Summary: In the sequel to “The Lady Lawyer” and “Fugue,” beliefs unravel and the lines between guilt and innocence blur as one man’s efforts to protect his brother jeopardize the Cartwrights’ hope for healing and love–and survival.
Rated: T WC 77,200
The Lady Lawyer Series:
To Know the Truth
They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; none of them can by any means redeem his brother. . . .
Part 1: The best-laid plans of mice, men and lawyers go oft awry
Raucous shouts and beer-fueled cheers spilled over the batwing doors into the street. A slight young man in a green jacket flew backward through the saloon doors as though propelled by an explosion. He landed on his back in the half-frozen mud of C Street where he lay for a moment, clearly stunned. Then, he gathered himself and barreled back through the still-swinging doors, jaw clenched and fists raised.
From down the block, Hoss Cartwright saw it happen. He backhanded the lapel of his brother’s yellow coat and said shortly, “Silver Dollar.” Adam Cartwright muttered an expletive much earthier than most people would have expected from a Harvard graduate, and the two men broke into a run.
By the time they reached the saloon, the shouts of encouragement had taken on a slightly panicked tone. “That’s enough!” yelled one fellow. “You’re gonna kill him!”
“You got him, Cartwright!” cheered another. “That’ll show ’im!”
“Let him up!” a third demanded.
“Somebody get the sheriff!” the bartender thundered.
Hoss and Adam burst into the room to see a large man bent over something—or someone. A flash of green jacket told them all they needed to know. They shoved spectators aside as the large man grabbed the green sleeve before the clenched fist of the smaller man could descend again onto the figure beneath him on the floor.
“You’re gonna kill him, Cartwright!” shouted the man who held the arm that strained to free itself.
“I got him, Hank!” Hoss called out, taking hold of the green jacket. “Joe! Joe! Listen to me, Joe. Stop it, now! Jest stop it!”
“It’s like he don’t even hear us,” Hank said, shaking his head as he stepped back.
Adam knelt beside the umoving figure on the floor as Hoss hauled Joe to his feet. “He’s alive,” he announced to nobody in particular, careful to conceal his relief.
As if to prove him right, the unshaven man on the floor groaned, his eyes fluttering open. “Where is he?” he growled. Adam couldn’t tell whether the man’s words were slurring from being knocked out or from whiskey.
“He’s leaving,” said Adam, sitting back on his heels. A couple of other fellows, equally unkempt, helped their friend to his feet. As the man stood upright, Adam realized with a start that he probably had a good six inches and at least eighty pounds on Little Joe.
“Come on, Joe, let’s go.” Hoss was still holding Joe’s arm, but Joe was struggling to pull free. “We gotta go now, Joe. Come on, let’s go.”
For a second, Adam stayed where he was, watching them. Hoping against hope. But Joe wasn’t looking at Hoss, and he wasn’t making a sound. Adam caught Hoss’s eye, and Hoss nodded grimly.
Adam muttered a word his father would definitely not have approved of. “Sam, what do we owe you?” he asked the bartender, taking out his wallet.
“Well, Little Joe’s part comes to about a hundred dollars,” said Sam. “Jake and Nate can pony up for the rest.”
“Jake Gillette,” Sam said, nodding toward the dazed man who had been settled into a chair. “Started things up with young Nate Miller. They were playing poker. Jake said Nate was cheating and started in on him.”
“Nate Miller? He’s not even as big as Little Joe!”
“I know,” said Sam. “But Jake took a swing at the kid, and the next thing I knew, Little Joe went flying across the room like he was shot out of a cannon. Landed on Jake’s back and started pounding like nothing I’ve ever seen. Jake came around, but Little Joe did a pretty good job of holding his own, and then he got a lucky punch and Jake went down, and—well, you saw the rest.” He lowered his voice. “I’ll tell you, Adam, I was gettin’ a little nervous. I’ve seen your brother in plenty of fights, but this was different. I swear, if somebody hadn’t stepped in—I don’t know but that Little Joe might not have killed him.”
Adam forced himself not to change expression. “Here,” he said, peeling off more bills. “That’s Jake and Nate’s share. Sorry about the trouble.” He went over to where Hoss was still trying to get Joe to leave, and he laid a hand on Joe’s mud-streaked back. As he’d expected, Joe’s head snapped around, but he didn’t look at Adam.
“Easy, Joe,” he said in a low voice. “Everything’s all right.” Joe’s breath still came hard and fast, and Adam detected trembling beneath the young man’s jacket. “Let’s get going now. Pa’s expecting us for supper, and we don’t want to be late.” He continued talking in quiet, soothing tones as they guided Joe out of the saloon. Outside, he saw Roy Coffee coming from their left. He and Hoss exchanged the briefest of glances, and without comment, they pulled their hat brims down and turned Joe to the right, heading away from the saloon. Dealing with Roy could come later.
* * * * * * * * * *
“A hundred dollars! What in tarnation did you do? Break up the entire saloon?”
Ben Cartwright glowered at each son in turn, but none of them looked up from his plate. Unfortunately for Joe, his blackened left eye was on the side nearest to his father, a fresh reminder of his foolishness every time Ben looked in his direction.
“Joseph, exactly what happened?” his father demanded.
“It’s like I said, Pa—” Adam began.
“Joseph. Tell me what happened.” Ben’s tone left no room for equivocation.
Joe drew a deep breath and looked up. “I don’t know.” He watched as the significance of his answer registered on his father’s face. For an instant, raw grief flared in the deep brown eyes. Then, just as his son had done, Ben drew a deep breath.
“Do you remember going into the saloon?” His voice was still authoritative, but his sons heard the slight shakiness in the question.
“Yes, sir.” Even though it was the answer that was likely to lead to more of his father’s temper, Joe was grateful to be able to admit it.
“Which of your brothers was with you?” The shakiness had vanished, and a growl of anger had taken its place.
Joe turned his attention to his plate again. “Well, sir, I—it was just—I was only going to be there a minute—”
Ben laid down his fork and turned to his elder sons. “Which one of you was with him?” The question could probably have been heard out in the barn.
“Well, Pa—me and Adam figured—I mean, we just had a few errands to do, and we thought we’d split ’em up and then we’d have time for a beer before we came back. Joe finished his lot first, that’s all.” Hoss winced slightly, almost as though their father had already thundered his displeasure.
“You split up the errands.” Ben glared at each of his sons, all of whom were now trying not to cringe at the tone they’d heard since childhood.
“It was my idea,” Joe volunteered with a quick warning glance at his brothers.
“Your idea.” Ben Cartwright had a way of making a simple statement sound utterly absurd. “And your brothers went along with it.” Fixing each of his sons a piercing glare, he demanded, “Have we not discussed this enough? Do we need to go over it again?”
“No, Pa, we don’t.” Joe’s voice was unexpectedly sharp, almost disrespectful. He met his father’s fierce expression with one of his own. “Hoss wanted to go see Anna, Adam had to go over to the land office about that deed, and I just wanted a few minutes by myself. There was no reason to think there was going to be a problem. So if you want to blame somebody, blame me. You can take the damages out of my wages.” He shoved back his chair and threw down his napkin as he stood.
“Just a minute, young man!” His father’s voice stopped him before he could take the first step away from the table. “Sit down.” When Joe had obeyed, Ben continued, “What happened today is exactly the reason you weren’t supposed to be left alone. I understand that you’re tired of being watched, but for now, there’s no choice.”
“It was just a fight!”
“Was it? From what your brothers are saying, this was a good deal more than ‘just a fight.’ Sounds like if someone hadn’t stepped in, you could have caused Jake Gillette some very serious harm.” He watched as Joe ducked his head, biting his lower lip. Ben relaxed his stance slightly. “Joe, I recognize that you don’t like living this way, but until these fugues pass completely, we simply can’t afford to take chances.”
“And what if they never pass?” It was more than a question. It was a challenge. Joe lifted his chin defiantly, almost daring his father to answer.
“What’re you talkin’ about?” Hoss sounded appalled at Joe’s suggestion. “Of course, they’ll pass. You’ll see. Heck, they already don’t happen near as often as they used to.”
“But they still happen,” Joe said. “It’s been months since it all started, and the fugues are still happening, and the nightmares still come. What if this is permanent? What are you all going to do then? Hire somebody to follow me around for the rest of my life?”
“I think you’re getting ahead of yourself, Joe,” said Adam. “From what Doc said, a few months isn’t a very long time under the circumstances. Think about what you went through—”
“I’d rather not, thanks,” Joe snapped.
Adam held up his hand, surrendering the point. “Besides, Hoss is right—today was the first one in more than a week, wasn’t it?”
“All right, almost a week. But back during your trial, you were having them a couple times a day, so this is still a real improvement, isn’t it?”
“Sure, it’s great,” said Joe. “I’ve got to finish cleaning the tack room.” He started to rise, but again, his father’s voice stopped him.
“Joseph.” Ben caught his son’s hand. “I know this is hard for you, but you just can’t take off on your own. It’s too risky.”
“Are you saying I can’t even go out to the barn by myself?” Joe sounded incredulous, but when his father was silent, he shoved back his chair. “I’ll be in my room,” he said, biting off the words as he stormed across the living room and pounded up the stairs.
“We’re sorry, Pa,” said Hoss after the slam of Joe’s bedroom door had echoed through the house. “He’s been doing so good lately that when he suggested it, we thought it would be all right.”
“How long did it last?” Ben asked.
“We were about halfway home when he came back,” said Adam, employing the term the family used to describe the point when Joe came out of a fugue state and was again fully present. “I couldn’t tell from what Sam said whether or not Joe was in the fugue before Jake attacked the Miller kid.”
“Did Joe say anything at all during the fight?” Ben asked.
“Sam didn’t say,” said Adam. He understood what his father was really asking.
Joe had never spoken during a fugue. No speech, no eye contact. And no memory afterward of what had transpired. It was as though his mind simply went missing for a time and there was nothing anybody could do about it.
Just like last fall, when Joe was charged with murdering that drifter. The family hadn’t known about the fugues before that time—Joe had been keeping that information to himself as he tried to sort out what was happening. But when he came home with a knife gash in his arm and blood all over the front of his jacket—far too much for it to be his—he admitted that he’d been having these memory lapses and that he just plain didn’t know what had happened. A few hours later, the sheriff had arrived at the door to arrest Little Joe for the murder of one Frank Grayson, who had been found in an alley with a knife shoved between his ribs.
Ben shuddered at the recollection. To this day, Joe had no memory of what had happened in that alley. They’d been fortunate to locate the two witnesses whose accounts enabled them to piece the story together. It turned out that Joe had intervened in Grayson’s attack on a twelve-year-old Chinese girl. The blood on Joe’s jacket had come from the bleeding child as he’d carried her out of the alley. The knife in Grayson’s chest was the one the drifter had used to slash Joe’s arm as they fought. The little boy who’d seen it all said that the two men fell while they were fighting over the knife. Precisely how it had been driven into Grayson’s body would forever remain a mystery.
“Did you see Anna today?” Ben asked suddenly, turning to his middle son.
“Huh?” Hoss’s fork paused on its way to his mouth.
“Joe said you were going to see Anna. I was just wondering how she’s doing. We haven’t seen her in a while.” If Ben hadn’t already known the last part sounded weak, Adam’s poorly-hidden grin would have made it clear. No two ways about it: whatever skills Ben Cartwright possessed, matchmaking wasn’t one of them.
“She’s fine,” said Hoss. He ate the piece of beef on his fork and stabbed another even as he chewed.
The remainder of the meal passed in silence, punctuated only by the clink of silverware against china and the sounds of chewing and drinking. Ben was just folding his napkin when a light footfall drew his attention to the stairs. He pretended not to notice as Joe crossed the living room, looking up only when his son paused by the sideboard.
“I still need to finish cleaning the tack room,” Joe said. His earlier anger had been reined in to a tightly-controlled tension.
Ben resisted a mighty urge to suggest that Joe finish his supper first. His son was old enough to decide for himself when he was hungry. Instead, he said, “It’s pretty cold tonight. Can it wait until morning?”
“I suppose.” The words were barely audible, and Ben’s heart ached.
“I want to work on breakin’ in that new saddle of mine,” Hoss announced. “Don’t suppose you’d be up for a little ride, would you, Joe? We could work on the tack room after.”
“No, I just—never mind, I’ll do it tomorrow.” Joe turned and headed back upstairs, but not before his father saw a glint of anguish in his son’s eyes.
“Joe, wait! I’m done here—we can go out now!” Hoss called, but his brother was already climbing the stairs. “Doggone it,” the big man muttered. “You reckon I ought to go talk to him?”
“Leave him be,” said Ben. “If he changes his mind, I’m sure he’ll let you know.”
“Unless you’ve already left,” Adam added.
“Aw, I wasn’t really goin’ anywhere,” Hoss admitted. “I just figured he might want to get out of the house.”
Ben smiled, a reaction that caught him by surprise. He should have known. Hoss would go to any lengths to take care of his little brother.
Yawning, Ben rose. “I don’t know about you two, but I’m worn out. I think I’m going to turn in.” He started for the stairs, but Hoss’s voice stopped him.
“Pa, what if Joe’s right?”
“About what?” He tried to sound as though he didn’t know what Hoss meant. As though he hadn’t lain awake many a night over the past few months, pondering the selfsame question.
Hoss’s blue eyes were dark with concern. “What if this whole fugue business—what if it never goes away? What are we gonna do?”
Ben looked from one son to the other. The truth was that there was nothing any of them could do, apart from keeping Joe safe. For men accustomed to helping and fixing and doing, this feeling of impotence was a hard one. The notion that Joe might never be better—that he might experience these fugues forever—tore at a father’s heart. And, he suspected, at a brother’s, too.
“What are we gonna do, Pa?” Hoss pressed.
Ben met his son’s eyes and told the truth: “I don’t know.”
* * * * * * * * * *
“. . . and Sam’s pa is giving us some land as a wedding present, and Sam and his brothers are building the house on it, only I’m not allowed to see it until they’re all done because he wants to surprise me, but he told me about it ’cause I kept asking and asking where we were going to live, and so finally. . . .”
Joe drifted in and out of sleep as the girl chattered. His stomach was still queasy and his mouth tasted sour, but he managed a wink at the frail-looking old man sitting across from him. From the moment they’d boarded, Mary Ann Sawyer had talked of nothing but Sam and their upcoming wedding, which would take place on her sixteenth birthday, two weeks away. At one of the rest stops, old Mr. Ziegler had said quietly to Joe, “I have a feeling Sam’s probably the quiet type.” At Joe’s questioning look, he added, “What choice does he have?” The two men chuckled as they reboarded the stage, and Joe closed his eyes as Mary Ann regaled them with still more details about Sam.
Then, a chilling scream ripped Joe from slumber. Instantly alert, he shushed Mary Ann with a word. The whoop of the Indians was getting closer. The driver yelled to the team to go faster, and Joe shoved Mr. Ziegler and Mary Ann to the floor of the stage. He crouched at the window, firing, as the galloping and whooping drew nearer. An instant later, they were surrounded by screeching red men who fired arrows and rifles at them. Joe saw the driver topple and fall past the window, and almost at once, the stage crashed to its side, flinging the three of them to the ground. The door on the other side opened, and the first of the braves dropped himself in. . . .
And then, they were outside, and he was trying to hold onto Mary Ann, but one of the braves slammed something against the back of his neck that made him fall like a brick wall, and two others yanked her from his arms. He tried to get up as she screamed, but they hit him again, and he could hear the harsh laughter. He struggled, and they held him, still laughing, as the tallest brave tore her dress, exposing her breasts. Then, there were too many Indians in the way, and he couldn’t see her, but he could hear her screaming and sobbing, first in terror, and then in agony. He tried to call to her, but they hit him over the head, and he fell to the ground. He tried to crawl to her, and one of them pulled his arms behind him, kneeling on his back as he grabbed a handful of Joe’s hair and yanked his head up so that he couldn’t help but see exactly what was happening, what one savage after another was doing to this lovely young girl. He screamed at them to stop, and the brave laughed as he pressed the blade of a dagger against Joe’s throat. . . .
“Joe, wake up! Joseph!”
His chest heaved as he sat up, suddenly released from their hold. Tears scalded his cheeks as he choked, “Leave her alone! I’ll kill you!”
“Joe, it’s Pa. It was just a dream, son. You’re home now. It’s over, you’re all right.”
Slowly, the deep, gentle voice penetrated his consciousness. As the hushed words began to make sense, the violence of the scene gradually gave way to the familiar comfort of his own room. The image of the girl and the brutal attack faded as mist, and finally, he saw his father sitting on the bed next to him.
“Pa,” he said, his voice breaking.
“Yes, son, it’s Pa,” Ben said, reaching for Joe at last. The anguish on his son’s face before he remembered where he was—it was enough to break a father’s heart, but Ben knew from hard experience to wait until Joe was fully awake to touch him. Now, he drew his son close, stroking Joe’s hair as the young man’s trembling fingers dug into his father’s back. He smoothed the unruly curls over the scar at the base of Joe’s hairline as he murmured, “It’s all right, you’re safe now. It was just a dream. They’re gone, they can’t hurt anyone any more.” He kept repeating the well-worn litany until he felt Joe relax. Then, he just held him close, praying once again for something, anything, he could do to erase the memory from his son’s mind.
“Is he okay?” came Adam’s voice.
Joe lifted his head to see his brothers standing in the shadows at the foot of his bed. “I’m fine,” he said as he scrubbed at his face with his cuff. Fine. A word that could mean anything or nothing at all. Right now, it meant that he was awake, that he knew where he was. Sometimes, that wasn’t the case.
Hoss disappeared from the room, returning with a small glass. “Here you go, Little Brother,” he said.
Joe managed a small grin as he took the glass. Brandy was their father’s cure for whatever ailed a man, but Hoss knew better. The pungent aroma of whiskey filled his nostrils, and he tossed it back, welcoming the burning trail as it trickled down his throat.
“Thanks, Brother,” he said, handing the glass back. “I’m sorry I woke everybody. You all go back to bed. Really, I’m fine.” Go on, he urged them silently. He understood all too well why they’d rushed to his room, but that didn’t make it any easier to face them when he had tears running down his face like a schoolboy.
“You two go on,” agreed Ben. Reluctantly, Adam and Hoss left the room, their “good nights” somber and lacking in conviction.
“You can go back to bed, too, Pa,” said Joe. “I’m okay, really.”
But it was an expression of hope more than fact, and Ben knew it. However much Joe claimed to be fine, the truth was that talking about the dreams seemed to help. Things that couldn’t be said in the light of day were somehow slightly less forbidden in the dead of night. And so, Ben masked his own pain as first he asked, and then he listened.
Now, he rested his hand on Joe’s arm. “Which one was it?” he asked quietly. Ghosts of which torture, which victim—the stagecoach driver, Mr. Ziegler, or—
“Mary Ann.” Joe dropped his head into his hands. “Why couldn’t they have left her alone? All she wanted was to get married. Why couldn’t they have just killed her if that was what they wanted to do? Why did they have to—why couldn’t they—why did they have to do that to her? I tried—Pa, I tried my best—but I couldn’t stop them, and she was screaming for somebody to help her. . . .” His shoulders shook, and Ben rubbed his arm as Joe fought down the anguish and grief.
Eventually, Joe sat up, wiping his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You have to get up in the morning. I’m sorry I woke you.”
“Ssssh, none of that,” said Ben, handing Joe the handkerchief he now kept in the pocket of his dressing gown. “I just wish there was something I could do to make it better.” An understatement, to be sure. He’d sell the Ponderosa for a dollar silver if doing so meant the barest chance of healing Joe’s agonies.
“So do I,” said Joe. He leaned back against the pillows his father had arranged. “Thanks,” he whispered. For the pillows, for the handkerchief. For listening, for comforting, for coming to his bedside night after night without complaint. For walking this long road with a son whose torment might never fade, might never let any of them return to a normal life.
Ben squeezed Joe’s hand. “You ready to try going back to sleep?”
Joe shook his head. “I think I’m going to read for a while,” he said. “Maybe I’ll figure out who blew up the Hawthorn City Bank before Inspector Dodge does.” Joe’s fondness for detective stories was unshared by the rest of the family, but that had never dulled his enthusiasm for recounting the various plot twists over breakfast. Recently, the stories had served a more important function than mere entertainment: they provided Joe with frivolous distraction until his mind had moved far enough away from the attack to enable him to sleep.
Sorrow rose in Ben’s heart once more as he regarded his son. No one should have to know what this young man knew about the horrors one person could inflict on another. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “You just relax, and I’ll read. Maybe I’ll figure out who did it before you do.” In years gone by, he had often read his young sons to sleep, his deep voice lulling and soothing restless little boys. In the weeks since the trial, when he was at a loss to help his son, they had found that reading aloud—even those ridiculous detective stories—seemed to help Joe quiet his mind enough to keep the terrors at bay.
“Pa, you don’t have to do that,” said Joe. “I’m fine. I just want to read for a little while.” He sounded steady enough that Ben nearly accepted his words. Then, in the low light, he saw his son’s chin quiver.
So, he turned up the flame in the bedside lamp just a bit, settled himself into the bedside chair, and began to read aloud. Joe closed his eyes, letting the sound wash over him, paying less attention to the words than to the warmth and security of his father’s voice. Eventually, he felt himself becoming drowsy, and he opened his eyes slightly as he murmured, “Pa?” When Pa paused, Joe said, “I’m going to go back to sleep now—but if you want to borrow that, feel free.”
Ben smiled. “I don’t think so, but I appreciate the offer,” he said lightly, marking his place. He brushed Joe’s hair back from his forehead. “You sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine,” said Joe. “You’d better get to bed, or you’ll never get up.”
“I might sleep the day away at that,” said Ben. He searched his son’s eyes for reassurance that the young man was truly as all right as he claimed. Finding no real answer, yea or nay, he contented himself with his standard line: “You call me if you need me.”
“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe repeated—his own standard answer. “Good night.” He closed his eyes as his father blew out the lamp and left the room. In the darkness, he forced himself to focus on the memory of his father’s rich baritone reading a silly detective story until the screams of a young girl receded to a corner of his mind.
* * * * * * * * * * *
At the knock, the hotel room’s sole occupant set down his newspaper. He adjusted his spectacles as he drew his watch from the pocket of his waistcoat. Smiling, he nodded his approval at their promptness. Even so, he called out, “Who is it?”
“It’s me,” came a breathy, high-pitched voice that sounded like a schoolboy.
Marcus Tucker strolled across the room and unlocked the door. He frowned at the single man before him. “Where are the others?” he demanded without preamble.
“They’ll be here in a minute. They’re just putting the horses away.” The newcomer towered over Marcus, as thin as Marcus was plump. While Marcus had wispy blond hair, the other man’s hair was rich and lustrous; his dark brown eyes were far more compelling than Marcus’s bulging, pale blue eyes, and his strong jaw was a distinct contrast to Marcus’s receding chin. Only the fierce red scar that covered most of the left side of his face could be said to have leveled the field between the two.
Marcus grunted. “I said to be here at five o’clock.”
“And I’m here,” the tall man pointed out.
“All of you,” said Marcus. “Who has the information?”
“I have some.” The tall man extracted several papers from his saddlebags. “Do you want to see it now?”
“I’ll wait. It builds character.”
“That’s what Mama used to say,” the tall man nodded.
“Yes, Elias, I know, I was there.” Marcus tried not to sound too weary. “Why don’t you go and clean up while we’re waiting?” As he expected, his younger brother obediently pulled off his neckerchief and poured water into the washbowl.
By the time another knock came on the door, Elias had washed up and changed into a clean shirt. Marcus unlocked the door to admit four dusty cowboys. He resisted the urge to suggest that they, too, clean up.
“All right, gentlemen. What do we have?” Marcus looked from one to another. “Carson. Tell me what you found out.”
The man who responded was as nondescript as a man could be. Average build, regular features, a couple days’ growth of beard, hair of no particular color, not even a distinctive accent. Nobody ever remembered him. It was one of his best qualifications for the job.
“Gimme the map, and I can show you,” he said. Elias handed over the map, and Carson spread it out on the table. “The train runs right across here and around here,” he said, pointing. The others bent over the map as he continued, “If we blow up the track right here, they’ll be coming around a curve just before, and they’ll never be able to stop in time.”
Marcus nodded approvingly. “Piper. How much will the train be carrying?”
A man who could have been Carson’s twin said, “Fifty thousand in gold bars.”
Marcus stroked his chin. “Gold bars,” he said with distaste. “They’ll be hard to transport and harder to exchange without being noticed. Will there be any cash on board?”
“We don’t know yet,” said Piper. “I expect word within the week.”
Marcus nodded approvingly. Piper had a cousin who had been working as a clerk for Wells, Fargo & Company since its beginnings in 1852 and who was ready to move on. They’d had a series of meetings in San Francisco, and they’d agreed upon a price for certain information. So far, Piper’s cousin had been holding up his end of the bargain well.
Marcus turned to the third man, a virtual replica of Piper and Carson. “Watson, what about the equipment?”
“It’s all set,” said Watson. “Edwards and me’ll be picking it up on Tuesday.” Edwards nodded enthusiastically. Even inside, he kept his hat on. Red hair was just too noticeable, Marcus always said. If he hadn’t been another of Piper’s cousins, Marcus wouldn’t have let him anywhere near the operation.
“Just be careful,” Marcus said now. “Nitroglycerin is extremely volatile.” When they all looked at him with blank expressions, he stifled a sigh. “It blows up easily,” he translated, and they all nodded.
Marcus straightened his waistcoat and fixed each man with a stern glare. “You all have your instructions,” he said. “After we finish with the train, we disperse—we head in different directions,” he clarified before they could ask. “Elias, you come with me. We’ll be taking the gold, same as always. When you get where you’re supposed to be, wait until I send for you. Do not try to contact me.”
“Where will you be?” asked Carson.
Marcus frowned. Carson knew better than to ask. They’d been working together for nearly three years. Marcus had always taking care of the planning while the others did the manual labor, and he had always been careful to perform his duties precisely as he promised. Not that he hadn’t occasionally been tempted to take the entire spoils and disappear with Elias, but he was no fool: the only way to keep his men loyal—and quiet—was to keep them satisfied. It had taken time to earn their trust, but by now, they generally followed him without question.
“The less each of you knows about the others’ whereabouts, the better,” he reminded Carson now. “Just stay where I’ve sent you. That’s all you’ll need to do. In due time, when the excitement has died down, I’ll be in touch to let you know where to pick up your share.” He was quietly gratified by the expressions on their faces: to a man, they were simultaneously satisfied and ravenous. He nodded as he folded up the map. This was going to work.
He sent all but Elias on their way. “You and I will eat in the room,” he informed his brother. The fewer people who saw that distinctive scar, the better.
Elias nodded vigorously. “Can I ask you something?”
“Yes, you can order steak,” said Marcus. It was Elias’s question everywhere they stayed.
“Good,” said Elias. “But I got another question. Where are we gonna go after the robbery?”
“A lot of places. We’re going to travel for a while.”
“What are we gonna do with the gold?”
“Don’t you worry about that, Elias. I have a place picked out already.” Marcus smiled to himself. He had the perfect place. Bustling, growing, but without the risks of a real city. Small enough to learn quickly, but big enough to hide in. The perfect place.
* * * * * * * * * * *
April 8, 1855. September 4, 1857. October 24, 1859. November 10, 1859. March 3, 1861. And . . . August 7, 1862.
Satisfied, Anna Simmons surveyed the documents. It had taken months to secure the various contracts and letters in a longstanding water rights dispute between two erstwhile friends, but at long last, she had the complete story. Now, all she needed was to review the deeds at the land office, and she would be able to tell Abel Martinson whether he had a legal basis for continuing his battle with Noah Danfield.
“I doubt it,” she murmured, shaking her head.
“You doubt what?”
Anna looked up to see Joe grinning at her as if nothing could ever be wrong in his world. “Got a minute for your favorite client?” he asked.
“Always,” she said, rising. “You’re on your own today?” she added as casually as she could manage.
“Adam’s paying the grain bill. I said I’d get the mail, and your office was on the way.” He came around the desk and kissed her cheek before dropping into the chair in front of her desk.
“It’s good to see you,” she said as she resumed her seat. “Please tell me that this is social, and not business.”
“Don’t worry,” said Joe. “I’ve been behaving myself.” He surveyed her desk, shaking his head. “How do you do all this by yourself?”
“I’m thinking of taking on a partner,” she admitted. “There’s a lawyer I knew in Chicago who’s moving to Virginia City, and he does a lot of transactional work. It would free me up for more trial work.”
“What’s trans—whatever that is?” Joe had long since stopped pretending that he understood half of what Anna said. As he liked to joke, he didn’t speak lawyer.
“It’s about negotiating deals and contracts and such,” she said. “The thing is, trials take up so much time that it’s hard to do both. So, if this could work, it would make my life much easier.”
“Who is this fellow?” asked Joe.
“Just an old friend from Chicago,” Anna said. Suddenly, she was vaguely uncomfortable. “I haven’t mentioned this to Hoss yet,” she added. “So please don’t. I’d rather tell him myself.”
“Sure,” said Joe. “How about you tell him over dinner at the Ponderosa tonight?”
“Is that why you really stopped in?” asked Anna. “To play matchmaker?”
“Uh-huh,” Joe said agreeably. “Looks like the two of you need a nudge, and that’s just the kind of thing I’m good at.”
“Are you, now,” she said dryly.
“Believe me, it’s just plain selfish on my part. If he’s got you, he doesn’t worry so much about me.”
“Does he have a reason to be worried?” Her tone sounded light, but she was serious. She might not be married to Hoss yet, but Joe definitely felt like her little brother. By the time the Grayson trial had ended, she’d fallen into the Cartwright habit of keeping an eye on him, and it had proven to be a hard habit to break.
The young man rolled his eyes. He was still thinner than when she’d first met him, and his manner was more subdued, but she was gratified to see the lopsided grin that she’d missed for so long. “You’re as bad as he is,” Joe said. “I’m fine. Really. Good as new—well, almost,” he conceded at her skeptical raised eyebrow.
“Almost,” she repeated, deadpan.
“This close,” he said firmly, holding his thumb and forefinger half an inch apart. Even though she’d been at his side when he was undeniably falling apart during trial, he wasn’t about to admit anything now. “So—what about dinner?”
She looked at her desk, and then at the table by the window that was covered in papers. “That’s very sweet of you, Joe, but I don’t see how I can,” she said. “I’m up to my ears in work. Ever since your trial, everybody wants me.”
“Glad I could help,” said Joe breezily.
“You know better than that,” she said with sudden seriousness. Even though she’d secured a defendant’s verdict, that trial had cost them both enormously.
“Sorry,” Joe said, and she knew that he understood. “But look—you’ve got to eat. You might as well let Hop Sing cook for you.”
“And let you all try to convince Hoss and me that everything’s fine and dandy and we should just get married as if nothing ever happened?”
“Now, that sounds like a fine plan,” said Joe. “Pack up your papers, and let’s go.”
“Joe, I can’t,” said Anna. “I appreciate the invitation, but I can’t do it tonight. I just have too much work.”
“How about Saturday, then? You don’t work on Saturdays. You could even come out earlier and go for a ride if it’s not too cold. We can pick you up at two.” He gave her his most innocent, hopeful look, as though he had no idea why she might ever turn down such an invitation.
Anna smiled in spite of herself. When Joe was in his ever-so-slightly-annoying little brother mood, she felt torn between wanting to hug him or turn him over her knee. “I appreciate the thought, I truly do, but you need to let Hoss and me work things out on our own,” she said finally. If we can, her mind added before she could shush it.
“I’ve tried that, but you two don’t seem to be doing anything,” said Joe. His eyes grew solemn. “He loves you, Anna. You’ll see, he’ll come around. Don’t give up on him.”
Anna looked away as sudden tears sprang to her eyes. “It’s been almost four months.” She met Joe’s eyes and forced the words out. “He may never forgive me.”
“Don’t say that,” said Joe. “I’m alive, and it’s because of you. He hasn’t forgotten that.”
“But in his mind, I betrayed you. I doubted your innocence.”
“You told me my choices,” Joe pointed out. “Not the same thing.”
“You and I know that,” said Anna. “But to Hoss . . . his little brother was innocent, and I had no business thinking of anything else.”
“I know.” They sat in reflective silence as faint sounds of hooves and wagons drifted on the chill air. A log in the round black stove hissed as it broke into coals, and Joe rose. “If I can’t drag you out to the Ponderosa, at least I can fill your woodbox. I’ll be right back.” Before she could protest, he’d disappeared out the back door, returning moments later with an armload of firewood.
“All right, then,” he said, dusting off his hands. “Saturday at two o’clock. Is it a date?”
“Joe. . . .” She came around the desk to walk him to the door, and he caught her arm.
“If you love him, marry him,” he said. His eyes were intense. “The rest’ll work itself out. But don’t wait. Not for anything. You never know when you’ve waited too long.”
“What are you talking about?” A chill ran down her spine.
“Mary Ann Sawyer,” he said. “Her folks made her wait until her sixteenth birthday before she could marry Sam. She’d known him all her life, and she loved him all that time, but she waited because they said to. If she’d just gone to him, she wouldn’t have been on that stagecoach.” For a minute, he was lost in the memory. Then, he shook his head and grinned. “So, the moral of the story is, don’t wait.” He kissed her cheek. “We’ll pick you up at your house Saturday at two. Don’t be late.” He touched the brim of her hat and was out the door before she could speak.
And so she didn’t remind him that if Mary Ann also wouldn’t have been on that stagecoach if she’d waited a little bit longer.
* * * * * * * * * *
“You did what?”
Joe forced himself to meet Hoss’ glare with a jaunty grin. “I invited Anna for supper on Saturday,” he repeated.
“Well, I’m sure that’ll be nice,” said Ben mildly. “We haven’t seen her in a while.”
“Pa, that ain’t what Little Joe’s talkin’ about, and you know it!” Hoss slammed down his fork. “He ain’t the slightest bit interested in anybody seein’ Anna but me!”
“Simmer down, Hoss,” said Ben. He turned to his youngest son, who was now studiously cutting a piece of fried chicken. It had struck Ben as a trifle odd that Hop Sing was frying chicken in the middle of the week when no guests were expected, but now he recognized his youngest son’s mark on the dinner menu: fried chicken was one of Hoss’s favorite foods. “Joseph, what led you to extend this invitation?” he inquired as though he didn’t already know the answer.
“Huh?” Joe popped a piece of chicken into his mouth, chewing vigorously.
Ben waited until his son had swallowed. “Why did you invite Anna to dinner?”
“Well—like you said—we haven’t seen her in a while,” said Joe with such innocence that Ben had to fight to keep a straight face. “I stopped in at her office to say hello on the way to get the mail, and we got to talking, and I suggested she come out for supper. She’s awful busy these days, and she looked like she could use a break.” He held his breath, but the implicit confession that he’d been walking around town on his own seemed to have gotten buried in the rest of his explanation.
“Dadgummit, Little Brother, I oughta just knock your head off,” snapped Hoss.
“Hoss,” Ben remonstrated.
“But, Pa—he’s messin’ around in things that don’t concern him. What goes on with me and Anna—well, it’s private, and Little Joe shouldn’t be meddlin’.” Hoss’ voice had gone slightly plaintive.
Ben took pity on him. “I agree,” he said. “But she’s been invited. Do you not want her to come?”
Unhappily, Hoss took up his fork. “It ain’t that—I just—dadburnit, I just want Little Joe to mind his own doggone business!”
“What’s your second choice?” Adam murmured.
Joe watched as his large brother speared another piece of chicken. Suddenly, it was infuriating to him that Hoss could be so concerned about food when there were more important matters to talk about. He slammed his hand on the table, and they all jumped. “You’re a fool!” he snapped. “She didn’t do anything wrong! She saved my neck, and that’s all!”
Hoss flung down his fork. “It ain’t that, an’ you know it!”
“For God’s sake, Hoss—”
“Joseph!” Ben Cartwright did not tolerate misuse of the Lord’s name under any circumstances.
“Sorry, Pa—but Hoss, you gotta face facts! She’s a lawyer—she had to be ready for whatever the truth turned out to be, and I couldn’t tell her what it was. If she hadn’t figured out about Grayson attacking that little girl, that insanity defense might have been the only thing between me and the gallows.”
“But—” Hoss tried to interject.
“And her not being willing to just assume I was innocent is the only reason I’m sitting here now. So what the dickens is your problem?”
Hoss bowed his head. Finally, he forced the words out: “She didn’t believe in you.”
Joe let loose with an epithet that earned another sharp “Joseph!” Undeterred, he continued, “Can you imagine what would have happened if she’d just blindly believed I could never have killed Grayson—which, by the way, we still don’t know if I did?”
“If you did it, it was self-defense.” The set of Hoss’s jaw dared anyone to argue the point.
“We know that now,” said Joe. “But until she put the little Morrison kid on the stand to say so, nobody knew anything. If she’d been willing to say, ‘Oh, you’re Hoss’s brother, you couldn’t possibly be guilty’ and just let it go at that—I’d be planted next to Mama right now and you know it.”
“Joseph.” It wasn’t a reprimand this time; it was a plea. For one heartstopping instant, Ben knew it all again, every raw, terrifying moment before those two blessed words—not guilty—had rung through the courtroom. He shook his head now, beseeching his son to let the memories rest. They weren’t far enough away yet. He wondered if they ever would be.
“Sorry, Pa,” said Joe, meaning it. He let the image of two graves, mother and son, fade for a minute before he turned to his brother, his voice quieter now and all the more urgent for it. “Do you love her?”
“It’s an easy question, Hoss. Do you love her?” At his brother’s wordless nod, Joe said, “Then forget about the rest of this. What’s done is done. All that matters now is you and her. Not me.”
“It ain’t that easy.” The big man sounded almost helpless, but Joe held firm.
“Yeah, Big Brother, it really is.” With that pronouncement, he turned his focus back to his plate as though he cared what was before him, and he pretended not to feel his brother watching.
“Do you want me to tell her not to come?” Adam’s voice was unusually gentle, his offer so unexpected that they all looked up.
“No!” Frustrated, Hoss cast around for something to say. “Just—just—just everybody mind your own business next time!” He stabbed his fork into yet another piece of chicken and dumped it onto his plate next to the untouched one.
The rest of the meal passed in uncomfortable silence. Joe kept his attention focused on his plate, but he could feel Hoss glowering at him from across the table. Finally, Ben pushed back his chair, and Hoss threw his napkin on the table. “I’m going for a ride,” the big man announced.
“I’ll go with you,” Joe offered, but his brother fixed him with a fierce glare.
“I’m goin’ by myself,” he growled. He rose and stomped out, slamming the door behind him.
Joe looked from his father to Adam. “You know I’m right.” Neither of them spoke. “You know I’m right,” he said again, louder this time.
“Joseph.” His father’s voice held the weariness of one who has said the same thing many times. “Hoss is old enough to decide for himself who he wants to marry. It’s not up to you.”
“I know you’re very fond of her, and we’re all tremendously grateful for what she did—but that doesn’t mean Hoss has to marry her if he doesn’t want to.” Ben rose and picked up his coffee cup. “Hop Sing, is there any more coffee?” he called into the kitchen.
“Hop Sing making more,” came the response.
Joe stared as his father and brother sauntered from the table to the living room and took up their books. “That’s it? You’re just going to let him—”
“We’re not ‘letting’ him do anything,” Adam interrupted. “Except make his own decisions. He’s a big boy, and he doesn’t need you to fix his life for him.” He settled himself into the blue velvet chair and opened his book at the leather bookmark, not seeming to notice Joe’s incredulous stare.
Hop Sing brought in the coffee pot and poured more coffee for Ben and Adam. “Li’l Joe want coffee?” he offered.
“What? Oh, no, thanks.” Shaking his head, Joe headed upstairs.
Only after they heard his door slam did Ben and Adam exchange a long look over their books. “He’s got a point,” Adam said.
“I know,” said Ben. “And he’s made it—many times, in fact. It’s up to Hoss now.” He sipped his coffee as he turned his attention back to his book. After a moment, Adam did the same.
* * * * * * * * * *
Elias rode up the path to the ridge where Marcus stood beside the buggy. “We’re all set,” he announced.
Marcus nodded. He’d been watching for the past hour as the men placed the explosives around and beneath the track. “Good work,” he said. The smile that spread across Elias’s face at that small praise reminded him of the little boy who had once trailed after him as he’d done farm chores. Even as a child, Elias had always wanted nothing more than to be with his big brother, helping as much as he could. Why he wanted to milk cows and muck out stalls was beyond Marcus, but even the most distasteful barn chores were fine with Elias, just as long as Marcus was happy.
Marcus sighed inwardly. If he lived to be a hundred, he would never understand why so many men seemed to choose the dirty jobs in life. Farmers, miners, cowboys—stupid, all of them. Men were meant to live refined, dignified lives which involved the use of their minds, not their muscles. A job which required a man to sweat was a job meant for animals.
Besides, those jobs were dangerous. If anybody knew that, he did. And if he ever forgot it, the violence of Elias’s scar was right there to remind him.
He straightened his vest as he reflected on the two men riding up the ridge. Below, Watson bent down to light the fuse. It was a matter of timing. Destroy the track too soon, and the railroad folks would have time to discover the problem and either fix it or send the gold by some other means. Too late, and the engineer would hear the explosion in time to stop the train, and then they’d have to deal with men and their guns trying to protect their precious gold. But if Marcus had chosen the moment correctly, soon there would be a fiery wreck with no survivors—no witnesses—and the gold would be secured under wraps in the buggy and on its way to the hideout before the law or Wells Fargo knew what had happened.
He nodded to Carson and Edwards as they dismounted. When this was over, they would all have enough money so that they would never again need to dirty their hands, but he knew in his heart it wouldn’t be enough. Another few months, and they’d be looking to him to plan another job that would require them to ride or shoot or haul stolen goods or dig in the half-frozen mud around railroad tracks. It was their fate, he supposed.
He watched as Watson ran from the tracks to crouch behind a fallen tree. Elias held his own horse as well as the one hitched to Marcus’s buggy. Carson and Edwards remained in the saddle, the better to handle the skittish beasts.
Below them, the carefully-laid track exploded, bits of wood and steel flying into the air with a resounding crash. Marcus nodded, satisfied, as his brother and the other men sought to control the horses. He saw Watson rise and look up toward the ridge, and he waved his hat in acknowledgement of a job well done.
Now, it was just a matter of time.
* * * * * * * * * *
The clock in the foyer chimed four. For the twentieth time, Anna peeked out the front window. No sign of Hoss.
This wasn’t like him, not even a little bit.
It wasn’t that he was always prompt. Things came up on a ranch, and she knew this. A horse could throw a shoe, a harness could break—any number of innocent inconveniences could have delayed him.
But as she looked out at the horses and carriages driving past, none stopping to allow the big man to disembark, she felt a dread certainty in the pit of her stomach that something was wrong, and it had nothing to do with horseshoes or harnesses.
She hadn’t heard a word from Hoss since Joe’s visit to her office. If he’d been in town in the intervening three days, he hadn’t stopped by. Not so much as a note to let her know that he knew of Joe’s invitation, much less anything to suggest that he was pleased about it.
The hands of the clock moved inexorably to four-thirty, and then began their trek back up to the top of the hour. Even now, late in the winter, darkness fell too soon. Shadows began to lengthen, and she lit the lamps in the parlor. Four-thirty turned to five, and then to five-thirty, and still no Hoss.
In another time, she would have simply gotten her own buggy and headed out to the Ponderosa. But that would be the act of a woman who was certain of her welcome. For the first time since she’d known him, Anna was unsure whether Hoss would want to see her. Even though it wasn’t cold in the parlor, she found herself shivering.
It’s over, she thought, and the grief welled up in her throat as she closed her eyes.
She paced around the room like the proverbial caged tiger. “No,” she said aloud. “He wouldn’t. Not Hoss. He wouldn’t end things this way. He’d tell me to my face. He wouldn’t just not show up.”
Yet somehow, she who could persuade juries of practically anything was unable to convince herself that her own words were true.
The clock struck six, and she stopped pacing. She had to get out of this house. Let him come and find her gone. It would serve him right. She turned down the lamps, took up her cloak, and slammed the door behind her, heading for the sanctuary of her office.
Head down against the cold, she nearly ran into the tall man on the sidewalk. “Oh, I’m sorry!” She looked up, and he laughed as he steadied her.
“Anna! I was just on my way to see you!” His fine wool coat spoke of city life, where one moved from buggy to building, and precious little time was spent out of doors.
“Richard! I didn’t know you were in town yet!” She smiled as she took his arm. “My office is right here. Do come in out of the cold.”
“Saturday evening, and she’s in the office,” chuckled Richard Palmer. “Some things never change.”
“Indeed,” said Anna ruefully. She unlocked the door and let him in. He stood by the doorway as she moved about in the darkness, lighting lamps and hanging up her cloak. “Come in, come in,” she urged.
“Quite a place you have here,” he observed with an approving nod.
“It was Uncle Efraim’s office,” she admitted. The office consisted of two good-sized rooms. The front room, with its large window overlooking C Street, still contained the desk Anna had used when she first came to Virginia City. After her uncle’s passing, she had moved into the more private office in at the back, with its massive oak desk and high-backed leather chair. Both rooms boasted oriental carpets that Efraim Zelner had received as payment from the grateful owner of a San Francisco-based shipping fleet. The walls of both rooms were lined with oak bookcases, and the slightly musty scent of old lawbooks mingled with the scent of woodsmoke as Anna lit the kindling in the stove.
“Here, let me take your coat,” she added. When did you get into town?”
