Summary: A Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament story for 2015 (A What Happened Instead for the episode “Bushwhacked” written by Preston Wood).
Word Count: 8974 Rated K+
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Someone to Watch Over Him
MPA191 R295CC IF FT JUNE 15 1869 125P
MOUNTAIN VIEW RANCH LONE PINE CALIFORNIA
VIRGINIA CITY NEVADA
JOSEPH BUSHWHACKED STOP CONDITION CRITICAL STOP TO BE MET NLP WIRE INTENT
I silently cursed the economy of words required when communicating by wire, but pragmatism tempered the shock I felt at reading the telegram and I began issuing orders. Within a half hour Hoss and I were on the road to Lone Pine.
Hoss selected a direct but risky route through the mountains down to Owens Valley. Luck prevailed. An early spring melt had cleared the trails at even the highest elevations and we made good time, stopping only to rest the horses and catch some shuteye. Most times, we made a cold camp subsisting on jerky and hardtack, tasting neither.
We kept conversation to a minimum as we picked our way across streams, through narrow ravines, steep inclines, and treacherous descents. Our thoughts centered on Joe. Hoss wondered about the when and how, the who and why. I dwelled on my son’s physical condition. As I recalled, the open range near Lone Pine was arid with little shade. How long was he exposed to the elements? At 4,000 feet, the area could be hot in the day and cold at night. Did he have his canteen? His bedroll? How much blood had he lost? Did he eat? Did he despair? I thought I would go mad with all the unanswered questions running through my mind.
“Pa, Joe don’t ever give up, you know that. He woulda done whatever he could to help himself.”
“I know. But I can’t stop thinking about how desperate he must have been. How alone he felt, wondering if anyone would find him. If we would ever know what had happened to him.”
“We’re gonna get to him, Pa.” Hoss looked skyward. “’Bout this time tomorrow, I reckon. And we’re gonna find out who did this, you believe it.”
As promised in the wire, we were met on the road north of Lone Pine.
“Name’s Ern, Mr. Cartwright. Mr. Griswold sent me to show you a shortcut to the ranch.”
“Is my son all right?”
“Was when I left but that was over two hours ago.”
Joseph, pale from loss of blood and drenched in sweat, was barely coherent when we arrived. Doctor Scully had removed one bullet from his leg, but left another in his back untouched.
“He’s young and strong,” the doctor said.
I groaned inwardly. Why is it that all doctors say the same thing? Do they learn this in medical school?
“It’s possible he will overcome the infection and then I can operate, although I am worried that probing too deeply could compromise the chest wall.”
Over the next two days we kept watch over Joseph while making it our mission to find out who shot him. Neighbors had gathered at Griswold’s ranch in preparation for a community cattle drive. From the moment Hoss and I rode in and started asking questions, they closed ranks. Some of them, like Bill Steen, admired our dogged pursuit of justice. Others, like Ed Flanders and Jim Fenton, thought we were foolish and stated that most likely a stranger, long since vanished, had been the one to bushwhack Joe. While I knew that was possible, I also pointed out a man who belonged in the community would feel safe sticking around to see if the man he shot was dead–a sentiment which earned me no friends among anyone. Even Griswold was hard pressed to believe a neighbor would do such a thing.
Joe never awakened, not really. Oh, the murmurings about things which made no sense continued, but no “Hi, Pa! I’m fine. Really, I’m fine.” Instead, Joe’s fever-ravaged body grew weaker. I listened while the surgeon detailed his experience with gunshot wounds at Gettysburg during the War Between the States. He meant to reassure me by citing his qualifications, but all I could think of was that Joe had only sold horses to the Army, not fought a war for them.
In the end, I had no choice but to give my permission to operate. After one last look at my boy, I left the room not knowing if I would ever look into those hazel green eyes again.
A wide porch surrounded the Griswold house and I could see how the ranch got its name. Mountains were visible from every side; New York Butte, Mt. Whitney, the Alabama Hills. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. Had Joseph prayed? Help had certainly come in the form of Tom Griswold and Ern Campbell. But whether it was divine intervention or pure luck, I don’t know.
“We were looking for strays before the community cattle drive,” Griswold said. “otherwise we might not have travelled through this section for months.”
I thought about Joseph’s deliverance into the hands of this family and the doctor who cared for him. Small acts of kindness by some are miracles to others, and I chose to believe in miracles. I leaned on the porch railing and gave thanks to the Lord.
The bullet was not as deeply imbedded as we had feared and the doctor felt confident that, barring further infection, Joseph would recover. How long that would take, he couldn’t say. When the anesthetic wore off, Joe’s words became less garbled, but still made no sense.
“Gotta get away,” he muttered. “Wheel. Wagon wheel and the teepee.”
“What’s that, son?”
“Teepee. I’m so tired.”
“Everything’s all right, son. Go to sleep. Shhhh. Go to sleep.”
Bewildered, Hoss asked, “Wagon wheel and teepee. What does that mean, Pa?”
“He’s still delirious. He’ll quiet down when the fever subsides,” I said, using my authoritative voice but the truth was I had no idea. Hoss nodded, but I don’t think he bought it. “You stay with him. Mr. Griswold is going to show me where you found those tracks yesterday. The Sheriff is bringing a hunting pack along. With any luck, they’ll pick up a scent.”
“And tell the doctor about your brother’s reactions to ether. If he starts thrashing around, he could open the incision.”
“I will, Pa. Don’t you worry none. I’ll watch over him just like I have since the day he was born.”
