After Adam and Joe take an early spring ride up into the mountains, Joe comes home alone with fragmented memories and a haunting fear that Adam might never come home at all. A story told in two voices: Joe’s and Adam’s.
Rated: T WC 24,000
Ruby Lips and White Satin
A week. How could I lose a whole week? I remember going up the mountain, but…not coming down. I can see myself leaving the yard. I can feel the saddle beneath me as Cochise picks his way carefully up the trail. I can smell the crisp scent of spring in the high country, where snowmelt is spilling over rocks and gullies, filling shallow creek beds, threatening flood.
I smell something else, too. Something heady, like…too much perfume.
No…not perfume. Or…maybe…maybe some. It’s flowery. Sweet. But…that’s not all I smell. There’s something else, too…like medicine. It makes me gag. I try to turn away, but…it’s always there, in front of me.
“Let him go!”
Adam? His voice is the first thing I hear. The only thing, maybe. I hear him calling through the dark, but when I open my eyes again, I can’t see anyone. There’s water nearby, trickling over rocks.
No…trickling from a pitcher to a glass. And it’s Pa beside me, not Adam.
Yeah. I made it home. Only…I keep getting sick. Keep…falling asleep, too. But I made it home. Only….
Adam didn’t, did he? No. He’s up in the mountains somewhere. Hoss and Sheriff Coffee went up there to look for him, but they won’t find him. I know they won’t find him. Because…because of the ruby lips and white satin.
They took him. I don’t know why, but…they took him.
“Adam!” I sit up fast. Too fast. All that heady perfume and medicine swirls around me and makes me start gagging again. Pa thrusts a basin toward me in time to catch whatever might come up. But all that’s left is dry heaves. Dry heaves, a sick stomach, a pounding headache…and the image of ruby lips and white satin mixing with the sight of blood on the snow.
“They took him.” My voice sounds raw.
“Joseph?” I look into Pa’s eyes and see that I’ve failed him. “Are you remembering something new?”
I can’t face him…can’t face the hurt, the worry. I’m worried, too, but I can’t do anything about it. I can’t tell the difference between memories and dreams. I remember opening my eyes and seeing ruby lips and white satin, but I don’t even know if it was real. And…and blood on the snow.
When I turn away from Pa’s worried eyes, my attention is drawn to the upholstery. I see red and white lines and wonder if all I’ve been imagining is just another vision of this old settee. Were these red lines the ruby lips I keep remembering? These white ones the white satin?
“Blood.” The word comes out before I even know why. “On the snow.”
“Joe,” Pa takes my chin, gently pulling my face toward him again. “Tell me what you remember.”
Then it hits me. “Ruby.” Yes. It was a name, wasn’t it? It was her name.
Pa’s eyes widen slightly, but I can’t share his hope.
There was someone else. A man…. “Mac?”
“That’s good, Joe.” Pa sits on the edge of the low table in front of me. He’s excited, but I…I’m still worried.
“This baby brother of yours will sleep like a baby or like the dead. It’s your call Adam.”
“Adam.” This time when I say his name, it’s just a whisper. And I can’t look at Pa anymore. I’m looking inside myself instead…focusing on memories that might not be memories at all. “They…used me to get him to do what they wanted.”
“What was that, Joe? What did they want him to do?”
“Admit it, Adam.” Ruby’s voice is soft…playful. “You don’t want to stay stuck in this god-awful cattle country any more than I do. Come with us and the world will be yours. Or stay here and let this pretty little baby brother of yours pay the price. Either way, Mister Ben Cartwright’s gonna have one less son tonight. I’ll let you decide which son that’s gonna be. And why he’s not going home.”
“He didn’t want to go.” I try to look at Pa again, but I can’t. “They said they’d kill me if he didn’t.”
“Where, Joe? Please. You must remember something about what they expected Adam to do for them.”
But…. “I don’t. The medicine. And…my head.”
“Easy, son. It’s all right. Just wait until you’re feeling better.”