“Just this morning,” he said, handing her the garment. The pungent scent of cigar smoke clung to its fibers, and for a moment, she was transported back to the days of dinner parties, and the men relaxing around the dining table after dinner with their cigars and brandy while the women retired to the drawing room to sip tea and discuss fashions. She’d wanted so much to join the men’s conversations as they debated law and politics and the war instead of listening to the ladies twittering about hemlines and hairstyles, but Seth would not hear of such outlandish behavior from his wife.
“Please sit down.” She gestured to one of the upholstered chairs in the front office as she seated herself in the other one. “I can’t tell you how delighted I am that you’ve arrived—and early, too.”
He settled himself into the chair and looked around the room, frowning slightly at the stacks of paper on a long, low table in front of the window. “I can imagine,” he said. “How have you been keeping up with all of this?”
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” she said. “But I admit to being a bit overwhelmed at times, especially when I’m on trial. That’s when it feels as though I never leave the office.”
“Well, hopefully we can work something out,” he said. His gaze was frankly admiring. “You look as lovely as ever,” he said. “Life out here agrees with you.”
“Sometimes,” she said. Before he could ask more, she rose. “You’re probably starving, and I appear to be free for dinner. Would you like to join me?”
“You? Free for dinner? The men in this town must be utter dolts,” said Richard, also rising. “I would be delighted to join you for dinner. Is there anyplace specific that you’d like to go?”
It was on the tip of her tongue to suggest the International House, but suddenly she said, “Let’s go to Pierre’s. It’s right up the street.” She’d only been there once; Hoss preferred the simple, straightforward fare of the International House or Daisy Mae’s to Pierre’s elegant French cuisine.
“Pierre’s? Sounds quite fancy for a town like this.” Richard held her cloak for her.
“Oh, it is,” she assured him. “It’s only been open a few months, and I don’t know how long it’ll last, but it’s quite good. It’s just not what most of the local people prefer.”
“I can imagine,” said Richard, buttoning his coat. “I think we should definitely go to Pierre’s before he packs up his escargots and returns to New York or wherever he’s from. Shall we?” He offered her his arm, and with only the slightest hesitation, she took it.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ben drew the door to Joe’s bedroom closed as he stepped into the hall. “When did it happen?” he asked Hoss in a low voice.
“Just as we were gettin’ ready to head into town,” said Hoss. He led the way down the stairs to the living room as he continued, “One minute, he was chattering like a jaybird, and the next, he was—well, not there.”
“Did anything happen before he went into the fugue?” asked Ben. He was still looking for clues or patterns, something to enable them to predict these events. Sometimes they seemed to come when Joe was tense or upset, but even that wasn’t a reliable barometer.
Hoss nodded. “He seemed fine, and then he just went quiet, and I couldn’t get him to answer me, or even look at me. I reached for him, and he took a swing at me. I ended up having to kinda herd him to get him into the house, and even then, I had to keep blockin’ his way ’cause he kept tryin’ to leave.” He tossed another log on the already-blazing fire. “I thought about takin’ him with me to get Anna, but I was afraid he’d try and take off. Seemed safer just to keep him here.”
“You made the right choice,” Ben assured him. “There’s no telling what could have happened.”
Just then, Adam came in, stomping snow off his boots. “Supper ready yet?” He looked around. “Where’s Anna?”
“She ain’t here,” said Hoss heavily.
“Why? What happened?” Adam tried to keep his voice calm even as his mind flashed through a number of explanations, none of them good.
“Joe had a fugue episode this afternoon,” said his father.
Bad, but maybe not as bad as it could have been. “Is everything all right? Where was he?”
“He’s fine,” said Ben. “He was right here, and Hoss was with him.”
“Is he back?” Adam pressed.
Ben nodded. “It lasted just about all afternoon, though.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s sleeping,” said Hoss. “He was real agitated with this one—kept pacing around like one of them circus tigers in a cage. I dunno what was goin’ on, but by the time he came back, he was pretty well worn out. When he figured out what’d happened, he started gettin’ all upset about ruinin’ supper, but Pa gave him one of Hop Sing’s herb drinks and talked him into layin’ down for a little bit, an’ he went right to sleep.”
“Did anybody let Anna know what happened?”
Hoss shook his head. “There warn’t nobody here to send into town with a message. All the hands were out and about, makin’ sure there was feed for the cattle.”
“What about Hop Sing? He’d have picked her up.” The little Chinese man never made a secret of his belief that Hoss and Anna should marry, and the sooner, the better.
Hoss shook his head again. “His aunt was makin’ a special dessert, and he’d already left to go into town to fetch it. I told him we’d get it for him, but his aunt don’t speak English an’ he said it’d be better if he got it himself. Turned out it wasn’t ready when he got there, an’ by the time he finally got back with it, I wasn’t even thinkin’ about supper.” The longer the episode had gone on, the more worried Hoss had been.
Adam pinched the bridge of his nose. The best thing he could do for both his brothers was to try to control the damage. He turned to Hoss. “I’ll go with you into Virginia City,” he offered.
“Supper ready long time!” announced Hop Sing from the doorway. “Nobody home, nobody eat! Hop Sing work, work, work, nobody eat!”
“Why don’t you boys have something to eat before you go?” suggested Ben. “I’m sure Anna’s already had her supper by now.”
“Pa’s right,” said Adam. “We can eat fast and then head in.”
“You don’t have to come with me,” said Hoss.
“I know,” said Adam. “Just thought you might like some company.” He patted his younger brother’s shoulder. “There wasn’t anything else you could do,” he said softly.
“I know.” The words were heavy with resignation.
“Come on, boys,” said Ben. “Get some supper, and then you can go and talk to Anna.”
Hoss looked from his father to his brother. “Dadburnit,” he muttered. “All right, let’s eat.”
* * * * * * * * * *
By the time they were halfway to town, the snow that had threatened all day was swirling around them. Adam would have been in favor of turning around, but one look at his brother’s face told him that there was no chance. So, he put his head down and squeezed the horse’s sides to push him forward. The sooner they reached town, the sooner they could put all this unpleasantness behind them.
It seemed forever before they reached Virginia City. The buildings blocked some of the flying snow, but the icy pellets that swirled around them stung like the devil. The Cartwright brothers put up their horses at the livery stable, pulled down their hats to cover their faces, and made their way to Anna’s house.
Standing on her porch, out of the wind and snow, they exchanged a perplexed look. The house was dark. “Does she usually go to bed this early?” asked Adam.
“Nope,” said Hoss. He pounded on her door. No response. He pounded again, and the only answering sound was the wind.
“Would she have gone to somebody else’s house?” asked Adam.
Hoss shrugged. “Probably at her office. Let’s go.” He headed out into the snow, and Adam, sighing, followed.
The office was as dark as her house. The brothers looked at each other, concern bordering on alarm.
“She couldn’t have headed out to the ranch,” said Adam reasonably. “We’d have seen her.”
“Unless something happened,” said Hoss. He was about to head back to the livery stable when laughter caught their attention. They looked up to see Anna coming out of Pierre’s, holding onto a man’s arm, both of them laughing as they tried to keep from slipping.
“What the—?” Hoss gaped.
“Who’s that?” asked Adam.
“Dunno,” said Hoss. “I ain’t never seen him before.”
“Doesn’t look like he’s from around here,” observed Adam. His college years in Boston had taught him to spot city folk at a glance, and this fellow was definitely city folk. Adam tried hard not to see how natural Anna looked on the man’s arm—or how his brother’s countenance darkened as he watched the couple.
Without another word, Hoss was striding across the street, with Adam hustling to catch up. “Evening, Anna,” Hoss said as soon as he was within earshot.
Blond Anna and her sandy-haired companion stopped. “Good evening, Hoss, Adam,” she said. Her voice was nearly as frosty as the night.
“We went to your house, but you weren’t there,” said Hoss.
“I was there at two o’clock,” she said. “And at three, and four, and five, and six.” Her eyes challenged Hoss to explain.
Hoss met her gaze hard. He wasn’t about to talk about Little Joe’s problems in front of this yahoo—especially not when Anna was still holding onto the fellow’s arm. She could just wonder where he’d been.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Adam said to the man, extending his hand. Assume innocence, he counseled himself. “Adam Cartwright. This is my brother, Hoss.”
The man shook his hand. “Richard Palmer,” he said. To Hoss, he said, “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Funny,” said Hoss. “I ain’t never heard of you.”
“Richard is from Chicago,” said Anna. “He’s a lawyer.”
“Anna and I have known each other for years,” said Richard, patting her hand as if oblivious to Hoss’ glare.
“You passing through?” asked Adam.
Richard shook his head. “Moving here,” he said. “Anna and I are considering forming a partnership.”
Hoss looked as if he’d been punched in the gut. Adam tried to think of a response, but none was forthcoming. Explaining their lateness suddenly seemed unimportant beside this revelation.
Hurriedly, Anna said, “I was going to tell you all about it tonight.” She looked anxiously from Hoss to Adam. The wind picked up, and the snow swirled around them, tiny ice crystals stinging their cheeks.
“I reckon you probably were,” said Hoss. “Snow’s gettin’ worse. You better get on home.” He touched the brim of his hat and started past them, and Adam did likewise.
“Hoss.” Anna reached out and caught his arm. When he looked back at her, she said, “I really was going to tell you.”
“Yep.” He slid his arm from her grasp and headed down the sidewalk with Adam right behind, through the swirling snow to the Bucket of Blood and its bottles of mind-numbing whiskey.
* * * * * * * * * * *
“Would you get away from the window!” Marcus grabbed Elias’s arm and pulled him across the room.
“But, Marcus—” The whine hadn’t changed since Elias was a child.
“I said, stay away from the window, and I mean it!” Marcus glared, and Elias wilted, flopping down on one of the narrow beds.
“Nobody knows who we are,” Elias grumbled. “We could go out for a beer, and nobody’d even know we’re rich.”
Marcus took a deep breath. “Of course, they’d know,” he said. “Because you can’t keep anything to yourself. You’d tell them in five minutes.”
“I wouldn’t!” Stung, Elias sat up. “I can keep a secret as well as you!”
“Just settle down,” said Marcus. He turned his attention back to the newspaper. Two weeks after the robbery, and not a word about it. The train wreck had made the headlines, and Wells Fargo had published a long apology to its shareholders and depositors, promising to make good on the loss, but nothing in the paper even hinted that anybody had any ideas about where the gold had gone. Marcus wasn’t sure whether he was pleased at their success or irritated that such a coup seemed to be going unnoticed by the world.
“What if we went down to the dining room for dinner?” Elias’s voice broke into his concentration.
“We’re not going downstairs,” said Marcus. “We’re going to eat in the room and get to bed early so that we can leave in the morning.”
Elias frowned. “But I like it here!” He looked around. “Which town is this?”
“Placerville.” Marcus didn’t bother to keep the annoyance out of his voice. If only Elias could handle being hidden, they wouldn’t have to change towns every few days. This was their third stop since the robbery. The gold was securely tucked away where no innocent person could stumble upon it. Now, the trick was to ensure that nobody found out about it by any other means, and the key to that was keeping Elias quiet and away from people.
He watched his brother, who had already dozed off. In so many ways, Elias was like a child. He was hungry, sleepy, bouncy or grumpy—never serene or morose or contemplative. A firm “no” was usually enough to put an end to any whining. New things never failed to delight him. He could fall asleep almost anywhere as long as he felt safe, and he always seemed to feel safe when Marcus was present.
His wants were few and unsophisticated: a steak, a beer, a slab of pie. Pleasing his big brother. Kissing pretty girls.
Marcus folded the paper, corner to precise corner. From his right side, Elias Tucker was a handsome man. Sort of slow, a little too talkative, but the right girl probably would have overlooked all that if it weren’t for that wretched scar. The mark of Cain, he reflected. Except that Cain had killed his brother, not a girl.
That damned Miranda Kelly. A pretty little thing, with light brown curls and dark brown eyes. Her father had more money than any six men in Denver. If only Elias hadn’t been smitten with her. If only she could have seen past the scar.
If only Marcus had found them in time.
He closed his eyes, seeing it all again. Elias sobbing, begging her to wake up. Her body, limp in his hands. The bruises on her throat. “I just wanted a kiss,” he insisted as Marcus pulled at him.
Carson and Edwards had disposed of the body while Marcus got Elias out of town. Piper and Watson stayed behind, later reporting that there had been some talk about a man with a scar, but no one seemed to know who he was or where he’d gone. Ultimately, the mystery of her disappearance was never solved.
Marcus opened his eyes. Ancient history. They had to focus on their future. By his estimate, they had another six weeks at least before they would be in a position to contact the others. Most posses didn’t stay out longer than about a month, but Marcus liked to err on the conservative side. This was a major robbery. The newspapers had reported that everyone on board the train was killed in the crash, and sixty thousand dollars in gold had been stolen. Wells Fargo wasn’t going to give this one up easily, but even they weren’t likely go on searching forever. He figured that by the two-month mark, Wells Fargo would have exhausted all the possibilities from San Francisco to St. Joe. By then, it would be safe to start contacting some of his other colleagues—men who knew about converting gold bars into cash.
He drew a small piece of paper from his pocket and checked off “Placerville.” He perused the list with a smile. Assuming three to four days in each town, and a day or two of travel in between, they would arrive in Virginia City in early May, about six weeks away. Depending on how things went, they might even be able to stay for a while.
Elias would like that.
* * * * * * * * * * *
“Are you just about finished?” asked Richard from the doorway to her office.
Anna looked up from the file on her desk. “A few more minutes,” she said.
Richard cocked his head, questioning. “Any interest in getting dinner?”
She forced herself to smile as she shook her head. “Not tonight, thanks,” she said. “It’s been a long week. I think I’m just going to head home and relax.”
Richard nodded. “In that case, I’m going to head home myself,” he said. “I’ve still got some unpacking to finish. The last crates arrived yesterday.”
Anna sat back in her chair. “Is that all of your things now?”
Apparently taking the question as an invitation, Richard sauntered into her office and dropped into the chair in front of her desk. “Everything’s here,” he said. “I am now officially a resident of Virginia City—and a partner in the law firm of Simmons and Palmer.”
Her smile became genuine at that. No other man would have allowed her name to be first. Richard was kind, generous, open-minded, willing to acknowledge and encourage her talents. He was sophisticated and intelligent, with a curious innocence about him that she’d always found charming. She could work well with him, she was certain.
The challenge would be to keep their relationship strictly professional. She’d already felt the occasional hint that he might want more. It had been easier when she could say that she was being courted, but in the nearly two weeks since they had encountered Hoss and Adam on the street, Anna hadn’t seen or heard from Hoss once.
It had occurred to her that, just maybe, Hoss had been delayed because of a problem with Joe. As the days passed with no word, though, she was forced to discount this notion. If he’d been late because Joe had had a fugue episode, Joe would have made a point of coming to tell her the very next day. Even when Hoss was being bull-headed, she could always count on Joe’s tendency to insinuate himself into matters that were none of his business. She hadn’t realized just how much she was depending on Joe this time—not until days had passed with no sign of Hoss’s younger brother.
“Are you still here?”
Anna jumped slightly. Richard was smiling at her. “You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying,” he added, not sounding at all put out.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She closed the file on her desk and rose. “I’m just tired. I think I’m going to go home.”
“At least let me walk you home,” Richard said. “You shouldn’t be walking the streets alone.”
Anna reached for her coat. “I walk home alone every night,” she said, trying not to sound either annoyed or defensive.
“That doesn’t mean you should,” Richard said gently. “All it means is that there’s nobody taking proper care of you.”
She felt her temper flare. Holding it in check, she said, “I don’t need to have anyone taking care of me. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
“Of course, you are,” Richard said. He took the coat from her and held it for her to slip her arms into the sleeves. “Forgive me, Anna,” he added. “I’ve spent so long around women who needed to be taken care of that I’ve nearly forgotten that there’s any other kind.”
Anna blew out the lamp on her desk. The lamplight from the other room silhouetted Richard’s trim figure. He wasn’t as tall as Hoss, she noted. Then, she forced her thoughts away from Hoss. Hoss’s height was no longer any of her business.
As Richard fetched his own coat, Anna noticed for the first time that teeming rain was pounding into the wheel ruts in the half-frozen street. She grimaced at the notion of the rain running off the recent snow that still lay on some of the sidewalks. It would be a slow, cold, wet walk home tonight.
“You ought to go straight home,” she said. “With that coat, you’ll be drenched if you go to my house first.”
“Don’t worry about me,” said Richard, buttoning his coat. “We city folk are much tougher than you westerners give us credit for.” He blew out the lamp and reached for the doorknob. “Ready?”
The wind whipped their coats as they headed out into the driving rain. She nearly slipped, and without asking, he put his arm around her, holding her firmly. Heads down, they pushed forward, slipping and sliding through the puddles on the icy sidewalk. Very few people were out this evening, and those who were had their hats pulled low.
After what seemed like forever, they reached Anna’s house. “Come in,” she said. She didn’t want to invite him in, but there was no choice. She couldn’t send him right back out into the storm.
The house was dark. It took a moment before Anna recalled that she had given her cook, Jiang Xi, the night off to visit with a cousin who was in town. “Wait here,” she said as she took up the matches and lit the lamps in the parlor.
She slipped off her dripping coat and reached for Richard’s. “You’re soaked!” she observed, dismayed. Clearly, his city coat wasn’t adequate for the rough weather of Virginia City.
“I’m fine,” he said, but his teeth were chattering.
Her plans for a quiet evening in which to read and think were vanishing like smoke. Reluctantly, she said, “You can’t possibly head back out into this storm. You need to wait until it lets up.”
Richard shook his head. “If I keep these soggy clothes on much longer, I’ll be dead of pneumonia by morning.”
With an effort, she held back her sigh. “You’re right,” she said. “Come with me.” She stifled her irritation as she led the way upstairs to the guest room. She reached into the clothes press, past her out-of-season dresses, for the dressing gown that had once belonged to her uncle. Firmly, she pushed from her mind the memory of the time that Hoss had worn it after he had appeared at her door, equally drenched. “Put this on,” she instructed. “I’ll put your clothes to dry by the stove.” She turned and headed to her own room to change into dry clothing before he could answer.
By the time she’d stoked the fire in the kitchen stove, the rain had let up. It figures, she thought. Now, she was stuck with Richard until his clothes dried enough for him to dress. It’s not that bad, she insisted silently. She set a bottle of wine on the table and took out two glasses. He’s a good friend, she reminded herself as she searched in the breakfront for the corkscrew.There are worse ways to spend an evening than with a good friend.
She turned to see Richard, wet clothes in hand. The faded maroon dressing gown fit him as though it had been tailor-made. Involuntarily, she recalled Hoss trying to make the edges fit across his broad middle. He’d wrapped a towel around his waist for modesty’s sake, but the lapels of the robe remained several inches apart. He’d smiled as she linked her fingers behind his neck, her cheek resting against his coarse chest hair. “You behave yourself, little lady,” he’d said with mock sternness, but when he pulled her into a tight embrace, behaving herself was the farthest thing from her mind.
She shook her head to rid herself of the image, the feelings. “Give me those,” she said brusquely, grateful for the cold clamminess of his wet clothing.
A knock on the door startled her. “Were you expecting company?” Richard asked.
“No,” Anna said. She draped Richard’s shirt over a chair and headed to the door, drying her hands on her skirt. She opened the door and caught her breath.
“Evening, Anna,” said Hoss.
She drew a deep breath. “Good evening,” she managed.
“Can I come in?” he asked when she didn’t move.
“Of course, I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t expect—I hadn’t—that was quite a storm—”
“It sure was,” Hoss agreed. “I was over at the saloon when it started, so I just waited it out there.”
“That was smart of you,” she said. Tell him what’s going on, she instructed herself. It’s all innocent. Just explain—
“Anna, where’s the corkscrew?”
Anna and Hoss turned to see Richard striding into the parlor, wine bottle in his hand, the maroon dressing gown belted around his trim middle. Anna turned back to Hoss, but his jaw was set as if in stone.
“I see I came at a bad time,” he said. “I’ll be goin’ now. Good night, Anna.”
“Hoss, wait—it’s not what you think—” she began, but he was already out the door.
“Mr. Cartwright, wait,” called Richard. “There’s a simple explanation.” He moved as if to head outside, but Anna grabbed his arm as she slammed the door.
“Are you insane?” she demanded. “Do you think I want all of Virginia City to see you coming out of my house in a bathrobe?” As if it mattered what the rest of the town thought. The one person whose opinion she valued had apparently already made up his mind. If he could believe such a thing about her . . . well, it hardly mattered what anybody else said.
“But—what about your friend?” asked Richard. “It appears that he’s got a wrong idea in his head.”
“I know,” she said. “I should to talk with him.” But she couldn’t make herself move. Once upon a time, she and Hoss could have laughed about something like this. Back then, it would have been a joke, a soggy lawyer standing in her parlor wearing a dressing gown. But now, there was nothing funny. Now, it was just one more brick in the wall that separated them.
* * * * * * * * * *
The door opened so quietly that Ben almost missed it. He looked up from his book to see Hoss slipping in as soundlessly as Little Joe might have done late at night. The big man’s head was bowed, his shoulders hunched. When he closed the door, his hand stayed against it as though he were bracing himself.
Ben watched, not speaking, as Hoss hung up his jacket and hat. The large fingers fumbled with the buckle on his gunbelt, but Hoss coiled it deliberately and set it on the credenza as if its placement among the others mattered. As his son turned to head upstairs, Ben asked quietly, “Everything all right?”
Hoss jerked around as though someone had shot at him. “Sorry, Pa,” he said. “I reckon I didn’t see you.”
Ben nodded, waiting. Something was clearly troubling Hoss, and he’d have bet the Ponderosa that that something was Anna Simmons. Adam had let it slip that Hoss intended to go and see her tonight, a plan of which Ben had heartily approved. It had been nearly two weeks since the dinner fiasco, and it was high time those two cleared the air.
But the tension in his son’s face revealed that the air was far from clear. “Would it help to talk?” he suggested at last, when Hoss neither moved nor spoke.
Hoss shook his head. He started for the stairs, and then turned back. “Pa, I’d like to go away for a while.”
With an effort, Ben kept his countenance impassive. “Any place in particular?”
Hoss shook his head again. “No, sir. I just—I need to get away.”
Ben waited, but Hoss offered nothing more. “Spring’s a busy time,” he pointed out gently.
“I know,” said Hoss. “I—I wouldn’t ask if—Pa, I really need to get away from here for a little while.”
His middle son, built like a mountain, as strong as ten men, looked as though he were going to cry right there in the middle of the main room. Ben stood and rested his hand on Hoss’ broad shoulder. “Of course,” he said. “When were you planning to leave?”
“In the morning,” said Hoss. “Prob’ly early.”
Before the others are awake, Ben thought. Avoid Joe’s questions and Adam’s well-meant advice. It was just as well. “Any idea how long you’ll be gone?”
Hoss bit his lip. “A few weeks, maybe.” He shot a quick look at his father, and he relaxed visibly when Ben nodded his approval.
“You do what you need to do, son,” he said. “We’ll be fine here.”
“Thanks, Pa,” Hoss whispered. He started up the stairs. At the landing, he paused and turned back. He opened his mouth as though he were going to ask something. Ben waited, not speaking. After a moment, Hoss just said, “Good night,” and headed upstairs.
Ben stood in the middle of the room, watching the stairs long after the sound of Hoss’s footsteps had faded. He’d had such hopes for Hoss and Anna. An unlikely couple, to be sure, but there had been something about them together that reminded Ben of the very best moments of his own marriages. There was a harmony about them, a sense of completion, of satisfying rightness. Two pieces of a puzzle, odd and unfinished on their own, but together, making perfect sense.
As Ben stood in the silent room, the years faded away. He saw again a sturdy, tow-headed toddler, the child’s laughter bubbling even when he tumbled over, disappearing for an instant in the long prairie grasses and then scrambling to his feet again, still laughing as his dark, serious older brother ran after him. The little boy’s sunny nature, delightful and carefree, was the bright spot in a world of hardship and loss as they worked their way across the plains. Joy had glowed in Hoss from the moment he first drew breath.
It wasn’t that the boy had never known pain and struggle and grief. As a child, Hoss stood by Marie’s grave, clutching Little Joe’s hand while his own tears rolled down his face. His growing-up years had been fraught with difficulty as he labored to master the book learning that had come so easily to Adam. From the time it became apparent that he would be large for his age, he had endured mockery and insults. As an adult, he’d known still more sadness and troubles as people he’d given his heart to had left or died or betrayed his trust.
But through it all, Hoss Cartwright had maintained a steadfast faith that somehow, all would be well and the world, with all its beauty and blessings, would work out just the way it should. His spirit had endured disappointments and trials that would have devastated other men. Even when the light had sometimes dimmed, the flicker of joy had always endured.
“Hold on, boy,” Ben whispered. He moved through the room, blowing out the lamps and stoking the embers in the fireplace. Slowly, he climbed the stairs. At Hoss’s doorway, he paused, his hand on the rough wood. There was no sound from within. “Hold on,” he whispered again, and this time, it was a prayer.
Part 2: Questions, answers, and more questions
The May sunshine was a welcome respite from the spring rains that had pounded the Ponderosa for weeks. Bits of mud flew from beneath the horses’ hooves as Adam and Joe rode along the Virginia City road. By the time they got home, Adam reflected, they and the horses would all need baths.
Every now and again, Adam snuck a peek at Joe, trying to determine whether his brother had slipped away into the shadows of his mind or was merely sulking. Each time Joe met his eyes with a disgusted glare, Adam allowed himself an instant’s gratitude. He would save his annoyance at Joe’s attitude for another time.
When they pulled up to rest the horses, Adam said, “So, what are you mad about this time?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” snapped Joe. He dismounted and loosened the cinch.
Adam rolled his eyes as he followed suit. “Are you still mad at Hoss?”
“What? That’s ridiculous!” Joe focused intently on adjusting a stirrup that didn’t need adjusting.
Adam shrugged. “It would make sense if you were,” he offered. “He left without a word. We haven’t heard from him in well over a month. And we’ve got to do all his work as well as our own.”
“I’m not mad at him,” said Joe. “He wouldn’t have left if he didn’t have a good reason.”
“Maybe so—but he still left.” Adam didn’t know why he kept saying it. It was like pressing on a bruise to see whether it still hurt.
“I know,” muttered Joe. “Lucky bastard.”
“What?” It was the last thing Adam had expected to hear.
Joe turned to face him squarely. “I said he’s a lucky bastard,” he said, loudly and clearly.
“Why? Because he lost the woman he loved? In your book, this makes him lucky?” Adam suddenly wondered if there was something else wrong in Joe’s head.
But Joe shook his head. “It’s not that.”
Joe studied the ground as though mud was a fascinating new discovery. “He wanted to go, and he did it,” he said finally. “He just—he just left. Nobody had to go with him. He did what he wanted, just like. . . .”
Just like a man does, Adam supplied silently. He waited without comment. After a minute, the younger man took a deep breath and raised his head.
“Pretty stupid, isn’t it?” Joe snorted. “Hoss gets his heart broken, and I’m jealous because he got to go away by himself. He’d probably give anything to be here and have everything be fine, and I’d gladly take the broken heart if it meant I could just get away by myself for a couple days.” He turned away abruptly.
When Joe said nothing more, Adam rested one hand on Joe’s shoulder. “I didn’t realize,” he said quietly.
“No reason you should.” Joe’s back was as tense as his voice.
“That’s not quite true.” Adam let his hand linger on his brother’s shoulder.
The brothers stood quietly as the new leaves rustled in the breeze. Finally, Adam said, “You know, there are still two ways to get into Virginia City from here.” Joe didn’t respond, but Adam could feel him paying attention. “If you took the high road over on the ridge, you could meet me in town.” It was the roundabout way that added an hour onto the trip. The Cartwright brothers often used that road when they were driving in the company of a lovely young lady. It wasn’t much, Adam knew, but it was the best he could offer.
Joe drew a deep breath. “Okay,” he said. He turned to face Adam. “Thanks.”
“Just be careful,” said Adam. He fought the sudden impulse to retract the suggestion. Don’t let him do it, came the thought. Firmly, he told himself that he was being ridiculous. They’d been smothering the kid forever. It was a wonder he hadn’t just taken off on his own. Besides, he hadn’t had a fugue episode in nearly two weeks. For all they knew, the whole experience was behind them. Even so, he added, “And don’t dawdle. We’ve got to get that bank draft and get home in time for supper.”
Joe managed a half-grin. “Then I guess I’d better get going.” He tightened the cinch and stepped into the stirrup to mount the pinto. Adam tightened his own cinch, trying to pretend he hadn’t noticed that Joe hadn’t used his swing mount. In fact, Adam hadn’t seen Joe’s famous ground-to-saddle leap since Hoss had left. Hopefully soon, he thought.
Adam mounted his horse and raised his hand. “I’ll meet you at the bank,” he said.
Joe nodded. “I’ll be there.” In the second before he rode off, he met Adam’s gaze again, and something in Joe’s eyes made Adam’s stomach lurch.
Don’t go, he wanted to call out, but the pinto was already vanishing up the road.
* * * * * * * * * *
The spring breeze rustled through the trees as the dappled gray stepped along the road. The buggy gleamed, and the scent of saddle oil rose from its soft leather seat. The horse’s ears flicked as a wren darted past, but a single word from the comely driver kept him in line.
Eleanor Gunther hummed as she drove. Another mile, and she would be in the arms of her beloved Timothy. She hoped he wasn’t worried about how late she was—they’d planned on a picnic lunch by the river, and now the afternoon was half-gone. If only Papa weren’t so stubborn. Timothy wasn’t a ne’er-do-well the way her father would have said. He was an artist. Back east, artists didn’t shackle themselves to dull jobs like mining or banking. They lived free as spirits, making their living by their wits and their paints. Sometimes, he would send her sketches of the two of them together, and they made her heart flutter like a bird’s wings.
And when they were together at his cabin . . . oh, it was magical. He was so big, and she felt delicate and feminine and cherished in his arms. She loved sitting quietly to the side as he drew. Even though she normally insisted on a man’s undivided attention—and, in all fairness, she usually had it—sometimes, she was content to let Timothy focus on his art. She adored watching his hands, so sure and strong, nearly dwarfing the pencil it raced over a sheet of paper, creating trees and skies and horses running in the wind, their nostrils flaring and tails flowing. The first time he asked to draw her, he’d found it charming that she was shy. As the months passed, though, she became comfortable, almost brazen, in her willingness to allow him to draw whatever his art desired.
She clucked to the horse. If only they could have met in town. She didn’t have as much time today as she’d have hoped, because Papa’s board meeting had started late. Ah, well. She could still be back before anybody knew she’d left the house. She giggled to herself as she thought of Papa sitting with all his dull directors, talking about business and money and thinking that she was sitting alone in her room with a book, while in truth, she was flying into the arms of sweet Timothy—
The next instant, she was tumbling into the mud along the edge of the road. She sat up, shaking her head, as a breathy voice said, “Oh, pardon me, miss!”
“What is the meaning of this!” she demanded.
The dark-haired man touched the brim of his hat as he dismounted. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to crowd you off the road.” He reached down his right hand to help her up, and he smiled. “You’re mighty pretty.”
She ignored his comment on the obvious as she tried brush the mud off her dress. “Look what you did to me!” She didn’t even bother looking up at him as she snapped, “The least you can do is to put my buggy back on the road.”
“Yes, miss.” As she retrieved her hat, he pushed her buggy back up onto the road. “I’m awful sorry, miss.”
She looked up at him and paused in her indignation. He was almost as tall as her beloved, and he had an excellent profile—even better than Timothy’s, if it wasn’t disloyal to think so. This gentleman’s lips were full and sensuous. She felt a tingle, and she forced herself to drop her gaze in a properly demure fashion. Watching him through her lashes, she held up her gloved hand for him to kiss. He took her hand, but he didn’t seem to know what to do next. Shy boys were so endearing. She lifted her head, and he turned full-face toward her.
She gasped. “What happened to your face?”
His eyes dropped. “I got burned when I was little.”
“That’s terrible!” She reached up, her hand stopping just short of the violent red scar. “Does it still hurt?”
Eleanor considered him. She could just picture it—the little boy with the big brown eyes and perfect face, so tragically disfigured. His parents had no doubt locked him away somewhere so that they wouldn’t have to be reminded of his imperfection. All these years, he had been waiting for someone who could see past his mutilation, someone who could see into the depths of his soul and know him for who he truly was. Such a beautiful, heartrending story—better than any of the romantic tales she’d hidden in her bureau drawer.
She lifted her head. It was up to her to let him know that he was still perfect, still a man. “Would you like to kiss me?”
His eyes grew round. “Yes, ma’am.” He leaned down and pecked her cheek, and she giggled.
“Not that like, silly. Like this.” She placed her hands on either side of his neck, closed her eyes, and gently kissed his lips. She opened her eyes and smiled at the astonishment on his face. “Did you like that?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am!”
“Would you like to kiss me again?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am!” He pulled her close, and the two stood in the road kissing until he pulled away.
“I should get going,” he said. “Me and my brother—we’re supposed to meet in Virginia City.”
Eleanor considered this. “Wouldn’t you like to ride alongside my buggy for a little while?” she invited.
“I shouldn’t,” he said. “My brother might get mad.”
“Oh, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind,” said Eleanor. “He’d think it was just fine that you were escorting me to—to my destination,” she ended hastily. The thought of what her beloved would do if she rode up with this man flashed through her mind. Timothy could get so jealous sometimes. She couldn’t bear to see this darling wounded sparrow beaten senseless by Timothy. “On second thought, maybe you’re right. It’s been lovely meeting you. I hope I see you again some time.” She held out her hand for him to assist her into the buggy, and he drew her into his arms, kissing her more insistently. “All right, that’s quite enough,” she said as she tried to push him away. He was stronger than she’d expected. She pushed against his chest as she turned her face away from his. “I really need to be going,” she said, but he was holding on.
“Just one more kiss,” he begged.
“Not now,” she said as firmly as she could manage, but she could hear a slight quaver in her voice betraying her nervousness. To her relief, he released her, and she smoothed out the wrinkles in her sleeves. When she looked up, his head was bowed, and she felt ashamed of her sharpness. She smiled encouragingly as she said, “Perhaps if you’re around when I’m coming back this way, we’ll meet again. Goodbye now!” She scrambled into the buggy and slapped the reins on the horse’s back, ignoring his calls to come back.
Barely a quarter-mile down the road, she heard hoof beats. In these woods, she couldn’t tell where they were coming from. She glanced back over her shoulder, and she saw the man with the scar riding after her. She clucked and slapped the reins to urge the horse on, but a wheel went off the edge of the road into the mud.
“Here, let me help,” said the scar-faced man, riding up beside her.
“Would you leave me alone?” she hissed. What was wrong with him? Why wasn’t he listening to her?
“I just want to help you,” he said. “You need help.”
“I don’t need your help! Leave me alone!” She slapped the reins harder, but the horse couldn’t free the buggy. Where was Timothy? Why hadn’t he come after her? Hadn’t he noticed how late she was? Wasn’t he worried?
“You’ve got to get out,” the man said. Before she could protest, his hands were around her waist, and he was lifting her from the buggy. He set her feet on the road and said, “You’re so beautiful.”
“Would you please—” Her words were cut off as his lips covered her mouth, pressing with new intensity. With one arm, he held her body against him while his other hand held her neck to keep her from pulling away. Her heart pounded as she struggled to get free, but he was so strong.
Dimly, she heard hoof beats coming along the road, and a man’s voice called out, “Let go of her!” And then, she felt powerful hands seize her. . . .
* * * * * * * * * *
“Joe? Joe, wake up. Come on, now. It’s time to wake up.”
It sounded like Adam’s voice, but that didn’t make any sense. Adam was meeting him in town. He wasn’t anywhere near the high road.
Joe felt somebody slapping his cheek. “Come on, Joe, wake up,” the person who sounded like Adam said again.
Go away, he wanted to say. His head was pounding, his ribcage throbbed, and his stomach felt like he was tumbling down a hill in a barrel.
“Anything yet?” asked another voice. It was familiar, but Joe couldn’t place it.
“Not yet,” said Adam’s voice.
“Try the cold compresses again,” said the other voice.
Seconds later, freezing wetness on his forehead startled him. He forced his eyes open. “Cut it out,” he murmured.
“Well, look who’s awake.” Joe couldn’t see who was leaning over him. He blinked hard, but everything was still fuzzy. He reached out, and a familiar hand grasped his. “It’s about time,” said Adam, his voice ever so slightly unsteady. “We were getting worried.”
“Huh? Wha—what?” Joe’s tongue felt thick and clumsy.
“Just take it easy,” said Adam. “How do you feel?”
“I’m okay,” Joe managed.
“I doubt that very much,” said the other voice. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
Joe blinked hard and squinted. “Two,” he said with as much certainty as he could work up.
“Close,” said the other voice.
“What does that mean?” asked Adam in a low voice.
“It means he’s not riding home tonight,” said the other voice.
“Is he awake? Can I talk to him?” came still another familiar voice. This one was gruff and anxious.
“Not yet,” said somebody. It was getting hard to keep up with the voices.
Joe blinked again, and the fog lifted a bit. “Adam,” he murmured.
“I’m right here, Joe,” said Adam, bending over him. “Just take it easy. You’re fine.”
Before Joe could respond, his rising nausea tipped over the edge. “Bowl,” he managed, reaching for the table he could barely see. Somebody held the bowl for him, and his stomach rejected its contents. Exhausted, Joe lay back, closing his eyes as low voices murmured and the cool hardness of a water glass pressed against his lower lip. He sipped, his head pounding so loudly that he couldn’t believe they couldn’t hear it.
Eventually, the pounding lessened. The wet cloth resting against his face felt good, and he allowed himself to relax into its comfort.
“Any better now?” Adam asked after a bit.
“Some,” said Joe. He opened his eyes, but his brother was still a dark blur. “What happened?”
Adam leaned close enough for Joe to make out his somber expression. “Well, we’re not quite sure,” he admitted. “Looks like you ran into a little problem up on the high road.”
Even feeling so rotten, Joe couldn’t help grinning. “You’re gonna be in so much trouble.”
Adam chuckled. “You could try a little harder not to enjoy that fact.”
“What happened?” Joe asked again.
“Well, that’s what you’re gonna need to tell us.” Roy Coffee leaned over Adam’s shoulder. The silver star on his vest glinted in the lamplight. “Do you know who you fought with?”
“Fought with?” Joe squinted to see the lawman’s face.
“You had a hell of a fight with somebody,” Adam said. “I don’t what all happened, but it looks like you ended up getting hit over the head. You’ve got a real good lump back there. Doesn’t it hurt?”
“My whole head hurts,” Joe confessed. He felt like he was inside a church bell that wouldn’t stop tolling. “What happened?”
Adam started to answer, but Roy cut in. “I wanna hear what Joe has to say before you start tellin’ him what you think,” the older man said. “Joe, what’s the last thing you remember?”
Joe thought hard. He could feel everybody watching him as he stumbled through the fog in his mind. “I don’t know,” he said at last.
“You don’t know what you remember?” Roy sounded dubious.
“Roy, leave him be.” Doc Martin came around the other side of the bed. “Joe, how many fingers am I holding up now?”
“Three,” said Joe, not quite guessing.
He squinted. “Still three.” He held his breath, but everybody seemed satisfied with his answers.
The doctor peered at him. “How’s your stomach? Do you still feel sick?”
“I’m fine,” Joe lied, and it was clear nobody believed him anyway.
The doctor pulled the edge of the blanket up a little higher on Joe’s shoulders. “All right, you two, he’s answered enough questions for now,” he said in that tone that would tolerate no argument. “Adam, you can stay for a while, but your brother needs to rest. Roy, I’m keeping Joe overnight, and if he’s up for questions in the morning, you can come back then.”
“But, Doc—I got a posse out there lookin’ for a killer, an’ Little Joe here might know something that’ll help!”
“A killer? Who’s dead?” Joe tried to keep his voice steady. Oh, God, no, not again, he begged silently as his stomach pitched.
“Easy, Joe,” said Adam, a reassuring hand on his brother’s arm. “You didn’t do anything. John Gunther’s buggy was found right where you were, and his daughter’s body was found about a quarter of a mile away in the woods.”
“Dadburnit, Adam Cartwright, would you stop tellin’ him things before he says what he knows!” The sheriff’s mustache quivered with frustration.
Joe squinted. “Whose body?”
“John Gunther’s youngest girl,” said Adam.
“Gunther—you mean Margaret? I thought she moved to Denver. Did she come back?” Joe squinted hard, as though seeing more clearly meant he’d remember more clearly.
“Margaret’s the older one,” said Adam. “This was the younger one, Eleanor.”
Joe bit his lip, concentrating as best he could through the pounding. He had a vague memory of Eleanor from back when they were all in school. When he was fourteen and walking Margaret home, her little sister would insist on walking on his other side, chattering up a storm. He tried to figure out if he’d seen Eleanor recently, but all he could picture was a skinny kid with pigtails and freckles.
Adam was still talking. “When you didn’t show up in town, I went out to see where you were. Yes, I was concerned about a fugue,” he admitted when Joe raised his brows slightly. “Gunther had some men out looking for his daughter, and I met up with them a little way out of town. We found you unconscious, and there was a whole mess of tracks. Somebody’d dumped Eleanor’s body in the woods down toward the creek. Any of that sound familiar?”
“Adam, will you jest hush up!” the sheriff huffed.
“All right, no more talking,” said the doctor firmly. “Roy, you can talk to Little Joe in the morning if he’s up to it. Right now, he’s going to get some rest.”
“Don’t go.” Joe’s hand gripped his brother’s.
“Don’t worry,” said Adam. “I’m not going anywhere.” He held Joe’s hand as the doctor ushered the sheriff out and turned down the flame on the lamp. The door closed behind the doctor, and Joe felt himself begin to drift off.
His eyes were just closing when he thought of something. “How’d she die?”
If Adam was surprised at the question, he didn’t show it. “Her neck was broken. Roy says her throat was all bruised, like somebody’d choked her. Does that ring any bells?”
Joe thought. He couldn’t say yes, but he couldn’t say no, either. Something was nudging at the back of his mind the way Cochise nudged his arm to demand a treat. “I don’t know,” he murmured, but even he could hear that his words were running together.
“That’s okay, Joe. Just go to sleep. Maybe you’ll remember something in the morning.” Adam’s thumb rubbed the back of Joe’s hand, and Joe felt himself slipping away. Just before he tumbled over the edge into sleep, something flashed through his mind, but it was gone too fast to know what it meant.
* * * * * * * * * *
A tall, lean man with classic features and a wide smile stood as Marcus entered the office. “Good afternoon,” he said, extending his hand. “What can I do for you?”
Marcus pulled himself up to his full height, and he still had to tilt his head back to look the man in the eye. “I’m Marcus Tucker,” he said, taking the man’s hand. He watched as the most fleeting distaste at the dampness of Marcus’s palm flashed through the man’s eyes. “I’d like to see Attorney Simmons, please.”
“Of course. Please have a seat.” The man knocked once at a closed door and then slipped inside, closing it behind him.
Marcus looked around the room. Graceful furniture, richly colored rugs, leather-bound books lining the walls. It figured that this man would have such a fancy office. The world rewarded beauty liberally. Only those who had not been so blessed were forced to use cunning and intellect to accomplish their dreams.
The door opened again. “Right this way,” said the tall man. He stood back, and Marcus entered the second office.
He’d known, of course, that Attorney Simmons was a woman. After all, he hadn’t spent the three days since Elias’s unfortunate arrest doing nothing. Marcus had researched every lawyer in Virginia City. Anna Simmons’ name had come up several times, often in conjunction with stories of a trial from last fall. Folks still talked about how she’d gotten a man off a murder charge on the basis of some ludicrous theory about how he had memory lapses and couldn’t remember what had happened. From what they said, she’d sold the jury on some tale that the memory lapses were the result of an Indian massacre or some such nonsense. Nobody knew how much she’d charged for this, but more than one person mentioned that old Ben Cartwright was loaded and he’d have paid anything to get his boy off.
“But she’s a woman,” Marcus had mused. “How can a woman be a lawyer?”
The fellow next to him at the bar shrugged. “All I can tell you is that Little Joe Cartwright is a free man today because of her.” He snorted, “Probably don’t hurt that she’s a damn fine looker—wouldn’t surprise me if the men on the jury were thinkin’ about other things than a murder, if you know what I mean.” He elbowed Marcus conspiratorially, and Marcus forced a smile.
Now, as he walked into her office, he saw what the man had meant. Blond hair neatly pinned up, but not so severe that it didn’t frame her lovely oval face. Her eyes were blue, fringed with dark lashes. As she gave him a small welcoming smile, he noticed slight dimples in her cheeks. She wasn’t much taller than he, and while she was slender, he noticed with pleasure that she was round where a man prefers roundness. He allowed himself an instant to regret the proper white blouse that buttoned all the way to her chin.
“How do you do, Mr. Tucker,” she said, extending her hand. Her voice was low and sweet, and Marcus had to force himself to concentrate on the words. “I’m Anna Simmons. I believe you’ve met my partner, Richard Palmer.”
“Miss Simmons.” He took her hand with just his fingertips so as not to repulse her with his damp palm.
“Won’t you sit down?” She returned to sit behind her desk. To Marcus’s displeasure, the sandy-haired man took the other seat in front of her desk. Marcus took the remaining chair, angling it slightly so that he was facing the woman and ignoring the man.
“What can we do for you, Mr. Tucker?” she inquired.
“As you may have heard, my brother, Elias Tucker, has been arrested for murder,” said Marcus. “I want him acquitted.” It was a tall order, and he knew it, but he refused to settle for less. That first night the posse had brought him in, Elias had babbled and blathered about a man and the girl. Marcus had bought drinks and asked questions in half the saloons in town, but it all proved fruitless. The sheriff told him that a man—presumably the fellow Elias had run into—was found unconscious next to the buggy, and the girl’s body was nowhere near there. Elias swore up and down that he hadn’t knocked the fellow over the head, but the rumors around town were that the man had been hit so hard that it was a wonder his skull hadn’t been fractured.
