Chance (by Calim11)

Summary: Adam’s stage is attacked and he’s left for dead – mangled and burned – will he live until the rest of his family gets to him.

Rating: PG-13 for Western-style violence (30,260 words)

November 2009 – Updated: April 2013

Author’s Note: I want to thank my mom and dad for always telling me that I could do anything I set my mind too; and to my grandmother, also my muse, for keeping me in line in regard to the Cartwrights. Thank you all for your love and help.

(This story came together using prompts supplied during Bonanza Bits on the new defunct Bonanza World website.)

Feedback is appreciated

Disclaimer: The characters and general situations in this story are the property of Bonanza Ventures, Inc., however I reserve the rights to the specific details. It is not my intention to infringe upon their rights; this story is purely for the enjoyment of fans. Please do not redistribute in any form.

 

Chance 

Day 1

 

Chapter 1 – The Weather

 

Adam Cartwright looked up into the blazing sun and figured he would never see or taste water again. Apparently nothing around here had ever seen or tasted water since not a tree or shrub could be found for as far as his vision took him. Propped up like he was against a boulder gave him a clear vantage point just in case anyone came to call. And by anyone he meant coyotes, snakes, scorpions or Indians (friendly, of course). Why his hopes even let him imagine that Hoss was coming when he saw what appeared to be a large hat floating on the horizon but chalked it up to a mirage that merged with the images of water floating at the edge of the horrendously blue sky that met the vast amount of beige stretching before him.

 

“Sand,” he mumbled thinking he’d seen enough of it to last a lifetime.

 

That thought made him chuckle because his lifetime was quickly diminishing by the second, draining from him as the sun beat down in its relentless fury frying his skin and burning his brain. He’d given up looking for his own hat long ago realizing he probably couldn’t get to it anyway before he turned into a dry husk blown to the four winds by the hot breezes traveling through leaving nothing behind for anyone to find in case they happened by.

 

Raising a brow over such final thoughts, he tried to think on other things like how he’d come to be in this mess. There was the long crawl from the burning stagecoach to safety in the rocks away from the fire and the bandits who’d chased them until the horses collapsed. How he’d tried to find shade after they left only to realize there wasn’t any. They’d only been a few miles from Chance where Hoss waited and the fleeting thought that came and went of trying to make it there on foot and knowing he couldn’t on his mangled leg.

 

“Well that was depressing,” he muttered lazily blinking then leaning his head against the boulder at his back wishing night would come so he could freeze to death instead of feeling his skin bake on his bones.

 

Closing burning eyes he claimed a moment or so trying to force his mind to think of the cool breezes that struck his face as both he and Sport rode through the tall pines back home. Something loud popped his eyes open to scan around him, making him think that the sun seemed lower in the sky than before.

 

How long?

 

Carefully rubbing his eyes he tried to think back on what had awakened him. It was a . . . a . . .

 

Wait! There it is again. An echo? Of what?

 

He squinted out across the expanse and that vision of a large hat still met gritty eyes.

 

“Coyote,” came his creaking voice. “Must be a coyote.”

 

A burned hand strayed to his gun and hoisted it onto his lap, wondering when it had gotten so heavy, and checked the chamber.

 

One bullet left. One bullet?

 

Then it came back to him with frightening clarity. The horses screaming, splitting wood and him firing off five shots before his world turned upside down, literally. Well, he could take at least one coyote down before they decided he was worth eating. The thought provoked a half smile at his bravura. Oh, others would call it determination to go out fighting but he knew it was more than that. It was the Cartwright mantra – ‘never give up no matter the odds’; ‘fight until there’s no fight left and then fight some more’; ‘don’t ever have to face God with the excuse that you just gave up’.

 

That last bit came to him in his father’s voice making him snort as eyes slid shut again. Like he could put up a fight with a pack of whatevers coming out of the desert be it animal or human since the pain from his leg was agony and his ribs weren’t much better. But it was the burns on various parts of his body that were mind numbing especially when the wind kicked up and covered him with sand bits that ground into charred skin. Maybe he should’ve stayed with the stage, let them find him with the others all burned and unrecognizable – another victim of the uncivilized West.

 

Never give up!

 

“Oh stop it, Pa,” Adam sighed at the remnants of his father’s voice swirling around him, once again opening burning eyes, feeling waves of heat pushing against him and, no doubt, blistering everything in sight.

 

Except Hoss’s hat, of course.

 

That comforted him some, that he could die with the knowledge that his brother’s hat was alive and well and coming for him. In some heat addled way it seemed perfectly reasonable and made him grin. It was when he felt a belly laugh coming that he thought he might be losing it. It didn’t matter. He would go out with a smile on his face and happiness in his heart even though he would be missed over here by this rock when others came to look for the stage. He would just be another unknown skeleton for someone to stumble over and scratch their head in wonder.

 

“Probably should get back to the stage so Pa can bury something besides my hat,” he muttered just as an especially harsh bolt of pain lanced through him and eyes suddenly rolled up, any remaining thoughts or strength fleeing as he slid onto the desert floor oblivious of the scorpion that waltzed past his long fingers or the coyote that watched from another set of rocks and the snake that flicked its tongue at him before moving on. The Indian, sitting peacefully a half mile away, turned his horse knowing the desert had claimed another and disappeared into the rolling sands that spread out for all to see.

 

And all that was left was that big white hat coming his way.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

What caught Hoss Cartwright’s attention first were the buzzards circling up ahead prompting him to urge Chubb on faster. Next came the squeaking of a lone stage wheel moving slightly in the hot breeze and his breath hitched, clogging up his throat and his stomach roiled as the first charred body met his gaze. He had to dismount quickly to drop to his knees and retch, trying to rid his mind’s eye of the vision but knowing it would always be there.

 

Rising on shaky legs and sucking in a deep breath, he forced himself to move forward, to keep looking, and what he found wasn’t pleasant. A hand resided over his mouth as he recognized the burned remains of a woman, her slender hand untouched by fire lying lifeless in the sand as the rest of her disappeared inside the blackened wood of the stage. Hoss pulled eyes away from the other bodies unable to decipher anything about them except they weren’t his brother. Leaning over to brace hands against knees, he pulled in another shaky breath then rose to search the surroundings, sure he’d find what he was looking for.

 

The hand he spied, barely visible from behind a rock, caused every muscle to bunch.

 

Sand tossed up behind him as he ran, his brother’s name leaving in a loud yell as he came into view. Falling quickly to his knees by his side, Hoss leaned in close and desperately prayed he wasn’t too late, watching the sand beneath Adam’s nose move ever so slightly.

 

“Thank you,” he mumbled at the sight, shaking his head to rid it of what he’d been thinking only to look closer and wince at the sight. “Lordy, Adam. What’cha got yerself inta now.”

 

There were burns on his brother’s hands, arms and back; even his hair was singed at the neck and his clothes were charred and torn. His wandering gaze lingered on a red stain at the torn pant leg, the ripped skin and the red sand that had to be blood. It didn’t take much to understand that something was broken. And that was just what Hoss could see. He was going to have to turn him over and there was no reason to turn those wounds onto the sand – that itty bitty piece of nothing that just burrowed itself into everything. Why he could feel it in his boots, his hair and his eyes. That can’t be comfortable buried in a burn.

 

Glancing about he knew he’d have to search the stage and took another deep breath. “I’ll be right back, Adam,” he said rising to search through whatever was left.

 

Obviously someone had gone through the luggage for clothes were spread wide, ripped and torn. But something white fluttered off a broken wheel. Moving quickly toward it he flushed slightly realizing it was a petticoat but that didn’t stop him from grabbing it and tearing it into pieces as he hurried back to his brother to spread it on the sand next to him.

 

“I’m gonna turn ya over now,” he explained trying to figure out where to place his hands then just diving in to ease Adam onto the fabric.

 

Grimacing at the other burns found – one across his cheek mixed in with bruises and blood from various cuts and lacerations; one on his shoulder and a large gash across his chest all, of course, covered in sand. Hoss harrumphed at the sight and gently brushed back the sand crusted hair caked to Adam’s forehead.

 

“Okay. I’m gonna find ya some shade. Don’t go nowheres.”

 

Propping his hat against Adam’s head, he weighed it down with a rock then hurried back to the stage, eyes straying from burnt bodies to fall on a large piece of the chassis and door. Hauling them both back, he supported the chassis against a rock tossing a long shadow over Adam’s face and upper body. The door still had the shade attached. He could work with that later. Now all he had to do was wake him.

 

“Come on, big brother, open them eyes,” drifted to Adam on a dream. Oh, it’s just the heat talking. “Come on, Adam. I know ya ain’t dead so open them purty eyes of yourn.” I’m not dead. At least I don’t think I’m dead.

 

The effort to breathe, something he used to do on a regular basis, was exhausting so the idea of opening his eyes nearly made him give up. But this voice was so insistent, so filled with fear, and so familiar, he did what he always did – he tried and was rewarded with a tiny influx of something white through the slit he managed to open between lashes, his fuzzy vision attempting to settle on what looked like a hat offering him shade.

 

Shade? There wasn’t any shade where he was? A hat? A white hat?

 

Curiosity won out and he opened those swollen lids a bit further to see something else – familiar blue eyes filled with concern and trepidation staring right back at him. His brow furrowed.

 

“. . . ‘oss . . ?” came out as a hoarse croak barely audible to his own ears but brought a giant gap-toothed smile to the vision before him.

 

“It’s me, brother, in the flesh.”

 

This was damn peculiar. How could his brother be here? That hat had only been a mirage and now he was having a hallucination, plain and simple. But it was nice just the same; nice to see his best friend one last time.

 

“Here, lemme git some water in ya.”

 

A canteen appeared at Adam’s lips. He’d forgotten what wet was, forgotten how good stale water tasted when there was nothing else.

 

“I’m just gonna give ya a little ta start. Don’t want’cha gettin’ sick afore I can even get ya back ta Chance.”

 

Chance. That’s right. I was going to meet Hoss in Chance. Could this really be him?

 

“. . . Hoss . . ,” he repeated, his barely there voice making a more coherent sound.

 

“Ya like the sound o’ my name? Hope so ’cause I like hearin’ ya say it. Had a feelin’ somethin’ was wrong and when I saw the smoke and them . . .” He shook his head. No use telling him about the buzzards. “I cain’t tell ya what went through my head. ‘Twas nothin’ good I’ll give ya that.”

 

Turning from his damaged brother so his eyes wouldn’t give away his worry, Hoss nodded toward the stage.

 

“I’m gonna leave them poor folks here ’til we get back ta town. Ain’t got no shovel and don’t wanna hurt them no more than they’s already been hurt. I know that don’t make sense but it’s how I feel.” He cleared his throat and turned back toward Adam. “Now I just gotta figure out how ta get you back ta Chance without hurtin’ ya none. Don’t figure I can do that so’s we’ll just havta take it slow.”

 

That was an awful lot of words for Adam to comprehend but he figured Hoss had it under control. Wouldn’t matter if he didn’t. He couldn’t even lift his head let alone use it to help his brother so he just laid there and listened to that voice grateful for the company and thanking the day his father met Inger and she gave him this big galoot.

 

The rest of the time went by in a blur, Adam’s vision shifting from eddies and swirls as Hoss moved out of sight then back again dragging something with him, something he laid next to Adam. Turning his head slightly, he could make out ‘Wells Far’ painted across it.

 

“All I could find strong enough ta tote ya a ways,” Hoss explained as if Adam was really able to grasp what he was saying. “I’ll tie ya on this thing and Chubb and I’ll take ya outta this blasted furnace. Don’t know why ol’ Bob takes ta livin’ out here anyways. It’s God awful if’n ya ask me. Surprised his Brahma’s ain’t already cooked on the hoof afore they get ta the flame,” he said seeing something like a smile tug at one side of Adam’s mouth. It wasn’t the sparkling type that made his eyes twinkle but it was something all the same.

 

I gotta get ‘im outta here quick or I’m gonna lose him. Hoss swallowed the thought and set about finding anything he could use to take his mind off things.

 

Rummaging through the remains of the stage made him gag but he pushed on and went right back in finally coming across a large piece of leather used to tie down extra luggage at the rear of the stage. Pulling his knife he tore a piece into strips long enough to lash Adam to the door, using a length of rope he found as a stop for his feet so he wouldn’t slide off. The rest he laid across the door to provide some sort of softness then overlaid any clothing he could find to make the ride easier. Attaching it to either side of Chubb’s saddle he was ready for the hard part – getting Adam onto this contraption without hurting him anymore than he had too.

 

“All right, brother, I’m ready. Are you?”

 

He peered into Adam’s reddened face not able to tell the difference between a burn from the fire or the fierce sun above. Didn’t matter though. They both looked like they hurt like the devil.

 

” . . . eady . . .” came out and Hoss nodded.

 

“I’m gonna hurt ya and I’m awful sorry but it cain’t be helped.” A slow grin appeared then and he knew his brother wouldn’t hold a grudge.

 

The first noises were quick gasps followed by loud, sharp cries that nearly broke Hoss’s heart as Adam’s body tensed then grew lax in his arms. Taking no time to ponder on whether his brother still lived, he moved faster and within moments had him fastened to the wood, the impromptu shade properly in place and a rolled up jacket beneath his head and neck. Running trembling fingers along Adam’s neck, Hoss bowed his head in relief then moved a shaky hand through sweaty hair.

 

“Please, God, don’t take my brother. He’s a good man, a good brother, a good son and he ain’t never done nothin’ ta make ya take ‘im from us. We still need ‘im. Ya can wait a bit longer. Ya already got his mama and mine and Joe’s. Ya don’t need ‘im yet.”

 

Wetting his kerchief, he dribbled water over Adam’s face and across his lips then draped it over his neck. Standing, Hoss plopped on his big hat and mounted, angling Chubb back toward Chance casting a final look at the burnt remnants of the stage that could still take his brother’s life.

 

“Don’t ya worry none, older brother,” Hoss called over his shoulder shrugging off the sight. “Hoss’ll get ya home. Ain’t never let ya down yet. Ain’t gonna start now.”

 

Adam felt movement, felt a coolness at his neck and whipping about his head was ‘Hoss’ll get ya home’ and warmth rushed through him that had nothing to do with the weather.

 

Hoss. I can always depend on Hoss knowing what I need.

 

The heat didn’t bother him now and the chill he felt later as they slowly traipsed across the sand into the deepening night didn’t matter either so long as he was with his brother, hallucination or not.

 

Never give up!

 

“I won’t, Pa,” Adam mumbled feeling himself heading back to the darkness. “I won’t.”

 

 

Chapter 2 – Gazing out at the setting sun, wondering

 

Ben Cartwright had had this feeling all day long, a feeling that something was terribly wrong but couldn’t quite lay a finger on it. He quickly took stock.

 

Hop Sing was in town visiting a cousin; Joe was out on an overnight with the herd getting everything ready for branding in the next few days; Hoss was meeting Adam’s stage in Chance so they could look over Bob Trundell’s new Brahma stock and he was sitting here at his desk staring into nothingness and still feeling as if something was wrong. Pushing himself up, he headed for the front door.

 

It must be the weather.

 

When it got hot and sweat trickled down his neck, everything seemed to be intensified – like worrying. He didn’t know why it just did and he’d given up long ago trying to figure it out. It always started as a little niggling tickle that could be ignored and by the time the heat increased and his shirt stuck to his body it was like a rash that desperately needed something to ease its infuriating itch.

 

It’s got to be the weather.

 

Sticking hands in front pockets, Ben gazed out at the setting sun wondering if that’s all it was or some innate hunch that was pointing him to something else, something much more drastic.

 

“Stop!” he yelled at himself. “You always get this way when you’re alone so stop!”

 

Running a hand through silver hair he trudged over to the barn, deciding that a little one-on-one with Buck was exactly what he needed.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

“HELLO THE HOUSE!” came Roy Coffee’s shout as he barreled into the dark yard, wondering for a moment at the lack of light as he dismounted and bolted through the front door. “Ben! Hop Sing!”

 

Nothing. Hands on hips he turned toward the barn.

 

“Ben, ya in here?!” he called sailing through the open doors meeting Sport and Buck’s glances from their stalls. “Well, where in blazes is he?” And then he heard it – splashing.

 

Grabbing a lantern off a peg, he hastily lit it and followed the sound around the barn to the creek behind. If what he had to say hadn’t been so urgent the sight would’ve brought a smile to him. But he was far from a smile as he worked his way down the slight incline calling for Ben as he moved.

 

As soon as Roy’s voice found him, Ben’s heart dropped to his stomach and he whipped his head about. The lantern light showed his friend’s face forcing his stomach down even lower. Hurriedly he stood, the cool water of the creek playing about his ankles.

 

“Tell me,” came his gruff voice as the Sheriff approached.

 

“There’s been an accident, Ben,” he related coming to a quick sliding stop showering his friend with dust.

 

Ben eyed the Sheriff. “Which one?” he asked clamping his jaw against all the other questions piling up inside.

 

Roy swallowed. “Adam.”

 

Closing eyes for just a second and taking in a calming breath, Ben reached for his boots and socks then scrambled out of the creek moving quickly toward the house.

 

“What do you know?” he asked as Roy hurried to catch up.

 

“Accordin’ ta Hoss’s telegram someone attacked the stage Adam was on jest outside Chance. He found ‘im and brought ‘im in. Seems he was the only one left alive.”

 

“How bad?” Ben asked trying to keep the bile out of his throat as he barreled through the kitchen door dropping his boots and heading toward the pantry grabbing a bag and stuffing it full of provisions.

 

“Hoss didn’t say. He jest asked that ya come.” Roy saw the look on his friend’s face as he came back into the room. “Now jest ’cause he didn’t say don’t mean . . .”

 

“I know what it means, Roy. My boy’s hurt bad,” came the answer as Ben laid the bag on the table and hurried toward the stairs then stopped at the landing. “Can you do me a favor?”

 

“Ya know I will.”

 

“Hop Sing’s in town. Would you find him and tell him?”

 

“Consider it done. And Ben,” Roy called as his friend glanced toward him. “Adam’ll pull through. He’s a tough boy. One of the toughest I know.”

 

Ben just nodded and finished running up the stairs, Roy sending out a quick prayer for his favorite Cartwright son before quickly mounting and heading out. It didn’t matter that darkness was about him. Nothing would keep him from delivering that message.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

There was nothing between heaven and earth that would keep Joe Cartwright from traveling to his brother and he would ride the wind if necessary because nothing could keep him from his side. It wasn’t fair of his father to ask him to stay home, to sit in this lonely house with nothing around him but memories; to play a waiting game to see if Adam lived or died without knowing what was going on.

 

No, that wouldn’t do.

