It was late when the lone man rode into Dodge, his horse played out, his clothes dusty from a hard trail, and his pockets full of money that didn't belong to him. Seeing the livery, he rode up, dismounted and knocked on the door; momentarily an old man with sleepy eyes stepped out.
"Put your horse up, mister?"
"Yeah. Give him all the grain and water he wants, and he needs a good groomin' too. It's been a long trail fer him."
"Looks like for both of you."
"Yeah," the man said, grinning.
"Stayin' long?" Moss asked as he eyed the tall man.
"Don't know yet," was all he said, although he understood the underlying meaning of the question. He reached into his vest pocket, pulling out a ten dollar gold piece. "Here. This should cover me for awhile."
"Sure will, mister, thanks."
Moss watched the tall stranger clad in the clothes of a gambler as he ambled up the street, and he couldn't shake the feeling that he knew the man from somewhere. He watched him until he disappeared into the Dodge House, and then Moss led the gelding into the stable, making a mental note that he might mention the gambler's late-night arrival to the marshal. It was probably nothing, but Moss was certain he'd seen the man somewhere before.
When Doc entered the saloon, Kitty was sipping her morning coffee, reading the newspaper. "Mornin' Doc," she said smiling.
"Morning," he grumbled as he sat down in a chair next to her, moaning as he did so.
Kitty bent her head down to look under the brim of his hat and into his eyes. "Well what in the world is the matter with you this morning?"
"Oh...I was out at the Collier's place all night. Youngest is down with whoopin' cough."
She pulled his hat off his head, setting it down on a chair. "Sam," she called to the bartender, "Can I get a cup for Doc?"
"Sure thing, Miss Kitty."
Kitty returned her attention to the newspaper, and Sam brought the old doctor a blue and white cup.
"Thanks Sam," the old man said as he poured some of the hot, dark liquid into it. He took a sip and glanced at Kitty. "What's in there that's got you so absorbed?"
"A story about a gamblin' ring in Texas..."
Adams swallowed his mouthful of coffee a little hard. "Gambling ring?"
"Yeah, seems they had a front man who purposefully lost money to set up a bunch of rich ranchers. Then his partners joined them at the table, and cheated the poor marks out of everything they had."
Doc took another sip of coffee and muttered with irritation, "What's so remarkable about that?"
She glanced up at him then. "Well the front man ratted them all out to the law in San Antonio, and then ran off with all the money, that's what."
Doc shrugged setting down his cup. "Maybe he didn't like the way they were doin' business."
"Very funny, curly." She looked back down at the paper, failing to notice his lack of humor regarding the subject. "Says here he made off with better than five thousand dollars."
"Good thing for him his partners are in jail."
"Well Doc, he's gonna be in for one helluva surprise somewhere down the road because they're not. Seems the sheriff in San Antone didn't have enough evidence against them to keep them locked up and he had to let them go. They're probably chasin' this guy down as we speak..."
Doc glanced at his watch then, and quickly stood up, putting his hat on his head. "Oh gosh, I didn't realize it was so late, I've gotta get going on my calls..."
Kitty looked up at the clock on the wall, and then at him. "Doc, it's barely 7:30 in the morning..."
He fidgeted slightly with the brim of his hat. "Well, I gotta check my bag and make sure it has everything I might need and I have to hitch up my horse and buggy ya know..."
Without another word, Doc Adams ducked quickly out the batwing doors. Kitty glanced over at Sam, laughing slightly. "Now what do you suppose that was all about?"
Sam shook his head grinning. "Maybe he remembered somebody owes him some money!"
Kitty giggled as she took a sip of coffee. "Poor ol' doc, he works so hard, and it seems like he barely ever has two dimes to rub together, so I hope you're right, Sam!"
Doc glared at the telegraph operator. "Are you sure there's nothing for me?"
"Yeah, Doc, I'm sure there ain't nothin' for you."
Barney watched as Doc stomped out the door heading toward the post office, and he smiled: better Pete deal with the old rooster than him.
Pete looked up into the irritated face of Doc Adams and braced himself for whatever was coming down the pike.
"I need my mail."
"You ain't got any, Doc."
"Whaddya mean I ain't got any?" Adams roared.
"Well, there ain't no mail for you, Doc, that's what I mean."
"There has to be, check again."
Pete looked down for a minute, shuffling through some envelopes, then back up at the physician. "There isn't any." He stared into the doctor's worried eyes and relented slightly. "If you tell me where you're expecting it from, I'll keep an eye out and be sure to get it to you quick, Doc."
Adams' voice softened, "I don't know where it's comin' from..."
"If ya don't know where it's comin' from, how do ya know to expect any?"