Marcus cursed himself a thousand times for agreeing to meet Elias in Virginia City instead of escorting him there. I want to go fishing, his brother had been whining for weeks, and finally, Marcus gave in. Well, never again. Once Elias was acquitted, he would never leave Marcus’s sight again.
“I want him acquitted,” he repeated. Let there be no mistake about it. One way or another, Elias Tucker would walk out of that cell. After all, there was ten thousand dollars in gold waiting for him once he was free. A man simply couldn’t die with that much money left unspent.
The woman was watching him as though she expected him to say more. He waited, and eventually she said, “I can represent him, but I can’t guarantee an acquittal. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you.”
“I’ve asked around,” said Marcus. “Your reputation in this town is excellent. People are still talking about that murder trial you handled last fall.”
“That was a very unusual case,” said the woman. “As with any other, we had no way of knowing what the jury would do. We did our best, and fortunately, the jury believed our witnesses.”
We. Our. Marcus allowed himself a sidewise glance at the man. “No one has mentioned him,” he commented.
“Mr. Palmer hadn’t yet come to Virginia City at that time,” she replied. “He just arrived this spring, but already, he’s developing an excellent reputation.” Marcus looked down for a second to avoid showing a sneer at the thought of what kind of reputation the pretty boy was developing.
“I want the best for my brother,” he said as he straightened. “And I can afford to pay for it.”
The woman looked at him as though she had a dozen questions. The one that came out was unexpected: “How does your brother feel about being represented by a woman?”
“He wants the best,” said Marcus flatly. When she appeared to be unmoved by the compliment, he leaned forward. “Miss Simmons, my brother is . . . a little slow. He will agree to whatever I tell him is best for him. Based on my conversations with people in this town, you are what’s best for him, so you needn’t worry what he’ll think about being represented by a woman or anything else. Now, is there anything else, or would you like to go over to the jail to talk to him?”
She rose. “Mr. Tucker, would you mind waiting in the outer office for a few moments?”
“Of course not,” he said, well aware that his tone indicated otherwise. He stepped into the other office, and the man closed the door firmly behind him.
He wandered around the office, perusing the books. He pulled one down and flipped a page open at random, his eyes widening as he read:
The contract of cession must be interpreted by the words of it, according to their received meaning and use in the language in which it is written, as that can be collected from judicial opinions concerning the rights of private persons upon rivers. . . .
Rage bubbled up in him. This should have been his life. He should have been the one sitting behind a fancy desk, dispensing words of wisdom, reading these books and knowing what this elaborate language meant to the poor slobs who walked past his door. He should have been wearing a satin vest. He should have been the one who was free to walk into the office of a beautiful woman and close the door. This should have been his life, and instead, he was doomed to spend his days atoning for his actions, cleaning up after Elias and never having a moment’s peace. I could buy and sell you a thousand times over, he wanted to shout through the door at the handsome couple inside, but it wasn’t true. Money would only take a man so far. To win a woman like that, he would have needed to be as handsome as tall, lean Mr. Palmer.
The door opened, and Palmer beckoned him inside with a hand that had doubtless never shoveled horse dung or thrown slops to pigs. Marcus slammed the book shut and jammed it back onto the shelf. He barely favored the tall man with a glance as he returned to his seat.
“Well?” he asked. “Are you going to represent my brother?”
“We’ll meet with him,” said the woman. “If he wants to retain this firm, we will represent him. Bear in mind, though, that it’s his decision, and no one else’s.” She seemed to be saying something else, but Marcus couldn’t quite make it out.
He rose. “My brother will do whatever I recommend,” he said. “Consider yourself retained.”
* * * * * * * * * *
The knock echoed through the room. At first, no one moved. Then, with one more questioning look at his youngest son, Ben crossed the room to open the door.
“Hello, Anna,” he said. He smiled as warmly as ever, careful to hide the ache in his heart at the thought that this lovely woman would never be his daughter-in-law. “Come in, please.”
“Hello, Mr. Cartwright,” she said. If she was harboring a similar ache, she hid it well. She indicated the bespectacled man with her. “Mr. Cartwright, this is Marcus Tucker—Elias Tucker’s brother. Marcus, this is Mr. Ben Cartwright.”
The men shook hands and exchanged appropriate greetings as Ben guided them into the house and closed the door. “Mr. Tucker, I know you’ve already met Sheriff Coffee,” he said, gesturing to the grizzled man in the red leather chair. “This is my eldest son, Adam, and this is my youngest, Joseph.”
Adam approached, his hand extended. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Tucker. How are you, Anna?”
She smiled. “I’m fine, thank you, Adam.” She turned to Joe, who had risen from the settee. “How are you doing, Joe?”
“Me? Oh, I’m fine,” said Joe breezily. “How do you do, Mr. Tucker? I’m Joe Cartwright.”
“How do you do.” The man’s deep voice was at once the same as Ben’s and yet different. There was something in Ben Cartwright’s voice that was missing from Marcus Tucker’s. For an instant, Joe caught a flash of something in the little man’s eyes that he couldn’t identify, but it felt distinctly suspicious and resentful—hostile, even, and more than that. This man didn’t even know Joe, but he hated him.
You’re nuts, he told himself as he resumed his seat on the settee. He’d done nothing to Marcus Tucker, nothing at all. There was no reason for Tucker to think anything at all about him.
Hop Sing offered coffee to the newcomers. A bit more small talk, and Anna turned to Joe. “I suppose we should get started,” she said, and Joe felt himself tense.
The request from Anna had come six days earlier. The note was straightforward: she represented Elias Tucker, and the sheriff had told her that Joe had been present at the scene of the killing. Would Joe be willing to meet with her to tell her what he knew?
“I don’t like it,” Ben had said to Adam that night. “What if she tries to make it out like Joe’s the killer?”
“She wouldn’t,” said Adam. “And anyway, she can’t. Eleanor’s body was found all the way down by the creek, and Joe had already been knocked out up on the road.”
“She could try to suggest that somebody knocked Joe out after he killed the girl,” Ben said.
Adam shrugged. “I don’t see how she could,” he said. “Roy showed me where they found her. If Joe had been tramping through those woods—especially carrying a body—he’d have had mud on his pants halfway up to his knees. I saw him right after they brought him in—the only mud was on the soles of his boots.”
Ben sighed. “I just wish your brother remembered what happened.”
Adam’s sigh matched his father’s. “So do I.”
Doc had ordered that Joe stay in bed for ten days, after which he was restricted to the house for another week. Undeterred, Anna had offered to come out to the ranch to speak with him. Joe refused to meet with her until he could get up, requiring the interview to be postponed to this day.
Now, Adam showed Marcus Tucker to a chair next to where Anna sat on the settee, and Ben pulled up a chair on the other side, where Joe sat. Adam returned to his blue velvet chair, and they waited for Anna’s first question.
“Naturally, we’re talking about what happened on May seventh. Joe, the sheriff tells me you were found unconscious on the high road next to the Gunthers’ buggy,” she began. “Do you remember what happened at any time before you woke up in the doctor’s office?”
Joe considered the question as though it was the first time he’d thought of it instead of the fiftieth. He caught Tucker’s intense look, and again, he saw a glint in the man’s eyes like the steel flash of a dagger. Cut it out, he told himself sternly. Tucker was just worried about his brother. He was probably worried about what Joe was going to say, whether he thought this was going to be the witness who put the noose around his brother’s neck. Then you can relax, he thought at Tucker as he answered, “The last thing I remember is being with Adam on the ride into Virginia City.”
“Were you both on the high road?”
“No,” Joe said again. “We were going to split up. I was going to take the high road, and he was going to take the main road and meet me in town.”
“Why did you split up?”
Joe caught Marcus Tucker studying him. “I wanted some time to myself,” he said. “It’s been pretty busy around here lately. Haven’t had much breathing space.” He held Anna’s gaze with his last comments, willing her to understand what he was saying.
She nodded slightly. “Whose idea was it?”
“It was mine,” Adam volunteered.
Anna frowned at him. “Adam, please let Joe answer the questions.”
“It was Adam’s idea,” Joe admitted. He could feel his father disapproving. Well, it was bound to come out at some point. There would be repercussions later, but the brothers would handle them then.
“Before May seventh, when was the last time you’d seen Eleanor Gunther?”
“I don’t know,” said Joe. “And to be clear, I don’t recall seeing her that day, either. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t tell you the last time I did see her. We may have passed on the sidewalk in town or seen each other at church, but I don’t think we’ve said more than ‘good day’ in years. We don’t—I mean, didn’t—tend to run into each other. She was—oh, I don’t know—five or six years younger than I am, and we just didn’t have the same friends.”
Anna nodded. “Do you have any memory at all of being on the high road on May seventh?”
“No,” said Joe. “Like I said, the last thing I remember is being with Adam before we split up.”
Anna lowered her voice slightly. “Was this a fugue, do you think?”
“I don’t know,” Joe said. “Doc seems to think I might not remember because of getting knocked out. He said that, as concussions go, this one was kind of serious.” An understatement, to be sure, but he found himself reluctant to talk about himself in front of the little man with the froggy eyes. His stomach was feeling unsettled, and he just wanted to finish this discussion.
“May I ask a question?” Tucker asked, and all at once the room vibrated with tension.
Anna looked to Joe. “Is that all right with you?”
Joe swallowed hard as he nodded. His brother’s on trial, he reminded himself. Adam would have done no less if Joe were the accused. “Go ahead,” he said.
“I’m not certain that I understand this whole fugue business,” said Tucker. “Miss Simmons has described it, but I don’t quite understand. Are you saying that if something happens while you’re in a fugue, you’ll never remember it?” The words sounded like a simple question, but Joe suddenly felt as though he was being threatened at knifepoint, as though he was being dared to remember.
He met the little man’s eyes, refusing to blink first. “That’s how it’s worked so far.”
“But if you’re just not remembering because you got hit on the head, then you might recall later what happened?”
“Maybe. I guess we’ll just have to see.”
Tucker straightened. “This is my brother’s life we’re talking about, Mr. Cartwright. I’ll thank you not to be so cavalier about it.”
“I’m not being cavalier,” said Joe, trying to hold his temper. He could feel his father and Adam ready to jump into the fray, and he held up his hand. “Believe me, Mr. Tucker, I’d like nothing more than to be able to remember what happened that day. An innocent girl died, and if I can remember something that’ll help catch the killer, I want to do it. But the truth is that if I was in a fugue at the time, I’m never going to remember anything. That time from when I left my brother until I woke up at the doctor’s office is always going to be a blank. It’s only if this particular memory lapse is the result of being hit over the head that I have any chance of remembering, and the only way I’ll ever know which it was is if I actually do remember something.”
He forced himself to hold Tucker’s pale blue gaze. There was something terrifyingly familiar in the man’s eyes, something ruthless that flamed beneath the icy scrutiny. All at once, he felt as though a frigid wind had blown through the room. He was sure he’d never seen Marcus Tucker before, but when the man licked his thin lips, Joe’s stomach lurched as though in bizarre recognition. He stood abruptly. “Good-bye, Anna, Mr. Tucker.”
“Joe—” Anna began uncertainly. She reached out as if to shake his hand, but Joe stepped back.
“Good-bye,” he repeated. He dug his nails into his palm again as she rose to go, murmuring her good-byes, followed by Tucker. At the door, she paused, turning back.
“If I have any other questions, may we speak again?” she asked.
But Joe was still watching Tucker. The little man’s tongue appeared ever so briefly as he licked his pale lips again, and Joe felt a chill down his spine at the snake-like gesture. Stay here, Anna, he thought suddenly. Don’t go with him.
“Let’s wait and see if you have any other questions,” said Ben when Joe didn’t answer. His hand rested protectively on Joe’s shoulder, but he waited until the door had closed behind them before addressing his pale son. “You okay?”
Joe nodded. “Yeah,” he lied. The room was starting to sway. He tried to sound casual as he added, “I’m just tired. I think I’m gonna lie down for a little while.” Without waiting for an answer, he headed up the stairs, mindless of the talk below him.
He was sitting on the edge of his bed, his head in his hands as he tried to breathe deeply, when his father came in. “Joe, what’s wrong?”
“Not feeling good,” he mumbled.
If this uncharacteristic admission startled Pa, he hid it well. He sat down on the bed next to Joe and pressed his hand against his son’s forehead. “You’re not warm, anyway,” he observed with relief. “Why don’t you just lie back and rest for a while. Maybe this was little too much for your first day up.”
“Maybe,” Joe allowed. He pulled off his boots and lay down, allowing his father to cover him with a quilt. He couldn’t remember ever being so cold, not since . . . not since. . . .
“Easy, mister,” said an unfamiliar voice. “Just lie still.”
“What the—where am I?” Joe tried to sit up, but someone pushed him back. His entire body throbbed, his ribcage hurt like a horse had rolled on him, and the back of his neck felt like someone was driving an axe into it.
“Fort Emerson.” A cool, wet cloth came to rest over his eyes. “You get some rest now. You’re gonna be fine.”
“What—how—?” He pulled off the cloth. His hands were shaking. “Who are you? Where are the others?”
“Take it easy, mister.” A stocky man with a graying mustache hovered over him. “You warm enough, or you want another blanket?”
“Blanket.” He rolled onto his side, curling into a ball to try to get warm. Another blanket covered him, and at his nod, another one, but still he felt as though he’d been drenched in icy water and would never be warm again. “How did I get here?” he managed.
“You were lucky. Our troops were out on a routine mission and they found your stagecoach. At first, they didn’t think there were any survivors, but you musta made noise or something, so they brought you in. You been here since yesterday.”
“But—how—” he tried, but the man was still talking.
“Looks like the savages tried to lift your scalp. Good thing our men came along when they did. The doc stitched you up real good, so you got nothing to worry about. I bet your hair’ll even cover the scar.”
“What about—there were others—” His teeth were chattering.
“I don’t know nothin’ about no others,” he said. “You’re the only one they brought in.” His voice softened. “If there were any other survivors, they’d have brung ’em in.” The man laid his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Is there somebody we should get in touch with?”
“My father. Ben Cartwright. Virginia City.” He pulled the blankets up to his ears. “Are you sure. . . .”
“Yeah, mister.” The man sounded sad as he rested a hand on Joe’s forehead. “I’m sure.”
He forced himself to lie still now as his father drew the draperies. “Try to get some sleep, son,” said Pa. Joe nodded, closing his eyes as he heard the door latch click shut.
And then, he rolled onto his side and curled up into a ball, trembling beneath the quilt as though he would never be warm again.
* * * * * * * * * *
Hoss slowed his horse as he came up to the curve. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to get home. He’d been gone a whole lot longer than he’d originally expected. Pa was probably getting antsy, and Adam and Joe were likely getting pretty sore about having to handle all the work. No matter how he felt, he knew it was high time he got back to the Ponderosa.
As he rounded the curve, he saw it. His favorite place—the spot his family had always called Hoss Heaven. He could almost see the house he’d planned to build for them, with the curtains in the open windows fluttering in the breeze as the scent of fresh-baked biscuits wafted out to him. From the front porch, they’d have had a view of the sun setting over the lake, fiery oranges and pinks reflecting in the dark blues and greens. Unbidden, the memory came to him. . . .
“So, do you think you’d ever want to move out of town?” He tried to sound as though it was just a casual question, just regular conversation after supper in her parlor.
She smiled up at him, a glint of mischief in her eyes. “That would depend,” she said. “Why would I be moving out of town?”
He drew her just a bit closer. He knew it wasn’t quite proper for the two of them to sit here on the settee with nobody else in the house except her cook back in the kitchen, but those kinds of things didn’t seem to bother her.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe if there was a real good reason. . . .”
“Like what?” Her smile broadened, and he couldn’t help himself—he leaned down and kissed her.
“Hmmm.” She ran a finger lightly along his ear and down his neck. “That could be a very good reason, but I’m not sure. Would you mind telling me that reason again?”
He turned to her and drew her into his arms, kissing her long and deep. “You convinced now?”
She reached up to smooth his hair. “Oh, I think it’s going to take a whole lot more convincing than that,” she said, and this time it was she who leaned in to kiss him. . . .
He shook his head to rid himself of the memory. It had been a nice enough thought, but obviously, she wasn’t the right one. Any woman who could doubt his brother’s innocence—not to mention taking up with somebody new that fast—well, clearly she hadn’t really loved him after all.
But a tiny kernel in his heart just refused to believe that. Maybe it was hope, or maybe it was more, but when he thought of all the time they’d spent together, all the secrets they’d shared, all the private moments—not to mention everything she’d done in defending Joe—he just couldn’t believe that she hadn’t loved him. All these weeks he’d spent trying to outrun his own heart, and in the end, here he was with two facts he just couldn’t fight.
She had loved him.
And he still loved her.
He put his heels to his horse. It wouldn’t be quite fair to say that he was running from the spot, but after all this time away, getting home ten minutes sooner wasn’t going to mean much. Still, he didn’t slow his mount until they were well past Hoss Heaven, coming down that last rise before the meadow that stretched out, lush and green with spring rains, almost right up to the main house itself.
He rode into the yard, exchanging greetings with the hands working in the corral and the barn. Saddle-stiff, he winced as he dismounted at long last. A final pat of thanks on the horse’s flank, and he untied his saddlebags and headed into the house.
“Well, look who’s home! Welcome back, son!” Pa’s welcome, so warm and genuine, brought a smile to Hoss’s face in spite of everything,. His father grasped his arm as he pumped his hand. “It’s good to see you, boy,” he said more quietly. The deep brown eyes searched Hoss’s, the question plain, and Hoss shrugged.
“It’s good to be home,” he said, and in a way it was true. “How’s everything going?”
“We can talk over supper,” said his father. “It’s almost ready. You go and wash up.”
Hoss’s smile broadened. “Good thing you reminded me,” he said. “I reckon I ain’t washed up before a meal in weeks!”
Pa chuckled. “Don’t be fresh. You sound like Little Joe.”
“How’s he doin’?” Hoss tried to sound casual.
Pa’s smile faded. “He’s all right,” he said, but the look in his eyes said otherwise.
“What happened?” It was the one thing he’d worried about while he was gone—that Joe would end up in trouble. It was the reason he’d left that note for Adam, telling him that if they needed him, Adam should write to him in Placerville care of general delivery, and he’d check in there every now and again. All he’d gotten from Adam were quick notes to let him know they were thinking of him, and so he’d assumed all was well. Now, seeing Pa’s eyes, he felt a wave of anger at his older brother, who had clearly been holding out on him.
“There was a problem,” Pa admitted. He gave Hoss a quick summary of the past two weeks, light on details and heavy on reassurance, ending with, “In fact, why don’t you go on up and see if Joe’s awake? It would probably be good if he had something to eat.”
Moments later, Hoss stood before Joe’s closed door. He tapped gently. No answer. He knocked harder. Still silence. He eased the door open, peering around the edge into the dimly lit room.
At first, it looked as though the bedclothes were a mere tangle with no one in the bed. “What the—?” Hoss muttered as he lit the lamp. Joe usually slept sprawled out, covers half-kicked off. But Pa had said. . . . Shaking his head, he reached for the top quilt.
Joe sat bolt upright, wild-eyed, his hand clamped on Hoss’s wrist as he thrashed to free himself of the quilts that had completely hidden him. His chest heaved, and a moan of pain escaped him.
“Easy, Joe, it’s just me.” Hoss sat on the edge of the bed, his free hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Take it easy now. You’re all right.”
“Yeah.” Joe’s arm was pressed against his midsection. Hoss winced in sympathy; he’d cracked ribs any number of times in his life, and he knew full well how painful they were. It was usually a few weeks before he could take a deep breath without wanting to yell.
“When did you get back?” Joe asked when he’d regained his breath.
“Just now,” said Hoss. “Got home in time for supper.”
Joe grinned. “Now, there’s a surprise. I don’t suppose you let Hop Sing know so that he could fix about three times as much food?”
A burst of Chinese outrage sounded from below. “I reckon he knows now,” Hoss chuckled. His eyes grew serious. “Pa said you ran into a little trouble a couple weeks back.”
“Nothing much,” said Joe. “At least, not for me. I got a whale of a headache and a couple of cracked ribs, but that’s all. I don’t even remember what happened.”
“Was it a fugue?”
Joe shrugged. “Don’t know. Everybody keeps asking questions, and I don’t recollect anything, but Doc seems to think that might be from getting hit over the head. Says the only way to know is if I remember something, but he doesn’t know when that might be.”
“Pa says there’s a feller in jail for killing the girl.”
“Elias Tucker. His brother was here this morning with—” Joe broke off.
“What?” Hoss prodded when he didn’t continue.
“Anna was here with him,” Joe admitted. “You missed her by a few hours. She’s representing Tucker.”
Hoss nodded just like his heart didn’t burn at the mention of her name. “Figures he’d want the best.” The words sounded as if they were being forced through a tiny opening. Anna had been here, in his house. If he’d come home yesterday, he’d have seen her. He looked away, willing himself not to care and not succeeding.
Joe rested his hand on Hoss’s arm. “How’re you doing?”
“I’m okay.” He knew he didn’t even sound close to convincing, but Joe nodded anyway.
The brothers sat quietly for a spell, not talking and not needing to. Finally, Joe said, “You better get downstairs and let Hop Sing feed you.”
“Ain’t you coming?”
“I’m not hungry.”
Hoss chuckled. “Pa thinks you’d feel better if you got something in your belly.”
Joe rolled his eyes. “That’s his solution to pretty much everything.” Then his grin faded, his eyes darkening. “I wish it worked,” he said so quietly that Hoss could barely hear him. He bowed his head as though he could hide the sorrow that always seemed to be lurking just below the surface. The big man gripped Joe’s hand and held tight, each drawing strength from the other.
After a minute, Joe lifted his head. He swallowed hard and managed a small smile. “Just don’t be mad at Adam,” he said. “I told him not to say anything.”
“What the—how’d you know?” Hoss demanded.
Joe snorted. “It was tough. Probably took—oh, two, maybe three minutes to figure out.” He squeezed Hoss’s hand. “I knew that there was no way you’d go without leaving word how to get in touch—just in case.”
Hoss nodded, grinning ruefully. He should have known. He let go of Joe and tried to sound casual. “So how many fugues you had since I been gone?”
“I don’t know,” Joe shrugged. When Hoss didn’t respond, he insisted, “Really, I don’t. It was going better before Eleanor Gunther died. That was why Adam let me go off on my own—I hadn’t had one in days. Since then—maybe four or five.”
“In the last two weeks?” Hoss didn’t bother to hide his dismay. “Pa didn’t say anything about that.”
“Pa doesn’t know about most of them. He was there for one, but I’ve spent most of my time up here in bed by myself. Nothing seems to happen—I mean, I’m not doing anything I shouldn’t. It’s just like—well, one time, Hop Sing had brought up lunch, and he put the tray down and left, and the next thing I knew, the plate was empty and I didn’t remember eating. Stuff like that.”
“What about nightmares?”
“Since Eleanor died? A few times. Only woke up Pa and Adam once, though.”
“And you ain’t said nothing to Pa or the doc, have you?”
“They didn’t ask.”
Joe held up his hand as if to ward off a brotherly smack. “No, really—I think maybe it’s just temporary, like getting hit might have stirred things up a little. I’m sure it’ll all settle down soon enough.”
“Just the same, you tell Pa, or I’m gonna.” Hoss rose. “Now, you get yourself downstairs for supper.”
“I already told you, I’m not hungry.”
“Suit yourself,” Hoss said. “’Course, I don’t know what I might end up saying. Somebody mentions a fugue, and—”
“Reckon the only way you’re gonna know is if you come downstairs, ain’t it?” Hoss bent down to retrieve Joe’s boots. “Let’s go before everything gets cold, ’cause that’d probably put me in a real talkative mood.”
“Dadburn you, Big Brother!” Joe pulled on his boots and got himself off the bed, wincing only slightly. He turned down the lamp and followed Hoss out the door. Just before they reached the stairs, Hoss stopped. At Joe’s questioning look, he forced the words out.
“Was she all right?”
Joe shrugged slightly. “I couldn’t tell,” he admitted. “All she talked about was what I remembered from that day. Nothing else.” Not you, Brother. I’m sorry.
Hoss nodded as though hearing the unspoken words. He turned as if to go downstairs, and then he turned back. “How did she look?”
Joe shook his head. “Sad.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Anna dipped her pen into the ink. Dear Henry, she began. She read the words over and over as though they held some magical powers, but they remained nothing more than a salutation to her dearest friend back in Chicago.
She sipped her tea and resumed writing. She asked after mutual friends in Chicago and reported on how Richard had settled into life in Virginia City. She inquired into Henry’s latest doctor visits; ever since Hoss had arranged for him to meet with Dr. Marsh in Sacramento, Henry’s fragile health had improved remarkably. Dr. Marsh had referred Henry to a specialist who had recently moved to Chicago, and Henry’s latest letter recounted the specialist’s hope that Henry might one day walk unassisted.
Anna laid down her pen as she remembered Henry’s arrival in Virginia City. She had just won her first case, and she had reconciled herself to the idea that, because of her trial strategy, she had lost any hope of winning Hoss’s heart. And so, she had sat in the parlor with her uncle, the Cartwrights and her client and his mother, basking in her professional triumph, when the knock at the door had interrupted the conversation. She had opened it to see Henry in his wheelchair, with Hoss pushing him. Hoss had arranged to help Henry, whom he’d never met, simply because he knew how much Henry meant to her. Because, he wanted to make her happy.
She closed her eyes against the memory. What was done, was done. She hadn’t heard from Hoss since that terrible stormy night. She hadn’t seen him around town at all. Even Joe hadn’t come to see her, although she’d fully expected him on her doorstep the next morning, demanding an explanation. When a few days passed with no word from either Hoss or Joe, she’d started to write Hoss a letter, but something stopped her. She hadn’t done anything wrong that night, not a thing. If Hoss could so easily assume otherwise—well, he was the one who owed her an apology, and not the other way around.
She could only imagine what Hoss must have said to his family about what he’d seen. Ben Cartwright, so upright and moral, would have been appalled. Adam and Joe would have been irate. No doubt, they’d all told Hoss he was well rid of her.
She laid down her pen. This morning’s meeting had gone almost as she expected. If Ben Cartwright was a bit distant, he nonetheless remained gracious. Adam was civil, no less and no more. Joe had seemed nervous, but she understood: the last time she had questioned him about a murder, he had been the accused.
And of Hoss, there had been no sign.
Now, as she thought about it, the fact angered her. She would never have thought of Hoss as a coward. For him to go out of his way to be away from the house when she came—well, that just wasn’t the Hoss she knew. The man she loved would have had the backbone to face her, to say hello, to be courteous and civil. He would never have run away like this.
She forced her attention back to the letter. I’ve taken on a new client who has been accused of murder, she wrote. As it turns out, Joe Cartwright may be the only witness, and that only if he can recall what happened. My client’s story makes no sense, and so his ability to avoid the noose is likely to turn on what, if anything, Joe can recall.
She allowed her thoughts to wander back to that morning. Joe had seemed unusually tense, but she supposed that made sense. Hoss had told her that one of Joe’s recurrent nightmares involved a young lady on the stagecoach who had been raped and murdered. The thought of witnessing the murder of another young girl would naturally be hard on him.
She sighed. If she was interpreting Joe’s reaction correctly, it corroborated the prosecutor’s theory that Elias had beaten Joe and then choked Eleanor. The prosecutor insisted that Joe must have been attacked first, or else he’d have rescued Eleanor. As to why Elias would have beaten Joe, the prosecutor opined that Joe must have happened upon him in the act of attacking Eleanor. As much as Anna hated to admit it, in the privacy of her own office, the theory made sense.
More sense, anyway, than Elias Tucker’s story. He claimed that he had been kissing Eleanor Gunther when a man rode up and ordered him to let her go. The man then pulled her from Elias’s arms, and the two men fought briefly. Elias then mounted up and ran away, leaving the man behind with Eleanor, both of them alive and conscious.
“What did the man look like?” she’d asked.
Elias shrugged. “Just a man.” On further probing, he revealed that the man had brown hair. He couldn’t recall how tall he was or what color his eyes were, nor did he recollect what the man had been wearing. Nothing distinctive about his way of speaking. He didn’t remember the man’s horse. He had no idea whether the man was left-handed.
If only there were a way to get Joe Cartwright to Virginia City, she mused. Even if Joe didn’t remember Elias, Elias might remember Joe.
And it always comes back to the Cartwrights, she reflected. She reread Henry’s last letter. In his typically gracious manner, he’d inquired after Hoss and his family, hinting ever so delicately that he was waiting for a particular announcement. She drew a deep breath and took up her pen.
I do wish that I could tell you what you would so like to hear, but it does not appear that I’m going to be able to do that, she wrote. Ever since Joe’s trial last fall, Hoss and I have tried to regain what we once had. Unfortunately, it appears that our efforts have failed. It is with a heavy heart that I write this, as I know how fondly you have cherished the dream that Hoss and I would marry. I, too, have longed for that day, and I struggle with the realization that it shall never be. Still, you needn’t worry about me. I have a successful practice and good friends like you and Richard, and that is a great deal more than most unmarried women have. And no, dear Henry, Richard is only a friend, and I do not anticipate that he will ever be more. My heart has been given, and although Hoss appears not to want it any more, it remains his. I cannot give it to another.
She laid down her pen and rested her head against the high back of the chair. It was over. The man she loved didn’t want her. For the second time in her life, her profession had cost her dearly. . . .
“How long has it been going on?” Her words were controlled and precise.
Seth shrugged. “Six, eight months. It doesn’t matter. You were never here anyway. Whenever I wanted you, you were over at your father’s office.”
“And that’s your excuse? I was busy, and so it was all well and good for you to take up with Leeann Parker?”
“Anna, what did you think was going to happen? Did you think I was going to be content to come home night after night to an empty house, or to spend evenings watching you read law books and listening to you go on and on about your father’s cases? I’m a man, Anna. I want a wife who will be a wife and who will put me above her little hobbies.”
“‘Little hobbies’? Is that what you think this is?” Her eyes blazed for the first time since Seth had told her that their marriage was over. “Without a system of laws, our entire civilization would fall into chaos. We’d be back to the medieval view of might equaling right, a world where no one would dare to speak freely for fear of the cost, where men could be falsely accused and no one could ever expose the lies so that innocent men would perish and wrongdoers would flourish. What we do—my father and I, and others like us—is to try, in some small way, to preserve the liberties that are supposed to be part of this great country by ensuring that justice is achieved for everyone. And if that’s a ‘little hobby,’ then I daresay it’s the most important little hobby any person could ever have.”
She stood before him, fists clenched, breath coming hard. He looked at her for a long minute. Then, he shook his head.
“If only you could have been this passionate about our marriage,” he said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pack a bag. I’ll be at the Empire House tonight. Perhaps tomorrow, we can sit down and discuss how we’re going to divide our possessions.”
“You can have everything,” she said, head held high. “I don’t want any of it.”
Seth smiled faintly. “Talk to your father,” he said. “He’ll tell you not to be so foolish.” With that, he turned, leaving her to watch as he climbed the stairs to their bedroom, returning a short time later with a valise. He regarded her soberly. When she said nothing, he tipped his hat as he might to a strange lady on the street. “Goodbye, Anna,” he said softly, and she watched as her husband left their home for the last time.
Anna sipped her tea. It had gone quite cold, and she set the cup back in the saucer. She felt as though there was a great gaping hole in her chest where her heart used to be. Nothing could fill that void except that beautiful giant of a man whose heart had seemed big enough to hold her as well as her dreams.
And yet, when all was said and done, it was clear that she’d only held second place in his heart, coming after his family and especially after Joe. And that, more than her profession, had been their undoing.
She should have seen it all along. From the very first time he’d come to her office to see whether she was angry with Joe about comments he’d made, to the way he’d tended to his younger brother after the explosion in her office, to his constant protection of Joe through the trial and its aftermath. It occurred to her to wonder whether she and Hoss could have been happy if there had been no massacre, no murder, no fugues, or whether there would always have been some reason for Hoss to put Joe ahead of her.
It didn’t matter now. Hoss had made his choice. And perhaps she had no right to blame him. For her, being the best lawyer for Joe had been more important than how Hoss felt. It hadn’t been just another case, of course, and part of her passion had derived from the fact that she was representing Hoss’s little brother. Still, she couldn’t deny that she had been far less concerned about Hoss’s knowledge and approval of her trial strategies than she was about seeing that justice was done and an innocent man was kept from the gallows.
She closed her eyes. Ironic that she and Hoss had the same flaw in their tendency to put their passions ahead of all else. In Hoss’s case, it was his family; in Anna’s case, it was her profession.
“No,” she whispered. Hoss wasn’t second to anyone or anything in her heart. And she wouldn’t have been willing to come second to anything in his—if only she’d had the choice.
The slight movement at her elbow made her jump. “Very sorry, Missy,” said Jiang Xi softly as she removed the teacup. “Jiang Xi make Missy more tea?”
Anna took a deep breath, trying to force back her tears. “No, thank you,” she said. “I think I’m going to go to bed. Good night, Jiang Xi.” She would finish Henry’s letter in the morning.
The young Chinese girl stood silently for a moment. Then, feather-light, she rested her hand on Anna’s. Anna met her gaze, and for a moment, both women’s eyes brimmed with tears.
“Thank you,” Anna whispered. Jiang Xi gave her hand the lightest of squeezes as she bowed, and as Anna watched her retreat, tears spilled down the lady lawyer’s face.
* * * * * * * * * *
Joe sat bolt upright in the darkness, his chest heaving. He trembled with icy fear as he tried to catch his breath. He groped for the matches on the night table, but his hands were shaking so badly that he couldn’t grasp them.
The door opened, and Pa came in, carrying a lamp. “Are you all right, son?” he asked.
Joe nodded. “I’m okay,” he managed.
Pa set the lamp on the night table and sat down next to him. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Joe thought about the dream. It had been different from any of the others, but he couldn’t quite say how. The stagecoach, the Indians, the massacre—all these had been the same. But there was something new this time. There were more people on the stagecoach. A skinny little girl with pigtails and freckles. A tall man with brown hair. Anna. And there had been something else slithering around their feet.
With a start, he realized that Pa was waiting for an answer. “No, I don’t think so,” he said. He didn’t want to alarm Pa with the notion that something was changing until he knew what was happening. “I’m okay, really. I’m just going to go back to sleep now.” To prove it, he lay back and pulled the covers up to his shoulders.
Pa looked dubious, but he merely rested his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “If you’re sure,” he said.
“I’m sure,” said Joe. He bade Pa a good night and watched as the door closed. Then, he closed his eyes as though he could see the scene again, but he saw only darkness.
As he slipped back into sleep, one thought surfaced in his brain.
Anna’s in danger.
* * * * * * * * * *
The knock made her jump. She looked up to see Marcus Tucker entering her office uninvited. Anna lay down her pen. “May I help you?” It had been a long day, and with the Tucker trial barely two weeks away, there was no break in sight.
“I’d like to talk to you,” said Tucker. Something in his voice sent a chill down her spine, but she maintained a calm demeanor as she waved him to a chair.
“What can I do for you?” she asked when he didn’t continue.
“I’ve been thinking about your friend, Mr. Cartwright,” said Tucker. For a moment, Anna’s heart leapt. In the next instant, though, she realized that he meant Joe, not Hoss. Tucker continued, “Can we trust that if he hasn’t remembered by now, he’s not going to?”
“I don’t know,” said Anna. “As he said the other day, if it was a fugue episode, he won’t be recalling anything. The doctor did say, though, that if it was a result of simply being hit on the head, the memory could come back at any time.”
“So, he could be sitting on the witness stand and have a sudden return of his memory?”
“That would be unfortunate,” said Tucker, half to himself.
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Anna carefully.
Tucker leaned forward. “Miss Simmons, let’s not play games,” he said. “You and I both know that my brother stands a better chance of acquittal if young Mr. Cartwright remains ignorant.”
“I don’t know any such thing,” said Anna. She kept her voice steady only with effort.
“Miss Simmons, you’ve heard my brother’s story. As you sit here now, what do you think the chances are that a jury will believe him?”
“Mr. Tucker, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that there is no predicting what a jury will choose to believe. I’ve seen rock-solid cases lose, and I’ve seen long-shots win. Why a jury does what it does is one of the great mysteries of the law, and any guess I make will be precisely that—a guess.”
“Fair enough,” said Tucker. “Let me ask you this, then: if my brother tells his story, and Joe Cartwright tells his, which one do you think a jury will believe?”
“Considering that Joe Cartwright’s testimony is that he doesn’t recall anything that happened, I can see a jury believing both of them.”
“Miss Simmons, my brother’s life is at stake, and I’ll thank you to take that seriously.” For a moment, something flared in Tucker’s pale eyes.
“Mr. Tucker, there is nothing I take more seriously,” she said. “However, I still don’t understand what you’re suggesting. Since I have a great deal of work to do, including your brother’s trial to prepare, I would ask that you state your concern plainly.”
“Plainly,” Tucker repeated. “All right, then. Would it be in my brother’s best interests if Joe Cartwright were to be—unavailable to testify? If he were to be—well, called away suddenly, for example?” he added, and she knew she’d failed to conceal her shock at the implication.
Her stomach lurched, but her voice remained emotionless. “Absolutely not.”
“And why is that?” The challenge in the words was subtle, but definitely present.
She swallowed hard. “Because if anything were to happen—anything at all—which prevented him from testifying, the jury could easily infer that he was kept away deliberately, and they could draw a further inference that he was kept away because his testimony would have been harmful to your brother.”
“Wouldn’t there have to be proof of that?”
“Not directly. The judge can instruct the jury under certain circumstances that it may draw inferences based upon things like a failure to call a witness whom a party would normally be expected to call. Since Joe Cartwright is the only person known to be present at the scene, the jury will expect one side or the other to call him. If he is ‘unavailable,’ the prosecutor can ask that the jury be instructed that it can draw an inference that he was prevented from testifying because his testimony would have been harmful to our case.”
Tucker sat back, stroking his chin. “So, you feel we have a better chance if young Cartwright takes the stand and repeats what he said at his house the other day?”
Fine. If she had to work from this side, she’d do it. “Absolutely,” she said. “If he takes the stand, we appear to be forthcoming and the jury can feel comfortable that we’re not hiding anything. If he doesn’t testify, the only facts before them will be that Eleanor Gunther was strangled, your brother was kissing her just before she died, and he was captured while fleeing from the scene of her death. On that evidence, your brother will almost certainly hang.” She held his gaze steadily throughout this speech, daring him to disagree.
After a long minute, Tucker looked away. He busied himself lighting a cigar and puffing. “You’re quite fond of young Cartwright, aren’t you?”
“He’s a friend of mine,” Anna conceded.
“Are you capable of doing whatever needs to be done when he testifies?” At her slight frown, he stated, “You won’t be gentle with him just because he’s your friend, correct?”
“Of course not,” she said. “I have a client to represent. Whether I know a witness does not interfere with that. If it did, I’d have great difficulty in representing anyone, because I know half the people in this town.”
Tucker nodded, puffing on his cigar. “I want my brother acquitted, Miss Simmons,” he said after a long pause.
“I understand that.”
“And I want you to use every means at your disposal to get him acquitted.”
“I will do everything within the scope of my professional and ethical responsibilities,” said Anna.
Tucker nodded his understanding. “Then I shall let you work,” he said, rising. “Just remember one thing, Miss Simmons. It is in everyone’s best interests for my brother to avoid the noose.”
He was out the door before she could catch her breath.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Absolutely not,” said the doctor. He dropped his stethoscope into his bag and closed it to signal that the conversation was finished.
“But I have to!” Joe started to sit up, and the doctor reached over to push him back against the pillow.
“What you have to do, young man, is to stay quiet and rest,” said the doctor. He looked from Joe to Ben, and then from Ben to Adam and Hoss. “If I’d known Joe was experiencing increased fugue episodes, I would never have let him get up. Now I’m telling all of you so that there is no question. Under no circumstances is Little Joe to be up out of that bed until I say so. Is that understood?”
“But, Paul—Joe may be the only one who can say whether Elias Tucker was present when that girl died,” said Ben. “Isn’t there some way we can get him into town so that he can at least see whether he recognizes Tucker, or whether Tucker recognizes him?”
“Absolutely not,” Doc said again. “I’m not sure you all understand what’s happening here. We knew from the start that Joe had a serious concussion, and that was bad enough, but now—if it’s affecting matters like whether he’s present or in a fugue, then it’s even more serious than I realized before, and that means that it’s of paramount importance that he remain as quiet as possible.”
“What if we took him in a buggy?” suggested Hoss. “Or even a buckboard so’s he could lie down.”
“I’m not lying in the back of a buckboard!” Joe protested.
“You’re not going anywhere,” said the doctor. To Hoss, he said, “Even in a buggy, the trip into town is a good two hours, and this time of year, it’s a pretty rough trip with all those ruts. Even if Joe had the stamina for a trip like that—which, by the way, he clearly doesn’t—the risks of further injury from getting bounced around are serious enough that I just can’t allow it.”
“But what if I might remember? Isn’t it worth it if I can save an innocent man from hanging?” Joe started to sit up, and this time, it was his father who pushed him back.
“Joe, I admire what you’re trying to do, but you don’t seem to understand,” said the doctor. “This isn’t a bump on the head from a saloon fight. I don’t know what you were hit with, but it wasn’t a fist. It could have been a rock or a gun. Whatever it was, the person who hit you wasn’t just trying to knock you out. A blow like that is intended to kill a man. The fact that you survived at all is a testament to your hard skull, but it’s clear from what you’ve told me today that you’re not healing as fast as we all thought.” He looked at each of the Cartwrights as he continued, “I’ve seen men who thought they were recovering from an injury even less severe than this, and they get one more blow to the head—nothing terribly rough—and it’s enough to finish them off. I’m not going to let that happen to you. You’re going to stay right where you are until I say otherwise, and then you’re going to start very, very slowly. Realistically, I don’t expect you to be out of this bed for at least two or three weeks—longer if the fugues don’t ease up.”
“And by then, Elias Tucker’s liable to be on Boot Hill,” said Joe bitterly. “And the real killer will be laughing his fool head off.”
“You’re assuming that Elias Tucker is innocent,” Adam pointed out. “If he’s the one who hit you and choked Eleanor, he’ll probably be just as happy if you never recognize him.”
“Would you shut up!” Joe snapped.
“Joseph!” His father’s reprimand made no allowance for frustration, however well-earned. Joe lifted his hand—sorry, brother—and Adam waved him off—don’t worry about it. It was a scene the two had played out a thousand times, and they knew each other’s lines.
“You know, there is one other option,” Adam said after a minute. “We could get somebody to draw a picture of Tucker, and you could see whether you recognize it.”
“See, Little Brother? That’s why we keep ol’ Adam around—’cause he thinks of this stuff.” Hoss beamed in encouragement.
“I knew there had to be a reason,” Joe allowed.
“Oh, shut up,” said Adam.
“Pa!” Joe protested in mock indignation.
Ben ignored him. “And if this person draws a picture of Joe, Tucker can see whether he recognizes him even if Joe doesn’t recall Tucker.”
“But who would be able to draw like that?” asked Hoss.
“Maybe one of the fellows who does those sketches for The Territorial Enterprise,” Adam suggested. “I think there are two or three of them. I’m sure one of them would be willing to help.”
The doctor regarded Joe, his lips pursed in obvious disapproval at the notion. “As long as Joe isn’t out of this bed, and as long as this person doesn’t keep him up too long, I suppose it’s all right,” he conceded. “But if Joe starts to get tired, the artist is going to have to stop.” He pursed his lips, considering his patient. “Speaking of which, it’s time to let Joe get some rest. Let’s go downstairs and talk about this.”
“I’m not tired!” Joe protested, but nobody was paying attention. He watched as his family and the doctor made their way out the door, and the doctor closed it behind him.
Ridiculous. Outrageous. Unbelievable. He reached for the note that had precipitated this whole matter:
Would it be possible for you to come into town and meet with Elias Tucker? Even if you don’t recall him, it would help to know whether he might remember you.
Please let me know when you will next be in town so that we can plan to meet. Thank you.
Joe considered the question. When will I next be in town? he thought. From the looks of things, when pigs fly. He crumpled the note in his fist and closed his eyes, trying to block out a world that was getting smaller all the time.
* * * * * * * * * *
Marcus drummed his fingers on his knee. “How much longer is he going to be?”
Anna looked up briefly from the paper in front of her. “I don’t know,” she said. “We agreed to meet at nine. I don’t know where he is.” She returned her attention to the document, crossing out a line and making a note in the margin.
Moments later, they heard the street door open. A gruff voice answered Richard’s greeting, and moments later, Richard led in a man who was nearly as tall as he. Marcus forced himself not to scowl as he studied the man. Ironic: this one could have been Elias’s brother. Tall, dark eyes, thick hair, full lips. The gray hat and dark red coat accentuated his coloring, just as one might expect from an artist. No scar, of course, and the features were craggier, but he fit in Elias’s family far better than Marcus did.
Anna had risen and extended her hand. “Thank you for coming, Mr. Phelps,” she said. “This is Marcus Tucker. Marcus, this is Mr. Tim Phelps from The Territorial Enterprise.”
“How d’you do,” mumbled Phelps.
Anna invited them to sit down. As she did the same, she said, “Mr. Phelps, as you know, we’ve asked you to help out in an unusual circumstance. We have a witness who can’t come into town, and an accused man who can’t leave the jail, and we need to know whether either of them recognizes the other. So, what we’ve asked you to do is to draw pictures of each of the men and show them to each other. Is this something you can do?”
“Yes’m,” said Phelps.
“Mr. Phelps, how long have you worked for The Territorial Enterprise as an artist?” she asked.
