The Tahoe Ladies  



"You can't believe that I would do something like that, Pa," I pleaded, but the look in my father's eyes said that he doubted me.

            "Adam," he said my name, his voice as gentle as the hand touching my arm.  "The doctor says it's a bad concussion and I can understand that you may be confused about what happened. You didn't know the area. You were lost, so how could you have gotten help any faster than you did? It's all right, son."   

            "No Pa, it's not all right. I knew what was happening. I wasn't confused. I wasn't lost," I insisted, but I could see that he didn't believe me. There had to be some way of convincing him, that would convince myself as well. I knew what Pa, Hoss and the others thought had happened, but they were wrong. Without Joe's word to back me up, they didn't believe me, but Joe couldn't remember anything that had happened and he was the one I wanted to have believe me most of all.


            Three days ago, I had stumbled into the little town of Whites Crossing. I knew I looked a sight, my clothing torn, with dried blood on it that had come from a blow to my head. I was exhausted, at the end of my strength, sapped by the parching desert sun and the cold of the nights. Pleading for the sheriff, I had finally collapsed in the dirt street.

            When I had finally come back to the land of the living, I was surprised to find my father and brother Hoss there with me. Pa's orders were muffled to my hearing but I could feel many hands reaching out and picking me up, carrying me inside to where it was cool. Then Pa was giving me water. I couldn't get enough and I tried to snatch the glass back, but Pa was stronger.

            "Adam, son, what's happened?" Pa was asking me then.

            Before I could answer, another man pushed him aside. I reached for Pa's hand, not wanting him to leave me.

            "I'm a doctor. Let me take a look at this poor fellow, would you?" the other man insisted.

            I wanted to tell him that I was all right, to leave me alone, that I had to talk with Pa. I had to tell him….



            I awoke to find myself on a soft bed, a pillow beneath my head. In the dim lamplight, I could see my father sitting asleep in a chair beside me. As much of the room as I could see, I concluded that it had to be a hotel room albeit, a poor one. I tried to sit up but my body refused to do as I asked.

            "Shh, just lay still, son," Pa whispered, his hand brushing against my forehead.

            "Water," I croaked.

            Pa held me up and helped me to drink, then settled me back down, pulling the light blanket up to my chest. I grabbed frantically at his hand, trying to get and hold his attention.

            "Joe?" I whispered hoarsely and saw Pa wince at the sound. I swallowed again and squeezed his hand in mine for all I was worth. "Did you get to him?"

            I watched Pa shake his head slowly, then realized my mistake. "Listen," I said. "You have to! He needs help, Pa, or they'll kill him. I know they will." For emphasis, I shook Pa's hands as he tried to slip mine back beneath the blanket.

            "What are you talking about?" he asked.

            I took a deep breath and felt the broken ribs grab at my side, warning me. I ignored them. "We were late getting out of Tucson with that string of new mares we went down for. I kept telling Joe that we needed to hurry but he wouldn't push those blasted ponies of his…." And so I told my father the whole story from beginning to end.



            We were a week out of Tucson, camping late that night. We had ridden most of the day, taking a break only in the heat of the day. Every few hours, we would trade off and ride one of the other new horses. Some were easier to ride than others and I soon began to wish for Sport. I even teased Joe about Cochise being jealous when we got home. His reply was a ribald comment about the prowess of certain Cartwright males to attract willing females, be they two or four legged.

It must have been close to daybreak when three riders came into our camp with guns drawn. They didn't want the horses or what money we were carrying. They just told us to mount up and follow them. We did as they said. After hard riding for the better part of the day, we pulled into the yard of an ordinary looking ranch house. A man I would later come to hate came out of the house and told our captors to take us to the barn. But the barn didn't hold livestock, unless you want to call men "livestock". We were manhandled to a large box stall at one end where our hands were bound to the uprights. We didn't go easily, but the odds were against us from the beginning. It must have been then that one of them hit me on the head for the first time.

When I came to, Joe was calling to me from across the stall. I could see that dusk was falling outside and by the thin light there I saw a dozen other men. They were all dressed the same way: dingy gray clothing that hung on gaunt frames, their hair greasy strings, their eyes hollow. And they were all watching us carefully. One man turned enough that I could see the black letters across his shirt back that proclaimed him to be a prisoner of Clay County. This is a prison chain gang, I remembered thinking, and they think Joe and I are escaped prisoners? I never got that questioned answered.

The next morning at dawn, we were given bowls full of cold greasy stew to eat. I had to close my eyes and not think about it to get it down my throat. Joe did the same. Then we were all loaded into an enclosed wagon and taken away. When unloaded an hour later, we were at the site of what I took to be a quarry. There we were put to work, moving rock. It came to me that we were clearing a roadway and building a passage but to what I had no idea. I tried to talk to Joe but we were cautioned with blows to shut up. When one of those blows knocked me from my feet, one of our guards kicked me viciously in the side to get up. That hurt, certainly, but it hurt far worse when they started in on Joe, then made me leave him lying on the ground, beaten senseless for the crime of trying to help me.

By that evening, we both knew we had to escape. Getting the ropes undone was easy.  Now I know that it was far too easy. We had been set up.  Even so, we got about a mile from the barn before we were caught; wrenched off our feet by the yank of a lasso, Though we knew it was futile, both of us reacted instinctively, kicking and fighting, but we were outnumbered and easily overcome once again. We were returned to the barn, half drug behind the laughing men.

"It's policy here that a man who runs, gets punished." The headman addressed Joe and I as we lay there in the center of the barn, the other prisoners watching. He knew he had the complete attention of the room as he added, "I can't afford at this time to lose two workers. So, only one of you will be punished, and, hopefully, the other will learn from it."

It was then that a part of me died. I watched as they wedged a chunk of wood between Joe's legs just below the knees and tied his ankles together. Then they laid another slab beside his leg and I turned my head, unable to watch what I knew would happen next. Even with my eyes closed, I could see it happen in my mind as the sledgehammer drove one end of the outside wood into Joe's leg. I heard the sound of the hammer striking once, then again, and my brother screaming as first one leg then the other was snapped. He went on screaming my name over and over again as they drug him back into the stall we had shared the night before. They didn't bother to tie him up like they did me. Joe couldn't have run anywhere on two broken legs.

That had to be the worst night of my life. There I was, tied not three feet from him, listening to him moan in pain every time he moved.  There was nothing I could do for him except try to talk him through it, but soon the pain had pushed him to an edge my words couldn't pull him back from.

At daybreak, the guards once again brought around the gruesome meal, but at our stall, they left only one bowlful. When I complained, I was told that if a man couldn't work, he wouldn't eat either. I wasn't about to let Joe starve, so when they untied us to eat, my first move was to him. I gave him all the water they had given me and forced half of my meal into him. I won't say that Joe knew what was happening but I had to do it.

Again, I went to the quarry and worked in the hot sun, and again I was the object of harassment from the guards. But I had reached a dangerous point. I knew beyond a doubt that given the chance, I would kill them for what they had done. I watched for any opportunity, wanting one of them to get close enough for me to get my hands on him, but they stayed just out of reach.

At the end of the day, we returned to the barn and my first thought was the same as it had been all day: Joe. I had been afraid at first, thinking that when I came back that they would have taken him away.  Then I figured out that they were using him to anchor me there. Would I leave without him? I couldn't. He was helpless against them. I knew it, and my captors knew it.  It was all the power they needed to hold me, and they would continue to use it against us both.

They allowed me a few minutes beside Joe before they tied me up again. I could feel the fever in him as I bent and touched him. He was laid face down in the straw and I could smell the vomit there. Sometime during the day he had been ill but had not been able to get away from it and had wound up lying in it. I did what I could to pull the soiled straw away from his body and pull clean to him. I tore off a part of my shirt and dipped it in water to wash his face a little. There were fresh bruises there. He clutched at my arm as he came to. Behind us, I could hear the derisive comments the head guard was making but I didn't care. He could call my brother and I anything he wanted as long as I could hold on to Joe. But then the man wrenched me away and tied me like he had the night before.

That night I slept. I was exhausted, not only from the hard physical labor but from the emotional exhaustion as well. Joe slept too, or maybe by that time he was more into unconsciousness than sleep.

The next morning, it was like the day before. They brought the single bowl, untied me and I fed Joe what little I could get down him along with water. I spoke what words of comfort I could to him while the guards listened and scoffed. Just before we were to leave, I managed to tell Joe that I would find a way to get both of us out of this Hell. He grasped my arm and nodded, too weak with fever and pain to speak.

Again when I returned that evening, I could tell Joe had been sick again and it alarmed me. He was weakening rapidly with this continued vomiting. I couldn't understand why it was happening but again I cleaned things as best as I was able before I gave him some water and settled him for the night. Throughout, he had not opened his eyes or even spoken. If I didn't do something soon, I knew Joe would die, so that night I stayed awake, my own belly gnawing at my spine, worry my only sustenance.

When they brought our meal the next morning, the fourth of our captivity, I noticed one of the guards hanging back, waiting I thought, but for what I couldn't tell. I raised Joe up and tried to force him to eat but he kept his jaws clenched.

"You have to eat something, Joe. You have to keep your strength up so we can get out of this," I urged him.

He shook his head weakly against my arm. "No," he whispered his voice painfully hoarse. "You eat it all. Stay strong. Get out. Come back."

"I am not leaving here without you, little brother, so you have got to eat!"

"NO!" he said aloud, using precious strength I didn't think he had left to use. "I eat, and when you go, they come. They hit me, knee…stomach, gag... make me throw up." The guard who had hung back laughed and moved away.

I understood then. What I had done to help my brother survive wasn't helping him at all. If anything, it was hurting him more. My single choice was clear: I would have to do as Joe said. I would have to escape, get some kind of help and come back for him. But as I cradled his fever-hot body in my arms that morning I wondered how much time I had.

            When my chance came that afternoon, I took it. I ran. When they followed me, I hid like an animal. When I found water to drink, I lay on my belly and took my fill then I arose and went on, determined. I don't know how long I ran. When my legs refused to go any further I recalled Joe's scream as his were broken and I crawled. When I collapsed from hunger, I thought of Joe being beaten and left to lay in his own filth and I got up. I went on. When I thought I couldn't go another foot, I remembered the trust my brother had put in me, how he had told me to 'come back'.  I forced myself to go on, never stopping until I found myself in my father's arms, a place I knew my brother needed to be far worse than I did.


            Once I had told my father what had happened, we spoke with the sheriff. From my description of the ranch and outbuildings, the only place the sheriff could think of was the Fuller Ranch. But he kept saying that he didn't believe such a thing of either the Fullers or any one else in the area; that I must be mistaken. Pa insisted and with me barely able to sit upright in the back of a buckboard, we followed the sheriff. I recognized at once the place Joe and I had been held.

            Hoss drove the wagon at a breakneck speed down the slope to the barn, dragging the horses to a lathered stop at the closed doors. He and Pa opened the doors together and went into the barn. I struggled from the wagon and followed them. They stood in the center aisle of what appeared to be an ordinary barn.

            I couldn't believe it. I stumbled to the stall where Joe and I had been kept. It was empty. There was no sign of Joe there. I whirled, searching for confirmation for what I knew to be true.

            "This is it!" I shouted, angry. "Right here," and I pointed to the floor at my feet, "they broke his legs! Both of them. This bucket!" I grabbed it up, remembering the nick on the lip of it. "They brought water to us!"

            "What's the meaning of this?" came a voice behind us. I whirled and came face to face again with the headman himself. I launched myself at him, my hands stiff talons to rip the location of my brother from his throat before he died.

            Hoss stopped me, but just barely. The man paled before me, shaking in fear; justifiably, I thought. My blood rose hot in my ears and I screamed that I would kill the man if he didn't tell us where Joe was. Hoss held me tight but when Pa commanded me to stop, I settled back against Hoss, breathing hard and readying myself for another attack.

            The sheriff introduced the man as Lester Fuller. He owned the ranch where we were. He questioned the man. Had he ever seen me before? No, the man answered. Had he seen anything suspicious of late? Again, no. Then he changed his answer.

            "'Bout a week ago some of the boys caught a couple of horses running loose that weren't ours. Brought 'em in. No brand on 'em though."

            "Those were the horses you stole off us! One of them, Pa, is a gray mare with black markings. Joe was riding her!" I shouted, leaning against Hoss' arms again.

            Fuller looked down and I thought he was about to crack but when he looked back up at me, I could see he was determined to see the charade through.

            "Yep, there was a gray mare in the bunch, but there wasn't any sign of someone riding her. I mean, no saddle or bridle. Just seven horses all running together. If you can prove they belong to you, sonny, I'll return them.  I ain't no horse thief, sheriff."

            With a look of pity, the sheriff had turned to look at me. He asked Hoss to take me outside so he and Pa could have a word with Fuller. Hoss manhandled me to the wagon. There, even though they spoke softly, I could hear them.

            "Mr. Cartwright," the sheriff was saying, "I think your boy would be better back in town. He's not gonna be any help while we search for your other son."

            "Could he be tellin' ya the truth about what happened?" Fuller was speaking and I leaned as far in that direction as Hoss would let me. "I mean it wouldn't be the first time a couple of fellas have a falling out and one accidentally kills the other one."

