Summary: On a battlefield, Joe carries out a disorienting search for his brothers among the dead, but instead he discovers something entirely unexpected.
Rated: T WC 6600
I had to step over the dead to search for the living, looking for his brothers. Joe Cartwright had seen death before but not like this. This was something new altogether, a different chapter in his seventeen years of life. This was war, what he’d been waiting for, but it wasn’t what he thought it would be. There were bodies lying in the sun, already bloating beyond familiarity, but thank God, they weren’t what he was searching for. The carcasses of horses littered the field … he was so very grateful that his own beloved pinto was out of the way. Joe forgot things easily – his big brothers always said so – but he wouldn’t forget this. It was a testament – these bodies lying on the ground – whether the rest of his life lasted a single day or a thousand. The memory was horrible but it was his. And that had to count for something.Joe hadn’t known that war would be so loud. Even now, after it was over, he still believed he could hear the sounds of dying animals and men, agonizing between death and life. Sometimes, survival was a choice and not an easy one at that. You had to choose whether to be the cause of death or whether to die yourself. Joe wasn’t sure that a man could live with the things he’d seen. He still didn’t know how to make sense of it. As it was, the dead were everywhere. He couldn’t find a living soul around. He couldn’t find his brothers, and Adam had told him to stay close. Don’t move, you hear boy? Stay here. As far back as Joe remembered, that’s exactly what he had done, and yet he’d gone and lost his brothers anyway. He’d been looking for them for so long, it was starting to feel almost pointless, all this wandering around. But Joe’s pa had always taught him to persevere, and so he couldn’t let so much death deter him. He’d find the living again, he would, and his brothers among them. Joe was nothing if not the youngest Cartwright, a family of notorious optimists. He was going to find his brothers. He couldn’t believe that death had taken them.The day should have been over. The sun had been setting forever, but it felt like the day would never end. He was back in it again and again, and he had to pull back just to keep his thoughts from drifting off. He was hot and cold – wasn’t he bleeding? But he couldn’t feel a thing. He knew he was forgetting something, but he couldn’t bring himself to remember. Was anyone else alive? He stood in a slaughter field, but they couldn’t all be dead. Someone… somewhere had to be alive. Someone always won; it was the way of war. There was always winner. But this victory tasted like copper. It was the way it worked, but it wasn’t their war anyway…
The war between the tribes and the troops had been years in the making, ever since the federal government had decided to lay tracks across a high desert that had been Indian land for generations. Just as serious, the Americans had been hunting buffalo, the main source of food for the tribes. The Indians had a clear choice – surrender or fight. Surrender meant being forced onto reservations and losing their land forever. Some would say that this was no choice at all.
So the Indians fought back. Both sides had suffered terrible losses. The army’s usual tactic was to fortify their troops until numbers alone wiped out the war party. It was only a matter of time before the tribes ran out of warriors, so it was typically a successful strategy. However, they hadn’t had a chance to call in for reinforcements. The Indians had attacked from three sides, and the Army had been outnumbered. This was the situation that the Cartwright brothers rode into.
It wasn’t the way they’d planned their celebratory trip back home from their horse-buying trip in Utah Territory. It had gone better than expected. The government had been more than happy to buy every horse they had to offer, even the ones that were still a little rough. War between the states was imminent. The newspapers made that very clear. Everyone was simply waiting for it to happen. The Federals had been trying to buy as many horses as they could both to prepare for war with the Confederacy and for the ongoing skirmishes with the Indians. The Army even offered the Cartwrights more for the string of horses than they’d been planning to ask.
“Deep pockets,” Adam had remarked somewhat caustically after the deal was sealed, and Joe had to bite this lip to keep from telling his older brother what he thought about those deep pockets.
Some wars were inevitable. That’s what his pa said when reading the periodicals, even though it made him sad for the rest of the day. It seemed that President Lincoln was determined to preserve the Union, and Adam felt he was right to do so. Joe disagreed. Vehemently. The plight of the Confederacy continuously weighed on Joe’s heart, but it was the Cartwrights’ unspoken pact, not to discuss the war that was looming between North and South. It only led to arguments or worse, and Ben insisted that no war was going to divide his family. There were days when Joe was so angry with his oldest brother over the impending conflict that he could hardly look at him. Joe vowed to himself that when the war finally started, he’d be there. If he was meant to die a hero’s death for the Southern Cause, than so be it. He didn’t tell his family what he’d been thinking about, but at seventeen years old, Joe Cartwright was determined to die well.
