Summary: Ben is away on business, leaving 22-year-old Adam in charge of the ranch and his brothers. However, a bank robbery in Carson City and Little Joe’s stubborn insistence on helping is more than enough trouble for him. After Adam forbids Joe from helping, the 10-year-old decides to take matters into his own hands and ends up in the hands of the robbers. Now the only chance Adam has of seeing his youngest brother again is to track down the robbers, and hope he finds them in time.
Rated: K+ (35,170 words)
He Just Wanted To Help
This is my first Bonanza story. I posted it on BonanzaWorld, but after the site crashed I decided to repost it here. On BonanzaWorld, it was written under the name Scribbles, but on this site I’ve decided to go with my Forum name, Lima.
“Joe?” Adam yelled.
He paused for a response, but when none came he pulled on his boots and stormed out the front door. It was ten o’clock, far past Little Joe’s bedtime, and the troublesome child was missing again. Adam paused outside the barn, where he always looked first whenever Joe disappeared, and took a deep breath to force his annoyance from his face. Slowly, so as not to disturb the animals inside, Adam stepped into the barn.
The silhouette of his youngest brother could just be seen beside the shadow of his pony. Joe’s little boy hands reached up and tugged at the reins, as if he were about to mount.
“Joe, what are…?”
Joe jumped at the sound of Adam’s voice, spinning around to face his oldest brother. “Nothin’.” he said quickly, yanking the reins behind his back and making the pony neigh in surprise.
Adam sighed, crossing the space between him and his brother. It had been three days since Pa had left for Sacramento, leaving the twenty-two year old Adam to take care of things. This wasn’t the first time he had stepped in when Ben had to leave, but this was the longest amount of time Adam had ever had to be in charge. Joe was rebelling, which was nothing new, but Adam was finding it harder and harder to keep his patience with his ten year old brother.
“Come on now,” Adam said, keeping his voice light. “You can tell me.”
Joe looked skeptical, his green eyes narrowed cautiously. “You’ll get mad.”
“Maybe.” Adam admitted. “But maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll be happy.”
The ten year old paused, looking anywhere but Adam’s face, fiddling with the reins. “I just wanted to help, honest.”
“Help what?” Adam pressed, though he was pretty sure he knew.
Joe glanced up, and Adam almost laughed at the look he read in his brother’s face. It was the look of a child who knows more than the adults think he does. A look that said clearly I know you know, and I know you just want me to say it.
“Help catch the robbers.” he finally answered, a slightly annoyed edge in his voice. “You and Hoss were out all day, and Hoss isn’t that much older than me.”
“You helped us look.” Adam said.
“I rode with Hoss.” his brother corrected. “It’s not the same. I want to help look! It doesn’t do any good to ride with Hoss, he’s a better tracker than anyone else. I won’t find anything that he doesn’t already see.”
Well, he’s right there. Adam thought. “Then you can ride with me.”
“You can track too.” Joe frowned. “And so can the Sheriff. And so can I! I found that fox, didn’t I? I tracked it!”
“Sure you did.” Adam said soothingly, deciding not to bring up the fact that the fox had been shot and had left a very obvious trail of scarlet through a field of untouched snow. “I know you can track, it’s just that…”
The boy’s chin rose, his green eyes hard, as if knowing what Adam was thinking and daring him to say it. When he didn’t, Joe said it for him. “Just that I’m too little.”
Adam inhaled, trying to buy time to think of some other way to word it. He couldn’t. “It’s only for your own safety. You know that, don’t you? I couldn’t do anything when I was your age either, and neither could Hoss. But we can now. It made us mad, too, but there was nothing we could do but wait. Don’t worry; in no time at all you’ll be riding off all alone, and no one will tell you you’re too little.”
Hoping fervently that his answer would pacify his little brother, Adam patted Joe’s shoulder and steered him toward the barn door. “And see? You got to stay up later than Hoss. He’s already in bed!”
“I didn’t get to stay up later, I just did.” Joe pointed out sullenly, allowing himself to be directed out the door. He’d already defied Adam’s authority by staying up and sneaking out (even if Adam did find him), and bed didn’t seem like such a terrible sentence. Besides, there was always tomorrow. Maybe he could talk Hoss into helping him.
Adam could practically hear the wheels in his youngest brother’s head turning, but he stayed silent. It was just the way that Joe was, and he really didn’t mean any harm by it. Besides, there was always tomorrow. Maybe he could talk Hoss into helping him.
“Good night, Joe.” Adam said, pushing him gently into his room. “Don’t forget to clean up before you get into bed.”
“I know.” Joe tried to sound irritated while stifling a yawn. “G’night.”
With a sigh, Adam shut his brother’s door and prayed that Pa would be home soon.
“Y’sure y’ain’t seen Joe this mornin’?” Hoss pressed, fork frozen between his plate and his mouth.
“I already said I havn’t.” Adam said. He paced in front of the fireplace, hands ever moving from his head to his hips to his chin in a worried circle.
“Well he can’t’ve gone far.” Hoss said, dropping his fork and standing up. “It’s barely even light out!”
Adam didn’t say anything, just continued his fretting. Hoss’ brows knit together as he read the concern in his older brother’s face. “D’you know where he went?”
Adam stopped pacing. His back was toward Hoss, hand raised to cover his mouth thoughtfully. Hoss could see the muscles on his back tense for a moment before he said, “He told me last night that he wanted to help find the robbers.”
“The robbers?” Hoss repeated blankly. “But he was lookin’ with us yesterday.”
“He wanted to go by himself.” Adam said, shaking his head, still facing the fireplace. “He said he could track too, and he wasn’t doing any good following you.”
“Buchyou don’t think he…” Hoss let the words trail off, afraid of the answer.
Adam suddenly whipped around, slamming his hands on the table. “That boy’s gonna get himself in a world of trouble!” He pushed himself off toward the door, grabbing up his gun belt as he crossed the room. Hoss struggled to find a word for the motion; it was halfway between a glide and a stomp, angry but graceful at the same time. Only Adam could pull off a walk like that. “Come on, Hoss, we’re gonna-”
“Mr. Adam not leave yet!” cried a slightly out of breath voice from the kitchen. Hop Sing burst into the room a second later, holding a dripping plate and a towel. “Mr. Adam no can leave yet, must wait for Littal Joe.”
“Wait for Joe,” Adam repeated, hands frozen in the task of adjusting his belt. “We’re looking for Joe.”
“Hop Sing send Littal Joe to get him good wood for fire, not lealize how low woodpile was. Littal Joe say not let blothers leave without him.”
Hoss sat down, looking bewildered. “Ain’t that just like Little Joe. Git us all worried ‘n he’s just off doin’ sumthin’ fer Hop Sing.” He let out a laugh that shook the table and picked up his fork, waving it at Adam. “You sit down’n eat afore yer mouth drops to the floor.”
Adam clamped his jaw shut, not realizing it had been open. “Then… he’s just outside?”
Hop Sing rubbed the corner of the towel over the plate. “Just get wood for Hop Sing. Not be long.”
As if on cue, Joe pushed through the door with an armful of sticks, nearly hitting Adam as he entered. “Sorry-” he fought for his balance for a moment before heading for the kitchen. “Where d’you want these?”
“Just in kitchen fine,” Hop Sing said. “On pile by stove, Hop Sing move later. Just need wood for start fire.”
“Here,” Adam said, reaching down and taking a few of the larger sticks from his brother’s arms. “You go eat, I’ll get these.”
Joe allowed him to take the wood and brushed some bits of bark from his shirt. His green eyes glanced from his eldest brother to the door, noting how close the two had been to each other. “You weren’t gonna leave without me, were you?”
“Well now, Little Joe, we couldn’t hardly leave without our best tracker, could we?” Hoss said, waving him over to him. “C’mon’n have breakfast, ‘n we’ll set out just as soon as we’re done.”
With one last glance at Adam, Joe made his way over to the table and sat beside Hoss, looking slightly suspicious. Adam looked away guiltily, shifting the wood in his arms as he walked to the kitchen. What had happened? It wasn’t like him to jump to conclusions like he did. Joe was only trying to help, after all, and Adam hadn’t even given him the benefit of the doubt. He set the sticks down by the stove as Hop Sing had instructed and exited the kitchen, sitting himself down across from Joe and loading his plate with eggs and ham.
“You hungry this morning, Joe?” he asked lightly, trying to make up for his outburst.
Joe shrugged, stabbing a chunk of meat and twirling it about the plate. Adam resisted the urge to frown. He opened his mouth to ask what was wrong, but Hoss beat him to it.
“Y’ain’t gonna be able to find much if y’don’t eatcher breakfast.” he said through a mouthful of egg. “We’ll need all the help we c’n get today.”
Joe glanced at Hoss and raised the fork to his mouth. “Sorry.”
“Y’ain’t gotta ‘plolgize for it, Little Joe.” Hoss said, clapping his brother on the shoulder. “I was just sayin’, is all.”
Hoss met Adam’s eyes as they darted between his brothers, and read the confusion in them. Adam was trying so hard to fill Pa’s shoes that he forgot how to act like a brother. Hoss smiled slightly and glanced at Joe. Sometimes brothers had to be leaders, but sometimes they were co-conspirators.
“Adam, you done?” he asked, eyeing the other’s barely-touched food.
Adam looked up in surprise. “I… yeah, I guess I am.”
“Why don’t ya git th’ horses ready.” Hoss offered. “Joe’n I’ll be out soon.”
Adam knew a hint when he heard one, and he could take it, too. With a nod at Little Joe, he stood and left, grabbing his hat as he went.
Hoss turned to his remaining brother and sighed. “Alright, Little Joe. ‘S no use tryin’ t’act like there’s nuthin’ wrong now, so just tell me what’s’a matter an’ I’ll see if I can’t help.”
Joe met Hoss’ gaze brazenly. “Nothing’s the matter.”
“C’mon, Joe, it ain’t right fer two men to chase each other round with words. Jus’ tell me now an’ save us some time.” When Joe stayed silent, Hoss added, “The more time we waste here’s less time we’ll have out there.”
Joe bit his lip, glancing away. “It’s just that Adam doesn’t think I can track.”
Hoss, of course, already knew this, but he feigned surprise. “But o’course you can track!” he cried. “Remember that ol’ fox y’found last winter?”
“I told him that, but he said I’m too little to go off alone.”
“Little Joe,” Hoss said, waiting for him to meet his gaze before continuing. “It ain’t that yer too little. The only reason Adam don’t want you goin’ off alone is that he’s scared.”
“Scared?” Joe repeated doubtfully. “Of what?”
“He’s scared somethin’ might happen to you when you did find the robbers.” Hoss said. “Adam’s got a lot to think about now, an’ the last thing he needs is his fav’rit brother goin’ off and findin’ the robbers ‘fore he can.”
“You’re his favorite brother.” Joe said, glancing away. “You listen to him.”
“Nah,” Hoss smiled. “That don’t mean nuthin’. You’re his little brother-”
“So are you.” Joe pointed out.
Hoss laughed, but when Joe kept his eyes downcast he sobered slightly. “Well, with three brothers like us, I reckon we’re all fav’rits. The point is, Adam’s tryin’ his best to be someone people’ll look up to, like Pa. But he can’t do that right when he’s worryin’ over his little brothers wand’rin’ round with murderers on the loose.”
“He lets you do it.” the boy said sullenly.
“But he don’t like to.” Hoss went on. “He hates it ev’ry time I ride away from him. I don’t think he can let you go off alone, not when he knows he wouldn’t be able to protectcha. That’s just the way Adam is.”
Joe sat silently, pondering the words his brother gave him. They did make sense; Joe had already noticed how hard Adam seemed to be trying at everything he did lately, and it made him feel better to think that it was Adam’s personality that prevented him from searching alone, not his age.
Still, that would mean that he would feel bad about messing with Adam from now on, and Joe
wasn’t sure he wanted that.
“Then you’re telling me to be good and listen to him?” he said finally.
“I ain’t. I’m just sayin’ why you can’t go off alone.” Hoss laughed. “Brothers are suppose to bug each other. Just not me, right Little Joe?”
“Good. Y’awna ride with me ‘r Adam then?”
You, Joe wanted to say, but he held back. It would be more fun to ride with Hoss, but already he felt sorry for his plans to undermine Adam’s authority. Maybe he should ride with him and make up for it. “I’ll go with Adam.”
Hoss hid a smile and turned back to his plate, shoveling the last few bites of egg into his mouth and brushing the napkin across his lips. “C’mon, then.” He said, pushing his chair back and standing up. “Adam’ll be ‘bout ready with the horses now. Y’done, Joe?”
The youngest Cartwright copied his brother, adding a stretch to his movements before heading for the door. “You think we’ll be back for lunch?”
“’Course we will, boy.” Hoss said, plopping his hat over his forehead so it shadowed his eyes when he yanked open the door. “Ain’t no one gonna stand between me’n my lunch.”
Hoss was rewarded by Joe’s giggles, and felt a huge smile tug into his face. He reached back toward the boy and laid one already large hand on his shoulders, readjusting his hat with the other. “Adam!” he called, steering Little Joe toward the barn. Their eldest brother stood beside his own horse, holding the reins of Hoss’ steed and Joe’s pony in his hand. His dark eyes looked guarded, Hoss noticed, but they softened slightly when they took in Joe’s improved mood. An almost tentative smile touched his lips, and he held out the reins to Joe’s pony as they approached.
“You all ready for the search?” he asked, offering a smile as Joe took the reins from him.
The boy nodded. “Can I ride with you?”
Adam only barely masked his surprise, flicking an amazed glance at Hoss, who was beaming over Joe’s shoulder. “Of course you can, Buddy. Hoss can go with the Sheriff.”
Joe nodded again and mounted his pony with the ease of a practiced adult, and Hoss felt his smile grow even wider. It was obvious the boy had a gift with horses, keeping them calm even was he was too young to ride them. Just wait till he’s Adam’s age, Hoss found himself thinking proudly. He’ll be the best bronc-buster in Nevada.
“You ready, Hoss?” Joe asked, tying to mimic Adam’s pose as the older Cartwright leaned on
the pommel of his saddle.
“Yeah, Joe,” Hoss said, pulling himself up into his own saddle. “I reckon I am.”
“Let’s review the facts.” Adam suggested, glancing across the room to where the Sheriff leaned against his desk.
“We ain’t got much.” he said darkly, eyes darting across the map that laid before him. “Just that the robbers hit Carson City bank three days ago and cut southwest onto the Ponderosa. We ain’t been able to find track of ‘em since.”
“Maybe they aren’t on the Ponderosa.” offered the deputy, Dan Tullis. “I mean, we been searchin’ there two days and still ain’t seen ‘em. How could they be there?”
“The Ponderosa is huge.” the Sheriff cut in, as if he were disappointed his deputy had made such an impossible comment. “There are dozens of places we havn’t searched yet.”
Silence followed his words, while each man tried to think of something no one else had yet. Hoss glanced at the map, keeping one eye on the paper and one on Little Joe. His brother was bored, but was trying not to bring attention to it. He squirmed at Adam’s side, shifting his weight and darting glances across the room.
“Maybe,” Hoss said suddenly. All eyes turned on him, and he fought to keep from looking away. Being sixteen, Hoss knew he was at the age when he was allowed to sit in on adult conversations, so long as he did not contribute to them. He wondered briefly if he would get in trouble for speaking out, and he swallowed, feeling uncomfortable under the weight of their expectant silence. Adam, however, nodded encouragingly, and Hoss resisted the urge to clear his throat before continuing. “Maybe Mr. Tullis is right.”
“We havn’t searched everywhere yet.” the Sheriff repeated. “There are places we don’t even know of that could be hiding the robbers right now.”
“I know that,” Hoss went on, trying not to feel discouraged about the interruption. “But if even Adam an’ I don’t know ‘em, how’d the robbers?”
The Sheriff was silent, and Hoss saw Adam nodding thoughtfully out of the corner of his eye. He went on, “If I robbed a bank, I’d wanna make sure I had a safe place t’go afterward.” He paused, waiting for someone to challenge his statement, but none did. “An’ if I had a safe place in mind, I’d wanna make sure no one would find it.” Again he paused, and again no one spoke. “So if the robbers were hidin’ somewhere on the Ponderosa, it’d make sense that they’d been there before. An’ since we ain’t seen no strangers ridin’ across our land…” Adam shook his head in confirmation when Hoss glanced at him for support. “Then maybe they ain’t on our land.”
“Their tracks lead to the Ponderosa.” the Sheriff said.
“Maybe they backtracked.” Adam offered. “It was dark when you went out searching; maybe you missed something.”
Dan Tullis dipped his head thoughtfully. “’S possible… we was in a hurry.”
“Then where did they go?” the Sheriff asked stiffly.
“I think we should recheck the area around Carson City, right at the edge of the Ponderosa.” Adam said, glancing proudly at Hoss.
“We could split up.” Tullis offered.
The Sheriff glared down at the map, irritation clear on his face. “Those thieves couldn’ta chose a better time to hit the bank, what with Ben gone and Doc Kensington ready to leave, and that accident at the mine… we ain’t hardly got nobody to search.”
“You have us.” Adam pointed out fiercely. “We’ll be enough.”
Joe paused his fidgeting to glance up at his oldest brother, a faint smile on his face. The Sheriff met Adam’s eyes, suddenly looking old and weary. “I hope so, Adam.”
A brief silence followed his words, in which Joe resumed his squirming, before Hoss cleared his throat and asked, “Mr. Tullis, d’you mind if I ride with you?”
“Not at all, Hoss.” the deputy smiled, crossing the room and grabbing his hat off of a hook by the door. “Little Joe, too?”
“Nah, he’s ridin’ with Adam this time.”
Joe looked up when he heard his name, his face eager. “Don’t worry, Mr. Tullis. We’ll find the robbers.”
Tullis’ tanned face broke into a grin, and he reached down and ruffled the boy’s curls with a calloused hand. “I’ve no doubt about that, lad. None whatsoever.” He smiled over his head at Adam. “We’ll check around Carson City, like y’said.” With a nod back at the Sheriff, he left the cramped office and disappeared into the streets with Hoss behind him.
The Sheriff pushed himself up off of the desk and prodded the map. “I’ll look here, along the eastern boarders of the Ponderosa. We may’ve missed something in the cliffs.”
Adam nodded, transferring his hat from his hands to his head. “I’ll take Joe southwest. I told Hoss we’d meet back at the ranch for lunch; you’re welcome as well.”
“Thank you, Adam.” the Sheriff smiled, then waved his hand at the door. “You go on, I’ll be out in a bit.”
Adam dipped his head and tugged at Joe’s shoulder, and the two of them made their exit.
“What’re we gonna do when we catch ‘em?” Joe exploded as soon as they got outside.
“We’re gonna go for backup.” Adam responded, glancing down at his brother.
Joe’s face fell. “What if they get away while we’re gone?”
“That’s just a chance we’ll have to take. The two of us can’t arrest them ourselves.”
“Why not?” Adam repeated, amused. “Because we’ll probably be outnumbered. These are murderers, Joe, thieves! We couldn’t hold a candle to them.”
Joe pouted, glancing away sullenly. “Hoss and I could take ‘em.”
Adam bit his lip, forcing back the retort that was clawing at his tongue. Hoss had already had to repair their relationship today; it would be best not to break the ice he was standing on. He watched Joe swing up onto his pony as he mounted his own and glanced up the road.
Please, he found himself praying. Please don’t let us find them.
“You bling too many people, not tell Hop Sing.” Hop Sing grumbled, waving his ladle threateningly at Adam. “Not prepared for so many guests.”
Adam shifted away from the irate cook, his eyes sweeping the room and touching each face gathered at the table. “Well how was I supposed to know that Hoss would meet up with Doc Kensington?”
Hop Sing glared, not accepting the excuse. “Now supper not be done on time, Hop Sing have to clean up this mess! Should make Mr. Adam help!”
“Come on, Hop Sing, I wasn’t responsible for all of this.”
“Mr. Adam in charge!” Hop Sing said, jabbing the ladle into Adam’s chest. “Things not his fault must be his lesponsibility.”
Adam was silent, staring into dark eyes that held wisdom he hadn’t noticed before. Hop Sing paused to let the words sink in before whacking the eldest Cartwright once more over his heart and stomping back to the kitchen.
“He let you escape!” Hoss cried from the table. “Hurry up’n siddown ‘fore he comes back!”
Adam followed his brother’s advice, taking a seat between Hoss and Doc Kensington. The doctor had been in Carson City a little over two years, but in that short time he and Adam had formed a close friendship, despite the fact that Kensington was almost as old as Ben. Adam loved the man like an uncle, and had been extremely saddened by the news that he was leaving town. Kensington had received word about a week before that his pregnant sister was having difficulties and that his mother had moved in with them after his father succumbed to pneumonia. He had planned on setting out to Stephens Flats, where his sister and her husband lived, the day before, but had decided instead to stay in Carson City to help search for the robbers.
Hoss and Tullis had picked him up on their way out of town, and the three of them searched the land around Carson City without success. Adam and Joe were equally fruitless, and the Sheriff had yet to return.
Kensington leaned back from the table, sighing contentedly. “I haven’t eaten a finer meal in all of Nevada.”
Hoss let out a deep chuckle, waving his fork at the kitchen. “Yeah, old Hop Sing sure do know his cookin’.”
Adam glanced at the grandfather clock that guarded the wall across from him, frowning. “I told the Sheriff we were meeting for lunch… he should’ve been here by now.”
“I’m sure he just lost track of time.” Kensington said soothingly. “You said he was skirting the edge of the Ponderosa? That’s a lot of land to cover; he probably got caught up in the search and forgot about lunch.”
