Summary: Adam’s decision to leave the Ponderosa is interrupted when the Cartwright brothers are forced to embark on a grim journey. Thanks to Jo for the encouragement.
Rated: K+ (19,205 words)
Hoss’ question cut through the peaceful evening like a reaper. Instead of answering it, Adam squinted into the setting sun so he could keep an eye on Joe swimming at least a quarter mile out. Not that he’d admit it. Joe wasn’t a kid anymore, going on twenty, and “old habits dying hard” was kind of a sore subject with his little brother. Even from a distance, Adam could see him alternating strokes with a powerful kick. Joe’s strength surfaced in his swimming, even if it didn’t always show up on dry land. No doubt about it. Things were changing. He knew his brothers were old enough to help their father run the Ponderosa without him being a part of it. Adam may have been wanted, but he wasn’t needed. When would he tell them? How could he tell them? Taking a coward’s stance, Adam decided to change the subject instead.
“Joe’s been swimming long enough,” he said, closing his eyes to the glare on the water and to his brother’s question. “I hope he’ll have enough energy to sit a horse. Hop Sing’s not going to be happy with us, when we come home without a fish between us.”
“Joe will ride just fine,” Hoss replied crossly, “just like he always does. And don’t you go dodgin’ my question by talkin’ bout fishing. Now I want to know when you’re figgering on telling them that you’re going to Boston. I only promised I wouldn’t tell cause you said you would.”
“I’ll tell them,” Adam replied, feeling his own irritation rising in response.
Adam could feel the breeze kicking up, the sun ready to slip behind the heavily forested ridge. Mosquitoes were clouding over the water. It was close to evening, and Adam couldn’t remember why he had agreed to an hour at the lake. By the time they made it back, it would be dark and too late to get anything done. For a moment, it looked like Joe was heading back to shore, but then he angled off again.
“Damn it,” he muttered. “We’ll get eaten alive if we stay much longer. I’d never have let you two talk me into fishing, if I knew he was planning on staying all night. We still have work waiting for us.”
“Joe knows what needs to be done.” Hoss wrinkled his nose, scanning the water and then looked hard at his older brother. “Same as me and you, Adam.”
Adam heard the reproach in Hoss’ words. He didn’t know what to say to him. It was easier to look out over the lake and be irritated with Joe than deal with his decision. He shook his head at the view. It was beautiful. So damn beautiful it made him grit his teeth at the sight of it. That view could lure a man into staying a lifetime or longer. If it had his way, he’d never get away. The granite mountains bordering them were ageless, but he sure as hell wasn’t.
Recently, all Adam’s potential had become a burden, heavy on his shoulders. He could never live up to what he should be doing with his life. After he’d returned from college, he’d promised himself he would only stay a year. Two at most. Yet, a decade later, he was still fishing for his supper with his two grown brothers. A man could spend an afternoon at the lake and end up staying a lifetime. And Hoss was still waiting for his answer. If the Ponderosa got its way, the answer would be, “Never.”
“When Pa gets back from his trip, I’ll tell them both,” Adam said, settling it for himself as well. “I don’t want to tell Joe before Pa. I’m not sure either of them will take it well.”
Adam looked up sharply, surprised to hear a rare note of sarcasm in his brother’s voice. He shouldn’t have told Hoss before the others. It was asking too much.
He sighed and pushed up, trying to wave Joe back to no avail. “There’s no way we’ll make it home before nightfall.”
Hoss harrumphed, apparently willing to let the painful subject slide. “I’d expect not. We’ll be eating sandwiches for supper for sure. Why don’t you dive in after him and haul him back? What’s he doing out there, anyhow?”
Adam grinned and dipped his toe into the cold water. “He’s killing time. Our time, to be exact. And no thank you. I’ve had enough swimming for the day. I think he’s trying to make it out to Pillar Rock. You’ve got to say one thing for our younger brother – he’s ambitious.”
“He may be ambitious, but I’m just about starving,” Hoss stood up and bellowed, “Come on in, Little Joe! We’re hungry and getting mean, and we’re gonna thrash you if you stay out any longer!”
Adam laughed at that and started reaching for his clothes, carefully laid out on the sand. It was time to pack up, with or without Joe.
Hoss turned to him, troubled all over again. “Dadburnit, Adam, you can’t leave the Ponderosa, you just can’t. How’s Pa gonna get along without you?”
How am I going to get along without you? How can the Cartwrights get along without each other? Those weren’t words that needed to be spoken out loud. Adam looked at his brother, saw his sadness, and was sorry for it. But he’d made his decision. If he didn’t leave this time, he probably never would. There wouldn’t always be a job offer in Boston. He’d seen enough of the world to know that opportunities didn’t hang around, waiting for Adam Cartwright to make the best of them.
“Pa will do what he has to, brother, same as I will. You and Joe will do the same.”
Hoss began to reply but suddenly froze at a scuffling sound behind them. As Adam instinctively reached for his gun, Deputy Foster came suddenly slipping down the bank, swearing as he hit the sand. He fumbled to his feet, brushing sand off his badge and holster. Quickly, the brothers finished getting dressed, while their visitor politely studied the fine sunset reflecting all across the water.
Buttoning his shirt, Hoss greeted the man sheepishly, “Howdy, Clem. What brings you out here this time of day?”
“Oh, uh… hi, boys. Hop Sing said I’d find you here.” Clem was clearly uncomfortable, frowning when he spotted Joe still a good distance across the lake. “Ain’t it a little late for swimming?”
Adam smiled. “For us ordinary mortals. He may look the same as you an me, if only a little bit smaller, but Little Joe’s part fish, part saddle pony – “
“And part jackrabbit,” Hoss grinned.
“But we like to keep the mortal part worn out,” Adam said, raising an eyebrow. “Keeps him out of trouble that way.”
“Except when it keeps us from eating on time,” Hoss clutched his belly, which had been gurgling dramatically for nearly an hour. Suddenly, he frowned. “Clem, did Hop Sing send you to fetch us for supper?”
Clem looked away, and Adam noted that the man seemed somewhat addled. He’d taken off his hat, and it came to him then that it wasn’t out of respect for their state of undress. Although he wasn’t a superstitious man, Adam realized, suddenly and sickeningly, why the deputy had gone to so much trouble to find them. There was only one kind of bad news that would have the man so unnerved, and there was only one member of the family who wasn’t present and accounted for.
“Clem,” Adam asked, gently, “Do you have something to tell us? Is it about Pa?”
The deputy lifted his head and met Adam’s eyes straight on. The look on the decent lawman’s face told Adam everything he needed to know. Suddenly, there didn’t seem to be enough air left in the world for all of them. He longed to dive into the lake, to join his little brother in blissful, soundless unknowing.
“I’m sorry, Adam… Hoss…” Clem began and fingered the brim of his hat. “Roy’s in Carson City. Otherwise, he’d have been the one to come.”
“Just say what you gotta.” Hoss’ demand was a growl in his throat. “Tell us what you come for.”
Adam spared a glance at his brother. Hoss’ fists were clenched, as if he wanted nothing more than to throttle the deputy’s bad news and squeeze the life out of it.
Sounding calm, Adam asked again. “Do you have news for us, Clem?”
“We got a wire from Morgan Crossing,” he said. “Boys, I don’t know how to tell you this. Your pa’s dead. He was killed in a bank robbery. The robber was killed by the sheriff, but your pa and two other customers were cut down in the crossfire. It’s already been a week since it happened. I guess it took some time for the sheriff in town to track down where they could find your pa’s kin. They identified him off a money order he was carrying. I rode here as soon as I got the wire. I just wish there was something I could do… “
Clem kept talking, but Adam could hardly hear him. He felt his world spinning out control, away from him. It was like being dropped in a childhood nightmare. Impossibly, his stomach growled, letting him know he was still late for supper. He wanted to retch on his own hunger, confused by his competing instincts. Adam wondered how he had stumbled into this new life. Bit by bit, he backed up until he was sitting on a fallen log. He rubbed his eyes as if by doing so, he could rub the deputy out of his sight. When he opened them, Clem still stood in front of him, and Hoss was at his side, staring out across the beach, his guileless blue eyes filled with grief and pain.
“He was on his way home,” Hoss said, numbly. “He was done at the auction and was gonna ride home. That’s what he wired. He was gonna be home for Little Joe’s birthday next week.”
“I’m sorry, boys.” Clem looked at the ground, miserably. “This is terrible news for everyone. There won’t be another man like your pa in these parts again. Not in my lifetime anyway.”
“Nor in mine,” Adam said so softly that only Hoss could hear him. The shock of it hadn’t set in. He could think of deadlines to be met, bills to be paid, fences to be mended. Anything other than the fact that his father was dead.
“We gotta go there, Adam.” Hoss was squeezing his arm so hard, it hurt. “You, me, and Joe. We gotta go to Morgan Crossing and bring Pa back where he belongs.”
“In the wire, they said not to come.” Clem couldn’t look at the two brothers. “They already buried his body. Heat spell in the valley. They said they couldn’t wait for his kin to come get him. Wouldn’t be decent or sanitary, they said…”
Dead. Buried. Body.
Those words had nothing to do with his pa. No point in thinking about what they meant. His pa was dead, and Adam’s mind couldn’t get around it. A part of him didn’t even want to try. But that’s not the way it worked. Not in their family. They would survive this, somehow. Adam would take care of the arrangements. Hoss would keep them together in the grim days to come, and Joe –
“Oh, God. Joe.”
The words spilled out, before he finished thinking them. He and Hoss turned toward the water. Joe was in the lake and still needed to be told. Ruining his boots, Adam waded into the shallow water, Hoss right behind him. Joe wasn’t near Pillar Rock anymore. He didn’t seem to be anywhere. How far could he have gotten? Hoss called his name again, but there was no response. While Clem had been talking, they hadn’t seen Joe swim over to a nearby inlet. He splashed up behind them, undaunted by seeing the deputy on the beach.
“You don’t have to holler, I’m coming,” Joe laughed. “A fine pair of fishermen, you turned out to be. I reckon you’re hungry and haven’t caught a thing.”
Dripping and breathing hard, Joe splashed through the water behind them, shaking his wet curls playfully. He didn’t seem the least embarrassed when he saw Clem. Joe had never been one for modesty. Only the young could be that free from care, and Adam wished he could hurry Clem away, to give his little brother a few more minutes of boyhood.
“Hey Clem!” Joe broke into a grin and reached for his pants. “Come for a swim? We’ve been fishin’ but the big one’s still out there. There’s an hour of daylight. Who knows – it might be yours. These brothers of mine give up too easy.”
Joe finished tugging on his pants, slinging his gun belt low over his hips. He reached for his shirt and suddenly stopped, noting their expressions for the first time. Perhaps it was the fact that nobody had reprimanded him for staying out so long. Something was wrong, and the knowledge of it dug deep, made him suddenly serious. Older.
“What is it?” Joe asked, quietly. “What’s happened?”
His brothers were there to see it, as Deputy Clem delivered his news. And the fleeting afterglow of youth faded and died on Joseph Cartwright’s face.
