A dying man’s warning and a hunter anxious to target the ideal prey set Adam and Joe on a race for their lives.
Rated: T (36,700 words)
***Shameless marketing plug: This story has earned a stamp of approval from both Adam Gals and Joe Gals, and has been beta-ed by Sklamb, Southplains & LisaMarie! (Mega-Thanks, ladies!)
- Part 1: Target Practice
- Part 2: The Ideal Quarry
- Part 3: The Gauntlet
- Part 4: Unleashed
- Part 5: In the Fox’s Den
- Old Reviews
Originally titled: Run for Your Lives
This story was initially inspired by the song “Get Out Alive,” by Three Days Grace
“No time for goodbye,” he said, as he faded away.
“Don’t put your life in someone’s hands; they’re bound to steal it away.
Don’t hide your mistakes, ’cause they’ll find you, burn you.”
Then he said, “If you want to get out alive, run for your life!
If you want to get out alive, run for your life!”
Adam found the first body, a woman, behind the barn. Fine lines etched into her brow and at the corners of her eyes marked her as middle-aged. Her dress, new and well-tailored yet coated with a thin layer of dust, marked her as a wealthy traveler. If the ring on her finger was any indication, she had not been traveling alone.
Joe’s shout from somewhere in the trees pulled him instantly to his feet. He drew his gun more on instinct than rational thought. By the time he reached his younger brother, he found his instincts proved false. Joe was kneeling beside another corpse. “He’s been shot in the back.”
Adam sighed, noting that this second body was a middle-aged man in a suit as finely tailored as the woman’s. “I think I found his wife back there.” He indicated the direction with a tilt of his head. “Her neck’s broken. She was still wearing jewelry, so whoever did it….” His lips thinned in a grimace. “It wasn’t robbery.”
Joe’s eyes widened as the implication struck home. A quick search of the man’s pockets lent further proof, revealing a gold watch and a wallet fat with money. When Joe looked up at Adam again, his gaze seemed more sad than frightened. “What happened here?” he asked as he rose to his feet—as though Adam could know the answer…as though he should know it.
The only thing Adam really knew was that he was more frightened than sad, quite the opposite of what he saw in his brother. In fact, he felt as afraid as a child might, like a little boy afraid of the monster in the woods, a monster that had caused a way station to be deserted, broken a woman’s neck and shot her husband in the back—with no regard at all for wealth. Giving his head a small shake, he holstered his gun and dropped his hand onto Joe’s shoulder. “As much as I’d like to stick around and try to figure it out, I’d like even more to have a posse here to back us up. Let’s get to town. We’ll fill Roy in on what we’ve seen.”
“What about them?” Joe nodded to the man’s body. “We can’t just leave them like this.”
“No. We can’t. We can’t bring them with us, either. There aren’t any extra horses. The barn’s as empty as the corral.”
“Hank always keeps extra horses.” With those words, spoken in a soft, uncertain tone, Joe, too, began to seem like a little boy in the woods, albeit a little boy whose beliefs had just been dashed to pieces, rather than one afraid of monsters.
Taking a deep breath, Adam gave Joe a curt nod. “But where’s Hank?”
Joe was silent for a moment. “I suppose we need that posse to back us up and help us figure that out,” he said then, giving Adam the quirk of an appreciative smile and proving he understood. “And the sooner we get out of here, the sooner we’ll have it all figured out.”
Joe stepped away, but Adam did not follow immediately. Instead, he looked down at the dead man, wondering who he was and how he had come to be there. It seemed odd he and his wife would have stayed behind when whatever stage they’d been riding had moved on. Had they changed their minds and decided to go back to wherever they’d come from? Had the stage simply abandoned them there?
“Adam!” Joe’s urgent whisper swiveled Adam around to find him standing frozen, his gaze focused deeper into the woods, his gun held ready. “Someone’s out there.” Joe crouched low, like a cat ready to pounce.
“Wait!” Adam grabbed his brother’s arm. “We don’t know if—”
“We know these people were murdered in cold blood!” Joe cut in, his tone quiet but harsh. “If he’s still out there, we can’t let him get away!” The glare Joe shot at him was flush with anger and determination. There wasn’t a trace of fear.
