Ben turned slowly away from the bed, exhausted. It had taken hours to resettle Hoss after his unwise sojourn from his sickbed. The barely closed wound had begun to bleed again, and he had toyed with the idea of sending for Paul, then rejected it as they seemed to get things under control and darkness was closing in. Mary had been surprisingly knowledgeable - very helpful in adding a compress to the wound and fixing broth for Hoss to drink. A good woman. She would have made Willie a fine wife - it was a shame.
Joseph had hovered about at loose ends, driven by the adrenaline of his fight and this alternating hope and fear over Hoss's condition. He was hopelessly underfoot, but Ben didn't have the heart to send him away. Thank God Hop Sing would be back in a few days - they could certainly use his calming, efficient presence.
He straightened carefully, easing the crick out of his back. And now one of them would have to fix dinner. And, of course, he would have to ask Miss Mary to stay. It was the least he could do; he just hoped they could scrape together something worthwhile for her to eat.
He moved toward the door and nearly bumped into Joe, who was starting his pacing to the other side of the room for the umpteenth time. Ben put his hands on his shoulders to bring him to a stop. "Joseph," he said firmly. "We should go and let him rest. It probably wouldn't hurt to get a little rest ourselves."
Joe glanced anxiously over Ben's shoulder to the figure in the bed, now snoring gently. "Sure you don't want me to sit with him, Pa?" Ben looked at him hard, and Joe colored a little, remembering his last turn at sitting with Hoss. "Okay, Pa." He looked up again, desperate for anything to get rid of his excess energy. "Say, want me to fix supper?"
"That would be very helpful. Thank you, Joseph." Ben slid an arm around his shoulders and turned him down the hall and toward the stairs. "Despite everything, you made the right decision today, Joseph. I'm proud of you."
Joe ducked his head. "Thanks, Pa. But I'm not sure I deserve it. I still might have done the wrong thing if Adam hadn't talked me out of it. I'm glad he did now that I can think a little more clearly."
"I'm glad he did, too, son. But the fact that he could shows that your heart was headed in the right direction." He paused at the foot of the stairs, wrinkling his forehead suddenly. He glanced toward the kitchen and listened for a moment to the noises coming from inside. Crossing the room, he pushed through the door. Joe followed.
Mary was bustling about, building up the stove fire and laying out provisions from the pantry. She saw them and blushed. "I hope I wasn't too presumptuous, Mr. Cartwright, but I figured you'd all be hungry and had too much on your minds to worry about cooking."
"No, no, of course not - " Ben looked past her, his frown deepening. "But you shouldn't have to cook - you've done enough for us. You should be our guest." He let his eyes sweep the room again, then opened the back door to peer out into the gathering gloom and glanced at the woodpile. "Where IS Adam?" he burst out finally. "I haven't seen him since…" he paused. He couldn't quite remember when.
Joe scratched at the back of his neck. "I don't know," he admitted. "Maybe he's putting the horses up?"
Ben harumphed. "Taking long enough."
"Or maybe he stayed to talk to the deputy."
Mary hesitated over the bowl of beans she was snapping. "He walked back with me for a ways…I lost track of him when I went to open the door for you and Hoss…"
Joe moved toward the great room. "I'll go take a look."
"Oh!" Mary dropped her beans, her hand flying to her mouth. "Oh, how could I have forgotten!"
Ben raised his brows at her. "Forgotten what?"
"Oh!" she pressed her hands over her eyes. "I should have said something sooner! But he got right up - he seemed - "
Ben felt a chill creep through his heart. "Got right up from - where? What happened?"
"Oh, Mr. Cartwright - I'm so sorry - but he took off after Joe - he seemed fine - "
Ben's voice rose. "What - happened?" he repeated, a little shrilly.
She swallowed. "He - Red - he shot him. He - he was out when I found him, but he - "
"Red Twilight - shot - ?" Ben's voice sounded far away to his own ears, and he clenched his fists, trying to tell himself it was all right, that he had seen Adam on his feet with his own eyes. "When - ?"
"Right - right before Joe chased him down the stairs…"
Joe stared at her. "But - that's impossible! I would have - " he paused, a faint memory flickering behind his eyes - the sound of two gunshots, close together, the vague image in his periphery of something near the doorway. He rubbed a shaking hand over his mouth. "Pa - there was a gunshot, and Adam's head - now that I think about it - it was bleeding…"
"Well, of course I saw it was bleeding!" Ben's voice came out harshly, weighted with the sudden fear that he had succored one son only to lose another. "I assumed that there had been some kind of scuffle, not that…" he turned away from them, trying to gather his wits together. Panic wouldn't help anybody. He took a deep breath and tried to speak calmly. "How long has it been since anyone's seen him?"
Joe met his eyes, his own wide. "Got to be hours now, Pa."
"All right - well - " Ben tried to order his frenzied thoughts. He brightened suddenly. "Probably he went to his room to lie down. Joseph, will you take a look please? I'm going to take a quick look in the barn and yard, just in case. And Joseph, if you could start getting together the liniment and some bandages, too, please?"
Joe hesitated as though he wanted to say something, then nodded slowly. "Okay, Pa." He headed toward the kitchen stairs.
Ben watched him go, then leaned against the door to the great room. He hesitated. "Mary - you said you found him - ?"
"Right by the doorway near the grandfather clock, Mr. Cartwright. He was out, but he came around pretty quick after I touched him."
Ben nodded, making his way into the great room and to the credenza. He reached for his gunbelt and was fastening it when something caught his eye, and he froze with his hand on the buckle. He moved stiffly to the wall on the other side of the door and stood, staring. A starburst of bright blood splashed across the whitewashing, dripping down the wall and pooling on the floor. He squatted. A half-dried puddle seeped into the floorboards. He reached out to touch it and winced at the stickiness on his fingers, his stomach turning within him. Oh, dear God. Adam. Standing abruptly, he half ran out the door and in the direction of the barn.
He returned a short time after at a much slower pace. He stepped inside the door, letting his eyes adjust to the brightness of the room and glancing hopefully toward the stairs. Joe was sitting on the bottom step and one look at his face sent his hopes plummeting to his boots. Joe must have read his expression too, because he said tentatively, "Maybe he went into town with the deputy?"
"With a head wound? I hope not." Ben smiled a little despite the fear gathering in his heart. Not that it wouldn't be like him. "Besides, I found Sport and Cochise nibbling at straw in the barn, still tacked. Set Curly to taking care of them."
Joe rubbed his hands over his face. He had forgotten about Cochise, too? What else had he forgotten? "Where do you think he is, Pa?" he asked in a small voice.
Ben caught his tone and tried to smile reassuringly. "Well, I don't know, son - he might be confused because of the head injury - might have wandered off a little. I doubt he could have gone far, though - looks like he's lost a lot of - " his eyes wandered involuntarily to the blood stained wall.
Joe followed his eyes and swallowed hard. "Pa - " he choked.
"We'll find him, son," said Ben hastily. "We'll leave Miss Mary to keep an eye on Hoss and gather the men and find him in no time."
Joe raised anguished eyes to his. "It's mighty dark, Pa."
Ben's eyes slid away from him. "We've found things in the dark before."
"Getting cold, too."
Ben pulled his hat down over his forehead. "He was wearing his jacket."
Joe couldn't seem to stop his train of thought. "He's been gone so long, Pa - " he blurted. "I can't believe I - I can't believe - "
"Joseph!" Ben's voice was kind, but very firm. "We don't have time for this, son."
Joe hung his head. "Sorry, Pa," he said softly.
Ben reached out to squeeze his shoulder. "Why don't you tell Miss Mary what we're doing? I'll be out in the bunkhouse organizing the men. Meet me there." Joe nodded heavily and Ben gave his arm another squeeze. "We'll find him, son."
Wet. There was something not right about that…he shifted a little, trying to push himself up, but his arm seemed to be trapped against his chest and his body unaccountably heavy…he moved again, trying to lift his head, but try as he might he couldn't seem to remember which was up and which was down, and his eyes seemed to be sewn tight shut so that he couldn't open them and see. He sighed, letting his cheek settle back against the cold wetness. Something was chewing uncomfortably into his cheekbone, but he couldn't bring himself to care enough to do anything about it. Besides, the chill felt wonderful against that burning spot above his ear - the first relief he'd had in…well, he couldn't remember how long exactly. A while.
That tickled at something in his brain, and he stirred reluctantly. He had been…he had meant to do something. Had seemed important…he sighed, sliding gently again toward blackness when a face swam briefly before his vision. Shorty. He tried to open his eyes again, failed. He had meant to bury Shorty…or at least wrap him in canvas and rope and get some of the men to bury him…he had started toward the supply shed…he wrinkled his forehead, gasping a little at the sudden pinch of pain it evoked, then choking weakly as the gasp forced water into his nose and mouth. He coughed, the motion slicing through his ears like a knife blade, and he pushed again blindly at the wetness with his free hand. Something bit at his palm, and he lost his grip with a faint cry, his whole face slipping to submerge in the cold wetness this time. For a terrible moment he couldn't hear, couldn't see, couldn't breathe…then the cold roused him just enough and he managed to lever himself over onto his back. There was a distant splashing sound, and a hundred sharp points thrust their way into his back through his jacket, but he could breath again. He lay there, eyes still closed, spent. He was supposed to be doing something …the thought passed through his mind like a wisp of smoke and then was gone again. It occurred to him, in passing, that he would probably be more comfortable if he were dry…but that idea slipped through his fingers too. Too hard…better to just lie here for a bit…he would get up in just a minute…in just a minute he would remember what he'd…how he'd…the idea stood poised for a moment, then was gone again. He didn't pursue it. Later. As soon as…in just a minute…just another minute…another min…
"So NO one has seen him?"
Curly glanced around at the other hands who were all shaking their heads. "No, sir. Not since this mornin', anyway. Not a whole lot the last couple days since…" he closed his mouth abruptly and squinted apologetically at Ben. "What I'm sayin' is we was all out on the range, 'cept fer Shorty. Didn't see him around anywheres when we got back. Shorty either, actual. Maybe they went somewheres together?"
"Shorty?" Ben raised his brows, his eyes searching the bunkhouse for the familiar face. That was right, Shorty had been left to look after the ranch. "And no one's seen him either? Well, I can't imagine where they'd be, but at least that is some sort of - "
"Shorty's dead, Pa."
Ben's head reared up at the quiet voice in the bunkhouse doorway, and he swiveled to see Joe standing there, his face tight.
Joe took a step into the room, avoiding the eyes of the other hands. "Adam and me found him when we rode up - that's how we knew Red Twilight was here. Adam covered the front door and I took the back window…I guess Red must have heard something though, cause…" he dropped his eyes.
Ben saw the hands slide questioning looks at each other and cleared his throat. "Because Adam was shot," he supplied. His voice was preternaturally calm.
Curly pushed his hat back on is head. "So, you're saying Shorty was killed and Adam's out there somewheres shot? What exactly is it we're standing around here waitin' fer?" A chorus of murmurs rose from the hands, and Ben held up his hands.
"I don't want anyone going off half cocked," he said firmly. "Running around in the dark tripping over each other won't help anyone - we need to organize ourselves. Now, I want everyone to split into groups of two or three. Each group needs a lantern. I want one group to sweep within a half mile of the rear of the house, one take the west side, one the east. Two men can go through the barn carefully. Two others can sweep the perimeter beyond the half-mile radius. Curly, you can come with me and Joseph - I want you to show me where you left Shorty. The least we can do is put him in the Spring House until we can bury him decently." Joe nodded jerkily. He knew his father was right, but it went against everything in him to take care of such niceties when he could be looking for his brother. Ben watched his face carefully, then nodded his approval. "Good. We'll all check in here again in one hour. If anyone finds anything, fire your gun into the air to alert the others. Now, let's get to it." He watched them divide themselves into teams, his throat suddenly tight. "And God speed," he added softly, half to himself.
Joe had to try three times before successfully lighting the lantern, his hands clumsy and unsteady. He glanced up to see if anyone had noticed, but Curly was frowning out the bunkhouse door, and his father seemed deep in his own thoughts. He cleared his throat carefully before speaking, trying to dislodge some obstruction that seemed to have settled in the middle of it. "This way," he managed. He lead them to the area in front of the house where he remembered seeing Shorty before shooing Sport and Cochise out of the way and going after Red. He couldn't make out the dark lump that would indicate Shorty's body though, so he crouched down for a better look. Nothing. He moved a little further forward of the spot and then to the right and the left, increasingly puzzled. "But he was right here!" he burst out at last.
"So what you're telling me is that my son with a gunshot wound to his head wandered off, and then my dead ranch hand wandered off after him?" Ben's voice sounded flat in the darkness.
"I'm telling you he was here - or right near here - a few hours ago! And he was dead! No way he could have…" Joe stared about him helplessly, seeing the lanterns of the other men bouncing like fireflies in the darkness, but little else.
Curly pried the lantern gently from his grip and bent down to look for himself. He rested a hand on the spot on the ground, then picked it up and studied his fingers. "Blood," he said after a minute. "Ground cover looks sorta flat, too."
Ben knelt next to him to look for himself. "Then he was here."
Curly nodded. "Looks like." He held the lantern close to the ground, trying to see better. "Might've been drug thataway - can't see clear fer sure, but there looks to be some blood and flattening in that direction."
Joe squatted next to him, feeling a rush of relief. He had been suffering the beginnings of doubts about his own sanity. "Maybe Adam buried him," he said suddenly. "Maybe it took him longer, on accounta he was hurt, but maybe that's where he is."
Ben was silent a moment, mulling this over. "Possible," he said at last. "Likely, even. But why on earth didn't he stop when it got dark?"
Joe closed his eyes, feeling as if his breathing was starting to right itself for the first time in days. "Wouldn't stop till he was done - you know how he is. Or maybe he sat down to take a rest and fell asleep, bein' wounded and all."
Ben's eyes lingered on the barely visible tract of ground, listening to the search parties' voices in the distance, hollering out his eldest son's name. "If so, then that should rouse him, if he's in any kind of shape to - " he pushed abruptly to his feet. "Lend me the lantern. I'm going to see if this drag mark leads anywhere. In fact, Joe - go back to the house and fetch another one, will you? Check in on Mary and Hoss, too."
Joe hesitated, wanting to protest, but even in the uncertain light of the lantern Ben's eyes looked so hollow that he stopped himself. "Okay, Pa," he said reluctantly. "But I'll be back out to help."
If Ben heard him, he gave no indication. He was trying to trace the almost invisible - possibly imaginary - drag marks. They had only gone a few feet when he shook his head and stopped. "I don't see anything more," he admitted. "In fact, I'm not sure I saw anything in the first place. " He stood up to stretch out his back and stared ahead toward a stand of pine. "Let's follow to where we feel it would logically lead, anyway. Probably a wild goose chase…" But action is better than waiting. He finished the thought silently, opening the lantern hood a little further and sweeping the light across the trees. Nothing that looked out of place. The sound of the searchers calling Adam's name continued unabated in the background, though, and he moved forward slowly, sweeping the lantern light across the ground in front of him. Curly followed close behind him, silently keeping pace.
The light glinted off a dark mound under the trees, and he quickened his steps, his heart trip-hammering in his chest.
"Look!" he pointed the mound out to Curly. "Is it - ?" He pushed the hood open to its fullest extent and played it hopefully over the indistinct lump. Then swallowed hard. A pile of sticks, that was all. Firewood or brush, probably. He let the lantern drop and swing from his hand, almost sick with disappointment. Must be brush. Wasn't good burning wood… He was only vaguely aware of Curly moving forward to look more closely, until he heard him calling his name.
"Take a look here, Mr. Cartwright."
Ben moved forward, barely able to summon the strength and interest. Curly was pulling back some of the branches to reveal…he aimed the lantern a little better. "What? - is it? - "
"Ain't long enough to be Adam." Curly pointed out calmly. "I'm thinking Shorty."
Ben stared. It was a body - carefully laid out with his hands crossed over his chest and covered with branches…to keep predators away, he realized suddenly, until Adam could - what? Dig a grave? Fetch help? If indeed it was Adam who had…he squatted by the head Curly had uncovered, noting the face was respectfully draped with a handkerchief. The kind dignity of the gesture pricked like a needle against his heart. He didn't have to look at the handkerchief monogram to know who had done this. He lifted the cloth delicately and saw that the eyes had been closed and coins placed on them to keep them closed. He dropped the corner of the handkerchief. "It's Shorty," he affirmed quietly. "Well, we know Adam was here, anyway." He rubbed at his chest, trying to massage away the sob that suddenly rose there.
And that was all well and good - but where was Adam now?
Where was his boy?
He had been cold, but that was past now. Maybe somebody had come and put a quilt over him - Marie probably. She did that sometimes, late at night, but he pretended not to know about it, afraid she would stop if she knew he liked it. Like so many things that disappeared if you said aloud that you liked them. Better to keep quiet, he had learned. Things lasted longer that way.
He was distantly aware of voices calling his name but drew away from them, deeper inside himself. Must be time to get up…but he wasn't ready…not quite yet. Just a couple more minutes. Outside of the quilt he knew he would be cold again and he was tired of being cold. In fact, he was just plain tired. Must have studied too late in bed again...Pa would be mad if he knew he was using up all that lamp oil. He'd have to see how much money he had saved - sneak out and buy some more. It's just those new math problems Mr. Reeves had given him were so absorbing - like magic, the way they answered so many of his questions. He tried to stretch a little, get ready to get up, but his body felt so heavy…wouldn't hurt to lie here just a little bit longer. Go over the math problems in his head.
The sound of his name came again - louder and nearer - and he sighed inwardly. He must have fallen back asleep. Now he would be late waking up Hoss and Hoss was hard to wake, too. They'd both be late for breakfast and Pa would be mad. The problem was Hoss hated school. He couldn't imagine hating school himself - had tried to show Hoss all the wonderful things he could learn there, the wonder of the magical math problems - but Hoss had looked so confused and then so sad that he had stopped. Maybe school just wasn't for everybody. Come to think of it, not many people did like to talk about math problems - not even Pa, and he was the smartest there was. So maybe Hoss was just normal.
Hoss…he was trying to remember something about Hoss now - something important. Something he had to get up for. He frowned in concentration and that made his head hurt. Had he hurt himself? Was he sick? Maybe that's why he felt so tired. Maybe he wasn't going to school today…but he hated to miss. If he could get himself up maybe he could talk Pa into letting him go. Otherwise he'd be stuck home all day with Marie and Joe…Joe. He frowned again and gave a grunt of surprise at the pain that erupted this time. Was there something he was supposed to be doing about Joe? Maybe he needed changing? But Marie usually did that when she got him ready for breakfast. And why did his head…?
…Hoss and Joe. A little alarm bell rang in his brain whenever he thought of them, but he couldn't remember why. It seemed important, but he couldn't remember. All he could remember were the math problems…the two sides of an isosceles triangle …he liked geometry best. Liked the way flat numbers and lines on paper became real live, three dimensional things…savoured the exotic sound of the Greek names and terms. He smiled just faintly, remembering trying to explain "pi" to Hoss - to explain that it wasn't a dessert made by Hop Sing…Hoss had been so disappointed.
Hoss. His smile disappeared again. What had been…what was he…he had to get up, that was all. Pa was strict about some things, like thirteen-year-old boys being able to get themselves up and ready for school without reminding. Really, he - unless he was sick. He really didn't feel very - maybe he was. Maybe that was why he couldn't remember…the two sides of a - no. Wait. The three sides, that was it. The three sides of an isosceles - no. Hoss. And Joe. He was supposed to…he was…his head hurt. Why did his head hurt so…? He'd better call for Pa. Pa would know what - he wouldn't be mad if he…he opened his mouth and coughed instead, found a surprising mouthful of water, an unexpected, crushing weight across his chest. He coughed again, the pain this time filling his head with darkness and pushing back the rest of the world, leaving only the pain and the tiredness enshrouding him. He tried once more to form the words, but his lips felt stiff and clumsy…he couldn't tell if he had actually…couldn't seem to hear…and now he was cold again…Pa? I think I need…
Joe paused and shook his lantern again, but the oil still sloshed alarmingly low. He had resorted to taking one from the porch - he didn't know why Pa thought there would be any left, what with the number they'd given the hands - and it was the one Adam liked to use to read by nights, so it was no wonder it was burning low.
Adam. His heart squeezed within him. He just barely felt like he had Hoss back - like maybe he was really going to be all right again and now…how did everything go so wrong? He paused his steps a moment and swallowed, brushing a hand impatiently at his eyes. Pa was right. He didn't have time for this. He needed to fill the lamp and get back to the search. For all he knew, every hour might count. He stiffened his spine and staunchly set forward again. After all, he had been almost sure Hoss was going to die and now - well, Hoss didn't look wonderful or anything, but he seemed a little better. Like he'd turned the corner or something. He'd been sleeping okay, snoring a little, just like he did when he was comfortable. So maybe Adam…he sniffed again and scrubbed savagely at his nose. No time for that kid stuff. It was bad enough he had - he could hardly stand to think about how he had - but now Adam needed him and this time he wasn't going to let him down. He wasn't. He saw the supply shed before him and reached for the door. It swung loose, banging gently in the light wind.
Joe gave a low whistle. Boy, he'd hate to be the hand who left the shed unlatched if Adam found out. That was just the kind of carelessness that set him off on one of his lectures. He reached forward to catch the door and hang the lantern on the nail embedded on the other side. And paused. What was…? He raised the lantern a little higher to see better, then ran a finger along the door, feeling a sudden chill. Was that…? Blood. Wasn't there yesterday. It must be -
"Adam?" he took an anxious step inside, peeling back the lantern hood and flashing it around. "Adam? It's Joe! You in here?" He paced around the small, crowded interior, scattered the light over the shelves, even though he knew they couldn't hide a six-foot-plus man. But he HAD been here. And recently - since he was hurt. Where was he now, was the question?
"ADAM?" Like shouting would help. Joe forced himself to take a deep breath. He needed to keep his head. He would refill his lantern. Go tell Pa what he had found. He glanced around at the shelves, wondering if he would be able to figure out what Adam had come looking for - if it would give him a clue as to where to find him.
Oh, Adam - where are you? Everything looked in place. Well, damn Adam anyway for always being so neat. He grabbed the jug of oil and filled the lamp, then re-lit it and shot a last look around the shed before leaving, shutting the door carefully behind him. He paused to run his hand over the bloodstain. I'll find you, Adam, he told himself firmly. I will. I promise.
The night seemed even darker and the voices and lanterns of the other searchers far away. The tree leaves rustled softly. He wondered what time it was - how long they had been looking now. Pa had said he couldn't have gone far, because - no. He wasn't going to think about that right now. It wouldn't help and he needed to - he tripped over something in the dark and swore softly. Damn! He would have said he knew every tree root around here! What - ? Hopping on one foot in irritation, he shone the lantern on the ground. A damn rope. Well, whoever had left it out here on the ground to mildew, a perfectly good rope, was REALLY going to…he saw the canvas the next minute and stopped. The picture didn't make sense to his tired brain right away, but he knew it was important, and after a minute he knelt down next to them for a better look. The rope coil was coming loose - as though somebody had just thrown it down - and the canvas was unrolling…not neat at all. He hesitated. But if Adam was trying to bury Shorty…he stroked a hand across the canvas and stood up again, moving the lantern this way and that. "Adam?" he raised his voice. "Adam! Are you here?" Only the trees rustled in answer.
Angry now, he took a step randomly, flashing his lantern. "Adam! It's Joe! Are you - ?" The ground crumbled suddenly under his foot, and he jumped back hastily.
And there you go again, off half-cocked, just like Pa warned everybody, he told himself irritably. Not thinking about what you're doing - just letting your emotions run you until you almost find yourself head first down in the creek bed. Not like there's much water to break your fall this time of year, either. He put the lantern down carefully beside him and squatted, letting his head hang for a moment, waiting to collect himself. All Pa needs tonight is one more injured son. He waited until he felt a little steadier, then sucked in a deep breath of the cool night air and reached again for the lantern. And stopped. What was…?
He reached out a hand delicately, sure for a minute he was imagining things, touched it gently, so as not to disturb it. That wasn't where he had slipped, was it? No - that was to his right - he could make it out from here. So maybe…"ADAM!" he stared down into the blackness of the creek bed, lay on his stomach and lowered the lantern as far as he could. Nothing. The steep, perpendicular banks of the narrow creek created deep, inky shadows that the lantern couldn't possibly penetrate from this height. "Adam!" he called again, more frantically. "Adam, it's Joe! Are you down there?"
He wasn't answering - maybe he wasn't there, or maybe he couldn't answer - well, he would find out for sure, all right - he set the lantern carefully aside and tried to picture the creek bed in his head. Banks about nine feet high, and too steep for him to slide down - maybe he could dangle and drop. He turned around to position himself, and then flinched as another piece of bank gave away. And hesitated again. If he hurt himself getting down there, or even if he didn't and he did find Adam, how would he get them out? His eyes flickered over the rope. All well and good, but how would that help without someone on the other end? He stared into the blackness. He wanted to know now - he couldn't bear another wild goose chase - if Adam was down there he wanted to see for himself - see that he was still alive - and the sooner the better…but…he sat back on his heels, covering his face with his hands. But doing things fast, without thinking - insisting on doing things his way - had brought him nothing but trouble these past few days. Maybe…maybe this time…he should try something different. He wiped his hands on his trousers, squinting skyward for a moment, then clearing his throat. "Adam - if you're down there…" his voice came out sounding small and scared, and he tried again. "- I'm gonna get help. But I'll be back. I'm gonna get you out, Adam. I promise. You hear me? I'll be back." He forced himself to his feet before he could change his mind and turned hastily, snatching at the lantern. "I'll be back." He repeated fiercely, grinding the heel of his hand into his eyes. "I'll be back."
"Adam! Adam. It's Joe!"
It's too early, Joe. Go to Marie.
"Adam…" Joe was saying something else and this time he sounded scared, so with a resigned sigh, he tried to bestir himself. Nothing happened. Everything, even his body, seemed so far away. Sorry, Joe. Go to Pa or Hoss. They'll look out for you.
Now it was quiet again and his chest lifted slightly in a shallow sigh. Good…
"Adam, wake up!"
Not Joe this time .
Not - a woman. Sounded angry. Marie?
"Adam, you will not go to sleep."
"Adam. You will stay awake!"
"Not until you answer a few questions for me."
"That's right. Questions. Geometry questions."
"I know you are, but it's important. What is the name of an angle that is less than ninety degrees?"
"Of course you do. That's an easy one."
"Of course you care. You always care. You can't help yourself. Come on, you know the answer."
"Yes, I know - and after you answer all my questions I'm going to let you rest. Now, the name of the angle?" There was a pause, then the voice became more insistent. "Adam? The angle?"
"That's right. Very good. What about an angle that is MORE than ninety degrees, but less than one eighty?"
"Yes, you do."
Don't…please. So tired.
"Yes, I know. Just answer the questions and I'll let you sleep as long as you like. What is the name - "
"Very good. So an angle that is exactly ninety degrees - "
"Almost. Just a couple more…let's see…what's a parallelogram with unequal adjacent sides?"
A long drawn sigh. …… here…
"You will NOT go to sleep!"
…not. A sudden cough rattled his chest and he waited wearily for the spell to pass. Didn't hurt…he observed thoughtfully after a second.
Used to. Better, maybe. …So far away…
"Adam. The parallelogram?"
"Certainly you do."
"Now you're just being stubborn."
Something in her voice struck him and he frowned a little. Not Marie… Hm. Frowning didn't hurt so much any more either…didn't feel much of anything, actually…
…Rhomboid, he answered at last.
"That's my boy."
Joe again. What…?
"I'll leave you with Joe, now. Stay awake just a little longer for me?"
"Just a little longer, baby."
"Adam!" Joe leaned as far over the bank as he dared. "Adam, I'm back, just like I said. I brought Curly. We're gonna get you out!" He turned his head to where Curly was carefully fingering the indentation in the bank. "What d'ya think?"
Curly shrugged cautiously. "Sure looks like a boot heel. Ain't too old, neither. Could be anybody, o' course."
"Yeah…but there's the rope and the canvas…"
"Hell, I ain't sayin' we shouldn't look - 'bout the only place left we ain't checked. I'm just thinkin' on how."
"Lower me." Joe returned impatiently. "Then the lantern - I'll search the creek bed." Curly scratched contemplatively at his head. Joe read his hesitation and scowled. "It's got to be me, Curly. I'm lighter and you may need to haul us both up the bank. If Adam is down there and he can't answer, he's not gonna be much help." Curly still didn't reply and Joe seethed with frustration. "Darn it, Curly, he's my brother - I got a right!"
Curly sat back on his haunches. "Ain't about that, Joe," he said mildly. "'S'bout what makes the most sense and gets everybody the least hurt."
Joe felt himself flush in the darkness. He had promised himself he wasn't going to do that any more. "I know, Curly," he said after a minute. "But my plan does make the most sense."
Curly sighed. "Reckon," he admitted after a minute. "But if somethin' happens to you, too, I figger yer Pa'll have my hide, so you be careful. None o' yer stunts."
Joe let his breath out in a rush. "I will be. I promise. I just want to see if he's there."
"All right." Curly picked up the rope and began to deftly tie a lasso. "Get this tight around you, now. And go real slow. Banks about straight down - probably have to lower you for most of it."
Joe slid the rope over his head and tightened it under his arms, easing himself over the side of the bank. A chunk of earth gave way under one hand, and for a moment he was air bound before he stopped with a jerk that rattled his teeth and yanked at his shoulder muscles.
"You okay?" Curly's voice sounded surprisingly close, since he couldn't really see him.
"Fine. Just surprised me."
Curly lowered him at a smooth pace until Joe felt the creek floor just below him. "Okay. You can let go." He felt his boot heels make contact with the uneven rocks that lined the creek bed, stumbling as one shifted abruptly under his weight. He tried to catch himself, but caught his other foot under something else and sat down hard with a splash. God damn.
"Joe? Joe, you all right?"
"Yeah…just tripped over something." Curly's silence was eloquent, and he elaborated hastily, "Some thing. Not someone. Send down the lantern?"
He heard the lantern start its bumping descent, and Curly's disembodied voice say, "Heard a splash. Got much water in there?"
"Couple inches. Not much. Not even enough to cover most of the rocks. Unfortunately." He heard Curly's chuckle of appreciation. "Damn cold, though." He groped for the object he had tripped over, felt his hand curl around a smooth wooden cylinder. He felt down its length to the curving bowl of metal at one end. "Shovel," he whispered out loud.
Joe bit his lip. "It's a shovel. That I tripped over." He ran his hand over the metal end. "No rust that I can feel. Couldn't have been here long." There was a tense silence. "Curly - this water is freezing."
Joe knew his voice must have sounded strained, because Curly answered him with carefully measured calm. "Think the lantern just landed. Untie it and tie the shovel on and I'll bring it up."
Joe shifted himself to his knees, the sharp edges of the stones grinding into his flesh through his trousers, and felt around for the lantern. He managed to undo the knot with hands that were already shaking with the cold and immediately opened the lantern hood. The sudden burst of light made him feel better, and he was a little steadier as he tied the shovel in its place. "Ready." He didn't wait to watch the shovel start its journey but steadied himself against the bank instead and stood up. The rocks tilted under his feet, so he kept a hand on the bank for balance as he made his way forward, training the light in either direction.
"Not yet - really dark down here, though - can't see much ahead and it's slow - oh, God."
Joe took an urgent step, losing his precarious foothold and falling suddenly forward to land with a resounding splash, followed by the crunching, shattering sound of the lantern landing. "Joe? "
"Oh, God." Joe hardly noticed his landing, hardly noticed the harsh chill of the water against his chest or the misery of the stones stabbing into him. He crawled frantically forward, swinging his hand in front of him, trying to make contact with what he'd seen. "Oh, God, Curly."
"Joe? Answer me, damn it! Are you all right?"
"Oh, God." Joe felt his hand brush something and twisted his fingers hard around it…a boot toe…and pulled himself forward, scrambling from his stomach to his knees, following the boot up the long length of leg, to a belt buckle, then a coat button… God, the coat was drenched…he seemed so cold…stopped when he felt the curve of a sternum under his hand.
Come on, he breathed, resting it there. Come on, damn it! He felt the icy skin stir with a thin, feeble cough and dropped his forehead on his hand, not even trying to stop the sob that crowded his throat.
"Joe? What the blazes is goin' on down there?"
Joe didn't bother to lift his head, but he turned it a little so he could be heard, fighting to get his voice under control. "He's here, Curly," he choked. He tightened his free hand in the soaked but familiar lapel and held on for all he was worth. "And he's alive."
"Thank God. How's he look?"
Joe lifted his head and squinted in the direction of Curly's voice. "Can't tell," he admitted sheepishly. "I dropped the lantern."
There was a short silence. "Okay. Can you get the rope around him?"
"Hang on." Joe carefully felt his way up Adam's chest to his neck, then his cheek. The cheek felt so cold he wouldn't have recognized it as flesh if it weren't for the sandpapery, late day stubble he was so familiar with there. Joe shifted himself a little so he could reach more comfortably and patted the cheek lightly. "Adam? Hey, Adam - it's Joe." Silence. Joe braced the other cheek with his other hand and patted a little harder. "Adam? Come on, Adam - wake up. It's time to go home." Still nothing. Wincing apologetically, Joe slapped harder. "C'mon, Adam - we gotta get out of here." Adam's head lolled lifelessly between his hands. Joe felt a frisson of panic in his chest. "Curly, he's really out of it. God, he's so cold."
"Can you carry him?"
"Probably, but the creek bed is uneven, and I've already fallen twice - I'm afraid of dropping him." He unconsciously rested his hand against the frigid cheek while he thought. "Can't drag him across these stones, either - tear him to shreds."
Curly's voice sounded uneasy. "So what are you suggestin'?"
"I think you better go back for help."
"I ain't leavin' you two down there alone."
"What else can we do? Curly, we've really gotta get him outta here - he's not even shivering any more. For that matter, I'm gettin' pretty cold myself."
He heard Curly's sigh all the way down the bank. "Reckon yer right. You promise me you'll sit right there and not do anythin' stupid?"
"Where the heck am I gonna go? Just hurry, okay? Bring a couple of men." He ran his hand down Adam's face and shuddered. "Better send somebody for the doc, too. And bring blankets. "
Joe watched the bright flicker of Curly's lantern move away from the bank, and his heart shook. "Curly - " he called. The lantern paused in its progress. "Don't forget to tell Pa!"
He heard a snort of laughter in response. "Now there's somethin' I'd be likely to forget," he drawled sarcastically.
"Right," agreed Joe meekly. "Hurry, okay?" He watched as the darkness swallowed up the last flicker of light and Curly was gone. The night was suddenly silent except for the soft whisper of the wind.
"Looks like it's just you and me, big brother," he said aloud to cut the silence. The wind made him shiver, and he slid his hand down to rest on Adam's chest again. "If that feels cold for me, what's it like for you, huh?" he mused. He fingered the sodden fabric of his brother's barn coat. "That's got to be doin' more harm than good - let's see if I can get it off you - maybe make you more comfortable." Feeling his way carefully in the dark he grasped both lapels and eased Adam into sitting position. "I'm gonna move behind you, now - you just lean back on me." He was about positive Adam couldn't hear a word he was saying, but it made him feel better to talk. He got himself positioned the way he wanted and leaned Adam back against his chest, gasping with surprise at the first contact of the sopping coat with his shirtfront. God, Adam - how are you even alive?
He grit his teeth and gave himself a minute to adjust before continuing, "Now, we're just gonna slide this off your left shoulder…then the sleeve…you and those darned long arms of yours…hang on…" he leaned him carefully forward and peeled the coat away across the back, then rested him against his chest again. The shirt was almost as cold, but at least it didn't hold so much water. "Good, now the right arm…" He pushed the sleeve down as far as the elbow, then it seemed to snag on something, so he tugged at it. Adam made a small sound of protest, and he stopped in surprise. "Adam? You awake?" There was no answer, and Joe positioned the limp head in the crook of his neck so he could listen better. "Adam?" He brushed a hand over Adam's hair and shivered again as chilled rivulets of water trickled from the drenched hair down his own neck and chest. I wish I could at least get that dry. That's got to be freezing you when the wind hits it. Bet I don't have a handkerchief with me, though…he ran his hand over it again, trying to get at least some of the water out, then reached down to give the sleeve another try, feeling his way carefully. This time he felt the forearm, thick and hard as a log of wood and straining against the confines of the sleeve, and dropped his forehead against the wet black hair.
"Think you busted your arm, brother," he managed after a minute, trying to keep his voice light. "What other damage you do to yourself, huh? Sure wish I could see you." He moved the arm gently so that it lay across Adam's lap, out of the way, and sighed. "Fraid that one sleeve is gonna have to stay. Don't dare try cutting it in the dark. Maybe we should get your shirt off, though, too, huh? Least I can rip that sleeve out. Then I guess we might get rid of mine - it's not much better after that tumble I took. Pretty soon we'll be stripped down for a dip like the first day of summer…" he began to maneuver the buttons out of the button holes as he talked, gave up as his own hands began to shake with the cold and ripped the placket open instead, listening to the buttons as they flew in every direction and plinged softly into the water. "Just as well you missed that. Not the sort of thing you like." He ripped the rest of the shirt off too to avoid shifting him around any more than necessary. "All right, now mine. My jacket's not too bad - maybe I can get it around both of us…"
He pulled Adam closer to him, wrapping an arm around his chest and resting a hand over his heart to assure himself that it was still beating. Seemed slow. He settled his other arm high around his shoulders. "Sure wish you'd talk to me. I'd even settle for one of your lectures about now. On anything you like - I'd sit right through and not make a peep…" Where the heck was Curly? The rest of the men couldn't be that far away! He strained his ears for a sign of approach, but only heard the soft voices of the tree frogs. He buried his face in Adam's hair.
"And you think I do some dumb things? Least I didn't wander off with a hole in my head and drop myself down some damn creek bed and bust my arm and freeze myself half to death and scare everybody out of their minds…now I'm sitting here half frozen in this damn water and whose fault is that, huh? It's one thing for me to do this kind of thing, Adam, but I expect better from you. I expect a little more - a little more - sense, you know? A little more - consideration. Makes me so mad…maybe that's why you get so mad at me when I… But that's not the point. I EXPECT better from you." He felt Adam's chest suck in abruptly under his hand, then shake with a wet-sounding cough that turned his stomach. He held on to him with all his might until it passed, then swallowed slowly. "Sounds like maybe you breathed in some creek water, too, huh?" The chest moved again, struggling hard, then again, less certainly. Joe sat up straight, moving his right arm to cradle the docile head against his neck. "Oh, no you don't - " he said shrilly. "No, you don't - don't even think about it! You're not leavin' me here sittin' in this damn creek bed alone - this wasn't my idea! You're not goin' to leave me sittin' here to explain things to Pa when he shows up, to tell him that you - that you - and then Hoss, tomorrow mornin', after he - don't even think about it, Adam - don't even give it a thought, because as long as I got breath in my body you ain't goin' nowhere!" Adam coughed again and Joe gave him a little shake. "Darn you, you talk to me! You tell me - tell me about - about - building things - or history - or poetry - or any of those darned things you're always tryin' to tell me about - come on, Adam - I'm listenin' - now you talk to me!"
The air rattled wetly in Adam's lungs, and Joe shuddered. Sounded like he was struggling…he had some vague remembrance of Doc Martin doing something for that one time when Adam had pneumonia - some kind of clapping motion on his chest and back - and tentatively freed one hand to try it. "You keep breathing," he told him sternly. Clap. "You talk to me!" Clap. "Tell me about…those philosophers." Clap. "Or those poets." Clap. "Or those artists…" Clap . An idea came to him on the wind… "Or how about those mathematics fellas?" Clap. "You know - who's that fella…" Clap. "The Greek fella…" Clap. "The one with the theories…" Clap. "You know…all those drawings and arrows and things…" Clap. "C'mon, don't you dare quit on me…" Clap. "You tell me, now…" Clap. "C'mon, Adam…" CLAP CLAP.
