Author's Choice
Kate M-T.

Why is this my favorite story?  I have always enjoyed the relationship between Joe and Shey, and I feel this story showcases all aspects of their unusual friendship to its fullest.  I’ve been contacted by many readers since this was originally posted to the web, and people either love it or hate it.  I left many readers scratching their heads, saying “huh?” with this one, but for me it’s the defining Joe and Shey story.  Hope you enjoy!  [Note from site owners:  This story might best be read as the culmination of a relationship explored in several other stories we will be posting here:  Betrayal, Chaos, Ringgold, Encounter at Oxbow and Kinship

My original notes when posting follow:

A few notesThe original concept for “Threshold” is nothing like the story I’ve written.  This one is . . . different than what I’ve done in the past and won’t appeal to everyone.  PG-13 for mild language and 1 or 2 scenes that may be considered intense by sensitive readers.  I’ve taken a lot of liberties with the “Four Winds Wheel,” so please try to overlook my many ramblings--no offense is intended.  Also, a discrepancy in this story:  in the past I’ve indicated Joe and Shey were a few months apart in age--that’s been altered for this one.  And although ML has a Halloween birthday, I always pictured Joe being born in the spring.

That said, this one is for Lyn, who kept me inspired with many wonderful slide shows all the way from the Land Down Under.  Thanks, my friend--I hope you enjoy this! :-)

Straight fanfic here.  No infringement to Bonanza Ventures, David Dortort or other holders of Bonanza copyrights is intended.  The author is not making a profit.  The author should probably have her head examined for writing this . . . hope you enjoy!



The melodic chime of the grandfather’s clock rolled through the still room, announcing the demise of one hour, the birth of the next.  Ben Cartwright slipped an index finger between the pages of his book, marking his place as he closed the cover.  Across the room his two eldest sons were hunched intently over a game of checkers, oblivious to the fact that darkness settled beyond the stout walls of the house.

Shifting in his comfortable leather chair, Ben cleared his throat.  “Shouldn’t your brother be back by now?”

Though the query was tossed casually to no one in particular, Hoss pulled his attention from the checkerboard long enough to spare a distracted grunt.  “Don’t know, Pa--he just said he had something to take care of in town, and left as soon as dinner was finished.  You know how Joe is--ask too many questions, it gets his dander up.”

Unable to silence a worried frown, Ben shoved the book aside.  There was no true cause for alarm.  At twenty-two his son was certainly old enough to take care of himself, but it was a father’s prerogative to fret unnecessarily.  Perhaps if Joe hadn’t been so quiet lately--his normally high-velocity demeanor falling into subdued melancholy.  Though his son wouldn’t speak of the reason for his mood change, Ben guessed it had something to do with the peaks and valleys in his love life.  After losing Lorna David, it had taken months for Joe to become involved with another woman.  Unfortunately that woman--Daphne Stone--was not only a notorious gun-for-hire, but also the daughter of a man Joe had killed.  Her affection had been a carefully plotted façade to lure Joe to his death.  In the months that had passed since her own demise, Ben’s brash, flirtatious son had studiously avoided becoming involved with another woman.

Restless, Ben rose to his feet.  Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he meandered aimlessly before the massive, stone hearth.  Though the fire crackled brightly, stoked to frenzied life, a chill permeated the room, stringing a draft across the plank floor.  As winter faded before the first tentative whispers of spring, the long nights grew less oppressive, but no less cold.

“Pa, it’s only ten o’clock,” Adam said with a glance for his father.  Picking up two “captured” checkers, he rifled them absently between his hands.  The intermittent click-clack of soft wood against soft wood made his larger, younger brother scrunch his mouth in annoyance. “He probably stopped for a beer or something.”

“I don’t know why he had to go to town in the first place,” Ben returned, taking three short strides to the round table where his sons held their game.  He was agitated without understanding why.  Perhaps irritability went hand in hand with aging.

“Hey, I hear something,” Hoss said, perking up, distracted from what was quickly becoming a losing match.  Standing, he moved to the rectangular window in his father’s study and brushed the curtains aside.  Teetering heavily on one foot, he craned his neck to see.  “Yup--I saw a lantern in the barn.  Must be Joe.”

Ben exhaled noisily.  “About time,” he muttered, but knew his concern as well as his vexation was unfounded.   Moments later the front door opened and Joe stepped into the room, slightly mussed from his ride, but altogether whole.

“Hey, Pa.”  Joe grinned at the first person he saw.  The night air had heightened the color in his cheeks, making the quick flash of his smile all the more brilliant for its contrast.  Under one arm he carried a rifle, its barrel sheathed in a scabbard of beaten leather.  Setting the gun stock first on the floor, Joe leaned it against the buffet inside the front door.  “Awful quiet in here, isn’t it?”

“That depends on your perspective,” Adam inserted smoothly.  Standing, he paced towards the buffet, but Hoss beat him there.

“What’s this you got, little brother?”  Claiming the rifle, Hoss pulled the scabbard from the barrel, emitting a low whistle.  “Lordy--that’s a mighty fine gun if I do say so myself.  This must have cost a fortune.”

Joe shrugged.  Tossing his hat aside he laced a hand through his hair, smoothing ragged curls into place.  His green eyes darted almost nervously to the gun.  “It took a while to come up with the money,” he admitted nonchalantly, though his poise was obviously staged.  “Cletus Bower was holding it for me on installment.  That’s why I went to town--to make the final payment.”

“Joe, why would you want a gun like that?”  Ben queried, stepping closer as his two eldest sons continued to examine the rifle.  Even from a distance he could tell the workmanship was of the highest quality--care and precision placed in every fine line from barrel tip to stock.

Skittishly, Joe’s eyes danced from his father to the gun.  His mouth twitched, threatening a smile, but it never emerged.  “T-the gun’s not for me, Pa.  It’s a birthday gift.”

“Gift?”  Hoss’s head came up with a jerk.  At his side and slightly behind, Adam continued to study the rifle, tracing his finger almost absently over the highly polished stock.  “Joe, this gun must have cost a small fortune.  Who could you possibly give it too--well, er . . . aside from Pa,” he added as afterthought, “And I know it ain’t his birthday.”

“My guess is these initials have something to do with it,” Adam commented as his finger skimmed over a small engraved inlay in the stock.  “--‘SC’.”

Frowning, Joe took the weapon.  Hoss and Ben exchanged a disbelieving glance.

“Shey Cutter?”  Hoss’s eyes rounded to owl-like proportions as he sputtered the name.

Joe slipped the scabbard over the barrel.  “His birthday’s coming up soon.”

“And you’d remember that,” Adam inserted smoothly, his voice a trifle too cool. “Since you have all those years of friendship under your belt.”

Joe’s glance grew scathing.  “I thought we were past this,” he snapped.  “The man saved my life--more than once.  I’m not going to stand here and debate the merits of my friendship with Shey, simply because of some fights we had as children.”

“They were more than fights, Joe,” Adam reminded him.  “Between Chance, Shey and Eddie Wells, there were times you got pretty banged up.  I’m all for forgive and forget, but--”

“I think that’s enough for one evening,” Ben inserted before Adam could continue.  He could sense the building tension in his youngest son, warning of a cataclysmic outburst.  Joe’s eyes had narrowed to dangerous slits; his jaw constricted with bands of unyielding steel.  A few more moments and Joe and Adam would be exchanging ugly words over a situation that no longer existed.  Ben jerked his head towards the steps.  “Adam, Hoss--why don’t you head upstairs.  I’d like to talk to your brother alone.”

“Sure, Pa.”  Ever one to sense when hostility ballooned to hazardous proportions, Hoss snagged his older brother by the arm and tugged his towards the stairs.  Alone with his son, Ben motioned towards the couch.

Too irritated to sit, Joe laid the rifle on the buffet and stalked restlessly into the room.  “I don’t want to argue about this, Pa, and I don’t want a lecture.  I’m twenty-two years old.  I think I’m capable of making a decision about what kind of gift to buy my friend for his birthday.”

“No one said you weren’t,” Ben replied calmly.

“Then what is the problem?”  Exasperated, Joe threw his hands in the air.  “Every time I think I’ve got Adam convinced Shey’s changed, he rubs my nose in our past.  I admit we were . . . enemies, if you will . . . but that was--”

“--just a year ago.”  Though Ben’s voice was soft, it rankled with the sharp edge of truth.  Trying to ease the younger man’s volatile frustration, Ben stepped to Joe’s side and slid a hand onto his shoulder.  His fingers tightened affectionately.  “No one’s trying to badmouth Shey, Joseph.  Personally, I think you have a unique relationship.  We’re all just a little surprised that you’d buy so lavish a gift.”

Joe’s expression failed to soften.  “Why?  It’s not like I do anything with my money.  When’s the last time I sat in a poker game or took a girl to dinner?   Since Lorna left--”  He stopped suddenly, the words bitten off in abrupt silence as though betraying too much.  Before Ben could see the conflict in his eyes, Joe turned away.  Nervously, he bit down on the inside of his lip.  “I just wanted to buy Shey a gift,” he said irritably.  “It’s not like he has anyone, you know.  Both his parents are dead, and Amos and Chance--”  Disgusted, he shook his head,  “I didn’t expect such a hard time from my family.”

Uncertain if he should laugh or chastise, Ben conceded to the former.  With a soft chuckle, he patted Joe on the back.  “You’re right, Joseph.  Shey’s a good friend, and it’s his birthday.  You give him what you think is appropriate.  I’ll see you in the morning, huh?”

“Sure, Pa.  Just one more thing--”  Joe hesitated, then plowed ahead when his father glanced at him expectantly.  “My birthday’s only a few weeks after Shey’s, and I’d . . . I’d feel kind of funny if . . . if you had a party . . .” Joe trailed off awkwardly, his eyes dipping to the floor.  “I-I don’t want you to think I’m ungrateful, but maybe this year we could just skip it--”

“Joseph.”  Ben’s voice brought his son’s awkward musing to an abrupt halt.  Touched by his loyalty, Ben gripped his arm.  “Maybe you could invite Shey over, and we’d have a small celebration with just the five of us--thick steaks, good brandy, and some of Hop-Sing’s famous caramel-chocolate cake.”

Ben’s smile was comfortably contagious, causing Joe to grin.  “Sounds good, Pa.”  He felt his father’s hand tighten on his shoulder, then fall away.  With a soft “good-night” the older man, headed up the steps, leaving him to the seclusion of the Great Room.  The tick-tock of the grandfather’s clock reverberated through the air, meshing with the pop of expanding wood in the hearth.  Expelling a breath, Joe sank to a seat on the sofa.  His mind trailed back to what Adam had said. “ Between Chance, Shey and Eddie Wells, there were times you got pretty banged up--

He should have known Adam would make a fuss.  For all his talk about forgiving, he couldn’t let go of that incident involving Chance and Eddie at Pine Gorge.  Joe rubbed tiredly at his eyes.

And Shey.

That was the worst of it--Shey had been there too.


“Cartwright, if you don’t say something soon, I’m gonna have to find a more livelier drinking companion--like the town undertaker.”

“Huh?”  Joe came to his senses with a grunt, flushing slightly when he felt Shey’s eyes on him.

Cocking a brow, Shey thumbed his hat back on his head, exposing a fringe of moon-pale bangs.  “You ain’t said barely two words since we got here.  Now I know ridin’ fence at my ranch ain’t the best way to pass an afternoon, but I thought buyin’ you a beer would make amends for the favor.”

“Sorry.”  Grinning somewhat sheepishly, Joe swallowed a mouthful of watery ale.  Grimacing,  he set the mug on the table.  “Looks like Sam gave us some of his finest.  You really sprang for top of the line this time, Shey.”

The blonde haired man rocked back in his chair, lifting the two front legs.  “So this is the thanks I get for tryin’ to be a pal?  Guess you’ll want a steak dinner next.”

Propping his elbow on the scarred lip of the table, Joe took a lazy sip of beer.  “Preferably in San Francisco,” he parried lightly.  “Don’t know why you wanted my help anyway.  It’s not like you don’t have enough paid hands.”

“Maybe I’m just trying to keep your mind off that filly in the east.”

Joe’s face clouded with frightening alacrity.  Scowling heavily, he glared at Shey.  “Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he muttered, gaze dropping to the topaz liquid in his glass.  He took sudden interest in the lacy ring of foam clinging to the inside rim.

Not one to be dissuaded so easily, Shey gave a scoffing snort.  “Give it up, Cartwright.  Ever since that mess with Daphne, you’ve been stuck in the gloom-‘n-doom mode of pining for Lorna.  It ain’t like the vixen left yesterday, you know-- “

“Shey--”  Joe warned darkly.

“--she’s probably already hitched to some pompous ass, who stuffs dollar bills down his pants and trims his shirts with silk cravats.”

Joe bit the inside of his lip, struggling for control.  Before he could sputter even a syllable in cagey reprimand, a loud voice interceded.

“Hey Cutter--Shey Cutter!”  Simultaneously, Joe and Shey glanced towards the front of the saloon, where a young, dark-haired man stepped through the swinging doors.  Thinly built with a narrow face, he appeared all sharp angles and lines--knees and elbows sprouting in harsh counterpoint to stick-like limbs.  Though he smiled as he approached the table, the warmth never reached his eyes.  “Thought I saw you ride into town.”  Sparing a less than friendly glance for Joe, Eddie Wells refocused on the owner of the Circle C ranch.  “How’s that last load of lumber you got from my Pa’s mill?”

Shey remained insolently propped in his chair.  “It’s all there, if that’s what you mean.”

A flicker of irritation crossed the dark-haired man’s face.  “What is this, Cutter?  You gonna keep waving that one stupid mistake under my nose?”

“Mistake?”  Shey’s chair hit the floorboards with a loud thunk .  Though anger never entered his voice, his lips curled contemptuously.  “You shorted me on an order, Eddie.  It’s a piss-poor way to do business with friends.”

“It was an oversight.”  Folding his arms across his chest, Eddie’s eyes slid sideways taking in Joe’s steady expression.  “ ‘Course maybe you’re just a trifle too highbrow for your old friends, now that you got Cartwright here for a pal.”

Joe pressed his lips together.  Though his boyhood memories of Eddie Wells were far from pleasant, he’d managed to mostly avoid the other as an adult.  Lately, that berth grew more difficult to maintain as his friendship with Shey steadily increased.  Not so long ago Eddie Wells had been Shey Cutter’s closest friend.

Unfazed by the remark, Shey glanced across the table at Joe and grinned.  “Yeah, he gets a little uppity sometimes, but he’s still two-bits shy of the parson, and he rides fence for free.”

Shey’s wide smile was contagious.  Feeling his earlier anger drain away, Joe chuckled.  “Nice to know I have lasting value.”

“I didn’t say anything about lasting, pal.”  Shey’s amused glance darted sideways to encompass Eddie Wells.  “Sit down and have a beer, Eddie.  You could use a little highbrow-uppity yourself.”

“Forget it.”  Eddie’s mouth twisted in a severe scrawl, then slowly curved upward in an acid smirk.  “Unless you and Cartwright wanna reminisce about Pine Gorge.”

Joe blanched.  Across the table he felt Shey tense as his friend’s face drained of color.  The air in the room grew abruptly hot and sticky, pressing on his lungs with suffocating force.  Odd how a few carefully phrased words could have such a dramatic effect on the skittering beat of his heart. Only last night he’d wrestled with the demons of the past, trying to silence his memory of Pine Gorge.  To have it reawakened now, by no less than Eddie Wells--

Provoked, Joe started to stand.  He was halfway from his chair when Shey reached across the table and caught his wrist.  Surprised, Joe glanced at his less-than-patient friend.  Shey’s whiskey-brown eyes were riveted on Eddie Wells, lids lowered to predatory slits.  “I’ll overlook that, Eddie, but open your mouth about Pine Gorge again, I’ll pull the Circle C’s contract from your mill so fast you’ll be whittlin’ skunk eggs.  Then maybe you can tell your pa how you lost his biggest customer.”

Lifting both hands Eddie took a step back from the table, signaling retreat.   As Joe eased into his chair, the dark-haired man’s eyes skimmed past him and settled on Shey. “Ain’t never seen the like,” he spat.  “Cartwright and Cutter.  If Chance were here he’d upend his guts in the nearest spittoon.”

“Chance ain’t here,” Shey said heatedly.  Despite the crackling lash of his words, his voice was low and menacing, warning that his limited patience was ready to snap.

“Mores the pity,” Wells returned quietly.  Withdrawing from the table, he strode towards the bar, calling loudly for a beer.

Shey marked his retreat like a snake silently contemplating the ploy of a weasel.  His fingers tightened around his beer glass, knuckles bleaching to chalky knobs beneath the pressure.  “Jackass,” he muttered.

Joe cast him an arch look.  “You always did have a way with words,” he inserted lightly.

Scowling, Shey stood.  “Let’s get out of here, Cartwright.  The company stinks.”

Watching the tense lines of his friend’s face, Joe realized with belated distraction, he wasn’t the only one to have painful memories of Pine Gorge.  Mystified by the discovery, he followed Shey from the saloon, unaware that Eddie Wells cast a murderous look at his back.


Shey stepped from the plank boardwalk, reaching for his mottled gray and tugging the reins from the hitching post in a single jerk.  Sensing his agitation, Joe’s mare Cochise whickered softly, sidestepping as far as her restrictive reins would allow before quieting again.  Joe walked to the edge of the raised boards where he watched as Shey checked the trappings on his horse.  From the grim set of his friend’s features Joe guessed there was more bothering Shey then simple annoyance at Eddie Wells.  Folding his arms across his chest, he pursed his lips and stared down at the blonde-haired man.   “Aren’t you taking Wells’ comments a little too personally?”

Shey stopped his irritated fussing long enough to spare his friend a glance.  The break in activity seemed to bring him to his senses.  Scowling, he braced his forearms on the butter-smooth saddle.  “It’s just--hell, Cartwright--I all but forgot about Pine Gorge until Wells brought it up just now.  You and I ain’t never talked about it--”

Feigning nonchalance, Joe shrugged.  Despite his outward calm, he could feel the magnified flutter of his heart; the sudden prickle of heat in his temples like a needle piercing behind his eyes.  “Not much to talk about,” he said briefly.

Shey muttered something much too soft too hear.  After a marked hesitation he pushed away from his horse and approached the grizzled end of the boards, where he stood staring up at Joe.  The brim of his black hat wedged shadow across his face, muting the probe of his eyes.  Still, Joe felt as though he was being dissected, year after intervening year carefully stripped away until he was fifteen again.  “We should talk about it,” he heard Shey remark quietly.

Joe wet his lips, prompted by a sudden ping of outright alarm.  Pine Gorge was something he could not--would not--discuss with Shey Cutter.  Rolling his shoulders, he kept his expression neutral.  “Maybe later.  I gotta get back to the ranch.”  A smile tugged the corners of his lips as he tried to ease the burgeoning tension between them.  “Just because I ride fence for you doesn’t mean my Pa’s taken me off the payroll.”  Stepping from the boardwalk, Joe collected Cochise’s reins, then swung into the saddle in a single lithe movement.  With a staged smile, he glanced down on Shey.  “See you tomorrow, huh?”

