Summary: Ben and Hoss try to rescue Adam and Joe in the aftermath of a deadly flood.
Rated: K+ WC 24,000
A Different Kind of River
I reached for him, before the wall of water bore down on us. It surged from the mountains, raging down along the crags and ravines. Our lives as we knew it were changing before I had time to blink. I should have known better. All the signs pointed to danger, but I thought I was in control of the situation. In the end, the river always gets its way.
The current knocked him off his feet first, and I threw myself on him, grabbing onto whatever my fingers could find. Somehow my fingers caught onto his collar, as we were washed away from the bank by the most powerful force I’d ever felt. It hurled us into a rock, Joe hitting his head hard on its edge, before forcing us on. The river was cold and ruthless and didn’t care less about the two of us. Miraculously, my fingers still clung to my brother’s collar, and I held on for his life and mine. A “death grip” the old timers called it, but I couldn’t hang on much longer.
The water kept pushing me under, but I fought it, struggling for every breath I could get. If I’d ever known how to swim, I must have forgotten, because the rapids were taking me with it. I wasn’t even sure which way was up any more. Up was down, and down was twisting and turning me around. The sheer force and coldness of the water robbed my mind of all perspective. Everything was gray. Rare glimpses of sky were the same color as the rolling river.
I couldn’t hold my breath much longer, and more importantly, I couldn’t hold Joe. I surfaced and gulped another life-giving mouthful of air before going under one last time. The edges of the world began to darken, and I knew it was almost over. Just as I started to let go of my brother, we slammed into a thicket of branches and debris that had piled up by the shore. Sticks and logs shredded my shirt even as they held fast. Pain arced up and down my back, and blood flowed down Joe’s face. I couldn’t let go of him enough to see if he was okay. The bank wasn’t too far away, and could barely make contact with the riverbed floor, but I didn’t know what to do next. Doc Martin would have called it shock, but my thinking felt disjointed and unreal. Even as the water roared around us, I dimly felt foolish wearing a brand new shirt to a flood.
I’d kept a hold on Joe’s jacket, but his face kept dipping underneath the water. I had to get a better hold on him, if I was going to keep him from going under. Carefully letting go of the dam, I secured one arm around his waist and kept a hold on his collar with the other, desperately trying to keep his face above water. It was all I could think about. My mind and body were going numb, but one thought rose above all the others. I’d promised Pa I’d always look after my little brother.
“Keep him out of trouble.” It had been the litany of my life after my youngest brother was born.
“Don’t I always?” I’d always replied, and my father and I would smile at each other, knowing such a simple request was easier said than done.
This time, it was different. Our situation was all my fault, but I’d gotten one thing right. Just before the flood caught us, I’d made him fasten his jacket because he looked so cold. Without it buttoned, he’d have slipped out of it when I grabbed him, and his body would have been battered against the rocks downstream. Little decisions made all the difference. Tributaries could branch in many directions. Life or Death. I wasn’t sure of myself any more. We could go either way. I’d had lots of experiences with floods, but this was a different kind of river.
Time felt distorted. I was cold and confused, and my mind and body were deadened to the situation we was in. Creation was going backwards. The earth was returning to sky and water. I was going with it. And wherever I was going, I was taking my brother right along with me. The only reason I remembered to breathe was for the fistful of jacket I held in my hands and the dead weight I was keeping afloat. I wondered that my arms didn’t snap from the strain. I could feel every bone in my body.
There wasn’t much left of my thinking. My life came down to this. My prospects, my good health, my excellent education. All were reduced to four simple words that I repeated again and again like a mantra:
Breathe and hold on.
Easier said than done. It was only water, but it was going to kill us before Pa and Hoss had a chance to saddle their horses. Before they realized we were gone.
Another swell billowed over us, flooding into my mouth and nose. Coughing up water and bile, I wondered how I could still be breathing. Not thinking right, I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be doing, and my arms had gone completely numb. I was on the verge of letting go of every burden, when I opened my eyes and saw his face. Lips blue, eyes closed, I couldn’t tell if he was living or dead. But I remembered why I needed to stay alive. My error in judgment brought us to this place. I owed it to my kid brother. I couldn’t take the easy way out. I decided right then and there that I was going to save him. I wouldn’t allow myself to fail.
I would have to remember how to live for both of us.
I’d never thought much about dying. I’d flirted with danger enough that it should have crossed my mind. Truth be told, I always thought dying was for people with too much time on their hands. That wasn’t going to be me. No sir – the way I figured it, when I died, I’d be too busy to notice.
The reverend in Virginia City used to preach that a thin line separated life and death. I’d always figured he was right – imagined it was like the cliff at Diablo Falls. You could get as close to the edge as you wanted, but go too far and nobody was going to tell you to be more careful next time. I never knew death was really like a river. That you could cross over and still look back from the other side.
Folks who talked a lot about dying had obviously never done it before.
When the first wave of water hit, I felt Adam’s hand grabbing me before the current took us. I was a good enough swimmer, but the undertow drove me down and forward. I saw the rock before I could do anything about it, and crashed into it sideways, hitting my head hard. That’s how I learned it – the truth about being alive or dead.
Dying wasn’t a bit like slipping peacefully over a line. It was a rough and violent ride, kind of like being born. It thrashed you around first before bucking you off on either side of it. Battered like that, I never had time to think about it. No time to look back at my life. I was dying, and I knew it. I couldn’t feel much of anything, just the pressure in my chest building and the feeling that there was somewhere else I was supposed to be. Then all at once, it was over. There was pounding on my back, and I was back where I started.
My eyes flew open into a roaring train of confusion and water. Adam was yelling in my ear and pounding on me, but I couldn’t see or make sense of it. Into the bubbling torrent, I retched again and again, held up by the grace of God and my big brother.
“That’s it, Joe” he was shouting. “Breathe! Hold on!”
It seemed like I should do what he said- he seemed to want it so badly – but the whole world was so wet and cold, I couldn’t make any sense of it. My head and body screamed with pain, and I could taste blood and bile in my mouth. I tried to say something, but another swell rushed over our heads, and I found myself coughing instead of talking. The pressure around my ribs tightened, and that’s how I realized why I wasn’t dead.
Adam was holding onto me so hard it hurt.
“We need to get to shore,” he kept yelling again and again.
I could hear what he was saying, even over the roaring, but I couldn’t understand what he wanted me to do about it. Still coughing and wheezing every time I tried to take in air, I kept gulping water instead. It tasted brackish, like a sickness, and I could feel it filling my body. I could hardly tell which way was up, why we were wet and cold, and how Adam was keeping the water from taking us with it. I was so confused, and it seemed like he was doing some kind of miracle. My big brother holding back the river like Moses, with walls of water roaring past us on either side.
“Grab on to my neck,” he yelled, and I wanted to, but my arms were so numb they didn’t work anymore.
I could tell he was frustrated, and I heard him swear. Suddenly, his grip loosened, and for a moment I thought I was going under. But he was just trying to get a better hold on me, and I surfaced almost immediately. Forcing my eyes open in the wild spray, I caught a glimpse of my brother’s face. He wasn’t looking at me; he was looking off to the side, and he had that determined look I’d always known. I wished I could make it up to him. He wanted so badly to save us, and I didn’t want him to be disappointed.
As I closed my eyes again, I caught a glimpse of my hands. Pale and blue veined, they looked like the underbelly of a flounder. This can’t be good, I thought to myself, but couldn’t have said it. Shock and darkness were settling in. I fought it by remembering the boat we’d brought with us. We were going to use it to look for survivors from the river settlements, but Adam wanted to scout around first. Still tied on our rig, the small boat was as useless as dry bones. For once, I’d been right. Strange as it seemed, I didn’t think I’d be lording it over my big brother any time soon.
“Don’t even think about it, Joe!” Adam was yelling into my peaceful darkness. “The dam isn’t holding- I need you to help me!”
I wanted to help him, I really did. But, I was getting confused again and started to feel warm, like I could simply fall asleep right then and there.
Adam was yelling. He sounded mad as all get out at me, like he couldn’t believe I had the nerve to even think about leaving. Sorry brother, I wanted to say. Sometimes, you have a choice and sometimes you don’t. My life was branching away from his, and I wondered if the river was going to claim me.
I believe that a crisis tells you a lot about a man. Throughout my life, I’d managed to keep my head while others panicked. It was something that I’d found true, time and time again. It was the fruit of a lifetime of discipline. Practicing what you preach. Well, I’m sorry self control only takes a man so far.
The primal drive to survive and to save what is yours has to take you the rest of the way.
I admit I came close to panic when Joe stopped breathing. Immediately, I knew what was happening. I was losing him. He’d been shivering so violently I could barely hold him, and then at once he was suddenly and inexorably still. I felt him take one haggard breath, and that was it. He didn’t take another.
That’s when I panicked, swearing at him with every big-brother threat I could think of. Taking a whale of a risk, I let go of the log, bracing the two of us completely with my back, my feet wedged into the floor of the river. I could feel every muscle in my body tremble in protest. With every bit of strength I had, I pounded my brother between his shoulder blades, until finally he coughed violently, spewing muddy water and silt back into the river. When I heard him gasp for air, I could have cried, but I didn’t have any time for that. I grabbed hold of the log, just as my foothold gave way.
I could hear the tree trunk creaking and straining against the relentless course of the river. Our barricade resisted and lurched forward a few feet, before holding again. With determination, I stared at the shore. We weren’t all that far away, and my feet could touch the bottom. If I’d been alone, I could have easily made it over, just by pulling myself to safety along the log.
Again, I stole a glance at my brother. I didn’t like what I saw. He was breathing, but his hold on life was tenuous at best. I had to stop looking at Little Joe. There was nothing I could do for him until I could get him to solid ground. There was no way I was going to allow him to die. But first I had to force myself to stay calm and assess the situation.
For the first time, I took a good look at the dam that was protecting us from the river. It might have been our salvation, but it sure wasn’t much. A tree had blown over in the storm and toppled half way across the river, snagging debris from the flood. Branches and sticks, silt and refuse from the hydraulic mines farther up in the foothills – Joe and I were nothing more than flood debris washed up against that makeshift dam. It wasn’t going to hold much longer. Water always had its way; any kid growing up by a river could tell you that. We didn’t have a lot of time.
I knew what I had to do. Somehow, I would have to climb onto the log, haul Joe up with me, and drag him to the shore. Alone, I certainly could have pulled it off, but my arms were strained to exhaustion just holding my brother above the surface. Making it across with him would be difficult, to say the least. However, I didn’t have a choice. If I let go of him, he would slip under the water like a stone.
“Over my dead body.”
Had I really said that out loud? How many times had I sworn that as a kid? I never knew what it meant before. We didn’t have much to lose but we didn’t have much to gain either. Not great odds, but Joe would have gone all in, anyway.
Borrowing some of my kid brother’s bravado, I reached back and groped until I found a sturdy branch to hold onto. Still holding onto Joe, I scrambled to find some footing among the thicket of debris. Finally, I found a foothold that didn’t budge when I put my weight on it. It was now or never. Glad I was with Little Joe and not Hoss, I struggled to get a better grip on his body, hoisting him higher on my chest. I could feel his labored breathing against me. It wasn’t much, but I’d take anything I could get.
With Joe against my chest, I pushed up with my legs and pulled both of us up with my arm. With strength born from absolute desperation, I heaved my brother onto the log.
I don’t think I had ever been so exhausted in my life. For a moment, I didn’t think I had the strength to keep going on. With everything I had, still holding onto Joe, I scrambled up onto the log beside him. Gasping for air, my chest felt like it was going to burst. I lay prone on top of the dam, one hand still keeping a hold on my brother. The log groaned and swayed under us. We were finally out of the water, but I had no idea how I was going to drag us across. Like busting a bronc, I tried to tell myself, not bothering with the fact that I’d vowed to leave bronc-busting to my little brother. The bark had shredded what was left of my clothing and I could feel blood trickling down from dozens of cuts and abrasions. I hazarded a glance at Joe. Out of the water, blood flowed down his face, his neck, and was soaking through what was left of his jacket. We were both shivering violently. We needed to get to shore.
I knew I was hurting my brother, but I had no choice. Heaving Joe onto my back, I started to crawl, dragging him with me. Dire necessity was definitely the mother of desperation. My hands and knees were raw and splintered, and I didn’t even want to think about Joe. He’d lost one of his boots in the river and the top of his foot was rapidly being rubbed raw. I kept going. I almost thought we were going to make it, when I heard an ominous crack and groan above the roaring river.
The tree trunk that had become our lifeline was about to give. I wasn’t going to be able to save either of us. A whispered, “sorry” to my father was all I had time to give.
