Summary: A chance encounter leads to dramatic consequences for two drifters and the men they rescue—Joe and Adam Cartwright. Twenty years later, “The Crucible” still casts a dark shadow….
Drama, some mystery, WHN (or, rather, What Happened Later)
Rated: K+ WC 55,300
Comments always encouraged; criticisms and suggestions enthusiastically welcomed as private communications.
The opening of this story was inspired by two sentences from the opening of BeckyS’s fine story “The Pure Heart,” which are directly responsible for any and all Bonanza fan fiction I ever produce. (I encountered them as another BW member’s sig line and registered with the BW Library just so I could find out what came next.) Much as I admired “The Pure Heart,” however, I found myself wondering, “What if Ben and Hoss hadn’t been riding with the wagon? What if it had crashed in an isolated area, leaving Joe and Adam at the mercy of strangers?”
So here’s my answer to those questions, and a few others besides….
— i —
We were a few hours’ ride out of Salt Flats, on the way to Eastgate; richer than we’d been in months, and just a little bit drunk, or we might never have become mixed up in the affair at all. Having no money keeps a man’s attention on his own business, especially when it’s as private as ours. On the other hand, the right amount of whiskey makes Jimmy almost sentimental—and maybe me as well. Anyway, when we noticed the wagon tracks running off from the side of the road, we stopped to look down. There was no reason not to, after all.
First thing I saw was the horses—one down and thrashing, one balanced on three shaking legs. You couldn’t leave brute animals in such pain unless you had no bullets to spare, or couldn’t risk someone hearing shots. I dropped my horse’s reins over its head and scrambled down into the arroyo.
Jimmy followed me, and I didn’t have to wonder why for long—sometimes seems like Jimmy shares his every thought with me. “Two of ’em to get out,” he said. “Feller in the green jacket’s still alive, but t’other one—that leg’s mighty still. And stormflood’s coming, Frank.” He jerked his head at the clouds on the horizon. The rain might never reach this far into the desert, but the runoff surely would.
Not the brightest fellow I’ve ever worked with, Jimmy, but nothing like as stupid as he pretends sometimes. Plenty of muscle, too, which comes in handy in our line of work. At the moment it was also coming in handy for the chap in the jacket, who had been almost buried in supplies from the wagon. By the time I had dealt with the horses, Jimmy’d moved enough bags and barrels away that we could see the real trouble facing us.
The wagon was flipped over, tilted up at one corner. The man in the green jacket, who’d been driving, groaned and tried to sit up as I approached. “You all right?” I asked, more to gauge his reaction than to hear his response.
He blinked up at me attentively enough. “I’m fine,” he said, wincing as he took a deep breath. “How’s my brother?” Pressing one hand to his side, he worked his way to his knees, then his feet. When I reached out to support him, he gave me a wide though worried grin.
Jimmy, already at the other side of the wagon, shrugged at the question. We made our way over to join him. Catching his first sight of the motionless black-booted leg stretched out from under the wagon, the man beside me grunted, then dropped to his knees, scooping sand and gravel away from where his brother lay. Jimmy was trying to lift the wagon off the trapped man, but only raised it an inch or two before shaking his head and easing it back to the ground. “Don’t wanta drop it onto him hard,” he explained, wiping off his forehead.
The man in the green jacket rocked back on his heels, one arm still bracing his ribs. “Your horses know cattle work?” he asked me abruptly.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “They’re just a pair of livery stable nags.”
“Worth trying, anyway,” the other man said, and got up with sudden purpose. There were a few coiled ropes among the scattered supplies; he hung them over one shoulder before starting the climb up to where our horses waited placidly. Once there, he knotted the ropes together, then glanced from my horse to Jimmy’s. For whatever reason, it was Jimmy’s horse he mounted, in a smooth movement that didn’t reveal any of the pain I suspected his ribs were giving him. He coiled the long rope and tossed one end down to Jimmy. “Tie this to the wagon and I’ll see if the horse will help move it,” he called down to us.
Jimmy’s good with knots; it’s another of his handy skills. He made the rope fast in a hurry, and almost before he shouted up, the man in the jacket was backing Jimmy’s horse away from the road. I’m not a cattle man myself but I finally understood what he intended. Jimmy’s horse was easing the wagon up onto its side, making sure it couldn’t fall back onto us or the man on the ground.
I could feel the ground beneath me starting to shiver. “Better hurry,” I said as we eased the limp form out. Jimmy caught him up and slung him over one shoulder, then started up the slope. I knew we’d better not stay hitched to that wagon for long, so I used the knife I keep in my boot to cut loose the rope, stooped to grab a few of the scattered supplies, and scrambled after my partner. The first trickle of floodwater splashed over my boots as I started to climb.
We collapsed at the top of the bank in a heap, tired but pleased with ourselves. I glanced down at what I’d salvaged from the wagon—four canteens and a bag of jerky. Not much to have risked my life for, but you never know in the desert. Four people can go through two men’s supplies in quite a hurry. Water supplies especially; I was glad the canteens weighed heavy in my hand. Jimmy laid the unconscious man down as carefully as if he were a baby. Nothing about him seemed to bend the way it shouldn’t, so I hoped his only injury was the deep and bloody cut on his forehead.
The man in the green jacket slid down from Jimmy’s horse much less gracefully than he’d mounted. “I hate to keep asking for favors,” he grinned, “but could one of you ride to Salt Flats and bring back a wagon for us? I’d be glad to pay for your time and trouble.”
If I’d known all the trouble I’d get from that reasonable request, I’d have left the two of them by the side of the road with the sack of jerky and their canteens, and ridden off in some haste. Well, perhaps. There wasn’t any shade nearby, and it wasn’t a well-travelled road….
No, I’d probably have done just the same as I actually did, which was smile back at him and say, “Of course.”
“Thanks,” the man in the green jacket said, shaking my hand firmly. “I’m Joe Cartwright, and that’s my brother Adam.”
They were trying, Cartwright said, to catch up with their cattle drive, which should have been at Eastgate by now—some matter of misplaced supplies and a shortcut that hadn’t worked out. Fortunately they were still carrying cash enough to replace most of what had been lost. If it seemed a little strange to me they had so much money on them at the start of a drive, that wasn’t any of my affair. I asked Joe the question that mattered to me instead, that would let me know what kind of marks I’d stumbled onto this time. “Aren’t you worried we might not come back?”
“If you don’t come back, the money wouldn’t do us much good.” True enough, and it told me this man might trust people easily, but not the unforgiving land around us. “Besides, without you we wouldn’t still be here to worry.” He patted his brother’s hand again, something he’d been doing from time to time ever since we came back to the road. There were more important concerns burdening Joe Cartwright just now than a handful of banknotes.
They weren’t much alike, for brothers. Joseph was compact in build, with a handsome face that looked surprisingly young below his unruly mop of graying hair. Adam was taller, broader, darker; his wavy salt-and-pepper hair was cut short and he had the beginnings of a thick beard. Like his brother, he was dressed for the drive, but his black shirt and jeans gave him almost the look of a man in a formal suit. I was glad he was the one who’d been knocked out. He didn’t look the trusting sort at all.
I sent Jimmy back by himself. He was perfectly capable of picking out a suitable rig and he wasn’t the big winner in last night’s poker game, so no one at Salt Flats would likely be looking for him in an unfriendly way. After he was gone, I did what I could for the Cartwrights, which mostly involved tearing strips off things to make bandages. It occurred to me that playing the Good Samaritan involved a lot more hard work and inconvenience than the parable let on. My blanket was one of the few things left from before I came West, and the shirt was not only new but lucky. Cartwright money could buy me replacements, but I suspected Jimmy wouldn’t be keeping any of it for us. Not his fault; he usually did just what he was told. Joe had explained what he wanted, and I hadn’t said anything about skimming a cut off first, because—well, because I didn’t want Joe thinking we were thieves. Flat foolishness, hindsight told me, but there was nothing to be done about it now. So I strapped up Joe’s ribs with bits off the blanket, washed and bound up the cut on Adam’s head with my shirt, and used what was left of my bedroll to make a patch of shelter from the sun. Adam still didn’t rouse when we moved him under it. “Granite-head,” his brother said with wry affection. “Leave him alone. He’ll wake up when he’s ready and not a minute sooner.”
We squeezed into the shade beside Adam, and I offered Joe a swig of my whiskey. He declined it more politely than I’d half-expected—hard drink and hot weather when you’re travelling aren’t a good mix. Instead he drank about half a canteen’s worth of water, settled himself more comfortably, and commented, “I didn’t catch your names earlier, friend.”
“Frank, and my partner’s Jimmy,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t demand last names as well. I like to leave those as vague as possible; it saves confusion.
“Jim and Frank,” he repeated. For a moment he seemed to be frowning, then he shrugged his shoulders and gave me a deliberately cheerful grin. I wondered what had upset him. Those names were common enough, which was why I wasn’t shy about using them.
It was hot, and we all dozed off after a while. The sound of an approaching wagon brought Joe and me awake at the same time. We caught each other measuring how quickly we reacted and Joe laughed, an honest friendly laugh again. Adam sighed and for a moment seemed about to stir. Joe looked down at him fondly, muttered, “Let’s not disturb him yet,” and got up to see what was coming.
Jimmy had laid the Cartwrights’ money out well, I had to admit. Instead of a buckboard and team, he’d settled for a mule and one of the small wagons prospectors fancy, with a canvas cover and wheels big enough to make a shady refuge under the wagon bed when you’re in camp. He’d also half-filled the wagon with basic supplies, including two barrels of water. I gave him a nod of approval and he flashed me the signal that said Salt Flats was still clean—no wanted posters, no bad-mouthers. Good to know if we had to back-track in a hurry—Salt Flats was the only quick way out of this desert if we found trouble in Eastgate. I’d no reason to expect any problems, but I always like having alternatives. I’d been in trouble before because a wanted poster for someone else looked uncomfortably like me. Jimmy just naturally attracted suspicion, unfair as that was. Big men with scars on their necks and missing teeth aren’t much for inspiring trust in honest folk.
“Hey, Adam!” Joe’s voice rang out behind me. “Good to see ya, Rip van Winkle. How’s the head?”
“Don’t shout so,” a deeper voice protested. I turned to see the second Cartwright getting up slowly, a hand in the small of his back. “Though the head’s not as bad as the back. What happened?”
“Your back? Maybe you’d better lie down again, Adam.” Joe’s voice had a sudden undertone of alarm.
“Just muscle cramps, Joe. Nothing serious. What happened? Where’s the wagon?”
Joe filled his brother in quickly, and I was right—Adam Cartwright most certainly wasn’t the trusting sort. I was glad Jimmy had returned before he woke up. The mule and new wagon were solid proof we hadn’t planned just to rob the pair and ride off.
“Well, if they’re Jim and Frank, the mule must be Epicene.” Something about the way Adam said that made me nervous. He was giving me sidelong glances, like he figured me for…well, what I was. I tried out my friendliest smile on him, and felt its nervous tremor. There’s times being something just doesn’t help you seem that way. Look at Jimmy.
“Now, Adam—” Apparently Joe was worried too. He wasn’t wasting any time on us, though; he was entirely focused on his brother.
“It’s the word ‘mule’ that’s epicene, Joe. It’s a technical term. Advanced Greek grammar, not something you’d understand.”
I’d have punched him for that, but Joe only laughed and gave Adam a cheerful slap on the shoulder. “Whatever you say, older brother.”
We helped Adam into the wagon and made him as comfortable as we could, which wasn’t very. His attitude reminded me a little of a hostage in a bank robbery, but at least he was being a cooperative hostage. It worried me he still had his pistol, but the holster had scooped up an awful lot of sand, and I suspected some of it must have got into the gun—enough that he probably wouldn’t trust to it if he decided we meant him some harm. Ironic that the one time I’d tried to do someone a favor lately had me worrying about trouble worse than any we’d met for a while.
Jimmy and Joe, meanwhile, seemed carefree as larks. Joe was checking over the wagon and mule to be sure they were sound and healthy, and Jimmy was just plain curious. “What’s the deal with the mule’s name?” he whispered to me as we got our saddles cinched tight.
“It’s a fancy word for saying mules aren’t male or female,” I said—incorrectly, of course, but I wasn’t about to get bogged down in a discussion of how words could be male or female, or why people might care about Greek grammar in this day and age. Or especially how I came to know anything about Greek myself. Jimmy wrinkled up his brow but let it pass, to my relief. He was used to the idea that I thought I knew all about everything, but I didn’t want the Cartwrights getting curious. I sure didn’t need one of the most important families in Nevada deciding to pry into my past.
It was already too late to prevent it, I found out that night. Adam Cartwright waited until Joe and Jimmy were occupied on the other side of the camp and beckoned me over, a malicious grin quirking his lips. “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much,” he said in a low voice. The Boston drawl had eroded in several directions but I heard it as clearly as the old quip itself. I cocked an eyebrow at him and wished it was a gun. He rolled his eyes down at the remains of my blanket, with its broad crimson stripe, and I shrugged.
“Lawrence Scientific School,” he clarified. “And you?”
“Nothing so practical. My father wanted another minister in the family.”
“Preacher’s son, eh?” Adam gave me another long look. “When did your mother die?”
“She’s been dead forever,” I mumbled. It got a reaction from him, though I wasn’t sure what sort. This was not a man I wanted to play poker with. After another awkward pause I confessed, “My oldest sister sent me money for a while. She died two years ago.”
“And you’ve been out here…how long?”
“Five years.” I didn’t know why I was telling him all this, but I couldn’t seem to keep my mouth shut any more.
“Stayed out of the wanted posters?” It was his turn to cock an eyebrow now.
“Pretty much. There was a mixup in Reno once, but I got it sorted in time.”
“Can’t tell him much…” Adam repeated. The smirk came back, brief but friendlier this time. “Well, carry on.” He pulled his hat down over his eyes and settled himself under the blanket. Evidently my audience was at an end.
I went to sleep irritated, and more than a little worried. Adam Cartwright had extracted more of my past in five minutes’ conversation than I’d let out over the last five years. If he wanted to trace me, he probably could now, and the scary thing was he just might. All the Cartwrights collected strays and lost causes, which was why I’d always tried to avoid them. I was, after all, certainly one and most likely the other as well, and I had no intention of being swept up in anyone’s collection-net.
Morning changed everything. It was a promising dawn, the warmth of the early sun welcome as it would not be later. Jimmy woke up first and roused the rest of us by putting a panful of bacon and a pot of coffee on the fire. I lay back and listened to the Cartwrights’ banter. Joe, it appeared, had not always been an early riser, nor had Adam in his youth been much inclined to sleep late. Old, or more properly middle age, had apparently worn away their differences in this small matter at least. They laughed about that. Something Joe said made me realize that Adam had been away from his family several years, but to hear them talking now it was hard to believe. They had a harmony which I’d sometimes—not often—seen in long-married couples in my father’s congregation. For the first time in my life, I wondered how it might have been not to be an only son.
Joe finally emerged from under the wagon to join Jimmy at the campfire. Adam spent a few minutes fussing with their blankets, then limped to the back of the wagon and hauled himself inside. I assumed he was stowing the bedding away and reluctantly began to peel myself out of my own bedroll. A garbled cry brought my attention back to the wagon in time to see the older Cartwright pitch headlong over its tailgate.
None of us reached the wagon fast enough to catch him. He landed on his back, curled up just enough that his head wasn’t the first thing to hit the ground, and the impact knocked the breath from him. For what seemed hours he struggled to get air back into his lungs. By the time he was breathing evenly—though not, I noticed, deeply—again, Joe was at his side with a hand on his chest. “Don’t move,” he said, in a voice made shrill with anxiety. “Adam, I mean it! Don’t move. What happened?”
I wasn’t much surprised that Adam did, in fact, move, though only to put a hand to the back of his head. “Back locked up…lost my balance. Fine help I’m being on this drive, eh?”
Joe gave a small snort that might have been agreement or annoyance. “Can you feel your legs?”
Adam promptly pulled both of them up so his knees were in the air, and groaned as the movement flattened out his back slightly. “It’s muscle spasms, Joe. Don’t you think I can tell that myself? Stop fussing over me like a…like Pa would.”
“Just be grateful Pa ain’t here,” Joe snapped back. “You’re not going anywhere until a doctor sees you. And after the doctor sees you—if he says it’s safe—you’re going back home. That could have killed you, Adam, and then Pa would have killed me. I’m not taking any more chances with those ‘spasms’ of yours, older brother.”
‘Older brother’ raised his hands in surrender and said no more. Joe glanced from Jimmy to me and asked, “Where would the nearest doctor be?”
“Eastgate,” I said. “Salt Flat’s only got a barber, and a blacksmith for lame horses, but they’ve got a proper doctor in Eastgate. Don’t know how good he is, though.”
“How far is that?”
“Two-three hours riding steady, maybe half that if you push on hard,” I shrugged.
Jimmy had the stronger horse, so he was the one sent ahead. I wondered if I should tell the Cartwrights that Jimmy’s sense of direction—and time—weren’t the sharpest, but kept my mouth shut. All he had to do was stick to the road, same as he had riding back to Salt Flats, and there wasn’t any immediate danger, however much Adam’s back hurt.
Once Jimmy was gone, I went over to the campfire to rescue what I could of our breakfast. The Cartwrights waited until I was well away from them before starting to talk again. They were watching me the whole time, and I guessed if they thought I could hear them they’d lower their voices, or maybe wait for a better opportunity. I made sure they thought I couldn’t hear them. Eavesdropping is something I’ve done well since childhood.
The problem, as Adam pointed out, was that Joe still needed to catch up with his cattle. Once with them, he could send back a hand to get Adam home to the Ponderosa—it was tacitly accepted that Adam was going no further, except perhaps to a hotel room in Eastgate—but the drive was already short-handed, and neither man liked that solution. Joe suggested telegraphing from Eastgate for someone to come up from the Ponderosa, to which Adam retorted, “And pay for the telegram with what? Not to mention the hotel room?” Clearly the Cartwrights weren’t accustomed to operating entirely without cash in their pockets.
“Which leaves us asking for more help from this pair, and still having nothing to offer them,” Joe concluded sourly.
“If they don’t already have a fair cut of my money then they’re honest enough to assume that we’re honest too, and they’ll get their money when I’m home.” Adam said dryly. “If they do have their cut, they’ll likely be agreeable to a chance for more. Easy work for the pay, after all.”
True enough. It was interesting Adam referred to the money we’d already spent as his. I’d thought it was joint Cartwright funds for the drive. Joe had already mentioned that Adam inserted himself into the drive at the last minute; learning he was also carrying a remarkably large sum of personal cash began to seem not merely odd, but outright suspicious. I settled down to prepare myself a suitably polite refusal—further association with the Cartwrights promised to be something I didn’t know how to evaluate. The dangers of a high-stakes poker game were at least familiar ones.
“It’s not what I wanted to be doing, I’ll admit,” Adam went on, “and knowing so little about them doesn’t help.”
“Jim-boy’s all right. Reminds me a little of Hoss.” That was a surprise; Hoss Cartwright, the middle brother of the family, had led a much-respected life before dying, not long after I came West, rescuing passengers from a crowded stagecoach that was swept into the Truckee river during a flood. He was next thing to a saint in the eyes of most of Nevada these days. Even more surprising was Adam’s soft snort of agreement. “Can’t say I feel the same way about t’other,” Joe went on.
“He’s nothing I can’t handle. You’re being superstitious, Joe. This boy has nothing to do with that business…he was playing with his building blocks twenty years ago.”
“Come on. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t feel better if he were named Slim, or Peter.”
“Not Peter,” Adam said, and the change in his voice startled me. Joe was surprised too; he rocked back on his heels and put a hand on Adam’s shoulder. After a moment Adam put his own hand over his brother’s, and they sat in silence a little time.
“You never did tell me the whole of it,” Joe said finally.
“No, and I’m not going to.” Adam’s voice was gentle but firm. “It was never your fault, Joe, and it’s been over a long time. Let it go.”
Joe gave a long deep sigh and began to massage Adam’s back. I dished out the salvaged breakfast and carried it over to them, and we spent the rest of the morning doing nothing in particular and pretending we weren’t all staring up the road towards Eastgate.
The dust cloud that finally cheered our eyes proved to be Jimmy riding in alone at a hard gallop. looking more flustered than I’d seen him since Reno. He was halfway to a run as he hit the ground, heading for me, but Joe got in his way first. “Where’s the doctor?”
“Didn’t get to him,” Jimmy gasped, still trying to push past and reach me. “Frank, I checked at the sheriff’s like always—”
“What do you mean, didn’t get to him! For God’s sake, what’s going on?” Joe’s voice was shrill and rising fast.
“The wanted posters…the biggest one….”
“Are you saying there’s one for us?” I could hardly believe it, not clean as we’d been playing it the last several months. Of course, mistakes do happen, which was why the rule was always, always, to check the sheriff’s office first thing into town. Jimmy did stick to the rules, thank goodness. I was glad I had rammed this one into his thick head so hard.
Jimmy shook his head. “Not us. Adam Cartwright…for murder…big reward. Real big reward, Frank.”
“Why, you lying little piece of….” Joe Cartwright heaved Jimmy off his feet and shook him like a terrier with a rat. I’d no idea the younger Cartwright was so strong; Jimmy was much the bigger of the two, but he was too surprised to defend himself. I drew my gun and circled the pair, setting up for a clear shot if one seemed necessary.
“Easy, Joe.” Adam’s deep voice was pitched loud enough to reach us all, and unexpectedly calm. Joe opened his hands and let Jimmy drop as his brother continued, “I’m afraid I didn’t tell you everything I ran into on the way home, little brother.”
“You knew this would happen.” Joe was still furious, but no longer with Jimmy. It sounded as if all the little things that had me worried were making a clear and ugly picture for him.
“I was afraid it might,” Adam corrected his brother quietly. He had dragged himself to his feet again and was leaning against the wagon, staring out into the desert at nothing particular I could see. “I needed to be away from the Ponderosa if it did…you and Pa have been through enough already, and as for Linda and Elizabeth…I should have left them in Boston, or London. Maybe I should have left myself there too. I just wanted to come home so badly….” His voice died away in a pleading whisper.
“What happened, Adam?” Joe’s voice was not much louder, and held almost the same plea.
Adam took a deep breath, and another one, before answering. “I made a mistake, Joe. A big one. That’s all I can tell you; I’m sorry.”
“You aren’t a murderer. I won’t believe that.” The younger man moved closer to his brother as if to protect him.
“I might as well be.” Adam glanced down at his brother, then turned back towards the desert. “No one else is going to think I’m innocent.”
“Why not? What happened?” Anger was flooding back into Joe’s voice.
“I can’t tell you,” Adam repeated.
“You have to tell me something—God, Adam, I’m your brother! I’ve a right to know what’s going on!”
“Not if I don’t want you to.” The older brother was beginning to get angry now, a slower, colder, more frightening emotion.
“And that’s what you’ll have me say to our Pa? To your wife? You can’t just leave it like this!”
“Chicago. October in Chicago. That’s all, Joe. I told you, this is dangerous…I don’t want the rest of you hurt.” They were glaring at each other, no shock or surprise mixing into their raised voices. I suddenly realized that conflict, like laughter, was something they’d often shared before, familiar and even strangely comfortable for them.
“We don’t want you hurt,” Joe insisted passionately.
“Too late for that,” Adam sighed, and the bitter resignation in his voice quenched his brother like cold water on a fire.
After a long pause, Joe muttered, “So what are you planning to do? Turn yourself in?”
“No. I doubt I’d make it to stand trial if I did.”
“So if you’re not doing that, and you won’t go home…oh, Adam, you don’t mean to go there.” Joe’s face was abruptly chalky white behind his tan.
Adam didn’t look much happier, but he wasn’t backing down. “Why not? You rode right past the place before.”
All their cards were on the table now, even if I couldn’t make them out myself, and they were both acting like Adam had the royal flush. Also like the pot they were playing for was being guest of honor at a necktie party, or maybe just an appointment with a firing squad.
Jimmy had finally finished cooling his horse out and came over to crouch beside me. “What’s the plan?”
“Don’t know their plan. Our plan’s getting out of this, pronto.” The more I heard the more certain I became that we had already been with the Cartwrights longer than was healthy.
A big hand closed painfully on my shoulder. “No we ain’t,” Jimmy hissed in my ear. I twisted around and felt my guts knot. He had that cold-eyed frown that meant he’d made his own mind up about something and wasn’t going to change it now. The last time, it had been taking care of a foundered nag any fool could see wasn’t worth saving. This time I figured it for the two men he’d rescued. I should have known he’d let his soft heart overrule his softer head, and my not-so-soft head too. It didn’t look like he’d let me walk away without a fight, and there was never going to be a time I could outfight Jimmy. Except, of course, by drawing fast and shooting to kill. I wasn’t quite uncomfortable enough about the Cartwrights to do that. I wondered if I’d finally lost my edge, and how much longer I could last out here if I had.
Adam took charge as if we were his to command, which since Joseph was his brother and Jimmy seemed to have confused him with one of the Major Prophets I supposed was true enough. He sketched out a detailed rock formation (using my paper and pencil, eagerly volunteered by Jimmy) and sent Joe and Jimmy out on horseback to look for it. Joe was riding my horse now—another property rearrangement I wasn’t consulted about. I couldn’t decide if Adam wanted me close at hand because he thought I wouldn’t be much good in the search, or because he suspected I’d simply take the chance to leave if I could. Almost the first thing he did after the others rode out was clean and reload his pistol, but he didn’t comment on my gunbelt. If he knew about the derringer I carried under my jacket, he didn’t comment on that either.
Instead, he hitched the mule up and headed us off the road into the open desert. We didn’t go far, just out to the nearest cluster of rocks big enough to hide the wagon from the road. Not long after we were settled on the far side of the outcropping I heard the stagecoach from Reno rattle past, and wondered if the Cartwrights knew its twice-a-week schedule as well as I did, or if it had just been general suspiciousness that prompted Adam to move. I hadn’t done so much wondering or calculating about anything but poker for months, and I wasn’t enjoying it. Having Jimmy at my back had taken a lot of the worry out of day-to-day living. The thought of having to ditch him made my mouth dry up—as if tramping across a hot desert, even for only a few hundred yards, wasn’t enough to give me a thirst.
Adam had walked beside the mule, rather than driving the wagon, which meant I had done so too. It was annoying to have to admit that a man twice my age, with a sore back and a recent head injury, could walk faster and farther than I, but I was the one who flopped down as soon as we stopped, while he saw to the mule’s comfort. He spent more time going though every bag and barrel in the wagon, like a shopkeeper taking inventory, before joining me in the shade below it. I took the hunk of jerky he held out and gnawed a bit off, more to pass the time than because I was hungry. When I had my mouth well occupied he began asking me questions. The interrogation started out slow and pleasant but sped up rapidly without leaving any space for my answers, and ended like pounding hammerblows.
“So, sag mir, sprichst du deutsch? Liest du die ‘Arbeiter-Zeitung’ oder die ‘Freiheit’? Was denkst du über Marx oder Lassalle? Hast du was übrig für Attentate? Should cows be milked at night on DeKoven Street? Do you think the Palmer House is really fireproof? Or would you rather marshall fields with your McCormick Pullman?”
None of it made any sense to me until the last word, and that didn’t make much. “I haven’t been on a train in years, and my game’s poker, not riddle contests.”
My attempt at irony sounded childish even to me; Adam greeted it with raised eyebrows and a rather superior smile. Now that he was looking straight at me, I saw that his eyes were a surprisingly light brown, though they seemed to darken as his eyebrows eased into their normal position. His mouth relaxed into a grin as bright and cheerful as his brother’s. “Riddle games about describes it, I suppose. I shouldn’t have made you choke down that jerky. Have some of this to clear your throat.” He held out a rather battered hip flask.
I was expecting whiskey, but got a mouthful of brandy better than anything I’d tasted since a stolen bottle from my father’s private stash the last Christmas I was home. This slid down my throat hot and luxurious at the same time, and I let out a long sigh of appreciation before realizing that Adam was still watching me as sharply as before, for all the warmth of his smile. As I handed back the flask I wondered what else I’d let him learn about myself without saying a word.
On the other hand, I suddenly felt sure I knew what part of his riddle game was about, and if I was right he was more concerned with protecting himself than learning about me. In his place, I’d be trying to do the same, though probably not as well. He had made it clear he wasn’t just running from the law, but a black-sheep preacher’s son from the East coast surely wasn’t what had him worried. Right at the moment, I figured mine was still the itchier trigger finger, and that was just the way I wanted things.
As if to show off to me how unworried he now felt, Adam settled himself more comfortably and took a good sip of the brandy. “I’m sorry to have been such a busy-body, but my little brother is about to get his revenge for all the years Hoss and I watched over him. He’s not going to leave me out here alone, and much as I appreciate Jimmy, I’d prefer your conversation.”
“Provided you feel you can trust me.”
“Trust you?” Adam pushed his lips out as he considered the concept. “Oh, I don’t. I don’t distrust you because…hmm. You don’t speak German. You don’t come from Chicago. You don’t look or sound like you’ve done an honest day’s hard labor in your life. You know I won’t be any use to you dead or in jail. And Jimmy rides with you, which counts for something.”
“I ride with Jimmy,” I corrected him. A year and a bit ago I’d been banking the surplus from a particularly profitable small-town poker game when the current most-wanted gang swept in to claim their own harvest. I’d been looking for a new partner and knew I’d found a good one the minute I laid eyes on Jimmy. I saw to it they picked me for their getaway insurance and in the next two days cut Jimmy out of that gang as neatly as any trick-rider in a Wild West Show could have. The gang’s next robbery, I learned much later, ended in a shootout that got them all killed, so either I’d saved Jimmy’s life or done the next town’s sheriff a big favor. Whichever, I counted it a good deed, and, at least until I’d met the Cartwrights, it had provided its own reward. None of my earlier partners had been safe company for very long. They always got greedy—a deadly vice for a gambler. Jimmy’s faults certainly didn’t include greed.
Adam made a dismissive gesture. “You don’t keep him under the gun. He rides with you.”
Put that way, he had a point. Now I thought back, Jimmy hadn’t been with the bank robbers long enough to get on any list of the gang. What his life had been before that I didn’t know; I never asked questions I wouldn’t answer myself. I laid the issue of Jimmy to one side of my mind and backed up to one of Adam’s earlier comments, and the riddle I thought I understood. “All I know about Chicago is that it has more than one train station.”
“And you don’t plan on seeing any of them again soon?”
“Around the time hell freezes over, or I play poker with you.”
“Now the poker’s a pity.” Adam shook his head sadly, though the look in his eyes said he was teasing me. “Of course, Joe would make it a better game, but I don’t think he’ll be staying with us longer than he has to.”
The dealers in Virginia City reckoned Joe could make a fair living off his poker, if he wanted to. I was careful to keep my visits there as brief and infrequent as possible; it never looks good to be dodging a popular local with a good reputation at the game, and it doesn’t make sense to set yourself up to lose. A game with both Cartwrights at the table was definitely something I wanted to avoid—unless we kept it penny-ante, which given their current finances they might. Then again, they might regard a poker game with me as the easiest available way to get money back in Joe’s pocket…. Trying to outthink this twisty-minded horsetrader was giving me a headache.
I suddenly decided to give up on outthinking him and simply call his bluff. “I’ll play poker with you if you tell me what happened in Chicago.”
Adam frowned at me like a schoolmaster drilling a very dull pupil. “Oh, don’t just settle for Chicago. I’ve been abroad for the last ten years. Everyone in Nevada knows that.”