After they signed the contract with the military, Joe spent a long time saying goodbye to the horses they sold – many of which he’d gentled himself. He knew each one so well – their gifts and the quirks that would irritate their riders until they were worked out. They smelled like hay and sweat – theirs and his own. Joe’s own pockets were full with his share of the profits. In the past, Adam had handed Joe’s share over for Pa to manage. Being handed his own money was another tally for the growing list of privileges that told Joe he was becoming a man. For how sorry he was to see the horses go to the Federal army, he was proud of his full pockets. Later he might see it as blood money, but for the time being, he was mighty proud. When Hoss saw the look on his kid brother’s face, he grinned and lifted Joe by the shoulders and then stole his hat, tossing it to Adam, but Joe was too satisfied to care.
The Cartwright brothers were quiet on the trail back, and yet they didn’t hurry. Surprising his younger brothers, Adam had wired Ben that they were going to be a while getting home – maybe taking in a little hunting on the way back. He didn’t bother letting Ben Cartwright know that they would be detouring through Black Bone Diggs – an upstart town well known for having the prettiest little saloon girls for hundreds of miles around. Their father didn’t need to know everything his sons did on their own time. After all, it had been a hard winter, and when it came down to it, they actually liked being together. They had a fine time in town.
However, the next morning, each of them rode out of Black Bone Diggs with a headache from too many warm beers, and Joe’s pockets were lighter from a poker game that he should have walked away from. They were all laughing about it anyways. Adam and Hoss teased their kid brother mercilessly for the pretty little thing who’d conned him into losing that last game. She’d kissed him long enough to make up for most of it, but Joe didn’t bother sharing that little fact with his big brothers. Instead, Joe grinned at their teasing like it didn’t matter, and after a while it really didn’t matter. That’s the way he was. Joe Cartwright loved easily, fought easily, but forgot easily too. He was only seventeen.
They rode all morning toward Fort Grant, the last outpost on the edge of the basin. They would spend the night there before attempting the long ride home. It wasn’t much of a fort – more like a motley collection of lean-tos really. But the army depended on the fort to defend in its campaign to drive the railroad tracks further and further westward. The trouble with the South demanded that the army have unlimited access to Californian gold and the silver from the Comstock. The fact that it was Indian land didn’t seem to bother anyone. It bothered the Cartwrights plenty – injustice always did. But they didn’t talk about it that day. There was nothing they could do about it. They were bone tired and looked forward to reaching the fort and getting a good night’s sleep. Joe’s canteen was almost empty, and Hoss had eaten all the food he’d brought with him from town.
And so they rode toward the station. It was midday. The sun was directly overhead. Despite their lingering headaches, it felt good to be alive. Springtime in the high desert was breathtaking. Wildflowers carpeted the canyons, in a sprawl of crimson and gold. The brothers kept pace trotting with the warm breeze, laughing and kidding Joe about the half dozen girls he’d fallen in love with since the trip began. Joe retorted that Adam wasn’t exactly one to talk, since he’d disappeared with a pretty brunette at the very moment when Joe had been losing all his money at the poker game. Hoss had been too busy enjoying his mediocre beer to notice what either one of his brothers was up to. They were still laughing over their ill-fated trip to town, when they took the turn to the fort. And then it was in front of them. The situation at hand. Their laughter faded away. And then everything else began.
It was a shock to find the fort occupied by an entire battalion, soldiers milling all around. They’d been expecting it to be half deserted, what with the impending war with the South. The amount of stockpiled artillery alone was stunning. Who would have suspected that the Cartwrights had cheerfully ridden into the beginning of a battle that was going to be one for the history books – a pivotal moment in the government’s expansion out west?
Immediately, it was apparent that they’d chosen the wrong way home. Adam wanted to turn around and head back to Black Bone Diggs. The regiment was already gearing up for the looming battle. The lieutenant in command had served in the army with their father, and he greeted them warmly. He confided in Adam that he didn’t have as many soldiers as he would have liked. He was glad to have Ben Cartwright’s boys on his side. Clearly, they were expected to fight, but it wasn’t their war. Joe didn’t like the government’s dealings with the Indians any more than his big brother did, but secretly the prospect of a battle stirred his blood. He didn’t tell his brothers that. Instead, he stood back with Hoss and listened as Adam tried to get them out of it.