Accepting the tin cup from his older brother, Joe remembered to say thanks. It was strange how he’d been getting so many ordinary things wrong over the past week. He kept putting his right boot on his left foot and then would forget what to do about it. He could easily stare at an apple for a half hour without thinking to bite into it. Once during the past week, he’d even forgotten where he’d moved the herd. And yet his manners remained intact. He could remember to say, “thank you,” with the best of them. His father’s insistence on common courtesy had paid off. Good manners as instinct was something Ben Cartwright had always believed in…
Joe looked at his brothers huddled around the campfire. Adam was next to him, his profile highlighted by the flames and waxing moon overhead. A cathedral of tree shadows surrounded them, made the wilderness feel more like home. Across from them, Hoss gazed into the flames, occasionally prodding the wood into a smoky blaze. Embers rose and shattered against the starry sky. All of them were sunburned, mosquito-bit, and sad, and Joe doubted it would ever be any different. There’d been little time for talking over the past week, but every now and then, Hoss would come up and wrap a huge arm around Joe’s shoulders in passing. Even Adam would wink at him, even when they were surrounded by the hands. His pa was gone, but he still had his brothers. It meant something, even though he’d never have told them so.
Only a week had passed by since they heard about their father but it felt a whole lot longer. Eternity in seven days. Joe had begun marking time by how long their pa had been dead and how long it would take to be with him again. Their responsibility to their father was a grim one. They planned to travel to Morgan’s Crossing and bring their pa’s body home where it belonged. Throughout the week, they’d worked on the preparations. Hoss dug the grave himself. They figured Pa would want to be buried by the lake next to his third wife even though they’d never talked it over. Adam had met with the stonecutter and ordered the headstone. He’d spent hours at Pa’s desk working on the inscription, going through half a writing tablet before he was satisfied. Hoss and Joe went to the reverend to talk about the funeral. Hoss spent a long time choosing Pa’s favorite hymns, but Joe couldn’t remember why he’d come. Instead, he spent time telling himself the stories in the stained glass windows like he’d done as a kid. The reverend patted him on the back and reminded him he’d see his father again in the next life, but Joe struggled not to shrug him off. It wasn’t good enough. He wanted Ben Cartwright in his own life. Anything else was no consolation.
Joe hadn’t cried once, not even when Clem told him. He’d wanted to leave for Morgan’s Crossing that very night, but they had work they needed to see to before they could leave. The Ponderosa had always demanded more than its fair share and didn’t make exceptions for tragedy.
Ben often complained about Adam’s ongoing crusade to diversify their business ventures, and after a few days, Joe understood why. The responsibilities were never-ending and required constant overseeing. The creek that ran along the North Pasture was dammed up, preventing water from reaching the herd. It also was keeping water from making it downriver, preventing their sawmill from operating on schedule. The mines were waiting on the lumber to keep operating and be able to pay their workers on time. Adam had to ride out to reassure the panicked miners that the Cartwrights intended to honor all their contracts despite Ben Cartwright’s death. Before he could assure them, however, the dam had to be cleared. It was only one of many interlinking complications.
By the end of the week, they’d taken care of enough that they could delegate the rest and embark on their bleak mission. There was no possibility of taking the stage. Wildfires were still blazing dangerously close to the stage route, and the Overland had suspended all travel. Because of the fires, they decided to take the more remote logging trails that led over the pass. Once they got to Morgan’s Crossing, they’d buy a rig and pray that the pass would be open so they could drive it home.
It had been a treacherous journey already, keeping the horses at a steady pace, leading a pack horse to carry their supplies. For the past couple days, from sunup to sundown, they’d crossed over snow-fields, climbed perilous rocky ascents, and skirted several glacial lakes. When they reached the last gorge, the sun had just slipped behind the ridge. They’d camped on the shelf of a ravine, in between two peaks. Adam doubted the horses could make the climb. He’d figured they’d have to backtrack through the gorge, before finding an easier way over the mountains. Joe didn’t say a word, but he was just as determined that they find a quicker way. He had never been one to backtrack; he’d carry his horse and supplies on his own back if needed. He was determined to reach his pa as soon as possible. Rationally, Joe knew that bringing his pa home wouldn’t bring him to life again. However, the thought of his pa lying alone in an unmarked grave made his stomach turn. He’d hardly eaten a thing all week, until Adam had insisted on checking him over.
Hoss had said, “Let him be. He’s not that kind of sick, Adam.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Adam had snapped, and Joe had wondered at the tension between his brothers.
It had been a hard day of riding over difficult terrain, and Joe deserved his coffee. It tasted bitter. The night was quiet, even with the snapping of the campfire and the relentless yelping of coyotes in the darkness. Clouds were chasing each other across the moon. Not a good sign. If a storm was coming in, it might delay them even further.
They’d camped by the side of a dying tree. Its roots were dead, but the rest of the tree didn’t know it yet. The foliage was sparse, the branches bare with plenty of empty spaces between them. It was lonely in a way that Joe had never really understood before. He was twenty years old and had never really been alone. Hardly a kid any more, and yet he’d been disappointed when his birthday had come and gone in the midst of that week. They were grieving and busy. H didn’t blame them one bit for forgetting. And yet Joe had spent his birthday in muddy water up to his shoulders, clearing out fallen timber, still convinced that his pa would come riding up, laughing at the sight of him. Then they could shout to the mountaintops that the whole thing had been a ridiculous mistake and get on with the celebrating.
Joe downed his coffee like it was whiskey and wished that it was. Adam seemed to know it and scooted closer until their shoulders were touching. Joe could feel the warmth through the cold and was grateful for it.
“You get some sleep,” Adam said, kindly. “You’ll need it for tomorrow. It’s bound to be a rough day, no matter which route we take. I’ll keep the fire going a while longer. Looks like we’re going to have some rain.”
Hoss poked at the embers with a cedar branch but didn’t move. Joe was surprised to see him scowling over the fire at Adam. Something had been going on between his brothers, but he had no idea what it was. They’d never fought in the past, not much anyway, but Hoss had seemed unhappy with Adam for reasons that Joe didn’t understand. Hoss stood up, glaring at his brother.
“Why don’t you just say it.” Adam said, more a command than a question.
“All right, I’ll say it.” Hoss said quietly. “When are you gonna leave? Or ain’t I allowed to ask it?”
“This isn’t the right time to talk about it,” Adam said quietly.
“Well, I get the feeling there ain’t gonna be a right time!” Hoss threw the stick in the fire and hooked his thumbs over his belt. “You listen to me, Adam. It’s the three of us now, and we got a stake in each other. The way you been keepin’ to your own business, I gotta a feeling that one day, Joe and me is gonna get up one morning, and you’ll be gone. Now that Pa is – “
“What are you fellows talking about?” Joe interrupted, his voice smaller than he liked. He hated it when his brothers talked like he wasn’t there and was bewildered by the argument which seemed to have welled up out of the night air.
Adam aimed a withering look at Hoss and turned to his younger brother. “It’s all right, Joe. Don’t worry about it now. Let’s get through what we have to – first things first.”
“We get through this, and then what?” Hoss was uncharacteristically persistent. “Are you gonna take the offer in Boston or ain’t you?”
“I don’t know,” Adam said evenly.
“But you ain’t turned it down yet?”
“No. I haven’t turned it down. I’ve written, and explained the… situation. They’re giving me more time.” Adam prodded the fire until it crackled, sparks rising and vanishing into the darkness. He looked at Hoss. “I’m not making a decision yet. It’s too soon.”
“Too soon for what? With Pa gone, what’s keeping you?”
Joe couldn’t recall seeing Hoss so upset. It started coming together. Over the past week, grief had shrouded everything. He hadn’t seen things for what they were. Joe realized that things really hadn’t been quite right between his brothers for a while, even before they got the news about Pa.
“What do you think is keeping me?” Adam snapped, and Joe felt both their eyes turning on him. “If anything, I’ve got more responsibility than before.”
Joe’s own anger was rising. His eyes watered with smoke and confusion, but it wasn’t like he needed it spelled out for him. So Adam had received an offer and had been tempted to take it… So he considered his little brother a responsibility now… That fact alone rankled him something fierce. Joe was twenty years old and was a man. His own sweat and blood were bound up in the Ponderosa the same as his brothers. He carried his own weight and was not going to be anyone’s burden.
“Would you tell me what the hell is going on?” Joe shot to his feet, his hands clenched into fists.
“You tell him.” Hoss got up and lumbered off into the shadows, calling back, “You said you was going to!”
“I was going to tell you, Little Joe.” Adam plucked a pine needle from the ground and chewed on it, unusual for a man not given to nervous habits. “I’ve had a job offer from an engineering firm in Boston. It’s headed up by a friend I knew from college. We’ve kept in touch, and I asked him to write if anything ever came up. It’s an amazing opportunity, otherwise I wouldn’t even consider it. I was going to tell you and Pa, but – “
“But then he died?” Joe interjected, despising the pettiness in his own voice.
“Joe!” Hoss protested from out in the dark, like Joe’d said something unseemly, but Adam just looked sad.
“But then he died,” Adam echoed and glanced upward, at the gathering clouds. “I don’t know what I’m doing now, Joe. Everything’s changed since I made my decision. I expect I’ll know when the time comes. One thing I do know. That storm’s coming in fast. You’d better get some sleep now, because we’re liable to have a wet night. We’ve got a good pitch log. I’ll keep the fire going as long as I can.”
“Don’t stay on my account.” Joe reached for his bedroll.
“We can talk about it later.” Adam shifted the logs in the fire, and Hoss returned from the shadows with more kindling.
Joe hugged himself against the cold, his back to his brothers. As he drifted to sleep, he could hear their voices blurring together, a familiar sound from his childhood. For once, he didn’t want to know what they were talking about. If Adam was fixed on leaving, then he’d leave. Somehow, they’d learn to accept it and move on.
It was amazing what a man could get used to.
It rained through the night, but the morning was cloudless and dawning when the three Cartwrights emerged from their bedrolls. Pools of mud were everywhere, and Joe almost slipped in one when he stood up. Hoss was tending the fire, the water was boiling, and biscuits were browning in the skillet. Hoss smiled at his little brother. Joe’s hair was disordered, circles under his eyes, and sometime during the night, he’d stripped down to his rain-soaked pants. He hardly looked civilized, and Pa would have raised Cain if he could have seen him. Suddenly, it amused Hoss to think that after all Pa’s efforts, Joe might degenerate into a riverboat gambler after all.
“Morning, little brother,” he said affectionately and rumpled Joe’s hair even more.
For a second, Joe looked like he might punch him but grinned instead, his typical cheeriness reasserting itself.
“Morning, Hoss. I suppose I look a sight.”
“That you do,” Hoss replied and turned to his older brother. Trust Adam to spend a wretched night wrapped in a soaking wet bedroll and emerge looking well rested and downright dignified.
Joe noticed too and complained, “Hey Adam, you’re hardly wet! How come Hoss and I are the only ones lookin’ like we slept under a waterfall?”
Adam chuckled at Joe’s appearance and leaned over to pull on his boots. “It’s all in your state of mind, boy! And by the looks of you, I’d say your mind needs a bit of work.”
Joe threw his own boot at him and Adam dodged it easily, chuckling as it tumbled into the cinders.
“Sleep well?” Hoss asked, lifting the skillet from the cinders.
“Like a baby,” Adam replied cautiously, considering the way things had gone the night before.