I did too, now he had reminded me; Adam Cartwright was the man who’d run away from the Ponderosa. There was a saloon girl in Reno who still took it as a personal insult, to hear her talk. No doubt in Virginia City his return was the main subject of current gossip…or had been until the latest batch of wanted posters came out. I could see why Adam had wanted to be somewhere else when that happened.
He took another swallow of his brandy, waiting for my reply. When I didn’t say anything he added, with a touch of acid in his voice, “Cartwright business has always been considered public property for everyone within fifty miles of the Ponderosa’s boundaries.”
“You’re stalling,” I said rather sharply.
“So I am. It’s difficult working out where to start. The full story’s not only incriminating and embarassing, it’s long. Too long for me to follow the King of Heart’s advice for the White Rabbit, I’m afraid. You know, ‘Begin at the beginning, go on to the end, and then stop.’ ”
I closed up my jaw with an effort, and wondered why he’d begun the riddle-game again. He gave me another disappointed-schoolmaster look and explained, “Alice in Wonderland. You never read that?”
“It’s a children’s book,” I said with some indignation. “For girls!”
This time he actually rolled his eyes at me. “There’s some very interesting philosophy and logic in it. The author’s a noted mathematician.” He added with a sudden grin, “Though I must admit my daughter loves the poems best.”
Before he could start quoting his daughter’s favorite poem at me I hastily reminded him, “Chicago.”
“If you insist…in a way this all started right where we’re going now, but it really would take all day to tell you why.” He chewed on his lip a moment and tried a different approach. “You remember Tsar Alexander was assassinated in Russia last year?”
“Yes,” I said cautiously. The connection hardly seemed obvious.
“A friend of mine in London made some…injudicious…references to that event and needed to leave the country in a hurry. I offered him my assistance, since I was already planning my return home. We traveled together as far as Chicago, where he intended to meet some other…friends of his. One thing led to another and…well, a policeman was killed, in circumstances it wasn’t…convenient…to explain to the city authorities at the time.”
His expression as he picked his way through that speech convinced me he hadn’t killed the policeman, or wanted him to die, even if he did blame himself for the death. I hadn’t thought him capable of exposing so much raw emotion. The rest of the story sounded like something out of a dime novel. Feeling ashamed of myself for entertaining such lurid suspicions, I ventured, “Are you a Pinkerton?”
“Hardly,” Adam drawled. The question seemed more to annoy than surprise him. “Quite the opposite. Though I probably owe my life to one, until he cashes it in—which I suppose he already has.”
“And that’s why you’re going to camp out in the desert for a while.”
“As much of why as I’m willing to tell you for now,” he agreed, and offered me back the brandy flask. I shook my head. It wasn’t that big a flask, and I was beginning to think what I really wanted was whiskey after all—enough whiskey to shut my brain down before it blew up like an overheated boiler. Since there wasn’t any, I leaned back and pretended to go to sleep instead.
Feigning sleep, like eavesdropping, was a weapon from the arsenal of my childhood that I’d brought West with me. I could still make my best plans lying on my back with my eyes closed, emitting the occasional snore, and listening with all my attention to what people were saying around me. Amazing what some people would let slip when they thought the subject of their conversation was sound asleep three feet from them.
Not Adam, though. If I’d had to guess what he was doing five minutes later, I’d have said ‘same as me,’ and it was almost tempting to take a peek and see if I was right. In the last few years, though, I’d learned to do better at resisting temptation—perhaps because poker wasn’t temptation any more, but work, and most other sins simply never interested me as much. Instead, I settled down to mull over my situation.
When I was a kid, I read dime novels, like every normal boy. At first they actually belonged to the bootboy—who was our butler’s nephew— although I got to read them first, because I read faster. After my baby sister Charity got the bootboy dismissed by claiming he had tried to kiss her, Mr. Eaton went on buying dime novels for me. I don’t know why, unless my oldest sister Constance asked him to. Connie and Mrs. Hutchings, the housekeeper, did all the mothering for our family, with Mrs. Hutchings providing most of the discipline and Connie most of the kindness. I’m probably not being fair to Mrs. Hutchings, who had many other responsibilities besides four children, but she always seemed to greet us with a scowl, even when she was bringing us up a special treat from the kitchen while my father entertained important guests downstairs. Mr. Eaton had almost nothing to do with the girls, but on Saturday afternoons I would go into the butler’s pantry where he sat polishing the silver, and there always was a crisp new dime novel tucked under his pile of soft cloths. I’d read the novel with silver polish tickling at my nose—to this day I smell the stuff whenever I’m reading for pleasure—and then leave when I was through, no words exchanged. The only time I ever spoke to him during one of those sessions was the last time I was home from college. My father and Charity were escorting a group of wealthy ladies on a tour of the Holy Land that winter, and Connie and Pru were both married by then. I was the only one home, except for the servants, but Mr. Eaton was still polishing the silver as if there would be a dinner party the next night. I asked him why.
He looked up at me and I realized how old he’d become. “Because I should,” he said simply, and went back to his work.
If you counted teachers and professors as servants (and why not? Tutors and governesses are) then I learned everything I knew from servants, except the two things my father taught me in one sharp afternoon—don’t expect fair dealings, and never trust in family. Of all those lessons, though, I think Mr. Eaton’s was the closest to a measure for my life. Not that I ever came close to achieving it, but at least I knew it was there. Sometimes, when I needed to make snap judgments about people, I tried to visualize them saying those three words. Most people couldn’t, even in my imagination. Jimmy could, and I knew it right from the time he walked into that bank.
So could the Cartwrights, both of them. I heard them say it with different voices—Joe’s cheerful and a little challenging, Adam’s cold dead sure—but neither one of them hesitated. Which only left the little question of what each of them might mean by the phrase.
I kept my promise and played poker for pebbles with Adam part of that afternoon. Adam ended up with all the pebbles, not entirely because he had the better cards. No point in putting out my best effort now, when I still might be facing him for real stakes later. We were debating whether to divide the pebbles up again and start another round or go back to sleep—it was another hot and lazy afternoon, even for men sitting in the shade—when our scouts came into view. Adam glanced up at the sun and immediately began harnessing the mule.
“That’s where we were when Pa saw you, all right,” Joe said almost before he dismounted. “Now what? You figure you can backtrack from there, all these years later?”
“The mountains haven’t moved, Joe.” Adam looked like he had a bad taste in his mouth, or maybe he was just feeling dry. He took a long drink of water before saying anything again, and licked up what the canteen left on his lips instead of wiping it away. “Can we make it there by sundown?”
“Close enough. Full moon tonight. You want to camp there?”
Adam nodded. “No point going any farther until sunup. I used the Sierras for my bearings coming out—wouldn’t recognize them by moonlight. But it won’t take long to find the place tomorrow; I wasn’t making much speed the other time. Probably no more than half a day’s travel for us the way we are. We’ll settle the rest of our plans tonight. You can be back at Salt Flats to telegraph Pa in a day or two, Joe, so stop worrying over how he’s taking things this time.”
“Won’t be much easier to send this telegram than the last one,” Joe grunted.
“Yes, it will,” Adam corrected him. The softness of his voice surprised me. “I’ve never said how proud I would have been of you if I’d known what you did, Joe. I’m sorry. It was selfish of me.”
“Like that hurt my feelings?” Joe managed an unsteady laugh and a smile that looked like a death mask’s. “With all you went through, I was going to care that you didn’t tell me what a good boy I was? Give me some credit, Adam.”
“But you were a good boy.” Adam’s smile was much warmer, more real. “And it probably saved my life. No, certainly did. Don’t think I don’t appreciate that, Joe.”
“No more than you’d do for me.” Joe snapped back, red with embarrassment.
Before they could start arguing over which brother took better care of the other, I asked rudely, “Do you mind telling me what you’re talking about?” Which was how I found out why the Cartwrights came to this part of Nevada even less often than I went to Virginia City.
In fact, the last Cartwright drive to Eastgate had been about twenty years earlier, when I had, as Adam once pointed out, been playing with blocks in the nursery. Adam and Joe had run it between them, and separated for a few days before starting home again. Somehow a pair of lowlifes named Jim and Frank—which explained some of the strange looks the Cartwrights had given us—tracked Adam down and bushwhacked him for his cash, a pretty fair sum since cattle don’t often get here on the hoof. They’d been greedy, though. As well as the cash they took his gun, his horse, and all his supplies. The puzzle to me was why they didn’t just go on and shoot him; presumably they valued their bullets quite highly. Joe learned something was wrong by stumbling across the stolen horse, and after a few ghastly days he’d tracked the pair to Salt Flats, where he was unable to get any more information because they were dead. He couldn’t even be sure they really hadn’t spent a bullet on killing his brother. Being—as I’ve said—partial to lost causes, the Cartwrights assembled themselves and started combing the desert in hopes of finding Adam, or his body, or at least some sign of what had become of him, even though they must have known that spinning straw into gold was likelier than doing that.
I’d been to Salt Flats and Eastgate often enough to know that while Nevada was full of deserts, even not counting all the parts they call “poor grazing land” which would be called desert any normal place, this desert made most of its others look downright hospitable. Even when the rest of the state was crawling with miners, most people left it to the Indians, and the Indians, I’m told, only went in on spirit journeys or for ordeals or such.
By sheer blind luck and stubbornness, Adam managed to stay on his feet long enough to come across an exception to the rule, a miner with food and water enough to spare for an unexpected stranger. One might have expected this to be the happy ending, but nothing was ever that easy for the Cartwrights. As near as I could make out, the miner decided Adam would make good unpaid labor and insisted on continuing to work the mine until after they ran out of supplies, at which point Adam wound up walking out of the desert as ill-equipped as before, with the extra burden of the now-comatose miner. This time he collapsed almost at the feet of his family, and they wasted no time in getting him safely home. Presumably they’d have done the same for the miner if he hadn’t unfortunately died. After that, Cartwright cattle didn’t go to Eastgate any more, until this year.
That, at least, was the story as Joe told it. There were pauses in his narration where he seemed to expect Adam might provide more information, but Adam kept silent throughout. We were making for the site of that final, improbable reunion, and after that we would backtrack to the mine. It had been a dud, as anyone familiar with the area might have expected, and apparently you could get within a few dozen yards of the place without realizing it provided any shelter. Shelter was a relative term, of course, since there was no water and only minimal grazing for a mule. Even for a fugitive from the law that didn’t sound like a desirable location, but Adam seemed set on going, and I had to admit the law wasn’t likely to find him there.
Retelling the old story didn’t slow us down—might even have sped us up, since I was the slowest of all, and listening kept my mind off how sore my legs were getting. We reached the rock formation Adam had drawn from memory just after sundown, and set up camp by moonlight. I would have liked to eavesdrop as the Cartwrights settled their plans, but Jimmy reclaimed my attention by telling me Joe had offered him a job on the Ponderosa. He admitted he was tempted to take it. “Allus wanted to work on a ranch. You know I like horses.”
“So why have you hung around me so long? We’ve been a lot of places they were looking to hire on ranch hands.”
“Cause we’re friends, Frank.” Jimmy was half asleep, just at the stage where his thoughts spilled straight out of his mouth.
“You know better than that,” I reminded him, as I always did whenever he talked like this. “If I ever need to go I’ll leave so fast you won’t see me for the dust. I don’t have friends, and you’d better not either. Ain’t worth the risk, boy.”
“I know, I know.” Jimmy’s chuckle rumbled like a steam engine. “But if I got in the way when you was trying to leave, would you kill me?”
That was a question he’d never asked me before. I sighed. “No.”
“See? Friends.” He turned onto his side and pulled his blanket tight around him.
“I’d shoot you in the leg and leave you to bleed to death,” I said in the most vicious tone I could manage. “That would make a much better distraction.”
The chuckle rumbled again. “Didn’t say good friends.” To my disgust, he was asleep and snoring before I could work out a suitable retort.
It was a cold night, no doubt all the colder for me because of how hot the day had been, and because I only had half a blanket left anyway. I finally got up and rooted through Jimmy’s gear for the heavy winter coat he’d stopped wearing weeks before. It was cut from stiff and bulky sheepskin, fleece side turned in and a double layer of leather at the yoke. Jimmy looked like a walking teepee in it, and if he needed to do something, even a task as simple as cinching the girths on a saddle, he usually had to take it off first. Even so, he loved the ugly thing, and huddled under it that night I finally saw why. It was soft as a mother’s kiss and cozy as a winter fire, and I could tell it would still keep you warm if you were riding straight into a blizzard. I decided I would give myself a coat like that for Christmas, just in case.
When I tried to hand it back next morning, Jimmy glanced from it to my fray-edged bit of blanket and mumbled, “You keep it for now. I ain’t that cold at night now it’s not winter n’more. Don’t think I’ll be camping out much anyways. Young Mr. Cartwright, he wants me riding back and forth, bringing in supplies if you need anything and keeping a lookout in town for trouble. See, if he did that they’d track him down here, but they don’t know we know his Adam from…from Adam!” I laughed along with him and wondered if the joke was his, or Joe’s. It seemed a little too clever for Jimmy, somehow.
“Sounds like they have everything all sorted out,” I commented.
“Reckon so…oh, they asked me how much you want for your horse, Frank. Young Mr.—I mean Joe—he wants it squared away so there’s no misunderstandings later.”
Jimmy had bought our current horses, and the ones before that, as it happened. “All right, how much do I want for my horse?”
Young Mr. Call-me-Joe Cartwright didn’t do much for his reputation as a hard-bargaining horsetrader in the next several minutes; I might be horseless for the indefinite future but at least I came out ahead on the deal. We divided my last sheet of paper so I could draw up a bill of sale and Joe could draft a promissory note for the settled amount. Adam was impatient to move on and we left the final exchange of documents for later.
I’ve no idea how far or how long we trudged that day, but I could do the journey again as long as I had occasional chances to look over my shoulder at the mountains to our west. Adam seemed to be walking backwards half the time, checking the skyline against his memories, and the rest of the time we were all trying to explain to Jimmy the principles behind fixing a bearing and following it. As I’ve said, direction was not Jimmy’s strong point. He even managed to get lost in Virginia City on our longest visit there, which baffled me. Directions there are uphill and down, after all, and half the streets are named for letters; how easy can it get?
Not easy enough for Jimmy, anyway. The concept of moving towards a fixed landmark he could understand pretty well, just as he could follow a road confidently as long as it didn’t fork. Choosing the right landmark out of all the possibilities baffled him as much as taking the correct sideturning off a road, or reading a map, for that matter. I caught Adam giving him a crosseyed look, as if wondering whether Jimmy was only pretending to be confused as a joke, or to annoy his teachers. Jimmy wouldn’t do either, of course, and Adam seemed to work that out; he gave a deep sigh but didn’t make any sarcastic comments, and kept on with simpler and simpler examples of navigation long after Joe had given up entirely. By the end he was reduced to describing how to find the North Star at night, and what you could do after you found it, and Jimmy’s wrinkled forehead was actually smoothing out again, to occasional murmurs of, “Oh, I see.” Pretty good, considering it was another hot sunny day and we wouldn’t actually be able to see any stars for hours.
Maybe it was the time spent instructing Jimmy, or maybe it was just farther from last night’s camp than Adam remembered, but it was well past noon when we reached the mine. Now it was Joe in a hurry to get things settled; he wanted to get back to Salt Flats and the telegraph as soon as he could. Pa would be frantic, he kept saying, and there was a man named Candy too, who might—or might not—still be at Eastgate with the cattle, short on supplies and shorter still on cash.
“I don’t think you can make it back to Salt Flats today,” Adam pointed out. “Don’t push a horse you don’t know past its limits, Joe.”
For some reason, that was the final straw for Joe, and they were yelling at each other the next minute like the worst of enemies. It’s been my experience that people who do that really aren’t as angry as they seem—or at least won’t be after the echoes die down—and I left them to their argument. Jimmy winced at some of the louder exchanges, but he seemed glad for a chance to pull me aside while the Cartwrights weren’t looking at him. “Promise me something, Frank?”
Normally I’d have been more careful how I answered, but I must have had my guard down that day. “Sure. What?”
Jimmy gave me his widest-eyed stare, the one that turned him into an innocent if ill-favored six-year-old. “I’m worried ’bout Adam. I know I can’t do him no good—I ain’t smart enough to help…but I got a bad feeling about this.” As he glanced past me to the two men by their wagon he bit his lip, which made him seem even younger and more earnest. “Look out for him. Ain’t no one else can, now. Just…just do it, Frank.”
I patted him on the back as gently as if he were the child I was seeing in him. “All right, Jimmy. I promise.”
His lopsided smile put twenty years back on him—as well as the look of having spent at least half of that in prison—but made me feel almost like a respectworthy, upright citizen again. Definitely I was losing my edge. Mistaking myself for an honest man would make me careless, make me assume other people would treat me the same way. It wasn’t how I’d expected to lose a partner, discovering that he trusted me too much, but if he took the job at the Ponderosa at least he wouldn’t get killed with me when I went down. It was bittersweet satisfaction.
Apparently it was my day to be popular, for not long after the little talk with Jimmy I found myself squinting up at Joe, now packed and mounted and waiting for Jimmy to be the same. Joe also wanted a favor from me, though unlike Jimmy he wasn’t asking, and maybe didn’t even consider it a favor. Certainly he presented it more as an obligation I owed him. “I need you to keep my brother out of trouble. You may not be the obvious man for the job but you’ve as good a chance as anyone in Nevada of pulling it off.”
“Takes a liar to know when a man’s lying, eh?” I snapped. In a family not noted for tact, Joe was clearly short his fair share.
“Oh, Adam never lies. He doesn’t have to. He can always find at least half-a-dozen truths to everything, so he just picks out the one that’ll get you doing what he wants and tells you it. And he’s doing that now. I know he wouldn’t commit murder, but someone must have died, and seems it looks like Adam caused it somehow. Used to be you could just prove self-defense and walk away. It’s not that easy any more, even here, and in Chicago I’ll bet it doesn’t happen at all. So he’s probably looking at prison time, and that means forced labor….” Joe folded his lips together for a moment and went on in a reminiscent tone of voice, “I spent four days in a chain gang once. It was the only time in twelve years I gave thanks to God Adam wasn’t with us—and that was before I knew how bad that back of his has gotten. It locks up on him pretty much every day, you know. Not for long, mostly, but long enough to give people an excuse to say he’s shirking…and they’d be looking for excuses, with Adam, right from the first time they saw him. That’s what has me frightened, and if you ask me I think he’s frightened too.”
I could see why he might be, but let that pass for the moment. “How did you get in a chain gang?”
“Remember the business about the High Country Quarry?”
I nodded. It was a scandal that had rocked the state, about a year after I came West. Some place that contracted for prison labor, supposedly to produce broken rock and gravel for road building, had been secretly mining gold from a tiny vein no one knew existed. The quarry officials had brought a local judge-cum-sheriff into their secret, who supplemented their convict work force with as many other people as he could claim were petty lawbreakers—trespassers, mostly, as the quarry had been a long way from any settlements but on one of the old trails that people still used sometimes when crossing the state. By the time the scandal broke they had so many connections in the legislature and even the Governor’s staff a lot of people suspected afterwards it had cost someone more to keep the investigation going than would ever be paid in compensation to the men who’d been forced into labor after a false trial.
“They caught the lot of us, riding home cross-country—killed one of our best hands for arguing too much. Pa was there as well. That was what made us desperate enough to try getting me out…. He couldn’t have kept up with the work for long, and anyway, it was only a matter of time before they stopped baiting him with words and started beating him.” For a moment Joe Cartwright could have posed for a statue of St. Michael casting down Satan. I wasn’t surprised he’d found a way out of the camp. I was only surprised that it took as long as it did for the official investigation to get the whole sordid mess into the open. It wasn’t wise to underestimate the power of Cartwright money in Nevada.
Funny thing was, as prison camps went, the place wasn’t as bad as most. With all the stolen gold lining everyone’s pockets, no one bothered to skim off the funds for prisoner maintenance. The food got stretched a bit to accommodate the extra mouths, but the defense lawyers actually wrangled “grounds for leniency” on several sentences because it was so “humanely” run. Which, after some of the other stories I read, told me all I wanted to know about Nevada’s prison camps. I didn’t think the ones in Illinois would be an improvement.
Apparently, neither did Joe. “My guess is Adam won’t live to stand trial, as he puts it, because he don’t plan to live past being found by the law. I’d sympathize, if it were just him, or even just him and his wife and their girl—and me. Might even feel that way in his shoes, but Pa won’t. The way Pa sees it, dead is dead. He’s probably lining up lawyers right now to argue Adam’s case, without even knowing the story, and go right on arguing for clemency or a pardon or whatever as long as it takes to get Adam out of whichever hole they put him. And Pa’s health matters more to me than what Adam wants. My father isn’t going to be burying a second son if I can stop it. So, keep Adam away from the law if you can, but keep him alive whether he wants it or not, or you’ll answer to me.”
“You’re hiring me to be his bodyguard? Wouldn’t Jimmy do better?”
“He’s got Jimmy twisted around his little finger already,” Joe said with unarguable perception. “Now you, you’ve got quite the reputation in Salt Flats. They said never to mess with you at a poker table, ’cause you could outplay, out-cheat, and outdraw any other man there, and there was always a brick wall at your back. Sounded tempting, actually, if I’d only had more time when we were both in town.” For a moment his green eyes glittered with pure amusement. “Well, I figure a man like that might stand half a chance against my older brother being devious. So. Keep him alive, and you’re on the Ponderosa payroll for as long as you like. You don’t even need to stay at the ranch. Just don’t get on any of those wanted posters you’re so shy about.”
“And just how am I supposed to keep him alive if he doesn’t want to be?” For all the sarcasm in my voice, I’d have appreciated a hint, if he had one.
“Hey, you’re the hired gun. That’s your job!” He was already turning his horse—no, my horse—no, his horse now—to follow Jimmy’s.
It was much later that I discovered I still had the bill of sale for that damn animal, and Joe only had the promissory note.
Jimmy and Joe rode out at a fair clip, leaving a trail of dust in the air. It occurred to me people riding towards us would do the same, not that advance warning would do much good in a shootout between two men with sidearms and a posse with rifles. The more I considered those odds, the more the qualities Joe claimed were attributed to me at Salt Flats seemed downright irrelevant. This job needed an army scout or a big-game hunter, surely. Me, I couldn’t even pick out the best seat inside a saloon. My own preference was for a chair in the corner of a room, so no one could get behind me to catch a glimpse of my cards or put a gun to the back of my head. Even after Jimmy pointed out that “backed into a corner” was just a fancy way of saying “trapped” I felt safer in one than where he recommended. I took his advice, of course; I just had to learn to live with the itch between my shoulders. It didn’t leave me with much confidence in my ability to outthink a posse.
The tracks of our wagon led straight into camp, of course—someone could probably follow them all the way from the Eastgate-Salt Flats road. I suggested to Adam that I take my blanket and backtrack about a half-hour’s walk to rub out the marks of our trail. He sent me off with a cheerful slap on the back, which made me wonder why he was so pleased to get me out of his way. Still, it gave me an hour to myself for chewing over the situation. I decided my best plan would be to keep Adam out of sight and tell anyone looking for him that I was in search of rare plants, or a new kind of lizard, or Indian artifacts. I’d been reminded enough lately of my time at Harvard that I could surely pass for an academic. I already knew that if I took off my eye-catching waistcoat, no one would recognize me.
By the time I was turning back towards camp, I’d worked out the details of my story. Not having found any interesting plants or any lizards at all, I settled on Indians as my subject of interest. The Paiutes had a reservation to the north of Eastgate—some of the Cartwright cattle had been earmarked for the tribe—and I knew as much about them as anyone likely to be riding with a posse, and more than most. Local prejudice would also work in my favor; anyone fool enough to mess with “them injuns” wouldn’t be seen as a reliable aid in tracking down a white fugitive. In fact, if I kept my head and looked as harmless and helpless as possible, a posse was quite likely to feed me information in its anxiety to keep me out of trouble.
Remembering my old professors led me back to Adam’s schoolmaster glares, and from there to a very distant memory of playing Twenty Questions with my sisters and their governess, back before I had my own tutor. For all the fancy schools I passed through later, Miss Norton was as good a teacher as I ever had. Twenty Questions, with Miss Norton presiding, meant sharpening your thoughts and using them like dissection knives to cut to the core of the matter. Obviously I needed Miss Norton’s sort of questions to pry anything more out of Adam, and it wasn’t just idle curiosity that made me want to do that. Joe might suspect Adam feared the law, but I was sure it wasn’t his biggest worry. There might be plenty of hard-working German-speakers out of Chicago in Nevada, but they weren’t usually picked for a posse. What’s more, I was sure he’d held back information about this mine and his encounter with the man who had claimed it, which increased my suspicions that he’d been just as selective about events in Chicago last fall.
I spent the rest of my trail-obscuring excursion working out questions for Adam, and planning the order in which I wanted to ask them. If we played poker tonight, it would be for the right to have our questions answered, and this time I would play to win.
In my absence, Adam had rearranged the camp, and I was almost afraid I’d misread the trail coming back, since you couldn’t see any signs of the mule or the wagon from a distance. Fortunately the place itself was distinctive enough, once you knew its secret. This desert had levels to it—almost as if there had once been a fairly large river flowing through. What I thought of as the “river bed” made for the easiest travel, though men on horseback might prefer the uneven higher ground, from where you had a better view of your surroundings. For the most part the high ground fell away in an unstable slope that neither man nor horse could negotiate safely; in other places there were rocky trails down to the “river bed;” in a few genuine cliffs. Our campsite was at the base of a curving stretch of cliff which would have outlined a fine natural amphitheater, except that the enclosed space was cluttered with several large rocks, which completely hid the opening of the mine from casual view. It would be a perfect stage setting for Aeschylus’ old tragedy Prometheus Bound, I thought as I approached, and immediately wished I hadn’t made that association.
“Put your blanket up over there, would you?” was Adam’s greeting as he caught sight of me. He was gesturing to the largest and most central of the boulders, one with a fairly flat top—the one to which Hephaestus would have chained Prometheus, had this been a rocky vale in ancient Scythia. I spread the blanket out and hoped I wasn’t expected to sleep up there. To my relief, Adam went on, “It’s a signal I worked out with your friend. He’ll be able to spot that rock a long way off, where ever he’s coming from—if the blanket’s there. If it isn’t, that will mean something’s gone wrong and he shouldn’t come any closer. Just in case…always better to be prepared for that sort of problem.” I nodded my agreement, though he didn’t seem to notice. As he turned back to the mine I could just hear his muttered, “Made enough careless mistakes already about this….”
I could think of one more myself. Jimmy wouldn’t be riding in from “where ever.” His only chance of finding us was doing exactly what we’d done before, and now that I’d rubbed out that section of wagon tracks, I wasn’t sure he could even do that. Maybe if he’d really understood those navigation lessons…but even then he’d have to remember the landmarks. I wasn’t prepared to wager a plugged nickel that he would, not given the difficulties we’d had in the past. Adam must have decided Jimmy was playing dumb after all—which might not have been careless, but was certainly a mistake. Not that there was any point in saying so; Jimmy was long gone, and worrying that he would end up wandering around in circles through this dry land wasn’t going to do him, or anyone else, any good. At least the blanket made a landmark he’d certainly recognize, if he ever happened to see it.
“You’ll have noticed there isn’t much shade here this time of year,” Adam was continuing in a louder voice again. He was right; the cliffs curved along the north side of camp, and the shadows of the other rocks didn’t reach more than a foot away from them. “Kane had a sort of canopy by his wagon, but it wasn’t much more comfortable under there. The only place that’s halfway cool during the day is here at the front of the mine.” He’d laid out the bedrolls there—his and Joe’s, which I supposed was meant for me now.
“What about further inside?”
“See for yourself,” he said with one of his sideways smiles, and motioned me forward. There was an iron spike stuck into the rock near the entrance; to the middle of its shaft had been welded a small cup which held a candle. Adam pulled the candle free and lit it before we went any farther. The air seemed to grow heavier, and hotter, with every step.
“I always thought mines were cold,” I admitted almost at once.
Adam’s grin confirmed he had expected me to say something of the sort. “Some are; some aren’t. On the Comstock, when men hit a pocket of water, it usually scalds them. Or it chokes them with the steam. The miners used to think a hot mine meant a bigger vein, or higher quality ore. That’s probably why Kane was so convinced this place wasn’t worthless. Trouble is, being hot just means…that it’s hot. He didn’t want to believe that.”
“Kane was the man you found here?”
“Yes.” Something told me I’d better not pry any further. He continued to move down the sloping passage, stepping over and around piles of broken rock, until it ended in an irregular wall. This far into the mine the air was not only hot, but thick with humidity; the stone beside me was damp when I touched it. Adam went on as far as he could go, stooping where the roof sloped down to run his hand along a crooked shelf, brushing off what looked like damp sand or mud. I could see a shallow dip in the rock which he caressed with gentle fingers. Something caught his attention and he held the candle close, tilted so its hot wax dripped. He was still smoothing the rock—and the wax—with his fingers as he turned back to face me. “Strange to find so much here just as I left it,” he commented, again in a voice that didn’t invite a response. More briskly, he added, “I think you can see why I don’t suggest spending much time in here.”
I stumbled back to the front of the mine and breathed in the fresh desert air with relief. “Oh, I see,” I agreed. “But while I was out there brushing out our tracks, I was thinking…,” and I sketched out my idea of posing as a solitary relic-hunter. Now that I knew it would force Adam into that mine any time we had company, I wasn’t so sure it was much of a plan, but Adam seemed perfectly at ease with it. He quizzed me briefly on my knowledge of the Paiutes, and contributed a few nuggets of his own, which reminded me again that the Cartwrights had been in Nevada long before Virginia City, or any other community in the area, existed. He even provided me with some people to ask after in case I encountered an actual Paiute. “Most of them are probably dead by now,” he admitted, “but just knowing those names should be helpful in convincing the tribe your intentions are good.”
“Let’s hope I don’t need to do that,” I said lightly. He was acting as if I really wanted to study this benighted little tribe, and it bothered me more than it should have. Now, as I felt Adam nudging me into a corner, I could finally see why Jimmy didn’t like them. The farther into this one I got, the less room I had for my own maneuvering—and the more he maneuvered me, the surer I became that I needed to be able to maneuver for myself. “Meanwhile, what’s for dinner?” I threw back as a distraction.
It broke us out of the corner, at least for a moment. Adam lifted one eyebrow and inquired, “How’s your cooking?”
“Terrible,” I admitted. Jimmy cooked if we were on our own; my culinary skills consisted of wrangling extra-large or choice portions from the waitresses in cheap restaurants. “Yours?”
“Probably worse. I’ve been known to burn water.” He grinned at my expression and clarified, “Well, to boil a pot dry, anyway.”
“Now that’s just carelessness,” I protested.
That caught Adam’s attention for some reason. His face seemed to freeze for a moment, but he was natural enough again when he countered, “Then you cook. We have bacon, beans and jerky—the usual menu. Do your worst.”
He’d reorganized the wagon, with the water barrels, food and supplies stacked along one side, and my saddlebags and other things, along with Jimmy’s various discards, in a neat pile at the back. I retrieved Jimmy’s cookpot, and his coat—just in case Joe’s bedroll wasn’t enough to keep me warm at night—before starting on dinner. Jimmy’d been kind enough to include a bag of onions in the supplies, and I cut one up into the pot because I knew he would. Adam had a fire going by the time I needed it. He’d put it out in the center of the camp, near where he thought I should move my bedroll. “You’ll want it next to a rock,” he advised. “They stay warm long after the sun goes down.” When I protested that he would also want warmth, he shrugged and pointed out he could always move farther back into the mine. “No point in having me out in the open if you get any dawn visitors,” he reminded me.
