condition.”

“Is he – ?”

Paul held a hand up.  “Ben, I’ve been up all night.  I’m not sure I can make sense more than once and you know those two older boys of yours.  They’ll grill me before they let me out the door.”

He nodded.  Adam and Hoss were downstairs, awaiting word.  They had been ever since Paul arrived.

“Hop Sing made some fresh coffee about an hour ago,” he replied.  He knew because the Asian man had come upstairs to Joe’s room and offered him some.  “I’ll have him bring it in.”

Turning back to look at his son, Ben asked, “Is it safe to leave Joe alone?”

“It should be.  The boy’s weak.  I doubt he’ll try to get up.”  The physician paused and then chuckled.  “But then again, this is Joseph Francis Cartwright we’re talking about.  Maybe you should send one of your men up to sit with him.  I imagine Hop Sing will want to hear what I have to say.”

 

Paul Martin looked at the men surrounding him, noting the expression on each one’s face.  Hoss Cartwright was a giant of a man, but as tender-hearted as a boy of five.  He felt things deeply and nothing more than his love for his little brother.  The two had been practically inseparable since Little Joe’s birth.  Joe had come early and been underweight; his life not a certainty.  One day Hoss had overheard him warning Ben and Marie not to get their hopes up; that the baby might not make it.  Hoss had marched right up to him and defied him, telling him that – if he had anything to say about it – Little Joe would not only live, but grow up fat and sassy.

The older man smiled.  Well, he got the ‘sassy’ part right.

Adam, on the other hand, had been quiet and distant in those early days, as if he feared one more tragedy – and this time one he could not survive.  But slowly, as the baby began to fatten up and it seemed Joe would survive, Adam lowered his defenses and let his baby brother in.  Like Hoss, he was Joe’s protector, but even more he was Little Joe’s anchor.  After Marie’s death, he had to be.

The physician’s gaze went to his old friend next.  The rancher had been through more than his fair share.  Someone once said that to use a man greatly, God had to wound him deeply.  That was Ben Cartwright in a nutshell.  First Elizabeth and then Inger, and then that awful fall that took Marie.

And now, Little Joe.

“Hop Sing, please stay,” he said as the Asian man placed a tray with four steaming hot cups of coffee on the table and turned to leave.  “I want all of you to hear this at once.”

They all leaned forward.

“I won’t mince words.   First of all, the injury is bad.”  He looked to Ben.  “You saw the bruising?”

Ben nodded.

“Half a ton and more, Ben, that’s what the average horse weighs.  And it came down on Joe without warning.”  He could read the pain and fear in his friend’s eyes.  Ben knew all of this all too well.  They’d had the same conversation fifteen years before when the boy’s mother had been injured in the same way.   “He’s broken several ribs.  And in spite of the fact that the major bruising is on his forehead, the real damage to Joe’s head happened when the back of his skull struck the ground.  He has a concussion and a fairly severe one.”

“Why didn’t Little Joe complain in the beginnin’, Doc?” Hoss asked.

“Most likely it was the result of shock.  Often a patient will rise after an injury and think they are fine, only to fall later.”

“Is Joe going to ‘fall’?” Adam inquired, his tone suggesting what he meant.

What they were all afraid of.

“To be honest, I don’t know.  You’re brother is made of stern stuff.  I have seen that boy survive things that would have taken a grown man down.”

“But?”

“But the body can only take so much.  It will all depend on how severe the internal trauma is.  Bleeding and shock are the enemies.  Once I leave, you’ll have to watch for signs.”

“What signs doctor want Hop Sing to watch for?” Ben’s cook asked.

That was the last face in the room.  Hop Sing, a man who should have resented his employer for being one of the rich white men who took advantage of the Chinese.  But Ben didn’t take advantage.  Ben was Ben and Hop Sing was, well, he was family.

“At times it seems the victim has suffered a fit of apoplexy.  They will be numb and may exhibit weakness on one side of the body.  So far I have not seen that in Little Joe, but he is extremely weak and short of breath.  When Joe came to for a moment, he complained of a severe headache  and…abdominal pain. “  Paul held his hand up to ward off the collective gasp his statement evoked.  “It’s not severe.  At least not yet.  But it is a warning sign that the liver or pancreas could be involved.”

“So what do we do, Doc?” Hoss asked, his tone hushed with fear.

Paul let out a sigh and then repeated the words he was so often forced to speak.  “Wait.  Watch.”  His eyes met Ben’s.  They had been here too before.  “Pray.”

The rancher rose to his feet and walked to the hearth.  He placed a foot on the stones and leaned against it, staring into the flames.

Adam spoke.  “And what if prayer availeth nothing?”

Ben looked at him but said nothing.

“Then, I will have to decide whether or not to operate in order to relieve the pressure.”  He looked from one to the other.  “You all know the risks.”

“Is there nothing else you can do, Paul?” Ben asked.

He thought a moment before speaking.  “There is a new technique.  Most consider it voodoo, but I feel it has potential.”

“What treatment?” Hop Sing inquired.

“A solution of saline and strychnine given subcutaneously.”

“Strychnine?”   Hoss was astonished.  “What’re you tryin’ to do, Doc?  Kill him?”

“Son….” Ben warned.

“No, Ben.  It’s all right.  Nature is a wonder.  There are many drugs that, if given in quantity, will indeed kill, but if given in a lesser amount, cure.   As I said, shock is the chief concern in an injury such as this.  This solution seems to help with that, and with rebuilding the blood.”

“Would it have helped Marie?”

Ben had thought his wife was dead when he held her in his arms, but Marie had been a fighter too.  She had lingered for a day – in terrible agony.

“No, Ben.  Marie’s injuries were too severe.  Nothing could have saved her.”

“Doc?”

Paul Martin shifted and looked up the stairs.  The hand Ben had appointed to watch over Joe was standing at the top.

The physician rose to his feet.  “Yes?”

“Joe’s feelin’ pretty bad.  Says his stomach’s killin’ him.”

And so it began.

 

Ben didn’t know what to do.  Paul wouldn’t let him – let any of them but Hop Sing – into the room where Joseph lay writhing in pain.  He couldn’t work while his son was in danger.  He couldn’t eat or drink or sleep so long as the boy’s cries rang through the house.  Hoss and Adam had fled them, busying themselves with mind-numbing chores until someone – or something – called them back.  The rancher was restive.  Anxious.

Afraid.

And so he walked.  Up and down the yard he walked.  In circles and straight lines.  With his hands jammed so deep in his pockets that his fingers reached his knees.  He’d been here before.   When Marie’s black gelding rose to its feet and limped away – and he saw his beautiful wife so still and pale on the ground – he had assumed Marie was dead.  She wasn’t.  As he’d lifted and carried her into the house, a small pitiful sound had issued from her lips – a sound that was a knife thrust to his heart.  He’d always wondered, if he had been more attentive – if he had moved faster – could she have lived?  He’d carried that burden for fifteen years.

Paul had freed him from it today.

The light was fading.  The day was nearly done.  The doctor had arrived in the morning and was with them still, vowing he would not leave until it was decided one way or the other.

Until he knew if Little Joe would live or…not.

It wasn’t with intention, but the rancher found his steps kept taking him back to the spot where his wife had fallen all those years ago – where his son’s horse had fallen only the day before.   The irony was not lost on him.  It was almost exactly the same spot.   He could see the impression of Cochise’s hooves where they struck the ground, the smashed grass where the heavy animal had lain briefly, and the imprints of his son’s belt and gun.  Joe’s hat had been laying there when he first came out, forgotten in the mad rush to save the boy’s life.  He’d picked it up and carried it still.  The tan hat was a sad and forlorn reminder of what had transpired.  A beloved object without purpose should Joe….

No.  He would not go there.

Not until he had to.

Ben halted and looked down.  He was at the same spot where he had picked the hat up.  Something had lain beneath it; something driven part way into the ground.  The waning light struck it, setting off a spark that indicated it was either glass or metal.  Dropping to one knee, Ben reached out to touch it and pulled back as he felt it prick his finger.  Puzzled, he dug the object out of the ground and held it up to the sun’s waning light.

It was a child’s jack.

——-

NINE

A sharp knock startled Ben Cartwright out of the deep sleep he didn’t know he’d fallen into.   A quick glance at the hall clock told him the new day was barely begun.  Another glance, this time up the stairs, reminded him of why.  Ben blinked, shook himself, and then rose to his feet.  He considered ignoring the knock.  It had been a good three hours since he’d checked on Little Joe.  The rancher was worried about the time that had passed, though the fact that no one had come to rouse him was encouraging.   As the knock sounded again, Ben  turned his feet toward the door and went to see who it was.

He was a bit surprised to find Roy Coffee on the opposite side.

“Mornin’, Ben.  You got a minute?”

Ben ran a hand over the stubble on his cheeks and yawned.

“Long night?” Roy asked with a wink.  “That youngest one of yours givin’ you trouble again?”

The lawman had no way of knowing just how much trouble.

“Come in, Roy,” he said, leading the way with a gesture of his hand.  “Take a seat.  Would you like some coffee?”

“That would be just about my idea of Heaven right now, Ben.  Thank you.”

The silver-haired man walked to the edge of the dining room and called out.  “Hop Sing?”

The Asian man was there in an instant.  “Something wrong with number three son?  Boy worse?” he asked, breathless.

Ben glanced at Roy who had sat up and was paying attention.  “Not that I know of, but it’s been a while since I’ve been up to his room.  I would just like some coffee, if it’s not too much trouble.”

His cook breathed a sigh of relief.  “Okay, Mistah Ben.  I bring it in chop chop.”

“Thank you.”

As he turned back, the rancher noted his friend’s look.  Roy might appear a broken down bumbling lawman to some, but he knew better.  Behind those clear blue eyes was a mind sharp as any steel trap.

“What’s wrong with Little Joe?” Roy asked.

“There was an accident.  Joe came riding into the yard.  Cochise hit something and they went down.  He thought it might have been a chuckhole”.  He hesitated to mention what he’d found in the yard, it seemed so insignificant – and yet, it had been so out of place.  His little boys were men now and none of them played with jacks.

“You find that there chuck hole?”

Ben shook his head.  “No.  The ground was clear except….”

Roy perked up.  “Exceptin’ for what?”

The rancher reached into his pocket.  “This,” he said as he dropped the large jack onto Roy’s open palm.

“You have any young’uns around lately?” the lawman asked with an arch of one of his peppered brows.

“No, not recently.  Though Paco Rodriguez was here before he went to live with his grandparents.  He might have dropped it.”

“Could be.”  Roy pursed his lips as he looked right at him.  “Or could be someone planted it.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” the rancher said as his cook placed a tray with a pot and two steaming cups of coffee on the table before hurrying back to the kitchen.  As he reached for one, he said, “Just what are you suggesting, Roy?”

“I ain’t rightly sure.  I hope I’m wrong.”  The lawman let out a little sigh.  “Just like I’m hopin’ this ain’t got nothin’ to do with what brung me out here.”

“And what did bring you out here?”

Roy glanced at the jack again.   “Duke Miller,” he said.

It all came flooding back.  Duke Miller was the cold-blooded killer who had ridden into Virginia City about a month back and demanded Frank Thompson give him a haircut – and then killed Paco Rodriguez’s father when Carlos refused to surrender the chair.  Ben’s gaze returned to the staircase.  Joe had been in that chair before Carlos.  It could have been his son who lay dead on the floor of the barber shop.  What followed afterwards was a kangaroo court and a guilty man who got off scot-free.  Well, not quite scot-free.  Little Joe humiliated Duke Miller in front of the whole town by having Frank shave Miller’s hair off and then thrusting the bald man into the street for everyone to see.

According to the gossip at the local saloon, before he left town Miller had sworn to get revenge.

Miller.  Duke Miller.

Duardo Miller.

His face must have given it away.

“That’s right, Ben.  Lemuel Miller’s son.

Like dominoes, the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place.  It had all been so long ago he had nearly forgotten.  At the time of his abduction by Miller, Little Joe had been four years old.  His son would have no memory of it.  But he did.  He could still see Joseph’s battered and bleeding face, the shorn hair; the terror in his eyes.  Lemuel Miller had been less than human – a monster bent on degrading and perverting everything and anything he touched.

His own young son included.

“I did some lookin’, Ben.   Duke’s been in trouble in a couple of towns in the time he’s been away.  Same as here, though.  No eyeball witnesses.”  Roy sighed.  “I can’t do nothin’ about him bein’ in town other than warn him I’m watchin’.  That’s part of why I came out.”

“And the other part?”

“To warn Little Joe that Duke is gunnin’ for him.”  Roy’s gaze returned to the jack.  ‘Or somethin’.”

“You don’t think he had anything to do with Joseph’s fall, do you?” he asked, incredulous.

“Seems to me you’re forgettin’ somethin’, Ben.”

“What am I forgetting?”

“I believe you told me you found some  of these here big jacks in the yard the day Marie fell.”

“Yes.  One of the boys must have dropped them.  I dismissed….”  His voice trailed off.

No.

Could such an innocent thing be used – as a weapon?

Could Marie’s death have been, not an accident, but murder?

 

Adam Cartwright rose from the chair he had occupied for the last three hours and stretched.  He glanced at his ailing brother, who seemed to be sleeping normally for the moment, and then walked to the window and looked out on the rising day.  As he did, he noticed a familiar horse tethered to the rail.

Now what would Roy Coffee be doing out here so early?

Just as he’d decided to go down and find out, Little Joe shifted, groaned, and then drew in a sharp breath as one hand went to his abdomen.  The bruising had not faded.  In fact, it had darkened and increased.  The muscles of Joe’s stomach were taut as a drawn bowstring.  Just after Pa left Paul Martin had made the decision to give him the mix of saline and strychnine.  He’d stood by transfixed as the doctor  pumped poison into his brother’s veins and then begun a silent watch, keeping vigil, expecting that – at any moment – his brother would go into convulsions and die.  The risk was there.  Paul had made that clear.  The treatment might kill him.

Or save him.

Laying his book on the end of the bed, Adam took hold of his brother’s arm and leaned in to speak close to his ear.

“Joe.  It’s Adam.  I’m here.  You’re not alone.”

Joe’s brows knit together in the center.  “Mmm…” he groaned.

“Joe, can you hear me?” he tried again, his tone sharp with worry.

His little brother heard it and responded.  “A…dm…?”

Adam sat on the side of the bed and shifted his grip to his brother’s hand.  “Yeah, Joe, it’s me.  How do you feel?”

Joe licked his lips.  He chuckled and then grimaced.  “Bad.”

How bad?  What hurts?”

His little brother turned eyes fever-bright on him.  “You…want I…should…write you a list?”  At the end of that long sentence, his brother sucked in air.  “God, Adam!  It hurts.”  Fear clouded those bright eyes.  “What’s…wrong with…me?”

At least he was coherent.

“You were hurt, Joe.  Don’t you remember?  Cochise slipped and fell.”

“Just…like Mama.”  Joe’s eyes closed as he concentrated on breathing – in and out, in and out – seeking to draw in more air.  The effort was futile and short-lived.  Opening his eye, Joe looked at him and asked, his voice shaky, “How’s…Pa doing?”

“He’s worried.  We’re all worried, Joe.  You’ve been…real sick.”

“…die?”  The word burst out between gasps for air.

He squeezed Joe’s hand.  “Not if I can help it, little buddy.  And not on my watch.”

The sound of the door being pushed open alerted him to Hoss’ arrival before the big man stepped in the door.

“Hey, Adam,” he said.  “Pa’d like you to come downstairs.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.  He’s got somethin’ he wants to talk to you about.”  Hoss’ crystal blue eyes flicked to their wounded brother and back.  “I think it’s got to do with those horses you and Ed are gettin’ ready for the army.”

Little Joe didn’t see, of course.

“That okay, little brother?” Hoss asked, his voice gentle.  “If’n I take over from old Adam here?”

“Sure…thing, Hoss.”  Joe managed a smile, even as his jaw clamped tight as he rode another wave of pain.  “Just don’t…sit on me…you big ox.”

Adam closed the door behind him and fell against it.  Tears trailed down his cheeks.

Dear Lord!  How could they live without the little scamp?

 

It was about five minutes after he’d sent Hoss up to Joe’s room that Adam made an appearance.  Ben could tell by the way his son moved that something was wrong – not with Joe, but with Adam.  His eldest son took a seat in the blue chair by the fire.  He sniffed and ran a hand under his nose before turning his red-rimmed eyes on him – his question evident in his wary stare.

“Son, are you all right?” Ben asked.

“I’m okay, Pa,” Adam replied with a half-smile.  “The kid just got to me is all.”

“How is your brother?”

“About the same.  You know Joe.  He’s holding his own.”

Yes, he knew his son, and if anyone could make it through this, Joseph Francis Cartwright could.

“Mornin’, Adam,” Roy Coffee said as he came back into the room.  Roy had gone to ask Hop Sing what he recalled about ‘that’ night.

Now he was going to have to ask Adam to do the same.

“Would you like some coffee, son?” he asked.

“Sure, Pa.  I could use it.”

“Did you ask him, Ben?” Roy inquired as he took a seat.

That was Roy.  No beating about the bush.

“About what?” His son asked as he accepted a cup.  “About when Joe fell?”

“No, son.  About when Joe’s mother did.”

Adam blinked.  “Marie?  What about it?”

“Tell me what you remember, son,” Roy said, hedging.  “Tell me all of it.”

His eldest drew in a breath and let it out slowly.  “Let’s see.  Hoss and I had just finished a game.”

“Was it jacks?” the lawman asked.

“No.  I think it was checkers.  Why?”

“Go on, boy.  Don’t mind me.”

“Anyhow, I had gone to the kitchen when I heard the sound of someone riding into the yard.  I looked out the window set in the door and saw Marie on her horse.”  He paused.  “After that, everything gets a bit murky.”

“Just do your best, son,” Ben said.

Adam closed his eyes, seeking the memory.  “Pa was in the doorway.  Joe and Hoss had been in the kitchen with me and I realized suddenly that Joe was gone.  I thought about following him, but a cry caused me to turn back and open the door.  Marie was in the yard, fighting to restrain her horse.  Joe was headed straight for her.”  Adam’s eyes opened.  “I thought it was going to strike out and kill him.”

“So you got your brother out of harm’s way.”

Ben saw Adam turn toward him.  When his eyes met his son’s, there was such pain in them – a pain he had not expected to see.

“I could see Marie wasn’t going to be able to do it, to control the horse,” Adam went on.  “I should have gone for her, grabbed the reins – done something to stop it from happening.  I….”  His voice trailed off.  “I had to make a choice….”

All of these years his son had borne the burden of that choice and he had never known.

“You did what you had to, Adam,” Ben said.  “What else could you have done?  If you had tried to take control of the horse, you would have been trapped under it along with Marie.  You, your step-mother – Little Joe – you might all have died.”

Adam gave him a little half-smile.

It was several heartbeats before Roy Coffee spoke.  “Son, did you happen to see anyone around the yard afore the accident took place?  Anyone suspicious-like?”

“What is this?  It was an accident…”  Adam turned back to him.  “Wasn’t it?”

Ben’s gaze went to Roy before returning to his son.  “I have always believed so.”

“But now you’re not sure?”

“You ever seen one of these out in the yard, son?” Roy asked as he took the jack from his pocket and dropped it into Adam’s hand.

“Sure.  It’s a kid’s jack.  One of the big ones.  We all had them at one time or the other.”

“Did Paco bring any with him?” Ben asked.

Adam thought a moment.  “I don’t know.  He was a little old for it, but he might have.  I didn’t pay that much attention.  He spent most of his time with Joe.”  His son frowned.  “What is this about?”

Ben moved to stand by the fire as Roy explained his theory concerning the jacks and the part they had played in both Marie and Joseph’s falls.  He didn’t know why the pieces hadn’t fallen into place a month or so back when Duke Miller came to town and perpetrated his horrendous crime.   When Marie fell, Duardo Miller had already been well on the way to becoming a man killer.  His late mother had expressed her fears that she had found him torturing and snuffing out the life of small animals.  The ten-year-old’s treatment of Joseph, while his small son had been his prisoner, had been both shocking and appalling.  He could still see Little Joe seated on his lap, his tiny head shorn of curls, and hear the boy explaining how Duardo had cut them off with a knife, telling him that curls were ugly and disorderly and went to show what kind of a person a man was.

He knew what kind of a man Duardo Miller was.

A madman.

“So you think Duke Miller deliberately seeded the yard with these large jacks, both fifteen years ago and now, seeking revenge?” Adam asked, his tone incredulous.  “He couldn’t know who he would kill, or even if he would kill anyone.  It could have been Hoss or me, or even one of the hands.”

“I don’t think Miller cared who he killed back when you was a young’un, Adam.  He just wanted to strike out and hurt someone.”  Roy sighed.  “He might of even tossed them jacks and not thought real clear about it.”

“But now that he’s a man?”

“Now, well, even though I was the one what done his pa in, Miller blames you Cartwrights for both his ma and pa dyin’.  Duke came into the saloon a few nights back, spoutin’ his venom.  After he’d had a round or two he started braggin’ about how he was gonna pay Little Joe back for humiliatin’ him in front of the whole town.”  The lawman paused.  “Duke got his just desserts, but I can tell you, what Little Joe did – havin’ Frank cut all of Duke’s hair off and then showin’ him to the whole dang city – was none too bright.  Duke Miller ain’t a man to take such a thing lyin’ down.”

Adam remained still for a moment and then he rose to his feet.  “I’m going to town, Pa,” he announced and headed for the door.

“Adam, wait!”  Ben trailed after him.  “I don’t want you taking that madman on alone.  Wait until….”

His son met his worried stare.  “I know how to take care of a madman, Pa,” he said.

And was gone.

Ben closed his eyes and whispered a quick prayer.  Yes, his oldest knew how to take care of a madman.  He’d done so not all that long ago when he’d faced down Peter Kane.

And killed him.

A hand on his shoulder brought the rancher back to the present.

“I’ll go after him, Ben,” Roy Coffee said as he opened the door.  “Duke Miller’s scum.  He ain’t worth Adam throwin’ his life away.”

As he closed the door behind his friend, Ben leaned against it and let out a long, drawn-out breath.

He could only hope Adam realized the same thing.

 

Hoss Cartwright looked up at the sound of the front door closin’.  He was sitting beside his baby brother’s bed keepin’ watch, and it was just about killin’ him.  He’d seen Little Joe in pain lots of times.  A few of them had been bad, like when Adam shot him by accident up at Montpelier Gorge, but most times it was a skinned knee or a broken arm, or even a knock on the head that a little time, a lot of love, and maybe a kiss or two would put right.

Not this time.  Joe was in pain.

Real bad pain.

Doc Martin had popped in a while back to take a look.  He’d decided to stay the night and was sleepin’ down the hall in one of the guest rooms.  The Doc told him Little Joe was young and strong and tough as nails and he was holdin’ his own.  Paul’d clucked and fussed and muttered as he checked little brother over, soundin’ like an old mother hen, and then slipped and let a cuss word out when he used his fingers to probe Joe’s middle.   Little brother’s belt-line looked like a herd of cattle had stampeded right across it.  Other than that, it seemed Joe was doin’ pretty good.  The concussion wasn’t as bad as the Doc first thought and the bruises on his face were fadin’.

Hoss leaned forward and lifted his little brother’s night dress so he could see the dark smear on his stomach.

Funny how something that was inside a man could kill him faster than what was on the outside.

“What’re…you…doing?” a feeble voice asked him.

“Why, just checkin’ you out, Little brother,” the big man said as he let the shirt fall back into place.

“Everything…still…intact?”

It took a second.  Then he chuckled.  “You ain’t gonna have no trouble bein’ a pa, if that’s what you mean.”

“What’s…wrong with…me?  How come…I feel like…Betsy Sue stomped…on me…with her boots?”

Hoss laughed, but sobered quickly.  “Well, little brother,” he said, keeping his tone light, “Cochise must have been right mad at you.  She gave you a good strong blow to the belly.”

Joe’s eyes went wide as he considered the implications of his words.  “I’m bleeding?” he asked, his voice quivering.  “On…the inside?”

They all knew what that meant.

“A little,” the big man replied.  “But don’t you worry none, little brother.  Doc says you’ll be fit as a fiddle and ready to ride soon enough.”

Joe was watching him.  “You’re…lying.  I can…always tell…when you’re lying.”

“I ain’t lyin’, Joe, I promise.  I guess I’m just worried a little bit.”

“About…me?”  Joe paled.  “It must…be bad.”

Hoss reached out to touch his brother’s brown curls.  “Now don’t you go thinkin’ that,” he said with a smile.  “Boy, I been worried about you since the day you drew your first breathe.  It ain’t like I’m gonna stop now.”