“This isn’t our war, Lieutenant,” Adam told the officer. “The Ponderosa has no stake in this. My brother and I are going to ride out before it starts.”
“Not your war,” the commanding lieutenant had snarled back. “When those savages kill people you love, believe me. It will be your war. What would your father say if he found out he’d raised three cowards for sons? I fought alongside Ben Cartwright years ago, and he’d ashamed to know that you were willing to turn your back on your duty to your country.”
Standing straighter, Adam replied, “My father does not support taking land away from the people it belongs to. Nor does he support the starving of women and children.”
“Buffalo,” the man scoffed. “The army needs to eat just as much as they do.”
“True,” Adam said. “But we have choices. The tribes don’t.”
“It seems to me that you’re out of choices,” the lieutenant said rather mildly. “Because this fight’s already starting, and I don’t think the savages out there are going to think much of the fact that your family’s sympathies lie with them. You might not care about your country, but if you value your scalps, you and your brothers are going to have to fight alongside us or die. But that’s your choice, Mr. Cartwright.”
Even as the officer stood to leave the tent, the brothers could hear it – the retort of gunfire in the distance. The accompanying war cries probably sounded closer than they really were. But even so, Adam exchanged a grim look with Hoss and then with Joe. The lieutenant was right. They wouldn’t be able to get away in time. This would be their fight whether they wanted it to be or not. Like the War Between the States, there were some battles that dragged you into them. The brothers would have no choice but to take up arms alongside the regiment.
Even as he heard the sounds of looming battle, Joe looked to his older brothers. He wished he could reassure them somehow and let them know that he was ready for this. He was no longer a boy but understood they wanted to protect him from what lay ahead. Joe had seen death before yet this would be his first battle. Adam’s face was grimy, sweat-streaked and typically determined. Hoss’s expression was inscrutable. The gentlest man transformed into a reluctant warrior. There was no doubt. They would fight with everything they had, but it wasn’t going to be easy. The troops had been corralled into a defensive position. They were the outsiders. The braves were fighting for their land, their families, and any hope of a future. No tribe gave a damn about the railroad’s importance in the federal effort to preserve the Union. These warriors were going to fight to their death. And it was likely going to be an ugly death.
Soldiers posted to the fort were tethering their horses, so they wouldn’t bolt when the shooting got closer. Adam and Hoss began doing the same. Joe was going to follow but instead he had to fight the urge to bury his face in the animal’s mane. That would be something a boy might do, and he very much needed to be a man. But Joe didn’t tether his horse. Instead, he yanked his rifle out of its scabbard, pulled his canteen from the saddle, and slapped his pinto’s flank.
“Get now,” he commanded his beloved horse, ignoring his brothers’ starts of surprise when the animal started off at an irritated gallop. It was a shock to see Cochise actually run off, and Joe couldn’t keep his eyes away until the pinto disappeared behind the turn.
“What did you do that for?” Adam hissed, looking like he’d like to shake his kid brother until his teeth rattled. “How the hell are you planning to ride out of here when this over?”
Hoss added, “That was a dang fool thing to do, Little Brother. You’ll have to ride with me now.”
Joe shook his head. He could hardly explain it, but he knew what would happen to horses in battle, when they didn’t have a chance to get away. He wasn’t willing to risk it. Joe owed Cochise better than that. The horse had risked everything for him time and time again, and Joe couldn’t forgive himself if the pinto was killed while tied down like that.
“Then I’ll ride with you,” Joe said gruffly to Hoss. “Let’s get this over with.”
Hoss’s voice softened. “Stay close, y’hear, boy? When this is all over, we’ll ride out together.”
“Together,” Adam echoed, even as he scanned the horizon. Then he pointed his finger at his younger brother. “Don’t get separated. I mean it, Joe. We’re in this together. No one goes off alone.”
All around them, men were falling into position. And then the fighting was all around them. The battle had begun. And it was their fight too, whether they’d like it or not.