Dinner was better than I had any right to expect, and I didn’t have any trouble talking Adam into a poker game afterwards, though he warned me that wouldn’t become a regular habit. “You can’t pretend to be here alone if someone catches us both playing poker,” he pointed out. “Tonight’s all right; if anyone were that close Joe would have seen them and circled back.”
Joe’d seemed in too much of a hurry for that to me, but I didn’t choose to argue.
As it turned out, we didn’t play poker after all. On hearing the stakes I proposed, Adam gave me a long cool look. “You don’t let up easy, do you?”
“I don’t like playing for high stakes when I’m not allowed to see my cards.”
Adam snorted softly. “Tell you what. I’ve played whist the last dozen years, and I never did like poker as much as Joe does. If you’ve got questions for me, why not just ask them?”
“Because I don’t want you dodging around the answers.” I matched him stare for stare, or hoped I did. It was proving hard to remember he couldn’t order me caned.
“And winning them in a game means I wouldn’t? Well, perhaps.” The corners of his lips quirked in a rather teasing smile, but his voice was quite gentle when he went on, “I think by now you’ve earned some answers without having to resort to poker. After all, someday you may need to play me for money.”
I gave him my best feral, sneering, gambler’s smile, the one for people who don’t think I’m worth bothering with. It didn’t really surprise me that he understood the expression completely. We were both laughing as we began to clean up the camp.
Adam scrubbed out the pot and dishes desert-style, with clean sand and a final wipe with a cloth, then kicked more sand over our fire to smother it. Seeing my startled look he explained, “You need to ration what you burn as much as what you drink out here. Besides, a fire’s more likely to attract trouble than keep it away.”
Trouble would have two legs, not four, he meant. I nodded, and followed him back to the mine’s entrance, which already felt comfortably warm compared to the cool open air. Adam spent a while making his sleeping spot just so before collapsing into it with a long sigh of relief. Only as I saw the muscles in his legs and back relax did I realize how tense they must have been all day. I remembered Joe giving him a backrub and offered to do the same.
He shook his head without moving anything else. “Thank you, not while this sand’s still warm. Maybe tomorrow. C’mon, boy, settle.”
Obligingly, I settled, and dealt myself a hand of solitaire. The feel of cards in my hand gave me confidence, even if they couldn’t do anything else. “How long do you think we’ll be out here?”
“Can’t really guess.” A lazy stretch rippled down Adam’s body and seemed to leave him nestled even deeper into the sand than before. “It’s sort of like waiting for rain—sometimes you can see it coming a long way off, but you can’t be sure it’ll reach you ’til you’re wet. We’ll just have to wait for news from Jimmy or Joe.” He turned his head, trying to see the layout of my cards, then levered himself up onto one elbow to watch me play. “Is that a sufficiently direct answer?”
“Has to be, doesn’t it?” I shrugged. Reluctantly, I added, “Is there anything you’d like to ask me? Tit for tat?”
“Not really,” Adam said, with an easy air of amusement that disarmed and irked me at the same time. “It’s more fun to work out the answers on my own—if you don’t mind, of course.”
Certainly I didn’t mind, however awkward it felt to dig into his privacy without endangering mine. I played a few more cards in silence. “You missed a move there,” Adam pointed out.
He was right, of course, and it had probably cost me the game. I scooped up the cards and said, with slightly more of a snap than I’d intended, “How is it you have a friend who approved of murdering the Tsar?”
He lowered himself back onto his blanket, but kept his head turned towards me. “I have a good many friends who hate governments like Russia’s. Herr Fischer’s politics are more extreme than most of them, but…I can understand why, even though I don’t agree with him. And he has the right—or should have—to express his opinions in a country like England that claims to offer its residents freedom.”
“Freedom to endorse murder? What sort of monster approves of blowing a man to bits?”
Adam lifted his eyebrows and frowned slightly. “That ‘monster’ and I and my wife and daughter spent one of the most pleasant afternoons of my life feeding the ducks in a London park, discussing Bach’s B-minor Mass and Wagner’s Liebestod. Linda dragged me all the way to Bayreuth for the premiere of The Niebelung’s Ring because of what he said that day. And he adored Elizabeth; he could play with her for hours. She gave him a hair ribbon to remember her by….” He was back on one elbow again, leaning towards me with the urgency of his argument. “He’s as kind a man as I’ve met, and as desperate as a man can be made. If you bothered to study his writings you’d see they aren’t so unlike Jefferson’s, or Paine’s. He quoted from them during his speech in Chicago—they both understood that entrenched authority seldom chooses to allow ordinary men real liberty.”
“Liberty isn’t license.” To my horror, I found myself repeating one of my father’s favorite phrases with approval.
“Fischer and his comrades don’t want license. They want justice, and they don’t think they can get it without bloodshed. I wish I could be sure they’re wrong.”
“What sort of justice is it they think they don’t have?”
“The right to get enough pay for a hard day’s labor that they can feed their families and not face the poorhouse when they’re too old to work. The right to have some say in the conditions under which they work. The right to make their complaints known without being fired on by the police, or charged by the cavalry. The right to withhold their labor and not have scabs brought in to replace them. The right to be listened to, instead of being called rabble and hoodlums, and any other insult the rich men and their newspapers can think of.”
“It’s not like that here,” I protested. Actually, he’d exactly described rumors I’d heard about the suppression of the railroad strike, but that was surely an exceptional situation.
Adam shook his head, looking at once bored and tired. “Not as bad as Moscow or Vienna, maybe, but from what I heard and saw last fall I’d say Chicago is about like London. Maybe somewhat worse. And the hotheads are taking over, so things won’t get any better. They’ll be making martyrs soon.”
“Including out of you?”
“Oh, I’m not in the running for any palms. McCormick and Pullman and the other industrialists would call me a class traitor, and now the other side’s certain I’m either a police spy or a provocateur. Why a provocateur would pose as a reform-minded gradualist doesn’t seem to puzzle anyone, of course. Sometimes I think stupidity is the worst social disease of all.”
We both sniggered at that. I shuffled my cards a few times before I went on, “So why involve yourself with…with any of this in the first place? Where did you meet these people?”
There was a long, deep, patient sigh before Adam replied, “It started with the miners’ unions. I helped with the first one in Gold Hill, back in ’66—before I went away.”
“You were in a miners’ union?”
“Not a member, obviously,” Adam snapped. “The only real mining I ever did was here. But I knew some of the miners on the Comstock, and I gave them all the help I could to get their union started. Later I sent them news of events in places like Cornwall and Wales and the Saar valley—anywhere there was hard rock mining. Anywhere there were unions. And that led me into the Paris Commune, the International, the nihilists in Russia, all the splintered Socialists, all the men with theories…I probably know as much about labor conditions in Europe as anyone in this country. I’m also quite sound on the technical aspects of mining—not to mention I could tell you more than you ever wanted to hear about the production of machine lace. That was Linda’s fault, at least a little, but the machines they use are fascinating.”
He was back to his diversionary tactics; probably they had been in place so long he no longer even noticed when he used them. I dealt out another hand of solitaire and tried to look like I cared about the game. There was one question still on my list, and I didn’t imagine Adam would be pleased with me for asking it. “What happened in Chicago to get the policeman killed?”
“Thank you for not assuming that I killed him.” Adam wasn’t looking at me any more. There was a longish pause before he admitted, “I got careless on the trip home. Whenever I worked on union business, I always used another name, my mother’s family name—just in case—when I was here and when I went to Europe. Only Sandro—Herr Fischer—knew I used two names, but ‘Cartwright’ isn’t well known in Europe, so he thought I was pretending to be rich when I wore fine clothes and stayed at grand hotels. Or maybe he thought the money was my wife’s—well, anyway, he trusted me enough to pose as my valet when I travelled first class on the liner home. We split up for a little while; Linda still has family in New England, so she and Elizabeth and I went there, but Sandro had speeches to make in Pittsburgh. The plan was to meet up again in Chicago, but Linda decided she wanted to spend all the time she could in Boston. I went on to Chicago by myself, and she was going to wire me with her travel arrangements…. One way and another, it seemed simpler to register in the Chicago hotel as Cartwright, not as Stoddard. It wasn’t as if I’d ever done much business of any kind in Chicago. It didn’t occur to me anyone there would recognize the name.”
“And someone did?”
“Someone did. Someone from the Social Revolutionary Congress Herr Fischer was attending, and maybe a police spy too.” He put his hands up to cover his face. “Linda’s wire came in the morning, and thank God I had sense enough to burn it before I went out…. That afternoon I was stopped by a policeman who had some questions about my ‘valet.’ He wanted me to go to his station; I played the rich man at him and convinced him to come to my hotel instead. Nothing’s more dangerous than a fool who thinks he’s being clever….” After another long pause, he brought his hands down in clenched fists at his sides. “There were people from the congress waiting in the hotel room—not Sandro; locals, Americans. They had questions of their own for me, but when I walked in with a policeman they decided they already knew the most important answer. At least the poor fellow died quickly.”
My hands were clenched too. I didn’t want him to stop, but I couldn’t make myself press him any farther.
When Adam finally continued, it was in a quiet but surprisingly steady voice. “Fortunately they didn’t want Sandro implicated, so they couldn’t just leave the body in my room. That meant having to make new plans in a hurry, and they argued, especially after Sandro came in. One of them—” he quirked his lips, not quite into a smile—”a boy with hair so blond it almost looked white, kept saying that the best thing to do with a spy was nothing at all, just watch him. Of course that wasn’t possible with me by then. Most of the others were more confused than angry, but they were sure I meant them harm, they were all good believers in ‘propaganda of the deed’—which means direct attacks on their worst enemies—and there I was, right in the middle of their Congress, a way of proving they meant what they were saying. They were set on killing me, all of them.”
“Including your friend the bomb-throwing music lover.”
“Traitors die. It’s a very old principle.” Again he almost managed a smile. “Not one of the principles they want to overturn. As for Sandro…well, whatever he thinks I deserve, I’m sure he’d never want Elizabeth or Linda harmed. He might call it weakness and be ashamed of himself, but he wouldn’t put his principles ahead of their safety.”
“But he’s put those principles before your friendship.”
“What friendship? If he thinks I’m a spy, it follows that all I ever wanted from him was to gain his trust so I could abuse it and destroy what he believes in. All his memories of me are poisoned now, even that afternoon with the ducks. In his place I’d have felt the same, or worse.”
“In your place would he be willing to say that?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. He can’t help seeing things differently from us. You may think his principles twisted, but his whole life was twisted for a very long time, for no fault of his own. What amazes me about him is how bitter he isn’t. He doesn’t really want his bloody revolution, you know. He only thinks it’s necessary, that nothing can come right without it. And so far, nothing much has come right…the strikes are broken, the spokesmen thrown in prisons, the weak and the helpless starve—”
“So you said.” Once was more than enough for this speech.
“Because it’s true. Even here in the ‘land of hope and freedom.’ The people with the money like to call the tune, and usually they do it. I’m one of them, I’ve seen how it works.” There was an anger building up in him which more than anything he said convinced me he was being, if not completely open, at least completely sincere. “I probably owe my life to it. The tow-headed boy, the one with the ideas about spies…he was one himself. For some reason, he took the time and the risk to help me escape. He even promised not to pass my name to the authorities until he felt he had to. He knew Sandro planned to come on to San Francisco, you see, and he also knew I’d told Sandro I had a place where he could shake off anyone following him, if he should need to. So the wanted posters don’t just mean the police are looking for me; it means the others—Sandro and his new friends—are coming West as well. I still don’t know who that fellow really worked for…I assumed the Pinkertons, but it could have be the Chicago police or someone else entirely. I can’t even decide if I should feel humiliated because he took me for a dupe, or insulted because he thought I was another infiltrator. Then again, I’ve never been much good at being grateful.”
He glared at me, daring me to find some suitable response. I locked my jaw down firmly. There was nothing right to say, as far as I could tell. Adam broke the silence at last. “I really would appreciate it if you not share this with my brother.”
Certainly I didn’t want to be present when Joe found out the sort of secrets his brother was keeping from him, but I managed a weak protest on the younger Cartwright’s behalf. “You don’t think he’d want to know?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean he should.” He finally managed an almost natural smile, though with more than a trace of self-mockery. “I’m not eager to have him learn how foolish his older brother still can be. Besides….” He let out a faint sigh as the smile faded away again. “Whatever I tell him he’ll tell our father. Pa’s been sick lately…I don’t want him any more upset than I’m sure he already is. Hoss knew about my working with the miners, at least, but I never told the others anything. It just seems better not to do it now.”
Adam tipped his head to one side as he finished, and I suddenly realized he was expecting me to say something back; maybe even wanted my advice. That was a curious notion. I was used to laying down the law to Jimmy, but no one else had ever shown much interest in my opinions. I spent too long trying to find a response, though. He shrugged and rolled onto his back again, saying in a softly bitter voice, “Well, it’s easy enough to find the moral of this story—don’t promise to do favors for your friends.”
I didn’t tell him I already had myself.
Adam’s revelations certainly gave me something to chew over during the next day or two. We didn’t see much of each other in that time, not because I was avoiding him so much as because he, being cautious, kept fairly close to the mine entrance while I, also being cautious, took to sitting up top of the cliffs where I could keep a better lookout. I never saw anything large enough to raise a cloud of dust, or even a small puff, but it did leave me plenty of time for thinking.
I didn’t like the fact that Adam was so set against letting the truth come out. I could understand shielding a weakened father and a vulnerable family—that would be well within the Cartwright tradition, as Nevada knew it—but he had to know his silence protected his attackers too. He even talked as if, were he the traitor they took him for, his friend and his friend’s companions had every right to kill him. To murder him. That was not the Cartwright tradition, any way you heard it. The old stories made it clear that all of them, but especially Adam, held that murder demanded justice, and not private justice, either—except, it seemed, now. The only honorable explanation I could think of was that Adam hoped to avoid the kind of public showdown that so often left too many innocents and lawmen dead. Somehow I wasn’t convinced—but the cynical alternatives, though obvious, didn’t convince me either. Joe had been too comfortable with his brother, and too concerned for him, for Adam to have changed that much.
Then again, while taking refuge from his enemies—including the law—seemed uncharacteristic of Adam, it made good enough sense. Less sensible was hiding here in this God-forsaken desert when there must have been equally secure and far more comfortable bolt-holes on the Cartwrights’ own land. The Ponderosa was a big spread, big enough that the whole population of Virginia City, Carson City, and Reno could probably tramp through together in search of a fugitive and not find what they were after. It was true that having left the Ponderosa he couldn’t get back there now, but he’d attached himself to this drive because he wanted to come. Joe had made that clear enough. Unless there was something tremendously valuable hidden here—and having seen the place I was sure there wasn’t—I could not imagine why Adam would want to return, except to punish himself, and that thought suggested a lot of even more unpleasant ones. In saying there were a half-dozen different truths behind Adam’s every action, I realized, Joe had seriously underestimated.
None of this, strictly speaking, was any of my business, given who had hired me and why. I didn’t mind camping in the desert, provided we had plenty of supplies, and unlike the old miner I had no intention of outstaying those supplies. I’d walked in here and I could always walk back out. Adam could either come with me, or wait here while I took the wagon and brought it back. If he tried to prevent me, I was more than willing to shoot; Joe’s promise of a lifetime’s pay wasn’t worth having my life cut short. I had it all worked out, with a plan for every contingency—unless, of course, we had visitors. I was pretty sure I could outtalk a posse, as long as I was given the chance to talk, but Social Revolutionaries from Chicago might be a different kettle of fish altogether. I decided that subject needed further exploration.
Adam had spent the first day tidying up the mine, collecting all the tools he could find into a neat pile just inside the entrance. Since then he’d gradually explored the area between the mine and the resting place of an old wagon which might once have looked rather like ours. Today’s discoveries included a few tin cups and plates, the bleached and tattered remnants of an old saddle blanket, and quite a bit of broken china. The china hadn’t been broken for long; if you laid matching pieces together, the cracks hardly showed. Adam watched with a completely blank expression as I reassembled half a plate and offered me no comments at all.
As far as I was concerned, it was ancient history, of less practical use than a few arrowheads or a Paiute basket would have provided—those, at least, would have bolstered my pose as a collector of Indian relics. I only bothered with the fragments to try misleading Adam, and I was pleased to see his eyes briefly widen in surprise when I asked what he remembered about the men in his Chicago hotel room.
“No one exactly bothered to perform introductions,” he said dryly. “I think…yes, I’m fairly sure they were miners of some sort. German, all of them—or at least they were speaking German. Most of the delegates at the Congress spoke in German, though, so that’s not much help.”
“You and Mr. Fischer had known each other for quite some time, hadn’t you?”
“Several years,” Adam agreed.
“Then I’m guessing for him to decide you were…well, that you weren’t his friend…that should have taken more than a couple of minutes. But it sounds like he’d already changed his mind about you before he even saw the policeman—didn’t you say he came in later? And that he agreed with the others about what you were? I think someone was suspicious about you before anyone reached Chicago, someone who had a lot of time to talk to Mr. Fischer. Could those men have been from Pittsburgh?”
Obviously he didn’t like this discussion, perhaps because he was tired and sore, perhaps because he didn’t want to dwell on what had happened last October. “Chicago, Pittsburgh…what’s the difference? They’re both cities. This is a desert. I can’t see them getting closer to us than Reno, or maybe Eastgate. Why do you think I came out here? Not for the pleasant memories, I assure you.”
I hoped Adam was right, but I didn’t feel quite so secure. Admittedly, I’d only visited eastern Pennsylvania, which was green and lush and very unlike this part of Nevada. Western Pennsylvania, where the mines were, I knew to be a lot more rugged. People from Pittsburgh might be as helpless in the wilderness as Adam expected, but miners from around Pittsburgh—which seemed more likely as Pittsburgh itself was a steel town—they likely wouldn’t be daunted by a desert. They’d know enough to hire a good local guide and outfit themselves appropriately, and keep on going. Adam seemed to have forgotten, or perhaps had never realized, that the East was not devoid of untamed land, even now.
They might even have known they’d be headed for a desert. He’d promised Fischer a safe place to hide if one was needed; wouldn’t he have meant this mine? Couldn’t he have let something slip about where that safe place was? Did I really want to stake my life on the chance that he hadn’t? Which was when I began to realize how very much my calculations had come to depend on one man’s word, and the beans and onion in my gut began to shift uneasily.
Don’t expect fair dealings. I’d learned that from my father—the hard way. Never trust in family. But somehow, I’d been doing exactly that, these last few days. Putting my reliance on a few old tales that probably weren’t much like how things had been, if they contained any truth at all. Letting one brother vouch for another, when they admitted they’d been apart for years. Believing they were honest, because they’d seemed grateful to be rescued. I would have seemed grateful too, right up until it made more sense to drop the gratitude and make use of my rescuers…and made use of Jimmy and me this pair certainly had. Come to that, I didn’t even really know that they were Cartwrights.
Conmen can sometimes be the easiest to cheat. It was one of the first things I learned from playing poker, back when I was sneaking out to the mews behind our house to play with the stableboys and the grooms whom I was not supposed to know. I’d made friends for life back then by winning back the money the stableboys had lost to a fast-talking stranger in a crooked game of craps. Actually, I’d won back a lot more money than they had lost, and made a fool out of a man three or four times my age and over twice my weight. Maybe now the boot was finally on the other foot.
I considered my position as I started to lay out my bedroll. At the moment I was out a good shirt, half a blanket, and my horse. Joe’s failure to exchange his promissory note for my bill of sale was looking mighty suspicious all of a sudden. On the other hand, I still had all my winnings from Salt Flats—including Jimmy’s share, now I thought about it. I’d taken worse losses in my time and lived, but I’d certainly feel better with some insurance in place.
I crept back to our wagon and managed to extract the remains of my shirt from my saddlebags, as well as a full canteen. I considered taking some jerky as well, but decided against it—too likely to attract mice or other varmints. On my way back across camp, I added a long stick from our smothered campfire to my load. Finally, and quite reluctantly, I slipped out of the shoulder harness for my derringer. Using the stick, I scooped out a hole under the rock by which I slept—it was quite dark now, but I still didn’t want to risk disturbing a scorpion or snake with my bare hands. Luckily, my stick only poked open an abandoned burrow, lined with what looked like shreds of the saddle blanket Adam had shown me at dinner and more than large enough to hide my little cache. I wrapped my derringer and my money up together, tucked the canteen and harness in beside the bundle of rags, and covered them all up, stamping and smoothing the sand flat before I restored the stick to the campfire. After that I spread out my bedroll again and lay down, though my heart was racing as though I’d done hard labor, and my thoughts were almost as frantic. It was a long and restless time before sleep came to me.
I woke not long after sunrise to words hissed at me from only a few feet away. It wasn’t what was said that froze the breath in my lungs. For all I knew it was a harmless, tender lullaby—though I doubted it—but little as I knew of the language I was sure that it was German.
The pistols held close to my head required no translation at all.
There were enough of them I knew at once Napoleon couldn’t have kept them out single-handed. What’s more, wherever they came from they handled their guns—an even mixture of pistols, rifles and shotguns—with confidence and the ones who went past me into the camp moved, perhaps not as silently as Indians, but quietly enough. That, almost as much as their use of German, told me this was no posse. The sheriff in Eastgate couldn’t maintain any kind of discipline, and no one in Salt Flats was young enough to be so limber this early in the morning. And, of course, a posse would have stopped to talk. Even the pair who hauled me out of my bedroll—and away from my gunbelt—weren’t paying me more attention than was necessary.
These men didn’t need to talk to me; they knew someone else was here, and it didn’t take them long to work out where he was. By the time I was properly on my feet they had already checked behind every boulder and were focused on the entrance to the mine. I had no breath for speech anyway; the hand twisting my collar had me half-choked as I was pushed closer to the others. All I could think was how lucky it was I’d slept in my socks. It was all so quiet, like the moment people first realize there’s a cheater at their card table. I flinched in shock when a voice bellowed out almost in my ear. This time the language was English, spoken in an accent part Eastern nasal and part harsh German.
“Cartwright! Get out here if you don’t want the boy hurt.” The man holding me suddenly twisted one arm up behind my back, and I couldn’t stop myself from yelping in pain.
Adam materialized in the shadowy mouth of the cave, only his face and hands visible at first. As he scanned the scene around him, he moved his right hand away from his pistol in tacit surrender. “Unbuckle the gunbelt and come out where we can see you,” my captor ordered. Adam obeyed in silence; not until he was standing in the center of a ring of gunmen did he turn toward the oldest of them and speak.
“The boy’s just a hand from the Ponderosa who drew the short straw. He knows nothing about us.”
Again it was the man holding me who answered. “If he don’t make trouble he won’t get hurt. Otherwise he will. His choice, Cartwright.”
Adam looked over at me and lifted one eyebrow for emphasis. “You hear, Frank? No heroics, boy.”
I nodded back, and made a show of swallowing hard. It didn’t take a lot of acting. A moment later I was pushed sideways towards my other guard, who took hold of me while the leader made a long study of our camp. He gave a triumphant chuckle and pulled Jimmy’s winter coat from off my rumpled bedroll. I was sure he realized it didn’t fit either Adam or me, and expected him to demand where our third man was hiding. Instead, he tossed the coat over to Adam. “Put that on.”
Adam complied, looking puzzled. Although the coat was made for a man with even broader shoulders and longer arms than Adam’s, its cut was plain enough that no one seemed to notice. While Adam buttoned it up, the leader unhooked something from his own belt that glinted in the sunlight. It wasn’t until he pulled Adam’s hands behind his back I realized it was a pair of handcuffs. The man now holding me noticed at about the same time and gave a smothered gasp. He was younger and shorter than most of the others, very blond, and—like Joe Cartwright—stronger than he looked. Something about him made me wonder if I knew him from somewhere else.
“Kneel down,” the leader said, and added when Adam didn’t immediately obey, “or the boy dies.” One of the shotguns swung around to point at me and I stared at it as if I’d never seen a gun before. Dimly I heard the sound as Adam dropped to his knees. When I looked back, the leader had one hand twisted in Adam’s hair and a pistol almost touching the back of his head. “Shall I carry out the sentence, Herr Fischer?” There was a new and ugly note of taunting in his voice.
When the oldest of the strangers answered, I was startled to hear how thick his accent was compared to the man who had done all the talking until then. Nevertheless, Fischer’s was a voice my father would have envied, suited to a great actor or a truly inspired preacher, even when it was only saying short, cruel words. “On that we agreed, Yeager.” His expression as he watched Adam was that of a magistrate passing judgment on a murderer, measured and wise and touched with slight disdain. Adam didn’t return his gaze; he was looking past me towards the distant mountains, very calm and only a little pale.
Yeager jerked at his prisoner’s hair enough to make Adam wince. “You should know something, Cartwright, before I kill you. My mother wasn’t foreign-born; her maiden name was Kane, and she had a brother….”
“Whose name was Peter?” For a moment, I could see emotions flicker on Adam’s face; something almost like the satisfaction of solving a difficult problem, something else like fear. “I see. I wondered how you knew me.” He met my eyes and managed a brief smile, then looked back at the mountains, once more in control of himself. I dropped my gaze to my feet, trying to remember a prayer.
In the silence, we all heard a click as the hammer fell on an empty chamber. Adam gave a soft surprised moan. Without releasing his handful of hair, Yeager hissed, “Nein, nein, that would be too easy,” shifted his grip on the gun and brought its butt end down hard. Adam’s body went limp, and crumpled to the ground when Yeager let him go. I noticed a bloody hank of hair stuck to Yeager’s hand. He wiped his palm on his shirt as he put his pistol away. “Karl, Rudy, ihr bringt ihn in die Mine. Adolph, ich brauch Licht. Hol mir ‘ne Lampe oder ‘ne Kerze. Oscar, Johann, ihr durchsucht den Jungen. Er darf nichts bei sich behalten, was er noch brauchen kann.” The gesture back to me with the last sentence needed no translation.
One of the large men held my arms while the young blond searched me with unsmiling thoroughness, assembling the contents of my various pockets—including the ones most people don’t know I have—into a neat pile. In an effort to make myself seem friendly, if not harmless, I said, “I’m Frank. You’re called…Johann?”
“Sometimes. Mostly I go by John. John Kunst.” He sounded much like my cousins from Philadelphia. “That’s Oscar. His English isn’t very good. Actually, none of us has much English but me and Gustav Yeager. Well, and Herr Fischer, but don’t go bothering him. Don’t bother Yeager either, if you have any sense, not if you’re friends with Cartwright.” He was checking me over a final time, and I saw his eyes widen slightly as he caught sight of where my shirt had been rubbed shiny by my derringer’s shoulder harness. His brows came together again for a thoughtful moment before he decided to relax. I was suddenly very glad I had hidden both pistol and harness. Almost by instinct I was playing the naive greenhorn now, trying to project nothing but puzzled innocence.
“Cartwright’s just one of the bosses,” I said mildly. “Can’t say I know any harm of him, though.”
“Well, Yeager does,” Johann—or John—shrugged. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He glanced past me and said something in German, at which Oscar let go my arms. “Sit over there, by that rock, and don’t make trouble,” he said, looking back at me.
From inside the mine came a sound of hammering, separate strikes at first, then in steady rhythm. “What’s going on in there?” I allowed my voice to rise a little, anxiously.
“Justice for a spy,” Fischer answered. He had come up behind me, my boots in one hand and the small knife from my right boot in the other. “Also in America you execute spies and traitors, no?”
I thought about the sharp-pointed candleholders Adam had stacked near the mine entrance, and remembered a Bible story my father told with relish—Jael destroying Sisera, the enemy of her people, by pounding a spike through his skull. A moment later I was on hands and knees emptying my stomach into the sand. When I finally stopped retching someone put a canteen to my lips. “Rinse and spit,” I realized he was saying, though it was hard to recognize the English. Once I’d obeyed, Fischer passed me a pristine handkerchief. I scrubbed it hard across my face and shoved it into my pocket. Fischer gave me a final pat on the back and walked off to the edge of the desert, putting as much of the camp as he could between himself and the mine.
“Yeager’s choice how it’s to be done,” Kunst muttered. “And whatever it is you think he’s doing, I’ll wager he picked something slower.”
The sun crawled wearily up from the horizon. It was—not to my surprise—going to be another hot, windless day. No one came back out of the mine, though after a while the hammering stopped. Oscar and one or two others watched me from a carefully judged distance, their weapons not actually pointed at me but always close at hand. The one time I stood up to stretch, gun barrels swung towards me like compass needles finding north and seemed to eye me with silent reproof until I sat down again. The other newcomers reorganized the camp to suit themselves. Fischer and Kunst looked carefully through our wagon without taking anything from it; not long afterwards Kunst brought my bedroll over to me and shook it out with a practiced flick. “So,” he said in a pleasant enough voice, “you’re Frank, and you’re from the Ponderosa. Any of your gear in that wagon?”
I shrugged. “If you’re giving things back to me, I’d rather have the blanket off that rock, now Yeager’s taken my coat. It gets cold at night, you know.”
“Don’t see why not,” Kunst answered, and fetched it down for me. He laid it down on top of the bedroll before adding casually, “Funny thing about that blanket. I had it described to me back at Salt Flats, after the sheriff heard we were riding out this way. He wanted us to keep an eye out for it. Seems it belonged to a local who’d gone missing—a young fellow, the sheriff said. By all accounts a lot like you, in fact. As I recall it, they had a stranger in their jail being held for horse theft and suspicion of murder.”
My blank stare back at him was entirely genuine. I’d passed through Salt Flats now and again and usually stayed long enough for a poker game each time—for such a small place, the poker was surprisingly worthwhile—but I’d always thought I’d avoided the sheriff’s eye. It was odd to learn he could give such a good description of me, and odder still he would have bothered just because someone else rode into town on my horse. “Do you know who the man in jail was?” I asked, though I was sure I knew the answer.
“Oh, yes. Another Cartwright from the Ponderosa, so they said. That’s how we knew when we saw that blanket we’d found the man we were after. But don’t you wonder why the sheriff would know a common ranch hand—and his blanket—so well, when he called his boss a stranger? The Ponderosa’s a long way south of here, I’m told. It all seemed a little unusual to me, but then, I’m the noticing kind.”
“They drove a herd up to sell in Eastgate and Pyramid Lake. I hired on because the pay was good, and they wanted someone who knew the area.” All perfectly true, however misleadingly put together. Even so, I doubted he’d accept it at face value and wondered what he was trying to learn from me.
“Ah, it was during the drive you drew the short straw. I see.” Kunst surveyed my un-cowboylike clothes, ending back at the rubbed spot on my shirt. He didn’t have to tell me that wranglers don’t wear shoulder harnesses as well as gunbelts. “Well, I hope the pay will be worth the inconvenience.”
The sunlight glittered in his hair, and his eyebrows were actually paler than his lightly tanned face. ‘A boy with hair so blond it almost looked white,’ Adam had said, and I began to feel more confident of my footing. I planned my next words—and the spaces between them—with care. “You…saw him out…at Chicago.”
“He told you about that?” Kunst felt in his pocket for a tin of tobacco and settled down beside me, for all the world like my very best friend. “Well, remember, you’re the one with the inconsistent story and a sheriff asking after you. I’ve known Yeager all my life, and I can tell you, he’s not fond of lawmen. The only man he dislikes more than a policeman is the man in there—”he jerked his shoulder towards the mine entrance. “I remember when the family heard about his uncle’s death. It still matters more to him even than his work for the cause. Handy the two things came together so nicely, isn’t it?”
‘Handy’ and ‘nicely’ were not the words that came to my mind. I tried not to let that show. “I don’t know anything about any of it—either this uncle or your cause.”