“Pa was…real upset.  Is he okay?”

Now wasn’t that just like little brother to be worryin’ about anyone but himself?  “Pa’s all right. Adam and me, we got him to take a rest.  He’s been in this here chair day and night since, well, since the accident happened.”

Joe was frowning.  “I been…thinking, Hoss.”

“Now don’t you go wearin’ yourself out, Little Joe.  You need your strength to get better.”

“But Cochise, I mean…it’s not like her to…throw me.” Little Joe’s brows knit together as he struggled to draw a breath.  “How come I…can’t breathe?”

“Doc says you broke a few ribs.”

“Oh.”  Joe’s eyes went wide as he shifted his weight and tried to sit up.  “Ow!”

Hoss blinked back tears.  “I’m sorry, little brother,” he said and meant it.

“Sorry…for…what?”

“That I wasn’t there for you.  Now, or all them years ago.”

Joe was scowling.  “What are you…talking about?”

“It just don’t seem right.  I was in the house laughin’ and eatin’ pie when you fell.  Maybe I could have done somethin’ to stop it.”  The big man shivered at the image that formed in his mind’s eye.  Joe under that horse, dyin’ just like Marie.  “Just like, maybe, I could have done somethin’ to keep Ma from fallin’ too if I hadn’t been stuffin’ my face.”

“I tried.”

“You what?”

Joe closed his eyes and leaned his head back on the pillow.  “That’s why I…was….running.  I thought, maybe, I could…catch hold of that…horse and make him stop.”

“Joe, you was just a little feller!”

His brother looked right at him.  “So were you.”

Hoss considered it a moment.  “I was young, Joe, but I never was a ‘little’ feller.  I could of stopped that black.”

“You could have…died too.”

“I s’pose I could have, but it would have been worth it if Mama had lived.”

Joe’s fingers circled his wrist.  His brother was fading.  There was no strength in his grip and his words were robbed of all strength.

“No,” he said.

Just ‘no’.

“Your brother is right, son,” a weary voice remarked from the open doorway.

Hoss looked up.  “How long you been there, Pa?”

“Long enough.”  His father entered the room.  He crossed to Joe’s bed, where he stood looking down a moment before seeking his gaze.  “Your mother would have gladly died for any of you, just as I would.”

The big man nodded as tears kissed his eyes.  “I know that, Pa, but it don’t make it any easier.”

The older man touched his shoulder briefly and then moved to the opposite side of the bed where he took a seat.  Gently, lovingly, Pa reached out to brush several sweat-soaked locks from Little Joe’s eyes.  “As someone once reminded me, son, God’s ways are not our ways.  All we can do is surrender to His will and do our best to trust that He knows best.”

Hoss sat for a moment staring at his little brother.  Joe had grown still.  His breathing was uneven.  His skin, the color of the sheets.

“Seems to me there’s a few things I’m gonna take up with the Almighty when I see Him,” he said and meant it.

His father looked up and smiled.

“You’ll have to wait your turn.”

——

TEN

“All I am going to do is talk to Duke Miller, Roy,” Adam Cartwright said through clenched teeth.

“That ‘talking’ gonna be the same kind Little Joe did when Duke came back to town right after the trial?”

Adam met the lawman’s skeptical gaze.  Everyone in town knew what had happened.  Duke Miller just happened to come back to Virginia City at the same time Joe and Paco rolled into town to cash a bank note.  Paco went after him and Joe followed, ending up in the same barber shop where the whole thing had begun.  Duke let Paco go, but he kept Joe – and nearly beat him to death.  Oh, Joe walked away and had the strength to bring Paco back home, but he was laid up in bed for two days after that.

If Duke Miller could have killed his brother, he would have.

“Just about,” Adam replied.

“Now, son, unless Duke Miller does somethin’ now, there ain’t nothin’ we can do about him.”  Roy looked over his shoulder at the International House where they knew Duke Miller to be eating lunch.  “Ain’t no law says a man can’t come into town and have himself a nice meal, no matter how much of a low-down snake in the grass he is.”

“And there’s no law that says a Cartwright can’t get a table next to his and do the same.  Is there?”

Roy let out a sigh.  “What’re you hopin’ to do, Adam?  You’re just gonna stir up things.”

“Perhaps that is what I’m hoping to do.  Look, Roy, I promise I will behave myself.”  The man in black tipped his hat.  “Good afternoon, Roy.

As he walked away, Roy Coffee called after him, “You make Duke mad, and the one who’s gonna pay the price is Little Joe.  You know that.”

He stopped in the middle of the street.  As Duke Miller fled, humiliated, more than one of the townspeople heard the villain vow to repay his brother.  Pa hadn’t been happy about what Little Joe had done.  Not because he disagreed with Joe for finding a way to make Duke Miller pay for murdering Carlos Rodriguez, but because Pa knew that there was no way the narcissistic killer was going to let such an insult stand.

Thank God Joe was lying in bed at the Ponderosa, weak and wounded, and totally unaware that Miller had come back to town.

With a sigh, he turned back toward Roy.  Raising a hand, Adam crossed two fingers over his heart.  “I promise I will behave, Roy.  I just want to make a few things crystal clear to Duke Miller.”

“Like what kind of things?”

Roy was, if anything, persistent.

“Like we know exactly who and what he is.  We know he got away with murder and, if he wants to keep his neck out of a noose, he’d better clear out of Virginia City without doing anything stupid.”  Adam glanced at the elegant hotel behind him.  “But most of all, he needs to be told to stay away from my baby brother.”

“Or what?” Roy asked quietly.

Adam stared at the lawman a moment, and then turned and began to walk toward the hotel.

Or else.

 

The International House was a hive of activity as usual.  There was a cattle convention in town and the owners of ranches from miles around had congregated in the growing city.  Pa was supposed to be in attendance, but with all that was going on – Joe’s fall, the uncertainty as to what had caused it, and Duke Miller’s return – he’d sent his regrets and chosen to remain at home.  He, himself, enjoyed the hustle and bustle of a big town, which was odd considering how much he prized silence and solitude.  ‘I am a confusion to myself’, someone had once said.  He’d laughed at the time, but it was true of him as well.  There were days when he wanted nothing more than to be where he was, living on the ranch helping his Pa live out his dream and watching Virginia City bloom.  But there were others days when the same things brought him nothing but despair.  He’d had a taste of the East when he went to college.  It wasn’t that the people were any different, but there was – at least – a veneer of civilization.  In the West it had been stripped away by need and greed and what was left, well, it wasn’t pretty.

Adam halted just without the arch that led into the main dining room.  He searched the sea of faces, seeking one in particular.  It didn’t take long.  Duke Miller was seated at the finest table.  No doubt he had terrified some poor patron into giving it up.  Unbelievably, seated next to Miller were Floyd and Otie Brennan.   Joe’d told them how the Brennans had run like cowards after he got the upper hand over Duke Miller.

It mildly surprised him that Miller hadn’t simply shot them where they stood.

Duke was deep in conversation with Otie Brennan, the oldest and coldest of the pair.  The man’s eyes bored right into you and, like Miller’s, reflected back a kind of madness.  Otie’s younger brother, Floyd, was, to put it bluntly, a none-too-bright criminal riding on the other men’s coat tails.  None of them were paying attention to what was going on around them.  As he moved into the room, Adam sensed heads turning toward him and heard not only whispers but a few outright gasps.  The tables near Miller’s cleared out very quickly.  He’d deliberately unbuckled his gun belt and left it laying on the main counter to the befuddlement of the hotel clerk whom he told to keep it until his return.

Miller was as slippery as moss on a wet stone and he wasn’t about to be goaded into doing something stupid.

As he approached the table, Adam studied the man he was seeking.  It had been a little over a month since the incident in the barber shop.  Duke had his hat on – a serious breach of etiquette – most likely in order to mask the short, choppy growth of black hair on his head.  Whoever said ‘vanity, they name is woman’, never ran into Duke Miller.  He was the most vain-glorious, egotistical creature he had ever met.  The fact that having his hair shaved off had reduced him to a sniveling, bawling infant said it all.

Little Joe, at four years of age, had been more of a man.

Adam stopped, half-hidden by one of the columns that divided the room.   He hadn’t realized until that talk with Pa and Roy that Duke Miller was ‘Duardo’ Miller.  None of them had.  Fifteen years had passed.  Hoss and Joe had been too little to remember much, and he and Pa were so concerned about Joe doing something – impulsive  – they’d not put two and two together.  He wondered if Miller had realized at the time that Little Joe was the boy he had tormented all those years ago, or that he was the teenager who had rescued him.  His actions had humiliated Miller back then as surely as his youngest brother’s had now.

They had quite a history, the three of them.

Adam rounded the column and began to walk toward the table Miller and the Brennan brothers occupied.  A few more patrons rose and headed for the entry as he did.

Good.  Miller’s attention was the only audience he needed.

It was Otie who spotted him first.  The man’s cool gaze took him in.  Was there a touch of fear in it?  Otie Brennan leaned in and spoke a few words and then Duke Miller turned to look at him.

It was like looking into the eyes of a jackal.

“May I?” Adam asked, indicating the fourth empty chair at the table.

“It’s a free country,” Otie replied.

His eyes never left Miller.  “Unfortunately.”

Duke Miller leaned back in his chair.  “You make the trip all the way into town just to see me, Cartwright?”

Adam nodded.  “Yep.”

“I must be pretty special then, right?” he asked Floyd who nodded quickly and then looked at the floor.

“Oh, you’re ‘special’ all right,” the man in black agreed.   “So special, I came to town because someone needed to keep an eye on you –  just in case someone else decided to do something…rash.”

Miller leaned forward.  “Is that a threat, Cartwright?”

He shrugged.  “That’s up to you.”

“You suppose Adam Cartwright here has as bad a temper as his younger brother?” Otie asked.

Duke was watching him.  “Oh no.  This Cartwright is different.  Adam, here, has a plan.  Don’t you, Adam?  Just like all those years ago.”

Adam stiffened just a bit.

So Duke did remember him.

“You know what, Cartwright?” Miller asked, leaning in and lowering his voice.  “You saved your kid brother all those years ago, but there’s nothing you can do to save him now.”  The man’s expression was almost void of emotion, which made his threat even more frightening.  “Joe Cartwright is mine.  Do you understand?”

“Duke,” Adam said, his voice equally as cold, “if you so much as touch one curl on my little brother’s head, I will have you.  Do you understand?”

“Big brave man!” Miller spat.  “Are you going to hide in a hole while Roy Coffee shoots me in the back like he did my father,  just to save a high and mighty Cartwright?”

Adam took a moment to calm his growing ire.  “Look, Duardo,” he replied, dropping his voice as well, “your father was a murderer, just like you are a murderer.   Lemuel Miller deserved to rot in Hell and I have no problem with being a part of that.”  He leaned in.  “If fact, I would like to do the same thing for his son.”  Adam rose to his feet.  “Mark my word, Miller, one day you will be found out for your crimes.  When that day comes and you are standing on a gallows with a noose around your neck, I will be there in the front row cheering the hangman on.”

As he turned and walked away, Adam heard a chair skid back.  Good.  He’d gotten under the madman’s skin.

“Cartwright!”

The man in black halted and turned back.  The room was hushed.  The patrons who had chosen remain fell silent.

“Yes?”

“Too bad about your brother.  You really should know by now that you need to keep the yard clean.”  Duardo Miller’s lips curled in a sneer.  “You know what they say.  Once bitten, twice shy.”

And then he laughed.

Adam swallowed hard over gall.

So Miller had killed Marie.

 

Ben Cartwright straightened up in his chair and then rose and walked to the window.  He had relieved Hoss and been sitting by Joseph’s side for the last few hours.  Paul Martin had come and gone again, this time with better news.  He said Little Joe’s abdominal muscles were not as tight as before and the bruising had faded a bit.  It seemed – thank God! – that whatever internal bleeding his son had experienced as a result of the fall had stopped.  Little Joe still had a fever, but it was the low, healing kind, and not the fire that had threatened to consume him before.

It seemed Joe was going to make it.

Before he left to get some much-needed sleep, Paul had administered another dose of his seemingly lethal saline and nux vomica combination – ‘just in case’, he said.   As he sat by his son’s side, holding his hand, the rancher couldn’t help but consider the inherent ironies of life.  A fever could kill, but heat could also cleanse.  A man could freeze to death in the cold, but ice could also bring life if that fever rose too high.  God’s bounty in nature was what sustained them and yet, nature also killed with plants such as deadly Nightshade, Poison Hemlock and….  Ben turned to look at his son.

The Strychnine tree.

He had to admit that it made him nervous, watching Paul inject the poison into his son’s blood stream.  And yet, it seemed to have worked.  Joe was sleeping peacefully now.

Was.

Ben smiled.  The boy’s eyes were open and he was looking at him.

“Pa?”

The rancher sat on the side of the bed and reached out to brush several sodden curls from his son’s bruised forehead.

“Welcome back,” he said with relief.

Joe gave him a little smile.  It was weak, but heartfelt.  “Where have I been?”

“Don’t you remember?” Ben asked, a bit concerned.

Joe frowned.  “I remember that big cat.  Did you catch him?”

The cat was no more.  Adam in his anger and grief had seen to that.

“We caught him.  The cattle are safe.”

His son licked his lips.  “Can I have some water, Pa?  I feel like I lost my canteen in the desert.”

Ben chuckled as he fulfilled his son’s request, offering Joe a glass of water and then steadying his son’s hand as he drank.   As he replaced the cup on the bedside table, he asked, “What else do you remember?”

Joe blinked, searching for the memory.  The frown deepened.  “I think I…fell?”

He knew enough from the injuries all of his son’s had suffered to expect at least a temporary amnesia.  It concerned him none-the-less.

“Think hard, son.”

Joe drew in a breath and closed his eyes, seeming to fight for the memory.  “Cochise!” he said, his eyes popping open.  “Is she okay?”

“She’s fine, son.  Calm down,” he said, placing a firm hand on the boy’s chest.  “You’ll wear yourself out.”

Joe fell back to the pillows.  “Did you ever figure out what she hit?  Was it a chuck-hole?”

Ben offered up a little prayer.  Little Joe’s memory seemed fine.

“There was no chuck hole,” he said and left it at that.

His son’s brows were knit together.  “There had to be something, Pa.  She must have hit something.  Otherwise Cooch wouldn’t have thrown me.”  The boy looked straight at him.  “You didn’t find anything?”

The rancher let out a little sigh.  He didn’t know why, but he still had the damn thing in his pocket.  Ben reached in and pulled the tiny piece of metal out and held it up for his son to see.

Joe took it.  “A jack?  A kid’s jack?”

“There were several in the yard.”  Ben paused.  “Do you think that Paco – ”

“He’s too old for jacks.”  A slight smile curled the corner of his son’s lips.  “He told me so.”

“Then he had some with him?”

Joe looked puzzled.  “No.  He just said he was too old for kid’s toys.”  His son paused.  “Pa, what’s going on?”

“One of the men must have dropped them,” he said.  “The jacks probably belonged to one of their children.  Now, Joe, don’t you trouble yourself.  You’ve been very sick.  You need to concentrate on getting well.”

His son shifted down.  “I am kind of tired.”

That admission was tantamount to his youngest declaring he was on his last leg!

Ben rose.  He reached out and pulled the top blanket up closer about his son’s shoulders.  “You get some rest then.  We can talk more when you’re better.”

“Okay, Pa,” Joe said as he settled in and closed his eyes.  “…later.”

Even though Joseph was twenty, Ben leaned down and planted a kiss on his head.  Then he headed for the door.

“Pa?” Joe called, turning him back.

“Yes, son.”

“Just wanted to say thanks, and I love you.”

Ben smiled.  “I love you too, son.  Now, get some sleep.  If I know your brothers, the minute they hear you’re awake, they’ll want to see you.”

“Then don’t tell them…for an hour or two.”

The rancher chuckled.  “It’s a promise.  Sleep well, son.”

 

The front door opened as he descended the steps.  Ben was more than relieved to see that it was Adam and he was all in one piece – no cuts or bruises, or any other sign that he had been in a fight.  He noted, however, how his son slapped his gun belt on the credenza, rammed his hat onto the peg, and marched straight over to the hearth.  Adam was angry.

Very angry.

Hoss was seated in the big leather chair, a book in his hands.  He lowered it and raised a hand to welcome his brother, but halted midway through his cheery greeting.

“Adam, what’s wrong?” the big man asked.

His older boy was staring at the fire.  He remained still for a moment, saying nothing, and then turned to look into the room.  Slowly, Adam’s gaze went from the blanket flung over the stair rail to the striped settee, and then on to the china and silver in the dining room.  He sucked in air and let the breath out slowly.

“She’s still here, you know,” he said softly.

Ben exchanged a glance with Hoss, who was as mystified as him.  “Who’s still here?”

Adam blinked.  The firelight caught in and glinted off the moisture in his eyes.  His jaw tightened as he fought back raw emotion.

“Marie.”

While it was true he felt his late wife’s spirit at times moving through the house, he had no idea what had brought this on.

“Adam….”

His son held up a hand.  “Pa, you and I need to talk, and….”  Adam turned to his brother.  “Hoss, you need to go up and sit with Joe and make sure he doesn’t hear what I have to say.”

“What’s this all about, Adam?” Hoss asked as he rose to his feet.

“I’ll fill you in later.  The important thing now is that Joe doesn’t get wind of it.  He’s not strong enough.”

Ben was frowning.  “Adam, what is this about?”

His oldest was still looking at his brother.

“Okay, Adam, I guess I trust you enough to believe you know what you’re doin’.”  Hoss laid his book on the table.  “I’ll go check in on Joe.”

“And stay with him until one of us comes up.”

Again, he and his son exchanged looks.   Ben gave the big man a nod and without another word, Hoss headed up the stairs.

Adam had returned to the fire.

“What’s this all about?” Ben asked as he took a seat.   “What is it you don’t want your brother to know?”

His son hesitated and then took a seat as well.  Leaning forward, Adam dangled his hands between his knees.

“Pa, what do you remember about Marie’s accident?”

The question surprised him.  “You were there, son,” he said softly.

“I was a kid and I was more focused on Joe than Marie.  I was sure he was going to get himself killed.”

A ton and a half of horse flesh, falling on such a small child – or those flailing hooves striking him….

“You saved your brother’s life.”

Adam straightened up.  “It was a choice, you know?  I had to make a choice.”

Ben frowned.  He knew what was coming.

“Joe or Marie.  For a second – just a second – I considered leaving Joe to his own devices.  I could have caught hold of the reins and maybe calmed her horse.  I…might have been able to save her.”

“At the cost of your brother’s life.”

“We don’t know that!” Adam snapped as he rose to his feet and began to pace.  “Maybe they could have both lived.  Maybe….  Maybe I made a mistake.”

He wanted to go to him, to touch and reassure him – but this was Adam.

“Son, think it through.  The horse was crazed.  The way it was rearing and shying as it struck the ground with its hooves, there had to have been something caught in one of them.”  His tone softened.  “If you had taken the reins, most likely it would have been you and Marie who died.”

Adam’s gaze was on him.  “You’re sure of that?  That the horse hit something and that’s why Marie lost control?”

He experienced a sinking feeling.  “Adam, where are you going with this?”

His son stopped.  His lips pursed as he blew out a little breath.

“I talked to Duke Miller.”

“Just…talked?”

Adam laughed.  “Just talked, Pa, though I’d like to have taken the little weasel’s head off.”

“I’m glad you didn’t.”  Ben paused.  “Though I completely understand why you would have wanted to.  “That man….”

“He killed Marie.”

Ben blinked.  He wasn’t sure he had heard what he knew he had heard.

“He what?”

“Duke admitted to killing Marie.”

“He told you?!”

He shook his head.  “Not in so many words, Pa, but, yeah, he told me.  He brought up Joe’s accident and said we should have learned to keep the yard clear.”  Adam scowled.  “ Duke said, ‘Once bitten, twice shy’, and then he laughed.  God, Pa!  He laughed.”

In his mind’s eye he saw the accident happen again.  The open door.  Seeing Marie through it, fighting to control her horse.  The terror in her eyes.  The animal shrieking, raising its feet and putting them down, and then shrieking again.  And then that moment much later, when he searched the yard and found an inexplicable trail of children’s jacks running across it.  They were large; their points sharpened.  They lay hidden in the trampled grass and debris deadly as goads.

He’d had the animal put down, so he’d never checked its hooves.

“Pa?”

Ben rose to his feet.  “We need to talk to Roy and, you were right.”

“About what, Pa?”

“Your brother must never find out.”

——

ELEVEN

“Where’d Pa and Adam go?”

Hoss looked at his brother as he sat Joe’s supper tray down on the bedside table.  Little Joe was sitting up and lookin’ more like himself, but he was pale as a misty morning.  You could tell just by lookin’ in his eyes that he’d come awful close to passin’ over to the other side.

“They went into town.  Didn’t say why.”

That wasn’t the truth.  And he sure was poor at lyin’.  Hoss held his breath waitin’ on the next question.

“Oh.  I guess we needed supplies or something.”

Or something.

“Hop Sing sent up a big bowl of his special soup for you and some of that Chrysanthemum tea.  He said both will build up your strength.”

“And put hair on my chest,” Joe muttered.  His brother turned his head into the pillow.  “I’m not hungry, Hoss.  Leave it there.  I’ll eat it later.”

Hoss sat down in the chair by the bed.  “You feelin’ poorly, little brother?”

“Just tired.”

The big man reached out with a hand.  He was kind of surprised when Joe didn’t knock it away from his forehead.  “You still got yourself a fever.  Ain’t so bad as before though.”  Hoss pursed his lips as he paused.  “You sure did scare the livin’ daylights out of me, Little Joe.  Comin’ out of the house and seein’ you lyin’ under that horse, was just like seein’….”

“It hurts,” Joe said in a small voice.

“What hurts?” he asked as he rose.  “You want me to go to town and fetch the Doc back?”

Joe rolled over to look at him.  “No.  I’m okay.”

“Then what do you mean….?”

“It hurts to think of Mama lying there, dying, all broken and….”  Joe sniffed back tears.  “After Amy, well, you know….  After Amy, I kind of know how Pa felt.”

Little Joe’d loved two women in his short life, loved them more than anythin’.  Laura and Amy Bishop.  Laura’s death had been at God’s hand, but Amy’s…well, a bad man had taken hers.

Hoss placed his hand over his brother’s.  “I’m sure you do, little brother.”

Little Joe turned back.  He tried to pull himself up, but stopped when the effort was too much and left him puffing.

“You want I should help you?” the big man asked.

Little brother’s eyes were kind of hollow lookin’.  In fact, Little Joe his-self was kind of hollow-lookin’, like he was empty or somethin’.  After Joe was in place, he turned his curly head toward the window.

“Why would someone do something like that?” Joe asked, his tone hushed.  “Why would anyone want to kill someone as beautiful as she was?”

Hoss blinked.  Was Joe talkin’ about Amy, or about his Mama?  Had Little Joe been listenin’ somehow before?  Hoss was sure he’d been in the room by the time Pa and Adam started talkin’.

Maybe Little Joe’d done gone and figured out for himself that the same thing had happened to him and his mama.

Still unsure, Hoss said, “That ain’t for you or me to know.  That kind of thing just ain’t in us.”

“I’ve been mad enough to….”  Joe sucked in a breath and coughed it out.  “I would have…killed Red Twilight for what he did to…you if Adam hadn’t stopped me.”

That was a day he didn’t care to remember.

“You’re worn out, Joe,” Hoss said as he stood and reached for his brothers covers and began to draw them up.  “You’d best scoot yourself right back down and get some sleep.  The Doc said you wasn’t quite out of the woods yet.”

“Doc Martin’s an old nursemaid.  I’m fine!” Joe groused as he batted his hand away.  Joe hesitated and then he got ‘that’ look on his face – the one that meant trouble.  “Say, Hoss.  How about you help me downstairs and I can sit on the settee and surprise Pa and Adam when they get home?”

“You sure enough would surprise them, Little Joe!  Probably set them both on fire too!”

“Come on, Hoss,” his little brother pleaded.  “I been up here for days.  Look, I promise I’ll eat all of Hop Sing’s soup and drink his tea if you let me.”

“Joe, you ain’t strong enough.”

“I am!  Hoss….”  Joe pouted and put on his puppy dog face.  “Hoss, I don’t want to be up here all by myself.  It gives me too much time to….think.”

“You ain’t by yourself.”

“What’re you gonna do?  Babysit me all night?” Joe snapped, showing some of his old fire.  “I promise I’ll stay on the settee.  What’s the difference if I sleep up here or down there?”