Adam convulsed suddenly in his arms, coughing and spitting up something. Joe held tight to him until he was done, his left hand meticulously tracking his breathing. Adam finally went limp and settled back against him, his face coming to rest against Joe's neck. Joe waited a few minutes, still carefully monitoring his heartbeat and breathing. Still slow, still faint, but steadier. More regular. He closed his eyes in an agony of relief, but when he spoke he tried to keep his voice sounding calm. "That feel better?"
He felt the faintest flicker of Adam's eyelashes on his neck and the whisper of his breath on his collarbone. He frowned a little. Was that a sigh, or did he actually say something? "Adam? You tryin' to say somethin'?" He could just feel his lips moving, and the faint expulsion of air. He bent his ear as close to the struggling lips as he could get. "Adam?"
Joe shook his head, not convinced it was an attempt to communicate. "I don't…"
"….tha…..grus…." He was still again.
Joe pulled him closer, trying to force his own dwindling body warmth into him. "Sorry, Adam, but I don't…" A thought struck him, something from deep in the recesses of his mind, and he threw back his head and laughed in sudden amazement. "That's right!" he howled, pushing at a wetness on his face that had nothing to do with the creek. "That's right - now I remember! That's more like it! Now, THAT'S my brother!". "Damn you, Adam - "
"Joseph!" Joe jerked upright. He'd been so focused on Adam's breathing and on staying warm that he'd missed the sounds of men approaching. "Joseph, are you down there?"
Joe waited for Adam's heart to beat once more, just to be sure, then turned his head toward the voice. "Yeah, Pa!" he shouted back. "We're here." A sprinkling of bright lights bobbed in a staggered line above him.
There was a mixed murmur of voices, too indistinct to make out, then his father again. "We're sending some men down - just hang on." By now Joe could clearly hear the noises of men gathering at the bank - the clack and splash of someone's feet on the wet stones, the clattering of something heavy and hollow, his father's deep voice, lowered with urgency, arguing about something.
Joe rested his head on Adam's, shivering too hard himself now to tell if he had warmed him any or not. "Hear that, big brother? Help is right here. Almost home." Adam didn't answer - hadn't made a sound since that one time, but Joe kept his hand where it was so he could still feel his heart laboring away. He suddenly realized that somebody was pulling at that hand and shrank away from them, tightening his other arm protectively around Adam.
"Joe - Joe! It's Curly! You gotta let him go now!"
Joe blinked, frowning suspiciously in front of him, then squinting uncomfortably at the faint glow of light from a lantern resting nearby. "Curly?" he glared. "Where the heck did you go for help? Reno?"
Curly chuckled softly, pulling with gentle insistence at the death grip he had around Adam's chest. "Cold sure makes you cranky, huh? Joe, you're gonna have to let go so we can get you both outta here."
Now Joe realized that there was someone behind him, too, trying to help him to his feet even as Curly was trying to take Adam from him. Almost involuntarily, he clung harder.
He heard Curly's heavy sigh, felt him stop prying at his arms. "Joe, if we don't get at least one of you up on that bank pretty soon yer Pa's comin' down here, and I know you don't want that. So you gonna let go or you gonna hold on till both of you freeze ta death?" Joe eased his grip a little. "Good. Now, let ol' Frank help you and let me help Adam, and we'll all go home."
Joe let go with one arm but hesitated at removing his hand from Adam's heart. "You gotta be careful with him."
"Wouldn't have it no other way."
"I think his arm's broke - the right one."
"I'll watch fer it."
"He ain't breathin' too good neither - "
"All the more reason to move this along."
"Right." Joe dropped his other arm and was immediately hefted to his feet. He was surprised at the way his knees wobbled. Frank firmly turned him toward the bank, but he couldn't resist a backward glance and saw Curly preparing to shift Adam onto his shoulders. Well, Curly was strong. It'd be all right. It would be. It had to be. Frank was talking to him - something about blankets and wet clothes -
"We got hot coffee up there, too - reckon you'd better get some down you. Don't worry about ol' Adam - Curly'll look out fer him an' there's a whole crew waiting on the bank to heft him up…"
Joe became aware of an odd sensation under his feet and tried to see the creek bed. "What did you do with the rocks?"
"Brought some boards along to cover them…Curly said we needed a more stable surface."
"Oh. Good thinking…" he had barely finished that thought when he felt Frank force a rope under his arms and yell, "Take him up!" and his feet left the ground abruptly. Strong hands grabbed his shoulders, then slid the rope over his head almost before he knew what had happened. Someone threw a blanket around him and handed him a steaming tin cup. It felt like heaven in his stiff palms, but the cup shimmied like it was doing a jig, and he noticed for the first time how hard he was shaking.
"Joseph!" He recognized the familiar legs that stopped in front of him, saw his fathers face, lined and drawn, even in the poor light offered by the lanterns, as he crouched before him. "You all right, son?"
He nodded, sucking down the steaming beverage. "Fine, Pa. A little c-cold. Where's - ?"
Ben seemed to know what he was trying to ask, because he glanced over his shoulder toward the bank where they could just make out the backs of three men on their knees, bent forward.
"Got his arms," one said, and he recognized the voice of one of the newer wranglers.
"Okay, easy," that was Curly. "Watch that right arm - and don't get too close to the edge - that bank ain't any too steady."
"All right - got his legs." Sounded like Clyde this time.
"Think I can get my hands under his back. Lordy, he's like ice." Deever.
"Just go slow. He don't need to drop down this bank twice today."
A dark bundle appeared balanced between them, just above the bank, and they stood in careful unison and backed away. Joe jumped to his feet to run over and see for himself - or meant to. To his surprise, he found he was still sitting in the same spot, his legs shaky and lead-like. Ben stood and turned in one quick motion, not noticing that Joe wasn't behind him. Joe felt a heavy hand on his shoulder and twisted his head to follow it up to a face.
Frank returned his look with an understanding grin. "Muscles just won't cooperate right away, huh?" Joe shook his head, his eyes seeking out the huddled shapes a few yards away. "We'll get you up and walking back to the house in a bit - it'll help a lot." He followed Joe's gaze. "We'll get him back, too."
Curly's voice drifted up from the creek bed. "Hey, somebody want ta haul ME up now?" Joe and Frank looked at each other and laughed in spite of themselves.
"Comin' Curly, keep yer shirt on." Deever called, leaving the indistinct circle of shadows and striding toward the bank.
"Yeah, keep it on, Curly," another voice added. "I've seen ya without it. Believe me, it's better that way!" A chorus of chuckles greeted this sally.
"Very funny." Curly dragged himself back on the bank edge, pulling the rope off over his head and straightening his jacket. "Few of you witty boys think you can stop crackin' jokes long enough to put together some kind o' stretcher fer Adam?"
Two more shadows peeled away from the huddle and came to join him. He pointed them to what was left of the blankets and walked over to where Ben and Clyde remained bent over Adam's prone form and crouched down next to them. "Think we oughta try cuttin' that jacket off'n his arm first? Cain't be doin' him no good."
Clyde studied it without touching. "Maybe cut around the sleeve. Don't wanna touch that sleeve till we got more light to work by - no tellin' how bad it's broke." He glanced at Ben for his thoughts, but Ben didn't seem to hear, intent on stroking the damp hair away from Adam's face. Clyde and Curly exchanged a speaking glance, and Clyde pulled his knife out of his boot. "I'll cut the jacket, anyway. Help keep 'em dry." He sawed briskly at the uncooperative fabric, trying not to jostle the arm, pausing with his hand on Adam's bicep to give a low whistle. "Just get a load o' how rigid that muscle is. Better go check on yer stretcher boys - even this little bit a wind is stealing heat from 'em, an' he cain't afford it. Needs ta be inside." He slashed away the last of the jacket, throwing it aside, and folded the blankets back over him.
"Right." Curly lumbered to his feet. "Mr. Cartwright, I'm just gonna go over there, check an see if them boys got that stretcher ready…if you'll just stick here with him in just another minute we're gonna be movin' him out, okay?" Ben didn't give any indication he had heard, and Curly and Clyde exchanged another uncomfortable glance. "All right, sir. We'll be back in just a minute."
"I'll go with you - see if we cain't hurry things along." Clyde stood, dusting his hands on his pants and studying Ben thoughtfully. Curly raised his brows at him in silent question, and he shrugged in return and followed.
"All right, so what you boys doin' over here - havin' a slow contest?"
The hands looked up from their handiwork.
"No," returned Deever with some asperity, "but you shoulda knowed most o' the wood out this way was too soft ta make good stretcher poles - shoulda brought somethin' with us."
Curly rubbed at the back of his neck. "Well, the supply shed is just a bit from here - you think of goin' there for them poles we use in winter ta check snow banks fer cows?" There was a brief silence, and Curly shook his head. "Lucky thing nobody pays you fellas fer yer thinkin'. You - go to the shed. Deever, you go with him. See if you cain't show me a little speed here. Now, where'd Joe get off to?"
"Frank's keepin' an eye on him."
"Good." Curly half-turned. "Mr. Cartwright, we'll be just another minute here - somebody went fer the doc?"
"Lem set out - he's quick."
"Good. Mr. Cartwright - " he stopped, his mouth dropping open. "Mr. Cartwright - what the blazes you think yer doin'?"
Heedless of the conversation going on nearby, Ben had wrapped the blankets tightly around Adam and gathered him into his arms like a child.
"Mr. Cartwright, you cain't carry him!" The look Ben gave him was withering even in the uncertain light and froze Curly for a moment, but as Ben started to walk away he came to himself and took a determined step after him. "Mr. Cartwright - "
Clyde's hand on his arm stopped him. "Leave him go."
Curly yanked his arm away. "Are you crazy? That boy ain't no sack of feathers, and Mr. Cartwright ain't as young as he was, no matter what he thinks!"
Clyde watched the broad retreating back for a moment, then he reached down and grasped a lantern handle. "You clean up here. I'll walk with him."
Curly shook his head. "Well, that's just fine. He ain't in bad enough shape? What if he drops him?"
Clyde gave his arm an absent-minded pat, his face pensive. "He won't drop him," he said at last with quiet certainty. "See ya at the house."
Joe pulled the belt of his robe more tightly around him and bundled his wet trousers into a corner. He'd deal with those later. Right now he had more urgent things to see to.
Walking had helped - Frank had been right about that. Joe had hurried along beside him, feeling stiff-legged and sluggish, but a little more like himself with every passing minute. Frank had kept up some kind of a steady line of chatter, but despite the fact the sound was comforting, Joe honestly couldn't have said what it was about. He had clutched at his blanket, feeling an automatic lightening of heart with the first glimpse of the ranch house through the trees. Home. Now everything would be all right.
But everything wasn't all right - not quite. Not yet. He padded out the door and down the hall. Adam's door was ajar, and he put his hand on it to enter and paused. He could just make out his father, talking quietly. His voice sounded - unlike any he had ever heard him use before, at least when talking to Adam - he sounded like he was talking to a little boy. It made an unexpected lump rise in his throat, and suddenly feeling like an intruder, he took a step away, hovering awkwardly in the hall. He wouldn't go in there - not just yet. But surely there was something - ? His eyes fell on Hoss's door. That was it. He'd check on Hoss.
He slipped into the dimly lit room and peered hopefully at Hoss's pillow. To his surprise, Hoss opened one eye and grunted a hello. Cheered, Joe pulled up a rocking chair and dropped into it. "Hey, big brother. Expected you'd be asleep."
Hoss shifted carefully. "Well, I was, till all that dang ruckus started next door. What's goin' on?"
Joe looked innocent. "Goin' on? What makes you think somethin's goin' on?"
Hoss narrowed his eyes at him. "Well, unless Adam's havin' a party in his room, which don't seem likely any time but even less in the middle of the night, then somethin's sure goin' on."
Joe cleared his throat. "Oh. Yeah - well. Nothin' for you to worry about. How you feelin'?"
Hoss snorted. "Joe, if you ain't the dang worst liar. To tell the truth, I feel like that Rip Van Winkle feller Adam used ta read at us about, so why don't you bring me up to date? What's goin' on in Adam's room?"
Joe sighed. "Nothin'. Just - you know. Waitin' for the doctor."
Hoss frowned. "The doctor. What happened?"
Joe grimaced. "Y'know, Hoss, last time I sat here and told you stuff I got you all worked up, so - "
"Joe," Hoss interrupted, his voice sounding a little stronger, "you ain't seen worked up until you see me if you don't come clean with me. What's goin' on? You tellin' me the doc ain't comin' ta see me?"
Joe bit his lip. "Well. I'm sure he'll see you too…"
"But - he's comin' ta see ta Adam."
Hoss shifted carefully, with a grimace of pain. "Because…?"
"Because…" Joe cleared his throat reluctantly. "Because Adam was shot." Hoss stared at him. "Red Twilight." Joe admitted.
Hoss scowled. "Red Twilight? What's he want ta go shooting Adam fer? He didn't have nothin' ta do with this. I'm the one what killed Willie."
"Well, you really didn't," protested Joe impatiently. "Willie kinda used you to kill himself - but I think Red Twilight just likes killin' people. I think he just used Willie as an excuse. I think he just used all kinds of people…" he frowned deeply.
Hoss nudged himself into a slightly more comfortable position. "Somethin' you wanna talk about?"
Joe looked at him. "You're supposed to be resting."
"I wasn't askin' fer a dance, Joe - I was askin' if ya wanted ta talk."
Joe dropped his head, picking at the trim on his robe. "I don't know…" he said at last, softly.
Hoss settled in. "Well, I ain't goin' nowhere."
Joe studied the belt of his robe intently. "I almost made a big mistake, Hoss. I almost played right into Red Twilight's hands, and then, in a way, he would have killed me too."
"But you didn't." Hoss pointed out.
Joe wrinkled his forehead. "But I might have, Hoss. If Adam hadn't come - and then you. It was real close, Hoss."
Hoss sighed, rubbing a hand at the stiffness in his chest. "Almost don't count fer nothin', Joe. Ya didn't. Fer my ownself, I don't think ya woulda done it - no matter what."
Joe shook his head slowly. "I'm not so sure. You don't know how I felt."
Hoss yawned. "Maybe not. But I know how you are. Better'n you, maybe. Don't think you would have, Joe. Not at the end. Just don't think you got it in you."
Joe pushed out with his foot and set the rocker in motion. "Sure'd like to believe that."
Hoss smiled a little. "Then do." He glanced at the opposite wall and frowned again. "Tell me about Adam. Where's he shot?"
Joe looked away. "Head…"
Hoss closed his eyes. "Oh. Yeah. I remember him bleedin'."
Joe stared at him. "You remember that?"
"Yeah…seemed okay, though."
"Yeah. Yeah, he did."
Hoss made a face. "Sure seems like a long time ago - couldn't you find the doc?"
Joe was silent a moment. "There were - problems. I'll tell you all about it sometime. You're lookin' tired - think you should rest."
Hoss yawned again. "I'm okay. Sure'd like to stick my head in - see fer myself."
Joe gave him a reproving look. "You get outta that bed again and Pa'll about kill you himself. As it is he's probably tryin' to decide right now which one of us he's maddest at."
Hoss looked indignant. "What's he mad at me fer? I've been in this here bed the whole - oh."
"Yeah," agreed Joe. "Oh."
Hoss scowled. "Well, I only got up ta look out fer you."
"Yup. That's why he's mad at me."
"Huh." Hoss winced in agreement. "Well, then, what the heck's he mad at Adam fer?"
"Getting' up with that head wound. In fact, I figger once you and Adam are back on your feet we might want to pool our resources and light out on our own. Avoid Pa all together."
Hoss reflected ruefully on this. "Sounds good. You got any money?"
"Not much. That's why we gotta wait for Adam - he's always got some."
Hoss nodded solemnly. "Good idea. You tell Adam?"
Joe grew suddenly serious. "Not - not yet." He turned his head and looked toward the window, even though there was nothing to see there but darkness. "Hoss - I - "
"When Adam was shot…" he swallowed slowly. "I - I ran right by him, Hoss. I didn't really - but I must have. He was on the floor, and…" his eyes filled.
Hoss gave him a minute, then said quietly, "Why was ya runnin', Joe?"
"You said you run by him. Why was you runnin'?"
Joe frowned. "After Red Twilight."
"On accounta he'd just shot Adam?"
"Well - I don't think I realized that just then - but I knew he was tryin' to kill you, and he'd killed Shorty - "
"Wait a minute - Shorty. Shorty's dead?"
Joe nodded forlornly. "Red Twilight shot him, too."
Hoss let his breath out thorough his teeth. "Land," he said softly. "Feel kinda like I started this whole thing."
"You didn't. Wasn't your fault." Joe was indignant.
"Mebbe." Hoss was quiet now, thinking. "Joe, you say it ain't my fault on accounta Willie wanted me ta make him die, right?"
"And that Red just liked killin' people, right?"
Joe nodded again.
"And that when you went after him, you thought he was gonna kill more people, right?"
Joe rubbed at his neck. "I guess. Mostly I think I just wanted to kill him."
"Guess what I'm sayin' Joe is that if you stopped ta help Adam, well, maybe Red would have had a chance ta kill you too - and then Adam anyway. And me."
Joe looked at him.
"Just somethin' ta think about."
Joe sighed heavily. "I see what you're sayin', Hoss, it's just next time - " he hesitated. "Next time I'd like to know I made that choice, you know? Instead of bein' so mad I'm not even sure what's goin' on around me."
"NEXT time?" Hoss started to jerk upright, then stopped with a muffled yelp and settled back instead. "Next time! Lord a mighty, Shortshanks, I cain't speak fer you but this time was more'en enough fer me - I ain't lookin' fer no repeaters!"
Joe chuckled in spite of himself, then scrambled to his feet at the sound of footsteps on the stairs. "The doc!"
Hoss watched him enviously as he moved toward the door. "You find out an' report back ta me - ya hear? The real truth, too - none of yer half truths."
"I will. If you're awake. I'm not waking you up if you're asleep - Pa and the doc would both kill me."
Hoss shifted and winced a little. "I'll be awake. You jest mind you come back."
Joe was quick enough to intercept Dr. Martin at the top of the stairs. "Doc! Good to see you!"
"Joe." Dr. Martin gave a tired nod. "Good to see you, too. Just wouldn't be an evening without a call at the Ponderosa. Nice to see you're still on your feet anyway."
"Yeah - I'm fine. Pa's with Adam - "
"Yes, so I understand from Lem. Never mind, Joe - trust me, I know the way." He shouldered aside the partly open door and swept the room with a practiced eye.
"Well," he said after a minute, dropping his bag on a nearby chair. "Well."
Joe, for his part, picked the bag up and sat down abruptly in its place, cradling it in his lap. It was his first opportunity to see Adam in the light, and for a minute he was afraid he was going to be sick. "Pa - is he - ?"
No one seemed to hear him, but Dr. Martin reached over and felt Adam's neck, then peeled back an eyelid and reached behind him for his bag. Joe figured he wouldn't be needing his bag if Adam was already dead, so he swallowed hard and handed it over. He certainly looked dead. His face was almost colorless, his lips an eerie grey blue with a deep gash surrounded by a livid bruise opened over his right cheekbone. Hard as he stared, Joe couldn't make out a rise and fall in the blanket over his chest.
Dr. Martin took Adam's chin in his hand to get a better look at the gash and the bullet wound, then folded back the blanket that covered him. He noticed the right arm resting on a pillow now free of the confining sleeve and eyeballed it closely, but didn't touch it. Instead he examined the fingers of the left hand and noted a slash across the palm before bending over and putting an ear to his chest.
"Aspirated some water?" He asked after listening a minute.
Joe furrowed his brows.
"Breathed it in. Some water."
"Oh." Joe nodded. "Yeah. He was in the creek."
"Mm hm. Any idea how long?"
Joe flushed. "No." he muttered.
Dr. Martin pulled the blankets up from the bottom of the bed and examined Adam's feet, paying special attention to his toes. When he was done, he tucked the blankets carefully back over them and straightened. "Well," he said again, rubbing unconsciously at the bridge of his nose. He brushed a hand across a stone hot water bottle wrapped in flannel and nestled among the blankets. "Who did this? A good job, that."
"Miss Mary filled them for me - Hop Sing always keeps them on hand - for colds and aches and pains…" Ben rested a hand on Adam's hair. "Do you want to set his arm?"
"Hm? No." He looked around again for his bag, picked it up. "Not until he's warmed up some - no telling what that pulling might do in his current state. I'd like to take a closer look at the bullet wound, though. Good news is the cold water stopped any bleeding."
Ben watched him keenly. "And the bad news…?" he asked after a minute.
Paul glanced up at him, moving to the other side of the bed for better access. "Well, I think you can see the bad news for yourself."
Ben took a step back out of the way, flinching a little as Paul probed the furrow the bullet had left a couple of inches over Adam's ear. "But he'll be all right?" he persisted.
Paul sighed, his eyes on what he was doing. "I'll know more once he's warmed up a little." He caught a glimpse of Ben's face as he reached for some gauze and selected a bottle from his collection. "Ben, I'm not being evasive - I just don't know. I'm afraid we're in a waiting game - how will he respond as he warms up? Then how will he respond to the fluid in his lungs? I have a few tricks I want to try to help dry them out, by the way. See if we can avoid pneumonia - or at least, secondary drowning. My best diagnosis right now is 'we'll see'. But if either of you would like to be useful you can take this gauze and this bottle and clean out that cut on his hand - get it ready for bandaging."
Seeing his father was just standing with his brows furrowed and his eyes fixed on Adam's face, Joe jumped from the chair. "I got it, Doc." He picked up the long, lifeless hand and shuddered a little at its absence of warmth, dabbing at the sliced palm.
"No skull fracture that I can feel."
Joe looked up and watched as Dr. Martin layered the wound with gauze. "He seemed okay. He got up and walked around and everything - sounded just like himself."
Dr. Martin nodded. "Head wounds are funny things. Unpredictable." He leaned over to check Joe's work. "Good. You know how to bandage, right? If you'll take care of that one I'll finish here and see what I can do about that cheek."
Joe layered gauze in the hand and picked up a piece of long cloth to tie it in place. Surreptitiously, he slid his fingers down and rested them on Adam's pulse for a minute. Still slow. But it was there. He tied off his bandage and lay the hand carefully back under the blanket, leaving his own resting lightly on top of it. "Say, " he said suddenly. "What if we put him in a hot bath? Wouldn't that warm him up faster?"
"Probably too fast," warned Dr. Martin, dabbing at the cheek wound. "System's kind of fragile right now. Any fast change could send him into shock - cardiac arrest - any of a number of things."
"Oh." Joe looked crestfallen, then uneasy. "Say…what if you did that - that thing - you know, that thumping thing you did to him that time he had pneumonia…?"
Paul paused, rubbing at his face and tossing Joe a quizzical look. "Thumping. What thumping…?"
Joe shifted. "You know - when you sort of cupped your hand and hit him on the chest…and on his back…?"
"Oh." The doctor shrugged. "Well, I don't see why I would. Nothing to shake loose. Why?"
"I don't know…what if he was sort of - having trouble breathing or something…maybe if he'd…almost stopped breathing…"
Paul looked from Adam to Joe. "What are you telling me, Joe? Did he stop breathing?"
Joe squirmed. "Almost. I thought he was. So I - I did that thing - "
"You percussed his chest?"
"I guess so. I thought he was dying. It seemed to help!" he finished weakly.
The doctor stared again from Joe to Adam, then suddenly he laughed. "Well. It might not be what I would have recommended but…there's no denying he's still breathing. You Cartwrights. You're a tough lot, there's no doubt about it."
"So I didn't hurt him more?"
"No. No, I don't think so. Of course, if you did it on top of those bruises on his back his first inclination when he opens his eyes may not be to thank you. "
"And he's gonna open his eyes?"
The doctor shot him an irritated glance. "I'm not a swami, Joe. I don't read fortunes, either."
Joe nodded, chastened, but tightened his grip under the blanket.
Ben's gaze drifted to the window, and he seemed to shake himself. "It must be late. You'd better not drive back tonight, Paul - eat with us and stay the night. I'll make up one of the guestrooms. I have to make one up for Miss Mary anyway."
"That sounds like a good idea. Don't worry about the guest room, though - if you can fix me up I'll spend the night in here." Ben's eyes bored into him, and he continued mildly, "I'd like to keep an eye on his breathing for the night. It's really better if he's not left alone." He glanced from one to the other. "So, if one of you would volunteer to sit with him, it's about time I took a look at my other patient."
Ben's face brightened some. "Oh, I wish you would, Paul. His wound reopened when he got up - I think it's all right now but I'd feel better if you took a look at it."
"When he got UP!" Paul stared at them. "I didn't even want him sitting up yet! What was he doing up?" Joe's face reddened and he looked away. Paul waited, then shook his head. "Well, I don't know what's been going on around here, but whatever it is, I DON'T approve!"
"No," agreed Ben dryly. "Neither do I. Joseph, will you sit with Adam while we check on Hoss?"
"Sure, Pa. Um…" Joe peeked at him out of the side of his eye. "Hoss'll probably want to know about Adam if he's awake."
Ben gave him a look. "And how does he know about Adam?"
"I told him." Joe saw his face darken and continued hastily, "Well, he asked me! C'mon, Pa - his room's right next door - he heard something goin' on - it's not like he's stupid."
Ben sighed. "I suppose you're right. Sit with your brother, then, till I get back. I'll bring you supper, now that I think of it. No one's eaten."
Paul gathered up his things. "And come get me if he has any trouble breathing. DON'T percuss his chest - " he winked at him. "Just come get me."
Ben poked disinterestedly at the stew in front of him. He was thinking about a land he had heard about as a sailor where volcanic fire burned fierce and hot, creating pools of boiling water and even scathing lava beneath ground heavy with solid ice. He had always wanted to see it for himself - wondered what it was like there. Now he felt he knew because that land of fire burning under ice seemed to have taken up residence in the very center of his chest.
He looked up, abruptly aware that that was not the first, or even the second, time Paul had said his name.
Mary smiled at him with sad, understanding eyes. "Are you finished, Mr. Cartwright? I've made coffee if you'd like some."
"Oh. Yes." He glanced down guiltily at his full plate and tried to summon some graciousness. "It's very good, Mary, and I truly appreciate all your help - I just don't seem to have any appetite."
"No, of course not. I understand."
He took a deep breath and tried to return her smile. "I really don't know what we would have done without you today. I wish there was something I could do - "
"Please don't, Mr. Cartwright. Truly, I feel better being able to do something. Somehow, I feel a little responsible for all this…"
"Nonsense." Ben frowned. "How could you be?"
"I don't know." She dropped her eyes apologetically, clearing dishes. "I just do."
"Seems to be a rash of that," Paul mentioned, eyeing Ben pointedly. "Right, Ben?"
Ben glared back at him as Mary hurried into the kitchen.
Paul returned his look benignly. "Don't try to intimidate me, old friend - I've known you too long. Decided who you're mad at yet?"
Ben gave his attention to folding his napkin. "What makes you think I'm mad at anybody?"
Paul laughed. "Let's see now. Adam?"
Ben huffed, smoothing the napkin. "Well, what on earth was he thinking? Would it have been so difficult for him to TELL someone he'd been shot?"
Paul's eyes twinkled. "Maybe he thought you could see that." The look on Ben's face sobered him instantly, and he continued more gently, "I imagine he wasn't thinking too clearly, Ben, though he may have seemed normal enough."
Ben sighed. "I know." He threw down the napkin. "I'm not really angry with him, of course."
"No." Paul nodded. "Hoss, then?"
"Now, what was HE thinking, getting out of bed? That boy nearly died just a few days ago!"
"Why DID he get out of bed?"
"Oh, the same reason Adam got up instead of staying down the way he should have - thought Joe needed him. Which brings us to why HE couldn't listen to reason for once instead of letting that temper of his run away with him…"
"What was he up to?"
"Oh, going after Red Twilight…"
"The man who shot Hoss and Adam and killed Shorty Gillis?"
Ben grunted assent.
"So maybe he had reason to believe Red was still a danger?"
Ben was silent a moment. "I suppose."
"Having your sons do stupid things in the name of looking out for each other - well, there are worse faults." Ben snorted, but it lacked vitriol. "So you're not really mad at them."
Ben exhaled slowly. "No."
"And being mad at yourself - there's really no point to that either." Ben just looked at him. "Ben," Paul chided kindly, "Exactly what do you think you could have done differently?"
"In hindsight, everything is manageable. As a doctor, though, I will tell you two things I know for sure - 1) accidents happen. 2) even the best doctor in the world can only look after one patient at a time. Just think about it." Ben looked unconvinced, but his expression lightened a little. "If I were you? I'd save my energies for being angry at the man who caused all this mess - Red Twilight. Now, there's an anger I can get behind."
Ben blinked at him thoughtfully, feeling the fire in his chest burn a little hotter, rising through him like steam off of the ice. "Red Twilight," he repeated quietly. "Yes. I see your point."
Mary returned with the coffeepot, and Paul pulled out his pocket watch for a look. "Good to see Hoss doing so well, anyway. I foresee a full recovery, unless, of course, he decides to take any more unscheduled outdoor strolls."
Ben tried to stop the words, but they came out anyway. "And Adam?"
"Well, I'm going to check in a bit and see how he's warming up. If he's a little more stable, I'll set his arm and maybe try a mustard plaster on his chest - see if I can keep his lungs from congesting."
Ben smiled faintly. "I think you're just trying to get a rise out of him - you know how much he hates those."
Paul chuckled. "Well, he always said my mustard plasters could about raise the dead. Guess now we'll see."
Ben's smile faded abruptly, leaving his face looking tired "Curly cut some boards before he went to bed that should be the right size for splints. I'll have to make arrangements for a service for Shorty…" he let the rest hang, unwilling to think any further than that right now.
Paul sipped his coffee. "I'll stop by the Reverend's when I get back into town. In the meantime, I'll check out your kitchen for dried mustard. Wish Hop Sing were home - he's a God send at times like this - really knows how to keep you folks in line."
"I wish he were, too. Hoss wouldn't have had an easy time walking out of here with Hop Sing around." Of course, Ben reflected even as he said it, the way things had gone if Hop Sing were here he might have ended up shot himself. Or dead. Like Shorty.
One of his men dead. Two of his boys gravely wounded, the other almost turned killer. What a terrible wreck one man had made of his life - and for what? Even now he didn't understand.
"Well, brother, looks like it's just you and me again. Told you I'd come back and get you out of there. Sorry it took so long…" Joe was starting to think that talking to Adam in the creek bed had been easier. At least there he could imagine he was listening. Here…he looked at his face again and shuddered. Adam appeared to have gone far away, casting off his body like an empty husk and leaving it behind.
Joe rested his left hand on top of Adam's heart again, just to be sure. Heartbeat. Maybe just the tiniest bit stronger, too. And maybe just a little of the blue grey color had left his skin. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking.
Joe sighed. "I know you're gonna find this hard to believe, but I'm gettin' kind of tired of doin' all the talkin', here. You can just jump in any time - help me out." He rested his chin on top of his outstretched arm, careful not to jostle the bed. "Subject doesn't matter - can be just anything." Adam didn't so much as move, so Joe reached up tentatively and touched his uninjured cheek. Still cold, but not so hard and ice-like. He tugged the blankets a little higher over the motionless shoulders and smoothed them down. "You were startin' to tell me about that mathematics fella - I'd even be up to listenin' to that. You remember - that Thagrus fella?" He gazed at Adam hopefully, but he didn't stir. He sighed again. "Well. Guess I could read to you, then. Say - maybe you even got a book on him in here? Maybe I'll take a look. I figure at the very least ransacking your room oughta get you up and talking. Yelling, even." He pleated the blanket absently between his fingers. "Wouldn't mind some yelling. Yelling would be…" his voice snagged somewhere in his throat, and he looked away for a minute, blinking hard. He drew in a careful breath and tried again.
"Hoss is doin' pretty well, the Doc says - thinks he's gonna be just fine. Course, he's not too happy about him gettin' up outta bed, but - " he stopped again, swallowing convulsively. "But I guess sometimes things - even when you don't do exactly…" He scrubbed an impatient hand under his nose and looked down at the lump his other hand made beneath the blankets where it rested on top of Adam's. He cleared his throat. "Anyway, looks like I'm gonna be doin' all the work around here for a while, thanks to the two of you. Hoss sure ain't gonna be able to climb on a horse right away, and you ain't gonna be worth much either, what with one arm broke and the other hand cut. Can just see you two lazin' around, grinnin' like a couple of cats while I work. Can just imagine some of the smart things you'll have to say - just to get my dander up. Bad enough with just one of you, but with two, well - I can just imagine. Bet within a week or so I'll be about sick to death of you and your smart sayings…always needlin' at me…" his chest heaved briefly. "Course, if you had somethin' sarcastic you felt you just had to say even now…it'd be just like you…" he knuckled crossly at his eyes. "…or maybe…" he took another breath to smother the quaver in his voice, "…if you don't feel up to talkin', if you could just sort of open your eyes for a minute…just so's I'd know…y'know, it's usually you that tells me everything is gonna be okay, and right now I - I really need to believe that, so if you could just - if you…" his shoulders shook and he rubbed his hand hard over his face. "If you…" He pushed his face into the blankets now, his hand clutching the bandaged one under his. "Adam, if you would just…talk to me…"
Joe awoke with a start. He couldn't remember falling asleep, and it took him a minute to understand the itch of the blanket underneath his cheek and the stiffness in his back. He pushed himself carefully onto his elbows, scratching at the salty residue on his face. He certainly hadn't meant to go to sleep. Now, what had woken him? The hand under his felt warmer, but maybe just because his had been gripping it for so long. He slid a questioning glance to Adam's face. It looked different - the brows pinched together as if in pain. As he hesitated, wondering whether or not to get Dr. Martin, he saw him stir and then cough - that same terrible wet cough that had frightened him in the creek bed. That decided him. He shot out the door and swung around the landing and smack into Dr. Martin.
Paul reached out to steady him, keeping a careful grip on the plate in his other hand. He frowned at the expression on Joe's face. "What is it, son?"
Joe plucked at his sleeve. "I don't know. But Adam's doing that coughing again - remember how I told you I thought he was - ?" He never got to finish because Dr. Martin and then his father were past him in an instant. Joe trailed them. He saw Paul hand the plate to Ben and then bend over Adam, blocking his view.
Ben hovered anxiously behind him. "Well, Paul?" he demanded at last.
Paul straightened. "More or less what I expected. It's not uncommon - as he warms up and his lungs start working harder again they realize there's fluid gumming up the works and try to get rid of it. Help me sit him up a little, Ben? Then we'll try that plaster."
Ben thrust the plate at Joe, who winced at the unexpectedly pungent fumes that rose from it, his eyes watering. He held it away from his face, trying to watch what was happening. Adam coughed and then gagged; his father cringing at the sound. When they had him propped in a partially sitting position, Dr. Martin opened his nightshirt and gestured for the plate.
Joe handed it over, his face dubious as the doctor laid the flannel envelope over Adam's chest and pulled the blanket up over it.
"Well," Paul felt Adam's face and then his neck and checked his bandages. "I'll leave it for twenty minutes, then off for twenty, then apply another one. I'd like to alternate them all night - keep these hot water bottles warm all night, too."
Joe looked at him hopefully. "And that will fix it?"
"Maybe." The doctor lifted the blanket to check on the broken arm. "If he seems a little more comfortable in a bit then I'm going to set that arm. One thing's for sure - " he adjusted the blankets and rested his ear on Adam's chest, listening. "Once that mustard starts working? He's finally going to be plenty warm."
There was a terrible hot weight on his chest, as if someone had rolled one of those sun baked desert boulders onto it, and now he couldn't breathe. He reached up to push it off, or thought he did, but noticed with a sudden chill that seeped along his hairline that his right arm seemed to be gone. Panicked, he tried the other one but met with resistance. In a sudden frenzy, he pulled harder.
"Shush…easy son. Just stay still."
…Pa? Pa, I'm trapped, could you…? Someone must have been trying to help him because they found his missing arm and grabbed hold of it, pulling with all their might - problem was the boulder was still pinning him, so the arm was being dragged out of its socket…splitting in two…separating…severing…he wanted to protest - to cry out for them to stop, to move the boulder first - but his stomach rose suddenly to his throat, heaving him forward, and for a moment that was all he knew - that, and that someone still hung on his arm, pulling and snapping it into little shards of bone. He tried again to cry out, but his voice seemed to be lost, gone like his arm had been…
"Is he finished?"
"Yes, but - good God, is that pink blood?"
"From his lungs. Not unusual under the circumstances, Ben - give the basin to Joe, but have him keep it ready in case. Now, hold him steady - I want to be sure and get it this time. Now - "
There was a fresh explosion of torment and a fireball of purple-red blossomed and grew behind his eyelids, gaining momentum, blotting out thought and sound - everything except that horrible tearing at his arm, as though it were being savaged by some wild beast, torn and shaken by relentless teeth…and maybe it was - he tried to pull away again, to grab its jaws and knock it aside, but he was held fast, and the boulder dug deep into his chest, pressing and stabbing like a dozen sharp knives. He distantly heard a whimper and wondered if it was the wild animal….
"For the love of God, Paul - "
"Got it, Ben. Just let me tie this…"
Pa. He sounded…upset…but maybe he would shift that boulder for him…he tried to push at it again.
"Easy, son. Careful. It's better if you don't try to move."
Not move! How could he lie still with that big boulder…? At least the animal seemed to have let go, leaving his arm with a deep, molten ache, but no more pulling. God, that hurt…Pa, couldn't you…?
"Sssh, Adam - be still now. Try to breathe slow and steady…"
Slow and steady? Adam would have laughed if he'd had the strength. Try to breathe, period…if he could just…push at that…but his arms seemed to have disappeared again, so why did they hurt anyway…Pa?
"For heaven's sake, Paul - isn't there something you can give him?"
"Anything that will help the pain will also slow down his system, and it's already slow enough to stop. I'm sorry, Ben, but this is best."
"Best." His father's grumble of disgust would have made him smile under other circumstances, but now he just tried to turn his head toward it - to find it. His face did press against something, and he burrowed into the familiar scent of bay rum and tobacco and sweat and horses and outdoor air and tried to breathe it in deeply. The breathing went a little better this time - hurt a little less - and he burrowed deeper, feeling a familiar weight hold him there. That boulder still sat on his chest, pushing against his lungs, but it was easier to bear somehow. Maybe Pa couldn't get it off either, but he knew he was there - and that he would make sure it didn't crush him. The thought helped him relax a little, and he tried exhaling this time, and, though his breath hitched, the stabbing was a little less acute. He felt his muscles relax further, and drowsiness settle over his brain. He had some distant memory of something…something else he had wanted to tell Pa…but it was drifting out of his reach almost as quickly as he thought of it. He was faintly aware of the rumble of a familiar voice near his ear, the words indistinct but soothing, and he relaxed a little more, his head suddenly unbearably heavy. His awareness shrank to cool, stubbly skin bracing his aching forehead and the comforting sound of a steady, well remembered thumping beneath his cheek, and before he knew it, he was asleep. He tried to push at it again but that drove the knives deeper into his chest, forcing the air from his lungs and preventing him from drawing any new in -
"Ben. Ben." Ben glanced up and squinted through gummy eyes at Paul Martin's familiar face, realizing he'd been half-dozing. Paul gave him a sympathetic smile. "My shift. Why don't you go get some rest?"
Ben took a minute to let the words ramble through his sluggish brain, then resettled himself more comfortably but made no move to get up. "I'm fine. Dozing a little."
"Then go get something to eat - you didn't have any dinner. I rewarmed some coffee, and it's on the back of the stove - great stuff - take the hair right off of your chest. Why don't you go have a cup."
"I'm fine." Ben repeated.
"You're not," said Paul firmly. "You're worn out. I want to examine my patient anyway - you go take a break."
Ben exhaled through his nose, moving his free hand to smooth the confusion of black curls resting on his shoulder. Poor Adam. He always kept those curls so carefully tamed and in line- if he could see them now. He tried to order them a little without disturbing the bandage that entwined them. Bruises were beginning to deepen around the bullet wound and the gash on Adam's cheekbone and he tried not to brush against them. "Think he's going to have a black eye," he said, half to himself.