But Hoss handed him a cup of coffee, and Adam smiled, and they were easy with each other again. Nothing was resolved, and nothing had changed. They were three men on the way to bring home their father’s body. However, they’d slept off one storm at least, and Hoss was glad for it.
After seeing to the horses, the brothers shared a simple breakfast together. Hoss laid out their wet clothes on a rock, in hopes they’d dry in the thin sunshine before it was time to leave. Joe’s hair had dried to a tangled mop, and it hung over his eyes. Absent-mindedly, Adam suggested it might be time for a hair cut when they got back, and they’d all gotten quiet at that, thinking again about their father and how glad they’d have been to hear him order Joe into Virginia City for a hair cut again.
It was time to decide which route would be the safest. Joe was adamant that he could find a way for the horses to make the climb over the ridge.
“Look, I know we can do it,” he said, as he laid out a compass, bread, and jerky, rolling them up in his blanket. “I agree that we shouldn’t risk the horses. Why don’t you let me climb up and see if I can spot a better way? If I don’t see anything, we’ll do it your way, Adam, and backtrack to the other side.”
“Joe may be right,” Hoss said reluctantly. “I don’t like the idea of riding through a canyon with the kind of weather we’ve been having. Flash floods come in mighty quick this time of year.”
Hoss studied Adam, and the worrying lines around his eyes. It came to him that his big brother had spent the night, calculating the odds of that very possibility.
“All right,” Adam finally agreed. “Climb to the top and tell us what you see. But be careful, Little Joe. Don’t take any unnecessary chances.”
“Do I ever?” Joe grinned so hard they had to smile back. It was the first time Joe had looked that cheerful since their afternoon at the lake. But their amusement faded as they craned their heads at the formidable climb he was figuring to make.
The hillside was rugged and steep, studded with shafts of granite. Soaked from the night’s rain, some loose soil had already come to rest at the foot of their campsite. There was plenty of risk involved, which was just the way Joe liked it. They all knew that Pa wouldn’t have liked it one bit.
“Stop tempting fate and start climbing,” Adam advised with a smile, giving him a little shove that almost knocked him off balance.
Hoss frowned as Joe started scrambling up the rock. “I don’t like this, Adam. That hillside’s awfully unstable. Could come down on top of him.”
“And how exactly do you propose to stop him? Besides, you’re both right anyway. Taking the gorge would add a day to the trip, and if we have any more rain, it could prove just as dangerous as doing the climb.”
Hoss couldn’t argue it. That didn’t make watching Joe any easier. More than a couple times, he lost his footing, showering them with debris. Neither could stand watching after a while, so they found other things to do. Adam finished tying on the saddle bags and packing up camp. After currying the horses, Hoss occupied himself by braiding a lariat that had come undone and sending an occasional prayer up after his little brother. After all, Joe had been climbing since he could walk. He’d scaled Pa’s bookshelf when he was a year old, bringing down the whole thing on top of himself and had lived to climb another day. Fearlessness and self confidence were a climber’s best friends. It would be more dangerous to holler warnings up the cliff, so Hoss restrained himself, knowing Pa would have done the same if he were with them.
It was strange how it kept hitting him like a bucket of ice water – the fact that his pa was gone. Losing him seemed as impossible as the lake being emptied its water or the mountains losing their sheath of snow. He’d forget it time and time again, until the memory would sneak up on him, soundless, and attack from behind. He wondered if you ever got over it, losing the people that you loved the most.
“Hey! You fellows should come on up! I can see clear to the Ponderosa from here!”
Joe’s voice carried down to them. Hoss could see his little brother hanging off the edge and sent up an arrow prayer of thanksgiving at that.
“What took you so long?” Hoss hollered back, exchanging a relieved smile with Adam. “We’ve been waiting for you all morning!”
“What do you see?” Adam shouted up. “Any good path for the horses?”
Joe disappeared from sight, before shouting, “I can see it! There’s an easier grade about a mile down the gorge. I think the horses could make it, no problem. There’s a lot of trees growing there. I think there’s got to be a stream!”
“Are you ready to come back down, or do you need to rest?” Adam should have known better but felt compelled to ask anyway.
Like he’d ever needed to rest, Joe was already scrambling and sliding down on his backside, digging in with the heels of his hand and feet. Trying not to look worried, his brothers got out of the way, as the cloud of dirt and loose rocks showered over them.
“Part billy goat,” Hoss muttered, going over to douse the smoking remains of the pitch log.
Hoss longed to pour a cup of cool water over his face, as well, but their supply was running low. He hoped Joe was right, and there was a stream nearby. The heat was already rising in the morning, even with the sun so low in the sky. It would be even hotter on the other side of the mountains, where they were heading. He was relieved when Joe launched jumped off the lowest shelf, landing in a roll at their feet.
Hoss nudged him with the toe of his boot. “Joe, you better hope there’s a stream like you told us. I can’t even see you none through all that dirt. Good job, anyhow, little brother.”
“Thanks!” Joe said, bracing himself on his knees and breathing hard. He was already scratched and scraped all over but looked satisfied. “Any time. What do you say we get a move on?”
Joe guided them to the path he’d found, their horses easily stepping over rocks and debris in the rough canyon, crossing over downed trunks of trees that had fallen during recent storms. The canyon became more heavily wooded as they rode, and they passed through beautiful stands of cedars and pines. They rode through shadows and sparkling glints of sun, and the warm air brushed against their faces. As Joe predicted, they soon came to a creek-fed spring, and they all dismounted to the welcome sound of water rushing over rocks.
“I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there,” Joe explained, fully satisfied. He cupped a handful of water and let it stream over his face in rivulets, shaking it out of his hair. Hoss remembered Joe coming back from swimming, soaking wet and breathless, before he’d been baptized by the deputy’s bad news. Thinking of the week that had passed, Hoss was suddenly struck by a pang of memory.
“Dadburnit, Little Joe,” he said. “You had a birthday last week. We plumb forgot. I’m real sorry, little brother.”
Adam winced, and Hoss knew he’d forgotten as well.
“We’ll make it up to you, Joe,” Adam said, adding awkwardly, “when this is over.”
“Like this is ever going to be over,” Joe scoffed, his good temper all but gone. “It doesn’t matter. Not a bit.”
Hoss was about to reply, but Adam let out a low whistle and smiled. He pointed to the other side of the stream, and his brothers saw it too. Sunlight streamed through the breaks in the trees, creating a lacework in light. With astonishing grace, a herd of antelope stepped through the brushwood into a grassy clearing, their bodies dappled in light and shadow. It was beautiful, one of those humbling sights that made a man feel as small as he really was. The herd might have been foolhardy, venturing so close to three hungry men with rifles, but it seemed to realize it was safe. The Cartwright brothers had already had their fill of death for the time being.
Joe said quietly, “Pa would love to see that.”
“He sure would,” Adam affirmed.
Hoss said. “It just don’t seem like he’s gone.”
Swinging back into their saddles, they continued along Joe’s trail. Adam and Joe spurred off first, disappearing into the trees. Hoss lingered for a moment, not really knowing why. The antelopes lifted their delicate necks, regarded him idly, and returned to their grazing.
Hoss tipped his hat to them, whispered his thanks, and then rode on.
Joe was taking an awfully long time getting back. He’d left camp over an hour earlier, trying to bag some game, but Adam hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that something had gone wrong.
It had been an uneventful day’s ride. They took the ridge in a long trot and worked their way up the heavily wooded pass. It was rough countryside but beautiful, the type of terrain that Ben always dubbed “God’s land.” It was unlikely to be anyone else’s land any time soon, remote as it was, but Adam felt the seduction of the open spaces. However, Boston still lured him, like an experienced sophisticate who was used to getting her way. It felt adulterous somehow, like he was cheating on the Ponderosa. Cheating on his brothers and on his father’s memory.
“There he is.” It was hard to see in the sunlight, but Adam spotted his little brother in the distance, gingerly making his way back through the scrub. Casting long shadows, Joe’s arms were full, and he almost seemed to be hopping.
“‘Bout time,” Hoss grumbled. “How long could it take to snag a couple rabbits?”
“He’s hurt,” Adam said, suddenly sure of it.
Adam reached Joe first and sat him down on an angular slab of granite, setting aside the two rabbit carcasses and the boot he’d been carrying. Joe’s breathing was raspy and was having trouble telling him what had happened, but he managed to gesture towards his foot. Adam stripped off the shredded sock and grimaced.
When Hoss caught up, Joe had found his breath and gestured toward the two rabbits he’d shot.
“Dinner,” he said, panting, “But then I had some trouble.”
“I can see that, little brother,” Hoss said worriedly and reached to get a better look. “Snake bite?”
“Doesn’t look like it.” Adam held fast to Joe’s foot, as he pulled away. “Were you going barefoot when it happened?”
“Do you think I have any common sense at all?” Joe snapped. “Of course I wasn’t going barefoot!”
“Scorpion,” Hoss declared, pointing to the distinctive puncture mark.
Adam put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Did you see a scorpion?”
“Shook it out of my boot,” Joe said, still trying to catch his breath. “Couldn’t get my foot back in, cause it was swelling.”
“Did you bring the scorpion back with you?” Hoss asked hopefully.
“No, I didn’t bring it back!” Joe shook his head at his brother incredulously. “I stomped it. What’s the matter with you, anyway?”
“Might have been helpful in knowing what kind it was,” Adam said, exchanging an uneasy look with Hoss. “Some are more dangerous than others. How big was it?”
“Big enough,” Joe said, “I didn’t stop and measure it. Besides, scorpion bites don’t kill. Just hurt like hell. Why don’t you two stop fussing at me and get dinner started?”
After getting Joe settled, Adam took stock of their situation, finding himself wavering between worry and irritation. They were in the middle of nowhere. All that open space could be as lethal as it was beautiful. Joe was right. A scorpion sting wasn’t likely to kill him, but if it was a bad reaction, it could make traveling difficult. However, there wasn’t much to be done about it; they simply had to keep moving forward. Once again, Adam felt himself longing for his father’s counsel, a feeling he was sure he’d carry with him for a lifetime. What would Pa do in the situation? Ben Cartwright would do what he had to. He’d get Joe off his feet, keep the foot elevated, and clean. Of course, Joe was already haggling with Hoss, ordering his large brother to leave him be and see to dinner. To Hoss’ surprise, Adam agreed.
“We need to eat. This could be a rough night, if Joe ends up getting sick,” Adam said pointedly.
“I’m fine,” Joe insisted fiercely, as Adam poured a trickle of water over his foot and attempted to squeeze out the venom. “You two are worse than Pa.”
“Dadburnit Little Joe… Next time look in your boots before you put them on,” Hoss grumbled, as he walked away to skin the rabbits. “Dang fool kid…”
“Why is it always my fault?” Joe complained. “I didn’t ask to get stung. Damn it, Adam! Stop doing that! All I need…”
“You should have fired off a shot instead of walking back on it,” Adam reprimanded, propping his brother’s foot on his own knee. “We’d have found you.”
“I guess I could have done that.” Joe flashed him a sheepish grin. “I was worried about Hoss getting his supper on time.”
“Stop squirming around, Joe, and sit still. Let us know if you have any other symptoms.” Adam sighed and silently commiserated with his father. Sometimes, Joe was practically cunning, and other times didn’t seem to have the common sense of a blind moth. Always getting too close to the flame for his own good. It was amazing he’d stayed alive as long as he had.