“You got it, pal.”  Shey’s smile remained only long enough for Joe to ride away.  As he watched the slim form of his friend dwindle in the distance, Shey’s mouth settled into a distinct frown.  Feeling the prickling resurgence of his anger at Eddie Wells, Shey tugged his gray in the direction of the telegraph office, muttering as he went.  “ . . . idiot, duff-headed clod needs his lip hobbled . . . bringing up Pine Gorge . . . in front of Joe, and I let ‘im . . .”  His musing gave way to a string of irritated curses, which ceased completely when he reached the telegraph office.  Tethering his gelding to the hitching rail, Shey stepped within the small building.

“Hey, Davy--that message come yet?”

A short sandy-haired man glanced up from his desk, offering a quick skittish smile.   “M-Mister Cutter!  It’s good to see you, Sir.”

Shey resisted the urge to frown.  Somehow in the transition from troublemaker to landholder, he’d earned the unquestionable respect of the town’s merchants.  To Joe and others he’d grown up with, he was still just “Shey,” but most of the shop owners and civil servants had suddenly taken to addressing him like he’d aged twenty years overnight.  Motioning to the telegraph equipment the smaller man hovered over, Shey cleared his throat.  “The message I was waiting for . . .” he attempted again.  “Did it come?”

“Yes Sir!”  Eager to deliver the requested missive, Davy Holbrook flipped through the scraps of paper on his desk until he located the one he wanted.  Beaming brightly, he passed the folded parchment to Shey.  “There you are, Mr. Cutter.  If there’s anything else--”

“Yeah, yeah.”  Absently, Shey waved him aside, his attention riveted to the telegram.  Stepping through the door into the bright afternoon light, he reread the words on the parchment--wondering not for the first time, if he was doing the right thing.  With a sense of grim finality, he slipped the paper into his breast pocket.   Too late to back out now.

Collecting the reins of his gray, Shey swung into the saddle and turned the gelding from town.


Hoss cast a furtive glance towards the barn doors as he vigorously worked a thick length of rope into a manageable coil.  Early morning light streamed through the yawning opening, creating an oyster-pale haze in the darker interior.  “Hey, Adam--” he hailed his brother across the straw-littered dirt floor.  “Before Little Joe gets out here, what’re we gonna get ‘im for his birthday?  You know it ain’t that far away.”

Adam straightened from the oat bin he was filling, casting a distracted glance over his shoulder.  Within the smoky interior of the barn, his dark eyes appeared almost black, accenting the chiseled lines of his face.  “Originally I thought the two of us could go together and buy him a new rifle, but there’s no sense in doing that now, since he’s giving that gun to Shey Cutter.”

“Hmm . . .”  Hoss grunted thoughtfully.  The rope scraped over his callused palms, coiling neatly into a doughnut at his feet.  “What’dya think Shey’s getting him?” he wondered aloud.

Adam shrugged.  From the offhand roll of his shoulders, Hoss guessed his brother didn’t care.  Despite Adam’s strained acceptance of the Circle C’s owner, Hoss secretly believed there lingered a bit of jealously on Adam’s part.  Shey and Joe’s relationship had transcended dislike and awkwardness to encompass a closeness that Hoss believed Adam envied.  To make matters worse, Shey was the proverbial ugly duckling, groomed to a graceful swan.  Yet despite his new stature within the community, he maintained a haughty disregard of convention that routinely rubbed Adam the wrong way.

Hoss pursed his lips together.  “Maybe we should ask him--make sure we don’t get the same thing.”

“Do what you want,” Adam said.  Though not unkind, the words carried the thinnest trace of frost.  “Since Joe pretty much squashed my idea of the rifle, I was thinking about a fancy gunbelt--there’s still time if I get an order to the harness maker.”

“Hey!”  Hoss brightened considerably.  “That ain’t a bad idea, Adam.  He’s always grousin’ he needs a nicer belt to go with that fancy blue suit of his.  I’ll go halves.”

“Sure,” Adam returned, still sounding distracted.  Rooting through the items on  a nearby shelf, he concentrated on locating a tin of saddle soap.  He could feel a tightening of the muscles across his shoulders, and scowled at the constriction.  He didn’t understand his irritation--just knew it was somehow tied to that damn rifle Joe bought for Shey Cutter.  A gift like that clearly defined a friendship.  It left little doubt of the regard his brother held for the owner of the Circle C.

Adam’s movements grew clipped as he shoved items aside on the shelf, studiously ignoring the jangling clack of tin on tin.  Okay, so he saved Joe’s life--not once, but twice.  And he’s really not all that bad.  A small roll of twine fell to the floor, bumping against Adam’s foot, before coming to rest against the edge of a sawhorse.  But he was part of that mess in Pine Gorge, and that’s a little harder to forgive.  Maybe if I hadn’t been the one to find Joe . . . he swallowed hard, remembering the sight of his fifteen-year-old brother as he’d been on that autumn day.

“--for breakfast.”  Adam jerked suddenly, realizing someone was talking.   The thoughts tumbled away in his head, sucked through a dwindling funnel of obscurity.  Refocusing on his surroundings, he realized Joe stood in the doorway, an amused half-grin on his lips.  His younger brother was sloppily attired, attesting that although the rest of the family had been up for hours, he’d only recently risen.  Hanging loosely over his belt, his shirt was unbuttoned, revealing the smooth, tanned skin of his chest.

Finger-combing the rumpled curls of his thick hair into place, Joe grinned brashly at Adam.  “ ‘Course, if you’d rather not eat--”

“Best get your head examined, boy,” Hoss barked quickly, striding for the door.  He nudged Adam with his elbow, as he brushed past.  “What’cha waitin’ for, big brother?  Hop-Sing’s got biscuits and sausage-gravy.”  Slapping both hands palm-flat against his stomach, he drew a savoring breath.  “Lordy, I swear I can almost smell them fixins out here.”

Joe chuckled, but it was Adam who parried with Hoss, anxious to stave off questions about his momentary lapse.  “Hold off salivating until you get to the table.”  From the corner of his eye, he saw the delighted flicker of amusement on Joe’s face.  Catching Hoss by the sleeve, Joe tugged him from the barn, mumbling something about “bottomless pits.”

Adam trailed behind them, following slowly.  Despite the spray of early morning light soaking the ground, he couldn’t rid himself of a sudden burrowing chill.  The heady perfume of spring filled the air--dew-drenched grass, flowering trees and sun-warmed stone--but his mind was stuck in the brittle autumn of the past.  Once more Joe’s face came back to haunt him--young skin scraped and bruised, eyes wide with suffocating fear.

There was something here, Adam.  I swear to God, there was something here!

Clenching his hands to still his own inner trembling, Adam followed his brothers into the house.


Shey Cutter exhaled noisily.  Propping an elbow on the edge of his desk, he dropped his head into his palm, then used his free hand to rub the grit from his eyes.  It’s too early in the morning for this.  Stifling a yawn, he glanced at the column of numbers in the ledger book.  No one had told him when he’d inherited the Circle C, there’d be so much paperwork involved.  Tapping the edge of his pencil against his desk, he debated about hiring a manager.

“Morning, Shey.”

Thankful for any diversion that would keep him from reviewing his budget, Shey glanced up as Rob Falcon stepped into the room.  A big man with a swag belly, Rob could be intimidating with little effort.  Shey grinned briefly, remembering how he’d once used that to his advantage.  With the help of Rob and two prostitutes, he’d played a practical joke on Joe that still made him chuckle.  Originally perturbed, Joe had lightened up enough to appreciate it as well.

Propping his hip on the edge of Shey’s desk, Rob took a swallow of coffee from the mug he’d retrieved from the kitchen.  In Shey’s employ just under a year, he’d quickly made himself indispensable, developing a relationship with Shey that was as casual as it was business-like in nature.  “Got the last of that lumber you wanted, Boss.  I can have part of the crew shore up the line shacks, while the remainder work on the new brands.”

Leaning back, Shey retrieved his own coffee.  Swiveling his soft leather chair to the side, he propped his booted feet on the edge of the desk. “That lumber come from Jeremiah Wells’ mill?”

Rob pursed his lips.  He knew the last load had been shorted.  “It’s all there, Shey,” he returned, interpreting the other’s thoughts.

Shey’s lips curled languidly.  For a moment he looked more imp playing grownup, then owner of a prosperous ranch.  “I’m a step ahead of you, Rob--I already had it checked.  I just wanted to make sure we’re not ordering from anyone else.”

Rob set his coffee aside.  “From what I gather, your Pa had a long-standing relationship with Jeremiah, and you ain’t got no inklin’ to change it.  Until you tell me different, the contract stays with Wells.”

“Sounds good to me.”  Tilting his head back, Shey stared at the ceiling.  He was silent a moment, as though giving serious weight to the instructions he wanted to impart to his foreman.  But when he spoke, it was clear his mind had been on another track entirely.  “Rob, you ever hear of a place called Pine Gorge?”

Taken aback by the abrupt change in topic, Rob took a moment to respond.  Scrubbing a hand against the rough stubble on his cheek, he pondered the question.  “You mean that deep ravine up in the hill country?  Ain’t there some kind of legend associated with that place?”

“Yeah,” Shey said quietly.  The perpetual edge of sly innocence left his face, replaced by bleakness--a trait totally out of character for the irreverent owner of the Circle C ranch.   “There’s a thicket down there, with a pocket of trees, and a Threshold inside.”

Rob blinked.  “A what?”

“Threshold,” Shey repeated.  Absently, he sipped at his coffee.  It had cooled in the cup, leaving a bitter, acidic taste in his mouth.  “A place where--I don’t know--stuff happens.”

The big man hesitated, uncertain whether or not he was the victim of a joke.  Deciding his boss was perfectly serious, he smacked his lips together.  “Ain’t you a tad old for things-that-go-bump-in-the-night?”

As though coming to his senses, Shey chuckled.  “You’re right.”  Dropping his feet to the floor, he motioned the other away.  “Go ahead with the line shack repairs and the branding.  I’ve got to get through this budget, then I’ll join you in the north pasture.”

“Sure.”  Rob picked up his coffee mug.  “By the way--some undertaker rode in here yesterday while you was in town.  You know the type--dressed for a funeral, gun low on the hip, reekin’ of dead things.  Said he was lookin’ for the owner of the Circle C.”

Shey frowned.  “What’d he want?”

Standing, Rob shrugged.  “Sorry--he wasn’t inclined to part with the information.  Just said he’d be back.  Couldn’t get a name or anything, Boss.”

Slightly unnerved, Shey nodded.  “It’s not your job, Rob.  Just take care of the men, and I’ll meet you later, like I said.”

“Sure thing.”  As Rob stepped from the room, Shey bowed his face into his hands.  It wasn’t enough Eddie Wells had resurrected the ghost of Pine Gorge, or that he’d acted impulsively sending a telegram he probably shouldn’t have, now he had a mysterious stranger to contend with.   Perhaps budget reports weren’t so horrible after all.


Joe urged Cochise towards the lip of the bluff, then sat looking down into the ravine.  The noon sun hovered over his right shoulder, slanting shadows from the jagged edge of rock to the gorge below.  A few feet away, a sparse tangle of shrub brush marked the mouth of a meandering trail.  Nearly eight years ago, he’d followed that footpath into the gorge, chased by Shey Cutter, Eddie Wells and Shey’s brother, Chance.  The memory of that time hovered on the fringe of his senses, forcing him to acknowledge another Shey.  A different Shey--a Shey who had been anything but friendly:

“ . . . Hurry up, he’s getting away!”  Shey’s voice sidles into Joe’s mind like a needle into an exposed wound.  He can hear the harsh scrape of his boots against rock and gravel as he hurtles down the path, heedless of the yawning gorge below.  Bits of loose shale roll from beneath his heels, dislodged by the frenzied strike of his feet.  He can hear the harsh rasp of his own breath, eclipsing the cry of the turkey vulture overhead; the heightened keen of the wind as it funnels through the towering pinnacles of rock on either side of the ravine.  Somewhere behind him, Shey leads Eddie and Chance in pursuit, forcing him ever deeper into the sunken bowl of the gorge.

On another day Joe would face his pursuers, despite the three-to-one odds, but he’s promised to guard his friend Kyle’s possession, and he knows it’s what the other boys are after.  He feels it even now, bumping against his thigh--a Four Winds Wheel purchased from a peddler with shiny coins saved from numerous allowances.  A gift for Kyle’s mother.

“You ain’t gonna get away, Cartwright.”  Shey’s voice taunts him yet again, rising over the brittle fingers of rock, beckoning him deeper into their belly.  The air is cooler as he descends, dampening his sweat-streaked face with a welcoming chill.  Laughter flutters behind him--the mocking amusement of bullying pursuers which grows to resemble the chortling of demons.

Joe passes into a thicket of trees, feeling yet another decrease in temperature as the lush autumn canopy embraces him.  Gem-colored leaves rustle in the wind, their voices like the hushed mutter of wizened old men.  A bony branch scrapes against his cheek, coaxing a string of blood to the surface.  It trickles over his skin like the filmy thread of a cobweb brushing over his face.  He can no longer hear the other boys behind him.  The leaf-covered floor is spongy and soft beneath his boots, sucking at his heels like quicksand.  It hinders his flight, slowing his pace, until he stops--hands on knees, choking on a rush of chill air, bloating oxygen-starved lungs.  Sunlight is mostly a memory now, lost somewhere in the open belly of the ravine.  Here, among the clustering trees, shadows nestle in profuse abundance, creating the perpetual gloom of twilight.

He takes a moment to orient--straightening and turning in a circle.  Dismayed, he realizes the trees blend in similar patterns no matter the direction.  Shape and bearing become meaningless in the maze of contorted branches.  Absently he fingers the Four Winds Wheel hanging from his belt.  The beadwork is a contradiction of texture beneath his fingertips, coarse and smooth at the same time.   He recalls Kyle’s wide-eyed fear when Shey and the others discover them walking near the edge of the gorge, their horses tethered fifty yards to the south.  He relives the memory of Kyle’s sweat-sticky fingers, shoving the geegaw in his hand.  “Please Joe, don’t let ‘em take it.  I saved too long to buy that for my Ma.”

Joe swallows, the sound loud and foreboding in his ears.  Hesitantly, he strikes in the direction he believes is west--home of the Thunder Being, he thinks nervously, fingers still lingering on the beaded wheel.  He strives to recall what else the peddler told Kyle, chuckling to still his skittish nerves:   South is spring;  east is dawn or birth, and north is old age.  Something about a white giant.

Licking his lips, he listens to the rustle of the leaves overhead.  The sound grows agitated, creating a rush like moving water in his ears.  For a moment it is the only sound he hears--the only sense with any depth that pervades his suddenly paralyzed body.  He feels a presence--dark and ominous, hovering at his back.  It shifts and flows, liquid and serpentine, coiling around him with the sinuous touch of velvet.  The breath catches in his throat as a prickling of ice beads goosebumps down his arms.  He feels the hair on the nape of his neck stand on end.  Scrunching his eyes closed, he holds onto the Four Winds Wheel for all he his worth, the raised edge leaving small indentations in his fingertips.   Tensing, he waits for the soiled touch to retreat, but it grows ever stronger.  Propelled into motion, he flees blindly into the shadow-draped trees, heedless of the sting of groping branches against his face.  His heart thunders in his chest as the darkness flows around him, enveloping him in a tangible presence.

Only then does he understand what he has found . . .

Joe blinked, swearing softly at the tremors in his hands.  He tightened his fingers on the reins, feeling Cochise shift beneath him.  “Easy . . . easy.”  He wasn’t certain if he spoke to the horse or himself.  Disturbed by the vivid clarity of memories he’d thought long buried, he tugged the mare away from the ravine.  “Stupid,” he muttered, chiding himself for the heightened hitch of his breath.  Though the memories were nearly eight years old, his heart shuddered in his chest, as though experiencing them for the first time.  Removing his hat, he jerked his fingers through his hair, then settled the brim more comfortably on his crown of dark curls.  A mundane gesture, the familiarity helped calm him.

Though he wasn’t certain it was wise to see Shey just now, Joe headed for the Circle C, and the childhood enemy who’d since become his closest friend.


After spending most of the morning grousing over his budget reports, Shey was more than ready to join Rob Falcon in the north pasture.  Never extremely proficient with numbers, he found the chore of balancing ledgers as tedious as listening to the town preacher denounce the evils of gambling.  Catching his hat from a nearby chair, Shey was halfway down the steps when he heard the strike of the brass knocker resound against the front door.  His cook and all-around domestic helper appeared at the edge of the hallway, but Shey waved her aside.  “I’ve got it Mrs. Baker.”  Shey bounded down the steps two and three at a time, looking more like an overgrown child then a wealthy rancher.  His pale hair rose and fell in the air with each jerky movement.  Reaching the foyer, Shey grinned at the older woman, smoothing a hand through his straight hair more from habit than need for grooming.  With a fond scowl, Mrs. Baker shook her head and retreated towards the kitchen.  Already, Shey could smell wondrous odors drifting from the hallway, attesting to the early preparation of lunch and dinner ahead of time.  In a few hours Betty would return home to her two young children and small ranch, leaving prepared meals for the afternoon and evening behind.

With a glance down the hallway, Shey decided the best thing he’d ever done was hiring Henry Baker’s widow.  It had been Callie’s idea--which surprised him originally, as Betty wasn’t much past forty and still very attractive.  Although his sometimes girlfriend was often possessive, her jealousy didn’t extend to the woman the Cattleman’s Association had saved from near bankruptcy.  Spearheading the vote that had brought her financial aide after the death of her husband, Shey deemed it only natural he should act on Callie’s suggestion and employ her to keep his house in order.

With a glance for the tidy living room and parlor, Shey reached for the door.  He was still smiling distractedly when he opened the barrier.  The man who stood on the threshold was tall, and thin, dressed in a long black duster and immaculate soot-colored clothing.  Only the pale glint of his eyes and the white foam of his necktie eased the stark severity of his funeral attire.  A black gunbelt, studded with silver inlays, rested low on his hip.

Shey felt the blood drain from his face.

The man tilted his head, smiling sharply.  “What’s the matter, Shey?  Ain’t you got a welcome for your brother?”


Rob Falcon took a swig of water from his canteen, swishing it around the inside of his mouth before spitting it on the ground.  Slapping the cork in place with the flat of his palm, he glanced briefly towards the horizon, then turned his attention back to the branding pen.  The incessant braying of cattle had long since faded into background noise, along with the routine banter of his men.  Hooking his arms over the split rail fence, he spoke to the man beside him.

“Guess our boss is still struggling with all that paperwork.”