            I began to shake. I couldn't believe what I was hearing! The man who was responsible was trying to tell my father that I had killed Joe and was lying about it to cover it up. I shouted in frustration and all other talk in the barn ceased. Slowly the three men there came out into the sunlight. The monster, Lester Fuller, shook his head, looking at me then turned to the sheriff and told him that he would keep an eye out for any one else in the area. The sheriff just nodded, saying thanks as Fuller went by him to return to his house up the hill. Pa stood there, staring at me.

            "Sheriff," Pa said, pulling the sheriff's attention back, "Whatever differences you could imagine between two men, none of them would have my sons killing one another. If you can't take my word for it, look what Adam went through to get to town! Is that the act of a man who just killed another man?"

            The sheriff studied me before he spoke. "No, I guess not. Was it an accident, son? Your brother got into an accident of some sort? And you figured your pa here wouldn't-"

            "NO!" again I shouted, unable to understand why they wouldn't believe me. Why wouldn't they listen to me and interrogate that man, Fuller, closer? Why did they simply let him walk away? He knew where Joe was! Why weren't they making him talk?

            I had continued to struggle against Hoss' brawny arms until I couldn't any longer. Pa was there, holding me as well while the sheriff just looked on in pity. I finally collapsed, feeling the weight of my brother's last words to me hit me hard. Come back, he had begged me and I couldn't find him to do as he asked.

            "It doesn't matter what happened, sheriff," I heard Pa's voice say once I had calmed down. "I still need to find Joseph. Can you get together a search party to help?"

            "Mr. Cartwright, if what your son says is true, this all started a week ago. You look out across this land. It's a hard country. Even for a healthy man, it's rough. I'm sorry, but you are not going to find that boy of yours alive. You may not want to face that fact but the folks around here, well, we know. I'll talk with Jess at the livery stable about making sure you got fresh horses but beyond that--" and the sheriff let his voice just fall away.

            I remember the look that came over Pa as the sheriff mounted up and rode away, leaving us standing there at the doorway to Hell.

            "Adam, I believe you," Hoss said as he helped me into the wagon. "These folks aren't gonna help us but I believe you can. You said they kept you here in this barn, right?" I nodded my head. "When they took you out of here, you said they took you to a quarry, right?" Again I nodded.

            "What are you getting at, Hoss?" Pa was asking, all the while running his hand up and down my arm.

            "Pa, if these folks done like Adam says they did, then there should be some sign that they did the work there at this quarry, right? And Adam, you said that the road was about finished that they were building, right? What direction was it?"

            "To the east," I answered but couldn't follow Hoss' thinking. Apparently Pa couldn't either because he asked Hoss what he was getting to.

            Hoss looked at me and then at Pa and I could tell he didn't want to say the words but he knew he had to. "If they were finished, they would return them convicts to jail, but they couldn't take Joe. He wasn't a convict, so the jail wouldn't take him. They had to get rid of him somewhere. We find where they were working, I'll find a trail to tell us where they went and somewhere along that road, we'll find Joe." Left unspoken were the words, 'or his body.'

            When we pulled the wagon out of the ranch yard, I made sure I was sitting upright beside Hoss on the seat. As we passed the house, I saw the curtains at a downstairs window move. "You bastard," I whispered. "You are going to die for this."


            It was getting on towards dusk before we found the quarry. I was all for pushing on but as Pa pointed out, we had no gear to make a camp. We would have to return to town. I brushed off his hand and told him I needed a few minutes alone. Throughout the afternoon, I had heard it all over again and again in my head. Joe was dead and it was my fault. Whether Pa thought it was because of an accident or like the sheriff thought, a murder, it didn't change the way they saw it. Joe was dead because of me.

            I climb to the far ridge of the quarry and looked to the east and the rising moon. The cold breeze made me shiver as it swept over the flat desert beyond. It struck me then how beautiful it was, despite the emptiness there. I compared the emptiness to what I felt in my heart. It matched.

            Hoss had called to me and I turned to go back down the talus. That was when I saw the two vultures rise into the night air. I couldn't see what they had been feeding on as they had risen from a gully that ran parallel to the foot of the slope I had stood on. I called for Hoss then started down the slope towards that gully.

            There at the foot of the gully, we found him. Off to one side was the remains of a horse, its body bloated in death. But Joe was alive.

            I stood there unfocused on what was happening around me. Pa had slipped and slid downhill, despite the danger. He had rolled Joe onto his back and heedless of the blood on my brother's body, gathered him into his arms, crying his name over and over. Hoss opened a canteen and poured water over Joe's battered face. It revived Joe enough that he opened his eyes. As I watched, I saw recognition come to him and he curled into Pa's chest, his fingers weakly clutching at Pa's shirt as he cried.


            Joe was too weak to move that night over uncertain territory. We made a fire to warm him and ourselves. I sat there numbed by what I saw. Pa pulled away the bloody rags that had once been my brother's clothes and laid him on a blanket next to the fire. His body was a mottled mass of bruises. The ones I saw on his swollen belly had red lines arced away down his sides. His legs, the breaks now healing, lay crooked and on one, the skin had split and festered.

            "Hoss, go and get us some more water. There was water back at the quarry site. Go!" Pa commanded and Hoss disappeared into the gathering night.

            "Adam, son, I need you to help me," my father was saying to me, shaking my arm to get my attention. "Here," and he handed me a shirt from his saddlebag. "Tear this up into strips. We need to immobilize his legs."

            I shook my head 'no' and mumbled the word as well. My father looked up at me, shocked, I suppose. All I could see was the pain in his eyes so I looked away before I spoke again. "It won't help, Pa. His legs were broken days ago. They've begun to heal by now," I said, my voice sounding hollow and strange to me as it dawned on me that Joe was now going to be crippled for the rest of his life. I wondered darkly if we shouldn't amputate them now to save him from the continued pain they would bring him.

            "Adam!" Pa shouted at me and leaned across Joe's battered body and shook my arm. "I need you to help me, son," he repeated.

            All I could do was look down at what remained of my brother's body and it made me physically sick. Pushing Pa's hands away, I got to my feet and stumbled away in the night. I fell against some of the larger boulders there and threw up everything I had eaten for what seemed like the past week. Again and again, until there was nothing left, but then I did it again when I thought of Joe being beaten. It left me trembling, sweaty and weak.

            "Here now," came Hoss' voice beside my head as I pressed my forehead into the rock. Around me, I could feel the warmth of a blanket as well as his big arms. He lifted me away from the cold stone and wrapped the blanket around me completely. Then he gently guided me back to sit beside the fire. He pushed a cup of warm water into my hand and when I just looked at it, lifted my hand to help me drink it. Some of it sloshed over the rim but I managed to swallow some of it. I looked at Hoss as I drank, praying that the blue eyes that met mine would tell me everything was all right; but like Pa's, they looked at me with such forlorn pity that I couldn't stand to see them. I buried my face in my hands and hid.

            It came to me after a while that there was no more sound coming across the campfire. I looked up from my misery. Joe was laid close to the fire, wrapped in blankets, Pa's coat as a pillow under his head. Hoss sat at his head and was using a rag to wipe his face. Pa appeared to be asleep just to Hoss' right, an arm's length away.

            "How is he?" I asked, my voice thick.

            "Runnin' a high fever. Can't get him warm," Hoss answered, not even looking at me.

            I heard Joe's voice in my head. "Stay strong." I struggled to my feet. "Get out." I pulled the blanket across my shoulders and staggered to where he laid and stared for a moment into the fire. It wasn't enough to warm his body. I saw it shaking, shivering beneath the blanket. "Come back." I didn't say anything, just dropped to my knees then carefully and slowly, laid down beside him, putting my blanket over the two of us. I scooted as close to him as I could get then gently put my arm across his chest to hold him. I whispered into his ear. "I came back."


            Pa woke us the next morning. He had soaked some jerky in a cup of water and I helped him lift Joe as he poured some of the thin broth it made into him. With Joe limply propped against me, I could feel the heat of the fever in him. I told Pa to leave the cup. I would get more into him while they got the wagon ready.

            By the time Pa and Hoss had returned, Joe had finished the entire cup but I still held him against my chest. I couldn't bear to part with him. He had roused a little and I had spoken briefly to him but he had only called out for our father. I couldn't tell any one how I longed for him to have called for me and how I would have responded happily, telling him I was there. I needed to have him know that I had come for him but he lapsed back into semi-consciousness.

            The rough ride into the town of Whites Crossing took all morning. As we crossed the broad open plain, I recognized certain landmarks. Here, I had hidden behind these rocks as the pursuing guards had searched for me. Over there, I had found a mere trickle of water. When Hoss pointed out the first glimpses of the town itself, my heart lurched in my chest. I had not seen them before and had therefore gone passed the town then circled back to it somehow. I had wasted time in getting help. With a glance down into his slack features, I wondered if the time I had wasted would be the hours my brother would have needed to survive. The fact that he still clung to life amazed me, but I wondered; when he came fully back to us, how much life would he indeed have with both legs destroyed?

            Once we got into town, the rest of the day was lost in a blur to me. Again, I found myself in the same hotel room, lying on the same bed, but now it was Hoss beside me rather than Pa. I understood, or at least I tried to tell myself that I did.

            "Adam," Hoss caught my attention. "Come on, let's see about getting you some real rest now. That doctor and Pa are gonna be a while with Joe so there is no use to both of us sitting here frettin'. Let's get you into this bed proper, then I'll see about gettin' us something to eat."

            "I don't want-" I started, but Hoss cut me off sharply.

            "I didn't ask you what you wanted, big brother. You're gonna do what I tell you." Maybe it was what I truly needed to hear: a command given by someone who I knew loved me, no matter what. I mutely did as he asked. He helped me shed the clothes and boots I wore then lifted the blanket while I slipped into the bed. He pulled another blanket up over me and said he would be back after a while. I had no doubt but that he would.


            With the coming of a new day, I awoke. As I shoved back the blankets, where I was and why I was there came crashing back in on me. There was a moment's panic when I couldn't recall if we had found Joe or not, but then memory took hold of me. Quickly, I dressed and went to pull on my boots. Leaning over made me dizzy so I left the boots where they sat and walked barefoot to the closed door across the parlor from my bedroom.

            I pushed the door open with a soft tap. Pa's head came up and he turned in his chair to see who was there.

            "Son, you shouldn't be out of bed," he warned, coming to stand between me and the bed. He tried to take my arm and pull me back around to leave but I refused to be budged. "Joe is asleep right now. In a bit, we'll have to wake him up for some broth. You can sit with him then."

            "Is he-?" and I lost my will to speak.

            Pa misunderstood what I had been going to say. "He's going to live, yes. It will take him a long while to recuperate, but he is going to live." I had been going to ask if Joe was going to keep both legs, but Pa didn't say anything concerning them so I said nothing else either.

            "Come on, now, back to bed with you," and Pa pulled me back to my room. "When the doctor says you are well enough, I want you and Hoss to head back to the ranch together."

            "No, I am going to find those prison guards who did this," I said flatly, as I sank onto the side of the bed.

            Pa sat down with me. "Adam, it could be that your mind just made an assumption that wasn't true. You've suffered a horrible head injury. When you add to that lack of water and food; the heat," and his voice trailed off, both the tone and the shake of his head saying that he didn't believe me.

            "No, Pa. It was there. The prison guards were there. They beat Joe and I. They broke both his legs with boards and a sledgehammer! When I shared my food and water with him, they came and beat him. Made him throw it up then left him to lay in it all day. They taunted me when I tried to help him!"

            "I know, Adam, you've told me this; but there was nothing there at Fuller's ranch to prove what you say!"

I couldn't stop and listen to what Pa was saying. Instead I plunged on, jumping to my feet to prowl the room like a caged animal. "But the worse thing they did, Pa, was make me leave him there when I escaped. I knew I couldn't take him. He knew it too! He would slow me down and neither one of us would have made it to freedom. They made me make a choice!"

"And you made the only choice possible for both you and Joe to survive. Whatever it was that got you into that position, Adam, you made the right choice. You made it then and you need to make it now. You need to rest, and I mean really rest. Do I have to put Hoss to guarding the door? You have to regain your strength, son. Once you do and Joe regains consciousness, we can sort this out. Not until then."

I stopped my pacing directly in front of my father. He was right and a part of me knew it, but as I looked down at him all I could see was Joe.  I could see him, as though the memory was more true than the reality in front of my eyes, curled against Pa's chest, his hand clutching weakly at Pa's shirt and trying to hold on. That scene was burned into my memory now. It, like seeing the condition of my brother's body, would fuel the fire I could feel starting in me anew. There, deep in my own belly, the fire of revenge stirred, sending new flames through me. I had felt them first when I had worked the quarry without Joe, sensing that he was in far more trouble than I was. Somewhere, the flames had been allowed to sputter and nearly die, but now they were sending out new tendrils, searching for fuel. I needed to rest and rebuild my body to give those flames what they needed to burn brightly. Then I could give freedom to the fire within me and send Lester Fuller to Hell.

"Adam!" My father was shouting at me, his work-hardened hands cupping my face, dragging me back to the there and then. I blinked once to show him that I was with him. A part of me wanted to lean into him, wanted to feel his arms holding me the same way they had Joe, but I couldn't give in to it. Not yet. I had to be strong, to show no weakness. I had to make the fire burn hot within me.

"I'll rest," I said aloud and let my father help me back into bed. Once he had closed the door behind him, I finished my sentence, "for now."


