Summary: Trouble comes in all sizes and shapes. This one is 5’5” and tough as an old boot. A rare first person story.
Rating: T (13,085 words)
‘Pico Pete’ the cowboy called himself. There was a different name sewn into the back of his shirt collar, but here in the west it’s considered bad manners to dwell too much on a thing like that. He was a drifter and a hell-raiser fresh out of Arizona with a lot of land already behind him: New Mexico, Texas, – before then, who knows? He rode into town one hot day in August. There was a smile on his face as he looked about him, an old fashioned .36 eighteen fifty-one Colt pattern Navy revolver tied down on his thigh and a tough-looking sorrel gelding that had seen better days held tightly between his knees. The gelding was walking lame, which was what attracted my attention in the first place.
But I guess I’d better start right back at the beginning and introduce myself. My name’s Adam Cartwright. I wasn’t born around here, but I’ve lived in these parts for most of my adult life, so I guess I’d call it home. My Pa and my brothers and I own a ranch to the south and the west of Virginia City. We call it the Ponderosa. It takes up most of the ground between here and the foothills of the High Sierra Mountains and borders along the lake that the Indians call ‘Sky Water’. Although I say it myself, it’s the biggest, most prosperous outfit in the whole of Nevada Territory.
I’m thirty-two years old, according to the reckoning my Pa wrote into the Good Book on the day that I was born. I never knew my mother. Pa doesn’t like to talk about her much, but I’ve seen from her picture that I have her ears and the same narrow nose, and I guess my black hair comes from her side of the family too, ‘though it’s starting to creep back from my forehead now, just a little. I’m big and I’m strong – to survive in this harsh and unforgiving country you have to be – and although I’m just a little lame in one hip, I can work hard all day and play all night long and still come back for more in the morning. Handsome? Well, the ladies seem to think that I am – I’ve never been short of a partner at a picnic or a dance. I have a straight, narrow lipped mouth from some distant, English forbear and cheeks that dimple when I smile. My eyes are a sort of tawny gold colour that glows like amber beads in the sunlight.
On this particular day in August, I was working alongside my brother. We were loading sacks of grain onto the wagon, starting to stock up our winter store. I was doing my share of the work, and both of us were sweating hard. Hoss, my brother, doesn’t look anything like me – the result, I suppose of us being only half brothers. He’s bigger and stronger for one thing, although I’m no weakling. He can lift a hundredweight sack on each shoulder with no effort at all while I can manage just one at a time. That’s what I let him believe, anyway. After all, I’m the brains of the family: the one with the education.
I was standing alongside the back wheel of the wagon, just catching my breath, as you do, when I felt the rig shake. Hoss had just loaded the last two sacks in the back. He slung the rope over to secure the load and came up beside me, mopping his face on a big, blue bandanna. “Hey, Adam, how is it I always git ta load near on three quarters o’ this goldarned wagon all on my ownsome?”
I have discovered, being older and wiser, that this is the sort of a question it’s best to skirt around, if you can. I slapped him hard on the shoulder. “You’re just lucky, I guess.”
Now Hoss is a likeable sort of a man. He stands four clear inches taller than I do, and he’s as big around as a barn. When he gets mad, which isn’t often, it’s time to cut and run for whatever cover you can find. I saw his broad-featured face cloud over and decided it was time to distract him a little. I pointed out the cowboy with the sore-footed pony. “Looks like a stranger in town.”
Our Pa says that Hoss has a tender heart when it comes to critters. Others – less kind and unrelated – reckon he’s a little soft in the head. We stood together beside the wagon and watched this fella pull up outside the saloon. He swung his right leg over the front of his saddle in some sort of fancy dismount and slithered down the horse’s shoulder into the dust of the street. Without a second look, he left the animal standing with the reins trailing in the dirt, stepped up on to the boardwalk and disappeared into the darkness beyond the batwing doors. I watched Hoss’s expression gradually change. “Looks like he’s rode that poor critter near ta death!”
I set my teeth edge to edge and thought about it. Certainly the sorrel looked in a sorry state. His hide was sort of patchy, and his tail was thin. His head hung down somewhere around his knees, and he seemed disinclined to move to get himself a drink of water even though the horse trough was just a step away. I said, “You could be right about that.”
Hoss was still scowling and swabbing his neck with the blue bandanna. “Adam, you fancy a nice, cold beer over at the Silver Dollar?”
I guess I should have seen the warning signs and called a halt to it right there and then. If I had, I might have saved us a whole lot of trouble later on. Instead, I let my thirst over-rule my head. “Sure. Why not? You buyin’?”
Hoss ignored me. Perhaps it wouldn’t have made any difference whatever I’d said. His ice-blue eyes were as hard as diamond, and he had that stubborn ‘I’ll take on the world iffen it gets in my way’ look on his face that I’ve come to know very well. Stuffing the bandanna back into his hip pocket, he set out across ‘C’ street towards the Silver Dollar saloon. I left the wagon to fend for itself and trailed along after.
Of all the saloons in Virginia City – and there are quite a few – the Silver Dollar rates as our favourite. There’s a long, mahogany bar with all the brass fittings to the left of the door as you step inside, with a big, gilt framed mirror lining the wall behind. Word is, it took a dozen men and any number of mules and horses to get that mirror over the pass from the river port at Sacramento. A number of circular tables filled up most of the floor space, leaving enough room for an intimate dance floor alongside the piano. The comfortable chairs were exactly tailored to fit a man’s butt. Out in the back there’s a small, private room where a man can conduct a little confidential business, play a private game of cards, entertain a few friends or a lady… A long wooden staircase climbed the far wall to a number of cubical sized bedrooms on the second floor – convenient accommodation for the barroom girls. The company’s convivial, mostly; the beer’s stronger than the hogwash you can pay good money for some places, and the glasses occasionally get washed. It was dim and cool, almost chilly when compared to the furnace-like heat of the street outside. The shades had been pulled down over the windows, turning the light in the barroom green. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the gloom.
