Judge Not (by pjb)

Summary:  A WHN for “The Hunter” and “The Crucible.” Twelve years ago,there was Kane; this time, it’s Tanner. Once more, the Cartwrights grapple with the repercussions when one of their own is tortured by a madman.  Rated PG13     WC 20,300

 

Judge Not

 

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

                                                                                                        Matthew 7:1-2

 

I hear him. He’s coming. This is my last chance. If I don’t beat him this time, he’ll kill me.

He’s whistling again. That same tune all day, every time he thinks he’s close enough that I can hear. Maybe he was whistling last night, too. I don’t remember.

I crouch low on the roof of the jail. He doesn’t look up. Doesn’t see me watching him. He’s just strolling along like it’s a regular nice day, like he’s not doing anything wrong or even interesting. He calls me: “Joe Cartwright!” But he says it like he’s just looking for me the way a friend might if we were supposed to meet up.

Like he’s not a madman who’s looking to kill me.

I can’t die. I can’t do that to Pa. He’s lost too much. I have to make it through somehow.

I drop the rock down the flue. His head jerks around. His face lights up like somebody just gave him a prize. If I had a gun, I’d shoot him down right now, before he even saw me. Nobody would ever call it murder.

I hold my breath. Go in. Go in, you sick bastard. Go inside, Will Tanner. Go.

As if he hears my thoughts, he creeps toward the cell. His footsteps make no sound. His mouth is twisted in a triumphant sneer. So clever. He’s going to surprise me.

Guess again.

As soon as he’s inside, I jump down, slam and bolt the door. He howls like a wolf caught in a trap as I slump to the wooden sidewalk. I can’t tell what he’s screaming. I don’t care.

I’m alive. That’s all that matters.

Some would say I won.

*****

I heard the front door open, followed by footsteps. Under other circumstances, I might have smiled; from the time he was ten, Hoss was never able to walk quietly. Now that he was twenty-five and full-grown, his tiptoeing was louder than my regular walking.

He sat down beside me on the porch step. For a long time, neither of us said anything. My head was so jumbled that I couldn’t have picked a word, much less made a sentence. When I finally blurted out what I thought, it was the one thing I’d sworn I’d never say out loud.

“How could he have let it happen?”

As soon as the words were out, I braced myself. Pa would have given me the rough side of his tongue for even thinking such a thing. I couldn’t imagine Hoss would do any different. If Hoss had been the one to say it, I’d have flown to Adam’s defense.

He was quiet for so long that I started to wonder if maybe he hadn’t heard me. Maybe those hateful words had stayed inside my head after all. But just as I opened my mouth to say something that wasn’t awful, Hoss said, “Is that what you think?”

“I don’t know.” I dropped my head into my hands. “I don’t want to think it. But . . . I don’t get it. Why didn’t he try to get away? As soon as he figured out Kane was a madman, why didn’t he beat the tar out of him and run? Why did he stay? I mean, when you’re in the middle of nowhere with a lunatic, who cares what’s civilized or rational or whatever it was? Why didn’t he just kill Kane and get the hell out of there!”

I didn’t realize I was crying until I felt Hoss’s hand on my shoulder. Almost twenty years old, and I was crying like a little kid. I tried to get myself under control, but it seemed like the harder I tried, the harder the sobs jerked my body. I crammed my hand into my mouth to keep from waking Pa.

“Easy, Joe,” Hoss murmured. He wrapped his arm around me and pulled me close. I wanted to have enough pride to pull away, but instead, I clung to him and buried my face in his chest.

Finally, I sat up. He handed me his bandanna, and I wiped my face and blew my nose. I held it out to him, but he shook his head. “You keep it,” he said in a voice that was clearly meant to make me smile, but I couldn’t.

“I’m scared,” I whispered.

“Of what? Adam’s home. He’s safe. He ain’t going nowhere.”

I shook my head. “That’s not it.”

“Then what?”

I didn’t want to say it. I could barely think the words, so cruel and hateful. But then, like lancing a boil, I let the poison flow. “I’m scared I’ll—oh, God, Hoss. I don’t know. I’m scared—I’m scared I’m never gonna forgive him. I’m scared I might hate him for this.”

“What in tarnation are you talking about?” Hoss demanded. He didn’t sound all warm and big-brotherly now.

“I don’t know,” I said. “All I know is Adam went through something horrible out there in the desert, and so did all of us, and now that we’re home it’s no better. It’s worse. Nobody can leave it behind. Don’t you hear Pa at night?”

“Hear what?” He sounded cautious, like he wasn’t sure he wanted to credit anything I was saying.

“He paces. I wake up in the middle of the night and I hear him going back and forth, back and forth. I know he’s trying not to wake anybody, because he almost always manages not to hit that board that creaks—you know, the one by the foot of his bed? And then, he goes out of his room, and he opens Adam’s door, and he just stands there and looks in. Finally, he closes the door. Sometimes, he goes down to your room and does the same thing, and then he stops at my room and does it again.”

“How do you know what he does?”

“My room’s next to his, remember? And I’ve watched him. The first night, I heard him in the hall and I was going to go out and talk to him, but when I opened the door and saw him standing in Adam’s doorway, he turned around and the look on his face—all I could think of was the way he looked when we thought we were going to have to give up. He closed Adam’s door and told me to go back to bed, and he went back to his room. After that, I just stayed in my room and pretended to be asleep when he opened the door.”

Hoss didn’t say anything, so I kept going. “And don’t think I haven’t seen what it’s done to you, either.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“You barely let him out of your sight. Wherever Adam is, you’re right there beside him. He can barely go to the outhouse without you tagging along.”

“You’re loco.” He stood up, and I jumped to my feet to grab him, to keep him from leaving.

“I’m not,” I insisted. “You think about it. I’m right.”

He shook off my hand. “So, what’re we supposed to do? Pretend like nothing happened?”

“No. No. I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. I just—I wish he hadn’t told us.” Don’t tell me, Adam. Maybe then it won’t be true.

“He needed to tell it.” The statement was final, hearing no quarrel. Our brother had needed to tell what happened to him. So we listened.

“I know.” I sat down again.

When Adam had said he was ready to tell us what had happened with Kane, we never hesitated. We sat quietly and let him tell the whole story without question or comment. But it didn’t make sense to me. Why on earth would he have cared so much about proving Kane wrong? Who cared whether a civilized man could be driven to kill? And even if there had been a bet or a dare or whatever, once it became clear that Kane was a lunatic, the bet was off. At that point, why hadn’t Adam just done whatever he needed to in order to get out alive, without regard for being civilized or rational? How could my smart big brother be so stupid? What could possibly have made him stay?

When he finished his story, I started to say, “But why didn’t you—” Before I could get any more out, Pa said, “Joseph,” in that way he has that usually means I’ve done something wrong, except I didn’t think I had. When I opened my mouth to try again, he repeated, “Joseph.” His meaning was clear this time: “Do not say another word.”

“It’s all right, Pa,” Adam said. To me, he said, “What were you going to say?”

I shook my head. “Nothing.”

Now, on the porch step, with Adam’s story racing around in my head like a pair of deranged chipmunks, all I knew was that it didn’t make any sense. I always knew Adam and I were different, but if this was what it meant to be cultured and civilized—that you might choose to stay with a madman until you practically lost your own mind, just to prove you were right—then I didn’t want any part of it.

I hadn’t noticed that Hoss had sat back down until he said, “You listen to me. What’s done is done. Adam did the best he could. It don’t matter if it makes sense to you. We need to take his side in this even if we don’t understand it.”

I knew he was right, but it didn’t make me less scared. Then, something he’d said got my attention: “even if we don’t understand it.”

“Does it make sense to you what he did?” I asked.

“It don’t matter,” he said firmly.

“Would you have done it? Played the madman’s game? Are you telling me you wouldn’t have just cracked him over the head with a rock and run?”

“It don’t matter.” He stood up. “You get yourself to bed. We got a lot of calves to brand in the morning.” He went into the house and closed the door, leaving me alone in the moonlight with Adam’s inexplicable decision.

*****

Sunlight filters through the drapes. It takes a minute before I remember where I am. The softness of my own bed. The cool of the morning air. The faint smell of laundry soap on the pillow slip. The throbbing weight of my right arm, now properly set and encased in plaster.

The door opens. Jamie pokes his head in. When he sees me looking at him, awake and safe, his grin widens. “Hey, Joe.” He sounds so happy that I try to smile with my dry, cracked, sunburned lips.

“Hey, Jame,” I murmur. I can’t remember ever feeling so tired. It’s like somebody drained out all my blood.

“You ready for breakfast?” he asks.

“Not hungry.” I know Pa will insist, but with any luck, it’ll be something light. A piece of toast, maybe.

He looks perplexed. Even after almost two years living with us, he still doesn’t quite know how to read me. The thought dashes across my mind: Hoss would have known. But that’s not fair. Jamie’s just a kid. He’s doing his best. In a timid voice, he says, “Um—you want something to drink?”

I relent. “Sure. Could use some water.” He bounces into the room in obvious relief. I accept a glass of water and sip slowly. “Thanks,” I say.

He sits in the bedside chair, first settling back and then perching on the edge. “How’re you feeling?”

“Fine.” Hoss and Adam would have snorted and rolled their eyes at the obvious lie, but Jamie studies me like he must have missed something.

“You don’t look like you feel fine,” he says.

I manage a grin. “I’m fine enough to clobber you if you don’t get yourself off to school right now.”

He chortles. “It’s Saturday!”

“Jamie?” Pa calls from downstairs.

“I’m up here!” he calls back. “Joe’s awake!”

“Well, I certainly hope so if you’re sitting in here yelling,” Pa says as he enters the room. He’s carrying a tray. His expression softens as he turns to me. “How’re you feeling this morning, son?”

“He says he’s fine,” Jamie says before I can answer. He’s practically bouncing in the chair. His enthusiasm is exhausting.

Pa and I exchange the briefest of looks, but that’s enough. We understand each other. He sends Jamie downstairs and helps me sit up, arranging pillows and settling the tray across my lap. My stomach recoils at the smell of scrambled eggs. “I’m not hungry,” I say.

“Eat what you can,” Pa says unexpectedly. Any other time, I’d have been ordered to finish my breakfast.

He stands by the bed, watching, waiting. Almost unsure. But it’s an invitation I’m happy to extend: “Keep me company?” Properly welcomed, he smiles, settling into the bedside chair. I wait for him to say something, but he just watches me. Finally, I take the fork and try to spear a piece of egg.

“Need a hand?” he asks.

“I got it,” I say. Lucky for me it was my right arm I broke this time. A few years ago, I broke my left arm when a horse got spooked during a thunderstorm, and it got infected pretty badly. It was some time before the swelling went down enough that I could even bend my fingers, which meant trying to eat and dress myself and whatever with the wrong hand. At least this time, I can use my good hand.

“Doc’ll be stopping by later,” Pa says.

“For what? I’m fine.” I jab at another piece of egg.

“Just to check,” Pa says mildly. He’s used to this by now.

I can’t say I’m surprised the doctor wants to check on me. I don’t remember much about the past few days. I don’t even know how many days it’s been since I came to on that sidewalk in front of the jail. Most of that time’s in bits and pieces, like somebody took a bunch of words and tossed them up in the air and now I’m trying to figure out what the sentence said. A couple times, I’ve wakened with nightmares, but not as much as I might have.

As I eat, I watch Pa as best I can. My eyes still feel dry and scratchy; if I look at anything too long, it gets cloudy. Doc said that’s because I went so long without water. I didn’t think it was that long, but maybe it was. He left some drops to put in my eyes. Maybe I’ll ask Pa to put them in when I finish eating.

The next thing I know, Doc and Pa are standing next to the bed. The tray is gone. I don’t remember anybody taking it. “Hey, Doc,” I say. My tongue feels thick, my mouth dry and sticky.

“Morning, Joe,” says Doc Martin. He slides a thermometer into my mouth and instructs me to keep my lips closed. Then, he takes out his stethoscope, sits on the side of the bed, and listens to my heart.

“Am I alive?” I ask when he removes the thermometer.

“For now,” he says, deadpan. He squints at the thermometer, frowns slightly and puts it away. He fires off a series of questions about how I’m feeling. As always, his face shows nothing while he listens to the answers. Pa hovers, but he doesn’t add anything.

“What do you remember about what happened?” the doctor asks.

“Not a lot,” I admit. The doctor looks up at Pa. Something’s going on. “What?” I ask.

