Summary: Adam will do whatever it takes to get his brother back – but will it be enough?
Rated: T WC 13,700
“There is a destiny that makes us brothers, no one goes his way alone; all that we send into the lives of others, comes back into our own.”
— Edwin Markham
Bonds of Brotherhood
“I don’t understand why you won’t let me go into town today!” Joe said. “I promise to get all my work done!”
Adam sighed inwardly, feeling a headache coming on. “Because,” he said with strained patience, “with Pa and Hoss both gone for a couple days we have more work than we can handle. I need your help keeping everything on the ranch running smoothly.”
He watched his fifteen-year old brother curiously, noting the disappointment in the emerald eyes. “Why do you want to go into town anyway?”
There was a moment of silence as Joe considered his answer. “Well, um, there is this thing -” he said, chewing his lower lip nervously. “A lot of my friends were going to be there and I heard people are traveling from all over to see hi-” he stopped suddenly, averting his eyes to the table. “I really want to go,” he finished quietly.
Oh, there was definitely something he was hiding. Adam leaned his chair back and eyed his brother suspiciously. “Who’s coming into town today?”
Joe continued to stare at the table, tracing the knots in the wood with his finger as he mumbled something unintelligible.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
“I said,” Joe cleared his throat, “I said Peter McCord was being brought to town.”
Adam blanched at the name and his chair came down with a thump. He looked at his brother through narrowed eyes. “The same Peter McCord who’s being tried for robbery and murder?”
“Yes,” Joe said, his answer almost inaudible.
Adam would have given a derisive snort if he hadn’t known it would just make the situation worse. It was typical Joe. “Sure, you just ahead and ride into town and shake hands with the murderer. Maybe even try to squeeze him for a signature for me, signed with the very blood on his hands.”
He regretted it as soon as he’d said it. It hadn’t made the situation any better, that’s for sure – the look on his brother’s face confirmed that.
“It’s not like that!” Joe said angrily. “ We were just going to watch from the Bucket of Blo-” he clapped his mouth shut, looking horrified.
“Absolutely not,” Adam said firmly, rising from his seat. This whole discussion was ridiculous, and he was done with it. “We’ve got work to do. You need to go finish getting ready so you help Asa repair the fences.” He turned and headed for the door, indicating they were finished.
He made it halfway across the room before he heard a chair bang back. He sighed, knowing his brother was coming after him. Having grown up with Joe’s quick temper, he knew confrontation was inevitable. He only wished Joe had waited a little longer than the morning Pa left to start an argument.
“You think I’m too young, don’t you?” Joe said as he came up behind him. “I’ve had beer before you know!”
Adam stopped at the accusation, but didn’t turn around. That’s what the kid thought this was all about. Drinking beer. Not a word about personal or family responsibility. He shook his head slowly. “My word is final.” He grabbed his hat and opened the door.
“When will you stop treating me like a child?” Joe snapped, “I’m just as much of an adult as you are!”
Adam turned around and eyed him coolly. “Then start acting like one,” he said quietly. He walked out of the house, closing the door, and the discussion, behind him.
Today was going to be hot; it was a quarter past eight and the sun’s rays were already agonizingly bright. As Adam entered the barn, he couldn’t help but be glad that he had bookkeeping to do inside today. Guess that’s just one of the perks of being in charge, he thought, a little smug.
A shout snapped him out of his thoughts, and he looked up to see a fifty-pound bag of feed lurching off the loft above. He threw himself out of the way with less than a second to spare, the bag crashing to the floor just where he’d been standing. Through the cloud of dust he could see a figure scurrying down the ladder.
“Mr. Cartwright!” The man ran up, pushing a lock of pale blond hair out of his face. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t know you’d come in!”
Adam wiped the dust off his pants, “It’s all right, Asa. Just glad I had my coffee this morning.” He gave the man a small smile. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you, anyway.”
“You’re not in trouble,” Adam said, seeing the worry flicker across the man’s face, “I just wanted to check and see how you’re adjusting. Some of the hands can be a little difficult, and I just wanted to make sure none of them were giving you any trouble.”
He studied the hand as he waited for an answer. It had come to his attention that in the two weeks Asa had worked for them, he hadn’t seemed to make friends among any of the other hands. It wasn’t as if anyone was being openly hostile towards the man, but then again, no one really talked to him that much at all. He was determined to find out whether Asa himself was the problem, or whether something had happened to instigate it.
“Don’t worry about me, Mr. Cartwright,” Asa said, giving him a look of understanding. “I get along fine with the others; I’m just not a very sociable person.” He gave a tight smile, “With Mama dead, Pa working all the time, and me taking care of my brother, I didn’t get much time to practice talking to people.”
Adam nodded, feeling relieved that it wasn’t anything more serious. “Well, I hope you know that you can talk to me or my father if you ever need anything, though.”
Asa gave him a yellow-toothed smile. “I appreciate it, Mr. Cartwright.” He moved away to saddle his horse.
“So, I decided to send Joe with you today to fix up the fences.” Adam leaned against a stall door. “I’m glad that you suggested it last night; I think he could use a little time away from me.” He gave half a shrug as Asa shot him an inquiring glance. “I told him that he couldn’t go into town this afternoon, so he’s pretty angry. I’m sorry if he’s in a bad mood when you have to work with him.”
Asa gave a little chuckle as he tightened the straps on the saddle. “My younger brother was the exact same way, never liked me telling him what to do. To tell you the truth, Mr. Cartwright, part of the reason I wanted Joe to come with me is because he reminds me so much of my brother.” Asa patted his horse’s neck absently. “Yep, you kind of start missing them after awhile, you know what I mean?”
Adam started to reply, but was cut off as the barn door slammed and Joe came stalking in. He was almost a comical sight to look at with his hat pulled down over his eyes and his mouth was screwed into a dark scowl.
“Morning Joe!” Asa waved cheerfully. Adam had to hide the grin that crept onto his face at the annoyed look his brother gave the man. Joe didn’t return the greeting, but muttered something about shooting overly cheerful morning people as he went by. They both chuckled, and then Adam bid him a good morning before leaving.
A small smile strayed onto Adam’s lips as he walked back into the house; he wasn’t quite sure whether he felt sorrier for Joe or for Asa, but he was glad to have his brother out of his hair for a little while – hopefully the fresh air would do him some good.
Adam put down his pencil and massaged his cramping hand; his father had left him more paper work than he had imagined. Looking at the stack of bills and contracts that still had to be sorted through, he guessed that Pa had probably been lax on doing it these last couple of days knowing his oldest son would take care of it when he was away.
He groaned as he got up – all of this paper work was making him feel older than his twenty-seven years. Stretching, he headed for the kitchen, determined to scrounge up some lunch before he went any further. He mourned the loss of Hop Sing this week – the thought of the days of sandwiches ahead made him shudder. The faithful cook deserved a vacation, though, and with two Cartwrights gone, this week was better than most.
As he passed the window, he stopped, shielding his eyes against the sun. He frowned slightly as he saw Asa riding in, a look of aggravation playing across the hand’s face. He watched as the man swung down from his horse and glanced around, his eyes intent as they swept the empty yard. Apparently not finding what he was looking for, the man stood quietly for a moment, then shook his head and walked into the barn.
Intrigued by the unusual behavior, Adam headed outside. He found Asa in the corner of the barn, rummaging through the tools.
“Done with that fence already?” he asked only half-jokingly.
If Asa was surprised that Adam had come in, he didn’t show it. He gave a strained grin as he kept on searching. “Oh, about half way there, Mr. Cartwright,” he wiped his forehead off on his sleeve. “Sure is a hot one today, isn’t it?”
Adam nodded. He hadn’t been outside more than a few minutes and he could already feel the sweat trickling down his spine. He raised an eyebrow as Asa gave up his search and muttered some choice words under his breath. He hoped he hadn’t been using that language around his little brother. Joe picked things up easily, and Pa would likely have a conniption fit if he heard him talking like that.