He considered it.  Moving Joe might take little brother’s mind off of what they was talkin’ about before.  He still didn’t know if he’d talkin’ about Amy Bishop or Mama in that last part.

“You gotta let me carry you down.”

Joe blanched.  “Hoss!  I’m twenty years old!”

“You ain’t nothin’ but a skinny little kid to me.”  Hoss crossed his arms.  “That’s my terms.  And when I get you down there, you gotta promise  me you’ll stay put ‘til Pa gets home.”

Joe rolled his eyes and let out a sigh.  With two fingers he crossed his heart.  “Good enough?”

“You got the fingers on that other hand of yours crossed ‘neath the covers?”

“Hoss!  When have I ever lied to you?”

“You don’t lie, little brother, I know that,” the big man said as he drew the covers back and put one arm around his brother’s shoulders and the other beneath his bent knees, “but you sure enough know how to bend the truth when you’ve a mind.”

 

“What do you mean Roy’s not in?” Ben Cartwright demanded of the young man sitting behind the sheriff’s desk.  “We just rode all the way into town to see him.”

“Sorry, Ben, Roy took off a couple of hours ago.  Said he was headed out to your place.  You sure you didn’t see him along the way?”

Deputy Clem Foster was polishing his gun.  He hadn’t even looked up when they came in the door.  Clem had nodded his head, made them wait a minute, and then acknowledged them by name.  His quiet, steady and often irritating surety was a weapon he wielded as surely as the gun in his hand.  Clem also had a way of asking questions to which he already knew the answers.  He was always weighing his knowledge against what the other man said, looking for discrepancies.  Both he and Adam were aware of what the lawman was doing.

It drove Joseph mad.

“If we’d seen Roy, we wouldn’t be here looking for him, would we?” Adam asked as he turned the chair in from of the desk around and sat on it.

Clem placed his pistol on its battered surface.

“I guess that’s right.”  The deputy leaned back in the chair.  “So what are you two wanting to see Roy about?  Maybe I can help.”

Ben hesitated.  He glanced at Adam.

“I suppose by your faces that it’s some kind of a secret?” Clem asked with a hint of a smile.

The rancher let out a sigh as he grabbed a chair and pulled it over so he could take a seat beside his son.    “It’s about Duke Miller.”

Clem’s face twitched.  “What about him?”

“You know he’s in town?”

“Yep.  Roy asked me to keep an eye on him while he was gone – and keep him out of the barber shop.”  His gaze went to Adam.  “I hear tell you had a little talk with Duke at the hotel earlier today.”

“A cordial one, at least on my part.”

The deputy shifted his gaze to him.  “We wanted to thank you, Ben, for keepin’ Little Joe at home.”

“The boy had little choice!” Ben snapped. “After what Duke Miller did – ”  He stopped, aware that he was going to have to explain that last remark to the deputy.

“Did Miller have somethin’ to do with Little Joe’s accident?”

“Yes,” Adam answered.

“You got proof of that?”

His son scowled.  “Well, no….”

“We don’t know anything for certain, Clem, but during Adam’s ‘talk’ with Miller that degenerate all but admitted to causing Joe’s accident….”  Ben drew in a deep breath.  “And his mother’s.”

Clem’s brows shot toward his dark hair.  “I saw the file Roy has on Miller.  He couldn’t have been more than a boy when your wife died.  Are you sayin’ you think he caused Mrs. Cartwright’s accident too, when he was a kid?”

The Bible called them ‘bad seeds’, those who hear the Word and disregarded it; who hardened their hearts until everything that was good in them was choked out.

“You’ll find another file among Roy’s papers, one on Lemuel Miller,” Ben said.  “He’s the father of Duke or Duardo Miller.  Lemuel invaded my home, attacked Marie, and kidnapped Little Joe when he was four years old.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Ben, but you can’t blame Miller for what his father did.”

“I don’t,” he said through clenched teeth.  “I blame him for what he did.”

“Duardo terrorized my brother,” Adam interjected, his tone even; controlled.  “He used a knife to cut off most of Joe’s hair.  He cut Joe too.”

“I see.”  Clem continued to watch them.  “I think we all know what kind of a man Duke Miller is.  And I’m sorry that some city-slicker lawyer got him off scot-free.  But if you’re gonna go accusing him of murder, or even attempted murder, I’m gonna need some kind of proof.”

Ben reached into his pocket and removed the jack.  He placed it on the desk.

“What’s this?” Clem asked, picking it up.

“The murder weapon,” he said.

The deputy turned it over a couple of times, saying ‘ouch’ when his finger passed over one of the sharpened ends.

His eyebrows asked for an explanation.

Ben drew in a breath and let it out with his rage.  “It is my belief that, fifteen years ago, the boy who was Duardo Miller seeded the front yard of the Ponderosa with jacks just like this one, not caring who would come riding into the yard and hit one.  Even though it was Roy who pulled the trigger, the boy blamed me and my sons for his father’s death.”

“Joe and me most of all,” Adam interjected.

“Why’s that?” Clem asked.

“Lemuel Miller was trying to kill us when Roy shot him in the back.”

Clem’s fingers stopped moving.  “I see.  Go on.”

“Duke ran away from his uncle about the time of Marie’s accident.  He was seen in this area.  I checked with the boys and none of them had left jacks in the yard.  It’s my belief Duardo Miller came to the house and placed them there.”

“And that’s what it is, Ben.   Just a belief.  I can’t act on a belief.  Neither can Roy.”

“I understand that,” the rancher admitted.  “It’s not much, but today – when Adam was talking to Miller – Duke mentioned Marie’s fall. He told Adam that you’d think by now we would have learned to keep the yard clear.”

Adam nodded.  “‘Once bitten, twice shy’, he said.

Clem let out a sigh.  “Well, now, that puts a different spin on things.  But there’s still no proof.  The law’s gotta have proof before it can act.”

“I am well aware of that,” Ben huffed.  “I didn’t come here to get Roy to take action, just to keep him apprised of things and to ask….”

“That we keep a close eye on Miller.”  Clem smiled.  “Already doing that.  His horse is in the stable and he and the Brennans are staying at the International.  The stable owner knows to alert me if they head out of town.”

Slow and steady…and sure.

“Thank you, Clem.”  Ben rose and Adam rose with him. They were headed for the door when he turned back.  “Oh, and Clem, should Little Joe manage to find his way to town….”

“Mum’s the word, Ben.  Little Joe won’t hear it from me.”

 

“Roy! What’re you doin’ out so late?” Hoss asked as he walked over to where the sheriff was tethering his horse to the rail in front of the house.  He’d heard a horse riding in and gone to see who it was.  “You lookin’ for Pa?”

“Sure enough am.  Is Ben in?”

“Matter of fact, Pa and Adam went to town a few hours back lookin’ for you.”

Roy ran a hand over his chin.  Then he winked.  “Great minds and all that, eh?  I must have missed them when I took that jog.  I found some tracks leadin’ up into the hills.”  The sheriff was lookin’ past him, toward the open door.  “You the only one home then?”

“Just me and Little Joe, and old Hop Sing, of course.”

“Your brother in bed?”

Hoss wondered where this was leading.  “Joe’s on the settee.  He’s sound asleep.”

“I see.”  Roy thought a moment and then gestured toward the table on the porch.  “How about you and me take a seat and I’ll tell you why I come out here.”

Hoss followed the lawman over and sat down.  A pale light spilled out of his father’s office window revealing Roy’s face, which was tired.

“I been doin’ me some investigatin’ since last time I talked to Ben.  Nosin’ around, askin’ questions and the like.”  Roy paused.  “Your pa’s sellin’ a string of horses to an army man, ain’t he?”

“Yeah.”  Hoss frowned.  “What’s that got to do with anythin’?”

“Ran into the men in town what had come to pick them up.  Names of Samuel and Ezekiel Miller.”

The names were familiar, but he couldn’t place the men who owned them.

“So?”

“Zeke Miller’s a good man.  I met him back in forty-six when he come this way lookin’ for a band of renegades and deserters.  You was just a little….”  Roy laughed.  “Well, a big nipper then.”

“Zeke Miller?  I remember Pa mentionin’ him.”

“Zeke’s Duardo Miller’s uncle.  He took the boy in, but it didn’t last.  Duke ran away when he was thirteen.”  The lawman held his gaze.  “Do you remember when Duke’s uncle came here lookin’ for him?”

He did, sort of.  He remembered a soldier at the door and his pa talkin’ to him about the boy what had hurt Little Joe.  Duke had run away then too if he remembered right.

“Yeah.  What about it?”

“I was talkin’ to Zeke.  He mentioned that it was on the day your ma had her accident, Duardo disappeared.  Zeke went lookin’ for him and found him not two hundred yards from here.”

Hoss stiffened.

“Now, son, it ain’t proof, but it’s mighty suspicious.  Just about as suspicious as the fact that Little Joe’s accident happened just when Duke Miller came back to town.”

“Roy.  I….”

“And that ain’t all.  One of the saloon girls spent the…night…with Floyd Brennan.  Now Floyd ain’t the sharpest tool in the shack, if you know what I mean.”  Roy’s eyes were alight with the chase.  “Seems they got to talkin’ pillow talk and Floyd told her plain as the nose on your face that he helped set up Little Joe’s accident – and Marie’s.”

 

Adam Cartwright turned to look at his father.  The older man was scowling.  They’d stopped at the Silver Dollar for a beer and a bite of food before heading back to the Ponderosa.

“Pa, what’s wrong?”

His father downed the rest of his drink, shoved his half-eaten plate away, and reached for his hat, which was lying on the table’s battered surface.

“Thanks, Sam,” he said with a nod to the bartender who was clearing their plates.  “Come on, Adam.  It’s time we get home.”

Adam waited until they had reached the door and then caught the older man by the arm.  “Pa?”

“I don’t know what’s wrong, Adam.  I suppose I’m…concerned about Roy going to the house.  Should Joseph hear what he has to say….”

Clem had found them.  He’d forgotten to tell them about Zeke Miller being in town and what the soldier had to say.

“I’m sure Roy would know better than to tell Joe Zeke’s suspicions.”

Ben looked at his son.  “I suppose you’re right.  Roy does know the boy.”

Adam touched his chin and shifted his jaw from side to side.  “Especially when it comes to his Mama.”

The older man stifled a laugh.  It had been a long time since Adam and Joe had sparred, but the remark his eldest had made long ago on a hard, dirty day of working with a thousand head of cattle still hung between them, rearing its ugly head from time to time.

The remark about Little Joe’s ‘French Quarter’ mother.

“That’s the way with a thing you love,” Ben said, his tone wistful.  “While you have it, you tend to take it for granted.  When it is gone, it’s all you can think of.  I was guilty of that too.  I should have told your step-mother I loved her more often.”

“She knew, Pa.  If any woman knows, Marie did.  I only hope that, someday, when I get married, I will prove as devoted a husband as you were.”

Ben’s eyes misted.  “Thank you, son.”  He cleared his throat.  “Now, we best get home.  I won’t feel at ease until I know Joseph is safe in his bed.  He’s barely made it through the crisis.  All we need is him gallivanting all over the countryside looking for Duke Miller.  If Miller doesn’t kill him, his own foolishness will.”

“Joe will be fine, Pa.  You’ll see.  Hoss will take care of him.”

 

Hoss offered to fix a pot of coffee and the sheriff accepted.  It was getting’ onto midnight.  The temperature was droppin’ and a gentle rain had begun to fall.  Roy said he had a long way to go and would be happy to have some fire in his belly before he did.  He’d offered Roy a room for the night, but the lawman turned him down sayin’ he had things to do.

He wondered if those ‘things’ was Duke Miller.

Before he went to the kitchen, the big man tiptoed over to check on his little brother.  Baby brother was gray as a rainy mornin’.  When Joe didn’t wake, Hoss took it as a sign and scooped him up and carried him right up the stairs.  Joe was breathin’ hard when he laid him on his bed.  Since Roy was waitin’, he pulled the covers up to Joe’s chin and headed back downstairs.  He figured once he saw the lawman out, he’d head right back up and make sure little brother was all right.

By the time he got to the great room, the coffee was on the table.  Roy said Hop Sing had appeared out of nowhere with a pot, two cups, and a tray full of sandwiches.  The two of them devoured those sandwiches right quick and then Roy said he had to go.

Maybe he’d run into Pa and Adam on the way back to town, Hoss suggested as he saw him to the door.

Roy said he hoped he would, but he wasn’t counting on it.  Any man with a half a brain would be bedded down long before this.

They’d shared a laugh over that as Roy mounted up and pointed his horse’s nose toward town.  His pa’s friend paused at the place where Mama fell, and then kicked his mount into a quick walk and headed out.

He was gonna go right back in, but somethin’ drew Hoss to that place as well.  When he reached it, he stood there, remembering.  He’d been in the kitchen with Little Joe and Adam, eatin’ Hop Sing’s cookies.  Joe’d heard a horse comin’ in and was sure it was his mama.  As soon as Little Joe ran out of the room, he started stuffin’ cookies in his pocket, bein’ mean and meanin’ to keep them for himself.  He heard a horse shriek and then, Pa and Adam shoutin’.  Mama shouted too.  There was a sound – a big old dead sound – as somethin’ large hit the ground.  And then he was in the door with Hop Sing holdin’ him back, lookin’ out on a world that had changed in an single instant.

Hoss reached up to push a tear from his eye.  She’s weren’t his ma, but he’d loved Marie like she was.  She’d been good and kind to him and accepted him as her own.

He sure missed her.

With his hands thrust deep into his pockets, Hoss headed back to the house.  He went in and checked the kitchen for fires, more for somethin’ to do than ‘cause he needed to, and then he headed up the stairs.  He peeked in Little Joe’s room when he got to the top and saw little brother was still there all wrapped up in his covers.  Deciding it was late and he was tired, the big man changed into his bedclothes before heading back to check and make sure Joe’s fever hadn’t gotten any higher.

He knew the instant that he reached for the covers that he’d been had.

His heart sinking, Hoss pulled the coverlet back to reveal four plumped-up pillows and no little brother.

Pa was gonna kill him.

 

Little Joe Cartwright moved blindly through the trees near his home, his vision clouded by tears of rage.  He was still trying to process what he’d heard.  He’d awakened on the settee to the sound of a horse riding in.  Expecting it to be Pa and Adam, he’d settled back and waited.  When instead of the pair coming in, Hoss had remained outside, he’d levered his aching body off of his mama’s sofa and headed for the door.  As he drew near, he heard Sheriff Roy’s voice drifting in the partially open window in his father’s office.  Instead of going outside where it was cold, Joe decided to walk over to it and listen to what they were saying.

What he heard, drove him to the floor.

He’d sat there, breathing hard, caught between horror and disbelief until Hoss suggested the pair of them come in for coffee.  Joe would never know how he did it, but he’d climbed to his feet and practically run across the room, managing to land on the settee just as Hoss opened the door.  His big brother was an innocent in some ways.  He should know.  He’d taken advantage of the gentle giant’s goodness and gullibility often enough, getting Hoss into all kinds of trouble.

Middle brother would sure be in trouble now.

Joe had feigned sleep as his brother checked on him, praying Hoss would mistake his wildly beating heart and labored breathing for illness instead of despair.  The big man was worried, he could tell, and so he’d continued to pretend to be unconscious as his brother bore him up the steps to his room and placed him gently in bed.

The minute the door closed, he was on the move.

Duke Miller had tried to kill him.

Duke Miller had killed his Mama.

Nothing on the face of the Earth could have kept him in that house – his big brothers’ concern, his father’s worry, his health, even the laws of the land – once he heard Roy Coffee tell Hoss that the fall his Mama had taken had not been an accident.

It had been murder.

Joe had risen from his bed and, on unsteady feet, managed to dress himself.  Then he’d gone to the attic and, using one of his childhood routes, opened a window and shinnied down a nearby tree.  It cost him, but he did it.  Before leaving the house he remembered to retrieve the loaded gun his father kept in his room, and borrowed one of Adam’s belts to hold it.  The big black belt felt foreign on his hip, but there was no way he could have reached his own holster and gun where they hung on the peg by the door.

Duke Miller was in Virginia City and so, that was where he was going.  He was moving through the trees since Hoss said there was a chance his Pa and Adam would be on the road.  He wasn’t about to let them stop him.  He’d pulled a gun on his pa once and he’d do it again – if he had to.

Duke Miller had to pay.

And he was the one who was going to see to it that he did.

—–

 TWELVE

The minute Ben pulled into the yard and saw Hoss pacing back and forth in front of the house – in the rain – he knew what had happened.  They’d run into Roy on the road and, after talking to the lawman, his apprehension had blossomed into full-blow fear.  Roy told them that he and Hoss had remained outside and that Little Joe had been inside asleep on the settee the whole time they spoke, but he knew – he knew that the fates would conspire together to make sure his youngest son awoke.

Hoss ran toward them before they had time to dismount.

“Pa!  Adam!  I sure am glad to see you!” his son said as he laid a hand on his saddle.

“Little Joe’s gone,” Ben said, his tone fatalistic.  “Your brother overheard you talking to Roy, didn’t he?”

“Gosh, Pa,  How’d you know?”

“Because it’s Joe. That’s how,” Adam said as he dismounted.

“Pa, I sure am sorry.  When I picked little brother up off the settee he was dead-weight.  I thought for sure he was out like a light and had been the whole evenin’.”  Hoss was crestfallen.  “I checked him afore I went out too and I know he was sleepin’ then.”

It was one of Joseph’s favorite tricks and he’d pulled it on all of them.  Ben reached out to place a hand on his middle boy’s shoulder.   “It’s not your fault, son.”

“Well, if it ain’t mine, whose is it?” the big man snapped.

“Joe’s,” Adam said softly.  “It’s Little Joe’s.”

“Adam is right, son.  You’re brother is a man now and responsible for his own actions.”

“But, Pa, he’s so sick!  That there fever was comin’ back.  Maybe he was, well, you know, out of his head?”

Out of his head?  Joseph?  Oh yes.  If his youngest son had even a suspicion that his mother’s death had come at the hands of another – that it had not been an accident – he would have been mad with grief and filled with rage.

An all-consuming rage that he felt as well, but dare not give in to.

“I’ll go pack some food, Pa.  I assume you’ll want to hit the trail as soon as it’s light.”

Ben looked at Adam.  His son knew he wanted to ‘hit the trail’ now, but it was futile.  There was no way they could spot Joe’s tracks in the dark.

The rancher nodded.  “As soon as it’s light.  Adam, why don’t you go to bed?  See if you can get a little sleep.”

His eldest stared at him, his face blank.  “Right,” he said, and then turned and entered the house.

“The same goes for you, Hoss.  We’ll need our wits about us if we’re going to catch up to that little scamp.”

His son sighed.  “Pa, I ain’t makin’ it up.  I think Joe was getting’ sick again.  I cain’t help it!  I keep seein’ him lyin’ on the ground somewhere, shiverin’ and shakin’, with no one to look after him.”

“Was the fever that high?” he asked as he dismounted.

“It was getting’ there.”  His son looked to the east, in the direction Joe had gone.  “Dang his ornery hide!” he declared.  “What’s Joe think he’s doin’?  Tryin’ to kill himself?”

Sadly, Ben knew what Joseph was doing.  He was going to avenge his mother’s death.  For the last fifteen years Little Joe had had no one to blame.  A horse was a dumb animal in many ways.  Yes, they had a personality, but much of what they did was instinct.  You couldn’t blame the horse.  His memory of his mother was sacred, so Joseph would never entertain the thought that Marie might have made a mistake.  Thank God, the boy had never blamed himself!  It shamed him to think that once, when he had been in a very dark place, he had.

Now, with what had happened, his impulsive, overly-emotional son had a focal point for his fury.  A man with a name, and the name of a man he already hated.  Yes, hated, and rightly so.  Duke Miller was a vicious, self-centered, waste of the air he breathed.  He’d killed once – more than once, it seemed – and gotten away with it.  No doubt Joseph saw himself as the hand of God.

Sadly, neither God nor the law would see it that way.

“Pa?  What’re you thinkin’?” Hoss asked.

He was thinking that the law was useless.  He was thinking that only the good died young.  He was thinking that he had failed Joseph’s mother then just as he was failing her now.

Ben was thinking he shouldn’t try to stop Little Joe.

He should be at his young son’s side.

 

Joe managed to keep his seat longer than he expected.  Sadly, Hoss’ concerns were real.  Pushing himself – getting out of bed, climbing down that tree, and traveling in inclement weather – had been pretty stupid.  He’d paid for it by tumbling out of the saddle and landing with a thud on the rock-hard ground.  The impact drove the breath – and consciousness – out of him for a time, and when he woke up the horse he’d borrowed from the stable was nowhere to be seen.  He hadn’t wanted to take Cochise for a couple of reasons.  The mare was still skittish around him after their fall.  Also, if she was still in the stable, it might fool his pa and brothers a little longer.  They might think he was still at the ranch.

Instead of laying on the ground soaking wet and shivering.

“Bbb…bright, Cartwright.  Really, bbb…bright,” Joe muttered between teeth clenched against pain and the cold.  “Duke’s gonna…sss…see you layin’ on the ground and www…walk right into your…trap.”

Joe lay still for a moment, gathering strength, and then forced himself to sit up.  It took a full minute for everything to stop whirling like a girl’s skirts at a cotillion, and then another minute to be sure he wasn’t going to vomit.  When things finally settled down, he used his arms to haul himself backward, dragging his aching body slowly over the wet ground until he ran into a tree.  Thankful for the pine’s strength, the weary young man leaned against it, sucking in air and thinking.

He’d been sure when he left the house that his rage and hatred of Duke Miller would carry him through when his body decided it had had enough.  ‘Mind over matter’, Pa’d told them more than once when they were boys.  ‘If you want it bad enough, you can make it happen.’  Well, he wanted Duke Miller dead, but he didn’t see how he was going to ‘make it happen’ when he couldn’t stop his body from rebelling.  He was shakin’ from head to toe and the stars in front of his eyes refused to go away.

He needed to go home and face the music.

But first – maybe – he’d just rest a bit.

Joe leaned his head back against the tree’s rough bark.  It was the middle of the night and he was in the middle of nowhere.  He knew from experience that the worst thing he ‘d have to worry about was a big cat or maybe a wolf lookin’ for an easy supper.  He’d hear them approach and, while his aim would be off, a shot should frighten them away.  Under the tree he was dry.  Well, sort of dry.  At least the rain wasn’t falling on his head anymore.  Before he’d left the house, he’d borrowed one other thing, this time from Adam’s room.  An old jacket that had grown too small for older brother.  It was too big on him and he was glad of it, because he was able to snuggle into the folds of the garment and pull the collar up around his face to ward off the chill.  The thick gold corduroy fabric smelled like his brother – strength and sweat combined with traces of a fancy cologne one of Adam’s lady friend’s had given him last Christmas.  The aroma took him back to when he was a little boy and his big, strong brother would wrap him in his arms and make him feel safe.

It took him back to that night when Adam came into Lemuel Miller’s camp and saved him.

He’d been awful little.  Joe wasn’t sure if what he remembered was what he remembered or what he’d been told.  Duke Miller had kicked him and beat him and forced him to the ground, and then Duke’s father had come along and started cutting off his curls.  While he did, Duke’s pa kept goin’ on about how his curls were ‘untidy’, and how a man could tell what another man was made of by the cut of his hair.  Duke, or Duardo as he’d been known then, had laughed at that.  The ‘cut’ of his hair.   The older boy had laughed and laughed as his golden ringlets fell to the ground and then started to kick him again as soon as he could.  A woman yelled just about that time.  He didn’t know about what and he didn’t care.  All he cared about was that Duke and his father go far away – and that his Pa come and rescue him.

But it wasn’t his Pa who rescued him.

It was Adam.

One minute he was lying on the ground sobbing, and the next he was in Adam’s arms.  As they ran he wrapped his arms around his brother’s throat and held on for dear life.  Joe chuckled.  Adam told him later that he’d near choked him to death!  Older brother had been sweatin’ and pantin’ to beat the band.   He kept ducking under branches and squeezing through gullies and ridges.  The men who were chasin’ them were bigger than the two of them put together.  Adam had to find ways to slow them down.  As they drew near the house, his brother made the choice to plunge into a narrow ravine with high, rocky walls on both sides.  When Adam paused to draw a breath, he’d nudged him and pointed up.

He might have been only four, but he knew the face of death when he saw it.

Lemuel Miller was standing on the ridge above them.  He had a rifle in his hand and it was pointed in their direction.   He’d closed his eyes right then, sure that they were going to die.  That’s when the shot came.  Adam gripped him tighter.  His brother said a bad word.

“Damn.”

And then he fell.