If Adam had been afraid before, now he was terrified—at the possibility he might see his brother shot down. “You’re right,” he said before slowly drawing his own weapon. “But let’s be smart about this. What, exactly, did you see? And where? Show me.”
Still poised to move, Joe’s chest was heaving. Adam was relieved to see him staying put, even so. “I only saw him for a second. Right about there.”
Adam looked to where Joe was pointing. He could see a fallen log, but nothing more. “Was he running? Did you see which direction?”
“No, I saw….” Joe started to look confused, his brows curling down in concentration. He looked at Adam again, and then into the trees. “I’m not sure. Might just have been…his arm.”
“Could have been…if he was on the ground….” He met Adam’s gaze. “…Waving.”
“Trying to get our attention?”
They studied each other for a moment; and then, almost in unison, they looked down at the dead man. When they looked at each other again, there was no need for words. Whoever Joe had seen was more likely to be another victim than the killer. And that victim was still alive.
Together, they plunged into the trees, hurrying toward that fallen log.
“Run!” The voice was rough, raw…weak. “Go!”
An instant later, Adam and Joe were looking down at old Cranky Hank, the manager of the way station. The front of his shirt was wet with blood from his chest to his waist.
“Where’d he hit you, Hank?” Adam asked, already fumbling with buttons and sticky, wet cloth.
Hank ignored him. “Go!” he gasped through harsh, tortured breaths. His wide eyes, showing more yellow than white, were as bloodshot as any Adam had ever seen. “Run! Afore they…get back!”
Clearly Joe was no more interested in running than Adam…unless running meant chasing whatever blackheart had murdered that woman and her husband, and left Hank there to die. Joe stood warily firm, as though part of him was rooted to the ground while another was already anticipating his pursuit of a killer they had yet to find. “Who did this, Hank?”
Adam barely heard him. His thoughts had already turned elsewhere. His breath caught; his hands froze where they hovered over Hank’s wound, now exposed. The man had been gut shot. “Hank….” Unsure what to say, Adam shook his head to clear it, and then gently set his palm on the man’s thigh. “We’d better get you inside. Come on, Joe, help me with—”
But Hank had no patience for Adam’s attempts at consolation. He grabbed hold of Adam’s arm, his grip uncannily strong. “Ya’ gotta go! Save yourselves!” The words grew softer, ending in a hiss before he closed his eyes and clamped his teeth in a pain-wrought grimace. When his jaw loosened again, he took another quick swallow of breath. “Run!” he added. “Run for…your lives!”
“Why, Hank?” Despite the rigidity in his posture, Joe was panting as though he had already finished the chase. “Who did this?”
His questions drew Hank’s gaze, but only for a moment. Even then, Hank provided no answers. Instead, when he looked at Adam again, he shook his head. “Run!” The word came out in one long breath as his fingers loosened. His hand fell from Adam’s arm.
“Hank?” Adam grasped his shoulder until he realized the vacant look in the man’s eyes made it clear he’d already said as much as he ever would. Letting out a long breath of his own, Adam looked up at Little Joe. “He’s dead.” It did not comfort him to finally see fear in his brother’s eyes.
“They’ve already got a head start!” Joe argued. “If we waste time going for the sheriff, we’ll never catch up with them!”
Adam could hardly see it as a waste of time. “If we catch up with the kind of men who did that to Hank, not to mention shooting a man in the back and breaking a woman’s neck….” He took a deep breath and pulled his shoulders back. “Face it, Joe. We need help.”
“What we need is to catch those men!” There was no mistaking the look in Little Joe’s eyes. He had lost his fear again, slipping into a more comfortable anger. Soon that would change, too. Into rage.
“Come on, Joe! Be reasonable! We don’t even know how many of them there are!”
“There’s one way to find out.” Joe started walking in the direction of the way station.
“Where are you going?” Adam did not move.
“Where do you think?” Joe said without turning. “Whatever happened started at the station.”
“What about Hank?” Adam asked in a softer tone. His words reined Joe in, stopping him from moving further away. Adam could see tension knotting his brother’s shoulders. “You didn’t want to leave a dead stranger out here,” Adam went on, keeping his voice low, “but you’re okay with doing it to a man you’ve known most of your life?”