"Because I know," Adams bellowed. He swiped an angry hand over his mustache. "Oh, never mind!"
Pete shook his head as Adams stormed out. He turned to his assistant and muttered, "Chester is right; he's gettin' more grumpy every day..."
Joe held a small pad of paper and his pen at the ready. "What'll you have?" He asked the man.
"Steak and eggs, plate of flapjacks and a pot of coffee." Joe wrote it down and stared at the man for a moment. "What?" The man asked, slightly annoyed.
"Nothin' I guess...you been in Dodge before, mister?"
"Oh. You sure seem familiar..."
"Well, I've never been here before."
Kitty noticed him as soon as he entered the saloon, and watched him saunter to the bar and order a shot of whiskey. Standing a few inches shorter than Sam, she guessed his height to be around 6'2". He cut a well-muscled figure in the tight black pants and frock coat he was wearing, and the black hat with its medium brim and flat crown was typical enough of a gambler. He appeared to be in his early-to-mid 40s and still quite good-looking, with a lot of thick, curly, dark hair which was just starting to show some white strands. She noticed his strong, large hands and how gracefully they moved, and an odd sensation streamed through her, but she couldn't place what had caused it.
Curiosity filled her, and she walked over to the tall newcomer. "Afternoon, stranger...I'm Kitty Russell; I own the Longbranch."
He removed his hat, nodding his head, a charming smile curving his lips. "The pleasure is all mine, Miss Russell. My name is Charles."
His smile was quaintly sincere and there was a kindness about it that was very attractive. "Just Charles, ma'am."
"All right, where are you from, Charles?"
His light blue eyes twinkled at her in amusement. "Down Texas way, ma'am."
"You don't sound Texan..."
"No ma'am. I'm originally from the East."
His dark curly hair framed broad cheeks and a square jaw, with dark eyebrows that managed to highlight the brightness of his baby blue eyes. The odd sensation returned, racing through her like a speeding train; there was something about him, but she just couldn't put her finger on it. And then she realized that she was staring at him.
"Oh, my, I apologize Charles, I didn't mean to stare at you...it's just that--"
"--I remind you of someone?"
Her eyes darted to his, surprised at his uncanny ability to read her mind. "Yes, you do, but I can't place it..." She grinned at him. "Are you a gambler?"
He smiled widely. "Sometimes."
"There's usually a game or two in the evenings. But I should tell you, we only allow fair games at the Longbranch. No dealing from the bottom of the deck; no counting cards; and no gunfights if a disagreement occurs."
He placed one of his strong hands gallantly over his heart as he vowed, "I wouldn't dream of it, Miss Russell." He looked deeply into her crystal blue eyes then, and Kitty felt her cheeks flushing with color. "Do all of your customers receive so much personal attention?"
She laughed, blushing even more. "No," she admitted, "just the handsome ones..." And her eyes spotted the saloon doors swinging as Doc Adams walked in. "And speaking of handsome customers," she glanced back at the newcomer, "I have to see to one right now, if you'll excuse me, Charles."
He followed her gaze and felt his jaw clench. "Certainly, Miss Russell," he said. Kitty didn't notice him flinch slightly before turning back toward the bar and his drink.
She moved over to Doc, taking his arm. "Are you in a better mood this afternoon, curly?"
"What're you tryin' to say, that I was in a foul one this morning?"
"Well, you weren't exactly easy to get along with, Doc."
"Oh I wasn't, huh?"
"No." He looked slightly hurt by her playful candor and she pat his arm. "Sit down and let me buy you a drink, handsome."
"All right," he smiled, "I will."
He sat in a chair and she called over to Noonan, "Sam, two whiskeys..."
But when she turned back to Doc, he was staring intently at the bar. She glanced over her own shoulder and realized he was staring at Charles. "Do you know that man at the bar, Doc?"
"What?" He stared at her blankly for a second then quickly added, "Uh, no."
Sam set the glasses down and Doc gulped a mouthful of whiskey. Kitty brushed an errant curl from his forehead. "Doc? You okay?"
"Yeah," he answered brusquely; but seeing the concern in her eyes, he added softly, "Just had a rough day, that's all..."
Kitty frowned slightly, but from past experience, knew better than to push the old physician. Instead, she entwined her fingers through the wavy hair on the back of his head, gently brushing through the thick curls.
"Doc, maybe you should take a day off and go fishing. It would do you good to relax a little."
He looked up at her then, and she noticed the deep worry lining his pale blue eyes. "I've got too much to do here, Kitty." He pat her arm. "There's nothing to be concerned about, I'm fine."
