Summary: Adam makes a desperate decision that may lead to tragedy for the Cartwright family.
Rated: K+ WC 10,700
He is whispering something, but I can’t hear it. Can’t hear much of anything with the rain and wind pounding sideways against the granite face of the mine, the storm just about as violent as my own desire for vengeance. Rock can’t hold its own against water, and with a night like the one we’ve just come through, I’d be the first to believe it. My faith in everything is eroding away, just as surely as these mountains will someday wash out to the sea.They’re still breathing. Hoss is sleeping again. He was awake for a while but is now getting some relief from the pain. His head is back, mouth wide open. Deep snoring that seems to come right from his belly lets me know that he is very much alive. I don’t think I’ll ever rib him about his snoring again. Proof of life, that’s what the sheriff asked for. That’s the reason I was allowed to see my father. Well, if it’s proof of life they wanted, that’s what I’ve got, lying next to me in the flickering lamp light of the mine.Joe is whispering again. I don’t need to know what he is trying to say. His lips form words that tell of dark stories. Of bullets echoing against granite walls, carving trails through ancient stone and flesh. Stories of evil men. How many times have we held fast against evil? This time, we didn’t stand a chance. I hated telling Hoss about my decision. He shuddered but said that no one would fault me. He says that Pa would have done the same thing. Who wouldn’t have done anything possible to save a child? And yet, the memories keep coming around in turn to accuse me.
You should have found a way, they whisper. You’re the oldest, the firstborn. It’s your job to save the others. Your birthright gives you the right to make the sacrifice. You let them pay your price.
Joe stirs next to me, and his eyes almost open. For a ridiculous moment I believe in some sort of a miracle. He is whispering again, and this time I strain to hear it. What could my kid brother offer me? Absolution? Forgiveness? Or simply a parting gift of grace?
Hoss wakes suddenly. He hears it too, but he is quicker than I am. He has always been the first to believe, the steadfast one who lets his actions be guided by faith. He leans over Joe and tries to listen. But this time, he’s also led astray. Joe isn’t in our world, but he is dreaming of things that are brighter than the darkness of the mine, of the grey dusk that waits outside. I hear the whispers, but they are only the wind, the rain.
“I am not letting you go,” I reply with such fierceness it surprises me.
“Take it easy, Adam,” Hoss says to me in a low careful voice that masks all kinds of pain. “They’ll hear you talking. They say they’ll kill one of us next time they hear us.”
My eyes close then, I lean back against the jagged basalt that hides treasure buried so deeply, nobody bothers to look for it anymore. It’s been years and years since any fortunes were discovered in this mine.
I close my eyes. Joe and Hoss are in pain, but the great desperation that bears down is only for me. I’ve broken the covenant with my father. I haven’t kept the faith.
I’ve failed to protect my brothers.
It’s morning now, foggy and wet, and the air is so thick I can hardly breathe. We’ve made it through the cold, rainy night. I’m grateful for my wool coat, but I cannot stop thinking about how bone-chilling cold it must be inside that mine. When Nate Lawson brought Adam out to talk with us, one fact kept coming back to me over the horror of it all. My oldest son wasn’t even wearing his winter coat.
All three of my sons have spent the past day and night in the mineshaft without food and with only one canteen among them. The impasse has been continuous, ever since Katie Lawson led us to the place where two of my sons were cut down. The sheriff’s men surround the perimeter of the area; nobody leaves without us knowing about it, but that doesn’t get us any closer to rescuing my boys.
We have been inundated with good wishes and helpful neighbors. Word travels fast. Folks from across the territory have been handing over blankets and lanterns, rolls of cloth for bandages, and jugs of water. I’ve been handed an interminable number of sandwiches but haven’t managed more than a bite from any of them. Last night, we had enough lanterns to light up the main street of Virginia City. Everyone seems to have some task at hand, some job to do, but all I can do is wait. It’s not something I’m particularly well suited to under the best of circumstances, but I have no choice. Unless we do what Nate Lawson wants, we are forced to hang back and wait him out. I can hardly bear to think of what price we might be paying while waiting.
Roy and his men linger, cleaning their weapons and checking their ammunition. Faithful Doc. Martin is still dozing in the wagon. He spent the night at my side, out of stubborn optimism that he might be permitted to tend to the boys. I should be grateful to them all, but at this moment, I’m having a hard time counting my blessings. Maybe someday I’ll be able to look back on the events of the past day and be able to find an easy moral. Maybe someday, I will be able to stop thinking about the expression on Adam’s face, a rifle jammed at the back of his head, while he told me what had happened to his brothers.
Most people think that Adam can be cold, and listening to him yesterday, I can understand why they’d think so. Only people who knew him real well could tell you what his words meant. He never faltered while he was talking. The tale he told seemed like it belonged to another family and not my own. He started first with Hoss. I tried not to picture my large, gentle son, lying on the ground with blood streaming from a broken gash on the side of his head. Hoss would be all right; he just had to be. It was what we expected of him. When Adam tried to tell me about Joseph, his voice gave just a little. He could hardly meet my eyes. I nodded, stared at his pale face, and tried to understand what he was saying.
That was when Lawson cocked the trigger and said, “That’s enough, Cartwright.”
“I’m sorry, Pa,” Adam whispered.
I could hardly hear my son’s voice, but I’d have dared anyone to call him cold.
“I want my daughter,” Lawson called over his shoulder, as they walked away. And at that, we knew his price. No bags of money that I would gladly withdraw from the bank. Supplies, weapons, a free escort into Mexico… I’d provide any of it. I’d just about sell my soul to save the lives of my sons. Yet, I could never bring myself to endanger the life of a ten-year old girl. He’d asked the one price from me that I couldn’t pay.
Roy swore under his breath.
Then he asked, “What do we do, Ben?”
“We wait,” I said.