 

So he’d escaped the Ponderosa to ride under a burning twilight sky, pushing aside memories of he and Adam’s last hunt together and their upcoming San Francisco trip, and instead focusing on the long night ahead as he fought to find the stillness within which was no easy task for Joe. Patience often eluded him and, when a decision was made, he needed to act, to move. This was no frivolous ride in the sun but a desperate passage that left fear in its wake, leaving his stomach cramped and tight all because of the look on the hand’s face that came to give him the news and that it had happened near Chance.

 

Ah, Chance, that town smack dab in the middle of the hottest piece of wasteland Joe had ever seen; only there by the grace of gold and silver that dotted the surrounding rocky crags. But the going wasn’t easy and the finds weren’t majestic; just enough to keep those die hard few chipping away until they struck it rich or died of exposure. A hardy crowd filled the streets of Chance; a hardy relentless crowd riddled with a darker shadow that comes from too much sun and too much gold dust that might be around for the taking.

 

And now his brother was in the midst of it all. Hurt bad the note said. Hurt how? Was it the desert that claimed him for she was a fickle mistress, yielding hidden depths and horrid consequences; desert justice they called it filled with misery and no second chances once you were left behind. Would Adam come out of this crucible or vanish from their sight? Would Hoss have to face the pure truth of loss by himself?

 

Hoss.

 

One brother hurt, the other hurting just as much and there all by himself.

 

“I’m coming, Hoss. No one should stand before such a dark gate alone,” he said aloud to the wind striking his face as he urged Cochise on faster.

 

The night held few stars and the road ahead was dangerous but he trusted his horse – it was all a matter of faith in the animal to carry him onward through the night. And faith is what he had in abundance brought about by years of a devoted family showing him the way. And Adam had shown him the most, had instilled in him a sense of duty to those around him, a duty borne of love and respect.

 

Duty. Mighty is the word that may be transformed into something else besides what is written on a page or spoken aloud. When it transcends its meaning into action then no one has the right to question its strength for it has gone beyond description, beyond the bounds of the earth and is now a certainty.

 

“You’ll still be there when I arrive, Adam. My faith will see us through any dark star we find ourselves under,” he whispered casting a look to the heavens as he tried not to think of forever without his brother by his side. “I’m coming.”

 

*This section on Joe had the prompt of using as many episode titles as you can. Fortunately there were a number of dramatic titles to use.

 

Day 2

 

Chapter 3 – You don’t know me but . . .

 

The landscape traveled quickly by and Hop Sing waved away the dust that penetrated the stage interior, his clothes already coated with the stuff. He sat silent and composed despite the heat, his eyes taking in his fellow passengers with imperceptible glances in their direction.

 

The young lady, who’d introduced herself as Miss Maggie Meredith, sat at the opposite window keeping an eye out for Indians or so she’d said. Across from her was the imposing figure of Preacher John Paul Gibbons on his way across the Nevada earth to give assistance to the neighboring communities who lacked what he called ‘faith above all else’. And next to him was Dermot Cone, a haberdasher from San Francisco who couldn’t seem to keep his eyes from Miss Meredith. They all ignored Hop Sing which pleased him to no end. He wasn’t in any sort of mindset to be civil not with worry inundating his every thought.

 

Glancing out the window again his thoughts hastened back to the look that radiated from Roy Coffee’s face, the intense anxiety that bombarded him over the words the Sheriff spoke that now settled into an aching worry in the pit of his stomach. ‘There’s been an accident’, ‘Ben’s gone to Chance’, ‘It’s Adam’. Always it was something in this harsh land he’d chosen to live in; always something that reached out to touch his life in ways he’d come to expect, come to dislike when the Sheriff appeared or a hand rode in on a sweat stained horse to tell his tale of woe.

 

Always something.

 

Closing tired eyes for a moment, Hop Sing forced himself to drift back to the stilted conversation going on inside the stage. Perhaps that would take his mind from thoughts of what he would face when they finally ended up in Chance.

 

“You don’t know me, he said, but I’m an old friend of Abraham Lincoln’s from Springfield,” Dermot Cone continued with a wide smile glancing from Miss Meredith to Preacher Gibbons. “Well, I couldn’t believe it and I’m sure my face gave that away since I knew my old friend, Todd Perkins, could barely read and had never been out of Nebraska nor had he ever met Mr. Lincoln. Of course, the lovely Ida May Nerrell didn’t know that and was greatly impressed, silly girl that she was.” He laughed then, a guttural belching laugh that drew a pained expression from Miss Meredith. “They were married not to far later. Never understood what she saw in the man.”

 

“Perhaps she loved him,” Maggie Meredith answered. “Silly girl that she was.”

 

Dermot Cone couldn’t help but be skewered by her look and gave a slight grimace. “Perhaps that was it because he wasn’t much to look at.”

 

Coughing, he took a swig from a flask pulled from his jacket then offered it to the Preacher who declined. He turned a gaze toward Miss Meredith who raised a brow of disgust before glancing back out the window. It was only then that Hop Sing was noticed.

 

“You’re a silent fellow,” Cone said sizing up the little man as he held the flask toward him. “Care to clear your throat?”

 

“No thank you,” Hop Sing answered with a slight bow of the head watching the man shrug then screw the cap back on and pocket the flask.

 

“And where are you traveling?” came the next question followed by raised brows and the crossing of arms about his large chest.

 

Hop Sing laughed to himself. When no one else will speak with you, talk to the rest. “Chance,” came his answer.

 

“Chance? Whatever for?”

 

Hop Sing looked at this man, this overweight sweaty man and considered ignoring him as Miss Meredith had done for so many miles. It wasn’t anyone’s business why he was traveling to Chance; no one needed to know that his family was hurting; and saying the words out loud just gave them credence. But then it might ease the pain in his own gut to receive some sympathy for what was before him.

 

“Family emergency,” was all he said looking away from the man who just needed to talk.

 

“What kind of emergency?” he pushed.

 

Hop Sing sighed. “Employer son badly hurt. Going to help.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he answered dropping arms from his chest, Hop Sing detecting a note of caring he hadn’t heard before. Perhaps he’d misjudged this haberdasher from San Francisco.

 

“How was he hurt?” Miss Meredith asked her lovely eyes drawing the words from Hop Sing.

 

“Stage accident. That all I know.”

 

A gloved hand flew to her mouth to stifle an ‘oh!’ as she lost some color.

 

“My prayers are with you,” Preacher Gibbons added covering Miss Meredith’s other hand with his own. Nodding, Hop Sing returned his gaze out the window thinking on how speaking of it hadn’t helped at all but instead made his worry grow ever larger.

 

“We’ve still got a long way to go before we hit Chance,” Cone said into the air, the words weighing heavily upon Hop Sing as he wished a set of wings on each horse to get him there quicker than he knew possible.

 

‘Fly to my side on feathered wings of gold’ flew through him as he remembered the day Number One son spoke those words when they’d ventured forth on another long stage ride just the two of them. ‘Fly to my side on feathered wings of gold for before us we still have a long way to go’.

 

“A long way to go,” Hop Sing sighed returning his gaze to the rocks and sand and dust that flew through the air as they passed. “A long way to go.”

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

The night was cold, such a vast contrast from the day’s heat that sucked everything from every place on Hoss’s body, and he basked in it for the length of time it would last. Chastising himself for taking any comfort when his brother lay a few feet from him immersed in a semi-drugged state to ease the agonizing, searing pain from his injuries, his gaze traveled out beyond the porch on which he stood to the vast expanse of sand that stretched as far as the eye could see.

 

Sand.

 

What an aggravating thing. It got into everything, was everywhere you least expected and always seemed to work its way into the most sensitive parts of your person. And now it was causing immense pain to his older brother.

 

The trek out of the desert to Chance seemed to take a lifetime, Hoss forever grateful when Adam passed out and stayed out for the majority of the crossing. It was one thing to hear painful gasps from strangers but quite another to hear them coming from your own brother. As day turned to night a full moon peeked out around a cloud and highlighted the outbuildings of Chance just when he thought he’d taken a wrong turn and they’d both be lost in all this god-awful nothingness.

 

The streets had been full, the locals coming out into the cool of the evening, and they’d pointed him to Dr. Leslie Bick at the end of main street . . . well, the only street in Chance. Everything was a blur from there – carrying Adam into the doctor’s house; flinching at the extent of injuries revealed; cutting off his boot because that was the only way to remove it from a badly mangled leg; the doctor getting to work removing pieces of Adam’s shirt and pants embedded in those burns that decorated his body with infinite care and patience.

 

But then the hard part started.

 

“I don’t have enough morphine,” the doctor casually informed Hoss as he placed practiced hands along the sides of Adam’s damaged lower leg. “Hold him please.”

 

Doing as he was told, Hoss’s gaze moved away from the doctor’s bloodied hands and toward Adam’s bruised and burned face.

 

“On three. One – two – three.” As the word left his mouth, Leslie pulled and twisted, Hoss hearing the obvious click of bones slipping back into place. Adam never moved which scared Hoss more than if he’d cried out. “His body has shut down for the moment, Mr. Cartwright, to protect itself,” he explained. “I’m sure we’ll be hearing something once I start on those burns. Now, let’s check those ribs.”

 

Hoss just nodded, a numbness having set in hours before as the doctor moved expert fingers over his brother feeling nothing broken or cracked.

 

“Did you hear me earlier, Mr. Cartwright? Mr. Cartwright?”

 

Hoss started pulling anxious eyes toward the doctor. “What?”

 

“I don’t have enough morphine in my stores to help him with the pain for more than three days,” Leslie answered as he moved toward Adam’s head.

 

“Why not? Yer a doctor ain’t ya?” Hoss asked anger flaring.

 

“I am,” he calmly replied, “and my monthly supplies were on the same stage your brother was. So went the stage, so went my supplies.”

 

“Cain’t ya stretch it out ’til we can get more?”

 

“It’s what we’ll have to do, Mr. Cartwright, but when I’m out . . .”

 

“What’re ya sayin’, Doc?” Hoss asked skewering him with a look.

 

Leslie stopped his exam and looked up. “I’m saying that it’s difficult enough surviving burns what with infection and the shock your body goes through, that without morphine or some other pain killer it’s going to be extremely difficult to make sure he keeps breathing. And morphine is our best bet.”

 

“My brother’s strong.”

 

“And he’ll need to be, Mr. Cartwright. This won’t be pleasant.”

 

Hoss watched the doctor get back to business cleaning up his patient’s face and head and wrapping that as well, then pick up a small brush and bowl of water and position himself over the burn on Adam’s chest.

 

“Please hold him again. I’m pretty sure he’s going to wake up over this.”

 

And he did; a loud blaring wake up that Hoss could still hear. That had been nearly a full day ago, a full day of agony for his brother as Leslie attempted to remove every bit of sand he could find then cover the burns with a salve from an aloe vera plant he’d brought with him when he’d set up shop in Chance. He kept that plant, he said, because ‘the sun and fire are evil masters and this natural remedy can be a godsend’.

 

Hoss rubbed at stinging eyes thankful for this short respite, the first one since they’d arrived, his brother currently resting in the haze of morphine. They’d only used half a dose to start but it hadn’t even put a dent in the pain, so a full dose was used. That left only two days, two days to get Adam through the horrible agony of fried nerve endings, broken bones and a raging headache that filled his every moment, asleep or awake. And the decision had been made when Hoss couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t take the stifled cries of his brother as he tried to keep it all inside, weakening him further still, telling Hoss he could take it. The doctor had been harsh.

 

“I won’t lie to you, Hoss,” Leslie began just a few hours before. “Burns are tricky things. They can heal without any problem or take a turn. And the sand . . .” He stopped for a moment then continued. “The sand works its way into the wound setting up an aggravation. This in turn can start an infection. If we keep cleaning them, keep the salve covering them, keep them damp, we might get lucky. But without some rest, without a break from the continuous pain, he’ll just get weaker and now he needs all his strength to fight, to hang on.”

 

“But he doesn’t want it, Doc. He doesn’t want the morphine,” Hoss answered hating having to repeat those dreaded words, those words that pulled at his heart with each cry.

 

Leslie clasped Hoss’s arm. “I can’t guarantee that his body will hold out without it. Please, let me give him something.”

 

The doctor tried to impart to Hoss the urgency of the situation not realizing he didn’t really have to push. Despite Adam’s orders not be medicated, Hoss could tell his brother was weakening; had listened to his hoarse voice telling him he was fine only to scream in agony moments later and knew he couldn’t stand there and do nothing. Besides he wasn’t at all certain Adam would last the night let alone into the next day and beyond.

 

“He needs ta fight this, Doc, ’til . . . well, ’til our Pa gits here,” Hoss solemnly said. “I gotta give them both a chance ta . . .” He couldn’t finish the thought, couldn’t say the words ‘to say goodbye’ aloud. “Use the morphine, Doc. I gotta give ’em both that chance.”

 

Hoss remembered the doctor patting his hand; remembered watching the lines etched in Adam’s face vanish as the drug took effect and he slipped into a painless sleep; remembered heading to the porch to gaze out at the hot sand and curse a God that would create such a dastardly little thing.

 

“Hell on earth, that’s what sand is,” he muttered as he dragged himself to his feet and headed back inside. “Hell on earth.”

 

Day 3

 

Chapter 4

 

Buck stood silently waiting for instructions and receiving none. His head hung low and his sides heaved and all he really wanted to do was sleep. The weather hadn’t helped much and he found himself covered in lathered sweat that dried in the cool of the evening making him shiver.

 

It wasn’t like his master to treat him so but he knew something urgent was afoot; something that sent anxiety through the reins and the tight hold of the knees and sharpness of the heel as his rider asked for more. And he’d given it freely. Now he was standing still, gathering his breath as they stood on a high outcropping overlooking a vast amount of sand. Stars were just disappearing as the sky slowly lightened, the moon still shining down brilliantly showing him all sorts of wildlife skittering below. But he showed little interest in his surroundings.

 

He just wanted a drink of water.

 

“I’m sorry, old son,” Ben softly said as he held up his water filled hat, pulling at his tangled mane. Buck heard the words but gave no notice as he greedily drank not knowing when this would happen again. “It’s Adam, you see. He’s been hurt,” Ben continued, “and I have to get to him. I have to see him before . . .” He faltered and looked away. “I can’t lose him. At least I can’t lose him without seeing him first.”

 

Ben choked back a sob and wiped at his eyes drawing a concerned look from Buck which prompted a forced grin. Running a hand down the soft cheek, he scratched under the bridle relieving the itch there.

 

“I don’t really have any favorites . . . although Adam would tell you I tend to lean more toward Joe,” he continued as Buck finished his long drink. Slapping the hat against his leg, Ben reframed it and settled it on his head. He then stared up at the approaching dawn and moved to tighten Buck’s girth strap. “I’m not sure that’s true.” Buck turned his head to gape at his master following it with a snort. “You don’t believe that either, huh? Well, I love them all. Joe for his love of life, Hoss because he’s so gentle and loving and Adam, well, he knows what I’m thinking even before I do and we’ve spent the most time together. We all compliment the other and to lose one . . . to lose any just rips me in half.”

 

The tears were coming again and he couldn’t give in. Hell, he didn’t even know how badly Adam was hurt. He was reading so much into a short grouping of words.

 

“I just can’t lose him.”

 

Buck turned away and shook his head. His master needed him, needed him to keep going and he was game. Never let it be said around the stable that he was too old or too settled to complete a job. Let those upstarts snicker about the extra special feed he got or the time off his master gave him because when the chips were down he came through just as they would for their own.

 

Ready for the new day and the distance they had to cover, horse and rider made their way down off the rocks and onto the long stretch of sand before them. It was going to be another hot one but Buck wouldn’t let that bother him. It was time to run; to deliver his master to his destination; to serve him as best he could as he kicked up the sand moving toward an uncertain dawn.

 

*The prompt here was the perspective of one of the CW’s horses

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

“I wish I was anywhere but here,” came a gruff voice from a tall lean man who rummaged through the remains of the burned out stagecoach, its skeletal frame creaking in the hot breeze that ruffled the mane of his dapple gray horse standing silently behind him.

 

  1. S. Marshall Trace Staggert, born and raised in Oregon territory, wasn’t one for the heat so this sojourn into Hell’s furnace, as he liked to call it, wasn’t sitting very well with him. But he had a job to do and that was following this band of murderers that had spread a trail of fear on their way from Canada down through Oregon territory, California and now into Nevada territory. And what he saw before him just proved he was on the right track.

 

For months he’d been trailing these killers, months of arriving just days too late and moving quickly onto the next crash only to be confronted by those left behind. ‘Why haven’t you done anything?’ followed right after ‘You’re the Marshall ain’t ya?’ along with other questions peppered at him that he couldn’t answer and it crushed him. All those people killed – twenty-five at his last count – and left out in the elements to rot for what? A bit of gold in someone’s ring or silver on a necklace? Or was it one or two bulging wallets that merited a hundred dollars or less?

 

“Damn waste,” he muttered tossing a blackened piece of wood back into the heap before he pushed himself to his feet realizing he would find nothing here just as he’d found nothing at any of the other sites – no evidence, no witnesses, nothing. Just like all the other times.

 

Ripping off his hat and slapping it against his thigh, Trace ran an angry hand through sticky hair and eyed his horse who stared intently back at him, and sighed.

 

“Well, Henry, ain’t nothin’ different about this place than any of the others but that’s never stopped us has it?” Replacing his hat, he walked toward his horse and rubbed along his neck. “One’a these days they’re gonna mess up and we’re gonna be right there ta catch ’em.”

 

Easily mounting, Trace grabbed up the reins and surveyed the area one last time. “And I’m gonna find pleasure in wrappin’ the noose about their necks and pullin’ the lever myself. Shootin’s too good for ’em. Suppose they’ll let me do that?” he asked as he turned Henry away and urged him forward. “Seems I’ve gotta right bein’ that they dragged us from home these past four months and inta such disagreeable country at that. Should just hang ’em for that.” Henry snorted and Trace smiled. “Make sure ya say that ta the Judge when we bring ’em in. Now, let’s go see where them bodies ended up.”

 

Henry carefully picked his way through the sand as they headed toward Chance, the only town in the vicinity, wondering when they’d make it back to the lovely gray skies and damp days of their home and leave this dreadful heat and sand behind.

 

*The prompt here was ‘I wish . . ”

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

Julian Tate loved his job and he did it well. It gratified him to no end making sure every “i” was dotted and every “t” crossed because sometimes what he did was important.

 

Today was no exception.

 

Excited as he was, Julian headed out the door without his coat or hat something that would’ve upset his mother to no end. Fortunately, she was back east but if he’d been honest with himself he would’ve admitted that it gave him a start as well when he found himself standing just outside his office scanning a dusty Virginia City street in his shirtsleeves and vest. But it was too late to worry when eyes lit up as he spotted his quarry.

