With A Two-edged Sword

A 2004 Tale

   
by
the Tahoe Ladies 
 
 

The anvil of justice is planted firm, and fate who makes the sword does the forging in advance. ~ Aeschylus

 

Monday Afternoon

3 P.M.

            "Hey there!" Mandy greeted Joe Cartwright brightly, smiling up at him as he juggled a cardboard box full of files and notebooks. "Glad to see you doin' your own movin'! Been too many times when you fellas leave the hard work to us gals."

            Joe dropped the box on the corner of Mandy's cluttered desk, just missing her computer keyboard, and scowled at her. When a project for Cartwright and Sons Construction came to an end, all of the jobsite files and papers had to come into the main office to be tucked away. The Northern Paiute Council's casino was now finished and, with winter leaning hard on the area, no new work would start until the early spring when the deep snows began to disappear. That meant that everything from his gray office trailer would be brought into the bowels of the granite and glass building his brother had designed and built to house the family's business. Joe halfway dreaded this move. He was far more comfortable out in the field but, as Adam had pointed out, there was still too much snow on the field that early February.

            "You gals? I seem to recall more than once getting that "this is too heavy for me. Can you carry it out to the truck, Joe?" business. And I would gallantly hustle over to do my knightly duty and protect the fair young maidens from hurting their backs. Forget about all the times I strained mine because you would fill the box with everything short of the kitchen sink. I swear, only a woman thinks she could move the entire contents of an office in one box." By the time Joe had finished his explanation, Mandy was having difficulty stifling her giggles. As he leaned onto the box, about to continue with his mock-tirade for her entertainment, the box slid on the desktop and collided with her keyboard and coffee cup.

            "Oh no! You!" the little blonde yelped. She stood quickly to avoid the spreading puddle of coffee from the styrofoam cup Joe's box had tipped over. But as quickly as she rose, she flopped back down into her chair, her features going white.

            Ignoring the box and the spreading coffee, Joe pulled Mandy, still in her chair, around and knelt in front her. He rested one hand on her knee and used the other to lift her chin. "Hey, girl, you okay? You're as white as a sheet!"

            Even as he watched, Mandy swallowed convulsively a few times and blinked her wide blue eyes. Then she smiled but it wasn't the blinding variety she was known for. "Sure, I'm okay. And you better get up. One of the old biddies around here sees you on your knees in front of me, touching me, and they'll be running up to your brother."

            As if he were about to be burnt by her words, Joe's hands jerked back and he stood up. Mandy smiled compassionately up at him. He pulled at the front of his shirt and huffed then settled on standing there with his hands perched on his hips.

            "We've been friends for too long, Joe. But these other women and some of the men too, I might add, wouldn't understand. They'd say that you and I were, " she paused as someone passed her open office doorway, "that we were -"

            "Doing what we did years ago before 'sexual harassment' became the hue and cry of every idiot who didn't understand the difference between a friendly hug and a romantic embrace. I guess Adam was right."

            "And just what was I right about?" a deep voice asked. At the doorway to Mandyís office, Adam Cartwright leaned on the jamb and crossed his arms. The way his head was cocked told both of the officeís occupants that he expected an answer. Promptly.

            "That people see just what they want to see. Mandy, where you want this box?" Over his shoulder, Joeís look challenged his brother to say another word.

            "Back here," Mandy gestured towards a door at the back of her office. "Put it on the right-hand side, towards the back." To further indicate where she wanted it put, she followed Joe into the cavernous storage space, flicking on the light. She let the door slide shut behind her, praying it wouldnít be opened by Adam.

            Joe dropped the box onto the metal shelving where he saw others labeled the same way. With a shove, he aligned the box then quickly turned to Mandy.

            Even in the bright light from the fluorescent overheads, Mandy looked half sick and, checking to make sure they were alone and the door closed, Joe took her by the shoulders and studied her closely.

            "Mandy," he said her name softly, his concern evident. "Whatís the matter? Somebody houndiní you? You look awful upset." He pushed a strand of her blonde hair away from her face.

            "We've been friends for lots of years, Joe. Sometimes closer than friends." As she spoke, Mandy leaned into him, resting her hands against his chest. "I canít tell nobody and I want to!"

            "Tell what? Mandy, are you in some kind of trouble?"

            Surprisingly, Mandy laughed. "I forgot how you always knew when something was wrong, like when I didnít feel good or somethiní. Guess I can tell you. I made up my mind, Joe, And I went and done it."

            "Done what?" he repeated.

            Again, she laughed then patted his chest and moved away from him. "Come to my place tonight and Iíll tell you."

            "Mandy, darliní, you arenít makiní any sense."

            "I will tonight. By the way, you got any tools in your Jeep?"

            Joeís jaw snapped shut and his eyes narrowed. Now he was truly puzzled. "Some."

            "Well, youíll need a wrench and a hammer." Mandy was chuckling as she pulled the door open and waltzed through, throwing a wink at the befuddled Cartwright behind her.

 

Monday Evening

5 P.M.

 

            It was dusk as Joe left the building, his keys jiggling nervously in his hand as he approached his red Jeep. Next to it was still parked Adamís 1965 Jaguar XKE convertible. He was careful not to bump it since Adam was mighty particular about the vintage sports car. Maybe, Joe considered once more, that was why he loved to rag his brother and call the car The Grape. When the joke had started, Joe hadnít really understood what it all meant. All he knew was that the car was purple, having faded from its original burgundy. Once more he wondered if he could convince Adam to loan him the car come Friday night. He had a date and the female involved was more luxury-minded than the Jeep afforded him, especially in winter. Yep, he thought, show up at her place in the Grape and they could forget dinner and head straight for dessert.

            "I heard you call home and tell Hop Sing that you wouldnít be home for supper." Joe jerked away the hand he had let stray to the hood of the Jag when Adam spoke to him.

            "Yeah," he answered, distracted and perturbed that he had been caught. "Got a date tonight."

            "Goiní home to clean up?" Adam asked nonchalantly as he unlocked his car door.

            "No," Joe replied, yanking his own door open. "My women take me just like I am." He wouldnít give Adam the pleasure of knowing that it was Mandy he was seeing. He wanted to kick himself when he realized heíd called it a ďdate.Ē Long ago, yes, he and Mandy had been a hot item. It had eventually cooled but they were still good friends. Not that some people, Adam included apparently, believed that there was nothing else going on between them.

            When he pulled out of the parking lot, Adam was still standing beside his car but Joe wouldnít even look back and give his brother any satisfaction. Let him wonder!

            Less than five minutes later and he was parking in front of Mandyís apartment building. A quick knock on her first floor door and he was smiling at his friend, his tool box from the Jeep in his hand.

            "Take your shoes off. I just had the carpet cleaned and God only knows where you been walkiní, Joe Cartwright!" Mandy ordered, leaving him at the door as she headed into the living room. She had relieved him of his toolbox.

            Muttering under his breath about bossy women, he did as she asked and padded sox-footed after her. As he rounded the corner, he bumped into a large cardboard box that was leaning against the wall. Mandy was on the floor, the toolbox opened, sorting through the wrenches, pliers, screwdrivers, hammer and the like. He steadied the box then stepped back to read what was printed on the side. All he could make out was her address since the rest was written in Oriental script.

            "What the Hell?" he started to say, opening the flap to peer in but Mandy reached up and pulled him down onto the floor beside her.

            "Thanks, Joe. I want you to know I really appreciate your helping me." She handed a large sheet of paper that was covered with diagrams. "I never was good with this sort of thing at school but you always were!"

            Crossing his legs, Joe looked at the drawings of bits and pieces of bolts and metal coming together . . . he flipped the paper over to see the end product.

            "Mandy!" he yelped, his heart in his throat. "This is a baby crib!"

            "And they call you the dumb Cartwright," she teased and nudged him with her shoulder.

            "Itís for babies!"

            She rolled her eyes, sighed and smiled.

            "You mean youíre . . . youíre . . . " Joe floundered for the word but seemed unable to say it.

            Mandy had no problem. "Yep, Iím pregnant, Joe. Oh donít go looking like someone just killed your dog. You know it ainít yours. I know it ainít yours."

            Joe felt as though he was choking and he pulled at his shirt collar. He thought about easing away from her but she put a hand on his arm and held him.

            "I felt the old biological clock tickiní and figured I had to do something about it. Oh, Joe, be happy for me! Iím gonna have a baby!"

            "Mandy, you are a year younger than I am. That biological clock? It doesnít tick that loud before you hit thirty."

            "It does," she said, taking her hand away and standing up, "when youíve decided to raise the child on your own. Joe, seriously, I ainít after you so quit lookiní like that! Just be my friend, okay? My momma isnít gonna understand so someone has to."

            "How about the father? You told him? Give him a chance to do right by you?" Losing the uneasy feeling, Joe stood as well and tugged Mandy around so that she faced him. He saw the tracks of tears on her cheeks.

            "He was a one night stand down in Sacramento. A soldier. I, I went to the bar looking for a man, any man, that night. He donít need to be saddled by me. Donít you see, Joe, he doesnít matter. Only the baby he helped create matters."

            "You telling me that all you were after was sperm on the hoof? Thatís cold, Mandy. Why didnít you go to one of those clinics?"

            "On what your brother pays me? Get real, Cartwright. Look, Iím sorry if it sounds very cold and insulting to your half of the species but I really thought that you could be happy for me. Guess I was wrong. Sorry." Mandy huffed and crossed her arms over her ample chest. The tears ran unfettered down her face and she looked away, trying to hide them.

            Shaking his head, Joe encircled her with his arms, hugging her close. He felt her bury her face on his chest, her tears making warm spots. "No," he whispered into her hair, "itís me thatís sorry, Mandy. You've got a right to do what you want with your own body. But do me one favor?" He felt her nod so he continued. "Tell your mother. I remember that while she wasnít the kindest of women to me, she did have motherly instincts in her heart for her only daughter."

            Mandy pulled away from him. She wiped her tears away with the back of her hands and nodded her agreement. Then an impish look crossed her face and she laughed aloud.

            "Thought you were gonna ask me to tell Adam right away. I know Iíve eventually got to say something to him since he is my boss but it can wait a while longer. Iím only a little over thirteen weeks and ainít showiní a bit." She patted her belly which, even as Joe looked carefully at it, was only beginning to show a soft roundness. "And Iíll even make sure he knows it ainít yours!"

            The doorbell rang, cutting off Joeís relieved laugh.

            "I ordered pizza for us. You got any cash on you, Joe? I forgot to stop at the ATM on the way home."

            As Mandy headed for the kitchen, Joe headed for the door, digging in his jeans' pocket for what money he had. The bell rang again, this time with a persistent and insistent ring that said whoever was at the door was leaning on the bell. Joe shouted that he was coming.

            He opened the door, still fumbling with the crumpled bills and loose change in his pocket. When he looked up, a fist hit him. 

 

 

Tuesday morning

7 A.M.

            "Iíll get it," Ben shouted, sure that Hop Sing had never even budged from the kitchen. He came down the stairs with more than his usual vigor as he feared the door couldnít withstand more pounding. He yanked it open, a harsh greeting in mind.

            On the other side, Roy Coffee, the local county sheriff stood, a fist raised to strike again.

            Behind him, Ben could see his unmarked police car sitting in the driveway, the windshield wipers slapping at the fitful snowfall. It bothered Ben because when Roy came on official business, he never turned the engine off and this morning, heíd left it running.

            "If you promise not to hit the door again, Iíll give you some coffee, Roy," Ben teased, hoping that the sheriff had let the engine run just because it was cold outside.

            "I wonít hit it again," the gray sheriff said, his head nodding as he stepped into the main room of the massive house. There were times when he enjoyed coming to the Ponderosa but this wasnít one of them and it showed in his demeanor. "Canít take any coffee from you, Ben. This is official business. Need to see Joe."

            Ben scratched his head, trying to decide how to handle the situation. He had been the last one in the night before and a quick glimpse into the open garage had shown him an empty hole where he could normally see the rear bumper of red Jeep. Moreover, he knew that Roy had noted the hole as well yet he asked for Joe.

            "Joe isnít home," Adam called out, coming lickedity-split down the stairs, still buttoning his shirt. Behind him, Hoss followed until all four men stood in the open space behind the settee.

            "You sure?" Roy asked, his thumb smoothing his mustache.

            "Jest went by his bedroom door. Itís open," Hoss volunteered. He didnít add that the bed didnít look slept in.

            "Whatís this all about, Roy?" Ben pressed, taking hold of the lawmanís arm to center his attention.

            "Mandy Roberts was killed last night," he answered bluntly.

            "Whatís that got to do with Joe?" Even though his voice was calm, Adamís stomach was lurching about like a half-beached whale. Mandy and Joe, yesterday afternoon, in the office. Then Joe said he had a date. Was it with Mandy? But it had been over with them two a long time ago.

            "Miz Tucker, Mandyís neighbor said Joe was there last night. Other evidence agrees with her. You got any idea where Joe might be?" There was something in Royís voice that sounded like a plea for them to say that Joe was . . . any place as long as they knew where.

            "Youíre holding something back, Roy," Ben educed quickly. "What is it?"

            The lawman swallowed then let his sad eyes hold his old friends in their depths. "Mandy wasnít just killed last night. Somebody took a knife and cut her up pretty bad. Thereís blood all over her apartment." He paused, seeing Hoss turn aside and close his eyes. "Thereís plenty of fingerprints but mostly they seem to be Mandyís. But Forensics found one, a palm print, in blood by the door. Itís a manís."

            Ben Cartwright went white, his breathing coming in ragged gasps as he tried to assess what Roy was telling him. "The print . . .," he stammered then could speak no further.

            "I checked it first thing after talkiní with Miz Tucker. Itís Joeís, Ben."

            It became so quiet in the room that everyone could hear the ticking of the grandfather clock and the crackle of the fire in the hearth.

            Adam finally broke the spell. "Are we to assume that Joe may have been kidnapped?"

            Surprisingly, Roy shook his head Ďnoí. "Miz Tucker says she saw Joe walk out and get in his Jeep and drive away. She doesnít remember what time it was." He let that information sink in then continued. "Right now, we want to talk to Joe. Thatís all, Ben, just talk to him."

            "What you mean is that heís under suspicion for Mandyís murder, donít you?" challenged Adam, his voice taking a keen edge.

            The sheriff looked unflinchingly at Adam. "I said we want to talk to him and thatís exactly what I meant. Talk." He took a deep breath. "Weíre pretty sure that he wasnít hurt, Ben."

            Drawn back into the conversation, the Nevada Congressman jerked as though the sheriff had struck him. "What makes you so sure?"

            "So far, all the blood sampled has been Mandyís."

            Adam saw Roy Coffee out with a promise that should any one of them have any contact with Joe that he would be the first to know. It had been exchanged for a promise that, for the time being, the Cartwrightís phones would not be tapped nor would the house and their respective offices be under surveillance. The promise was based on the understanding that they were, above all else, law biding individuals.

            Seated at the end of the dining room table, Ben found he had no appetite. He was embarrassed to admit that he had trouble placing Mandy Roberts. Hoss had said that she and Joe had dated some in high school but Ben still couldnít hook a face to her name. There had been so many young girls in Josephís life that they had all begun to look alike to his father. Chagrined, Ben asked Adam about her.

            "Sheís the young lady who runs errands for Cartwright and Sons Construction."

            The pieces all clicked and he remembered her. A bright pixish girl, full of laughter but, Ben sighed at the memory, little else to make her noteworthy. He recalled being relieved when Joe had moved onto a different girl and was pleased when Adam said that as far as he knew, Joe and Mandy were just good friends.

            "Then why did Joe tell you he had a date if he was just goiní over to Mandyís?" Hoss asked, taking a healthy portion of flapjacks onto his plate.

            "Donít know. What do we do now, Pa?Ē"

            "We let Roy do his job. We do ours. If he has been kidnapped, his abductors will find us whether we are at the State House or your office. Hoss, I would appreciate it if you stayed close to the house here today. Keep your cell phones on and with you at all times, boys." Ben rapped out orders but found his mouth suddenly dry and knew it was fear that made it that way.

           

            The last place Ben Cartwright wanted to be that day was on the floor of the Nevada State Assembly but as the Speaker and Majority Whip, he was expected to be there. Shrugging out of his heavy jacket, he showed his ID to the guard at the door. He nodded his greeting to the man then went on into the deep bowels of the silver-topped building. His office on the second floor looked out over the small park that was covered in snow that winter morning but he stood at the window and looked at it any way.

            "Mister Cartwright?" a soft voice, a womanís called to him, breaking into his wandering thoughts. "Theyíre expecting you downstairs, I believe."

            Turning, Ben greeted his secretary. Absentmindedly, he asked about any emails he may have gotten overnight.

            "Just the usual, sir," she sighed. "One of your constituents wants a renewal of his suspended liquor license. Another one says that if you vote to raise the property taxes again, heíll vote for someone else next time. The Citizens for Repeal of Capital Punishment sent one, two, three emails. They want to see the law in Nevada not just clarified but repealed. One went so far as to even suggest that if it were your son, how would you vote? Then thereís one from some group wanting a law allowing the euthanasia of the wild horses. Donít they know thatís federal?"

            Ben tried to smile for her but failed. "Thereís been a little problem out at the ranch. If I get a call from one of my sons or Roy Coffee, page me immediately then put it through to the nearest phone." He picked up the stack of documents on the corner of his desk then descended to the Assembly Room.

            As the morning wore on, he found it ever more difficult to concentrate on the matters at hand. Laws, important to the state, were being discussed and he sat there, his mind sifting through all the parental chaff of raising three sons. He knew it had been a mistake to carry on as usual but what else could he do? The sane part of him repeated that if Joseph had been kidnapped, those responsible would contact him no matter where he was. If, for some strange reason, Joe had just taken off after Mandyís brutal murder then he would be found by the police. Roy had assured him that he would just be questioned. There wasnít a doubt in Benís mind that Joe had not killed her.

            Whispering just as loudly in his mindís ear was the insane part that longed to be cruising the highways, digging into backrooms, slamming open motel doors, searching for his son. There was an undercurrent of lawlessness still in these Nevada mountains that made a man like him, a respected man and normally law-abiding citizen, carry a loaded revolver under the seat of his car. It didnít matter that the state showed its civilized face to the tourist; it was eager to take their money at the casinos. That had been the haven of the organized crime not long ago but in the past few years, due much in part to strong legislation, the Mob was gone. In its wake, though, Ben knew small-time criminals abounded. These were the ones he feared most of all. Were these the people who had his son? Why?

            As he sat overseeing the proceedings, listening with only half an ear to the debate, he consoled himself with the thought that Adam was probably at that very moment searching for his brother. Ben almost chuckled at an inopportune moment, thinking of how he could demand one thing and get its exact opposite from his sons. Once more, he shoved aside his personal life and took to listening more carefully to the debate going on before him.

            It concerned an upcoming vote on two linked bills. The first bill, known by an incomprehensible string of numbers and letters, was for the outright repeal of Nevadaís capital punishment law. Yes, Ben thought as he again looked through his notes, there were problems with the law. It allowed for the death penalty for the mentally retarded; the appeal structure wasnít clearly defined. In short, it wasnít in line with other statesí death penalty laws. But was that justification to do away with it completely? Ben shook his head.

            The other part of the link allowed for the clarification of the death penalty. It tightened all the loopholes. In addition, it also clearly delineated those crimes worthy of the consideration of the death penalty. It added the murder of policemen, firemen and public officials while pursuing their duties as grounds for the ultimate penalty. It did away with the possibility of sending a severely mentally retarded individual to Death Row. Another grounds for consideration was multiple murders committed in a brutal fashion.

            Ben was thankful that as the leader of the Assembly, he would be called on to vote only in the case of a tie. He figured that a vote either way could cost him constituents. His own sons were divided -

            His thoughts slammed together like a freight train behind a stalled locomotive. What had his secretary said? Something about one of his emails mentioning one of his sons? From that haywire group wanting to repeal the law? Yes, the Citizens for the Repeal of Capital Punishment, that was their name. With his heart pounding, he glanced at the clock. Almost noon and time for a recess. He reached out and grabbed the wooden gavel and, with a loud bang, ended the debate going on before the Assembly. He barely paused to gather his things before racing up the stairs to his office and his phone. He had a call to put into Roy.

 

            When his father had left, Adam had made short work of his breakfast and left in a hurry. On the drive into his office, he ran through all of the things he thought he knew about his brother. On the top of the list was his honesty. Adam knew he wouldnít run so that left only one possibility: he had been taken but how was that to be proven against Lydia Tuckerís eyewitness accounting? Scowling, Adam passed his office building and drove to Mandyís apartment.

            The yellow tape cordoning off the crime scene didnít stop him. Adam lifted the tape and slipped beneath it. One of the officers on duty had gone to school with him and Adam greeted him by name, asking if anything interesting had been found. As he spoke, he glanced around the small apartment.

            What he saw both sickened and angered him. Arcing streaks of blood went half way up the white walls in the living room. A trail went into the kitchen on the floor. There, on the black and white tiles, was the outline of a sprawled body. His stomach twisting, he left the kitchen and returned to the living room. On the coffee table, a pizza box sat, the lid cocked. He lifted it. The pizza had not been touched. On the floor was a small tool box that Adam recognized as having been his brotherís. He didnít need to study it any further than to see the initials burned into the hammer handle. Lying there beside it, covered in blood, was a screwdriver.

            "And just what do you think youíre doiní here?" the gruff voice asked right behind him, making Adam straighten quickly, knocking into a large flat box leaning against the wall. He made sure it stayed put then turned around.

            "I just came by, Roy, thatís all." There was more to it than either man would admit to. "Thought I would see what they are going to use as evidence to hang this on Joe."

            Taking him by elbow, the sheriff directed Adam away from the living room and into the short corridor leading to the front door. Adam didnít go easily.

            "Tell me something," Roy started, "Joe and Mandy. They worked together, right?"

            "Sometimes. Mandy was our errand girl. She might see him once, twice a week when he was out at a jobsite. Sheíd take paychecks out on Fridays, that sort of thing. Why do you ask?"

            "Was he seeiní her? Like on a personal level?" Royís thumb was pressed hard against Adamís arm.

            Trying to pull his arm away, Adam replied through clenched teeth, "They were friends. Good friends. Why?" Even as he said it, he recalled the afternoon before when he had intercepted a conversation between them and had caught Joe kneeling before her. When Roy took too long to answer, Adam demanded, "Why?"

            "'Cause Mandy was in a family way, thatís why. From what I got from her mother and Miz Tucker, Mandy didnít have a boyfriend. And the way we found things here, it looks like whoever killed Mandy knew she was pregnant. Adam, are you sure?"

            His temper rising quickly to the boiling point, Adam clamped down hard on the sheriffís restraining hand and thrust it away. "Maryellen Roberts didnít give a ratís ass about her daughter. I know because I talked with Mandy about it not long ago. Told her she needed to get her mother out of that trailer park she lives in and into some place decent. Mandy told me then that her mother had thrown her out of the house six months ago and she hadnít talked to her since. And Lydia Tucker is a busybody!"

            "Still Adam, we got facts, evidence to consider. We know Joe was here. Got his prints."

            "How do you know theyíre his?" Adam hissed.