And wait we did. We waited until the sun slipped behind the treeline and ominous, grey clouds gathered overhead. The wind started up just before dusk and whipped mercilessly against our exposed necks and faces. Roy wanted Mrs. Lawson and Katie to stay in case we needed them. I thought it a poor idea, but Roy was adamant. We argued, yet the man could be just as stubborn as a Cartwright. He was the still the law. The men fashioned a poor shelter for Mrs. Lawson and her daughter in the wagon when it started to rain, and they spent the night cowering under the oilcloth. To their credit, I never heard either complain, although I certainly heard a few of Roy’s men grumbling, in rather colorful language.
It rained, and the wind howled all night but let up just before dawn. A few men wanted to rush in before the morning broke. Thought we might be able to surprise them before the first light. I stopped them, before that talk went any further. I’d seen the look in Lawson’s eyes. He wanted his daughter just about as badly as I wanted my sons. He would be waiting for us to make a move like that.
Leaning against the wagon, Roy watches me and chews on a piece of jerky. A stranger might think he is unmoved by our drama, but I know better. I’ve known Roy Coffee for a good long time, and he thinks he knows me. He’s wary, like I might come unhinged and go charging down the road half-cocked to try and rescue my sons. I return his look, and he backs off, hands raised in mock surrender. He thinks I’m angry with him, and maybe I am. I can’t shake the idea that if he’d spurred his horse a little harder to find Katie, my sons might have been spared this ordeal.
I’m losing track of time. The sun slants through the rising fog, and the air is already warmer. Soon, I’ll be able to shed my coat, and I pray that the warmth of the morning is making its way to my sons. I feel cold, inside and out, and it has nothing to do with the weather. Bone tired, I close my eyes, just to rest them for a moment. Suddenly, the smell of wet pine and cedar is filtered by the smell of inexpensive perfume. I open my eyes, and Mrs. Lawson is standing in front of me, still wearing her garb from the saloon. Her daughter isn’t with her, and I glance down the muddy road, frowning at her carelessness for letting the girl out of her sight.
“She’s resting in the back of the wagon. The doctor’s looking after her,” Mrs. Lawson explains, gesturing expansively.
“Good,” I reply, trying to stay polite. “You should take her back to town. She’ll be safer there.”
“But Sheriff Coffee says we should stay here, in case …” She breaks off and looks away, unwilling to meet my eyes.
I know exactly what Sheriff Coffee has been saying, and he already knows what I think of it. It’s a fool plan. There cannot be any justification in using a ten-year old girl to lure a known killer out of his ugly, little nest. Even if the killer in question is the girl’s father, I could never go along with it.
Roy has been arguing that we cannot afford to let Nate Lawson get away this time. That he’s already killed five people during his string of bloody bank robberies and that there’s nothing to stop him from killing more. He doesn’t mention the fact that the man has already threatened to take three more lives in the near future unless his daughter is returned to him. By Adam’s description of Joe’s condition, the death toll might be higher already. I can’t set my mind on that, not even for a minute. No father should outlive his children. The look on Adam’s face told me everything I need to know.
“Mrs. Lawson,” I say. “We will resolve this situation without using your daughter to do it. The child has to be traumatized by what she’s been through. Let’s not make it worse by placing her in the middle of another gunfight.”
Roy pushes away from the wagon and ambles over to stand in front of me. I’d imagine it’s taking all his self-control to keep from jabbing his finger into my chest. He is clearly irritated.
“Now Ben, you know I have no intention of placing Katie in the middle of a gunfight! But you and I both know that sometimes you gotta take a chance to stop a whole world of bad things from happening. Mrs. Lawson here is willing to let Katie talk to her pa. It might give us the opening that we need -“
“No!” My voice comes out like a roar and surprises everyone. Yet Roy doesn’t back off. He steps forward and continues his reasoning.
“Ben, it’s possible that Little Joe might be dead already.” It’s a chance that Roy is taking, voicing what everyone must be thinking, what they must have been thinking since we heard about what happened.
“My son is not dead.” My words sound pathetic, even to me. “I would know if he is.”
Even Roy is turning away, but not before I see the look of wretched sympathy crossing over his face. Dr. Martin has been biding his time by the wagon, but he rouses himself to also come alongside. I know what he’s going to say, even before the doctor opens his mouth. We all know each other so very well, and yet my old friends don’t seem to realize that I would never endanger the life of a little girl, any more than my sons would.
The doctor places his hand on my arm.
“Ben,” he says quietly. “Adam told us how Little Joe was shot. It’s only a matter of time, before that type of wound kills him. The possibilities for infection and blood poisoning are just too great. It’s all about time, and we are running out of it. If Katie can just talk to her father, maybe Nate Lawson will let me in and tend to Joe. Adam says he managed to stop the bleeding. There still may be a chance, if I can get to him soon enough.”
They’re all looking at me, waiting for my answer. I’m almost tempted. At this moment, I’d be tempted by just about anything. I’d love to throw up my hands and do whatever it takes to rescue my sons, regardless of the consequences. I glance back at Mrs. Lawson. She is sad and wavering, and she looks terribly young in the morning light. Far from a victim, she has a lifetime of bad decisions trailing after her. She fell in with the wrong sort of man and married him, having a daughter with a man who didn’t deserve one. After he left her, she took a job at the worst sort of saloon to take care of their debts, and Katie grew up running wild in the streets. Unbeknownst to the sheriff, last week she chose to allow that man and his gang back into her house, despite the crimes he had committed from here to Salt Lake City. Through her lack of discernment, she gave him the opportunity to escape, taking Katie along with him. Her bad choices put her daughter at risk and they may very well demand my sons’ lives as well. I know better, but I do blame her.
Ironically, I also blame myself; not for the choices I’ve made but for the way I’ve taught my sons to live their lives. From childhood, I’ve taught them that there is a unwavering line between right and wrong. I’ve taught them that honorable men do the right thing regardless of the cost to themselves. It’s not a matter of doing the right thing once. It’s a pattern of lifelong choices. Time and time again, my sons’ actions point in the direction of the moral compass I have given them.