“What kind of symptoms?” Joe asked uneasily.
“Numbness. Paralysis. Throat swelling up so you can’t breathe.”
“What do we do if that happens?” Joe asked, biting his lower lip.
Adam considered lying to his brother, but shrugged and said, “I have absolutely no idea.”
Joe was quiet, before saying, “You two should just go on to Pa without me. I’ll camp for a while and meet you up the trail.”
Like we’d ever go without you, Adam thought and rolled his eyes at the idea. Going to Pa. That thought had always brought him great comfort before. Even now, there was nothing he wanted more than to deliver the kid up to their father with the familiar complaint, “Look what your son did to himself this time!”
It wasn’t to be. It wasn’t ever to be, and Adam didn’t know how he could ever make up for it. He looked down at Joe, and his mood softened considerably. Little Joe looked downright miserable and had every right to be. He wasn’t a kid anymore, but it was hard to remember it, sitting there barefoot with his hair in his eyes. Twenty years old, and they’d missed it. Pa would never have let them hear the end of it.
“Do you feel older?” Adam asked impulsively, and Joe glanced up, surprised.
“Decades,” he replied in all seriousness, and Adam knew the answer had nothing to do with his birthday.
They all were older, in a way that had nothing to do with time. Ben Cartwright had never been one to coddle his sons. It wasn’t an easy life, and he had always been more concerned with their character than their comfort. He’d raised them to be strong men, and yet he’d remained their rock way into adulthood. With his pa gone, Adam felt alone in ways he’d never known.
“Adam.” Joe was clenching his fist so hard, Adam could see where his nails were stabbing into his palm.
“Don’t stay cause of us.”
Adam frowned. “What are you talking about?”
Joe continued, “You can teach me how to do the numbers. We can take care of the ranch, Hoss and me. Pa wouldn’t want you staying because you thought you had to. It’s not right. You do what you need to.”
“Buddy, I’m not even thinking about that right now,” Adam said gently, “and neither should you. Let’s settle with having dinner and getting a decent night’s sleep. Then, we can worry about the rest of my life.”
“Adam, it’s going to be awful, ain’t it? When we get to town, and we… find Pa?”
Adam felt almost sick at the question. He kept waiting for Pa’s perfect answer to come, but he settled with the truth. “Yeah. It’s going to be awful.”
Joe seemed all right with that. He said, “We’ll get through it. Hey Adam, my leg’s going numb. It really hurts propped up like that. Would you quit pushing on it?”
“How do you know? How do you know we’ll get through it?” Adam really wanted to hear his little brother’s answer.
Joe shrugged. “We just will.”
They sat like that, quiet but not awkward, until Hoss returned with the skinned rabbits, ready to put them on the fire. The swelling was worse by sundown, but his brothers got him through it, distracting him with stories that Pa would never have approved of, long into the night.
The dream came over him like a summer fever.
Joe was fishing out on the lake. He was younger, and Pa stood behind him, explaining what he’d done wrong. Pa’s shoulders were broader than Joe’s would ever be and stronger, but it didn’t bother him. His pa would never use his strength against him.
“All right now,” Pa was saying. “Hold the line firmly in your right hand, and remember to keep it tight when you’re casting. Now sweep it back. More! Careful now!”
Pa’s vest brushed against his cheek and smelled of tobacco and shaving tonic. Joe could feel the spray of the river against his face, the fine mist of it rising in the morning. They were awash in water and light streaming through it. The world around them was still waking itself, as if out of a dream. And Joe remembered what he needed to say.
“I need more time,” Joe told his father. “I’m not ready. There’s more you need to teach me.”
Pa folded his arms over his chest in exasperation. “Joseph, I’ve already taught you everything you need to know. Many times over, I may add.”
“It’s not enough,” Joe pleaded. “I’m not ready to do this on my own.”
“On your own!” Pa said, as if appalled by the very idea. “Don’t you know any better? None of you are alone! Now, hold your line steady like I told you. At your age, young man, it’s about time you start paying attention. That’s it, son! I think you’ve got one -”
Joe was being nudged awake. Confused, he blinked into the faint morning light and realized that Hoss was peering down at him. The dream had been so vivid, like so many he’d had during the past week. However, there was no denying he was awake now. Pain jarred Joe awake even more than being nudged. The throbbing in his foot had climbed up his leg while he’d been sleeping and he grabbed at it, trying to rub it away. He supposed he was lucky. For a scorpion bite, it might have been a bad reaction, but he wasn’t paralyzed, and his throat hadn’t swollen shut. That had to be some kind of good thing.
“You all right, Joe?” Hoss didn’t stop for an answer but peeled the compress off his brother’s foot and frowned again. “That leg’s mighty swollen. Adam, come take a look.”
Adam’s face appeared over him. “I think he’ll live, but it doesn’t look great for riding. I think we need to camp for another day, until the swelling goes down, and he’s feeling better.”
Joe felt his indignation rising, and he muttered, “Stop talking about me like I’m not here. Could one of you at least get me a cup of coffee before you start telling me how I’m feeling?”
Adam smiled at that. “Sure thing, buddy. Water’s already boiling.”
Tin cup in hand, Joe felt better, although the dream was holding him tight. He didn’t want to let go of it. It was almost like he’d had his father back again. Joe could smell Pa’s pipe tobacco in the blanket they’d insisted on wrapping around him and could still feel the phantom bracing of his father’s strong hands on his shoulders. Joe smiled, just thinking on it and picked at the biscuit Hoss handed him. Suddenly, he remembered Pa’s advice on fishing and felt obliged to pass it on.
“We haven’t been casting right,” Joe said, breaking into the silence of the meal. “It’s no wonder we haven’t been catching any fish lately, even with the trout as thick as molasses. We’ve got to keep the line tighter. Don’t you remember the way Pa taught us?”
He rolled his eyes, exasperated, when Adam casually leaned over and placed his hand on his forehead.
“We better stay another day,” he told Hoss. “It would be better to have him take it easy.”
“I don’t have a fever,” Joe griped, shoving aside his brother’s hand. “and I ain’t sick. I don’t want to waste a day. I can ride just fine – I’ll just keep my boot off, and don’t need stirrups, anyhow.”
“That foot’s not fitting in a boot, that’s for dang certain,” Hoss said, still befuddled over the advice on fishing and casting. “I think we need to wait it out.”
No, Joe thought suddenly. We can’t wait. Pa needs us now.
Where that thought came from, he didn’t know, and he certainly wasn’t about to say it out loud.
Instead Joe insisted, “You know I could sit a horse with both of my feet chopped off. Hell, I’d rather be in a saddle than be coddled by the two of you.”
“Watch your language, Short Shanks,” Hoss admonished and turned back to Adam. “We packing up?”
“We’re packing up. Not you, Joe!”
Adam pointed back at the log, as Joe tried to stand. Pain shot through his leg, buckling it underneath him, and Joe realized that he was awfully lightheaded. He settled back, as his brothers saddled up the horses, and remembered pipe tobacco and the warm touch of leather. He didn’t know if he’d ever get used to it, a world that didn’t have Ben Cartwright alive in it.
It seemed as unlikely as a dream born from fever.
The sun was up in the east, and Hoss rode steadily, his back to it. He could hardly see for how tired he was. They were moving down through the foothills. Swarms of gnats looked like golden mist in the sunlight. Nasty little things, they flew into his eyes and nose and would have flown right into his mouth if he’d bothered opening it. As it was, Joe riding next to him, wasn’t much for talking. As they climbed onto a narrow ridge, he looked out to the north where smoke from the wildfires like a brown veil. The Overland Stage wouldn’t be running again until the fires were under control. His pa was supposed to have taken the main road on his ride back to the Ponderosa. Hoss wondered if it were the fires that had delayed him, keeping him in town longer than he was supposed to have been. Not for the first time, he wondered why his pa had been in that bank in the first place.
Hoss glanced at the pinto and its rider. The horse had a fine, smooth gait, but Joe wasn’t sitting easy. Slouched in the saddle, his face was drawn and his jaw clenched, and Hoss knew it was time for a break.
“Adam!” he called out and didn’t need to say more. They were both out of the saddle on either side of him, helping him dismount.
“I’m fine,” Joe insisted. “Let’s keep going.”
“That’s good and fine,” Hoss said, “but I’m plumb famished, and big brother over there looks like he’s gonna sleep in the saddle. You don’t mind waiting, while the two of us take a break, now do you?”
They found a shady clearing under a stand of aspens. It was a pleasant day, not terribly hot, although Adam worried that another storm might be blowing in. Joe dozed off before he could find the gumption to complain about stopping.
After watering the horses and eating some jerky and bread, Adam said he wanted to scout around a bit and get a feel for the land. There was something about the way he said it that made Hoss look hard at his older brother before nodding. Adam had hardly talked about Pa’s passing. They were all in shock, each in his own way. Grief was a man’s own business. You couldn’t tell someone else how to deal with it. Adam had to work things out for himself, as they all did.
Adam disappeared into the trees, and Hoss turned back, wishing he had Hop Sing to show him which plants helped combat the poison of a scorpion bite. It was the worst reaction he’d personally seen. The foot was red-flamed and swollen, and they’d tried pulling a sock over it but Joe pulled it off, preferring to go barefoot. After a few hours, he took off the other boot as well, saying it made him ride lopsided to wear just one. Pa would have had a conniption over the idea of one of his sons going without his boots; he was awfully particular about that sort of thing.
“Only half civilized…” Hoss muttered affectionately and tousled his brother’s hair.
Joe let out a long breath, but smiled all the same. It didn’t take long for him to doze off, and Hoss was glad they’d decided to take a break. Hoss worked at braiding a lariat for a while, knowing he ought to go hunting for their supper, but come to think of it, he was awfully tired. He reckoned it wouldn’t hurt to catch a bit of a nap himself.
He awoke to the sound of shouting and wasn’t even awake before he was running toward it. Hoss would have known that voice anywhere. It was Adam, and his older brother never hollered unless something was wrong. Behind him, Joe was hobbling right after him on his bare feet. Hoss stopped short and grabbed his little brother’s arm.
“Stay put!” he snarled, but Joe fixed him with just as fierce a look in return.
“Let go of me! Adam’s in trouble!”
They glared at each other. Joe shook loose, and Hoss shot his brother a dark look before barreling forward again. The terrain was thickly wooded, but Hoss could see light through the trees, could hear his brother’s voice growing closer. He ran through the trees into a clearing and had to stop short at the edge of an awesome emptiness. The cliff came on him so suddenly, he had to grind in his heels so he wouldn’t fall over the edge. Carefully peering over the edge, he found his big brother hanging on for dear life by the roots of a scrubby pine more than an arm’s reach down. Behind him, Joe scrambled to the edge, looked over it, and swore quietly.
Hoss said to his younger brother. “Joe, go back, and get some rope from my saddlebag. You all right, Adam?”
“Been better,” Adam muttered. Sweat and blood coursed down his face, as his arms strained for a better hold. “Slipping.”
Hoss edged forward to try and reach for him. Right away, chunks of loose soil gave way, raining rocks and dirt over his brother. With all the rain, the hillside was ready to go. Hoss had no choice. He backed off, before he caused a landslide that would take both of them.