"I wouldn't be surprised."
A black eye. A foolish observation. Surely the least of his worries. "I hate to disturb him. He's actually sleeping."
"Yes - well - that's a good sign. To be honest, he's so exhausted I don't think a stampede through this room would disturb him but move slow and careful, just in case. Don't want to remind him of any pains."
Ben was silent, still mindlessly trying to pat the recalcitrant curls into place. "I can't remember the last time he did that," he said at last.
"What's that?" Paul dropped into the chair by the bed. "Fell into a creek bed?"
Ben shook his head. "No…turned to me like that. Physically. Oh, when he was very little, of course - but even then, not often. Was always a sure sign he was sick or hurt in one way or another…he was never a clingy child. Just as well, I suppose - there wasn't all that much opportunity to cling. Hoss and Joe were always more likely to reach for me, but for Adam it always meant…" he looked down at the hand busy with Adam's hair and saw he was only creating more disorder there and stopped. "It made me realize…it's very bad, isn't it?"
Paul nodded quietly.
"Do you have any idea what his chances…?"
"Hard to say. He's survived this far - and you Cartwrights do have a way of surprising me. I would have told you there was no way Hoss could get himself out of that bed in his current condition, never mind promenade about the place. But he did.
Let's get through the first twenty-four hours - then I'll know more."
"Hoss." Ben leaned his head back against the headboard. "I should check on him, too. Can't believe he slept through that bone setting…"
"I just looked in on him - he's doing fine. And I slipped him something when I examined him earlier - to make sure he slept through that and anything else. Sleep's the best thing for him right now. With any luck, Joe's sleeping too until it's his turn to take a shift."
Ben sighed slowly. "It's like a nightmare."
"Yes. Well. The worst of it is over."
"I wonder." His hand returned automatically to Adam's hair. "I can't imagine how much he must have been suffering to have allowed himself to…" he tightened his grip around the slumped shoulders, even though that arm was now tingling with numbness.
"Well, instinct kicks in when the mind closes down. Let me take over now."
"I'll stay with him."
Paul steepled his hands patiently. "Ben, I really need to examine him. And I'd like to add another mustard plaster - they seem to be doing some good. Go take a break, and look in on your other sons. I promise, I'll take good care of this one."
Ben nodded absently. "I know that. You always do."
"And if you're going to be any help, you need to get some rest. Who do you think he's going to want to see when he wakes up? You won't be any good to him if you're unconscious yourself."
"No." Ben gave a reluctant sigh. "You're right, I suppose."
"Need help getting out of there? You must be cramped after all this time."
"No - no, I'm fine." Ben pressed a quick kiss in the dark hair and slid carefully out from behind him. The arm he'd used to hold him felt as heavy and immobile as lead, but he managed to lay his burden gently back against the pillows anyway. He paused, his left hand stroking the undamaged cheek, not quite able to tear himself away. "You'll call me right away if anything…?"
"You know I will."
Ben nodded again. "Yes." He fussed with the blankets for a minute, felt the immobile face once more. "He is warmer."
"That's good news."
"I'll be nearby - "
"Yes, I know."
Ben sighed. "Well. Good night, then. And thank you, Paul."
"All in a day's work, Ben."
Ben almost smiled. "Yes. Yes, it certainly seems to be."
Ben lingered outside the door, at a loss. He was shaken - more than he cared to admit, even to himself. His strong, independent, self-sufficient son. How could this have happened? Who could have brought him to such a state? He paused, suddenly still. Never mind. He knew who. The same man who had shot his other son in the back - ruthlessly - not even as mercifully as you would shoot an animal on a hunt. He had a sudden urgent need to see Hoss and moved up the hall to his door.
It was dark, except for the lantern turned low on the table near the bed, casting a soft light on Hoss's face. The face was quiet - the lines of pain that had marked it for the last couple of days now smooth and faint snores emanating with each rise of his chest.
He stroked the soft brown fuzz that crowned the large head. Such a good soul - so kind. Never one to intentionally harm another being, human or otherwise. Why would anyone ever choose to hurt such a man? Especially in such a brutal, heartless…? His jaw tightened. This was getting him nowhere. It was over. Red Twilight would hang. And though Ben usually loathed such spectacles, for once in his life he was tempted to watch.
Making sure that Hoss was well covered and comfortable, he made his way to the door and down the stairs. Maybe that coffee was a good idea after all.
He rounded the last bend of the stairs into the great room and stopped suddenly on the last step. Well. As long as he had left all the lights burning he should do something about that.
With a sudden sense of purpose, he strode to the kitchen. The fire in the stove was burning low, and he stoked it with some wood, adding a pan of water to the top and going to the pantry to look for soap and a scrub brush and rags. He saw the coffee warming on the back of the stove, but that could wait. He had more important things to attend to. When his water was hot but not boiling, he carried his equipment out to the great room and settled it by the door.
The stain had seeped into the wooden floor and hardened into a puddle of rusty brown-black. He applied Hop Sing's scrub brush with a will, wincing a little to himself as the hot, sudsy water turned red, then pink. It would help to have this gone, anyway. One less reminder of the man who had shot two of his sons - one in their home. Who had snuck in, intent on killing his second boy as he lay helpless in his own bed, and then casually shot his oldest boy as well as he tried to stop him. Who had taunted and tempted his youngest until he felt driven to turn killer himself - to end it all.
He wondered what Adam had said to Joe to stop him. Whatever it was, he was grateful. If he hadn't, Joseph might be the one facing a hanging. A case could have been made for self-defense, he supposed, with a sympathetic jury, but the damage to his heart and psyche wouldn't be abolished so easily. He ground his teeth and gave extra attention to the blood that had gathered in the crack where the wall met the floor. Out, out, damn spot… Shakespeare. Adam would be pleased - and amused. Always assuming Adam ever had the power to be amused again, considering…this wasn't helping. He ground the brush deep into the crack, scrubbing with all his strength.
Joe had NOT killed Red Twilight and would not hang. And Paul had said that Hoss was on the road to recovery, too, providing he made no more foolish moves like the one he'd made today to protect his brother. And Adam…well. That remained to be seen. But Adam was strong. Stubborn. No one knew better than he what Adam was capable of enduring.
But he shouldn't have to. The voice in his head made him scrub harder. He'd had enough hardship - enough endurance contests for several lifetimes. He shouldn't have to lie alone in the cold, forgotten and helpless and dying, because he'd tried to do the right thing - the decent thing - after this conscienceless madman had killed one of their men - shot him down like a mad dog…he closed his eyes tight, trying to banish the stark images that had haunted him since they'd first found Shorty and then Adam…
This kept gnawing at his craw…that Adam should be hurt where he should be safest - in his own home. The home they had built as a safe haven for their family in a then-untamed wilderness…he rinsed his brush and moved it up the wall to the long splash of scarlet over white.
It was obscene. Adam shot in the great room. Hoss stalked in his bedroom. His boys should at least be able to be safe here…not prey to some sick, twisted bastard who would toy with them and kill them as mindlessly as one squashed a bug…who had almost…very nearly… taken everything from him - everything that mattered - all three of his boys, in one horrible swoop of mock-justice…
Ben noticed first that his brush was no longer making contact with the wall, then became aware of the hand on his arm, restraining him. He stared at the face that belonged to the hand, gradually recognizing it as Paul's. His heart thudded heavily in his chest. "Paul. Adam - ?"
"Is with Joe."
Why on earth was Paul staring at him like that?
"Ben, are you all right?"
Ben jerked his arm impatiently away. "Of course not. So Adam's - ?"
"More or less the same. Hoss, too," he added hastily, anticipating the next question. "It's you that's frightening me. What on earth are you doing?"
Ben returned his eyes to the wall. Hm. Looked like he'd been scrubbing too hard. Banging, even. And the stain still wasn't coming out. "Cleaning up the blood stains." He ran a hand over the damp surface. "I think this one will have to be whitewashed."
Paul laughed, a little uneasily. "Or replaced. Or turned into a doorway, if you keep going at it like that. What do you say we have some of that coffee? Joe's with Adam, and I don't think I could pry him away - we might as well relax until it's time to take another turn."
Ben carefully lowered the scrub brush. "Joe should sleep."
"Well, so should you, but I've given up expecting it. Joe will be all right, and he'll let me know if anything changes."
"He's all right?"
"Joe? Physically, fine. A little emotionally worked up, but that's to be expected."
Ben nodded, letting go of the brush and wiping his forehead, surprised to find himself perspiring. "Almost losing both his brothers - he must feel as if his whole world is tilting."
"I expect he does. Which is why I let him sit with Adam. Come on, Ben - sit down with me. Even if you don't want coffee I could use it - and the company."
Ben shook himself, his expression mildly guilty. "I'm sorry Paul - if anyone needs to sleep, it's you."
Paul led him to the dining room table. "Oh, doctors are used to all nighters. I'll survive just fine. Why don't you get us a couple of cups and I'll get the coffee? I warn you, I take a lot of sugar in mine."
Ben fetched the sugar bowl and two cups and saucers while Paul brought the coffeepot in from the kitchen. The coffee was thick and turgid, but its warmth was surprisingly stimulating. Ben took another sip.
"So," Paul added more sugar to his, "who were you attacking in the guise of scrubbing your wall?"
Ben beetled his brows. "I wasn't attacking anyone. I was cleaning." Paul chuckled, and Ben looked at him in exasperation. Really, they had known each other far too long. "Red Twilight," he said at last. "Bastard."
Paul nodded solemnly. "Makes sense."
"Thank God he'll hang."
"Probably." Ben frowned at him. "Of course he will. He killed Shorty."
Paul nodded. "Right. I'm sure he will. Be a jury trial though - evidence is only circumstantial - you never know."
Ben tapped his spoon against his saucer. "Circumstantial? It's not. There are witnesses."
Paul raised his eyebrows. "Good. I must have misunderstood. I thought nobody had seen him do it."
Ben paused. "Well…not exactly. Mary heard the shot though, just before Red came into the house."
Paul stirred his coffee. "Damning, all right. But circumstantial, if she didn't actually see anything. And with all due respect, Ben - " he gave a careful glance toward the stairs and the guest room, where Mary was sleeping. "I'm not sure how much weight Mary's word will carry, being a saloon girl and all." He held up his hand as Ben's face grew thunderous. "I'm not saying it's right - she's a lovely girl - I'm just saying how folks are. You may need to be prepared for a different verdict."
Ben put down his coffee and skewered him with a glance. "That man shot two of my sons."
"I realize that," answered Paul calmly. "But that's not a hanging offense. Unless - " he stopped suddenly, looking shocked at himself. He cleared his throat, embarrassed.
"Unless Adam dies, you mean." Ben finished stonily. "That's not going to happen."
"I certainly intend to do everything in my power to make sure it doesn't."
Ben pushed his cup aside, his eyes stormy. "But Joe saw Adam shot - surely that - wait, no he didn't. Only heard it. But Adam - he knows it was Red who shot him. That must count for something - on the stand."
"Probably. Adam's well liked and respected, too, but…" Paul hesitated, poking at a sugar cube with his spoon. "I…wouldn't count on…Ben, Adam may not even remember the incident. He might, of course, but it's more likely - I just think you should be prepared."
Ben rumpled his forehead. "Why wouldn't he…? Oh - because of the blow to his head?"
Paul nodded. "Or the freezing. Either one could wreak havoc with his recent memory. I just wouldn't count on him as a witness of any kind."
Ben stared at him, his mind flipping through the possibilities. Hoss…no, Hoss hadn't seen anything. Joe…no. Joe hadn't actually, either. Mary…Mary had just overheard things. And Adam…he gave a short bitter laugh. "Well." He pushed the table with a force that made the cups rattle. "Well, that's just fine." He leaned back in his chair. "But there was no one else around but Shorty, and he certainly didn't shoot himself - not with rifle shot."
Paul looked at him askance. "Maybe Mary shot him."
"Oh, now really…"
"Just saying what any smart lawyer will say."
"Then how did Adam get shot?"
"Maybe he got caught in the crossfire when Joe went after Red Twilight. Ben - " Paul held up his hand again to stop Ben's indignant reply. "I believe it happened just the way Joe said. I do. I'm just saying that not everybody will."
Ben drummed his fingers on the table, his face clouded and still. "So," he said, after some reflection. "This - man. This animal - vermin, really - who killed one of my men and tortured my sons - he may just walk away. Just like that."
Paul eyed him warily. "Might."
Ben was silent for a moment, then reached for his coffee again, stirring it meticulously. "I see," he said quietly. "I see."
Joe sat back in his chair and cradled the book on his knees. "Well, I guess it's no wonder you don't wake up," he said at last. "This has gotta be the dullest stuff I've ever read in my life. I gotta be honest, big brother, some of the things you find inerestin' are a real puzzle to me." He slid a glance at Adam, then slid his eyes away again. Adam's breathing had taken on a raspy quality that filled the room and the way his chest sucked in visibly when he breathed gave him a funny, cold feeling in the pit of his stomach. He flipped the pages of the book idly again. "I looked for that Thagrus fella - can't find him anywhere, though. Maybe you could just show me the place…?" He looked hopefully at his brother's face, carefully avoiding looking at his chest again. "Or you could just explain to me about how wrong I am and how inerestin' it all really is…" Nothing. He sighed.
When he was little he had hated waiting mornings for his brothers to wake up and keep him company, so he had often taken things into his own small hands. Waking Hoss up before he was ready had been nearly impossible, but Adam was always a good candidate, and he had developed a habit of running into his room early in the morning and jumping up and down on his bed. Adam hadn't cared for it much, but it had always been effective. Of course, Adam had eventually complained to Pa, too. Pa had decided that since Adam had to get up anyway it would be all right as long as Joe waited until the clock chimed a certain number of times - but he was not allowed to disturb him in any way before then. Joe smiled. Poor Adam. Looking back he figured Pa was making sure he didn't take it into his head to jump up and down on HIS bed instead. He could remember those mornings sitting beside Adam's bed and watching him sleep, one ear impatiently cocked for the magic chime that would mean he could wake him up. He felt a lot like that now. He just wished he knew what the magic chime was this time. He peered dubiously at the book again.
"Didn't really figure on even YOU still havin' a math book in your room. Course, maybe it helps you build things. I kinda remember you explainin' to me once about how all those circles and arrows and things helped you build things. Never did figure how that worked." He folded his arms over the book. "I mean, if you're gonna build somethin' seems like you should just build it, y'know? Without all those little numbers scribbled on paper like you like to do." He leaned in toward him a little. "To tell the truth? I used ta kinda think they didn't mean anything and you were just using it as an excuse to play with those numbers and equations and things…"
"Joe?" Joe jumped so high he had to scramble to catch the book. "Who are you talking to, son?"
Joe flushed, embarrassed to be caught at it. "Adam," he explained gruffly.
Ben gave him an odd look. "You might just let him sleep, " he suggested.
"I didn't disturb him, I just…" Joe made a face. "When we were in the creek, he - kinda - responded when I talked about that - that Thagrus fella, so I thought…"
Doc Martin had made his way around the other side of the bed to check on Adam's splint, but he looked up at that. "Who?"
Joe held up the geometry book to show him. "You know - that Greek mathematics fella - with all the theories…"
Dr. Martin looked puzzled for a moment, then his face cleared. "Oh. You must mean Pythagoras?"
"That's it!" Joe caught a look from his father and tempered his exuberance, lowering his voice. "That's why I couldn't find him - I didn't have it spelled right. "
Ben shook his head. "What on earth made you talk about such a thing at such a time?"
Joe shrugged. "I don't know. Just sort of came to me. I was tryin' to get him to talk about anything so I tried to pick things I knew he liked to talk about. Kinda wanted to take his mind off things." Ben looked at him, and he grinned a little. "Oh, okay - maybe I wanted to take my mind off things."
Dr. Martin folded back the blankets and put a hand on Adam's chest, frowning slightly at his labored breathing. He bent over and listened for a while, then straightened again. "Hm. Think I'm going to set up a steam kettle in here, then maybe a new mustard plaster. Want to be a little careful with those - don't want to blister his chest."
Adam gave a moist cough that made Ben and Joe wince in unison. His left hand lifted slightly as if pushing something away, then dropped.
Ben felt his heart begin a slow hammering in his chest. "Adam?" he strode to the head of the bed and knelt down to search his face. "Adam? Son, can you hear me?"
Adam's hand lifted and dropped again, his lips moving soundlessly.
"Adam?" Ben stroked his hair away from his face. "What is it, son?"
"Off." The voice was so faint that Ben had to put his ear right next to his mouth to hear him. He watched Adam lift his hand again, this time get it as far as his chest before it dropped. "Off…"
"What…?" Ben watched the hand try feebly to push something invisible away again, then was struck with realization. "No, Adam, there's nothing there though I'm sure it FEELS like - it's the fluid in your lungs, son." The hand flapped weakly once more and Ben captured it gently, mindful of the bandages, and held it in his own. "There's nothing there, Adam, it just feels that way. Paul is trying to take care of it for you."
Adam coughed again, a painful sound that had Joe resting his hand on his own chest in sympathy, and moved his mouth again. His eyelids slid back unexpectedly. "Pa?"
Ben's heart gave a jump. "That's right, son." He tried to sound calm. "How are you feeling?"
Adam blinked owlishly at him. His eyes didn't look quite right - one was all pupil and the other was just the opposite. His gaze slid vaguely over to Joe, then back to Ben. He coughed, and his eyes shut again as though holding them open had taken all his strength. Ben thought for sure he was asleep, then he heard the faint, hoarse voice. "Head hurts."
Ben choked on a relieved laugh. "Yes," he said softly. "Yes, I imagine it does."
Ben leaned closer, fighting to hear. "Don't think…what, son?"
Adam swallowed, struggling some with his breathing. "I can…go to school…today…"
Ben's heart froze. "No." he said automatically, glancing at Paul. "No, I don't suppose you can."
Adam's brows knotted painfully, as though he was struggling to remember something. "…Hoss…?" he managed at last.
"Is doing fine, son. Don't worry yourself about it."
Adam's eyes half opened again and tried to focus on him. "'S'true…?"
"Of course it's true. Paul says he's going to be just fine. Just needs a little rest. Which is what you should be doing, too."
Adam's eyelids dropped, but then he pried them apart, trying to fix his eyes back on Ben. "'S'Really…? Joe looks…worried…"
Ben gave his hand a pat. "Yes. Well. Joe is worried about…something else right now. Don't you trouble yourself about it." On the other side of the bed he saw Paul pouring water into a glass and adding something to it, and he continued, "I'm going to give you a drink, then I want you to sleep, all right?"
Adam coughed again, and his eyes squeezed closed, his face suddenly tight and washed with pain. Ben rubbed the back of his hand soothingly with his thumb, his own heart clenched within him until he saw the face relax again. Paul reached across Adam to hand him the glass, and Ben slid his arm carefully under the pillows to raise him up a little further.
"Now, I want you to drink this - take your time."
Adam sipped at the glass, then pushed it away, his forehead furrowed. "Geo…metry…test?"
Ben glanced at Joe, then back at Adam. "No - don't worry about it, son. Just drink the rest of this for me."
Adam drank some more, then pushed vaguely at the glass again, slumping wearily back against the pillows. His chest heaved in another cough and his eyes remained shut this time. "Where's…?" his voice seemed to be getting fainter, though Ben wouldn't have thought it possible.
"Where's what, Adam?" Ben pulled the blankets up around him and rested his hand on his chest, hoping that would keep him from trying to move.
Ben's look at Paul this time was frantic.
Paul leaned in close and tried to snag Adam's attention, though he already seemed to be fading. "Adam," he said clearly, "Adam, it's Paul. Can you tell me what day it is, son?" Adam's eyes opened again, and he stared blankly at him. Paul touched his shoulder lightly to make sure he was listening. "How about the year, son? Can you tell me what year it is?"
Adam blinked slowly, his eyes wide and fixed on him. "No," he said after a minute. Then his eyelids fell again.
The room was very quiet. Ben continued to mindlessly stroke the back of Adam's hand with his thumb, but his expression was still and distant.
Paul finally broke the silence by clearing his throat. "He's probably still confused," he suggested.
Ben looked at him, then looked away.
"Don't read too much into it, Ben. He's been out for a long time."
"I'm not stupid, Paul." Ben's voice was low and fierce. "I've lived in the Sierras for better than twenty years. I've seen what that kind of prolonged cold can do to a man's mind."
"No doubt you have." Paul's tone remained even. "And no doubt you've also seen men recover with no real ill effects. Let's not jump to any hasty conclusions."
Joe was looking from Ben to Paul, his face increasingly uneasy. "What are you trying to say?" No one answered him, so he pressed. "Adam's okay, right? It's like the Doc says - he's just confused."
Paul glanced at him, but he addressed himself to Ben. "He's got a furrow on the side of his head I can lay my finger in. Concussion does funny things to a man. Give it a little time, Ben."
Ben didn't seem to hear him.
Joe's voice rose. "It's true, Pa. Adam couldn't be - I mean, then he kinda - wouldn't be Adam - "
"That's enough, Joseph!"
Something in his father's voice startled him into silence, and he shot a pleading glance at Dr. Martin.
Paul was meticulously screwing lids back on some bottles. "This is very premature, Ben, " he said firmly. "We don't know anything yet. Not really. Between the bullet wound and the fall Adam's brain has gotten a good rattling. Let's keep him breathing, let him get a little rest and get his bearings, then we'll know more." Ben hesitated, then nodded slightly. "In the meantime, I'd like to get that steam kettle going. I'll tell you, I'm missing Hop Sing's herbs about now. They always seem to do some good." He stood and made his way around the bed, pausing to squeeze Ben's shoulder as he passed. "Wouldn't be a bad idea for you to get some sleep yourself. You too, Joe. Everything looks more dire when you're exhausted."
Joe frowned at the figure in the bed, then back at Dr. Martin. "I want to stay with him."
Ben stirred a little. "Go to bed, Joseph. Let Paul do what he needs to do."
"I won't be in the way, I promise." Joe looked hopefully at Dr. Martin. "I can help, even. Please?"
Paul's eyes traveled from Joe to Ben. "I don't have a problem with it."
Ben sighed tiredly, pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers. "Very well, then."
Paul paused, eyeing him. "What about you, Ben? If you don't want to sleep we could get another chair in here."
Ben was silent, running his thumb lightly over Adam's cheekbone. "No," he said after a moment. "No. I have something I need to attend to."
Joe shifted uncomfortably. "Something - I can help you with, Pa?"
Ben stood slowly. "No. No, thank you, son. You'll keep an eye on your brothers for me?"
Joe nodded, watching him uneasily. "Sure thing, Pa."
"Good." He pressed a hand against the small of his back and, with a last glance at Adam, headed for the door.
Joe couldn't explain the crawly feeling that had taken over his stomach. "Pa? Are you sure - ?"
Ben looked at him, but Joe felt as if he wasn't seeing him at all. "Quite sure. Thank you, son. Stay and help Paul."
Joe stared after him, feeling oddly helpless. He cleared his throat. "Sure doesn't seem like himself."
Paul didn't look up from the items he was pulling out of his bag. "Yes, well, I wouldn't wonder. It's been a rough couple of days for him. You want to sit with Adam while I get some water boiling?" Joe nodded jerkily, still trying to trace the unsettled feeling in his ribcage. Paul eyeballed the book that hung from his hand. "Maybe you can find Pythagoras now - read to him a little. Might help him focus himself."
Joe nodded again.
"Good. I'll be back shortly."
Joe watched him go, then sat awkwardly back on the edge of the chair, the book open in his lap. He stared painfully at Adam as he stirred slightly, then choked, wracked by another series of coughs. Joe moved closer and laid one hand on his arm as if contact might somehow make it hurt less. "Come on, Adam," he whispered. "Come on. I know you're in there - I don't care what anybody says. Tell me about this Pythagoras fella. Come on - talk to me."
Ben moved blindly down the hall and into the room next door. He wasn't sure exactly where he was going until he actually found himself there, standing just inside the doorway, watching Hoss's chest rise and fall gently as he slept. Less than forty-eight hours ago his breathing had been as uneasy and dubious as Adam's. He supposed that that should be reason to hope, but instead what he felt was something else. The volcano that hovered under the ice inside him was burbling hot now, threatening to erupt. A curious sensation, the lava-like heat mixed with the glacial ice. He wondered what happened in that faraway land of fire and ice when one erupted - no one had ever said.
Hoss looked innocent as a baby in his sleep. Never mind that he was a grown man - an overgrown man, really - in his twenties - to Ben he was indistinguishable from the little boy Inger had lain in his arms all those years ago. Her special gift to him - her living memory. And damned be the man who had tried to take him away from him.
He moved his gaze to the window. The sky was almost imperceptibly lighter - nearing morning, now. What a night. What a week. No wonder he felt so tired.
He heard Paul move towards Adam's room and closed his eyes as though that could block out the sound - could block out everything, so that he could pretend that it was days ago and none of this had ever happened. That his boys were all happy and sound and well. Bickering, maybe, over some foolishness. He almost smiled…until he heard Paul's voice again, and then Joe's answering about something, followed by Adam's tortured cough. No. That was something he couldn't think about right now, for that way lay madness. Adam was his son, his boy, and the idea that no matter whether he lived or died he might now in some ways still be gone from him forever was more than his weary heart felt ready to contemplate. He stared at Hoss once more, fixing his image in his mind, and turned to the door.
The flight of stairs seemed to have gotten longer and he was grateful that his desk sat at the bottom of them and no further. He pulled out his chair to sit down and paused, gazing silently at the row of pictures in front of him. Elizabeth. Inger. Marie. What they had entrusted to him - the most important, maddening, frightening and joyous challenges of his life. The reason he'd had to get up and go on after their deaths, even when he'd no interest in continuing. His future. His very heart. How did a man go on living without his very heart? He couldn't, could he? What did a man do when his home and hearth and everything he held dear was threatened and savaged - here, under his own roof? When the man responsible might walk away, unscathed and laughing, to violate some other family…and another …and another?
What would you want of me? he asked the three faces soundlessly. They're your babies, too - what would you have me do? I tried to protect them, and I failed - what would you have me do now?
He stood staring from face to face, praying for guidance, for courage, for some relief from the awful heat and cold that bubbled inside him. His eyes drifted to the wall opposite, to the smeared and dented bloodstain; now spread and diluted and far from gone, and somehow even more horrible in the flickering lamplight, and a terrible calm descended upon him. With a glance at the three pictures that was both apology and promise he moved to the next wall and stood staring a moment, thinking.
His thoughts had settled now into a single, crystalline focus and he pulled open the glass doors, noting and debating and rating the various merits of the contents. After due deliberation, he made his choice and curled his hand around one. He felt better just touching it - it felt solid and certain and definite in a world that had somehow become wavering and random and treacherous. The fire inside him seemed to grow hotter, swallowing all the ice and forging his decision to white hot iron.
He knew what he had to do. It seemed so obvious now. With great care and meticulous precision he loosened the catches and lifted down the biggest rifle he could find.
"At its deepest level, reality is mathematical in nature." Joe read aloud, then shook his head. "Coulda fooled me. This Pythagoras fella sure had some crazy ideas, huh? No wonder you liked him. Kinda reminds me of you. There's this whole big section on musical theory, too. So what's that about do you suppose - theories about music? " Joe rested his feet against the lower rail of Adam's bed and peered at him again. The steam seemed to have eased his breathing some and he looked quieter - more like he was asleep and less like he was gone all together. He glanced across the bed to where Dr. Martin was dozing in a chair. Amazing that he could do that and look comfortable. Even more amazing was that, deeply asleep as he seemed, every time Adam's breathing changed, even the smallest bit, he was instantly awake and checking on him. Joe rested his chin on his knees and sighed. He should sleep too, probably. That's what Pa was doing - at least he hoped it was, he had seemed so…he wasn't sure what. Whatever it was, sleep would probably help.
He preferred to be awake. He wasn't quite sure what he was waiting for - Adam to talk to him, maybe. He knew what Pa was worried about - that too long in the cold had hurt Adam's mind, but he knew that couldn't have happened - knew it with absolute certainty - because - well - they needed Adam's mind and counted on it. He did, anyway. Why, this past week alone it had been Adam who had grabbed him and sent him for the doctor when Hoss was shot and he had wanted to pursue the culprit instead. And then it was Adam who had run after him and stopped him from shooting Red Twilight. Adam was like - his rudder - steering him in the right direction when he wandered off course - sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently, but always there. Sometimes he was grateful, sometimes it made him angry; but always he counted on it - knew he couldn't stray too far with his big brother standing by to grab him by the collar and drag him back in line. Like today.
He couldn't imagine now what had gotten into him. It made him turn cold inside to think how close he had come to doing something that he would no doubt regret forever. Oh, he wouldn't be sorry to see Red Twilight dead - he couldn't even pretend that - but to shoot him in cold blood - that he was pretty sure would have woken him up in a cold sweat for many nights to come. He opened the book again.
"The dependence of the dynamics of world structure on the interaction of contraries, or pairs of opposites…well, that's kind of inerestin'. Sounds a little like you and me, huh?" He looked at Adam for corroboration but his only answer was the persistent struggle of Adam's breathing. "Well, not really opposites, I guess. But different." He continued to gaze at Adam in silence, feeling a deep, painful pressure build over his breastbone. After a minute he left his chair and went to kneel by the bed so he could talk privately without disturbing Dr. Martin. He glanced at the doctor to be sure he was still sleeping, then leaned in to Adam.
"In all the confusion I don't think I ever thanked you," he whispered, feeling a little self conscious. "You - you stopped me from ruining my life today, Adam - from ruining myself. And that's why you gotta come back all well and whole and everything, so I can thank you when you'll remember. Oh, I know you're kinda confused right now, but that will pass once you have some rest and everything hurts a little less. I know it. I'm countin' on you, Adam. I'm countin' on you comin' back just as you was. You ain't never let me down before, and I'm countin' on you not to let me down now. You always been there for me before and I'm expectin' you to be there for me now and for a lotta years to come." He waited, but Adam didn't so much as stir. He picked up the book resignedly and turned it over in his hands. "Don't know how much more of this I can take. Maybe I'll go get that dime novel I been readin' - bet you'd wake up to take a few cracks at that." Joe looked at him hopefully, and Adam coughed again and then was silent. Still, it sounded less harsh and painful this time.
Joe glanced back at the book with a sigh. "Well, maybe a little more. But I'm not reading any of that theory stuff - that might as well still BE in Greek." He flipped the pages back and forth. "Let's see what we got here…the beliefs of Pythagoras… that all brothers of the order should observe strict loyalty and secrecy …" the sudden rush of tears in his eyes startled him, and he dropped his head. He bit his lip hard and coughed to clear the fogginess from his throat. "Look, um…I think that mustard plaster of yours is - gettin' to me..." he cleared his throat again as the tears threatened to spill over. "So - um - I'm gonna leave you with the Doc for a little while I - " he closed the book carefully and rested it under Adam's bandaged hand. "but - I'll - be back. Remember I told you that before? And I was. I will this time, too, Adam - I'll be back."
He stood abruptly, not really ready to leave but terrified to have Doc Martin catch him bawling like a three year old. "And - and when I come back, I'm gonna expect you to talk to me, okay?" His voice broke with a suspicious squawk on the last word, and he beat a hasty retreat to the head of the stairs where he sank down on the top step and buried his fists in his eyes. He was NOT going to cry - he was not. He must be over tired - seemed like he'd been crying off and on all night. He gave himself a few minutes to get his feelings under control and then he wiped his bathrobe sleeve across his face and stood up. What he needed was a snack - he'd feel better after something to eat.
He descended the stairs heavily, his head down, then turned toward the kitchen. And paused, his eyes on his father's desk. "Pa?"
Ben looked up from the oversized shotgun he was priming, his face startled. "Joseph." It seemed to take him a minute or two to recognize him. "I thought you were with your brothers."
"I - I was. I came down for some coffee or - you hungry, Pa?"
Ben blinked slowly, as though carefully translating the question. "No." he said at last. "No, thank you, son."
Joe took a step closer. "Me either, I guess. Pa - " he let the word hang until Ben finally looked up inquiringly. "I know it's late and all, but - could I talk to you?"
Ben sat up a little, his movements weighted. "Of course, son."
Grateful, Joe hooked a chair with his foot and dropped into it. He glanced at the large weapon. "Good way to pass the time, I guess. Any others need cleanin'?'
Ben stared at him as if he didn't understand the question, then shook his head. "Oh. No. No, not really. What is it you wanted to talk about?"
Joe shoved his hands deep into his robe pockets. "Today," he said slowly, then glanced at the greying sky through the window. "Yesterday, really, I guess. I been thinking about it a lot, Pa - haven't been able to think about almost anything else, really." He poked at the rug with his toe, trying to organize his thoughts.
"I almost killed a man today, Pa," he said finally, his voice sounding thin and small. "I almost blew his brains out while he was helpless, and Pa, I almost liked it, too. I wanted to do it - was lookin' forward to it. It - it scares me now to think how much I wanted it."
Ben looked at him, but didn't comment.
"I'd been fantasizing about it for days - dreaming about it - about that moment when he'd be at my mercy - begging me to let him go - how I'd let him just hang there and then - " he closed his eyes briefly. "And then that moment really came. And I was gonna do it. I - I felt I had a right, you know? The way he'd hunted Hoss down when he was alone and shot him in the back like some kind of - I thought it made it okay - justice, you know? An eye for an eye, like they say." He glanced up at Ben timidly, trying to gauge his reaction, but his face was still and unreadable. He cleared his throat nervously. "Anyway. I - I had my gun all cocked and everything. Then Adam showed up and - and he told me… " He made another impatient swipe at his eyes.
Ben watched him, then said quietly, "Told you what?"
Joe drew a shaky breath. "Not to do it. That I'd regret it."
Ben glanced at the rifle under his hand, caressed it lightly. "And that stopped you?"
Joe gulped. "No. No, it didn't." He twisted the belt to his robe around his fingers. "I told him that I'd promised Hoss - that he was just a no-good back shooter anyway and that I'd promised…" The glance he shot Ben plead for understanding, but his father's expression remained unreadable. "I - I know how wrong it was - now. But then, it really seemed like the right - the ONLY - " He dropped his eyes to his lap.
Ben's gaze was fixed on him. "Go on."
Joe set his jaw hard, determined to see this through like a man. "So I - was gonna - anyway - and then Adam said - he said…" Ben leaned forward just slightly and Joe chewed his lip. "He said - 'Go ahead, then and you'll be just like him - I hope you enjoy it.'" This time the tears spilled over. "I - I guess that stopped me - just for a second - and then Hoss was there, and you with the deputy…I been thinkin' about it ever since, though. It just won't leave me alone." He scrubbed at the dampness on his cheeks and sniffed, but his voice sounded calmer now.
"I hated him so much. I had so much - contempt for him. But Adam was right - I almost WAS him. Red Twilight thought he had a right to kill Hoss because he'd killed Willie, and so I thought I had a right to kill Red - it was exactly the same thing, Pa. And then when I saw what he did to Adam - all casual, just like he was nothin', and the way he hit Mary, just because she was in the way of his revenge, I - I saw myself - what I could be. How many really small steps there were between me and Red Twilight and how that first one just might close the gap for good. Except…" he sighed wordlessly and stole another glance at Ben. "Except I got less excuse. I mean, I don't know what kind of teachin' Red Twilight had, but I know what kind I had. I always had people to look up to - people who showed me how to do the right thing. You were tryin' ta tell me, and Hoss was tryin' ta tell me and Adam did tell me and still I - I know I got no excuse Pa. I can't speak for Red, but I got reason to know better."
Ben was very still, his eyes on the gun in his hand. After a moment he spoke, "Don't be too hard on yourself, son. We - all have a breaking point."
Joe shook his head fiercely. "Well, I learned my lesson, I tell you. Next time I'm gonna remember who I wanna be like, and it sure ain't Red Twilight." He smiled a little shyly. "Next time I'm gonna ask myself, 'What would Pa do?' And that's what I'll do. That's who I wanna be like." The look Ben gave him was so peculiar that he sobered instantly. "Guess you're pretty ashamed of me."
Ben looked startled. "No. No, of course not."
Joe relaxed for the first time that evening. "Well, I am. But it ain't gonna happen again, I promise you that. I just wanted to let you know that you didn't have to worry about it any more."
Ben nodded thoughtfully, his hand running lightly up and down the gun barrel.
Joe let out a gusty sigh of relief. "Thanks for talking, Pa. I feel a whole lot better."
Ben's eyes rested on him searchingly. "Thank you, son," he said at last. "I think I do, too."
Joe grinned, suddenly feeling pounds lighter. "Tell you what - why don't you let me put that gun away, and I'll fix us some breakfast? Then we'll go up and see how Adam and Hoss are doin'."
Ben smiled faintly and after a slight hesitation, handed over the gun. "Don't you think you should get some sleep?" he asked mechanically.
Joe took the gun briskly. "I wanna wait for Adam to wake up."
Ben sighed. "Joseph. Staring at him will not wake him up. It didn't work when you were three, and it won't work now."
Joe shrugged jauntily. "Then maybe I should try jumping up and down on his bed. That always used to work." Ben looked so horrified that he backed away, holding the gun in front of him. "Okay, okay - only joking." He moved to the gun cabinet, automatically breaking open the barrel and looking inside. He stopped in his tracks, shaking his head and laughing. "Looks like you're the one who needs the sleep, Pa -you realize you were cleaning a loaded gun? You'd about tan me for something careless like that."
Ben just looked at him, and his smile slowly faded as something light and cold slid up his spine. He blinked, his voice suddenly less certain. "Pa?"
Ben pushed himself up from his desk. "I think I'll go check on your brothers." Joe stared at him, and Ben met his gaze quietly before turning to the stairs. He paused as he thought of something. "Oh - and Joseph…I wonder if you might do me a favor."
Joe swallowed, trying to get his bearings. "Sure, Pa." His voice sounded tentative to his own ears.
"Untack Buck for me?"
Joe tilted his head. "Untack - but Pa, Buck can't be - ?" Reality hit, and his eyes widened. "Pa?"
Ben rounded the stairs without a backward glance. "Thank you, son."
Ben paused back in Hoss's doorway, watching the thin, watery light of new dawn filter through the window. How long ago since he had stood here? Not long. And yet everything seemed changed.
He thought Hoss looked flushed - went over to peel back the quilt and replace it with a light blanket. He reached up to check his temperature and noticed that his eyes were open. "Hoss!" he said with surprised pleasure. "How are you feeling, son?"
Hoss scrunched up his face and yawned. "Not so bad, Pa." His voice sounded weak and he grimaced. "Kinda peckish, though."
Ben chuckled. "Well, that's good news. I'll check with Paul and see what you're allowed to eat. Here, let me get you some water…"
Hoss let his father hold the glass for him and then lay back tiredly. "How's ol' Adam doin'?"
Ben smiled ruefully. "Asking about you."
"He gonna be all right?"
Ben hesitated. "I don't know," he admitted at last.
Hoss studied his expression with shrewd eyes. "He's bad, huh? Shortshanks wouldn't tell me much."
"Well, he's still with us - that's the important thing. I'm sorry, son - I shouldn't be burdening you with this when you're not well yourself. I'm tired, and I'm seeing more and more signs that that's impairing my judgment."
Hoss shrugged, then winced as the motion pulled at his back. "I asked. Jest as soon know the facts." He scowled at the wall that his room shared with Adam's. "Sure'd like ta see 'em."
"Well, Paul wasn't very pleased with your last adventure - I doubt he'll authorize another one so soon. Besides, he's sleeping - there's not much to see."
"Still." Hoss settled himself more deeply into his pillow. "He talked at all?"
Ben paused, remembering Adam's brief ramblings that had so disturbed him. "He - a little. Not really." He felt himself color under Hoss's perceptive stare. "Just - just a few words."
Hoss watched him carefully. "Y'know, Pa, you always used ta tell us that there weren't no point in runnin' down the road to meet trouble - might just as well wait fer it ta catch up with ya."
Ben's lips twisted wryly. "Yes, I seem to be having my own words thrown back in my face over and over today. If I've discovered nothing else in the last twenty-four hours I've certainly learned that I have a big mouth."