Adam landed on top of him; his long body trapping him beneath.  He laid there, crying, for he didn’t know how long; waiting for the bad man to come and shoot him too.  When someone finally touched him, he curled up into a ball like an armadillo, trying to make himself disappear.  Then, he heard that voice – the beloved voice of his pa – and he knew he was safe.

But it was too late for Adam.

Too late for his mama.

The last he’d last seen of her, she was lying on the floor of the great room.  There’d been blood on her head and he was sure that she was dead.  Even his Pa’s words didn’t convince him at first.  He knew grown-ups.  They’d lie if they thought you were too little.

“Joseph, look at me!” Pa’d barked and he’d obeyed.  When he saw Pa’s face, he knew his mama couldn’t be dead.  Pa looked too happy.  Adam was bleeding and he was scared.  But Pa was smiling.

Pa kept on smiling – right up until the day Mama fell.

 

It was sometime later when Joe awoke.  The sun was heading toward noon and the rain had stopped.  Apparently the pine tree with its thin branches had provided minimal cover at best.  He was soaked through.  On top of that his skin was hot to the touch and he had a pounding headache, so he knew his fever was up.  Joe opened his eyes as he shifted and pulled his body higher up on the tree.  Then, he let out a little groan.

He wasn’t alone.

“Well, well,” a nasty voice remarked, “what do we have here?  Look, boys, someone left us a present.”

God must have decided he hated him.

It was Duke Miller.

“You don’t look so good, Cartwright,” Miller said as he took his hand and shoved his shoulder into the tree.

A shockwave of pain rolled through him.  Joe gritted his teeth and rode it before he replied.  “I’ve seen you look better, Duardo.  Back there in Virginia City with the sun shining off of your bald head.  Kind of blinded me.”

Duke was on him in an instant.  Strong fingers clutched his throat, cutting off his air.  “You want me to kill you, don’t you Cartwright?”

Better that than to live and be tortured.

“Just…like you…killed my mama?” Joe managed.

“I didn’t kill her, Cartwright.  You did.  Running out of the house like a baby.”  At his look, Duke added.  “Yeah, I was there.  I was hoping it was going to be you on that horse – with your Pa.  Now that would have been a good day’s work.”

Joe fought back.  He was weak, but his growing rage made him powerful.  He tore Duke’s hands from his neck and reached for his gun.  He’d almost turned the tables when the coward shouted.

“Floyd!  Otie!  Take him!  Take him down!  Now!”

He fought them.  Oh, how he fought them, but they were strong and his strength was waning.  All too soon Joe found himself tied hand and foot; his hands locked behind the tree and his feet bound to one another.  Another rope was wound around his throat and drawn so tightly he thought it would choke him.  Duke Miller sat in the grass the whole time, watching his stooges do the work.  When he was safely secured, Duke rose to his feet.  Those black eyes never left him as he approached.

His pa had another phrase.

If looks could kill….

Duke hovered over him a moment and then sneered as he reached inside his jacket.  Something glinted as he withdrew his hand.  “You remember this, Cartwright?  It was my pa’s.”

Joe remembered the knife.  He remembered the feel of it against his skin.

Something he was sure he was about to feel again.

“You gonna kill him, Duke?” Otie Brennan asked, the lust for death in his eyes.

“Nah.  I’m just gonna make him prettier, like he did me.  You know, one good turn deserves another.”

“You gonna scalp him?” Floyd asked, tittering.  “I can use all that pretty hair to make me a nice soft bedroll.”

Duke knelt.  He leaned in until they were face to face.  “Oh, yeah, I’m gonna scalp him…nice and slow.  Only, you know,” the madman snorted, “I ain’t such a good barber as old Frank Thompson.  You never know, I might just – “

Joe felt the knife bite into his skin.  As blood trickled down from the cut on his forehead, he put everything he had left into one last defiant glare.  Duke didn’t seem to notice.  He was gazing at his image, reflected back from the knife’s freshly blooded blade.

It was at that moment that he realized Duke Miller was really and truly insane.

“You never know, I might cut a little too deep.”

 

“Did you hear that, Pa?” Adam asked as he reined his mount in and rose up in the saddle.

“What did you hear, son?”

He, Pa, and Hoss had spread out at about at twice arm’s length to search the wet earth for clues.  They’d found where Joe entered the trees behind the house, and then lost his trail as they moved into the darkest part of the woods.  Pa was counting on the fact that his unpredictable son was rather predictable when it came to his escape attempts, and so they were following a path they had followed many times before.  It was an alternate route to town.  Little Joe, of course, had headed there to confront Duke Miller.

“I can hear someone laughing,” the man in black replied.  “There.  There it is again.”

“Sounds like they’re over by the ravine,” Hoss said as he joined them.

“Could be a couple of drunk cowhands,” their father said.

“Could be,” Adam replied, tight-lipped.

They remained where they were, listening, but heard nothing more.

“Don’t  you think we oughta check it out?” Hoss asked.

“No,” Pa said,  “I don’t want to get diverted.  Your brother is sick and he’d been out in the rain all night.  We need to find him before –”

This time it wasn’t laughter they heard.  It was a scream, and a high-pitched one.  It sounded kind of like a girl.

And just like Little Joe.

Adam was on the move before his father and brother had time to react.

He knew this area like the back of his hand as he had returned to it many times.  It was uncomfortably close to the ravine where he and Little Joe had been trapped that night – the night that Lemuel Miller stormed the house, hurt Marie, and kidnapped his little brother.  The irony was not lost on him as Adam hastened forward, disregarding the bare branches that caught at the fabric of his coat and slashed the skin on his hands and cheeks in his haste.  Two minutes later he broke through the trees and emerged into a small clearing.  At its center was a single tree.   Something was tied to the tree.  Something.

Someone.

“Joe!”

Hoss and Pa were calling.  Before they could reach him, he was on the move.  The man in black dismounted quickly and ran full-tilt toward the tree.  What he found when he got there stopped him.  He had to fight the urge to wretch.  Little Joe hadn’t been scalped – Thank the good Lord! – but there were locks of hair missing and the knife that had been used to cut off his curls had dug into his skull.  Joe was bleeding.  Everywhere, he was bleeding.  There were knife cuts on his hands, his face – through the fabric of his green jacket.  Adam steadied himself as his father shouted again.  Joe was bleeding.  That meant his brother – his father’s youngest son – was alive.

But, dear God, there was so much blood!

Pa halted beside him, just as stunned as he’d been by the sight.  “Is he…?”

He knew, but he pressed his hand to his little brother’s chest anyway, just to feel Joe’s heart beating.  “He’s alive, Pa.  But, I don’t know what to do.  There’s so much blood.”

“Adam.”

He turned to look at Hoss.  The big man’s jaw was set; his face, grim.  “You take care of little brother.  I’m gonna go catch me some bastards.”

Pa rose and caught him by the arm.  “Hoss, no.  Joe’s alive.  If you kill one of them….”

“I ain’t gonna kill them,” Hoss said as he shook himself free.  “I’m gonna make ‘em pay.”

Pa and Hoss were squared off.  Pa stared the big man down for a moment then, reluctantly, released his arm.  As Hoss spend off, the older man dropped beside him again and ran his fingers through Joe’s butchered brown hair.  “I can see five or six deep cuts,” he announced as he parted the curls.  “Along the top of Joe’s head and in the back.  It’s no wonder he’s covered in blood.”  Pa drew in a deep steadying breath.  “Adam, I need some strips of cloth.  I think I can bind the wounds and at least impede the bleeding.”

Adam knew scalp wounds made a man bleed like a stuck pig.  Still, the sight of all that blood – his baby brother’s blood – sickened him.  As he shimmied out of his coat and pulled the tail of his shirt out of his pants and began to rip off the edge, he breathed, “What kind of a monster….”

“Duke Miller’s not a monster, son,” Pa said as he accepted the first strip, his face grim.  “God help us, he’s only a man.  If he were a monster, we could slay him.  But a man….”

He was angry.  “You know the law won’t be able to do anything!  We don’t have any proof that it was Miller.  Hoss is right.  We need to –”

Fingers touched his leg.  Adam looked down and then up to find that Joe’s eyes were open.  There was blood coating his brother’s thick eyelashes and pooled on the lids.  It had to burn like Hell.

“Joseph, son.  You’ll be all right.  You hear me?” Pa declared as he accepted another strip and wound it around Little Joe’s head.

Joe’s hand shifted to their father’s arm.  “…Pa?

Pa stopped what he was doing and looked down.  “Yes, son?”

“Sorry.”

Their father glanced at him and then back to Joe.  “It’s all right, son.  You have nothing to be sorry for.”

“I…left the house.  You said not…too.  I…ow!”

“Sorry, Joe.  It’s going to hurt, but we have to stop this bleeding.”

Adam had taken another strip, wet it with water from a canteen Hoss had dropped at his side, and was patting at his brother’s eyes, trying to clear them of blood.  “Was it Duke Miller?” he asked.

Joe nodded.   “Floyd…and Otie too.”

At least – after this – they could bring the three of them up on charges of assault…if they could find them.

“They…said they were leaving.”  Joe sucked in pain and air.  He swallowed hard.  “Duke said….I’d never know….”

Adam stopped.  He glanced at his pa.  Joe was fading away.

“Is he unconscious?” the older man asked, his tone hopeful.

Joe’s lips moved.  “No.”

“No?” he asked.

“No.  Don’t hurt…leave…alone.”  Joe began to move his head from side to side.  “No! Leave him alone!”

Adam felt like a heel, but he put his hand on his brother’s shoulder and shook him.  Agitated as he was, Joe was going to do himself more harm.

“Joe!  Wake up!  Little Joe!”

His brother’s eyes popped open.  When Joe saw him, he let out a sigh.  “You’re…okay.”

The man in black frowned.  “Of course, I’m okay.  It’s you who are hurt.  When I get hold of Duke Miller, I’ll – ”

“Don’t.”

He frowned.  “Don’t what, Little Joe?  Go after Miller?”

Joe seemed to come to himself.  The look out of his eyes lost its haze.  “Duke said he..was leaving.  We…won’t know when he’s coming back.  He said he was gonna make us pay…for what happened to his pa.”

“Us, Joe, who’s ‘us’?” he asked gently.

“Me and you, Adam,” Joe sighed as his eyes closed once again and he began to slip away.  “Duke Miller said he’s gonna kill me and you.”
——

 

Interlude III – Autumn 1862

“…gonna kill me…you.”

“Joe, what was that?”

The buzzards were back, only this time they were louder, like he was in a cave and they were in there with him.

Was Adam in there with him too?

Was that Adam talking?

“There’s so much blood.”

“The second bullet took him in the side.  That’s the one that’s bleeding,” a male buzzard said.  He sounded awful tired for a buzzard and kind of lost.  “It’s the other one we have to worry about.”

Other one?

He couldn’t remember being shot once, let alone twice.

“Ad..mm,” he managed.

“Doc, did you hear that?  That’s Little Joe!”

“Yes, my hearing is fine where apparently yours and your father’s in not.  I thought I told you to leave so I could do what I had to do!”

“But he’s talkin’, Doc!”

“Don’t…”

“Joe? It’s Pa. Can you hear me? Hang on, boy. Paul’s going to fix you right up.”

The tired buzzard, whose name was Paul, it seemed, was grumbling.   “If you ever get out of here….”

“Don’t,” Joe said again. “Don’t…go….”

“Nurse!” the buzzard shouted.  “I can’t have this boy awake. Get the morphine!”

“Danger…” Joe sucked in air as something cold broke the skin of his arm.  Probably that mean old buzzard’s talons. “Adam…don’t…danger….”

“I’m okay, little buddy,” his brother said.  He could hear the tears in Adam’s voice. “You’re the one who got hit. I’m sorry, Joe. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he said, or he thought he did. It came out sounding more like, “Sssso-kay.”

“Joseph, don’t fight it. Go to sleep.” He felt fingers in his hair.  He knew them; knew their touch. “Son, let go.”

Let go.

He’d been trying to do that for a while.

Mama was there, just behind his father and his brother.  She had one of her little hands on Pa’s shoulder and the other on Adam’s. She was looking at him. Her lips were moving, but he couldn’t make out what she was saying.

Must have been because that old buzzard was droning in his ear.

“Count backward, Joseph. Ten, nine….”

Eight.

Three.

None.

——

Part Three – The Conclusion, Autumn 1862 

THIRTEEN

Joe Cartwright stepped back.  He formed his thumbs and index finger into a rough diamond shape, tilted his hands up, and framed his new rifle and saddle with them.  The glistening gun and shining saddle were leaning against the barn wall.

With a whistle, he proclaimed the ‘picture’ good.

“Whatever are you doin’, little brother?” Hoss asked as he appeared without warning.

Joe started and then turned to look at his brother.  His smile was sheepish.  “I’m thinking of having my picture taken with my new rifle and saddle.  I was trying it out to see how they looked.”

“Vanity, thy name is Little Joe Cartwright,” Adam sighed as he moved past leading a horse.

“You’re just jealous ‘cause I won the race and the horses and your rifle,” Joe glanced at Hoss who had his hands on his hips, “and your saddle…”

Adam had tethered the horse and was walking back to their side.  “Jealous is one word for it.”

Joe threw up his hands.  “Now, come on, I won it all fair and square!”

“Sure you did, little brother,” Hoss said as he moved in.  “You was just a mite sneaky about how you done it.”

“By the way, what did you do with all that money?” Adam asked.  He was moving closer too, in concert with Hoss.  “Find any good games while you were in town the other day?”

Joe moved back as his brothers moved forward.  “What do I look like?  A sucker?  I put the money in the bank like Pa suggested.”

Adam’s black brows peaked.  “Security, right?”

“Yeah.  Security.  Pa says you never know when you might need it for a rainy day.  Oomph!”

He’d backed up so far he hit the side of the barn.

There was nowhere left to go.

Joe swallowed hard.   “You said you weren’t mad, remember?”

Hoss looked at Adam.  “Oh, we ain’t mad, little brother.  Miffed, maybe.”

“Miffed?” Joe squeaked.

“Yes.” Adam said as he leaned his hands on the barn on either side of him.  “I think ‘miffed’ about says it all.”

“Hey, little Joe.  How’s that little black doin’?” a cheery voice called out.   “She mindin’ her manners?”

Joe nearly melted with relief.  He hadn’t heard the wagon pull in, but there were Enos and Cora Milford sitting pretty as pictures on its painted seat, smack dab in the middle of their yard.

Ducking under his brother’s arms, he went to greet them.

“What brings you two over this way?” Joe asked.

Cora gave him a look – the kind a mother gave a boy who’d come in limping.  “How are you doing, Little Joe?  Those cuts still giving you trouble?”

Joe winced and then looked at his brothers.  He hadn’t told them anything.   “It’s nothing,” he said a bit sheepishly.

“Nothing!” Cora exclaimed.  “If God hadn’t given you enough hair for three men everybody’d know about it.  Now you come on over here and let me take a look.”

Adam was beginning to catch on.  “Joe, what is this?”

He rolled his eyes.  ‘You know women,’ he mouthed.

“Little Joe Cartwright!  Now!”

“You better come over here, boy.  Old Cora’ll eat you up and spit you out afore breakfast if you don’t.”

“Enos Milford!  You make me sound like some old grizzly bear,” the older woman declared.

“If the paw fits,” her husband grumbled – and got hit upside the head for it.

Joe was slowly sneaking away.

“You stop right where you are, young man!”

Cora started to disembark and Hoss moved over to give her a hand.  “What’s wrong with little brother?” he asked.

Adam was looking at him.  “Yes, Joe, what’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing,” he sighed.  “A few of those cuts on my head.  Well, they haven’t healed up right.”

“On his head and on his elsewhere!” Cora declared.  “They’re infected, Adam, and it’s infection kills a man more often than not.  This here,” she indicated the tin can she held in her hand, “is my grandmother Lottie’s secret recipe.  It’ll have Little Joe fixed up in no time!”

Cora was the only one speaking.

The three of them had gone silent.

It had been months and he’d almost put it behind him, what had happened with Duke Miller.  Mostly he’d put it behind him because there was nothing he could do about it.  Miller and the Brennans had disappeared after tying him up and cutting him – seemingly off the face of the earth.

He could only hope Duke Miller was off the face of the earth – buried under six feet of it somewhere.

“What do you mean, they aren’t healed?” Adam asked as he came toward him.  A second later his brother’s fingers were probing his hair.

“Hey!  Hey!  Cut that out.  Hey…ouch!”

Looking at the one to the back of Joe’s head, Adam whistled.  “That’s really angry, Joe.  Why didn’t you say something?”

He didn’t say anything because he didn’t want to remember.  It had been humiliating, to say the least, being trussed up and butchered like a hog.

“It doesn’t hurt.”

Adam huffed.  “Says the boy who just said ‘ouch’.”

“I’m not a boy!”

“What’s going on out here?  If you shout any louder, boot hill is going to give up its dead!”

Pa, of course, was shouting.

Joe wrinkled his nose.  “Adam’s making a fuss over nothing.”

His father stared him down and then turned that imposing glare on his brother.  “Adam?”

“Apparently some of Little Joe’s cuts haven’t healed.”

The glare belonged to him now.  “Joseph?”

“Oh, for gosh sakes, Pa!” Joe snapped.  “There just little cuts.  What’s everyone makin’ such a big fuss for over a couple of little cuts?”

“Do you remember Mister Haines, the lawyer?”

Joe frowned.  “The one with the mustache that reached his collar?”

“That would be him,” Pa agreed.  “Do you remember what he died of?”

“He’s dead?”

“Yes, he’s dead.  He died of a paper cut.  An infection caused by a simple paper cut!  Joseph, it was very irresponsible of you not to mention this.”  His father’s look softened.  “It has to hurt.”

Not as much as thinking about how it happened hurts’, he thought.

His pa caught him by the arm.  “Now, come inside and let me take a look.”

“Ah, Pa,” he whined, “do I have to?”

Pa turned to look at Cora.  She nodded.

“Yes, you have to.  Infectivity is nothing to play around with.”

“I’m fine, Pa.  Really.”

The look his father gave him told him – in no uncertain terms – that the older man knew that, no, he was not.

 

The stuff that Cora put on his head burned like hellfire.  He couldn’t sleep for anything.  Joe slung his feet over the edge of his bed, slipped into his slippers and robe, and headed down the stairs.  Maybe a snack would help.  Or he could sit by the fire and read.

Anything but lay in bed and think.

The last few months had been hard.  He’d been real sick when Pa and his brothers brought him home that day.  He’d lost a lot of blood and the fever he’d been sporting decided to climb right up and go through the roof.  Apparently he fought them like a mountain cat.  He’d tried to climb out of bed so he could ride out and find Duke Miller and make him pay for what the coward had done to his mother.  Hoss and Adam hit the trail a number of times, hunting Duke, but they’d failed.  So, in his delirium, he’d determined he would be the one to do it.  The worst thing about it was, Duke didn’t even care.  It wasn’t his mama he’d been trying to kill all those years ago, it had been him.  That fact, along with the weakness and blood loss, had plunged him into a depression so deep he didn’t care if he lived or died.   Doc Martin didn’t expect him to make it.  Pa’d brought him back.

Or rather, Pa wouldn’t let him go.

As he reached the bottom of the stairs, Joe turned toward the hearth.  It was then he realized he wasn’t alone.

“Can’t sleep?” his father asked.

Pa was sitting in the dark, a glass of brandy in his hand.  It made Joe think of other nights when he’d come down to find his father brooding in the dark. That was right after his mama died and Pa lost his way.

“That stuff Cora put on my head must have brimstone in it,” he complained.  “I can’t sleep for a darn.”

“That probably means it’s working.”

Joe took a seat on the hearthstones, savoring the warmth as it penetrated his aching bones. He was still feeling all that bronco busting he’d done for the Milfords, though you would have had to hogtie him to get him to admit it.

Joe winced.  Bad choice of words.

“I’m sorry, Pa, about not saying anything.  I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”

“Joseph, any time the skin is broken it’s a ‘big deal’.  The attack was brutal.”  His father’s jaw tightened.  “Those cuts were deep and the knife they were done with was unclean and meant to cause trouble.”

He frowned.  It had looked clean enough to him, glinting in the rising light.  And big.  Really big.  “It wasn’t?”

“Paul told me.  There was…well…other blood on it.”

Joe was glad it was dark.  His father couldn’t see how he paled.

“Joe, you never really told us what happened.”

What was there to say?  He’d been an idiot, racing out into the night when he was too sick to sit up in bed.  If he’d waited – if he’d behaved – he might have gotten better before Duke Miller left town and then it would have been him that had the upper hand.

“Joseph?”

He relaxed the muscles in his jaw.  “Sorry, Pa.  I just feel stupid, letting Duke take me like that.”

His father’s words were quiet.  “I don’t think you were stupid, Joseph.  I think you were very brave.”

He frowned.  “What do you mean?”

“Duke was on his way here.  We’ll never know what he intended.  Perhaps he would have burnt the house down.  Hoss and Hop Sing could have died, along with you.”  His pa was looking at him, gauging his reaction.  “You stopped him.”

“I was trussed up like a hog, Pa!  I let him take me.  He –”

“Humiliated you like you humiliated him?”

Joe glared at his father and then hung his head.

“Joe, for every violent action, there is an equally violent reaction.  I understand your desire to make Duke Miller pay in some way for what he did to Paco’s father…. “

“He murdered him, Pa,” he said, looking up with tears in his eyes, “just like he murdered Mama.  And you know what?  He didn’t care about Carlos either.  All Paco’s father was to him, was someone in his way.”

“Men like Duke Miller care only for themselves, son.  There’s something wrong, deep within them. “

“He wanted to kill me, Pa, not Mama,” he nearly shouted, his voice catching.

There, it was out.

“What?”

Joe looked up at his father.  “Duke wanted to kill me…or maybe you.  He didn’t want to kill Mama.  She just got in his way too.”

“He told you this?”

Joe nodded.  “Just before he started…cutting me.”  He blinked as the emotion of the past few months caught up with him.  “God, Pa.  It hurt so bad.”

His father was up and on his feet and at his side in a second.  A strong arm surrounded him as the older man said, “I know you don’t want to think about it, Joseph.  I know that’s why you hid the fact that you were still hurting.  But if you keep it inside, it will eat you up.  It will never go away.  Duke Miller’s gone, son.  Hopefully for good.  If you let him and what he did haunt you, he’s won.”

 

Joe returned to his bed and laid down.  His head still burned and it was all he could do not to plunge his fingers into his hair and scratch like an old bear stung by a hive of bees.  He laid there for a while, unable to sleep; his mind a whirl.  After about an hour, he gave up.  Joe got to his feet, put his slippers on again, and headed for the stair only to stop and look at his older brother’s room.  It was late – really  late – but sometimes Adam was up.  He’d just go see if older brother had a light on.

As he came abreast his brother’s room, he was startled by Adam’s sudden appearance.  His brother had come from the other end of the hall.

“I guess no one’s gettin’ much sleep tonight,” Joe said.

“I thought I heard a noise.  I went to check.”  Adam looked him up and down.  “You look terrible.”

“Thanks,” he groused.

“Those cuts bothering you?”

“Yeah….”

“But?”

Joe shrugged.  “I don’t know what it is, Adam.  I can’t get my mind to stop.  I keep seeing Duke – young Duke, old Duke, crazy Duke.  Pa said he was haunting me, and I think maybe he’s right.”

Adam nodded.  “I understand.”

“You do?”

His brother was silent a moment.  “It’s like that with Peter Kane sometimes.”

“Gosh, Adam, I’m sorry.  I’ve been so wrapped up in my own troubles….”

“It’s okay.  I don’t want to talk about Kane anymore than you want to talk about Duke Miller.”

“Yeah.”

Adam was eyeing him strangely.

“What?”

“Why don’t you come into my room?”

“And snuggle in bed?”  Joe rolled his eyes.  “I’m not four years old anymore.”

“Really?”

He laughed.  “Well, if I am, I might finally get called ‘big’ Joe.”

His brother chuckled.  “Do you remember what I used to do when you couldn’t sleep?”

“Rub my tummy and sing me a song?”

Adam blew out his exasperation.  “What else?”

Joe thought a moment.  “You used to work my shoulders.  Rub me down.”

“I can still do that.  No man ever outgrows a good rub-down.”

“I don’t know….”

“Come on, Joe.  It’ll put you to sleep.  And you want to sleep, right?”

Joe looked at the floor a moment and then up at his brother.  “Pa said I was ‘brave’ tonight.”

“About?”

“When Duke caught me and….”  He pointed toward his head.  “He said that if I hadn’t stopped Duke he might have burned the house down.  You know, Adam, Duke doesn’t care who he hurts.”

“So long as he hurts you.”

