Bart's Story:

"Anything else?" The question came from Sheriff Jacobs.

I thought for a minute and shook my head. "No, I think that about covers it."

The sheriff put away the pad he'd been writing on and stood. "I appreciate this, Bart," he said as he offered his hand. "I know you probably didn't feel up to this, but I couldn't move things forward with the trial until I had everyone's statements."

"It's alright," I told the lawman giving his hand a firm shake. "I understand."

Jacobs was right: I didn't feel up to this. Three days after Bret and Jim's . . . disagreement, Doc decided I was doing well enough to move into the hotel, and that had been yesterday. I was a lot better than I'd been a week ago, but there was still a good bit of recovering to do. But I'd been honest when I said I understood. The sheriff needed that statement from me, and if telling my story was what was needed to wrap this thing up, I was willing to tell it, even if the last hour or so had left me drained and ready for some rest.

"I'll get this wrote up and bring it over for you to sign; should be ready tomorrow."

"Thanks, Sheriff." Jacobs tipped his hat and started to leave, but before he got to the door I called him back. "You ever decide on charges for the girl?" I was still more than a little curious about Charity, although I hadn't mentioned her since my disagreement with Bret.

Jacobs paused. "I'd say she's looking at accessory to kidnapping possibly attempted murder."

I was glad to hear attempted murder. I'd found out a couple of days ago the other patient Doc kept going to see was the stage driver. He was looking at an even longer recovery than me, but it appeared he was going to recover. "Thanks, Sheriff."

"Anything else?"

"No. I'll see you sometime tomorrow."

Jacobs tipped his hat again and left. A couple of minutes later there was a soft knock on the door and Bret came back in. He'd stayed away for my story, and I didn't blame him. Telling it had left me tired and antsy; I imagined reliving that nightmare, again, was the last thing he wanted to do.

"Get everything taken care of?" he asked.

"I think so. I'll have to sign something tomorrow, but that should be all."

Bret nodded. If I thought he'd been on edge before, it was nothing compared to how he'd been the last three days. Ever since he'd walked in on mine and Jim's talk, he'd been more uptight than ever. He helped me when it was needed and did what he could for me, but conversation had been kept to a minimum. He hadn't said a word about Boucher or the cabin or Charity, or anything else relating to our ordeal.

"Jacobs said those statements should be enough evidence for the judge. He doesn't think we'll be needed for the trial."

Bret nodded again. "Yeah, that's what he said."

For Bret's sake, I was hoping the sheriff was right. Before leaving Doc's I'd been able to see Jim again, and this time I'd made him tell me the whole story. He'd done a better job of it this time around, and by the time he was finished, I understood why Bret was so upset. He was actually the main reason I was willing to talk to Jacobs today. I figured the sooner we could put all this behind us, the sooner I'd get my brother back.

An awkward silence settled between us. There had been a lot of those moments over the last couple of days. I felt like we were both tiptoeing around each other and was about getting sick of it, but I understood Bret's awkwardness. I'd just been shot and unconscious, unpleasant as it had been, I'd had it easy compared to what Bret had gone through; Boucher's crazy court martial, being flogged and threatened with death. He'd spent a lot of time worrying about me too. Between the two of us, he'd had more to deal with.

I finally cleared my throat. There was something that had been eating at me the last few days and I was about ready to give into it. I would need help though, and Bret was the most obvious choice. He was also the one who would be the least willing. "Bret?"

"Yeah?" he asked sitting down. He didn't straddle the chair, but I noticed he still wasn't leaning back.

"Sheriff said he'd bring my statement over for me to sign tomorrow, but I was thinkin' about maybe tryin' to go to his office myself."

"You can't do that. You're not ready for a walk like that."

"Why? Doc told me to get some exercise."

"Walkin' down the hall or downstairs. The sheriff's office is . . . four blocks down. You're not ready."

For once I didn't take offense at Bret's protectiveness. One was because of his tone, but mostly because he was absolutely right. I probably wasn't ready, and I would likely get a similar reaction from Doctor James if he were here to hear about it. I knew I'd probably come to regret it, but that didn't mean I wasn't willing to try. "I could do it with help."

Bret sighed. "And you're askin' for help?"

"Yeah, I am."

A heavier sigh came from Bret before he pushed out of the chair and stalked to the window. "This is because of that girl, isn't it?" he said after a long pause. His posture was stiff and I could hear the same edge that had been in his voice the last time Charity had been mentioned.