            "Back when your company built the annex on the new county prison, everybody having access to the job had to be fingerprinted, remember? Joe worked with you out there. Ran one of your crews as I recall right about that time. We still have those prints on file. Adam," Royís voice softened as he first glanced back into the apartment then back at the man before him. "Best thing you can do right now is get a lawyer. Joeís gonna need one. His running off from this donít look good."

            With an overwhelming feeling of loss, Adam sighed and decided that Roy had a point. He would return to his office and make some calls. As he turned to go outside, he pulled his keys from his jacket pocket.

            "Adam, I am sorry Ďbout all this," Roy admitted and tapped Adam on the shoulder.

            Adam dropped his keys and stooped to pick them up. "Roy," he spoke up while still hunched down, "Did Miz Tucker say anything about him walking funny when he supposedly left here?"

            "No, she didnít mention anything out of the ordinary."

            "Well, if Joe left here under his own steam, why did he walk out barefoot?" Adam righted himself slowly, a pair of battered brown boots in his hand. "These are his boots. Considering the amount of snow out there and how cold it was last night, I canít see anyone forgetting something as essential as their boots. Can you?"

            The look on the sheriffís face brightened for a moment at this revelation then his cell phone rang and he stepped away to answer it. Adam set the boots back down where he had found them, painfully aware that the bloody handprint right above them was probably the one his brother had left.

            Closing up his phone, Roy Coffee came back to Adam, his expression now saddened. "That was the lab boys, Adam. Weíre gonna change things around a little. Weíre not looking for Joe as a possible suspect anymore. One of those blood samples wasnít Mandyís. Weíre gonna assume itís his. Now weíre looking for a possible second victim."

            Adam leaned against the wall and wondered how things had gone so wrong so quick.

 

 

Tuesday Afternoon

2:30 P.M.

 

            "I donít understand it either, Ben!" Roy Coffee all but shouted to the man across the desk from him. He was sure that the words were heard clear to the holding cells there at the County facility, even with the door closed to his glass-enclosed office.

            There on his battered old desk, Ben Cartwright had dropped a printed copy of an email. Roy had read it twice but each time came to the same conclusion: not enough evidence to arrest. Yes, it made allusions to Benís sons but anyone with access to the Internet could find that information out easily enough since Roy knew for a fact that the family construction business had a website complete with pictures.

            "Have there been any ransom notices? Any suspicious phone calls? Any emails to any of you?" Roy asked and to each, heard Benís same answer: no. "Then we canít do anything beyond what weíre doing now. We have an APB out on his Jeep. You put a hold on his credit cards, right? What about his cell phone?"

            Adam, seated behind his father, spoke up. "Called and cancelled it first thing this morning, along with his company gas card. Thereís been no activity on any of his credit cards in the last seventy-two hours and the phone company says the last call he made was to the Ranch about five yesterday afternoon. I overheard that call."

            "Any idea how much cash he would have had on him?" Roy asked, a pencil tapping on his desktop.

            Again, Adam answered, this time while running a hand through his hair. "His paycheck was cashed Friday evening. He put all but a hundred of it in the bank. I know he went out Friday night and had a few beers." He heard his fatherís huff and figured it was something Pa didnít want to hear. "He was down to the Bucket of Blood and Sam, the bartender down there, said Joe had two beers then went home because there wasnít anybody he knew in that night. He was home helping Hop Sing all day Saturday and on Sunday, we all went to Mayor Kinseyís Open House. Way I figure it, Joe probably had about ninety dollars in his jeans. Why do you ask?"

            Roy leaned back in his chair. He ran the computations through his head quickly then nodded. "Figuriní the gas mileage his Jeep probably gets and knowing how much spendiní cash he had on him, Iíd guess a radius of about eight hundred miles. If you figure the speed and the length of time heís been gone, thatís an easy guess. Eight hundred miles. Thatís how far he could get -or whoever took him and the Jeep could get, presuming they went together and didnít use anybody elseís cash. Thatís a hefty chunk of ground to cover. If you gentlemen will excuse me, Iím going to go extend that APB clear to the Canadian and Mexican borders."

            As he went to leave the room, he stopped beside his old friend and supporter and patted Benís arm. "Weíll find him. I promise. Youíd best go home and wait. Chances are someone is gonna call and soon. Iíll send out some State boys and theyíll set up the tap on your lines."

            "But what about this?" Ben pointed at the email from the Citizens for the Repeal of Capital Punishment Laws.

            "Our information says that groupís in Atlanta, Georgia, Ben. That email was sent before Mandy was killed and Joe come up missing. Even though itís a remote possibility, weíre checking into it. Like I said, weíll find him. Go home, Ben. Iíll call you if something comes up."

            Once the sheriff was gone, Ben sat down in the chair in front of the desk. From behind him, he could hear his son shuffling his feet.

            "Did Roy tell you?" Adam asked softly.

            Ben didnít turn around when he asked "Tell me what?"

            Adam cleared his throat and with just the sound of it, Ben could tell that what his son had to say was going to be unpleasant and he steeled himself.

            "First off, Mandy was pregnant. Three months or so along. Whoever killed her knew that because they . . . they sliced into her . . . and removed the fetus."

            Bile rose hot in Benís throat at the brutality he imagined happening to the young woman. He could hear Adamís uneven breathing and knew he also felt the same.

            "And," the son continued, "not all of the blood found was Mandyís. Some of it may have been Joeís. The lab is testing it now."

            "Then Roy may be right. Why would this group in Georgia want to butcherĖ?"

            "Letís get home, Pa. We arenít finding any answers here."

            Outside the two men split up, Adam saying he needed to stop by his office before he went home. Seeing the stark concern on his fatherís face, he smiled lopsidedly and promised him he would be home shortly.

 

 

Tuesday

4:45 P.M.

 

            Once again, Adam checked his speedometer then the flashing light in his rearview mirror. He muttered to himself that he wasnít speeding and that the State Highway patrol was getting annoying. He pulled his car to the side of the road, careful to make sure he was on a solid shoulder. Rolling the window down, he waited for the trooper to make his appearance. When a full minute passed and no trooper had appeared, Adam unbuckled his seat belt and got out of the car.

            At first glance, he thought he recognized the policeman as Jimmy Redhawk Taylor, a full-blood Paiute he had gone to school with. "Afternoon, officer," Adam greeted him cordially since it never paid to fight with the boys on the tarmac. "There a problem?"

            Gruffly the police officer asked for Adamís license and registration. As Adam reached into his hip pocket under his jacket, he half turned. Something struck him and as the world went dark on him, his single thought was that he was going to be late getting home.                         

 

            It was pushing ten oíclock that evening when Roy Coffee returned Benís frantic phone call. The fact that he did it in person was unsettling. As he stood on the front porch of the sprawling log home, he nodded. Yes, he knew Adam had come up missing now and that Ben was upset. That was why he had come out to the Ponderosa.

            With his hands bunched into fists planted firmly on his hips, Ben Cartwright roared. "My sons-two of them - are missing and all you can say is that you know it? Whatís being done to find them?"

            "Itís like this, Ben. Iíve got something here I want to show you. Can we step inside?" Roy didnít wait for an answer but pushed by Ben and into the house. He said hello to Hoss then went directly to the television set and dropped in a videotape.

            "Got this about an hour ago. Ben, Iím sorry but the investigation has been taken out of my hands. The state bureau of investigations will be handling it from here on out." Roy pressed the play key.

            The video was a grainy black and white and had come from the dash of a car. From the rotating light source somewhere above it, it was easy to deduce that it was a tape from a state patrol vehicle. Seen stopped in front of it was a low slung sports car. Neither Ben nor Hoss had to check the license plate for both recognized the rear of Adamís Jaguar. As they watched the tape, a large man wearing a police uniform passed in front of the car, partially blocking the cameraís angle. Out from the Jag stepped a familiar figure: Adam Cartwright. There was something said but the sound was muffled. Adam turned and reached under his jacket but the rest of what he did was hidden behind the bulk of the officer. The police officer shouted something and went to pull his own service revolver but the sound of a single gunshot was clearly heard before he cleared it from the holster. The officer folded in two then dropped out of the cameraís range. Left standing was Adam Cartwright, a gun in his hand. Just as quick as a cat, he turned, got into his car and sped away.

            Roy pushed the stop button on the remote control. He looked at the two stunned men who had watched with him.

            "Jimmy Redhawk Taylor, eighteen year veteran of the Nevada State Police. Dead, single gunshot wound to the chest. Left a wife and three kids."

            "It canít be," Hoss exclaimed, his face pinched in pain.

            "Thereís more," Roy continued, his own voice thick. "Found Adamís Jaguar in the parking lot of the Reno airport. There was a snub nose forty-five lying on the seat. One shot fired. I checked the registration on it myself. Itís Adamís. Havenít gotten the surveillance tape yet but there were two men who flew out to Miami late this evening. Airline manifest lists them as Adam Stoddard and J. D'Marginy. There's to be a short layover in Dallas. The Dallas police are going to meet the plane, Ben. Stoddard was Adamís motherís maiden name, wasnít it,  Ben? And d'Marginy was Marieís name before she married you as I recall."

            Ben nodded, unable to speak.

            "And Ben, we got Troy Silverstein out of bed. You know him, donít you? President of the Nevada Union Bank? He did some checking for us. Seems late this afternoon, Ďbout an hour before that video was taken, someone who knew all the right passwords transferred a little over a million dollars to an off-shore account in the Caribbean from the account of Cartwright and Sons Construction. According to Troy, thereís only two men could do that, who would have all that information. One of themís you, Ben. The other is Adam."

            Not trusting his legs to hold him any more, Ben sank into his chair. He accepted the small glass of brandy Hoss pressed on him and drank it down in a single gulp.

            "No," he whispered. "I canít believe Adam would do something like this. Not for any reason!"

            "Did you transfer that money, Ben?" Roy queried softly, hoping that his friend had but knowing otherwise.

            "Of course not. Adam didnít either! How were the plane tickets bought?"

            "Gal at the desk said cash, large bills. Said the man was tall, wore dark clothes and was rather handsome. She never saw the other passenger. Took it to be that this Adam Stoddard was running off with a woman. Like I said, havenít seen the tapes from the airport yet. Have to get them cleared through the FAA and Homeland Security."       

            "Roy?" Hoss caught the lawmanís attention. "Doesn't this all seem a little too pat?"

            "The state boys are looking at it like this is being done by two fellas who ainít got any idea how to go about coveriní their tracks. If this were real criminals, things might not be so clear cut but your brothers got no idea how to go about gettiní away, Hoss. The only thing I can see going for them is Ė"

            "They are innocent!" Ben roared, his hand slapping the arm of his chair. "You know it as well as I know it, Roy."

            "In here," the old lawman tapped his chest, "I know they are. But here," this time he put a finger to his head, "the evidence says different. Especially that tape of Adam shooting Taylor!"

            "Canít you do something, Roy?" pleaded Ben, feeling as though the very fabric of his life was coming unraveled.

            "Iím doiní all I can, Ben. I got to tell ya this, though. Outside in a bit, thereís gonna be men who are gonna move in here on ya. Theyíre gonna monitor every phone call, check every computerís email, watch every move you make. It ainít gonna be pleasant but donít fight Ďem. That would only make it worse."

 

 

Day, unknown

Time, unknown

 

            Slowly, he let himself come back into the world of the living. His body first told his brain that it was cold and it hurt. The brain sent cautious messages out to the body and the information limped back: cold, laying face down on something not quite soft yet not quite hard and it hurt to breathe. Move some small body part, the brain commanded and the right foot responded, toes flexing then replied silently works but cold, damp feeling. Another message and a leg moved side to side with a minimum amount of complaining. Summoning willpower from its center, the brain commanded the eyes to open. Sluggish, squinting at the brightness found, they obeyed.

            Still not sure of his limits, Joe let his vision adjust to the light before he tried any further exploration. From what he could see, the room he was in was small, maybe no more than ten feet square. He was face down on a cot, his cheek scraping against a wool blanket covered pillow. Looking out over his hand there beside him, he could make out the edge of a square of white porcelain. From out of his fogged brain came the name: a sink, like a bathroom sink. He pulled his hand down and found a toilet there just beyond the sink.

            Pushing his hand against the hard mattress, Joe rolled to his side. A spasm shot through his chest and he closed his eyes and held his breath, willing it to disappear. It did and he took a shallow breath, experimenting. When no pain accompanied it, he heaved a sigh of relief. There was no broken rib about to send a splintered end through a lung. Cracked, perhaps, he thought, judging the pain against a similar sensation from a few years ago when he had taken a hard fall.

            He slipped his legs towards the edge of the bed and let them drop over it. Again, the spasm ripped into him but he was prepared for it. It washed over him and for that moment, he was warm, hot even. Levering himself up further, he was able to finally sit upright but with a price. His vision spun crazily, threatening to dump him back down onto the bed, or, worse yet, the floor. It made his stomach flip and flop about, hot acid rising to his throat, scalding and burning. By instinct only, he managed to get to the toilet before his stomach emptied itself.

            Again and again, his body revolted, dropping him to his knees as he held the cool edges of the toilet, resting his head on his crossed arms between bouts. When there was nothing left in his stomach, he silently prayed for the nausea to stop but it didnít. His eyes pressed closed could not stop the kaleidoscope of disjointed colors, pictures, imagined faces and sounds that made his stomach hurl and pitch him about. He felt his hands losing their grip then the cement floor rushed up to meet him.

            Flat on the floor, he opened his eyes and the ceiling slowly stopped spinning. He looked around again, this time careful not to move his head overly much. The underneath side of the bunk showed him nothing, the plumbing under the sink much less. From this angle, he could see the door. It was closed, solid in appearance, without a knob, almost blending in with the wall it fit so close. The dawning realization came to Joe that everything in the room, from the walls to the blanket on the bed, was white. Not the sterile sort of white that he associated with a hospital but white all the same. Longing for some break in the pattern, he lifted his eyes and finally found it. In the upper corner of the room, high on the same wall as the door, there was a small camera, its dark lens like a tiny eye.

            Just before he dropped off into the void of unconsciousness, Joe thought the eye winked at him.

 

            When he awoke, he found himself back on the cot, the blanket now covering him. He nudged it around, seeking more warmth but it wasnít enough. Remembering what had happened the time before, he remained flat, breathing shallowly, letting his other senses tell him what was in the room. Silence met his ears and the only smell came from the wool of the blanket there at his chin. The acid taste in his mouth and the fact that he could see light and feel the chill in the air was all that truly convinced him that he was alive.

            Tentatively, he cleared his throat, and that gave him courage. He shouted "Hey!" but there was no reply. He tried again. Again, only silence.

            "I know I am not alone," he hissed aloud, more to hear himself than to impart information to anyone listening. "Somebody put me back on the bed; somebody covered me up. Well, letís see what happens this time." With that said, he shoved the blanket aside and sat up on the side of the bed. Instantly, he regretted the move since it made him dizzy and he was forced to flop back down.

            On the floor, across from the bed, was a tray. On it was a glass of milk - appropriately white, Joe thought sarcastically - and a sandwich. Trying to hold his head as still as possible, he slipped from the bed and used his foot to bring the tray to his hand. Sitting on the floor and leaning against the cot, he wolfed down the sandwich -cheese- and gulped the milk. Although it seemed to hit the bottom of his stomach like a lead weight then threatened to return like a hot-air balloon, Joe swallowed repeatedly and kept it in place.

            He looked up at the corner and the camera lens, smiled and gave whoever was watching a thumbs-up sign. For a moment, he thought how absolutely stupid it was then chuckled aloud. He had to stop when his side twinged warningly to him and he rubbed his hand over the spot. That made him think that perhaps he had better figure out just where he stood physically. A hand run carefully over the back of his head and neck encountered a knot on his head.

            "Figures. Matches the concussion, most likely."

            A peek inside his shirt showed him a spreading bruise down one side. "Thereís the rib. No more than cracked but I better go easy on it."

            The blood on his hand gave him pause because, other than some split knuckles, he could find no other source of leaking blood, or at least what he presumed to be his in such quantity.

            "Looks like I gave as good as I got, for once. Wonder what the other guy feels like this morning. Wonder where the other guy is this morning! Hell, Iíll settle for knowing where I am . . . jail? Maybe? País gonna have a fit. Arrested for brawling. Oh, geeze louise."

            His hands rubbing down his legs came across nothing out of the ordinary and a glance at his naked toes only showed him why his feet were cold. Gingerly, he stood, using the cot to brace himself. While his vision swam again, this time it steadied after a few swirls and he was able to straighten up. Everything seemed to be working and he puffed out the breath he had been holding fearfully.

            He took the few necessary steps that put him at the sink. Twisting the handles brought water gushing into it, although the water was cold from both faucets. He gathered enough into his hands and splashed it on his face, letting it drip to his chest. With more, he doused the back of his neck. Looking into the lens, he smiled and winked as though teasing some young lady and stripped off his shirt, tossing it onto the bed. He continued splashing the water over his bare chest, feeling more and more alive with every cold handful. Finally deciding that he had given whoever was watching enough for one day, he dried off with his shirt then put it back on.

            "Hey, think you can at least give me a little heat?" he pestered the camera but, of course, got no response.

            He sat back on the cot, pulling his feet off the cold concrete floor and covering them with the blanket. Try as he might, his thoughts seemed to be scattering on him. He couldnít concentrate, make his thoughts align themselves. With one exception: he had been drugged. As his body seemed to become weightless, he fell sideways, his eyes closing before his head touched the bed.

 

            He was not alone. He knew it because he could hear someone snoring. It wasnít very loud but it was consistent, gentle and, in the back of his mind, familiar and therefore comforting. Subconsciously, his body adjusted its own rhythm to it and he found himself slipping back into sleep with its regularity. Joe pushed the comfort aside and forced his eyes open. He knew what he would find: the same bright light, the same white walls and same blanket, cot, sink and toilet and, most of all, the same eye watching him from its perch high in the corner. But his senses awoke and clamored, demanding, for the source of the new sound. When he found it, he wanted to laugh and cry all at the same time.

            Another cot had been brought into the room. It was against the opposite wall and closer to the door. With one exception, and that exception made Joeís emotions roil identically to his stomach's as before, it was the same as his own: thin pillow and a white woolen blanket. But even as he listened to the soft snore coming from under the cover, he knew who was now sharing his stark cell. He didnít have to lift the blanket and uncover his brother. As a child, afraid of the loneliness night often brought to him, Joe had sought his oldest brother. For years, he had associated that same steady breathing he heard now with being safe and protected. Now, he could only feel . . .                           

            The rhythm changed and Joe saw movement. Rising, he ignored the watching lens and sat on the narrow cot beside Adam. When the face appeared and the eyes fluttered open, he smiled ruefully.

            "Morning," he greeted softly. "Least ways I think itís morning." He brushed his brotherís hands aside and sought for the same sort of damage done to him. Yes, there on the back of the dark head he found a lump but his hand came away with a track of blood. "Can you roll over?" Joe asked but then moved his brother anyway.

            There was something cold pressed to the back of his skull that made Adam Cartwright want to first holler, but the longer it stayed, the better it felt. Through slitted eyelids, he stared at the plain whiteness before him, knowing it was only a wall, and letting the sound of his brotherís voice wash over him. Inside his head, anvils had been set up and hammers were beating a mean cadence.                     

            When the cold left that aching place on the back of his head, Adam sat up, taking advantage of his brotherís arm to help him. He took steadying breaths and found that with a little persistence on his part, the hammers didnít strike the anvils quite so often.

            "Yeah, you got a knot back there. Looks like whatever it was that hit you just broke the skin a little," Joe was muttering, but Adam was too busy trying to assess other damage. Except for an aching knee and a roughed up palm, his head seemed to be the only problem.

            "Are you all right? Where are we?" mumbled Adam, running a hand over his jaw, feeling the stubble, wishing for a razor.

            "To the first question, fine, I guess. A little bit of a headache. Less than what you got, I imagine. As for the second question, I got no idea," came Joeís answers as he sat down beside his brother. "Was in hopes you knew."

            Adam shook his head and was immediately sorry that he had.

            "Howíd you get here?" was his next question.

            "Same way you did, apparently. Knocked out cold." Joe pulled his feet up to the edge of the bed and off the cold floor and, bringing his knees to his chest, propped his chin on them. "Havenít seen anyone. Havenít heard anyone. Donít know what time it is either."

            At the mention of time, Adam checked his wrist and saw with disgust that his watch was gone. He scowled.

            "Last thing I remember it was Tuesday evening. I was headed home. Cop stopped me." Adam rubbed his hand over the knot on his head again, as if making sure it was there. "The cops are looking for you so I hope by this time, theyíre looking for me too."

            Joe grunted. "What are they looking for me for? I didnít do anything." He frantically searched through his memory but it was confused, jumbled.

            "What do you remember last?" Adam asked, a strained note to his voice.

            "Mandy had ordered pizza. I went to the door to pay for it. Thatís it," he explained yet something stayed right on the edge of his memory, like the words to a song once memorized but now half-forgotten.

            "You remember why you went to Mandyís?"

            Curious, Joe looked at his brother in the sharply clear and unpleasant light. There seemed to be something lurking in Adamís manner that spoke of pain but Joe couldnít understand the reason behind it. He shrugged it off then, recalling Mandyís happy face as she had shared her secret with him, smiled.

            "She, uh, she needed some help putting something together. Something important. Guess I can tell you but promise me that when she tells you, youíll act surprised. Mandyís-"

            Before Joe could finish, Adam interrupted. "Mandyís dead, Joe."

            He felt as though he had been gut-punched. Startled by his brotherís revelation, he could say nothing but "No. She canít be. Adam, sheís gonna have a baby."

            "No," Adam softened his voice. "Iím sorry, Joe, but sheís dead. She fought hard but . . . " He let his words drift off into the cold air. Beneath the comforting hand he placed on Joeís shoulder, he could feel trembling. "And the police are looking for you in conjunction to her murder."

            "I didnít hurt her! I ĖI wouldnít, I couldnít!" Joe jerked to his feet and began wildly pacing the small enclosure. It kept running like liquid fire through him that she couldnít be dead. "For the first time in her life, she was going after something she wanted, something positive. My God, she was so happy."

            "Forgive me, but, Joe . . . ?"

            His thoughts jumbled and tangled, Joe only looked confused at Adam then shook his head, finally understanding the unasked question written on his face.

            "Any idea why she was killed?" Joe asked, leaning, bracing himself against the sink.

            "No. No idea except maybe she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Did you see anyone following you?"

            Joe snorted, then looked away, ashamed of the tears that threatened. "I was too busy making sure some brother of mine didnít see me pull into her apartment complex and accuse me of sexually harassing her." He sounded righteously bitter.

 

            For a long while, the two simply sat and shared the silence. Finally, Adam rolled into the blanket and slept. Joe lay down but was unable to fall asleep as memories of a happier time and place washed over him, leaving him empty and void when they passed. When he ultimately dropped off, fractured memories assailed him, making true rest impossible. He awoke with a start, yearning for darkness now to hide the tears he had cried.

            A tray had appeared once again. This time, with two sandwiches and canned sodas. Making a rude gesture to the watching camera, Joe opened his drink. His brother looked at him as though the confinement was perhaps justified.

            Together, they compared what they knew. Joe shared that his first meal, delivered like this one, had been laced with a drug, a sedative most likely. Even though they looked suspiciously at their cheese sandwiches, hunger made them edible no matter what else they might contain. Adam, doing his best to keep his voice and tone noncommittal, laid out what he knew and what he suspected. In the end, they had more unanswered questions than they had answers.