Sheriff Coffee had no call to lock up Pa. I could understand why he did, but a man had a right to defend his own. The doc said Old Larsen would be up and about in no time, so I know Pa couldn’t have hit him all that hard. But Roy didn’t care about that. Said the damage was done, and he had no choice but lock Pa up until the circuit judge was in town to hear the charges. Earl Larsen’s nose might have got broken, but the man was slicker than a greased eel, and I wouldn’t have put it past him if he planned the whole thing.
That’s how it came down to me having to take care of things by myself. It was something I never saw myself doing before, breaking the law to obey my pa. But that was exactly how it happened.
“Find your brothers,” he whispered to me. He was leaning as far forward as he could, but the bars kept him from coming any closer.
“But Pa,” I started to protest. “You heard what the sheriff said. He said he’d shoot us down himself if we trespassed into Larsen’s Crossing.”
“He won’t,” Pa said, keeping his voice low and steady. “But Larsen’s men might, and you’re not going to let them. Your brothers are in trouble, Hoss, I can feel it in my bones. Larsen said he found their rig above the worst of the flooded area. Said their boat was still tied to the top, with no signs of life anywhere around. That whole area is a disaster right now, and I don’t doubt your brothers are somehow in the middle of it. Find them. Find them, and bring them home.”
I sighed and leaned against the wall of the jail. It had been hours since Larsen told us he found the rig, but wouldn’t let us go looking for them on his property. Hours since Pa had decked him with a fine uppercut that would have made my brothers proud. It had been even longer since I’d eaten, and I felt as empty inside as a gutted steer. But there was no arguing with Pa once his mind was made up, and I reckoned he was right. Something had happened to them. Neither would have left their horses tied to their rig like that and the fact that the boat was still lashed to the top meant that they hadn’t got around to what they were intending. Now, anyone who knows anything about my brothers knows that Adam always has something in mind and Little Joe would never let him forget it. Folks think that Joe’s the stubborn one, but it’s only because Adam’s better at hiding what he’s thinking. Something had happened to them, and according to Larsen, we had no right to find out what it was.
Still raining outside, it was mighty uncomfortable in Roy’s jail, almost like it was steaming inside. Rain, rain, rain. For months, we’d had nothing but rain and all the trouble that came with it. The rainfall had started in early spring, coming after the worst winter snowfall the old timers could remember. Too much snow melted too fast and kept on melting clear into early summer. From that came the worst mudslides and flooding we’d ever seen during our time on the Ponderosa. We heard stories of wiped-out mining camps around Placerville and entire river settlements that had been carried away. It was even worse than that down in the valleys. Word came that an entire settlement had been washed away by the latest bout of flooding. Women and little ones mostly, who’d stayed to wait out the winter, while their men went ahead to scout out better farming land. We’d met some of them when they was passing through the Ponderosa. It grieved me something fierce, just to think about the look of hope on their faces.
Anybody else would call it a tragedy and leave it at that, but not my brother, Adam. He’d been as touchy as a teased snake since the rains began. Larsen had been doing hydraulic mining in a section of land that rose up right around the river and higher up the mountain, land that was not that far from the Ponderosa. Pa and Adam were fit to be tied, saying that hydraulic mining could ruin land that went way beyond Larsen’s property. We started seeing signs of it right off. Ravines worn clean of growth, rivers filled with silt, dead fish and wildlife all the way downstream. Larsen might have gotten his gold, but he was robbing God’s good creation to get it.
Adam was sure that the mining made the flooding worse, a whole lot worse, and he was probably right. The rain and runoff just poured down the gutted mountain and into rivers already filled to the brim with silt. All that water had no place to go. And everyone knows that’s how flooding begins.
When we got word about the floods from settlers who’d managed to escape, Adam wanted to get out there right away. We’d have to cross onto Larsen’s property to get at them. We were itching to get there, to see who we could save, but we’d be trespassing, and everyone knew how Old Larsen felt about trespassers.
“Shoot ‘em on sight.” That’s what he was like to say. Larsen was all gurgle and no guts, but he had hired guns behind him, and they were paid well to watch his back.
Pa went to Larsen anyways. We were behind him. None of us trusted Larsen as far as we could spit. The three of us didn’t cotton to asking nothing of a weasel like Ol Larsen. But Pa asked if he could cross his land to look for survivors. And sure as shooting, Larsen said no. Simple as that. With all those barrels pointed at our heads, we didn’t have much choice but to turn tail. Pa said we’d go to the sheriff instead.
“Pa, we don’t have time for that,” Adam said. “There are lives in the balance. Women and children… We’ve got to get down there right away.”
“We have no choice,” Pa answered. “You boys listen to me. We’re going to handle this lawfully. Roy will see to it that a rescue party is sent.”
“By then it will be too late,” Adam insisted, and I reckoned he was right. Any survivors out there would be past saving. If there was hope of finding anyone alive, we’d have to get in there and soon.
However, crossing over and taking Larsen’s road could lead to a bloodbath. The whine of a bullet spoke a real clear language. That’s what Pa knew and why he said no. Said he and I would go into town and get Roy. Adam and Little Joe would stay behind and get supplies ready at the ranch.
Everyone knows how Pa is when he gets set to something. Once his mind’s made up, there’s no point in trying to take it further. Most folks wouldn’t even try. But my older brother is a different story. Now, normally he’d come right back at Pa and have it out with him, before the rest of us knew what to think next. But this time was different.
Adam got real quiet, with a funny far away look like he was thinking. Then I saw it: the look he gave Joe. My little brother knew what it meant. I could tell by the way Joe’s leg started bouncing up an’ down, like a jackrabbit. As soon as he knew there was gonna be a plan, he was ready. Little Joe would never say no to a challenge, and if big brother Adam was the one doing the challenging, that was even better. I knew what they were gonna do, even though I didn’t say anything to Pa at the time. I went off with Pa to fetch the sheriff, looking hard at Adam before I rode off. I didn’t hear nothing about them again, until Larsen and his men rode into town, complaining that he found a Cartwright rig on his property.
Now, looking back on it, I wish that I’d said something. I wanted to save the lives of those settlers same as my brothers. It didn’t take a fool to know that it was probably too late. A flood does what it will faster than lightning hangs fire. My brothers were in trouble. As far as I knew, they were already dead.
I looked at Pa, and through the bars, I reached for his shoulder.
“I’ll find them, Pa,” I said.
“I know you will, boy,” he said. “Bring them home.”
I tipped my hat to my pa and left him praying in the jail.
I awoke to the sound of water.
Disoriented at first, I couldn’t remember where I was or what had happened. My chest constricted like a drowning man, and every breath felt like a fight. I flung my arms to either side and was relieved beyond words to have them hit dry ground. I had never been so glad that man was created out of dust and not water.
My mind wasn’t working right and neither was my body. I couldn’t open my eyes in the glaring sunlight. Crusted with silt and river muck, they felt like they were sealed shut. I rubbed and rubbed at them, almost trying to pry them open. Slowly, inexorably, I opened them, squinting into brightness that was too dazzling for its own good. I shut them quickly again.
As though my mind was bloated, my thoughts seemed to be floating around. I lay on my back, remembering random tasks that were waiting for me: My horse needed to be shod the next time I was in town. Hoss’ birthday was coming up. I would have to think about a gift soon so there would be time to place an order. Pa needed help with the new timber contract. I was supposed to look over it to see if the numbers added up enough to make it worth it. And Joe…? There was something about Joe, but I couldn’t remember what it was. I had an overwhelming feeling of responsibility when I thought about my kid brother, but that was nothing new. This was different though. I couldn’t even remember where I’d left him.
The amnesia didn’t last long. Time was so distorted that it probably didn’t last a minute. The memory came back with sickening clarity. With it, the queasiness in my gut bloomed into nausea. I turned aside and retched again and again, as though trying to rid myself of the river once and for all.
I remembered how I had managed to live.
I remembered being on the log. Every drama comes with a turning point, but ours had come so quickly there hadn’t been time to think about it. The log had groaned and cracked, while water sprayed into my face and mouth. There was no time to be careful. No time at all. Still a terrible weight on my back, my brother was probably dying. He needed to be handled carefully, but I had no choice. Shifting him off my back, I straddled the log with him in my arms. I’m not sure how I did it. We were only a few feet from the bank but it felt like a mile. With every ounce of strength left to me, I flung my little brother almost savagely to the shore. With a sickening thud he landed, his face above water and his bare feet dragging in the current. Dimly, it occurred to me that he had lost his other boot.
It took everything I had, and I almost gave in to the exhaustion. For a moment, I was tempted to just lie down on the log and close my eyes. It wasn’t rational, but I was too tired to think straight. My little brother was on solid ground, and I wanted that to be good enough. I wanted my job to end.
Just then, the log really began to give. I heard a crack and then it was over. With no more warning, the log just about broke in half, ricocheting violently against the steep bank. It was such a surprise that I almost didn’t react in time. However, the instinct to survive kicked in at exactly the right moment and I let go of the log, grabbing onto handfuls of reeds on the bank. The log that had saved us snapped free from its roots and slipped out from under me. Looking over my shoulder, I saw it disappear around the curve in the foamy silt-strewn river.
I was barely out of the water. My feet were still completely submerged as I clung to the bank. I could see Joe. He was lying to the side, his face turned away, his hand outstretched toward me. It looked like my kid brother was beckoning me, but whether it was to life or death, I couldn’t say. I just knew that I’d have to follow. I wasn’t going anywhere without him.
Each second was an eternity, but I did what I needed to. I groped and grappled and scrambled, slipping with every foothold I tried to gain. I could have let go at any moment. Finally, covered with mud and river slime, I pulled myself onto firm ground. There was no way I could have gone any further. But I had something left to do. I crawled to Joe and pulled him all the way out of the river. And I closed my eyes.
I couldn’t know how long I’d slept but prayed that it wasn’t too long. Rolling onto my belly, I forced myself to open my eyes. Swollen and raw, my eyes barely opened, but slowly my vision came into focus. I was lying in a wilderness of green reeds and absurdly cheerful wildflowers. The ground was sodden from the recent rain, but the sun was shining and felt warm on my back. The storm had passed, it was a ridiculously perfect summer day, and I had barely survived it.
Pushing aside the reeds, I tried to look around. I couldn’t find him. I had absolutely no idea where he was anymore. The whole world seemed like it had been spinning the whole time I was out. The only thing I could keep in perspective was the solid ground underneath me. I had no desire to ever leave it again again. Thinking of the swell of the water made my stomach turn and I was almost sick again, but I fought it off. I had to find my brother. Whatever came of it, I needed to know what happened.
Still on my belly, I tried to turn myself around. And then I saw Little Joe. He was right next to me, but I was so confused, he seemed like he could have been across the river. I saw his hand, still in the same outstretched position as before. While I must had turned and rolled in my sleep, he looked like he hadn’t moved at all. With everything I had, I reached and caught my breath as I touched his hand.
He was cold, so very cold…
The afternoon passed quicker than it had a right to. There were only a few hours of daylight left, and it looked to be a mighty cold night. I’d brought my coat and had bought two others in town at the mercantile just in case my brothers might need them. I was sure Adam would have remembered his, but Little Joe was always running off and getting cold later. He was harder to keep track of than a new pony running circles without a bridle.
Once when Joe was especially late, Pa said, “It would be a whole lot easier if we could just put a tag on him and ship him when we needed him to get somewhere.”
Adam had answered, “Wouldn’t help, Pa… he’d still get lost in transit.”
We’d all laughed, but I was dang sure they were both right. I was glad my little brother had Adam along for whatever mess they’d gotten themselves into.
Every time I thought about my brothers, I started piling new worries on top of old ones. Don’t borrow trouble, Pa always said, but I noticed he didn’t say it at the jail where I left him. He and I felt the same about this. Something bad had happened to Adam and Little Joe. I knew it as surely as if they’d left blood on their saddles. All we had to go by was the wagon they left behind, but it told a story.
Larsen brought the rig into town when he came to complain to the sheriff about trespassers. He said the horses were still hitched to the wagon, hungry and thirsty, when he found them. It looked like they’d been there for some time. That was all I needed to know. My brothers were in trouble. We’d all been taught the same thing: Before anything else, a man takes care of livestock. There’s no way my brothers would leave their horses for long. Larsen’s word didn’t mean more to me than corral dust, but he had no reason to lie about the horses.
The boat was still tied on top. I recognized it right off. It was the little dinghy we kept at the shanty by the lake. We always said it was for emergencies, but truth be told, sometimes we just liked to take it out on the lake. There was no good reason for it to be left behind. Since my brothers were looking for folks that had survived the flood, they would have taken it with them. It had been raining something fierce when they left. That would have made them hurry even more.