“Almost a year, ma’am.”
“How long will it take you to make these pictures?”
Phelps shrugged. “Depends what you want. I can make a good drawing in half an hour.”
Anna nodded as though this comported with what she expected. Marcus turned to the man. “Have you ever done anything like this before?”
“Draw pictures, you mean?”
God in heaven, the man even sounded like Elias. “Draw pictures under these circumstances,” Marcus clarified, trying to suppress his impatience.
The man shrugged. “Long as the fellow isn’t running or something, it’s all pretty much the same. These fellows won’t be moving, will they?”
“No,” said Anna. “One can’t get out of bed, and the other is in a jail cell.”
“Then I can do it just fine,” said Phelps. “I been drawing pictures since I was old enough to hold a pencil. It’s all I ever did for work, and I never starved.”
“How much do you charge for this work?” Marcus asked.
Phelps looked from Marcus to Anna. For the first time, Marcus detected a glint of shrewdness in the man’s eyes. “Ten dollars,” he said. “For each picture.”
So much for shrewdness, Marcus reflected. With a man’s life at stake, he should have said a hundred. “You’re hired,” he said, rising. “Shall we go?” He noted with satisfaction that Anna looked discomfited at the way he was taking charge.
“Fine,” she said, also rising.
“Oh, you don’t need to come along, Miss Simmons,” said Marcus. “I can see that you have a lot to do. I can take Mr. Phelps over to the jail.” He hid a smile as she cast a longing look at the papers on her desk.
“Perhaps Mr. Palmer can go with you,” she suggested, but Marcus waved her off.
“Nonsense,” he said. “There’s no reason to trouble Mr. Palmer. I’ll take Mr. Phelps over to the jail and introduce him to Elias, and then he can go out to the Ponderosa to draw Mr. Cartwright. In fact,” he added with a broad smile, “I imagine that somewhere in there, we can even find you some lunch.”
“That sounds fine,” said Phelps. “Pleasure to meet you, ma’am.” He ambled out the door, and Marcus turned back.
“Don’t you worry about a thing, Miss Simmons,” he said. “I’ll take care of Mr. Phelps.” He put on his hat and headed out before she could respond.
On the street, he asked Phelps, “So, what do you know about this case?”
Phelps grunted. “Fellow in jail killed a girl.”
Marcus forced himself not to bristle. “The fellow in jail is accused of killing her,” he said. “But he says he didn’t do it.”
“Does he say who did?”
“No,” Marcus admitted. “But he doesn’t need to. All he needs to do is establish a reasonable doubt, as they say in the law.”
Phelps grunted, clearly unimpressed by Marcus’s knowledge of the law. “If he can’t say who did it, why should anybody believe he didn’t?”
Marcus held himself in check with effort. “Because that’s not the way the law works,” he said. “If I accused you of killing her, that wouldn’t mean you’d have to go out and find the real killer. It would be enough to prove you were nowhere near the area when she died.”
Phelps stopped so abruptly that Marcus nearly ran into him. The tall man’s fists clenched as he stepped forward, the heat of his glare ferocious. “I didn’t kill her, and don’t you say I did!”
Involuntarily, Marcus stepped back. “Sorry, friend, it was just an example,” he said. “Didn’t mean any offense by it.” When Phelps didn’t move, he said, “I apologize. I didn’t mean to suggest that you ever killed anyone—but that’s how my brother feels, too. You can help him by drawing these pictures. Then, when Joe Cartwright sees the picture and says he never saw my brother, you’ll be keeping an innocent man from hanging.”
Phelps studied him for a long minute. Without a word, he turned abruptly and headed down the street toward the jail. Marcus hustled to catch up, and neither spoke again until they had entered the sheriff’s office.
“Sheriff, we’re here to see my brother,” Marcus announced.
Sheriff Coffee looked unimpressed. “Who’s this?”
“Mr. Phelps,” said Marcus. “He’s visiting Elias with me.” He willed the man not to offer any further information. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t want the sheriff to know about the drawings, but until he figured it out, he preferred to keep the various parts of his brother’s defense very quiet.
“Howdy, Mr. Phelps,” said the sheriff. If he’d ever seen the man before, he gave no sign. He just nodded toward the door separating the office from the cells. “Go ahead.”
Marcus opened the door and led the way into the cell area. He closed the door firmly behind Phelps. “Morning, Elias,” he said loudly.
“Huh? Oh, hey, Marcus.” Elias sat up on the bunk, yawning. “I was wondering where you were.”
“We’re here,” said Marcus. “This is Mr. Phelps. He’s the one who’s going to draw your picture.” The men grunted at each other, and Marcus added, “I’ll get Mr. Phelps a chair.” He retreated into the outer office and commandeered a chair, dragging it back to the cell and again closing the door firmly. Let the sheriff wonder.
He returned to the cell area to see the two men regarding each other. It wasn’t as though they were looking in a mirror, but the similarities were striking nonetheless. He watched them for a moment, considering. Then, he said, “Here’s your chair, Mr. Phelps. Elias, this man is going to draw a picture of you.” He positioned the chair in front of the cell. “Elias, stand so that your right side is facing us.”
“But, Marcus—” Elias began.
“Just do as I say,” said Marcus. “Oh, and Elias—you were wearing a hat that day, weren’t you?”
“Hmmm. Mr. Phelps, how about we put your hat on my brother? Then, you’ll have a better idea of how he looked on the day in question.” Without waiting for an answer, Marcus took Phelps’s hat and shoved it between the bars. “You were wearing a jacket, too, weren’t you?”
Again, Elias began, “Yeah, but—”
“Fine. Mr. Phelps, do you mind?” He was already helping Phelps off with his jacket before the man could answer. Mere moments later, Elias Tucker stood in his cell, wearing Phelps’s gray slouch hat and dark red coat, the unscarred side of his face turned to the artist. In a low voice, Marcus said to Phelps, “My brother hasn’t shaved since he was arrested, but he was probably pretty clean shaven that day, so you’ll want to leave out the stubble.” He allowed himself a quick once-over of Phelps, adding, “And he needs a haircut, so you’ll want to make his hair a little shorter.”
“Mr. Tucker, I know how to draw,” said Phelps as he began to sketch.
“My apologies,” said Marcus hastily. In an even lower voice, he said, “Please try to understand. If my brother—doesn’t win, your drawing will be the last image I have of Elias, so it’s very important to me.” He allowed that thought to linger for a moment before he added, “To me, this is a twenty-dollar picture.” He was gratified to see Phelps’s hand pause. Then, with the slightest glance at Marcus, Phelps began to sketch the dark-haired man in the strange hat and coat.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Over here, Mistah Cahtlight,” called Hop Sing.
Groaning, Ben lifted the crate of jars and hauled it over to the steps. Why Hop Sing had decided that today was the day he needed to bring up all those vegetables he’d preserved last fall was a mystery, but Ben had learned long ago not to argue. If only the little Chinese man had had this thought before breakfast, he could have kept Adam and Hoss back to help with this task instead.
He hauled the crate up the stairs from the root cellar and across the small clearing to the back entrance to the kitchen. He lifted his head briefly at the sound of hooves. Leaving, not arriving. He sighed; probably just one of the hands who’d come back for something. No visitor to spare him this task. He set the crate next to the others by the table in the kitchen and headed back to the root cellar for the next one.
Eventually, Hop Sing surveyed the crates like a general studying the map of battle. “Hop Sing make vegetable beef soup for Li’l Joe,” the little man announced.
“Fine,” said Ben, not really caring. He took a minute to wash off the dirt from the root cellar, and then he poured himself a cup of coffee and took it over to his desk, where he settled in to deal with his correspondence.
More than an hour passed before he rose and stretched. Nothing like a nice, quiet morning to let a man get his work done. He drained his cup as Hop Sing crossed the room with Joe’s lunch tray, the aroma wafting over to him. Hopefully, the good soup would improve Joe’s temperament.
It had been three days since the doctor’s pronouncement, and Joe’s mood had steadily deteriorated. He’d tried everything imaginable to convince them that they should let him get up and go to town to see Elias Tucker, and when his family had been steadfast, he’d argued until they just couldn’t stand it any more and had walked out, closing the door behind them. Even the reassurance that the artist from the newspaper was going to bring the sketch seemed to be small comfort. “What if he’s a lousy artist?” Joe demanded. “What if the picture doesn’t even look like the guy in jail?”
“Do you really think Marcus Tucker is going to let that happen?” asked Adam. “That guy is probably going to be hanging over the artist’s shoulder, quibbling about every little detail.” The others nodded, but Joe remained unconvinced.
A father learns early on which of his child’s cries are serious and which are simply calls for attention. Likewise, Ben had learned long ago when calls from their worthy were to be taken seriously and when Hop Sing was merely displeased with some minor state of affairs.
This call was serious.
Ben was on his feet before Hop Sing appeared at the top of the stairs. “What is it?” he demanded.
“Li’l Joe gone!”
“What!” Ben bounded up the stairs at a pace one might reasonably have assumed to be years behind him. He ran down the hall and stopped dead in his son’s doorway.
The bed was empty. The covers had been pushed back to the foot. Joe’s boots, which had been set neatly in the corner next to the bureau, were missing.
“Joseph!” he thundered, even though he knew full well that there was no one except Hop Sing to hear him.
He pounded down the stairs, Hop Sing on his heels. “You stay here in case he comes back,” Ben instructed as he pulled on his gun belt. “If Hoss and Adam get back, tell them Joe’s missing. Tell them I think he probably went to town, and I’m heading that way.”
“What Hop Sing do if Li’l Joe come back before Mistah Cahtlight back?”
Ben bit back a sharp retort. “Keep him here.”
* * * * * * * * * *
The hired bay trotted merrily along the Virginia City road. The occupants of the buggy were far less light-hearted.
Marcus Tucker cast occasional sidewise glances at the artist. The man hadn’t said ten words since he’d started sketching Elias. Not that the lack of conversation was a problem, because Marcus was well-pleased with the finished drawing. Folded neatly into the inside pocket of his greatcoat, the sketch depicted an attractive man in unfamiliar clothes who, as it happened, looked more like the artist himself than like the scarred suspect.
He reined in the horse as a rider on a pinto rode straight toward them. The rider veered off the road to go around them, but other than that, he didn’t acknowledge them.
“Must be in an all-fired hurry,” muttered Marcus. He waited for Phelps to comment, but the man was silent. Marcus clucked to the horse, and the buggy started up with a jerk.
They were nearing the turnoff for the house when another rider approached. Like the first, this one was riding hellbent for leather. The man on the buckskin had drawn the brim of his hat low over his eyes, and he bent over the horse’s neck as they thundered past the buggy.
“Watch where you’re going!” Marcus shouted after him, but the rider gave no sign that he’d heard. Well, he’d certainly let Ben Cartwright know how his ranch hands were riding. If a couple of them lost their jobs for being so reckless and endangering decent folks—well, it wasn’t any more than they deserved.
It took longer than Marcus had recalled to reach the house from the Virginia City road, but eventually, they drove into the yard of the big house. He allowed himself the briefest moment of uneasiness before he climbed down and beckoned for Phelps to follow. He straightened his vest and coat and marched up to the door, where he let the heavy knocker fall with a resounding clong.
Almost at once, the small Chinese man opened the door. For an instant, he looked disappointed, but he recovered himself. “Yes?”
“I’m Marcus Tucker,” said Marcus. “This is Mr. Phelps. The artist,” he added when the little man’s expression didn’t change. “We’re here to see Mr. Cartwright.”
The Chinese man looked from one to the other. “Come in,” he said. “You like coffee?”
“No, thank you,” Marcus answered for both of them. He drew the paper from his pocket and handed it to the Chinese man. “This is the drawing Mr. Phelps made of my brother. Now, he’s going to make a drawing of Mr. Cartwright.”
The little man frowned. “You sit down,” he said. “Hop Sing bring coffee.” He trotted out to the kitchen, still holding the drawing.
Marcus shrugged and sat on the settee. Phelps shifted from one foot to another, almost as if waiting for further instruction. Eventually, when Marcus ignored him, the tall man perched on a blue velvet chair over by the stairs. Marcus was mildly amused to note that Phelps looked mighty uncomfortable, almost as though he thought someone was going to yell at him for sitting there.
The coffee seemed to be taking an awfully long time. Marcus was on the verge of calling for the little man when the front door opened and two men walked in. The dark-haired one was Joe Cartwright’s brother—he couldn’t recall the man’s name—but the large one was a stranger.
At last. “Mr. Cartwright,” he said, more to get their attention than anything else. Both men turned to face him, and the dark man nodded.
“Mr. Tucker,” he said, approaching with his hand extended. “This is my brother, Hoss. Hoss, this is Marcus Tucker.”
Hoss Cartwright didn’t seem to need any more information. He shook Marcus’s hand and said, “Pleased to meet you,” even though it was clear he didn’t care in the slightest whether he met Marcus or not.
Before Marcus could introduce the artist, the Chinese man ran in from the kitchen—without the coffee. If the man worked for him, he’d have been fired by now.
“What’s the matter, Hop Sing?” The big man’s face scrunched with sudden worry.
The Chinese man glanced at the visitors. “Come in kitchen,” he said, tugging at the big man’s sleeve. The Cartwright brothers followed the Chinese man into the kitchen. Moments later, they ran back out, grabbing the hats they’d just hung on the peg rack by the door.
Adam Cartwright paused at the door as if remembering the visitors. “There’s a problem,” he said. “My brother, Joe, isn’t here. Perhaps you should go back to town, and we’ll let you know when you can come out here and do the sketch.”
“Isn’t here? What do you mean, he isn’t here? The lawyer said he couldn’t get out of bed!” A red flush of anger suffused Marcus’s face.
“He ain’t supposed to,” said the big man. “It could be real bad for him. We’ll let you know when we find him. Come on, Adam.” He headed out the door without waiting for an answer.
“Sorry for the inconvenience,” said Adam Cartwright, not sounding at all sorry as he followed his brother out the door. Moments later, they heard horses racing out of the yard.
Marcus stared at the still-open door. He can’t get out of bed, Anna Simmons had told him. Obviously, that wasn’t true. Who did these Cartwrights think they were, anyway? Lying when a man’s life was at stake—what was wrong with them? And why on earth did that lady lawyer, who supposedly knew the family, believe them?
Unless she was in on the lie, too.
Of course. It all made sense. He’d heard that she had been courted by one of the Cartwright brothers. The dark-haired one, probably—the young one was too young, and the large one wasn’t nearly handsome enough for a woman like that. There was a rumor that she’d discarded Cartwright in favor of the man who worked in her office, but Marcus hadn’t paid much attention to such nonsense. Clearly, though, she still had some connection to the family if she was willing to lie for them.
But how was she benefiting from this conspiracy? Was the family paying her to go along with their story? Or was she paying them? This witness, Joe Cartwright—he was the only one who could state positively that Elias had killed that girl. Somehow, his little bump on the head had become so serious that he couldn’t get out of bed—which meant that he couldn’t come to the trial and testify.
And now suddenly, he’d vanished.
A smile spread over Marcus’s face. She must have thought again about her strategy after their conversation. Perhaps she’d decided that it would indeed be better if Joe Cartwright didn’t testify.
Except . . . what were the drawings about, then? If Cartwright identified Elias from the drawing, what did it matter if he came to trial or not? Not that Cartwright could ever identify Elias from the sketch Phelps had done; this, at least, Marcus had done properly. If he’d left it up to the lawyer, she’d probably have had Phelps include the scar, and Cartwright would have known Elias instantly.
The little Chinese man was standing in front of him with a tray bearing a coffee pot and cups and saucers. Marcus couldn’t have said how, but somehow he knew that the man had been standing there for several minutes, waiting for him.
He shook his head as if to clear it. “We need to get back to town,” he said. “Let’s go, Phelps.” He brushed past the little man and headed out the door, barely noticing that the sky was clouding over.
He and the lawyer needed to have a talk.
* * * * * * * * * *
Roy Coffee was in the privy when he first heard the yelling. He couldn’t make out the words, but it sounded like it might be coming from inside his own jail. There was nothing there for the prisoner to yell about, though—leastwise, not unless the girl’s family had decided to take matters into their own hands.
He did his best to hasten matters along, muttering about what things were coming to when a man couldn’t even get a minute’s peace to tend to his business. Still buttoning his trousers, he barreled out of the privy and into the back door of his office.
The words were clearer now: “What are you staring at? Stop looking at me! Get out of here! Stop staring at me!”
What the devil. . . ? Roy burst through the door from the office into the cell area and stopped in his tracks.
The prisoner was at the bars, screaming and flailing, straining to reach through the bars as though he would choke anyone within reach. His face was red with agitation, and he didn’t even seem to notice Roy as he continued yelling, “Get out of here! Leave me alone!”
But that wasn’t what had stunned Roy. What caught the lawman completely off-guard was the visitor.
Little Joe Cartwright stood in front of the cell, just out of Tucker’s reach. He seemed utterly unfazed by the reaction he was causing. He wasn’t speaking, wasn’t moving, wasn’t doing anything at all. He just stood before the cell like the prisoner was one of those mangy, toothless tigers that you sometimes saw caged up in those traveling circuses.
“All right, now, Tucker, you jest settle down,” said Roy. “An’ Little Joe, you come on out of there!”
But it was as though he hadn’t spoken at all. Tucker continued to scream, and Joe didn’t move.
“Tucker, I told you to settle down!” Roy snapped. “Ain’t nobody staring at you! Little Joe, you jest leave him be.” No acknowledgement from either. Roy was about to yell at both of them again when the truth dawned on him. “You jest hush,” he told Tucker. Tentatively, he rested a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Joe, you need to come with me,” he said. Joe didn’t move. Roy tried to recall how he’d seen Ben and the boys handle Joe last fall when he’d have fugues while he was in jail waiting for his own trial. With a gentleness few would have associated with the sheriff, he took Joe’s arm and said, “You gotta come with me, Little Joe. Come on, now, you gotta come with me.”
To his vast relief, Joe didn’t fight him. He didn’t seem like he was going to move at first, and then, all of a sudden, he turned away from the cell and walked with Roy into the outer office. Roy closed the door, gratified that Tucker had stopped shouting. “Where’s your pa?” he asked. No answer, but the boy looked mighty pale. “You come on in here,” he said, guiding Joe into the little side room with the cot. “Lie down,” he instructed. “Come on, Joe, lie down.” He patted the cot invitingly, but he couldn’t even have said for sure that Joe could hear him.
By the time Ben Cartwright burst through the door more than an hour later, Roy had succeeded in getting Joe to lie down on the cot, but the boy had never closed his eyes or said a word. If he’d dared to leave Joe alone, he’d have gone for the doctor, but he was downright frightened. He remembered seeing Joe go into these fugues, but he’d never before been responsible for him. He didn’t know whether Joe might try to leave, and he wasn’t at all sure what he could do to stop him if he did.
Ben was bellowing his son’s name as he charged into the office. “He’s in here, Ben!” Roy called, gratitude flooding his anxious heart at the prospect of handing off this responsibility.
“Joe!” Ben rounded the corner and stopped dead at the sight of his son, eyes open and unmoving. He asked the question silently, and Roy nodded. “Thank you,” Ben managed. He sat on the edge of the cot and rubbed Joe’s arm in a gesture Roy had seen him use a thousand times, though he’d never quite sorted out whether the purpose was to comfort the son or the father.
“Ben, you want me to get you anything?” He didn’t know what his friend could possibly want, other than to have his son whole again, but he had a sudden need to try to do something.
“Would you mind sending somebody for the doctor?” Ben asked.
“I’ll fetch him myself,” said Roy. He hustled out the door just as Adam and Hoss came riding down C Street. He waved his hat to get their attention in case the pinto and the buckskin tied to the hitching rail in front of the jail might not be enough, but they’d already seen the horses.
Tersely, he told them what had gone on. Hoss immediately headed off to the doctor’s office before Roy could tell him that that job was spoken for, and Adam said, “Tell Pa I’m going to get a rig so we can drive Joe home.” He was running across the street before Roy could respond.
The next hour was a blur as the doctor came and the Cartwrights argued with him about whether Joe could make the trip back to the Ponderosa. Eventually, Ben Cartwright won, just as Roy knew he would. With his arm around the boy, Ben escorted Joe out to the rig Adam had hired. “You lie down and rest,” Ben instructed. Hoss helped Joe into the back of the rig, gently urging him to lie back on the straw mattress Adam had commandeered from someplace, and then Hoss climbed in beside him. Adam and Ben tied the Cartwrights’ mounts to the back of the rig, and eventually, Roy watched as the family drove off.
It seemed as though the Cartwrights had just left when Elias Tucker’s brother showed up again. Roy heard the voices in the cell area, and he braced himself for the explosion he knew was coming.
Sure enough, moments later, Marcus Tucker stormed into the outer office. “What the devil are you doing here!” he demanded. “You think you’re running a circus? Just because my brother has a scar, it’s all right for people to come in and gawk at him and make fun of him?”
“Now, you jest simmer down!” Roy had had his fill of screaming Tuckers. “First of all, there was only one person come in to see your brother after you left. Second, I dunno what he was doin’, but he wasn’t makin’ fun of your brother. Fact is that he never said a word—he jest looked. Third, he came in while I was out usin’ the necessary, and as soon as I came in, I got him out of there. So, you can jest quit your belly-achin’, ’cause I’m about full up for one day!”
Tucker glared. “Did you bother finding out what the man wanted?”
“I dunno what he wanted,” said Roy. “I’d have asked him, but he couldn’t talk to me, so there wasn’t much point.”
“Couldn’t talk to you? What are you talking about?”
Roy sighed. “The man who come in here was Little Joe Cartwright,” he said. “He’s the one that has them fugues every so often. Well, he had one today while he was here, so he didn’t say nothin’.”
“Wait—Cartwright was here?”
“All the Cartwrights was,” Roy confirmed.
Tucker suddenly seemed quite interested in his fingernails. “Thank you, sheriff, you’ve been most helpful,” he said. Before Roy could respond, he turned on his heel and went back to the cell area, closing the door behind him.
Strange, Roy reflected as he sat down at his desk. A mighty peculiar day. He tucked the keys to the cell in his vest pocket and headed out to meet the stage the way he did every afternoon. This, at least, felt normal.
* * * * * * * * * *
The buggy was barely half a mile from the Cartwrights’ house when the drizzle began. Anna slapped the reins on the horse’s back and clucked, but the horse’s gait didn’t change. She slapped again, harder. Still, the horse plodded along as though pulling the buggy was an imposition, and by the time she drove into the yard in front of the house, she was definitely damp.
That’s the least of my problems, she reminded herself. Her stomach was flipping over, and she drew a deep breath as she secured the reins. Climbing out of the buggy, she straightened her back. Then, head held high, she strode across the porch to the front door.
She lifted the knocker and paused. The deep voice rumbling inside could belong to only one man. It had been more than two months since she’d heard him speak, but everything she’d ever felt welled up. She forced herself to take deep, slow breaths until her heart had stopped pounding and she’d suppressed the urge to burst into tears. Then, as firmly as she could, she lowered the knocker against the wood and listened to it echo.
He opened the door, and for one brief, unguarded moment, he looked like the man she’d known and loved, open and welcoming. But then, his eyes fixed on hers, and she watched his face harden, his jaw set.
“Hello,” she managed when it became clear he wasn’t going to speak.
“Hello,” he said, not giving an inch.
“Anna!” At least his father sounded pleased to see her. “Won’t you come in,” he added with a stern glance at Hoss.
Hoss stepped aside to let her pass. “Excuse me,” she murmured as she walked close enough to smell the warm, biscuity, intoxicating scent that was his alone. “Good evening, Mr. Cartwright,” she said as Hoss closed the door behind her.
“What brings you out here at this time of night—and in this weather?” Ben Cartwright guided her over to his red leather chair next to the fire. “Hop Sing!” When the little man ran into the room, Ben said, “Bring Anna a towel, will you?”
“Right away!” Hop Sing bobbed a bow. “Missy like coffee?”
“Yes, thank you,” she said. The truth was that she had no desire for coffee, but she found herself pathetically grateful for any indication that someone in this house still treated her as something other than that terrible scarlet woman who broke Hoss’s heart.
A short time later, Hop Sing had returned with a towel so that she could dry her face and hands, as well as a tray bearing what she knew to be the coffee set that was only brought out for company. I’m company now, she realized with a pang.
“So, what can we do for you?” asked Ben when he had poured her coffee and seated himself on the hearth next to her chair.
Anna turned to him, trying not to notice that Hoss still stood by the door as though ready to usher her right back out. “I heard what happened at the jail this afternoon,” she said. “I wanted to make sure Joe was all right.” She ignored the small snort from across the room, adding, “If it’s not too much trouble, I was hoping to talk to him.”
“I don’t know—” Ben broke off at the sound of footsteps on the stairs. He turned to Adam, who carried a tray and shook his head.
“He didn’t want anything,” Adam announced. “Hello, Anna.”
“Hello, Adam,” she said. “How’s Joe?”
Adam shrugged. “He’s had better days.”
“Anna was hoping to talk to him,” Ben said.
Adam shook his head. “I can tell you right now that he’s not going to want visitors. He barely let me stay in the room.”
Anna sipped her coffee for something to do. Normally, she’d have pushed—Are you sure? It’ll just be a few minutes. I won’t be long. But somehow, she couldn’t make herself speak.
She drained the cup and set it in the saucer as she stood. “Please tell him I hope he’s feeling better,” she said. “I’m sorry to have bothered you all.” She placed the cup and saucer on the tray. She didn’t care that it was now completely dark outside. It didn’t matter that she could hear the rain drumming on the roof. All she wanted was to go.
“Wait a minute.” Hoss barely glanced in her direction as he crossed the room and headed up the stairs. She looked questioningly at Ben, whose brow creased to suggest that he knew no more than she. Adam shrugged again and took the tray out to the kitchen.
Minutes later, Hoss appeared at the top of the stairs. “You can come up.” He stood there, not looking at her as she climbed the stairs. As she reached the top, he led her down the hall, pausing halfway to tap on a closed door. Without waiting for an answer, he opened the door and said in a low voice to Anna, “Don’t be long.”
“Thank you.” She entered the room, and almost at once she heard Hoss’s footsteps as he headed back down the hall. “Hello, Joe,” she said.
The young man in the bed was a gray shadow of the one who had once come to her office to pester her about dinner. This one reminded her of the Joe from last fall: pale, unshaven, unsmiling. He lay flat, but his eyes followed her as she neared the bed.
“You can sit down,” he said almost grudgingly.
She seated herself in the bedside chair. “How are you?”
“Fine.” Even his voice was dull.
She drew the chair closer to the bed so that he could see her more easily. “I hear you went to visit Elias Tucker today.”
Joe shrugged as best he could lying down. “That’s what they tell me.”
“Do you remember anything at all about it?”
“No,” he said. “One minute I was here in bed, the next minute I was here in bed, and they say that in between, I got dressed, went to town, and saw Tucker at the jail.”
“I know this may sound silly, but—did you recognize him?”
“I don’t know,” said Joe. “If I did, I don’t remember it now.” He squinted suddenly. “How did you find out I was there?”
“Marcus Tucker told me,” she said.
“Was he there, too?”
“No,” she said. “He found out later, and he wasn’t at all happy. He came storming into my office and wanted to know how it was that you were in town when I’d told him you couldn’t get out of bed.”
“Be careful of him, Anna. He’s a bad one—I can feel it. You’ve gotta be careful.” His voice was breathless in its urgency, and she rested her hand on his shoulder to keep him calm.
“I’m fine, Joe,” she reassured him. “He’s just worried about his brother. He wants to protect him. You know how that is.” She smiled encouragingly, but there was something in Joe’s expression that sent a chill down her spine, as though he knew something she didn’t and that something was very, very bad.
Then, he fell silent, his eyes as remote as if he was focused on something inside his mind. Just as Anna was wondering if he was in a fugue, he asked, “Did his brother recognize me?”
“Elias? He says he didn’t.”
For the first time, Joe turned to face her directly. “Do you believe him?”
Anna smiled slightly. “I don’t know,” she said. “He could be telling the truth, or he could be lying his head off. But that’s not up to me to decide.”
“Doesn’t that bother you?”
“Sometimes,” she admitted. “Other times, I’d rather not know. It can be easier to represent somebody when there’s still a doubt about whether they’re guilty.” She watched him as she spoke. He looked so tired, but at her comment about having doubts, he chuckled slightly.
“Some things never change,” he murmured half to himself.
“I suppose not,” she agreed. In that moment, he looked again like her friend, and without thinking, she laid her hand on his. “Are you all right?” she asked.
Joe met her eyes. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “What about you?”
“I don’t know,” she echoed. She started to rise, but Joe held her hand fast.
“Talk to him,” he said, and suddenly, they weren’t talking about Elias Tucker any more.
Anna shook her head. “He’s made up his mind, Joe.”
“What do you mean?”
“Tonight was the first time I’ve seen him in over two months, and he barely said two words to me.”
“You caught him off-guard,” Joe said. “He wasn’t ready.”
“He had two months to get ready,” she said. “I never saw him, never heard from him in all that time. Not once. Not so much as a note.”
“Anna, you don’t understand,” said Joe. “You’ve got to talk to him.”
“That’s the problem, Joe,” she said. “I do understand. And I think—”
“Excuse me,” came Ben’s voice. They both turned to see the older man standing in the doorway. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but Joe needs to rest.”
“Of course.” Anna squeezed his hand and rose. “Thank you for talking to me, Joe. I hope you’re feeling better soon.” She started to turn away, and impulsively, she bent down and kissed his brow. “Take care of yourself,” she whispered, her voice suddenly thick with grief.
“You, too,” Joe said. “And be careful. That Marcus Tucker. . . .” His eyes were remote again, and a shaft of pain pierced her heart. Deliberately, she kept her eyes downcast as she slipped out of the room past his father.
Downstairs, she looked around, but Hoss was nowhere to be seen. It was as she’d said to Joe: he’d made up his mind. She turned to Ben, who had followed her down the stairs. “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” she said. “Good night.”
“You can’t leave now,” said Ben. “It’s pitch dark and raining. You’re not driving back to town alone. You’ll stay here tonight.”
Oh, sweet Lord. “I couldn’t,” she said, and her protest had nothing to do with politeness.
“Of course, you can,” said Ben. “We’ve got plenty of room, and Hoss is putting up your horse now.” In a quieter, almost confidential tone, he added, “If you insist on going tonight, the boys are going to have to go with you, and you’ll all be soaked long before you get to town. Wait until morning, when the rain’s stopped.”
“Pa’s right,” said Adam as he came out of the room just off the dining room. “You’ll have peace and quiet down here—besides which, you won’t have to listen to Hoss’s snoring.” He smiled as though the sound of her beloved snoring was something a sane woman would want to avoid. As though she wouldn’t have given practically anything to hear it once more.
She looked helplessly from Ben to Adam. They were right and she knew it. What on earth had she been thinking, making this trip after supper? Granted, men did it all the time, but that was different.
“You’re very kind,” she murmured. “Thank you.”
“Hop Sing left a dressing gown and towels in your room,” said Adam. He yawned as he added, “And I’m going to turn in. Good night Anna, Pa.” He climbed the stairs without a backward glance, as though Anna stayed at the Ponderosa all the time.
Ben took her hand. “Good night, my dear,” he said. “Sleep well.”
“Good night,” she managed. She didn’t hear any footsteps on the porch, but suddenly, she wanted to be in her room with the door closed before Hoss came in. Lord help her, he was liable to think she’d planned this whole thing just so that she could stay the night. It’s not true, she argued silently as she closed the door firmly behind her.
* * * * * * * * *
She’d have sworn she would never fall asleep, but the next thing she knew, she was sitting bolt upright in bed, her heart pounding as she tried to remember where she was. The pieces were just fitting when she heard it again—a horrible scream, as though someone was being murdered right there in the house.
Hastily, Anna fumbled to light the lamp. She pulled on the dressing gown and ran out into the living room and saw . . . nothing.
Another scream, but this time, it was weaker. It was coming from upstairs. Wildly, she looked around the room. Of course—the gunbelts. She’d never fired a gun, but there wasn’t time to quibble. She yanked a weapon out of one of the holsters and headed upstairs to do battle.
At the top of the staircase, she paused. She could hear voices, but they didn’t sound either threatening or fearful. One of them sounded like Mr. Cartwright, his deep voice warm and comforting. She drew nearer to the room where he was speaking, braced for anything.
An instant later, a large, dark shape loomed before her. She held up the lamp and the gun at the same time, and over the pounding in her chest, she managed, “Stay where you are.”
She swallowed hard and lifted the lamp higher, and her breath escaped in a long whoosh. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I heard the screams, and—”
“It was Joe—he had a nightmare,” said Hoss. He took the gun from her limp fingers. “You can go on back to bed. He’s fine—Pa’s got him.”
“I’ll put that back,” she said, gesturing toward the gun.
Remarkably, he grinned slightly, and her heart leaped. “I’ll take care of it,” he said. She turned and headed downstairs, very aware of him right behind her.
She stood by the chest of drawers that held the gunbelts, holding the lamp so that he could see to replace the gun she’d seized. He started to turn away, and she blurted, “Is it always like this? For Joe, I mean?”
Hoss looked somber. “Sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes it ain’t as bad. Sometimes it’s worse an’ we can’t wake him up. That don’t happen too often, though. Mostly, it just takes a little to bring him back.” His words were casual, but the anguish was poorly hidden.
“And there’s nothing the doctor can do?”
Hoss shook his head. “He was doin’ better before that little gal got killed,” he said. “The fugues and the nightmares are comin’ more often now. That’s why Doc’s worried—he thinks gettin’ hit on the head might’ve done something to make it worse.”
Half to herself, Anna mused, “I wish there was something that could be done to help.”
“So do we all,” said Hoss. For an instant, it was as it had once been—the two of them together, the bond as strong as the current of the Truckee River. And then, as swiftly as it had come, the moment ended, and Hoss dropped his gaze.
“Good night, Anna,” he mumbled and headed for the stairs. As he reached the bottom, she couldn’t help herself.
He turned around quickly, almost eagerly, but he was beyond the edges of the lamplight, and she couldn’t see his face. Still, she had to ask.
“What happened to us?”
He stood at the foot of the staircase for what seemed a long, long time. Finally, he said, “I don’t know.”
“We were good together, weren’t we?”
Another long silence. “Yep,” he said. “But I reckon things changed.”
His voice was so quiet and sad that the words took a moment to register, like a bullet that the victim doesn’t feel at first because of the shock. “I guess you’re right,” she managed. “Good night.” She turned swiftly and went into her room, barely closing the door before tears began to fall.
* * * * * * * * * *
In the quiet of his hotel room, Marcus Tucker sipped his brandy reflectively. This time tomorrow, Elias would be a free man.
Elias. His brother. His blood. The albatross around his neck.
He’d spent a lifetime atoning for his sin. If it hadn’t been for the accident—and yes, it was an accident, he insisted now, even in his own mind—he could have married Elias off to a girl who was rich and slightly stupid, one who would find his thick curls and big brown eyes so compelling that she wouldn’t care that he hadn’t two nickels to rub together. And then, with Elias properly cared for, Marcus would have been free to pursue the life he was born for—that of a gentleman.
But one day—one wretched day—had changed it all. It wasn’t my fault, his mind protested as he poured another brandy. He’d been ten years old, trying to do a man’s dirty work in the barn. Elias, barely five, had tagged after him wherever he went. I wanna be with you, the child insisted, and their mother said it was charming. The truth was that she’d probably have said anything to get them out from underfoot while she entertained her callers.
“Callers,” he snorted aloud. A generous term for the men who’d come through their lives when Pa was in town. If that drunken sot had ever wondered how she managed to feed and clothe them, to provide shoes for boys and for horses, to buy seed corn and get it planted—in other words, to keep them all from starving while he drank whatever wages he’d earned—if he wondered, he said nothing.
Once he was old enough to understand how his mother kept body and soul together for the family, he began to dream about who his real father might be. In the last minutes before sleep claimed him, he conjured up images of a gentleman in a splendid blue coat who arrived in a shiny black buggy drawn by four coal-black horses. The gentleman’s driver would draw the team to a halt, and the gentleman would step from the carriage, ebony walking stick in hand, its gold top glinting in the sunlight. He would look around the unkempt yard, sneering in distaste at the few scraggly chickens running hither and yon, and then his eyes would light on the bespectacled boy coming out of the barn. With a wide smile, he would open his arms and say, “My son!” And Marcus would drop the pail of slops he was carrying to the pig and run to his true father, and they would ride off together without a backward glance.
That was how it was supposed to be.
But instead, on a dry, cool day in the spring, the blacksmith came through. He had no interest in the children, barking at them to stay away from the forge. Marcus held Elias back while the little one watched, fascinated, as the brawny man with the enormous forearms hammered the red-hot steel into horseshoes.
“You kids stay away from here,” he said at last as he set down his hammer and tongs. He strode to the trough and dunked his head in. Elias giggled in delight as the big man blew bubbles while under water and then emerged, shaking his head like a wet cur.
What happened next? The memories were vague, but persistent. Marcus trying to do chores. Laughter, hers and his, floating out the window of the house. Elias asking questions, questions, more questions. The laughter giving way to a man’s deep moans, a woman’s lighter cries. Elias’s little forehead wrinkling. “Is he hurting her? Is he hurting Ma?” Marcus’s brusque reassurance that Ma wasn’t being hurt, that Elias should get back to work, and Elias’s defiant, “I’m gonna help Ma!”
In that instant, Marcus saw what would happen. The man would be angry—might even charge them for the horseshoes. When they couldn’t pay, he would take the farm and leave them nothing, nothing at all. They would move to town, and Ma would go to work as one of those ladies he’d heard about, those “soiled doves” the boys at school sniggered about . . . and his rich father would never, ever be willing to claim the child of such a woman as his own.
Elias had dropped the harness he was to put away, and he began to run for the barn door. But he couldn’t interrupt them, he just couldn’t. And Marcus ran after him and grabbed for him, and the child stumbled and fell headlong into the forge. . . .
She never said so, but Marcus knew his mother had never forgiven him. Because it had all come to pass just as he imagined. All except the rich father rejecting him, although for all he knew, that had happened, too. But it was all as he’d known it would be—the angry blacksmith, the horseshoes, the farm.
She might even have forgiven him that, he reflected now as he poured more brandy. But she would never forgive him for disfiguring her beautiful little boy. It was a miracle Elias hadn’t lost his eye, people said later. And when she went to work, some of the men gave her a little extra because they felt sorry for the child. For a time, she let Elias wander around in front of the house where she worked, hoping that he would encourage the sympathetic sorts, but as the little boy grew into a gangly youth, his scar invited disgust and ridicule more than pity. Eventually, the woman who ran the house threatened to discharge her if she didn’t keep Elias away.
And so, it fell to Marcus to look after Elias. It was his job while she lived, and when she finally died at the hands of a jealous man, it remained Marcus’s job.
He didn’t know whether Elias had always been slow or whether the accident had addled his brain, but it didn’t matter, because he could follow Marcus’s instructions. Kindly storekeepers seemed to think that being homely and disfigured meant that the Tucker brothers were trustworthy. When the merchants turned their backs to fetch a bit of penny candy for the unfortunate lads, Marcus would load Elias’s pockets with whatever he could carry. It didn’t matter what it was—there was always someone looking to buy goods a little cheaper in an alley than he’d pay in a store.
The decanter was empty. He peered at it in mild surprise. He’d thought there was more. There should have been more.
He leaned back in his chair. One more day. Anna Simmons had said that she didn’t expect the trial to take longer than that. The witness list was short: the sheriff and the doctor. The prosecutor might call one or two witnesses to talk about Eleanor Gunther, but that wouldn’t take long. Anna Simmons didn’t want to put Elias on the stand—very risky, she said—but it didn’t look as though they were going to have a choice.
She’d assured him that Joe Cartwright wasn’t coming. Even if he did, she said, he remembered nothing. His testimony couldn’t hurt them.
Marcus still wasn’t quite comfortable with her friendship with the Cartwrights, but he’d reconciled it in his own mind as a necessary evil. He’d heard a rumor that she’d gone out to the Ponderosa a couple weeks back and spent the night there. Snuck out of town after dark, returned first thing in the morning. Not that she’d said a word about it to him, but he understood. His mother would never have discussed such matters, either. And if the result of that visit was that Joe Cartwright would stay away from Elias’s trial, Marcus supposed he could let it slide.
Through it all, Elias continued to insist that he hadn’t killed the girl. He’d kissed her, that was all. All right, he’d gone after her and made her get out of her buggy and kissed her some more, and maybe she hadn’t really wanted to kiss him that time, and maybe her reluctance had upset him—but no, he hadn’t killed her. Not this one. Not this time.
He sounded sincere enough, but the story had holes big enough to drive a stagecoach through. If Elias hadn’t killed the girl, why had the posse caught him riding hellbent for leather awayfrom Virginia City? He was supposed to be going to Virginia City to meet Marcus—a fact he’d admitted almost immediately when the sheriff questioned him—and he’d had no rational explanation for why he was racing away from town. What else could he be running away from, other than the girl he’d killed and the man he thought he’d killed? Who would ever believe Elias’s story?
The jurors would have to be a dozen fools, although from what Marcus had seen around town, fools were in good supply. None was as big a fool as Elias, though. As soon as the sheriff stopped him, he started babbling about the girl and the man he’d left behind. Hadn’t he learned anything from Marcus? The first rule, above all others, was to keep his mouth shut. Maybe—just maybe—if Elias had kept quiet, they wouldn’t be here now.
For a brief, disloyal moment, he allowed himself to wonder how his life would be if Elias were to be convicted. The freedom to come and go as he chose, without the constant watching and worrying—it was like a chinook, cold and fresh, blowing through his stale, closed-up life.
Elias. His brother. Dead.
He doubled over as though someone had stabbed him in the gut. His little brother, his eyes closed, his neck broken, his questions silenced as he dangled from a rope on a dusty street while people gawked and pointed. Families with lunches packed, making a holiday of it. Children chasing one another, laughing with glee as they dared each other to touch the worn brown boots, mere inches above the dirt, their frantic dance of escape forever stilled. Eleanor Gunther’s people—rich, sleek, satisfied—standing by the gallows, nodding their vengeful approval before they turned away. leaving Elias to rot in the sun like a slab of rejected meat as they went back to their privileged, respectable lives.
No. It couldn’t be. It didn’t matter that he’d killed the girl. It was an accident, pure and simple, just like Miranda Kelly.
He tipped the decanter to see whether a few drops of brandy lingered. He’d done all he could. It would be enough. There was no more to be done.
Well, maybe there was one more thing. He rose unsteadily and put on his hat.
He could find some more brandy.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Joseph, would you sit down!”
“I just want to see—”
Ben’s patience was at an end. Heaven only knew why he thought Joe would be easier to deal with once the doctor let him out of bed. It was as though the boy had stored up a year’s worth of energy during those two weeks in bed, and now he was bound and determined to find a way to spend it all.
“Now, you listen to me, young man,” Ben said in the tone that used to be the final warning before a trip out to the barn with the strap. “You can either stay on the settee the way Doc said to, or go back up to bed. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Joe grumbled. Reluctantly, he closed the front door and returned to the appointed spot. Sitting on the settee wasn’t much, but it beat the daylights of lying in bed for yet another day. He’d had enough of that to last a lifetime.
“Hey, Joe! Adam’s coming!” came Hoss’s voice from outside.
Joe was off the settee like a shot, but a thundered “Joseph!” stopped him in his tracks. His father pointed, and Joe returned to the designated spot, fairly quivering with anticipation.
“Well? How’d it go?” he demanded as soon as the door opened.
Adam took his time hanging up his hat and coiling his gunbelt before he turned to his brother. “They convicted him,” he said in a voice which would have sounded matter-of-fact, almost callous, to anyone who didn’t know him. “Hanging’s at sunrise, day after tomorrow.”
All at once, Joe was glad he was sitting down. Adam’s words felt like an unexpected fist landing deep in his gut. He clutched the edge of the settee and tried to steady himself with a deep breath.
“How?” he asked after a moment. The sharp look from his father let him know that he didn’t sound as solid as he’d hoped.
“Let’s let Adam clean up, and we’ll discuss it over dinner,” said Ben in a tone that made it clear this was not a mere suggestion. Adam retreated to the wash house, and Ben said in a low voice, “Are you all right?” Joe nodded, and even though his father eyed him suspiciously, he didn’t pursue the matter.
A short time later, the family had gathered around the table, the blessing had been asked, and the interrogation began. “What was Tucker’s story?” Joe demanded as Ben handed him the bowl of mashed potatoes.
“Unsurprisingly, he said he didn’t do it,” said Adam. “Claimed he’d met the girl on the high road when her buggy ran off the side. He helped her right it, and they ended up kissing. When she left, he went after her, and the same thing happened again—buggy off the road and kissing.”
“Why’d he kill her?” Hoss asked.
Adam shrugged as he speared a pork chop. “He says he didn’t,” he reminded his brother. “His testimony was that while he was kissing the girl the second time, some fellow came along and took a swing at Tucker. He said they fought briefly, and then Tucker jumped on his horse and rode away like the devil, leaving the man standing and the girl alive.”
“Wait—he said Joe came along and took a swing at him?” Ben frowned as he accepted the dish of string beans from Hoss.
“He didn’t say it was Joe,” said Adam. “The prosecutor tried to get him to describe the man, and all he came up with was brown hair and it all happened real fast. Anna tried to use the fact that Joe had been to see Tucker at the jail to get him to say he knew what Joe looked like and it wasn’t the same person, but he was getting pretty agitated by that time and he wasn’t making much sense.”
“Why’d she want him to say it wasn’t Joe?” Hoss scrunched up his face, puzzled.