“Yeah, but….  Duke hates us all, Adam.   Just like….”  Joe swallowed.  “Just like I hate him for causing Mama’s death.”

“Joe , none of us did anything deliberate.  Duke Miller’s actions are, and were, premeditated.  There is nothing about you that is like Duardo Miller.”

He nodded.  “Thanks, Adam.”

His brother stepped up to his door and opened it, and then made a gesture with his hand.  “Now, how about that rub down?”

Joe slept like a baby that night, in his brother’s bed where Adam left him.  When he woke up in the morning it was to find older brother fast asleep in his chair.  Tears kissed Joe’s eyes as he thought of the family he had and how he loved them and they loved him.  From what he’d seen, Duke Miller had known nothing but rejection and pain from the time he’d been born.  He wondered what he would have turned out like if he’d had that kind of pa, one who hit you and called you names and told you that you were worthless unless you had your shoes shined and your hair cut a certain way.

It almost made him feel bad for him.

Almost.

With a yawn Joe opened the door to his room.  As he stepped in, he noticed the window was open.  He was sure he’d left it closed when he went looking for Adam.   Alert, he entered cautiously.  It took a moment, but he spotted it – a note pinned to his bed with a bloody knife.

Shaking, he crossed over to the bed and retrieved the note and read it.

‘You won’t know when it’s coming, but come it will.  I got in here.  I can get in anywhere.  Cartwright, your days are numbered.’

Joe crushed the paper in his hand.

Duke Miller had returned.

——

FOURTEEN

“You heading into town, Joe?” a cheerful voice called out.  “You want some company?”

It was early in the morning.  So early, in fact, that the sky outside was as dusky as twilight.  He’d risen early in the hopes of heading into town before his family awakened.  In fact, he’d just finished saddling Cochise and was checking the cinch one last time prior to leaving.  Joe leaned in and briefly touch his forehead to the soft worn leather before turning to face his older brother.

“Yeah, I’m heading into town.  You got a problem with that?” he asked, his tone just a bit edgy.

“With you going to town?  No.”  Adam dropped his voice as he approached so Pa and Hoss, who had followed him out the front door, wouldn’t hear.  “With you going to town alone?  Yes.”

Joe let out a sigh.  Adam was the only one he’d told about the note since it seemed older brother was a bullseye for Duke Miller’s hate nearly as much as him.

“Look, Adam,” Joe said, eyeing the rest of the family, “it’s been three weeks.  No one has seen Duke Miller or either of the Brennans in that time.  I can’t live my life in a cage.  Besides, I don’t see you stayin’ home.  You’ve been in and out of town a half-dozen times recently.”

Adam moved in closer.  “I didn’t find a threatening note pinned to my bed by a bloody knife.”

“No, but Duke threatened you.  I heard him.”  Joe drew a breath to stem his rising anger.  His temper was short to begin with, but today it was shorter than a tail hold on a bear.  “What makes you any more capable of looking out for yourself when you’re alone than I am?”

Adam’s lips curled at both ends. “Must be the eyes in the back of my head God gave me to compensate for having to watch out for two younger brothers.”

Joe’s lips twitched.  He’d been ready to snap at Adam for treating him like a kid. Then older brother had to go and do what he’d done – remind him that there was something good about it.

“I’m just riding into Virginia City,” he said with a sigh.

“It’s a long ride, Joe.  Anything could happen in twenty miles.”

The curly-haired man ran a hand along the back of his neck and tipped his hat forward.  “Look, Adam….”

“You’re going to see Sally Morris, and it will make you feel like a child having your older brother escort you into town.”

Joe’s eyes went wide.  Then they narrowed.  “How do you do that?”

“Besides the eyes in the back of my head?”  Adam poked him in the shoulder.   “I’m perceptive and you’re predictable.”

“What in the Devil are you two talkin’ about?” a familiar voice asked.  “I thought you was headin’ into town, little brother.”

Joe turned to find Hoss less than five feet away from them.  He thought fast.

“I was until older brother here decided now was the time to give me a lecture about all of the chores waitin’ for me when I get back.  For your information,” he said, poking Adam back, “Pa gave me permission to ride into Virginia City.  He wants the mail picked up and a contract dropped off at Hiram’s.”

“So who’s going to clean the tack room and chop the wood for the kitchen?” Adam asked, playing along.
“Hop Sing’s chickens?”

“The tack room isn’t gonna walk away, Adam.  It’ll keep ‘til I get back, and Hop Sing’s got enough wood already to build a Ponderosa of his own.  Look, older brother, whether you like it or not, I’m going to town.”

And with that, Joe went back to checking his cinch.

Adam stared at him for several heartbeats and then turned and called out to their father.  “Pa?”

Pa had taken a seat at the table.  He had a stack of papers in his hand.  The older man looked up.  “Yes, what is it, son?”

“That contract you need dropped off at Hiram’s.  Is that the one I negotiated with the Belcher mine?”

Pa nodded.

“There are some….”  Adam shot him a glance.  “…some finer points I think I better go over in person with Hiram.  I’ll just ride into town with Joe, if that’s okay.”

“That sounds good,” Pa replied as he rose to his feet.  “Hoss and I are going to head out in an hour or so.  I need to pay a visit to John Simms’ widow and take her his last payroll money.  Hoss is going to go with me.”  Pa paused and then finished with a smile, “Say, why don’t we head into town after that and we’ll all meet at the International House for a late lunch?  You boys have worked hard these last three weeks.  Dinner is on me.”

Now, normally a fine noon meal at the International House – with his father paying – would have been just the ticket.

But today he had other plans.

“How about we meet for supper, Pa?” Joe suggested.  “I have a few things to do and it’s gonna take me most of the afternoon.  I gotta go to the bank and do a little shopping before I head out to the Morris’.  I promised Sally I’d mend that bit of fence at the back of the house for her Ma since her Pa’s laid up.”

“And just what would you be shoppin’ for, Jo-seph?” Hoss asked.

“That’s right.  Going to the bank and then shopping.”  Adam ran a hand over his chin.  “Younger brother, are you about to surrender a little of that ‘security’ to impress your current lady love?”

Joe’d finished with the cinch and was checking the rest of his saddle for readiness one last time.  “I don’t see where that’s any of your business, older brother,” he said as he swung up and onto Cochise’s back and pointed her nose toward the Virginia City road.

“Joseph.”

Uh-oh, that was Pa.

“Yes, sir?”

“I think Adam should go with you.”

Did he sense something in his father’s tone?  Had he been…less discreet than he thought?

“Ah, Pa, I’ll have to wait for him.  I’m ready to go now.”

His father came up to his horse and took hold of the bridle.   “Joseph, son.  Do it for me.”

Now he was even more confused.

“Is somethin’ wrong, Pa?” Hoss asked.

The older man frowned.  He shook his head.   “Not really.  Last time I was in town, Roy mentioned Floyd Brennan had been seen in the area.”

Joe stiffened.  “Just Floyd?”

Pa nodded.  “Floyd told them that he’d fallen out with Duke Miller and his brother and wanted nothing more to do with them.   He said Duke was headed for Mexico, for the town his mother came from.”

“I hope that’s nowhere near where Paco is,” Adam said, almost under his breath.

Joe did too.  Paco was young and had almost as fierce a temper as him.  If the pair happened into each other, the boy could easily do something stupid that would jeopardize the rest of his life.

After all, he was older and wiser and he almost had.

“Well, Mexico can have him if you ask me,” Hoss spat.

“Good riddance to bad rubbish, eh?” Adam asked.

Middle brother scowled.  “What you said.”

“Anyhow, Joseph, it will make your old father feel better if, for a time, you boys travel in pairs.  I was going to suggest it, but Adam’s request….”

Joe let out a little sigh.  “Okay, Pa.  If it will make you feel better.”  His gaze moved from his father to the man in black.  “After all, older brother here needs someone to look out for him and keep him out of trouble.”

 

A short time later, they were on their way.  Even though he and his brothers had taken this road thousands of times, each time they traversed the twenty or so miles between Virginia City and home, Adam was aware of the potential dangers.  There was enough traffic coming and going, albeit it at lengthy intervals, that the natural predators of the land had learned to give the main road a wide berth.  So attacks by mountain lions, coyotes, and such were rare and happened only in lean times when the animals were desperate.  Un-natural predators were another matter entirely.

Those who walked on two feet.

Roy and his deputies did a pretty good job of making their presence known and putting the fear of the law into the good citizens of Virginia City and its surrounds.  But desperation was not limited to gangrel  animals.  It was found seated in the hearts of men and could drive them to brutality and murder.  Whether it be for a morsel of food, a few coins in a purse, or – Adam glanced at his young brother who rode grim-faced beside him – revenge, men were capable of doing anything it would take to feed their self-centered soul.

Thankfully, so far, he had seen nothing out of the ordinary.  Shortly after they left the house, they’d run across a family who lived close by the Ponderosa and exchanged pleasantries.  About five miles further along, Clem Foster had passed them on his way out to the Miller’s place.  Now, as they entered the burgeoning town, they passed the first of over three dozen saloons.  The sight of the pretty girls on the porch and those hanging out of the upstairs windows had the effect on his brother that several attempts at conversation had not.

Joe smiled and shouted ‘Hello!’

“So apparently I need to put on some stockings and garters to get your attention,” he remarked wryly.

“Huh?”  Joe frowned as he turned back.  “Oh, sorry.  I was thinking.”

“About Duke Miller?”

His brother nodded.  “Do you really think Duke’s gone?  I mean, really gone?”

“We can only hope so, Joe – and keep an open eye.”  Hope was a fragile thing.  Adam had deliberately chosen not mention that the whole thing with Floyd Brennan could be a part of a ruse perpetrated to get them to lower their guard.

Well, he wasn’t lowering his.

They were passing down the center of the main street of town, headed for the business district.  Friends and neighbors shouted ‘hellos’ and called out hearty welcomes as they did.  Just out front of the Silver Dollar, Joe pulled Cochise to a halt.  Little brother twisted in the saddle and took hold of his saddlebag.  He took something from it before turning back.

“Here, you’re gonna need this,” he said.

Adam frowned as he took the paper.  “What is it?”

Joe snorted.  “Why, older brother, it’s the dang contract that was so all-fired important that you had to come into town with me.”

The man in black smiled as he placed the envelope inside his coat.  “Oh, that.”

“Really, Adam,” his brother said, growing sober.  “I’m fine.  I’ll be fine.  I’m gonna head over to the bank and draw out some of my ‘security’, and then make my way to the milliners.”

“The milliners?  Whatever for?”  Adam’s eyes went to his brother’s tan hat.  It wasn’t that old.

“Not for me,” Joe said with a roll of his eyes, “for Sally.  The last time I took her for a stroll she had her eye on a pretty little purple hat with those fancy feathers on it that make you sneeze if you get too close.”

“Maribou?”

“Oh, no.  I’m not marrying anybody!”   Joe’s green eyes went wide.  “But I wouldn’t mind getting close enough to sneeze,” he added with a wink.

God, he loved that kid!

“All right.  You go to the bank and the milliners while I talk with Hiram.  I’ll meet you in…an hour and a half back outside the bank.  How does that sound?”

“Sounds good.  All I gotta do is get the money and go in and pay for the hat.”

“We’ll go get some lunch then, before you head out to the Morris place.  Do you want me to come pick you up?  We can come back to town together for supper with Pa and Hoss.”

“I think I can make it from Sally’s to town on my own, older brother.”  Joe was shaking his head.   “I swear, you’re as bad as Pa.”

They looked at each other for a moment and then burst into laughter.

No one was as bad as Pa.

 

Ben Cartwright climbed back into the wagon he and Hoss were taking to town, feeling every one of his fifty plus years.  Amy Simms was a young woman and now, a young widow.  She had two small children.  Her husband had worked for him for just a short time.  The young man had made a very brave but rather foolish choice to try to turn the tide of a thousand stampeding beeves on his own.

In the end, John saved the day but lost his life.

“That was right nice of you, Pa,” Hoss said as he took his seat.

“Er?  What was ‘right nice’?”

“Givin’ John’s widow an extra month’s pay.”

“I was just paying what was owed, son,” Ben said as he picked up the reins and started the wagon moving.

Hoss tilted his head to look at him.  “Adam said John was all paid up.  He got his money the day afore he died.”

Hoss and Adam were right.  Amy Simms was a young woman in dire straits.  John had been upfront with him about their struggles.  The payroll for an extra month’s labor wouldn’t save her and her children, but it might just give her enough money to make a fresh start.

“I consider it a bonus,” he replied.  “John certainly deserved it for what he did.  Everyone in the camp could have been killed – and that includes you and your brothers.”

They rode in silence for a few minutes before Hoss spoke again.  “Pa, you really believe that ol’ Duke Miller’s gone for good?”

It would be an answer to prayer if it were true.

“I don’t know what I believe, Hoss.  I certainly hope it’s true.  Still, I find it hard to believe Miller would let the whole thing drop.  His heart is consumed with hate.”

“Hate for Little Joe, you mean?”

“Yes, and to a lesser degree, for Adam.”

“Cause older brother beat him all those years ago when he took Little Joe right out from under his nose?”

“Which led to his father being killed, yes.  Duke Miller has sworn vengeance against your younger brother for what Joseph did to him – humiliating him in front of the whole town.”

Hoss thought a moment.  “Say, Pa. You don’t think Duke Miller’d try to hurt Adam just to get back at Little Joe.  Do you?”

Ben pulled up on the reins.  The wagon slowed and then came to stop.  This was the first time both Adam and Joe had been in town together in nearly a month.

“Pa?”

“Hang on tight, son,” Ben said as he slapped the reins against the team’s rumps, “we need to get to town.  Now!”

 

“Mister Cartwright…er…what a pleasant surprise.”

Barney Maitland hadn’t changed.  He was still the unpleasant little man Joe remembered from when he was  kid.  He’d gotten thicker around the middle and his hair was thinning, but other than that he was still kind of a weasel.  The haberdasher was standing behind the counter.  He had a board in one hand with a stack of papers attached to it, and a pencil in the other.

“Doing inventory?” Joe asked with a smile.

“Thanks to my wife it is a never-ending and, might I say, thankless task!” Barney exclaimed.

Joe looked around the shop at the stacks of hankies, gloves, stockings, and bits and bobs of lace.  “Women sure do like their pretties, but then again, we like looking at them wearin’ them.”

“You, Mister Cartwright, are an unmarried – and may I said, lucky – young man,” the haberdasher sniffed as he tucked the pencil behind his ear.  “Just wait until you’ve said, ‘I do’.  Then you’ll learn.”

Joe walked over to the window.  Outside, the street was bustling with people.  It was nearly one o’clock, which was the time Adam had set for them to meet.  He’d got hung up at the saloon talking to a couple of his friends and was running late.

“Are you looking for something in particular?”

Joe scanned the merchandise on display.  “You had a hat in the window a few weeks back.  It was purple and had feathers sort of springing out of one side of it.  Do you still have it?”

“Purple.  With feathers….”  Barney snapped his fingers.  “My wife pulled that one for a customer.  It’s in the back.”

Joe scowled.  Sally had her heart set on that hat.

“Have they paid for it yet?”

Barney thought a moment.  “No, I don’t believe they have.”

“So you can sell it to me?”

Mr. Maitland blinked.  “Mister Cartwright, I don’t believe purple is your color.”

Joe started to laugh.  He thought the other man was kidding.

He wasn’t.

Sobering up, he admitted, “It’s for Sally Morris.”

Maitland made a face.  “Oh.  I see.  I thought, perhaps, you had your father’s taste in hats.  I’ll just go get it.”

Barney’s last statement stopped him for a minute and then, without warning, Joe had a flash of his Mama standing by the counter laughing while his pa perched a big old green velvet hat on his head at a jaunty angle and looked in the mirror.  He pivoted to check the doorway, half-expecting to see Hoss and Adam standing there holding a little blond curly-headed squirming version of himself.

“Is this the one, Mister Cartwright?”

He grinned.   It looked like an ostrich upside-down.  “Yep, that’s it.”

“That will be twenty dollars.”   As Joe pulled his money from his pocket and began to count the bills, the haberdasher suggested, “Let me put it in a box for you.”

He nodded as Barney Maitland once again disappeared into the back room.  While he waited, Joe took another look at the counter and the mirror.  Time was a funny thing.  His mama had been standing right where he was looking in that mirror some fourteen or fifteen years before.  It seemed like he should be able to pull back some kind of curtain and see her now, alive and blooming in the light of his father’s love.

He really missed her.

“Here you are, Mister Cartwright.  I am sure the young lady will be quite impressed.”

“Just so she’s happy,” he said as he took the package.

“Tell your father that I said ‘hello’.”

Joe tipped his hat.  “Will do.”

Then he headed out the door and went to meet Adam.

 

As he waited in front of the bank, hat box in hand, Joe politely returned the smile of everyone who passed by.  If he’d been any normal feller with a ma, he could have pretended the hat was for her.  Since he didn’t have a ma, everyone who walked by knew he’d bought it for a special girl, and that opened the door to everything from his friends ribbing him to hateful looks from the girls he’d been flirting with at church and in the bank, in the mercantile…and at the seed store…and in the hotel….

One of the girls threw her fan at him.

Overhead the noonday sun was high and bright and hotter than it should be.  It was autumn and the mornings and nights were growing cold.  It seemed wrong somehow that the middle of the day could be hot as blazes.  He’d dressed for the morning, so he was growing uncomfortable.  Dropping the hat box to the boards at his feet, Joe shed his green jacket.  Cochise was still tethered in front of the bank – he’d walked to the milliners – and so he tossed the green garment over his arm and headed that way, intent on tying the warm garment to his saddle.  Just as he reached Cooch, Doc Martin stepped out of the bank.

“Why, Little Joe!  What are you doing in town?” his father’s old friend asked.

“Not lookin’ for you, I can tell you that!” Joe retorted.

“Always a warm greeting from my favorite Cartwright.”  The doctor pinned him with his professional stare.  “How are you feeling, young man?”

He knew better than to lie.  It would get him into worse trouble.

“My head still hurts some, but Cora Milford’s suave seems to have worked wonders for the most part.”

“The wounds don’t feel hot anymore?”

“No, sir.  Just….  Well, they itch sometimes.”

“And?”

You didn’t get by anything with this one.

“And sometimes, well, they feel like they were just made…if you know what I mean?”

He didn’t know what he meant, so he doubted the Doc did.

“It’s a kind of ‘ghost pain’, Joe.  It’s not uncommon.  Hopefully it will fade in time – as will the memories.”

Joe dropped his head.  “Yeah, I hope so.”

“Everything okay?” a voice asked from out of the crowd of passerby s passing them by.   It took him a second to recognize its owner as Adam.

“Sure, the Doc and I were just talking.”

“About?”

Doc Martin laughed.  “What else?  Your brother and his health.”

Adam’s hazel eyes twinkled.  “Must have been a short conversation.”

“Hey!” Joe protested.

“Just kidding, Joe.”  Adam turned to the physician.  “Where are you headed, Paul?”

“To my office.  I have paperwork to do – and I’d best be on my way.  Tell your father I said ‘hello’.”

“Pa will be in town a little later.  Maybe you’ll see him,” older brother said.

“I’d like that. Tell Ben to pay me a visit before you head home.”  Paul grinned.  “I have a very fine, very old bottle of cognac with both our names on it.”

As the doctor moved away, Adam turned to him.  “So, you ready for that drink?”

His brother was already on the move.  As he followed him, Joe removed his hat and reached up to wipe the sweat from his brow.  The sun was bearing down, washing the street near white.  The air sparkled as boots, shoes, horses’ hooves and carriage wheels kicked the sandy dust up and into the air.  Joe blinked.  Adam was saying something, but he wasn’t listening.  His attention had been drawn to the top of the livery.  He’d been on that roof as a boy, even though it wasn’t allowed, and it seemed to him that someone was up there now.  They had something in their hand.  Something that sparked like flint on steel in the early afternoon light.

Something that was pointed directly at his brother.

“Adam, no!”

Joe leapt forward and shoved his brother aside just as something ‘cracked!’ like a whip.  A second later it felt like someone took a wasp stinger and drove it into his side.  Before he could pull the stinger out, another one whined past his face.  And then it got him too.  This one drove its stinger right into his chest.

And the world went dark.

——

FIFTEEN

——

Ben Cartwright breathed a sigh of relief as he and Hoss passed the eastern boundary of Virginia City and headed toward the center of town.  All the way in a growing fear had gnawed at his gut.  It had gnawed so long and so deeply that he felt empty.  It was as if a hole had opened up inside of him so large that nothing could fill it.  It wasn’t a hole that had been burrowed or dug; the dirt tossed aside in a mounting heap that one could see.  It was a void.  An emptiness.

An absence where a presence should be.

“Pa!  Pa, slow down!  You’re gonna hit that wagon!  Somethin’s goin’ on up ahead.”

The rancher did as his son asked and brought the wagon to a halt.  A hundred paces or so in front of them there were other vehicles standing immobile.  Dozens of people were milling about, seemingly, without direction.  A few were pointing toward the tops of the buildings.  Others were staring at the ground.  There were shouts and cries and….

Somewhere in the crowd, someone was praying.

“What do you suppose it is, Pa?” Hoss said as he rose to his feet.  “You think the bank got robbed or somethin’?”

Ben shrugged.  He didn’t see Roy or Clem in the midst of the chaos, but he did see several men who had broken off from the crowd and were running in the direction of the jail.  Again, they were shouting.  The rancher dropped the reins and stood up.  He craned his neck to peer over the heads of the people blocking his view.  As he did a several of Virginia City’s citizens turned to look at him.  He heard his name spoken, several times, and then everyone turned to look at him.

Directly at him.

“It’s Ben!  Get out of the way!” a man cried as several people were shoved aside.   “Let him through!  You!  Move out of the way!”

“Listen to the man,” someone said.  “People, move aside!  Let the boy’s family in!”

That fear that had been gnawing at him?  It rose up right out of that empty hole to seize his heart and squeeze so hard Ben feared it might burst.

Hoss looked at him.  “Pa, what’d that man say?”

The rancher shuddered.  The words wouldn’t come.

‘Let the boy’s family in.’

Out of the blue, a shot rang out.  He jumped.  Hoss jumped.  Even their horses started.

“Back away!  Back away, all of you, you hear!?  Now!  Let the boy’s pa through!”

It was Roy.  He could just see the lawman through the mass of people, beckoning him.

His son gripped his arm.  “Pa.  You don’t suppose…?”

As the crowd parted, Roy Coffee stood fully revealed.  The sheriff was standing in the middle of the street, holding his gun in the air.  At his feet a man lay face down in the dust.

Not very far away, abandoned as if it was no longer of any use, lay a bright green corduroy coat.

 

Adam Cartwright was seeing stars.  Taking hold of the wagon wheel beside him, he pulled himself to his feet and managed to keep them for a moment before staggering forward and landing on his knees.  His kid brother had shouted something and then shoved him aside without warning, causing him to lose his balance and fall backwards where he struck his head on the edge of the wagon the wheel was attached to.  In the brief time he’d been out, the marginally busy main street of Virginia City had filled to capacity.  Chaos reigned.  Somewhere, a woman was screaming.  Other women, closer by, cried.  He heard someone curse.  No, several someones.   A man shouted, calling for Roy Coffee.  And this was the most confounding thing of all – beside him a young girl was praying.  As she finished, she turned her pallid face toward her father and begged him to get Doctor Martin.

To get him now.

Adam climbed to his feet and looked around, wondering where in this sea of chaos and confusion his little brother was.  As he pushed through a throng of people, he cast his mind back to what he could remember before Joe so abruptly struck him.  His little brother had been on time for once.  Joe was standing outside the bank waiting on him, hat box in hand.  He’d taken his green jacket off and had it looped over his arm.  It looked like Joe had been heading for Cochise, but been intercepted by Paul Martin.  When he joined the pair, he and the Doc had exchanged pleasantries, and then he’d watched the older man move away before signaling to Joe that they should head across the street.  Curiously, Joe didn’t follow him.  After a moment, he turned back to see what was keeping his younger brother.  It was then Joe tackled him and he went down.

Come to think of it, there had been an odd sound; an out of place sound like a firecracker going off.

No, more than one.  Was it two – or maybe even three?

“It’s Ben!” someone shouted.  “Ben Cartwright!”

An involuntary word spilt from Adam’s lips – a word in which, no matter how much he tried to deny it, his comfort and sanity were contained.

“Pa?”

“Let him through!” another man called out.  “Let Ben through!  You!  Move out of the way.”

Adam was moving with purpose and determination now.  He was going to find his Pa and then, together, they would locate Little Joe.  At first, he had to thrust people out of his way to get through, but then, slowly, the citizens of Virginia City began to part for him as if he were Moses and they, the Red Sea.   Just as he reached the center of the crowd, another firecracker went off.