We rode about half an hour before Griswold pulled up near a scrub oak in the middle of nowhere. I was about to ask why he had stopped when I saw the blood-stained tree trunk and a pile of spent cartridges on the ground. My son must have fired every bullet he possessed in an effort to summon help. If Tom and Ern hadn’t been searching for strays and heard the report, Joe’s bones would have soon been picked clean. I blinked several times to clear the gruesome vision from my mind. Only then did I become aware Griswold had been speaking and I asked him to say again.
“I said this is where we found your son, Mr. Cartwright. The Sheriff ought to be along any time now with those dogs. Well, I’ve got to get to the drive camp. Would you do me a favor and give this pouch to the Sheriff? He left it at the house.” When Griswold lifted a bag hanging from his saddle horn I saw the scarred flesh on the horse’s shoulder.
“Is that a teepee?” I asked.
“Yes. My wife and I registered the brand after we got married. T for Tom, P for Pat — teepee.”
I nodded. “Teepee. That’s what Joe keeps saying. Teepee and . . . wagon wheel. Is there a ranch around here with a wagon wheel brand?”
“Yeah. Orv Petis and Jim Fenton. They have the wagon wheel brand.”
With clarity of hindsight, I realized Joe had been trying to tell us what happened. I dismounted and drew Griswold’s brand in the dirt, then drew a circle around the outside and a horizontal line through it. “With some care and a hot running iron, someone could make a wagon wheel out of your teepee brand.”
“And your son caught them at it?”
“Joe told us about the brands, didn’t he?” Griswold and I locked eyes, both understanding what this meant. Joe was vulnerable–like live bait wriggling on a hook, trapped and waiting for a fish to strike. Whomever he found changing brands had shot him twice and wouldn’t hesitate to try again. “I’m heading back to your ranch.”
“I’ll wait for the Sheriff. We’ll follow you in.”
I mounted and urged my horse into a gallop. I knew the gait was a lot to ask of Buck after the last few days. In fact, it was a lot to ask of myself given the bursitis in my hip, but none of that mattered now. I did what I’d reprimanded Joseph for countless times in the past–I rode hell bent for leather in the darkness, over unfamiliar ground. I was certain he was in mortal danger.
An orange red glow illuminated the horizon. Fire! As I drew closer, the flames licking upward matched the rising bile in my throat. Buck sensed my distress and picked up speed of his own volition.
When I entered the compound, I was relieved to see only a single outbuilding ablaze. Griswold’s wife and daughter had formed a bucket brigade along with Hoss, Ern and two ranch hands I hadn’t met before. Before I could rein in Buck, a shot rang out. I drew my pistol and fired back, then dismounted and ducked behind the barn, continuing to fire into the long shadows cast by the flames. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the fire had been set as cover.
“Hoss! Get inside to Joe!” I yelled, trying to keep the panic from my voice. I saw him drop the bucket and head for the house, but I was too busy trading gunfire to pay much attention to anything else.
In the light of the flames, I recognized the man shooting at me as one of Griswold’s neighbors, Orv Petis. The next shot burned as it whizzed by. Ignoring my command to stop, he crawled through the corral fence and this time my bullet found its mark. Petis clutched his chest and fell to the ground but was still moving so I called for Ern to watch him while I ran to Joe.
A terrible crash resounded throughout the house and when I tore through the bedroom doorway, Hoss had his ear against Joe’s chest.
“He’s all right, Pa,” he said, standing up.
I took in the shattered glass on the floor, the torn curtains, and broken lamp. “What happened here?”
“That Fenton fella tried to smother Joe with a pillow. I put an end to it.”
Too overcome for words, I gripped Hoss’s arm. “I’ll stay with Joe now. You go outside and help the women.”
“The shed’s a loss,” he said, “let it burn out. Besides, Ern’s helping.”
I shook my head. “Petis tried to get away and I shot him; don’t know how bad. Ern’s standing guard.”
“Are you all right?”
“Fine. Get some rope and tie Petis up. The Sheriff will be here soon.”
“He’s the law out here,” I reminded him.
“Orv Petis and Jim Fenton.” Hoss shook his head. “You think they was the ones who shot Joe?”
“One or the other, maybe both. Either way, there is enough evidence to charge them with arson and attempted murder. Let a judge sort it out.”
“He’s what?” I shouted when Hoss returned to the bedroom some 15 minutes later.
“Gone.” Hoss hung his head. “Pa, I’m sorry. I shoulda tied Fenton up straight away after I pitched him through that window. He sure enough looked down for the count. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Contrition flowed through me when I heard the anguish in Hoss’s voice, and I set about rectifying my harsh words. “You were thinking about your brother’s welfare, of course, like you’ve done every day since he was born.”
The comment didn’t change the facts, but it did appear to make Hoss feel marginally better. He responded with a small smile and changed the subject. “How’s he doin’?”
“Better I think. His breathing has evened out.”
“Getting kinda chilly in here with that busted window,” Hoss said.
To remove any lingering doubts in Hoss’s mind, I drove home my point. “Son, I would have done the same thing . . . checked on Joe before doing anything else. You were right to make him your first priority. We’ll find Fenton. The important thing is Joe is going to be all right thanks to you.”
He nodded. “I’ll see if I can find something to cover that hole.”
Maybe it was the chill of the evening air or the sound of our voices, but Joe soon stirred.
“I’m right here, son.”
“I know. Hoss will be here in a minute.”
Joe groaned. “Don’t shoot me again. Don’t shoot.”
“Easy now, son.” I placed my hand on Joe’s head. “Shhhh.”
The way he said “pa” brought back memories of when he was a child and troubled by nightmares. I pulled the covers up over Joe’s shoulders and tucked them in tight around his torso.
“Go to sleep now. I’m right here. You’re safe. Shhhh.”
