Summary: Trapped in a cabin with his family, Adam tells the story of a rockslide, an ambush, and the possibility that everything happens for a reason.
Rated: K+ (10,900 words)
Given the Circumstances
As it turns out, it only hurts when I breathe. I’d give up breathing if I could. It’s not a practical solution, but given the circumstances, it’s the best I can come up with.
It occurs to me that falling off that cliff might have done more than just crack a couple ribs. My head feels funny like it is packed with old straw, much like the scant mattress I’m lying on. I can’t help but be grateful for it, even though the stained ticking is frayed, and loose stalks of straw poke against my back. Pa and Hoss insisted I lie down, and I was too worn out to argue. I believe the fact I lay down without a battle upset Pa more than anything. He always said I’d argue with a rock, if I thought I stood a chance of winning. But it’s been a relief to close my eyes to the squalor of the dusty cabin, to let Hoss worry over the sporadic gunfire, and to just lie and listen to the rain pouring down.
I’ve been lying down long enough. Pa and Hoss need help guarding that window. I don’t know if it’s a curse or a blessing that there’s only one window. It makes it easier to guard, but if they were clever men, surely they’d think of a way to get around the cabin and ambush us from behind. These don’t strike me as clever men. I suppose it doesn’t take a deep thinker to figure out how to steal cattle. It takes timing, a lack of scruples, and a good hiding place. Obviously, our rustlers were blessed with all three. With the money that’s at stake in the number of cattle they’ve been rustling, they might as well wait until we die of our injuries or we starve, whatever comes first.
I try to summon all my resolve. It’s time to open my eyes, breathe through the pain, and join the land of the living. With the mess we’re in, it’s not likely to be a lengthy stay.
I can hear the rain bucketing off the slats of the roof. The night’s turned into a maelstrom of water and wind, and I can’t help but feel smug that we’re inside, and they’re out in the middle of it. It seems impossible that we all made it in, after the rockslide and shooting began. I’m not sure how we were able to walk, let alone make it to shelter. And yet I remember grabbing onto Pa, while Hoss carried Joe, ahead of us. Pa kept one hand on my back, while shouting directions we couldn’t understand over the roar of the fusillade. I’m not sure who was helping whom, but somehow, moving like we were one, we made it through the gunfire and into the cabin.
Even though it happened hours ago, my body still feels like it was thrashed by a mountain lion. I almost find it reassuring that I’m still in pain. When I first lay down, I felt so lazy and comfortable I figured I had to be dying. But death doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to claim me, so I figure I’d better give another go at life.So, I open my eyes and blink at the odd light. Under the flicker of the oil lamp, the inside of the mining cabin looks yellowed, like we are holed up inside a daguerreotype. The cabin can’t be all that old, but it already seems like a part of history. The miners who lived here must have been among the first wave of men, who came to the Comstock looking for riches. Pa used to shake his head at the folly of all those men who squandered their youth and livelihood to pan for dreams and wishful thinking. For over a decade, they poured across the territory, hoping to wrest their fortunes from the mountains. Few of them discovered enough gold to cover the cost of a decent breakfast.
I doubt anyone living in this cabin ever struck it big. As for us, I’d consider it a bonanza if we all survived until morning.
“Dadburnit,” Hoss says to nobody in particular. “I can’t hardly shoot what I can’t see.”
I force myself first onto an elbow and then upright. Hoss has set his revolver down for a moment and is rubbing at his wounded shoulder. I know my brother well. He’s only letting on that he’s hurting, because he doesn’t figure anyone is watching. Pa doesn’t realize that I’m awake either, because he’s bent over the still figure lying on the other cot. The pain behind my eyes makes my vision slip in and out of focus. I try to breathe through it and lean back against the rough-hewn wall.
“Is he awake yet?” I ask Pa. He startles at my voice and turns to give me a strained smile.
“No. He hasn’t moved since we brought him in.” Despite his smile for me, Pa’s face is taut with watching. He is worried out of his mind, not just for Joe, but also for all of us. I can’t think of a thing to say to make him feel better. When Pa worries, I’m usually the one who steps in to provide reassurance. This time, I’m out of easy answers. I seem to be losing my knack for telling everyone that it will all work out just fine.
Pa’s left arm is tied in a makeshift sling, and it will be practically impossible for him to handle a rifle. And Hoss looks exhausted as he leans against the window. I don’t know what he thinks he’s looking for in the rain and dark, but Hoss takes his role as family protector seriously. As the least injured member of the lot of us, I’m afraid he’ll take it hard if things don’t go well. But I don’t know how long he’ll be able to hold his position. He’s been at the window since we first staggered into the cabin, and it’s obviously taking a toll. Even though the bullet just sent shrapnel into his shoulder, I’m amazed he’s able to stay upright. Desperation is a powerful anesthetic. If Doc Martin could bottle it, he’d be a wealthy man.
Time to get moving. I’m having trouble keeping my thoughts in line, but at least my body still obeys orders. With the barest hint of a groan, I manage to stagger over to the other cot. Pa glances over at me and frowns.
“Adam, you need to stay down,” he says. “You don’t look much better than your brother.”
I take a look at Joe, who is lying absolutely still. I hope I look better than my brother, because I can’t imagine looking much worse. It’s a miracle he’s even alive. It shouldn’t surprise me that a landslide wouldn’t be enough to kill him. I’d always imagined that if the world ended tomorrow, my little brother would still be clawing his way out the apocalypse, begging for just one more day.
Call it a miracle. Call it ridiculous. Call it whatever you’d like, but Joseph Francis Cartwright has beaten stiff odds before, and I’d never stand in line to bet against him.
“He looks better than before, Pa,” I lie and sit down next to my father.
Pa looks at me and places his hand on my shoulder. “Thank you for that, son. I’ve never known any of you boys to give up easy, and I don’t expect any of us would be alive if it weren’t for that. It was a blessing that none of those rocks fell on his head. He wouldn’t have had a chance if that had happened.”
I sigh in response and run my hands over my eyes. I try to ignore the irritation that rises, just thinking about my father and his blessings. Leave it to Ben Cartwright to find the blessing in the midst of this debacle. I just don’t see it. Pa always says it’s all in the way a man chooses to view things, but I disagree. You can call a cup half full or half empty. Either way, there’s not going to be enough to drink.