The other gave a contemptuous snort.  “I’ll take an iron or bronc any day over a column of numbers,” Stu Whitelaw said.  A top hand, the seasoned veteran had called the Circle C home since the day Lincoln Cutter first put him on the payroll ten years ago.

“You and me both,” Rob said.  Snagging a kerchief from his pocket, he mopped it over the back of his neck.  “All that cipherin’ must be what has Shey outta sorts.” His eyes tracked back to the branding pen as two cowhands wrestled a young steer to the ground.  The sight held his attention only briefly before he refocused on the man at his side.  “Say Stu--what’s all this I hear about Pine Gorge?”

Whitelaw glanced at him askance.  “You been listenin’ to old wives tales, Falcon?”

“I wish it were that simple.”  Rob leaned against the fence, letting the top rail take the brunt of his weight.  Shifting sideways, he dismissed the branding.  He chose his next words carefully, unwilling to reveal Shey as the source of buried superstition.  “I’ve heard rumors is all--and haven’t lived here long enough to know the folklore.”

“That’s all it is,” Stu returned.  “--Tales we used to tell our kids to keep them out of the gorge.  The walls up there are steep--sheer rock--and the trails are tricky.  I don’t know who started the whole nonsense, but it came in handy scarin’ the young ‘uns away.”

“How so?”  Rob didn’t haven’t to feign his interest.

Stu worked a wad of tobacco from one side of his mouth to the other, taking his time, now that he knew he had a rapt audience.  “There’s a thicket of trees in the ravine--not much bigger than a thimble, but dense as a bear’s hide in winter.  Every now and again things happen down there--lights appearin’ at night; dogs and cattle wandering in, never comin’ out; noises that can’t be explained.  I remember seven-eight years ago, the youngest Cartwright kid got lost in that thicket--”

“Joe?”  Rob interrupted, startled from silence.  “You mean Shey’s friend?”

“Yeah that’s the one.”  Stu bobbed his head.  “ ‘Course they weren’t friends then, but you wouldn’t know about that, not living here at the time.  Kid disappeared in the thicket and they couldn’t find him for three days.”

“But I thought you said it was small--not many trees?”  Rob was too focused on the story to pay much attention to the mention of Joe and Shey’s earlier relationship.

“That’s the odd part,” Stu agreed.  “You stand on top and look down in the gorge, you can see from one end of the thicket to the other--can’t be much more than a mile across.  Doesn’t seem possible the kid couldn’t find his way out, but that’s what happened.  Three days of folks in there beatin’ through the trees, yellin’ at the tops of their lungs.  Three days of nuthin’, until finally Adam Cartwright found his brother clingin’ to an old stone in the center of those trees, mumbling about a Threshold.”

Despite the warm sun, Rob felt a momentary chill.  “A what?”

“Threshold,” Stu repeated.  He shrugged, frustrated he couldn’t offer a better definition.  “That’s what the kid called it.  Said it was like a doorway--a kind of portal.”

Rob felt his flesh grow cold.  “That’s addle-brained crazy.”

Stu grinned.  Working his lips together, he spit a stream of tobacco juice on the ground.  “That, my friend--is what tall tales are made of.”  Glancing to the branding pen, he grinned broadly.  “Hey, look there--another one tattooed.  The boys are movin’ at a good clip and the boss ain’t even here to see it.  ‘Scuse me.”  Clambering over the fence, Stu hailed his hands, praising them for a job well done.

Rob was only vaguely aware of the congratulatory praise, focused more on the legend of Pine Gorge.  Was it mere coincidence Joe Cartwright was the boy to become lost within the thicket, or was Shey somehow involved?  His boss’s distraction earlier that day led him to believe it was the latter.

What he couldn’t figure, was why it bothered Shey now.


“Well?”  Chance Cutter cocked a slender brow at his brother, clearly enjoying his discomfort.  “I’ve come all the way from Tucson to see you, little brother.  Ain’t you gonna invite me inside?”

Shey’s shock gave way to slow rage. With effort, he balled his hands into fists, restraining himself from physical violence.  “You’ve got the audacity to show up on my doorstep, lookin’ like some toothy cadaver this side of the grave, when I ain’t heard a lick from you in six years?

“Miss me?”

Shey’s mouth curled downward in clear revulsion.  “Damn it, Chance, you didn’t even come back for Pa’s funeral.”  Leaving the door open behind him, Shey strode into the living room.

Chance followed, glancing around the room with an appraising eye.  “Place ain’t changed much,” he observed casually.  “I hear you own the whole thing now--lock, stock and barrel.”

Halting before the hearth, Shey turned his back, bracing his shoulders against the mantle.  With a scathing glare, he folded his arms across his chest.  “Is that why you’ve come back--for your cut?”

“Nah.”  Tossing his hat on the divan, Chance removed his duster and sank into the silk-bound cushions.  Stretching his arm across the ornately carved backrest, he took a moment to appreciate the opulence of the room.  “I forgot how grandly Pa liked to live.  Guess you’re gonna keep things the way they are.”

“It’s my ranch,” Shey said flatly.

Chuckling, Chance laced a hand through his short-cropped hair.  Though darker than Shey’s, it was more wheat-colored than gold.  “I ain’t come for an inheritance, Shey.  Pa gave me my portion of his estate in hard cash when I left.”

“I remember.  You could have come home to bury him.”

“Well that would have been difficult, as I was in prison at the time.”

Caught off guard by the statement, Shey pushed away from the hearth.  Despite a silent vow to remain angry, he felt himself weakening.  “Prison?” he parroted.

Unconcerned, Chance shrugged.  Though only two years older, Shey thought he looked haggard, his face drawn like a man in his thirties.  “I made some dumb mistakes when I left , but learned from ‘em.  I got swindled and did time for shooting the man who conned me.”  His lips turned up in a fox-like grin.  “Learned a lot since--including how to make a fast dollar.”

Not sure he wanted to know, Shey took a seat across from him and waited.  He wouldn’t ask--he didn’t have it in him to pretend he cared.

Sensing his stubbornness, Chance plowed ahead.  “For the last three years I’ve made my living as a bounty hunter.  A profitable one too.  Pa would’ve frowned for sure, but then I always was the blacksheep, eh, Shey?”

An incredulous bubble of laughter tickled the back of Shey’s throat.  With effort he bit it silent, concentrating on the feel of the floor beneath his boots; the splash of sunlight on the braided rugs--anything to take his mind from the absurd thought that suddenly surfaced.  Still it persisted--Chance was the blacksheep.  All along Shey had been the respectable one.

“You seem amused,” Chance noted.

Shey waved the statement aside.  “Just appreciating the irony.”  Slouching in his chair, he laced his hands across his stomach and stretched his legs before him.  It was classic Shey Cutter posture--impudent and just a trifle disrespectful.  “Why come back now, if you’ve got no designs on the ranch?”

Chance brushed a hand over his immaculate black coat, flecking away an offending piece of lint.  “I took a prisoner over Silver City way, and was close enough to visit.  I knew Pa left you the ranch.  Guess I just wanted to see how you were doing.”  The hint of a smile touched his lips.  “We used to be close, Shey--you and I, and Eddie Wells.”

Shey remained indifferent.  “Things change.”

“Ain’t that the sad truth.”  Leaning forward, Chance laced his hands between his knees.  “How is Eddie, anyway?”

“Fine, I suppose.  I wouldn’t really know.”

Appearing troubled for the first time, Chance scowled.  “Why not?  He was your closest friend.”

“Like I said--things change.”  He started to push from his chair, then thought better of it.  “Look, Chance--I got branding to do.  You wanna hang around here that’s fine.  There’s a room for you upstairs if you want it.  Dinner’s around six, but if you get hungry before that, Mrs. Baker always has something in the kitchen.  Maybe later we’ll talk.”

“Maybe later, we will.”


As Joe drew rein before the stately manor home of the Circle C, he knew that sooner or later he and Shey were going to have to discuss Pine Gorge.  Ever since he’d brought that rifle home and Adam had made the comment about his and Shey’s past, he couldn’t get the incident out of his head.  If anything, it had grown with clarity as memories once fog-shrouded became frighteningly clear.  He had a brief recollection of clinging to Adam when his brother had found him in the thicket. There was something here, Adam.  I swear to God, there was something here!

The thought feathered away as he took note of an unfamiliar black stallion tethered to the hitching post.  Looping Cochise’s reins over the rail, Joe walked up the series of steps to the mammoth front porch.  He was almost to the door when it opened and Shey stepped briskly over the threshold.

“Joe!”  Caught off guard by his presence, Shey was momentarily speechless.  “I--I thought . . .”

“Hey, what’s wrong, pal?”  Joe grinned easily and slipped a hand onto his shoulder.  Never one to be tongue-tied, Shey’s uncharacteristic sputtering left Joe confused.  “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Let’s get out of here.”  Before Joe could protest, Shey snagged him by the sleeve and pulled him roughly down the steps.

“Hey, whoa--slow down!  What’s going on?”

“Just move it, Cartwright.  I don’t have time to explain.”  Catching Cochise’s reins, Shey pulled the mare in the direction of the barn, his bewildered friend trailing behind.

“You’re acting like an idiot, Cutter.”  Joe followed his friend as far as the entrance to the barn where he hesitated on the threshold.  Shey had left Cochise standing in the doorway as he moved inside to saddle his horse.  Watching the hurried motions of his friend, Joe frowned, glancing back over his shoulder towards the house.  “Whose horse is that?”

Shey’s voice was muffled, head bent as he tightened the saddle straps on his gray.  “No one important.   Besides--I thought Circle C business was my affair.”

“Hookay.”  Joe held his hands up, surrendering to the absurdity of the moment.  “Maybe you’d better tell me what’s got you so all-fired nasty, before I forget I’m a nice guy.”

Shey snorted, falling back on his customary irreverence.  “By who’s definition?”  He grinned over his saddle, prompting an answering smirk from Joe.   With a last adjustment to the straps, he considered his friend.  “Tell you what, Joseph--you ride with me to the north pasture and I’ll um . . .”  Shey’s eyes dipped momentarily.  “ . . . tell you about it.”

Alerted by his friend’s hesitation, Joe nodded.  “Sure.”  He had the distinct impression he was going to be sorry for asking.


Long before they reached the north pasture, Shey pulled rein at the edge of a stream.  While Joe sat mounted on Cochise, the blonde-haired man paced on the bank, idly kicking loose stones into the creek bed.  Joe waited only a limited time before his own short patience got the best of him.  “Hey, Prince Charming, wanna tell me what this is all about?”

The comment earned a black glance from Shey.  Scowling heavily, he dropped to a seat on the ground.  Digging his boot heels into the soft earth, he drew his legs up and braced his elbows on his knees.  “So I’m a little testy,” he retorted irritably.

Joe rolled his eyes.  “That’s an understatement.” Realizing whatever troubled his friend, it wasn’t going to be a short discourse, he swung down from the saddle.  Releasing Cochise to crop grass near Shey’s gray, Joe rested his hands on his hips and glanced out across the stream.  “Unless I’m mistaken, this ain’t the north pasture.”

“Don’t be so damn cocky.” Exhaling loudly, Shey flopped back on the grass.  “This ain’t easy, Cartwright.  It ain’t easy at all.”

“It’s even harder when you don’t have a clue.”

“All right, all right.”  Sitting forward again, Shey stared up at his friend.  He struggled for the right words, attempting the finesse to break the news tactfully.  In the end--frustrated--he succumbed to his usual crass bluntness.  “The horse belongs to Chance.”

“Chance?”  Joe repeated the name as though it were part of a foreign language.  His mouth tightened, despite efforts to keep his expression neutral. “Your brother, Chance?”

“ ‘Fraid so.”  Cocking a brow into the fringe of his bangs, Shey grinned up at him.  “But don’t fret none--you’ll have to get in line behind me, if you wanna clobber him.”

Joe shook his head and turned away.  It was all too much--first Eddie Wells, then Pine Gorge, now Chance Cutter.  He felt as if he was reliving his past, bullied by memories he couldn’t silence.  Maybe Adam was right--maybe there were certain things you couldn’t forgive.  His chest tightened with constricting steel bands, until he felt pressure peak behind his eyes.  Turning towards Cochise, he collected the mare’s reins.  “I’ve gotta go,” he said.

Alarmed by his drastic change in mood, Shey jumped to his feet. “Hey, Cartwright, come on--what’s the deal here?”

Joe’s glance sidled sideways.  “I can’t believe you’d ask that.  Your brother followed me into the thicket at Pine Gorge--”

Shey swallowed hard.

“--and left me there.  Three days, Shey.  He left me there.”

 . . . the darkness remains, tangible and encompassing.  Realizing he cannot escape it, Joe huddles into himself, hugging his arms to his chest.  The air is damp and chill, penetrating his too-thin clothing.  Already, the hem of his pants are sodden, weighted with clinging bits of bracken and muddy soil.  The trees feel alive--sentient beings standing watch over an ancient portal.

Joe feels a heightened charge to the air, like the pulse of unseen currents before a thunderstorm.  Instinctively he realizes he has entered a place not unlike the Four Winds Circle.  A place where White Giant meets Thunder Being and Red Dawn--a place of power and distortion where the elements of earth and sky fuse with arcane prowess.  Here, he is small and insignificant, barely worth the notice of darkness and trees.

“Cartwright.”  The voice comes to him from the shadows.  For a moment there is nothing--just the disembodied glint of shadow within shadow.  Movement follows, not as fluid as the darkness, but clumsily, betraying the gangly awkwardness of youth.  Chance Cutter emerges from the cradle of trees, his glance apprehensive for only the briefest of seconds.  Orienting on Joe seems to give him strength, as though taking solace in something perceived as weaker.

“I can’t find the way out,” Joe says lamely, but Chance is interested only in evening the score--in taking back the trinket he deems as spoils.  Joe is unprepared when the larger boy tackles him, bearing him to the ground.  There is a sharp explosion of pain in Joe’s head as his skull strikes the jagged edge of a rock.  He feels the heated tackiness of blood spread beneath his hair.  His vision clouds, then clears;  stable one moment, reeling drunkenly the next.  Chance’s fist connects with his face, then his ribs.  Grunting beneath the impact, he tries to fold in on himself and roll clear.  There is a ringing in his ears.  From the corner of his eye he can see a brittle splinter of rock, tinged red with his own blood.  Blindly, he strikes at Chance.

He can feel the darkness approaching, slithering ever nearer--that thing-within-a-thing-within shadow.  Fear bubbles against the back of his throat, giving him strength to shove Chance aside.  The other boy doesn’t seem as attuned to his surroundings--either that, or perhaps there is enough darkness festering within him to welcome the intrusion of more.  Joe hears a snuffling among the trees, escalating his fear to panic mode.  Chance’s fingers close on the wheel, and rip it free of his belt.

Dazed, Joe tries to stop him.  He hears footsteps fading into the darkness as the other hurriedly retreats.  “Chance!”  He chokes on the name, as a sudden wave of light-headedness pulls him down into the maw of something cold and constricting.  “Chance, don’t leave!”

But there is only the darkness, and the growing ache in his skull.   Joe feels the breath catch in his throat, for he knows he is no longer alone.  Terrified, he feels the frost-like hem of the darkness wash over him, bringing with it the wrath of the Thunder Being . . .

Shey shook his head.  “Why are you getting angry at me?  I didn’t do anything.”

Joe snapped back to the present, feeling the cold flush of memories fade from his mind.  For a quick-silver second in time--snagged between past and present--he didn’t know if it was Shey or Chance he confronted.  “You didn’t do anything?”  he repeated sarcastically, hearing the stormy rise in his voice--a sure warning his emotions grew volatile.  “You and Chance and Eddie Wells chased me into that damn thicket, Shey!  You were there!  You were part of it!”

“Damn it, Joe, that was almost eight years ago.  What the hell do you want from me?”

Disgusted, Joe lifted a hand and brushed the statement aside.  Once again he turned towards Cochise.  “This is stupid--”

“--you’re telling me--”

Scowling, Joe glanced over his shoulder at his friend.  Shey’s normally flippant demeanor had hardened to the cocky callousness Joe remembered from childhood.  There was a tightness to his face--a near-belligerence that seemed dreadfully out of place given their relationship over the last year.  Sighing, Joe braced his arms against his saddle, dropping his head to rest on the back of his wrist.  He could still sense the memories tucked in a shadowy corner of his mind, clinging like dream images.  A distracted part of him registered the hiss of the breeze across the grass; the minute gurgle of the stream in the background; the distant cry of a bird pinwheeling overhead.  Gathering his resolve, he straightened then swung into the saddle.  Tugging Cochise sharply to the left, he faced Shey.  “I’ve gotta go in town. I promised my Pa I’d pick up the mail.”

Shey tilted his head to the side, staring up at him.  Lifting a hand, he angled his fingers to block the glare from his eyes.  “When are you gonna tell me what happened in that thicket, Joe?”

“Dunno.”  Before arriving at the Circle C, Joe had vowed to discuss the incident at Pine Gorge with his friend, but the appearance of Chance changed everything.  Awkwardly, he cleared his throat.  It took every ounce of control he possessed not to let anger guide his words. Still, the bitterness bled through:  “Maybe you should ask your brother about it.”

Wrenching sharply on Cochise’s reins, Joe wheeled the pinto around and spurred her towards the horizon.


By the time Joe reached town, the heat of day had banished the morning’s lingering chill.  Waxy light glistened on the flat planks of the boardwalk and turned the dusty streets to white sand.  A small group of women conversed in front of the dress shop, their long skirts soiled at the hem with grime from boards and street.  Joe tipped his hat as he rode by.  Glimpsed from the corner of his eye, one of the women looked remarkably like Lorna. His breath caught unexpectedly until he realized this woman was taller; her face narrower, complexion deeper.  Belatedly, he released a pent-up breath.

Too many ghosts from the past.

Dismounting before the post office, he went inside and collected the mail.  Though the clerk smiled and greeted him warmly, Joe’s own response was less enthusiastic.  Claiming the small stack of letters, he returned to the boardwalk, idly rifling the envelopes.  Though his eyes lingered on the soft vellum, his mind was elsewhere--stuck with Shey on the craggy bank of a stream; mired further still in the tumultuous years of their past.   Slipping the letters inside his pocket, he glanced across town, absently noting the trio of cowhands in front of the livery stable; Sally Linden leaving her father’s store--red hair glinting like firelight beneath the sun; Mr. Bowers chasing a stray dog from the entrance to his haberdashery.  Even as the small, white-haired man sent the mongrel fleeing, he smiled ingratiatingly at a customer just leaving his shop.  Joe watched as the two exchanged pleasantries, and then the stranger--a tall man, dressed entirely in black, but for a triangle of white at his neck--tipped his hat and moved languidly past.

Joe narrowed his eyes.  There was something oddly familiar about the man’s gait.  Though he was too far away to see his features clearly, Joe detected a hint of wheat-colored hair.   Heading across town, he followed the man into the saloon.