Little Joe might have left without the boat, but Adam wanted to look for those settlers. When my older brother got his mind fixed on something, he didn’t forget it. There was no way around it. I tried to think like Adam. The thing had been his idea. I’m sure Pa knew it. He’d seen what passed between the three of us and had let it go. I have no idea why he didn’t put a stop to it. Looking back, I wished he did. I know I wished I stopped them. Even more, I wished I’d gone with them. I missed their company something fierce, riding through that backcountry. I’d never been at my best playing with a lone hand.
It was a long way to the settlements by the river, and I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for. The rain was gone, and it was so quiet out there, you could almost hear nightfall coming. I couldn’t take the cattle road that would have been the quickest way. I couldn’t even take the old mining road that Adam and Joe had taken. Larsen’s men would be all over that road, keeping watch for more trespassers. That left the back country, and it was slow going, heavily treed and thick with undergrowth. I was leading my brothers’ horses, with the hope that they’d be needed, and I couldn’t ride as fast as I’d have liked to.
The sun was low in the sky by the time I reached the far side of the Ponderosa. I’d been riding for some time. My canteen was running low, and I needed to water the horses. So I headed towards a nice little creek that ran through the valley. It had been a year since I’d been out there. We didn’t get there often. Didn’t need to. It wasn’t the best land for grazing and didn’t have much to offer for timber. But it was our land, and I knew every inch of it. When I reached the creek, I knew something was wrong.
The creek was dried up. Dried up, in the wettest summer we’d ever had. I’d never known that creek to be dry even during drought years. It branched into another stream that we used to water our herd on a drive. I swung off my horse. The ground felt spongy underneath the pine needles. The creek should have been flowing from all the rain, but the pebbles in the creek bed were already drying in the sun.
It made no sense. It was a mystery and a serious one at that. If there was a problem with water we needed to know about it right away. We’d be driving a herd of cattle through to Sacramento in the fall, and we’d be in a fix without a way to water them. I looked back at where I’d come from. To figure out what was going on, I’d have to ride upstream, back into the Ponderosa. I just couldn’t do it. My brothers were waiting, and I needed to find them. Water was a serious business that needed looking into, but my brothers needed me more.
As I swung back into the saddle, I couldn’t help the feeling that I might already be too late. I frowned again at the dry creek and flicked the reins. The horses and I were thirsty, and we set off at an easy lope, looking for water. When I found it, I was right sure I’d find my brothers with it…
During the moment I believed my brother was dead, I thought of Pa first.
I thought of the grief my father had known during his life and how he’d managed to survive it, leaning on the three of us. I remembered the way he’d used Joe as a lifeline to pull himself out of his mourning for Marie and how Hoss and I knew to let him do it. Little Joe had been a handful as a boy, small for his age, but able to hold his own. His childhood had been so different from mine. Looking back on my own, I could say that it was over before I knew I had one. Pa needed me at his side, and I was proud to be there. To a degree, it was the same thing for Hoss. We helped Pa build his dream, and it built us up into men.
Joe’s boyhood had been a tangle of mishaps, dramas, and emotions gone wild. He flung himself into his youth and stayed longer than I would have dared. Pa encouraged him, more than I thought wise, but I understood why he did it. Joe kept Pa young after Marie died, and over a dozen years later, Pa stayed young to keep up with my little brother. We all spoiled him – kept him a boy longer than we should. I told Pa again and again that I believed it was a mistake. Our indulgence would get him killed. Little Joe needed to grow up sometime.
And as I touched my brother’s cold, cold hand, I was touched by the irony that it had been my foolishness, not Joe’s, that had done it.
It was only a moment – a terrible, interminable moment – but then I felt it. Barely a flicker – the smallest glimmer of life – but I felt his hand move against mine. A poor excuse for hope, but I’d take what I could get.
I pulled myself up and crouched beside him. I tried not to look at his face. It was covered with mud and blood and deathly pale beneath it. I groped for any other sign of life. Finally, I found a pulse, weak and erratic. But it was a pulse nonetheless, my brother was alive, and I allowed myself to collapse next to him. Relief and guilt flooded over me, in equal measure, but I fought them off. I didn’t have time for the luxury of feeling sorry for myself. Joe might have been alive, but it wasn’t by much. Our time was running out quickly.
I looked around, trying to get my bearings. I’d been unconscious for some time. The sun was almost setting. The day was passing by, which meant I’d let hours get away that we couldn’t afford to lose. Joe wouldn’t survive the night. Of that much I was certain. We’d come downstream a long way, and we were even further from our supplies.
I bent over Joe, reaching for his hands and rubbing them vigorously between mine. I tried to concentrate on getting him warm, but I couldn’t get my mind around what had happened to us. The flood had happened so quickly. I’d seen my share of flash floods, but had never been trapped in the middle of one. Joe’s hands were so cold between mine. I wished I could harness the fading sun to get him warm again. I wished for a Biblical moment – that the sun would simply stand still in the sky and grant us a few more hours of a warm afternoon. I reached for his arms, rubbing them so hard I could have left bruises if he had any skin that wasn’t already battered.
“Joe,” I hissed at him, hoping I sounded angry. “Wake up, and I’ll tell you that you were right.”
And of course he was right. I was unable to explain how I’d let everything go so wrong…
We had pulled over in the wagon, because I felt we were at the right place. I usually took my time about that sort of thing, but it felt right. I was sure we were close to the settlement, and I wanted to scout around before taking the time to unload the rig. Joe thought we needed to go further and wanted to bring the boat down to the river. I disagreed and when he kept arguing, I ignored him and started walking by myself. I could still hear him, hollering at me by the side of the wagon. I wish to God he’d stayed there. However, my kid brother followed like he always did, running to catch up, and calling me names I would have decked him for if I’d had the time.
We walked downstream along the river a few miles, Joe complaining the whole time about going back for the boat and supplies. I kept telling him we would find them, just a little bit further. The river was high, higher than we’d ever seen it. By the time the storm came in, we were already pretty far downstream. The rain poured down all at once, like the heavens were turning against us.
Joe shouted at me, “We need to go back!”
I shook my head and kept moving. Dripping and wet, we plodded through the muck by the side of the river. The water continued to rise, but I wanted to keep going. I was sure we were almost there. I started walking faster, slipping once and almost falling. I could hear Joe hollering at me from behind. I pretended not to hear him and kept moving. Then he grabbed my arm.
Little Joe said quietly, “Adam, if this river floods again, we’re not going to find any survivors.”
He was right, but I wasn’t ready to admit it. I’d seen a lot of tragedy meet up with plenty of good people, but for some reason, I was determined to do something to prevent this one. Hoss and I’d met the settlers when they crossed the Ponderosa on their way to a better life. We had supper with them, sharing hardtack and beans, and offered to supply them with enough provisions to finish the rest of their journey. We warned them not to cross Larsen’s land and not to camp by the river, but they were set on it. They desperately wanted to be down the mountain before winter set in.
These were honest, hard-working people who’d come a long way. I held one little girl on my lap, a pretty little thing with golden plaited hair and a skinned knee, and listened to her tell Hoss stories about the farm she was going to live on someday. He helped her plan it and by the time we were ready to go, the two of them had already raised flocks of chickens and herds of goats together in their imagination. I’d traveled across the plains with my father to find a home and I wanted those families to do the same. So even as the river was rising, I wanted to reach that little girl and her family. I wanted to save them. I was so sure we had time.
“Just a little further,” I insisted to Joe. “We’ve got to be near their camp. We’re at the edge of Larsen’s land. I heard they camped at the bend where the water’s the calmest.”
Joe stood beside me. He looked wet and miserable. We’d had to keep climbing higher on the bank because the water level was rising precipitously. He shook his head, and for once, he looked a lot older than seventeen.
“Adam,” he said, gently. “Look at the river. It’s never been this high before. That camp’s not there any more. Chances are it hasn’t been there for a couple days, since the flooding began.”
“If that’s so, I aim to find out,” I said simply enough and turned from him. I continued sloshing forward, not bothering to check if he was following.
“Can we go back for the boat at least?” Joe called out to me, his voice laced with exasperation.
“The river’s too wild to use it,” I called back. “We couldn’t navigate through the rocks. Let’s just climb a little higher. We can still see from higher on the bank.”
I didn’t look back but I knew Joe was following me. It was both the blessing and the curse of being the oldest – my younger brothers always assumed I knew where I was going. I made the mistake of falling for it myself. I should have known better.
I heard Little Joe shouting my name before I heard the river. Like a steam engine, the roar was louder than anything I’d have expected. The wall of it came upon us. And the water took us with it…
I shook my head as if to push the memory away. I had no time for it.
Glancing down at my brother again, I took stock of our situation. The sun was still warm in the sky. What was left of our clothing was already drying. Joe’s pants hung on him in shreds. He had no boots, and his shirt and jacket were badly torn. His skin was still cold to the touch despite the fact I’d been trying to get him warm for several minutes. With frustration, I looked around for pine needles, leaves, anything I could use to cover him, but everything was still wet. Joe was breathing, shallow, raspy intakes of breath, but breathing all the same. I didn’t know how much of the river he’d swallowed, but that brackish water was a serious threat. I continued working with his hands, chafing them between mine, trying to restore some circulation.
“Joe,” I said, with a lot more confidence than I felt. “You’ve got to wake up now. We’re late. Pa’s going to have your hide if you sleep much longer.”
I continued like that, trying to rub warmth back into him and threatening him with Pa’s wrath if he dared to stop living. After several minutes, my efforts were finally rewarded. Little Joe groaned and tried to roll away from me. Although he never opened his eyes, I felt like I’d been handed a gift. A second chance, as it were, and I wasn’t about to hand it back.
I closed my eyes with exhausted relief. My ears were filled with water; everything sounded murky and far away. All my senses were wrong somehow, and it felt good to take a moment’s break from it all.
However, all the water in the river couldn’t have prevented me from hearing what came next. Over the engine of the running water, I heard the hammer of a six-shooter being cocked.
A voice, calm and business-like, spoke quietly in my ear. “Just keep those eyes closed, Cartwright, or we’ll have to shoot both of you. Guess you two didn’t drown after all.”
My brothers always said that I was the luckiest fellow they’d ever known. For the number of times I’d come close to getting myself killed, I should have been plumb out of second chances. Pa said there was no such thing as luck. He said that luck simply meant that God was choosing to go anonymous. Either way- call it luck or Providence – I had enjoyed more than my fair share.
It was one heap of a miracle that I didn’t die in that river. However, it took a while for me to find my way back. Time was stretched out and twisted and finally punched down like bread dough. I couldn’t keep track of it anymore. For a while, I felt nothing, and that was sweet and easy – a fine ride. Better than any medicine Doc Martin could dole out. That didn’t last long. Pressure started building up in my chest, cinching in until I gasped with it. It hurt to breathe. A lot. The air was cold, but when it moved in and out of my lungs, it burned like fire. I doubt anyone would blame me for taking my time before coming back to that again.
But it was time to wake up. And that’s what I did. I’d closed my eyes to a bright torrent of water, but opened them to darkness and a night sky. I heard the clopping of horse hooves on the ground, and over that, I heard the river. I was propped up, and the world was bouncing up and down. It made no sense. I tried pushing myself up but felt the pressure around my ribs tighten, and I realized I was being held in place. My body revolted like it had been thrown by every wild-eyed bronc on the Ponderosa. Every part of me was in some kind of pain. My head hurt something fierce. Nausea welled up, and I felt like I was floating in it. I started coughing, a deep hacking cough that took everything out of me. Immediately, I felt myself propped in a sitting position.
A familiar voice was easy in my ear. “That’s it. Time to wake up for a while. You’re all right, buddy. Everything’s going to be all right. Just stay quiet and listen to me.”
“Adam?” I whispered.
I felt as weak as a kitten and couldn’t understand why. Adam settled me back beside him. I couldn’t see a thing. It was a black, moonless night, cold as an icehouse, and I could feel Adam shifting things around me, rearranging hay, and covering us both with a rough-hewn blanket. The edge of it covered my face, scratching at my nose, and I started to cough violently again.
“Hey, get your brother to stop all that coughing, or we’ll do it for you. Some of us are trying to get some sleep around here!”
It wasn’t a voice I’d heard before. In the darkness, it made no sense to me, and from the way Adam pulled in close to me, I knew I should try to follow directions. I fought off the coughing as best as I could, but I was shivering and so cold I couldn’t think straight. Adam pulled the blanket even higher, until it completely covered my face. I realized he had pulled it over his own head as well, shutting them out and the warmer air in. The air smelled like hay and horses and mildew from the river. My brother was right alongside me and tightened his arm around my shoulders when the wagon took a rough turn. Leaning in, he quietly began to tell me what I wanted to know but didn’t have the strength to ask.
