Summary: Ben’s plan to reconcile Adam and Hoss leads to disaster for the Cartwright family. A WHN for “She Walks in Beauty”.
Rated: K+ (20,795 words)
Like the Night
As long as I can remember, Pa has always maintained that it’s both a blessing and a curse that God handed Hoss such a gentle temperament wrapped up with such an enormous body. My middle brother is so gentle that I’ve witnessed half-rabid ground squirrels scrambling across a clearing to come and eat from his hand. Adam calls it an enigma, the fact that the smallest creatures are the least intimidated by the biggest man around. It’s not much of a mystery to me. I agree with Pa. Animals have a way of seeing to the inside of a man.
Even so, all that gentleness has a downside especially when it comes to my brother’s relationships with women. It’s ironic that Hoss has had so much trouble over the years. He’s so different than the rest of us. Adam and I’ve always gotten more than our fair share of attention. Even Pa has to make it perfectly clear when he’s not interested. Otherwise every spinster and widow in the territory would be stampeding after him in droves.
It’s hard for me to understand how Hoss can be so shy in the company of a pretty woman. We’re brothers, but we couldn’t be any more different. Holding a lovely woman in my arms is one of the great pleasures of my life. Even now, I can see myself walking into a barn dance. I can hear the fiddle thrumming across the floorboards, can feel my feet start to tap in tune, and that’s when I catch that look in the eye of the pretty girl across the room. And I just know that my evening’s just beginning! I don’t know if it’s the same way for Adam, but I do know that he never lacks for partners. All he has to do is lean back and watch them stroll by. The invitation is his to accept or decline.
It’s different with Hoss. Half the time, he hangs around the punch bowl at a dance, joshing with the old-timers and making sure that the widows have a comfortable chair. Now, Pa would give me an earful for even suggesting that there’s something wrong with that, and I know he’s right. But all that chivalry doesn’t help my brother win the attention of the kind of girl he deserves.
I’ve tried to coach him ever since I was a kid, even though he was already grown. I’d saunter into the barn posing like I was a pretty young thing looking for a strong man to save me from all my troubles, and I’d tell Hoss exactly what to do next. He got pretty good at it practicing out there in the barn with the horses for an audience, but it never seemed like he was able to apply it anywhere else. When it came time to put all that practice into good use at a dance or a social, all his social prowess would just fold up, like a bloom that looks great in the day but withers at nightfall.
I just can’t explain it. Everyone loves Hoss. My big brother could find an open seat in any saloon across the territory and a clap on the back from any man in Virginia City. There isn’t anyone around you can count on more than Hoss Cartwright when it comes to watching your back or having a good time. I’ve hardly met an honest man who didn’t have something good to say about him.
It goes both ways. I’ve never known anyone who was better at reading the inside of a man than Hoss. It’s downright spooky the way he can look into a man’s eyes and read into his intentions, paying attention to the things that most of us never take the time to notice. I’d trust his instincts about a fellow, before I’d trust my own.
I wish he had the same intuition, when it came to women. I can’t tell you how many times that Hoss has set this cap for a woman who could never deserve him. I could list them all if I had time. Helen Layton, Margie Owens… There were more, of course, many more. Lots of pretty young things that thought nothing of breaking my gentle brother’s heart for a song. Yet, they all paled to the pretty disaster known by the name of Regan Miller. Not a one of those women came as close to wreaking the kind of havoc that could destroy a family.
Until Regan Miller came into our lives last month, I’d never have imagined that Hoss would willingly hurt anyone, least of all Adam. My two oldest brothers almost never fight. I can count on my fingers then number of times they’ve even been mad at each other. Yet, I’ve never seen my brother Hoss in a fury like that day in the barn. The way he lit into Adam… It was easy to forget that Hoss had the potential to be a dangerous man.
It’s no big surprise to me that Adam could get a fellow mad enough to want to hurt him. There’ve been plenty of times in my life that I’ve wanted to hurt my oldest brother and said so, sometimes choosing words that got my mouth washed out with soap when I was little. My oldest brother has a way of saying things that get a rise out of me, like nobody can. Even now that we’re grown and we should be past all that, every now and then he’ll make some offhand comment that riles me past all reason.
“Don’t get your back up with your brother.” That’s what Pa’s always telling me. “Brothers need to stick together, above everything else.”
When Regan left town, we all breathed a sigh of relief and prepared to go on with our lives. Little did we know, our family’s real ordeal was just beginning…
It was nighttime, and we were falling.
During the first moment, I felt Hoss grabbing for me, but the world was flipping over, upside down and around, and I slipped right out of his hands and into the air. I heard Pa shouting, and then we were flying out of the stage and into the night. The world around me exploded as the stage cracked in half, splintering into my back. I hit the ground hard enough to knock the air out of my lungs and started rolling downward. The night air felt like a slap across my face.
I rolled down the slanted road and over the edge of what had to be some sort of a cliff. I tried to grab onto something, but suddenly there was nothing but air to hold onto. My back slammed against an outcropping of rock, and my last coherent thought was that my jacket was going to be ruined.
I was no longer falling. I thought I heard Adam moaning nearby, and I wondered how he got hurt. I ought to get to him, but his voice faded in the roar in my ears. Besides my legs didn’t work like they should.
I wanted to call out to my father and brothers in the dark, but the words were all mixed up in my head. So this is how it ends, I thought. And as the world went dark and then darker still, I didn’t think about much of anything, anymore.
We never should have been on that stage. We had plenty to keep us busy at home on the Ponderosa. The spring cattle drive was right around the corner, and there was plenty to be done just getting the ranch into shape after the long winter. There was more than enough to keep us busy without us hightailing it to Sacramento to check out a new string of horses. Any way you looked at it, there was no reasonable reason for us all to leave on a trip together.
Pa did his best to offer up reasonable explanations. He claimed that he needed Hoss to decide if the horses were sound enough to justify their expense. He wanted Adam along to negotiate a better deal than the old wrangler at the Bar Y was currently offering. Pa always claimed that no one could strike a better deal than Adam.
Of any of us, I was the one that Pa would have preferred had stayed behind. He usually liked to keep one of us at home to keep an eye on the ranch when the rest of us were away. However, I was the obvious choice to have made the trip in the first place. I had recently started to handle much of the horse operations on the Ponderosa. But it was more than that, and we all knew it. Judging a good horse was more than just appraising the animal’s health or determining its value. Pa wanted me to come because I was the one who could see the spirit in a horse, the thing that separated mere working stock from a horse worth riding.
So we all came. It was an odd choice for a successful rancher like Pa, but he was worried about a lot more than making a profit. Pa himself didn’t even offer an explanation for why he was coming as well. I’m not sure what he hoped to accomplish. Personally, I think he came, because he wanted to see what was going to happen.
Normally, we’d have ridden out to the ranch, setting up camp along the way, so we’d be able to return with the string of horses. However, the roads were still churned up and treacherous from the last of the melting snow. Even by stage, the trip would be more dangerous than usual for this time of year. Two of the foals were still too young to manage the trip until the mountain passes were in better condition. The Sacramento wrangler agreed to deliver them himself in another month, and it gave Pa the excuse he was looking for. He declared that we’d take the stage instead of ride.
It didn’t take a genius to know what Pa was planning. It was the same strategy he used when we were little and in the middle of a fight. He’d stick us together in a room for long enough, and before you’d know it, one of us would have knocked the chip right off the other one’s shoulder. It was a simple strategy. You could only stay mad at each other for so long when you were in close quarters, staring at each other in the face. After a while you’d start to feel kind of foolish, just sitting around and looking at each other. It used to work when we were little, but back then I was usually the one with the chip on my shoulder. For once, this wasn’t about me this time. And anyone who thought that I was the stubborn Cartwright never spent a lot of time with the rest of my family. Pa had made up his mind, and there was not talking him out of it.
So I found myself sitting in the stagecoach riding to Sacramento, with my optimistic father and my two irritable brothers.
I hated taking the stage.
Even with all the mud, the team of horses somehow managed to kick up a constant cloud of dust. The wind whipped through the open windows, and the cold pinched at my nose and my cheeks. Normally, we’d have shared the coach with a couple of extra passengers, but Pa chartered it this time, so we’d have the entire stage to ourselves. He claimed it would be more comfortable to stretch out a bit, but I doubt he fooled anyone. He didn’t want any extra passengers, because he wanted my brothers to have the chance to be alone together. I watched him glancing hopefully at Hoss and Adam, as they shifted uncomfortably on the seat seated opposite from each other, and I felt bad for having complained about the trip. Like Pa, I hated when my brothers were at odds with each other.
It wasn’t like they’d been fighting since the incident in the bunkhouse. On the surface of things, they’d worked things out. They said, “Please” and “Pass the chicken” to each other at supper and politely asked about each other’s day. They said all the right things at the right times. They talked about branding calves, timber contracts, and the flooding in the western pasture. They never, ever talked about what had happened. They were more polite with each other than an honest man could stand. It just wasn’t natural, and we all knew it. Something had to give.
I knew what the problem was, but I didn’t know what to do about it. Hoss and I have always been close, as much best friends as brothers. Sometimes, I believe that I know Hoss better than I know myself. I can only imagine what it must have cost him to see the way Adam held his ribs and limped around during the days after the fight. I’ve never had Hoss hit me like that, but I’ve been battered enough to know that your body doesn’t recover from a beating like that right away. Adam never complained, but for several days, he moved stiffly and awkwardly like an old-timer whose joints were seizing up on him in the cold.
Hoss noticed and didn’t look any of us in the eye that whole first week. He was embarrassed. I know it’s the truth. It’s one thing to be taken in by a pretty gal who is up to no good. It’s another to put that pretty girl ahead of your own brother. The fight had been between him and Adam, but Pa and I were all tangled up in it. We were witnesses, after all. We’d seen the violence that Hoss kept so carefully stored away. I’d seen it, and let me tell you, it wasn’t anything I’d forget any time soon.
On the surface of things, Adam seemed perfectly willing to forgive. However, if you know anything about my oldest brother, you’d know that the surface is a lot different than what’s stirring around inside. How Adam acted and how Adam felt were two entirely different things, altogether.
At first, I really believed that the fight was over. Regan left town to ruin some other poor fellow’s life. The damage to the bunkhouse was assessed and repaired. Doc Martin made his typical appearance and declared that Adam would be as fit as a fiddle in a week or two.
I was probably the only one who heard him pull Pa aside and murmur, “Thank God, Ben, you got there when you did.”
He didn’t need to tell either one of us. Pa and I knew what we’d seen. But we hoped for the best. Things had to get better; they always did. Even the small bone that Hoss broke in his hand when slamming his fist into Adam’s jaw would mend itself. After all, doesn’t everything heal in time?
Nothing, it seemed, was going to turn out to be that simple, least of all our simple horse-buying trip on the stage.
There was no doubt about it. Pa was right about one thing. If you’re trying to stay out of another man’s way, then the stage is just about the worst place for you to be. That’s what I’ve always hated about stage travel. I’d always prefer the big sky overhead and a fast horse underneath me to the bone-jarring confinement of a stage ride. Even when the roads were serviceable and the team handled by the best driver, a stagecoach ride was nothing short of a misery.