“Hey, Sam.”  Joe hailed the proprietor as he stepped within the bar.  It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimmer interior.  Splinters of sunlight pierced the dusty windows, fusing with the natural luster of dark woodwork for a glow like aged saffron.  Though still fairly early in the day, there were enough patrons in the saloon to warrant a fair-sized crowd.  As Joe stepped to the bar, planting one boot on the foot rail, he let his eyes sift through the throng.  A few men he recognized--ranchers, cowhands, and merchants from town.  The table nearest the door was occupied by two gentlemen in vested suits--business tycoons who’d obviously come off the stage.  They stole occasional disapproving glances at a group of wranglers in the rear, who were boisterously haggling over a card game.  Ignoring the clamor, Joe spared a passing smile for the barmaid then motioned Sam for a beer.  Warm and watery, the brew left a slightly acidic tang clinging to his tongue.  Drawing the back of his hand across his mouth, he focused on the man at the opposite end of the bar--the man he’d spotted across town.

“Chance Cutter,” he said flatly.

Briefly their eyes met. To Joe it was like stepping eight years into his past; unearthing the tattered threads of anger he’d thought long buried.  It flickered along the string of his senses, kindling something darker in its wake.  Yet this was an older Chance--not the seventeen-year-old boy who’d abandoned him to an ancient wooded copse.  This man had a harsher look about him--lined and weathered, not so much by the elements, but by life itself, as though he’d grown tarnished merely by living.

“Cartwright.”  Chance’s lips curled in a sickle-thin smile, as though he couldn’t decide if he were  repulsed or amused.  In the end he settled for smug disdain. Sauntering closer with a low-hipped stride reserved for gunslingers and hopefuls, he let the smile spread to dagger-toothed proportions.  “You’ve grown, boy.  I might not have recognized you, but for that left-handed gun.”  His eyes dipped once, taking in the comfortable angle of the weapon on Joe’s hip--too low for anything but precision handling.  “It’s been awhile, huh?”

“A long while.  I didn’t realize you’d come back.”

Chance gave a soft snort--half amusement; half puffed-up vanity.  Slouching sideways against the bar, he braced a polished black boot on the footrail.  There was something about the arrogant laziness of his stance that reminded Joe of Shey.  “Thought I’d come home for awhile--visit my brother.”  Chuckling softly, he glanced down at his beer.  “Guess it must tear you up something fierce, Shey getting ownership of the Circle C.  Ups the ante, if you know what I mean.”

“Sorry.”  Now that he was here, Joe wasn’t certain why’d he come.  What did he hope to gain  by confronting Chance Cutter?  The incident between them was nearly eight years old.  To make matters worse, Cutter’s brother was now his best friend.  Dismissing the older man, Joe turned away, taking a swallow of his beer.  “You’ve got it wrong about Shey.”

“Do I?  Then why even bother talking to me?”

Joe’s glance narrowed, sweeping sideways.  “You know why,” he muttered, voice suddenly strained.  “I didn’t come here to reminisce about old times, Chance.”  Licking his lips, he lowered his voice even further.  “I want to know about Pine Gorge.”

The bounty hunter’s face went surprisingly blank.  “A thimble of rock and a scrawny stand of trees?”

Joe’s gaze was withering.  “It’s more than that.  You know it--you were there.”

Bewilderment succumbed to mild amusement as the older man chuckled.  “Cartwright I think that ale’s gone to your head.  Either that or you’ve grown soft as a porcupine’s belly.”

Angered, Joe grabbed him roughly by the arm.  “Damn it, why are you lying?  Why are you pretending it never happened?”  Joe had to know--know that somebody else saw what he had seen . . . experienced what he had experienced.  The need for Chance to admit the truth was so staggeringly compulsive, Joe felt his heart swell with the frightening urgency of it.

Perturbed, Chance pulled free.  “Get away from me Cartwright.”

But Joe was beyond caring, beyond rational thought as memories crowded and pushed against the back of his mind, vying for dominance.  “You’re gonna tell me,” he hissed, grabbing Chance yet again.

The bounty hunter wrenched away.  Joe heard the clack of his beer glass as it slammed against the bar.  Chance pivoted on the heel of his left foot, roundhousing with his right fist.  Senses already sharpened by his agitated state, Joe ducked swiftly, marginally avoiding the blow.  He drove his right arm forward, thrusting his knuckles into Chance’s diaphragm.  There was a “whuff” of air from the bounty hunter, then the blonde-haired man reeled backwards, vainly striving for balance.  Joe flung himself forward, catching him around the middle and bearing them both to the ground.  The moment he felt the plank boards against his knees, he disentangled himself--drawing back to strike Chance a hard blow across the face.  He was vaguely aware of Sam yelling for him to stop; of the wranglers in the back cheering him on.  From the corner of his eye he saw the barmaid scurry out of the way--a glimpse of chartreuse silk, fishnet stockings, and ankle-high boots.  When he swung again, Chance blocked the blow.  Before Joe could recover, Chance laced his hands together, drew his arms back and slammed the double-fisted battering ram into Joe’s side.  Carried by the momentum, Joe was lifted clear, thrown against the nearest table.

His back struck the center with bone-jarring impact.  Wood popped and splintered then gave way beneath him, sending him crashing to the ground.  Before he could recover, a chair banged against his shoulder--jagged edge clipping him on the side of the face.  Thrusting a blind arm into the melee, Joe shoved the object aside, trying to get his feet under him.  He heard someone call Chance’s name--the inflection in the voice surprised and pleased--and then he was barreling forward, propelled by the irrational, consuming need to silence his demons of Pine Gorge.

Once again he snagged Chance about the waist, thrusting him up against the bar.  This time the bounty hunter cried aloud as his back struck the unyielding wood.  Joe drove his fists into the man’s midsection--again and again.  White Giant.  Red Dawn.  Thunder Being.  White Giant.  Red Dawn.  Thunder Being.  whitegiantreddawnthunderbeingwhitegiantreddawnthun--

The world upended as a hard blow fell against the back of his neck.  Joe tumbled, sucked down into a void that flung his senses into a chaotic whirl.  The tip of a boot struck him in the ribs, and he curled in on himself like a fish out of water.  Blinking away the distorting haze, he stared up at the faces of Chance Cutter and Eddie Wells.

The latter grinned.  “Just like old times, huh, Chance?  What’dya say we teach the boy a lesson?”


Shey Cutter paced before the hearth, idly taping the folded slip of paper against his open palm.  In the days since it’s arrival, he’d come to think of it as The Telegram , as if it was the only missive in the known world to carry weight.  Originally the plan had seemed like a good one--he’d spent months chasing down the perfect birthday gift for Joe, but now as his friendship with the youngest Cartwright grew strained, he began to think he’d made a mistake.

“Too late to send it back, Shey,” he said aloud, with a resigned sense of folly.  It made him realize how some ideas can seem wonderfully beguiling in the fragile hours of night, but appear aggravatingly stupid in the light of day.   “It’s becoming my middle name:  Shey Idiot-For-Hire Cutter.”  More than a little flustered, Shey slipped the vellum into a small wooden box on the mantle of the marble-inlay hearth.  Expelling a breath, he laced both hands through his hair, feeling the mounting level of his frustration.  The dinner hour had come and gone with no sign of Chance.  Now as day slipped into evening, and the purple hem of twilight bowed before the encroaching ink of night, he found himself disappointed by his brother’s absence.  As rankled as he was by Chance’s unexpected arrival, a part of him yearned to silence the friction between them.

There was much they needed to discuss--not the least of which was Joe Cartwright.

Shey startled suddenly at a crisp knock on the front door.  Would Chance knock?  Frowning, he took the short path from the living room into the foyer, certain to find his brother standing smugly on the other side of the double-door entrance.  “It’s about damn, piss-in-the-bucket time,” he growled, wrenching open the door.  “I’ve been--ooph! --Adam!”  Shey stumbled over the name when he realized who stood on the porch.

The eldest Cartwright sibling was dressed in his customary black.  Coupled with a menacing glower and the nest of shadows at his back, he appeared almost sinister in the thin rectangle of light cast by the open door.  It took Shey a moment to recover his composure.  “Sorry about the greeting, I was expecting someone else.”  He smiled with familiar cocky ease, but Adam remained implacable.  Frowning, Shey pressed his lips together.  “Adam, is something wrong?”

The stony set of Adam’s expression did not change.  “You might say that.”

Concerned, Shey motioned him inside.  “Is it about Joe?”  Suddenly it was the only thing that made any sense.  Why else would Adam show up on his doorstep in the middle of the night?  He prowled restlessly into the living room, Adam close behind, that rancorous grimace never leaving his face.  It made Shey feel somehow dirty--as though Adam looked down on him as something wholly reprehensible--a man without scruples or redeeming value.  “Tell me what’s going on,” Shey demanded, halting by the side of the velvet-lined davenport.  His fingers curled over the scrolled woodwork of the ornate backrest, until he felt the raised pattern of intertwining leaves and vines dig into his flesh.  Some inner part of him knew what Adam was going to say--knew that it was going to involve Chance.

Adam folded his arms across his chest, his eyes hooded and dark.  “I didn’t know your brother was back in town, Shey.”

Anger and fear gave reign to Shey’s normal impudence.  “Yeah, well I’m not his keeper, and I don’t make a habit of broadcasting my business.”

“Maybe you should,” Adam returned.  “At the very least you should have told him to stay away from Joe.”

The accusation was flat and scathing.  Shey felt the hair on the nape of his neck stand on end.  Those words could mean only one thing.  He swallowed hard, the edge of arrogance slipping like fluid through his fingers.  “Is . . . Is Joe--”

“He’s in bad shape,” Adam said flatly.  Stalking into the room, he paced before a wall of tall, curtained windows.  Liquid crystal and gold filigree combined in a chandelier suspended above his head.  For one absurd moment all Shey could think of was the contrast between light and dark--between heavenly chandelier and black-clad man.   It was like watching some backstreet operahouse production of Faust readying to sell his soul to the devil.  Any moment now he’s gonna tell me where to sign.

Shey bit his lip to stifle a giggle.  He was losing his sanity as well as his nerve.  He should have seen this coming.  Chance--Joe--Pine Gorge--a cauldron of certain disaster.   “It was my brother, wasn’t it?”

Only now did he see the tension in Adam¾the tight cording of muscle across his broad shoulders; the twitch of rage in his jaw.  “Yeah it was Chance--and Eddie Wells.  Sam said it started in the saloon, but when Joe was down, your brother and his friend took it outside.  Said they wanted to teach him a lesson.”

Bowing his head, Shey pinched two fingers against the bridge of his nose.  “Damn it.”

Adam gave a soft, disapproving grunt.  When Shey raised his head, Adam was staring at him--his eyes sharp and cutting with an edge like glass.  Raising one hand, he pointed an accusing finger at Shey.  “You could have stopped this.  If you really are Joe’s friend you’re going to have to take a stand against your brother.  And just to set the record straight--if Chance crosses paths with me, I’ll beat the living daylights out of him.”

For once Shey’s cocky arrogance was lacking.  “He um . . . Chance doesn’t know Joe and I are friends,” he said quietly, as though confessing to a crime.  A flush of guilty color touched his cheeks. “He thinks things are the way they used to be  . . . when he left.”

Adam shook his head, his face twisting with contempt.  “I always knew you were worthless.  It was just a matter of time till you proved it to Joe.”  Stalking from the room he brushed past Shey, leashed anger quivering in every corded muscle of his frame.  A moment later Shey heard the swish of the front door as it scraped open, followed by a reverberating thunderclap slamming shut.  The crackle and hiss of Adam’s repressed rage hung in the air like fingerprints.

Defeated, Shey dropped into the sofa and bowed his face into his hands.  It was altogether possible Chance had created a rift between he and Joe, too great to heal.


Joe drew an uneven breath, feeling pain spike through his battered ribcage.  A soft moan slipped from his lips, as he struggled from the doughy tomb of unconsciousness.  A cool, firm hand pressed against his forehead, smoothing sweat-sticky bangs from his brow.

“Easy, Little Joe.  You’re safe now.”  His father’s voice was a welcome anchor drawing him ever closer to the brink of coherency.  He dragged his tongue across his lips, trying to coax words from the constricting tissue of his raw throat.

“I . . . Pa, I--”

“Ssh,” Ben whispered near his ear, the sound velvety and cool as dew-drenched grass.  Joe stilled temporarily, placated by a soothing fog.  Soft edges blunted the barbed needles in his rib cage; eased the pulsing glut of the laceration above his right eye.  The murderous pain in his head grew silent.  Groggily, he opened his eyes.

The familiar images of his room came into focus--the dark luster of writing table and dresser; the bulky silhouette of the washstand by the window haloed in weak lantern light; wood-framed paintings on the walls; the picture of his mother on the nightstand.  Briefly Joe closed his eyes, comforted by solid surroundings. When he looked again, he focused on Ben, seated at his bedside.

His father smiled.  It was the thankful, encouraging look of a man who can now see light at the end of the tunnel.  Joe gripped his hand.  “How . . . how did I get here?”

“Adam and Hoss.  They found you in town.”

Joe nodded, remembering:  the fight in the bar.  He’d actually had the upper hand until Eddie Wells hit him from behind.  After that, everything was a blur.  He remembered Chance and Eddie dragging him outside.  Vaguely he recalled the cool, enveloping shade of any alley.  Then there was only pain, as he endured the grueling assault by two men clinging to the ill-gotten camaraderie of their past.

Shey’s brother.  Shey’s former best friend.

Attempting to sit up, Joe grimaced as pain speared through his ribs.  Bracing a hand against his shoulder, Ben gently pushed him back into bed.  “Lie still.  You’re going to be laid up for a while, Joseph.”  He frowned slightly as he saw the troubled look on his son’s face.  It took a whole lot of nothing to realize where Joe’s thoughts were headed.  “You need to concentrate on getting better before you start thinking about Shey.”

Joe flinched almost guiltily, as though he had reason to be ashamed.  Sinking back against the pillows, he allowed the lethargic reserve of his muscles to consume him.  Tension slithered from his body, leaving an exhausted shell behind.  He hovered on the brink of consciousness, hearing Ben’s whispered assurances like the gentle rise and fall of water lapping against a shore.  His eyes drifted shut, lulled by the soft litany.

Discordance feathered the peripheral rim of his senses--minutely at first, then with greater frequency.  Ben’s crooning faded beneath the saw-toothed intrusion of Eddie’s hateful curses and Chance’s snide laughter.  Joe winced, twisting his head on the pillow, trying to block the distorted memories of his recent attack.  Past and present merged.  As consciousness slipped away, Joe was drawn ever deeper into a bubble of memory he wished only to silence.

He flees the Thunder Being, feeling the scorching release of its breath like a heated downdraft of wind on a hot July afternoon.  His mind conjures an image of a beast that is fire and darkness meshed into one--a form that glistens with molten amber and the indigo blood of the sky.  There are talons--knife-sized and ruby red--and lidless eyes as pale as moonflesh.

Joe can feel it chasing him as he stumbles through the thicket--a thicket that grows ever denser, ever deeper with underbrush and intertwining trees.  The pain in his head has mushroomed to a torturous ache, turning his vision scarlet at the edges.  He knows the being is behind him--the master of a domain he has foolishly invaded.  Branches scrape against his exposed skin, drawing slivers of blood to the surface.  He hears the laughter of the leaves--dry, paper-thin voices mocking him for his feeble attempt to escape.  Ahead of him he sees a glimpse of ivory--Chance’s bone-colored shirt made almost luminescent by the enveloping dark.

“Chance!”  His throat is raw as he screams the name.  He sees the other boy hesitate, turn.  Joe is almost upon him, his nose clogged with the smoky reek of decaying leaves and wet bark.  Chance’s eyes round in his head, his face draining of color.  The older boy is looking behind Joe--looking directly into the milk-white eyes of the Thunder Being.  Joe’s foot catches on a protruding root and he stumbles--falling into the soft bed of decomposing leaves and fern.  He flings out his arm, terrified that the Thunder Being will consume him.  “Chance, please don’t leave.”

The other boy turns and is swallowed by sunlight--by the glittering, safe world outside the thicket.  Joe feels the fleeting touch of that light, like a teasing flicker across his cold flesh.  Then the darkness washes over him, sending him back to the Threshold¾back to the world of the Four Winds Wheel and the Thunder Being.

Joe screams as unseen arms close over him and pull him from the ground.

“ohgod!”  Joe sat up with a jerk, heart thundering against his chest, breath rasping through his bruised lungs.  Brutal sensation spread from his battered ribs, sending licks of pain curling across his stomach and chest.  Groaning, he folded an arm over his middle and bent double, trying to silence the fierce onslaught.  Close to hyperventilating, he counted seconds into minutes until he was able to bring his terrified heartbeat under control.  Gradually, his breathing subsided to normal levels.

The room was empty, though there was evidence Ben had spent the night in the chair. A rumpled blanket, plus a book on the bedside indicated his father had probably only recently left looking for breakfast.  Joe folded back against the pillows, thankful no one had been present to witness his outburst.  He’d never discussed Pine Gorge with any of his family--just that initial revelation to Adam:  there was something here, Adam.  I swear to God, there was something here.

Why hadn’t Chance admitted to it?  He’d seen it.  As surely as Joe had felt otherwordly arms close around him, Chance had seen its face.  Even now, despite nearly eight years of intervening silence, Pine Gorge remained an enigma.  When he was fifteen, Joe’s rescuers had questioned how he could have possibly been lost for three days in so small an area, even though they’d scoured the sparse thicket from end to end without any sign of him.  Then after a time, it was as though they simply didn’t want to know.  If there really was a Threshold in that rickety stand of trees, common reasoning dictated it was better left unexplored.

Except to one young man who needed to confirm its existence, that he might bury it forever.


The smell of burnt coffee tugged at Shey’s senses, reminding him it was Mrs. Baker’s day off.  She’d probably left him biscuits and ham for breakfast, but the atrocious smell of coffee, meant someone else had tried their hand at brewing.  Still bleary-eyed from lack of sleep--he had spent a restless night fretting over the situation with Joe--Shey shuffled into the kitchen.

“Morning, Brother.”  Chance’s bright greeting made Shey’s stomach curdle. How could a man behave so maliciously one moment, and easy-going the next?  Wordlessly, Shey made his way to the coffeepot and helped himself to a cup of the unappetizing brew.  Grimacing, he swallowed a mouthful.

Chance chuckled softly from his seat at a round table.  “So I ain’t your Mrs. Baker.  At least it’s drinkable.”

“Barely.”  Shey stared at his brother over the brim of his cup.  Morning sunlight filtered through an expansive window overlooking rolling grassland.  The distance was dotted with trees just coming into the lush bloom of spring.  “You didn’t come home last night,” Shey observed quietly.

Chance shrugged.  “I didn’t know this was home.”  Though the sentence was underscored by a thin trace of rancor, his expression remained neutral.  “I met Eddie Wells in town, and spent the night with him.  We had a lot of catching up to do.”

