Within the Circle    
a 2003 Tale from
The Tahoe Ladies  
 
 


This story deals with a simple premise: bring the Cartwrights into today's world. Give them all the modern day advantages, equipment and, most of all, today's problems. But to solve those modern problems, go back in history to solve them.

     

    Adam hung up the phone then leaned back in his leather chair, his fingers steepled before him. What his brother had just told him sounded so far-fetched that at first he had not believed him. Only after Joe had repeated himself twice, did Adam come to the realization that his brother wasn't pulling his leg….

 "I'm telling you! The north-south wall, the big one, collapsed!" Joe's voice had insisted over the phone, heavy static making Adam listen even closer. "But not all of it! There's places where it looks like someone put a huge fist through it then other places where it went clear down to the footing."

"I did those calculations myself! Are you sure the mason was using the right mortar mix? Did you check the batch tickets?" Adam shouted into phone.

"Of course I did!" Joe ripped back, the connection now strangely free and clear of static. "Each and every one of them I checked. If you don't believe me, get your butt in that fancy set of wheels of yours and come see for yourself!"

"Simmer down, will you?" Adam hissed. In his mind's eye he could see Joe, cell phone to one ear as he paced around the jobsite, the unoccupied hand and arm waving, gesticulating wildly. Adam wondered again if it had been a smart move to allow Joe to run the project. Sure, he had handled smaller ones for the family construction business before but this one, the Pyramid Lake Casino for the Northern Nevada Paiute Council, was bigger than all of the others combined. Added to the fact was that it had a short delivery date. The construction schedule had been bumped up twice already and they were running 12-hour days as it was. To hear that a major wall had failed was almost more than Adam wanted to hear. At least it had happened when no one was on site. OSHA would have no reason to come snooping but from what Joe had said, some of the men, laborers as well as craftsmen, were talking about quitting.

"I can't come today. I have a meeting with a client about a new hotel on Tahoe in an hour. Clean up as best you can but don't replace anything. I want to look at it myself. I'll meet you there tomorrow morning about eight. How's that?" Adam explained but the only answer he got was a rude one before Joe hung up on him….

 

From the computer on his desk, Adam brought up the file drawings, and notes concerning the Pyramid Lake project. He went over the wall footings and the foundation plans again. Across the sunlit office on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas, he strode and pulled out the actual building set of blueprints. The sheets he needed were close to the front and he found them quickly then laid them out on the wide slanted drawing table beside the racks of plans. The figures and their accompanying drawings had been stamped and signed by the County Engineers as acceptable. Adam Cartwright ran a hand back through his short black hair as he looked for a reason why the wall, the longest and most important one of all, had failed. There didn't seem to be an answer on the plans and he doubted if any substitution had been made without his knowledge. Joe might be young to be the superintendent on a project, but he had worked in the business since he had been tall enough to reach the pedals on a backhoe. No, Joe wouldn't have made any changes. Not on something as simple and elemental as this, he wouldn't have.

The intercom softly buzzed on his desk. "Sir?" his secretary's soft voice called and without thinking he gave a heated, sharp "what?" in reply.

"Your father is on line one. Do you want me to tell him you're busy?" The voice, though it remained soft, held a trace of a tremor as she spoke.

"No," Adam sighed. "I'll talk to him. Thanks Rosalie, and I apologize for ripping your head off." Whatever else she was, Rosalie was the best secretary Adam'd had over the last ten years. He went out of his way at times like this to make sure she knew how much he appreciated her. Besides, one lesson he and his brothers had learned early in their lives was to be polite…especially to women. Their father had seen to that.

Leaving the drawings on the table he crossed to his desk. As he dropped into the soft leather chair, he picked up the phone and hit the blinking red light.

"Afternoon. Don't tell me. We had a lunch date and I forgot it!" Adam said, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"No, not quite." His father's deep resonant voice seemed to fill all the space between the receiver and Adam's ear. Adam closed his eyes and leaned further back in the chair, letting it envelop his long lean frame. There was always something about talking with his father that made him half-frightened and half-secure. If nothing else, Ben Cartwright, the family patriarch, could often make a listener bend to his will just by the tone of his voice. Or at least that was how it had always seemed to Adam. And it didn't matter in the least if the listener was a wayward son or a voter. Ben Cartwright, while he headed the family cattle raising business also was a builder in the political sense as well as the contractor sense. For the past 20 years, he had held a place in Nevada Legislature, voted in again and again overwhelmingly by ardent supporters. For the last two terms, he had stood as Speaker of the House, a position of power and authority.

"I had an interesting phone call a little bit ago. From Bill Running Wolf Campbell. He said that there'd been a problem out at the casino project. I tried calling Joe but kept getting dropped into his voice mail. I figured he was talking to you. Or he should have been. What's going on?"

Adam's shoulders sagged and he found himself pushing his body deeper into the chair as he thought of a reply. Smirking and feeling a headache begin right behind his eyes, he finally answered his father. "Yeah, I was talking to Joe. I've looked over the calculations, checked the plans, everything. Joe and I are gonna meet out there first thing tomorrow morning and I'll know more then."

"I thought this was a hurry-up project. Why are you waiting until tomorrow? Why not run up there this afternoon?"

"Because I have an appointment with Grissom and Associates about the new hotel over on Tahoe. And if I don't leave in the next few minutes, I'll be late. Joe is cleaning up the casino site today. Sounds like it'll take all day. Think we should have the sheriff come take a look at the damage?" As much as he tried, Adam found it hard to keep his voice from sounding strained and angry.

"Thought that myself. You going to be home tonight?" Ben's tone softened.

"It's Friday, Pa. I am having a quiet dinner with a lovely lady. I don't expect to be home before you go to bed." No, he thought, I'll make sure I am not home until very late.

"All right then. Go enjoy yourself, I guess. I'm having dinner with some environmentalist group's lobbyist. I'd rather have dinner with a lovely lady but, we do what we must." Adam heard his father chuckle then he finished by asking, "Do you want me to go with you boys up to the casino tomorrow morning?"

"No, the more I think about it, it must have been vandals. Joe and I can handle it. Enjoy your dinner," Adam taunted wearily then said good-bye and hung up the receiver.

"Boys," he muttered to himself. "No matter how old I get, I'll always be a boy to him!" He stood, and snagging his suit jacket from the coat tree by the door, shrugged into it.

 

For the rest of the afternoon, his thoughts and concentration were all on a new project. The consortium of big money from Texas and the Gulf Coast were slowly but surely making themselves felt in the Lake Tahoe area. Last year, they had bought one of the small skiing concerns and had spent millions upgrading the slopes, the lifts and the ski lodge. Adam had bid on the project but lost out to their only rival, Custom Builders Inc. Grissom and Associates, led by a loud-mouth Texan by the name of Mel Grissom, had made it plain that they didn't care for the workmanship of Custom Builders Inc. That was why Adam was so determined that this project, a luxury hotel to be built on the North Shore around by the Crystal Bay, would fall to Cartwright and Sons. After all, only they could offer the complete package: designing it and building it. He liked to tell people that he could take their ideas and turn them into reality and listening to Grissom that afternoon, Adam was sure the project was his.

In the all-too-modernistic office at the ski lodge, with bright summer light streaming through the windows, Adam listened to Grissom and one of his partners, a Crayton Mellencamp. Adam listened, took notes in his own cryptic shorthand and asked a few leading questions. Once the other men had talked themselves out, Adam turned to a blank sheet of paper and made a quick sketch. It showed the front of a building, towering A-shaped walls of glass that seemed to leap from the surrounding trees. Off to either side swept more glass.

"That, gentlemen," Adam said and laid his pad on the coffee table before him so they could see. "That is the front of your hotel."

"Don't look like much," exclaimed Grissom.

Adam smiled. "It doesn't need to because the piece of land you're talking about building on has one of the best views of Lake Tahoe. Don't wall your guests in. Let them see that lake, morning, noon and night. Winter, summer, it doesn't matter."

Grissom twisted his lips to one side while Mellencamp, a long thin man with graying hair, studied the sketch. He handed it back to Adam.

"He's right, Mel. What people come up here for is the lake. Let's give it to them."

"Does that mean you intend to hire Cartwright and Sons, Mister Mellencamp?" Adam let the words go slowly, almost afraid to breathe, let alone think, that the project could be so easily won.

Mellencamp and Grissom studied each other for a few silent moments. Then Grissom slowly inclined his head. "Tell you what, Cartwright. Grissom and Associates want you to design the building. We want full plans and specifications for the hotel. Name your price. Then we'll put it out to bid to a very selected group of contractors. But we want the plans in ninety days. Understood?"

Adam stood and swallowed hard. Ninety days wasn't enough time, he knew. "Make it a hundred and eighty days and I'll give you a good price as well as a fine set of plans."

Shaking his head, Grissom hung onto the ninety days. "Then we'll open bids in a hundred and twenty with construction to begin very early next year."

Now it was Adam's turn to grimace and he did. He slipped his hands under his black jacket and let them ride his hips as he walked around the small office. Over and over he let it run through his thoughts that this would be the opening of the door with these people. Could he do it? Even though he had several other capable architects in that small portion of the firm, most of the work would fall on him. Could he produce a full set of plans and the guide for materials, the specifications, for building the hotel in that short of time? And with the casino project having trouble…no, he pushed away from those thoughts.

"Okay, ninety days it is. I'll want to see the surveyor's reports asap. Have you had a geologist inspect…" he saw their heads shaking and changed his tack. "I'll get someone on it right away."

Once hands were shaken all around, Grissom promised to have the contract drawn up and over for Adam's review by the middle of the week. For some reason, Adam wanted to run out of the building, jump into his vintage Jaguar XKE, throw its convertible top down, and shout out loud while pumping invisible iron. That, he silently chastised himself, would really make those guys think they'd made a wise move, now wouldn't it? But maybe tomorrow morning, on the way out to meet with Joe….

 

 

Joe Cartwright wiped the trickle of sweat off his jaw and hefted another piece of the broken wall into the bucket of the front-end loader. He waved and the big machine backed up and lumbered for the large dumpster parked on the far side on the construction site. He tugged at the gloves he wore and stood for a moment looking over the debris field.

What the hell happened? he wondered if not for the fiftieth, the fifty-first time. When he had pulled up early that morning, it looked as though the wall had been used as target practice for some military group. The cinderblocks that had made up the wall lay, sometimes in groups of up to seven or eight, still bound together with the mortar used. Other times, the carnage was a pile of single blocks blasted into dust of partial pieces. Of course, the first thing he had done was check all of the large equipment for signs of vandalism, figuring they had been used. But no machinery was out of place from where it had been left the night before. In fact, most of them were covered by the fine dust that puffed up at Joe's feet even now.

"Hey, Boss!" a man's voice called behind him and Joe turned. Hank Miller, one of their best masons was lumbering towards him; in his hands he carried what Joe took to be leftover mortar that had been dumped aside the night before. "Thought you might want to see this."

Wiping away another dribble of sweat, Joe looked at what the other held out. Yes, it was a dried lump of mortar, roughly two foot square and a good six inches deep. He couldn't figure out what was important though. "I thought your men knew you had to put that sort of thing in the dumpster at the end of every day. We can't go leavin' the tailin's out."

"I know, Boss. I'll get on Jerry about it but look at this." Again Hank gestured towards the mortar. Then Joe saw it as well. It looked like a giant thumb had been pressed into the mortar while it was still in the drying stage.

"I'll be damned," Joe muttered and took the piece from Hank. "Now all we have to do is convince the law to arrest the Jolly Green Giant for trespass and malicious vandalism!" He couldn't help but vent his vexation. However, just as quickly, he apologized to Hank. Hank smiled wide, showing teeth that hadn't always been cared for, and slapped Joe playfully on the shoulder. As he walked away, Joe heard him wondering who he meant by the Jolly Green Giant.

Joe yanked off his glove and ran his hand back through his unruly hair. He was hot and miserable and knew the crews were too. Like him, they were also disheartened. Someone had not cared enough and had decided to tear down what was being built. This far out of the way, Joe figured it was more than just some kids out skylarking. Not only that, there was far too much damage for it to have been kids. He turned towards the gray construction trailer that held his office as a pretty blonde lady hopped out of a red Jeep Wrangler at the door.

"Payday!" she called cheerily and waved a stack of envelopes back and forth in her raised hand. It was something she did every Friday. She didn't have to since every man on the job had been watching for the bright red Jeep to come barreling up the deserted stretch of highway. But that was the way Mandy did it and had ever since she had come to work for the Cartwrights six years ago. Then she had been Joe's steady girlfriend but slowly, they had outgrown one another but managed to stay friends all the same.

"Wondered when you were gonna show up!" Joe shouted back and trotted to meet her. "Am I gonna win the check pool this week? I almost had it last week with a full house." It had become common practice to play poker with the check numbers, every man giving the secretary a dollar to hold until Friday. Then, once the checks were passed out, heads were bent over them, making the best poker hand one could out of the numbers. Every week there was one winner. In case of a tie, the pool was held over until the following week. While Joe knew that his father frowned on the men gambling this way, he also knew his father turned a deaf ear and blind eye to it, especially when it included his youngest son. He rarely won, preferring that one of the working men take the pot. He frowned at the thought of being different from them. He certainly didn't feel different since he worked alongside of the crews. Where the line was drawn was at the trailer door and Joe had been working to change his own perception of himself once inside those walls. His father and Adam had repeatedly told him to act like the boss and he would be the boss but he had never been able to stand aside doing nothing while another man worked.

Mandy slapped at his shoulder with the wad of checks and bounced ahead of him into the office. He smiled, watching her derričre, tightly encased in Levi's.

"Hi, Jenny!" Mandy called to the lady behind the desk. Giving the young woman a cold stare, Jenny, a matron of at least fifty with steel gray eyes and equally imposing manner, handed Joe several slips of paper with calls noted on them. If Mandy had an opposite, it was Jenny. And neither cared one wit about the other.

Thumbing through the call-slips, one name kept reappearing to Joe: Bill Running Wolf Campbell. He never left a message but Joe didn't have to guess what he wanted. It was the same thing everyone else wanted: an answer as to why a major component of the structure had failed. And failed so drastically. Joe wondered about returning the call. He had nothing to tell Campbell.

"You'd best call your father, Joe. Seein's how you left your cell phone in here on my desk at lunchtime, I been noticing the number of times he called." Jenny's voice gave clear evidence that she didn't think it was by accident that her young boss had forgotten his phone.

Jenny had worked on nearly every Cartwright and Sons construction project since Ben had founded the company close to thirty years before. She never took vacation during a project, waiting instead for that lag time between projects. No one could remember when she had taken a sick day or even shown up late to work. A standing joke among all of the project managers was that they only feared one person ever taking their jobs: Jenny. They also would joke that she could probably run a project as well, or better, than some of them. It didn't stop there since there wasn't a hired man in the company that didn't give Jenny her due when she asked for it. Most times, she didn't even need to ask. Joe knew why he had drawn Jenny on the casino project. That had to have been Adam's doing, he decided. He was giving Joe the most experienced help available whether Joe wanted it or not. Secretly, Joe liked Jenny but he couldn't and wouldn't let on to that fact.

"I'll call him later. Do me a favor, Jenny. Call Thompson's Auto in Carson and see if they can service my Jeep tomorrow," Joe asked, scooting into his air-conditioned office before the woman could have another crack at him.

Taking the checks from Mandy, he signed the clipboard she offered, his scrawl taking up two lines. He thumbed quickly through the checks and pulled out his own, stuffing it into his back pocket. He handed the rest back to Mandy and asked her to give them to Jenny on her way out. Mandy smiled, winked saucily and whisked out the door.

He puffed out his cheeks and dropped heavily into his chair. He let the air conditioner blow through his wild hair, swishing it around as it cooled his head and neck. Again he flicked through the phone messages. The one he wanted to see wasn't there.

"Won't stop me!" he chirped and snatched up the phone receiver and began punching numbers. Then he listened as the connection was made and it rang. Once, twice, three times, it rang then a soft and sultry woman's voice came on. It was the answering machine and for a moment Joe cursed his luck but once her voice stopped, he spoke up. "Afternoon, darlin'. Thought you'd be back from your little trip by now. Call me when you get this message and I'll run right over and massage your feet. Maybe bring a cool six pack and a hot pizza too. Call me." He had made his own voice as equally seductive and he was smiling broadly as he hung up the phone.

"Ahem!" Jenny stood at the doorway, one hand on the knob still. She certainly didn't look as though she thought he was behaving and Joe almost blushed. She thrust his ringing cell phone at him that he managed to get a hold of just before it would have hit the floor. He glimpsed at the caller id screen and flinched. It was his father calling.

"Hi!" Joe smoothly answered, trying to sound upbeat and pleasant.

"Hello, yourself! Do you know how many times I've tried to get you today? I even called out to the site but Jenny said you weren't in the office. Where have you been and why haven't you had your phone with you? There is a reason we bought the thing and a reason why we pay the bills on it every month! And you will note that I have said nothing about the charges that obviously aren't business related….like a certain 775 number that gets called  after work hours. Well, what have you got to say?"

"Busted."

Fifteen minutes later and neither caller had any more information to give the other than when the call started. The only new news was that his father wasn't going to be home for supper so Joe figured he was foot loose that evening. Now if that 775 number would ever call me back, it would be a great way to spend the evening.

She never called back. Joe lost the check number poker pool and Thompson's Auto couldn't get his Jeep in to service it until some time next week.

With the last paycheck handed out, and the last person but him having left the jobsite, Joe took one more look at the destroyed wall. He had about decided that the week couldn't have gone any worse for him. Just in case, as he got into his own fiery red Jeep to leave, he checked his phone. The battery was dead and he couldn't find the car-plug adapter.

 

 

 

Saturday morning found Joe struggling to get out of bed. With both feet finally on the floor, he leaned over and let his head sag into his hands. Last night, he had arrived home with a pizza and a six pack of beer, figuring Hoss would help him polish off both since Friday night was also Hop Sing's night off and the Cartwrights would have to forage for their own dinners. Hoss had grinned broadly and told Joe that he was going to the Volunteer Firemen's barbecue and dance over in Dayton with Greta Swenson. Then he heard Hoss' pickup roar out of the yard, dusting the front of the house liberally. Morose, Joe had eaten half the pizza by himself and over the course of the evening, while musing on the fact that he was the youngest single male in the household and was home dateless on a Friday night, he had also drunk all of the beer. Now, with the bright summer morning's light fingering his toes on the floor, he regretted all of last night.

"Oh hell," he muttered. "forgot  tha' I gotta to meet Adam at the site." He slammed his palm onto his brow, instantly regretting the motion. "Maybe I can beat him!" Reaching over, he pulled aside the damask curtain and checked the garage. He could clearly see the back of his father's old dusty black Volvo, Hoss' pickup and his own Jeep. But the spot next to his father's car was empty. "Damn," he swore softly and dropped the curtain. He struggled to his feet and pulled a pair of jeans from his dresser drawer and shirt from the closet. "The Grape ain't there. Maybe he didn't…no, I heard him. Can't miss the sound that thing makes."

He dressed quickly and was headed out the door when Hoss caught him.

"Better hurry if you were gonna meet Adam," the big man advised.

"What time did the Grape scoot out?" Joe asked, pulling on his jacket. Even though it was summer, the ride in the open Jeep was often cool.

Hoss smiled, knowing if Adam had heard Joe refer to his vintage 1965 Jaguar XKE as "the Grape" he might do a little pounding on a little brother. Adam kept the nearly forty year old sports car in great condition mechanically as well as being careful about road-nicks and parking lot dings. What he hadn't been able to do anything about was the paint. Back when the car was new it had been a rich deep cranberry color with plush black leather seats. But all those years of running under a Nevada sun had bleached the color out until it was now almost purple. Of course, it hadn't helped that when Adam had first driven it home nearly twenty years ago, he had called it a plum. Joe was a small child then and had misunderstood the differences in fruit and language and had promptly told the reverend at church the next Sunday that Adam was driving a grape. Even though he had been corrected numerous times, to Joe the classic sports car would always remain "the Grape".

"He left about an hour ago." Hoss found himself talking to his brother's back as Joe sprinted out the door, saying something about still having time.

           

 

Adam snapped the lid down on his cell phone and slipped it into his jacket pocket.

"Still can't reach him?" asked the other man there with him on the construction site.

"Can't get a clear signal, apparently. But he'll be along. I don't think he has any more idea about what happened than we do, Bill." Adam was running out of ways to placate Bill Running Wolf Campbell, the head of the Indian Council. I knew I should have dragged his sorry ass out of bed when I heard him still sawing logs this morning!

"Is that him now?" the older man asked, pointing out over the flat plains. Standing on the small rise with the construction site behind them, Adam followed the Indian's pointed finger. There wasn't any missing the red Jeep barreling down the flat and empty highway in the morning sun. Adam huffed. Typical Joe, he thought, make up for oversleeping by driving way too fast. Yet even as the thought crossed his mind, Adam saw the Jeep suddenly lose control. Over and over it flipped, gouging up the desert floor, throwing plumes of dust into the still air. It rolled to a final stop but Adam was already tearing towards his own car.

It seemed only to take a matter of heartbeats until Adam was beside the overturned Jeep. Laying belly down on the sand at the driver's side, he could see that Joe'd had his seatbelt fastened and that, for the most part, the rollbar and air bag had done their jobs. But Joe was unconscious, his body twisted over towards the floor-mounted gearshift and the passenger side.

"I smell gas," Bill said. Adam didn't seem surprised that the man was there. He actually just took it for granted. "We gotta get him out of here. I can reach the buckle but you'll have to pull him out on that side. This side is crushed."

Even as he spoke, Bill did as he said he would. Adam, his mouth suddenly dry, was barely able to maneuver his brother's inert body around the mangled steering wheel and crumpled half-door. The old Indian came to help him and together they were able to free Joe, his legs gouging out a long bloody trail in the sand.

Quickly Adam had shifted around so that he was at his brother's side. With one shaking hand he was reaching for his phone while the other sought for a sign of life. Behind him, he thought at first he heard a growl, like an animal, then the gas tank on the wrecked Jeep exploded and the force of it pushed Adam across his brother's body.

"9-1-1. Do you have an emergency?" the disembodied voice came from the phone half-buried in the sand.

 

 

 

 

To Adam, it seemed like hours before the paramedics appeared. Bill had helped as much as he could, using the first aid kit from Adam's car to staunch the flow of blood from the gash on Joe's leg. He also had bandaged Adam's head where a piece of the flying debris had knocked him senseless for a few minutes and opened a nice gash in the back of his head.