“Then there’s no reason for you to worry, is there?” Kunst stood up again, and I stood up with him, just to see what the guns did this time. They twitched, but didn’t actually turn towards me as they had before. Still, I decided not to follow Kunst over to the wagon. He located my saddlebags and held them up for me to see. “These yours?” When I nodded, he emptied them out and went over them as carefully as he had searched me. Paper didn’t interest him—he left the inner slit where I had a few small banknotes and the useless bill of sale for my horse alone, but he dug out even the smallest coins to check before putting them back. Once satisfied about their contents, he packed everything up neatly and returned the bags to the other end of the wagon, near the water barrels and the canteens. “If you need anything from here, just ask,” he said. One pale eyebrow was raised, which made him look almost like an inverted Adam. We both knew what he was really saying; I wasn’t to go near the wagon myself. My little cache might as well have been in California, I suspected.
“Some water?” I asked. I wasn’t really thirsty yet, but I wanted to see what he’d do. It mildly surprised me when Kunst reached for one of the canteens without quibbling, checked to be sure it was full, and brought it over to me. He watched me as I drank, with a fatherly sort of expression I found somewhat irritating, since he couldn’t have been any older than I was.
His back was to my guards now, and he said in a quieter voice, “I found him a way out once. My own work’s too important to risk doing that again. If something comes up, of course…but Gus has the cards, for the moment.” A little more loudly, he went on, “The reasonable thing for a hired hand now would be to forget about Cartwright, you know. Do as you’re told and behave yourself, and we’ll find a way to let you go safely when the time comes. We’re not thieves or murderers—policemen and snitches don’t count, of course.” He gave me a slightly lopsided smile. “So I ask myself, do you look like a reasonable person?”
“And how do you answer?” I smiled back at him, handing over the canteen.
“Ah, that’s for me to know and you to find out—perhaps,” he said lightly, and headed back to the wagon.
I should have looked like a reasonable person—God, I wanted to be a reasonable person, if that was how to stay alive—but I didn’t know how long I could remain one. For all I’d known him less than a week, I couldn’t just forget about Adam Cartwright, or ignore whatever had happened in that damned mine. Nor had it escaped my notice that Kunst seemed to think I still had something to make a choice about—although whether or not I decided to be reasonable, I didn’t see much I could do except wait and hope that he was right.
Someone—maybe Adolph?—had put a pot of coffee on the fire. The smell of it reminded me that the world really hadn’t ended at dawn, that while I wasn’t hungry yet I would be soon enough, that people beyond the desert—apparently including the sheriff of Salt Flats—had an interest in me. Those weren’t welcome thoughts. I went on staring at the entrance to the mine as if by sheer willpower I could summon Adam back out of the shadows, the way he had come only a short time earlier.
Yeager emerged instead, wiping his hands together with an air of satisfaction. I heard something grumbled in German behind him; Yeager snarled back without turning his head, “Lass ihn in seiner eigenen Scheisse schmoren.” Almost without taking a breath he shouted cheerfully towards the rest of the camp, “Frühstück schon fertig?” and then to me, “Up, up, boy. Breakfast!” He shooed me away from the wagon and the mine with little flicks of his fingers.
I got to my feet obediently and stammered, “Sir, could I—”
“Don’t call me that!” He spun around and almost spat in my face. “I’m no stinking money-bag. Save it for the men who want your flattery.”
Oscar, who’d put down his gun and come up to me, laid a restraining arm around my shoulders and nudged me towards the campfire. I decided to be prudent, if not actually reasonable, a little while longer.
Breakfast turned out to be a sort of corn porridge sweetened with molasses and a handful of dried sliced apples. It went down surprisingly well and sat comfortably in my stomach despite my earlier nausea. I waited until Yeager had finished his own plateful before asking him, as politely as I could manage given I couldn’t call him anything polite, “I would like to go into the mine, please.”
He glowered at me, but didn’t seem as offended as before. “Well, you can’t.”
Most of the others glanced up briefly, but weren’t very interested in a conversation in English. Kunst was watching us with bright eyes and a birdlike tilt to his head. Fischer put down his plate—he was eating very slowly, and still had half his portion to go—to say gravely, “You have not yet finished with him?”
Yeager looked back with an air of challenge. “No, not yet.”
Fischer took a long drink of his coffee. “Then let the young one in. We agreed with a execution, not with torture.”
I watched the flush rise in Yeager’s cheeks, and wasn’t surprised his next sentence was in German. “Das ist gegen die Abmachung!” From context and his expression, I thought I could guess what he’d said. The other German-speakers looked up again; most of them seemed surprised.
“Nein!” Fischer contradicted Yeager vigorously. “Ich war einverstanden mit einer Hinrichtung, nicht mit Folter. Damit ist jetzt Schluss!” He looked around at the rest of the group and said, slowly and clearly for them all to hear, “Und der Junge darf selbstverständlich zu seinem Freund.”
There were various sounds of agreement, though the pair who’d helped Yeager looked at me doubtfully, and Oscar with apparent concern. Yeager drummed his fingers against his mug before countering, “He can take nothing in with him. And it would be better if his hands were tied, to remind him not to be foolish.”
“That, yes. You and John can see to it. But only firmly, Gustav. Nothing more.”
Yeager pursed his lips at the implicit rebuke but nodded before pouring what was left of his coffee over the fire, which seemed to signal an end to the meal. Kunst got up with a sigh and prodded me gently back towards the mine. “Let’s get on with it, if you’re in such a hurry. I think you’re better off having me do the restraints and not Yeager.”
I had hoped, given Kunst’s little comment, that he meant to do some sort of trick with the knots so I could free my hands once I was out of sight. Instead he followed Fischer’s directions quite carefully, even passing a loop of the rope through my belt and around my waist so although I had some freedom of movement I couldn’t lift my hands much higher than my waist. Squirming or pulling would only make things less comfortable—Kunst took the time to show me that, before loosening the knots very slightly again—so I didn’t try to do either. At least I began to feel more confident that Adam wasn’t yet dead or dying. It was impossible to believe even Yeager would take such precautions to guard a corpse.
The neat pile of tools at the entrance was still neat, but much smaller than before and not quite where Adam had put it. The candlespikes were missing, and also the hammer and pickaxe. A few steps further in, the heat was as bad as I remembered; the smell much worse. I picked my way carefully down the center of the passage towards the dim glow ahead.
From a distance he seemed to be laid out like an effigy on a tomb, complete with votive candle. As I got closer I was reminded instead of a beetle pinned into a collection-case—only the pins, thank God, weren’t in the usual place. One candlespike had been hammered in at a slant between his knees. The other—the one with the lit candle—seemed to be at the point where his shoulder met his neck. It wasn’t until I squatted down beside him that I could see how the spike pierced the heavy double-layered yoke of Jimmy’s coat, well away from any seams. With his arms still cuffed beneath him, and his legs bound to the slanted spike, Adam was as immobilized as any naturalist’s specimen.
But he was breathing, which for a long moment was enough for me. I tipped forward onto my knees and gave thanks as I hadn’t for years.
Wax dripping from the sideways-tilted candle brought my attention back to what was before me. The molten blob splashed onto Adam’s cheek and trickled down past his ear—a petty cruelty that hammered home again how carefully Yeager managed even the tiniest details. It didn’t look like Adam had moved his head since the candle was lit; in fact, I doubted he’d moved on his own since Yeager had clubbed him. As quickly as that, I was back to worrying again. I hadn’t just picked up poker skills from my stableboy friends; I did have a fair knowledge of horse doctoring. That and some plain common sense had allowed me to take care of myself and my companions’ few problems since I had come West, but the only time I’d ever seen anything like this was when a clumsy groom had been kicked in the head—and that man had died. I fumbled the candle out of the candlespike—I wasn’t used to having to move both hands together—and managed to stand it up in a puddle of melted wax while I thought the situation over.
The gash on Adam’s forehead was still only half-healed. Joe had stopped its bleeding as quickly as possible, then watched and waited, distracted himself as best he could, and worried until his brother woke up. He’d known nothing else to do, just as there’d been nothing much to do for the groom all those years earlier. I ran my fingers carefully over the back of Adam’s head. It was sticky with half-dried blood from the tear in his scalp, but I couldn’t feel anything freshly wet. The goose egg from Yeager’s blow with the pistol butt was impressive; I hoped the bone wasn’t cracked beneath the swelling. I drew what comfort I could from my conviction that Yeager hadn’t meant to kill—not just then—and from my blurry memories of the first day we’d all met. Someone his brother called a “granite-head” surely didn’t have an especially fragile skull.
I flicked a finger against the mound of wax on his cheek and to my surprise it came off without leaving a mark—there must have been enough moisture on his skin to keep it from being burned. That suggested something I could do for him safely enough, if not easily. One clumsy button at a time, I undid the coat and spread it back to expose the sweat-sodden shirt underneath. That had buttons too small for me to manipulate with my hands tied, but at least I could flap it up and down to create a faint breeze, which had to be more comfortable than steaming like a sausage inside the casing of Jimmy’s coat.
And for whatever reason—the slight cooling of his chest, the changed position of the light, the feeling that someone well-intentioned was near him, or just the inscrutable operation of Providence—he opened his eyes a few minutes later to stare up at me. He looked confused and vulnerable, and decades younger in that moment than I’d seen him before. “Joe?” he said hesitantly at last.
“He’s in Salt Flats,” I reassured him. I didn’t think mentioning where in Salt Flats Joe was would be a good idea right then. “And I had the blanket moved.”
Adam looked more confused than before, and closed his eyes again. Belatedly I realized he had taken me for his brother. Well, my response carried its own correction, but I couldn’t think of anything to say next—it’s all right now? You’re going to be OK? Hardly. “Take it easy,” I finally mumbled, flapping his shirt a little faster.
The eyes came back open. To my amazement, he managed to smile. “Not much choice, have I?” He glanced around him, then back at me, brow furrowed with the effort of making his eyes work together properly. “Frank,” he identified me with satisfaction. As he noticed my bound hands, the faint smile became a frown. “You all right?”
“Shouldn’t have made you stay here,” he whispered. Abruptly his body shuddered beneath me and almost at once he tried to roll onto his side. I managed to get my hands in position to support him as he retched and dry-heaved. If I hadn’t opened up the coat he would still have been lying on his back, saved from choking only because there wasn’t enough in his stomach to choke him. When he finally was able to catch his breath and relax against me, I checked the leather where the candlespike went through. It had slid several inches up and down the metal rod, but was neither stretched nor torn—and the spike was just as firmly in the ground as before.
Adam noticed where I was looking and managed to catch a glimpse of the setup for himself. “Clever,” he said with an effort at a shrug.
“I don’t think I can move it,” I admitted.
That brought his attention sharply back to me. “Don’t even try. You’d never get it back the same way. Button the coat back up again in a few minutes, too—I assume you undid it?”
I nodded. Probably I looked offended, or hurt; he made a movement as if to reach out to me, and pursed his lips when he couldn’t move his arms. “If Yeager sees that you’re helping me, he’ll keep you out of here,” he reminded me gently. “Or do worse, even.”
“Guess so.” With some difficulty, I managed to get my hands, palms up, under one shoulder, and tried to massage the knotted muscles of his back. “Just wish I could get your arms loose…they must be—” I managed to break myself off before I said, “killing you.”
“Uncomfortable?” Adam finished for me, smiling. “Oh, they are, but the alternative would be worse. I had plenty of time to consider it this morning.” He tried again to reposition them, and again failed. “Maybe not very much worse,” he added with some irony.
“Roll towards me, and you can get your weight off the other arm for a bit,” I suggested. It meant twisting his hips and lower back, and putting a lot of stress on ribs I suspected were still sore, but in the one glimpse I’d had of them his hands had been pale and flaccid. As pins and needles took hold of them, he bit down hard on his lip. I shuffled around to where I could meet his fingers with my own and squeezed the blood back into them as much as I could. His “thank you,” was faint and unsteady. I wasn’t surprised to realize, a few minutes later, that he was unconscious again.
I waited until I thought his hands looked properly pink, then settled him down on his back and reluctantly buttoned up the coat. It wouldn’t do to let Yeager see how much I was able to manage even with bound hands. I also moved the candle back to the candlespike, though I was careful to stick it at enough of an angle it was dripping straight onto the floor of the mine. After that I went back to rubbing any part of his back I could reach, trying to get it to relax. That, at least, was comfort Yeager couldn’t know I’d given.
At some point I must have begun dozing on and off; it was midafternoon or later when the light from the mine entrance was suddenly blocked by shadow. I rocked back on my heels as I heard Yeager’s voice echo loudly, “Boy, if you want dinner you’d better get out here now. We ain’t holding any for you, understand?”
“Go on,” Adam whispered hoarsely. I hadn’t even noticed his eyes were open again.
“I’ll come back,” I promised him, and stood up. My own hands were starting to lose their feeling now, and my legs felt stiff as boards. To my surprise, Yeager didn’t seem hostile towards me at all; in fact, when I came to a halt at the entrance, half-blind in the brilliant sunlight, he guided me over to the campfire almost kindly.
Kunst untied me when I reached the fire—it turned out there was an easy way to get my hands free, if only I could sprout a third, unrestrained, arm—and offered me a full canteen before I even realized how thirsty I was. The others made space for me in friendly enough silence, and Adolph had a plateful of something savory ready as soon as I sat down. Oddly, its good smell cost me my appetite. I suddenly realized these men would happily provide me my fair share of water, food, and comfort—but only as long as I stayed outside the mine.
I tried not to act like I was in a hurry, although of course I was. Maybe my impatience showed through, or maybe I just looked too satisfied to suit Yeager, because he point-blank refused to let me go into the mine again. Mr. Fischer had stayed on the far side of the camp and worked right through the meal, scribbling in a leather-bound journal with occasional pauses to sip his coffee, but Kunst did make a mild protest, which Yeager dismissed with a flip of one hand. “He went in today, he can go in again tomorrow—but not now. I have business of my own in there.” He gathered up a small bowl of stew and a clean spoon and headed down the entrance, whistling cheerfully.
This left me with several long sunlit hours ahead and nothing to do in them except worry. Hostages, as I’ve learned from personal experience, spend a lot of time being either anxious or bored, or both—and feeling both at once is a curiously unpleasant state of mind. At other times like this, I’d turned to my best friend, the deck of cards I always carried with me. With that out of reach in the wagon, my brain went looking for another way of passing the time, and settled unpleasantly enough on repeating speeches from Prometheus Bound over and over, in the original Greek.
My first counterattack was to look around me for company, someone whose chatter could drown out my inner thespian. Karl, Rudy, and Adolph were engaged in some sort of card game, using a deck half the size of mine that had strange symbols for the four suits. Oscar was settled in the shade, reading a densely printed pamphlet with his gun hand resting on his pistol. Mr. Fischer was still off by himself, Yeager hadn’t come out of the mine, and Kunst was cleaning the shotguns while keeping a close eye on me. Farther away I caught a glimpse of a man I hadn’t seen here before but knew from earlier visits to Salt Flats, a half-breed indian everyone called ‘Charlie.’ He seemed to be tending to the horses; I suspected the others had hired him as a guide or tracker. That really seemed to be everyone. Eight of them to one of me gave me one tiny advantage—no group this large was ever in complete agreement with itself. At the moment, though, only the card game seemed like a good source of distraction, and even if they’d been willing for me to join in I didn’t feel up to the effort of learning a new set of rules. Simple observation, as I had found out just in the past few moments, might have strategic potential but could do nothing to settle my thoughts. I was pretty sure that I’d passed the stage where solitaire would help me either.
Well, perhaps there was a newspaper or pamphlet I could borrow. I edged closer to Kunst, making sure he and Oscar both realized I wasn’t trying anything hostile, and asked him.
He put down the gun he was working on and scratched his nose, leaving a smear of gun oil behind. “I’m not sure. The boys—” all of whom, bar Adolph, were older than he, and all of whom, including Adolph, were considerably larger—”only read German, I know. I don’t have anything, and there’s no point asking Gus, so…well, no harm seeing what Herr Fischer may have, I suppose. You wait here.”
Of course I didn’t wait; the part of my mind that wasn’t impersonating the Daughters of Oceanus wanted to know how far from the mine I could get before my guards got disturbed. The answer, as far as Oscar was concerned, seemed to be ‘not very.’ He laid his pamphlet upside-down over his leg and moved his hand from his gunbelt to above the rifle on the ground beside him almost before I took a step. Since he didn’t seem annoyed, I followed Kunst a little farther, just until Oscar leaned down to pick the rifle up, then looked to see where I was. Still in the middle of the camp, less than halfway to my cache and well inside a middling shot’s can’t-miss range with a rifle. I didn’t press my luck.
Kunst didn’t have to watch two directions at once while looking completely aimless, so by then he was already beside Mr. Fischer, who seemed irked but not quite angered by the interruption. After a brief exchange the older man reached down into his saddlebags to bring out, not a pamphlet or newspaper, but a book—even the Oceanides paused mid-chant to take notice. He pulled something red and flat out of it, which he might have been using as a bookmark, and handed the volume over to Kunst, who brought it promptly back to me. “Herr Fischer says you are welcome to this, and not to worry about returning it.”
Through the Looking Glass And What Alice Found There, the book was; with illustrations that made it clear this was meant for the nursery-room. Not quite what I’d expected, but by now a year-old newspaper from Placerville would have been manna in the wilderness, so I wasn’t going to complain. Discovering that it was a chess game as well as a children’s story piqued my interest. Miss Norton had taught us all chess, though only Connie had been any good at it. Much later, I had found out that Miss Norton was a prominent member of the local Chess Society, and considered its best lady player, better than most of the men. I wondered why she’d never encouraged us to read this book.
I read as slowly as I could manage, and took plenty of time to study each illustration thoroughly. In some ways, it was almost as difficult to get my mind around as a really obscure passage of Greek—oh, the surface was simple enough, but there were strange things underneath where children wouldn’t venture long. There was also a refreshing lack of ‘goodness’ in the story. No one was interested in telling Alice the right way she should live her life—or rather, the advice she received had nothing to do with being either a good Christian or a proper young lady. The advice—and the advisors—seemed much more interesting as a result.
But I am getting ahead of myself. That first afternoon I got no farther than the poem Jabberwocky, and if ever there was a magic bullet for silencing internal Greek recitations, that was the one. I went over it line by line three times straight and gained very little more than Alice herself. Somebody killed something, as she said—and if the illustration was meant to be the monster of the poem’s title, it seemed just as well!—but the details that gave it all meaning stayed beyond my reach. Except one. After all the excitement, all the questing and fighting and triumph (as best I could make the plot out), nothing had actually changed, and on coming to the opening stanza for the second time I felt certain this was a quiet, rather sad world. Dusk, on a rainy day, with trees dripping noiselessly in a distant circle all around.
When the light had faded to the point that I almost couldn’t make out the Jabberwock’s portrait any more, I closed the book gently, and noticed how worn and stained the binding had become. Idly I flipped it open again to see if I could find any clues to its history.
Elegant, forceful, very feminine handwriting at the top of the flyleaf read, “To Elizabeth with love, Christmas 1878.” The graceful script almost took my breath away, it was so like what Miss Norton had taught my sisters—insisted on from Connie and Pru, at least, and tried to teach to Charity. Underneath, in more childish though still vigorous lettering, a second note ran, “To Onkel Sandro from Lieschen.” After studying both inscriptions almost as intently as I had the book, I gathered myself up and went over to Mr. Fischer. He was reading his notes back to himself, testing out their phrases, and looked up with a definite frown. “We need not limit our philosophies to those of the greedy Carpenter and his hypocritical friend the Walrus…yes, what is it now?”
Another man who could glare like all my former headmasters rolled into one, I thought to myself, but persevered. “Do you really want me to keep this, sir, since someone gave it to you?”
He glanced at the book, sighed softly, and took it back long enough to run a thumbnail down the spine edge of the flyleaf. Very carefully, he detatched the half-sheet of paper before handing the volume back to me. “You are a thoughtful young man. Thank you for noticing.” Taking what looked like a length of red ribbon from his pocket, he folded the mutilated flyleaf around it carefully, and slipped them both away. Before I had even closed the book’s cover, his lips were moving in soundless recitation again.
At least now I knew what had happened to Elizabeth’s hair ribbon.
I didn’t rest easily that night. In my dreams Prometheus lay bound not in mountainous Scythia but to a hill ringed by dripping trees, under which the Oceanides danced and sang something I couldn’t quite hear, or quite remember. Io, trapped in the form of a giant cow, made her entrance pursued not by a gadfly but by the Jabberwock, which was just opening its mouth to swallow her when it tripped over the imprisoned Titan’s chains, fell, and broke its long neck. Io wanted to trample the dead monster, but Prometheus’ body was in her path, so I tried to shoo her away…and discovered that I had been tied to one of the trees with a long red ribbon, which I couldn’t break even when I chewed on it. Now the Oceanides were jeering at me, instead of comforting Prometheus, and Zeus was tossing indiscriminate thunderbolts all through the rain-drenched forest, setting the tall pines ablaze like torches….
It actually made my real situation pleasant by comparison, even though I woke at dawn with a pounding headache and sore hamstrings. Kunst, who had put his bedroll next to mine, was already awake; when he heard me groan he handed me his canteen, with a scold about not having drunk enough water the previous day. Thinking back, I supposed he was right. I drank the canteen dry, prompting other needs which Kunst helped me with equally discreetly. Afterwards, he reached for a familiar coil of rope and said quietly, “You want to go in now?”
“Wouldn’t it be safer to ask him first?” I didn’t think I had to mention names out loud.
“He said you could go in tomorrow, and it’s tomorrow now.”
“I don’t want to cause any trouble,” I mumbled. Not yet anyway, I added privately.
Maybe Kunst read my mind; he had that amused glitter in his eyes again. “Don’t worry, there won’t be any. Gus is a man of his word, after his fashion.”
I allowed myself to appear persuaded, and held out my hands. He tied me up as carefully as before, leaving perhaps a little more slack at the waist, and pushed me gently towards the mine. There wasn’t any light inside it this time. I groped my way forward cautiously, wondering if anyone would bring another candle or a lamp later on. There was a lamp in our wagon, I knew, and even lamp-oil. Then again, if I were Yeager, I wouldn’t trust me with a source of burning oil, either. Even a candle…but it was a little too soon for ideas like that. I needed to know what Yeager’s routine was before I could take advantage of it.
Adam was awake, and talking to himself—not mindlessly, but in the quiet, measured tones of someone reciting poetry. As I got nearer him I could pick out snatches of Hamlet—”In a nutshell…king of infinite space, were it not….” Then, more strongly, from the beginning of the line, “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell…” and the voice faded again.
Instinctively I responded with a line from Virgil’s Aeneid, “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.” Under the circumstances I thought it an apt, or at least an optimistic, counterquotation.
Now, every boy who’s ever studied Virgil is drilled on that line until he can recite it, and its translation, by rote for the rest of his life. In one of my old schools they still talk about a former headmaster who scythed down a whole classful of students just on its misleading second word. Adam evidently had to work it out from scratch—well, they didn’t require Latin at the Scientific School. He made the standard error but rendered the overall idea clearly enough. “And perhaps these things may be a pleasure to remember some day.”
“Even,” I corrected him. “‘Et’ means ‘even’ here. Otherwise, not bad for an unprepared recitation.” I settled down next to him, levered him onto his side, and began to massage his hands.
Adam produced a rather rusty laugh. “I wish you’d been handy when I was struggling along with a marked-up secondhand text and Dryden’s verse translation. One of the college boys tried to help me—neither of us had much time to spare for it, but at least I managed to get a taste of something everyone else seemed to know.” He paused before asking, “Were you ever at Andover? You might have known my friend—George Miller. He’s been teaching there quite a while.”
As it happened, I’d had two goes at Andover, which was pretty unusual—boarding schools don’t usually readmit boys they’ve expelled for cause—and Mr. Miller had figured prominently in them both, though not because of my Latin. He taught mathematics at several levels, and Natural Philosophy (or whatever they called it now) to the English side, the division of school for boys planning to attend one of the “scientific schools” instead of a traditional college. Then there was the matter of our final run-in…. But little as I wanted to admit having ever met the man, an outright lie didn’t sit well with me either, so I simply said, “I had him for math my last year before college.”
“I’m sure he’s much better at teaching math than Latin,” Adam smiled. “Though he did what he could for me…we made an odd pair. I was old for my class and he was quite a bit younger—only fifteen when he started at the college. We kept each other out of trouble.”
I eased Adam down and over onto his other side. As I started to rub between his shoulders I thought back to how I’d felt my first year out West and pictured Adam back East, just as out of place and probably as lonely, latching on to someone to substitute for his brothers. My future teacher likely benefited even more—the youngest boy in my freshman class was harassed to the point he went home at Christmas and didn’t come back for two years. Mr. Miller had been made of sterner stuff, and probably would have survived anyway, but with Adam Cartwright keeping watch over him I doubted anyone had even thought of bullying him. I couldn’t help smiling at that.
Adam gave a sudden wriggle, sliding off my hands onto the hard stone floor. He was staring towards the mine entrance, where this time light rather than darkness announced someone coming in. It was Yeager, with a lamp and canteen hanging from one hand and a cup and bowl balanced in the other. At the sight of me he acquired a frown that might have curdled milk. “The wind will change and you’ll freeze like that,” Mrs. Hutchings, our housekeeper, used to say when we showed her such faces, even though her expression was seldom much friendlier. While the memory brought me dangerously close to giggling, at least it helped keep my back stiff as I got to my feet.
Some ten feet away from us, Yeager set the lantern down and rearranged the rest of his load. He was still frowning when he looked up at me again, but more from puzzlement than annoyance now, it seemed. “I thought you’d have your breakfast with us,” he said. “You still can, if you want, or you can stay with him and share what I’ve brought in between the two of you—but I’m not bringing any more in here, or saving you any for later. Now which will it be?” It only took him two or three steps to reach Adam’s side.
I could smell the molasses in the corn pudding, as well as the fragrant coffee, and felt my mouth begin to water. The bowl held much less than had been on my plate the morning before. All the same, I shook my head. “I’d rather stay here,” I said, and managed to keep from ending, “Sir.”
Adam cut his gaze towards me, then back towards the other man. “And my water ration? Didn’t you mention that too, yesterday?”
“Always a fuss over the liquid refreshments,” Yeager sneered. “Be careful what you ask for—remember what I could give you instead.” He laughed as Adam winced and glanced away, but did get to one knee and unstopper his canteen before splashing a careless mouthful over Adam’s face. It didn’t seeming to matter to him whether the water flowed into Adam’s mouth or up his nose. When Adam sputtered and started to choke, Yeager straightened up and backed away. “Enjoy your breakfast,” he said to us both as he left, taking the canteen—and the lamp—with him.
Adam wouldn’t touch any of it until I had some of the pudding; I turned one spoonful into what looked like four to satisfy him. The rest I fed to him, one hand supporting his head to be sure he didn’t choke. Afterwards I tried to make him drink the coffee, but he refused, pointing out, “Wouldn’t be wise, in my position.”
It wasn’t until after I’d drained the cup myself that I guessed at his meaning and felt a hot blush of embarrassment. “It’s just…I feel bad taking anything away from you,” I stammered, “even if…well….”
He couldn’t see my red cheeks, but perhaps he guessed they were there. “It’s all right,” he said gently. “If you hadn’t been here I wouldn’t have dared ask for the water.”
I put the cup down by the empty bowl and asked, “Is your back still hurting?”
“Not as much as you’d think. My doctor told me I should try sleeping on a firmer surface…guess he was right about that.” He managed a soft, only slightly ironic, chuckle. “Don’t tell Yeager…I wouldn’t want him to know he was doing me a favor.”
“That’s so,” I agreed.
“At least now we know why Yeager took so much interest in me at Chicago—how he knew the name Cartwright. That changes things…or maybe it doesn’t, really.”
The coffee, the spoonful of corn pudding, and Adam’s comment about the water had improved my outlook considerably. “I don’t know. If that’s why Yeager thinks he hates you, now we have something to work with…I mean, it seems like this Kane fellow had gold fever, and he was crazy mad to prove his claim. So, now Yeager’s seen how easy it would be to run out of water here, can’t you explain to him how his uncle brought this on himself? If Kane wouldn’t stop when it was safe, and you almost died trying to save him—”
“Oh, is that what you think happened?” The contempt in Adam’s voice was like a slap across my face.
“It’s what I was told,” I said humbly.
Adam didn’t respond for a long moment. “Yeager’s got a flair for being cruel, but he doesn’t have his uncle’s originality. Kane had me working this mine, on less water than Yeager’s given me. And he wasn’t doing it for the gold. He hated his life and he wanted to prove—to himself, to me, to God—he could take a rich man’s foolish, arrogant son and turn him into a murdering animal. He wanted to make me attack him.”
“Was that how he died? Did you kill him?”
“I don’t know.” It was a worn-out, tired answer, as if he’d spent all twenty years since failing to come up with a different one, whether better or worse. “Anyway, I doubt I could convince Yeager that Kane egged me on like that. I don’t blame him—would you believe it, in his place?”
It did sound unlikely to me, and I wasn’t even disposed to question Adam Cartwright’s word. So much for softening Yeager with the truth.
Karl collected the empty dishes a little while later. Adam said something to him in German, which Karl cut short with an unfriendly snarl. Once he was gone, Adam commented ruefully, “Someone else resistant to the Cartwright charm, I see.”
“Maybe just very loyal to Yeager,” I said, remembering what had gone on while I read my book. “He and Rudy both…the three of them stick together most of the time and play cards. When Yeager’s somewhere else the others let Adolph play, but only for a hand or two.”
“A three-handed game? Sounds like Skat. What about the rest?”
“Mr. Fischer’s writing something—sounds like it might be a speech. Didn’t you say he gave speeches? Oscar and Kunst watch me, if I’m outside…Oscar likes to read, if he gets the chance. He has pamphlets; I think they’re all in German, though. They’re printed in very dark type….”
“Fraktur,” Adam nodded. “I always get a headache reading that. Does Kunst do anything but watch you?”
“He does whatever he thinks needs doing, I suppose. He says he’s the noticing type. He’s the one told me about Joe—”
“What about Joe!”
Those were good handcuffs; Adam’s sudden attempt to free his arms would have broken mere ropes. I backed away, stammering, “No, no, he’s all right—well, I assume he is, it’s just….”
“Tell me,” Adam said through gritted teeth.
“Well, the sheriff in Salt Flats seems to think he’s murdered me, so they’ve got him in jail there. Kunst said that’s why Yeager knew you were with me…but I can’t imagine Joe’s in worse trouble than having to play checkers with the deputies. My guess is the sheriff’s trying to find you by leaning on Joe, and any way, they don’t exactly run to lynch mobs in Salt Flats—that would be too much like hard work.”
“You seem to know a lot about the place, for a drifter.”
I shrugged. “I kind of like it there. It’s peaceful, and the poker’s good. Plus I can pick out the locals easily—they’re generally the ones standing around watching. Nice knowing I won’t get the hotel manager or the owner of the livery stable mad at me if I win big.”
“And there’s always enough strangers in town to give you a good game…yes, I’m beginning to see why the sheriff’s so interested in you. Looks like he thought you might repopulate his town, boy.”
He’d lowered his eyelids and his mouth curved in a mischievous smile. I found myself blushing. “Not by myself, I couldn’t. There aren’t many ladies in Salt Flats—and none of ’em’s too young to be my grandmother.”
“More than one way to increase a place’s population. Ask anyone in Virginia City—or Reno, from what I hear.” He seemed to be relaxing again, presumably because of my insistence that Joe was safe. I hoped that was the truth, but I knew Adam needed to believe it. “So. Karl, Rudy, Oscar-who-reads, Kunst, Yeager, and Sandro…oh, and Adolph. Any one else here?”