Hoss gave a grunt of laughter. "Don't count ol' Adam out. He'll hang on jest to prove he can."
Ben almost smiled, reaching over to give Hoss's large hand a squeeze. "Why don't you relax a little, and I'll ask Paul what you can have to eat? If I can pry Joseph away from your older brother, I'll send him in to sit with you."
Hoss grinned. "He expectin' ta pester Adam better?"
"That seems to be his philosophy, yes."
Hoss's grin faded suddenly. "I ain't feelin' so bad. Mebbe - "
"Now, you stay put." Ben's voice was firm. "If worse comes to worst you two can knock back and forth on the wall the way you used to when you were boys."
Hoss looked startled. "You knew 'bout that?"
Ben adjusted his covers and refilled the glass with water. "Of course I did," he said simply. "I'm your father. I know everything."
Dr. Martin roused from his light doze and looked gratified to hear that Hoss was hungry. "About time I examined him again - changed his bandages. Joe - could you get some water boiling for me? Ben, I'd appreciate it if you'd sit with Adam."
Ben nodded. "Start some kind of breakfast for everyone, Joseph. Paul must be starved."
Joe jerked his head in assent, still looking at Ben warily - almost as if he were a stranger.
Ben sighed inwardly. He seemed to have tumbled from any number of pedestals in the last twenty-four hours. He watched Paul and Joe take their leave and turned his eyes back to the figure in the bed.
Adam was wheezing - his breath still toiling through his lungs - but it didn't sound quite so much like he was trying to breathe through water, and the blue shade had faded from his lips. He touched the side of his face. Warmer. A little hot, actually. He wet a cloth and dabbed it over his face, letting it rest for a moment on top of the bruise that had spread around his eye. Adam pressed his face slightly into the cloth, and Ben caught his breath. "Adam? Son?"
His lashes didn't so much as flicker though, so after a moment Ben pulled up the nearest chair - a rocker, and sank into it. Nothing to do but wait.
"Well, you'll be pleased to know you had the last laugh," he said after a moment. "How many times have we fought about vigilante justice? You'll be happy to hear that your arguments were effective even when you were unable to deliver them." Adam sighed in his sleep and mumbled something, but though Ben leaned in close, he couldn't catch it. He shifted the rocker so it was alongside the head of the bed and he could rest his hand on Adam's arm while he rocked. "Which doesn't mean I don't want to see Red Twilight hang. I do. In the words of your brother, it scares me how much I want it. If something was to happen and Twilight should go free, you may need all your best arguments to convince me not to follow through with it. I'm not really sure anything you had to say would change my mind." He tightened his grip on the motionless upper arm.
"So here's my thought. You had your way in the first round - Joe told me what you had to say, and I put my gun away. Fair enough. If you want your way in the second round, though, you'll have to do something for me." His eyes bored into the wall opposite, the rocking picking up pace slightly. "You'll have to convince me. You'll have to explain to me why I shouldn't march into that jail and blow his damned head off. You'll have to make it good, though. Of course, that will entail you waking up - and waking up as sharp and smart alecky and opinionated as ever…" The rocking chair creaked in time, and he shifted his hand to lay it across the bandaged forehead, lightly, though, so as not to hurt him.
His voice dropped. "So, what do you say, son? Will you do that for me? I've never known you to walk away from a fight before, and I don't expect to see you walk away now. And if you do this, if you open your eyes and make a good case of it - I promise you this - I will not take the law into my own hands. Red Twilight may die, but it will not be by my gun." He felt the forehead turn just slightly under his palm and slowed his rocking.
"I'm betting on you, son," he murmured softly. "I'm betting that you'll open your eyes and come back to me, just to win that argument one last time. That's what I'm betting." He felt Adam shake with a sudden paroxysm of coughing and sat very still with his eyes shut tight against the vicarious pain, waiting for it to pass. "And I warn you," he continued, almost under his breath. "I am a very sore loser."
Movement in the doorway made him look up. Joe smiled at him, a little uneasily. "Now who's not letting him sleep?" And when Ben didn't answer, "I made some breakfast."
Ben nodded absently. "Thank you, Joseph. Have you eaten?"
"Yeah, I had something. You oughta eat, Pa." He paused awkwardly. "How is he?"
"Breathing better, I think."
Joe nodded, picking up the book that Ben had moved to the night table. "Guess I could go back to this then. Sure is hot in here with that steam kettle going." He opened the book at random and made a face. "You ever read this, Pa? I gotta say, it just don't make any sense that I can see." He sat on the floor next to the bed and sighed.
Ben glanced at him. "You could go to bed, Joseph."
"No. I wanna stay."
Ben nodded vaguely, reaching over and replacing the blanket that had slid from Adam's shoulder.
"I'm just sayin' it's pretty dry. I mean, listen to this, 'The Theory of Pythagoras - for a right angled triangle the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides'. Now, you gonna tell me you have an idea what that means? Cause I sure don't!"
"Keep it down, Joseph."
"And that's one of the easier ones. You know there are irrational numbers? Now, you tell me, how can a number be irrational, huh? Don't even have a brain! Oh, and here's another theory I like…wait…"
It took Ben a minute to register the muffled syllable, then he looked down to where his right hand rested. "…Adam?" he said tentatively.
Adam's fingers lifted slightly and then dropped again. "Theo - rem."
Joe blinked at the page in front of him, his heart suddenly thundering ferociously, then broke into a ragged grin. "The - oh!" he gave a startled gasp of laughter. "Oh, I see it!"
Adam's eyelids fluttered, but his eyes remained closed. "Theo - ry…different…" His voice dribbled away.
Joe scrambled to his knees and leaned on the bed where he could see him better. "Okay, Adam - thanks. I'll - I'll remember."
Adam's chin dipped slightly in a fractional nod.
Ben shifted his hand to Adam's shoulder, bending his head closer to his ear. "Adam? Are you awake? Can you tell me how you feel?" Adam tried to lift his hand again, getting it half way to his head before Ben caught on and stopped him. "Don't - don't touch your head, son. You've got a pretty nasty bullet wound there."
Adam made another attempt to pry his lids apart, letting out a sudden hiss of pain as he tried to move his right arm instead.
Joe reached over and placed his own hand on top of the splint to stop him. "Better not move that, either, big brother - you broke it."
Adam's brows ruffled, and he coughed harshly, trying again to remove his left hand from Ben’s grasp. Ben hung on to it gently but firmly. "Sorry, son – you’ve cut that one pretty badly. Better if you just leave it where it is."
Adam swallowed slowly. "Maybe…" he wheezed, then coughed again, struggling to get a full breath, "…should… tell me…what's NOT hurt…Faster."
Joe laughed. "Yeah, that's a short list, brother. Anything I can get you? Water – anything?"
Adam managed to separate his eyelashes and peer blearily between them. "What – where's - ?"
Ben set his teeth hard. He fought to keep his voice calm. "Where’s who, son?" And when Adam didn’t answer, "Where's – Marie?"
Adam tried to focus on him, then gave up and shut his eyes with a sigh. "Not Marie. I thought – someone…else…"
Ben let out an actual gasp of relief. "Oh." He brightened with a sudden idea. "maybe you're thinking of Mary, then?"
"Adam – good to see you awake." Dr. Martin stood in the doorway, shooting a disapproving glance at both Ben and Joe. "I’d like to ask you a few questions of my own and change your bandages, so I'll just shoo your inquisitioners out for the time being." He glared meaningfully at the two remaining Cartwrights.
Ben shifted slowly. "I'd like to stay, Paul."
Paul turned to sort through his bag. Ben scowled at him. He swore he only did that when he wanted to avoid confrontation. "No doubt you would, but I'd like to talk to Adam alone. Besides, I think you and Joe could both use a break. I'd like to see you get a couple of hours of sleep but since I have no confidence that that will happen, go have some coffee and food instead."
"I ate!" Joe protested.
"Yes, I saw how you ate." Paul arranged some bottles in a row. "Go eat better. I'll call you both as soon as I'm done." He touched Adam’s shoulder. "Adam? You still with me?" Adam didn't open his eyes, but he moved his head slightly to show that he was. "Good boy. Now, I'm probably going to hurt you some but just bear with me…"
Ben looked at Adam and balked. "Paul – surely it's better if I stay and help – "
"If you want to help, you'll leave and let me do what I have to do. I don't need you wringing your hands every time he groans, and I don't need him trying not to groan every time you wring your hands." Ben's anguished glance traveled from Paul to Adam, and Paul relented some. "Just get out of my way while I examine him. I don't want him holding back because he’s afraid of worrying you. I promise I'll call you when I'm done."
Ben nodded reluctantly. "I suppose there's something to what you say."
"Good. Joe, take your father downstairs and see that he eats something. I'll let you know when I'm done up here."
"Sure thing, Doc." Joe took his father by the elbow. "C'mon, Pa. We’re not doin' any good here. Doc, how's Hoss?"
"He ate well and now he's back to sleep. At least one of you does what I ask now and then. Go have breakfast."
Dr. Martin waited until he saw them turn the bend in the stairs then took out his small sharp scissors and began cutting away at the bandage around Adam's head. "So," he said conversationally as he carefully began his snipping, "how do you feel?"
Adam's eyebrows twitched. "…con…fused…"
Paul laughed quietly. "Well, that's understandable, I guess, though I actually meant physically. Do you remember what happened to you?"
Adam's eyelids flickered, and he managed to open them part way, fighting to fix them on Dr. Martin. After a moment, he shook his head slightly.
"Well, that's not so unusual, really. What's the last thing you do remember?"
Adam squeezed his eyes shut and then moved them to stare at the glass of water on his night table, as though looking at it would help him muster his thoughts. "Not sure…mixed…up." He wrinkled his forehead in thought then closed his eyes again as that sent an ice pick of pain lancing through his skull. "Something…about…Hoss? Maybe…Joe?" He bit his lip suddenly as Dr. Martin pried the bandage loose and then rested an apologetic hand on his shoulder.
"All right, you’re doing fine. I’ll be putting a little ointment on there next – it's going to sting. You don’t remember anything else? Anything specific?"
Adam frowned to focus his wavering vision. "Um…geo…metry? Uh – " He let out an involuntary cry before he could stop himself as the doctor dabbed at the open bullet wound.
Paul squeezed his shoulder again. "All right – I know – stay with me, I’m going to do your cheek now."
Adam closed his eyes and took a deep breath, regretting it as it turned into a coughing spasm. "What…?" he took another shallower breath as the coughing faded, resting his left hand carefully on his chest. "How…?"
"It’s a longish story, and I would like to see how much you can remember on your own. Can you open your eyes? Can you tell me how many fingers I’m holding up?"
Adam blinked at the fingers swimming in front of him, willing himself to focus. "Tw…three? …keep…moving."
"Um hm." Paul leaned in closely and studied his eyes. "Well, you have a doozy of a concussion, so everything might keep moving on you for a while. But you can hear me all right?" Adam nodded slightly, trying not to move his head too much. "That's good anyway. Now aside from your head, you've got a broken right arm and some nasty cuts and bruises. That chest congestion is due to fluid you breathed in. I think we have the worst of it under control, but now that you're a little more stable I’m going to give you something for it and fix you a new mustard plaster." He grinned as Adam groaned faintly. "Think of it as incentive to get well."
Paul laughed out loud. "And spoil all my hard work? Now, you can see why I need you to stay as still and as quiet as possible, right? Try to be a good patient for me just this once."
Adam lifted increasingly heavy eyes to him. "You…said…Hoss…?"
"Is doing very well – except that he keeps nagging me about you. If you're both as good as gold maybe I can arrange for you two to have a visit."
Adam let his eyelids sink. "…better…if I could…see…"
"Funny, that’s just what he said about you. Behave yourselves, and I’ll see what I can do. I have something for that cough and something mild for the pain…I know it's not much, but I don't think you're strong enough for anything else yet. Stay awake for me just a little longer?"
Adam’s eyes flew wide. "That's…? what…she…said…"
Paul paused in measuring out a spoonful of cough elixir. “She. Who's she?”
Adam sighed. "…Don't…know…"
Paul deftly inserted the spoon in his mouth and drew it out again, turning to empty a small paper of powder into a glass of water. "Well. Try not to worry about it too much right now. I'm sure it will come back to you. You're already much more lucid than you were."
"Don’t feel…very…so tired…"
The doctor pressed a hand to his cheek, gauging. "If you could remember what you've been through you wouldn't be surprised you're tired. You're a little feverish. Drink this for me and I’ll let your father and brother say hello and then I want you to sleep." He lifted Adam slightly and held the glass until he had forced him to down all of it.
Adam made a slight face. "Ever…taste…good?"
Paul grinned. "Can't have that. I'd have patients lined up around the block if the cure wasn’t worse than the illness." He turned to set down the glass and gave a sudden exasperated sigh. "Well, you gentlemen certainly eat briskly. I thought I said I'd come and get you?"
Ben looked past him to Adam. "I've eaten," he said indifferently.
Joe held up his hands. "Hey, don't look at me - I just came for my book." He made a big show of finding the book he'd left on the floor and flipping the pages studiously.
"Yes - I noticed you can hardly tear yourself away from it." Dr. Martin touched Adam's hand to get his attention. "Adam - did you know your brother has been reading Pythagoras to you?"
Adam dragged himself from the descending haze to half open his eyes. "…my?"
"Yeah, Adam." Joe looked a little embarrassed. "You ever think of reading this book upside down? Might make more sense."
"…geometry…" Adam sighed, as though that answered a question.
"Yeah. But I gotta tell you, I'm switchin' to my dime novel next - somethin' with a little life to it."
Adam's mouth moved as though he wanted to answer, but he sighed again instead, more deeply this time. Ben watched him, questions buzzing in his brain but hesitant to present any of them to him when he looked so close to sleep. Finally, he turned his questions to Paul instead. "Did you give him something?"
Paul nodded. "Just a little. Help him sleep through the cough."
Ben moved restlessly, feeling he should say something, greet his son, but suddenly at a loss. Instead he reached out and flicked a finger over his cheek. "Tell you what, Adam - when you wake up I'll help you get rid of that stubble."
Adam tried to answer - maybe even thought he had - but the slow rhythm of his breathing showed that he had succumbed to the drug. Paul took a minute to check his pulse, then stood and gestured them outside of the room. He pulled the door ajar behind them, one ear still cocked for any changes within.
Ben studied his face carefully. "He seems better."
Paul nodded. "Yes. Yes, I'd say so. Pulse is quite a bit stronger. But I want someone with him all the time until the first twenty-four hours is up. No point in getting cocky and losing the race now. Maybe Miss Mary would be willing to take a turn? I really don't think you and Joe will be effective much longer without a little sleep."
Ben nodded, but it was clear his mind was somewhere else. Finally he asked, "Did you - talk to him?"
"I asked him a few questions - yes."
"And he - ? How did he - seem?"
"Oh, come on, Pa!" Joe's voice came out louder than he intended, and he lowered it quickly. "He knows the difference between a theorem and a theory! I don't even know that, and I ain't been froze within an inch of my life! I tell you, he's fine! The same old Adam!"
Ben ignored his outburst, his eyes on the doctor. "Paul?"
Dr. Martin sighed. "He's confused about a few things. Missing some time. May be permanent, may be temporary. I really won't know if there's been any lasting damage for a while. I know it's difficult to wait, but I'm afraid it's all I have to offer."
Ben nodded heavily. "I'm sorry, Paul. I don't mean to push, but - "
"I know, Ben. I wish I had an answer you'd like better, but I don't. In the meantime, I'd better check in on some of my other patients.
Two things I'd like you to be alert for - one, watch for signs of late drowning - I think we've got it licked, but I won't feel comfortable until this evening. And two, don't let him move around much. It's bound to make him sick, and he really doesn't need another bout of that. I've left a batch of mustard blended for another bunch of plasters - put one on when he wakes up, or earlier if you see he's struggling to breathe. I'll plan to check in this evening and see how he's faring, unless I'm called away to an emergency. He can have a little more of that powder mixed with water if you find he's in a lot of pain. Any questions?"
Ben smiled ruefully. "Hundreds. Unfortunately, you've already said you can't answer any of them." He stuck out his hand. "Thank you, Paul. I know very well that without you, I - that two of my boys might very easily have…" He dropped his eyes for a moment.
Paul slipped his arms into his coat. "Never mind, Ben - it's what doctors do. Though, while I appreciate the trade, your family doesn't have to keep it quite so brisk! Anything I can bring you from town when I come?"
Ben's face sobered abruptly. "Yes," he said coolly. "If you get a chance to talk to Roy - I'd like any news you can bring me about Red Twilight."
"So you cain't tell me who shot you."
"Do you remember bein' shot?"
"Do you remember what happened just before you got shot?"
A sigh. "No."
"How 'bout just after?"
Adam shook his head slightly.
"So what yer tellin' me is that you got yerself shot in the head, but you don't remember nothin' about it?"
Adam opened his eyes slightly and tried to focus a glare on him.
Joe let out a snort of laughter, suppressed it quickly at a warning look from his father. "Told ya he was the same," he muttered under his breath.
Roy Coffey scratched his head. "Well, it's hard to do a whole lot without a little more information, Adam."
Ben stopped his restless progress between the bed and the window. "I think that's enough, Roy. Let him rest now."
"Ben, if you want this fella ta get his due, then I'm going to need to perform a proper investigation. And that means talkin' to all the victims while it's still fresh in their minds."
"Well, as you can see, it's NOT fresh in his mind, so it would probably be better if you came back later when he's a little stronger and has had a little more time to collect himself. You have Joe's side of the story - I'm hard pressed to understand why that's not sufficient."
"Little corroboration would go a long way, Ben. After all, the only folks that seem to have heard this fellow's confession about shooting Hoss are his brothers - tough to prove it ain't somethin' they cooked up together."
Ben scowled. "You know they didn't."
"Jury's the one that's gotta know."
Ben paused. "What about Miss Mary? She isn't related to Hoss, and she loved Willie."
"'Cording to her, she didn't see or hear nothin' - though she's mighty sure he's guilty. Maybe I should talk to Hoss now."
Ben frowned impatiently. "Do you have to disturb him, too? He couldn't possibly have seen anything - he was shot in the back and from a long distance!" Adam's eyes half opened at that and struggled to focus on his father. Ben cursed himself inwardly. He brushed Adam's shoulder reassuringly. "We should be talking about this in the hall. Are you finished here?"
Roy's mouth puckered into a smile at his tone - so unlike the usually cordial Ben Cartwright. "Looks like I am - fer now." He lumbered to his feet. "Adam, hope yer feelin' better soon, son. I'll prob'ly be back to ask you a few more questions when you are."
Adam nodded slightly, his gaze, faintly anxious, following them to the door. Ben saw it and chewed his lip. "Joseph - will you stay with your brother for me?"
Joe nodded vigorously. "Sure thing, Pa."
Ben studied his suddenly angelic expression narrowly. "And Joseph - don't do what you're thinking of doing, please? I know you mean to help, but it will only make things worse - he needs to remember on his own."
Joe looked astonished. "Pa, I wasn't - "
"Joe." Ben's tone was mild.
Joe lifted his shoulders and dropped them, looking chagrined. "Okay, Pa," he grumbled begrudgingly. He watched them exit and turned back to the figure in the bed. "Sorry. I was hopin' to fill you in."
Adam closed his eyes again. "'S'all right." He clenched his brows in a frown of discomfort or displeasure - Joe couldn't decide which.
"So - anything you'd like? Water? Food?"
Adam shook his head marginally, but pushed unconsciously at the blanket.
Adam opened his eyes. "…Little."
Joe reached over and felt his cheek. "Some fever, I guess. Better not uncover you. Course, it's hotter than Toffit in here with that kettle going. Here - " Joe wet a couple of rags in the nearby basin and lay one on Adam's chest and the other on his neck. "I'd put 'em on your forehead and wrists if I could find 'em under all those bandages." Adam expelled a gust of breath in what appeared to be meant as a laugh, and Joe smiled, feeling encouraged. "Funny to think of you being hot when you were so cold." Adam looked at him questioningly. "You don't remember that?" Adam closed his eyes. Joe hesitated. "Well. I don't think it would matter if I told you about that - it don't have much to do with the shooting. You fell down in the creek bed - must have been there for a long time - nearly froze. That's how you broke your arm."
Adam opened his eyes again and studied him, his face intent, then let them sink shut with a sigh.
Joe echoed his sigh. "Nothing?" Adam shook his head. "Well, never mind. It'll come back to you in time. Or heck, if it doesn't it don't matter - have a feeling it wasn't such a wonderful experience to remember anyway."
This time Adam really did laugh - a hoarse gasp that turned into a fit of coughing.
Joe hovered over the bed in alarm. "Are you - what can I do?"
Adam waved his left hand in a feeble, dismissive gesture, then pressed it against his heaving chest, releasing it suddenly when the pressure sent a flash of pain through his lacerated palm. He slid his eyes to glance at the offending appendage, then closed them again, waiting for the coughing to subside. When it finally seemed under control he blotted his watering eyes with the back of his heavily bandaged hand and then rested it over his mouth. "Damn," he breathed, so softly Joe had to lean close to hear it.
Joe winced in sympathy. "How about some water?" Adam nodded resignedly. Joe carefully helped him drink a couple of sips, then reached for the cough elixir and spoon. "How about a little of this?" Adam groaned. "I'll take that as a yes." He meticulously measured out a spoonful. "Open up." The glare Adam gave him spoke volumes and made him grin. "You want me to read some more Pythagoras?"
Adam turned his head a little so he could see him better. "No…" he cleared his throat and tried again. "…thanks…"
Joe nodded. "Yeah. Makes my head hurt, and I ain't even got a concussion."
"Why - ?" Adam drew a careful breath. "What made…?"
"Huh? Oh - I don't know. Just sort of came to me. You kind of seemed to respond to it."
Adam's brow creased and he closed his eyes again. "I had…dream…or something…"
"About geometry? Geesh, brother - that's more like a nightmare. Guess it was my fault, though. Say - " He brightened suddenly. "I could read to you from my dime novel - how about that? It's a humdinger."
Adam swallowed, settling more deeply into the pillow. "…why…not…"
"Great - I'll get it - " Joe sprang to his feet and paused doubtfully at the door. "Look, I'll just be a second - you be okay alone?" Adam didn't open his eyes, but he gave the slightest of nods. "Okay. Right back - " Joe rocketed down the hall and was back so quickly he had to skid to a stop in the doorway to keep from overbalancing onto the bed. "Adam?" he asked anxiously.
Joe laughed. "That's good." He pulled a chair up close to the bed, leaving the rocker free in case his father stopped by. "It's called 'Larabee LaRoo, the Laconic Lawman of Last Gulch'."
Adam opened one eye to study him skeptically. "…joking…"
"Nope. Pretty exciting, huh? Here we go…" Joe cleared his throat theatrically. "It was a hot and burning day in the hot and burning desert and Lawman Larabee LaRoo could feel it - feel it in his very bones - that trouble was coming. Coming - riding in thick and dangerous waves across the hot and burning desert he called home. He stood on his long, muscular legs - bowed from years in the saddle, riding his whole life like he was born to it - and moved his rugged, manly form…Adam, you say something?"
Adam turned his face slightly into the pillow. "…no…"
"I thought you groaned - you okay?"
"Okay." Joe studied him dubiously. "You'll let me know if you need anything?" Adam's head moved in a faint nod. "Want me to go on?"
Adam sighed. "…fine…"
Joe cleared his throat again. "Where was I? Oh, yeah. 'moved his rugged, manly form across the rustic porch to cast his keen, eagle's eyes across the hot and burning sands."
"Okay. …across the hot and burning sands, thinking back in a moment of shivering prescience such as are sometimes had only by those men who live their lives as part of nature - those men of the red earth - of his old, arch enemy, Luther La Fontayne - "
Adam's eyes opened to slits and narrowed at him suspiciously. "…making…" he coughed, but it was a more relaxed sound than earlier. "…this up…"
Joe raised his eyebrows. "Nope - it's right here - wanna see?" Adam shook his head, closing his eyes again and breathing carefully. "Okay. …old arch enemy, Luther LaFontayne, who had hated him ever since he had trounced his evil purposes by winning from under him the hand of the beautiful and virtuous Lucinda Littletree …you sure you're okay? That sounded like you're in pain."
"How do you like it so far?"
Adam didn't open his eyes. "Dumbest junk…ever…heard…"
Joe nodded in satisfaction. "Knew you'd like it." He leaned his chair back on two legs so it was propped against the wall behind him and got comfortable. "Just wait till we get to the good part."
Ben was halfway to the front door before he remembered his manners. "Um - coffee, Roy? We probably have some around here that's sort of fresh…"
"Don't mind if I do, Ben. I'll give you a hand. When's Hop Sing due back?"
"Tomorrow or the next day." And what a blessed relief that would be - he could use an extra pair of hands right now - especially Hop Sing's steady, unflappable, competent hands.
"Well, that'll make things easier fer ya. Hoss's lookin' better."
Ben looked up from the stove, his face lightening visibly. "Yes. Yes, he really is, isn't he? I think he's going to be just fine."
"Uh huh." Roy leaned against the kitchen wall with the ease of long familiarity and got comfortable. "What the heck happened to Adam? Aside from bein' shot, I mean. Looks like he went three rounds with a bear."
Ben reddened, bending abruptly to poke kindling into the stove. "He - had a fall after he was shot. We - didn't find him for a while…"
"Uh huh." Roy was watching him keenly. "That how come his memory's scrambled? Bet that's makin' him about crazy."
Ben looked up from the fire he was stoking to life. "What do you mean?"
Roy shrugged. "Don't mean nothin', Ben, 'cept he's the kinda man what likes to know what's goin' on around him. Remembers more than most men - funny feelin' fer him to be rememberin' less."
Ben swung the stove door shut and latched it. "Yes," he agreed slowly. "Yes - I suppose you're right. He's always surprised me with what he remembers, even when he was small…I've been so busy worrying about him just making it…"
Roy raised his brows. "He's gonna, though, right?"
Ben shrugged, kneading his forehead. "Paul's evasive. Says he'll know better after twenty-four hours. He'll be back in a couple of hours, and he'll re-evaluate then. He seems better though - he really does. If you could have seen him last night…" He shook himself, as though throwing the memory off. "That's why I would have rather you talked to them with Paul here. He'd know what's too much and what's all right. Really, he's only been conscious a couple of times, and Hoss isn't much better. "
Roy pursed his lips. "Better not to wait too long on these things, though. Came out soon as I got word about Shorty. Holdin' Twilight fer shootin' Hoss is one thing, but havin' a dead man is somethin' else all together."
Ben nodded. "A hanging offense. When's the circuit judge due?"
"Not fer another week or so. Give Adam a little time to remember somethin', maybe."
"Paul says he may never remember. What about Joe's statement?"
Roy hesitated. "Joe's statement is somethin', o' course, but it don't help that he's been goin' around town accusin' Twilight of shootin' Hoss and threatenin' ta take him down. Could just look like he's takin' advantage of circumstances. Mary says Twilight hit her, o' course, and that don't look good, but ain't against the law."
"And the fact that he walked into my home first, uninvited, then hit her - that doesn't count for anything? What else would he be here for?"
"Twilight says he came ta talk."
Ben gave a snort of disgust. "Talk. To who? About what?"
"Says you started a conversation with him couple days ago - decided you were right and that he oughta finish it."
"Maybe. But that's what I gotta prove. Did you go to town? To talk to him?"
Ben was silent a moment, fussing with the coffeepot. "Yes. I did. But what - "
"Any folks see it?"
"Well, it was in the saloon - I'm sure someone - really, Roy - this is ridiculous! That doesn't prove anything!"
"That's sorta the problem, Ben. We ain't got anything that does prove anything." He held up a hand as Ben started to protest. "Lookit, Ben - I been in this business long enough to recognize a lyin' skunk when I seen one, but that's the trouble - my word ain't enough either. I need proof - proof enough for a jury. Now, Twilight's a liar, but he's a good liar - he's mixin' in just enough truth to make his lies seem likely and cast some doubt on what Joe's sayin'. I'm not sayin' Adam's word is gonna fix it all together, but if he could come up with the same story separately - even better if he could remember gettin' shot - it could only help things look better to a jury." Ben stared at him so long that Roy moved away from the wall and carefully removed the coffeepot from his hands. "Why don't I pour us a couple of cups? No need ta use the dining room - always been partial to kitchens myself."
Ben watched him find a couple of old mugs they kept in the kitchen and fill them with the sluggish black brew. "What do - " He moved closer as Roy seated himself. "What happens if Adam doesn't ever remember? To Twilight?"
Roy studied him, his face guarded. "That's fer a jury ta decide."
"I'm asking - could he go free?"
"There's always that possibility."
Ben sat down in the chair opposite Roy. "That's what Paul said. That can't happen, Roy."
"Well, I'm certainly tryin' ta make sure it don't, Ben. Like I say, I think he's guilty as sin."
Ben mechanically brought his cup to his mouth. "What about the buffalo gun? Anybody find that?"
Roy shook his head.
"And his handgun? Had it been fired?"
"Oh, yeah. Says he shot twice at a rabbit - missed."
"With a handgun? That's ridiculous."
"Maybe. But folks do it."
Ben took another sip of coffee, made a face. Terrible stuff. Lord, would he be happy to have Hop Sing back. His face brightened suddenly. "What about the bullet that shot Adam? That must have landed somewhere around here. Wouldn't that help connect Twilight to the shootings?"
Roy shrugged. "Couldn't hurt, if you could find it. Smart lawyer might say it coulda been any handgun, but if'n you find it, let me know."
"Well, we'll look, at the very least." Ben took another sip of coffee, his eyes drifting unconsciously to the backstairs.
Roy grinned at him. "Why don't I let you get back to your boys? You send word ta me if'n you come up with anythin' else."
Ben rose, looking relieved. "I will, Roy. Thank you."
"No problem, Ben. Bet those boys o' yern'll pull through just fine. Tougher than old shoe leather - just like their daddy."
Ben almost smiled. "Thanks, Roy. I appreciate it. Let me see you to the door."
Ben stood on the porch and watched Roy mount and wheel his horse toward the road managing a friendly wave as he took off, but his mind was far away. Tomorrow he would have to have services for Shorty. Tomorrow he would have a better idea whether or not he could expect both of his sons to live. And a week from tomorrow the man responsible for it all might walk free.
He pushed his way back into the house, his face grim, paused in the entryway to run his hand down the stain that marred the wall by the grandfather clock. No. He turned away resolutely and made his way up the stairs. No - he would not. He wasn't sure how or what he would do yet, but Red Twilight would be punished for what he had done. Within the law, if at all possible. But he would be punished.
He paused between Adam's and Hoss's rooms, listening. He could make out the sound of Hoss's distinctive snoring, the raspy purr of Adam's troubled breathing.
He peeked in at Hoss. He looked peaceful - had actually shifted into a more natural position, on his side. He smiled. That was good. He moved to the next door to look in on Adam.
Adam was asleep, too, and despite the disturbing sound of his respiration he looked a little more comfortable than he had. He watched as he coughed, stirred faintly, and then settled back into sleep. Joe sat near him at the head of the bed, his chair tilted back against the wall, also asleep, a book open on his lap. Ben glanced at the title of the book and smiled. Oh, dear. Adam had probably gone to sleep in self defense.
Joe would probably be more comfortable in his bed…he hesitated. But he'd probably never get him there. Well, at least he'd get some sleep this way and Lord knew that boy could sleep about anywhere. He went to fetch an extra comforter and spread it over him.
He felt Adam's face. Warm. Warmer than he liked, but Paul would be here in a few hours and would let him know if it was anything to be concerned about. The house was quiet. Mary was asleep as well, getting ready to be available for the night shift.
It reminded him of those evenings he and Marie had settled before the fire after all the boys had been tucked in bed. A peaceful, secure kind of quiet that meant all was right with the world. He eased into the rocking chair. Of course, then it usually hadn't been four o'clock in the afternoon.
And he couldn't fool himself - all wasn't right with the world - not nearly. Not by a long shot. Not yet.
"Joe. Joe. Joseph ." Ben waited until Joe's eyes had actually opened and seemed to focus - Joe was slow to waken under the best of circumstances.
Joe rubbed at his eyes, the book sliding from his lap to the floor. "Pa." He blinked to clear his vision. "I fell asleep."
Ben smiled faintly. "Yes, I see that. Paul is here, and I'd like to sit with him while he examines Hoss. Do you think you can sit up with Adam? If you're too tired, I can call Mary."
Joe sat forward so that the front legs of the chair hit the floor. He ground the heels of his hands into his eyes again. "No - that's okay. I'll stay."
Ben hesitated. "You're pretty tired, son. There's nothing wrong with going to bed."
"Yeah, I know." Joe yawned mightily. "I want to." He reached down to scoop his book up off the floor. "I can read. Just need to mark where I left off with Adam."
Ben opened his mouth to say something, then changed his mind and closed it. "All right, son. I won't be long."
Paul already had Hoss over on his stomach and was probing his wound when Ben entered. He could see for himself that it looked cleaner and drier than the day before and he watched Hoss's face flinch slightly as Paul massaged in ointment.
"You're looking pretty good back here, Hoss," Paul said encouragingly as he layered fresh gauze over it.
"Yeah, it's feelin' jest swell, too, Doc," returned Hoss wryly as the doctor hit a particularly tender spot. "When was you thinkin' I could get outta this bed?"
Paul signaled to Ben to help him sit Hoss up so he could complete his bandaging. "I was thinking not a minute before I give permission," replied Paul pleasantly. "That'd be something different, wouldn't it?"
"Oh, now, Doc - " Hoss couldn't contain a grunt of discomfort as they lay him back down again, on his back, now. "That was an emergency an' you know it. I'm about bored outta my skull layin' here - what's the harm if'n I was ta, say, stroll downstairs fer a game of checkers?"
Dr. Martin's face creased into a frown. "Incalculable, I'd say. I'd like you to promise me this much - NO STAIRS. That motion would pull terribly on your wound. If you have a good night I'll think about letting Joe have a game of checkers in here with you tomorrow, though." He measured some liquid into a glass.
Hoss eyed him innocently. "I'd sure like that, but - say - how about us havin' the game next door? Ain't no stairs involved, and that way we can keep an eye on Adam, too."
Paul gave him a look. "I should have known you'd maneuver things around that way. I'll think about it - once I've examined your brother and decided what he's up for."
Hoss watched him stir water into the glass of liquid. "He gonna be okay?"
Paul handed him the glass. "Now you sound like your father and your brother."
Hoss snorted. "You give them the same kinda flannel-mouthed answer?"
"I'll give you exactly the same kind of answer I gave them. When I know something, you'll know something. Drink that."
Hoss swallowed in a long gulp and made a face. "Tastes turrible."
Paul shook his head. "You are all the same in the end, aren't you?" He felt his forehead, then took his hand away, looking pleased. "Well. You really do seem to be improving. Keep it up and you'll be moving around in no time. I want you to get lots of rest, though, now - no overdoing. Since you're doing so well I'll even add some gruel to your diet."
Hoss rolled his eyes in disgust. "Thanks, Doc. Yer a reg'ler prince." He shifted around on the pillows Paul had arranged under his back to keep pressure off of his wound. "Roy gone?"
Ben raised his eyebrows. "Certainly. That was hours ago, son."
"Huh." Hoss grimaced, then seemed to find a comfortable spot. "Time sure runs together when yer stuck in bed. 'Fraid I weren't much help. Hope Joe an' Adam gave him more ta go on."
Ben blew out his breath slowly. "Well. Joe gave his side of the story. Adam is - having trouble remembering anything."
Hoss scooched up his face. "Anything. Anything?"
"Well - anything about the shooting." He jerked his head in Paul's direction. "Paul says it's not unusual."
"Huh." Hoss reached up and rubbed his forehead. "Dang. I'm sure sorry about all this, Pa."
Ben looked startled. " You are! What on earth are you sorry about?"
Hoss closed his eyes. "All started with me. Just meant ta keep Willie from hurtin' anybody and somehow…it all spun outta control and inta this…Willie dead…Shorty dead…Adam hurt…jest don't know what I coulda done different but shore seems like there shoulda been somethin'."
"That's ridiculous!" Ben's voice rose despite himself. "You're certainly not to blame for any of this! It all started with Willie Twilight and should have stopped there. It would have, too, if it weren't for Red Twilight."
Hoss opened his eyes again to study him. "His brother was dead, Pa. I cain't honestly say what I woulda done if it was one o' mine."
Ben pressed his lips together. "Well, I can tell you this much - you wouldn't have hunted anyone down and shot them in the back - I know that for sure."
"Mebbe not." Hoss's big hands picked mindlessly at the quilt that covered him. "Cain't promise I wouldnta whupped the tar outta've 'em, though. Or given some serious thought ta callin' 'em out."
"I assume you can see the difference between that and sneaking into the bedroom of a helpless man to finish him off - taking other lives along the way."
Hoss tucked one arm behind his head and studied the ceiling. "Reckon."
"Well, if you don't know it, I do. Good God. How can you even begin to think you're responsible? Tomorrow we'll bury Shorty Gillis, whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and as far as I'm concerned, there's only one man responsible - the one who pulled the trigger!"
Ben turned as Joe entered. "Joseph, I thought I asked you to stay with Adam!"
"I know, Pa - hey, Hoss. Good to see you awake. Pa, Adam seems kinda - I don't know. Thought the Doc oughta take a look."
Dr. Martin gathered up his things. "I'll be next door, Ben. Thanks, Joe."
Joe nudged him. "I'll sit with Hoss, Pa. Like to catch up anyway."
Hoss scoffed. "Hope you ain't expectin' me ta have much news."
Joe rubbed his hands together. "Don't you worry. I'll do all the talkin'."
Ben smiled a little in spite of himself. "All right. Just don't keep him awake too long. Paul gave him something to help him sleep."
"Don't worry, Pa. Say, Hoss - I gotta great story I could read you - "
Ben made for the hall with one anxious, backward glance, wondering ruefully if it would be possible to put both patients in the same room. He stepped into the next bedroom to find Paul patiently trying to rouse Adam. Adam seemed slow to respond and Ben's frown deepened. "Is he all right?" he blurted finally.
"Temperature seems up. " Paul shook Adam's shoulder gently once more. "Come on, Adam. I need to change your bandages again." Adam stirred a little, then tried to turn his face into the pillow.
Ben felt his shoulders tense. "What do you suppose the problem is?"
"I don't know. I'll check the wounds for any sign of infection - could just be a temperature spike because it's late in the day or a response to the degree of physical trauma - or it could be his lungs starting an infection." He reached for his bag with a sigh. "I'll start removing bandages. That'll wake him up if nothing else will."
"Anything I can do?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact. Hold that splint still. I don't want him trying to move that arm." He peeled away the head bandage with a cautious yank and Adam lifted his left hand as if to swipe at him, but didn't open his eyes.
Ben eased himself onto the other side of the bed, resting his hand carefully on top of the splint and watching the still, flushed face for reaction. "Right back where we started," he said at last.
"Not at all." Paul swiftly worked ointment into both the head and cheek wounds. "It's not entirely a bad thing that he's not aware while I do this. And it could just be his body's way of trying to rectify things. We just have to - "
"Wait and see?" Ben's voice was dry, and Paul smiled involuntarily.
"That's correct. Welcome to the inexact science of medicine. His wounds look clean, so I don't think that's the problem. His lungs sound as if they've stabilized so you can leave him on his own some now, but check back every hour or so, just to make sure the fever isn't climbing out of control. I'll come to the funeral tomorrow and look in on him after - what time are you planning?"
"Ten in the morning, or thereabouts. I'd appreciate it if you could verify that with Reverend Smith when you're back in town. I'm planning on giving the men the morning off - keeping it a simple service - I'm sure that's what he would have preferred."
Dr. Martin nodded, rewinding his gauze and reaching for Adam's hand. "I'm sure you're right. Pity Adam can't be there - but at least Joe can attend. And the men - he had a lot of friends."
Ben nodded. "That he did…Adam - ?" he thought he saw Adam's eyelids quiver and paused. "Sorry. Almost thought he heard me."
"Possibly he does - just can't find the where with all to answer. He's had kind of a tough time of it. Shouldn't expect too much too soon."