“What do you mean?” Doc asks.

I gesture to the two of them. “What’s going on?” I try to focus on Pa. “What’s wrong?”

“The sheriff wants to talk to you,” he says with obvious reluctance.

“About what?”

“Don’t worry about it right now,” Doc interrupts. “You’re nowhere near ready to be talking to anybody.”

“What does he want to talk about?” I ask, but the doctor is peering at my eyes.

“Have you been using those drops?” he asks Pa. Pa says we have, but the doctor wants them used more often. At least, that’s what it sounds like. Their voices are getting far away, like they’re riding away while they’re talking. I try to say something to bring them back, but instead they fade out as blackness descends.

When I waken, I’m alone. The room is more in shadow than light now. My head is pounding, my arm aches, and my stomach is flopping like a trout on the hook. Without thinking, I call for the one person I need most now.

“Hoss.”

The word is more breath than sound, but hearing it is enough to return me to the present. Hoss isn’t going to come. He can’t. He’s dead, has been for more than a year. It’s a truth that never gets easier. Acid-hot tears well up in my eyes. I want Hoss. I want my big brother.

A tap, and the door opens. I squinch my eyes shut and try to keep my breathing smooth and even. The door clicks shut. I relax and open my eyes.

Standing beside the closed door is Candy. “Figured you might be playing possum.”

“Get out.” I rub at my eyes in the hope that if he thinks they look red, he’ll believe it was from rubbing.

He shakes his head. “I told your pa I’d look in on you. It was the only way he’d agree to get some rest.”

“What do you mean?”

Candy shrugs. “You know your pa. He worries. So I told him I’d check up on you, make sure you were drinking and all that. Which reminds me. . . .” He pours a glass of water and hands it to me. “Be sure to drink all of that,” he says.

I drink rather than have to talk. When I finish the water, he lights the bedside lamp, makes me put my head back, and puts the drops in my eyes. Then, he dips a cloth in cool water and lays it over my eyes.

“You shoulda been a nursemaid,” I say.

“I am,” he says. I hear him settle into the bedside chair. Almost like he knows I don’t want to think, he talks about what’s going on around the ranch. He tells how the grazing’s pretty well finished in the north pasture, how many men he figures we’ll need to move the herd, and how they’re still trying to decide which pasture to move them to. It’s sort of like when I was sick as a kid and Adam would read to me. It wasn’t the story that mattered. All I needed was the sound of his voice, keeping me afloat as I drifted along a quiet, undemanding stream of words.

Then, something Candy said before breaks through: You know your pa. He worries. I sit upright, the cloth dropping to my lap. “Is my pa all right?” I demand, only half-aware that I’m interrupting.

“Sure. He’s just taking a nap. Now, lay back and let me put this over your eyes.” He picks up the cloth, but I shove his hand away.

“I need to know if he’s all right.” I can hear my voice wobbling. All at once, the sounds of years gone by echo in my mind. Pa pacing, avoiding the creaking board. Opening the bedroom door and standing in the doorway, keeping watch over the son he so nearly lost, and checking on the others to be sure they’re not lost. Except they are: Adam is gone to Europe, and Hoss is gone forever. And I was nearly lost to a madman, just like Adam was all those years ago.

I shove the covers aside and try to stand, but a sudden tornado of sparkles swirls around me. Candy catches me before I crumple to the floor. “Easy, Joe,” he grunts as he hoists me onto the bed.

“I need to talk to Pa,” I insist even as Candy lays me back and draws the bedclothes up over me.

“He’s sleeping now. Don’t worry, he’ll be up soon,” says Candy. “In the meantime, why don’t you get some rest?”

“You have to tell me the truth. Is he okay?” I grab his wrist with my good hand.

“Joe, he’s fine. I swear. He’s just taking a nap. It’s been a tough few days for him. He’s tired, but he’s okay. Now, settle down or I’ll hogtie you to the bedposts.”

“Everything all right?” comes Pa’s voice from the doorway. The lamplight doesn’t stretch quite far enough to let me see his face.

“Fine,” I say. My tone warns Candy not to say otherwise. “Candy said you were resting. You okay?”

“Oh, sure,” he says breezily. “I had a good sleep. How about you?”

“I slept a lot,” I say. I wait for Candy to tell him about my unsuccessful attempt at standing, but he merely reports on drinking and eye drops. I force myself to smile for Pa. Finally, he and Candy leave, and I can let the mask drop. I feel like ice water is running through me instead of blood as the realization sinks in.

I’m not the first Cartwright to be tortured by a madman.

*****

“Here you go, Adam.”

Hoss handed him a battered tin plate of beans and a spoon. It always seemed to fall to Hoss to make lunch when we were branding. I didn’t mind getting out of that job, but I wished Hoss would learn to cook something besides beans.

I took a plate and spoon, and Hoss scooped up a serving of beans onto my plate. Turning, I bumped squarely into Adam, landing beans on my shirt and my spoon in the dirt. “Watch where you’re going!” I said. I did my best to brush the beans off my shirt with my hand, which only succeeded in getting bean sauce on my hand. “Damn,” I muttered. I picked up the spoon out of the dirt, wiped it on my pants, and sat on a log.

“Wait, Joe, let me wash that,” said Adam. “I’ve got my canteen right here. I’ll wash it for you.”

“What?” I couldn’t remember ever hearing Adam say anything like that. Maybe when I was a little kid and tried to eat something I’d dropped on the ground, but not since.

“You can’t eat with that spoon. It’s dirty.” Adam reached for the spoon.

Instinctively, I held it out of his reach. “It’s fine,” I said. “I wiped it off.”

Adam huffed in exasperation. “Joe, you can’t eat with a dirty spoon. Now, give it to me.”

“Give him the spoon, Little Joe!” one of the hands chortled.

“Yeah, Little Joe! Let your big brother feed you!” another called.

“I don’t need you to take care of me! I’m fine!” Glaring, I scooped up a spoonful of beans and shoved them into my mouth. The hands hooted and hollered. Adam stared at me, his expression unreadable. Then, he turned and walked over to his horse. After a minute, he tightened his cinch, mounted and rode off.

“What’s with him?” I asked.

Hoss shrugged. “Dunno.” He watched the direction Adam had gone, but our brother didn’t come back. Finally, he went back to dishing up beans for the men.

*****

The front door opens, and Candy strolls in, grinning with the satisfaction of a man who had a good trip to town. It couldn’t have been too good a trip; he had Jamie with him, and he knows better than to be taking that boy to a saloon or a visit to D Street. Pa would have both their hides for that.

“What’d you do with the kid?” I’m stretched out on the settee with a book. Doc’s orders, and Pa’s a bear about enforcing them: rest, food, water, and more rest. I complain, but my heart’s not in it. Even after more than two weeks, I still get tired out a lot faster than I want to admit.

“Traded him for a mule and a pair of boots,” Candy drawls as he unbuckles his gunbelt.

“Better be a good mule,” I comment.

“Good boots, anyway,” he shrugs as Jamie comes in from the barn. The job of tending the horses always falls to the youngest.

“Did you tell him what came?” Jamie demands.

“Something came?” I don’t see any packages.

Jamie’s grin threatens to split his face. “Letter from Adam!”

It tickles me how excited he gets about these letters from a man he’s never met. The kid was so hungry for family when he came here that he’d have latched onto almost anybody who’d toss him a kind word and a piece of bread. When we decided to adopt him, Jamie wanted to sit right down and write to his new brother, Adam. He felt it was proper for him to introduce himself since they were going to be kin. It was all Hoss and I could do not to laugh out loud at his excitement. Of course, Adam already knew all about Jamie from Pa. When the adoption was official, Adam sent Jamie a fancy certificate he’d had lettered by somebody in Boston, declaring that James Hunter Cartwright was now the legal son of Benjamin Cartwright and the legal brother of Adam Stoddard Cartwright, Erik Gunnar Cartwright, and Joseph Francis Cartwright. Hoss and I got it framed, and it’s been hanging in Jamie’s room ever since.

Adam’s always been good about writing letters home. Back when he was in college, we got a letter at least once a month. His letters and our responses often crossed, which meant we were sometimes asking about people or events he’d already explained. Now that there are trains linking east and west, letters travel back and forth a lot faster, so it’s easier to keep track of what he’s doing. On the other hand, it’s harder now to keep up with where he is. Last time we heard from him, a few weeks before my run-in with Tanner, he was planning to leave London and return to Boston to work on a new building. I’m hoping this letter means he’s back in New England.

Jamie waves the letter at me. I grab his arm to hold the letter still enough to read. As I expected, it’s addressed to Pa. Not that I’m surprised; I haven’t written to Adam since before Tanner. Even so, a part of me is disappointed that he’s not writing to me anyway.

After supper, we gather around to hear what Adam has to say. Pa reads aloud Adam’s account of life in London. Then, he reaches the part we were all hoping for:

I’m pleased to report that we won the bid on the Reinhold project. By the time you read this, I’ll be on my way to Boston. Do you suppose there’s any chance that the Ponderosa could spare a few Cartwrights long enough for you to come for a visit? I’ll be opening up my house and you know there’s plenty of room. It’s been too many years since our last time together. Please think about it.

“Pa, can we go? Can we? Can we?” Jamie bounces in his chair like a droplet in a hot skillet.

“Easy, boy,” Pa chuckles. “We’ll have to see how things go.” He doesn’t look at me, but I know one of the “things” is whether I’m up for the trip.

That night, I dream about Tanner, but it’s not the usual dream. This time, he has an accomplice. I don’t recognize the man, but he keeps laughing and telling me how he knew my brother and that I’m going to end up just like him. He won’t tell me anything more even when I scream at him and beat him with my fists. “Tell me!” I shout. “Tell me what you did to him! Tell me!”

“Joseph! Joe, wake up!”

I wake to find Pa sitting on the bed, holding my shoulders and shaking me. “Joe! Joe, it’s Pa! Wake up!” he’s practically shouting.

“Pa?” It takes time for the dream to fade, but finally, I’m in my own room, my own bed. My breath comes hard and rough, like I’ve been running.

“Take it easy, son,” he says. He lights the bedside lamp and adjusts the flame so it’s low. I look up to see Candy and Jamie in the doorway.

“Thought you might want a little something,” says Candy. He comes in and hands me a small glass. They’re the ones Pa uses for brandy, but Candy’s filled it to the brim with whiskey. A good man, Candy.

“Thanks,” I say. I toss it down before Pa can comment.

“Is there anything I can do?” Jamie asks. He sounds so hopeful that I wish there was something. The truth is that all I want is for everybody to go back to bed and leave me be. The dream is already vanishing like the smoke of a campfire in the cool night air, and I don’t want to lose it. There was something there I need.

“I’m okay,” I announce. I know they mean well, but it’s embarrassing to have a crowd show up for my nightmare.

“You two go back to bed,” says Pa. The message is clear: he’s staying. Adam and Hoss might have protested, but Candy and Jamie bid us good night and leave. When we’re alone, Pa says, “Would it help to talk about it?”

I shake my head. He obviously thinks I was dreaming about Tanner. I don’t want to tell him how Tanner was the less disturbing part this time. I assure him I’m fine. He doesn’t look entirely convinced, but he gets to his feet. I try not to notice how stiffly he moves, especially at night or when he’s tired. He’s well into his sixties, but he never really seemed old until Hoss died. Losing Hoss aged Pa in a way nothing else could have.

“I think we should go visit Adam,” I say suddenly. Maybe spending time with one son will distract him from another.

“We can talk about that in the morning,” Pa says. “You think you can go back to sleep now?”

“Sure,” I say. If I were younger, he’d hug me or squeeze my hand and tell me to call if I needed him. Instead, he pats my arm and turns down the flame, bidding me a good night and pulling the door closed behind him.

Alone in the dark, I try to call up the face of the second man, but it’s no use. I know that I knew him, but I also know I’d never seen him before. Trying to puzzle this out, I fall asleep.

*****

I’m coming down the stairs as I hear the knock at the front door. “I’ll get it,” I tell Pa, who’s already settled in at his desk. I open the door to see Clem standing there, looking uncomfortable.

“Morning, Clem,” I say. “Come on in.”

“Morning, Little Joe,” he says. Little Joe. He picked that up from Roy Coffee, who knew me back when I really was Little Joe. Most times, Clem just calls me Joe. When “Little Joe” slips out, something’s up.