“She was trying to argue that there was somebody else who came along before Joe got there. Her argument was that by the time Joe rode in, Tucker had left and Brown-haired Man Number Two was alone with Eleanor, and that fellow was the one who knocked out Joe and killed the girl,” said Adam. “Pass the bread.” Joe handed him the bread basket as Adam continued, “I thought it was a pretty clever argument, but I guess the jury just didn’t believe it.”
“Who else testified?” Ben inquired.
“The doctor, the sheriff, and me,” said Adam in between bites.
“You? What did you talk about?” Joe was surprised, but Adam shrugged.
“Anna called me to corroborate the doctor’s story about what went on that day and how you couldn’t remember anything and weren’t allowed to leave the ranch,” he said. “She went into the fugue thing a little, but basically, my role was to explain why the only witness wasn’t there.”
“So I was Exhibit A,” Joe said with unexpected bitterness.
“Pretty much,” said Adam. “Roy talked about how we found Joe and then how they found the girl’s body, and he told about how the posse found Tucker riding as though he was running for his life.”
Ben winced. “Did he put it that way?”
Adam nodded. “The doctor talked about how Eleanor Gunther died, and he described how the bruises on her neck would have to be made by someone big and strong. Tucker’s a pretty big guy, so that didn’t help him. Jury was out for less than an hour. When they came back and announced the verdict, he started to cry. I almost felt sorry for him.”
“What if he didn’t do it?” Joe asked, his voice tight.
“What do you mean? Do you remember something?” Ben’s heart pounded. Maybe this time it wasn’t a fugue. . . .
But Joe was shaking his head. “I just—it doesn’t feel right,” he said. He looked up helplessly. “I don’t remember anything, I can’t add anything—but something just doesn’t feel right.”
Deliberately calm and rational, Adam said, “A jury of twelve men heard everything Elias Tucker had to say about what happened. He had Anna representing him, and you know how good she is. If he was innocent, they wouldn’t have convicted him.”
“That’s ridiculous and you know it!” Joe snapped. “Juries make mistakes all the time. Witnesses get things wrong—they don’t remember right, or they didn’t really see things. You of all people should know that, Adam—you and Pa nearly hung when Sally Byrnes said she saw you kill her pa and it wasn’t true!”
“But Sally knew she was lying,” Adam pointed out. “She thought we’d killed him, and she wanted to make sure we were punished, but she wasn’t telling the truth and she knew it. In this case, the sheriff didn’t lie, and neither did the doctor, and neither did I. The only other people who testified were Elias Tucker and John Gunther, and all John talked about was how he had no idea where Eleanor was going that day. He was at a board meeting, and he didn’t even know she wasn’t in her room until the sheriff came to the door.” Adam reached for the carrots as he added, “If anybody was going to say they knew Tucker did it, John Gunther would have had the most cause—he’d want to see his daughter’s murderer hang. But even he said he’d never seen Tucker in his life.”
“So you think Tucker lied,” Joe said.
Adam considered this. “Yes,” he said finally. “I think Tucker lied. I think he killed Eleanor Gunther and he nearly killed you. I don’t think he was running away because he was scared of some mysterious stranger. I think he was running away because he knew that if the posse caught up with him, he’d hang.”
“And you come to all those conclusions without a shred of evidence.” Joe’s voice was unsteady now.
“Why’re you so bound and determined to say he’s innocent?” Hoss asked.
“Because—because—it just doesn’t feel right. I know it sounds stupid, but I just feel like something’s wrong.” He looked from one to another, pleading silently for any of them to understand.
Ben laid his hand on Joe’s arm. “Son, you’ve been up for quite a while now,” he said. “Maybe you’d better get yourself back to bed.”
“I don’t need to go back to bed!” Joe snapped.
“Don’t raise your voice to me,” Ben warned.
“I don’t need to go back to bed,” Joe repeated, his voice taut with the effort of keeping control. “I need to figure out what happened.”
“Sounds like the jury already did that, Little Brother,” said Hoss gently.
“Pa, I want to go into town.” Joe shoved back his chair. “I need to see Elias Tucker. Maybe then, I’ll remember.”
“Well, you’ve got that picture,” Adam reminded him. “Granted, it’s not all that good, but it’s close enough. Just picture what that man would look like with a scar on his face.”
“You’re not going into town,” said Ben in the voice his sons all knew as pronouncing the matter settled. “I want you to go upstairs and lie down for a while. You’ve already been up longer than the doctor said you should.”
“But, Pa. . . .” The protest died on Joe’s lips.
Ben regarded his son for a long minute. “Joseph, come with me,” he said, rising. His hand on Joe’s shoulder, he guided his son across the main room to his desk. He opened the center drawer and drew out the drawing. “Look at this,” he said, handing it to Joe. “Have you ever seen this man in your life?”
Joe studied the drawing as his brothers came over. For several minutes, no one spoke. Finally, Joe looked up and shook his head. “Not that I remember,” he admitted.
“Was this man on the high road the day you got hit on the head?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you see ever him with Eleanor Gunther?”
“I don’t know.” A whisper of defeat.
Ben took the drawing back. “Then there’s nothing more you can do,” he said gently. “I know you want to help, but this time, you’ve done all you can.” He closed the drawing in the drawer. “You’ve had a long day. Why don’t you turn in?”
Wordlessly, Joe nodded and turned to go upstairs. At the landing, he turned back as a new thought occurred to him. “What did Tucker’s brother say?”
“He didn’t testify,” Adam said. “I don’t know what he did after the trial. If he said anything to anybody, I didn’t hear it.”
“What about Anna? What did she say? Was she surprised about the verdict?”
“I don’t know,” said Adam. “You know how she is in a courtroom—poker-faced all the way. You can’t tell if she’s bluffing or not.”
“Somebody needs to make sure she’s okay.” Joe came back down the stairs and headed for the door. “Marcus Tucker’s not going to be happy about this. Somebody should check on Anna, make sure she’s all right.”
“Joseph.” His father’s voice stopped him. “Anna’s fine. This isn’t the first trial she’s lost. I’m sure she’s disappointed, but this is her job, and she’s used to it.” Involuntarily, Ben glanced at Hoss as he spoke; his middle son’s expression bespoke doubt.
“’Sides, she’s got her partner,” Hoss said. “I reckon he’ll make sure she’s all right.” The silence that followed that pronouncement stretched out like bitter taffy.
Ben pulled himself back from memories of Hoss and Anna to the problem before him. “Joe, go on upstairs,” he said. “There’s nothing more you can do.”
“I think I’m gonna turn in, too,” said Hoss. “Come on, Little Brother.” He clapped his hand on Joe’s shoulder and steered him back to the staircase. Ben and Adam watched as the brothers climbed the stairs and disappeared around the corner.
“What did you think of the verdict?” Ben asked in a low voice.
Adam shrugged. “Could have gone either way,” he said. “I think the jury just didn’t believe Elias Tucker, and there wasn’t anybody to back up his story.” He shook his head, remembering. “To tell you the truth, I kind of felt sorry for him,” he said. “He’s definitely not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and I could picture him getting upset if the girl didn’t want to kiss him. Maybe he was just holding on to her too tightly and accidentally broke her neck.”
“But why would he have hit your brother?” Ben asked.
“I don’t know,” said Adam. “Maybe he panicked. Maybe he thought he’d killed Joe, too.” He pinched the bridge of his nose as he added, “What I don’t understand is why he’d go to the trouble of fighting Joe and hitting him with a rock or something. Why didn’t he just shoot him if he wanted to kill him?”
“I don’t know, but I’m glad he didn’t,” said Ben. He yawned. “And I’m glad it’s over,” he added. “I think I’m going to turn in.”
“I’m done, too,” said Adam. “I have a feeling tomorrow’s going to be a long day—keeping Joe reasonably quiet, I mean. Good thing the hanging’s not being put off.”
“Hopefully, he’ll settle down once the whole thing is behind us,” Ben agreed. He extinguished the lamp on his desk as Adam moved through the living room, blowing out other lamps, and Hop Sing finished clearing the table. Finally, Ben picked up the last lamp, and he and Adam made their way up the darkened stairs.
* * * * * * * * * *
Joe closed the book and laid it on the night table. He hadn’t heard a sound for nearly an hour. He wondered if anybody else was still awake.
As quietly as he could, Joe slipped from his bed and headed downstairs to his father’s desk. He lit the lamp and slid open the drawer. There it was, right on top. The drawing of the man he couldn’t remember. If, of course, he’d ever known him at all.
He took out the drawing, closed the drawer and blew out the lamp. In the darkness, he made his way back to his room. There, with the door firmly closed, he studied the drawing as though it would reveal something new this time.
“Who are you?” he whispered. “Have I ever seen you?” He held his breath almost as though he expected the drawing to answer him. “Move your hat,” he said. “Turn down your collar.” He squinted as if he might be able to see the scar Adam had mentioned. “Where is it? Where’s your scar?”
But still, the drawing revealed nothing.
Finally, he laid the drawing on his desk. He blew out the bedside lamp and climbed into bed, pulling the quilt up over him as he curled up into a ball. He was so cold. Tiny shreds of thought floated through his mind, dodging his attempts to capture them. A scream. Hoof beats. A girl. Indians. A scar. An old man. A stagecoach. A man asleep. A buggy. A dark-eyed man. Another scream. Anna. Bulging blue eyes. A rock. A noose. A drawing. Helplessness. . . .
. . . . and then, the bullets and arrows screamed past him. He tried to grab Anna, to drag her under the stagecoach with him, but his hand kept landing on the blue-eyed snake. Mary Ann Sawyer was shrieking in pain. A scar-faced man tried to crawl under the stagecoach with them, begging Joe and Anna to save him from the men with the rope, and a girl with pigtails screamed in terror as hands pulled her away.
“Get away from her!” Joe screamed. He tried to hold onto Anna, but the snake was pulling at her, wrapping itself around her neck. From all sides, people were grabbing at him, and he rolled out from under the stagecoach and began to run, willing them to chase him, to leave her alone.
They were running after him now. He could hear the pounding, the shouting. The snake kept calling to him, trying to get him to turn around. It would grasp him with its powerful tail, but he fought and kicked and twisted and bit. Anything to free himself. Anything to protect them.
“Joe! Joe, stop it!”
The voice sounded familiar, deep like Pa’s, but he shook his head. It was a trick. As soon as he stopped fighting, they would seize him and hold him, and then they would get her and it would happen all over again, just the way it had to Mary Ann.
He had to do better this time. He had to protect them. He had to save her, save them all. No matter what.
A flight of stairs appeared, and he raced down, their footsteps thundering behind him. He lunged across the room, their shouting more frantic. This time, he would succeed. This time, he would protect her, would protect them all. This time, he would win, and no one would die.
As their voices thundered, he dove for the gunbelt and yanked the gun free. The moment was here.
But one of them grabbed him from behind and pinned him. He screamed, clawing wildly, as a stronger hand held his. He squeezed the trigger, and glass shattered, but they didn’t stop coming. The hand held his harder now. He couldn’t feel his fingers, but he clung to the gun. It was the only thing between him and her and the ones who would do them harm, and he wouldn’t give it up, not for anything.
And then, with a mighty roar, the one holding him slammed his arm down against the edge of the credenza. A lightning jolt of pain, like a flash fire, raced through his arm. The gun clattered from his useless fingers to the wood. He heard himself screaming, this time in agony, as the tears began to flow. He’d lost. They would capture her, and there was nothing he could do. Anna and the scar-faced man, the girl with the pigtails, Mary Ann the driver and old Mr. Ziegler . . . all lost, all because of him. Once again, he had failed to save them. He felt himself sliding to the floor as he moaned, “I’m sorry . . . I’m so sorry. . . .”
“Joseph—son, can you hear me? It’s Pa. Can you hear me, Joe?”
Slowly, the scene began to shift. The violent, jagged pain in his arm blazed, and scalding tears spilled down his face, but the room began to make sense even though it was spinning.
“Can you hear me, Joseph?”
He nodded. He could hear the voice, strong and yet fearful. It sounded familiar, and yet—it wasn’t possible. Pa wasn’t there. He wasn’t anywhere near the stagecoach. “No,” he whispered. “Not—not Pa.” He heard a sharp gasp behind him, and the man before him swallowed hard.
“It’s me, son,” he said. “It’s Pa.”
“No.” The words made no sense. Joe cradled his arm as he peered at the man’s face—dark eyes, lined skin, trembling lips, craggy features. Everything about the face bespoke enormous pain, almost as crippling to see as his own was to feel. He reached out with his good hand to touch the weather-beaten cheek, uncertain and almost curious, and he saw tears well up in the deep, sad eyes.
With the touch, he felt something inside release, and the scene shifted again. It was as if someone was taking down barriers that had enabled him to see but had somehow blocked him from knowing. Like the searching touch of a blind man, his fingers traced the cheek, feeling the creases, assembling the image. The man remained motionless as Joe moved his fingertips along the cheek to the strong, square jaw, and then up to the full lips and the generous nose.
And then, the man blinked, and his tear splashed on Joe’s hand. The scene shifted one more time, and Joe knew.
Pa nodded. “It’s me, son,” he said hoarsely. His blunt, work-roughened hand closed over Joe’s. “Do you know where you are?”
Joe looked around. “Home,” he said after a moment. He heard movement, and Hoss and Adam crouched down beside him. His brothers. His father. His home. And yet, something was terribly, terribly wrong. “What happened?”
“You had a nightmare,” said Ben. “We couldn’t wake you up.”
Joe bowed his head, trying to remember. Fragments of images tumbled through his mind—stagecoaches, Indians, blood, knives, guns. Blood. Torn clothing. Torn scalps. Blood. Ropes. Snakes. Indians. White men. Blood.
Anna and a pigtailed girl and a scar-faced man, all screaming and bleeding and dying. Himself, trying to distract the killers and yet, in the end, unable to do anything to save anyone.
A stab of panic struck at his core. Without thinking, he pulled his hand away, cradling his arm, and he pulled in on himself, bracing against what his mind saw.
“It’s all right, son,” Ben said. “You’re all right. You’re awake now. The dream’s over.”
But terror and grief swept through him afresh, and he curled nearly into a ball, trembling. He felt his father’s arms, so strong and safe, enveloping him, holding him against the broad chest as Pa murmured soft, soothing words that he couldn’t quite hear but that he nonetheless understood. Slowly, ever so slowly, he felt the tension in his body begin to ease, until he was sitting up.
“Let’s have a look at that arm,” suggested Pa. Joe nodded, his lips pressed together so hard that they were white. With infinite gentleness, Pa tried to slide back the sleeve of Joe’s nightshirt, but the cuff was too snug. From nowhere came a pair of scissors, and Joe could feel everyone watching as Pa cut the sleeve.
The arm was hot, swollen, red and black and angry. Ever so lightly, Pa ran his fingers over the swollen area, and Joe bit his lip to keep from crying out. Pa nodded to Hoss and Adam as he said, “It’s broken, all right.” He stroked Joe’s hair. “Let’s get you over to the settee,” he said. “Do you think you can stand up?”
Joe nodded. Clumsily, with Pa holding onto his good arm, he got to his feet. For a moment, he swayed, and Adam stepped forward, resting his arm lightly around Joe’s shoulders. “Okay,” said Joe, and the brothers made their way to the settee.
As Joe sat, Pa said, “Why don’t you lie down, son? I think you’ll feel better.” Obediently, because he couldn’t think what else to do, Joe lay back, and Pa covered him with a blanket, lifting his broken arm to rest on the rough red wool. “Hoss, get the brandy,” said Pa. An instant later, it seemed, Pa was holding a glass to his lips and telling him to drink. He’d never really liked brandy, and now, it just tasted like metallic fire. He cringed, turning away, and the glass vanished.
He could hear the others talking, but he couldn’t seem to understand fast enough to get into the conversation. His head felt as though somebody’d stuffed it with socks, and he was as cold as he could ever remember being. He pulled the blanket up, over his broken arm, and closed his eyes.
“Are you all right, son?” Pa was rubbing his shoulder.
“Cold,” Joe whispered. He heard Pa say something about a blanket, and moments later, he felt another blanket being spread on top of the first one. It was too much weight on his arm, though, and he struggled to figure out how to get his arm out from under the blankets without getting cold.
He must have said something, because the next thing he knew, the fire was blazing in the fireplace as if it were midday, and his jacket had been tucked around his shoulders. His broken arm rested on a pillow on his chest, on top of the blankets. Pa held a glass of cool water to his lips, and he drank thirstily. Then, he let his head drop back, and Pa tucked another pillow behind him.
“Just rest, Joe,” said Pa quietly. “Adam’s gone for the doctor. They’ll be back before you know it.” He stroked Joe’s hair.
“I’m so sorry, Little Brother,” said Hoss. His voice sounded as unsteady as Joe felt. “I didn’t want to do it, you know that.”
Joe shifted a little so that he could see his brother’s round, worried face. He didn’t know what Hoss meant, but he couldn’t seem to organize his thoughts enough to ask. He reached out to his brother with his good hand, and Hoss squeezed it gratefully.
“Pa, what if he falls asleep and has another nightmare?” the big man asked in a low voice clearly not intended for Joe’s hearing. I’m right here, you big lug, Joe wanted to say, but the conversation was already past him.
“We’re just going to have to hope that doesn’t happen,” Pa was saying. The words sounded fine, but there was a sliver of despair in his voice. Joe tried to think of some way to reassure them, but the truth was that he couldn’t. He didn’t know what had happened, what would happen. There were no guarantees any more, no answers at all. No way to know what was coming next.
Out of nowhere came a memory from long ago. “Pa?” Even to his own ears, his voice sounded timid, like a child’s.
“What is it, son?” Pa’s face was lined with worry.
“Read to me?” He felt almost embarrassed to be asking.
Pa smiled, clearly grateful to be asked. “Of course,” he said. “Hoss, would you go upstairs and get the book on Joe’s desk?”
“No,” said Joe. “Not that one.” He couldn’t think of the name of the book he wanted to hear from, but it wasn’t one of his detective stories. “The one you used to read from when I was little,” he said finally. “The big one.” When Pa looked confused, Joe tried again: “You know—the one that belonged to Hoss’s ma.”
Pa still looked perplexed for a minute. Then, understanding dawned, mingled with something that looked almost like sadness. He crossed the room, took a large, leather-bound volume from its place on the side table, and returned to sit on the table beside the settee. He turned the well-worn pages until he found the page he sought. His rich, sonorous voice began to read the familiar words of the hundred and twenty-first psalm: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. . . .”
Joe closed his eyes. He heard Hoss settle himself in Pa’s chair. The ancient words, read in those deep, beloved tones, warmed him from the inside out. Gradually, the tension began to ease, and he felt himself drifting off as Pa read, “The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul. . . .”
* * * * * * * * * *
Anna paused on the sidewalk in front of her office. If he wasn’t already inside, waiting for her, he would be here soon. There was nothing to do but hear him out. She owed him that much.
Marcus Tucker’s deep voice was chilling. He stood in the doorway to her office. Richard sat at his desk, shrugging slightly as if to apologize for letting him in.
She moved to the coat rack and hung up her soft blue wrap, a gift from Hoss last fall. He said he saw it in a store in Sacramento and he bought it because it was the exact same color as her eyes. He’d draped it around her shoulders and smiled. “A perfect match,” he’d announced with that smile that made her stomach flip. He rested one enormous hand against her cheek, and the love in his eyes was so clear and unvarnished that she felt tears welling up. . . .
She forced her mind back to the present. “Let’s go inside,” she said to Tucker. The little man barely stepped aside far enough to let her squeeze past. She moved around the desk to her own seat as she invited him to sit down. Once he was seated, she said, “I can’t tell you how sorry I am about this result. I hoped that the jury would believe your brother.”
Marcus Tucker’s bulging blue eyes pinned her as though she were a bug. “You think that’s what happened? The jury just didn’t believe him?”
Anna nodded. “It’s as I told you before,” she said. “Juries want to blame someone. I tried to give them the phantom killer, but to accept that, they had to believe that Elias left Eleanor Gunther alive. Clearly, they didn’t believe him. I’m sorry, Mr. Tucker. I wish there was something more I could do.”
“What if we brought Joe Cartwright in? What if he said he remembers?”
“That would only work if Joe Cartwright actually remembered something—and it was something helpful,” Anna said as gently as she could. “But you heard his brother yesterday. Joe’s never recalled anything about that day. That’s why I put Adam Cartwright on the stand—to explain why the only eyewitness wasn’t testifying.”
“But he could still say he did,” Marcus insisted. “I’m a rich man, Miss Simmons. I could make it worth Cartwright’s while.”
Anna shook her head. Sadly, she wasn’t even surprised at the suggestion; the only surprise was that he hadn’t raised the notion sooner. “Joe Cartwright won’t lie for you,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how much you offer him. Even if he could come to town, he would never testify to something that wasn’t true.”
Marcus Tucker watched her for a long time. “So that’s it,” he said flatly. “My brother’s going to die because your friend won’t help us, is that what you’re telling me?”
“There’s nothing he can do to help,” said Anna. “There’s nothing anybody can do. The jury heard everything Elias had to say, and they didn’t believe him. I did the very best I could, Mr. Tucker, but I can’t create witnesses who don’t exist, and I can’t make a jury accept something if they don’t believe it’s true.” A thought occurred to her. “Do you believe his story, Mr. Tucker?”
Tucker sat up straight. “I can’t believe you said that.”
But his voice was just a bit too fervent, and Anna held steady. “It occurs to me that you’ve never said one way or the other what you think of your brother’s account of that day,” she said. “Obviously, the jury didn’t believe it. My question is, do you?”
“My brother is innocent,” proclaimed Marcus Tucker.
Avoiding the question, Anna noted. It was as she’d suspected. Marcus Tucker knew something he’d never admitted, and it wasn’t something that would have helped. Thank heaven the prosecutor hadn’t called him.
Her glance fell on a stack of papers by her left hand. She had so much work to do today, but she knew where her first obligation lay. So, she simply said, “Would you like some coffee, Mr. Tucker?” When he didn’t answer, she said, “Excuse me.” Moments later, she returned with a tray bearing cups and saucers, a sugar and creamer, spoons and a coffee pot. As Marcus Tucker watched, she poured him a cup of coffee and set it on the desk in front of him. Then, she poured herself a cup and added cream and sugar. She returned to her seat and waited until he picked up the cup before she sipped.
“I’m going to go over to the jail,” she said. “I’d like to see your brother.”
“What good can you do him now?” He sounded like an old, tired watchdog that was still trying to snap at intruders.
“I don’t know,” she said honestly. “But if there’s anything I can do for him, I’d like to.”
“You could get Joe Cartwright to testify,” said Tucker, and all at once, her patience reached its limit.
She set down her cup and looked him squarely in the eye. “Tell me something. If Joe Cartwright did remember what happened, would it help your brother?”
“Doesn’t my brother deserve that chance?” Tucker shot back.
Evading the question again. Still, his brother was about to die. Pointless though the trip would be, it was the least she could do.
Anna stood. “Very well, Mr. Tucker. You go over to the jail to see your brother, and I’ll go out to the Ponderosa and speak with Joe Cartwright again.”
“I’ll go with you to the Ponderosa,” Tucker began, but Anna shook her head.
“I can do that,” she said. “Your brother needs you with him now. I’ll be back as soon as possible.”
It was just past noon when she drove into the yard in front of the Cartwrights’ house. At her knock, Ben Cartwright opened the door. She was immediately struck by how old, how exhausted he looked. “Mr. Cartwright, is everything all right?” she asked without preamble.
“Come in,” said Ben. He led her over to the settee and called for Hop Sing to make some coffee. “You’ll stay for lunch, won’t you?”
“I really can’t,” she said. “I’m only here because—well, Marcus Tucker asked me to ask Joe one last time if he remembers anything.”
Ben shook his head regretfully. “Joe can’t help you,” he said. He recounted the night’s events, adding, “The doctor sedated him pretty heavily. I don’t expect him to wake up before supper time, if then.”
“I’m so sorry,” she breathed. “But he’s all right, isn’t he?”
“As much as he can be, I suppose,” said Ben.
“What about Hoss? Is he all right? He must be beside himself.” Her eyes clouded at the thought of how the big man would be berating himself for what he’d had to do.
Remarkably, Ben smiled ever so slightly. “There was nothing else he could do, and he knows that,” he said. “He’s sitting with Joe now.”
“Of course,” she nodded. “I’m so sorry to have bothered you at a time like this. I’ll let the Tuckers know that Joe can’t provide any more information.” She rose, and Ben walked her to the door. “Please give Joe and Hoss my best,” she said, taking Ben’s hand. “I do hope things improve soon.”
“Thank you,” said Ben. “You take care of yourself now. I imagine you’re having a difficult day of your own. If it helps—Adam said there was nothing more you could have done.”
“Thank you,” she said. She surprised both of them by reaching up and kissing his cheek. “Goodbye,” she said, moving swiftly out the door before he could say anything.
* * * * * * * * * *
Sunlight filtered through the green of new leaves. A cool breeze. The fresh, rich smell of mud. Birds chirping. Hoof beats pounding.
Freedom from watching eyes. Solitude. Peace.
Voices—angry, frightened—reached him before he ever saw anything less innocent than a wren. His legs squeezed the pinto as they loped up the road. They came around the curve at the top of the hill and he saw . . .
. . . red . . .
“Easy, Joe,” came his big brother’s deep, rough voice. “Just take it easy.”
He forced his eyes open as the cool, wet cloth dabbed his face. An enormous weight seemed to have pinned his entire body to the bed. He tried to speak, but his lips and tongue felt thick and clumsy.
“It was just a dream,” Hoss continued. “You just rest.” Joe heard the slight splash of the cloth being dipped into the water, and then it rested against his face again.
Joe blinked hard, but everything was blurry, as though he was looking through a cloud. He tried again to form a word. “Hoss.”
“That’s right, Joe, it’s ol’ Hoss.” His brother’s voice was a touch too hearty.
“Wha . . . wha . . .”
“Ssssh, don’t you worry about nothin’,” said Hoss. “Doc gave you some pretty powerful stuff so’s you could rest real good. Just close your eyes an’ go back to sleep. You got nothin’ to worry about.”
“Red,” he murmured.
Hoss patted his shoulder. “You get some sleep now, an’ I’ll read to you later.”
No, he wanted to protest, but his eyes were already closing.
. . . The buggy, black and shiny, tilted off the side of the road. The girl was arguing with the man, but her voice was high, as though she was frightened. The man was holding her, shouting in her face, saying terrible things to her. As Joe shouted for him to stop, the man’s hands moved to her throat. . . .
“I think he’s still havin’ bad dreams, Pa.”
A work-roughened hand rested on Joe’s forehead. “Has he woken up at all?”
“Just once, for a minute, but he didn’t make no sense. Keeps mumbling even in his sleep, but I can’t make out what he’s sayin’.”
“Go on downstairs and get something to eat. Hop Sing’s keeping your supper warm. I’ll sit with him.”
Joe tried to force his eyes open, but his lids were impossibly heavy. “Pa,” he murmured, but no one seemed to hear.
. . . black . . . shouts . . . green . . . pleading . . . . bird songs . . . red . . . crying . . . more shouts . . .
“Think we ought to try to give him more of that medicine?”
“I don’t see what good it would do. He doesn’t need any more help to get to sleep. As it is, he’s barely woken up since Doc left.”
No, he protested, but no one heard him.
“Might get him to sleep a little deeper, put the nightmares to rest.”
“I think he’s all right with what he’s had. The nightmares just need to work themselves out of his mind.”
. . . punching . . . shouting . . . “you whore!” . . . her head lolling back . . . dropped . . . down . . . up . . . leaning over . . . her face white . . . eyes closed . . .
And there he stood, the man in the drawing, except that there was color now. The coat was dark red, like blood. He was tall, broad-shouldered, his eyes piercing, his mouth twisted into a snarl. His hands were big, strong, powerful. Powerful enough to break a girl’s neck.
“Where’s your scar?” Joe demanded. “Show me your scar!” The man laughed. He turned full-face to Joe, and there was no scar. “Let me see your scar!” Joe lunged for him, but he stepped aside, and Joe fell into the mud, next to the girl’s body. “You have a scar! I want to see it!” But the man laughed and laughed, and a violent, sick feeling came over Joe as he realized the truth. . . .
The hot, sharp taste of acid filled his mouth and overflowed, ripping him from the depths as the first rays of sun filtered through the draperies.
“Hang on, Little Joe, I’ll get that cleaned up.” Adam’s voice was calm as he sponged vomit off his brother’s face. “Here, try to sit up.” He slid his arm under Joe’s shoulders, and Joe clutched Adam’s other arm with his good hand as he sat up. Dizzy, but after a minute he nodded, and Adam removed his arm.
“Adam.” Joe could hear his voice trembling.
Adam stopped cleaning up. “What is it? Are you all right?” It was clear from his careful, measured tone that he expected the worst. Joe nodded, and he saw Adam brace himself.
“Adam, I—” But he couldn’t say it. He’d have given anything to be able to say it last night, but he hadn’t known then.
Adam rested his hand on Joe’s arm, the one without the bulky plaster cast. “It’s okay, Joe. Just tell me what’s the matter.” Joe clenched his teeth to keep his chin from quivering, and Adam’s voice softened. “Take it easy,” he said, rubbing Joe’s arm the way Pa usually did. “You feeling sick again?”
Joe took a deep breath and forced the words out. “Adam—I remember.”
“What are you talking about?” The same controlled voice as Adam nodded for him to continue.
“I know what happened. Up on the high road. I remember now.”
Adam’s reassuring nod stilled. His hazel eyes were intent. “What do you remember, Joe?”
Joe pressed his lips together to hold back the tears that suddenly threatened. Slowly, deliberately, he shook his head. Comprehension dawned in Adam’s face. He peered at Joe as if to be sure, and Joe shook his head again.
“Oh, Joe.” The words were quiet, but Joe could hear the sorrow brimming in his brother’s voice.
And the two brothers turned to the dawn peeking through the window, almost as though they could hear the bang of the trapdoor on the gallows.
* * * * * * * * * *
She’d been walking around for hours by the time she returned to her office. It wasn’t the first hanging she’d seen, but she would never, never get used to it. It was one of the few things that made her crave the relative safety of a big city. Say what you would about the glorious west, but in Chicago, she’d never had to watch anyone die.
A sunrise hanging didn’t get quite so many holiday-makers, the sheriff had told her privately. “When they do ’em at sunset, the whole town turns out. Folks pack a picnic, make a day of it.”
Death as entertainment. She shuddered at the thought.
Some men went to the gallows bravely, resigned to their fate, but not this one. Right up to the end, Elias Tucker sobbed that he was innocent, it wasn’t fair, he didn’t deserve to die, he hadn’t killed this girl. Somewhere in there, he mentioned someone named Miranda Kelly, and Anna offered to contact the girl, but Marcus Tucker told her brusquely to mind her own business.
As the first rays of sun peeked between the bars of the window, the sheriff and the deputy joined Anna in walking back to the cell area. Marcus Tucker had spent the night locked in the cell with his brother. It wasn’t normally permitted, but Elias had been weeping and wailing so that Anna had prevailed on the sheriff to bend the rules just this once. It was little enough comfort to offer them. An odd look had crossed Marcus’s face when the sheriff locked the door behind him, but Anna made herself turn away to allow the brothers a last bit of privacy.
Now, the sheriff unlocked the cell. “It’s time,” said Roy Coffee. Elias sobbed, clinging to his brother, but Marcus Tucker met Anna’s eyes, and she nodded. Marcus said something to his brother in a voice too low for the others to hear, and he nodded to the sheriff.
The sheriff and the deputy bound the prisoner’s hands and escorted him from his cell into the cool morning light. Anna followed, taking her place at the foot of the hastily-constructed wooden steps as they led him up. Even from this distance, she could see him shaking with fear. The hangman asked whether he wanted a hood, and a dark splotch appeared on the front of Elias’s trousers.
“Marcus! Don’t let them kill me! Marcus!” His high, breathy voice sounded like that of a terrified child.
She forced herself not to look around. Whatever Marcus Tucker was experiencing right now, he was entitled to his privacy.
The bang of the trapdoor, the collective gasp of the crowd, and it was over.
When the undertaker came forward, Anna started to speak to him, but Marcus Tucker elbowed her aside. “You’ve done enough,” he snapped. “I’ll take care of my brother now.”
She swallowed hard. “Of course,” she murmured. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Tucker.” But he ignored her, and after a minute, she turned and walked down the street, away from the jail, from her office, from anything that would remind her what had happened.
She walked until the ache in her feet rivaled the ache in her heart. Up and down the steep side streets, back and forth across the broad thoroughfares, with dust blowing and horses trotting and people calling cheerily to one another as though no one had died that day.
Finally, she turned back to her office. At the very least, she should let Richard know she was all right. Not that she was, she reflected. But such thoughts could wait until tonight, when she could retreat to the quiet of her own home and mourn in private.
As she approached her office, her steps slowed. A buggy stood in front, and it looked familiar. If she didn’t know better, she’d think it was the Cartwrights’ rig. She drew nearer, and her brow creased. It was their buggy. She’d ridden in it dozens of times. The matched bays snorted softly as though they recognized her.
She pushed open the door and stopped. Richard’s office was full of people. The Cartwrights, all four of them; Joe sat in one of the wing-back chairs, a cast on his left arm resting in a black sling. Sheriff Coffee. Doc Martin. Richard.
She looked around wildly. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
Ben Cartwright stepped forward. “Anna, why don’t you have a seat,” he suggested. He guided her to a chair as though they were in his place instead of hers, but she let him do it.
“What’s going on?” she demanded when no one said anything more.
Sheriff Coffee cleared his throat. “Ben and the boys came to see me this morning,” he said. “Seems Little Joe remembers some of what happened the day the Gunther girl was killed.”
“What? How—Joe, what’s he talking about?”
Joe reached out his good hand and held hers. “I had a dream last night—but I don’t think it was a dream. When I woke up this morning—Anna, I know what happened up there on the high road.” His eyes glistened for a moment, and he looked down at his knee as he swallowed hard. He lifted his head, and said, “I’m so sorry, Anna. I wish I’d known earlier.”
Her stomach lurched. “Known what? What do you know now?”
Joe’s grip on her hand tightened. “The man who killed Eleanor Gunther—I didn’t see a scar on him.”
She pulled her hand away, covering her mouth as she doubled over. She heard someone barking orders, and within moments, Richard was kneeling by her chair, wrapping her hand around a glass. “Drink this,” he urged. She sipped; it was water, and for the first time in her life, she wished it was whiskey.
Eventually, she sat up. “Start at the beginning,” she ordered Joe. “Tell me everything, every last little detail, starting from when you left Adam.”
“I took the road that winds around, up on the ridge,” Joe began. “For probably about half an hour, I was alone. I never saw anything but the woods, and I never heard anything except the birds and my own horse except at one point, where some fellow rode by me like the devil himself was after him.”
“What did he look like?”
Joe shrugged. “I don’t know—he was going too fast.”
“Did you see his face?”
Joe shook his head. “I wasn’t really paying attention, to be honest.”
Anna suppressed a sigh. “Go on.”
“Then, when Cochise and I were climbing up the ridge, I could hear voices. A man and a woman. Something didn’t sound right, and I rode faster. As I got closer, I could hear better—not words, but she sounded scared, and he sounded angry. When I got to the top of the hill, I could see a black buggy that was half off the road. There was a man and a girl beside it.”
“Tell me exactly what they looked like,” said Anna as she tried to control her breathing.
Joe nodded. “The girl was small—maybe a little bit shorter than you are. She had light brown hair and—I don’t remember what her dress looked like. I remember that her hair was pinned up, because when he was shaking her, a piece of it fell down.”
Eleanor Gunther. Anna had seen the girl’s body lying on the undertaker’s table. “Go on.”
“The man was tall. The girl maybe came up to his shoulder. When I was next to him, I saw that he was probably almost as tall as Hoss. He had dark brown hair and dark eyes. He wore—” Joe closed his eyes as if to picture the scene. “He wore a gray hat and a dark red jacket,” he said finally.
“What else?” Anna pressed.
“He looks like that picture,” Joe said. “Not exactly, but an awful lot.”
Joe looked surprised. “The one that artist drew.”
“I brought it,” said Ben. He handed it to Anna, who frowned.
“I’ve never seen this,” she said. She thought back to the day the artist and Marcus Tucker had gone over to have the drawings made. That was the day Joe had gone to the jail to see Elias. Marcus had been incensed because they’d made the trek out to the Ponderosa and Joe was gone, but he’d never mentioned having left the drawing at there. In fact, he’d never said another word about it, and with everything else that had happened, it had simply fallen through the cracks.
She studied the drawing now. It looked only vaguely like Elias. She wondered why they would have put the hat and coat on him, and why they’d have only drawn his right side. She’d have expected that they would include the scar, since that was Elias’s most recognizable feature.
She handed the drawing to Joe. “What about this looks the same as the man you saw on the road?”
Joe shrugged. “It’s hard to say. This fellow looks like he could be the brother of that one—same kind of features. This is pencil, but it looks like the artist gave him dark hair and dark eyes, and the jacket’s shaded in.”
“What happened next?”
“I shouted for him to let go of her, and I jumped off my horse. I’d have tried to shoot, but I was afraid I’d hit her. He was yelling at her, awful things, calling her a dirty—” He broke off, but Anna shook his good arm slightly.
“This isn’t the time to be a gentleman,” she said. “I need to hear exactly what he said.”
Joe shot a quick glance at his father, who nodded. “He called her a dirty whore and a tramp,” he said, his cheeks reddening slightly. “I didn’t understand some of what he was saying—it sounded like he said she’d let just anybody draw her. I don’t know if I heard that right, but that’s what it sounded like.”
“What was his voice like?”
“Deep—sort of like Pa’s.”
Elias’s voice had been high-pitched and breathy. She bit her lip. “Then what?”
“I was running toward them, and his hands were on her throat. When I first saw them, he was holding her shoulders and shaking her, but then he started choking her. I was yelling, but it was like he didn’t even hear me. She’d been crying, begging him to stop, and she was struggling to get loose. I jumped him to try to get him to let go, but both of them fell. I punched him and he dropped her. We fought, and finally, I thought I’d knocked him out. I knelt down beside her and tried to see if she was still alive. And that’s the last thing I remember until I woke up at Doc Martin’s office.”
Anna reached for the drawing again. It was impossible to say that this man was or wasn’t Elias. It could have been a bad drawing of Elias or a good drawing of someone else, but the man in the picture did look familiar. “Are you absolutely certain you saw the man’s entire face?”
Joe nodded. “He was looking straight at me when we were fighting. I don’t know where the scar was supposed to be. I knocked his hat off, so the hat couldn’t have been hiding it. Would the collar of his jacket have covered it?”
Her heart sank. “No,” she said. “The entire left side of his face was scarred—it was deep red, almost shiny. He was badly burned as a child.” She held her hand over the left side of her face as she said, “The scar covered this entire area. You couldn’t have missed it.”
Joe shook his head. “Then it wasn’t the same man.” He sounded as if he’d have given anything not to be that certain.
“And you’re sure there was nobody else around?” Sheriff Coffee asked.
“I didn’t see anybody else,” said Joe. “The only other person I saw after I left Adam, other than that man and the girl, was the fellow who was riding so fast, and like I said, I didn’t see his face.”
Dear Lord in heaven, what do I do now? She studied the drawing, as much to stall as for any other purpose. If only the artist had included the scar—even if Joe wasn’t sure what he did see, maybe he’d have known what he didn’t. But it was too late now.
She laid the drawing on Richard’s desk. “And you just remembered everything this morning?”
Joe nodded. “I’ve been trying for days—I kept looking at that drawing, but I just didn’t know. And then—I don’t know what that stuff was that Doc gave me before he set my arm, but it was almost like something that was stuck in my brain got unstuck. At first, I thought it was just a dream, but when I woke up, I knew it was the truth.”
The doctor nodded. “I can’t say whether it was the drug or whether you’d just healed enough,” he said. “Obviously, I wish it had happened sooner.”
“We all do,” Ben agreed. He turned to the sheriff. “What happens now?”
Roy Coffee sighed. “I reckon we gotta find somebody with a dark red jacket who looks like the fellow in the drawing,” he said as he got to his feet. “Little Joe, before you leave, I need you to write down everything you said here today.”
Joe raised his left arm with its cumbersome plaster cast. “It’s okay if somebody writes it for me, isn’t it?”
Roy rolled his eyes. “Adam, can you write it down for him, and then Joe can sign it?”
“Sure,” said Adam. “Anna, mind if we use your office?”
“Of course not.” Her voice was faint enough to draw the men’s attention.
“Anna, are you all right?” asked Richard with enough solicitude to draw a glare from Joe.
She nodded. “I have to tell Marcus Tucker about this.”
The group fell deathly silent. Then, Joe said, “I’ll tell him. I’m the one who remembers. I’ll tell him what I know.”
Anna shook her head. “It’s my job,” she said. “I was supposed to represent his brother.”
“And you did,” said Richard. “You had no way of knowing any of this.”
“That’s not true,” she said. “Elias told us all about the man who came along while he was kissing Eleanor Gunther. Obviously, he was telling the truth, but nobody believed him.” She shook her head. “All the way to the gallows, he kept trying to tell us, and nobody listened to him, and now he’s dead and the killer is free and—excuse me.” She pushed through the crowd and into her office, where she managed to close the door before the first sob escaped her.
She doubled over as grief wracked her slender body. It was all right there, and she’d missed it. She’d made the arguments, but she’d never really believed him. Maybe if she had, it might have been different. . . .
“You didn’t do nothin’ wrong,” came a voice from behind her. She whirled, and there he stood. She opened her mouth to protest, but he drew her into his arms and held her close, and she surrendered at last to his strength.
“That’s it,” Hoss whispered, smoothing her hair. “You’re all right. Just let it out.” He held her, murmuring soft words of comfort as she clung to him.
Finally, her weeping quieted. She patted her skirt pocket for a handkerchief, trying not to sniff too indelicately. Before she could ask, he handed her the bandana from his own pocket.
“Joe never has a handkerchief, either,” he said. He let go of her, and she wiped her face and blew her nose as quietly as she could manage.
“I’ll get this back to you,” she said, but he waved her off.
“Hop Sing’s got lots of ’em,” he said. His face was serious as his eyes met hers. “You didn’t do nothin’ wrong,” he said again.
“How do you know?” Please, tell me how you know, she begged silently. Tell me what you know that I don’t.
“Because that’s what Adam said after that trial,” said Hoss. “He heard everything, an’ that’s what he said. And even if he hadn’t, I’d know it anyway—because I know you.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. The anguish of the day was somehow soothed by his words. I will always love you, she told him silently, but she looked away lest he still know her thoughts the way he used to. He’d made his decision, and she would not make it harder for him. She would keep her heart to herself. At least she could do that much.
She turned away to compose herself. When she felt she was again under control, she turned back to him. “What do I say to Marcus Tucker?” she asked. “How do I tell him that his brother died for no reason?”
Hoss shook his head. The very notion seemed to strike at such a deep place that he could barely look at her. “I don’t know,” he said at last. He seemed about to say more, but then he said, “I reckon we better be gettin’ Joe home. Doc wasn’t too happy that we brought him into town in the first place.”
“Thank you for doing it,” she said. She smoothed her dress. “Do I look all right?”
Again, she thought he might say something, but he just nodded and opened the door, holding it for her. Barely brushing him as she passed, she whispered her thanks once more, and the two of them went back to the outer office where the others waited.
Part 3: The truth shall make you free
The whoops and cheers drifted up from the corral on the summer breeze. Ben paused in his figuring, pencil resting against the column of numbers as he savored the familiar ruckus. It sounded so . . . normal. If he closed his eyes, he could almost pretend that it was a year ago, back when it would have been Joe riding a bronc to a standstill as his brothers cheered him on. Back when Hoss would have bid his brothers farewell and left to spend the evening with Anna. Before the massacre and the fugues. Before Grayson. Before Eleanor Gunther and Elias Tucker.
On an impulse, he gathered his papers and secured them under a paperweight. Within minutes, he was riding down to the corral where he’d spent so many summer afternoons with his sons and the Ponderosa ranch hands. The faintest scents of pine and vanilla mingled with the dust as he trotted down to where his sons stood by the rail.
His smile faded as he drew near. Adam and Hoss were waving their hats and shouting encouragement to the rider, but Joe stood motionless between his brothers. Hoss’s arm was slung around Joe’s shoulders in casual brotherly fashion, but his strong hand held Joe’s arm securely. As Joe took a step back, Adam’s hand immediately flew to the back of his brother’s neck, and Hoss lowered his head to say something quietly to Joe.
“How’s Billy doing?” Ben called as he dismounted. As he expected, Hoss and Adam turned to him, and Joe didn’t appear to have heard.
“He’s lookin’ good,” said Hoss. “I was just sayin’ to Joe that maybe once he gets that cast off, he can think about gettin’ back on a horse. Right, Little Brother?” He squeezed his brother’s shoulders slightly, but Joe didn’t seem to notice.
Ben lowered his voice. “How long has he been gone?”
“Not long,” said Adam. “We figured we’d see if we could wait it out.”
Ben nodded, more in acknowledgement than acquiescence. Ever since Tucker’s death, Joe’s fugues and nightmares become more frequent and intense. The doctor opined that the stress of that experience, rather than the blow to the head, was affecting Joe now. “No kidding,” Adam had muttered to Hoss, who’d rolled his eyes.
Despite his family’s arguments that he couldn’t have done any more, Joe maintained his belief that it was his fault an innocent man had hanged. The drawing Phelps had done was now smudged and crumpled from handling, but Joe continued to examine it every night, as intent as if he was deciphering the markings on the Rosetta Stone.
