A Heart of Stone - EPILOGUE
Ben Cartwright removed his black hat and nodded his head as John Smythe, his wife, and his remaining two sons passed by. His own sons did the same. All three had insisted on coming to town for Adley's memorial service and he hadn't fought them. The grief John Smythe felt was palpable. The only saving grace was that the blow had not been entirely unexpected. The horse John followed that day had been ridden by his younger son, Darby, as they suspected. Darby had confessed everything. John knew that Adley's life was over. His oldest boy had been a party to a kidnapping and attempted murder at the very least. Prison awaited him. Perhaps a hanging.
God, in his unfathomable wisdom, had been kind.
Ben turned to look at his own boys who were clustered together. It had been two weeks since the events that brought about Adley's demise. Time had moved at a snail's pace as he dealt with his son's injuries and the needs of a cattle drive he could not attend. Thankfully, several of his neighbors had stepped up and offered to take over for him, knowing he would not leave home. In that time each of his sons' wounds had healed - though they were far from well. Hoss was pale and still 'off his feed' as Hop Sing liked to say. The boy had lost weight and was quieter than usual. The week following Adley's death had been hard on him. Just as Hoss began to recover, he had to face the possibility that he might lose both his brothers. Man's bane - the inevitable infection - had set in. Adam's wound, though not dangerous in itself, had become contaminated. That, coupled with the boy's head wound and exhaustion, was more than enough to bring him low. Joseph…. Ben turned to look at his youngest who sat propped up in the buggy, watching with solemn eyes the procession of mourners as they made their way to the graveyard where the Smythe boy had already been interred. Adley's parents had waited to have the service until relatives could arrive from another state. He was glad they did. Joseph needed this and, until today, he would not have allowed the boy out of bed.
He hadn't known about the second break in Joseph's arm until Dora told him. Ben closed his eyes as he recalled the horrendous moment when he burst through the trees to find her surrounded by a circle of men's splayed out forms, his young son's included. It had happened in a heartbeat, she said. Marcus was looking at her, waving his pistol and threatening to kill Little Joe. Joseph - dear brave, foolhardy Joseph - chose that moment to rush the man. The gun went off. The boy was struck a glancing blow on the forehead and went down from the impact. It was then that Adley Smythe did his father proud. He stepped in and took the madman down - but not before Marcus had time to fire a second shot, killing him instantly. Like the coward he was, Halbert Carton turned tail and ran when he saw the carnage. He didn't make it far. Roy quickly caught up to Hal and he was sitting in the Carson City jail awaiting trial at this moment.
He was…lucky…he was sitting in the Carson City jail.
For him, that moment was burned into his memory as surely as the path of the bullet was burned into his young son's flesh. He'd frozen for an instant - it was one of the things he 'd had to forgive himself for - before rushing to Little Joe's side and dropping to his knees. When he lifted the boy, Joe moaned and his eyelashes fluttered, and then he cried out in pain. Panicked, he'd searched his son's slender form for another wound. A hand on his had stopped him. Dora had touched his face and then Joseph's, and then carefully spread what was left of the fabric of Little Joe's shirt aside and shown him the filthy tip of the bone. Like Adam, infection turned out to be his son's worst enemy. The fever was high and lasted nearly a week. If Hoss was a shadow of his former self, Joseph was barely a whisper. Paul said it would take time, but both would be fine. The physician had said as well that it would be months and would take dogged determination for Joseph to regain complete use of his left arm.
He knew his son. He had no doubt Little Joe would succeed.
Ben started and then turned toward his eldest son. "Yes, Adam?"
Adam didn't say anything, but inclined his head toward the stage depot. A young woman with golden-blonde hair was standing before it, traveling case in hand, looking their way.
It was time to say goodbye.
Adam watched his father walk away and then turned toward the mercantile. Hoss had gone to get them a couple of sarsaparillas. Little Joe wasn't looking too good and he'd thought maybe the sweet liquid would help. When it came down to it, none of them should have made the trip to town - over twenty miles of rough road - but especially Joe who was both bone-weary and weary at heart. Baby brother felt things deeply - too deeply at times. So much had happened - Dora's arrival, the revelation of her secrets, Marcus Brunell's evil, and Adley Smythe's death. The last was the hardest. Adley died saving Joe and Joe was having a hard time accepting that. Since winter was coming, Joe'd asked Pa if he could be done with school for the fall session. Pa had hesitated, but agreed. It wasn't that little brother was hiding. Not Joe. He was a fighter.
He just needed time to rest.
Taking hold of the rig's side, Adam lifted himself up and took a seat in the carriage beside his brother. Joe was hanging onto one of the crossbars with his right hand and staring off into the distance. His left hand was trapped; bound to his side along with his arm to prevent movement.
"Hey, buddy," he said, not knowing what else to say.
Joe's lips twitched. He didn't look at him. "Hey, Adam."
It would either be a slap or a scowl, but he asked anyway. "How are you doing?"
His brother sucked in air and let it out slowly before answering. "I don't know."
Well, that was honest.
"Can you tell me about it?"
Joe's fingers played with the bar for a moment before he turned and looked at him. "I don't understand."
His brother's gaze went to the trail of mourners headed for the cemetery at the edge of town. "Adley. Why he did what he did."