When Joe turned back, his eyes reflected the battle he was fighting within himself, a battle between sadness, anger and fear. “You’re right,” he said in a voice as tight as his shoulders. “I’m sorry.”
“Come on. Let’s just get him inside. Then we’ll take care of the strangers.”
Nodding, Joe rejoined his brother and took up Hank’s feet, while Adam took the heavier weight of the man’s upper body. Their progress was slow. Both brothers stumbled more than once on hidden roots, thick twigs and brambles. But when they were halfway back to the station, Joe didn’t just stumble. He stopped.
Adam watched, curious at Joe’s puzzled expression as the younger Cartwright twisted his hold on Hank, trying to get a better look at the ground. “Joe?”
And then Adam watched as confusion became recognition, and then…horror.
He didn’t ask why Joe was lowering Hank to the ground; he simply followed suit. Once Hank was settled, Adam’s gaze moved from Joe’s to the pine branches Joe was pushing aside. What he saw then made his stomach lurch. Joe had stumbled…literally…onto yet another body, a young man in a store-bought suit, one that lacked the fine tailoring of the couple’s.
There was a pleading tone in Joe’s voice that made Adam wish to Heaven he could give his young brother the response they both wanted to hear. But it wasn’t all right. It wasn’t going to be all right. And they both might very well be in danger.
“Let’s not waste any more time,” Adam warned softly. “We need to get help.”
Joe’s slow nod was the only acknowledgement he seemed able to offer.
Adam couldn’t speak any better than his brother. He just grabbed hold of Little Joe’s arm and started pulling him forward. And then he made sure Joe stayed closely ahead of him all the way back to the main yard, where they’d left the horses.
Trouble was, once they got there, the horses were nowhere to be found.
“There are too many tracks!” Joe looked down the road and then swiveled around to look the other way. “They could have gone anywhere!”
Adam returned his attention to the tree line, where he’d spotted a single boot print heading deeper into the woods. He soon found his gaze moving upward, into the trees themselves. They were being watched. He was sure of it. He just couldn’t quite figure out where the watchers were currently positioned…or how many there might be.
He sensed rather than saw Joe moving up behind him.
“My guess is they went up higher into the mountain,” Joe said at his shoulder then.
Adam turned to face him. “What makes you so sure?”
Joe only met his eyes for an instant. His attention was focused elsewhere…everywhere else. Joe was looking for exactly what Adam was looking for: any sign at all about what sort of murderers were lying in wait.
“If they were interested in getting away,” Joe answered then, “we’d still have our horses. No, they’re waiting for something, Adam. I don’t know what, but they’re waiting.” His gaze finally landed back on Adam’s, and then held there. “If we leave now, we might be able to catch up to them by nightfall.”
Adam took a breath and glanced around, as though he was considering Joe’s suggestion. “It might be wiser to stay right here,” he said after a moment. “Another stage will be by in a few days, if someone doesn’t ride in sooner.”
“Don’t you think that’s exactly what they want us to do? Stick around so we can be slaughtered just like—” He let the sentence go unfinished, recognizing Adam’s unspoken warning. The effort to hold his tongue was obvious in his suddenly rapid breaths. He wouldn’t even meet Adam’s gaze anymore; his own just skittered away. Finally, he shook his head. “I’m not staying here,” Joe said before looking at Adam again.
Opening his mouth to answer, Adam thought better of it. He made one final sweep of the trees, and then wrapped his arm around Joe’s shoulder to lead his brother back to the road. Joe tried to pull away several times as they walked; each time, Adam tightened his grip—not enough to truly hold him, but enough to let Joe know he had a reason for keeping his brother close. When he was pretty sure Joe was about to pull away for good, Adam drew Joe even closer so he could whisper into his brother’s ear. “Wait.”
As soon as they reached the midpoint of the yard, where Adam judged them to be just about equidistant from the buildings and the trees, he felt reasonably comfortable they could hold a private conversation if they spoke quietly enough. Satisfied, he pulled away to look directly at his brother. “I can’t be sure,” he said softly, “but I think they’re listening.”