“Just a guide from Salt Flats named Charlie. He’s staying out with the horses.”
“Horses? Dear God, they’ll starve. How many of them?”
I hadn’t counted, and felt myself blush again as I said so. He smiled reassuringly at me. “Well, find out when you get the chance—I know you can’t afford to seem very curious. You’re doing better at being my eyes than Joe would; he always irritated people like Yeager right off. I’m glad I’m not the sheriff in Salt Flats right now, if he’s letting Joe get his hands on checkers!”
As if being hit in the face with a checker was something to worry about…which led me inexorably back to the state of Adam’s hands. I eased him onto one side again, and inquired, “How are you feeling?” almost without realizing I’d spoken.
The comment triggered one of those rapid changes in mood that suggested Adam wasn’t really as calm as he wanted me to think. “Do you mind not asking me that?” he snapped. “Yes, I hurt; yes, I’ll tell you if that changes significantly; and no, I really don’t want to discuss it otherwise. All right?”
“All right,” I agreed, trying to sound soothing rather than upset or offended.
Evidently I didn’t entirely succeed. He said more softly, “Look, I once spent six weeks being carried back and forth from my bed to an invalid chair after I had a bad fall. I couldn’t feel my legs for a month. That was bad. There were exercises for them—rather like you’re doing now for my arms—and my fiancee hovered over me the whole time, saying “How do you feel?” five times a day in her whiny little voice until I wanted to slap her face off. Thank God at the end of it all she decided to run off with my cousin. I hope he never gets sick enough to need Laura nursing him…. Anyway, if this were all Yeager had planned for me, I could take it for a good long time.” He gave me a quick smile, broad enough to show the gleam of his teeth. “Especially with you helping me.”
Maybe he’d forgotten I knew as much about the subjunctive and its meanings as he did, or even more. “But you don’t think this is all.”
“It might be, but I doubt it. I’m not even sure he has plans for me yet. Or maybe he has too many, and can’t choose just one. At least it’s clear he won’t…do anything irreversible until Sandro is ready to leave.”
The mock execution certainly suggested no one was in a rush to settle Adam’s fate. “How long do you think they’ll stay here?”
Adam’s shoulders twitched in the closest they could get to a shrug. “As long as Sandro thinks it’s necessary to be sure they’ve slipped behind anyone tracking them. A week, ten days maybe…who knows? Sandro’s a wily old fox. He’s had hounds on his trail before; he knows all the tricks. Do you hunt?”
I didn’t hunt for the pot, but the references to hounds and foxes suggested that wasn’t what Adam meant. I’d also never ridden to hounds myself, but my Philadelphia cousins did, and during my occasional visits to them I’d helped the stableboys hack their remounts out during runs a time or two. Adam grinned when I told him that. “Wise child, weren’t you? They understand the hunt better than most of the men they work for…you’ll know what Sandro has in mind, then.”
It was what Yeager had in mind that seemed more important, and I said so, though I regretted doing it as I watched Adam’s moment of amusement die away. “Well, he’d be hard to anticipate even if I knew him better. How can you pick holes in a plan that may not exist?” He closed his eyes as if to illustrate his blindness and didn’t open them again when he said, a little time later, “What I do know is you embarrass him when you’re in here with me.”
He sighed. “Let’s just say breakfast was a lot more pleasant for me than yesterday’s dinner.”
Anything Yeager did in secret Adam would probably rather keep private as well, I realized. Rather than prying, I mumbled, “I’ll stay with you as long as you want, you know that.”
“Or as long as Yeager lets you, at least,” Adam said in half-agreement. “But it’s not what I want that matters; it’s what we need—which is to learn what’s going on out there. You can’t do that if you just sit in here.” He smiled sadly. “However much I like your company.”
“You really think my staying outside will make any difference?”
“It might. A good engineer always wants to know as much about what he’s working with as he can, even if it means getting a little messy—or very uncomfortable. I guess a good poker player knows that too.” He suddenly looked directly at me, that broad bright smile lighting up his whole face. “You know, there aren’t many times I’ve wanted someone other than my brothers with me in a tight spot, but Joe picked on you for this job, and he was right.”
Maybe Karl was resistant to the Cartwright charm, but I realized in that moment I certainly wasn’t.
I came out at midday to find the camp had shifted itself around again. The Skat game was still going on, but Yeager, Karl and Rudy were now settled just outside the mine entrance. I blundered past them, squinting in the fierce sunlight, to find Adolph peeling potatoes by the fire. He untied me amiably enough and indicated with gestures that he’d appreciate some help. I took the tiny knife he held out and peeled the potatoes docilely. Purely for practice, I spent the next few minutes thinking up and discarding ways of escape: I could try overpowering Adolph and using him as a counter-hostage, but he was currently chopping the peeled potatoes with a sharp and heavy cleaver; I could play hide-and-seek among the boulders around camp and make a break for the open, but Mr. Fischer was up at the top of the cliffs, combining his writing with sentry duty, and I’d never get out of rifle range fast enough to not be shot; I could try to steal a horse, but the few I could see were unsaddled and hobbled. The biggest drawback to all these plans, of course, was that for once I wasn’t in this alone—precisely the reason I’d always warned Jimmy, and every partner I’d had before him, that at a time like this I’d be thinking only of myself. The only really useful idea that came to me was trying to pocket the paring knife for later, but as soon as I was done with the last potato Adolph wanted it back. I couldn’t even tell whether he was aware I might steal it or simply liked knowing where his cooking gear was.
Adolph was far too sociable to let me sit and brood. Besides being much the best cook I’d encountered in several months, he proved to be an excellent player of charades, which was convenient given how few words we had in common. He was even able to convey to me that Charlie, Oscar, and Kunst had ridden off with the packhorse to Eastgate and weren’t expected back until sundown. (The Skat players paused to admire his efforts, and Rudy actually cracked a smile.) Apparently there’d be a supply run every other day, with the duty rotating so everyone would get some time in town. It was the sort of information I knew Adam wanted me to learn, but I found it more depressing than suggestive. The outlaws with whom I had experience tended to be nervous, rather stupid men, easy to predict and often quite careless, especially when any whiskey was to hand. These men were more like a bunch of off-duty Army scouts, enjoying this break from hard work but never entirely relaxed—and as far as I could tell, they were as temperate as a Sunday-school picnic.
I had to admit I was grateful Adam had encouraged me to stay outside for a while. I didn’t want to ask any favors of Yeager, not with Mr. Fischer up on the cliff and Kunst—and even Oscar—somewhere between here and Eastgate. Pure and simple, the man scared me. It helped a little to discover that he frightened Adolph too. Not that Adolph said so in either words or gestures, but somehow he always kept the fire between himself and the Skat game, though he’d played hands with Karl and Rudy often enough. After a while I nerved myself up enough to fetch my copy ofThrough The Looking Glass and read a few more chapters. It was interesting to find out the origin of Mr. Fischer’s Carpenter and Walrus—and I had to admit I shared the man’s opinion of their ethics—but I kept listening for the sound of approaching horses. Alice could distract me from my own problems, but not from those around me.
It was almost sundown and Adolph was cooking johnnycakes for supper by the time the others rode in. They were laden with lumpy bags and bundles of scavenged firewood; two barrels were strapped to the packhorse, one full of water and the other, it seemed, of beer. Any hopes I cherished that the beer might induce some laxness in discipline faded as I watched them share it out—two cupfuls for each of us, enough to make people cheerful but hardly careless. Mr. Fischer only took one cup, and Yeager, to my dismay, none at all. Adolph, it’s true, had three, and enlivened the evening by singing a long ballad the other Germans found hilarious—but Adolph had nothing to do with guarding anybody, and since he spent so much time sweating over the campfire everyone seemed to feel he deserved the extra cupful. And besides, even he wasn’t anywhere near being drunk.
Neither was Kunst; indeed, he wasn’t even cheerful. Although he did join in the singing from time to time, he kept his eye on me throughout, and the later it got the less pleasing he seemed to find my face. When Adolph’s song finally came to its end, he grunted to Yeager, “Some of us still have to stand guard over the brat tonight. Sure would be easier if we just made him sleep in the mine with the other one.”
Yeager looked as close to relaxed as I’d yet seen him. He waved a dismissive hand at Kunst. “Fine, Johann. Tie him up and shove him in.”
It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but it also wasn’t quite what Kunst expected, and it struck me he didn’t seem much more pleased than I. Fortunately, Adolph understood enough of the exchange to have his own views, which—perhaps because of his three cups of beer—he shared with us all quite emphatically. In his opinion it was, I gathered, much too early to put me to bed like a baby; I had been a good, helpful boy and deserved some more beer, not a punishment. There was general laughter and a few shouts of approval when he slapped me on my shoulder and offered me a freshly filled cup. I’d already had more beer than I wanted or could comfortably hold, which I tried to convey to Adolph without offending him or attracting Yeager’s attention. Kunst began a noisy quarrel with Oscar in German while unobtrusively dumping the beer on the ground, and Adolph obligingly eased me away from the campfire towards the latrine area. Once there, I ventured, “Water?” and mimed the shape of a canteen.
Adolph, bless him, had no qualms about bringing me a full canteen and letting me keep it after I’d finished drinking. I began to wonder how much he knew of Yeager’s business here. I wondered even more when Kunst intercepted us neatly just outside the bright glow of the fire and took the canteen away again, with a scolding word or two for my escort. Adolph only shrugged. Kunst had his rope to hand now, and used it on me no looser and no tighter than before, taking particular care with the last few hitches that kept me from slipping free. “Too bad,” he mumbled as he tested them. “I thought at night he might not care, but…” and this time he was the one who shrugged. As he guided me back to the mine, we passed by our bedrolls, and he hung my pair of blankets over my shoulder. “May as well have some padding under you,” he said in a normal tone of voice. “And take care walking; you don’t want to trip. See you in the morning.”
Once I’d let my eyes adjust to being inside the mine, I found the firelight was strong enough that I had no trouble making my way over to Adam, though the tunnel beyond him was quite dark. He greeted me quietly and seemed in no mood for talk. I laid out one of my blankets for me to lie on, and folded the other—the tattered Harvard one—into a pillow for him. Without asking, I went on to give him the usual backrub and hand massage, and hoped the soft noises they drew from him were at least partially signs of relief. As I eased him down again, he turned his head to catch my hand between his shoulder and cheek, and held it there a moment. “Thank you,” he said simply.
I pushed against the nearest candlespike—which might have sprouted from the rock, it was so immovable—and noticed all the scraps of melted wax around it were gone. “No more candles for us, I see.”
“Actually, I’m…happier without. For me darkness’s surprisingly good…remedy for claustrophobia.”
I could hardly make out his words. “For what?”
An ironic humor came into his voice for a moment. “Claustrophobia—the fear of tight spaces. Real ones…not metaphors.” The words caught in his throat; he closed his eyes and turned his head away from me to cough. Even after he was breathing smoothly again I could still read worry in the wrinkles of his forehead. “So dry…already,” I heard him whisper. The word ‘already’ chilled me.
“I tried to bring a canteen in, but they took it away,” I said unhappily.
Adam twisted back towards me, eyes open again and brighter. “Back of the mine,” he said in a ragged undertone. “Cleared a place that…should be filled up now…if you wet some cloth…you can bring it….”
Fortunately I still had Fischer’s mostly-clean linen handkerchief in the pocket where I’d stuffed it, and was able to work it free after a brief struggle. Clutching that in one hand I felt my way down the passage to its end. It seemed longer without light—larger, too, with space enough for an uncountable number of things to trip over or bang into. If darkness could really ease someone’s fear of small enclosed places, it still wouldn’t make anyone’s fortune in the medical community.
Finally, I reached the back and stretched out towards the shelf-like ledge I remembered but could not see. The rock was damp, certainly, but not enough to moisten the handkerchief…and then my fingertips brushed the edge of the saucer-like space Adam had cleaned so carefully and lined with paraffin—twenty years ago originally, I realized. And just as then, so now water was collecting in it. Moving gingerly so as not to splash any of it away, I floated the handkerchief on the tiny pool and waited until the cloth had soaked up all it could. I twisted my hands around so one could catch any drips that fell and started back. Halfway to Adam I caught my foot on an unsuspected rock and landed face-first on the floor of the mine, somewhat dazed from hitting my chin on its hard stone.
Adam probably was trying to shout the “What happened?” that I barely heard. I managed to sit up, pleased that despite my tied hands I’d been able to keep one underneath the handkerchief the whole time, protecting it. The rest of the way back I shuffled on my knees. I could tell my trousers were already torn and at least this way I kept myself from another, perhaps more serious, fall.
“Your chin’s bleeding,” Adam said when I was close enough for him to see me clearly.
Instead of answering, I tilted my hand so the water in it trickled onto his lips, and lowered the handkerchief to his mouth as he opened it. He sucked at the cloth like a starving baby might feed—desperately, blindly, mindlessly—and when he could coax nothing more from it he looked up at last to whisper, “Is there more?”
There was, at least that night. It took four more trips before the little pool was emptied. By then I had also managed to clear a smooth path along one edge of the passage I could follow without fear of tripping, and my chin had stopped bleeding, though it still throbbed. I wrung the handkerchief out with all the strength I could find to squeeze the last drops from it, and left the damp cloth on his forehead until it stopped feeling cooler than his face.
When Adam finally spoke again, so much later he startled me, his voice did sound a little—very little—less painful. “Hide that cloth you used,” he whispered. “And make sure he won’t see that you’ve gone to the back. Move the pillow before morning, too.”
“I’ll take care of it all,” I answered him softly, and shivered despite the mine’s heat. He could still think so much farther ahead than I was managing. Even now that I could bring him water, I felt more foolish—more useless—than ever.
How he saw it, in that darkness, I don’t know, but his voice came again, comforting as an arm around my shoulders despite its rasp. “This was enough before, Frank. It’s more than enough now. Don’t worry so.”
His words proved enough to allow me a peaceful night’s sleep.
I spent most of the next several days outside, though the most interesting observation I made was that Oscar took over from Herr Fischer as the sentry on the clifftops—well, and Adolph bought the rest of Jimmy’s onions from me, since he couldn’t stand the idea of them going to waste. I’d have just given him the bag, but Herr Fischer demanded that payment be made. “We are not thieves,” he insisted. I kept my opinions about that to myself, but willingly admitted the onions made a good stew even better.
At night, inside the mine, things were…different. Adam continued to insist I was providing him all the water and attention he needed. He wasn’t lying to me, but I wasn’t sure I agreed, even though I couldn’t point to anything that disproved it. Through all of it he stayed cheerful, thoughtful, kind—except perhaps when he was dreaming. Through all of it, I had the sense that whenever he wasn’t actually speaking to me, he was someplace…else. Searching, I suspected, for something he could use against Yeager, or even some little thing that could be an explanation for what was happening to us. Searching, in my opinion (which I kept to myself), for something that didn’t exist. At first I was reluctant to interrupt his thoughts, but when I told him so, he only said, “I have plenty of time to myself. It’s nice to know you’re with me when you are.”
Adam never slept for more than an hour or two at a time, and I found myself waking up whenever he began to breathe faster, whether he was dreaming or awake. We never discussed our situation at night. Once the morning light was strong enough we could see the mine entrance again, I might tell him what I knew or had guessed about the others’ plans for their day, but the night was ours alone. Sometimes we swapped quotations like schoolboys; sometimes, if his throat hurt, I recited passages of the classics instead. When I was quoting Virgil he often wanted me to translate lines that caught his fancy. Homer’s Greek was only noise to him, but he still enjoyed the sounds and rhythms of its words. They could soothe him even when he was caught in an unpleasant dream, and more than once put both of us back to sleep together.
Sometimes, we just talked. There were times he seemed to mistake me again for Joe, or expected Hoss to be looking for him; other times he just wanted to talk about them, as if to keep their memory fresh. Then there was the early dawn when he gave me a long, thoughtful look before saying, “Humor me—were you christened Francis?” When I nodded he flashed me his sudden, blinding grin. “So was Joe—as a middle name. It’s his deepest, darkest secret.” I laughed with him, and felt my stomach turn to lead as his laughter died away and the thoughtful expression came back, gradually changing to one of confident recognition. “Dear God…don’t tell me you’re Francis Willard’s boy.” I didn’t have to; obviously he had worked it out for himself. “I heard your father preach on my way through New York last year. It was quite an experience.”
I wasn’t prepared for the strange mix of pride and anger I felt on hearing that. It took me several swallows to recover my voice. “How did you guess?”
“Oh, a number of things. For one, I also met your sister Prudence and her husband in New York. You have a great look of her.”
We’d been taken for twins often enough as children, despite Pru’s being a year older than I, and that ‘look’ had been hard on her. We both took after our mother, we were told, unlike Connie and Charity who had inherited a feminine reworking of our father’s handsome features. Mother’s family was noted for long, sharp-pointed noses and chins, which suited me as a card sharp, but gave poor Prudence the look of a hatchet-faced shrew. Her best efforts to appear sweet and agreeable just made her seem a melancholy shrew.
“He was my father’s secretary when he proposed,” I commented. No one else ever offered for her, as far as I knew.
“They seem to be very happy with each other,” Adam said mildly. “I hear she has done fine work on behalf of worn-out cart horses and stray dogs in the city.”
My father, in the privacy of our home, had very strong views about wasting money on useless brutes. I began to feel more kindly towards Tom. “What is her husband doing these days?”
“I think they said he was treasurer of some small college in New Haven,” Adam said with a straight face. “Oh, and they’re both Methodists now.”
The image of my father—who liked to call himself a high-church Anglican—receiving that news overpowered me. I buried my head in my hands and howled with smothered laughter. Even Adam allowed himself a broad grin.
“So what made you leave?” he went on after I quieted again.
I didn’t miss his light stress on the pronoun, or the trace of sympathy behind it. All the same, I shrugged my shoulders. There was no reason for me to spill all my secrets to him, just because he had found one of them out for himself.
“Your mother was a wealthy woman, I seem to remember…haven’t you worried about being held for ransom?”
“Someone did, once. Early on. They wanted my father to telegraph for instructions about paying for me, and he had his secretary—not Tom, a later one—write back. Something about not being fooled by such an obvious ploy to get an extra remittance.”
Adam’s face was serious again. He raised a sympathetic eyebrow. “Awkward for you.”
“A little.” I pursed my lips. “They showed me the letter. I sniveled. They got careless, and I got away. No real harm done.”
“Even to them?”
I’d been tempted to get my revenge, but it hadn’t been worth the risk or the benefits I’d get from leaving them alive. “I decided to let them spread the word that the Willards weren’t suitable prey.”
“Only you don’t go by Willard any more, either.”
“It’s not a connection I’m proud of.” I could feel my face twisting in an ugly sneer.
It found no reflection in Adam’s eyes. He looked me over as if for the first time, gave a shallow nod, and closed his eyes. “Can you shift me off those cuffs again?” he asked after a moment.
I started the daily ritual of lifting, twisting, rubbing. It was easier now than on the first day. I couldn’t tell if that was a good or a very bad sign, but I did the job regardless. The memory of silver polish hovered faintly in my nose, until I became aware that Yeager was stamping into the mine.
Hastily I skittered away from Yeager to the opposite wall, trying to keep him away from Adam. The distraction worked; he turned to follow me. “Heard noises in here. You been laughing at me, boy?”
“N-n-nossir,” I stammered, spreading my empty hands as wide as I could. “Nothing like that, sir.”
He backhanded me hard enough my ears rang. “Don’t call me sir, you hear me? Just do as you’re told!”
It really was difficult not to say what had been drilled into me all my life; harder still to seem as though I was trying but forgetting to obey Yeager. “Nossse…no. I’ll try, s-sorry.”
He slapped me twice more, but not as hard, then shouldered past me and went back outside. Once I had caught my breath, I squatted down next to Adam to continue our routine.
“I thought I told you ‘no heroics,’ Frank.” Adam’s voice was hoarse and uneven. It occurred to me I shouldn’t be making him talk so much.
“What heroics?” I shrugged, and slid my hand farther under him to take the weight off his arms.
The morning of the sixth day, two things happened that seemed to make bad worse. The first was my discovery that Adam wasn’t sweating any more. I knew that couldn’t be good. While I was still guessing at its implications, he opened his eyes and smiled up at me with almost childlike triumph. “I’ve worked out what Yeager wants to do,” he said. “He’s taking us to the triple point.”
“What’s that?” It certainly sounded ominous to me.
He frowned at that, rather muzzily. “Oh, right, you never had chemistry….” The silence went on long enough I thought he was falling asleep again, and then he took a deep breath and assumed his schoolmaster expression. “You know ice and water and steam are all only different forms of the same thing, and there are specific temperatures where one changes to the other?”
“Ice melts at 32 degrees, and water boils at 212,” I agreed.
“At one atmosphere’s pressure,” Adam pointed out. “The temperatures change if the pressure rises, or falls. Try boiling water in Virginia City some time! There are machines that can make ice at almost any temperature, now. Of course as soon as the pressure changes, the ice usually starts to melt.”
“Of course,” I nodded.
“Now, with a mixture of ice and water, you can’t change the temperature and the pressure separately—some of the water will freeze, or some of the ice will melt, until the temperature and the pressure together are back at a combination that’s a melting point. If you draw a graph—you do know about Cartesian graphs?”
“It’s a long time back….”
“Well, think of having temperature for the x axis, and pressure for the y axis. Now if you think of a short, straight line going up from the zero point—it’s usually a curve, really, but it’s easier if you just have a line…yes, like that. Very good.”
Since he obviously wanted a diagram, I had scratched one out on the floor beside him, with two lines crossing at right angles for the x and y axes, and a third line starting where they crossed, splitting the right angle roughly evenly.
“All right. That line shows where ice turns directly into steam—”
“Ice melts“, I stammered. “Water boils.”
“Well, ice sublimes if the temperature and pressure are right.” Adam thought briefly. “Haven’t you seen a snowbank shrink on a cold and sunny day without melting first?”
“Yes,” I said hesitantly.
“Well, that’s sublimation. Or something like it, anyway. Now draw two lines away from that place where you ended your first line—one going almost straight up, one staying more flat. That’s right. That’s what a phase diagram looks like.”
What it looked like was a forked stick, the kind people sometimes used to dowse for water, laid catty-cornered inside the rectangle made by the x axis and y axis.
“Now, if you pick a temperature and pressure that represent a point below all those lines you drew, that means you’ll have steam. In between the two lines that split off from your first line, that would be water. The area above the first line and left of the line going almost straight up, there’s ice. On the lines, you have mixtures—ice and steam, ice and water, water and steam. Do you understand?”
“I think so.”
“Well, what’s really important is this. You see the place where the first line you drew stopped and the other two lines start?”
“That’s the triple point. It’s the only combination of temperature and pressure where you can have ice and water and steam all together. And depending on which way you move away from that point—up, or down, or left, or right on that diagram—you can get very different things, even without going very far. All ice, or all steam, or all water. Big, sudden changes for a very small shift in position.”
“But what’s that got to do with us?”
“We’re the water. You, me—all of us, I think. Sandro and Yeager and Kunst too, maybe even Oscar and Adolph and the rest of them. Probably Yeager only cares about me, but we’re all here together, so we’re all in the diagram. And he’s putting us at the triple point. He wants to keep us there as long as possible, so he can move us about and watch us freeze. Or boil, or melt…whatever he wants.”
Ice, water, steam. Sanity, delirium…death. It made sense, except that steam could freeze again, but you can’t come back from dying. Not that Yeager wanted Adam to die, not yet. It described what he was doing, I could see, in the same way that Alice’s looking-glass world described that crazy chess game.
There was a sudden strength in Adam’s voice; it wasn’t schoolmasterish any more. “Listen, Frank, that’s the way out. If Yeager’s inside the diagram with us, but he’s also running the machine that changes the pressure and the temperature, what does that tell us?”
“I don’t know,” I whispered, not at all sure I wanted to hear. We weren’t behind a looking-glass, or inside an ice-making machine.
“It means that we can change them too, and that give us our chance!” Adam said in triumph. His voice was getting louder; I put my hands over his mouth, but it was too late. Hastily I scrubbed my arms across the dirt to erase my diagram as heavy footsteps sounded outside the mine.
“Ruhe dadrinnen! Und du, Junge, raus hier!”
Hearing Karl’s voice took me by surprise a moment. I’d forgotten today was a supply run, with Yeager, Rudy, and Oscar going this time—something I’d been looking forward to, until this morning’s worries. Evidently Karl was resolved there would be no slackness during Yeager’s absence. Why are you so worried? I wanted to scream back at him. The man’s quite harmless now, quite mad—why can’t you leave him alone? But I didn’t want to admit that aloud, not in front of Adam, so I kept quiet at first for friendship’s sake, and then from pure, simple shock. Charlie the scout, who’d kept himself away from all of us until now, brushed past Karl, then past me, and took his first look at what lay behind me.
Charlie was half Paiute, and that was about all he’d ever chosen to let me know about him. Like many half-breeds, he seemed to get little respect from either Indians or white men, but, like most of the scouts I’d met, didn’t seem much worried. Out in the desert, a man always got all the respect his skills entitled him to have, and Charlie, though getting a bit long in the tooth—like everyone in Salt Flats—had been in his day a very fine scout indeed. At least everyone always said so, even men who wouldn’t share a table with him at the saloon.
He’d kept his distance from Herr Fischer and the others, although they, being easterners, neither knew nor cared about his Indian blood and assumed his leather parody of white-men’s garb was just eccentric, instead of silent sarcasm. (I knew why he wore that leather shirt because when I’d been a green easterner myself, I’d asked Charlie. It still amazed me sometimes that I survived, let alone had been given a civil answer.) I’d assumed his present aloofness had been the natural disdain of a professional for his clients; now I remembered the long list of Paiute tribal leaders Adam had recited to me and wondered if one of them figured in Charlie’s ancestry.
At any rate, it appeared he had not forgotten the long friendship between the Paiutes and the Cartwrights. He had a canteen with him—he always had a canteen with him, even back in town—and went down on his knees, putting it to Adam’s lips, almost before I turned to see what he was doing. Perhaps he heard me move, because he said loudly, without looking back, “Get another canteen—and have the cook put a little salt in it. And he needs food, but not too much. Boil a piece of jerky in water for a while and he can drink that. Go on, boy!”
Everyone else in camp must have heard him; by the time I was back to the campfire Adolph was already trickling salt into one of the canteens and Kunst had found the bag of jerky I’d rescued from the Cartwrights’ original wagon all that time ago. Karl was peering into the mine with a mixture of anxiety and surprise on his face, and made no move to stop me when I went past him with the salted canteen and what Kunst had left of the jerky. Only Herr Fischer still sat facing away from us all, his back rigid with silent disapproval—but he, like Karl, chose not to interfere.
I handed Charlie the canteen and went to hide the half-bag of jerky near where I kept the handkerchief during the day. It took me a little while to find a dry place big enough to conceal it. All that time Charlie’s voice ran on, ostensibly to Adam but loud enough—I was sure deliberately—that I caught every word. “Hush, you; I ain’t going nowhere. Don’t you know the second time around a man can’t take as much? Allus was too clever for yer own good…now look at you, caught in yer own trap…be still now. Hush up.”
“Can you get him free?” I asked as I came back. The chance to let Adam bend forward, to flex his knees, to sit, all seemed gloriously possible in that moment.
“Water first.” Charlie grunted. “‘S what he needs, that and food—when’d he last eat, boy?”
“He’s had food every day,” I protested.
“At least once a day…I saw Yeager bring it in….”
Charlie spat, a verdict on both Yeager’s meanness and my gullibility. Adam took advantage of the brief pause to try once again to get Charlie to leave the cave. Charlie only grinned and gave him a mouthful from the salted canteen, which silenced Adam long enough for Charlie to ask, “Now what’s this about food—you starving yourself?”
Adam swallowed while shaking his head. “He brings it in…he eats it. Or dumps it on the floor to attract varmints.”
Charlie spat again. Behind him, I caught a glimpse of Adolph’s horrified face as he tried to see what was going on. Charlie regained my full attention by shoving one of the canteens at me to hold while he unbuttoned the coat. “You can’t get that off him,” I pointed out. “There’s handcuffs—”
“Yeah, well, there’s a trick to them,” Charlie said. “We’ll get to that later….” He spread the coat open and started on Adam’s shirt.
Then everything was overwhelmed by the noise of a pistol firing.
Charlie’s body slumped forward across Adam, except for what sprayed out from the remains of his head. I stumbled backwards a step, keeping just enough balance I didn’t end helpless on my back. Yeager towered over me, pistol braced for a second shot.
All I could think was how much I didn’t want to die. I didn’t seem to have much choice about it, though…and then I heard Adam’s roar of fury. “Fine, kill the man who could only moan and wring his hands! Of all the worthless greenhorns…donkeys have more sense!” He was almost frothing at the mouth—as if he had moisture to spare for such nonsense.
Yeager flipped the pistol around and swung its butt at me. I ducked and stumbled sideways, almost falling on top of Charlie’s body. Yeager grabbed my collar with his left hand, dragging me forward over both Charlie and Adam. He swung the pistol again and I lunged with all my strength towards the way out. By the time he recovered his balance I was free and in the open air; he spun around to find himself facing Kunst instead, who stood seemingly frozen with shock, a cupful of broth in his hands.
Kunst got the blows I’d avoided, two of them full in the face, and dropped the cup. I heard its enameled tin be crushed under Yeager’s boot—no mending that. Thinking of the wasted broth made my stomach turn over, or maybe it was what had gone before…. I grabbed at Kunst’s belt and pulled him back out of the mine, as much to have him for a shield as to get him away from Yeager. Everyone seemed to be shouting at once, and the confusion was overwhelming….
Herr Fischer’s voice rose over everything, resonant as the command of God Almighty. “Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht!”
There was silence, except for the persistent ringing in my ears.
They were still ringing ten minutes later, by which time the camp was restored to order, though with none of its former good-humored camaraderie. Oscar and Adolph were apparently burying Charlie; I didn’t think they’d bothered to wait for orders. Karl and Rudy sat close together in silence, casting occasional wary glances around them. Herr Fischer tended to Kunst, whose right eye had swollen almost shut and seemed to be weeping blood. Yeager cleaned and reloaded all his guns, glaring at me the whole time. I hunched down against a rock, bound hands dangling between my knees, trying to look as idiotish as Adam had made me out, and thinking over the quick exchange of words I’d had with Kunst before Herr Fischer had pulled him away. Kunst had hissed around a mouthful of blood, “Lucky your friend’s so quick-witted.”
“What?” I’d whispered, still half-dazed from all that had happened.
“He’d have killed you else, that’s what.” He’d glanced at me again, managed the shadow of a smile, and added, “You make me think of Aeschylus—the Oceanides’ last speech.”
Herr Fischer, coming up behind us both, had muttered in his turn, “Ja. Foolishness.” But Kunst had still been smiling as he turned away.
Well, there are schools as good in Pennsylvania as any in New England—and even, I supposed, in Germany. It shouldn’t have surprised me. What was more, Kunst’s comment had unlocked my memory. The lines I couldn’t remember a few days before—hadn’t wanted to remember—pounded like columns of soldiers through my brain now. Hephaestus muttering, “Kinship and comradeship are fearsome powers,” in sulky protest at the start of the play; and at the very end—the speech Kunst had mentioned—the fragile, birdlike Daughters of the Ocean, threatened with Zeus’ mighty thunderbolts if they did not leave Prometheus’ side but replying with gentle dignity, “I choose to share what comes to him; do not urge me to break faith with my friend.” It wasn’t much of a defense against thunderbolts—or bullets, for that matter—but that had never been the point.