“What were you looking for?”
“Well,” Asa said, rubbing the back of his neck, “I was looking for some nails, but it seems we’re all out.” There was a moment of silence before he spoke again, looking extremely uncomfortable. “You haven’t seen Joe, have you?”
“Joe?” Adam frowned, “no, I thought he was with you.”
“Yeah, well, I sent him for some nails about two hours ago, and he never came back. I finally ran out, so I decided to come and get them myself. I was hoping that maybe he came home and just got busy with something else…” Asa trailed off, sighing.
Adam had an idea where this was going, and he could already feel irritation start to flicker in his stomach. “You said ‘hoping,’ as if you expected something different.”
Asa looked away, trying to think of the best way to tell his boss something he didn’t want to hear. “W-well,” he stammered, “he was pretty upset about not being able to go into town. He kept mumbling stuff to himself. I tried talking to him, but he didn’t want to. So, I thought if I sent him to go get some more nails, maybe he would cool off a little bit. When he didn’t come back…”
“You figured he probably went into town.” Adam said, his brow darkening. He cursed under his breath as he stomped across the barn towards the stalls, his thoughts already calculating the valuable time that would be wasted and the trouble that would come from punishing his brother.
“God, why couldn’t You’ve given me a little sister?” He muttered as saddled Sport. “She could’ve stayed home and baked bread and read books – it would have been perfect!”
Asa sat on his horse waiting for him as he left the barn. “I thought I might tag along to get some more nails,” he said, giving a small smile. “Figured you might be a little too busy to remember them.” Adam nodded curtly and nudged his horse out of the yard – time to go retrieve his little brother.
Virginia City was abuzz with people. Main Street had become a sea of humanity as locals and visitor alike milled around, all eager to share the latest gossip on Peter McCord and his gang. Some would stay to attend the trial, which was scheduled to be in two days time, but most just wanted to catch a glimpse of the man who had caused such a panic in the territory.
Adam eyed them all soberly. He didn’t approve of people idolizing a man, especially a criminal. Pa had always taught them to uphold the law as best a possible, and people coming out and treating Peter McCord like a celebrity did nothing but encourage men like him.
He reined in Sport outside of the Bucket of Blood and hopped down. The noise coming from inside was incredible, a mixture of drunken shouting, raucous laughter, and breaking furniture. He made his way through the saloon doors, but stopped when Asa following him.
“Nails, Asa?” Adam reminded him, not unkindly. He thought he saw annoyance flicker across the man’s face, but it was gone in an instant, replaced with a sheepish grin.
“Oh right, nails.” He said, edging away. “I forgot. Must have just – got – caught up – in the excitement…” and then he was gone, half jogging down the street towards the store.
Adam couldn’t blame him for his behavior. While Cartwright brawls were few and far between, you could be assured that when they did happen, it would involve damaged property bills and most likely a visit to the doctor. Pa blamed it on being a ‘passionate’ family, but Adam knew it was really because he and Joe were on opposite sides of the temperament scale.
Where he was cool-headed and rational, Joe was quick-tempered and bull-headed. When he saw left, Joe saw right; when he said yes, Joe said no. They were like a smoldering match and a house full of oil – they tended to set each other off. Usually their strong brotherly bond kept them pretty stable, but as all families go, they had their bumps from time to time. Adam really hoped this wasn’t one of those times.
The inside of the saloon offered little relief from the blazing sun. Men were packed in every possible space, from standing in the corners to sitting on the tables. The air smelled of beer and stale sweat.
Adam ignored the shouts of welcome directed at him as he scanned the room, looking for his brother’s telltale curly chestnut hair. He wasn’t there. That left only one option; he turned towards the bar, where a harassed looking Sam was trying to serve a rail full of demanding patrons.
He pushed his way through to the bar, ignoring angry glares along the way, and waved at Sam to get his attention. The man gave him a small nod and made his way over to him, delivering a couple of beers along the way.
“Looks like you’ve got quite a crowd today!” Adam said, trying to make himself heard over the noise.
“A mob is more like it,” Sam grumbled. “I’ve already-” he swiveled around as angry shouts and the sound of broken glass rose from the back corner. “HEY! YOU BREAK IT, YOU BUY IT!” he shouted. “DON’T MAKE ME GET THE SHERIFF IN HERE!” He turned back around, looking aggravated.
“I’ve already lost a table, a few chairs, and at least ten mugs, and it’s only early afternoon! I wish the sheriff could spare one of his two hired deputies; I could use the help.” He sighed. “But you didn’t come to listen to me grumble. Do you want a beer?”
“Actually, I was just looking for Joe. You seen him?”
Sam looked thoughtful. “I’m not sure. I don’t think so, but it’s been so busy in here that he could have just come in when I wasn’t looking.” He swore at the sound of splintering wood; apparently the argument in the back corner had come to a head. “I got to go take care of this. Wish I could’ve been more help, Adam.”
He grabbed a broom and waded through the crowd. If the circumstances had been different, Adam would have found the scene amusing. It wasn’t every day that you got to see an angry barkeeper chase a bunch of drunks out with a broom.
As it was, though, Joe was still missing, and Adam didn’t really know where to look next. Without looking back at Sam or his unruly patrons, he left the saloon and went out into the streaming sunlight.
The trip back to the ranch was tense. Adam was still angry, but he could feel uncertainty start to gnaw at his stomach. What if Joe hadn’t made it into town? Sam had said that he hadn’t seen him. But then again, he did have his hands full with all of those rowdy customers. That still didn’t make sense, though. Joe was known for being the life of the party wherever he went; there was no way he wouldn’t be noticed.
Asa had mentioned that maybe Joe had kept a low profile today, seeing as he wasn’t supposed to be in town, and maybe had stayed for only a little bit. He thought this was a valid point, but if it were true, wouldn’t they’ve passed him on their way to town?
He could have gone a different route, his mind whispered to him. He knew you would probably be coming after him, and he would want to avoid you for as long as possible.
Adam ground his teeth in frustration at his own doubt and their useless trip. Asa was probably right. Joe was at home right now gloating about his little outing and preparing himself for the tempest to come.
As they neared the ranch, he started to plan out his lecture. That was childish… irresponsible… can’t trust you… not allowed to go into town for a lon–
Everything came to an abrupt halt as they rode into the yard and he saw Cooch waiting calmly outside the barn. All of his doubts flooded back again. Joe loved that horse more than he loved himself; he would never leave it out fully saddled, especially on a day as hot as today.
“Joe?” he yelled, swinging down next to his brother’s horse. “Joe!” Getting no reply, he ran to the house and bounded up the stairs to Joe’s room. “Joe?” He threw open the door and peered in. Empty.
He hurried down the stairs, his heart pounding as one terrible thought after another slammed into his brain. Joe lying on the ground bloody and broken from falling off his horse, Joe with a robber’s bullet londged in his back…
“Asa!” He shouted, heading back outside. “I want you to round up the hands and tell them to mount up.” Asa didn’t reply. He was standing next to Joe’s horse with his back to him. “Asa?”
The man turned around slowly, his face pale under his dark tan and eyes wide with horror. “Asa, what’s wrong?” Adam was trying hard to keep the tremor out of his voice.
“I-I found it in h-his saddlebag,” the hand said, his voice hardly above a whisper.
Adam looked down to see Asa clutching Joe’s hat in his hands, though couldn’t see what had him so pale. As he grabbed it, something fell out and fluttered to the ground. Reaching down, he picked it up with trembling fingers.
The folded piece of paper was yellowing and smudged with dirt; the edges ragged. But that wasn’t what had had Asa so upset. No, it was the red splotches of blood that covered the entire paper. It was fresh. Adam could smell it – salty, bitter, and metallic, coming off in waves as he opened it.
We have your brother.