Several hours ago, I might have agreed that providence still smiled on the Cartwright family, but given the circumstances, I would now beg to differ. It all came undone so quickly. Our cattle had been disappearing gradually over a period of months. At first, we attributed the losses to bad weather and the carelessness of some newly hired hands, but it soon became apparent that there was more to it than that. Joe estimated that at his best count, over a hundred head of cattle had disappeared since the beginning of the year. We knew we were looking at organized rustling, but we couldn’t figure out who they were and where they were hiding the cattle.
After a couple months of sleuthing, Hoss managed to pick up the trail. It had been a remarkably wet end to the summer, the wettest we had seen since we settled the Ponderosa. Nearly every afternoon, it seemed to storm late into the evening. The fact that it had been raining so much made the roads especially muddy, and the cattle’s hooves churned up the road. It gave us the opportunity we had been waiting for. We followed them all morning and afternoon to the entrance of a box canyon at the eastern edge of the Ponderosa, where the terrain begins to dip down into the high desert. I’d forgotten all about the spot. I hadn’t been out there since clearing out a couple of squatters who’d holed up in the abandoned mining shack that had been built right at the narrow mouth of the canyon. Tucked between the dry foothills, the little canyon was an ingenious spot to hide a herd of cattle until the brands could be altered and the beeves hurried off to market.
We crouched behind the mining cabin and made our plans. The rustlers were obviously having a celebration. Empty whiskey bottles littered the clearing, and we could hear the festivities already underway. They weren’t paying a lot of attention to much of anything, and we had them boxed in. If we were quiet enough, two of us could climb up the ridge of the canyon and keep them in our sights, while the other two rode off for Sheriff Coffee and a posse. There wasn’t much doubt which of us would be doing the climbing. Joe didn’t even have to volunteer, and Hoss and Pa looked expectantly at me. Hoss had never been one for rock climbing, and Pa’s knee had been acting up with the rain.
“I’ll do it,” I said. Hoss let out the breath he’d been holding, and I smiled at his obvious relief.
It was settled. Pa and Hoss would wait at the bottom until we reached the top of the ridge. If any of us were discovered, Joe and I would have an advantage from our lofty position.
The ridge was a shelf of peppered granite, with many smaller rocks and boulders jutting out from its face. It was a climb that would make a mountain goat nervous, but Joe looked at me and grinned. I knew he was looking forward to the climb; it was exactly his idea of a good time. Me on the other hand…well, I’ve been getting too old for this sort of thing for a while. However, I wasn’t about to admit that to my kid brother.
So, I started to climb, with Joe at my heels. At first, gravity got the best of me, and I felt the burning in my arms and legs, as I hoisted myself up. Breathing hard, I clung to every cleft and flaw in the rock. With the rocks loosened from the rain, you could never be sure of your foothold.
Yet after a while, the burning wore off, and I began to enjoy myself. My body remembered the rhythm of climbing. It reminded me of being a kid again and looking forward to being on top of the world. Careful not to lose my foothold, I looked over my shoulder and smiled down at Joe. He looked up and grinned. He lived for this sort of thing, was having a fine time. We were almost to the top, but that didn’t mean we had made it. The ground was saturated. Before we started climbing, I had noticed that clouds were already gathering and veiling the high peaks of the mountains. I hoped that the rain would hold off. With luck, the rustlers would be cooling their heels in the Virginia City jail, and we’d be having a beer in The Bucket of Blood, before a drop fell on any of our heads.
I made it to the top, and Joe almost made it too. I ducked out of sight of the rustlers who were still celebrating at the far end of the canyon. I had just leaned down to give Joe a hand, when it happened. All the rain had created an unseen danger. As he found his last foothold, a single rock slipped.
“Damn,” Joe said.
Then, the side of the ridge broke apart and came down on top of him.
I was still reaching for him, when the edge of the bluff crumbled underneath my feet. There was no way to pull back or even to slow my fall. Anything I could grab was falling right along with me. My body tumbled down with the rockslide, my shoulders and ribs jouncing against the jagged rock. Gravity won out in the end, and I came to rest on top of the pile of rubble. My eyes were open and I was trying to sit up, but the bones in my body felt like they’d been pulled apart and put back together again in the dark. I heard shouting from the other side of the canyon and what sounded like thunder in the distance. I tried to shake my head and wipe dirt and grit out of my eyes but still couldn’t see through the cloud of dust the rockslide had stirred up. I heard Pa desperately calling my name, and I tried to look for him, but the dust made my eyes sting. I turned to the side and squinted at my little brother’s head and arm jutting out from under a pile of rocks.
“Take Adam,” Pa said to Hoss. His voice was grim, and I didn’t understand what he meant, but I didn’t need to. Hoss didn’t stop to ask what hurt. He bent over and hoisted me over his shoulder like a sack of grain at the mercantile. He carried me over to a boulder and set me down none too gently behind it.
“Stay there,” he said and crawled back to Pa and Joe.
Pa still crouched at the bottom of the landslide, desperately trying to pull Joe out from underneath the rocks.
“I’m trying to pull him out!” he shouted at Hoss. “He’s wedged in tight!”
“Pa, get out of the way,” Hoss said. “Let me get him out.”
“They’re coming!” I heard Pa warn, and I shook my head as if to clear it. I struggled to my knees and peered around the boulder and looked into the clearing. At that moment, bullets exploded onto the ground around my family. The smell of gunpowder filled the air. The rustlers, being true predators, were not about to waste the opportunity that the rockslide provided.
“Dadburnit,” Hoss muttered. Only someone who grew up with my brother would have been able to recognize the desperation in his voice. “Can’t dig and shoot at the same time.”
Through the dust and the haze, I watched Hoss struggling to free Joe, heaving rock after rock off his still body. Pa had drawn his gun but didn’t have a chance to fire, before a bullet ricocheted off the rocks behind them. I saw Hoss grunt in pain and grab at his shoulder. Blood trickled through his fingers, and a fine sheen of sweat covered his neck and face. With a look of determination I knew all too well, Hoss let go of his shoulder and went back to pulling rocks off Joe.