            "How long do you think theyíll keep us here?" Joe asked, again hugging his knees.

            "Until they donít have any use for us," was Adamís answer.

            "What then?"

            Neither had an answer for that question either. At least, not that they wanted to voice.

 

 

Wednesday Morning

4 A.M.

 

            "Donít make this any harder than it has to be, Congressman," the man wearing a Raiders football sweatshirt and gesturing with a black box, wires dangling from it, said. There was real regret in his words.

            Ben, scowling and sour-faced, just flashed his hand toward the wall where the phone connection in his home office was. Since late the night before and now pressing into the small hours of Wednesday morning, his home had been overrun by men just like this one: young, competent with electronics and with a slight edge to their words, manners and movements. Some were, as Roy Coffee had said, with the Nevada State Bureau of Investigations; others were FBI since kidnapping was a federal offense; there was also a smattering of agents from Homeland Security since Ben Cartwright was a prominent state figure. Each group had come bearing thick official documents, search warrants, wiretapping consents that Ben had not even bothered opening and reading. They would be turned over to John Mears, the family attorney first thing in the morning. He hardly doubted that there was anything amiss but he would let John study them. If there was a problem, and it was something he could not but hope for, it could throw out any possible incriminating evidence gained.

            To himself, he snorted. His thoughts and emotions had spun in an ever-increasingly wild circle since Tuesday morning. Try as he might, he was failing to remain level headed and composed. That, he knew, would be the key. Without a doubt in the world, he was sure that his sons had not murdered anyone; they had been kidnapped, taken against their will but by whom and why still remained a mystery. There had been no ransom demand and without that, the police and law officials now bustling about his home would not believe Benís hypotheses.

            "I need to go into Carson," he told one man who seemed to be directing activities.

            The man, looking like the others with his close-cut hair and military bearing, nodded once, curtly. "We understand, Congressman. We will arrange for transportation and two officers will go with you. It might be better, though, if you called in and said you couldnít make it."

            "Any other time and I might, young man, but there are several important votes this week. Legislation that must be decided on and cannot be put off by personal concerns." Even as he spoke, Benís gut twisted, hating how his words sounded like he was putting his job before his sons. It wasnít the truth. Nothing could have been farther from it. Ben wanted to smile but kept his face impassive. All he had to do was get to his office and no search warrant that had been handed to him here at the Ponderosa was valid. He mentally crossed his fingers as he went upstairs to dress and shave for the day.

            The remote control in Hossí hand was slick with perspiration. Once more he ran the tape that Roy had brought. Again, he clicked frame by slow frame. Getting to the end of it, he hit the rewind and leaned back, closing his eyes. The answer was there, he knew it was but he just couldnít see and hadnít for the five hours he had watched it over and over again.

            "Mister Hoss want some coffee?" Hop Sing asked softly, afraid that he would wake the big man up. He had been up all night as well as the rest of the family. Heíd lost count of the number of pots of coffee he had brewed and served. The cookie jar, usually well stocked, was down to crumbs and he had pulled a pre-made pie from the freezer and shoved it into the oven. As he poured a mug of coffee for Hoss, he ran through mentally what he would need for breakfast: plenty of eggs, lots of toast.

            "Thanks, Hop Sing," muttered Hoss and pressed the start button for the hundredth time.

            "That video of Mister Adam?" the cook asked, his voice low as he stood watching the same scenes Hoss had.

            "Yeah. You see something odd, you sing out, you hear?"

            Together they watched the tape play twice. Then, his head bent sadly, Hop Sing excused himself, saying he had breakfast to make. With his braid swaying at his back, he went into his kitchen, excusing himself when he passed before one policeman who was supposed to be guarding the kitchen door. Hop Sing smiled wide for the man and let him think that he was as empty-headed as a Halloween jack-o-lantern. Once inside his domain, he snagged up the flour canister, its stainless steel jacket reflecting his own face back. For good measure, he growled at it then pulled the lid off, slamming it to the worktable as he did.

            Watching the small plume of flour dust rise into the still air, Hop Sing found himself thinking back over the film. He ran through its mental image and found the one inconsistency he knew Hoss needed.

            Rewind. Play. Rewind. Play. The images flashed by Hossí eyes again and again but suddenly Hop Sing was beside him, grabbing at the control.

            "There," Hop Sing shouted and it drew some of the lounging law officers to watch with them. "See? Light going round and round. Very steady. Light, light, light." As he spoke the word light, indeed, the strobe lights from the police car flashed on the rear window of the Jaguar.

            "So?" Hoss asked, confused.

            "Watch!" commanded Hop Sing, his head nodding in time to the flashing. Just as the video showed Adam turning and reaching beneath his coat, he shouted, "There!" 

            Several of the others looked at one another, wondering if the little man had lost a marble at some point. Hoss just looked into his almond eyes and gave him a bewildered look.

            Hop Sing rewound the tape and played that portion again. "Watch light."

            They did as he asked and this time, one of the cops saw it as well. He nudged the man next to him and called to another across the room. When the other man, Hoss remembered his name vaguely but his captain title clearly, joined them, Hop Sing again played the short segment. Hoss saw it too.

            Light, light, light. As steady a beat as a human heart, it came, reflecting off the sports car. Light, light, light. Then it was though the strobe hiccoughed and missed a full beat before it began again.

            "Captain," Hoss addressed the man still standing behind him but he didnít take his eyes from the tape.

            "I saw it. Jenkins, call the lab. Tell them to look at the tape again. Tell them what weíve seen. Ask them if thereís anyway that could be normal."

            "It ainít," another volunteered. "Spent time once when I was on desk duty going over mechanicís reports. Trust me, that strobe never missed a beat as long as it was turned on."

            "Or the tape was," Hop Sing added.

            "Itís a delicate situation, Mister Cartwright," the captain explained as he buttered his toast. There had been an impromptu meeting conjoined at the dining room table with Ben, Hoss, the captain and two other men that Ben couldnít recall their names or titles. "We have the Lab going over the tape but they havenít come back with anything yet. Weíre going to leave things as they stand -"

            "My sons are being sought as murderers, Captain; one of them for supposedly killing a Nevada State Patrolman. Are you going to try and convince me that he will be treated fairly should one of the state officers find him?" roared Ben, the silverware on the tabletop dancing when he struck the solid wood surface.

            "There has never been a legitimate and substantiated charge brought against the Nevada State Police force for brutalizing a prisoner," snapped one of the others.

            Ben glared down the length of his table at the speaker. "Who is to say that some poor sap, beaten by one of yours, didnít speak up because he figured it was a lost cause? That by doing so, he would only bring more grief on himself? And who is to say that my sons are still in the state of Nevada? By this time, they could be half the world away! What about it, Captain? Can you say the same thing about your fellow officers in Texas? Florida? After all, the plane my sons were supposedly on last night had a stop in Dallas. If they were missed there, there is a connecting flight from Miami Florida to Santa Nehia where the money was sent. You arenít speaking now, Captain. Why? Not so sure?"

            The captain, his brush-cut brown hair making his head seem overly large, set his coffee cup back down into its saucer before he spoke again. "The Dallas police said there was no one on the plane that answered to the manifest names. The seats were empty when the plane took off in Reno. Can you think of anywhere that your sons would have run to, Mister Cartwright?"

            No longer able to contain himself, Ben shot to his feet, his chair falling over behind him unnoticed. He slammed his napkin onto the table and proceeded to stalk to the end of the table and the man there.

            "My sons would not run from the law, Captain. They would run to it. They are out there and they need the help and protection from the law. Start dealing with them as the victims, or I will do everything in my power to do so myself."

            The captain stood, straightening his already broad straight shoulders. He seemed taller than his given six foot five inches and he easily towered over the older man before him. Having spent twenty years in the Marine Corps before joining the Nevada Bureau of Investigations, he thought he was long past being cowed by any human not wearing a uniform and a superior rank. This man, this congressman, rancher, builder, whatever he chose to call himself, didnít seem to ascribe to the same book though.

            "Donít try to intimidate me, sir," drawled the captain.

            "Iím not. I am just telling you a few truths, Captain. Now, I have to get to the State House."

 

            The State House grounds were pandemonium. Even as he parked his car in its reserved spot, television cameras and reporters mobbed it. It was only due to his police escort that Ben Cartwright was able to part the throng and escape into the cold hallways of the massive building. Running his hand back over his hair to straighten it, he thanked the two men. The microphones that had been thrust at him, their wieldersí questions lost in the hubbub, the police had pushed away, clearing the path for him and for that small concession, he was thankful.

            "Maybe you shouldnít be here today," one of them said, looking back to where the two normal door guards had been beefed up to four to control the entryway.

            "Today I am damned if I do and damned if I donít, gentlemen. I would be vilified in the press for not being a diligent congressman if I didnít appear to listen to the debates today. And because I show up, I am equally vilified as a poor parental role model. Which would you have me be?"

            The other men shrugged, not knowing how to answer. "Depends on what the debate concerns, would be my guess."

            "Capital punishment. The death penalty. The vote is day after tomorrow," Ben explained as he walked rapidly down the hallway to the elevators. Just as he got to them, the doors to the elevators opened and he stepped though them and punched the door-closed button, shutting his two companions out. It was the act of a petty man, he considered, but heíd had no time to himself, just to think, in what seemed like a century. For less than a minute, as the conveyance rose, he sagged against the wall, wanting to cry, to scream, to . . .

            The door whisked open and, standing there slightly red-faced and out of breath, were his two escorts.

            "Sir, you do that again and weíll take measures," the one said as Ben passed between them, aimed now for his office.

            With them in his wake, he sailed into his office. He shouted for one of his secretaries to get him some coffee and a Danish. His office manager, Mildred Baldwin, he shouted for her to bring her pencil and tablet into his inner office. Looking a little wild-eyed, the older woman grabbed a legal pad and dashed into the large room off to one side and closed the door abruptly.

            The two policemen were left standing at the door. They shrugged as they looked at each another then pulled two chairs and sat down, their legs across the entrance.

            Inside, Ben Cartwright was stripping off his heavy winter coat, gloves and hat, tossing them to a leather recliner. He was halfway through the motion of loosening his tie when Mildred slammed the door closed. He glanced up at her scowl and smiled, gesturing for her to have a seat in front of his large dark walnut desk. She did, flicking on the table lamp.

            "I heard the news, Ben," she opened with, watching him carefully as he sat down in the high-backed leather chair behind his desk. "Saw the video, too. Somethingís wrong there. I canít believe your boys would do anything like this!"

            Ben nodded and smiled again, this time with more feeling. Mildred was as close to him as he would allow any woman to be at this time in his life. She had been his first secretary back when he was a neophyte in the political maelstrom better known as Nevada politics. Time and again, she had proven herself to be loyal, efficient and, above all, she ran his office with an iron hand. She was also his closest confidante, knowing all of the difficulties of his raising three sons. Mildred, her husband dead since before she came to work for Ben, had no children of her own and secretly, listening to his problems, had decided she never wanted any. That hadnít stopped her from being an almost surrogate mother, particularly to Joseph. When calls came from teachers and principals concerning his behavior, it was Mildred who fielded them, defusing potentially exploding tempers before she passed them on the man she always referred to as ďBoss.Ē She had been the one who finally helped Ben understand that Adam needed to go back east to school rather than to a college or university closer. Her advice that he needed the distance to grow up had been so artfully presented that Ben couldnít recall where he had gotten the idea and assumed it was his own. When Hoss, and then Joe, had expressed a lack of desire to continue schooling past high school, she made Ben see the light once again. So, if any human not wearing the Cartwright name knew Adam and Joe, it was Mildred Baldwin.

            A tap on the door and Mildred brought Ben his coffee and Danish, setting them down on the desk blotter carefully. She went back and sat in her chair, ready to discuss whatever he wanted.

            "I pulled your email up already," she sighed then pointed to a disc balanced on his keyboard. "Lots of folks saw the news. Some of them are looking for an answer, an explanation."

            "You answer any of them for me?" It was her habit to do so and Ben didnít care about her doing it as long as her answers were, sadly, politically correct, and guaranteed not to stand outside of where he actually stood. In the four years since they had implemented both the computer with the email function and the system, she had yet to fail him.

            "'Course. You got other things to do besides write notes! Gave all of them the standard line about letting the police handle things, how devastated you are about it, condolences to the families of the victims. Howís that?"

            Benís lips flattened even as he chewed. He swallowed then grudgingly admitted that she had probably made him out to be a bigger saint than what he was.

            "There was a couple I think you should look at." Heeding her nod, he started his computer there at his side and waited with her in silence as the machine hummed to life then gave it the disc. He booted up the program and looked at the listing it gave him from the disc. "Look at that one with the big file."

            He opened it and found himself looking into the eyes of his youngest son as Joseph made an extremely rude gesture with a single extended digit to the camera. Behind this son in the picture, he saw Adam seated on a narrow appearing shelf, hunched over. Forcing himself to look away from Joe, Ben studied the rest of the picture: white walls, another shelf that he realized was a bed by the rumpled blanket on it, a sink and the barest glimpse of a toilet. All of it white . . . institutional white. Ben scrolled down the image and found a caption at the bottom of the screen: Your sons arenít going to like prison much. How will you vote come Friday?

            His heart stopped and he couldnít breathe. Eyes blinking rapidly, he tried to speak but found he couldnít. Here, he thought, was the proof he needed that his sons had been kidnapped.

            "I left it on the server, Boss. You want me to call the cops so they can see it?" Mildred asked, her voice so soft that he almost couldnít hear her words.

            "Yes," he finally rasped out. "The police. No! Call Roy Coffee. Have him come over. I donít want the press getting hold of this."

            "Why not?" He was aware that she was now standing beside him, a finger paused over the computerís delete key. "Would make you look a lot better if the press knew your sons had been taken. That they werenít murderers."

            Ben brushed Mildredís hand away and covered the keys with his own, the fingers spread wide, protecting and shielding them.

            "No, I want the vote to go forward on the revision of the death penalty. If the press got wind of this, there would be a big hoopla and the vote might not be taken. We need to get Nevada in line with other states. Thatís what this bill is all about. Whoever these people are, they donít understand that my vote is only in case of a tie. The others, the ones who will be voting on Friday, they could be swayed by this, one way or another."

            She shook her head and picked up the phone, hitting a single digit for an outside number then, flipping open a small rolodex on the desk, dialed the number for Roy Coffee. She spoke briefly then hung up the phone, telling Ben that Roy would be here in about fifteen minutes.

            "Anything else?" she queried but didnít expect an answer as he was staring intently at the image on the monitor.

 

            Roy studied the picture carefully. He had taken the computer disc from Ben and summoned one of the lab technicians he knew well. He reassured his old friend that the ďlab rat,Ē as he called him, would keep his mouth closed where the press was concerned. Once the source of the email was clearly figured out, Roy would turn it over to the FBI, as they alone would then have jurisdiction over a kidnapping.

            The little pointed face man Roy had called the lab rat sat in Benís chair, prodding information from the computer. He made notes in a small notebook he carried and kept humming something tuneless to himself as he worked. Several times, he stopped and made a face at the monitor then returned to pressing keys and humming. After a good half an hour, he grinned triumphantly and called the sheriff over.

            "Look," he said and pointed at the picture. "This gentleman has no shoes on. See here at the very bottom of the image? That is his heel. No shoe. No stocking. This other gentleman," he zoomed in on Adam as he spoke, "has been hit. See how the back of his head looks flat? Thatís not because of a blow but from his pressing his hand there, and, see, just above his collar? The fabric there is slightly off-tone. Wish this was color but it isnít. And his wrist -  theyíve taken his wristwatch, havenít they, sir?"

            Ben studied Adamís left arm, what he could see of it. Yes, there just at the edge of his shirt cuff, the skin was lighter and had the same pattern as the wrist.  He always wore his watch.

            "What can you tell us about the room?" Roy asked.

            The lab rat shook his head sadly. "Nothing. Plain walls, light in color. But the plumbing fixtures say that it is residential, not an institution like a prison, say. See?" Again he zoomed into the digital image, this time showing some wording on the barely visible toilet bowl. "American General is what it says, Iím sure. They only make fixtures for homes. As for location, that I can help you out with, Sheriff Coffee." He pointed a blunt finger to the soda can Joe was holding. "That soda is only sold in the northwest part of the United States. Grocery store chain brand."

            "What about where the email came from? Can you trace that?" Ben asked, suddenly excited.

            "The reply to addy is The Citizens for the Repeal of Capital Punishment. But it could have come from anywhere, Mister Cartwright. When the sheriff here told us about it earlier, I contacted my source in Atlanta, Georgia. He works forensics there. He did a little nosing around. Seems this group of nitwits has an open site on the Net. Lots of chat back and forth on their emailing list but mostly itís activists going to rallies, mailings to congressmen on both the state and federal level, that sort of thing. Nothing this radical, I can assure you."

            "But then . . . ?" Ben floundered to a stop, lost and seeking understanding that he wasnít sure the other man could give him.

            "Mister Cartwright, if I had your password, I could hack into the Nevada Legislature site and send out a bunch of emails calling Roy Coffee here some sort of freak. Could cause all sorts of trouble for both you and him! And thatís the sort of thing we are looking at here, I bet."

            "You mean someone with a personal grudge against Ben?" Roy asked.

            The lab man shook his head. "Nope. Iíd bet itís the Anti-death penalty folks who have a problem. And whoever it is that donít like them, are hoping for this mess to make enough trouble that the Feds will shut down The Citizens. Iím sorry, Sheriff, Mister Cartwright, but I think your boys, and you, are being used as a stalking horse."

            With a promise that he would continue looking for clues, the lab man left. Mildred, once he was gone, stepped over the crossed legs of the guards at the door and reminded Ben that the legislative session was due to begin in ten minutes. He thanked her then turned back to Roy.

            "What now?" Ben asked cautiously, afraid that somehow his office was tapped and even as he spoke, information was flying out faster than he could think.

            "Iíll get in touch with the FBI. Have these fellas out there gone before you can blink."

            "Wait." Ben touched the lawmanís arm tentatively. "There was something that little fella said. About Adam and Joe being a stalking horse, a decoy, a disguise to bring down those people in Atlanta. What if it looked like Nevada was going to do away completely with the death penalty? It would boost them, right? But what if it looked like just the opposite was going to happen? Then whoever is in control of that stalking horse loses the need for it, right?"

            Roy nodded thoughtfully. "What way is the vote liable to go, Ben? Youíre in a better position to know that than anyone else, Iím bettiní."

            "Too close to call right now but I think I know a way to solve that. See you later, Roy. Make your call to the FBI but leave the state boys alone, okay?"

            As he walked onto the Assembly floor, Ben could feel eyes on him, probing, prodding. His two flankers were held at the door and not allowed entrance, a fact that made Ben smile to himself. The delegates there in the room were standing together in knots of four to five men. Their voices were muted as they spoke but, every once in a while, one would rise. Ben scanned the room, finally coming to rest on a tall, suntanned man dressed like many of the others present, in what is usually called ďgoiní to townĒ Western: high heeled cowboy boots, suit with a definitive yoke cut into it and a bolero string tie in place of a standard business silk one. The man was Amos Stempler. Presently he was head of a series of less important committees and also the minority leader, mirroring Benís majority leader status.

            "Amos!" Ben called out and got the manís attention as well as several others. He waved only Stempler over. "Need to talk to you a minute."

            In the back of the room, the two men talked privately, Amos nodding occasionally. In typical Nevada political fashion, it was apparent that a deal was struck when hands were shook and backs slapped.

            "Only because you are a man among men, Ben Cartwright. I trust your word over that of my second wife. Itís a deal . . . until Fridayís vote that is." Amos walked away, his smile and handshake headed towards another man of his party.

            By Wednesday afternoon, just in time to catch the six oíclock news, word leaked out to the press. The majority vote in the Nevada Assembly was going to uphold the death penalty as it was currently written. Ben Cartwright, majority leader of the Assembly, went home, saying nothing to the press who hounded him from the door of the State House to the front door of the Ponderosa. He apologized to Hop Sing for not wanting anything for supper and retired early.

            He knew the maneuver for what it was: the biggest gamble he had made in his entire political life and the stakes were the lives of his sons.

 

 

Day: unknown

Time: unknown

 

            "Letís see," Adam turned over his words carefully, his long fingers flicking out with each one. "Vegetable, round, not light in color, little weight, nearly everyone has it, in this room . . . how many more questions do I have?"

            "Four," replied his brother from where he was stretched out on the adjacent cot, his arms folded beneath his head.

            "I had five!"

            "But you asked how many more questions you had and that counts off of your twenty."

            "Gonna play that way, huh?"

            "Three."

            Adam went back to thinking. Playing twenty questions with Joe was, most of the time, an exercise in the stupid range. Sure he would have flashes of brilliance but, well, Adam had long ago conceded that while his brother was smart, or smart enough, they just ran on two completely different levels. To win, sometimes Adam felt he had to go to Joeís level. There were times, like once that he recalled playing Battleship with his brother that Joe proved himself to be a cunning gamester. That time, when he should have placed his battleships on his hidden ocean to be sunk by Adamís bingo-styled calling of coordinates, he hadnít. It had left him searching all over the small screen for a ďhitĒ while Joe had blithely found, hit and sunk all of Adamís boats. When the last of the older brotherís boats had gone to their theoretical demise, Adam had grabbed Joeís board and turned it around. There were no boats on it and Joe, cackling with delight, had simply explained that his navy had stayed in port.

             Now, with three of his original twenty questions left, Adam wondered if Joe had sent his boats out at all. Even as he pondered the puzzle, he did just what he always did to win against Joe: went to his level. His brother was always a right here and now personality so Adam shifted gears. What did one of them have that the other didnít?

            "Do you find it on the walls?" A decoy question since he was sure to be running out of time.

            Joe snorted, wiggled his shoulders into the unyielding mattress and gave a negative. "Two more," he cautioned, smiling as he felt the score slip in his direction.

            "Do you come in pairs?"

            The smile disappeared from Joeís face as he said "yes."

            "Are you shoestrings?"

            When Joeís pillow smacked the wall above Adamís cot, he knew he had won.

            "That makes the score even at six all. Wonder if we have time for a deciding match before dinner?"

            Joe snorted once more and rolled to sit up on the side of his bed. "Havenít you noticed that they never come in while weíre awake?"

            His brother had a point, Adam knew, but even as he considered it, something hovered in the back of his mind. Now that they were quiet, it seemed almost too quiet to Adam. He closed his eyes and let his senses reach out, searching. After a moment, and finding nothing, he opened his eyes back up.

            "We need to make a plan. We just canít sit here." Adam also sat up and put his feet on the floor.

            "We studied the door, remember? No hinges on our side to take apart. No doorknob even to jimmie. At least now I donít have the feeling that someone is watching us all the time." Joeís foot toyed with the camera and its associated wiring, now ripped from the corner and laying on the floor. "Maybe thatís it. Weíre being punished for breaking their toy. They canít get their jollies watching us anymore."

            Adam chuckled shortly. "Guess we werenít entertaining enough. But look at it this way, Joe. It could have been worse."

            "How?" The single word ripped through the air.

            "They could have put us in a cell with no water, no toilets, no cots and no light."