I stayed with Joe for more than an hour, continuing to soothe him, forcing liquids when I could. He kept reaching toward the end of the bed and saying “so tired.” All I could do was hold his hand and tell him he was safe. He eventually settled into a deeper sleep and I had gone into the kitchen for some coffee when Mr. Griswold burst through the front door, calling for his wife and daughter, obviously shaken by the smoking remains of the shed.
I assured him they were fine, explained what had caused the fire, and that Ern was guarding Petis while the women tended his wound.
“I’m grateful you were here, Mr. Cartwright. A good gust of wind and the house could have caught.”
“Don’t you think we’re beyond societal conventions at this point? Please call me Ben.”
He agreed, shaking my hand. “Tom.”
“Did the Sheriff come with you?” I asked while pouring us both a cup of coffee.
“He’s taking care of the dogs.”
Right then Mrs. Griswold and Julia entered the house followed by Hoss. I slipped back into the bedroom to give the family some privacy and motioned for Hoss to join me. We talked softly, so as not to disturb Joe, who appeared restless again.
We returned to front room when the Sheriff made an appearance, hat in hand, and admitted—grudgingly—that Hoss had been right about the tracks.
“I don’t know what it’s like where you come from, Mr. Cartwright, but we don’t have a lot of crime around here. A few fights now and then, mostly the result of bunkhouse shenanigans or too much whiskey. When everyone sobers up, we let bygones be bygones, and it’s ancient history.”
His apology did little to assuage my frustration over his reluctance to properly investigate the matter to begin with.
“You’re the law here,” I said, forcing a calm I did not feel. “All I asked for was your help in finding out who bushwhacked my boy.”
“And I’ll remind you this is a small community. I’m not in the habit of questioning my neighbors and friends,” he said.
“Well, two of our neighbors tried to murder Mr. Cartwright’s son, not once but twice,” Tom chimed in.
The Sheriff looked surprised. “Twice?”
My blood pressure rose to dangerous levels. I couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen, or smelled for that matter, the ruins of the shed. Thankfully, Mrs. Griswold interceded before I exploded.
“Bob Truslow! You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face on a sunny day! Orv Petis set fire to our shed as a cover. If Mr. Cartwright hadn’t ridden in and warned us, Fenton would have murdered his son.
“And if Hoss hadn’t stopped Fenton, my son would be, as you say, ancient history. And trust me, Sheriff, I would NOT have let bygones be bygones!”
“Why you–” The Sheriff started towards me, but Mrs. Griswold stepped in front of him and pushed on his chest with both hands.
“–You just get yourself out to the barn, Bob, and relieve poor Ern. He’s been guarding Orv for a good spell and could use a break. I’ll bring you something to eat in a bit. Go on now, git!”
Tom, Ern, Hoss and I sat at the table, ate sandwiches, and talked late into the evening considering our options.
Although I loathed putting the Griswolds at risk by staying any longer than necessary, the reality was that Joe was nowhere near able to travel. And with Fenton on the loose, I feared an ambush should we leave the shelter of Mountain View.
Tom needed to return to the drive camp, not only to manage his cattle, which Ern couldn’t handle alone, but to avert suspicion. If other neighbors were involved in the rustling, his absence could alert them that Fenton and Petis had been found out. But Tom was unwilling to leave his wife and daughter alone. Hoss could have taken Tom’s place on the drive, but I knew he would never leave Joe or me behind, so I didn’t bother to suggest it.
And, of course, someone had to guard Orv Petis until he could be transported to Fort Independence for trial for none of us trusted the Sheriff to do the job.
In the end, we decided Tom should go on the cattle drive as planned, but without Ern, and stick to the story everyone already knew . . . that the Sheriff borrowed hunting dogs from Huey Woodson to appease me and was out searching the area where Joe had been found.
“Won’t the others wonder why I didn’t come with you?” asked a disappointed Ern. His name was apt; the 18-year-old was most earnest in his devotion to his employer.
I hid a smile behind my hand. Ern’s enthusiasm for his first full-fledged cattle drive reminded me so much of Joe at that age—so eager to prove himself as a top hand, so determined to be a man.
“I have a more important job for you, Ern,” said Tom. “I need you to stay here in case Fenton returns. Mr. Cartwright will have his hands full protecting his son, and I’d feel much better about leaving Mrs. Griswold and Julia if I knew you were here to watch over them.”
Ern, his bruised ego assuaged, sat up straighter. “You can count on me, Sir.”
“I know I can, son.”
“Besides,” Hoss added, “I’ll need someone to help me guard Petis.”
Mrs. Griswold set a freshly made yellow cake with chocolate frosting and a pot of coffee on the table. “You men better eat up. You’ll need your strength if there’s going to be all this protecting and guarding going on.”
“Yum!” exclaimed Hoss, rubbing his hands together. “My favorite!”
She laughed. “From what I can tell, Hoss, everything is your favorite.”
“That ain’t far from the truth, Ma’am.”
The conversation continued in this lighter vein over dessert. I told the short version of Ponderosa history and explained what had brought Joe their way. In turn, Tom related how he and Pat had met in Austin, Texas and wound up in California by way of Hannibal, Missouri, which is where they picked up Ern—a street urchin who quickly became devoted to the family, including Julia. At some point, I got up to check on Joe and was surprised to see Mrs. Griswold had slipped into the bedroom unnoticed and was crocheting in the chair by his bed.
“He likes the sound of your voice,” she said. “When you started talking about the Ponderosa he turned his head toward the door and smiled.”
I rested the back of my fingers on Joe’s cheek and then felt his forehead. Satisfied there was no fever, I whispered “thank you,” and rejoined the men in the other room. Talk of cattle and the vagaries of weather that plagued all ranchers continued for another hour before yawns overtook us and we put out the lights.