“Hoss, you’re hurt! You need to take cover,” Pa was yelling. He took a couple shots at our attackers and motioned to Hoss to join me behind the boulder, but Hoss shook his head.
“Ain’t going nowhere without Little Joe,” he said. “I’m not shot. Just got scratched up a bit. Now Pa, let me be. I ain’t leaving him here.”
Hoss’ blood dripped onto the rubble and over Joe’s body. He paused for a moment, and braced himself, breathing hard. The bullets continued to ricochet around the three of them. I reached for my gun and was relieved to find it still in its holster. With a shaking hand, I drew and aimed it in the direction of the rustlers. I could see them trying to crawl across the clearing towards us. I fired twice and smiled as they scattered for cover.
It’s an interesting thing about predators. Sure, they may be dangerous. They might even kill you. But most of the time, they are absolutely predictable. They can be thrown off balance, simply by altering the equation of power. When I started shooting, it surprised our attackers. It disrupted their intention to slaughter the Cartwright family in one fell swoop. They scattered for cover, and I thought to myself that we might have a chance after all.
Then I heard Pa cry out in pain, and I looked over to see him arched back against the rocks, holding his left arm. Blood flowed down the sleeve of his shirt from a bullet that had creased his arm. I gritted my teeth through the dizziness that washed over me and crawled into the clearing to help my family.
“No, Adam! Go back!” Pa shouted, but I wasn’t about to listen. My head and body throbbed, but it was just pain, and I could live with that. I couldn’t live with watching my father and brothers getting picked off one by one, while I rested up and let it happen.
“Pa, I’ve got to get you to shelter,” I said and tried to lead him back.
“Not without your brother,” he said. Another bullet hissed by my face, so close I could feel the heat of its trajectory. Bullets bit into the dirt around us and pinged off the rocks. The rustlers were apparently bad shots and were probably drunk, but those were advantages we couldn’t take for granted. Sooner or later, one of their errant bullets was bound to kill one of us, if we didn’t get out of there soon.
“Adam, cover us!” Hoss shouted, and I obeyed. He had apparently decided that it was useless to get Pa or I to go back for shelter, so he went back to work in earnest. I aimed into the gathering shadows of the canyon. The rustlers had all taken cover behind a pile of rocks, and I couldn’t see what I was aiming at. But I kept firing.
Finally, it was down to the last rock that covered Joe’s leg. While Pa held it back with his good arm, Hoss reached under and snatched up Joe, lifting him like he was a child. One of his ankles hung at an awkward angle, and I could tell right away it was probably broken. Somehow his boots stayed lodged underneath the rubble, and I noted absently that his socks were not a matched pair. My thoughts were still rattling in my head after the fall, but I suddenly remembered Joe as a little kid. He was always so ready to get on with living that he could never be bothered with something as mundane as finding socks that matched.
Hoss stood, with Joe anchored painfully in his arms, and shouted, “Follow me!”
Most of the time, Hoss defers to Pa and I, allows us to make the majority of family decisions. However, when Hoss makes the decision to lead, we have little choice but to follow. His authority, like his strength, does not stem from age or birthright. It comes to him naturally; it’s just that he usually chooses to keep it in check. Holding on to each other like a pair of drunken greenhorns, Pa and I staggered after Hoss towards the cabin.
I have no idea how we made it inside. We just kept stumbling forward, putting one foot in front of the other, with bullets raining all around and over our heads. Just as we made it into the front door, I stumbled over an empty whiskey bottle, and kicked it out of the way. Pa slammed the door shut and barricaded it with a splintered table, one of the few furnishings left in the cabin. Hoss laid Joe down on a cot and placed his hand on the side of his neck, checking for a pulse. Satisfied, he turned and nodded at Pa. Surrendering Joe’s care to Pa, he crossed the room to take up his post at the window.
It soon became apparent that the cabin would provide us with a roof, and a couple of beds, and not much else. The rustlers had made camp here; it was obvious from the plethora of empty liquor bottles and refuse they left piled high in the corners of the room. The room reeked of stale rotgut and tobacco, with black wads of it spit across the floor. If there had ever been any supplies in the cabin, they had already been plundered. They didn’t even leave any firewood, and the room felt hollow and damp. The only useful item they saw fit to leave behind was an ancient oil lamp abandoned on the stove. The rustlers had been breaking camp when we had come upon them. Another day, and our cattle would have been long gone.
As it turns out, I’m not sure that would have been such a bad thing. The high and mighty Cartwrights have been reduced to a sorry lot, indeed. I’d gladly trade a hundred head of cattle for our lives. We’ve been in bad straits before, but I can’t remember a time when our prospects for survival seemed quite as unlikely.
Joe has been unconscious for hours already. The rustlers have apparently settled down for the night; we’ve been given the gift of more time. Time to sit and wait and worry. Time to wonder what will happen next. Pa sighs and rubs a hand over his neck. I notice how rigidly he holds his left arm; it’s bothering him more than he has been admitting to his overprotective sons.
“Pa,” I plead. “It’s your turn to lie down. You look terrible.”
“Well, thank you very much,” Pa says. “You know Adam, the art of flattery has never been one of your greater accomplishments.”
“Pa – I only want you – ”
“I am not leaving Joseph. If you knew what it felt like to watch two of my sons get half buried by a rockslide, you wouldn’t ask it of me, Adam. I was sure that both of you were dead. Now stop fussing, and let me take care of both of you.”
“Pa, you’re not doing Joe any good, if you collapse looking after him. We still have no idea how we’re getting out of this – ”
“Both of you – just stop it!” Hoss suddenly orders. He has been sitting so quietly I believe both Pa and I’d forgotten he was still there. “You’re both as jittery as a long-tailed cat under a rocking chair. I reckon you both need to take a rest and give Little Joe some peace.”
Pa looks at Hoss and smiles. “Hoss, if anyone needs to take a rest, it’s you. Now you haven’t even let me get a good look at that shoulder. Let’s you and I switch places, and then Adam can try to get you cleaned up and -”
“No sir, I ain’t going nowhere,” Hoss counters. “Just cause they ain’t been shooting much don’t mean they won’t. They’re out there Pa. They might be waiting out the night, but men like that ain’t got a whole lot of patience. They’re set on taking them beeves to market, and I don’t reckon they’re about to let us get in their way. You two stay still and watch over Little Joe. I’ll take care of the window.”