This ride couldn’t have been much worse. At least that’s what I told myself, as we flew around another bend, my body slipping across the worn planked seat and right into Hoss. There wasn’t much room between us, but without an extra passenger to fill up the middle seat, I was thrown from side to side with every wild turn. More than once, we hit a rut so deep that I bounced and hit my head on the roof. Not for the first time, I envied my big brother his heft. Hoss was like a tree rooted to his spot on the seat. It would take more than a rough ride to throw him around. Pa and Adam on the opposite side weren’t faring much better than me. No matter how we tried to brace ourselves and anticipate the next corner, we were going to be a walking collection of bruises by the time we arrived in Sacramento.
I looked out the window and immediately regretted it. The pass we were traveling on wasn’t more than ten feet wide in some places, and the steep drop on the other side could give the bravest man pause. Nightfall was coming on quick and we weren’t anywhere near the next swing station. I don’t think the stage driver anticipated that the road would in such poor condition. More than once, we reached a steep hill and had to get out and push behind the coach in order to get to the top. Our boots were still caked with mud and with my legs dovetailed between Pa’s and Adam’s, I knew that we’d all be covered in mud by the time we arrived.
Once we reached the other side of the pass, the ride seemed a little smoother and the driver took full advantage of the improved conditions. I could hear him hollering and cracking his whip over the horses’ heads. I leaned my head out, just as we rounded a corner and realized that I couldn’t see the team as they swung around the bend. That’s how fast we were going. I stopped watching after a spell. I never could stand to watch a horse being mistreated, but I wasn’t about to risk my hide by climbing out of the coach to give the man my opinion.
The driver had told us before we left that he wanted to arrive at the swing station by nightfall. The roads were too poor to risk a night run. I’d stopped by that station many times and knew that there wouldn’t be more waiting for us than hardtack and warmed over beans. Yet, it was better than a night of bouncing against Hoss’ elbows and knees.
I stared across at Pa and Adam, as the dim light in the coach started to fade. Earlier, I had pulled out a deck of cards and tried to start up a game with my brothers. Pa was the only taker. He and I took turns winning and losing, before I finally pocketed the stack. Our hearts just weren’t in the game. Pa and I tried to get each other excited over a particularly promising stallion that we had read about, but after a spell, even that conversation drifted away. It was no good with just Pa and I talking. I began to figure that Pa had gotten it all wrong. Being alone in a stage did nothing to bring us together. It only made it obvious how far our family had drifted apart. The trip stretched on and on. Adam and Hoss stared out their window, watching the trees shadow and blur, as we whipped by. Nightfall was coming on fast, and we still had a long way to go.
The moon had just risen above the ridge, when I heard something crack. The stage lurched forward and then jolted back with a heart-stopping thud. I heard the driver cursing from the front seat, as the entire coach heaved over to one side. The motion flung Pa and Adam into us, and I could tell the driver was struggling to use the break. For a couple minutes, I thought he might manage it and hold it together. But then something gave, all at once, and the small coach lurched over and over and onto its side
It happened too fast to understand what was happening. I heard Pa and Adam yelling and felt Hoss reaching for me, but it was too late.
It was nighttime, and we were falling.
When I opened my eyes, I found myself panting with pain and exhaustion. For a few mystified minutes, I couldn’t even remember where I was. The night was shadowed and shrouded with strange moonlight; it felt unreal, like I was trapped in someone else’s bad dream.
What happened, I asked myself again and again. What went wrong?
Gradually, I became aware of Pa’s voice shouting in the distance. He sounded so far away, like he was shouting down from the sky, but that made no sense. I heard Hoss’ voice calling as well, and I realized they were calling for Adam and me.
“Adam! Joe! Can you hear us? Answer if you can!”
It took everything I had, but finally I gathered my strength and put everything I had into my cry.
“Pa,” I yelled, still not understanding why I was lying on a pile of shattered rocks. I didn’t understand why my body screamed with pain. I could feel cuts and abrasions over every exposed inch of my body, and my legs didn’t seem to move the way I wanted them to. My hands were gritty with gravel and blood, and I couldn’t make a fist with my right hand.
“Joseph,” Pa hollered in response. “Are you all right? Is Adam with you?”
I didn’t know how to answer either question, so I didn’t. But I began reaching around me, groping along the rock shelf where I had come to rest. I tried to move around. My wounds burned where the dirt scraped into them, and every inch felt like a mile, but I didn’t stop creeping slowly forward, using my arms to drag the rest of my body. Finally, I reached what I’d been afraid that I’d find. My hand reached out and rested in a still warm puddle of what had to be blood.
I’d found Adam.
I could hear Pa still shouting for me to answer. Hoss was yelling too, but I was having trouble sucking enough air into my lungs to answer either one of them. The fall had knocked more than my breath out of me. I wasn’t thinking very clearly. My thoughts were like strange voices having a conversation in my head. I wasn’t making sense of much of anything, but little by little, it started coming back to me. I remembered sitting with my family in the stagecoach, before it started breaking apart. I cast my memory back even further and remembered the terrible fight between Hoss and Adam. I remembered Regan Miller and Pa’s excuse for our trip. As my thoughts started lining up, my breathing settled down as well. I needed to get myself together.
I needed to help Adam. My fingers were tacky with his blood. I knew Pa wanted to hear from me, but I only had so much strength. I needed to use what little I had left to find my brother.
The chill of the night was seeping through my torn jacket, and I was shivering. Pain and cold had settled into my bones, and I couldn’t stop myself from shaking. It wasn’t a good sign and probably meant I was going into shock, but I couldn’t bring myself to worry about that. I was still confused about the details. The only thing I knew for sure was that we were in quite a fix, and I had no idea how we were going to get ourselves out of it this time. While the accident was happening, I wasn’t a bit afraid. I just felt this detached sense of amazement that the Cartwright story might end this way. Yet, lying there in the dark, I felt fear and plenty of it.
I forced those thoughts away and again tried moving. I started groping around me, trying to grab for my brother, but couldn’t make contact with anything but rocks and gravel. My hand just kept tapping into empty space. After a time, I stopped and lay back, absolutely spent and sick with frustration. I couldn’t move any more and couldn’t manage enough of a voice to call for Pa.
I could hardly see. The night seemed to be getting darker with every passing minute. I could still see the glow of the moon, even as it slipped behind a veil of clouds. The wind started to pick up and blow hard through the canyon. By every indication, it looked like a storm would be blowing in soon. It was no good worrying about the weather. Adam was hurt. He needed me. There wasn’t much I could do, but at least I had to try.
“Adam,” I whispered. The single word took everything that I had.
In frustration, I lay in ground and watched the moonlit clouds rushing by. It was a quiet night, broken only by Pa and Hoss’ sporadic shouting. Eventually, even their yelling started to fade away and seem a lot less important. I couldn’t seem to move, I couldn’t find Adam, but I was feeling warmer at least. I stopped shaking and felt myself growing numb. I felt like I might even be able to get comfortable lying there, underneath the storm gathering sky. Even the pain didn’t seem to be all that bad anymore… A fellow could close his eyes and get some rest on a night like this one…
A groan close next to me broke into my sleep. I shook myself awake and tried to roll in the direction of the sound. I was rewarded by another moan, louder this time.
“Adam?” I whispered, fighting through the exhaustion that had spread over me. I reached out again and was finally rewarded when my arm slapped against something soft and warm. I heard the same groaning, louder this time, and I felt Adam moving underneath my hand.
“Little Joe?” The voice was distinct and familiar in the darkness. Unlike me, Adam never took much time in waking up. “Where are we? What happened? What on earth did you get us into this time? Oh Lord, what happened to my head!”
Above us, Pa didn’t waste a minute as soon as he heard Adam. He must have been up there just waiting to hear a voice. His voice echoed all around.
“Adam! Adam, we’re here! Hoss and I are up here. We’re all right! Please let me if you’re all right, son!”
“Pa! I’m down here. I think Joe’s with me. I can kind of see him, but I’m not sure what’s wrong with him.”
I wondered how Adam could manage to get his voice to carry like that. My own voice seemed to be stuck in my throat. The peaceful numbness crept over me again, and I started to close my eyes.
“Adam! Are you all right? Can you stand up where you are, so I can try to see you?”
Pa’s voice was so clear, I felt like he was right next to me. Even with my eyes as heavy as lead, I could see his face so vividly.
“Adam, you hold on now. I’m coming down to you,” Hoss shouted.
I opened my eyes slightly. Somehow, it surprised me to hear Hoss’ voice. It was funny how he didn’t sound angry any more. I remembered how angry he’d been at Adam in the bunkhouse. Angry enough to kill someone, that’s what Pa had said at least. For the life of me, I couldn’t see what there was so special about Regan Miller that could turn a couple of brothers against each other. She was a pretty girl for sure, but there were plenty of plenty girls to go around. Hoss could do a lot better for himself. That was for sure. I started picturing the face of every pretty girl who I could match up with Hoss, and my eyes started to close again…
“No, Hoss,” Adam yelled. “Don’t come down! Not yet. I need to figure out what we landed on and if it would hold you! Joe’s lying next to me and I think I heard him say something earlier, but he’s not saying anything now. I can’t tell if he’s even awake.”
I opened my eyes again. I was awake, but I couldn’t manage to say that to Adam. I remembered the pool of blood and wanted to ask if he was all right. I wanted to say all sorts of things, but the words weren’t coming out right.
“Son, tell me how you’re hurt,” Pa shouted. “We need to know what we’re dealing with, so we can try to get you back up again.”
“I hit my head pretty hard,” Adam answered. “It’s pretty obvious it’s been bleeding, but I think it’s stopped. I’ve got an awful headache, and I don’t think there’s an inch of my body that not going to be black and blue tomorrow. Other than that, I guess I’ll be fine.”
“What about Little Joe?” Hoss hollered down.
Adam shouted, “I can’t tell. I’m sitting next to him, right now. I can’t see him in the dark, but he’s cold. Real cold. I tried to button his jacket, but it doesn’t feel like there’s much left of it. I don’t know how much time we’ve got, if we don’t get him warmed up soon.”
I tried to tell Adam that I wasn’t cold at all, that I was pretty comfortable, as a matter of fact. If I could just get a little sleep, I was sure everything would be fine. I started to close my eyes again, but opened them when Adam started shaking me. My brother’s dark shadow loomed beside me.
“He’s waking up again,” Adam shouted to Pa and Hoss. Then he lowered his voice to a whisper to talk to me. I was glad because all the shouting was making my head pound even worse than it did before, but I couldn’t tell him that. “Joe, you need to hang on. You’ve got to stay awake, you hear? We’ve had an accident, but Pa and Hoss are going to get us out of it. I’m sitting close to you so we can both stay warm.”
“I’m coming down,” Hoss hollered. “We found a rope in what’s left of the stage. I just finished securing it.”
“Don’t you think you should send Pa?” Adam asked. “We might need you up there to pull us up this mountain.”
“Yeah, but I ain’t sure that either you or Joe are going to be doing much climbing, by the sound of things. You might need my help getting back up. Besides, Pa did something to his ankle, when we got thrown from the stage. It ain’t busted, but it ain’t right neither.”
“My ankle’s fine,” Pa protested, and I heard Adam chuckling beside me.
“You’re fine, we’re all fine,” Adam called out. “In the fine shape we’re all in, I don’t know why any of us need to be rescued. All right Hoss, it sounds like it’s up to you. Be careful coming down. I can hardly see a thing. I’m holding Little Joe right now and trying to get him warm, but I don’t know if it’s working. This shelf we’re on isn’t very big, and I don’t know how it will hold all of us”
“I’ll be careful!” Hoss hollered. “Don’t you forget none. I see real good in the dark!”