“I don’t know,” Hoss murmured doubtfully. “Any man who can fergit lunch has sumthin’ wrong with ‘im.”
“Just because you never could,” Joe said playfully, poking his fork at Hoss’ ribs.
Adam started to stand. “I don’t know… maybe we should-”
The door crashed open, cutting off the rest of Adam’s sentence. The Sheriff burst into the room, out of breath and panting, but waving franticly behind him. “Get your horses, quick! I found ‘em, over by the bluffs just west of here! You were right, Hoss; they doubled back and left the Ponderosa.”
“How many?” Adam asked, already bolting for the door. Chairs scraped against the floor as the others followed.
“We’re outnumbered.” Hoss said.
“No we’re not!” Joe cried. “Six of us and six of them!”
Adam froze in the doorway, causing Hoss to run into him and to nearly knock him over. “Joe,” he said, exasperated. “You have to stay here.”
“You’ll be outnumbered!” the boy pressed. “I can help!”
“Stay here.” Adam repeated.
“Just let me-”
“Joseph Cartwright,” Adam thundered. “Stay here.”
The fire in Joe’s eyes grew hard. “You ain’t Pa!” he yelled. “You can’t tell me what to do!”
“Pa left me in charge, and I say you can’t go!”
“Well I’m not listening to you!”
“Adam,” the Sheriff growled. “We have to go!”
Adam’s eyes tore between the door and his youngest brother. “You stay here. Take one step outside, and you’ll be sorry for it.” Glaring to emphasize the order, Adam turned, snatched up his rifle from beside the door, and hurried outside.
Joe ran after him, but Hoss caught him as he passed. “Not this time, Little Joe.”
“It’s not fair!” the boy cried, furious tears gleaming in his eyes.
“I know it ain’t, but that’s the way it is.” Hoss said. “Listen to ‘im fer now; you c’n yell at ‘im when we git back.” Hoss pushed Joe firmly back into the house, then spun around and ran for his horse and set off after the others, who were already streaking away.
Little Joe stood motionless in the doorway, his eyes burning with the tears he held back and his hands pinned at his sides in frustration. Why wouldn’t they let him help? That was all he wanted, but Adam wouldn’t let him do anything. If only he were bigger!
Letting out a frustrated yell, Joe sank to his knees and stared at the dots that were his brothers and the other men. He counted them, shooting his anger at the one he imagined was Adam.
Joe stopped suddenly. One, two, three, four… one was missing. He counted again, but he still could only see the four. He scanned the horizon, suddenly feeling a stab of worry. Would they be able to face the six robbers with only four men? Something flashed in the sunlight off to his left; one lone rider was speeding away from the others, toward Carson City.
After a split second of hesitation, Joe sprinted for the barn, climbed onto his pony, and rode off in pursuit of the solitary man.
Joe’s eyes scanned the street, trying to decide if he could recognize the horse he’d been following. He’d been too far away to identify things like color or size, but he checked every horse he passed for signs that they’d been running hard. The thing was, almost every mount he saw showed some sign of fatigue.
With a frustrated groan, Joe steered his pony toward a saloon and dismounted, his mind switching to plan B. The thought had occurred to him that maybe the man he’d been chasing had merely gone back for help, and the best place to look for men who’d be willing to fight was a saloon. And if his quarry hadn’t gone for help, then at least Joe could send some before he found the dirty skunk who’d abandoned his brothers.
After a short pause to gather his thoughts, Joe pushed through the swinging doors of the saloon and into the dark room beyond. The noise was not nearly as bad as he’d suspected, though it didn’t occur to Joe to think that most of the men of Carson City would be out working in the middle of the day. It didn’t matter though; there were four men milling about the bar, and Joe only needed two to make his brothers’ posse even with the robbers’.
“Hey!” Joe called boldly, discarding the polite phrases that his father had taught him to use with anyone older than him. The men looked at him in surprise, and one opened his mouth, but Joe plowed on before he had a chance to speak. “My brothers need help, and you’re not doing anything special anyway.” He could almost feel his inner Adam wincing, but his inner Hoss argued that this wasn’t a time to dance around with words.
“We ain’t fer hire, kid.” growled one of the men.
“It’s not a job.” Joe said quickly, feeling the words spill out before he really thought of what he was saying. “The sheriff found the robbers who hit the bank a few days ago, and there’s six of them and my brothers and the sheriff and deputy went, and they’re outnumbered, and unless someone helps they might not-”
“Where are they?” a man who stood at the corner of the bar interrupted.
“West of the Ponderosa, in the bluffs.”
“You’re a Cartwright!” exclaimed one of the men, who had jumped up at the mention of the Ponderosa. “Sure, that little ‘un… Jack ‘er sumthun…”
“Joe.” he corrected automatically.
“Right, that’s it. I was a hand fer a while, ‘fore one o’ the cattles stepped on-”
One of the other men interrupted. “This ain’t a time for that, Charlie. I say if the Cartwrights is in trouble, we can help. They always been good fer the town… Can you lead us, Charlie?”
“Sure, I had to chase strays in them bluffs once.” Charlie said, turning back to Little Joe. “Just west o’ the ranch?”
“Yes.” Joe answered excitedly. “Then you’ll help?”
Charlie grinned at the boy. “Sure will, lad. You leave it to us.” He waved back at the other men and lead the way past Joe and into the street, onto their horses, and off toward the Ponderosa.
Joe stared after them. Please let them make it in time… He glanced back at the bartender and gave a short wave before heading outside and returning to his initial quest. He had to find the man who’d left his brothers, and hoped that whoever it was had a good reason for doing it.
For the first time, Joe noticed that there was a horse standing outside of Doc Kensington’s office. It’s a patient. he told himself. Doc’s with Adam and Hoss. He wouldn’t come back to town… But despite his weak arguments, Joe crept up to the window and crouched beneath it to listen.
The room was dim and quiet, and sparsely furnished. Twelve beds were shoved up against the walls, six on the left and six on the right, and an old desk stood between the rows at the far wall. Ten of those beds were occupied by broken men, the result of a collapsed mine a few days before. Only the farthest two beds on the left side were empty.
A boot scuffed against the porch, and the sound of two arguing men drifted into the dark room. The door burst open a moment later, and Doc Kensington rushed into the darkness, followed by his assistant, Paul Duriff.
“How could he have found them?” Kensington was hissing, tearing across the room and snatching up a bag from where it lay near his desk.
“I was watchin’ ‘em from a ways away, like you told me.” Duriff said. “Johnny fell asleep. He let the Sheriff walk right up to ‘em.”
“And none of them noticed.”
“He was quiet.”
“That’s your excuse?” Kensington fought to keep his voice low, throwing things into his bag. “We could all be hanged, and your excuse is that he was quiet!”
“What’re we gonna do?” Duriff murmured.
“Do.” The doctor repeated slowly. “I told Adam I was riding to town for backup.”
“But that’d leave only four of them aginst ours.” Duriff said. “Why’d they let you go?”
“They didn’t.” Kensington said. “I just left. You told the men not to kill any of them, right?”
“Yeah, I told ‘m, but it don’t make no sense to me.” Duriff complained. “How we suppose to fight ‘em off if we can’t shoot?”
“I’m a doctor, Paul, it’s my duty to preserve life.”
“Then you picked the wrong job.”
Kensington glared at him. “I’ll tell Adam my sister sent news that she needs me immediately. He’ll believe me.”
“What about the others?”
“What about them?” Kensington huffed. “They can stay in jail for us. We never used our names around them, and always met them in the dark. It’ll take them a while to finally figure out who we are, and we’ll be half way to Texas by then.”
“I thought we were goin’ to Stephens Flats?”
“That was just a story, Paul. I don’t have a sister.” Kensington glanced across the faces of the men he had cared for, frowning. “Go get Mrs. McKerron, tell her we have to leave and ask if she’ll care for the men.”
Though he looked like he wanted to say something, Duriff went to the door wordlessly and stepped out. He shut the door behind him, the clomped off the porch and into the street. A flash of movement caught his eye, and he turned his head just in time to see a mop of curly hair disappear over the railing.
Duriff froze. Cartwright, his mind hissed, and before he knew it he was sprinting after the boy. Joe was quick, but his legs were far too short to outrun a grown man for long, and in a matter of minutes Duriff had him cornered against the wall of a store.
“You won’t get away with this!” Joe yelled, green eyes defiant and voice shaking with something between anger and fear. He wasn’t stupid; he knew he couldn’t stand up to the man before him and escape unscathed. But Joe Cartwright would never be one to back down from a fight, even one he knew he couldn’t win.
Duriff lunged at the boy, latching a strong hand around his arm as he darted past. “Hold still!” he commanded, jerking Joe back almost off his feet.
Joe spit on his boots and clawed at his hand, opening his mouth to shout. “Don’t-” Duriff growled, clamping his free palm over his mouth. Flashes of memory leaped into Joe’s mind; times when Adam or Hoss had done the same thing, though not nearly as roughly. Joe did what he’d done then; he thrust his tongue out and licked the man’s hand. Duriff shifted his arm in disgust, and Joe took advantage of the extra room and bit down hard on the man’s finger.
Duriff let out a muffled shout and eased his hold enough that Joe could wriggle free. He ducked under Duriff’s flailing arms and kicked him hard in the shin before shooting off past him toward the street.
With a furious growl, Duriff spun toward the boy and clamped his fingers on a handful of hair. Joe cried out in surprise and tried to pull himself free, but Duriff yanked him back and slapped him across the face.
Joe froze, eyes wide, as if he couldn’t believe he’d been hit. An angry red blotch stung on his cheek, and his eye watered where Duriff’s hand had grazed it. Duriff raised his palm again, growling, “You make one more move, boy, and I’ll use my fist next time.”
Something that felt like fear rose up in Joe’s chest, making it feel clogged and heavy. Something
that could have been tears stung his eyes, and made his throat feel tight. And something else, far in the back of his mind, watched his reaction and felt ashamed by it.
Joe latched onto the feeling of shame like a drowning man a rope. Hoss or Adam wouldn’t cry in a situation like this. They’d fight back, and keep fighting, whether they’d been hit or not. Those thoughts forced the tears from his eyes and the tightness from his chest, making him suck in a huge breath of air and open his mouth to yell.
Duriff’s hand struck faster than Joe had anticipated, sending him reeling against the wall where he felt something hard slam into his skull. He fell at Duriff’s feet, blinking back the urge to cry, but feeling tears come anyway.
As darkness pressed at the corners of his vision, Joe watched Duriff bend down and pick him up, almost gently, and wondered if Adam would be mad at him for leaving the ranch.
“Stupid kid.” Duriff murmured, struggling to find a comfortable way to hold the boy without having to cradle him. One arm drooped limply from his hold, the fingers half-curling against the fabric of Duriff’s sleeve. The assistant pulled a distasteful face, before shifting the boy again and making his way carefully toward Kensington’s office.
The doctor looked up as Duriff entered, his expression morphing from impassive to confused to furious. “That’s not-” He crossed the room in seconds, hissing, “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do nuthin’, Doc.” Duriff growled, holding out the still form of Joe as far as he could without dropping him. “Where can I…?”
“Here, put him here.” Kensington said, leading the way to the back of the room and yanking the blanket off of an empty bed. “What happened?”
Duriff laid his burden on the bed, stepping back to let Kensington closer to him. “The kid was snoopin’, Doc. I caught him outside the office.”
Kensington paled slightly. “Did he hear?”
Duriff nodded. “I had to stop him, didn’t I?”
“How did this happen?” the doctor asked, running his fingers carefully through Joe’s hair, checking for blood.
“I hit him.”
“He was gonna shout! I had to stop him somehow, and when I hit him he hit the wall.”
Kensington shook his head and stood, hands on hips. “At least you’ve managed not to kill him.” He pulled one hand to his forehead, rubbing at a sudden headache. “But now we have to figure out what to do with him…”
“Do with him?” Duriff repeated incredulously. “We have to kill him, don’t we? He’ll tell!”
“We can’t kill him, you idiot.” Kensington hissed, as if he were questioning the other’s sanity. “We do that, and Adam will have every lawman in Nevada after us. No, we’ll have to take him with us.”
“Won’t Adam follow?” Duriff asked darkly.
“He won’t, not yet.” Kensington glanced down at the unconscious Joe. “He won’t have reason to suspect us. We’ll go to Stephens Flats like I told Adam we would, leave Little Joe there, and move on to Texas. Adam will be more interested in getting his little brother back safe than chasing after us. And once he has Joe back, we’ll be too far away for him to do anything about it.”
Duriff crossed his arms. “I don’t like it, Doc. That kid’s gonna get on my nerves.”
“You’ll just have to deal with it.” Kensington said. “Now go tell Mrs. McKarron about taking care of the men, and pick up some supplies. Let me know when Adam comes back to town, I’ll tell him about my sister and that we have to leave immediately. Find Little Joe’s pony, too, and put it in the stable so no one sees it. And make sure you tell me before Adam gets here; we don’t want him to find Joe. Now go!”
Casting one last dissatisfied glare over his shoulder, Duriff obeyed.
Hoss urged his horse faster, trying to catch up to the men in front of him. Several minutes ago, Doc Kensington had turned his horse around and headed back the way they’d just come, angling east. The only reason Hoss could come up with to explain the doctor’s leaving was that he was going back for help, but it still didn’t make much sense to him. Five was better than four (three technically, since Hoss knew Adam wouldn’t let him ride with the sheriff and deputy when they found the robbers).
“Adam!” he called, pulling his horse up close enough to be heard. Adam turned his head back
slightly, so that his left ear was angled toward his brother. “Where’s the doc goin’?”
“Help.” Adam shouted back, and the wind tore any feeling Hoss might have read in the words out of his voice. He contented himself to ride on in silence, but his thoughts remained troubled.
What seemed like hours later, Hoss slowed his horse to a stop beside Adam’s and the Sheriff’s. Tullis had dismounted and was kneeling at the foot of a large, rocky outcrop that jutted up from the face of the earth and towered above the surrounding pines. “Horse tracks here,” Tullis reported, lifting himself off his knees.
“Six of them?” Adam asked.
“Could be,” the deputy answered, wiping off his hands on his pants. “Can’t be sure, but there’s at least four.”
The Sheriff cursed in a low voice. “They must have noticed me and left.”
Tullis allowed a wry smile to cross his face. “Don’t worry, they left a trail a blind man could follow.”
Adam leaned forward in his saddle, trying to see past the deputy. “Which way?”
Hoss raised his eyebrows. “That’s back toward Carson City.”
“C’mon then,” the Sheriff said, tugging on his reins. “That’s only making our job easier; we’ll have less road to travel once we capture them.” He waited until Tullis climbed into his saddle before setting off at a brisk canter in the direction of the tracks.
“Hoss,” Adam said in a low voice, and Hoss dropped back from where he’d been at Tullis’ right to ride beside his brother.
Hoss studied Adam’s face for a moment before nodding. “Don’t worry, Adam, I’ll stay back when we find them robbers.”
Adam’s eyes softened, and his worried expression relaxed to a thankful one. “Thanks, Hoss.”
Hoss held up his hand, tilting his head and frowning. “I don’t like it,” he said matter-of-factly. “But I know you won’t concentrate proper if yer worryin’ ‘bout me. But I ain’t gotta jus’ sit’n do nuthin’, do I? I can cover you from a distance.”
“You can.” Adam consented. “You can even use my rifle.”
“Don’t you need it?”
“I have my pistol. It’ll be alright.”
“…if you’re sure.”
Adam sighed. “Thank you, Hoss.”
“Understanding, listening, not arguing, offering calm suggestions, not yelling at me, not-”
“Y’mean not bein’ Little Joe.” Hoss interrupted.
Hoss’ brow furrowed thoughtfully. “He don’t try to be that way,” he said slowly. “It’s hard fer him, growin’ up with two big brothers who get to ride around whenever they want when he can’t.”
Adam cast him a slightly surprised look. “He said this?”
“Well, I reckon he didn’t really have to.”
“My brother the psychiatrist.” Adam smiled fondly.
“Psychiatrist. That’s someone who studies the effects of someone’s mind on their actions.”
Hoss smiled slightly. “Naw, I ain’t no doctor person, I jus’ sorta know what Little Joe’s goin’ through. Him bein’ the littlest an’ surrounded with big’uns who always tell him he can’t do nuthin’ to help… That’s really all he wants, to help.”
Adam looked away guiltilly. “Well, there’s not much we can do about that. He’s just going to have to realize that there are some things he can’t do yet.”
“I know, but… well, we just gotta be patient with him, is all.”
Adam smiled back at his brother. “And people think I’m the smart one.”
Hoss looked away, embarrassed.
They rode on in silence, Hoss’ thoughts on the robbers and Adam’s on Little Joe. Hoss is right, Adam admitted to himself. Little Joe does have a lot to live up to, being a Cartwright, and then being as small as he is… no wonder he’s always trying to prove himself. I’ll have a talk with him when we get back. Hoss was much better at that kind of thing, talking about feelings and such, but it wouldn’t fix things between the youngest and eldest brothers if the middle one had to settle
all of their conflicts. No, Adam would just have to do this on his own.
“Adam.” the Sheriff hissed, and Adam looked up in surprise. Tullis had stopped about twenty feet ahead of them, and twisted around in his saddle to hold a finger to his lips. Adam nodded, silently agreeing not to talk, and Tullis pointed to a small forest-like gathering of pines. A cloud of dust was just beginning to settle before it.
Adam glanced sharply at Hoss, who was already looking at him. He carefully handed over his rifle, then a box of ammunition, and pointed to a clump of bushes and rocks that would give Hoss enough cover to shoot safely from. Hoss nodded, his blue eyes looking far too serious for a sixteen year old. Adam mimicked the motion and looked back to the Sheriff. “Ready?” he mouthed.
The Sheriff nodded and looked at Hoss, then motioned him off. Hoss dismounted and lead his horse slowly over to the rocks Adam had pointed out, dropped the reins into a bush, and crouched down behind his cover. He loaded the gun and propped the barrel up on the rock, then waved back at Adam.
Adam nodded at the Sheriff, who snapped his fingers at Tullis and pointed off to the right of where the red dust was becoming less visible. The deputy saluted and set off at a slow canter, face trained on his point of destination. Adam pointed left, and the Sheriff nodded solemnly.
This is it. With one last glance at the Sheriff, Adam lead his horse toward the left of their quarry, so that he was a little past where Tullis was positioned. The Sheriff nodded encouragingly at him, and waved at Tullis to go further, so they could surround the wood.
Tullis looked at the Sheriff, the Sheriff looked at Adam, and Adam looked at Hoss. Hoss glanced his way quickly before turning his attention on the pines, nodding at Adam. He was ready.
“Throw out your guns and surrender!” the Sheriff yelled in an impressive voice. The sudden noise made Adam start, even though he’d been expecting it. “You’re surrounded!”
His announcement was met with gunfire, three shots over their heads. “We c’n see ya, Sheriff!” a man shouted. “Yer outnumbered!”
Adam glanced at Tullis, who had pointed his rifle into the trees. “Don’t matter none.” the deputy called. “If you come out now, we’ll guarantee you all a fair trial.”
“A fair trial won’t help us none.” a different man growled.
The Sheriff glared into the wood, but kept his voice calm. “Come out peaceful-like now, an’ no one’ll get hurt.”
Another shot shattered the air, and Adam fought against the urge to dismount, find cover, and shoot back. So far the shots had only been warnings, but eventually a bullet would stray too low, and Adam didn’t want to test how long that would take. He gripped his pistol tightly, ready to use it when he needed to.
“This is your last chance.” he said, making his voice louder and more authorative than normal. Hoss called it his Pa Voice, and though it couldn’t hold a candle to Ben Cartwright’s unique vocals, it usually sounded close enough to make people pause and listen.
Silence. Adam waited, resisting the urge to glance at the Sheriff, his finger hovering just off the trigger of his gun. If this didn’t work…
Tullis cleared his throat and tossed his head toward the woods, and the Sheriff nodded. Adam glanced back and met Hoss’ eyes, nodded in what he hoped was a reassuring way, and faced the clump of trees again.
A gunshot split the silence, digging into the ground not a foot from Adam and throwing up a cloud of dust. His horse reared and screamed, and Adam felt his pistol fly from his grasp as he snapped both hands to the pommel of his saddle, fighting for balance. The frightened mount stomped its forelegs into the dirt and reared again. Another shot buried itself at the horse’s hooves, and Adam felt himself slipping as his steed shied away from the spot.
Adam fell heavily, his breath whooshing out upon impact with the hard ground. He rolled out of the path of his panicked horse, gasping for air, feeling as if his chest was on fire. The sound of more gunshots sounded dull to his ears, distant and low. Someone was shouting something, but Adam was concentrating too hard on trying to make his lungs work again to understand what whoever it was was saying.
Finally, he glanced up, coughing against the dirt his fall had kicked up. His horse had bolted, leaving a cloud of dust like a banner behind it. The Sheriff and Tullis had taken shelter behind some conveniently-spaced boulders, and were shooting into the trees. Hoss was calling his name, pausing every other breath to fire at the woods.
Adam coughed again, raised himself to his knees, and crawled forward to where his gun had landed. “I’m ok!” he shouted, knowing that his voice would get lost in the thunderous sounds of their fighting, but wanting to comfort Hoss anyway. He needed cover. The closest thing to him was a clump of dry shrubbery scattered around a rock that would reach his waist if he stood up.