            The words were no more than out of Adamís mouth than the bright overhead light flicked off. The darkness was complete. So was the silence that followed. That was when it hit Adam what he had been missing. When he had first come to and was leaning against the wall, he had heard a hum very, very faintly. Thinking back on it he would have likened it to the sound a computer makes but as though he was hearing it from another room. And the noise had stopped.

            "Shit," was Joeís only comment.

            "Shh! Listen."

            When Adam reached five hundred in his mental count, he could feel his skin begin to crawl. He knew that across from him, Joe was straining to hear just as he was but the only sound that came to either of them was their own breathing.

            "Letís try the door," whispered Adam and heard Joe move in the blackness. He followed the sound his brotherís bare feet made on the floor.

            The door opened easily inward and impulsively, Joe went to leave. Adamís hand on his arm stopped him. His heart leapt into his throat.

            "Wait," cautioned Adam again, "and listen."

            "Nothing. I hear nothing. Course then I donít see a whole lot either." Both were silent for a few heartbeats then Joe spoke up. "If we canít see or hear anything, odds are that anyone else out there canít either. I donít know about you, big brother, but I want out of here. You cominí?"

            In the dark, Adam reached out and grabbed where the sound of Joeís words had last been. "Iím coming but first we need what we can carry from the room."

            "Okay, you hold the door. What? Blankets? Anything else?"

            Adam thought for a moment. "My jacket. It was laying at the foot of my bed."

            As he leaned against the cool surface of the door, Adam listened to his brother moving in the lightlessness. He recognized the slap of his feet and knew that before they went far, they would have to find some shoes. Shivering with an errant breeze, he added a coat to the list he was gathering in his head. Then he heard the unmistakable sound of water hitting water. And it came from the room.

            "Joe? What are you doiní?"

            From the far corner, Adam heard "For the first time I could take a leak and not feel somebody watching me. Ahh-" The toilet flushed and before Adam could make it all register, he felt Joe beside him, pressing his coat into his hands.

            Down the pitch-black hallway they went. By unspoken agreement, each took a wall and followed it, using one set of their outstretched hands to guide them while the opposite set touched his brotherís shoulder, allowing them to keep track of each other. Again, silence blanketed them, making their strained breathing loud in their ears. Only one door was found and refused to open despite their combined force against it.

            Then, without warning, Adamís hand dropped from his brotherís shoulder and Joe whirled, half crouching, his breath held, eyes straining. He could hear the faint

sounds that seemed to put Adam on the floor but there had been no warning of an attack and no continued sound.

            "Connecting hall. Come on." Adamís voice rose, as did the faint rustling of cloth. "Donít lean on the walls," he warned. He took a few more steps then stopped.

            "You okay?" Joe prayed, hoping that Adam hadnít broken anything in his sudden meeting with the floor.

            "Yeah, but is it just me or is it getting colder?"

            "You askiní me? My feet have been cold for as long as I have been here. Never thought I would long for a pair of hunting socks so bad in all my life. I wouldnít even care if the batteries were dead; I just want something on my feet."

            "Joe," Adamís tone held a gentle reproof. "I donít need you whining right now. Just tell me -"

            "Yes, dammit, it feels colder. There seems to be a faint breeze down about ankle level. Is that whining too much?" Joe snapped. To his surprise, Adam chuckled then urged him to continue.

            Without a way to measure time, neither Cartwright was able to tell how long they followed the errant breeze that kept Joeís feet cold. At last they came to a door that, when opened, gave into a cavernous expanse. Together now in the dark, they edged along one wall, running into things that just by their feel, the men recognized.

            "Weíre in some sort of garage, Adam. A workbench. Smell the air. Little gasoline."

            "No," Adam corrected, sniffing the air. "More like diesel fuel or kerosene."

            In the dark, Joe snorted and continued on. Finally, the wall with its workbench ended and a perpendicular wall met it. Joe was the first to feel the chain, running up and down and excitedly told Adam that he had found the door lift. They joined muscle but the door refused to rise. They reversed their direction of pull but the chain refused to budge.

            "Wait a minute. Let me," Adamís voice went to floor level and he grunted mightily, something rattling along the length of the chain. "Pull now," he commanded then, "Other way."

            From next to their toes, a faint sliver of light appeared. Adam stood quickly and helped Joe, hand over hand on the chain. The errant thought crossed his mind that he wished Hoss was with them because of his strength but even as it did, he chastised himself silently. Joe had muscle enough, he supposed, since the door had started to rise on his strength alone.

            They didnít raise the door to its full height. When it got up high enough to bend over and get under, they stopped and there was enough light filtering through that Adam easily found the hook and jammed a link of chain onto it to hold the door. He followed Joe, almost knocking him down.

            The two brothers stood, the faint light of a dying moon showing them where they were.

            Stretching out from the door, a broad apron of hard packed ground reached for towering mountains. The mountains, peak upon white snow-covered peak, unfolded before their eyes, north, south, east and west. Even as they searched for them, they knew there would be no streetlights, no house lights, no sign of civilization. Only the dark forbidding cold of a high mountain winter night.

            "Oh shit," whispered Joe, in total awe of what he saw.

            "For once, I gotta agree with you, brother. Oh shit!"

class=Section2>

 

 

Thursday Morning

8 A.M.

 

            It had snowed in the night. As he stood looking out his bedroom window, Ben let his thoughts wander, seeking solace in a sight that usually gave him satisfaction. With the help of his sons, he had built a good life here . . . for them and for himself. The work was hard but fulfilling, leaving a body tired at the end of the day. He often thought that the buildings he helped to create and the laws he sponsored had made this land into a paradise but on mornings like this, with two of his sons missing, he looked for the demon-snake in paradise. Even as he watched the wind whip clumps of snow off the upper reaches of the sheltering pines, he made a list of people who may have a grudge against him for there was no more sure-fire path to a manís existence than through his children. There were political foes, of course, but as he had spoken yesterday to Amos Stempler, his most vehement enemy, he knew that this man was not involved. Nor would he tolerate any such shenanigans for they could be used against him should the press find out. No, the more Ben thought the more he knew the little lab rat man was right: the ultimate aim was not his sons, nor himself, but something bigger.

            "Pawns," he muttered. "My sons and I are but pawns in a bigger chess game. How can I take us out of the game without throwing it completely? The state needs this legislation - badly.  It needs it one way or another. It has to be either fixed or replaced entirely. And I have no say in the matter unless there is a deadlock vote. Yes, I can talk to my colleagues and do so until I am blue in the face, but what do I tell them? Strengthen the law? I do that and I should pray that the police realize their tape was doctored and Adam didnít shoot Officer Taylor. A son on Death Row . . . what if it was one of mine on Death Row, innocent of the crime that put him there? I would want every appeal I could get from the legal system, yes! But if it was a man there because it was one of mine he killed, I would want swift justice, too." He hung his head, chastised by his knowledge of what he was capable of as an aggrieved parent.

            "Brutal murder . . . and I would be guilty. Brutal murder. But isnít every murder brutal? Thatís what they have debated, isnít it? Where do we draw the line? What deserves to be punishable by death and what puts a man in prison for the rest of his life?" He swallowed hard and looked again out into the white fields surrounding his home. "Would they call Mandyís death brutal? Yes, of course they would or at least I would. Lord help me, but I know Joseph is not her killer but how can that be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that a jury would need? I doubt that it could. That would put him on Death Row, right along side Adam. NO! I canít think this way! I have to believe in the system of justice we have!" His fists pounded the window ledge.

            Outside, another cascade of snow fell from a pine branch.

            Downstairs, the main room and the dining room were quiet. A single man sat at the desk, reading a magazine. Surrounding him and filling the desktop to overflowing, were electronics, wires, a set of headphones and a two-way radio. Ben scowled at the man when he looked up from his magazine but he was sure it had no effect whatever for the reader went back to his reading.

            Hoss sat in his accustomed place at the table, his plate already full. When his father greeted him, he nodded mutely and continued eating.

            "It snowed some last night, so I guess I need to take a look at the stock this morning."

            Ben snapped a napkin open and laid it across his lap. Meals around this table were usually noisy affairs with talk and laughter overlapping the white linen cloth like two colonies of ants at a picnic, each vying with the other. Discussions and decisions made here followed the men, changed plans, gave voice to dreams, echoed happenings. To have the silence was unnatural and both men there longed to change that fact.

            Hoss put his fork aside. "I canít go on sittiní here and doiní nothing. Iffen they were kidnapped, we would have heard by now. There would have been a ransom demand, wouldnít there?"

            Again, the emailed image of his sons, held in that room, came to Ben. He had told Hoss about it late the night before when the big man had gone to bed and Ben had slipped into his room to speak with him without the prying ears of the police. The remembered image suddenly spoke in its own voice to Ben and he laughed at what it had said. Until that moment, he had let the written caption overcome him, guide his thoughts, his actions. Now a new set took control.

            "Remember what we spoke about last night?" asked Ben, his hand holding Hossí arm to the table until the other man nodded, understanding the need for a confederacy of illusion. "Remember what they were doing?"

            Hoss scrunched his face, trying to follow his fatherís hazy images. Of course he remembered: Joe doing what would get him in trouble, no doubt, and Adam off to the side, his head bowed.

            "Think of it this way: get Joe mad and what happens?"

            Hoss thought a moment then smiled and nodded. When Joe got mad, the odds were pretty good that he wasnít going to sit still for one moment longer. While he might be the slightest built of the bunch, he certainly had a mean punch and could wrestle with the best of them. Not only that, Joe wasnít above a dirty trick or two. Hoss recalled the lifted finger his father had told him about. Yep, there were no two ways about it: Joe was ticked off.

            "And Adam? Remember?" Ben pushed, his smile inexplicably growing wider.

            "He was thinkiní, wasnít he?"

            Ben nodded. "Put that anger and that brain together Ė"

            "Somebody has their hands full, donít they?"

            The magazine reader looked up at the laughter coming from the dining room.

 

 

Thursday morning

10 A.M.

 

            As he closed the truck door, he felt awkward, out of place but he put a scowl on his face and settled his jacket across his shoulders once more. The twin glass doors bearing the gold lettering of Cartwright and Sons Construction stood beckoning and Hoss would answer their call. Actually, it had been Rosalie, Adamís secretary that had called. She had been apologetic but said that one of them was needed there today. Hoss, knowing his father would be tied up all day at the State House told her he would come down.

             Remembering her smile and pleasant greetings of the past, Hoss shaved extra close, put on some aftershave, combed his hair, knocked the dirt off his boots and went to the office.

            As he went through the corridors, people nodded to him. He nodded back. Most of them he didnít know since he ran the other half of the family business: the ranch with its four-footed laborers and wooden assets that were still standing where they had for four hundred years or so. He was more comfortable there with his cows and horses. A few hands, mostly young men, helped him year round, putting up hay, feeding and managing the white-faced Herefords. Hoss worked beside them, sweating in summer, freezing in winter.

            He stepped cautiously into the elevator and punched the button for the third and top floor. It obediently closed its doors and rose steadily. When the door opened again, he was almost face to face with Rosalie.

            "Hi," he greeted and felt much like an ox: big, clumsy and stupid.

            "Hi, Mister Hoss," Rosalie likewise greeted and smiled for him. "Come on, Iíll open Mister Adamís door." She whisked to the door slightly to one side and behind her desk and punched in a series of numbers on the pad above the handle then pushed the handle down. The door stayed resolutely closed.

            Rosalie turned back and impishly grinned for Hoss. "Guess I put in the wrong numbers. Wait a minute." She repeated the inputting of the code but the door still wouldnít budge. "I know that this looks bad. Silly secretary canít even open the door but weíve had problems with the security system ever since that last big snow. Think it shorted something out but then what do I know? Iím only the bossí secretary." After a third try, she went to her desk and picked up the phone. She had a short, curt discussion then hung up. "The guy will be up here in a minute. Can I get you some coffee? Maybe a pastry?"

            Hoss wouldnít have told her for the world but, with the color bright in her cheeks, she sure was cute. He felt a heat surface in his own face and to hide the fact, told her he would like some coffee and a doughnut but she had to have some with him. She smiled and nearly skipped down the hall towards the break room. Hoss wondered if dating her would be breaking company policy since it was only a technicality that made him part of the construction business. Heíd ask Adam.

            "Hey Weasel! I didnít know you worked for Adam!" Hoss greeted the man who exited the elevator with a small toolbox in hand. "By golly, last time I saw you was when we graduated from high school. What you been up to?"

            The man Hoss had called Weasel had another name but for so many years he had been known by the animal epithet that most folks in the Washoe Valley area thought it was his real name. He had always looked a bit like a weasel and still did that morning: small darting features and hands, eyes that were enlarged by the thick lens of his glasses which he had the habit of continually pushing up to the bridge of his nose. His face was rather sallow and heavily pockmarked, his teeth small and wide spaced in his mouth.

            "Went to technical school after high school," he said, putting his toolbox down by the offending door. "Got a degree in electronics. Your brother hired my security firm last year."

            "You got your own business? Really?" Hoss moved closer and out of habit, Weasel took a step away from the big man.

            "Yeah," Weasel whined as he always had. "Ainít much but it keeps the wolves from the door. Know what I mean?" He laughed shakily then turned his attention back to the door. He punched a series of numbers and tried the handle. The door swung open silently. "Tell Rosalie that she needs to hit the keys slower."

            Hossí head bobbed as he thanked the man who already was edging for the elevator nervously. He suggested that they get together soon and have a few beers but then had to be reminded that Weasel didnít drink. He reiterated the suggestion and got a weak smile from the other as the elevator doors opened and he disappeared. Hoss wasnít sure but what the little man didnít look relieved. Thinking nothing of it, Hoss went on into Adamís office. Weasel always had been a nervous sort of fellow.

            The floor to ceiling glass wall on one side of the office looked to the north and east. With the morning sunlight streaming in, Hoss didnít even think to hit the light switch. The thick carpeting, a dark muted gray color, swallowed all sound but seemed the perfect foil for the sunlight. Hoss always felt out of place coming into this office, even when he had been active in the construction field. That was the difference, he always thought, he worked in the field, doing the actual building, using a hammer and nails instead of pencils and computers. Here, in this big office, building projects were planned. Even as he thought those thoughts again, he turned to the drafting table that lined one wall. Spread over them were blue prints. Below them, there were cubbyholes full of rolls of paper - jobs done, buildings finished. Balanced carefully on the edges of the slants were pencils, pens, a few rubber bands and, oddly enough, a screwdriver.

            "Guess big brother just canít manage without a few real tools around him," Hoss said softly to himself and chuckled at the words. He wondered when the last time his brother had used a screwdriver for its intended purposes, figuring he had used this one to pry the big staples out of a set of plans. He picked it up. It wasnít a blade like he had imagined but a phillipís head, the plus mark its crossing fins made clear since it was well used.

            "Hereís your coffee and I brought us a little box full of doughnuts. You like the filled ones? I do." Rosalieís voice, although tentative, still seemed loud to Hoss. She was putting the repast down on the massive desk.

            "Okay, you said there was stuff that needed taking care of," Hoss held up the screwdriver, "Where they at?"

            Rosalie laughed and Hoss remembered once again that there were benefits to working in an office.

            For the next two hours, Hoss read over papers she handed him and signed the ones he needed to. He told her that if it needed to be taken care of in the next two weeks to bring it on and she had obliged him. Only once was there any sort of personal reaction from her and that when she handed Hoss the notification of benefits to be paid to Mandyís mother. His eyes misted over as he remembered little Mandy, so bright and energetic that it made some folks tired just listening to her talk.

            "Iím sorry, Mister Hoss. Mandy and I didnít get a long real good but she was important here. She made people smile. I kind of envied her, you know? She was cute and . . . vivacious, I guess would be the word for her. She didnít deserve to die like she did. Was it true? Was she pregnant? Is that why she was killed?" At that, Rosalie sat down heavily in the chair beside the desk.

            Hoss could see the glistening tears come to Rosalieís eyes. He patted her hand, resting trembling on the corner of the dark mahogany. "We donít know why she died, Rosalie. All I know for sure is that Joe wasnít part of it."

            "I know that. Just like I know that Mister Adam didnít kill Jimmy Redhawk Taylor. It isnít in you folks." She sniffed then hung her head, ashamed of her emotion before this man who, in theory, was also her boss.

            "Thanks for the vote of confidence. We Ďpreciate it. Tell me somethiní. Mandy, I knew. Shoot! Joe had her over to the house enough Iíd about decided that if he didnít marry her I was gonna!" He forced himself to laugh if only to keep her from crying any more. "But I didnít know Taylor. I know that he and Adam went to school together. You know anythiní Ďbout him?"

            "A little. My older sister is married to his wifeís brother. Lisa, my sister, said he was a nice fella, most of the time that she met up with him."

            "Most of the time?"

            Rosalie nodded, her fingers pulling from under Hossí hand. "She said that last summer, they had a big family reunion. Said Jimmy lost his temper and really walloped the tar out of one of the kids for something. Lisa said that was the first time sheíd ever heard of him acting like that."

            "There were others?"

            Again, a little nod and a sniff. "At the Taylor family Christmas party, Lisa said Jimmy was acting strange. Said heíd put on a lot of weight and one of his nephews was calling him Redwhale. He didnít like it and smacked the kid. When some of the adults got on him, he cursed them out, grabbed his wife and kids and stormed out. That cursing, she said, that wasnít at all like Jimmy."

            "You know Jimmyís wife?" Hoss asked, a niggling thought coming to his mind that wouldnít completely form into knowledge.

            "Yeah, some. They just moved off the Reservation."

             Hoss nodded knowing that many of the local Indians, once they had made it in the outside world, moved off the barren Northern Paiute Reservation up around Pyramid Lake. It seemed to be a mark of success among them to have a house, maybe even a little piece of ground, somewhere else.

            Hoss gestured to the silent computer sitting on his brotherís desk. "You know how to use this thing? Can you find out where he moved to? Iíd like -," he hesitated, not wanting to lie but needing to anyway. "Iíd like to swing by and give her and the family my condolences in person."

            Rosalie brightened considerably and showed Hoss just how to go about getting the information he wanted. He hated to admit it, heíd said jokingly, but he and computers just didnít do well together. That, he scowled inwardly, was a bigger lie. What he really wanted was to be close to Rosalie for a few more minutes.

           

            He swung his pickup truck down the empty stretch of highway. The wind had picked up and was blowing a skiff of snow over the asphalt. Hoss paid it no attention, just hunching a little deeper into his coat to ward off the effects. Squinting into the western sun, he scanned the side of the road as he drove. Finally, after ten miles from the last intersection, he saw what he was after.

            The house sat on a low rise. Reaching from the rise down to the highway on either side of the paved driveway, there were two pastures, each surrounded by a white painted plank fence. The house itself was a modest two-story affair with a garage underneath. Hoss didnít drive up the lane but pulled over to the side of the road. From his glove box, he pulled a set of binoculars and studied the front of the house. The only thing that struck him was the fact that inside the garage he could make out a parked Lexus beside a new SUV.

            "Lotta money there," he grumbled. He ran the binoculars over the house once again and saw nothing remarkable yet that little niggling thought heíd first felt in Adamís office came back, scratching on the door of his conscience.

            Seeing a car coming from the opposite direction, Hoss laid his binoculars aside and pulled back onto the road. He was glad he had since coming towards him was a Nevada State Patrol vehicle. It sidled across his path and Hoss pulled to a stop. There was no time to put away the binoculars. He rolled down his window as the patrolman got out of his car and advanced toward him.

            "Should have known it would be one of you," the officer spat, his lip rising in a sneer.

            "You mean to tell me that I ainít got the right to drive down the road no more?" Hoss asked, putting on his most confused expression.

            "I saw you! Pulled up across from Sergeant Taylorís place."

            "All I was doiní was admiriní the horses they got. Thatís all. Didnít know it was a crime. ĎSides, Iíd heard a while back that he was interested in selliní some of his ridiní stock. Seemed he needed some cash Ďcause he was buildiní that place." Hoss wondered if the policeman could hear how fast his heart was beating.

            "The Sarge? Selliní his horses? Youíre lyiní. He was buyiní, not selliní."

            Like pieces of a jigsaw spread across a tabletop, Hoss saw the information before him. All he had to do was . . .

            "...So get out of here!" the officer was saying when Hoss went back to listening. The big Cartwright smiled like he hadnít a brain cell between his ears, touched his finger to his hat brim and rolled up the window. When the patrolman moved his car, Hoss pulled off.

            A mile down the road, Hoss pulled out his cell phone and called Rosalie. He asked her if Taylorís wife worked any place.

            The pieces were beginning to come together. As he returned to Adamís office, the joining rate increased. He breezed confidently into the now shadowed interior and called Rosalie in to join him. While she came quickly, Hoss was dialing the phone faster.

            "Get me some more coffee, would you? And you got something to eat?" he ordered crisply but politely. She jumped and scurried off.

            When she returned, Hoss was on the phone talking with the sheriff. She set the cheese sandwich down and would have left but Hoss motioned her to stay.

            "Roy, Iím telliní ya, what I saw out there was too much money for a State-boy. Yes, I know he was a sergeant and that he had eighteen years in, but the horses in those pastures alone would run him a yearís salary. His wife didnít work and he had three kids. Most men I know in his position would be driviní four-year-old Chevies and liviní from paycheck to paycheck. All I am asking is that you check into it." He picked up the sandwich, looked at it and frowned angrily. "And remember what I said about him changiní too. All right, yeah, Iíll be here in Adamís office for a while longer."

            He sat back in the chair and closed his eyes for a long moment. There were little rustling sounds that told him Rosalie was moving about. He asked her to stay put as he had something he wanted her to do. He heard her sit back down, the chair creaking as she did.

            "They said that a million dollars had been taken out of the business account and sent to some offshore account. How would Adam have done that?" he asked, still resting his body.

            "Well, first of all, I know Adam didnít move that money," Rosalie responded and Hoss heard the heat in her words.

            "How come youíre so sure?"

            She put her elbows on the desk and glared at him until he opened his eyes and looked at her. "I have worked for Cartwright and Sons Construction for the better part of eight years. Iíve been your brotherís secretary for five of those years. I see things and I hear things and I know things that no one else outside that door does. Most of all, I donít gossip and I donít repeat what I hear or see."

            "Rosalie," he softened his voice and let himself fall forward in the chair until he, too, had his elbows on the desktop. "This is my brothers weíre talkiní about. I donít care nothiní about nobody else, ya hear? I donít care about upcominí work or mistakes that might have gotten shoved under the carpet. I am talkiní about here and now and two men that I care more about than anythiní else in the world."

 

            She raised one side of her mouth then pursed her lips together. "I know he didnít because there wasnít that much money in any of the accounts. Put them all together and there wasnít a million dollars to be had. Thereís a whole string of stocks and bonds and CDs where extra money goes but none of those was touched, right? Least ways, nobody has even mentioned them and there arenít that many folks who know about them."

            His nose wrinkled. "You mean that the bank president lied?"

            "No," she sighed back then continued. "Someone with a lot of computer savvy at the bank doctored the files."

            "Rosalie, I donít understand a word of what youíre sayiní."

            "Iím saying that, first of all, for Adam to have taken a million dollars, there would have needed to be that much in liquid assets available for him. There wasnít. For the bank president to say that he did, someone must have told him. If Silverstein pulled the information off his computer, which I am betting he did, someone monkeyed with the bankís computers."

            "What makes you so sure of this?"

