The Deep Abyss   
A WHN for “The Dark Gate”
©Aug 2002-03, as allowable

“Oh, no,” Ben Cartwright breathed, and pulled his buckskin to a halt.  His second son, Hoss, echoed his words and stopped at his side.  Ben heard the quick intake of breath from his youngest boy, Joe, as he, too, took in the sight before them.

Two horses were approaching from the high, barren hills; the man in front was having difficulty controlling his fractious horse with one hand.

“Adam,” Ben said softly, his heart twisting for his eldest son.  They pulled their horses to a halt, paying silent respect to the small cavalcade led by Adam Cartwright. 

His yellow coat was half-on, just draped over his left shoulder. As he rode closer, they could see rivulets of blood had dripped down onto his left hand, and his long fingers were having difficulty holding the reins.  The best long-range rifle they owned was dirt-encrusted and jammed in its scabbard under his leg and an extra box of cartridges peeked untidily from his saddlebag.  His right arm was stretched backwards, holding the reins of a chestnut they all recognized—Ross Marquette’s horse—and none of them doubted that it was Ross Marquette’s body draped over the saddle.

When Adam drew nearer, they could see that his face was set in grim lines; paradoxically, in this man who had the reputation of having one of the best poker-faces in town, his eyes spoke of his torment, of the very private hell he was living.

There was nothing to say, nothing anyone could do.  It was obvious to all—Adam Cartwright had hunted down and killed his best friend.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

“Hey, Skinny!”

“Yeah, Cartwright?”

“You’re gonna be late for your own wedding!”

“Nah, never happen.  I got this best man, y’see, takes care of me.”

“And you need it, too!  You wouldn’t even have proposed to Del by now if it weren’t for me.”

“Why’d you think I chose you to stand beside me?”

Adam winced.  Truth be told, they’d taken care of each other.  If Ross had needed pushing toward Delphine Rogers, Adam had needed Ross’s pure and uncomplicated friendship.  Visiting the Marquettes had been a taste of the way life should be.  A man.  His wife.  Their love had spilled over into happiness for everyone who came into their sphere, especially for the man who’d been a brother to both of them.

He drew even with his family, but couldn’t choke out any words, so he just kept going.

“Joe,” he heard his father say quietly behind him, “go to town and get Roy and Paul.”

Adam almost laughed.  As if the sheriff or town doctor could do anything for Ross or Del.  No, the time for that was past.

He heard the clatter of retreating hooves and vaguely recognized that they’d arrived at the crossroads that led to either the ranch house or town.  Without hesitation, he turned toward the Ponderosa.  The least he could do was return Del’s husband to her.

How many nights had he spent at their house, eating Del’s cooking, sharing a bottle of brandy with Ross after dinner, riding off into the dark alone, but no longer feeling lonely. 

Never again.  Ross had killed his wife, and now Ross was dead, too.  By the hand of his best friend.

He could feel the blood-soaked shirt sticking to his chest, his arm.  His shoulder hurt with a fierce, stabbing pain, but it couldn’t compete with the ache in his heart.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

“Let’s get him into the house,” Ben said as he dismounted.

Hoss knew his father was referring to Adam, but his brother was still sitting on his horse.  He tied his Morgan to the rail next to his father’s buckskin, then moved to his brother’s side.  Adam lifted the reins to Ross’ horse as if he’d forgotten they were there.

“Just loop ‘em round your saddlehorn,” Hoss suggested.  “I’ll take care of him soon as I get you down off o’ your horse.”

Adam mechanically did as he was told, then began to slide from the saddle.  Hoss caught him easily; helped him get set square on his feet.  

He lifted the left lapel of Adam’s coat, searching for the source of the blood, found the wetness on the shoulder of his brother’s dark red shirt.  “He’s hurt, Pa.  Looks like Ross got a shot off at ‘im.”

Ben hustled to his son’s side and dabbed at the wound.  Adam didn’t notice.

“Ross . . .” Adam said, the first word they’d had from him.  He turned to gaze at the chestnut’s burden, pulling away from his father.

“I’ll take care o’ him, Adam.  You just go with Pa.” 

Ben tried to turn Adam to the house, but his son was rooted solidly.  “Ross,” he whispered.  “Del . . .”