I wanted to tell Adam that Hoss was telling the truth. He was real good at catching the things that the rest of us missed while we were stumbling around in the dark. Selfishly, I almost wished Hoss had fallen with me. He had cat eyes in the dark; I couldn’t count how many times I’d followed him home on blind faith. He’d never led me wrong. It was one of things that had struck me as strange in his fight with Adam. For a man so good at seeing things the rest of us missed, why had Hoss looked at the situation and managed to read it so wrong? Knowing that Regan was the one who started the kissing was simply a matter of reading the writing on the wall… That’s what Pa used to call it… Anyone with a lick of sense could have seen that that girl was up to no good…
I opened my eyes. I was being shaken again. Adam’s voice brought me painfully into the present.
“Joe, I know you’re hurt, and you want to sleep. So do I. But we both have to stay awake. Talk to me, boy. I need to know if you can.”
I felt a drifting of dirt scatter over my face.
“Adam?” I managed to whisper. That one single word took all that I had, and I began panting again, exhausted.
“That’s it, Joe,” he murmured, and I could almost hear the smile in his voice. More rocks crumbled overhead, and I could feel gravel and debris tumbling over my arms and useless legs. “Don’t worry about that, Joe. It’s just Hoss. He’s coming down. He’s about halfway. He might be bringing half of the mountain down with him, but he’ll get us back all right. Pa’s waiting. Stay awake, now. You want to get back to Pa, don’t you?”
“Pa?” I whispered. My thoughts were racing in circles in my head. Nothing was making sense anymore. Adam was holding me. Hoss was climbing down. Pa was waiting somewhere up high. Adam wasn’t mad at Hoss anymore. He was saying nice things that made no sense in my disordered mind.
“No, not Pa. It’s Adam,” my older brother replied with the kind of patience he only pulled out, when I was in pretty bad shape. “You and I fell, and Hoss is climbing down. Don’t worry. Hoss will get you up, and you’ll see Pa in no time.”
Just then, I heard a roar like the earth was moving, and voices started shouting overhead. Then, it seemed like everyone was yelling and hollering, and the ground was shaking as if the sky was falling down. When the first wave of dirt and rock billowed over us, it must have surprised Adam as well. I heard him swearing and coughing and felt him pushing me roughly aside.
Then he threw himself on top of me, before the world once again went dark and absolutely still.
It was well past midnight, and I knew I should have been in bed. I was yawning something fierce, and the smoke in the bunkhouse stung my eyes and made them ache. I had snuck out of my room a few hours earlier to watch the poker game, the game with the highest stakes in all of Nevada Territory. At least that’s what Sleepy Eddie told me, and I’d never known him to lie to me yet.
I wasn’t supposed to go anywhere near the bunkhouse at night. Pa warned me that his twelve year-old son wasn’t about to learn the ways of the world from a bunch of tobacco spewing cowhands and that there’d be the devil to pay, if he ever caught me in there again. I took his warning and decided right there and then never to get caught again. It was asking too much of a fellow to give it up. I’d learned more in my nightly visits to the bunkhouse than I ever learned in Miss Jones’ schoolroom. I liked the men, and I knew they liked me. They never told me to leave, and as far as I was concerned, that was practically an invitation.
Now, Adam was just as bad as Pa, when it came to making sure that I was sticking to the rules. So when I heard the familiar sound of my brothers riding in, I knew I’d better get back up to my room. With my luck, Adam and Hoss might do some fool thing like checking in on me, before they turned in for the night.
I eased myself past Charlie and almost tripped over Sleepy Eddie, who ruffled my hair and winked at me, as I stumbled across the crowded room. I opened the door carefully, praying that someone had oiled the telltale creak, and crept outside. The oil lamp cast a flickering light across the entry to the house and halfway across the yard. The barn and the bunk were half shadowed, and if I moved quickly, I thought I’d be able to make it across without being seen. All I had to do was to make it over to the trellis by my window, the next best thing to a ladder. I was almost past the barn, when Adam and Hoss came storming out. They were in such a lather already, they walked right past without taking notice of me standing there. In a panic, I dropped to my knees and crawled underneath the horse trough.
My brothers had been at a barn dance over by the Larson mill for hours. On a typical night, my brothers came back elbowing each other and making jokes that I didn’t understand. They were always kidding each other about some pretty gal or telling jokes that they’d heard around the punch bowl. There wasn’t much that held my interest, and half the time, I didn’t even pretend to listen.
So I was hardly even paying attention to what they were talking about, as I plotted my great escape. The way I figured it, they’d have had enough tarantula juice running through them to muddle up their thinking and buy me a measure of time. So I lay on my belly down real low under the trough and waited for them to pass by. They could have stopped anywhere else, and I rolled my eyes as they planted themselves right in front of the trough. In the dim light, I could see their boots inches from my face, scuffing up dust that tickled my nose and clogged up the back of my throat. I pleaded silently with them to just go inside, before I sneezed or coughed or let loose with a sigh. However, as soon as I actually listened to Adam’s voice, a funny feeling ran up and down my spine.
“I’m telling you, Hoss, I didn’t do a thing to get her to dance with me! Not one thing,” Adam was saying. “It was entirely her idea and not the other way around!”
“And I’m saying you could have turned her down,'” Hoss answered. His voice was clipped and careful, like the sound of a swaybacked cowpony clopping over some rocks. I knew all of Hoss’ voices, even in the dark. My big brother only used that voice when he was scared or as mad as all get out. I didn’t need to look at his face to know which one it was this time.
“I only danced with her because she didn’t matter to me,” Adam said, biting off his words. “She doesn’t mean anything to me, Hoss. I don’t have the slightest bit of interest in sparking that girl. You’re more than welcome to her!”
Adam started to walk away like he always did when he’d had enough of a conversation, but this time Hoss wasn’t letting it end. I scooted out from underneath the horse trough sticking my head out just enough so I could watch what was going to happen. I sucked in my breath, when Hoss grabbed onto Adam and held his arm.
“That ain’t what matters, Adam, and you know it.” Hoss was talking in a low, scary voice that I’d hardly heard before. “It ain’t about the girl. It’s about being brothers. If you don’t know that, you don’t know nothing, even with all that book learnin’ at your fancy college!”
When Hoss threw the first punch, I threw my face to the ground and took in a mouthful of dirt. I looked up just as Adam landed hard against the side of the bunkhouse, and he shook his head in disbelief. He hardly held back for an instant, before he launched himself at Hoss.
Suddenly, the tickle of fear in the back of my throat threatened to erupt into a fit of coughing. I’d seen my brothers fighting before but never mad like they meant it. I wanted to throw myself between them, but I was scared. Seeing Adam and Hoss really and truly angry at each other was a whole lot different than seeing them just getting riled up.
Adam barreled into Hoss and the two of them crashed into the side of the bunkhouse. I could hear yelling and the sounds of chairs scraping from inside. The fellows would be outside any minute to see what was going on. They each struggled to their feet. Under the oil lamp, I could see Adam had a trickle of blood running out of the corner of his mouth. They’d stopped pounding on each other, but as far as I was concerned, it could all start again any minute.
“If I know anything, it’s this,” Adam snapped and wiped the blood away with the back of his hand. “Brothers believe each other, Hoss. Sharing a name’s not enough, brother… If you don’t trust me, then what’s left?”
I waited for Hoss to answer, but I wanted to run away. It was wrong for me to be watching. This was between the two of them. I tried to back away, to leave this fight behind. But I couldn’t seem to move my legs.
My mouth felt gritty and dry. The tickle in my throat erupted into harsh coughing. I felt like all the air was being sucked out of the world. My lungs filled with dust, like I was buried alive, and I gasped for air desperately, like I might never be able to breathe again…
I woke up to violent coughing and a body that had gone way beyond pain.
My brother’s strong hands braced me from behind, and pounded on my back, relentlessly. It hurt like nobody’s business, but I felt my lungs clearing with each blow. It was like Hoss was using every muscle in his body to will me back into the world. At first I was coughing too hard to complain, but as I sucked in air, the coughing died away and the pain flooded back in. I groaned loudly, and Hoss set me down immediately.
“That’s it, little brother,” he said, and turned back towards the side of the cliff. He hollered, “All right, Pa. I got both of them!”
“Adam?” I croaked, trying to peer into the shadows to see if my oldest brother was there. I couldn’t see anything but Hoss’ looming shadow nearby. “He’s resting… he got a little banged up when the mountain came down.”
“Understatement of the century!” Adam’s voice carried and to my surprise, he wasn’t more than a few feet away from me. “I’d take half a mountain over a three hundred pound brother landing on top of me.”
He crept beside me, and in the moonlight I could see the pain etched on his face.
“You all right, Joe?” he asked. “You scared us there, for a while. You were already in bad shape, even before Hoss chose to bring the mountain along for the ride.”
“That’s all the thanks I get for riding a landslide to get down to you,” Hoss harrumphed, but I was amazed to hear the smile in his voice. “Little Joe, I gotta tell you about your legs…”
He didn’t need to tell me.
Even though the coughing and wheezing had eased, agony snaked through every part of my legs, and it took all my strength not to cry out as Hoss settled me down. They didn’t seem to be laying right, and they still wouldn’t move the way I wanted. I remembered falling out of the Hoover family’s loft when I was nine. I tried again and again to bear weight on my leg, until Cal Hoover finally picked me up to make me stop. I’d broken my leg that day, and I didn’t need Doc Martin to tell me that I was probably looking at the same prognosis. I still couldn’t make a fist with my hand, and I expected that my hand was likely busted as well. It looked bad for us. My head was clearing enough for me to know that.
I coughed a bit and managed to ask, “What’s wrong with your shoulder?”
I could tell Adam was surprised to hear me talking. It was obvious by the way he was holding his arm that something was very wrong.
“It’s out of joint,” Hoss answered curtly, and I winced because I knew exactly what that entailed. I’d dislocated my shoulder once after being thrown off a bronc, and Doc Martin had given me a hefty dose of laudanum before popping it back. Even then, the whole procedure hurt like blazes.
“I’m going to need you to pop it back in,” Adam said, turning to Hoss. “Can you manage it with those busted ribs?”
I turned my head towards Hoss and for the first time, I heard the rattle coming from my big brother’s chest. I shivered violently, and it wasn’t just from the wind. I could feel the fever rising in me and wondered how a body could feel so hot and cold all at the same time. Hoss rested his hand on my forehead, and I knew he was measuring more than just my temperature. He was trying to figure out how on earth we were going to get out of this mess, this time.
“Will somebody please tell me what’s going on?” All three of us startled at Pa’s voice. I could tell that I wasn’t the only one who had forgotten that he was still up there. “I’m coming down right now!”
“No, Pa!” Adam and Hoss shouted at the same time, and I didn’t need daylight to see the look they were swapping with each other. There was no telling how any of us were going to get up again. We needed him at the top, not stuck on this shelf with the rest of us.
“Pa, Joe’s hurt pretty bad,” Hoss hollered. “He’s holding his legs funny, and I’m guessing they might be broken. Something’s wrong with his right arm too. When I pulled him out, he put up a fuss when I bumped it. He’s got some fever, but it ain’t bad yet. Adam’s right banged up, and his head’s still hurting. His shoulder’s dislocated, and it’s hurting him something fierce. I ain’t got no choice but put it back in.”
“You can’t do it with those broken ribs,” Adam muttered in a low voice, so Pa wouldn’t hear.
“Ain’t got no choice big brother,” Hoss said reasonably. He coughed hard then and braced himself against the cliff.
“I can wait,” Adam insisted.