Wincing against the protests of his ribs, Adam crawled over to his selected haven and crouched behind it. Shots were still ringing out near him, but most of them were focused on Tullis, the Sheriff, and Hoss. Adam propped his pistol up on the rock and fired without aiming into the trees. This won’t get us anywhere. he thought bitterly. The only thing it would accomplish would be to waste bullets and give him a headache.
Suddenly, the bullets aimed at them stopped. Tullis and the Sheriff glanced at each other, and Hoss, who had been reloading, peeked above the rock he was crouched behind in confusion.
“Mr. Cartwright?” called a voice from the woods.
Adam stared at the trees in surprise before throwing an astonished look at the Sheriff. “Yeah.” he yelled back.
“Is any of you hurt?”
Again, Adam looked to the Sheriff, who shook his head and shrugged. “No.”
“Don’t worry none, Mr. Cartwright.” a different man shouted. “We came from Carson City to help. We’ve got these fellas here all ready to come back to town with us.”
Tullis glanced at the Sheriff, a grin on his face. “Reinforcements!” he laughed. The deputy shouldered his rifle and stepped out from his cover, followed by the Sheriff. Hoss stood, looking uncertainly over at Adam, who nodded.
Hoss dropped his rifle and rushed over to his brother, throwing an apologetic glance at the place his horse had disappeared over the horizon. “You ok?” he asked, kneeling by Adam, who still crouched where he was.
“I’m fine.” Adam smiled, leaning back and sitting more comfortably on his heels. The burning in his chest was already subsiding to a dull ache, but he still felt sore. Hoss raised a skeptical eyebrow and grabbed his brother’s elbow, helping him gently to his feet. “Thanks,” Adam said, fighting a grimace. His eyes skipped to the Sheriff, who was making his way over toward them, smiling broadly.
“Looks like Doc Kensington did send help.” Hoss said, his eyes on the woods. “But then why didn’t he come back with ‘em?”
“I don’t know.” Adam admitted, stepping away from Hoss’ steadying hand.
“Tullis’s already over in the wood.” the Sheriff said as he approached. “Come on, Adam. The sooner we get those ruffians into jail, the sooner you can get back to the ranch and explain things to Little Joe.”
Adam winced. “I think I’d rather fight the robbers again.”
The Sheriff laughed and clapped Adam on the back (which made him wince again), and walked off toward the trees. Adam nodded to Hoss and followed the Sheriff, careful to walk slowly so he wouldn’t have to limp. Hoss hovered at his elbow, casting anxious glances at him every few steps.
“You gonna leave my gun behind that rock?” Adam asked, smiling so Hoss wouldn’t take it as an accusation.
“No, I was just…” Hoss glanced at the place he’d taken shelter, then back at Adam.
“I can make it to the woods alright.” he smiled. “Go get your horse.”
Hoss looked uncertain, but he obeyed anyway.
Adam ducked under a low branch and stepped into the shade of the woods, taking in the scene before him wordlessly. The six robbers stood stiffly with their hands folded atop their heads, guns at their feet. Three other men were pointing rifles at the backs of the thieves, while a fourth stood a few yards away, holding the reins of the outlaws’ horses. Tullis had added his gun to the ones pointed at their quarry, while the Sheriff was making his way over to the man with the horses.
“Howdy, Mr. Cartwright.” said one of the men, tipping his hat with one hand and grinning like he’d just done something incredibly important. Which, Adam thought to himself, he had.
“Nice timing.” Adam said, leaning casually against a tree. He folded his arms, making himself look relaxed as he mentally surveyed the damage he’d taken. As far as he could tell, he’d been lucky enough to only suffer bruises.
The sound of hoof beats portended Hoss’ arrival, and he broke through the dense cover of pines and dismounted. He stepped over to Adam and held out his hat, which Adam hadn’t realized he’d lost. He accepted it back with a nod and returned his attention to their rescuers.
“How did you…?” he asked slowly.
The man who’d greeted him smiled. “Weren’t too hard. We just rode up behind these fellers while you were all shootin’ away and distracting them.”
“And forced them to surrender.” Tullis finished lightly.
The man grinned wider and laughed. Hoss squinted at him, his mouth opened slightly and his eyebrows drawn together. “Don’t I know you, mister?”
Adam frowned a moment before the image clicked. “Charlie!”
Charlie punched the man next to him lightly on the arm, laughing. “There now, I told yeh that they’d remember me!”
The man grinned back at him. “You musta made some impression on ‘em then, but that don’t mean it was a good one.”
Adam felt a smile tugging at his lips. They’d done it. Kensington had sent them reinforcements, allowing them to capture the robbers without any casualties. Now all they had to do was return the money they’d stolen, and all would be right again.
Tullis’ train of thought had apparently been parallel to Adam’s. “Where’s the money?” he growled, shoving the barrel of his gun intimidatingly into a robber’s face.
“I ain’t got it,” the man sputtered, wide eyes darting to his comrades. “We ain’t got it with us.”
“Then where is it?” Adam asked firmly.
“The man in gray,” the thief said quickly. “He took it.”
Tullis glanced at the Sheriff, who scowled. “Who?”
“The man in gray.” the man repeated.
“Yes, but who is the man in gray?” Adam pressed.
The captured men exchanged glances for a moment before Tullis brought their attention back to the guns pointed at them by cocking the hammer of his own. “We don’t know who he is.” one of the robbers rushed. “He wore a gray waistcoat whenever he met with us.”
The Sheriff glared at the men, who drew back from his gaze nervously. “If you tell us all you know about this man in gray, it’ll alleviate your punishment.”
“It ain’t much.” one of the men said. “He only met us at night to tell us the plans. Never got
much of a look at him.”
“’Sept he always wore a gray coat, every time.” another man offered.
“An’ that other feller was always followin’ him.” said a different one. “Never paid much attention to him. He sorta hung in the back, like he was checkin’ fer people followin’ us.”
“Where are these men now?” Adam asked.
“Dunno.” the first man said, eyeing Tullis’ gun warily. “They was suppose to meet us t’morrow.”
Scowling, the Sheriff gestured toward the captive men’s mounts. “Climb up, boys. Tullis, you lead ‘em with three o’ these gentlemen,” he nodded to their rescuers, “and the rest of us will follow behind. With our guns.”
They made a quick pit stop at the house to get Adam, who had doubled up with Hoss, a horse. The Sheriff, Tullis, Hoss, Charlie, and his friends (who had introduced themselves as Andy Harris, Matthew Carroll, and Jim Wilson) guarded their captives while Adam hurried to the barn. He half-expected to find Joe there, sulking in the hay with a book, but the barn was devoid of anything but horses.
Adam’s horse hadn’t returned yet, so he saddled a bay named Chaucer and lead him out into the yard. He threw a glance at the house, waiting for Joe to run out and demand to come along. But everything was still and silent, as if the ranch was holding its breath. Chaucer flicked his ears impatiently and tossed his head, and Adam tore his gaze from the front door and climbed into the saddle.
“Ready?” the Sheriff asked.
“Yes.” Adam nudged Chaucer into line behind Hoss, resisting the urge to look back at the house.
“Should we bring Joe with?” Hoss asked, speaking the words that had just run through Adam’s mind. “I could bring ‘im. We’d catch up.”
Adam shook his head. “No… if he wanted to come, he’d have been out here. Let’s give him time to sulk.”
“Maybe he didn’t hear us come in.” Hoss suggested.
“Not hear a dozen horses ride in?” Adam smiled. “Joe may not be able to listen, but he’s not deaf.”
“If he’s helpin’ Hop Sing again…”
“Hoss.” Adam waited until his brother swiveled in his saddle so he could look at him. “I know you mean good. I don’t want to leave Joe behind either. But we’ve got to let him be for a while, or he won’t listen when I explain things later.”
Hoss sighed and nodded. “I know. But leavin’ Joe alone when he’s mad ain’t a smart thing to do.”
“He’s not alone.” Adam reminded him. “Hop Sing is there.”
If Hoss noticed the thin note of uncertainty in his voice, he didn’t mention it. Adam knew Hop Sing couldn’t be expected to watch Joe all day, not when he had other work to do. His only hope that his youngest brother would stay out of trouble was that their cook had managed to ensnare him in chores. And there were only so many chores he could do.
Adam’s thoughts morphed from worrying about Joe to making a checklist of work that needed to be finished yet today, to a business transaction he’d been looking at, to wondering when Pa would get home, and then back to Joe in and endless cycle of exhausting questions without answers. He rubbed at his temples, letting Chaucer pick his own way across the well-traveled road. He chatted a bit with Matthew Carroll and ended up hiring him as a hand for an upcoming cattle drive, but for the most part he kept to himself and his dizzying thoughts.
It seemed to take much longer than he ever remembered to get to Carson City, but when they did finally catch sight of the town, Adam felt himself relax. They’d done it. Now he could get back to ranch work, which required no guessing, no worrying, no headaches.
But there was one thing he needed to do yet. “Hoss!” he called. His brother turned. “You go along with the Sheriff,” Adam said, nudging Chaucer up beside Hoss’ horse. “I’m going to check on Doc Kensington.”
“Alright.” Hoss nodded.
“Wait for me at the sheriff’s office.”
Hoss nodded again, and Adam kicked Chaucer into a gallop aimed for the front of their procession. The Sheriff turned when he heard Adam coming. “What is it?”
“I’d like to go speak with Kensington,” Adam said. “Hoss will go with you to the jail.”
“That’s fine.” the Sheriff smiled. “I think we can manage without you.”
“Thanks.” Adam said. He dipped his head and took his leave, kicking Chaucer into an even gallop that took them to Kensington’s office in minutes.
Adam dismounted and patted Chaucer’s neck, murmuring praise into the horse’s mane. Chaucer was fairly new at being ridden for long distances, but Adam had had his eye on the bay for a while now. He was a good horse.
With one more pat on the thick, muscled neck, Adam wrapped the reins loosely around the hitching post and marched up the steps to his friend’s office.
“Hullo, Adam.” said a cheerful voice behind him. Adam turned in surprise and recognized Kensington’s assistant… what was his name…?
“Hi…Paul.” he answered when he remembered, returning the other’s smile. “Is Kensington in?”
“Well, he’s in, but I don’t suppose he’ll be seein’ nobody soon, if that’s what y’mean.” Paul said with a disarming smile. “He’s sorta got his hands full with the mine accident and all.”
Adam nodded sympathetically. “I suppose he has. But I need to see him.” He took a step toward the door, but Paul bounded up the stairs and intercepted him.
“I’ll go in and check on him. You wait right here.” And he disappeared into the office.
Adam started at the door, frowning. Paul Duriff… Adam didn’t know the man by more than reputation, and even that was stretching his knowledge of him. He’d heard the name tossed back and forth in one of the saloons, but hadn’t taken much notice of it. Not even Kensington talked about him much. In fact, now that he thought about it, Adam was sure that the doctor hadn’t had an assistant a month ago…
Stop that. Adam told himself irritably. A man shouldn’t be suspicious toward a friend, especially over such an insignificant thing. So what if he hadn’t heard much about Paul Duriff? There were plenty of men in Carson City he didn’t know. It was this whole business with Joe that had gotten him into such a thoughtful mood. He was just looking for things to be wrong now, to distract him from his trouble with his little brother. That made much more sense.
Trying to ignore the nagging feeling in the back of his mind, Adam folded his arms and started to whistle. He hadn’t whistled in a while, not since Joe asked him to about a week and a half ago… Adam sighed. If only Joe wouldn’t be so difficult. But he was young yet, Adam told himself. He’d grow out if it.
The door opened slowly, and Paul stepped out and smiled. “Lucky for you, the Doc just finished up with one of the patients and said he’d see you.”
“Thanks.” Adam said, nodding. Paul stepped back, holding the door open with one hand while Adam passed through it.
Every curtain had been drawn over the windows, blocking out the sun and leaving opaque shadows on the floor. Six beds were pushed against either wall, just ominous shapes in the darkness. Kensington stood over the nearest bed, shaking his head.
“This man’s fever isn’t going down,” he whispered.
Adam waited until Kensington had stepped away from the bed to speak. “We found them.”
Kensington looked up sharply. “Was anyone hurt?”
“No,” Adam said. “Thanks to the men you sent.”
“Yes, well…” Kensington smiled, his teeth flashing in the darkness. “I couldn’t let you go on outnumbered.”
Adam nodded. “They say there are two other men.”
“The robbers. They say a man in a gray waistcoat organized the whole thing, and another tagged along behind him.”
“Could they describe this… man in gray?” Kensington asked.
“No. They said he only met them in the dark.” Adam frowned, looking at the drawn curtains.
Kensington noticed. “The men get headaches from the light.”
“Of course.” Adam said. “Anyway, I… just wanted to thank you for sending those men.” He turned back toward the doorway, dipping his head to Paul as he went.
“Wait, Adam,” Kensington stepped closer to him, looking troubled. “My sister sent word to me today… that’s why I didn’t return with the men I sent. She needs me as soon as possible.”
“Oh…” Adam said, startled. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m leaving tonight. Right after we’re done here, actually.”
Adam stared through the darkness at his friend. “But what about the miners?”
“Mrs. McKerron is going to care for them until the new doctor comes to town.” Kensington said. “I’ve already sent him a wire explaining everything.”
Adam nodded distractedly. “I wish you could have left under better circumstances.”
Kensington smiled, the skin around his mouth wrinkling in the shadows and making him look tired. “So do I, Adam.”
Silence enveloped the room, wrapping around and weighing down on them like a stiff, hot blanket. Adam looked at the drawn curtains again and wished they were lighter, so that some sunshine would break through. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Well… Joe’s still at the house, and I haven’t explained to him yet…”
Kensington smiled and held out his palm. “I understand, Adam. I’ll send you a wire when I get
to Stephens Flats.”
Adam shook his outstretched hand, gripping it firmly and smiling when Kensington winced. “Goodbye.”
Adam stepped back and turned, taking swift, purposeful strides toward the door. His stomach rolled, and he could feel sweat beading on his brow beneath the rim of his hat. The distant pounding of a headache was creeping into his temples. Pull yourself together. he told himself irritably. You’ve said goodbye to friends before. This is nothing to get upset about.
But he did feel upset. A sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach told him something was not right. Adam grabbed the door handle, trying to shake the unease aside before he stepped out into the street.
He froze. Had he really heard that? The voice had been so soft… Adam glanced over his shoulder at Kensington. “Yes?”
“No, that wasn’t…” Kensington jerked his head at Paul. “I think one of the men is waking up. Will you go check on him?”
The voice was still no more than a whisper, but it sent shivers down Adam’s spine. Kensington stepped up beside him and opened the door, making Adam blink against the sudden light. “One man’s friend was killed in the collapse. His name was Adam. I’m afraid he hasn’t quite gotten over the shock.”
Adam nodded mutely, wondering why his mouth felt so dry. “Is there anything I can do?”
“No, no, Paul can handle it.” Kensington set his hand on Adam’s shoulder and smiled gently. “Besides, you need to get back to Little Joe.”
“Yeah…” Adam returned the smile, still feeling inexplicably unsettled. “Goodbye.”
Kensington stood in the doorway until Adam climbed into his saddle before wheeling around and slamming the door.
Joe could vaguely distinguish voices from the rushing sound in his ears, but they sounded too distant to make out any words. They were deep, adult voices, voices he was suppose to listen to and obey. But it wasn’t Pa or Adam. Then again, it wouldn’t be Pa, would it? He was in
Sacramento. Maybe it was the Sheriff and Mr. Tullis.
No, that wasn’t right either. One of the voices kept rising in anger. Joe felt himself sliding from his dreams, and the further he got from sleep, the more his head started to hurt. He pinched his eyes shut, then made himself relax.
In every book Adam had ever read to him, the main character never remembered what happened. If he was bushwhacked or ambushed or captured, he never knew where he was or why he was there when he woke up. But Joe knew exactly where he was. He remembered everything.
Joe made himself lay still, even though his head felt as if it were being ripped in half. Though he didn’t remember arriving there, he figured he must be at Doc Kensington’s place. He was lying on his stomach, and the sheets beneath him smelled sour-sweet, as if sickness had passed from the patient to last use that bed into it. He could recognize the voices now, too, though he still couldn’t quite make himself focus on them.
“He’s here.” Duriff was saying. He sounded nervous.
“Did they find them?” Kensington asked, his voice hushed. Joe wrinkled his nose against sheets and tried not to cough.
“Yeah. And some other men showed up to help.” Duriff growled.
Joe smiled. The men he’d sent had made it in time.
“Who…?” Kensington whispered.
“I don’t know.” A low thunk followed his words, probably from Duriff slamming his fist against Kensington’s desk, Joe thought. “But I’d bet my right hand that Cartwright brat had something to do with it.”
A long pause sank into the room, broken only by the sound of footsteps as Kensington paced. “He’ll think I sent them.”
“Well don’t tell him otherwise.”
“I know that.” Another pause. “Bring him in. Paul, wait—Draw the curtains. Make it totally dark. We don’t want to risk him seeing Joe.”
Joe frowned into the sheet. Who couldn’t see him? His head throbbed again, and he felt blackness reaching into the corners of his vision. He should stay awake, make sure whoever wasn’t suppose to see him knew he was there… He had to tell someone about Kensington and his plans… He should get up…
He was only vaguely aware of someone stomping over to him and yanking a blanket up over his head so he was completely covered. More voices danced at the edge of his hearing, but he
couldn’t bring himself to focus on them. He was slipping again, falling in slow-motion into the darkness.
Joe started awake, wincing as his head pounded in protest. He could hear voices again, soft ones. Kensington was talking. How much time had passed? Was whoever-it-was still there?
“I understand, Adam. I’ll send you a wire when I get to Stephens Flats.”
Adam was there. He was safe! Adam would save him, would take him home and make the pounding in his head stop. He would take Kensington and Duriff away to jail, with the rest of the robbers, where they belonged.
Joe opened his eyes, but his face was turned away from the doorway. He started to roll over, but the sound of footsteps made him stop. This is it. Joe thought. Adam’s coming to get me now.
“Goodbye.” Adam said.
No! Joe screamed, but nothing came out. His mouth felt like cotton, his lips dry and cracked. Adam was leaving. He was leaving without him.
“Adam.” he croaked, struggling to lift himself up. His arms were shaking. Why was that?
“Yes?” Adam said. He sounded uncertain.
“No, that wasn’t…” Kensington’s voice was rushed. “I think one of the men is waking up. Will you go check on him?”
Heavy footsteps clunked across the floor. Joe tossed his head toward the door and struggled to his elbows. “Adam!” he rasped desperately. Just look! he begged. Just look at me before Duriff gets here!
Duriff bent over Joe, blocking his sight of the door. He murmured soothing words one might tell a sick man, but his face was hard and unforgiving. Joe pulled back against the bed, trying to peer around him and keep Adam in his vision. Duriff glared down at him and silently drew a gleaming knife.
Joe froze, eyes locked on the blade. Duriff pressed it almost gently against the boy’s neck, angling it so the sharpest part of the knife pinched his skin. Joe tilted his head back, knowing he couldn’t escape the cool metal but trying anyway.
“Shut up.” Duriff hissed, the words scraping over Joe’s ears like the itchy fallen leaves that pricked his skin in October.
Joe nodded. The movement made the knife shift against his neck, but it didn’t draw blood. Duriff kept it there a moment longer before withdrawing.
The voices had stopped. Joe stared through the darkness, his heart thudding like the frenzied hoof beats of a wild horse who knows its about to be captured. Adam had turned away, and Joe looked just in time to see his dark silhouette swallowed by the shadows as the door swung shut behind him.
Kensington sighed and leaned back against the wall, as if his conversation with Adam had exhausted him. Duriff cursed and sat at the edge of the unoccupied bed beside Joe.
“If you’d just’ve let me get rid of that darn kid.” he growled mutinously.
Kensington pushed himself away from the wall and stalked over to Joe. “You’re lucky, boy.” he said, glancing back at Duriff. “If you’d have given us away, Paul here would have had to dispose of both you and Adam.”
Joe felt his eyes grow wide, and fought to control his reaction. He sat up defiantly. “He couldn’t have. Adam would’ve beat him.”
“Snot-nosed little-” Duriff hissed, but Kensington interrupted.
“Maybe. But he wouldn’t have beaten the two of us.”
“Two against two.” Joe pointed out brazenly.
Duriff scoffed. “Barely one and a half.”
Joe shot to his feet. “You just-” Blinding light flashed behind his eyes, and dark spots danced across his vision. He leaned unsteadily to one side before dropping himself onto the bed. His vision cleared slowly, the black clouds that hovered over his eyes fading from gray to a pale, filmy white. Kensington had dropped to his knees before him with his palm up against Joe’s forehead to hold back the thick curls, peering into his eyes. Joe pulled back, frowning.
“You can’t move so fast.” Kensington said monotonously, climbing to his feet.
Joe just barely resisted the urge to stick out his tongue and jump up again, deciding against it only because of the smug look that had just flashed over Duriff’s face. Kensington glided across the floor, picking up bags and tossing them to his assistant. “Come on. We need to get out of here. Bring him.”
Duriff glared at Joe and stood, shifting the bag to his left hand and grabbing Joe’s elbow with his right. He yanked him to his feet and held him there as the black dots raced before his eyes again. They faded quicker this time, and as soon as they did Joe jerked his arm free of the man’s grasp and glared up at him.
“Let’s go.” Kensington said impatiently. “Joe, you come with me. We’re going to walk to the stable, get our horses, and ride out together, side by side. Paul will be right behind us, so if you make one wrong move…” He let the threat hang unspoken and stared through the darkness to make sure it had left an impression on the young Cartwright.