Shey set his coffee down.  “Like beating up Joe Cartwright?”

This time Chance guffawed--a short bark of laughter that said he had enjoyed it.   “Damn, I forgot how small this town is.  News travels pretty fast huh?  Sorry you weren’t there, Shey.  I know you and Cartwright are about as friendly as snakes and scorpions.”

Shey folded his arms over his chest and glared.  The way Adam had glared last night.  The way Faust surely must have glared when the devil came courting his soul. Oh but Faust crumbled, right down into the abyssal pit of Hell.  Make your “x” here, Shey Cutter.  Forfeit your soul.

“It ain’t like that any more.”

Chance took a swig of his coffee, only half listening.  “What?”

Infuriated by his apparent dismissal of the matter, Shey stalked forward, planting both hands on the tabletop.  Leaning forward, he towered over his older brother.  “Me and Joe--it ain’t like that between us any more.  Hell, Chance I can’t believe Eddie Wells didn’t tell you.”

Growing perturbed, Chance scowled.  “Tell me what--that the sniveling little wretch is your best friend?”

Shey went cold to the bone.  “He did tell you.  Damn it, Chance, you ain’t welcome here if you knew.”

“Yeah he told me, and it made it all the more enjoyable kicking Cartwright around.”  Shoving to his feet, Chance stalked away from the table.  He bristled now--the bounty hunter sneering over  the repugnant spoils of his hunt.  “So I ain’t welcome, huh?  Let me tell you something, little brother--you’ve grown soft.  Cartwright’s been moldin’ you like butter in a churn.  I remember the day when the only thing you wanted from Joe Cartwright was blood.”

“I told you things have changed.”  Shey’s voice was brittle and low, made somehow ugly by the predatory gleam in his whiskey-colored eyes.  “You left and I stayed.  The Circle C is mine, Chance.  I’ve carried it for a year, in my own right.  Look around you and you’ll see this a thriving, prosperous ranch.  Do you think I could do that without the help and respect of people like the Cartwrights?  You’ve been playing bounty hunter ever since you were a kid--going after someone or something all your life.  Well you can’t have Joe, Chance.  Don’t make me choose between you.”

Chance’s lips drew back over his teeth¾the grin more wolf-like than scornful.  “Eddie was right--you have grown spineless.”  Retrieving his hat from a hook by the back door, Chance drew open the barrier.  Hesitating, he glanced over his shoulder.  “Don’t worry about choosing, Shey.  I’ll do it for you.”

A moment later he was gone--swallowed by daylight and the brassy dust of midmorning.


Hoss slid the checker across the board, keeping his finger poised on the wooden circle even after he’d urged it onto a new square.  Glancing to either side of his broad hand, he studied the remaining pieces, mouth scrunched in lopsided concentration.

Joe gave a short laugh.  “Staring at ‘em isn’t gonna help, big brother.  Just make a move.”

Hoss drew his brows together, looking at his brother from under hooded lids.  “Don’t rush me,” he groused, blue eyes darting back to the board.  He was seated on the sofa, while his younger brother sat on the coffee table, one leg tucked close to his body, right ankle hooked under left knee.  Nearly two weeks had passed since Joe’s encounter with Chance and Eddie Wells, and although his ribs were still tender, he’d healed enough to begin light chores around the ranch.  Though Shey Cutter had failed to make any sort of appearance during those fourteen days, he had sent word saying he hoped Joe was well.  No one spoke of it.  Nor did they discuss the rumors that Chance Cutter had moved out of the Circle C and was renting a room beside the Wells sawmill.  Though Joe grew ever more introspective, keeping to himself during the day, retiring early at night--he’d let Hoss cajole him into a game of checkers for the first time in weeks.  One game became two, then three, soon to be four, as Hoss succeeded in losing each, and declined to quit until he’d won a round.  Though his brother was not the best checkers player, Joe had a sneaking suspicion Hoss was losing simply to keep him downstairs with the rest of the family.

Ben relaxed in his leather chair, reading a book and enjoying a bowl of pipe tobacco.  Adam worked at his father’s desk, answering letters to friends and business associates he’d let lapse for much too long.  As Joe watched Hoss make yet another foolhardy move, he realized he felt oddly content despite the recent turmoil of his life.  He’d lost Lorna, and it looked apparent he was to lose Shey too.  Joe thought it odd the thorn between them would be Chance Cutter.  For the past year he’d struggled against his family’s bias of Shey--particularly Adam’s--often siding with his friend against his brother.  Yet when it came time for Shey to do the same, it was apparent, he didn’t consider their friendship as strong.  The truth hurt.

“Hey Joe.”  Hoss’s voice drew him back to the present.  “It’s your move, little brother.  What’s the matter--did I finally get one up on ya?”

Embarrassed to be caught musing, Joe quickly ducked his head, pretending interest in the board.  A knock on the front door was distracting enough for him to appreciate its timing.  Hoss’s attention shifted.  When no one else made a move, the big man grumpily announced he would see who it was.  Joe glanced from the board to Hoss and back again.  A moment later he heard a familiar voice extend a greeting to Hoss, and felt himself tense involuntarily.

“Hey Joe--”  Hoss’s voice sounded a trifle uncertain.  “--Shey Cutter’s here to see you.”

The awkwardness of the situation was not lost on a single man in the room.  Ben and Adam both came to their feet--Ben attempting to appear gracious, while Adam offered only veiled animosity.  He gave a brief clip of his head as he joined the others at the door, but kept his hands at his side.  Ben waved the blonde-haired man into the room.  “Can we get you some coffee, Shey?’

“Uh, no, Mr. Cartwright.  I just wanted to talk with Joe.”  Shey’s eyes slewed warily to the side, touching speculatively on the slender man who stood rigidly before the hearth.  An uncomfortable silence ensued.

Realizing it was up to him to diffuse the situation, Ben motioned Adam and Hoss towards the kitchen.  “Um, boys . . . why don’t you help me with that pump in the back?”

Adam scowled but walked quickly towards the kitchen.  Failing to catch his father’s meaning, Hoss stared blankly.  “Huh?”  Almost immediately realization dawned in his eyes.  “Oh, sure, Pa,” he spoke quickly, hoping to cover his blunder.

Shey waited until the others departed, before stepping into the room.  He hesitated at the rear of the couch, letting it create a barrier between him and Joe.  An attempt at humor filtered through his eyes.  “You don’t look too banged up, Cartwright.  Must be that thick hide of yours, huh?”

Joe’s glance was unreadable. “You’re a little late for the sideshow preview.  Black and blue doesn’t last forever, you know.”

“Yeah.”  Shey said the word as though he was dropping a stone in a creek--plop!  It sank to the bottom, pulled down by colder and darker currents of water, until it lay buried in muck and algae-coated weeds, obscured from all save darkness.  Shey scrubbed a hand over his chin.  “Guess I should have come sooner.”

“That might have helped, Shey.”  Joe was done with silence now.  Done with quietly seething while his friend danced around words he couldn’t muster.  Stalking around the sofa, Joe confronted him face to face.  “I should have listened to Adam.  I should have known when it came down to it, you’d side with Chance and Eddie.  Just like you did at Pine Gorge.”

“Oh, hell, Cartwright.”  Shey’s awkwardness snapped as absurdity took hold.  “We’re not talking about Pine Gorge.  That was eight frickin’ years ago!  And if you had any sense at all, you’d know I booted Chance off the Circle C the moment I found out what happened.  As for Eddie Wells--I’d piss salt before I called that horn-toad friend again.”

Though it was difficult, Joe kept a straight face at the image of his friend “pissing salt.”  Pressing his lips together, he bit the inside of his mouth.  “I thought you’d come to visit--see how I was.”

Shey nodded.  Removing his hat, he ran nervous fingers through his pale hair.  “I should have.”  Stepping around the couch, he perched on the edge.  Leashed tension rolled off him in waves as though he might erupt into exaggerated movement at any moment.  One leg bounced up and down against the floor, heel striking a sharp cadence on the plank boards-- tap, tap, tap.   “Ain’t no excuse for me not coming, Joe.  I just figured with everything that’d happened you wouldn’t be too keen on seeing me.  Thought it might be better if I just stayed away.”

Joe puffed out his cheeks, then expelled a breath of air.  Walking around the sofa, he sank into the cushions at Shey’s side.  Most of his anger had drained, leaving only a grainy residue in its wake.  “What about Chance?  What about Eddie Wells?”

“What about them?”  Pushing from the arm of the sofa, Shey sat on the edge of the coffee table facing his friend.  Firelight crackled at his back, framing his white-blonde hair in a buff-gold umbra.   “Chance ain’t gonna stay long--my brother’s far too restless to root in any one place longer than a smidgen, and Eddie’s always been more gurgle than guts.  The only thing I can’t fix is Pine Gorge.  Until you tell me what happened there--”

“Forget it.”  Joe’s walls tumbled back abruptly, shuttering him away from Shey.  He would have pushed from the couch if the other hadn’t stayed him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Listen, Joseph.  I’m sorry as hell about what happened--then and now--but this thing’s gonna eat at you forever unless you share it.”

Joe tensed beneath Shey’s hand, feeling his muscles constrict.  “You were there!”  he cried. The knife-edge of betrayal cut more deeply and cruelly, than the recent incident with Chance.

“Yeah I was,” Shey agreed, still not releasing him.  “I was some stupid little kid with a rod up his ass, playing schoolyard bully.  Hell, I don’t even remember why we were chasing you--”

“The Four Winds Wheel,” Joe interrupted.

Shey stared blankly.  “What?”

“The Four Winds Wheel.  Kyle bought it from a peddler for his mother and Chance wanted it.  He wanted to make Kyle squirm a little, so Kyle gave it to me.”

Shey’s hand slid free as memory returned.  “And we chased you into the thicket.”

Joe nodded.  It was ludicrous to think after so many years of silence he would just blurt out the nightmarish events of those three days . . . that he would willingly dredge up memories encompassing the denizens of that ancient copse.  What else could he call them--spirits?  phantoms?  demons?

Joe shifted.  The room felt suddenly cold, brittle with ice at the edges.  Despite the warm glow of firelight, darkness ebbed from the walls, scrolling tendrils of shadow over the floor.  “There’s something inside the thicket,” he said slowly, evenly, his gaze steady on Shey.  And then because he was tired of carrying the weight alone, and because he no longer cared how crazy he sounded, Joe unfolded the tale:

The Thunder Being embraces him, lifting him high above the skeletal branches of the trees.  For a moment there is only lightness and air.  Then the darkness returns--heavier than before--weighted with leaf-mold and the sour stench of rotting flesh.  Terrified, Joe chokes back a scream, struggling in the confining embrace of oiled feathers.  He is uncertain how something so insubstantial can be so binding, yet the paradoxical nature of his restraint only increases his terror.

There is a keening in his ears.  Muted at first, it builds in volume until he is consumed by the torrential wail of a banshee wind.  There is thunder; the snake-kiss of lightning; the sharp tang of iron in his mouth.  For every fraction he struggles to free himself, the restriction increases.  Ruby talons tighten over his chest, hugging him to the heart of the storm; the macabre throne of the Threshold.  Fluid fills his mouth, bubbling up from lungs that are achingly dry one moment, glutted with creekcold water the next.  There is a hot lick of breath against his ear; the touch of marble and ice on his skin.  Certain sanity has departed, Joe screams.  The sound rolls over the treetops, fading into the nothingness from which he has come.  His only thought is of escape--to flee this ghoulish prison that is neither substance nor reality, but a bending of both.

He lashes out with every last bit of strength at his disposal, fighting against the nothingness; the darkness; the unseen storm.  A tangible presence nuzzles the edge of his mind, blunting his thoughts.   His eyes roll into his head, but consciousness remains in mockery of his sheer terror.

He sees an expansion of light above him--dark sky yielding to pulsing bands of azure, turquoise and gold.   There are clouds--tattered white vessels speared with luminous sickles like broken gemstones.  The sight is dazzling, and his fear is stifled momentarily by a sense of awe.  The respite is brief.  Black feathers slide over him, ebbing like murky water in a mirrorless pond.  Again he catches a glimpse of blood-red talons and moonflesh eyes.  This beast¾all feathers and darkness and crowblack wings--is the Thunder Being.  Joe feels suddenly small and insignificant, standing in the shadow of something as ancient as the earth itself.

Without being told he knows he has crossed the Threshold--that the fusing of luminous light and clouded blackness is the portal to another realm.  Here, time and space stand still.  Here, he is the intruder--a spec of dust snagged on the rim of a Four Winds Wheel.  He would flee if he could, but his legs feel both weightless and weighted with stone.  There is a storm of color in the corner of his eyes.  He does not understand why he has been brought here; wants only to leave--would beg to leave if his voice had even a sliver of substance in this hollow void.

The colors overhead fuse into a molten sunset--brassy and scarlet-soaked, like mulled wine.  The Thunder Being raises a wing and prods him forward into the Red Dawn.  Joe can see the creature clearly now--a meshing of man and crow as hideous as it is comely.  Though every instinct tells him to look away he remains mesmerized by the unlikely appearance.  There is a lessening of his fear--a realization that he is beholding something few people will ever see.  The dawn wraps him in a blanket like blood and tosses him into the maw of the White Giant.

At first Joe fails to realize he has crossed yet another Threshold.  There is no darkness here--no touch of corvine wings or sickly stench of carrion.  There is ivory and cream; the off-white lace of filtered sunlight and the paler milk of the moon.   The sky is pearlescent, slivered with argent and sapphire. When the giant embraces him there is no fear, only a profound sense of wonder--the knowledge that this ancient, secluded world is to be safeguarded and kept for those who cherish the Four Winds.  For those who walk among the secrets of ancient beings and magic-inspired folklore.  This, above all else, is treasure.

Having been shown both darkness and light, Joe wishes only to leave.  He feels the giant touch his mind, followed by the prodding stroke of the crow.  The Thunder Being has made no pretense about the fate of those who displease it, but the giant hesitates to reveal a greater darkness.  Without thought Joe senses it--a vengeance so black and destructive it shreds his soul.  Once more he is swaddled in carrion and blood, the stench so strong, bile rises to his throat.  The Threshold is a sacred place, taboo to all but a select few.

“I understand,” Joe chokes, gagging on his own vomit, wanting only to leave.  The fear has returned, swelling within him like a specter resurrected from the grave.  Dropping to his knees, he folds his arm over his middle. “Please,” he cries, “I won’t come back.  Just please let me go.” He is clinging to a rock, sobbing so hard his chest feels like it will burst.

“Joe!  Little Joe!”  There is a voice in his ear.  Only then does he realize the rock is his brother Adam.  Sobbing, he flings his arms around his older sibling, crying convulsively, as shudders wrack his slender body.  “There was something here, Adam!  I swear to God there was something here.”

Joe’s voice dwindled to silence as the last word left his lips.  In the sudden stillness of the room, he could hear the sizzling pop of wood in the hearth; the plodding tick-tock of the grandfather’s clock; the fluttery wheeze of his own breath.  Shey’s face was unreadable, though his gaze was steady.  Joe wet his lips.  “You don’t believe me,” he said with effort.

The other shifted, glanced briefly at his hands.  When he spoke his voice was hesitant, as though he’d encountered something fragile, he feared shattering.  “Joe you were in that thicket three days.  What you just described--”

“--I know!”  Joe interrupted hotly, irritably.  Shoving to his feet, he stalked around the sofa, restlessness evident in every taunt line of his body.  “Don’t you think I know that?  Three whole days--that’s all everyone kept saying to me: how could I possibly be lost for three days?  But I wasn’t!”  Swinging around to face Shey, Joe gripped the back of the couch.  A muscle ticked in his jawline.  “I can’t explain it, except to say, it only seemed like a matter of hours.  Everything that happened in that thicket was . . .”  Raising both hands, Joe shrugged. “ . . . impossible.  I don’t believe it myself, except that--”

He bit the word off abruptly, causing Shey to narrow his eyes.  The blonde-haired man tilted his head to the side.  “What?” he prodded, suspiciously.

Joe scowled, considering.  “Except that Chance saw it too,” he admitted reluctantly.  “Your brother was there.”

“And that’s why you confronted him in the saloon?”  Absently, Shey brim-shuffled his hat through his hands.  His gaze forked sideways, resting momentarily on the thick braided rug beneath Ben’s favorite chair.  “You want him to confirm something, you’re no longer sure really happened.”

Before Joe could answer, Ben reappeared in the room.  Rounding the corner from the kitchen, he stood hesitantly at the edge of the dining table.  “Everything all right out here?”  he called.

Joe’s gaze flicked from his friend to his father.  “Fine, Pa.  Everything’s fine.  Shey was just leaving.”

Angered, misinterpreting the blunt dismissal, Shey pressed his lips together.  With a clipped nod of his head to Ben, he strode briskly for the door.  “Goodnight, Mr. Cartwright,” he said shortly.

Perturbed, Joe caught up with him just as he stepped outside.  Snagging him by the arm, Joe pulled him roughly to a halt at the edge of the porch.  “Damn it, Shey, slow down!  I didn’t mean anything by that.  I just don’t want my family thinking I’ve gone off the deep end.  Let’s keep Pine Gorge to ourselves, all right?”

Still annoyed, Shey pulled his arm free but remained where he was.  He cast a sideways glance at his horse tethered to the hitching post, before refocusing on Joe.  Overhead the sky fused purple smoke with molten veins of magenta and the invading gray of twilight.  In the hazy half-light, Joe’s dark hair appeared threaded with silver; the smooth lines of his face accentuated by clinging wisps of shadow.  Only his eyes--glass green and bridled with grim determination, conveyed the seriousness of his mood.

In direct counterpoint, Shey arched a brow.  “Cartwright, you are playing with a full deck, right?”

Joe’s lips thinned into a white line, earning a short burst of laughter from Shey.  The blonde-haired man tugged his hat over his brow.  "Just checking, Joseph.”  With easy, sauntering steps, he strode towards his horse.

Frowning, Joe fell in at his side.  “Think on it,” he said, and neither man needed to expound on what “it” was.  As Shey swung up into the saddle, Joe caught the horse’s bridle.  “Will you be home tomorrow?”

Shey gave a short grunt.  “Tomorrow’s a holiday, Cartwright--I’m turning twenty-three.  Once the sun sets, I’ll be livin’ at the saloon.”

Joe’s expression eased marginally. “Then I’ll see you before that.”  He hesitated, a hint of belated humor touching his eyes.  “Besides--I’d kinda like to see what Callie has to say about your ‘holiday.’ ”

“She ain’t any the wiser,” Shey returned.  Flicking two fingers over the brim of his hat, he grinned broadly.  “See you tomorrow.”