            She smiled. "One of the things I do every Thursday morning is pull up our accounting files and make sure that there is enough in Payroll to cover Fridayís checks. I then go into our bank accounts and make sure the figures match."

            "So you know Adamís passwords and such?"

            "Thatís just it, Hoss. There are no secret passwords. All you have to do is hit the Control key twice and then hit the Enter key. Iím telling you, Hoss, that every cent of Cartwright and Sons Construction money is where it has always been - in the bank. All of it."

           

 

Day: unknown

Time: Morning

 

            At dawnís first light, Adam reconnoitered outside. Their prison was actually a Quonset hut shoved halfway into a mountain. The front third of the round topped building stuck out onto the tarmac apron carved from the same mountain. The apron was half a circle, petering down to nothing on the edges as fell away into a deep chasm. Joe had been right when he had jokingly said it might be where the opening of a James Bond movie had been filmed for it did resemble that scene. There were no roads, no paths that he could see and he wondered where their captors were that morning. He returned to where he had left Joe and found him gone.

            Panicked, he began to shout. Where in the world could a man, without shoes, go in this snow-covered . . .

            "Back here!"

            Adamís heart left his throat and he sagged, holding onto the tool-littered workbench. He followed the sound of his brother and considered pounding him good for scaring him.

            The morning light filtered into the back of the open space and glinted dully off the single prop of a small plane. In the cockpit sat Joe, a wild grin splitting his face.

            "Lookee what I found, big brother! Our way home!"

            Adam gestured to the canvas tarp covering the front of the plane from windshield to propeller. "Letís see what weíve got before you go heading for home in this contraption. After all, there had to be a reason for them to leave this behind . . . like it not working?"

            "Why did they leave, you suppose?" Joe asked, losing his grin as he slipped from the door of the plane.

            "They were finished with us. Uh-oh, look, some sort of wiring problem," Adam, having pulled the tarp away and raised the engine cowling, saw a jumble of wires pulled from the engine, hanging down.

            "Can you fix it?" asked Joe, coming to stand at his shoulder and fingering the wires hopefully.

            "Well, weíve got nothing but time since we canít walk out of here. Tell you what. Let me see what I can do. You find us some supplies. You might start with a pair of shoes for you, some food. Just be careful. Our captors might have booby-trapped the place."

 

            In the short space of an hour, the two brothers went from bounding joy to the depths of depression then back again. In his foray into the bowels of the structure, Joe had pulled an amazing assortment of items: a flashlight with weak batteries, a loaf of bread and an opened package of cheese slices, three cans of soda and two more blankets. He had also discovered the source of the noise Adam had sworn heíd heard. It turned out to be a generator, now empty of fuel and sitting silent. In the back of the planeís parking space, he had located three lockers, one empty but the other two contained a pair of coveralls, insulated and - oh joy- a pair of tennis shoes. He had dropped everything and sat on the floor to pull them on. He didnít bother lacing them up as they were several sizes too large and his feet would have slipped from them no matter what. He tore up one of the blankets and proceeded to wrap his feet in the strips, making a pair of impromptu socks.

            "What are you laughing about?" Adam asked, his head and both hands still in the engine compartment.

            "Nothing. Just getting dressed," chirped Joe and Adam turned to find him, the sleeves and cuffs of the coveralls rolled back numerous times and the overgrown shoes slapping the cement floor.

            He had to laugh. "You look like a little kid playing dress-up!" Adam teased, going back to his work. His comment got him a sharp prod in the back. "Okay, Iím sorry!" He looked over his shoulder.

            "Well, hereís breakfast." Joe offered him a cheese sandwich. "Sorry it isnít up to Hop Singís standard fare but, with what we have, about as good as itís gonna get."

            Adam scowled. "My hands are greasy!"

            "No generator means no water, no lights, no heat. Here," Joe offered the plastic wrap the bread had been in. "What about you? Any luck getting this thing put together?"

            "Yes and no," Adam answered, then took a bite of his sandwich, barely missing his plastic-wrapped fingers. "Yes, I think I have the engine back to working. No, I have no idea if itíll get us out of here."

            "Thought you were an engineer," Joe mumbled around his own mouthful of bread and cheese. "Thought you could do anything . . . least ways thatís what you always led me to believe."

            As he paced beside the plane, ducking under the wing struts, Adam heard the edge his brother left on his words. With a raised brow, he considered that maybe some of it was rightly placed. He had always told Joe that with education, a man could do anything. Maybe he had led him to believe that he was all powerful because he had a mighty college degree. Now was not the time for arguments one way or the other.

            "Okay," he sighed dramatically and flopped down to sit beside his brother in the doorway of the plane. "I guess I must admit that there are things that I canít do."

            "Can you get us out of here? I mean, hey, you had some flying lessons."

            "Two," the older brother pointed out. "Iíve had two lessons. Always meant to go back for more but just never found the time."

            "But can you fly this thing if we get the motor running?" Joe insisted.

            "There is more to flying than making a motor run, Joe. There is lift involved. I donít know if I can get the plane off the ground."

            "Hey! I saw James Bond. He dropped the plane over the edge just like ours out here and it took off. We can too!"

            "That was a  movie, Joe! This is reality!"

            "Adam," Joe turned and grasped his brotherís shoulders in both his hands, nearly making him drop his sandwich. "Donít let this go to your head but . . . I have faith in you! You can do it. I know you can."

            Shoving the remainder of the dry bread and cheese into his mouth, Adam shook his head ruefully. "Can see youíre gonna take País job when he leaves politics. Come on then, give me a hand."

            The sun was directly overhead when the time came to try the engine. A diligent search had given them no more than what they had. There were no cans of fuel for the plane but a peek into the tank had told Adam there was some there. How much, he wasnít sure. Joe had all of their supplies loaded into a cardboard box and wedged beside the pilotís seat. It was the only seat in the plane, the co-pilotís having been removed and replaced by a wooden boxlike platform.

            By unspoken agreement, both knew that once the planeís engine started, it was a given that they would try to depart. Adamís mention of the amount of fuel made that decision. There wouldnít be time or fuel for a second starting. The word he had used was committed and Joe crossed his fingers that it had nothing to do with being nuts.

            Once, twice, three times, the engine coughed then caught, a plume of blue smoke suddenly filling the air. Sliding the door closed, Joe pounded on Adamís shoulder and the little plane inched forward. The plane rattled. Things not already on the floor got there and that included Joe. Adam shouted for him to stay down as the plane rolled into the bright sunshine.

            It gathered momentum, speed, heading straight for the edge. Adam pulled back on the wheel, trying to make the nose lift but even as he did, he knew they didnít have enough speed built up. He sought for a prayer but came up without one; it didnít matter since Joe was apparently pleading enough with God for both of them.

            He thought about aborting the take off but the edge came up to greet him much too fast and the little plane dropped over the edge of the apron.

            Again, the brothers were unanimous in their joint cry of "SHIT!"

 

Thursday Afternoon

1PM

            "Boss," Mildredís raspy voice called out as she stuck her head through the open door. "Line one has Roy Coffee on it. You want to take the call or shall I tell him youíre still out to lunch?"

            Looking up from the papers he thought he had been studying, Ben gave her the sign that he would take the call and she closed the door.

            "Well?" he asked, realizing too late that his tone had been rather caustic.

            "Got a little information for you if youíll let me tell you before you bite my head off," the equally grumpy voice on the other end of the conversation spat.

            Chagrined, Ben apologized, saying he hadnít slept well lately, mentioning a lot of visitors at the house as an excuse. The sheriff chortled and commiserated with him.

            "The folks in Atlanta asked around. Seems that wacko group has had their computers hacked into. Now I donít know a lot about computers, do you? Didnít think so but according to what they told me, passwords were changed, stuff moved around. They are looking into it and, while they have some suspects in mind, there ainít a thing there we can use. I asked them point blank about the email you got and they claim to know nothing about it. Call me a fool, but I believe Ďem. I think theyíre innocent."

            "Any good news?" Ben sighed.

            "They dusted Adamís car for prints. Got some that arenít his. Has he had that thing in for service lately? Donít want to go chasing wild geese, you know."

            "No, I donít think so. Call Rosalie at his office and she could tell you for sure." He shook his head as he answered. The mention of Adamís car reminded him of something else still among the missing. "What about Joeís Jeep? Anything found of it?"

            "ĎFraid you were gonna ask that, Ben." Royís tone softened. "They found it yesterday. Bottom of Smoke Signal Bluff. Looks like it was run off it. No sign of a body, of course. When they pulled it up late last night, they found the gas pedal was wired down."

            "Any fingerprints? Any evidence of someone else . . . "

            "A few and they all arenít Joeís. Ben, I want to tell the State boys. They are gettiní mighty antsy over this and if I told them what I knew, they might just back down and look at this the way we want them to."

            Again, Ben shook his head as he spoke. "If they believe Adam killed one of theirs, they will look all the harder. So will the neighboring states. I want them looking hard, Roy. You tell them and they will shrug their shoulders and hand it all over to the FBI. Wash their hands of it all and there goes how many pairs of eyes not looking!"

            "Itís risky, Ben. Itís one helluva chance youíre taking."

            "Iíll take it."

            "But will your boys?"

            "I tell you what, Roy. You find them and ask them." He slammed the phone down, suddenly very alone and very weary.

 

Date: unknown

Time Afternoon

 

            Cautiously, Joe had looked over the window edge. For the longest time, he had stayed sitting on the floor as the plane swooped, dove and swayed from side to side. He had watched his brother carefully, seeing the way he gained control of the little plane. It

seemed to Joe that Adam was taking control of their very lives as well for his motions were echoed by the plane.

            Faith, Joe said to himself more than once. He had to have faith in his brotherís abilities and as he looked out, he boosted Adamís flying ability quotient up a few notches.

            Below the little red and white plane, ridge upon ridge of snowy mountains rumpled the earthís surface. Transfixed by the glory of it, Joe watched as the shadow of the plane dashed into and out of the shadows those mountains spawned. From the position of the sun, he knew they were headed south, almost due south.

            "Any idea where we are?" he finally found his voice to ask. Leaning against the back of Adamís high-backed pilotís seat, he studied the gauges on the dash in front of them. They told him nothing.

            "In the plane, in the air," came Adamís cryptic remark. "While you were back there saying Hail Maryís, I was flying this bucket, remember?" He didnít want to admit that it was perhaps due more to Joeís praying than his flying ability that had gotten them aloft.

            Joe snorted. "I meant where would we be if we were on the ground?"

            "In the plane, on the ground." He couldnít help himself; the openings just didnít come around all that often to be a wiseguy and a wise guy at the same time.

            Behind him, Joe moaned theatrically then pulled himself onto the wooden box beside his brother. From this vantagepoint the view was even more awesome. The blue sky seemed bluer, clearer and the mountains below more craggy, the snow, filling the deep pockets and ravines, whiter. Try as he might, Joe could not place himself map-wise.

            Adam relented with a self-satisfied lift to one shoulder. "I would guess somewhere in North America. From the way the mountains are lined up and their altitude," he tapped one gauge as he spoke, but the reading there meant nothing to Joe; "I would say somewhere over either the Sierra Nevadas or the Rockies. Letís hope for the Sierras. They are narrower, which means I can find a flatter place to put this machine down sooner."

            "We got a problem?" Joe posed his question carefully.

            Not looking at his brotherís face, Adam missed the dash of fear there. "Not yet. But I want to land while we still have some daylight."

            "Why?"

class=Section2>

            Adam was reminded of a little boy who asked a lot of questions for which he, as the older brother, had no answers. Back then, the response of ďbecause I said soĒ usually worked. It wouldnít this time. He squirmed a little in his seat before he gave an honest answer.

            "Iíve had two flying lessons, Joe. Two."

            "Okay . . . " The two syllables took about as long to say as the flight lessons had in Adamís estimation.

            "In neither lesson did I learn how to land the plane."

            Joe thought it was a shame the plane was so small since he had the urge to pace, throw his arms -and his brother - around windmill fashion. His mouth flapped, searching for the right words to say. He longed to throw something but figured the only thing worth throwing was the pilot and he didnít dare do that. Finally, after a good three minutes, he sat back down on the box and glared as menacingly at Adam as he could.

            "Look at it this way, Joe," Adam soothed, taking his eyes from the front view for just a moment, "I can figure it out. It has to be just the reverse of taking off and Iíve done that once - no, twice!- already. Besides, remember? You have faith in me."

            "How long before . . . before you . . . we . . .  need to have it all figured out?" Joe stammered, his words interlaced with gulps of air.

            "Judging by the slant of the sun, a while. A couple hours, I figure. But, and I donít want to alarm you but you need to know something." Adam waited for a couple of heartbeats before he went on. "Weíll need to be just about out of fuel before we land. Less chance of fire that way if something goes wrong."

            Surprisingly, Joe seemed to take him at his word and simply asked, "Okay . . . how far just about out of fuel do we need to be?"

            The words were no more than out of his mouth before the planeís engine coughed. Like metal filings to a magnet, their eyes were drawn to the fuel gauge. The small white needle lay on its side.  The gauge panel behind it was red. It pointed to a large ďE."

            "About that empty?" For some reason, Joe felt the overwhelming desire to bash Adam about the head and shouldersóagain!

            Fighting to keep panic out of his voice and therefore his own thoughts, Adam shouted for his brother to look out the other window for a flat place. The propeller stopped rotating as the engine gave a final cough. They would glide for a while, he knew, but would be losing altitude and therefore the advantage it gave.

            There, to his right, Adam saw a flattening. It was ringed with trees but he thought there was enough room to bring the plane down. Moreover, the cows walking across it told him it was solid ground, not an iced over river, hidden beneath a thick blanket of snow. That thick snow would help ease the jolt of landing too. He turned the plane and nosed it down.

            "Joe, get into the back of the plane! Lay down flat as you can. Pillow your head in those blankets. Go on! Move it!"

            With the ground rushing towards him, Adam let go of the stick and tightened his crosshatched seat belt and put his own arms over his face. When a moment passed and they hadn't hit, he looked up. Instinct made him grab the controls in front of him and the first bounce the plane took slammed him back into the seat forcefully. With his hands clenched around the handles, the controls brought the nose of the plane up and it lifted majestically. The law of gravity took over at that point and the plane once more hit the snow-covered ground. As it did, the propeller, positioned vertically, caught the earth and the plane flipped nose over tail. It skidded for another two hundred feet in that position, tail first, on its top, the wings tearing loose of the body. When its inertia was spent, the little red and white plane groaned to a final resting-place.

            The world stopped revolving and things stopped falling around Adam as he now hung upside down, strapped tight to his pilot's seat. After his heart clambered back into his chest out of his throat, he called out for Joe, trying to calmly ascertain whether his brother was all right. He heard movement then a hand came over the back of the pilot's seat. Again, he called out again, anxious and uncertain.

             "When we get home," Joe's voice rose from behind him, "I'm gonna give you my baseball card collection, my little black book, everythin', Adam. I swear I will. Just quit tryin' to kill me, okay?"

            Struggling with the safety belts that held him firmly upside down, Adam finally got the catch loose and he dropped into a heap. Dragging himself over the seat, he saw that Joe, while stretched out on his back with a hand over his forehead, was like him: basically okay. A little bruised and banged up, but all things considered, in one piece.

            "What now?" Joe asked still sounding a little rattled.

            "We find out where we are then see about getting out of wherever it is we are. To do that, my young brother, it looks as though we need to walk. You up for it?"

            The look Joe gave him wasnít exactly flattering but Adam took it for what it was: his brother was game.

            Together they managed to get the sliding door open and once out into the open air, took gulping breaths.

            "What now?" Joe repeated, squinting in the bright sunlight. For what he took to be miles, there was nothing but snowy fields ringed by tall mountains, equally as snowy. He wiggled his toes experimentally in his makeshift socks.

            "We find civilization," was Adam's terse retort and, as if to follow his own words, headed off across the broad meadow.

            In passing the plane, Joe couldn't help himself and patted it. Hadn't been the plane's fault, he figured. That only left one option.

            "Geeze, Adam, even Snoopy could fly a plane." Joe scurried a few steps faster and caught up with him.

            "Snoopy? Like in Peanuts Snoopy? Joe, that was a cartoon and he was doing his Walter Mitty routine. He wasn't flying." Adam scanned the edge of the field, thinking he had seen movement.

            "Then how'd he get those bullet holes in his doghouse if he wasn't fighting the Red Baron?"

            "He wasn't! Besides, it wasn't really a doghouse. It was a Sopwith Camel. World War One plane." Why was it that sometimes Joe seemed toÖwell, miss the boat?

            "Yeah, well he still landed it right side up!"

            "JOE!"

            "Well, he did! And we all know that it's harder to fly a doghouse than a plane!"

            "Joseph! We got out of our not-so-cozy little white room. We got over those mountains. You are alive. You are standing on the ground. Let it go!"

            Several moments passed as the brothers trudged on then Joe spoke up again, a bit morosely, "Bet you couldn't land a doghouse either."

 

            At the edge of the field, a two-lane road ran. Its pavement was wet with melting snow, the centerline obliterated by dirty snow. As the two brothers stood beside it and looked down it as far as they could see, there was no traffic.

            "Doesnít look like the main drag of Reno, does it?" Adam offered, pulling his coat up closer around his ears. Joe, he saw, was pulling the rolled up cuffs of his oversized coveralls down over his hands.

            "You still think weíre still in the US?"

            "Road markings look like it. Okay, which way? I suggest," Adam pointed to his right.

            Joe, however, pointed to his left. He narrowed his eyes and shoved his chin out, giving ample warning that he was not going to be swayed.

            "Scissors, paper, rock?"

            In response, Joe simply started walking in the direction he had pointed. Shrugging his shoulders, Adam followed. It didnít do to argue, sometimes.

            With cold feet slapping a colder pavement, the two men walked, not conversing, for over an hour. The road remained void of traffic going in either direction. Just as Adam was ready to call for a break, they topped a small rise and found a town spread at their feet.

            It was a small town. The road they walked on became the main street and was crossed by two other roads. From their vantagepoint, the Cartwrights could make out a gas station, a bar and, at the far end of town, a long low building that out front had a sign proclaiming it to be the VFW. On one side street there were several houses cloaked with snow. On the other, a small grocery store.

            "Civilization?" Joe asked, turning to face his brother and hand him back the word he had used earlier. "Mighty small civilization."

            "But, it has everything we need," Adam proclaimed and grabbing a hold of his brotherís arm, tugged him down the road. "All we need is a phone, Joseph! There has to be at least one functional phone in a town that size."

            Remembering Adamís pronouncements concerning the lights going off and the amount of fuel in the plane, there was a certain degree of fear in Joe Cartwright when his brother said that all they needed was a phone.

 

            He was half-right to be concerned. The phone at the gas station was out of order and the girl behind the counter at the cash register said that they couldnít use hers. There was one, she said, in the bar. Adam thanked her and grabbing his brother again, made haste to the bar.

            The pay phone was right at the entrance to the bar, just inside the door. Both of the Cartwrights stepped inside, Adam to use the phone and Joe to get warmed up. As he stood just inside the dark bar, the bartender glowered at him.

            "Just using the phone, is all. Thanks," Joe tried to smile as he explained but the other man continued to gaze menacingly at him. Over the manís head, a small TV was playing but the sound was turned down so low, he couldnít hear what the newscaster was saying. It didnít matter. Joe watched, his mouth hanging half open as he watched the same video his brother Hoss had been watching. In mute fascination, he saw Adam turning and reaching then the newscast showed a picture of a Nevada State Patrolman in full dress uniform with dates beneath the picture. Joe swallowed hard. The program then changed to the weather but Joe was held spellbound.

            "Yes, I want to make a collect call," he heard Adam saying then the spell broke. Joe whirled and slammed his finger down on the cradle, cutting the call short.

            "What the devil?" Adam exploded as Joe pulled him bodily from the bar. Out on the street, he continued to fume as Joe pushed him into the alleyway.

            "What do you remember about how you got to where I was?" Joe blurted out, not realizing that he made no sense.

            "Huh?"

            "Adam, I just saw a newscast. It showed a video of you, pulled over, standing by the Grape, a cop in front of you. What happened, Adam? Why did you do it?"

            "Why did I what? Yes, Jimmy Redhawk Taylor pulled me over but I donít remember anything after that. Why? What did you see?"

            Joe swallowed hard before he answered. "After the video tape played, they cut away to a picture of Taylor with dates under it. Dates like what they do when someone dies. Listen.  You said it looked to you like someone was trying to hang Mandyís murder on me. Well, brother, it looks like that same someone is doing the same thing for you but this time with a Nevada cop."

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            The impact was nearly physical. Adam leaned against the brick wall there in the alley, Joe beside him. "They will have all the phones monitored . . . bugged. There is no way we can get help, is there?" Joe asked, whispering despite the fact that they were completely alone. "If we go to the cops, things can get really ugly, really fast if they think youíre a cop-killer, Adam."

            "But weíre innocent!" Adam pounded the wall with one fist, frustrated beyond simple logic. "Any suggestions?"

            Joe paced a few steps away and then back, his tennis shoes now sopping wet, his feet cold. He studied them carefully. He shook his head. He had no suggestions but allowed that they would think of something.

            "Would I be whining again if I said I was hungry?"

            Throwing a hammerlock around his neck, Adam chuckled and allowed that Joe would not, in this case and this case alone, be whining since he, too, was hungry. There was only one problem: neither of them had a dime much less the price of a meal.

            "Panhandle like the bums in Carson City?" Joe suggested and caught the lowered-lid stare that said it was a bad idea.

            "No, we keep moving. Something will come up, like you said. We get back on the road and maybe we can get a trucker to pick us up and give us a ride south."

            As they moved out onto the street, Joe asked why Adam had said south. He paused outside of the bar and pointed to a small decal down in one corner of the plate-glass door. It proclaimed proudly that the establishment supported the Idaho State Police.

            "Another reason to get out of town while we can," the younger brother agreed wholeheartedly with the elder one.

            They were almost out of town, just coming up even with the sign out in front of the VFW, when Adam shoved hard at Joeís shoulder and told him to get behind the trash dumpster beside the building. As they hunkered down, Adam saw that he had been right. An SUV bearing the insignia of a sheriffís department went slushing by, not even braking to slow down as it entered town.

            "Hey now!" a strident womanís voice assaulted their ears and they stood slowly, hearts sinking. "We donít allow no dumpster diving!"

            Slowly, careful to keep his hands visible, Adam turned to face their accuser.

            She was short, overweight and had close cropped iron gray hair. In one hand she wielded a rather large skillet. With the other, she held a wooden spoon aloft. No matter how she could have been measured, she was five feet, around as well as up and down. Over her ample paunch, she had a white apron stretched. Beneath it she wore bright purple double knit slacks and had her feet jammed into fur-lined rubber boots. A sweatshirt completed her ensemble.

             It was her face however that Adam appealed to."Now madam," he began and swung Joe around to face her as well. "Weíre just a little hungry. Little cold too. If there was something that we could do for you in exchange for a little food, we would be happy to do so."

            "You werenít about to go through the dumpster?" she asked, leaning forward, her little beady eyes squinting even smaller as her double chin shook.

            "It was the farthest thing from our minds. I promise you. No, the fellow up to the bar, what did he say his name was?" Adam faked and vamped at the same time, hoping Joe would pick up. But with the whiff of something cooking in the kitchen behind her, he wasnít paying attention. Instead he stood there, mouth watering. Adam nudged him hard in the ribs to get his attention but he only gave it for a split second.