As usual, I slept in the chair in Joe’s room. Hoss took his bedroll to the porch outside the boarded up window. I could hear him scraping shards of glass away with his boot.
“Be careful,” I said quietly.
“Don’t know why I didn’t think to do this earlier.”
“Oh, I think you probably had other things on your mind. Goodnight, Hoss.”
“Nite, Pa. Don’t you fret none. We’ll find Fenton in the morning.”
I doubted it. Any man who could no longer hide in plain sight would be long gone.
When dawn broke, the first thing Hoss spied upon waking was Fenton’s crushed Stetson under the porch table.
The Sheriff gave the dogs one sniff and they started howling, running first to the front porch, in through the house, into Joe’s bedroom, and then—frustrated at the boarded up window—around to the back of the house. That was enough to convince everyone, including the truculent sheriff, that the dogs were the best chance to find Fenton.
The doctor came by in the afternoon. After cleaning and redressing Joe’s wounds, he spent a long time listening to his lungs.
“Is there something wrong, doctor?” I asked.
“There is no fever; no redness or unusual drainage. But I don’t like what I hear. It’s time to get Joe up and moving to prevent pneumonia.”
“He keeps saying how tired he is.”
“Fatigue is not uncommon after surgery and he’s been through two. He also lost a lot of blood before he was found. All good reasons for his sleeping more than expected.”
“I suppose.” I had a niggling suspicion there was more to it, but I couldn’t say what that might be so I said nothing at all. The doctor, however, wouldn’t let it go.
“Mr. Cartwright, I do not know your son. I have to rely on you to tell me of any atypical behavior.”
“Anything unusual. From the scars on his body, I can see he’s suffered other injuries. Hoss mentioned his reaction to ether, so I know he’s had other surgeries. He also intimated that Joe is a man of action, hard to keep down.”
I stifled a smile. “You could say that. Joseph has always lived life on the edge, always in motion, watching, listening, doing.” Always saying he’s ‘fine’ when he clearly is not. My head snapped up. That was it!
“Joe hasn’t once said he was ‘fine.’”
“Nor would I expect him to,” the doctor said.
“No, you don’t understand. That’s what is unusual. Joe always says he’s ‘fine’ even in the dire circumstances.”
“A general malaise perhaps. Let’s try sitting him up in bed for ten minutes each hour. And remind him to cough periodically to keep his lungs clear. If he tolerates that much with no ill effects, then have him sit in a chair for no more than 20 minutes at a time. Build up his tolerance.”
The plan sounded reasonable to me and I nodded in agreement.
“One other thing, Mr. Cartwright. I’ve noticed your son appears agitated when his brother is in the room.”
“Not with you or the Griswolds, only Hoss. Is there bad blood between them?”
I shook my head. “Of course not. They are very close. Have been all Joe’s life.”
“I see,” he said.
I did not see . . . not at first. But once the doctor pointed it out, I came to the same conclusion: my sons were avoiding each other. Hoss would only sit with Joe if he were already asleep, or Joe would feign sleep when Hoss entered the room. If Hoss caught him off guard, Joe would plead exhaustion and turn his head away.
Over the next few days, Joe started staying awake for longer periods and ceased complaining about how tired he was. Then I heard some encouraging words . . . Joe asked about Cochise.
“Would you like to see him? I can have Hoss bring him around to this side of the house.”
“No,” Joe said, a little too quickly. “No, that’s all right. I’ll see him later.”
I could have sworn Joe flinched at hearing Hoss’s name.
“Any particular reason?”
“It would be too hard to see him and not be able to ride. I’ll wait until I’m better, okay?”
“Could you do me a favor? There’s a book in my saddle bag.”
“I’ll get it for you.”
“Thanks,” Joe said, giving me the brightest smile he could muster. “Gets kinda boring sitting here, staring at these pink flowered walls with nothing to do.”
I was not fooled, but could not help but laugh. “Maybe you should take up crocheting like Mrs. Griswold.”
Mrs. Griswold was a handsome woman of middle age who wore the mantle of a rancher’s wife well. She could be brusque and brooked no nonsense from anyone, but she was also kind and competent. Although the exterior of the house was weathered and sorely in need of paint, the inside was spotless and well-maintained. I tried to stay out of her way as much as possible, but she seemed to enjoy having someone to talk with as she was doing her work. I suppose it got lonely with her husband gone and no other women around aside from her daughter, who–from what I had observed–appeared to be quite a handful.
“Of course, I’ve only had boys to raise. I can’t imagine what it would be like to raise a daughter, especially way out here with no girls her age about. At least my boys had each other.”
“It’s been a challenge, I don’t deny it, especially of late. Julia’s attention has been divided between the drama of an injured stranger in the house and the excitement of all those men milling about until the cattle drive got underway. She’s had a crush on Orv since she was 12. He’s good looking, a smooth talker, and about as honorable as a snake oil salesman, as we’ve found out. I’ll be mighty glad when he’s gone from here and things can get back to the way . . . Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright, I didn’t mean—”
“—say no more, Mrs. Griswold. I know having three of us here underfoot has been a great inconvenience to your family and I am deeply sorry for the length of our stay. As soon as Joseph is ready to travel, we’ll be on our way and things can get back to normal.”
“That’s what I was getting around to saying, Mr. Cartwright. With Julia, there is no “normal”! That girl is a walking distraction and as flighty as a bumble bee.”
Sitting up and reading had improved Joe’s disposition. He ate more and engaged in conversation not only with me, but with Mrs. Griswold whom he had thoroughly wrapped around his finger. Nothing unusual there. Joe could charm an 800 lb. grizzly bear if it was female.