Sensing the lie, she untangled her fingers from the thick waves and stroked her hand over the back of his head. "You know you can always talk to me, don't you, Doc?"
He nodded, downed the rest of his drink and stood, patting her softly on the back. "I'll see you tomorrow, honey, I'm headin' back to the office." He leaned over and kissed the top of her head. "Just don't you worry..."
She watched Doc amble out of the saloon, gaining no confidence from his reassurance. She glanced back toward the man who called himself Charles, and decided that keeping an eye on him was a good idea.
She silently observed the poker game from behind the bar. Charles had been cleaning Jake Worth's clock for more than three hours, and if he was cheating, Kitty couldn't catch him at it.
Sam leaned toward her as he wiped down a glass. "He's one of the smoothest I've seen in a long time."
"Yeah...I'll be damned if I can spot any sleight of hand."
"He's almost as good as you are..."
Her eyes darted to Sam's dark ones and he winked at her. She smiled then, shaking her head. "It's a good thing for you that I'm so fond of you, Sam Noonan."
"Yes ma'am," Sam answered, smiling.
She swatted him with a bar towel. "Oh, go on!"
Adams couldn't force his mind to focus on the article written by Dr. A.J. Bloch in New Orleans, anymore than he could keep the anger he was feeling from churning up his stomach. His right hand reached under his glasses and rubbed his eyes as he let out a long sigh of air. He hadn't seen Charlie in almost 25 years: but he knew why he'd shown up now, and it galled him at the very least. He ran his right hand through his thick hair and then yanked off his glasses, tossing them onto the journal which now lay on his desk. Doc stared into the nothingness of the wall, unable to fathom why Charlie's life had turned out the way it did - the waste of it made him angry.
He sat back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest: it was just a matter of time before Charlie's heavy footsteps would come up his staircase. All he had to do was sit and wait...
Stuffing the money he'd just won from Jake Worth and the three cowboys at the table into his pockets, Charles stood, downing the last of the liquid in his glass. Kitty noted with some amusement that many of the girls had stayed late to watch the outcome of the game; but the saloon owner knew damned well it wasn't the game they'd been watching. The tall man turned to each of them to say good night, smiling sweetly, whispering in each girl's ear.
Sam leaned down toward his boss, a hint of sarcasm in his voice, "I hadn't realized I was in the presence of the legendary Don Juan..."
Kitty smiled at him. "I hate to admit it Sam, but as a woman, I have to say that Charles is very attractive, and quite charming."
The bartender grunted in disapproval before turning to continue cleaning the bar. Kitty smiled at him, then returned her attention back toward the poker table which was breaking up for the night. As the losers cleared out and the girls dispersed, Charles picked up the half-empty bottle of whiskey and walked toward Kitty with it.
"Miss Russell, care for a nightcap?"
She smiled at him. "No thanks, Charles."
His disarming grin tugged at the corners of his lips. "Very well then, perhaps tomorrow night..."
"Anything's possible," Kitty responded dryly.
The sparkling light blue eyes twinkled at her playfully, sending a shimmer of familiarity through her. "I do love an honest woman, Miss Russell."
She laughed then. "I'm sure you do, Charles, but I'm not so sure you realize what or who you'd be gettin' into..."
He put his strong, thick right hand over his heart in mock sadness. "It wounds me to think that you're spoken for... Just who is the lucky gentleman, hmm?"
She smiled into the soft blue eyes that she found disturbingly comfortable. "Good night, Charles..."
He bowed ever so slightly at her, put his hat on, and headed toward the door. "Good night sweet lady..." He glanced at Sam, smiling. "'Night Sam."
The bartender nodded at him, and Charles slipped out the door. Noonan turned to face Kitty. "There's something about that man..."
"Yeah, Sam, I know what you mean. He's terribly familiar, yet I'm sure he's never been here before."
"Are you positive he hasn't been in here before?"
"Oh yeah, I'm sure." He stared at her then, an eyebrow arching up, and she explained, "Sam, a woman doesn't forget a man like that, even if she has no interest in him."
He smiled at her. "Yes ma'am."
Her eyes trailed the gambler's wake. "There is something in those eyes and that grin that just makes me feel like I know him though..."
Both Kitty and Sam returned their attention to the work of closing up for the night. It had been a long day.
Hands shoved deeply into his pockets, Charles ambled up Front Street toward the Dodge House, unaware that he was being watched. He glanced up at the second floor of the general store as he passed by, noting that there was light coming from the front window. He stopped for a moment, contemplating a late night visit; but his business with the good doctor could wait: there was no sense in ruining a perfectly good night's sleep. He walked toward the hotel, and was startled when he was pulled into an alley by a strong arm.