"Mister Cartwright," one of the paramedics was talking to him, forcing him to pay attention to something other than where six of them were hovering over his brother.

Finally Adam looked up, a moment's worth of dizziness striking him. "What?"

"We're gonna take Joe by LifeFlight to Carson-Tahoe Hospital. We want you to go in the ambulance, okay?"

"No," Adam barked and shoved the man aside. He could see the helicopter whizzing over the high desert now and knew he had no time to argue the point. "I'm going with Joe. That chopper can handle two."

"But," the medic started to say something else but chose not to when Adam glared at him.

With a swirl of fine sand, the helicopter landed on the deserted tarmac and Adam was on one end of the stretcher that held his brother. Once seated in the aircraft at Joe's head, he again asserted his right to be there to the paramedics. They graciously conceded but kept up the hubbub of technical and medical talk that Adam could only barely follow. There was one young woman with them when the chopper lifted off and she was busy speaking into a helmet microphone. Adam listened carefully, hearing words that made no sense to him: weak, thready, shallow. Joe was none of those things. At least not to his oldest brother.

One leg of Joe's jeans had been cut open, exposing a gash just above his knee that still bled heavily. The woman was pressing more gauze packs onto it while trying to place an oxygen mask over Joe's mouth. Adam took the oxygen mask from her and held it firmly to his brother's mouth and nose. It struck him how cold Joe's flesh was and so he turned his eyes from the bloody, still body.

Below the rising helicopter, Adam could see the wrecked Jeep still smoking and the silent, broken wall of the casino-to-be.

 

He waited until he reached the emergency room of the hospital before making the call to his father. Adam stood just outside the entranceway and numbly pushed the keypad. It rang three times then Adam heard his father's deep voice saying that he was not available to take the call--Adam cursed voice mail--so he left a brief and succinct message. With his head pounding voraciously, he dialed Hoss' number. He answered on the second ring.

"Hoss," Adam almost shouted. "There's been a bad accident. Do you know where Pa is?"

"He was going into his office to do some work for a while this morning. You all right?"

Adam touched the back of his head and his hand came away slightly bloody despite the bandage there. A piece of the Jeep, he thought oddly detached then he began to shake. "I'm okay but Joe…Joe…" Adam found his voice was shaking as he tried to speak. "Joe may be bad. Carson-Tahoe Hospital, Hoss. Get here, please?" He didn't wait for a reply. He closed the little phone and slipped it back into his pocket.

"Come on with me. I just got the call. What's with you boys now?" Doctor Paul Martin took Adam's arm and, with a gentle tug, drew him into the emergency room. He waved aside a nurse and led Adam, now physically shaking as adrenaline ran its course through his body, into one of the curtain-enclosed rooms and made him lie down on the bed there. "I'll be back but you stay there."

Just beyond the drawn curtain, there seemed to be lots of people, but for the most part, Adam couldn't make out what they were saying or doing. The voices were full authority and orders that were being given were obviously being followed. As he watched the shadows on the curtain, he saw a pair of blue jeans, now cut into bloody pieces fall to the floor. A familiar green jacket, dirty and also soaked in blood and cut up, followed it. Then finally a tan shirt and one tennis shoe, the laces cut and the top split so it could be removed.

There was a commotion in the hallway and above the other sounds, he heard his father's voice demanding to see his sons.

"Ben, settle down. Right now, Joe is in critical condition. We are working to get him stabilized. I haven't seen to Adam. As soon as I know something, you will. Please, don't make a scene here." The curtain at Adam's feet rattled and a shaft of light poured through along with his father.

His father's warm hand closed over his and held it gently then, "Adam? Son? Are you all right?"

For just a split second, Adam wanted to laugh. Here he was in a cubicle in an emergency room and he had just heard that his brother was in critical condition and his father was asking if he were all right? At that particular moment, he didn't have a reference for 'all right'.

"I got hit in the head with something when the Jeep exploded," he explained. Ben's only response was to shake his head sadly.

Before either man could speak again, Paul Martin slipped into the cubicle with them. He handed Ben a clipboard, telling him to sign the papers there then proceeded to begin his examination of Adam.

"It's gonna take a few stitches to close this gash in your head, Adam. But right now, I'm gonna have them ice it down real good. I'm ordering an x-ray as well. May have to keep you overnight for observation. Do you remember what happened?"

"All too clearly," Adam muttered and when he closed his eyes, he saw it again. The Jeep suddenly rolling over and over, hitting the desert floor, small things falling from the vehicle. Again, he and Bill were pulling Joe from the wreckage and Adam could see his brother's blood trail in the sand. Behind him, once more he heard the warning, then felt the impact as something hit him as the Jeep exploded.

He didn't realize that he had spoken aloud, explaining what had happened, until he opened his eyes and saw his father's shocked white face. Paul Martin was nodding. He said he would have a nurse in to Adam in just a few moments. Paul reached across Adam and pulled on Ben's arm, taking him out into the aisle.

"Hi Adam. Remember me? We went to school together way back when," the pretty pert red-haired nurse said as she came through the curtain.

For a moment, Adam was too fogged over to remember but from somewhere in his addled brain came her name: Peggy Atwater. But her nametag referred to her "M. Yates". Then it came back clearly to Adam. She had married Donnie Yates right out of high school. When he had been killed in a hunting accident, she must have turned to nursing.

"It's been a long time, Peggy," he slowly said, realizing that his headache was growing by the minute. "My brother. How is he?"

Peggy slipped the blood pressure cuff onto his arm and secured it then puffed it up and with her stethoscope, listened for the beat. She shook her head when it had deflated all the way. "Your pressure's a little high. One fifty over eighty." She used a strange sort of thermometer that she held into one of his ears then grunted again. "Temperature one hundred point oh- two. Respiration is a little rapid." She made notes on the pad she was carrying.

This time when he asked, Adam reached out a grabbed the woman's arm to get her attention. "Joe. How is he?"

Peggy pulled her arm gently from Adam's grip and stepped further away. "I don't know for sure, Adam. I wasn't on his trauma team." Adam followed her eyes as they went to the shared curtain where strangely enough, there was no sound or motion in the cubicle. "But I do know they took him down to surgery right away. Didn't wait for the x-rays to come back. I'm sorry, Adam. That's all I know. Doctor Martin has given us orders for you and one of them is to not upset you. Please don't make me go against doctor's orders."

Adam tried to smile as he thanked her.  Once she was gone, he stared at the blank ceiling above him. He had done everything he knew to do.

 

 

He opened his eyes and found himself in a darkened room. Beside him, the array of medical monitors chirped and beeped, a half-dozen or so with different colors making jagged lines and a steady readout of numbers, some changing as he watched, some staying steady.

"Well," he whispered to himself, "I'm alive."

The deep chuckle came right beside him and a huge hand held him steady. "Yep," Hoss told him, his normally robust voice toned down to a gentle croon. "Doc said that he'd let you go home tomorrow morning if you were doin' as good then as you are now."

"Joe?"

Even in the shadows, Adam could see Hoss' expression change. "He's in Intensive Care. Pa's with him. Got himself a bad concussion. Cut his leg really bad. Broke his right arm in two places. Then you go addin' in all the places where he's bruised up real good and our little brother is a mess. But like you, he'll live. How fast was he going?"

"That's just it Hoss. I don't think he was doing more than, say, sixty to sixty-five. He must have blown a tire or hit a pothole. That's all I can think that could have rolled him like that."

"Roy and some of his boys were out there lookin' things over real good. Tryin' to decide what happened. Until Joe comes to and tells us, it's all just thinkin' on our parts." Hoss leaned down on the side railings of the bed.

"There wasn't much left of the Jeep, was there? Pa mad?" queried Adam. It came to him that once again they were all liable to hear their father's speech about what the Press could do with information. Their father had pounded into them time after time that they needed to be circumspect, and not just in public. Adam'd had little problem obeying his father's wishes and Hoss had none at all. Both men had been exemplary young men, even though Hoss struggled with his schoolwork. Adam, the family scholar, had spent more of his time on studying than looking for ways to misbehave. When he had crossed the line into the sort of behavior that the Press would likely have reported on, thankfully, there were no cameras, no inquisitive reporters. But then again, Adam had been fourteen when his father first entered politics.

"Ain't seen much of him to be able to tell. Remember last time, though? When that little newspaper gal got a hold of that police report, man, the hash she didn't make out of it! I was never so glad to drive a pokey ol' truck in all my days!" Hoss chuckled at the half-memory.

"And thankfully, most of what she had written was wrong so the paper had to print not only their retraction but an apology as well. I think that was the only thing that kept Joe from being locked in his room until he was old and gray!" Adam also recalled that his little brother went on to date the reporter for what he considered an abnormally long time for Joe- six months. As far as he knew, they parted amiably and she was now working in Sacramento.

Yes, all of their father's admonitions concerning behavior seemed to have fallen on deaf ears with Joe. He had been the one called into the principal's office for fighting more often than Adam liked to remember. Forget about the fact that the majority of the times, the fight hadn't started with Joe but he couldn't not finish one. Once he hit the roads with a driving permit, speeding tickets seemed to pour in. He claimed once that if his father would let him buy the type of car he wanted, then the cops wouldn't catch him so easily. Adam still could recall the bright red of his father's face following that piece of 'Joe logic.' Minor fender-bender accidents seemed to dog Joe and their father began to consider making him get his own car insurance since he was sending the family premium into outer space. He had gone to traffic school so many times the instructors knew his face.

But all of that was in the past. Or so Adam thought. "He hasn't had a ticket for a long while, has he? Two? Three years?"

Hoss thought for a moment. "Last one he got was for driving erratic the night he turned twenty one so that's almost four years ago, Adam. I don't think Pa's gonna holler too loud." He didn't want to comment on the old charge, but Roy Coffee had whispered to him that Joe needed to wait until he got the girl home before he started making out with her.

Still, Adam knew that there would be inquiries by the Press. A man who was the Speaker of the House of the Nevada Legislature was a man to be watched and followed. When tossed into the mix were three adult sons, all of them as good looking and eligible as their father …well, news-hounds occasionally even had the guts to come to the house, looking for a juicy tidbit. That continual almost lack of privacy had driven the three sons into a decision three years ago. They had formed their own loose corporation: Three Brothers Inc. That corporation had bought five acres on the west side of Lake Tahoe, behind Squaw Valley. Then, using their own knowledge, plans, tools, materials and sweat, they had built a cabin. It was one bedroom with a small eat-in kitchen, and a living room centered about a free-standing circular fireplace. Outside, a redwood deck looked out over acres of trees for the property backed onto the National Park. They jokingly referred to it as "The Hideout". Because of its size, one brother at a time had the rights to it and when needed, a quick call would verify its vacancy. Neither ever asked the others what they did there but it was always neat and clean with no dirty dishes in the sink or linens to be changed. Each kept a change of clothes there but that was all. In the eighteen months that it had been inhabitable, there had never been a problem. And each one had sworn an oath to keep it secret, no matter what. It was their sanctuary, their refuge, their hideout.

"Holler about what?" the deep voice asked. Even in the dim light, Ben Cartwright's hair shone a brilliant white as he eased into the room. "How are you feeling, son?"

"My head hurts but that's about it. How's Joe?" Adam was quick to alter the course of the conversation.

"He's doing what you should be doing: sleeping. How about it? Tomorrow will be soon enough to get this all straightened out."

"Oh, Roy wanted me to tell you that one of his deputies drove your car home, Adam." Hoss watched as his brother flinched at the mere thought of someone beside himself behind the steering wheel of the Jag. "We headed home now, Pa?"

Ben smiled and touched Adam's arm gently as though apologizing but for what Adam had no idea. "Yes, at least I'm headed home. You comin'?"

Hoss grinned and Adam smiled. "Go on, Hoss. Get a good night's sleep and be back here early in the morning to spring me from here, okay?"

           

Hoss left his father beside his car and walked down the length of the parking lot towards his truck. The street lamp overhead shed a soft yellow glow over the grass and bed of flowers in front of the parked vehicle. As he pulled his keys from his pocket he looked back up at the hospital, admiring the late night vision of soft clouds that seemed to be hugging the building. For him, it appeared that the clouds were holding all the injured loved ones there while their friends and family couldn't be present. Hold my brothers, will ya? he silently begged of the clouds before he climbed into his truck and started the engine.

There was no traffic on the highway towards home and nothing to keep Hoss' thoughts from going backwards. The call had come just as he had finished looking over a new-born colt. He didn't even remember if he had turned the little fellow back to his mother in the pasture but he hoped he had. He wasn't even sure if he had locked the pasture gate.

He was a simple man who took his pleasures just as simple. There was nothing he enjoyed more that a beautiful sunrise or a startling sunset. He had taken over the family's ranch when it had become clear to everyone that his father's time was better spent in politics. Many of the issues his father dealt with, Hoss didn't understand well. That didn't truly bother him for as long as he could work outside with animals and living, growing things, he was content. When something in his world, like the recent uproar over cutting old-growth forests had touched on his father's work as well, he involved himself and tried to understand all the various viewpoints. Otherwise, he let the rest of the world go by.

But now, that world had reached out and snagged at him. His father had talked with him while they waited for Joe to get out of surgery. Ben had talked about the apparent trouble at the casino building site. The Paiute Council was pushing for an early completion, his father had said. Now, with this happening to Joe, they would have to find someone capable of running the project and have to do it quick. For just a moment, when he had said something to the effect that Joe didn't realize the full impact on what his poor behavior had done, Hoss heard the heat in his father's voice. But just as quickly as it had come, Hoss heard it leave, replaced by worry.

In the morning, once he had gotten Adam out of the hospital, he decided he would take a ride up to the job site. He didn't know if he would check out the crash site. That would most likely give him the creeps, he thought. Just thinking about how close he had come to possibly losing both his brothers made Hoss shiver and he rolled up his window.

To turn his thoughts, he punched on his radio and, for the rest of the ride home, sang along with every song played. He only fell silent when he pulled into the yard and eased his truck into its overly wide space in the garage. On the other end, his father's big black sedan was still faintly clicking so he knew his father had just gotten home. Instead of going inside, Hoss killed his engine but left the radio on. He leaned back and closed his eyes, humming with the music. A glance at the dashboard clock showed him that it was just after one in the morning.

"That dadblamed little brother. Couldn't get up in time to meet Adam when he said he would. Told him a mess of times that drivin' like a wild man would end gettin' himself into more trouble. But Adam said he weren't goin' that fast," Hoss spoke his thoughts aloud, giving the words to the darkness surrounding him. "I've seen Joe take that Pyramid Lake road at better that a hundred. The telephone poles just disappearin' he'd be running so fast. Yet he loses control at sixty-five? That don't make sense. Something else must have happened. Maybe Adam and I'll go look things over tomorrow."

With a deep sigh, Hoss turned the key off and got out of the truck. The night had been a long one.

 

 

Ben slowly turned down the blankets and slipped into bed, bunching the extra feather pillow into a wad beside him as he lay on his side. He tried just closing his eyes, willing himself to sleep but when he did, the day came back hard. He and Hoss had paced the floor of the surgery waiting room for what had seemed like most of the afternoon. Finally Paul had slipped in and told him the good news.

"From what they are telling me, there is no spinal damage. No broken ribs. There is a little internal bruising on the right side but it hasn't affected the kidney. He did break his right arm but Doctor Raines, the orthopedic surgeon, was able to operate and set it. That gash on his right thigh took some doing but they managed to get the bleeding stopped and they've sewn it up. Right now, Joe's biggest problem is that he has a concussion, a bad one. Don't get upset, now, but there is a little bleeding into his brain. And he has lost a fair amount of blood."

Ben had tried to take it all in stride; to listen closely to what Paul was telling him and to think on the bright side. "What happens now?"

Paul had rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Now? We pump fluids into him. Another pint of blood should bring him back to full in that department. And we monitor him closely. First thing tomorrow, we'll get another CAT scan of his head and see if that bleeding is any worse."

"Can we see him?" Hoss had asked.

"He'll be in Intensive Care all night and probably tomorrow as well, Hoss. He's still unconscious," Paul had explained but Ben guessed that something in their faces had told the physician just how they felt. "Can't hurt I guess but remember that he's not going to know that you're there."

Both Ben and Hoss had gone into Joe's room and for a while, had numbly sat there beside the bed. Then Hoss had told his father that someone ought to go check on Adam and that he would. Once Hoss was gone, Ben had moved his chair closer to the bed. Slowly and gently, Ben had rubbed the arm on that side, carefully avoiding the IV there in the crook of Joe's tanned elbow. The nurses came and went, never openly intruding, their voices hushed. They checked then disappeared. Joe never moved a muscle, nor made a sound.

Finally, Ben found himself dozing. He knew that he would be back tomorrow and then Joe would possibly be awake and need his father. He rose stiffly and, bending over the side railing, kissed his sleeping son's forehead and left, battling a lump in his throat. The nurse at the desk told him what room Adam was in and he mentally chastised himself for not having spent more time with his eldest. Hopefully Adam would understand.

Now, as he tossed and turned in bed, he wondered what tomorrow would bring. Once Roy Coffee had the cause of the accident figured out, Ben was sure that charges of  speeding and reckless driving would be thrown at Joe. Once those charges were logged down at the County Sheriff's office, there would be media questions. He would talk with John Tanner, his political party's consultant on such things. John would probably tell him to just say that the family was more concerned with Joseph's health and well-being at the moment. Maybe he would have John write him a short speech.

Something caught his thoughts: The Paiute Casino up to Pyramid Lake and the damage done to the one wall. It kept looking more and more like Cartwright and Sons Construction wasn't going to be able to finish the project in the scheduled amount of time and his adversaries, both political and business-wise, would make hay out the situation. He couldn't recall right off the bat what the penalties were for a late finish on the casino. Then he nearly smacked his own knuckles. He had no idea about the contract since Adam handled all of that part of the business, right down to signing his name on contracts worth millions. And Hoss now ran the ranch, and again, it was with no certainty on Ben's part how and what was going on with his beloved Ponderosa. While his sons had grown into responsible men, he had been busy making Nevada law. While his sons had gone about increasing the family's fortunes and standing in the community, Ben had fought for Nevada citizens, their rights as businessmen, landowners, voters. Now he felt unattached to both his sons and the empire that had once been his.

"Tomorrow," he muttered to himself and pulled the sheet higher. "Tomorrow I go back to knowing what is happening in my business and my ranch. And with my sons."

 

 

 

 

Joe awoke slowly. The walls, the sounds, the smells even, made no sense to him. He lifted his head and found the space around him swirling. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back to the hard pillow behind him. He tried lifting his hand to hold his head steady but found it was too heavy to manage. His mouth was cottony dry, his lips cracking. He took a deep breath and found a track of pain that went up and down his side. Wondering how far his boundaries went, he wiggled his toes and found pain but only on the right side.

"Evening," a tentative voice spoke in his ear. "Come on, open your eyes."

He opened his eyes to muted light and a woman dressed in some pastel color that in the shadows looked washed out and vague. Joe struggled to keep his eyes open but the lids were just too heavy and with a deep sigh, he smiled for the woman then closed his eyes.

When he managed to open them again, it was to the sound of a different woman's voice. And she was squeezing his arm something fierce. He was about to say something when the tightness disappeared and she smiled down into his face.

"Blood pressure is good. Respiration? A little fast.  See this number?" she asked and he tried to make the blue number on the monitor stay still. "That tells us how much carbon dioxide is in your blood. It needs to be a bigger number, Joe. We need to get you back on oxygen, okay? I'm gonna slip this, " and something touched his face then it felt as though the wind was blowing up his nostrils and he tried to move from it. She touched him gently, holding him in place and then the flow dropped. "We need to keep this right here, okay? Your temperature is a little high but guess we can expect that." She smiled and patted his arm again. Oddly enough, when she did that, he couldn't feel it.

"What?" he managed to whisper.

She could see he was confused. "You're in Carson-Tahoe Hospital. You had a car accident. Do you remember that?" When he groaned, she continued. "You've been in surgery to fix your arm. You broke it pretty bad. And you have a really nasty cut on your leg that they fixed. Do you remember that they brought you in the LifeFlight helicopter?"

Joe wanted to tell her that he couldn't understand half of what she was saying. He hesitated long enough and she went babbling on. She told him that memory loss was common with concussions as bad as his so there was nothing to be concerned about. She adjusted a few things and he dropped back over the edge into the waiting, blissful, silent darkness.

The next time he opened his eyes, there was no one in the room with him and he took the opportunity to look around himself. There were monitors attached to him, their jagged lines and numerical readouts telling the professionals something. He had no idea how to interpret them except that he was still breathing and had a heart that was beating.  Funny, look at that! Every time my leg hurts, the little wiggly line that's my heartbeat jumps too! Like it's a pain monitor! Cool!  Also hanging there was a bag that held something dark inside it, but there wasn't much in it. It was connected to the line running down into the crook of his left arm. He lifted his heavy right hand Damn! No wonder it's heavy. A cast from fingers to elbow - and moved the bag. Ah, nothing like a good dose of B positive to make a man feel like he should! Good old red-blooded American blood! He almost giggled. He lifted the sheet covering him cautiously. Eww! That doesn't look good. He swallowed the uncomfortable knot in his throat while he studied the bloodied bandage covering his right thigh. He shivered, remembering how the gearshift had broken when the Jeep had overturned.

"Yes, you made a mess of yourself, old boy. Gonna take a while to get all the pieces back to working right," he joked to himself. "Wonder where the button is to call the nurse. The burrito and coffee I had for breakfast have cleared the system. Oh, here it is."

When the nurse appeared, Joe smiled at her as best as he was able. What else is a fella to do when he has to ask a woman to do "that"?  At least she not someone I've dated!

He pressed his shoulders into the hard mattress when he was finished and let the kind nurse adjust the sheet over him and turn the light down low. She murmured "Good night" but he was already drifting off to sleep before she got it all out.

 

There was thin daylight peeking through the drawn curtains when he awoke the next time. Next to him, the short chubby nurse was hanging a bulging bag up where the first bag of blood had hung. She had to stretch to reach it and as she did, the unwashed scent of her wafted over Joe and he shifted his head away from her. She smiled at him then went about changing the lines from one bag to the other. He didn't know if it was because he was bored or because she seemed to be fumbling with the items but Joe watched her hands. Then he looked up at the bag suspended there beside him.