“If nothing else, let me take a look at your shoulder,” Pa insists.
“Pa, it ain’t nothing but a scratch. It’s hardly bothering me none, anyhow.”
“Hoss, let me take a look!”
I start to feel dizzy again. My ears start ringing and the sound of Pa and Hoss arguing starts to recede into the distance. Between the noise in my ears and the spinning of the room, I don’t notice much else. We’re all caught up in our concerns, and the quiet voice makes us all start in surprise.
“Lord Almighty Hoss, let him look,” Joe suddenly moans, “I’m trying to go back to sleep!”
“Joseph,” Pa whispers and immediately leans over his youngest son.
Joe’s eyes are open, and he’s awake, but not by much. My vertigo passes and I lean to take a better look at my little brother, who seems to have risen from the dead once again.
“Pa,” he whispers. “I’m awfully thirsty. Feel like I got trampled by a herd of horses. What in blazes happened to me?”
“You went to war with a mountain,” I tell him.
His eyes light onto my face, and he looks markedly unimpressed. “Looks like the mountain attacked you too, older brother. Who won?”
“We lost,” I answer and gesture dramatically at my various battle wounds. “But we lost with style.”
Pa looks at me with obvious exasperation and goes back to checking over Joe.
“Little brother, I don’t know when I’ve been so glad to hear your voice,” Hoss exclaims from the window. He doesn’t really turn away from his post, but I can see his smile from my angle, wide across his face. Joe squints in the dim lamplight and manages a small smile for Hoss.
“Tell me what’s hurting boy,” Pa says, running his hand over Joe’s forehead. He turns to me and says, “No fever yet, far as I can tell.”
Then Pa pushes aside Joe’s shirt and presses his fingers firmly against his belly. Leave it to Pa to take on our biggest worry first. None of us have said it out loud, but all of us know about the kind of damage you can’t see. Joe took a hard fall off that ridge and those rocks came down on him even harder. It doesn’t take much imagination to worry that Joe has gotten himself torn up inside, in ways that Doctor Martin wouldn’t be able to do much about. If he’s bleeding inside, there’s nothing any of us can do but watch it happen.
“Little Joe, tell me if this hurts,” Pa says, poking and prodding at him from every conceivable angle.
“It hurts,” Joe groans, grimacing and trying to grab Pa’s hand to stop it. “There ain’t a part of me that doesn’t hurt. Stop it Pa. That really hurts. My ankle. I think there’s something wrong with it. I’m awfully thirsty. Can I have some water?”
Pa finishes poking at Joe, apparently satisfied that his inspection hasn’t revealed anything more ominous than the sort of abrasions you’d expect from being half buried by a landslide.
He pushes Joe’s hair off his forehead and replies, “I’m sorry son. I don’t have any water to give you. I’m afraid we’re in a bit of a situation. We’re doing what we can to get out of it. All our canteens are still tied to the saddles. As soon as we can, we’ll get you something to drink, I promise. Your ankle… Well, I’m no doctor, but I think it was broken in the fall. Once we get you to Virginia City, I’m sure that Doctor Martin will have it set in no time.”
Joe closes his eyes and sighs. My little brother’s no fool, and he knows a broken ankle will involve a prolonged convalescence, something he has despised since he was a kid. Yet, there’s nothing to be gained by complaining, and I watch as he resigns himself to it. He opens his eyes and meets my look with full knowing. What else is there to do? We do what we always do. Take what life offers us, shrug when it doesn’t go our way, and make the most of it when it does. Pa started pounding it into us as soon as we were old enough to talk and walk: Cartwright men do not give up. And Cartwright men never feel sorry for themselves.
Joe looks over at Hoss and then back at Pa, and his eyes widen. “Hey, what happened to the two of you? Pa, what’s wrong with your arm? Hoss, is your shoulder bleeding? What the hell happened to us? What’s going on?”
“Watch your language, young man,” Pa admonishes, and I know he’s stalling. He’s trying to decide how much Joe needs to know.
I decide for him. As I far as I’m concerned, Joe is entitled to know everything. He’s in this mess, same as the rest of us. So I tell him the whole sorry story. I don’t leave much out. Pa and Hoss both glare at me when I explain that we’re surrounded, without any food or medical supplies, and with our ammunition running low. Pa has already brought up the fact we have no water. I figure at best, we have a day or two, and things are most certainly not at their best. There’s no way to state our predicament that makes it sound any better than it is, and I see Joe weighing it in his mind. I know they want to protect him, but my father and brother keep forgetting that Joe’s not a kid any more. He’s earned the right to worry, along with the rest of us.
We are all quiet for a while. Joe closes his eyes again, and Pa and I lean against the rough planked walls of the cabin. Rain beats at the roof and against the pane of the window. It’s turned into quite a storm. It has no business raining this late in the summer. If not for all the rain, the cliff would never have given way, and we’d be sitting in the Bucket of Blood right now, being patted on the back by late night revelers. I can hear them saying it. Leave it to the Cartwrights to outsmart a gang of rustlers… The Cattleman’s Association was liable to offer a fine reward… With the money coming to each of us, I’d finally order that new…
I shake myself out of it. I almost drifted off, and I owe it to my family to stay alert. The wind shrieks through the canyon outside, and I can feel its cold bite through the slats of wood. Whoever built this cabin was evidently more concerned with building character than providing comfort. It would take a better man than I to find a way to get a good night’s sleep in a room like this. At least the rustlers are having a miserable night outside in the rain. It’s a small comfort, but I’ll take what I can get. I edge closer to Pa and can feel his warmth through my sleeve. The three of us are together on the cot, for company I suspect as much as for warmth. Again, my eyes begin to droop, despite the cold, and I’m almost asleep, when Joe’s voice breaks into my somnolence.
“I guess tomorrow night’s dance is off,” he says to the quiet room. “I’m not sure that Sally Anne would have much to do with me, in the shape I’m in. I reckon this gets me off the hook. She’s been talking lately about what pretty children we’d have together. Does my face look anything like yours, older brother?”
I raise an eyebrow at him and answer, “Worse.”