Pa comes around the corner as Clem takes off his hat. The significance of that gesture is not lost on either of us. “Clem, what’s wrong?” Pa asks.

My mouth goes dry as I do an automatic head count. Pa’s here. I can hear Hop Sing in the kitchen. But Candy and Jamie—I don’t know where they are. And . . . no. Not my brother. Not Adam.

“This came in late last night,” Clem says, holding out a piece of paper. “I didn’t see any point in disturbing you then.”

I exhale with relief. Clem would never have waited overnight if it was serious, like somebody dying. I reach for the paper. I read it, then read it again. I hand it to Pa without comment, and he reads it over.

“What does this mean?” he asks Clem. His voice is even, almost expressionless. You’d have to have lived with him for thirty-two years to hear that tiny note of fear.

“I’m sure it’s just a formality,” Clem says. “I reckon the Army just wanted to make sure Joe wasn’t going any place until they got someone out here to give him the official papers about the hearing.”

The sling’s knot is pressing on the back of my neck like my arm just got a thousand times heavier. “Where would I go?” I demand. “I have no reason to run. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Nobody’s saying you did,” Pa begins, but I ignore him.

“Tanner was a madman,” I say, my voice getting louder. “Even if I had killed him—which I didn’t—it would have been self-defense. He was trying to kill me.”

“I know,” says Clem. “But he was in the Army, and the Army takes care of its own.” He’s getting that tone in his voice that he uses to settle down riled-up drunks. “They have to go according to the rules, and those rules say they’re responsible for all their soldiers. So when a soldier dies under what they call ‘suspicious circumstances,’ they have to hold a hearing to find out what happened.”

Pa’s patience is slipping. “What happened is that he died while he was trying to kill my son! And Joe didn’t have anything to do with him dying. That Harve fellow said Tanner didn’t have a mark on him, and Joe wasn’t even conscious when Harve found them. What more does the Army need to know?”

“Ben, I don’t know why the Army does everything it does. All I know is what they’ve told me here.” Clem motions toward the paper Pa’s still clutching.

“So, what does this mean? I’m not allowed to go any place? I have to stay on the ranch? Or do you want to put me in jail?” I don’t even try to disguise my anger. “I’m the one who nearly got murdered, remember?” I won’t say victim. I was not that lunatic’s victim. “How did I become the villain?”

“Easy, Joe.” Pa’s voice is steady now.

Irritation creeps out around the edges of Clem’s voice. “Look, Joe, this isn’t my doing. I don’t have any choice. It says you have to be in custody, but it doesn’t say I have to lock you up, so I don’t figure I need to as long as you give me your word that you’re not going to run off.”

“Oh, for the love of the Almighty!” It’s as close to swearing as Pa will allow himself. “Even if he wanted to run off, how could he? He’s got a broken arm and he’s barely back on his feet! Ask Doc Martin if you don’t believe me!”

“I’m sorry, Ben, but I have to do this.” But Clem doesn’t sound sorry; he sounds like he’s keeping a tight rein on his temper. He’s not the villain here, either. “Joe, I need you to give me your word that you’re going to stay on the Ponderosa until the Army sends further instructions.” I can hear the or else in his voice.

“How long is that going to take?” Pa demands.

“I don’t know.” Clem’s voice is clipped now. He turns to face me squarely, cutting Pa out of the conversation. “Joe, I need your word.”

“Fine.” I bite the word off. “You have it. I won’t leave the Ponderosa. Satisfied?”

Clem nods. “I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything more.” He puts on his hat and leaves us standing there, Pa still holding the telegram from the Army.

When Candy comes back an hour later, Pa and I are still taking turns raging and calming each other down. Candy studies the paper, which by now is pretty well crumpled. Then, he looks at us with an expression I’ve never seen on him. He reminds me of a sheriff who’s collecting facts before making up his mind about a crime. All he says is, “Let me see what I can find out. I should be back in about ten days.”

“Wait—where are you going?” Pa asks.

“Fort Lowell,” he says like it was obvious.

“And what makes you think they’ll tell you anything?” I demand.

A slight smirk crosses his face. “I was an Army brat, remember? Sergeant Canaday’s boy knows how to talk to the Army.”

True to his word, Candy rides in ten days later, unshaven and bearing information. “Tanner escaped from the Army prison,” he says. He hasn’t even bothered to wash off the trail dust, but Pa doesn’t stop him when he plunks himself down on the settee. “Seems Tanner was involved in a massacre,” Candy continues. “Someplace called Bald Mountain. Women and children were killed. Word is he’d lost his mind, but I couldn’t get anybody to say whether they thought he’d gone loco before the massacre or as a result. Either way, he was sentenced to life in prison by the military court, but he escaped. I reckon that’s when he found Joe.”

“But he was dressed like a civilian,” I say. “Except for his boots. He had Jefferson boots.” Candy nodded. Jefferson boots were standard issue for the Army. “I even asked if he’d been in the Army. He said a long time ago.”

“After he escaped, he killed some fellow and stole his horse and gear,” Candy says. “Less than three miles from the fort. Stole the fellow’s clothes, but I guess he kept his own boots.”

“I thought he was just a regular sort,” I say. “That’s why I trusted him.”

“Anyone would,” Pa says. I know he’s trying to make me feel better, but his comment irritates me. It’s like he’s making excuses for me.

“Wasn’t the Army looking for him?” Jamie asks.

“Uh-huh,” says Candy. “But Tanner was some sort of expert scout and tracker. Hiding was one of his specialties, and finding people was another.” His eyes cut over to me, and I nod in agreement.

“The thing I don’t understand is why he stopped to play his game with me,” I say. “If I’d had the Army looking for me, I wouldn’t have stopped for anything more than maybe water.”

Candy shrugs. “I don’t know. You probably know more about what was going on with him at that point than anybody.”

“All I know is, he looked normal,” I say. “I had no idea he was anything else until the next morning when my horse and all my supplies were gone and he said he was going to give me a head start before he came after me, and then he said . . . he said I was going to want to kill him.” Too late, I remember that I never meant to tell Pa this. I sure as hell never meant for Jamie to hear it. I don’t dare meet their eyes.

A long silence stretches out. Then, Pa stands, signaling that the discussion is finished. “Candy, I can’t thank you enough for doing this,” he says. “It explains a lot.”

“Thanks, Candy,” I echo.

“No problem,” he says. He stands and stretches. “I think I’m going to go and wash the trail off me. Probably lose ten pounds doing it.” He starts to leave the room, then turns back. “Jamie, go saddle a couple horses. We ought to check on that crew riding fence out by Buckhorn Meadow.” His foreman voice is so casual that anybody listening would just think he wants the kid to ride with him. I know Candy better than that, though. He wants to get Jamie’s mind off what he just heard. Candy might not be a brother, but he thinks like one.

After they leave, Pa looks down at me, still seated in the blue velvet chair by the stairs. This is where Adam always used to sit. I don’t know why he liked it so much. It’s not a comfortable chair. I’d say we should get rid of it, but Adam might want to sit in it if he ever comes to visit.

“Why don’t you go upstairs and rest for a while,” Pa suggests. “Lunch won’t be ready for another hour.”

I try to think of something to distract him. “We need to do something with this chair,” I say finally. “It needs a new cushion or something.”

“I’ll speak to Hop Sing,” Pa says. He waits quietly until I rise and make my way up the stairs. At the top, around the corner, I pause. I hear his boots on the wooden floor as he crosses to his desk. The scrape of the chair legs as he pulls it back. The squeak as he sits. Another scrape as he pulls the chair up to the desk.

And a single, quiet sound that could be a catch of breath.

Or a muffled sob.

*****

“Where’s your brother?” Pa asked as Hoss and I came into the house.

“He’s washing up,” said Hoss.

It had been nearly three months since we brought Adam home from the desert. To anybody who didn’t know any better, he was pretty much back to normal. He rode with us, did chores with us, sat in the living room in the evening with us. He was more cautious than he used to be, but we figured that would fade in time.

There even came a day when he was willing to go into Virginia City with me to pick up supplies. I drove the buckboard, and Adam spent most of the trip looking around like somebody might be lurking around the next curve. I did my best to distract him with every dumb story I could think of, and it seemed to work because eventually, he stopped looking around so much and actually looked at me when I talked. When we got to Virginia City, a few people commented that they hadn’t seen him in a while. I just said we’d all been real busy out at the Ponderosa, and that took care of it.

When we were done loading supplies, I suggested stopping for a beer. I didn’t really expect him to go along with it, but he said it sounded good. So, we went over to the Silver Dollar and stood at the bar with our drinks, and it was just like old times except for one thing: before he would drink out of the glass, Adam took out his handkerchief and wiped all around the rim.

“What’s the matter?” I asked. The glass looked fine. Nobody was ever going to call Sam the all-time great housekeeper of the world, but Adam had never complained about his glasses before.

“Nothing.” Adam put back his handkerchief and sniffed the beer.

“What are you doing?” I asked. I sniffed mine too, just in case, but it smelled the way it always did.

“Nothing,” he said again. He waited for me to drink, and then he took a sip. He didn’t drink much, but I put that down to the fact that the beer was kind of warm. I didn’t drink all of mine, either.

When we got home, Hoss was in the barn. He had straw sticking out of his hair and manure on his boots, but that was normal. Adam and I tended to the team while Hoss finished cleaning the other stalls, and then we headed in for supper.

“I’ve just got to wash up,” said Adam. “I’ll be right in.”

“You should wash up, too,” I said to Hoss. “You smell like a pigsty.”

“You know, Little Brother, you ain’t exactly a bed of roses yourself,” he retorted.

So, the three of us ended up in the bathhouse. Me and Hoss finished up fast and went on in to supper. I figured Adam would be right behind us.

Fifteen minutes later, we were all sitting around the table, still waiting. “Did Adam say he was coming in?” Pa asked.

“Yep,” said Hoss.

Hop Sing stomped into the dining room, pigtail flying. “Everybody eat! Food get cold!”

“Joe, go see what’s keeping Adam,” said Pa.

I dropped my napkin on the table and went back out to the bathhouse in time to see Adam pulling up his drawers. All of his clothes were draped neatly on the side of the tub. His hair was glistening wet.

“What are you doing? What’d you do? Take a bath?”

“I just needed to wash up,” he said like any idiot would have known this.

“But—” I waved my hand to indicate the way he was—or wasn’t—dressed. “I thought you were just going to wash your hands.”

“I was dusty from the ride into town,” Adam said. He considered his clothes. “I should probably change.”

“For what? It ain’t like we’re having company. Now, get dressed and let’s go before Hoss eats everything in sight!”

Adam picked up his trousers and raised an eyebrow at me. “Do you mind?”

“Mind? What are you talking about?”

“I’d like to get dressed.”

“So go ahead. I’m not stopping you.” But it was clear that he wasn’t going to do any more with me standing there, so I snorted my disgust and went back to the dining room. “He’ll be right in,” I said. “He decided he needed to wash up.” Pa and Hoss looked confused, and I just shrugged.

A few minutes later, Adam strolled into the dining room, as casual as if he was right on time. Pa asked the blessing, we all started passing bowls and platters, and Hoss and I grumbled about how all the food had gotten cold while we were waiting. Adam didn’t seem to notice.

*****

By the time the Army gets a detail out here to give formal notice about the hearing, the cast on my arm has been exchanged for a splint. I still get tired a lot faster than I used to, and I still have nightmares, but I’m coming along.

I’m on the porch reading when three riders on identical bay geldings ride in. Their uniforms are covered in dust. At the first glimpse of their blue tunics, my heart starts to pound so hard that I’d swear it’s about to come right through my chest. Easy, Joe, I tell myself, just as Pa would. I’m safe on the Ponderosa. They can’t do anything to me here.

The three soldiers dismount and approach the porch. Deliberately, I remain seated, my gaze fixed on my book like I don’t even realize they’re here.

“Mr. Cartwright?”

Lazily, I close my book, holding my place with one finger. I look each man up and down before I speak. “Yeah?” My voice is a little breathier than I’d like.

“Mr. Joseph Cartwright?” The one in the middle seems to be in charge. His skin is deeply tanned, and his eyebrows are so thick and bushy they look like one continuous line of hair.

“Yeah. That’s me.” Good. More control this time.

“You need to come with us,” says Eyebrow.

Like hell I will. I take a deep breath to steady myself. I set down the book and grip the edge of the table. “You know I’m not in the Army, right?”

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright,” says Eyebrow. No yeah for him.