The man shoved him into the wall and slugged him across the jaw. A second man punched him twice in the midsection, causing him to bend over, grunting in pain. He felt a board or club strike his lower right back, and he cried out in distress. As he reared up to take a swing at one of the men, he heard the cocking of a pistol trigger, and he froze. He tried to see the faces of his attackers, but the alley was too dark to make out any features.
"Give us yer money," a man's voice demanded.
"I don't suppose it would do any good to tell you I haven't got any..."
A fist slammed into his back again, and he gasped for air. "Don't get funny, just hand it over."
"It's in my breast pocket..."
Charles started to reach for it, but the smaller of the two men slapped his hand down and reached into his jacket, pulling out the billfold. He removed the cash from the wallet and threw the leather folder down to the ground. The taller man holstered his gun and for good measure, pounded his right fist across Charles' cheek, and the large man fell to his knees. The smaller assailant grabbed him by his thick, dark hair and landed another punch to his head, and Charles felt lightheaded from the strength of it.
"It'd be best if you kept yer mouth shut about this, gamblin' man..."
And then Charles placed the voices: it was two of the men he'd just played poker with at the Longbranch. The larger man slugged him once more in the face before the two men quickly took off down the alley, disappearing into the night. Slowly Charles reached over for his wallet, and then using the wall as a balance, painfully pulled himself upright. He pushed away from the brick and staggered out from the alley, and Sam Noonan saw him as he was leaving the Longbranch for the night.
Noonan ran to the injured man. "Charles...what happened?"
"I'm afraid two of the gentleman I was playing poker with are not graceful losers..."
Sam examined the man's face and could see the swelling and bruises. "Come on, I'll take you up to Doc's, he should--"
"--No," Charles said sternly. Then embarrassed by his own curtness, he softened his timbre, "I'm fine, Sam, really. But I thank you for your concern."
Noonan didn't let go of the gambler, and started moving him in the direction of the doctor's office. "Charles, you've been beat up pretty bad, so don't argue about it, and don't worry about the fee...if you can't pay it tonight because those fellas took your money, Doc won't give you a bad time about it. You can pay him later when you've got it."
"You sound awfully sure of that."
"Ol' Doc don't care so much about money; he tends anyone who needs his help."
Charles looked into Sam's dark eyes. "You put a lot of stock into that old sawbones, don't you?"
"Everyone in Dodge does, now come on..."
He heard the heavy footfalls on the staircase outside and frowned: instead of one man, it was two. The door opened a moment later, and Doc stood quickly to help Sam guide Charles toward the exam table. The tall stranger sat on the edge of the table and stared into Doc's pale eyes. Sam observed the odd look that passed between the two men, and placed a protective hand on Adams' shoulder.
"Want me to stay and help, Doc?"
"No Sam, I'll be fine. Thanks."
Noonan headed toward the door. "If you need anything, Doc, don't hesitate to ask."
"Good-night Sam," Charles said before the barkeep closed the door behind him.
The two men stared at each other without saying a word for a long moment, then Doc shook his head, put his hands on either side of the tall man's face and examined the swelling and bruises.
"Did you start the brawl, or finish it?"
"Neither," Charles said, his voice carrying more than just a hint of annoyance. "I was attacked in an alley and robbed of my poker winnings."
Doc began cleaning the cuts on the man's face with alcohol. "That yer way of tellin' me you ain't gonna pay me?"
"It's just the truth of what happened."
Adams stopped for a moment and glared into the younger man's light blue eyes. "The truth?" Doc grunted. "That's a foreign object in your mouth..."
Charles swatted away the strong hand gently tending his injuries. "It wasn't my idea to come up here, so just forget about the lectures..."
"And I suppose it wasn't yer idea to come to Dodge neither..."
He glared darkly into the small doctor's eyes. "Obviously that was a mistake," Charles ground out as he tried to get off the table.
Adams held him down. "You just hold on a minute. Nobody said you weren't welcome here..."
The younger man softened, his voice turning vulnerable, "I didn't know where else to go."
Doc ran his hands down the man's chest, pressing on his ribs, but they weren't broken. "Why didn't you just send a letter or telegram like you always do when you need bailin' out?"
"That's not fair--"
"--Oh isn't it? Since you were twenty years old, I've been pullin' you out of one scrape after another, but I only hear from you when you need me - or rather, my money." Doc reached under Charlie's jacket and around his back, and the man howled in pain when the doctor lightly touched the area above his right kidney. A frown of worry darkened Adams' eyes and his voice filled with tenderness, "That hurt bad?"
Charles nodded, wincing. "Bad enough."