 

“Sheriff Coffee! Sheriff Coffee!”

 

Roy looked up at the sound of his name seeing Julian hurrying across the street, his comb over blowing in the wind. Roy’s brows flew up. He was in shirtsleeves and he was running. Julian never ran and he always made sure his hair stayed in place in the fiercest windstorm. Something was up.

 

“I hear ya, Julian. What’s the rush?” Roy asked the winded man as he approached waving a piece of paper over his head. “Now settle down afore ya fall down,” he ordered helping the man sit on the edge of a water trough.

 

“Mess . . . age,” Julian managed with great difficulty thrusting the paper toward Roy. “Hoss,” came next as he reached into the trough and splashed water on his face looking up to stare straight into the eyes of a slobbering horse. He grimaced then let it pass, wiping a hand on his trousers.

 

Roy grabbed the paper from Julian’s hand and quickly read its contents, his heart slowing from the rapid pace at the mention of Hoss’s name. He gave Julian’s shoulder a pat.

 

“Thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome,” Julian answered to air soon realizing he was alone with a slobbering horse and hair hanging down past his right ear, seeing Roy hightail it down the street.

 

As carefully as he could and with as little movement as possible so not to draw attention to himself, Julian rearranged those pesky follicles, stood and ambled slowly across the street so as not to break into another sweat, silently closing the telegraph office door behind him.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

Paul Martin glanced at the paper Roy held out before him like it was a snake ready to strike, hoping like the devil that the words that kept repeating in his head weren’t written there – Adam Cartwright was dead.

 

“Go on, Doc, read it,” Roy prodded, wiping at the sweat running down his face with a kerchief.

 

Paul looked at Roy not seeing anything like grief or distress, merely concern, and took the paper then pulled it slowly open. His sigh of relief was audible to anyone inside or outside his office.

 

“He’s holding his own,” Paul said with a slight grin always sure that nothing could keep Adam down for long.

 

“But shouldn’t they be runnin’ outta morphine by now? Didn’t Hoss’s last telegram say the Doc’s shipment was on the stage with Adam?”

 

“He did and I sent out a request to doctors along the way. No telling if they’ll have anything to spare.” He cursed then slammed a hand on the table. “I hate not being able to do anything. He’s too far away. I can’t just up and leave.”

 

“Me neither,” Roy said. “If’n this here badge weren’t on my chest I’d already be there. Adam’s like a son ta me and I don’t like it when he’s hurtin’. It makes me . . . well, it makes me feel . . .”

 

“Useless,” Paul gave him and Roy just nodded.

 

“Sittin’ here waitin’ is the worst.”

 

“Always has been,” Paul agreed. “I used to think it was hard on the patients, the ones going through all that pain, but I’ve seen enough faces of those who wait to know they’ve got it far worse. It’s a fear of the unknown I think – will they live or will they die that throws people for a loop.”

 

“Well, we know ol’ Adam’s just too ornery ta give up and with Hoss there, well, he’d fend off Lucifer hisself ta keep his brother alive,” Roy said with a smile.

 

Paul echoed Roy’s smile. “And with Ben coming – God Himself should stand back.” They both nodded then fell silent.

 

Paul knew the dangers of burns and how fast they could turn septic but he would keep the faith. He’d done what he could . . . it wasn’t enough but it was all he could do from here.

 

“Want to stay for coffee?” he asked.

 

“I’d like that,” Roy answered with a half smile and followed the doctor into his kitchen.

 

Useless, that’s what he felt but there wasn’t anything he could do. It was all up to Adam to keep breathing and come home. “This reminds me of the time when Adam and Hoss was just young’uns and . . .”

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

Lightning spidered across the sky highlighting thick clouds that ranged from horizon to horizon. Massive claps of riotous thunder boomed across the open expanse of sand and rock to plow against the sturdy buildings of Chance as a storm blew through. Rain was sure to follow or so hoped Trace as he and Henry loped into town. Asking for the livery he was directed to the far end of town noting the amount of people sitting on porches or standing on sidewalks all watching the sky as the heavens performed their magic. He shook his head. Obviously no one had ever told these fools that lightning can fry your brains as well as split trees in half.

 

Hurrying Henry along, they made it inside just as an impressive display of fireworks lit up the sky. Within seconds the loudest sound he’d ever heard dropped about them and shook the building. The other horses screamed in fright while Henry only pulled at the reins held tightly in Trace’s hands until he heard the comforting voice of his master filter into twitching ears. It was then the pelting of rain along with echoing drips inside were heard as rainwater wormed its way into long forgotten holes to fall on tack and pitchforks and bales of hay.

 

“Come on, Henry,” Trace said in a soft voice. “They’re just little ‘un’s who can’t tell the difference ‘tween a big old sound that can’t hurt ya none and somethin’ that can . . . like a gunshot. Ya know all about that don’t’cha?” Henry shifted a knowing eye toward his master then faithfully followed him into an empty stall. “That’s a good boy,” he said lacing the reins through a ring at the back wall. “Got me some talkin’ ta do with the Sheriff and the Undertaker then we’ll be on our way,” he jabbered releasing the girth strap and pulling off Henry’s saddle, using the blanket to wipe him down then filled up the water bucket. “I’ll be back shortly ta do ya up right. Play nice with the others.”

 

Trace patted Henry’s rump and headed toward the door, taking a peek out at the angry sky and wondering if he should risk walking out in the open when his gaze was drawn to something else – a man riding hell-bent down the street, his passage marked by another jagged bolt outlining his form as he leaped from his horse then over the fence of a modest white house, running onto the porch and slamming a fist against the door. Curiosity nearly got the best of Trace but he stopped himself. He had a job to do and headed out to look for the Sheriff.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

Hoss’s eyes instantly popped open at the horrendous cascade of sound that blanketed the house, rattling windows and shaking the doctor’s instruments, and he shot to his feet, a hand automatically attaching itself to Adam’s shoulder as his brother began to stir, a harsh moan escaping him.

 

“Hush now, brother,” Hoss quietly spoke. “Just nature havin’ a hissy.”

 

“Maybe it’ll rain and break this heat wave we’ve been having,” came Leslie’s voice as he sauntered into the room, not bothering to stifle a yawn. Hoss just looked at him. “Well, it’s been hotter than usual for this time of year.”

 

“How can ya tell?” he sarcastically asked.

 

Leslie grinned and moved toward Adam. “His fever’s up,” was all he said drawing Hoss’s attention back to his brother as the doctor picked up an empty bowl and headed toward the door. “Time to change his bandages.”

 

Hoss blanched. That was the worst time for Adam and with their stock of morphine all but gone, it was bound to be bad. “Careful ya don’t get struck by lightnin’, Doc,” he called after him. “Won’t do ta have two fellas burned ta a crisp.”

 

“I’ll be careful, Hoss,” he called over his shoulder shivering at the thought just as the sounds of rain hitting the windows reached him.

 

Yawning again as another flash lit the room, Leslie thought someone was stomping on the house but soon discovered it wasn’t all thunder but a frantic pounding on the front door. Quickly pulling it open, he was met with a scowling face.

 

“Are you the doctor?!” the man growled barely controlling himself.

 

“Yes. How may I . . ,” was all Leslie got out before he was pushed aside.

 

“HOSS!” came the bellow as eyes searched the room in front of him.

 

“Pa!” came the relieved response as Hoss met his father halfway, both tumbling into a desperate embrace. “Lordy, I never thought ya’d get here,” he whispered into Ben’s neck, feeling his son tremble in his arms.

 

“I’m here now.” Ben waited a moment then pushed him back. “How is he?”

 

Hoss held his father’s intense look. “He’s gotta fever, Pa, and it’s gettin’ worse.”

 

Ben’s jaw clenched and he stood a bit straighter. “I need to see him.”

 

“Right back here,” he answered pulling on his father’s arm.

 

Leslie watched them for a moment then ventured out into the falling rain, closing the door softly behind him.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

Trace moved quickly along the sidewalk, ducking inside the Southern Belle saloon as a particularly nasty bolt cut through the sky then continued on, the Sheriff’s words tumbling through his head like the thunder that followed.

 

There was a survivor!

 

My God, he finally had a lead; would finally be able to break the case and go home. He rubbed hands together at the thought. No more deaths, no more destruction, just bad men hanging from a gallows and his feet up on his own porch watching the grass grow until the next group of bad men came his way and disrupted his life. It was a dream worth having.

 

Taking to the street again, Trace slowed some as he spied the buckskin he’d seen rocketing down the street not ten minutes before, fidgety in the storm, and glanced toward the house, a neat sign proclaiming a Dr. Leslie Bick lived there, then continued on. True, the Sheriff had warned him that the man who’d survived wasn’t in good shape and would probably die real soon, but Trace wasn’t the type to let any rock lay unturned when it came to doing his job. Whether at death’s door or not, he’d get what information he could so this would end sooner rather than later.

 

Knocking once, Trace stepped inside just as a cry of pain came from the other room. Hand hovering at his gun, he moved forward to see two men holding down a third as the fourth worked as quickly as he could changing bandages on burnt flesh. Moving forward, he jumped in and braced the injured man’s leg as it thrashed and caught a look of gratitude from the older man to his right, one mixed with fear and desperation. Trace looked away from their depths not wanting to know who this man was beneath his hands or who these people were because he had a job to do; because all he had running through his mind was a simple, selfish prayer.

 

Don’t die on me before I get my answers.

 

Trace closed his eyes at the next anguished cry and held on.

 

Day 4

 

Chapter 5

 

“. . . if only . . . listened . . . ”

 

Ben’s eyes shot open and frantically centered on Adam seeing him move his head slowly to the side on a sweat drenched pillow, Hoss taking great care to wipe down his face in an attempt to offer some relief.

 

“What did he say?” Ben asked rubbing at his scrubbly face and leaning forward, wincing at the pale skin standing out under his son’s dark beard.

 

“‘If I’d only listened’,” Hoss repeated. “He’s been sayin’ it a bunch a times this mornin’. It could have somethin’ ta do with leavin’ Sport behind and takin’ the stage. Didn’t ya try and get ‘im ta take Sport?”

 

“I mentioned it,” Ben responded with a yawn.

 

“If’n it ain’t that I ain’t got no clue.”

 

Plastering a hand to Adam’s forehead, Ben could feel the heat burn across his palm. “A fever drags up all sorts of things. Could be anything.”

 

“Gotta be somethin’ important,” came from Hoss as he squeezed water out of a cloth only to stop at the sight before him. “Pa,” he softly called nodding toward Adam. They both watched as lashes parted and bloodshot eyes appeared.

 

“You’re going to be all right, son,” Ben whispered leaning in closer to make sure he could be seen.

 

Adam blinked, his vision unfocused and unsure. “. . . pa . . .” came out in a weak, rough voice.

 

“It’s me. I’m here,” he answered laying his knuckles carefully against his boy’s cheek, trying to ignore the unfamiliar voice he’d just heard by covering up his discomfort with a smile.

 

For Adam those words, that smile sent a balm of comfort through his aching body. “. . . pa,” he repeated, a bit more assured of what he was seeing.

 

“You’ve, ah, dinged yourself up pretty bad so just lay still,” Ben responded stretching out his fingers against Adam’s cheek to catch a tear before it found its way to a burn.

 

“. . . kay,” was all he said, closing those eyes then forcing them open to refocus on a man standing behind his father.

 

Ben followed his gaze and stiffened.

 

“Mr. Cartwright,” Trace said with a nod.

 

“Marshall Staggert,” Ben answered in a flat tone.

 

“I see he’s awake,” he said nodding toward Adam. “I need ta ask him some questions.”

 

“Not until he’s stronger,” Ben argued turning back around.

 

“Mr. Cartwright,” Trace began moving about the bed to drill this man with a hard stare. “Look at him. He’s not gonna be stronger for some time. I need ta speak with him now.”

 

“No.”

 

“He may be the only one that can stop any more innocent people from bein’ murdered. I’ve gotta get from him what he knows before it’s too late. That’s my job and his as well. So I’m speakin’ ta a witness ta murder, Mr. Cartwright, whether ya like it or not.”

 

Ben narrowed angry eyes at the suggestion his boy wouldn’t live through his injuries and pulled himself to his full height. That worked on most people but Trace just kept staring at him, never flinching, crossing arms over his chest and waiting for this man to step aside and give him access to the witness. He’d stand there all day if necessary.

 

Adam watched the confrontation, heard some of the words and vaguely wondered what was going on until he saw the badge, tin flashing in the bits of light coming through a window somewhere. Suddenly he was back on the stage reliving the robbery, the killings and the flames.

 

The woman fell on him, a bullet to the head, knocking him flat before he could even pull his gun to defend himself; the two men opposite frantically tried to aim and fire out the window only to hear them scream in pain as bullets found their mark; and the young man, Mark, fresh from school, on his way home to take over the family business, too frightened to move. Disentangling himself from the dead weight of the woman, Adam took it upon himself to protect the kid and fired out the window. But he couldn’t protect him from what was coming.

 

A sudden horrendous sound ripped through the air as the horses screeched then dropped in their traces, the tongue of the stagecoach snapping and sending the vehicle through the air to land with a thump. He lost track of how many times it rolled, his body a punching bag as it was tossed from side to side in the confined space, feeling things bruise and rip, his head slamming against something hard just as the rolling stopped leaving the coach upside down and him to slide out the gaping hole that had once been a door, a vague impression of a wheel spinning in the light breeze before everything went dark.

 

He awoke to rough hands moving through his pockets, hearing disjointed voices beating around his head talking about ‘burnin’ the evidence’. Unable to move or speak, his nose took in the smell of burning wood, burning flesh and ears caught a jangle of something familiar nearby.

 

His brow furrowed at that bit of memory.

 

It had moved past his head . . . stopped . . . started again . . . blinded him when he managed to kind of open an eye . . .

 

“. . . purs . . .”

 

Three heads spun toward Adam at the breathless whisper.

 

“What did he say?” Trace asked of Hoss.

 

“Sounded like spurs,” came the answer.

 

Not waiting any longer for permission, Trace quickly leaned over Adam trying to fill his glazed vision with his face. When he was sure he had most of his attention, he began.

 

“I’m Marshall Staggert and I’m chasin’ the men that done this ta ya,” he hastily explained. “Anythin’ ya can give me, anythin’ will end this now.”

 

“Marshall!” Ben tried but Trace wouldn’t break the connection.

 

“Whatever ya can remember will be more than I’ve ever had. I’ll take anythin’ no matter how small.”

 

“Marshall! I forbid this,” Ben tried again, grabbing a hold of Trace’s arm.

 

“Anythin’,” he tried again, tossing off the grip and grabbing onto the table.

 

Adam was caught in the Marshall’s gaze where he could see the sincerity, see the knowledge that he meant what he said. He had to do something. “. . . purs . . . fancy . . ,” he whispered hoping the man could hear him. He didn’t have the energy to spare to make it any louder.

 

“How fancy?”

 

Adam closed his eyes, trying to remember and push the sudden pain that rose in his body far enough away for the moment it would take to tell him. He didn’t want what happened to those folks on the stage to happen again.

 

“. . . ro-roses . . . vines . . . three gol . . . prongs . . . le-leather straps . . .” His breath quickly left, pushed aside by a wave of oncoming agony. “Ahhh!” he cried out as Hoss gently held his brother down, Ben yanking Trace away from his boy.

 

“That’s all you’ll get, Marshall, now leave!”

 

Ben finished his order with a threatening glare just as Leslie entered the room quickly dropping off the box in his arms, eyes drifting toward Adam.

 

“When did this start?” he asked hurrying toward his aggravated patient and pushing Ben and Trace out of his way.

 

“Just now,” Hoss gave him tensing at the cries coming from his brother.

 

Trace backed away watching Ben hurry to his son’s side and wondered why he was still standing there. He had his information, had a clue. There was nothing else here. Yet here he stood, eyes trailing back to the doctor who’d returned to the box he’d dropped and pulled out a bottle of whiskey. Their eyes caught.

 

“It’s all I have left,” Leslie explained motioning for Hoss to hold up Adam’s head.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

“If only I’d listened ta Pa, my brother Carl would say, I coulda been workin’ in a mine.”

 

Finny Blemmer, Chance’s telegrapher, looked toward his friend, Jed Hopker, one of Chance’s many miners, with raised brows thinking he’d finally gone ’round the bend.

 

“You are in a mine, Jed, most every day,” he said with a shake of his head and a roll of the eyes. Obviously the sun had bleached his friend’s brain.

 

“My mine not some Pennsylvania mine. There’s a difference,” answered Jed picking at his teeth and brushing sand off his shirt.

 

“A mine’s a mine,” Finny stated standing to smooth down his pants before retaking his seat on the bench outside his office.

 

Jed leaned closer to him once he’d resettled. “Them’s coal mines in Pennsylvania, Finny. They cause ya ta spit up yer lungs in nothin’ flat. Now, my mine’s got dust but more silver or gold dependin’ on which way we dig. Ain’t no coughin’ up a lung here. Big difference.”

 

“Ah,” was all Finny said his attention drawn to the stage coming down the street.

 

“And my uncle kept sayin’ ‘go west, Jed, and pick up gold offa the ground. Ya ain’t gotta breathe in that stuff thataway’. I liked the sound o’ that and lit out,” he continued, his attention following Finny’s toward the stage coming to a stop just to their left, the driver looking over the side then yelling at the horses to start up again, leaving behind a lone figure. “A course he was a bit wrong about the ground part.”

 

They both watched the small man as he looked about, his attention centering on them. They each looked around finding no one else in the vicinity.

 

“More like under it,” finished Finny as the man quickly approached.

 

“Yeah,” Jed commented both leaning back as the little man stopped directly in front of them.

 

“Excuse me but looking for docta.”

 

Jed and Finny traded glances.

 

“Now why would a Chinaman want a doctor?” Finny asked his tone anything but cordial.

 

“Employer’s son bad hurt. Need see docta,” Hop Sing answered ignoring the telegrapher, eyes fixed on Jed.

 

“Is that the man they brung in from the stage crash?” he asked.

 

“He hurt; brought in by large brother. All I know.”

 

“What’s yer name, boy?” Jed asked spitting out a gob of tobacco before moving to his feet.

 

“Hop Sing. You know where docta is?”

 

“Come on. I’ll take ya.”

 

*The prompt for the 2 sections above was ‘if I’d only listened . . .

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

It was a tangible thing, that scream that rent the air, and Joe bolted upright knocking his hat into the small fire next to him. Hurrying to save it, he managed to burn his hand, just a small burn but the pain shot across his skin making all the hair on his arm stand on end.