Meet us tomorrow morning at 7:30 at Barrow’s Rock, unarmed, or he dies
Don’t leave the ranch until that time or he dies
Don’t talk to anyone or he dies
He read it again and then looked around, half expecting Joe to jump out and laugh at the scare he had caused his older brother, but the yard remained silent of everything except his pounding heart. A cold lump of despair settled in his stomach. His throat closed.
Instantly, he thought of Pa. How would he tell him that he would be coming home to one son instead of two? He shook his head, banishing the thoughts. He would get his brother back even if he had to tear down every mountain in the country. A hot, fiery anger started to consume him. It scared him a little, but he did nothing to stop it.
“What are you going to do, Mr. Cartwright?” He was so wrapped in his thoughts he’d forgotten that Asa was still standing there.
Adam turned to look at him, and the man flinched at the smoldering fury reflected in his boss’ eyes. There was a moment of silence before Adam said in a low growl, “Whatever it takes.”
The purple and orange sky from the morning’s dawn was just beginning to fade into pale blue as Adam set out for Barrow’s Rock. He hadn’t slept at all last night. After hours of tossing and turning, he had finally given up sleep and reached for his battered copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. Normally the tale of a man’s desire for revenge drew him in, but not tonight. Tonight, it struck too close to home. After staring at the same page for over an hour, he gave up and lay in bed, looking at the ceiling and trying not to his worry overrun him.
So, it was almost with relief he went to saddle Sport in the morning. Anything was better than doing nothing. A sleepy eyed and unshaven Asa had met him at the barn that morning, ready to help. Adam had made him promise the night before not to tell anyone what had happened – the less people who knew about it, the more chance Joe had of surviving.
It took him about half an hour to get to Barrow’s Rock; it was located just outside the Ponderosa on the edge of the forest. It came into view long before he reached it, as it was more like a small, flat mountain than a rock. Rising smoothly in the front, it jutted twenty feet in the air before flattening out to make a small plateau. In the back, it sloped back down to the ground gently, making it climbable and a great place for a lookout.
A figure scurried down from the rock as he got closer, no doubt to tell his friends that they had company. They were waiting for him. Two men on horses sat with guns drawn as he rode up. A moment of silence followed as Adam stopped about twenty feet away and the men sized each other up.
One of the men was wearing a dirty, brown coat that was way to big for his lanky body, but not nearly long enough. His dark blue eyes flickered around nervously as he absently rubbed a puckered scar that went the length of his cheek. His friend was as short as the other was tall, his muscle smooth and wiry with dark features that were twisted into a permanent smirk. He was the first to talk, a deep, grating voice coming from his crooked lips.
“Zeke, go an’ check him. Make sure he don’t have any guns.”
The man with the scar swung his long body out of the saddle, and crossed the distance between them in four steps. He motioned for Adam to get down from his horse, and proceeded to pat him down in search of weapons. After a thorough search of his saddlebags, Zeke gave a satisfied grunt.
“Nothin’ here, Dan!” he yelled back.
The Crooked Man, now known as Dan, nodded. He pulled a grubby, checkered handkerchief out of his pocket, and tossed it to Zeke, who nimbly plucked it out of the air.
“Now listen here, Mr. Cartwright,” Dan said, “we’re going to take you to our camp, but first you’re going to have to blindfold yourself. Don’t want you to see where our hideout is, now do we?”
Adam silently took the handkerchief from Zeke, and tied it tightly around his eyes. He stood waiting for a minute, unable to see anything, before a sudden blow to the face sent him sprawling on the ground. He gritted his teeth as he heard the men laughing and spat out a mouthful of blood.
Zeke grabbed his hand before he could tear off the blindfold and helped him to his feet. “Sorry ‘bout that Mr. Cartwright, just had to make sure you couldn’t see anything.” This sent them into another fit of laughter, and Adam clenched his fists to keep from hitting the face that belonged to the hand on his arm.
After being helped onto his horse by Zeke, they set off for the kidnapper’s camp. When they stopped about a half-hour later, he was completely lost despite his best efforts to remember the route. No doubt they had taken the long way around. With Dan’s permission, he pulled off his blindfold and surveyed his surroundings.
They were in a small clearing in the woods, void of anything but a fire pit, some bedrolls, and stuff for the horses. It was obvious that they weren’t planning on staying very long. None of that seemed to matter, though, as Adam spotted a body lying prone on the other side of the camp.
“Joe?” he whispered. He ran over and kneeled next to the inert figure that could only be his little brother. Joe was laying face down on the ground with his hands tied behind his back and his ankles lashed together. As Adam carefully turned him over, a small gasp escaped him; the heat coming from his brother’s body was disturbing.
He hissed as he saw the source of the fever – a jagged stab wound in his right shoulder. Adam carefully picked the blood-encrusted shirt away from the wound as he tried to get a better look at it. The cut was about an inch and a half long, angry red in color, and oozing yellow and clear liquid – all the signs of infection.
“Why’d you stab him?” He growled, turning to Dan. The man shrugged.
“Wasn’t my fault. I told the kid to come quietly, but he chose to get in a tussle with me.” He tried to sound nonchalant as he answered, but the fire in the dark-haired man’s eyes unnerved him.
Adam broke off the murderous glare only to turn back to his brother. “Joe,” Adam said, shaking him gently, “Joe, can you hear me buddy?” Adam bit his lip in worry as his brother stayed painfully silent.
He turned to Zeke who was still standing by the horses. “Throw me my canteen!” he ordered. Zeke raised an eyebrow at him but then shrugged, doing as he asked. Adam wetted the handkerchief they had used to blindfold him and wiped his brother’s face with it; the water wasn’t cold, but it was better than nothing.
“Joe, c’mon buddy. I need you to wake up for me!” He was rewarded with a little groan, but that was all. “I need to get him to a doctor!” He said, gently running his fingers through the slick, brown locks “He has a high fever.”
“That should encourage you to get the job done quickly, then.” Adam jumped as a voice spoke behind him. He looked back to see a man with shaggy, blond hair and ice blue eyes staring intently at him. There was a familiar look about him, but Adam’s mind was in too much of a frenzy to try to place him.
He stood and faced the man. “Look, I don’t know what you want, but just let me get my brother to a doctor and then we can discuss whatever you want done. You have my word on it.”
The man chuckled, showing a row of yellow, broken teeth. “Mr. Cartwright, let me tell you something. You may consider your word to be as solid as gold, but in my line of work, the only way to be successful is by not trusting anyone. So, forgive me for saying it, but I don’t trust you.”
“So what is it you want then?” There was anger in his desperation. “Is it money? If you want money, have one of your men ride into town with me right now and I’ll withdraw however much you want.”
“Oh, I have no doubt about that!” he said, eyes glinting. “The generosity of you Cartwrights precedes you. But we’re not after your money. We already have all the money we need; we just need a little help getting it. That’s where you and your brother come in.” He poked a dirty finger into Adam’s chest.
Adam narrowed his eyes and pushed the hand away. “Don’t touch me.” He said, his voice dangerously quiet.
The man grinned and turned to the other two. “I like this man!” He said, pointing at Adam. “I knew he would be perfect for the job! He’s not easily scared, this one.” The man walked over to where Joe was laying. “Except if there’s someone he loves involved, of course.” He delivered a hard kick to the boy’s side, giving rise to a small moan.
Adam growled in fury and grabbed the front of the man’s shirt, fist aimed at the smirking face. It had been expected, though, and before he could deliver it, Zeke was there, aiming his gun at Joe’s head while Dan jabbed his into Adam’s side.
He jerked his hand away from the man’s shirt and stepped back. He realized he was outnumbered, but that only made the fire in his eyes grow brighter. “Don’t touch my brother you lowdown piece of-” A punch from Dan sent him sprawling.
The man stepped forward, the smile on his face not reaching his eyes. “Now, Mr. Cartwright, my momma raised me right, instilling in me the importance of respect, and nothing sets me off my feed more than when someone is disrespectful to me just ‘cause I’m a rotten criminal. I know that you ain’t scared of me,” his voice was deadly soft. “But I’m warnin’ you now, one more stunt like that, and it will be more’n doubled on your brother’s hide.” He stepped closer. “Do I make myself clear?”