By the time I’d taken a long look around, nodded a greeting to a man or two that I knew and winked at one of the girls, Hoss had located the cowboy. He was leaning with both elbows propped up on the bar. Already the beer glass in front of him was half-empty. Hoss parked his bulk alongside him and signalled to Sam for two glasses. I hitched the heel of my boot onto the polished brass rail beside his and waited for the beer to arrive.
To give him his due, Hoss is a patient man. I knew he was boiling up inside. The sad state of that sorrel pony was burning into his soul. Nevertheless, he waited until he had gotten his beer and supped off the froth before he turned to the cowboy. “Mister,” he said. “I couldn’t help but notice that little horse o’ yours is walkin’ kinda lame.”
Hoss was walking on dangerous ground. Just as it’s unwise in the west to ask about the name a man uses, you don’t question the way he treats his horse – or his woman – unless you’re looking for a fight. But this was my brother’s play, and I was there merely as an observer. I nursed my drink and watched their faces in the barroom mirror.
Now, this cowboy was wearing a flat brimmed hat, and the top of that hat came just about level with the point of my brother’s chin. To my surprise, he tipped back his head and answered Hoss right pertly; “The horse is mine.” He looked Hoss up and down as if sizing him up. It might have been my imagination, but I got the impression that he wasn’t impressed. “And I’m a man that minds his own business,” he added in a tone that carried a whole wealth of meaning.
If Hoss had any sense in his head, he would have left it right there, but that’s not the way his mind works. I saw him thinking it over. “I know some things about horses,” he said slowly. “I figured I might be able ta help you out with him.”
“I don’t need any help,” the cowboy said shortly and turned his attention back to his beer.
Folks around here tell me I have a smart mouth and maybe that’s true. This was one more occasion on which it might have been better if I’d kept it tight shut. Instead I leaned past my brother and his beer, and I said, “You’re turnin’ down a real good offer. You won’t find a better man with a horse or a steer.”
The cowboy lifted his lip in a sneer. “Does everyone around here make it a habit ta stick their nose into other people’s affairs?”
Hoss and I might only be half-brothers, but it’s a well known fact around here that if you take on one Cartwright you have to take on them all, and Hoss had gotten himself all riled up anyway. He bristled up somethin’ alarming. “Mister, that’s my brother you’re bad mouthin’,” he said with an edge to his voice.
The stranger made some remark that I didn’t quite catch, then, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” I didn’t much care for his tone.
I saw Hoss go all red in the face. He turned to face the cowboy full on. “There ain’t no call fer you talkin’ like that, Mister. I spoke ta you real’ kindly concernin’ your horse.”
The little man snarled. “I di’n’t ask you ta come in here a-stickin’ you nose inta my business, nor him neither.” I fielded the angry look that came flying in my direction. I saw trouble coming before it arrived and backed off – just a little – taking my beer with me for safety’s sake.
Hoss’s face scrunched up in a scowl. “Now, Mister, that just ain’t nice…” Whatever he was going to say next is, I guess, lost for ever – he never did get the chance to finish. The little man came in hard, fast and low. I think he took Hoss by surprise.
Hoss stands six foot six in his stockinged feet; the stranger, I guess, didn’t quite make five foot five. Perhaps he didn’t intend to fight quite so dirty but their difference in height made it kinda hard for him to reach a legitimate target. In any event, he caught Hoss several sharp blows somewhere well below the belt. I heard the air whoosh out of Hoss’s big body and saw him double up. His face went white and then sort of purple.
That was the point when the little guy laid on in earnest and started beating my brother all around the head with his sharp-knuckled fists. Hoss wasn’t going to stand still for that. He swung two or three wild, haymaking punches, not one of which connected with the cowboy’s sharp chin. I swear the little man swayed neatly and nimbly backward out of the way; then he came in again – fighting. Hoss, unbelievably, was getting the worst of it. Being his brother I wasn’t about to stand by and watch him get beaten. I swallowed down the last of my beer – now flat and rapidly warming – and put my empty glass on the bar. Holding my hands out well from my sides, I stepped in between them. “Hey boys,” I said lightly, “I think that’s enough.” That was my second mistake of the day. I guess the little guy just didn’t hear me. I’d barely started my big act as peacemaker when he stepped up and hit me right in the mouth. I was surprised more than hurt as I sat down hard on my butt. Then I tasted the hot, coppery blood. I explored with my tongue, and found I had split the inside of my lip on the razor sharp edges of my teeth. I spat out a mouthful of fresh, bright redness.
The cowboy was still beating up on my brother with both hands and feet. He was a little powerhouse of energy, and he was in some sort of frenzy. Hoss was starting to get mad. I could see the glint in his pale blue eyes that meant it was time to get out of his way. Not wanting anyone to be hurt in earnest, I climbed to my feet and stepped forward again. My sole intention – I swear it – was to simply haul them apart.
The saloon had mostly cleared of people. All the tables and chairs had emptied; cards and drinks were abandoned. Nobody wanted to get tangled up in a barroom fight. The men that had stayed and the fancy women that worked there had lined up along the walls and were shouting advice and encouragement – I’m not entirely sure who too. This was an impromptu and totally unexpected entertainment, and they were determined to make the most of it. Myself, I wasn’t so sure. It was too hot for fighting. Sam, I noticed, was doing his best to protect that fancy mirror. He was dancing up and down behind the bar flapping his arms like a duck in one of those fairground shooting galleries they’ve got back east. I appreciated his point of view, but there wasn’t much I could do to help him right there and then – I had other things on my mind.