It wasn’t as hard as I’d expected to get back to Adam. I simply waited until Yeager finally walked over to the fire, then slipped into the mine’s shadowed entrance quietly. Inside was still thick with the smell of gunsmoke and blood; Oscar and Adolph had done their best to tidy away the evidence of murder, but they couldn’t purge the air of its memories.
When I was a few steps inside the mine, a faint scrape of metal on stone surprised me. Once I realized I’d kicked the tin cup Yeager had squashed, I tracked it down and pocketed it. Nothing this useful had come my way since Fischer’s handkerchief, and I wasn’t taking the risk that Yeager would grab it during his next visit.
Adam didn’t stir as I got closer to him, which at least put Charlie out of my mind for the moment. He was buttoned back up again. Oscar might have done that, or Adolph, but neither one of them was responsible for the length of string stretched over the front of the coat and tucked under its buttons. From the first I suspected the string was meant to keep them from being undone again, and I was right—it was knotted around each button’s shank, holding the buttonholes as well as the coat itself closed. A ‘flair for being cruel,’ indeed. If Yeager had given as much attention to practical inventions as he did to things like this he might have been another Edison.
I was still working out Yeager’s knotting technique when Adam opened his eyes. “You’re all right,” he said—an observation, not a question.
“Are you?” An incautious movement jerked the loops around my wrists tight, and I paused and used my teeth to pull them somewhat looser again. I’d never managed to get enough slack to slide my hands out of Kunst’s knots, but at least I learned how to keep them from going to sleep.
“I’ll live,” Adam drawled. There were so many things that were better not added it was hard to know how to reply. After a long awkward pause he added, “I saw faces, people looking in. Who were they?”
“Karl, and later Adolph…oh, and of course you know Kunst….”
His eyebrows came together. “I do?”
“The one Yeager hit. Didn’t you see him in Chicago?”
“Oh, the Pinkerton.” There was a long sigh. “I was hoping he was a hallucination. Of course, by then I was hoping it all was.” That was another statement best not pursued. I began fiddling with the string again; Kunst’s method of tying me up had given me an idea. Adam, busy with his own thoughts, didn’t seem to notice, but said after a little while, “When he came in the last time…yesterday, I suppose it was…he told me he’d be going to Eastgate today. I could see from his expression he planned it for a trap. I should have said so to Charlie. I should have made him leave, not asked him.”
“You did your best. He wouldn’t listen to you,” I said truthfully.
“I should have tried harder. I should have warned you….” His voice began to rise, but before I could hush him he had to cough, which quieted him down again. “I meant to, but then I worked out about the triple point, and what to do with that, and then…it was hard to keep everything straight. Things seem clearer again now. Maybe it’s just the water, but having a plan seems to help….”
That brought me alert very quickly. “A plan? What can I do?”
“Wait, wait….” Now he was the one hushing me. “Nothing, if there’s a chance it would get you hurt. I shouldn’t have called it a plan; it’s just an idea, really. Sort of a last chance at something that matters to me. It may well not work, and even if it does…. Look, I want you to get out of this in one piece, Frank. Promise me you’ll keep yourself safe. I don’t want any more Charlies.”
“Of course.” If he really believed me, that was his problem; I’d do what I thought best, same as always. A cardsharp’s promise is as empty as the desert’s dry.
He nodded, apparently satisfied—or merely resigned to the inevitable. “Now tell me, how are things out there?”
“Everyone’s very edgy. They’re avoiding Yeager if they can.”
“Can’t blame them. Sandro too?”
“He was cleaning Kunst up, and scolding him with it, I think. I heard something like ‘Vassar dumb, Bessie Lou has Dick, Nick anger Mitch.'”
Adam thought that over with a brief quirked smile. “What about ‘Das war sehr dumm. Besser du hättest dich nicht eingemischt. Something like that?”
“Something like that,” I agreed.
“Wish I could be sure who he was calling stupid,” he said, half to himself. “All of us, I suppose…. You’ve said he keeps away from the mine? He’s up on the cliffs, or over at the far side of camp?”
“Well, I want you to get him in here. As soon as you can, I suppose, just in case…and one other thing. Don’t argue about what’s been done—any of it, here or in Chicago. I want him to come to the mine just because I’ve asked to see him, not because he thinks I want something from him.”
“What if just asking isn’t enough to get him in?”
“You’ve got a clever tongue, Frank; you’ll find a way. But he has to come in here still convinced of…well, whatever he believed when he said Yeager should execute me. That’s very important, Frank. The only important thing.”
“I don’t understand how doing it can help you,” I said doubtfully.
“It’s not about helping me, boy. It’s much more important than that. You’ll see.”
More madness, and barbed with it now, the speech seemed to me. On the other hand, mad or not, it was more of a plan than I’d come up with, and even if it was really just a last request, it was still something I could do for him.
In the meantime, I’d remembered another matter entirely. “Charlie said there was a trick to those handcuffs. Do you know what he meant?”
Adam made a strange choking sound which I realized had started out as laughter. “God, I shouldn’t say this with him dead, but…I keep thinking a Bannock might just cut my hand off. Or smash it until you could pull it through the cuff. I’m not sure a Paiute would do that, but a fur-trapper like Charlie’s father—” I must have looked horrified, because he broke off in mid sentence to reassure me. “I said it was a bad joke, Frank. He probably just meant he could jemmy the handcuffs; I’ve been told you can do that to most of them.”
“You mean like jimmying a lock?”
“Sort of.” Adam frowned as he thought back. “I think you were supposed to push a thin bit of metal down into the mechanism and somehow you could get it stuck open, and release the cuff. Not something I ever needed to learn, so I’m a little vague on the details.” He shifted his shoulders, stretching the muscles of his upper back, and sighed. “Of course, there’s the little matter of the thin bit of metal. I think it would need to be thinner than a knife blade, and more flexible. Not that we’ve even got a knife….”
I pulled the remains of the tin cup out of my pocket. It was cheap, flimsy, and certainly thin, especially where its enamel had flaked off. I ran my fingers along the edge of its bottom where it had split, then put it into Adam’s hand. “We’ve got this.”
His fingers explored the metal carefully. “Think you can do something with it?”
I felt the old familiar smile, the wicked grin of a gambler who’s spotted his next mark. “Oh, yes. I surely do think I can.”
Of course, I didn’t actually do anything before nightfall—too risky, since I couldn’t be sure Yeager wasn’t about to haul me out again. I wasn’t even able to try out my ideas about the string on Adam’s coat, so once I’d put the broken cup with the bag of jerky at the far end of the mine we were pretty much back to killing the time with talk. My talk, naturally; I wasn’t going to let Adam dry himself out again, not after seeing the look in Charlie’s eyes. Fortunately, Adam wanted to listen. Now that he knew who I was, he seemed curious about me again—or rather, not about me, but about my family. About my sisters, to begin with. So I told him about them, beginning with the dimly remembered days when I’d also been under Miss Norton’s care; told him about how Connie loved every sort of puzzle, but neglected her dolls to look after us; about Pru who, in the safety of the schoolroom, quietly wrote limericks that were funnier than the rhymes of Mr. Lear.
After that the conversation drifted on to my other companions in those days. Well, my other companion—when I was very young the bootboy was the only male servant in the household except for Mr. Eaton, and it was understood, though never approved of, that I found him a more interesting playmate than I did my sisters. What no one knew (or if any of the servants knew, they never told my father or Miss Norton) was that the bootboy showed me his secret way out of the back garden into the alley, and introduced me to his friends in the mews. The grooms and stableboys there led much more interesting lives than either of us, of course. Instead of a predictable household routine they had lives which plunged from frantic activity to boredom and back again depending on when the owners of the horses in their charge decided to go out riding or called for their carriages. I didn’t envy them when they were scrambling to get a whole family’s mounts saddled and ready for an outing—that was hot and hard work, and dangerous sometimes too—but while the horses were gone the stableboys in particular had some fascinating ways of passing empty time. Well, fascinating to me, anyway. In short, they put my feet on the road to perdition I’d been exploring ever since—and I knew I’d still be grateful to them even when my inevitable messy end finally caught up with me.
Miss Norton taught us the basics of chance, of course—she had a passion for every branch of mathematics and logic, and a knack for making their principles clear to a young but curious child—but her examples, naturally enough in a minister’s house, relied heavily on picking socks at random from a jumbled drawer or rearranging different-colored blocks. Somehow the same principles became much more interesting to me when I applied them to the matter of dice. For a week or two I would gladly have done nothing but play craps twenty-four hours a day, and then the oldest groom introduced me to poker. I don’t think I’ve bothered rolling the bones since.
The thing is, if the dice are fair, there isn’t much real challenge to a craps game, and if they aren’t, there’s even less. Once you know the odds in craps, the dice do all the rest. Poker, now—pure probability’s only part of the game in poker, though an important part. With an even-rolling pair of dice, the odds don’t change from roll to roll, even if it sometimes seems they should, but put three different people in the same situation in a poker game, and they’ll likely do three different things. Outguessing that is also a sort of probability, but a much harder sort to put numbers to, and that’s what I love about poker. That and the fact I was good at it, right from the start. It came as naturally to me—the easy-to-figure part and the other both—as rhymes came to Pru.
For the first time in my life, people looked at me with respect—with awe, even.
I was careful; I rationed it out like candy, the way Mrs Hutchings always did “for your own good.” But it was sweet stuff, learning that I could outthink men who were out to outthink me, that there was somewhere I could always have the upper hand if I was careful and shrewd and kept my head. I was lucky that the head groom, a cautious gambler himself, considered the most important lesson one could learn about poker was the art of when to get up from the table. To him a session of poker was structured the way Miss Norton played her chess—the end game mattered most. It was good knowledge in the back alleys of New York City and a lifesaver once I went West. People don’t generally shoot you for bad judgment when you’re playing chess, after all. And you haven’t really won anything unless you’re allowed—or alive—to keep it.
Anyway, I had plenty of funny poker stories to amuse Adam with, including the whole tale of how I’d put the bite on the man who’d cleaned out the mews with a set of loaded dice and some clever patter. Even at the tender age of nine I’d guessed that a really shrewd gambler wouldn’t be wasting his time on a bunch of stableboys with all of the city to feed off. The head groom and I tracked him down and got him where I wanted him—at a poker table, trying to impress a bunch of older, wilier thugs. Yes, I was lucky with the first few hands; lucky enough I had all the time I needed to work out enough tells to carry me through the rest of the session. It was peanuts for the big bugs, of course, but serious money for the wanna-be, and a fortune for a nine-year-old, even after I returned the stableboys their losses. And for once, it had been safe to go all out (or all in!); the big bugs were amused enough by it all they were going to protect me, win or lose, at least as long as they remembered who I was. A glorious day, that one; all these years later I’ve never had a more satisfying session.
Adam laughed until he wheezed, but fell asleep not long after, leaving me to think over all the things I hadn’t told him—things I hadn’t much thought about for several years, as busy as I’d been staying alive. It surprised me how clear my memories of home still were, all this time later. You’d think I’d have managed to forget, in five years of only looking forward to my next meal.
There was the matter of the bootboy, for example. As I’ve already said, he was as close as I had to a friend for several years. Then, somehow—I never learned the ins and outs of it all—he riled my baby sister, and she got him dismissed “without a character,” which sounded ominous even to a ten-year-old. Whatever it was he did, I was pretty sure he hadn’t tried to kiss her; I think she said he had because she knew it would get him into the worst possible trouble, which was little Charity all over. To give her credit, she probably had no idea why kissing was so bad, but I never heard her sound anything but pleased about the consequences. No one spoke up for Billy—not even his uncle, Mr. Eaton. Not even me. I shouldn’t have seen him again, except Mr. Eaton wasn’t his only useful relative. His father’s uncle was an old friend of the head groom in the mews where I learned poker, so the next time I ventured over, there was Billy helping with the horses with only a sulky look on his face to show for what had happened. Things were never the same between us again, of course. If he’d ever met Herr Fischer, he’d probably have become a Social Revolutionary in less time than it takes to say the words. For all I knew, he had—there had to be a few of them who weren’t German, after all.
Then there was Mrs. Hutchings’ nephew—not that I ever met him. All the same, it seemed like he made quite a difference to me, back when I was turning fifteen. It was almost to one of the holidays—Thanksgiving or Christmas, I don’t remember which—and I’d just been thrown out of my fifth school in two and a half years. I can remember that I was more annoyed about not getting to finish translating one of Cicero’s speeches than I was afraid of what anyone would say about my premature arrival home. I was so annoyed, in fact, that I actually went on translating it on my own the afternoon of my arrival. I was in the library, surrounded by an array of open books, when Mrs. Hutchings found me. “I hear you’ve just been sent home again,” she said. As usual, she ended the sentence with a sniff.
“I like learning things well enough,” I muttered. Even I could hear the sulky defensiveness in my voice. “It’s the schools I can’t stand.”
“I dare say,” she said with another sniff, and came all the way into the room. As she began to dust the shelved books, she added in a scarcely warmer tone, “My nephew liked ‘learning things well enough.’ O’course, he didn’t have a fine library or anyone to teach him, so he went off and got himself made cabin boy on a China clipper. Said it was the best way he could think to get an education and not be a charge on the family while he did it.”
“And did he?” I couldn’t help being a little curious.
Her voice went flat and quiet. “Reckon he might have, ‘cepting he got washed overboard and drowned when he was seventeen.” Stepping back from the bookshelves, she put her hands on her hips and looked me over hard, face set in her customary scowl. Surprisingly gently, she added, “He would have been very happy at any of the schools to which you’ve been sent.”
So when my father’s reputation, a change in headmaster, and an unexpected word of recommendation from Mr. Miller got me a second chance at Andover, I didn’t spend all my spare time there sniffing out the local poker games. I even did some tutoring of the younger boys whose parents couldn’t wait until they were fourteen to get them out from underfoot. Even when I got to Harvard, with its vast opportunities for succumbing to temptation, I kept a curb on my cardplaying—just doing enough to keep in practice. A good thing I didn’t stop altogether, as it turned out, and no doubt Mrs. Hutchings still compared me to her nephew and felt I came up short. But at least I had tried, for a while. The nephew, perhaps, might have forgiven me.
As it turned out, Yeager wasn’t the one who fetched me out of the mine. Adolph poked a cautious head into the entrance and called softly, “Junge, komm essen solange es noch heiss ist.” If I hadn’t learned to pick out the German for “eat,” the smell of the stew would still have been a clear enough translation. The voice woke Adam as well; he turned his head to see who was there and said, when I seemed to hesitate, “Go on. Starving yourself won’t do me any good. Talk to Herr Fischer if you can, remember.”
I had my opportunity to do that right away. No sooner had Kunst untied me than Herr Fischer beckoned me over to his bedroll, where he produced a flat bottle with a medicinal-looking label and poured some of its contents onto a fresh linen handkerchief. As he dabbed at my bruises, I heard him mutter, “Between you and Hannes I use this witch hazel like water.”
“Hannes?” I mumbled in confusion.
“Hans…Johann…John. Your Mister Kunst. Now, that is better, yes?” Whatever was on that handkerchief stung, but afterwards I had to admit my bruises felt less sore. Getting such attention surely was good; unlike Kunst, I’d had these bruises two whole days before Herr Fischer noticed. No time like the present, I decided.
“Thank you, sir; much better…Herr Fischer, may I ask you something?” As he turned back to me, I realized he was actually shorter than I was, though a little more stout. Like me, he had no gunbelt; unlike me, presumably that was by choice—and any of us, even me, could probably take him in a fist fight. Not much of an ally against a group of younger, stronger men who’d been friends for years. In Adam’s place, I’d have tried working on Adolph—the man doing the cooking’s always useful—but maybe Adam knew something I didn’t. Well, of course he did; I just hoped it was something useful. “Adam—Mr. Cartwright—would like you to see him.”
“Maybe so. But, I see him rather not.” I’d kept my voice quiet, as Kunst kept his whenever we discussed going inside the mine. Herr Fischer, to my surprise, spoke normally, and didn’t bother to check on Yeager first.
“Please…it would only be a few minutes of your time, and it would mean so much to him.”
“Why?” I reminded myself that he carried no gun and wouldn’t likely hurt me before I put some spite into my voice. “Are you afraid he could do you some harm while he’s helpless in there?”
The older man gave me a steady, cool look. “It is what he has already done that is the harm. There is no more to say between us.”
“If you’re so sure he won’t change your mind, why be afraid to go in?”
“What do you know of what you ask? Listen, now. The ladies who stand in the doors of the drinking houses, in the low-cut dresses….”
“Saloon girls?” I ventured when he seemed lost for words.
“Ja. The saloon girls. Such was my mother. My father, who can say? Mutter herself never told. And for such as I, in Germany, is little…standing. The baccalaureate, the universities, even the good skilled trades—all are closed. Those I worked among…we had not much in common but the work. The way I spoke, the things I liked, they made the others shy, or else they laughed. And so it was my whole life. I got respect and honor from those around me, but friendship—not much. And then I met an American, they said a miner from the West, and found that music made his face light up like mine, and that he liked the books I liked—not just the great, the serious books, but also the little ones. The stories of Alice; Heinrich Heine’s poems. Light things, silly things, to make us laugh. I go to London, after I must leave Germany, and I meet him again, many times. When I am sick, he take me from London to his little house on the moors so I recover, and I meet his wife. Never before has a lady like his wife spoken to me as a friend. Never before did I know a man who thought like us but such a lady had for wife. And the daughter! Well…. I wonder, sometimes, but always I say to myself, he will not put his wife, his child in danger so he can hunt a foreign writer. He is as he says, my friend, and they, my family. But I was wrong. All that…was false.” He looked down at his boots, and then at the western mountains, blinking hard a moment. “Must he have hated me very much, to risk so much to catch me. But also I can hate, or at least protect myself. I do not offer to watch him beg for mercy he thinks I am so weak to give. I do not so easily forgive, and I will not see him. Why should I?”
“Because he’s the father of a little girl who loves you very much.”
He was silent a long time before his hand went to the pocket where I’d seen him put the ribbon, and the bit of paper with her note to him. “Very well. For Lieschen-who-might-have-been-Alice, I do this one time. In the morning, I go. Does that satisfy you?”
Mentioning Elizabeth had been a low blow, and I could see the pain in his face. I might have regretted it, except Adam had seemed so urgent, and that was all I chose to care about.
By the time I’d finished my talk with Herr Fischer and gulped down some dinner, Yeager sat brooding in the entrance to the mine again. Karl and Rudy, I was interested to see, were still muttering together at a little distance from him; their Skat game seemed to be over. Oscar had apparently lent Adolph one of his pamphlets, and it was Kunst’s turn to do some gun-cleaning. I decided to exercise the better part of valor by staying quietly nearby and not looking for trouble—it wasn’t as if I could do much for Adam with Yeager still awake.
The daylight lasted long enough I was able to get Alice across her chessboard and made a Queen. I was about to close the book, still wondering why my father had chosen to ban it from his house, when I noticed one of the illustrations had been altered. Originally it had shown Alice sitting between the Red and White Queens, but a few careful pencil strokes had turned Alice into a different little girl with darker hair and a somewhat squarer jaw. The Red Queen was unchanged, but the White Queen looked considerably younger and prettier than in other illustrations and was carefully labelled “Mama.”
Two other engravings had been modified—I found them easily, since the book had often been held open at each place. Humpty Dumpty, who had explained all the unusual words in “Jabberwocky” to Alice, now bore a definite resemblance to Adam, along with the annotation “Papa,” and the White Knight’s altered whiskers exactly matched Herr Fischer’s beard and mustache. As on the flyleaf, Elizabeth’s word for him was “Onkel.” After seeing those little sketches, I couldn’t bear to keep the book any longer. When we began to assemble for supper, I carefully slipped it back into Herr Fischer’s bedroll.
There was no fresh beer and no happy singing that evening. Yeager and the others had not, of course, gone all the way to Eastgate, but I had the feeling that unlimited alcohol would not have brightened the camp’s mood. When Kunst began our nighttime routine somewhat earlier than usual no one appeared surprised. Even Yeager scarcely seemed interested in checking the ropes on my wrists. It occurred to me he wouldn’t be so smug if he knew what I could achieve with my hands tied, and that thought probably made me the most cheerful man in the camp.
Once inside, it didn’t take me long to reknot the string on Adam’s coat in a series of slip knots which I could undo easily even in the dark—and redo almost as quickly if I had to. I felt real satisfaction at finding such a simple way around Yeager’s little trap.
That boost to my confidence became necessary as I began feeling out the handcuffs. I’d looked at them long and hard in the mine’s dim light, but I’d have to try opening them at night, by touch, so I needed to know them not with my eyes but with my fingers. You might think a cardsharp, used to looking at one thing while manipulating something else, would have an advantage at this. You might even be right, but trust me, it wasn’t much of one. Experience in picking locks—a skill seldom called for while playing poker—would have been far more useful. What was worse, to succeed in opening the adjustable cuff I first had to squeeze it tighter around Adam’s wrist, so a botched attempt would leave him in a worse state than before. I certainly didn’t want that happening before I had even tried to make the little tool to jam the cuff’s lock open. Thus my pokes and prods were done with utmost caution, until Adam finally complained that I was tickling him.
Once I’d settled him on his back again I brought him water from the back of the mine—only three trips worth; every night there seemed to be a little less collected than the night before. Finally, I retrieved the squashed tin cup and spent several minutes turning it in my hands, feeling where it was stiff and where it was cracked so I could decide how to make it useful. Being stepped on had split its bottom, which seemed an obvious place to begin.
As I scraped the cup across the stone floor to try and remove its last traces of enamel, Adam roused himself to ask, “Working on making the shim?”
“Think that’ll do the trick?”
I shrugged out of instinct, but remembered to say, “Could do. Hope so, anyway.”
“Not as much as I do,” Adam said, with a somewhat forced laugh. “Wish I could help…I’d rather be doing something for myself than begging for hope from someone else.”
“Oh, but hope is always a gift—Prometheus gave it to mankind in exchange for our foreknowledge of death.”
“Interesting trade.” This time Adam’s chuckle sounded more sincere, but then I could almost hear a frown drift across his face. “Wait a minute. Wasn’t hope trapped in Pandora’s box? The anodyne for all its other troubles, or else the worst trouble of them all, depending on your point of view? I never could decide which.”
“Different version of the myth—that was Hesiod’s story. Aeschylus told it differently.” And as I worked away on the cup, bending and flexing the base to try and break off a narrow strip of it, I told Adam the story of Prometheus Bound. It’s a curious mixture—half geography lesson, half frantic cry for justice—even for those familiar with other Athenian tragedies, and must have been stranger still for a man like Adam, whose idea of drama was a play by Shakespeare. I couldn’t do justice to Aeschylus’ poetry, but Adam heard me out with patience, apparently fascinated by something so unlike the more familiar myths where Zeus—however over-fond of seducing maidens—remained both glorious and just. He’d sounded honestly disappointed to learn that only isolated fragments—many no longer than a single line—remained of the rest of the Prometheia. Then he went peacefully to sleep, while I worked on, trying to have something ready to test when he woke up again.
In the morning, Herr Fischer had finished his breakfast before I even came out of the mine. Having given his word, he obviously wanted to get the visit to Adam over as quickly as possible. I was groggy, ached all over, and had no energy to argue. My first attempt at the shim had been too wide to fit into the lock properly; when I’d tried to file it narrower on the stone floor, it had crumbled into short and useless fragments. Adding injury to insult, on my final effort with the longest remaining bit the metal skidded off the handcuffs and across my left thumb, drawing blood from a jagged cut. It was pure luck it hadn’t slashed Adam’s wrist instead.
I was roused from those dismal reflections by the sound of Herr Fischer examining the supplies in our wagon. Yeager noticed, too. In a sharper tone than I’d heard anyone use to Herr Fischer, he snapped, “Don’t take in a full canteen. He’s on a ration, just like the rest of us.”
It was the first I had heard of water rationing for anyone other than Adam—and evidently the first any of the others had heard of it too. Herr Fischer gave Yeager a mild, almost quizzical look before turning back to the hanging canteens. Selecting one, he uncorked it and deliberately poured water out of it onto the ground. We all stared at this willful squandering of our most precious supply, jaws dropped in shock, until Fischer recorked the near-empty canteen and shook it so we could all hear how little still remained inside. “Is that appropriate, Herr Yeager?”
Everyone could hear the sarcasm in his voice; even Yeager seemed taken aback. With a curt nod, he turned away to his own business and didn’t watch as we went past him into the mine. Fischer hung back at first, wrinkling his nose at what I’d long ago stopped noticing, and was still several feet from Adam when he first spoke. “Freund oder Feind?”
“A man can’t be both?” Adam managed to whisper.
The little German saw Adam glance towards me and accepted the change in language. “A friendly enemy? Yes, you might want it so.” He came a few steps closer before continuing, “You lie there like Brunhilde. Perhaps you expect me to ring you with ever-burning fire before we part?”
“Frank thinks I’m Prometheus.”
Fischer’s lips twitched slightly. “And I Zeus, and Yeager the eagle? Perhaps. You are stubborn enough, that’s so. But not immortal also—try to remember that.” He finally reached Adam’s side and looked a long silent moment down at him. I saw his expression change, but when he spoke again, it was in the same calm and certain voice. “Besides, you are the faithbreaker, not the firebringer. You would make us all to cattle.”
“Men aren’t cattle. Even rich men, Sandro.”
“No, rich men are not cattle. They are leeches. Parasites…as Yeager knew you. He recognized your…rich…name.”
Adam tried to shrug. “This mine…was his uncle’s…guess he still thinks I…killed the man to jump…his claim.”
Fischer knelt, slowly enough I could almost feel the stiffness in his knees, and offered Adam a long, slow drink of water before going on. “I did not intend it to be this way.”
“No? But you’ve been writing in praise of attentat for years. When your Congress voted to endorse the principle, you were delighted—and when I didn’t agree, that was when you began to believe I wasn’t your true friend.”
Fischer’s voice was changing, beginning to hesitate. “No. I never wanted this.” He tried to put the canteen to Adam’s lips again.
Adam turned his head aside, refusing the offered water. “You did, Sandro. This is what your ‘propaganda by the deed’ looks like. Slower than having my legs blown off, but time does strange things to a man who’s dying hard. It likely seemed no easier for your Russian namesake…. Is this how you want your brave new men to be?”
“How else, then? Should they bare their breasts to the monsters who shoot them?”
“I never said that…I know fighting can’t always be avoided—look at our civil war. But this is attentat, and attentat is murder…this is what people who have chosen to be murderers learn to do, Sandro. Do you really believe men like Yeager can build a paradise for you?”
To my amazement, he began to giggle—an ugly, near-hysterical noise. Fischer hissed something in German, then slapped Adam hard across his mouth to smother the sound. Before I could react Fischer was already wiping Adam’s face clean. “He shouldn’t hear you laughing,” he said, sounding for the moment like a ruffled nursemaid. “So, here was the road to Damascus you told me once about?”
Adam made a soft grunt of agreement. I could tell he was still low on moisture for speech.
“A pity your conversion was so incomplete,” Fischer said, loudly enough to raise an echo. He’d put down the canteen while they talked; now he looked around for it.
I found the canteen first and stumbled over to him, holding it out. “Please,” I whispered. “Do something for him….”
He brushed me aside without a glance. “Calfling,” he muttered, and stomped out into the sunlight. For a moment I wanted to run after him, tackle him flat and smash in his skull. Slowly I realized what was still in my hand. He’d done some juggling with the canteens, somehow; this one was heavy, nearly full—several days’ worth of Yeager’s rations.
Adam’s eyes were closed now, his face peaceful. I stepped around him as quietly as I could and took the canteen to the back of the mine.
Even though Yeager might come in at any minute, I didn’t feel like waiting to start my second attempt at a shim. There were enough scattered rocks close to Adam that it was easy to find a place where I could hide what I was doing if someone came in. I settled myself down and began trying to break a second, narrower strip of tin off the battered cup. It was surprisingly more difficult to bend the metal so close to its edge, and my sore thumb wasn’t helping matters.
“Trouble is, you’re work-hardening the metal every time you bend it. That’s why the last piece was so brittle.”
I’d been dividing my attention between the mine entrance and my work so completely that Adam’s voice startled me. He was watching me through half-closed eyelids with a faint smile on his face, much the way he’d supervised my game of solitaire—what, ten days ago?—when we’d still been feeling each other out. It had been irritating then and was almost more so now, despite our changed circumstances. What made it worst of all was that I knew he was probably right. He was the engineer; all my education offered us seemed to be a bunch of tired old poems. I repressed a desire to curse and said as mildly as I could manage, “What do you suggest I do instead?”
“The best thing would be to cut that with metal snips,” Adam commented, as if we had a tinker’s full kit with us.
“Maybe I should try biting it off?” I sneered.
“No, I wouldn’t recommend that….” By now Adam sounded half-asleep again. He didn’t close his eyes, though, but gave himself a half-shudder, half-shake that made his lips tighten in momentary pain. “Sandro’s right,” he muttered. “I do feel more like Brunhilde than Prometheus…though I can’t recall Brunhilde complaining that her arms ached after Siegfried woke her up.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, and apparently didn’t need to say so; Adam glanced at me and went on to explain, “It’s from an opera—a German opera, by Herr Richard Wagner. Part of his great cycle about the Nibelung’s Ring. Brunhilde disobeys her father Wotan, the chief god, and protects Wotan’s mortal son. He puts her to sleep and surrounds her with magic fire so only a great hero will win her for a wife.”
“My father didn’t allow us to attend theater or the opera.” This was, in fact, quite an understatement. The one clear memory I had of Mama was how she had sat, sobbing quietly, while my father paced up and down the room, informing her loudly of—well, something my four-year-old brain hadn’t been able to absorb, but I did know it had to do with operas, and how wicked she was for wanting to see them. Connie might have known the entire story, but I’d never dared ask her, either then or after Mama’s death.
“A shame to live so near something like the Academy of Music and not be able to enjoy it. Mind you, plenty of people disapprove of The Valkyrie. Your father couldn’t have been the loudest against it…wonder how he would have liked that?”
I shrugged. More than most, I had a good understanding of my father’s pronouncements against immoral conduct. To try and turn Adam’s interest away from my family, I asked, “Didn’t you say you saw those operas with your wife? What did you make of them?”
“There was plenty to shock the audience, I’ll admit, but the music—the music has its own messages, and they’re not always what Wagner intended, perhaps. Great music tends to be like that….”
“I wouldn’t know,” I said, hoping to shorten the discussion. I might as well have tried to stop the sun coming up.
“There was a time in my life when if a man could make beautiful music, I’d excuse away just about anything else he might do—robbery, assault, maybe even murder. That was why I left the Ponderosa—well, one of the reasons. There were others…but I was so hungry for the things I didn’t have here—music most of all—that I had to go. Starved souls don’t make good decisions…I did a lot of foolish things those last few years, but when I finally realized I was getting worse than foolish, that…that settled matters for me. Thank God, my family understood—but I’d have gone without their blessing.” He looked up at me again, eyes dark under half-lowered lids. “Somehow I don’t think that was how coming West was for you.”
I made a sharp noise halfway between laughter and choking. “Oh, no. There was no blessing in how I came West.”
He waited a long moment to be sure I wouldn’t continue before asking, “You argued with your father?”
“I—argue with my father? He never gave me the chance!” Suddenly all the anger I hadn’t allowed myself to feel for five long years was surging through me. “Do you really want to know why my father sent me away? It wasn’t all the times I got thrown out of school for gambling…whenever that happened he just had Tom, or Jack, or whoever the secretary of the month was write another letter, find another school. He never said a word to me…. No, it was an essay. An essay about how evolution might have been an elegant way for God to accomplish His Creation…. I wrote it for a debate we had at Harvard, and I sent Mr. Miller—your friend Mr. Miller—a copy because I thought he might be interested in it. I guess he was…he forwarded it on to my father, and my father….” But I was too choked up, too furious, to continue. I spun away to face the tunnel wall, fists clenched, trying to get control of myself again.