Hoss exchanged a quick glance with his father.  They’d have to take care of Ross’ body now; it was the only way they’d get his brother inside.  “I’ll take him to Del,” he promised his brother gently.  “We put her in the guest room.”

Adam nodded and finally allowed his father to steer him toward the house, though Hoss caught him glancing back once to make sure he was doing as he’d said.

He untied the body of his brother’s best friend and eased him carefully off the horse.  ‘Skinny’ Adam had always called Ross Marquette, and skinny he still was.  He was a featherweight in Hoss’ arms, no burden at all. 

He carried him through the outside door into the bedroom by the kitchen where they’d laid out Delphine Marquette earlier that day, and, dampness spoiling his vision, laid Ross next to her.

Adam came through the door that led to the dining room, shrugging off his father, leaving Ben with only the yellow coat in his hands as he muttered about bandages and water.  Adam held his left arm tight to his chest, though a bandana had been pressed into duty as a temporary sling.  He looked chilled.

“Adam?”  Hoss took his right elbow and tried to guide him to a chair, but Adam merely stood at the foot of the bed, staring at his friends.  Hoss left his hand where it was, hoping the touch would be some small comfort to his brother, and gazed down on the couple as well. 

Ross was a tall man, nearly as tall as his brother, though he was such a long, thin drink of water that people often thought he was the taller of the two.  He wasn’t a particularly handsome man, with his craggy features and perpetually messy sandy-colored hair, but when he smiled, there was such a look of fun about him that no one could resist him.

Then there was Delphine.  She wasn’t what most folks thought of as beautiful, either.  Her face was long and thin, and her hair was dark rather than a fashionable blonde, but she had a neat, strong figure and a kind of energy that hadn’t been tamed until she started walking out with Ross.  Then, of all things, she’d taken up spinning and needlework and all those feminine accomplishments she’d always scorned in favor of roping and riding.  Hoss had teased her about it once, but she merely smiled an enigmatic, womanly smile and answered, “You’ll understand one day.”

Hoss rested a hand on Adam’s good shoulder.  “They look right peaceful,” he offered.  Adam didn’t answer, though he thought he saw a hint of moisture in his brother’s eyes.  “Always did look good together.  I ‘member the first time you brought Ross home.  Hop Sing near had a fit, made him sit down at the table and started feedin’ him pancakes.”  He shook his head.  “Never did understand where he tucked ‘em all in, but he did.  He never wanted for a good meal from then on.  An’ when he met Miz Delphine an’ stopped comin’ over here, Hop Sing was about ready to twist his tail until they came over together for dinner.  She didn’t do no more than thank Hop Sing for dinner in that way she had, and he forgave Ross everything.”

He snuck a look at his brother.  Adam’s mouth was twisted into something between a smile and a grimace of pain.  “You oughta go rest a bit, brother.  You ain’t lookin’ too good.”

“No,” Adam whispered hoarsely. 

He considered his brother’s stubborn nature and sighed.  “Let me get you a chair, then, before you keel right over.”

He didn’t refuse, so Hoss dragged an overstuffed armchair to the foot of the bed and gently pushed on his good shoulder until he sank down into it. 

Adam leaned back and rubbed at his forehead with his good hand.  “Why?” he asked.

Hoss didn’t even try to answer.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

They were sitting on the long summer grass by their favorite fishing hole, but they held no lines this time.

“Why?” nineteen-year-old Ross asked with a groan.  “Why’d the bad live and the good die?”

There’d been a shootout at the bank.  The robbers had survived, but Ross’ parents hadn’t.

Adam laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  He squeezed it gently, rubbed his thumb in circles on his shoulder, just like his Pa did when any of them were upset. “I don’t know, Ross.  I just don’t know.”

They’d stayed a very long time, while the shadows grew long and the light turned golden and the air cooled. Finally, Ross stood.  He turned away, but Adam could hear his voice clearly.  “After all you’ve lost, if you haven’t been able to figure it out, but you can still go on . . . well, I guess I can, too.”

Yes, life still went on.  Regardless of how brutally your heart was ripped from you, the world continued to turn, the sun continued to rise, and maybe, sometime, you’d be able to smile again.