As I think I might have said, Hoss is a gentle, genial, giant of a man – mostly. He’s not the sort to hit out at anyone all that much smaller than he is. I have a feeling he was pulling his punches. It looked like he was taking on hell of a beating, and it was up to me to lend him a hand.
Hoss and I are both big and powerful men – we cut down trees and wrestle steers for a living. We’ve been in our share of brawls, mostly with loggers and miners and muleskinners. When it comes to a fight, we’ve learned how to handle ourselves over the years. Never the less, this little man was easily holding his own. I felt my fists connect solidly with bone once or twice. Although it gave me some satisfaction, it didn’t have much effect. The cowboy was a devil right out of hell, and he fought us both to a standstill. I still wish I knew how he did it. By the time he was done, there was blood on the barroom floor, and most of it belonged to a Cartwright. I, for one, wasn’t the least bit sorry when the sheriff arrived.
Law and order presented itself in the familiar, sturdy form of my old friend, Roy Coffee. Roy and I have know each other for around twenty years, and we often share a meal and a couple of beers or a companionable game of cards while we exchange gossip and swap views on everything from lady’s hats to the latest political situation. Roy’s a big, bluff, friendly sort of a man with a penchant for good food, finding lost children and taking care of stray dogs – mainly the two legged kind. We’ve always got along fine. This morning, however, he was standing on the other side of that silver-star badge, and he was all business and hard edged efficiency. What’s more, he had a couple of shotgun tottin’ deputies in tow to back up his play. No one was going to argue with them, and they soon broke up the fight.
Roy stood in the dead-square centre of the room and looked from one to another. His mouse-grey moustache bristled as only Roy’s moustache can, and, in spite of the heat, his eyes were like shards of grey ice. He always takes it as a personal affront if someone busts up his town. “Would one o’ you gents kindly mind tellin’ me what this fightin’ is all about?”
Hoss leaned back on the bar while he tried to stop the blood that flowed from his nose with the bright blue bandanna. The stranger was still spitting horseshoe nails. It was all Roy’s deputies could do to keep hangin’ on to his arms. I guessed that meant I was elected. Roy though so too. “Adam?”
Being the old man of the party, I sought out a chair and sat down. “Hoss offered to help the man with his horse,” I said, trying to keep it simple. “I don’t think he appreciated the suggestion.”
The little man let loose with a stream of invective that might well have raised blisters on the bar’s polished surface. Some of it was in Spanish and some in French; I might have been the only man there who understood all of it, and I wasn’t in the mood to translate, but I think Roy got the gist of it. He fixed the stranger with a jaundiced eye until he lapsed into silence. Roy turned back to me. “You tellin’ me, Adam, you was fightin’ over another man’s horse?”
Put that way, it did sound kind of stupid. I worked my sore jaw. Behind his bandanna, Hoss concealed a deep blush. “We only offered advice,” I said defensively. “That fella threw the first punch.” Now I felt like a twelve year-old schoolboy caught in a schoolyard brawl. Roy looked at me in disbelief – then he turned to the stranger.
“You’re new in town, Mister; reckon you don’t know the Cartwright boys.”
The cowboy muttered something about interfering busybodies who should keep to their own affairs, and I saw Roy’s face harden.
“There ain’t no call for that sort of talk. I think we’ll all take a walk down ta the jailhouse. We gotta sort out who’s gonna pay fer this damage – an’ it’ll give you boys a chance to cool off.”
I collected my hat from the barroom floor and gave Sam a wink. We might have smashed up a few tables and chairs in our roughhouse, but that was nothing new. At least his precious mirror was still intact. Sam winked back. Roy didn’t arrest us or take our guns, but he made it clear that we had to go with him. We felt kind of foolish as he marched us all out the door.
Virginia City is built on the slopes of Sun Mountain. The walk to Roy’s office and the City Jail at the far end of ‘C’ street encompasses most of the hill. The enforced march in the midday heat took our breath away; it heated our bodies and cooled our tempers, just as Roy had intended.
The town jail is a new and impressive building, having already progressed through several incarnations, each one having previously been burned down. Roy has an enormous office right in the front and a massive oak desk to fit in it. There’s a black-iron, pot-bellied stove that sits in the corner, essential for warmth in the winter but upon this occasion belching out rather more heat than was strictly necessary – or comfortable. The sweat burst anew from my face. As always, there was a pot of thick, black coffee boiling away on the back of the stove, filling the air with its rich aroma. Right then, I wouldn’t have minded a cup, but Roy didn’t offer.
The room contains a mismatched assortment of furniture: a varied collection of tables and chairs, a dresser and a roll-top bureau of ancient and battered appearance stuffed full of the papers that Roy’s saved for years. There a well filled gun rack against one of the walls, and the others are covered with papers and posters. The whole is littered with newsprint and discarded clothing and odd bits of harness – Roy isn’t the tidiest soul. Two closed wooden doors led through to the cells at the back.
Hoss cleared off a chair and sat down. I felt sorry for him in an amused kind of way. He still looked sheepish and rather forlorn: as if he couldn’t quite understand where his good intentions had gone wrong. There was blood on his shirtfront, and his hair was all mussed, and he had some bruises he would have to explain to our father. I touched my swollen lip with the tip of my tongue and guessed I didn’t look any better. When I got home, I’d have to do some explaining myself.
Roy settled in to the big leather armchair that filled up the space behind the desk – a gift from the sometimes-grateful townsfolk – and looked at our various faces. “I guess I don’t have to lecture you two about brawlin’ in the saloon,” he said to Hoss and me, sternly. “Reckon your Pa c’n do that a whole lot better than I can.” Now I felt about seven! “What we gotta do is sort out who’s gonna pay fer what. I reckon,” Roy said, eyeing us shrewdly, “around about twenty dollars a head should cover the breakages in the saloon, an’ five dollars a head as a fine fer the fightin’ I know you two are good fer it. What about you, Mister?” All of us looked at the stranger.