Keeping his voice low and easy so Pa couldn’t hear him, Hoss leaned towards him. “Adam, you ain’t thinking. You gotta use your head you’re so famous for. You want to explain how you and me are going to get Little Joe up this cliff, with your shoulder popped out like that? You got any other plans tucked away in that brain of yours, I’d be happy to go along, Older Brother.”
“All right, but we’ll use my jacket to bind up your ribs right after,” Adam conceded. “And then we’ll figure out what we’re going to do about Joe.”
They were quiet then, and I could tell that they had turned around to try to look at me in the dark. I wanted to say something to make them feel better, but my body had seized up in another fit of shaking. I was hot and cold and aching, all at the same time, and I was no longer making much sense of what my brothers were doing. My moment of clarity was passing by.
A gap in the storm clouds let the moonlight blaze through, and I could see Adam’s black shadow lying on the ground with Hoss facing him. Hoss bent Adam’s elbow so that his fingertips were pointing to the sky and his arm was at an angle from his body. I saw Hoss hesitate only for a second, but like always, he did what he had to. Firmly but gently, he pulled Adam’s arm away, using his knee to hold pressure against the strength of Adam’s protesting body. With a jerk, Adam’s shoulder popped back into place.
Adam’s cry of pain echoed through the canyon, and I almost cried with him. However, at that moment, an ominous clap of thunder rumbled from the other side of the canyon. Adam’s cry ended in a moan, and I could hear both of my brothers trying to catch their breath. Pa was shouting out all of our names.
What happened next came on so quickly there was no time to try to find shelter. I couldn’t have moved out of the way, even if there’d been more time. The next strike gave us no warning at all. The bolt of lightening dissected the sky and exploded into a tree nearby. The strike lit up the darkness like it was daytime. The clap of thunder that followed was so violent my ears felt like they were throbbing out of my head, and I couldn’t hear the words that Adam and Hoss were yelling. Yet, the explosion of light gave me a glimpse of something I hadn’t seen before. In that moment of mock daylight, I saw my brothers’ faces for the first time that night.
Battered and bloodied almost beyond recognition, my brothers were staring at each other with a look that went beyond pain.
They didn’t know if we were going to live until the morning.
With a grunt of pain, Hoss bent over and scooped me up in his arms. I could feel my hips jarring against his cracked ribs, and I wished he’d put me down. I didn’t want to hurt my brother, but I knew there was no point in arguing, even if he could hear me over all the thunder.
Lightning splintered across the sky and struck everywhere at once, it seemed. Thunder exploded, like the mountains were breaking in half. It boomed and echoed across the canyon. We could see it hitting at high points all around us. I could see scraps of lightning striking behind the distant peaks, scoring the night sky. It would have been a beauty of a sight if it weren’t so likely to kill us. I worried for Pa at the top and prayed that he had made it to shelter. Knowing Pa, he was probably still unprotected at the top, completely absorbed in figuring out a way to rescue us.
The three of us sat pressed against the rough face of the cliff. I couldn’t sit up by myself, so Hoss propped my head against his shoulder, with his arms anchored around me to stop me from sliding down. Adam huddled in so close that I could hear his ragged breathing, in between the crashes of thunder.
Once, I heard him stand and yell something, and I thought I could hear Pa hollering back from the rim. I gave silent thanks that Pa was still safe, and I hoped he would head for cover. He couldn’t protect us, by risking his own life. However, I was pretty sure that argument would be downright meaningless to my father. As long as the three of us were hurting and in danger, Pa would never think about his own safety.
They were in pain. Both my brothers were in pain, even though I knew neither would admit it. Hoss’ face was covered with sweat and grit; I could see his grim expression every time a lightning bolt lit up the sky. I must have been hurting his ribs, leaning against him like that, but every time I tried to shift away, he just held on and wouldn’t let go of me.
Adam’s shoulder still had to hurt, but Hoss had done a good job setting it, considering he had managed the whole thing in the dark. From what I could see of him, my oldest brother was absolutely exhausted. He had taken a knock to the head, had thrown out his shoulder, and was covered with enough scrapes and abrasions to keep a lesser man in bed for days. Despite all that, he sat next to me, steady and calm. During one long flash of lightning, when he saw me looking over at him, he even managed to smile.
All that dang courage was contagious.
Every bit of me felt like it was broken and bruised, but I steeled myself to get past it like my brothers. I still hurt like the blazes, but at least I wasn’t afraid anymore. If death was the worst thing that could happen, well I could live with that.
I’d never thought much about dying before. It always seemed like something that happened to somebody else. I’d seen it happen enough in my life to know that it was always a possibility for any given day. When you grow up in a small community like I did, you learn a lot about death early on. Babies died before they could walk, a single illness could kill off a whole family, and accidents happened every day. Knowing about death didn’t make it any easier. It just made it seem less shocking, when it did happen. Feeling strangely detached and not at all afraid, I wondered if death would come as a surprise, when it arrived in our family.
Wedged between my brothers, I could feel the infection rising and causing me to shake again. Hoss was doing his best to keep me warm, and without saying a word about it, Adam was sitting closer than he normally would. My brothers were quiet for a long time. It was the natural way between them, so different than the strained politeness of the past month. Despite the barrage of lightning, I started to feel warmer somehow, and I felt my eyes closing into a desperately needed sleep…
Then I heard the tapping. Rain started falling, and the feel of water dabbling down my face jarred me into wakefulness a lot quicker than I’d have liked. I tried to sit up and groaned, when my body let me know that moving wasn’t a good idea.
“Easy, little brother,” Hoss said. “It’s just rain.”
“Predictable,” Adam said. I couldn’t see my older brother, but I could see his familiar smirk in his voice. “Of course it’s raining. What plague are we missing? A swarm of locusts, perhaps?”
“Don’t say that, older brother,” Hoss said. “Those little critters always give me the willies, and I don’t fancy a bunch of grasshoppers showing up while I’m stuck out here.”
The two of them laughed, just a little, and I could feel the muscles in Hoss’ arms relax a little.
Adam asked, “Hey Hoss, was Pa okay up there? I mean, really okay? Are you sure it was just his ankle that he hurt in the accident?”
Hoss answered, “I think so. His ankle was bothering him more than he’d let on, but by the way he was fretting before we found you two, he seemed pretty much like his old self. Do you reckon he’s finally asleep up there?”
“I hope so,” Adam said. “I feel a little guilty for yelling at him that he was keeping us awake, but it was the only way to stop him from yelling down every other minute. I was awfully worried that he was making a himself a target for a nice, proverbial bolt of lightning. He must have been pretty tired himself to believe that anyone could get any sleep out here!”
Hoss coughed deeply, and I could hear the wheeze from his chest rattling against my ear.
“Adam, do me a favor,” he said. “Could you take Joe just for a minute? I feel like I’m breathing through cotton ticking. I need to get myself a couple good breaths, and then I can take him back.”
“Hand him to me,” Adam said. Feeling like a much-coddled sack of potatoes, I felt myself being passed from brother to brother. I was way too out of it to complain, and I leaned heavily against Adam, hoping I wasn’t hurting his shoulder. “He’s still burning up, isn’t he?”
“Weak as a kitten,” Hoss replied. “Come morning, we need to find a way up this mountain and quick. I don’t expect he can hold on a whole lot longer.”
Adam answered, “Don’t underestimate our younger brother. I can’t count the number of times he’s been pegged as a goner, and he pulled through just to prove everyone else wrong. Works every time. You hear that, Little Joe? Hoss doesn’t think you’re going to make it!”
I wanted to complain that they didn’t have to talk about me like I wasn’t there. I could hear every word that they were saying. I wasn’t sleeping, despite the fact I couldn’t keep my eyes open. My eyes felt like lead, as if it would take inhuman strength to keep them open. I never knew that holding your eyes open could take so much out of you. Behind my closed eyelids, I could see occasional bolts of white light and feel the rain streaming down my face and body. I knew the sky overhead was black by the amount of rain pouring down. I could hear it on the rocks around us, sheeting down the cliff at our backs. Despite my brothers’ attempts to shelter me from it, I was soaked through. We were all soaked through. I could feel rain running over my eyes and down my face, washing away grime and blood.
Hoss seemed to read my thoughts. “At least we’re not so dadburned dirty any more.”
“That’s the truth,” Adam replied. “We needed to get these wounds cleaned out, anyhow. Pa’s silver lining, I suppose.”
“I reckon,” Hoss said, and they were quiet for a while. The canyon was filled with the sound of falling rain.
Finally, Adam broke the silence. Looking back on it, I was surprised that he was the one to do it. Adam didn’t usually offer up anything he didn’t have to. In some ways, I reckon he felt like it was something that had to be said. Adam would only bring something out in the open, if he didn’t have any other choice.
“Are we ever going to talk about it?” he asked.
When you grow up in a household of men, you learn early on that you don’t have to do a lot of talking, if you don’t want to. There are some things that are better left unsaid, and if you want to, you can stretch that out to cover pretty much everything else. Buying the other fellow a beer or clapping him across the back were near enough all the apologies we needed. Talking over things that didn’t need to be said was for other people, the kind who had too much time on their hands.
“Do we need to?” Hoss asked.
“I don’t know. It seems to me it won’t go away, until we do,” Adam said.
“I reckon you’re right about that,” Hoss replied.
They were quiet for a while, and then Adam said, “I never tried to take Regan away from you. I only wanted to show you – “
“I know what you wanted to show me, Adam,” Hoss said. “I know you let her kiss you to prove that you were right about her. I think that’s what’s been eating at me as much as anything. The fact you’d kiss the girl I loved just to prove you point. Do you always gotta be right, Adam?”
“I guess sometimes I do,” Adam said, softly. “I didn’t want to be right, Hoss. But I couldn’t stand by and watch you ruin your life with her.”
“I know that,” Hoss said. “But that don’t make it any easier.”
“Do you believe me?” Adam asked. “Do you believe that I’d never steal your girl from you? That I’d never try to hurt you like that?”
“I believe you,” Hoss said. “I reckon I always did. But that still don’t make up for it all, Adam. It ain’t easy.”
“No,” Adam said, “There’s nothing easy about any of this.”
They were quiet then. I felt the darkness of the night spreading over me, blanketing my thoughts and lulling me to sleep. I wanted to stay awake and hear what else my brothers had to say to each other.
But it wasn’t right for me to be listening. As sleep overtook me, one thought took hold and wouldn’t budge from my mind.
This was about the two of them. They would work it out, in their own way. Like the night, this thing between them would come to its own end. That’s how it was between brothers.
I opened my eyes into the gray light of morning. Fog was rising throughout the canyon, and it looked like the storm had worn itself out from the long night of hard rain. The light was still dim, but I could just barely raise my head and try to get a look at my brothers. I was facing Hoss. He was practically lying on top of me, with one arm slung across my shoulders. I could see his chest rising and falling underneath his torn shirt. His breathing sounded kind of bubbly, but at least he was breathing deeply enough to snore. I wondered what happened to the long overcoat he was wearing on the stage and suddenly realized that I felt a whole lot warmer than I should have. Without having to look, I realized that I was covered by Hoss’ coat.
It would be hard to move and not wake Hoss, but I had to take a look at Adam. During my restless few hours of sleep, I had dreamed again and again of the pool of blood I had reached into…
I tried to slip out from underneath Hoss’ arm, but as soon as I tried it, new pain volleyed up and down my legs. Trying not to wake them up, I bit down on my groan, but that smallest sound was enough to wake up both of them. They were hovering over me in an instant.