Adam didn’t reply. He glared at the man and spat the new blood out of his mouth. The man raised an eyebrow at him and then snapped his fingers at Zeke. Adam flinched as Zeke’s kick brought another small moan from Joe.
“I said, Am. I. Clear?”
Adam looked away and nodded his head, unwilling to meet the man’s eyes.
“Good!” The man’s face brightened considerably. “Now let’s get down to business!”
The instructions were simple – break Peter McCord out of jail.
“What?” he asked. “Why do you want him out of jail?”
“Cause he’s our boss,” the man spat on the ground near Adam’s foot. “That’s why.”
“Why not just do it yourselves?”
Something gleamed in the man’s eye that he didn’t understand. “The way we figured it, Mr. Cartwright, is that you’ve got so many good friends in that town, that they’ll be a lot more hesitant to shoot you than all three of us. Besides, I’m sending Dan here with you to make sure everything stays in line.”
Adam opened his mouth to reply, but the man cut him off. “Look, I’m not going to argue with you. Either you’re back at Barrow’s Rock by five tomorrow morning with Peter McCord, or we’ll be delivering what’s left of your little brother’s body to your front door step. Now what’s it going to be?”
There hadn’t been a doubt in anyone’s mind what his choice would be – he would do whatever it took to get his brother back. That didn’t mean, though, that he didn’t still struggle with his decision; that he hadn’t spent all night thinking of a way to get around what he was being forced to do.
“We’ll be watching your house, Mr. Cartwright. If we even suspect that you’re trying to get the word out about this, whether it be through a hand, a note, or a dang smoke signal, he’s dead…
The warning still hung fresh in his mind. He’d considered everything, and finally had to admit that forewarning the sheriff of what was to come wasn’t a possibility. He sighed and rubbed his hand over his face.
The clock distantly stuck one o’clock, and he roused himself from his stupor. He still needed a plan. His eyes flicked across the shadowed room, hoping to spot something that would offer inspiration.
As idea started to unfold in his head as his gaze landed on his father’s desk. It was a small plan, but it was better than nothing. He walked over and sat down, rifling through the drawers to find a crisp piece of paper. The pale parchment gleamed in the moonlight as he drummed his fingers on the desk thoughtfully then picked up the pen and began to write.
It was 3 a.m. when Adam and Dan approached Virginia City. They had met on a road leading into town, not even stopping to go over the plan again. They didn’t need to.
They slowed their horses to a walk as they entered the dark streets. Despite trying to appear in control, Adam could feel his heart pounding in his chest. Every vacant building, every black shadow, seemed to hold some secret that threatened to expose them.
The jailhouse was dark, as expected, but that didn’t mean everyone was asleep. Sheriff Roy Coffee had hired two men temporarily to help him, Sam had told him that much yesterday. With the extra help, he was likely to have set up a ‘round the clock guard on the prisoner. None of that really mattered, though. There were still three guards inside, and as such, they all would have to be dealt with.
Being careful not to make any noise, they slid off their horses and left them on at the side of the building with the extra horse Dan had brought for Peter. Adam grabbed Dan’s arm before they stepped out of the shadows. “Nobody gets hurt,” he said, squeezing the man’s arm to get his point across.
Dan glared at him and shook off the vise-like grip. “I’d just watch myself if I were you.” He took out his gun and waved him towards the front door.
Adam took a deep breath and gave a light rap on the door while Dan remained hidden in the shadows. A light flared inside and the door cracked open just enough to admit a long barrel of a shotgun with a wary eye peering out above it. It took a moment for the sheriff to recognize him in the dim lighting. “Adam?’ the man whispered hoarsely, “what’re you doing here?”
“Roy, I’ve got to talk to you,” he tried to inject some desperation into his voice. “It’s urgent.”
The barrel was pulled back in, and the door slammed shut. For a moment, Adam didn’t think that he was going to let them in, but then he heard the chain lock sliding out of place and Roy Coffee opened the door all the way this time. “Well, come on in, it must be important if you’re here this early in the morning.” He stifled a yawn and headed for his desk.
Adam hesitated for a moment, but followed him in after Dan gave him a not-so-gentle nudge with his gun. Roy was pouring himself a cup of coffee, his back still to him. “What can I do for you, Adam?”
It was now or never. Praying that their family friendship would be enough to save them both, he drew his gun. “I’m going to need you to give me your gun, Roy,” he said.
Roy turned around, his brow knit in confusion. “What are you doing, Adam?”
“Just give me your gun!”
Roy stepped back in surprise when he cocked the hammer. He studied the young man for a moment, as if trying to understand, but saw nothing but pain and determination in the dark eyes. Putting down his coffee, he slowly drew his gun from its holster and held it limply in his hand. Adam drew closer and snatched it up. Keeping his gun trained on Roy, he turned to put the other on the desk.
“Put the gun down, mister.” A quiet voice said.
Apparently their conversation hadn’t gone unnoticed. He didn’t move, but a quick glance to his left showed a man with a silver deputy’s star slowly approaching him. A younger man, who appeared to be only a few years older than Joe, stood with his gun trained on him from further back. There was nothing he could do now but wait for Dan to make his move. He turned his gaze back to Roy, who was watching him intently.
“Adam,” he said softly, “what’s going o-”
The sound of struggling cut him off. They all turned to see Dan holding the younger deputy at gunpoint. He had taken the opportunity, while they were all distracted, to come in and take control of the situation.
“Now ain’t this a nice party we have here!” he sneered.
“Dan Mason?” Roy took a step back in surprise. “You brought Dan Mason here, Adam?” he asked angrily. “What’re you thinking?”
“I’d shut up, old man, unless you want this kid to only have the bottom half of his head left!” he snarled, giving his captive a hard shake.
Adam saw the terror in the young man’s eyes and felt his stomach twist in guilt. The kid hadn’t signed up for this; he had just been looking to earn a little extra money. A glance at the other deputy immediately changed his guilt into horror. The similarity was too obvious. From the short brown hair to the angular bone structure, there was no mistaking that they were brothers.
Flicking his eyes between them, Adam watched as the man tried to hide his anger and panic and comfort the young man whose eyes were pleading for his older brother to help him. He felt sick, realizing he had just put this family in the same situation as his own – obey the law or save a loved one’s life.
Dan, who had seen the exchange too, gave a wicked grin. “Brothers, eh?” he gave the kid another shake. “Drop the gun before you become an only child.”
The man broke eye contact with his brother long enough to give the man a murderous glare, and then dropped his gun. Dan jerked his head at Adam, who numbly went and picked it up.
“Now, Mr. Cartwright, if you would be so nice as to ask Sheriff Coffee for the keys to the cell doors.”
Adam turned, the bitterness of the situation leaving a bad taste in his mouth. “Roy, I’m going to need those keys,” he said softly.
As the man started to reach up to his inside vest pocket, Adam looked at him and gave the tiniest shake of his head, willing him to understand what he was doing. Roy’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second, and then he looked away. His hand continued to move past his pocket and rested on the back of his neck.
“Well, I guess I don’t have any choice, do I?” he mumbled. He walked over to his desk and poked through some drawers before producing a small ring of keys. He started to hand them to Adam, but Dan stopped him.
“No. Go unlock that first cell door.” Dan waved his gun towards the back room and they all trudged back towards the cells; Adam and Roy first, followed by the deputy and Dan dragging the young man.
As Roy fumbled with the keys, Adam discreetly slid the small, sweaty, folded note from inside his coat sleeve and hid it in his hand, knowing that he would have to make his move quickly. He didn’t have to wait long; the very man who caused this incident was the one who provided the opportunity to make it right.