The next few days passed one like the other. I rested. I ate what was brought to me. When Hoss surprised me by telling me he had arranged for a tub of hot water to soak in, I did as I was expected. But as I sat there I couldn't enjoy the feeling of the warm water on my skin. I wouldn't let myself enjoy anything as long as my brother lay unconscious not twenty feet away. Little by little, my body came back but I would find myself staring out of the window or seeming to drop back into a conversation. It was at those times that I knew I had been far away. Lost in the land where I had beaten the odds and carried Joe to safety. Or worse yet, lost in the land where I hadn't found him until it was too late. After these episodes, I would anchor myself next to Joe's bed until forced away by Pa.

Like me, bit by little bit, Joe was coming around. Then the day came when the doctor had made the decision that he was strong enough to have his legs cared for. The doctor had been very candid with us, talking with us and answering our questions beforehand. He would use ether and render Joe unconscious for the time. Then he would rebreak Joe's legs, hopefully at the same point they had been first damaged. He said if he couldn't find the exact break, he would have to cut his leg open, find the bad spot, break the bone, set it, then suture the incision closed. If that happened, he would not be able to put a protective cast on his leg for fear of an infection setting in undetected. A splint, open to the side would have to do. If that were the case, Joe would be forced to stay in bed much longer. All through the discussion, I watched Joe carefully. I could see that it was upsetting him and when it was finished, I asked Pa if I could stay with Joe for a while that evening.

"What do you think?" I asked, but I already knew what he was thinking.  One look at him and you could see that Joe was scared of what would happen the next morning. I had helped him to sit up more but he still was so weak that he had to be held in place by many pillows. I had just given him the last spoonful of some custard from the café across the street. He was still not able to tolerate food more solid than that The doctor still hadn't said what sort of damage he thought had been done to the boy's digestive tract but I didn't need a medical diagnosis.

Joe chewed on his lip a moment then looked me square in the eye. "I'm scared," he admitted. I sat the bowl on the table and proceeded to sit down facing my brother on the bed.

"There's nothing to be scared of, Joe." I tried to sound optimistic, but even I knew it was flat. "Besides, we will all be here when you wake up."

"That's not what I mean, Adam. I already can't remember what happened to me. Is this going to bring back any of that missing memory? Or is it going to take away more of what I have now?"

I took his hand in mine and studied it before I answered him. I could see the tiny scars that working a ranch like the Ponderosa had left there over the years. Like him, the hand had no strength to it now and by instinct, I closed both of mine over it, protecting it within my own grasp.

"I don't know, Joe," I answered when my voice got beyond the lump in my throat. My whole being was screaming at me to protect him from any thing and everything  "Maybe," and I swallowed hard, "maybe it is a good thing that you can't remember what happened. I can remember enough for both of us," I lied. I wanted him to remember everything. I wanted Joe to be able to tell the sheriff and Pa everything I had. I wanted him to remember the barn, the prison guards, and the man I knew now as Lester Fuller! If he could do that, then I could convince my family that Fuller needed to be arrested and tried for what he had done. As long as Joe couldn't remember, they would look at me and think that I had imagined it all, that somewhere in my delusional state, I had dreamed it all up. And as long as they didn't believe me, I would have to go alone to seek the revenge my brother deserved for what those bastards had done to him.

"Then tell me, Adam, what happened?" he asked me, and he did it with such simplicity and directness that my soul shook.

"No, not tonight. Later maybe when you are stronger."

"What if I don't-" he started, but I cut him off before he could finish.

"Then it doesn't matter because I remember!" I could feel my emotions threatening my composure, so I took a deep breath to calm myself before I continued. "Now, what can I do to help you get some sleep tonight?"

Joe glared at me. He was angry with me, and I would let him be that way if it would keep him from those memories that night. For a long while after that, we sat together in silence. When he spoke up, his voice was a just a little above a whisper.

"Adam, I remember falling. Then all I can remember is Pa being there. I guess I wasn't very strong then either, because I remember that I was crying. Pa was holding me and I was crying. I never will be strong like you, I guess. No guts, just a crying little boy who wants his father."

There were tears in Joe's voice as he ended. He rolled away to hide his face from me, but I could see by the shaking of his shoulders that he was crying hard.  I did what I thought our father would have done then. I reached across the small expanse of the bed and began to rub his back. I said nothing, letting my hand glide across his back and shoulders. The tension began to fall away and the shaking stopped after a few minutes but I continued because it gave me a curious feeling of peace the same way it did him. I closed my eyes so that I couldn't see the ugly bruises there beneath my hands but even then, I could see them.

Something touched my hand and I jerked my eyes open. Pa was across from me.

"Joseph is asleep," he said then pulled the blanket up to cover him and keep him warm. "You need to get some sleep too, Adam. Come on," and he pulled at the hand I had left resting on Joe's shoulder. I left the room with Pa following me close behind. Hoss was snoring away, stretched out on the sofa there in our hotel room parlor. I started to say something to Pa but he nudged me on towards the other room. Once the door closed behind us, I could feel Pa reaching out and putting his hands on my shoulders to steady me.

"Do you know what he remembers, Pa? Does he remember how he stood up beside me to those men and fought them? Does he remember how they broke his legs? Does he remember how he begged me to eat everything so that I could be strong enough to escape? Does he remember any of that? NO! Instead, he remembers feeling like a helpless child, crying for his father to hold him." I paced the room and let the emotion wash over me, leaving me feeling small and ugly. "I wanted to tell him, Pa."

"Wanted to tell him what, Adam? How it felt to be left for dead? How you tried to get him help?" Pa asked, his voice full of concern, warm and comforting in its tone even though the words weren't.

"No," I said but there was nothing to my voice. "I wanted to tell him how brave he was, and how, " I fumbled for the words to tell Pa what I had felt in there with Joe but I couldn't find them.

"And how you had come back for him," Pa finished for me.  "You wanted to tell him that. You don't need to Adam. He knows that."

Pa shook my shoulders just a bit to reinforce what he was saying, but he was only half-right.  I knew the whole truth and it was just beginning to eat at me.



The doctor and his nurse, an elderly woman he introduced as Mrs. Watkins, showed up in our hotel rooms before daybreak. With very little dispatch and less ceremony, they set about their business, closing the door and shutting us all out of it. Having had Paul Martin as our family doctor for years had led us into the false belief that all doctors behaved the same way he did. And that all doctors wanted and needed the family's assistance in caring for the patient. It was a pill that went down our throats crossways to have that door closed in our faces, Pa in particular.

We had some breakfast but none of us felt much like eating. Pa paced the floor as he ate some toast and drank his coffee. After a while, I couldn't help it. I nudged Hoss and asked him to help me.

Dressed and with my hat in my hand, I told Pa that Hoss and I were going down to the livery, get a couple of horses and ride out to the Fuller Ranch. Of course, Pa's expression immediately blackened and he would have shouted at us if something else hadn't been happening less than twenty feet away.

"No, Pa." I used my best explanatory tone. "I'm going to get the bill of sale for those horses we bought out of my saddle bag, get the sheriff and go and get our horses. Remember how he said he was no horse thief?"

"Just nothing else, Adam. Until we have some other evidence, some proof of what you say-" he warned, and I could mentally see his finger shaking at me as he did.

"I told you, Pa, the horses… and we are taking the sheriff."

Down in the livery, I chose a rangy dun gelding from their small herd and while Hoss was paying the man for the use of the horse, I was checking in my saddlebags for the bill of sale.

"Got it?" Hoss called, coming up behind me. "Whatever possessed you to let Joe carry it is beyond me! That boy would lose his head-" When Hoss said that, I stopped him.

"What makes you say that?"

"Them's the saddlebags that were on the horse that was with him down in that gully. Figured -" and the same thought crossed our minds at the same time. The saddle and gear in front of us was mine, not Joe's.

"Adam, we need the sheriff before we go out there. You promised Pa," Hoss cautioned.

"Fine!" I spat the hated word out. "You saddle the horses and meet me down at the sheriff's office." I spun around on my heel and left Hoss in the livery. Nothing I had promised Pa came close to covering my thoughts right then.

I waited for Hoss on the walk in front of the sheriff's office. The sheriff had reluctantly agreed to go with us when I explained to him that we were just after our horses. I said nothing to him about the mind-expanding discovery Hoss and I had made in the livery stable.


Lester Fuller carefully examined the bill of sale I showed him. As I stood there not two feet in front of him, it took everything I had to not reach across his desk and haul his sorry ass out into the dirt and kick it from there to the Comstock. I would have gladly pounded his head into the floor, if not for the fact that the sheriff was there.  As the rancher drew things out, my own patience was wearing thin. Finally the man nodded his head.

"I'll have two of my men bring in the ones we found," he agreed and handed the paper back to the sheriff.

"That suit you, Cartwright?" the sheriff asked, his tone surly.

"Well, almost," I answered and felt Fuller's unease shift and grow as he came from behind his desk. "I would like some things explained."

"Such as?" Fuller asked, moving away from me.

"Granted, it is only my word against yours but my brother was riding a gray mare when all of this happened. I was on a black mare. We had taken the stage to Tucson to pick up eight horses. Eight mares, sheriff, just like the bill of sale says. We even hauled our own saddles and gear down with us so we could work on gentling them down a little more as we rode home."

As I spoke I saw Fuller getting nervous. He had stopped and was studying something out the window. When I paused to let my words sink in, he turned and asked what was so special about that.

"Sheriff, the horse we found with my brother was a brown gelding. Wearing my saddle. Mister Fuller here even admitted that he had the gray mare Joe had been riding. He had seven odd horses, he said. Sheriff, if he had seven of our horses and we bought only mares, how did a gelding wind up with my saddle on him? Better yet, how did that same horse wind up dead down in the same gully as my brother?"

"Maybe that's how you got yourself into this predicament, Cartwright. Your horse fell down that slope, banged you up pretty good," Fuller shot back.

"If that were my horse, it would have been a mare, Mister Fuller, not a gelding. But if that is the case, and we are just throwing that fact away, Sheriff, how come my brother's horse wasn't down there with him? As banged up as he is, the horse would have been hurt, too!" 

"Let's go take a look at Cartwright's horses, Lester," the sheriff announced. I wanted to smile but knew I couldn't. There was a hole in my 'theory' but they would have to think fast to point it out. Joe's horse could have thrown him and he could have tumbled down into that gully. I knew the truth, though, and that wasn't what had happened.

Out beside the barn, in the corral, were our mares, seven out of the eight we had bought. The gray was easy to point out and Hoss easily roped her and pulled her to the side for our inspection. Of course there was no damage to the animal.

I thought the sheriff was beginning to get the idea that something wasn't right but he was still being cautious. I knew I had to throw my cards down for all to see.

"Mister Fuller, where is my brother's saddle? When we came in here with those prison guards, you weren't around. So, when the time came to hide my brother, you couldn't know about our gear. Sheriff; let me tell you something that you may find of interest, and you can check it out on the rig over on that livery horse as well as my brother's horse. On the underneath side, burned into the leather at one edge is the name of the Virginia City saddlemaker, Marcus and Thompson. There's a year there too. And when you look from the back of the saddle towards the horn, worked into tooling are certain things that identify those saddles as being made for us. On mine, you'll find a tiny open book. On Hoss' there is a stylized pine tree, looks just like our brand."

By that time, the sheriff had wandered over and was studying Hoss' saddle. Even though he couldn't have seen what I was talking about from where and how he stood, something about what I was saying was seeming to make a change in his attitude.

"And your brother's saddle? How would someone identify that one?" he asked and turned back to face us. I felt Fuller edging away.

"Joe's initials are worked into one swirl on the saddle skirt. JFC. Shall we go look at your harness, Mister Fuller?" I asked and roughly grabbed a hold of the man's arm. Ignoring the sheriff and Hoss, I propelled Fuller back into the barn. He stumbled but I jerked him back up right and pushed him on towards the back. All the while, I kept shouting at him, telling him how he had made too many mistakes, from using the wrong saddle on the dead horse to owning up to having the horses. I didn't give him a chance to answer and used his body, shoved before me, to open the door to the room. It didn't take but a few minutes to locate Joe's saddle.

The sheriff stood there, running his hand over the leather. Then he asked Fuller if he had any idea how it came to be in his tack room.

"Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the gray was still saddled when they brought her in. Have to talk with the hands, sheriff," he blustered and again tried to pull away from me. I held on tight, even when he complained that I was hurting him.

"Lester, some things just aren't adding up. Maybe you need to come back into town so we can sit down and talk this out," the sheriff said and I watched him drop his hand to his holster.

"I got a ranch to run. These fellas can take their horses now. I am not goin' to waste my men and my money to help them out one bit if they insist I'm responsible for beatin' a man up. Much less breaking his legs."

That was the final straw: the sneer in his voice as he spoke about breaking Joe's legs. I spun him around and drove a fist into his face, relishing the sensation as my fist pummeled his jaw. I sent him into a corner with a fist slammed into his soft gut then reached after him and hauled him back to his feet for another one.  I never got to deliver that one. Hoss caught my arm and I could tell it took everything he had to hold me. The sheriff pushed us both away and knelt beside the rancher.

"Lester Fuller," he said slowly but firmly. "I'm arresting you for the beating of Joseph Cartwright. I think the charge of attempted murder will stick to you real easy."

Fuller twisted in the sheriff's grasp the same way I did in Hoss', but he was claiming he knew nothing about it. The rancher shrieked as the sheriff pulled both arms behind his back and shoved him bodily out into the barn. When Fuller stumbled and fell, the sheriff roughly hauled him back up.