“Joe!” Hoss exclaimed, taking hold of my shoulders and settling me back down. “You’re awake. Let me look at you. What did you think you were doing boy? Were you trying to get yourself back up this cliff with two busted legs?”
“I could have made it …” I whispered and managed a small smile. Hoss’ eyes crinkled in relief. I realized I hadn’t been talking much throughout the long night.
“Fever’s down, again,” Adam’s said calmly, as I felt his hand rest on my forehead. I took a good look at him and was relieved that he was not covered with blood, like I’d imagined. The rain must have washed most of it away. He had an angry gash that ran from the edge of his forehead down to his ear, and like Hoss and I, he was likely scraped and bruised from head to toe. Adam had those shadows under his eyes that he only got when he was absolutely exhausted. He didn’t look to me like he should be sitting up, but he actually looked more at ease than I’d seen him look for the past month. I watched as he and Hoss exchanged relieved smiles.
“Better?” Hoss asked quietly.
“No infection yet,” Adam replied. “With than open break on his right leg, we’ll need to get it cleaned out in a hurry. If we don’t get his legs set, they’re never going to heal right. I wish there was a way we could splint them down here.”
Hoss let out a low whistle, as he and Adam peered over the edge into the canyon that lay below us. I tried to look along with them, but couldn’t see much in my position. Behind my brothers’ backs, the other side of the canyon towered up towards the sky. Pine trees grew in fits and starts, seeming to sprout from the granite itself. There weren’t many places that a man could fall over the edge and still have had a second chance at living. Not for the first time, I considered what a miracle it was that any of us were still alive. The shelf we had fallen onto was hardly wide enough to hold all of us, let alone to have caught us in our fall.
“Boys!” Pa’s deep voice cut across the stillness of the morning. “Are you all right? Answer how you’re doing!”
“We’re here, Pa,” Adam shouted. “We’re all awake and more or less in one piece, even if you include Humpty Dumpty here.”
Adam looked down at me and winked, and I rolled my eyes at him. He had to be feeling a whole lot better than last night, if he was already back to riding me. I was feeling better too. My legs and hand throbbed without mercy, but my head felt a lot better in the gray light of morning. I could line up my thoughts in a row, and they finally made sense to me. Unfortunately, all that clarity also handed me a pretty good picture of the sorry state we were in.
“How’s Joe?” Pa shouted. His voice seemed to be coming from all directions. I could just imagine the worried look that must be on his face. Being separated from his three seriously wounded sons, was asking too much of my overprotective father.
Hoss shouted up, “He’s awake right now, Pa! But he’s still in pretty bad shape and ain’t gonna get much better, unless we can get him to some help and soon! You ain’t got any ideas, do you, Pa?”
“I’m working on it!” Pa hollered. “I’ve got Virgil here with me. You remember Virgil. The stagecoach driver? He was knocked out most of the night, but I just found him. He hit his head, but seems to be all right-“
“Sorry about that last turn, boys,” a lilting voice drawled from the top of the cliff.
This time, Adam rolled his eyes. The three of us looked around at each other and smirked, shaking our heads at the memory of that “last turn”.
“I’ll tell you one thing for dadburned sure,” Hoss muttered. “If I live to get on another stagecoach, if I ever see that he’s the driver, I’ll get out and walk instead!”
Adam smiled at that but didn’t answer. He shouted, “Pa, now that it’s light, can you look over the supplies in the wagon and tell me what we’ve got to work with? Joe’s still wet and cold, and his legs need to be splinted. He could use some water, as well!”
We could all use some water, I thought, but didn’t say it. My brothers looked weary to the bone, but they’d never admit that to anyone.
“I’ve been looking for our canteens all night,” Pa replied. “As far as I can tell, they must have been thrown over the edge when the stage crashed.”
Adam swore under his breath, and I looked up at him to try to figure what he was thinking. He looked down and saw me watching him. He forced a smile onto his face, and I could tell it was only for my benefit.
“Don’t worry, buddy,” he said. “Hoss and I talked all night. We’ve got plans, all sorts of plans. Isn’t that right, Hoss?”
“What? Oh yeah, that’s right. Don’t you worry none, little brother. We’ll get you out of this just fine.”
I didn’t miss the glance my brothers traded. They didn’t have the slightest idea how we were going to get us out of this, but I was willing to play along. Taking a leap of faith, that’s what Pa always called it, and if I had legs that worked right, I’d be willing to leap right along with them.
“We’ll be fine,” I managed to whisper, and my brothers smiled approvingly at me.
I frowned, however, as I watched Hoss testing a handhold over his head. Even from where I was lying, I could tell that the cliff behind us was soaked through and still unstable. It had been that way the first time Hoss tried to climb down, and the night’s rain wouldn’t have helped one bit. I was willing to share my brothers’ bravado, but I wasn’t willing to let Hoss kill himself with his own courage.
“No Hoss,” I gasped. The urgency in my voice stopped him. Hoss dropped to his knees beside me and I could see him wince when he bumped his side against the outcropping of rock behind us. Even though Adam had tried to bind his ribs during the night, they must have been hurting him something fierce.
“What is it, little brother?” Hoss asked, his face all crumpled and worried. “What’s hurting you?”
What’s not hurting, I could have replied but didn’t.
Instead I whispered, “Don’t try to climb, Hoss. You’ll bring it all down…”
“He’s right, Hoss,” Adam said quietly. “It’s too unstable. We’ve got to find another way.”
He gazed up to the top of the shelf, and I could see my older brother thinking.
“Pa,” he called up. “Any luck with those supplies? How about some rope?”
“Still looking,” Pa replied. “There’s not much left of the stage.”
“No rope,” Virgil called down. “I left all them supplies back in Virginia City to fit in another bag of mail. I get paid by the bag, you know. Figured we wouldn’t need it for such a short run.”
For a moment, I was glad a cliff separated us from Virgil. I wouldn’t have wanted my brothers to survive the stagecoach accident, only to be charged with the man’s murder. Adam leaned back and pinched the bridge of his nose. I tried to sit up to make myself useful in some way. But the pain washed over me with the effort, and I lay back again, gasping in its wake. There was nothing I could do. I needed to wait and trust my brothers to find a way.
Both of them saw my expression when I tried to move, and the looks they aimed at me could have felled me if the pain didn’t. Hoss placed his hand on my shoulder in a way that let me know he was holding me in place, as much as comforting me. He needn’t have worried. I was still trying to breathe. I wasn’t going anywhere, without their help.
“Pa,” Adam suddenly shouted. “What about the horses?”
“Two didn’t make it,” Pa hollered down. “The other two are all right.”
“What about the stage door?” Adam asked.
“It looks all right!” Pa answered. “Why?”
A slow smile spread across my oldest brother’s face. This time, the smile was a real one and not just forced for my benefit. It traveled all the way to his eyes and sparkled there. First, he looked at Hoss and then over at me. That was the moment I knew it for sure. Our luck was bound to change for the better.
“What are you figuring, Adam?” Hoss asked quietly. He had seen Adam’s expression, too.
“Younger brothers,” Adam announced. “I have an idea.”
I’d been drifting in out of sleep for hours while why brothers talked together, until I woke up to the sound of Adam hollering, “Careful now!”
I squinted into the sunlight, as Pa and Virgil carefully lowered Adam’s “idea” down the precipice.
I’d managed to stay awake while Adam was explaining his plan to Pa and Hoss. Despite Adam’s enthusiasm, it seemed wildly unlikely that his new idea stood much of a chance of working. Pa had shouted down question after question, and Adam had answered every one of them with his usual dose self-confidence and more than a small helping of smugness. This was one time I wouldn’t begrudge Adam the glory of being right! But, Adam was convinced it would work.
The plan was simple. Pa and the driver would remove the reins from the horses and tie the reins together to create a single strand. They’d then secure the reins to the curved stage door, and loop the end around a tree at the top of the cliff for leverage. After some discussion, they decided they’d throw down the other two sets of reins to strap me onto the door. The horses would then be used to haul me up the cliff. After they got me up, they’d lower the door again to pull up my brothers in turn.
They’d talked it over for a long time. Steam, from the rain, was rising in the sunlight all around us. The slope behind us was steep and barren, only broken up by tangles of pine shoots and manzanita. It didn’t take long for my brothers to conclude that there weren’t enough stable handholds to make climbing it even a remote possibility. Besides, with Hoss’ cracked ribs and Adam’s head injury, they’d be unlikely to survive such a difficult climb.
So we were left with Adam’s idea. There were a lot of things that could go wrong, but truth be told, we didn’t have a lot of options.
Hoss shrugged as he asked, “What do we got to lose?”
“Our lives,” I could have answered, but by that time my teeth were chattering so hard that I couldn’t get the words out.
Although I could understand what they were saying, my fever had returned and had been rising steadily throughout the morning. I couldn’t get warm, even though it wasn’t a particularly cold day. I’d had a high fever before, but this time, it felt like it was taking over. My body still hurt like nobody’s business, but it was starting to feel like it didn’t belong to me anymore. If I’d been more coherent, I might have realized that I was probably in shock. Keeping my eyes open and fixed on my brothers was all that I could manage.
Hoss had tucked his and Adam’s overcoats around me, and Pa had tossed down several saddle blankets he’d taken off from the team. Sweat soaked through my clothes, and the smell of warm horses clung to me.
I found the scent comforting, somehow, and it was easy to imagine that Cochise and I were alone on a narrow trail, riding fast through the forest. I trusted the horse underneath me. He knew the way to go, and we were gaining speed. The road ahead started to blur in all the possibilities…. If I closed my eyes, I could ride and just keep riding…
“Joe!” The hand shaking my shoulder was so insistent I knew it had to belong to Adam.
I’d been drifting off again, like I had been all morning. I just couldn’t seem to keep my eyes open, but Adam wouldn’t leave me alone. Hoss was always gentle with me, even when he shouldn’t be. I didn’t want to open my eyes, but knew my oldest brother wouldn’t stop shaking me until I did. My head throbbed mercilessly, but I opened my eyes to see my oldest brother’s face shadowed by the sun.
“That’s it,” he said, with a hint of a smile. “Thought you were going to sleep the day away. Pa’s lowering the stage door down to us. I need you to understand how it’s going to work now, because you’re going to be the first to try it out. I had Pa rig up a kind of pulley using the hub of one of the stagecoach wheels. Pa and Virgil couldn’t pull you up by themselves, so we looped the reins back down to us. We’re going to use Hoss as the counterbalance down here. The way I’m figuring it, Hoss weighs about as much as you and the door, so I think his weight will be enough to get you up the hill.”
“The horses,” I whispered, wondering what happened to the original plan, while I’d been sleeping. “Why can’t we use the horses to pull us up?”
I watched as Adam’s face contorted in obvious irritation, and at first I thought he was upset with me. But then he shook his head and smiled.
“Well little brother,” he said, reaching down and ruffling my hair. “At least, you’re thinking a lot more clearly than I’d have given you credit for. It’s too bad you weren’t up there helping old Virgil, when he was trying to untie the reins. It seems that our ever-incompetent stagecoach driver had trouble unfastening a knot. So, he decided to take out his six-shooter and put a bullet through the knot instead. Spooked the horses half way to kingdom come. I’d imagine they’re in Sacramento by now. Pa was fit to be tied, when it happened.”
“Maybe the horses will send for some help,” I muttered, wincing as I tried to move into a sitting position. Adam’s hand felt cool against my forehead, and he firmly eased me back down. “What do you need me to do?”