Woken up by the continuous jingling of keys in the small space, the man known as Peter McCord sat up in his bunk and told them all in a not-so-nice way what he thought of them. As everyone turned to look at the foul-mouthed felon, Adam quickly dropped the note into Roy’s empty holster, bumping it slightly with his hand in hopes that the Sheriff would know to look in there later. It was a long shot, but it was the best he could do at the moment. After another minute, the door was finally opened and Roy and the two deputies pushed inside and the door relocked. Dan then gave the keys to Adam with instructions to unlock Peter’s door while he went and got the horses.
The man behind the bars was nothing like he’d expected. He’d read many books in his life, and knew how the romantics liked to paint bank robbers as dashing, masked men, but it was safe to say that Peter McCord blew that stereotype away. His head was covered in a mop of stringy brown hair, a pair of crazy eyes bugged out of his sallow face, and his frame was gaunt and ill looking. He smiled at Adam with broken, brown teeth when he came over. “I don’t know who you are, kid, but I’m much obliged to you for busting me out.”
Adam kept his face blank as he waived the man out of the cell with his gun. The convict hadn’t shut up since he’d opened the door. “…won’t believe the food they serve here. Absolutely disgusting. I hate this town already, and what, I’ve only been here-”
He abruptly stopped talking as they went through the doorway and fell to the floor; a small stream of blood flowing from the abrasion Dan’s gun had left on his head. Dan put his gun away and looked down at the man grimly. “He’s much quieter this way.”
“A lot heavier, too.” Adam muttered. He threw the ring of keys back onto the desk, and then helped Dan drag Peter McCord out into the coming dawn.
What have I done? You did it for Joe. They would have killed him if you hadn’t. And they won’t kill us now? You think they’ll just let us walk away from this? What was I supposed to do, value the law above my brother’s life? No. I won’t let them kill him – I’ll do whatever it takes.
The incessant flow of thoughts almost drove him to distraction; now was not the time to be arguing about the morality of his actions. He looked to the right to see Dan, once again, glancing anxiously behind them. Adam couldn’t blame him. What they had just done was ludicrous; the only thing keeping them from the hangman’s noose was his note – if Roy found it.
They needed to be moving faster. He eyed the slumped form of Peter McCord and knew that wasn’t going to be an option. Dan had hit the man hard enough to knock him into next week. None of this was making any sense. He looked at the small trickle of blood making its way down unconscious man’s face, and was flooded with a sense of foreboding. There was something more sinister going on here than a jailbreak – and they were stuck in the middle of it.
Dan’s grating voice interrupted his thoughts. “Barrow’s Rock ahead.”
The formation loomed up ahead of them, its craggy surface ominously shadowed in the light of the moon. As they drew closer, Dan stood up in his stirrups and let off a sharp whistle that scaled three distinct notes. They heard the muted reply of the same notes descending.
Dan grinned and spurred his horse on to where Zeke was waiting. Adam followed at a slower pace, not wanting to further injure the man whose horse he was leading. He stopped a few feet from the base of the rock, where Dan and Zeke were having an intense discussion.
“-hit him over the head to bring ‘im here.”
“He’s still out? I hope for your sake you didn’t kill him.”
“Naw, might take a few hours for him to come around, but once we get out of the area we’ll have enough time to get what we want.”
To get what we want…he’s quieter this way…cause he’s our boss, that’s why. Adam’s face grew grim as the pieces started to fall into place. These men weren’t out for a rescue – this was all for retribution.
The man must’ve heard his thoughts. In an instant, Peter came alive and Adam found himself out of his saddle lying sprawled on the ground. Gunshots cracked through the air and he pushed himself up, scrabbling for his gun. It wasn’t there. Peter must’ve grabbed it when he pushed him off his horse.
It was over as soon as it had started. Everything went quiet, almost as if time itself had frozen. Zeke was on the ground bending over Dan, who was clutching his shoulder in agony. Adam looked around for Peter, and found him lying on the ground behind his horse with an ever-spreading pool of blood beneath him. One glance at the wound told him the situation was hopeless; the bullet had gone clean through the man’s stomach, ripping everything to shreds. Peter grasped weakly at the hole, and then brought his reddened hand in front of his face. His eyes filled with confusion; it was as if he couldn’t believe the amount of blood that was seeping from his body.
“Help me get him up.” Adam looked to see Zeke’s grim figure standing over him. “We got to get them both back to camp.”
“There’s nothing you can do for him, he won’t survive.”
Zeke ignored him, reaching down to pick up one of Peter’s arms, then looked at Adam expectantly. Reluctantly, he picked up the man’s other arm, his jaw set as he tried to block out the dying man’s groans.
“He’s going to have to ride with you,” Zeke told him as they neared the horses.
Adam jerked to a stop, his temper growing short. “I’m telling you, he won’t make it!” his voice was harsh.
Zeke’s eyes glittered dangerously. “You’d better pray he does.”
It was a ride from hell. Every step brought a new groan from Peter, loud at first, but steadily growing quieter until they disappeared completely. Adam could feel the man’s lifeblood soaking his shirt; it streamed down his hands and onto his saddle, got into Sport’s mane; its smell hung around them like a cloud. He focused on the fact that his brother needed him – it was all he could do to keep from getting sick.
They reached the camp after five, long minutes. The blonde haired man was pacing back and forth in front of the fire, the flames casting a ghoulish look about him in the semi-darkness of the morning. He spun around as they entered the clearing, his face drawn tight in anger.
“What happened? I heard shots.”
“Peter grabbed Cartwright’s gun,” Zeke said, helping Dan down from his horse. “Got Dan in the shoulder before I could get him. I managed to stop the bleeding, but we’re going to need to get the bullet out.”
“It’ll have to wait. We need to get the information now.”
Adam, who had eyes only for the still figure of his brother across the camp, didn’t notice the man come up next to him and pull Peter out of the saddle. As soon as he felt the man’s weight shift, he tried to grab him, but his hands slipped on the blood-slick shirt and the injured man crumpled to the ground with a loud groan.
Jumping off his horse, he kneeled next to the man and tried to think of what he could do to help him. Peter’s face was pale and a small trickle of blood had started to creep down from the corner of his mouth, his mouth flopped open as he gasped for air.
A strong hand pushed Adam out of the way while the other grabbed Peter’s shirt collar and dragged him over by the fire. “Where’s the money you backstabbing-” the rest was drowned out as the blonde haired man shook him hard and threw him on the ground. “If you don’t tell me, I swear on my mother’s rotting grave I’ll burn off your body parts piece by piece!”
The silence that filled the camp was deafening.
And then Peter started to laugh – not a deep, throaty chuckle, but the harsh, painful cackle of a man who’s got nothing left to lose. The sound made Adam’s hair stand on end, as it seemed to be resonating from every corner of the clearing.
“You can’t hurt me,” he rasped, “I’m already dead.” He broke into hysteria, his reddened teeth showing through a manic smile. Adam watched in horror, unable to tear his eyes away from writhing figure on ground. Peter’s body gave a few dying jerks, and then lay still. He gave one last rasp for air, and in the quiet they heard his final words. “You’ll… never…find it.” Then he was gone.
There was a scream of fury from the blonde haired man as he began to kick the dead body over and over. Adam felt sick and looked away, turning his thoughts on the more urgent situation hand – their circumstances had just gotten worse. He scrambled to his hands and knees, trying to stay out of the man’s view, and started to crawl across the camp towards his brother.
He grunted as a boot heel connected with his side, driving the air out of his lungs. Rough hands hauled him to his feet and his vision was filled with a face that was scarlet in rage.
“You!” the man spat, punching him in the stomach. “You planned this, didn’t you?”
Adam couldn’t reply, there was no air left in his lungs as blow after blow rained down on him. One final strike sent him skidding backwards as Dan’s injured arm final gave out and he was jerked from Zeke’s grip.
He lay on his stomach, his body heaving as pain overrode all other senses. The darkness was coming; he could already see it around the edges of his vision. He tried to fight it, but it was so strong and his body ached for relief.