But it’s not all right. It’s all jumbled. All these dreams and memories. Someone hit me. I saw blood on the snow. And then they just kept spooning medicine into me, or…sometimes they made me breathe it, too, didn’t they? I couldn’t wake up. Couldn’t fight. Couldn’t even tell Adam to tell them to go to Hell. I couldn’t do anything but lay around like a rag doll until…until they weren’t there to give me any more of that dang medicine.
“He went with ‘em, Pa. They…took him.”
“We’ll find Adam, son. Don’t worry. We’ll find him.”
I wish I could be as sure about that as Pa. But I can’t be. Because I know I’m only home now because Adam agreed to go with them. He agreed. They took him but…he agreed.
He agreed to not ever come back.
They said I’d been gone for a week. Now I’ve been home for a week and I still can’t remember much of anything from the one I lost. The memories come in pieces, little chunks of time, moments that don’t seem to have anything to do with one another. I’m not even sure which are memories and which are just dreams…bad dreams…nightmares.
“Let him go!” Adam shouts those words again and again in my head. Mostly when I close my eyes.
I don’t like closing my eyes. I’m tired of it. Tired of sleeping. Seems like all I’ve been able to do since I got back is sleep. Sleep and dream. Like I’m living in a dream, the worst kind of dream, one in which nothing makes any sense at all. I hardly even know where I am half the time. Sometimes I know I’m home, in my own bed. Other times I’d swear I’m still up by that timber cabin in the high country, lying belly down in the melting snow and trying to figure out whose blood is making it glisten red.
When I first started remembering, I kept thinking the blood had been Adam’s. Now I’m not so sure. Might’ve been my own. Doc found a lump on the back of my head after I got home. A couple of them, actually, although one was worse than the other. Pa said there were clumps of dried blood in my hair. I guess they must’ve hit me. More than once. Might’ve been a concussion made me lose a day or two, but the doc also said they drugged me. Sedated. That was the word he used. He said they must’ve kept me sedated the whole time, that whole lost week. Or part of it anyway. The part after the time I lost with the concussion.
But why? What were they doing up there? I could almost believe they’d been waiting for Adam and me. Or…Adam. Whatever they’d wanted to do up there had nothing to do with me, except for the fact that I’d ridden up with Adam. It was him they wanted to talk to. Me, they just wanted to keep quiet.
“Let him go!” Adam shouted. I can still hear him shouting it.
And something else….
It’s like another piece is starting to fall into place. Another one of those missing moments. I can feel something pressing down against my forehead. Something cold. Smooth. Round. Hollow.
The tip of a gun.
They were going to shoot me, weren’t they?
“All right! I’ll do it!” Adam said. “Just…let him go.”
And then they did. They let me go. Or…they left me alone, anyway. They left me up there…left it up to me, dazed and drugged as I was, to find my way home. If they hadn’t left Cochise, too, I might never have made it. He knew how to get me home even if I didn’t.
No, they didn’t let me go, exactly. It was them who went. And wherever they went, they took Adam with them. They took him because….
Because he gave Ruby what she wanted.
Ruby…. I can’t picture her. Can’t see her face. But…I can feel her hair brushing along my cheek, tickling my nose. It’s red, isn’t it? Red hair and red lips. And sweet perfume. And a laugh that sounds like a dance on a summer day. A dance and a picnic and fireworks. A laugh that….
“Pa!” I shout, and then I can’t breathe. My heart’s pounding so fast it’s making my lungs work fast, too. I’m panting by the time Pa runs into my room wearing his night clothes.
Yes. It’s nighttime. But it hadn’t just been a dream. I’d swear it wasn’t a dream.
“Ruby,” I tell him as soon as I can start breathing again. “She’s…she’s Eunice Parsons!”
Pa’s squinting back at me, like he’s trying to see what I’ve seen. “Are you sure, son?”
“Last summer,” I can still see it…hear it…smell it…. Last summer is coming back to me even clearer than yesterday. But I know now. I know it’s the same. “The way she was laughing and carrying on with Adam…and…and then with me when she wanted to make Adam jealous.”