“You’ve got the most important job of all, Short Shanks,” Hoss said, appearing suddenly and crouching down beside me. “You get to lay back and enjoy the ride.”
Just then, I heard shouting and clamoring overhead, and dirt started to sprinkle down on my face. Adam swore under his breath and quickly pulled one of the coats over my head, saying, “Keep the coat over you, until we get the door down. Last thing you need is more dirt coming down on top of you.”
Cocooned underneath the wool coat, I knew it had to belong to Pa. It smelled like good Virginia tobacco and well-oiled leather. I closed my eyes, inhaling the comfort of it, and listened as Hoss and Adam shouted instructions to Pa overhead. I resisted the urge to go back to sleep and tried hard to follow what was happening around me. It wasn’t easy. I could feel gravel tumbling over me and could hear Hoss coughing. I prayed that one of those cracked ribs hadn’t been poking at a lung. I had no idea how Adam could manage to keep shouting out all those orders. It seemed highly improbable that either of my brothers were still standing upright, let alone orchestrating our rescue.
Finally, Hoss pulled the coat off me, and I breathed in the fresh air with real gratitude. I looked over and sure enough, they’d managed to maneuver the stagecoach door down the cliff. Just a casual glance at the door made me glad that Pa had been a sailor and had learned the fine art of tying knots. If I was going to allow myself to be strapped down to that thing, I wanted to make sure those grafted reins were going to hold.
“Well?” Hoss asked slowly, looking over at me and then at Adam. “Are we going to try this or not?”
Adam held the extra reins in his hand. He leaned against an outcropping of rock and sighed.
“I guess we’d better,” he said.
Hoss kneeled down and whispered in my ear, “Little brother, Adam and I got you into this mess, and I promise you, the two of us are going to get you out of it. Don’t you worry none. Adam knows what he’s doing. This is going to turn out just fine.”
I frowned, not understanding what Hoss was talking about. Then I remembered our original reason for the trip to Sacramento and Pa’s efforts to get my brothers to spend time together again.
I snorted then and started laughing, as I realized that Pa had gotten a whole lot more than he had bargained for. If he wanted my brothers to work together as a team, he could have found a less dramatic way to do it! I suddenly pictured Virgil the inept stagecoach driver standing in front of me and wondered if Pa had hired the man to mastermind his grand scheme to reunite our family.
When I started laughing, Hoss’ scrunched up his face in genuine worry, and he turned to Adam.
“We ain’t got no time,” he said. “He’s getting plumb delirious from all that fever. We got to get him some help right away.”
Adam nodded and together they bent over me. When they lifted me onto the stage door, I stopped laughing immediately and yelled so loud it was all I could do afterwards to try to breathe through all the pain.
“Joe!” Pa yelled. “Boys, what happened? What happened to Joe?”
“He’s sick, Pa,” Adam called up, sounding like he was explaining an unfortunate fact of life to a young child. “He’s been keeping quiet about it all this time, but he’s in bad shape. It hurts him to move.”
I tried to swallow my own groaning, as they lowered me down and worked together to strap me to the door.
Hoss rested his hand on my arm and said, “You can do this, Joe. Adam and I ain’t going to let anything bad happen to you. You just keep breathing, boy, you hear? Nice, deep breaths, and you’ll be up at the top with Pa, before you know it.”
Adam stood alongside Hoss. He smiled down at me and patted me on the shoulder.
“He’ll be fine, Hoss,” he said. “He’s as tough as they come. Joe’s a Cartwright, same as you and me.”
I nodded to let them know I understood what they wanted from me. Hoss started to pull on his end of the rope, putting his weight behind the effort. I felt myself rising in the air and up the face of the cliff. I clenched my teeth against the agony in my legs, and closed my eyes tight. I was bouncing up the incline, and although it hurt like blazes, Adam’s plan seemed to be working. I could hear Pa shouting encouragement to Hoss and to me, and I shut my eyes tightly, both against the pain and against the sight of the canyon floor that lay hundreds of feet below me. I’d never liked heights, and this was no exception.
I was about a third of the way up, when it happened. The top of the door hit the corner of a rock. I felt the impact jar my legs, and I could not contain my groan. At that very moment, I heard Hoss cry out as well. In that shade of a second, I looked down and watched Hoss lose his grip on the rope. Off balance, he staggered sideways and gasped in pain, when his ribs bumped against the jagged edge of the rocks.
I heard my brothers shouting my name, as that stagecoach door and I began to plunge down the precipice over their heads. I could hear Pa yelling above. The sun was shining overhead. And I was falling.
Blood roared in my ears. My heart was pounding, but it was all happening so quickly, I didn’t have a chance to feel afraid. Time seemed to slow down, until it felt like something I could hold in my hands and turn upside down.
I was a dead weight, strapped onto that door. There was nothing I could do to stop my fall. I squeezed my eyes tight, and flung out a desperate prayer that the door would miss my brothers. If my brothers lived, I’d be all right with whatever else happened. Gritting my teeth, I tried to prepare myself for the way the moment was going to end…
And then the falling came to a wrenching stop. Strapped to the door, I dangled from the top of that avalanche-prone cliff, still swinging from the plunge. I could not understand why I hadn’t hit bottom. My heart was pounding harder than any fever and pain; the terror of the fall was barely settling in place.
“You all right, Joe?” Adam’s panicky voice barely reached up to me. “Don’t move!”
If I could have managed to speak, I’d have told him exactly what I thought of that last comment. Instead, I opened my eyes and squinted down at the bottom of the ledge to see Adam and Hoss piled on top of each other, both clinging to the now taut rope, as if their very lives depended on it.
“Told you Adam and I wouldn’t let nothing happen to you, little brother,” Hoss panted, carefully letting out the slack in the reins.
Pa yelled, “We’ve got it fixed up here! Is Joe all right?”
Adam shouted, “We’re lowering him down, Pa! I think he’s fine. What happened up there?”
“When the door hit the rock, the reins slipped off the hub,” Pa called down. We tore up our hands pretty badly, just trying to hold onto the reins.”
“I think we all did,” Adam said quietly, and something in his voice made me look down. He and Hoss were struggling to lower the door gently. It must have hurt his shoulder something fierce, and I didn’t even want to think about Hoss’ battered ribs. Blood ran from the palms of Adam’s hands and down his arms. Hoss also had red streaks running down his wrists. They had held the reins so fiercely, the leather had gouged into their hands.
As my first relief at surviving wore off, pain welled back in to take its place. I was shuddering with it by the time they lowered me to the ledge. I hadn’t found the strength to answer any of Pa’s shouted questions. Heck, I hadn’t found the strength to yell, even when I was falling. As soon as I reached the bottom, my brothers’ hands were reaching for me, propping the door against the cliff so that I was lying down again. Without even bothering to ask me first, they started prodding at the broken parts of my body in a way that hurt like blazes. I’d been as patient as a saint through most of the ordeal. However, when Adam’s hand jabbed at a particularly agonizing spot above my right knee, I finally let loose with a string of epitaphs that would have sent Pa running for the lye soap, if I was a kid.
Adam smiled, “Hanging out at the bunkhouse all those years must have done wonders for your vocabulary. All the same, it’s good to hear your voice, Joe.”
“Cut it out! Stop poking at me,” I snapped, my irritation growing by the minute. I’d had just about enough of being trussed up like a Paiute papoose. “Get me out of this damn thing. And stop looking at me like that!”
They were both grinning at me from ear to ear, and I would have punched each of them in the jaw, if my left arm hadn’t been strapped down like that. I knew they were trying to help me, but I was getting half tired of the whole thing.
“You know, Hoss,” Adam said, with a smile. “I do think he’s feeling better.”
“Yeah,” Hoss agreed. “I ain’t heard him griping at us like that, since before we left the Ponderosa.”
“Cut it out, and get me down from here,” I mumbled. “I think I liked it better, when you two weren’t talking to each other.”
I started to close my eyes again and almost missed the funny look that Adam and Hoss gave each other. I knew I shouldn’t have reminded them of the trouble with Regan, but honestly, I was in too much pain and far too worn out to care.
I forced myself to look my brothers for another minute longer, and I whispered, “Listen, do what you need to. Just get me home, all right?”
“Tell you what,” Adam said. “If you close your eyes and get some sleep, then you’ve got yourself a deal.”
“You can set your saddle on that, little brother,” Hoss said. “If Adam says it, then it’s the truth.”
I closed my eyes then and allowed myself to sink into the pain that was once again demanding my attention. I wasn’t irritated with them any more, just plumb exhausted. Pa’s loud baritone still shouted down from the top of the cliff, but I could hear Adam and Hoss’ voices mingling together. It all sounded comfortable and familiar, like the sounds that drifted under my door when I was a boy, and my family was downstairs after I’d gone to bed.
It was true that I hated being helpless, but I could trust my brothers. We could all trust each other. I felt myself slipping back into the darkness, and I didn’t fight it this time. I needed to go back to sleep.
I’d let my brothers decide what would happen next.
When I woke up, the sun was warm against my face, and I was moving. In my confusion at waking, I was disoriented and had no idea whether I was rising or falling. I shook my head to clear it and opened my eyes to find myself staring at Adam’s face, less than a foot from mine. He saw me watching him and managed a wry smile.
“Welcome back,” he said, breathing hard.
I was still strapped to the door, and it sure didn’t look like my fortunes had changed for the better, while I was asleep. But one thing had changed since our last ill-fated attempt to make the climb. Wherever I was going this time, it looked like Adam was coming along with me.
As my sense of direction began to settle, I realized we were about a third of the way up the cliff already. Doused with sweat, Adam had his foot anchored in the curve of the door and was holding on with one hand. He was using his other foot and hand to help steer us up the steep slope. I watched, as he deftly pulled back a clump of manzanita to allow the door to pass. I understood at once why Adam was with me. There was no way they could have pulled the door up with so many obstacles blocking its path. It was obvious that it would never have been able to make it up without someone guiding it along.
“You’re driving,” I whispered, feeling the sway and bounce of the door unsettling my stomach. Adam managed a nod this time, but he was fighting to hold on and clear our way. I could see cords of his neck straining with the effort. He gritted his teeth, as he kicked us away from the edge of a rock.
Suddenly, I remembered Hoss and hazarded a glance down to the bottom of the ledge. It was further down than I’d have thought; we were already half way up the flank of the cliff. Below us, Hoss was struggling to pull the reins. He was using his whole body to haul us up, and I worried that he’d hurt his ribs even more.
“Hoss?” I mumbled out loud, and Adam looked at me sharply. He’d obviously read the worry in my voice and had no time for any misgivings.
“Hoss is doing what he needs to,” he said, holding onto the door with both hands for a moment to catch his breath. “You do the same.”
I looked at Adam’s hands and noticed that they were tightly wrapped in buff colored strips of saddle blanket. Even so, blood was soaking through and was trickling down his wrists.
Adam saw me looking and shook his head.
“A scratch,” he said and reached to maneuver around a pine seedling that was blocking us. “Don’t fret. We’re almost up to Pa.”
Adam’s breath was coming in worrisome gasps, but for once I obeyed my oldest brother. I stopped worrying, and I set my mind on the amazing fact that we were almost up that cliff. I watched as a hawk circled in the middle of the canyon. He was almost level with us. Caught in an updraft, his ascent was as elegant and effortless as ours was nearly downright impossible.
This last section of the cliff was pitched so steeply that we were almost vertical. I knew Pa and Hoss must be struggling from either end to pull us up. There was practically no way a man could have climbed it alone. The avalanche had sloughed off whatever footholds had once existed. Once again, it struck me again what a miracle it was that any of us had survived our fall.