“A-Adam.” The voice came, hardly above a whisper. “Adam.” It was pleading with him to stay. He couldn’t go, not yet; he had to help the voice.
He twisted his head, desperate to find the source, and found himself staring into a pair of fathomless, emerald eyes. There was pain in the depths, mixed with feverish confusion, but laced with hope. Trust. Love.
“Adam.” Joe said again, a tear tracing a path in the grime as it made its way down his face.
Whatever it takes
He had no chance in a fair fight now, that he knew, but if he could surprise them…. As he heard them walking towards him he closed his eyes and made his body limp. He was hauled to his feet with difficulty, Dan cursing under his breath as he struggled to hold up his dead weight with his one good hand and Zeke trying to balance out the uneven weight dispersion. As they dragged him away, Adam had to resist giving a last furtive glance at his brother. If they knew he was awake it would all be over.
He waited. His heart was pounding in his chest and his brain screamed at him to do something, but he waited. Then it came – Dan stumbled over his own feet and momentarily loosened his grip. Adam reacted instantly, swinging his arm free and using the momentum to slam his fist into Zeke’s temple. The man dropped like a rock.
Dan tackled him from the side, the force throwing them both to the ground. Adam gritted his teeth and tried to shove him off of him, but the man’s uninjured hand had already found its way to his throat. Adam’s hands instantly attacked the suffocating grip, looking for some tender spot that he could pinch or tear, but the man seemed to be beyond pain now. He had lost everything he had worked for; all he had left was revenge.
Adam couldn’t look away from the wide, angry eyes, but his hands were grasping at the ground around him, searching for something he could use to defend himself. He found nothing but a handful of dirt, which in desperation he threw in Dan’s face. The man swore and fell back, clawing at his eyes.
He scrambled up quickly and approached the kneeling man. With one well-placed punch to the side of the face, Dan’s head snapped back and he was silent.
Adam didn’t even stop to catch his breath before turning back to his brother. What he saw nearly made his heart stop. The blonde man stood before him, holding a barely conscious Joe at gunpoint, his mouth drawn up in a maniacal smile just like Peter’s had been right before he died.
“For months we’ve been planning this,” the man’s voice held a tinge of crazed humor, “the scoutin’, the followin’, the killin’ off – all to have it ruined by some lousy cowboy who can’t even keep an eye on his cuss’ed gun!”
Adam didn’t know what to do. He was beaten, alone, and unarmed in the middle of the forest with a crazed bank robber who was going to kill his little brother – and he didn’t know what to do.
Joe’s eyes were on him, pleading with him the way the young deputy’s had with his brother, for him to save him. So, Adam did the only thing he could do, the thing he did best – be an older brother. He stared into Joe’s hazel eyes, giving him a look that spoke of love and comfort, a look that said he’d do whatever it took to get him out of this situation. He didn’t even look up when the man started talking again.
“I’ll show you, I’ll show you all. Won’t brother be proud of me?” He gave a little giggle. “Killin’ my first people, takin’ right after him. He won’t give me the stupid babysittin’ jobs no more.” His voice was quiet now. “Yeah, that’ll show him.”
Adam looked up at this last, haunted utterance, and the man gave him a mournful look, his eyes void of any of the recent madness. The man’s gun hand tensed, and in a moment of unspeakable horror, Adam launched himself towards him. A shot rang out – both man and boy fell to the ground.
Progress was slow and painful up the stairs. His ribs screeched in protest with every step, and his whole body yearned for sleep. That wasn’t possible though, at least not for a while. He rested heavily against the railing at the top of the stairs, his mind still trying to absorb the events of that morning.
The gun went off.
“JOE!” his voice – every nerve in his body – screamed in raw anguish. He stumbled down next to his brother, numbly drawing the still figure to his chest. Through the agony his mind screamed at him; it hadn’t been enough – he’d failed.
The sound of footsteps behind him caused him to tighten the grip on the body. Neither Zeke, nor Dan, nor the devil himself would touch his brother again. He tensed. Someone stopped behind him – a hand rested on his shoulder – he spun around at an unthinkable speed, his fist already in flight.
Sheriff Coffee caught his wrist gently. “Adam-”
The face brought no hope to him – it barely registered at all. “You’re too late,” he jerked his wrist away, his voice layered with bitterness. “He’s dead.”
“No, he’s not,” Roy said softly. “Look.”
Adam’s nerves were at their limit; the harshness in his voice rang throughout the entire clearing. “Didn’t you hear the shot, Roy? Don’t you see the blood?” he turned and pointed at Joe. “There’s a bullet hole in his he-” he stopped, fully taking in the scene for the first time. The blonde haired man lay sprawled on the ground next to his brother; the gaping hole above his ear responsible for the ever-growing pool of blood beneath him – and for the blood covering Joe.
“We saw what was happening, so Jeb cracked off a shot from the side and took him down,” the sheriff said quietly.
Hope slammed into Adam like a tidal wave; elation flooded his veins. Bending down and feeling the beat of his brother’s heart under his hand, it was almost as if he himself had come back to life again.
The rest of the time spent in the clearing had been a blur. The posse accompanying the sheriff sprung into action at Roy’s orders; the doctor was sent for, the buckboard was fetched, Dan and Zeke were tied up and headed for jail, and the bodies of the two bodies were to be wrapped up and sent for identification.
Adam had sat on the ground, his brother’s head in his lap, and watched the whole procedure numbly. Losing and regaining a loved one all within the period of five minutes had taken a toll on his body, not to mention the lack of sleep, the sound beating he’d received, and his non-existent appetite. The worried glances from Roy Coffee and his men didn’t even seem to register with his brain; they were nothing more than floating phantoms in this ever-present nightmare he was living. He would have left it all, then and there, and slipped into the peaceful blackness that haunted the edges of his mind, but the steady beat of his brother’s heart against his hand rendered him into a state of murky awareness.
Only the creaking of the approaching buckboard’s wheels was enough to shake him from his current frame of mind. He watched as it pulled into the clearing and Asa jumped down from the seat. The ranch hand looked on the scene in front of him with horror, his eyes glancing between his boss and the two dead bodies on the ground.
He came over and kneeled in front of his boss. “Are you alright, Mr. Cartwright?” he asked in a strangled voice.
Adam could only nod mutely.
A man came over, and with a nod of approval from Adam, picked Joe up and carried him over to the buckboard. Asa helped him up and supported him as he limped over to sit down next to his brother.
Then they were home, looking into the faces of Doc Martin and the wide-eyed ranch hands. Joe was whisked off by the doctor before he knew what was happening, and despite all of his protesting, he was led to his room where a hot bath was waiting.
Either from physical fatigue or mental exhaustion, laughter had bubbled from his lips as he looked at himself in the mirror. The man who was reflected looked as if he had been bathing in blood. The once black shirt and pants hung stiff and crusty, a more ominous tinge now the dominating color. His face was a mess of red, black, and blue, as bruises had already started to appear where fist had met flesh. And his hands. The laughter suddenly changed into convulsive sobs. His hands were stained red with the blood of Peter McCord and the nameless blonde man, an all too real reminder of the horrors that had gone on in that clearing.
He got into the tub and scrubbed his skin with vigor, wishing that the past two days could be washed away like the dirt and blood that now colored the water a murky brown. He got dressed quickly; his body feeling slightly rejuvenated from the bath, and then limped over to Joe’s room. Doc Martin was just putting the final stitch in the young man’s shoulder as he came in. He looked up as Adam came in.
“Paul, how is he?” Adam asked, making his way to the side of the bed where his brother lay in a fevered sleep.
The doctor gave a small sigh and ran his fingers through his hair. “Well, I drained the wound and had to remove some surrounding tissue. He’s got a few stitches to close him up, and hopefully his body will be able to fight off the infection better now that we’ve got him cleaned up a bit.” He picked up some bandages and began to wrap the boy’s shoulder. “You’ll have to keep the area clean and change the bandages twice a day, and keep him in bed for awhile; he needs rest.” Both men grinned a little at that last statement – keeping Joe in bed was easier said than done.