I remember the long night I spent being threatened by Sam Bryant. He insisted he would hang me, if my boys didn’t release Farmer Perkins, a common killer waiting in the Virginia City jail for his turn at the noose. Up to that point, no one in town had the guts to enforce justice against one of Bryant’s men. Everyone was shocked when Adam, as an acting sheriff, went ahead and hung the man despite the very real threat to my life. Little Joe was furious with Adam over his course of action, and I believe it took a few months for my youngest son to recover from the incident. At the time, I fully approved of Adam’s judgment call and still do. Yet, after the long, cold night that just passed, I can also see the incident from Joe’s point of view. It’s a shade more difficult to justify doing the right thing, when it’s not my life that’s at risk.
In many ways, I am the one who made the decision to rescue Katie Lawson. I am the one who got her away from her father and sent her flying down the trail for safety. I am the one responsible for Joseph possibly dying and Hoss being seriously injured. I am responsible for the look of agony in Adam’s eyes. I taught my sons all too well. Can I be blamed for wishing they hadn’t always listened?
They are all waiting for me to say something. After all, I am still the father, and it’s still my right to have a say in what happens next.
“Lawson needs to make the next move,” I tell them. “If we try to rush in, he will kill them. That’s what he says, and for this, I’m willing to take him at his word. We’re not going to endanger my sons or put Katie at risk. He’s not going to kill his hostages, because he hasn’t given her up yet. Whatever his reasons, he’s bound and determined to get a hold of his daughter. As long as she is safe with us, he won’t kill the boys.”
“Maybe not all of them,” Roy interjects quietly. “But there’s nothing to stop him from killing one or two to hurry us along.”
I turn away from him. I’d like to turn away from them all, charge down the road and rescue my boys myself. There’s a small part of me that would even be willing to take little Katie Lawson and march her right into the face of danger, just for the chance to be able to see my sons alive again.
But I don’t do any of these things. I lean against the wagon and close my eyes.
I am so very tired of doing the right thing.
Hoss’ words echo in our little prison. A sliver of light cuts across the chamber. I can see a mining cart, lying on its side and splintered from disuse. I can also see my brothers more clearly, but it’s not a sight that’s easy to take in. It must be morning. We’re close to the entrance, but the light from the outside is muted by the absolute darkness at our backs. Hoss is waiting for my answer. He has been awake for a couple of hours now. He says his head doesn’t hurt all that bad, but I know he’s lying. Hoss would never lie outright, but his lies of omission could fill a wagon. He doesn’t want to worry me, figuring we’ve got enough worries as it is, and he’s probably right. I reach for our canteen to reassure myself it’s still there. I’ve been hoarding it in hopes that Joe might be well enough to drink some of it.
“He won’t be able to keep it down,” I reply. “He couldn’t before.”
My voice sounds cold, even to me. I can’t imagine ever feeling warm again.
“We can try, Adam,” Hoss says. “Adam, he’s still alive.”
“I know he is,” I say, a little more gently this time. The pain shows in his voice. The blow he took to his head could have killed a weaker man, and it just about killed him. Even in this light, I can see the gash along his forehead. It’ll leave a scar. Fortunately, Hoss doesn’t look in a mirror all that often. If Little Joe had received a wound like that, he’d be on his horse riding miles for the best doctor to stitch him up. I smile at my kid brother’s notorious vanity, until I remember that Joe is no condition to be fretting over his looks. I’m so tired, can hardly think straight, and the events of the past day are taking a toll on what’s left of my common sense.
I’ve got to get my brothers out of this.
“Adam?” Joe’s voice is barely more than a whisper, but I hear him just fine. I move to his side and manage a smile.
“Hey there,” I say. “Hoss thinks you might be getting thirsty. You want to give it another try?”
Joe nods and I tilt the canteen for him, careful not to spill any of it. Our well is already running dry, on all accounts.
“Katie…?” he starts to ask.
“Is fine, little brother,” Hoss replies and gives me a dark look. “Adam says she’s with her mama. You and Adam took care of Katie just fine.”
I’m not sure that Hoss has forgiven me for my decision, even though I’m fairly sure he’d have done the same. Yet, it’s one thing to make that sort of decision, and it’s another to live with it. I don’t blame him for being angry. To tell the truth, I haven’t forgiven myself either.
“Good,” Joe whispers. “I’m glad she’s all right. She’s a tough little kid.”
“Yeah, she is,” Hoss says, and I can see his face soften. Just about everyone in Virginia City knows and likes Katie Lawson. She’s the type of kid who takes a hard-scrabble life and runs with it. It’s not her fault she was born to a weak-willed mother and an amoral father who never thought twice about taking what he wanted. Katie’s the type of child who just might make something of herself and prove all the old gossips in town wrong. I’m glad the child is safe, but I can’t help but consider the cost.
Joe is coughing again, and his breathing doesn’t sound right. It sounds fluid, like Joe is breathing underwater, and I don’t know how much time we have left to us. Hoss looks at me, panicked.
“Adam, that bullet has to come out,” he says. “He can’t hardly breathe no more. If you cover me and I rush them -“
“I don’t have a gun, and you can hardly stand upright without falling over,” I say, resisting the temptation to roll my eyes. Even in the murky light, they would both see me if I did. That’s the thing about younger brothers. They don’t let you get away with much of anything.”
“That never stopped us before,” Joe mutters and manages to crack a grin at me, despite his edgy breathing. “I could try to trip them when they ran by…”
Even Hoss smiles at that but only for a moment.
“What do we do, Adam?”
They’re both looking at me, but I’m clean out of answers. I used up all my answers when I made the decision to trade Joe’s life for Katie’s. It was a heroic decision, to be sure. We’ll come off good when the story’s over, but we might all be dead. Legends might be spun about heroes and their sacrifices, but right now I’d give about anything to be home, sitting down with my morning coffee, and dutifully waiting for my youngest brother to stumble out of bed. I’m the oldest; it’s always been my privilege and curse to know what I’m doing. It’s what’s expected of me. They still expect me to think of something, anything to save the day. How can I possibly tell them that I honestly and truly don’t know what the hell I’m doing? What could I have done differently? I ask myself lots of questions. Yesterday afternoon seems like a lifetime away…
… We had tracked Katie and the Lawson gang to Miller’s Creek. We weren’t trying to take over for Roy by any means. It’s just that Hoss is the best tracker in the territory and Joe has the fastest horse. When we heard Katie was missing, we didn’t stick around and wait for Roy to gather his posse and saddle up. Hoss and Joe already had their horses ready before my gun was in its holster. I was following in the wake of my brothers and not for the first time.