“Then you know you have no right to make me go anywhere.” I’m not exactly sure that’s right, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not going. I wish I had my gun out here.

“Mr. Cartwright, we’re here to escort you to St. Louis,” says Eyebrow.

St. Louis? “Are you insane?” I demand. “I’m not going to St. Louis with you. I’m not going anywhere with you. Now get off my land.”

“Mr. Cartwright—”

“Look, sergeant, I know my name. You don’t have to keep reminding me.”

Eyebrow straightens a fraction more. Clearly, he doesn’t care for my attitude. “Mr. Cartwright, I am under orders to escort you to St. Louis for a military hearing into the death of Corporal William Tanner.”

“You’ve got orders?” I sneer.

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Then let me see them.”

“See what?”

“Your orders. Let me see them.” I hold out my hand.

“Mr. Cartwright—”

“Since the whole reason you’re here in the first place is that the Army let a lunatic escape from prison and you let him murder an innocent man and steal his clothes and gear, and he damned near killed me—all as a result of your incompetence—I’m sure you’ll understand why I’m not inclined to go off with a bunch of strangers just because they claim to be in the Army.” I don’t even try to hide my anger.

“Mr. Cartwright—”

“Either show me the damned orders or get off my land!” At last, I’m on my feet.

Pa comes out of the house. “What’s going on here?”

“Mr. Cartwright—” Eyebrow begins.

“That’s Major Cartwright to you, Sergeant,” I interrupt. It’s been years since Pa retired from the militia, but occasionally the title still comes in handy.

All three men snap to attention and salute. Pa returns the salute and repeats, “What’s going on?”

“They were just leaving,” I say.

“Sir, we’re under orders to escort Mr. Cartwright to St. Louis for a military hearing into the death of Corporal William Tanner.” The words come out quickly, as if Eyebrow thinks I’m going to interrupt him again.

Pa looks at me as like he’s trying to figure something out. “Joseph?”

I take a deep breath to steady myself. “I asked to see the orders. They refused to show them to me.”

Pa turns to the soldiers and holds out his hand. “Sergeant, give me the orders.”

Eyebrow barks, “Corporal, retrieve the orders from my saddlebag.” The soldier on his right pivots, marches to the saddlebag and rummages in it. Eyebrow and the other soldier stand motionless as the corporal searches the saddlebag. Finally, he pulls out a piece of paper and delivers it to Eyebrow, who hands it to Pa.

Pa looks over the paper. “We’ll be right back,” he informs the soldiers. He nods to me to come with him, and I follow him into the house, where he closes the door.

“Is it real?” I ask.

Pa looks a little bit perplexed at my question. “It certainly looks real,” he says.

“Are you saying I have to go with them?” No. Please, God, no.

“Well, that’s the trickier part,” Pa says. “These men have definitely been ordered to take you to St. Louis. The orders govern them, but of course you’re not a soldier. It’s not clear from this whether they have authority to force you to go against your will.”

“Then that’s it. I’m not going.” I reach for the latch to go out and announce my decision, but Pa’s hand stays mine.

“It’s not that simple, Joe,” he says. “Right now, they’re basically saying that they just want you to go with them. If you refuse, they could go back and request authority to arrest you and treat you as a prisoner—in which case you’d not only have to go with them, but you’d probably be going in shackles.”

“Arrest me? For what?” The thought of being shackled and shoved around by soldiers sets my heart pounding again. I look away so that Pa doesn’t see the terror in my face.

“Refusing to cooperate with a military investigation,” Pa says. “Anything else they can come up with to justify forcing you to go. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s also not impossible.”

“So what are you saying?” It’s getting harder to catch my breath.

“I think maybe we should agree to go with them,” he says carefully. We. I wouldn’t have expected anything else, but it’s a relief to hear him say it. He continues, “Let me talk to them. I’m retired, but the title still means something. You wait in here.” He goes outside, closing the door behind him.

A few minutes later, he comes back inside. “We leave in two days,” he says. “I made it clear that you’re accompanying them voluntarily. They appreciated that.”

“When do we have to be there?”

“The hearing is in two weeks,” Pa says. “We’ll take the train from Reno. It should be a pretty easy trip.”

That’s the last thing I want to hear. I’d rather he said that it’s going to be such a difficult trip that Doc Martin will say we shouldn’t try it for at least six months.

“Can we at least go on our own?” I ask. “Or are they going to go with us?”

“They’ll be on the train with us,” Pa admits. “But I’ll arrange for us to have a separate compartment.”

I try to picture what lies ahead. A military hearing. Me sitting in a chair by a judge’s bench as soldiers thunder at me, demanding to know what I did to one of their own. “Do I need a lawyer?” I ask suddenly.

Pa isn’t surprised by the question. “I think we need to talk to Hiram,” he says.

By mid-afternoon, we’re sitting in Hiram Wood’s office in Virginia City. As far as I’m concerned, the arrival of the soldiers put an end to the notion that I couldn’t leave the Ponderosa. It’s the first time I’ve been farther than the barn since the day I rode for Fort Lowell with no idea what was coming. Even though it’s a warm day by most standards, I feel unaccountably cold from the moment we leave the house. By the time we reach Virginia City, I’m trembling and trying to hide it.

“You okay, son?” Pa asks as we climb out of the buggy.

“Sure,” I say in my most matter-of-fact voice. I let Pa go ahead of me into Hiram’s office, clenching my teeth to keep them from chattering.

It’s no warmer inside. Nobody else seems cold, though, so I do my best to ignore it. I smile and shake Hiram’s hand, and I sit where he says to. Most of the conversation is between Hiram and Pa; for some reason, I’m having a hard time concentrating.

“Joe?”

“Huh?”

“Hiram asked you a question,” says Pa.

“What?”

Hiram and Pa are both staring at me. “Are you all right, son?” Pa asks.

“What? Sure. I’m fine.” I try to sound convincing. It’s getting colder in here. Hiram really needs to build a fire in his stove.

Hiram calls to somebody to bring some water. The next thing I know, his law clerk brings in a glass of water and starts to give it to Hiram. “It’s for Mr. Cartwright,” Hiram instructs him. The clerk apologizes and hands it to Pa, who nudges the glass against my hand and says, “Drink this, Joseph.”

But I can’t seem to make my fingers grasp the glass. I start to lift my hand, and the glass falls to the floor. Water splashes on my boot and trouser leg. The room starts to spin. Hiram says something to the clerk that I don’t catch. I hear running footsteps leaving the room, then the slam of the front door.

“Put your head down, son,” Pa says. Obediently, because I can’t think what else to do, I lean forward, grasping the arms of the chair to keep from falling over. I can hear Pa and Hiram talking, but their words are muffled, like they’re in the next room.

The next thing I know, I’m lying on the floor. Doc Martin is leaning over me. Strange. We were in a lawyer’s office, and now the doctor is here. Maybe the banker will be next.

“Well, this answers that question,” Doc says. Since he’s obviously not talking to me, I don’t say anything.

“How long do you figure?” Hiram asks.

“Tell them a month at least,” Doc says. “I’d have thought he’d be up for it by now. I hope there isn’t something else wrong.”

“Pa?” I manage.

Pa leans over me. “You’ll do anything to keep from doing what the Army wants, won’t you?” he says, his voice gentle.

“What happened?” It’s a wonder he can hear me.

“Looks like you’re not quite ready to travel,” Pa says. “Just as well we found this out now and not a couple days from now.”

“I’ll wire St. Louis and let them know,” says Hiram. “Hopefully, they won’t give us any problems about changing the hearing.”

Pa and the doctor help me sit up. When that seems to be working, each of them takes one of my arms and they get me up into a chair. After I’ve been sitting there for a few minutes, they decide I can try standing up. Flanked by Pa on one side and the doctor on the other, with Hiram hovering behind me, I make my way out to the buggy. Doc wants me to go over to his office and rest before making the trip out to the Ponderosa, but I insist I’m fine to go home. To my surprise, Pa takes my side. I can tell Doc isn’t happy, but the truth is that I just want to be at home. Pa promises to send for the doctor if anything else happens, and finally we’re on our way.

“Just rest, son,” Pa says as he slaps the reins on the horse’s back. “We’ll be home in no time.”

It’s a lot longer than “no time” from Virginia City to the Ponderosa, but I’m not about to complain. I’m not nearly as cold as I was, and I don’t have to go to St. Louis for at least a month. As Adam would have said, you take what you can get.

*****

We were in the middle of castrating the calves when Adam rode in. Pa had sent him to town to pick up the mail. Even though it wasn’t the first time he’d ridden alone since the whole ordeal, it was his first trip to town by himself. I’d have been lying if I’d said we weren’t all a little nervous, but we pretended it was no big deal. It seemed important to him that nobody fuss.

“Hey, Older Brother,” I called out as he dismounted. “Anything good in the mail?”

He pulled a handful of papers from his saddlebag. “Letter for Pa from Fred McIntyre,” he said. Fred McIntyre was heading up construction of a spur line for the railroad that was going to include building a trestle. We’d been working for weeks on our bid to supply lumber for the project.

“Pa’s out at the mining camp,” Hoss said as he caught hold of the next calf and I readied the knife. A quick slice, another cut, and I tossed the calf’s balls onto the pile.

“Sorry, fella,” I said as Hoss released the calf and it ran bleating out of the corral. To Adam, I said, “Pa’s gonna want to see that. You should take it to him up at the mine.”

You’d have thought I took that knife to Adam. His face went white, and his eyes got huge. “I—I—I can’t. I’m busy. You take it.” He stumbled over to the hitching rail and grabbed hold like he was going to fall.

Hoss and I stared. “What’s the matter?” Hoss asked. I could hear in his voice that he was trying to figure out what was wrong, but I knew. It was the notion of going to a mine. Adam was better, but he wasn’t that much better.

Our older brother shook his head. “Nothing,” he said even though a blind man could have seen he was lying. His chest was heaving like he couldn’t catch his breath.

By the time understanding dawned in Hoss’s face, I was already climbing over the corral fence. I got Adam into the house and sat him down. “Here you go,” I said, bringing him a glass of water. “You shouldn’t try to do so much. You got back here a whole lot faster than we expected. I figured you’d take your time, maybe stop for a beer.”

Adam shook his head. “There’s work to do.” He sipped the water. His hands were shaking.

I nodded like I believed him. “You take it easy,” I said. “I’ll take that letter up to Pa. You stay out of the sun for a little while.” I figured the hot sun would be a good excuse for him to hide behind.

It was proof of how poorly he was feeling that he didn’t even argue. He set down the glass on the table and leaned back like he was going to take my advice. So I took off my leather apron, all spattered with calf blood, and tossed it on the chair by the door.

He sat upright like somebody’d fired a gun. “Take that outside,” he barked. “It shouldn’t be in here. It’s dirty. We’re going to have to wash that chair now.” He jumped up and ran over to inspect the chair as best he could without touching the apron.

“The chair’s fine,” I said, more to calm him than because I cared. The chair was fine, but that wasn’t the point and I knew it. I took the apron outside, set it on the porch, and came back in to find him frantically looking the chair over.

“This needs to be cleaned,” he said. “Hop Sing! Hop Sing! Get in here, now!”

“What you want?” Hop Sing demanded as he ran into the room.

“This chair needs to be cleaned,” said Adam. “Joe got it all dirty.”

Hop Sing looked from Adam and his agitation to me. I nodded just a little. I could see in his eyes that he knew what was happening.

“Why you get chair dirty? Hop Sing work hard, keep house clean! Why you mess up?” He pointed his finger at me accusingly.

“My mistake,” I said. He glared at me then; if this had been a real argument, I’d have snapped back at him. Luckily, Adam didn’t seem to notice that my performance was flawed. I said, “You take care of the chair. I’m going to take this letter to Pa up at the mine.” I turned to Adam. “That was a long ride. You should sit down for a little while.” I glanced at Hop Sing as I reached for my hat and gun.

“Mr. Adam sit down,” he announced. “Hop Sing make tea special for Mr. Adam, just like English drink. Mr. Adam drink tea while Hop Sing clean chair.”

Adam still looked agitated, but the promise of tea and cleaning seemed to help. “That sounds good,” he said finally. “I think I’d like some tea. Thank you, Hop Sing.” Still a little bit unsteady, he made his way across the room to his blue velvet chair. As soon as his back was turned, I mouthed, “Thanks” to Hop Sing, and the little man nodded.