Stay close. We’ll ride out of this together…
And now, after it was all over, it was the horses that haunted him. So many had died, still tethered. Some had strangled themselves in their desperation to get away. The battlefield was surreal and jarring. Joe could almost see life shimmering in the distance but couldn’t make sense of it. Finally, he stopped trying to see what lay ahead and tried to look for his own horse instead. His searching had gotten him nowhere. With Cochise, he’d be able to ride and find his brothers. He tried not to look at the remains of the horses that lay all over the bleeding ground. It was a slaughter. Recently, the tribes had traded bows and arrows for pistols and Winchesters. The improvement in weaponry only added to the carnage. He tried not to look at the bodies any more. None of them belonged to his brothers. Joe was desperate, trying to understand what had happened. He hadn’t yet found any sign of life in this field of death. Where were Adam and Hoss? He couldn’t bring himself to believe they were dead, and he didn’t believe they’d have left him. His only comfort during the actual battle had been their presence right there beside him the whole time. His brothers had covered for him more times than he’d admit. He covered for them too. They had each other’s back throughout the entire ordeal of fighting.
But something had changed. Joe couldn’t remember what it was, but he knew something had happened that changed everything. He could remember up to the point when the regiment was winning. The Indians who were still alive at the end of the slaughter were fleeing, trying to escape on foot mostly. Many of their horses were dead. It should have been over. Victory. For many men, it was already over. The commanding officer of the regiment was dead, lying face down in a pool of blood near the entrance to the fort. Joe saw him die. He died well. Bravely. Surely, the lieutenant would be buried with full military honors. A flag draped over his tombstone. But Joe couldn’t help wondering what would happen to the Indian dead. They weren’t countless, but Joe had stopped counting at a hundred. He couldn’t bear to count any more of them. Would the tribe be able to bury their dead on their own land before they were forced off of it?
Questions flew at him in a volley. Where were the survivors? They’d been on the cusp of victory. Where were the celebrations? Why wasn’t anyone taking care of the dead? Joe couldn’t understand it. He should have been surrounded by the walking wounded. He should have been surrounded by his brothers.
“Adam? Hoss?” he called out as loud as his strangled voice could manage. What was wrong with him anyway? He seemed to be wandering in circles. The throes of death… Now where did that thought come from? Adam was always quoting phrases like that, and usually they didn’t make much sense, but this time, the description certainly seemed apt. All around him, the throes of death seemed to be working themselves out…
And then, all at once, Joe knew he wasn’t alone.
It startled him, the sound of sticks breaking, heavy breathing, and it made him reach for his gun even before turning. His holster was empty. What had happened to his gun? Luckily, the creature that stood behind him wasn’t armed either. Despite his confusion and his desperation to find his brothers, Joe couldn’t help but smile at the small paint pony that stood behind him, blowing out and pawing at the hard ground. His coat was white and brown splotched, darker brown around his muzzle and eyes. The paint was lathered and riderless. How long he’d been running, Joe could only imagine. As far as he could tell, they were the only two living creatures around. The paint stamped his hooves impatiently.
“Hey now,” Joe said gently, and surprisingly, the horse allowed him to come alongside.
The paint was breathing hard. Joe stroked the horse’s neck, his mane, and his flank. He praised him in whispers only the two of them could hear. He wasn’t tied to anything. It was just the two of them, alone on that battlefield. The paint was an Indian pony to be sure, and Joe could feel the wild strength in those taut muscles. The desire to mount the pony and ride – just ride – came over Joe then, and it took all his self-control to restrain it. God, to ride an animal like that… It had always been in him. He knew it was in this pony as well. But this horse didn’t belong to him.
Joe had grown up with Indians and their ponies. Things were simpler back then – no trouble over railroads and buffalo and the army. The Cartwrights had their land and so did the Paiutes. They’d always been friends to the Paiutes and lived in peace as neighbors. Everyone in the territory knew that the tribe was to be respected or they would face the wrath of Ben Cartwright. Joe used to visit the Paiute camp on the north side of the lake and go hunting with the younger boys from the tribe. They were his other brothers, the ones who were always there when his real brothers weren’t around. Joe was a charming boy and was tolerated in the camp by some and encouraged by others. He was always willing to help, and the women simply got used to him. The boys liked him. Taught him things. He’d try anything once. Joe learned to ride bareback before he ever got used to a saddle, and truth be told, he liked riding better that way. How else could you feel the strength of the horse with the wind in your face, the unimportant world disappearing behind you? Joe was kind of wild back then when he was a kid. His mother was dead, his brothers and fathers were often busy. But he was growing up just fine. Folks in town used to call him a white Indian, but Joe didn’t mind. He considered it a fine compliment, but then the troubles with the tribes and the government began, and his family had to rein him in. His childhood with the Paiute camp had come to an end, and Joe took to riding in a saddle. But he never forgot the way that boys were supposed to ride horses.