Where did the knowledge come from, he wasn't sure. The blood last night had been his type, B positive. The bag she was hanging was clearly marked A positive. Unsure but still afraid, he looked again at the woman. Her graying hair was pulled back into a straggly bun but it was her hands once again that drew his attention. There was dirt on her hands, the nails broken and raggedly chewed on with a skim of dark showing at the cuticle.

Panic rose in him. As much of his high school biology as he could recall, he was sure that the two blood types were not compatible but yet this nurse…

With his right arm, he blocked her and pushed her back as hard as he could. He grabbed the new line and pulled it from his arm. As he jerked on it, the needle in his arm came ripping out as well. Blood splattered both the nurse and Joe, but he rose onto his side, grabbing hold of the side of the bed and began to shout for help. The woman backed away from him, her hand going to cover the "o" her mouth made.

Suddenly the room was full and the lights were brightly on. One of the nurses that Joe recognized from earlier was the first one in the door. She gasped when she saw all the blood on the bed and on the floor. Hurrying around to the other side of the bed, she pulled Joe back.

"Get her! Stop her! She tried to kill me!" Joe shouted over and over, trying to rise up enough in the bed to point a finger at the other woman's quickly retreating back. The other nurse pulled him back and leaned against him to hold him down.

 

Doctor Paul Martin was in the hospital early. He had several patients he wanted to spend some Sunday morning time with. One of them was Joe Cartwright. When he entered the room, it was just as several orderlies were working on cleaning up a huge amount of blood. He raised his brows and looked across an orderly's back at Joe.

"Morning," he greeted cautiously. Long ago he had learned the expression on the young man's face he now saw meant that he wanted out, away, gone from the doctor and anything else close at hand.

"I tell, you, Doc, it wasn't a simple mistake. That woman was no nurse! And the bag of blood she was hanging was meant to kill me! "

"Settle down, Joe. Nobody here wants to kill you." He took Joe's wrist and felt for a heart rate, ignoring what the monitors told him. There were times when all the whizzes and gizmos were useless and he thought this was one of them. Yes, even as he held the young man's wrist in his hand, the pulse began to slow. When a full minute had passed, he was able to gently force Joe to open his left arm so he could assess the damage there. He pushed the call button for a nurse and when the disembodied voice asked what could they do, he asked for gauze, alcohol and tape. While he waited, Paul did everything he could to stay calm and collected, checking the monitors, checking Joe's pulse again. He'd heard about the "attack" and had decided that if he could remain calm, he could push Joe into the same state of mind without the use of drugs.

"That woman did, Doc. I swear it. Look at that bag. It's marked A positive blood. I'm B positive. What would have happened if I had let her hook it up?"

"You'd have been one sick individual, that's for sure. Shock, certainly." A slim willowy nurse delivered the supplies to the doctor and he gestured for her to stay and assist him. She was, Paul thought, just what he needed: a distraction for his patient. "Leah, meet my good friend Joe Cartwright. Known this young man all his life. He was one of the first babies I delivered so I guess you could say I was there in the beginning. Now, Leah, Joe here had a bad accident yesterday. Got himself knocked around real good. He's probably hurting somethin' awful right about now but he isn’t going to say anything about it." Doc smiled as he wiped away the oozing blood and applied a square of gauze folded over a few times as a pressure bandage. "So I want it noted on his chart that he is to get a big ol' needle full of Demerol every four hours. He can get up if he wants to, but I don't want him trying to walk on that leg just yet." She couldn't help herself. The way Doctor Martin was giving orders was funny and she giggled. The patient smiled at the sound. "We're not going to hook back up his IV, seeings how he ripped this one out. Actually, I had thought at first we'd put it in the back of his hand but he's mighty particular about them hands of his. Here, Leah, hold on to this one while I check his leg." Even as he spoke, he gave her Joe's hand then pulled aside the sheet. Joe couldn't get himself to look at his bandage that the doctor was now cutting away. Besides, Leah had pretty blue eyes. "Leah, when we're done here, I want this incision cleaned and rebandaged. Leah? Leah, you can turn loose of his hand now." The lithe brunette smiled and, dipping her head, pulled her hand free.

There was a tap at the door and a gruff voice asked if he were awake. Recognizing the sound of Storey County's Sheriff Roy Coffee, Joe smiled for the nurse, winking at her as he said he was awake.

Sidling up beside the good doctor, Roy Coffee was a vision in gray. Unlike other county sheriffs, Roy didn't wear a uniform. That is unless you wanted to consider the fact that he rarely was seen wearing something other than a dark gray suit. This morning was no exception.

"How's the patient this mornin', Doc?" Roy stood just shy of the bed, his hands crossed in front of him. "You feelin' up to answerin' a few questions?"

"I got one for you. What are you doing investigating an accident that happened on the Paiute Reservation? I was over the line, I know I was." Joe figured the best defense was an offense.

"I told the chiefs and the Council Members that I would look into for them since I have access to better law enforcement equipment and more manpower to do it with. I been out to the site and looked around real good. 'Fraid there ain't much left of your Jeep. What the accident didn't mess with, the fire did. You're a mighty lucky young man to still be breathin'!" As he spoke, Roy moved closer to the side of the bed until he was able to lean on the side railing while he bantered with the young man there. "You recall much of the accident?"

Joe swallowed and shook his head while he looked at his hands in his lap. How could he tell him and have it believable when he didn't believe it himself? "I remember that I was only doing about fifty or so. My cell phone rang but then-" then he shook his head vaguely and prayed Roy would leave it at that.

"Didn't have no trouble steering or anything? How about your tires?" Roy pressed.

"Roy, that Jeep has less than thirty thousand miles on it. The tires were the ones that came on it and if I'm not mistaken, there was plenty of tread left." Joe fought a losing battle to keep from taking an argumentative stand with the lawman. He'd done so in the past and wound up always on the short end of the stick.

Oddly enough, Roy just nodded his head as though he agreed with him.

"You catch that woman who tried to kill me?" hotly, Joe asked, only to see Roy's brows raise up as he looked across at Paul Martin.

Leaving out the histrionics Joe would have certainly added, Paul relayed the story but said that the hospital was looking into it. As far as he was concerned, he said, it was a mistake that the nurse had made and Joe's attitude about it didn't make it a capital case, in his opinion.

"Does sound peculiar," admitted the sheriff. "If it'll let you rest better, Joe, I'll look into it even though it really is Doug Rogers' territory over here. But I don't think he'd mind. So tell me, Doc, how long before this one here is up on his feet and chasing these nurses down the hall?"

 

 

He had a miserable breakfast. The only bright spot in his morning had been the brunette nurse, Leah. She had obviously decided that she was going to be his special nurse that day since every time he pushed the call button, she appeared. She brought him more coffee when he asked for it and even the Sunday comics and the sports section from the local Sunday paper. Joe dozed frequently but only asked for one shot of pain medication. That was the only thing not delivered by Leah. Instead he got a nurse that he swore was really a man dressed like a woman since she jabbed the needle into his backside with a fair amount of force.

"Leah, that is a pretty color nurse's uniform you've got on," he flirted as Leah worked at re-bandaging his thigh. "Makes your eyes bluer yet, you know it?"

She smiled up at him then resumed her work. "Well it actually isn't mine. I borrowed it because I forgot mine when I came to work." Joe made the appropriate perplexed male noise. "Oh, most of us don't wear our nurses' outfits in public. We have a changing area just down the hall. Most of the time, we'll hang a couple days' worth of uniforms in our lockers and change when we come in."

"Some how I didn't take you for the uniform-wearing sort of gal. More like blue jeans, I'd guess." Leah smiled and nodded, still working on rebandaging his leg. It didn't stop him from flirting, but with a purpose. "I'm right, aren't I? And not those fashion-type jeans. Nope, Levi's."

Leah tilted her head back and laughed softly. "Most guys I know from around here are a little less direct, Mister Cartwright. Next thing you know and you'll be asking me out on a date."

"Would I be successful?"

She shook her head. "I'd say you're going to be here in the hospital come next Friday night. And that would be the first night I have off this week." Leah gathered her things and with a smile over her shoulder and a wiggle of a few fingers, she was out the door and gone.

Grumbling, he laid back in the bed. Who was he kidding? Yes, he wanted out of there. It just didn't feel like some place he wanted to stay. He thought about calling Hoss and getting him to come and spring him but Hoss was about as likely to do that as Ben was. Joe shelved that idea. He'd figured gamely that if he had some clothes, he could walk out. But first he had to get rid of all the lines attached to him. He studied the machines beside him. It appeared that there was only one still hooked to him and that was the one giving out the bumps and blurts of his heart rate. A quick check showed him that they were simply taped to him. They would pull off easily. He came back around to the lack of clothes. Someone walking down the streets of the state capital with an open-down the back hospital gown was sure to attract attention. I can always call a cab…but then I have to pay the cabbie. Wait a minute, I had some money on me. Where did it go? Call the nurse. Tell her you're upset and think you lost something that was in your pockets.

Leah brought him a manila envelope that had his name printed on the outside. As she stood there, he ripped it open and counted out the cash he had. Twenty-eight dollars and change. That wouldn't be enough to get him to the Ponderosa but he wasn't sure he wanted to be there. No, he thought to himself while he went about smiling at Leah and stuffing the money into the side table, if he went home his father would make sure it was a worthless effort and return him, with haste, to the hospital.

"Leah, you were here earlier. Do you know the nurse who tried to give me that wrong type of blood?"

"Never seen her before in my life. And I've worked here almost two years. Done rotations in nearly all the wards. I didn't want to say anything but I think you were right."

"Good, then I need you to help me. What's to stop her from coming back and trying again? And maybe this time succeeding? I have an idea but I need your help." Under the sheet, he crossed his fingers as far as he could. When she looked at him and blinked her big blue eyes, he went on. "I have some place I can go and be safe but I have to get there first. To do that, I need some clothes."

Ten minutes worth of flirting and promising everything conceivable under the sun and Joe was pulling up her jeans over his bandaged leg.  I've always talked about getting into a girl's jeans but --Damn! If this isn't the first time I've actually done it literally. Thank God she's close enough in size…okay, a little shorter than me but as long as they don't fall down…Got to go easy on the leg...Hell, I ain't got any shoes!  Goes with the shirtless look.

He didn't wait for her to come back. He slipped from the room and down the hallway to the elevator. Since it was a quiet Sunday morning, he rode the car empty down to the first floor then out the front door of the hospital. A cab sitting right there had a driver in it, filling out paperwork.

"I need a ride. How about it?" Joe leaned in the window and asked.

"Sure! Where to?" The cabbie put the car in motion even as Joe got in. For a moment, Joe was torn then he gave an address behind Squaw Valley. "Don't know that area, mister."

"Don't worry. I do. And I'll tell you right now, I got twenty eight dollars. You get me as close as you can to that address, okay?" Joe sank into the backseat of the cab and let the morning air wash over him. As the cab rolled up the side of the Sierras, Joe pushed aside small talk from the cabbie. He wanted to feel the wind on his face; he wanted to hear the whine of the tires on the pavement and see the sunlight on the trees.

The meter kicked over to twenty-eight dollars while still on the hard surfaced road. Joe figured that he had maybe a mile all totaled to hike. He dug the money out of the tight jeans pocket and flattened it out to hand it to the cab driver.

"How much further you got to go? I mean, mister, you got no shoes on and this morning is a little too chilly to be hiking around without a jacket."

"I told you that was all I had. Thanks, but I don't want you getting into trouble. I mean I've already gotten a real nice nurse in trouble, I'm sure, for the use of her jeans. I don't want to add you to my conscience."

The driver shoved the car into gear after he flicked the meter off. "Let's say if a nurse can help somebody, so can I? Now gimmee directions, will you?"

            "Like I said, next time around, big tip!" Joe handed the man all of his cash then stood and watched the man turn around in the driveway and pull away, one arm out the window waving. "Nice guy," Joe muttered then, finding the concrete driveway hot under his bare feet, he limped to the door. A shower sounded like a good idea to him and, once he'd retrieved the hidden key and gotten into the house, he would get one.

 

 

"He what?" Paul Martin held the phone away from his ear but still heard Ben Cartwright clearly. "How in the devil could he just walk out? Why did he walk out?"

"Ben, you keep shouting like that and you'll work yourself right into a heart attack. Like I said, there was a problem here this morning. Joe thought a nurse was trying to kill him by giving him the wrong blood. I pretty much brushed it off but it turns out that he may have been right. The nurse, who several of the regular gals saw and didn't recognize, may not have been a nurse at all. And the blood she had, well, it wasn't even human blood." Paul explained, doing his best to stay calm. It was a shame Ben wasn't.

"Have you caught her? Who is she? Why would she want to kill my son? Isn't there some sort of security there at the hospital?" Ben's questions peppered Paul like buckshot.

"No; we don't know; we don't know that either and yes there is security here at the hospital. One of the guards saw Joe getting into a cab. He is probably on his way home, Ben. When he gets there, get him in bed, would you? The concussion he has shouldn't be played with. Then call me!" He hung up the phone and growled once more. "At least Adam waited for me to release him. Shame, but if Joe had waited a few more minutes, he could have saved himself cab fare home."

Ben slammed the phone down, nearly breaking the mechanism. With a huff, he jammed his hands into his pockets and strolled into the center of the great room. Over in the dining area, he could see Hop Sing clearing away the remains of the breakfast he and Hoss had shared before Hoss went to get his brother Adam from the hospital. Over and over again, Ben mulled over what he would do with his youngest when he caught up to him. On one hand, he wanted to blister the young man's hide for doing something so foolhardy. On the other, he would listen to his excuse. Then he would probably tan his hide anyway!

Outside, he heard Hoss' pickup pull into the yard and, clearing the black cloud from his face, Ben went out the door to help his oldest son. At least that one had the sense God gave a mule!

Adam was smiling as his father came across the porch to greet him. He'd awoken a little stiff and the ride home in Hoss' truck had helped loosen him up quite a bit. That and just being out of the confines of the hospital. But the real reason he was smiling was that he had gotten the same phone call Ben had just had. Paul Martin was in search of a wayward and missing Cartwright. Like the rest of them, he assumed that Joe was headed home and all they had to do was wait.

"He's not here yet? Must be taking the long way home! Cabdrivers usually do. Don't worry, Pa. If he can walk out of the hospital under his own steam, he can't be hurting too much!" Adam explained as he and his father decided to sit on the porch and have some coffee. Hoss, on the other hand, claimed he had some cattle he needed to see about and crawled back into his truck and pulled away.

"He's probably going looking for Joe, isn't he?" Ben mused then buried his nose in a cup of Hop Sing's coffee.

"Wouldn't doubt it." Adam, as well, inhaled the fragrance of the black brew in his cup. There was just something about the way Hop Sing brewed his coffee that made it the best a man could drink. And having had it since he was a teenager, Adam felt he was a connoisseur of coffees. "Like I said, Pa, Joe will be fine."

"I don't know that for sure. You heard what happened, didn't you?" When Adam replied that he hadn't, Ben filled him in. At that, Adam decided that perhaps Joe'd had the best idea: Come home where it is safer.

"But why would someone want to kill Joe? Except maybe a half dozen irate boyfriends whose girls Joe's winked at!" Adam joked but in the back of his mind, he saw the Jeep tumbling across the high desert sand and wondered about the accident again.

Adam and his father sat on the porch much like they had in days gone by. They talked about the upcoming hotel project for Grissom and Associates, the problems at the casino and the best way to handle them since it was plain that Joe would not be returning to run the job for some time. Adam said that he'd gotten a call from Webb Stewart offering his services. He watched as his father's brows had flattened then lifted when he recalled the man.

"But I thought there were problems when he worked for us before," Ben said.

"There were, but that was a few years ago. And with this being the high season for construction, there aren't too many men out there with his credentials we can call on short notice. I think though that he is offering to do this as a way of apologizing for what happened before."

"He stole from the company!" Ben pounded the table between them with a stiffened finger.

"Less than a thousand dollars all totaled, Pa. Besides, aren't you the one who said that every man deserves a second chance?"

 As the afternoon rolled on, both men on the porch became more concerned. Adam even made a few calls to people he knew were acquainted with his brother but no one had seen him. Little by little, it dawned on Adam where Joe had gone: some place remote, and most of all, quiet. Joe had gone to the Hideout. Telling his father that he was headed into his office to do some Sunday work on the Grissom hotel, Adam backed his sports car out of the garage and headed west, not east.

 

 

He stepped out of the car where he had pulled into the garage and knew his brother was there. The water pump was running. The inside door to the Hideout, while closed, wasn't locked. Adam smiled. Joe never locked himself in anywhere, always preferring the quick getaway, he claimed. As he stepped into the cabin's hall, he could hear the shower running from the direction of the bathroom just off to one side of the bedroom. He slipped quietly on into the bedroom.

On the bed was a pair of jeans, casually tossed there as though the wearer had just shed them and left them. Through the bathroom door, steam came slowly eddying out and Adam stepped over and looked through the open door. He could tell by just glimpsing at the frosted and steamed-covered glass that the figure standing under the hot pounding water was Joe. He was turned slightly and Adam thought that he was hanging onto the window ledge, letting the water stream down over his slim body.

"You okay?" Adam called, doing his best to sound non-threatening.

Joe raised his shaggy head and looked through the vapors towards Adam as he stood in the doorway. The sound had at first frightened him but just seeing his brother standing there let his heart resume its normal beat. If nothing else, it was comforting to know that his brother was there with him. He even tried to sound normal when he bantered back, "I will be when I can get the smell of the hospital off me."

"What about your cast? You're gonna ruin it getting it wet aren't you?"

With a short bark of laughter, Joe replied, "Nope. It's fiberglass. It'll dry in no time. You come to take me back?"

Now it was Adam's turn to laugh and he did, leaning against the doorjamb with his arms crossed over his chest. "No, don't think I could get you back to that hospital without a fight on my hands. You want to tell me what's going on?"

Joe turned off the shower and opened the sliding glass door just enough to grab a towel to wrap around his waist. Gingerly, he stepped closer to the shower door and slid it back all the way, leaning on the framing. Joe's grunt made Adam turn his attention to his brother when modesty would have bid him look the other way. He saw that Joe was still too weak to be up but that wouldn't stop him from trying. Adam sighed as though exasperated and stepped forward, offering his arm. It surprised him that Joe took it. His fingers, still damp from the shower, clutched like talons into Adam's arm as he maneuvered out of the shower, the badly cut leg seeming to drag. The elder brother fought the urge to simply pick up the younger one. Instead, they worked their way slowly into the bedroom where Joe simply collapsed, chest heaving, on the bed.

Adam grabbed a towel from the bathroom and tossed it to Joe. "Least you can do is dry your hair."

His brother snorted and struggled to sit back upright but he couldn't do it without help. This time, though, he pushed the helping hand aside and remained flat on the bed, staring at the ceiling.

"Okay, now you want to tell me why you left the hospital? And better yet, why did you come here? I could understand going home where there are people to help you. But here? Come on, Joe, what's with you?" Adam could see his own reflection in the mirror, his dark clothing matching his mood.

With his eyes still closed, Joe used the towel to dry his arms and chest then rolled to one side and managed to sit upright. "You wouldn't understand," he muttered, not even looking at his brother.

"If you don't tell me, that'd be right. Come on, Joe, out with it or I'll haul your ass back to Carson-Tahoe in about a dozen heartbeats."

Still Joe refused to even look in Adam's direction, but Adam could feel something unsettling coming in waves off of him. "Tell me and maybe I can help," he soothed and sat down on the bed beside him.

"You know about the mix up last night, don't you?" Adam nodded. "That nurse, the one who made the mistake, I don't think they'll find her 'cause I don't think she was a nurse, Adam. She had dirty fingernails. You ever see a nurse with dirty nails?"

His lips twisting as he held back a laugh, Adam agreed with him. "But there's something else. What is it?"

Joe's shaggy damp head shook once. Deciding that he had to pry the information out of him, Adam used the same technique his father would have. He took the towel from Joe and dried the remaining droplets from his brother's back. When he was finished, he let his hand stay lightly pressed against Joe's black and blue shoulder.

"You wouldn't understand because I don't understand."

"Just tell me and, maybe between the two of us, we can figure it out," was Adam's offer.

Slowly, thoughtfully, Joe licked his lips and Adam could almost see him shoving things around in his head. "I told Roy that I didn't remember anything about the accident. I lied. I remember everything. Just like if I'd had a video camera, it's so clear. You said you saw me coming down the road then suddenly the Jeep was flipping over. You didn't see what I saw."

Adam remained quiet but something about the way Joe was talking made him unsure if he wanted to know.

"Just before the accident, I got a phone call. Clear as day, and you know how lousy reception can be out there. Anyway, clear as you and I talking right now, the voice, a man's, said 'Paybacks are hell. And it starts now.' The caller id was blocked so I don't know who made the call but when I looked up again, there was this huge hand. It looked like it was made out of silvery-gray clouds 'cause I could see through it but at the same time I could see the fingers, hell, even the lines on the palm. The hand, Adam, it was held up like someone would tell you to stop so I put my foot on the brake. Just as I did that, the fingers bent and just flicked the Jeep off the road like you would a fly from the table. The Jeep went sailing. I felt like a pair of jeans in the dryer, I tell you. When it finally stopped rolling, I could hear that same man's voice still on the phone. He was laughing, Adam. Now, you want to explain that to me?"

Adam remained silent, withdrawing his hand only when Joe moved away from him a little.

"You think I'm crazy, don't you? You think I imagined it. I didn't, Adam. I saw it, I heard it, I felt it. The only way I can think of proving it is that there is gonna be busted glass on the highway. The highway, Adam, not out in the dirt, the highway, because that hand broke the window on my side when he hit me."

The elder brother stood and walked away from the bed and the turmoil he could feel washing off his brother. Yes, when he and Hoss had gone out there for a few moments that morning, he had seen the tiny dark-tinted glass squares still on the tarmac. It made sense with what Joe'd said but, at the same time, it sounded far-fetched.

"I can't say I don't believe you, Joe, I just wonder if maybe part of this isn't something your subconscious made up while you were -"

"NO!" Joe shouted then gasped when he realized he had tightened muscles that were sore. "I know it happened, Adam, God knows, I've got ample proof all over my body."

"And it happened just like you said it did?" When Joe only nodded, Adam continued, coming back to sit on the bed beside him. "Okay then. That's what happened. But right now, I'd feel a whole lot better if you were resting, rather than trying to figure things out."

"That's just it, Adam. The voice said paybacks -plural- and I can't figure out who it is or what it is I am supposedly paying back. I figure whoever it was, they found out that I survived the accident so they manufactured that incident in the hospital. Where's the next one coming from? How can I protect myself against another attack when I don't know who or where or why?"