This one in Roy Coffee’s hand.

“Back away!  Back away, you hear!  Now!  Let the boy’s pa through!”

Boy.

The boy’s Pa.

Ben Cartwright.

Adam faltered.  Roy Coffee was standing with his back to him.  Through his legs he could see a man, lying face down in the dirt.  A steadily growing pool of red spread across the crisp clean fabric of his white shirt.  By his outstretched hand, there lay an abandoned hat box.

It was Little Joe.

 

Ben dropped to his knees beside his youngest son.  Blood seeped through the white fabric of Joe’s shirt and pooled beneath his fingers as he leaned in and said, enunciating every word, “Joseph, son.  Hold on.  I’m right here with you.”  When his voice elicited no response, he tried again.  “Little Joe…can you hear me?  Son, you have to hold on.”

“Pa!  What could’a happened?” Hoss asked breathless.  “Who  would’ve shot him?”

Roy Coffee was working the crowd, seeking the answers to those questions.  “What I want to know is, where did that shot come from?” Roy demanded.  “Did anyone see?  If you saw anythin’, you step right up and let me know!”

“There!” someone shouted.  Ben turned to find it was Mrs. Maitland.  “I was coming back to the shop,” she managed between sobs.  “I saw something.  Like a light on a mirror.”  The older woman pointed to the top of the livery.  “It came from up there!”

Roy moved to her side.  He took hold of her elbow and propped her up.  Following the line of her finger, he asked, “On top of the stable?”

“It’s bad, Pa,” Hoss breathed as he knelt beside him.  “Whoever shot Little Joe, they knew what they was doin’.  Someone’s gotta go for the Doc. ”

“Joe’s been…shot?”

Ben looked up to find Adam at his side.

“It had to be Duke Miller,” his eldest snarled as his fingers brushed his holster.  “I’m going to find him and kill him!

Ben rose to his feet and blocked his way.  “Adam get a grip on yourself.  Your brother needs you.  I need you!  Hoss….”  The rancher stopped.  Hoss was gone.  In his place Roy Coffee knelt by Joseph and was applying pressure to the wound.  “Roy?  Where’s Hoss?  Where did he go?”

“Hoss went to fetch the doc,” Roy replied.  The lawman looked directly at his eldest.  “Adam, now you listen to your pa.  He don’t need no more tragedies today.”

Adam looked sheepish as he removed his hand from his gun.  “Sorry, Pa.”

Ben managed a half-smile.  “Keep watch for your brother,” he said as he turned his attention back to Joe and knelt again by his side.  What he saw when he did, horrified him.  Roy had placed a wad of cloth on Joe’s wound and it was already half soaked through.  His old friend gave him an encouraging look, but he couldn’t fail to notice the tears in Roy’s eyes.

A touch on his shoulder alerted Ben to the fact that his middle son had returned.  “Paul’s on his way, Pa,” Hoss said as he too knelt by his brother.  “He had to get his kit.”

Without warning, Ben felt the body beneath his fingers shift.

“Did you see that, Pa?”  Hope entered Hoss’ voice as he looked up at his older brother.  “Joe moved.  Adam, did you see?”

Adam joined them on the ground.  “Joe….listen to me,” he said, his voice choked with unspent tears.  “Joe, it’s Adam.  You can’t let Miller win.  Fight!  Damn  it!  Fight.  You’re not allowed to….”

“People!  Move aside!  Are you deaf!” a strident voice called out.  “I said, get out of my way!”

It wasn’t the voice of God, but it was the next best thing.

A moment later Doctor Paul Martin appeared.  They moved back to give him room as he dropped to his knees and reached out for Joe.  The physician gave him a sympathetic look and then took hold of Joseph’s blood-stained shirt and ripped it in half, revealing his son’s devastated back.  After a quick, cursory look, Paul gently rolled Joe over and  placed his hand on his chest.

Little Joe never moved or made a sound.

Leaning in close, Paul said, “Little Joe?  Can you hear me?  Joe?”  Paul waited a few seconds and then tried again.  “Joe, I know you may be unable to speak.  If you can, blink to let me know you’re awake.  Blink, son, if you can hear me.”  When there was no response, his old friend let out a sigh.  “Ben, I won’t mince words.  I’m not sure that I can do any….”

“You’re not giving up?!”

Paul met his piercing gaze.  “No, I’m not.  But there may be little I can do.  First of all, Joe’s been shot twice.”

“Twice?” Ben asked.

“Yes, twice.  The bullets went right through him.  God alone knows what  they hit along the way.  The first thing I have to do is keep him from bleeding out.”  Paul leaned in again, this time to place his ear on Joe’s chest.

The physician’s body went rigid and he sat up quickly.

Ben’s heart thudded in his chest.  “Paul?” he demanded.  “Paul?”

“Doc, what’s wrong?” Adam and Hoss asked in chorus.

“God God!”  Paul’s words were a prayer, whispered on lips of disbelief.  “Good Lord, no.”

Adam clutched his baby brother’s hand so hard his own knuckles went white.   “No, Joe!” his oldest commanded.  “Don’t do it, Joe!”

Paul turned his face toward him.  It was nearly as pale as his son’s.

“His heart’s stopped, Ben.”

Ben shoved the physician out of the way.  He caught  his beloved child’s face in his hands and shouted in a voice that brooked no disobedience.

“Joseph, it’s your Pa.  You are not allowed to die!  You hear me, boy!  I will not allow it!”  Ben gazed at the still face, near-white as marble.  He ran a hand through his son’s dusty curls and lowered his head to his son’s chest.   It was no longer an order.  It was a plea.

Joseph, no!”

 

He wished he’d had the energy to snort.  He’d never been good at following orders.

Opening his eyes, Little Joe Cartwright took one final look at his father and brothers and then rolled his eyes over to the slender figure approaching him.   The afternoon light was golden.  It pooled in the woman’s hair and encased her slender form like a cloak.  Her advance  was slow and measured; as if there was no rush and she had all the time in the world.

Maybe…eternity.

When she reached him, the woman knelt.  Joe felt her breath first and then her lips and then, finally her hand on his face.  Her fingers brushed back the curls clinging to his forehead and  came to rest on his furrowed brow.

Mon petit,” she sighed.

It took all that was left in him, but he managed a smile – and a single word.

“Mama?”

She gave him a kiss.  Light as a brush with death.

Oui.”

 

Adam Cartwright sat with his head in his hands.  ‘Exhausted’ didn’t begin to describe what he was feeling.  The three of them were crammed into Paul Martin’s small waiting area.  Thank God, they were waiting for word on whether or not Little Joe was going to make it.

A short time before they were sure he was not.

Adam shifted back in the uncomfortable chair he occupied and blew out a breath.  He’d only been this scared about Joe a couple of times before, the first time being when the kid was six or so and got pneumonia.  The whole house had hung on the next breath Joe took – and on whether or not Joe took it.  There’d been that time too when, as a teener, little brother had been caught in a bank vault and had precious little oxygen for half a day.  They were sure they’d lost him then –  just like they’d been sure they’d lost him an hour or so back, bled out on a Virginia City street.

God alone knew what had called Joe back.

“Ben.  Boys.”

Adam closed his eyes, whispered a brief prayer, and then lifted his eyes and pinned them on the doctor.  Hoss moved out of the dark  corner he occupied.  The big man had retreated there, seeking somewhere private to deal with his grief.  Pa was closest to the door, as if he feared Joe might think he’d abandoned him should he go any further.

He was the first to arrive at Doc Martin’s side.

“Paul?”

Paul held his hands up.  “I can offer no guarantees, Ben.  Little Joe is a very sick young man.  He’s hanging on, but only by a thread.”

“Joe’s a fighter,” Hoss insisted.  “He ain’t gonna give up.”

“I agree, Hoss, but Joe’s will to live and his body’s ability to survive are two separate things.”  Paul turned and glanced over his shoulder, into the operating room.  A sigh escaped him.  “Your brother has lost an inordinate amount of blood.”

Adam paled.  ‘Inordinate’.

Meaning ‘excessive, unreasonable’.

‘Unwarranted’.

His jaw tightened before he spoke.  “You sound like you’ve given up on Joe, Paul.”

The physician turned to look at him.  “No, Adam.  I haven’t given up, but I feel it is my duty as a physician to be realistic.”

The man in black rose to his feet and crossed over to the open door.  He could see his little brother lying on the table in the next room.  If he hadn’t noticed the blanket covering Joe’s chest was moving up and down, he would have thought the doctor’s dire prediction had already come true.

Adam leaned a hand on the door jamb.  “When will you know if Joe’s going to….”  He paused, rethinking his words.  “When he’s out of danger?”

His father must have sensed something in his voice.  Pa took a step toward him.

“Adam, what are you thinking?”

“Me, Pa?” he snorted.  “Honestly?  I’m trying not to think.”

Paul looked from him to his father, and then at Hoss.   “If you want, you can go in and see Little Joe.  But Ben, I need you to keep it short.”

“Is Joe awake?” their father asked.

“He’s in and out.  I don’t think he understands anything that’s said to him, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try.”

Pa was already through the door.

By the time Adam arrived at his brother’s bedside, Pa had pulled up a chair and was clutching Joe’s pallid hand in his own.  Little Joe’s eyes were closed; his brow, furrowed.  His usually tanned skin was fish-belly white and he was breathing rapidly, like a stallion after one last fatal run.  Pa was running the fingers of his free hand through Joe’s curls, which were lackluster.  The brilliance – the vitality they normally had was missing.  The life had been leeched out of them just like it had been leeched from their owner, perhaps never to return.

As Paul suggested, his father was trying.

“Joseph, son.  It’s your pa.  Can you hear me?”

They all drew a breath and waited.  Sadly, the only sound in the room was his brother’s labored breathing – and that of their breaking hearts.

And then, a miracle happened.  Joe’s lips parted.  No sound issued forth, but they definitely moved!

Pa leaned in closer.  “Joseph?  Son?”

It took a few unbearable heartbeats, but, this time there was a sound.  It was so far away that it seemed Joe had already made the choice to depart.

“….Mama…?”

Pa stiffened.  The older man turned and looked at him.

There was terror in his eyes.

“Joseph, no.  It’s Pa.  Your m….”  The older man’s voice caught on the word and broke.  “…your mother isn’t here.”

Joe’s thick brows folded toward the center.   He moaned and tried to shift his body, but failed.  “…here, Pa,” he breathed.  “Mama’s…here….”   Little brother’s fingers closed on their father’s hand and he feebly pulled him closer.  Pa leaned forward in response and hung there a moment.   Then, as Little Joe’s fingers went slack, the older man turned in his chair and looked at them.

There were tears in his eyes.

Hoss couldn’t bear it.  “What is it, Pa?  What’d Little Joe say?”

“Adam,” Pa said as he rose to his feet and stepped aside.  “Joseph is asking for you.”

He blinked.  “Me?  Why me?”

A tear trailed down their father’s cheek.  “He’s asking that you…  It’s almost like he’s a child again.  He wants you to…hold him.”

Now he knew what it felt like – having your heart stop.

Adam slipped in-between the chair and his brother’s bed.  He hesitated, and then took Joe’s cold hand in his.

His brother feebly moved his fingers, trying to grip it.

As he slipped his arm around his baby brother’s shoulders, the man in black said, “I’m here, Joe.  I’m holding you, so you have to hold on for me.”

A familiar hand landed on his shoulder.  “Your brother, Adam,” Pa said, sounding utterly exhausted.  “Before he asked for you, Joseph said he…saw Marie.  He said she was coming for him.”

He’d heard.

“Well, she can’t have him!”  he snapped.

“Adam….”

“No!”  Adam shifted his grip, so he had hold of both of Joe’s arms.  “Little Joe, feel this!” he said with a little shake.  “Feel me!  l know you want to go to Marie, but – listen to me – Marie doesn’t need you.  We need you, Joe!  Pa.  Hoss….”  A small sob escaped him.  “Me, Joe.  I need you!”

His brother startled him by opening his eyes.  Joe looked right at – and through him.   His baby brother gave him a little smile right before his consciousness fled, riding away on a single word.

Maman.”

 

Hoss Cartwright ran his hands over his face and shook himself.  It was the wee hours of the morning and he’d appointed himself to keep watch on his brother.  Both Adam and his Pa had fallen asleep in their chairs.  They didn’t know they’d done it. They’d both just slipped into sleep, worn out with worry.  The big man’s gaze shifted to where his little brother lay.  Joe was restless.  He weren’t awake, but he kept shiftin’, and every time little brother shifted, he moaned.  Paul Martin’s nurse, a gal named Mary, had been in once and given Joe something to make him sleep.  Joe was plain wore out.  Course, he was worn out too – worn out with the thought of what had happened and what still might happen.  But he couldn’t sleep.  Gol-dangit!  He was too scared to sleep.

He was scared Joe would pass and he wouldn’t know it.

So he’d drunk a couple of pots of coffee and taken a walk in the cold without a jacket, and then come back inside and sat down at his brother’s bedside, determined that he would stay awake come Hell or high water.  He wouldn’t even think about sleepin’ until Pa or Adam woke up.  That way they could wake him up if….  Well, if….

Just, if.

“God, don’t you go doin’ no ‘if’,” the big man whispered as he struck away a tear.

So far their vigil had lasted half a day.  Little Joe’d been shot around two o’clock in the afternoon and now it was one in the morning.  Every so often the Doc would come in to check on Joe.  He could tell by the look in Paul’s eyes that  every time he found little brother still breathin’ the Doc was surprised.  It kind of surprised him too, but Hoss believed what he’d said.  Joe was tough.  He was a scrapper.

If anyone could win against in a fight against death, it would be Joe.

Hoss stared at his brother, noting how Joe was movin’ like he did when he was caught in one of them night terrors of his.  The poor kid couldn’t move much, but his legs were shifting and, every so often, Joe’s black eyelashes would flutter against his white skin.  The big man watched him a moment and then leaned back and closed his eyes.  Just to rest let them rest for a second, mind you.  No sooner had he closed them, then they popped right back open.

Little Joe said somethin’.

Adam and Pa had warned him that Joe kept talkin’ to Mama.  He was kind of scared that was what he was doin’ again.

“Joe, it’s ol’ Hoss,” he said as he went to the bed and leaned in.  “What’re you tryin’ to say?”

“…buzzards….”

Hoss took his other hand and placed it on his brother’s forehead.  Like the Doc expected, fever had set in a little before midnight .  It was higher now.

“What’d you say, Little Joe?”

Joe tried to wet his lips.  He coughed.

“…ol’ buzzard….gonna eat me….”

He was gonna answer, but a hand fell on his shoulder.  Pert near scared him to death!

“How long has he been talking?” a weary Doc Martin asked.

“Not long.  He started just now.”  The big man frowned.  “He’s talkin’ about buzzards, Doc.  How come?”

“It’s hard to say, Hoss.  The mind does strange things under stress,” the physician said as he moved to the other side of the bed and took hold of Joe’s arm.  Paul put two fingers on his brother’s wrist , pulled out his watch, and stood there, counting.

Joe was beginning to toss.  “….blood,” he said.  “…so much blood!”

Doc Martin had dropped Joe’s hand and was on the move.  He took hold of Joe – kind of rough, if you asked him –  and turned him over.

“Good Lord!” he exclaimed softly.  “He’s bleeding again.”

“Bleeding again?”  It was Pa.  He looked like he done been run over by a thousand beeves.  “Paul, tell me the truth.  That’s bad, isn’t it?”

Paul made a face as he  straightened up.  “Well, it’s certainly not good.”

“I don’t see no blood,” Hoss said.

“The first bullet took Joe in the side.  That’s the one that bled the most, but was the least dangerous.  The second shot was clean and went through the chest front to back, but its path left bleeders.”  Paul pursed his lips and looked at Pa.  “I’m going to have to open him back up and tie them off, and for that, I need you to clear the room and send Mary in.”

Pa looked stunned.  “Open him up again?  Isn’t that dangerous?”

“No more dangerous that letting him lose half of what blood remains!” Paul snapped.  “Look, I’m sorry, Ben, but every second we waste is one more second Joe doesn’t have.  Hoss, take your father out and send my  nurse in.”

Joe had begun to struggle.  He was actually trying to sit up!  “Ad..mm?” he moaned.  “Adam!”

A second later older brother appeared in the doorway.  He looked a sight worse than Pa.  “What’s wrong with Joe?” he demanded.  “Joe!”

“Come over here, Adam!” Paul ordered.  “Talk to your brother until I can get him sedated.  See if you can get him to calm down.”  The Doc looked at them.  “And you two, get out!

Of course, neither he or Pa moved.

Adam was at Joe’s side.  “I’m here, little buddy,” he said as he tenderly touched Joe’s sweat-soaked brow.  Looking at Paul, older brother asked, “How long has Joe been conscious?”

“It’s doubtful that he is,” the older man muttered.

“But, Doc,” Hoss protested.  “You heard him callin’ for Adam.”

Paul Martin’s fierce gaze moved from him to Pa.  “Yes, I did.  My hearing is fine where apparently yours and your father’s is not.  I told you to leave so I could do what I had to do!”

“But he’s talkin’, Doc!  Don’t that mean Little Joe’s gonna be okay?”

“Don’t,” Joe said, clear as a bell.

“Hoss, move aside.” With a glance at the Doc who was scowling, Hoss did as his father ordered.  Pa came up behind Adam.  He leaned in, touching Joe’s cheek.

“Little Joe?  It’s Pa.  Hang on, boy.  Paul’s going to fix you right up.”

“I will if you three ever get out of here….” Paul muttered under his breath.

“Don’t,” Joe said again as Adam released his grip.  “Please, don’t…go!”

Them words might as well have been an arrow to all their hearts.

“Mary!  Where are you?” Paul shouted.  “I have work to do and I can’t do it if this boy is awake.  Get in here and bring the morphine!”

Joe had begun to thrash from side to side.  “Danger…” he whispered, then he shouted, “Adam…don’t….  Adam…danger!”

“Adam, you stay!  Help me hold your brother down.  Talk to him. Tell him you’re okay.  Maybe it will help!”  Paul’s gaze went to the sheet beneath Little Joe.  He could see it too.  Joe was bleeding bad.  “All this moving around is only going to make things worse!”

“I’m okay, Little buddy.  You’re the one who got shot,” Adam said, and then older brother said something else that neither him nor Pa understood.

“I’m sorry, Joe.  God, I’m so sorry.”

Joe had calmed down but was panting hard.  “Ss-so-ky, A’dm.  Ss-so-kay if…die.  Just so….so…you’re safe….”

Adam went white.  He looked like he was gonna be sick.  Older brother must have thought so too ‘cause he let go of Joe and lit out of the room.  A few seconds later they heard the office door slam.

In spite of what Paul had ordered they was both still there when Paul’s nurse Mary finally came in with the morphine.  Pa returned to Joe’s side and took hold of his hand.

“Joseph, the doctor is going to give you something so you won’t feel the pain.  Son, don’t fight it.” Pa caressed Joe’s cheek.  “Shh.  Go to sleep.”

“Count backward, Joseph,” Paul Martin said as he injected the morphine into Little Joe’s arm.  “Ten, nine, eight….”

None.

—-

SIXTEEN

A familiar and troubled voice called out to him.

“Adam, where are you going?”

Adam Cartwright halted.  It was somewhere near dawn and, for the most part, Virginia City was quiet, so stopping in the middle of the street was an acceptable alternative to returning to the porch where his father stood.  The shutters were closed on all the shops.  The light in the jail house had been extinguished.  Roy was snoring away in his chair while the jail’s inmates grumbled and groused.  Even the saloons were closed.  After all, even prostitutes needed their sleep.  Adam turned his face to the sky.  Somewhere during their long vigil in Paul Martin’s office, it had begun to rain.  It had been gentle at first.  Now it came hard and fast.  The raindrops pelted his face and struck the shoulders of his tan coat.  That was just fine with him.  He could feel it.

He could…feel.

His father had moved to the steps that fronted Paul’s medical practice.  The moon had retreated in the face of the storm and so Pa was just one shadow among many.  The man in black didn’t need to see his father’s face to know what the older man was sensing because he was sensing it too.

A dark night of the soul.

Adam lowered his head and adjusted his hat, so his tearful eyes were masked.   “Go back in, Pa,” he said.

“Son, come out of the rain.  Come in and talk to me.”

He was fond of words, which was ironic since he used so few.  Adam shook his head and started to walk away.

“Adam!” Pa said as he stepped into the rain.  “Hop Sing has a wise saying.  ‘Before you embark on a journey of revenge, you should dig two graves’.  Duke Miller isn’t worth it, son.”  His father paused.  “He isn’t worth your life.”

Adam pivoted on his heel, casting mud across the dreary street.  He jabbed a finger toward Doc Martin’s office.  “My little brother is lying in there, probably dying, and I can tell you that his life is worth something to me!”  Adam choked.  “Pa, Joe’s in there because of me.”

“Adam, no….”

“Yes!  I was the target!  I had my back turned to the stable.  Joe….”  He sucked in air and spit out rain.  “Little Joe shoved me out of the way, Pa.  Don’t you understand?  I owe Joe and…I owe Duke Miller!”  Adam’s fingers slid down his leg to the handle of his gun, which was now free of restraint.  “That is one debt I intend to pay.”

“So, you would make your brother’s…death count for nothing?” his father asked softly.

Adam blinked the water from his eyes.  “What?”

His father moved farther into the street.  The rain was heavy now and it darkened his light blue shirt and tan pants instantly.

“You intend to kill Duke Miller,” Pa stated.

It was not a question.

“Yes.”

“And what will be the consequence of that, should you shoot him in cold blood?”

“Pa….”

“I will tell you what it will be.  One of two things will happen: you will go to prison or be hung.  The life  Joseph chose to risk his own for, will be forfeit.”  Pa gave him a moment to let that sink in.  “Is that how you would repay your brother?”

He didn’t intend to shoot Miller in cold blood, but he did intend to provoke that monster to the point where shooting him would be considered self-defense.  Only he would know that it was something else.  Him, and his family.

Him, and his God.

Adam remained still.  The rain trailed down his cheeks.  “What do you want from me?” he asked at last.

“Son, I want you to do what you do best – think!” his father said as he came to his side and placed a hand on his shoulder.  “You are a man.  I have no right to make your decisions.  But I’m your father and that does give me a right to state my opinion and, perhaps, have an influence over them.  The best revenge is not to become your enemy.”  The older man shook his head.  “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.”

Adam ducked his head.  It took a moment before he could speak and, when he did, his words were a whisper on the wind.

“God, Pa.  If Joe dies….”

“He won’t.”  His father squeezed his shoulder.  “Your little brother never gives up.  Joseph won’t start now.”

Adam snorted.  “You sound like you have it personally from the Almighty.”

Pa looked up.  The rain struck his weary face.  It ran in rivulets from the fringe of gray hair on his forehead, into his red-rimmed eyes.  “Not a guarantee, Adam.  None of us get guarantees.  But an assurance?  Yes, I have had that.”  The older man dropped his head to look at him.  “On my knees beside your brother’s sick bed, I felt a presence.”

It took a second.  “Marie?”

Pa nodded.

“Doesn’t that…frighten you?”

His father chuckled as he struck rain from his eyes.  “It did at first, but then I remembered the promise your step-mother made to me as she lay dying.”

“May I ask what that promise was?”

“That she would always look after Joseph.  I don’t believe Marie is here to take your brother.  I believe she has come to send him back to us.”  His father hesitated.  “Still, Joseph may…want to go with her.  Choosing to live can be far more painful than letting go and dying.”

“Joe has an anchor on this side of the veil,” Adam said softly.

“Oh?”

“You, Pa.”  Adam grinned.  “Don’t you know, you’re our anchor in the storm.”

The older man shook his head.   “I’m only a man.”

“And a good one.  You’ve taught us well.”  Adam looked past his father to Doc Martin’s office.  A light burned in the back window; mute testimony to the battle his baby brother was fighting.  “I’m still going after Duke Miller.”

“Adam, no!  Didn’t you –”

“Not to kill him, Pa, to bring him in.  There’s no way the little weasel can wriggle out of it this time, no matter how high-powered his attorney is.”

“No one saw him. There’s no way to prove he was the shooter,” his father warned.  “The building is too high.”

“No, but there’s enough circumstantial evidence to convince any jury and, this time, there will be no magical set of twins to pull out of a hat.  Duke will be convicted, Pa, and I will stand by the gallows and watch him swing.”

“Isn’t it you who likes to say, ‘any man’s death diminishes me?”