The paint was waiting. Joe was beginning to understand that he was waiting too. He couldn’t remember what had happened – how he’d gotten separated from his brothers. Something had happened, something possibly irrevocable, and he had to wait to see how it would play out. He could look for Adam and Hoss all day among the dead, but he was somehow convinced that he wouldn’t find them. His big brothers were alive, he was sure of it. He would know it if they weren’t. Maybe they were waiting for him too….
“You seen my brothers, boy?” he asked the paint, almost idly.
The horse, to his amusement, snorted and blew, pawing the ground grumpily.
Joe understood and replied, “They’re not here. There’s no point in staying, if my brothers aren’t here.”
He turned his back on the dead and started walking away from the fort. Joe didn’t have a lead rope, but for whatever reason, the paint followed him anyway. They had no business there on that battleground anymore. There was nothing he wanted more than to put it behind him. Carefully, reverently, he stepped around the bodies as he walked. The breeze was warm and blew his hair into his eyes. He never did get that haircut. The air didn’t smell like death anymore. It smelled like spring. Joe had forgotten that the wildflowers were still in bloom. Almost mockingly lush, they sprawled out around him, a crimson shroud over the land. He remembered that they were beautiful. They had more of a right to be there than he did. The flowers were having their season long before any war.
The paint was quiet and paused for a moment to do some grazing. Joe noticed with some consternation that the sun was setting in the west, casting its long shadow across the land. It would be dark soon, and he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to find Adam and Hoss. He’d be alone with the dead, even though he couldn’t see the bodies anymore. They were at his back; he’d never forget them. Joe really didn’t want to be alone during such a long night. Didn’t like the dark. Strangely enough, the thought of it didn’t scare him but made him sad. This fight was such a waste. A damnable waste, like his pa would say about the war with the South that was to come. This fight against the Indians had been a different war, but Joe suspected his pa would say the same. In this war, most of the dead were Indians. Scattered among the young braves were the bodies of soldiers. While he’d been among them, he’d seen how young they all were. Some were as young as he was. They’d fought over the land, but they would always have a right to the land now. Joe found himself praying that this death would mean something, but war had turned out to be different than he thought it would be.
“Adam was right,” Joe said quietly to the horse. “We didn’t belong here.” He stroked the paint’s nose and added, “You don’t belong here either.”
That’s when Joe suddenly knew he wasn’t alone. He and the horse were being watched from behind, and Joe didn’t have to turn around to know it. He’d seen this before. Indians were as a quiet as moonlight. They had to be to stay alive.
Joe wasn’t afraid, but he turned slowly with his hands raised to the sky to show he wasn’t armed, wasn’t dangerous anymore. There was no need – the person watching him wasn’t dangerous anymore either. He was a young brave, maybe eighteen years old, possibly younger. He was standing on a mound of flowers, studying Joe with dark and familiar eyes. Joe felt like they already knew each other. He felt like he could look into the Indian’s eyes for all eternity and not be sure what he was seeing. They didn’t say a word to each other, even though Joe was pretty sure they spoke the same language. Neither was armed. They’d already surrendered. Joe was suddenly convinced it wasn’t this young Indian’s fight, any more than it had been his.
The sun was forever setting. Joe would have sat down, but strangely he wasn’t tired. There was something he was forgetting about the battle – something important – but he couldn’t keep his mind on it any more. Everything had gone quiet: the dead, the day, even the glorious paint pony. Was it only that morning that he left that little desert town with his brothers, hung over and lamenting the pretty little redhead who wouldn’t tell him her real name? Such an ordinary morning, an ordinary day, right up to the moment they rode up to the fort. He’d never imagined upon waking that it might be his last day. Joe wondered if that’s how it was on the day a man died – whether he woke up, yawned, and hurried to drink his coffee before it got cold. No premonitions, no writing on the wall. Just a crick in his neck, an empty belly, and the steady, reliable breathing of his brothers sleeping next to him. Just like any other day.