Without another thought, Adam rested his hand on his brother's shoulder again. "Maybe that's why you came up here. So no one can find you." and we can watch over you a little better. "Come on. How about a nap? You look pretty done in."

Joe quit arguing, exhausted, and stretched out on the bed, asleep almost before his head hit the pillows. It was left to Adam to pull the sheet over him and he made sure the casted arm was out where the air could dry it. Once his brother was asleep, Adam stepped out onto the sunset-drenched deck and called another brother.

"I found him. He's up here at the Hideout," Adam said with no preamble when Hoss answered on the second ring.

"Good. I'll do what I can to call off the search parties."

"When you get done, how about coming up here. You and I need to talk about something."

He could almost see Hoss' face squirm into a question mark. "What sort of thing?"

"I'll tell you when you get here. Better bring something to eat. I think the only here is a jar of peanut butter and stale soda crackers." He massaged the bridge of his nose, wondering where the headache had come from but he knew. Too much stress with too little sleep.

It had just grown completely dark with the moon rising over Lake Tahoe when Adam, sitting on the deck, heard the whine of Hoss' truck coming up the steep lane. He stood and stretched then stepped back and looked into the bedroom. Yes, Joe was still sleeping, not having moved so much as an eyelash. Adam heard the solid thunk of the pickup door closing and before he could step around the corner, brother Hoss was there. In one arm he carried a bag and in the other hand, a six pack of beer.

"You get subs or something we have to cook?" Adam gestured towards the bag.

"Couple of subs. Two for me and one apiece for you and Joe. But I suppose I shouldn't have bought the beer. With you and Joe both taking them prescriptions, you shouldn't be drinkin' anything but water." There was a delightful tease in Hoss' tone as he brushed by his brother and went into the small kitchen. He dropped both packages onto the table then went into the darkened bedroom. Once he had convinced himself that his baby brother, stretched out in a shaft of moonlight on the bed, was all right and sleeping soundly, did he return.

Unwrapping the subs and opening two beers, the older Cartwright brothers sat at the small table and ate in silence. In the length of time it took Adam to down his one sub and beer, Hoss had cruised through two subs and three beers and was looking longingly at the other sub and the remaining beers.

"You said we were gonna talk about somethin'. What is it? Somethin' to do with Joe?"

Quickly and simply, Adam told him what Joe had told him. As he spoke, he watched the expression in the blue eyes across the table from him. When he'd finished, Hoss pursed his lips and nodded his head.

"While we were at the jobsite, and you went in the offices to make a call, I wandered around some. I poked here and prodded there and as I did, I swear Adam, it felt like someone was watching me. I'd look out the corner of my eye but couldn't seem to catch whoever it was. It was creepy, Adam."

If someone else had said what Hoss just had, Adam would have been tempted to just blow it off, but sometimes his brother seemed to have a sixth sense about things. When they had been kids, Hoss seemed to have picked up vibrations from people and had warned Adam several times about girls he was dating being "trouble".  Hoss had also foretold when he'd had car trouble in bad weather and had gone out looking for him, finding him just a few minutes after it had happened. Since then, Adam had trusted Hoss' feelings concerning some things that would otherwise defy explanation.

"I think something is goin' on out there at that job, Adam. Besides the wall, has there been any other trouble out there?" Hoss opened the next to the last beer.

"Not that I've heard but then our little brother is notorious about keeping problems under his hat until they get so big, he can't get his hat on any more. Maybe we ought to call Jenny tomorrow morning out there. She'd tell us."

"Webb Stewart is headin' out there to run the job until Joe gets his feet back under him is what I heard. Is that right?" Hoss took a long pull on his beer but never took his eye off his brother.

Adam made a face, grimacing at how fast news got around. "Yeah, he called me this morning. Said he was sorry about what had happened to Joe and to show it, he'd like to come back and take over 'til Joe's back. I told him I wouldn't tolerate any shenanigans. I suspect he'll toe the line, at least until he thinks I'm not looking."

Hoss shook his head slowly. Webb Stewart was one of the few men in northwest Nevada that Hoss Cartwright didn't like. The man had worked for Cartwright Construction for a few years, working himself up to superintendent. Then he had started changing time cards in favor of the employees, himself included. He was also supposedly pushing drugs at the sites but no one could ever prove it. In the end, Adam had simply laid him off, replacing him with Hoss for the short time left on the contract. Webb had made big noises but hadn't done anything. Now he was coming back to work.

"I don't want Webb Stewart at my job."

Both brothers at the table turned at the sound. In the joining doorway, Joe stood dressed only in a pair of jeans, his hands pressed against the doorjambs. Even under his tan, he was pale and there was a slight sheen of sweat over his chest.

"Hey Shortshanks, you sure know how to get people riled up! If Adam hadn't called when he had, I think Paul Martin and Pa were about to go to the governor and ask for the State Militia to look for you. And you don't want to know what Roy was up to! Heard he was getting up a posse," Hoss chuckled but both he and Adam knew that it hadn't been far from the truth.

"Ha, ha! You got anything left for me?" Joe gestured at the sub wrappings and empty beers on the table.

Hoss got out of his chair and took the few steps he needed to be at Joe's side to help him into the small kitchen, now suddenly full. Joe took the chair while Hoss went out on the deck for one of the chairs there.

Picking the peppers and olives off his cold cut sub, Joe said nothing. He reached for the last beer but Adam moved it further away.

"Narcotics and alcohol don't mix," warned Adam but Joe scowled at him.

"The last narcotics, as you call 'em, that I had was back before noon. Gimmee the beer," Joe insisted, his outstretched hand wiggling his plea. His brother wouldn't give. Just as it looked as though a full-scale argument would explode, Adam's phone rang. Instinctively, he reached for it and flipped it open, noticing the caller's number too late.

"Hi, Pa!" Looking at both of his brothers, he grimaced theatrically.

Hoss and Joe looked at one another and smiled. Poor old Adam was most likely about to get an earful.

"Yes, that's right. He's right here with me and we're having some dinner together."

Joe made a half-hearted lunge for the beer but Hoss got his hands on it first, opened it and tilting his head back, nearly emptied it in one long gulp.

"Yes, Pa. Hoss is here too." The brother so named made a face so comical that Adam nearly started laughing. "Everything is fine. Yes, I'll get him back to Paul but I think we might need to get a --what was that you said? Oh, sure, wait a minute." He handed his phone to Joe. "Our father wants to talk to you." Now it was Adam's turn to gloat and grin.

"Pa!" Joe exclaimed then began making a grating noise in his throat. Both of his brothers looked at one another, realizing that at some point in the past, while talking to him on their cell phones, the static they had heard was Cartwright-generated. "What was that, Pa? I can't hear you. The connection-" and Joe made more static-noise then snapped the phone closed. Immediately he reopened it and turned it off. With a flick of his wrist he handed it back to a bemused Adam.

"Won't do any good," Adam pointed out. "He'll just call Hoss."

"And not get me. Left it in the truck." Hoss finished the beer.

"Wonder where mine is?" Joe lamented, then shrugged and went about wrapping his mouth around one end of the sub.

Adam snapped his fingers and pointed a long one at Joe. "That's how we find out who made that call, Joe. First thing tomorrow morning, I'll have Rosalie call the phone company and get the print out of calls to your phone. I imagine the phone is cinders by now since everything else in your truck but you went up like a Roman candle. If it wasn't, we could do the old star sixty-nine routine and call them back."

"But I told you, according to the screen on the phone, it said 'number blocked'. That means even the phone company wouldn't have it, right?" Joe explained then resumed eating.

"Don't know if the caller's number would be posted on the bill, Adam. Lots of times if the call is less than a minute long, it just gets dropped," Hoss added, emptying the beer and setting it aside, as far away from Joe as he could put it and still be on the table.

"We'll find out one way or another. But right now, gentlemen, we have a slightly different problem to tackle." When Adam could feel both pairs of eyes on him, he quit finger-painting with the wet rings the beers had left on the table and continued. "Namely, you, Joe. You need to go back to the hospital. Don't go getting riled on me, boy. You know it, I know it, and Hoss knows it. More importantly, our father knows it. The only thing that has let you stay free this long is that I didn't have a way to get you there. I do now. Hoss, your passenger seat lays flat, doesn't it? Good. Finish your sub, Joseph, you have a date with the hospital."

Joe laid the uneaten half of his sub down and without looking up, said "No. I'm not going back there. You can try, but I won't go. And I told you why." When he finished, he took a shaky breath.

"Okay, then, we'll take you home. At least there, someone can help you, Joe. Pa or Hop Sing--"

"Pa'd try to get me back to the hospital too. You know he would. No, Adam, I'm staying here."

Hoss nudged Adam with his foot under the table and, when his brother looked at him, nodded. For whatever reason, Hoss was agreeing with Joe. He could see the tiny quivers running up and down Joe's arms. That spoke of fear to Hoss; he was hanging onto the table as though they would try to wrench him from it. He was afraid and that made Hoss leery too.

"Why not let him stay here tonight? Adam, you can go on home. I'll stay with Shortshanks, here, and help him out. Then tomorrow morning, we can talk about this again. How's that, little brother?"

"Oh, no you don't!" Adam shook his head and finished his beer. "If I go home, I have to explain to our father where Joe is…or, should I say, where he isn't? I can't tell him he's here 'cause then Pa would know about the Hideout. You go home, Hoss. After all, I found him."

In the end, both decided to stay although no one had any idea of what to say to their father who had to be pacing the floor like a wild man by then. Hoss helped Joe back to the sole bed then went to join Adam on the night-darkened deck.

"Sweet my good Lord, but that boy is afraid, isn't he?" Hoss murmured, coming to lean on the railing beside Adam

"I can't say I blame him. What are we gonna do, Hoss? We can't let him stay up here, hiding. That isn't going to fix anything." Adam buried his chin in the cup of his hand as he rested his elbows on the rail beside Hoss.

"I don't know either. Right now I think he needs sleep more than anything else. From what you said, I can understand that he might not want to go back to Carson-Tahoe." The big man shivered and the air temperature wasn't the reason.

Adam stood up straight and slapped the rail. "He's not the only one. Flip you for the sofa."

Hoss chuckled then looked at him. "No, you take it. I think I'll stay out here for a while. The moon is nice and full and it always seems so close when I come here. Closer even than when I'm at home."

"Good night, then."

 

 

It felt like he had just lain down and stretched out as far as the sofa would let him when Hoss was shaking his arm, waking him up. Pushing the big man's hands away, he struggled to sit up, still not fully comprehending what he was saying.

            "Let me have your phone, Adam. My battery's dead. You got Paul Martin's number programmed on this or do I need to call information?" Hoss, pulling Adam up so that he could plunder his pockets, was approaching panic and that registered with Adam.

"What is it?" Adam stood shakily, one hand to his head to control the dizziness sweeping him.

"Joe's in bad pain. And I think he's runnin' a fever. You go check on him while I call Paul."

When his own head was clear, Adam scurried into the bedroom, feeling his way more than seeing it since there were no lights on. In the bedroom, Adam turned on the light in the bathroom, letting its glow splash across the bed. He turned back to Joe, seeing the bunched pillows and crumpled sheets then finally his brother, curled tightly on his side. He smoothed his brother's hair back from his face, catching the taut lines and the clenched jaw.

"Don't suppose you got something stronger than aspirin? I could use it right about now," Joe managed to get through clenched teeth. His breathing was irregular, coming in gasps, as Adam watched. And Hoss was right about the fever as he felt the rising heat under his hand.

"Afraid not. Sorry, but I think Hoss is working on a fix for you." Adam left the bedside and, from the bathroom, got a washcloth that he soaked in cold water. Back beside Joe, he tried to get him to straighten out but even as he did, he could feel the muscles resisting. "Joe, you need to relax some. Stop anticipating the pain and maybe it'll ease off some." But Adam knew he wasn't getting through.

"I'll go down to the end of the lane in a few minutes," Hoss said, coming up behind Adam and flicking the phone closed. "Paul's coming here. I told him I'd lead him back here."

"He's coming here?" Adam asked incredulous. He redirected his attention to Joe, now wiping his face, his exposed shoulder and side. "First time I have heard of Paul Martin making a house call in ages. How about that, Joe?"

It was on the tip of Hoss' tongue to finish what Paul had told him. He was coming, yes, but he was also going to see about getting their brother back to the Carson-Tahoe Hospital. He also didn't want to say that the good doctor had answered his phone on the first ring and said that he had been waiting for this particular call. His bag was packed and he had been heading to the door within moments of hanging up.

Adam was relieved fifteen minutes later when two sets of headlights came up the dark lane. Car and truck doors slammed and there were quick footfalls on the deck around to the front door then hushed voices across the living room. At the bedroom door, Paul Martin, looking a little ragged, stopped and promptly threw Adam out and closed the door behind him

In the shadowy living room, Adam chewed on the side of his thumb as he paced. Hoss went to the dark deck and watched the stars circling above him. From where they were, they could hear Paul's voice then Joe's, but neither could make out the words.

It wasn't too much later that Adam heard Hoss swear, something he rarely did. He was on his way to the deck to see what was wrong when he heard another set of footsteps on the wood planking. He turned just in time to see his father storm through the door.

"Where is Joseph?" he demanded and Adam had no choice but to show him to the bedroom door.

"Well, so much for this place being a secret," Adam sighed, watching his father's back disappear behind the closed door.

 

.

 

Once again, Adam had fallen asleep on the sofa, his long legs bent and his sox feet stuffed between the back and the seat to keep them warm. He was far from comfortable but his body had demanded rest and he would listen to it. As he slept, he dreamed…

 

All of what Joe had described to him, he saw happening again, but slowly as though it had been filmed and he was playing the tape back at half speed. As the Jeep rolled, Adam was there behind the steering wheel. He felt the seatbelt tighten, pushing him back into the hard seat as the airbag exploded in his face. Yet as the whole world turned, he could feel the steering wheel bite into his thighs. Dust kicked up by the vehicle rose, smothering him and limiting his vision yet he experienced the shoulder strap ripping into his shoulder at the same time he was wrenched far to his right. Then he slammed to the left, the seat belt buckle gouging into his side and his arms were useless to control his body's motion. Again he was thrown like a rag doll to the right and this time, the gearshift snapped off and, as his feet fought for purchase against the floor, rammed what remained of the shaft across his leg just above his knee. He would have cried out but the motion of the rolling Jeep tossed him to the left as it tilted again. His head snapped hard to that side. One more time, the topsy-turvy motion threw him right then left until it finally stopped and he was pushed down onto the passenger's seat, the seatbelt's hold broken yet when he reached for the buckle, found it was still fastened. And still his vision was obscured by the dust created but also now by the hurrying darkness behind his eyes…

 

In a cold sweat, Adam jerked awake, his heart pounding and his breathing coming in rapid gasps. Unlike other times, every detail of the dream stayed with him when he opened his eyes. He found himself shaking in fear.

My God, he thought, no wonder Joe's half-scared out of his wits! I only dreamed it. He lived it. Then that business at the hospital with the mix up in blood typing. I guess I understand. Or at least I do about the accident. He forcibly slowed his breathing and sought for sanity in the darkness of the night. He knew where he was but still the memory of the dream lingered and Adam thought for a moment that he could even smell gasoline. He stood, making his legs carry him to the window that looked out over where the cars were parked. Adam chuckled. There had never been that many vehicles in the driveway before. As he started to turn away, he saw movement in the shadows beside his brother's truck.

"Probably 'coons got up in the back looking for -" he started to whisper to no one there then saw the shadowed figure dart down the lane. It was a man! With a shout forming for the man to stop, Adam saw the first glimmer of light, down next to Hoss' pick up. Raised in mining country, he immediately recognized it for what it was - the spark that would set off dynamite. He didn't shout out but ducked his aching body beneath the window's level; he didn't have the time before the world outside exploded and shattered windows in the cabin.

Several explosions, each as loud as the one before it, rocked the very earth. With each one, Adam ticked off the vehicles that had been parked outside: Hoss' truck, Paul Martin's SUV and his father's car. Still hunkered down under the now-empty window, he sighed when a fourth didn't go off. They hadn't found his Jaguar in the garage. Just the cars outside but that was enough. As Adam raised his head to look out, the brightly burning vehicles looked like some giant child had dumped his matchbox cars down on the concrete drive then lit a fire under them. With a jolt, he realized that the phone there in the house was ringing. He ran to the kitchen and answered it with a startled "Yes?"

"I told you paybacks were Hell. Welcome to Hell."

"Who is this?" Adam shouted into the receiver, only to have it hum back at him as the other party hung up. Quickly, Adam dialed 9-1-1 and gave the required information clearly and succinctly to the operator. There was motion behind him and while he spoke, he turned and watched his father and Paul run from the bedroom towards the front of the cabin. He was just hanging up when he heard the water pump cut on. He took once glance into the bedroom to see where Joe was still asleep, probably pretty heavily drugged, Adam considered, then took the same track his father and the doctor had.

Outside, he joined the battle to save the house, everyone realizing that the vehicles were a lost cause. Ben had the garden hose and was spraying the side of the cabin while Hoss used some sort of fabric that was wet to smack at the spots burning. Paul Martin had a bucket that Adam had last seen holding a bottle of wine to chill. He was filling it from another spigot and throwing the water on several of the burning bushes. Adam ran back into the house and grabbed one of the towels Joe had used and ran back outside with it. He joined Hoss.

 

By daybreak, it was over. The cabin had been saved - except for all of the windows on the driveway side. The four men who had fought to save it sat in the living room. They were tired, soot-covered and smelled strongly of smoke. Adam had made coffee and filled the white mugs they extended.

"Arson squad will be up later," Ben said to no one in particular then sipped his coffee.

"I wish I had thought to run after that guy." Adam wanted to kick himself for his lack of action.

"I'm glad you didn't!" Hoss leaned over and pounded gently on Adam's knee as he sat in the bentwood rocker. "If you had, we'd've been picking you up in pieces. There was a delay cut into that line just so someone would get caught, thinking only one car was gonna be torched."

Reluctantly, Adam had to agree with Hoss. So far he hadn't mentioned the phone call but there was something about it that bothered him. First, how did someone know the phone number? They paid handsomely to not have it listed. Secondly, there was the timing. Only the man running away would have known…or would he?

"Well, what do we do now?" Paul asked, swallowing the last of his coffee. He checked his watch. "I'm supposed to be at the hospital in fifteen minutes to do my rounds."

"Jimmy, one of the fellas with the fire company, was gonna have his dad and brother come up with their wreckers and tow the cars away. Maybe you could get a ride with one of them?" Hoss offered.

"We'll get you something, Paul, don't worry. For as long as you have taken care of us, it's our turn now to take care of you," Ben laughed lightly as he spoke.

"Speaking of which, how much longer is Sleeping Beauty in there gone be out?" Adam teased, nodding in the direction of the bedroom. The look his father gave him made him regret that he had used the lightly jesting tone but the words were out and he couldn't haul them back.

"Soon, probably," Paul informed them then went a bit further. "Joe is gonna need fluids. And food. You too, Adam. From what I saw in those cabinets, you boys need to restock your little paradise with something more than wine and crackers. Had some hope when I saw the size of the freezer, but all it's for is making ice cubes, apparently." With his head wagging back and forth, Paul sighed then finished his coffee.

Ben's eyes tracked across his sons slowly. It was almost like seeing them for the first time. They were men, not his little boys, and they were dealing with problems, responsibilities and life's less than perfect situations. They had no desire to step into the same bright lights he had when he'd first gone to the state legislature years ago. At those times when they were thrust there, it was because of him, he knew, not something they wanted to have happen. Hoss, sitting there with his face soot covered, his shirt torn and filthy from fighting the fire, had taken on the running of the family's ranching operation nearly single-handedly. He made decisions on a daily basis that Ben'd not even considered when he had run it. Now, there were laws concerning what was fed to the cattle before they were sent to market. There were laws that kept standing acres of trees from being cut because of possible contamination to neighboring streams. Laws, laws, laws. And he, Ben Cartwright, had helped to write the laws that sometimes bound his son's own hands. But never once had he ever heard Hoss complain about the load he carried. There were times, he knew, that Hoss used his brothers as sounding boards, but he also used them as help too when times were lean and help hard to come by. Adam would lay aside his own work and get into the pick up with Hoss, ready to do the work he had grown up with. And Joseph would shake his head and pull on his jeans, ready to work at whatever Hoss asked of him. His sons were like that, Ben thought proudly, always pulling together to help one another. Where was he, the father, in this picture any more?

He turned his attention to his eldest son. Adam also carried a huge burden of the family's responsibilities. It had seemed like a perfect fit when Adam had gone to college and studied architecture and engineering. Those studies had meshed so perfectly with the needs of the burgeoning Cartwright Construction that it had been with great pride when he added "and Sons" to the name of the company. Had it been only a dozen or so years ago? Back then, he had known the face of every man working for him. He knew their families and waved at them when he went by them. They had voted him into office and now he couldn't remember the last time he had been to the complex of offices that held Cartwright and Sons Construction. As he watched, Adam's head rose and Ben saw how tired he was; he saw the bruises, the scrapes on his son's face. He saw him rub his dark stubbled jaw with a hand blackened by soot and cut by glass shards. This was his first born and yet he felt a distant attachment to the man he had become. Adam, a born leader of men, held the reins in his hands of Ben's own multi-million dollar business yet now was looking to his father for help. Yes, that's what those dark eyes were asking for but why?  Ben had no idea.

            "Didn't know we were having such picky company!" Joe replied to Paul's comment about their lack of culinary supplies. He stepped carefully into the living room. When the whole group gathered down by the unused fireplace looked up at him surprised, all he could was shrug, standing on one foot with the other rubbing down his pant leg. Everywhere he looked there was broken glass, so he felt justifiably wary. "What happened?"

 

When the wreckers had finally pulled away with Hoss' truck in tow, the lane was left barren yet still showed the scars of the fire on its concrete surface. The arson squad leader had talked at length with Adam then Ben. The man had taken notes and several rolls of pictures then signaled for the debris to be removed. Only then had Adam raised the garage door and backed his prized Jaguar into the open. The first person into the passenger seat was Hoss, cramming himself into a space half the size he needed. He rolled the window down and promised to be back within the hour with one of the vehicles from the construction compound.  Reluctantly, Paul Martin had left as well, having given his worst patient a firm talking to about what he expected to have happen.