“What? He’ll hit me again?” Joe backed away from Duriff, just in case he did follow through
with the threat. “All I have to do is shout, and the whole town will come and stop you.”
“You think you’re that important, brat?” Duriff snarled. “You think everyone will stop what they’re doing for you?”
Joe narrowed his eyes at the man and sucked in a deep breath.
“Little Joe, you misunderstood me.”
Joe’s breath whooshed out in surprise at Kensington’s quiet statement. “Misunderstood?”
“Of course.” The doctor stood over his desk, rearranging the objects there as if he hadn’t a worry in the world. “You assumed I was threatening you.”
For a moment, Joe still didn’t understand. Then cold comprehension struck him, making him feel more unbalanced than when he’d first stood up. He saw Duriff grin out of the corner of his eye, and felt harsh fury rise up in his chest. He’d never been this mad before, not even when Hoss had told on him for riding Pa’s horse. The rage paralyzed him, and then was gone, leaving only hollow fear in its place.
“You wouldn’t…” was all he could manage to whisper.
“I wouldn’t.” Kensington agreed. “As long as you do what you’re told and don’t disrupt my plans, I wouldn’t. But if you take one step out of line,” he glanced meaningfully at Duriff. “I’m sure Paul wouldn’t mind taking a detour to meet one of your brothers as they ride back home.”
Joe stood stiffly, wishing the floor would burst open and swallow them all. This wasn’t suppose to happen, not like this. He’d envisioned himself finding the robbers countless times, but it never occurred like this. He would be surrounded by the bad guys, they would fight, but he would win, always. He might get a little hurt, but the wounds of his foes would far outweigh his own. And he would always be able to go back home and bask in his family’s warm gratitude, knowing that he had done the right thing.
Now, Joe felt the stinging behind his eyes that meant he was about to cry. His chest felt tight and his throat thick with threatened sobs. He’d gotten himself into trouble, again, only now there was no one to get him out.
“I’ll do it.” he said, his voice low and harsh. “Whatever you want, I’ll do it.”
“Hmm?” Adam turned and fixed Hoss with a distracted glance.
“I asked if you knew what Hop Sing’s makin’ fer supper tonight.” Hoss repeated, frowning.
“Sorry, Hoss. No, I don’t know.” Adam dipped his head to blot out the sun with the brim of his hat and peered out across the land. He’d zoned out again, going over the conversation he’d have with Joe as soon as they returned home. Hoss heaved an exaggerated sigh and fell into a comfortable silence, letting Adam’s thoughts revert back to his imaginary discussion with his youngest brother.
Only now he couldn’t concentrate. His contemplations slipped from the tight net he’d tried to corral them into, bursting out into the afternoon sun and wandering unchecked off over the horizon. He disliked the afternoon for that reason. The morning always flew past and was gone before he had a chance to notice it, but the afternoon stretched on forever. In the lazy hours after lunch, on his days off or when he had little to do besides sit outside and stare at the clouds, the afternoons never ended. It was then that his mind wandered, having nothing else to occupy itself with, and scattered out to wrap itself about ideas that he would otherwise have no time to worry about. It was in the afternoons, when he had hours to waste before he would have to reel his mind in again and set it on important affairs, that he realized just how confusing life was. There was nothing to do in the afternoon but think, and if he did it too often, he came away feeling depressed and withdrawn. If life was more like a morning, quick and sweet and time-consuming, Adam had a feeling that he would have less headaches.
Joe was like a morning, he found himself thinking. Bright and full of promise, standing fearlessly before the oncoming day, daring it to come at him. Hoss was like the evening, calmly waiting for the world to slow down and notice it. It seemed like such a small space between afternoon and night, but it was there, content to just observe, like Hoss was.
Adam shook his head and allowed a quick smile to tug at his lips. He often felt poetic in the afternoon, when all he had to do was think. Many a poem had come as a result of his thoughtful moods in the endless hours between lunch and supper, though he’d never compared his brothers to times of day before. He’d have to remember to write that down when he got home.
When he got home. They’d be there soon, he noted, looking up at the sky. It was just beginning to fade from careless light blue to gray, tinted with the pale pink of sunset. He hadn’t realized how late it had gotten, or how sore he suddenly felt at having been in the saddle most of the day. He stretched, wincing as his ribs reminded him of the fall he’d taken.
“You alright?” Hoss asked, noticing his movement.
“Sure, I’m fine.” Adam smiled. “Just a bit sore.”
“Me, too.” Hoss said. He copied his brother’s actions, leaning back in the saddle and twisting to crack his back. “’N I’m hungry, too.”
Adam laughed. “I’m sure Hop Sing will have something good whipped up for us when we get back.”
“I hope so.” Hoss sighed and pushed the brim of his hat back so he could see more of the sky. “It’s gettin’ late.”
Adam blinked into the sun and smiled as he caught sight of the little dark blob that was the ranch house. He threw a quick glance at Hoss and grinned. “Race you home.” he said impulsively.
Hoss looked at him in surprise. “Y’sure yer up to it?”
A slight twinge in his ribs told him he wasn’t, but Adam didn’t care. He was sick of all of the responsibility that he’d shouldered lately. He wanted to do something spontaneous and childish, just for the fun of it. “Race you home!” he said again, kicking Chaucer into a gallop. He shot away from Hoss, grabbing his hat with one hand as the wind snatched the brim and threw it up. He heard Hoss shout something after him and spur his own horse forward.
Adam smiled, even though each step Chaucer took jarred his ribs painfully. The dark feeling that had gripped him in Kensington’s office was gone, chased away by the quiet breaths and the loud pounding hoof beats of the horses. He felt optimistic, and for the first time that day didn’t worry about what to say to Joe. He would fix it. Maybe tomorrow he could even take Hoss and Joe fishing. They didn’t really have that much work to do, and a nice diversion might be enough for Joe to accept his brother’s apology for leaving him behind.
As they approached the yard, Adam pulled up gently on the reins and let Hoss canter past him, reaching the house first. Hoss dismounted and threw a glare at him. “You did that on purpose! You were winning.”
Adam lowered himself gingerly from the saddle, smiling. “But I had a head start. I was just compensating for that.”
Hoss’ stern look melted, but he tried to appear grumpy anyway. “It ain’t fair.”
“Ah, but it is, little brother.” Adam patted Chaucer’s neck approvingly and lead him toward the barn. “You won, fair and square.”
Hoss followed him. “What do I win?”
“You win…” Adam looked around the barn as he lead Chaucer to his stall, wondering what his brother’s prize could be. “You win a-”
Adam broke off abruptly and froze, so suddenly that Hoss walked into him and Chaucer snorted in surprise. “Adam?” Hoss asked, concern lacing his words. “Adam, what’s wrong?”
Chaucer’s reins dropped from Adam’s hand. “Adam?” Hoss repeated, his voice sharp and outlined with fear.
“He’s gone.” Adam whispered.
“Who is?” Hoss stepped around him, peering into the shadows. The fading light drifted in from the window, casting abstract highlights on the leftover pieces of hay that covered the floor. It took Hoss’ mind, semi-panicked with its worry for Adam, a moment to register the sight. “Oh.”
The stall belonging Joe’s pony was empty.
“Hoss.” Adam said sharply. He spun around so quickly that Chaucer shied away, snorting nervously. “Check in the house. I’ll take a quick look around.” He climbed up onto Chaucer while he spoke and kicked the horse forward, his body automatically swaying with the horse as it leaped out into the yard. “Don’t leave.” he added over his shoulder.
Chaucer broke out into the evening, his hoofs landing lightly on the ground and kicking away in the same heartbeat. The sun was sinking behind a line of trees to the west, bathing the sky in an airy red, like a pale watercolor wash. Adam scanned the ground for any sign of Joe’s passage, slowing Chaucer to a trot.
How long had Joe been gone? Had he followed them to Carson City when they had stopped to get Chaucer? Or had he left before that? A dull pounding behind his eyes made Adam want to squeeze them shut, but he forced himself to keep them open. The gnawing feeling was back. Something was wrong.
“Joe!” Adam yelled. He paused, waiting for a reply, but there was none. “Joe!” The silence mocked him, throwing his voice out into the air and letting it hang there without a response. Adam cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted again. “Joe!”
The scuff of a horse’s step sounded off to his right, and Adam tugged at the reins to stop. “Joe!” he said, relieved. “Why didn’t you answer-” The words died on his lips, cut off by the sight of the horse that approached him.
It was his. The one that had thrown him when they’d found the robbers. It nickered almost apologetically, but Adam wasn’t sure if it was sorry for throwing him or for not being Joe. He glanced around, as if Joe would suddenly ride up out of the sunset, but the world was still. Adam sighed and dismounted, taking the reins of his other horse gently and leading him back to Chaucer. “He’s not here.” Adam said dejectedly. “I shouldn’t have left him alone. Heaven only knows where that boy’s gone now.”
Slowly, his movements painful and defeated, Adam climbed back into Chaucer’s saddle and continued his search.
Everything had gone according to plan. At least, according to Kensington’s plan. Joe was still working on his.
Kensington had modified his original course of action, taking Joe’s apparent lack of fear for himself into consideration. As soon as the boy had agreed to obey, Kensington sent him and Duriff to the stable to ready their horses. The doctor then spent almost half an hour hovering over the wounded men in his charge, changing bandages here, dampening fevered brows there. He kept himself busy until Mrs. McKarron arrived and gave her a brief overview of the conditions of the miners, relinquishing their care to her. Then, with a few more empty
words of thanks, he grabbed up a black frock coat from a hook by the door, set his hat on his head, and left.
Duriff had already loaded their supplies onto Joe’s pony by the time Kensington joined them. The doctor set Joe into his own saddle and mounted after him, so that Joe’s back pressed against his chest, and wrapped the dark coat around the both of them. The effect wasn’t perfect, but Joe was small enough and the coat was large enough to conceal most of his body. That, combined with the darkening sky and the fact that almost everyone had retired to their homes, made it reasonably unlikely that anybody would spare more than a passing glance in their direction.
Kensington had lead the way from town, after paying the stable hand, with Duriff following behind and leading Joe’s pony like a packhorse. Joe considered shouting, but Duriff had made it quite clear when they were in the stable that if Joe so much as opened his mouth, he would ride off toward the Ponderosa, shooting at anything that moved.
They departed town without event and, after putting about seven miles’ distance between themselves and Carson City, chose a peacefully secluded place among some trees to camp. The horses were tethered to a patch of bushes nearby, standing comfortably and nibbling idly at the leaves. Kensington was lying on his side near the small fire they’d built, a plain gray blanket pulled up to his chin. Duriff leaned against tree a few yards away, his hat tipped low over his eyes, feigning sleep. Every now and again he would glance out, making sure Joe was still, or starting at a noise somewhere in the darkness.
Joe also leaned against a tree, but he made no attempt to hide his wakefulness. His hands were bound behind his back, secured by a short length of rope and tied to the tree. Just a precaution, Kensington had said, to ensure that Joe would remain safely in their care.
The boy had given up straining against the rope some time ago, and was now working on loosening his hands from the tight bindings. So far, all he’d gotten for his efforts were blisters and frustration, but the thought of giving up never even entered his mind. Still, the lack of effectiveness in his actions was disheartening, and the glances that Duriff threw him every couple of minutes were starting to get on his nerves.
The fire cast a soft golden glow across the clearing, wrapping the still forms of Duriff and Kensington in warm blankets of light. Joe pulled back against the trunk of the tree, biting his lip hard to ward off the pricks of moisture that threatened behind his eyes. Back at home, the fire would be lit, too. Adam and Hoss would be sitting on the settee, Hoss commenting on the good food and Adam watching with amusement, the barest hint of a smile in his eyes. If Joe were there, maybe he would ask Adam to read him a book. Adam would act annoyed, say he was too busy, or he didn’t feel like it, but Joe would keep asking, and Adam would give in. Hoss would move over so Joe could squeeze between them, and Adam would stretch out to take up as much room as possible. The fire would light up his face, sitting on his eyelashes as he lowered his eyes to read the book in his lap. Joe would lean against Hoss, and Hoss would pretend to fall asleep and snore to interrupt Adam’s smooth narrative. If Adam really liked the book, he would read page after page, chapter after chapter, his voice mingling with the snapping of the fire and Hoss’ soft rhythmic breathing when he really did fall asleep. But Joe would stay up all night if he could, just listening to his big brother’s voice soothing the world away.
He would give anything to be back home, with Adam and Hoss right next to him. He ducked his head as he felt tears clawing up his throat, squeezing out his eyes, rolling down his face. He thought he heard Duriff snort, but he couldn’t be sure, and right now he really didn’t care. This wasn’t how it was suppose to happen! Why hadn’t Adam heard him back in Carson City? Why didn’t he realize that he was missing? Why didn’t he come save him?
Joe was folded almost double, pressing his face into his knee, trying to stop the tears. I can’t even wipe my face, because of this stupid rope. He hated the rope, and he hated Kensington for putting it on him, and he hated Duriff for always glancing over at him, and he hated Adam for not coming to find him.
Slowly, Joe’s quiet sobs subsided, and he carefully eased himself onto his side. It was useless to cry. That’s not what Adam or Hoss would do. Adam would wait, would plan, would bide his time until the chance for escape showed itself. I’ll be like Adam. he told himself.
He started to plan elaborate means of escape, but his eyes drooped closed, and he fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.
Adam… Everything was cold and dark, like the first rain in spring, pelting his skin. Adam! The voice was the rain, and the raindrops were needles, piercing him and leaving tiny red welts on his arms.
“Where are you?” he called. His words were gone, swallowed up by the cold. Not even an echo.
Adam. The voice was a whisper barely tapping against his ears, but Adam spun to face it. Nothing… he turned again. Nothing. Black. Cold.
“I’m coming!” The voice was warm, but he was numb. He started running, blindly racing forward into the dark. He couldn’t see anything. Couldn’t feel anything. All he knew was the voice, begging for help with his name. “I’m coming!” he promised, shouting until his throat was raw. But he couldn’t even feel that. The whispers stabbed his ears above his yells, pleading.
Adam shot to his feet, his hand racing to where he usually wore his gun. His fingers grasped convulsively at air for a moment before he remembered where he was. Home.
Hoss stood in front of him, off-balance, like he’d jumped back and hadn’t landed right. “Adam?” he said again, his face twisting with concern.
“Sorry.” Adam said, forcing his voice to sound less breathless. Why was he so breathless? He sank slowly, back to the settee where he’d fallen asleep only a few hours ago. He hadn’t meant to, but after riding all day and then searching most of the night for Joe, he supposed he couldn’t really blame himself.
But he did.
“Adam, maybe you shouldn’t go lookin’ yet.” Hoss suggested carefully.
Adam tried an unconcerned smile, but even he could tell it wasn’t working. “I’m fine. I was just… dreaming.” It felt strange to say the word “dreaming”, like he’d been standing out in the cold too long and his lips had gone numb. He didn’t usually remember his dreams, and when he did, he never took much notice of them. But this one had been different. His chest still felt hollow and cold, his ears still rang with the whispered pleas of the voice.
Hoss shifted his weight to even himself out and shoved his hands into his pockets. “I shouldn’t’ve woke yeh.”
“I would have been much more irritated if you’d have let me sleep.”
Adam stood and glanced out the window. The first streaks of light were piercing the sky, promising the arrival of dawn, like a wire sent to assure the coming of a late stage. He really shouldn’t have fallen asleep. Suppressing a sigh of annoyance at himself, Adam glanced at the grandfather clock behind Hoss and headed for the door.
“Adam,” The name was firm when Hoss said it, but it trailed off in a sort of question when Adam turned to face him. “Ain’tcha gonna eat?”
“No time.” Adam said, already twisting to face the door again. If Joe was out there because he’d run away, he wouldn’t be out moving before the sun came up. This was his chance to find him. If Joe wasn’t running away… well, Adam didn’t want to think about that yet.
“Yeh gotta have somethin’.” Hoss said.
Adam glanced at his brother’s worried face over his shoulder and sighed. What am I doing? he thought resignedly. Choosing one brother’s wellness over the other’s. It wasn’t the same kind of wellness, he knew, but Hoss was troubled here, now, and Joe… Joe could be waiting for him, out in the wilderness. Maybe he was hurt. Maybe he wasn’t. Either way, Adam needed to make up his mind between explaining things to Hoss and searching for Joe, and he hated it.
“Hoss,” he said, in the carefully calm voice he usually reserved for his youngest brother. “I need to go now. If Joe is out there… I have to find him, Hoss.”
Hoss cocked his head a little, his eyebrows furrowed. “You don’t… think it’s your fault,” It was said slowly, but more puzzled than questioning, as if he could see the guilt Adam felt and couldn’t understand why.
Adam stiffened. “Adam, it’s as much my fault as yers.” Hoss went on. “Y’did what had t’be done when we left him. T’weren’t no one’s fault.”
“You don’t understand.” Adam murmured, glancing away. This was not a conversation he wanted to have with his younger brother.
“I just think that-”
“I’ll be home by lunch.” Adam interrupted. “Do your chores, alright? And for God’s sake, stay here.”
Though he looked like he wanted to say more, Hoss nodded. Adam stood motionless a moment longer, wondering if he should say something to make up for his sharpness, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. He snatched up his hat and gun belt, keeping his eyes carefully angled anywhere but toward Hoss. In part, he was afraid of the confusion and hurt he might find in his face if he looked back. He knew he shouldn’t have been so short, that he should have tried to explain, but there was no time. A ten-year-old wandering around by himself was not the kind of thing Adam could leave alone, especially when that ten-year-old had as much of a knack for trouble as Little Joe did.
He left without saying a word and made his way out to the barn to saddle the horse that had thrown him the day before.
Adam spent the rest of the morning riding across the sprawling lands of the Ponderosa. He checked the places most likely for Little Joe to have gone, then the places that might be appealing to a ten-year-old runaway. No Joe. He checked every fishing pond and camping spot he’d ever taken Joe to, and several he hadn’t, but he still could find no trace of the boy. He dismounted periodically throughout his search, kneeling in the dry dirt or soft mud and searching for tracks, but he never found any.
Only when the sun had risen to its highest point did Adam admit a temporary defeat. He headed back home dejected and frustrated, mentally reviewing places he needed to search yet. Short of combing the mountains, the only places he had yet to look were Virginia City and Carson City. After lunch, he told himself. After lunch, he’d ride into Carson City, and see if Joe had followed them there the day before. Maybe Adam and Hoss had just missed him in their haste to get back to the Ponderosa. Maybe Joe had chosen to stay in town overnight, rather than ride home alone in the dark. Maybe he was waiting in the hotel for Adam to come get him.
It was wishful thinking, he knew, but Adam let the calming thoughts sooth away his panic as he urged his horse into a quicker trot. He had been angling back toward the ranch for the better part of the last hour, and he figured he’d be home in just over twenty minutes. Then he could eat a quick lunch, to pacify Hoss, and be on his way again in less than an hour. That way, he’d have time to thoroughly search Carson City and be home before dark.
Already he felt calmer. Working without a plan meant chaos, uncertainty, and left room for worry and doubt. But if one had a plan, nothing was lost in shadows, everything was plain and simple. He didn’t have to be afraid for Joe, because he had a plan to find him. His fear evaporated slightly, exposing the thin layer of irritation beneath it. If Joe wasn’t in danger, then all this worrying Adam had been doing would be for nothing.
When I find him… Adam thought threateningly. It was easier to feel angry than scared.
His horse, Juniper, flicked his ears as Adam nudged him into a soft gallop. He’d opted against riding Chaucer again, partly to show Juniper that he could still be ridden, and partly to rest the horse who’d served him so well the day before. He wanted to keep Chaucer fresh so he could be ridden the next day, if he didn’t find Joe in Carson City.
By the time Adam rode up to the house, his stomach was clenching emptily and his ribs throbbed out an angry reminder of the bruises they’d received and the lack of care that had been shown them. He didn’t relish the thought of climbing back into the saddle, but Joe had to be found, and Adam had no intention of resting for more than a the time it took to eat a quick meal.
“Adam.” Hoss greeted as the eldest Cartwright stomped into the house. He was hovering near the table, which had already been set, his hands in his pockets.
“I didn’t find him.” Adam said, noting Hoss’ glance at the door.
“I c’n see that much.” Hoss frowned, sounding insulted.
Adam draped his hat over its hook and made his way over to the table gingerly. “You didn’t have to wait for me.”
Hoss shrugged and pulled out a chair for himself, but waited before Adam was seated to take his place at the table. “’S no fun eatin’ alone.”
“That statement from you surprises me, little brother.”
For a moment, Hoss looked confused, as if he wasn’t sure whether Adam was teasing or just in a bad mood. Adam smiled to banish the uncertainty, and Hoss laughed back. “Good thing y’made it back when y’did, ‘r there’d’a been nothin’ left. I’d only wait so long for yeh.”
“Well that’s not entirely proper.” Adam said, spooning a pile of mashed potatoes onto his plate. Now that the food was before him, his stomach felt calmer, as if the mere thought of eating could fill him up. He took a bite and turned his eyes to Hoss. “Anything while I was gone?”
“Nah.” Hoss took a bite of green beans before continuing. “Just did my chores, like y’said.”
“Thank you.” They ate in silence for a while, and with every bite Adam took he grew more restless. He was about to excuse himself when Hoss spoke up.
“Where’re y’goin’ now?”
Adam paused before answering. “Carson City.”
“You think he followed us there?”