I sat at the small desk in his bedroom ostensibly writing a letter to Adam, but neither of us could help overhear the conversation between the women working in the kitchen.
“Just where do you think you’re going, missy?” asked Mrs. Griswold.
“It’s hot out there, Ma. The men must be thirsty.”
“There’s a pump in the bunkhouse if they need water.”
“I made lemonade.”
“You stay away from Orv Petis, Julia.”
“You take that lemonade in to Joe. He needs fluids more than Orv does.”
“But he’s so old, Ma.”
“Go on with you.”
The bedroom door was open, but Julia knocked anyway.
“Yes?” said Joe.
“It’s Julia, Mr. Cartwright. May I come in?”
“Sure. And it’s Joe. The only Mr. Cartwright—”
“—around here is your father,” Julia giggled. “I heard that before from Hoss.”
That Joe flinched at the mention of his brother’s name did not escape my attention.
“I thought you might like some lemonade. Get’s pretty hot in here in the afternoon, especially with the window boarded up.” She filled the glass as she talked, handed it to him, and set the pitcher on the dresser.
“Tastes good, thanks.”
“What are you reading?”
Joe flipped the book closed and read the cover. “The Trapper’s Revenge. A Romance of the Apache Trail.”
“It’s a dime novel . . . a guilty pleasure of my youth I never quite outgrew.”
“Just how old are you anyway?”
“Twenty-six. How old are you?”
“A little young to be in a gentleman’s bedroom.”
“You sound like Ma, only she sent me in here.”
“Did she now?”
“She didn’t want me out in the barn with Orv.”
“Orv Petis. He’s 22 and just about the best lookin’ thing around here in pants.”
“Oh, I see,” Joe smirked and gave me a wink. Julia was tall, nicely proportioned, with soft brown hair that curled over her shoulders. Pretty, but empty-headed. Or maybe it was just youth and social isolation. “You’re sweet on him, is that it? He feel the same way about you?”
Julia blushed. “Don’t reckon he even notices me.”
“Then he must be a real geegaw.”
“What’s a geegaw?”
“Something nice to look at that has absolutely no value whatsoever.” Joe almost laughed at how befuddled Julia looked over that explanation. “What’s he doing in the barn?”
“He’s one of the men who bushwhacked you. Guess you didn’t know that ‘cause you’ve been out a your head most of the time you been here. Your Pa shot him.”
Joe looked at me wide-eyed. “Pa shot him? When?”
“The night of the fire.”
“Fire? What fire?”
“The fire Orv started as cover so Jim Fenton could murder you.”
All the color drained from Joe’s face. As he laid his head back against the headboard, beads of perspiration formed on his face and chest and he began to pant.
“Mr. Cart …Joe! Are you all right?”
“Pa,” he gasped.
“Ma! Ma, come quick,” Julia yelled running into the front room just as her mother came through the front door with a basket of laundry.
“Whoa, missy. What are you carrying on about?”
“It’s Joe. I think he’s dying!”
I was already sponging the sweat off Joe with a washcloth by the time Mrs. Griswold came into the room. We exchanged looks and I shook my head slightly to let her know he was okay.
“Julia, what did you do?” she asked, keeping her voice calm so as not to frighten the girl any more than she already was.
“We were just talking.”
“About what happened. He didn’t remember any of it. Then he started breathing funny. I didn’t do anything, Ma,” she hiccupped.
“Come on, Julia, let’s give Mr. Cartwright some time alone with Joe.”
“Is he gonna die? In my bed?” Julia wailed as her mother dragged her out the bedroom and closed the door.
It seemed forever, but only a few minutes passed before Joe opened his eyes. The first thing he looked at was my worried face.
“Sorry . . . Pa.” He let out a breath in a long, controlled whoosh. And then a second one.
“How do you feel, son?”
“I’ve been better.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been fine,” he shared in a rare moment of candor. “When can we go home, Pa?”
“When the doctor says you’re well enough. Tell me something.”
“Why are you avoiding your brother?”
“I – I’m not.” Joe lowered his chin and started picking at a loose thread in the coverlet.
“So you’re not feigning sleep when Hoss comes in to sit with you?”
“And you don’t plead exhaustion and turn your head away if he comes around when I’m with you. The truth, Joseph.”
Joe swallowed hard and looked up with watery eyes. When he spoke, it was barely above a whisper.
“He scares me.”
I had sent Hoss into Lone Pine to purchase lumber for a new shed and groceries to restock the larder. When he returned, I drew him aside to share what I had learned.
“He said that?”
“Pa, I ain’t never done nothin’ to scare Joe, ‘ceptin’ maybe on Halloween when he was little—”
“I know, Hoss. It wasn’t anything you actually did. It’s those dreams he’s been having. You’ve heard his ramblings.”
“You mean like ‘‘don’t shoot me’?”
“Yes, exactly. His mind is a jumble of bizarre images distorted by fever. Even though the fever is now gone, the dreams are still with him. He’s trying hard to make sense of them, but he needs help.” I raised my eyebrow and looked pointedly at my middle son.
“Me! Oh, no,” Hoss shook his head. “I seen the way he looks at me, like I had somethin’ to do with what happened to him. I don’t mind sitting with him, but only if he’s sleepin’.”
Astonished to find both sons had been playing the same game, I put my foot down.
“Hoss, he needs to work through it and you need to help him. No arguments!”
Joe was lying down again but awake when Hoss entered his room after supper. I was not far behind, but stayed out of their line of sight.
“Little Brother,” Hoss said evenly.
“Older Brother.” Joe said curtly. ”Help me sit up, would ya?”