And Doc felt the familiar welling up of emotion in his throat as he looked deeply into the pale blue eyes so like his own. He cupped the side of his man's face with a gentle hand, his voice soft with both sincerity and guilt, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you..."
"I know that, big brother." Charles smiled then, trying to lighten the air in the room. "You look old, Galen..."
Doc playfully patted his brother's cheek. "So do you after twenty-five years, Charlie." Adams removed his brother's jacket, and untucked and lifted his shirt, examining his lower back. He gently pressed on the discolored area, and his brother grimaced in pain. "What did they hit you with?"
"Don't know, felt like a board or a club or something," Charles answered through the pain.
"You're pretty badly bruised back here, might have damaged the organ. I'm gonna want ya to lie quiet fer a few days, and let that kidney heal."
"Wasn't plannin' on bein' here that long, Galen."
Adams moved around to face his brother. "What'd you come here for, Charlie? I know it wasn't money this time, at least not if the papers got it right."
Charlie hated seeing the color of disappointment in his older brother's eyes, and he looked away under their scrutiny. "No, it wasn't for money."
His eyes raised to meet Doc's. "I need a death certificate."
"I want you to make out a death certificate with my name on it. If they think I'm dead, they'll stop lookin'..."
Doc paced away, squeezing his neck muscles with his right hand. "Charlie, I...I can't do that..."
"Please." Shaking from pain and exhaustion, he stepped off the table with great effort, and came up behind his much smaller, older brother, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Lenny, you don't know these men; they'll kill me."
Doc frowned at the family nickname; he often wondered why his parents had named him Galen only to call him Len or Lenny for short. He glared at his brother, his feathers now very ruffled.
"You're asking me to violate an oath and ethics that are very sacred to me, Charlie."
"I'm asking you to save my life, big brother."
The beating his body took caught up with him then, and Charlie groaned with exhaustion. Doc gently eased him back onto the exam table, carefully lying him down. "Let's talk about this in the morning. Right now, I want you to get some rest." Adams removed his brother's shoes, and then unbuttoned the top half of his shirt. He pulled a blanket from a nearby cabinet and tenderly covered Charlie with it. "Do you need something to help you sleep?"
Charlie shook his head, but grabbed his older brother's muscular hand in his own. "I'm sorry, Len, I know I've been a disappointment to you."
"That's not true, Charlie. I just wish you'd made other choices in your life."
"Yeah, like bein' a lawyer; that's what ma always said pop wanted for me." He looked into his brother's soft eyes. "But I didn't know pop: you were the only father I ever knew. You were the one who took care of the family; you were the one who took care of me. And you always told me I could be anything I wanted when I grew up."
"I just meant you didn't have to be a lawyer, Charlie."
"But you became a doctor, exactly like the family wanted. You've always done what's expected of you, haven't you?"
Doc shrugged, letting go of his brother's hand. "My responsibilities were always different than yours." A sharp pain stabbed Charlie in the kidney and he groaned, reaching for his back. Doc's voice and demeanor softened immediately, whether out of habit or guilt he didn't know. "Here now, you let me take care of that..."
Doc went to a cabinet and extracted a jar of salve. He scooped some of it into his right hand, then gently rolled his brother on his left side, pulled down the blanket and lifted his shirt. Doc softly rubbed his hand over the bruised kidney, sending a soothing warmth through Charlie's back.
"It aches awful bad, Len..."
Adams lightened his touch a little, allowing the salve to do most of the work. "Try and relax, Charlie. I want you to get some sleep."
After a few minutes of Doc's gentle attention, the heaviness in the younger Adams' voice was apparent, "Lenny?"
"Please don't let them find me..."
Adams brushed a comforting hand over his younger brother's forehead. "Don't you worry, baby boy, I couldn't stop protecting you even if I wanted to..." Doc's voice diminished to a whisper, "I simply wouldn't know how."
The younger Adams dropped off to sleep, and Doc covered him with the blanket. He blew out all the lanterns but the one by the exam table, which he lowered, then he pulled a chair close by and sat down. Doc leaned over and gently rolled Charlie onto his back, being careful not to wake him. The old physician brushed a soft hand through his brother's thick hair, smiling at the fact that Charlie hadn't begun to lose any; Galen knew that was only a matter of time. The smile disappeared as he wondered how much of Charlie's recklessness was because his older brother had spoiled him. Adams smiled ruefully; there was no defense for it except that he loved his little brother very deeply, and he had always accepted the fact that Charlie was his responsibility.
Doc reached over and placed his hand on top of his brother's, his eyes welling up with emotion. "You'll never know how I've missed you, Charlie," he whispered.