"Don't worry, Paul. I'll get him back to the hospital even if I have to tie him up." Ben had promised, laughing as he spoke but his eyes were pinned on his youngest son with a less than humorous expression.

The doctor surprised them all. "No," he said, "take him home. Keep him in bed, quiet, if possible. Feed him up. Make sure he gets plenty of fluids. I'll call some prescriptions into the drug store that I want to see he takes. But if he gets dizzy or starts again with a fever, call me! Better yet, call for an ambulance and I'll meet you at the Emergency Room door." He leveled a stern gaze at Joe and all but shook his finger under Joe's nose. "You do like I tell you and you'll heal a lot faster than if you don't. You understand me? You, too Adam! Rest! Hear me?" Then the physician was gone, one arm hanging out the door of the wrecker towing what was left of his SUV.

Ben turned back to where Joe was at on the deck. He'd managed to roll himself into the hammock at the far end of the sun-washed deck and smiled for his father as Ben approached.

"Hungry?" Ben asked, not knowing how he would deal with it if Joe said that he was.

"Not really. Tell me something, Pa." Joe's green eyes held his father for a moment. "How'd you find this place?"

Ben chuckled. If he told the truth, he would have said that he'd known about it since the property had been bought. When all of his sons started disappearing for long evenings at the same time and coming home with sawdust on their persons in one form or another, he'd been puzzled.  When he had overheard Adam and Joe discussing what color each thought the bedroom should be painted, he was intrigued. Then he had seen Hoss' pickup truck, the one with "The Ponderosa" emblazoned on the driver's door with "Boss Hoss" written in bold gold under the window ledge and the personalized license plate bearing the encryption "No. 2 Son". The fact that it was loaded with a mattress, box springs and a carved pine headboard Ben did not recognize and driven by a son who was not Hoss surprised him enough that he followed it. That was until it turned up a road he didn't like the looks of for the Volvo's ancient undercarriage. At first, he'd thought that one of his sons was about to pop an all-important question to a lady and Ben had mulled over the women in his sons' lives. As far as Ben had known, though, Adam was between ladies, Hoss didn't have one and Joe was seeing four, alternating them on weekends. He'd waited patiently but there had been no earth-shattering news and his sons went on with their lives and the revolving door of girl friends continued. But he couldn't admit to any of that so he used a parent's dodge.

"I'm your father, remember?" Ben said as if that would explain everything. He chortled then reached over a ruffled the thick dark curls on his son's head. "Soon as they get back here, I want you on your way home. Understand me? Don't go giving me that look, young man! Two days ago, the doctors told me you were in critical condition. You can't have healed up that fast. And I think it would be wise of you to contact the hospital and explain your use of that nurse in your get away. She's liable to lose her job because of it, you know."

"I'll fix it for her. I promise. And I'll go home and go to bed. I'll eat what Hop Sing gives me and I'll be a good little boy, okay?"

"Would you tell me, please, why I don't believe a word you say?" Ben teased back. He let the matter drop and offered to get Joe a cup of coffee but Joe turned it down, saying he never cared for the way Adam made coffee.

Ben went into the kitchen and poured out the last of the thick black brew in the coffee maker. His nerves still uneasy, he puttered about the small kitchen, putting cups and the empty coffeepot into the small dishwasher and starting it going. When he returned to the deck, Joe was asleep in the hammock. With nothing more to do, he sat in the deck chair close beside his son and watched the valley below come into the full light of day. A part of him enjoyed the solitude and peace. The other part of him kept thinking of all the things he should have been doing. Yes, he should be making calls to let his staff know where he was and that he was all right but even at that sense of duty, he felt rebellion rise in him. Then he laughed at himself. That was what this place was all about from the beginning, wasn't it? Rebellion and the chance to escape duties? Perhaps, he thought, his sons were wiser men than he gave them credit for.

He slipped his shoes off and planted his stockinged feet on the top rail of the banister and let the cool breeze play with his toes. Leaning back in his chair, he glanced over to make sure Joe was really asleep. He nudged the hammock with one foot and it rocked, but Joe only took a deeper breath and sniffed.

Young'un's dead to the world. He didn't hear that explosion last night? And I can remember when you couldn't walk by his room without him waking up in the night! He was such a light sleeper! What changed? Like he had done with his older sons, he did with this one; he studied him in the bright light of the sun on his own turf, this child of his now suddenly a man. There were many times that Ben'd had to stop and tell himself that this one was the baby of the family only because of his birth order. Like his brothers, he was a grown man now. He handled a man's work, a man's responsibilities. Yet there was something very child-like in him. At least to his father. Was it because he seemed to take nothing serious? Was it the simple delight he took with life's humorous twists and turns? Or perhaps it was his eagerness to embrace life, usually at a speed his elders found frightening? Ben knew within Joseph was a heart as loving as Hoss' and an intellect nearly as sharp as Adam's, yet he had chosen to live his life different from theirs. As much as Ben thought he knew about this son, he realized there was as much he didn't know.

"No, about all my sons. Why? Because of this place? Not where it is, but because it is?" Ben spoke to himself, low and soft. He glanced again at his youngest sleeping peacefully. That was when he noticed that there were no lines of stress or pain on that smooth face like had been there while he'd been at Carson-Tahoe. Maybe Paul had been right to send him home to rest and repair his body. "Maybe that's what I need too."

A few minutes later he went in to the phone and called his staff. He told them that he was taking a few days off to tend to family. He received their condolences and they asked politely about his sons' and he had responded appropriately, thanking them for their concern and their well wishes. When he hung up the phone, he was surprised with the decision he'd found he had subconsciously just made. He would not run for re-election when this term was over. He had to go back and find his sons. They were suddenly more important than all the voters in Nevada. They always have been. I just didn't think of them that way.

 

 

 

 

"Can we put the top down?" Joe pestered, his tone like that of a ten-year-old.

Adam rolled his eyes heavenwards and sighed deeply. There were some days that he just couldn't figure out which Joe he would be dealing with: the petulant ten-year-old, the rebellious teenager or the responsible adult. Today seemed to be the first on the list and what he needed was the last entry. He had cut short his day poring over drawings for the new project so that he and his brothers could talk about what had happened just days earlier at their sanctuary. It wasn't about the windows. He'd talked with the insurance company and arranged to have all of them replaced and the concrete parking area cleaned of all damage. The insurance company had said that they would send someone out as soon as possible and Adam'd pushed, reminding them that the house was now open to possible theft and further vandalism. The broker he spoke with relented and Adam was sure that even as he hung up from that call, another was being placed and the windows would be installed by the end of the following day. Just in case, he had stayed overnight there.

At least that was the reasoning he had given everyone. The truth was a little more nebulous. He had used the time at the Hideout to study what had happened, not just with Joe's accident but also with the casino project. He laid out pieces of paper on the table and made notes on them far into the night, looking for a common thread. A little after two in the morning, it occurred to him and he felt foolish for not having seen it.

Now, he wanted to bounce his ideas off someone who'd had first hand experience with the whole. There was only one problem. Adam had wanted to go up to the casino project and look around again. This being the middle of the week, he'd have to wait until the crews went home at 6 pm. Give the superintendent long enough to look over the site and secure things and Adam figured he shouldn't show up until 7 pm at the earliest. By then it would be getting close to dark. Too dark? That the site was not lit up at night was his problem, he thought.

Then the fates had dealt him a kind hand. It started with a call from Hoss.

"The Sheriff is done looking over what's left of Joe's Jeep. He, " and Hoss paused, making Adam wondered if perhaps he were someplace with an audience he didn't trust. After a few moments, he went on. "He didn't find Joe's cell phone. I asked him if he'd looked the site over real good and he said he had, sort of. Did Rosalie get anything from the phone company?"

"They told her there was no call at the time Joe said. I know what time it happened. I had just checked my watch because he was running late. Listen, why don't I meet you out at the casino site about 7 tonight?" Adam's eyes narrowed in thought as he spoke. "You pick up Joe?"

The chuckle over the phone was deep and long. "The pick-up I got now, it's that old Ford. You know the one? You remember how it rides? Think I ought to go puttin' him in it?"

The picture of the truck flashed passed Adam's eyes: two toned but it hadn't been built that way. The front of the truck was the original red but the back was turquoise. And he had memories of the bull that had been responsible for that color change as well. A piece of him even recalled what it felt like when the bull had hit the truck broadside. After that, the truck, while the motor still ran good, seemed to run sideways down the road. If you tried to steer it straight, you would wind up jerking the wheel back and forth. Everyone had thought it was great fun until their father was pulled over for drunk driving while behind its wheel. Needless to say, he had been stone cold sober. The truck had gone into the maintenance shop for some serious overhauling after that incident. When it came out, the standing joke had been that Hop Sing could use it to churn butter just by driving it down the highway. Because it still ran and because there was sometimes the need for an extra vehicle, the truck remained in the Ranch's garage.

"I guess not. I'll pick him up," Adam had sighed and said. "Maybe we should take a look for his cell phone, too. I have a feeling there's some answers there."

"Okay then, I'll catch you up there about 6 or so. You gonna buy dinner after this little foray?"

With his own chuckle, Adam had hung up. No matter what, you couldn't get the big fella's thoughts too far from food. Still chuckling, he booted up his computer and dropped onto the Internet. He posted a short note to Joe and then dropped over into one of the game rooms. Sure enough, playing one was a certain "Kyrelth". He thought about logging on under a pseudonym and giving Joe a run for his money. He'd done it once before but over on a word game very much like Scrabble. That winter afternoon he had secretly given his brother a game he would remember for a long while and found that the boy had some smarts. Joe had only caught on later when Adam told him, out of the blue, that "recommendations" only had one "c", not the two Joe had tried to use in order to link two words and gain extra points. Just as he was about to log off, the little envelope appeared in one corner of the screen and he went to his email. There was his response: a smiley face.

Looking back, he realized that should have given him a clue.

"Oh come on, Adam, when was the last time you put the top down and really let the Grape run her juicy little heart out?" Adam sighed and yanked open the driver's door. Joe stood, arms crossed on the passenger's side. "I mean you got more horses under the hood than anything else in the County! You gotta let them run or the thing will get all gummed up and won't run worth a damn." Adam got into the car and put the key in the ignition. "And, of course, you need to put the top down so that you know that the thingies that make it go up and down are working right."

"If you will promise me to sit over there and not touch anything, I'll put the top down."

Joe smiled and Adam recalled the childish smiley face Joe had replied to his email with. He turned the ignition over and the twelve cylinders came to life with a gentle yet strong purr. He hit the switch and the black top slid back and buried itself in the space between the rear deck and the trunk. But Joe hadn't gotten in.

"Well? I put the top down. Will you come on and get in?"

Before his very eyes, Adam saw the ten-year-old change into the rebellious teen. He saw it coming and seemed unable to stop it.

Joe leaned into the vintage Jaguar and with an evil grin said, "Do you know how long I have wanted to do this to the Grape?"

In one smooth motion, Joe swung his legs over the edge door and plopped down onto the leather seat. Adam's eyes closed and he shook his head slowly from side to side as Joe fastened his seat belt.

"Come on," Joe urged. "Put the thing in gear and let's go!"

Taking a deep breath and holding it to keep from saying something, Adam backed the car away from the front porch and around the short drive. He braked carefully then threw the car into gear and tore down the dirt lane at twice his normal speed.

The "yee haw" Joe ripped out nearly shattered Adam's eardrum but, remembering how he had wanted to behave the day he had gotten the Grissom and Associates contract, Adam understood. Pushing his own blowing hair back from his face he also gave a shout. Joe was right. Sometimes it just felt good to put the top down and let the car run.

By the time Adam and Joe reached the long straight stretch of Nevada highway 349, they had been laughing like hyenas and Adam had broken quite a few speed limits. Now, though as they turned and ran down the tarmac, Adam could feel a tenseness rise in his brother. He dropped his speed and, with his free hand, patted Joe's leg.

"It's okay," he said just loud enough to be heard over the wind. Joe said nothing in reply, just nodded.

In a few minutes, they pulled up behind Hoss and the Wayward Ford pickup alongside the road. Joe looked out to the east and saw the burned patch of sage. Leading to it, there was a long stretch where the brush had been mashed down and deep indentations in the sandy soil. When Adam finally pulled to a stop, Joe got out slowly.

"You don't need to be hikin' down there," Hoss greeted him, both of his huge hands pressed against his brother's shoulders.

"Yeah, I do," Joe claimed and gently pushed the hands away.

"Hoss!" Adam called him back as he started to follow Joe. When Hoss turned, Adam just shook his head.

            Hoss reluctantly returned to the side of the Jag. Together, the two brothers leaned against the long nose of the car and waited. Both knew that Joe had to see the place. He had to or be tormented, possibly, by it for the rest of his life. That was the way it was with something like this accident that had nearly taken his life. All of the parts had to be acknowledged for any sort of closure. As the two brothers watched, Joe slowly made his way down the trampled path, every few yards stopping and looking either north or south as though he was remembering something he had seen that day. He finally reached the scorched area and walked it, his leg now beginning to drag in fatigue. Without warning, he sat down on the ground and buried his head in his hands.

Both Adam and Hoss pushed away from the car but only Hoss made a move to go down to the scorched oval where Joe now sat. Adam grabbed his arm and held him back, shaking his head 'no' and his other hand asking silently for him to wait. They watched and when Joe hadn't moved for a few minutes, Adam finally nodded and turned Hoss loose.

"You need help gettin' up?" Hoss asked nonchalantly, his hands shoved into his pockets and his boots sunk well into the dark sand.

Joe looked up and half-nodded, extending his uncasted hand which Hoss grasped and pulled him back to his feet. He dusted off the back of his brother's jeans. Joe ran a hand through his hair to push it into some semblance of order.

"Just got a little tired there for a minute," Joe lied, knowing he didn't really have to but he did anyway. He knew Hoss would say nothing but he still wanted to maintain a portion of his dignity. "My cell phone has got to be around here somewhere. Adam told me that the sheriff and his boys didn't find it in the Jeep but I know I still had it when it quit rolling. So it has to be around here somewhere."

Adam joined them as they started casting around the area, feet swishing through the sand, searching. Hoss took the far eastern portion, Adam, the western and Joe stayed to the north. Each man, his eyes pinned to the ground, searched the sand, pulled aside the sage brush, and kicked over debris.

It was Hoss who found it. It was still intact but the battery was dead. The three men returned to the Jag where Adam popped open the glovebox and pulled out the car-adapter. He plugged in both ends and was about to flip the phone on when Joe took it from him. Their eyes locked for a moment before Adam conceded. 

His hands shook as Joe punched the star button and then the six and nine. He held it to his ear, straining the length of the cord. It started with a cough, then a choking sound then he developed a full-blown laugh. With his brothers watching him carefully, he punched more buttons and listened again, this time his head shaking back and forth, his mouth set into a half-grimace, half-smile. After a minute or so, he again punched a few numbers. "Sorry I missed you and your call but I've been a little under the weather. Call me when you get back in town and we'll see what we can do about fixing -um-things. Bye-bye." He snapped the phone closed. "Shitty week, I tell you."

It was all Hoss could do to stand up, he was laughing so hard. Adam, thankful that he had been seated, retrieved the phone when Joe dropped it unceremoniously into the passenger's seat. Even though he was laughing as well, he flicked the cover back open and scrolled down the list of incoming calls to the cell phone. There was a preponderance of the infamous 775 number but one other caught his attention. He stopped chuckling and with a glimpse towards Hoss, he swallowed hard.

"Joe, did you get a call from the Hideout for some reason?" he asked, still holding the little phone.

Joe shook his head. "Who would have called me from there? No. But Adam, the number to the Hideout is programmed into it." He swallowed, a sinking feeling coming to his stomach.

"That's how they got the number then. Anybody else's programmed in?" Adam, his eyes hooded, tried to hold back the curious ache in his throat as he asked.

"Oh God!" Joe moaned and slid down to sit on the hood of the Jag. "Damn near everybody I know. You know I can't remember numbers! Oh jeeze. If they got the numbers off there, they've got Pa's office; they've got you two's cell phones'; they've got…God, Adam, they've got everybody's."

Looming large against the backdrop of the sun setting over the Sierras, Hoss stood beside Joe. "But so far, the only number we know they've used is the cabin's. Why?"

Quickly Adam told them about the call and how it had come moments after the first explosion. "And that also means that we are looking at maybe more than one person behind this. What's with you, Joe? You feelin' okay?"

"Yeah, I guess but I just realized how many people could be tracked by these maniacs. Maybe hurt." Even as he spoke, Joe looked worse and worse as the realization came over him of how many private numbers were programmed into the tiny machine Adam still held in his hand.

"The -uh- little lady who made your week go down the tubes- her number on here? You think maybe you need to call her and warn her?" Adam suggested, gesturing with the phone.

"She'll be okay until next weekend. She's out of town 'til then."

Hoss nudged his brother. "You sure?"

Without thinking, Joe spoke, rubbing his arms, suddenly cold. "Unless Pa calls her back and wants her--" He suddenly stopped and looked into the distance.

"You're dating someone in Pa's office?" Adam hooted and for a moment, that was of more interest than anything else. "Sake's alive, boy, but that is nervy of you. It's that little redheaded gal. You've seen her, Hoss. I think she does research for Pa. What's her name?"

"That's Carolyn and she's married, Adam. No, I bet it's the one who answers the phone. My, but she has a sweet voice. Her name's - dang! Can't put my finger on it." Hoss snapped his fingers, trying to remember her name.

"She's too old for Joe. But the only other woman in his office is Mildred and she's been around since dirt was three days old. Come on, little brother, 'fess up. Who is she?"

"I thought we had bigger problems than my love life," Joe sarcastically commented.

Adam snorted and looked into the distance, hard pressed to not laugh. Hoss laughed anyway as he kicked sand there at the edge of the tarmac.

As they tried not to look at one another, a series of vehicles began streaming down the highway. From the honking horns and raised hands, it became obvious that the casino construction crew had finished for the day and were headed home. There were shouts of "Hey boss!" that Joe raised his hand and waved back to acknowledge. Finally, the cars and trucks were gone, ending with Jenny's sedan. She rolled to a stop beside the Jaguar and put her window down.

"Evening, Joe, Mister Adam. You all feelin' better?" she asked.

"They sure are, Jenny. Thought we'd come out and see if we couldn't find Joe's phone," Hoss explained. He sauntered over and leaned his arm on her window ledge.

"Well, you may not find it. I saw the sheriff and his men hunting down here. Webb even said he came down and looked for anything that might have been valuable. He said he didn't find anything but, Joe, I think I saw that he had your travel mug. You know that stainless steel one that fits in the cup holder so nice? When you gonna be back to work? Difficult as you are to deal with some times, young man, I prefer you to Webb."

"Maybe next week, Jenny," Joe volunteered and got a grumble from his brothers "but then maybe the week after. Depends on when my keepers here turn loose of me." He flashed her a broad grin and winked at her.

"I'll take care of things until you come back. Good night," then she rolled slowly away, Hoss waving as she left.

"One more," Adam said and gestured with his chin. Down the highway came a bright red Jeep. Behind the wheel was Web Stewart. "Didn't take him long to sidle into all the perks of the job."

"And he got the other new one," Joe pointed out, referring to the this-year's model company Jeep he was driving. Like most construction firms, there were company vehicles at the disposal of those who truly needed them and Cartwright and Sons Construction was no different. But there was one stipulation. If you drove the newer vehicle, usually bought that year to replace an outdated one, your name was Cartwright. "You miss your Jeep, Adam?"

Adam got out of his car, his lean frame uncoiling in the evening light. He let the wide door drop closed behind him and he stood at the edge of the highway. "Don't say anything about the phone, okay, guys?"

Burly Webb Stewart pulled to a slow stop. He nodded just as slowly at Hoss but then turned his attention more to Adam.

"Evenin'," he greeted, his lips working their way around a cold cigar stub. "What brings you out this way, Boss?" His pig-like eyes had taken in Hoss and Joe and dismissed them as unimportant in the same instant.

"Thought we'd come out and see how my project's doin'," Joe replied, with emphasis on ownership.

Stewart nodded and slid one hand back onto the gearshift. "I'll go unlock things for ya'll then."

"No need. I've got my keys," Joe lied. He never carried jobsite keys on his person. He found they were too easy to lose that way. Or forget when he got up late. Instead he had special places around each and every jobsite he hid individual keys. Even Jenny had never caught on to that fact.

"Well, after the accident, Boss, I changed the locks on everything. And there's only one set of keys and I carry 'em," again he addressed Adam, his whole attitude dismissing Joe.

Adam extended his hand as he walked slowly to the side of the Jeep. "Then I'll take them. Tomorrow morning early, you stop by the yard. Leave that Jeep and pick up one of the others. Stan will have your keys."

Stewart laughed but it had little mirth in it. "Day I went in, they didn't have anything for me to drive but this one. Sorry if I took your wheels, Boss, but most times I seen you about, you been drivin' that long-nosed foreign thing."

Adam smiled the same way Stewart had laughed and looked over his shoulder at his brothers. Hoss had edged over and put himself within easy reach of Joe. If the younger man had made a motion to do something, Hoss was positioned to stop him but in truth, he wanted a piece of Stewart for just his deprecating manner towards them all.

"You know, Webb," Adam spoke softly and placed both hands on the door to the Jeep. "I don't recall telling you to pick up a company vehicle to drive. Seems to me I just saw something come by my desk about your driving record…something about you having a restricted license. You still living with your son? Good, that way you'll have some way of getting back to your own truck. If you want to stay on as superintendent out here, you'll do three things. And you'll do them right away. One is return this Jeep. Two is give me the keys to that jobsite." Instead of waiting, Adam reached in and took a set of keys on a ring from the dashboard. Each and every one of them was for a padlock. "And three, you show some respect for my brother. After all, if he hadn't had that accident, you wouldn't have a job."

Stewart sneered as he looked over Adam's shoulder then slammed the Jeep into gear and tore down the highway.

Adam turned back, the keys swinging in his grasp. "How long before you think you can go back to work, Joe?"

   

 

At the jobsite, Adam tried the variety of keys on the lock that closed the gate. Some time in the last three days, Webb Stewart had decided that the site needed to be enclosed with an eight-foot high chain-link fence with three strands of barbwire coiled along the top. While Adam sought for the right key, Hoss made the comment that he couldn't fathom why they needed the fence. There was nothing on the site worth stealing that he knew of. Joe suggested the heavy equipment or the office equipment but like Hoss, the mere remoteness had guarded the site well up until last week. Even then, those things they had considered valuable enough to lock up had not been damaged. Finally, Adam found the right key and the padlock fell open in his hand.