“Yes, Joe. I remember.” Pa sighs, and I can tell he’s no happier about the memory than I am.
Eunice Parsons made everyone uncomfortable that day. By the next day she was gone. Rode out on the stage after a stranger accepted what Adam wouldn’t, letting her hang all over him. He flaunted her around like she was a blue ribbon prize he’d won at the fair. I think we were all happy that stranger came along. But no one was happier than Adam. He could finally go into town without looking over his shoulder. I used to tease him about Eunice. I’d tell him she was after him like a fly to manure. The way I’d said it was none too kind.
Now I’m sorry. And I want to tell him I’m sorry, but—
“Joe?” Pa’s hand grips my arm.
“I’m sorry, Pa. I was just…. It was her. I’d swear it was.”
He sighs again. “Well, all right. That gives us something more to go on. Do you remember anything else? Anything about this Mac fellow you mentioned?”
“No. Nothing. Except….” There is something else, isn’t there? “Boss.” I say the word the instant it jumps into my mind. “They called him ‘boss’.”
“Who were they? How many were there?” I can see hope flaring up in his eyes.
I don’t want to take that hope away again. But the rest of the men…. They were sort of like…like strangers in a strange town. You see them, but not really. You forget who you saw as soon as you walk away. I can’t tell him I’m sorry again, so I just shake my head.
He squeezes my arm once more. “It’s all right, son. Don’t try to force the memories. Paul said we should give it time. And even if you don’t remember, we’ll keep looking. We will find him, Joe.”
“Yeah.” My voice is thin. My hopes are, too.
Hoss and Sheriff Coffee lost the trail in all that spring rain. And then the sheriff had to get back to looking after Virginia City. And now Hoss is planning to go up there again himself. Hoss is big, but he’s hardly big enough to get Adam back from a whole town full of strangers all by himself.
No. That’s not right, is it? It was a cabin full, not a town.
Damn these broken memories!
“I’ve got to go with Hoss, Pa.” I’m panting again. Or near enough. I’m tired and I’m angry and I just can’t give it any more time, no matter what Doc Martin says.
“No.” It’s amazing how much force…how much determination Pa can put into that one word.
It doesn’t matter. I’ve got more determination than him. At least…this time. He wants Adam back as much as I do. But I’m the one who was with Adam up there. I’m the only one who knows what happened…even if…even ifI don’t know what I know. “I have to, Pa. I can’t sit around here any longer. I can’t wait for the memories to come back. Adam can’t wait!”
“Joe….” He shakes his head, looking sad and frustrated. “You’ve been through something terrible. And you’re still recovering. You’ve lost weight. You’ve only just begun to get your appetite back. You need to build your strength back up.”
“I’ll build it on the trail. Pa, I have to go. You see that, don’t you? I have to!”
And maybe…maybe he does see it. Because he’s not saying anything. In fact, he’s starting to nod slowly. He’s giving in. “All right, Joe.” I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. “All right,” he says again. “We’ll leave after breakfast. I’ll ask Hop Sing to pack plenty of food so you don’t have any excuse to lose more weight along the way.”
He smiles and I grin back at him, feeling relieved and scared all at the same time. I’m relieved because I know I’ll remember a whole lot more as soon as I’m back at that cabin. And I won’t have to do that remembering alone. Pa and Hoss will both be right there with me. But I’m scared about what those memories might tell me. I’m scared because somewhere deep down inside me, I know…I just know Adam’s already too far out of reach.
It has been two weeks. Two weeks….
Fifteen days ago, I was a rancher. I had a comfortable home. I had brothers who could be both exasperating and entertaining, a father who’d had a hard time realizing I’m not a child anymore…and, with all of them, a family I would give anything to go back to. But I don’t see how that’s possible anymore.
Just fifteen days away from that home have made me into not just a captive, but also a fugitive. Perhaps I’m not a wanted man; not yet anyway. But I am a bank robber. I willingly helped Ruby and her gang empty the safe at a bank in Rubicon, and then another in Placerville.