The trail was easier than I’d have imagined. It had been raining on and off for days, and the roads were mud churned and gorged with pools of brown water. Tracks were everywhere, but Hoss was following a peculiar one. The horse’s prints were heavier on one side, as if it was bearing uneven weight.
“I think she’s leaning,” Hoss said. “I showed her that last summer, how it wasn’t good for a horse to be rode that way. How it put too much strain on the horse’s back. I showed her how you could tell by the tracks that it weren’t no good for the animal. She’s leaving us a trail, Adam. I just know it.”
Hoss was right. Katie was leading us right to them. When we rode around the bend that led to Flint Diggings, Hoss was sure they were on the road that passed by an abandoned mine. A smile slowly spread across his face.
“Didn’t think it would be this easy,” he said.
“Famous last words,” Joe quipped and looked back at me to share the joke. The way our chase was progressing, he figured, we’d be kicking back in the Bucket of Blood before sundown.
I frowned. I just wasn’t sure about things. There was something about the whole thing that made me feel uneasy. It was too obvious, especially for a smart guy like Nate Lawson. I was right, of course, although I’d have given about anything to be wrong. They’d figured out they were being trailed and were waiting us out, right in front of the mine.
The confrontation that followed was both inevitable and violent.
They were on us, before any of us had the opportunity to think any better of it. All of us drew at once, but we didn’t plan to fire, not with Katie stuck in the middle of it. Joe dove across the clearing to try and reach Katie, distracting Lawson. The man had his arm tangled around his daughter’s waist but let go to draw on Joe. Katie looked around wildly; I nodded at her, and she scrambled towards me. I concentrated on grabbing hold of her, praying that Hoss was covering Joe. When I looked up, I saw a sight I won’t forget, not in this lifetime at least.
Joe lay curled at Lawson’s feet, groaning and holding his stomach, as if he’d been kicked hard. Hoss lay in a lifeless heap, and blood streamed from a gash on his head. From where I was standing, it almost looked like the side of his head had caved in; that’s how much blood there was. Evidently, he’d rushed in to rescue Joe, but one of Lawson’s men came behind him and brought his gun down hard. Unable to reach them, I tightened my grip on Katie, while searching for any sign of life from Hoss. My only reassurance came from the faintest rise and fall of his massive chest, a flicker underneath his closed eyelids, and the smallest moan.
I stared at Lawson. His gun was drawn, but he wasn’t aiming it at me. Instead, he had it pointed down at Joe.
“Put your gun down while you’re holding my daughter, Cartwright,” he said calmly, “or I shoot your brother in the belly. Slow death but just as sure as a bullet in the head.”
The look on his face chilled me to the bone. He looked bored and faintly bothered, as though he were waiting in line for his mail.
He cocked the hammer. “Drop it now, Cartwright.”
What else could I do? I dropped the gun but held fast to Katie.
“Good choice,” Lawson said evenly. “This doesn’t involve you. It’s a family matter, and I only want my little girl. I’m a father, and I have a right to her.”
“You gave up that right,” I replied, “when you killed your witnesses from here to Salt Lake City.”
“Maybe so,” he said. “But I’m taking that right back. Now you let go of her, or I’ll put a bullet in the belly of your little brother. You’ve seen men gutshot, haven’t you Cartwright? It’s not pretty, and it’s not the high hopes your family has for this one, now is it? You leave my family alone, and I’ll leave your family alone. I just want Katie.”
Katie Lawson stood rigid in front of me; for such a slip of a thing, she didn’t seem the least bit afraid. I caught a glimpse of her face, and to my surprise, she looked downright angry. Something about her expression reminded me of Joe at that age. I don’t expect he would have taken kindly to being bartered like that any more than she did.
“Don’t do it,” Joe said, lifting his chin towards me. “Adam, don’t even think about giving her back.”
Katie might not have been scared, but my whole body was shaking. Lawson didn’t move a muscle but kept his gun steady over Joe.
“Still waiting, Cartwright,” he said.
“Adam,” Joe hissed through clenched teeth. “Get Katie out of here!”
Joe was glaring at me for even considering the man’s demand. He was just as angry as Katie was. Angry at Lawson, angry at me, and angry at the turn an overcast autumn day had taken. Before the manhunt, we had planned to ride out to the Hendel’s farm in the afternoon. The four Hendel girls were the prettiest things for miles around, and Mrs. Hendel made an apple pie worth dreaming about…
“Damn it, Adam!” Joe shouted. “Do the right thing!”
In the end, I couldn’t think about what I was doing. Call it upbringing, call it responsibility, or call it submission to the unexpected authority in Joe’s voice. It was part of the covenant we all shared. Do the right thing. I just couldn’t hand a ten-year old girl back to a known killer.
I lifted Katie by her elbows, swung her behind me, and pushed her towards the road. I let her go.
“Run!” I shouted.
“Katie, run!” Joe lifted his head to watch her run away.
She was fast. I’ll give her that. She took off running and vanished through the trees. Lawson shouted after her, but she didn’t answer. His two men started after her, but he held up his hand. He couldn’t guard us on his own and obviously didn’t want them endangering his daughter. He looked at me with the oddest flicker of sadness I had ever seen. For a moment, I thought he might release us, but he shrugged instead.
“Your choice,” he said.
I dove for him, but it was already too late. The single shot cracked and echoed against the rocks and rubble behind us. I hit the ground hard and my breath grunted out of me. When I could breathe again, I was lying alongside Joe, next to blood that was pooling underneath him. Failure welled up in my throat, and I almost retched on it. I pulled myself together only because I had no other choice.
“Joe,” I shouted and I flung myself over my brother’s still body. Blood, there was blood everywhere, and I couldn’t find where it was coming from. Lawson stood out of the way, almost deferentially, and I wondered that he didn’t end things right there and then. Finally I found the source, a small round hole to the side of Joe’s belly, blood ebbing steadily from the wound. It was a serious wound to be sure, but not the deadly shot to the gut I had originally feared. I stripped off my jacket and held it over the wound, willing the pressure to stop the bleeding.