“Go on,” Adam finally prompted me.
“There was a telegram to Harvard summoning me home the day he got that essay,” I said without turning around. “I was on a train west within a week. My oh-so-righteous father never cared what devil’s games I played to amuse myself, but let me set myself up against his theology and I was no longer his son.”
“And you had how much time left to go, at Harvard?” His voice was still soft, still kind.
“Half a term and my senior year,” I said. Now I was fighting back tears which were even hotter than my anger. “I was nineteen.”
“I see,” he said gently, and at that I did break down, though I couldn’t even do that properly. Instead of howling out my rage and fury I slid limply down the rough stone wall until I was huddled on the ground, arms around my head, sobbing until I gave myself the start of a bad sinus headache. Adam waited until I was quiet to go on, as gently as before, “Let me guess. You never told anyone that until now.”
“Would you?” I sniffed as I said it, almost like Mrs. Hutchings.
“Actually, yes. Maybe not for several years, I admit. But a friend of mine once showed me that you have to be able to face a memory like that. If you can’t let it out and look at it, it’ll eat you away from inside.”
“I suppose so,” I mumbled, and wiped my nose on my sleeve so as not to soil our precious handkerchief.
“And I suppose it never occurred to you that once you were twenty-one there was nothing to keep you from going East again?”
It hadn’t, of course. I’d never even considered the possibility. “You must think I’m very foolish.”
“I don’t think you’re foolish at all,” he snapped, and I couldn’t mistake his sincerity. “There are several things I’d like to say to your father, but that’s another matter. And however selfish it may be, I’m very glad you stayed here. So’s Jimmy, I’d imagine.”
Slowly I uncurled myself from the ground and stood up. I hadn’t had time to worry about Jimmy for several days, I realized. For the first time it occurred to me that I might not see him again—and that he mattered a lot more to me now than my father ever had. The world began to seem an easier thing to face with that thought.
By the time I pulled myself together Adam seemed to have gone back to sleep. I ran one hand across his forehead and was glad to notice it was slightly moist again, and cooler at least than the air around us. In all this time, no one had disturbed us, so I felt daring enough to take the squashed cup closer to the front of the mine and study it in brighter light, hoping to notice something new and helpful.
Rather to my surprise, I did. As well as cracking open the bottom of the cup, being squashed had distorted its walls. There’d been a seam hidden under the enamel, running up from the base to the rim, where the tin had been filed thinner and overlapped. That seam was badly strained now, and the enamel mostly flaked away. If I refolded the cup—so—and flattened it again, I might get…I would get exactly what I wanted. Marking with a finger the place where I wanted the new crease to be made, I headed back into the shadows.
It took two or three minutes’ pounding with my boot heel and some fancy work with my teeth, but I got the job done to my satisfaction unexpectedly easily. I left the mangled remains of the cup beside the bag of jerky, and carried the new shim back to Adam. He opened his eyes as I approached and seemed to be about to ask me something—what, I wasn’t sure, because I couldn’t keep from interrupting him to announce, “This time I think it’ll work. Shall I try now, or later?”
Adam’s smile was like the sun coming up. “What do you think?” he asked, and was already struggling onto his left side, away from the light, before I could answer. I circled around him to reach the cuffs; he twisted his head back awkwardly to say, “Once it’s open, we’ll need to tie something to the empty cuff so I can get my arms back under me in a hurry. I think a sleeve off my shirt would be best.”
“Cross that bridge when we come to it,” I grunted, and squatted down beside him. I’d gone over what I had to do now so many times in my head it seemed almost easy…slip the shim between the bow of the cuff and the lock, tighten the cuff slightly so the lock rode up over the shim, then keep pushing the shim down while pulling the bow back, so the cuff became looser. And it all went exactly as it should have—at least until my thumb slipped and the shim flipped up into the air, landing with a faint clink somewhere in the distance. I sucked on my thumb—it was bleeding again—while I tried to guess where to start searching for the tiny scrap of metal.
“‘S all right,” Adam mumbled. “Opened up enough to get my hand out, I think. Try first, anyway.”
It almost wasn’t enough—wouldn’t have been, if some of the skin hadn’t come off Adam’s knuckles. As he finally spread his arms out he gave a moan compounded of pain and prayer and endless gratitude, then said, “I told you it would work,” as proudly as if he had planned it all himself.
“Do you always have to be right?”
“Of course. It’s an eldest brother’s duty.” Even with his back to me I could feel his grin get wider.
“You’re not my elder brother,” I pointed out.
“Old habits die hard,” he shrugged. “Now, can you undo that string? We need to get the coat open and get to my shirtsleeve, remember.” He rolled onto his back and sighed in pleasure as he flattened his body against the floor.
I’d expected to still have the shim for ripping out the shoulder seam. Now it was gone I had to run to the back of the mine for the cup, with the only other sharp edges available. By the time I came back Adam had worked out the right way to loosen the string and was starting to unbutton his coat. “You’ll have to help me sit up,” he grumbled. “Just lifting this arm feels like heavy labor. I hate“—but what it was he hated stayed private; instead, he offered me an embarrassed smile. “And of course the minute I’m sitting up I’ll be pestering you to do everything back up again.”
He was trying to laugh at himself; better than being afraid, less dangerous than daring to hope. I tried to play along with him. “So why is it whenever I do something good for you, you make me undo it again so quickly? A suspicious person might think you didn’t appreciate being cared for.”
Adam stretched again, a long complicated movement that involved his torso and arms and even, I suspected, his legs despite the ropes binding his knees. “Don’t worry, I appreciate it,” he drawled. “Just never for very long, I suppose. Maybe I’m too used to worrying about everyone else. You saw what happened to Charlie….”
And, just like Charlie, there I was kneeling with my back to the tunnel mouth. I glanced over my shoulder and scooted sideways enough so I’d see anyone coming in before I went on picking at the seam of Adam’s shirtsleeve.
He wasn’t finished yet, either. More of his multiple truths seemed intent on coming out, perhaps because he could tell I wasn’t really concentrating on what he was saying, or perhaps because he no longer had the strength to shut them all in. “…Seems like cheating,” I heard him mutter.
“Of all the foolish…this is not like taking a test at school!” I hissed at him as loudly as I dared.
He raised his eyebrows in mock astonishment. “No? Well, I don’t cheat at poker, either.”
“Neither do I.” Not often, anyway. In my opinion the best reason to know how to cheat at poker was to make sure no one else was cheating. Adam didn’t look as convinced of my innocence as I might have liked, but just then the armhole seam gave way with what seemed a deafening rip and we both scrambled to cover him again with Jimmy’s coat, in case. Still no one came. When my heartbeat had slowed down enough that I could hear something else again I went on, only a little more calmly, “But a man who’s trying to kill you is not playing games!”
“His uncle was.” Adam looked entirely unruffled, even a little amused.
“Bother his uncle!” I spat.
He glanced up at me and actually laughed, and I saw the look of wonder spread across his face as he heard himself do so. “Dear sweet Lord,” he said softly. “I never thought…and it took this for me to be able to laugh at that? Pa’s right; there’s a reason for everything.”
Whatever Adam was talking about, I suspected this cure—like his treatment for claustrophobia—was a little extreme, but I wasn’t about to quibble. “Come on, let’s get you sitting up,” I said, and helped him with my hands under his shoulders.
Adam emerged from Jimmy’s coat like a butterfly out of its chrysalis, almost as damp and even more crumpled-looking. I half expected him to shiver, but the air was too warm for that. His hands went first to his face, then to his belt buckle. When I tried to help him unfasten it, he snarled, “Let me finish this by myself, will you?” I ducked my head in agreement and left him alone as he unbuttoned his pants with tentative, fastidious movements. Finally he braced his hands on the ground and pushed himself backwards, breathing hard with the effort. I saw his knees and lower legs slide up through the ropes, saw the jeans gather around his boots, saw him smile as he felt his body begin to slip free—and then he stopped himself. “Good enough,” he said, working hard to keep his voice steady. “Let’s put me back in my box and stop pushing our luck.”
He was still scraping his hands against the floor of the mine, trying to make himself feel clean again after having to handle what he had unavoidably soiled. “Use my shirt,” I said quietly, and when he wanted to protest, added, “They’ll let me change my clothes.”
It didn’t take long to put Adam “back in his box,” partly because we didn’t do it all the way. Jimmy’s coat reached halfway down his thighs, so we could leave his jeans unbuttoned and buckle the belt loosely. He practiced with Yeager’s piece of string until he could loosen or tighten its slip knots around the coat buttons with his eyes closed, and then we finished the job. If sealing that coat back up was like pulling his own cell door shut from the inside for him, he was able to hide it completely—but he must have felt like that. I did, after all.
At least his arms were at his sides now. Just as I’d rehearsed opening those handcuffs in my mind for days, he’d apparently gone over and over what to do once they were opened. With the top of his shirt sleeve tied to the now-empty right side of the handcuffs and the rest of it between his back and the floor, Adam could coil the cuff end up in his right hand and pull his arms into the position Yeager expected without appearing to move, all in less time than it took me to get from the mine entrance to his side. I knew because he made me pretend to be Yeager while he tested it out.
Meanwhile, the patch of sun at the mine’s entrance shrank and shifted and started to stretch in the other direction, and Yeager still hadn’t come. Adam kept glancing towards the light, just as I did, but we didn’t say anything to each other. Speculation seemed…dangerous. Finally we relaxed enough to start swapping quotations again. By now we’d narrowed our sources, by unspoken mutual consent, down to Shakespeare and the Bible, which made us well enough matched that a contest could take us several hours. This one lasted until midafternoon, when Adolph brought a bowl of watery stew up to the mine. There was no one else in sight, so I thought it safe to say, “Ask John—Johann—for fresh clothes?” I mimed unbuttoning my shirt, and showed him the torn knee in my trousers. Adolph nodded and mouthed, “Ja,” as he backed away.
I suspected Adolph was trying to provide the broth Charlie had recommended for Adam, and finding two spoons stacked as one confirmed it for me. Adam raised his eyebrows at the stew, and I said cheerfully, “A hostage should always make it his first priority to befriend the cook.” Putting the bowl on his chest, I propped him up enough with my legs that he could feed himself safely.
“You’ve made a habit of this?”
“Now and again.” Well, twice—the time I’d told him about, and of course when I’d met Jimmy. At times, though, it felt like I’d been a hostage ever since coming out West. Knowing which were the men planning havoc made things easier, not harder, for me.
“Someday you should swap notes with Joe. For some reason—” he glanced up at me and grinned—”no one ever tried it with Hoss, but Joe got kidnapped more than his fair share of times.” Adam spooned up the stew’s juices and nibbled at a small bit of potato before pushing the bowl away slightly. “You’d better have the rest. Anyway, that reminds me….”
He was looking serious now, and suddenly I didn’t want to hear what he had to say. “Wait a minute. There’s something I have at the back for you.”
The piece of jerky I’d left to soak in the basin at the back of the mine was soft and succulent now, and smelt tempting enough for my own mouth to start watering as I brought it out. “Here,” I told Adam. “Don’t try to eat it, just chew out the juice like it was a plug of tobacco.”
“And what do you know about plugs of tobacco?” Adam looked like he could guess the truth—I’ve never chewed tobacco, or even smoked it very often—but nevertheless he did as I suggested. My hope that he’d be distracted from the speech he’d clearly planned was soon dashed, though; only a few minutes later he shifted the jerky so it bulged one cheek out and said firmly, “There’s something I want you to do even if…well, whatever happens here. Linda—my wife—has your sister Prudence’s address. Promise me you’ll write her and let her know you’re still alive—just that. Will you do it?”
“You’ll see to it I do,” I said, trying to smile.
“I hope so…but even if I can’t?”
“‘And Shimei said unto the king, The saying is good: as my lord the king hath said, so will thy servant do.'” I quoted in reply.
“First Kings,” Adam snapped back, “and while it’s flattering of you to compare me to Solomon, I hope you’ll be more obedient than Shimei was.”
I rolled my eyes up to the roof briefly. Absalom and Achitophel, Ishmael, and even Ichabod I expected him to recognize, but Shimei? Ah, well. “Shimei obeyed for three years; you have to admit that’s long enough for me to write one letter.”
Adam snorted softly, and came back with a line from King John—at least he was willing to return to the quotation game. And so, as it doesn’t quite say at the beginning of Genesis, the evening and the morning were the eighth day; the only further interruption was the arrival of my change of clothes.
Our holiday from Yeager came to an end shortly after sunrise. Almost quivering with rage, he came in, stood over Adam and sneered, “I suppose you think you’re clever. Planning it for days, weren’t you?” He dropped his voice and coarsened his accent in savage imitation of Herr Fischer as he continued,”‘I begin to wonder how much in Chicago was play-acted.’ What tale did you spin for him behind my back, eh? And all that chatter about the ancient Greeks—I’m surprised you didn’t invite little Johnny in to play as well. College boys.” By now his jealous venom wasn’t restricted to Adam; I got a fair portion of his angry glare.
Suddenly I understood not only why we’d been left alone so much the day before, but also why Adolph had looked so nervous, yet dared so much. If ‘play-acted’ was Herr Fischer’s new evaluation of events, and he’d said so to Yeager’s face…well, he was a braver man than I. Of course, I’d always known myself for something of a coward.
Adam, however, wasn’t. “Knowin’ of Kane…couldn’t my friend—question…your motives?”
“You think I’m doing this because I loved my uncle?” Yeager laughed. “No one loved my uncle. People loved my mother; they respected my father—for all the good it got him—but they fearedmy uncle, and he was the one who always got his way. I was waiting for him to come home so I could show him what he taught me, and what I thought of him for how he taught it…and you spoiled everything.”
“Because he…died out here.”
Adam was only struggling to gather the wherewithall to speak—I’d fallen asleep, so he’d had no water in several hours—but I knew to Yeager it would sound like he was picking his way around the truth. The idea angered him as much as I feared it would; his reply came back in a shout. “Because you killed him! Oh, they mush-mouthed it, but he wasn’t the kind to just die. We both know that, don’t we…you killed him. Go on, admit it; it changes nothing now.”
The invitation went unanswered; Adam merely looked up at Yeager with an expression of patient curiosity. I suspected he knew quite well how irritating Yeager would find that. Yeager took longer than I expected to break the silence. “So how did you do it? Did you get his rifle and shoot him? Steal his water and leave him to die…like this?” He swung a boot into Adam’s ribs, looking pleased when Adam tried to shift away. “Tell me, dammit, or I’ll shoot you both.”
All Adam could manage were rasping, breathy gasps. “Wanted us to…fight for t’rifle…. Broke it. Left the pieces…out there, somewhere. Pulled him west on…travois…heading for road…. But he died. Don’t know when, where, why…. M’family buried him…after they…found me…. Sheriff…at Salt Flats remembers…said so when I…came through last….”
“His mouth’s too dry for talking,” I said breathlessly. “Let me get something for him to drink, and he can tell you properly.”
Yeager didn’t waste his attention on me; he stared at Adam a moment longer, then went out and fetched a full canteen, from which he tipped some water over Adam’s face, spilling as much as went into his prisoner’s mouth. Adam struggled to catch what he could and ran his swollen tongue over his lips several times before looking up at Yeager again.
“What killed him? How did he die?” Yeager repeated.
“Can’t say. Sun, maybe. Maybe he choked on…being rescued…like I did…. He wanted me to kill him—or wanted me to try….”
Yeager snorted but did not argue. “Did you?”
Adam’s eyelids swept closed. “Don’t…know.” Somehow he made it obvious he had nothing more to say.
Again the silence lasted longer than I expected. “Fine. Leave it there. See if you can wriggle out of this as easily.” Yeager stared intently down at Adam’s face, and for a moment I fancied that if Adam spread his hands out from behind his back I might have a chance—a tiny chance—to tackle Yeager before he recovered from his shock and surprise. Adam had used up his current store of energy, though, and the moment passed unseized. “I’ll even go one better than my uncle. You can lie here and pray for a miracle, or drink this instead.” He poured out most of the rest of the water, leaving a few mouthfuls in the bottom of the canteen, then took a paper packet from his shirt pocket and tipped its contents in. I heard the water slosh around as he shook the canteen briefly before laying it down, its mouth almost touching Adam’s. “Not a painless death, but quicker than the other way would be.”
Adam didn’t even turn to look at it. Yeager, for his part, wasted no time watching, but grabbed me by the arm and pulled me with him towards the entrance. “Hurry up, boy. We’re getting out of here.”
I only managed one backward glance, just long enough to catch Adam’s final, encouraging wink.
Yeager wanted to break camp at once, but Adolph insisted I should have both coffee and porridge. That in turn gave Kunst a chance to untie my hands, and me a chance to relieve myself while my clean clothes were still clean. Not that I lingered over any of it, or tried to delay Yeager more than necessary. No one wanted Yeager away from that mine more than I did—no one outside it, anyway.
They put me up on Charlie’s horse, along with my saddlebags, but not my bedroll or my gunbelt. There was even a full canteen lashed to the saddle, though once Kunst had tied my hands again I couldn’t actually drink from it. The plan, I gathered, was to leave me, the saddlebags, and the canteen by the side of the road, where I could flag down the stagecoach when it came by that afternoon. By then Yeager figured they’d be well south of Salt Flats, almost to Reno and the railroad, while the stagecoach would be heading to Eastgate, so any hue and cry I might raise would come too late to catch them. Trust Yeager to know the stagecoach schedule as well as I did. Come to that, he probably had the departure times for all the trains out of Reno memorized as well.
I had no intention of ending the day in Eastgate, of course. What’s more, I didn’t think I was the only one scheming to upend Yeager’s plans—not given Kunst didn’t bother to secure his carefully measured slipknots with the half-hitches that kept me from unraveling them. Even that might just have been a sign of distraction—my swollen and purpling thumb was clearly worrying him—except that he also whispered to me as he tightened the last slipknot around the pommel of my saddle, “Alea jacta erit.” That misquote of a misquote of Caesar’s famous saying had to mean something. Warning? Promise? Threat? Kunst was planning something risky, anyway, and if it was only a tenth as dramatic as Caesar crossing the Rubicon I could surely make good use of it myself.
Yeager’s snarl broke into my plans. “So he has a sore thumb. I have a headache; you don’t hear me whining. Get moving while it’s cool.”
He set as brisk a pace as the horses could maintain without needing frequent rests. I studied the animals through lowered eyelids. For their age, they were all fairly sound—if Yeager had acquired them from a livery stable in Reno, he’d been luckier than he deserved—but quality horseflesh they weren’t. To the casual eye, Charlie’s horse probably looked much like the rest of the nags as he plodded along. I wasn’t fooled. The beast was too lazy, or too experienced, to waste energy on a hot day in the desert, but if I asked him for speed, he’d have it.
The trick would be knowing when to ask. Not even a racehorse could outrun a bullet; I didn’t plan to make my exit in a burst of gunfire—unless it was all directed at other people. “The dice will have been thrown,” eh? No point in rushing things. Cautiously, I began to loosen the slipknots Kunst had tied.
Trouble was, it was hard to stay alert. No one was talking, and there was nothing much to look at; it was hot, and I was sleepy. Nothing surprising about that—even the horses seemed to be half asleep, and they were doing all the work, after all. I wasn’t even guiding mine; Kunst held the reins as my mount ambled alongside his. If an opportunity for escape arose, I’d have to lunge sideways and snatch them away. Then I’d have to rein Charlie’s horse into the tightest turn he could manage, and take off like greased lightning—and hope I stayed pointed in the right direction.And hope no one fired after me, or at least that they didn’t take careful aim.
Plenty of hope needed to pull all that off, or maybe even prayer. Praying wouldn’t keep me awake, though. I hadn’t felt this dozy since the last time I’d had to sit through an eleven o’clock lecture at Harvard. Say what you might about life as a cardsharp, it wasn’t usually this boring. Or, for that matter, this uncomfortable. Between the fast-rising heat and the glare I had developed quite a headache; I just hoped Yeager’s was worse. A lot worse.
Maybe it was. When Oscar started whistling, Yeager snarled, “Ruhe, Arschloch,” and Oscar broke off in mid-note. I was rather glad of that, since the piercing noise was downright painful. Even Charlie’s horse had flicked an ear in protest. Singing might have been more tolerable, but I doubted a few verses of “Fair Harvard” would go over much better with Yeager—not if his headache was any worse than mine. Besides, I’d always been told I couldn’t carry a tune if I tried.
No music then…Adam would be disappointed. Well, sooner or later he’d have recognized how worthless I was. No one but Jimmy had ever wasted much time on me, and now even Jimmy was moving on. Just as well for him. It wasn’t that I was dangerous company—you had to be something to be dangerous, and I couldn’t even manage that. Couldn’t, it seemed, even manage to stay awake for one pitiful mid-morning lecture….
This wouldn’t do, so I focused all my attention on the bouncing rump ahead of me. It belonged to Herr Fischer, who had to be the most uncomfortable, ill-at-ease rider I’d seen in a month of Sundays. He had on a thick wool garment full enough to wrap around him twice, tightly belted in at the waist, with the lower part spread over his horse and saddle like a lady’s riding habit. It ought to have made him excruciatingly hot, but from what I could see he wasn’t even slightly flushed. Adding to his strange appearance, he’d suspended most of the things that should have been attached to his saddle off of his belt instead—his canteen, for example, a couple of soft leather sacks, and a string bag with—of all things—apples. Like all the others he also had a rifle scabbard, only his didn’t hold a rifle, but a long wooden staff like the ones medieval pilgrims sometimes were shown carrying. The coat, or cloak, or whatever, looked rather like those illustrations too, now I came to think about it. Sometime during our midnight conversations Adam had mentioned that Herr Fischer walked halfway across Europe to get from Germany to England. It looked like he’d rather be walking now.
Kunst had to bump me twice with his canteen before I realized he was holding it for me to drink. I managed not to automatically disentangle my hands and take it from him. He had my horse’s reins tucked into the crook of his arm now, I noticed, since our horses were friendly enough there was no real need for him to lead me. It was almost noon—no wonder I’d been reminded of those eleven o’clock lectures—and we seemed to have reached the place where Adam, Joe, Jimmy and I had camped on our way to the mine. I could see the silhouette of the rock formation Adam had sketched from memory, looking just like it had twenty years ago or longer.
Our little cavalcade came almost to a halt while everyone was drinking. Herr Fischer broke the silence. “How long to Salt Flats it is we know, but could someone tell me…when we reach the road, how long to Eastgate the journey?”
“Two-three hours, the pace we’re riding,” I said, as I had once before.
“Two hours and twenty minutes, the time I went,” Kunst said. Well, he was the noticing kind.
Herr Fischer nodded and took another pull from his canteen. Yeager glanced at him briefly, then shifted his glare to Kunst and said, “We ain’t going to Eastgate now, so what’s the point in quibbling?”
Kunst didn’t flinch; in fact, he squared his shoulders and returned the look from slightly narrowed eyes. In that moment he seemed to gain five years, an inch or two, and considerable authority. “As it happens, we are going to Eastgate. I suggest that you not argue about it.”
Yeager’s flushed face grew purpler still. “Why, you snot-nosed piece of….”
And everthing went silent and slowed down, the way it sometimes did when a card game went badly sour on me. Herr Fischer was sliding from his saddle, dismounting on the right side as no horseman ever would. Yeager and Kunst seemed to be drawing down on each other. It was time to move, and time was something I suddenly had in full measure. All the time in the world to shake my hands free and lunge for the slackly held reins. Time to jerk those reins hard across my horse’s neck. Even time to grab a double handful of mane as the beast spun on a dime and took off to the races at a pace that would have done Lexington credit, or at least Winchester carrying General Sheridan on his famous ride. I flattened myself against the surging neck, and held on for dear life while time began flowing normally again, or perhaps a little faster as though to catch up with what had been lost, and the sound of my horse’s hooves swallowed up the shouts and gunfire fading away behind me.
It was midafternoon by the time I was back at the mine again, and I’ll admit the very first thing I did was dig up my cache. I couldn’t bear to ride past it after having wanted its contents so much for so long. I even took the time to slip back into my shoulder harness and check that the derringer was in firing condition. Having my security in place again made me feel back in control of my own life, better able to help with Adam’s.
I didn’t take time for a drink, though goodness knows I was thirsty enough. I’d no idea how much water had been left in camp or if any of it was safe except the half-canteen Fischer had given me and the one I’d just recovered. Even the one on my saddle was suspect—I could easily picture Yeager setting me free, to all appearances unharmed, with a poisoned canteen that would keep me from telling any stories. With so little water around that I could trust, I wasn’t about to waste any of it on me.
Almost as an afterthought, I shoved the money in my pants pocket and shook out the remains of my shirt. It still had two sleeves, and after all that time in the dark Adam would need protection from the sun for both his arms. Assuming, of course, he’d worked his way free and out. If he hadn’t—if something had gone wrong and he’d been trapped for all these hours with only Yeager’s deadly kindness to hand…. I grabbed up both shirt and canteen and headed at a scramble towards the mine.
I was almost to the entrance, half out of breath and staggering, when I saw the black boot poking out from under our abandoned wagon. He’d crawled under there for shade and shelter, with my blanket wrapped around his bare legs and a canteen—Fischer’s, dear God, not Yeager’s, I prayed—close to hand. And tucked against his cheek, as if in memory of where she’d kissed him last, was a vivid scrap of Elizabeth’s hair ribbon.
Adam had not taken Yeager’s water from the mine. I made sure of that at once, and made sure we wouldn’t drink it accidentally by emptying the canteen onto the floor. I went on to the back and confirmed that Fischer’s canteen was gone, although Adam had left behind the bag of jerky. Well, I had plans for that even if he didn’t; I scooped up the bag and went back outside.
The first thing to do, I’d already decided, was get Adam clothed again. I dampened a corner of the blanket and wiped him as clean as I could manage, then backed out from under the wagon. As I did so I realized the bottom of his ribbon had unravelled into fringe, and a spiderweb-thin strand of red silk stretched back towards the wagon’s tailgate. I traced it to a jumble of discards inside the wagon, most of which were things Jimmy had left with us—including a threadbare pair of trousers and a rather worn shirt. When I snatched them up I discovered a few boxes of ammunition and both our gunbelts underneath. Herr Fischer must have tied the ribbon onto Adam’s gunbelt to catch his attention; I could see where the thread had snagged in its buckle. I freed it gently and hoped he had kept a bit for himself.
As I eased Adam into the trousers, he stirred briefly and closed his hand more tightly around his scrap of ribbon without ever fully rousing. I decided to leave him there a little longer, at least until I knew how much more water and other supplies we still had. I did hope I wouldn’t have to start back for Eastgate at once; my headache was getting steadily more painful and I was beginning to get dizzy whenever I stood up quickly. I wanted a good night’s sleep before tackling the trek back to the road again, and more rest wouldn’t hurt Adam, either.
The inventory made me almost hopeful. They’d left firewood, the wagon, the mule—which had wandered away to browse but ambled back on hearing my horse’s return—and all our supplies except what they’d bought and paid for. There was still a full barrel of water, which I sampled cautiously. It smelt and tasted normal enough, and after I survived the next few minutes, apparently unpoisoned, I wakened Adam and gave him another drink. After that I began boiling up some jerky for broth, then got a second, fair-sized fire going and dragged out the debris from the mine to burn in it. My discards and Adam’s filthy jeans went first. I shoved them into the flames with hands that shook from the pleasure of their destruction and was reaching for Jimmy’s coat when Adam said hoarsely, “No, don’t.”
“Whyever not!” I had looked forward to burning that thing for days now.
“Saved m’ life,” Adam mumbled as he stretched a protective hand towards it.
I looked down at the stains and the blood and the dark-edged hole where the candlestand had pierced it and shrugged. “That’s your funeral,” I said without thinking, and flinched at the sound of the words.
“‘Cept it’s not,” Adam snorted. I saw the brief, bright smile fade; his brow wrinkled slightly as he added, “Least…hope not.”
I put the coat down at a safe distance from the fire and joined him under the wagon, glad for any excuse to get into its shade for a moment. “What do you mean?” I asked, though unsure I wanted to know.
“Been through this before,” Adam reminded me. “Heard wha’ th’ doctor said then….” He paused to suppress a yawn. However long he’d been sleeping, it apparently hadn’t been long enough. “Go ‘thout water too long, th’ body shuts down…kidneys first, then t’rest. Once it starts…can’t stop it, n’matter how much y’ drink….”
I could feel my eyes go wide as a frightened child’s. “Do you think…does that mean….” Not wanting to finish the sentence, I let my voice trail off the way his had.
Adam patted my shoulder, and I nearly banged my head on the wagon’s floor, it startled me so. I still wasn’t used to the idea he could reach out to me again. “Sorry,” he mumbled reflexively, and then, “Dunno. Went wi’out long’n this before, but…younger then, you know….” He laughed a little ruefully. “Anyway, could’ve died…lots’a times before…almost got hanged, what—three, four times…gut-shot once; near bled to death—oh, often enough…and the fights…the good Lord only knows how many fights there were….” This time the laughter was fond, the memories not unpleasant for all the danger. “First time I’d a…noose on my neck, I was just come home from college…that would’a been a waste, and didn’t I know it…but it wasn’t, after all…. The other times…well—I lived…that mess with Ann, just ‘fore I went back East, pretty close scrape that was…but by then I’d done what I could for t’ Ponderosa…for Pa and Joe and Hoss…been ironic, dying then, but not a waste…not so bad…and now I’ve had a wife, a daughter…found out what I could do with myself pretty well…done all I ever wanted, really….”
The voice was slurring badly now, fading softer until I could barely hear it. “You almost sound like you’re giving up,” I whispered.
He found the strength to chuckle. “No…not that. Cartwrights aren’t allowed to do that, boy…just wanted to be sure…you knew the score…and that, if this time I don’t make it….” Another, sleepier chuckle, faint but definite. “I could live with that….”
I knew he meant it as reassurance, but even so I wasn’t reassured—which was just as well, since there was still plenty of work to do if we were to leave here in the morning. Leaving Adam to his rest, I checked over the wagon as best I could, the way Jimmy would have done if he were here. Fortunately, it looked sound enough to get us at least as far as the road, and probably to Eastgate. I’d have been happier heading for Salt Flats, especially after what Kunst had said, but once on the road we’d be much closer to Eastgate, and besides, they had the doctor. Maybe if I sent a telegram to Salt Flats the sheriff would let Joe go, I thought to myself. Once Joe found us I wouldn’t have to manage everything myself. Then again, while I wanted Adam under a doctor’s care—even in a jail cell—as soon as possible, there was still a chance I could avoid encountering the law. No, attracting attention by telegraphing Salt Flats was not a good idea….
Maybe Jimmy was in Eastgate, and we’d find each other, and he could do some of the work. That was an even more pleasant thought. In fact, since moving everything around to make Adam comfortable in the wagon was harder than I expected, I wished Jimmy were here to help now. I piled everything soft I could find onto the wagon’s floor, and found myself staring at last at the remnants of my old Harvard blanket. There wasn’t enough of it left to be much good for padding, and although I felt sure I’d forgotten something important, the poor thing was so dirty I went ahead and added it to the fire with the other filthy clothes. Adam didn’t try to save it.
By then the sun was low enough in the sky to reach under the wagon, and soon enough it got in Adam’s eyes and woke him up; I discovered him crawling painstakingly back to the mouth of the mine. He blinked at me owlishly when I started to explain that our bedrolls were now in the wagon, then interrupted me to say, “You look awful, Frank. What happened to your hat?”