"I know." Ben sighed, resting the back of his fingers for a minute under the bandage on Adam's cheekbone, wincing slightly at the heat emanating from the flesh there. "I just want to know he's going to be all right. I suppose I should just be grateful he's able to get some rest - once he's back to normal we have some things to talk about that I'm not exactly looking forward to."
Paul glanced up at him and then went back to inspecting the gouge on Adam's palm. "Cross that one when you get there. I'd like to keep him quiet for a while yet - nothing like a little emotional excitement to send a fever up."
"Right." Ben bent down again as he saw the dark lashes flicker. "Adam…?" he paused, but there was no further response. He sighed a little. "Well, I could swear he's listening to something. Just wish I could shake the feeling that it's not me."
It was like being underwater…everything blurry and far away. Maybe he was still underwater…if so, his breathing was going a little better. True, he still had to laboriously drag air in and out of his lungs across the burning pressure in his chest, but it didn't seem in danger of stopping all together if he neglected focusing on it for a minute anymore, so maybe he was getting the trick of it. That would be a useful skill to have- breathing underwater.
He thought he heard someone singing a long way away and he tried to ask about it, but he didn't hear his own voice, so maybe he'd lost that again, too. Annoying, really. He wouldn't have said he was a particularly talkative man, but he was accustomed to being able to have his say. Maybe his words were just garbling, being underwater and all. Everybody else's sure were. They seemed to be talking to him - or maybe about him - he thought he could hear his name. Well, if they wanted him to hear them they'd have to pull him out of the water, surely they could see that, it only made sense, but at least the water wasn't cold anymore…in fact, it was kind of uncomfortably warm, come to think, maybe one of the hot springs, though why would there be a hot spring in…? In…? Damn, now that was gone again, too. There seemed to be big holes in his memory everywhere. Well, that's what came from breathing water, probably, he sure wished somebody would pull him up.
"…funeral tomorrow and look in on him after - what time are you planning?" Just barely he grasped the words through the watery fog and kept himself very still, afraid of losing them.
"Ten in the morning…Reverend Smith…simple service…what he would have preferred…"
Something here…something…something he should remember…
"Pity Adam can't…but Joe…"
Familiar…almost he could put it together…someone, that's right - someone's funeral? Wait - someone was hurt - he remembered - almost, he did -
"…once he's better we need to talk…not looking forward to…"
It was just barely out of his reach. Someone was dead…someone…and he'd miss the funeral, but Joe…and Pa wasn't looking forward to…what? His heart hammered a little faster. It was important…he had one piece missing that he couldn't quite…it was just out of reach. Someone was dead. That much was clear. He remembered that, too - just at the edge of his consciousness. Someone…who? He had been worrying, too, he knew that - about someone - it had run like a relentless thread through every layer of consciousness and confusion and now…now…it was gone. He tried to sit up, but moving through water was heavy and slow and he knew he didn't make much progress.
He frowned inwardly. It seemed like that was all anybody ever said to him. He wanted to explain his problem but somebody stuck a spoon in his mouth before he could speak and choked him with something, then followed it up with a glass of something.
"…better if he just sleeps through the night, Ben. This'll keep him quiet."
Quiet. That seemed to be all anybody was interested in, keeping him quiet, as if he could get any quieter - he couldn't talk as it was, if he were any quieter he'd be… Dead. Somebody was. Why couldn't he remember? It was important, he knew it was. His heart trip hammered faster still.
"Just take it easy, son. Get a little rest."
Would you stop saying that? And I don't want to rest! I want somebody to explain to me what…who …he seemed to sink a little deeper in the waters, the far off singing got closer and the garbled voices moved farther off…he threw a mental lariat, trying to anchor himself before this idea floated away too…someone was dead…someone was dead…someone was…a distant glimmer of an idea dawned…maybe…maybe it was him…
He jumped awake, not sure if the voice was real, or a remnant of his dream.
He tried to focus the two faces floating above him into one - there was something - an almost overwhelming sense of déjà vu…he closed his eyes hard and opened them again, staring. That face, and that voice calling his name as he tried to drag himself awake - had it happened before or was he confusing it with his dream?
The woman smiled at him reassuringly. "Are you all right? I think you were having a bad dream."
Only then did he become aware of the way his heart was thundering in his ears, the tense and rigid knots in his muscles, his breath, hitching unevenly in his chest. He swallowed, hoping to push his heart out of his throat and back into his breast where it belonged.
"I'm Mary. Maybe you don't remember me."
"I - " he coughed, a series of scalding explosions under his ribcage. He waited for them to pass, hardly daring to breathe. "I'm not - sure…" Stupid and humiliating thing to have to admit and he was getting very tired of it. And he DID remember…something… or thought he did.
"Would you like some water?"
He nodded, not daring to speak and start the coughing again.
Mary helped him to half sit and that was familiar, too - he reached automatically with his right hand, stopping abruptly when he felt the heavy weight of the splint there. He was so focused on trying to make the connection that he barely noticed when the glass was empty.
He lay back, frowning. "…hot…in here?"
"Well, it is, a little, but I think that's mostly you. Would you like to go back to sleep? You look unwell."
If he had felt up to it he might have offered a scathing reply, but then again, no point in taking his frustrations out on her. Besides, maddeningly enough, he did feel sleep dragging at his eyes.
"Will you be all right if I go and fix lunch?"
It seemed futile to point out that his options for activity were pretty much limited to monitoring the painstaking bellows movements of his lungs, so he just nodded again.
"Everyone else is at the funeral. But they'll be back soon."
He nodded one more time, tried something he hoped sounded like "thank you", then closed his eyes.
His eyes flew open. There had been a dream! A voice - "Maybe it's better this way. Two for one. I get you, then I finish off your brother…" The sound of his own thoughts, racing…he's got a better vantage point…hammer's already back - by the time I even aim I'll be dead…then who'll help Hoss…? "I get you and then I finish off your brother…I finish off your…" …the sharp report of a gun…then…nothing. His heart was beating so hard now that he could feel it pulsing in the wound over his ear.
Hoss. Funeral. Oh, God…
No. Wait. They had told him Hoss was fine. They had…but he hadn't actually SEEN Hoss, and…if his father had something he wasn't looking forward to discussing with him…he felt a sudden wave of nausea.
He'd call Mary back. He'd ask her to tell him the truth. He hesitated. If she would. She may have been coached not to and he wasn't exactly in best persuasive form…he had to get up, then. See for himself.
He got his left elbow under him and half-dragged himself into sitting position, leaning forward to push himself upright. The room did a sudden dip and spin, the bed tilting so wildly that for a second he would have sworn that he was at sea, caught in a skiff in a squall. He fell back onto the pillows, cold with sweat, swallowing convulsively to keep that recent glass of water down. After a minute he peeked through his eyelashes, but the room was still doing a war dance, so he dropped them shut again, trying to order his thoughts.
Panic wouldn't help. He needed to think this through. Getting out of bed was clearly not an option, so how…? He blinked slowly. He could knock on the wall. Hoss would know their old signal, and if he were there and even remotely conscious, he would knock back. Knocking would only mean shifting himself a little, and surely he could do that if he took it slow and easy. He just needed to get to one side of the headboard…he glanced down at his right arm. Oh. Yeah. That arm wouldn't work. He glanced at his left hand and blinked again. He didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
It was so bandaged it looked more like a paw than a hand. That bandage wouldn't be able to make anything but a muffled knocking sound - he needed to grab hold of something - with what? He needed an opposable thumb, the thing that separates man from the beasts, and his was buried under about ten layers of gauze. He closed his eyes again, trying to regulate his breathing. Come on, Adam - you're smarter than this - you can think of something. God, it was getting hot in here - somebody really should open a window…
He hitched himself carefully up against the headboard, delicately this time, waiting for the room to take him on another magic carpet ride. It did a brief drop and swoop, but then seemed to stop there, quivering slightly. Good. This was a start. If he could get his hand around the spoon, then - even if he could get it between his fingers - it wouldn't be much of a knock, but maybe Hoss - if he was there - if he - he had to stop again and swallow down a burgeoning tidal wave of despair.
No. They had said…he just wanted to be sure…then whose funeral…? This wasn't helping! He needed the spoon…the book would be perfect but he didn't think he could manage the book…one knock, he just needed to be sure…he closed his eyes and hung for a moment, halfway out of bed. He had a feeling he would be very sorry for this later, but it would be worth it if only he could know for sure...His right arm dragged across the sheets…they must have used granite or something for that splint…and he set his teeth hard against the pain, groping for the spoon that occasionally tried to fool him by becoming three spoons, with his left.
Too short. He needed to shift…just a little bit…his bandaged hand slapped at the spoon and it slid away from him, clattering to the floor. He snatched for it, sending the book and then the glass after it, with a dull thud and a tinkle of broken glass.
He stared at them in a frenzy of frustration. To hell with them, then. To hell with them. He would manage the old way. He would beat that damn wall so hard that Hoss couldn't help but hear him. He would hit it so hard that he would hear it even if he was dead and even if they were burying him right this minute, six feet under, while he lay here helpless, helpless and unable to do anything but sleep and try to breathe…and try to…
"ADAM!" It took him a minute. Took him a minute to try to carefully coalesce the two Pas, red faced and staring, into one, before they promptly bisected again. "What in tarnation are you doing?"
Adam narrowed a hard gaze at him, feeling desperately overheated, feeling so hot - why didn't somebody open a window in here?... trying to answer around the heaving lungs that seemed to be attempting to climb out from inside his chest.
"Where's Hoss?" he finally managed to croak.
Pa stared at him as if he didn't understand the question. "Asleep in his room, of course! Which is what I thought you were! What on earth have you done to yourself?" Pa tried to push him down, but despite the increasingly frantic pace of his breathing, Adam managed to push back and away from him.
"Tell me…" God, that hurt. "…truth."
"I am telling you - "
Adam moved to jerk away again, the hoarse, strained noise of his own rapid breathing sounding strange and faraway to his own ears. He knew he wouldn't be able to speak again so he just set his jaw and stared harder. It came to him, oddly, because he was starting to feel a little lightheaded, that Pa set his jaw in pretty much the same way...maybe he had learned it from him. Then he realized Pa was saying something and tried to listen through the drumming in his ears.
"I want you to listen! Just be quiet and listen for a moment, do you hear me? Listen to that!" Pa had him by the shoulders now and it was just as well because this sitting up was starting to seem severely overrated. "Now, listen carefully. What do you hear?"
Adam stared at him, trying to shut out the thunder in his ears, the ugly echo of his struggle for air, and hear…whatever it was…he swallowed, then swallowed again, closing his eyes quickly to keep the sudden moisture that welled up behind his eyelids where it belonged.
"Do you hear it?" Pa's voice sounded quieter now. Adam nodded. "Tell me what you hear."
Adam swallowed again - there seemed to be all kinds of things interfering with his voice now - "Snoring…" he choked weakly at last.
"That's right." Pa's grip on his shoulders was different now, gentle and coaxing, and this time he let him ease him down, back against the pillows. "And do you know anybody else in the world that has that snore?"
He shook his head slightly - he would have laughed, if he could have found the breath for it, but he thought maybe he smiled, anyway.
"What on earth put such a thought into your head?" Now Pa sounded solicitous and concerned, the way he used to when he was little and he was sick and he was trying to soothe him to sleep.
"Funeral." One word. It was a start. Try again. "You said - couple things…" He saw his father give a quick glance over his shoulder to a pair of Doctor Martins…no, one…no, at least two… "Before…wasn't…" Come on - you can get it out…"…snoring…don't know…"
"Well, probably he'd rolled onto his side. I'm sorry if we upset you - we shouldn't have been talking about it in here, probably - "
"No - " he tried to touch him with his left hand, saw Ben intercept the hand then glare unhappily at the bandages. He squinted to see what had disturbed him, then sighed. Bleeding again. Doc Martin would love that. " - tell me." Ben cocked his head at him. Adam pressed his lips together and gathered his strength, trying to pace his breathing. "…not…feeble…minded."
Ben looked surprised. "Of course you're not. I just - oh, all right - next time I promise not to treat you like you're not in the room, is that what you want? I'll let you know what our plans are, if that will avoid any more mix ups."
Adam let his breath ease out slowly and closed his eyes."…thanks." he whispered.
"I still don't really understand how you jumped to that conclusion. Hoss was getting better, even before you got shot."
Adam stilled, the voice in his dream winnowing through his brain. "Maybe it's better this way, Two for one. I get you then I finish off…" Well, I'll be.
He started to smile. "Pa," he breathed, "I think…I think I…remembered something."
Ben's breath escaped in a rush. "You remember who shot you?"
"N -no…" Adam hesitated, as if searching the landscape behind his eyes for an answer. "No…but…I remember…what he…said…"
Ben frowned. "What he said?"
"Just before…" he flashed again on the image of himself standing by the door, helpless and out of options while that finger tightened on the trigger - helpless to save himself, helpless to save Hoss - he opened his eyes hastily to escape it.
"You remember what he said. His voice?"
Adam closed his eyes again, trying to summon a clear picture. "I - think…"
"But not his face?"
Adam concentrated until his head swam, then shook his head.
Ben leaned forward. "Come on, son - if you can hear him…see the shot…it's just a small step to seeing the shooter. Think hard."
Adam paused, groping for the missing image that would complete his mental picture, then opened his eyes with a faint sigh. "No."
Ben tried to push down his disappointment. "The voice though?" he coaxed. "You'd recognize that?"
"Pa - "
Ben looked up in surprise at something in Joe's tone. Joe frowned and shook his head slightly. Ben furrowed his brows in surprise, then followed Joe's eyes as he slid his gaze to indicate Adam. The hectic flush burning under Adam's skin made him chew his lower lip. Paul's firm hand on his shoulder moved him aside, and he obediently shifted to the other side of the bed where he could follow the proceedings without being in the way. Joe moved a little closer and lowered his voice so only Ben could hear.
"Don't ruin it for him, Pa," he whispered. Ben raised his brows questioningly, and Joe tugged him a little further away from the bed. "I know it's important to you, Pa - it's important to me, too - heck, it's probably even more important to him - but don't keep reminding him about what he can't remember. He remembered something - it's a start. Let him be happy about it."
Ben opened his mouth to explain himself, closed it suddenly, studying Joe in some surprise. After a second he nodded his acquiescence and turned to look questioningly at Dr. Martin.
Dr. Martin was busy tying a fresh dressing around Adam's hand, thicker and heavier than before. Adam squinted at it, trying to bring it into focus, then sighed with resignation. The doctor slid his fingers down to rest on his wrist, his face unsmiling. "If you want to retain full use of that hand, I suggest you stop trying to use it. It's not an easy area to heal cleanly - will keep tearing open without much provocation." Adam nodded listlessly. "And you've worked yourself into a nice fever to boot. I meant it when I said you needed to be quiet, Adam - still and quiet." Adam gave a snort that turned into a cough.
Dr. Martin shook his head. "How's the vision doing?"
Adam coughed again. "Which…one of you…wants…to know?"
Doc Martin smiled in spite of himself. "I see. Well, I'm going to give you something to make you sleep some - see if we can't relax you and bring your temperature down - "
The doctor looked at him in surprise. "Adam, it's just a mild narcotic - it'll help you to rest - "
"No." Adam's response was more forceful this time, triggering a string of sepulchral coughs that left him limp and wheezing.
The doctor let him finish, then held a glass for him.
Adam glared at him suspiciously.
"Just water." Paul reassured him.
Adam took a few sips and then lay back, drained.
Paul put the glass down, carefully drying his hands. "So you can see the problem," he said conversationally. "All I want to give you - "
Adam shook his head, struggling to speak around the incessant itch inside his chest and failing. He shot a pleading glance at his father.
Ben rubbed his chin, trying to read in Adam's face what it was he wanted him to understand. "Paul - " he said at last, after giving it some thought, "May I - speak with you a minute?"
Paul glanced from Adam to Ben, then threw up his hands. "Fine, fine - " he glanced in Joe's direction to make sure that he was staying, then followed Ben into the hall. "Ben - " he began without preamble, "surely you can see how badly he needs to rest? His fever's up, he's opened one of his wounds, he's provoked his cough - "
Ben held up placating hands. "I know, I know, but Paul - " he rubbed his hands together, trying to think of a way to explain. "You dosed him last night, isn't that right?"
Paul nodded warily.
"Well, I have to tell you, then, that he wasn't quiet at all- had a terrible night - restless and feverish - calling out - one nightmare after another, it seemed like. Maybe it would have happened anyway, but I can't help wondering if the narcotic didn't do more harm than good. Believe me, if I thought it would help I'd be the first to say go ahead, but it just seems to upset him more - . I mean, look at what happened this morning."
Paul was silent, listening.
"I knew he was restless - probably should have left Joe with him, but I thought we owed Shorty that gesture of respect, and it was only for a couple of hours…" he shrugged helplessly, folding his arms over his chest. "Don't you have any other suggestions? If he's fighting it that hard I really think it's only going to make matters worse."
Paul heaved a sigh, glancing from Ben to the partly open bedroom door. He shook his head. "Well, I agree he's only done himself harm - the good news is that you can definitely see he's coming back to himself - the bad news is that means he's fighting against everything - between his injuries and his memory loss he's feeling powerless and unable to help himself, and he's not the sort to take that well. He's his own worst enemy right now."
Ben grimaced. "Roy said something very similar to me."
"Well, for a lawman Roy's not half dumb. Ben, I really need Adam to be still and calm and quiet if he's going to have a chance to heal. If you can think of anything that would settle him down a little…keep him composed…" his voice trailed off suddenly, his face thoughtful. After a second he smiled, slapping Ben gently on the arm. "Hm. You know what, old friend? I think I may be on to something. Let me check - I just may have a plan."
Adam calmed down considerably when Paul assured him that he didn't intend to dose him.
"I'm going to have your brother help me prop you up a little, though. I think most of the water has worked its way out of your chest now, so we should be able to sit you up and ease your breathing some. Now, I have something else to attend to - Joe, do you think you could keep your brother company for me for a bit? I'll be back with something that I think will help a lot."
Adam opened one eye at him. "Mustard…plaster?" he asked plaintively.
Paul laughed out loud. "Not right now. I actually think you're going to like this."
Adam looked dubious, his eyes trailing him out the door.
Joe patted the leg under the blankets. "C'mon, Adam - I'm gonna read to you. You fell asleep during the good part last time - all about lascivious Luther La Fontayne."
Adam dragged his eyes away from the door to rest them on him. "Doesn't…say that…"
"Sure it does." Joe tipped his chair back and got comfortable. "Where else would I get a word like "lascivious"?"
Adam sighed. "Good…point…"
Joe nodded cheerfully. "Let's see…here we are…'Luther LaFontayne leered lasciviously at the lithesome Lucinda Littletrees, his lecherous intentions leaving her limp and lachrymose as' - huh?" he dipped the book and peered at Adam over it. "You say something?"
Adam ground his teeth softly. "…no…"
Adam rubbed the back of his bandaged hand over his eyes and let it rest there. "…no…"
"Okay. Where…? Oh, yeah. 'The lovely Lucinda lowered her lambent gaze, her luscious lips suddenly losing their laughter in light of his looming - ' "
Adam's hand jumped spasmodically, then dropped back to cover his eyes again. "…What…?"
Joe paused, waiting.
Adam coughed, a muscle in his jaw jumping. "…love…affair…with …the letter…"l"…?"
"Huh?" Joe looked down at the page, realization dawning. "Oh, yeah. Look at that. That's real talent, huh?"
Adam tilted his hand up to peer at him from under it, then sighed and lifted it slightly, waving vaguely.
Joe took it as a signal to continue. "Where was I? Need to go back?"
Adam coughed. "…no…"
"Okay - let's see - hey!" he jerked his head up suddenly at a disturbance in the doorway. "Hey! Lookee here!"
Adam dropped his hand from his eyes and glanced at the door, trying to focus his uncertain vision. A slow smile spread across his face. He started to say something, then coughed instead.
"What the heck is everybody starin' at?" huffed a breathless voice from the doorway. "Ain't never seen - a feller - walk - before?"
"All right," Dr. Martin scolded from his position of supporting Hoss on one side. "Let's get you settled before you try any snappy conversation." He and Ben between them helped Hoss to a large, comfortable chair. "Now, let me arrange your pillows…Ben, push that stool over here - I'd like his feet elevated." Ben dragged the stool over while Paul arranged Hoss to his satisfaction and tucked a quilt over him.
"There," he said, studying his work, "Now, here's what I'm thinking. All my problems seem to start and all my hard work seems to come undone when you three are out of sight of each other. I figure that if I can keep you all in the same room for a bit you might actually get a chance to start to heal. What do you think?"
Hoss settled himself back into the chair. "Sounds downright brilliant, Doc." He skimmed his eyes over Adam. "Brother, you look like hell."
Adam grinned. "Should see…self."
Hoss gave a dismissive grunt. "Heck, I just had a little bullet dug outta me. I'm bright as a button now."
"Hah!" Joe gaped at him. "You were shot with a buffalo gun!"
Hoss stretched his legs carefully and sniffed. "Well, at least I didn't go throwing myself down no crik bed after."
Adam squinted at him. "Were just…lucky."
"That ain't luck, brother - that's smarts." He raised his eyebrows at Adam's feeble but heartfelt rendition of a derisive snort. "An' I ain't got myself so worked up I busted open my wound, neither, like you done."
Joe choked, sitting up straight so that the chair swayed perilously on its two legs. "You did too! You got outta bed and walked into the yard - busted it wide open!"
Adam barked a short laugh that turned into a cough.
Hoss glared at them both. "Well, whose fault's that, huh, Shortshanks? Whose side you on, anyway?"
"Mine," answered Joe bluntly, rocking on the back chair legs. "Seeing as if you two keep on hurting yourselves I'm gonna be stuck with all the work forever."
Ben stood in the doorway, something like a smile playing around his mouth. "Well, let's see how you do looking after one another. Joseph - you'll be in charge."
The front legs of Joe's chair hit the floor with a bang. He let out a whoop. "Really?"
Hoss and Adam exchanged a pained glance. Ben saw it and smiled a little more. "Don't worry - it won't be all pleasure. Remember, if one of them hurts themselves while you're in charge, you're responsible."
Joe's mouth fell open. "W- what!?"
Ben shrugged. "That's the way it always worked when you were little."
Hoss tried unsuccessfully to suppress a grin. "Well, I'll be. Adam, how many time you reckon we got in trouble for something Joe did while we was in charge?"
Adam gave a raspy chuckle. "Can't…count…that high."
"Hey - that's not fair! You gotta behave! Pa, tell them they gotta behave!"
Ben's brows jumped politely. "You tell them, Joseph. You're in charge."
"But they never listen to me!" Joe protested indignantly.
"Joseph, if you can't manage a couple of sickly invalids I will be deeply disappointed in you. I don't imagine they'll give you too much trouble - not a lot of fight left in them."
Dr. Martin watched with interest. "I'll write out instructions for you, Joe - times and medications and things - don't look at me like that, Adam - I mean your cough medicine and diet - things like that. Hoss took so well to his gruel I might actually add some toast and a soft-boiled egg for him, and it's about time you tried to keep down more than water. Beef tea or chicken broth would be a good start."
Hoss groaned this time. "Dadgummit, Doc - I'm like to starve clean to death on this diet."
Dr. Martin smiled sweetly. "Then you can have a little beef tea, too." He smile grew more sympathetic as he saw Adam glance with creeping realization from his splinted arm to his bandaged paw. "Don't worry - I'm sure someone will help feed you."
Adam recoiled. "I'll…manage…"
Dr. Martin's smile became a grin. "Really. How?"
Adam looked nonplussed, then covered his eyes with his bandaged hand again.
Doc Martin tut-tutted. "Now, let's have none of that - you're just going to have to get used to being a little more dependent for a while." He rested a hand against Adam's cheek, measuring the heat there, then shook his head. "I'd like to see that lower by my next visit - keep compresses on him and get a glass of water down him every hour, will you? And you - " he tried to catch Adam's eye, "QUIET and CALM - got it? If you behave, I'll bring you a sling the next time I come - give you a little more mobility."
Adam dropped his hand. "…now?" he suggested hopefully.
"After what you've done to yourself so far this morning? I shudder to think how you might damage yourself if you were MORE mobile."
Adam turned his head away. "…different," he grumbled.
Paul looked knowing. "Ah, of course. An emergency, no doubt?"
"Yes, Hoss has explained all about these emergencies to me. So, just in case there's another one, I'll hold off on the sling for another day or so."
Adam pulled tentatively at the splinted arm, then winced and closed his eyes. "Weighs more…than Hoss…"
"Watch yerself," struck in Hoss, without heat.
"Then it would be better not to move it, right?" Adam didn't even open his eyes to glare at him this time, and Paul felt his cheek again, frowning slightly. "A nap wouldn't be a bad idea for you. Hoss, you can have that game of checkers if you want, but I don't want you getting any fancy ideas either. Joe, you'll keep them in line?"
Joe looked from one brother to the other. They did look kind of weak and harmless right now. "Sure thing, Doc. You can count on me."
"Good. Mary will be up with your lunch. Ben, if you want to walk down with me, I'll write out instructions." He looked sternly from Hoss to Adam. "Now, remember - behave."
Joe watched the doctor leave under his father's escort, feeling suddenly a little nervous. He rubbed his hands together. "Well!" he said with forced cheer. "I can set up checkers, Hoss, if that's what you want. Adam, you wanna play?"
Adam peeled back his eyelids and lifted his brows slightly, raising his left hand to show the bandage.
"Oh," Joe laughed awkwardly. "Well, that doesn't matter - I can move your pieces for you."
Adam closed his eyes again, coughing quietly. "Can't…see straight…either."
"Oh." Joe paused. "Want me to read to you?"
Adam's eyes flew open in alarm. "…No!…" he hastened, a little too forcefully, setting off a string of coughs that left him gasping for air. By the time he had them somewhat under control, Joe was sitting on the edge of the bed, brandishing a spoonful of cough medicine. This time, Adam took it meekly.
Joe wrung out the cloth in the basin by the bed and spread it out over his chest. "That feel better?" Adam nodded. "Good. Y'know, you don't really have to see all that well to play. What's there really to see anyway?"
Adam's chest rose and fell in a quick breath and his eyelids drooped. "Watch you…for cheating…"
"Hey!" Joe wrung out another cloth and sponged his face. "I don't cheat! Hoss, do I cheat?"
Hoss leaned back in his chair and stifled a yawn. "Yup."
"I do not! You guys are just jealous because I play better." Adam opened his eyes far enough to exchange a speaking glance with Hoss. "I do!" Joe protested, seeing the look. "Play better, I mean - not cheat." Hoss chuckled. Adam made a faint sound that was probably meant to be a laugh. Joe glared at them both. "You just don't appreciate real talent. Hoss, you want that game or not?"
"Yup…" Hoss snuggled under his quilt. "And I'm gonna beat the pants off'n you."
Ben mounted the stairs to check on them a couple of hours later. He peeked in the door and stopped, perplexed. Joe and Hoss sat on either side of a checkerboard having a heated conversation - silently. He watched the animated hand gestures and exaggerated mouthing of words for a moment before finally bursting out curiously, "What on earth are you doing?"
"Shhhh…" Both swung on him instantly, fingers to lips.
Ben raised his eyebrows, then followed the direction of Joe's jerk of the head to Adam, who appeared to be deeply asleep - quietly this time, with none of the restless tossing and thrashing of the past night. He moved to him and rested a hand for a minute on his neck, then his face. A little cooler. He smoothed the hair away from the bandaged forehead, checking for any new bleeding and seeing none. "Well," he began, lowering his voice hastily at the pointed glances of the two checkerboard combatants, "this is good news. How did you manage it?"
"He just sort of drifted off…darn it, Hoss - you gotta king me!"
"Uh-uh." Hoss whispered back. "You moved that there checker the second I weren't lookin'. It was two squares over - I remember clear as day."
"Pa - " Joe raised aggrieved eyes to his father's face. "Can you believe it? He thinks I cheated!"
Ben tried not to smile. "Well, Joseph - um - did you?"
Joe looked shocked. "Pa! My own Pa! I don't - darn you, Hoss - you moved somethin', didn't you? The minute I turned my head!"
Hoss looked smug. "Not me, little brother. Didn't touch a thing. 'Cept maybe ta get it back to its rightful place."
Joe scowled at him. "The board looks different, I tell you and - Pa, tell him not to cheat!"
"Hey - wait a minute - " Hoss's whisper rose a notch. "There's a checker missin'!"
"Missing?" Joe's expression was sublimely innocent. "How can that be? Well, maybe we were short one when we started."
Hoss's face twisted suspiciously. "We had a full board when we started, little brother. If'n I find you suddenly pulling a checker outta yer sleeve er yer boot, I swear - "
Ben glanced anxiously back over his shoulder at the bed but, except for the weighty dragging of his toiling lungs, Adam seemed to be peacefully sleeping through the battle. Ben couldn't suppress a flicker of amusement and shook his head.
Well, Paul, he thought wryly, I guess 'quiet' and 'calm' is all in the eye of the beholder.
"Adam. Adam, wake up."
Someone was trying to wake him up again…when he was sleeping someone always wanted to wake him up, when he was awake it seemed like all they wanted to do was to get him to sleep.
Someone else, this time - the last one had been a woman…wait…had there been more than one…?
"Adam, come on - wake up - you're having a bad dream."
Bad dream? About…geometry? No, that had been before…
"Come on, Adam, it's just a dream."
Just a dream…oh, yes…he remembered now… he had been dreaming about…he almost…damn…gone again…" I can't remember…"
"Yeah - that's okay, Adam. You will. Don't worry about it right now."
"I almost…" Joe. It was Joe trying to wake him up. "…keep trying…"
"Okay. Don't worry about it."
Adam sighed, trying to roll over onto his side, was stopped by the heavy pull of his splints. " I can't, though…just…out of…reach…"
"Yeah, well - it just takes time. You okay now? You awake?"
"All right, don't get worked up about it now or Doc Martin'll have a fit - and this time it's my hide he'll be after."
Adam chuckled faintly, trying to decide if it was worth expending the energy it would take to open his eyes. "Who…was…singing…?"
"Singing? Nobody - must have been part of your dream."
Adam sighed again, wondering if he'd ever be fully in the same world with other people again. "Oh…"
"Adam - hey, Adam? You can't go back to sleep - Doc says you gotta eat something - put back some of that blood you lost."
"Yeah, well, that sure sets you apart from my other patient here, but you gotta eat something anyway. It's right here on my list from the Doc, see?" Joe paused. "Adam, if you want to see you have to open your eyes."
"…later…" Maybe he could chase the edge of the dream down…bring into focus what he almost thought he'd seen…
"No, not later - you already missed lunch - gotta get something inside you for supper. Won't take but a bit and Mary made you this really yummy chicken broth - see? Yum yum!" Adam half opened his eyes. Joe grinned. "Knew that would get your attention. Now, open up." Adam just stared at him. "Darn it, Adam - now you're being stubborn just to be stubborn!"
Adam closed his eyes again and turned away, still groping for his dream. Hadn't somebody said that to him, too…? When was that?
Go away, Joe…I'm trying to remember…
"Adam I'm going to stay right here until you eat this - it's only going to be worse if you let it get cold - " There was a pause, and Adam almost thought he'd given up, then Joe burst out, "Darn it, Adam - I wasn't ever this difficult!"
That made Adam chuckle.
"I wasn't!" insisted Joe indignantly. "I ate everything in front of me."
Adam almost smiled. "…short…memory…" He dragged his eyes open and blinked at him. "…later…okay…?"
"No, not later." Joe's voice was firm. "Doc says you gotta eat. Says you need to build yourself back up if you want to heal. You want to heal, right? Now, here - take a spoonful…" Joe carefully balanced a spoonful nearby.
Adam gazed at it stonily. "…feed…myself…" he said at last.
Joe put down the spoon and threw up his hands. "Well, unless you got some real good skills with your feet, I don't see how!"
Adam turned his head away. "Leave it…I…will…"
"You can't! Darn it, Adam, I'm only tryin' to do what's good for you! You are the most…" he gnashed his teeth, then paused suddenly. "Adam…"
His tone was sly, and Adam opened his eyes, though he kept his head turned away from him.
"Adam, if you don't eat this right now I'm gonna - I'm gonna tell Pa that you're havin' trouble breathin'."
Adam turned his head to study him. "…wouldn't..." he warned after a minute.
Joe nodded firmly. "Yup, I sure would. If you don't eat this I'm gonna tell him just that. You know Pa - he won't even check - he'll just have a mustard plaster on you so fast…"
Adam narrowed his gaze still further. "…not…funny…"
"That's cause I'm not funnin' here. Now, you gonna open up or what?"
There was a weighty pause while Adam tried to study his expression through his bleary vision, then he nodded resignedly.
Joe smiled triumphantly and lifted the spoon. Adam swallowed the spoonful begrudgingly.
"Now, see?" said Joe comfortably. "That wasn't so bad, was it? Yummy, just like I told you. Have another one - "
Adam looked pained, but took another spoonful.
"Now, isn't that yummy? Here's comes another one - open up - "
Adam opened his mouth to say something, got a mouthful of chicken broth instead.
"There's a good boy. We'll have you back on your feet in no time. Heeeeere it comes…"
"Joe - " Adam lifted his left hand to stop the next one, looking exasperated. "…not…two years…old…"
"Huh? Of course you're not. Now, swallow that right down and here comes another. Come on - "
"Joe!" Adam raised his voice unwisely and had to pause to cough. "Joe, " he repeated more carefully, sipping a deep, slow breath. "If you…once more…"
"If I what? Come on, now - open wide - "
Adam just stared.
"Come on, Adam - I meant what I said - " the spoon hovered threateningly.
Adam cleared his throat experimentally, testing his words. "You…remember…" he took a quick breath, "when you…didn't want to…eat…something…?"
"Adam, I always ate what was put in front of me."
Adam lifted his eyebrows.
"I did. I - " he saw Adam's eyes drift to the bowl and had a sudden jolt of memory. "Adam! You wouldn't!"
Adam smiled sweetly.
"Adam, if you spill that bowl all over me, I swear, I'll - all right! All right! I'll just…feed you, then." Adam's expression didn't budge. Joe swallowed. "Silently," he grumbled in agreement.
Adam settled back into the pillows and nodded.
"I just want you to know, " Joe lifted the spoon again, "That you're a terrible patient."
Adam grinned at him.
"I don't know how Doc and Pa stood it all these years."
Adam stared at him over the spoon.
"I mean, it's a wonder - " Adam's stare grew more pointed, and Joe sighed, holding up his free hand in surrender. "All right, all right - I know - silent." He fed him another spoonful, glancing across the room to where Hoss snored comfortably in the large chair. "Now, Hoss, on the other hand - he ate his supper right down without a peep. Then went right off to sleep. That's what I call - " He saw the look on Adam's face and raised his eyebrows, then laughed sheepishly. "Oh. Right. Quiet and all." He served Adam two more careful spoonfuls, his expression thoughtful. "Not that you're makin' noise or anythin' - I mean, I know you can't too much yet, but - "
Adam lay back and just looked at him.
"What? Oh - well, shoot - as long as I don't use baby talk it's okay if I just talk, isn't it?"
One corner of Adam's mouth lifted. "…yeah…" His eyes drifted closed. "…done…"
Joe glanced into the bowl. "No, you ain't - you got half a bowl here - gotta finish it all."
Adam shifted, trying to find a spot that didn't hurt. "…later…"
"Later it'll be cold and disgusting. C'mon - it won't take long now. Just a little more."
"Darn it, Adam, you know what Pa'll have to say if I go downstairs with all this left? You gotta finish."
"Give it…to Hoss…"
"That's - I mean, he'd eat it, but - Adam, it's good for you. C'mon, you gotta eat."
Adam dragged his eyes open. "…tired, Joe..."
Joe made a face. "I - I know you are, but - now, don't you go using those big cow eyes on me cause it ain't gonna work. I'm only thinkin' of you, here - you'll thank me later - darn it, now I'm startin' ta sound like Pa…" He dropped the spoon abruptly and clutched his curls in frustration.
Adam laughed softly. "…know…the feeling…"
"Well, it's natural for you."
Adam gave a short laugh. "…thanks."
"I mean - well, it seems more natural to me, anyways. "
Adam was quiet a minute, his brows ruffled in concentration. "Asleep I…almost remember…but it's…mixed up…"
"Well, it'll work itself out. Just don't worry about it so much."
He shut his eyes. "Driving me…crazy…so close…"
"Probably you're thinking about it too much. What you need to do is to eat - give you the strength to remember. Have just a little more for me?"
Adam smiled slightly. "…do sound…like Pa…"
"See? See what you're doing to me? Aging me before my time. You don't want to be responsible for that, do you? C'mon…just a spoonful…" Joe waved a spoon invitingly, and after a minute Adam opened his eyes again.
"Nope. Guess you were dreaming." He watched Adam's troubled frown. "What were they singing?"
"Hm?…lullaby…I guess…" Adam blinked at the ceiling. "…pretty…" His lashes lowered to half mast. "Feel like…I'm losing…my mind…"
"You?" Joe kept his voice jovial, but he reached out surreptitiously to feel his face. "Naw - you're okay. Knew the difference between a theory and a theorem, remember?"
"Mmm…" Adam's lashes settled on his cheeks. Geometry…wasn't…someone…?
Joe frowned a little and took his hand away. "So. What is the difference anyway?"
"Theory and theorem. What's the difference?"
"Oh." Adam pushed his eyes back open. "Um…theory's…just likely…" he paused to swallow water from the glass Joe pushed against his mouth. "Theorem's…proven…" He closed his eyes again. "Explain better…later…"
"Yeah, you and your laters. If you won't eat, how about a little more water? Hey, what the heck is that?" Joe jumped up at the sound of quick feet on the stairs. "Who - ?" He made two strides to the door, but before he could reach for the knob it flew open.
Joe's face split into a grin. "Hey! Hop Sing! You're home!"
Hoss stirred and, rubbing at his eyes, tried to sit up a little. He blinked drowsily at the figure of Hop Sing standing in the doorway. "Hey, Hop Sing," he mumbled. "Shur is good ta see ya. Thought they was gonna starve me here."
Hop Sing stared back at Hoss, then turned his eyes to Adam, then Joe. He shook his head. "I gone only six day!" he cried in dismay. "What you do to selfs in six day?"
Hoss cleared his throat. "Now, it ain't nothin', Hop Sing - just a little bullet hole is all - an a empty belly…"
"You shot?" Hop Sing shook his head fiercely, then turned his accusing gaze to Adam. "And you? You shot, too?"
Adam swallowed apologetically. "Uh…yeah…"
"Oh, no - " Hoss jumped in hastily, "He done much more damage to hisself than that, Hop Sing. Lots more." The glare Adam gave him promised retribution later.
Joe raised a hand. "I just want to point out that I'm not hurt at all, Hop Sing - nope - not even a bruise."
Hop Sing scrutinized him closely. "Then where you when brothas hurt?" he demanded. "Why you not stop craziness? What happen I ever leave seven day? I 'fraid think!"
Joe opened his mouth to answer, then just swallowed uncomfortably.
Hop Sing shook his head again "Wose than childrun. Need me here all time." He spied the half empty bowl of chicken broth and moved to pick it up. "What this? This suppa? Why you no eat?"
Adam slid a glance at Joe. "…um…"
Hop Sing muttered something in Chinese and picked up the spoon. "You eat," he said firmly.
Adam obediently swallowed the proffered spoonful.
Joe stared. "How the heck did you DO that?"
Hop Sing sniffed. "I not here, you manage nothing."
Joe folded his arms. "Look, " he began virtuously, "I tried to get him to eat that. I did." He nodded briskly. "Told him how important nourishment was and everything."
Hop Sing filled another spoon and glared Adam into submission. "Need right touch," he said smugly.
Joe stuck his lower lip out. "All I gotta say is I never seen anybody so pigheaded in my whole darn life. Why - "
"Joe…" Joe looked questioningly at Adam as he paused between spoonfuls. "Got to…remember…some day? I'll…be out of this…bed…"
"Hm?" Joe digested this. "Oh. Yeah, well - " he gave him a confiding smile. "I'm kind of hoping that by then you won't be able to remember any of this, either."