Joe’s eyes darted around before settling again on Adam’s. “Who are they, Adam? Why are they doing all this?” Patience had never been one of Little Joe’s strong points, and his nerves were growing increasingly frayed. He needed to fight someone, or at least do something; and Adam knew if he didn’t help his young brother direct all that nervous energy into something worthwhile, whatever Joe ended up doing might actually invite the very danger they needed to avoid.
“I don’t know,” Adam answered. “But I promise you we’ll figure it out. After we get help.” He locked his eyes on his brother’s and waited for Joe to give him a small nod. “If we go into the high country,” he went on then, “they’re likely to find us before we find them.”
He was thankful to see Joe look appropriately chagrinned. “Virginia City it is, then,” Joe said quietly, giving Adam a small smile before looking down the road again.
Adam pulled his attention back with a hand on his brother’s arm. “But not that way. We’ll be too exposed.”
Joe nodded. “How about the deer run out back? It heads down to—”
“Too obvious. We can’t take any marked trail, however small. We’ll have to stick to the trees.”
Joe’s gaze deepened as he focused his thoughts, considering their options and seeming to accept Adam’s suggestion. “We know this country better than they possibly could.”
“Yes, we do.” Adam smiled sadly, warmly, appreciating his too often obstinate brother’s ability to pick up on what he was thinking and hoping Joe would find equal acceptance for the rest of the plans he was about to detail. “We can start out behind the barn; make it look like we’re taking care of the woman. Then at my signal, you head north, right into the woods. The minute you hit the trees, run like hell. Don’t stop until you reach the creek.”
Joe tensed. “I’m not leaving without you.”
That had not been the argument Adam had expected. Joe would often accept being told what to do, but not how to do it. Joe tended to have his own ideas on the matter of how, ideas his young blood needed the freedom to put to the test, Still, whenever it had mattered, when it had really counted, Adam’s young brother had always stood by him. No, he should not have been surprised; because it truly mattered now. “I’m glad to hear it,” Adam answered, honestly. “I’ll be right behind you, Joe. I promise.”
Joe’s stance softened. “We should go inside first,” he said quietly, directing his attention to the station building. “We might find some extra guns and ammunition.”
“Good idea.” Adam wrapped his arm once more around his brother’s shoulders and started tugging him toward the building. “Coffee will do us both good,” he said in a voice loud enough for any listeners to hear him.
At the door, Adam’s arm fell from Joe’s shoulders. Childishly, Joe wanted it back. He couldn’t help but grow increasingly tense in the absence of that small comfort and the false sense of protection it had provided. But he wasn’t a child anymore. And false protection was useless. Both brothers needed some real protection; a gun would provide far more of that than any brother’s arm.
Joe’s hands curled around the grip of his handgun, giving him all the comfort he needed. A glance toward Adam showed his brother had also taken a gun to hand. At Adam’s slow and measured nod, Joe responded with one of his own. Then, reaching forward, his tongue sliding quickly across his suddenly parched lips, Joe turned the doorknob.
And then Adam gave the door a hearty kick.
The station house had been the first place they’d looked for Old Hank when they’d ridden in with dry canteens and tired horses, weary themselves from spending a week on the trail. They hadn’t planned to stay long. No more than four hours from home, they’d both been anxious for a hot bath and clean clothes. Joe hadn’t thought much of the empty yard at first. Even when no one had responded to their shouts and Joe had peered at the inside of the station house to find it as empty as the yard, still he hadn’t been terribly concerned. Not then. Not until….
Joe’s heart pounded hard against his chest as his thoughts took him back to Old Hank’s dying words.
Run for your lives!
Had the station house really been empty when Joe had looked before? He hadn’t focused on the shadows within. He hadn’t even stepped inside to check behind closed doors.
Now, as the door crashed inward revealing nothing more than the shadows he had found before, Joe studied the main room far more thoroughly. A small side table near a weatherworn settee had been knocked over. Beside it lay an overturned, glass ashtray, and, just beyond that, the stub of a cold cigar. Near the kitchen table on the other side of the room, a wooden chair was lying on its back. On the table itself, seven plates were still laden with food; a small swarm of flies were enjoying what Hank’s guests had abandoned.