 

Leaning back against the rocks that surrounded his small camp, he grumbled to himself that his hat was singed and his hand was singed and how could he get any sleep anyway when his brother kept screaming in his dreams. And, yes, he’d recognized that voice – those deep tones that carried through even in his agony that told Joe who it was. Closing tired eyes, he tried to still the harsh beating of his heart as his mind replayed what he’d just heard over and over making his stomach roil as bile threatened to spew from him and yanked himself to his feet.

 

“Stop it!” he yelled aloud rubbing at his face as if that would keep the sounds at bay.

 

Kicking the dirt just so he could say he was doing something other than standing there waiting for the sun to rise so he could move on toward what he didn’t know, he plopped back down to the ground and squeezed shut his eyes. It was so very difficult to fight memories that insisted upon being heard about the first camping trip with Adam and the stories he told of the stars and ancient warriors all interrupted by the mother bear and cubs that surprised them both. He’d never seen his brother scared until that day, seen the shaking hands and look of fear in his eyes quickly covered when he caught Joe staring at him. It wasn’t until years later he realized the fear was for him – the little brother in harm’s way.

 

A wolf call came next and visions of him running toward it instead of away and knocking Adam clean off his feet and into a mud puddle. The resultant grappling match in said mud puddle left them both dripping in goo and standing, heads bowed, in front of their father without a word to say. Joe smiled at that, smiled at all the memories until the reason for this headlong flight across the desert came to the forefront and the frown returned.

 

A breeze flitted by sending sand against rocks and a shiver through scattered shrubs, the sounds drawing him back to stare at the stars clearly sparkling down from a dark sky, the storm from the previous evening nothing but a memory of hiding in an alcove of rocks and wishing it away so he could continue on to his brother. He shook his head and made a decision.

 

“That’s it. Come on, Cooch. We’ve rested long enough,” he stated walking toward his beloved horse. “I’m sorry for pushin’ you but I’ve gotta get to Adam. I can’t stand not knowing if he’s . . . I’ve just gotta see him, hear his voice even if . . . even if it’s for the last time.”

 

Cochise nudged him and lipped his hair, snorting down Joe’s neck to make him smile. He rubbed the soft jowl and reached for the saddle blanket. He’d not rested him enough but his patience, always thin, was running out and he knew he could count on his horse to get him where he needed to be. Besides he could pass the time remembering more stories, more teachings and clinging to the hope that he would be hearing a lot more over the years to come.

 

Joe hefted up the saddle and reached for the cinch as another wolf call quickened his movements. Five minutes later, the fire was out and he was jetting away from his makeshift camp toward an unknown future, digging in his heels to send Cochise into a full-fledged run spraying sand out behind them as they disappeared into the dark on their way once again toward Chance and a brother he needed to see and hear.

 

Day 5

 

Chapter 6

 

Drey Grisham was a stern man who liked things to be in order. He liked his pants to be clean and sturdy and his shirts to be made of silk; his neckerchief needed to be tied just so and his leather gloves, boots and spurs always shone. Only his hat looked as if it’d been through the ringer – sweat stained and dusty, the eagle feather ragged and torn and a string of rusty conchos hung loose about the crown. It had seen better days but it was his lucky piece, something he’d never be without and none of his men even considered laughing at it for fear of tasting a piece of the whip that hung from his saddle. And, right now, Drey sat atop his appaloosa, his men ranged behind him awaiting orders. They’d already been waiting for ten minutes. No telling how much longer it might be.

 

Ignoring them like usual, Drey looked through field glasses to survey the land below, thinking on how nice it’ll be to take a bath, to eat something besides beans and to look upon the lovelies in the next town sooner rather than later. Perhaps that large block of brown dust swirling through the air not half a mile away might just get him there. Now that was a clever way to hide what they were about to do. Only one thing picked at him though – timing. It was a bit too soon to be striking again but their last haul, well, they’d made a mistake, finding out the large box inside the stage that burned bright and long was filled with medical supplies after the fact. He would’ve been able to take himself to San Francisco with what those supplies would’ve brought and stayed about a month. Instead, he was stuck in this heat not liking the itchy feel of sweat rolling down his back.

 

But then he smiled remembering how his whip wrapped about Nick Halton’s neck, how his face turned redder the tighter he pulled as he ticked off the mistakes that had been made. He tried to talk his way out of it, even pointing to the other men as he clawed at his neck stopping only when he fell to his knees then on his face. No one would find the body. At least no one on two legs.

 

“Here she comes,” drew Drey from his daydreaming and he shifted the glasses to take in the charging stage.

 

“Take her down, boys,” he said, turning to give each of them the eye. “No mistakes this time.”

 

He watched them silently move out of sight leaving him to survey from above, something he always did. It wasn’t his place to get his hands dirty. He led them, ruffians that they were, and that was all. Lowering the glasses, he swiped at a piece of sand that dared to land on his pants. What a life he led. Nothing to tie him down, to take his attention except what he wanted and, even then, he could change his mind if he so desired. He didn’t even try to keep the grin off his face.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

Trace pulled tight the kerchief over his mouth and nose and yanked down his hat as the storm whirled about him. It beat on him something fierce but he knew he had to continue no matter what.

 

He’d left Chance yesterday afternoon with the clue ‘fancy spurs’ ringing in his ears and the Chinaman’s mention of the stage that had dropped him off and something resonated in him, some feeling that he’d learned long ago not to ignore. Immediately gathering up Henry, he’d headed out only to find himself sucking sand and hoping this wasn’t some wild goose chase. But what else did he have?

 

Nothing. Not one damn thing.

 

And he was sure hanging around Chance and pestering that Cartwright boy probably wouldn’t earn him any hugs and kisses either. He didn’t really want to tangle with that big brother nor his father for that matter and he wasn’t even sure if the boy knew anything else . . . at least anything that would be helpful. No, he’d follow this feeling of his and when that petered out he’d head back and try to come up with something else. Sighing, he hunkered down against the biting sand only to have his gun in hand before the full sounds of gunfire filled his ears. Kicking Henry’s sides, the two rushed through the storm to emerge into chaos.

 

Four men, guns firing, chased the stage until a wheel broke and it careened out of control, flipping end over end, the horses careening off into the desert. Harsh screams and wild hollers filled the air as men flew out of their saddles and rushed the stage, gunfire picking off the driver and shotgun as they flailed on the ground then moving toward the passengers struggling to escape.

 

Trace didn’t wait and took aim.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

Drey’s grin quickly disappeared at the sight of a man on a gray horse rocketing out of the brown sand, bullets flying. Three of his men fell flat before a second passed, the fourth running for his horse then heading straight for him.

 

“Damn idiot!” he cursed maneuvering his appaloosa back from the edge not wanting to give away his position. But the man caught a bullet and slipped from the saddle to lie ominously still as the mystery man came to a stop and headed back to the stage.

 

Raising his field glasses, Drey watched him dismount and stand next to what used to be three of his men, nudging them with his boot.

 

“Turn around,” he urged, needing to see the man who’d disrupted everything, who was now heading toward the fourth man. “Look up. Look u . . .” The word died on his tongue when the man hastily grabbed the front of the fourth man’s shirt and hauled him upright. “Staggert,” he whispered, letting go of the glasses and drawing his rifle, taking the time to get the man’s face in his sights.

 

But the gods weren’t smiling upon him this day as the brown swirling mass inundated the area and his shot went wide, sand and dirt soon covering him from head to foot. Slamming shut grit filled eyes, Drey raged at the way things were going; raged at the unforeseen circumstances that suddenly seemed to be plaguing his life. This was not how it was supposed to work! He never got it wrong. Never. All these months of success shouldn’t just collapse for no reason. And how had Staggert found him? He’d always been steps ahead of him. How did he suddenly get so lucky?

 

A particularly large piece of sand popped against the side of his face and a quick thought followed, no longer than a passing moment, and caught him flat.

 

A survivor! There had to be a survivor!

 

“Shit-shit-shit!” he cursed.

 

And now Staggert had one of his men.

 

“Damnation!” he shouted coughing at the sand attacking his mouth and taking refuge in his expensive coat, one hand making sure his lucky hat stayed in place.

 

Swirling thoughts played over and over in his head. What was next? How could he put things right? Where the hell did this survivor come from?!

 

It took a moment to notice the winds were slowing, the sun slowly making itself known with the heat right behind it. Drey opened eyes onto a sand covered stage and nothing else. Staggert was gone and so was his man.

 

Sliding the rifle back into its scabbard, he urged his appaloosa down toward the carnage and pulled up. Only one town lingered in this burning mass, just one. Unless the Marshall was planning on dragging him clear back to Washington territory, that would be where he was going; that would be where he could make things right. A squeak drew his attention and he turned, the sun shining off something gold.

 

What would it hurt to rummage through what was left? They wouldn’t be needing their coin where they were headed and he needed a bath for it wouldn’t do to scratch at himself and look unkempt while he pulled the name of the survivor from Staggert just before he killed him.

 

“Not right indeed,” he said with a gleeful smile as he slowly dismounted.

 

*The prompt for the above sections was a storm

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

“Did you see how it sparkled?” Genevieve Perkins asked of Milly Depper as the two ladies gathered outside Harvey Jenkins General Store, the only General Store in Chance. “It practically blinded me when I peeked through the window.”

 

“Genevieve! Dr. Bick could’ve caught you!” Milly stated.

 

“I was careful. I’ve never seen a punchbowl that color. I wonder where he got it. Maybe it’s an heirloom.”

 

“Probably from his mother because I don’t think Dr. Bick’s ever been married. Oh, that would be nice,” Milly wistfully said.

 

“What?”

 

“Being married to Dr. Bick. He is nice to look at.”

 

“Milly!” Genevieve said with a slight giggle as she reached for the door.

 

“Allow me,” came a new voice behind her and she jumped.

 

“Oh, Mr. Trundell!” Genevieve said holding a hand to her chest.

 

“I’m sorry, Miss Perkins,” Bob Trundell answered touching her elbow to make sure she didn’t fall off the step. “I thought you knew I was behind you.”

 

“No, I . . . Oh, I was so caught up in my conversation with Milly I just didn’t . . .”

 

“How nice it is to see you again, Mr. Trundell,” Milly jumped in with a flick of her fan. “We don’t get the chance very often.”

 

Bob touched the brim of his hat and opened the door, following in after the two. “And what was the chance that I would see the two most beautiful ladies in one afternoon?” he said with a smile as they both tittered, hands to their mouths. “By the way, it was a gift from a satisfied customer. The punchbowl,” he explained. “It came all the way from England.”

 

“How do you know that?” Genevieve asked as Bob’s smile grew wider.

 

“My wife was the satisfied customer.”

 

Once again touching the brim of his hat, he quickly turned from the ladies, knowing that bit of information would be on everyone’s lips within the hour, and handed Harvey Jenkins his two page list.

 

“The missus tells me she needs EVERYTHING on this list,” he began swiping at his generous moustache. “I don’t cotton to disappointing her. What can you do?” he asked watching Harvey’s brows fly up his forehead as he gazed at the entire list.

 

“Well, this’ll take me about an hour or more to put together, Bob.”

 

“That’s fine. I’m looking for some guests that were supposed to be here a couple days ago. I’ll just do a search and maybe get me a beer or two. Don’t get into town that often.”

 

“That’s obvious by this list,” Harvey joked as Bob laughed then turned toward the door, still hearing Genevieve and Milly chattering away as he left.

 

Bob Trundell was a tall man, standing well over 6’4″, and solid muscle. His salt and pepper hair and eyebrows had not extended to his moustache which still flamed a dark red, something his wife, Ella, found quite amusing. The last time he couldn’t take her laughs he threatened to shave it off but her hand stayed his and what followed produced twins nine months later. That had been the last of their six children but not the last time he’d threatened to show her what he really looked like underneath. He vowed she wouldn’t be able to take it and so she stayed his hand each time. God, he loved that woman. He loved his life and everything it gave him.

 

Hearing a snort from a squatty mule just to his left, thoughts rose from his memories and moved back to the present glancing about the main street. He hadn’t been to town in well over four months, the two hour buckboard ride the reason why, but he did notice one new thing – a saloon by the name of The Red Slipper just down the street. It’d taken up residence next to the telegraph office and five doors down from the Southern Belle. Well maybe he’d check it out in a bit but first he had to send off a telegram to his old friend, Ben Cartwright, to see where his wayward boys were. Rummaging through a pocket for his watch, he thought upon the many possible reasons why they weren’t here. Something had happened to the stage or to their horses but then they would’ve sent word. Perhaps they’d been detained elsewhere or changed their minds and decided Brahma’s weren’t for them but they would’ve notified him. It all kept coming back to the telegraph office.

 

The little bell over the door tinkled as he entered, smiling at Finny as he approached.

 

“Mr. Trundell, haven’t seen you in a long while,” he said to the tall man.

 

“Been awful busy these last months with round-up and a trip to Sacramento and a whole bunch of nothing that takes up a lot of time.”

 

Finny smiled. “I know about that,” he admitted scanning the boxes behind him. “There doesn’t seem to be anything for you. You’re box is empty.”

 

“Well, that’s a wonder,” Bob said scratching his head then rubbing his chin. “I guess I’ll just havta send my own. Gotta pencil?”

 

“Of course,” he answered handing one over, watching Bob scrawl out a short message – BEN CARTWRIGHT. WHERE ARE YOUR BOYS? BOB T. “Ben Cartwright?” Finny asked.

 

“Yeah,” Bob answered as he searched for the coins necessary to send his missive.

 

“Why Ben Cartwright’s over at Doc Bick’s,” Finny informed him seeing Bob’s questioning look. “He and his boys.”

 

“Which boys?”

 

“Ah, the big one . . . Hoss I think and the other one . . .”

 

“Adam?”

 

“Yes, that’s it. Hoss brought him in after the stage was robbed and set on fire. He’s in a bad way.”

 

“What?!”

 

“They’ve been here for a good four or five days. A Chinaman came in yesterday or was that two days . . .”

 

Finny’s voice trailed off as Bob raced out the door and across the street. Sidling up to the office window, Finny followed his journey as he dodged cowboys and miners to get to the doctor’s house.

 

“Huh.” was all he said, crumpling up the message and moving back behind his desk.

 

*The prompt here was a punchbowl

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

Silence.

 

There was nothing – not a slip of sound or movement to disturb the air. It was disorienting.

 

Have I gone deaf?

 

Questions surrounded Adam, questions that might not deliver the answers he wanted, but he wasn’t the type of person to let that stop him so opened his eyes. Unfortunately, all that came back to him was black – a black so dark he couldn’t even see hands in front of his face.

 

Am I blind as well as deaf?

 

Scraping hands upon his shirt, sound became evident. Relief filled him – he wasn’t deaf. He wasn’t deaf.

 

Then why can’t I see?

 

Reaching up to rub those orbs that were betraying him he stopped when his hand touched a cheek. It was smooth, his hand was smooth. Quickly grabbing it with the other they were no longer the cracked mess of vague memory. Testing his foot and leg it bore weight and his head no longer felt as if it would explode.

 

Then I must be dead.

 

“No, son, you’re not.”

 

Adam spun squinting into the dark to locate that voice. He would’ve laughed at the automatic response if he wasn’t so unnerved. “Pa?” he called reaching out with those long fingers soon to find them clasped within others.

 

“I’m here, son,” came the answer, his face slowly appearing before Adam’s eyes as if a door had opened letting in the light.

 

“Pa,” he whispered, arms suddenly wrapped about his father, holding on tightly, relaxing at the feel of Ben’s hand slowly rubbing his back. Hesitantly he let go and stepped back taking in those dark coffee eyes he’d known all his life. “If I’m not dead then where am I?” he dared to ask.

 

Ben just smiled. “You stand at a doorway, son, and it’s your choice to either step through or stay locked inside.”

 

“What?” Of all the times his father would choose to be vague now was not the time.

 

Ben chuckled. “Turn around.”

 

Doing as he was told, Adam found himself faced with dozens of doors of various shapes and sizes; some even appeared to be floating as if hung by invisible strings. He felt his father’s hand once again on his back and the two began to walk.

 

“Every person’s life is filled with doorways, both literal and figurative. You walk through one every night when you come home or go to bed; through a saloon or bank; stepping onto a train or even a stagecoach.”

 

Adam flinched at that, memories of flying about the coach swept through him and he cringed. A strong arm held him tightly.

 

“But now you must choose another door,” came his father’s calming voice close to his ear. “And it must be soon or all the doors will close and we’ll lose you to the dark. Look.” As he watched a door faded away then another. “If you wait too long . . .”

 

“But . . .”

 

“There can be no hesitation, Adam,” Ben informed him. “Or it will be too late.”

 

He raised fearful eyes to his father who gently smiled then pulled open the closest door.

 

“Is this the door you want?” he asked as Adam looked inside.

 

He could see himself stretched out on the sand, buzzards moving ever closer, while he struggled for breath, his last breath. Adam slammed shut the door, watching as it disappeared.

 

“Hoss found me. I’m not out there.”

 

“Perhaps not,” was all his father said pushing him toward the next door.

 

Peering in he saw himself in an unfamiliar room, Hoss and Hop Sing stood nearby in tears and his father’s head rested in his hands. Someone came rushing into the room, sliding to a stop at his bedside.

 

“No, no, no! I can’t be late! Adam! You can’t go! I havta tell you! Don’t go!”

 

“Joe,” Adam whispered.

 

“He was too late,” Ben sadly proclaimed.

 

“What was he going to tell me?” he cautiously asked unsure if he really wanted to know after the years of disagreements between the two.

 

“How much you mean to him. How sorry he was that he didn’t treat you very well when you came home from college. How grateful he is that you are his brother. But most importantly he wanted to tell you he loves you.”

 

Adam’s eyes glistened when his brother dropped to his knees next to the bed, listening to the cries that came from him.

 

“I was never really sure of that after so many things we’ve said to each other.”

 

Ben slowly shut the door. “You don’t want this door, son.”

 

He gave his father a questioning look. “But aren’t they all going to be . . . that? My death?”

 

“Fate is not decided until you decide what it shall be. There are always choices, always doorways to step through. Whichever door you walk through will be your choice and no one else’s.”

 

“But there are so many,” Adam said suddenly nervous. “Which is the right one?” He was becoming frantic and even more so now as he felt his father’s hand slowly leave his shoulder. “Pa?”

 

“Choose wisely, son,” Ben said as he drifted back into the dark leaving Adam alone.

 

“Pa!” he called taking a step to follow then stopping, hands clenched at his sides.

 

Turning away he forced his heart to slow its fluttering, his mind to settle then looked back up at the doors within sight, wondering if he had enough time just as another one disappeared.