Adam was doing his best to kick and push us away from every obstacle that was blocking us. The blood was running freely down his hands and arms, and I shuddered at the price he was paying for our climb. Every time he pushed us away from some boulder or bush, I could see his knuckles grinding against the rocks. I knew Pa and Hoss both had matching wounds, and not for the first time, I thanked God for the price my family was paying for me. But for the grace of God and the three of them, I’d still be lying in a broken heap at the bottom of the canyon.
As I thought about it, a lightheaded silliness started to drift over me, clouding out some of the pain. It occurred to me that if it weren’t for my brothers and their fight over Regan Miller, I wouldn’t have been on that stage in the first place. My legs would be in fine shape, and I’d likely be sitting in a Virginia City saloon, ordering up another beer, and watching as pretty Maggie Sue sauntered across the floor towards me, and…
“Something wrong?” Adam was breathing so hard he was almost wheezing.
I hadn’t realized that I was smiling.
“Just thinking about the one that got away,” I said so quietly I didn’t expect he’d hear me, but Adam smiled and didn’t ask any more questions.
We were almost to the top. I couldn’t hear Hoss coughing any more, from so high up. It felt like a million miles away from that little blood soaked ledge where we’d spent our night. I tried to look for him, but caught a glimpse of my legs instead and had to look away. They were so inflamed and swollen, I wondered if I’d ever use them again. I wished I could help Adam, as I watched him fighting to hold on. I wished I could do anything to be less of a burden. It wasn’t part of my nature to be helpless and let everyone do the work for me.
The last little section of cliff was the worst. We scuffed and snagged over every outcropping of rock, over every upstart pine. The rock near the top was crumbly and threatened to give way underneath the stagecoach door. Every time we bumped, agony rippled over my body, but I’d already steeled myself not to cry out. I figured it was the one thing I could do to help out and not add to my brothers’ burden. Instead, I let the pain hiss through my clenched teeth. Adam eyed me warily. Despite all my best efforts, I wasn’t fooling him a bit.
“Almost there,” he said again, and this time he was right.
I saw Pa’s arms reaching for us before I saw the top of the ridge. He and Adam grasped each other’s forearms, and Pa pulled hard. Adam clambered to the top of the cliff alongside Pa, and together they hauled the stage door up and onto the road. Lying flat on my back, I could see Adam and Pa exchanging a wordless handshake. If it was me, I’d have been all over Pa, but Adam and I were different that way. Pa reached out and tried to examine the wound at the back of Adam’s head, but my brother frowned and gestured toward me. Pa and Adam never needed many words. They just nodded at each other and dropped to their knees beside me.
While Adam struggled to free me from the reins, Pa’s hands flew over my legs, probing the broken spots with the skill of an experienced father. I wasn’t trying to hide my pain any more, and I groaned when he pressed a particularly painful spot.
“Easy, son,” he said and traded a worried glance with Adam. It was the same look I’d seen my brothers exchanging all morning. I was coherent enough to know exactly what it meant. My legs were bad off. They were hot and swollen with pain, and bent in all the wrong directions. Unless they were straightened out and splinted in a hurry, it was unlikely that they’d ever work right again. Adam’s “Humpty Dumpty” quip was just about the truth.
I didn’t want to think about the implications. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men had better get out of the way, if Joe Cartwright couldn’t sit a horse again.
“What do we do, Pa?” Adam asked. “We need to get Hoss up too.”
They looked down at me, and I knew they were wrestling with their options. Hoss needed to be pulled up that cliff, but I needed doctoring and right away. If it were up to me, I knew what I’d have them do. I wanted my big brother beside me again, but I couldn’t get the words out to tell them that.
“Hoss?” Pa hollered over the edge. “You all right?”
Pa’s voice hurt my ears. I wondered if he’d been shouting like that all along? He’d sounded so far away when we were down at the bottom.
“I’m fine, Pa,” Hoss yelled back. “I’ll wait! Tend to Little Joe, first!”
Just then, Virgil, the stagecoach driver, appeared over Pa’s shoulder. He had a wide smile on his face, as he held out several long sticks in one hand and a coil of rope in the other.
“Hello, boy,” he drawled. “I reckon you’re feeling poorly. Look what I found. I reckon I packed a rope after all. We can use some of it and these sticks on them legs. Ain’t never seen leg-breaks so bad in all my days.”
He grinned and was so obviously pleased with himself that I had to fight the urge to push up on my elbows.
“Adam,” I whispered, my voice rasping in my throat. “Kill him for me.”
“Can’t,” Adam whispered back, smiling. “He’s quicker than he looks. You’ll have to chase him down yourself.”
He turned to Pa and raised an eyebrow.
Adam asked, “You think we can manage setting it, between the two of us?”
Pa placed his hand on my forehead and held it for a moment.
“Has his fever been like this all morning?” Pa asked Adam.
“All morning and all night. Up and down, but mostly up.” Adam sat down next to me and gave Pa a bleak smile. “Pa, we’re going to need to get Hoss up first. We need him to hold Joe down, while we straighten his legs. There’s really no choice. It’s going to take all of us to manage it.”
Pa nodded curtly and turned back to me with the gentle smile he reserved for lost children and gravely ill sons.
“Joseph,” he said. “We’re going to pull your brother up first. Can you hold on a little longer?”
I’d do what I needed to, same as the rest of them. I nodded and closed my eyes, allowing my mind to go numb to all the pain. I could hold on. If nothing else, it felt better just to be free from that dang stagecoach door. My arms had gone tingling and almost numb, and I tried working them just to see if some part of my body would do what I wanted. I inspected my hand with a sigh. It was broken all right, but it wasn’t bothering me nearly as much as my poor legs. If there was a blessing to be found in all this, it was that I’d managed to break my right hand rather than my left, this time.
When I was sixteen, I’d fractured my left hand against the side of Cal Hemper’s jaw. The injury was almost worth it, just for the look on his face before he went down, but the pain took about a year to go away completely. It still came around again, whenever the weather changed.
Pa and Adam had propped me up against a saddle and tucked a couple of frayed blankets around my shoulders and legs to try to keep me warm. It wasn’t working. The day was mild, but I couldn’t believe I’d ever feel comfortable again. Fever from the infection kept washing over me, and I alternated between shuddering sweats and times when I shivered so violently I was chilled to the bone.
Before moving me, Pa had taken a good look at my legs. From the look on his face, I knew the news couldn’t be good.
He pushed my hair aside and said gently, “It’s an open break on your right leg, Little Joe. That’s why you’re so sick, right now. We’ve got to get it cleaned up and splinted, just as soon as we get Hoss up here. Everything’s going to be all right. I’m here. Both of your brothers will be here before you know it. Your job’s to hold on a little longer. Hold on, until we can help you.”
He limped away from me, and I forced myself to keep watching as he, Adam, and Virgil huddled near the edge of the cliff. I could hear occasional fringes of their shouted conversation with Hoss. Pa was using Virgil’s rope to tie it to the reins. They didn’t plan to use the door. Without Hoss as a counterweight, they’d never get it back up again. Even with Hoss’ ribs in such bad shape, they figured he’d be better off with a rope looped under his arms, and then Pa and Adam, and hopefully Virgil would work together to haul Hoss up the cliff.
It wouldn’t be easy. If Pa and Hoss had known how steep and unstable the cliff was in the first place, it was highly unlikely that Hoss would have ever tried to make it down to us without a rope. This time, Hoss would have to do a lot of the climbing himself, which wasn’t going to be easy with his busted ribs. I’d seen my brother hugging his side, when he didn’t know I was looking. I knew he was hurting more than he’d been letting on. It was the one advantage to being as sick as I was. None of them realized I was paying attention. Just because I wasn’t talking all that much, they were forgetting that my eyes and ears were still working just fine. I was fully aware of the mess we were in, same as the rest of them.
For a long time they talked by the edge of the cliff, occasionally hollering down to Hoss. The sun was directly overhead in the sky. It had turned out to be such a nice day. The ground around me was already dry, even after the night’s rain. It seemed to me that if I had to be bad off, the weather could at least have something to show for it. I was so busy thinking about how it would be a downright shame to die on such a beautiful day that I didn’t notice when they started pulling up Hoss.
“He’s slipping!” I heard Adam suddenly yell. “Everyone hold on! Pull!”
I tried to lift my head from the saddle and watched as they struggled with the rope. All of them were pulling with everything they had, and I could see Pa trying hard to keep off his bad ankle. Even Virgil seemed to be pulling his weight, and silently I urged them all on. I said more than a single prayer for my big brother that that cliff wouldn’t come avalanching down on top of him.
Just then, Pa shouted, “I got him! Hoss, grab my hand!”
I could see my brother’s hand grasping Pa’s hand and Adam reaching forward to latch onto his other arm. At last, with them pulling together, Hoss hooked his leg over the edge and collapsed onto the very solid ground.
“Hoss,” I whispered, but no one heard me anyways. I’d have done anything to have been able to go to them. I could see Hoss’ chest heaving with what that climb had cost him, and he leaned heavily on Adam and Pa.
“Let’s get you bandaged up,” Pa muttered, lifting what remained of Hoss’ shirt and running his hands along his ribs, his side. From where I was lying, I could hear the rattle of Hoss’ breathing. Adam had tried to bind those ribs on the ledge, but now the bindings were loose and hanging around his waist in tattered strips.
“Not now, Pa,” Hoss said, shrugging him off, and he clambered shakily to his feet. “Gotta help Little Joe first. Where are them sticks, Virgil? Pa we’re gonna need that rope, strips of cloth and something for him to bite down on. Adam, ain’t we got anything we could give him for the pain?”
Adam turned to Virgil and crossed his arms tightly against his chest.
“All right, Virgil,” he said. “Don’t tell me that you’re the only driver on the line who doesn’t have a stash of tarantula juice tucked under the seat. We won’t tell a soul, but our younger brother could use whatever you’ve got stashed away right about now.”
Virgil looked downright indignant.
“Now see here, Mr. Cartwright,” he said, wagging a finger at my big brother. “I’m a clean-livin’ man, and I follow the regulations, yes sir. The rules say there’s no likker on my route, and that’s what I’m aholdin’ to. Yes sir, I’m a man who don’t cotton to heavy drinking, and I ain’t afraid to say so.”
I watched as Adam shut his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, like he had a whopper of a headache coming on. Hoss reached out and put his hand on Adam’s shoulder.
“Let it go, brother,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about it. Let’s go do what we gotta. Ain’t nothing we can do but try to help Joe.”
They all turned, and when they saw me watching them, the cheery smiles they fixed on their faces would have been funny if I could have managed a laugh. However, there was no way I was laughing, knowing what was coming next.
Adam had stacked our meager supplies next to me, and he walked over and started rifling through them. I could see him mentally checking off all the things he wished we had. Proper bandages. Alcohol to pour on the puncture where the bone had broken through the skin. A clean bed for me to lie down on, while they were setting the bones. We only had water from a single canteen that Pa found lodged in the branches of a tree. He reckoned it had been thrown there, when the stage turned onto its side.
Adam grimaced and turned to Hoss. “You’re going to have to hold him down.”
“I know it,” Hoss replied.
I knew what they had to do, but I didn’t like to think about it. Pa immediately kneeled beside me and carefully lifted me up and against his chest. He raised the canteen to my lips and poured a slight trickle of water into my mouth.