Of all the damn fool things to worry about, I thought, but tried to keep my temper in check as I said, “Fell off somewhere—probably when I was riding back here.”
He tried to reach out to my forehead, but couldn’t quite manage it, and as his hand fell back to his side it brushed against mine. I yelped. Adam lowered his gaze and took his breath in with a hiss. “Ministers of grace, your hand—what did you do to it?”
It looked pretty gruesome, admittedly; swollen and painful and mostly useless to me by now…like my blanket, I thought in a burst of irrelevance. “Not quite sure,” I muttered.
“You’ve a knife, don’t you? Let me open that up for you—how you can stand it….”
Given what he’d endured, I thought I could cope with a sore hand. “Eat first,” I insisted. “I made broth. Not very good broth, but….”
Although he grumbled in protest, he drank it, and I chewed on the scraps of jerky. By now they were pretty tasteless, but I wasn’t about to try cooking anything better. My stomach felt strangely jumpy, which on top of the headache and the hand began to annoy me. I couldn’t afford any more trouble now.
I was working up the energy to get up and smother the fires when Adam nudged me and pointed to our animals. Both horse and mule were watching the west side of camp, heads up and nostrils working. A moment later Charlie’s horse nickered, the sound a horse sends in greeting to its friends.
“He’s coming back,” Adam said, and for a moment his eyes showed a ring of white, like a badly spooked animal.
I heaved myself to my feet, feeling heavy as lead, and pushed him towards the mine. “You get in there. I’ll guard the entrance.”
At least I’d cleaned and reloaded the pistols when I was tidying the wagon. As I gathered them up, an empty canteen came flying out of the mine and landed near me with a clatter. “Damn it, I was keeping the poison for something like this!” Adam’s voice rose in fury.
“Hold on,” I called back before realizing we’d just told Yeager we knew he was here. I scrambled unsteadily back to the mine and laid both pistols out where I could grab them in a hurry. “Take this,” I panted to Adam, and untangled my derringer from its harness. “For…in case. Now get well back in case there’s a ricochet.”
Adam took it, looking calm again. He paused for a moment, squeezed my shoulder briefly, and said, “Watch out for yourself,” before taking a step or two back—not as far as I’d told him. I hoped he wouldn’t be fool enough to waste the derringer on whoever was coming for us. I couldn’t vouch for its accuracy at more than five or ten feet. As for me—well, I was fairly well shielded by the tunnel wall, and I could brace myself against it as well. That was good, because my pistol seemed unaccountably heavy, and my right arm was starting to tremble. I couldn’t understand why—I’d been in worse places once or twice before, and hadn’t been this nervous. Maybe it was worrying for Adam that made the difference…. Then I heard another nicker from the horses, and the crunch of a footstep, close at hand, and my arm was suddenly quite steady after all.
I recognized the green jacket at the last possible moment and managed to pull my shot as I fired. The bullet plowed harmlessly into the sand. Other shots passed over my head, perhaps because I was falling forward.
The last thing I heard was Joe’s voice, surprised and a little amused. “Well, I’ll be…you see that? It’s your kid, and he got his shot off first!”
The next few days were confusing—not much more than a string of faces and bursts of noise that only occasionally made any sort of sense. Joe was one of the first faces, and the sheriff of Salt Flats another. They seemed on pretty good terms, considering; maybe Joe had only thrown checkers at the deputies during his incarceration. Jimmy showed up fairly soon, with a lot of talk about candy which confused me badly until I realized he didn’t mean humbugs or peppermint sticks, but another of the faces—a lean-jawed, dark-haired man with a smile almost more radiant than Adam’s, and considerably more often on display. After that came some others…an older man with a bushy, snow-white moustache; a woman about the age of my sister Prudence, with a Boston accent almost as strong as her powers of persuasion; one or two who might have been doctors; and—of all people—Adolph. Seeing him almost brought me to my feet, or at least sitting up, until Adam calmed me down. I never saw his face at all, but if I asked after him he was always there, and his voice was one of the few sounds that made sense. It stopped being breathy or slurred quite quickly, I noticed.
I think we spent most of that time in the wagon, being taken places. At any rate, when I could finally recognize anything much farther away than the tip of my nose, what I saw was a room painted in a delicate shade of pastel green, cooler than any place I’d been in what seemed like years. I doubted anywhere this elegant could be in Salt Flats, but it surprised me to learn we were in a hotel in Virginia City. Not the International House, where I’d always stayed before, but McNair’s, which I seemed to recall was a small place catering to respectable single women and families with small children—the sort of hotel that normally would have kept me well away from its tea room, let alone a private bedroom. The woman with the Boston accent belonged in a place like McNair’s, but she seemed to have vanished again. I wondered if she’d been a hallucination, but when I described her to Adam he laughed. “That was Heather Lowell. Just count yourself lucky it wasn’t her older sister Sarah—from what I’ve heard of her she’d have us in San Francisco by now, being seen by specialists.”
“But what was she doing out…where ever it was I saw her?”
“Looking for Joe,” Adam said. “She and Roy Coffee. They thought no one watching the family would suspect them of trying to track us.” He paused before admitting, “Most likely someone was watching, given the size of the reward for me.”
“Old family friend. Sheriff of Virginia City for quite a while, before he retired. Closest thing to a lawman Pa could send after us. They got as far as Salt Flats and ran into your friend the sheriff. That must have been quite a contest, two wily old birds like them arguing over letting Joe out.”
“Guess your friend topped mine,” I said vaguely, already fallen more than half asleep again.
The next time I woke up it was to find a doctor bent over me and a new voice—low-pitched, powerful, and loud—filling the room. “That fever has me worried, Paul. A healthy young man like that shouldn’t be so badly affected by a day or two in the sun, surely?”
“Now, Ben,” the doctor began in a long-suffering voice. He suddenly became aware I was watching him and turned his attention to me in mid-sentence. “Glad to see you’re coming back to us. Between that infected thumb and the sunstroke you were a pretty sick young man. You’ll need plenty of rest to get your strength back.”
“You know we’ll keep him at the Ponderosa for as long as it takes, Paul,” the voice—which had to be Ben Cartwright’s—rumbled from behind me.
If I’d heard that three weeks earlier I’d have begun planning a quick departure, but now…now it just felt reassuring, like having a warm blanket on a cold night. Like Jimmy’s coat the time I borrowed it. I settled myself more comfortably and listened as the two men left. I couldn’t make out the doctor’s final comment, but the retort it drew was clearly audible. “That man saved my boy’s life. Of course he’ll stay at the Ponderosa!” Even through a closed door the voice shook my bed.
I felt the heat of a rising blush in my cheeks, but when I looked over at Adam he was chuckling quietly to himself. “Pa doesn’t change….”
“Don’t you mind?”
“I minded plenty when I was your age,” Adam confessed. “And minding got me exactly nowhere, so I finally gave it up. I think even Joe has by now. It’s only that he cares for us, you know.” He grinned at my disbelieving snort. “Well, perhaps you don’t know, but you will. Seems you’re one of us now, and speaking from experience, you may as well relax and accept it. There areadvantages.”
“So when did I get the Ponderosa brand?”
He gave me a sharp glance, one eyebrow and one corner of his mouth tilted up. “You heard my father. When you saved his boy’s life.”
“But I didn’t,” I said in honest confusion.
“Modesty’s a pretty virtue, but it can be overdone,” Adam warned me. “They brought up some broth, by the way. Best eat it before it gets cold.”
“You were the one talked Herr Fischer around and got Yeager to leave you alive,” I grumbled as I reached for the spoon.
“And you were the reason I survived long enough for them to be ready to listen,” he snapped back. “Not to mention afterwards. Now, eat.”
The broth was delicious; I wasn’t surprised when Adam told me Adolph was driving the hotel’s culinary staff into hysterics by insisting on preparing our food. I drained every drop from the bowl and was almost back to sleep when the door banged open and I heard the swirl of long skirts, an anxious “Adam!” and a rather lengthy kiss. There was nothing else said for long enough I virtuously kept my eyes closed to give Adam some privacy.
Finally the woman found her voice. “The doctor said you’d be fine, but I still wasn’t sure….”
“Well, you can be sure now, Linda.” There was another pause before Adam went on, “Not only that, but I found your Edie’s lost lamb.”
The woman—I assumed she was Adam’s wife—sounded a little calmer now. “You mean little Pru’s brother? Are you sure?”
“Take a look for yourself. It’s all right, he’s asleep.”
“Yes, I see…oh, Adam, they’ll be so glad to know! But…but…oh, what on earth happened, Adam? Heather said almost nothing in her telegram, and we heard so many awful things…the wanted posters, and then some sheriff telegraphed to say there’d been a flash flood and they found your hat with debris from a wagon wreck…and then nothing! You can’t imagine…between your father and Elizabeth I scarcely had time to worry myself, but, Adam…Adam….” She seemed on the verge of crying again.
“C’mere,” Adam said firmly, and her voice was abruptly silenced. I ventured a quick peek from heavy-lidded eyes to confirm that the lady had settled onto the edge of his bed and they were, once again, kissing. It seemed wise to appear to wake up now, before things became any more embarrassing, so I ventured a sharp cough and a yawn.
They disentangled themselves adroitly, and Adam introduced me to Linda—who was, indeed, his wife—before starting to explain the tangle of events that had spun itself around our time at the mine like a frame. Some of it I already knew—how Miss Lowell and Mr. Coffee travelled from Virginia City to Salt Flats, for example—but the part I hadn’t heard mostly concerned Jimmy, and it left me downright speechless.
Joe had sent Jimmy off to Eastgate—that part I also knew—and he had meant to send Jimmy a telegram once he’d settled on his own plans. Jimmy was supposed to get that within a day or two, before he made his first supply run back to the mine. Eastgate, meanwhile, was in a double buzz. Not only had the wanted poster created as much of a stir there as anywhere else in Nevada, but the stagecoach that passed so near us the afternoon we’d left the road brought in news of having found the remnants of a wagon which had been caught in stormflood and pounded into splinters. There’d been a hat found nearby which was identified as Adam’s. That, of course, seemed to make the wanted poster old news.
Jimmy knew better, but he kept his mouth shut as he hung around the telegraph office waiting for Joe’s telegram—which never came. He waited an extra day for it before riding into the desert, and in the late afternoon of what must have been the same day Yeager and his crew surprised me at dawn, he got close enough to the mine to see my blanket wasn’t on the rock where it belonged. Warned and wary, he kept his distance until he was sure things were not as they should have been, and then moved even farther into the cold and cloudless desert night to decide what he should do.
There was nothing, I knew, that frightened Jimmy more than heading out alone for a strange new place. Planning routes was my job, from the day we’d met. This time, though, none of the places that he knew—Eastgate, Salt Flats, even Reno—offered him any likely help; the only person who might care about any of us was a total stranger somewhere between Eastgate and the Paiute reservation by Pyramid Lake, finishing up the Cartwrights’ latest ill-starred cattle drive. It was either try to find that man, or give up and strike out on his own.
Jimmy’d looked up to see the Big Dipper and North Star shining bright above him. Minutes later, he’d broken camp and headed off in the direction they indicated, aiming for a lake he assumed would be too big to miss.
Meanwhile, Candy, or more properly Mr. Canaday, the Cartwrights’ foreman, had left Eastgate with the last of the cattle only a day before Jimmy rode in from the mine. He wasn’t in much hurry to finish his business with the Paiutes and head home with the news that his boss’ two surviving sons were missing, presumed dead. In fact, he was still debating whether or not to poke around between Eastgate and Salt Flats in the hopes of turning up something more conclusive than a waterlogged hat. Maybe if he hadn’t been so worried himself he wouldn’t have believed any of Jimmy’s wild story. As it was, he decided it couldn’t do any harm to check it out, at least.
They rode back to Eastgate together and found more trouble; the town sheriff had been killed by a kick from his own horse. He’d never been much of a sheriff, so the town hadn’t dissolved into chaos, but any hope of getting official help—say, to search for Joe—was now out of the question. Candy didn’t lose his head, fortunately. He went straight to the telegraph office, where there still weren’t any telegrams from a Cartwright, and the telegrapher was confident he’d have noticed one if it had come. Candy thought about that for at least five minutes, talked things over with Jimmy, then sent telegrams to every sheriff in the area asking if Joe Cartwright had passed by during the last week. The telegram to Salt Flats interrupted Mr. Coffee’s rescue mission; after a brief exchange of information Joe suddenly became quite willing to discuss where Adam should have been, even at the risk of having to hand him over to the law later on. Candy and Jimmy were summoned to Salt Flats, while Joe and the sheriff headed directly to the mine to scout out the situation. Thank God, what might have been a disastrous confrontation ended happily for us all.
I thought about how frantic I’d felt, how close I’d come to trying to kill Joe, and how little I remembered about what happened after that. “Good thing they came,” I muttered, feeling thoroughly embarrassed.
“Probably so,” Adam conceded. “You’d have got us out of there if they hadn’t, I’m sure, but most likely it would have killed you.”
I shrugged, and saw that Linda was giving me an unexpectedly shrewd look. “You really are like Pru,” she said with a faint smile. “Edie said you were, but I never believed a boy could be that brave and yet that modest. They’ll be so glad you’re all right—Edie and Pru and Carrie.”
Carrie. I hadn’t thought of Charity by her nickname in years. And who was this Edie, anyway? I’d never heard of her, surely.
Linda read my confusion accurately. “Miss Norton to you, I’d imagine. I was three years behind her at Wheaton.” She stifled a laugh, and I realized I’d been misled by her expensive clothing and un-schoolmistress-like behavior. I might have guessed Adam would shackle himself to a bluestocking.
“So how does Adolph wind up here, after everything?” I asked, supressing an unexpected yawn. Seemed I hadn’t stored up any stamina yet.
Adam scowled at me, and Linda said, “Adolph?” in a puzzled voice. She glanced from me to her husband and Adam hastily answered, “Later, dear. Isn’t Pa waiting downstairs? I gather Elizabeth didn’t come with you.”
“Your father insisted she stay at home, in case the news was…well….” Linda smiled wryly.
“I’m surprised she didn’t sneak into the buggy anyway.”
“I’m sure she would have, if it didn’t make her even more travel-sick than the stagecoach. But you’re right. It’s not fair to keep her wondering what’s happened to you.” She kissed him again—briefly, though not chastely, not like a bluestocking’s kiss at all—gave me another thank-you and a smile, and was gone.
“She doesn’t know Adolph was at the mine,” Adam explained as I stared at him. “No reason why she needs to know what happened there, either. Trust me on this, Frank.” Clearly he was quite serious.
“So long as you tell me what he’s doing in McNair’s kitchen,” I muttered sleepily. “Last I saw of them they were headed off to Eastgate, the pack of them.”
“That’s Miss McNair to you,” he retorted. “The rest can wait until you’ve had some more sleep. They’ll be taking us home tomorrow, and I don’t want you having any more setbacks.”
There certainly were advantages to staying at the Ponderosa, I learned in the next few weeks. One of them, by no means the least, was the entertainment it provided me.
Neither my protests nor Adam’s urgent suggestions had prevented the senior Cartwright from writing to my father at once. The idea that a father wouldn’t want to know about his son was so inconceivable to Ben Cartwright that he took what we said as indications we still hadn’t fully recovered from our ordeal. He sent his letter off the same day Linda copied out my dictated note to Prudence.
I guessed it would take a few extra days for my note to reach Pru, since it was the middle of summer and she’d probably be somewhere cooler than the city, on a visit to friends if Tom couldn’t manage a place of his own at one of the resorts. It didn’t surprise me that my father’s reply reached us first. No one ever showed it to me, but I could work out its contents pretty easily just by listening to Ben Cartwright’s reaction.
The first I heard was an incoherent bellow like a bull elk in rutting season, only angrier. It died away into an indignant sputter which made me think of a fuse that had been almost, but not quite, stamped out. Then came a sequence of explosions, verbalized this time and interspersed with soothing phrases from Linda. I couldn’t hear exactly what he was saying, but his fury was obvious.
Someone clattered down the stairs to add his calming influence to Linda’s. Adam, I realized when his voice joined the approaching mixture of sound—Ben must have gotten up from his desk to walk over to the huge central fireplace. Finally the words started to come clear. “And to top it off he has the impertinence to say he’s only responsible for debts his son ran up before he was twenty-one! Now I ask you, did I so much as mention money? Did I use the word debt, even once?”
“You said we owed Frank a debt we couldn’t repay,” Adam reminded his father, sounding more amused than annoyed.
Linda finally made her voice heard—a rather forced cooing noise, like an indignant dove. “Why don’t you both sit down and I’ll see if Hop Sing has some lemonade.” I heard the tap of her heels as she passed my door on her way into the kitchen. Ben and Adam were still rumbling in the distance—I was reminded again of bull elk. It struck me that Linda might be worried for Ben’s health, and I decided to venture out in the hopes he’d let the subject drop in my presence.
Ben was still alarmingly purple by the time I reached him, although he was speaking in a normal voice at last. Linda looked like a swimmer going down for the third time, desperate for a life preserver, and even Adam looked anxious. He tossed me a grateful glance when he saw I was joining them. I fixed my eyes on the tray with its pitcher of lemonade and three tall glasses; Linda gave a shaky laugh and called into the kitchen for another glass. Adolph brought it out, which reminded me of some last unanswered questions—what was he still doing with us, and why had he wanted to come? I glanced from him to Adam and raised my eyebrows inquiringly. Adam made a gesture suggesting I be patient, and not long after invited me up to his room to look at some of his books. He motioned me to a chair, sat down on the edge of his bed, and said without preamble, “I needed to talk some things over with you anyway. It’s getting complicated—to begin with, our Pinkerton’s been appointed the sheriff of Eastgate.”
“They wanted your friend first, but he said he wasn’t going to leave Salt Flats at his age. Said a few other things too which weren’t so polite, I understand. So that just left the good townsfolk of Eastgate one person with any real experience as a lawman, and he seemed agreeable to taking the job, so they gave it to him.”
“To John Kunst?” I repeated, just to be very sure of the facts.
“That very man. Only he’s insisting there be an inquest…or inquiry…or something into how he came to shoot a man named Gustav Yeager in the desert near the Salt Flats-Eastgate road, while trying to arrest him for the murder of one Charlie Leathershirt a few days earlier.”
“Yeager’s dead?” It didn’t seem possible, even with Adam saying it.
“So I’m told. Now you, as I recall, said they were all headed to Eastgate—in a pack, I believe your words were.”
I explained what I knew; Yeager had planned to ride past Salt Flats to Reno and the railway, while Kunst wanted to go to Eastgate instead. They’d been drawing iron when I rode away, and guns had been fired afterwards—at whom, I didn’t know. Adolph would, I reminded Adam.
“I’d rather keep Adolph out of this,” Adam grumbled. “Hop Sing would be annoyed otherwise. Besides, there’s no telling what he might get started saying.”
“He’d say it in German,” I ventured.
Adam snorted. “There are such things as translators, even here in the wilderness,” he pointed out. “No, he’d make complications, and that’s just what we don’t want. Clem Foster’ll be riding in tomorrow, I expect, to depose us, and that should be enough for what Kunst needs.”
“But you weren’t even there! And I didn’t see Yeager shot….”
“We both saw Charlie shot. That’s what’s important, apparently.”
“You seem to know an awful lot about this,” I muttered.
“There’ve been telegrams. And letters. And…well, he put a lot on the line for me in Chicago, last fall. You weren’t there, Frank…but I trust him. I do know from Roy he’s already seen to it the policeman’s murder after the Congress has been resolved; he says it’s safe for me to go back East if I like now.” I could tell from Adam’s chuckle a return to Chicago wasn’t in his plans. “He wants Charlie’s death, and Yeager’s, settled the same way, and he’s as keen as I am to keep people like Adolph from being involved in the matter.”
“What about Herr Fischer?” I asked, and realized almost at once I’d let out my opinion in just those four words.
Adam met my eyes without evasion. “Of course I want him out of it. I don’t want any of my part made public—Chicago, the mine, anything. I may not have the purest motives, but…dragging Sandro through the courts won’t do anything for justice now.” He saw the puzzled shake of my head and raised an eyebrow. “You don’t agree?” It was a simple inquiry, no sarcasm or irony at all.
“It isn’t what I’d have expected a man of your reputation to say,” I admitted.
“It’s not what my father would say, I know,” he agreed. “All the same…when I left Nevada, the law was all there was to keep people from having to spend every hour of every day fighting to keep what they had. It was fresh and new here, and the best protection we could find. Even back East…even there it was different. Older. People had learned how to use the law to take what wasn’t theirs by right, instead of breaking it. And when I got to Europe, to places like Germany, like Russia…well, they’re a long way from Nevada, in more than one sense. And Germany’s where all this started, really, not Chicago—not even Pittsburgh. Well, Yeager may have started in Pittsburgh, but Yeager’s been dealt with—lawfully, at that.”
“So what does Kunst want to do about Herr Fischer?”
“If he had Sandro with him, he’d probably feel he had to bring charges. Quite an array of them, maybe—kidnapping, conspiracy, accessory before and after the fact…all of it making public everything I’d rather keep private. But I think the fact Kunst plans to settle in Eastgate means he’d just as soon keep it all private too. Fortunately for him, Sandro seems to have vanished completely, which makes it all a moot point.”
Kunst might have felt fortunate that Herr Fischer had disappeared, but Adam was still worried, I could see from his expression. “He was fine when I left them—getting off his horse and grabbing for his walking-stick.”
Relief smoothed Adam’s forehead. “Ah, that’s it. He went over the mountains on foot. I should have guessed.” As he saw my slack-jawed disbelief, he laughed. “Sandro walked across the Alps in mid-winter, Frank. The Sierras will be like a pleasant Sunday stroll.” For a moment he paused and seemed to be calculating travel times in his head. “Should have reached San Francisco a fair time ago…as long as Kunst doesn’t ask questions, and he doesn’t seem to want to, everything should be just fine. Thank you, Frank. That’s good to know.”
“So, what do you want me telling Sheriff Foster?”
“Oh, the truth—about what he asks. Charlie was guiding this group of eastern tenderfoots who ran across us in the desert; there was some sort of argument among them, and it ended with Yeager coming up behind Charlie while he was in the cave with us and shooting him. After that Yeager attacked you, and assaulted Kunst, who apparently chose to bide his time before trying to arrest him. When the time came, Yeager resisted arrest—or so you’ve been told—and was shot. Why there was an argument, you’d rather not speculate, and why Charlie happened to be fussing over me when he was shot—well, I don’t think that will come up, but if it does, I was a little overheated that day—which does happen in the desert, after all.”
I nodded. It was not only true, it was very nearly the whole truth. I’d quite happily told the law much bigger whoppers in the past. “And what about Adolph?”
“Ah, he’s why I’m pretty sure I know Kunst’s intentions. To begin with, Kunst told the deputies at Eastgate not to hold the rest of the easterners. Said they never fired a shot, never meant to hurt Charlie, never got in his way afterwards. And apparently he told all of them—in German, of course—that he hoped they’d learned a good lesson and they’d just go home now. Which is what Karl and Rudy apparently have done. Oscar headed off to San Francisco…said he liked it here in the West, which isn’t a crime, of course. And Kunst didn’t ask any of them—even Oscar—for addresses.”
“So he doesn’t care who Oscar might be going to ‘Frisco to meet,” I chimed in.
“Just so.” Adam paused and took a deep breath. “Adolph told me something else, too. He said Yeager didn’t die right off from Kunst’s shot, but he wouldn’t let anyone tend him. Told Kunst he reckoned it would be better if things never came to trial—he’d shot Charlie on his own, and no one else should get hurt because of what he did. Apparently Kunst agrees.”
I wondered what Yeager might have done with himself if he hadn’t been Peter Kane’s nephew. It seemed a terrible waste.
Adam gave a small sigh of his own and went on, “Meanwhile, Adolph likes the West too, and he felt he owed us something, so when he ran across us again at Salt Flats…well, he attached himself to the party. No one much complained after they tasted his stew. He’s even charmed Hop Sing, which no one else has managed in all these years—and Joe’s been looking for help for Hop Sing since before I came home last year. So for now Adolph’s staying at the Ponderosa, as long as we can keep the International House from hiring him away.”
“And Kunst will settle down in Eastgate. Wonder why they didn’t just make one of the deputies the new sheriff?” I said after a pause.
“You’ve been to Eastgate. If you wanted a decent sheriff, would you have picked one of that bunch, with a shiny young Pinkerton available?”
I smiled and shook my head. “Come to think of it, not a chance.”
It started raining later that evening, and went on for the next day or two. I’d forgotten rain could be like that—gentle, steady, unrelenting. I’d also forgotten how much damage that kind of rain could do in a land of steep mountains and poorly maintained roads. We were cut off from Carson City—let alone Virginia City, where for some reason the Ponderosa’s mail was held—for several more days after the sun came back out. Jimmy brought back quite a pile of mail the afternoon he finally made it into town.
Close to the top of the pile was a letter for me with a Long Island postmark. Ben Cartwright brought it in to my room, where I was taking one of the regular naps Dr. Martin still said would benefit my recovery. It was, as he suspected, from my older sister, with a shorter note from Charity enclosed. Pru’s letter was gentle, graceful, and kind; Carrie’s had a sting in its tail—directed at our father, not me—which made me smile. I’d have to write them back quickly…and then I thought of Connie, whom I’d never written at all. Suddenly my eyes were overflowing.
Ben Cartwright leaned over me, one hand on my shoulder. “What’s the matter, son?” His heavy voice was gentler than I thought possible.
I turned my head away from him and mumbled something about having neglected Connie.
“I’m sure she understood.” Now the voice was gentler still. “She must have known how much you were hurting, and why.”
Connie always had understood, which only made me feel worse. I burrowed deeper into the pillow, and felt the bed shift as the older man settled down beside me. He didn’t say anything else, just kept his hand in place until I stopped crying, then squeezed my shoulder gently and stood up. I waited until I heard the door close and his footsteps move down the hall outside before rolling onto my back to stare at the ceiling. What I’d done was done; at least I could see to it my remaining sisters never thought I didn’t care about them.
Since I no longer felt much like sleeping, I got dressed and went out to join the others. Everyone was gathered around the table in front of the fireplace—even Jimmy, who was sitting by Joe on the settee. He had a letter, too, which had put a big smile on his face. In all the time we’d been together he’d never written or gotten a letter, or even suggested there was someone who might write him one. None of my business, I knew, but I was glad for him—and pleased, in spite of myself, when he squeezed down against Joe to make space on the settee and patted it to show he wanted me to sit by him.
Adam slid a flimsy-looking envelope towards me, along with a leaflet in the near-unreadable print familiar from Oscar’s pamphlets. The headline—slightly more readable than the rest, if only because more loosely spaced—read “Endlich Schluss mit Attentaten!” Just below was an engraving of Herr Fischer, and down at the very bottom of the page, just above the information that it had been printed in San Francisco, was a solitary line of summary in English. “Mr. Alexander Fischer argues that “propagande par le fait” is not an appropriate method by which to pursue the aims of justice and fair pay for all.” I glanced at Adam, one eyebrow raised, and he tapped a finger impatiently on the envelope.
Inside was nothing but a slip of paper apparently sliced out of a recent edition of the Territorial Observer. It started and ended in mid-sentence, but included a reference to Adam that made clear he was still alive, and living near Virginia City. His name had been neatly underlined in brown ink. There were some other faint traces of brown ink; I flipped the scrap over and saw a line of tiny, surprisingly legible writing which read, “Wotan: Leb wohl, du kühner, freundlichster Feind!”
Ben and Linda were having an animated discussion about Elizabeth—she was apparently out “helping” Candy ride fence that day—so I dared to murmur to Adam, “More Wagner from your friend?”
“That’s about the size of it,” he agreed, just as quietly. “Of course, now Elizabeth will be clamoring to visit him whenever we go to San Francisco.” When I grimaced, he gave a tiny laugh and added “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
Linda heard the tail end of the comment and broke off in mid-sentence to ask, “What was that, Adam?”
Adam gathered envelope, clipping and leaflet together smoothly and tucked all three into his pocket. “I said I wouldn’t want this paper to tear off, dear.” He picked up another letter—this one on crisp white paper with a familiar design engraved at the top—and unfolded it slowly. “I’d like to read this letter out loud—I’m sure George wouldn’t mind, and I think you’ll all find it of interest.” I shifted uneasily as I realized it had to be from my former teacher, and Adam noticed at once. “Especially you, Frank.” His voice changed to the monotone people always use when reading aloud.
“Of course I remember young Willard; he was a promising boy, with a strange desire to appear more vicious than he was. Plenty of boys who are never called onto the carpet are far worse influences on their classmates than he ever dreamed of being. By the time he was at Harvard I had high hopes for him, in fact; he seemed to have outgrown his little quirks and had developed an inquiring and original mind. It never occurred to me that his father would take anything but pleasure and interest in his son’s work. I am still very sorry that I was never able to tell the boy so myself, but he had been sent West long before I even found out what had happened. It pleases me to learn he has done so well for himself since then!
“As for young Mr. Wesson—”
“Wesson? Is that you also, Frank?” Linda interrupted to ask, with a giggle in her voice.
“It’s what they used to call me in Salt Flats,” I said, wondering when Adam had found that out. On the way back through there while I was out of my head, I supposed. “The first time I signed into their hotel, I was using the name Smith and the clerk said I looked more like a Wesson to him. The name sort of stuck there, I guess.”
“Smith-and-Wesson, you see—the gunsmiths,” Adam explained to Linda quietly, and I saw amusement flare up in her face despite her best efforts. If their daughter was as curious as they were, I was glad she’d been kept well away from me. A ten-year-old’s questions were bound to be even more embarrassing, if that were possible. Adam cleared his throat pointedly and went on, “A man such as you describe could certainly enter college without the usual references from previous teachers, if he had other sponsors to vouch for him and was able to demonstrate an appropriate preparation. Should he think time away from his studies may have made him a little rusty I suspect a term here as an assistant would be enough to remove the cobwebs, and I can assure you he’d be very welcome, particularly since you say he’s so much like young Willard. Frank had quite a talent for tutoring and a man with the sort of experience Mr. Wesson must have acquired would have no trouble holding the attention of even the most uninterested boy. You’ve seen for yourself how much in awe our students are of anyone with a fund of anecdotes about the Wild West!
“My one suggestion would be to recommend Yale over Harvard for his further education; not only would it avoid possibly embarrassing encounters with people who knew Willard, but if Wesson prefers to follow a course of study including the sciences I think Yale’s program is currently preferable. You will understand that my pride is hurt by saying this almost as badly as yours will be in hearing it, but I fear the Lawrence Scientific School’s best years are in the past, while Yale’s Sheffield School can hold its own even with the newest institutes of technology, and allows a pursuit of more classical subjects as well.”
I stared at Adam, utterly bewildered. “Are you saying I should go back East and finish my studies?”
“You can do what you like, understand,” Adam said gently. “If you’d rather stay in the West and make Salt Flats the poker capital of Nevada, that’s fine too. I just thought you ought to know what all the possibilities were first. Put all the cards on the table, so to speak.”
It was something like watching the sun set over the Sierras—glorious, overwhelming, even a little intimidating. “Do I have to decide now?” I asked in a voice that almost squeaked.
“Of course not,” Ben rumbled, as he cast a reproving glare at his eldest son. “Take whatever you want, Frank.”
“In that case…” I felt my gambler’s smile spread across my face, though somehow it seemed to have lost its feral sneer. “In that case what I’d really like is another glass of lemonade.”
And somehow we were all laughing, for no better reason than being together, and happy.
Aeschylus was right. Kinship and comradeship are fearsome and wonderful powers….
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