“Then I’m afraid it’s true. The marriage is off. Well it’s been short but sweet. I don’t think Sally Anne’s too interested in my lively conversation.”
Pa’s been on the verge of dozing off but wakes up quickly when Joe starts talking.
He grunts and comments, “Young man, I expect it’s time you find yourself a young lady who’s interested in more than your prowess as a dance partner.”
“Oh, don’t worry Pa,” Joe says. “Sally Anne’s interested in more than my dancing.”
Hoss belly laughs, and I have to smile. Even I have to admit that the female population of Virginia City would probably be interested, even if the kid couldn’t dance the most basic jig. They’d probably line up on the street to give him lessons.
“You know exactly what I mean, young man,” Pa growls. “It’s about time that one of you settles down, and with all your… prowess… in this area, it would probably be a good idea if it was you.”
“It ain’t like he hasn’t tried Pa,” Hoss protests. I looked over and see Hoss staring at us with an odd expression on this face. I immediately know what he’s thinking and so does Joe. My younger brother turns away towards the wall. He closes his eyes. Pa looks confused for just a moment, before his face settles into understanding. He remembers and is sorry.
It’s only been several months since Laura White died. Her body has been buried for two seasons. The little house we fixed up for the two of them still stands furnished and waiting in that pretty valley, by the riverbank. None of us have the heart to empty it out, because we can’t ride by it without remembering how much fun we had in fixing it up. The wildflowers bloomed all spring, lavishly flaunting every common color. Blue and purple, pink, red, and white, dusted with yellow buttercups. Indian Paintbrush, Mountain Mule Ears, Pink Monkeyflowers, and Snow Star. I imagine they got their names from some wild-eyed mountain poet. Uncommon names for common flowers. All the past month’s storms didn’t do a thing to discourage them. The mountains might have been forged in granite, but the flowers showed their own fortitude, blooming despite the circumstances. They only look delicate and fragile. If only Laura’s health had proved to be as resilient as the flowers.
None of us have had much luck with love, but Joe has had a harder go at it than the rest of us. In his twenty odd years, he’s had as much acquaintance with grief as Pa. It’s been a grim coming of age for my little brother, dealing with the violent deaths of Julia Bulette and Amy Bishop when he was seventeen, and then the death of Laura this past spring. Joe never talks about any of them, and we follow his lead. He doesn’t brood. He seems to have moved on. After all, a man’s grief is his own business. We all get through these things, in our own way.
Laura’s death was the most recent, but I find myself thinking more and more about Amy Bishop. I’d never seen her much around Virginia City. When she came of age, her father kept her away from the eyes of young men who had been waiting for her to grow up. Of course, she was always kept away from all of the Cartwrights. I doubt it ever occurred to Luther Bishop that his only daughter would fall in love with the youngest son of his sworn enemy. I only saw her a few times before she died. The way I remember her, it seems like she was far too young to even think about marriage. But then again, Joe was awfully young back then as well. He seemed older after she was killed, like some of his persistent innocence had died with her.
Whenever I think of Joe and Amy, it always brings to mind lovely Sarah that summer in Boston, so many years ago. I met her when I was nineteen years old, and she had just turned seventeen. We loved each other for three months that were both glorious and miserable, all at the same time. The summer air felt like a wet blanket thrown over our bodies, but it was mighty good to be alive. Like Amy, she was too pretty to be real and had big, brown eyes that always seemed to be looking at me. It might not have been love, but it felt like it at the time. We parted company before my term at university began. I kissed her hand, before we said goodbye.
A dozen years later, I can still smell the lilac water on her wrist and feel the pleasure of her small hand slipped into mine. Every emotion seemed larger than life, almost grand. But we made the choice to go our separate ways. We both decided we were simply too young. The memories of my first love are bittersweet and poignant, tinged with only a shading of regret.
For Joe, it has to be different. His love for Amy would always be tangled up with the violence of her death. Who knows if it could have ever worked out between them? They were children then, but Amy will always be sixteen. Their love will never know another season.
I hear the rumble of thunder carried by the wind. The night is passing, moving us inexorably toward its grim conclusion. The rustlers haven’t shot at us for hours, but this will certainly change, come morning.
As usual, Joe is the one to break the silence. He’s never been too comfortable with prolonged stretches of quiet.
“How about you, Hoss?” he asks. “When are you going to settle down? I saw that little Emma Brooks making eyes at you last time we were in town. I don’t expect she’d say no, if you asked for a dance.”
Even in the shadows, I can tell Hoss is blushing. It doesn’t take much. Just a pretty girl’s smile can render him tongue tied and accident-prone for hours. Hoss hasn’t done much better than Joe, when it comes to love. It’s not easy to forget the worst of the women who preyed on my trusting brother. Helen Layton and Regan Miller were nothing but mercenaries, but they broke his heart all the same. Margie Owens was a fool, when she turned her back on Hoss. Knowing she would have been a terrible wife for him didn’t make it any easier. We can always tell when Hoss has been visiting Margie’s little girl, by the way he goes back to his room after dinner rather than staying downstairs to play checkers with Joe. Only Emily Pennington came close to deserving my brother’s attentions. She must have loved him, but I only wish she told him she was dying, before he came to love her. Knowing Hoss, it wouldn’t have made a bit of a difference. With his soft heart, he’d have loved her anyways.
“I reckon I’ll know the right girl when I meet her,” Hoss says. He presses his face against the pane and frowns when it fogs up. “I ain’t so sure about Miss Brooks, Little Joe. I heard that Will McCourt was sparking her. Besides, unless we get out of here soon, ain’t none of us going to be doing much dancing. I’m getting just about half tired of this waiting. I almost wish they’d start shooting again to give me something to do!”
“How’s your shoulder holding up?” Pa asks. Between the four of us, we have enough maladies we could fill up the rest of the night just asking each other how we’re feeling.
“Just fine,” Hoss answers, and we all know what that means. Could be better, could certainly be worse. Given the circumstances, just fine is all that can be expected.
I sigh and imagine a sip of water. It’s been hours since I last had a drink, and my throat feels rough and gritty, like it has been used to strain sand. I look back at Joe and wonder how he’s managing. He hasn’t been complaining, but that’s typical for Joe. On the other hand, he hasn’t tried to sit up either, and that’s hardly typical. Sitting next to him, I can see that his breathing is shallow and is faster than usual. I wonder if he has a fever coming on.