 

Deciding it didn’t matter how many doors there were, he started with the nearest one, peeked inside and instantly closed it keeping hands flat to the wood until it vanished. Eyes caught the next one, then the next, eliminating all of them until only two remained, two doors that seemed to be fading. There was no time to think only to pick. He couldn’t hesitate and reached for the door on the right. It had to lead home. If it didn’t . . .

 

He pulled it open.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

The door crashed open and smacked against the sideboard which held Dr. Bick’s punchbowl. It wobbled a bit and cast an array of light across the far wall then held its ground as a form rushed past shouting as it moved.

 

“ADAM! HOSS!”

 

“Keep quiet, Joseph!” came Ben’s stern voice as he met his youngest at the door off the main room.

 

“Pa, is he . . ? Is Adam . . ?” He couldn’t bring himself to say it.

 

Is he dead? Did I miss out on telling my brother everything?

 

“We had a . . . a moment,” came the soft words.

 

It was then Joe really looked at his father, looked into those deep dark eyes dripping with worry and exhaustion. “A moment?” was all Joe could say as Ben nodded. “And now?”

 

“Seem he decide to stay,” came Hop Sing’s answer drawing Joe’s brows up as he looked around his father to see both he and Hoss sitting next to Adam’s bed. Hop Sing motioned him forward and plopped him down into his chair. “I get more water. You sit.”

 

“Hi, Shortshanks,” Hoss said tossing his brother a tired grin. “Missed ya somethin’ fierce.”

 

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” Joe answered watching as Ben moved to stand at the end of the bed looking at his youngest son. His eyes cast about the room seeing Bob Trundell standing near the window and an unfamiliar man rising from the other side of the bed.

 

“Doctor Leslie Bick,” he introduced himself holding out a hand. Joe gratefully took it. “Your brother has a strong constitution.”

 

“Always has. He’ll fight anything that comes his way,” Joe admitted glancing toward Adam, wincing at the sight. Every part he could see was wrapped in bandages. It made the burn on his hand seem like nothing.

 

“That’s good for all of us,” Leslie stated then vacated the room.

 

“Joseph . . .”

 

“I couldn’t stay home, Pa,” he responded without looking at him. “It wasn’t right of you to ask me.”

 

“I know.”

 

“I needed to see him, to tell him . . .” His voice trailed off when he found himself looking into those very familiar hazel eyes focusing solely on him.

 

“. . . oe . . .” came out as a rasp, a hint of a smile tugging at the side of his mouth.

 

“I’m here, brother,” Joe answered not knowing where to touch as he leaned forward. “I just need to . . . I havta . . .” He bent his head in frustration not understanding why he couldn’t just say what he meant.

 

“. . . love . . . you . . . too, Joe,” Adam returned the unspoken words. He’d already heard them, already felt them. Dragging his gaze from his brother, Adam caught his father staring at him. “. . . I chose . . . wisely . . .” came the words on a breath. He couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer and let them close, the small smile lingering still.

 

“What’d he mean by that?” Joe asked looking from Hoss to Ben.

 

They both shrugged but Ben couldn’t help but wonder what choices his boy had been given and who had offered them.

 

*The prompt for these two sections was a door

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

Bob looked over to his silver haired friend and thought he looked old. True, he hadn’t seen him in a few years but this was something more and it didn’t take much figuring to know what made him look that way: Adam.

 

When he’d hurried over from the telegraph office a few hours before and rushed inside Dr. Bick’s house without even knocking, he’d entered into a bright entryway which led to a dark back room. Slowing his steps, he slid into the room noting bowed heads and quiet murmurings, eyes falling on Adam stretched out on the bed, then took up space by the window to wait with them. Once the words ‘I chose wisely’ were said, he followed after the doctor. He needed information.

 

He’d had to grab onto something when the doctor finished then slowly made his way back to the room to coax Ben out to the porch and plunk him down on a bench. Leslie showed up with two glasses of whiskey then headed back in, leaving the two to watch the sun go down.

 

Taking a moment to gather himself, Bob downed his whiskey in one gulp and wiped roughly at his mouth trying to quell all the feelings running through him. He couldn’t do a thing for Ben, absolutely nothing except sit by him and be there if he wanted to talk. So far there’d been nothing but silence. Bob wasn’t used to silence.

 

“What are you thinking?” he finally asked.

 

Ben stared into his glass for a long while then . . . “That it’s a true disaster.”

 

Bob waited for more but when none came he ventured another question. “What is?”

 

It was then Ben looked up and cast those dark eyes on Bob as he held up his glass. “It’s a true disaster that this is the last of the whiskey.” Bob’s brows rose at that statement but he kept silent. “There’s not a single drop left in Chance. I know. I checked. It seems Adam’s stage was carrying more than medical supplies.” He sighed and rubbed his face. “I call that a disaster of epic proportions.”

 

Bob nodded as thoughts strayed to his own family, his own children, and how he’d found himself wrapped around a whiskey bottle a few times over the years when it became too much. It was funny. He never expected that from Ben. He always seemed calm and in control. It appears most everyone was the same in more ways than one. He saw Ben move, watched his friend raise his glass as if in a toast with eyes skyward then tossed the liquid back, setting the empty glass on the arm of his chair.

 

“Just a shame if you ask me,” were his final words as he stared out at the orange flares of color striping the sky.

 

“You could always switch to beer,” Bob offered seeing a slight twitch to Ben’s mouth.

 

“Nope,” Ben sighed. “It’s always been whiskey that’s shared my pain. The burn as it travels down my throat reminds me that I’m alive even though I may feel differently at the time.”

 

Bob nodded again watching as brilliant oranges began to alter to pinks then slowly began to fade as twilight settled around them.

 

“I first discovered its ability to make me forget the day after my Elizabeth died,” Ben began never taking eyes from the darkening sky. “I’d downed two bottles before the Captain yanked me up, cuffed me, dunked my head into a bucket of cold water and put me to bed. I spent the next day with my head back in that bucket puking my guts out and vowed, after a lengthy lecture, to never touch the stuff again. And I didn’t. I had a son to raise, a dream to follow. There was no place for it in the wagon or on my tongue, not when you had to keep your wits about you.

 

“Somehow I made it through when Inger died but it all came crashing down again when Marie, when Marie left us. When I could raise my head out of the dark, whiskey sat in a glass in my hand and on my breath.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “And the lecture I received that time was from Adam himself.” He shrugged. “That boy would’ve made a great orator.”

 

Bob saw Ben rub his face again then drop his head into his hands. “Adam’s a fighter, Ben. Always has been. Don’t see why he’ll give up now.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Then don’t you give up on him.”

 

That got Ben’s attention and he turned angry eyes toward his friend. “I’ve never given up on that boy, on any of my boys, and I never will.”

 

“Then quit bemoaning the fact that the whiskey is gone and let’s go get us a beer.”

 

Bob waited for an outburst and readied himself to move quickly out of grabbing range when he saw the anger leave Ben’s eyes. A quiet laugh came his way instead.

 

“Come on, Ben,” Bob said as he stood. “Adam wouldn’t want you to fret not after he struggled so to stay here. You look like hell and the dry night air will do you a world of good.” Heaving a heavy sigh, Ben slowly stood and looked back toward the open door. “They’ll get us if there’s a problem.”

 

Ben glanced at Bob and nodded, then stepped off the porch, feeling his friend’s hand on his shoulder.

 

“So tell me, Ben, about those boys of yours. How come none of them are married yet?” was all Hoss heard as he stood in the doorway thankful for Bob’s intervention and his brother’s constitution.

 

Maybe they’d see their way through this after all.

 

Day 6

 

Chapter 7

 

“. . . you’re gonna . . . rot . . . your teeth,” came quiet words from the bed as Hoss’s head spun toward him.

 

Adam couldn’t help himself and started to chuckle at the sight of his brother’s mouth wreathed in sugar. It was a low careful sound that stretched his bruised ribs and made him wince then cough which hurt even more, but it felt good to do more than moan in pain.

 

“Am not,” was the only response Hoss gave as he held up Adam’s head to give him some water.

 

“Are too,” came back at him with a slow smile. “Eatin’ . . . donuts . . . aren’t you?”

 

Hoss gave him a sheepish look. “How could ya tell?”

 

Adam’s tongue moved out to slowly encircle his lips raising Hoss’s brow in question then in understanding as his own tongue darted out to taste the sugar present. Drawing a hand to his mouth, he immediately began cleaning it off, then brushing off his shirt, then his pants. Next thing he was standing and cleaning off the seat and Adam was chuckling again as Hop Sing stormed into the room.

 

“What all the noise?!” he gave them in a throaty growl peering intently at Hoss’s innocent face. “Mista Adam need rest,” he exclaimed pointing to Number One son as his chuckles subsided leaving a pained but pleased expression on his face.

 

“I ain’t done nothin’ ta bother ‘im, Hop Sing. I was jest sittin’ here mindin’ my own business.”

 

“Then why he laugh?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“You make face or say somethin’ funny?”

 

“I ain’t said nothin’ funny and my face always looks like this,” Hoss responded trying to look stern, keeping his eyes from Adam who desperately tried not to start laughing again. “What?” he asked as Hop Sing ventured toward him, making him back up the closer he got until the window stopped his progress.

 

“What this?” Hop Sing asked pointing toward Hoss’s face.

 

“What’s what?” he asked back clutching the curtains behind him.

 

Hop Sing’s finger darted out and whisked something from Hoss’s cheek. Dragging it closer to the window’s light, dark eyes suddenly dropped on Number Two son like a heavy weight.

 

“If I go to kitchen will find something missing?” he asked.

 

“Now, Hop Sing . . .”

 

“You take donut. I tell you they for later. How many you take?”

 

A scowl dropped on Hoss’s face. “Jest ’cause they’s missin’ don’t mean it was me that took ’em. There’s other folks in this here house ya know.”

 

“How many you take?” he asked again pushing so close to Hoss he found himself pressed flat against the glass, his hard swallow heard a mile away. “How many?”

 

“Been here . . . whole time,” came Adam’s strained voice drawing the little man’s attention, the hard look softening.

 

“Whole time?” Adam gave a slight nod then winced again soon to feel a hand touching his forehead. “You still have fever. I get remedy. Wait here,” he instructed then turned narrowed eyes on Number Two son before stomping out of the room.

 

Hoss blew out a breath and plopped back down in his seat.

 

“How . . . many?” Adam asked trying to ignore a trail of pain that was rising above the ache throughout his body.

 

“Huh?” was his first response until he saw Adam’s knowing look. Holding up a finger, Hoss dashed to the door and peered out, tiptoeing back to lean close to his brother. “Two,” he whispered. “And I rearranged the leftovers so he won’t notice.”

 

A smile graced Adam’s face. “Sneaky.”

 

“Yup. Learned it from Joe.”

 

“Figures,” he answered. “Quiet. Where’s . . . everyone?”

 

“Well, Marshall Staggert brung in a prisoner. Says he’s one’a them that burned yer stage. Doc’s down there with ‘im. Last time I saw Pa he and Bob was headin’ toward The Red Slipper. A course that was last night and I ain’t seen hide nor hair o’ either o’ ’em yet this mornin’. Don’t rightly know where Joe is. That boy could be anywhere.”

 

Hoss watched his brother turn to look out the door to the main room beyond and squint. He followed his gaze seeing the myriad of colored light bouncing against the walls.

 

“That’s Doc Bick’s punchbowl,” Hoss began. “Purty thing. When the sun hits it right it lights up the room. Once you get back on yer feet we’ll go take a look. I’m afraid ta touch it. Ya know how I am around things like that.”

 

“I do,” Adam answered. “. . . mighty pretty,” he said hoping that moment of getting back on his feet would be soon. Of course he’d have to stay awake for more than a few minutes to do that.

 

“You drink,” came from Hop Sing as he hurried back into the room breaking Adam’s line of sight. He blinked, trying to focus on his friend as he neared, seeing a steaming cup of something in his hands. It didn’t smell very good and he wrinkled his nose.

 

“What’s that?” he asked as Hoss carefully slipped in behind him.

 

He could feel Adam stiffen at his touch then gasp in pain. “Sorry,” he muttered, resting his brother’s head against his shoulder.

 

“It pain remedy. Also work on fever,” Hop Sing quickly interjected trying to take Number One son’s mind off anything and everything. “Old family recipe. You been taking for few days now.”

 

“‘ceptin’ ya’ll be awake ta take it now,” Hoss added with a grin.

 

“. . . smells,” was all Adam could get out between clenched teeth and a racing heart, grabbing for what little breath he could find.

 

“Smell bad, work better. But add something this time. Make sweet. Maybe later you eat donut.” A stony gaze dropped on Number Two son. “If any left.”

 

Hoss dutifully ignored it. “Let me have it, Hop Sing,” he ordered holding out his hand. “I’ll make older brother take his medicine even if it takes all afternoon.”

 

“You do that and maybe, maybe I give treat later.”

 

He slid a glance over to the little cook then found himself smiling as Hop Sing grinned back before hastily leaving.

 

“Come on, brother. The sooner ya drink this concoction the quicker ya can take a nap.”

 

Without any say in the matter, Adam obediently opened his mouth as the hot liquid came his way waiting for the inevitable bitter taste that curled his toes only to be surprised that it tasted of peppermint.

 

Now where had Hop Sing found peppermint in the middle of nowhere?

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

The door to Harvey Jenkins General Store came open to reveal a man in a new pair of pants and a cream colored shirt, his grungy hat perched atop his newly cleaned and barbered hair. Drey Grisham frowned as he tugged at the offending shirt, hoping he didn’t get a rash from the harsh fabric that chafed his skin. But silk would have to wait until he’d taken care of business in this podunk town.

 

Eyes scanned the street watching the inhabitants of Chance go about their daily business with a detached interest, touching the brim of his hat as a lady happened by. Moving the peppermint stick from one side of his mouth to the other, he started slowly down the street.

 

He’d always had a thing for sweets; could never get enough and robbing stages provided him with enough money to buy all the best candy he could find. But like the shirt, this town only had the simpler things – peppermint, molasses bits(1) and common twists(2). Boy, he had to get back to civilization and out of all this sand and bury his face in a box of sweets soon or he’d just go crazy.

 

Glancing up and down both sides of the street, he took in each building, every nook and cranny, every horse and wagon until he came upon two saloons – the Southern Belle and the Red Slipper. He smiled. There’d been a gal once that favored red slippers and always had a box of chocolates(3) in her room. And she’d been a southern belle.

 

“Kismet,” he muttered moving the peppermint to the other side of his mouth as he stepped off the sidewalk heading toward the Belle.

 

1 Molasses bits were the precursor of toffee

 

2 Common twists were like candy canes

 

3 Whitman’s made the first box of chocolates in 1854

 

*The prompt for these sections was a sweet tooth

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Finny cautioned Jed with a shake of the head.

 

“Why not?” questioned the miner giving his friend a hard look.

 

Finny sighed. “I don’t think Doc Bick will want to be bothered. That boy’s still alive so he must be doing something right.”

 

“He ain’t never pushed aside a little help afore. Why would he now? ‘sides all his supplies burned up with the stage and all the whiskey’s gone. He ain’t got much else.”

 

“He’s got that Chinaman. You know how mysterious they are. I’ve seen that big one over at Harvey’s buying some interesting stuff.”

 

“But this,” Jed said slapping the side of the squat bottle. “This stuff’ll right whatever’s wrong with ya. Doc should at least know about it afore he tells me no.”

 

Finny took a sip of his beer. “You’re just sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong.”

 

“This’ll help with the burns and I aim ta let ‘im know.” Jed pushed himself up and took a step plowing directly into a tall man with an ugly hat who seemingly appeared out of nowhere.

 

“I’m sorry,” the man said as he grabbed Jed to steady him.

 

“Didn’t see ya, mister,” Jed claimed finding himself back in his seat. The man pointed toward the empty chair. “A course,” he answered, always a friendly type.

 

“Thanks,” came the answer as he sat, tossing his grungy hat onto the table.

 

“Jed Hopker and Finny Blemmer,” he introduced both smiling at the man.

 

“Name’s Drey,” he said holding out his hand and shaking both. “I couldn’t help overhearing about the stage being burned.”

 

“Ah, yeah, about a week ago,” Jed answered holding tightly to his squat bottle. “Ya ain’t heard?”

 

Drey shook his head. “Just arrived in town. Got caught in a dust storm a ways out and just had to have a bath,” he said with a smile. “Did it have anything to do with all those stages that are being attacked?”

 

“That’s what the Marshall thinks,” Finny supplied.

 

“Marshall?”

 

“Marshall Staggert. He’s been chasing some gang clear across the territories that’s been robbin’ and burnin’ and killin’. Didn’t have no clues neither ’til just recent.”

 

“Oh?” Drey said thinking how much easier could this get.

 

“There was a survivor,” Finny gave him.

 

“Really?”

 

“Burned pretty bad,” Jed supplied. “Almost died. But Doc Bick managed ta keep him alive. Seems ta be doin’ better.” He slapped the bottle in his hand. “That’s what this remedy’s for.”

 

“How fortunate for the Marshall,” Drey commented. “To be in a town with helpful people,” he quickly added with a smile. “Ah, did this man, this survivor, have anything to say to the Marshall, you know, about who did this?”

 

“Don’t rightly know,” Jed answered, “but the Marshall brought in a prisoner off’a the desert. Word is,” he began his voice lowering to a whisper prompting the man to lean in close, “he’s one’a them that tried ta kill ‘im.”

 

“You don’t say,” Drey said concern on his face.

 

“Yep. Ain’t heard nothin’ more so’s don’t know if’n it’s true.”

 

“Just spreading rumors, Jed?” Finny accused as his friend turned toward him.

 

“I ain’t. Norman Baylor was standin’ right there when the Marshall come in; heard ‘im talkin’ with the Sheriff. Couldn’t make out all he was sayin’ but he heard stage robberies and figured this man was one’a them.”

 

“Well, I hope the Marshall was successful,” said Drey as he reached for his hat. “Can’t have murderers running around unattended.”

 

“Got that right,” Jed stated with a quick shake of the head.

 

“Well, thank you,” Drey answered plopping his ugly hat on his head. “Nice to meet you two,” he said excusing himself from the table and heading out the door wondering if his luck could get any better.

 

“That seemed like a nice fella,” Jed said as they watched him leave the saloon.

 

“Ugly hat though,” Finny stated finishing off his beer.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

The minute Drey stepped into the Red Slipper he knew he should step back out. He wasn’t here to draw attention least of all over a drunk cowboy taking liberties with a saloon girl, but he needed a vantage point and this place overlooked the doctor’s house.

 

Decision made, he stepped forward. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he mentioned from behind the cowboy whose finger twitched on the trigger of a pistol currently pressed firmly against the redheaded saloon girl’s temple. The cowboy stiffened.