Hoss set his coffee mug down on the nightstand and put his hands under Joe’s armpits to lift him up. After adjusting the pillows, he sat in the bedside chair and waited.
“Can I have that coffee if you’re not going to drink it?” Joe asked.
“If you can reach it, you can have it.”
“It hurts to stretch that far. I’ve been shot, remember.”
“Yeah. But I didn’t shoot you,” Hoss said defensively.
“You did in my dreams.”
Hoss sighed and retrieved the mug only when he held it out to Joe, his brother’s eyes widened and he said, “Salt.”
“In my dreams, I say ‘pass the salt.’”
“Coffee was as bad as Pa’s, eh?” Hoss said, setting the mug down. The old joke earned a small smile from Joe, which dissipated quickly.
“I picked up the salt shaker only when I turned my hand over and opened my fingers it turned into a teepee.”
“You kept sayin’ ‘teepee’ and ‘wagon wheel. That’s how Pa figured out Griswold’s cattle was being rustled . . . someone changed his teepee brand to a wagon wheel.”
Joe dropped his head back and stared at the ceiling. “A wagon wheel chased me while I was running. And then you stepped down from the wagon and shot me; not once, but over and over no matter how fast I ran or how far. No matter how much I pleaded with you to stop,” he said, chewing his lower lip to keep it from trembling. “Hoss, I’ve never felt so helpless or been so scared in my life.”
“You know I’d never do anything like that, don’t you? I’ve watched over you your whole life. Right?” Hoss appeared pleased when his brother nodded, but the feeling was short lived.
“Yeah, you were watching all right. I was so relieved to see you standing over me; to know you’d come to save me, I reached up to take your hand and . . . and you pointed your gun at me and fired.” Joe’s voice broke. “You shot me, Hoss. Why did you shoot me?”
Hearing those words, seeing the anguish on Joe’s face, Hoss must have been heartbroken but stood his ground nonetheless.
“Why do you reckon it was me in your dream? Were you mad at me or somethin’?”
“I don’t know.” Joe shrugged his shoulders. The movement must have pulled at his stitches for he hissed long and loud. It was time to intercede.
“I have an idea about that,” I said, stepping into the room to where both Joe and Hoss could see me. “Do either of you remember Grant Walker?”
Joe was noncommittal, but Hoss said, “Sure. He came with us on the wagon train from Ash Hollow. Settled in Carson Valley, raised a family.”
I nodded. “We went through a lot together in those early days. The Walkers remained pretty good friends until 10 years ago when I caught his son Jeb changing our pine tree brand to a dollar sign.”
“Top Dollar brand,” Joe said. “Jeb and I were like brothers before that. We trusted him and he betrayed that trust.”
“That’s right. I think in your dream Hoss represented that betrayal.” When Joe looked skeptical, I sat down on the bed and placed my hand on Joe’s good leg. “Have you been bothered by images of the teepee and wagon wheel recently?”
“I believe that once you discerned their meaning, those images no longer troubled you. And, if you can accept the connection between Jeb Walker and the men who betrayed Griswold, you’ll see Hoss was a symbol just like the teepee and the wagon wheel. Nothing more. Nothing to be frightened of.”
When neither of my sons said anything, I tapped Hoss’s leg lightly with my boot and tilted my head toward Joe.
“Sounds reasonable to me,” said Hoss. “What do you think, short shanks?”
The response was not what I was hoping for.
Slowly, Joe rolled off the pillow to his left side turning his back on me and his brother. “I think I’m tired.”
Hoss scrunched up his face, bolted from the chair and stomped out of the room.
Exasperated, but forcing an even tone, I asked, “Is there anything you need, Joe?”
It was near twilight before I found Hoss sitting under a scrub oak nearly half a mile from the house. As dusty and desolate as the valley was during the day, the sunsets were spectacular varying from magenta to lilac, from rust to peach. And all around, the mountains—purple to black—watched over us.
The walk had calmed me down, but aggravated my hip. I gratefully accepted Hoss’s assistance to the ground and leaned back against the thin but sturdy trunk.
“For someone who wants to go home, he sure ain’t doin’ what needs to be done to get there. It makes me plum angry, Pa.”
“Me, too, son. And frustrated. I feel like there’s something more he’s not telling. It was so much easier when he was younger.”
Hoss snorted. “Yeah. Couldn’t hardly shut him up then. Every thought in his head would just spill like corn out of a silo. Now, he takes after older brother and—what is it Adam says?—he ruminates, that’s it. I wish Joe’d stop chewin’ on stuff and just spit it out.”
“You did good work tonight, Hoss. Gave Joe something to chew on that’s worthwhile. He’ll figure it out and when he does, he’ll be the old Joe, full of spit and fire.”
“Dadburnit! He needs to get outta that pink bedroom. Sometimes I just wanna throw him over my shoulder and—”
“—you know, that’s not a bad idea.”
“He’s been sitting up now for a couple of days. The Doctor said when he could do that with no ill effects, he should move to a chair. There’s no reason that chair has to remain in the house, if you get my meaning,” I said, arching an eyebrow.
Hoss brightened. “We can carry him out to the porch and sit him where there’s a good view of the corral. Maybe watching Ern workin’ with them horses will perk him up.”
“Just maybe, Hoss, just maybe,” I smiled and stretched my back, aware again of the tree trunk behind me. Anything that lived in the desert had to be strong enough to survive. Against all odds, Joe had survived. All he needed to do now was live.
The next morning, Julia’s giggles echoed in the rafters and Mrs. Griswold smiled when she saw Hoss carry Joe in his chair through the house out to the front porch.
“Gosh darn it, Hoss! Put me down!”