The cowboy took of his hat, and for the first time we all got a good look at his face. It wasn’t quite what I had expected. He was younger than me, but older than Hoss, with bright green eyes in a wizened, sharp-featured face, reddish hair that was starting to thin and poked out in all directions and a whole mess of sun-faded freckles. I guess if the Lord had given me a face like that I’d have been kind o’ prickly too.
The eyes were still angry and as hard as green glass. “I don’t have any money,” he said shortly. “Not ten cents ta my name. All I got is a pistol an’ a lamed up horse.” He glared at Hoss belligerently as if the whole darned thing was his fault.
“You simmer down, now,” Roy told him firmly. He searched around amongst the litter on his oversized desk and came up with a stub of pencil and a relatively clean sheet of paper. “Let’s just get a few things written down here,” he muttered, straightening out the creases. “Now, what’s your name?”
That’s when he told us what he was called – all spunk and defiance, daring any one of us to laugh. Hoss and I gazed at him gravely while Roy wrote it down.
“Well, Mister Pico Pete,” said Roy with a dead-pan face, “Iffen you can’t pay the fine, I guess I’m gonna have ta lock you up. A day fer a dollar, that’s the going rate.”
That pronouncement was followed by a long, awkward silence while we all contemplated the prospect of twenty-five days locked up in a cage in that heat. Then Hoss cleared his throat. “Roy, there ain’t no point in lockin’ a fella up just ‘cause he ain’t got no money. He can’t earn nothin’ while he’s locked up in a cell.” I gazed at my brother with admiration; for once, his logic was impeccable. Roy couldn’t find fault with it either; he scowled at the words written down on the paper.
“I guess you c’n get a job ta pay off the damages ta the saloon, but you gotta pay this here fine here an’ now.”
The cowboy shrugged and looked stubborn; “I told you already, I ain’t got no money.”
Hoss sighed and looked at me pleadingly. I knew that he didn’t have more than fifty cents in his pants pocket, and he knew that I knew it. Wearily, I reached into my pants and pulled out my purse. Everyone watched while I counted out three, five-dollar gold pieces onto Roy’s desk. I was rewarded by Hoss’s lop-sided smile.
Roy scooped up the money and dropped it into the drawer of his desk. “Now, Mister,” he said to Pete. “What sort of work c’n you do?”
The cowboy didn’t look remotely grateful to me for bailing him out of the hoosegow. He shrugged and looked stubborn. “I guess I c’n round up cattle – when I got a horse.” He didn’t sound very happy about it.
“Then we c’n give you a job,” says Hoss cheerfully. I stared at him, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes. It was all I could do to keep from throwing up my hands in horror. I figured my brother had taken leave of his senses, and I could see that Roy thought the same. But as sheriff, he was interested, mainly, in getting the money to repair the saloon. He screwed up his face at the stranger. “You prepared to go work for the Cartwrights ‘til you c’n pay what you owe me?”
Pete glared at me sullenly. He turned his hat in his hands. “I got a choice?” he demanded. His anger boiling just under the surface.
Roy was amenable, even cheerful. He knew that he had the upper hand. “Sure you got a choice,” he said smugly. “I c’n lock you up in this here jail fer just under a month, won’t be no trouble at-all. These boys here c’n tell you how hot it gets back there.”
Hoss and I both nodded unhappy agreement. We’d both spent time in those cells and could vouch for that being true. Those brick-built cells were roasting hot ovens in the summer time, and cold enough to freeze the marrow inside a man’s bones come winter. Those high, barred windows were set just right to catch the full blast of the Northwest wind. The rest of the time, they were just plain uncomfortable with a plain board bench to sleep on and a pot underneath for when a man had to go. I didn’t really have an argument, and the cowboy indicated reluctant agreement.
We left the lame horse at the livery stable. There was really no way we could get him all the way out to the ranch. Pete left detailed instructions as to how the sore foot was to be treated. Hoss gave different ones. It amused me that even on that, the two of them couldn’t agree. When it looked like they might come to blows, I decided to wait outside in the street ‘til they’d finished.
We all rode home in the wagon. Pete, as a ‘guest’ rode up front on the high seat alongside my brother. Neither looked like they enjoyed the experience much. I bounced around in the back with the sacks of supplies; it didn’t do much for my sore bones and bruises. Needless to say, we didn’t talk much. Because we were late setting out from Virginia City, we were late getting back to the ranch. The sun had long set behind the mountains, and it was almost dark by the time we drove into the yard.
The big house was lit up like a beacon. Yellow lamplight slipped from all the windows, and a column of smoke stood tall and straight from the stoutly built, grey-stone chimney, stark against a darkening sky. It’s always cold at night near the mountains, and a log fire always burns in the hearth. As we might have expected, our Pa was waiting outside the door. He always worries when we’re late home. As he stepped from the porch, the light of the lamp turned his silver hair into gold. The cloud of concern cleared away from his face. “Boys,” Pa still calls us that even though we’re full-grown men. “You’re late. I was afraid you’d had an accident with the wagon.”
I jumped down from the wagon and stretched out the kinks that had developed, quite unaccountably, in the small of my back. “No trouble, Pa,” I said, with what I hoped was unstudied nonchalance. On reflection, I doubt that Pa was deceived. “We just got held up a little.” I busied myself untying the ropes that held down the load. The work enabled me, for a moment at least, to keep my back turned.
Hoss climbed down on the far side of the wagon; he managed to conceal most of himself behind the rump of the horse. “Pa, this here’s Pete. He knows how ta hustle a steer, an’ I said he could work fer us fer a while.”