"If you don't know anything, then how did you know that both his legs were broken?" the sheriff finally asked, and for that Fuller had no answer. I did. Fuller had been the one to break them.


It took a long time before I quit shaking. Hoss and I hung back from the sheriff and Fuller as we rode into town. Every few minutes, I could feel Hoss looking at me, and each time, I would find some way to reassure him that I was all right. I wasn't but I had to convince him that I was. By the time we rode back into town, the pain radiating down my side from my damaged ribs made my breathing shallow and painful, but it wasn't the pain that made me miserable. I didn't want to admit it to anyone but I had wanted to kill Lester Fuller for what he had done. It was the fact that that desire would have taken me down to his puny level that made me miserable. Even so, given the opportunity, I would have gone there gladly.

Pa was still sitting in the little parlor when Hoss and I came into the hotel rooms. A quick look and I saw that the door to Joe's room was still closed. I could feel the pain and anguish rolling off Pa in waves but I didn't know how to stop it. When I dropped down in front of him, he saw that I had been fighting, either from the dust on my clothes or the bruising on my knuckles.

"You told me that you were just going after the horses," Pa's voice hung heavy with reproach. "What have you done, Adam?"

Hoss started to come to my defense but I waved him off. Instead I stared into my father's eyes, searching for understanding in the deep brown depths there. I can't say there was any there. I felt like an animal that had been poorly used by a loving owner.

"I brought a man to justice, Pa. The sheriff was there. He arrested Fuller and intends to charge him with attempted murder. I'll talk with the district attorney. There needs to be a whole raft of other charges and there needs to be an investigation about the use of convict labor. But for right now, I brought a man to justice, Pa. It's less than Joe deserves."

Pa's eyes narrowed and he pushed his hand down hard over mine on his leg. I knew by the look on his face that Pa was beyond angry at that point, believing I had disobeyed him. In truth, I didn't care. Not for myself any longer at least. All I really cared about was being able to tell Joe that I had brought in the man responsible for hurting him; that I had come back for him in every sense of the word.

I was about to say something when, behind me, the door opened and the doctor called for Pa.  My heart jumped into my throat and a look in Hoss' direction told me that he feared the same thing: that something had happened to Joe that the doctor couldn't have foreseen and prevented. I squeezed my eyes closed and buried my chin in my hand as I took up the place where Pa had been sitting. I tried squeezing my heart closed as well but it had filled too quickly with the desire to kill Fuller for me to do so.

At any moment, I expected the doctor to step into the room and give Hoss and I the bad news. Instead, there came a knock at the door that Hoss answered. It was the sheriff. Over the roar in my own head, I heard him ask how Joe was and Hoss' answer that we didn't know yet. In one smooth motion I was before him. To the outside world, I was cold and composed but inside I was ablaze with anger.

"If that doctor steps out here and tells me that my brother has died, your jail cell won't keep me from killing Lester Fuller," I vowed.

"That won't be necessary," the doctor spoke up behind me. "Your brother is awake and wants to see you both."

I ignored the look the sheriff gave me and brushed passed the doctor and his nurse like they weren't even there. There was one place and one place only that I wanted to be and that was with my brother.

When I stepped into that room, the slight cloying smell of ether still drifted with the dust motes in the shafts of sunlight. Pa was sitting in the chair at Joe's left side, hanging onto Joe's hand like it was an anchor on a stormy sea. Joe looked so very pale and weak as he reclined there, his whole body held in place by pillows. I didn't have to see beneath the blankets to see that his legs were heavily splinted. They were both elevated slightly and you could see the outline clearly. But what held my attention were his eyes. Even though he was having trouble keeping them open, there was a spark there.

"Adam," he called to me and that pressed me forward. I tried to smile as I laid my hand on his arm, feebly moving beneath the blanket. "I remember," Joe whispered, his voice husky.

Looking over my shoulder, he continued, his voice wavering as he tried to get it all out. "One man they called Snake. Burly guy with bad teeth. Another man, don't know his name, but he had a scar on his cheek in the shape of an arrowhead. The headman told them to take me out and dump me somewhere. Tied me to a horse and the next thing I know, they are pulling me down and shoving me over the edge. I fell for a long time."

It was then that I realized that in the doorway, just beyond Hoss' protective bulk, was the sheriff. He asked Joe if he'd ever heard the headman's name and Joe muttered, "no". Then the sheriff asked if Joe could recognize him again if he saw him. By that time, Joe was drifting into sleep but he gave the sheriff a tight smile that answered for him.

I would have left but Joe stirred one more time and looked at me, his expression so full of trust and love that seeing it about broke my heart. "You came back," he whispered to me. As I watched, sleep fully overtook him and his features lost the strained look of moments ago. I smoothed the linen pillowslip beside his face then touched his cheek briefly.

"Yes, I came back," I murmured.


For the rest of that day, Joe drifted in and out but each time that he came back to consciousness, he was a little stronger and stayed a little longer. Pa, Hoss and I took turns sitting with him. We never wanted him to wake up and find one of us not there. Hoss had just taken over for me a little before daybreak when a discreet tap at the door stopped me from going on to bed.

Again, it was the sheriff. He looked like it had been a long night as he asked if he could come in. I stepped aside to let him do so. That was when I noticed that Pa was standing behind me.

"You been here all night?" the lawman asked me, his hat making circles in his hands.

"I relieved my father at Joe's bedside a little after midnight. I was with Joe all the rest of the night," I answered and crossed my arms over my chest.

"Anybody see you there?" he asked, his eyes suspicious slits.

"What is this all about?" Pa demanded and with one hand on my shoulder, pulled me away from the sheriff.

"Last night after I left here, I went down to talk to Lester Fuller. I told him that your other boy there had woke up and said that he remembered some things. Things that this boy," and he gestured with his hat towards me, "had never said. Names, what some of the men looked like. Fuller claimed again that he didn't know nuthin' about this. I just made sure his cell was locked and went into the back room to sleep a while. When I woke up a bit ago, I went to check on him. Lester Fuller is dead, Mr. Cartwright."

"So you are here to arrest Adam?" Pa's voice was stiff and hot.

The sheriff shook his head. "Not unless he went into that cell, ripped up the blanket, made a noose and hung Lester Fuller from a rafter and left him like that."

I took a mental step back from the picture the lawman had painted. Fuller didn't seem like the sort to commit suicide. He had seemed too weak for that, but then, I had a skewed opinion of the man.

"No, sir, I'm just here to tell you good folks that it's over with. The man responsible for doing this to your boys is dead, Mr. Cartwright. There may be others involved and we will round them up for trial. I have notified the state's attorney general of the situation out to the Fuller's ranch and its obvious use of illegal convict labor. I am sure once you are back home, that his office will contact you for more information. But for here and now in Whites Crossing, this matter is at an end for you folks." He looked over Pa's shoulder and met me straight in the eye as he went on, "And as soon as your boy can travel, I expect you to do just that: travel."

"Thank you, Sheriff. I can't really say that I'm sorry Lester Fuller committed suicide, but you are right. It's over. As soon as Joseph is able to travel, we will be headed home," Pa was saying as he escorted the other man to the door and saw him out.

Once the sheriff was gone, Pa turned back to face me. "Adam?"

I knew what he was thinking. "No, Pa, I was with Joe all night long. I never left him; even for an instant. Did I want to kill Fuller? Well, yes and no.  I wanted him to pay for what he did to Joe, but death would have been too easy on him." Then something inside me broke apart. "Pa, why do you think I would do this? Do you really think I could kill a man like that? Locked in a jail cell?" What have I done that you don't believe me any more?

As I watched, I saw Pa's chest rise as he inhaled deeply, his hands thrust deep into his pockets. "No," he slowly let the word go, "but you have always been a man of your word, Adam, and I heard you threaten Lester Fuller. You said you would kill him if Joe died. That is a powerful threat coming from someone like you."

"But Joe is alive, Pa, and he is getting better, isn't he? So why would I have killed Fuller?" It felt very strange to defend myself to my father like I was doing.

"Because of what he did do to your brother. And to you. If you thought he wouldn't pay for it-" Leaving his words hanging meaningfully, Pa went into Joe's room and closed the door behind him.

I sank down onto the settee there and put my head in my hands. Pa was right. I would have, but I hadn't. No, I told myself, Lester Fuller killed himself because he couldn't face up to what he had done. I turned those words around in my mind, trying to make them fit the profile of the kind of man Fuller was.  I couldn't do it, so instead, I tried to think of other people who might have had motive. There was Hoss, of course. He had the same motive that I did and he had the opportunity and the ability as well. Would he kill someone like that? Hang them? Make it look like a suicide? The more I thought about it, the more my thoughts said, yes. Hoss could kill someone with his bare hands and for the same reason I would have: to protect our family and ourselves. But would he have made it look like they had done it to themselves? For that question I came back to the same answer and reason: No, because we had been taught differently by our father. If your motive was pure enough to kill someone, it was righteous enough to stand up to scrutiny. The hanging of Lester Fuller was an act of someone who wanted it to look like a suicide. As for my father having killed Fuller, the answers were all the same as well. That left only two other possibilities.

First, was the possibility that Fuller had been killed by his cohorts in the crime; that Snake and the other man Joe had described had gotten into the jail and killed him. I rejected that quickly. Those men wouldn't have known they had been identified. There had simply not been enough time between Joe telling the sheriff and when the sheriff seemed to think Fuller had hung himself.

The other possibility made me shudder: that the sheriff had killed him. The more I thought about it, though, the more it made sense. He'd had the opportunity and I had seen how easily he handled his prisoner, so he also had the physical ability. What I couldn't come up with was why. What would his motive have been? Had he known what was happening, the use of convict labor on private property? But that happened all the time and there was nothing illegal about it. Nothing illegal, that is, if it was known to the prison authorities.

As I leaned my head back against the settee, my mind was whirling. The more I thought, the more questions I had to answer. And the more unsettled I became. I was sure of only three things: Lester Fuller had been killed and his murder covered up. I hadn't done it, and the only person who I knew could have was the Law.

"Adam!" Hoss called me from my mental wanderings. A glance up at him showed me his face screwed into his familiar worried expression. "You okay? I done called you three or four times!"

"Sorry, I was just thinking," I admitted and hoped to see the worry disappear from his face. It didn't.

"About what?" he pushed and I felt I had no alternative but to tell him. There again, I would have no greater ally.

"Can you see Fuller killing himself? I can't. He was just not the sort of person who'd do something like that," I explained, beginning to pace the room.

"Adam, you didn't know nuthin' about the man. How could you know what he would or wouldn't have done?"

Hoss was right. I didn't know the man at all. "I've run across his type a thousand times, Hoss.  Down deep, they are all the same: sniveling bastards who twist things and people to their way. Besides, if Fuller, and that is a big if, had gone to trial on the charge of attempted murder, he wouldn't have been hung. I am sure a smart lawyer would have gotten the charge reduced to assault, and even that would have probably gotten him a fine, maybe probation at the most."

"The way you explain it, I can understand that, Adam, but I don't understand what you're getting at."

"There would be only two reasons for Fuller to be dead, Hoss. The first one is that he knew something bigger, something more heinous, would come up in the trial that would have gotten him hung."

"Like what?" Hoss asked and for that I had no concrete answer.

"I'm not sure," I answered and for a while stared out the window. As I watched the street below, I saw just ordinary people going about ordinary errands. Over by the saloon, two old-timers sat whittling and talking, enjoying the warmth of the sun. Down the street, two little girls were busy playing with their dolls on a front porch. Directly across and down from where I stood was the sheriff's office. I could see a piece of paper stuck on the door with the bold letters proclaiming "Be Back Later Today". That struck me as odd. Surely the town had a deputy but then again, I had seen no evidence of one, just the sheriff.

"Well, what's the second reason, Adam?" Again Hoss'd had to pull me back into the room mentally.

"The second reason for him to be dead is that someone wanted him that way. Maybe for part and parcel of the first reason: he knew something they didn't want known." I took a deep breath and let it go slowly, making it feed my mind. "Hoss, this morning, did you hear anything over at the sheriff's office? Like someone excited and talking loud?" I had gotten the thought stuck in my head that an argument would have been heard, but only by Hoss or Pa, since where they had slept faced the street. I had been in with Joe and that room was away from the street. "Maybe shouts?"

Hoss shook his head, his face now full of puzzlement. "But Adam, for someone else to have killed Fuller and hung him up, they would have to get into the cell. And wouldn't the sheriff've had the keys? He don't strike me as a man that would leave the cell keys within easy reach of nobody."

"That's right, Hoss. Either we have read Fuller wrong and he did kill himself or the sheriff was in on his murder. Which do you think?"

Hoss just shook his head. I could see the seeds of doubt about Fuller's suicide that I had planted were beginning to take root. A part of me wondered what sort of fruit they would bear once the plant was fully mature. Then, a motion down in the street caught my attention.  It was the sheriff tying his horse up in front of his office. The horse was lathered up pretty good and it was plain to see that the animal had been run hard. Probably went out to Fuller's ranch to tell them to come claim the body, I thought. Or tell his accomplices what he's done.

Again I shook my head, trying to make all the pieces fall into the right order but they weren't going anywhere. I had been up most of the night and figured that some sleep would help those errant pieces of this puzzle go where they were needed. I turned and patted Hoss just once on the belly then told him I was going to sleep for a while and if he should think of anything, to wake me. Or if you need me, I added silently.