“Don’t talk loud, Joe,” he whispered into my ear. “I don’t know where we’re going. I’m assuming these are Larsen’s men, but I don’t know anything else about them. They found us a few hours ago. All things considered, I was actually kind of glad to see them. If they hadn’t shown up, we might not have made it. You were getting pretty cold.”
I couldn’t imagine being any colder than I already was but didn’t tell him that. He sounded calm enough, but I could hear the worry in his voice and didn’t want to add to it.
“We were in the river,” I said. I was still pretty confused. I remembered the flood, Adam grabbing hold of me, and holding me up somehow, but the rest of it was all mixed up. “What happened?”
“We got out,” Adam said simply, and that was that.
“The settlers?” I asked. Our reason for being in the river was slowly coming back to me. My head ached worse than anything I’d ever felt, and it didn’t make my thinking come easy.
Adam was quiet for a spell and then said, “We never found them. I don’t think they could have made it. The river was pretty bad, Joe.”
I didn’t remember all of what happened before, but I did remember how Adam wanted to find those families. I stayed quiet for a spell, trying to keep myself from coughing and trying to think of something to make him feel better. But, Adam liked to hear the truth, and I didn’t have any truth that might be a comfort. I could tell I was getting sicker and sicker. The tightness in my chest was getting worse. Drowning was an awful way to die, but I might as well have been drowning in air instead of water.
“You cold?” Adam asked, keeping his voice just above a whisper.
“I’m all right,” I answered.
“Sure you are,” he said, but he scooted closer anyway.
“Adam, you need to get help,” I whispered, trying to think more clearly. “You could jump out of the wagon and hide in the brush, before they’d know you were gone. Why didn’t they tie you up, anyway?”
“They knew I wasn’t going anywhere,” he answered.
I didn’t need to see his face. I knew the stubborn look that would be there. So I told him, “I’ll be okay. I’m feeling better already. They’re probably just taking us to the sheriff for trespassing. Pa can bail us out.”
“We’re heading away from Virginia City,” Adam told me flatly. “I don’t think they’re taking us to the sheriff, Joe, and I’m not leaving you behind with them. In case you haven’t noticed, you’re not at your best right now.”
“That’s why you need to get help,” I said, frustrated that he couldn’t see it for himself. He was right about one thing. I wasn’t feeling well at all. There was no way I could take any of them on or try to escape with my brother.
“Look at it this way,” Adam said, and I was surprised to hear the smile in his voice. “We’re warmer than we were before, and we’re not drowning in a river. Things are looking up. You need to get some sleep now. I don’t know where we’re going, but there’s no telling if you’ll be able to sleep once we’re there.”
His comment struck me as funny, and I’d have laughed if I didn’t feel so bad. How many times had Adam told me to get to bed when I was a kid? Here we were, half-drowned and kidnapped for God-knows-what reason, and he was still nagging me to get my sleep! If Pa and Hoss were here, they’d be doing the same, I just knew it. It didn’t matter that I was already seventeen years old. I could be seventy and I’d still have them telling me to get my gray hair cut ridiculously short and ordering me into bed on time!
Thinking of Pa made me get serious mighty fast. It pained me to think of how worried he would be. Once Pa realized we weren’t at the ranch getting supplies, he would have figured out where we’d gone right away. He would have been awfully mad at us, and when Pa got mad, he got moving.
“Pa’s gonna come for us,” I said as quietly as I could. “I bet he and Hoss are right behind us.”
“Maybe,” Adam answered, “but we came downstream a ways. It’s going to take a while if they’re concentrating on combing the river.”
I started to ask why Pa would be combing the river, but then it hit me, and I felt sick again. I’d seen bodies after they’d been drowned and hated the thought that Pa could be thinking of us that way. Strangely, that bothered me more than the fact that we really had almost drowned.
“Hoss will be with him,” I said. “He’ll track us down. Hoss can find anything.”
“Maybe,” Adam answered, even though he didn’t sound so sure. “You need to stop talking, Little Joe. Get some sleep, or you’ll get sicker than you already are.”
“I’m not sick,” I said, starting to cough again even as I said it.
Adam let loose with a low chuckle.
“Sure, you’re just fine,” he whispered, and he punched me lightly on the arm. “Now go to sleep, before these greenhorns shoot you to keep you quiet. And if they don’t, I just might if you don’t get some rest.”
“Do you think they’re Larsen’s men?” I asked.
“Probably,” he answered. “But it just doesn’t make sense. If he’s upset about us trespassing, he’d have us shot on the spot or he’d take us in to the sheriff. I guess we’ll find out soon enough. They don’t seem to be in a real hurry to kill us, so I guess that’s the bright side. Joe, stay under the blanket, will you? I’m trying to keep you warm.”
I’d been shifting around, despite the fact that it hurt every time I moved. I couldn’t get comfortable. Every rut in the road made me sick to my stomach, and I felt hot and cold, all at the same time. It suddenly occurred to me that I was awfully thirsty. My throat was as dry as a desert, and my lips felt swollen and chapped.
“Is there any water?” I asked, knowing the answer before I’d finished the question.
“No,” Adam said, more gently than before. “But when we get wherever we’re going, I’ll make sure you get some, you hear?”
“You need it too,” I said and yawned, despite myself. “You sound tired.”
“I sound tired!” he exclaimed, as indignantly as he could under his breath, but then I heard him hesitate. “Tell you what – I’ll sleep if you sleep. Is it a deal?”
I’d have answered him, but my eyes were already closing. I could feel my fever rising and just couldn’t keep them open anymore. I knew that nothing was looking good. We were likely to be shot before daybreak, I was getting sicker every moment, and was probably well on my way to pneumonia. Yet, Pa always said to take things one moment at a time. In that moment, the wagon was warm, the darkness was deep, and I was glad that Adam was still with me.
The morning sun blazed a miserable trail across the floor of my cell. It had been an unbearably long night, and I could feel my patience wearing out like the cot in the corner. Suffice it to say, I was not very happy. I’d passed many hours with the opportunity to label my dear old friend Roy Coffee with every epithet I could imagine.
My entire arrest had been a sham from the beginning. I’d no more injured Larsen than a flea could have waylaid a bull. It was a foolish thing to do, I admit it – something I might have expected from Joseph and not from a man of my age. I also admit that it took Hoss and the sheriff together to pull me off him. Larsen had it coming, but I couldn’t help but believe that he’d planned it that way all along. In many ways it was unlike me, but deep in my heart, I knew he wasn’t the only one to blame. I could freely admit that I also blamed myself.
When Larsen came and told us he’d found a Cartwright rig stranded near the worst area of flooding, I’d known right away that Adam and Little Joe had gone after the settlers. If I was being honest with myself, I’d have admitted that I had known what they were going to do before we parted ways. I’d seen the look that passed between my boys. Since then, I’d asked myself dozens of times why I’d let it go. I’d had more than an inkling of what they were going to do. I knew my oldest all too well and knew he never gave up an idea once it had taken hold of him. But, it wasn’t that simple. Adam was right – innocent lives were in the balance. I suppose I hoped that between the sheriff and Adam’s determination to rescue those settlers, we’d find a way to save some of them. Looking back on it, I should have stopped my boys right then and there while I had the chance.
Yes, I was angry at myself. But Larsen deserved what he got. With a sneer on his face, he assured me there was no way he’d allow me on his property to look for my sons. He said he’d have had them shot if the flood hadn’t got to them first. He said drowning was a suitable death for trespassers.
“Never seen water come in like that,” he said, “Trees uprooted for miles. I should thank the river for saving me a couple bullets.”
I don’t think any father in the territory would have blamed me for cutting him down, but unfortunately Sheriff Coffee didn’t see it that way. As soon as Doc Martin reluctantly agreed that I’d damaged the man, Roy was ushering me into his jail cell until the circuit judge arrived in Virginia City. I’d always taught my son to let the law handle things, but that afternoon, I didn’t heed my own advice.
I tried to use the time in that cell to make sense of things. I was having a tough time putting it all into place. Larsen had always been paranoid about trespassers but never to such an extent. He and I’d bought our land at just about the same time, and for a time, he had been a good neighbor. Never an amiable man, he was at least civil, and I’d never have imagined that he’d deny anyone access to his land to save innocent lives. I could understand that he was upset at having trespassers on his property, even if they were just passing through. Squatters were a constant problem, one that my sons never fully appreciated. In order to protect what belongs to him, a man sometimes had to act in ways that appeared cold and heartless to others. Land had to be defended or it would wind up divided like a jigsaw puzzle. While I supported Larsen’s right to defend his land, I would never put the Ponderosa over innocent lives. It was just money. It was just land. When I died, I wanted my sons to be my legacy, not boundaries that could be charted on a map.
The door swung open, hitting the wall on the other side, and startled me out of my reverie. Sheriff Coffee ambled in, holding two steaming cups of coffee. He handed one to me through the bars and leaned against my cell, with an audible sigh.
“Well, Roy?” I asked, hardly trusting myself to control my temper.
“Larsen’s left town, Ben,” he said and took a loud sip of his coffee. “I’ve been all over, looking for him. The circuit judge is due tomorrow, but that won’t do much good if Larsen ain’t here to press charges.”
“Then let me out of here!” I demanded. “Roy, if that man is well enough to ride out of town, what charges could he possibly hold against me?”
“Now calm down, Ben,” Roy intoned. “I ain’t no judge, and it’s not up to me to make that kind of decision. But there’s one thing I do know, and it’s this. Something ain’t right about any of this.”
“Now, that’s what I’ve been saying all night!” I tried not to roar, but I just couldn’t help myself.
“I know you have,” Roy said, reasonably. “I heard you all night, don’t you remember? But Ben, my hands are tied. I represent the law in this town, and I have no choice but to uphold it.”
Watching my friend’s discomfiture, I knew he was just as miserable over this whole thing as I was. I tried another tact, sending up an arrow of a prayer that it would have a chance.
“Roy,” I began. “We’re talking about Adam and Joe. You’ve known them for years. You climbed up after Little Joe when he climbed on top of the millstone and wouldn’t get down.”
Roy smiled, remembering. “He was a cute little scamp but a lot of trouble!”
“He’s still a lot of trouble,” I said, allowing myself a small smile. “but this time I know something is really wrong. Something’s happened to the both of them. I can feel it in my bones, and I’ve got to get to them. Roy, you need to let me get to my boys.”
“Ben, I’m telling you it’s trespassing, and I ain’t got no right – “
“And I’m telling you it’s Adam and Joe!” I forced myself to gentle my voice. “And many others… Roy, you’ve been a very good friend to me, to the boys. I don’t think this is all about trespassing. Something else is going on. Larsen’s trying to cover up something, and it could be something a lot more serious than protecting his land from squatters.”
“You may be right,” Roy said, and set his cup down on a chair, “But Ben, your boys took the law into their own hands, and you broke it by taking it into yours. If you’d let me handle this, none of this would have happened!”
“That’s true and I’m sorry for that,” I replied. “You have my word that I’m sorry that my sons went onto his land. But there were innocent lives involved. Adam and Little Joe might have not followed the letter of the law, but their hearts were in the right place.”
“I believe you on that, Ben,” Roy said, “but that don’t make it right.”
“Roy,” I said, leaning as close as I could. “Isn’t there something in the letter of the law that would allow me to look for my boys? You know what I might be looking for…”
My voice started to falter, and I couldn’t go any further.
Roy said quietly, “Ben, we don’t know for sure if anything’s happened to those boys or not.”
“I know,” I answered. “A father just knows.”
Sheriff Coffee cleared his throat and looked out the window for a long time. He and I had seen enough of life that we knew some things defied rational explanation. There could be a simple reason for my sons’ absence, or they could be in terrible trouble. Somehow, both of us knew what we were looking at, even though we could hardly have explained our reasons why.
After a spell, Roy said, “The way I see it, that judge ain’t gonna be happy about having his time wasted if there’s no one here to press charges. I figure that I should go and have a talk with Earl Larsen and see what he has to say for himself. What do you say that you and I take a little trip to Larsen’s Crossing to find out if he’s still figuring on taking this to a judge. If we take the shortcut – say, the path that runs along the river – we could be at Larsen’s ranch while there’s still daylight.”
I could hardly trust myself to speak. “You’re a good friend, Roy.”
“Let’s get a move on,” Roy said, unlocking my cell. “I’d imagine Hoss could use some company, anyhow, being by his lonesome out there.”
I almost felt sheepish as I met Roy’s eyes. He shook his head and handed me my gun belt.
“Roy – ” I began, but he cut me off.