“Damn,” Lawson said mildly. “I missed.”
I spared him a glance, killing him a thousand times over, but I didn’t have time for vengeance. Joe was moaning under his breath, his color was all but gone, and I worried that he was already passing over from this side of life.
“Pick him up,” Lawson told me.
I looked up, still putting all my pressure on the wound.
“I can’t move him,” I hissed.
“Then he can stay here. Don’t much matter to me. Once again, it’s your choice. I only need one of you alive anyways. I figure your important father will do just about anything to have one son alive at the end of the day. Well guess what Cartwright? I’m a father too. And I aim to get my little girl back.”
He gestured to the other men, who had been watching him with bemused expressions. Clearly, they didn’t think all that much of their leader’s newfound paternal instincts. They rolled their eyes at each other but holstered their guns, and each took one of Hoss’ arms. I watched as they dragged him into the mine, none too gently.
“Now, are you going to pick him up or not?” Lawson asked. “If you’d rather, I could put him out of his misery and save you the trouble.”
Without a word, I tucked my arms under Joe’s shoulders and the crook of his knees and lifted him. He had always seemed so slight compared to the rest of us, but he was a dead weight in my arms. I struggled to walk ahead of Lawson, while Joe’s blood seeped into my sleeves and sprinkled on the ground. The mouth of the mine loomed ahead of us like a tomb. I paused before I entered it and looked around me. In the distance, the sun had broken through the clouds for just a moment. Its light angled across the grey horizon, and the distant foothills glowed in alternating bands of pink and gold. On another day, it might have been a jaw dropping sight. Hoss might have called it the silver lining. And then, just like that the clouds gathered again, and it was grey sky as far as the eye could see. I held my grievously wounded kid brother in my arms and braced myself for whatever storm was heading our way.
“After you, Cartwright,” Lawson said. “Don’t worry. Katie’s a smart girl, and I’ll just bet you that she took the kid’s horse. She’s no fool. She’ll lead them back here in no time.”
I stared at him suspiciously. Joe’s weight was making my arms tingle, and I tried to adjust him without aggravating the bleeding.
“Why the hell do you sound pleased about it? What are you trying to do? Get yourself strung up so your ten-year old can be an audience?”
“Better mind your manners and mind your brothers,” he said. “You’re just lucky I don’t have much of a temper.”
He gestured into the mine; one of his men was lighting an oil lamp that hung from a hook on the ceiling, and in the shrouded light, I could see Hoss lying in a heap near the wall. I laid Joe carefully down next to him. It bothered me that they weren’t taking the time to us up until I realized that they didn’t have to. Hoss was in awfully bad shape, and I couldn’t even think about Joe. I couldn’t possibly leave them to try to get help.
My brothers and I weren’t going anywhere….
We’re already well into the morning. The sound of coughing breaks me out of my reverie, and I look up in some alarm. Joe is coughing again, and I hope it’s from the carbon dust that lingers in the air and not from blood filling his lungs. Hoss grimaces as he reaches for him and tries to prop him up to clear his chest. I watch them for a minute and rub my hands over my eyes. I can’t remember ever feeling so exhausted, and there’s no end to it. I can’t help but believe there’s an end to the debacle we walked into.
I should have known better. I should have known that Lawson was a smart man and would have seen us coming. I admit that I don’t understand it. Why on earth did that man decide to step up to fatherhood after ten long years of doing whatever the hell he pleased? There’s no use thinking about such things. Joe’s fever is up. He drifts in and out of coherency, but we’re losing him. Hoss and I have little to do but sit and watch it happen. I don’t remember ever feeling so helpless in all my life. I’ve survived loss in my life; all of us have. How many things can we lose that we can’t live without and keep on living?
Pushing up to my feet, I almost bump my head on the low ceiling, but I have to consider our options. Only the most obvious one presents itself as a possibility. I could walk to the entrance of the mine and demand that Lawson release us immediately. After all, Roy has him surrounded, and there’s just about no way he’s getting out alive unless he lets us go. Of course, that would be the rational thing to do, but we’re not dealing with a rational man. We’re dealing with a father.
“Stop pacing, Adam,” Hoss grumbles. “You’re going to hit your head. You ain’t even looking where you’re going, and you’re kicking gravel all over us.”
I hadn’t realized that I was pacing, but he’s right. I’ve been about an inch away from doing more damage to myself than Nate Lawson and his gang did.
“Hoss,” I say. “You know we can’t wait any longer. We’re running out of time.”
“I know it,” he replies. “But I also know that Pa and Sheriff Coffee are out there. They’re coming up with ideas, and there ain’t no way that Pa’s gonna let Little Joe and us die in here without one big ol’ fight.”
“There’s not much he can do, short of bursting in with guns drawn,” I tell him. “Joe’s out. He’s not going anywhere, and you’re not much help right now either with the blow you took to your head. Lawson told Pa that he would put a bullet in Joe’s head, if he even thinks about staging a rescue. I could tell that Pa believes him, and I do too. Nope, all they can do is wait Lawson out and hope that he gives up when he gets hungry enough. And let’s face it. Lawson and his gang have a lot more time to get hungry than we do!”
I collapse next to my brothers. I’m spent, and Hoss knows it. My role as the oldest hangs on my shoulders with a great deal of absurdity. I let us march into this mess, and I have no idea how to get us out of it.
“They could let Katie talk to her father.” Hoss’ voice is so quiet I have to strain to hear him.
“They would never do that,” I retort. “Pa would never let anyone endanger a child, any more than I…”
“Any more than you would?” Hoss interjects.
At last we’re getting to the thing that’s between us.
“Any more than I would,” I state and try to make my words sound steadier than my convictions.
“And you’re still sure that you done the right thing?” Hoss asks, glancing over at Joe. He is moaning in pain, his fingers going for the wound at his side. Together, Hoss and I reach for his hand to hold it.
“What should I have done, Hoss? Let Lawson ride away with Katie?”