The four of them had gone together into town for the trial of Timothy Phelps, the artist who had been Eleanor Gunther’s secret lover. Ben, Adam and Hoss had watched anxiously as Joe took the stand and testified about the day of the girl’s murder, identifying Phelps as the man in the red jacket whom he’d seen choking Eleanor. Most uncharacteristically, Joe hadn’t shown the slightest flash of temper when Phelps’s lawyer sneered at the “coincidence” of how he hadn’t remembered these events prior to Elias Tucker’s death. He sat in the witness chair and answered whatever was asked; when the prosecutor objected, he shrugged slightly as though it didn’t matter either way. Only one question evoked any sign of emotion, and that was when the attorney asked him about the fugues.
“During Tucker’s trial, I didn’t know whether this was a fugue or not,” Joe said. “Now, I almost wish it had been.”
The lawyer was clearly taken aback. “Why is that?”
For a moment, Ben thought he saw Joe’s eyes glisten. Then, Joe sat up a bit straighter and looked the lawyer dead in the eye. “Because then I wouldn’t have to know the truth,” he said. “I wouldn’t have to know that the man who already hanged for this crime was innocent and that the only reason he’s dead is because I couldn’t remember this man’s face.” He pointed to Phelps, who glowered at him from the defense table.
Joe hadn’t had a fugue during the trial, but on the way back to the Ponderosa that afternoon, his mind escaped into its familiar shadows until well into the night. Now, nearly every day brought at least a short fugue. Two days after the trial, Phelps was hanged. In the days that followed, Joe’s nightmares had intensified, and it was becoming harder to rouse him from the terrors that plagued his sleep.
But now, as the late afternoon sun glanced off the rider in the corral, he was eerily quiet. Ben took his youngest son’s arm, suggesting, “Joe, how about we go back up to the house?” as though he expected an answer.
“Pa, let him stay,” said Hoss unexpectedly. “He’s doin’ fine. Maybe bein’ out here’ll be good for him.”
“It’s got to be better than sitting around the house,” Adam agreed. He guided Joe back toward the corral as he added, “Hey, Joe, look—Cody’s going to try that chestnut.”
“If you didn’t have that cast on, you’d ride ’im good,” Hoss added, slinging a protective arm around Joe’s shoulders again. His hearty grin would have convinced nearly anybody that all was right in his world, but his family could see the shadow in his eyes.
Ben watched his older sons trying to engage Joe. Maybe they were right. Nothing else seemed to be working. Maybe normal life—out here in the sunshine, with the horses he loved—would help.
He stepped back to loosen his horse’s cinch as his sons returned to the rail. It wouldn’t do to leave the saddle tight while they all stood around. He led his horse over to the shade of the tree where the other mounts were tied as the men cheered Cody in his battle with the chestnut.
“Joe! Get back here!”
Ben spun just as the chestnut scrambled to its feet, leaving its rider lying in the dust. Adam was climbing the rail, with Hoss close behind, but Joe had already darted across the corral to the fallen ranch hand. The horse bolted, bucking and racing around the corral as Joe helped the stunned rider to his feet. Just as Ben reached the fence, Cody’s legs gave way and his head dropped back. Before the young man could fall, though, Joe had his arm out of the sling and he was scooping Cody up as though he weighed no more than a child.
“Joseph, stay where you are!” Ben shouted. The horse was running the perimeter of the corral now. For the moment, they were as safe in the center as anywhere.
Adam dropped into the corral, but the horse suddenly veered in his direction. Ben and Hoss grabbed for him, and Adam barely got himself back over the rail before the horse slammed its massive body into the wood as though trying to tear the saddle from its back. Still bucking and rearing, the horse galloped around the corral again as two of the hands dropped in with lassos.
“Now!” Ben shouted. He couldn’t have said whether Joe had heard him, but Joe ran for the rail, still carrying Cody. The ranch hand’s hat fell to the ground, trampled moments later as the horse thundered past. Then, Joe was at the rail and men were reaching for Cody. Hoss grabbed for Joe, hauling him up, and Joe scrambled over the top rail as his big brother pulled him to safety while the others laid Cody on the ground.
“Is he okay?” Adam demanded as his father knelt over the young ranch hand.
“He’s coming around,” said Ben. He accepted a canteen from one of the hands and poured water onto a bandana, pressing it lightly against the young man’s face as his eyes fluttered open. “How do you feel, boy?” Ben asked.
Cody blinked hard. “Okay,” he managed. “Bad landing, I guess.”
“I guess,” said Ben drily. “Can you sit up?” Cody blinked again, and Hoss squatted beside him, supporting him as he sat up. The big man withdrew his hand, and after a few moments, Cody nodded.
“Hoss, get him back to the bunkhouse and make sure he’s all right.” Ben sat back on his heels as his middle son helped Cody to his feet. “Where’s Joe?”
“I’m right here.”
At the sound of his son’s voice, Ben’s head snapped around. “You’re back.”
Still breathing hard, Joe wiped his mouth with the back of his uncasted hand as he nodded. “I’m back.”
It was on the tip of Ben’s tongue to ask when Joe had returned from his fugue—before he ran into the corral or after he’d delivered Cody to them, or sometime in between—but something stopped him. Maybe it was the dark look in Joe’s eyes, the look that said that even though he’d rescued this one, it wasn’t enough. There were so many others he hadn’t rescued. . . .
Instead, he focused on the casted arm that Joe was gingerly replacing in its sling. “Your arm all right?” he demanded as his son winced.
“Huh? Yeah, I’m fine.” Joe looked away hastily as he adjusted the sling.
Fine, my foot, Ben snorted inwardly. He stood and clapped his hand on his youngest son’s shoulder. “Good job,” was all he said.
“For a damned fool,” Adam added. “Next time, let somebody go who’s got two good arms.”
Joe shrugged. “Next time, don’t be so slow.”
Ben chuckled. “All right, you two,” he said. Behind them, he could see that the hands had secured the chestnut. “Might as well get on up to the house. Hop Sing’ll have supper ready soon.” And a drink before supper might make that arm feel a little better, he reflected. He was about to suggest it when he saw his son cast a longing glance toward the edge of the meadow. An ache swelled inside Ben then that no alcohol could have eased, because he knew that if things had been different, he’d have heard, “You go on, Pa. I feel like riding,” just before a lithe young man swung onto a flashy black and white pinto and raced toward the horizon.
But things weren’t different, and Joe simply nodded as they tightened their cinches and mounted up.
None of them saw the man on the horse up on the hill, hidden in the shadow of the pines or heard the words that had become his creed over the past two weeks.
“You’ll pay, Cartwright,” the man said aloud. “On my brother’s grave, you’ll pay.”
* * * * * * * * * *
The bottle was half-empty when the knock came. Only slightly unsteady, Marcus rose and crossed the room. With one hand pressed against the closed door and the other on his gun, he demanded, “Who is it?”
Marcus opened the door and stepped back to let the other man enter, closing the door firmly after his visitor. “Well?”
Edwards eyed the bottle on the table. When nothing was offered, he said, “I could use a drink.”
Edwards pulled a chair from the table and turned it around so that he sat with his arms resting on its back. “Saw the fellow with the cast come out for a few minutes this morning, but we couldn’t get a clean shot. Carson and Watson are watching the house in case he goes out again,” he said.
“He didn’t go out to the barn or anything?”
Edwards shook his head. “Just that one time this morning,” he said. “An’ there was a group of fellows around then, so we couldn’t take the chance.”
Marcus snorted in disgust. “What’s he doing? Hiding from us?”
“Don’t see how, since he don’t know we’re there,” Edwards shrugged. “Mebbe he just had work to do in the house.” He cast a meaningful look at the bottle, and Marcus snapped, “Go ahead.” Edwards poured himself a drink and tossed it back, smacking his lips.
“There’s another thing,” the red-haired man said as he set the glass on the table. “In order to stay out of sight, we’ve got to be a fair ways off from the house. Makes it hard to get a good shot even if he came out alone.”
“What are you saying?”
“Only that we might have a better chance if we didn’t try to get him there. There’s some places along the Virginia City road where we could hide. He’d never knew what hit him.”
Marcus considered this as he poured himself another drink. He hesitated only briefly before pouring Edwards another. “As far as I know, he hasn’t been to town since the trial,” he said.
“Wonder if his people are keeping him on their big, fancy ranch for a reason,” Edwards suggested. “Mebbe they figure you’re going to try something.”
“They’d have to be idiots to think anything else,” said Marcus. Then, a smile spread over his face. “Which means that we need to do this in a way they won’t expect—and I think I’ve got an idea.” He licked his thin lips in anticipation. “Here’s what we’re going to do. You and Carson and Watson are going to keep up the watch. If Cartwright leaves the ranch to come into town, let me know.” He settled himself into his chair and poured another round. “They wanted justice—I’ll give them justice.”
Marcus lifted his glass in a toast. “Here’s to justice Joe Cartwright won’t ever forget—at least, not for as long as he lives.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Ben’s pen stilled as he cast another surreptitious glance at the young man dozing on the settee. Leave him be, he counseled himself.
But the tension that haunted Joe’s face, even in sleep, could not be so easily ignored.
He’d managed to answer Joe’s questions without revealing everything, although at times he felt as though he were walking the fine edge of half a dozen lies. Yes, it had been a bad night. Yes, Joe had had a nightmare. Yes, Adam, who’d shared Joe’s room last night—sentry duty, as Joe called it—had had difficulty wakening him. Yes, they’d ended up having to sedate Joe. Again.
The rest Joe would see for himself when Adam came in.
Ben had offered Adam the choice of staying around the house today, but his eldest son was adamant. There was work to be done, and with Joe in no shape to help, they couldn’t afford to have an extra man down. Besides, Adam had assured him, he was fine. Just a few bruises, nothing more. The cast had kept Joe from getting a good grip.
Ben laid down his pen, closing his eyes at the memory. Doc had given them a sedative to use when they absolutely couldn’t bring him out of the nightmare, and they’d resorted to it last night, with Hoss pinning Joe down as Ben forced the spoon between his lips and Adam gasped for breath. The medicine left Joe with a violent hangover, worse than any night on the town had ever produced, but the doctor insisted that it was far safer than the alternative of simply knocking Joe out with a punch.
At the sound of stirring, Ben opened his eyes to find his youngest son squinting at him.
“You okay, Pa?” Joe rubbed his eyes with his uncasted hand.
Ben smiled at his son’s solicitousness. “I’m fine,” he assured him. “How about you?”
In one startling instant, Joe’s expression changed from the sweet, concerned son Ben had always known to the hard glare of a man who wanted to punch someone, anyone. “Pa, do me a favor,” he said, his voice suddenly tight. “Ask me something else.”
“What?” Ben wasn’t sure he’d heard right.
“Ask me about something else.” He didn’t sound quite steady. “The weather. The grazing in the west pasture. Anything but how I’m doing.”
Ben rose. “Joe, what’s going on?”
“Please. Just—ask me something normal.” The young man was clinging to the back of the settee as he struggled to sit up.
“All right,” said Ben. He watched intently as his son shifted his legs off the settee. In the most casual tone he could manage, he asked, “How’s the grazing in the west pasture?”
“Almost done.” Joe’s breathing was ragged. “They’re starting to stray. When Hoss and I were up there the other day—” He broke off, his hand pressed against his mouth, his eyes closed as he doubled over.
“Hop Sing! We need some water!” Ben called as he crossed the room. He sat on the table, his hand on Joe’s uncasted arm. “Deep breaths, that’s it. Hang on, you’re all right.” He rubbed Joe’s arm as Hop Sing hustled in with a glass of water and a frown. Ben accepted the glass with a nod of thanks, pressing it into Joe’s hand and waiting as Joe managed a sip. For several minutes, there was no sound except Joe’s rough breathing as he battled the nausea that was part of the medicine’s aftermath.
Finally, Joe lifted his head. He drank a bit more and set the glass on the table next to his father. “I’m going outside,” he said. “Get some fresh air.” He stood, but almost at once, he lost his balance, catching himself on Ben’s shoulder. “I’m all right,” he announced before Ben could ask.
“Joe, why don’t you—” Ben began.
“Because I want to go outside.” Joe wasn’t snapping, but he was close. He straightened, staggering only slightly before he gained his balance. He seemed about to speak when the front door opened and Adam and Hoss came in.
The older Cartwright brothers were windblown and ruddy. As they hung up their hats and unbuckled their gunbelts, Ben caught his breath. He’d forgotten what Adam had put on that morning to cover most of the bruises.
“Well, look who’s up!” Hoss’s voice was too hearty, and Ben cringed inwardly.
“Yeah, I’m up,” said Joe. He frowned slightly at the bruise on Adam’s jaw; then, understanding dawned, and his gaze darkened. “What did I do?” he finally asked aloud.
“Nothing to worry about,” said Adam, looking away.
“You’re lying.” Suddenly, there was anger in Joe’s voice. “What did I do?”
“Take it easy, Little Brother,” said Hoss, stepping forward as Joe moved toward Adam.
“Joe, I said don’t worry about it.” There was an edge of iron in Adam’s voice.
“I have a right to know,” said Joe. “What did—” And then, he saw it, and his voice faded.
“Why don’t we all sit down,” suggested Ben, desperation tightening his voice.
“Why are you wearing a neckcloth?” The question was barely more than a whisper.
“Joe, sit down,” said Adam gently.
“You haven’t worn a neckcloth in years. Why now?”
“I’m allowed to—”
“Take it off.” The words were rigid.
“You take it off, or I’ll do it for you.” Joe reached for his brother’s throat, and Adam’s flinch told him all he needed to know. “Take it off,” he whispered, his voice trembling now.
Slowly, his eyes not leaving his youngest brother’s, Adam loosened the knot. When Joe didn’t move, he separated the ends. Finally, when he could delay no longer, he slid the cloth from his neck and stood before his brother.
Almost in wonder, Joe reached out to touch the bruises on his brother’s throat. His fingers slid lightly into the same position as they had the night before, each resting on the marks they had left. He raised his casted hand to the other side, where one large bruise bore evidence to the pressure of plaster against flesh.
For an unending moment, the men stood silently. Joe opened his mouth, but no words came now.
“It’s okay, Joe.” Adam’s words were quiet and sure.
Like a bird startled into sudden terrified flight, Joe yanked his hands away from his brother’s neck. Before the others could move, he ran out the door, swung into the saddle of the nearest horse and was galloping away.
It was well past dark when Ben came upon him. It occurred to him to wonder how long Joe had sat still in this spot by the lake, hidden in the brush, and how much longer he’d have stayed there if Ben hadn’t stopped for a drink. But he had stopped, and he’d seen the horse, white stockings catching the moonlight.
“We’ve been looking for you for hours,” he said, allowing reproach to creep into his voice.
Joe didn’t look away from the sparkle of moonlight on the water. “I’ve made up my mind. I’m going away.”
Ben squatted beside his son, steadying himself with a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Joe, what are you talking about? Going where?”
“Just away.” He didn’t meet his father’s eyes.
“You can’t leave,” said Ben. “What if you were someplace else, all alone, and you went into a fugue? You can’t do it. It’s not safe.”
“Nothing’s safe,” said Joe. “But if I leave—at least then, you’ll be safe—you and Adam and Hoss and Hop Sing.”
“Joe, you’re being ridiculous.” Ben forced himself to sound stern. “Now, come back to the house and let’s talk about all this.”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” said Joe, his voice tinged with desperation. “I almost shot you. I nearly strangled Adam. How many more times do you think something like that can happen before it stops being ‘almost’?” At last, he turned from the lake to face his father. Even in the moonlight, the anguish in his eyes was clear. “Pa, you’ve got to face it,” he said. “I’m not getting any better. I need to go away before I do something—something that isn’t ‘almost.’”
“I can’t let you leave,” said Ben. “Not now. Not with things the way they are.”
Joe turned back to the lake as though the answer could be found in the moonlight that sparkled on the gentle waves. “I’m a grown man, Pa,” he said, his voice weary. “It’s not up to you to ‘let’ me leave.” His shoulders slumped, and he sounded as sad as his father had ever heard him.
Ben swallowed hard. Everything Joe said was true, but it didn’t change anything. He wouldn’t—he couldn’t—allow his son leave now. If he did, it would only be a matter of time before they’d get a telegram from a sheriff somewhere, saying that he was sorry to inform them, but. . . .
He shook his head to extinguish the thought. “Joe, come home,” he said. “We’ll figure this out together.” He waited, and when his son made no response, he said simply, “Please.” He watched, pleading silently, as his son wrestled with options that offered no real choice at all.
At the sound of hoof beats, Joe lifted his head. “It’s your brothers,” Ben said. He cupped his hand around the back of Joe’s neck and resisted the urge to promise that everything would be all right. He had no way of knowing what would come; he knew only that, one way or another, they would face it together. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
“I’ll come for now,” said Joe. “But I can’t stay.”
The sound of Hoss’s deep voice shouting Joe’s name saved him from having to answer. Instead, Ben called out, “We’re down here.” Slowly, his knees creaking, he got to his feet and leaned down to offer Joe a hand. In the last minute before Adam and Hoss rode into the clearing, he saw again the determination, the resolve, the anguish in his youngest son’s eyes, and he heard Joe’s words, now barely audible over the hoof beats and shouts.
“Just for now.”
* * * * * * * * * *
“Anna? Are you ready to go?”
Richard was poking his head into her office as she looked up. “Sorry,” she said. “I guess I just got caught up in this file.” She managed a smile, and Richard’s responsive grin told her that she’d done a decent enough job.
She closed the file and rose before he could ask what was so compelling that she’d been distracted from their dinner plans. The truth was that there was nothing on her desk these days that drew her in, that occupied her mind, that even held her attention for longer than a few minutes at a time. Which wouldn’t have been so bad, except that she’d have paid good money for something—anything—to draw her attention away from the rest of her life.
She’d sat in the back of the courtroom during Timothy Phelps’s trial. Mortimer DeWitt was a competent enough defense lawyer, but with Joe Cartwright’s testimony, there was nothing anyone could have done. She’d slipped out of the courthouse before the Cartwrights saw her, but then she’d stood in the alley and watched as they climbed into their buggy and drove away. Two mornings later, she’d stood in the shadows of that same alley, watching the first rays of sun glint off Timothy Phelps’s dark hair as the hangman fitted the noose around his neck.
Justice had finally been done for Eleanor Gunther.
The fact that no justice was available for Elias Tucker . . . well, that was something that didn’t seem to bother anybody except his lawyer.
She hadn’t seen Marcus Tucker in days. He, too, had attended the Phelps trial, but if he’d seen her, he hadn’t let on. She’d watched for him at the hanging, but he’d been conspicuously absent. She wondered now if he’d left town. Surely, there was nothing to keep him here now.
Richard was holding out her blue wrap. A frisson of pain shot through her at the sight of Hoss’s gift in another man’s hands, and she looked away under the guise of straightening a stack of papers. Hoss had made his feelings quite clear, and the sooner she accepted that and moved on, the better off they’d all be.
Anna raised her head with a determined smile. “Where are were going?”
“I thought Pierre’s,” said Richard.
Pierre’s. The first place they’d gone in this town. She forced herself to hang onto her smile as he draped the wrap around her shoulders and offered his arm. She nodded as she took it, trying not to notice that although Richard’s arm was lean under his suitcoat, the muscles were soft by comparison to Hoss’s strong, sturdy arms.
Stop it, she commanded herself. Deliberately, she smiled up at Richard. He was such a handsome man, and so intelligent, so kind. Any woman would be a fool not to be thrilled at his attentions. Anna couldn’t begin to count the number of times she’d seen young ladies slowing as they walked past the office, clearly hoping to catch a glimpse of the dashing lawyer.
And here she was, getting him on a silver platter, and all she could think of was the man who’d walked away. Well, no more. If Hoss Cartwright could move on, then so could Anna Simmons.
As they enjoyed a bottle of red wine and three delectable courses, she did her best to charm and be charmed. She laughed at his stories and smiled modestly when he did the same with hers. She glanced at him from beneath her lashes as he refilled her wineglass. She allowed a dimple to flash when his hand brushed hers.
The waiter whisked away their dinner plates and brought the salad. The notion of a plate of chopped vegetables was quite unheard-of in Virginia City, save for restaurants such as Pierre’s. She savored the light tang of the dressing on the crisp lettuce and crunchy carrots that she knew Pierre grew in his own garden. Across from her, Richard seemed to enjoy his salad, and for a moment, she recalled dinner parties in Chicago where the hostesses had made such a point of noting that following a main course with a salad was quite fashionable in Europe.
As she speared a piece of cucumber, it occurred to her that a visit to Chicago might be nice. She hadn’t seen Henry in far too long. There was still enough time to make such a trip and return before the snows started—if, in fact, she was planning to return to Virginia City.
The thought startled her almost as though someone had said it aloud. She hadn’t even realized that she was thinking it, but now she knew that the idea had been in the back of her mind since the day she’d walked into her office to find Joe Cartwright sitting there, his arm in a sling and his eyes dark with sorrow. There was nothing holding her here now, and perhaps she’d be better off if she got herself away from Hoss’s world. Perhaps then, she could begin to forget him.
“Anna, will you marry me?”
“I beg your pardon?” Stunned, Anna pulled her thoughts back to the dinner table. Richard’s right hand rested on her left one. Hastily, she drew her hand away as she set down the fork she still held in her other hand. “You’re proposing to me?”
His eyes were serious. “Of course, I’m proposing,” he said. “I love you, Anna. I always have. Why do you think I came all the way out here, anyway? What sane man would leave a city like Chicago for this—this untamed wilderness—unless he was in love?”
“But I thought—I mean, you never—”
He smiled. “I realized when I arrived that you and Hoss Cartwright were still in the middle of something,” he said. “I’m not the kind of man to interfere, but when I saw that you two were having . . . difficulties—well, I decided to wait and see. I remember how things went after your marriage ended—you spent a fair bit of time nursing your wounds, and you rejected every man anyone introduced to you—so I knew better than to try to rush you this time. But whatever you had with Cartwright is clearly over, and I’m not foolish enough to sit by while another man steps in. I made that mistake once, and I don’t plan to do it again. So, Anna Simmons, I’m asking you: will you marry me?”
“I thought—you said you were coming out here because you were tired of the city.” She still couldn’t quite grasp what he was saying.
Richard smiled. “You would only have believed such a preposterous statement if you wanted to,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “No one could ever tire of a city like Chicago. It would be like tiring of New York or Boston. Virginia City—which, I’m sorry, is simply not a city—holds only one charm for me, and that charm, dear Anna, is you.”
She drained her wineglass in an unladylike gulp. “Richard, I had no idea,” she said. “Truly I didn’t. If I’d known what you were thinking, I would never have let you come.”
“That’s because you were being courted by Cartwright,” he reminded her as though she could possibly have forgotten. “Things have changed.”
Anna reached for her wineglass again, but it was empty. “I don’t—I—I need to think about this,” she managed. “I’m immensely flattered, but as you say, things with Hoss have only recently ended, and with everything that’s gone on lately with Tucker, I’m—well, I’m quite distracted, and I don’t think it’s fair to you if I answer you while I’m in this state.” She watched the light fade from his eyes, and she reached over to place her hand on his. “I need time, Richard,” she said gently. “I simply can’t answer you now. I’m sorry.”
He nodded. “At least you didn’t say ‘no,’” he said, and his attempt at levity made her heart ache. He was a good friend, and she had hurt him, but she had no choice.
You can’t marry him because you feel guilty about not loving him, she told herself firmly as the waiter who had hovered in the doorway brought coffee and small plates bearing flaky pastries.
Then again, maybe marrying a friend was best. Her mother had always said to marry her best friend. With her real best friends, Hoss and Henry, both unavailable, Richard might be a very reasonable choice. At least he understood the demands of her profession. He was probably the only man she knew who wouldn’t think she should give up her practice to stay home and raise his children.
She smiled and thanked him as he handed her the cream and sugar without needing to inquire whether she took them. A handsome, well-to-do, intelligent man who loved her and respected her profession. She could do worse. Perhaps she should think seriously about his proposal.
She spooned sugar into her cup and added just enough cream to make the coffee light brown. She forced away the thought that her coffee was exactly the same color as Hoss’s hair. She had other matters to focus on now.
* * * * * * * * * *
Joe paused in the act of tucking his brushes into his saddlebag. Alert, he listened as hard as he could, barely breathing lest he miss a footfall outside his door.
After a long minute, he exhaled softly. Nothing. No one was up.
It was best this way. Someday, they’d realize that. They couldn’t possibly think that they should have to live like this. It wasn’t their fault, not a shred of it. They were victims, just as surely as Mary Ann Sawyer and Smitty and old Mr. Ziegler had been. As surely as Eleanor Gunther and Elias Tucker. Victims all, with one common thread: Joe Cartwright, who caused all their grief and managed to save his own worthless hide while they all suffered and died.
He peered out the window into the darkness. About two hours to sunup. By the time they figured out he was gone, three hours. Not much of a headstart, but it would have to do.
Clumsily, he pulled on his boots. His left arm was still encased in plaster, and it would be a chore to manage until he could break it off, but there was no choice. A broken arm hadn’t kept him from strangling Adam. It wouldn’t keep him from using a knife on Pa, or a gun on Hoss, or a cast iron skillet on Hop Sing.
He rubbed the rough plaster reflectively. He’d seen Hoss looking at the cast with guilt and regret, and it was all he could do not to tell his big brother what a fool he was. Joe didn’t resent the broken arm; he was grateful for it. Hoss hadn’t just saved their pa that night. He’d saved Joe, too. It was bad enough that Joe had once struck Pa during a nightmare. He’d never forgive himself for that, but that was nothing compared to what he might have done with a weapon in hand. Nightmare be damned—if he’d shot his father, there was no question that one day, he’d have put a bullet through his own brain.
He tied his saddlebag closed—awkwardly, but he got the job done. He ignored the pang as he blew out the lamp and eased open his bedroom door. If this was what he had to do to keep his family safe, then so be it.
He moved down the hall as silently as he used to once upon a time, when he was sneaking in late at night. Back in the old days, when his biggest problems revolved around girls and poker. When life was full of sunshine and laughter and good horses galloping across meadows with their manes and tails streaming behind. When sleep was peaceful and morning’s light held no terrible surprises. When summer meant long days of hard work, with sweat trickling down his back and making the dust into rivulets of dirt, and day’s end meant flinging himself into the still-cold water of the lake and reveling in its crisp, clear baptism.
The lost sweet time of his life when he never had to dread hearing what he’d done while his mind was missing.
Noiselessly, he made his way down the stairs and over to the credenza. He managed to buckle his gunbelt and turned it around so that his gun was on his right. Not ideal, but it would have to do. He pulled on his jacket and looked around the main room one last time.
Even in the dark, he knew it so well. He’d lived his entire life here. He’d always expected that he would get married in this room, that he and his wife would bring the children to visit their grandpa here, that the Cartwright family would continue to gather here for years to come. But that dream, like so many others, had died in the dust as savages whooped and shrieked and knelt on his back and yanked his head up by the hair, a knife blade pressed against his throat so that he could feel his own blood trickling down his neck while their cohorts chopped off an old man’s feet, laughing at the man’s agonized screams and taunting him to try to run away now. . . .
“No!” Joe whispered fiercely. If he started thinking, started remembering, he’d never go. His family would find him standing here in a fugue. They’d know what he’d meant to do. They would find a way to stop him, and they would sentence themselves to serve forever as his keepers. The only way to free them was to get away before they knew what was happening.
He jammed his hat on his head, took up his saddlebags, and unbolted the door. Without a backward glance, he slipped outside, pulling the door soundlessly closed. He drew a deep breath and headed for the barn where his horse would never notice the tears on his cheeks.
* * * * * * * * * *
Sometimes, Marcus Tucker reflected, things just work out right.
He strolled into the saloon and ordered a whiskey. He wasn’t normally much for drinking with a bunch of loudmouths, but today, he wanted to hear what they’d have to say.
It was almost too easy. After nearly two weeks of watching the Cartwrights’ ranch house to see whether Joe Cartwright might be coming to town, he’d stepped out of the hotel this morning to see Adam Cartwright racing past him as though his horse’s tail was on fire. He watched with growing curiosity as Cartwright reined in his horse in front of the sheriff’s office, leaping to the ground almost before the animal was stopped. The dark-haired man ran into the office and almost immediately, he ran back out. For a moment, he stood on the rough board sidewalk, peering first down the street and then back up. Then, he’d spotted the man he sought.
“Roy!” Cartwright shouted, waving as he dashed across the street, barely avoiding a collision with a buggy.
The grizzled sheriff turned as Cartwright called, “Have you seen Little Joe this morning?”
Marcus immediately slipped across their side of the street, strolling toward the two men without seeming to notice them. He pretended to study the contents of the general store’s window, just a few short yards from where the sheriff and Cartwright discussed a most interesting development.
It seemed that the Cartwrights had arisen that morning to find that Joe was missing and his horse wasn’t in the barn. Most of his clothes and personal items were also gone, so it was clear he hadn’t just gotten an early start on work. Joe Cartwright had even said something to their father recently about going away, although apparently, he hadn’t said where.
“Hoss is heading out toward Placerville,” Adam Cartwright said. “Pa’s got hands going all over the Ponderosa. If he’s not in Virginia City, I’m going to head down to Carson City.”
“I’m mighty sorry, Adam, but I ain’t seen him since the Phelps trial,” said the sheriff. “I’ll tell you what, though. I’ll keep my eyes open, an’ if I see him, I’ll send word out to the Ponderosa. Will anybody be there?”
Adam shook his head. “Hop Sing’s in San Francisco visiting relatives, and everybody else is looking for Joe. Even so, if you find out anything, it’d be helpful even if you just left a note.”
“I’ll do that,” promised the sheriff. Marcus feigned interest in the jars of penny candy on display as Adam Cartwright headed down the sidewalk, presumably to see whether his brother might be found in a saloon.
By the time the eldest Cartwright brother had given up and ridden out of town, Marcus had his plan ready for execution. He sauntered down the sidewalk as though he had all the time in the world. When he reached the law offices of Simmons and Palmer, he paused. Good: Richard Palmer was sitting at the desk in the front office. Hopefully, Miss Simmons was in her office as well. If not, he could still make this work.
He arranged his features in a reasonably pleasant expression and opened the door. “Good morning, Mr. Palmer,” he said.
“Good morning, Mr. Tucker,” said Palmer, rising and extending his hand. “What can we do for you today?”
“I’d like to speak with Miss Simmons if she has a moment,” said Marcus. He shook the man’s hand, fighting down a momentary surge of excitement. It wouldn’t do to look as though he knew anything unusual was about to transpire.
“Of course,” said Palmer. He moved from behind his desk to the closed door and tapped lightly before opening it. “Anna, Mr. Tucker is here to see you.”
Marcus couldn’t hear what she said, but within moments, she appeared in the doorway. “Mr. Tucker,” she said. “Won’t you come in?”
“Good morning, Miss Simmons,” said Tucker. He followed her into her office. When she did not close the door, he said, “Would you mind. . . ?” as he pushed it closed.
She offered him a seat and took her own. “What can I do for you, Mr. Tucker?”
Marcus began to spin a convoluted story about a land deal that had run into problems. He knew that he wasn’t quite making sense, but it was difficult to talk and listen at the same time. Finally, he heard the door to the street open and low voices in the outer office. He pretended to sneeze, and as he reached for his handkerchief, he heard Palmer asking something and the other man responding. Hastily, he continued, “And so I was wondering whether it might be possible to—”
The gunshot in the outer office cut him off. Splendid. The horror on her face—just as it should be. Marcus jumped to his feet and ran out, shoving his chair back so that it would block her path to the door and slow her down just a bit. He ran into the outer office to see Palmer slumped over his desk, blood seeping into the papers he would never read again. Excellent. Just one more thing. . . .
Marcus ran to the outer door and yanked it open. “Stop!” he shouted. “Stop!”
“Richard!” Marcus turned back in time to see Anna lift Palmer’s head. At the sight of the wet red bullet hole in the middle of his forehead, she screamed in a manner befitting one who had lived a pampered existence in which murder was something that happened to other people. “Richard!”
It seemed only moments before the office was filled with people. A small man with a white monk’s tonsure and mustache held smelling salts in front of Anna’s nose as she slumped in one of the armchairs. The deputy dispatched a boy to the undertaker’s. And the sheriff . . . ah, the sheriff. He strode in as though it was his office and demanded, “Did anybody see what happened?”
Marcus stepped forward. “I didn’t see the shooting, but I saw the man who did it running away.” He savored the silence. Everyone was waiting for Marcus Tucker. The power of life and death now rested with him. His words would put the noose around a man’s neck.
Well?” the sheriff when Marcus didn’t continue. “Who was it?”
Marcus looked at the distraught woman, the blood-stained desk, the body that was being carted away, the crowd that had gathered. In a clear voice designed to carry, he made his statement.
“The man who shot Richard Palmer was . . . Joe Cartwright.”
The gasp of the crowd was eminently satisfying. Strangely, though, the sheriff looked unconvinced. Marcus supposed it was what came of having law enforcement living hand-in-glove with the most powerful family in the territory. Still, it was nothing he couldn’t handle.
The sheriff shooed everyone out of the office and turned back to Marcus. “Now, you tell me jest exactly what happened,” he said.
Marcus sat back, pleased. “I was in Miss Simmons’s office when I heard someone come in,” he said. “I heard two men talking—one of them, obviously, was Mr. Palmer. Then, the gun went off. I ran out here and looked out the door, and I saw Joe Cartwright running away.”
“Did you see his face?”
“Well, no—I saw him from the back. But it was him. I know it.”
“What was he wearing?”
Marcus shrugged slightly. “Regular clothes. Nothing special.” He saw the sheriff shoot a quick glance at Anna Simmons, and he added, “I’m sure it was him. Medium height, slim, brown hair.”
“Describes a lot of men,” said the sheriff dubiously.
“It was Cartwright,” Marcus insisted. “Don’t you think I know what he looks like by now?”
“I reckon you know his face,” said the sheriff. “Tell me this: what did he say to Palmer?”
“I don’t know,” said Marcus. “I heard the two of them talking, but I couldn’t make out words.”
“But they had a conversation?”
Marcus rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Briefly, but yes, they had a conversation.” He decided to reveal one of the critical pieces of information. He hadn’t wanted to do it this soon, but if he was going to get the sheriff to believe him, he needed it now. “It could have been about how Palmer and Miss Simmons were going to get married,” he offered.
The surprise on the sheriff’s face was worth the revelation. “How’d you know that?”
Because I’ve had men following Palmer for two weeks, Marcus thought. “A friend of mine works at Pierre’s,” he prevaricated. “Palmer proposed four nights ago.”
“That so?” the sheriff asked Anna, who nodded. To Marcus, he said, “And you think Joe Cartwright up and killed Palmer in cold blood because him and Miss Simmons got engaged?”
The skepticism in the sheriff’s voice was just a hair too annoying. Marcus played his ace: “Wouldn’t have been cold blood if he was in a fugue, would it?”
Something in the sheriff’s face changed then. Marcus couldn’t have said what it was, but Roy Coffee looked like he’d just put two and two together and come up with four. And he was looking at Marcus like the little man had said the sum was seventeen.
“Well, Mr. Tucker, thank you for your time,” he said. “Anna, is there somebody you want me to get for you?”
Anna shook her head. “I’m all right, thank you,” she said. The sheriff didn’t look as though he believed her any more than he’d seemed to believe Marcus. Maybe that was just his way.
Marcus rose. His work here was done. “Miss Simmons, I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, bowing slightly to her. Without waiting for an answer, he nodded to the sheriff. “Good day,” he said, striding out into the sunshine. Any time now, the sheriff would have to start rounding up a posse to hunt down Joe Cartwright.
And if all went well, that posse just might turn into a lynch mob.
* * * * * * * * * *
Joe reined in his horse and slid from the saddle. “All right, we’ll take a break,” he said as he slid from Cochise’s back. “You’ve earned it.” He untied the cinch and pulled the saddle and blanket from the sweaty black-and-white back. He led the horse down to the stream. “Have a drink,” he said. Positioning himself upstream from his equine companion, Joe squatted by the rippling water and cupped his hand to drink.
He splashed cool water on his dusty face, rubbing his wet hand across the back of his neck. With a practiced eye, he looked up at the sun and gauged the time. Probably around three o’clock, he reflected. They’d been gone for twelve hours.
He flopped down on the soft ground as Cochise nibbled the grass growing along the bank. Maybe this wasn’t the right way to do it. He felt like a kid who had run away from home. Still, what other choice was there? Make his family trail after him for the rest of his life? Stay until he did something that couldn’t be fixed?
Well, no one was going to find him up here. Even if somebody picked up his trail down by the road, he’d gone over enough rock that there wasn’t a chance of anybody following. Even Hoss couldn’t track a man over rock, and he was the best tracker of any white man Joe knew.
He tried to figure out how many miles he’d traveled. It was almost seventy miles from the house to Placerville even if he’d just headed along the road and hadn’t worried about being followed, and heading up through the rocks had added to the trip. Still, he figured he was probably a solid thirty miles from the house, and once Cochise had rested up, he could probably cover another ten before it got too dark to see.
He tilted his hat over his face to block out the sun. A little rest wouldn’t hurt him, either.
Seemingly an instant later, something hit his foot. He grabbed for his gun as a voice growled, “There’s probably a reason I shouldn’t kick your sorry hide from here to Sacramento, but offhand, I can’t think of one. What the devil’d you think you were doin’, anyway?”
“Wha—what?” Joe squinted at the familiar figure silhouetted against the moon. “What the—how did you—what—?” He shook his head to clear away the fog of sleep. “How did you track me? I went over the rocks.”
Hoss hunkered down next to him. “I taught you that trick, remember? I figured that was how you’d go.”
Joe cursed softly as he got to his feet and began to rummage in his saddlebag. “I don’t suppose you brought any grub,” he grumbled. “I didn’t bring enough to feed the likes of you.” He dug out the coffee pot and coffee, and as Hoss built a fire, Joe knelt by the stream to fill the pot. It was a routine as familiar to them as their own names, and they didn’t need to talk about it.
Finally, the two of them sat on opposite sides of the fire, dented tin cups in hand. “We’ll head back in the morning,” said Hoss when it became clear Joe had no intention of breaking the silence.
“You’ll head back,” said Joe. “I’m going on.”
“Don’t be dumb,” said Hoss. “You’re comin’ back with me, an’ that’s that.”
“I’m not going back!” Joe dropped his cup and rose abruptly. “Like it or not, I’m a grown man, and I can decide for myself where I’m going.”
“Yeah? If you’re so danged grown up, then why’d you have to sneak out in the middle of the night? Seems to me if you were that sure about what you were doin’, you’d at least have waited to say good-bye to Pa.”
“He already knew I was going—we talked about it last night, down by the lake.” Joe was pacing now as his brother sat on the ground, watching. “Just go back. Tell Pa I’m all right. Tell him I’ll write to him as soon as I get rid of the cast.”
“Are you loco? You think Pa’s just gonna sit back and say okay to that? He ain’t gonna stand for it any more than I am. You can’t just run around the countryside by yourself right now, so get that notion out of your ornery head right now.”
“You don’t understand—”
“I understand just fine. I understand that something real bad happened to you and somehow, it still ain’t over. Well, I got news for you, Little Brother. If something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us. So don’t you be thinking you’re just gonna run out and leave the rest of us just sittin’ there, not knowin’ whether you’re dead or alive. This family don’t work like that.”
“And what if I kill somebody?” Shadows danced in the firelight as Joe lifted his chin defiantly. “I could kill somebody without even knowing it—you or Pa or Adam or Hop Sing. And what if I did? How could any of us live with that?”
“Look, I’m going, and that’s all there is to it!” Joe reached for his saddlebag, but Hoss grabbed his good arm.
“Doggone it, Little Brother, cut it out! You can’t protect the whole goldarned world—that ain’t your job! Now, I done chased you all the way from the Ponderosa, an’ I just plain had enough! You’re comin’ home with me before you get yourself into trouble, and I ain’t gonna stand for any more nonsense. Now, you either settle yourself down or I’m gonna clobber you!” The big man glared for all he was worth, but Joe glared right back, his nostrils flaring as his breath came in hard, angry puffs.
Hoss tightened his grip on Joe’s arm until his brother’s eyes grew wider. With all the menace he could muster, Hoss said, “I mean it, Joe. Settle down.” He shook Joe slightly for emphasis. He waited until Joe looked away before letting go, pretending not to notice as Joe rubbed his arm. Then, Hoss bent down to retrieve his cup.
In the next instant, he was flat on his back, and Joe was on top of him, pummeling him with his one good fist. Grunts and scuffling and the sound of flesh slamming into flesh punctuated the quiet night. Hoss shoved his brother aside and scrambled to his feet. When Joe came at him again, Hoss lunged for him, missed and fell into the stream. A second later, Joe’s shout turned to a shriek as Hoss reached up and grabbed his leg, pulling the smaller man into the water. Boots meant for dry land slipped and slid as the two fell and struggled to their feet and fell again. Fists smacked wetness and grunts turned to panting and gasping for breath, but still, neither gave in.
Then, Joe swung and missed. Propelled by his own momentum, he fell headlong into the stream. Hoss wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, waiting. When Joe didn’t get up, he staggered to his brother, shouting, “Joe! Get up, you dang fool!”
“Huh?” Joe lifted his head, blinking. Unsteadily, he got to his feet, shaking water from his hair like a dog. “I ain’t going back with you,” he muttered as he made his way to the bank.
Hoss snorted as he followed his brother up onto dry ground. Neither spoke as they stripped off their wet clothes and hung them on bushes.
“Damn,” Joe muttered as he opened his saddlebags.
“What? You forget to bring clothes?” Hoss rolled his eyes as he pulled on dry long johns.
“Stupid cast,” said Joe, holding up his arm. Even in the dim light, Hoss could see that didn’t look right.
“I reckon that’s why Doc said you had to keep it dry,” said Hoss. “Lemme see.” He approached cautiously, but Joe seemed to have gotten all his contrariness out for the moment. He poked at the plaster, frowning at its softness. “How long’s this been on? Three weeks?” At Joe’s nod, Hoss said, “Probably best if we just take it off and splint your arm tonight. Tomorrow, Doc can put another one on.”
“I told you—” Joe began, but Hoss laid a hand on his shoulder.
“I know what you told me. Now, I’m tellin’ you. We’re leaving for home first thing in the morning. We’re gonna have Doc put a new cast on, and then we’re gonna do what we shoulda done in the first place. We’re gonna stop waiting for these fugues to go away on their own. We’re gonna write to every doctor there is, and we’re gonna find somebody who can help you. An’ if it means you gotta go to St. Louis or New York or someplace like that, then that’s what we’ll do. But you hear me good, Joseph: you ain’t gonna do it alone, ’cause we ain’t gonna stand for it, none of us. We’re still a family, an’ that’s just how it is, even if one of us ain’t got the sense to put on a pair of drawers when it’s cold.” He smacked Joe’s bare backside and turned away to tend to the dying fire, grinning at what he knew to be the outraged look that followed him.
By the time they’d tended to everything that needed attention—the horses, supper, Joe’s arm—both were weary enough to turn in. Joe didn’t snap when Hoss put his bedroll right beside his, even though he was still so taut that Hoss was pretty sure he was just about an inch from another explosion. Just as Hoss was dozing off, he heard the words, barely audible over the gentle splash of the stream.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
Dadburn that boy. Hoss opened his mouth, but he couldn’t say anything past the sudden lump in his throat. So he contented himself with patting Joe’s arm, and he lay there, holding onto Joe and trying to see the stars through the wetness in his eyes, long after his brother’s breathing had gone deep and even.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Tomorrow, we’ll head out toward Yerington. Maybe he went east.”
Adam nodded agreement as Ben pored over the map on his desk. The stagecoach offices in Virginia City and Carson City had both confirmed that nobody fitting Joe’s description had caught a stage going in any direction that day, and Joe’s pinto hadn’t been at any of the livery stables. So, wherever Joe had vanished to, it wasn’t the two cities nearest the Ponderosa.
Not that Adam had truly expected to find him there. Joe would have known that those were the first places they’d look. Then again, it would have been just like him to go one of those cities precisely because he knew they’d assume he’d never go there. It was a logic just cagey enough to be typically Joe, but it hadn’t panned out.
Pa was still talking. “I’m telling you, when I get my hands on your brother—”
A knock at the door startled him into silence. Reflexively, they both looked at the clock. It was nearly ten. No good news ever arrived at such an hour.
“I’ll get it,” Adam said unnecessarily, because Pa seemed frozen. He crossed the room and opened the door to find the sheriff. “Evening, Roy,” he said, and he knew by the older man’s expression that he’d failed at sounding casual. “Won’t you come in?”
“Evening, Adam, Ben,” said Roy. His eyes darted from one to the other.
“Tell me.” Ben’s voice was as tight as piano wire.
“Nobody’s seen him,” said Roy, and the Cartwrights relaxed visibly. “Thing is, there was some trouble in town today, and I figured you’d need to know about it.” He looked from Ben to Adam and back to Ben. “Anna Simmons’ partner was murdered today in his office.”
“Murdered!” Ben dropped the map. “What happened?”
“Some fellow came in and shot him point blank.” But there was clearly more, and Ben braced himself.
“Anybody know who did it?” Adam asked when Roy didn’t continue.
“Well, that’s why I came out here,” said Roy. “Marcus Tucker was in Anna’s office at the time, and he says he run out and saw the killer runnin’ away.” Again, he looked from one Cartwright to the other. “He says the fellow who killed Palmer was Little Joe.”
“What? That’s impossible!” Ben exploded.
Roy held up his hand. “I know,” he said. “An’ Tucker’s story don’t quite hang together. Whoever killed Palmer just walked right in an’ shot him in the head.”
“Joe would never—” Adam began.