The words were John Donne’s.  He knew them well.  ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

“Yes, and I know for whom the bell tolls,” the man in black said as he turned and started down the street.  “It tolls for Duardo Miller.”

Hoss Cartwright stood just inside Doc Martin’s office.  He was watchin’ his Pa and older brother through the window.  They was standin’ in the middle of the street.  It was pourin’ and they was soaked to the skin, but neither one of them seemed to pay the rain no never mind.  Adam told him before he left that he was goin’ after Duke Miller.  He’d tried to talk him out of it, but had about as much luck as Pa was havin’ now.  Older brother blamed himself for Little Joe gettin’ shot.  He understood why.

Considerin’ what happened, he would have blamed himself too.

Hoss left the window and headed for the Doc’s examining room.  Once there, he leaned on the door jamb and looked at his baby brother.  Joe’d gone quiet, which kind of scared him, but the Doc had said it was all right.  Joe was sleepin’ natural-like at last, or so it seemed.  Thinkin’ about what his little brother done – takin’ on Duke Miller back when Carlos Rodriguez was killed – reminded him of somethin’ his pa had told him once.  Pa called Little Joe his ‘knight errant’.  When he’d asked what that meant, the older man told him a knight errant was the kind of a feller who wandered around lookin’ for ‘chivalrus’ adventures, like savin’ damsels in distress and overcomin’ fire breathin’ dragons.   Joe sure was one of them there knights.  Nothin’ could stop him from puttin’ himself in the line of fire for someone he loved.

Someone like Adam.

If anyone had asked him, he would have told them he weren’t so sure older brother was the target of them bullets Duke Miller or one of his cronies let fly.  Duke knew little brother.  That varmint knew full Joe would throw himself in front of Adam, or him or Pa, if there was a chance they could get hurt.  Still, he guessed, it really didn’t matter who the bullets was meant for.  Miller hated Little Joe and Adam for what he thought they done to his Pa, which was only what any man would have done – run and try to stay alive.  He didn’t remember a lot about it.  He’d been a little feller, not yet twelve years old.  But he did remember their pa comin’ home carryin’ Little Joe in his arms, and the endless nights after that when Joe woke up cryin’ and they had to comfort him.  Adam woke up too, but he wouldn’t let Pa or him offer him nothin’.  Brother Adam thought he had to be the strongest of all so’s he could hold them together.

Trouble was, there was no one to hold brother Adam together.

Pushing off the door jamb, Hoss entered the room where Little Joe lay.  The Doc had worked for hours tyin’ up the bleeders that was killin’ him.  ‘Cause of the new surgery, Doc Martin had made them tie Joe’s wrists and ankles down.  Little brother wasn’t gonna like it when he woke up, but it was somethin’ they had to do to keep him from reopenin’ his wounds.  The Doc told them Joe wouldn’t survive another operation, not when he was so weak.  Paul was afeared Little Joe’s heart would give out.  Hoss let out a sigh.  Little brother had just about the biggest heart in the territory.  It’d be like the dam burstin’ and the water runnin’ off the mountains.

Everythin’ that mattered would go along with it.

“Mmmm…mmm.”

In an instant Hoss was at his brother’s side.  “Little Joe?” he asked as he stroked his brother’s curls.  “Joe?”

Joe’s eyelashes fluttered and then he opened his eyes.  At first they were without focus.  Little brother blinked and opened them a second time, and seemed to be seein’ clearly.

“Hoss?” he mouthed.

“Yeah, it’s old Hoss.  How are you feelin’, Punkin?”

Joe licked his lips.  “Old enough…not…to be called…Punkin.”  His brother’s thick eyebrows dipped in the center with pain as he attempted to shift.  “What’d you…do?  Drive…the herd over…me?”

Hoss snorted.  “I sure enough did, little brother.  You made a real nice bridge.”

Joe’s frown deepened.  Panic entered his eyes.

“I…can’t move.  Hoss!  What’s wrong?  Why can’t I…?”

The big man placed a hand on his brother’s chest and gently pushed him down.  “Joe.  Little Joe!  Calm down, boy!  The Doc’s got you tied down . You was thrashin’ somethin’ fierce.  He was afraid you’d hurt yourself worse.”

Joe was pulling at the straps on his wrists.  “ Hoss, please!”   The panic was still there.  “Untie me!  Please….”

Hoss was standing now, with one hand on each of his brother’s arms.  “Now, Joe, think about it.  You ain’t doin’ nothin’ to show me that I can.  You gotta calm down first, you hear me?”

“No!” Joe was thrashin’ from side to side.  “No!  Let me…go!”

“Joseph!”

It might as well have been the voice of God.

Little brother stopped dead and looked toward the door.  All the piss and vinegar seemed to go out of him when he saw Pa standin’ there, lookin’ for all the world like a drown-dead rat.

“Pa?” Joe whimpered.

Hoss considered for a few seconds whether or not he should let go of his brother.  Then he did and crossed over to their pa.  He looked the older man up and down.

“You better get them wet clothes off, Pa, ‘fore Doc Martin sees you,” he said.

“Later,” his father replied as he headed for Little Joe.  “Now, what is this, young man about disobeying your doctor’s orders?” he asked.

Joe looked so pitiful.  He pulled on one of the restraints.  “I’m trapped, Pa.  I can’t move!

There was a world of hurt in that one word.  Little Joe was always on the move.

Pa laid his hand on Joe’s wrist, his fingers circling the strips of linen they had used to bind him.  “I know, son, and I’m sorry.  But we had to be  certain you wouldn’t hurt yourself.  You’ve been very sick.”  The older man’s voice rang with emotion.  “Even out of your head.”

“What…happened?” Little Joe asked as he fell back to the bed.

Pa turned and shot him a look.  Hoss moved in a little closer.

“What do you remember?” their father asked.

Little Joe’s jaw tightened and he scowled.  It made him look just like a little boy what was tryin’ to think through the reason he was gettin’ whupped.

“I was…waiting on Adam.  Outside the…Maitland’s place….”

“And?”

“A glint.  Something…glinted.”  Joe looked up and began to struggle again.  “On…top of the stable!  Someone’s got a gun!  Gotta get…out of…no!”

Pa used both hands to hold Joe down.  “Joseph!  This is why your wrists and feet are bound.  You need to calm down.”

Joe stared at Pa for several heartbeats and then nodded.  His brother swallowed hard as he settled.   “He…shot me, didn’t he?  Duke Miller…shot me.”

“Yes, and he almost killed you, son.  You were hit twice.  Once in the side and once in the back.”

Joe’s eyes closed.  His breathing was ragged; uneven.   “Hurts….”

Pa reached out to caress Little Joe’s cheek.  “I imagine it will for some time.  But you’re awake and that’s a good sign.”

Little Joe looked straight at Pa.  “She sent me back,” he said, his tone wistful.  “I didn’t want to come.”

Pa was working on freeing Joe’s wrists.  He glanced at him before answering.  “Your mother, you mean?”

Joe nodded.  “How’d you…know?”

Pa smiled as he reached for Joe’s other hand.  “She was here.  I could feel her presence.”

Joe had turned his head.  He was staring off into space.  “She was so…beautiful,” he said, his tone wistful.  “Mama wanted…me to go with…her.  She was…calling me.”

Pa halted what he was doing and reached out to cup Joe’s chin in his hand.  He waited until the boy met his gaze.  “You mother loves you, Joe.  Just as your brothers and I love you.  It’s just like when you were young and went away.  Marie was always there, waiting in the doorway, to welcome you home.”

“She’s there now…waiting….”  Joe was growing tired.  His words were slurring.  “Waiting for….”

His father let out a sigh as he laid Joe’s free hands on his chest.  Little brother was asleep.

“Let’s pray Marie waits a long time,” he said to no one in particular.

“He didn’t ask about Adam,” Hoss  said.

Their father out a hand to his back and stretched.  “No, and that’s a blessing.  Joseph needs to rest and regain his strength, not worry about the foolhardy path his oldest brother has chosen.”

“Adam went after Duke Miller?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know which way he went?”

Pa shot him an astonished look.

The big man shrugged.  “I figure someone better go mind him.  You’re needed here,” he indicated his brother with a nod, “so I guess that leaves me.”

“Are you seeking revenge as well?” Pa asked.

“I want it, sir, but I ain’t gonna find it by wrinin’ Duke Miller’s neck with these here hands.  Though it sure would feel good,” the big man admitted.  “I want to see Duke get what he deserves for what he done to Joe, but also for what he done to Paco and his pa.  Duke Miller needs to hang.”

“Vengeance is mine, the Lord says, I will repay,” his father quoted softly.

“Yeah, Pa, but ain’t we God with skin on?  It takes hands to tie a knot and pull a lever on a gallows.”

Pa glanced at Little Joe where he lay so still and pale.  “Go with my blessing,” he said at last, “and, son, go with God.”

Hoss pursed his lips and nodded.  Then he returned to the front room, locked his gun belt around his hips, took his coat off the rack and put it on, and headed out in to the stormy  night.

 

In spite of the wild weather Adam managed to climb to the top of the livery.  As he guessed, there was little to see.  After taking a look at the roof he went inside and spoke to the owner, who was glad to tell him what he knew about the day Little Joe had been shot.  The man said he’d been startled by three outlaws who came into the stable and demanded at gunpoint that he supply them with fresh horses.  He feared for his life as he only had two on hand.  The tallest of the outlaws, whom Adam supposed by his description was Otie Brennan, became enraged and attacked him.  During the scuffle the stable owner was shoved back.  He hit his head on a beam as he went down and briefly lost consciousness.

When he came to, the man said he’d found himself bound hand and foot to that same beam.  He was gagged as well.  The outlaws were still there and were discussing going up to the roof to lay in wait for someone.  It assuaged his guilt a bit to hear that their intended target had been Joe all along and not him, but it enraged him as well.  How dare anyone so coldly and calculatedly plot his baby brother’s death?  And for nothing more than an insult!  The stable owner told him that Duke Miller was harping on how Joe had shamed and humiliated him, and how he’d made a vow that day that he would pay Joe back if it took the rest of his life.  The man also told him that even though Little Joe was the target, Miller had mentioned that he didn’t really care who he killed – Joe, him, Hoss, or Pa – as he knew Joe would feel responsible; that any of their deaths would cause little brother to die slowly, inch by inch.

Adam’s fingers clenched into fists.  Killing Miller with his bare hands was looking better by the minute.

He was outside the stable now, kneeling in the dirt; looking for any signs that might have survived the rainfall.  As he rose to his feet, the man in black planted his hands on his hips and looked out of the city and toward the dawning day.  It seemed, if you had taken one life, that the thought of taking two grew easier and that frightened him.  He’d told Joe he didn’t like to think about Peter Kane, and he didn’t.  In fact, he chose not to.  Adam glanced down at his hands.  After…Kane, he’d thought long and hard about those hands.  He remembered using them to hold Joe when Marie presented his tiny wriggling baby brother to him for the first time.  He’d used them to comfort both Hoss and Joe when they’d been sick.  He’d held more than one young woman with them – circled her waist , touched her cheek, and caressed her hair.   They’d been his lifeline when Pa, Joe, and Hoss found him near dead in the desert.  The sweetest thing he’d ever known was his fingers touching his father’s face.

But these hands had also killed a man.

Could he stop himself from killing another now?

“Adam.”

He jumped.  Adam turned to find his middle brother standing behind him.  “What are you doing here?” he asked with a little heat.   “Why aren’t you with Joe?”

“Joe don’t need me, he’s got Pa.”  His brother moved closer.  “You ain’t got no one but Peter Kane’s ghost.”

“So, you’re a mind reader now?  You think you know what I’m thinking?”

“Nope.”  Hoss’ lips were pursed.  He shook his head.  “I know that I know.  You ain’t said much, Adam, but Kane’s with you all the time.”

“I killed Kane, Hoss.  Killed him with my bare hands.”

“And he deserved to die.  Plain and simple.”

“It’s not…so plain or simple.”  Adam scowled.  “There’s justice….”

“Ain’t vengeance a kind of wild justice, Adam?” his brother asked.  “One that takes over when the law fails.”

Adam snorted.  “Don’t let Pa hear you say that.”

“Pa growed up in a civilized place.  I respect him, Adam, more than I can say, but that don’t mean he ain’t a man, and a man can be wrong.”

“Is that what you would have said if Joe had killed Red Twilight?”

Hoss sucked in air and let it out very slowly.  “Joe was mad as a rattler on a spit.  He weren’t thinkin’, he was reactin’.  You don’t look mad.”

Adam nodded.  “Nor do you.”

“I ain’t sayin’ I don’t intend to do everythin’ I can to bring Duke Miller in alive.  But, well, if he won’t come willingly, then I ain’t sayin’.  Someone’s got to make him pay for what he done in the past and what he’s done right now.”  His brother’s crystal clear blue eyes blazed.  “I won’t let Duke Miller get by with nearly killin’ Little Joe.”

Adam grinned.  “Fratres ab aeternitate, eh?”

“Frat what?”

The man in black shook his head.  “Never mind.  Come on, Hoss.  We’re wasting time.  If we intend to catch up with Duke Miller before he gets to the border, we’d better hit the road.”

Hoss didn’t understand what he had said.  It was in Latin, of course.  But that’s what they were, the three of them, and would always be.

Brothers from eternity.

 

Ben Cartwright stood in the doorway of Paul Martin’s office, looking out on the waxing day.  The sun was rising behind the mountains and, while the town was still in the throes of darkness, the light would soon dawn and chase the shadows away.  Behind him, in Paul’s examining room, lay his youngest son.  Little Joe was alive.  His son was doing better, but still fighting for his life.  Out there, somewhere, were the other two young men he had reared.  Two young men old enough to live their own lives and make their own decisions.  The rancher knew he would be lucky if the three of them chose to stay with him.  By the worlds standards each had reached the age where most young men broke away, leaving to pursue their own dreams.  His sons were still a part of his world, though he knew one day that would end.  The first to go would be Adam.  The boy…no…the highly intellectual young man was restive; his thoughts unsettled.  His eldest son felt a need to challenge everything he’d been taught.  Adam wanted to learn new things – to see new sights – and then to make the choice of where he belonged.  Ben smiled.  For the moment his oldest son had put away his own needs and desires.  Until Joseph reached an age where Adam could confidently and comfortably consider his baby brother old and wise enough to walk on his own – until Joseph no longer needed him – he would remain.

Ben looked back at his son.  Joseph was breathing hard; his fever climbing once again.

God help him, he prayed that day did not come soon.

A sound attracted the older man’s attention to the stair.  Paul Martin was descending it, buttoning his shirt.

“What are you doing up, Paul?” the rancher asked as he picked up a lamp and went to light the physician’s way.

“Couldn’t sleep.  I keep thinking about Little Joe and wondering if I’ve done enough.”  Paul looked behind him.  “How is my patient doing?”

Ben let out a sigh.  “Joseph’s fever is climbing again.”

Paul placed a hand on his shoulder.  “It’s too bad, but it’s also to be expected.   Whoever came up with the idea of pumping lead into a man’s body should be….”  His old friend laughed.   “Shot.”

Ben chuckled as well.  “I’m not sure spears or arrows are any better.”

“No,” Paul was tucking the tail of his shirt in.  “Men have minds of metal.  They can’t find a cure for what kills a man, but they manage to invent newer and deadlier ways to do it every decade or so.”  Paul sighed.  “I’d gladly give up that kind of job security.”

“…security….”

Paul’s brows popped up toward the white hair dangling across his forehead.  “Was that Joe?” he asked as they exchanged a glance.

Ben headed into the room.  “I think so.”

As Paul followed, the rancher put the oil lamp down on a side table and went to his son’s side.  Reaching out, he touched the boy’s curly head.

“Joseph?”

Ben was reassured when his son shifted, albeit slightly.  As much as he believed the words he had used to comfort his son earlier – that Marie’s spirit was there to watch over his recovery and not to guide Joe to the other side – he still feared it himself.  A Bible verse came to him as he felt Joseph’s forehead, trying to determine if the fever had gone any higher – ‘Lord, I believe.  Help thou my unbelief.’

How he lived in that verse!

“See if you can get Joe to rouse, Ben,” Paul said.  “We need to get some liquids into him.”

Ben poured a glass of water and slipped in behind his son.  As he lifted Joe’s head, intending to hold the cup to his son’s parched lips, he heard a sound.  He turned just in time to see the face of a grotesque leering outside the window and watch as the early morning light glinted off the barrel of a gun.

“Paul, get down!” Ben shouted as he shifted Little Joe and threw himself across his son’s prone form.  The window shattered a second later, sending tiny missiles of glass all across the room and into his back.  Ben tensed, waiting for the second shot.  When it failed to come, he looked around and realized that neither he nor his son had been the intended target.  That had been the oil lamp he had left on the table.

Paul’s office was on fire!

——

SEVENTEEN

The stable owner insisted they take two of his horses instead of fetchin’ their own as they’d be fresher.  Hoss had his hands on one of them now, smoothin’ its rich coat and tellin’ it ‘thank you for lettin’ him ride.  As the horse nickered its consent, the big man heard a familiar sound.  He glanced at the livery door and then looked at his older brother only to find Adam was lookin’ at him.

“Did you hear that?” the big man asked even as the sound of a second shot echoed through Virginia City’s streets.

Adam’s nod was curt.

“Probably some local havin’ a little too much fun tonight, you think?” he suggested.

His brother dropped the cinch he’d been tightening and walked toward the front of the stable.   Once there, Adam slid the door open and looked out.  “It’s nearly four.  Seems a little early to be taking pot shots at a post – ”

Adam sucked in air and went white.

Hoss had a sinking feelin’ in his stomach.

“It’s on fire,” his brother said.

“What’s on fire?”

The face his brother turned toward him was white as a windin’ sheet.

“Doc Martin’s office.”

 

By the time he and Hoss reached the building that housed Paul’s office, the alarums were going up in the city.  Church and fire bells were ringing out.  In a dry, dusty place like Virginia City fire was a constant threat and an even greater danger.  Before it could be stopped, it was not uncommon for the fire to spread, consuming more than the single wooden structure involved.  A few years back, after a devastating fire that destroyed a third of the city, a volunteer bucket brigade had been created.  That was followed quickly by the first official volunteer fire engine company.  There were several now in town.

“Adam, look!”

The smoke was thick as it billowed out of the office door.  In the midst of it, he could make out two men.  The first came down the steps rapidly.  He stopped at the bottom, bent over, and began coughing.  The second was tall, somewhat ungainly, and definitely unsteady on his feet.  The man slipped several times and almost fell as he descended the short staircase.  Adam squinted in an attempt to pierce the dark night, the thick smoke, and the unholy glare from the fire itself so he could see who it was.  A gasp, quickly followed by a hand on his shoulder confirmed his worst fear.

“Adam, it’s Pa!  Look!  He’s carryin’ Little Joe!”

Carrying their baby brother who had two holes in his back and a dozen bleeders that didn’t want to stop.

Doc Martin righted himself and stumbled toward them.  His exposed skin and clothes were covered in soot.  “Adam, send…someone,”  the Doc said as he drew a breath.  “Get…a stretcher….something flat for your…brother to lie on.”

“I’m on it!” Hoss declared and was gone.

“How’s Little Joe?” he asked.

“Not…good.”  Paul coughed again.  “Your Pa’s…hurt too.  We need to get…Ben…to let someone else…tend to Joe.”

“Pa’s hurt?”  Adam’s eyes were on his father.  Pa wasn’t moving like he was in pain.  The older man had dropped to the ground.  Pa was sitting, cradling Little Joe’s still form to his chest.  “How is he hurt?”

“Glass…shrapnel, from the…bullet passing through the window.”  Paul sucked in another lungful of air and seemed to recover a bit.   His look was grim as raised a hand and waved.  “Hoss!  Bring the stretcher over here!”

Adam turned to look.  Along with his brother came Fire Engine Company No. 1.  He recognized several of the citizens running alongside the department’s only vehicle.  The man in black wasn’t sure if it was luck or Providence that had seen fit to have so many men ready to go this early in the morning, but whichever it was, he was more than grateful.

One of the volunteers was helping Hoss carry the stretcher.  Middle brother tossed a glance in their father’s direction.  “How’s Little Joe?” he asked.

“Holding his own,” he answered grimly.

“Bring that stretcher over here!” Paul Martin ordered.  “We need to get this boy lying flat as quickly as possible!  It’s imperative I get Joe out of the night air and somewhere clean where I can check his stitches.”  The doctor met his troubled gaze.  “Adam, one of you needs to tend your father.”

Hoss’ big hand landed on the doctor’s shoulder.  “Is Joe gonna be able to make it through this?”

Paul let out a sigh.  “That’s up to God…and Little Joe.”

As the doctor moved to their father’s side, Hoss looked at him.  “You gonna tackle Pa or me?” he asked with a shift of his eyebrows.

Adam was looking at the doctor’s office, which was still on fire.  Since it had rained so hard only a few hours before, the fire company didn’t need to worry all that much about dousing the outside of the structure, though it was sending smoke up into the air in a black wave.  It was the interior of the building that was on fire; the interior of the building that had borne the brunt of the attack.

For attack it certainly was.

Adam’s hazel eyes narrowed.  “Hoss, you know as well as I do who did this,” he said.  “You’ll have to take care of Pa and Joe.  I’m going after Duke Miller.”  Adam paused as he watched two men carry his little brother away.  One of Joe’s hands dangled lifelessly at his side.

“This has to end.”

 

“How come we ain’t headin’ for Mexico, Otie?” Floyd Brennan asked his older brother.  “You know the law’s gonna figure this out right quick and come after us.  That Duke, he’s crazier’n an outhouse rat!”

Otie Brennan, who had been Duke Miller’s muscle for more years than he could remember, turned to look at his kid brother.  “Duke ain’t crazy,” he said.

They were the crazy ones.

He knew he should have left Duke years before but, even though Duke was bat-shit crazy, he was also clever.  And where there was a clever man, there was opportunity for gain.  Otie found he prized the finer things in life – the ones only a lot of money could buy.  Still, his life was pretty important to him too.

At least enough to agree with his little brother this time.

“I’ll talk to him,” Otie said and then turned his boots toward the fire.  Duke was standing beside it with his arms wrapped around his chest.  He was rockin’ back and forth on his heels and talkin’ to himself like he liked to do.  Duke could carry on whole conversations when nobody else was there.  Some of the time he was talkin’ to his dead Pa, but most of the time he was talkin’ to the men he’d killed.

Joe Cartwright was gonna be the next one.

Otie Brennan glanced back along the route they’d taken from Virginia City and then turned toward the East, imagining Ben Cartwright’s Ponderosa with its hundreds of men.  He’d never admit it to Duke, but it wasn’t Joe Cartwright he was thinkin’ about, it was those two brothers of his and his pa.

And what they were plannin’ on doin’ to him.

“Hey, Duke,” Otie said as he stopped.  “Floyd and I were talkin’.  We think it’s time we move on.”

Otie waited.  Sometimes when Duke was talkin’ to the dead men in his head, they were all he could hear.  He hesitated, trying to decide what was the best way to get through him.  One thing you didn’t do was touch Duke when he was in one of his moods.

If you did, you’d end up as one of those voices too.

“Hey, Duke.  You listenin’ to me?  We need to talk.”

For a moment there was no response.  Then Duke looked at him.  The Devil was in his eyes.

“I had him, you know,” he said.

Otie sucked in his sigh.  “I’m sure you did, Duke.”

“Joe Cartwright,” Duke said as he raised his hand.  There was a knife in it.  “I had him, here in this clearing, fifteen years ago.  I should have killed him then.”

“He was a kid, Duke,” Otie said, a little uncomfortable.  “So were you.”

“My padre said the best way to stop an enemy from becoming your enemy is to kill him when he’s young.”

Otie ran a hand along the back of his neck as he shivered.  Considerin’ how loco Duke was, he was sure glad he’d never met his pa!

“Come on, Duke.  I got kids of my own in California.”  Otie paused.  “I’d kind of like to see them again one day, so I think we ought to head for Mexico.  Now.”

“We’re not going anywhere,” Duke said as he ran his finger along the blade, drawing blood.  “Cartwright will be here soon.”

His brother Floyd had come up beside him.  The wiry man’s eyes were trained on Duke.  “Who’s he talkin’ about, Otie?  Joe Cartwright’s a cinder by now.”

Otie knew, but he didn’t say anything.  An old Indian he’d known as a kid had taught him that words – and names – had power.  He wasn’t about to give any more power to the man he knew would be coming for them.

“Not Joe,” Duke said, “Adam.  Adam Cartwright.”

Apparently Duke never met no Indians.