“Happy to, Little Brother. How about right here?” Hoss set the chair next to the rail to the right of the steps with Joe’s back to Ern, who stood holding Cochise’s bridle. “I think there’s someone who wants to see you.”
The pinto nickered and dropped his head over the rail to nibble Joe’s ear.
I handed my son a mug of tepid coffee. “I think you might want this.” Everyone laughed when Cochise nuzzled Joe’s hand searching for his favorite liquid.
“I’ve never seen the like!” Mrs. Griswold laughed.
“Come on, Pa,” Hoss said, “Let’s leave these two lovebirds alone for a while.” He had just turned toward the door when a shot rang out leaving Joe holding only the mug’s handle in his right hand. Chaos ensued.
Cochise screamed, reared and took off.
I managed to push the women through the open front door and to the floor where they landed in a heap.
“Stay down,” I yelled, running into Joe’s room to retrieve my side arm from the dresser. In rapid succession I heard yelling, three more shots, thundering hooves, and snarling dogs. Good God!
When I reached the porch, the first thing I saw was Hoss, sitting down and clutching his right arm. Blood ran through his fingers turning his sleeve into an absurd rendition of a barbershop pole.
“I’m all right, Pa. It’s just a crease. Check Joe,” he said pointing his chin towards the yard.
The dogs, growling and howling, hovered over a figure lying prone in the dirt. I gasped. Lightheaded and feeling my knees give way, I grabbed for a post and rested my forehead against the wood. I couldn’t . . . wouldn’t look.
A familiar groan penetrated the fog and I opened my eyes to see Joe, at the bottom of the stairs, trying to sit up.
“Hold still, Joe. Let me check you over.”
At last, the blood began to return to my head and I regained my faculties. “Sheriff!” I yelled. “Get those dogs under control!”
Mrs. Griswold and Julia brushed past me carrying basins of water and bandages. Julia went straight to Hoss and began tending his arm. Mrs. Griswold rushed to the poor creature in the yard.
“It’s Jim Fenton!” she shouted.
I staggered down the steps and knelt by Joe running my hands up and down his limbs and behind his back. Although my son’s leg did not appear to have been affected by the tumble, the incision in his back had opened and oozed blood. Thankfully, I could find no new wounds. Although I felt stronger, I didn’t trust myself to lift my son alone, and looked around wildly for help.
“You are not okay!”
“Neither are you,” Joe said, a cheeky grin on his face.
“Impudent. No respect for your elders.”
Joe allowed Ern and I to help him up the stairs, but insisted he could walk from the porch to the bedroom by himself. He managed about three steps before he began to wobble. We each grabbed an elbow and together we maneuvered him into the bedroom. Hoss joined him soon thereafter, along with Ern, and they talked about ranching and barn raisings, cattle drives and church socials, anything but the events of the last few weeks. I sat in the front room at the table with my forehead on my arms.
Mrs. Griswold came to see me an hour later. The first thing she did was thrust a glass of brandy into my hands. “You look like you need this.”
“I’m afraid I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“Or as resilient.”
“Now you sound like my sons,” I chuckled. “How’s Fenton?”
“There wasn’t much I could do for him except staunch the bleeding from the bullet wounds and cleanse the bites. The rest will have to wait for a doctor. The Sheriff volunteered to fetch Dr. Scully.”
When I heard that, I fumed. “Ern,” I called, and he popped out of the bedroom. “I need you to ride to Fort Independence. Find the Commandant and explain what’s happened here. If he gives you any trouble, tell him Major Benjamin Cartwright of the Virginia City 116th Militia is requesting help.”
“Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Dr. Scully operated on Fenton in the bunkhouse later that afternoon. He said the patient would survive long enough stand trial. Beyond that, he offered no opinion.
Julia had done a fine job on Hoss’s wound and the doctor told her so. As for Joe, Scully cleaned and re-stitched the surgical incision in his back and warned against further acrobatics. When Joe pressed the issue of going home, and the doctor reluctantly agreed. The answer did not please me.
“How could you agree to that? He’s not fit to travel yet.”
“Mr. Cartwright, your son has made it eminently clear he wants to go home. He’s of age, he has a right to determine his own care. In my opinion, remaining here will be far more detrimental to his overall health and well-being than traveling, no matter how uncomfortable that may prove to be. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another patient.”
“Not for long,” I said, pointing to the Army detail riding into the yard. With them was a field ambulance.
A different mood prevailed in the household that evening. For the first time in two weeks, no one was under guard and everyone had a bed to sleep in. At my insistence, Joe had already turned in, but the rest of us were enjoying a last meal together.
“I tell you, Mr. Cartwright, it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed,” Ern said, his voice trembling with excitement. “When Cochise bolted, I could see Fenton clear as day. He looked like a lunatic, all wild-eyed and weaving right and left, waving his gun around. He ran straight towards Joe, cursing him for ruining his life, but before he could take aim again, Joe pulled the pistol out of Hoss’s holster, shoved him aside, fired at Fenton, then dove down the steps doing a real nice tuck and roll and fired again. Hit his target both times, too! I never seen shooting like that.”
“Yes, well . . . Joe’s skill with a gun is something I have often been grateful for, but something I’m still not comfortable with.” I said.
“And then it was the dogs’ turn,” Ern continued. “They went crazy and the Sheriff couldn’t hold ‘em back. Said they’d gone as far south as Olancha when the dogs stopped and turned home. He just thought they’d lost the scent.”
Hoss snorted, barely containing his contempt for the latest evidence of the Sheriff’s ineptitude. “Thought or hoped so he wouldn’t have to put forth any more effort in finding him?”
“That’s enough, Hoss,” I said, quietly.