“I know that,” Roy cut in impatiently. “An’ I reckon Tucker’s figured it out, ’cause he’s tellin’ folks that he figures Joe was havin’ a fugue when he done it. Thing is, Tucker told me that before the gun went off, he heard Palmer an’ whoever was with him talking.” He waited as comprehension and relief dawned on the men’s faces before he continued, “Now, you an’ me, we know Joe don’t talk during a fugue, but there’s plenty of folks in town who never quite believed that those fugues were real. Add to that the fact that Hoss used to be courtin’ Anna, and it don’t take much to get some folks thinkin’ mebbe Joe was upset about her marryin’ somebody else.”
“Marrying? Wait a minute—who’s getting married?” Adam looked as surprised at this apparent digression as Ben felt.
“Word is that Anna was supposed to marry Palmer,” said Roy. “The notion seems to be that Joe killed Palmer ’cause he stole Anna away from Hoss or some such nonsense.”
For a ludicrous instant, all Ben could think of was how Hoss was going to take this news. Then, he forced himself back to the real issue. “But why is Tucker saying he saw Joe?”
“I don’t know,” said Roy. “I heard enough from Tucker to doubt his story, but I dunno who he’s protectin’ with this cockamamie yarn or why. Whatever his reason, when I left to come out here, he was in the Bucket of Blood buyin’ drinks. I’m thinkin’ he’s liable to get up a posse of his own to go after Joe, ’cept it ain’t gonna be a posse—it’s gonna be a lynch mob.”
“But why? Why Joe?” It was Ben’s turn to look from one man to another.
Adam nodded as it all came together. “Probably because Joe could have cleared his brother. If he’d remembered just a day earlier, Elias Tucker wouldn’t have hanged. And Marcus Tucker doesn’t strike me as the forgive-and-forget type.”
“But that wasn’t Joe’s fault! Phelps hit him over the head. It wasn’t something Joe could control,” Ben protested.
“Ben, I know that an’ you know that,” said Roy. “But Marcus Tucker—he don’t care about that kind of thing. Wouldn’t surprise me if he set the whole thing up—had Palmer killed and told that whole story—jest so Little Joe would hang.”
“You really think he’d go that far?” The normally unflappable Adam sounded positively shocked.
“I ain’t rulin’ it out,” said Roy grimly. “I take it you didn’t find Little Joe when you were huntin’ in Virginia City?”
“Not a sign of him,” said Adam. “When was the murder?’
“’Bout two hours after I saw you,” said Roy.
“Did anybody say if they’d seen Joe’s horse?” Adam asked.
“Nobody saw it,” Roy said. “An’ everybody knows Joe’s pinto. So that’s a good sign. I take it he ain’t here?”
Ben shook his head. “We’re heading out at sunup. Heading east this time.”
“He went out west, toward Placerville. He’s going to wire us when he gets there tomorrow.”
Roy nodded. “Well, Ben, I reckon I’m gonna have to put together a posse jest to keep Tucker from organizing a lynch mob. Hopefully, Tucker won’t stir up too much trouble if he thinks we’re takin’ his story seriously.”
“Can’t you arrest him? Throw him in jail for interfering with official sheriff business by lying?” Ben demanded.
Roy shot a quick sympathetic glance at Adam. “Not at this point,” he said simply as he opened the door. “Good luck tomorrow. I hope you find Joe real soon.”
“Thanks,” said Ben, his thoughts occupied with this new situation. Then, he remembered, and he was shocked that he’d forgotten to ask. “Roy, how’s Anna holding up?”
“As well as can be expected, I reckon.” The sheriff seemed to be waiting for something more, but when neither Cartwright spoke, he just nodded and left, closing the door behind him.
Ben shook his head as if to clear it. “We’ll head out past Yerington and then circle back here in case Hoss has sent word,” he said. Ignoring Adam’s startled expression, he went back to his desk and the map. He wished he could do something for Anna, but right now he had a more urgent problem.
He had to find Little Joe before Tucker did.
* * * * * * * * * *
Hoss woke to the smell of too-strong coffee that had boiled over—in other words, Little Joe’s standard fare. He watched for a minute as Joe squatted by the fire, sipping. The younger man was gripping a cup with both hands, and he kept chewing on his bottom lip like he was fighting to hold something in. Abruptly, he set down his cup and walked over toward the creek, and Hoss watched without speaking as his brother stood stockstill, like a deer sensing danger.
After a few minutes, Joe knelt and splashed water on his face. Hoss waited until Joe had wiped his face on his sleeve and turned back before he yawned and stretched like he was just waking up. Joe looked away, clearly knowing the water hadn’t done a good enough job of washing away the redness in his eyes. “I didn’t know you were awake,” he said, his voice tight.
“I’m awake.” Hoss ambled into the woods to take care of his personal business, pausing at the creek on the way back to splash some water on his own face. When he figured he’d taken long enough, he sauntered back to the campfire where Joe stared unseeingly at his coffee.
Hoss rummaged in his saddlebags to see what supplies Adam had packed. Before long, he was handing Joe a plate of fatback and beans. He took his time over his own breakfast, not saying anything about how little Joe ate. Finally, he poured himself another cup of coffee and broke the silence: “I think you an’ me need to have ourselves a talk.”
“I’ll go back.” Joe’s voice sounded dead.
Hoss nodded. “That ain’t what I wanted to talk about, though.” He waited until Joe looked straight at him before he continued, “I been doin’ a lot of thinkin’, and this whole thing just don’t add up. Your stage gets attacked, Indians torture everybody, an’ nobody’s sayin’ it wasn’t awful, but for some reason, you can’t put it behind you and move on. I been watching this thing eat you up for months, an’ the only thing I can figure is that there’s something more went on than you been sayin’.” His voice had been deliberately casual, but when he saw his brother go pale, he knew he was right.
“We need to get going. Here, give me your dish.” He reached for Hoss’s breakfast plate, and Hoss clamped one massive hand on his brother’s wrist.
“Talk to me, Little Brother,” he said. Joe averted his face and tried to yank his arm free, but Hoss held firm. “Tell me what else happened.”
“I can’t.” The words were barely audible over the stream.
“Sure you can. Come on, sit down.” He held Joe’s arm until his brother sat next to him. “Look at me, Joe. What happened that you ain’t said?” Joe shook his head, and icy fear clutched at Hoss’s heart. Controlling his voice with great effort, he asked, “What did they do to you, boy?”
Joe shook his head again. “Nothing—nothing besides what you already know.”
Hoss exhaled silently, hiding his relief. “Then what is it? What haven’t you told us?”
“We gotta get going.” Joe scrambled to his feet. “We’ve got to get to Virginia City, and Pa’s gonna be waiting for us. Come on, let’s go.” His voice was unsteady, higher than usual.
“Joe. . . .” But Hoss knew better than to push a skittish critter too hard. The boy was close to talking now, and the last thing Hoss wanted to do was to scare him off. He shoved to his feet and kicked dirt over the fire. As slowly as he could, he gathered his gear and saddled his horse while Joe rinsed the dishes in the creek and stored them in his saddlebag. He had one foot in a stirrup and was just heaving himself up when he heard it.
“It was all my fault.”
“What?” Hoss stopped with his leg halfway across the saddle and tried to get down, but his horse startled at the unfamiliar shift in weight. For a minute, it was all Hoss could do to keep from falling as the horse tried to rid itself of this uneven burden. Finally, though, he soothed the gelding and got himself into the saddle as he looked around for his brother.
But Joe was already riding down the trail, away from the Ponderosa.
* * * * * * * * * *
Anna closed her front door and leaned against it, eyes closed. The house was cool and dim, a welcome relief after the sun that already burned too bright and hot. She waited for the tears to come, but there were none. Perhaps she had used them all up.
Richard dead. Murdered. Shot in cold blood in their very own office. Dizziness overwhelmed her, and she felt behind her for the door latch to steady herself.
“Missy want tea?”
She opened her eyes to see Jiang Xi standing before her. Such a good girl; she’d even come to the funeral, standing a respectful distance away so that no one would think she didn’t know her place but making sure she was there in case Missy Anna needed her. Anna made herself smile to acknowledge the girl’s thoughtfulness.
“Thank you, Jiang Xi, that would be lovely,” she said. She removed her borrowed black hat, and the girl took it from her, her touch as light as a summer’s breeze.
What to do. That was the question. Sheriff Coffee had seemed concerned that the person who murdered Richard might come after her, but Anna found herself curiously uninterested in such a notion. Somehow, she didn’t believe that Richard’s killer had any interest in killing her. Especially not when he could be certain that she’d suffer more by being alive.
She settled herself in her armchair as the teacup appeared silently on the side table. She murmured her thanks and sipped. Not her regular black tea, strong and bracing, but the gentler green brew that the Chinese drank. This one had a light, flowery scent. “Jiang Xi?”
“Yes, Missy?” The girl was there in an instant.
“What kind of tea is this?”
“Jasmine tea, Missy.” She watched Anna as though waiting for some sort of reaction, so Anna nodded.
“It’s very good, thank you.” The girl bobbed a quick curtsy and disappeared, leaving Anna to consider the events of the past twenty-four hours.
She’d been surprised—and, in all candor, disappointed—that none of the Cartwrights had come to the funeral. Not that the crowd of mourners had been sparse. People she didn’t even know clasped her hand and talked of what a loss, what a tragedy. Widow Morgan, whose husband had died forty years earlier, stood on tiptoe to kiss her cheek with dry, papery lips and whispered, “Just be brave, dear. You never get over it. You just have to be brave.”
But she didn’t want to be brave. She’d been brave for too long already. She’d been brave before she ever left Chicago, when Seth left and her father died. She’d been brave for the trip west to this strange, rough place, and again as she learned to be a lawyer in a world that thought women should stay at home with their children and their housework. She’d been brave enough to let herself fall in love, and if she couldn’t say that she’d emerged victorious at the end of Hoss’s affections, at least she was learning how to manage a life without him and his family. And now, with the last real friend she’d had left in this town up in the churchyard under six feet of dirt, Anna Simmons was tired of being brave.
She drained her teacup and set it in its saucer as the lawyer part of her mind began to ruminate. The one thing she was certain was that Marcus Tucker was mistaken about having seen Joe running from the office. Fugue or no fugue, Joe would never have done such a thing. She thought back to the Grayson case. Joe had become involved only because Grayson was attacking that little girl. He would never have simply gone after anyone. It wasn’t in his nature.
But someone had killed Richard with all deliberate intent. This was no accident, no bullet gone astray, no possibility of mistaken identity. Someone wanted Richard dead.
She shook her head as though arguing. It didn’t make any sense. Richard hadn’t had an enemy in the entire town. He wasn’t even a trial lawyer who might ruffle someone’s feathers by cross-examining him with uncomfortable questions or arguing to a jury that the witness wasn’t telling the truth. All he did was to draw up contracts when people bought and sold property—the happiest part of the law, her father had called it, because buyers were getting what they wanted and sellers were getting rid of what they didn’t want. Richard had only written a dozen or so wills since he’d been in town, and all of those people were still alive, so the heirs had no reason even to challenge his work, much less to hate him for it.
No, there was no question that Richard hadn’t died because of something he’d done as a lawyer.
She allowed her mind to wander back over the past several months. He’d squired a number of young ladies around town, but she’d never heard the slightest hint that he was anything other than charming and chivalrous. Even if he’d broken some girl’s heart by proposing to Anna, it defied credulity that the girl would have done such a thing.
Her mind kept coming back to Joe—specifically, to Marcus accusing Joe. It didn’t make sense. She didn’t recall much about the sheriff’s conversation with Marcus, but she thought he’d said something about a fugue. That couldn’t be right, though; she’d heard voices in the outer office before the gunshot.
Perhaps the way to go at it was from the end. She’d go out to the Ponderosa and talk to Joe, see where he’d been. See if he knew why Marcus thought he’d been in town.
Sure, that’s why you want to go to the Ponderosa, her mind taunted her. To see Joe. Uh-huh. Sure.
Fine, she shot back. I want to see Hoss. Is that so wrong? She wanted to see him, to hear his deep voice, to feel his strong arms around her as she rested her head against his chest. She wanted to lay down her burdens, as the old song said. Just once more, she wanted to be held by the man she loved.
Tears, hot and unexpected, welled up. Poor, poor Richard. He’d loved her, he’d left everything to come here to win her, he’d wanted to marry her—and she’d no sooner buried him than she was dreaming about Hoss. What a wretched person she was. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t led Richard on, hadn’t ever said she loved him, hadn’t even accepted his proposal. She was suddenly, absurdly grateful that she’d never given him an answer. At least he’d died with hope.
“I’m sorry, Richard, I’m so sorry,” she sobbed, but her words were muffled by her hands.
* * * * * * * * *
“Joe! Joseph!” Hoss put his heels to his horse, but the pinto carried the lighter burden and the gap between them lengthened. “Joe, stop!” If he’d been chasing anybody else, he’d have fired into the air, but that would mean nothing to Joe, because his brother knew there was no chance of Hoss shooting him.
Ahead of him, Joe veered off the road and started up over the rocks. “Slow down, you knucklehead!” Hoss shouted. Joe was riding far too fast for the terrain. If he didn’t watch himself—
As if it had heard the thought, the pinto slipped on the rock, dumping the rider before scrambling to right itself. “Joseph!” Hoss shouted. He forced himself to slow his mount as they negotiated the rocky ground, and he reined Chubby in just as Joe was getting to his feet.
“You dadblamed fool! You could’ve broken your stupid neck!” Hoss shouted as he grabbed Joe’s good arm.
Joe blinked, as much at the volume of the question as at the large red face close to his. “Settle down, I’m fine.”
Hoss harrumphed, “You coulda been killed.” When Joe didn’t respond, Hoss peered at him. “You weren’t tryin’ to—”
“No, of course not. I just—I—oh, hell, I don’t know. Is Cochise okay?” He pulled his arm from his brother’s grasp and bent to examine each of the horse’s legs. “I’m sorry, boy,” he murmured as he stroked the pinto’s flanks.
“Is he okay?”
“Looks like it.” Joe straightened and met Hoss’s eyes.
For a long minute, the brothers looked at each other without speaking. Joe swallowed hard, but he didn’t look away. Instead, he raised his chin. “All right—now you know. So let me go. Tell Pa you couldn’t find me.”
“I don’t know nothin’, and I’m sure as shootin’ not gonna let you go,” said Hoss. “And I ain’t lyin’ to Pa, neither.” Joe swayed slightly, and Hoss peered more intently. “You hit your head?” Joe shook his head, but he winced, and Hoss spat in disgust. “Can’t leave you alone for five minutes, can I? Come on!” He grabbed both sets of reins and led the horses up to where the trail forked and an overhang created a cool, shady spot. “Sit down,” he growled, thrusting a canteen into Joe’s hands. He loosened the horses’ cinches. He had a feeling this was going to take a while.
Joe was still standing, canteen in hand, when he turned back. “I thought I told you to sit down.”
“Joseph, I mean it.” He waited until Joe sat before he did the same. “Now, I want to hear it all. What’s your fault?” Joe’s gaze slid to the ground, and Hoss debated letting up on him. With Joe, there was sometimes a fine line between too easy and too rough. Rough was right when he did something stupid like he’d just done, but all of a sudden, it looked like the skittish critter might be back. So, he softened his voice just a little. “Joe, whatever it is, you need to tell me. Keepin’ it bottled up like this ain’t helping, but maybe sayin’ it out loud will.”
Joe was silent for so long that Hoss thought the skittish critter might have bolted. Just when he was about to try again, Joe said, “It was my fault.”
“The whole thing. It was all my fault.”
Hoss kept his voice level. “It was an Indian attack, Joe. It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t have anything to do with it.”
“We wouldn’t have been in that area if it wasn’t for me.” The words came out in a rush.
Hoss sat back, nodding at Joe to keep going. There was more, he knew. The boil had been lanced at last, and now the poison would flow.
“The night before, I got in this poker game, and I was doing real good. Folks kept buying drinks, and I kept winning, and next thing I knew, it was nearly sunup. I gave the bartender ten bucks to make sure Smitty knew not to leave without me, and I went on upstairs to sleep. Next thing I knew, Smitty was banging on the door, yelling that he was gonna lose his job if he waited any longer for me. I got myself out of there and down to the stagecoach—we must’ve been an hour late leaving, maybe more. And then—” He dropped his head, his voice lower. “I’d had an awful lot to drink and—well—we had to stop about three or four times for me to get sick. Mary Ann and Mr. Ziegler were real nice about it, but I could tell Smitty was getting madder and madder about how late I was making him. So I told him about that shortcut through the draw up by Butler’s Ridge and how he could make up all the time he’d lost and then some, and everybody was so happy that we were going to get to the fort early, and—” He broke off, and for a time, the only sound was the dry wind over the rocks.
Finally, he continued, “Afterward, I heard one of the soldiers talking about that damn fool driver and how could he have not known there were Indian warnings in that area. I hadn’t heard about any trouble there, but the soldier said they’d sent word to the stage line a whole week earlier and all the drivers should have known. I don’t know if they didn’t tell Smitty or if he was just so worried about being late that he figured it was worth a try, but we weren’t five miles in when—” His voice cracked, and he pressed his fist against his mouth. Wordlessly, Hoss handed him the canteen, but he shook his head.
“I didn’t even known what was happening,” Joe whispered. “I’d fallen asleep, and I never heard anything until all of a sudden, there was Mary Ann shaking me and screaming, and there were Indians all around the stagecoach.” His gaze was turned inward now, his words barely audible. “If I hadn’t been so hung over, I’d have wakened up sooner, and maybe we could have fought them off, but I was asleep and there wasn’t anybody else who could shoot because Smitty was trying to outrun them and Mr. Ziegler didn’t have a gun and they caught up with us, and Mary Ann and Smitty and Mr. Ziegler—all of them died because of. . . .” His last words dissolved as his big brother drew him close and he buried his face in Hoss’s shirt.
“Let it out, boy,” Hoss said, just as their pa would have. Let it all out, every last bit of it. Let out everything that had been gnawing like a rat, driving his mind into shadows and his heart into chaos. Everything that had kept him living and re-living the horrors of that day even as his companions rested in peace, freed from the sufferings that continued to torment him. Hoss held his brother as anguish and grief, shame and guilt echoed off the rocks. “That’s it, Joe,” he murmured. “Just let it out.”
At last, Joe pushed away. He turned from Hoss as he swiped at his wet face with his hands. Then, for the first time since he’d started talking, he lifted his head and looked squarely at his brother. Defiant, his reddened eyes searched Hoss’s face, challenging him to—what? Blame? Despise? Judge? Condemn?
Hoss handed Joe his bandana, waiting as Joe wiped his eyes and blew his nose. Then, he rested his hand on the back of his little brother’s neck. “Is that everything?” Hoss asked. “The whole story?” Joe nodded. “There’s nothing else?” Joe shook his head. “And you never told any of this to anybody? Not even Pa?” Joe shook his head again, and this time, he looked away.
“All right, then. I want you to listen to me, and listen good.” Hoss waited until Joe was looking back at him before he continued, “Everything you just told me—it don’t change a thing. What happened that day wasn’t your fault. You and me’ve been through that area a hundred times with no problem. You had no way of knowing about the Indians. And to be honest, Little Brother, from what those soldiers told us when we got to the fort to fetch you, it wouldn’t have mattered if you’d been sittin’ up top with Smitty and seen ’em when they first appeared—there was too many of ’em, and that coach was never gonna outrun them. You mighta killed a couple, but that’s about all you coulda done. Everything else that happened—you bein’ awake or asleep wouldn’t have changed a thing. They did some of the worst things a man can do, and there wasn’t a doggone thing you coulda done to change it.”
“But we wouldn’t have been there—”
Hoss held up his hand. “I know,” he said. “And it was real bad luck that Smitty decided to go that way, but you didn’t know there was anything wrong when you said it. You don’t get to blame yourself for that.”
“No buts, Little Brother. It wasn’t your fault.” He considered his next words carefully. “Joe, there ain’t a man alive who’s as strong as you think you shoulda been that day. I heard you tell it all in court, how they beat you and held you down with how many on top of you? Two? Three?”
“An’ they held that knife to your throat while they were torturing the others—” He touched the scar under Joe’s chin and pretended not to notice his brother flinch. “Nobody coulda saved those folks. Not you, not me, not anybody. You didn’t fail them, Joe. I swear it.”
“No.” Hoss’s voice was sorrowful, but he made himself sound firm. “No buts, Little Brother. Sometimes, there just ain’t nothin’ more a man can do than what he’s done.” He rested his hand on Joe’s shoulder, willing him to hear, to believe. “You did the best you could. Nobody coulda done better.”
Joe’s eyes searched his brother’s face for any sign of guile. His chin quivered, and he clenched his jaw, but he didn’t look away. Hoss waited, not speaking, as the skittish critter tested his words.
Suddenly, Joe scrambled to his feet. Hoss started to get up, but Joe held up his hand as he strode away, vulnerable and determined. The big man watched as his brother disappeared over the rocks and out of sight. From nowhere, the familiar words echoed: if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us. . . .
He heaved himself to his feet, scanning the area for anything that could be used to build a fire. Might as well make coffee while he waited, he reasoned. As he searched for water and bits of wood, his mind followed the young man who was clambering over rocks. Joe had finally found the courage to confess. Absolution from his brother wasn’t enough, though. He still had to face the one who judged him more harshly than anybody else.
Hoss knelt by a small watering hole and filled the coffeepot. It all made sense now. Haunted by all that had happened, Joe must have tried at first to escape by slamming the door on the part of his mind that insisted on reliving that day. Typically stubborn, he would just refuse to think about it, and eventually, it would fade into the past and leave him in peace.
But the dead had refused to be shut away so neatly. First, they stole into his sleep, begging him to rescue them; then, they began to invade his waking hours. Day and night, he saw and heard and felt it all again. How the others had struggled, screamed, pled for mercy. How hot their blood had been when the Indians tossed scalps at him as though playing some macabre game. How cold the blade had been against his throat as he fought to escape his captors’ iron grip. How helpless he had been to stop the torture, the suffering, the violent, pointless deaths.
The family had always teased Joe about his “knight in shining armor” tendencies. Somehow, the notion had taken root in his mind that everyone would have been alive and well if only he hadn’t been so careless, so selfish. As if the tragedy itself wasn’t enough, his grief became intertwined with the paralyzing conviction that he had failed Mary Ann and Mr. Ziegler and Smitty. Despite his struggle to move forward, there had come a time when he simply could not bear to remember any more, and his mind began to escape into the shadows. . . .
Hoss squinted in the direction his brother had gone. Joe would never lay their ghosts to rest until he could see plainly the terrifying truth of that day and admit that there was nothing he could have done that would have changed anything, saved anyone. Only then could he hope to find peace, to relinquish his anguish and guilt over their suffering, their deaths.
And his own survival.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Hoss whispered into the wind. “You did everything you could.” Unexpected tears filled his eyes, and he let them fall, hot and free, as he recalled Joe’s descriptions of a bubbly young girl on her way to be married; an old man with a wry sense of humor; a stagecoach driver who wanted to do his job well. Good people, all of them. Instinctively, he knew that they would never have blamed his brother for their terrible fate.
Later, there had been a wealthy young lady on her way to visit her lover, and a frightened man with a scar. Once again, Joe had failed to save them. No matter that it hadn’t been his fault, or even that there had been those he did save: Sun Mao, Nate Miller, Cody. The knight in shining armor was supposed to save everyone, always.
“It wasn’t your fault, Little Brother,” Hoss said again into the wind. “There’s nothing you could have done to change what happened. I swear, it wasn’t your fault.” He stood still, coffeepot in hand, willing his brother to hear, to trust, to understand. To believe.
The sun had passed the midday peak and was beginning its downward trek to the west before he saw Joe coming back over the rocks. He couldn’t have said just what it was, but as his brother came closer, he could see that something was different. Something about the way he moved, the way he held himself—straighter, maybe, or taller. He had an instant of panic as he realized Joe might be in a fugue. How had he let him go off on his own when there was a chance of that? What kind of a brother was he? He’d gone completely on instinct, respecting another man’s need to be alone, and he hadn’t even considered whether it was safe.
“Joe!” He tried not to sound frantic as he waved his hat, and when Joe waved back, he blew out his breath in relief. “You dang fool,” he muttered. He poured out the last of the coffee into a second cup as he waited for Joe to climb over the last of the rocks.
Joe accepted the cup with a grunt of thanks. Hoss ignored the way his eyebrows raised slightly at the offering. The brothers stood by the fire, neither speaking as they finished their coffee.
Finally, the cups were empty. Hoss kicked dirt over the fire and pretended not to watch as Joe packed up the coffee pot and cups. There were a dozen things he wanted to say, but he didn’t know how. At last, he settled on the simplest one: “You ready to go home?”
Joe stood still as though considering the question. Then, he nodded. “Yeah,” was all he said, but in that one word, Hoss heard the answer to everything.
* * * * * * * * * *
Something wasn’t right. Marcus couldn’t have said how, but he knew it in his gut. His plan hadn’t worked.
He’d watched from his window in the hotel as the posse gathered in front of the sheriff’s office at dawn. Carson and Edwards were riding with the posse, and they would be sure to make plenty of comments about rich folks always getting away with murder and how, if they weren’t careful, old man Cartwright would just buy another jury like he did last time. Hopefully, they’d be able to turn the posse’s mind to the argument that nearly always carried the day: did they really want to go to the trouble of hauling a murderer back to town, only to see him go free so that he could kill again? Everybody knew about that murder trial last fall; it wouldn’t take much for folks to start to see Joe Cartwright as a murderer who kept getting away with it because his family was powerful and rich.
If Carson and Edwards did their job well, not even old Sheriff Coffee himself would be able to stop that mob.
Marcus had frowned slightly when he saw only a half-dozen men gathered. A group that size was going to be harder to whip up into a frenzy—not enough people to agitate. Besides, even a mediocre sheriff could control a small posse, and someone with Roy Coffee’s attitude and experience would be difficult for Carson and Edwards to overcome.
Marcus decided to trust them. They’d handled tougher jobs than this.
But by late afternoon, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. He told himself he was overreacting. After all, they had to find Cartwright before they could hang him. Since nobody knew where he was, the search could take days. The fact that they hadn’t yet ridden in with the body tied face-down across his horse didn’t mean that they’d failed. It just meant that the job was a little tougher than they’d anticipated, and maybe he should think about a bonus for them when they succeeded.
After dinner, he strolled along the board sidewalk, smoking his cigar and eying the town with more satisfaction than he’d known since Elias’s death. They weren’t going to get away with killing his brother. They would pay, every last one of them. All the ones who had gathered for a holiday as his brother swung in the coolness of the early morning—they would all watch as Joe Cartwright was brought in just like any other murderer. They would gather at the cemetery, just as they had this morning when the lawyer was buried, but this time, they would point and whisper behind their hands about how you just never knew. . . .
The sound of a fast rider caught his attention. He looked up to see Carson swinging off his horse and looking around. Marcus stood still, waiting for Carson to see him; as soon as the man spotted him, he nodded and proceeded to the hotel.
He was barely in his room when Carson burst in. “There’s a problem,” the dusty man said without preamble.
Marcus set his cigar in the ashtray. “What problem?”
“The sheriff doesn’t believe it was Cartwright.”
Marcus considered this statement for a long minute. “How do you know?”
“I heard him talking to the deputy—real quiet, like he didn’t want anybody else to hear. Deputy said something about Cartwright and his fugues, and the sheriff said it wasn’t a fugue.”
“Did he say why not?”
“He said there was a witness who said that the killer had talked to Palmer before he shot him, but that Joe Cartwright never talks when he’s in a fugue.”
Marcus swore. He got up, paced back and forth several times, and swore again. Damn it all, he should have known that. The day Cartwright had gone to the jail to see Elias, Marcus had demanded to know what the so-called invalid was doing there, and the sheriff had said that he hadn’t asked because Cartwright couldn’t talk since he was in a fugue. Damn it all to hell. How could he have made such a basic mistake? Damn, damn and double damn.
“Does he think Cartwright killed Palmer without being in a fugue?” Marcus asked when he’d stopped pacing.
Carson shook his head. “It didn’t seem like it,” he said. “Edwards said that Cartwright’s brother used to court Miss Simmons and Cartwright probably didn’t like Palmer stealing his brother’s girl, but Coffee wouldn’t hear of it. Said it was obvious Edwards didn’t know the Cartwrights at all if he thought Little Joe was capable of something like that.”
“That’s what he called him. Sounded like it was his favorite nephew or something.”
Marcus drew on his cigar. If the sheriff didn’t believe Cartwright had killed Palmer, why had he bothered to raise a posse and spend a day riding around this godforsaken country looking for a man he thought was innocent?
“Is Edwards still with the posse?” At Carson’s nod, Marcus said, “All right. Go on back. If you find Cartwright, kill him. I don’t care how you do it. Just make sure he’s dead.” He ignored the slight question in Carson’s eyes. The man wouldn’t understand anyway. He didn’t have a brother.
In the next instant, he made up his mind. He knew Cartwright hadn’t made it home yet, because Piper and Watson would have killed him and come on in. So there was still time for Marcus to get there first.
A smile spread across his face. “One more thing,” he said. Carson paused at the door, waiting. “Before you go back to the posse, we need to go to the cave.” Carson’s eyebrows raised, and Marcus nodded.
When Cartwright came home, he’d find the surprise of his life. The last surprise of his life.
* * * * * * * * * *
Jiang Xi picked up the plate of nearly-untouched food without comment. Anna nodded her thanks and pretended not to notice the girl’s glance.
She was being foolish. If there was one thing she should have learned by now, it was that life was too short.
Richard knew that. He took a chance to go after the woman he loved, and even though it hadn’t worked out, at least he tried. He died knowing he’d done his best.
Anna stood so abruptly that she nearly turned her chair over. All right, then. She would marshal all her best, most persuasive arguments. She would be compelling, eloquent, passionate. And somehow . . . somehow . . . she would convince Hoss that what they’d shared wasn’t finished.
She pulled the blue wrap around her shoulders. “Jiang Xi!” she called. The girl appeared in the doorway. “I’m going out to the Ponderosa.”
There was no more time for pride or stubbornness. She would stand before him and tell him that she still loved him. The worst he could do was to tell her she was too late, that he didn’t love her, but at least she would know she’d done all she could. She wasn’t going to wait another day. She couldn’t risk losing him. Not if there was a way not to.
Life was too short.
* * * * * * * * * *
Light glowed in the window overlooking the porch as the brothers rode into the dark yard. “Looks like Pa and Adam are back,” Hoss said as they dismounted.
“And they’ve got company,” said Joe, nodding to the buggy and the unfamiliar horses tied to the hitching rail.
“Wonder what’s going on,” Hoss mused. He handed Chubby’s reins to Joe. “Put the horses up. I’ll see what’s happening.” He pulled his saddlebags off the horse’s back and headed for the house as Joe led the horses into the barn.
Joe had just loosened Chubby’s cinch when the first gunshot cracked. An instant later, two answering shots and a woman’s scream split the night.
“Hoss!” Joe grabbed his gun with his right hand and ran for the house where the front door stood wide open. He burst into the main room and froze at the sight before him.
Blood. Hot. Violent. Brutal.
Then, his vision cleared, and he saw Anna across the room in the blue chair, wild-eyed, her mouth a silent O, bound hands clutching one of the chair’s arms. A man lay slumped against the stairs beside her, blood staining his face as it dripped from the bullet hole just below his no-color hair. A man who could have been his twin stood by the hearth, his face expressionless, his gun pointed at Joe.
Not five feet from inside the door, Hoss lay motionless on the floor behind the settee, his eyes closed. Blood from one wound dripped across his brow, and from another stained his thigh and the dark boards beneath.
“Drop your gun, Cartwright,” said Marcus Tucker.
“I’ll kill you, Tucker,” snarled Joe. He tossed the gun as short a distance as he dared.
“Oh, I doubt that very much.” Tucker sounded like he was enjoying himself. He picked up Joe’s gun and tucked it in his waistband. “You see, Mr. Piper is an excellent shot. A lesser man would have killed your brother, but Mr. Piper has only wounded him so that he won’t miss anything.”
“Miss anything? What are you talking about?” His attention was torn: he knew he should be watching Tucker, but he hadn’t seen Hoss move. . . .
“Joe,” managed Hoss. Relief swirled through Joe. He knelt beside his brother, only to have Tucker plant his boot against Joe’s right shoulder and shove so that he landed heavily on his splinted arm.
“You’ll move when I say to,” the bespectacled little man said as Joe sucked in his breath, steeling himself against the lightning bolt of pain that shot up his arm. “Step away from him.” He gestured with the muzzle of his gun. When Joe didn’t move, Tucker said, “We’ve already had one would-be hero get shot for doing something stupid. It would be a shame to make Miss Simmons watch it happen again. The difference is that this time, Mr. Piper wouldn’t just be shooting to wound.”
Joe glared as he slid away from Hoss, still remaining low. “What are you doing here, Tucker?”
“Why, I’m here to see justice done, Mr. Cartwright,” said Tucker genially. “I have to admit, though, that I didn’t think you were going to be so obliging as to deliver yourself into my hands so quickly.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Go away, you lunatic. My brother needs help.
“Mr. Palmer’s untimely death, of course.” Tucker’s thin lips spread into a smile.
“What the hell—?” He barely glanced at the little man: the puddle of blood beneath Hoss’s leg was spreading.
“You murdered Mr. Palmer,” Tucker said. “Shot him in cold blood. He was buried this morning.”
“Talk sense, Tucker,” Joe snapped. He didn’t want to be distracted from Hoss, but Tucker’s words had gotten his attention.
“It’s true,” said Tucker. “Miss Simmons can tell you. Miss Simmons, tell Mr. Cartwright what happened to your intended.”
“He wasn’t my intended,” Anna protested absurdly, as though the accuracy of this lone detail was what mattered. To Joe, she said, “Someone came into the office yesterday and killed Richard.”
“I was present,” Tucker said. “I ran from Miss Simmons’s office outside, and I saw you running away.”
His mouth went dry. Oh, God, no. Not again. Not again. “I wasn’t—I didn’t—Anna, I swear—” The room began to spin. His heart pounded. For an unending moment, he teetered on the edge of believing. And then. . . .
“Joe.” The whisper was barely audible, but it was enough. He looked at Hoss, who shook his head slightly as he mouthed, “No.”
No. He blew out his breath silently. Of course not. He hadn’t been in Virginia City yesterday. There had been no fugue, no killing. Not this time.
Firmly, over the thudding of his heart, he announced, “I wasn’t anywhere near there yesterday morning,” He swallowed hard, licking his lips. “I was on my way to Placerville. By sunrise, I was ten miles from here in the other direction from Virginia City.” He allowed himself a quick glance at his brother, who nodded his confirmation.
“That’s not what the sheriff thinks,” Tucker was saying. “He’s got a posse out looking for you now. He thinks you were having a fugue and that you killed Palmer because Miss Simmons was going to marry him instead of your brother.”
Joe regarded Tucker for a long moment. Then, puzzlement gave way to cold certainty as the pieces fell into place. When Joe spoke, his tone was smooth and sure with a glint of steel as sharp as a dagger. He stood and looked Tucker dead in the eye. “You’re a liar.”
“Joe.” Hoss’s warning was faint.
“Oh, no, Mr. Cartwright. There is indeed a posse looking for you even as we speak. And yes, Mr. Palmer is very dead. Ask Miss Simmons—she saw him. He was shot right in the middle of the forehead.” The little man’s smile widened slightly at Anna’s gasp, and Joe’s temper flared.
Barely controlling his anger, Joe spat, “You lied to the sheriff about me. I want to know why.”
“Lie, Mr. Cartwright? I don’t know what you mean. I’m a law-abiding citizen. I simply told the sheriff what I saw.” The man seemed to be enjoying himself. “Of course, since you and he are such good friends, I was concerned that he might be a trifle slipshod in his hunt for you, and so I took it upon myself to come here. I assumed that, sooner or later, you would return to hearth and home so that your rich daddy could buy his pretty boy another acquittal. After all, that is the way of the world when a man is favored with wealth and appearance, isn’t it?” A harsh edge had crept into his voice, but he caught himself and smoothed out his features as if they were having a pleasant discussion about the weather. “So, we’re going to have our own trial right here. It will be for you just as it was for my brother. I shall be the judge, and when your guilt has been proven, I will pronounce sentence.”
Tucker stood over Hoss, looking down at him with a mixture of pity and glee. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I know just how you feel. I had watch to my brother on trial for his life, and I had exactly the same concerns you do. And just to let you know that I understand, I’m going to have Miss Simmons here defend your brother, just as she did mine.” A smile spread across his round face as his gaze fell on Anna. “Let us hope that she can do a better job for your brother than she did for Elias.”
“My brother’s bleeding,” Joe interrupted. “Let me tend to him.”
“Now, why would I do that?” Tucker asked.
“Because—because—” Because it would be the decent thing to do. Because he’s my brother and he’s hurt. He’s bleeding. He could die if I don’t help him. For the life of him, Joe couldn’t think of a single reason that a man like Marcus Tucker would accept.
“Because you want Hoss to suffer,” Anna cut in with a meaningful look at Joe. “You want him to watch this little charade you have planned. If Joe can’t stop the bleeding, Hoss will pass out, and then he’ll miss everything and half your fun will be gone.”
“Hmmm.” Tucker stroked his receding chin as he considered her words. “An excellent point, Miss Simmons. Very well, Mr. Cartwright. You may not only bind up your brother’s wounds, but you may move him off the floor. Miss Simmons is right. I’d hate for him to miss your trial.”
“I need to get the bullet out of his leg,” Joe said. “Otherwise, he could die.”
“Don’t push me, Mr. Cartwright,” said Tucker. “As long as he doesn’t bleed to death, I’m sure he has hours left—perhaps even a day or so.” He turned to the man whose gun had remained trained on Joe. “I’m going to the kitchen to collect something for Mr. Cartwright to use in his last humanitarian act,” he said. “If any of these fine people should attempt to escape or do something heroic while I’m gone, kill Miss Simmons.” He waited until Piper’s gun was pointed at Anna before he nodded to Joe and strode into the kitchen.
A short time later, a bandage had been wrapped around Hoss’s brow to stop the bleeding of what had proven to be only a crease. Hoss’s thigh was wrapped with half of a sheet Tucker had found in Hop Sing’s scrap basket, and Joe had half-carried him to the settee as Piper’s gun remained trained on Anna. Without so much as a glance at Tucker, Joe tucked a pillow beneath Hoss’s head and covered him with the rough red Indian blanket. As he straightened, he saw his brother’s dark blood congealing on the floor, and hot acid filled his throat.
I’ll get you out of this, he promised Hoss and Anna silently.
He crossed his arms. “Now what?”
Tucker appraised him. “You don’t look much like a prisoner,” he said at length. “Piper, your neckcloth.” The other man untied his neckcloth with one hand, never moving the gun from its target. Tucker took the neckcloth and gestured to Joe with his gun, he said, “Come here.” With a quick glance at Anna and Piper’s gun, Joe approached Tucker, glaring. “Turn around and put your hands behind you.” Joe obeyed, and Tucker tsked. “What is this?” He unfastened the splint and tossed the sticks into the fire. “You won’t be needing that,” he said as he tied Joe’s wrists with the neckcloth. “Turn around.” He nodded approvingly. “I think we’re ready. Miss Simmons, call your first witness.”
“I don’t know what you want me to do,” Anna began, but Tucker cut in.
“I want you to try this case,” he said. “You’ll try the case, or we’ll proceed straight to the execution. Which do you prefer?”
Joe caught her eye and nodded slightly. Not that he had any idea what she could do, but if anybody could stall for time, it was a lawyer. He watched as she bit her lip slightly. Then, she rose, tossing her head as though her hands weren’t tied, literally as well as figuratively.
“I call Mr. Piper to the stand,” she announced.
Piper looked at Tucker, the question plain on his face. “Take the stand,” Tucker said, clearly amused by this turn of events. Uncertainly, Piper approached Anna, who instructed him to sit in the blue chair and raise his right hand.
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” she asked.
“I do.” His eyes darted toward Tucker again.
“State your full name and address.”
“Walt—Walter Piper. I ain’t got an address. I move around a lot.”
“How long have you known Marcus Tucker?”
“Um, four years.”
“Describe your relationship to Marcus Tucker.”
“Uh—I work for him.”
“Objection!” called Tucker. “This has nothing to do with Cartwright murdering Palmer.”
“Goes to credibility,” said Anna. She thought of pointing out that Tucker couldn’t be both prosecutor and judge, but she decided to let that pass. Joe was edging slightly closer to Tucker, so she turned back to Piper to draw their captor’s attention away from Joe. “Answer the question, Mr. Piper.”
“I do whatever he tells me to do,” said Piper.
“What kind of things has he told you to do?”
“Objection! Irrelevant! Don’t answer that question!” Tucker interrupted.
“Has he ever told you to shoot anyone?” Anna continued as though Tucker hadn’t spoken.
“Mr. Piper, I would remind you that you’re under oath and that we all heard Mr. Tucker’s statement to you of a few minutes earlier. I ask you again: has Mr. Tucker ever told you to shoot anyone?”
“Did he tell you to shoot Richard Palmer?”
“Did you kill Richard Palmer?”
“Shut up!” Tucker grabbed her arm.
“Let go of her!” Joe lunged, head-butting Tucker away from Anna. The little man lost his balance and tumbled to the floor with Joe on top of him. Piper seized Joe, yanking him to his knees and pressing the barrel of his gun against Joe’s head.
“No, Piper,” said Tucker as he got to his feet. “That’s not the way we’re going to do it.” He sneered at Joe. “I’ll be right back. I think it’s time to bring in our little friend. Piper, make sure Cartwright doesn’t go anywhere.”
“Sure.” Piper tightened his grip on Joe’s jaw, the gun barrel buried in Joe’s hair.
Tucker dusted himself off. With a disgusted look at Anna, he went outside. Moments later, he returned with a small wooden box which he set carefully on the table.
“Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce my little friend,” he said as he lifted the lid off the box. He reached in, rummaging among the straw until he found what he sought. He drew out a clear glass vial filled with clear liquid. A cord was tied around the vial in a long loop.
“Mr. Cartwright, a present for you,” he said. He draped the cord around Joe’s neck. “Now, I suggest that you stay very, very still. The contents of that little vial are very volatile.”
Joe froze. Anna’s hands flew to her mouth. On the settee, Hoss’s eyes widened.
Tucker smiled in delight. “Yes, my friends,” he said. “It’s nitroglycerin. If Mr. Cartwright should have another unwise idea, it will be his last—and all of yours as well.” He chuckled.
“Why?” Hoss’s voice was barely audible. “Why’re you doin’ this?”
Tucker raised his eyebrows in mild surprise. “You’re awake,” he said. “How delightful. I’d have hated for you to miss everything.”
“Why’re you doin’ this?” Hoss repeated.
“Now, now,” said Tucker, wagging his finger. “Surely you understand a brother’s feelings. After all, if it were my brother’s fault that your brother died, you would want revenge.”
“Wasn’t Joe’s fault.” Hoss’s voice was growing weaker.
“Hoss, take it easy,” Joe instructed. To Tucker, he said, “You gotta let me take that bullet out. If that was your brother there with a bullet in him, you’d want somebody to save him.”
Tucker considered this. “You’re probably right,” he said at length. “But you see, my brother is already dead, so it hardly matters now.”
“But you’re trying to kill both of them,” said Anna. “Two deaths to pay for one.”
“Not just one,” said Tucker. “You’re forgetting about Mr. Palmer. One of the brothers pays for Elias, and the other for Mr. Palmer.”
“But Joe didn’t kill Richard,” Anna protested.
“My dear Miss Simmons, are you calling me a liar?” Tucker tsked.
“Of course not,” she said with a quick glance at Joe. “But everything happened so fast, and you only saw the killer from the back—everyone would understand if you said you’d made a mistake.”
Tucker chuckled. “You really are quite a lawyer, aren’t you?” He considered Joe, still kneeling, and Hoss lying on the settee. “Since I’m a generous man, I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “Two of you can stay here. The third will come with Mr. Piper and me to a place where—well, let’s just say it’s a place where that person will stay for the rest of his life.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Joe.
Tucker’s grin widened. “An execution, Mr. Cartwright,” he said. “Not as public as my brother’s, but that’s unavoidable. I’m afraid that if we did it in Virginia City, the sheriff might not understand.”
“You’re going to hang one of us?” Out of the corner of his eye, Joe saw Anna put her bound hands to her mouth.
“No, not a hanging,” said Tucker, as casual as though he were discussing what to have for dinner. “I thought of that, but as I found when my brother was murdered, hanging leaves the family with so many other issues—they must take the body to the undertaker, arrange for the burial, attend the funeral. It’s a great deal of trouble at a time when people are already very upset. So, I have something much simpler planned that obviates all of that.”
“What?” Anna’s voice trembled.
Tucker gestured toward the vial. “Whoever comes with us will be wearing the nitroglycerin,” he said. “And I don’t expect that it will take too terribly long for the nitro to do what nitro does. When it does—that’ll be that. There will be no remains, nothing to bury. The wearer will simply disappear from this earth as if he was never here at all.”
“Then let’s go.” Joe got to his feet as though unaware of Piper’s gun still trained on him.
“So fast? You don’t want to discuss it among yourselves?” Tucker raised an eyebrow.
“Joe, you can’t,” said Anna in a low voice.
Joe move closer to her. “Who’s going to go? You? Don’t even think about it,” he added as she opened her mouth. “You’ve got to stay here with Hoss.” His voice dropped. “He’s going to need you.”
“Joe.” Hoss’s voice was even weaker. “Can’t. . . .”
“Yeah, Big Brother, I can,” said Joe. He approached the settee, and when Tucker didn’t stop him, he sat on the edge of the table. “Listen, I’m coming back, but if—if something happens, you’ve gotta promise me something.” His eyes were dark and intense. “Promise me you two are going to get married.” He turned back to Anna. “Give up all this foolishness and be happy together.”