Otie shifted nervously on his feet.  Ever since that night when Adam Cartwright snatched his kid brother out from under Duke’s nose – and Duke’s pa had died the death he deserved – Duke had had it in for both the youngest and oldest of Ben Cartwright’s sons.  What happened a month or so back – the ‘incident’ in the barber shop and Joe Cartwright’s shaming of ol’ Duke in the town – had added fuel to a fire that had smoldered for fifteen years.  Duke vowed he’d get back at Joe Cartwright, and had seen Adam as a way to do it if he couldn’t get Cartwright himself.  In the end Duke didn’t care which Cartwright he killed, just so long as he killed one or more of them.

Still, there was a special hate in Duke’s heart for Adam, who had beat him at his own game.   Joe Cartwright had been a kid then.  Adam was a teenager and old enough to know what he was doing.  Duke blamed Adam for his father’s death, even though it was the sheriff that pulled the trigger.

‘Crazy’ didn’t need no affidavit.

“You got the kid, Duke.  There ain’t no way he can live, not with two holes in him and breathin’ fire.  Ain’t that enough?”

Duke was looking at the flames.  They reflected in his demonic black eyes.

“No,” he said.

A tug on his sleeve reminded Otie of his own kid brother.  For just a second, he was filled with remorse.  He felt sick, knowing how deeply Adam Cartwright would grieve when his brother died.

For just a second.

“Otie, let’s go,” Floyd said.  “Let’s just go and leave Duke here.”

The tall blond man wondered why he hadn’t left years before.  There had to be somethin’ wrong with him for him to stay and take the kind of abuse  Duke dished out.  He told himself that it was because Duke was crazy, and what followed in the wake of his insanity was a trail of dead and broken men who could be fleeced.   Easy pickings, so to speak.  But they didn’t really come all that easy. There were always men – law men – on their tail.

That last time, when they came up for trial and were lookin’ at a noose around their necks, he’d almost….

Otie glanced at his brother before saying, “Duke, I think I’m gonna take Floyd and go to Carson and look around.   You want to come?”

Duke was still rocking back and forth; still staring into the fire and talkin’ to himself.  He wasn’t sure he’d even heard him.

“Come on, Otie,” his little brother pleaded as he pulled at his sleeve.  “Ben Cartwright will be right on our tail.  I don’t want to get caught and go to prison.”

Otie Brennan drew in a breath.  He took one last look at Duke Miller and came to a decision.

The Devil – and Cartwright – could have him.

 

“Sorry about your office, Doc,” Hoss said.

Paul Martin was standing by the window in the saloon, looking out and watching as the fire brigade carried the smoldering debris out of the building that housed his medical practice.

“It’s all right, Hoss.  It can be rebuilt.”  The doctor turned and looked past him.  “It’s your brother I’m concerned about.”

They’d brought Little Joe into the saloon ‘cause Sam had invited them in, and placed him – stretcher and all – flat out on the counter.  Paul was waiting for Joe to recover some before moving him upstairs to a bed.  The smoke got little brother coughin’ and that started him bleedin’ again.  Fortunately, the Doc got it stopped right quick.   Still, Little Joe was weak and the Doc was worried.  So was he.  Hoss sniffed and ran a finger under his nose before turning to look at the older man who sat by the bar, the back of his shirt rent and bloodied; his shoulders slumped.

So was Pa.

The cuts on Pa’s back had been cleaned and bandaged . He was smartin’, but he wouldn’t admit it and no matter what the doc said, wouldn’t lie down and rest.  He’d been sittin’ with Little Joe, holdin’ baby brother’s hand ever since they brought him in.  From the time Joe’d been a little feller, Pa’d run his fingers through those chestnut curls of his.  He was doin’ it now, talkin’ softly to him and tryin’ to comfort him.

Joe was in a lot of pain.

Hoss sniffed again, dug his hands in his pockets, and walked over to where his father and brother were.  He was surprised when he got there to see that Joe’s eyes was open.  They was glassy, but little brother looked at him like he knew him.

“You sure know how to turn a town upside-down, little brother,” the big man said, forcing a smile.

Joe drew in a breath.  It kind of rattled in his chest.  “Hoss….”

“Yeah, Joe?”

“…talk to…you….”

Their father seemed unaware of Joe’s request.  Then, after a moment, he stirred.  Pa ran a hand over his face as he rose.  “I’ll go get some coffee while you talk to your brother,” he said.

“You do that, sir,” Hoss replied as he took his father’s place.  “And take your time.”

Joe watched the older man go before rollin’ them big green eyes of his over to him  “Hoss, you…need to make Pa…get some…rest….”

Hoss snorted.  “The Doc must have given you somethin’ mighty powerful, little brother.  You gotta be out of your head if you think I can work that kind of magic.”

“He’s…hurting….  On account…of me….”

Joe looked so pitiful it plumb near tore his heart out.

“I’ll try, Joe, but you know how Pa is.  And it ain’t on account of you.  It’s on account of Duke Miller….”

Joe’s eyes had closed.  He drew in several breaths and went silent.  Hoss’ heart pounded hard in his chest as waited from some sign that he was still alive.  He was just about ready to press his ear against Joe’s chest, when little brother’s brows knit together and he sighed.

“…Adam…”

Just his luck, Pa came back at just that instant.  The older man sucked in air as he turned toward the door.

Seems Pa hadn’t noticed older brother was missin’ until that moment.

“Hoss, where is Adam?”

The big man closed his eyes and mustered his strength before turning to face his father.  “Pa, now don’t get mad.  Adam went after Duke Miller.”

His father wasn’t mad.  Or at least, he didn’t look mad.

Hoss wasn’t sure what he was.

“After I told him not to.”

“Yes, sir.”

Pa sighed.  “I see.  And does your brother intend to take the law into his own hands?”

“I don’t rightly know what Adam intends, Pa.  I ain’t sure he knows.”  Hoss pursed his lips.  “He just said this has got to end.”

The older man crossed over to the window Paul Martin had recently occupied.  The doctor had stepped outside to talk to Roy Coffee.  Pa stood with his hands in his pockets, staring out the window for a dozen heartbeats before speaking.

“I may lose one son tonight,” he said, his voice breaking.  “I can’t bear losing two.”

Hoss joined him.  “Adam’s right smart, Pa,” he said as he looped an arm around the older man’s shoulders.  “He’s gonna use his head, you’ll see.  Older brother ain’t gonna do nothin’ that’ll put his life in danger.”

Pa looked at him and then, at Little Joe.

“In this case, Hoss,” he said softly.  “I fear it isn’t Adam’s ‘head’ that is in control, but his heart.”

 

Rage sought to overmaster him.  Adam Cartwright used every tool he had in his mental arsenal to beat it down like the savage beast it was, but it refused to be controlled or contained.

He wanted Duke Miller dead.

The list of sins that lay upon Miller’s head was a long one, starting with his brutal treatment of Little Joe when he was a child.  It moved on through Marie’s ‘accident’ to the recent fall that had almost taken his brother’s life, and ended with the shooting where Little Joe had been targeted; gunned down like an animal in the field.  And that was not to mention the fire.  The trouble was, for each and every attempt on Joe’s life, there was no solid proof.  They knew – everyone knew – that Duke had done it.  The problem was, there was no way to be absolutely certain that, with the help of a shyster lawyer like he had the last time, the coward would not walk away scot-free.

Duke was not going to walk away scot free.

Not this time.

The man in black had been riding hard, following the trail of three outlaws that started at the back of the stable and ran up into the hills.  The sun was rising behind the mountains.  It ‘s ascent cast a blood-red pall over the land that suited his mood.  A short time before he’d tethered his mount to a tree and begun to move forward on foot.  It didn’t surprise him to find where Duke Miller’s trail led.  In some way, he’d known all along where he would find the villain; back where all of this had begun some fifteen years before, at the ravine where he had sought sanctuary with Little Joe.

The ravine that had served as his father’s grave.

The sheriff had worn a badge that day, so Lemuel Miller’s death had been considered a necessary kill and not an execution.  He didn’t have that luxury.  Adam knew that, if he chose to shoot Duke Miller and kill him where he stood, he would be committing murder.  It was the same choice he’d faced with Peter Kane.  He’d thought he would never be able to kill someone in cold blood.  He’d argued with Kane about it, declaring himself a ‘better man’; a man of reason and intellect who could and would not be driven to such a violent act.  He’d meant it too but then, there, in the desert, the choice had been for himself.  This time it was for his little brother.

This time, he was going to get it right.

As Adam approached the ravine a figure appeared on the upper ridge.  Duke Miller stepped into the light and halted at exactly the same spot his father had occupied all those years ago.  Duke was staring down into the cleft in the land.  The ravine had filled overnight with fast-running rain water from the storm that had passed through and he seemed to be contemplating it.  Lemuel Miller had intended to kill both him and his baby brother, just as Duke intended to kill him now.  It surprised him to find Miller alone.  Murderers and cowards usually traveled in packs.

Maybe the Brennans had wised up at last.

Gun in hand, he called out, “I’m here to take you in, Duke.  Put your hands up and come down slowly!”

Duke’s face was cast in shadows.  When he spoke, his tone was as dead as the man who had given him birth.

“Is he dead?” the villain asked.

It galled him, but he answered, “Yes,” between gritted teeth.  There was no way he wanted Miller going after his little brother in the condition he was in.  “You killed Little Joe just like you killed Marie, and now I am going to kill you, you bastard.”

The rising light sparked off of something – a gun in Duke’s hand, or maybe his cold-blooded sneer.  He moved a step closer.

“You don’t have the guts, Cartwright.  You’re all words,” Duke scoffed.  “You and your lily-livered father and brother.”  Miller thrust his hands out, their wrists touching.  “Go ahead, Cartwright.  Take me in.  You have no proof of anything.  I’ll walk this time just like I walked the time before.”

Adam’s finger twitched on the trigger.  His sidearm was primed and loaded.  Duke stood there, unmoving; silhouetted against the rising sun.  He wasn’t wearing a gun belt.

He was too much of a coward.

“You see, Cartwright?” Duke sneered as he took another step toward him.  “You can’t shoot me down in cold blood.  You’re too good of a man.   Too noble.”  Duke’s tone took on the edge of madness.  “I will surrender to you.  You will take me to your sheriff and he’ll lock me in his jail, but know this, I will be found innocent just like I was before.  And when I am let loose, like Lucifer Morningstar, I will wreck havoc upon the earth!  There is nothing that can stop me!”

Adam’s gun was in his hand and it was pointed at Duke Miller’s heart.  The man was a blight upon the Earth, a pestilence – a plague that had to be stopped before it wiped out everything and everyone in its path.  He was here.  He had the gun.  They were alone.  No one would ever know.

Adam’s finger trembled as it closed on the trigger.

No one but him and God.

 

Ben Cartwright stood on the porch of the International House, looking west.  The day had dawned – and come and gone – and still there was no sign of his eldest son.

Ben was afraid.

Once Paul Martin had deemed Little Joe fit to be moved, he’d brought his youngest to the hotel.  It took a suite of rooms to house Paul, who had nowhere to go due to the fire, as well as Hoss and him and his ailing son.  In spite of everything – in spite of Duke Miller’s repeated attempts to end his life – Joseph was mending.  Ben leaned on the railing and closed his eyes as he remembered the moment when he realized he was going to have to take hold of Little Joe and bodily lift him from his sick bed in order to save him from the fire – and maybe kill his son by reopening his wounds.  If Duke Miller deserved death, that act alone – the pain that villain caused his son by lighting that fire – would have been enough to earn him the hangman’s noose.  Joseph had suffered.   Dear God, he had suffered!  Joseph.  Marie.  Even Adam.  So many had suffered at that wretched man’s hands and yet he was free.  Ben opened his eyes and straightened up.  He had a hard time believing it was God’s will, but the likelihood was that Duke Miller would walk away just as he had before.  There was no proof of any of his misdeeds – at least nothing that would hold up in a court of law.  It wasn’t right.  It wasn’t fair.

But it was what it was.

As he stood there, thinking, a long lean figure appeared on the horizon, riding into town.  Ben recognized him immediately by the cast of his shoulders and the way he sat his horse.  Adam rode slowly.  He was leading a second horse.  There was a body slung over the saddle.

From the way the man was hangin, he could tell he was dead.

Ben Cartwright sucked in air and held the breath against his fears as he waited for his eldest to arrive.  He stood there until Adam came to a halt in front of the hotel and dismounted, and then went to greet him.

“Son,” he said.

Adam was tethering his horse.  He let out a sigh before turning to look at him.

“Pa.”

He had never seen his eldest look so weary.

Before he could open his mouth to ask, Adam said, “I didn’t kill him, Pa.  I wanted to, but I didn’t.”

The breath escaped between his teeth along with a prayer of thanks.

“What happened?”

“I had Duke in my sights, Pa.  I was…going to do it.  I couldn’t, in good conscience, allow the man to continue to walk the earth.”

“But you said….”

Adam turned so his back was braced against the rail.  “I pulled the trigger.  I let the bullet fly.”  His son closed his eyes as though reliving the moment.  “It hit dead air.”

Ben’s eyes went to the horse.  He could see the dead man’s short cropped raven-black hair and noted the deep color of his skin.

“Is it…?”

“It’s Miller, Pa.  The wall of the ravine gave way.  Duke fell in and drowned.”

The older man was silent a moment.  “Did you try to pull him out?”

Adam opened his eyes.  As his son’s gaze locked on his, a silence came between them.  One pregnant with questions to which there were no answers.

A moment later Adam pushed off the rail.  “How’s Joe?” he inquired.

“Asking for you.”  As his son passed him, the older man reached out to touch his arm.  “Adam?”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“It’s over.  Your brother’s safe, thanks to you.”

A shy smile lit his son’s face.  He nodded and then headed inside.

Ben watched him go and then turned his own face upward.

Thank God.

It was over.

———

EPILOGUE

Adam laid the papers he was working on down on the top of his father’s desk.  He leaned back in the office chair, pinched his nose, and then rubbed his eyes.  He’d been at it for hours, trying to find an error in his calculations, but he knew it was an exercise in futility.

His mind was elsewhere.

Glancing up, the man in black looked at his brother.  Little Joe was seated on Marie’s settee, book in hand, staring off into space.  He and his Joe were alone in the house.  Hop Sing was in Sacramento visiting one of his countless cousins.  Pa and Hoss were in town.  The pair had gone to get supplies when the area was hit by a sudden, unexpected snowstorm.  There was no way of knowing when they would return.  It had already been a couple of days and it might be a couple more.  It all depended on snowfall, the sun, and how long it took everything to thaw.

The last few days alone with Joe had been…interesting…to say the least.  His brother was uncharacteristically quiet .  Little Joe’s naturally ebullient personality had failed to resurface after Doc Martin allowed him out of bed.  He was pretty sure he knew the reason why.  He’d never forget the look Joe gave him when he told him Duke Miller was dead.   It was like he didn’t believe it.

It appeared Duke Miller haunted him still.

Adam pushed off the desk and rose to his feet.  He stretched and then moved into the great room.  Pausing near the front door, he said, “Joe, I’m heading to the kitchen.  Would you like me to bring you something to eat?  There’s plenty of that smoked meat and cheese.”  To his knowledge Little Joe hadn’t eaten much of anything in the last two days.  The man in black counted to ten and then asked again.  “Joe?”

His brother nearly jumped out of his skin.  Joe’s smile was chagrined.  It made him look like the little boy he had been not so long ago.

“No, thanks, Adam,” he said.  “I’m not hungry.”

They’d been playing this game for a while now.  He’d ask.  Joe would say ‘no’, he wasn’t hungry, or, ‘no’, he didn’t want to talk, or just ‘no’.

Adam decided it was time to deal with it – whatever ‘it’ was.

He walked over to the settee and stood directly in front of his brother and waited.  Joe ignored him for several heartbeats and then looked up.  For a second there was something – a shadow in those great green eyes of his.

Was it fear?

“What are you looking at?” baby brother demanded.

“What does it look like I’m looking at?” Adam asked as he took a seat on the table directly in front of him.  “I’m looking at you.”

Joe scowled.  “Yeah?  Well, stop it!”

Adam laced his fingers together and leaned forward.  “Sorry.  No.”

“No?  What do you mean ‘no’?”  As the silence grew longer, Joe’s temper grew shorter.  He started to rise.  “I don’t have to sit here and –”

Adam reached out and caught his brother’s arms.  He forced him back down and held him in place.    “Yes, you do.  Joe, listen to me, running away isn’t going to – ”

“Who’s running away?” Joe fired back.  “How can I run away when I’m stuck here in this house with you?”

“Well, thank you,” the older man said as he released his grip.  “It’s nice to know I’m wanted.”

Joe’s eyes glistened with tears.  He sucked in a ragged breath and pleaded, “Adam, please….  Just let it go.”

Pleaded.

Feeling like a heel, he pressed on.  “Let what go, Joe?  Tell me.”

Little brother glared at him for several heartbeats and then dropped his head so he didn’t have to meet his eyes.  Adam watched as tears fell to wet Joe’s tan trousers.

“I got her killed, Adam.”

Of course, he knew who ‘her’ was.

“Joe, you had nothing to do with Marie’s death.”

His brother fairly exploded off the settee and began to pace.  “Duke Miller hated me, Adam!  Me!  He dropped those jacks in the yard because he wanted to kill me!  Not Mama!  Me!”

His brother was shaking from head to foot.  Little Joe really wasn’t all that far into his recovery.  It had been five weeks since Miller’s death and Joe had only been on his feet for the last few days; since just before Hoss and Pa left for town.  Adam wanted to reach out, to lend him some strength – hell, to take the kid in his arms – but he knew it was too soon.   So he held back and prayed Joe wouldn’t drop.

“Miller didn’t care who he killed, Joe,” he replied, careful to keep his tone even.  “You, Marie, me, it wouldn’t have mattered.  All that mattered to him was coming out on top.”

“You’re wrong, Adam!  Duke hated me!”  Joe was breathing hard.  “Look at what happened in the barber shop.”

“Oh, come on now, Joe.  You can’t possibly mean to take responsibility for Paco’s father defying Duke Miller.”

“Can’t I?  If I hadn’t challenged Duke first….  If I’d just gotten up out of that damn chair and moved out of the way….”  The tears were falling now.   “If I hadn’t gotten so…angry…Paco’s pa would still be….”  Joe sucked in air.   A tremor ran the length of his slightly emaciated frame.  “What’s wrong with me, Adam?”

Replying to that statement was like walking a tight wire.

“First of all, come over here and sit down.”

Joe was standing too close to the door.  He was afraid he was going to bolt out into the snow – in his stockings and without a coat.

“I can’t.”

“What?”  Adam chuckled.  “Sit still?”

Joe nodded.

“Why don’t you try?  For me, okay?”

His brother’s jaw tightened.  Those nostrils flared.  Then he nodded.

One battle won.

As his brother returned to the settee, Adam pursed his lips and considered what to say – and just how to say it.  “First of all,” he began as Joe sat down, “there is nothing wrong with you.  You have a temper.  You need to learn to control it.  We all do.”

You don’t have a temper,” his brother countered.  “You always think everything out.  You don’t make mistakes.”

Adam blinked.  “Can I have that in writing?”

That got a little smile.

“Of course, I make mistakes.  I’m not God.”

His brother had been looking at him.  Joe’s head went down again.

Now they were getting somewhere.

“Are you mad at God, Joe?”

Joe’s black lashes quivered.  Those green eyes flicked up and away quickly.

“It should have been me,” he said, so quietly Adam had to guess at the words.

“Should have been you…what?”

Joe looked right at him.  “Me, who killed Duke Miller.  I should have done it for Mama.”

They hadn’t talked about it.  He hadn’t even talked about it with his father.  The ‘how’ of Duke Miller’s end was an unspoken question that had yet to be answered.

“So you think I killed him?” Adam asked.

First there was defiance, and then doubt in his brother’s stare.  “Didn’t you?”  Joe blinked.  “I thought, well….  I heard Sheriff Roy say your gun had been fired.”

Roy had come to the house shortly after they brought Joe home.   He’d grilled him like a prime steak.  The sheriff could tell he was hiding something.  Hell, Roy knew Pa was hiding something.

“When did you hear that?”

Joe looked up through the fringe of curls on his forehead.  “The night after Doc let me come home.  I got out of bed.”

“Good Lord, Joe!  You could have opened up one of those bleeders!”

His brother scowled.  “Yeah, well, everyone always leaves me out of everything.”

“Might that be because of that explosive temper you’re worried about?”

Joe glared at him a second longer and then seemed to deflate.   He sank back against the settee.  “I wanted to kill him, Adam.  From that day when Duke shot Paco’s pa, I wanted to kill him – with my bare hands.  I would have too, if Sheriff Roy hadn’t stopped me.”

“That temper almost earned you time in jail.”

Joe pouted like a little boy.  “It would have been worth it.”

“Would it, Joe?  Really?”  Adam looked straight at his brother.  “Okay, you deserve it.  Here’s the honest truth.  I found a trail outside behind the stable and followed it.  Duke was at the ravine.  You know, the one where you and I hid all those years ago?”  His brother was listening, those intense green eyes fastened on him.  Little Joe nodded.  Adam nodded too, and then he rose and crossed over to stare at the fire.  “Duke was there, up top.  He admitted to everything.  Then he told me there was no way the law could stop him; that there was nothing to prove he had done any of it.”  He glanced at this brother.  “Causing Marie’s accident, yours, shooting you….”  Adam drew a breath as he remembered.  “I had my gun primed and loaded.  I pointed it at him and, God forgive me, Joe, I pulled the trigger.”

“God forgive you – for what?  Duke Miller deserved to die.”

“Did he?  Did Peter Kane?  Did either of them deserve to die at my hands?  Joe, who am I?  Who are you to play at being God?”  He paused.  “If we exact vengeance, how are we any different than the ones we hate?”

A silence descended on the room, so profound Adam was sure he could hear their combined hearts beating.

“So…did you kill him?” Joe asked.

Adam returned to his seat on the table.  He reached out to touch his baby brother’s leg.  “I wanted to so badly I could taste it, for Marie, but most of all for you, so that that man would be gone from your life forever.”  He drew in another breath and let it out very slowly, composing his mind and his words.  “Thank God, I didn’t have to.  The upper bank gave way, Joe.  Miller fell into the water.  He drowned.”

Joe shook his head.  “Still….”

“Joe, what do you think your mother…our mother would have said?”

His brother held his gaze a moment for a moment and then rose to his feet.  That restless energy that was Joseph Francis Cartwright propelled him to the hearth where he took hold of the poker and began to stir the ashes.

“I don’t have to think it, Adam.  I know.”

The statement was so strange it stopped him for a moment.   “What?”

“When I was…dying…I heard you all.  You and Pa, and Doc Martin.   You kept telling me to hold on.  You told me….”  Joe looked over his shoulder.  “You told me I wasn’t allowed to die.  I…did, Adam.  For just a second.”

“Joe, no.”  It wasn’t possible.  He couldn’t contain the thought.

His brother turned to look at him.  “It’s true.  I died out there in the street.  Mama was there and she….”  Joe sniffed in tears.  “I saw here again in the examining room.  She was standing between you and Pa.  She had a hand on each of your shoulders.  Mama told me, before she sent me back, that one day I would understand.  That…it didn’t matter.  That God has His reasons.”

Adam hadn’t realized he was holding his breath.  He let it out.

“Did you believe her?”

Joe looked directly at him.  “Do you?”

In that instant, the burden Adam had been carrying for the last five weeks fell off of him.  He understood that God had directed him to that moment, with Duke Miller on the top of that hill and at just the right place for the bank to give way.  He’d tried but he couldn’t reach him, so he stood there and watched as the rushing water, with its heavy debris, struck and pulled the man under.  For a second he had felt joy, knowing the man was dead, but just as quickly, that joy had been replaced with sorrow.  Not for the fact that Miller was dead, but for the man himself – for the child whose name had been Duardo, who had never truly lived.

Joe was watching him closely.  “Are you okay, Adam?”

He nodded.  “You?” he asked.

Joe was slow to do it, but he nodded as well.

“So,” Adam said, slapping his thighs and rising to his feet, “how about that sandwich?”

Joe put the poker down.  He smiled – a genuine Joe Cartwright smile – and then he was on the move.

“Last one to the kitchen gets to bring in the firewood!”

 

 

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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!

5 thoughts on “A Man That Studieth Revenge (mcfair_58)

  1. Enjoy everyone of your writings.
    You did a fabulous job of working all those episodes together!!!!
    Definitely will check out your other sites and art work.
    You are an extremely talented lady!

  2. Wow, what an epic, what a story and I actually stayed up all night to read it. I loved the way you intertwined bits and pieces of episodes into this just right and in a perfect way. Thank you for writing this. Now I really have to try to get at least an hour’s sleep.

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