Joe waited until Shey’s silhouette faded in the distance--man and steed swallowed by the gray paste of twilight.  Alone on the porch, he eased into the rocker, feeling the lingering stiffness recede from his muscles.  The runners of the wooden chair creaked against the tongue-and-groove boards of the porch, creating a sea-saw of broken sound.  Somewhere over the hilltops, a coyote yipped at the rising moon.  Joe could just see an orb of pallid flesh, impaled by the craggy spine of the mountains.  Lacing his hands over his stomach, he stretched his legs out before him, crossing his feet at the ankles.  The rocker stilled, permitting a return to impenetrable silence.  Into that hush, the yawning scrape of the front door sounded overly loud.

A rectangle of yellow light fell across the boards, then winked into obscurity as the door drifted closed. Ben strolled casually onto the porch, hands riding comfortably in the front pockets of his pants.  He took a long breath of the air as though savoring its crispness, then glanced aside at Joe.  “Nice night,” he commented mildly.  “Pretty soon we won’t need extra blankets on the beds.”

Joe gave a soft sound of non-committal.  He knew his father was likely looking for an opening to discuss Shey’s visit, but wasn’t certain he wanted to broach the subject.  As Ben moved to the side, nonchalantly propping a shoulder against a support post, Joe realized his own impatience would likely get the better of him.  Leaning forward in the rocker, he tucked his legs beneath the seat, keeping his ankles crossed.  “Tomorrow is Shey’s birthday,” he said matter-of-factly.

Ben let the comment pass with only mild interest.  “Twenty-three.  I sometimes forget how close you two are in age--just weeks apart.”  Hesitating, he shifted slightly, absently scuffing a heel against the ground.  “I remember when Shey was born.  Patricia had such a hard time with the delivery.  Your mother was close to her own time, but she did what she could.  Doc Martin was out of town, and one of the ladies from the Longhorn Rail did the actual birthing.”  Ben gave a gentle shake of his head as though remembering.  “I never saw Lincoln Cutter so nervous.”

Unwittingly, Joe was pulled into the tale.  “And Shey’s mother?”

Startled by the unexpected question, Ben shrugged.  “She pulled through.”

Though there was nothing vague in his comment, Joe felt as though something remained unsaid.  “What happened to her?”  he persisted.  “Shey never talks about her.  Even as kids--”

“Some ghosts are better left buried, Joseph.”  Ben said softly.  Gently, he steered the conversation elsewhere.  “I imagine you’ll be giving that rifle to Shey.”

At the mention of the rifle, Joe grew defensive.  “I bought it for him, didn’t I?”  He no sooner said the words then he cringed, regretting the acid in his voice.  With a sigh of resignation, he folded into the rocker.  Rolling his head against the carved backrest, he turned to look at Ben.  “Things would have been a lot simpler if Chance had just stayed away,” he muttered bleakly.

Ben’s stare grew pointed.  “This isn’t about Chance, Joseph.  It’s about you and Shey.  The sooner you recognize that, the sooner you’ll get past it.”

“Yeah,” Joe said quietly, but he sounded unconvinced.

Stepping to his side, Ben slid a comforting hand on to his shoulder.  “Shey was wrong for not visiting sooner, Joe, but you’ve made a good friend, and I’d hate to see you lose that over something his brother did.”

“You’re right, Pa.”  Though the words came easily, the accompanying feelings still stung.  Joe gave his father a reassuring smile, secretly convinced Ben couldn’t understand.  The emptiness he felt now wasn’t about his altercation with Chance, or even the recent glitch in his friendship with Shey--that could be repaired, as proven tonight.  What couldn’t be altered were his memories of Pine Gorge.

Thunder Being.  White Giant.  Red Dawn.

Involuntarily, Joe shivered.  The coyote yipped again, joined now by a chorus of brethren.  The sound rolled over the plains, tangled with the mournful voice of an awakening wind.  Dusting his hands against his arms to ward off chill, Joe stood.  Though twilight had yet to yield to deeper night, the sky appeared barren and dark.  “Think I’m gonna turn in Pa--read for awhile, then get some sleep.  I told Shey I’d see him tomorrow.”

Ben nodded.  Though his expression was casual, his eyes probed deeper.  “Don’t forget to invite him for dinner.  In two weeks we celebrate your birthday.”

The hint of a smile flitted over Joe’s lips--an acknowledgement that he hadn’t been swallowed by the emptiness of his surroundings, despite the bleakness of his eyes.  “I won’t forget,” he promised.  Yet as he followed Ben into the house--the coyote’s dirge clinging to his heels--he wondered if Shey would ever feel comfortable with his family again.

Or if he would ever feel comfortable with Shey.


The opening click of the front door drew Joe’s attention as he rapidly descended the stairs.  He was halfway across the room by the time Adam entered--his brother’s deliberate pace in direct counterpoint to his own crackling energy.

“Adam.”  Joe grinned easily, propping the rifle he’d purchased for Shey against the side of the buffet.  Winking in amusement, he reached for his gunbelt.  “Hate to cut and run, but Pa’s given me the afternoon off.”

“Yes, I can see that.”  Adam pursed his lips, lodging his hands on his hips.  Though his own clothing was white with prairie dust, Joe’s was crisp and freshly laundered.

Dressed comfortably in gray pants, an ivory shirt and his familiar green jacket, Joe exuded casual confidence.  A spark of frivolity touched his eyes as his smile spread, revealing the even white line of his teeth.  “I’m off to town to do a little celebrating.”

Adam’s eyes dipped to the elaborate rifle in it’s leather casing.  “And give Shey Cutter his gun?”

Almost instantly, the edge of Joe’s smile turned sharp.  “It’s mine to give.”

Accustomed to his brother’s mercurial mood swings, Adam held up both hands.  Already he could hear the edge of hostility creeping into Joe’s voice.  Experience had taught him it didn’t take much.  The wrong word was like a fuse, igniting a hidden charge of powder.  “I didn’t say it wasn’t,” he returned evenly, trying to keep his voice steady and calm.  “After all that’s happened, I just thought maybe you’d feel differently--”

Joe tied off his holster.  “Yeah, well you thought wrong.”  Retrieving the rifle, he started for the door.  He was halfway across the threshold when Adam caught his arm.  Enraged, Joe whirled around, his eyes baleful.

Adam remained annoyingly calm.  “Tell Shey ‘happy birthday’ for me, huh?”

Caught off guard, Joe balked.  It was obvious he hadn’t expected anything even remotely congenial from Adam, where Shey was concerned.  Muttering something under his breath, Joe pulled from his brother’s grip and headed for the barn.  Behind him he could feel Adam’s eyes tracking his movement.

Like the gaze of the Thunder Being, the touch was much too dissecting for comfort.


Shey Cutter fumbled with his string tie, cursing softly as he manuevered the laces into a lopsided bow.  Normally prone to avoid fancy dress, he indulged himself this evening, deciding to celebrate in style.  His ensemble included snug-fitting black pants, polished boots, a white shirt with charcoal vest and licorice-dark tie.  He was still struggling with the latter when he heard Joe’s voice from the foyer:

“Hey, Cutter, where are you?”

Mumbling, fumbling with the tie, Shey walked from the living room into the foyer.  As he appeared around the corner, Joe grinned and tossed him something.  “Here you go--happy birthday.”

Knowing he was likely to regret it, Shey stared at the object in his hand.  “Boot polish?”

“To cover up the gray,” Joe supplied with an annoying wink.  “Sorry--it doesn’t come in blonde.”  Then as he digested what his friend was wearing, he stood back and folded his arms across his chest.  “Mmm, Mmm, Mmm--don’t you look pretty.  Sure hope you’re planning on taking a pistol to fend off those wild women you’re like to attract.”

Now it was Shey’s turn to grin--extravagantly.  “Who said anything about fending them off?”

Joe shook his head, hearing the accustomed prick of barbed humor in his friend’s comment.  Surrounded by the familiar furnishings of the Circle C, it suddenly seemed silly to think he couldn’t be comfortable with Shey again.  For all the years they’d spent as rivals, the year spent in friendship accounted for more.  The easy back-and-forth flow of their banter was like the comfortable fit of old, but cherished clothing.  Stepping closer, Joe reached forward and pulled the loose edge of Shey’s tie.

“Hey!”  The blonde-haired man cried as the ribbon unraveled.

“You call that a knot?” Joe brushed his hands aside.  “What kind of friend would I be if I let you go out with such a sorry excuse of a tie?”

Shey waited as Joe correctly adjusted the silken ends.  Rolling his eyes, he feigned impatience.  “You’re worse than a woman, Cartwright--”

Joe chuckled but refrained from comment.  When the tie had been adjusted to his liking, he stepped back and gave Shey a quick once-over.  Dressed as he was, his blonde hair neatly combed, Shey almost looked the part of wealthy landowner.  It was easy to see past the scruffy, smart-mouthed kid Joe had grown up with; even beyond the cocksure adult who was his friend.  There was a sense of maturity around Shey that indicated he’d grown responsible in the last year.

Joe cast him an arch glance.  “All those folks in town are gonna be fawning all over you, calling you Mister Cutter.  You know, Shey--sometimes it’s damned annoying being your friend.”

Shey swept a backward hand over his sleeve as though flecking away imaginary lint.  Though his eyes were lowered, the corner of his lips curled upward in a cocky grin.  “Try not to embarrass me, Joseph.”  The moment he spoke, the image of responsible landowner shattered--replaced by the overgrown child who found wicked delight in casual impudence.

Turning away, Joe picked up the rifle he’d propped by the door when he entered.  There was no longer any doubt he’d purchased the right gift for his arrogant-as-gold-wouldn’t-have-him-any-other-way friend.  “I think you’ve got a few years for that polish, yet,” Joe said, holding out the rifle.  “In the meantime, maybe this will make a better gift.”

Rarely speechless, Shey glanced from the rife to Joe, then back again.  Setting the polish aside on a small corner table, he took the gun.  It slid easily from the soft leather scabbard, the sun-filtered light in the foyer clearly defining every precision line and quality-crafted inch of stock and barrel.  Shey swallowed hard.  “Hell, Cartwright . . .”

Joe grinned.  Hearing Shey tongue-tied was worth every cent he’d spent on the rifle.  He watched as his friend’s fingers tracked over the silver-plated initials engraved in the stock, his touch oddly reverent. Shey lifted the gun, pointing it towards the living room away from Joe, and sighted down the barrel.  Finally, letting it slip through his hand, he rested the stock rested against his boot, barrel tip up.

“I ain’t never seen a weapon so fine,” he said sincerely.  Then somewhat awkwardly:  “Thanks, Joe.”  A shadow of a smile touched his lips.  “It’s a damn sight more impressive than boot polish."

Laughing, Joe clapped him on the shoulder.  “Come on, old man--I’ll buy you a drink.”

Much later, warmed by a somewhat excessive amount of alcohol and the noisy clamor of the Virginia City saloon, Joe realized he had no desire to discuss Pine Gorge with Shey Cutter.  Seated at a table off the corner of the bar, he was too busy enjoying the poker game he shared with Shey, Rob Falcon, and two other men.

“Mr. Cutter, here’s your beer.”  An attractive blonde barmaid slid a foaming mug onto the table in front of Shey, then wrapped her arm around his neck, leaning close to dispense a dazzling smile.

“Come on Mister Cutter,” Joe prodded, clearly enjoying himself.  “Ante up before we turn into old men, and that ranch of yours won’t mean squat.”  There had been a fair amount of Mister Cuttering occurring all evening--mostly at Joe’s prompting.  He’d taken wicked delight in making sure everyone shy of the town crier knew it was Shey’s birthday.  An initial celebration had started in the hotel, then rolled into the street as Shey and Joe took turns buying drinks for anyone willing to down a jigger of whiskey.  Eventually the party moved to the saloon, where the crowd switched to beer, cheering the owner of the Circle C every few minutes as though he was nobility.

The images on his cards beginning to blur, Joe rubbed a hand over his eyes.  Beside him, the blonde barmaid swooned into Shey’s lap, bestowing a lingering kiss.  Arching a brow, Joe took a swallow of his beer.  There were hoots and hollers behind him--the rowdy exclamations of drunken men, urging Shey on.  Tracing a slow finger down his cheek, the barmaid drew back from Shey, then departed with a flip of her short skirt.

Joe choked short a laugh, sharing a wink with Rob.

Annoyed, Shey kicked him under the table¾hard.  “Cartwright, if you breathe a word of this to Callie--”

“Howdy, boys.  How goes the game?”

“Stalled,” the man to Joe’s left said.  Joe looked from the short tow-headed man he was playing cards with--a wrangler from the Longhorn Rail named Charlie--to his brother.  Hoss approached the table languidly, a mug of beer in his thick hand. Following a step behind him, but still within earshot, was Adam.

“What are you two doing here?”  Joe asked.  For once the edge was missing from his voice.  Though he usually found his brothers appearances annoying, he’d imbibed too much to be more than slightly miffed.

Hoss worked his large shoulders into a shrug.  “Works all done--and with you and Shey in town, we kinda figured there’d be some celebratin’ goin’ on. Thought maybe we should keep an eye on you--elsewise all the mamas in town will wanna string you up or marry you off.”

Chuckling, Joe turned down his cards, folding his hand.  “You don’t gotta worry much about me, Hoss--unless the lady’s got dark hair and a thirteen year old kid.”  It was the beer making him talk--it had to be. Realizing he needed air, Joe pushed from the table.  “Take my place, huh?”

With a scowl, Adam watched him depart.  “Just when you least expects it, he brings up Lorna.”

Shey played out his hand, losing to the wrangler.  Tossing his ante in the center of the table, he passed the deal.  “Damn she-witch,” he muttered.

Hoss glanced aside.  “Didn’t think you knew her.”

“Don’t have to.  I know her kind.”

“That’s a rather prejudiced statement,” Adam observed.  Despite his own feelings, it still grated to hear Lorna maligned.

Deciding the events grew much too serious, Hoss slid into Joe’s chair and folded his arms on the table.  “Hey, Shey--what’cha getting’ Joe for his birthday?”

His expression still black, Shey retrieved his cards one at a time.  “Something I’m like to regret.”

“Don’t take it to heart, Boss,” Rob muttered as though he knew what the other was talking about.

“Enough of this gloom-‘n-doom,” the wrangler groused.  “Are you in this game or not, Cartwright?”

“Huh?”  Hoss stared blankly.  Only belatedly becoming aware of the cards in front of him, he quickly tossed a few of Joe’s coins into the pot.  “Oh--yeah.  I’m in.”  He hadn’t really planned on a card game, but then he hadn’t planned on coming to town either.  It had been Adam’s idea, mostly because he thought his older brother was still hesitant about Shey Cutter.  Though Hoss knew the owner of the Circle C possessed multiple shortcomings, he truly believed Shey would stay loyal to Joe.  The incident with Chance had merely sidetracked him temporarily, and that was understandable--at least to Hoss.  One didn’t easily dismiss blood relations in favor of friendship--especially a friendship as new and tenuous as Joe and Shey’s.

Glancing at him now, Hoss realized that for all his expensively tailored clothing, Shey Cutter was still an overgrown kid learning responsibility.  Adam had no patience for the schoolyard bully or the flippant adult, but Hoss was inclined to be more understanding of both.

His musing gave way suddenly as he heard Shey’s chair scrape against the floorboards.  Only belatedly did Hoss become aware of a deep hush in the packed saloon.  Glancing up, he saw Shey rest a casual hand against the butt of his low-hipped revolver.  Hoss eyes tracked from the blonde-haired man to the source of his attention.  Eddie Wells stood framed in the doorway--clearly inebriated, his six-shooter riding the small of Joe’s back.  One arm was wrapped around Joe’s throat, holding him tight against the weapon.  “Chance--come on, Chance--I know you’re in here.  Look what I found outside.”

Coming slowly to his feet, Hoss felt every muscle in his body solidify into rock.  His broad face tightened in a look that would have made most men shrivel between the floorboards.  Waving the gun at Hoss, Eddie merely grinned.  “Don’t make a move you big buffoon, lessen you wanna see your brother peeled six ways from Sunday.”  Bloodshot eyes skittered around the room.  “Chance!  Damn it, man--answer, will ya?  Are you fish drunk?”

“He ain’t here,” Shey inserted smoothly.

Eddie’s head swiveled like a fox zeroing in on prey.  Shey stood lazily by the table, his stance casual enough to be construed insulting. That blatant arrogance, flaunted in the face of what Eddie considered the upper hand, only served to incense him further.  “Well, well, Mister Cutter--maybe I’ll take you out with him.”

“You’re drunk, Eddie.”

The other snickered.  “Maybe so--you would be too, if your mill was goin’ belly up.  Leastways, I’m sober enough to finish what Chance and I started with Cartwright.”  He hesitated, licked his lips.  “One more chance Shey--it could be like old times.  It could be fun.”

Shey started to turn away, but his fingers skimmed the edge of his gun.  Joe saw the movement and reacted instantly, driving his elbow into Eddie’s ribs.  Initially, he felt resistance, then an abrupt yielding as Eddie crumbled beneath the blow.  The edge of Wells’ revolver scraped over his lower back.  There followed the crackling pop of a pistol, echoed almost simultaneously by the discharge of another.  When Joe’s senses cleared enough to focus beyond the erupting noise, the hiss of smoke, and stench of sulfur, he realized Shey had winged Eddie.  The dark-haired man was braced against the wall, left hand clamped over his right arm.  Though pain contorted his face, there was something far more hideous in his expression.

Joe jerked at the sudden scream of the blonde barmaid.  “Charlie,” she cried, bending over the wrangler from the Longhorn Rail.  The short man was slumped across the table, a dark puddle of blood spreading beneath his head.  “Charlie--oh god, he’s killed Charlie!”

Joe whirled on Eddie, who darted for the front door.  Somehow the injured man managed to elude him, slipping through his grasp.  Joe chased him into the street, only to lose Eddie when the other snared the nearest horse and barreled from town.

Shey appeared at Joe’s shoulder, the moment he started to turn.  “Cartwright, you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Joe said distractedly, already striding for Cochise.  “His shot must have went wide when he reeled backwards.  I can’t believe I was such an idiot, I let him creep up on me like that.  Guess my mind was elsewhere--” he hesitated, not wanting to admit it had been on Lorna.  With a sideways glance for his friend, Joe pulled Cochise’s reins from the hitching rail.  “He’s not going to get away with it, Shey--not this time.”

“Where are you going?”

“Where do you think?”  Joe spared a glance for the commotion on the street, marking the men who poured from the saloon.  Someone yelled for the doctor; someone else for the sheriff.  A group of wranglers from the Longhorn Rail ran for the livery stable, intent on securing mounts and running Eddie down for Charlie’s unjustified murder.  Joe pulled Cochise into the street.  “I’m going after him.”

Securing his own horse, Shey joined him.  “Want some company?”

“We’ll take you up on that too,” Adam said as he and Hoss drew abreast, mounts trailing behind.  Though Joe’s lips flickered with a brief frown, he nodded nonetheless.

Together, the four men rode from town.