“Pete,” my father repeated. I heard the frown in his voice as he held out his hand. Pa is a man who likes to do his own hiring and firing and is still never altogether happy when we do it for him. “We can always use a good man. You can put your things in the bunkhouse. Hoss ’ll show you the way.” Perhaps only I, who knows him so well, would have noticed the slight hesitation. I knew there and then that he suspected something, and that he would have the whole sorry story out of us in the end.
Pete picked up his gear: saddlebags, bedroll and a rifle, from under the wagon seat, and Hoss led him away to the bunkhouse door. I moved around to the back of the wagon and hoisted the first of the sacks. It was right about then that Pa caught sight of my face. He locked an iron hard hand on my elbow and turned me into the light. With a hundredweight sack of cornmeal balanced up on my shoulder, I found it hard to resist.
I guess, by then, I looked kind o’ pretty with a split, swollen lip and a spreading bruise turning my cheek all sorts of colours. Pa took a real good look and then said, in his rich, deep gruff voice, “Would you care to explain what happened to your face?”
Like I had a choice? I sighed a huge sigh. “I guess somewhere along the line I must have forgotten to duck.” My father nodded sagely.
It’s not easy to hide a lot from our Pa. He has a way of looking at you with those angry, dark brown eyes that sort of draws the information right out of you. It wasn’t long – after he got Hoss and me inside the house – that he knew everything that had happened.
“So,” he said slowly, not very pleased, “After you’d finished brawling in the saloon, you decided it might be a real fine idea to give this man a job?”
I let my brother field that one. It was his idea after all. Hoss blushed and stuttered and looked all embarrassed. “Aw, heck, Pa, the fella needed work ta pay off the fine, an’ you’re always sayin’ as how we c’n use a good man.”
The play of emotion over my father’s face was something to see: incredulity, indignation, annoyance and ultimate resignation all took part in the pageant. Hoss, for once, had him dead to rights. “Then on your own heads be it,” he intoned in his deep, bell-like voice. “The man looks like a trouble maker to me, and nothing you’ve told me makes me think differently. I shall hold the two of you personally responsible for any problems he causes.”
I was about to object. None of what had happened was really my fault; it was Hoss who’d gone after Pete because of the horse and Hoss who’d said we’d employ him. Then I caught the stern look in my father’s eye. He was in the mood for an argument, and it was one that I wouldn’t win. I was the eldest, and it looked like I was getting the blame. I swallowed my angry words and subsided into a somewhat sulky silence. “I think,” Pa said sternly, “That you’d both better get cleaned up for supper.”
Iodine stings. It’s a truth that I learned as a child. Hoss applied it generously to the split in my lip and then to the cut on my cheek. The pain of it made my eyes water. Then we changed places, and I did the same thing for him. We both had cuts on our faces and skin off our knuckles and bruises in places I wouldn’t care to describe to you ladies. Suffice it to say I wouldn’t be visiting Miss Lucy’s ladies on Friday night as I’d planned. We tied our ties and put on our jackets – Pa insists that we dress for the evening meal – and went down to the great room to eat.
As always Pa sat at the head of the table with his back to the shuttered windows, and I, at its foot. Resplendent in silver-grey broadcloth and snowy white linen, he dominated the expanse of white lace tablecloth all set with crystal and the second-best, pink and white china as he had for the last twenty years. When he had offered up thanks for the food on the table and shook out his napkin, he studied our faces, first Hoss’s, then mine.
“Well,” he said grimly, “at least we know the man packs a hell of a punch. Now that he’s here we’ll have to give him a chance to prove himself.” That sounded more like our Pa: never willing to condemn a man until he’d been given a hearing. I guess seeing his sons with blood on their faces had upset him. “But I shall expect the two of you to keep a close eye on him!” And that’s Pa too.
The meal, as always, was quite superb: succulent pork in a crisp, crackled coating, soft white mashed potatoes, green beans from the well-watered garden out back and thick, dark gravy made with the fat from the meat. It was hard to eat with sore mouths, but we tried to do the food justice.
The fourth chair at the table was empty. Trying to start a conversation that didn’t involve the new, hired hand, I inquired, “Joe stayin’ over at the Hillier house tonight?” Tom Hillier has a pretty, half-Mexican daughter with long, jet-black hair and dancing black eyes. She had my youngest brother on a short piece of string and he was – temporarily – entranced.
Pa glanced at Joe’s chair. I sensed disapproval. “I told him not to hurry back tonight. No doubt he’ll be back tomorrow. I don’t see him missing the party on Saturday.”
The big party on Saturday was something that I’d forgotten about. It was an annual affair, held at the hottest time of the year. Half the county is invited and everyone who can walk, hop or crawl to the Ponderosa comes.
Hoss’s eyes had sort of glazed over. “This year we’re gonna put up two sides of beef an’ three sacks o’ ‘taters to cook in the fire.” Pa and I laughed. It’s a strange quirk of my oversized younger brother’s nature that he can enjoy the eating of one meal while busily planning the next.
That red-hot day in Virginia City turned into a freezing cold night up here by the lake. That’s the way things are in these mountains. When supper was done, we threw another pine log into the fireplace and settled down for a little rest and recreation before we retired for the night. Pa played checkers with Hoss, and I found my place in my book, ‘The Amazon journeys of Hardcastle and Morris’. That log had scarcely sent sparks dancing into the chimney or started dripping resin when there was a whole lot of shouting outside in the yard. Naturally, we all got up and went to see what was going on.
By now, it was completely dark. The black velvet sky was all spangled with stars, and the moonlight shone bright on distant snow-covered peaks, making them glow as if they were made out of silver. It was so icy cold that the breath puffed out white in front of our faces.