“I don’t expect he was fixin’ to hurt her, Adam,” Hoss replies. “He’s her father. We could have let her go and kept tracking them.”
My temper is frayed to the point of snapping, and my brother’s not making it any better. I have to fight to control the tremor in my voice, and yet I don’t know who my anger is aimed at – Hoss or me?
“First of all,” I argue. “We have no way of knowing that Lawson would have let us go, once he got Katie back. Once he had what he wanted, there’s no saying that he wouldn’t have gunned down all of us.”
“I don’t think so,” Hoss says evenly. “Not with Katie standing there, watching. There’s something about the way he was looking at her, Adam. I think he loves her, and I don’t reckon he’d kill us with her right there to see it.”
I keep myself from glaring at Hoss by looking down at my little brother. His hand is as hot as blazes and is squeezing all the feeling out of mine. All this pain and suffering has to have some sort of a reason, but I am having a hard enough time finding it without Hoss making me feel worse.
“Lawson is a monster,” I snap, being sure to keep my voice low. “He doesn’t feel things the same way we do. There’s only one way to deal with a man like that, and that’s by holding fast and steady. Giving in to him just makes things worse, much worse!”
“I ain’t so sure,” Hoss replies and looks back to Joe.
Our little brother’s lips are moving, lost in another fever dream. He doesn’t look as agitated as before, just perplexed, as though we’ve given him a puzzle and he’s working hard to solve it.
I don’t realize what I’m going to say, until it’s already out of my mouth. I wasn’t even aware I was thinking about what happened last year, until I hear myself talking about it.
“Hoss, think about what happened when we hung Farmer Perkins. Sam Bryant would have hung Pa, if we’d let Perkins go, just to show he could. We had to do the right thing then, didn’t we? Well, look how that worked out!”
“That’s what you and Pa said,” Hoss replies. “I don’t know that Little Joe or I ever told you that we agreed. And I’m still not sure how I feel about it. That was a mighty big chance you took, Adam. You risked Pa’s life and came out right as rain in the end. But Adam, what would you have done if you turned out to be wrong? How would you have lived with yourself?”
I stare at Hoss. I feel rattled, even though I’ve been struggling to keep myself together. Joe had always made his feelings about the incident quite clear. Even after Pa was home safe and sound, Joe still let me know in no uncertain terms that we still stood on opposite sides of the issue. He insisted that it could just have as easily turned out that I was wrong instead of right. Hoss had always been quiet about the whole thing, but I’d always assumed he agreed with me, when all was said and done. Hearing him say otherwise, feels like a punch in the gut. I can’t think of anyone’s opinion that I value more than Hoss’. Suddenly, I’m not so sure what I believe anymore.
I tell him, “Pa said it was the right thing to do.”
“Well Adam, don’t you think that he would?” Hoss asks. “You and Pa always did think alike on that sort of thing. All I’m saying is I ain’t so sure.”
“Adam was right.”
The voice beside us is so ruined with pain, I’d have a hard time pinning it to Joe. I’m still so floored by Hoss’ words that I haven’t been paying attention to the hand holding mine. I realize that Joe’s grip has loosened and is holding mine gently, almost reassuringly.
Hoss smiles broadly and says, “Welcome back, little brother. It sure is good to see you awake again.”
But Joe is too sick for platitudes. He reaches for Hoss and takes hold of his arm.
“Hoss,” he whispers. “We were wrong. Adam was right all along. He had to hang the farmer. It was the right thing to do. Same with Katie, I know it. Weren’t any good choices left.”
We’re quiet now. I’d imagine we’re all letting our own thoughts drift over us. I hope Joe’s right. I’m not so sure that I am. Almost like he’s reading my mind, he tightens his hold on my hand.
Before closing his eyes, he whispers, “It’s not easy, brother. But that doesn’t change it from being right…”
I hear talking outside, and I resist the temptation to go outside and find out what’s happening. Hoss places his hand on my shoulder, and we wait it out. Only a minute or two passes, until Lawson’s lanky form fills the entrance to the mine.
“All right, boys,” he sighs. “We’re moving. Your pa and his lackey sheriff just agreed to let me see Katie.”
I am dead set against this, but I hold little Katie’s hand in mine, as we march grimly toward the mine.
Lawson agreed to Roy’s terms, but I have no idea how my old friend will live with himself if something happens to an innocent little girl as a result of his rash actions. I know he wants to catch Lawson’s gang, and I know he wants to save the lives of my sons, but I have always believed that right and wrong are planted on opposite sides of a line. You don’t step over that line when the division proves inconvenient.
Dr. Martin walks behind us. Without being asked, he grabbed his bag and started to follow us. I raised my eyebrow at him, but he shook his head before I had the chance to warn him.
“I’m coming, Ben,” he said. “I’m needed.”
We walk by brambles of manzanita and juniper, and Katie kicks a little pebble as we pass by. I wonder at her lack of fear. Personally, I am terrified.
When Roy asked Lawson if all three hostages were all right, Lawson looked him in the eye and answered, “They were the last I checked. But frankly Sheriff, a lot could change in under an hour.”
Sheriff Coffee comes alongside us. Both of us agreed to come unarmed, and I can’t help but feel like we’re the most pitiful of fools walking into the most obvious of traps. Yet, the truth is I’d do just about anything to save my sons. More than that, I’d give about anything for the chance to see them alive again, even if that means dying at their side. Yet, I still can’t condone using a child to try and capture a criminal.
“Ben, you just gotta trust me,” Roy says. “I’ve got a feeling about this. I can’t tell you why, but I feel like we’re doing the right thing.”
I don’t answer. If Roy Coffee feels the need to explain himself to me, I’m not about to assuage his guilty conscience. There’s never sufficient justification for chasing a wrong with another wrong. I cannot imagine what Adam will think about all this. My oldest son has already made such a terrible sacrifice in the name of doing what’s right. I cannot help but believe that by walking Katie Lawson back into the heart of evil, his sacrifice was made in vain. Joe’s face drifts into my mind, but I will it away. I can’t allow myself to be distracted with the possibility that my youngest son might not be alive any longer.