I’m not sure why we came back into these mountains yesterday. But being here…being so much closer to home than I’ve been…I feel my absence from that home far more keenly than I had on the road.
We’ve taken up temporary residence in a line shack. Just a few miles from here is the cabin where Joe and I had spent a week…a week in which he’d been trapped in a drugged stupor, and I’d been holding my breath and praying they wouldn’t kill him.
As for today…. Well, today is starting far differently than the other fourteen mornings I’ve come awake to find myself amongst a gang of thieves rather than the family those thieves have stolen me from.
This time, this morning, only Ruby, Mac and I are riding out. The others are staying behind, watching us go. Yes, just the three of us. And it’s not an easy ride, not with my hands tied and my mouth gagged. Why would they take such precautions out here? It’s almost as though they believe I’ll have a chance to cry out—as though we could encounter someone who might hear me. Maybe this should give me hope, but I can’t help feeling like a lamb being led to slaughter.
Is that what they’re intending? What they’ve intended all along? First to prove that I could be made to do their bidding, and then to kill me?
Could Eunice Parsons truly harbor so much hatred against me?
So it would seem.
We’re heading further up the mountain rather than down. Certainly, there are no banks to be robbed up here. There are no safes. There’s no money at all, nothing of value except these towering trees and layers of melting snow…and crisp, cool air that calms the senses. No, none of this offers any sort of value to a woman like Ruby. But to a man like me….
This air is easing my soul…somewhat…calming me as nothing has, as nothing could during these past fifteen days. For a few moments at least, I can think beyond the crimes I’ve committed, past the lives I have devastated, taking away the hopes and dreams that money had represented…past the worried eyes, the rage and the tears I’ve seen on the faces of those who’ve lost everything because of me.
Then again, I suppose even this cool air isn’t allowing me to think past all of that, is it? No. Not past it. But…around it, maybe. I can’t change what I’ve done. And I wouldn’t. Not if it meant Joe’s life would be forfeit.
“Don’t you for a minute think that little brother of yours is out of the woods,” Ruby has said often enough. “You don’t behave, he’s dead. Got it?”
Yes. I’ve got it. Yet I won’t stop trying to find a way around that disturbing threat. At least, not while I’m still breathing.
I’ve gotten to know Ruby and the four men riding with her, but there’s another man, a fifth man, whom I’ve never seen. He’s the one who worries me, the one I fear poses a real threat to Joe.
He visited us last night in the shack. I couldn’t see him, and heard only the rumble of a baritone voice when he’d called to Mac, telling him to step outside. Ruby had joined them. When Mac and Ruby had returned inside, they’d cheerfully informed the others that things were falling into place…whatever those things might be.
And now the three of us are riding a trail up the mountain, headed…to the cabin?
Yes. If we keep going in this direction that is exactly where we will end up.
I suppose that means they’ve had enough of me, enough of my…assistance. I helped them to rob two banks in these past two weeks. Both attempts might well have failed if my input had not been sought…and given. What else could I do, with Joe’s life still hanging in the balance? I pointed out flaws in their plans. I offered solutions. And when they tried to figure how to get away cleanly, I suggested they not even try, that they instead could hide without really hiding. Each time, we performed our…task…at night; and then, rather than running, returned to the local hotel. We rose with the rest of the town, and feigned anger and horror over losing our money along with everyone else, money we’d deposited in the targeted bank the day before.
Yes, Ruby and her gang could have been caught by now, if not for the suggestions I’ve given them. Mac is cunning, but not particularly intelligent. Sam is a killer, nothing more. Gabe is a genius with locks, but he doesn’t make plans—he merely follows them. And Doc…well, he served his purpose with Joe, didn’t he? Doling out chemicals to keep Joe unconscious or barely conscious until my hand had been forced and my decision made.
And then there’s Ruby, herself. How she controls these men, I don’t know. There’s something that connects them, perhaps…a unity of purpose, I suppose. Or a shared…thrill.