“Maybe.” Adam stood and crossed the room, snatching up his hat as he closed his fingers over the door handle. “But I haven’t searched there yet, so it’s my best bet at the moment.”
Hoss stood, disregarding the food still on his plate. “I’ll go.”
“We can split up then.” Hoss insisted. “Cover more ground.”
“What if Joe comes back here?” Adam asked, his words blunt and distinctly unquestioning. “He’d find no one here, and maybe think we’re still out with the robbers. Then he’d just leave again.”
Hoss opened and closed his mouth three times, searching for an argument. “Just stay here.” Adam repeated. “I’ll be home before supper.” He opened the door and strode out, but Hoss’ voice stopped him before he could close it.
“Adam.” he said. “Good luck.”
Adam faced his brother and nodded mutely before shutting the door.
Joe was cold. The night itself hadn’t been too bad, but as dawn broke and the gray haze of morning started to wrap itself around him, he felt cold. His neck was stiff too, and his shoulders felt like a piece of rope stretched too tightly between two trees. Joe struggled to his knees, using the tree he’d been leaning against the night before to keep him upright.
Kensington and Duriff were already up, the first pouring a cup of coffee while the other broke camp. Joe glared at Kensington until the man looked up. “Untie me.” he demanded, amazed at how level his voice sounded.
The doctor smiled, the kind that crinkled at the corners of his mouth and left his eyes untouched. “Manners, Little Joe.” He stood and walked over to him, the not-quite smile still hovering on his lips. He knelt behind Joe, where he could access the rope best. His fingers, made nimble by years in the medical practice, quickly found the points they were looking for and loosened the bindings on Joe’s hands.
Joe gingerly moved his arms back to their normal position, wincing as blood began to flow back into the cramped muscles. He rubbed his wrists carefully, scowling up at Kensington.
“Well you couldn’t expect me to leave you free.” Kensington said monotonously, as if he didn’t care one way or the other. “You obviously don’t know what’s good for you, and that will get you into trouble.”
Adam had said that, too, once or twice, when he was mad at Joe. Joe frowned and looked away.
“I know you won’t believe me when I say this,” Kensington added, lowering his voice. “But it was for your own protection. Duriff hates children in general, and you have managed somehow to get under his skin. He’d not think twice of shooting you down should you ever try to run away. Remember that.” With that, Kensington stood and sauntered off to the fire.
Joe stared after him. What had he done to incur Duriff’s wrath? Grown-ups just didn’t make any sense.
“If you want to eat,” Kensington called from beside the fire. “you’d best come now.”
As if it had been waiting for Kensington’s announcement, Joe’s stomach growled. He wrapped an arm around it, feeling betrayed by the noise. Of course he was hungry, but he didn’t want to eat anything given to him by these… skunks! Hoss had taught him a few plants which were safe to eat, and he knew how to hunt. Maybe he’d go out and shoot a deer. That’d show Kensington and Duriff just how dangerous Joe could be!
But he didn’t have a gun, and he didn’t know how to shoot an arrow. Hoss had shown him how to set rabbit traps, but Joe doubted he’d have time to catch anything before they moved out. He’d just have to make do with whatever he could find.
Kensington watched Joe curiously. Of course the boy must be hungry, but he was just sitting and staring down at his wrists, as if they would feed him. Kensington had minimal experience with children, but he was fairly certain that this was merely a hollow show of stubbornness. Joe would come to eat soon, he was sure.
He was wrong. Joe sat by the tree while Kensington and Duriff ate a quick breakfast of beans, bacon, and coffee, and never even looked their way. He was determined to have as little to do with the two as possible, even if it meant going hungry.
When they had finished their meal, Duriff repacked the supplies so they were carried evenly between the three mounts. Joe would be allowed to ride his pony, but he would be lead by Kensington and followed closely by Duriff, and if necessary, Duriff’s gun.
“Mount up, kid.” Duriff growled, pinching Joe’s shoulder and pushing him toward his pony. “And keep up the pace.”
Joe scowled at the man and climbed easily into the saddle. His pony flicked black-tipped ears
as Joe adjusted himself. He was a handsome pony, lean and tough, even though he was a tad undersized. Joe didn’t mind. He remembered the first day Pa had brought him home, a birthday present, so Joe could ride him into town with Pa and Adam and Hoss. He was a dark, muddy brown, with three black socks and black tipped ears and nose. Adam had made a comment about his size, and how he would fit Little Joe perfectly. Hoss said it looked like he’d been playing in a mud puddle, so that’s what Joe had named him. Puddle.
Kensington, already mounted on his regal gray horse, started them off at an easy pace, Joe’s reins held securely in his hand. Duriff sat atop a mouse-colored mustang, his rifle cradled almost carelessly in his right arm. They made their way back to the main road (“Because we’ve got nothing to hide,” Kensington said), and headed off along the dusty trail as the sun took its first stretch over the horizon.
By the time Kensington called for a break at noon, Joe was both bored out of his mind and hungrier than he’d ever been before (at least, he couldn’t remember ever being hungrier, but he couldn’t really be sure). He jumped down from Puddle’s back almost before the pony had stopped moving and stretched, moving his stiff shoulders carefully. Duriff barked out an order not to move, but Joe was already scouting their surroundings for something he could eat.
They’d stopped just off the road, near a couple of dry bushes that would serve only to drop the horses’ reins on. There were no trees to break the flat surface of the skyline, except for the ones they’d already passed. Joe frowned in disappointment; there was nothing he could scavenge here.
“You, boy!” Duriff snapped, grabbing Joe’s shoulder and spinning him around to face him. “I told you not to move!”
“I wasn’t going anywhere.” Joe protested, ducking out of the man’s grasp. “I’m still here, aren’t I?”
“Leave him, Paul.” Kensington said lightly. “You can always shoot him down if he makes a run for it. He’s got no cover.” It was said nonchalantly, as if he couldn’t care less whether Joe made an attempt to escape or not. The idea was tempting, but even Joe could see it would be stupid to try and run across open the plains with Duriff itching to draw his gun.
Duriff glared at him once more and stomped back to the horses, digging through the packs to get ready for lunch. Joe frowned at the man’s back and looked around, as if something edible would spring up from where he’d not searched thoroughly. There was nothing.
Kensington crouched down a few yards from him and started to build a fire. “Little Joe,” he called, “will you come help with this?”
Joe stared at him incredulously. Was he serious? Kensington smiled invitingly, but Joe turned away and resumed his hopeless search. “Joe?” he said again. Joe ignored him.
Kensington sighed and stood. “Now, Little Joe, I realize how, in your mind, Paul and I are
enemies to you. I realize that you would naturally feel uncooperative. But you brought this on yourself by eavesdropping.” Joe spun on him angrily, and Kensington held up his hands calmly. “You knew what you were doing. If you’d have been more law-abiding, you’d be home at your ranch now.” Joe turned away again, trying to ignore the words. They were spoken calmly, which only made them sting worse. “Try to be civil now, Little Joe.” Kensington went on. “And you’ll get yourself into less trouble.”
Ignore him. That’s what Hoss always said when the other boys would make fun of him. It’s no good getting angry.
Just thinking of Hoss saying those words made him feel calmer. He tilted his chin up and sat down, folding his arms and shutting his mouth. Kensington smiled a little, an amused but humorless smile, and turned his attention back to the fire. “If you’re not going to help, you won’t eat.”
Joe just looked away pointedly. Duriff grumbled something about useless kids and set to work getting the meal ready while Kensington studied the boy they’d ended up with. He’d known Little Joe was stubborn, but would he really be stubborn enough to starve himself, simply out of spite? Kensington wanted to think that he’d eat eventually, but he wasn’t sure. If he’d learned anything from his friendship with Adam, it was that when the Cartwrights found themselves some idea and latched onto it, not much could happen to break their hold. He just hoped Joe would come to his senses before they reached Stephens Flats, for his own sake.
Joe, however, had no intention of coming to his senses. He watched Duriff prepare the food silently, sitting cross-legged and cross-armed. The thought of breaking his stubborn and fruitless fast never even occurred to him. He simply accepted that he would go hungry as a fact, and neither questioned nor resented it. It merely was.
Kensington continued to watch him throughout the meal, but Joe never said or did anything. When they were done, Duriff kicked dirt over the fire and repacked their supplies, and Joe stood up, glaring, and walked over to Puddle. He mounted and sat still, ready to leave. Kensington frowned; this cooperation worried him. The boy was planning something.
Duriff climbed into his saddle, wearing his usual grim expression, and glanced over Joe’s head at Kensington. “We going to stop before nightfall?”
“No.” Kensington answered, settling into his own saddle. “We’ll make camp at sundown.”
Joe patted Puddle’s neck absently. He liked riding, but spending that long in the saddle was not only uncomfortable, but boring. The longest rides he’d ever had to make were with Adam or Hoss or Pa, but they never bored him. Pa would tell him stories about when he was a sailor, Adam would recite poetry or tell him of Greek warriors, Hoss would tell jokes and point out landmarks and any stories behind them. But riding with Duriff and Kensington… he’d tried to occupy his time by planning an escape, but with every minute that passed his plans became less and less realistic.
Heaving a sigh, Joe looked up. Pa had told him once that the sky over the West reminded him of the sky over the sea, stretching on forever until it reached the horizon line in the distance. He’d said that a man could feel mighty lonely under such a sky, unless he had his family with him. Then the sky was a blanket, and as long as he had his family, he was alright.
Pa’s right. Joe thought glumly. He never thought he’d miss his brothers this much, and he hadn’t even been away that long. But what he wouldn’t give to have Adam and Hoss with him right now.
Be patient. his inner Adam whispered. Wait and listen. Come up with a plan. Think it through, work out a strategy, and then act.
Think it through, and then act. Wait and listen. The listening part was easy, it was the waiting that bored him. Try as he might, Joe couldn’t come up with a plan. He started up at the pale wisps of clouds, like white horse tails feathered across the sky. Hoss had told him something about horse-tail clouds before. They meant rain. Rain meant that whatever tracks they had made when they camped or broke for a meal would be washed away.
Closing his eyes tightly against the white wisps, Joe prayed that the sky would remain cloudless and the rain would pass around them.
Several hours had passed by the time Adam made it to Carson City. A quick scan of the main street told him that Joe’s pony wasn’t there, so he dismounted outside of the livery stable and checked the stalls. When he’d thoroughly examined every horse, he went to the hotel and asked if Joe had passed by. He hadn’t, so he Adam spent the next twenty minutes brushing through every store on the main street, asking anyone he met if they’d seen him.
Adam’s head hurt, his ribs hurt, his back hurt, and his hope that Joe had just wandered off somewhere was dimming, slowly being replaced by a panic so overpowering he could hardly force himself to keep searching in town. Ben Cartwright was a wealthy man; many a desperate person had been driven to drastic actions for less than what they could get from holding a Cartwright ransom. Adam didn’t like to think about that, but he had to admit that it was a possibility.
He passed a saloon and, after a short bout of indecisiveness, pushed his way through the swinging doors and made his way to the counter. He doubted if Joe was in there, but it was possible that someone inside may have seen him.
“’Lo, Adam.” called the bartender. Adam gave a short wave and leaned against the counter. “What’ll it be?”
“Nothing.” Adam said, scanning the room quickly. The saloon was comfortably filled with dusty cowpokes and a few miners, playing cards or laughing and each other over their drinks.
He hadn’t expected to see Joe, but still he felt a stab of disappointment as he finished his quick search. He was out of plans. Where would he look now?
“Nothin’.” the barkeep repeated. He was a friendly man named Todd Welcher, who, Adam believed, kept his saloon out of genuine enjoyment of the job.
“No.” Adam sighed. There were three other men at the bar with him, two on his left and one on his right. The one on the right was a big man, broad-shouldered and almost thin, but encased in a layer of muscle that made him look easy to underestimate. He was laughing raucously with a thinner man who leaned on a chair nearby, his head tilted back to expose a thick, tangled beard. Adam looked away; beards like that rarely embellished well-to-do men. “Listen, Todd, have you seen-”
A heavy push to his shoulder made him choke off his words. The bearded man’s harsh laughter rose up again, and Adam turned slowly to face him. The thinner man stood where he’d landed after bouncing off of Adam’s shoulder, rubbing his arm and glaring at the one who’d pushed him. Adam held the big man’s gaze, feeling only annoyance that his search had been interrupted.
“You gonna apologize?” the big man grunted finally.
Adam kept his face neutral. “For what?”
“Being in the way.”
“You hit me!” Adam growled, then reproached himself silently for raising to the bait.
The bearded man leaned closer. “Well, kid?”
Adam felt irritation well up inside of him. This man was obstructing his search, was making him delay in finding Joe. “I don’t have time for you.” he said, surprised at how low his voice sounded. He sounded mad. He felt mad.
The bearded man was not impressed. “Listen, kid. I been bustin’ heads in barrooms since before you was cuttin’ yerself shaving.”
Why was he still standing here? This wasn’t worth his time or effort. Adam turned back to the bar and started to ask Todd to keep an eye out for Joe, but the big man grabbed his shoulder and spun him around.
“I was talking to you.” he growled.
Adam pushed his hand away irritably. “I’m busy.” he said simply. The man was drunk, that much was obvious, and looking for a fight. One which Adam didn’t feel like participating in.
The bearded man made a mock-sympathetic face. “That’s right, you’re looking for your brother.
I heard you askin’ around earlier. Where’d he go?”
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be looking for him.” Adam said coolly. “Which I should really get back to doing. If you’ll excuse me,” He started to turn, but again the man pulled him back.
“I had a brother once,” he continued, holding Adam’s shoulder tightly. “He ran off and got hisself killed by Injuns. Think that’s what happened to yours?”
And suddenly his patience was gone. Faster than even he thought possible, Adam spun and slammed his fist into the man’s jaw so hard the knuckles split. The man fell like a cut tree, glancing off a chair as he went down and reducing it to splinters.
Adam resisted the urge to rub his bleeding knuckle and glared around the room. “Anyone else?” His words were low and dangerous, almost more like an eager promise than the indifferent warning he’d meant them to be.
The saloon was deathly still for a moment as the men stared between this lean young man and their unconscious friend. Then four men were suddenly on their feet, sending their chairs crashing to the ground as they lunged at him. Adam had time only to step back from the counter so the stools wouldn’t be in his way before they were upon him.
One reached clumsily for his wrist, but Adam knocked the hand away and pushed the man off-balance. He ducked another’s swing and hit him hard in the stomach, then in the chin. The man fell back, surprised, and the other two rushed forward in his place. Adam tried to sidestep one, but the other landed a punch to his ribs that nearly dropped him to his knees. One of the men grabbed his right arm and wrenched it behind his back while another aimed blow after blow at his face. Adam closed his eyes against the pain and struggled against the grip that held him still, trying to duck under the punches and fight back with his free arm.
And then the pressure on his arm was gone, and Adam sagged to his knees. His head felt light, and his ribs screamed their pain at him, but he surged to his feet and stood unsteadily, but ready.
The fight now involved what looked like half of the occupants of the saloon. Everywhere there were men flying over tables and rolling across the floor. The four men who’d been fighting him were now engaged in combat with Charlie, Andy Harris, Matthew Carroll, and Jim Wilson.
After taking a moment to catch his breath, Adam threw himself back into the fray, tackling a man who’d knocked Jim off his feet. The man yelled something Adam couldn’t understand and started to get up, but the sound of a gunshot made him stop.
The whole room froze, turning sheepishly to the door where the Sheriff stood, holding his pistol up threateningly. “Knock it off or get out.” he growled, glaring around the room. His eyes flickered with surprise as they passed over Adam, but neither of them spoke. After a moment, when the Sheriff had decided the threat of more fighting had passed, he shoved his gun back into its holster and walked over to Todd.
Adam leaned against the counter, holding his ribs. Charlie dropped to the stool next to him, smiling through a cut lip. “Y’know, Adam? I’m gettin’ sick of havin’ to save you.” he said with a grin that suggested he didn’t mind at all.
“Well I’m not.” Adam said, offering his hand first to Charlie, then to Jim, Andy, and Matt. “And this time Kensington didn’t even have to send you.”
Charlie frowned. “Kensington?” he repeated blankly.
Adam felt his eyebrows draw together. “Kensington sent you as reinforcements.”
“Kensington didn’t send us.” Charlie said. “It was that little brother of yours. Jack…?”
“Joe.” Andy corrected.
“That’s right, Joe.” Charlie nodded. “He found us in the bar and said his brothers were outnumbered against some robbers or sumthin’, and since we weren’t doing anything anyway we should go out an’ help. Wasn’t that the way he put it? Hey, Adam, you ok?”
He wasn’t ok, and felt like he’d never been ok, and never would again. If Joe had sent Charlie and the others, why did Kensington say he’d done it? Why would he lie?
Unless. There was always an unless, though Adam didn’t want to face it. Why had Joe disappeared without leaving any tracks? Because he hadn’t just wandered away, like Adam had wanted to believe. He couldn’t have, not without someone else to guide him.
Adam sagged against the counter, feeling more pain than at any point during the fight. The voice in Kensington’s office. It had been Joe. He was sure of it now; it had been Little Joe, calling out to him. And he’d left. Without even realizing it, he’d left his youngest brother. He’d abandoned him.
“Adam? Adam!” Charlie was supporting him, keeping him from slipping to the floor. He waved toward Matt. “Get the doctor.” he commanded sharply.
Doctor… “No,” Adam pushed away, feeling a slow, cold anger give him strength. This wasn’t the quick flash of emotion he’d felt during the fight; this was different somehow, deeper, more dangerous. It was fury, cold and hard, the closest thing to hatred he’d ever felt. Kensington, the man he’d trusted and looked up to, had betrayed him. If Little Joe was hurt…
“Adam?” Charlie asked cautiously. Adam tried to force the feeling down from where it had lodged in his throat, but it settled instead in his chest and made it hard to breathe.
“Thanks for helping.” Adam said shortly. Charlie still looked concerned, but Adam pushed away and strode for the door, into the street. It was not yet evening, but the sky was already dark in the distance, promising the coming of a storm.
Hoss had to know where he was going, but Adam didn’t want to spend what precious hours he had by riding back to the Ponderosa. Pa should know, too. A sharp stab of guilt pierced through him, momentarily clouding the anger. Part of him didn’t want to send the wire to Sacramento, didn’t want to admit that he’d let such a terrible thing happen to Joe. He should have been able to stop it. Why hadn’t he recognized the signs earlier?
Adam turned sharply, glad that he’d been able to stop the burning in his eyes from becoming any more than that. The Sheriff was walking toward him, looking calm and assured. “Charlie told me what happened.” he said. “You won’t be held responsible for any damage.”
“Adam.” The Sheriff stepped closer. “What’s this about Kensington?”
Adam looked away, feeling the fury rise up again. “He took Joe.”
The Sheriff looked at him curiously. “Just like that?”
“He did it.”
“You got any proof?”
“I heard Joe in his office. Only I didn’t do anything about it.”
“Hmm.” The Sheriff was silent for a moment, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “You think he had anything to do with the robbery?”
Adam hadn’t thought of that, but now that the subject was brought up, it made sense. If Joe had seen or overheard something, it would provide motive for his capture.
“You know where they’re going?” the Sheriff asked.
Adam nodded shortly. “Stephens Flats.”
“You’re goin’ after them.” It wasn’t a question, which Adam appreciated. It was an observation, one that the Sheriff noted and accepted without complaint. “Right then. I’ll send Tullis out to the Ponderosa to tell Hoss. You go an’ send your pa a wire, and I’ll get my gear. I’ll meet you back at my office when you’re ready.” This too was a statement, one that left no room for argument, that expected to be obeyed. Adam nodded.
The Sheriff turned and walked toward his office, and Adam took a moment to compose himself before heading off to send his wire.
Far off in the distance, thunder rumbled, rolling out across the plains and settling over the town. The air was thick, anticipating the storm that crept nearer, like a mountain cat stalking its prey. Adam turned his face toward the sky, feeling the cool, burning fury the had settled in his chest.
“Kensington.” he said to the sky. “Wherever you go, I’ll follow. Wherever you run, I’ll chase you. And if you’ve hurt Little Joe, I swear, Kensington, I’ll kill you.”
At first, the low murmurs of thunder sounded like Joe’s growling stomach, so he didn’t take much notice of them. The sky had been growing steadily darker over the past hour, though it was not quite time for evening to lay its claim over the afternoon. A heavy wind pranced across them, tossing the horses’ manes up and pulling their tails into long, streaming banners. Joe watched the coarse hair swirl about the legs of Kensington’s gray, picking out patterns in the twists and twirls.
His boredom was matched only by his hunger. It gnawed at him, making his stomach ache and his head pound. He winced at every hard step Puddle took, wishing again and again that he could find something to eat. It just wasn’t fair. He shouldn’t even be here; he should be back at home, playing games with Hoss and eating as much as he wanted.
The wind threw a fistful of dust up from trail, and it danced at Joe’s shoulder before catching the next blast of air and drifting away. He watched it go, wondering if dirt was edible.
Make a plan, his inner Adam reminded softly. You need to have a plan.
Joe scowled into the wind. Maybe he didn’t want a plan. This was all Adam’s fault anyway. If he had just let him come along, none of this would have happened. Why should Joe have to do anything? He was just a kid, after all, as so many people kept reminding him. Adam should have to come find him. Joe would just wait.
But he couldn’t wait. He was hungry, and unless he did something soon… well, he wasn’t sure what would happen, but he knew it wouldn’t be anything good. No, his inner Adam was right. He needed a plan.