Adam had surely noticed the count. His gaze had a calculating look to it when he met Joe’s, the kind of look that made it clear he knew what that count implied. Three people had yet to be found; until they were, Adam and Joe would be wise to consider the number to represent the count of killers. When Adam cocked his head toward Hank’s closed, bedroom door, Joe simply nodded back at him.
This time, Adam turned the knob and Joe gave the door a kick.
Once again, the effort had been unnecessary. The room was empty. In fact, the entire house was empty…except for Adam, Joe and a small swarm of flies.
Not long after, it was becoming disturbingly apparent the house was as empty of weapons as it was of people. Joe had one last place to check: an old trunk in Hank’s bedroom. But when he opened the lid, the first thing that caught his eye turned frustration into wonder. For one, brief instant, his day was no longer about murderers and the warnings of a dying man, it was about a dusty street in Virginia City, and making an hourglass-shaped wooden top dance on strings.
“Well, what do you know,” he said softly to himself as he pulled out the familiar toy that had been sitting atop a pile of others. When he heard Adam moving up behind him, his thoughts did not return willingly to the task at hand.
“Joe?” Adam asked, his tone more curious than accusing despite Joe’s careless use of precious time.
Sighing as heavily as a man old as Hank might, Joe pushed himself back to his feet. “Nothing we can use now. One of Hop Sing’s cousins gave it to me a long time ago.”
“How’d it end up here?” Adam moved closer to peer over Joe’s shoulder into the chest.
Joe shrugged, shaking his head. “I had it in town. Dropped it when Pa started yellin’ at me for…something,” he added, absently rubbing the back of his neck. “When I went back to pick it up, it was gone. Old Hank had been sittin’ on a porch close by. Kept tellin’ us to find another place to make trouble. Mitch and I always did figure he was the one who took it.”
“He didn’t earn the name Cranky Hank for nothing.”
“Wonder why he kept all this stuff?”
“Maybe he had as much fun being cranky as you had making him that way.”
“He didn’t deserve to die like that, Adam.” Joe tossed the toy back where he’d found it, putting enough energy into the throw to dislodge the entire pile where it had landed. He couldn’t look at it anymore. He couldn’t even think about it anymore. He swiveled around, turning his back on toys and memories that were as useless as he felt at that moment.
And then Joe’s thoughts became as dislodged as that pile of toys when Adam responded with surprise rather than offering any of his usual brotherly advice. “At least he’s giving us a fighting chance.”
Confused and curious, Joe turned to see his brother kneel down beside the trunk.
“Looks like old Cranky Hank was hoarding more than just children’s toys.” Adam pulled out two rifles, and then followed that with a box of bullets.
Running went against all of Joe’s instincts. He wanted to turn and face whoever was out there, to confront them head on. But how can you confront an enemy you can’t see, one you can’t even hear? He knew they were out there, just as Adam had known before, but where?
When Joe and Adam had left the station house, they’d wrapped the rifles in blankets in an imperfect attempt to hide them from that unseen enemy when they carried them outside.
Shrouds, Adam had called those blankets. “We can’t bury the bodies,” he’d said loud enough for the watchers to hear, “but we can at least cover them for now.”
That’s what he’d said, but he’d never intended to cover all of them, just the woman. Not because she deserved it more, but because she was positioned in a way that would give Adam and Joe the best access to the trees bordering the eastern edge of the property, the edge that led toward both the Ponderosa and Virginia City.
As they covered her up, Joe couldn’t help staring at the woman’s face, wondering if she had a son somewhere, waiting for her to come home, waiting to tell her what new discovery he’d made, or what grand feat he had accomplished.
“Joe?” Adam’s whisper broke whatever spell had taken him back to a childhood moment, the moment when he’d been made to realize his mother was never going to open her eyes again, was never going to give him that proud smile she’d always worn no matter what Joe had come to tell her.
“Take a rifle.” Adam breathed more than spoke the words.
“Any sign of them?” Joe asked in a voice equally soft as he reached for one of the weapons they’d carefully laid beside the woman’s body.
“No,” Adam answered after a moment, his gaze still focused outward, searching. “Nothing.”