“Cartwright, what are you talking about?” Tucker demanded. “Why would Miss Simmons marry your brother?”
“Because they’re in love,” snapped Joe. “Not that you’d know anything about loving someone. All you know about is hate and revenge.”
“Joe, don’t,” Hoss whispered.
Tucker looked from Anna to Hoss and back. All at once, he seemed disconcerted, as though some basic fact he’d always believed, like water is wet, had just been proven incorrect. He pointed first to one, then to the other. “You two?” To Anna, he said, “You love him?”
“With all my heart,” she said, but she was looking at Hoss when she spoke. “I always have,” she added.
“And the two of you are going to get married?” Tucker still seemed confused.
“If she’ll still have me,” Hoss murmured. He held out his hand. “Will you marry the biggest dang fool on the Comstock?”
“No, but I’ll marry you,” she breathed. When Tucker appeared too stunned at this information to stop her, she ran across the room and leaned over Hoss, kissing him for the first time in far too long.
Then, they broke apart. At the same moment, they turned to Joe, who sat motionless, the vial hanging from his neck.
Anna stood. “Please, Marcus,” she said. “Don’t take Joe away from us.” Her voice dropped, becoming more intimate. “You know what it’s like to lose someone you love. Don’t do that to us.”
Tucker pulled himself from his reverie. “You think I should just forget about my brother’s death, is that it?”
“No,” she said. “We’re all terribly sorry that things turned out as they did. The notion of an innocent man hanging—” She broke off at the unexpected snort of laughter from across the room. They all turned to Piper, who was adjusting his expression.
“Piper!” Tucker snapped.
“Sorry,” said Piper.
Joe looked sharply from Piper to Tucker. “What does he know?” he asked.
“He knows my brother was a good man,” said Tucker, fixing his accomplice with a cold stare.
Joe watched Piper, who was once again stone-faced. “Does he?” he asked. “Or maybe he knows something else. Maybe he knows that your brother didn’t kill Eleanor Gunther, but that he killed somebody else? Maybe even a lot of somebody elses. Is that it?”
“Be careful, Cartwright,” said Tucker. He reached toward the cord around Joe’s neck, pursing his lips with disdain.
“That’s it, isn’t it? That’s what got you so mad—not that your brother wasn’t a killer, but that he hanged for the wrong killing. All this time, I felt so bad that an innocent man had died, and it turns out he wasn’t innocent at all. He was a killer, just like you.” He shook his head in wonder. “Who did he kill, Tucker? How many people did your brother kill?”
“Joe.” Hoss’s voice was faint.
“Joe, don’t,” said Anna.
“Shut up, Cartwright!” Tucker was on his feet, fists clenched. “You’re coming with me, now! Piper, you take care of these two.”
“You said you’d leave them if I came with you.” Joe fought to hide his sudden panic.
“I changed my mind,” Tucker snapped. He grabbed Joe’s arm. “Let’s go.”
“No,” Hoss murmured. “Me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Tucker. “You’re not going to live out the day. If I was going to take one of you two, it would be her.”
“Then take me,” said Anna suddenly. “I’ll go with you.”
“Anna, you can’t!” Joe burst out.
“I can,” she said, moving closer to Tucker. She dropped her eyes, looking at him through her lashes as she favored him with her special smile that never failed to charm the most indifferent of men. Remarkably, Marcus seemed transfixed, and she continued, “You and I could go away together, just the two of us. We could go to San Francisco and live in style.” She stroked Tucker’s arm with her bound hands, and he let go of Joe without seeming to realize that he did so. Her deep blue eyes held his pale ones as she continued, “We could have a beautiful house right on Nob Hill, and we’d have dinner parties and entertain the cream of San Francisco society. . . .” Her hands ran down his arm as she spoke, her soft voice mesmerizing the pudgy little man.
In the next instant, she’d yanked Joe’s gun from Tucker’s waistband. Gunshots erupted, and Anna screamed as Piper fell backward, the dark red stain appearing instantly on his dirty gray shirt.
“You whore!” Tucker spat as he jerked the gun from her hand. “You never liked me. You were just—” He glared at her, at Hoss and then at Joe. To Anna, he said, “I should kill you, but I’m not going to. Better you should live a long and miserable life, because this one—” he gestured to Hoss “—will be dead before morning, and when you hear the explosion, you’ll know that this one—” he yanked Joe’s arm, and Anna gasped “—is dead, too—blown into a million tiny pieces.” To Joe, he said, “Say your goodbyes, Cartwright. It’s time to go.”
“Joe.” Tears spilled down Anna’s cheeks. Hoss reached out his hand as though Joe could grasp it.
“I’ll be back,” Joe promised. He ignored Tucker’s snort of derision, meeting first his brother’s eyes and then Anna’s. “I’m coming back,” he repeated.
“Let’s go, Cartwright.” Tucker gripped Joe’s upper arm tightly and propelled him to the door, where he paused just long enough to sneer at Anna and Hoss. “Listen for the explosion,” he said.
And with that, he shoved Joe out the door ahead of him, slamming it closed behind them.
* * * * * * * * *
Anna stroked Hoss’s hair with a trembling hand. She’d heard the hoof beats as horses left the yard, and she closed her eyes to hold back the tears. There wasn’t time to act like a girl now.
At least Hoss had been able to untie her hands. Tucker had been so certain of Hoss’s imminent death that he’d never bothered to tie the big man’s hands. Tucker had seriously underestimated her beloved’s strength.
The bandage around his leg was growing wet with blood. She’d have given anything if they were in town, but they weren’t. There was no one to send for a doctor, and no time anyway. If she left him here and rode like the devil, she might still be too late.
“Can you hear me?” she asked. He nodded slightly, his eyes closed. “I’ll be right back,” she said. “I’m going to find something else for your leg.”
“Kitchen,” managed Hoss.
“Bandages are in the kitchen?”
Hoss nodded. “And knives,” he said. “Gotta get the bullet out.”
Anna had never been punched in the stomach, but at the moment, she felt as though a fist had slammed into her midsection, forcing all the breath from her body. “Are you sure?” she managed after what seemed an eternity. When he nodded, she confessed, “I’ve never done anything like that before—I’ve never even seen it done.”
“I’ll tell you what to do,” Hoss said, but his voice was so weak she had to bend close to hear him.
Minutes later, she was in the yard, drawing water from the well and praying desperately for someone, anyone, to come along and help. She was a lawyer, not a doctor. Never in her life had she cut into human flesh. She’d heard that this was the kind of thing that happened out west—people did for themselves and managed as best they could, and when there were no doctors they just handled things themselves. Still, never in her wildest dreams had she ever imagined that the day might come when she would be slicing into her beloved’s body to hunt for a piece of lead before he bled to death.
She hauled up the bucket and set it on the side of the well to unhook it. On tiptoe, she leaned over to reach the hook, but it was too far. When she tried again, she lost her balance, and for an instant, she thought she would fall, but she caught herself on the side. Her heart pounded as the unhooked bucket fell down into the well, and she stepped back, closing her eyes for an instant.
All right, then. There wasn’t time to get flustered. She ran into the kitchen and retrieved one of Hop Sing’s largest kettles, which she carried back out to the pump. Frantically, she pumped until it was full, only to find that it was too heavy to carry. She spilled out some of the water and hauled it inside, barely managing to get it up on the stove.
The stove. Hop Sing would have kept it going all the time, but he was out of town. She poked around, finally finding Hop Sing’s supply of kindling, and she got the fire started. Then, she covered the pot and stood back, fighting fear as she reflected that she’d now finished the only task in this entire procedure that she actually knew how to do.
Think, Anna told herself firmly. Think like a doctor.
All right, then. She yanked drawers open until she found the knives. None of them looked particularly sharp, but Hop Sing kept the whetstone on a side table. She considered the choices, selecting one with a narrow blade as long as her hand. She had no idea how a cook would use it, but it looked like a reasonable choice for—for other things, she amended hastily, not willing to dwell on its immediate purpose.
Water, knives—what else would they need? Alcohol. Bandages. Towels. She poked through every cabinet, every drawer, until she found a shelf in the pantry that bore a tray of medical supplies—soft white cloths, several small bottles with labels she’d need more light to read, tweezers and other items that bore witness to the frequency with which somebody on the Ponderosa needed doctoring.
She set the tray on the table and lifted the lid to check on the water. Not even warm. Well, watching wouldn’t speed things along.
The cloths weren’t very large—just the size of regular hand towels. Not nearly big enough to fit around Hoss’s muscular thigh. She’d have to find something else. She went back through all the drawers and cabinets again, but she found nothing else that seemed to be intended for that use. All right, then. With a silent apology to Mr. Cartwright, she took one tablecloth from the drawer, and then another. They were bigger than she needed, but she could always cut them up if necessary.
A groan from the living room pulled her attention away from the tablecloths. She darted out of the kitchen to find Hoss trying to sit up. “What are you doing? Lie down!” she scolded. “What do you need? I’ll get it.”
Hoss shook his head. “Water,” he murmured.
“Fine, I’ll get it,” she said. “Just lie down.” She held her hand against his face to see whether he was running a fever, even though barely two hours had passed since he was shot. She didn’t know much about medicine, but she couldn’t imagine the wound getting infected this soon. Then again, she had no experience with bullet wounds, and maybe it was possible. In any event, his face was cool, and she allowed her hand to linger there as she breathed a silent prayer of thanks.
She fetched a glass of water, holding it steady as he drank. Then, she set the glass on the table and helped Hoss to lie back. “Do you need anything else?” she asked, smoothing back his hair.
“Leg,” he murmured, and she saw that the bandage was saturated. For a moment, all she could see was blood—Hoss’s blood, his very life, draining out of him. She started to sway, and she closed her eyes.
Then, she felt his hand gripping hers. “Sit down,” he whispered. “Deep breaths.”
She forced a smile. “I’m all right,” she lied. She gave his hand a quick squeeze and went back to the kitchen, where she loaded everything that fit onto the tray. Tucking the tablecloths under her arm, she returned to the main room and deposited everything on the low pine table.
She surveyed the array. “I’ll be right back,” she said, returning moments later with a pair of scissors and two more tablecloths which would serve to cover the bodies of Tucker’s henchmen. The notion of moving them was simply not something she was equipped to deal with right now.
“If Hop Sing yells about the settee, tell him it was my fault,” she said with deliberate lightness as she unwrapped the bloody sheet and revealed the rusty stains on the upholstery. “Now, don’t move or I could stab you.” As carefully as possible, she cut through Hoss’s trousers and drawers as high up as she could manage. Then, she slit the fabric down to the cuff and slid the pieces off.
“You gotta take my boot off,” Hoss instructed, his voice faint.
“Why?” His leg didn’t look swollen below the knee. Still, she supposed it was possible that it could swell up, or something else could happen. There was no question that he knew more than she did about tending bullet wounds. In any case, she’d never gone wrong trusting him.
He didn’t seem to have heard her question, so she just said, “Hold on.” As Hoss grasped the settee, she tugged until she got his boot off. “Are you all right?” she asked. He nodded, but his face was white, and she leaned over to kiss him. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’ll try not to hurt you again.”
His eyes were bleary with pain, but remarkably, he smiled. “As long as you don’t leave me,” he said. “That’s the only thing you could do that’d hurt me.”
Tears welled up in her eyes, and she kissed him again. “Then I’ll never hurt you again.”
“Good.” He squeezed her hand, and for that moment, she was able to convince herself that somehow, everything would be all right.
* * * * * * * * * *
Joe could feel Tucker looking at him, but he kept his gaze steadfastly ahead. He didn’t know what game the little man was playing, but he was damned if he was going to participate.
Surely it was the cold night air that made gooseflesh rise on his arms, rather than the deadly vial resting against his chest.
He knew by now that although Tucker was smart, he was in this thing far over his head. He was too accustomed to having people like Piper to handle details, and now little things were tripping him up.
Even the fact that they were in a buggy bore testament to Tucker’s incompetence. Out in the yard, he’d told Joe to mount up, apparently forgetting he’d bound Joe’s hands behind his back.
“Can’t,” Joe said. When Tucker looked startled, Joe shrugged ever so slightly.
He waited in insolent silence for Tucker to untie his hands. With each moment that Tucker stood motionless, so clearly at a loss, Joe felt his temper rise. As soon as Tucker untied him, he would fling the nitro as far as he could. Then, he would beat the stuffing out of this sick, twisted bastard who might have cost Hoss his life.
Just when it seemed that Tucker would have to bow to the inevitable, the little man spotted the rig that Anna had driven out from town. “Get in,” he snapped as though this had been his plan all along.
Irked, Joe glared. “If I lose my balance climbing up there with no hands, we’ll both die right here.”
Tucker glared right back. Then, he grabbed Joe’s upper arm and roughly assisted him into the buggy.
Now, they’d been driving for what seemed like hours—it was hard to tell with the trees blocking the moon. Another fool decision on Tucker’s part—taking the buggy meant they had to stay on the roads, where they might encounter somebody who could help.
As if he’d heard Joe’s thoughts, Tucker suddenly steered the buggy off the road. The jolt of the rough ground was so unexpected that Joe shut his eyes as though that could protect him from an explosion as the vial bounced off his chest.
“Are you insane?” he shouted. “Stop!”
Almost genially, Tucker reined in the team. “So I have your attention,” he said. “That’s good to know.”
“You idiot! You almost killed us both! Or don’t you care whether you die?” The thought hadn’t occurred to Joe before, but somehow, it was even more chilling than the notion that Tucker would arrange for Joe to be blown up by himself.
“I care,” said Tucker blandly. He climbed down from the buggy. “Get down.”
“You have to help me,” said Joe, hating the words. The last thing in the world he wanted was help from this snake, but he’d be no good to Hoss if he died now.
Tucker sighed as though Joe was asking something utterly unreasonable, but he helped Joe disembark from the buggy. “Over here,” he said, not releasing Joe’s arm.
“What about the horses?” Joe asked. He was gratified when Tucker stopped. Clearly, Tucker was accustomed to having others, such as the two men he’d had with him at the house, take care of details.
He could feel Tucker’s eyes on him, but he refused to meet them. Then, Tucker released his arm and drew Joe’s gun from his waistband, moving behind him while Joe rolled his eyes as though annoyed at the little man’s incompetence.
“After all this, you’re just going to shoot me in the back? You could have done that at the Ponderosa.”
“Be quiet,” said Tucker. Joe felt him pull up the cord holding the vial, tying it off so that it rested just below his collarbone. Then, Tucker began tugging and pulling at the neckcloth binding Joe’s wrists, and Joe took small satisfaction in the fact that the little man couldn’t seem to get the knot undone while holding the gun. For what seemed a very long time, Tucker fussed with the knot. Finally, he grunted in satisfaction, and Joe’s hands were free.
Before Joe could move, though, Tucker said, “I still have a gun, Cartwright, and it will be pointed at you at all times. The first time you try anything, you will die. And don’t get any ideas about getting rid of the nitro. You can’t possibly get that cord over your head now—it’s too short, and you’ll die trying.” He allowed his words to settle before he added, “Now, take care of the horses. Put them right over there,” he added, gesturing with the gun barrel to a copse of trees.
“If one of those horses throws his head in my direction, we’ll both die,” Joe pointed out. “You and me, that is—not me and the horse.” He was gratified to see that Tucker looked discomfited at this revelation.
“Then, I suppose you’d do well to keep them under control,” Tucker said after a minute.
Jackass, Joe thought. He was half-tempted to say it aloud, but he forced himself to stay silent. He needed to get help for Hoss, and getting himself shot wasn’t the way to do it.
Mindful of the gun aimed at his back, Joe tended the horses as he’d done nearly every day since he was old enough to walk. He tried to make the task take longer, but the truth was that there was little to do. He took the horses down to a small stream, but the old adage about leading them to water proved to be inconveniently untrue—these horses drank as though they hadn’t done so in days, finally blowing out their lips in horsy satisfaction. Joe took as long as he could disassembling the harness and reins for a tie-line, but eventually, the leather lay in a heap at his feet and he could feel Tucker’s impatience. Moving as casually as he could, he rigged up the tie-line between two trees and tied up the horses.
Finally, he turned around, facing the man squarely. “Now what?”
“Bring the buggy down here,” said Tucker. “We don’t want it to be seen from the road.” Gesturing with the gun, he indicated a place under the trees. Joe cursed under his breath as he placed himself between the horse shafts and bent to take hold.
The pain shooting through his left arm gave him an idea. He gasped, dropping the shafts and clutching his arm. “I can’t,” he said, shaking his head as though he’d been seeing stars. He held up his arm. “Might have been able to before, but you took off the splint. It’s not healed enough. It won’t hold.” He stood still, willing Tucker to believe him. The truth was that the horse shafts weren’t all that heavy, and he was pretty sure he couldn’t rebreak his arm just by straining it even on something a lot heavier, but he was betting that Tucker didn’t have enough experience with either buggies or broken bones to know this. If this little dandy had ever broken his arm, he wouldn’t have been lifting so much as a teacup.
Tucker stared at him for what seemed to be a long, long time. Even in the moonlight, Joe could almost see him weighing, calculating, the same way Adam did when he was faced with a problem. Have to move the buggy, keep Cartwright from getting away, keep him from getting the gun, keep him from blowing us both up, keep from getting discovered.
Yeah, you got a lot of problems, all right, Joe thought. And you brought every last one of them on yourself, you sick bastard. He stood still, offering nothing as his captor wrestled with the immediate situation.
“Over there,” said Tucker finally, gesturing for Joe to move to the outside of the shank. “No, the other one,” he snapped when Joe deliberately moved to his right. Joe moved so that he was on the outside of the left side of the buggy, watching warily as Tucker moved to the outside of the right side.
“We’re putting it down there,” Tucker said, gesturing down the slope with the gun barrel. Then, he took hold of the shank on his side with one hand as he kept the gun trained on Joe with the other. “Let’s go.”
Glaring daggers in the darkness, Joe lifted the shank with his right hand. All right, maybe Tucker wasn’t as stupid as he’d thought. That didn’t mean he was going to win. He couldn’t. Joe wouldn’t let him.
His brother’s life depended on it.
* * * * * * * * * *
He couldn’t remember a bullet wound ever hurting this much. No question about it—the bullet had cracked the bone. It would be weeks before he was on his feet.
She was wiping his face with a cool, wet cloth, but she didn’t need to. Just the sight of her, the sound of her voice—that was all he needed. The memory of her words when Tucker asked if she loved him: With all my heart. I always have.
He reached for her, and she took his hand, holding it against her lips. “You’re going to be all right,” she said, and her voice was as sweet and low as it had been in his dreams every night during all these months apart.
But it wasn’t that simple. “Joe,” he managed. Joe was out there somewhere with that madman, and there wasn’t a thing they could do about it.
She dipped the cloth in the bowl and wrung it out before pressing it against the crease on his forehead. “He’ll be all right,” she said. “You know Joe. He’s like cat with nine lives. He always finds a way out of trouble.”
“But that Tucker fellow. . . .” Hoss’s voice trailed off. His memory was foggy, but he knew there’d been gunfire, fighting, and nitroglycerin.
“I know,” she said, and he knew she did. “But Joe said he’ll be back. He’s going to bring help for you.”
She sounded so sure, but she had to know. . . . “You really think so?”
“He promised,” she said. “Now, you need to rest.”
But he couldn’t. He needed to know she wasn’t just patting him down. She’d seen everything, and she wouldn’t lie to him. So he took her hand and held it until she met his eyes. “You really think Joe can get away from Tucker an’ get back here?”
“Listen to me,” she said. “This is Joe we’re talking about. I may not know everything about him, but I know this much. If he said he’ll come back, he’ll do everything in his power to get back.”
Hoss swallowed hard. He’d once worried because she’d doubted Joe. How foolish his worries seemed now. “You believe that,” he said, and it wasn’t quite a question.
She nodded. “I do,” she said. “Because he promised you. And for the people he loves, Joe Cartwright would storm the very gates of hell.”
Hoss considered this. She was right, of course. But it didn’t guarantee that his little brother would come back alive.
The pain washed over him again, and he gritted his teeth as he closed his eyes. He felt the cloth on his face and heard her gentle voice, but as the blackness descended, the last thing he could see was his little brother, shaking the bars of hell and demanding that they let him go.
* * * * * * * * * *
As they trundled the buggy down the rise until it wasn’t visible from the road, Marcus watched Cartwright out of the corner of his eye. Arrogant son of a bitch: one good arm, a vial of nitro around his neck, and his brother dying, and still he acted as though Marcus didn’t know what he was doing.
It would have served him right if Marcus up and shot him right now. If he’d been confident that the posse was out of earshot, he might have done just that.
Truth was, he wasn’t entirely certain why he hadn’t already killed Cartwright. That had been his original plan: have the mock trial for the Palmer murder, find Cartwright guilty, and kill him then and there. Save the nitro for another day, and just hang Cartwright on the tree over by the barn so that his old man would see him when he came home.
But then things started going wrong. Maybe it was watching Cartwright trying to protect his brother and the girl. He’d dealt with Cartwright’s type before—somebody always had to be the hero—but there was something about seeing it play out in front of him this time that was almost disconcerting. So, he’d raised the stakes by bringing in the nitro, but if that fazed Cartwright, he gave no sign. Instead, Joe Cartwright sat on that table, the vial hanging around his neck, blithely promising his injured brother that he’d return when he had to know damned well it would never happen, and the next thing Marcus knew, he wasn’t watching the Cartwright brothers at all. . . .
For long days and longer nights, as they waited to see whether Elias would lose his eye, Marcus sat beside the child’s cot. With gentler fingers than anyone would have expected, he smeared the charred skin with the smelly ointment the blacksmith had reluctantly left for them; the big man had grumbled about what would happen to him if he burned himself, but a maimed, terrified child was apparently more than he could walk away from. As his little brother sobbed in pain and fear, Marcus held Elias’s hand, apologizing over and over for not watching him better. Nothing else—not the blacksmith’s shouts, not his mother’s screams, not even the return of his drunken father—meant anything to Marcus. Ignoring his father’s shouts of “whore” and his mother’s shrieks of pain as Pa’s fists rained down on her, Marcus stayed with his little brother, promising Elias that everything would be all right—even though, like Joe Cartwright, he knew he was lying.
So maybe that was what had thrown him off balance. Or maybe it was this startling news about Anna Simmons being in love with the big Cartwright, the one you’d never think could find any girl at all. The notion that somebody who looked like that could win a woman like Anna Simmons had definitely caught Marcus off-guard. That was why he’d believed her—just for an instant, but yes, he’d believed—when she spoke of going off to San Francisco with him. If she could love Hoss Cartwright, who was big and plain and rough-spoken—if she chose a man like this over the handsome Mr. Palmer—then just maybe, she could love Marcus Tucker.
But within seconds, his hopes were dashed, and he hated her most of all. That was why he’d left her alive. Her beloved would die, Joe Cartwright would die, and there she would be, left alone to spend a lifetime grieving.
He should have killed both Cartwrights right then; he knew that now. True, they’d both end up dead, but it would have been much more efficient just to shoot them and be done with it. Of course, that was normally Watson’s job, and Watson was dead. So was Piper. Two useful men gone. If only he hadn’t sent Carson back to join Edwards in the posse—
“Tucker!” Cartwright hissed, stopping dead.
“What? We’re putting it over there,” said Marcus, annoyed.
“Don’t move.” The words were barely audible, as though Cartwright thought there was someone who might overhear.
“Cartwright, I’ve still got the gun right here—”
“What are you—”
Marcus felt his stomach drop. Without thinking, he dropped the buggy shank. “Where?”
Silently, Cartwright pointed. Marcus squinted, but he saw nothing except blackness. He was about to ask again when he heard the rustling near the stream. He squinted harder, and he thought he saw something moving.
“Shoot it!” hissed Cartwright.
“I can’t see—” But the rustling sounded closer.
“Give me the gun!”
“Are you insane? You’ll just shoot me and run away!”
Cartwright swore. “Shoot, damn you!” When Marcus hesitated, Cartwright grabbed for the gun. Instinctively, Marcus squeezed the trigger, and a howl from near the stream let him know that the bullet had found its mark.
“There? Are you satisfied?” But the words were barely out of Marcus’s mouth when he heard a growl, fierce and furious.
“You only wounded it! Finish it off, now!” Cartwright ordered.
Marcus raised the gun, but he could barely hear the growl over the pounding of his heart. Squinting into the darkness, he aimed at what seemed to be the blackest shape, pulled the trigger—
—and heard the click of the hammer against an empty chamber.
“I’m out of bullets!” Frantically, he tried to remember whether he’d had the presence of mind to throw Piper’s and Watson’s saddlebags into the buggy, but before he could sort it out, Cartwright was grabbing his arm.
The black shape was definitely closer now. Marcus threw down the gun and lit out after Cartwright.
“Where are you going?” Marcus panted as they headed up a steep hill. Cartwright didn’t bother answering. Probably he was more concerned about not jostling the nitro. Good thinking,Marcus conceded.
Panting, he slipped and slid on wet grass and pine needles as he tried to follow Cartwright. Behind them, he heard growling and crashing, and he knew that the bear was gaining. Vaguely, he recalled something about grizzlies being slower when they were going uphill, but this one didn’t seem to be having difficulty with the climb.
“Up there!” He could barely make out Cartwright pointing to a tree.
“I can’t!” To his own ears, Marcus sounded like Elias, his voice high-pitched and breathy.
“Damn it, Tucker, come on!” Remarkably, Cartwright ran back down the hill and grabbed his arm, practically dragging him to the tree. “Get up there!”
“I can’t!” But he was reaching up even as he protested, and Cartwright was shoving him from underneath until his fingers closed around the branch. “Wait!” he called as his arm knocked his glasses to the ground. Cartwright swore and shoved again, and then, miraculously, his pudgy body was balanced on the branch, arms and legs wrapped around it as he strained in the darkness to see anything at all.
The crashing and growling were closer. He felt the branch shake as Cartwright climbed past him, and he closed his eyes as if it would make any difference at all. From far above him, he heard Cartwright shout, “Hold on!”
Marcus clung to the branch an instant before an explosion rocked it. Moments later, he heard the crackling of branches from above. His own branch cracked and broke off as something large struck it, and everything crashed to the ground.
For what seemed an eternity, he gasped for the breath that had been knocked out of him. Then, as he regained his breath, he realized that he heard nothing. No growling. No crashing. No Cartwright. Even the songs of the peepers had ceased.
Slowly, he lifted his head and squinted into the darkness. “Cartwright?” No answer. “Cartwright!” He waited, and when no response came, he got clumsily to his feet. “Cartwright!” He took a step, and another, and then he tripped over something larger and softer than a branch. He dropped to his knees, and even in the dark, he knew what he’d found.
* * * * * * * * * *
Long years as a lawman had taught Roy Coffee how to waken instantly, from deep sleep to full alertness. He sat bolt upright, eyes darting back and forth, even before the last rumble of the explosion ceased.
“Come on, men!” he barked. “Let’s ride out!”
* * * * * * * * * *
Hoss’s eyes snapped open. There it was. The distant rumble he had dreaded, had feared above all else.
Anna was reaching for him. After she’d gotten the bullet out and bandaged his leg, she’d pulled Pa’s chair up beside the settee. For the rest of the night, he’d drifted in and out of sleep, feeling her light, loving touch on his shoulder, his face, his hand. But now, she was out of the chair, kneeling beside the settee.
It couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be. He’d been shot. He was running a fever. He was delirious. He was out of his head. Soon, the fever would break, and he’d see Joe standing beside him, grinning that lopsided grin and telling a whopper of a tale about how he’d escaped.
But Anna was holding his hand against her cheek. Her cheek, so soft—it was wet, like she’d been crying. Crying for Joe.
But Joe was coming back. He’d said so.
That stupid, ornery little fool. I’ll be back, he’d promised. He’d had stood here just hours ago, defiant and angry as Tucker tried to destroy their lives. With a gun trained on him and a vial of nitroglycerin around his neck, Joe had vowed that he would return.
He’d made a promise, and Joe didn’t break his promises.
The world started to spin, and time tumbled backward. Hoss saw the red-faced baby he’d held in his arms when he was six years old, and the curly-haired toddler who’d tagged everywhere after him, and the stubborn little boy who wanted to do everything his big brothers did.
He saw the skinny kid who got in more trouble at school than his big brothers combined, and the scrappy teenager who rode like the wind on horses Pa didn’t know he was riding.
He saw the young man whose green eyes and crooked grin had charmed all the girls, and as he tried to make himself understand that he would never see that grin again, the fiery slash of agony in his heart was like nothing he’d ever felt.
“Joe,” he whispered. He searched Anna’s face, and she nodded, tears spilling down her cheeks.
It wasn’t right. Joe had tried so hard. He’d tried so hard to live through the aftermath of that massacre. And now, just when it seemed like he might really make it, a madman had stolen that chance.
No more Joe. It was unthinkable.
“Little Brother.” His voice broke.
And in the moment before Anna took him in her arms, Hoss understood that he’d really never believed this day would come.
* * * * * * * * * *
Marcus wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting there, but Cartwright still hadn’t moved. In the gray light of dawn, he looked like he was dead. Marcus wasn’t sure why, but a frisson of fear ran down his spine at the thought.
What’s the matter? It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?
It was, but suddenly, it wasn’t. He couldn’t have explained it, but for the first time he could remember, he wanted Cartwright not to be dead.
He moved over next to where Cartwright lay. He reached out, then drew his hand back. He watched, willing the other man to move. Finally, he reached out and shook Cartwright’s shoulder.
“Cartwright! Wake up!”
Tentatively, Marcus rested his fingertips on Cartwright’s neck. Just as he thought he’d felt something, the other man’s eyes fluttered open.
“Cartwright! Are you all right?” A stupid question, but it was all he could think of.
Cartwright coughed and cringed. “Are you all right?” Marcus asked again.
The other man lay still as though considering the question. Then, he tried to shift his body. “Help me sit up,” he managed. Marcus did as requested, but he wasn’t at all sure it was a good idea when Cartwright doubled over.
“What is it? What did you do?” Marcus asked.
“Arm,” said Cartwright between clenched teeth. Marcus looked at the arm Cartwright had favored the night before, and he felt the blood drain from his face when he saw it bent in between the wrist and elbow.
“No, I mean—what—where’s the grizzly? What did you do?”
“Threw the nitro.” The words were more breath than voice.
For a minute, Marcus felt again as though the breath had been knocked out of him. “You damned fool,” he managed finally. When he thought of everything that could have gone wrong with such an idiotic plan—a bad throw, the cord getting caught on a branch, the cork coming out of the vial—that the bear was dead instead of them was sheer providence and no mistake about it. For the first time in longer than he could recall, Marcus Tucker tasted gratitude.
Cartwright was trying to stand up, but he wasn’t having much success. “Sit down, you fool!” Marcus snapped as though he were speaking to Elias again. He pushed Cartwright to sit down. “Let me see your arm.” Without waiting for an answer, he tore the jacket sleeve, unbuttoned the shirt cuff and pushed back the sleeve. “Oh, God.” Marcus turned away, his stomach rebelling. He hadn’t expected to see bone poking through the skin.
He turned back to see Cartwright breathing heavily. His face was dotted with sweat, and he was trying to stand up again. “Would you just sit down!” Marcus ordered.
“Can’t,” said Cartwright. “Hoss needs help.”
“Hoss. Gotta get help.” Cartwright lurched to his feet and began stumbling down the hill.
“What the—are you insane?” Marcus hustled after him. “How are you planning to get help? What do you think you’re going to do?”
“Dunno.” Cartwright didn’t seem inclined to waste breath on conversation.
“Cartwright—get back here!” But Cartwright wasn’t stopping, and after a minute, Marcus threw up his hands and followed. The man had no gun, no nitro, no weapon of any kind. Besides, he’d probably pass out before he got to the bottom of the hill. Might as well let him get down under his own steam. Marcus could figure out what to do then.
As they slipped and slid down the hill, Marcus found himself thinking about this strange man who was Joe Cartwright. Back at the house, the fellow had tried to save his brother and Anna Simmons by fighting Marcus, and Marcus knew Cartwright would have killed him then if it hadn’t been for Piper.
Then, Cartwright had volunteered to go away with Marcus to protect his brother and the girl. Marcus understood that; in fact, while he’d never have said so, he almost admired that choice.
But then came the part that didn’t make sense: Cartwright helping Marcus escape from the grizzly. Why had he bothered with Marcus? He could have just slipped away as soon as he saw the bear; after all, Marcus hadn’t even known it was there. Granted, Marcus still had the gun and maybe that kept Cartwright from trying anything, but once the gun was empty, he could easily have escaped—there was no question that Cartwright could have outrun Marcus, leaving him behind as bear bait. Instead, Cartwright had dragged Marcus away from the buggy and up that hill, and then he’d shoved him up into the tree before climbing up himself.
As he stumbled down the hill, Marcus turned the notion over and over in his mind, trying to figure out a logical explanation. Instead, he kept returning to the same perplexing fact: Joe Cartwright, who had less reason than any man on earth to care what happened to Marcus Tucker, had risked his own life to save the man who had probably killed his brother.
It was taking much, much longer to get down the hill than it had to get up. Of course, they weren’t running this time. Plus, Marcus didn’t have his spectacles any more, and Cartwright was barely on his feet, stumbling and bumping into trees. He’d staggered around the one the nitro had felled, not even seeming to notice when his green jacket snagged on its branches until Marcus released it. How that fellow thought he was going to get help for his brother was anybody’s guess. Even with the buggy, it was a long ride to anywhere, and it was clear that Joe Cartwright wasn’t going to make it much farther.
The sound of horses echoed through the early morning. “What the—?” Then, his stomach lurched, because he knew who it was.
Cartwright had lifted his head. “Hey!” he shouted as loudly as he could, which wasn’t very loud. “Hey!” He picked up his pace, lurching down the hill and waving his good arm. “Hey!”
“Cartwright!” Marcus called. “Shut up!”
If Cartwright heard him, he gave no sign. “Hey! Over here!”
Maybe it was the wounded brother, or the grizzly, or the tree . . . Marcus didn’t know why, but suddenly, he had to stop Cartwright from going out there. He knew in his gut that what he’d heard was the posse that was supposed to be a lynch mob. He tried to run, but he lost his footing on the dew-soaked grass and landed flat on his back. “Cartwright, you fool, don’t do it!” he shouted as he struggled to his feet. “Stop! Don’t go out there!”
“Hey!” Cartwright was yelling as he emerged from the trees into the clearing. “Over here! Roy! It’s Joe! Joe Cartwright!”
“Little Joe?” Dear God, it was the sheriff. Carson and Edwards were with him. It would be over before anybody could stop them.
As Marcus burst into the clearing, he shouted, “Cartwright! No!” Running faster than he ever had, he lunged toward the man who was now stumbling toward the posse.
And in the split second before he heard the shot, Marcus caught a glimpse of the rising sun glinting off Edwards’ red hair as he lifted his rifle to take aim at Joe Cartwright.
* * * * * * * * * *
Anna stirred at the sound of hooves in the yard. Her eyes felt scratchy and swollen, and her chest ached. She’d forgotten what it was like to cry so hard it hurt.
Instinctively, she looked to see whether the sound had disturbed Hoss. That he’d been willing to take whiskey at all was a sign of how much his leg was hurting, because she knew he’d never have taken anything to dull the other pain. Nothing could ease that pain anyway.
She heard voices in the yard. At first, she couldn’t make them out, but then, she heard Mr. Cartwright’s distinctive baritone, and agony squeezed her heart at the thought of having to tell him what had happened. She knew she should get up, should go to him and tell him, but she couldn’t. Let him have just another minute or two of blessed ignorance. It wouldn’t change the news, but once he knew, he could never again not know. Let him have a few more moments before that horrific anguish took over his life.
The door opened, and Ben came in. He took in the sight before him—Anna in his chair, bodies draped with tablecloths, blood on the floor. He saw the grief in her face, and he went pale as she rose.
“Mr. Cartwright,” she began, but he was already leaning over the settee.
“Hoss,” he breathed. “Hoss.”
Hoss’s eyes opened slightly. “Pa.”
“Oh, thank heaven.” He held Hoss’s hand to his face. “Are you all right, son?”
“Pa,” he murmured again. There was commotion in the yard, and Anna heard Adam’s voice and the sheriff’s among others. She rested her hand on Hoss’s arm and shook her head slightly. Better to tell them all at once.
“Is he all right?” Ben asked Anna over the clack of boots crossing the wooden porch.
She nodded. “I got the bullet out of his leg last night, but the doctor should probably still look at it.” She stroked Hoss’s hair, and their eyes met.
“You took the bullet out?” Coming in the door, Adam sounded mildly surprised.
Anna nodded without looking up from Hoss. “Hoss told me what to do, and I did it.”
From the doorway came another, lighter voice. “I hear there’s some tribes up in the Dakotas where you take a bullet out of a man, and that means you’re married.”
Anna froze. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible. And yet—
“Anna,” whispered Hoss, unbelieving. More afraid than she’d ever been, she forced herself to look up, and—
—there in the doorway, bedraggled but whole, stood Joe Cartwright.
Hoss was struggling to sit up. “Joe?” he called.
“I told you I’d be back,” Joe said, trying to sound nonchalant, but his voice was unsteady. He leaned on Adam as he made his way across the room. “Hey, Big Brother, how’re you doing? Is he okay?” he added to Anna.
Her tears spilled over as she nodded, clutching Hoss’s hands. “He’s okay,” she tried to say, but her voice broke. She shoved Ben’s chair back so that Joe could get to Hoss. She wanted nothing more than to fling her arms around the young man, but Hoss needed him more.
Adam eased Joe in between the settee and the table. To Hoss, he said, “Glad to see you’re all right.” Hoss grinned at his older brother, but he was reaching for Joe, who took his hand.
“You big galoot,” said Joe. “What’re you trying to do to her? She’s a lawyer, not a doctor.”
“Just get your sorry carcass over here,” said Hoss. He reached up for his brother, and Joe sat on the very edge of the settee and gave him the biggest one-armed hug he could give a man who was lying down.
“We heard the explosion.” Hoss’s voice was shaky.
Joe nodded. “I figured as much.”
“You sure you’re okay?”
Joe held up his splinted arm. “It’s a long story—but yeah, I’m okay. What about you?”
“Just fine now,” said Hoss, his eyes glistening.
Joe turned to Anna. “What about you? Are you okay?”
She leaned down and gave him the biggest hug a woman could give a man who had only one good arm. “I’m fine,” she whispered. “Absolutely fine.”
* * * * * * * * * *
“For the love of Pete, would you tell me what you’re doing here?” demanded Joe.
Anna looked up from the contract on her desk. “I could ask you the same question, you know,” she said. “I thought the best man was supposed to be taking care of the groom.”
“Well, since Adam’s sort of co-best man, we figured he’d take care of Hoss, and I’d come and round you up.”
“And just what made you think I’d need to be rounded up?” asked Anna. She crossed out a line and made a note in the margin. “There, that’s done.” She looked Joe up and down, smiling. “You look quite handsome,” she said approvingly.
“And I’m sure you’ll make a lovely bride if you ever get yourself dressed so I can take you out to the Ponderosa,” said Joe.
“There’s plenty of time,” she said. “My dress and all my things are already out there. All I need to take out to the ranch is myself.”
“Well, then, let’s go,” said Joe. “The buggy’s right outside.” Gallantly, he offered her his right arm. His left arm was finally out of its cast and sling, but it still hurt more than he was willing to let on. He had a suspicion that Hoss had noticed him favoring it, but for once, his big brother hadn’t fussed.
Joe pulled the door closed behind them. Then, he turned to grin at her. “What?” she asked, unable to resist smiling back.
“I remember the day you first came to Virginia City,” he said, helping her into the buggy. “It was a spring day, and we all thought you were the most beautiful woman we’d ever seen.”
“I remember,” she said. “You and Adam were falling all over yourselves to impress me, and Hoss was—Hoss.”
“Yep,” said Joe. He clucked to the horse. “That’s the great thing about Hoss. He’s always just Hoss. The best there ever was.”
“I know,” Anna said reflectively. She let her mind wander through her memories of him. Such an incredible man, and she’d come so close to letting him get away.
She watched Joe as he drove. There was a peace about him that she hadn’t seen in a long, long time. As Joe and Hoss convalesced, the two brothers had spent many hours in Hoss’s room with the door firmly closed. No one else knew for certain what they’d been discussing, but in the weeks since that awful night, Joe’s nightmares had all but ceased, and his fugue episodes seemed to be nearly gone. Whether it was because of something said during these long private talks, or whether it was simply that the time had come, no one could say. All they knew was that, at long last, Joe Cartwright was healing.
Nobody knew why Marcus Tucker had done what he’d done, either. Two days afterward, when Doc had decreed Joe well enough to answer questions, Roy Coffee came out to the Ponderosa. He described the scene of that morning: Joe emerging from the trees, barely on his feet as he waved and called to them. Marcus Tucker yelling at him not to do something. Out of the corner of his eye, Roy saw one of the men in the posse raise his rifle. Before Roy could do more than start to shout, he saw a most amazing thing: Tucker leapt, flinging himself at Joe and knocking him to the ground just as the shot rang out. Roy shouted and drew his gun, and within moments, the red-haired man was dead. Then, Roy got himself off his horse and ran faster than he’d have thought possible to the place where Tucker and Cartwright lay.
“Never would have thought it,” he’d marveled, shaking his head as he regarded Joe Cartwright, who sat in the blue velvet chair, his arm properly splinted and held in a sling. “If you’d asked me, I’da sworn Marcus Tucker couldn’t do something like that, but I seen it with my own two eyes. If he hadn’ta shoved Little Joe like he did, woulda been Joe who’da got killed instead of Tucker.”
“I guess you just never know what goes on inside a man’s head—or his heart,” Ben said, and they all pretended not to hear the trembling in his voice. Marcus Tucker had almost cost him two sons, but in the end, they were all here, together.
Perhaps the strangest marvel was that with everything happening that night, it didn’t appear that Joe had ever gone into a fugue. Ben Cartwright attributed it to divine protection, and Adam opined that since the fugues had always been random, it was just as likely that he wouldn’t have one that particular night. But Anna had caught Hoss and Joe exchanging a look, and it was clear that there was something they weren’t saying. She didn’t mention it, though. After all, any good lawyer knows that there are times not to ask questions.
As they rounded the last curve and started down the hill toward the house, she reflected that there was a time when it would have upset her that Hoss didn’t take her into his confidence about the conversations with Joe. It didn’t bother her any more, though. There was a closeness between those two brothers that she’d never seen anywhere else, but she understood now that it didn’t take away at all from Hoss’s love for her. It wasn’t a matter of his choosing Joe over her or vice versa. His heart was big enough for both of them.
It seemed only moments later when they pulled into the yard. They could hear Hop Sing screeching about something or other, and Hoss’ booming bass sounded so plaintive that they knew the groom had been caught dipping into the food.
Joe reined in the team and turned to Anna. In a low voice, he said, “Promise me something.” At her nod, he said, “You promise you’ll take good care of my brother, okay?”
She nodded. “I promise,” she said. In a way, she felt as though she was taking a vow here, with Joe: I do solemnly swear that I will take the best, most tender, most loving care of my beloved, your brother, ’til death do us part. Green eyes met blue, both glistening, and she knew he understood.
Then, she tossed her head and laughed. “Come on, Shortshanks!” she said. “Let’s get going. I’m getting married!”
Joe laughed. “I should’ve known you’d pick that up sooner or later!” He jumped down as Ben came out of the house. “Hey, Pa, your daughter-in-law’s here!”
“Well, go keep your brother in the kitchen so he doesn’t see the bride before the wedding!” Ben patted Anna’s hand as Joe darted into the kitchen. A moment later, his good-natured shouts had joined the cacophony.
Hoss’s rich, beautiful voice rang forth from the kitchen. Joy bubbled up inside her, and she laughed. I love you, she called to him silently. She loved him, and he loved her. Such a breathtaking gift. A miracle. A sacred trust, awe-inspiring and humbling.
“Welcome to the family, my dear,” Ben said. He reached up to help her from the buggy, and moments later, she stood on the soil of the Ponderosa. Her beloved’s home, and now hers, forever and ever, as they built their life together. Blessing upon blessing, wholly undeserved and all the more magnificent because of it. She looked up at Hoss’s father, and the glow in his eyes told her that he understood exactly how she felt.
She was home.
* * * * * * * * * *
First, please join me in extending a heartfelt THANK YOU! to Harper. She has invested countless hours reading and commenting on the various versions of this story, and she’s spent many late nights discussing and dissecting various aspects of the myriad drafts she’s reviewed–not to mention the untold number of times she’s had to answer the question, “Does this work?” It is not hyperbole to say that without her, this story would never have been. Thank you, my friend. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Second, if you enjoyed this story and wish to leave a review, I’d love that, but I have a request: please don’t give away any of the surprises, including Joe’s secret, Hoss and Anna’s reconciliation and marriage, Elias Tucker’s innocence, who really killed Eleanor Gunther, and Marcus Tucker’s final sacrifice. Some readers read reviews before they read the story, and I know they’d join me in asking that you let them find out these things for themselves. Thank you.
Third, I have taken liberties with certain purportedly factual aspects of this story, including, but not limited to, the practice of law by women in Nevada in the 1860s and certain medical practices and treatments. Dissociative disorders, including dissociative fugues and amnesia, are indeed real disorders; however, I have taken some liberties with the manner in which such disorders typically manifest themselves. To those readers who have willingly suspended their disbelief on such issues, I thank you for your indulgence.
Finally, the quote that Marcus Tucker read the first time he was in Anna Simmons’ office is taken from State of Alabama v. State of Georgia, 65 U.S. 505, 512-13, 23 How. 505, 16 L.Ed. 556 (1859).
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.