The young brave was still watching him. Joe wondered if he had woken up the same way. Was he surprised how the day had turned out? Joe wondered if the other boy had grown up with brothers who teased him too much but let him get away with just about everything. The boy set back on his heels and kept watching him. Joe wondered if he was asking the same questions, thinking the same thoughts about the crazy ordinariness of the day before it all went wrong.
The sun was taking such a long time to set – Joe almost felt like it was waiting too, but that was fool thinking. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe he’d gone crazy. He couldn’t think of any other reason for the fact that he was stuck alone out there, except for a young Indian and a paint horse. He hadn’t been alone during the battle. Adam? Hoss? Where are you, brothers? Stay together. That’s what Adam had told him before it all fell apart. Joe looked back at the young Indian who fixed him with the same curious stare. And that’s when Joe remembered what he’d forgotten to be looking for. He was supposed to be looking for his horse.
Cochise. The best birthday present he’d ever had, given to him on his fifteenth birthday. He’d been traded from a Paiute chief who had been on good terms with his father. The pinto had been his pride and joy and sometimes his best friend. He’d grown up in the saddle of that horse. Become a man. He’d been willing to let the horse go… they weren’t supposed to die together. But he knew full well that Cochise wouldn’t leave him. The pinto loved him and only tolerated anyone else.
That’s when it happened. Cochise walked up behind the Indian boy, who didn’t even seem surprised. Likewise, Joe hadn’t seen him coming. Instead, the boy reached up and scratched the place the pinto liked, right at the base of his withers. It wouldn’t have surprised Joe one bit if the paint liked that too. Not much would have surprised him right then. The Indian boy looked back at Joe and smiled. He knew a fine horse when he saw one. A peace offering if ever there was one. Joe knew what he needed to do. He knew what he was waiting for. The Indian boy took hold of the pinto’s reins and held them loosely. The paint was not saddled, but Joe knew the horse would follow anyway. That’s how they would handle it. My horse for yours. My life for yours. We’ll consider it a trade.
They traded horses. Then it was done, and Joe was standing next to Cochise again, inhaling the warm musk that smelled just like freedom. Like abandon. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest and knew he didn’t have much time. Joe surveyed the field up to the low ridge of hills that ran west to east. It was where he’d come from, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to go back. It was a burial ground. Not a place for riding like the wind. But as he surveyed the terrain, he suddenly understood that he had to let go. This too would come to an end, and eventually, the blood would be covered with flowers. The Indian boy knew it and nodded. They would ride because they could. That’s what the day had been intended for.
The pinto tossed his head impatiently, ready to move on. Adam and Hoss were waiting, and it was time for him to find them. So Joe vaulted into his saddle, and the boy vaulted onto the bare back of his pony. Joe kicked his heels and both boys launched themselves across the field at a full gallop. He was riding as fast as he could, but he was no faster than the Indian boy. He knew this could end badly, but it felt so good to be on a horse again. The night was taking its time in coming, as if the setting sun could still change its mind. There were no dead; there was no battle. There were only two boys racing along the cusp of being young men. It was a fine day to be young, to be alive and …
And then Joe remembered.
“Don’t do this, Little Joe! Damn it, don’t do this!”
He couldn’t open his eyes, but Joe knew that the voice belonged to Adam and he was angry. Really, really angry, and Joe wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised to find out that his big brother was angry at him. Joe didn’t know why Adam would be angry – after all, he’d finally found them. If he could have managed it, he’d have told them that he’d been looking for them everywhere. That he hadn’t tried to leave them behind.
He opened his eyes to strange candlelight and wide planked walls hobbled by shadows. And there was pain. Shocking, stark pain that started at his side and spread out everywhere else. It took his breath away. And then Joe remembered.
“My horse…” He gasped the words like a drowning man inhaling water. His throat felt like gravel. “Cochise.”
“We have your horse, buddy.” Adam didn’t sound angry any more. “Don’t worry about Cochise. He’s eating oats outside. Doc, he’s awake.”
Then Hoss was there and an army doctor alongside Adam, hunched over him. Joe suspected that there’d been some kind of miracle. It was starting to come back to him – the end of the battle, the cusp of victory, a final shot, and his blood seeping into the ground… This is what he’d forgotten – the war had tried to claim him.