His first thoughts were still of food, rather than escape. They needed to go somewhere he could eat. He just didn’t know where. Hoss had shown him various nuts and berries that were edible, but he didn’t see any of those nearby. Even if he could hunt (he could hunt, he knew, though he’d never actually done it before. It was only that he had no weapon), he hadn’t seen any sign of game. Where else could he find food?
The answer was at the same time simple and horribly difficult. Town. Joe would simply have to find a way to get them to town. Which town, he didn’t know, but there had to be one somewhere near them. But where?
So he would have to get Kensington to lead them. This was the hard part. Kensington had said
earlier that towns were to be avoided as much as possible so nobody could recognize Joe, in case Adam was already looking for him.
“Paul.” Kensington said, twisting in his saddle and slowing his mount to a stop. Puddle trotted up and stopped a few feet behind the gray, flicking his ears docilely. “You see that clump of rocks up there?” Duriff grunted that he did, and Kensington went on. “Go scout it out; see if it will make a suitable camp.”
Duriff tugged at his mustang’s reins and skillfully steered him around Joe and Kensington before spurring him up the road. Joe curled his fingers around some of the hair in Puddle’s mane, wondering if it was possible to die of boredom.
“Little Joe,” Kensington said. He frowned when the boy lifted his head; he looked like he was about to fall from his saddle. Would he really be stubborn enough to keep starving himself? What was the point? “Joe, would you like something to eat?”
Suddenly, Joe’s back was strait and his eyes full of fire. “I’m not hungry.” he said tightly. Kensington shrugged and looked away, though he would have liked to observe the boy further. An interesting family, those Cartwrights. One thing he knew for certain, though; no matter what Joe said, he needed to eat.
Joe knew this as well. As soon as Kensington turned back, Joe had slumped in his saddle and whispered weary words into Puddle’s ear. He had to find something to eat.
Why? There was food right there, right in front of him, in Kensington’s saddlebags. Or was it in Duriff’s? Or his own?
A sudden flare of hope flashed up in Joe’s mind. There was food, right within his reach! He paused momentarily, frowning. Taking food from the saddlebag wasn’t really any different from eating with Kensington and Duriff. But he wasn’t eating it with them, he was taking it from them. That, along with his growling stomach, made him decide it was alright.
Kensington was resting on the pommel of his saddle, staring off in the direction Duriff had gone. Joe watched him for a moment to make sure he wouldn’t turn around before twisting carefully and looking behind him. There were two bags slung behind his saddle, one on top of the other. Joe reached carefully into the left pocket of the top one, his fingers searching through the objects inside for something that felt edible. His movements shifted something that might have been a tin plate; it let out a metallic clang that made Joe jump. He glanced quickly over his shoulder, but Kensington appeared not to have heard.
Finally, his groping fingers closed around a small bunch of something wrapped in thin cloth. He pulled it out, hoping it would be what he thought it was… he leaned back into his saddle and carefully unwrapped it.
Laying in his palm was a bundle of healthy-sized jerked beef. He barely suppressed a shout of success and grabbed one of the pieces, ripping off about half of it and chewing it rapidly, almost frantically. He had finished the first piece and was about take another when a cloud of dust before them told him Duriff was returning. Quickly, he wrapped the beef back into their strip of cloth and shoved it into his boot. It almost didn’t fit, but his boots had always been a bit too big anyway, and after a moment of pushing and maneuvering he managed to make it stay.
Duriff’s horse trotted up to them, snorting a friendly hello to the gray and the pony. “It’ll do for camp.” Duriff said, glancing up at the sky. “There’s a sort of lean-to cave that’ll give us shelter from the rain.”
Joe felt his high spirits dip a little. He’d suspected rain, but hearing Duriff confirm it made his hope for rescue drop that much more. Still, he had food now, and that was something.
Kensington nodded. “Good.” was all he said, and he waved Duriff aside as he grabbed up his reins. He urged his gray into a quick trot, and Puddle stepped forward with a snort that sounded like a complaint. Joe swayed with the movement, ever conscious of the small bulk in his boot. His senses seemed to be focused on its every movement. Every time his leg shifted, he worried it would fall out, though he resisted the urge to reach down or look. The piece of jerky he’d eaten had only fueled his hunger, and he didn’t want to risk losing what was left.
A low roll of thunder mumbled across the sky, then flared up as if it had been crouched over them the whole time, waiting for a chance to be heard. Puddle flinched at the noise, and Joe with him, though he tried to hide the movement. He whispered encouragement to his pony, partly to calm his mount and partly to calm himself. He’d never really been afraid of storms, but waiting under a sky turned dark before its time had unnerved him.
It didn’t take them long to reach the rocks Duriff had explored. They were large, gray and strong, like the back of Kensington’s horse, Joe thought. One was almost flat, and leaned up against the side of another to form a crude tent-like shelter with no back or front. Rain had started to spatter unevenly from the purple clouds, and the wind blew the tiny drops of cold water into his face. He ducked his head and squeezed his eyes shut.
Duriff leaped from his horse almost before it had stopped and began to unload it. Kensington did the same and shouted for Joe to get inside. Joe was already climbing from his own saddle, but at the command he froze. Duriff’s back was turned. Did he dare attempt escape?
As if knowing his thoughts, Kensington started out into the rain again. Thunder growled over their heads, and the wind hissed fiercely, but Joe still hadn’t moved from his spot, half in and half out of his saddle, one foot suspended mid-air and the other in the stirrup.
“Joe!” Kensington called again. Duriff half-turned, and Joe blinked as rain pelted his eyes. Suddenly, a streak of lightning ripped across the sky, and Kensington halted his advance and even stepped back, his face turned up to it.
Joe took his chance. He swung back into the saddle and tugged sharply on the reins, making
Puddle pull back and twist about in confusion. Joe shouted and jabbed his heels into the frightened pony’s sides, but Puddle only neighed and lunged into a quick trot. “Run, Puddle!” Joe begged, his voice carried away by the rumbling thunder and the shrieking wind.
A bullet tore through the air and kicked up a furrow of mud, and Puddle took to his hooves with a startled neigh. Joe bent as low as he could over his pony’s neck, urging him on with both words and heels. He could barely hear the sound of more shots over the cries of the storm, but he didn’t look back to see if he was being pursued.
They were running, streaks of desperate figures pushing through the wind and rain. Joe had the courage to glance back once, but it was too dark to see anything. He clutched Puddle’s reins tightly and spurred him on.
A flash of lighting split the dark clouds, and Joe saw a ghostly gray blur behind him. Kensington was following.
One moment they were running, and then they were down. Puddle’s hoof had slipped in the mud and the gallant pony had fallen, rolling to his side, eyes wide with terror. Joe had had time only to swing his legs out of the stirrups before Puddle lunged to his feet, leaving Joe lay in the mud.
He wasn’t hurt. At least, he didn’t think he was hurt, and the first thing he did was check that his jerked beef hadn’t fallen from his boot (which it hadn’t). Puddle had disappeared.
Suddenly, Joe heard Kensington’s horse scream, and then something crashed into the ground near him. The horse screamed again, and Joe fought the urge to pull his hands over his ears to shut out the noise. Lightning illuminated the sky for a brief moment, and Joe looked away from the scene before him.
Kensington’s gray was down, its foreleg broken badly and twisted at a strange angle, screaming and trying to get up. Kensington had either rolled or been thrown to safety, and was getting to his feet just as the lightning flashed. Joe knew what was coming next. He tried to get to his feet and run, but he slipped and fell hard on his knee. He could hear Kensington shouting for Duriff. And then, above the thunder, was the sound of a shot, and the screams of the horse stopped.
Joe scrambled desperately to his feet. Duriff would kill him, was going to kill him, was going to shoot him just like he’d shot the horse. He lunged forward, but a hand grabbed his arm and yanked him back off his feet. Joe screamed into the wind, but the thunder laughed at him, stomped out his voice. He fought, but there were more hands on him now, forcing him back.
“Adam!” Joe yelled. His arm was jerked back and one of the arms wrapped around his waist, lifting him up. He kicked and squirmed, but even he knew it was helpless. He’d been caught again. “ADAM!”
He was crying now, great hot tears that mixed with the rain and streaked muddy rivers down his cheeks. He struggled, but the arms were too strong, the hands had too good a grip on him.
Slowly, he was dragged back to their stone tent and thrown to the floor.
Joe started to his feet, but Duriff drew his gun and leveled it at him. “Stupid brat!” he shouted. His finger jerked at the trigger, but Kensington pushed his arm away.
“You can’t kill him!” the doctor yelled. Thunder roared over them, and Joe wondered why it seemed louder under the stone that outside. Kensington shouted something else, but it was lost in the groan of the storm.
“Then you watch him!” Duriff yelled, kicking dust at Joe. “I’m sick of this kid!”
They shouted some more, but Joe had stopped listening. How had he failed? He’d been given the perfect opportunity to escape, so how had it gone so wrong? His thoughts flashed to Puddle; he hoped his pony would find shelter from the rain. But now he was alone, with nothing familiar to comfort him.
Joe pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, suddenly feeling cold. How could he have failed? He wasn’t likely to get another chance to escape. What now?
“Adam.” he whispered. Tears welled up in his eyes again. “Adam… I’m sorry, Adam. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” The rain was splattering onto the floor near him. Could he sneak out that way?
Kensington dropped to his knees and grabbed his hands. “That was a stupid thing to do, Joe.” He tied them securely together, but left them in the front this time instead of wrenching them behind his back. “You’ll be sorry for it.” he added, almost apologetically. And then he stood up and was gone.
Joe didn’t care. He was sorry now, sorry for everything. He shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position, and his bound hands brushed against his boot. His jerky!
So not all had been lost. Joe reached for the cloth and unwrapped it carefully, letting it lay on the stone floor and picking up a piece. It tasted dirty, and was a little wet, but Joe didn’t care. It was his small victory, the only one he had. He ate another piece, listening to the storm, and hoped that Puddle would be okay.
Adam woke with a start. He bolted upright, but doubled over a moment later, his hand flying to his ribs. They throbbed angrily, sending stabs of pain that mingled with the dull ache of his head. He groaned and peeled his hand away, and slowly started to rub his temples.
“You gonna live?” the Sheriff asked, amusement and concern fighting for control over his voice. Adam pinched his eyes shut against the sun, which burned behind the Sheriff’s head as he kicked dirt over their fire.
“Sure.” Adam answered. His lip was split, and he tasted blood when he spoke. His left cheek
had swollen so much that he had to squint out of that eye, and his knuckles were bruised and cut. He looked up again, wincing. “Why’d you let me sleep? We were suppose to leave before dawn.”
The Sheriff glanced at him before moving on to saddle his horse. “So you could fall out of your saddle?”
Adam rolled gingerly to his knees and started to fold the blankets he’d been laying on. “So we can get a good start.”
“We’ll get a good start whether we leave at dawn or an hour after.” the Sheriff said. “And you need the extra rest.”
“An hour won’t do much for me.” Adam grunted, threw his bedroll over one shoulder, and stood slowly. His muscles trembled slightly, but he clenched his teeth and stepped up to his horse.
“You’d be surprised.”
Adam glanced over Juniper’s back at him, but the Sheriff was busy with the saddle. The morning was cool, and the ground still spongy from the storm the night before. Adam heaved his own saddle up on Juniper’s back and started to strap it on, his mind stretching out against the slowness of sleep into alertness.
Though the Sheriff had tried to get Adam to see the doctor before leaving Carson City, he had refused. Painful though his injuries were, they weren’t serious. Adam had sent his telegram, a short note that seemed formal and distant when he reread it. Still, the tone of the message didn’t matter, only that Pa get it and come back as soon as he could.
Why? Adam, though he told himself he’d grown out of his youthful perceptions, still viewed his pa as a kind of superhero, one who could improve a situation simply with his presence. But what could Pa really do that Adam wasn’t already doing now? Search for Joe, yes, and two parties were better than one, but it would take Pa a long time to return to Virginia City, and then he would go on to the Ponderosa before Carson City. Adam couldn’t just wait for him, he had to search now.
How had Joe handled the storm? Adam had always liked storms, always enjoyed sitting on the porch and watching the lightning dance to the beat of the rain and the crash of the thunder. Storms were poetry, and each had a different rhythm with its words.
But Joe had never seen them that way. He wasn’t afraid of them, but they made him wary and cautious, and sometimes even nervous. Still, maybe that was best. If a storm could make Joe slow down and think, then Adam would pray for rain every night until he found him.
“You ready?” the Sheriff asked. Adam looked up; the man was already in his saddle, his head raised and chin tilted slightly as he searched the road ahead.
Adam climbed into his saddle, ignoring the flare of pain from his ribs, and flicked the reins. Juniper started forward eagerly, ready to move, to chase the dew from his coat. Already the morning was starting to warm, and the chill of the rain was fading into the sunlight.
They rode silently, eyes scanning the ground for tracks. The storm had wiped away anything that had been there, but a hoof pressed into the early mud would leave tracks that a blind man could follow. Adam just hoped Kensington wouldn’t think of this. He hoped that the doctor would want to keep moving and start early, to put as much distance between himself and Carson City as possible.
And if he did? Would Adam be able to catch up? Of course he would; he was going to find Joe today. Failure was not an option.
At noon they paused for a quick lunch, and were back in their saddles within half an hour. Adam had to shift his weight from side to side, ever changing his position, striving for the least painful pose he could obtain. It was a fruitless search; with every hour that passed his muscles became more stiff, his injuries throbbed more diligently. The only thing he could think to do was to increase their pace. It made him feel as if they were getting closer to their quarry, and made it that much easier to ignore his pain.
“Wait,” the Sheriff said suddenly. Adam looked up, pulling back gently on the reins, and followed the Sheriff’s gaze. Up in the rode before them was the silhouette of a horse, without a rider, plodding along slowly with its head down.
Cautiously, Adam started Juniper forward. The horse ahead of them lifted its head and neighed, and Juniper answered with a friendly snort. Adam let him trot forward, squinting past the sunlight to make out the details of the horse. It looked black… no, dark brown, and small. A pony? As soon as the word flashed through his mind he knew what he was looking at.
“Come on,” Adam said, kicking Juniper into a swift jog. He heard the Sheriff follow, and said over his shoulder, “It’s Joe’s pony.”
The Sheriff didn’t answer, but quickened his pace. Juniper trotted to a stop beside the pony, who had stopped to wait for them, his left foreleg raised carefully. Adam dismounted and bent to look at it. A rock had gotten stuck in the hoof, but it didn’t take long to pluck it out and Puddle seemed no worse for the wear.
Adam patted the pony absently while he checked the saddle. There was food in the saddlebags, and blankets and pots and coffee, which only told him that Joe had less provisions now that Puddle had gone. But why had Puddle gone? There was no blood on the saddle, no torn fabric or anything to indicate a fight. Had the pony simply wandered away? That seemed unlikely; Puddle was content to follow whichever horse led it, and not usually willing to run off alone. Had he been spooked by the storm?
After chasing ideas that Adam had no way of proving, he decided it didn’t really matter. He mounted Juniper again after securing Puddle to a lead rope, and looked back at the Sheriff. “They could be close.”
The Sheriff nodded. “Or they could be far. That pony coulda been wandrin’ ‘round fer days.”
“Maybe.” Adam nudged Juniper into motion. “But he doesn’t look like he’s been loose that long.”
The Sheriff shrugged. “ ’Least we know we’re on the right trail.”
Adam nodded. They were on the right trail alright. And without the provisions Puddle had been carrying, Kensington may have been forced to restock, which meant he would have to go through a town. If they could catch him then… It meant they had to be fast, so Adam urged Juniper into a jog. The Sheriff did the same behind him, following his thoughts.
“Don’t worry, Joe.” he murmured, his voice drowned out by the thudding of hooves. “I’ll find you. I’m coming.”
Something brushed against Joe’s cheek. He rolled over, mumbling to be left alone, but the whatever-it-was kept its persistent whispering over his skin. He wasn’t quite awake yet, just hovering somewhere between sleep and alertness, floating in the limbo that belonged to neither the world of reality nor the world of dreams.
He could hear a voice singing softly, but couldn’t make out the words. He didn’t want to anyway; he was content to just lie and listen. His left cheek was pressed against something cool and smooth… the singing faded slightly into the back of his mind as he focused on the fluttering against his skin. When he was young, his mother would lie near him while he slept, her cheek pressed against his. She would blink, so her eyelashes stroked his skin, like the whispers of summer breezes. Butterfly kisses, she called them.
Her voice had gone now, leaving only an echo in his mind. Why had she stopped singing? He wasn’t asleep yet. Joe reached for her hand, but his movement was slow. Both of his hands were moving… they were tied together. He brought both hands to his face and brushed away the tingling sensation, but it tickled his fingers. He opened his eyes.
A tiny black spider raced across his pinky, then scuttled over his palm and up his thumb. Joe stared at it for a moment before it sped down his arm and onto the floor to disappear into the shadows.
Joe’s mind still felt sluggish from sleep, but he remembered now where he was. The stone floor was cold and damp beneath him, and when he looked outside it was still dark. The rain had stopped, but he could hear drops splintering across the ground from outside. He rolled carefully to his elbows and propped himself up.
Both Kensington and Duriff were already up, murmuring in hushed tones that he had to strain to hear.
“We can’t go to town.” Duriff was hissing. “Anybody within a hundred miles of Virginia City would recognize the Cartwright brat.”
“We’ve no choice.” Kensington whispered. “We havn’t enough supplies, now with Joe’s pony gone.”
“Your horse was carryin’ food, too.” Duriff growled.
“The little that my horse carried was ruined by the mud.” Kensington paused, and Joe lowered himself slowly so he was lying down again. “We need more supplies.”
Duriff spat at the floor. “Then I’ll go. You and the kid stay out here.”
“Paul,” Kensington said, his voice low. “Do you really think I trust you that much? That which makes you valuable also makes you dangerous. If you can kill your own wife and child, I hardly think you’ll have any qualms about leaving me.”
Joe sucked in a breath. Duriff had had a wife and child?
“Then you go.” Duriff said.
“And leave Little Joe in your care? You’d either kill him or leave him, and I can afford neither.”
“What’s he to you?” Duriff countered. “Why does it matter if he dies?”
“I told you already. As it is now, we may have a chance of getting away, if we leave Little Joe in Stephens Flats. Adam’s mind will be on the safe return of his brother, not on the capture of us. If we harm him in any way, we’ll never make it out of Nevada.”
Duriff was silent for a moment. “Then leave him. Let Adam find him on the road. Then Cartwright’ll have no leads when he decides to chase us.”
“Too risky.” Kensington said. “There are Indians here, Paul, and bandits. Besides, we don’t know how far behind us Adam is. For all we know, he may not even be chasing us yet. Joe could easily die before Adam even picks up our trail.”
They were both quiet then, and Joe frowned into the darkness, going over what he’d learned. They were going to town, unless Kensington could think of a better idea. They planned to leave him there and go on to… where had they said? Back in Carson City, in the doctor’s office… Texas. They said they’d be half way to Texas by the time anyone realized what was happening. Joe stared at the two. He couldn’t let them get away with what they’d done. Now he needed a plan more than ever.
“The money.” Duriff said suddenly. “You get it from your horse?”
“Yes, Paul, I’ve already taken it from the saddle bags.” Kensington paused, then added, “And I shall keep it on my person at all times.”
Duriff didn’t say anything, but after a while he stood up and stomped over to Joe. “Wake up, brat.” he growled, nudging his side with the toe of his boot. Joe curled away from the contact and looked up.
“I’m up.” he said, making his voice groggy. He rubbed his bound hands over his eyes and yawned, then sat up. “Untie me.”
Duriff just snorted and walked to where his horse was picketed. “We should leave now.” he said. “It’ll take us longer on foot.”
Kensington stood and stretched, then made his way over to Joe and knelt by him. “You’ve annoyed him.” the doctor said calmly. “Paul hates to walk.”
“Then he can ride.” Joe said, holding out his hands for his bonds to be cut. “You and me can walk.”
“I’m an old man, Little Joe.” Kensington said while he worked to loosen the rope on Joe’s wrists. They fell away a moment later and the doctor climbed to his feet. “I can’t go walking any long distance.”
“Luckily for you,” Duriff growled. “There’s a town nearby. ‘S called Junction.”
Kensington nodded. “Let’s go then.”
Joe hauled himself to his feet. Streaks of gray light were pushing through the darkness, playing with the shadows and pushing them gradually from sight. Duriff had saddled his horse, and stood waiting beside it while Kensington and Joe approached. Kensington mounted. “Joe,” he said. “I want you to walk on my right. Duriff will be on the left.”
Joe stayed where he was, on the left side of the horse. Duriff took a menacing step toward him, but Kensington waved him aside. “Leave him be, Paul.”
“You let a kid get away with something and he’ll just keep on pushin’.” Duriff growled. “Then there’s no tellin’ him no. He thinks he can do whatever he wants.”
“You’re here to ensure against that.” Kensington said absently. “Let’s go.” He snapped the reins, and Duriff’s mustang started forward at an easy pace, out from under their stone tent and into the road.
Joe walked, not because he wanted to be cooperative, but because it gave him a chance to think. The jerked beef he’d eaten the night before had taken the edge off his hunger, but hadn’t quite filled his stomach. He’d shoved the bit of cloth back into his boot, and it rubbed against his leg with every step he took, a soft reminder of his success. He was thirsty now, too, but the storm had left puddles and basins of water in the rocks, which he was confident he could drink from without objections by his captors.
His captors. What to do about his captors? He supposed it was best to simply ignore them as much as possible, as he had been doing, so they didn’t suspect him of planning anything. Of course, first he had to plan something. He tried listening for his inner Adam, but the voice was silent. He was on his own.