“Joe’s comin’ with a rope,” he told his brother, forcing confidence in his voice that he didn’t feel. For once he was glad for Joe’s stubborn streak. He wouldn’t have wanted to leave Adam to go get the rope himself. “Put your foot in that there crevice. That’ll hold you till he gets back.”
“Joe’s going to tear up his feet running barefoot,” Adam muttered, but his foot found the crevice. Hoss allowed himself a small smile. Leave it to Adam to be so practical, even when hanging off the side of a cliff.
“You just hold on, and don’t worry none,” Hoss chided.
There was silence between them, during what felt like impossible waiting. Then, Little Joe ran back, his feet leaving a bleeding trail, the coiled rope tucked under his arm. Joe collapsed next to his big brother but shook his head vehemently when Hoss tried to take the rope.
“No. You weigh too much. You’ll bring the whole mountain down!”
Hoss felt like shaking him and almost did. “Little Joe, you ain’t about to pull him up by yourself,” he growled, but Joe had scooted out of his grasp and was crawling carefully to the edge.
“Feed me the rope,” Joe ordered. “I’ll guide it. You pull. Hey, older brother, we’re going to lower the rope and rescue you, if that’s all right with you. Do you have a good foothold?”
“Good as it’s gonna get,” Adam replied dryly.
Frowning at the rope in his hands, Hoss looked back frantically for a way to secure it, but there was nothing close enough other than chaparral. “Ain’t nothing to tie it to, Joe”
“Tie it around yourself,” Joe called back. “You can hold us.”
Hoss sighed heavily and looped the rope around his waist, wrapping it tightly around his wrists as well.
“All right, Joe, I got you,” Hoss said. “I got both of you. Go ahead with the rope.”
“He’s got it,” Joe exulted, dangerously close to the edge. “You ready, Adam? We’ll pull you, but you got to let go of that stump with your other hand.
“Easy for you to say,” Adam muttered, but Hoss felt the pull on the rope tighten.
Suddenly, there was heavy weight on the rope and Hoss had to brace his heels into the mud to keep them from being pulled off his feet. Chunks of rock and dirt broke off edge around him, but Joe stayed where he was, hanging on so tightly that his muscles seemed to cord with the effort.
“Joe get away from the edge!” Hoss ordered, but Joe was holding fast.
“Not till we’ve got him. He’s hurt! Come on, Adam. You can do better than that. Climb!”
Hoss felt his body strained to the point where he thought it might give. He grimaced and hauled back with every ounce of strength that he had. Just when he felt that he couldn’t pull any harder, he suddenly saw his father’s face in front of him. It was clearer than anything temporal, and his face was furrowed out of worry for all of them. Hoss was out of his own strength, but his pa always had plenty to spare.
Groaning with supreme effort, Hoss yanked the rope savagely, and he knew he had won. The mountain was formidable but not nearly as fierce as his determination to keep his brothers safe. The hillside was crumbling. Just as it seemed to give, Adam’s head and torso climbed painfully over the edge. Joe let go of the rope and reached for his brother, hauling him backwards. The entire edge of the cliff was eroding in shards and chunks, almost taking Adam and Joe with it. In one motion, agile as a cat, the gigantic man lunged forward, grabbed both of his brothers – one in each arm – and practically threw them away from the edge.
Hoss could feel the ground giving way, and he hurled himself backwards, landing bodily on Joe. A few more seconds and the landslide would have taken them all. It rumbled like an oncoming train, as they choked in the dirt cloud drifting around them. Then it was over, and they were alive, a fact that seemed as unlikely as any miracle.
They were tangled together, and for a bewildering moment, Hoss couldn’t tell where his body left off and his brothers began. Adam moaned, and Hoss found his bearings. Carefully, he moved Adam aside and pulled himself off Joe. His little brother curled onto his side, before forcing himself up on his knees. They were all three spitting out dirt and wiping grit out of their eyes. Blood ran down the side of Adam’s head, trickling onto the dirt below.
“Let me take a look at that – ” Hoss said, gently probing for the source of the bleeding.
“I’m fine.” Adam cut him off, shrugging away Hoss’ hand, while trying to stand. “Just help me up, will you? I can hardly see anything.”
Adam swayed on his feet, in a way that Hoss didn’t like one bit. “Dadburnit, Adam, why do you have to be so dang stubborn? Can’t you just let me take a look?”
“Later,” Adam said, shortly. “Help Joe. He doesn’t look good.”
“Speak for yourself, brother,” was all they heard from the crumpled heap on the ground. “I don’t look any worse than you do.”
Hoss leaned over and pulled him to a sitting position. “All right,” he said, his chest still heaving. “We’re going back and setting up camp, and if I have to carry both of you, I’ll do it. Now, I don’t want hear another word from neither of you. And stay away from cliffs this time, you hear?”
“Much obliged, Hoss.” Adam managed the good grace to look embarrassed. “I think I’ll walk, if it’s all right with you.”
“I can walk too,” Joe said. His brothers looked over him, noticing his bloodied feet. He’d practically shredded the skin off them in his single-minded pursuit of the rope.
“Sorry, little brother,” Hoss said firmly. “But I’m a whole lot bigger than you, and I reckon you’ll be doing things my way, this time.”
Much to Joe’s chagrin, Hoss scooped him up, hauling him easily over his shoulder like a sack of grain, anchoring him with one arm. With his other arm, he supported Adam, as they slowly made it back to camp. Spent, they stretched out on a bed of pine needles and twigs for a good long time, before any of them could manage any words.
Finally, Hoss asked, “Your head all right, Adam?”
“Hurts like hell,” Adam answered dryly, “which I’d imagine is a good sign, in the scheme of things.”
“I reckon we better make camp here,” Hoss said, “after I get a good look at that wound. We’ve done had enough adventure for one day, and I ain’t riding along that dang cliff in the dark.”
For once, nobody argued.
Finally, Joe said, “Hey, Adam?”
“Let’s you and me let Hoss do the scouting next time, all right?”
All three laughed at that, and Hoss pushed himself up on his elbow. “You got yourself a deal, Shortshanks. I sure do feel for Pa, trying to rein in the two of you!”
All laugher faded then. Joe’s scorpion bite and Adam’s near miss with the avalanche had been a distraction, but it didn’t change anything. Missing their father was real pain. Everything else felt numb in comparison.
Adam’s head hurt like the devil, but more than that, it reminded him of his own foolishness. He was glad his brothers didn’t press him for explanations, because he was hard pressed to explain it to himself. It had been a ridiculous thing to do, getting so close to the edge, after the rain. He’d have given Joe an earful for doing the same, rightfully so, and yet there’d been something about the view that had made him want to get even closer.
He’d been thinking of his father while standing there alone, gazing out over the kind of beauty that had lured Ben Cartwright west in the first place. It was a beautiful sight, desolate yet endless with possibilities. His pa would have stood alongside him, if he’d been along, pointing out rivers and familiar landmarks.
A man could get into trouble with too much thinking time on his hands. That was something his pa liked to say, and he was absolutely right. Having too much time was what lured him to Boston in the first place. The idea had come to him during the dead of winter when he’d decided that his life needed to change. Snowbound and bored, he’d sincerely believed that returning to the East would be a change for the better. The wanderdust at his heels had turned into a longing so profound that he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to put it aside.
The longing had returned, while he stood at the edge of that cliff, but it was different somehow. Sometimes he felt like he was a stranger in a strange land. He didn’t know if he’d ever feel at home within himself, let alone in a wilderness full of men who couldn’t read a primer, let alone discuss Thoreau’s shortcomings. His father had little interest in such matters himself, but he knew it was important to Adam. He missed his father in a way that went beyond all other longings. He missed his understanding. More than anything else, Adam wished he had thanked him for it.
So he stood by himself, lost in quiet grief, and wondering what it meant. He was about to head back when the ground suddenly gave way underneath his feet. Adam slid with it, his head slamming against a sharp rock, and he barely had the presence of mind to grab onto an upstart before crashing to his death some fifty feet down. Hanging on for dear life, his chest heaving, he’d done the first thing he’d thought of. He called for his brothers. And just as sure as the sun rises in the east, his brothers had come for him.
Quite the metaphor, he thought to himself, chuckling a little at his own expense. Adam Cartwright worries about the meaning of life and falls off a cliff instead!
He snorted at the idea of it and looked up to see Joe studying him with a bemused expression on his face.
“You sure that head of yours didn’t take too hard a hit, brother?” Joe asked, running a hand through his own head of curls. “You seem a little touched to me.”
Adam shook his head, smiling ruefully. “Just thinking about my life. Guess I need to stop worrying about what it all means.”
Joe chanced a grin. “What it all means, older brother, is that you need to stay away from cliffs. Other than that, I’d expect you’ve got everything else ‘bout right. Your head feeling bad?”
“Just about as bad as your foot, I’d imagine. You got any quick cures, younger brother, and I’d be happy to hear about them.”
“I’ve got one.” Joe pointed towards the pack horse tied to a nearby pine. “In the saddlebag. I’d get it myself, but I don’t want to spill it hopping back.”
Adam raised an eyebrow but didn’t ask. Instead, he made his way to Joe’s mount, fighting nausea with each step. He pulled the slim bottle out of the saddlebag and pursed his lips, looking back at his brother.
“Pa’s finest?” he inquired.
Joe allowed himself a fleeting smile. “Figured it might come in handy. Only one swallow for you with that head wound.”
“Same goes for you. Scotch isn’t the best thing for a fever.”
“How’d you know I had a fever?” Joe asked, looking slightly guilty with his symptomatic flushed cheeks. He’d obviously been trying to hide that fact from his brothers.
“Joe, you’ve looked the same with a fever since you were a baby!” Adam took a swig of the scotch and passed it over. “Besides, Pa always said if anyone could get a good look at you, then you had to be sick, because you’d never hold still any other way.”
Joe swallowed his first swig and then another. “Just do me a favor, will ya? Don’t tell Hoss. You know how he’s always fretting.”
“Fretting about what?” Hoss walked out of the woods, his arms buried under a stack of firewood. “And what are you two doing with Pa’s whiskey? Adam, you likely have a concussion, and Joe, you’re runnin’ a fever. Give me that!”
Hoss snatched the bottle out of his brother’s hand, grumbling his way back to the pack horse.
“How’d you know?” Joe asked, stretching lazily, the whiskey obviously warming him more than his fever.
Hoss chuckled at that, shaking his head, and turned to start the fire.
Adam leaned back. His mind was feeling clearer. It had been coming to him slowly, but he wasn’t at all sure about his decision to leave. It felt irrational. Emotional. But then again, courage wasn’t exactly a rational thing, and yet his brothers had that in spades. If they didn’t, he wouldn’t be alive to think about it. There wasn’t anybody he trusted else to watch his back or to haul him off the face of a cliff, if it came to that. That had to count for something. Suddenly, Adam remembered what his father used to say when he grew impatient with his younger brothers.
There’s nobody who’ll look out for you like your brothers.
It was something he’d usually taken it for granted, yet with his father gone, it came at him like it was new. Adam had racked up of plenty of reasons for staying on the Ponderosa. Most were the same old thing: responsibility, duty, obligation. Nothing new under the sun. He had agonized over remaining for his father’s sake and then for his brothers’ sake.