In the waning light, the three brothers walked the site. Joe couldn't help himself. He kept thinking that they should have been further along even with the repairs and clean up that had been necessary. What was Webb Stewart doing with the mens' twelve-hour workdays? And he had purportedly also brought more men onto the crew. What were they doing? He shook his head slowly, wondering how far behind schedule the project was.

"Hey, Adam, how about open the trailer for me?" Even before he finished his request, Joe had headed for the gray trailer that housed his office.

Without thinking twice, Adam headed after his brother. Jogging, he caught up to him just as they both reached the trailer. "You okay? Hate to say it, but you don't look it." He managed to get the padlock open with the first key. Joe didn't answer him but pushed into the coolness of the darkened offices. He didn't turn on a light until he hit the back office.

"That damn Webb and his cigars. Gonna leave him a note telling him that he can't smoke in here. God, it stinks! Like I said, you okay, Joe?"

Joe plopped into the high-backed leather chair behind the cluttered desk. Paying no attention to his brother's comments, he delved into a drawer and came up with a handful of papers that he spread out on the desk. Without seeing the front side of it, Adam knew what it was: the bar graph that showed the project's proposed schedule. Joe tracked his finger down from the top of the page and shook his head.

"Ten days behind?" Adam asked softly and Joe nodded, his lips a strained straight line across his lower face. "Some projects you could make up that kind of time. Not this one, Joe."

"I need to be back here, Adam. I need to be running these crews. I can't see where Webb has done a thing except put up a fence."

"Then why has he moved in a bunch of equipment?" Hoss asked, his voice scaring the two already in the lit office. "He's rentin' a ton of iron out there."

"What sort of equipment?" Adam asked when his heart fell back out of his throat.

With fingers smudged with grease, Hoss listed off a dozen large pieces of construction equipment he had found parked on the site in the back. "Ain't none of 'em ours, neither."

One piece of equipment in particular bothered Joe. It was an excavator. When there had to be large amounts of earth moved, an excavator the size Hoss described was used. There was no need for a machine like that to be there at the site. Moreover, when Cartwright and Sons needed something like that, it was rented from an outfit over in California who supplied machine and operator. It was expensive and the prior approval would need a Cartwright signature before the machine would be ordered.

Brows raised, Adam and Joe traded looks and shrugs.

"Got a flashlight? I think we need to jot down a few serial numbers for Roy Coffee," Adam suggested by inference that the machinery could have been stolen and hidden right there in plain sight.

Forty-five minutes later, and they had a list of numbers. All of the machinery seemed to be in good condition, used, but taken care of enough that if the machine had been offered for sale and they were in the market, Adam might have considered investing in it.

The evening wind blew around their figures in the dark, the flashlight making a puddle of yellow golden light at their feet. Adam pulled his shirt collar a little closer and felt, rather than saw, Hoss shiver in the coolness the wind brought with it.

"Something's wrong here. I can feel it," Joe pushed and took a few steps away from the light. The night seemed to swallow him whole but Hoss raised the light and Joe's t-shirt shone like a beacon at the local airstrip. "Can't you guys feel it?"

"All I can feel is a chilly night comin' on," Hoss grumbled and handed Adam the flashlight before he turned to walk back towards their own vehicles.

Even though he hated to say it aloud, Adam felt the same as Joe. It was as though something was calling him, almost, but not quite catching his attention. He turned and looked behind him, seeing the moon rising over the distant eastern mountains and the walls of the casino stretched out in parallel lines with half-done cross walls. There was nothing there, he told himself and turned again, this time looking to the north. The high desert stretched out beyond the fencing, with only sagebrush and coyotes filling the emptiness. To the south as he watched, a faint waver of light that Adam thought were headlights streaking away, leaving only the hint of red behind them in the dust raised. Finally he turned back and looked west, the same direction Joe had walked off in, but his white shirt was lost in the darkness now. Adam fanned the flashlight beam but saw only the huge hulking machinery sitting there silently. He called out but the only answer came from an owl atop one of the casino walls.

He opened his mouth to shout louder but had to close it quickly when the wind picked up and blew sand in his face. He half-turned to escape it and threw up one arm across his face but the wind pressed harder against him, flattening his shirt against his chest. He turned back but the wind increased in velocity, the sand now stinging any exposed flesh. Squinting into the sudden storm, Adam looked for and called for Joe again. His brother didn't respond. Adam surged forward towards the parked machinery, looking for a place to escape the wind, his footsteps struggling against the push of the wind. When he had gained the front of one of the bulldozers, he dropped to his knees, trying to put himself under the dropped bucket.

As suddenly as it had begun, the wind stopped. Once more, Adam started to call for Joe but what he saw when he lifted his face silenced him. Despite the darkness of the night, he saw a huge hand, silvery-white. This, he thought, was the hand Joe had seen on the highway. His lungs filling with all the air he could hold, Adam let loose with a shout for his brother, his soul trembling as he did. Before he could shout again, the hand, the fingers now curling loosely, came towards him and Adam sought shelter in the cab of the bulldozer. His own hands shaking, he couldn't tear his eyes from the vision of the gigantic hand long enough to find the key to start the machine yet he found it and gave the key a hard twist. Nothing happened except the hand paused then slowly pushed aside the piece of equipment next to Adam.

With one deft movement, the hand covered the cab of the 'dozer and crushed the glass. Adam, astounded and motionless, felt the movement and breathing heavily, thought for sure that the next thing he felt would be the hand shaking his sanctuary. He almost reached for the door handle but would have brushed the gossamer hand so he drew back alarmed. He wasn't sure what he was imagining and what was real, but by then, he was sweating profusely, his shirt glued to him. Unable to speak, to even form cognizant words and thoughts seemed to be beyond his capabilities. He struggled to take a breath and when he found no air for his lungs, slowly collapsed.

 

The first thing he felt was a roughness of carpeting under his cheek. The second thing was his middle brother smacking that same cheek. Adam opened his eyes slowly, blinking at the brightness of the light he found himself in.

"He's coming around, Joe. Gimmee that," and a wet cold cloth found Adam's forehead then tracked down the side of his face. "Best lay still there a minute, brother," Hoss' voice warned him and he had no inclination to do otherwise. The cold cloth made another trek across the other jawline. There was a buzzing noise but Adam couldn't turn his head to find it. Then it quit as inexplicably as it had come.

"No, I don't think so," Hoss was saying and Adam concentrated on his brother's round face. "I think most of the cuts are little ones. Looks like more damage than what it is."

Finally, Adam gathered himself together enough that he pushed Hoss' hands away and pulled himself into a seated position. Granted, he was leaning against the wall of the office trailer, but he was sitting up. One glance down and he saw why Hoss was so worried. His shirt was torn to shreds and beneath it, his flesh was scored bloody in myriad of places. Looking at his arms, he saw the same.

"Are you sure?" Joe poked his face down low enough to look Adam in the eye.

"He may not be, but I am. Help me up into a chair, will you?" Even though Joe extended a hand, Adam took Hoss' and was pulled to his feet in one easy motion. He straightened his spine and moved to the chair behind Jenny's desk. His youngest brother redirected his faltering steps and Adam found himself falling backwards into the high-backed chair from the other office.

"Where did you get to? When that wind started up-" Adam began then saw the puzzled expressions on his brothers' faces. "That wind that damn near blew me off my feet!"

"Easy there, brother." Hoss passed the cool cloth across Adam's face again. Perturbed, Adam took it from him with a menacing glare.

"I still think we need to get him to the Emergency Room. He was unconscious for-I don't know how long- but he was out like a light when I found him," Joe encouraged, his hand twitching as it reached for the phone on the desk.

Slamming his hand down over the receiver, Adam kept it in its cradle and barely missed pounding Joe's one remaining good hand. "If I recall, you get close to a hospital emergency room, little brother, and it sucks you in automatically. The description of runaway, renegade, escapee follows your name on charts at all the hospitals, I do believe. No," and he took a deep breath as though experimenting before he continued, "unless you want to-"

"But what did you mean about wind, Adam?" For a moment, Adam thought again about Joe and Hoss being telepathically linked since again the big man had come to his brother's aide. "There was a little breeze. Kind of cool, it was."

"No, I mean the wind. Strong enough to almost knock me down. I -" Adam's hard-edged words came to a halt. His brothers had no idea what he was talking about. He remembered Joe's reluctance that afternoon to talk about the hand but now Adam had seen it as well. "I saw the Hand, Joe," he admitted softly, looking at his own hands in his lap. "It crushed the cab of that 'dozer. I thought it was after me. Thought it was going to shake the machine the same way it had knocked your Jeep aside."

"Adam, I found you laid out on the ground. Middle of the building just about. When we were ready to go, we started hollering for you and when you didn't answer…" Joe's voice trailed off and he couldn't look either of his brothers in the eye.

Hoss nodded.

"The other night, at the Hideout, I thought I had it figured out what was going on here," Adam confessed, his words so low that they seemed to melt into the very air around him. "I kept coming back to two points. Joe's cell phone and this jobsite."

Digging into the hip pocket of his jeans, Joe dropped his much-abused cell phone on the desk. "Explain to me, Adam, now about the Hand. What's it got to do with this?"

"I'm beginning to think that my brothers need to see some head doctor. Huge hands!" The noise Hoss made was as disparaging as he could make it. "What did you notice about this here hand? Were the fingernails dirty, Joe?" Recalling his comments about the nurse, Joe's head hung.

Adam gritted his teeth and narrowed his gaze. Hoss, he thought, would have normally been the last person to doubt their word about something but even Adam had to admit that the happenings were strange. Choosing his words carefully, Adam told them what had happened. He hid nothing; his fear, his actions, nothing. When he had finished, Joe uncrossed his arms and went out the door into the night. Without being told, the other two followed.

The bulldozer sat in the same place Adam remembered it, the bucket tilted downward and resting on the ground. Beside it, still parked close in, was the front-end loader Adam recalled having been pushed aside by the hand. Most importantly, the cab of the bulldozer was intact. No broken glass, no crumbled metal. Even though he had one hand in a cast, Joe climbed into the cab and grabbed the key, as though to start it. Adam waved him down, his head shaking with disbelief.

"This is the only 'dozer on the place with a cab, Adam," said Hoss, pulling at his brother's attention. "What now?"

"What now?" Adam echoed then sighed. "How about something to eat? And for some strange reason, I want something rather primitive."

"Primitive?" the others asked together.

"Steak, rare. And beer, cold. Joe, close your office while I put up the Jag's top. Don't give me that whine about the top-down business. It's too cool. You want to argue and you can ride with Hoss." Listening to himself, Adam heard the authority whip through his voice. It hadn't been there in a while but it was now. He, and he alone, knew that it was in direct opposition to the way he felt that evening. Everything, everything! he thought, was spinning out of control and beyond his capacity to understand.

After they had closed the site, Adam left the bundle of keys at the foot of the gate, directly under the closed padlock Webb Stewart had protected the site with. Adam wanted to laugh at the thought. How could you protect against something like the wind with a padlock? That thought was quickly followed by another more sobering one: the Hand could have folded the fence like a piece of paper. So much for security, he mused then threw the timeless Jaguar into gear and roared down the empty highway.

The roadhouse steaks and beers were finished. The steaks had not been the best of quality but the beers had been cold, even if they were delivered by a waitress older than Moses and therefore of little interest. The one thing the diner had in abundance was peace and quiet. The three men who had taken over the far corner valued that last item far more than any other.

"I told you that Webb Stewart was trouble years ago but you didn't listen to me!" Hoss' temper was short that evening and that fact alone put his brothers on edge. "I'd've gone out there and babysat the casino 'til Joe was back on his feet but you don't listen to me, Adam. You go ahead and hire him back."

"He called me, I told you. Said he'd heard about the accident and that Joe was in poor shape. He offered his services to me. Said he'd changed. What was I to do? Tell him 'no thanks' when I figured we needed someone with his toughness to get the project rolling and keep men on the job?" Adam slammed his empty beer glass down onto the tabletop and signaled for another round. "If you hadn't noticed, this is the high season for construction round about. And the last I heard from you, you were having a fit because you didn't have enough help to get hay in for the winter. I may not be out sweating in the sun every day like you two but I am working. Every day. We have a new project coming up for Grissom and Associates and am I in my office working on the plans and specifications for it like I ought to be? Hell, no, I am out here trying to figure out what's wrong with this one!"

Accepting the beers the waitress brought over, Joe carried his to the other side of the small diner and plopped down in an empty booth.

"What's wrong with you?" Adam blasted then instantly regretted his tone.

"You two are what's wrong with me. You're over there arguing. Hoss, you rarely argue with Adam. And Adam, you make it sound like you are the only one in Cartwright and Sons Construction. That if it weren't for you, the whole thing would fall down around our ears. I'm tired. Of you two arguing about Webb Stewart. Of you two arguing about what's going on when it's clear that nothing is out there. Why don't the two of you just get in your truck and car and go home? The casino was, and still is as far as I am concerned, my project. I'll figure out what's going on and I'll fix it. I don't know how but I'll fix it!" When he finished, Joe picked up his beer and drank half of it before he set it down again.

It stayed very quiet in the diner for the next two or three minutes. Finally Hoss said he was headed home and Adam agreed with him. The two men rose and dropped tip money on the table.

"Joe?" Adam called out. "Goin' home. You want to ride with me or Hoss?"

Joe, his beer finished, looked sideways at them then stood up and slowly limped to where they stood. He figured that he'd stepped on a few toes that night but his were a little sore as well. His brothers both looked a bit sheepish as he headed towards them.

"Want me to drive? I mean, you've got to have a headache and -" The look Adam gave his brother stopped Joe in his verbal tracks. It said, without doubt or hesitation, that Joe would not be putting his hands on the wheel of the Jaguar any time in this life, or the next.

"Put the top down?" Joe teased. Hoss guffawed loudly as he shuffled out the door in front of his brothers and Adam grabbed a firm hold on the front of his little brother's shirt and followed.

In the coolness of the dark night and in the pale white glow of single light of the parking lot, it was hard to miss the truck pulled into the lot. It was a big ten-wheeled dump truck and behind it was a low trailer. On the trailer was a backhoe. The three brothers walked by it, not taking any particular note. Seeing construction equipment being moved at night was nothing new nor startling. They had done it themselves more than once when a piece of equipment was needed at a new site early the following day. What caught their attention was the man shouting at them, asking them to wait.

"Lookin' for the new casino they're buildin' close by. Know it? Need directions," the man asked.

Without a thought otherwise, Hoss gave the man the directions he asked for then added that there wouldn't be anyone there until morning. The man's reply was that he would sleep in the truck cab until someone showed up. Hoss turned and went on to his truck, noticing that Adam and Joe had left already.

           

As Adam lay tossing and turning in bed later that night, he made a mental list of who could be behind all of their problems. At the top of his list was Custom Built Construction. By now, the news of the coming hotel on Tahoe would be running rampant down the corridors of every construction company in a two-hundred mile radius. Custom Built was his biggest rival and, while he doubted that they would attempt murder, he figured they weren't beyond trickery. But there again, the first act of sabotage had come before his meeting with Grissom and Mellencamp. Had they been behind the destruction of the wall at the casino? The more he thought of it, the less possible they became.

Was it someone who wanted to disgrace his father? A political rival? Who? And was this the way to do it? If the media had gotten hold of the story of Joe's accident and made it something that it wasn't, Adam could have agreed. But so far, the media had only reported the accident without embellishments. The local paper had gone so far on its editorial page to take the track that his father, while Speaker of the House, was also keeping his own house in order and attending to his sons' needs. At that, Adam had snorted during his first reading. To the outside world, yes, his father had been a good father but Adam had remembered the times when he and his brothers were alone during the long evenings while his father had campaigned. True, they had been very young then, Joe not yet in school, but the fact had remained. But as far as Adam knew now, his father had no political rival who would conjure up these acts. Use them if they were reported in the papers or reported on the local television station, yes.

Sighing, Adam rolled over and stared at the bright moon riding across the summer night sky. As much as he didn't want to, he relived, for a brief moment, the vision of the Hand as it closed around him. Now, away from the cold and cutting wind, he could think rationally about what had happened. He knew he had not imagined it. Indeed, as he had stood under the shower, he had lost count of all the tiny glass-nicks. It was surprising that the waitress hadn't seen and said something about it, even though he had slipped on his jacket before going into the diner and had left it on. Most of the places he saw were no worse than what he had done to himself while shaving. The backs of both hands were also sand-whipped. A small part of him said that holding a drawing implement for the next few days would be close to torture. He grinned to himself then pulled the blanket up higher on his shoulder and fell asleep.

 

 

"Call from Sheriff Coffee is on line two for you, sir. Shall I take a message?" Rosalie's gentle tones came over his intercom. He was on line one with Bill Running Wolf Campbell trying to dig out Cartwright and Sons from under a potential lawsuit.

"I know, Bill. We are bringing in more men and equipment. We will meet our contract. By the way, our first payment from the Council is overdue. If we are going to go to war over this, my company might have a stronger leg to stand on. After all, we wouldn't be the first contractor to quit when we weren't paid as the contract prescribes. What? Don't worry? Bill, I'd like to see that check some time today. Or come Friday, we may just have to close down the site. No, Cartwright and Sons have deep pockets, but they aren't deep enough, nor are we stupid enough, to stay on a job we aren't being paid for. Sure, I can have one of us meet you at the site. No, Joe's still not able but I'll have Hoss out there first thing in the morning. Have the check."

Adam took a deep breath and punched the blinking line two. "What'd you find out, Roy?"

"Went down that whole list you sent me. You sure of these numbers?"

He picked up a pencil and rolled it, lacing through his fingers. "Yes, I'm sure of the numbers. They're stolen, aren't they?"

"No," and Adam could see the old sheriff, his gray hair and mustache, shaking his head as he spoke. "Least ways not in Nevada nor Northern California. I've put out the list to some of the other local states. Iffen I hear something, you said they were out to your casino site?"

"That's right. It's about a mile inside the Reservation line. You can see it from highway 349. Is that a problem, being on the Paiute Reservation?"

"No. A call out to the reservation police usually clears things. Ain't had any trouble out that way since the Mac brothers were caught grave robbing. Even then, all of us in law enforcement got into it, chasin' them boys clear out into the lake as I recall. I'll keep you posted, Adam. By the way, how's Joe?"

Adam chuckled, again hearing his brother's whining that morning when their father had asked him if he was getting up. If anything, Joe had used his infirmities to his own benefit, sleeping late being primary. "He's gonna be all right. I'll catch you later, Roy."

He shifted over to his tall chair at his drafting table. Others used computers for taking a drawing of a building and turning it into the large prints for building purposes. Indeed, of the four architects employed by the firm, he was the only one who still used a pencil. Even then, George and Paul took his drawings and transferred them into the bits and bytes of computer-ese. Now, he picked up a pencil and stared down at his drawing of the entranceway of Grissom's Lake Tahoe hotel. Even as he half-sketched and half-drafted the sweeping images needed, his mind went back over the conversations he'd just finished.

They want us to hurry up and get their building done but they don't want to hurry up and pay us! Think we're being paid by the hour or something? They don't know how bad we want out of that job. Hell, if it wouldn't hurt us in the long run, we'd chuck the job! So what if they sued us? All they could get would be the difference in what it cost them and what our contract was! Okay, maybe a little more if they had a judge partial to the Indian cause… wonder if the Macs had a judge partial to Indians. Couldn't believe that back then. Those boys had been stealing skeletons, okay, maybe not whole ones, and selling the bones to tourists! Claimed they were from ancient Indian medicine men. Cure anything! Wonder if it cured them of stealing? Speaking of stealing, Webb Stewart has got to be in on some theft ring. And we walked right into it. We? I can hear Hoss and Joe now! Okay, I did. I let my desperation get the best of me but unless we can prove something out there is stolen, it's just a rotten feeling. Hmm…Joe went to see Paul Martin today. Wonder if he's home yet? No, I am not going to call. He can't be ready to go back to work yet. Hell, I nearly had to carry him up the steps last night when we got home. Okay, it was late and he'd been drinking. Shouldn't have done either with him. Shouldn't have argued with Hoss either but, dammit, he started it! Better call him and see if he can meet with old "Running Wolf" Campbell in the morning.

Hoss hadn't grumbled. He'd agreed to be out at the site early enough to see what was going on but reminded Adam that having to bring the check into the office was going to cut into his breakfast time. Only after he'd promised to take his brother to breakfast did Adam hang up the phone.

           

 

 

When the first rays of morning sun struck the front of the casino-to be, Hoss Cartwright turned and looked at the pickup truck coming through the gate. Behind the wheel, he could tell more from the shape of the man than anything else, Hoss made out Webb Stewart. In a roil of dust, the superintendent came up and stopped before him. The other man got out of the truck and slammed the door behind him.

"What the hell you after? Come to throw me off the place? Your brother hired me; he can fire me. Not you, big man."

Hoss let the man spew forth his venom, longing to see the back of the man once and for all. When he had finished, Hoss placed one big finger onto the man's chest.

"I came up here to meet with the Indian Council about this project. Trust me, Stewart, if I wanted fire you, I would, but you are right, that ain't my place. It belongs to Adam. Or Joe, since this is his project. But I want to see your face when they give you the boot to your backside."

Surprisingly, Stewart snorted, finding something amusing. He figured he'd better explain. "That little brother of yours has got no business trying to run a job. It's that simple, Cartwright. He's still a kid, playin' at bein' boss. Guys here on the job tell me how he comes out here and helps them." He snorted and turned to watch some of the laborers drifting slowly passed him. "Tell your brother Adam that after this is done, I won't be back. But make sure he understands that I am here to finish this project."

Now it was Hoss' turn to snort and he did. "No, Webb, you're here until Joe comes back to work. If you decide to make an issue of it, you just go right ahead. I'll personally drag your sorry ass out into that road and leave you there. Now get out of my sight before I decide I want you gone now!"

Slowly and with his shoulders rolling, Webb Stewart backed up and got into his truck. Hoss watched him as he pulled over and parked next to Jenny's car by the office trailer. He was still standing there with his hands pushed into his pockets when he heard someone clearing their throat behind him, getting his attention.

It was a young man. From the looks of his dark straight hair and coppery skin tone, Hoss took him for a young Indian. He wore a heavy leather belt loaded with carpenter's tools, a hammer, a tape measure and a pocket full of nails.