"Yes."

"Bart, why . . . ."

"Before you say anythin' else, Bret, I'm not a child. You aren't allowed to tell me who I can and can't see."

Bret was quiet a minute then, "I know." He turned back around. "I didn't mean . . . it's . . . why? Why is it so important that you see her?"

"That's just it, Bret. I want to know why. Why she did all this." I thought after listening to Jim I might see things Bret's way, but I didn't. I still wanted to see her. If I thought she was a puzzle before, she was even more so now. I just wanted to know why? Why she'd gone along with her uncle's insane plot, why she'd helped me, why she'd done any of it. I understood Bret wanting to leave it all behind, but I needed a little more closure, and I thought Charity could give me that.

"I thought you'd talked to Buckley again. He didn't tell you everythin'?" Bret hadn't hung around the last time Jim had come by but I knew he had a good idea of what we'd talked about.

"Yeah, most of it, but I want to hear it from her."

"Why?"

"I don't know." I shrugged. "I guess I'm just curious about a girl who doesn't mind kidnapping and murder but goes out of her way to try to save one of them after the fact. You've talked to Doc, Bret. She probably saved my life out there."

Bret smiled but there wasn't much humor in it. "Well, it was you, Brother Bart. You ought to be used to women doin' crazy things for you by now."

I sort of smiled back. "I'm just lookin' for some answers, and I think she can give me some."

There was another long pause. "Nothin' I can say is gonna change your mind, is it?"

I shook my head. "No. I understand you want it over, so do I, but don't think it can be over until I can talk to her again. At least not for me. Can you understand that?"

Bret stared at the floor and for a moment I didn't think I was going to get an answer, but he finally looked up. "No, I can't understand. But I can accept it." A ghost of a smile came to his face. "I might as well help you. If I don't you'll just do it anyway and make my life more difficult than it is now."

I could return his smile for real this time. "That's right, Brother Bret. I probably would."

XXXXXX

My plan was ambitious; I'd known it was ambitious yesterday when I thought it up, but I didn't understand just how ambitious it was until I made it down the stairs the next morning. I was having serious doubts about whether or not I was going to be able to make to the sheriff's office when I saw the buggy.

"Your idea?" I asked Bret as he led me over.

He shrugged. "I figured you wouldn't make it otherwise."

I have to say, I was surprised. The best word I could think of to describe Bret this morning was resigned. He hadn't tried to talk me out of going, but he wasn't exactly hiding his displeasure. I wasn't sure if it was because he didn't think I was physically ready for this, or because of Charity; probably a little of both. Still, I was surprised he hadn't just got me as far as I could go then got me back to the room with an I told you so. Putting forth this kind of effort was more like Bret normally acted, but the last few days he'd been anything but normal. Maybe he was starting to relax and realize we were both going to be fine, even if I did talk to Charity.

Nothing else was said until Bret stopped the buggy in front of the sheriff's office. He tied the reins off and heaved a sigh before turning towards me. "You sure you wanna do this?"

"Yes," I said firmly.

Bret sighed again as he climbed down and I wondered yet again just why he was so bothered by this.

"Thanks," I said as he helped me down. He nodded stiffly in reply. I had a cane the doc had given me to help me get around the next couple of weeks, so I didn't have much of a problem with keeping steady, but Bret hovered at my elbow all the way to the door anyway. Watching him, I almost felt bad about this whole thing. One look at his face would tell most anyone this was the last place on earth he wanted to be and he was only here because of me.

Jacobs was bent over his desk and looked up when we walked in. "Bret." He sounded surprised. He sounded even more surprised when he saw me. "Bart." He rose from his chair and shook hands with both of us. "What are you two doin' here?"

"Well, this one's actin' like a fool. And I'm the fool that's helpin' him," Bret said giving the sheriff a wan smile.

"Actually, I'm here to sign your statement, sheriff," I said making use of one of the chairs in front of the man's desk.

"I woulda brought it to you," Jacobs said as he took some papers out of his desk and passed them to me. "Read over it and make sure everything looks alright."

Reading it again made me feel more than a little unsettled, but I knew it needed to be done. If it was going to be used as evidence it had to be right. "Looks fine," I said when I was finished.

Jacobs handed me a pen. "Then just sign and date it."

"There's somethin' else I'd like," I told him as I passed the signed statement back to him. "I'd like to see your prisoner."

Jacobs' eyebrows went up. "Miss Moss?"