Adam looked at his two friends laid side by side on the bed and doubted it would happen any time soon.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

“He should be in bed,” Ben insisted in a fierce whisper.  Hoss noticed his father had relaxed enough to get his pipe out, but hadn’t settled into his favorite red leather chair yet.  Or maybe this was one of those times when the pipe was useful more for something to do with his hands than because his father wanted to smoke it.

Hoss stuck his hands in his back pockets and regarded the toe of one boot. “I ain’t disagreein’ with you, Pa, but I can tell you now, he ain’t gonna go.”

Ben sighed heavily, his gaze resting on the shut door.  “No, you’re right.  I’m just . . . worried about him.”

“Joe’ll have Doc Martin here real soon.  Meantime, I got him sittin’ down in that big easy chair.  He might even fall asleep in it; it’s so darn comfortable.”

Ben raised an eyebrow, and now it was Hoss’ turn to sigh.  “I know he’d rest better in bed, Pa, but we ain’t gonna convince him o’ that.  Heck, I’m not sure he even knew I was in there with him. I cain’t imagine what it must have been like for him, findin’ Miz Delphine all busted up here, havin’ to chase after Ross, then—”  He choked on the words, remembering how he, Joe, and their father had rushed into the house to try to protect Delphine, but found her dead on the floor in front of the hearth, the jumbled and tipped over furniture a mute testimony to the violent attack.  He looked up at his father.  He wished Adam could see their pa right now.  The look of compassion, the grief for what his eldest son was going through, it almost undid him, and he could only think it would help Adam, too.

The sound of a horse in the yard broke the spell.  Ben grasped him on the shoulder for one quick squeeze before heading for the door.

It wasn’t, as Hoss had hoped, the doctor.  Instead, the Virginia City sheriff, Roy Coffee, came bustling in behind his father, smoothing his mustache as he glanced around the room.  “Is he upstairs?  Joe said he was mighty upset by it all.”

Ben turned on his old friend in anger.  “Of course he is!  He couldn’t help it, Roy; if you took one good look at him, you’d know.”

“Now, just calm down, Ben; you’re flutterin’ around like a mama hen over her chicks.  Don’t matter what you say about what happened, you wasn’t there, so I gotta ask him some questions.  It’s part of the job.  You know that, an’ so does he.” 

Hoss stepped forward, drawing the sheriff’s attention.  He jerked his head toward the side bedroom.  “They’s all in there.  Adam wouldn’t leave ‘em.”

“Thanks,” Roy replied.  He turned back to Ben.  “It ain’t likely I’ll be takin’ him in.  You an’ I both know what kinda shape Ross Marquette was in.”

Ben’s shoulders slumped.  “Yes.”  He shook his head slowly.  “It’s just that Adam tried everything he could think of to help Ross, and to have it come to this . . .”

“I know,” Roy commiserated.  “Some things just ain’t for us to understand.”  He headed for the bedroom.


He turned back.  “Yeah?”

“Take it easy on him, would you?  He still has a bullet in his shoulder.”

Roy’s eyebrows went up at that, and Hoss thought he even looked a bit pleased.  He felt his temper begin to rise until Roy said, “That should make it a mite easier; self-defense, y’know.”  He nodded in satisfaction.  “I kinda wondered why you wanted the Doc.  Too late for the Marquettes.” 

Hoss moved to his father’s side while Roy went through the door to the small bedroom.  He caught a glimpse of his brother, still seated in the same position.  “Pa, you know Roy’s gonna be careful.”

“I know.”  Ben dropped into the large red chair by the fireplace.  “It’s just that Adam is my son . . .”

Hoss nodded.  “An he’s my brother, an he’s hurtin’ something bad.”

“I wish . . .”  Ben’s voice dropped off to nothing.

“Yeah, Pa.  Me, too.”

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

“Who are you?” The skinny teenager had asked.

Adam sized up the boy almost instantly.  After all the roaming he’d done with his father, he’d come to be pretty accurate in his assessments of strangers.  He liked what he saw: clear, direct blue eyes, an engaging smile, sandy hair cut rough, and a broad, callused hand reaching out to shake.  “I’m Adam Cartwright. You?”