“Now, let’s have a look at you.” Paul said, leading Adam over to a chair.
“I’m fine, Paul, really.” He protested. The doctor raised an eyebrow impatiently, and he sighed and pulled up his shirt, too tired to argue. The rainbow of colors across his stomach earned a whistle of appreciation from Paul.
“With all of the trouble you Cartwrights get into, I’m amazed at your unwillingness to be doctored up,” he said grimly.
Adam hissed as Paul’s fingers probed a tender spot. “It’s probably because your fingers are always so dang cold,” he said through his teeth.
The man gave a little chuckle as he continued to prod his side. “Two fractured ribs,” he announced as he finished up. “Which is amazing really, considering the severity of your bruising.” He pulled out a long band of cloth and started to wrap Adam’s chest.
Paul hadn’t stayed much longer. The bullet still had to be had to be taken out of Dan’s shoulder, (even though the doctor confided that “the vet would be more suitable for taking care of him”), and there were other people in town that needed his assistance. He’d ridden off with a promise to come and check up on them tomorrow morning.
After seeing the Doc off, Adam had slowly made his way to the top of the stairs, only to be brought right back down again by a knock on the front door. After an exasperated sigh and a slow trip back down, the door was opened to reveal Roy Coffee and his two hired deputies.
“Oh, hey Roy,” he opened the door wider so the men could come in.
There was a moment of awkward silence as they all stood in the living room, no one really sure what to say.
“Look, Roy, I’m-”
“So how’s Joe doin?” the sheriff cut in.
“O-Oh, fine. Doc says he thinks his body will be able to fight off the infection and that his fever should be gone soon.”
“Good, good.” Roy said. There was another slight pause; he cleared his throat. “How’re you doin, Adam?” It was more than an inquiry after physical health.
Adam shrugged his shoulders. “Got two fractured ribs, two days of no sleep, and a heck of a lot of bruises, but other than that, I’m…” he paused for a moment, pressing his lips tightly together. “I’m doing ok.”
It was only because Roy had known him for such a long time that he knew that reply wasn’t as stoic as it seemed. He briefly rested his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “I sent a message to your Pa, told him what happened.”
Adam gave a small smile. They could always count on their friends during the hard times. “Thanks, Roy.” He rubbed the back of his neck, unsure how to continue. Guilt from his actions that morning was weighing on him heavily, and the unfaltering stares he was getting from the two deputies did nothing to alleviate it. He took a deep breath and steeled himself. “ I’m sorry about this morning, Roy. Joe’s life was on the line, and – and I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I wanted to get word to you, but they were watching me; they only thing I could think of was the note.” He turned to the two deputies. “And I’m sorry that you got caught up in all this – I’m just glad that no one got hurt. I don’t think I could live with myself if that had happened…” he quietly trailed off.
There was a moment of silence at the end of his appeal.
“You’re a good brother, Mr. Cartwright.” Adam looked up in surprise as the younger deputy spoke. “I can only hope that in a situation like that, my brother would do the same thing.” He looked up and smiled as the man standing next to him put his arm around his shoulder and gave him a quick side hug.
The older deputy’s eyes met Adam, and they spoke of understanding. He, too, had almost lost his younger brother today, and knew the feeling of desperation and hopelessness that comes when you’re unable to protect someone you love. He gave a small nod of his head, and Adam knew he was forgiven.
He turned to look at Roy, who was staring him intently. “Adam, your father and I’ve been friends for a long time – heck, I watched you boys grow up. If you think that one jailhouse holdup is going to come between us,” he said, smiling tightly, “you’ve got another thing comin’!”
Adam had to give a small grin at the sheriff’s attempt to lighten up the situation. “And people say we Cartwrights are stubborn.”
The men gave a small laugh as he showed them to the door. Sheriff Coffee was the last one to leave, and he grabbed Adam’s arm as he went by.
“I think your Pa would be real proud of what you did today. That was some quick thinking with the spare key in the desk and the note – you saved your brother’s life.” Roy said earnestly, a hint of pride in his voice.
The events were still too fresh in Adam’s mind for him to feel any pride in his actions. His mumbled response was adequate for the situation and Roy seemed to understand that this wasn’t the time to talk about it.
“Well, uh, I’ll be back tomorrow to check on you two, and maybe then we can talk a little more about what happened today.” Adam nodded and the two men shook hands.
He looked down in surprise at the note the sheriff had palmed to him during the exchange, and started to call after him, but Roy was already mounting his horse and heading back into town with the two deputies.
He looked now at the note that was still crumpled in his hand and carefully pulled it open. His brow furrowed in confusion as he scanned it; it was the same note he had put in Roy’s holster.
They have Joe
Wait half an hour and then head to Barrow’s Rock
Follow our trial east into the woods
There are four total
Underneath his writing was the messy scrawl of the sheriff.
Be on the lookout. There’re rumors of a fifth man.
A fifth man? Adam felt his blood run cold as he read the words again. He limped hurriedly down the hall to Joe’s room. The half-light that streamed through the curtains cast a pale glow on the boy’s face, and Adam sighed in relief as he saw him breathing evenly. As he sat down on the edge of the bed, he felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.
A squeak from the floorboard behind him.
A blinding blow to the head.
The welcoming arms of darkness.
“Wake up, Cartwright.”
A rainbow of colors broke through the blackness as his head snapped back, his cheek stinging where the man had slapped him. He instinctively tried to bring up his hand to ward off the blows, but his arms didn’t seem to be working at the moment. Another slap and a wave of awareness flowed through him. He slowly pried open his eyes, grimacing at the pain in the back of his skull. He blinked repeatedly as a face loomed into his blurry vision.
“Thought you’d never wake up.”
That voice, he knew it – but it didn’t make any sense. His thoughts drifted around sluggishly as he tried to understand what was going on.
“I’m gotta go do something real quick, but don’t you go anywhere!” the man chuckled and gave his face a rough pat.
Adam watched the door shut, his mind reeling at this new revelation. He took slow, deep breaths, working past the pounding in his head, and wearily assessed the situation. He was still in Joe’s room, seated in a wooden chair beside the bed with his arms lashed behind the high back and his ankles tied to the legs. He tugged half-heartedly at the ropes, but his arms were numb to the movement and his ribs protested sharply.
The dim rays of the setting sun danced across the floor and onto the bed where Joe lay in a restless slumber. Sweat dotted his brow and soundless mutters came from his trembling lips as he twisted underneath the bed sheets. Adam watched him with concern, wondering whether the fever had gotten worse. He had to try to wake him up, for both of their sakes; Joe might still be able to get away, and he himself wanted the reassurance that his brother was ok.
“Joe?” he whispered hoarsely. “Joe!” He gnawed his lip when there was no response. Did he dare try it any louder? He glanced at the door, listening for footsteps coming down the hallway. The house was silent.
He leaned towards the bed as far as could, his voice only a little louder than it had been, but carrying much more authority. “Joseph Francis Cartwright!” he barked. “Get out of bed RIGHT now!”
“…minute Adam…so tired…” Joe said, twisting around in the sheets. He emitted a small groan as he pulled at the stitches in his shoulder, but then seemed to go back to sleep.
“Joe,” he said angrily. “Do not go back to sleep! I need you to get up! Joe…” he muttered a curse as he heard steps on the stairs. “Joe, please! You’ve got to get up! He’s coming back!” he was growing more desperate as the footsteps grew closer. “Joe, please, get up!”
He growled in frustration as the door opened and the moment lost.
The man put down a bucket he was carrying as he came in, and smiled. “I see we’re all still nice an’ cozy in here!”
Adam eyed the man angrily. “What’s this about, Asa?”
The smile slipped from the man’s face as easily as it had come. “What this is about, Mr. Cartwright, is my brother,” he said. “You killed him – and you’re going to pay for it.”