"Yes, sir."

"I guess there's no reason you shouldn't. Come this way." Jacobs got his keys and went over to the door separating the cells from the office.

''I'll wait outside if you don't mind," Bret said quietly as he helped me up. I nodded. I could tell this was taking a toll on him, but I wasn't sure why. Once I finished with Charity, I told myself I'd work on Bret.

I followed the sheriff into the next room. There was only one prisoner, and she looked up as soon as we entered. I saw her eyes widen as she stood up.

Jacobs disappeared into his office and returned seconds later with a chair. "Holler when you're ready to come out." He put the chair down and then left. It was only then that Charity spoke.

"Bart. What are you doing here?"

"I wanted to see you. I got a few things to ask you."

"Oh. Like what?"

I sat down. "Like why?'

"You know why."

"Your cousin? You can't really believe that, Charity. You can't believe Bret deserved to die for that."

"I told you. He didn't say anything about killing him."

"Just flogging him?" Charity didn't answer. "What did he say?"

"Thomas needed justice."

I sighed. I wasn't getting far. So far the only thing she'd said was what she'd been saying all along. "Boucher said Thomas didn't know him growin' up. Did you?"

"Frank? No. Our mothers, mine and Thomas' were sisters. Aunt Cora came back home after she was able to get her divorce. Thomas was like my brother, and after my mother died, he and Cora were pretty much all the family I had left. It broke Cora's heart when we received word Thomas had been killed. She never wanted him to be in the army anyway. I think it was the broken heart that killed her."

I watched her closely while she talked. I could almost feel sorry for her, but I couldn't hear much emotion in her voice. No remorse or sadness at all, just the facts. "And?" I prompted after a long pause.

"Frank contacted me after Cora passed away. He told me he knew who was responsible for Thomas' death, and the army didn't plan on doing anything to him. But he said we could bring him to justice if we worked together."

"Bret?" Charity nodded. "He didn't kill your cousin, Charity. Surely you know that by now."

"Thomas is dead and no one was ever held responsible for that. He may not have done the killing but if he'd done his job . . . . "

"He was sick. He couldn't do his job."

"I didn't want him dead."

"So it was okay for your uncle to kidnap and beat him, as long as he didn't kill him?"

It took Charity a minute to reply. "Thomas was like a brother to me."

"And Bret is my brother. Charity, don't you understand? If Thomas was like your brother, then you know what it feels like to lose one. Did you really want me to lose mine?"

"It was about seeing justice done."

"By flogging him? That's not justice; the army doesn't even do that anymore and they haven't for years."

Charity looked away from me and I sighed realizing I wasn't going to get anywhere with this.

Charity looked sorry, but for what? I remember back when I was about eight or nine, having a talk with Pappy and him telling me there was a difference in being sorry you did something and being sorry you got caught. I had a feeling Charity was sorry she was in jail, not necessarily that she'd kidnapped a man or almost gotten him killed.

"I'm sorry your cousin was killed, but it wasn't Bret's fault. Do you understand that?"

She finally looked at me again. "I'm sorry you got mixed up in all this."

It wasn't lost on me that she hadn't answered my question. I'd told Bret I wanted some answers, and I had them now. I was afraid I was going to come in here and find a hysterical woman, horrified at the prospect of going to jail and terribly repentant for what she had done. I hadn't found that. I still didn't think she was a killer, and she probably had saved my life, but I wasn't convinced she believed what had happened to Bret was wrong. I wasn't sure I could make her see that either. I slowly pushed myself up, grateful for the cane Doc was insisting I use. "I'm sorry too, Charity." I'd gotten what I'd come for, there wasn't any reason to hang around. "Good luck."

Bret was leaning against the buggy when I hobbled out of the sheriff's office. He straightened when he saw me and hurried over to help me. "That was fast," he commented as he helped me back into the buggy.

"Not a lot to say."

Bret hesitated. "Did you find out what you wanted to know?"

"I did." He didn't ask about anything else and I didn't offer.

"You feel up to ridin' for a while?" he asked after he'd joined me in the buggy.

"Sure." I was feeling alright at the moment but even if I hadn't been I wouldn't have refused. Unless I was reading him wrong, Bret was about to open up to me.

Bret urged the horse on and headed out of town. The next fifteen minutes passed in silence, and I was starting to think I'd been wrong about him being willing to talk. He finally sighed. "Bart . . . I'm sorry I've been kind of a jerk lately."