“You all right Joe?” I mouth my words. He shakes his head a bit, glancing over at Pa who is resting his head against the wall. I understand his meaning perfectly. He’s not doing well, but no good can come from upsetting Pa with it. It’s been our deal as long as I can remember. Brothers don’t give away secrets, except when absolutely necessary. Trapped in this cabin, there’s nothing any of us can provide each other anyway, except company.
“Hey Pa,” Joe asks, and I know what he’s trying to hide with his cheerful tone. “Do you think you’ll ever meet someone and fall in love again?”
Pa looks exasperated at first, but then his expression softens. I can see why. Underneath the scrapes and bruises, the kid is smiling, and he almost looks like Little Joe again.
“Yeah Pa,” Hoss chimes in. “How about that pretty gal at who works at the blacksmith? I saw her making eyes at you last time you took Buck in to have him shod.”
The three of us explode with laughter.
Joe sputters, “Are you talking about Rube Oller’s spinster sister? The one who handles the bellows? Hoss, she’s got forearms bigger than mine! Pa, you best switch places with Hoss! I think some of that shrapnel must have got stuck in his head.”
Pa is wiping his eyes with the edge of his sling. He shakes his head affectionately at Hoss, who is glaring at us, full of indignation.
“I’m sure she’s a fine woman, son,” he says and tries to stop laughing.
“Go ahead and laugh,” Hoss says. “I don’t care what all of you think. And Little Joe, you’re just plumb skinny. Can’t go judging a woman cause she’s got more to her than your lil’ ol’ toothpick arms. Besides, I think a gal ought to have more to her than the half grown things you’re always chasing around town. My ma wasn’t a little thing, ain’t that right Pa?”
Pa is instantly serious, when he answers Hoss. He never jokes around when it comes to our mothers. We have always followed his lead. Memory is a series of stories we tell each other. When you lose a mother without knowing her, all that keeps her alive are the stories. Just like pretty, little Amy will always be sixteen in Joe’s memory, our mothers are forever young in each of our minds, sanctified and flawless. If any of them had lived longer into our childhoods, we’d have had the chance to know who they really were, with all their shortcomings and imperfections. I expect any one of us would have gladly traded the perfect mothers of Pa’s stories for the more complicated reality of Elizabeth, Inger, and Marie Cartwright.
“Your mother was a beautiful woman, Hoss…” Pa begins, and we settle in for the story he will tell us, much like we did as children, being tucked in for the night.
By the time he’s done talking, the room is brightening. The morning will be dawning soon. We still haven’t heard anything from the rustlers. I expect the rain and the vestiges of whiskey are keeping them away. They’re out in the mud, recovering from the night’s excitement, but we don’t have much longer. Hours earlier, I quietly asked Hoss if he had checked his ammunition. He nodded grimly. We were running low, even before we tracked down the rustlers. I don’t think any of us expected to find them.
Pa has already told my mother’s story and is finishing the saga of Marie Cartwright. In his story, Marie is beautiful, spirited, and a wonderful mother to each of us. All this is true, but Pa has conveniently left out the fact that she was also reckless, impatient, and had a wicked temper. I remember the day she threw her own daguerreotype at Pa, during one of their fights. It landed against the hearth, and the glass shattered into shards that we kept stepping on for days. It’s too bad that Pa never tells the full story. Little Joe would have liked his mother if he had known her, even more than he worships her now, not knowing her at all. She was more like him than he ever could have imagined.
“I wish I could remember her,” Joe says contentedly, despite the fact he is now visibly shivering.
There’s no doubt now that he has a fever, and it’s rising. We covered him with an old blanket Pa found tucked in a corner, but we have no way of bringing it down without cool water. I lean over and touch his forehead with the back of my hand. I can feel heat from it, like stirred embers. We need to get him to Doc Martin. Other than the broken ankle, we really don’t know what injuries Little Joe is dealing with. All of us need some doctoring. My head has cleared a bit over the past several hours, but my chest still aches when I breathe. I need to get my ribs wrapped, but we have nothing to do it with here. Pa and Hoss need their wounds to be cleaned out, before infection sets in. The rustlers didn’t even leave a single bottle of whiskey behind. It might not help much for medicinal purposes, but I’d gladly take even a slug of the miner’s tarantula juice right about now. At this point, I could do with a little less clear thinking. I turn back to Pa and try to listen to what he is saying.
“All your mothers were wonderful women,” Pa says, frowning as he touches Joe’s forehead. “I was blessed to have loved each one of them.”
It never takes long for Pa to get around to the part about blessings. It’s how the story always ends. The bittersweet conclusion where Pa tells us that his wives left him three fine sons and how their memory lives on in each of us. How we all need to put our faith in things we don’t understand. It’s not quite happily ever after, but if we try hard enough, we can make it do just fine.
I’ve thought the words many times before, but I don’t realize that this time I’m going to say them out loud.
“You would have been more blessed, if they hadn’t died so young.”
Pa looks sharply at me. I have been very quiet, and I can see him trying to gauge my thinking.
“Adam,” he tells me carefully. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Something in me snaps. I’m usually so careful to keep my opinions to myself when Pa says this sort of thing. But given the circumstances, I can hardly keep quiet. I cannot believe he is still insisting on this. We have no water, food, or medical supplies. Joe’s burning up with fever, I can hardly breathe, and I doubt that Pa or Hoss would be much good managing a gun, even if we had enough ammunition to sustain any sort of defense. I’m sorry, but I don’t see the grand plan behind this disaster.
“So you’re telling me,” I say. “That all this has happened for a reason.”
“That’s right,” Pa replies, without a moment’s hesitation.
Joe and Hoss look uncomfortable. I know they depend on me to stay calm in times like this, and I’m unsettling them by the way that I’m talking. But I don’t recall our future ever looking less certain. Why can’t Pa admit it? Sometimes bad things happen, for no good reason. If the Cartwright family was wiped off the face of the earth, good folks would grieve us, but life would go on. Just like we go on, when we lose people we love. There doesn’t have to be a reason for everything.