            "Anyway, that kind gentleman down at the bar said you might need some help. Said something about a big dinner tonight?" If Adam could have crossed his fingers and prayed without it being conspicuous, he would have.

            She harrumphed once and looked them over closely. "Well, you look almost presentable. Come on in. You can peel potatoes, canít you? And him," she pointed her chin in Joeís direction, "can he handle setting plates if I show him how real careful-like?"

            With a conspiratorial wink, Adam said that his brother wasnít as stupid as he looked.

            "Nameís Mattie Whitburn," she introduced herself but didnít put out her hand. Instead she turned and went into the kitchen, expecting them to follow.

            "Play it cool and I think we have dinner," Adam cooed softly then shoved Joe in front of him as they entered the big kitchen.

            Mattie talked as she worked. Constantly, she talked. Sometime during the first hour of her monologue, Adam came to the conclusion that no one ever listened to her seriously. She gave them a running commentary on the people in the little town of Shoshone, which was where they were. Mattie disliked most of them, having little good to say about any of the ďtownies," as she called them, but much on the positive side for the local ranchers and farmers. They were, in her opinion, the backbone of the area. She listed off names and claimed that most of them went back to the days of Lewis and Clark. This made Adam doubtful but, he thought philosophically, he was warm, dry and from the looks of it, Mattie would feed them soon. What else could a man ask for?

            "Yep, Ladies Bingo Night. We serve them dinner then let them play bingo for a couple of hours. Ladies only, you understand? Dinner tonight is meatloaf, mashed potatoes, lima beans, some salad and apple pie for dessert. Should make the VFW about two hundred dollars! Last month, because of the snow and all, we only made Ďbout a hundred."

            Adam, sitting on a high stool at one of the sinks, peeled potatoes until he had a fair sized mountain piled beside him. Every once in a while, Mattie would check over his work and pat him on the shoulder. Not once did she ask for a last name, just calling them by their first names. He washed the potatoes once more then filled large pots with water and sliced spuds and set them to boil on the stove. She smiled and told him he had done well.

            Joe, on the other hand, Mattie kept hopping. She made an elaborate show of how to set up the tables in the big room, which Joe followed as though he had an IQ in single digits. Listening to Mattie raise her voice and talk louder as though mere volume would help someone of limited capacity understand, Adam was hard pressed not to laugh. He caught her eye as she showed his brother how she wanted the table clothes placed and motioned her to his side.

            "I think he can set the tables, Mattie," he advised and with her back turned, winked at Joe.

 

            He did indeed know how to set a table and she made a big show of telling him what a good job he had done. It must have been something in the mothering side of her that led her to take Joe into a back room. In a few moments he returned, his arms' full of clothing and an idiotic smile on his face. He disappeared into the menís room and Adam followed.

            "What are you doing?" Adam hissed as Joe boldly stripped, his oversized shoes landing with a thump against a toilet stall partition.

            "Changing," came his clipped reply. "And they call me the slow one? Sheesh, Adam."

            "No, I mean with this act of yours! Like youíre some moron? Come on, Joe."

            "It was you who gave her the idea. Not me! Besides, look who got stuck peeling potatoes? Me? She thinks I canít handle a knife!" He pulled on a pair of jeans that still had a store label on the pocket.

            "Arenít those a little snug?" Adam pestered, ripping the price tag off. Secretly, he was wondering if there were other things in the backroom that would replace his rather worn garments.

            "A. . . little . . . " Joe panted, struggling to button the fly. "But they're clean! Shirt," he flipped open a folded white dress shirt and pulled it on, "fits and the shoes are my size. And look, brother Adam, real socks! So okay, theyíre red. I donít care." He tried tucking his shirt into his waistband but failed and Adam nearly busted a gut laughing at the expression on his face as he undid the button fly of the jeans just so he could ram the shirttail in.

            Once dressed, Adam had to admit that his brother looked pretty much the way he normally did with the exception that his shoes were pointed toed dress shoes. Black. Patent leather. With the red socks - Adam coughed up another chuckle and returned to the kitchen and Mattie, Joe trailing him.

            "My, my!" the cook perked up from where she stood breaking lettuce into bite-sized pieces. "He do clean up nice, donít he? Come here, boy. Yes indeed, you are gonna make a smash hit with the ladies."

            It was a shame that she didnít hear the groan inside Adamís head.

 

            By nightfall, the brothers had eaten well, courtesy of the round little cook. Fat burgers dripping with grease that made Adamís arteries shudder came dressed with lettuce, and a slice of tomato. On the side, a fair mound of mashed potatoes that the elder of the two had spent the better part of an hour mashing once the younger one claimed he didnít know how to do it and Mattie believed him. Now, with both dressed in clean clothes and the tables laid out, they were prepared to follow instructions as to serving the ladies who would be their guests. She would stay in the kitchen and fill plates. They were responsible for taking the plates out and placing them before the guests. Joe had started to pull his moron-routine again but Adam smoothly asserted to Mattie that they could handle it. Of course, as he said this, he had Joeís left arm hoisted up to the near breaking point behind his back. Once all of the plates were served, Joe would circulate with pitchers of water and ice tea, while Adam would tend to the hot coffee.

            "Look at it this way, would you? We are out of the weather. We have eaten and we arenít liable to run into any cops. So would you breathe easier?" Joe pressed, hearing the groans Mattie didnít.

            The front door began to open, letting blasts of cold air across the broad room. In they came in groups of twos and threes. The two Cartwrights played the perfect hosts, taking heavy coats and depositing them in the cloakroom.

            "Never seen so much blue hair in my life," Joe quipped to his brother softly, handing him another woolen coat while he smiled most pleasingly at its owner.

            "Me neither. I donít think thereís been a woman under the age of sixty come through that door yet!"

            Despite their hidden dismay, the two young men, courteous and delightful to the eye, were indeed becoming as Mattie had projected: a hit. The buzz in the room took on vast proportions when they came from behind the cloakroomís half door and, with a playful flair, seated the ladies at the tables. More than once, Adam felt a hand on his arm or, alarmingly at first, his buttocks. His first instinct was to protest but considering the fact that the women were all old enough to be at least his mother, if not his grandmother, he rolled over and went with it. Joe, on the other hand, and to Adamís chagrin, reveled in it.

            "Should have known," he hissed when they met in the kitchen, returning empty plates. "Give you any woman, doesnít matter how old she is, be she a blue haired great-grandmother or a babe in arms and you just have to smooze Ďem, donít you?"

            "It doesn't hurt," Joe ripped back and showed Adam that same smoozing smile.

            With the dinner over, they were supposed to be moving the tables into long straight rows but the women kept up their demands for more coffee, more ice tea. Mattie was flustered but stayed in the kitchen. One of the women dropped a coin in the jukebox and music wafted over the tables gently. Mattie huffed at the service door. Joe caught her eye and winked broadly then did a fair couple of dance steps.

            It was as if a 747 had landed in the room. The women, every last one of them, turned to watch him. Conversation ceased. When he realized he had become the center of attention for thirty older women, Joe stopped, laughed and shrugged his shoulders as if to apologize.

            One woman, who he had mentally nicknamed The Sparrow because of her diminutive size and gargantuan appetite, spoke up rather loudly. "Whyíd you stop?"

            It was the closest Adam thought he had ever seen his brother come to blushing. Joe, however, was nothing if not bold, so his reply of not having a partner didnít surprise Adam. Sparrow seemed to have the same quantity of boldness for she left the knot of ladies she had sat with and flowed - that was the only word for it - into Joeís arms. For a turn or two around the floor, he guided her. When the music ended, he dipped her low over his arm then swept her into an embrace worthy of Cary Grant.

            The applause was deafening as the little woman and Joe bowed. He playfully escorted her back to her friends and, bowing low once more, began to back away.

            Another coin went into the jukebox and another song, an up-tempo Everly Brothersí tune, began. Joe tried to pass a group of women but one, a big rawboned woman, grabbed him and pulled him to the dance floor. She shouted that she was going to have equal time and she did! When he eventually spun her away, he found another woman more than eager to take her place. Then another and another.

            The Righteous Brothers were singing about losing that loving feeling when Joe felt something that was not too far from his personal "that loving feeling." The lady he was dancing with, just before she relinquished him, had her hand suddenly at his waistband. She must have seen his eyes go wide for she smiled and patted his stomach. He would have looked down but his new partner was tall and well endowed. To look down would have put his nose in her cleavage so he decided to let sleeping dogs go on sleeping. This woman, when she was grudgingly interrupted, also skimmed her hand over his waist, this time on the back side then gave it a playful smack with a wink.

            The music continued. Adam, his face pulled into an ugly scowl, cleared the dishes from the table. Mattie, in the kitchen, sang -if you could call her caterwauling singing - and smiled hugely.

            Begging that he needed a break, Joe took to the only place he knew the women wouldnít follow him: the menís room. Adam followed him however and found him leaning against the wall, literally panting and pulling money, green bills, some ones but mostly all tens and twenties, from his jeans, albeit not from his pockets.

            "What in Heavenís name are you doing out there?" Adam demanded, fingering the money slightly wild-eyed.

            "Earning us the money for a motel room for the night. Maybe breakfast tomorrow morning. God, Adam, these women! One of them propositioned me!" His voice climbed half an octave.

            Adam had been listening but he had also been counting. He had gotten to eighty-seven dollars. "Did you take her up on it?" he jested then figured Joe wasnít kidding. He folded the bills over and tucked them into his pocket. "Now listen, Joe, this is what you need to do." His brother glared at him then settled his shoulders against the cool bathroom wall. "You need to go back out there." He eyed Joe speculatively then put a brotherly hand on his shoulder while the other one flicked a shirt button open. "Unwind a little." His finger clipped at another button. "Come on, Don Juan, there isnít a woman out there who doesnít want some handsome young stud like you for just a little while. Besides, look at it this way, you make enough money out there and we can have steak for breakfast."

            Joe gave him a smoldering look as he undid another shirt button, knowing that would leave a lot of smooth well-muscled chest for a dance partner to accidentally touch. "Oh God," he moaned as he headed for the door, "My brother is turning me into a gigolo."

            Behind him, Adam exited, still smiling like a big cat, satisfied with the way his world was running. In truth, he figured Joe was getting some just desserts for all the times he had played with the female half of the population.

            The lady who stopped Adam from retreating to the kitchen looked not a day younger than eighty. Through her thick-lensed glasses she peered up into his face, her grasp tight around his forearm.

            "Can you dance as good as him?" her shrill voice asked as the hand shook his arm.

            He checked the dance floor. There was Joe, doing a version of a two-step that if he had done it elsewhere, their father would have had a heart attack for its suggestiveness. He remembered the roll of bills in his pocket. If they made enough, perhaps there was the way home?

            "Who do you think taught him?" he purred and as she dragged him to the dance floor, he surreptitiously undid four shirt buttons.

            The night wore on. Mattie finished with the dinner dishes on her own and turned to tending the bar. Adam never saw her without a big smile on her face as she made cocktails with umbrellas. At only one point did she enforce a break and that was because the jukebox had gone down. As she crawled behind it, Joe and Adam had taken the respite to once again adjourn to their new office, the menís room. Exhausted, they sat on the floor, each nursing a beer given to them by Mattie herself.

            "Never in all my life," Joe wheezed out as his hand brought up another fistful of green from inside his shirt. "You know, I went to button my shirt up so the money wouldnít fall out and the old biddy I was dancing with smacked my hand! You know what she did then? She put her hand inside my shirt, shoved the money around to the back and said she didnít want anything getting in the way."

            "I know," agreed Adam, his shoulders shaking with laughter. "These women, theyíre like little kids. Take that woman you danced with first. Theyíre starving for a little male attention. I would bet you everything you have right now in your pockets, or other places, that if you tried to take one of them to a motel for a little hanky-panky, theyíd turn you down flat. They just want a little romance, Joe, not the whole thing."

            "God, I hope youíre right. If not, thereís gonna be one helluva a catfight when we go to leave here tonight. Shit. Mattie got the jukebox goiní. Come on."

 

            The clock over the bar was pushing midnight hard. The women were nearly exhausted and the men werenít far behind them. Thankfully, slow dances had started showing up more often on the jukebox's turntable. At five minutes to midnight, Mattie called for last drinks and last dance. The women groaned. The song was a real oldie that Adam remembered having heard when he was growing up and he sang it into the ear of the lady he was dancing. She pulled herself closer to him and, just as the music ended, laced her fingers around the back of his neck and kissed him. Hard she kissed him then slipped her last twenty-dollar bill into the waistband of his jeans.

            "You gonna be back next month?" she huskily asked, still clinging to him.

            "Just might," he fell short of promising but it seemed to satisfy her.

            The room cleared slowly but Adam and Joe made their quick escape into the men's room one more time. With canted heads and narrowed eyes, they looked at one another then began laughing together.

            "I was wrong, Joe," Adam wheezed out finally as he wiped a tear from his eye. "Those gals would take us up on a motel room for an hour."

            Gulping air, his brother agreed but then pointed out that neither one of them had the stamina to go through all the women present tonight. That set them into laughing again.

            "Hey in there!" Mattie shouted and rapped at the door. "You can come on out. Theyíre all gone."

            "You know, I think we need to give Mattie some of this money. Donít you, Joe?" He pulled his brother up, the sudden exhaustion hitting them both hard. He thought the mumbling sound was an okay so as they slowly creaked into the large room, Adam was preparing a speech and trying to figure out how much to give her.

            She looked up from her counting, grinned at them then returned to her piles. They waited in silence for her to finish.

            "You know, boys, this has been the biggest take the VFW has ever taken. Figure the bar receipts and the cut from the jukebox, and weíll clear five hundred if we do a nickel! And itís all because of you two. And next month will be bigger still once all these gals get to talkiní with their friends and neighbors who didnít come tonight. Yes indeedy, you two were a hit! Say, you ainít got another brother you can bring with you next month, do you?"

 

            "Thanks a lot for the lift, Mattie," Adam waved and said as he closed her pick up door. With the clock hands pushing one in the morning, she had dropped them off at a shabby little motel located in the next town down the road. They had to wake up the manager to get a room. Unshaven and bleary eyed, he didnít pay any attention to the Smith and Jones they registered under but he took their crumpled greenbacks and handed them the key to room number eight.

            The room appeared much the way the manager had: a little worse for wear with the distinctive odor of mildew. Dropping the key on the nightstand Adam said he didn't care what it smelled like as long as they had the key. Joe added that he wanted heat and a shower. He came out of the bathroom with a perturbed look to his features.

            "There's only two towels, Adam. I'll go down and roust the dude at the desk for some more towels."

            In the poorly lit room, Adam stretched out on the lumpy bed. He was tired, and even though the clothes on his back were new, they had been through a rough evening. Smiling to himself, he waited for his brother to leave then he launched himself into the bathroom. He was just getting to the enjoyment part of a long hot shower when he heard Joe come back in. There was the typical yelp of surprise when he found out he had been out-aced but there was also a certain amount of brotherly, older brotherly, satisfaction of a hand well played. As the steam rolled out of the shower stall, Adam gave directions.

            "Get the phonebook out and see where a bus station is."

            "Bus station? We got enough money, why don't we just rent a car?"

            As Adam listened, he heard Joe moving around in the bedroom. With a self-satisfied grin, he knew that while his brother might argue, he would also follow directions if given a clear direction and logic. "They always ask for a credit card and your drivers license. Now unless you are holding out on me, I don't think either on of us have one, forget about both."

            "Okay, so that makes sense. Okay, bus stopÖ.Greyhound - leave the driving to us - station is at  Kirendorf."

            Turning off the water, Adam slicked the water from his hair and scraggly beard. He wished he had a razor but then reconsidered. It was the closest he was liable to come to a disguise and he was sure that the police had seen pictures showing him clean-shaven. Out in the other room, as he dried off, he heard Joe talking on the phone, being sweet tempered as only Joe could be after all they had been through. After he pulled on his jeans, he walked out just as he hung up the phone.

            "Tomorrow morning at ten-forty five we can be headed south. Stops along the way include Elko, Battle Mountain, Winnemuca, Fernley and Reno. Have to change buses at Reno for Carson City. And, thanks to my dancing ability, "Adam rolled his eyes at that, "we have enough for two fares and breakfast, lunch and a decent dinner. We get into Reno at midnight."

            "That's a long day on the bus, Joe."

            Laying the phone book aside, Joe got off the bed and headed for the shower with his jealously guarded towels. "Yeah, but it would take longer to walk it. Leave me any hot water?" The door closed and the water started running again. As the shower stall door banged closed, the bathroom door sprung open.

            "Some, " Adam admitted slyly and softly then louder said, "The options are running out on us real fast, little brother." He lay back on the bed and studied his toes. "I don't know about you but I have no desire to make the acquaintance of the local constabulary."

            "Huh?"

            "The police," explained the older man. "And I have even less desire to make the acquaintance of Bubba."

            There came a sudden shriek followed by a string of swear words Adam was sure his baby brother hadn't learned at their father's elbow. As he listened, he became completely sure of two things. The first would be that the hot water was gone and the second was that Joe still had soap somewhere. Knowing his brother's vanity, he figured it would be his hair. Most assuredly, Adam thought, Joe was working up enough heat, calling upon the fires of hell as he was, to warm up the water. When both the water and the swearing quit, Adam called out, asking if there was a problem. A wet towel thrown by an irate individual in good physical health from the distance of no more than fifteen feet packs a wallop. Or so Adam found out.

            With his hair still dripping, Joe, his tight jeans once more on and buttoned, stalked into the bedroom. "I swear, Adam Cartwright. You are a jinx. All you have to do is say it and it happens! The lights went out, leaving us in the dark and cold. The plane ran out of fuel! The phone at the gas station was out of order. Now this! You leave me some, some, hot water!"

            "If you hadn't needed those extra towels, you could've had the first shower. Don't go blaming me for your vanity."

            No one in the world could sulk like his brother, Adam was sure, but it didn't bother him. Never had and never would.

            "Good night, Joe. You take the chair. I have the bed." His voice had such authority to it that Joe relented.

            In the thin darkness, both heard the other flopping around, trying to find a comfortable position in order to drop off.

            "What did you mean about meeting Bubba? You know someone up here who's a cop?" Joe asked sleepily.

            Rolled onto his back, Adam studied the ceiling. How to explain the term to his brother without scaring the be-jesus out of him was beyond him at that stage so he told him as bluntly as he could manage, hoping the boy would catch on quickly. "Bubba is a generic term, Joe. Bubba is usually another inmate who takes a real fancy to you. Now me? With this beard, I doubt whether he would be interested in making my acquaintance. But you, no, you, Joseph would make Bubba a very nice wife."

            Joe snorted deprecatingly then the full impact of Adam's words hit him and his eyes went round, his stomach tightened into a hard knot and he had trouble breathing.

            Over on the bed, Adam flipped onto his side and again bid his brother good night. He had filled the boy's head with such a vision that Joe would be awake, and, therefore, on guard, for the remainder of the night. Well, the elder brother thought smugly, at least one of them would sleep well.

            As was the case, he was in error. Asleep only a little more than thirty minutes, bright lights in his eyes woke him. He was about to say something to his brother when it dawned on him that the light was coming from outside, as though a car with its high beam on was parked in front of their door. By that same light, he could see that Joe was on his feet, about to pull the curtain back and, Adam was sure, say something he wished he wouldnít.

            "Joe!" he hissed, having to raise his voice louder because of the noise of the car engine. "Let it go, will you? Theyíll be done in a minute. All youíre gonna do is start a fight."

            Over his shoulder, Joe glared at him. One look at his face told Adam that he was right.

            "It isnít like itís the cops, is it?"

            As if to answer him, a voice, amplified by a bullhorn from just outside the door, demanded that they throw out any weapons and come out with their hands raised. It went a little further to tell them "We have you surrounded."

            From outside, the police gathered heard the sounds of a scuffle and they tensed their fingers on their service weapons. Suddenly the door sprung open and, following their instructions, Adam Cartwright stood, hands raised above his head and a red welt coming to his jaw as though he had just been in a fight.

 

 

Friday Morning

2 A.M.

            Roy Coffee stirred another spoonful of sugar into his coffee. The late nights were beginning to tell on his stomach. Too much coffee so he lightened it with cream then for good measure added the sugar. Looking at it, he thought it more closely resembled hot chocolate.  Across the dining room table from him, Hoss Cartwright sipped his own - black, no cream or sugar. He figured it was probably the fourth or fifth cup for the big man but he hadnít lightened the score. Roy inwardly gave himself points for his own age and concluded that when Hoss got to be his age, heíd be loading his coffee down the same way. With a groan, he came back the problem at hand.

            "Iíve done all I can," he asserted then went on. "Let me remind you though that it is the middle of the night. Tomorrow the State banking auditors will be looking over the bank records. Iíll have a team from the FBI at Adamís office first thing in the morning. You say that his secretary told you theyíd been having security trouble so weíll look into that. As for the State-boys and Jimmy Redhawk Taylor, Iíve already looked into that. Canít say that I like what I found."

            "What have you found?" Ben asked, setting aside his cup.

            The sheriff looked around, clearly uncomfortable. There was no one else that he could see and Hossí hand waved the man at his fatherís desk down and indicated to Roy that the guard was napping.

            "Taylor had a brain tumor. Most likely malignant from what I can get out of his doctor. And from what I can figure, heíd known about it a good while, probably a year. Now I donít want this to get around because it wonít do anyone any good. I suspect that he figured a way to die in the line of duty. That gets his wife his pay for the rest of her life as well as the proceeds from any life insurance policy he may have had."

            "But, Roy, Adam didnít shoot him! You, yourself, said this evening when you came that the tape showed signs of being altered. Watching it you canít see the face of the man who kills him; it is hidden behind Taylorís body. All of the evidence of the actual killing that can be linked to Adam is the fact that his car was there and his gun was used." Benís fist lightly pounded the table.

            "I know that, Ben. Thatís why I have to move slow. I suspect that whoever is behind it all found Taylor and paid him."

            Hoss, his head to one side, looked puzzled. "Why would he let someone kill him?"

            "Like I said. To die a heroís death, to die in the line of duty rather than in a hospital bed. Knowing lots of boys like him, I know thatís how he might have wanted to go. Thatís why I asked that this not get around."

            Ben, his body weary from the long night, only shook his head. He agreed with Hoss. That part didnít make sense but then none of the events of the past week made any sense. He was about to say something when Royís cell phone rang and he answered it while still seated at the table.

            "Okay," he drawled slowly and with his free hand reached out and grasped Benís arm, a smile suddenly creasing his tired face. "Where at? Good. They okay? Good. When can they be arraigned? Good. No, I donít think theyíll fight extradition. They pulled an attorney yet? No, I imagine the family will - oh; theyíve taken that route. Okay. When do you expect to head them this way? That soon? Oh? Not that I am aware of." Roy laughed, thanked the caller then cut the call off.

            "Theyíve been found?" Hoss asked needlessly.

            "Yep, up in Idaho. They have a hearing first thing in the morning, got a public defender to work with them since there are no Idaho charges against them. Then theyíll put them on a plane to Reno."

            The smile on Ben Cartwrightís face couldnít have been any wider. With the world lifted off his shoulders, he felt as though he could sleep comfortably.