I tossed and turned a good while before I finally dropped off. When I did sleep, I dreamed of Fuller. I conjured up his face before me as I slipped a noose made of a torn blanket around his neck and threw the other end over a rafter. I envisioned his panicked scream as I pulled down and watched his feet rise from the floor. I could sense the tautness as I tied the makeshift rope to a cell bar. In my dream, I saw myself stand back, arms across my chest, waiting as Fuller jerked and spasmed his way to death. His eyes rolled white and he urinated on himself as his body fought for control, fought for denied breath. Then finally, in the dream, his body stopped convulsing but swung just a bit until he ultimately hung still, his tongue protruding, his eyes bulged, his clothing fouled. Then I saw myself turn and walk from the jail cell, closing the door behind me as I left.

I awoke abruptly, covered with a fine sheen of sweat as I panted for air myself. In the clear and stark world of reality, I wondered if what I had just dreamed had really happened or had I really only dreamed it. It seemed so incredibly realistic. As I lay back down, I could hear noises from the other room, the parlor. It was my father and brother talking. I was about to roll over and try to go back to sleep when I heard my name mentioned. It was Pa telling Hoss something. I sat back up to listen more keenly.

"…I know, son," Pa was saying, "but Adam is upset by what's happened. He is looking for some one or some thing tangible now. That's why he's coming up with these wild ideas. He wants to punish some one for what's happened and with Fuller now dead, he has no one. I'm sure once he gets a good rest, all this nonsense will stop."

"But Pa," Hoss' plaintive tone rang clear even though I know he was keeping his voice low. "Some of what Adam says makes sense."

"Even a mad man says things that makes sense occasionally."

"Like 'them two are in some kind of trouble. We'll head out. If we're lucky, they are just having trouble with the horses.' I remember hearin' you say them words and thinkin' you weren't all there, you was so worried 'bout your little boys bein' two weeks late getting home." I smiled to myself despite it all. So that was why I had found Pa and Hoss in Whites Crossing. They had been worried and come looking for Joe and I. But then I lost the lighter feeling. If they hadn't come, where would we be now?  I had survived the ordeal and made it to relative safety, and if Pa and Hoss hadn't been here, a telegram would have brought them fast enough. But no telegram would have been fast enough to help Joe. I lay back down and pulled the covers closer. No, without their help, Joe wouldn't have been found until it was too late. He would never have known how I struggled to find him.

I heard my father chuckle shortly and it snagged my attention back.

"That is entirely different," Pa said and in my mind's eye I could see him glaring at Hoss and daring him to say otherwise. "Hoss, Adam has had a serious blow to the head, the doctor said. When you add to it everything else, the lack of food and water, the worry about Joe, well, it would take an awfully strong man not to have problems like Adam is having right now. Like I said, he wants someone to blame, someone to lash out at."

"Like I said, Pa, a lot of what Adam says sounds right." Hoss was persistent.

"So what to you want to do about it? We can't very well go barging into the sheriff's office, demanding that he tell us all the details! If he were innocent of any complicity in Fuller's death, he wouldn't know them. And if he is guilty, do you think he would tell us?"

Pa was right. But I knew that I was right, too. I just had to find a way to prove it.


"Glad to see your appetite's back, big brother. Seein' you pick at that breakfast the other mornin' made me think too much of Joe had rubbed off on you!" teased my brother who never had a bit of problem eating. We were sitting in the little café across from the hotel late in the afternoon, having steaks with all the trimmings.

"Guess I was feeling a bit puny for a while," I halfheartedly admitted. "Well, did Pa tell you to baby-sit me, or is this strictly on your own?"

Hoss gave me a hurt look but I knew I had struck paydirt. "Kind of like both," he said, slicing into his steak again. "He said to keep a close eye on you and I was hungry, so it kind of matched up all the way around when you said you were headed out for something to eat."

For a while, we ate in companionable silence. The meal was satisfactory and once we finished the main course, decided to have pie and coffee for dessert. It was then that I struck up a conversation with the older gentleman across the aisle from us. I asked him about Lester Fuller's funeral.

The man looked at me a bit surprised then said that he didn't know Lester was dead. The lady who brought us our dessert also looked surprised at the news but said nothing.

I figured then that maybe the sheriff hadn't told many people in town. After all, suicide is an ugly event, but that little niggle of doubt came back to the forefront of my mind. Tossing my napkin down, I rose to my feet and told Hoss I was going to have a talk with the sheriff.

With Hoss dogging my heels, I barged into the sheriff's office. A shout from the backroom said that he would be out in just a moment. I would take that moment, I thought. I stepped closer to the one cell and looked into it for any sign of Lester Fuller's death. There had to be a telltale sign there, I just knew it! But the bed was made even though the floor was still dirty.

"Oh, it's you fellas," the sheriff huffed when he saw Hoss and I. I couldn't tell if he was relieved, concerned or just what. "What can I do for you?"

"Fuller," I spat the man's name out, "What happened to his body?"

"I took it out to his ranch earlier this morning. In case you missed it, this town doesn't have an undertaker. In this weather, it's best to get a body in the ground as fast as possible. Considering how he died, I thought it best if I hurried things along and took care of things myself. Lester and I go back a long ways, and I don't like the idea of folks talkin' 'bout him that way, you see."

I traded looks with Hoss. I wondered if he thought how convenient it was for Fuller to be buried that quickly and for it to be hushed up like that.

"Now, don't go telling me that you wanted to attend to his funeral!" the sheriff complained.

I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise and opened my mouth to say something back to the sheriff but Hoss grabbed my arm and aimed me for the door. As he did so, I could hear him thanking the sheriff for the information.

Once out on the street, I yanked my arm from Hoss' tight grasp.

"You keep your temper, ya hear me?" he demanded, seeing's how I was all in favor of returning to the sheriff's office and pressing him further. "I believe you when you say that some things aren't adding up right. But you go getting that fella," and Hoss threw a thumb in the direction of the door behind us, "riled and it will do us no good at all."

"So what do you want me to do about it? Ignore all this like it never happened? I can't, Hoss. There is some sort of a cover up going on concerning Lester Fuller's death."

"Adam, I got to thinkin' about some of the things you said earlier; about how no body heard nothin'; and now, that fella at the café didn't know Fuller was dead. The sheriff sayin' he took Fuller's body out to his ranch. There ain't been no wagon in front of this office. Look at the tracks at your feet."

I followed his instructions. Oddly enough, he was right. There were plenty of horse and foot prints but no wagon tracks. "Back door?" I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind.

"I didn't see one in the sheriff's office. Did you?"

I swallowed hard and turned to look back at the building behind me. I couldn't remember seeing one inside. I nudged Hoss and we went down the side alley and circled the buildings. The only back door there went to the café. The back wall of the combined jail and sheriff's office was solid.

"Maybe he took him out on a horse," I suggested but Hoss shook his head.

"Somebody in this town would have seen a body over a horse. Somebody would have asked who it was. Somebody would have started talkin' about it and then, because this ain't no big town, everybody would have known by now that Lester Fuller hung himself last night. That man in the café didn't know. Nor did our waitress."

Hoss was right and I told him so, then asked him where he was headed with this line of reasoning.

"Adam, the sheriff wants us out of town pretty bad right now. I don't know all the reasons why but I know one of them: Lester Fuller isn't dead."

My heart stopped beating for a few beats. When it resumed, it was going at a trip hammer rate. I grabbed at Hoss' arm and headed back to the hotel, trying to keep from running in my panic.


We explained it twice over to Pa but I didn't think we were getting anywhere. In fact, I could see it by the look in his eyes when he asked why the sheriff would have lied. When I could come up with no motive, no plausible motive, I could feel Pa's sympathetic hand on my shoulder. I saw his little nod to Hoss as he gestured for him to take me into the other room to rest. That was when I knew I had to play my ace in the hole.

"Pa, you may doubt me all you want but do you want to take that chance?"

Pa rounded on me like a cat on a mouse. "What chance? What are you talking about?"

"That Lester Fuller is alive, that the sheriff is in cahoots with him when it comes to using convict labor for whatever reason," I was nearly shouting but I dropped my voice back down to a near whisper when I finished with, "That one of them or their henchmen will come here, looking for Joe. That because he corroborates my story, that he could identify the head man as Fuller, he has to be silenced. That's the chance, Pa. Call me paranoid, call me crazy if you like, but don't ignore me, Pa."

"I am not calling you any of those things.  I am not ignoring you, Adam. I am trying to make you see how illogical this theory of yours is. Now, just supposing that you are right, what would you have us do?"

"Do what the sheriff suggested: get out of town. Get to the next town and wire for a federal marshal. Wire the attorney general, for that matter. Let them investigate the sheriff and Lester Fuller. See if they can figure out what's going on here. Meanwhile, we are holed up safe somewhere else. That's the first thing we have to do, Pa. We have to get out of here. We're sitting ducks in this room."

I could feel Pa's confusion beginning to melt away. I had done what I always did: I gave him a plan I thought was sensible. What I had neglected to mention was that I thought Hoss and I should return to Whites Crossing.

"There is no way Joseph can travel right now," Pa countered and I had to grudgingly admit that he was right.

"We've got to find a way, Pa," Hoss spoke up. "Maybe the doc can fix him up good enough so he can."

"The doctor has done everything he possibly can for your brother," Pa's words had a sharp edge to them.

"No," I said slowly and an old memory seeped into my thoughts as I spoke. "Pa, remember when Silas Banning busted his shoulder and Paul Martin had to operate on it to fix it back?" Silas was one of Pa's friends back in Virginia City and I knew he would remember a lot of what had happened to him. Pa nodded and I continued. "Paul kept telling his wife to make Silas move around, to sit him up as soon as he could. Why? Because when the doctor had to use ether, he said pneumonia could get into the lungs real easy. Sitting Silas up, making him move might make his lungs stay clear. This doctor has insisted that Joe stay still. Why? And don't tell me that I'm imagining this, Pa because you know this is true."

"Makes a whole lot of sense, Adam. I mean, Silas busted his shoulder but the doc was making him sit up and all. Joe's busted his legs! Should be easier for him to sit up than Silas. Lot less painful too," Hoss was saying, and I was close to hugging him for not just the words but the faith behind them. "Not only that, Pa, that doctor sure is plenty quick to force some of that painkiller down Joe's throat, whether he asks for it or not. That keeps Joe drugged up most of the time."

Pa stood there, as unmovable as one of the mountains that ring Lake Tahoe. I could feel his eyes burning into me. What I was suggesting was near to impossible for Pa to fathom. A doctor would not go out of his way unless…unless someone had threatened him… someone with an awful lot of authority on his side. Someone like a sheriff.

"All right," Pa said but his voice was so low, I almost didn't hear him say the words. "Tomorrow, you two get a wagon and get it fixed. I want enough padding in the back for Joe not to feel a single rut or chuckhole, do you understand? Get enough grub to last us two-three days at most. If anyone says anything, we are just going home. I'll come up with something if the doctor says we shouldn't be moving Joe. But Adam, let me make this perfectly clear. This is putting your brother's life in danger. I know you wouldn't do this if you weren't sure you were right. You said something about taking chances earlier. What we are doing is just that: taking a huge chance. Adam, you had better be right."

I had to smile for Pa. I knew I was right.


By mid-afternoon the next day, Hoss and I had things ready. The livery stable had had a wagon in good shape, which we had purchased for next to nothing, as well as a capable team to pull it. A part of me wondered why the price was so good but then I purposely quit thinking along those lines. It was getting to the point where the only people I found myself trusting were Hoss and Pa. The only reason why I didn't include Joe in that list was the fact that since he had awakened after his surgery that first time, he was too drugged to know what was truly happening around him.

The doctor had made a passing attempt at dissuading us from moving Joe. I had the distinct impression though that he wanted us gone. Once again I found myself comparing him to Paul Martin. If we had tried to do this when Joe was in Paul's care, Paul would have taken it into his head to lock us away from Joe. Then again, Paul had taken too good a care of my baby brother over the years to see all his handiwork messed up by a well-meaning family. And although Paul had occasionally urged painkillers down Joe's throat, he mostly let Joe decide when he needed it. This doctor had been pouring laudanum down Joe like it was water. Maybe that was why Pa had found it so easy to go along with the plan. He hated the sight of his little boy drugged into lifelessness the same way I did.

The one person I hadn't seen, and had expected to, was the sheriff. Hoss and I had made no attempt to hide what we were doing. I had kept looking over my shoulder, expecting to see either him, or even Lester Fuller leaning up against an upright, or skulking around the livery. The fact that we hadn't seen him made me more uneasy than if we had. I had mentioned it to Hoss but my bigger brother just told me to count my blessings and help him get the wagon fixed.

Now we were taking our last meal at the café. Hoss was having the pork chops and mashed potatoes. I had opted for the stew.

"You know the one thing I keep looking for to show up?" Hoss asked and shoveled into his mouth a forkful of potatoes and gravy. After he chewed and swallowed and I had only raised my eyebrows in reply he continued. "Your guns and holsters. They took 'em from you when they first kidnapped you, didn't they? Well, whoever else is in on this has a couple of real fine pieces now, don't they?"