“Don’t worry Mr. Cartwright,” Katie says, and the child squeezes my hand. “Everything’s going to be all right. You don’t need to be scared.”
I hold onto the little hand like it’s a lifeline. We’re reaching the bend that leads to the mine. I know Roy has men all around. Whatever happens to us, Lawson and his men aren’t going anywhere. It’s a poor comfort, but it is a comfort. I never want another family put through the type of heartache that we may be facing. Suddenly, I am standing in the clearing. Lawson’s men lean against the rock, their rifles pointing directly at us. Lawson, poised in the entrance, motions at them, and they aim their weapons away from us.
Lawson turns and shouts, “All right, come on out. But keep it slow and easy.”
Before I can see him, I hear Hoss grumble, “What does think we’re going to do? Come out running?”
Right on cue, Hoss staggers out of the mine. He’s a mess. His face is streaked with grime and blood, and his clothes are torn and filthy. He can barely stand upright, but he is the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen. Immediately, he seeks me out, squinting as he gets accustomed to the light.
“Pa, you’re a sight…” he starts to say, but I don’t let him finish.
“I’m a sight!” I exclaim, trying to keep my voice light. “You run off to town in your best shirt, and look what happens!”
We smile at each other, but nobody else is coming out of that mine.
I can’t hold my smile any longer. With more than a touch of desperation in my voice, I say quietly, “Joe?”
Hoss nods. “He’s alive, Pa. That wound started bleeding all over again, when Adam tried to lift him. I’d have carried him out, but Adam was afraid I’d fall and hurt us both. You know how he is.”
I startle at Doc Martin’s voice. Honestly, I’d just about forgotten that he’d come with us.
“Any fever?” he asks.
Again, Hoss nods and says, “I’m right glad enough to see you, Doc. Little Joe’s bad off. I don’t know if he’ll make it to town without getting some help.”
My stomach tightens, and I fight the nausea that overwhelms me. I stare at Lawson, the man who fired a point-blank bullet into my youngest son. He’s not looking at me; he’s staring at Katie with an expression I can’t quite identify. If it were just my life that was at stake, I’d take my chances and throw myself at him. Law and order be hanged! I’d kill the man with my bare hands.
Just then, I feel a tugging at my arm.
I look down, and Katie whispers, “Mr. Cartwright, you’re holding on too hard. You’re hurting me.”
I quickly relax my grip, and she smiles. I can’t manage a smile, but her words tumble around in my thickheaded skull and take hold. I’m holding on too hard. I need to let go. For the first time since this whole ordeal began, I force myself to let go of the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. Maybe it’s the unexpected warmth in the air or the wind brushing against my face. It feels like even the weather is taking it easy on us. Maybe it’s the quiet courage of the little girl standing at my side. One way or the other, I remember one truth I’ve been forgetting.
My sons’ lives do not belong to me. They never have. I have to let go. And I remember to pray.
Lawson turns and shouts into the mine, “Hurry up in there!”
At first I don’t see them, but Katie does. I hear her catch her breath as my oldest son’s black silhouette emerges out of the darkness of the mine. Even as my vision threatens to blur, I can see the resolve in his figure and the burden he is holding in his arms. My youngest boy’s eyes are closed, and I can see where his blood has soaked into his brother’s shirt. I look up and see that Adam’s eyes are on me. Immediately, I know what he needs.
“Hello, son,” I say. “It’s good to see you. Everything’s going to be all right.”
Adam’s expression softens, just a bit, but then he notices Katie. This time, the look in his eyes demands answers. I don’t have many to give him.
He turns from me and snaps at Lawson, “You got what you wanted. Please let the doctor look after my brother.”
Lawson doesn’t answer. His eyes are still fixed on Katie, as if the child might disappear if he looks away. Absently, he nods at Doc Martin. My old friend doesn’t stop to ask questions but rushes toward my sons. Adam kneels awkwardly, lowering Joseph to the ground. The doctor leans over him, blocking my view of Joe’s face. It doesn’t escape my attention that he is draped in Adam’s winter coat, which is now ruined with blood. I long to go to them, but I force my attention back to the situation at hand. I force myself to hold onto Katie. Nothing has changed. I still need to see this through.
“All right Lawson,” Roy drawls. “You’ve seen your little girl. Now you know as well as I do that there’s no good way this thing’s going to end, unless you and your men give yourselves up.”
“I want to talk to Katie,” Lawson answers.
“Well, talk away,” Roy tells him. “Ain’t nobody stopping you.”
“I want to talk in private,” he says, and again I’m tempted to hold onto the child’s hand a lot harder than I should.
She looks up at me and says, “Let me go, Mr. Cartwright. I don’t mind talking to my pa.”
“Pa, don’t do it!” Adam exclaims, and I can tell he’s angry at us for bringing her back. “If you give her over to him, this will all be for nothing!”
He gestures at Joseph’s body, lying so still under the doctor’s ministrations. He hasn’t moved since Adam brought him out of the mine. Now that he is close enough for me to reach out and touch, I can’t bring myself to believe that it might be too late. Adam is right. This can’t all be for nothing.
“Mr. Cartwright, it will be all right. I want to talk to him. You gotta let me go.”
Katie’s voice has the ring of authority, and I let go of her hand, before I’m even aware that I’m going to do it. Adam is furious, Hoss and Roy are surprised, and I don’t know if my willingness to let go has sprung from faith or from relinquished principles.
“Go ahead, child,” I say. “But be careful.”
Katie approaches her father, and the two head over to a nearby rock. They sit down together and begin talking so quietly the rest of us can’t hear a thing. Lawson’s men look bored but keep baring their rifles at their hostages. They know full well that’s enough of a threat to keep the rest of us in line. Doc Martin still has not spoken a word, and I don’t think I can stand another minute of waiting. He’s working frantically and is pulling out more instruments and supplies than I would have thought could fit in his bag. I can hardly keep myself from going to them. Finally, I step forward, and one of Lawson’s men raises his rifle at me. I respect the warning for what it is and stay where I am.