            "But Ben," Roy stopped him, smoothing his mustache, "it ainít over yet. When they get here, they will still be held. The DA has warrants that he has to fulfill to the letter of the law.  You know that."

            Momentarily sobered, Ben nodded. "I know, Roy, but now we can start getting this unraveled and straightened out."

            "One more thing, something the desk sergeant from up to Idaho asked, Joeís on some kind of medication to -ahem - curb violent tendencies? Iíve known that boy a long time and I know heís got a wild streak in him but . . . ?"

            "I have no idea what youíre talking about, Roy. Joseph is as healthy as a young bull. A little headstrong sometimes but he is not on any medication I know about. Hoss?"

            Hoss was almost laughing. "If he and Adam have been penned up long together, them police may wish Joe would settle down." That said, Hoss went ahead and laughed, imagining a little brother up past his eyebrows in a bigger brotherís Ďwisdomí and vice versa.

            "Well," Ben said slowly as he rose, "I am going to bed. The death penalty bill goes for a vote tomorrow morning and I have to be there. Roy, guest room is ready for you if you want to stay."

            "No thanks, Ben. I got some things to look into. Ainít no need of you planniní to meet the boys in Reno, Ben. Iíll be there and see to it that theyíre taken straight to the county lock-up. You can see them there. Iffen I was you, I would have the family lawyer there too. Letís get the paperwork for their release goiní right away."

 

 

Friday Morning

2 A.M.

 

            "Turn to your left," the officer called out from behind the camera and Adam only cocked an eyebrow and did as he was asked. He knew that it wouldnít do any good to say or do anything to rile the arresting officers.

            The flash went off. The sane part of the man known as Adam Cartwright, or Idaho Department of Corrections Inmate #975876, wanted to scream. The police had been wary, accordingly, since he was wanted for the cold-blooded killing of an officer in neighboring Nevada. He had been treated with kid gloves, called Ďsirí more times than he was in his own office, had doors opened and held for him, chairs pulled out and the best cup of coffee heíd had in days. Sure, there had been a strip search but it was rather perfunctory. Heíd had a shower, which he really enjoyed, thinking that it was a shame it had to come at such a cost. Then, dressed in clean jeans and a T-shirt, he had been taken for booking. Heíd asked for, and was given, more coffee and two aspirin.

            "This way, please sir," the policeman seemed to almost beg and that bothered Adam. He had been prepared to meet the worst and it hadnít materialized. He feared every move, every corner as he was escorted into a room with the traditional mirrors on the walls. Seated there was an older man, tired looking, in a brown suit and tie.

            "Please be seated, Mister Cartwright. I need to get some information from you. Do you wish to have your legal counsel present during this?" the man asked, gesturing for Adam to sit down at the far end of the table. "I see here that you have been read your rights and that you understand them. That is correct?"

            "Yes," he answered, making the one word answer both questions.

            Within moments, the man in the brown suit was gone and replaced by a young woman dressed sharply in a dark skirt and white blouse. She introduced herself as Linda Baines, public defender.

            "Mister Cartwright," she started out, adjusting her reading glasses as she looked inside a rather thin manila folder. "First let me say that I think you can afford an attorney if you are part of the Nevada Cartwrights. Are you?"

            "Eldest son of the Congressman himself, but I am going to assume that all of my personal assets are frozen as of right now. Since I am out of state and accused of no crime within the borders of the state of Idaho, I canít see any regular attorney wanting to take up my cause, can you?" He had checked himself, almost using the phrase any sane attorney. He figured that she wouldnít take the inference lightly and in the spirit he had intended.

            "Okay. Point made and taken. I will represent you at your arraignment, which is scheduled for 9 a.m. in Judge Franklinís courtroom. It will be, in fact, just a formality since you are not fighting extradition to Nevada on the charges posted there against you. You are aware of the seriousness of those charges, arenít you? Second degree murder of a state official while in pursuit of his duty; aiding and abetting an escaping felon; embezzlement of company funds; flight to avoid prosecution. Quite a list, Mister Cartwright. Am I to assume that you are going to plead innocent to all of these charges?"

            Adam put his cup down and smiled for the lady, "Yep! But I think you forgot a charge. My brother and I stole a plane and flew it to get away from the mountain retreat where someone, who had kidnapped us, had dragged us to! That was after they hit me over the head, took my wallet and my car. And you know what?  I just thought of another one. I didnít file a flight plan so the FAA will be placing charges as well. Oh, and how about the owner of the field where Joe and I crash-landed? I am sure he will want damages." The sarcasm in his tone cut deep.

            She took a little breath then leveled her gaze at him over her glasses. "You know, these boys here," her head jerking noted the police just beyond the mirrored walls, "are only doing their duty. I havenít heard one complaint from any of the arresting officers concerning the fight your brother put up and it was apparently a doozey. Let me put it to you this way, Mister Cartwright, they want you out of this state as fast as they can legally get you."

            He settled back in his chair, put in his place by her straightforward approach. "Since you are my attorney, I am going to assume that attorney client exists?" She nodded crisply and he went on. "I am to blame for my brotherís reaction. Let me ask you something, Miss Baines. You have any siblings?"

            "Two. An older brother and a younger sister. Why?"

            "You ever stretch the truth to get the youngster to behave? To protect them, even? Maybe use the bogeyman?"

            The attorney smiled tightly and he took it that she had.

            "Well, I did that to my brother. Now I know you are going to point out that he is an adult and in full use of his capacities. I yanked his chain about what would happen if we got caught, implying someone by the name of -"

            By the time Adam had gotten that far in his story, Miss Baines was struggling to maintain her dignity and not roll on the floor, laughing. She pressed one manicured set of fingers to her mouth but still couldnít control the laugh completely.

            "Mister Cartwright, please, donít go any further. I understand you completely. I am sure that you did and said what you did in order to protect your brother in a worse case scenario. There is only one problem. You see, there is an inmate, a trustee, here by the name of Bubba Johanssen. He works here at the station, on loan from the Department of Corrections. He is a mountain of a man if I ever met one but he is one of the most gentle men I have ever known, bar none. He wouldnít hurt a fly, much less your brother. Because of your brotherís exhibited violence, he was put in the same cell with Bubba, hoping Bubba could settle him down."

            "Oh God," Adam moaned and dropped his head onto his crossed arms on the table. "When this is over, Joe is gonna kill me."

            "Then he is a possible -," she started to rise but Adam pounded the table with his palm and she stayed put. "I see. May I make a suggestion, sir?" When he looked up at her, he could see she was smiling brightly. "When this is all over for you, you might try an apology to him. Yet, there again, as a big sister to a big brother, let me suggest that maybe that wouldnít be such a good idea after all. We do need to stay one up on the youngsters, donít we?"

            "Is there any chance of having Joe moved? Are you acting as his attorney as well?" Adam wiped his hands down his face, the ache of too many hours taking its toll.

            She shook her head. "Itís a small facility. If it were larger, they would have put him in solitary and watched him. To answer your other question, yes, I am acting as his attorney as well but I havenít spoken to him yet."

            "When you do, would you tell him something for me?" he asked, his shoulders rolling forward, his hands reaching for hers. "Tell him that I am sorry and Iíll make it up to him."

            Again, she smiled, feeling perhaps like a conspirator. "Iíll see what I can do. Good night, Mister Cartwright. I will see you in a couple of hours."

            When the brown suited cop came and collected Adam, he handcuffed him and led him through a darkened office area. The hair on the back of his neck stood up, and he felt himself tense. Through the dark, the man led him, down a cool and slightly damp row of open barred cells that held other prisoners, now sleeping. At the end of the row, a door stood open to a small cell and Adam entered it, still nervous and sure that he would be attacked. The door clanged shut behind him and he found himself alone. He sat down on the edge of the bunk and drew the woolen blanket around his shoulders. For the remainder of the night, he stayed just like that: hunched over, attentive to every noise around him.

            Funny, he thought just as the pink of a new day painted the underbelly of some high clouds outside his window. I thought Joe would be the sleepless one tonight. Serves me right.

 

           

Friday morning

9 A.M.

 

            The bang of the gavel seemed overly loud and completely unnecessary since there were only six people in the courtroom: the judge, the bailiff who had brought in Adam wearing manacles, the red-nosed man Adam took to be the District Attorney, Miss Baines and an older woman who sat tap-tapping on a little machine taking down what was said. He looked around for Joe but hadnít seen him; that worried him more than anything else he could have possibly imagined that morning.

            There was a drone of words that Adam listened to half-heartedly as he stood beside his public defender. Her elbow nudged him sharply and he caught the frustrated look on her face then spoke up saying the words 'not guilty' as if by rote. She said some other things to the judge then looked over at the other table, the District Attorney, Adam again surmised. The man studied them for but a moment then said he had no objection. The gavel banged down again and Miss Baines turned to him.

            "Okay, the plane takes off at eleven. I won't be there. Good luck, Mister Cartwright." She dismissed him, opening another folder before her.

            "What about Joe?" Adam asked her, suddenly fearful that something had gone dreadfully wrong. The bailiff tugged on his elbow, nearly pulling Adam off his feet but she didn't look at him. He had it in mind to kick and thrash about, staying with her until he got an answer but then a door on the opposite side of the room opened and another man in uniform entered into the room. Adam caught just a glimpse of Joe's shaggy hair then the door was closing in front of him.

            Adam was returned to his cell but only for a short while. He was taken by an officer in a dirty uniform into a small cafeteria and presented with breakfast. He pushed it away and, his manacle chains dangling from his wrists, leaned onto the table.

            "Why am I being held away from my brother?" he asked, rubbing his finger up and down the paper coffee cup.

            The cop shrugged his shoulders and remained silent.

            "Can I see him? Can I talk with him?"

            Again the cop shrugged, appearing bored by the conversation. "Finish your breakfast. We got to get to the airport."

            Bide your time, Adam told himself, twisting the heavy metal cuffs. They are sending us home in the same plane and there is no way they can keep us from talking to one another. Of course, that's assuming that Joe wants to talk to me. I can't believe he would really fall for that business about - no, he wouldn't. If nothing else, the boy has plenty of street smarts about him - more than I had at his age. Just be cool until then.

 

 

Friday morning

11 A.M.

 

            Seated on the slightly raised dais, Ben Cartwright looked around him. The Assembly hall was full of delegates, men and women. On the floor of the hall, pages circulated, delivering messages, taking messages. Overhead in the gallery, also packed, television cameras stared at him with their bright single unblinking eyes. When the wide double doors closed, he picked up the gavel and struck the silver mounted slab of ponderosa pine on the desk before him. The stentorian voice of the master-at-arms proclaimed the meeting should come to order. Immediately a hush fell over the cool room.

            Ben adjusted the microphone in front of him even though he was certain his voice would have been clearly heard in the thick silence. It didn't matter. He wanted his words heard and recorded.

            "Ladies and gentlemen," he began, "Today, we vote on an important issue: Nevada and the Death Penalty. As you can tell by the number of our visiting friends from the Fourth Estate, the citizens of our state are anxious about today's vote as well. As all of you know, certain events recently have occurred concerning my family that make me take a great deal of interest in today's proceedings too. Because of my position here in the governing of the State of Nevada, I cannot lay aside my civic duties to attend to those of my family. This grieves me because it is because of those civic responsibilities that this has happened to my sons."

            Someone up in the balcony shouted, "Give 'em Hell, Cartwright!"

            A murmur went around the floor and more than one assemblyman nodded when Ben caught their eye. He smiled briefly then resumed, his planned speech tossed away.

            "I wish it were that easy, my friend. It isn't. My position has not changed since the debates began more than two weeks ago. Recent events have not swayed my thinking. Because I am Speaker of the Assembly, my vote may be needed. If there is anyone here on the floor who is uncomfortable with my status as Speaker and Majority Whip, who believes that I will not put the good of the state and the people of this state first, I will step down for todayís vote immediately and Amos Stempler will guide the proceedings."

            A quick buzz flew around the room. Up in the gallery, Ben could see pencils flying over pads. He waited, his heart somewhere close to his Adam's apple.

            Amos Stempler, resplendent in a black suit and highly polished boots stood and again the room fell silent. "Speaking on behalf of this side of the Assembly, you can sit right there, Ben."

            "It's always nice to have the opposition - " Ben began but Amos spoke up again.

            "In this case, the case of family connections being wrongly used, there ain't an opposition."

            Ben nodded gratefully. He raised his brows towards the rest of the room and sensed no one else was going to speak. "All right then. The first measure for your consideration will be the repeal of the Nevada Death Penalty. The vote today will be a roll call vote, in order of your district. The measure must pass with a simple majority vote."

            By eleven thirty, the vote was completed. The Death Penalty would not be repealed.

            "The next issue, now that Bill 2003-A-79 is declared dead, is Bill 2003-A-80, to modify the existing death penalty. Because of the diverse nature of the bill itself, I ask that the Reader read for us the full consideration." Ben knew procedure and as he watched the designated assemblyman from the Northern District advance to the dais, he wondered once again if he had done the right thing. For a good five minutes the reader, with his nasally twang, relished his position and read with gusto the bill before the assembly.

            Ben didn't listen to it all. He didn't need to. He knew most of it by heart by now.

            "Öfor the willful and wrongful death of a public servant whileÖ"

            Though he sat in the pine paneled Assembly room, Ben Cartwright found himself standing mentally alongside a snowy road, late of an evening, watching as someone dressed as his eldest son pulled a pistol and shot Nevada State Patrolman James Redhawk Taylor to death. Then, in the dream, Adam, not the impostor, turned, got into his sports car and drove away calmly. Ben shuddered at the intensity of the memory then fought down the thought that unless his son were to be proven innocent without a shadow of doubt, he would face Death Row.

            "Öfor any brutal murder wherein extenuating circumstances can be assessed as Ö"

            He hadn't been to Mandy Roberts' apartment but he had heard. He could imagine the young woman fighting for her life and he silently prayed once more that she had been oblivious to what had done concerning her unborn child. He was sure that it had surpassed being brutal but had no word for what lay beyond that word. All he knew that his son had been there. What if Joseph also had been murdered that day? How would he feel about the man or men responsible? As it stood now, would Joseph face lethal injection because he could not prove himself innocent of the young woman's death?

            When he realized he was sitting in that same ominous pool of silence, Ben mentally shook himself. He addressed the master-at-arms, asking him to take the poll position and begin the tallying of votes.

            "Darren Carmex, District One, your vote," the master-at-arms consulted his list of delegate names and districts.

            "District One, aye."

            On the roll call vote went, the ayes and the nays see-sawing the total one way or the other. About District 35 and Janette Wheeler, Benís heart began to pound furiously in his chest. The vote was even and what he had dreaded was about to come to pass: he would have to say aye or nay and on his word, the measure would rise or fail.

            At District 40 of the fifty voting districts, his stomach made a hard fist and ground into his spine.

            District 50 was Amos Stemplerís district. He would have the last vote and Benís eyes sought his in the room so full of silent eyes. There was a long pause after the nay vote from forty-nine and when Amos looked away; Ben knew what would happen.

            "Amos Stempler, District Fifty, your vote."

            The rancher cleared his throat and looked at his boot toes for a brief moment then looked up at the tally board. "District Fifty, nay."

            A gasp, as though from one throat, rose from the room and the spectators as well. The vote was tied, twenty-five ayes, twenty-five nays.

            As was procedure, the numbers were checked. During the delay, Ben sat absolutely motionless, his head bowed, his eyes closed.

            "The vote stands at twenty-five ayes and twenty-five nays. Your vote, sir, as special delegate, District Three."

            Never in his life had he shrank from a task but that day Ben wished he could. As he lifted his head and looked over the many delegates and people crowding the balconies, he wished he had never gotten into politics in the first place. He had and there was no turning back. His stomach continued knotting and twisting; his legs wouldnít have held him had he stood; his palms were clammy with sweat. In a flash, he saw again the televised picture of James Redhawk Taylor. There were other officers who deserved to have their rights, their lives, protected. He brought to the fore young Mandy Roberts and thought again of the fear she had undergone just before her death. Could sending her murderer to Death Row bring her back?

            Even while these images raced through his mind, they brought others. The new law would make DNA testing mandatory so that, where possible, a more scientific method of assuring that the right man paid for the right crime would come into play. The overseeing appeals court judge would be replaced by a tribunal. No one considered mentally retarded would forfeit his life for a crime committed. No child, no minor, would face that long walk. These were all changes the new Nevada Death Penalty Law would also embrace. Perhaps, just as importantly, this would bring Nevada into equality with thirty-seven other states.

            Ben cleared his throat and looking straightforward, spoke clearly. "District Three, special delegate, votes aye."

            The silence was overwhelming.

            The master-at-arms, one of Benís oldest acquaintances in Nevada politics, added the vote. Then, "By vote of the Nevada Assembly, Measure 2003-A-80 is passed. May God have mercy on our souls."

            There was a scattering of Ďamensí whispered that Ben heard as he pounded the gavel and declared the session at rest until Monday morning. He struggled to stand, trying to gather his papers at the same time.

            Amos Stempler, political foe, stood before Ben and reached out a hand, stopping Benís near frantic motions. He kept his voice low and confidential. "Iíd be pleased to take these to your office for you, Ben. I understand that the sheriff and the district attorney are waitiní for you down at the county  courthouse. We've been on the wrong sides of the fence from one another lots of times and Iíve cussed you ever one of those times, Cartwright, but like I said, you are a man of principal and you proved that today. Good luck with your boys."

 

            Within minutes, Ben found himself leaving the building. The press was waiting. Microphones were thrust at him and he had to push them out of his way to make it to his car. A camera there pushed at his shoulder as he unlocked the door to the Lincoln and he used the door to move the man out of the way. The questions shouted all amounted to the same thing: how did he feel about having put his sons on Death Row? As he cranked the big motor to life, he wanted to shout back but didnít dare. How ignorant, he thought of them. The bill needed to get through the Nevada Senate and be signed into law. Sure, it was a slam-dunk that it would pass easily and the governor had already promised a quick signing and implementation. Even if his sons were bound over for trial, would it happen fast enough that the old law would still be enforced. Or would the date be set so far out . . . ?

            He yanked the gearshift into reverse and looked in his rearview mirror then nudged a cameraman standing there with the bumper. My sons are innocent, his mind shouted but he held his tongue. He would not make himself a spectacle for the mediaís benefit.

            The drive to the county courthouse was short, mercifully so. Yet the crush of the press was there as well and one of Royís deputies, recognizing the black Lincoln, directed it around behind the building, telling Ben through the closed window that he could park back with the countyís vehicles and use the back entrance.

            Ben entered the doorway that took him through the basement then up the cement steps to the floor that housed the sheriffís department. A quick glance showed him that Royís office was empty. A young woman there saw him and hurried over to inform him that the sheriff wasnít back yet but would he have a seat there in his office and wait? He smiled grimly and settled into the darkened office, thankful for the solitude. Normally, he liked lots of people but lately, since this had begun, he had sought peace and quiet, time to be by himself to think through the situation. It had been in short supply.

            He glanced at the clock on the wall. A little after noon. By now, he figured, the plane bearing his sons would be nearing the Reno airport. He had done as Roy had asked and stayed away even though every fiber of his being screamed that he wanted to be there. After a short discussion with John Mears, the attorney who would be defending his sons, at daybreak this morning, Ben had consented but Hoss had wisely stayed out of all the discussion. Without a doubt in his mind, Ben knew where his middle son was at that very moment - pacing the open area of the airport if only to get a glimpse of his brothers.

            "Oh excuse me," a timid voice piped up and Ben opened his eyes, not remembering having closed them. At the doorway stood a man whose physical appearance did not match his voice. The man, built along the lines of a professional football player, was well dressed in a dark business suit and tie. His voice, though, was painfully bashful and very hesitant in tone. "Are you Sheriff Coffee?"

            "No, I'm not. He isn't here and I don't expect him here for another hour or so," explained Ben, standing so that he could guide the man to someone on the floor who could assist him.

            "Oh," the other said, chewing his lip, then seemed to come to a decision. "I'm Walter Ludkinski. From the FBI. I have some information for him concerning one of the cases we are working on jointly."

            Now was Ben's turn. "Oh?"

            "Yes. We've tracked down the hacker. Man is in Arlington Virginia. His name," Walter rifled through some folders and loose papers," Oh I can't recall his name but with the information Miss Baines and Mister Johanssen up in Idaho gave us concerning the plane, we can finger him for more than just computer hacking."

            At the mention of Idaho, Ben had the urge to press the fellow for more information but just as he was about to, loud noises came up the same staircase he had used and it drew their attention. He wasn't aware that the county had that many deputies but then he noted that some of the uniforms he saw were State Police. He didn't have time to count but there were enough that Ben didn't even catch a glimpse of either of his sons before the conglomeration moved into the holding area, the double doors which led to it swinging wide then closing with a resounding authoritarian thud.

            The one of the uniformed officers put out a hand and stopped Hoss from trailing along. Disgusted, he turned and followed Roy Coffee across the room. Over Roy's head he could see his father and another man waiting at the doorway to Roy's office.

            "Did you get a chance to talk to them?" Ben asked him as soon as Hoss got close enough, his hand grasping his son's forearm ferociously.

            "No, I didn't but I saw them and they looked--well, okay." Noting his father's raised brows, Hoss decided to clarify his statement. "Adam's got himself a fair beard goin' and Joe looks like he's been dragged through a knot hole, backwards. There ain't no bandages or anythin' like that I could see but they were both walkin' in chains so I couldn't really tell beyond that, Pa. Is Mister Mears back there already?"

            "Should be. Oh, Roy," Ben turned but saw that the sheriff was already deep into consultation with the FBI man.

            When Roy heard his name, his hand brushed Ben off and while Ben didn't appreciate being dealt with in that manner, he knew better than to push the sheriff. Pushing gently on Hoss, the two of them went into the wide-open area among the empty desks that took up half the floor space.

            "That man I was talking to, Hoss, he's with the FBI. They've found something out about a hacker and an airplane. I think it's connected with Adam and Joe but I don't know how. You?"

            Hoss shook his head that he had no idea but then pointed as he spoke. It was Mears and he was headed into a side room, coat tail flapping.

            "Looks like things are gonna happen fast," Hoss muttered then saw as the district attorney, Turk Henderson -Turkey, he had been called since childhood - sailed like a huge cloud towards them. He weighed every bit and more than Hoss Cartwright did, and while they had been in the same grade at school, they had never been friends. Even now, while neither man would claim to be the other's enemy, they certainly wouldn't admit to friendship either. Under his breath, Hoss muttered a mild curse and wondered why they had drawn Henderson but then was able to answer it himself. This was a high profile case involving the sons of the most influential man in the Tahoe area. It would be a feather in Henderson's cap if he should secure the convictions. Hoss wanted to tell him that it wouldn't keep people from calling him Turkey to his face.

            "What are you doing up here, Cartwright?" he demanded, coming to a sloppy halt in front of Ben. He mopped his sweaty brow with a handkerchief already limp with dampness. "Heard about the vote. I'll tell you right now.  We're going to ask for the death penalty in both these cases." His fat finger punctuated his statement, bouncing off Ben's chest. "Better get you a better lawyer than Mears. I'll have him for lunch."