I rolled this little revelation around in my head for a while. It was odd that I hadn't thought about the guns and holsters the same way I had the saddles. Our guns were both engraved with our initials on the butts and while my holster was nothing fancy or exceptional, Joe's left-handed rigging was. It had been a birthday gift from Pa when Joe turned sixteen. I remembered how he had wound up having to have it made especially for Joe since all the ones otherwise available were meant for right-handed people.

"You're right Hoss. They took them off us first thing. I don't remember seeing them again after that. Why didn't I think of them? Find them and we find-"

"A whole passel of trouble, boys," and when I looked for the man who had said the words, I saw the sheriff ambling towards our table. "Heard you folks were headed out of town. Headed home?"

I couldn't meet his gaze. I wanted so badly to reach up and grab a hold of his throat and threaten to squeeze the life out of him. All I wanted was to know why all of this was happening. From there I could figure out the rest of it, but he knew why and wasn't saying anything. Across the table from me, I could feel Hoss tense up as well but his single "yep," in answer to the sheriff held no clue to his feelings.

"Like I said, I'll wire the attorney general, round up the others responsible. You good folks can go back home and take it easy. Hope your brother turns out okay. Shame about his legs like that but Doc thinks they'll be okay." I wanted to smash him in the mouth for his empty platitudes.

"Thanks for your help, sheriff. We know you'll catch the others real soon. Just hope they don't do like Fuller did." Hoss jabbed at his pork chop with the same intensity I wanted to the sheriff now standing beside our table.

The sheriff thumbed his hat back and I looked up at him. It was looking up at him like that for the first time that I saw it. There was a faint resemblance between the sheriff and Lester Fuller. They both had the same dusty brown hair and their eyes, as I recalled Fuller's, were both a watery green. But their thin faces and high cheekbones made them look commonplace. Commonplace unless you watched that face as I had the night Lester Fuller had beaten my brother to the ground then taken a sledgehammer to his legs. My stomach turned in on itself as I saw that resemblance.  They were related somehow, I just knew it. Brothers maybe? No, it wasn't strong enough. Half-brothers? Possibly I thought but then decided that it didn't matter what the relationship was. There was part of the reason why some of the things had happened as they had. Blood is just thicker than water. The same way I would have done anything for one of my brothers, the sheriff and Lester Fuller would do as well.

"Have a safe trip. How will you all be headed out? Going up the main road to Turlock?" he was asking.

Quickly I jumped into the conversation, knowing that I didn't want anyone to know which way we were going. I told him that we would head towards Turlock then take the Elk River cut-off. "We have family there where Joe can recuperate for a while," I lied. Fortunately, the sheriff wasn't looking at Hoss or he would have known that I was lying.

The sheriff tapped the table once and nodded curtly. "Janey," he called to the waitress, "Just put these here meals on my tab. It's the least this town can do for all the trouble these good folks have had here." Then he turned and walked out the door.

My stomach went queasy and I wanted to vomit up the meal just because he was paying for it.


I couldn't sleep that night so I didn't wake Hoss to relieve me from Joe's bedside. Like me, Joe seemed to be restless but there was enough laudanum in his system that he was still half-sleeping. It was long after midnight when his eyes flipped open.

"You okay?" I asked him softly.

Joe nodded then asked for a drink of water. I poured some into the glass there and lifted him up enough so he could drink from the glass as I held it for him. I was alarmed by how weak he was. I settled him back into his pillows and fought the urge to do what Pa would have done: brush back his hair from his forehead.

"Did Pa tell you? We're headed out of here tomorrow morning," I said, making small talk. "Hoss and I have a wagon all fixed for you. Soft bed in back and all."

He didn't respond and I figured it was the effects of the medications still; but he didn't seem inclined to close his eyes and go back to sleep.

"Anything I can get for you? Do for you?"

It seemed to take a long time for him to answer and when he did, his voice was so reed-thin that I almost didn't hear it. "Help me," he said, then paused, drawing strength from God knows where. "Help me turn some."

It was such a simple request but at the same time, it came with such a crushing force behind it. Here he was, too weak to turn his own body. Rolling over in bed was something that everyone else took for granted but Joe couldn't do it on his own. He had to ask for help for something so ordinary. I knew that with his legs splinted like they were that he would have trouble managing them but it had never occurred to me that the many beatings he had taken and then the enforced inactivity would have made his body stiff.

"Sure," I said, and smiled to hide my own feelings. I slipped my hands beneath the blankets and rolled him to his side. His legs I pulled into a more comfortable bent position and balanced the top one on a pillow. "How's that?"

His eyelids were growing heavy and he fought with them for just a few moments. Then he smiled and pressed the side of his face into the pillows. That was my only answer. I didn't really need any more.

I must have dozed off myself because the next thing I knew, Pa was shaking my shoulder. Some time in the night, I had leaned over and rested my head on the side of the bed next to Joe and fallen asleep.

"Come on, Adam," Pa was calling me softly. "Hoss has gone to get the team hitched and the horses ready. I need you to help me."

I pushed back from the bed and ran my hand over my face, brushing the cobwebs of lost sleep away as I did.

"Pa, until last night, I didn't realize how truly bad a shape Joe's in. He's awful weak. Maybe we shouldn't be taking him out of here. Maybe we are making a mistake."

Pa put his hand up to stop my impromptu speech. "No, no second guessing on this Adam. I've come to the conclusion that you are right. Something isn't right here. I don't know what it is but my first instinct is the same as yours. Protection. You and Hoss and I can take care of ourselves but Joe is helpless right now. Even with one of us with him at all times, what would happen to him if that one of us was hurt, distracted or killed? Joseph wouldn't stand a chance. No, the best thing to do is just what we are doing: taking him and ourselves to someplace safer. Someplace away from here until we figure out what's happening."

I swallowed the lump in my throat. I felt an unseen weight lift from my shoulders when Pa said that I was right and that he agreed with me.


When the sun hit the highest point in the sky, we came to a halt. The team, good as they were, needed a break. Pa and Hoss, each leading a string of new mares, had found a stream to water them. There in the high desert country, there was little in the way of shade for man or beast, and even less water.

As they cared for the livestock, I cared for Joe. It had been a painful ordeal for him to get into the back of the wagon. He had done his best to not give in to the pain his legs brought him when they were moved. I saw him go from flushed red to gray to white and wondered how he could manage to not scream out. No, all he had done was moan deep in his throat and bite down on his lower lip. So now as we pulled to a noon stop, I wondered if we should help him from the back of the wagon. I stood beside the wagon and asked him.

"We're gonna be stopped for a while. The only shade would be here beside the wagon, Joe. You want to try and get down here? I'll do what I can to rig you a tarp or something to keep the sun off you if you want to stay in the wagon."

"No," Joe answered and grabbed at the side of the wagon with one hand, "If you'll help me, I'll get out. Would like to say that I'd stretch my legs but that'd be silly wouldn't it?"

By the time Joe and I had managed to get him seated on the wagon tailgate, Hoss and Pa were there too. We tried to act like there was nothing wrong and like we did this everyday of our lives, but it was forced, and we all quit trying after a while. We got Joe situated on a blanket spread in the shade of the wagon, propped against a wheel. Lunch consisted of thick fried slices of bacon and coffee. Joe ate very little but seemed to be getting into things a little more. I mean he joked with us briefly as we ate, taking the lead in aiming jibes at Pa's poor cooking.

Since we had decided to rest the horses for a while, once we ate, there was nothing to do. Because I had slept so little the night before, I found myself dozing off there in the shade beside Joe. Twice I jerked myself awake and scanned the terrain, expecting an unseen enemy to appear there. Both times, I saw that Pa and Hoss were about the small camp as though guarding us.

When it came time to hitch up the team and move on, I realized how much I had needed to rest. My body, stiff and sore from sleeping there on the ground, protested with a variety of creaks and pops as I climbed back onto the high seat of the wagon. Joe roused enough to tease me but when one leg accidentally hit the end of the wagon, all teasing stopped. He drew in a quick breath and held it for what seemed to me an eternity then he hissed that we needed to get it over with quickly. I got him settled then, sitting back on my heels, I appraised his condition. He can't do this, I thought. He's too weak. He's in too much pain.

"What are you looking at?" he fussed, his lower lip jutting out just a hair. For that split second, he looked more like a ten-year-old than he had at ten! Here was the little brother I knew come peeking out from behind the terrors of the past week. In just those words was the defiant and cheeky brother that both infuriated me and entranced me. He was having trouble but in typical Joe fashion, wouldn't ask for help until the problem, any problem, overwhelmed him.

"You. That's what I'm looking at! You. You promised me before we left Virginia City that you would get a haircut." I moved forward and crawled over the back of the wagon seat. "You promised me in Tucson, before we left for home, that you would get a haircut." I picked up the reins and flicked them over the back of the waiting team. "And I know the next thing you are going to say: 'Adam, just as soon as we get home, I'll get a haircut.'  Well?"  As the wagon began to move off, I glanced behind me. I couldn't see his face so I couldn't see if he was smiling or not but I wouldn't have bet against it. "You got any thing to say?"

To my challenge, Joe just dropped his head back and looked up at me. "Nope, you done said it all, as usual, big brother."

It felt good to laugh with Joe again.


We only went on for another three hours before Pa called a halt.

"This is as good a place as any for camp tonight. I'm sorry we couldn't make it into town, Joseph. I'm sure you would rest easier in a hotel," Pa was almost smiling as he spoke.

Joe rose to the bait. "No, you would sleep better in a bed, Pa. Hoss and Adam and I, we do okay on the trail, rolled into our bedrolls."

"Speak for yourself," Hoss ripped back as he lumbered by, intent on unhitching the team. "I mean, take a look where you been all afternoon then compare it to where the rest of us been."

"Adam, why don't you and I take a look around. We need some firewood." Pa was pulling on my arm. I figured he wanted Joe and Hoss to have some time together but I was wrong.

Once out of hearing range and just beyond some tall boulders, Pa halted.

"Have you see it?" he asked and I had to confess that I had no idea what he was talking about. "We're being followed. I caught the reflection off something metallic behind us at lunch. I'd say whoever it is, they are maybe two, three hours behind us."

"Hoss see it too?" I asked, fearing my own paranoia had claimed another member of the family.

"Yes," came Pa's curt answer. "I figure they won't try anything until dark but we need to be ready."

"I agree," I replied and saw Pa's shoulders droop just a little in fatigue.


The temperature dropped with the setting of the sun. The campfire we had built, we kept low. We all made a pretense of turning in, not wanting to alarm Joe. Tucked into his soft bed in the back of the wagon, I was afraid for him. I crawled up to sit beside him for a while but I was actually scanning the rocks and draws for whoever it was that had followed us. Once again, he had asked my help to get himself positioned, rolled to his side, his back to the side of the wagon and his legs bent. I couldn't turn him down and once again, I did as he asked.

"Cold?" I asked him, hunching into my own coat a little further. I couldn't for the life of me figure how he could be since he had several blankets over him.

"Just my feet, but they stay that way nowadays. Guess it's from wearing boots all my life. My feet feel naked without 'em."  

"Well, I know how to fix that." I got out of the wagon and proceeded to pull two of the rocks we had circled the firepit with into one of my own blankets. I took them back to the wagon and lifting Joe's blankets, laid them bundled right next to his feet. "How's that," I asked when I had finished.

"Perfect, except for one thing. How are you gonna keep warm tonight, seeing how you just gave me your blanket? Or are you gonna swap off with Hoss when he comes in from guard duty?"

I looked down at Joe and asked him how he knew.

"Simple. I saw the same thing Pa and Hoss did. Been keeping track of them most of the afternoon. Well, when I wasn't taking a nap."

"How many?" I asked, careful to keep my voice low so Pa wouldn't know what we were talking about.

"I'd say four riders and they are comin' hard. When we stopped at noon, they did too, so they must have been waiting for night to come on in. Who is it, Adam?"

I shook my head and said that I didn't know. "But there is a lot about this I don't know, Joe. Every time I think I have an answer it only leads to other questions."

"Like what?" he asked and I figured maybe if I voiced the questions he might be able to help me answer them. After all, he had been in this mess with me from the beginning.

"Like why did they take us prisoners to begin with?" Joe shrugged. I went on. "And that road out by the quarry. That was important to them. Why? The quarry was filling with water so it couldn't have been a mining operation. Why use the convict labor if not to keep it a secret? Why have a secret road?" Again I paused and looked to Joe. Again he shrugged and I continued. "And did the sheriff lie about Lester Fuller killing himself? If he lied to us, why?" I would leave out the quandaries I had about the doctor's role in this. Joe didn't need that worry.

"You sure Fuller didn't kill himself?" Joe challenged as I settled down next to him.

"He had no reason to, Joe. Besides," I took a deep breath and remembering the dream I had had, I plunged on. "When Hoss and I went into the jail afterwards, the cell looked like no one had been in it. The bed was even made, for God's sake. Sure there was dirt on the floor, but-" When I said that, I paused. I mingled my dream memory and what I had seen in the sheriff's office. I knew what happened when a man was hung. That was why the dream had been so lifelike to me. What I had seen in the cell didn't match up. At the very least, the dirt on the floor would have been scuffed, and it hadn't.  There also hadn't been enough time for that smell of a human losing control over his bodily functions to dissipate. That was when I knew with all certainty that Hoss was right. Lester Fuller was very much alive.

"What else about the sheriff?" Joe probed gently when I hadn't said anything more.