“So that cliff coming down on top of us has a reason?” I ask. “You and Hoss getting hurt out there has a reason? It’s been raining for hours. Even if we make it out of here, we’ll have a hell of a time getting out with all the mud. Are you saying that even the mud has a reason?”
“If it hadn’t been so muddy Adam, we’d have never picked up the rustlers’ trail,” Hoss answers.
I have an easy reply. “If it hadn’t been so muddy, we’d be out a hundred head of cattle, but we still stand the chance of being alive by this time tomorrow. I’d rather be alive. Pa, you still haven’t answered my question. You believe everything happens for a reason. Does even the mud have a reason?”
“Yes son,” Pa answers tiredly. “Even the mud has a reason.”
I can’t seem to stop myself. I know I’m being disrespectful, but I’m tired and have been hurting for so long. And Little Joe is not getting any better. If I’m being honest with myself, part of me really wants to know what he has to say. Pa was right when he said I’d argue with a rock. Only this time, the rock is my father.
“You’ve taught us to give thanks for everything, even the bad things that happen,” I continue. “Have you been giving thanks for all this? The rain and the mud…Joe’s fever, Hoss’ wounded shoulder?”
“Son, you’ve missed the point,” Pa says gently. He places his hand on my shoulder and talks to me like I am a small boy and I feel myself relax into his touch. “The point is not that we’re glad when bad things happen to us. It’s that we are thankful for the opportunity it gives us. I’ve seen it happen again and again. God using the bad for his own good purposes.”
I don’t know that I’m even thinking it, before I say it. By the time it comes out of my mouth, it’s entirely too late. How many times have I admonished Joe to think before he starts talking?
“What about Amy Bishop?” I ask, and my family stares at me in confusion. “What possible good can there be in a sixteen girl dying like that, when all she ever wanted was to marry my little brother? What good could possibly come from something as senseless as that?”
“Adam!” Hoss exclaims, horrified by what I’ve said.
I said it, and immediately I’m sorry. Pa does not answer but wearily cradles his head in his good arm. I may have won my last point, but I’d gladly concede it. I can hardly look at Little Joe. The last thing he needs is for me to bring up the pretty girl who died in his arms. I’d do anything rather than hurt him with it. With trepidation, I look at him, and to my surprise, my kid brother is smiling sadly.
“We were going to run away together,” he says. “Did I ever tell you that Pa?”
Pa shakes his head. “No son, you never told me.”
“If you and Mr. Bishop wouldn’t let us see each other, we were going to run away together and get married,” Joe continues. “It seemed awfully simple at the time. We both agreed on it. Funny how you think when you’re a kid. We were both kids then, weren’t we? I don’t know where we would have gone or what we would have done once we left. It doesn’t seem real likely that we’d have made it.”
“You’d have made it, little brother,” Hoss says from the window. I can tell he wants nothing more than to leave his post and thump Joe across the back. “You loved that little gal. You’d have found a way to make it work out. Didn’t matter how old you was. If it was meant to happen, it would have.”
Joe smiles at Hoss, and I lean past Pa to pull the blanket up over his shoulders. He shrugs at me. He’s still cold, and I’m still sorry for what I said. But, Joe already knows it; he’s forgiven me, and it doesn’t really matter. The four of us are still here among the living, and each of us has made our share of mistakes. As long as we’re breathing, we haven’t passed into the realm of story.
“Pa, I see something,” Hoss says suddenly. His voice tells us that our time has finally run out. Pa and I stumble over each other on our way to the window, and then we see it too. Morning has dawned while we were talking, and the walls of the canyon seem to be receding in a fine grey mist. Like I predicted, the ground is awash in mud, but at least the rain has stopped falling. And in the distance, behind the largest boulder, I see six, wet, unhappy men loading their guns. Their canteens are piled against the rocks. They don’t seem to be in much of a hurry. Unlike us, they have all the time in the world.
“What is it?” Joe asks. He is struggling to rise onto an elbow but is having a hard time.
“We’re going to have company soon,” I reply. Joe doesn’t need me to elaborate. He knows exactly what I mean.
“We need to do something,” he says. “We can’t just let them pick us off. We need to fight.”
Hoss looks up. He is counting all our ammunition to be certain there’s nothing he missed the first time around. Despite the fact that the numbers have remained the same, he looks over at Joe and smiles, shaking his head. Somehow, the kid has managed to get himself up on that elbow.
“And how do you expect to do any fighting, little brother?” he asks. “Even if you weren’t so sick, that ankle wouldn’t hardly hold you across the room. This ain’t gonna be your fight, Little Joe.”
“I could sit on your shoulders,” Joe says. “Or on your back. My arms are working just fine, and you’re forgetting I’m the best shot in the family. How are you and Pa going to defend us with only one arm? Adam, don’t think I haven’t noticed that you’re not walking right! And you’re breathing kind of funny too!”
“Now see here, little brother. There ain’t no way you’re getting up on my shoulders! Did you forget I’ve got half the mountain still stuck in my left shoulder? I ain’t letting you fire a gun from up there. What if you slipped and hit something… important?”
Pa and I can’t help but smile, but Joe is undaunted. His teeth are chattering, and he’s mighty sick, but he’s not even close to giving in.
“You can’t leave me in here,” he argues. “I’d have no way of defending myself, if they made it past you. You said yourself that my gun’s lost under that pile of rocks out there.”
“You ain’t got no boots neither,” Hoss adds. “They got stuck under the rocks, when I was pulling you out.”
“You left my boots there? Dang it, Hoss. Those were new boots. Couldn’t you have at least tried to dig them out?”
“Dadburnit, Little Joe,” Hoss sputters. “I was trying to save your sorry hide – ”
“All right, cut it out,” I intervene. “Joe, I will personally take you to the mercantile and buy you a new pair of boots, if we get out of this mess. Now, back to what we need to do. I don’t recall either Pa or I saying we were going to take the offensive. It makes a whole lot more sense to wait here and defend ourselves when they attack.”
Then Pa says quietly, “Joe’s right.”
“What?” Joe asks and tries to sit up. “Did you say I was right?”