"You're Joe's family?" he asked, his voice barely above a whisper. When Hoss nodded and smiled the boy went on. "Tell him, please, that we miss him. Mister Stewart was right. Lots of times, Joe came out to work with us but never like he was throwing around his weight. You know, like a boss can do? We teased him about getting a left-handed hammer and he laughed with us. He is a good man to work for…and with. We hope that soon he will be back. You tell him the carpenter crew would even let him sit and watch the magic we do here." He smiled and Hoss smiled as well, one big hand patting the carpenter on the shoulder as he did so. With his chin nearly on his chest, the young man walked away. Hoss watched him go, feeling that perhaps Joe did fit here with these men. The family believed in the old adage of leading by doing. Joe must have been doing a fine job of leading here.

"Mister Cartwright!" a voice called to him and as he lifted his hand and turned to greet the caller, Hoss saw Bill Running Wolf Campbell get out of his sleek silver-gray Mercedes Benz.

Strolling across the dusty expanse, Campbell looked at the coming building and shook his head slowly. Once he was close enough to the big Cartwright, he extended his hand and shook the huge one the other presented.

"Look," he said, the word oozing out like molasses on a hot day. "Tell your brother Adam that I kind of lost my temper the other day. I'd apologize but he hasn't been taking my calls. I'd call your other brother but the only number I had for him was his cell phone and I understand that it was lost in the accident. How's he doing, by the way?"

"Joe's doin' just fine. Should be back to work real soon. I understand you got something for me?" Hoss, while trying to be pleasant, still felt the after-affects of dealing with Webb Stewart.

"Here it is." Campbell handed Hoss a white envelope, unsealed. "But I need to have the release signed. You understand?" Hoss did, but motioned for them to go into the office trailer to continue. He actually wanted Jenny to verify the amount of the check before he signed the release that normally came with such payments, certifying that all bills due and payable had been taken care of and that the men had all been paid appropriately.

As they strolled to the trailer, a breeze raised the hairs on the back of Hoss' neck. He wondered if he turned around real fast, would he see the giant silver-white hand Joe and Adam had both seen?

Once inside the office, he ran Webb Stewart and his stinking cigar out of the back office. Campbell followed him into the office and perched with him on the narrow chairs while Jenny did something with the check in the envelope. After a few moments, she came to them and, smiling, handed Hoss the release and a pen. Hoss signed his name and handed it back to her and told her to make copies, one for the main office and one for them to keep there. Then the two men shook hands, Campbell anxious to leave for some reason.

With him gone, Hoss took one look again at the check. It was for over a million dollars. He swallowed hard and wondered how long it would take him to get to Adam's office. "Let them play with this kind of money," he hissed just as his cell phone rang.

He stood there listening and shook his head. This was a wrinkle he didn't know how to fix without being there. The pump that watered cattle on the far side of the ranch wasn't pumping. The crew had tried everything they knew but the pump wasn't working and the level of water in the huge circular steel tank was dropping rapidly. By noon, there wouldn't be enough water for the stock. Slamming into Jenny's office, Hoss told them he was on his way.

"Miss Jenny," he smiled as he addressed her. "I can't get this into Adam this morning. Is there any way you can see to it? And tell him I'm sorry but I got to-" He never finished his statement.

"I'll take care of it. Mandy comes with paychecks today. I'm sure she can carry back a little ol envelope! Go on now, go fix your problem." She took the envelope and shooed him out the door. Once he was gone, she went into the back office and tried to open the safe there but the phone rang and she answered it. Needing to be at her own desk, she returned there and took the message for Mister Stewart. Before she finished with that call, another one came in with another problem to be handled. She took the call, handled the problem and decided that it was just like another day.

When Mandy of the red Jeep and tight jeans showed up with the paychecks, Jenny told her that what was in the safe needed to go to Mister Adam back at the main office, forgetting that she had never gotten the envelope into the safe. Once the paychecks were turned over and signed for, Mandy went to the safe and opened it easily since the combination no longer worked on it and the door merely had to be tugged on to get it to open. It opened and Mandy stood there open-mouthed. Never in her life had she seen so much money in one place! And Jenny had said it was to go to Mister Adam? She pulled the trashcan over next to the safe and, using its bag, emptied the safe of all the cash money there. She thought about saying something to Jenny but she was in the bathroom when Mandy came out of the office. She finally hoisted it into the passenger seat of the Jeep and took off, back to the main office.

 

"Oh my god!" Adam said the words slowly, clearly and one at a time. "You didn't tell me Bill was paying in cash!" He thought he heard Hoss swallow on the other end of the phone call.

"Naw, there was just a check in the envelope. I know. I saw it with my own two eyes! Dadburnit, Jimmy get that hose turned the other way, would you? Sorry, but we've got a problem out here to Cascade Ridge with the pump. Got it going but got a pipe busted in the process."

"Wait a minute." Adam shouted back at his brother. "If they wrote a check, where is it? And where did all this cash come from?" Only static answered him. Adam hung up the phone and leaned back in his chair, then he leaned forward and buzzed his secretary.

"You said Mandy gave you this. Said it was from the jobsite and that it was to come to me, right? Okay, no, I'm just a little surprised. Do me a favor, would you? Track down my youngest brother then have him get his butt over here any way he can." He wasn't sure but he thought Rosalie was giggling.

When the call came to his cell phone, he noted the incoming number: his father's cell phone. But it wasn't his father on the other end.

"Rosalie says you're looking for my butt, just my butt. Now when she said that she was giggling. Girl's got a nice giggle, you know that? Or are you thinking the boss can't look at the employees that way?" Joe's tone showed Adam that he obviously wasn't anywhere within shouting range of their father or Ben would have taken him to task over his language immediately if not sooner.

"No, I said to get you butt over here to the office," Adam said, starting to explain then thinking better of it.

"Jeeze, Adam. Kinda hard to do. I mean you don't want the rest of me?"

"Where are you? Can you get here without -"

"I'm two streets down. I'm with Pa, buying his new car…man! The bells and whistles he wants on this puppy would make- never mind. I'll be there in a few. Am I to gather that you would rather I not have Pa along with me?"

Adam thought for several heartbeats. No, he wanted to handle this without his father's intervention that would have been to call in the police immediately and Adam wasn't sure that would be the smart thing at the moment. He decided that if the Indian Council had paid in cash for some strange reason, then he would have egg all over his face.

"Can you get away and come here without sounding off those bells and whistles?"

"Sure thing. And I will even tell him the truth about where I'm going. After all, this is payday and I am going to gather that my check is there at the office. I'll just tell him that I am going down to the office and will ride home with you. Maybe tell him you need my input for the new hotel."

"That'll be the day!" Adam ripped back then heard the connection break.

 

 

It was at least a half-hour later when his brother opened the door to his office. No knocking, just the door opened and a titter of girlish giggling followed him in.

"Jeeze! Adam! What the hell?" Joe exclaimed then quickly closed the door behind him. All around the spacious office, wherever there was a flat horizontal surface, there were piles of money. Just looking at it all made Joe's heart thump hard in his chest and he flat-handed it to hold it there. His mouth had suddenly gone dry as he surveyed then started counting the piles.

"How much is in each pile?" he finally asked, his voice wobbling as he asked. The one closest to his hand had hundred dollar bills in it and he barely touched the top of the pile before he yanked his fingers back, afraid it might burn him for some reason.

Adam held up a remaining small sheaf of bills. "A little over two million dollars here, Joe. No bill bigger than a hundred, all of the money used. No new bills. Any explanation?"

"Yeah, you guys here in the main office play paycheck poker for bigger stakes than us peons in the field!" Joe finally overcame his trepidation and fingered one of the piles of money.

"This came from the field, peon! Mandy brought it in from the safe in your office. I asked you in here to find out why it was there," Adam seethed, the last handful smacking down and ruining the neat pile. "At first I thought the Indian Council was making their payment to us in cash but there is more here than their payment was to be. And Hoss swears all he saw was a check."

"I got no idea, Adam. Unless Webb is selling those machines out there and had to have some place to put the cash. If you say this came from the jobsite, I can tell you straight up that a week ago, this money wasn't there and the only new things on the site are those pieces of iron and Stewart."

Adam sat down in the chair at his drawing table, which was now covered with piles of green. What Joe had said made sense but very little. Two million dollars worth of used construction equipment was a lot of equipment  - more than they had even seen at the site.

"Think we need to contact the authorities?" Joe asked, taking his brother's desk chair.

"No, I think we need to take it back. And quick. Webb Stewart is going to miss this money and very shortly. What happens when he does?"

Joe swallowed hard. "Jenny." Adam nodded. Leaning forward, Joe snagged Adam's phone and dialed the casino site. "Hey, Jenny! Yeah, it's your mean old boss! Listen darling, I got a problem that I need some help with. Seems Mandy -oh, okay! Whew! Had me worried for a minute! No, how about you go ahead and leave now? Bring it in to the main office. Yeah, you know how hard-assed Adam can be over things like this and he said something about wanting to get that payment into the bank right away. Wanted me to come out and pick it up but my leg still bothers me some. Yeah- you're a sweetheart. No, just come on. I'll make it square with Webb. You just hustle yourself into your car and come on down! Thanks, Jenny." He hung up and saw Adam's sly smile across the room.

"I know now why we will never be able to bring you into the main office. Talk like that to one of these younger gals and our lawyers would be looking at a sexual harassment suit. In this day and age, you can't call them anything but their name, Joe." Adam explained, crossing his arms over his dark shirt as he spoke.

"Guess I won't come into your little harem here then! Well, Jenny's on her way here with the Indian Council's check. Webb can't do anything to her now when he opens the safe and finds it empty. You say we still need to put it back? And then what? Let him- what have you got on your shirt?"

Adam looked down at his chest. Across the dark cotton were long smudges of something not quite white. He tried to dust it away because it did appear to be dust of some sort. Joe joined him but then stepped back, his mouth hanging half open.

"And I've got a date tonight. I didn't want to go home first - what's your problem?" Adam complained, still trying to dislodge the white fine powder but it seemed to only be getting worst.

"Adam," Joe whispered. "You ever seen somebody snorting coke? Lots of times they use a rolled dollar bill. Flashy guys'll use a hundred dollar bill."

"So? Don't tell me that you've-." His words screeched to a halt as the realization hit him.

"No. But I've been at parties where I've seen it done. No, I don't use crap like that and you know it. But the bills, the money-"

Both brothers looked around at the piles of currency. "This is all drug money. Literally." Adam whispered, his eyes going round.

            "Yeah," Joe responded and swallowed hard. "Two million dollars plus."

Adam just continued to swear under his breath.

His cell phone rang and without thinking, Adam flipped it open.

"Paybacks, Cartwright, are hell but then you are learning that, aren't you?" the voice said then laughed before the connection was silenced.

Adam slammed the little machine hard onto his desk, breaking it into pieces. "Help me!" he shouted and lunged for the plastic bag Mandy had brought the money in. "Get this money picked up. Get it shoved in here!"

"What's-" Joe started to question but did as Adam asked. The two men made short work of the packing and Adam shoved it into his private bathroom.

"If we're hiding the money, you better do something about your shirt too," warned Joe, breathless for the exertion. Adam looked at his chest and slipped back into his bathroom and found his 'emergency' dress shirt. "Get out the back door and get to a phone. Call Roy. Tell him what's happened."

Less than five minutes later, Adam's office door burst open and two men entered. Adam looked up from his computer screen, appearing puzzled by their lack of introduction.

"We want what's ours," was all the first man said to Adam's apparent astonishment.

"And that would be what? I don't believe I've made you acquaintance, gentlemen. My name is Adam Cartwright-"

            "We know exactly who you are. We know who this one is too," the first man's arm whipped back and the second man stepped back out of the room. When he returned, he slung Joe onto the floor. "I believe this is your youngest brother Joseph."

Instinct made Adam move towards where Joe sprawled across the carpet. The limp way his brother had fallen suggested that he wasn't fully conscious and across the thigh of his right leg, blood dirtied the tan jean material. But standing up was as close as Adam got before the first man pulled a small snub-nosed revolver from some inner pocket and leveled it at Adam.

            "We get what we want and you get what you want."

            Adam swallowed and dropped back hard into his chair. There was no deciding what was to be done. The second man now held a like-handgun to Joe's temple. It was cocked.

"Bag's in the bathroom." When the second man left Joe, Adam rose again from behind his desk, feeling the gun track his motions. "You got what you wanted, now get out of here."

"Yeah, this is it." The second man, his navy blue suit straining across his biceps, handed the bag to the first man. "Do you want to count it here?"

The first man shook his head. "They know better than to short-sheet us. Besides, he wouldn't want to jeopardize his brother's life for a measly two million dollar."

"Webb didn't send that much," Adam lied. "I counted it myself. He only sent a million-two. He shorted you." With the two distracted, Adam made his way to where his brother lay, not moving, on the carpet.

It was easy to see what the two men were thinking. Betrayal is most common among thieves and these drug sellers were no better than thieves. Adam knelt beside Joe and felt along side his jaw for a pulse. It was there but there was also a trickle of blood behind his ear. He ran his hand up through his brother's thick hair and found the small gash, made probably by the grip on a certain small revolver. Any other time and Adam would have brushed the injury aside but now, with these two criminals watching him closely, he had to convince them it was worse than it was.

"You got what you wanted, now clear out. I've got to get him to a hospital." Adam refused to look back up at the two men.

            "No," the first one said. "We need you, fella. Gonna go back and get the rest of our money from Stewart. Come on."

He fought them like a wild man but it was only a sham. The last thing he wanted was for them to take Joe as well. As it was, they decided that one recalcitrant abductee was enough to deal with. Adam hoped Joe would understand what needed to be done when he came to. And he prayed that he would come to quickly.

"Out this way," the first man said and Adam could feel himself being dragged through the backdoor and towards the back stairs.

 

 

"Now that's funny. Keep getting dipped into his voice mail. T'ain't like Adam at all." Hoss shook his cell phone, the little gizmo all but lost in his grip. For the better part of the hour, Hoss had tried off and on to raise his brother. He was going to tell him that he was sorry he had messed up with the check and that he was going to the jobsite to pick it up.

Shrugging his massive shoulders, Hoss looked over at the Wayward Ford and grimaced. Just this morning he had told his father that he would get into town and get a replacement truck for himself. He'd thought about dragging Joe along but Ben had done that, saying that he had found the car he wanted to replace the ancient Volvo station wagon he'd driven since Hoss was in high school. There at the table, his father couldn't have missed the smirks and chuckles that passed between he and Joe. There were odds being given that the next vehicle Ben Cartwright was seen in was going to be another Volvo since his father had pointed out many time how a fine crafted car, well maintained, would last a long time. No one wanted to point out that Adam held the record for oldest car but, with Hoss now driving the rattle-trap pick-up, he was running him a close second.

"Well, Adam Cartwright, you still owe me a meal. And when I get into town, I'm gonna collect. On both little items. Got my eye on that new blue truck down at Simplelot's. Gonna go home with me. But I still need somebody to drive this thing home 'cause I know they ain't gonna want to take it in as a trade-in. Ha! Have to pay them to take it!" Hoss muttered as he got into the truck and did all the little things that made the truck want to start. He was reminded of the way major league baseball pitchers went through a ritual before each game. He felt the same way and was rewarded again for his patience when the old truck roared to life. He ground the gears getting it into first gear but then that too was a ritual to be followed if he wanted to go anywhere.

He called the jobsite and was equally rewarded by a growling Webb Stewart. No, Webb had explained nastily, Jenny wasn't there. She had taken the Council's check into the main office because that twit Mandy forgot it. Hoss had to bite his lip to keep from saying that if there was a twit on the job, it was Webb. Instead, he hung up. He smiled. That took care of the check. Now for the truck.

He was standing in the car lot, admiring the bright shiny new pick-up, the one with dual rear wheels that would get him where he wanted to go no matter what the weather, when he saw Adam's XKE flash by. But something slapped at him from the corner of his mind. That wasn't Adam driving it. It was Joe.

"Oh Lordy, don’t that boy know better than that? Adam'll kill him for," Hoss heard brakes squeal and smelled rubber burning close by and he cringed, "for even thinking about takin' it. Shoot for even touchin' the steerin' wheel.!" He heard metal crunch concrete then a familiar mechanical growl followed by Joe's shout at him. Something about the shout made Hoss turn and look.

There Joe was, rising up behind the steering wheel of Adam's pride and joy. And he was screaming for Hoss to get in the car with him. Hoss wasn't sure but he thought he heard panic in Joe's voice.

"Young'un," Hoss started as he eased up beside the long nose of the Jag. "Adam'll thrash your hide for you drivin' his car."

"Get in!" Joe shouted "Or Adam won't live long enough to beat up on me!"

"Move over! Let me drive!" Hoss ordered but Joe sat steady.

"You haven't been able to get behind the wheel for years! Besides, we got to move!" With Joe's emphasis on the last word, Hoss scurried around to the passenger's side and folded himself in, thankful that Joe had taken the top down or he wouldn't have been able to sit upright at all.

Hoss barely had time to brace himself before Joe shoved the gearshift forward and the car ran through the new-car lot and exited out onto the narrow side street. With his hands shoved against the dashboard, Hoss took a quick look at his brother. That was when he noticed that there was a small trace of blood on his shirt. He demanded an explanation. So as the purple Jaguar streaked through the streets of Carson City and headed east on the freeway, Joe told him, shouting to be heard above the roar of the wind and the growl of the big engine.

"So where are we headed?" Hoss asked, swallowing hard as Joe swerved to pass two cars on a double yellow line.

"They have to be headed back to the casino. That's the only place that makes sense. Adam was saying the other day how he was putting things together and they all wound up right back there at the casino. He's right but only part right. I can't figure out about the money and the coke on it but it was in the safe that Webb Stewart had access to and the only thing I can figure is that our boy Webby is running drugs. And how much better a spot and cover could he have than building that damn casino in the middle of nowhere?"

            "Slow down, Joseph! You're gonna have every cop on your tail if you don't!" Hoss had taken a quick peek at the speedometer then wished he hadn't.

            "I called Roy. Told him the two mob-guys took Adam and that I was going after him. Also told him I would run down, or over, anything that got in my way. He said he would help," Joe said then swiftly down-shifted and took a curve that made Hoss' stomach shift sides. "Besides, there is nothing in the State boys' corral that can outrun this thing! Adam just doesn't drive it right!"

Joe barely slowed for the hard left turn that took them skittering and fishtailing across the asphalt then north on the two lane state highway. Here, on the straightaway, Joe buried his foot in the gas tank. He didn't dare take his eyes from the highway but he knew, just by the faint sounds he could distinguish, that Hoss wasn't appreciating the ride. Not even bothering to wipe away the annoying trickle of blood that ran down behind his ear and was soaking into his collar, Joe used every bit of horsepower the old sports car had and then went back and asked for more.

The casino project loomed like a small dot on the horizon. More worrisome to Joe and Hoss were the many cars and trucks leaving the site. It was early afternoon but Webb had apparently let the men go home early. Now they streamed out over the highway and Joe would be forced to slow down and ride the right hand lane. Even if he hadn't been hurtling towards the casino at over a hundred miles an hour, he would have been leery of this stretch of highway since here, a day less than a week ago, his life had nearly come to an end. If something like then happened now, Joe knew there wouldn't be any surviving it. And he would be taking Hoss' life with his own. Adam's as well.

By the time they made it to the gate, Webb Stewart was closing it. He looked up sharply when he heard the grumble from the Jag as it sat less than a hundred feet from the fence. He noted the two men in it but a sound from the office trailer was more important. The purple-colored car lurched forward then stopped. It was as if the car itself was telling him to open the gate but the man finished chaining the gate and hurried away.

"Joe! Don't!" was all Hoss shouted but Joe wasn't in the listening mood. He shoved the car into gear and, with rooster-tails of sand kicking up behind it, the Jag aimed at the gate. Hoss ducked as far down as he was able. He felt when the car hit the gate; he heard the screech of the chain-link fencing going over the long nose of it. Suddenly Joe pulled a hard right and stopped. Hoss sat up. Directly in front of them was Webb Stewart, trying to run backwards as the car now approached by short leaps, the engine revving.

"Let me have him!" Hoss shouted and saw that Joe, grinning evilly, was nodding his head. Again the car made a bounding leap for the man on foot, this time sluing to the left. All Hoss had to do was open the door and Webb Stewart was his.

"You son of a-" Stewart cursed but Hoss Cartwright grasped him about the throat and shoved him towards the fence. He bounced off of it and right back into a huge fist.

"That's right, Webb. I am a son of a gun! And I have had it with you!" Hoss shouted back, his face reddening. He grabbed the other man's shoulder and threw him again into the fence. "And I don't like the way you talk 'bout folks." This time when Stewart came bouncing back, he lowered his head and butted Hoss in the middle. The two men went down into the coarse desert sand, rolling. Each punched and gouged the other. Finally Hoss was able to get to his feet and he pulled Stewart up with him. Again, he threw him into the fence but didn't wait for the fence to give him back. Hoss went after him, fists flailing, connecting time and again with the man's head, chest and any body part that came into range, not caring, in his anger, to fight clean. Only twice was Hoss struck, once in the eye by a hastily flung punch and the last time when Stewart went down for good, his fist grazing his opponent's chin.

Bent over with his hands braced his knees, Hoss heard Joe's shout.

There in the center of the parking lot, Joe in the Jaguar was keeping several men at bay. A man would make a lunge for the office trailer behind Joe and he would spin the car in the loose sand, spraying it into their faces. Back and forth, Joe worked the car, hitting one man and leaving him for his companions to scurry forward and haul back to the safety of the big machinery. Only one of the four men seemed to be armed and he had already put several bullets into the bodywork of the car but none in the driver.

"Office! Adam!" Joe shouted and Hoss moved towards the gray trailer, staying out of sight of the windows. As he stopped beside the trailer, he felt it rocking from side to side. He eased open the door just in time to see a man dressed in a navy blue suit rough up the carpeting with his chin. He decided the man could stay down so reaching in, he grabbed the man by the hair at the back of his head and pounded his face into the carpet again.

Hoss eased on into the office, hearing more fighting in the back office. Quickly he looked around for a weapon and found none but he did see the sweater hanging on the back of Jenny's chair and used it to tie the hands of the blue suited man behind his back. Then he went down the short hallway and saw the splinters that were all that was left of the door.

Raising up again, Adam slammed a fist into the man's face. In the confined space behind the desk, there wasn't room for much else. Then he felt himself flying as the man had flung him over his head. He hit with a sickening thud on the plan table and it knocked the breath from him. The other man got to his feet and stood with his chest heaving, catching his breath.