 

“Mind yer business, mister,” he gave Drey who heard a slight slur mixed in with the threat.

 

“Leave Maime Sue alone, Butch,” Clancy Yeomers said from his perch behind the bar.

 

“She called me yella!” he yelled back to the bartender.

 

“I still wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Drey repeated around the small smile that blossomed under his mustache as he gave Maime Sue a quick once over.

 

“Well ya ain’t me!” yelled Butch, spitting on her hair that bunched against his face.

 

“Thank the Lord for small favors,” came Drey’s whisper as he took a step closer to the cowboy looking him straight in the face. “Did it ever occur to you that she called you yellow because you’re wearing a yellow shirt?” Drey waited for an answer seeing his words work their way through whatever he’d had to drink that day. “Didn’t think so,” he muttered. “Nice looking shirt by the way. Get that in town or somewhere else?”

 

Butch’s eyes narrowed. Where had he gotten this shirt? It wasn’t in Chance was it? He looked down at himself and sure enough it was yellow. He hadn’t remembered putting it on this morning . . . or was that yesterday?

 

“Stockton!” he blurted out surprising himself as much as everyone present.

 

“Well, that’s a fine looking shirt,” Drey casually said sitting down at an empty table and smiling up at the cowboy. “Why don’t you sit a spell and tell me about it.”

 

Butch eyed him for a long moment then let Maime Sue go before staggering over, dropping into a chair and taking all of a few seconds to pass out. The sound of his head hitting the table top echoed about the quiet room as Drey chuckled, pulling the pistol from Butch’s grasp. A soft hand ran across the back of his neck.

 

“That was mighty nice’a you ta take on a wild cowboy like that,” Maime Sue said flashing him a seductive smile. “And ta think I don’t even know you.” She sat down next to him and ran her hand down his leg.

 

He smiled back at her. “Not much to know.”

 

“What shall I call you then?” she asked.

 

“Anything you’d like,” came his answer as her hand traveled a bit higher than before. They shared a look and her hand kept moving until he stopped her short of the prize. “Anything interesting happen around here?” he asked pulling her hand from his leg to his shoulder where she automatically began to squeeze.

 

“Not much happens around here exceptin’ when a miner hits a lode and that ain’t happened for a spell.”

 

“Why do you stay then? A pretty girl like you could make good money in a bigger town.”

 

“Don’t know why I stay,” she answered truthfully. “Guess I like being able to choose who I spend my time with,” she gave him leaning over to kiss his neck. “Although we did have some excitement just a few days back.”

 

“Oh?” he asked trying not to show much interest.

 

“First there was that man that was brung in off the desert. Bad hurt he was. Then we found out he was on the stage that was bringing in stuff for the town and it was all burned. Then a Marshall blew in then took off only ta come back draggin’ a prisoner. That’s the most fun this town’s seen in ages.”

 

“You say the Marshall came back with a prisoner?” Drey asked as her kisses drifted along his cheek.

 

“Yep.”

 

“Who was this man they brought in off the desert?” came his next question as he pulled Maime Sue into his lap, running a finger along her chin and lightly down her neck.

 

“Stranger ta me. Heard he got burned on the stage and they don’t know if’n he’s gonna live.”

 

“But he did?”

 

“Ain’t seen no undertaker visitin’ the Doc,” she answered. “Just the man’s family and a Chinaman. Oh, and the Marshall.” She leaned in close to his ear. “Let’s go upstairs and I’ll show you where Doc’s house is in case you wanna visit later,” she whispered.

 

Drey grinned and thanked whoever had put him back on track. It was so nice to be back in the groove and not have to worry about all the complexities that could just tear your heart out.

 

Rising from the chair, he returned Maime Sue to her feet and followed along gratefully as she led him up the stairs.

 

*The prompt for these sections was I wouldn’t do that if I were you

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

“Marshall, I want to see your prisoner,” Joe asked, hands gripping his gun belt to keep them from shaking.

 

Trace looked up and inwardly cringed. He’d not yet met Joe but heard about him from Doc, heard how upset he was over what’d happened to his brother. Even Hoss gave him a quick warning about his younger brother. And here he stood, face pinched, eyes flashing. Here goes.

 

“Mr. Cartwright, ya can’t be here,” Trace quietly said to the angry young man before him as the two stood toe-to-toe in the Sheriff’s office.

 

“I’ve every right to speak to the man who tried to murder my brother,” Joe answered, hands dropping from his gun belt to move in and out of fists at his side.

 

Trace cast an understanding look toward the youngest Cartwright and rubbed a hand over the stubble on his face. He would dearly love to let him have a go at the prisoner but something bright and shiny hanging on his chest was stopping him. He sighed.

 

“He won’t talk ta ya. In fact I’d bet a month’s pay that he’ll just try and rile ya. He’s not exactly an upstandin’ citizen.”

 

Joe’s jaw clenched as he tried to tamp down his growing anger; tried to do what Adam always did and control the rage inside that insisted he beat that man to death. His brother wouldn’t take kindly to recovering from his injuries only to stand at the base of a scaffold to watch his younger brother hang. He blew out a harsh breath and turned from Trace to stare at a wanted poster on the wall.

 

“I just want to see what type of man would kill innocent people then burn them. I need to see what evil looks like so I can recognize it again when it passes me on the street because we all know it’s out there, will always be out there as long as people walk this earth.”

 

Trace sat on the edge of the Sheriff’s desk and crossed arms over his knee. “Evil comes in many forms. It never looks the same twice or so I’ve noticed. It’s the deed that shows you evil is present not the face. That’s hard ta define, hard ta see, hard ta escape from.”

 

Joe glared at him. “But you have a representation of it here, Marshall, sitting in that cell.”

 

“He’s a follower, Mr. Cartwright. He ain’t smart enough ta figure out how ta hide evidence for this long. No, there’s someone else in charge, someone who took a shot at me out there in the desert and I’m pretty sure he won’t wanna let this one live for much longer.” Trace stood then and placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Just remember evil ain’t perfect otherwise all the good people in this world would be dead. You and your family strike me as good people. Don’t change that now just ’cause your brother’s hurt. I don’t know much about him but I’m thinkin’ he wouldn’t want ya steppin’ over that line and for you I’d bet just talkin’ ta him would be erasin’ that line.”

 

A small smile appeared on Joe’s stern face as Adam’s voice popped into his head warning him against such an action.

 

“Now, please,” Trace continued, “go on back ta Doc’s and see ta your brother. If I need any help I’ll come yellin’.”

 

“You will won’t you? Yell if you need anything?”

 

“Loud and clear. I may be a Marshall but this badge can’t protect me from multiple bullets headin’ my way. You and Hoss would be a fine addition ta my side.”

 

“All right.” Joe said with a sigh then a nod. “All right.”

 

Clapping a hand on Joe’s back, Trace watched the young man walk slowly through the door knowing he’d have to watch that one. A few words weren’t going to douse the fire in his belly and he couldn’t say that he blamed him. No, couldn’t blame him at all. Wrestling with his own conscience was a normal thing for Trace. He found he had to curtail certain aspects of his desire to throttle the bad men he brought to justice. But just once he’d like to close his eyes to what should be done and do what was needed.

 

Visions of those people burned to death sprang to mind; the sounds of Adam’s cries filled his ears and he felt his hand reach for the badge that rested on his vest and carefully removed it. Taking a swift glance at it, he slipped it into his pocket and headed for the door that led to the cells, quietly pulling it open to see the prisoner sitting with his back to him. Taking a deep breath, Trace stepped in then stopped. Was it worth it to throw away his career over some lowlife? Were the words he’d just given young Cartwright meaningless? Was the badge that sat in his pocket just a piece of tin or did it stand for what he’d based his life on – honor, justice, truth?

 

Sighing, he bent his head then quietly backed out of the room and closed the door behind him.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’ve missed something even though you were in the room at the time. Adam felt that way. He’d felt that way ever since the accident. Tortured dreams and intense pain filtered through morphine then whiskey then some of Hop Sing’s concoctions just left him out of the loop and he hated that. But there wasn’t much use railing against the inevitable. He couldn’t move without causing himself pain; he couldn’t eat without causing himself pain. Hell, he could barely breathe without causing himself pain so he just slept, which his father kept telling him was for the best.

 

Tell that to my dreams.

 

But then a noise seeped through all the murkiness and with great effort he pulled open his eyes (at least they didn’t hurt) to see his youngest brother standing at the window, his posture stiff, one hand balled into a fist banging softly against the wall and the other fidgeting with the tie-down on his holster. Adam recognized the stance.

 

“What’s . . . the matter, Joe?” he asked.

 

Joe took a seat and looked down at his hands as they rested on the bed fiddling with the bandage over his burn. “The Marshall,” he began then rubbed his face. “The Marshall has one of the men who attacked you in jail. He won’t let me talk to him.”

 

Adam gazed at Joe feeling the anger and torment present. “Wise man . . . this Marshall,” he finally said.

 

Joe looked up at his brother, a scowl crossing his face. “I need to see him, Adam; need to look him in the eye and tell him it didn’t work. You’re still alive despite everything they did. He needs to know.”

 

“No,” was all Adam said laying a bandaged hand over Joe’s fists, wincing at the movement. “He won’t . . . care.”

 

“But I care!” Joe gave back, his voice rising. “I need him to see that he’s through killing people! You’re alive and he lost!”

 

“He’s in jail, Joe, and I’m . . . still breathing. He’s already . . . already lost no matter what . . . happens now. No need . . . to tell him what . . . what he already knows.” Adam’s breath was leaving him but he held his brother’s intense gaze until Joe looked away and back down to his hands.

 

Tough words coming from a man who, if he could’ve managed it, would’ve hightailed it down to the jail and confronted the prisoner himself. Of course he didn’t want to tell Joe that there was no way in hell he could confirm that this particular man was one of the gang that attacked the stage. He’d not seen one face; heard only vague voices; his memories centering on those spurs that stepped past his face as he lay there in the sand and nothing else.

 

No, he wouldn’t tell Joe that.

 

So instead he reveled in the joy of his brother’s intense desire to right the wrong done to him, a trait not specific to Joe. He’d heard enough of Hoss’s conversations with the doctor to know that that had been his desire as well. A slight smile came as he found himself sliding back to sleep, hand still covering Joe’s, content in the feeling that they would watch his back since he couldn’t.

 

Day 7 – Part 1

 

Chapter 8

 

“I handed off my ointment ta Doc Bick and ya know what he said?” Jed asked Finny’s back who didn’t turn from the duties of organizing his office.

 

“Go away you’re bothering me?” Finny responded with a grin.

 

“No. His eyes brightened up and he done tol’ me he’d try it ta see if it worked. I tol’ ya he wouldn’t turn me away. And you thought I shouldn’t bother him,” he finished turning toward the window and running a hand across his mouth at the sight before him. “Well, this here’s a sight fer sore eyes.”

 

“What?” Finny asked as he came up behind his friend to look out onto the street.

 

“The stage come in and they’s off-loadin’ supplies at Doc Bick’s and, plain as day, I can see a crate with WHISKEY blazin’ across the wood and Clancy’s runnin’ like a fool.” He turned a smile toward Finny. “Well, ain’t this a happy day.”

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

“Well, if’n that ain’t a sight,” Hoss muttered with a big grin hurrying out of Doc Bick’s to help the stage unload the precious medical supplies. “What took ya so long?!” he yelled up to the driver.

 

“I hadta stop at three doctor’s offices ta pick up supplies. Hurried as fast as I could. Some of our drivers won’t take this route since the killins.”

 

“Why you here then?”

 

“Tripled my pay and I weren’t carryin’ no passengers. Figured I’d make it clean.”

 

Hoss just nodded and, picking up two crates, lumbered toward the porch almost running into Joe as he hurried out to help.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

“Well, well, look at that,” Trace mumbled as he looked out the door.

 

“What’s all the commotion out there, Marshall?” Sheriff Fletcher Pintz asked as he came around his desk.

 

“Stage come in. Looks like Doc got some supplies.”

 

“See any whiskey crates?” Pintz asked coming to stand next to Trace, scratching at his thinning hair.

 

“Can’t say as I do but that don’t mean there ain’t none there.”

 

“If’n the Doc’s got supplies,” came from the back cell, “I need somethin’ fer the pain!”

 

“Ya’ll git what I give ya and nothin’ else!” Trace yelled back. “Watch him for a spell, Sheriff, while I go see if there’s anythin’ else on that stage.”

 

Pintz nodded as Trace grabbed his hat and moved out the door sauntering down the boardwalk to step into the street, waving to catch the driver’s attention before he lit out of town.

 

“How was the trip?” he asked of the man who squinted when the sun shone off the badge.

 

“Hot and dusty and fast. I weren’t gonna meander out there not with this gang pickin’ off people like me.”

 

Trace smiled and shook his head. “Where ya headed now?”

 

“Straight ta the horizon. Gotta pick up them passengers left stranded. Thrown off my schedule somethin’ fierce but I’ll see it through.”

 

“Good man,” Trace said. “Careful out there.”

 

The driver patted his trusty shotgun. “Always.”

 

“All clear, mister!” Hoss called up as the driver picked up the reins. “Good luck!”

 

“Hiya!” he yelled slapping the reins across sweaty rumps, the horses picking up speed as they cleared the last building leaving a dust cloud behind them.

 

Trace turned his attention to Hoss as he followed him back to the porch. “How’s your brother?” he asked seeing a slight grin form.

 

“Seems a little better today,” came the honest answer as they cleared the door. “Should be even better what with the morphine that jest come in.”

 

Trace nodded then came to a stop when he spied Joe heading his way, a determined look on his face.

 

“Marshall,” he said.

 

“Mr. Cartwright.” Trace straightened a bit unsure what was coming.

 

“Adam . . .” He faltered a bit then took a breath. “Adam tells me you’re a wise man.”

 

“Oh?” Trace said with a raised brow. “Why’s that?”

 

Joe glanced at Hoss then back to the Marshall and sighed. “Because he knows what I would’ve done to your prisoner if you’d of let me see him. Sometimes . . . sometimes I just need to be reminded to keep my wits about me when family’s involved.”

 

Relaxing, Trace held out his hand. “Sometimes we all need that.”

 

Joe didn’t hesitate and clasped the Marshall’s hand. “Call me, Joe.”

 

“I can do that.”

 

“Did I just see the stage?!” came Ben’s voice as he hurried through the door.

 

“Yeah, Pa,” Hoss answered. “Doc just went in.”

 

Hurrying past the three, Ben was met by Hop Sing at the door carrying a bowl of warm water with bandages tucked under his arm.

 

“Did the morphine come?” he asked peering past his friend to see the doctor setting up a tray by Adam’s bed.

 

“It come,” Hop Sing answered. “Number One son already feel betta. Soon he sleep good. We change bandages then later maybe he eat dinna. He get betta lickety split now.”

 

Ben looked down at his cook, housekeeper, friend and laid a hand on his shoulder. Hop Sing just smiled back then continued on into the room.

 

“You’re welcome to help, Ben,” Leslie called out as he watched this father slip into the room and settle in a chair by the door.

 

“I think I’ll just sit here.”

 

“As you like,” he answered with a smile looking toward his patient. “Adam? Adam, can you hear me?” Nothing came back to him but deep normal breaths. “He’s out. Okay, Hop Sing, let’s get started.”

 

Ben tensed, waiting for the cries he’d often heard these last days when those bandages were changed and found nothing but silence. Easing himself back into the chair he closed his eyes and thanked the Lord for delivering what his son needed. Now he could see a light at the end of this dark tunnel and smiled.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

Sounds of happy people filled the night as a tinny piano plunked out tune after tune. Both saloons were filled with light and laughter. Whiskey was back in town. All was right with the world.

 

Now it wasn’t that they were all alcoholics it’s just that in Chance there wasn’t much else to do except mine for gold and silver and drink when it didn’t pan out (or even if it did). So as soon as the stage dropped off crate after crate of the libation word spread like wildfire and it was as if the entire town simply gravitated toward each saloon and through the swinging doors to grab a bottle or glass and slowly savor that which had been missing for what seemed like a lifetime and yet had only been a few days.

 

The curtains in the upstairs window that overlooked Doc Bick’s house drew back. Anyone looking out would’ve seen five men leaving and heading toward the very saloon that housed that window. Drey grinned. That only left the Chinaman keeping watch. A hand appeared on his shoulder then moved up his neck changing that grin to a smile. The curtains fell back in place.

 

*The prompt for the above sections was ‘Well, if that ain’t a sight for sore eyes’.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

A table opened up and Joe and Hoss quickly grabbed it, making room for Ben and Leslie. Bob motioned to the bartender and returned with a full bottle and five glasses that were quickly filled. They were flush with excitement over the arrival of the morphine knowing it meant relief for Adam and would shorten their visit to this sand pit of a town. Glasses raised, Ben looked the doctor straight in the eye and smiled.

 

“To Dr. Leslie Bick for making sure my son survived even though he was a bit short on medicines.”

 

“Hear, hear,” came from the assembled as they all took a drink.

 

“And to Hop Sing,” Leslie added holding up his own glass. “Without him and his concoctions these last few days, well, I don’t know what we would’ve done.”

 

“To Hop Sing!” was then heard as they took another drink, Ben taking his time to finish his.

 

Hop Sing. One of the finest men he’d ever had the privilege to know. He’d entered their lives and taken up the reins and for that he was never very far from Ben’s heart. Without him they would’ve fallen long ago. No matter the time or place he’d always been there to buoy them with his food or company and always his love, and he’d come into their lives exactly when they’d needed him. Ben chuckled as he stared into his glass reliving all the outbursts and threats to return to China over some slight to his cooking or cleaning but never got very far. Well, except for that one time.

 

“What’cha thinkin’, Pa?” Hoss asked drawing Ben out of his reverie.

 

“Hmm? Oh, I was thinking about the time you managed to keep Hop Sing from getting on that stage to San Francisco. Did you ever apologize to him?” he pointedly asked his middle son.

 

“Shore did,” Hoss answered. “As soon as I caught up ta ‘im. He wouldn’t take it though ’til I did somethin’ for ‘im.”

 

“What did you have to do?” Bob asked catching Joe’s large grin.

 

“Well, I, ah, had ta take a bath,” Hoss answered while clearing his throat.

 

“That’s all?” Leslie asked before spotting a smile spreading across Ben’s face.

 

“Go on, brother,” Joe pushed. “Tell the rest or I will.”

 

“Ya would, too,” Hoss gave him then sat back. “Well, I was about eight or nine and I’d been wrestlin’ with Marty Paine ’cause he wouldn’t leave off talkin’ bad about Adam and I come home all covered in dirt and grime, bleedin’ and bruised and I jest wanted ta sit down.”