            His temper simmering just below the boiling point, Ben grasped the pointing finger and held it tight in his grip. As he spoke to the district attorney, he kept his voice low and his eyes narrowed on the corpulent young man in a dirty gray suit with a trace of mustard on his tie. "My sons are innocent, Henderson. If your investigators do their job to the very best of their abilities, there will be no need for you to make these empty threats against my sons or their legal counsel. And should I catch any hint that the investigators are not turning over every stone looking for evidence, I will personally make sure that you are sanctioned before the Nevada Bar. In short, I will have you for lunch."

            "Are you threatening me?" the man bellowed and the two women at the far end of the room looked up at the sound.

            "Not at all, Mister District Attorney. If I were, I would have broken that finger."

 

 

Friday

1:30 P.M.

 

            The courtroom was crowded despite the facts that outside, snow was beginning to fall. As Ben and Hoss entered, various people turned to watch the two men make their way to the front of the room. There was a knot of business dressed people that Hoss recognized as some of the employees he had seen at Cartwright and Sons Construction over the past few days that he had spent there. Catching his eye primarily was Rosalie and her timid smile warmed his heart. On the other side of the aisle were people that Hoss thought he knew but then decided he didn't; his father did, stopping as they went to say a few words, touch a hand and thank them. As the two men settled into their chairs, Hoss heard his father take a deep breath and hold it for several long heartbeats. When he let it go, it came as a rush.

            "Them folks you work with?" Hoss asked, ashamed that he didn't know the important people that his father associated with.

            "Yes," Ben whispered, "Door guards, secretaries, pages, some of the cafeteria staff, my research assistants. Not a politician among 'em, though. But they are the important people in the long run, I guess."

            "Why don't that surprise me?" the other asked, not expecting an answer.

            Before Ben could answer, a door to one side of the room opened and Turkey Henderson came in, dropping a heavy thick file on the table before he sat down behind it. Turning in his chair, he spotted the two Cartwrights in the front center and glared at them both. In a few moments, John Mears, with another man trailing him, hurried into the room. He also spotted Ben and Hoss but, unlike his opponent, he leaned over the railing to speak to them.

            "I'm sorry, Ben but things are a bit rushed. As you know, this is an arraignment hearing. Bail will be set but I have the distinct feeling that Turkey isn't going to go for that, claiming that they have already run once and have the capacity to do so again. Either way, once this is over, you can see them. I know this will be hard but, please, when they're brought in, don't try to lean over the rail. The bailiff will think you are trying to give them something. Okay?"

            "What else can we say but okay? Are they all right?" Ben asked.

            Mears nodded and started to say something in reply but the bailiff called the court to order and he became all business again.

            As the black robed judge entered, Ben felt his stomach clench tight again. The honorable Herbert T Webster was a straight arrow magistrate if there had ever existed one in the State of Nevada. He tolerated nothing untoward in his courtroom and would, Ben was sure, go by the book. He had the sinking feeling that his sons would not be going home any time soon. As Webster sat down, the bailiff read out a long list of numbers and pronounced it as "the People of the State of Nevada versus Adam Cartwright."

            When the door opened to their left, Ben's heart leapt. Yes, he was rather more disheveled than normal, his dark beard giving him an unkempt appearance along with the wrinkled shirt and jeans. The manacles chained to his waist did not allow him the freedom to even finger comb his hair but all that didn't matter to Ben Cartwright. Adam's dark eyes flashed and his lips half lifted into a tiny smile when he saw his father. With shuffling steps because of the additional leg irons, Adam came to stand beside the lawyer, his shoulders back, his spine ramrod straight.

            The list of charges was read and with each charge, Turkey Henderson seemed to grow more confident until at the end, he was grinning with some wild inner pleasure.

            "How do you plead to the above charges?" the judge asked.

            There was no hesitation. His voice rang out, clear, succinct, firm. "Not guilty!" There was no one in the courtroom that afternoon that didn't hear Adam Cartwright plainly.

            "I am going to assume that the District Attorney has recommendations concerning bail?"

            Turkey Henderson fairly exploded. Point after point he made. Adam had the means to escape financially so that even should he relinquish his passport, there was nothing to keep him from making a dash over the Mexican border where he could live well for the remainder of his days. He had supposedly already tried once and been summarily captured in Idaho while hiding out. Most damaging of all however was the fact that he knew he would be looking at the death penalty.

            "Mister Mears?" the black robed judge said when the DA had finished making his case for holding the prisoner without bail.

            "My client's assets have been frozen, pending a completion of an examination of banking records. He couldn't raise the funds for a pack of gum, much less escape the state unless you think he would walk to California in the snow. And I am sure the next thing Mister Henderson will bring up is that his father would certainly advance him funds to make a getaway. That, your honor, I sincerely doubt, as do you, I am sure. My client has family in the area. As for his previous escape - and I use the term my colleague did even though it doesn't fit the facts - he was taken by force, as we will demonstrate to the court's satisfaction."

            Herb Webster adjusted the collar of his robe and studied not only his notes before him but also the persons presented to him. Everyone could tell when he had made up his mind because he ceased fiddling with his pencil.

            "Taking all of this into consideration, I will grant bail but in the amount of ten million dollars. Cash or bond, Mister Cartwright."

            The murmur went through the room like a flash fire. It was as though suddenly everyone was assessing the value of all of the Cartwright holdings. The Ponderosa Ranch, the construction company, livestock, machinery, everything right down to the silverware and china.

            The greatest impact fell on Ben directly. Yes, the family holdings probably amounted to that much and he would put it all on the block to free Adam from jail. But there would be nothing left to back Joe's bail. Even though John had warned him otherwise, Ben leaned forward over the rail to grab the attorney's attention. The bailiff moved quickly and he was shoved back with a warning glance.

            "The defense asks for an early trial date, your honor." Mears called out over the hubbub.     

            Henderson was snickering and commented "I bet you do!"

            With a rap of his gavel, Judge Webster brought the beginnings of a verbal sparring match to an end, threatening both parties with a little time spent in county facilities to expedite the cooling off. The lawyers both sulked.

 

            "Let's get on with it!" shouted the judge and again struck his gavel and demanded silence. "Return Mister Cartwright to the holding cells until which time he will either be freed on bail or committed to incarceration awaiting trial."

            He had to do it. Adam turned when the bailiff came towards him. Gone, Ben saw, was the arrogance of moments before. Adam shook his head and the father could see the pleading in his son's eyes. Don't! Not at the expense of my brother. Then his chin lifted and a spark of defiance showed through. I can make it, it said.

            Again, with his head held high, Adam left, the bailiff's hand shaken from his arm as he made his way to the door.

            When the door opened the second time, Ben's heart stopped cold. Manacled and chained the way Adam had been, Joe was shoved into the courtroom. His clothing, while wrinkled and worn like his brother's was also smudged with dirt along one side. There was a deepening bruise on the same jawline. What held his father's attention was the bold defiance Joe displayed and even as the whole room watched, John Mears did his best with his hand gestures to tone down the young man's attitude. While one bailiff had escorted Adam, two held to either side of Joe, hands wrapped biceps while the others rested on their service revolvers.

            Again, the voice called out a docket and case number, this time referring to it as "The People of the State of Nevada versus Joseph Cartwright."

            Standing beside Mears, his associate was clearly uncomfortable, his feet shifting, not knowing what to do with his hands suddenly. As Ben watched from behind the railing, the two bailiffs remained directly behind Joe as he stood next to his defense. As the charges were read, Ben couldn't see any more than the back of his son's head and even at that, the very top, since the bailiffs were in the way.

            "How do you plead?" the judge asked, his voice tired.

            "Not guilty! Why won't any of you -" Joe exploded and again the bailiffs had him held.

            "Please excuse my client. He has had a hard couple of days."

            The court's double doors opened and four men, dressed in a variety of styles, from suits to jeans, entered and went to stand at the rail behind Turkey Henderson. One reached over and pulled at Henderson's jacket tail just before the DA was going to ask for a high bail again. A short conference, spoken in whispers, took place. It irritated the judge.

            "A moment's indulgence please, your honor. Something has come up that pertains to this case," Turkey begged then returned to the whispering men. Ben recognized the one doing the most talking as the young FBI agent he had encountered in Roy Coffee's office.

            As the entire room strained to hear, the whispers continued. A paper was pulled from a file that Hoss saw had the heading of "fax" printed on but could make out nothing else. Turkey took the page and read it then asked another question. This time Walter, with the Polish last name, nodded and pulled another sheet from his file. A second man said something and everyone heard the words "bank audits found nothing." Again the DA asked a question but this time he was growing red in the face as he did. The four men, in response, and as if they were one being, shrugged their shoulders.

            Turkey, his cheeks puffing out and red, turned back to face the judge. "You honor," he huffed then glanced quickly to where Ben and Hoss sat waiting, "Some information pertaining to this case has been brought to my attention by these gentlemen from the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

            An audible wave, very faint but there, washed over the court while Turkey Henderson grew redder in the face. He fiddled with some of the papers before him before he continued. "At this time, you honor, the State of Nevada does not have the necessary evidence to hold Joseph Cartwright for the charges presented this day. We ask that he be released on his own recognizance, pending further investigation into the case."

            The people behind the railing as one cheered. Judge Webster, looking a little put out, slammed his gavel and shouted for order several times before everyone settled down.

            "Are you telling me, Mister District Attorney, that you --no, never mind. I don't want to know. Tell me, sir, in light of this new information, the other young man, what about him?"

            Henderson swallowed hard and wiped the beads of perspiration from his face with the soggy handkerchief. "I was just getting to that, your honor. The same new information brought to me by these men would also apparently have some bearing on that case as well."

            "Enough that I should toss out the charges brought against him the same way I am this young man?" The vexation in the judge's voice was plain to hear. The gallery began to shift and murmur but only a little since they all wanted to see Turkey Henderson's upbraiding.

            The DA looked down at his feet then took a moment to glare across the aisle to where John Mears was bouncing on the balls of his feet. "Um, yes, your honor. Own recognizance because we may need to talk with him as well later on concerning some of the happenings in this case."

            His scowl plain, the judge banged his gavel once then leveled his eye to where the bailiffs were removing Joe's manacles. "Your attorney will explain all this, young man but as for now, you are free to go. Mister Henderson, my chambers, please. Court is adjourned."

            Once free of the chains, Joe launched himself over the railing to his father.

 

 

Friday evening

6 P.M.

 

            The remains of the meal, the dirty plates, the empty glasses, spread across the table. The four men around the table seemed reluctant to leave, as though to leave would be to break the spell the meal had woven. Again and again, they had laughed and not always because something funny had been said. No, it was more relief that made them joyful.

            "Well, I ain't never seen a more hangdog look on your face, Adam, as I did when we walked back into that holding area." Hoss sipped from his mug of coffee again.

            "I could hear the loud noise from the courtroom but I couldn't tell what was happening. And considering the short fuse on our youngest brother here, I was afraid he had taken to fighting with Turkey." Adam pressed his napkin to his lips, hiding his smile but unsuccessfully.

            "I would have too!" Joe boasted.

            Ben's chuckle lasted the longest. When he finally stopped, he leaned forward and holding the arm of his youngest to the table, said, "You never did tell me where you picked up that bruise on your face. Fighting with the authorities is never a good idea. I seem to recall telling you that numerous times."

            A sly grin came to Joe's face and his eyes slid towards his brother at the end of the table. "Yep, you've told me lots of times. Don't fight with the cops."

            Adam cleared his throat. "I believe the word Pa used was authorities, Joe. But in this case, Pa, I don't see any police brutality charges being worthwhile." As he spoke, he once more rubbed his own whiskered jawline, knowing what the beard covered. He wondered how long it took a bruise to fade; he would shave then and not before.

            No sure what was happening, Ben finally stood and suggested that they move into the living room.

            The knock on the front door was answered by Hoss, still holding his coffee. There on the covered porch stood the sheriff, his shoulders coated with snow. A glimpse into the front yard showed that the snow was still falling, covering Roy's silent four-wheel drive vehicle.

            "Thought I'd best come out and tell you all the good news myself. Thank you, Hoss, yes I would love a cup of coffee."

            The hot beverage procured and Roy warming by the fire, he finally began to unroll his reason for coming out on such a miserable night.

            "Seems it all hinged back on a plane that you and Joe stole, Adam." Ben's brows rose questioningly. Adam only replied that he would tell them later and Joe snorted. "One of the ladies you met up in Idaho, a Linda Baines, went out, found the plane and copied down the call numbers written on the tail. Said she had to dig it out of the snow. That don't make sense but anyway she reported the plane's being there to the FAA. Seems the plane belonged to a man in Virginia. Gave the owner's address there and they sent someone down to talk to him. They found stuff in the plane too and traced it back to a mailbox in Winnemuca, Nevada. Same man."

            Confused looks circled the room but Roy continued. To an uninformed individual, it would have been heard as rambling but Roy Coffee never rambled. He might take a while coming to his point, but he would get there.

            "'Bout this time, them folks in Atlanta along with the Georgia police, figured out who had hacked into their computer website. Tracked it all backwards, I don't know how since I don't use the fool things much myself but, lo and behold, guess where it went to?"

            "Up to Winnemuca," Adam said. He sat his cup down on the stonework and hunched forward.

            "Yep. Well, you know the Post Office has to have a physical address to go with a post office box so the FBI went lookin'. I guess they got their hands full of computer equipment, and telephones and all that sort of such since that was all that was in the house. Except that all of them lines and such went back to Virginia."

            "It was a blind, wasn't it?" asked Joe, but Roy claimed he didn't understand what a blind was and let it drop.

            "So by now the FBI is really interested. Seems that Walter fella is a puzzle wizard. He started putting things together that his other boys were bringing him. Like the bank auditor. You were right, Hoss. That million dollars was never there and was never sent to the Caribbean. A clerk at the bank is being held on fraud charges over that. The tape from Homeland Security and the FAA finally came through and while the man buying that plane ticket was as tall as Adam and, I would guess, dressed like he was like you, he might pass from afar but up close, he turned out to be a small time hoodlum. He is currently squealing like a stuck pig for the benefit of anyone who cares to listen. And you wanna guess whose name he first said? Yep, the fella in Virginia."

            "Sounds to me like a one-man conspiracy, Roy. Have they arrested him?" Ben asked, fear again nibbling at his stomach.

            "Yep, and you want to know what they found in his computer? You weren't the only politician going to be used, Ben, but you were going to be the first. Seems this fella had an axe to grind with the Citizens for Repeal of the Death Penalty, that group in Atlanta Georgia. He was set to pull the same stunts in Vermont, Maryland, even Alaska. Anywhere the death penalty was getting ready to be examined by the state legislature. The Fed-boys said they've got enough to put him away for the next two hundred years. So you boys are safe."

            "What about Taylor? Any track on who pulled the trigger on him?" softly, Adam asked. He'd heard a little about what was suspected but without proof, without reasons--.

            Roy looked at his hands a long while before he answered. "I talked with Jimmy's wife. We were pretty much right. He sold himself, so that his family would be taken care of. As it stands right now, the only ones who know the truth about what happened are Jennette, his wife, and us here in this room. Officially, the case will never be closed as we are going to say that he was murdered by person or persons unknown. You will be exonerated, Adam, because of our little loudmouth in the slammer said clearly that you were incapacitated when the shooting occurred. The Lab boys can prove without a doubt that the tape was doctored. You can call it a cover-up if you want, but we are going to give Jimmy just what he was looking for: a hero's death."

            "And Mandy?" Roy heard the shaking in Joe's whisper.

            "She was a victim of happenstance. Thanks to what you told a gent by the name of Johanssen in the jail in Idaho, we're pretty sure that someone was following you, Joe. When you went to her house, they caught the pizza delivery guy, told them they were part of the party going on in her apartment, paid for the pizza and the rest is history. I'm sorry, Joe."

            "How did they know to do to her what they did? I mean about the baby and all?" In the stillness of the room, Hoss' words were loud and brash even though they were soft. Across from him, he could see the pain in Joe's face, his eyes.

            "Same way I did," Roy confessed. "I saw what you and she were putting together, Joe. At first I thought that it might be for a baby shower or the like but then I figured no. Too big to wrap, to move so it had to be hers. In her mail the next day was a letter from a soldier over in Iraq. Said he was glad he met her and would like to see her again when he came home. We contacted him and he said that yes, he could have been the baby's father since the time was about right. And he was mighty sorry Mandy had never written and told him. I'm sorry, Joe. Mandy was a sweet girl."

 

 

Monday

Early afternoon

 

            Joe stood beside the newly dug grave, the flowers from last week's funeral mostly snow-covered but all dying in the bitter cold wind. He hunched deeper into his winter coat but the cold that chased him was inside him. With a gloved hand, he rubbed the marble stone and again read her name aloud. "Amanda Lydia Roberts. In all the years I knew you, girl, I never knew your middle name." The pain of her loss welled in his chest and he couldn't think straight.

            As his son stood there, Ben came up behind him softly, the new snow muffling his footsteps. Since Joe's silent breakfast, he knew, with the instinct of a parent, where his son was going and had followed discreetly. Now, watching, he approached.

            "She was a nice young woman, Joseph."

            He turned at the sound of his father's voice and quickly dashed a hand across his eyes, trying to hide the tears forming. "That wasn't what you said about her when I was dating her."

            "In the end, she was. I know that she was well loved by everyone in the office and Adam had her pegged for a promotion. AndÖ" he paused for a little then went on, "she was your friend. A good friend. One that you thought enough of to go and help her put together a baby crib. You've always been a good judge of people, Joseph, and you thought highly of Mandy."

            Ben's steps had finally brought him to the side of his son. Together they stood silent, Ben pulling his son to his side under an outstretched arm.

            "You know that she wanted to raise the baby by herself." Ben grunted so Joe continued. "I was gonna talk her out of it. I had it in my head that before the night was out, I was gonna ask her to marry me just so the baby would have a father. Knowin' Mandy, though, she'd have turned me down. The people who did this, will they get the death penalty, Pa?"

            "I don't know," Ben answered honestly. "Do you want them to die for what they did?"

            Joe bowed his head and when he looked back up, he didn't bother trying to hide the tears from his father. "For killing Mandy and her baby just because they got in the way, I don't know. Because they took away her dream, maybe. But then maybe the best punishment would be keeping them locked away from all their friends and family for the rest of their lives. Maybe that would be better, I don't know. Nothing will bring Mandy back."

 

 

Later in the week

8 P.M.

 

            "Let me have a beer Cosmo, will ya?" Adam smacked the bar between where his two brothers sat drinking. Seeing the glowing black cloud that passed for Adam's expression, Hoss moved down a place.

            As Adam took his place and his beer, he clutched the back of his little brother's neck in his grasp. "You and I need to have a talk, young man," he hissed and, for all the world, it sounded like the beginnings of a really good tussle to Hoss, so he leaned towards them to listen.

            Joe, on the opposite side, shrugged his brother's hand off and laughed loud enough that other patrons in the Bucket of Blood turned to see what was funny. A bold smirk on young Cartwright's face wasn't anything exciting so they went back to their drinks.

            "What did you do, lil brother?" Hoss asked, a picture of innocence himself. He'd been in the offices of Cartwright and Son Construction earlier in the week and caught a bit of the talk.

            "Because I decided to take a few days off, to recuperate from my ordeal, he spreads a malicious rumor," Adam declared, sipped his beer then carefully sat the mug back on the bar in the same wet ring it had left before.

            "Now, Joseph!" spouted Hoss, having more than a little trouble keeping a straight face. "Why would you do a thing like that? After all you and Adam have been through? Would have thought the bonding experience - that's what them fancy doctors on the radio call it, ain't it? A bonding experience?"

            "Bonding? He runs the plane out of gas and flips it over landing it. Of course, he is the only one with a seatbelt. I get bounced around like a ping-pong ball. Then he nearly gets us caught when he decides to play ET and to call home! Next thing I know and I am having to dance the night away with the Geritol Generation to make us some cash to rent a room. Does he stop there? No!" Joe paused after dragging the last word out for four syllables and had a long swig of his beer. "Then he takes all the hot water and tells me I would make a good wife for someone named Bubba."

            Hoss was having trouble staying on his stool but it wasn't necessarily because of what Joe was saying because he had heard the full version of the adventure. No, it had more to do with the steely expression Adam was having trouble maintaining on his face.

            "Bubba. You know, Adam, I really wanted to thank you for setting me up like that. He tells the cops that I am violent so they put me in the same cell with this guy who makes you and Turkey look like midgets."

            "I told them you were violent, hoping they would put you in a solitary cell. So that maybe you wouldn't meet a real pervert." Adam's explanation was ignored by both brothers; Hoss because he thought it was all funny and Joe because he was on a roll with his own version.

            "Well, this Bubba turns out to be a really nice guy. Only problem was that he kept reading religious tracts to me all night when all I wanted to do was sleep. But, because older brother here has told this to the cops, they manhandle me, manacles and leg irons -"

            "I had them on too!"

            "- and two burly cops, one on either side. Hell, I couldn't have tripped on those chains since they were holding me up."

            "But you tripped anyway," the elder brother pointed out, again picking up his beer.

            "Great, yeah! The cops think I am trying to make a break for it, so what do they do? You know, Hoss, I never played football except in gym, but I know what you felt like every Friday when the game was over. I quit counting when I hit four guys piled on top of me."

            "Well, come on now, Adam," snorted Hoss, also preparing to take a long swallow of his drink. "What did Joe do to you that was as bad as all that?"

"He told Lisa.  You know Lisa Benning, Hoss? The horse faced blonde in Accounting? She is also the biggest gossip monger in the whole office. You know she has the nerve to even have a little saying on her cubicle wall about spreading rumors? Well, Junior here, " a stiff thumb flicked in smug Joe's direction, "tells Lisa that I am taking a few days off because I have had a boil on my ass lanced and drained."

            Hoss had to hang onto the bar to keep from falling off his barstool. On the other side of Adam, Joe was also having difficulty and was doing the same. Adam sat stone-faced, looking straight ahead.

            "I'll bet it made the rounds in record time," Hoss finally wheezed out then went back to laughing. "Is that why Rosalie put that pillow in your chair?"

            "It isn't that funny."

            Wiping the tears from his eyes, Hoss allowed that it was. He finished his beer then said he was heading home and advised his miscreant brother that if he wanted to ride home with him, he'd better get to the truck. With a nudge to his oldest brother's shoulder and a smile half a mile wide, Joe left.

            "Cosmo," the remaining Cartwright called out after the other two had left. "You still got that Volkswagen Beetle for sale? Joe's gonna need a new vehicle to drive since they wrecked his Jeep and that might just be what he needs. No, doesn't matter if the clutch needs work. You did mention in your ad that the heater didn't work, as I recall. The fenders? You put some on it? Good. No, it doesn't matter that they don't match colorwise. I'll have a check ready for you first thing in the morning if you want to drive it down to the office."

            Feeling much better about himself, Adam swallowed the last of his beer and got up to leave, pulling his coat around him to ward off the cold of the street.

            "Park right next to my car when you get there, just not too close. That's Joe's parking place and I want to make sure everyone knows about his new car. Thanks. See you tomorrow."

            As he cranked the engine of his Jaguar, his cell phone rang and by rote, he answered it.

            "Oh yeah, hi, Lester!" he greeted his caller as he smiled and checked the mirrors. "I called because I want to continue with those flying lessons." He shoved the gearshift forward and nosed the car out onto the snowy street. "Tell me, when do I learn how to land?"

 

 

Finis

 

The Tahoe Ladies

November 2003 to February 2004

 

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