“Ross Marquette.  Wanta share my fishin’ hole?”

And as easily as that, they were friends.

“Adam, you in here?” 

It took him a moment to realize someone was talking to him.

The sheriff appeared at the bedside.  Adam watched silently as Roy studied the bodies of his two friends.  He gently tilted Delphine’s head from one side to the other, a man doing his job.  He did it, though, with a gentleness she couldn’t appreciate, but Adam did.  “Doc’d have to say for sure, but looks like she was beat to death.”

The sheriff’s words stabbed him to the very soul.  He leaned forward to ease the pain in his gut and covered his eyes with his good hand, massaged his forehead.  If only he’d gotten back to the ranch sooner, he might have been able to stop Ross.  Del’s voice echoed in his mind, a plaintive cry he didn’t think he’d ever forget:  Why, Adam?  Why did he do this?

“Did she tell you who did it?” Roy asked.

He couldn’t bear to say the words.

“Was it Ross?”  His voice came from next to the chair, darkened with concern.

Adam nodded once.

Roy pushed him gently to lean against the back of the chair and fingered the bloody hole in his shirt.  “Ross do this, too, son?”

He looked up then; up into the eyes of a man he’d known and trusted since he was a boy.  Maybe Roy could explain an act that was incomprehensible . . . he shook his head slowly, tears pricking behind his eyes, trying to deny what had happened, but Roy seemed to grasp what was beyond words.

“I don’t know why, either, Adam.  Some things are just more than us mortal men can figger out.”  He  stood in silence for a long moment, gazing at the bodies on the bed, then brushed a knuckle at his moustache with a quick swipe at the corner of one eye.  He took a deep breath, then patted Adam on his sound shoulder, saying “You try to get some rest, now,” and then he was gone.

He couldn’t rest; he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to rest again.  Memories haunted him.  

The cliffs . . . the sound of a rifle being cocked . . . his friend’s voice.  He swallowed hard.  Ross cried out, “Drop that gun—turn around slow!”

He’d obeyed, but was furious after finding Delphine lying broken on the floor of his home, wedged between the settee and the coffee table like a forgotten doll.  She’d died in his arms, the betrayal of her love incomprehensible to her . . . to him. 

“I been looking for you, Ross,” he’d said, determined to make his friend account for his actions.

And Ross—his best friend for fifteen years, the man he’d stood up for at his wedding, the man he’d worked with, played hard with—Ross had said, “Who are you?”

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

“He’s takin’ it pretty hard, ain’t he?” Roy’s steps were weighted with sadness as he approached Ben and Hoss Cartwright.  He sat down on the long settee next to Hoss, and Hop Sing brought him a cup of coffee.  He sipped at it once, then set it on the low table in front of him.  “He didn’t so much as say a word in there.”

Hoss turned to him anxiously.  “You got what you needed, though, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.”  He turned to Ben.  “Like you said, all a body’s gotta do is take a look at him.  I ain’t seen him so broke up since—” his voice dropped suddenly,  “—well, since Marie died.”  He looked down at his hands.  “There won’t be no charges, Ben.”

“Thanks, Roy.”  Ben leaned back into the red leather chair.  “I wish Paul would get here.  Maybe he can help Adam.”

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

“Cartwright, if you’re tellin’ me you don’t want to go, I’m just plain not going to believe you.”  It was only eight short days before Adam was to leave for college.

“It’s not that I don’t want to—God, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be with people who know all about the things I don’t understand, who can answer my questions, teach me things that I don’t even know exist—but how can I leave?”

“You leave by gettin’ on that stage next week, that’s how.”

Ross and his dry practicality could always make him laugh.  But then Adam had grown serious again.  “You gotta promise me one thing.”

“Anything,” his best friend had answered.

“Check up on them.  Let me know how they really are.  Pa’s not going to want to worry me, so I don’t know if he’ll tell me everything when he writes.”  He knew he was begging, but—well, Ross would understand.  “Please? Will you be straight with me, no matter what he says?”

There’d been a look in those intense blue eyes, quick, surprised, as if Ross—who’d always felt the more needy of the two—abruptly realized how much Adam needed him.  Suddenly he seemed to stand taller.  “You can trust me, Adam.  Always.”