“That’s the thing about you Cartwrights,” he said, ambling out of the cell. “The whole lot of you. You’re just too dang predictable!”
What could I say to that? Any answer would have been just that – predictable! I followed my old friend, reaching for my hat as I left. Roy was right and wrong, at the same time.
Some things in life were predictable, but other things turned around in ways that were entirely unexpected. There was still mystery and stillness in the world that the law couldn’t explain. I didn’t pretend to know how the day was going to end.
Sometimes, the unbearable had to be born, but there were other times a father could elbow his way into a miracle.
In the wagon that night, I slept and dreamed that I was needed.
It was the story of my childhood, the yoke of an oldest son with a widower father. I’d complained about it often enough but generally accepted it as my due. More than one respectable young lady had accused me of using my responsibility to my family as an excuse to avoid other commitments. I’d always denied it, but there may have been some truth in that accusation. It was difficult to step into love knowing full well what it might cost you.
I woke later than I wanted, the sky already graying to morning. In a moment of panic, I reached around me, only relaxing when I felt him lying next to me. In the next moment, I understood why I had woken. The wagon had come to a stop. Evidently, we’d reached our destination. Forcing myself awake, I sat up and tried to get myself together. It wasn’t easy to do. My body ached bitterly from the battering it had taken in the river. Every part of me hurt, and I tried not to groan out loud.
I looked over and into the eyes of the man who was obviously the leader of the group. There were four of them, all large-boned men who I remember seeing backing Larsen. One of them, a red-eyed man with sour breath, spit out a wad of tobacco. He had his gun aimed nonchalantly at the head of my brother. The message was loud and clear, even though he didn’t say a word. Joe wasn’t going anywhere, and in turn, neither was I.
Joe was moaning. He looked worse in the gray light than he’d sounded during the night. Even when he’d been coherent enough to talk to me, he’d been shivering from head to toe and had hardly been able to get out his words between fits of coughing. I needed to get him inside some place warm, next to a fire. He needed water and blankets. He needed Doc Martin. Both of us needed our pa.
“Adam!” Joe called out in his sleep.
“I’m here,” I whispered, and he slung his arm out towards my voice.
“All right, Cartwright, time to get out.”
The leader sounded almost as tired as I felt. They had driven us through the night, taking it slowly over the mud-rutted roads.
“What are you going to do with us?” I asked, my voice sounding a lot cooler than I felt.
“Not up to me,” the man replied. “I just do what I’m told and collect what’s owed me. Now get up.”
Joe moaned, stirring in his sleep. I worried that our voices hadn’t wakened him, and I rubbed his shoulder, trying to gently get his attention. He stayed asleep but rolled toward me, coming alongside closer. He was running one hell of a fever, and I turned back to our captors.
“My brother needs a doctor,” I said.
“I reckon you’re right,” the man said, taking a long look at Little Joe, “but it ain’t no concern of mine. Now pick him up, and come along.”
I’d worried over this. My arms felt like they had turned to liquid. I didn’t have any strength left in them and believed I’d drop my brother if I even tried to lift him.
“I don’t know if I can,” I admitted quietly.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” the man swore and gestured to his cohorts. “Pick him up. He don’t look like he weighs much, anyhow. Don’t worry, Cartwright – the two of you ain’t my concern. Cooper, pick the kid up, and let’s get a move on.”
I’d have done anything to have taken care of my brother myself, and I winced as the red-haired one came forward and slung Joe over his shoulder nonchalantly, like he was a sack of grain. Even more disturbing to me was the fact that Joe didn’t even wake up. He moaned and called my name again, but then was out again. His cough had worsened since I pulled him out of the river. There was nothing I could do but take a deep breath and keep up with him. I’d gotten him into this predicament, and God willing, I was determined to get him out of it.
The grey fog of the dawn was already dissipating, as I climbed out of the back of the wagon. I hurt like the devil and was so worried about Joe that I could hardly think on anything else, but I forced myself to look around and pay attention. Disoriented from the night ride, I knew we were somewhere on Larsen’s land but didn’t recognize the location. The site of a former mining location, the site had apparently been abandoned, although it was covered with rusting equipment, strewn like despicable debris. We were in a gulch, but the place had been ravaged of its beauty. All foliage was gone, the hillside rendered desolate from the hydraulic canon. A huge hose still lay next to a dried up creek, worn out sluice boxes lying nearby. There had once been gold to be found in those hills, and men like Larsen had been determined to wrest out every last ounce of it, no matter what the cost.
I felt the barrel of his revolver at the back of my head. “Come on, Cartwright. Stop looking around. I thought you were only worried about your brother.”
He was right, actually. Joe needed me, and I was getting distracted. I detested what Larsen was doing to the land, but I pushed it out of my mind and followed the others.
We walked until we came to a shanty that seemed to lean against a ridge for support. The man carrying Joe kicked open the door, and the rest of us followed. I blinked in the dim light of the room and almost choked from the dust. However, I felt a surge of relief, as I noted that the room contained at least a cot, a pile of blankets, and a pot belly stove. A lopsided table with a few chairs had been pushed into a corner. Joe’s captor dropped him roughly on the cot, and I hurried over to him.
“Look after your brother,” the leader told me, as if I needed to be told. “We’ll know what we’re going to do with you, soon enough.”
“My brother needs water,” I insisted angrily.
I’d run my hand over his face, and his skin felt like a hot water bottle, dry to the touch. Disconcertingly, his lips were blue against his flushed skin, and I could hear his breathing rattle his chest. Almost to remind me how sick he really was, he erupted into a violent fit of coughing. He never woke up in the middle of it. I propped him up to try and help him breathe until it was over. Then, I turned and glared at our captor. To my surprise, he also looked kind of worried.
“Yep, it sounds like he does need water,” he said and gestured to another man to bring some. “How long was he in that river?”
“Too long,” I answered grimly, but took the canteen gratefully and held it up to Joe, praying that he’d be able to drink it and keep it down.
“Not a good sign when they start breathing like that,” the man said. “My kid brother had pneumonia when he was thirteen. How old is your brother, anyhow?”
“He’s seventeen,” I answered impatiently. “And he’s not going to make it to eighteen, if I don’t get some help for him. Now listen. I need some supplies, if I’m going to save him. Blankets, more water, some kind of food. I don’t know why you’re holding us, but if you don’t intend to kill us right away, could you at least let me try to keep my brother alive?”
To my surprise, the man drew back as if mildly offended.
“Hold on, there, Cartwright,” he said. “This ain’t my fight – I’m just earning my living. My orders were to find the both of you and keep you here until I was told otherwise. And that’s just what I plan to do. But that don’t mean I can’t help you some. Tell me what you need, and I’ll see if I can find it.”
“I need a doctor,” I said, knowing I was pushing my luck even as I said it. He turned and started walking away.
“No, wait,” I called, regretting that I spoke so sharply. I owed it to Joe to keep the man in my good graces. “Thank you for your offer. I could use a bucket of water and some rags. I need to get his fever down.”
“I’ll see what my men can do,” he said and headed out the door.
I’d been confused since these men had captured us. I’d been around more than my share of evil men, but these men didn’t seem to be putting a lot of malice in what they were doing. They reminded me of drovers at the end of a cattle drive, wearily waiting for their paychecks and a chance to move on to the next job. They seemed to be doing their job, but I had no idea what that job was or how Little Joe and I had ended up in the middle of it. I had hours worth of questions but had time for only one.
“Why are you willing to help us?” I asked him.
He looked at me with a funny expression on his face. For the first time, I took a good look at him. The man had sun-leathered skin and had hair thinning on top. He probably wasn’t much older than I was, but his eyes were narrowed with experience.
“My brother didn’t make it,” he said. “My ma never got over it. I came west to try to find enough gold to send some back to her. That’s why I’m here. I ain’t got nothing against you or your brother. None of us do. We’re just trying to take care of our own, same as you. I gotta make things up to my ma.”
“It won’t help,” I replied, suddenly sure of it. “Blood money won’t help a thing. You can never make up for something like that.”
“Easy words from a rich man,” he responded hastily. “Money can’t bring my brother back, Cartwright, but it can’t hurt. Don’t worry about me. Look after your brother. By the way, my name is Jenkins. Nathan Jenkins.”
It worried me that he was giving me his full name. It was almost like he knew that Joe and I weren’t going to be any danger to him. I looked down at Little Joe, as the front door closed, leaving us in the dim light. He was struggling to breathe, going downhill so fast it took my breath away. Like I’d said to Jenkins, there was nothing I could do to make it up to anyone. But I could try. I needed Pa there with me more than I could put into words. I was a grown man, old enough to have many children of my own, but I still wanted my own father. Selfishly, I didn’t want to be alone with Joe. I didn’t know the right things to say the way Pa always did. But I did know what to do, and with no choice left to me, I started doing it.
I knelt beside him and whispered, “I’m here, Joe. I’m not going to leave you. But you need to do your part.”
My brother turned away from me, his lips forming words I could no longer hear or understand. It didn’t matter. If Joe died, it would only be because I failed to save him.
And I was not going to fail.
I’d been riding a good spell when I saw it. A single boot, washed up on the bank of the river. I didn’t need to take a closer look but I did anyways. I knew who it belonged to. It was my little brother’s boot, simple as that. It was dripping wet and had been beaten up against the rocks. Last month, it was new. Pa and Adam had it ordered special from San Francisco to celebrate Little Joe’s birthday. It was a whole lot fancier than any he wore before, cause Pa said his feet had finally stopped growing. My little brother acted like he didn’t care much about things like that, but I sure knew better. He’d been pleased as a dog with two tails that day. It was hard to believe that it happened only a month ago. It sure felt a whole lot longer.
I sat by the bank of the river. The water had been going down again, nice and steady. Still early morning, the sun was hotter than normal. It was hot for riding, but good for searching. Kept more flooding away, and that was what mattered.
I’d crossed over the Ponderosa and onto Larsen’s land. I was ready for them and reckoned it would be a bad time to have my gun stick, but no one was there to stop me. It was both unexpected and bothersome. It made me fret that Larsen and his men had better things to do than look out for the likes of me.
It was a long night, so dark you could feel it. I’d kept myself company by thinking on all the reasons my brothers could have been missing. I’d even managed to keep any fretting reined in until I rode to the river. All through the foothills and gulches, there was signs of Larsen’s dadburned mining. Mudslides and whole valleys buried in mud and silt. It made me so mad I couldn’t see straight. Pa and Adam were right to be so riled up. Who could know how long it would take till that land came back to itself again? It was a crying shame. I had a job to do, and when I thought of Pa worrying himself sick in that jail cell, it only made me hurry all the more.
The river was brown with mud and silt brought down from all the mining. The whole time I rode along it, I never saw any sign of life – no rainbow trout, toads, or even any crickets. It was a different river than I’d seen before. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the river was mad for what had been done to it. I knew it was a fool thing, but I just couldn’t help it. The current was dangerous and running high. Trees were uprooted everywhere along the bank and lay across the river like bedslats. If anyone had been along, they didn’t leave enough tracks to trip an ant. It was a mess, the worst damage from a flood I’d ever seen.
Slow and careful, I rode like that for a couple hours, finding nothing. Little Joe always said I could track a bumblebee in a blizzard. But the rain had been so heavy, there was nothing left for me to track. I’m a good tracker, that’s for dang sure, but I can’t track a miracle unless it’s been handed to me. Then I came upon the boot. I’d been all right until then, but finding that boot knocked the wind out of me like a punch in the gut.
I knew they were in the river.
For a couple minutes, I just stood there, all sorts of thoughts all mixed up in my head. I remembered things I’d figured I’d forgotten. I remembered the time that Adam and I snuck off to Virginia City, just the two of us, and visited every saloon on C Street. Adam bought me my first beer. The beer was flat, but, it was the best beer I ever tasted cause I drank it with my brother. I remembered teaching Little Joe to sit a saddle when he was just a little fella, not even five years old. He took to it right off. I don’t reckon I’d ever felt so proud as when he eased that little pony into a canter on his first try. Pa had something to say to me when he found out about it, but that don’t change the way I felt watching it. Some things were worth a tanning!
Standing by that river, I wished I could shake memories like rain off a slicker. There was happiness in those memories, but they were gonna hold me down, and I had to keep on moving. Pa was gonna wear Roy down. It was only a matter of time. I didn’t want Pa getting out of jail and going to look for Adam and Little Joe by himself. Even though I wanted Pa with me more than I could say, I had to spare him what I could. I owed him that much and more.