Just as Joe had not been able to tear his gaze from the dead woman’s face, he could not quell a new surge of anger that had nothing at all to do with Adam’s words. “What if they’re really gone?” he asked, already feeling breathless though he had yet to take a step. “We could be doing all this for nothing!”
“What if they’re not?”
Joe locked eyes with his brother then, seeing something that stirred his blood more thoroughly than anger or hotheadedness ever could. He saw a look of uncertainty, something Adam would never willingly reveal.
It was enough to get Joe moving. He took up the rifle, gave his brother a stern nod to make it clear he expected Adam to follow close behind him, and then bolted for the trees, just as they’d planned.
“Don’t stop until you reach the creek!” Adam had told Joe in the station house. And despite everything inside of him demanding that he stop—that he stop, and turn, and face those unseen enemies head on—Joe forced himself to do exactly what his older brother wanted him to do. Because that look in Adam’s gaze had unnerved him right down into his bones.
By the time he saw the creek just ahead of him, knowing Adam was just behind, Joe discovered he wasn’t nervous at all anymore. If anything, he was more determined than ever. Something was going to happen right there. He was going to make sure of that. Either the enemy would be forced out into the open, or their nonappearance would prove they’d already moved on.
It never occurred to him there might be yet another possible outcome.
Adam kept losing sight of his brother in the trees. He couldn’t keep up with Little Joe on the best of days, and this was far from the best of days. Despite his longer stride, his size worked against him out in those woods. His age didn’t help—not that he was old, but he was certainly older than Joe. And Joe was of that age when strength and energy worked in perfect harmony with his youthful sense of invincibility, constantly pushing him to ride faster, to work harder and to otherwise try to best everyone around him. He would never best Hoss for strength, but out there in that woods on what might be called the worst of days, running as he was, Little Joe Cartwright very clearly bested Adam for speed. It wasn’t until the end, when Joe reached the grassy banks of the slow running narrow creek that Adam could truly keep his eyes on him.
He ran toward Little Joe, breathless and light headed as much from the exertion as from its cause, as Joe came to a hard stop at the water’s edge. When Joe turned to face him, the younger man’s chest was heaving every bit as much as Adam’s. But Joe’s breathlessness came to its own hard stop then, his gaze moving past Adam to focus on something beyond.
In that instant, Joe hefted his rifle in a rigid grip, targeting whatever had caught his eye.
Adam didn’t dare stop running. He didn’t have to. Joe would eliminate whatever threat was behind him.
Only…Joe didn’t get the chance.
Adam stumbled, stunned and horrified when he saw Joe fall backwards into the creek, the movement punctuated by the crack! of two rifle shots. The first had come from somewhere behind Adam, over his left shoulder, the second from Joe’s rifle as it released a bullet harmlessly into the air.
“Joe!” he shouted, pushing himself harder. He could barely even breathe anymore. Dammit! Why couldn’t he run faster?
Another shot was fired. This time it was clear Adam was being targeted. The bullet hit the ground scant inches from his left foot the instant he’d touched the ground. The impact sprayed dirt against his leg. It didn’t matter. He hadn’t been hit. That’s what it was going to take to make him stop.
And then Joe moved. And Adam drove himself harder still, a surge of relief lending him new strength.
But relief quickly turned to dread when he saw Joe draw himself upright in the shallow water—making him an easy target once again.
Adam wanted to shout out a command for Joe to stay down. He didn’t dare. What if the shooter hadn’t noticed? Adam did not want to draw attention back to his brother.
Then another bullet slammed into the ground, this time beside Adam’s right foot, and he knew he’d been wise to hold silent. That bullet also told him the shooter was playing a game, a carefully calculated, perverse game, matching each shot to a carefully predetermined spot on the ground. Adam’s strides were being watched and measured.
That the shooter could hit the ground with such precision told Adam two things: they were dealing with no common outlaw; and Adam had not been targeted for death—at least, not yet.
Puzzled, Adam slowed as he approached the creek. Joe was climbing out of the water, his right hand grasping a rock for support, his left arm held tightly against his side. Adam was almost close enough to reach out and help when he saw his brother’s gaze slide past his own. And then Joe was reaching for his rifle rather than for support.