"Cartwright, I don't care what you said. I want the rest of our money. I don't care if it comes from your hide, Stewart's hide or the man in the moon. You owe us two million dollars. I ain't leavin' here until I get it. Understand?"

"And I keep telling you that we aren't part of your operation. You get your money from Stewart. I haven't got it." Adam wiped away a trickle of blood from his mouth.

The other man shook his head to one side. "Then I don't have to worry about not killing you." His hand dived into his coat pocket.

Hoss took the advantage and shoved the desk and pinned the other man to the wall with it. Reaching across it, he backhanded the arm connected to the hand in the pocket and the small snub-nosed pistol flew out and hit the desk. The man lunged for it but was at the wrong angle to retrieve it. Hoss, on the other hand, got it easily and with it held in his hand, gestured that the man should settle down.

"You okay?" Hoss asked of his brother, not bothering to take his eyes off his captive.

"Yeah," came Adam's shaky reply. "Got something to tie him up with?"

"Nope. But there has to be something 'round here. You hold this little ol' gun on him while I go see if I can help Joe. Him and the Grape are havin' a high old time with some more suits out in the parkin' lot." Hoss tossed Adam the gun. He turned on his heels and left, only stopping to knock the man in the front office out cold again.

Outside, he could see that Joe was about to lose the battle. He was backed nearly into the last twenty feet of free space and the ground before him looked as though it had just been freshly plowed. He wondered how he could help when a screech of metal against metal announced the arrival of help. Roy Coffee's navy blue sedan was the first through the broken gate. Within moments, the compound was full of vehicles displaying revolving lights and wailing sirens. Hoss took a deep breath and let it go then ambled towards where Joe sat in the Jaguar. As he approached, the car coughed once and died and Joe leaned over the steering wheel.

Hoss ran the remaining few feet and yanked open the driver's side door. He knelt in the sand and with one hand, pushed his brother back from the wheel gently.

"You okay?" he asked, seeing how pale Joe was and that his breathing was far too rapid.

"Yeah," Joe answered breathily then with his uncasted hand gestured to the car. "But the Grape ain't." Hoss had to agree. There were long gouges of missing paint and dented metal on the hood; the windshield was gone. On the driver's side, Hoss could easily count a half dozen bullet holes in that one fender. There were probably that many or more on the other side.

            Shaking his head, Hoss pulled his brother from the car and made sure he could stand on his own. "Yep, sure does look bad." Flittering through Hoss' thoughts were all the threats Adam had made in years gone by concerning his beloved car.

"You boys okay?" Roy shouted as he hurried towards them, completely ignoring the four men Joe had kept at bay.

"Adam's got two in the trailer!" Hoss replied, letting Joe sit back down in the purple car. "And Webb Stewart's over by the fence!"

For the next ensuing few minutes, the place swarmed with men carrying guns and orders being shouted. The four men Joe had played a vicious game of tag with, stood in the waning sunlight and spoke with the Nevada State police who had accompanied Roy. Catching the eye of one of the Nevada boys that he had gone to school with, Hoss waved him over.

"What's with them guys, Rick? Ain't you gonna handcuff 'em?"

"Don't think so, Hoss. They're with the DEA. 'Parently been watchin' this fella Stewart and his cronies for a while. They had hoped to nail them big time this afternoon but then you boys got involved." As he said that, he pointedly looked at Joe.oss'H

 

"Oh God," Joe moaned and buried his head in his arms across the steering wheel again. "The Feds! Hoss, I sprayed sand all over them. I was gonna run over them before they could get to you or Adam. Oh God! I'm history."

Hoss chuckled then tapped his shoulder to get his attention. Adam was sprinting towards them from the trailer. "They ain't gonna do half of what Adam's gonna do!" Joe moaned and dropped his head to his crossed arms on top of the steering wheel.

Adam pulled up short, seeing Joe leaning over and Hoss there beside him. One part of him looked over the damage done to his beloved Jaguar while the other feared what had happened to his brothers. But something about the way Hoss was talking to their brother made Adam advance, albeit slower.

"Are you two okay?" he asked, finally beside the car. He tried to keep his attention on them, but the holes, dents and peeled paint from the metalwork were screaming and crying to him.

"Yeah," Joe whispered. "Adam, I'm sorry about the car. I really am. I didn't mean to, really I didn't. But this thing guzzles gas when you get it above a hundred and I didn't want to take the time to stop at a gas station. It just ran out of gas, right here. We got some gas here on site. I'll go get a can and --"

The absurdity of it smashed into Adam and he began to laugh. And he was still laughing when he broke his hand against his youngest brother's jaw.

 

 

 

When the story hit the newspapers, the three Cartwright brothers' names were left out at the request of the Storey County Sheriff. For months, there had been a steady stream of high grade cocaine brought into the northwest corner of Nevada but the Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI and the Nevada police had been unable to track it once it hit the border. Then a young man had come to them with an interesting tale of the coke being hidden in construction equipment. They had begun tracking the movement of the heavy machinery. Some of it was used legitimately once it arrived inside the Nevada line. But there was some, like there at the Northern Paiute Council's forthcoming casino, that just sat. It attracted attention. Late one night that week, drug-sniffing dogs had located the drugs there. A bust was planned. But the DEA, FBI and Nevada State Police had never expected the turn of events they got. Among the others arrested was Webb Stewart, even though he claimed over and over that the Cartwrights were the ones behind it all. It had been his plan to finger them all along. It would destroy Cartwright and Sons Construction and humiliate the father, forcing him from elected office. It would be his revenge for having lost his job, his way of life, those years before.

 

Adam flipped the paper closed then reached over and picked up his glass of white wine. "So I guess we're done with Webb Stewart," he mused then sipped the wine.

"Looks like it. For a number of years at least! But explain something to me, Adam. Was he behind Joe's accident? The cars blowin' up? All that? And why?" Hoss asked, putting his feet up on the redwood railing as his two brothers did as they sat on the deck of the Hideout.

"Dunno, Hoss. Roy said studying the left front tire of Joe's Jeep, or what was left of the tire after the fire, he found where a bullet most likely nicked the rim so Webb probably shot out Joe's tire. He had access to explosives and knew how to use them so the cars wouldn't have been a problem for him either. And he paid that woman fifty dollars to play a nurse. Roy says they caught her and she is singing like a canary."

"But why?" Hoss pushed, popping the tab on a beer.

"He had to get Joe off the site because he needed it for the equipment. Apparently, he'd tried other ways but we'll never know for sure. The ways he did try, he'll go to jail for."

"But what about the Hand, Adam? You saw it, same as me. What about it?" Joe asked, heaving a sigh as he stretched out in the hammock.

"I have an idea but it's just an idea," Adam said but could not be pushed into further explanation.

All three heard the car noises coming up the lane and rose to greet them. Their afternoon spent doing nothing at the Hideout was finished but this had been at the request of their father. Up the lane came Hop Sing driving Ben's new car, a Lincoln equipped with, as Joe had described it, every bell and whistle made for an automobile. Following its sleek black form came another. A purple splash of color. Adam turned to look at his brothers and smiled. He grabbed the youngest one around the neck and pulled him forward to where Ben was just getting out of the restored Jaguar.

Adam took the keys from his father without turning loose of a squirming Joe. "Thank you, Father. It looks….great!" Still dragging Joe, he went down the side and rubbed his free hand over where a bullet hole had been not a week before. "You even had it painted? But purple still? Well, I guess there are some things you can't fight. I must be destined to drive a purple car," he said, sighing, looking at the regal color and appreciating its uniqueness for the first time

"Come on, Adam. Turn me loose! Your car is fixed. Look, even a new windshield!" Joe was struggling unsuccessfully to get loose.

"Adam, son, turn your brother loose. He did get it fixed for you. So come on, no more hard feelings?" Ben wondered why he could get constituents to see things his way but his sons were slow to at times.

"See this?" and Adam lifted his fiberglass-encased hand. "I didn't do this because you tore up the body work of my vintage automobile, Joseph. That, I knew, could be repaired or replaced. No, and I didn't to this," and again he gestured with the cast," because you had my car, my most prized possession in this whole world, out on Nevada Highway 349, doing over a hundred miles an hour!" And for gentle emphasis, he put the cast against the black and blue smudge on Joe's jaw. "I did it because you drove my car and didn't ask me for it!"

While the rest of the family was laughing, Joe broke the hold Adam had on him, then quickly backed up. "You may as well have told me I could take it. When I came to in your office, your car keys were on the floor next to me!"

"All right, all right! Let's help Hop Sing get these things into your kitchen, boys!" Ben chuckled out.

"What is all this?" Hoss asked even though his nose told him that at least one of the many boxes held fried chicken.

Picking up one, Ben said, "I thought it would be a good idea to throw you boys a house warming for your Hideout. But I hope that you'll continue to live on the Ponderosa. This should fill up those bare cabinets and empty freezer Paul mentioned," Ben explained as he juggled a box full of various cans and containers. Seeing the broad smiles on their faces, he continued, "and I have something I want to tell you all but let's eat first."

Stuffed full of fried chicken, potato salad, and coleslaw and everything imaginable for a late summer picnic, the brothers also devoured the apple pie and ice cream Hop Sing served.

"What was it you wanted to tell us, Pa?" Joe piped up, backhanding a drip of ice cream into his mouth.

Ben set his plate aside and looked out over the view the cabin afforded of Lake Tahoe. "There's a couple of things I want to tell you boys but let me make one thing perfectly clear. I will not come back here without one of you inviting me. You all tried to keep it a secret from me for a long time and I let you. There are some places in a man's life where he doesn't want, or need, his father. That's why you boys built this cabin. You wanted the privacy, the peace, and the sanctuary that this place gives you. I can respect that and I do. I know that it hasn't been easy on you three with your father so heavily involved in politics. With the press looking over your shoulders as well as mine, I have been tough on you. But you've grown up to be men that any father would be proud of." As he watched, each of his sons broke their gaze and looked at the floor, sensing that he was speaking directly to each of them. "I also figured out that what I have left for you boys is a legacy of hard work and long hours to keep things going. While you boys stepped up and took on parts of the family enterprises, I stepped back into my own world. That isn't fair so I am going to go about fixing it. I am not going to seek re-election. Twenty years is long enough to give to the state."

The silence that followed was only broken by the hum of insects in the surrounding forest.

"Have you made your decision known to anyone else?" Adam asked, his voice barely audible it was so soft.

"No, I thought I would tell you boys first."

"Twenty years of doing what you love and enjoy is not long enough, Pa. And you tryin' to tell us that you haven't enjoyed workin' for a better Nevada? Ha!" Hoss hit the nail on the head the same way he slammed his meaty fist on the deck railing.

"We may moan and groan and carry on like we're bein' really put upon but I don't think Adam, or Hoss or I would want our lives to change like that, Pa. No, stay in the State House. Run for governor, if you think you'd make a difference. But don’t leave because of us. Just like we have our own jobs to do, you have your's." With that said, Joe sat down and propped his feet on the railing. Within moments, his brothers joined him, mimicking his pose.

Ben was stunned but his sons had spoken loud and clear. He nudged Adam out of his chair, telling him to use the hammock, and he sat down like his sons. This was a wrinkle he hadn't expected and he needed to consider it for a while.

"But you're right," Joe said, not looking at his father as he did, "This is our place to hide out. You go find your own!"

 

 

 

 

It was the night of the full moon. Adam had called Joe and told him to get a jacket and meet him on the casino jobsite. Joe had snorted and made a ribald comment about being back to work already. But then Adam repeated himself and sounded serious.

The moon was just creeping over the far distant eastern mountains when the Grape pulled in. Joe was sitting on the office steps, talking on his new cell phone. He waved to Adam and continued talking. Finally he hung up and, bouncing off the steps, came towards where Adam was leaning against his own car.

"Hey brother!" Joe greeted. "Now what's so important? I had to call and reschedule a date just 'cause of you!"

"You remember you asked me about the Hand?" Adam queried and saw Joe's mood go from light to dark just that fast. "I figured something out. Come on."

Together the two brothers went into the center of the casino. The outside walls had been replaced and the roof was going on now. All around were boxes of materials, chests of tools, stacks of lumber. The beginnings of inside walls were taking place. For the first time, it was beginning to look like a true building.

A cool night breeze found its way to where the brothers stood. They weren't sure if that was what made them shiver or if it foretold another appearance of the Hand.

"Well?" prompted Joe as he shrugged a little deeper into his jacket.

"Something I got to thinking about after a conversation with Roy. Remember the Mac brothers and their Indian artifacts scheme?"

"That wasn't quite before my time, Adam. I went to school with both of them, for gosh sake. What have they got to do with the Hand?"

"They got their bones from where? Nobody ever found out as far as I know." Adam crossed his arms over his chest and felt the hairs rising on the back of his neck. "What if they got them from an Indian burial ground? One that had been forgotten? One that was maybe here."

Joe shook his head. He rubbed his arms, suddenly cold. "That's kind of far-fetched, Adam. So you think maybe this casino is being build on that spot? We didn't dig up any bones when we dug the footings."

"Maybe because they were all gone? I did some research, or well, I had Rosalie do some research. Through this strip of land beside Pyramid Lake, the Paiutes traveled, going from one hunting ground to another back before the white man showed up looking for silver. There were some fierce battles fought by the tribes against the whites here. Then, when the reservation was created, nobody lived here. Why? Why? And why again?"

"If this were some sacred place, wouldn't Bill Campbell have said something to you about it?" Joe asked, suddenly afraid to stand still.

"No. If Bill Running Wolf Campbell had known about this being hallowed ground, we wouldn't have been able to build here! The government doesn't allow it! The white man's or the red man's! No, Joe, don't think of it as a cemetery, a burial place. More like a place where restless spirits wander."

"Well, that Hand sure about killed me once and you another time! Seems to me that if there is a spirit here, it's mad about something and taking it out on us!"

"But since the drugs are gone, have you seen it? Has it done anything to the building like it did before?" pressed Adam, grabbing his brother's arm and making him stand still.

Joe hung his head and muttered that Adam was right. Nothing had gone wrong. In fact, it seemed that everything was going right and at top speed. "Who tore up the block wall, Adam?"

Adam scuffed his foot against the concrete floor and chewed his lip in thought.

Joe went on and answered his own question, his tone not mocking but sincere. "The Hand did, brother. I know because I found his thumb print in some cast-off mortar. I joked with one of the masons that we needed to look for the Jolly Green Giant. Didn't realize how close to the truth I was!"  For a heartbeat or two, Joe laughed then he grew serious. "No, that Hand has got an attitude and it ain't a good one but I ain't gonna volunteer to adjust it."

"Think of it this way. The Hand was trying to tell us something when it tore down the wall. Joe, that block wall, build to the specifications I gave you," he paused and waited for Joe to nod that the wall had been built right. "The only way that wall would have had that catastrophic a failure is by an act of God. Or something bigger than you and me. And Webb Stewart shot a hole in your tire. He could have shot you, for land's sake! Maybe the Hand was there to protect you, Joe, not harm you."

"What about you? You said it grabbed a hold of the 'dozer you were in. Was it protecting you then?"

Adam rocked back on his heels a moment and thought about Joe's comments. "I reached for the ignition, Joe.  I tried to start it but it wouldn't kick over. Maybe it was rigged to blow up to protect the coke stashed in it. You heard the man. You heard how every piece of machinery was loaded with the stuff."

"I reached for the ignition too, Adam, and I didn't see the Hand then. What? You only get protected once? And why protect us? Why not somebody else?"

"That I can't explain, Joe. Maybe we were the only ones who saw the Hand because we were the only ones who needed it."

"So it wasn't-- what's the word I'm looking for? Malevolent? Malicious?" Joe began his nervous pacing again.

"I don't think it was, Joe. I think-" Adam's words came to a sudden halt and Joe turned back to him, expecting to see the Hand wrapped around him and choking the life from him. Instead he saw Bill Running Wolf Campbell. The Indian elder stood just inside the building's walls, pausing there for a few heartbeats before he came into the center. He stopped right in front of Adam. Joe, though, held back, ready to spring into battle should the man's intentions prove not friendly.

"Your secretary, Adam, is a most thorough young woman. She called me, you know, looking for books about my people. There are few, I told her, but if she had a question, I might know someone who could answer it for her. She told me she was looking for information about the casino site. Until I stood here and listened tonight, I didn't know what she was after. Now I do. Come with me." He turned and strode out into the brilliant white moonlight that bathed the area in silver. "My people have lived in these valleys for thousands of generations. Long before the coming of the white man, we passed through here. This valley is known as the Valley of Peace, even though it isn't really a valley. Our legends have it that our downfall and our resurrection will come at the same place. Close by here and known only to the Council elders, is the place where a massacre of our people took place in the 1850's. No, Adam, the casino does not stand on sacred ground. Those who died that long ago day were buried as our traditions call for so that their spirits would not roam. The massacre was the beginning of the end for my people. Your forefathers did a good job in hounding us into the hills and into near extinction as a people. Those of us who survived the soldiers found a new life here on the reservation."

"So much for the downfall. I'm sorry. I didn't know of the massacre," apologized Adam as he stood in the bright moonlight, his dark clothing making him appear as a shadow almost.

"It was not one that you white men would write about in your history books. Not many braves were killed that day but many children and their mothers were. My people lost nearly a whole generation that fateful day. But, as I said, except for the secret passed from elder to elder in the Council, it is not spoken of." Bill had begun to walk in a circle around Adam and Joe. They had to turn just a little to keep track of him. From a small pouch he carried, he was sprinkling something on the ground before him as he walked.  "But that was not the real downfall. That has come in your lifetime, Adam Cartwright. Drugs that steal the mind; drink that takes the heart; a laziness of the soul; these things have come to my people. They have taken to them because they had no pride. They are interested in nothing but today. Never tomorrow. That has been the true downfall of the Northern Paiute people. But this," and both men turned as he gestured to the casino, "this will be our resurrection. It will give jobs to our young people. It will bring income to our tribal council so that we may help our old ones. This, this casino which you build with many Indian hands, it will give us new life. We intend it to pull us back from the edge we have stood upon for so long. It will be our resurrection as a people."

"Hadn't thought of that but you're right. Lot of our crews have Paiutes in them, Adam. And the jobs this place will provide when it's done will be plenty. But that doesn't explain the vision we saw." Joe's voice sounded strained so Adam turned to look at him.

The old Indian had stopped back where he had started, his back to the rising moon, his small pouch now empty as he tucked it into his pocket. :"Oh, but it does, young one. You see, when we decided to build here, we had the shaman invoke the spirit of the valley. That spirit is one of peace. It protects all who come here to help us. That includes you, Adam, because you have the foresight to build something for our future. And you, Joseph, because you come to build it with us. Stay here for a while once I leave. Talk between yourselves of what you have seen here. But once you leave, do not speak of it again, I beg you." Running Wolf left as silently as he had come, making sure that he stepped over the strange and faint circle he had inscribed. At the heart of the circle were the two Cartwright brothers.

"You believe all that?" Joe asked once they were alone. "I mean about this place being their resurrection and all that?"

"He was right when he said what it would do to help his people. Now, do I believe about the spirit of peace? Considering some of the hottest arguments I've had with either of my brothers lately have happened right here, not really," Adam confessed but felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise with the cool breeze blowing across it. Unable to contain his curiosity any longer, he went to circle and, squatting, fingered the sand. He held a palmful to the moonlight. It glowed faintly gold and Adam recognized the faint scent of cornmeal.

"Maybe we just need to chalk that vision up to lack of food. Or too much beer." Joe chuckled at his own poor joke but Adam didn't chime in. "Well," he ended by saying, "I'm going home. Us workin' men got to get up early in the morning, you know."

At that Adam did chuckle. "Go ahead. Good night, Joe." He stayed where he was as Joe climbed into his new red Jeep and roared out onto the strip of highway, his headlights making faint tracks in the bright moonlight.

Adam stood slowly. The symbolism of what Bill Running Wolf Campbell had done was not lost on him. As the man had kept their attention on his words, he had inscribed the two of them within a circle of sacred cornmeal. Adam had read about such doings since he had started on his quest to find his answers. The circle of cornmeal showed a benevolent spirit those who the shaman wished to bring special protection. The way Campbell had handled it, speaking of the importance of the casino, Adam was sure that he was asking the spirits for protection not just of he and Joe as they built the casino, but of the casino as well as it changed lives forever.

He dropped the handful of sand and cornmeal and dusted his hands off. Looking around once more, he strolled over to his Jag and climbed in. He turned the key and listened to the growl of the big engine. Then he reached over and hit another button, holding it, as the roof folded back and tucked itself away so that the moonlight spilled over him. He eased it into gear and followed the Jeep tracks to the tarmac. There, with a smile, he floored it and felt the car lunge as though chasing something. Maybe, he thought, he was but he would never catch the future.

A few miles down the road, he let up on the gas and laughed to himself. "Wonder if I can beat Joe home. Naw, he's not goin' home. Seven seven five called him, I bet and he's headed to meet her." Again Adam laughed, the sound torn away by the slipstream. "If Pa knew he was dating that tree-hugging lobbyist, he'd have a fit. And Pa made it sound so rough to have dinner with her….."

As he drove down the empty highway, he didn't look back. If he had, he would have seen something to give him pause, for once again, the silvery white hand had appeared. But this time, it covered the growing casino.

 

 

Epilogue~ ~ ~ ~

 

"Well, I think you can handle it," Adam's voice coming over the phone sounded rather condescending.

"Think I can handle it?" Joe replied testily, echoing his brother's words but not the tone. "I finished the casino in record time! Made a profit too so don't be handing me that line! Of course I can handle your hotel. That is if you drew it right!"

"Joseph, we all know that you did a good job, despite a rather rough beginning. But this is a horse of a different color. There's lots of glass for one thing and you and glass never seem to hang together for any length of time." Now the teasing came through to the little earpiece to Joe and he smiled as he listened to Adam ramble on. He knew that he would run the Grissom Lake Tahoe Hotel project. But there was a little something chewing on the back of his neck. He knew he'd had a helping hand on the casino. A big one, in fact. Adam had been right when he'd spoken of the protection given to them that night at the casino with Bill Running Wolf Campbell. As things had progressed so well on the project, he understood the meaning and the importance of what he was doing.

 But Joe wouldn't admit it to Adam. Some things he just couldn't do.

 Not as long as they were brothers.

  

~~The end~~

The Tahoe Ladies

Summer 2003

  

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