Joe knew he was witnessing a spectacle of magic. It had to be magic. The way Hop Sing's cousin made the wooden top dance along a string just couldn't happen without magic. Joe watched, mesmerized, while the cousin watched him. And then the man told Joe to try it. He even showed Joe how. And Joe was able to do it, too, to make that top dance along that thin, little string. It wasn't easy. There were a lot of fumbles. But the top was sturdy enough to survive a hundred crashes.

Then the cousin was gone, but Joe's friend, Mitch, was there. And Joe showed him the trick; and he tried it, too. He also dropped it a dozen times, just like Joe.

Then they turned away—only for a moment. …A moment, that was all. By the time they turned back, it was gone.

The cousin was angry at Joe for being so careless with his gift. And Hop Sing was angry at Joe for making the cousin angry. And Joe lost his magic. Old Cranky Hank stole it. He was dead, but he still stole it. He was a dead, cold corpse with a hole in his gut yelling at Joe for making a ruckus.

But it was the hunter who'd made the ruckus, wasn't it? The hunter was yelling at Joe. He'd wanted Adam to make that top dance like Hop Sing's cousin had. But Joe couldn't do it, so Adam said he wouldn't either. Instead, he sat beside Joe on that cold, hard ground, watching Bongani clumsily try to make that top dance along a string of thread attached to the stitches in Joe's arm.

And Hoss was laughing.


"You sure that's how I'm s'posed to do it, Hop Sing?"

"Hop Sing sure!"

How did Hoss and Hop Sing end up in the hunter's camp?

"Aw, doggone it!" Hoss was saying. "Ain't ya' gonna show me?"

"Hop Sing not skilled like cousin."

There was a heavy thud, close enough to make the ground shake. Joe felt a vibration in his arm and with it a dull, nagging ache from Bongani's stitches. Somehow Hoss had taken Bongani's place; but he couldn't make the toy dance any better than Bongani had.

"Hoss wake Little Joe!" Hop Sing sounded angry. "Go! Take kōngzhú outside!"

"Joe fell asleep again?" Hoss asked.

No. Joe wasn't asleep. He was right there. Watching. Or…listening, anyway. He realized he wasn't really seeing anything anymore.

"Sure did," Adam said then.

"Shucks. I didn't know that. I wouldn't have messed with this thing if I'd a known. Why'd he come downstairs if all he was gonna do is sleep?"

I'm not sleeping, Joe said. Only…he couldn't really say for sure he'd spoken.

"Because," Pa said, "he's tired of being upstairs."

Joe's fingers curled around the thin cushion beneath him, reminding him he wasn't on the ground after all. He was on the settee. He was at home, not at the hunter's camp. There wasn't any hunt anymore, just like there wasn't any magic.

They were all gone. Hank. Bongani. The hunter. Even Hop Sing's cousin was gone. But Joe was home. And so was Adam. And that toy top that used to spin its magic dancing along a string…that was home now, too. The stagecoach company had emptied out Hank's trunk; and Adam had made sure they gave that old toy back to Joe—although Joe wasn't really sure why. He wasn't a kid anymore. And there wasn't any magic left, not after what that hunter had done to all those people…and especially to Hank.

"Now," Pa added, "why don't we all go outside and let him sleep?"

"Notasleep," Joe mumbled—or he tried to, anyway. Pa had been right. He was tired of being upstairs. He was tired of being alone with his dreams, trapped in his room with the ghosts of a hunt that had stolen a whole lot more magic than a man like Hank could even imagine.

"Joe?" Adam asked. "You say something?"

"Notasleep." There. It was still a mumble, but he was sure he'd made a sound that time. He had to make them hear him. He didn't want them to go outside. He didn't want them to leave him alone.

"Get those rocks out of your mouth and maybe we'll believe you." Joe could hear the grin in Adam's tone; he could almost believe it buoyed him to the surface, lifting him away from all those ghosts.

"M'awake," Joe mumbled a bit louder than before.

"Sure you are," Adam teased.

"I am." Joe finally blinked his eyes open. "I'm awake." He saw them then, all of them. Adam, looking thinner than he should, but much healthier than he had a mere day ago…Pa, the worry he'd been carrying since finding Adam and Joe finally smoothing from his brow…and Hoss, grinning like a kid with a shiny new toy despite the yellow remnants of fading bruises that reminded Joe too clearly of his middle brother's struggle with that fiend of a man, Bongani. Even Hop Sing looked happy, a rarity Joe could never overlook. They were all smiling at Joe; and somewhere through the lifting fog of his unplanned nap he could almost swear he saw old Cranky Hank grinning, too.

"Hey, Joe!" Hoss stepped back to try maneuvering that silly top along its two-handled string. "What do ya' bet I'm gonna out-do you with this thing by the time that arm of yours is all healed up?" The top fell from its perch on the string almost as soon as he'd started trying to balance it.

"Not a chance, brother." Joe turned his head, meeting Adam's gaze. He noticed something was missing. Tension, he decided. Adam was relaxed, like there wasn't anything to worry about…like whatever had happened out there on that hunt, and all the horror that came after…well…like it really was finished, like there was nothing left of it, no lingering scar to feed its ghosts with morsels of doubt and regret.

And suddenly Joe got to wondering if some of that old magic had been salvaged after all.

"I'll have you beat on my very first try," Joe boasted.

He did see doubt in Adam's gaze then. But it was a good kind of doubt, a kind Joe could live with just fine.


~ End ~

Closing note: the Chinese toy top dancing on a string is called Kōngzhú