There was another shot from behind Adam, followed by an explosion of wet sand that nudged the discarded rifle an inch further from Joe’s hand.
Adam took one final step and dropped to the ground, crashing down on one knee so hard his already rigid jaw clamped tight in an audible snap. Momentum propelled him forward, but he was already twisting around to face the threat behind him. He hit the ground again, this time with his shoulder, and then again, on his back. Before he’d even managed to regain the breaths each jolt had forced from his lungs, Adam had his own rifle raised before him, cocked and ready to fire…if he could only find his target.
He looked to the right, where he’d judged the shooter to be hiding when a sudden flash in his periphery vision prefaced the pop of another shot. A spray of sand against his back told him that shot had once more struck close to his brother.
Were there two shooters targeting them, one to Adam’s right, and another to his left?
“Joe?” he called without turning, his gaze locked on the trees where he’d seen the flash. Then something moved to his right, drawing his attention back to where he’d originally been looking. A thick, dark shadow was separating itself from the trees.
“I’m all right!” Joe hollered back. “Just take the shot!”
“Not a good idea,” a man called from Adam’s left. “If you pull that trigger, I shall pull mine.” He sounded like a polished Easterner. “And if I do so, it will not be dirt splashing against your back this time, but rather the brains of that fine looking young man behind you. Human trophies are not as presentable as traditional game. Rather repulsive, in fact, as I discovered in New Guinea. But it would still be a shame to irreparably damage such fine features, don’t you agree?”
“He’s bluffing, Adam,” Joe challenged. “Take the shot!”
But the Easterner took a shot instead. Adam heard a soft gasp behind him.
Terrified by the implications, Adam went limp, the rifle nearly falling from his grip despite the continuing threat posed by two shadows…one of which was approaching now, gaining definition with each step until Adam found himself facing a gentleman in a brown traveling suit. Cradled in his arms was a buffalo rifle equipped with a scope.
“Joe?” Adam called softly without turning, his throat closing around his voice. His eyes remained locked on the man ahead of him while he listened for movement from the other, thicker shadow to his right.
“I’m okay,” Joe said again; but this time there was no strength in his tone. Like Adam, Joe’s voice had gone quiet.
“I am a man of my word,” the stranger went on. “I promised to open up the boy’s skull if you pulled the trigger. You have not yet done so; therefore I did not lay bare his brains. I do believe, however, I have made my point. Is that not true, young man?”
Joe did not answer. Adam could hear his brother panting again, taking quick, heavy breaths in pain, or anger, or frustration; it was impossible to know which.
“What do you say, young man?” the stranger pressed. “Would you still like to see your friend take the shot, as you demanded just a moment ago?”
“No,” Joe said in a strangled whisper.
“Speak louder, boy! Didn’t your mother teach you it is impolite to mumble! Now, should he drop that rifle of his?”
“Yes!” Joe shouted.
Shocked and fearful that his normally stubborn brother had given in so quickly, Adam threw the rifle away from him and turned to face Little Joe. Joe was sitting on the sandy ground, his right hand clutching his left arm below the wound the first shooter had caused, made clearly evident now by the blood already soaking through the sleeve of Joe’s jacket. He did not seem to have been hit a second time. So why had he—
Meeting his brother’s gaze, Adam noticed a small red mark on Joe’s forehead, at the edge of his hairline. When he looked closer, Adam began to see a very thin, bloody trail. It was a small wound, certainly, not even enough to daze the younger Cartwright, apparently. But it was a wound, nonetheless. And a fresh one, at that. If he were to examine the wound closer still, Adam had no doubt he would find it to be the mark of a burn, caused by a bullet lightly skimming along the surface of Joe’s flesh.
“Splendid marksmanship,” the Easterner said. “Wouldn’t you say? I am considered quite the man to beat. Why, I’ve been known to shoot a fly off a man’s ear at thirty paces, and to bring down a charging lion with a single rifle shot, straight to its heart. I could just as easily have killed your young friend. I still might.”
“Why?” Adam breathed the word through the roiling emotions coming alive within him.
“Because I can,” the stranger answered.
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