"You had your reasons."

"There wasn't any call to take it out on you, though. I don't have the right to tell you who you can talk to, be it Buckley or . . . ."

"Miss Moss?" Bret nodded stiffly. I took a good look at him; most of the visible wounds had healed, but emotionally, maybe even mentally, Bret still had a ways to go. Now that I knew that, I wanted to know why, if only to give me some idea as to how I could help him. "You want to tell me why that bothered you so much?"

He smiled and shrugged. "Because sometimes I'm overprotective and forget it's been a long time since you needed me to hold your hand crossin' the street?"

"Is that a question?" That actually got a chuckle out of him. The first I'd heard in a while. "Really, Bret, what was the reason?"

"I don't know. I guess I'm just ready to put this whole thing behind me. I figured the best way to do was leave it all where it was. I couldn't understand you not thinkin' the same way."

"I still think there's somethin' else eatin' at you, though."

"You just don't give up, do you?"

"Not when I can tell something's bothering my brother."

That silence fell again, eventually broken by another heavy sigh. "She's just too close to him, to all of it. I want to forget about the whole thing."

"You mean Boucher?"

"Yeah." I didn't ask any more questions and was surprised when Bret pulled the buggy off the road a couple of minutes later. He secured the horse and then propped his elbows on his knees. "You remember how it felt in Douglas? Like we were less than animals. Like they just couldn't wait for us to die and get out of their way?"

"Yeah," I said softly. A man doesn't forget something like that. Ever. I remembered only too well the stench, the sickness, that slop that passed as food, the freezing nights, and all the taunts that let us know exactly how they felt about rebels. Most of all I remembered the hopelessness and all the times I wondered if I'd live ever to see home again. Looking at Bret I knew he was thinking along the same lines.

"After Douglas and then the army . . . When we finally made it home, I told myself I'd never let a man make me feel like that again." He finally looked at me and gave me a wan smile. "He did it. He said he wanted to break me, and he did. He had me snapping to attention and calling him sir; he planned on killing me and I did whatever he told me."

"Is that what's bothering you?"

"He had me on my knees, Bart, while he held all our lives in his hand. And I just obeyed."

"But he's dead now." Bret looked over at me. "You said that yourself. He's dead, and we're not. There's no shame in tryin' to stay alive, Bret. There wasn't when we were in the army, and there's not now. Well, we're still alive, and he can't pay any more than he already has."

Bret looked at me for a while before he smiled slightly. "I guess I'm bein' pretty stupid then."

I returned the smile. "You said it not me."

"You'd be right if you did say it."

"Look, you don't have to be ashamed of any of this . . . ."

"I'm not ashamed of it, I just . . . I just want to forget about it."

"Okay. If you want it over with, then it's over."

"It's over."

"Right," I agreed. I watched his face carefully, looking for any sign something was wrong. I guess Pappy taught him too well, though, because I had a feeling the only thing showing on that poker face was exactly what Bret wanted me to see. "So, we're okay?"

This smile showed off his dimples. "Yeah."

"And you're okay?"

He nodded. "Never better."

I didn't believe that. Bret had been too on edge for too long for him to suddenly be alright, but I knew I wasn't getting anything else out of him. He'd told me what he'd planned on telling me, and that was it. I'd let him get away with it for now, though. "So now what?" I asked. "I mean now that this is over."

Bret shrugged. "Well, before all this, we'd planned on traveling around and playing some poker. Seems like that's as good an idea as any. As soon as you're able that is."

"What about Jim?"

"I thought we might could sneak out in the night without him knowing it."

Bret was smiling when he said it, but I was sure he'd meant every word. "I'm askin' him to come."

Bret rolled his eyes. "I thought you weren't mad anymore," he mumbled as he picked the reins back up and pointed the horse towards town.

I watched him with a badly concealed smile. It looked like Bret was back, marginally anyway. It would take time for the scars, both mental and physical, to heal and it was something that would happen at Bret's pace. Maybe I could get him to tell me more, and maybe I couldn't, either way, I was going to have to take what I could get, and for now, that was good enough. I had other things to worry about now. Like how to keep Bret and Jim from killing one another should Jim decide to stay with us; I had a feeling he'd hang around a while just to make things hard for Bret.

I felt better than I had in some time as we drove back to town. We'd almost come full circle from where this whole mess started, and I could only hope the miles that lay ahead would be a whole lot smoother than the ones we were leaving behind.

The End