Then Joe got his first look across the cramped room. It was hard to see in the flickering shadows, with his brothers all hunkered over him. But there was another cot against the other wall, and it wasn’t empty. Right away, Joe knew who it was. With his back to the rough wall, the Indian boy was sleeping. Hoss’s massive body was almost blocking his sight, and Joe tried to push his brother away. He pointed at the boy.
“That’s him,” Joe said.
Adam looked over his shoulder. “Hoss brought him in,” he said abruptly, with a strange look on his face. “Wouldn’t let the Army have him.”
Hoss looked almost embarrassed, and Joe realized for the first time that his big brother was crying. Hoss never cried, and for the life of him, Joe couldn’t understand why he’d start now…
“He’s a young ‘un,” Hoss said, looking fiercely at Adam. Then he looked down and pushed back his little brother’s stray hair. “Dadburnit, Adam, he’s just the same as Little Joe. I had to take him in. They’d have let him die out there.”
Hoss was apologizing, but Joe was remembering. He remembered racing across the field of wildflowers, the young Indian by his side. They were brothers in their exuberance. They raced toward life together. They made it back in time.
Then Joe remembered something else, and he curled his legs up to his belly to stave off the pain. It was the moment he hadn’t been able to get his mind around, right when it happened. The Indians had retreated, and the new officer in charge proclaimed victory. Joe had been standing there with his brothers were on either side of him. Even in that field of death, they hadn’t left him. Not even for a moment. But there was someone else who’d been hiding nearby. He’d been left behind in the desperate retreat. He was small and slight, still growing into a man and easy to disregard. But he had a gun, and it still had a bullet. They met each other’s eyes at the same time. It was what war came down to, to kill or die. How strange to try to kill someone you’d never met before – someone you had nothing against personally. It wasn’t a choice, not really. The Indian boy lifted his gun just as Joe raised his own. They fired at the same time.
Joe was retching. Hoss held the basin underneath him, keeping his hand on his little brother’s leg until he was done.
“I shouldn’t have brought him here, Little Joe,” Hoss was apologizing miserably. “I just didn’t know what to do. Can’t explain it none. It happened so dang fast, and I couldn’t stop thinking that you wanted me to save him too.”
Joe smiled at his big brother, at all his brothers. He wanted to let him know that it was all right, but he didn’t have the words to explain it. Typical Hoss – making right from wrong. Adam’s shoulders were shaking. It took love to die well, but it also took love to live. It was what always saved them.
“Brother,” Joe whispered affectionately and reached for Hoss’s arm. It was the only word he could manage, but it seemed to make both of his brothers feel better. Even Adam looked comforted, even though he was obviously weary to the bone. For the first time, Joe noticed that Adam’s head was bleeding. They were all paying the price for this war.
The young Indian’s eyes flew open at the word. He bit back a moan and studied Joe with the same knowing look he’d had out on the field. The boy was in pain. His wound wasn’t as bad as Joe’s but it was bad enough. He gasped with it, but he seemed to gather himself, strangely unafraid. Then he smiled at Joe from his side of the room. He remembered too. Joe almost smiled back, before he closed his eyes. His eyelids were so heavy, and pain and laudanum were competing with each other for his attention. He knew his brothers were worried, but they didn’t need to be. He’d learned something that day. Underneath the dead lay a field of flowers.
Joe was seventeen, and he had always believed that dying in war meant dying well. He’d gotten it wrong and right at the same time. A hero’s death was still death. There were some things that were worth dying for, and it wasn’t always meaningless, but life was better. Pa was right to call war a damnable waste. In the morning, Joe hoped he’d remember to tell his brothers why. It was a lesson to hang a life on, and most didn’t get a second chance. As he had known all his life, Joseph Cartwright was an unusually blessed boy.
But for now, Joe was riding. He could keep riding until morning. They could leave the war and its worries far behind. Clouds glazed the black sky, but the moon showed the way. He was riding at a dead run with the Indian boy beside him. The beat of hooves sounded like distant thunder. They were neck in neck, riding like the wind. As they came to the turn, they were laughing out loud.
Other Stories by this Author
- The Last Time I was Dying (by DBird)
- Good Advice from a Shotgun Father (by DBird)
- Slack Reins (by DBird)
- Along the Truckee (by DBird)
- Aftermath (by DBird)