As it turned out, none of those reasons were enough. As it turned out, he might have to stay for his own sake.
Joe reined to a stop, waiting for his brothers to catch up to him. They were riding at a slower pace than he’d have liked, after a full day’s “brother-imposed” rest. Sometimes Joe believed that Hoss was worse than Pa in taking things too seriously. All the same, he was grateful for the rest, even if it was a day wasted. The time spent hanging around the camp reminded him of hunting trips with his brothers, before they had all gotten so busy with work around the Ponderosa.
They were within a day’s ride of Morgan’s Crossing, a fact that hit Joe hard with every mile. What lay ahead was as grim a task as he’d ever faced, but he was his father’s son, same as his brothers. He’d been keeping himself together, a fact he was sure his pa would have appreciated. Several years back, he’d been the rebellious son, the one who’d given his father most of his gray hairs. Or at least that’s how they teased him. His father had forgiven him so completely, it was easy to forget those years had happened. That’s how it was with his pa. He didn’t hold your shortcomings against you, no matter how often they showed up.
They left at first dawn. Adam said his head still hurt like the Devil but didn’t think he had a concussion. He looked bad, with his forehead mottled with bruises the color of a summer storm. Hoss wasn’t as bad off, but he limped when he walked and complained that he’d pulled muscles he didn’t know he had. And Joe was still riding barefoot with his battered feet wrapped in burlap sacks and hanging out of the stirrups. Some of the swelling from the scorpion bite had gone down, but he still had a slight fever and some infection. They were a pathetic looking bunch – ragged, battered, and hungry – but they were still alive, and they were together.
As they headed down the mountain, the ridges and gorges became less extreme, the hillsides more heavily wooded. A few lingering wildflowers dotted the meadows and fields they passed. Hawks hovered and soared effortlessly overhead. It wouldn’t be long before they reached the main road. There didn’t seem to be much smoke in the air, which was a good thing if they planned to drive a rig on their way back. There was no way they’d be able to drive a buckboard over the logging roads they’d taken.
For once in his life, he wasn’t eager to return home. Somehow, as long as he was on the road with his brothers, he could pretend that none of it had happened. He knew he had a lot to be grateful for. Many of his friends had grown up without a father. More often than not, men died young out west. Accidents, illness, hard living, and violence all competed to claim their share of early deaths. Just last month, Roy Coffee had sat at their dinner table tickled that two weeks had passed without a single murder in town. Ben Cartwright had reminded his old friend not to tempt fate. Life was dangerous, and death was an unwelcome visitor but hardly unexpected. The only unknown was how soon death would come and by what means. While he should have known better, Joe had always believed that he’d have a little more time with his father. Twenty years just wasn’t enough.
“Hey, Shortshanks, where you headin’?”
Joe looked up in surprise. His mind had been drifting, and apparently his pinto had been drifting right along with him. Amused, his brothers had followed, curious where he’d end up. Without realizing it, he’d veered into a grove of oaks that lined a meandering creek. The grass had been golden in the open fields but was green and lush by the water.
“I need to water my horse,” he said, and it was almost the truth.
They all dismounted and took care of their horses first. Joe was only too happy to free his feet from their burlap wrappings. His soles felt like they’d been branded, and he tested them gingerly on the gravel of the stream bed, exhaling as the fire in them died down a little. Through the tree canopy, light was falling on everything.
“Feel better?” Adam leaned forward in the saddle. “Don’t you think you’d be better off getting those feet back in boots pretty soon? It’s only a matter of time before you go hurting yourself again.”
“Worry about yourself, Adam,” Joe replied, but his mood was growing easier. Instinctively, he selected a stone and sent it skipping down the river.
“I reckon we could all use a break,” Hoss said, glancing at Adam. “Need a hand?”
“I’ll manage,” Adam said, as he dismounted rather painfully. His slide down the cliff had hurt more than his head. He’d described it to his brothers like his body was a puzzle that had been put back together with some of the pieces missing. Adam straddled a fallen log, reaching low to fill his canteen.
Joe sat back in the company of his brothers. Edged in cattails, the stream was highlighted by the sun and shadow. It was quiet, but it was anything but silent. The air was filled with music, the kind you had to sit still in order to hear. The water was splashing over overturned rocks, accompanied the meadow lark, followed by the still shrill of the scrub jay. Crickets chorused staccato, frogs punctuated percussion. The brothers leaned back and closed their eyes, listening to the upstart benediction, the sound of wind through the trees.
“Pretty, ain’t it?” Hoss’ voice was reverent. “Makes you wish we could stay a while.”
Joe couldn’t explain it. There was something about the place. His pa’s presence felt stronger there than it had for their entire journey. It was like his pa was right there with them. It just felt right, and he wasn’t sure why. The idea was out of Joe’s mouth before he stopped to think it through. Given a little more time, he’d have felt silly and would never have found the guts to say it. They were busy men, with a ranch to run. They had no time for the type of thing that Joe was about to propose. But he asked it anyways.
“What do you fellows think of coming back here sometime? Going hunting, doing some fishing? I don’t know how to explain it. I can’t stop feeling like Pa would have liked it here. Like he’d have wanted us to come back.”
Joe was almost afraid to look up to see how his brothers might react. He expected them to laugh at him, but instead they were staring away, each lost in his own thoughts. He let them take their time. Gazing up through the leaves at the diamonds of sky, he could just barely see the shadow of a hawk soaring overhead on the thermals. It was so beautiful, it almost hurt to see it fly away. Love and loss so often soared together. How long would the sorrow last? Would it always come at him this way, in times of beauty, of peace? Joe missed his father. He knew that wasn’t going to go away, for a long, long time.
“I reckon you might have something, little brother,” Hoss said, gruffly. “Sure is a pretty lil’ spot. Might be worth making a trip back.”
Unexpectedly, Adam added, “We could combine it with business. We’ve got an interest in the Shasco Mines, this side of the mountain. We could use it as a chance to check on operations.”
Hoss and Joe stared at him in surprise. The way Adam said it made it sound like he’d be with them in another year. They hadn’t talked about his leaving again, and both had expected that with Pa gone, there would be little reason for Adam to stay.
“It would be all right with me,” Joe said, almost shyly. “Coming back to check on things. The three of us, next year.”
They sat there, quiet in each others’ company, until Joe’s grumbling belly reminded them that it had been hours since any of them had anything to eat. The water was clear, cold, and abundant with trout; dozens had already brushed against Joe’s dangling feet. With a funny half smile, Hoss ambled back to his horse and returned with hooks and a coil of line. It didn’t take long before they’d assembled makeshift rods and were perched over the running river. The fishing was so good that before an hour had passed, they had hooked a dozen trout, more than they could possibly eat, even with Hoss’ notorious appetite. On several occasions, Joe saw fit to remind his big brothers to keep the line tight when casting, and for once they tolerated his advice giving, with unusual good grace. Neither was even tempted to toss him in the stream, practically a miracle in itself.
Little Joe was right. Ben Cartwright would like it there. The afternoon was easy, and the fishing was good. His boys were at peace with each other. It was the kind of place where a man could take his time, if not forever, then at least for an afternoon.
Nearly ten miles away from Morgan’s Crossing, they rode at a long lope, each growing more introspective as the town grew closer. They’d spent the day trailing down the wooded foothills that overlooked the valley.
Adam woke up his brothers early that morning, determined to reach the town by day’s end. They were falling into a routine. Hoss watered and saddled the horses, while he cleaned up from breakfast. Joe took care of the provisions. Joe had finished everything but the canteens, so he limped toward the waist-high grasses that sloped down to the stream. He’d only been gone a minute before they heard him hollering at the top of his lungs.
“Adam! Hoss! I need you!”
Holstering their guns, the two brothers ran fast as they could toward their brother’s voice.
“Stop – don’t come closer!”
Joe’s voice was high pitched and panicked, and his brothers knew well enough to listen.
“What is it, Joe?” Adam asked quietly, trying to settle him down. Joe didn’t get unnerved that easily
“Rattlers. About four of them. All around me.” Joe quieted his own voice, and they could see him in the waist high grass, gingerly trying to walk back to them.
A thought suddenly occurred to Adam. “Damn it, Joe, are you still barefoot?”
“My foot’s swollen,” Joe declared somewhat defensively. “You ain’t never been scorpion bit, so you don’t know what it’s like!”
“Well, it ain’t as bad as being rattler bit, so you just stay right where you are,” Hoss ordered. “I can’t see them, but you’re right. I do hear them rattlin’. Must be a nest. You got your gun?”
“I left it at camp,” Joe admitted.
“Well that was a foolish thing to do,” Adam muttered irritably, even as he aimed his own gun at the unseen enemy in the grass.
“I was filling canteens, Adam! Didn’t really think I’d need it.” Joe’s own irritation was quickly rising to match his brother’s.
“Never mind that now, you two,” Hoss said. “Joe, you keep a look out. I’m coming to get you.”
“Watch where you step, Hoss. They’re hard to spot,” Joe warned.
“Nah,” Hoss scoffed. “I ain’t afraid of no rattlers. I’m so ornery right now, I could eat one for breakfast. Sides. I had sense enough to put my boots on.”
Suddenly, Hoss froze and fired into the grass. The retort echoed around them. With a low whistle, he continued wading and upon reaching Joe, slung him over his shoulder and turned back.
“Did you kill any?” Joe asked from his brother’s shoulder, still holding onto the canteens. Without ceremony, Hoss dumped him on the ground, sending him sprawling in the dirt.
“Just one. Cold as a wagon tire,” Hoss said proudly. “I could make a name for myself as a rattler hunter. You were right, little brother. There were a few of them. Strange place for a nest.”
“And such a pretty little meadow,” Adam said, with a deadpan expression, offering Joe a hand up. “All right, younger brother … I’d say it’s way past time to head out of here. I think you just filled our quota of mishaps for the day.”
“I’m ready. Let’s go take care of Pa,” Joe said, not really embarrassed as he brushed dirt off his backside. They’d rescued him that time. He had no doubt their time would come to need his help. That’s how it was when you grew up with brothers.
The wind was kicking up as morning wore on, dust spiraling with heat, stinging their eyes and throat. Lizards sunned themselves where they could, making the best of every patch of sunlight. After so many days of riding through the back country, they finally joined up with the main road that would take them the rest of the way to Morgan’s Crossing. The ride was easier, but they were all worse for the wear from their journey, including the horses. Adam’s head still ached from his fall, and truth be told, he hurt all over. He could feel the wounds and weariness of the trip settling into his bones, into his blood. He was on his way to bring home his father’s body. It should have been the worst trip of his life, and in many ways it was, if not for the company.
They kept up a good pace, but Hoss suddenly reined to a stop. Adam and Joe turned to find him scratching furiously at his neck and his chest.
“Hey, brother, what’s wrong with you?” Joe shouted back.
“Dang poison oak,” Hoss’ face was scrunched in misery. “Been bad for the past hour or so. Must have got it by the stream. Don’t you two josh me about it, or I’ll pound you.”
“Where’d it get you?” Adam asked, trying not to smile. Poison oak was miserable, but it wasn’t life threatening, and for that, he was glad.
“Everywhere!” Hoss exclaimed, and Joe smirked imaginatively, earning a scowl from his big brother.