Adam choked on a laugh, which turned into a cough. "Don't…" he gasped at last, "hurts…"
Hop Sing lowered the spoon and eyed him keenly. "Why cough? What this? Lung shot?"
Adam gestured half-heartedly. "…no, no…"
Ben spoke up from the doorway where he was observing with plain enjoyment. "Breathed in some water. Has a touch of what Paul calls 'aspiration pneumonia'."
Hop Sing narrowed his eyes and reached out to place one hand palm down on Adam's chest. His frown deepened, and he breathed a long sentence half to himself in Cantonese.
Joe cleared his throat. "It's just a little pneumonia…" he offered placatingly.
"That's right." Hoss jumped in helpfully. "Jest a touch, like the Doc says…"
Hop Sing glanced at him. "You quiet. I look at you next. What happen to this arm, here?"
"Just a - a little." Joe amended hastily. "I mean - not too bad."
Hop Sing shook his head. "You finish broth, then I fix special tea - good for lungs - make strong and clear. See what be good for Missa Hoss, too. Then fix dinna." He glared at Ben and Joe. "Look at you two. You no eat while I gone? How I eveah leave again?"
Ben smiled from the doorway. "Well, I hope you don't, Hop Sing - it's pretty hard to ride herd on all three of them alone without you here. We're mighty glad to have you home."
"Come home any later - find all in thousand pieces!" he picked up the now empty bowl and spoon and handed them to Joe. "You go to kitchen - start kettle for me? I down soon."
Joe stared bemusedly at the empty bowl and shook his head. "Uh - sure. Right."
Hoss looked wistful. "Don't suppose any o' that dinner could be fer me, too? I swear, I'm clean holler."
Hop Sing felt his forehead. "What docta say?"
"Bland diet." Ben supplied helpfully.
Hoss made a face at him.
"Maybe little oatmeal not too bad." Hop Sing looked pointedly at Ben. "My cousin I visit - many daughtas. Clean, quiet - great comfort in old age. Next time, you have daughtas."
Ben blinked at Hop Sing as he pushed past him, out the bedroom door and down the stairs. "N- next…?" He stared at the retreating blue back. "Um - I - I'll - see what I can do."
"Mornin', Ben." Roy took off his hat and smiled, an extraordinary courtesy that already had Ben uneasy. "How's them boys a yers this mornin'?"
Ben stepped back to welcome him in, watching his face shrewdly. "Fine, Roy…"
Roy sat his hat on the sideboard, pausing to smooth his hair. "Hoss feelin' any better?"
"Yes - yes, he's doing very well, thank you."
'Well, now - that's fine." Roy unbuckled his gunbelt, which to Ben meant that this wouldn't be a quick visit. "And how about Adam? How's he doin'?"
Ben eyed him curiously. "A little better, I think. Paul seems optimistic about his recovery. Can I get you something, Roy? Coffee?"
Roy smiled, a little self-consciously. "Not this minute, Ben." He paused. "And how about Adam's memory? He remember anything else?"
Ben was cautious. "…a little. Why do you ask?"
"Oh… just wonderin'. Any chance I could see 'em?"
Ben folded his arms. "Is this a social call, or are you here in an official capacity?"
Roy flushed. "Well, I sure would like to know how they're getting' on, but - it's official, Ben." Ben met his gaze and Roy scrubbed restlessly at the back of his neck. "Had a telegram from the circuit judge today - he's finished in Carson and on his way here - ahead of schedule."
Ben felt himself stiffen. "When - do you expect him?"
Roy shuffled his feet. "Oh - any day. Tomorrow, maybe. Or the next day."
"Tomorrow!" Ben bit his bottom lip. "That's - that's so soon!"
Roy shrugged. "'Fraid it don't seem so soon ta Red Twilight. Thought if maybe Adam remembered something else - like who shot him…"
Ben ran a hand over his face. "He doesn't - well, he remembers the shooting now - just not the man."
Roy's face fell. "I see."
Ben sighed. "Surely you have something else that will help…?"
Roy shrugged. "Lotsa stuff that's circumstantial - pretty strong stuff, too - maybe it'll be enough fer the judge, maybe not. There'll be an Inquest first - I'll need both you and Joe, a course - Mary too. Any chance Hoss and Adam…?"
"No," answered Ben abruptly. "There's not. Well, when you see them you'll see for yourself. Maybe you'd better just come up - talk to them. I don't see what you expect Hoss to know, though."
Roy sighed. "Just tryin' ta be thorough, Ben. Just tryin' ta be thorough…"
Ben led the way up the stairs, even his feet on the wooden stairs sounding ponderous and resentful to his own ears. "They're both in Adam's room - in fact, I think Mary and Joe are in there, too." He gave an abbreviated knock and pushed the door open.
Roy pinned on a jovial smile as all heads swiveled toward him. "Well," he said with forced bonhomie, "Looks like a reg'lar party in here!" Everyone stared at him, the bright humor that still lingered in the air from a minute before fading rapidly. Roy's smile became more natural. "You folks sure know how to make a man feel welcome."
That broke the ice, and Joe rose hastily to his feet and shook his hand. "Sorry, Roy - just weren't expecting company. We were just having a friendly game of checkers. I'm winning, of course."
"That's 'cause ya cheat," said Hoss flatly. "An we still ain't found that missin' checker. I'm right suspicious about it, too. Hey, Roy."
Roy nodded to him. "Hoss. Miss Mary. Adam."
"I do NOT cheat!" returned Joe indignantly. "Roy, would you tell this sore loser that I don't cheat?"
Roy grinned, pulling at his ear. "Now, boys, every lawman knows that it's darned perilous to get involved in a family quarrel, so I'm jest gonna take a pass on answering that. If ya got a few minutes, though, I'd sure like ta ask a few question of my own."
The room was quiet for a second. "Sure," said Joe cautiously. "Me?"
"Well, now, Joe, I'm pretty sure I heard all you gotta say. Mostly I just need you and Miss Mary to stand by for the Inquest. I was hopin' ta have a chat with your brothers, though."
Joe shifted. "When's the Inquest?"
Roy pulled at his ear again. "Oh, now - when the Circuit Judge gets here…tomorrow or the next day. I'll need you two ta testify." His gaze shifted to Hoss and Adam. "You two can give me your testimony today, since Doc won't let ya come to town."
Hoss looked troubled. "Don't know as there's a lot I can tell ya, Roy."
"Well, now - I gotta ask, Hoss. Rather not question you and Adam in the same room, though. Anything we can do about that?"
Ben spoke up from his stance in the doorway. "It's time Hoss went to his own room for a nap anyway - I'll help him into his own bed."
Mary looked up shyly. "I - I'd appreciate it if I could ride along with you back to town, Sheriff?" She ducked her head in response to Ben's questioning look. "Hop Sing's back now, and you don't need me - I really should be getting back to town."
Ben frowned. "Mary - I hope you don't think we just had you here in capacity as cook? You can stay as long as you like - ride to the Inquest with me and Joe - "
"I - I do know - and I thank you, Mr. Cartwright - but I have to get back to my rooms - think about whether or not I want to keep them, now that Willie's gone. I've enjoyed your hospitality, but I need to get home."
Ben's face softened. "Well, we've certainly enjoyed having you. I don't know that we offered you much hospitality, though - all you did was work At least let me pay you something for your trouble. Truly, I don't know how I would have managed without you."
"Oh, no," Mary shrank from him, "No - I wanted to. I feel responsible for so much of what's happened…"
"Yes," Ben's voice was hard. "Everyone seems to feel responsible except for the real culprit. You mustn't feel that way, Mary, but we appreciate your help more than I can say."
Mary rose, smoothing her skirts. "I'll go gather my things together." As she moved toward the door, Ben saw Adam's eyes follow her, his brows drawn together in a frown.
He went to the bed and adjusted the quilt covering him, trying not to fuss. "You up to this chat with Roy?" Adam looked a little startled, as though the question had interrupted a train of thought, then gave him an abbreviated nod. Ben lingered, unconvinced. "You don't have to, you know."
Adam sighed. "…'Sfine, Pa."
"All right. But right afterward you take a nap, too." Adam rolled his eyes. Ben smiled. It was more or less the reaction he'd been angling for. He gave Adam's shoulder a pat and moved over to check on Hoss. "Why don't I give you a hand back to your room? Joseph?"
Joe jumped up and eased himself under Hoss's other arm. "Now, take it nice and slow…" he warned.
Hoss gasped a little as he tried to get his feet under him. "Little brother's…turning inta a reg'lar mother hen…ain't he Adam?" He paused a minute to steady himself. "Almost enough ta make me overlook his cheatin' at checkers…"
"I DON'T CHEAT!" Joe insisted, moving him slowly to the door. "You're just up against a superior player, is all, and can't stand the competition!"
Hoss snorted. "Shortshanks, the day you're a 'superior player' is the day I'll shave myself bald and cluck like a chicken! And when I find that checker…"
Adam listened with a slight smile as their voices faded into the next room. He heard the bumping as they tried to settle Hoss in bed, Hoss's dry commentary and Joe's higher pitched complaints in return, and the smile grew into a grin. Then he heard Roy's voice, slow and steady, and the smile faded again.
He couldn't help wondering exactly what they were saying - talking about what everyone seemed to know about but him. Who shot him. Who shot Hoss. One in the same, or two different people? He wished that someone would just tell him, but Roy was insistent that it would "contaminate evidence". He unconsciously strained his ears, trying to catch a word or a phrase that might give him a clue, feeling guilty at the same time. It wouldn't help anybody if he learned that way - well, except for him. For him it would fill that appalling gap in his memory that he was getting so tired of.
He closed his eyes and tried to go over the scene from his dreams again in his mind's eye. The cold, indifferent words - the muzzle of the gun aimed at him - the report of the pistol - all of those he remembered with painful clarity, but when he tried to bring the man's face into focus…he concentrated on it until his temples throbbed with the effort, but the face behind the gun remained a blur.
He opened his eyes again. Pretty much like everything else he looked at these days. Though today seemed a little better…sometimes objects stayed singular for minutes at a time. He took an experimental breath - coughed. Still. A little better. Maybe when Roy came in he'd see if he could make his way through a full sentence. At least Paul, true to his word, had brought the sling - he could roll over on his side now and relieve some of the pressure from his tender back. He wondered what he had done to that. Well, Joe had said he'd fallen down into the bed of the creek that ran under the Springhouse and considering the water level this time of year that had probably hurt some. His head buzzed pleasantly, and the world seemed to fall away. Damn. He was going to take a nap after all. He hated it when his father knew what he was going to do before he did it. His chest rose, his breathing slowing and only catching faintly this time. He was almost asleep when he heard the stolid footsteps and the creak of the door opening inward. He struggled to raise his eyelids before someone could catch him dozing.
Roy bobbed his head at him, smiling as if he knew exactly what he had been doing.
He blinked to clear his eyes as best he could - waiting. He and Roy had always been friends - even when he was just a kid, he and Roy had enjoyed an easy understanding - but suddenly he felt nervous.
"Adam," Roy hooked a foot around the rocking chair and sank into it, making himself comfortable. "I'd just like to ask you a few questions."
It was the co-mingling sounds of a pistol firing and a glass breaking that woke him this time, followed by the hoarse bark of his own coughing. He tried to push himself up, to see if it would ease the insistent pressure that kept exploding from his lungs, stealing his breath from him.
Someone had fired a gun - close by, too - someone had aimed and fired - he could still hear the resounding crack, feel an abrupt impact like the kick of a mule - someone had fired and before he'd fired he'd threatened Hoss - Hoss who was sleeping, defenseless, in his room - he tried to lift his gun but his arm was trapped in some peculiar way against his chest. He tried to get up and see to Hoss - to warn him - to protect him - but his body was curiously heavy - weighted down and immovable. His chest tightened in frustration and alarm, squeezing away what little air there was left in his lungs, and he coughed harder, sending a lancing pain across his forehead. He tried to make a fist against the pain, but neither hand worked and there was an idea - a germ of a thought, seeping into his consciousness - that this had happened somewhere before…sometime…no, many times…he had to help Hoss…he couldn't help Hoss…he had to stop him…him…who? That didn't matter right now - what mattered was Hoss was in danger - Hoss would be killed and he was helpless to stop it…helpless…
"All right…all right…swallow this… try to breathe slowly…come on, Adam - deep breaths…"
Adam swallowed instinctively - God, that stuff tasted awful - and felt a warmth spread throughout his chest. "Pa - "
"Ssshhh…give yourself a minute to get your breath. Don't try to talk."
Pa didn't understand. They didn't have time. "Pa - " he coughed, snatched at a breath, "Hoss - "
"Is sound asleep, Adam, unless your coughing woke him. Just relax for a minute. Let the cough elixir do its job."
"But - someone - " the coughing was more sporadic now and he opened his eyes, realizing for the first time that they'd been closed. "There was…a gun…" He trailed off, suddenly unsure. He was in his room and it was shrouded in darkness, the only illumination the lantern beside the bed, turned very low, making strange shadows on the walls, black on darker black. He coughed again. "There was - a gun…did you hear…?"
He felt his father's hand on his cheek, gauging his temperature, and resisted the urge to pull away. He was too drained to put up much of a fight anyway.
"I think you were probably having a dream."
Adam swallowed. It had been so real. He became suddenly aware of the wetness chilling on his face, and then he did pull away, his cheeks flaming in the darkness. He felt Ben's hand drop to his shoulder and give it a squeeze, then disappear. It took him a second to realize that he was moving to turn up the lantern. "Don't - " He felt, rather than saw, his father's questioning glance. "I - hurts - my eyes…"
Ben hesitated just long enough to make Adam sure he knew exactly why he didn't want the light. Adam blotted hastily at his eyes with his bandaged hand, struggling for his composure. "I - " he breathed carefully, his lungs giving him a warning itch that the coughing could start up again at any time, his brain carefully retracing his steps, trying to make sense of things. "What - did I break - this time?"
"Nothing important." Adam could hear him fussing with something, hoped it wasn't more elixir. "A glass. We have plenty. Here - " A cool cloth dabbed at his face, soothing it, cleaning away any trace of the sticky moisture that was the residue of his eye-watering coughing spell …or else he had been crying in his sleep. He wasn't sure which himself. "Better?"
Adam nodded, grateful for his father's tact.
"You want to tell me about this dream?"
Adam hesitated. "It's - the same - one. Over and over and over…" his voice faded, and he turned his head away.
"All right. What happens in this dream?"
"I'm - standing…" he paused, trying to call up a clear picture. "Downstairs, I guess…by the door…" He stopped. "…same, Pa. Just - all - I remember…"
"All right. Tell me about it anyway. You're standing downstairs. By the door…"
Adam closed his eyes to see it better in his mind's eye. "There's someone…on the stairs…talking…" He frowned. "Gotta gun…" He opened his eyes. "You really…didn't hear…?"
"No, Adam. There was no gunshot tonight. Go on."
Adam expelled a careful breath. "He's got a gun…pointed…hammer's cocked…" He fell silent.
"Pointed," Ben coaxed. "All right. Pointed at…?"
"Me." Adam shifted under the quilt. "I…have my gun, but…not aimed…I can't…"
"Aim. Before he - shoots. I can't…do anything…" he swallowed again, feeling something cold and trembling clutch at his stomach. "And…he's saying…"
He must have shivered, because Ben reached over and pulled the quilt higher. "All right. He's saying…?"
"That he's…going to shoot…me and then…" He stopped again abruptly, closing his eyes against the memory.
He felt Ben's hand close around his forearm. His voice was low and calm. "He's going to shoot you. And then…?"
Adam opened his eyes and turned to look at the soft-edged shadow Ben made in the minimal light. "Shoot Hoss. Finish him…he said. I know Hoss is…helpless…unarmed…and I can't…I can't…"
The hand tightened on his forearm. "All right. You have to remember, Adam, that Hoss is all right. This is just a dream. Or even if it's a memory, no one killed Hoss after all - he's just fine." Adam nodded slowly. "What happens next?"
Adam sighed inwardly. "Gunshot. And…a big,exploding…light…like…dynamite makes…"
Adam shrugged. "Nothing."
"Nothing else. You don't remember what happened just before, or just after…" Adam shook his head. "And it's always the same, this dream?" Adam nodded. "And this is the one you had tonight?"
Adam pulled his arm away and rested it over his eyes. "Couple times…I think."
There was a brief silence. "Adam, I know you don't care for the narcotic, but if you aren't resting without it, either, maybe you should take some. At least then you might sleep through the night."
Adam dropped his hand. "No."
"Adam, I know - but you need to rest, son."
"No," Adam coughed softly. "can't…wake myself…up, then…"
"Oh." Ben digested this. "I see your point."
They sat for a moment in silence. "Roy…needs me…to remember, doesn't…he?"
He could feel his father shift uncomfortably beside him.
"Oh - now…" he cleared his throat. "I don't know that he does. It would help, of course…"
"Does." Adam let his eyes drop shut again. "…Can tell. His questions…" he tried to turn a little, weighed down with a sudden lassitude. "Sorry, Pa…don't know why…"
He felt his father's hand rest lightly on his forehead. "Ssshh, now."
"Keep…trying…" Sleep seemed to be creeping up on him again, and as much as he dreaded it, he didn't think he could fight it.
"I know you do. It doesn't matter. Everything will be fine."
Adam jerked himself awake. "…Not. Wish…"
"Never mind. Go to sleep. I'll stay with you for a while."
Adam felt himself sink into the bed. "Don't…silly…"
"Oh, I don't have any other plans right now."
Adam breathed a short, faint laugh, though he could feel he was sinking fast. "…sleeping?"
"That's all right. I wasn't sleeping so well anyway. Might as well keep each other company."
"…thanks…" He thought he said it - meant to, but he couldn't be sure. All he was really sure of was the light, anchoring weight of his father's palm, resting across the bandage on his forehead, just before the room dissolved into sleep.
"Joseph! Aren't you ready yet?"
Joe grabbed his hat and hurried down the hall, the limp ends of his string tie dangling around his neck. "Almost, Pa. Don't know why this darn thing is so hard to get this morning." He paused outside of Adam's room. "Say, could one of you fellas..?"
Adam glanced up and made note of his predicament. He tilted his head to indicate his hands. "Don't…look at me…"
Hoss grimaced apologetically. "Me neither, Shortshanks. Cain't never git m' own right."
"Joseph…" Ben paused at the top of the stairs and sighed at the sight of the bedraggled tie. "Here…let me…" He grasped the two ends and looped them into a bow, fuming with frustration when they fell apart again. He put down his hat and repeated the procedure more slowly. This time they tied in a bow, but it was crooked and the ends hung oddly - one abbreviated and one ridiculously long. "Well, this thing must be bewitched…" Ben tugged at one end to undo it and tried again. "As for you two - " he continued, measuring the ends together and trying a third time, "I have your word you'll do everything Hop Sing tells you while we're gone?"
Hoss gave a grunt. "Like we gotta choice."
Ben glanced up from the recalcitrant tie to glare at him. "I mean it. Don't you give Hop Sing any trouble. I don't want to come back to find him all stirred up."
"Come back to find…us awash…in tea…"
"Yes. Well. If that's the worst thing…" Ben finally created two triumphant loops in Joe's tie and strode over to the bed to check Adam's temperature.
Adam tried not to shift away but did anyway. "I'm…fine…"
Ben withdrew his hand, looking a little appeased at the only faint warmth in his face. "Yes," he agreed dryly. "You look wonderful."
Adam gave a laugh that turned into a cough. Ben moved to Hoss to repeat his procedure.
Hoss sighed and tried to sound patient. "Pa, I ain't had but a normal temperature in days."
"Two days," Ben corrected him. "Be a few more before I'm sure we're past it. And if you do any running around, I can guarantee you it'll spike again."
Hoss and Adam's eyes met, and they both broke into halting laughter.
Ben frowned deeply at them. "Fine - laugh all you want - just do as I say."
"Sorry…Pa…" Adam pressed the back of his left hand against his chest, trying to keep the laughing from turning into an all out coughing fit. "Just…can't…imagine…that being…a problem…"
"Good. It better not be."
Hoss tried to still his heaving shoulders where they pulled on his wound. "Gol darn, Pa - I'll promise if it makes ya happy - no runnin', no dancin' - no ropin' steers."
"Very funny." Ben picked up his hat and placed it firmly on his head. "Hop Sing is right - you are worse than children. Joe and I will be back as quickly as we can."
The laughter faded abruptly.
"Right," Hoss tried to smile reassuringly at his younger brother. "Say, Joe - good luck, huh?"
Adam lifted his free hand in salute and winked.
Joe looked down at his hat as if he was wondering what it was doing in his hands and nodded.
"Yeah," he said uncertainly. "Yeah - thanks." He pushed the hat on his head and took a deep breath. "Well. We better get goin', or we'll be late." He made an attempt at a jaunty smile. "Say, Hoss - maybe you'd better try practicin' checkers with Adam while I'm gone. He's about crippled enough right now that you might be able to beat 'em."
Hoss pointed an accusing finger at him. "That's enough o' yer sass. Once I figger out how you been cheatin' I'm gonna beat you so's you never ferget it! That checker's gotta be around here somewheres, an' I'm gonna find it - an' I better not find it on you!"
Joe sighed in exasperation. "I keep TELLING you - "
"All right!" Ben's boom overrode them easily. "That's enough about the checker!" He waited a calculated beat, then continued more quietly, "You're right, Joseph - if we don't leave now we'll be late. You two behave until we get back - stay nice and quiet and do everything Hop Sing says. We'll see you in a few hours."
Hoss and Adam exchanged a potent glance as Ben turned and started down the stairs.
"And I saw that!" he roared over his shoulder. "Worse than children! MUCH worse!"
Hoss rumpled his nose as they listened to their father's decisive footsteps descend. "Ain't no way he coulda seen that," he protested.
Adam coughed. "Didn't. Knows us."
They listened a minute longer to Joe's steps following, surprisingly subdued.
Hoss pursed his lips. "Huh. Joe don't sound so good. Reckon he's gonna be all right?"
Adam paused. "Sure," he said at last. "He's…tough."
"Feelin' kinda bad, I reckon'. Thinks he let ya down afore. Prob'ly thinks he might let ya down again."
Adam raised his brows.
Hoss swore softly. "Dang. Forgot you don't remember."
"Maybe…should tell me…"
Hoss made a face. "Cain't, Adam. Wish I could."
Adam tried to pull himself up higher. "Hoss…"
"Sorry, Adam - I shouldn'ta said nothin', but - I cain't. Leastways - well, maybe after today. Depends."
Adam looked at him. "Sounds…important."
Hoss shrugged, then winced. "Ain't that important."
Adam scoffed. "Worst…liar I…know…"
"Ain't lyin'," Hoss insisted. "It'll work itself out."
Adam studied him until Hoss colored under his gaze. "Joe…in trouble…?"
"No," Hoss spoke with conviction this time. "Nothin' like that."
Adam smiled. "…least that was...truth."
Hoss rubbed at his nose. "Let's talk about somethin' else, fore you git it outta me. Pa's in a state, ain't he?"
Adam laughed softly. "Yeah…you…remember…"
Hoss waited. "Remember what?"
"We had…whooping cough…same time…"
"Yeah?" Hoss grinned. "Naw, don't really. When was this?"
Adam closed his eyes to think back. "You were…three…I think…"
"Well, no wonder. So you were nine?"
"…almost. Winter before…we shared…a bed…you don't…?"
Hoss screwed up his eyes. "Kinda, maybe. Pa was fussin' round like he's doin' now?"
"Worse, I think…snowed in…no Hop Sing…yet…"
Hoss chuckled appreciatively. "Huh. Poor Pa."
"Mm…wouldn't stay…in bed…"
"You er me?"
"Well, I was only three. You oughter've set an example."
"Thought I could…help…Pa…"
"Don't that jest figger. What'd Pa do?"
"Threatened to…tie us…down…"
Hoss laughed out loud. "Dang. Cain't believe I forgot this."
"…were little. Pa 'bout…wore the skin off our…foreheads…feeling for fever…all the time…"
Hoss's smile softened. "Sure ain't no picnic, having us fer sons. Even then."
"Cain't even really remember us sharin' a bed."
"At three? I did not!"
"Ain't a three year old in the world what snores!"
Hoss scowled at him. "Dang. Don't even seem possible."
Adam's face grew serious, remembering. "Not…bad. Got used to…it."
"Huh." Hoss sank more deeply into the chair. "Say, Adam?"
"I'm right sorry about all this."
Adam looked questioning, and Hoss colored deeply. "Dang. That's right. You don't remember. I'm sorta ta blame fer all this."
Adam sighed. "Thought…Joe…?"
"Naw, well, he thinks that - that's really somethin' else…dadburn it, I'm jest makin' it worse, ain't I?"
Adam nodded, exasperated.
"I should jest quit while I'm ahead."
This time Adam chuckled, then sobered. He slid down in the bed, suddenly tired. "Me, too…sorry."
"What in tarnation you sorry fer?"
Hoss wrinkled his forehead. "When?" Adam looked at him. "Oh. Right. Sorry."
"All I…remember. Tried…" He turned his head to frown at the wall.
"Yeah, well - like that's somethin' I had doubts about. Say, it's funny ain't it, Adam? How you can remember all that stuff from when we was little, but you cain't remember what happened jest a few days ago?" A long silence answered him and he tried to sit up straighter to see if Adam had dropped off. "Adam…?"
"Yeah…" Adam breathed at last, but didn't turn back to look at him. "…funny."
Joe had stuck his finger inside his collar and run it around his neck so many times that he was sure his tie looked as bad as it had before Pa had tied it. He was nervous - he wasn't sure why exactly - he just was. He rubbed his palms on his thighs to dry them and glanced around the chamber that was doubling as a courtroom.
Pa sat on his right, looking still and withdrawn, and Roy sat across the room, fidgeting almost as much as he was. He saw Mary pause in the doorway and smiled at her, but she dropped her eyes and slipped quietly into a seat on the other side. He sighed. He wished the judge would come so they could get started. Get this thing over with, once and for all.
Two figures sat making notes at the table in front. One he recognized as George Everly, a local solicitor who had worked on some contracts for the Cartwrights. The other he didn't recognize - probably from out of town - maybe Carson City. Virginia City Lawyers probably weren't jumping to protect Red Twilight's interests. He saw Roy stand as a tall, thin man with slicked down grey hair entered and everyone followed his example.
The judge? Must be.
The man folded himself behind the desk facing the proceedings and gestured for them to seat themselves. "Gentlemen," he nodded to Mary. "Ma'am." He scanned the faces. "Is the accused present?"
Roy cleared his throat. "I'll go get'em."
The judge made himself comfortable. "I'm Judge Coleridge. You all understand that this is not a trial but is to ascertain whether or not there is adequate evidence to proceed with a trial?"
Joe nodded automatically along with the others, thinking that the law sure had gotten fancy - a far cry from the lynchings of just a few years ago. He heard a stir over by the door and swiveled his eyes to look. His heart started a sonorous thumping in his chest.
He hadn't laid eyes on him since…that day. Just thinking about it, he could still feel his fingers entwined in Twilight's hair, pulling his head back - the finger of his other hand tightening on the trigger, pushing the gun barrel hard into his temple…he closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Twilight was seated, and the judge was saying something else.
He jumped a little. "H - here."
"If you would have a seat up front, Mr. Cartwright? Mr. Everly and Mr. Waltham have some questions they would like to ask you pursuant to the death of one…William Gillis?"
Joe got slowly to his feet, surprised at how stiff and heavy his legs felt. It was only a couple of questions - what was the big deal? He seated himself carefully in the chair that had been set up in front of the Judge's desk and looked expectantly at George Everly.
George gave him a reassuring smile. "So, Joe," he said easily. "Hear you had sort of a rocky week out at the Ponderosa."
Joe felt himself relax. "Yeah, George. I mean - Mr. Everly. You sure could say that."
George nodded. "Why don't you tell us about it? In your own words?"
Joe took a deep breath. "Well, I guess it all started when Willie Twilight went sort of crazy and started shooting a couple of guns off in the middle of town - "
"Willie Twilight," George interrupted. "That would be the defendant's brother?"
Joe nodded. "That's right. Anyway, my brother Hoss was afraid he was gonna hurt somebody and tried to stop him…"
"You say your brother Hoss tried to stop him - how? At gunpoint? With his fists?"
"Aw, no - not Hoss. He just sorta tried to wrassle the guns away from Willie."
"So he didn't physically accost him?"
"Not really - I mean, Hoss is big, so he's kinda careful about stuff like that. He tried to get the guns away from him before anybody got hurt."
George took a turn in front of him. "I see. And did he succeed?"
"Well, yeah, but - "
"He did, but - Willie fell to the ground in the scuffle and…well, he died. Had a bum heart, I guess."
"So you're saying that Willie Twilight died of a heart attack after a scuffle with your brother."
"A scuffle that ensued from an incident Willie Twilight himself provoked."
"Yeah - sure."
"So Willie Twilight's death was, quite simply, an accident."
"Yup. I mean - yes."
"I see. What happened next?"
"Well…" Joe tried to order his thoughts. "Hoss felt real bad about it anyway and went off to check some fences. My brother Adam and me - we followed cause we were kinda worried about him…before we got there, we heard a shot…" he took a deep breath.
George waited, then prompted, "Go on."
Joe swallowed. "We - when we reached him, he'd been shot. In the back. Was bleedin' real bad."
"In the back, you say."
Joe nodded jerkily.
"A possible hunting accident?"
"It was a buffalo gun. Ain't no buffalo around those parts."
"I see." George hooked his thumbs in his vest. "I would like to take a moment to point out to the court that Mr. Red Twilight is, in fact, a buffalo scout."
Mr. Waltham glanced up. "Lotsa folk hereabouts own buffalo guns."
The Judge made some marks on a piece of paper. "Duly noted."
George nodded serenely. "So what happened next, Joe? Did you pursue the shooter?"
"No, I - " Joe hesitated. "I - wanted to, but Hoss was bad, and my brother Adam said to go for the doctor instead. I went, and he got Hoss back home."
"I see. And did you pursue the shooter later, then?"
"I had a pretty good idea who it was, so, yeah, I did go after him. Found him at the Ponderosa taking another crack at Hoss. Shorty - that's William Gillis - was already dead outside, and Twilight's horse was hitched out front. I went in the back way, and my brother Adam went in the front. I heard a shot and saw Red Twilight on the stairs with his gun out - I tackled him and chased him and caught him out front."
"Where was your brother Adam all this time?"
Joe swallowed again. "I - he was shot. Guess that's why Twilight's gun was out. I - my Pa showed up with the deputy just about the time - Adam got up, though, and came into the yard, just as…"
"As…? Your father arrived with the deputy?"
"So, this man - Red Twilight - he shot both your brothers and killed one of your hands. Is that correct?"
Joe nodded again, his throat suddenly tight.
"No further questions." George returned to his seat, giving Joe an encouraging wink.
Joe relaxed a little, eyeing Mr. Waltham.
Mr. Waltham rose unhurriedly to his feet and smiled at him - a friendly smile. "Mr. Cartwright. As my esteemed colleague says, you've had quite a week."
"Both your brothers shot - one of your comrades killed. It wouldn't be a wonder if you were to find yourself in - an emotional state."
Joe shifted warily.
"It would be, in fact, completely understandable. On the other hand, it wouldn't be the best state in which to make important judgments. Judgments, for example, that involve a man's proposed life or death."
Joe felt his collar tighten again but resisted the urge to stick his finger inside it to loosen it.
"Mr. Cartwright, you say that you had - 'a pretty good idea' that it was Red Twilight who shot your brother Hoss. Why is that?"
Joe tilted his head at him. "Hoss ain't got an enemy in the world. Red Twilight blamed Hoss for Willie's death. It's the only thing that made sense."
"I see. And - Mr. Twilight told you this?"
"No, of course not!"
"Ah. Then how is it that you came to this conclusion?"
Joe looked exasperated. "It was all over town!"
"I see." Mr. Waltham paused to wind his watch. "Gossip, then." He finished winding his watch and met Joe's eyes limpidly. "You feel, then, that gossip is relevant evidence on which to hang a man?"
"Of course not!"
"Just to track him down, then?"
"No! I - "
"For example, let me tell you some gossip that I heard, Mr. Cartwright. I heard - er - 'all over town' that you swore to get even with Red Twilight for what he did to your brother. Is this true?"
"Well, of course, I - "
"In fact, I heard that you were looking to 'do him in' for what he did to your brother. Also true?"
"I - I meant that…"
"Fortunately, men are not hung for what they say, Mr. Cartwright - only for what they do. A lucky thing, or Mr. Twilight might not be the only man on trial for his life today. Isn't that so?"
Joe felt his chest heave and glanced at his father. Ben's face was white and angry - something in his expression gave Joe strength. "What about my brother Adam?" he shot back. "He fired on him right there in our own front room! And what about Shorty? He's dead, an' that ain't just talk!"
"Of course." Mr. Waltham nodded sympathetically. "And you saw this, of course?"
"No, but I - I heard the shot! Saw Twilight standing with his gun smoking! Who else could it have been?"
Mr. Waltham paused in his relaxed pacing, gave another smile that hid none of the shrewdness in his eyes. "Mr. Cartwright, where was your brother at this time?"
"On the floor. By the front door."
"Which was open?"
Joe nodded again.
"And your brother was - on which side of it?"
Joe felt a flush creep up from his collar. "I - inside. In the room."
"That's where you saw him?"
The flush burned across his forehead and down his ears. "I - I…" he dropped his eyes. "No. No, I didn't see him."
Mr. Waltham raised his eyebrows. "I see. So. Mr. Cartwright. Isn't it possible that he wasn't in the room at all when he was shot? That he met you outside because he was shot outside? By someone other than Mr. Twilight, who, you say yourself, was inside? On the stairs?"
Joe just stared at him.
"Then perhaps you could find another explanation for the blood stain on my front room wall."
Joe started at the sound of his father's resonant voice, then threw him a grateful glance.
Mr. Waltham turned to study Ben measuringly as well, as Judge Coleridge rapped smartly on the desk. "You'll have your turn, sir."
Mr. Waltham raised a hand. "Never mind, your Honor - Mr. - Cartwright, isn't it?" He waited for Ben to nod before continuing. "Has something to add, and, as you pointed out, this isn't a formal trial." He smiled his patient, genial smile. "There is a blood stain on your wall, sir? To indicate that Adam Cartwright - your son, isn't that right? Was shot there?"
Ben gave a slight nod, watching him cautiously. "Yes. It's the right spot for a - " he winced, "head wound to someone my son's height, and it certainly wasn't there before. Mary - Miss Moore - also said that was where she found Adam."
Mr. Waltham nodded politely, glancing over to where Mary sat, her head still bowed. "Miss Moore, I presume?" Mary blushed, then bobbed her head. "You concur that Adam Cartwright was found inside the doorway?" Mary's blush deepened. She glanced at Joe, then nodded mutely. "I see." Mr. Waltham turned back to Joe. Joe felt his neck muscles tighten.
"So that tells us approximately where Adam Cartwright was shot, if not precisely when or by whom."
"Well, it couldn't have been long before," Joe protested. "I mean, he was with me just a couple of minutes before."
Mr. Waltham appeared to listen very carefully, then nodded. "Fair enough. So we know where. And approximately when. The only question - and I submit that it is still a very open question - is 'who'." Mr. Waltham looked about the room, from one set of eyes to the next, before returning his gaze to Joe. "Isn't it possible," he suggested slowly, "that someone - a thief, perhaps - bent on robbing your home which is, I hear, rather famous for its wealth, shot your ranch hand and then your brother and was, in fact, only stopped by Mr. Twilight's timely intervention? In fact, Mr. Cartwright, isn't it possible that your brother Hoss suffered a similar fate, being off alone and known for having money - shot by some miscreant, or, perhaps, an Indian who simply wanted his horse?"
"And isn't it possible, Mr. Cartwright, that Mr. Twilight is really only guilty, like you, of talking too much and too indiscreetly in the emotional state brought on by his brother's demise?" He waited, but Joe made no move to answer. Mr. Waltham glanced back at the judge. "No further questions."
Joe sat, frozen, his eyes going to his father, whose face looked chiseled in stone, then Mary, whose head was dropped and shielded by her hat, then Roy - who looked grim. Lastly, like a magnet, his eyes were drawn to Red Twilight.
Red looked from him to Ben. Then he smiled.
"…Mr. Cartwright? You can step down. Joe…"
Joe jumped as if awakened from a dream and stared at George Everly's kind face.
George smiled at him, but he thought the smile looked strained. "You're done, Joe."
Joe nodded blankly and struggled to his feet. His body felt curiously detached. He made his way back to the chair beside his father and dropped heavily into it. He distantly felt a hand squeeze his shoulder.
"Mr. Ben Cartwright?"
The hand left his shoulder, and he watched his father's broad back move toward the chair he had just vacated, his shoulders rigid with determination. He watched as George Everly began his questioning of his father, but the words were running together.
Was it possible? Was it even possible that Red Twilight hadn't shot Hoss? Or Adam, or Shorty? He had been so sure. He had been so sure of it that he had almost murdered Twilight because of it - murdered him without a second thought. And now this Waltham fellow was making him wonder - what if he had been wrong? His stomach clenched, and his father's voice filtered through his thoughts, steady and confident. He watched him answering the questions put to him with ease.
Pa seemed to know what he was talking about. He would speak to him about it. He flashed on his conversation with his father over the rifle and paused again. Or - maybe not. Pa didn't seem entirely clear-headed about this either.
He sank back in his chair, thinking. Adam. He could talk to Adam. Adam had a way of looking at things calmly and logically - seeing all sides of something. He'd be able to tell him if he thought he'd jumped to conclusions about Red Twilight. He'd do it as soon as he got home. Home. His heart dropped suddenly. Adam was at home because he could barely move - couldn't remember much about the whole incident, certainly couldn't help him work his way through his tangled thoughts. He almost groaned out loud.
Hoss? He could talk to Hoss. Hoss had a kind of down to earth sense that really came through in situations like this. Of course, Hoss was kind of personally involved and all, felt responsible himself - but maybe together they could figure this thing out. The knots along his shoulders loosened a little, and he sighed. That's what he would do, then. That was bound to help.
He saw George Everly move away from Ben and Mr. Walthers stand up and began unconsciously gnawing on a cuticle, watching. He hadn't really paid attention to George's line of questioning, but from Pa's face, it had gone well. He looked over at Roy, who was standing alongside Red Twilight. Roy didn't like Twilight - didn't trust him - Joe could tell by his expression. And Roy was the kind of man to always give a fellow a chance. So maybe there was something to his own mistrust after all.
He shook himself, trying to pay closer attention to the proceedings. Waltham was saying something to Pa in his easy, calm, friendly way.
"…doesn't seem odd to you that a man whose horse was recognizable to you - a man who supposedly came with the intention of killing your son - would hitch his horse out front in plain sight? Would take a very foolish man, don't you think?"
"Or a very cold and cocksure one." Ben suggested evenly in return.
Good goin', Pa, thought Joe. Give him a better run for his money than I did.
"Or, perhaps," suggested Mr. Waltham sweetly, "a very innocent one." He stopped his casual pacing and faced Ben squarely. "You have to admit that it is the action of a man who did precisely what Mr. Twilight claims - came expressly to see you - to talk and apologize."
Ben did not flinch from his gaze. "That is, of course, one interpretation."
Mr. Waltham smiled slightly. "Fair enough, Mr. Cartwright. It is indeed. But I think it is a likely one. I have no further questions at this time."
For a moment Ben paused as if he still had something to say. The Judge looked at him. "You may step down, Mr. Cartwright."
Ben pushed slowly to his feet and returned to his chair. Joe offered him a weak smile. George Everly stood again.
"Miss Mary Moore?" Mary looked up quickly, then back down again. "Miss Moore?" George repeated patiently.
Mary stumbled to her feet. Joe directed a smile of encouragement to her, but her eyes slid away from him. Joe tried not to feel hurt. After all, she was probably even more nervous than he was.
She sat down in the chair with a rustle of skirts and clasped her hands tightly in her lap.