Pa continues, “We can’t wait them out. Joe needs a doctor. He’s burning up. We have no water to give him. We all need a doctor. Adam, we can’t even bind your ribs. We don’t have enough ammunition to defend ourselves indefinitely. I can’t see how we have much a chance, if we don’t start something.”
“What do you intend to do?” I ask quietly. The situation seems more than hopeless, but I’ve learned from a lifetime of experience that Ben Cartwright has a way with hopeless situations.
“You were right about one thing, Adam,” Pa says, looking out the window. I look out as well and see a good deal of movement from the other camp. “There’s a whole lot of mud out there. The first thing we need to do is take off our boots. We’ll move around a lot easier out there without them.”
Hoss and I shrug at each other and start pulling off our boots. Pa continues talking, while pacing back and forth across the room.
“We don’t have much of a choice, it’s true,” he says. “These aren’t the best odds, but that’s never stopped us before. Boys, I don’t want you to think of this as impossible. Difficult yes, but not impossible.”
He looks pointedly at me and continues, “I do believe everything happens for a reason. We may be outnumbered, but I couldn’t ask for better men to have beside me than the three of you. I wouldn’t wish for one more man than the ones in this room. If it’s God’s will for us to die, then at least we’ve died with the stomach to keep fighting. But I don’t think we’re going to die. I think we’re going to win, and someday I’ll be showing my grandchildren the scar on my arm and be telling them stories about how their fathers were brave men.”
My father pauses to catch his breath and shifts his arm in its sling. Pa’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, I think to myself, remembering the famous speech that Shakespeare penned for King Henry to deliver on the cusp of the Battle on Agincourt.
The English might have won that battle against the French, but I seriously doubt that the Cartwrights will fare as well. However, I’m ready to follow Ben Cartwright, wherever he wants us to go. I prop my boots against the wall and stand beside my father.
For good measure, I begin to quote that speech. “We few, we happy few…”
“We band of brothers.” Joe finishes it for me, still struggling to sit up. I look at him in absolute amazement, and he shrugs. “What? You don’t think I ever listened when you were reading all that Shakespeare for all those years? I’m not crazy about the poems, but I always liked the parts with fighting.”
I laugh out loud and help him get situated against the wall. There’s no logic behind what we’re planning, but we’ve faced desperate circumstances before. Like my father, there is no one I would rather have watching my back than the three men in this room.
“All right,” I say and cross my arms against my aching ribs. “What do we do next?”
We start to plan. It’s not much of a strategy, but it’s all we’ve got. Hoss carries Joe to the threshold and props him up against the doorway. Pa sits behind him, keeping him from toppling over and hands Joe his own gun. It’s true the kid can hardly sit up, but he’s still a good shot, and Pa’s arm has been hurting more with every passing hour. We decide that Hoss and I will lead the charge, with Pa and Joe providing cover from behind.
We all give each other a long last look before Hoss and I head out, but we don’t say anything. It’s not our way to waste time talking, when there’s work to be done. Pa reaches up to shake our hands, and we nod at each other. We stand poised at the front door of the cabin.
“I’m ready when you are, brother,” Hoss tells me.
We plunge out into the grey mist of the morning. The mud oozes between my bare toes and up under my pants, but I ignore it and try to run. Pa was right about taking off our boots. We would never have been able to plow through the thick mud with our boots still on. Joe starts shooting from the threshold. I don’t think I’d trust anyone but my little brother to shoot from behind and not hit me in the back. But Joe knows what he’s doing. He’s been a dead-eye with a gun since he was big enough to hold one steady.
We’ve surprised them. I don’t know what they were expecting, but it wasn’t that we’d come charging out at them right away. They start firing, but Joe’s bullets find two of them almost immediately. They fall face forward into the mud.
Hoss and I try to shoot at the rustlers, as we run toward them. It isn’t easy. My head is dizzy again, and the fog in the air makes it all surreal, like we are ghosts from a dream. But the bullets raining through the air are all too real. One whines past my ear, like the blood-glutted mosquitoes that gorge near the lake at twilight.
The rustlers start to panic. They are obviously not good shots, and they certainly don’t seem to be the brightest of men. Another man falls from behind the rocks. I’m not sure if Hoss or I fired the deadly shot. Truth be told, my head is spinning so fast, I don’t think any of my bullets are accomplishing much more than generating noise. Then I consider, maybe a little noise is what we need. By all indications, they should be winning, and yet the rustlers seem spooked by everything we do.
I begin yelling at the top of my voice. Hoss casts me an odd look but then joins in. I hear Joe’s voice behind me, hollering with us. I have no idea how he manages to yell like that, when a few hours ago, he could barely manage a whisper.
The rustlers don’t know what to make of us. We are coming at them quicker than they would have expected, and they haven’t managed to stop us. The three remaining men seem to reach some sort of resolution. We are now close enough that I can see the fear and avarice on their faces, doing battle. Do they want to live or do they keep fighting and try to be wealthy men? It isn’t much of a fight. Greed wins over, and they charge us, shooting as they run. Hoss and I dive for cover in the mud. Just in time, I lift my head. God must have his reasons for why I get to watch what happens next.
As they run, their boots lodge deep in the mud. We are at the lowest section of the canyon floor, where the mud runs thick and red. Their boots are sinking in it. It is up past their ankles, their knees. They are trying to free themselves from it, but it holds fast. It gives us our opening, our chance. Hoss and I stay down, giving our little brother the opportunity that he needs.
Bullets fly over our heads. One by one, I see each of the remaining three men jerk from the impact and fall. They lie on the ground at odd angles, their boots still trapped in the sea of mud.
Hoss and I cautiously rise to our knees and look around. We are alone in the canyon. For just a moment it is utterly quiet, but that doesn’t last. All at once, Joe is yelling again and Pa right along with him. But it’s more than that. I hear cattle lowing, ready to head on home. The air is anything but silent. Throughout the shadowed gash of the canyon, birds are singing their songs, telling stories they have been singing since the dawn of time. We are going to have our own stories to tell, but not right now. The sun is rising in the east, burning away the mist, and sending off a rosy, warm glow that tells us it’s morning. Unlikely as it seems, we are still alive.
I am not such a fool that I cannot give thanks for mud. I give thanks for a lot of things.
Given the circumstances, it’s the least I can do.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
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