Wait…. We should have taken that turn. We’re not heading to the cabin after all. No, we’re going to the ridge above.
Maybe the cabin is too…civil of a place to leave me after I’m dead. They’ll leave me in the trees instead, out in the open where animals and birds can pick my bones clean…where no one will ever find me.
They’ve had their fun. They know what to do now, how to steal what they want and get away with it. They don’t need me anymore. I suppose they want to end it close to where it had all started, this high stakes game they’re playing with people’s lives…particularly with my brother’s life. And my own.
When they ride back down the mountain again without me, what will that mean for Joe?
I can’t exactly ask, now can I? I can’t say anything with this damnable gag in my mouth.
Dear God, please, just leave him be. If they don’t need for me to behave any longer, what purpose would it serve to harm him?
Hoss and Pa will keep him safe. Yes, of course they will. They have to.
We’ve stopped in the woods directly above the cabin. I can’t help staring down at it, remembering that week…a week spent arguing and pleading…and fighting to keep Joe alive, while Joe fought simply to stay conscious.
“I said move, Cartwright!” Mac grabs me and pulls me from the saddle.
I land clumsily on my side, ramming my shoulder into a foot of gray, crusty, half melted snow. Apparently, that’s where I’m meant to stay. My attempt to rise earns me a kick that dazes me even more than the cold slush…and more than the reverie that had left me deaf to Mac’s command to dismount a moment ago.
Wasting no time, Mac and Ruby both drag me to a nearby tree. And suddenly I find myself sitting on the ground, secured to the trunk with a coil of rope.
I don’t understand…don’t quite know what to expect.
They’re both scooping up handfuls of this slushy snow. Giggling and teasing one another like children… they’re packing it into palm-sized balls. Like children….
But Ruby’s not giggling anymore, is she? She’s looking at me with more hatred than I could have thought possible.
“Let me show you, dear.” Mac’s beside her now. He turns toward me and draws his arm back.
I see the snowball coming at me. I can’t do anything to avoid it. I can’t even duck. It hits me hard in the chest, and I’d swear it’s made of ice rather than snow. I’m still reeling from the impact when another hits my shoulder. And then my arm. My face. My ear….
I can’t breathe. Can’t think. Can’t fight back. I can’t even brace myself for the next impact. Or the one after that.
They might as well be stoning me to death. And still, they’re giggling.
How long has it been? Hours? I’m wet, shaking and so numb I can’t really feel all these bruises anymore. But…something’s changed. I heard a whistle a moment ago. It came from somewhere below us. And now Ruby and Mac are dragging me to the edge. When had they untied me from that tree?
I suppose they’re going to throw me over. I should struggle. Maybe I should even be afraid. Yet…. I can’t really bring myself to care. I’m too tired. Too wet. Too numb….
…Until I see my family riding up the trail toward the cabin. Hoss is in the lead. Pa is riding drag. And Joe…. He’s with them; thank God! I couldn’t be sure he’d made it home. Ill as he’d been when we’d left him, I could hardly imagine it possible for him to find his way back.
Ruby knew though, didn’t she? Her threats about the fifth man who’s been watching Joe…the faceless baritone…the whistler….It’s true, then. Joe had made it home. But he’s still not safe.
At least for now he’s protected, riding between Pa and Hoss.
But…why? Why are they here? Did Ruby and Mac do something to draw them here? Or was it the fifth man who drew us here instead, because he’d been somehow party to my family’s plans? Because he’d known they’d be coming?
I don’t know what to think anymore. I can find neither sense nor reason in their actions. All I know is that something is meant to happen out here, something that my family is meant to see…or…that I’m meant to see.
God, no! What if…?
Go back! It’s a trap! My cries are useless. This wet, thick gag muffles them too much. I’m no louder than the rustle of the trees around me.
Ruby and Mac are going to make me watch, aren’t they? They’re going to make me watch as my family is cut down. All three of them.
Go back! Please! Dear God, please!
But wait…. Nothing’s happening. Neither one of this strange, outlaw couple is going for a gun. They’re merely settling in to watch…giggling…waiting for the show to begin.