We’d just got outside when a fight erupted out of the bunkhouse.
Now, when men live together all bundled up in one another’s pockets, tripping over each other’s toes, eating, sleeping and working with each other every single day, these things are bound to happen from time to time. A man gets impatient with another man’s face, the smell of his breath, the way he cuts up his bacon. Some times it does a man good to get things out of his system; to let off a little steam. There are times when one fight can lead to another, and you can end up with a whole yard full of struggling men. As long as everyone keeps things in proportion, no one really gets hurt.
This time, however, things looked kinda different. Instead of pairs of men taking pokes at each other and managing to miss more times than they hit, there was one central knot of fighting men and every cowhand and wrangler on the place was getting himself involved.
Pa wasn’t going to stand for that – not for a minute! “Break it up! Break it up! Break it up!” he bellowed at the top of his mighty lungs. It wouldn’t be true to say that no one took any notice: one or two of the hands turned their heads his way.
Pa’s not a man used to having his orders ignored. Big and barrel chested, still strong for all his grey hairs, he waded in with both hands. He grabbed the men by their shirt collars and by their belts and hauled them bodily out of the melee, dumping them in the dirt of the yard behind him before going back in for another. Hoss and I traded glances. Normally, we’d just have stood back and let the men fight themselves to a standstill, then estimate the cost of the damage and divide it amongst them. This time, as our Pa was getting himself involved, we agreed, silently, that perhaps we’d better lend him a hand.
We made a good team, Hoss and I. We worked side by side, pulling the struggling men out of our way and pushing and shoving our way through to the central disturbance. I suppose, if I’d had the time to think about it, I could have figured it out in advance. The man we finally got our hands on, at the core of the fight, was none other than the short, balding cowboy who called himself Pico Pete.
I confess that, by now, my temper was running a little short. I’d been hit in the face again: this time by somebody’s flying elbow, and I was dripping blood all over my good white shirt. Someone had stomped down hard on my foot, and I was hanging on to half of a struggling wildcat. I didn’t dare let go.
Pa loomed up in front of us like Zeus. His face was as black as a thundercloud, and his eyes were ready to strike down with bolts of bright lightening any one of us who chanced to get in his way. His grey suit was still spotless, his hair only slightly awry and his breathing just a little bit heavy. “What in all of tarnation is going on around here?” It isn’t often I hear my Pa swear.
Pete was in no condition to answer. He was all out of breath, and his face was purple. His red hair stuck out in all directions, and his eyes held an odd, glassy stare. He was kicking and lashing out with his arms and making some incoherent noises. I couldn’t make out what he said, and neither could Pa, which was probably just as well. Hoss and I had our work cut out for us just hanging on to him. Pa glared at us as if he were expecting us to make some excuse.
It was Charlie who came to our rescue. He appeared at my father’s shoulder as if by a conjuring trick. Charlie is our ranch foreman; you must have seen him about. He’s a little man, short, bow legged, burned all over as brown as a berry and totally reliable; he has been working for Pa longer than any of us care to think about. Charlie changed his half-chewed wad of tobacco from one cheek to the other and spat out a stream of dark brown juice. “You don’t need ta worry yore-self none about it, boss; it’s just the new man gettin’ put in his place.”
Every bunkhouse has its hierarchy. It’s usual for a new hand to be shown his place in the pecking order in no uncertain manner. They don’t usually react with the vehemence that Pete had displayed. He was still struggling, ‘though I think he was starting to tire. Pa eyed him with displeasure. “Do you think you can handle him, Charlie?”
Charlie cocked a bright eye and his mouth jerked about some. I think it’s the closest I’ve ever come to seeing him smile. “Ain’t never bin a man yit that I can’t handle.” It occurred to me to wonder if that included my Pa.
Pa had calmed down some, even if the dark scowl remained. He shrugged himself back into the smart grey jacket and gathered his dignity around him like a purple-velvet cloak. “I’ll leave it to you then,” he said shortly. Then his eyes found my face “Adam, take your friend somewhere and help him cool off. And then kindly explain to him that I shall deduct the damages to the bunk house out of his wages.” That is traditional too.
I decided that wasn’t the moment to explain to Pa that Pete wasn’t exactly my friend.
Now that the excitement was over, the crowd had begun to disperse. The men had better things to do than stand around in the cold. We provide books and newspapers for those men who can read and catalogues with pictures for those who cannot. There were clothes and harness in need of repair, and, no doubt, somewhere there was a low stakes card game in progress that we were supposed to know nothing about. Pa made a grand exit back to the house. That left Hoss and me with Charlie and Pete. Charlie winked at us, long and slow. “You heard what your pappy said, boys. Cool the man off.”
Hoss and I traded looks over Pico Pete’s head. There are times when each of us seems to know what’s in the other’s head; it comes from being brother’s, I guess. We both picked up an arm and a leg.
There was a thin sheet of ice on the horse trough, and the water was bitterly cold. Pete shattered that ice very nicely when Hoss and I heaved him in.
I should have slept well that night – Lord know, I was almighty tired. My various discomforts conspired to keep me awake: the acute and lingering soreness over my cheekbone, the gash inside my mouth that kept leaking blood, several bruised ribs and that deep rooted ache in the depths of my belly, caused by Pico Pete’s knee. I’d taken a beating it was going to take me a while to get over. I must have dozed for a while before daybreak, but the first glimmer of light in the eastern sky found me wide awake and shaving – very carefully – around the sores on my face.
I put on some old and comfortable work-worn clothes. It was still early, and the house was utterly silent as I went down the stairs. There was no rattle of pots and pans from the kitchen and no smell of coffee or bacon, so I guessed I shouldn’t expect breakfast just yet. Instead, I went out to the barn – now was as good a time as any to get the chores done.