I guess my blank look shook him. He called to me, hissing my name sharply into the night air.

"The sheriff and Lester Fuller are related some how. Brothers or half brothers maybe" and I proceeded to tell him about seeing the sheriff at the same angle I had Fuller.

"Well that answers your question about why the sheriff did what he did," Joe said simply. "After all, look what you went through for me."

I had to stop my rambling thoughts when he said that. I looked down at him and saw him and saw beyond him as well. I saw him lying on the filthy straw in the prison barn. I saw him in a crumpled heap at the foot of that slope. I saw him twisting and writhing with pain. I saw him too weak to be able to move himself. Most of all, I saw how each and every time, he had looked at me with such trust in his eyes that I couldn't stand it.

"You tried to escape with me after I talked you into it that first night. Lot of good that did, you listening to me! Then when you did get away, you came back looking for me. You went and got help and came for me. And now, when I'm too tired and too damn weak to help myself, there you are. My brother. Always helping me. Always there for me."

He was right. I had gone through a lot but had brushed it aside. I was just doing what I was supposed to do: protecting my baby brother. I didn't say anything else to him. I just pulled a skewed blanket back to right and up around his shoulders.

"Go to sleep. You are distracting me from watching out for you," I teased but I was serious at the same time.

Throughout the long cold night, I sat beside him watching and thinking. When the sun first cast long rosy fingers of new light across the sky, the expected attack had not come, and I was no closer to answering all the questions I had listed off to Joe the night before.

We were all tired. It had been the second night in a row with very little sleep, if any.  I watched my father most anxiously. He had spent too many hours going without proper rest while Joe and I had tried to recuperate back in Whites Crossing. He was paying an especially heavy price, I thought. Looking at Hoss too, and watching him hitch up the team that morning, I knew that his normally genial temperament was being stretched thin as well. As I swung up onto the wagon seat, I wondered how much longer we could keep going. Long enough to reach the sanctuary of the next town? I doubted it but kept those fears to myself.

The weather had moderated somewhat. The scorching heat of the past few days was gone now, replaced by a sky sprinkled with clouds and a light breeze blowing in our faces. The horses seemed to appreciate the change and they moved along at a fair clip until we brought them to a halt a little before noon.

I had spent half my time looking ahead and the other half looking over my shoulder. We were still being followed but for the life of me, I couldn't understand why they were holding back. Since I had had my thoughts elsewhere, I had not noticed that the sky seemed to be clouding over. Hoss noticed and while we scrounged up wood for a fire, he pointed it out to me.

"Rain, you think?" I puzzled aloud. "Wonder what our escorts back there will do when it hits?"

Hoss paused and sniffed the air. "Nope, no rain, but the breeze is picking up some. The road to Turlock cuts through here in about another four or five miles. I imagine our friends will want to see which way we head before they make their move."

I grunted so that he would know I agreed with him. With our arms barely half full of poor stuff for a fire, Hoss and I circled back to camp. There, I wearily dropped down beside the pit Pa had dug for the fire. I must have made some sort of noise that gave me away since the next thing I knew, Pa was on me about my ribs again.

"They're fine. I'm just sore, that's all Pa." I tried to allay his fears but I am sure I wasn't getting very far because the next thing I knew, he was pestering me to lift my shirt so he could check on the bandages the doctor had wrapped about my torso so tight that I often had trouble breathing deep. Of course, that had been the whole idea in the first place. "The bandages are still plenty tight, Pa."

Pa scowled at me. "This afternoon, Hoss will drive the wagon. Tie that string of mares to the sides, Hoss. Adam, I want you in the back resting."

I saw a mischievous grin bust out on Joe's face and wondered if he had put Pa up to it. Then I just as quickly decided that it didn't take any prodding on anyone's part for Pa to get anxious about the health of one of his sons. Truly I didn't want to ride in the back of the wagon. There was very little room back there when you lumped in the two saddles, camping gear and Joe. I had just opened up to say something when a burst of wind sprayed sand in my face. I wiped it away and looked across to see Hoss' face wide open with shock. Quickly I turned and looked in the same direction he was looking.

There, maybe a mile from us, maybe less, it looked like a wave coming at us. A dark and ominous wave. Since we were no where close to the ocean, there could have been only one thing in that 'wave': sand.

Pa was shouting out orders. "Hoss, drag that bedding out of the wagon. Get it over between those rocks. Adam, get Joe over there. Both of you get under it for protection. Hoss, we'll turn the wagon on its side, use the tarp tied to the wheels to cover the team and Buck and Chubb. I'll cut the other horses loose."

It all happened so fast that I truly lost a sense of what was going on. All I knew was that Joe and I wound up together, holding onto the feather mattress as we laid side by side in the crevice between the rocks. The wind ripped and tore at our grasp but I was able to hold it on top of us. For just the briefest of moments, I wondered where our followers were and if they had found shelter. Then I decided that I really didn't care. In fact, maybe letting the howling sandstorm strip the flesh from their bones was a good idea. The wind howled around the rocks and in my mind's eye I could see it wiping away everything before it, like an eraser on a chalkboard. There was only one problem. It was so loud that it forced all coherent thought from my head after the first few minutes. The temperature dropped and I went from sweating in the stifling heat to shivering, wishing for my jacket. I could feel Joe beside me and knew without even trying to be heard that he was in the same predicament.

I lost my sense of time so I don't know how long we laid there, jammed between the rocks with that mattress pulled over us. It seemed like hours but it couldn't have been because when the mattress was pulled back, there was still sunlight.

And in it, stood the man I knew as Lester Fuller.

"Come out of there," he hissed and gestured with the revolver in his hand.

When I was able to get to my feet, I reached back to Joe, but Fuller shoved me away. "Get over there with the others," he commanded and as I looked towards the wagon I saw the sheriff and two other men holding guns on Pa and Hoss. I tried staying put, but Fuller roughly propelled me towards them.

As we watched, Lester Fuller reached down and grabbed hold of Joe's arm and dragged him, literally dragged him, from between the rocks. Joe fought him but he was no match for Fuller. Fuller seemed delighted by the fact that he had Joe so completely at his mercy.

"Isn't it amazing?" Fuller chuckled at his own arcane thoughts "Take a good look at your family, Cartwright. You ever begin to wonder what went wrong? It's like your seed gets tired or something and lo and behold, look what you wind up with: offspring that got no gumption, no size. They're the weak ones. Happens in every family, I swear. You get that child that just don't seem to belong to you, he's so weak and puny."

"He's that way because he" and Pa threw an angry gesture at Fuller, "made him that way!" Pa roared and would have grabbed hold of the sheriff's throat. But the man with the arrowhead scar on his face pushed a rifle barrel into Pa's chest and brought him up short.

The sheriff, now devoid of his tin star, I saw, barked out a single laugh and nudged Joe with the toe of his boot. "Yeah, when I first got a look at you and your older boys, I thought for sure Lester had made a bad mistake. Then I got a look at this scrawny, piddlin', whinin' little son of a bitch and I knew he had!"

I couldn't see Joe's face but I knew he had to be mad.

"You made a mistake all right, mister," Hoss seethed, and I saw his huge hands bunch into fists.

"And that is something else I have noticed. The bigger ones always trying to protect the little ones. Big man," and he addressed Hoss directly, "you are through protecting anybody."

The silence was overwhelming. I could even hear Joe struggling to breathe around what must have been nearly intolerable fear. I could see his shoulders moving as he leaned onto his forearms, his body twisted in the sand. He looked up then and his eyes looked straight at me. There was no fear there on his face, only resignation. Resignation for what I think we both knew would be a horrible death for him. Lester Fuller and the sheriff would see to that. I tried to signal Joe with my eyes to do nothing but before I was certain I had gotten the message to him, he looked down.

"Yep, terrible accident. That nice family from Virginia City way, the Cartwrights. Looks like they got caught in a sandstorm. Accident with the wagon killed them all. Wouldn't you say that's what happened, Lester?" the sheriff smiled as he spoke. It reminded me of the oily smile a cardsharp uses when he knows he has all the aces in his hand.

"Snake," Fuller called to the fourth man. "See what you can find. I think we need some rope. Drag the bodies a ways so it makes it harder to see the bullet holes."

My stomach flopped just once when I realized what they were up to. Killing us wasn't going to be enough for them. They were going to go beyond that. For an insane moment, I wanted me to be the first one they killed so that I wouldn't see what they would do to Pa and my brothers.

"Why?" I blurted out, actually wondering why they were taking their time. Then I realized I had to know the answers to my questions before I died. I repeated my question and I saw them pause. When they hadn't answered, I asked again, knowing that a vain man like the sheriff would want his victims to fully savor their impending deaths. He would seek to justify himself.

The sheriff raised his watery green eyes and looked me full in the face. "For the simplest of reasons: you know too much."

I wanted to scream that I knew nothing. That my family knew nothing but I kept silent, merely cocking my head to one side. I even tried to give him a lopsided smile to try and un-nerve him. It failed, I was sure.

"When Brad and Snake saw you and your brother out on the plateau that day, they were scoutin'. There was supposed to be a party of surveyors comin' through for the railroad. We'd heard the railroad was gonna head south of here. Couldn't have that happen. We'd also heard that there was some dishonest folks movin' the survey stakes." Snake and Brad smiled crookedly at one another, leaving no doubt who was actually moving the markers. "But when they come upon you two and your string of ponies, they figured you had seen them. That's when they brought you to the house." Fuller paused and spat a stream of brown tobacco juice into the sand at his feet, narrowly missing Joe. "Course they was wrong but by the time they figured that out, you had seen the work detail" The tremor of pain that went through Joe's body was echoed in my own, but thankfully, Fuller didn't notice or he would have pounced on it.

"That's something I can't figure out. The prison chain gang. Why was it such a secret? Why did you cover up the fact they had been there?" I asked and saw the sheriff narrow his eyes when he looked at me. I'd hit a nerve.

"We couldn't use regular hands to build the road and deepen the quarry. Those hands would talk in town. Didn't want any one in town to know that the railroad was gonna miss them by about a half day's ride. I'd arranged for a chain gang to do some road building before. Public road building that is. This was for more private reasons. See before a railroad lays track, they got to have three things: land, a road to move their supplies to 'em and -"

"Water," I said aloud and all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. "The quarry isn't really a quarry after all is it? It's a spring and you were digging it deeper and broader so it would have more water in it. The railroad can have just about any of the land it wants out here in the high desert. It can also build its own roads, but the man who controls the source of good water out here will determine where the railroad will go."

"And Lester and I control the water." The sheriff smugly rocked back on his heels. "Yep, you know too much, like I said. Now that's enough talkin'."

"And you and Lester are brothers," I pushed.  Part of me wanted to confirm my guesses.  A stronger part just wanted to keep him talking; to keep my family alive and well for even a few seconds longer. "You both own the water so you had to cover up for your brother, sheriff, or everyone would know you had turned your back on the law. You couldn't arrest your brother and have him come to trial so you concocted the suicide story."

"So what if we're brothers? Well, half brothers really. Our Ma, God rest her soul, married Lester's pa and got the ranch when he died. When Ma died, Lester and I both inherited the place. Now, like I said, enough talkin'."

"No!" Joe shouted and turned to glare up at Fuller and the sheriff, standing not two feet away from where he lay. The sheriff turned and looked at Joe and I truly thought Joe was beyond all reasoning; the look of black anger was so stark on his face. "Which one are you, sheriff? You the weak one in your family? Or is it Lester here? I'm betting it's Lester."

Even now I shudder to remember what Joe did. With one leg, he struck out at Lester Fuller's closest leg, kicking it with all he had in him. Joe screamed in agony and it pushed all of us into motion.

I reached out and wrenched at the rifle the sheriff was brandishing but he held fast to it. I slammed a shoulder into his gut and the two of us went down in a heap. Although I couldn't spare the effort, I did look to one side and saw that Hoss had taken on the bigger man, Snake and seemed to be getting somewhere in rendering him ineffectual. I wanted to search for Pa but the sheriff was coming back at me, his stiff fingers groping for my face. I couldn't turn loose of the rifle so I bit down hard on his hand, bringing the taste of his blood to my mouth. When he pulled back his hand, he let go of the rifle with the other. That was all I needed. With both hands grasping the barrel, I used it like a club and swung double handed at the sheriff. It only hit a glancing blow off the man's back but it was sufficient to knock him from his feet. The stock of the rifle was now shattered and I threw the useless gun away. I didn't want to shoot him. I wanted to kill him with my bare hands. He had started to get to his knees when I shoved his face back into the sand and straddled his back, now bloody from a gash I had opened there. The sight of his blood made my own sing and I grabbed a handful of his thin brown hair and slammed his face into the sand again and again.

From a distance, I heard Pa calling my name, over and over again. Something was trying to pull me away from my appointed task of obliterating the sheriff. Finally it got through to me and I stopped. It was like I had come back to life, Pa's hand pulling me away for the still and prostrate body of the sheriff.

"Adam, no!" Pa was shouting at me. I looked down at my hands. They were clenched around the sheriff's throat and there was blood on the sand. I let Pa pull me away.

"I want him dead, Pa," I managed to hoarsely whisper, but I couldn't look at my father when I said it. Instead, I looked over his shoulder. There Hoss stood, a rifle leveled at Fuller and his two ranch hands. Joe was off to one side, half-sitting, half-laying but breathing hard, a rivelet of blood running down from beside his eye.