I rode at an easy lope, leading my brothers’ horses, and keeping my eyes fixed on the bank of the river. I tried not to think about what I was looking for. Just when I was about to give up finding anything, the sun flashed on a piece of metal. It was lying near a broken off tree stump at the edge of the river. I reined toward it. The ground was still slippery and dangerous, boggy from the rain. Dismounting, I reached until I held Adam’s favorite revolver in my hand. I knew it was his right away. He’d had it for three years, and it was his favorite even though it wasn’t the purtiest gun he had. It had been in the river, but it was still fully loaded. I took out the bullets and put it in one of my saddlebags along with Little Joe’s boot.
That’s when it came to me, the first scrap of hope I’d had all day. Joe’s boot may have floated a while, but the gun should have sunk like a stone to the bottom of the river. The more I thought about it, the less likely it seemed that it could have just washed up on shore. When Adam lost that gun, he must have been on dry ground. And unless that gun grew legs and walked off on its own, I figured I must be standing in the place where he lost it.
The idea was so welcome I could have danced a jig with it.
The river was as noisy as a wagon on a frozen road, but I cupped my hand to my mouth and hollered, “Adam? Little Joe?”
Nobody answered back, and I figured I’d head to the road and scout around. I was turning back when a frog hopped across my feet. I reached down and grabbed it before it could get away. I’d always been good at catching frogs. It was a mountain yellow-legged frog, and as it wriggled in my hand, it came to me that it was the first sign of life I’d seen for miles on the river.
I’d found Adam’s gun and the frog found me, and I chose to see it as a sign. And I came to hope that my brothers might still be alive.
Kneeling on the ground, I carefully let the frog go, offering a little bit of thanks. The little frog hopped ahead a few feet and then it kind of looked back at me, before disappearing into a patch of reeds. Now I know what my brothers would say about the idea that came to me right then. Adam would shake his head and say it was time to call the doctor. Joe would have fallen off his chair laughing. Even Pa would have scratched his head, but that didn’t matter none. I was willing to look like a fool and decided to let my horse sense lead me this time.
I don’t know what I’d done next if it weren’t for that little yellow-legged frog. I followed it into a patch of reeds so thick that I would have just gone past, otherwise. Once I stood in the middle of all those reeds, it was pretty dang obvious that I wasn’t the only one who’d been there. The ground was boggy and wet, but everywhere around me, the reeds and tall grasses had been trampled down. It looked like someone had driven a small herd through there and not that long ago. I walked further and saw it: horse hooves clear in the mud and the unmistakable track of wagon wheels. I’d found what I was after. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew it would lead me to my brothers. What I’d find at the end of the trail, I didn’t know. But I knew one thing for sure. I owed it to my pa to see it through.
As I went back for the horses, it came to me that I’d never felt lonelier in my life. I wondered if that was something a man could get used to.
While I was growing up, I was hardly ever alone. Sure, I’d get away by myself from time to time. Yet, there was always someone trailing behind, usually sent by Pa to check up on me. Considering it the curse of being the youngest, I fought it with all that I had. Pa said the time would come when I’d be on my own, and I’d miss the days when I had my family alongside me. He was right, of course. Like all of Pa’s hard truths, it came to pass soon enough.
And I woke up in the mining cabin, sick, miserable, and crying out for my father.
The quiet voice that answered didn’t belong to my pa but knew all the right things to say, words that I’d heard since childhood. He called me by nicknames I’d tried to shake off for years. My brother’s voice tethered me to the protection of my family where I’d always belonged. I’d never been alone. Adam was with me and was still trying to haul me out of a different kind of river.
“Pa!” I called out again. I simply couldn’t help it. I didn’t really understand what was happening to me, and I wanted my pa to be with me.
“Pa’s not here, Joe,” Adam said, and I felt a cold, wet cloth tracking across my forehead. “I’m here, and we’re safe. You’re sick -really sick – but you’ll feel better soon.”
“Adam, something’s wrong with me,” I said and then started coughing.
It wasn’t normal coughing, like I’d experienced before. It was a fit of coughing so intense I thought my ribs would break. I couldn’t breathe and felt like I was drowning all over again. Adam propped me into a sitting position, and the world careened like I was on a listing ship.
I’d been sick before, but never sick like that. Doused with sweat, I felt like my body was burning up. My mind wasn’t working right, and nothing made sense. I opened my eyes and saw colorful halos hanging around my brother’s head. He seemed to be getting smaller while the rest of the room was getting bigger. I thought I could see my mama behind him in the corner of the room. It was all so peculiar that I wanted to tell Adam about it. When I tried to explain, the calm expression on his face changed into something I didn’t get to see very often. Adam was afraid. I knew he was scared, and I wanted to make him feel better. I reached for his hand and was surprised when he didn’t pull away from me. Adam was never one for that sort of thing, but this time he held onto my hand so hard it hurt.
“Joe,” he said, “I need you to work at getting better. Listen to me. You’ve got to get well if we’re going to get out of here. I can’t leave without you. You want me to be able to leave, don’t you?”
“I don’t know where I’m going, Adam,” I said.
My own words didn’t make much sense to me, but they seemed to make Adam even more desperate.
“Wait for Pa, Little Joe,” Adam said. “Pa will be coming along after us, and he’ll want to see you. Don’t go anywhere. Hang on. Hang on a little bit longer.”
“I’ll be along,” I said, beginning to close my eyes again. It hurt too much to keep them open much longer, and I felt like there was somewhere else I was supposed to be.
I heard Adam calling my name, but I couldn’t say anything back to him. So I lay as still as I could, trying to keep the world from spinning out from under me, and then I heard the voice from the wagon.
“How’s your brother?”
“He’s dying,” Adam said, with a coolness in his voice that was very different from the fear I’d heard earlier. “And all I can do is watch it happen. He needs to get to a doctor.”
“Not much a doctor could do at this point,” the man said. “He either gets better or he doesn’t. Any doctor would tell you the same.”
My brother got mad at that. I could tell by the way his hand tightened on mine. But he kept his voice steady.
“At least tell me what this is about,” Adam demanded. “Tell me what my kid brother is dying for. We were trespassing. I admit that, so take us to Virginia City and put us in jail. Have us arrested. Do whatever you want. But I’m telling you, if you keep us here, and my brother dies, you and your men will be guilty of his murder!”
“My men and I had nothing to do with your brother and you ending up in that river,” the man said. “You did that all by yourself.”
Adam’s voice came back with more anger, but I couldn’t keep track of his words. They were still talking but I started shivering from head to toe and felt another spell of coughing coming over me. I felt Adam still reaching for me. He was trying to keep track of me, like Pa asked him to, but I wasn’t sure if he could follow me this time. He’d saved me once. I understood that. I might well have died, and he might have thought he brought me back, but it wasn’t up to him to do the saving.
I felt myself crossing to the other side of the river.
I could see my family standing across it. It hurt to look back at them, but even so, I knew everything would be all right. Maybe it was delirium, but I felt peace, like water, washing over me. I was standing at a fork in the river. It was reaching out in directions I’d never thought of before. Every one of them held a different possibility. I remembered what Pa had told me from time to time since I was a boy.
“Don’t waste suffering, Joseph,” Pa told me. “Everyone has to suffer some time. Learn from it. Find out what it has to teach you.”
I’d never understood what he meant by it. Never needed to. Honestly, I’d never wanted to learn about suffering at all. I was always too busy having a good time. I never stayed still enough to pay attention. I always thought that I’d be the one to decide the way I was going to live my life.
This was different. My family couldn’t rescue me this time. I couldn’t even rescue myself. I stood on the riverbank with a path of my own, and Pa and my brothers would have to wait to see which one it would be. Their suffering would come in its own time, separate from mine.
I was sure they wouldn’t waste it.
Roy and I had ridden through much of the day, traversing the Ponderosa with as much speed as we could muster. More than anything, I wanted to reach the river by nightfall. If Adam and Joseph still needed me, chances were that by the next morning, it would be too late.
We were riding hard, when Roy’s horse suddenly took a tumble.
“Roy!” I shouted and reined to his side.
Sheriff Coffee was already on his feet by the time I dismounted, but his horse had strained his leg and was obviously limping. The cause of his fall became immediately apparent. Across the path, someone had dug an extensive ditch across the road. We couldn’t see it from where we were riding, and it was sheltered by brambles and growth. Roy’s mount had stopped short of falling into it, but had not managed to keep his footing. Roy and I stood in front of the ditch, looking down on it with true bewilderment.
This was no insignificant ditch. It was practically a canal with running water, and it had been dug on my land. It stretched in either direction as far as I could see. Its intention was perfectly clear. Someone was diverting my water, and the ditch was heading right toward Larsen’s Crossing.
It wasn’t an area of the Ponderosa I visited often. None of us did. We used the lower section when driving cattle west to Sacramento but rarely needed to inspect the higher elevations. Whoever dug the ditch had plenty of time and privacy to steal our water. We wouldn’t have noticed until the watering holes were dried up, come the fall.
“Earl Larsen?” Roy asked grimly, as we stood there looking at it. “Is that what this is all about?”
“Yep,” I replied. “That’s what this is all about.”
“But why, Ben? The man isn’t growing crops, or raising cattle. How come he needs more water than he’s already got?”
“Gold,” I answered grimly. “It’s all about gold. It takes water to blast gold out of God’s good earth when all the regular ways are used up. Apparently, it takes more water than Larsen has on his own. Adam’s been right all along. Larsen’s mining operations had to have contributed to the flooding, but I don’t think that’s the reason he wanted to keep us off his land.”
“It’s all about money, ain’t it?” Roy asked.
“Yes, it’s all about money,” I replied. “Money and greed. The kind of corruption that would steal from his neighbors and sacrifice innocent lives to protect what wasn’t his in the first place.”
“Ben, you’re gonna have to ride without me,” Roy said. “My horse won’t make it. I’ll set camp until you send help for me.”
“It might be some time, Roy,” I said cautiously.
“I got time,” he replied, “but you don’t.”
We smiled sadly at each other and shook hands before I mounted up. Crossing the ditch carefully, I turned and waved to Sheriff Coffee. He waved back before turning to unsaddle his horse. I looked once more at the despicable channel that separated us.
There were some disasters that were unavoidable. Catastrophes of nature, allowed by God, outside of our control. There were other disasters that were entirely of our own making.
I’d despised the blight of hydraulic mining for some time, as had Adam. I was beginning to see that there were consequences to this raping of the land that had yet to play themselves out. One generation might reap the profits, yet another generation would bear the terrible cost. It was a waste, a terrible, abominable waste. I could see no point to the suffering that would surely follow.
I flicked the reins and spurred on my horse to a hard gallop. There was no time to think about all the ramifications of Larsen’s transgressions. My primary concern lay elsewhere.
I had to find my sons. One way or another, I was going to bring my boys home.
I wasn’t sure what to do anymore.
I’d tried everything I could think of and more. Everything I tried failed, and nothing was working. Surprisingly, Jenkins proved true to his word and tried to bring me what I’d asked for. I tried to cool my brother down, kept him covered with every moth-ridden blanket we could find, and used buckets of boiling water to try to clear up some of the congestion in his lungs. Nothing seemed to work, and I could feel my hope dissipating like that steam.
I was tired. I was so damn tired, and every inch of my body ached and throbbed. It had been my decision to go after the settlers, my choice to leave the boat behind and explore the river, and my stubbornness that wouldn’t give up even when the storm was rolling in. It was my fault, and I’d done everything I could to save my brother, but I was beginning to see that my efforts would not be enough.
Either Joe was going to get better or he wasn’t. In reality, there was little I or anyone else could do for him, other than sit by him and let him know that he wasn’t alone. It was a hard truth and it didn’t go down easy.
I sat on the tottery chair, hoping that it didn’t topple over, and rested my head in my hands. I don’t think I slept – maybe I did – but I didn’t hear Jenkins and his men coming back in. I suppose it was an indication of how tired I was. Normally, I’d have been out of the chair the moment I heard the smallest sound, but I was so absolutely exhausted I almost didn’t care.
“The boy any better?” Jenkins asked, standing over me.
“Worse,” I replied.
I’d stopped thinking of Jenkins and his men as my enemies, although that probably wasn’t wise. Compared to the enemy that Joe was grappling with, these men weren’t much of a threat. They’d already helped us more than they’d hurt us. In abducting us, they’d saved Joe from an earlier death. Even if they’d taken us to Virginia City, he wouldn’t have withstood the trip. Sure, they were threatening us at the beginning but stopped after they realized that I cared more about my brother than getting away or fighting back. It had become pretty obvious that they were employees, putting in hours to earn their keep. It was nothing personal to Joe or I. They’d collect their money and move on when the job was over.
Jenkins was different. He was more interested in us than the others, more willing to help, although I really didn’t know why. I was glad for his help all the same.
“The boss will be here soon,” Jenkins said, almost apologetically.