 

“So he did,” Joe added getting a look from Hoss.

 

“Right on the settee,” Ben gave out next.

 

“But you were covered in dirt,” Leslie said aghast at the thought.

 

“You don’t have children, Doc, or you wouldn’t even ask that question,” Bob said with a snicker.

 

“And Hop Sing, well, he didn’t take kindly ta that,” Hoss continued. “He was fit ta be tied that my mama was gonna skin ‘im alive for lettin’ one’a us ruin her fancy seat. Not me – ‘im.”

 

“She would’ve, too,” Ben added. “That ‘fancy seat’ was her pride and joy.”

 

“All the way from New Orleans,” Joe said with a nod.

 

“Fancy,” Bob said letting out a whistle.

 

“I was eight. It was a place ta sit,” Hoss said in defense of himself. “Anyway, Hop Sing turned beet red and headed toward his room. Jest about a second later out he come with a packed valise and charged through the front door with no goodbye or nothin’.”

 

“He was mad,” Joe whispered.

 

“What’d you know? You was two maybe three.”

 

“I remember. I’d never seen him like that. Scared me.”

 

“So what happened?” Leslie urged.

 

“He lit out for Virginia City. Pa was callin’ after ‘im, Joe was cryin’ and I hadta do somethin’ so’s I grabbed a horse and went after ‘im. Found ‘im gettin’ on that stage and begged ‘im ta come home. That man makes the best roast pork. Couldn’t have ‘im high-tailin’ it outta there,” he gave the doctor with a nod. “Next thing I knew he was pointin’ at somethin’ behind me. Well, I knew what he wanted and it wasn’t like I hadn’t done it afore just never in front of all them people.”

 

“What was it?” Bob asked.

 

“A water trough,” Joe answered.

 

“Yep, a water trough,” Hoss sighed.

 

“What did you do?” came Leslie’s question

 

“The only thing I could do – I got in and went under. I weren’t sure how long he wanted me ta stay under so I nearly did myself in and when I come up I’d drawn quite a crowd but all I could see was Hop Sing standin’ at the end of the trough, arms crossed, a smile slowly gettin’ bigger on his face.” Hoss grinned to himself then. “He helped me out, waggled his finger at me and reminded me I was gonna havta tell mama what I done not ‘im when we got home. And we never spoke on it again. All he’d ever havta do from then on was point ta the trough and I minded what he hadta say. I weren’t gonna go through that again.”

 

“Where was Adam through all this?” Bob asked.

 

Hoss’s grin got bigger. “He was standin’ right next ta Hop Sing when I come up for air, arms across his chest like he does, givin’ me the eye. Well, I thought I was gonna get in trouble all over again. Adam can give as good a tongue lashin’ as Pa,” he acknowledged with a quick look at his father who merely nodded.

 

“What’d he do?” Joe asked not ever having heard this part before.

 

“Well, he waited ’til Hop Sing was done then took a step toward me, slow like he does, and ya know I was about as big as ‘im at that point but I felt like I was a little fella again and didn’t dare look at ‘im. But he said my name and told me to and I did.” Hoss stopped then and they all traded glances seeing his grin turn into a loving smile.

 

“Well?” Joe said. “Don’t stop there.”

 

“Come on, Hoss,” Leslie urged. “Don’t leave us in suspense.”

 

“What did he do?” Bob asked as Hoss looked toward his father.

 

“He put a hand on my shoulder, gave it a squeeze . . . and thanked me.”

 

“What for?” Joe asked expecting more than that.

 

Hoss looked over at his little brother. “He thanked me for stickin’ up for ‘im and beatin’ the tar outta Marty Paine ’cause he’d been meanin’ ta do that for a few years and he was more than willin’ ta take whatever punishment mama dished out ta repay me.” It was then Hoss raised his glass and looked at each of the men in turn. “So’s this here drink is for my brother, Adam. I don’t know what I’d do without ‘im.”

 

“Hear, hear,” came from the group as Hoss tossed back the whiskey and leveled a gaze at his father.

 

“Hear, hear,” Ben said with a smile.

 

Chapter 9

 

“You’re under arrest for the murder of four passengers and one driver along with the attempted murder of another passenger on the stage burned just west of Chance. I’m also addin’ the murder of three passengers and two drivers on the stage ta the north,” Trace recited as he stood outside the jail cell never taking eyes from the wretched cowboy inside whose mouth nearly dropped to the floor. “You’re also charged with the murder and destruction of property from fifteen previous stages robbed and burned from California back ta Canada.”

 

Trace stopped for a moment and watched the cowboy’s color disappear and his hands begin to shake.

 

“Do ya have anythin’ ta say for yourself? Any defense whatsoever?” He waited for half a tick then continued on. “I’m pretty sure you’ll swing especially since ya ain’t defendin’ yourself.”

 

Trace waited some more watching the cowboy’s breaths come in gasps then lean over like he was going to puke. Shrugging, he turned and headed toward the outer office all the while talking over his shoulder.

 

“A course I don’t believe ya was the one that come up with the plans and I could probably talk ta the judge but then that probably won’t do much good since ya ain’t talkin’ ta me. A course if’n ya ain’t . . .” His voice disappeared behind the door that was slowly closing on him.

 

“MARSHALL!” the cowboy screamed running toward the cell door, hands, face and upper body colliding with the bars. Trace stood for a moment on the other side, quickly wiping the smile from his face and stuck his head back in.

 

“Did ya call me?” he innocently asked.

 

“Marshall, ya cain’t pin them murders on me. Not all of ’em anyways.”

 

“Oh?” Trace said crossing arms over his chest.

 

The cowboy vehemently shook his head. “It weren’t me that planned it. I . . . I was jest a participant is all.”

 

“You just shot those people then?” Trace asked as the cowboy nodded.

 

“Somma them.”

 

“And ya burned the stages after?”

 

“Me and Tig. That was our job.”

 

“Tig?”

 

“Tig Martin. Ya done kilt ‘im when ya got me.” He watched Trace nod then rub his chin. “That’ll mean I won’t swing right? If I tell that. I’ll jest be locked up fer good.”

 

Trace glanced up. “Ah, no. By your own admission ya done killed almost twenty-five people. I’m not thinkin’ a judge is gonna look kindly on that nor will those poor families left behind.”

 

“But I can tell ya all sorts a things about the gang. Ain’t that worth somethin’?”

 

“Here’s the thing,” Trace began stepping slowly toward the cell. “They’re all dead so it don’t mean nothin’ ta no one who they was. Now, ya give me the name of the man who’s still out there then I might be able ta do somethin’ for ya.”

 

The cowboy pushed himself away from the bars and started to shake his head. “I cain’t. He’ll kill me,” he whined.

 

“All I’m seein’ for you is the end of a rope so what’s the difference?”

 

“Oh, there’s a difference all right,” the cowboy said. “Ya ain’t seen what he can do when he’s riled and me rattin’ on ‘im’ll rile ‘im good.”

 

Trace threw up his hands and turned back toward the Sheriff’s office. “Then I can’t do nothin’ for ya. Shame, too, ’cause sometimes when ya get life they let ya out for what they call good behavior. Ya might only serve five, ten years then ya’d be free, not havin’ ta look over your shoulder for the rest of your days. But I understand savin’ your own skin. Been there myself.”

 

The cowboy watched Trace head back out, saw the door begin to close once again. “MARSHALL! I’ll tell ya! I’ll tell ya who’s out there!” He saw the door stop then reopen, Trace giving him a steady gaze. “I’ll tell ya but ya havta do somethin’ fer me first.” Trace’s brows moved slowly up. The cowboy nodded. “I gotta have a gun or somethin’ ta protect myself ’cause when he finds out I told . . .”

 

“If ya think I’m stupid . . .”

 

“I jest know what’s gonna happen, Marshall, and I gotta be prepared. Keepin’ me in this cell with that open winda overhead . . . well I’ll be dead by mornin’. Ya gotta get me somewheres safe or ya won’t have no witness.”

 

Trace narrowed his eyes at the cowboy and flashed on the number of times he’d lost a witness when the bad guy merely shot through that small barred window and wondered who came up with such a silly thing.

 

Rubbing his neck, he turned toward the door. “Sheriff! Keys!” The ring of clinking keys came flying through the air and Trace easily caught it looking up at the prisoner. “Step back.” Opening the door, he tried to ignore the smirk on the cowboy’s face and the shiver that it sent through him. “Hands behind your back,” Trace ordered slapping on the cuffs and yanking the cowboy from the cell, leading him past Pintz. “Sheriff, we’ll be at Doc Bicks. Come and get me if somethin’ happens I need ta know about.”

 

“How will I . . ?” Pintz began.

 

“You’ll know,” was all Trace said as he pulled the cowboy toward the door then out onto the boardwalk.

 

Rapid glances side to side took in everything as they walked, the hackles on his neck rising. This was a bad idea making a walk like this, a walk that could end in a long box under a mound of dirt. But what options did he actually have? This cowboy could give him a name. Couple that with Adam’s recollection of those spurs and it could all be over. He had to keep both men alive so he could get his hands on the demon that’d started all of this months before and, once that was done, he could go home, sit on his porch and put up his feet.

 

The thought brought a smile but he pushed it away. Those hackles were still up. Smiles wouldn’t be around until they laid down flat again.

 

*The prompt here was ‘you’re under arrest’

 

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“Hmm,” murmured Davis Apple when his lantern caught sight of something leaning against the back wall of Darby’s, a nice place to stay for an hour or two.

 

Davis was the caretaker, the keeper of all things Darby and it wouldn’t do to have a stray whatever leaning against the back wall. It was unsightly and the ladies inside demanded that Darby’s look nice front and back. Shaking his head, he limped over wondering why people were so careless with their stuff.

 

“They shouldn’t have things if’n they cain’t take care of ’em,” he mumbled reaching out with his lantern to see a large wheel and axle caught in its light. “Durn thing’s broke. Couldn’t they burn it instead o’ tossin’ it aside like trash? Don’t seem right.”

 

His one-sided conversation continued as he placed the lantern on the ground and grabbed for the wheel only to drop to his knees then flat on his face, blood sliding down the side of his head to pool in the dirt beneath him. He didn’t hear the jangle of spurs as they moved past his body nor much of anything else as his eyes slid shut.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

“S-i-t d-o-w-n,” Trace ordered enunciating each word as he pressed down upon the young cowboy’s shoulder who cried out in pain but stood his ground.

 

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to sit he just hated giving in. Besides he was in a heap of trouble already for being captured and had to keep his head and concentrate on making sure his tongue kept still.

 

“Now.”

 

The tone was deep and uncompromising and finally the cowboy gave in just as Hop Sing came into the room.

 

“Who this?” he asked.

 

“This here cowboy is a member of the gang that nearly killed your Mr. Adam,” Trace explained noticing the dark gaze shifting from him to the cowboy.

 

“What his name?” Hop Sing asked those eyes making the cowboy nervous.

 

“Don’t rightly know,” Trace answered. “He won’t tell me.”

 

“If’n ya’d ask real nice I might jest tell ya.” Trace glared at him.

 

“What your name?” Hop Sing asked.

 

“Bogg Stemple.”

 

“Mista Stemple, you not nice man,” Hop Sing gave him then headed off toward Adam’s room as Trace tossed a smile after him.

 

“Where’s the Doc?” Bogg asked holding his shoulder. “I’m thinkin’ ya pulled my stitches.”

 

“I gotcha outta that jail cell ’cause ya was afraid your Boss was gonna kill ya. Don’t think ya’ve got anymore favors ta use. A course if’n ya tell me what I wanna know about who that Boss is I might see my way ta findin’ the Doc for ya.”

 

“I-I cain’t. I done tol’ ya he’ll kill me.”

 

Trace grabbed at the cowboy’s shirt and pulled him close. “You killed those people on that stage; all your friends are dead and ya ain’t smart enough ta plan nothin’ so give me his name!”

 

Bogg glared at Trace and slammed shut his mouth until another painful cry escaped him when the Marshall yanked him to his feet.

 

“Tell me who was out there, Stemple, or I’ll let you bleed ta death.”

 

“I won’t!”

 

“Tell me!”

 

“NO!”

 

Trace felt a strong hand on his arm and knew it was the bigger Cartwright. He hadn’t even eard him come in and with him was probably the rest of his family. Carefully, he eased Bogg back onto the table and took a step back.

 

“That may be how they handle prisoners where you come from, Marshall,” Leslie intoned, “but this isn’t that place and right here, in my house, my word is law.”

 

Trace chastised himself for not being more cautious. With everyone out of the house he knew he could get something from this murderer and hadn’t even considered who would be walking through that door. He was so close he could feel it and standing around waiting just made him antsy. Taking a deep breath, he took another step back, anger surfacing at the small smile that curled Bogg’s lips and he turned away, eyes falling on Adam sleeping quietly in his bed, Hop Sing sitting ramrod straight in a chair next to him with a rifle clasped tightly in his hands.

 

“How’s your boy, Mr. Cartwright?” Trace asked not even looking at Ben even though he could feel his eyes boring into him.

 

“Holding his own,” was all he gave him.

 

Trace nodded. “That’s good . . . good,” he answered rubbing his chin. “And you want ta keep him that way?”

 

“Of course.”

 

Trace nodded again then turned capturing Ben with a hard look. “Then you need ta listen ta me. Your boy’s in danger – in danger from the leader of the gang that nearly killed him. And Stemple here, he’s the key. He knows what’s waitin’ out there.”

 

“That may be,” Ben began, “but denying him medical care isn’t a way to get that information.”

 

“With some men it is,” Trace answered.

 

Ben couldn’t really deny that but remained quiet.

 

Trace sighed. “I’ve got all’a two things here, Mr. Cartwright. One,” he began holding up a finger. “Your son’s testimony that there was a man with fancy spurs at his crash site and two,” another finger appeared, “this here cowboy was caught in the act holdin’ a gun ta someone’s head and pullin’ the trigger before I could stop him. That’s it. That ain’t much but it’s all I have and I aim ta get the man in charge so he can’t go out, raise another gang and start all over again. So if that means I havta manhandle this one I will and I’m within my rights as a United States Marshall.”

 

“What about human rights?” Leslie asked working on Bogg’s wound.

 

“Human rights is fine, Doc,” Trace said as he turned toward Leslie, “if you’re dealin’ with a human. I don’t call what Stemple and the rest of them that rode with him did as anythin’ human. Should I describe for you some of the things I’ve seen these past months? True, I got ta the dead after they’d been left out in the air for a time but that don’t change the fact that some of the ladies were tampered with and some of the men, well, they was torn apart and not by any bear or cougar, but a human animal. Whose human rights were violated then, Doc?”

 

Leslie remained silent, keeping eyes locked on Bogg’s wound and digging a little deeper than needed to stitch shut the hole. “Sorry,” was all he said when his patient let out a holler.

 

“So that’s what I’ve been dealin’ with these past months, Mr. Cartwright,” he gave Ben fixing him with a look, “somethin’ that ain’t very far from my head even when I’m sleepin’. So denyin’ this bastard a doctor ’til I can get some answers is far down my list of niceties. I’m sorry if’n that bothers you. I got over it after the second stage crash and you should’a gotten over it after your first night here when your son was screamin’ in pain ’cause’a what Stemple and them others done ta him.”

 

Trace pulled his gaze from Ben and stepped back toward Bogg watching his eyes move back and forth between himself and Ben then back again.

 

“What’s the matter, Stemple?” Trace asked hooking fingers in his gunbelt. “Feelin’ a little adrift now that ya’ve lost your corner man?”

 

Bogg’s gaze settled on Trace and he let fly with a wad of spit that splattered onto his badge. Slowly the Marshall reached up and yanked the kerchief from about his prisoner’s neck then very carefully wiped off his badge, tossing the soiled item back into Bogg’s lap before leaning in close.

 

“You’re stitched up now so we’re goin’ back ta that jail cell with the little winda wide open ta the night air and anythin’ else that might like ta fly through.”

 

“But he’ll kill me and ya’ll lose yer witness,” Bogg countered.

 

“You ain’t talkin’ so what’s the loss.”

 

Bogg’s brow furrowed then he sat back. “Doc, he cain’t take me back there. No tellin’ what he’ll do ta me once we’re alone.”

 

Leslie tightened the bandage over Bogg’s wound and stepped back, dipping his bloodstained hands in a white bowl.

 

“My duty is done, Mr. Stemple,” he responded, grabbing a towel to dry off.

 

“What?”

 

“You were bleeding. Now you’re not. The Marshall can do what he pleases with you now.”

 

Bogg’s brows flew up and desperate eyes searched for help. All he got were Cartwright glares and a small smile on the Marshall’s face. Silence filled the room, a silence that bombarded his head as he slid off the table and backed away.

 

“Ya ain’t takin’ me back,” he cried as the Marshall followed him.

 

“Just watch me.”

 

Trace reached out just as the air shattered with a loud explosion that rattled the windows in the house.

 

“What the . . ?” Ben blurted rushing toward the front door to fling it open, his attention drawn to flames bursting out of a building at the end of the street.

 

“That’s Darbys!” Leslie yelled before running back into his office and grabbing his bag, stuffing anything inside he could get his hands on. “We have to save the ladies!” he yelled rushing out between the Cartwright’s leaving them standing at the door.

 

“Pa, we gotta fire!” Joe yelled from the street catching sight of his father.

 

“We’ll meet you there!” Ben responded turning back into the room. “Hop Sing! Watch over Adam. Come on, Hoss!”

 

Bogg quickly moved forward to lean against the doctor’s table as everyone began to leave. “Ya cain’t leave me here with ‘im!” he yelled pointing at Trace.

 

“Don’t rightly care,” Hoss gave him as he chased after his father wondering how they were going to put out the fire as another explosion ripped through the upper floors.

 

It was then, when Bogg realized that it was only him, the Marshall, that Chinaman and a burned up man left behind, that a smile lit across his lips. Trace’s body grew rigid and a hand automatically hovered above his gun at the sight. When Bogg began to laugh he knew this was not going to turn out well.

 

“He’s comin’ fer you, Marshall,” he began in a singsong voice. “Ya ain’t got more than a few minutes ta keep breathin’. Any last words?”

 

Trace began hoisting his gun out of the holster. “How about I’ll see you in hell?” he offered.

 

“That would be my line, Marshall,” came a new voice from the door.

 

Spinning, Trace spied a smartly dressed stranger standing in the doorway holding a gun on him. He didn’t hesitate but a second before pulling the trigger but even that was too late as smoke rose from the man’s gun. The next thing he knew he was flung back against the doctor’s table and dropped heavily, his gun sliding out from numb fingers when his elbow hit the floor followed by his back. The rush of breath forced from him pushed out a cough as he tried to grasp at his pistol mere inches away. The man closed the door and stepped closer, a very specific sound echoing about the room. Trace didn’t have to see the spurs with the roses and vines to know this was who he’d been chasing all these months.