Maybe it’s the whistler who has the gun.
Where is he? I don’t see him anywhere. The shadows are too thick, just like they’d been two weeks ago, when Joe and I….
Joe…. He’s still not well. His dismount is slower, more deliberate than usual. And he lost his balance there, just for a moment, when he hit the ground. He’s thinner, too. How long ago did he make it home? He’d been in bad shape but at least somewhat on the mend from his beating when I’d left him…had he grown worse?
Don’t think about that. There’s no point to it. I can’t change what’s happened…neither what happened in that cabin, nor in Rubicon nor Placerville. What matters now is I can see that Joe’s better. He’s well enough to ride back up here. And he’s not alone.
Dammit! Where is that whistler?
Hoss is raising his arm, pointing to the cabin.
Two weeks ago, Joe and I had followed a woman’s screams and wisps of chimney smoke to that very cabin. We’d expected to encounter a distraught woman pleading for her life. We’d found instead…Ruby. She’d sauntered casually toward us…an odd sight, if ever there was one. She’d looked like a saloon girl pretending to be a high society lady, swaying her hips in a swish of satin skirts and dragging a fine, white cape behind her through the dirty snow.
Eunice Parsons. Ruby.
A red-haired witch.
I can smell her beside me now; her perfume is like poison to this crisp mountain air.
Joe’s remembering too, isn’t he? His stance has gone from curious to rigid. His chest is heaving. He swivels around, his gaze moving to the places where each of Ruby’s gang members had begun to step from the shadows, guns drawn.
It’s almost like it’s happening again…in my mind…and in Joe’s.
That spot on the ground where he’s looking now…that’s where he’d fallen at my feet after Sam drove the butt of his rifle into the back of Joe’s skull. I can still see Joe hitting the ground. He’d tried to turn to his side, to face me. And I’d tried to reach for him. Mac and Gabe held me back.
In my mind, that gray snow is still tinted red from Joe’s blood. His glazed eyes had glanced up at me without focus, full of questions I’d been helpless to answer. And then Sam had hit him again, for no reason other than that Joe’s eyes had been open at all.
And now I find myself fighting spasms of nausea and anger.
Yes, Joe is remembering, just as I am. But it won’t be enough. It won’t bring my family any closer to finding me. He can’t possibly remember what he never knew. They’d said nothing about where I would be taken when we left that cabin. And Joe had been too drugged to remember anything he’d heard in there at all.
My family is heading inside. I want to join them, to at least be able to shout down to Joe that he did nothing wrong, that none of this was his fault. But I’m as helpless now as we’d both been then.
I wait and watch, listening to the rustle of the trees, to the soft crackling sounds of melting snow, to the distant cry of a hawk…and to the hushed giggles of a sadistic woman, until my brothers and father step sullenly back outside.
I can hardly believe they’re mounting up again, preparing to ride away, to leave me behind as I’d left Joe fifteen days ago.
It’s foolish, I know. Childish. But I can’t help feeling a sense of abandonment. Is this what Joe had felt?
I’m sorry, Joe.
It’s almost like he heard me. He turns back, sweeping his gaze one last time across the trees, and…hesitating when he spots the ridge. It’s almost as though he knows I’m here. But he can’t see me. No. Not through this brush. Not with all these shadows. No, he can’t see me.
I shouldn’t be surprised when he turns again to follow Hoss and Pa. I shouldn’t be…but I am. God how I’d wanted him to see me.
Spent…beaten…shivering, I can hardly avoid retching when Ruby and Mac celebrate beside me with a far too long and far too intimate kiss.
But what is it, exactly, that they’re celebrating? The fact that they’d successfully separated me from my family? Or is it because they’ve just proved to themselves how predictable my family can be?
Yes, of course. They know how to use our concern for one another against us, don’t they?
But why? What are they scheming? What’s next?
Collapsing into the slushy snow, I can only close my eyes and pray that Hoss and Pa continue to hold Joe between them…to keep him…protected.
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