*****

The month-long reprieve goes by too quickly. Hiram comes out to the ranch to let us know of the new date for the hearing. He couldn’t get it moved to Carson City the way we’d hoped, but he implies that even just changing the date was a major victory. I’m curious about what he told the Army, but sometimes it’s better not to ask questions.

We spend almost an entire day going over questions they could ask about what happened from the time I first saw Tanner until I was back at the Ponderosa. I take deep breaths and try not to snap. I know Hiram just wants me to be ready for whatever the Army comes up with, but I can’t help feeling like somebody’s accusing me of murdering Tanner. He tried to kill me, and I’m on trial. It’s not right.

“Damn it, I’m the one who almost got murdered!” I shout at one point. “How the hell did he become a victim?”

Pa looks like he’s going to say something about my language, but Hiram nods like I’m making sense. “You’re right,” he says. “From what you’ve told me, there’s no basis for a verdict that you had anything to do with Tanner’s death. That doesn’t mean they won’t be digging to find one, though. A soldier is dead. The Army has to answer for that, and they don’t like saying it’s their fault. That’s why it’s a good idea for you to have counsel present. I wish I could be there myself, but John Forrester will do an excellent job for you. He’s a retired Army captain, and he’s been involved with hearings like this before. More importantly, the people in St. Louis know him and they respect him. You couldn’t be in better hands.”

I consider this. It’s been more than two months since I met up with Tanner. To all outward appearances, life is back to normal. My arm is out of its splint, and if it aches some, it’s still not nearly as bad as it was. My energy is returning. I only have nightmares a few times a week. If you asked almost anybody, they’d say I was just fine.

There’s only one person who still watches me closely. Who studies my plate at meal times to be sure I’m eating. Who asks casually how I’m feeling. Who opens my bedroom door almost every night and stands in the doorway, watching as I pretend to sleep.

One other person who doesn’t believe it’s all over.

*****

“You’re really going.”

I leaned against the door jamb like we were talking about a trip to San Francisco. Except this was a trip to Boston, and probably Europe. Adam was leaving. For good. He was going to follow his dream.

Or so he claimed.

He looked up at me briefly before he went back to sorting books. “You can come and visit. They have pretty girls in Boston, too.”

I managed a smile. “Or you could come back to see us,” I said, carefully avoiding the word “visit.” I didn’t want him to visit. I wanted him to stay home.

“That could happen,” he said in a voice so casual I knew it wouldn’t. Once he was out the door, that was it. He wasn’t coming back.

I knew Pa and Hoss thought this was all about Laura Dayton marrying Cousin Will. It wasn’t, though. I’d seen it coming ever since Kane. It was like Adam thought that if he went someplace clean and civilized, he’d be safe. Like it was the wildness of the west that had made Kane the way he was.

Maybe it was. Maybe in a place like Boston, Kane would never have tipped over the edge and fallen into madness. Maybe he would never have had the chance to crack his head against a dream that wouldn’t give. Maybe he’d just have been that odd fellow in the house on the corner, and the housekeeper would have cast worried looks while she bustled around keeping things in order, but nothing would have gone seriously wrong. Maybe it was the west that had driven Kane mad, that was driving my brother away.

Because Adam had never been the same after Kane. He got better, of course. After all, it had been three years. Most of the obsessive washing and cleaning had stopped. He didn’t spend nearly as much time watching over his shoulder. It was a rare thing to hear him yell in his sleep. He was even able to go to the mining camp without panicking. Somebody who didn’t know him well would never have known the difference. If I’d wanted, I could have convinced myself that everything was all right. But it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. A man couldn’t go through something like that and not be changed by it.

We’d all been changed. Pa had stopped pacing, and Hoss had stopped hovering, but it was still there, that undercurrent nobody talked about. Before Kane, if one of us was late getting back from somewhere, we used to shrug and say he must have run into something and he’d be along. After Kane, we tried to be casual, but we were all perked up like a hunting dog scenting its prey. The slightest urging, and we’d be saddling horses and heading out to find the missing one. Almost always, there was an innocent explanation for the delay: a horse went lame, a traveler needed help, a poker game ran long. Still, even after all this time, there was always that sense of “what if,” right up until the calm.

So, maybe Adam wanted to go to the city because he would feel safe. I wouldn’t fault him for that. Maybe there, people thought the way he did. The idea that a man might care so much about being civilized or rational that he’d almost die proving it—maybe that made sense to city folks. Maybe Adam would be better off among his own kind.

But we’re his own kind, my mind protested. We’re his family. He’s safe with us.

Except he wasn’t, and we all knew it.

*****

“I still think we should go on to Boston,” I say as I stab a pork chop with my fork. “We’ll already be halfway there. We should just go and drop in on Adam.”

I’m sort of surprised Pa isn’t willing to continue east after the hearing. I know Jamie’s disappointed. He was looking forward to finally meeting his eldest brother.

“He’s not going to be there,” Pa says. “I got a letter from him. He’s going to be traveling for several weeks. Meetings about the project, apparently.”

“You got a letter from Adam and you didn’t say anything?” That sounds odd to me.

“It was just a short note,” Pa says. “I didn’t want to disappoint you all. I knew everyone was hoping we could go on to Boston.”

“Maybe we should go out there and just be at his house when he gets back,” Jamie suggests.

Pa chuckles. “I don’t really think that would work,” he says. “Especially since Adam’s schedule seems to be so busy for the next few months. Maybe we can go out and see him in the spring.”

“If he hasn’t gone back to England or on to someplace else,” I mutter. It’s been nine years since I’ve seen my brother. Nine long, long years. Other than Pa, Adam is the only blood relation I have. My brother Clay vanished years ago, and I never heard another word from him; I don’t even know if he’s alive or dead. And Hoss—my big brother, Hoss—

All at once, I feel like somebody’s thrown a blanket over my head and is holding it down, trying to smother me. Abruptly, I leave the table. Ignoring the calls from behind me, I half-run out onto the porch. In the near-dark, I collide with the post, smacking my head sharply on the corner. “Son of a bitch!” I shout, punching it and howling again when my knuckles make solid contact with the wood.

The door opens. “Joseph? What are you doing?” Pa asks.

“Leave me alone!” I roar. I can hear voices behind me, but it’s like there’s a hurricane wind all around me and I can’t make out words. “Just leave me alone!” I shout.

I don’t realize that I’m on my knees, holding my head in my hands, until I feel hands helping me to stand. “Leave me alone,” I say again, now it’s more of a plea. “Leave me alone,” I repeat, the litany weakening each time.

“Easy, Joe,” Pa murmurs. “Come on inside.”

I shake my head. “No. Just leave me alone. Leave me alone.”

“Son, you need to come in,” says Pa. His voice is deep, comforting, but I can hear the thread of near-panic.

No words will come now. I shake my head, pulling away from his touch. The storm has gone as fast as it hit, and I’m a pathetic, trembling mess. All I want is to be left alone out here. Alone in the darkness.

“Let’s go inside, buddy,” Candy says.

Buddy. It’s what Adam called me when I was little. Adam, who I haven’t seen in so many years. Who I may never see again.

Who would know how I feel.

I let myself be led inside, seated on the settee, handed a glass of brandy. I drink because I’m told to. When I finish, someone takes the glass from my hand. People hover. They talk in low, soothing tones. Somebody wraps a blanket around my shoulders. The talking slows, then stops. Finally, we’re sitting together in silence, listening to the crackle of the fire.

“I want to see Adam,” I say.

Pa rests his hand on my arm. “I know.”

*****

Two more days. I’m as ready as a person can be. Pa says I need to be properly dressed for the hearing; in his opinion, this means my blue suit. I won’t do it, though. I wore that suit to marry Alice. I won’t wear it for the Army. Not for the people who want to shift the blame for Tanner’s death from their own shoulders to mine. It’s enough that I’m making the trip at all. They can take me in whatever I decide to wear.

That night at supper, I mention that it’s going to be awfully quiet around here. “Hop Sing’s going to have plenty of time to visit his relatives,” I say. “I just hope everything goes all right.” I’m half-hoping Pa will agree that we should skip the trip and stay home because the ranch needs us.

“I’ll keep an eye on things here,” says Candy unexpectedly.

“You’re not coming?” I’m not sure why I’m surprised. He’s the foreman. Somebody needs to keep the Ponderosa running. Besides, it’s not like we’re brothers.

Except we are, every bit as much as Jamie and me. I’ve known Candy longer than I’ve known Jamie. We’ve competed against each other, worked side by side, and stood together as one against whatever life’s thrown at us. He’s the one who rode with me to track down Alice’s killers. I’d bet I know more of his secrets than any man alive; I’m sure he knows more of mine. We may not share blood, but I count on him like a brother.

Candy’s still talking about what needs to be done on the ranch, and Pa’s nodding. I can see the question’s about to be settled, so I interrupt. “So, what you’re saying is that all these hands you’ve supposedly been training all this time can’t do anything if you’re not there to tell them what to do? Doesn’t sound like very good training to me.”

He bridles like I knew he would. “Listen, I’ve got those men trained like clockwork! They know exactly what to do. We could all go away for six months and they’d be fine.”

As soon as the words are out of his mouth, I throw back my head and laugh to let him know he’s stepped squarely into my trap. “Doesn’t sound like there’s any reason for you not to come, then,” I cackle. “Unless you just can’t handle that many officers at a time,” I add with a wink.

“That’s a whole different story,” he says. The mood in the room has relaxed, but there’s a question in his eyes.

“Oh, come on, Canaday,” I say. “You need an engraved invitation?”

“Wouldn’t hurt,” he drawls.

It’s settled, then. As we’re leaving the table, there’s a moment when our eyes meet. I see understanding register, and he nods ever so slightly. He knows why I want him there.

Somebody needs to be watching out for Pa. Just in case.

*****

It’s not like I’ve never been on a train before. I’m not some dumb jasper from out beyond the edges of civilization. I’ve been to Reno more times than I can count, and I’ve caught the train from there plenty.  It shouldn’t be a big deal.

But it’s the first time I’ve been in this kind of a crowd since before Tanner. I grit my teeth and try not to be obvious about staying close to Pa and Candy. Jamie’s so tickled by the whole thing that he doesn’t notice anything about me. He’s talking a blue streak, and it’s all Pa can do to keep him from running off in ten directions at once. Every now and then, Candy gives me a conspiratorial smile or wink, just like the two of us were Jamie’s big brothers. I can’t quite tell if he’s keeping an eye on me or getting a good laugh out of the kid. Maybe both.

Pa was true to his word about us having a separate compartment. It’s not real big, but it’ll be enough for the four of us. It has two bunks on each side, one upper and one lower; I already know Jamie will want one of the upper bunks, and I have every intention of sticking Candy with the other one. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t care about being on top, but if I need to get out of there fast, I don’t want anything to slow me down.

Before we boarded, Pa found the soldiers. I don’t know what he said to them, but they haven’t bothered us. I guess he outranks whoever drew this detail. Even walking through the main car to get to our compartment, I didn’t see them. Fine by me.

I’m doing my best to look calm, but my stomach is getting queasy as the train pulls out. Must be the motion. I’ve heard of people getting sick on trains. I won’t be one of them, though. I’ve ridden trains before without getting sick. I can do it again. I close my eyes and lay my head against the seat back in the hope that I’ll fall asleep—or at least keep my breakfast down. Luckily, Jamie’s so taken with the view from the windows that he’s barely said anything since we started moving. He’s a great kid, but if I had to listen to his chatter all the way to St. Louis, I might give up and sit with the soldiers.

I must have dozed off, because I waken to Pa shaking my arm and asking if I want to get something to eat. Candy and Jamie aren’t here; they must have gone ahead to the dining car. “Sure,” I say, yawning. My stomach feels better than it did when we started. Maybe I was just tired.

I’ve forgotten what it’s like to try to walk against the swaying of the train. I have to grab seatbacks a couple of times before I find my balance. Pa and I get to the dining car to see that Jamie and Candy have already taken the corner table. A dark-skinned man with crisp white hair and an equally crisp white jacket brings us glasses of water. I try to study the menu, but I’m painfully aware that I’m sitting with my back to the rest of the car. I can’t see what’s coming. Anyone could come up behind me, and I’d never know until it was too late. Candy has his back against the wall. He can see everything. I know he’d trade places with me if I asked, but I can’t bring myself to say the words. Instead, I stand up and say, “I’m not hungry. See you back at our . . .” I can’t remember the word.