“What’s he going to do with us?”
“Damned if I know,” the man said, and I suddenly liked the man a little more. In another life, I’d have bought him a beer, but in this life, a smile was all I could manage.
“Why are you working for a man like Earl Larsen?” I asked.
Joe moaned from the bed, and I went over to see I could do.
“Pay’s good,” Jenkins said. “The hours are usually better than this. Better than climbing into a hole in the ground and hauling up a rich man’s silver. Couldn’t find no one to grubstake me, so Larsen’s bidding did just fine.”
“At least mining is honest work,” I muttered.
“I ain’t broken no laws,” he insisted. “I’m just holding a couple trespassers until my boss gets here. Nothing more. I got every right to do that.”
I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes at him and turned my attention to Little Joe. It was hard to believe I was looking at my brother. I’d always thought I knew everything there was to know about Joe, but the young man lying in front of me was so unfamiliar he could have been a stranger. He was in a place I’d never been, and he was going somewhere I couldn’t follow.
I couldn’t push away the thoughts that kept crowding into my mind. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through this. Selfishly, I longed for Pa or Hoss to be with me. They’d know best how to comfort Joe. They always had. Our relationship was different. At our best, I taught him things. I taught him how to work the ranch, how to stand up straight when he was in trouble, how to pick a cutting horse out of a remuda… For the path my kid brother was broaching, I had no advice to give. He was on his own, and I was very sorry for that.
I was glad he’d gotten to see the other side of seventeen. He’d waited so long to get there. Little Joe had taken his time growing up. I don’t know if it was because he was small for his age, or because we were all so much older. Seventeen meant a lot to him- one step away from being a man. Privately, Hoss and I called him half grown, but on his birthday, Hoss and I’d taken him to the Bucket of Blood and bought him a whiskey. By the easy way he drank it down, it wasn’t his first. However, the look of satisfaction on his face was worth the earful we’d gotten when we brought him home slung over his saddle. Looking back on it, I was glad we’d taken him. For someone who’d spent half of his childhood riled up about one thing or another, it was surprisingly easy to make Joe happy.
“I hear something,” one of the man said suddenly, rousing from sleep. “Somebody’s coming.”
“Maybe it’s Larsen,” Jenkins said, tiredly. “It’s just about time.”
Oddly enough, I didn’t feel much curiosity over who was coming. Looking back on it, I can’t really explain the lethargy that had come over me. I’d fought so hard to save us from the river, and it all had turned to nothing.
Joe mumbled something about his horse, and I rubbed his shoulder, practically the only part of him that wasn’t a bruise or an abrasion. It had been hours since he’d been awake, and I didn’t want to think about what he last told me. Something about having some place he needed to go. Scared the hell out of me. He looked right through me when he said it. For how restless he was, Little Joe had hardly been away from home and never without us. I knew he’d have to branch off from us sometime but didn’t accept that this was going to be the day he was going to start.
“Definitely someone out there,” the other man insisted, and Jenkins sighed.
“All right then, let’s get ready just in case,” he said.
The all drew their guns from their holsters and pointed them at the door. I sat in front of Joe, protecting him with my body as best I could. If it weren’t for my brother, I might have tried to throw myself at the nearest one to make a grab for his gun. But I couldn’t take a chance on it going wrong. I’d promised Joe I’d stay with him. It was the least I could do to try to keep that one pathetic promise.
All at once, the door flew open. I don’t know what I was expecting, and I thought I was too tired to be surprised by anything. Yet, nothing prepared me for the sight that was in front of me. Earl Larsen staggered into the room, followed by my larger-than-life younger brother. I’d never been so glad in all my life to see Hoss with his revolver out, the barrel of it pressed against Larsen’s head.
“All of you – back! Drop your guns,” he said, in the low voice he used when I knew he was the most dangerous.
Hoss gazed around the room, taking it all in at once. His eyes settled on Joe for just a moment, but didn’t linger. He couldn’t afford to lose sight of the situation at hand. Everything else would wait until later.
“Glad you made it, brother,” I said.
“You all right?” Hoss asked.
“Been better,” I replied, and we stared at each other for a drawn out moment.
“And Joe?” he asked, in a low, steady voice.
“He’s sick,” I said, simply enough. Hoss could fill in the rest.
When Hoss burst in, holding Larsen, the other three men froze, their guns suspended in front of them. Jenkins who stood at my side, quickly turned his six shooter so it was poised at my head.
“Put down your guns,” Hoss growled at everyone in the room. “I’d just as soon as shoot the lot of you as your boss here.”
“Don’t put down your guns,” Larsen ordered his men. “My man will shoot your brother, Cartwright, if you don’t let me go!”
“And I’m telling ya,” Hoss replied. “Put down your guns, or this fellow ain’t gonna be paying you your wages any time soon.”
I could see the other men look at each other and shrug. The decision was playing out over their faces. Without Jenkins around to pay them, they certainly had no quarrel with us Cartwrights. From what little I’d gathered of the three of them, they were practical men, best suited to taking orders. Hoss’ order seemed as good as any other. The three of them tossed their guns onto the wood-planked floor of the shanty.
“Kick the guns away from you, and move to that other corner,” Hoss commanded. “I’ll figure out what to do with you once I get this whole mess straightened out.”
He turned to me, still keeping his gun steady on Larsen. I could see the grim look on his face when he realized Jenkins had not yet dropped his gun.
Whether it was because of exhaustion or my desperation over Joe, I was having a hard time caring much about the situation either way. No matter how this standoff was going to end, the Cartwright family was unlikely to get a happy ending. I tried to work through my dangerous apathy, but just then, the thing that was bothering me the most was that Little Joe was starting to cough again. I looked up at Jenkins, and he understood what I was asking. He followed me over to the stove, still keeping his gun leveled at my head.
“He sounds bad, Adam.”
I could hear the pain in Hoss’ voice, but I didn’t know what to say to him. I’d been doing nothing but praying that my family would show up in time, but I had to realized that there wasn’t anything they could do either.
“Hoss, have Larsen sit down while we sort this out,” I said. “You might as well as sit too. You must have had a long ride.”
“A real long one,” Hoss said, still keeping his eyes fixed on Little Joe.
“I don’t want to sit down,” Larsen insisted. “Jenkins, shoot him right now!”
I took a good look at Larsen. Half of his face was so swollen he almost looked grotesque. Blues and blacks were mixing it up with yellows and reds across his nose and under his left eye. He almost looked as bad as my little brother, but not quite.
“You hit him, Hoss?” I asked.
“Nah,” Hoss answered. “I wish I did though.”
“Yep. Got in a good one too. Pa’s sitting in Roy’s jail ‘cause of it.”
“Just as well,” I said, carrying the steaming water over to Joe. “It saves him from being here.”
“Pa would do anything to be here, Adam,” Hoss said quietly.
“I know,” I replied. “But that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing. There’d be nothing he could do.”
“He could be with him,” Hoss said and prodded Larsen forward with his gun.
Hoss wanted to get a better look at Little Joe. He guided Larsen over to a chair and gestured with his revolver for the man to sit down. Sweat coursed down Larsen’s balding forehead and down his neck. For a moment, I couldn’t tell if the little man was angry or terrified. He looked a whole lot less powerful at the other end of Hoss’ gun. Larsen wore a fine linen shirt that would be ruined by all that fear, and I could tell he’d paid good money for it. I despised the way he made his living, the ruin he had brought to the land and other families, but there was no denying that it had paid off in spades for the man.
“Jenkins, stick with me, and I’ll make you a partner when this is all over,” Larsen pleaded.
“How long as Little Joe been this sick?” Hoss asked, ignoring the man.
“He’s been getting worse since the night,” I replied.
I could see the worry written all over Hoss’ face, but to the other men in the room, he must have sounded stoic and calm. My brother was so big on the outside, it was awfully easy to miss that his heart was even bigger. That was fine by me. I wanted everyone in the room to be afraid of him. In fact, everyone but Jenkins looked pretty intimidated. Only Jenkins looked like he was still making up his mind. All the riches that Larsen promised were pretty tough to pass up.
I looked up at him and asked, “Well, what’s it going to be? Are you with us, or does my brother have to shoot you?”
“He’s not pointing a gun at me,” Jenkins said mildly.
“He doesn’t need to be,” I replied. “He’s faster than he looks.”
Jenkins eyed Hoss warily, and I could tell he was thinking over what I was saying.
Larsen said in a low, dangerous voice, “You work for me. There are so many things that you’ve done for me that you won’t be able to make up for. Don’t think that anyone will be giving you a second chance.”
Jenkins pursed his lips thoughtfully and looked back at me. “All right, Cartwright. Why should I help you when all you’ll do is turn me into the sheriff?”
It was an easy answer for me, one that I’d already thought about.
“As far as I’m concerned,” I said. “All you and your men did was rescue me and my sick brother. All you’ve done since is help us out. He’s the one I aim to see behind bars. We have no quarrel against you.”
I gestured at Larsen, who scowled and said, “Jenkins, Cartwright knows too much. I can see it on his face. Throw your lot in with me, and I promise I’ll give you a stake in what’s mine.”
Looking hard at Larsen, I tried to get my mind to work right. I was still so tired and my headache was getting a lot worse. I tried to think of why the man wanted to kill us. He was an amoral man who had devastated the landscape with his hydraulic canons, but everyone knew about his mining. He’d likely contributed to the flooding by blasting untold tons of silt and debris into the waterworks. He’d tried to prevent us from rescuing innocent people who’d likely died as a direct result of his intervention, but again, he had plenty of witnesses to that already. I couldn’t figure it out, and I was sick of trying. Looking up at Jenkins, I managed to see the very moment when he decided. With a sigh, he glanced at Larsen and then at Hoss. I felt the cool touch of gun metal as it brushed against my face on its way back into its holster.
Larsen was cursing a blue streak that made him sound more like a miner than the owner of a good part of the gold in Nevada. But just then, Joe started stirring. I reached over to hold onto him, but his fever was rising higher and higher.
I looked back at Hoss with as much bleakness as I’d ever felt before.
“Tie him up, brother,” I said. “We won.”
I didn’t know what I’d be walking into when I pushed Larsen through the door of that mining shack. I reckoned I should be ready for anything – a shootout, my brothers tied up and bleeding, a trap – anything but a room full of men I didn’t know, Little Joe lying on a flea-bitten bed, and Adam sitting by him, with a look on his face like he’d already done given up. I didn’t take long for me to understand what had happened and why Adam looked like the fight was already over for him.
There was things that needed to be seen to. I tied Larsen to a chair and propped it in a corner, with his back to us. I still didn’t know how he’d done it, but I knew that man had hurt my brothers, and I didn’t want to look on him more than I needed to.
Larsen never stopped threatening us, all the same.
I wanted to gag him right away, but Adam said, “No… just let him alone. He doesn’t matter.”
I was trying to understand why Adam was all right with letting Larsen’s men go. But he seemed sure of himself on this, and I trusted my brother. Three of them headed outside, and started packing up their rig and belongings. Adam explained things to me. We weren’t about to send the law after them. After all, they’d only been working for Larsen and they’d helped Little Joe if anything. They figured to head out by morning. There were plenty of mines around these parts, and work was easy to come by. Adam quietly wished them well, and I did the same.
The man they called Jenkins was a different story. He didn’t seem in a hurry to leave. He hung around the cabin, quietly, ignoring Larsen and all his bemoaning, and brought Adam and me what we asked for. He was a big help, that was for dang sure. I came to understand that he’d come to work for Larsen to send home money for his ma. That don’t excuse nothing, but it does explain it. Whatever he’d done, he helped us. Everyone makes bad choices sometime in his life. It’s what he does after that tells you what he’s made of.
We passed a long night in that shanty. A couple times, when Joe had quieted down, I tried to get Adam to talk about what happened in the river. Anyone who knows my big brother knows he ain’t the easiest man to talk to when he’s upset. He didn’t want to talk about the flood none, but that didn’t stop me from trying. Adam was blaming himself something fierce for Little Joe being so sick, and I didn’t know why.
It was a few hours into the night. Joe was sleeping, curled up on his side, and had stopped coughing. My little brother still sounded like he was brawling it out for every breath he took, and even in the yellow light from the oil lamp, I could see the life going out of him. I didn’t know how much time we had left. Adam could see it too. Both of us kept talking to him real gentle like, telling him that Pa was on his way, even though that weren’t likely to be the truth. I didn’t cotton to lying to my little brother, but I figured there was no harm in trying to make him hold on a little longer. Adam was right. Little Joe wasn’t gonna hold us to our promises.
If you’d asked me how I was feeling that night, I don’t know what I’d have been able to tell you. I couldn’t think further than the minute ahead of me. Joe was my little brother, but he was also my friend. I could hardly remember the world before he was in it, and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like without him.