Until Ross had accused his wife of having an affair.  With Adam.  Until he’d beaten her to get her to confess, and from pain and fear she’d finally given in and said it.  And then he’d drawn a gun on Adam—“My best friend!”—and Adam had begun to realize that Ross had changed. 

But it was too late.  Ross Marquette had passed through the dark gate of insanity, and no one—not Reverend Stewart, not Paul Martin, not the sheriff—no one could figure out how to get him back.

Something was poking at his shoulder, probing, hurting.

“This’d be easier if you’d lie down somewhere, Adam.”

Doc Martin.  He’d explained with so much compassion that medicine had no answers, that Ross’s future was likely to be spent in a madhouse, chained to a wall or a bed to keep him from hurting himself or anyone else.

His father’s voice.  “We haven’t been able to get him to move from that chair since he got back.”

“All right, I guess I can do it this way.  Not that he’s likely to notice anyway.” 

There was more pain, but he welcomed it.  It distracted him from the ache in his heart that he’d been sinking into—a deep, dark quicksand that was taking over his entire world.  To lose his friends would have been bad enough, but to lose them this way . . . Delphine at Ross’s hands, Ross at his own . . . couldn’t he have found some way to make it work out right?

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Paul Martin snapped his bag shut and gave his patient one last, long considering look.  Then he jerked his head, and Ben led the way from the room.  Paul left the door open just a bit and followed his old friend to the furniture in front of the fireplace where Hoss and Joe were waiting.

“As long as he stays put in that chair, he should be all right, at least for now. Somewhere along the line, his body will give in.  Just keep someone nearby so when it happens, they can catch him.”

“Shouldn’t he be in bed?” Hoss asked.

Should doesn’t always have a whole lot to do with healing,” Paul said.  “I know, like you, that in spite of that hard-headed front your brother puts on for everyone, he has a soft heart.  Roy said that Adam found Delphine alive, and that she told him Ross did it.  She must have died while he was with her, because we all know he wouldn’t have left her any other way.  Then, being the kind of man he is, of course he took on the responsibility of stopping Ross, and look at how that ended up.  Ross must have been completely lost to madness by the time Adam caught up with him.  Now he’s overwhelmed by grief, anger and remorse, on top of that wound.  It’s going to take a while.”

“But wouldn’t sleep help?” Ben persisted.  “Couldn’t you give him a powder—?”

Joe stood.  “No, Pa.  Let him grieve his way.  He’s got the right to see this through how he needs, and if that means sitting with Ross and Del’s bodies all night, then tonight’s the only time he can do that.  Hoss and me’ll watch over him.”

Hoss glanced into the room.  “We ain’t gonna have much luck shifting him outa there anyway, Pa.  May as well leave him be, if the Doc, here, says it’s okay.  Joe’s called it—sometimes what’s right for the body ain’t right for the heart.”

Ben sighed and glanced into the room.  “If you’re sure, Paul?”

“As long as he doesn’t start running a fever, I’d leave him alone.  Roy said the funeral would be tomorrow?”

“Yes.  In the morning, out at their ranch.  There’s no immediate family, so there’s no real reason to wait, and I think—all things considered—the sooner the better.”

Doc Martin nodded in agreement.  “Adam will likely make it through the service, but get him home after, and I suspect he’ll sleep for a good long while.  He should be able to start putting it behind him then.”

“All right,” Ben said, but he rubbed at the back of his neck, still uncomfortable.

Paul dug in his bag and pulled out a small packet he handed to Ben.  “Here.  If his shoulder gets too bad, give him a teaspoon of this in water.  It’ll help the pain, which might help him sleep.  Otherwise, see if you can get him to take some of Hop Sing’s good beef broth, and maybe some lemonade or just water.  It’s not a bad wound, and he hasn’t lost all that much blood, but it won’t hurt to start trying to build him back up some.  Send someone for me if he gets much of a fever, otherwise, I’ll likely see him at the funeral tomorrow, and I’ll stop by again the day after that.”

“Thanks, Paul,” Ben said.  “I appreciate everything you’ve done.”

Paul clapped him on the shoulder.  “Don’t worry.  He’s having a rough time, but he’ll be all right.”