“Dadburnit Joe, don’t you say a word. I’ll pound you, and I don’t care if you’re still sick or not!”
“Go to the river and wash off,” Adam said. “That’ll help. Joe and I’ll scout a bit ahead.”
“I reckon I should. I’m sorry ‘bout slowing us down.”
Joe replied, with a sad smile, “I reckon it’s your turn, big brother.”
Adam spurred his horse and Joe did the same, as Hoss veered off toward the river.
Joe was impatient to ride faster, and he spurred his horse to a hard gallop around a bend in the road. Adam shook his head. He was a sight and was only getting wilder by the day. Adam and Hoss had always teased that their little brother would have been just as happy being born into an Indian tribe as into western civilization, and this trip had surely borne out that theory. Joe had fashioned moccasins of sorts out of burlap bags and twine, and Adam suspected that he preferred them to his boots, claiming he could more easily tap into the rhythm of the horse without all that leather getting in the way. He’d lost his hat in the avalanche and had been progressively stripping down to what he absolutely needed to protect himself from the blazing sun. Long-haired and brown-skinned, their father would have had a fit if he’d seen him. On top of all that, he had been riding his horse in a way that Ben would have deemed downright reckless.
“Not my responsibility,” Adam reminded himself, but spurred his horse faster anyways.
At a hard gallop, Adam rounded the corner and almost collided with Joe and his pinto. Before he could admonish him for reckless riding and blocking the road, it came to Adam that they were not alone. There on the side of the road, he saw them. Four armed bandits – casual, lethal and smiling – with six shooters aimed directly at their heads. Adam had seen the type before. Predators. The roads teemed with such bandits, and they had been the scourge of the Overland Stage. With stage travel halted because of the fires, outlaws would be settling for whatever they could get.
“I take it we have a problem,” Adam said to his brother.
“Stay right where you are, friend,” one of the bandits said and languidly crossed his leg over his saddle horn. “I suggest you throw your gun right there onto the ground.”
Adam hoped to catch Joe’s eye, tried to flash some sort of a warning, but Joe wouldn’t even look at him. His brother’s jaw was clenched and his hands fisted, more angry than Adam remembered seeing him. Joe was glaring intensely past the bandits, and whatever he was looking at had infuriated him to the point that he was almost coming out of the saddle. Adam squinted past the men into the blinding sunlight. It hit him almost physically when he saw what Joe was looking at.
He was looking at Ben Cartwright’s beautiful buckskin gelding, with his fine-tooled rifle still tucked in its scabbard, reins held carelessly in one bandit’s filthy hands.
The leader glanced back at the gelding and then back at them, curious and blasé, all at once. “Nice horse. Pleasure to ride. Looks like we’ll be getting two new mounts today.”
Joe made a move for his gun, and the man cocked the hammer of his own. The sun glinted off his pistol. Adam grabbed his brother’s arm hard enough to leave a bruise.
“Joe,” he hissed under his breath. “Wait!”
“Drop your guns,” the man warned. “We’ve had a bit of difficulty with the law lately. Adding murder to our charges racked up against us won’t cause us many problems.”
Adam was close enough that he could feel fury rolling off his brother. Don’t get your back up, he wanted to tell Joe, but couldn’t risk it. He knew what was coming and what he needed to do next. Joe was a fast draw, but couldn’t outdraw all four of them at once. To save his brother, Adam would have to betray him first.
In one fluid motion, Adam reached and pulled Joe’s gun out of his holster, flinging it to the ground, like it had been heated in a forge. Immediately, he pulled out his own gun and threw it down as well. Furious, Joe glowered at his brother, and Adam could see the violence in his brother’s eyes even if the bandits couldn’t. He glared right back at him, almost tempted to knock him out to keep him safe. It was a shock to see the horse, and his head throbbed, trying to make sense of it. There was no reason for his father’s gelding to wind up in the hands of common thieves. The horse should have been waiting in the livery at Morgan’s Crossing, where his father would have left it.
As calmly as he could manage, Adam said, “We have little money, but you can have all of it. My brother and I aren’t carrying anything of value.”
“Oh, I think you are,” the man said, dryly. “Your lives, for one thing. Your mounts and fine saddles for another. Lots of possibilities, plenty of value. Get down. Now.”
Adam slowly started to swing out of the saddle. For an optimistic moment, he believed Joe was doing the same the same, following instructions for once. However, as his own boots hit the ground, he realized that his brother was surreptitiously peeling off the bindings off his feet, freeing himself for what Adam knew he intended to do. Before Adam could grab him again, the burlap was off. Joe was coming into his own. With athletic grace that was almost lethal, Joe launched himself at the outlaw, slamming them both to the ground.
Adam’s desperate voice was lost in the confusion that followed, while his brother’s pinto reared and bolted down the road. The two men were engulfed in dust, as they grappled viciously for control. The bandit had his revolver pointed at Joe’s head and was trying to fire but couldn’t keep his aim steady. Firing harmlessly into the dirt, he lost his grip on it, and Joe knocked the gun out of the outlaw’s hand, sending it flying underneath the feet of the skittish horses. The other three men dismounted as their horses threatened to rear away. Two kept their guns menaced on Adam, while the third was struggling to get a clear shot at Joe.
Adam had never seen his brother fight so savagely. The other man must have outweighed him by a good fifty pounds, but Joe’s slight size made him more agile, and his brothers had taught him everything they knew about fighting. For all his infractions in Virginia City, he’d had plenty of experience learning the dirty tricks needed for winning at all costs.
Adam was desperate to get to one of the guns. Two six-shooters were still aimed at his head, hammers cocked, and he knew it wouldn’t take much for them to pull the trigger.
“Tell me what you did to my father!” Joe snarled, before taking a wrenching punch to his gut.
Adam could tell that Joe was played out, still suffering from the scorpion bite and the ravages of the trip. While he landed a solid blow to the man’s jaw which could have taken out a smaller man, the bandit was able to catch him off balance in return and bring him down hard with a brutal uppercut. Joe landed bodily, the breath knocked out of him, and the man scrambled forward, landing a hard kick to Joe’s side. Adam couldn’t wait it out any longer, as one of the bandits got a clear shot at Joe, aiming his six-shooter directly at Joe’s head. Undisciplined when they weren’t being told what to do, the other two men briefly turned away from Adam to watch the killing. Adam saw his chance and took it.
He dove forward onto the man who threatened his little brother and knocked the gun aside, throwing off his aim. The gun tumbled to the ground, and Adam kicked it out of the way before the others could reach for it. A bullet flew past, close enough that he could feel the heat of its trajectory on his face. One of the men hauled back and landed a stiff punch, knocking him to the ground. As he rolled into the dirt, his head came down hard on a rock by the side of the road. Adam felt the old pain from his head wound come roaring back and he fought off the nausea and dizziness that followed in its wake.
“Don’t shoot!” the leader was screaming at his men. The bullet had come close to him, as well. Joe should have been knocked out cold from the battering he’d taken, but instead was clawing his way through the dirt trying to reach the gun first. Determined to give him that chance, Adam landed a roundhouse punch to the unarmed man, and he dropped like a stone. Suddenly, against the back of his head, he felt the cold caress of the barrel of a six-shooter and heard the cock of the hammer.
Adam turned to the sour breath of the leader, his face swelling and mottled with blood. But he was still standing, and he had a gun. He saw the man’s finger move on the trigger.
Adam gritted his teeth, bracing himself for the explosion of pain that was sure to follow. He wondered if his pa had done the same when he knew he was going to die. Willing his brothers to get away, he fought to keep his wits about him. He was going to die, and he knew it. He was going to see his father…
The shot echoed through the clearing like a clap of thunder. Adam’s ears roared with it, and he dropped and rolled out of the way. But then there was more shooting, and his head was spinning. He could hardly open his eyes with the aching, but then it was quiet, and he was shaking. Finally, he realized that the shaking did not come from fear or despair but from the strong hands of his brother.
“Are you hurt, Adam?” Hoss’ face, creased with terrible worry, loomed overhead. “I need you to answer me.”
Adam remembered how to breathe, and he pushed himself up through his dizziness to look around the clearing. Blood, there was blood all around, and he didn’t think much of it belonged to him. All four bandits lay near him, blood pooling out of holes in their heads, their bellies.
“How?” he brought himself to ask but didn’t seem able to say more than that.
Hoss ran a hand over his sweat streaked face. Adam could see the angry patches of poison oak blistering underneath his collar. “I heard the shooting and came up from behind. I shot two of them – one was about to kill you, and the other was drawing on Joe. Little brother got hold of the other gun and cut down the third when he was drawin’ on me. That other one must of got hit in the crossfire. Don’t know. He was dead anyway, by the time it was over.”
“Pa’s horse…” Adam began. He wasn’t sure what he was asking and struggled to make sense of everything that had just happened.
“I don’t know,” Hoss said gruffly. “Those fellows ain’t talking. I’m gonna see to Joe. He’s having a rough go of it.”
Accepting a hand up, Adam found himself reeling after Hoss. He couldn’t see Joe anywhere. His head complained about moving, and he could hardly see through the pain hammering behind his eyes.
Then he saw his little brother. Joe, who’d held himself together during the entire journey, was staying upright by holding onto the buckskin gelding. He’d found his father’s currycomb – probably still in the saddlebag – and was painstakingly grooming the horse, starting at the neck and working his way down. Seemingly oblivious to the bloodshed behind him, Joe was sweet- talking the gelding, gentle and easy. His shoulders were shaking, and he was crying hard.
It was the kind of hurt that went deeper than any beating. With his brothers behind him, Joe continued brushing, running his hand through the black mane, tending to the hotspots that had been neglected for days. Adam and Hoss watched until he couldn’t continue. Pain, exhaustion, and grief were taking their toll. His brothers knew he was spent. They knew when it was time for them to step in.
Gently, Hoss took the currycomb from his hands and handed it over to Adam. He pulled his little brother into as fierce a hug as Joe could stand for.
“There now,” Hoss was gruffly saying to Joe, but he could have been saying it to all of them. “You’re all worn out.”
Adam watched his brothers, his own eyes welling with something he couldn’t have explained to anyone but the two men beside him. After a while, he turned to the gelding and continued the job his brother had started. Adam had no idea what had happened or what was to come. He didn’t know whether to dabble in hope or give way to grief. How could he find the right answers when he didn’t even know what questions he should be asking?
So he groomed his father’s horse, beginning with the neck and working his way down. He was as every bit as thorough as his father would have been. Much of what Adam knew about life, he had learned from Ben Cartwright, but there were other things he’d learned for himself. It was the same with his brothers. No matter where the journey was going to take them, they’d see it through to its end.
After all, they had a lot to live up to.
Despite rumors to the contrary, Ben Cartwright was not a patient man.
He was riding at a much slower gait than he was accustomed to. The swaybacked mare the livery owner sold him was hardly serviceable, and Ben longed to take the road at a hard gallop. Every mile was an eternity that separated him from his sons.