 

“I’m Drey Grisham. Nice to finally meet you after all this time.”

 

He’d failed, failed to protect his witness and failed to finish this last assignment that he was sure would haunt him even in death. Glancing up, he looked into a long dark barrel then at the man behind it.

 

“Cain’t say the same,” Trace responded as Drey smiled.

 

“Too bad. You were a worthy adversary, Marshall. Someone to respect.”

 

“Well, that just makes it all better,” he sarcastically responded around a grimace.

 

“Drey, ya come fer me,” Bogg interrupted moving around the table. “It was you weren’t it? Startin’ that fire? Smart move. Don’tcha think we oughta skedaddle quick afore they all come back?”

 

Bogg’s sickly smile was ignored by Drey as he kept his eyes on Trace, carefully picking up the Marshall’s gun and stuffing it in his belt.

 

“I did start the fire, Bogg,” he finally answered. “I had to start a diversion.”

 

“Ta rescue me right?”

 

Drey just smirked and gave a bit of a chuckle. “Now why would I want to do that?”

 

Bogg’s grin began to fade. “But, Drey, yer – yer my brother.”

 

“Just because your father married my mother doesn’t make you my brother. Besides, you’re too stupid to be kin. You got yourself caught and no telling what you’ve said to the good Marshall here.”

 

“I ain’t said nothin’, Drey. Tell ‘im, Marshall! Tell ‘im I ain’t said nothin’!”

 

Drey glanced over at Trace who’d managed to prop himself against the table, a bloodied hand holding his side.

 

“He ain’t said nothin’,” he said with a slight gasp.

 

Drey’s smirk grew larger. “Well, isn’t that grand.”

 

“Ya believe ‘im don’tcha?” Bogg begged, his eyes large and worried.

 

“Of course,” came the over exaggerated answer. “Of course I believe you didn’t say anything otherwise I’d be dead instead of you.”

 

“Wha . . .”

 

The loud blast of a gun echoed about the room and Bogg fell backward, his head impacting a hard drawer followed by a silent fall to the floor. Glancing over the table, Drey noticed the boy still breathed and pumped two more rounds into his head. Satisfied he was now the only brother left in the Grisham family, he stood up straight and centered his attention back on Trace whose eyes had never left him.

 

“So now I’m in a quandary, Marshall,” he began hoisting a hip onto the table. “Shall I sit here and tell you what I plan on doing to the witness in the other room before I take my time with you or should I just shoot the both of you and make my escape?”

 

Trace gave him a slight chuckle knowing it didn’t matter how long he kept Drey here – no one would make it back in time. The only thing he had going for them was Hop Sing silently waiting in Adam’s room with a rifle and by the time he could act, the Marshall knew he’d be dead. Drey Grisham was a murderer without conscience, without compassion and, frankly, he was amazed he was still sitting upright with breath in his lungs.

 

“Ya ain’t got much time, Grisham,” Trace began deciding to give it a try. “Pretty soon the fire’ll be under control and all them Cartwright’s’ll be stridin’ through the door and they’re gonna be pissed that you killed their kin.”

 

“Ah, I’ll be long gone by then,” Drey gave him. “Off to San Francisco for some fine clothes, a box of chocolates and on the lookout for a new gang since you killed all my men.”

 

“Not all,” Trace gave him with a nod toward Bogg’s bloodied body.

 

“Very true,” Drey agreed coming off the table and turning toward the hall behind him. “He was always a detriment to me, even when I was younger. Couldn’t wait to kill him. Should’ve done it sooner.” He stopped and looked at the three closed doors. “Hmm. I wonder which door. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.(4)”

 

“He didn’t tell me nothin’, Grisham,” Trace tried, wincing as he sat up straighter. “And he ain’t gonna tell you nothin’ neither since he ain’t been conscious since he was brung in.”

 

Drey turned his head. “Odd,” he said. “I was just at the Red Slipper and his entire family was there congratulating the doctor for saving him.”

 

“Oh, he’s still alive, just ain’t awake.”

 

“Which means he’ll be awake at some point or they’d all be wearing black and crying their eyes out.” He eyed Trace closely. “I’ve heard plenty of things about you, Marshall, but having a sense of humor wasn’t one of them.”

 

“Have you also heard that just ’cause I might be wearin’ my gun in full view don’t mean I ain’t got another.”

 

A derringer(5) appeared in Trace’s hand and he fired. The shock on Drey’s face as the bullet connected forcing him to his knees was missed as the Marshall scrambled for purchase on the bloodstained floor and launched himself at the man.

 

The fight for the gun moved in slow motion as bullet after bullet erupted over their heads, Trace losing count as he was losing that surge of energy that had propelled him forward in the first place. He was desperate to stop this but didn’t have a clue how when serendipity struck – the front door whipped open and slammed into the sideboard unbalancing the punchbowl and sending it careening to the floor, the sounds of shattering glass filling the room and stilling the struggling duo on the floor.

 

Elation filled Trace at the sight before him and he forced out a yell. “SHOOT!”

 

It didn’t take but a moment for Joe to respond, pulling his gun and firing, the impact slamming Drey against a door, startled eyes watching his gun fall from his hand then center on his killer standing ready to fire again.

 

Breath coming in fast gasps, it was hard for him to take in what had just happened. His world had been turned upside down once again even though he’d had everything planned. Never, not once had he thought it would end like this – crumpled against a door bleeding all over himself in a town buried in sand. No, he always thought he’d die in silk pajamas with an arm wrapped about a sweet honey and the morning sun shining on his face. That’s what his lucky hat had been for – protection – and now there it was lying just out of reach, his own blood splattered across the crown.

 

He turned a glazed look to Trace. “I knew . . . I should’ve just . . . blown your head off,” he confessed.

 

“You’re right there, Grisham,” Trace agreed propping himself against the opposite wall, a bloodied hand back to holding the wound in his side. “Instead you hadta talk my head off. One’a your faults I’m guessin’.”

 

Drey gave a slight nod. “Never thought I had any but I . . . I guess you’re not too old to find out . . . new things.”

 

“Here’s somethin’ new,” Trace began a smile coming to bloodied lips. “You’re under arrest, Drey Grisham, for the attempted murder of Adam Cartwright and the murders of twenty-five innocent people along with the destruction of . . . of property not rightly yours.”

 

Trace listened to Drey’s weak laugh and watched him cough up blood, his thin breath coming quicker.

 

“. . . too . . . late,” was all he could get out before eyes rolled up and he fell limply to the floor.

 

“For you maybe,” Trace whispered, feeling himself start to drift. “Not . . . for me.” His head made a loud thump as it hit the floor.

 

“Marshall!” Joe called kneeling next to Trace as another sound from behind made him whirl, gun in hand, to see a wide-eyed Hop Sing peeking out the door, a rifle pointed at Number Three son.

 

“Safe to come out?” he asked.

 

Relief washed through Joe and he nodded. “Adam?”

 

“Sleep. Marshall need doctor.”

 

“I’ll go.”

 

“You stay,” Hop Sing said propping the rifle against the wall. “No telling how many bad men left out there.”

 

With that he was gone leaving Joe to hold down the fort.

 

Epilogue – 16 days later

 

“You can’t be Elen Trundell,” Adam said, eyes wide with surprise taking in the 17 year old beauty before him. “The last time I saw you . . .”

 

“About as big as a minute,” she responded with a bright gleam in her eye trying desperately not to wince at the sight of burns and bandages covering the handsomest man she’d ever known.

 

It had been 16 days since the ‘takedown at Doc Bick’s’ as the citizens of Chance called it and the partying was still going on. Of course an additional stage full of whiskey, supplies and medicines aided the festivities as well.

 

The town was still in the process of cleaning up – Darby’s was still doing business (couldn’t keep them down for long) while undergoing a rebuild along with the other buildings that had taken damage from Drey Grisham’s diversion. Doc Bick’s office had been sponged clean of blood and shattered glass and Adam, who’d slept through all the commotion, was now up and taking nourishment albeit in a wheelchair.

 

And since no one could make it out to Bob Trundell’s as originally planned, he brought his entire brood to town – his lovely wife, Ella, and their six children: Ethan, Edward, Elen, Elisa, Efrem and Ellis. Along with the Trundell’s were Darby owners Brownie Dutreau and Ginger Span along with Jed Hopker and Finny Blemmer.

 

As for the Marshall, well, Trace was up and walking about much to the consternation of the good doctor, and was adamant about returning home. His first sojourn out to get Henry resulted in him being carted back to the doctor’s house flat on his back. The second only got him as far as the front door. It was when he found Hoss standing over him, hands on his hips, that he decided he might stay awhile.

 

And that all led up to the feast on this fine day in Chance.

 

Leslie’s house was brimming with food and people all currently seated about the largest table they could pull from the Southern Belle. Wine, whiskey and beer flowed; beef was prevalent and all of Hop Sing’s finest dishes (made mostly with the pile of vegetables and potatoes brought from the Trundell house) dotted the table. Clinking utensils and sounds of ‘pass me this’ or ‘pass me that’ echoed about a room that had just recently been buried in blood and death. It seemed to cleanse it somehow, make it whole, bring it back to what it was supposed to be – a house of healing.

 

“I had a growth spurt over the five years you haven’t seen me,” Elen concluded smiling at Adam then turning away to spear a piece of meat and bring it to her plate. He just grinned glad he could partake in anything let alone a bit of joshing.

 

He’d come awake an hour after all the fuss wondering why Joe had blood on him and Hoss was cleaning the floor. It took another hour for the whole story to be conveyed with multiple participants, too many as far as Adam was concerned, and it made his head spin. What he did understand was that only a wooden door, Hop Sing’s rifle, Joe and the Marshall had been between him and the final curtain and for that he was most grateful.

 

And now he was glaring at Joe who sat four seats from him giggling into his hand.

 

“Joseph,” Ben said sternly.

 

“I’m sorry,” he got in between more giggles.

 

“Your brother is having trouble using his hands.”

 

“I know,” he continued giggling.

 

“Here, let me,” Elen said with a charming smile, taking the knife from Ben and proceeding to finish cutting Adam’s beef. “I don’t see the harm in helping out a friend especially when he’s suffered through so much recently.”

 

“And I thank you, Elen,” came Adam’s answer as he passed a sweet smile toward Joe whose giggles began to fade away, his eyes moving from Adam toward Ben then Hoss then onto the gathered all giving him hard looks and shakes of the head.

 

“Sorry, Adam,” he gave his brother without looking at him.

 

“No problem, Joe,” he answered. “I was trying to figure out myself how I was going to master this little chore. And, my, but don’t I have a pretty meat cutter at that?” He smiled at Elen noting her blush.

 

Ben cleared his throat hoping to take this conversation in a different direction. “Leslie, Trace, Hop Sing” he said drawing their attention as he raised his glass of wine. “I just wanted to thank you all for being in the right place at the right time when Adam needed you most. Without any of you, he might not be here today.”

 

“Hear, hear,” everyone agreed taking a drink and lowering their glasses.

 

“I, too, want to offer my thanks,” Adam began holding up a wine glass with both hands. “Without the good doctor and Hop Sing and Jed Hopker I’d still be in a world of hurt or worse. And, Marshall, well if you hadn’t stuck to your guns and fought like a madman and Joe, if you hadn’t shown up when you did, a little bitty door wouldn’t’ve been enough to delay the inevitable.”

 

He turned his gaze toward the end of the table. “But I especially want to thank my brother, Hoss,” he added capturing those baby blues. “For without that man’s strength, devotion and comfort, I might’ve just left this plane of existence and ventured away from everyone and everything I love. Thank you, Hoss, for being my brother and my friend.”

 

Joe’s whoop was the loudest followed by everyone else as they looked toward Hoss whose face turned all the glorious shades of red. But he kept his eyes on Adam knowing the sentiment was true for he felt the same.

 

The spell was broken when Bob rose from the table and headed toward a crate near the door.

 

“What’cha got there, Bob?” Jed asked.

 

“Well,” he began pulling off the top of the crate. “Since everyone knows that the best thing about Doc Bick’s entry was a lovely punchbowl, and young Cartwright over there broke it.” He stopped then and eyed Joe.

 

“It was an emergency!” he nearly shouted. “Doc needed bandages!”

 

“Settle, Joseph,” Ben whispered.

 

Bob grinned. “We, the missus and I, thought it should be replaced.” With that he reached into the crate and pulled out an exact replica of the shattered punchbowl.

 

Leslie’s brows flew up his head as he traded looks with the elder Trundell’s. “I can’t accept that, Bob,” Leslie exclaimed.

 

“Of course you can,” Ella gave him placing a hand over his. “I don’t ever use it and it’s so beautiful, well, people need to see it. Don’t have many folks come out to our place. It needs to be here.”

 

“Ella . . .”

 

“You better take it, Doc,” Edward whispered. “Ma’s afraid the young’uns’ll break it.”

 

“Would not!” Ellis and Efrem (the young’uns in question) exclaimed bringing smiles to everyone’s faces thus ending Leslie protestations.

 

“All right. Thank you, Ella,” he said kissing her cheek. “And you, too, Bob.”

 

“It was Elise’s idea,” he answered.

 

Leslie turned to the pretty 15 year old. “Thank you, Miss Elise. I’ll always think of you when I look at it.” She blushed like mad and nodded her head making everyone grin.

 

Placing the bowl in its proper place, Bob stopped behind Joe and leaned in real close. “No more running through the front door.”

 

“Good luck with that,” Hop Sing stated off-handedly making everyone laugh, Joe picking out Adam’s laugh amongst the others. It didn’t bother him because it was a good sound, a sound he thought he’d never hear again.

 

The discussions picked up and moved around the table, food was eaten, laughs were traded, stories were told until all the food was gone and Adam had fallen asleep in his chair. A blanket being tucked about him woke him and he fought the idea of going to bed until he was reminded that the sooner he went to sleep the sooner it would be morning – a day when they would be heading home. His good nights couldn’t be said quickly enough bringing chuckles to the group as dishes were cleaned and coffee passed around for a quiet evening in Chance.

 

BZBZBZBZBZ

 

“Now this is the way to travel,” Adam commented with a sigh as he let his battered body sink into the soft mattress in the back of the wagon, wincing slightly.

 

“Ya all right there?” Hoss asked hesitating to put the sheet on him.

 

Adam smiled up at his brother. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry so.”

 

“Cain’t help it,” he answered laying the sheet gently over his brother’s damaged body.

 

“I appreciate that. Don’t think I don’t.”

 

Hoss just nodded and gave him a smile.

 

The wagon had been Jed’s idea. Seemed to him that the only decent way to get home was smooth and slow as opposed to a stage that managed to hit every hole and blew dirt in everyone’s faces until a week of bathing was needed. The ladies over at Darby’s got wind of the project and quickly put together a canvas to stretch over the top while Butch and Clancy put together the slats needed to hold it up. The mattress was donated by the Red Slipper along with blankets and sheets and the horses came from King Verell’s livery – Barney and Bette – stout draft horses capable of pulling Adam home. It had been a community affair surprising Ben but not Leslie who knew the citizens of Chance were a fine group despite what everyone might think.

 

“Keep the pace slow and steady and make sure that you change his bandages three times a day,” Adam heard as Leslie approached with Ben and groaned making the good doctor smile. “Being that you’ll be out in the sand we need to make sure that it doesn’t infiltrate his wounds.”

 

“I make sure,” Hop Sing said climbing into the back of the wagon.

 

“I’m sure you will,” Leslie smiled. “And the canvas should shield him from much of the harsh sun.”

 

“Please give my thanks to the ladies again, Doc,” Adam said as Hop Sing fluffed his pillow.

 

“The ladies accept your thanks,” came from Ginger as she and Brownie stepped up next to Ben who tipped his hat. Adam glanced over and smiled.

 

“And you have mine as well,” Ben added.

 

“Have a safe trip,” Ginger said.

 

“When you get healed up, come on back,” Brownie gave Adam with a wink.

 

“I’ll see what I can do,” he gave her watching her smile.

 

“Even all burned up you still get the ladies,” Joe said with a shake of his head as he hauled Hop Sing’s bags into the wagon.

 

“It’s my twinkly smile,” he gave his brother providing an example only to have Joe roll his eyes.

 

“I bet ol’ Sport’s been missing ya somethin’ fierce,” Hoss added.

 

“No more than I’ve missed him,” Adam answered with a yawn. “Can’t wait to get home and sleep in my own bed.”

 

“We be there soon,” Hop Sing provided patting Adam on the shoulder.

 

“Well, let’s get a move on then,” Ben ordered shaking Leslie’s hand before turning to the Marshall leading Henry toward them. He held out his hand again. Trace easily took it. “I can’t thank you enough, Marshall.”

 

“Just doin’ my job. You take care’a Adam there and maybe I’ll take ya up on your offer ta visit once I get home back under my feet for a spell.”

 

“We’ll be expecting you.”

 

Trace touched the brim of his hat and turned toward Leslie. “Doctor, thanks for fixin’ me up. Sorry we messed up your place some.”

 

“No worries. I’m just glad it’s all over. If you’re ever this way again . . .”

 

“I’ll be sure ta stop by,” he finished with a smile. “Adam, Hoss, Joe, Hop Sing.” He nodded toward them then mounted. “Come on, Henry. Time ta go home.” Henry’s ears pricked up at that then nodded his head ending with a short whiny.

 

“I’m with Henry,” Hoss said tying off Chubb and Buck to the back of the wagon before climbing onto the seat, Ben following close behind.

 

“Take care, Cartwrights!” Leslie shouted as Joe vaulted into Cochise’s saddle and tailed after the departing wagon, Bob and his family coming up alongside.

 

“Thought we’d tag along for a bit,” he informed Ben. “No telling what bandits you might run into.”

 

“Say we never made it out ta check up on them Brahmas,” Hoss mentioned.

 

“No matter. When you return Barney and Bette we’ll have a look see then.”

 

Ben just smiled and glanced back into the wagon to see Hop Sing rubbing some salve on Adam’s hands. “You okay back there?” he asked.

 

“We fine,” Hop Sing answered as Adam watched out the back silently saying goodbye to Chance.

 

His thoughts traveled back to those first hours as he lay in the sun and sand and figured he was going to die. It was only when he thought he saw Hoss’s hat that a flicker of hope raised its head – at least he wouldn’t die alone. Now he was in the grasp of his entire family heading home and, boy, did that feel good.

 

“You sleep, Mista Adam,” Hop Sing whispered. “Best medicine – sleep.”

 

“I agree with you there.”

 

With that he closed his eyes and dreamed of home, thanking Chance for giving him . . . a second chance.

 

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