“Wait, son.” Pa is on his feet, but I shake his hand off my arm.

“I’m fine,” I say, trying not to snap. “I’m just tired. I’m going to sleep.” I hear Pa and Candy saying something, but I’m already stumbling through the dining car, trying not to look as if I’m running back to the safety of our compartment. When I get there, I slam the door and curl up in a lower bunk, my chest heaving.

By the time the others come back, the compartment is dark except for one sconce. I keep my eyes closed. I can hear them whispering, but I can’t make out the words. Jamie barely misses putting a foot on my hand as he climbs up to the bunk above me. I hear the creak that says Candy has clambered up to the other top bunk, and another creak tells me Pa has settled into the lower one. When all movement and conversation has stopped, I open my eyes. I look up to see Candy stretched out on his side. His elbow is bent, his head propped up by his hand, and he’s watching me. When our eyes meet, he jerks his head toward the door. I shake mine, but he slips off his bunk and gestures for me to follow him to the narrow hallway.

Outside the compartment, we balance against the swaying of the train. I wait for him to speak. His eyes are as serious as I’ve ever seen. When I say nothing, he says, “Look, if it was just us, I’d say do what you want, I’ll be there. But it’s not.” He searched my face. “I know why you wanted me to come, and I’m trying to do it, but you’ve got to help me. This is hard enough for your pa, and Jamie’s a good kid, but he’s not making it easier. I’ll watch out for them as much as I can, but you’ve got to dig in. I can’t manage all three of you alone.” When I say nothing, he says, “I’m sorry. I’m just not Adam or Hoss.”

It’s like he punched me in the gut. I actually double over. I can’t catch my breath. He hurries me down the aisle, and as he opens the door between cars, I hurl all over the step. He holds my shoulders until I finish retching. Then I straighten, wiping my hand on the back of my mouth.

“You son of a bitch,” I manage. Then I punch him squarely in the face and make my way back to our compartment. A minute later, I hear the door open and close again, and the upper bunk creaks as he gets in. This time, I keep my eyes tightly closed.

*****

The rest of the trip passes in a blur. If Pa wonders why Candy has a black eye the next morning, he doesn’t ask. Jamie starts to say something, but Pa tells him to go ahead to the dining car, and the stern note in his voice is enough to get the kid to do as he’s told without asking more. I can feel Candy’s eyes on me. I should apologize, but I won’t. He was right: Hoss or Adam could have handled this trip. They’d have managed Pa and Jamie, and at the same time, they’d have been everything I needed them to be—confidante, best friend, supporter, brother. The other half of me. Candy tries, but he can’t be Adam or Hoss. Nobody can.

By the time we reach St. Louis, I’ve pulled myself together enough to do what I have to. I may not be able to make jokes, but I can gather bags and flag down a carriage and get us to the hotel. Between us, Candy and I manage Pa and Jamie. As our carriage makes its way through St. Louis’s streets, I see how tired Pa is, how much this trip has taken out of him. My hatred for Tanner burns white-hot. How dare that lunatic do this to my father. To my family. To me.

Pa arranged for us to stay at the best hotel in town. We have a suite with a parlor and two bedrooms. I don’t know what Pa intended, but as soon as Candy puts Pa’s bag in one, I take mine into the other. Jamie starts to follow me, but with a smooth gesture I can’t quite follow, Candy directs him into Pa’s room. Then, he steps into my room and says in a low voice, “Don’t worry. I’ll be okay on the settee. I’ll just leave my bag here.”

“What are you talking about?” There’s another perfectly good bed in my room.

“I’m saying, this room’s yours.” His voice is quiet and serious.

“Don’t be stupid.” My voice is more harsh than I intend. “You can sleep here.”

He shakes his head. “I said, don’t worry.” He slips out of the room, leaving me alone.

That night, as I lie in bed, I stare at the dark ceiling. When I was a kid, I hated being alone. I used to get out of bed and sneak into Hoss’s room or Adam’s, and they’d let me get in bed with them. It wasn’t that I was scared, although sometimes I was. I just felt better knowing where my people were. Pa would open the door in the morning, and he’d smile at the sight of me curled up with my big brother. Years later, I heard Pa say something about how proud he’d been to build a house so big that each of his boys could have his own room, and I never told him I’d have been just as happy if all of us had shared one bedroom.

The door opens. “Hey, Joe?” Jamie whispers.

“What?”

Jamie comes in and closes the door behind him. “You awake?”

“No. I’m asleep. Can’t you tell?” He’s a smart enough kid, but sometimes, he asks the dumbest questions, and I can’t help teasing him.

“Can I talk to you?” Something in his voice gets my attention. He isn’t here for a casual chat.

“Sure,” I say. “What’s the matter?”

He makes his way to my bed by the light of the moon through the window. The edge of the mattress sags as he sits on it. “What’s gonna happen tomorrow?”

“What do you mean?” It’s too dark for me to see his face.

“Pa says the Army wants to know what happened to this Tanner fellow. I mean, they’re just gonna ask you some questions, right?”

“Right.”

“But if they’re just gonna ask questions, how come you had to come all this way? Why couldn’t they just write you a letter or something?”

“Good question,” I admit. “I don’t know. I don’t know how the Army thinks.”

“Candy says they don’t think much,” Jamie says.

“Candy would know,” I say. “What did Pa say when you asked him?” I’m sure he asked Pa. He’s a persistent kid.

“He said they can ask better questions if they can talk straight to you.” But Jamie sounds dubious.

“That make sense,” I say.

“But . . . they’re not gonna do anything else, right?”

“Like what?” I say, as casual as if my stomach wasn’t clenching into knots. I’ve been asking the same question ever since Eyebrow and his pals rode into our yard.

“I don’t know,” says Jamie. We sit in silence for a few minutes. Then he says, “How come Candy’s sleeping in the parlor?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “He wanted to, I guess.”

“Well . . . if he’s sleeping out there, is it okay if I sleep in here with you?” Jamie asks.

I swallow hard. “Sure.” I feel him rise; a moment later, I hear him pulling back the quilt on the other bed, and I hear the rustle as he makes himself comfortable. In the morning, when the door opens, I’ll see a familiar look on my father’s face as the dawn reveals his sons sleeping together, the same and yet so different from what he used to see all those years ago.

*****

John Forrester meets us at the door to the building where the hearing will be. He glances at my casual attire. “Would you like to borrow a tie?” he asks.

“No,” I say, at the same time my father says, “Thank you.” Pa fixes me with a stern look. I relent. “Thanks,” I mutter. Forrester calls to someone, and moments later, his clerk materializes, holding out a tie that he clearly just removed from his own neck. I thank him and tie it without looking. I can almost feel Pa itching to straighten it, but I move away.

Forrester leads us into the high-ceilinged hearing room. He explains that the judge is young, but we shouldn’t assume he’ll be a pushover. “He’s about your age, maybe a little older,” Forrester says to me. “He’s only been in the Army for about ten or twelve years, but he’s very smart and doesn’t tolerate any nonsense. Show him respect, and you’ll get a fair shake out of him.” I want to say it doesn’t matter, but I’m trying not to embarrass Pa. Forrester had written to say he should wear his militia uniform, and even though Pa protested that he was retired, Hiram said, “If John Forrester says it’ll help, I’d do it.” So Pa and Forrester are both in uniform. In regular clothes and the clerk’s tie, I suddenly feel like an urchin from the gutter.

“Hear ye, hear ye,” says a soldier. I don’t know the Army well enough to know his rank. I’m sure Candy knows, but he’s just a bailiff to me. “Draw nigh to this court, and ye shall be heard. The Honorable Major Daniel Kidd presiding. All rise.” We all stand as a lanky man in a dress uniform strides to the bench and takes his seat.

I catch my breath. Of all the people in the world I never expected to see again, Danny Kidd was one of them. Pa nudges me, and I nod. We both remember all those years ago when Danny was on a chain gang working on the Ponderosa. He’d been in prison since he was a kid, an orphan who’d stabbed another boy for stealing his dessert. Danny saved my life when my foot got caught in the stirrup of a runaway horse, and I returned the favor by getting him released from prison into my custody. He worked for us for a year before he moved on. Last I heard, Danny was in Texas somewhere, but that was a long time ago.

Remembering, I’ve missed the beginning of the hearing. Danny scrutinizes the paper in front of him, then looks up to where Pa and I are sitting. I can’t believe this. His hair is showing gray, but his eyes are still as piercing as the day we met, when I said I wanted to repay him for saving my life, and he held up his wrists in shackles and practically dared me to get them off him.

“The purpose of this hearing is to discover the facts surrounding the death of Corporal William Tanner,” says Danny, sounding more authoritative than I’d ever have imagined. “One of the witnesses is Joseph Cartwright of Virginia City, Nevada. In the interest of full disclosure, I hereby state for the record that I know Mr. Cartwright and his father, Major Benjamin Cartwright. I worked for the Cartwrights for approximately a year, around 1860.” He eyes the uniformed lawyers at the tables. “Under the circumstances, I must inquire whether either side desires that I recuse myself from hearing this matter.”

Forrester rises. “No, Your Honor.”

The other lawyer, a pudgy fellow whose gut strains the buttons on his uniform, stands up. He glances over at us. He’s clearly on the fence about this. “May I ask, Your Honor—what is the extent of your relationship with Mr. Cartwright?”

A flash of irritation shows on Danny’s face, but his voice is smooth. “As I said, I worked for the Cartwrights in 1860. I believe my last contact with them was a year or so later. We have not been in touch since before I joined the Army.” His mouth is set, almost daring the lawyer to ask anything else. I hold my breath until the lawyer mumbles that he has no objection and sits down.

The hearing begins with another witness, one of the soldiers from Fort Lowell. I try to focus, but I can’t seem to follow what they’re saying. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Pa watching me. I blink hard, trying to see through the fog. I take deep breaths, but my chest is getting tight.

“Are you all right?” Pa whispers.

I shake my head. “Need air.”

As if he hears me, Danny Kidd bangs his gavel. “The court will now take a recess. We shall reconvene in fifteen minutes.” The bailiff tells us to rise, and Danny walks out of the room as if he owns the place.

“Come on,” Pa says. He takes my arm to lead me outside, and I’m too shaky to protest. In the hallway, I sit on a bench, my head between my knees. Voices buzz around me, and someone pushes a cup of water into my hand and tells me to drink. I lift my head just enough to obey, and then the cup is taken away.

I don’t know how much time passes before I sit up. “I’m okay,” I tell Pa. His face is creased with worry. “It’s stuffy in there,” I say. “I’m fine.” I stand and say, “Let’s get this finished.” Before anyone can speak, I pull myself up tall and try to mimic Danny’s self-assured gait as I go back into the room.

As I come through the double doors, the bailiff disappears into a door to the side of the judge’s bench. No sooner are we all seated than the bailiff and tells us to stand up, and Danny comes back in. He doesn’t look at me; I can’t tell if he has any idea what just happened. He tells the witness to resume the stand, and the witness, a skinny young man with ginger hair, continues answering questions about Tanner and the massacre at Bald Mountain as best he can, considering the convoluted questions the lawyers are posing.

Finally, it seems as though Danny has had his fill of lawyer double-speak. “Private Fitzwilliam,” he says, and the room grows very quiet. Not so much as a piece of paper rustles. “As you sit here today, do you have reason to believe that Corporal Tanner was of sound mind as of the fourteenth day of June in the Year of Our Lord 1873?”

June 14, 1873. The day before I left the Ponderosa, heading toward Fort Lowell.

“Yes, sir,” says the young man.

Danny fixes him with a steely gaze. “Private, are you absolutely certain of that?”

“Y—yes, sir.” The private is clearly nervous, but resolute.

“Would you please tell this Court the number of occasions on which you have had opportunity to observe men who have not been of sound mind?”

“Sir?” The private appears to be confused now.

“How many times, Private?” Danny’s voice doesn’t thunder like Pa’s, but no man with any sense would cross him.

“I remember hearing about—” the private begins.

“I don’t want to know what you’ve heard about,” Danny says. “I want to know how many such men you have personally observed.”

Private Fitzwilliam’s pale cheeks flush. “None, sir.”

“So when you say that you believe Corporal Tanner was of sound mind as of June the fourteenth, what is the basis of that belief?”

“Well, sir—I mean—he wasn’t acting peculiar.”

“Explain.”

“He made sense when he talked. He wasn’t—you know, talking to people who ain’t there or such. He didn’t seem like he was out of his head.”