George tried to set her at ease. "I'm sorry to hear about your loss, Miss Moore."
Mary looked right at him for the first time. "Thank you," she said softly.
"This must be a very confusing time for you. Your fiancé dead, his brother being questioned as suspect in a murder."
Mary's face softened. "Yes. Yes, it is."
"Then I'll try not to make it any harder. I'll keep my questions simple. Miss Moore, do you have any reason to believe that Red Twilight was the man who shot Hoss Cartwright?"
Mary bit her lip. "Well - the talk - "
"Let's forget the talk for now. I mean personally. Did Red Twilight say anything to you personally that would lead you to believe that he shot or planned to shoot Hoss Cartwright."
Mary gazed at him for a moment, troubled, then shifted her eyes to rest on Red Twilight. "I - " she hesitated. "I - don't know what you mean."
George's brows jumped. "I think it was a rather simple question, Miss Moore." And, when she remained silent, "Let me rephrase then. Miss Moore, did you or did you not tell Ben Cartwright that you had a discussion with Red Twilight that led you to believe that he was not only responsible for the first attempt on his son Hoss's life, but that he intended to make a second try?"
Joe felt his father shift next to him.
Mary's eyes dropped to the hands in her lap. "I - I think - I was misunderstood."
"Misunderstood?" For a minute George's professional calm slipped. "Miss Moore, did you or did you not go to the Ponderosa Ranch on the day of William Gillis's death?"
"Yes." Mary sounded a little uncertain.
"And what was the purpose of this visit?"
"I - I wanted to see Mr. Cartwright - and maybe Hoss. To tell them that I knew Willie's death had only been an accident. I knew Hoss was feeling bad."
George took a deep breath. "Then please tell us what happened when you got there."
Mary pressed her hands together. "Well…I knocked…there was no answer, so I went in…I didn't see anyone, so I went upstairs, thinking Mr. Cartwright might be with Hoss…"
"Seems a common enough practice hereabouts - to walk in and go right upstairs looking for folks…" Mr. Waltham's murmur was just loud enough to be heard throughout the room. Joe saw his father's head turn abruptly in the attorney's direction.
"You'll get your turn, Mr. Waltham," interjected the Judge. "Pray, continue, Miss Moore."
Mary swallowed. "Well, Mr. Cartwright WAS with Hoss, and I told him what I'd come to say - "
"That you knew Willie's death had been an accident."
"And what did Mr. Cartwright do?"
"He - he said he had to leave to get the sheriff - "
"Why was that?"
"Because - because - I guess he was still nervous - about Red and all - "
"But not because of anything you told him."
"I - I don't think so. I - I might have said something that he - misunderstood…" Mary avoided glancing toward the chairs where the Cartwrights were seated, but her eyes peeped again in Red Twilight's direction.
"Very well. For now. So Mr. Cartwright left to go for the sheriff, for reasons you in no way understand?"
"I didn't say that - " Mary squirmed a little. "He was afraid - I understand that. Hoss almost died."
"All right. So Mr. Cartwright left. And what did you do?"
"I…sat with Hoss…"
"And? What happened then?" Mary was silent, her eyes now fixed on Red Twilight. "Miss Moore?"
Mary took a deep breath. "I heard someone at the door - I got up to see who it was - "
George folded his arms over his chest. "And what did you find?"
"Red - Red Twilight."
"And how did he explain his being there?"
"I - I didn't give him a chance. I told him to go away. I had a gun - "
"You had a gun. Miss Moore, you have me puzzled. On the one hand you say there was nothing to fear from Red Twilight. On the other you tell us you greeted him at the door with a gun."
Mary blotted at her face with the back of her glove. "I - I was frightened. A woman…all alone with an injured man…Willie had just died, Hoss had been bushwacked - I was just frightened. I didn't want to take any chances."
"I see." George's voice grew quiet. "Any chances with anyone, or any chances with Red Twilight?"
Mary gazed at Red, mesmerized. "With…anyone. Chances with anyone."
George followed her gaze, his expression hard. "All right. And then?"
"Then - um - " Mary closed her eyes, shutting out the room. "Red tried - to take the gun away from me. We argued. He grabbed it and - "
"And?" The silence grew. "And?" George repeated. "And then - Miss Moore, didn't you tell Mr. Ben Cartwright that Red Twilight hit you? Hit you so hard, in fact, that he knocked you unconscious?"
Joe glanced quickly at the judge's face, but it was unreadable.
Mary buried her face in her hands. "He - I - don't remember."
Joe started at the sound of his father's hissing intake of breath next to him.
"You don't remember?" George's voice was sharp with skepticism. "Miss Moore, you expect us to believe that you don't remember whether or not a man struck you? Struck you so hard that he knocked you out?"
"I - " Mary did not raise her head. "It - happened so fast - he grabbed the gun - I might have tripped - "
"Mary, what are you saying? I saw the mark on your face myself!" Joe didn't even realize he had jumped to his feet until he felt Ben's firm hand on his sleeve pulling him back down. The judge was rapping on the desk for order.
Mary didn't look at him. "I - I might have gotten that - from the floor. When I fell," she whispered.
George loomed over her, very still. After a moment he said slowly, "And this is your official statement, Miss Moore?"
Mary jerked her head briefly.
The judge spoke this time. "We need to hear your answer, Miss Moore."
There was an endless pause.
"Yes," said Mary at last, her eyes filling with unshed tears. "Yes, that's my answer."
"She lied." The compact surrey jerked and weaved a little as it hit a rut in the road. "Why would she lie, Pa?"
For a minute he thought that he wouldn't get an answer, then Ben finally said, "I don't know, son. Frightened, maybe."
There was something hollow and tired in his voice that made Joe's heart hurt. "Frightened of what?" he persisted. "Red Twilight would be in jail. She knows she don't have to be frightened of us."
"Well, depending on the outcome of the trial, Red Twilight wouldn't necessarily stay in jail. Perhaps she was frightened of that."
"Well, she sure did her best to make sure that would happen." Joe scrunched down in his seat. For someone who had been sitting most of the day he felt as if he had gone twelve rounds with a professional boxer. "Pa?" He suspected his father would prefer to be left alone with his thoughts, but he couldn't seem to stop himself. "Do you think Red Twilight's guilty?"
There was another pause, longer this time. "Yes, son, " he answered at last. "Yes, I do."
Joe nodded. "That Waltham fella - he sure had me doubting it - doubting my own mind."
Ben gave a tired sigh. "Well. That's what good lawyers do. Roy tried to warn me. So did Paul, for that matter."
"I guess so." Joe sounded dubious. He tugged absently at the dangling ends of his tie. "Do you think there'll be a trial?"
Ben sighed again, even more deeply. "I don't know, son."
Joe twisted the string tie around his finger. "If it was anything like today it would be tough to get through." He glanced anxiously at his father. "Don't you think?" Ben didn't comment, so he continued, "Guess I didn't do so well today."
This time Ben tore his eyes from the road to look at him. "That's not so. You did fine."
Joe made a face. "Didn't help us much."
"You told the truth. That's all a man can do."
"Guess so." Joe sank down still further in the seat, trying to find a way to put his roiling emotions into words. "What we gonna tell Hoss and Adam?"
"The truth. That we won't know anything until the judge announces his decision tomorrow."
Joe nodded, pulling off his tie all together and knotting it into a loop. "I don't want Adam to feel bad 'cause he can't remember."
"Well, I don't see any reason to make him feel that way."
Joe snorted. "Doesn't need our help." He fell silent, trying to sift back through the day in his head, link together the little pieces and make some sense of them. Red Twilight had shot Hoss and Shorty and Adam. Or - he hadn't. It had seemed so obvious before - the only conclusion. Now, even though he still believed it, he could see how difficult it was to prove. Not proven. Just likely. He gave a sudden bark of laughter, and Ben looked at him questioningly.
"You all right, son?"
Joe tried to smile. "Huh? Oh. Yeah. Just thinking."
Ben frowned, his eyes concerned. "About?"
"Adam." He could see from his father's expression that that wasn't going to be an adequate explanation and continued, "Just something he was explaining to me. He was right." Ben was still studying him, faintly alarmed, and he shrugged, a little embarrassed. "Theory and theorem. How they ain't the same thing. He's right - ain't the same thing at all."
Ben paused just inside the door to remove his gunbelt. A fire burned brightly in the fireplace, and a few soft lamps made the room warm and cozy, the air heavy with the pungent aroma of chicken stew. It all seemed so ordinary - so - normal. He rolled up his gunbelt and then hung his hat on the hook by the door, turning toward the staircase. His eyes rested for moment on the bloodstain that marked the other side of the door.
Normal. Whatever that was.
He ran a hand tentatively down it. It was blurred and smeared with repeated scrubbings, but still very much in evidence - a constant reminder of what they had been through. As if he needed reminding. Hop Sing had badly wanted to whitewash it away, but, as much as Ben wanted the same, he decided that they should wait until after the trial. If there was one. Sighing heavily, he started for the stairs. Better see how his invalids were getting on.
By the time he reached the top of the stairs he could make out the low murmur of conversation, punctuated by an occasional burst of faint laughter. He heard Adam cough, but it didn't sound as painful as it had. And he was stringing longer phrases together - breathing better - every day. He smiled to himself. It reminded him a little of that time all those years ago when Adam had just been learning to talk - his sentences getting longer all the time - mostly materializing, as he recalled, in the form of questions. There had never seemed to be enough time in the world to answer all of Adam's questions. His smile faded. Probably he would have questions for him now. And he had no idea how he would answer them. He leaned into the wall, feeling tired. He couldn't even answer his own.
He heard Hoss's voice, and suddenly he ached for it all to be over and behind them - whatever the conclusion. His boys were doing better - they were on the mend. Shorty was dead, and, tragic and sorrowful as that was, nothing he could do would change it. Perhaps it was time to let go - move on. He knocked lightly on the door and pushed it inward.
"Well," he began in what he hoped was a jovial voice, "You two sound like you're doing better."
"Hey, Pa." Hoss grinned at him. "Hop Sing give us a clean report?"
"Hop Sing was fixing dinner, and I decided not to disturb him." It was half true, anyway. He walked over to test Adam's temperature, and Adam started automatically to stiffen, but something in Ben's face must have changed his mind, because he submitted quietly instead. Ben left his hand on his cheek a little longer than was necessary, the back of his fingers unconsciously stroking it for a moment.
Adam's brows lowered uneasily. "You okay…Pa?"
"Certainly," he answered absently. "Why wouldn't I be?"
Adam's eyes looked past him to the door. "Where's Joe?"
"Putting up the horse and surrey." Suddenly he wished Joe hadn't bothered - that he was here with them, in this room. He moved to check Hoss's temperature. "How was your day?"
Hoss eyed him shrewdly. "What, with ol' Sleepin' Beauty here? Pa, you wouldn't believe how this feller kin sleep."
"Shut up," Adam croaked, but he was smiling.
"I'm jest tellin' the truth. And you think my snorin' is bad? With that lung congestion he breathes jest like them rusty old bellows we got in the forge." Hoss winked at Ben, who smiled in return. He knew what Hoss was trying to tell him - no nightmares so far today.
"Least…mine will…go away…"
"Now, brother, I wouldn't be too sure about that. Ain't heard the Doc give no guarantees." Adam looked around for something to throw at him but remembered his useless hands and lay fuming instead. "Had ta kinda keep myself entertained with a rousin' game o' Solitaire…"
"Which he…lost…" Adam interjected smugly.
"Well, I hope you got some shut eye yourself." Ben found his hand lingering a little longer on Hoss's head as well.
Adam narrowed his eyes triumphantly at Hoss. "What do you think…woke me up…?"
Hoss frowned. "I think all this talk about my snorin' is exaggerated anyway. Pa, did I really snore when I was three?"
Ben pulled up the rocking chair and eased himself into it. "What on earth brought that up?"
"Adam says I did."
Ben cleared his throat. "Well, Hoss…"
Adam gave a crack of laughter that turned into a cough. "Told…you…!"
Hoss looked affronted. "Pa!"
Ben lifted his hands apologetically. "Maybe just a - little - baby snore…"
Adam fought to catch his breath. "More…like…a thunderstorm…"
Ben hesitated. "Well, son…it might have been just a - LITTLE like a bullfrog. A very cute little bullfrog, I always thought."
Hoss scowled at him, then glared at Adam, who was coughing into his bandaged palm.
Ben got up and reached for the spoon and cough elixir. He noticed that Adam had gotten very adept at using the back of his left hand to support his chest, avoiding the damaged palm all together, and smiled to himself. A very resourceful man, his first-born. He poured a spoonful and offered it. Adam swallowed with a faint sigh.
"Smells like chicken stew for supper. I thought when Joe came back in we could all eat together in here." He didn't miss the quick glance his sons exchanged, though Hoss covered it hastily with a smirk at Adam.
"Hop Sing says mebbe I kin have some t'night. Ol' Adam's still on liquids."
Adam tossed him a sour look.
Ben chuckled sympathetically. "Well, maybe I can negotiate for you. Anything special you'd like, son?"
Adam smiled ruefully. "Anything…without the word…"tea"…in it…"
"I'll see what I can do." He heard the front door open downstairs, heard Joe's quick steps by the door. Everyone accounted for, then. "Joe, " he called down the stairs, breaking his own rule about yelling, "Tell Hop Sing we'll have dinner up here?"
"Sure thing, Pa...”
He looked up in time to catch a brief, wordless exchange between Hoss and Adam, and suddenly his heart contracted strangely. Oh. So that's what this clowning was about . They knew he was upset, and they were trying to distract him. For a moment his heart ached with love and gratitude that they - that all his sons - were still with him.
Hoss and Adam must have seen it, and evidently he was not going to be allowed to brood tonight because Hoss raised his eyebrows at Adam and leaned back in his chair.
"You know, Pa," he said confidingly, "You know what I'd like? I sure would like ta know where that dang checker went."
Ben laughed out loud in spite of himself.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would worry about the outcome - tonight he would just enjoy them and be grateful for what he had. "So would I, son," he said, smiling, as he heard Joe's boots on the stairs. "So would I."
Joe stretched elaborately, giving an exaggerated yawn.
Hoss eyed him closely. "Not sleepin' so good, little brother?"
"Just - needed a stretch…" Joe answered a little defensively, shaking his arms out as he lowered them.
"Well, it's yer move."
Joe gazed contemplatively at the checkerboard, then reached down to scratch his ankle.
Hoss eyes him keenly. "Shur are figgety."
"Well, I sat still for a long time yesterday in that court room," responded Joe with great dignity. He shook out his shoulders briskly and let his eyes dart quickly around the floor.
Hoss's gaze became even more intense. "Lose somethin'?"
"No, No - " Joe looked faintly puzzled, then smiled reassuringly. "Nope - just thought maybe - I'd dropped - " he folded his arms and ran his hands up and down them briskly.
Hoss's eyes narrowed further and he gave Joe a wolfish smile. "Now, I cain't imagine yer cold what with the temperature they're keepin' this here room fer Adam. Less'n yer comin' down with somethin', little brother?"
"I'm fine." Joe met his suspicious gaze with one of wounded indignation.
"Uh-huh." Hoss studied him shrewdly. "Well, what'd ya drop? Mebbe I could help ya find it."
Joe laughed lightly. "Oh, no - couldn't let you do that - it'd pull on your wound, and what would Pa say? I'd get in trouble - I'm supposed to be in charge."
"Weren't thinkin' a movin' more than my eyes."
"Oh, well…" Joe hopped suddenly to his feet. "I just realized how selfish we're being! Playing checkers right here in front of Adam when he can't play! We should be doin' somethin' that entertains him, too!"
Adam opened one eye to regard Joe's suddenly angelic expression with trepidation. "Don't stop…for me…"
"No, Adam, you shoulda said somethin' sooner." Joe dusted off his hands briskly. "Hoss an me have been playin' away just like you're not here - it's time we spent a little time with you. Now, where's my book? We could all read the next chapter of that…" he reached over to the bedside table and picked up the book lying open, spine up, on top of it.
Adam tried to pull himself up a little further into sitting position. "No - really…it's not…"
Hoss looked a bit mollified. "Well. Reckon that'd be all right. Did kinda leave us at a bad spot. That poor little gal."
Joe nodded with great sincerity. "That's right. Time we saw how she was makin' out. Now, Adam, I can never tell whether you're asleep or not while I'm readin', so you just let me know if you need me to go back so you can pick up the story."
Adam stared at him, then swallowed slowly. "…No…thanks…"
"You sure? It's at a pretty important part…"
Adam swallowed a sigh. "…fine…"
"Okay. Let's see. 'Lucinda Littletrees was in the loathsome clutches of the evil Luther LaFontayne ' …want me to pull a drape, Adam? Light botherin' yer eyes?"
Adam dropped his hand from his eyes. "No…" he said resignedly.
"Okay. Just let me know if you need anything." Joe cleared his throat theatrically. "…'Was in the loathsome clutches of the evil Luther LaFontayne. 'You'll never have me, you villain! You evildoer! You rapscallion!' she cried defiantly'…"
Adam sighed heavily. "…now the thesaurus…"
Joe dipped the book. "Hm?"
"Okay. Where was I? 'Perhaps not,' smirked the evil LaFontayne, 'But neither will anyone else - including that cowardly Lawman, Larabee LaRoo!' Lovely Lucinda narrowed her luminous eyes at his evilness. 'He's more man, ' she declared in ringing tones, 'Than you'll ever be! You miscreant! You varlet! You scapegrace!'"
"Dang," murmured Hoss admiringly. "You tell 'em, little lady."
"'Perhaps so," sneered the wicked Luther, 'but after today, he will be a dead man - and you along with him!' Lucinda's luminous eyes grew large with fright. 'What - what do you mean?' she gasped. 'I mean,' simpered Luther, 'that after today, he will no longer be living!'" Joe paused, his brows drawn together. "Adam, you need water or something? Sounded like you choked."
Adam coughed into his palm, shaking his head.
Joe looked dubious. "You sure? Some cough elixir?"
"Just - swallowed wrong…"
"All right…" Joe eyed him for a moment, then returned to the book. "'You mustn't hurt him!' she cried in alarm. 'I care not what you do to me, but do not hurt Larabee! He is a man of decency! Of honor! A man such as there are already too few of on this earth!' Luther laughed evilly. 'And after today…' he paused and twirled his mustache, 'there will be one less.' Laughing still more evilly, he seized her and carried her, struggling, to the railroad tracks…' "
"She fought valiantly, with all her courage, but in vain'…what's that, Adam?"
Joe looked down at the book. "The railroad tracks. He's gonna tie her to the railroad tracks."
Adam coughed. "What…railroad tracks?"
Joe shrugged. "The ones nearby."
Adam rubbed absently at the left side of his chest. "Thought they were in…Arizona?"
"Don't know. Guess they could be."
"Hot and…burning desert? Lucinda Littletrees…part Apache?"
"Oh, yeah." Hoss nodded fondly. "Part Apache Princess."
"With blue eyes," Joe interjected.
"Limpid blue eyes," Hoss agreed. "Adam, what the heck is limpid, anyway?"
Adam blinked at him. "Um - clear. But - "
"Adam," Joe interrupted, "they don't exactly SAY they're in Arizona."
Adam frowned. "Where, then?…with desert…Apaches…and… railroad tracks…?"
Joe stared at the book. "I don't know - "
"No railroads in…Arizona…"
Hoss pulled at his lip. "Maybe California? They got desert an' them Apaches coulda migrated there…must be a railroad somewheres in California?"
"Near…desert? Burning…hot sands…?"
Joe stared at him over the book. "Geesh, Adam - is this really important? I mean, to the story?"
Adam stared back. "Doesn't…make sense!"
"Well, you could just pretend it does, couldn't you? I mean, the important thing is that Lucinda Littletrees is about to be tied to the railroad tracks, and it's a deadly trap for Larabee LaRoo!"
"That's right, Adam, " Hoss nodded vigorously. "That sidewinder Luther LaFontayne is set on hurtin' that little gal. Don't really matter where the railroad tracks are, does it?"
Adam sighed deeply, then leaned back and closed his eyes. "just…hope they don't…expect…a train…" he muttered.
"What was that?"
"Okay. 'She fought valiantly, with all her courage, but in vain' - "
Joe looked up at the sound of his father's voice.
"Time we were going."
"Dang!" grumbled Hoss. "Ain't never gonna find out what happens ta that poor little gal!"
"…Guess…" mumbled Adam.
Ben smiled. "I'm sure Joe will finish the book later. Roy said the Judge was bound to have a decision by now, and I have a few things to do in town. These two look like they could use a nap anyway."
"…been minutes…since the last one…"
Ben chuckled. "Someone is sounding more like himself. Joe, would you give Hoss a hand back to his own room? Paul is coming later today, and I don't want him to think we've been flouting any more of his orders."
"Sure thing, Pa." Joe put the book back on the night table and slid a now-practiced shoulder under Hoss's arm.
"Might leave the book with me." Hoss suggested.
"Uh-uh." Joe shook his head. "You ain't readin' ahead of Adam an' me. We'll all find out the ending together." He slipped his arm around Hoss's waist and helped him to the door. "Say, you're gettin' kinda speedy there, big brother…"
Ben watched them go, then turned and raised a questioning brow at Adam.
Adam indicated his hands. "Can't even…cover my ears…" he said mournfully.
Ben laughed. "I'm sure Joe would be happy to read you something else, if you'd only ask him."
Adam smiled faintly. "I know…"
"So why don't you ask?"
Adam shrugged a little. "He likes…it. Hoss, too…"
"I'm sure you could find something else they'd like as well…" Ben reached down to pull up the quilt. "I'll bring you word from town - get some sleep. I know you had a bad night." He saw Adam's eyes darken and paused with his hands on the blankets.
"You have to let it go, son," he said quietly. "So do I." He dropped the blankets and perched on the edge of the bed. "We've all done everything we can do, and now we have to let go and move on. And you have to start sleeping again - not just during the day - at night, too."
Adam smiled his half smile. "…sounds…so easy. Like a stone in my…boot…Or a loose tooth you…can't leave alone…"
"When you have a tooth like that the only answer is to pull it out. I know it's not easy - for me, either. But I don't know what else we can do. Participate in a trial, of course, if there is one…but…Adam - Paul did say you may never remember. I'm sorry, but you may have to start getting used to the idea." Adam looked at him for a long time, then he closed his eyes and nodded slightly. Ben patted his knee under the blanket. "Good boy." He moved his hand to push himself off of the bed, and a peculiar expression crossed his face. "What on earth…?" he peeled back the covers, sat staring for a moment before lifting it into his hand. "What," he asked evenly, "Is this?"
Adam shifted his eyes to the object in his father's hand, but Ben did not miss the subdued twinkle there. "Checker?" he suggested innocently.
"Yes, I can see that. And what on earth are you doing with it?"
One corner of Adam's mouth lifted. "…fell out of Joe's…sleeve…"
Ben crossed his arms and tried to look stern. "And did you tell Joe?"
Adam shook his head.
Adam shook his head again.
Ben scowled. "After the way they've been driving us crazy about this checker? Why on earth not?"
"Pa…"Adam stretched carefully. "I…can't see…well enough to…read…can't use my hands…can't really…carry on a…conversation…man has to find his…amusement…somewhere."
"And you find this amusing."
"I see." Ben did his best to look disapproving. "Well, I intend to return it to them." He turned it over in his palm a few times, then slowly slid it into his vest pocket. "…eventually."
Adam's dimples deepened. "…was going to try…to plant it on…Hoss," he said hopefully. "Faces should be…priceless…"
Ben gave a snort of laughter. "I suppose I should surrender the idea of you three ever growing up. So - before I go - " he strolled over to Adam's bookcase and pulled out a volume. "Like a little of the Bard to take the taste of Larabee LaRoo out of your mouth?"
Adam sighed happily. "…please…"
Ben opened the volume at random and began to read, one eye cocked on Adam, whose lids began to flutter even more quickly than he'd hoped. He continued carefully into his third sonnet, reciting mostly from memory now and rising slowly from his chair to take a closer look and be sure he was truly asleep.
"…love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but holds on, even to the edge…" He paused, but Adam didn't stir. "…Adam?" he called softly. No movement. Ben smiled to himself, reaching down to pull the covers higher, watching his son's face as he never dared do when he was awake. The black eye was looking a little better - reaching the green and yellow stage - with the bandage now removed from the gash on his cheek it looked gruesome with its dark and crusting scab.
But for right now at least his face was quiet, untroubled by confusing dreams. He gave the covers a pat. He'd better go check on Hoss and collect Joe. Then he hesitated. Oh, well - no one would ever know…stealthily, he bent over and dropped a light kiss on the bandaged forehead, where Adam wasn't likely to feel it.
"Good night, sweet prince," he said under his breath, and tip toed for the door.
Ben had a list of chores in his pocket when they tied their horses in front of the Sheriff's office, but if he was honest with himself, his mind was far from them. Until this business was behind them one way or another, he suspected that he would have very little luck focusing on anything else. As they dismounted, he saw Joe's eyes stray involuntarily to the Silver Dollar across the street and smiled to himself.
"Why don't you have a beer while I talk to Roy?" he suggested.
Joe hesitated guiltily. "I want to know what the Judge has to say, too."
"I know you do, but you've been cooped up for days now. Go have a beer and some friendly conversation, and I'll be along shortly to join you and tell you whatever it is Roy has to say."
Joe gave the saloon a wistful glance. "Well - if you're sure…"
"Get us a table. I'll be right along."
Joe smiled. "Thanks, Pa. Say hi to Roy for me?"
Ben nodded, waving him toward the saloon, analyzing his own sense of relief at being able to see Roy by himself as he stepped onto the boardwalk. What was he worried about, exactly? That despite his sensible words to Adam, he was in no way ready to let go of things? He paused with his hand on the door latch, getting his feelings in check. Well, no matter how he felt, he was going to have to find a way to deal with whatever the Judge's verdict was. And Joseph was right - the thought of a trial was almost as troubling as the thought of Red Twilight going free…a possibility he had better be ready to face head on, because there was every chance that he might. The idea pinched at his heart, and he waited a moment longer, steeling himself. Then he finally pushed the door inward.
Whatever it was he had been prepared for, this was not it. He stared at Roy and his visitor, both suddenly silent at his entrance, and tried to keep the ice out of his voice. "Hello, Roy." That wasn't too bad. "Miss Mary." That was rather chilly.
Both looked uncomfortable.
"Ben," nodded Roy.
"Mr. Cartwright," mumbled Mary.
Roy climbed to his feet with an effort. "Coffee, Ben?"
Roy found an old tin cup and filled it from the battered pot on the stove. "Things finally settling down out at your place?"
Ben accepted the cup and couldn't keep his eyes from straying to Mary. She reddened and dropped her head. "Well, I was hoping that you'd have some information on that for me. Did Judge Coleridge come to a decision?"
Roy looked uncomfortable, took a long time finding and pouring a cup of coffee for himself. Finally, he seated himself on the edge of the desk and scratched his neck. "Ben," he put down the coffee he held as if he wondered how it had gotten in his hand. "I don't know how to tell you this, so I'm just gonna tell you." Ben waited - not interrupting, but not helping either. "Ain't enough evidence to hold Red Twilight for trial." Roy's voice was quiet and measured.
Ben stared at him without seeing. After a minute, he switched his gaze to Mary. "I see."
Roy winced. "Now, I was just goin' over Miss Mary's testimony with her, tryin' to see if - "
"You could persuade her to tell the truth?" Ben interjected cordially.
Roy flushed. "Now, Ben - "
But Ben kept his gaze focused on Mary. "What, Roy? I know what Mary told me, and I know what she said on the stand. They are very different stories. So I have to surmise that at least one of them was a lie."
Roy cleared his throat. "Now - now, Ben - maybe lie is - well, too strong a word - "
Ben turned to look at him. "And what word would you use, Roy?"
Roy stopped, his ears reddening.
"He's right." Mary's voice was soft. "I - I didn't tell the truth. I - I couldn't. I thought I could, but I couldn't."
Roy looked at her. "Is this an official statement, Mary?"
"No." Mary smoothed her skirt. "No, but - he - has a right to know why I - "
"Why did you?" Ben barely recognized his own voice. When he had ridden into town he had been certain that he was ready for the Judge's verdict - suspected it, even, in light of yesterday's events - but now he knew he wasn't ready - would never be ready, maybe. The news had crushed something inside of him that he had barely been aware of.
Mary studied her hands for another moment, then determinedly lifted her head. "I - I couldn't do it. I - came to see Red - the night before…" she bit her lip. "I'm - his only relative - sort of - I mean, I would have been if Willie and me had…but anyway. I - knew he could hang, and I didn't think he ought to die without somebody - seeming - to care - just a little. To say good bye, anyway. Willie would have wanted that, I think. He loved his brother." She looked for something in Ben's face and seemed to find it, because she relaxed just a little. "We - talked for a long time. He - said he'd had a lot of time to think in jail - about what he'd done. It was just like his lawyer said - he'd been crazy with grief - Willie was his only brother - he'd lost his head - but he realized now how wrong he'd been, and he was sorry."
Ben felt his teeth grate against each other. "A man is dead, Mary," he said tartly. "And it's only by the grace of God and a little good luck that two of my sons are not in the ground as well. No matter how sorry he is - sometimes sorry just isn't enough."
"I know - I know that - but - " Mary twisted her hands in her lap. "But I - couldn't do it. It just couldn't be me that sent Red to his death - that killed him, in a way. Oh, I know what he did was wrong - Willie would have hated it - but he loved Red - and I couldn't be the reason his life ended. I just couldn't. I had to help him - for Willie's sake, I had to. Even in spite of himself, I had to try to save him. I couldn't do much for Willie, but I could do that - the last thing I could offer him. Do you understand at all?"
Ben rubbed at a throbbing spot between his brows. "Mary - I know that your intentions were - well - kind enough - but it just isn't that simple. A man like Twilight - who kills so casually - who's to say that he won't do it again? Even if he's very sorry for it afterward, that will be cold comfort to the grieving loved ones."
"He won't, Mr. Cartwright - I know it. It was just Willie - losing him - that made him so crazy. Now he just wants to go far away and back to scouting - put all this behind him. I told him - I told him that was the only way I'd help him - if he promised to go far, far away and never come back - never hurt anybody again."
Ben tried to swallow his rising bile. "You'll forgive me, Mary, I'm sure - " he ground out with barely suppressed rage, "If I have trouble picturing Mr. Twilight as a man of his word!"
"But don't you see, Mr. Cartwright?" Mary leaned forward eagerly. "He doesn't have any choice! He has to go as far as he can and never come back - I warned him - I warned him what would happen if he didn't."
Ben dropped his hand from his forehead and sighed wearily. "And what exactly is it that would happen?"
Mary stared at him as if he were particularly dense. "Why, Adam, of course. I told him about Adam."
Ben looked at her blankly, but felt a peculiar itching creep along his spine. "About - ? What about - Adam?"
Mary sat up straight. "I told him - about how there were maybe no eyewitnesses now, but that Adam's memory was coming back, a little more each day. And that if he didn't get away now - as far and as fast as he could - well, it was only a matter of time before Adam remembered everything, and then there'd be a real trial and a real eyewitness to fight. And with an eyewitness, he'd hang sure. I told him - it was just a matter of time. He thanked me and told me he understood. He said he'd do what he had to do."
"You told him…" Ben felt the blood drain from along his hairline, down into the heels of his boots. "He said…"
He had stood, he thought - he must have, because he heard a scraping noise as his chair shot backward, but he couldn't actually feel his legs under him. He grabbed blindly for his hat. Part of his mind recognized that he had knocked over his tin coffee cup and that coffee was dribbling onto the floor, but he stepped over the growing puddle, ignoring the ping of the cup as it ricocheted off his boot. He turned to Roy; saw him staring at Mary with the same expression he could feel on his own face.
Mary glanced from one to the other in growing alarm. "What? What's the matter? Don't you see what I - "
Ben didn't let her finish. He strode past her to the door - pausing as his hand closed around the latch. "Roy - " he choked on his haste and tried again, "do me one favor? Don't release Twilight until I have a chance to get back to the ranch."
Now he saw that Roy was standing, too, checking his side iron, moving to the rifle rack and pulling down a gun. "He's already gone, Ben," he answered flatly. "Not long - maybe a half hour ago - "
"He's what?" It came out as a roar.
"I had to, Ben! The Judge said let him go - nothing solid to hold him on!"
Ben's eyes burned into him, then he yanked the door inward so hard that it groaned on its hinges.
"Ben!" Roy's voice followed him. "Wait up! I'll go with ya!"
Ben barely heard. He had his foot in Buck's stirrup and was sinking into the saddle as Joe came out of the Silver Dollar.
"Pa?" Joe sounded bewildered. "Where ya goin'? I thought - ?"
Ben couldn't find the voice to answer. He hauled Buck's head around and dug his heels into his sides. The old buckskin shot forward.
Joe looked wildly from him to Roy. "Roy? What the heck - ?"
Roy crossed the boardwalk to him and pointed him at his horse. "Go after him, Joe," he hissed urgently. "He's on his way to the ranch. Clem'n me'll saddle up and be right behind you."
Joe started to ask a question, but it died on his lips at the sight of Roy's grim face. Without another word he yanked Cochise's reins free and swung into the saddle, galloping close on the heels of the retreating Buck.
His dreams, he decided, fell into two categories. Or maybe one category: "Strange" with two subsets: "pleasant" and "unpleasant". The current one was the pleasant one: the one filled with the low, warm singing that reminded him of something so far back in his memory that he couldn't quite get his hand around it to identify it. Despite the soothing, inexplicable sense of comfort it inevitably evoked, it annoyed him; too - he was not a man who liked questions with no answers. But still, it was better than the heart-thumping, pulse-racing vortex of terror that always accompanied the other dream, so for now he was content to relax into it.
He had a lot of trouble distinguishing his dreams from reality these days. He was reluctant to share that with anyone since the anxious, questioning glances they always seemed to exchange in his presence were already about as much as he could take - but the fact was that the line was very blurred. In fact, up until the relentless pounding behind his eyes had begun to abate a little over the last day or so he would have bet his money on the dreams as being reality - his vision was so much clearer in them, and he felt so much more like the self he was accustomed to. But now he was starting to be able to connect a dozen or more niggling pains, ranging from irritating to acute, with wakefulness and real time. It was, in its own way, something of a comfort - a touchstone.
The singing continued more softly, not quite masking some other small noises that he couldn't trouble himself to distinguish. He shifted a little, trying to find a more comfortable position to sink deeper into the hush of oblivion. There was the scrape of a boot on the floor nearby, and his mind automatically latched onto that - he sighed at the habits of a lifetime - trying to identify it. Not his father's - not firm enough. Not Hop Sing's soft scuff of slippers. Not Joe's quick step, and certainly not Hoss's currently labored tread. Then who…?
Lazily, he opened his eyes.
He could only assume it was a new version of the same old dream - the same assailant, but in his bedroom this time, not on the stairs; same gun drawn, same voice saying…what?
"Well, maybe it's better this way after all…"
Yes, that's what he always said.
"Take care of you, then finish off your brother. You Cartwright boys sure are hard to kill."
Adam squinted at him, trying to bring him into focus. Now, that was a new one. Was he remembering more, or…?
He became aware, uneasily, of the consistent, gnawing pain in his right arm. Funny. That was always absent from his dreams. He let his eyes travel upward - past the familiar gun - no hammer back this time - the familiar neckerchief - to the blur that always blotted out the face. Except that this time…it didn't. He blinked slowly.
His first thought was that it was like throwing open the shutters after a storm - everything suddenly so clear and vivid that you couldn't quite grasp that it had ever been otherwise - because now he remembered everything - in meticulous, agonizing detail…Hoss's shooting, Joe's vendetta, finding Shorty dead, the confrontation in the front room…Red Twilight.
That was his first thought.
His second was that his timing really could have been a little better.
"Might've been better if you'd just stayed asleep."
Adam didn't answer. He stared at him, remembering. Remembering not only that day in the front room, but every successive reliving of it since…of standing and waiting to be shot, knowing he couldn't stop it - knowing there was no way to warn Hoss that he was next. Knowing it over and over and over again. It would almost be funny, if it didn't make him so angry. Because now he was in exactly the same position - worse - no gun. Not that he would have been able to hold it. Or aim.
"Hear tell as how yer havin' some trouble remembering me."
Adam took a careful breath. "…I remember."
"Yeah, Mary said as how you would, by and by."
Something must have shown on his face, because Twilight laughed. "Yeah, she sold you down the river without a second thought. Dumb. Just like Willie was. Bet they was a pair. Weren't fer her…" he thumbed the hammer back. "I'd probably be gettin' ready ta swing right now." He lifted the gun. "'Stead of cleanin' up loose ends."
Twilight grinned. "You in a hurry?" he chuckled. "Just waitin' fer that Chinaman o' yers ta get some distance from the house - had a little distraction set up fer him - should keep him busy fer a while. But wanna make sure he don't hear nothin' ta bring him back, premature."
Adam felt a rush of relief that almost made him dizzy. Then Hop Sing was still alive. "Thought you'd just…shoot him down…like Shorty."
"Yeah, well…" Twilight shrugged. "Would've. But shootin' that dumb cowhand caused me no end of trouble last time. Warned Mary - warned you…I'm a man that learns from his mistakes." Adam gave a faint gust of laughter, and Twilight narrowed his eyes. "You find somethin' funny?"
"Seems more like…you keep making the same…one…"
Twilight's hand tightened on the gun. "Friend, only mistake I made last time was not aimin' careful enough."
Adam stared at the gun muzzle, something cold and hard rising up inside him. He felt like he'd been staring at that same sight every day, half a dozen times a day, ever since the shooting - staring and waiting - helpless to stop it.
Well, not this time. He had had enough - enough of feeling helpless. In some ways he was in a worse position than ever, but in others it was better. Hoss was no longer separated from him by the length of the great room and a flight of stairs; he was just one wall away. At the very least, he could warn Hoss - even if he got his brains blown out for his trouble. If he could wake him up somehow, Hoss might at least have a chance to protect himself.
He cocked one ear, caught the echo of Hoss's snoring through the wall. This nightmare was going to have a different ending this time, even if it killed him. Which, if he was realistic about it, it probably would.
He met Twilight's eyes coolly. "Probably want to…come closer, then…had all the time in the world…to aim…last time…"
Twilight's face darkened. Adam smiled. That's right - get angry. Maybe come within reach of my legs, since they're one of the few things I've got left that's working…come on…it's not going to be so easy this time…
Twilight moved a little closer, shifting the gun, keeping his distance from the side of the bed.
Damn. Not as dumb as you look. What I need here is a distraction of my own - some kind of noise that will alert Hoss - let him know that he needs to take cover…
The gun lifted a little higher, hovering somewhere around the middle of Adam's forehead. "Too bad you had ta miss the hearing. Shoulda seen yer Daddy's face when Mary lied fer me - "
Adam set his teeth and swallowed the hot ball of rage that rose in his chest, his eyes never leaving Twilight's. It won't work, you son of a bitch. I'm not going to let you torture me any more than you already have. His brain was racing, trying to think of what he had that would make some noise - enough to waken Hoss. God, if only he had even one good hand…
"Yup, thought he was gonna make a lunge fer me…he was fit ta be tied…"
Adam could see that, despite the casual tone of his conversation, Twilight was calculating something, waiting for the exact moment he thought Hop Sing would be clear and it would be safe to fire. His time was running out - he had to do something soon. He didn't dare lose Twilight's eyes, even for a second, but part of his mind was thumbing rapidly through his options.
He was too far away from the left side of the bed, which had the table with the glass - probably Twilight would be watching that hand for any activity anyway - the arm in the sling would be a safer bet - what was on the right side? He scrambled to recall the table in his mind and picture it clearly…Joe's copy of Larabee LaRoo, face down on top, a teacup and one of Hop Sing's small teapots, his mother's music box…he winced inwardly. Losing that would hurt, but in the balance against Hoss's life, there was no contest. If he could make his arm move, nudge something just enough, he might get lucky and start a chain reaction…
Something small changed in Twilight's eyes, and he steeled himself, keeping his face blank. Now or never…
"Been real interestin' makin' yer family's acquaintance. Bet they give you boys a real nice send off."