“He must have doubled back here,” Hoss said, squatting to examine the marks on the ground.  Daylight was fading to dusk, making it difficult to see.  Long shadows slanted across the ground, as purple spread a deepening stain over the horizon.

In the distance, Joe could hear occasional shouts from other men following the same trail.  He knew Roy and Clem were out there somewhere, trying to hold the make-shift posse in a semblance of law-like order.  It was still difficult to believe a simple night of celebrating had cost a man his life.  Joe knew Eddie Wells was belligerent by nature, but he was certain the shooting was accidental.  Whether or not the same bullet would have clipped him intentionally, remained to be seen.  He preferred to think not--that Wells was simply drunk and argumentative over the news that his father’s mill was in arrears to the bank.  Likely that debt had something to do with the profits Eddie skimmed off the top; the increasing loss of customers he’d shortchanged, the Ponderosa among them.

Shifting in his saddle, Joe squinted into the gathering gloom.  “I don’t think so Hoss--I think he’s laying a false trail.  I say we continue the way we’re going.”

“Joe, it’s getting dark,” Adam said patiently.  “We can pick it up again tomorrow.”

Joe shook his head.  “No.”  He knew were Wells was headed as assuredly as he knew the reason for his recent regression into the past.  “You and Hoss go back to town--get a message to Pa.  Shey and I will keep riding.”

Uneasily, Hoss rose to his feet.  “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Little Joe.”

“Yeah, well I do.”  Joe’s voice was flat and quarrelsome.  “I don’t need you two tagging along for this.”  Tugging sharply on Cochise’s reins, Joe spurred the mare into the lengthening shadows of  late afternoon.

When Hoss frowned, ready to pursue him, Shey shook his head.  “I know where he’s going.  Just let me handle this, okay?”  Whiskey-brown eyes shifted from Cartwright sibling to Cartwright sibling.  Finally, his gaze settled on Adam, as though he knew Hoss wasn’t the one who needed convincing.  “You told me I was gonna have to take a stand against Chance, Adam.  Well, it’s done.  Now let me finish it by helping Joe.”

“Where’s he going?”  Adam asked.

Uncomfortable, Shey glanced away.  He cleared his throat then looked askance at the dark-haired man.  Faust’s devil-messenger come for payment.  “Pine Gorge,” he said shortly.

Adam and Hoss exchanged a glance, the latter shifting with growing worry.  Adam considered the revelation only briefly.  Though his expression never changed, he nodded with firm deliberation.  “All right, Shey--but this time I want him back whole.”


Joe bent low over Cochise, no longer needing to see the tracks in the soft earth to know where Eddie Wells was headed.  Caught in a maelstrom of sense, he concentrated on the pungent scent of feral earth and warm wind; the musky redolence of Cochise’s satiny coat.   Overhead, shy stars emerged on the graying canvas of the sky.  Hoping to reach the gorge before nightfall, Joe urged the mare to greater speed.

Eventually he lost track of time, focusing only on the distance he covered.  When he reached the edge of the gorge, heart bubbling against the back of his throat, he jerked as though awakening from a dream.  Looking down into the deep belly of the ravine with its black glut of leafy trees, Joe felt his stomach constrict.  His hands grew sweaty on the reins, until the leather felt slippery and oiled in his palms.

“Joe,” a voice said quietly.

Startled like a bird prepared for flight, Joe glanced sharply to the left.  The breath whistled between his tightly clenched teeth when he realized Shey Cutter had joined him.  Flushing at his own nervousness, Joe gave an uneasy laugh.  “I thought you were--”  He choked off the words, his mouth dry, void of saliva.  Shaking his head, he drew a rattling breath.  “--it doesn’t matter.  I just want to get this over with.”

Shey glanced towards the thicket.  “How do you know he’s in there?”

A sharp smile touched Joe’s lips.  “If you’re expecting some kind of mumbo-jumbo spirit-nonsense, forget it.  I tracked him here.”

Collecting his reins, Shey nodded towards the treeline.  “Then I guess we better go down there, huh?”

“Not without me.”

The new voice startled both men into motion.  Almost simultaneously, Joe and Shey reached for their guns, but neither weapon cleared the holster.  Chance Cutter moved from the gloaming into the fading light of day, urging his horse forward with a slow, silent-footed gait.  Though he remained tense and displeased, Joe’s hand fell from his weapon.  At his side, Shey scowled.  “This is better settled without you, Chance.”

Chance drew abreast of his brother and halted.  His attire--black and gunslinger sleek--made Joe uncomfortable.  Something about his long duster reminded Joe of oily wings; the gleam of his pale eyes reminiscent of the Thunder Being.  “You’re forgetting I’m a bounty hunter, Shey.  There ain’t no price on Eddie’s head, but he’s still a wanted man, and I’ve got more than a passing interest in his welfare.  Time was you did too.”

“I ain’t out to kill him, Chance.”

“That so?”  Chance’s eyes slipped aside to rest on Joe.  Mouth thinning contemptuously, he shook his head.  “Sure is an odd sight to see the two of you together.  As I recall, the last time we were all here, the sides were a bit different.”

“There’s nothing wrong with one-on-one,” Joe snapped tersely, “You should have tried it in the saloon, instead of tucking your tail between your legs and letting Eddie do your fighting for you.  It’s not too late to settle that score.”

Frowning, Shey clamped a hand on his wrist to prevent him from dismounting.  “You’re losing focus, Joe.  I thought we came here to find Eddie.”

With effort Joe quelled his temper.  Tearing his gaze from Chance, he looked down on the thicket.  A cold sliver of breeze slipped beneath his collar, beading gooseflesh down his spine.  From the corner of his eye he could see Chance grin--the sight oddly macabre and spectral like a transplanted hobgoblin on All Hallow’s Eve.  Angered by his own unreasonable fear, Joe yanked Cochise onto the narrow trail.  “Let’s get this over with,” he muttered.

The others followed him into the belly of the ravine--into the dense copse of trees and the waiting gullet of the Threshold.


Joe let Cochise graze at the edge of the woodland, then entered the trees on foot.  Beside him, Chance and Shey did the same.  Within the darkening copse, they discovered evidence of Eddie’s abrupt arrival.  He’d taken his horse through the tangle of interlocking trees, snapping branches and trampling lush beds of fern.  The fading light of day barely penetrated the small thicket--the illumination within anemic and sparse.  Shadows nested in abundance, festering like an ill-gotten disease.  An unnatural hush hung over the copse, making every small step--every minute hitch of breath--astoundingly loud.

He feels something struggling awake at the back of his mind--a familiar touch that is both sickening and cold.  Joe glances into the gloaming where he knows Eddie has gone--the path that leads to the Threshold; the path to clutter and madness.  He can sense Shey beside him, his friend’s gaze inquisitive and sharp.  There is something divining in the other’s stare, almost as cutting as the Thunder Being itself.  The caged benevolence of the White Giant plays at the edge of Joe’s senses, reminding him of his promise--not to return; never to come back.  He wishes it were a promise he could keep.  He would give most anything to be anywhere else, other than this realm of burgeoning insanity.

“Cartwright.”  He hears Shey address him, the name oddly hollow as though funneled through a bubble.  There is a touch on his arm, and then he sees Shey staring at him worriedly.  “Are you all right?”  The fingers tighten on his arm, become restrictive.  “Answer me, Joe.”

He nods, for he has no voice.  Beside him he can hear Chance snicker, the sound ugly and veined with mockery.  Joe no longer cares what the bounty hunter thinks of him;, is glad when the other moves into the clinging veil of shadows.  Drawing his gun, Joe is thankful for Shey’s presence at his side.

Ahead of him there is a sudden thud, followed by a blunted scream.  Three gunshots shatter the stillness, muffled quickly by sticky silence.  Alarmed, Joe pushes forward, oblivious to the frenzied scrape of branches against his face.  Beside him he can hear the ragged gasp of Shey’s breath.

“Eddie!”  Shey’s voice rattles through the thicket, rolling like distant thunder.  There is something before them--a formless shape huddled on the ground.  Drawing closer, Joe recognizes Eddie’s checkered shirt.  The dark-haired man is curled in on himself like a fetus, arms locked tightly over his head.  The stench of blood rides the air--dark and clotted with mud. For a moment, it is all Joe can focus on-- the abhorrent scent awakening grisly images of what lurks within the thicket.

Thunder Being.  White Giant.  Red Dawn.

“We’ve got to get him out of here,”  Joe says, dropping to his knees beside the wounded man.  Quickly, he rolls the other onto his back.  Wild, terrified eyes stare up at him.  Eddie’s mouth pumps soundlessly, his fingers grasping convulsively at the fleshsoft soil. He stares without seeing--looking beyond, into a realm of sheer madness and terror.  A soft keening builds in his throat and is dispelled in a gut-wrenching wail.  He shakes as though afflicted, eyes bobbling franticly in his head.  A few inches beyond his contorted fingers, his gun lies discarded in a bed of moss.  The ground is saturated with blood, but there is no evidence of injury to Eddie.

Joe wets his lips.  “What did you shoot?”  he demands gruffly.  There is no answer from the other--just a continued tortured keening like an animal in pain.

Chance steps forward and pulls Wells to a sitting position.  Bending, he maneuvers the other over his shoulder, lifting him in a makeshift carry.  “Enough of this.  We get him out of this infernal thicket, and then we worry about what happened.”

Before Joe can formulate a reply, he feels a staggering disorientation, such as he has experienced only once before in his life.  Horrendous pressure builds in his lungs.  His chest aches--pierced through by arid thorns one moment, a deluge of icy water the next.  Sputtering, he bends forward, folding an arm over his middle.  There is a rush of fluid in his mouth--a sour mixture of bile and blood. Choking, he drops to his knees, his gun tumbling from limp fingers.  It rolls butt-over-barrel, thudding against the soft earth as the world upends.  There is a strangled cry beside him, but he is only half-aware of the echo.  The darkness rushes over him, advancing like the seething fury of a sudden storm.  Lightning and wind combine in gale force, thrashing the leaf-pregnant branches of clustering trees.  A harrowing whirlwind ensues, spinning bits of debris into a funnel of chaos and discordant sound. Briefly, Joe is snagged in that vortex, grappled by cold hands and ruby-red talons.  There is nothingness and pain, fusing in a manner he cannot comprehend.  All around him, the thicket erupts in turmoil.

“Cartwright!”  Shey cries aloud, rising panic in his voice.  Joe tries to reach for him, but is unable to see through the tumultuous upheaval.  There is a touch of feathered flesh; the overwhelming stench of decay--at once abhorrent and sickly sweet.  Lightning forks across the heavens, chasing thunder to the dank ground.  Briefly, the thicket is illuminated in a flash of blue-white light so intense Joe is forced to shield his eyes.  When the brilliance fades there is only stillness.  Weakly, Joe crawls to his knees.  He is surprised to find he is uninjured.

Quickly, his eyes scan left and right, seeing Chance crumbled on the ground, Eddie Wells unconscious beside him.  But it is his friend that draws Joe’s attention.  Shey Cutter lies a few feet away, his body contorted like a twisted piece of metal.  A stark white rod of splintered bone juts from his thigh, the ragged end glistening with clinging strings of blood.

“Shey!”  On hands and knees Joe crawls across the craggy ground, immune to the bite of rock and roots in his flesh.  His heart is wedged against his throat, his breath a lacerated ribbon of scorched air.  “God, Shey, come on!”  Joe paws him on the shoulder, rattling him hard, but his friend is unconscious.  Shey’s face is twisted to the side, his pale, straight hair eerily luminous in the darkness.  There is a translucent quality to his skin, as though he is more wraith than man.  His lips appear bloodless, veined through with blue threads, and his flesh is cadaver-cold.  The wound to his leg is severe, and Joe realizes Shey has probably gone into shock.  There is blood everywhere--not only on his leg, but his abdomen as well.  It is then Joe sees the hole gouged in his side.  A string of pulpy pink flesh puddles from the cavity.  In horror Joe realizes it is a mutilated section of  bowel.  “God, no.”  Choking, Joe presses his hand to the wound, vainly trying to force the disgorged organ within.  It is heated and slippery against his fingers, soaked with blood.  His vision blurs with a hot deluge of furious tears.  Frantically, he presses his stained hand to Shey’s neck, feeling for a pulse.

In the thick, engulfing silence of the thicket there is nothing.

“No!”  The word bursts from Joe’s lips as a harrowing wail.  “Damn you, no!” Tears gush from his eyes as horror turns to blackest rage.  It consumes him like a living thing, devouring every emotion save one.  Mocked by his friend’s death; tormented by a hell he has resurrected himself, Joe throws back his head, wailing at the top of his lungs.  Somewhere in the darkness he knows the Thunder Being lurks. “Show yourself, you son-of-a-bitch, bastard.  Is this how you keep your precious Threshold safe?”

But there is only nothingness.  And in that cloak of impenetrable silence Joe knows there will never be life again.  Not for Shey Cutter.  Folding his friend in his arms, he gathers him close to his chest.  “Shey, I’m sorry . . . I’m so sorry . . .”  he mumbles the phrase over an over as he cradles the cold, lifeless body of his friend.  Sobbing, he bows his head. He can feel the soft silk of Shey’s hair pressed to his tear-streaked cheek.  His fingers curl into Shey’s limp hand as if somehow his grip might still serve to anchor the dead man to life.  “Please,” he whispers, but is uncertain to whom he invokes the plea--to friend, to God, or the ancient dwellers of the thicket.  “It’s my fault for leading you here.”

There is a soft rumble of thunder; a speculative flicker of lightning.  Red light builds at the edge of Joe’s vision, shuffling darkness to the corners.  Raising his head, he blinks tear-filled eyes at the stark profiles of interwoven trees.  Shape coalesces within them, building in form and substance.  Joe feels the release of the Threshold yet again as fire and water press on his lungs.  Dazed, he watches as the Thunder Being steps from the thicket.

This time its form is more man than bird, the wings recessed in favor of limbs.  Long black hair frames a face that is neither young nor old--a face offset with moonstone eyes and crimson-stained lips.  The man¾if man he can be called--wears a flowing robe of malachite and puce, overlaid by an ankle-length cloak of ebony feathers.  There is a hardness to his eyes that reminds Joe of blue-veined quartz.  Still cradling Shey, Joe’s glance tracks to his discarded pistol.

“It will do you no good,” the Thunder Being tells him.  Its voice is grating like the scrape of rock on rock, wholly inhuman.  Within the folds of the cloak Joe can see the cruelly barbed tips of garnet-red talons where hands should be.

He licks his lips, rage warring with the need for rational thinking.  “You killed my friend.”

“He got caught in the Threshold--in the upheaval of its awakening.  That one--”  The Thunder Being glances at the unconscious form of Eddie Wells crumbled beside Chance.  “--killed a foundling. We have carried it into the Red Dawn.”

The words mean nothing to Joe.  All that matters is the lifeless body in his arms.  “I don’t understand.”

“It is not expected.  The foundlings are young ones, still underdeveloped.  They hide in the trees--creatures visible only in the wink of an eye.  The transgression can not go unpunished.”

“You killed the wrong man!”  Joe cries, voice crackling with sudden fury.  Disentangling himself from Shey, he lurches for the pistol.  The Thunder Being makes no move to stop him.  Snatching the gun from the ground, Joe rolls, his shoulder yielding to the earth.  Coming quickly to his knees, he fans his right hand over the trigger, pumping all six shots into his tormentor.  When the roar of the revolver dies in silence, the Thunder Being remains.

Joe’s chest heaves with the tortured flutter of his breath.  Rising to his feet he feels his frustration build, realizing he is helpless to avenge his friend.  In all likelihood he will die here as well.  Behind him he hears a muffled shuffling as Chance stirs towards consciousness.  The Thunder Being watches bleakly as Joe kneels beside the bounty hunter.

“Chance.”  With a hand on his shoulder, Joe shakes the other awake.

With reflexes honed to precision sharpness, Chance casts aside his disorientation in mere seconds.  Vaulting to his feet, he draws his weapon.  Only then does he become aware of the tears streaked on Joe’s face.  “Cartwright, what the hell--?”  But it is as though he already knows the answer.  Turning abruptly, he sees the broken body of his brother scant feet away.  There is no outrage, only a cold infusion of silence.  His eyes sweep back to Joe.  “How?” he croaks, in a voice barely audible.

Joe nods towards the Thunder Being.  Chance’s expression is grim, but there is a flash of something deadly in his eyes.  Holstering his gun, he strides deliberately forward as though he intends to exact retribution with his bare hands.

“Chance, wait!”  Joe lurches forward and the world shifts yet again.  The darkness recedes, gently ebbing beneath an encroaching veil of powder-gray mist.  Joe feels a flicker of demonic hunger snarled with the subtle kiss of forgiving light.  He is in the presence of the White Giant.

Swallowing hard, Joe focuses on the slender woman before him.  Tall and willowy with a cascading veil of milk-pale hair, the woman is unclothed, her body translucent as moonlight.  Only her eyes betray color--solid black pools, void of pupils or whites.

“You have invaded our home yet again--taken the life of a foundling.”

Unlike the Thunder Being, there is a hint of mercy in the woman’s voice.  Joe thinks of the Four Winds Wheel and how each direction encompasses a whole.  The Threshold is nothing more but a gateway to each choice in life.  He has failed in one, he must succeed in another.

“Then I beg forgiveness--for myself and my friends--for the man you have taken.”

“There must be payment for the foundling.”

“Then chose another,” Joe says quickly.  His thoughts return to Shey, broken and bleeding; his body limp and lifeless.  It is an image he will carry forever.

The woman moves from the trees, her form as diaphanous as clouds on the face of the moon.  There is something enthralling about her gracefulness--her fluid gait like the flow of water in a gently moving stream.  She steps close, halting just shy of him.  Her scent is overpowering-- a pungent tangle of clover, wildflowers and decay.

“And who would you have me choose?  The one who killed the foundling?”

“If that is your wish,”  Joe returns quickly.  He has little use for noble ideas.  If he must chose between Eddie Wells and Shey, the decision is already made.

“And if I give you back the one I’ve taken?”  the woman continues.  She smiles, and he sees that her teeth are fanged.  She allows him a brief vision of what it would feel like to have those teeth sink into his flesh . . . to experience the heated glut of his blood sluicing into her mouth. “What will you give me?” she persists, and Joe knows there is only one answer.

“You can have me,” he replies without hesitation.


“Shey!  Damn it, wake up!”  Gripping his friend’s chin in his hand, Joe gave his shoulders a brief shake.  Crouched on the ground, he held Shey braced with one arm supporting his back.  Though unconscious, the owner of the Circle C appeared to have no visible injury.  That fact failed to ease the twisted knot of dread in Joe’s stomach, or miraculously wash away the stained track of tears on his face.  “Come on, Cutter--open your eyes.”