At first, the walking was easy. It was a slow, mindless task that he could do without diverting too much of his energy from planning. Duriff’s horse stepped rhythmically at his side, his hoofs beating out a dull cadence for Joe to follow. He even preferred the movement over the hours of sitting in Puddle’s saddle.
But after a while the enjoyment faded, and his feet began to ache with each step he took. The cloth in his boot was no longer a comforting reminder; it rubbed against his skin and made it itch. He wished he could move it, but he didn’t want Kensington or Duriff to know of his defiance.
Slowly, an idea took shape in Joe’s mind. To get rid of the cloth would serve two purposes: not only would it relieve the discomfort from his boot, it would give Adam a sign to follow. Joe glanced at Kensington, who’s eyes were fixed on the road ahead. Could he…?
As if going to itch his leg, Joe reached down and plucked the cloth from his boot, feeding it up his sleeve to hide it. He looked up, but Kensington either hadn’t noticed, or didn’t care. Joe waited until they’d walked another few yards before dropping the cloth. He didn’t look back, but he could imagine it falling to the dust, resting on the dirt, waiting for Adam to find it.
They walked the rest of the morning without rest and stopped at noon, turning off the road and building a small fire for cooking. The sulking rocks had gradually vanished, leaving only flat plains and spiky shrubs to break the line of the horizon.
Joe sat a few yards from the fire, pulling off his boots and rubbing his feet. He wasn’t hungry anymore; the jabs of discomfort from his stomach had swelled to a dull, swirling ache, like the stomach aches he sometimes got when he was sick. Hop Sing would usually make some awful-tasting tea for him to drink, and stand over him to make sure he drank it all. Dlink ev’ly last drop, or Littal Joe not get better! Sometimes, if he was lucky, Hoss would slip some sugar or honey into his cup to make the tea bearable. Then he would sit on the big blue chair with Pa, while Adam and Hoss sprawled across the settee, and listen to the voices of his brothers as they reported the happenings of the day.
He sighed. The tea was horrible, but it usually did make him feel better. He wished he had some now.
Kensington watched Joe from the corner of his eye. The boy was still not eating, not talking
more than what was necessary, and not doing anything to call attention to himself. He was very good at blending into the background; when Kensington wasn’t directly thinking about him, he often forgot he was there. It made him suspicious. He’d met Little Joe a few times before, with Adam or Ben in town, and not once had he been this quiet. He had proved the night before that he wasn’t cooperating out of fear, so the only other option was that the boy was planning something. Kensington shook his head. He was only nine or ten; how well could he possibly plan?
That argument didn’t comfort him much. He knew from experience that the Cartwrights were not a family to underestimate.
After a quick meal (which Joe took no part of) and a short rest, Duriff re-packed what was left of their supplies and kicked dirt over the fire. Joe stood slowly, trying to savor the last few moments of not walking before they set off. Kensington climbed into the saddle and looked down.
“Little Joe, you’ve done a lot of walking today.” the doctor said. “Maybe you’d like to ride for a while?”
Joe glared up at him and stepped out into the road. Kensington shrugged and flicked the reins, starting the mustang forward, while Duriff sulked into motion on his other side.
What now? Joe wondered. His “plan” consisted only of getting to town, not what to do once they arrived. He would have to tell somebody the truth about Kensington and Duriff, but he doubted they’d let him out of their view for a second, let alone what it would take to explain everything to someone. An unconscious sigh slipped from Joe’s lips. He didn’t want to plan, he wanted to sleep, and he had several hours to wait before he could do that.
They walked on in silence, and though Joe felt like his feet were being ground up into his knees, he never asked for a break. Kensington stopped them a few times for several minutes worth of rest, but it never felt like enough.
The sun was wearily crawling toward the horizon, eager to fall beneath the blankets of the earth for the night. Joe watched it, marveling at how fast it was sinking, how the clouds turned orange with its passage. The air grew cooler, the sky darker, and here and there Joe could see tiny pinpricks of stars bidding the sun goodnight.
“There.” Duriff said. Joe turned from the sunset and looked to where Duriff was pointing. For a moment he didn’t see anything, but slowly the shadows of buildings began to stand out from the horizon. “Junction.” said Duriff. “We’ll be there by full dark.”
“Definitely a broken leg.” Adam said in a low voice. “It must have slipped in the mud.”
“Was it shot?” the Sheriff asked, standing in his stirrups to get a better look.
Adam nodded. “In the head. Probably the best thing to do.” He climbed to his feet from where he’d been kneeling on the side of the road, next to the body of Kensington’s gray horse. The break in the leg was bad, and shooting it would have been the most humane thing to do, but he couldn’t help feeling sorry about it. The horse was a beautiful one, well-built and strong-looking. It was too much of a waste for Adam to take without feeling regret, even if it was Kensington’s horse.
“Last night?” the Sheriff asked.
“I’d say so.” Adam answered. “They probably camped near those rocks,” he added, pointing to the sharp outline of rocks against the sky. Two of them slanted together, making a natural shelter that Adam was sure Kensington wouldn’t pass up.
“Seems we’re catchin’ up.” the Sheriff commented as Adam walked back to his horse and climbed into the saddle. Adam didn’t answer and didn’t move. He scanned the road around and before them, re-reading the tracks he’d already looked at with puzzlement. The Sheriff moved his horse up beside Adam’s. “Somethin’ wrong?”
“Not exactly.” Adam answered absently. “It’s just… why is Kensington’s horse facing that way, back the way we’ve come?”
The Sheriff shrugged. “Maybe he was chasin’ yer pony when his horse slipped.”
“Maybe…” That did makes sense. Adam snapped the reins and urged both Juniper and Puddle forward. “One thing’s for sure though: they won’t make very good time with only one horse. They’ll probably try to get another.”
“Nearest town is Junction.” the Sheriff said. “If we hurry, we may catch ‘em as they leave.”
Adam nodded. They didn’t even bother inspecting the rocks; it was obvious that someone had camped there recently, and the tracks leaving were of one horse and two people walking, a man and a child. Adam felt the cold anger swirl in his chest again at the thought of Kensington making Joe walk all the way to Junction. When I catch him…
They jogged the horses, slowing them to a walk every half an hour or so and then jogging them again. Puddle kept pace, as if sensing the urgency of their mission. Maybe he missed Little Joe, too.
“Look.” Adam said suddenly. A scrap of white was laying in the road up ahead, standing out against the monotonous browns and tans of the trail. He stopped a few feet from it and dismounted, crossed the last few steps, and picked it up.
“What is it?” the Sheriff asked.
Adam held it up. “Some type of cloth.” he said. It was dusty, with mud stains splattered across the edges. He handed it to the Sheriff, who turned it over carefully.
“Did you see these?” he asked, passing it back to Adam. “Top left corner… initials. P.D.”
“P.D.?” Adam repeated blankly. He didn’t know anyone with those initials. Certainly not Kensington, but what about his assistant? What was his name… “Duriff. Kensington’s assistant. Paul Duriff.”
Adam shoved the bit of cloth into his pocket and climbed back into the saddle. “They’re definitely headed for Junction.” he said. “I think we can catch them.”
“Not if we keep stoppin’, we won’t.” the Sheriff said. “We’re close though… couple of hours an’ we outta be there.”
Adam looked up at the sky. The sunlight was just beginning to fade, though it wasn’t quite getting dark yet. “We need to be there tonight.” he said.
“We’ll have to go in the dark.”
“Fine. Just as long as we get to Junction tonight. Kensington won’t waste time getting a new horse.”
The Sheriff nodded. “You ready yerself, Adam. Just don’t get no notions of revenge. I want you to stay within the law, go it?”
“Sure.” Adam answered. Just as long as Joe wasn’t harmed. If he was hurt in any way…
“Adam? I want your promise now.”
Adam paused. Part of him wanted to answer that he would stay within the law, but he could feel a fury inside of him that he’d never felt before. Would he be able to resist it? “I’ll do what needs to be done.” he answered finally. “I just want Joe back. If we can do that without killing Kensington, fine. But if it comes to violence, Sheriff, I won’t hesitate.”
“I ain’t askin’ you to.” the Sheriff said. “I just don’t want you goin’ off half-cocked. I know that ain’t exactly yer way, Adam, but conciderin’ the stress yer under, it’s possible.”
Adam didn’t answer, and the Sheriff didn’t press the matter. In all honesty, Adam didn’t know what he’d do when they caught up with Kensington. What he did know was that if Joe had been harmed, somebody was going to pay.
Joe dropped to the floor of the hotel, leaning against the wall and heaving an exhausted sigh. He ached all over, from his feet to his knees to his back. He was hungry again, too, but right now all
he wanted to do was sleep.
They had arrived in Junction just before the sun set completely. Duriff immediately left to buy two more horses and to stable his mustang while Kensington took Joe to the hotel. He bought a room under the name “Jim Yarrow” and brought Joe upstairs. “Get some sleep.” he’d said, dropping the saddlebags he’d taken from the horse onto a table in the corner of the room. “Tomorrow will be another long day.”
Joe pulled off his boots and yawned, trying to make it seem like he was too tired to try anything. In reality, he almost was, but he wasn’t about to let a little thing like sleep deprivation stop him. Kensington stood near the window, looking out into the darkened streets, watching for Duriff.
If he was going to do something, it had to be soon. The best time to act would probably be as they were leaving town… there would be people about, enough to hear him if he shouted, to do something if he cried for help. But he would have to make sure he was far enough from Duriff to do anything. If Duriff had already killed his own wife and son, Joe was certain the man would have no qualms about hurting him.
That thought brought up another question that had been hovering in his mind: why had Duriff killed his family? Joe glanced at the door, then back to the motionless Kensington. Could he ask him? He had been eavesdropping when he’d learned about Duriff’s wife and child, and didn’t want Kensington to know he’d overheard their conversation. But if he worded it right, maybe Kensington would tell him anyway. “Doctor?” he asked stiffly.
Kensington half-turned, surprised that the boy was addressing him. “Yes, Joe?”
“Why does Duriff hate me so much?”
The doctor’s eyes flicked back to the window, but he didn’t turn to face it. “Well, I expect it’s because you remind him of his son.”
“He had a son?” Joe asked innocently. He tried not to sound too interested.
“What was his name?”
Joe paused, trying to appear as if he was only asking out of boredom. “Why would he hate me if I remind him of his son?”
Kensington glanced back at him, almost apologetically. “He and his son did not get along well.”
“Oh.” Joe said. He waited again for a brief silence to fill the room before continuing. “Where is he now?”
“Dead.” Kensington said bluntly.
“A fire.” Kensington answered. “Paul’s house caught on fire while he was away. Both his son and his wife were killed.”
“I’ll bet he was sad,” Joe commented. “that he was away and couldn’t help.”
Kensington didn’t answer, but Joe already knew why. Duriff hadn’t been sad; he’d set the fire.
“Here he comes.” Kensington warned.
Joe glanced at the door. “How old was he? His son, I mean.”
The doctor continued to stare out the window as if he hadn’t heard, and Joe thought he wouldn’t answer. But then he said, “Eleven.”, and turned just before the door creaked open to admit Duriff into the room.
“All clear.” Duriff said in his low, harsh voice. “I bought the horses, too.”
“Good.” Kensington said, then looked down to where Joe was sitting beside near the door. “I suppose you’ll refuse to sleep in the bed.”
Joe turned his head away and crossed his arms. A slight smile tugged one corner of Kensington’s mouth up, but he pushed it down again and tossed his head toward the window. “Paul, take first watch. Wake me up in a few hours.”
Kensington lied down on the bed, turned to his side, and was still. Joe scooted back so he was leaning against a wall and watched Duriff. He only had to wait until Duriff’s attention was captured by something outside, and then he could slip out the door and be halfway down the hall before anyone knew what was happening. He started to ease closer to the door, all the while keeping his eyes on the man by the window.
“Oh, Paul.” Kensington said suddenly, propping himself up on his elbows. “Make sure to tie Joe up.” Then he rolled over and was still again.
Joe glared at the bed. Maybe he could make a run for it while Duriff was looking for rope…? As if hearing his thoughts, Duriff’s hand dropped to his pistol, flicking off the strap that held it down. Joe froze, mentally throwing every bad word he’d ever been told not to say at the man. Duriff pulled some rope from the saddlebags Kensington had dropped on the table and crossed the floor silently. He knelt beside Joe and pulled his arms roughly behind his back, binding them tightly. Joe wondered if he could spit at him while he was getting up, but decided it would only get him into more trouble. Duriff stood and went back to his window.
Joe muffled a sigh and turned his head for a more comfortable position. He would have to wait until Duriff was very distracted if he expected to get away now. His eyes burned, begging for the sleep that Joe was determined to deny them. He wouldn’t have to wait long, just enough for Duriff to get careless…
When Duriff glanced back at him a few minutes later, Joe was already asleep.
It was well past midnight when Adam and the Sheriff rode into Junction. Adam was exhausted; his body felt as if it would fall apart if he spent one more minute in the saddle. His ribs sent stabs of protest at every move he made, and his head pounded in time with his horse’s steps. He could barely keep his eyes forced open, and the dry wind that blew across the streets only made it worse. But as the weary horses plodded into the town, Adam felt the slow, cold fire flare up inside of him, like glowing coals feeling the breath of a breeze. Kensington was here somewhere, and with him, Joe.
The streets were dark and empty, which was only to be expected at such an hour. Adam drew up in front of what looked like a hotel (he couldn’t be sure, in the darkness, but the architecture of the building looked similar to that of most other hotels), and dismounted. He patted Juniper on the neck and rubbed Puddle’s nose, something he’d seen Joe do when he was pleased with the pony’s actions. He looked at the Sheriff, who had rode in behind and was wrapping the reins of his horse around the hitching post.
“You ready?” the Sheriff asked, noting the way Adam leaned slightly to one side in an effort to relieve some of the pressure from his ribs.
Adam only nodded, not trusting himself to speak. This was it. Kensington was in there… he had to be. Silently, Adam made his way up the steps and eased open the door.
The hotel was still and quiet, and dark. Adam left the door open for the Sheriff and walked to the black shadow that was the reception desk. He smoothed his fingers over it until his skin brushed against cool, round metal, and dropped his palm onto it. It sent out one loud, silence-shattering ding that made Adam wince, but he repeated the action three more times before pausing to listen.
“What, what?” a sleep-muffled voice murmured. A low thud and a whispered curse followed the words, and then a lamp flared up on the corner of the desk. Adam pulled back from the sudden light, his head pounding. When he finally looked back, a thin, half-asleep man stood behind the desk, resting his chin in one hand and waiting for Adam to say something.
“You have guests here tonight?” Adam began.
“Sure, sure, but still room for you.” the man said. “You want a room with or without a lock?”
“I don’t want a room, I’m looking for someone.” Adam said. “A man named Kensington.”
The man yawned and started flipping through a red-covered book with the word Guests printed in gold letters across the front. “No, no Kensington. Just a Blake, a Benson, and a Yarrow.”
Adam’s face fell. Kensington wasn’t here? For a moment, his mind was blank to anything but crushing disappointment, but slowly a thread of thought pushed its way through the cloud of hopelessness. “He could be using a different name…” he said slowly, as the thought came to him. “What did these men look like?”
“Blake is a lady… a miss Henrietta Blake. The Mr. Benson was with her. Her uncle. And Yarrow… Tim Yarrow… Pardon, Jim Yarrow. An older gentleman.”
“What was Yarrow wearing?” Adam pressed.
“Well, I didn’t really pay that much attention.” admitted the man. “Though I did notice the man’s rather finely made gray waistcoat.”
“That’s him!” Adam leaned forward, both palms on the desk. “And who was with him? A man and a boy?”
“Yes, yes.” the man said.
“Which room? What number?”
The man glanced between Adam and the Sheriff. “Look now, I don’t want any trouble.”
The Sheriff flashed his badge into the light. “The only trouble there’ll be is if you don’t tell him what he needs to know.”
The man’s eyes touched Adam’s briefly before looking down at the book again. “Room number 3.”
Adam was gone before he had finished talking. The Sheriff tipped his hat quickly before following the oldest Cartwright boy up the stairs. Adam took them two at a time, barely even feeling the pain of his injuries. Joe was up there, in room 3. Joe was right there, just a few steps away…
“Kensington!” Adam snarled, throwing open the door to the room and pulling out his gun in the same instant. The room was dark, but he could make out a mound on the bed. Kensington?
Adam stepped into the room. A slight breeze stirred the air… the window was open. Slowly, Adam moved to the table at the side of the bed and lit the lamp that was there, keeping his gun trained on the lump of shadows on the bed.
The Sheriff burst into the room seconds after the lamp sent light flooding across the walls. Adam stood over the bed, stiffly, staring down at the twisted blankets. “Adam?” the Sheriff called carefully. Adam looked over his shoulder.
“Nobody’s here.” he said. His eyes were downcast, his shoulders drawn in with defeat. “They’re gone.”
“Adam,” the Sheriff repeat slowly, stepping closer.
Adam’s head snapped up, and the fire flared up in his eyes. “The stable.” he said, swearing softly. “They went out the window. We should have been watching the stable!”
The Sheriff repressed a sigh of relief. For a moment there, it almost seemed as if Adam had given up, and that scared him. But of course he hadn’t given up; he was a Cartwright after all.
“The stable.” Adam repeated.
“You go.” the Sheriff said. “I’ll cut them off at the other end of the street.”
Adam gave a short nod, and then he was leaping down the stairs again. Get ready, Kensington. I’m coming.
Duriff had just glanced back to the window after checking on Joe when his eyes picked up movement outside. He leaned back instinctively, though he doubted he’d be visible from the darkened streets. There were three shadowy figures below, horses, by the looks of them. One didn’t have a rider. They walked to the hitching post at the front of the hotel, directly below him. He watched them, carefully making sure that both riders dismounted and went inside before turning quickly from the window.
“Wake up.” Duriff hissed to Kensington, placing a leathery hand on the other’s shoulder. The doctor rolled over stiffly, waiting for his assistant to explain the reason for waking him. “Two riders just came in.” Duriff whispered. “One of ‘m fits Adam’s build. They’re here in the hotel.”
Kensington moved silently from the bed and gathered up the saddlebags. “Get Little Joe.” he ordered quietly. “They both went inside?” At Duriff’s nod, he continued, “We’ll go out the window.”
Duriff crossed the floor noiselessly and grabbed Joe’s arm, pulling the boy to his feet. His other hand wrapped tightly across his mouth, choking off the shout of alarm that was rising in his throat. “Don’t make a noise,” Duriff hissed, bringing his face down close to Joe’s. “We’re leaving.”
He thrust Joe toward the window, which Kensington had already opened. Joe stumbled, but managed to keep his feet. What was happening? Why were they moving now? He glanced out the window past Kensington’s black silhouette… it was still dark. Joe’s sleep-muddled mind struggled for control over his thoughts, but nothing seemed to make sense. Thoughts and ideas were pushed back by the answerless questions that circled about his mind. What’s going on?
“Paul, you go first.” Kensington said, moving back from the window. Duriff stalked across the room, his movements smooth and deathly silent, like a prowling mountain cat. He climbed out of the window and dropped noiselessly on the roof beneath him, which was only four or five feet lower than their room. He crouched, perfectly still, listening to the muffled voices in the room below. After a moment, he turned and waved to Kensington.
“Alright, Joe, you’re next.” Kensington said, bending slightly and lifting Joe to the windowsill.
“What’s happening?” Joe asked through a yawn.
“Nothing. Go to Duriff.”
Duriff? Joe thought. He was the last person Joe wanted to go to. Why should he?
“Come on, brat.” Duriff growled. Joe glanced over his shoulder just in time to see a dark hand reach out for him, and then he felt himself being pulled back out of the window. He opened his mouth to cry out, but again Duriff covered it with his hand. He set the boy down on the roof beside him, careful to make no noise. “Follow us down.” he whispered to Kensington. “But first…” Still pressing his hand over Joe’s mouth, he dug into his pocket and pulled out a once-white handkerchief. “I don’t trust you more’n I’d trust a rattler.” he said, his voice low and dangerous. He pulled his hand away, and Joe opened his mouth to yell. But Duriff was faster; he jammed the cloth into Joe’s mouth and tied it tightly behind his head. Joe pulled away and tried to shout, but the handkerchief muffled his voice so it was no more than a groan.
A slow, wicked smile crept over Duriff’s mouth. “Now just try and make noise.” he growled.
Joe drew back against the wall, his boots scrabbling across the roof and making dull scuffing sounds. The shadows here weren’t deep enough, he couldn’t escape Duriff’s gaze. Cold, blind fear rose up in Joe’s chest, and not one thought could push it down.
Adam. Where was Adam?
“Paul.” Kensington hissed from the window. “Go!”
Duriff glanced up and turned, sliding to the edge of the roof. He leaned over it carefully, pivoting his body so he was facing the building. His hands gripped the edge of the roof securely, and, slowly, he lowered himself until only his upper chest was still in sight. Then he let go, dropping silently to the street below and rolling into the shadows. He paused, listening, before he called softly, “Clear.”