Ben glanced over at the doorway again.  “I hope so.  I sure hope so.”

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Hoss came through the doorway from the guest room with a half-empty glass of lemonade in one hand and a defeated slant to his shoulders.

“Wouldn’t drink it?” came a yawning voice from the settee as the grandfather clock chimed three times.

Hoss shook his head as his younger brother sat up and swung his legs to the floor.  “Joe, I don’t know what to do for him.  He’s just sittin’ there starin’ at them two.  Don’t think he even noticed I was pourin’ this down his throat.”

“It’s what he needs, Hoss.”  He gazed at the half-closed door.  “If it was me, I’d likely be on Cochise, trying to outrace it all, even if it meant riding all night.”

“An I’d be campin’ out at my valley.”  Hoss sat heavily in their father’s favorite chair.  “I don’t know that I coulda done what he did.  Go after my best friend with a rifle—”

Joe rubbed at the back of his neck.  “Roy seemed to think it was probably a shootout—Ross was crazy enough at the end, I guess.  Might make it a bit easier on Adam if he didn’t have to just kill him.”

“Adam wouldn’t o’ killed him, not ‘less he had to.  You an’ me both know that.  But to shoot down your friend, even if he’s ravin’ mad—”  Hoss leaned back in the chair.  “Just don’t know how he’s gonna find a way to live with it.  Nothin’ good came out of it.  Miss Delphine’s still dead, Adam’s hurt, Ross is dead . . . .”

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Words drifted into the room, familiar voices.  Ross is dead . . . .  Sudden pain gripped his stomach, and he tasted a sickly sweetness in his throat.  He rocked forward in the chair, right hand supporting his left arm, and he tried to catch his breath.  Ross is dead . . . Delphine . . . .

What a beautiful woman she was, even in death.  He’d loved her too, as a sister, as a friend.  He’d gone to her with his puzzlements about women and the games they seemed to play with a man’s heart.  She’d smiled mysteriously but enlightened him about a woman’s dreams, and he could see that she’d found her safe haven with his friend.  Ross was her protector, her strength, and she was his sanctuary, someone he could trust, who would be on his side before all others.  Adam was reminded of the love he’d seen between his father and two mothers.  Delphine’s warmth and tenderness had given him the courage to take a chance with his own heart when he found a special woman.  Though he hadn’t yet been blessed with a wife, he was grateful to her for helping him have the strength to look.

And now she was gone, destroyed in soul and body by the man she’d given everything to.  How could Ross do this?

It was a child’s cry, and he knew it.  This wasn’t Ross’s fault, but surely it was someone’s.  Surely there was someone who could be punished, someone who could explain . . . God, please tell me why!

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

“No fever, Pa.”

Joe’s words relieved the worst of Ben’s worries as he came downstairs in the morning.  They’d taken turns watching over Adam, giving him small drinks of water and broth, though he’d pushed away the lemonade after the first glass.  Ben had been heartened by his refusal – it was the first sign that he was aware of anything going on around him.

Ben rested his hand on Joe’s shoulder.  “Better get upstairs and get cleaned up.  We’ll have a bite to eat, then ride over for the burial.”

Joe nodded.  “The men are bringing the buckboard with the . . . .” he hesitated and swallowed.  “With the coffins.  Hoss said he’d hitch the horses to the buggy right after breakfast.  We didn’t think you’d want Adam riding.”

“Thanks, son.  I guess I’d better see about getting him cleaned up as well.  Best to get him out of that room while the boys take care of things.”  He sighed.  “Has he said anything?”

Joe glanced at the door to the guest room, and he blinked quickly.  “Not a word.  Just sits there, staring at them.”

Ben gazed at the door as well.  “Remembering, I imagine.  They were pretty special to him.”

“How could Ross shoot him?” Joe burst out.  “Adam wouldn’t have shot first, so Ross had to’ve fired on him—his best friend!”

“Ross was lost, son.  Adam told me that he’d talked with Reverend Stewart, Roy, Doc Martin—no one understands why a man loses himself like that.  I hope that Adam realizes that Ross didn’t know what he was doing, that if he’d been right in his mind he never would have hurt him like that.”