“Your br-” He stopped as the pieces fell into place. He couldn’t believe it. It had been so obvious, so simple that he’d never even considered it. “Wait,” he stammered, “the blonde-haired man was your brother?”
“Gideon! His name was Gideon!” Asa said, his voice tight with anger. “He was my younger brother – and you killed him.”
Adam felt his heart in his throat; he knew where this was going. Anger, fear, and even grief were running rampant through his thoughts, and it took all he had to make his voice sound calm. “I didn’t kill Gideon,” he said slowly.
“Didn’t kill him?” Asa said, his face a mask of uncontrolled fury. “Didn’t ki-” he shook his head and walked across the room towards Joe’s dresser. Leaning on it heavily, he began to mumble to himself.
Adam could see the man’s face reflected in the mirror on the dresser, and watched him with growing trepidation The man’s muscles trembled with rage and his mumbling grew lounder and louder. Suddenly, with a shout of anger he smashed his fist into the mirror. The glass shattered into pieces and imbedded itself into his bloody fist, but he didn’t even seem to notice.
“No!” he yelled, turning back to Adam. “You think I don’t know about your note?” He pulled the grubby piece of paper from his pocket and threw on the ground in front of him. “You told the sheriff where we were! You ruined everything!” He pointed his finger at him, and his voice grew dangerously quiet. “You got Gideon killed!”
Adam took a deep breath and tried to find a way to calm him down. “He was going to kill Joe,” he said softly.
There was a moment of doubt in the man’s eyes, but then they hardened again. “He wouldn’t have,” he said. “He would never disobey my orders.”
Adam saw the subtle change in the man’s countenance, and he felt a flicker of hope. If he could keep talking and calm him down, they might have a chance. “Things changed after Peter got shot.” He continued carefully. “He told me it was my fault. He was going to kill me, and he was going to kill Joe.”
He silently rejoiced as he saw confusion flood Asa’s features. Just one last push… “He said that by killing us, he’d show you who’s in charge.” Gideon hadn’t really said those last three words, but in the spur of the moment Adam had added them in, hoping to drive the stake deeper between the brothers. It appeared as if he had accomplished it.
Tears pooled in Asa’s eyes. “Poor guy,” he whispered. “I was always so hard on him. Never gave him a chance. All he wanted to do was make me proud.” He sniffled and wiped his eyes with his hand. “Well, I’ll make him proud of me.” He said with determination. “Yeah. I will. I’ll finish what he started.” A malicious smile spread across his face as the words left his lips.
Adam struggled to breath as the meaning of the words sunk in. The moment of elation had passed and was replaced with a genuine panic. He began to struggle anew against the ropes, the blind fury and fear resulting in a rush of adrenaline that filled him to the very core. In moments it was over and the ropes were as tight as ever. He gave a yell of frustration and slumped back in the chair with despair.
Asa laughed at the scene and then said gleefully, “What do you think, Cartwright? Should we ask your little brother to join us?”
Adam looked at Joe, who had remained in a fevered unconsciousness throughout the whole ordeal, and felt sick. He had already almost lost him once today – had he just been given back so he could be taken away again?
A feral growl slipped from his throat as Asa overturned the bucket of water onto the sleeping boy. Joe gave a little cry as the cold well water hit his face and soaked his bedclothes. He scarcely had time to open his eyes before Asa grabbed him by the front of his nightshirt and dragged him out of bed. He struggled weakly against the vise-like grip before Asa smacked him, bringing a sob from the boy.
“Asa, don’t do this,” Adam clenched his jaw in anger as he watched him drag the barely conscious boy across the room and hold him up in front of him. A strained urgency filled his voice as he tried to reason with the man. “It’s not him you want – I was the one who killed your brother.”
Asa ignored him and pulled out his gun. “I’m going to kill your little brother, Cartwright, and let you experience the horror of losing a loved one.” He dug the barrel of the gun into the boy’s wounded shoulder, and Joe let out an agonizing groan. “And then, I’m going to kill you.”
Joe’s head snapped up at this last statement and something flashed in his eyes. He suddenly jerked one hand up, grabbed the gunman’s hand, and pulled the trigger.
The shot was deafening in the small room, and both figures fell to the ground.
Time seemed to stop for Adam. The air became thick and heavy. His heart pounded in his ears, his chest ached, the edges of his vision were going black – and then he remembered to breath. He drew a deep breath and reality snapped back into focus.
“Joe?” he whispered.
The figure on the ground stirred with a groan and slowly climbed off the man underneath him. Asa remained motionless.
Adam could only watch as Joe slowly dragged himself across the floor towards him. He was frustrated at his inability to help, but resorted to verbally encouraging his brother until he finally reached him. Joe plopped down at his brother’s feet and leaned against the bed, carefully holding his right arm.
“Joe? Are you alright?”
Joe gave a little chuckle and his eyes swiveled towards his brother. “What a stupid thing to ask,” he said.
Adam gave a little smile. “What a stupid thing to do,” he said softly, looking at his brother’s shoulder.
His little brother suddenly looked very grave, and his voice was hardly above a whisper. “I couldn’t let him kill my brother.” He closed his eyes again and leaned his head back against the bed.
Adam wanted to respond, but the sound of footsteps on the stairs and the shouts of “Mr. Cartwright?” denied him the opportunity.
“In here!” he shouted.
Several ranch hands burst through the door with their guns drawn, their eyes wide as they took in the scene before them. One quickly pulled out a pocketknife and cut the ropes around Adam, his eyes glancing worriedly from the battered face of his boss to Joe’s bloody shoulder.
“Mr. Cartwright, are you ok?”
Adam nodded his head wearily, and gave the smallest of grins as he looked at his brother. “Yeah, everything will be ok.”
The door opened to the dimly lit room; the sun’s rays barely peeked through the heavy curtains. Adam silently crossed the room and sat down in the chair next to Joe’s bed. He couldn’t help but give a little shiver as he felt the wood against his back; he doubted if he’d ever be able to sit in this chair again without thinking of yesterday’s events.
Doc Martin said Joe would be all right. “Technically, that wasn’t the best thing for his shoulder,” he’d said, “but he’ll make a full recovery and be up and about in a couple weeks.” He’d said a lot of other stuff too, but he didn’t remember any of it.
Sheriff Coffee had come, so had his two deputies, and taken away Asa’s body. Adam had watched it all happen through a haze, much like the one he had experienced in the clearing earlier that morning. It wasn’t until he had woken up in his own bed this afternoon that he even began to contemplate what had happened to him and Joe in the last three days.
Asa’s betrayal ran deep. Every action, every word that he had spoken to him, had been used against him. His trust had been taken advantage of. He felt bitterness start to creep up on him as he tried to see how he hadn’t seen it before. He should’ve known! If he had been paying attention, this all could’ve ended differently – three people wouldn’t be dead.
Joe mumbled something and turned under the covers, and Adam’s eyes fixed on his bandaged shoulder. His brow darkened a bit. If he had been paying attention Joe wouldn’t have had to shoot himself in the shoulder.
An image suddenly formed in his head at the thought. It’s amazing how he could remember every detail so clearly – especially the look in his brother’s eyes before he’d pulled the trigger. It seemed as if in that single second, a spectrum of feelings had passed in his eyes – fear, pain, anger, and then a fierce determination that outmatched everything.
“I couldn’t let him kill my brother.” That’s what he’d said when it was over.
It was with those words, that Adam had realized that he wasn’t the only one who’d do whatever it takes for a loved one. In fact, that had been proven to him not once, but four times. The two deputies, Gideon and Asa, him and Joe – they were all brothers, and they had all shown the bonds of brotherhood in their own way.
Brotherhood is a gift from God that has no rival. There are fights, there is anger and sadness and jealousy, but there is always, always, the bond that holds together, that heals, and most importantly, that loves.
There was the faint pounding of hooves in the yard, and Adam looked up from his musing. Going over to the window, he peered out into the streaming sun and smiled.
Pa and Hoss were home.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.