It had been a week since he woke up in Morgan’s Crossing with a headache that felt like someone was taking an anvil to the back of his eyes. To say he was disoriented would have been an understatement better suited to his oldest son. He woke up in a strange bed with sheets that felt like used flour sacks. The grease streaked window next to his bed looked out onto a dusty main street he’d never seen before. Dust devils rose in the wind, disappearing into a cloudless sky. To add to the confusion, a broad shouldered woman bustled into the room, cheerfully fussing and spooning him medicine that promptly knocked him out for the next two days. Even after he woke up again and was coherent enough to refuse the medicine, Ben found himself unable to speak for several days, no doubt a result of the brutal head wound he had suffered. Nobody would bring him paper or a pen despite his frantic attempts to pantomime writing. Needless to say, his unsettling situation took some time to resolve. However, even from the start, Ben remembered what had happened all too clearly….
He’d finished up his business sooner than he’d planned. It had gone well – very well, in fact – and he’d left with a sizeable money order in his saddlebag. He was a satisfied man, but one anxious to get back home again.
It didn’t take long before he learned that going home would be more difficult than he had anticipated. Wildfires had closed the road that went over the mountains, and even the Overland Stage had suspended all travel. The only way home to the Ponderosa would be to take old logging trails over the pass. It would be a dangerous trip for a man traveling alone. It was rugged countryside, teeming with bandits and countless other perils. Chancing it was something he’d have expected of Joseph, with his breezy recklessness. And yet, he’d made his decision in a similar fashion, knowing that it was only his life he risked.
Ben had his reasons for wanting to get back on time. The business of running the Ponderosa had been especially hectic as of late. He’d left his sons with a wagon load of work to be completed. He knew they were perfectly capable of completing the work themselves, but a father did worry.
However, the main thing that pushed him into his foolhardy decision was the fact that Joseph’s birthday was coming up the following week. A young man only turned twenty once in his life, and Ben was determined to be there for it. His boys would tease him for it certainly. Call him stubborn and sentimental. He’d pay them no mind. A father belonged at home with his sons, and Ben was anxious to get back to them.
Ben left early that morning, breathing a sigh of relief to be in the saddle, on his way home. The sun was hot enough to wither a fence post down in the valley. Yet, as he started making his way up the foothills, the air grew cooler, the terrain more heavily wooded. A pleasant breeze whistled through the pines, ruffling the cedars. He could see the mountains rising up in the distance, the ridges that would lead him to his home.
Ben watered the horses at a lovely boulder-strewn spot by a river. For longer than he needed to, he sat and listened to music he’d forgotten – the water lapping over rocks, the frogs, the birds. The mantra of wind in the trees. It felt like pilfered time. They had been so busy lately. There was no excuse for it. How long had it been since he sat by a river with his sons? He remembered the afternoons they used to spend, before the Ponderosa had become so all consuming, fishing and hunting for days in the woods.
Ben smiled and let cool water trickle over his face. It restored his soul as well as his body, and he promised to take the time to spend more time with his sons. He even mulled over the idea of bringing them back with him to that very spot, but shook his head ruefully over that. An aging man with foolish ideas, but maybe there was a good one tucked in there somewhere. There had to be a way to find the time. Go fishing. See if his three capable young men remembered anything he’d taught them.
He couldn’t stay forever.
Ben was about to turn off the main road, when they came upon him. Four bandits hiding in the rocks, crouching behind fallen timber. They demanded everything: his horse, his weapons, his money. The sizeable money order paid to the order of Ben Cartwright.
Before riding away, the leader of the outlaws raised his six-shooter and brought it down hard against the back of Ben’s head. His world exploded in pain, faded to darkness, left him with only one remaining thought.
His sons would be so worried…
It took some time to piece together what happened next. Some of it was told to him by strangers, but it didn’t take long to realize his bushwhacking had consequences worse than he could have imagined. He been unconscious on the side of the road for who knows how long. He might have died there if a couple of loggers hadn’t ridden by and managed to get him to town. Nursed by the doctor’s wife in a sweltering back room, Ben was unconscious during the drama that consumed the town that week: the bloody bank robbery in town, the dead robber, the victims, the hapless murdered traveler… By the time he’d regained his coherency and managed to explain who he was, they’d already identified the murdered traveler as “Ben Cartwright” by the papers he had on him, had traced the name to the Ponderosa, and had wired Virginia City that he was dead.
Upon getting it sorted out, the sheriff of Morgan’s Crossing was terribly sorry. His efficiency had worked against them, so he said. They figured that one of the bushwhackers was hoping to cash in the money that he’d stolen from Ben. The bank robbery was unconnected. It wasn’t all that unusual in those parts – crime foiled by crime. Most men carried at least a couple firearms, most ladies a jeweled knife. Crime was virulent in the West and was only getting worse by the day.
The hard working sheriff immediately wired Virginia City to clarify the situation. Ben Cartwright was not dead after all! Roy Coffee wired back that very day.
When Ben read the telegram, he couldn’t keep his hands from shaking:
Thought you were dead. Boys upset. Left last week. Intend to bring body home.
Ben was so upset the doctor feared he was having a relapse. He even heaved himself out of bed, intending to go look for his sons right there and then.
“So worried,” he kept saying, even after being manhandled back to bed. “My boys must be so worried…”
The concerned doctor and sheriff made their point loud and clear. Ben was in no condition to ride, let alone embark on a solitary quest to intercept his sons. With the wildfires still smoldering, it wasn’t like he could expect to meet them on the main road. The backcountry was immense and rugged. His boys would be harder to trace than the whisper of leaves on a quiet day. He was far better off recovering in town and waiting for them to come to him.
A week passed by, and as far as Ben was concerned, he was perfectly capable of riding. The pain in his head had subsided to the point where he could almost sit upright without his stomach heaving. The wildfires had died down, and the Overland was running again. Ben Cartwright needed to see his boys, so badly it had become an ache far more painful than any blow to his head.
He knew it would be next to impossible to leave the main road and expect to find them. However, he figured his boys would cut over when they got close enough to town, after the danger from fire was out of the way. It tore at him, imagining what his sons were going through. No father wanted his children to grieve unnecessarily, and when he thought there was a way to end it…. No argument, no matter how well intentioned, was going to keep him away.
And so he’d left town that morning on a swaybacked bay that couldn’t hold a candle to his beloved gelding. Yet as far as he was concerned, the horse was a prize thoroughbred. She was taking him closer to his sons, and that was all that mattered.
Ben could feel the sun at his back and the wind kicking up, as the afternoon reined itself in. Soon, it would be time for him to head back as well. A mile further, he told himself, just another mile, and then he’d turn back. And as Ben spurred the horse to take the hill, he saw them. Golden in the sun, weary in the saddle, they were as familiar to him as any sight on God’s good earth he’d ever be privileged to see.
He began calling their names, waving his hat, and standing in his stirrups like a crazy man. At first they didn’t seem to see him, staring into the sun, but when they did, he was sure of it. They’d have known each other a mile away. Hoss let out a mile-eating holler and threw his own hat in the air. They all three spurred toward him, raising up a cloud of dust in their wake.
Hoss reached him first and practically pulled him from the saddle, before either of them could think of what to say. His strong son had him around the shoulders and was not so gently hugging the living daylights out of him. Ben couldn’t breathe and not just for tightness of the embrace, but because Hoss was crying. His middle boy almost never cried.
“You’re a sight, Pa,” he kept saying. “A regular sight to see…”
Then Adam was there, and uncharacteristically pulled his father in for an embrace so intense, that Ben could hardly bear to let go. He looked deep in the eyes of his oldest and saw what the journey had cost him. The ache and the mourning. The responsibility that set so heavily on his own shoulders. He looked so much older, this first-born boy, the son of his own youth. And yet there was something else as well. For months, Ben had been troubled while observing the restlessness in his oldest son. Adam had acted like a man about to embark on a long journey -tying up loose ends, looking affectionately at things as if for the last time, daring himself to say goodbye. The man in front of him was not that same man, although Ben couldn’t say why he was different. For the first time in a long time, Adam looked like he was home. Home with the rest of them.
“How…” Adam started to ask and then faltered, his voice catching. “How did this happen?”
Ben started to answer, but story-telling would have to wait, as would everything else. For once, his youngest boy was the last one riding in but was out of the saddle before the horse stopped moving. He’d have knocked Ben off his feet if Hoss and Adam hadn’t been there to hold them all up. But his youngest boy was all over him. Joe wasn’t crying. His eyes were clear and brave, and told a story of their own about how a boy sometimes grows up the hard way.
Ben stood back, wiping his own eyes, and surveyed his boys.
“Let me get a look at you,” he said.
He frowned. All three were ragged and somewhat battered, thinner than when he’d left, like they hadn’t eaten a decent meal in weeks. Hoss looked the most like himself, though his clothing was torn and filthy. Telltale blisters of poison oak sprawled across his neck and face, across the back of his hands. He was a mess but was the dearest sight a father could have seen. His dependable, good-hearted son had done good. With an arm around each of his brothers’ shoulders, Hoss beamed back at him. Not for the first time, Ben knew he had much to be grateful for in his middle boy, more than he would ever know to give thanks for.
He turned to Adam. His oldest didn’t look like he’d fared nearly as well. His face was swollen, with bruises that trailed past his collar. The back of his knuckles were raw and bloodied, and Ben knew the fight must have been a memorable one. He could see dried blood in his hair, but Adam backed off when Ben tried to get a better look at it. Adam was standing upright, underneath Hoss’ massive arm. He was smiling. His oldest was a strong man, and it didn’t surprise him that Adam’s wounds matched his own. Father and son. They’d do their healing together.
And then Ben surveyed his youngest son, who was an entirely different matter all together, as he had always been. Bare-headed, his hair was unruly, wild, and would have been curling over his collar, had Joseph been wearing a shirt. In fact, he was hardly wearing anything at all, and so tattered were his pants that Ben had to double check if he was even wearing any. Bruising mottled his chest and his side. Dark shadows suggested Joe’s ribs needed to be looked at by a doctor and soon. He was brown-skinned from too much time in the sun, and to top it off, he was barefoot, something that had been forbidden since boyhood. With rueful certainty, Ben suddenly understood it – the fact that a father’s influence extended only so far past the grave. But Ben Cartwright was alive and intended to make the most of it.
“Joseph, where are your boots?” he inquired, sounding a lot more outraged than he actually felt. He turned to his older boys. “Just look at him! How could you let him ride this way?”
“But, Sir…” Hoss protested, “he didn’t exactly leave home that way!”
They all smiled at that, and Joe pushed his wild hair out of his eyes. Adam took the reins of the sway-backed mare, leading her over to the other horses.
Hoss placed his hand on his father’s shoulders. “I don’t understand how it all happened but Pa, we’re awfully glad to see you!”
Suddenly bashful, Hoss looked away and cleared his throat. Just then, Joe swayed on his feet and might have fallen over if his big brother hadn’t reached for him first.
“Let’s get you back in the saddle, little brother,” he said kindly, and to his father added, “He’s had a rough time of it, Pa.”
Ben stood back and watched as his sons took control of things, of each other. They had done exactly as he had taught them. He didn’t know what had happened to them during the weeks he’d been gone, but somehow he knew it wasn’t all about grief. Ben realized he might never know all that his sons had shared together. Not on this side of the grave, at least.
As he walked with his sons back to the horses, Ben knew enough to lift his head and be grateful for what he had. For beginnings and endings, life and death. For little boys who’d grown up into good men, and everything that came in between.
It was all that a father could ask for.
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