Joe looked at the closed door in anguish.  “He’ll get over this, won’t he?” 

Ben remembered Adam’s sudden tears the day after they lost Inger, his long silent grief for Marie.  “Eventually, yes.  We’ll just have to stand with him until he gets through it.”  He squeezed Joe’s arm.  “Go on and get changed, son.  And would you make sure there’s some shaving water for Adam first, lay out some clothes for him?”

He was glad he asked when Joe’s mood lightened a bit at the prospect of doing something, anything, to help his brother.  Joe nodded and headed upstairs. 

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

“It’s time, Adam.”

Someone was gripping him under his right elbow, helping him up.  A sudden wave of dizziness almost toppled him from his feet, but that familiar hand steadied him as it had from childhood.

“You have to shave and change clothes, son.  You can’t go to the burial looking like this.”

If you say so, Pa.  He wasn’t aware that he hadn’t said the words out loud, but found himself with the challenge of climbing the stairs. 

“I got ‘im, Pa,” said another familiar, rumbling voice.

Hoss.  Stay with me, brother.  I need . . . .

A pang struck his shoulder as someone took his bloody shirt.  Blood washes away sin, doesn’t it? Was it a sin to kill Ross?  Did I even had a choice?  My best friend’s life or my own . . . but the instincts of a lifetime took over, and I fired the rifle before I knew it.  I’ve always been a better shot than Ross . . . .  He felt the cool wet rag on his face and then chest, closed his eyes as it cleaned the sweat-caked dirt from his skin.  Or was it water that washed sin?  No, must be blood—water was painless, life giving, and Ross was still dead, and I pulled the trigger.

He took the razor from Hoss, the familiar motions soothing. 

“Hey Adam, when do you think I’ll start shaving like you?”

 Ross’s beard had never grown as heavy as Adam’s, but they’d still celebrated with a stolen half-bottle of whiskey when Ross’s father had presented him with a straight-edge razor. 

“Need the whiskey for those cuts and scrapes on your face,” Adam had teased after his friend’s first efforts.

Ross had objected to such a waste of good liquor, and the next morning greeted Adam at church with a cheery, “How ya feelin’ this morning?”

“‘Bout like you look,” he’d shot back with a grin.

They’d both hid their hangovers from their fathers as best they could, but Ben’s raised eyebrow informed him that his father knew, but chose not to say anything as long as Adam paid attention to the service.

The service.  The funeral.

His black jacket was hanging over the footboard to his bed, a string tie draped over it, and a white shirt was laid out on the coverlet.  He touched the shirt lightly with one finger, then turned away to reach into his wardrobe for one of his black shirts.  Like my heart, like my soul—there’s no light for me today.

His left elbow ached as it stretched out straight for the sleeve, a dull throbbing pulled at his shoulder from the weight of his arm—it matched the thumping in his head.

Who was the man in the mirror?  A murderer?  An agent of justice?   

“Ready?” Hoss’s voice.

Just a man who’d accepted a responsibility.

He nodded.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

The minister’s voice droned on.

“. . . Domine Iesu Christe, libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum de poenis inferni et de profundo lacu . . .”

He recognized the words, knew them from his Latin studies in college.  Lord Jesus Christ, deliver the souls of all the faithful departed from the pains of hell, and the deep abyss . . . .

That was from the Catholic mass for the dead—why was a Presbyterian minister using those words?  Deliver them from the pains of hell . . . he hoped Ross was delivered, that he became himself again in heaven.  Did the mad go to heaven?  Surely innocent Delphine was there, and didn’t she deserve to be with her beloved husband?  Surely she could intervene with God on Ross’s behalf so she wouldn’t be alone.

He felt he was descending into a kind of madness himself.  Was this how it started?  How easy to get caught up in the downward swirl, into the abyss.  He didn’t want to go there – he fought, not aware of how his breath quickened and his pulse raced. 

A warm hand on his arm lent badly needed strength.

Reverend Stewart had shifted back to English.  “. . . blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.”

He recognized the touch—his father was doing his best to help him.  He looked into Ben’s dark eyes, windows to a man who knew how he was hurting, who would do anything to take the pain away but who also knew that Adam would have to find his way alone. 