"I know you do, son, but that isn't for us to do," Pa pleaded with me, his hands holding onto my shoulders as though he thought he could stop me. He could and he did. He was my father after all and I owed him my obedience Looking at my brother's broken legs again, I wondered how much I owed to him. I looked back at where the sheriff was just beginning to stir back to life, his breath coming in wheezing gasps. Perhaps I started to turn, but whatever it was that gave away my thoughts, Pa read them. He tightened his grip on my shoulders and twisted me so that I had no choice but to face him. "No," he said firmly.

Every fiber of my being wanted to argue with Pa. All I wanted was another few minutes with the sheriff and Lester Fuller and neither one of them would ever do what they had again. Their dreams of growing rich off the railroad would evaporate as quickly as the smile had on my brother's face. I would see to it. Maybe then, I could sleep nights, knowing that they were burning in Hell.

"No," Pa said again.

Hoss was looking in my direction and he also echoed Pa's single word. "No, Adam, let the Law, the real Law, handle this."

I waited, my own breathing now dropping back to normal. Joe raised his head and looked at me. As I looked down at him, I let my eyes ask him what he wanted. He wearily shook his head "no", then let his chin drop back onto his chest. That wasn't the answer I expected but it was the answer I got. I nodded briefly to Pa and he let me go.

While Hoss and Pa tended to our prisoners, tying their hands together, I sat with Joe. Using a little water from our canteens, I wiped away the trickle of blood from his face, relieved to find only a minor cut there. He surprised me when he asked if I knew where the painkiller was that the doctor from Whites Crossing had given us. I thought that he had to have been hurting pretty badly to ask for it. With a little searching, I found it and gave him some of it. All the while, I felt Fuller's eyes following my every move.

Hoss went off to find the horses that the other four had ridden and Pa went to tend to our own stock. That left Joe and I with the prisoners. I had to do it. I had to have my say if nothing else. Squatting in front of Lester Fuller, I saw him wince as though in pain when I jerked him upright by the front of his shirt.

"You listen to me real good, you miserable excuse for a man. That" and I pointed to where Joe sat propped against the rocks, wrapped in a blanket, "is more of a man than you will ever be. So I don't ever want to hear you call him weak, or puny again, or so help me God, I will hold you while he beats the living Hell out of you. And if he doesn't finish the job of beating you to death, I will. And just so you understand me real well-" I put my fist in his soft gut real hard. He would have fallen if I hadn't had my other hand full of his shirt, holding him up. "And another thing," I couldn't let him go easily, "there is nothing wrong with one brother helping and protecting another. If you had an ounce of brains, you would see that he," and my chin jutted towards where the sheriff was rolled into a fetal position in the dry sand, "tried to do the same for you. I can't understand why since as a brother you are just as miserable an excuse as you are a man." I let him drop to the ground, suddenly feeling dirty for just having touched him.


Within three days, we had dropped our prisoners off with a territorial marshal who promised a full investigation. He also promised a speedy trial on the charges that we were able to place against them that day. It didn't help their cause one bit when Snake and Brad turned state's witnesses on them either.

We took one day and rested there. We needed it badly. Pa, of course, had to have a doctor check out his sons at the very first opportunity.  Joe, I could understand.  After kicking Fuller, I thought he would have needed some medical attention, but the doctor said he could find nothing amiss and re-splinted the leg. I tried to tell Pa I didn't need to see another doctor, but he insisted, so I gave in and the doctor came to the same conclusion I had: my ribs were healing fine. He did take the precaution of re-wrapping my chest and I had just started being able to breathe again too.

And then we were home. How can I explain how good it felt to be home? I felt like I had hung on just long enough to get there, have a hot bath and one of Hop Sing's tremendous meals before my will power to stay upright gave out. Once I had fallen into my own bed, I was asleep. A deep and dreamless sleep that lasted maybe half the night before I was up and prowling the house. I couldn't put my finger on why, but I was afraid of something. After I had checked things over without making too much noise, I headed back upstairs. By instinct I stopped at Joe's door and eased it open.

The light on his bedside table was turned low so I could see that he was awake. He smiled a little and I went on into the room, closing the door softly behind me.

"You can't sleep either?" he asked me.

I shrugged and sat down in the chair beside his bed. "Got the willies for some reason. What about you?"

"Can't get comfortable."

I had to chuckle. The first thing Pa had done when we had gotten home was to send for Paul Martin. The first thing the good doctor had done was slap heavy plaster casts on both Joe's legs.

"Don't laugh, Adam. These things are heavy! Geeze, if you thought those splints were hard to handle, you ought to try these things. Feels like I got Hoss tied to my legs," he fussed. I could see he was trying to make light of feeling miserable so I commiserated with him.

"Here," I offered and rolled the spare quilt at the foot of his bed into a long flat roll then slipped it under his casted legs, raising them just enough to take the pull off already sore back muscles. "That better?"

He closed his eyes and sighed deeply. "Oh, yeah."

For a little while we just sat together in the dim lamplight. When I thought he had dropped off to sleep, I started to rise but he called me back. "Adam, wait a minute? I wanted to ask you something."

I settled back into the chair and folded my hands in front of me. "Shoot."

"That day that the sheriff, and Fuller and them caught up to us," he spoke hesitantly as though to say their names would make them appear. I nodded so he would know to continue. "You said something that kind of hung with me. Did you mean it?"

I leaned forward and put my elbows on my knees and buried my chin in my crossed hands. "What makes you think I didn't mean everything I said? That you are far more a man than either one of them is a given, little brother. And, yes, for what they did to you, I wanted them dead."

"If Pa hadn't been there, do you really think you would have killed them both?" he asked softly. "For breaking my legs?"

"It was more than that, though considering how they did it, breaking your legs might have been motive enough," I told him honestly. "The reason I wanted to kill them, though, was for forcing me to make a choice.  To choose between my life and yours.  To leave you behind in the hope that one of us might live, or to stay behind and probably die with you."

"But I told you to go." I heard the faint thread of stubbornness in his soft voice and had to smile.

"You also told me to come back. That put a real heavy load on my shoulders, Joe." I was only half jesting and we both recognized the fact. "Made it tough on your older brother, you did."

"I never doubted for a moment that you would, Adam." Joe's smile warmed the room.

"You two are supposed to be sleeping," came Pa's stern voice from the doorway.

We both glanced at one another, then looked away, Joe sinking further into the bed. I helped him hide by pulling the blankets up further.

"I was just leaving Pa," I lied easily and patted the solid shoulder under my hand.

Pa stood at the side of the door, his hand holding the doorknob, and he harrumphed once as I slipped out into the hallway. With a warning glance behind him at Joe, he closed the door.

"Everything all right?" he asked and I found his hand on my arm, lightly holding me back from a hasty retreat to my own room.

"Yeah. He just needed to talk…we just needed to talk about something, was all."

Pa dropped his head a little to one side and looked at me with a shadow of doubt in his eyes. "Is it…all taken care of now?"

"Sure," I said and gave a false smile. Would it ever be over?  I truly wondered.

He patted my arm and I turned back to my room, expecting him to head on to his own, there across the hallway from Joe's. He didn't. He followed me into mine and closed the door behind him.

"Adam, something is bothering you. What is it, son?" he pried gently at the wall I had built around myself.

"It's all right Pa. Really it is." I began unbuttoning my shirt but my fingers fumbled with the buttons and I couldn't seem to get my eyes to focus on them.

"No, it isn't 'all right'. Are you feeling-" he began to query.

I jumped in with a quick reply that I was feeling okay. It wasn't a lie. My body was okay and I knew that given time, my mind would catch up to it as well. Then I would sleep nights and not feel like there was someone watching me all the time.

My father can say more with silence sometimes than a politician can with words. This was one of those times. I could feel his presence there at my back. I could hear him take a deep breath and hold it, he was so close. Maybe that was what broke me; him being so close and yet so far from me. Mentally, I could see another plank fall from the wall around me.

"When you and Hoss," my words stumbled and I had to stop and regroup them. "In Whites Crossing, when I told you what happened, you acted like you didn't believe me. Did you? Or did you think I would have-" Again I stumbled with my words and I couldn't go on.

"Did I doubt you?  Some, because some of the facts weren't adding up. I think you can understand that." I nodded. That I did understand. I knew then that I must have sounded like a raving lunatic. "But," Pa went on. "Did I think you had abandoned your brother? No. I know my sons better than that."

I hung my head. I felt Pa take another step closer to me and I felt his hands come to rest easily on my shoulders, but I still couldn't face him.

"Joe had such faith in me, Pa," I whispered to the dark wall in front of me, "but when I thought you didn't, I found I couldn't make one work without the other. I knew that if I got to Joe, if I fulfilled his belief in me, maybe I could rekindle the same in you." I felt Pa's hands tighten on my shoulders.

"I am sorry that you felt like that, son. I was trying to protect you and I was wrong, I guess." Another plank dropped away from my wall. I knew if I moved the barest amount backwards, I would find my father's chest, we were that close. The two warring factions within me flared. I could remain the stoic and step away, reinforcing my own belief that I needed no one but myself to go on. Or I could take that step back and find my father's loving arms around me to hide me. To hold me and tell me that it was all over, and that we were all safe, like he had when I was a boy. Except I couldn't do that without telling him the whole truth.

"Pa, I have to say this to someone or it is going to tear me apart."

"Go on," Pa's deep voice was right there next to my head.

"When I left that prison gang…when I ran away…at first I did it because-" and my voice wouldn't go any further.

But Pa knew what I was trying to say. "You did it because you wanted to survive. Once you knew you would survive, the desire to return for your brother kicked in."

"I've let everyone think that I did it for Joe. That I did it all for him. That isn't true, Pa. I did it for myself. I'm sorry, Pa."

"What would have happened if you had not survived, Adam? Joe wouldn't have either, in all likelihood. So you have nothing to be sorry about, son. Adam," Pa whispered to me, turning me and pulling me to him. He understood. Without me saying the words he knew and understood what I had needed from the very beginning. "It's all right, Adam. Sometimes you have to have more strength to survive, then comes the concern for someone else's safety. That is when a man shows his real character, when he returns. And when he allows himself to cry for someone other than himself."

When he said that, all the reserve in me crumbled. The façade of strength I showed to the world dropped away from me as he gathered me to him, holding me tight against his chest as I cried. I could feel my legs giving way but I was powerless to stop my slow slide to the floor. Pa went with me, never turning loose of me. Over and over again I heard him say my name as he stroked my hair and held me close the same way he had Joe. And I cried. I cried because I thought no one had believed me. I cried because I had been powerless to stop my brother from being hurt. But mostly, I cried because I remembered now what it felt like to be safe and secure in my father's arms.

And how I had missed it.





I watched that afternoon two months later as Joe took his first official steps without the dreaded casts. We all laughed at him when he said his feet felt funny. We laughed again when he pleaded with Pa to let him go out into the yard and Pa pointed out that no son of his would be outside barefoot. Joe wiggled his toes and gave Pa a lopsided grin. Hoss offered to get Joe a pair of boots from upstairs but Pa quickly axed that idea. Paul Martin had said just a little walking each day until Joe's muscles were back up to snuff. That got groans all around, the loudest from Joe, of course.

"That's enough for today, young man. Now, you have a choice until supper time: back upstairs to your room or here on the sofa?" Pa allowed, his hands firmly planted on his hips as he assessed the situation.

We all knew Joe would not want to return to his room so I quickly stepped in and offered a third possibility. "If I help him, can Joe go with me out to the barn? I promise, he will not walk one step that he isn't suppose to."

Pa reluctantly gave in and after procuring Joe's slippers and a pair of warm socks, we headed out. Joe had donned his jacket at Pa's behest and with his arm over my shoulder, we gingerly made our way out to the barn. By the time we were inside, I could feel Joe struggling. I fought the urge to pick him up and haul him back into the house. Instead I got him over to the feed chest and plunked him down.

"Okay," he panted. "What's this all about?"

I slipped over to my saddle and reached into my saddlebags, and pulled out a copy of the Territorial Enterprise that I had picked up several days earlier. I handed it to him with the suggestion that he look at the bottom of page two.

He read the small article there and wordlessly handed it back to me. The article had been a brief one concerning the two hanging suicides over in a neighboring jurisdiction's jail.  For a while, neither of us could meet the other's eyes, so lost were we in memories too fresh and too painful to speak about.

"How about that? Rather than do six months in prison they do…that," Joe finally whispered and handed the paper back to me.

"I was wrong. I once said that Lester Fuller didn't have it in him to commit suicide." The paper bounced a few times in my hand.

"Maybe," Joe started then seemed to rethink what he was going to say. Then he plunged on. "Maybe his brother helped him? Only this time, he did it for real."

I had to shudder at the possibility that indeed the ex-sheriff had fashioned the noose and slipped it around his brother's neck for real this time around.

"Gives new meaning to brother helping brother, doesn't it?" I quipped, trying to lighten the mood.

"They weren't brothers, Adam. They just happened to have the same mother is all. Being brothers is different. Being brothers is staying strong for one another. Being brothers is getting help."

"No," I said and laid a hand on Joe's shoulder to stop him. When he looked up at me, again there was all the faith and trust a man could hope for from another human being.

"Being brothers," Joe went on, his hand closing over mine, "is coming back."

No, I thought again. It is believing…


The end


The Tahoe Ladies

January to February 2002


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