It was a magnificent, bright summer’s morning; as good as any I’ve ever seen. It was still cold. The crystal clear air was frosty. Those distant mountains were now tipped with the gold of the rising sun, the lower slopes wreathed in night-shadows. They formed what my Pa calls the pillars of God’s outdoor cathedral. Closer, the foothills were clothed in thick forest: a thousand different shades of dark green. As I crossed the yard, I smelled the sharp scent of pine and heard birdsong and the low of a milk-heavy cow.
Hoss joined me in the barn. He couldn’t sleep either. We always work well together. We exchanged some amenable conversation and spent a companionable hour while we shovelled out horse shit. By the time we had finished, Pa was up and Hop Sing had made breakfast. It was time to start the day.
It’s a fact of life that horses and cows produce one hell of a lot of manure, and someone has to clear it away. It’s not an especially pleasant job, and it’s always the new man that gets it. Charlie had given Pete the task of clearing out the corrals, and Pete didn’t look very happy about it. Remembering the events of the evening before, Hoss and I exchanged a snigger.
At about midmorning, my little brother rode into the yard. As always, when he goes a-courting, he decks out his pinto pony in a fancy harness – all flashing conchos and braided reins, and he wears a great big smile on his face. On this occasion he looked especially smug, and I guessed that Tom Hillier’s back-eyed daughter had been accommodating.
I’ll admit I was pleased to see him. The Ponderosa is a vast undertaking built on cattle and timber and silver and coal, with interests in shipping and railroads and property back east and some large investments in Europe, but at the heart of it all is a working ranch, and our Pa insists that we all do more than our share. Being the boss’s son doesn’t excuse us from getting our hands dirty, and when one of us is missing, the other two are expected to shoulder his portion of the work. Pa doesn’t stand for slacking, and with the party coming up and all, there was more work than usual that had to be done.
Joe is the youngest and the smallest of the Cartwright clan. That’s not to say he’s little. He stands around five foot nine, and he’s strong, tough and wiry. He might not have the strong-boned frame and the powerful build that characterises the rest of us, but he’s quick on his feet and has a sharp, intelligent mind when he chooses to use it. Joe fancies himself as a lady’s man, and with his light brown hair that waves just short of a curl, honey-gold, green-speckled eyes and an irrepressible smile on a face that never grows up, he meets with considerable success. So far, none of his many conquests has managed to tie him down, ‘though several have tried.
But besides all that, for all his irritating habits, mischievous pranks and often absurdly grandiose money-making schemes, my little brother is like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. He has a mysterious ability to brighten a drab or difficult workday with his insane peals of laughter, and that smile is often infectious. I wouldn’t want to live life without him.
We still had that fire-pit to dig to roast those two sides of beef, hams and cheeses to fetch from the smokehouse and three sacks of potatoes to scrub. There was a hog’s-head of beer to set up on trestles – enough to keep the men’s whistles wetted while the ladies would be offered punch or sweet sherry, and there would be fresh lemonade for the kids. There were tables and chairs to be put in place and an awning set up to keep the sun off the ladies. Folks were expected to arrive early, and everything had to be done.
Hop Sing had already chased us out of the house while he was cleaning, and that afternoon, he’d be baking non-stop. That meant there’d be cold cuts for lunch and whatever we could scratch up for ourselves for supper. I didn’t see any reason why Joe shouldn’t join in the fun.
He rode up to the corral fence where I was taking a blow and a long drink of water, and slid down from his saddle. One day, I really must teach Joe to ride like a man. “Hi, Adam!” he greeted me cheerily, then paused with his head on one side and looked at me with a quizzical expression I recognised. I knew what was coming. “What happened to you face?”
I considered lifting his hat and tipping the rest of my water over his head, but decided that it would be altogether too much trouble. “I walked into a door,” I said, straight faced.
Joe’s face split into a wide, white-toothed grin. He knew precisely the type of door I referred to have, having frequently collided with similar obstacles himself. “Who was it hit you?”
I chose not to answer. Instead, I suggested, “Hop Sing wants a barrel of honey fetched from the storehouse. How about lending a hand?” The honey was heavy. It would take two of us to manoeuvre it into the wagon, and it would involve Joe breaking into a sweat.
“Just let me change my clothes, older brother, and I’ll be right there with you!” Joe thrust his reins at Pico Pete, who was passing. “Take care of my horse, will you, cowboy?”
To give them their due, Joe didn’t know Pete, and Pete didn’t know Joe was a Cartwright. To Joe, Pete was just another new hired hand whose name he didn’t yet know. We employ a whole lot of men, and there are new faces all the time.
As I said, Pete wasn’t too happy. He thought Joe was just a young cowboy whose pony had just crapped all over the ground he’d recently cleaned. “Take care of your own horse, boy,” he growled and tossed Joe’s reins back at him.
Joe wasn’t impressed. I think it might have been the ‘boy’ that did it. He had just spent a whole lot of years living that tag down. Joe’s mouth came open, and then he went after the man. He grabbed him hard by the elbow and spun him around. “Hey, Mister, who d’you think you’re talkin’ to?”
I guess I should have been quicker, but Pete’s knobbly fist came swinging up out of nowhere faster than I could blink and caught Joe full in the face. Before I could do a thing about it, Joe sat down in the dirt with enough force to make his teeth rattle. I think he was too surprised to feel the pain of the punch, ‘though there was a big bump swelling rapidly under his eye.
Joe’s a feisty little man; his temper’s always on a short rein, and there’s times when he gets things all out of proportion. This was one of those times. I mean, why should a poke in the teeth make a man mad? He came scrambling up off the ground, and the fists started flying all over again.