“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”

Was that what I’ve been doing?  Am I of the righteous?  He looked up at the minister, hoping for an answer, only to discover Reverend Stewart was talking directly to him.

“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.  Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”

Merciful?  Peacemaker?  By killing?  Then a sudden realization.  No, by stopping Ross from killing anyone else, even if it means that I have to deal with the results alone, and at the cost of my own soul.  He looked down into the pit in front of him that would soon hold Ross and Delphine’s bodies. 

But he realized suddenly that he wasn’t alone.  His father at his side, his brothers lowering the caskets into the ground one at a time into the same hole, his friends—and Ross and Delphine’s—gathered together for this final tribute to the man Ross had been and to his wife who still loved him. 

“Ashes to ashes . . . .”

He bent to the ground, careful not to lose his balance, and gathered a handful of rich earth.  “Dust to dust,” he murmured, and scattered the dirt across the wooden boxes that held his friends.  When he rose, a wave of dizziness set him off balance, and he staggered into Hoss.  The whirling abyss beckoned—he felt strong hands grab his arms, and pain blossomed in his shoulder.  He felt sick and weak and so very, very tired—and he finally gave up to the darkness.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Adam woke at his usual hour that next morning with no recollection of how he’d ended up in bed in his own room.  His shoulder still hurt, but he set the pain aside and rose.  It took a while to dress and shave, but he didn’t notice the time passing.

No one was in the great room when he descended the stairs, though he didn’t really think about it.  He wandered outside and eventually ended up sitting on the edge of the porch.  He tapped thoughtfully at his chin with his right knuckle, left arm forgotten in the black sling that hardly showed against his all-black clothes.  He stared out at nothing as Ross’s final moments played once more through his mind. 

“Adam? Oh, am I glad to see you.  I don’t know what happened, I’m hurt.”

“Easy, boy.”  He lifted Ross’s head with his good hand.

“Somethin' happened to me, it sure hurts.”  He took a deep breath.  “You gotta get me back to the ranch.  My fifth wedding anniversary—Del will have my scalp if I’m not there.”

Realization took his breath away.  “Your anniversary was ten months ago.”

Hoss walked past, hands in his pockets, then sat next to him.  It felt good to have his brother near.  Hoss messed with a non-existent spot on his thumb, and finally spoke.  “Adam, you . . . you had to do it.  There just wasn’t no other way.”

“Ah, you’re joshin me, it’s not for two weeks yet.”  Ross grimaced.  “Oh . . . oh, it’s sure hurtin.  What happened to me?  Why am I here—”

What could he say?  How could he explain?  “You went away for a while, you just got back.”

Adam’s hand dropped to support his left elbow and he sighed, though he still looked off into a far-off distance.  “Those last few minutes, he was just like we always knew him.”  His voice was rusty and strained, but it felt good to speak of Ross.

Hoss’s head jerked up and he wore such a look of hope that Adam finally realized how worried his brother—and he was sure his father and Joe—had been.

“Well, he was with a friend, then, wasn’t he?  He didn’t die a stranger.”

Adam considered those last few minutes. 

“Oh, I’m sliding away, Adam.  I’m cold!  Hold onto me, Adam.  Where am I going?”

Adam nearly choked on his tears.  “To Delphine.  She’s waiting for you. I got your hand, boy.”


He couldn’t find an answer, but that was all right—Ross was gone.

Adam continued to look out into the yard, seeing instead a rocky waste where a man who had once been a good friend had died.  Hoss’s words made him realize, though, that those last few moments had been a gift—a chance to say goodbye to his friend, to know that it had been the madness that took Ross from them.  No, Ross hadn’t died a stranger.

He nodded once, recognizing the truth in Hoss’s words.  Then he took a deep breath and looked at his brother.  He would never be alone, not while his family lived.  Hoss wanted to take on part of his burden, and he discovered that he could let some of it slide off of him.  Hoss smiled and slapped him on the back.  They rose and walked back to the front door.  Adam looked at him once, for support, for understanding, for all the things brothers could offer each other.  No words were needed between the two of them—they knew each other too well.  Hoss simply put his arm around Adam’s shoulders and they walked into the house together.

The End

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