Kensington climbed stiffly from the window and crouched beside Joe, who was still pressed against the wall. He didn’t want to jump like Duriff had. He wasn’t exactly afraid of heights; it was the descent back to earth that scared him. In the spring or summer, he and Hoss would go out and find the highest tree they could, and Joe would try to climb it. He would scale the tall, proud branches, feeling the pull of his muscles as he reached for the limbs above his head, stretched for the footholds beneath. Hoss would stand below, craning his head back and
shouting encouragement as Joe climbed higher and higher, until the branches became too brittle to hold his weight. He would find a comfortable spot where a branch met the trunk of the tree and made a sort of saddle, and he would sit and peer out through the leaves or needles at the surrounding countryside. High up as he was, he was never afraid. Then Hoss would shout at him to come down, and he would carefully lower himself branch-by-branch, taking his time and meticulously selecting footholds.
This wasn’t like that, though. Now, he wouldn’t be able to carefully control his descent. He would be abandoning his body to gravity, with nothing to stop him from crashing into the dirt but Duriff. Joe preferred the dirt.
“Joe,” Kensington said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You need to jump. Paul will catch you.”
Joe shook his head fervently, moaning through his gag. Kensington threw a quick glance over his shoulder. “Jump, Joe, or I will throw you.”
No! Joe wanted to scream, but the cloth in his mouth cut the sound to a mumble. Helpless, terrified tears sprang into his eyes. He didn’t want to jump. He couldn’t jump.
Kensington’s eyes softened slightly, but then there was a low thump through the wall behind them and the doctor looked away. “That’s them.” he whispered to himself. “They’re coming.” He turned back to Joe and grabbed one arm, pulling him sharply to the edge of the roof. “Catch him, Paul.” he called quietly. Then he put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and pushed.
Joe had the sensation of his stomach falling away, and the cold night air ripped across his body and snatched his breath away. He squeezed his eyes shut as the horrible weightless feeling of descent gripped him.
The fall was short, and Duriff reached up and caught him with both hands beneath his arms. He swung the boy silently to the ground and let him go, where Joe sank to his knees, trembling.
Kensington dropped heavily to the street, the saddlebags gripped tightly in his hands, and waited motionlessly for a moment. Then he whispered, “Paul, the horses.”
Duriff was already moving toward the stable. Kensington reached down and lifted Joe to his feet, then patted him forward gently. Joe stumbled unsteadily into motion, his thoughts rushing in confused circles of fear and weariness. Why couldn’t he just sleep?
By the time Kensington and Joe made it to the stables, Duriff had already started to saddle his mustang. Kensington threw his saddle on the strawberry roan Duriff had bought for him, his nimble fingers fastening the straps almost quicker than Duriff, who was by far the more experienced horseman. His assistant finished first, and ran to get the saddlebags while Kensington began to saddle Joe’s new horse, a little black gelding.
The two worked quickly and silently. When he’d finished with the black, Kensington picked Joe up and set him swiftly in the saddle, then mounted his roan. Duriff grabbed the reins of his mustang and walked it carefully to the door of the stables, opening it slightly. He paused in the doorway, watching for movement, listening for voices, but when there was none he lead the way into the streets.
Kensington had taken the reins of Joe’s horse and lead him like a packhorse, like he’d done with Puddle. They left the stables with soft, slow steps, walking down the side of the street opposite of the hotel. The sky was pitch black, deep and cool, and the wind sighed through the streets and muffled the sound of the horses’ steps.
Joe had stopped shaking, and his head was finally beginning to clear itself of sleep. He couldn’t let them leave like this, silently, in the middle of the night. Somebody needed to know what was happening. But what could he do? He was gagged, his hands were tied… he was helpless.
For a moment, the crushing fear that had gripped him on the roof returned, and Joe sank into the saddle in defeat. It was useless. He would never be free. He’d be lead like a packhorse all across the country, until Duriff decided he didn’t want to deal with him anymore. Then, with or without Kensington’s knowledge, Duriff would kill him.
At that thought, Joe sat up strait. Yes, Duriff would try to kill him, but Joe wasn’t going to make it easy for him. He glanced across the streets, his eyes picking through the shadows and searching for a place to hide. Not in a house, Duriff might hurt the people inside. A store? No, stores were too small, and didn’t have enough places to hide. The stable, then. If he got there fast enough, he could hide in the hay, or in the loft… and when they searched for him, he could run back to the hotel.
His mind was made up, and now all he had to do was act. Moving quickly, before he could have a chance to change his mind, Joe swung one leg out of the stirrup, across the saddle, and jumped to the ground. Then, as if a pack of wolves was chasing him, he ran.
“Paul!” Kensington hissed, turning in the saddle and watching Joe slip through the shadows. Duriff jerked sharply on his horse’s reins, and it let out a surprised neigh that shattered the silence. He swore and kicked the mustang into a gallop, and tore down the street after Joe. The sound of running feet broke through the night, and Kensington let go of the black’s reins and kicked his roan forward.
A gunshot spit the air behind him, and Joe stumbled into a sprint. Duriff was shooting at him? He could hear the mustang’s hooves beating the ground behind him, pounding into the earth like war drums. It was hard to run with his hands behind his back, and he couldn’t breathe in enough air through the gag. All he could do was keep running.
Joe could hear shouted voices in the street behind him, but he couldn’t tell if they belonged to the citizens of Junction, or Duriff, or Kensington. Keep running!
He made it to the stables, dove through the door, and kept running. There wouldn’t be enough
time to hide, but if he could reach the other end of the stable, get through the back door, maybe he’d have a chance of running to the hotel before Duriff could-
The door he was running to tore open, and Duriff stood barring the way, his gun aimed unwaveringly at Joe.
The horse’s neigh cut through the night, and Adam whipped his head around to find its source. It was in the street ahead of him, but it was still to dark to see anything. For a moment he stood indecisively in the doorway of the hotel, looking out into the shadows. The Sheriff was still behind him, inside, waiting to be let out. Adam leaped into motion.
“I’ll cut them off!” he called over his shoulder, running into the shadows. He pulled out his pistol and fired a warning shot into the air, cutting behind a dark building and slowing to a silent jog, keeping in the darkest shadows. He had no doubt that the horse had belonged to either Kensington or his assistant. They were leaving Junction in the middle of the night for one reason: because they knew he and the Sheriff were there. One of their horses had neighed, giving away their position, and their first idea would be to run.
Adam calculated mentally while he ran, trying to guess where to come out into the street to cut off their escape. A few more buildings… But he couldn’t just run out in front of them and expect them to stop… Adam glanced up at a building about a hundred yards before him. It had a low, slanted roof that sloped over the street, leaving a 15 foot drop between it and the ground. Adam sprinted toward it and climbed onto a barrel that was placed near the wall, then jumped the last few feet and pulled himself up.
He crouched there for a moment, catching his breath and trying to ignore the throbs of his yet unhealed injuries. Then, carefully, he crept to the edge of the roof and looked out into the street.
For a moment there was silence, and Adam wondered if he’d misjudged the horses’ speed and missed them. But then the sound of pounded hooves reached his waiting ears, and a dark silhouette shot from the shadows below him.
He didn’t hesitate. In almost the same instant that he saw the shape he threw himself out into the darkness, his arms stretched out, cutting through the air like a knife. He closed his eyes against the wind that ripped at him, that stole his breath away even as he tried to breathe it.
Adam had underestimated the leap, and almost missed the horse as it ran past. But his reaching arms caught the rider on his shoulder, spinning him and knocking him from the saddle as Adam’s momentum drove him past.
Adam landed hard, rolled once, and lay still, his body screaming at the abuse it had taken. Beside him he could hear the sharp whoosh of air as the rider’s breath was driven from his chest, and the frantic gasps as he struggled to regain it. Slowly, painfully, Adam rolled over, forcing himself to his hands and knees and glaring through the darkness at the rider next to him.
It was Kensington.
“You.” Adam said, in a voice that sounded too calm to have come from him. His pain was gone now; all he could feel was the cold, furious rage boiling up in his chest. It choked him, blinded him, made him shake with fury. Here was the man who had dared to take his little brother, who had caused him so much anguish and worry over the last few days, who had betrayed him and the entire population of Carson City for a few hundred dollars worth of trouble.
Adam had been angry before, but he’d never come this close to absolute rage. Kensington was just a few feet away, laying in the street, panting for breath. How easy it would be to reach over and choke what was left out of him. He hated him. He wanted to kill him.
As if moving of their own volition, Adam’s hands reached out and grabbed Kensington’s collar. He hauled the gasping man to his knees, pulling him close so he could see the whites of his eyes, his knuckles tightening on the fabric of his shirt. One jerk could break his neck. One twist… Adam stared at the man who had been his friend, at the eyes that didn’t plead or beg. His hands were white and shaking… do it now! Kensington had earned it; it was justice; he deserved death. Do it now!
He dropped him. Kensington rolled unsteadily to his knees, gulping in greedy gasps of air, staring dumbly at the young man before him. “Why?” he rasped, choking on the word.
Adam leveled a look of disgust at the doctor. “Because I am not like you.” he said, and climbed to his feet.
“Adam!” the Sheriff called, running up the street behind them. A few townspeople were peeking out of their doorways, leaning curiously out into the darkness, whispering questions to one another.
“Where’s Joe?” Adam demanded.
The Sheriff jogged to a stop beside him. “Wasn’t he with Kensington?”
“He ran…” Kensington wheezed, throwing out a feeble arm to point back at the stable. “Duriff went after him. I panicked… tried to get away… Duriff, he’ll kill Joe if he catches him.”
Panic clawed up Adam’s throat, and for a moment he stood rooted to the ground, too afraid to move. Then he turned, drew his gun, and sprinted into the darkness.
Joe froze, breathing hard, his eyes glued to the dim light reflected from the gun. He started to turn, but Duriff cocked the hammer of his pistol and growled, “Stop.” Joe obeyed and stood stiffly, wide-eyed, his chest heaving. If only he could reach up and pull down the gag… but even if he could, he dared not move.
“You thought you were clever.” Duriff said in a low, dangerous voice. He took a step closer and slowly closed the door he’d come through, keeping the barrel of his gun pointed at Joe. “But the town will be up and looking soon. They’ll find Kensington, and that will be all the distraction I need to end this here. Then when they’re checking over your body, wondering whose little boy you were, I’ll have slipped away with no one the wiser.”
Joe would have liked to argue, but both the gag and his fear prevented it. He took a short shuffle backwards, and when Duriff didn’t object, another.
Duriff stepped toward him, his face hidden in deep, black shadow. “You knew this was coming, didn’t you? From the first we met-” he took another step- “We both knew I would have to kill you. Like I had to kill John.”
John? Swirls of confusion danced in his mind for a moment until they brought forth a strain of memory. John was Duriff’s son. The son he’d killed.
Again Joe tried to talk, and again the gag muffled his attempt. He moved when Duriff moved, matching step for step his advance with a retreat. Duriff didn’t seem to mind; he crept forward like a cougar with cornered prey, that has only to wait for its time to kill.
Suddenly, Joe’s foot caught on something, and he fell back onto the wooden floor with a heavy thud. His head rapped sharply against the ground, and for a moment everything was black, but slowly shapes began to fade back into his vision.
The first thing he saw was Duriff. The man had crossed the distance between them and stood confidently, looking down at Joe with contempt and hate. “You’ve disobeyed me for the last time, John.” he said, shifting his arm. He paused, took aim, leveled the gun toward Joe, and smiled.
The gun went off.
Joe cried out through the gag, curling instinctively into a ball. He waited for the pain to stab into him, but all he could feel was the sharp pounding from where his head had struck the floor. Where had he been shot? Had Duriff missed? Slowly, Joe peered through the darkness to where Duriff had been.
He was sprawled on the ground where he had stood, one hand pawing helplessly at the rose of blood that bloomed on his chest. His eyes stared unseeingly at it before he turned and reached out a bloody hand to Joe. “John-” he croaked, stretching blindly into the darkness. Then his hand dropped, his head sagged, and his eyes glazed over in death.
Joe lied where he’d fallen, staring at the dead man with a mixture of terror and pity. He was dead. Duriff was dead. It was over.
Who had shot him? Joe rolled to his knees, his bound hands pushing against the floor to
boost him up, and looked behind him. Dawn was just beginning to pull up the shadows, leaving a watery gray bleeding out beneath them. In the door of the stables, silhouetted against the pale light of approaching morning, stood the figure of a tall man, gun still raised and smoke still trailing wispy fingers into the air. He didn’t move, didn’t talk, just stood statuesquely in the doorway and looked within.
Joe drew back against the floor. Kensington? Or someone else, from the town perhaps? Had someone heard Duriff’s voice and come to investigate? Joe pulled himself up on his elbows, ready to roll into the shadows at the slightest indication of danger.
The figure in the doorway took a tentative step into the barn, his gun lowering. “Joe?” His voice was quiet, and the name came hesitantly. “Joe?”
Joe peered through the darkness. Who would know his name? And then suddenly recognition broke over him like a gust of wind, sweeping his fear away. It was Adam! Adam had found him!
“Adam!” Joe wailed through the gag. He pushed himself to his feet and lunged across the floor, almost tripping himself twice. The silhouette in the door stepped forward and fell to his knees, catching Joe as he pitched forward again.
“Are you alright?” Adam asked, his voice sounding as close to panic as Joe had ever heard. The boy nodded furiously, talking through the gag. “Wait, Joe,” He slipped his thumbs under the gag and pulled it gently away from Joe’s mouth.
“I knew you’d come!” Joe cried. “I told them, but they said you probably hadn’t figured it out yet. But I knew you’d find me! Did you find the cloth? I dropped it so you could find me! Did you get Kensington yet?”
“Yes, yes, we found it, we caught him,” Adam said, trying to keep up with Joe’s babbling. “Hang on a second while I untie your hands.” Joe kept talking while Adam carefully turned Joe around and pulled at the rope around Joe’s wrists until it fell away. The minute he was free, Joe launched himself back at Adam, still asking questions and not waiting for answers.
Adam pulled the small dusty body close, folding his arms around the thin shoulders. His ribs throbbed angrily, but the feeling was distant and fuzzy compared to the relief that had come over him. Joe was safe… Joe was safe… For all his reading and studying, he couldn’t bring one word to mind that would describe the joy he felt. The anger that had crouched within him was gone, crushed by the skinny arms of his little brother.
“I’m sorry.” Adam said when Joe paused his rambling to take a breath. “I’m sorry I took so long. I’m sorry for leaving you behind.”
Joe pulled back and looked down. “I shouldn’t’ve left. I was mad at you when you left to get the robbers, but when I saw Doctor Kensington riding away, I followed him. I thought he was
abandoning you and Hoss.”
“He was.” Adam admitted. “And you did a very good thing, sending Charlie and his friends out to help us. But next time,” Joe looked up sheepishly, and Adam smiled. “Send a ranch hand to do it.”
A slow smile spread across Joe’s face. “Then you’re not mad?”
“Mad?” Was he? Should he be? Adam looked down into the hopeful, worried eyes of his brother and decided that if he had been, he could no longer be now. He shook his head. “No, I’m not mad.”
Joe grinned. “And you caught Kensington? Did you find the money? How much did they take?”
Adam glanced over his shoulder, into the streets. “I don’t know. The Sheriff is with him now.”
“The Sheriff came?”
“Oh.” Joe stood up, his eyes wide. “Can we go see? Duriff and Kensington talked like the money was in their bags.”
Adam climbed slowly to his feet, careful not to let Joe see his pain. “I’m sure the Sheriff’s already found it.” he said. “But let’s go let him know that you’re ok.”
Joe nodded, then looked up at his brother. “Adam… I’m really hungry.”
A short chuckle burst from Adam’s mouth, cut off by a barely-masked wince of pain as his ribs were jarred but the sudden intake of breath. Adam coughed to hide the sound and pointed into the streets. “There’s the Sheriff,” he said. “Let’s go talk to him first, and then we’ll get some breakfast.”
The sun had slowly begun to creep over the horizon, and the streets were becoming steadily lighter. People had trickled out onto their front porches, and a few of them had started into the streets. The Sheriff stood by the hotel, searching Kensington’s saddlebags while the doctor stood nearby, watching. The lawman looked up as Adam and Joe approached.
“Little Joe!” the Sheriff cried, a smile lighting up his stern face. “You alright, boy?”
Joe nodded, his eyes on Kensington. Adam noticed and steered him toward the hotel. “You know what, Joe, I’m pretty hungry, too. Let’s get something to eat. Did you find the money, Sheriff?”
The Sheriff held up the saddlebag he’d been digging through. “It’s all here.”
Adam nodded. Everything had worked out, then; Joe was safe, the money had been recovered, and they could all go home and forget the whole thing.
Kensington’s eyes flickered between Adam and the stables. “Paul?” he asked.
Adam paused and met Kensington’s gaze. “Dead.” he answered shortly.
Joe squirmed under Adam’s hand, so he nodded curtly to the Sheriff and turned to the hotel. “We’ll be getting breakfast, Sheriff.” Adam said over his shoulder.
The Sheriff started to answer, but a man burst out of one of the buildings nearby and started toward him, his steps purposeful and strong. “What in the name of Sam Hill is goin’ on here?” he cried, coming to a stop before the Sheriff.
“I’m the sheriff of Carson City,” he explained. “We been tracking this man and another for a few days now. The other’s in the stables.”
The other man looked from him to Kensington. “I think you’d better come and tell me the whole story,” he said. “I’m the sheriff of Junction.”
The Sheriff nodded and waved Adam into the hotel. “I’ll join you when I’m finished.” he said, and turned to follow the sheriff of Junction to his office, leading Kensington firmly beside him.
“Well,” Adam said, looking down at Joe. “You ready for that breakfast?”
Joe nodded enthusiastically, but movement in the corner of his eye made him turn his head. Two riders were coming up at a dead gallop, and only barely slowed in time to stop before the stables. Joe’s face lit up. “Pa!” he yelled. “Hoss!”
Adam turned in surprise. What were they doing here? Not that he wasn’t happy to see them, but Pa was suppose to be in Sacramento, and Hoss was suppose to be at home. Joe tugged at Adam’s hand and ran into the streets to meet them.
Ben had dismounted almost before his horse stopped moving, and fell to his knees as Joe ran to him, wrapping the boy in a massive hug and then holding him at arms-length to check him over. “You’re not hurt, are you?” he asked. When Joe shook his head, Ben heaved a sigh of relief and looked over his head at Adam, who hadn’t moved.
Hoss dropped down next to them and put a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “You sure gave us a scare, little brother.” he said, the broad, relieved smile on his face taking the reproach out of the words. Joe leaned out of Ben’s hands and looked up at his brother.
“You just wait till I tell you what happened!” he cried, and launched into a narrative of his adventures. Ben stood up, smiling at the two.
“Get out of the middle of the street,” he said, feeling too relieved to be stern. Hoss laughed and swooped Joe up into his arms and carried him to the hotel. Ben followed behind them, but stopped outside and stood by Adam.
Adam had wanted to join his brothers and father in the street, but something held him back. Was it fear? Shame? The knowledge that none of them would be here if it hadn’t been for him? That Joe wouldn’t have suffered the things he had if not for his actions?
“How did you know we were here?” Adam asked after a short pause. “My wire couldn’t have reached you that fast.”
“Wire?” Ben repeated. “No, I finished my business early and was already on my way home. Hoss told me what happened. We didn’t want to waste time following a trail that was already several days old, so we decided just to ride to the nearest town in the direction you were going and see if you’d been through it yet.”
“You didn’t seem worried, Pa.” Adam observed. “Relieved, but not worried.”
Ben clapped a heavy, comforting hand on his oldest son’s shoulder. “No, Adam, I wasn’t worried. Believe me, I was worried when I found out what had happened, but when Hoss told me you’d gone after them and had left several days earlier… well, I knew you’d catch up to them.”
Adam stood silently, wondering how he could reply. “But… it was my fault that Joe left in the first place.”
“Not the way Hoss tells it.” Ben said, smiling. “Son, you’ve done well. I’m proud of you.”
All at once, the days of travel and worry and injuries seemed to catch up to him, and Adam sagged against the wall of the hotel. Instantly, Ben’s face was clouded with concern, and he reached out to steady him. “I’m ok, Pa.” Adam said, his voice tired but firm.
“Maybe we’ll stay here for a few days.” Ben suggested.
“No.” Adam said, pulling himself up strait. “I want to go home. And I’m sure Little Joe does, too.”
Ben nodded slowly. “Alright. Then let’s get inside and get some breakfast, if Hoss hasn’t eaten everything already.”
Adam smiled and allowed his father to lead him into the hotel, and all at once the feelings of fear and shame melted away under Ben’s warm hand. For a moment, he felt like a child again, and Ben was the giant tower of comfort he’d always been. They walked into the hotel, to where Hoss and Joe were talking at a table by the window. He watched them and decided that it wouldn’t matter if they left Junction today or not. Wherever the four of them were together was home enough for him.
Tags: Adam Cartwright, Family
6 thoughts on “He Just Wanted To Help (by Lima)”
Back for a second – or maybe third read. Great tale. I just love Joe-Adam stories.
Wonderful story!! It made me anxious tô know what would come after and I could stop reading!! Thank you for such enjoyment!!
I’ve read this story once before and enjoyed it just as much the second time!
You pegged Little Joe and Adam to a T, and I love reading adventure stories from their younger years. No over dramatacism, or unneccessary sappiness or emotion, but a grand story of a little boy who gets into too much trouble and his older brother who will stop at nothing to keep him safe.
This evoked memories of tales I adored when I was younger – Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, The Three Musketeers- and I admit that I find myself sad this is your only story listed here! Great work.
What a tale he has to tell. Great story.
That Little Joe, you’d spend most days trying to decide whether to box his ears or hug him. LOL Great story. Enjoyed it.
Ah yes! I’ve read this before, and enjoyed reading it again! Quite an adventure for young, Little Joe; and a learning experience for big brother Adam!:)