Shey blinked, dragging his eyelids open.  At first unfocused, his gaze lifted to Joe.  A slight crease drew his brows in a perplexed frown, as he noticed the tears on Joe’s cheeks.  “What’s the matter, Cartwright--someone die?”

A strangled sound slipped from Joe’s lips--half laughter; half sob.  Weak with relief, he bowed his head.  His fingers slid from Shey’s chin to his shoulder where they tightened acutely. “I thought you were--”

“--Dead?”  Shey’s mouth twitched with a barbed smile.  Sitting up, he scrubbed a hand over his face.  “I have this strange feeling that I . . . went away . . . for awhile.”  A glance at his surroundings revealed they were no longer in the thicket.  Seated beyond the ragged perimeter of trees, they reclined at the mouth of the narrow trail leading from the gorge.  Pale moonlight shimmered on broken outcroppings of rock and the prickly contours of brittle brush.

Sitting back against a veined column of stone, Joe lifted both hands and wiped the tears from his face.  “Eddie Wells is dead,” he whispered.

Shey glanced at him sharply.  “How do you know that?”

With a nod of his head, Joe indicated a dark silhouette lying further down the trail.

“What happened to him?”  Shey asked, following his gaze.

Joe bit his lip.  “He never regained consciousness.  I . . . I think the shock of what he saw may have killed him.”

Leaning forward, Shey drew one leg up, tucking it close to his body.  Though his white shirt was ragged and torn, his vest soiled with grime, there remained something disturbingly spectral about him.  Touched by the diffused light of the moon, his blonde hair appeared nearly shell-white.  “I don’t remember what happened,” he admitted.

Joe gripped his arm, needing to assure himself there was flesh and bone beneath his fingertips--that the White Giant had indeed restored his friend as promised.  “It’s hard to explain,” he admitted.  His fingers fell away.  “And it’s probably better that you don’t remember.”

“What about Chance?”

“He’s here,” Joe said.  He tangled with the Thunder Being.  Maybe now he’ll accept what he saw eight years ago.  “I sent him to get the horses.”

Shey glanced back to the thicket, his expression uneasy.  “I have this funny feeling you saved my life,” he said softly.

Joe grinned.  “Consider it a birthday gift.”


In the days that followed, Joe found his memories of Pine Gorge growing vague and distorted.  Sometimes he believed he’d dreamt the whole incident, while others he was assaulted by vivid images of Shey’s death.  Though he never learned what a foundling was, he knew Eddie Wells had paid the price for its death.  The White Giant had released him, content with the offer of his life, vowing to institute payment should he ever return again.

What became of Chance’s encounter with the Thunder Being, Joe was uncertain.  The bounty hunter emerged from the wooded copse, his face scored by talons.  A week later the thicket at Pine Gorge burned to the ground, consumed by a raging fire.  Not even a splinter of wood remained as testament of its passing.  A few men who witnessed the conflagration, said a horrible keening erupted from the flames, as though a thousand souls were trapped within.  Overhead, the sky was braided with color, folding in on itself like a prism of gemstones.  Flares of darkness and light danced at the edge of the fire, writhing in almost human contortions.  Though no one knew how the blaze started, there were rumors of a black-dressed man riding from the scene.

The next day Joe rode to the edge of the gorge and stood looking down into the blackened belly of the ravine.  Charred earth created a barren bowl within the gullet of scorched rock.  If it was Chance who severed the Threshold, he had done them all a favor.

Turning Cochise around, Joe rode for home.


Shey drummed his fingers against the scarred edge of the barroom table, impatience building at his companion’s stoic silence.  It was fairly early in the day and the saloon was mostly deserted.  Two barmaids sat quietly conversing at a table in the back, awaiting the arrival of customers.  Sam stood at the far end of the bar, busily toweling out glass mugs with a soft cloth, while watching a grizzled miner down shots of whiskey.

Frowning, Shey pushed his beer aside.  “Joseph--” he used the name certain to snag the other’s attention.  As expected, Joe’s questioning green eyes rose to his face.  Shey propped an elbow on the arm of his chair and pointed a finger.  “You’ve been as talkative as spit the last few days.  When are you gonna tell me what’s got you so all fired chatty?”

“Hmm?”  Joe managed to look mildly surprised.  Removing his hat, he laced his hand through his curling hair.  “Don't know what you're talking about.”

“Bullshit.  You ain’t got near the practice I have at lying, Cartwright, so quit tryin’ to convince me you do.  It’s that damn gorge, ain’t it?”

Exasperated, Joe leaned forward, propping both elbows on the table and rubbing at his eyes.  “What else?” he muttered.  Lowering an arm, he claimed his beer glass.  A troubled, uncertain gaze settled on Shey.  “I don’t remember anything anymore.  Each day it’s less and less.  But I have this vivid image . . . this image of--”

“What?”  Shey prompted.

Of you, lying on the ground with your guts spilling out.  “Of a woman.”  Uncomfortable, Joe bit his lip.  “I think I gave her something, but I don’t know what it was.”

Shey uttered a soft snort of laughter.  “Must have been a hell of a date--maybe even enough to make you forget the venerated Miss D.”

Scowling, Joe tilted his head.  “Shey--”

His friend chuckled.  “You really don’t like me talking about your uppity goddess, do you?”

Before Joe could formulate an appropriate scathing reply, he was distracted by the strike of boot heels against floorboards.  Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Chance step into the saloon.  Attired in immaculate jet-colored clothing, Shey’s brother looked every bit the cold-hearted bounty hunter.  Though the scoring on his face had scabbed, the marks remained vivid and red, angling across his cheek like warpaint.  He hesitated only briefly in the doorway, before stepping to the table where Shey and Joe nursed half-finished beers.

“Cartwright.”  Chance gave a curt nod of his head, then focused his attention on Shey.  “It’s gotten a little confining for me here, Shey.  Time I moved on.  I came to say goodbye.”

“You’re leaving?”  Shey’s voice rose an octave.  Though a trace of distress was evident in the query, he dispensed it quickly.  Straightening in his chair, Shey cleared his throat, regaining his composure.  “You’re welcome at the ranch any time you want to come back,” he said evenly.  Awkwardly he stood and offered his hand, finesse deserting him.  “It was good to see you, Chance.”

Seated across from him, Joe watched as the two shook hands.  He thought it odd that men who were brothers could behave as strangers.  It made him appreciate how close he was with Hoss and Adam.  Even when there was disagreement between them, the bonds of family and blood still ran strong.  Joe felt oddly sad for Shey, thinking of the losses he’d suffered--father, mother, and uncle.  Even his brother was leaving--the brother who’d been a close companion in childhood, but was little more than a stranger now.

Shey wet his lips.  “Take care, Chance.”

Grimly, the bounty hunter nodded.  Pale, blue eyes shifted to Joe.  “Cartwright, I’d like to talk to you outside.”

Surprised, Joe exchanged a glance with his friend.  Shey appeared as taken aback as he was. Unsure what he could say to Chance that didn’t involve anger, Joe nodded nonetheless.  Pushing from his chair he followed the tall man outside.  Behind him, he could feel Shey’s wary, questioning gaze.

Joe tugged on his hat as he stepped into the bright wash of daylight.  The sandstone brim eased the glare from his eyes and obscured his face in partial shadow.  He strode past Chance to the edge of the boardwalk, then turned to face the bounty hunter. Behind him the streets of Virginia City bustled with late morning activity--the lazy clop-clop of passing riders on horses; the creak of wagon wheels from a supply cart; the ongoing flow of pedestrians shuffling among various merchantiles.  And over it all hung the resounding melody of the blacksmith’s ringing hammer.

Chance folded his arms across his chest.  “Ain’t never liked you, Cartwright and doubt I ever will--”

“Consider the feeling mutual,” Joe said flatly.  He had no idea what he was doing standing on the dusty street listening to Chance Cutter.  A part of him yearned to settle the score between them, but a rational voice told him he didn’t want to quarrel with Shey’s brother.

Raising one hand to his chin, the bounty hunter stepped forward.  He stared thoughtfully across the street, though his shoulder was now even with Joe’s.  “Don’t know when I’ll get back this way again,” he commented as though he hadn’t heard Joe’s earlier comment.  “Shey’s doing well for himself with the ranch, but he don’t have no one to look out for him.”  Chance’s blue eyes slewed to the side. “--‘cept you.”  He paused, letting his meaning sink in.  “Like I said--you ain’t never gonna be no prince in my book, but my brother values your friendship.  So much so, he kicked my tail out of his house.  That means I gotta trust you with his care--to do the things a brother would do for him . . . if I was here.”

Understanding, Joe felt his belligerence ease slightly.  It was as Chance said--they would never feel anything for one another except loathing, but there was someone they both cared about.  Their mutual concern for Shey gave them common ground at least temporarily.  Setting his anger aside, Joe gave a brief nod.  “Done,” he said.

Chance grinned--a sly turn of his lips that was predator and hunted combined.  “You probably think I don’t remember much about that night in Pine Gorge, but I remember more than you do, and understand more than you’ll ever know.”

Joe blinked at the sudden change of subject.  Confused, he wasn’t certain if Chance spoke about the recent incident with Eddie Wells, or the other--eight years in the past.  “I--”

“I know what you did,” Chance said flatly.  “--for my brother.  If you understood the Circle like I do, you’d know each separate path is really the same.  So even though I fought with the man, I was there with the woman, when you bartered your life.”

Joe wet his lips, the memory muddled and vague.  “Why did it let you go?” he asked.

Chance shrugged.  “Why did she let you go?” he countered.  Something fleeting touched his eyes--a sliver of darkness like the creekcold touch of the ancient thicket.  “The legend of the Threshold has been around forever Cartwright, but you and I are the only ones who ever crossed it.  Didn’t you ever stop to ask yourself why?”

Startled, Joe shook his head.  “No.”

Tugging aside his duster, Chance reached into his pocket.  He pulled something free, letting the object tumble into his palm.  Joe’s eyes followed the movement, a growing sense of apprehension dancing down his spine as he beheld the beaded circle.  “I took this from you a long time ago,” Chance explained.  “And kept it like a trophy.”  Lifting the Four Winds Wheel by its beaded string, he held it out for Joe.  “Much as I hate to admit it--it’s bound us together for the last eight years.  You made your deal on the Threshold, and I made mine.  Let’s hope neither of us ever has to keep ‘em.”

Chance dropped the geegaw into Joe’s outstretched palm.  Looking from the trinket Kyle Gordon had given him so many years ago for safekeeping, to the bounty hunter, Joe struggled for a foothold in clarity.  “What deal did you make?” he queried uneasily.

The other grinned wolfishly--pure predator now.  “It don’t much matter, since I burnt the infernal hellhole to the ground.”  With a tip of his hat he stepped off the boardwalk.  “Take care of my brother, Cartwright, or I’ll see you don’t live to fulfill any bargain.”

Pressing his lips together, Joe watched him leave.  His eyes dropped, returning to the Four Winds Wheel.  Why had he and Chance been the only ones to cross the Threshold?  Shey had effectively “died” before that transformation occurred, and Eddie was unconscious.  In all the years the thicket had stood within the belly of the gorge, no one had experienced the nightmarish images he’d endured.

Joe’s fingers curled over the wheel.  Why us?

The mundane noise of the street continued behind him, softly mocking in its grating familiarity.


“What’d my brother want?”  Shey asked as Joe returned to the table.

Standing, Joe claimed his beer glass, and swallowed the last of the lukewarm ale.  There was no sense in telling Shey the truth, nor was their any reason to let him think ill of his brother.  “He wanted to apologize,” Joe said shortly.  “--for the time he and Eddie jumped me in the saloon.”

Shey cocked a disbelieving brow.  “Really?”

“Really.  Now let’s get out of here, huh?  Even if you can slough off, I’ve got work to do.”

Grinning, Shey folded his arms behind his head and leaned back in his chair, bracing it on the rear legs. “Not me.  Them’s the breaks when you’re the boss.”

Joe grinned at his cocky friend. “That so?”  Planting his boot against the edge of the chair, Joe gave a hard shove.  The rear legs tipped with the added weight, sending the chair crashing to the floor.  The resounding clatter drew the attention of everyone in the saloon, muting quiet conversation in a sudden, engulfing hush.  It took a moment for the barmaids, Sam and the miner to realize what had happened.  Almost simultaneously, they burst into laughter.

With an infectious giggle, Joe stared down at his friend.  “Guess them’s the breaks when you’re a conceited clod.”

Wincing, Shey pressed a hand to the small of his back.  “Cartwright, have I told you lately you’re a pain in my ass-end?”  Extending his hand, he waved Joe forward.  “Help me up before I grow old down here.”

“Sure thing, Boss.”  Still chuckling, Joe moved to aid his friend.  With the warm laughter of the other patrons surrounding him, it was easy to remember a time when the Four Winds Circle and the Threshold had never existed.

And it was easy to envision a future void of both.


“Whew!”  Hoss patted a hand over his considerable stomach.  “Can’t say I remember a time when I ever ate so much.”

Seated across the table from him, Adam smiled thinly.  “Yesterday?” he prompted, and the remaining men burst into laughter.

Pursing his lips together, Hoss wobbled his head from side to side, looking decidedly prissy.  “You’re just jealous you don’t got my stayin’ power.”

“Hoss--” Adam countered flatly,  “No one has your staying power.”

Once again laughter rippled through the room.  To Joe the sound was deliciously warm and familiar.  He’d been so consumed with the incidents at Pine Gorge lately, he’d forgotten how much he valued the camaraderie he shared with his father and brothers.  Now, nearly two weeks past that dreadful night in the ravine, he celebrated turning twenty-three.  Hop-Sing had outdone himself, preparing a sumptuous dinner of glazed ham, candied sweet potatoes, string beans and cornbread.  For desert there was caramel-chocolate cake, fresh apple pie with sweet cream and brandy-soaked raisins.  Like Hoss, Joe couldn’t remember a time when he’d eaten so much.  Placing a hand over his flat stomach, he exhaled and slouched back in his chair.  What he really needed to do right now was hike three miles and work off dinner.

Beside him, Hoss was querying Shey about something to do with a seed bull.  Though Joe had been apprehensive at first about Shey joining them this evening, the owner of the Circle C had blended remarkably well with his family; Adam included.  Joe doubted his eldest brother and friend would ever be truly comfortable with one another, but it seemed they’d reached a cordial midway.  He was thankful that for all their differences, his relationship with Adam was unlike the strained kinship Shey shared with Chance.

Joe glanced to the living room and the comfortable sofa, thinking how much he’d like to stretch out on the cushions.  The coffee table was cluttered with the gifts his family had given him earlier--a fancy gunbelt from Hoss and Adam; a silver-plaited pistol from Ben.  Though he treasured the gifts from his family, it was the their unshakable devotion he treasured more.  Perhaps it was merely the recent incidents in his life that made him appreciate how lucky he truly was.

“So, Shey,” Hoss broached suddenly, “When do we get to see what you got Joe for his birthday?”

The blonde-haired man smiled smugly.  “Sorry to disappoint you gents, but it’s on special order and won’t arrive until tomorrow.”

Wrenched from his thoughts, Joe glanced sharply at his friend.  “You special ordered something?”

“Why sure, Joe--you didn’t think I was gonna get you any old thing, did you?”

There was a teasing twinkle in Shey’s eyes that made Joe wonder if he was being set up.  Shey’s sense of humor ran the gamut from wicked to sublime, making him apt to try most anything.  “Shey, you didn’t have--”

“Huh-uh,” the other interrupted quickly, holding up a hand.  “I outdid myself this time, but you gotta come to the house.  Tomorrow around noon--that’s when the package arrives.”

Bracing his elbows on the table, Ben folded his hands and glanced from his son to his guest.  Shey’s expression had gone from smug to mischievous, indicating he was clearly enjoying himself.  Though Ben knew Shey Cutter was a bit of a loose cannon, he also knew his friendship with Joe was genuine.  He doubted Shey was trying to “outdo” Joe’s gift of the rifle, but there was something about all the mystery of Shey’s “package” that left Ben slightly uneasy.

“Well, Joseph,” he said, with a glance for his son.  “Sound’s like you’ve got a surprise gift coming tomorrow--kind of like having two birthdays back to back.”

 Cocking his head, Joe glanced quizzically at Shey.   “I guess,” he agreed, and then he grinned, for Shey’s smile was infectious.  It made him wonder what his friend had planned.

 And that, of course, was exactly as Shey Cutter intended.


The following day Joe arrived at the Circle C shortly after noon.  Dismounting, he tethered Cochise to the hitching rail in front of the stately manor home.  High overhead, the sun had migrated past its zenith, buttering the ground with distilled honey.  A soft, feathering breeze scuttled from the south carrying whisper-thin scents of apple blossom and sweet clover. Sprinting up the steps, Joe raised a hand to knock on the front door.  Before he could drop his knuckles against the wood, the barrier was wrenched open by a nervous-looking Shey Cutter.

“Cartwright!”  Shey sputtered the name as though apprehended in a crime.  Fidgeting, he swept tense fingers through his straight hair.  A grin lifted the corners of his mouth in forced levity. “Get in here--” Snagging Joe by the wrist, he pulled him inside.

Bewildered, Joe stepped into the elaborate foyer of rich mahogany and antique brass.  “Something wrong, Shey?” he asked as the other closed the door behind him.  His friend’s uncharacteristic nervousness crackled through the air with staggering intensity.  Instantly, Joe felt himself grow uneasy.

“Nothing,” Shey said, sagging back against the doorframe.  The word was no sooner past his lips then indecision entered his eyes.  “Well, maybe something . . .”  Pushing away from the door, Shey tugged Joe in the direction of the living room.  As he walked, he chewed on his bottom lip like a man possessed with wary alarm.  “Listen Cartwright--I’ve been thinking¾I may have messed up with this birthday gift thing.”

Joe drew a halt, forcing the other to stop beside him.  Just ahead the archway to the living room yawned with a blanket of sun-dusted shadow.  “What are you talking about?  A gift’s supposed to be--”

“I know what a gift’s supposed to be,” Shey interrupted quickly, almost tersely.  Sighing, he dropped his forehead against the wall.  “Joe, I really thought I was doing the right thing, but now I think I might have messed up.”

“What are you talking about.”

With a deep breath, Shey pointed to the living room.  “Your gift’s in there.  I think you’d better go have a look.”

Warily, Joe glanced from his friend to the beckoning archway.  Was this another elaborate ruse Shey had crafted for his sole benefit?  There was something about Shey’s troubled expression that made him think differently.  Almost hesitantly, Joe approached the living room.

As he stepped through the archway, he was greeted by the bright wash of afternoon light streaming through a row of tall windows.  At first, Joe could find nothing out of the ordinary among the ornate furnishings of the richly-appointed room.  And then his gaze settled, zeroing in on the dark-haired woman seated on the davenport.  Joe’s heart lurched to his throat.

“Good God,” he breathed.

Lorna David stood.  “Happy birthday, Joe,” she greeted with a hesitant smile.

--End Threshold--

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