They are still talking, Katie and her father, and to my surprise, it looks like they’re sharing a joke. They are leaning so close together that their foreheads are almost touching. Katie shakes her father’s hand, and he stands up and kisses the top of her head. He walks her across the clearing, and to my absolute astonishment, pushes her gently towards me. The child practically skips along, until she is at my side. Almost shyly, she takes my hand.
“All right, Sheriff,” Lawson says. “I’m willing to negotiate. I hear tell you’re a reasonable man. I’ve got two conditions for handing over the Cartwrights. The first is that you give me and my boys an hour of hard riding before you come after us. Now, I know if you say it, Cartwright here will hold you to it.”
He gestures at me, and I can feel my throat tighten in response. From where I’m standing, I can see that the doctor’s hands are slick with my son’s blood. I will never forgive this man for what he’s done, at least not in this lifetime.
“What’s the second condition?” I growl.
Lawson hesitates for a moment. Then he pushes his hair back and sighs.
He looks me right in the eye and says, “Cartwright, I want you to keep an eye on my girl. Her mama tries and all, but she’s too busy to look after her the way that she ought to. I’ve done and watched you before, and I know you’re a good man and a good father. Don’t hold my sins against her. She deserves a whole lot better than what she’s gotten.”
“I’ll agree to your terms,” Roy drawls. I’d almost forgotten he was standing there. “Ben, how about you? Can you abide with what Lawson’s asking?”
I cannot forget that the man in front of me is the cold-blooded killer who has tried to murder my son. And yet we could be two fathers commiserating on the difficulties of raising children. I have absolutely nothing in common with this man, except for the certainty that there comes a time when there is nothing left for you to do but let go.
My voice doesn’t sound like it belongs to me any more, but I say, “I’ll do it. I’ll look after the girl. You don’t have to worry about your daughter.”
“Pa!” Adam exclaims, outraged that I’m willing to let this man go, but I shake my head at him. Suddenly, I feel comforted by the certainty that we will have plenty of time to argue over my decision, over all our decisions. I manage a tired smile for my son.
“Goodbye little girl,” Lawson says to his daughter.
She tightens her grip on my hand but answers, “Goodbye, Pa.”
He gestures to his men, and they move to follow him. The man’s a natural leader. I feel a twinge of regret that Nate Lawson didn’t choose a better life for himself, but I have no time for that. I don’t pay attention as Roy and Lawson work out the details. I rush toward my sons.
Hoss claps me on the shoulder, and I spare a second to look him over. I don’t like what I see. His face is pale, and his eyes have a funny look about them. Something tells me that he hasn’t been telling Adam everything there is to know about how he’s been feeling. There are some things that a father just knows without being told. I turn quickly to Adam, and he can hardly look me in the eye.
“I tried to do the right thing, Pa,” he says. “I didn’t want either of them to get hurt, but -“
“You did what you could,” I say as warmly as I know how. “That’s all any man can do.”
There will be time for talking about all this later, but I have to see Joseph. I kneel beside the doctor and finally understand why he has been working so quietly all this time. I can hardly tell that my boy is alive. There is no color or expression on his face. It’s like his spirit is already gone, and this pale shell is what’s left behind.
We’re too late, I think to myself and reach for him, but Dr. Martin understands and shakes his head.
“He’s alive, Ben,” he says grimly, “but by a thread. We don’t have a moment to spare. I need to get him to town before nightfall and get that bullet out. Until then, I just can’t tell you if he’s going to make it. I need you to help get him back to the wagon.”
My entire world narrows to a tunnel of urgency. Nothing matters except trying to save Joe. I barely notice Roy leaving with Lawson and his men or Hoss coming alongside of Katie, urging her to follow him back to the road. Together, Adam and I struggle to lift him. My smallest son feels surprisingly heavy in my arms, but we manage to carry him up the rubble-strewn slope.
Joe moans, as we make our way down the path, and I tell him everything’s going to be all right. Adam raises an eyebrow at me, but I can’t help but believe it’s the truth. Nothing is easy, not on this side of Heaven, and no decision is a perfect one. We manage, we do our best, and sometimes things turn out just fine.
It’s been the longest day of my life, but it’s finally over. The lamp casts strange shadows across the room. Hoss is asleep on the cot, as well he should be. Doc Martin said the concussion he suffered would have killed just about anyone else. He never complained once the entire time we were in the mine but kept himself together for us.
Roy Coffee came by earlier. He said he escorted Lawson’s gang out towards the high desert before letting them go. I don’t understand it at all, but Pa and Roy seem at peace with their decision. Roy doesn’t seem to think they’ll make fifty miles before they’re caught. He’s wired all the nearby towns and told them to be on the lookout for the gang. I wonder what he told them. I can’t imagine he told them the full story, but you never know. I certainly never imagined that we’d all be alive at the end of this day.
We still don’t know about Joe. The doctor says it might be another day or two before we know if he pulls through or not. Hoss got awfully upset when he heard that, but Pa has been far more collected than I’d ever have thought possible. Even when Doc Martin was sure we were going to lose Joe on the ride into town, my father never lost his composure. He seems to understand something the rest of us don’t. He keeps telling us that things will turn out fine. It’s not just that I hope he’s right. This time, he can’t be wrong.
The door creaks open, and Katie and her mother peek in the door. I hope that I smile at them. I can’t tell, because every muscle of my face aches so much that I can’t feel much of anything any more.
“We wanted to thank you and your brothers,” Mrs. Lawson says. “For everything. I know I haven’t been the best mother to Katie, but I aim to do better.”
All I can do is nod, and they turn around to leave. Suddenly, there’s something I need to know. Almost like the rest of my life depends on it, I need to know what made a man like Nate Lawson change his mind.
Just as she slips out the door, I call out, “Katie!”
She turns around. I kneel in front of her. It might not be my place, but I have to ask.
“How did you get your father to let us go?”
Katie dimples and looks at me condescendingly. For a moment, I feel like I am a child, and she knows secrets that reach back to the beginning of time. She looks at me like I really should know better.
And she tells me, “I said the same thing that Little Joe said to you. I told him to do the right thing.”