Mrs. Griswold set a platter of beef, mashed potatoes, and roasted root vegetables on the table. “I suspect Fenton figured he’d get caught eventually. No witness, no charges, so he headed back here to finish off your son.”
Julia held one hand up to her neck. “It must have been terrifying for him to have those dogs at his throat.” She shuddered and leaned in closer to Ern, who put a protective arm around her shoulders.
“More like divine retribution, if you ask me,” said Hoss. “After all he put Joe through, having those dogs on him was a little extra payback. Jail is too good for him.”
“I doubt he’ll spend much time in Jail, Mr. Cartwright,” said Ern. “I heard an Army Sergeant say Petis turned on his partner; said Fenton done murdered another fella a while back. Looks like it’s the gallows for him.”
“That a fact?” Hoss said. “Well, then, he won’t be no stranger to the hounds of hell. Looks mighty good, Missus Griswold. I could eat a horse.”
I still had reservations about leaving, but despite the new stitches, Joe didn’t appear to have suffered any ill consequences from his actions.
“Joe, you asleep?” I asked from the bedroom door.
It was an old joke.
“You need anything?”
“No, I’m fine. Mrs. Griswold brought me a plate earlier. She’s a good cook.”
“Your brother seems to think so.”
“He’d better not tell Hop Sing.”
Another old joke.
“You feel up to a chat?”
“Sure, come on in.”
I sat on the edge of the bed careful not to jostle him. “Is this okay?” He nodded, turning more toward me. I placed a pillow under his left shoulder and felt him ease back into it. “Better?” Again a nod. “Do you want something to drink?”
“May I talk to you about something that’s been troubling me?”
Joe raised his eyebrows, but he smiled and said, “Sure.”
“What were you thinking when you dove off the porch?”
“I walked into that one, didn’t I?” he chuckled.
“It wasn’t meant as a criticism. I really want to know what was on your mind.”
“That I was tired.”
Before I could say “not that again,” he continued.
“Tired of running. Tired of being hunted. Tired of being a victim.”
I was stunned. I had never attached any other meaning to “tired” except physical exhaustion.
“I was a sitting duck on that porch. If Hoss hadn’t turned and deflected the bullet . . . well, I guess my guardian angel was watching.”
“Yes,” I replied in a whisper. The lump in my throat made it hard to speak, and when we locked eyes, tears ran down both our faces.
“Of course, that deflection nearly killed Cochise, and that made me really mad. So I grabbed Hoss’s gun and did the only thing I could do. Kill the bastard.”
“Fenton’s not dead yet, if that’s what you mean, but he will be after he’s tried, convicted, and hung. I have no doubt about that.”
“Well . . . I’ll let you get some rest.” I started to rise when Joe spoke again. Softly, almost a whisper.
“You were there, you know. In my dream. You were standing in the porch light at home, and I was in the yard at the light’s edge. You kept asking if I’d figured it out yet. I said ‘no.’ I asked you if you’d miss me, and you said ‘yes’ but you didn’t try to stop me. Eventually, I walked into the darkness alone.”
I didn’t know what to say. I took his hand in mine and held it tightly. The lamplight from the front room illuminated his face. He looked so young and yet already gray streaked his hair. Where had the years gone? There was a time I could make everything all right with a hug and a kiss . . . or a new horse. I suppose, in the end, we all walk into the void alone.
“Sometimes a rock is just a rock; isn’t that what you used to tell Adam? You knew you couldn’t watch over me every moment, so you taught me to figure things out for myself. And I do . . . most of the time.” He smiled. “In the end, there are some things we have to do alone.”
I watched from the porch while Hoss settled his brother in the back of the wagon against the upturned saddles. “It’s gonna be a rough ride, Joe, but we’ll make it as comfortable for you as possible.”
“I’ll just be glad to get home.” Joe worked hard not to show how much the climb into the wagon hurt. I’m sure he thought if I saw even a shadow of a grimace, we’d be staying another week. The thing I’d lost sight of was that home was the best medicine.
I walked down the steps with Mrs. Griswold and Julia. “We’ll get that rig back to you just as soon as we can.”
“No hurry Mr. Cartwright. Me and Julia aren’t going anywhere until Tom gets back from the drive.”
“Sure you don’t want to take the reins, Pa?”
“I’m fine, Hoss. We can change off later.”
“I’d like to thank you for this geegaw you made me, Joe,” said Julia.
“Just remember to look for a man of substance and not a geegaw,” Joe replied. He jerked his head toward Ern and Julia blushed. “Besides, it’s the least I could do after that good nursing you gave me.”
“Mrs. Griswold, I really don’t know how to say thank you enough for all you’ve done for us, especially Joe,” I said. “I wish your husband were here for so I could express my gratitude in person.”
“Orv and Fenton could have bled us dry if your son hadn’t caught them switching our brands, not to mention all the work Hoss did around here rebuilding that shed and fixing the window, or Joe giving Ern advice about the horses and other things. So let’s just say one hand washes the other and be done with it.”
“Yeah. Fair enough,” I replied and tipped my hat. “Ladies, be seeing you.”
It was a lie, of course. Kind as they were, I didn’t imagine we’d ever see these people again. I wondered what my sons thought.
Hoss twisted around in his seat. “See you, ladies.” You ready, Pa?
“Yeah, all set.”
When we pulled away from the house, Joe waved, and said only two words.
Written for the 2015 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament. My words were:
wagon wheel, bait, rope, mission, and retribution.
Other Stories by this Author
- Night Watch (by Cheaux)
- To Reach for the Stars (by Cheaux)
- Clothes Make the Man (by Cheaux)
- The Black Hat (by Cheaux)
- My Lucky Day (by Cheaux)