Adam saw his finger shift on the trigger and, gathering what strength he could, forced his elbow to move, felt it slam awkwardly into the table's edge.
It was as if lightning had struck his forearm, cutting it in half, and he bent over it with a gasp that started him coughing, but even through the waves of pain he felt a quick rush of gratification. His aim had been clumsy and uncertain, sending the whole table over with a crash - the teacup shattering, the teapot and its contents flying, the music box giving a short burst of jumbled sound before landing with a thud. Twilight leapt backward with a howl of surprise and rage, the gun firing uselessly into the floor as tea splashed over him, the tumbling table barely missing his boot toes.
Score one for the Cartwrights.
Adam clutched at his throbbing arm, hoping with all his heart that the tea had still been hot, listening for some sign from Hoss's room. Surely that had wakened him - surely…the snoring had stopped…had he just rolled over? Come on, Hoss - get up. Get up!
"God DAMN you!"
Adam was half-blinded by the fire in his arm and his focus on Hoss's room and didn't even see it coming - not that he would have been able to do anything about it. The butt of the gun clipped him across the temple - a glancing blow, cushioned partly by the bandages, but close enough to his bullet wound to make the room disappear for a minute in a sickening wash of grey. He slid sideways down the pillows, his hands twitching helplessly in the effort to curl into fists, trying not to vomit, trying to keep hold of some awareness, to hear...no snoring...was that the creak of bedsprings? Despite the fact that he couldn't even open his eyes, his mouth twisted into a smile. Good job, that yelling. Hoss would notice a strange voice, the gunshot - would know something was wrong. Come on, Hoss - get up - get clear - arm yourself…
He felt a rough hand grab the front of his nightshirt, yank him back into sitting position, felt the hard edge of the gun muzzle press deep into the thundering ache at his temple. He could hear Twilight's ragged breathing, feel the waves of anger pouring off of him, but try as he would, he couldn't pry his eyes apart. The room reeled under him.
"Told you that I learn from my mistakes." The voice was tight and sibilant, as if forced from between clenched teeth. "And this time I'll just make sure that I can't miss."
Adam heard the hammer snick back. His heart was roaring in his ears. This was it, then. But at least this time, Hoss had a chance.
He tried not to think about one of his family finding him this way…God, that would be awful for them…but he'd done the best he could, everything he could think of…sorry…sorry, I just couldn't…he thought he caught a sudden tinkling of melody for a moment, just at the edge of his hearing, and wondered if, once again, he was wandering that line between his dreams and reality or if maybe he was already dead and just didn't know the difference…how would he know, anyway? Would someone come for him, or…?
Then, with a sound like a cannonade, he heard the gun discharge.
Ben pulled Buck up short as he approached the ranch. The faithful mount was sweating and trembling beneath him - he couldn't remember when he had ever run him so hard for so long - abused him, really - Sorry, old friend, he thought, leaning over slightly to pat the heaving neck, I'll make it up to you.
Joseph, a smaller, lighter rider, had caught up with him a little outside of town and had kept pace with him the entire way, blessedly silent. Ben knew he must have a dozen questions, but he hadn't asked even one - had just kept quietly abreast. Just as well, he doubted if he would have had the breath to answer them. He smiled grimly. For that matter, Joseph may not have had the breath to ask them. They moved into the yard, the horses at a cooling walk.
He heard Joe give a soft gasp and pulled up beside him. "Pa - " he fell silent.
Ben followed his gaze and his vision darkened. That arrogant bastard.
There, just as before, stood Red Twilight's horse, tied in plain sight at the front hitching rail. Ben felt all the air squeeze from his lungs as he carefully dismounted. He wasn't sure whether to take it as a good sign or bad that the horse was still here - he only knew that if he got within reach of that bastard he was going to tear him apart with his bare hands.
He moved quickly and silently toward the front door, glancing briefly above at the windows for a sign of - something - and gesturing for Joe to follow. Raising the latch silently they entered the great room. Ben shot his eyes around the room. No sign of Hop Sing…again, that could be good news, or…he saw Joe glance anxiously at the landing and move to the staircase, taking the steps two at a time. Ben stuck close behind him. His gun had somehow made its way from his holster to his hand, and the familiar weight felt comforting in his palm. They had just reached the landing when the air was rent by the splintering clatter of falling weight and shattering crockery, followed by the sharp report of a gunshot.
Ben's mouth went dry, and both he and Joe froze for a second. Then Joe shot forward, almost leaping the remaining steps. Ben was hardly aware that he was moving as well. He saw Joe reach the top of the stairs and managed to hiss, "Joe! Hoss!"
Joe seemed to understand. He moved straight for Hoss's door, one door further down the hall than Adam's, and rested his hand on the knob. Despite the fact he was obviously barely holding himself back, he waited for his father to reach the closer door and then for his signal. Ben nodded to him. The doors flew inward simultaneously, just as another gunshot sounded. Ben felt a weight crushing his chest, his peripheral vision a black tunnel. The scene before him barely registered on his retinas - someone with a gun, standing by his son's bed…the gun was smoking, the echo of the shot still sounding in his ears…almost without his volition, he felt his arm lift and heard the answering blast as his gun fired.
"Pa! Pa! Pa!"
Ben blinked. He was distantly aware of a voice - a familiar voice - and some kind of a weight on his right hand.
He blinked again, sensation tingling now through the numbness that had somehow filled his body. He turned his head, saw Hoss's pale face floating in front of him.
"Pa!" It was Hoss speaking to him, then. "Pa, your gun's empty." Ben looked down at his gun hand, saw Hoss's large fist wrapped firmly around it, his voice calm and steady. "Why dontcha just give it ta me."
Ben blinked again, sensation beginning to return to him. "Don't be ridiculous," was that really his voice? "I had five bullets in it."
"Yeah. I know, Pa." Hoss eased the gun out of his hand. His face looked strange - in fact, something about Hoss standing there was strange, but for the moment he couldn't remember what. He let go of the gun, his eyes brushing to his left, saw Joseph standing on his other side, his face an odd shade of green. He looked like he should sit down, and Ben was about to comment on it when he saw something else in front of him. His heart jumped in his chest. "Adam - "
Adam tore his eyes away from Ben, looked down to see the blood splattering him, his covers, his walls. "…not mine, Pa…" he said quickly.
Ben released his breath in a gasp. "Thank God." No one else said anything; they all just kept staring at him as if they had never seen him before. They looked so comical - like startled children - that he was tempted to laugh - but somehow he knew that would just alarm them further. His brain seemed to thaw a little, and he frowned suddenly at Hoss. "What are you doing out of bed?"
Hoss looked at him strangely.
Downstairs they heard the sound of the front door opening and the pounding of feet. "Ben? Joe?"
"Up here, Roy." That's right. Roy was here too …it all came back to him in a rush. "Where is he?" he asked sharply.
They blinked at him, like a trio of owls.
"Did I get him?" his voice rose impatiently. Joe giggled, cut it off abruptly. The giggle had a hysterical edge to it. Ben looked from one to the other in growing exasperation. He heard the sound of Roy and Clem arriving at the top of the stairs. "Would someone at least check and make sure that he's dead?"
Adam opened his mouth to say something, then seemed to think better of it and eased carefully forward, testing his vertigo, studying the floor on the other side of the bed. "Trust me…" he said slowly, "…He's dead."
"Someone should check." Adam opened his mouth again, closed it, his expression unsettling. Ben noticed that he was hugging his broken arm against his chest. "Is your arm bothering you?"
"I - " Adam looked back at the floor, searching for something.
Roy gazed over Ben's shoulder, saw the blood splashing the room and let out a low whistle. "Damn, " he said softly. "What happened here?"
Hoss cleared his throat. "Pa shot Red Twilight."
Roy pushed past them and into the room. "Clem, go take a look around, just to be safe…" he squatted down on the other side of the bed. "Damn, " he said again. "How many times?"
Hoss cleared his throat again. "Uh…five."
Ben twisted his head to look at him, his eyebrows lifted in surprise.
"You did, Pa…" Joe's voice sounded shaky. "You just kept shooting and shooting and shooting…"
Ben rubbed at his forehead. Had he? He couldn't remember clearly. All he could remember was a rush of cold rage and something like a red mist clouding his vision…"You should sit down, Joseph," he said automatically. "Before you fall down. You, too, Hoss." He moved into the room, but saw out of the corner of his eye that Joe sat abruptly on the floor by the door, and Hoss moved unsteadily to the nearest chair. He peered over the bed, felt his stomach twist within him. Had he done that?
The sight of the blood all over Adam's bed was making him ill, and he yanked off the quilt, tossing it to Roy to cover the body. "Here…"
Roy caught it deftly without looking up, rubbed his other hand at the back of his neck. "Somebody wanna tell me what happened?"
"Self…defense…" Adam sank back into his pillows, but his eyes never left the floor. "Pa stopped him…from shooting me…and then Hoss…"
Ben sat down on Adam's bed, suddenly feeling a little weak in the knees himself. "I heard gunshots as I came up the stairs…I thought…"
Adam sighed, and his eyes closed for a second. "First shot went off when I…knocked over…the table. The second…" His eyes opened again, studying the floor quizzically.
Roy carefully draped the body. "Don't matter, I guess. We know he wasn't comin' here fer a social call. Even if you can't remember the other time, don't reckon you'll ever ferget this one."
Adam coughed and rubbed moodily at his chest. "Did remember..." he eased in a breath. "…for what it's worth."
Ben gave him a quick glance, then reached over and rested a hand on the knee beneath the blankets. He needed to get him cleaned up…that blood all over him was so disturbing…besides, despite what he said, he didn't look well…grey-faced, almost…needed to make sure that none of it really was his…they were all too dizzy with adrenaline right now to know anything for sure…
"Well," Roy unfolded his legs, stepping carefully around the gore. "Don't spose there's much left to do but clean up. Clem'n me'll get the body back to town."
"Thank you." Ben thought his own voice sounded hollow.
Adam looked back at the floor. He couldn't seem to stop looking. His eyes halted on something. "Bad news…for Joe…"
Joe sat up from where he had been leaning with his head against the wall. "For me?" he sounded a little steadier. "What could be bad news for me?"
Adam gave a ghost of a smile, then dropped back as if all his energy had leeched away. "Looks like…Larabee LaRoo…died a hero's death. …Caught a ricochet."
Joe gave a short laugh and buried his head in his arms.
Hoss groaned. "Goll dang, " he muttered tiredly. "I ain't never gonna find out what happens ta that little gal."
Hop Sing hadn't actually spoken much English since he had burst into the room a short time after the shooting, rifle in hand and eyes wild. He had come to a dead stop in the doorway, seeming not to know where to look first.
He had been lured away from the house by the escape of his beloved pigs, but when he had tracked down two of them only to find them enjoying oddly neat stacks of corn, he had realized that he had been set up and had rushed back, snatching a rifle from the great room and hurrying up the stairs. What he saw there left him muttering softly in Cantonese as he looked from the bloody mess, to Hoss, to Adam, as if he didn't know where to start.
Ben had given him a quick nod as he watched Roy and Clem wrap Twilight in the bloody quilt and cart him out of the room between them. "Hop Sing. Thank heavens. Could you give me a hand? I'd like to move Adam to one of the guest rooms so we can clean up in here." He had slipped an arm carefully around Adam's shoulders, trying to avoid jouncing his broken arm, and shifted him forward to help him stand up.
Adam's face had drained slowly of any remaining color, freezing suddenly into a still, set mask. Ben had been about to ask him if he was all right, but Hop Sing seemed to catch on faster and had the wash basin there more quickly than he would have thought possible - and just soon enough. When Adam was finished Hop Sing helped him to lie down again, shooing Ben impatiently out of the way. He seemed to have come back to life.
"No move!" he snapped decidedly. "Leave still - I clean around! One start hot water - " he caught Hoss's eye and glared. "Not you! I check you next!
I leave you, maybe, fifteen minute! You not stay out of trouble for fifteen minute?"
They all exchanged guilty glances, as though they had been caught breaking a knickknack while roughhousing instead of stopping a killer.
"I'll start the water," Joe volunteered, ducking hastily from the room.
Dr. Martin had arrived a short time later on his promised visit and gave a low whistle when he saw the state of the room. "Another …emergency, I presume?"
"Doc, if'n you coulda heard the gunfire around here, you'd a knowed it was."
"You folks certainly do put a fresh twist on convalescence. " He took in Adam's complexion and then shook out of his jacket and began rolling up his shirtsleeves. "More damage, I suppose?"
"I'm not sure, Paul - he threw up a little while ago, and his arm seems to be bothering him."
Adam tried to shift away from Ben's hand. "…'Mfine…"
"Yes, I can see that." Seeing the side table was missing, the doctor dropped his bag on a chair near the bed. "How about you, Hoss? You were doing calisthenics, I suppose?"
"Aw, now, Doc…" Hoss tried to twist away from Hop Sing's insistent exploration of his back. "I was just grabbin' a gun and coming ta see what all the shootin' was about."
"That's right," Joe piped up, emptying a second bucket of hot water into Hop Sing's small washtub. "Nearly blew my head off."
"Well, whattaya expect - kickin' in the door like that after I heard gunshots in here? Ya shoulda let me know it was you."
"Oh, sure - " Joe crossed his arms over his chest. "Next time I think a killer has the bead on you, I'll knock, right?"
"Well, I think ya might've called out er somethin'!"
"What, like, 'Yoo hoo, Hoss, I'm home'? Then the killer could shoot us both!"
"…were supposed to be…taking cover…"
Both turned to look over to where Dr. Martin was carefully untying Adam's splints.
"…trying to warn…you. To…take cover…"
Hoss stared at him, then rolled his eyes. "Oh, yeah, well - that there was the first thing I thought of too when I heard shots in here and knew you couldn't be makin' 'em - lookin' fer a nice chair ta hide myself behind." His voice dripped with sarcasm.
Adam closed his eyes hastily as Dr. Martin prodded his arm. "…just can't…help some people…"
Hoss snorted. "Jest what I was thinkin' myself," he retorted.
"That's enough, you three," interrupted Ben, without heat. "What do you think, Paul?"
"Nice and swollen," answered Paul wryly. "What on earth did you do? Bludgeon somebody with it?"
"It was a really little table," Joe suggested helpfully.
Paul sighed. "I suppose the other arm was out of the question? Never mind - I know - an emergency. Well, the bone still seems to be in place, so that's the main thing. I'll check again when the swelling's gone down to be sure, but I'm going to have to immobilize it for a while. Remember, please, that this is your gun arm, and it's going to take enough effort to get it back in full working order without any more set backs. What on earth is this all over your sling?"
Adam opened his eyes and looked, trying not to wince as the doctor began to rewrap his arm. "Um…blood…"
"Not his," chimed Joe and Hoss hastily.
"Then what - ? Oh…" Paul looked at the blood splashed wall and floor again and shook his head. "I see. I certainly hope somebody intends to fill me in on this."
"We tried to move him," Ben began apologetically, "But that's when he got sick. Hop Sing managed to change the sheets, and I changed his nightshirt and cleaned him up some, but we didn't want to try again until you got here. The room still has a ways to go, but Hop Sing thought it would be easier to clean around him."
"Hm." Paul positioned the arm carefully on a pillow and peered suspiciously at Adam's eyes. He fingered the blood spotted head bandage, then reached for his sharp little scissors and began to clip. He tugged gently and Adam jerked slightly, then bit his lip, hard. Ben reached down to rest a hand on his shoulder. Paul put the stained bandages aside and ran a thumb lightly over the purple lump, the size and color of a ripe plum, which had blossomed over Adam's right eyebrow. "Had to take another hit there, didn't you?"
"Exactly…what I thought at…the time…"
"It's a wonder your eyes aren't crossed. We have any cool water in here? Thanks, Joe…" he took the proffered pitcher from Joe and dipped a cloth in it. "Now, Adam, if you can hold this there for a bit…oh, wait - you can't…Ben?"
Ben took the damp cloth, leaning closer to study the bump. "He hit you?" His voice sounded tight to his own ears.
"Yeah…gun butt…mad after…the table…"
Ben was silent, noticing a small bruise of fuchsia-red forming a perfect ring below the bump. He had no trouble imagining what had caused that. "Should have shot him again," he muttered.
"Think you would have if you could have, Pa," said Hoss quietly. "Kept firing on that empty chamber fer quite a spell."
Paul raised his brows and eyed his friend thoughtfully at that, but only said, "How's Hoss look back there, Hop Sing? Ben, you keep that cloth there while I check on Hoss, then I'll redress the head wound. Well, Hoss, this doesn't look half-bad, for a wonder. You may actually heal at last. Lucky for you that you have the constitution of an ox. I'll finish here, Hop Sing, thanks…" He poked at the puckered wound, eyeing the surrounding skin. "I'm going to put a small poultice on it, just to be safe, and then maybe we'll talk about letting you begin to move around a little - and by that I mean a LITTLE, so don't let me come back to find you roping and riding…Joe, can you hand me that bag? You've made a very good nurse, by the way - "
Joe snatched the bag from the chair and handed it to him. "Thanks, Doc. Not easy with these two - don't know how you've stood it all these years."
Dr. Martin sorted through the bag and pulled out a few things. "Well, not everyone can be as perfect a patient as you are, Joe…"
Hoss guffawed, and Joe glared at him. "I don't remember being a bad patient. I think you fellas just exaggerate about that. Now I'm gonna have to try and find a new copy of Larabee LaRoo, though, and that won't be easy - it's a big seller. Why'd ya knock the table over anyway, Adam?"
"…distraction…" Adam opened one eye to study Hoss. "…hoping to wake up Hoss…"
"Well, you woke me up all right. Darn near scared me out of three years of my life, too, when that gun went off."
Adam frowned suddenly and turned his eyes back to the floor, searching. He pushed himself up, trying to see better, but Ben pushed him back down.
"That's enough of that. There's enough to clean up in here without you getting sick again - just lie still."
"Roy and Clem took Twilight, if that's what you're asking."
"No…where's…? I thought…I heard…"
"Well, if you thought you heard gunshots again then it wasn't your imagination this time. STILL, please - or I'll knock you out myself."
Hop Sing looked at Ben and scolded mildly in Chinese, picking his way carefully around the blood stained floor. He spotted something in the corner near the bed and picked it up, grimacing slightly. He held it up for Adam to see and queried him in Cantonese.
Adam's face split into a grin and he reached for it. Hop Sing pulled it back, making his point emphatically, though not in English - pointing out the blood coating the object everywhere. Adam frowned, until he saw him dip a cloth in the hot water and carefully begin to scrub the surface - then he relaxed back against the pillows. "Is it okay?" Hop Sing shrugged, meticulously rubbing at the lid. "Does it still play?"
Hop Sing answered again, but in Chinese.
Ben's face softened when he saw what he was holding. "I'm sure it's fine," he said softly. "It's survived much worse."
Paul finished dressing Hoss's back and came back to the bed, giving the music box a cursory glance. "Hoss actually looks much better than he deserves to - don't let him overdo though - he still needs his rest. Adam, I'm going to wrap your head wound - wounds, I guess - then immobilize your arm, then I'll be going. I'm going to leave you with instructions, though I don't know why I bother. I'll be out again tomorrow to see whatever other disaster you might have wrought. Ben?"
Ben politely followed Dr. Martin to the door, giving a brief glance over his shoulder to be sure his invalids were behaving. "Yes, Paul?"
"Ben, what on earth went on around here? What happened?"
Ben sighed, drawing the door partly closed behind him. "It's a long story, Paul. All I can say is that Hop Sing was right." Paul tilted his head questioningly, and Ben sighed again. "Daughters." He shook his head by way of explanation. "I should have had daughters."
It took Paul longer than expected to do his meticulous repair work, and, despite the fact that Ben was grateful for his patient, unflagging care, watching and waiting made him so nervous that Paul eventually ordered him from the room, allowing only Hop Sing to stay and assist. He slunk ignominiously down the stairs to sit in the great room. His eyes fell on the fading stain on the wall by the clock, and for once he didn't avert them. There was a matching stain upstairs now - Red Twilight's blood this time. He still wasn't sure how he felt about it all. Restless, he picked up a copy of the Territorial Enterprise and pretended to read.
He heard Joe's footsteps on the stairs, then saw him out of the corner of his eye as he came into the room and collapsed on the settee. He felt his eyes on him for such a prolonged time that, finally, as he turned another page, he offered, "It wasn't. If that's what you want to know."
Joe sat up straight, startled. "Huh?"
"Satisfying. To shoot Red Twilight. That was your question, wasn't it? What you were wondering?"
Joe dropped his eyes and flushed. "I - "
"I thought it would be, too." Ben let the paper drop, his face pensive. "Dreamt about it - every bit as much as you did probably. Maybe more. But in the end - no. It wasn't."
Joe cleared his throat, picking at the arm of the settee. "But - the way he hurt Hoss and Adam. The way he didn't care who he hurt. It must have felt - well - good…just a little? To hurt him back?"
Ben sighed, running his hands over his face. "It was…a relief. To stop him. To know he wouldn't be killing anyone any more. That your brothers were still alive. But…" he leaned back in his chair. "A man is dead. At my hand. No, a man is blown apart at my hand - and no, Joseph - it doesn't feel good."
Joe continued to worry the sofa. "I think…" he ducked his head. "I think I would have liked it. A little, anyway."
"I doubt it," Ben leaned back into his red leather chair. "The reality is a long way from the fantasy, believe me. I might have had some satisfaction if he had hung, legally. But this was not satisfying - it was just…necessary." Joe threw him a doubtful glance, and he smiled ruefully. "The instinct to protect your young is powerful, Joseph - one of the most powerful instincts animals have - even stronger than the instinct to survive. But men are supposed to be higher than animals. They are supposed to be able to reason - to use their conscience, not instinct. I'm not proud of what I did. I'm not sorry, either - I'm just not proud. I want you to remember that for the next time you feel that vengeance is the answer."
Joe looked down at the mayhem he was doing to the sofa. "I - I guess I'll have to take your word," he gave him a cautious glance. "Guess it did kinda - scare me - just a little - when you kept on shooting like that. Seemed like somebody else - not my Pa."
Ben smiled a humorless smile. "It was another side of your Pa. One I hope you won't ever have to see again."
There was the sound of a door closing and footsteps on the stairs and they both stood up. Paul Martin smiled to see them both waiting for him. "They're a little worse for wear, but they'll be all right, " he said without preamble. "Hop Sing is doing his best with the rest of the mess. You can go up, if you want, but encourage sleep, if you can. I did give Adam a little something for his arm. Must really hurt, because he didn't fight me much."
Ben was silent. He was pretty sure that Adam's sudden acquiescence had less to do with the pain and more to do with the fact that his nightmares were probably over at last. "I can't thank you enough, Paul. Pretty soon we'll have to give you your own room here."
Paul laughed. "No thanks. Just keep this one on his feet for a bit - " he gave Joe a playful clap on the back, "and you should be back in business in no time. I gave Hop Sing dietary restrictions. I'll stop back tomorrow. You two get some rest. The worst is over."
Ben let Joe see the doctor to the door, his own eyes pondering the stairs. "The worst is over," he repeated softly at last.
Despite Paul's recommendation, Hoss was not sleeping when Ben stopped in to check on him. Instead he was half-propped in bed, his large hands folded in his lap and his expression thoughtful.
Ben slapped his knee lightly under the blankets as he pulled a chair up to the bed and sat down beside him. "Paul says you're doing well. How are you feeling?"
Hoss looked indifferent. "Heck, I'm fine - jest cain't seem ta convince anybody. Ol' Doc put me back on oatmeal fer today, though - jest gettin' even, if'n you ask me."
Ben laughed in surprise. "Even! For what?"
"Fer me not followin' orders. Makes him downright ornery, and he gets back at ya in sneaky ways."
Ben shook his head. "Well, then, maybe you should just follow his orders."
Hoss shifted carefully against the pillows. "Ya cain't really mean ya think I shoulda jest stayed here in bed what with all that ruckus in Adam's room and nobody else home."
Ben sobered abruptly. "No," he agreed quietly, wincing to himself when he thought about how differently things might have ended. "No."
Hoss nodded in satisfaction. "How the heck is a man supposed to stay in bed and recover when his brothers are always gettin' themselves inta trouble and needin' bailin' out?"
Ben smiled at him with deep affection. "I don't suppose he can." He hesitated. "How are you feeling?" he asked at last. "I don't mean physically - I mean about all this. Are you still feeling - responsible?"
Hoss picked at the quilt spread over him, mulling the question. "Y'know, Pa, it's funny…" He seemed to be trying to organize his thoughts and Ben waited. "It's funny," he continued at last. "All this time I been thinkin' about how Red Twilight was like me - about how I'd feel if somebody did harm ta Adam er Joe, even accidental. Been thinkin' how hard it would be ta make me see reason, how mad I'd be. I bet at that moment I'd be capable of hurtin' somebody real bad."
Ben looked at him expectantly.
"And then when I saw you shoot Red Twilight, I thought about how mad you were at that second, too - how you kept on shootin' and shootin' and probably would have kept on even longer if'n you'd had the bullets…" he trailed off at the uncomfortable look on Ben's face and pushed out his lower lip thoughtfully. "I guess what I realized then is that maybe everybody is capable of that kind of thing - fer a minute anyway - if they're jest pushed hard enough. But Red Twilight…" he shook his head. "It weren't like that fer Red Twilight, I figger. He weren't crazy ta kill fer a minute cause o' some harm somebody done him - he was jest the opposite - lookin' fer somebody ta do him some harm so's he'd have an excuse ta kill. He didn't really have no cause ta shoot Adam - the first time, anyway - or hit Mary neither - he just liked ta do it. Like some ol' coyote er somethin' - jest killin' fer sport. Worse, maybe, cause a coyote is jest doin' what nature tells 'em to an Red's a man.
I ain't shur he ever cared about Willie at all - he was jest an excuse. Jest like Willie used me as an excuse ta die - never thinkin' about how it would be fer me. I don't like ta judge a man without walkin' in his shoes, Pa, but I cain't help thinkin' that Red Twilight jest weren't no good." He caught his father's gaze and smiled. "So I hope you ain't feelin' responsible either, Pa, cause you weren't no more guilty than someone what shoots a rattler that's about to strike."
Ben let Hoss hold his eyes for a moment, feeling suddenly tired but relaxed. "You're a very wise man," he said half-humorously. "Must have gotten that from your mother."
Hoss chuckled. "Reckon it's about six a' one, half dozen of the other."
"Paul felt that you should try and catch a little sleep."
"Well, maybe I can do that if'n that brother o' mine ain't fixin' ta go throw any more furniture around in the next room. Ya goin' ta check on him next?"
Ben gave him a look. These boys of his knew him much too well. "I was thinking of it."
Hoss paused, as if he wasn't quite sure how and what he wanted to say. "Tell him 'hey' fer me," he said at last.
Ben's mouth quirked into a smile. "'Hey', hm?" he stood up slowly, suddenly bone weary. "Well, I'll tell him all right." He gave Hoss a conspiratorial wink. "But I think he knows."
A peek in Adam's room showed that he was not sleeping either, so Ben pushed the door inward and entered. Adam was propped up as well with the music box in his lap, opening and closing the lid repeatedly as if he was trying to figure something out.
Ben noticed that Hop Sing had done a good job of scrubbing up most of the blood and the room smelled freshly of soap. "Well," Ben pulled up the rocking chair and seated himself. "I expected you'd be asleep." Adam shook his head slightly, frowning at the music box. "How are you feeling?" Adam shrugged. Ben raised his brows mildly. "Perhaps you could be a little more specific?"
Adam looked up at last, somewhat chastened. He held up his left hand to show that Paul had reduced the gauze covering enough to let the top half of his fingers protrude. "…hand a little better…arm a little…worse…lungs a little better, head…a little worse…"
"I see." Ben let his eyes drift to the broken arm, now resplinted and bound to Adam's chest to keep it immobile. "Paul made sure you couldn't use that as a weapon again, I see."
Adam looked disgusted. "Just…getting even…"
Ben was surprised into another laugh. "Now, where did you boys get this idea that Paul does these things out of spite? He's just trying to do what's best for you."
Adam looked back at the music box. "…should try not to look…so much like he's… enjoying it, then…"
Ben tried to suppress a smile. "Well, son - it's like you yourself said…a man has to find his amusement where he can."
Adam chuckled before he could stop himself and gave his father a look of rueful appreciation. Then his face changed slightly. "…they figure out where…Red's second bullet went…?"
Ben sobered, squirming a little. "Well, Adam…" he looked apologetic. "There were - um - so many bullets - it's hard to be sure just which was which."
Adam caught his expression and nodded sympathetically. "…Saved my life," he said after a minute.
"Thank God," answered Ben fervently.
"Not necessary. My motives were strictly selfish."
Adam smiled faintly, then frowned again when he saw the music box. He collapsed back against the pillows, his face to the ceiling, his left hand still idly opening and closing the lid. "Had the gun…right at my forehead…"
"I know. I saw the bruise."
"…didn't…shoot me, though…"
"No," Ben hadn't thought of that before and now that he did, it perplexed him. "How did that happen?"
Adam ran his free fingertips over the lid of the music box. "…not sure. I…" His cheeks darkened suspiciously.
Ben waited, surprised and intrigued. What was this about? No point in hurrying Adam, though - that was a sure-fire way to clam him up. He pushed the chair into motion and rocked quietly next to him.
"Pa…" Adam turned his head to look at him. "Did my mother…know…geometry…?"
"Geometry?" Now, that wasn't what he'd been expecting at all. "I don't know how she would have, Adam." Adam nodded and dropped his eyes, looking a little dejected. "Then again…" Ben wrinkled his forehead thoughtfully. "She was a sailor's daughter and a sailor's wife…and incurably curious…" He gave Adam a significant look and saw one corner of his mouth twitch upward. "So I suppose she might have known a little at that. Just enough to read a sextant, say. What on earth makes you ask?"
Adam's ears darkened to scarlet. "When I was…" he paused, looking sheepish. "I'm not sure…when. Some stuff's…still fuzzy."
Ben nodded sadly. "And always will be, I suppose. You were not in a good state when we found you. Go on."
Adam turned to watch something interesting on the ceiling again. "…I was…don't know…confused. Tired…some woman…" his voice trailed off.
Ben raised his brows. "Someone you know?"
Adam flushed more deeply and Ben smiled. He was longing to know what had his unflappable first born blushing like a schoolboy.
"Thought it was…Marie, at first…"
"Oh." Ben remembered Adam's first ramblings that had so alarmed him.
Now Ben was catching up with him, and he stopped rocking abruptly and studied the clean profile. "Who, then?" And when Adam didn't reply, "What was she like?"
Adam smiled just the tiniest bit. "Kind of…bossy…"
"Ah, well," Ben chuckled. "That might have been your mother, then."
"Wouldn't…let me sleep…gave me…a geometry test…"
Ben's heart squeezed within his chest until he could barely push words past it. "I see."
Adam's eyes drifted shut. "…went kind of…easy on me, though…easy questions…" His breathing deepened for a minute, then normalized again. "…seemed to…know me." He rubbed unconsciously at the music box lid. "Silly, I guess…"
Ben's voice was very quiet. "You think so?"
"And then…there was that singing…couldn't recognize it…until…" he absently flipped the lid open again. "Just before Twilight shot…I thought I heard…" He looked down at the music box. "Think he turned to…shoot at the sound…Impossible, I guess…can't figure out how…"
Ben struggled for a moment with the moisture that filled his throat. When he thought he had his voice under control he said, "Are you asking me if I think it's possible that your mother still looks out for you?" Adam cast a quick, embarrassed look his way, then dropped his eyes again. "Because, Adam, I not only think it's possible, I'm sure of it. I depend on it." Adam didn't answer, settling into his pillows and staring ahead at nothing. "You must remember me telling you as a little boy that she would never be far from you."
Adam remained silent, his fingertips blindly tracing the cherubs around the edge of the box. Ben watched him for a moment, then said simply, "I'm glad you told me." He eased back in his chair, rocking gently again. "You might want to try telling me things more often." He studied his hands, not looking at his son, wanting to allow Adam a little room with his discomfort. "If you're ever - I don't know - shot in the head, for example, you might want to tell me about that." He glanced up to gauge Adam's reaction, then sighed gustily at the sight of the twin crescents of thick black lash resting on his cheeks, the chest rising and falling in steady rhythm. Asleep. Well, that was one way to escape a conversation.
He pushed himself out of the chair and to his feet. "I was going to apologize, too," he said matter of factly, reaching over to ease the music box out of his grasp and pull the quilt higher. "Well, never mind. I'll make it up to you somehow."
He turned the music box over in his hands. It had been a sore spot, like a bruise on his heart, whenever he thought of Adam lying in that creek bed, slowly freezing to death - alone. Apparently he hadn't been alone, though…. Thank you, Liz, my love. He wound the key at the bottom of the box and lifted the lid, letting the melody escape. God bless you.
Ben stretched his legs out comfortably before him, enjoying the quiet. The Territorial Enterprise was resting in his hands, but he was giving it about as much attention as he had last time he'd tried to read it - which was to say, very little. He was much more intent on glancing over its shielding pages, studying his two companions.
It was the first time they had all been downstairs together in over two weeks. Ben had insisted on Hoss taking his usual red leather chair while he settled himself in the blue one Adam generally favored. He had pointed out that the red chair was larger, and would be more accommodating to a man of Hoss's imposing size, but he secretly preferred the blue one because he had a better view of both of them from it and could stop any precipitous, unwise moves in the event either one began to feel cocky. So far, there seemed little danger of that.
Hoss was wrapped in blankets and pulled close to the fire, lackadaisically braiding a bridle when the spirit moved him, stopping when it seemed like too much work. Adam was stretched out on the settee, his arm still trammeled by a sling, but seemingly content to gaze into the fire and do nothing. Ben suspected he was just grateful to see more than the four walls of his bedroom.
The great room had been freshly whitewashed by an insistent Hop Sing, and virtually no reminder of Red Twilight's intrusion into their home remained, except, perhaps, in their respective minds and hearts. It was like the whitewash job, Ben mused to himself - no visible sign of the disturbance, but underneath the dark shadow would always linger.
The door blew inward with a bang, letting in a gust of autumn wind. Ben smiled inwardly. Ah, yes. Their missing member. But aloud he kept his voice stern. "Shut that door, please, Joseph?"
"Sure thing, Pa."
Both Hoss and Adam's heads turned wistfully toward the scent of the outdoors as the door slammed shut, separating them from it.
"No need to slam, Joseph."
"Sorry, Pa." Joe dropped his hat and gunbelt on the credenza and sauntered over to stand behind the settee, his hands behind his back. "Say, they finally let you fellas come downstairs, huh? Room sure looks a lot smaller with you in it."
Hoss measured his braiding with his eyes. "Takes a real man, full grown, to take up space, Shortshanks."
Joe looked mischievous. "Guess you should know. Anyway, I got great news. You'll never guess what I found in town."
Ben turned the page of his paper. "The mail, I hope."
"Oh," Joe looked a little deflated. "Yeah, sure. I got it, Pa." He patted his saddlebag. "But guess what else? You'll never guess."
"Then perhaps you should just tell us."
Joe rolled his eyes at Ben, but said triumphantly, "Look!" He held up a slim, paperbound booklet. "Larabee LaRoo!"
Ben glanced up from his paper to see Adam's eyes open and widen in silent alarm.
"Dang!" Hoss grinned from ear to ear. "I'll finally get ta see how that durned thing comes out!"
"But that's not all - you'll never guess - " Joe pulled something else from the saddle bag with a flourish. "There's a sequel now!" Ben watched Adam blink rapidly. "Larabee LaRoo and Lucinda Littletrees, the Legendary Lovebirds of Last Gulch!" Adam's eyes sank closed now, as if in pain. "We can read one, then go straight into the other. Heck, this could keep us entertained for days!"
Ben swallowed a smile as Adam's expression changed to one of barely suppressed panic. He watched his eyes search for an escape and drift speculatively to the staircase and decided it was time he intervened before Adam was driven to try something desperate and unwise. "That's fine, Joseph," he said easily, without seeming to look up from his newspaper. "But didn't you promise your brother Hoss a game of checkers?"
Joe perched on the back of the settee. "Well, yeah, Pa - but doesn't seem right, since Adam can't play."
Ben saw Adam's eyes close tight in resignation to his fate. "Well, that's very thoughtful of you, Joseph - but I was going to bring Adam up to date on the news. It's been a while for him, and I've missed talking about it, too. Can't seem to get either of you other boys interested." Adam's eyes half-opened, peering at him hopefully.
"Oh," Joe stood up, nodding. "Okay. Then maybe we can read after we have a couple of games. Don't know how we're gonna play without that missing checker though. Guess we'll have to start with both sides one short."
"That's probably the best idea." Ben got up to select a chair closer to Adam, bringing his paper with him. On the way he paused to check Hoss's coverings. "You doing all right, son?"
"I'm jest fine, Pa," answered Hoss stoutly. "And all ready to show this young feller how real checkers is played, too."
"Good," Ben gave his arm a pat, ignoring Joe's indignant exclamation in his own defense. He arranged a chair where he could sit near Adam's head and still see the checker game and got comfortable. He furled the paper open, winking solemnly in response to Adam's look of devout gratitude.
Joe shook the pieces out onto the board. "Same colors?"
Hoss nodded. "Same colors." He set down his bridle and lined up his pieces. "And red goes first." He studied the board carefully for a moment, planning his strategy, then pushed one checker forward. There was a faint clinking sound as something fell from his sleeve and hit the floor, then rolled a ways and lay still near the side of Joe's boot. Both Joe and Hoss turned to gape.
Hoss's jaw dropped. "What the…?"
Joe's forehead rumpled. "How…?" He pushed at the small piece of wood with his toe. "Did that just fall out of your sleeve?"
"Couldn't have," Hoss stared at the black checker. "I ain't seen that thing since it disappeared."
"But I - how could it get from - " Joe scratched at his forehead, then noticed Hoss glaring at him. "Hey, it fell out of your sleeve, not mine!" he protested.
Hoss looked confused but dogged. "I ain't seen that checker since it disappeared. I don't know how you done it, but somehow you got it planted on me!"
"I did not!" Joe was the image of outraged virtue. "In fact…" his expression grew suddenly crafty. "I think YOU'VE had it all this time! And you made such a big deal out of it to throw suspicion!"
For a second Hoss looked unsure, then his brows lowered. "I ain't touched that checker, I tell ya. I don't know how you done it, but you got me ta look guilty somehow."
"I'm tellin' ya, it wasn't me!" Joe frowned, an idea dawning. "Adam…?"
"Aw, don't be ridiculous - Adam ain't been out o' that bed, an' he ain't got no hands yet."
"Then…Pa?" even Joe looked dubious about this one.
Ben didn't even bother to look up from his paper. "You know I make it a point never to interfere with you boys and your shenanigans."
"Well, all I know is I didn't plant that checker!" Joe insisted. "I say we start over from scratch with a new game and all checkers in play."
Ben shook out his page. "That sounds like a fair suggestion."
"All right," Hoss scowled at Joe. "But no more checkers dang well better disappear, or - "
"They won't!" Joe assured hastily, scratching at his head and staring, puzzled, at the prodigal checker.
"And no more cheatin', neither."
"I keep telling you, I DON'T CHEAT!"
"Yeah, and water don't run downhill, neither. Make yer move."
Adam lifted bright, questioning eyes to Ben's and cocked an inquisitive eyebrow.
Ben's eyes twinkled in return, and he bent low over his paper as though to point out an article. "You were right," he murmured, barely audibly. "Priceless."
"…you jest make yer move, little brother, and we'll see who beats who in a fair game!"
"Well, I don't see how you can expect to have a fair game when you're hidin' checkers all over the place!"
"I'm tellin' you I don't know how that checker got on me - but I'm bettin' it had somethin' ta do with you!"
Ben leaned back in his chair and looked from the checker combatants to his oldest - stretched out on the settee watching, his face alight with silent laughter, thinking how long it had been since this room had rung with lively voices.
"Priceless…" he repeated, half to himself, turning another page. "Priceless."
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