“Easy, boy,” he said, and the shivering slowed a bit, when I felt him holding onto me. “We’re going to be right here with you. Everything’s going to be all right.”
“Just do it,” I managed to whisper. “Do what you need to.”
They traded looks again, and I wasn’t so far gone that I couldn’t see the resolve that they were passing around. I felt Pa’s arms tightening around me. Hoss’ hands came down to plant themselves on my hips.
Then, Adam leaned forward and reached for my legs.
And the world exploded into an agony unlike any I’d ever known. Pain layered over pain, white-streaked and blazing. I could feel my family’s hands all over me, holding me down, and trying to set things right. My name was spoken again and again by the three voices I’d known all my life. As I listened to it, the world began to close into a circle of light. I could see them peering through it, looking down on me. But the pain was carrying me away from them, and their light collapsed into the merciful dark.
Dark like the night.
It was close to midnight, and Adam was gone. There was no way he should have been out so late, not with the beating he had taken. Pa and I stood out underneath the oil lamp, waiting and watching, as bats fluttered in and out of the eaves of the barn, and insects clouded around the poor light. It was a dark night. Moonless. The kind where you could hardly see your hand in front of your face.
It was just the two of us left at home. Hoss had taken Regan and her sister home in the buggy over an hour ago. Adam had ridden off, who knows where. I wasn’t used to being the one left behind, and I didn’t like it one bit.
There wasn’t much I liked about any of this. Pa had said that Hoss might have killed Adam, and if I hadn’t seen it for myself, I’d never have believed it. Adam’s face, swollen and battered, staring at Hoss in absolute disbelief. Hoss’ face, all grim with anger and betrayal I’d never seen before. After Pa and I stumbled into the wreckage of the bunkhouse and ended the fight, I felt like it wasn’t my place to be looking at either one of them. It wasn’t my fight. But I couldn’t look away.
“They’ll be all right, son,” Pa said. I felt his hand come to rest on my shoulder. “They’ll be coming on home, when it’s time.”
“They were so angry, Pa,” I said, trying to fight down the quaver that had crept into my voice. “What if this is something they can’t get over?”
“They’re brothers,” Pa replied. “You just wait and see. All it will take is something more important to bring them together again. God knows what He’s doing in things like this. They’ll forgive each other again. Just give them some time.”
I looked at Pa, and his face shone harshly in the poor light. I was past the age of believing that my father always knew best, but I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe that everything would be all right.
And so I cast a prayer up into the heavens over our heads that my brothers would come out of this all right. I couldn’t breathe. It felt like the air was draining out of the world, but that was a price I was willing to pay. I prayed that something more important would come along to bring them back together. To bring them home again. I didn’t know what it would take, but I was willing to be reckless in my prayers.
I’d pay any price for my brothers.
They rescued us before nightfall.
I was still unconscious when help arrived. I’d been dreaming, and my dreams were so vivid and layered with memories, I felt like I’d been dreaming for days. Later, Adam told me it was only for a few hours, but while I was out for that short time, everything had changed.
When I opened my eyes, I was lying in the back of a wagon wedged between Hoss and Adam. It was dark, and a wool blanket scratched against my cheek. My head angled against something hard, and I could hear rattled breathing right above my ear. Adam slept on the other side of me, his hand locked onto my arm, holding tight while he was sleeping. I thought that it was pretty unnecessary. Like there was any place I could go, with two broken legs, pinned between the two of them like that! Adam was breathing, deep and easy. It felt reassuring to wake up between them. I’d know the sound of my brothers sleeping anywhere. You don’t forget the sounds of your boyhood all that easily.
My legs hurt bad, like they were roped together with baling wire, when I tried to move them, but somehow the pain was a little more manageable than before. It didn’t suck the air out of my chest, and my thoughts seemed a little clearer. I was a long way from feeling comfortable, however. The splints securing my legs in place made me feel like a wooden doll, splay-limbed and unnatural. My head ached like all get out, and I knew I was still sick, but I also knew that I was starting to feel better. And I wanted my pa something fierce.
“Pa,” I whispered. My voice cracked in my dry throat; it had been unused for so long. However, Pa was awake and hovering over me, before I could get another word out. That was when I first realized that I was lying down with my head propped on his lap. Pa had been keeping his arms under my shoulders to stop the motion of the wagon from jarring my legs.
They all woke up right away, even though I’d tried to be quiet. I could feel three sets of hands reaching for me in the dark, patting at my face and neck, at any patch of skin that could tell them whether my fever was still rising.
I could have told them I was better, but I didn’t need to. They’d all raised me together and had plenty of experience at gauging things like fever.
“He’s better,” Pa sighed, whispering like I hadn’t just woken all of them up. “The fever’s down. It might be broken.”
“I could have told you that,” I said, and I could tell they were all surprised to hear my voice.
“Hey Short Shanks,” Hoss exclaimed, sounding so cheerful in the dark that I couldn’t help but smile. “Bout time you got around to waking up. You done missed all the excitement.”
“Are we going somewhere?” I asked, trying to get my voice working again. I could see trees, swaying over our heads. It was a cold night, colder than the one we’d spent on the ledge, but I didn’t feel it much, tucked down underneath layers of blankets and wedged so close between my pa and brothers. I felt finally felt warm again.
Adam laughed, and he answered in a confidential tone just above a whisper, “We’re hoping so. Unfortunately, they let Virgil drive again, so I can’t tell you if we’re going somewhere or just plain going.”
“Don’t matter none,” Hoss said. “At least we’re all going in the same direction.”
Pa cleared his throat. He’d been checking over my splints, with hands long experienced to making judgment calls in the dark. His hand hit a particularly painful spot, and I caught my groan in the back of my throat, but they all heard it, anyways.
“Sorry, Joe,” he said. “Son, you have to stop moving like that, until we get you back to Doctor Martin. We did our best to splint those breaks, but we don’t want them to knit together wrong. You’ve just got to hold as still as you can.”
“Are we going home?” I asked. My voice sounded like a ten year old kid, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t trying to hide anything from anyone. I wanted to get home desperately, and didn’t care if they all knew it.
“Hopefully,” Adam answered. “That is if there are no cliffs between here and Virginia City, we should be home in the morning.”
“Stop it, Adam,” Pa chided, but I could hear the smile in his voice. “Now, you have to admit that Virgil came through for us, however inadvertently.”
“Inadvertently is right,” Adam scoffed, and I struggled to sit up from Pa’s arms.
“What happened?” I asked.
“You need to get some sleep, young man,” Pa said and pulled me firmly back down. “All explanations can wait until you’re home and rested.”
“I’m plenty rested,” I protested. “All I’ve been doing is getting myself rested. How’d we get here? How’d they find us?”
“Well, little brother,” Hoss began. “Even though Adam likes to complain about old Virgil, it seems he was mostly responsible for bringing help to us so quickly.”
“Well, what are you waiting for?” I asked. “Go on. Tell me what happened.”
Adam cleared his throat. “It seems that when Virgil took out all his supplies and stuffed in that extra bag of mail, that put this stage at a top priority for a rescue party. A private, chartered stage wouldn’t have been considered as important, but when it came to the U.S. mail… Well, that was something different.”
“They knew something was wrong, when the team of horses came running in to the next station,” Pa added. I could tell by the sound of his voice that he was getting into the spirit of the unlikely tale, despite himself. “When Virgil fired a bullet at those knotted reins, it spooked the horses so badly, they made it half way to Sacramento.”
“So the horses did send for help,” I said, amazed that I was able to remember words out of my delirium that I’d spoken to Adam.
“What?” Adam asked, leaning closer.
I shook my head, even though they couldn’t see it in the dark. “Never mind. What happened next? I can’t believe I missed everything.”
“Not much left to tell,” Adam said and poked at my shoulder with his finger. “The search party followed the team’s tracks back to us, before dusk. With all the mud from the rain, the horses churned up a pretty good trail. Didn’t give them too much trouble to track us down. After they saw for themselves that the mail was still safely stashed under the seat, they helped us finish doctoring you. Got Hoss’ ribs bound good and tight and Pa’s ankle bandaged.”
“We were finally able to clean up Adam’s head wound,” Pa added. “That was one nasty gash you got there, son. It’s a wonder you were able to keep standing, let alone manage to help haul both of your brothers up the cliff.”
“Aw, Pa,” Hoss teased. “You know Adam’s got a right hard head.”
Adam wasn’t the only Cartwright with a hard head, but I didn’t say so. I doubt many people in the territory would have argued that there were more stubborn men around than the four of us. There was no way that one if us was going to survive that stage wreck and not bring the rest of us along.
Pa’s arms tightened around my shoulders, and I knew he was thinking the same thing.
“I’ve never been so glad that I raised a pack of mules,” he said. “I figure that the lot of you are too stubborn to do anything but survive. I suppose God knew what he was doing when he gave me such headstrong sons.”
I settled back against Pa and watched the stars overhead. I could barely see Adam and Hoss in the moonlight, but after a while they settled down next to me, and we rested together, the wagon swaying and jolting over the uneven road. It was quiet for a while, before Pa finally spoke again.
“Do you think it’s time?” he asked quietly. “That we talk about the girl and what happened?”
I stiffened and felt Pa grip my shoulder reassuringly. Even in the poor light, I could see my brothers each rise up on an elbow and regard each other. Wedged in like that, I felt like a bridge between them.
They looked down at me and then back at Pa, who was waiting patiently.
Together they chorused, “What girl?”
It’s a funny thing about a fever. When you first get sick, it takes you by surprise and you fight it hard. But after a while, you forget what it’s like to feel normal. You start to get used to the chills and the sweats, the terrible headaches and the disordered thinking. You start to forget that there had ever been a time when all was all right with the world.
I think that’s the way it was with Hoss on the afternoon he saw Adam kissing Regan Miller. His jealousy took him by surprise, like a fever, before he came back to his senses again. That night, Pa said that Hoss could have killed Adam, and at the time, I agreed. I usually agree with Pa in just about everything. But after our disastrous stagecoach ride, I wasn’t so sure that he got this one quite right. I learned a lot of things about my brothers during that long night on the ledge. I think we all learned a lot about each other. When it comes down to any one of us being in trouble, just about everything else gets pushed aside.
Folks say that Hoss is the strongest man around, that he could kill a man with his bare hands. Now I know all about Hoss and his strength. Don’t forget that he pulled me up a mountain. He saved me, and he saved Adam. He probably could have saved himself as well, but he didn’t need to. He had Pa and Adam to help him. That’s what a family’s for: to come alongside you, so you don’t have to do things all on your own.
Regan Miller was a beauty, the prettiest woman any of us would be likely to see for some time. But beauty doesn’t last forever. It comes and goes, like the seasons, like the days, and like the nights.
I don’t blame Regan for pursuing Hoss. She was looking for someone who cared about more than just her beauty, and I honestly think she could have found what she was looking for in my biggest brother. She thought he was the one to save her, because he was strong and would love and protect her no matter what. Hoss is a strong man, but not just in the way that she was thinking.
My family is strong in ways that Regan didn’t know anything about.
It’s not something we put into words very often. Pa tries sometimes, but usually the three of us shy away when he gets started and find other places that we need to be. Pa means well and all, but it’s not something we need to talk about. We already know what he’s trying to say.
That’s how it is with brothers.
Other Stories by this Author
- While Holding a Colicky Baby at Night (by DBird)
- The Last Time I was Dying (by DBird)
- The Return Series – 3 – Interlude (by DBird)
- Staying for Supper (by DBird)
- Angels Crossing Moonlight (by DBird)