Save him, he wondered, or nearly kill him?
Adam nodded. "Men are complicated, Joe. It's not easy to understand them."
"But, he was willing to…." Joe winced. "…kill you and yet he saved me. He could have let Marcus Drummond kill me too."
"Joe, look at me." When his brother did as he asked, he said softly, "Adley saved me too."
"Huh? He shot you!"
The black-haired man chuckled. "He shot the tree. He was just a bad shot and hit me in the side by accident."
Joe was blinking. "Now I really don't understand."
Adam leaned back in the carriage seat. He understood Adley to some degree. His friend had been dissatisfied with the lot life handed him. He wanted something more than the day to day drudgery of a ranch and being his father's son. Sadly, he had not been strong enough to make a way for himself. Instead, he had taken the easy way out.
When his turn came, he would face it like a man.
"You remember the day I found Adley and Darby dangling you over that stream? You were mad at me for something I'd said."
"That don't matter now."
"Eh, 'doesn't', Joe. You start talking like Hoss and Pa will make you go back to school." He shifted so he could look his brother in the eye. "Anyhow, I was saying…."
"Wilson was just being a jerk."
"Yes, he was. Still, it was true. I did say those things." His brother looked crushed, but he plowed ahead. "Adley and I had had a few shots of whiskey - being the big men, you know? We were down by the river goofing off -."
Joe was astonished. "You goof off?"
"From time to time," he laughed. "That's what this is about, Joe. I'm only human. Adley was only human. We make mistakes and we regret them."
His brother's eyes flashed. "Did you really say you thought my mother was the 'wrong' kind of woman?"
"No. I said that was what other people thought. Adley had heard things and he was asking me if they were true. Wilson turned it all around."
"Why do people talk about Mama?"
There was a stab of pain there deep as the wound to Joe's arm. Adam's gaze strayed to the stage depot where his father was standing, speaking with Dora Drummond. "Because people talk. They are dissatisfied with their own lives, so they live them out through others."
Joe hadn't missed where he was looking. "I really liked her."
"I know. I did too. But the time's not right."
"I hope she can find her son."
Adam nodded. "There's one more thing, Joe, I need to say to you."
His brother looked wary. "What's that?"
"I did not tell Adley that I wanted to be rid of you. I would never tell anyone that. You know that, right?"
Joe made a face. "Of course, I know that. Who'd want to get rid of me? I'm perfect, after all."
Before he could finish spluttering, a soft voice spoke from the side of the carriage. "Here's your sarsaparilla, Little Joe. I hope you don't mind that I brought it instead of Hoss."
Joe looked at him and then looked down. Cora Carrington was standing on the street with a bottle in her hand, oozing coquettish charm.
Baby brother swallowed hard and looked at him.
Nope. This was one rescue he was not going to make.
"So this is goodbye?" Ben asked.
Dora was dressed in traveling clothes and had several small valises at her feet. She'd seen him coming. He'd noticed how she eyed the door of the coach as if she might escape and hide. True to her nature, she stood her ground and greeted him.
The young woman nodded. "Sad to say."
"What about the school?"
"I spoke to the board. With the winter coming on, they made the decision to suspend classes since Miss Jones has asked to remain where she is until the spring."
Curious that he had not been called to that meeting.
"Your teaching certificate?"
A wry smile twisted her lips. "Intact, if somewhat tarnished."
Ben noted several people watching them. He took her hand and drew her away from the street and to a bench nestled in the shadows. Once they were seated, he asked, "Why…."
"Why didn't I simply tell the truth?" Dora sighed. "I have been running and hiding and…lying…for so long, Ben, I think…. I think maybe I forgot how."
"What about this other man? Did he know the truth?"
She started and then closed her eyes. "Dear Lord, Ben, that could have been you."
"I thought I had eluded Marcus. I was living in another state. I'd changed my name. I…fell in love, or at least I thought I did. Paul was a lot like you. Strong, determined. He wanted to protect me." She paused. "They found him drowned. I had no idea it was Marcus."
"Friends helped me to get away, but apparently he tracked me down. I don't think it was so much for me, though Marcus said it was, but he was determined to find Josiah."
"And you really don't know where the boy is?"
"No. I have written my sister." A smile lit her face, making it even more beautiful. "But I will soon!"
He'd offered her money to help her with the search, but she'd turned him down. She'd secured another teaching assignment in California and said she could make it without him.
He wondered if he could make it without her. Losing her was like losing Marie all over again.
No, that wasn't fair. It was Dora he was losing and it hurt like hell.
She was standing up. Ben looked. The stage coach driver was loading passengers' luggage onto the top.
"I have to go," she said.
He knew she did, though he didn't want her to. "I'll walk with you."
A hand on his chest stopped him. "No, let's say goodbye here out of the public eye." A second later she raised up on tiptoe to kiss him. It was a passionate kiss, one that had something of 'fare well' in it, instead of 'goodbye'.
And then, she was gone.
"You okay, Pa?" a soft voice asked from behind him. He hadn't heard him come up, but Adam was there as always to be his prop. He didn't know what he would do when the boy chose to pursue his own dream one day.
Learn to stand on his own, he supposed.
Casting an arm around the Adam's shoulders, Ben said, "Never better, son. Now, let's round up those brothers of yours and go home."