Danny considers the private. “Between the incident at Bald Mountain and June the fourteenth, how many opportunities did you have to see Corporal Tanner?”

The private thinks. “Not many, sir. Two or three, maybe. I never seen him until after he got sentenced. There was a couple of us who took chow to the prisoners. We weren’t supposed to talk to them, but sometimes, he’d say something like ‘Nice day’ or ‘Smells good.’ Nothing more than that. And I never talked back,” he hastened to add. “I followed orders. I put down the food, and I left.”

Danny watches the private for a long moment. “Thank you, Private. You may step down.” He turns to the pudgy lawyer at the right-hand table. “Captain McInerney, you may call your next witness.”

The captain says, “I call Joseph Cartwright to the stand.” I stand, and Pa touches my hand as I move past him to the aisle and up to the witness stand. I raise my right hand and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. At Danny’s instruction, I sit down on the chair next to his bench.

The first few questions are easy enough; Captain McInerney is just asking about my background, the Ponderosa, and what I was doing on June 14. But then he gets to the part where I meet up with Tanner. Inside, I hunker down, ready for whatever comes. McInerney leads me through the part where I wake up and find my horse and gear gone. Then he says, “Do you know what happened to your horse?”

“Tanner took him,” I say.

 

Corporal Tanner,” the captain says. When I don’t correct myself, he says, “Corporal Tanner was a soldier in this man’s Army. You will kindly refer him by his title.”

“As I understand it, he wasn’t a soldier anymore when I met him, so I can call him whatever I want,” I snap. Forrester shakes his head, a caution to me to rein in my temper.

“Captain, Mr. Cartwright is a civilian,” says Danny. It’s not clear what he’s trying to communicate, but the captain says, “Yes, Your Honor,” and after that, he doesn’t challenge me on what I call Tanner.

Captain McInerney asks question after question about my encounter with Tanner. In front of Pa and everyone, I repeat what Tanner said about how I’d want to kill him. I tell how he’d whistle so I’d know he was coming after me, how hunting me down was a game to him, how I fell down the hill and broke my arm trying to escape from that madman.

“Objection, Your Honor,” McInerney says. “The witness is not a doctor. He is not qualified to decide whether Corporal Tanner was mad.”

Forrester is on his feet. “I believe it’s clear Mr. Cartwright is using the term as a layman would,” he says. “He’s describing the behavior, not making a medical diagnosis. I ask the Court to allow him to use whatever terminology he deems appropriate—within reason, of course,” he adds hastily, probably to make sure I don’t think he’s saying I should be able to call Tanner a sick bastard.

“The witness will refrain from using medical terminology to describe Corporal Tanner in the absence of any evidence that he is trained as a physician,” says Danny. He isn’t even looking at me.

“He was a madman whether I say so or not,” I say. “I might as well say so.”

This time, Danny looks at me. I search his face for a glimpse of the man who was my friend, but he’s all judge now. “My ruling stands,” he says.

“Yes, Your Honor,” Forrester says. It’s clearly a hint to me, but I’m not going to say it. After a few moments, Forrester takes his seat, and McInerney resumes asking me about Tanner.

“Isn’t it possible you misunderstood what Corporal Tanner was saying?” he asks at one point. “Couldn’t he simply have been playing a game?”

“A game? He was hunting me like a deer. He was going to kill me. He’d taken my gun, my canteen, my food, my horse—anything I could have used to survive. But he had weapons—my gun and his. The only game he was playing was in his sick little mind, and that was the game where he’d keep letting me know he was right behind me, about to strike.” I drew a shaky breath. “He was like a cat playing with a mouse. He made it clear I was going to die, but not until he’d had his fun. I had to get away from him, or he’d kill me.”

“So instead, you killed him.” McInerney sounds satisfied, as if he’s boxed me in.

I shake my head. I’m trembling and trying not to show it. Visions of Tanner, his shaggy mustache and evil grin, fill my mind. All I can hear was him whistling that strange little melody. “No,” I say, louder than a normal person would, but still not loud enough to drown out those few notes. “I didn’t kill him. I didn’t have anything to kill him with. I trapped him. I got him into an old jail cell, and I locked him in. It was all I could do. I don’t know how he died.” My breath is getting shallow. “Can I have some water, please?”

Danny’s gavel bangs. “The court will take a ten-minute recess. All rise.” Everyone stands, and he leans down and says to me in a low voice, “You can stay here if you want. The bailiff will bring you some water.” I nod to show I hear him, and he leaves the room.

“Son, are you all right?” Pa’s right in front of me.

“Dizzy,” I manage. The bailiff returns with a cup of water, and I close my eyes as I sip. “Thanks,” I say after a minute. I hate this. Hate it, hate it, hate it. I hate feeling so weak, so fragile. So much like a victim. This isn’t me. It’s not what I do. I’m Joe Cartwright. I’m a fighter. It’s like Candy said—I have to dig in. I’m going to finish this even if it kills me.

Danny comes back in, and the hearing resumes. McInerney pokes at my story from every angle, saying things like, “So you’re asking this Court to believe that a perfectly healthy soldier just up and died because he was trapped in a jail cell?” His voice drips with disdain.

“I don’t care what this Court believes,” I say. “That’s what happened.”

“So you say,” says McInerney. “But there wasn’t anyone else there, was there?”

I root around in the recesses of my memory. “Harve!” I say finally. “There was a fellow there named Harve. He saw.”

“Harve who?” McInerney asks. “What’s his last name?”

“I don’t know. I never saw him before, but when I came to, he’s the one who said Tanner was dead.” At least I think that’s how it went. That whole time is so foggy now. I remember slamming the door to the cell shut and throwing the bolt, and then I slid to the ground, finished. There was shouting and shooting, and then nothing until Harve was shaking me awake.

“And where is this Harve person?” McInerney asks.

“I don’t know.”

“You said before that the town where this all occurred was a ghost town,” says McInerney. “But it just so happened there was one person there to witness Corporal Tanner’s death? Isn’t that awfully convenient?” Forrester objects and Danny sustains the objection, but it doesn’t matter. It’s out there. McInerney is going to prove I’m lying by any means he can.

Now, he approaches the chair where I’m sitting. “Mr. Cartwright, you’re under oath. Now, tell this Court the truth. Did you kill Corporal William Tanner?” He leans close, his face almost filling my field of vision, but over his shoulder, I see someone come in the back door. There’s something familiar about the way he moves. I try to look past McInerney, but he comes closer until he’s all I can see. “Did you, Mr. Cartwright? Did you kill Corporal Tanner?” I can feel his breath, hot and moist. His face looms, and something inside me snaps.

“No!” I shout. He flinches and pulls back slightly, but not enough, so I keep shouting, “I didn’t kill him, but you know what? I wish I had. I wish I’d strangled that sick bastard with my bare hands!”

The gavel bangs. “Mr. Cartwright!” Danny’s voice is stern.

“I hate him!” I rant on. “I hate Tanner with everything in me. I hate what he’s done to me. I hate everything about him. I hate the memory of him. I hate the thought of him. I hate his name. I hate the way he haunts me. I hate the fact that he’s right—I did want to kill him, just like he said I would. I hate—I hate him.” I squeeze my eyes shut and bow my head to keep from bursting into tears like a little kid, right in front of everybody. Then I swallow hard and lift my head, looking McInerney in the eye. It’s all I can do not to grab him by the collar and spit in his face. In a voice so low it’s a wonder anybody can hear me, I say, “That’s why I wish I’d killed him. Because maybe if I had, I wouldn’t hate him so much.”

The room is deathly silent. I hold McInerney’s gaze. I’m not going to break first. I’m done breaking. After a few moments, the captain steps back, looking up at the judge, and says, “Nothing further, Your Honor.”

Forrester has a few simple questions for me. As much as anything, they seem to be designed to make me look calm and in control. I do my best to cooperate, and it isn’t long before Danny tells me I can step down.

The rest of the hearing doesn’t take long. An Army coroner testifies that there were no unusual marks on the body. No bullet wounds. No stab wounds. No bruises around the throat. No broken neck bones. No indication of whatever it was that caused Tanner to die in that room.

At the close of the hearing, Danny issues his ruling: “There being no evidence of any unnatural cause of the death of Corporal William Tanner, such death is hereby determined to be from natural causes. Case closed. This Court will now stand in recess.” He bangs his gavel, and the bailiff tells us all to rise once more. Danny steps down from the bench and says something to the bailiff before leaving the room. The bailiff comes over to us and says, “Judge Kidd would like to see you in his chambers.” Pa and I follow him through the side door and into another room where Danny is waiting.

“Mr. Cartwright,” he says, shaking Pa’s hand. “Good to see you, sir.”

“I think I’m the one who should be calling you ‘sir’ now,” Pa says with a chuckle.

Danny grins. “We’re both majors. Joe here is the only civilian.” His grin fades. “I’m sorry you had to go through all this. I told my superiors the coroner’s report was enough, but they insisted.” He looks at me carefully. “How’re you doing?”

“I’m fine,” I say. He doesn’t look like he believes me, so before he can ask anything else, I wave my hand at his uniform and say, “How did all this happen? ’Cause you were the last one I’d ever have expected to join up.” My attempt at distraction succeeds, and for a few minutes, it’s like old times as we catch up on what’s happened over the past twelve years. If I hadn’t been feeling like I was just tied to a tree with somebody throwing knives at me, I’d be pretty proud of what Danny’s made of himself.

A knock sounds on the door, and Danny calls, “Come in.” The bailiff enters and tells Danny that Lieutenant Colonel Somebody or Other wants to speak with him. “Of course,” says Danny. “I’ll be right there.” We all shake hands and promise to keep in touch, and Pa and I watch as Danny strides down the hall, his back ramrod straight.

The bailiff escorts us out to the courtroom. Candy and Jamie are standing with Forrester. As we approach them, I sense movement. The man who was in the back of the room—the one I saw ever so briefly when McInerney was questioning me—is coming toward us. Even before I register the details—the bald head, the dark mustache and the beard with the gray stripe—I know. I break away and start toward him, and he’s moving faster down the aisle, and we’re both running, and I can barely see him through my tears, but I can hear that familiar voice saying, “Little Joe!”

Nothing else matters then, because my arms are wrapped around my brother, and he is holding me even tighter.

*****

“How did you know to come here?” I ask later.

We’re in Adam’s hotel room, just the two of us. After Pa hugged Adam and introduced Candy and Jamie, we all came back to the hotel. Adam’s room is on the floor above ours. The others are downstairs in our suite. We’ll all be having dinner together later, but this time is for my brother and me, alone.

“Pa wrote to me,” Adam says. “He told me all about what happened. When the Army set the date for the hearing, I made arrangements to come out.” He pours each of us a brandy. “I wanted to be here last night, but the train was delayed in Philadelphia.”

“You’re here now. That’s what counts.” I raise my glass, and he raises his. We drink in silence. Finally, I ask, “How much do you know?”

“Obviously, I heard part of your testimony today, but Pa had already written to me,” he says. “I wanted to write to you about it before, but I didn’t know what to say.”

I raise an eyebrow. “I think that may be the first time I’ve ever heard you say that.”

But my brother isn’t joining the joke. I can see the pain in his eyes. It’s not just his own pain any more. He’s hurting for me, too. I bow my head, and he lays his hand on my shoulder. “I know how you feel,” he says quietly. “Believe me. I know.”

“Then explain it to me,” I say, suddenly angry. I sit up abruptly and shove his hand away. “Tell me why it’s still with me. Tell me why I can’t forget him.”

“I wish I could,” says Adam. “Just like I wish I could promise it’ll all go away for good.”

“What do you mean?” But I know. A chill runs through me. He doesn’t answer, and I force the word out: “Still?”

He nods. “Not often, but . . . yes.” After all these years. The madman haunts him still.

“How?” I’m not certain if I’m even making sense.

“Nightmare. That’s the most typical way. Occasionally, I see someone who looks like him, but that’s rare. Or I’ll meet somebody with the same name, and I try to figure out if I see a resemblance.”

“Have you?”

“Nothing specific. And no, I don’t ask them if they’re related to him.”

I try to imagine meeting someone named Tanner. The thought of meeting his brother, his cousin—anyone who might share his bloodlines, who might be just as crazy—causes a rush of nausea. I close my eyes and bend forward, fighting the urge. I feel Adam taking my glass from my hand, rubbing my shoulder. Finally, I sit back and open my eyes. “Hate it when that happens,” I say with as much lightness as I can.