Little Joe was bad off. We’d all seen pneumonia kill a man and didn’t need Doc Martin to tell us his odds. Sometimes folks lived. Most of the time they didn’t. There wasn’t anything harder than waiting to see how it played out, but we had no choice. We wanted worse than anything to save his life, but all we could do was make him comfortable.
I reckoned that was eating away at Adam more than anything else – the fact that Joe could die and there was nothing he could do to fix it. Adam didn’t look good neither. He had a whole pile of bruises and hobbled across the room like an old man. He’d been through something I didn’t begin to understand.
I was almost dozing off, when I saw Adam turn and look at me. Larsen and Jenkins were both asleep, in opposite corners of the room. Adam had wanted to stick Larsen outside, but I’d talked him out of it. It was too cold, and we didn’t want to have the man’s life hanging over us. All Larsen’s crimes didn’t seem to bother him none. The man seemed to have nothing on his mind that kept him from sleeping at night. He’d nodded off quick, sleeping as peaceful as a baby.
Adam hadn’t said much all night. He hadn’t slept neither. It weren’t such a surprise when he started telling me about the flood. I’d been waiting for it. I knew my brother . He just needed to take his time.
“The river took us,” he said.
“I know it,” I replied. “I scouted it before I found your trail.”
“I’d never seen anything like it,” Adam continued. “I’d been caught in floods before, but this was different. It was a completely different kind of river, and I underestimated it.”
“You did what you could,” I told him. “You saved Little Joe and yourself. No man could do more.”
“I did a hell of a lot more than that. I may have killed him,” he said simply.
Anger rose up in me right away. Adam’s dark moods were one of the things I didn’t understand about my brother, and truth be told, I didn’t have the grit to hear him out right then.
“Now you stop that sort of talk, you hear?” I grumbled. “Little Joe ain’t dead, and no matter what happens, you didn’t kill him! What call do you have to talk that way, Adam?”
“I didn’t listen to him,” Adam replied, wringing out a rag over the basin and placing it on Joe’s head. “I insisted we go down to the river and look for the settlers. Joe tried to talk me out of it, but I wouldn’t listen. I was so sure we’d find survivors, so sure we’d be able to beat the storm. I was so sure of myself… so sure I could pull anything off.”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with that,” I said stubbornly. “You tried to help folks, Adam, and ain’t nobody gonna fault you for that. Not me, not Pa, and not Little Joe neither. Do you really think you could have talked our little brother into doing anything he didn’t want to?”
“My seventeen year-old brother showed more common sense than I did,” Adam answered. “but he followed me anyway.”
“That’s because he believes in you,” I said, “and so do I! So stop acting like a dang fool, and let’s get through this.”
“I don’t know if I can save him, Hoss,” Adam whispered.
“It ain’t up to you,” I said. “Adam, I don’t know how to say this right, but everything ain’t about you!”
For a minute, I wasn’t sure if my big brother was going to cry or punch me. As it turned out, he did neither. Instead, he smiled sorta sadly and clapped me on the shoulder.
“Thanks brother,” he said. “I’m glad you found us, but I’m sorry you have to go through this too.”
I almost asked what for. We were brothers. Joe was coughing. He was shivering and hot, and calling out for Pa. Adam and I turned away from our troubles. We’d looked after Little Joe together since he was born. He’d never liked to be alone. Whatever happened, we’d stay with him. Even if Adam didn’t think it was enough, it would have to do.
After I left Roy, I had plenty of time to think things over and was able to put some of the pieces together along the way.
Larsen’s hostility toward trespassers had never been about protecting his land. It had been about stealing from mine, plain and simple. I rode along his extensive ditch system long enough to realize its purpose. Larsen’s hydraulic mining depended on one commodity first and foremost – water. Without water, he couldn’t operate the massive water canons used to blast gold out of the hills and gulches. Larsen had become considerably wealthy through his mining, but apparently that wasn’t enough for him. Avarice had no bounds. It was the most odious kind of evil, as far as I was concerned. He was apparently prepared to sacrifice lives to hold onto his illegal profits. I loathed what he’d done to the land, but there was nothing illegal about it. He’d committed his crime by diverting water off the Ponderosa. That was why he refused to allow us to rescue the settlers in the first place. He was afraid we’d put the pieces together, just like I had just done.
I rode along the river for a while. It was a grim thing to see the devastation firsthand. The river was foaming with silt, mud, and who knows what else. It was like the river was already dead. I tamped down on my dread that my sons had been part of the wretched price that nature had exacted. For miles, trees were uprooted and vegetation stripped clean. It was unlikely that anyone caught in the deluge could have survived. My mind knew that to be a logical fact, but my heart just couldn’t find its way around it. I would believe in my sons’ survival until the proof was before my eyes.
It took a while but I finally picked up on Hoss’ trail. He’d made it easy for me, tying a bandana to a branch of a tree. I saw what he’d seen: the crushed reeds, the wagon wheels trailing away. Something had happened in that very spot, but what it was, I couldn’t say. I followed my son’s well marked tracks along the muddy ground until the sun dipped below the horizon and night made it impossible to see.
Sitting alone at the campfire that night, I prayed for some time. I can’t remember the words to those prayers, but I know one basic fact: no father should outlive his children. I prayed for whatever the day would bring, that I would have the strength to face it.
Breaking camp before daybreak, I continued on. It didn’t take much riding before I met up with Larsen’s men. I held my gun on them, until they convinced me that they’d played little part in what had happened. They told me that Hoss and Adam had let them go. They told me about Little Joe. Ultimately, I had little choice but to believe them. I cared about my sons more than I cared about seeking retribution.
Although I rode at a hard gallop, every mile seemed longer than the one before. I’d stopped praying. It was a ride that I wouldn’t have wished on anyone. I followed Hoss’s trail right up to the shanty. Tying my horse a short distance away, I came upon a man hauling a bucket of water from the well.
He looked me up and down and said, “They’re in there. You’re not too late.”
Not bothering with more questions, I ran to the door. I’d have torn it off its hinge if that could have gotten me inside. Before I could even look around to get my bearings, I was surrounded by my two oldest boys, who were clapping me on the back and shaking my hand. They were glad to see me, but somehow didn’t seem surprised. They knew I’d have come through hell or high water to find them. Roy Coffee’s jail certainly didn’t qualify. Larsen was bound and gagged in the corner. Later, Hoss told me that he had finally had just about enough of the man’s threats. The man sat there glaring at us. From that perspective, he looked like what he really was: a pathetic, balding middle-aged man who’d put other lives on the line for his own gain. A picture of evil in all its trivial glory, I didn’t even spare him a second glance. He didn’t deserve to have a minute of our time.
Like parting water, Hoss and Adam moved out of the way so I could find my way to my youngest son. I recognized the signs of pneumonia as I kneeled beside Little Joe. Ravaged with fever, his lips were blue-tinged and he was fighting hard for every breath. I managed a prayer of thanksgiving that he was still alive. God was good for allowing me to make it in time, but sometimes His mercies weren’t easy to take.
“I’m sorry, Pa.” My oldest son’s voice was husky with grief. “I tried to save him.”
I turned to Adam first. At that moment, I knew he needed me more than Joseph. I put my hand on his cheek like I used to when he was a small boy.
“I know you did, son,” I said.
Adam turned away, his face filled with pain that broke my heart. Hoss came up to me, as sad as I’d ever seen him. I put my arm around his shoulder for just a moment. There would be time for that later if need be. Gently, I pulled up a chair alongside the bed next to my boy. I took his hand and smiled when I saw his lips form my name. His brothers had done good. They had cared for him as well as I had. I’d raised sons who looked after each other, who fought the good fight, and that was all a father could really ask for. I glanced at Larsen, and allowed myself a moment’s pity for the man, He’d made himself rich, but I had treasure he would never understand.
Adam and Hoss also pulled up chairs alongside the bed and we began our terrible vigil. Only one who has been in our place could understand what it cost us. It was the penalty of love – the price exacted by the loss of it.
My boy would either live or die. Joseph would return to us or would be waiting on the other side.
I don’t remember much of what happened to me… just glimpses of memory from the river… the flood… the time we spent in the cabin… They’ve told me pieces, but I can’t help but hear it like a fable with the moral missing at the end. Adam looked at me all hurt when I told him that once, and Pa came alongside and put his hand on my brother’s shoulder. I may have been the one who was sick, but my illness has been hardest on all of them. They try hard to hide it. When they think I’m asleep, I sneak a look at them and see how tired they are. I don’t let on how much I know. They worry enough as it is.
Hoss comes in and sits with me every chance he gets. I don’t know how he gets his work done and still finds hours to spend in my room, but that’s just what he does. He brings the world into the four walls of my world and tells me stories about what I’m missing. Sometimes, they’re so funny I laugh too hard and start coughing until Pa comes in and tells him not to get me riled up. He’s been good to me, my brother Hoss.
In lots of ways, I’ve recovered faster than Adam, which is to say not fast at all. He kind of acts the same, but the difference still shows. He tries to make up for things all the time. Adam’s trying to use my time in bed to educate me in the finer things in life. He’s been reading me, Tom Jones, a book as thick as a cord of firewood. I never thought I’d like it, but the way Adam reads it makes it feel like all the characters live inside my mind. He never talks about what happened to us, but Pa tells me not to worry. He says it’s just Adam’s way. He’s still healing, same as me, just in a different way.
Pa says that it shook Adam to the core when he figured out that there was nothing he could do to save me. He was still getting over knowing that I might have died, even though he’d done everything he could do to stop it from happening. It’s all about control, Pa says, and how little we have of it. He says it’s something that everyone has to learn one way or the other – that we’ve got only the time allotted us and not a minute more.
Earl Larsen ruined the river for generations to come. That’s what Adam told the jury. He says you can’t clean water once its ruined. You can only stand back and let it run its course. It bothers my big brother so much that I don’t ask him questions. He says he’d happily go through the rest of his life and never say one word about that river again.
Larsen will spend a good long time in jail for stealing our water and for keeping us from rescuing the settlers. The jury had no trouble deciding which way to rule. Hoss told me all about the trial. Adam and Pa had to testify, along with a little girl who survived the flood. Stealing water’s a crime in these parts, and it’s sometimes taken more seriously than stealing people’s lives. Pa says only time will tell what will come of it.
Some good came from it. I’ve met Nate Jenkins, who helped Adam save me. Pa hired him on; he’s a good man. Adam says he’s a quick learner who deserves a chance to earn an honest wage. Hoss says he’s gentle and real good with the horses. I listen to my family talk about this sort of thing at the end of the day. They spend evenings in my room, instead of downstairs, and they talk. I mostly listen. Hoss says I’m a lot quieter than I used to be. He says I grew up awful quickly. Sometimes, he says that I’ve changed and I almost think he holds it against me. There are times I wish I could explain.
I learned a lot from that river. Water finds its way. You can’t control it, otherwise you look like a fool trying. It takes you where you never expected to go. Pa says it’s funny where we look for direction and where we actually find it. He says that’s what Adam is still learning. Pa says it’s a hard thing for a strong man to learn to give up control and that we have to be patient with him. He’s a Cartwright, and he’ll come around just like I did. He tells me not to waste my suffering, and I can tell he’s praying that Adam doesn’t waste his.
Sometimes, I dream about being in that river. It’s the part I won’t forget, what I learned from standing on the other side. I think about it most every day. I wonder if I’ll keep thinking about it when I’m well and I’m back into my life again. Sometimes, I don’t know if I’ll ever get better, but I try not to waste it. I don’t take a single day for granted. I try to be patient. I look out my window at the changing sky, and I say it again and again. Thank you. My pa and brothers come in because they hear me and think I need company. I don’t tell them any different.
I’ve been sick for a long time, but it’s changing. Doc Martin says my lungs are clearing, and at the rate I’m getting better, I may be breaking the new string of horses come spring. I was always going from place to place before, but I’m finally paying attention to the seasons. Autumn is here. I see it through my window: the big black oak by the barn losing its leaves next to the evergreen pines. The days grow shorter and the evenings cooler. Soon, the storms will come with the cold winter light. And then the rains will begin all over again. Like a second chance, all that water’s gonna flow back to the river. This time, we’ll be ready for it. This time, we’ll know what to look for.
I can feel the sun on my face and can hear my family laughing downstairs. They’ll be coming up soon and telling me what they did with their day. Just thinking about it makes me smile.
Other Stories by this Author
- Another Kind of Ending (by DBird)
- Love Again (by DBird)
- Compass (by dbird)
- Buried (by DBird)
- Tending to Business (by DBird & pjb)