“I know,” Adam says. The thought that he really does know brings tears to my eyes, and I close them again to keep the tears from spilling over.

We sit in silence for what seems like a long time. Finally, I scrounge up all my courage and look my brother in the eye. “Can I ask you something?” He nods, and I say, “Why didn’t you just kill him and get out of there as soon as you figured out what was going on?”

For a second, he seems startled. Then, a slight smile tips the corners of his mouth. “You’ve been waiting a long time to ask that.”

I nod.

“I kept waiting for you to ask.”

It’s my turn to be startled. “Why didn’t you just tell me?”

The smile disappears. “I guess I figured that if you weren’t asking, one of two things had happened. Either you’d figured out the answer—or you were afraid to hear it.” He sits back. “Which was it?”

I down my brandy in a single gulp. He refills my glass without comment on my refined manners. “The second, I guess.”

He nods like he’d thought as much. “But you’re not scared anymore.”

It’s not a question, but I shake my head. “So tell me. Why didn’t you kill him?” I’d have killed Tanner in a heartbeat, if only I’d could have. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. The son of a bitch was right. He said I’d want to kill him, and I did. If I’d been able—if fate hadn’t gotten to him first—I would have.

Adam sits back in his chair. “The worst possible reasons: pride and blindness. I thought I was strong enough to beat him at his own game. By the time I understood what was happening, he’d wormed his way into my mind and taken me prisoner—not just physically, but inside, where it counted. That’s how men like Kane and Tanner do what they do. They manipulate their victims, playing with them like a cat with a mouse.” My own words from the hearing, coming back at me. He nods to let me know he recognizes what he’s saying. “For them, it’s not enough just to kill. There has to be a game.”

A chill runs through me. Tanner’s whistling. Letting me know he was closer. If he’d just wanted to kill me, he could have snuck up on me, but that wasn’t enough. He needed for me to feel him lurking behind every rock, every tree. To feel him closing in as I grew weaker, stumbling with pain and thirst and exhaustion. To feel him winning.

I duck my head so that Adam can’t see my face. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him reach over and slide my glass closer. My arm throbs.

“Pa used to stand in your doorway at night and make sure you were still there,” I recall.

“I know.”

I lift my head. “He does it to me now.”

“I’m not surprised,” Adam says. “He’s lost a lot. It’s a wonder he never held on tighter than he did.”

I drink the brandy. The whole family has lost a lot, but Pa most of all. “How did you get over it?”

“Over which? Kane? Or you and Pa and Hoss watching me like hawks?”

It’s my turn to smile. “Both.”

“It’s taken a long time. Luckily, I found someone to talk to—somebody who wasn’t involved in any of it, who didn’t have a stake in fixing me. Who listens, and cares, and doesn’t judge.”

“A doctor?”

“Actually, he’s a priest.”

“A priest? You’re Catholic now?”

“You don’t have to be Catholic to talk to a priest,” my brother reminds me. “We met at a lecture on Descartes. He’s become a good friend. If you want to come and visit, I’ll introduce you. Guaranteed he’ll beat you at chess.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Does he beat you?”

Adam chuckles. “We’re about even.”

“And you talk to him about Kane?” Inconceivable that my brother would confide in anyone about something so private. He barely even told it to us, and we’re his family.

“We talk about all sorts of things. Our lives are part of the discussion.” His voice is even, almost casual. Too casual.

“And this—what do you call him? Father?”

“You’d call him Father Aldrich. I call him Philip.”

“This Father Aldrich—he knows what happened? He understands?”

It’s Adam’s turn to look away. “He had an older brother who was mad. He’s told me some things. It was . . . difficult growing up in that household.” The pain in my brother’s voice underscores the words. I can only imagine what he’s heard across the chess board. In a strange way, I envy them, my brother and the priest. Having someone to tell who truly knows how they feel. Who doesn’t need to be protected from the worst parts. Who listens, and cares, and doesn’t judge.

“Where’s his brother now?” I ask. A prison, I hope. Or an asylum. But not running around loose, out where innocent people are living innocent lives. Please, God, not out there loose.

“One of his victims fought back. He lost.” He leans forward. His voice is intense, as if he needs to be certain I hear him: “Sooner or later, they all lose.”

They all lose. Kane. Tanner. The priest’s brother. So many madmen. So many victims.

“Can I ask you something else?” I reach for the decanter.

“Yes, you may,” says Adam with the slightest emphasis on the last word.

I resist the urge to stick out my tongue. My brother will never stop trying to educate me. “You didn’t leave the Ponderosa because of Laura and Cousin Will.” It’s not a question, but he nods anyway. “Was it because of Kane?”

He holds up his glass for a refill. “At first,” he says. “I wanted to get away from the memories. Also, I wanted to free you all. Everyone was still trapped in that. I thought if I left, it might help.”

So he’d seen it after all. I pour for both of us. “Did it work?”

“Not the way I expected,” Adam says. “Turns out, you can’t get away from what’s in your head just by changing the landscape. Besides, there’s evil everywhere. Kevin never left Boston in his entire life.”

“—Kevin—”

“—Philip’s brother.”

Kevin. The madman had a name. A name and a family.

Will Tanner. That’s what he said his name was when he came into my camp. Will. Like we were friends. I don’t know Kane’s first name. I wonder whether Adam does. I’ll bet he does.

Adam drains his brandy and stands. “Pa’s going to be waiting for us,” he says, the older brother shepherding the younger off to dinner.

I remain seated. “Can I ask you one more thing?” At his nod, I ask, “How long did it take until he was really dead for you?”

My brother’s eyes are dark. “Any day now.”

*****

We only have a few days together in St. Louis. Adam has to get back to work in Boston, and we need to get back to the Ponderosa. I try not to be selfish about keeping my brother to myself, but Pa understands. Of course he does. After all, he’s the one who arranged it.

Adam and I spend hours and hours walking the streets of St. Louis and talking. Not just about Kane and Tanner and the scars nobody else can see, but about all sorts of other things that have happened in the past nine years. I talk about Alice, and he tells me how sorry he is that he never met her. We talk a lot about Hoss, the good memories as well as the hard parts. Adam says, “When Pa wrote and told me about Tanner, all I could think was, ‘I wish Hoss was there. Joe’s going to need him to get through this.’”

“Just like you did,” I say. We both need Hoss. We always have, and we always will. But we have each other, and that’s saying a lot.

Too soon, it’s our last day. We all have breakfast together in the hotel dining room. Jamie is thrilled to have met his eldest brother at last, and Adam teases him just the way he used to tease me when I was Jamie’s age. I see Adam watching Candy, and I can tell he approves of the way Candy looks out for us. Most important, there’s a peace about Pa that I haven’t seen in a long time, like he’s been reassured that even if Adam is traveling all over the world, he’s still with us.

And then we’re at the train station. Our train is set to leave at eight-thirty, and Adam’s leaves at nine. We’re all talking at once, trying to say one last thing, when the conductor on our train calls, “All aboard!” Adam gives Jamie a quick hug and shakes Candy’s hand. Pa wraps Adam in a hug so long I can’t help laughing; Adam’s not the kind for public shows of affection, and nobody but Pa could get away with this.

Finally, it’s my turn to say goodbye to my brother. His eyes are glistening. To hell with his Boston propriety: I hug him every bit as long as Pa did, and I whisper, “Thanks.” He squeezes me. Then, at the same time, we let go.

“You’re going to be okay,” he says under the din of people boarding the train.

I wink. “Any day now.” Recognition of the past, combined with the reality of what is, and the hope of what will be.

This time, he smiles. “Any day now.” He steps back, out of the way of other passengers, and with one last look at my brother, I climb onto the train that will take me home.

 

The End

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34 thoughts on “Judge Not (by pjb)”

  1. This was a great story. I never really thought to juxtapose those two events, but the really do parallel. Nice catch. 😉 You did a great job with the back and forth … I’m normally not a huge flashback fan, but they worked really well here. And … I miss Hoss. 😔

    Thanks for writing!

  2. Wow, what a ride. This was an amazing story and I think you presented the characters in all their glory, their sorrow, their pain and their triumphs. I was so happy to see Danny Kidd as a judge because in the context of this story it made such sense. While it wasn’t said, to me it was that he was almost killed by “the system,” and he saw a way to effect a change and took it. You didn’t write it or hint at it and it may not have been why you made him a judge and they judge but it’s just the way I saw it.

    Also, the relationships were just spot on, especially between Joe and Adam. He really needed Adam so badly during this. I don’t think I ever saw that they had endured very much the same thing but they really had. You worked in Adam’s PTSD and Joe’s episodes so well. I can’t get stop raving about this story.

    1. Don’t stop raving on my account! 😉 Seriously, Anne, thank you so much for such enthusiastic comments. To be honest, I hadn’t really thought of Danny Kidd in quite the way you saw him, but I like your interpretation–I just wish I could take credit for having intended those nuances. I saw the Adam/Joe parallel, but to be honest, I don’t recall now exactly why Danny Kidd became the judge–for me, it was just a matter of the Cs showing up in the courtroom and there he was. (Let’s pretend my subconscious is as creative as you are.) I’m so pleased that you enjoyed this story so much–thanks for letting me know!

  3. Oh wow! You finished off where the episode left us hanging. I love that you included everybody in this and Danny was just a nice little bonus. Great job!

  4. Amazing work! Such a touching story. You perfectly outlined the Cartwrights sorrows, joys, and the challenges of losing a family member and gaining 2. Beautiful 🙂

  5. Wow ! What an absolutely fabulous story ! Got the emotions going mentioning Hoss and Adam at the end ( trying not to give anything away )
    Very moving

  6. Absolutely brilliant. From your flashbacks to those unseen moments in the third season to the way Adam interacts with Jamie and Candy, it all rings true as a church bell. Most wonderful of all is how vivid Hoss’s presence is throughout, even though he can only appear in the brief flashbacks. Even after his death he gave the family support that could never die….

    As for the portraits of Adam and Joe, they’re Rembrandts in prose. This story is going straight to the top of my favorites list; straight onto my Kindle to be treasured forever. Thank you so very much!

    1. Thanks so much for such beautiful comments, sklamb! “Rembrandts in prose” – such a vivid description, and so compelling. I’m delighted that you enjoyed the story so much!

  7. Thanks so much for such wonderful and considered comments, Belle! I especially appreciate the fact that you came back to reread it in order to let me know what you thought. Only a writer would do that!

  8. I often read a story twice before offering a comment. I like to gobble up the first helping and savor the second. It just strikes me after the second reading that this is a very interesting multifaceted story. Joe suffered not only from his encounter with Tanner, but with the memories of his response to Adam’s encounter. Moreover, the ordeal was all tangled up with Hoss’s death, the new family dynamics, and the reality of loss. Joe discovered that it may take a lifetime to achieve understanding. Thanks for bringing us this story.

  9. So glad you popped this story in the library, Jo. It was a joy to read – as always – and using the two episodes that go hand in hand was a smart move. Lot’s of unexpected surprises along the way. Well done!

  10. “Full Circle” that was my first thought after reading. To pick up Adam’s expirience and to relate it to Joe’s hell was a smart way to write.
    You gave Bonanza the much needed end.

  11. Wonderful story. I loved the way you connected the two situations together and allowed Joe a wonderful surprise. Great descriptions of the events and you were very successful at bringing tension to the story in a variety of ways. I enjoy reading your stories over and over again.

  12. Great WHN, PJB. Nicely done weaving The Crucible and The Hunter together and throwing in Danny Kidd was unexpected.

    1. I was kind of surprised that Danny Kidd showed up, too. Glad to hear you enjoyed the story, Frasrgrl. Thanks for letting me know!

  13. I could hardly believe my eyes! A story by pjb! It’s been too long Jo! You gave us a wonderful WHN to The Hunter – such a strange episode to end Bonanza on. But at least we now have a more than satisfactory closure. Loved the flashbacks to Adam and Hoss. Their presence was sadly missing by Season 14. Thank you so much.

    1. Thanks, BettyHT! It’s always a bit dicey when a Joegal goes anywhere near The Crucible 😉 , so I’m glad you felt I used it effectively. Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed the story!

  14. And . . . she’s back!!! Thank you, pjb, for returning to the fold and giving us this wonderful story. Combining the three episodes was a brilliant stroke and everything (dialogue, plot, setting, characters) worked perfectly. This goes on my favorite’s list.

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