Now, this was the point where I would have liked to have walked away and left the two of them to it. After all, it really wasn’t my affair. But Joe is my little brother, and I guess I felt kind of protective. And besides, Pa had told me I was responsible for any trouble Pete got into, and I guess that included beating Joe black and blue.
I put myself in between them – perhaps not the wisest move on my part, but that’s a lesson I never seem to learn. I got hit a couple of times, once by an almost spent upper cut from Pete, and then by a much harder straight left from my brother. My head started to ring. Right about then Hoss came out of the barn to see what was causing all the commotion. Between the two of us, we managed to haul Joe and Pete apart.
Hoss marched Pete off somewhere with the help of two of the hands and explained to him that Joe was one of the family, and that he was allowed to give orders. I picked Joe up and dusted him off. I think he was most cross at having his face messed up for the party. He sure had some pretty bruises – almost as pretty as mine. He shook himself angrily, shedding grime. “Who in heck is that guy?”
So I told him the name, and, predictably, Joe laughed. I’m glad Pete wasn’t around to hear it.
I decided not to tell Pa that Pete had gotten into another fight. Pa would have only got all riled up, and he had enough on his plate already what with all those folks due to arrive. Instead, I helped Joe wash the blood and the dirt off his face, dabbed him with iodine, and we went and bothered Hop Sing for some salve.
We still had the decorations to put up: pennants and bunting and that sort of thing, and those dangly Chinese lanterns that always worry me in case they catch fire from the candles inside and burn the ranch house down. And we had to clear the floor for some dancing and turn the downstairs bedroom into a parlour where the ladies might sit away from the men. All the time we were working, I kept my eye out for Pete – I didn’t want any more trouble; I wanted to keep my teeth! As it turned out, I needn’t have worried; Charlie had taken him and some men out to check on some stock we had grazing down by the creek.
The day of the party dawned crisp and clear, a perfect start to yet another glorious day in the foothills of the High Sierra. Everyone was up early – even Joe. Hop Sing was banging away in the kitchen, swearing cheerfully in Cantonese; he is never happier than when he’s rushed off his feet and flaming mad to boot. No one chose to ask what had upset him this time. I finished breakfast first, still eating kind o’ careful and restricting myself to soft, scrambled eggs. Hoss finished off the bacon, fried crisp just the way that I like it, so I figured his mouth was healing. Pa and Joe demolished a whole stack of pancakes with syrup and jam. I sat back in my chair with my third cup of coffee and stretched my legs out under the table, relishing a few moments’ peace. It was destined not to last long.
Pa looked around from his seat at the head of the table, studying each of our faces in turn. We were a bunch of rather colourful characters, each with his own individual pattern of bruising in red, purple, blue, green and yellow. If Pa had found out how Joe got his coloration, I hadn’t heard about it, and I wasn’t about to ask. From the frown on his face, I didn’t think he was pleased. “Adam,” He glared at me down the length of the table. “You’d better light the fire under the meat or it won’t be done by the time people are ready to eat.”
I smiled smugly “It’s already alight and burning well. The beef ‘ll be ready by midday.”
Pa gave a grunt. I had a feeling it was all the appreciation I was going to get. Pa turned his attention to Hoss and Joe. “Hoss, I want you to take care of directing the traffic; make sure that there’s no congestion out front, and that the buggies and buckboards get taken away as soon as the guests have arrived. Joe, after I’ve welcomed our friends and neighbours, you’ll be in charge of making them comfortable and ensuring that everyone has a drink and somewhere to rest up. Some of them will have travelled a long way to get here, and they’ll be tired, hungry and thirsty.” From under lowered eyebrows, he frowned at us all. “It’s up to all of us to make sure that everyone has a real good time.” I sighed. My brief moment of satisfaction was past, and the coffee was cold in my cup. Pa was in a bad mood. After all the careful planning and preparation, I guess he wasn’t looking forward to explaining to his guests how come all three of his sons looked like they’d done five rounds with a prize fighter.
People began to arrive at midmorning. Some of them had been on the road since the day before. There were families from all the surrounding ranches, and it seemed like half the folks in Virginia City had turned up as well. Hoss had his work cut out for him, keeping the traffic moving, and Pa was a permanent fixture outside the door. With Joe kept busy settling the women and children inside the house, and Hop Sing happily run off his feet providing refreshments, hot towels and bowls of warm water, I was the one who got to help Tom Hillier’s pretty daughter down from the wagon and walk her up to the house. In between times, I kept my eye on the food that was cooking outdoors.
No one can say that the Cartwrights don’t know how to throw a good party. The folks had plenty of good food to eat: a dozen roast chickens, the beef and potatoes cooked in their skins, salad greens out of the garden and great piles of tiny wild strawberries with thick clotted cream. The beef was cooked to perfection, almost burned black on the outside by the kiss of the flames, soft and pink and running with juices within. The chicken was tender with crispy brown skin, and the potatoes were so good you could eat the whole thing with salt and a big knob of butter.
I had a good time at that party. I knew most of the folks who came. Apart from acting as host along with my Pa and my brothers, I had invited a lot of my friends. Apart from the inevitable cries of ‘Hey, Adam, what did you do to your face?’ we shared a pleasant afternoon. I danced with several of the prettiest ladies and even managed to conduct a little profitable business on my own account.
Roy Coffee, munching on an oversized sandwich of beef and sliced gherkins, gave me a nudge. “You an’ Hoss managin’ ta keep that wild man from killin’ anybody?” I assured him we were. Roy shook his head in wonderment. “Beats me how you Cartwrights do it: takin’ all these waifs an’ strays an’ always comin’ up smilin’.” Smiling was not exactly what I was doing – it still hurt too much.
Paul Martin was there, a friend of long standing as well as being the family physician. He studied my face with a professional interest, but he didn’t ask any questions, and he didn’t seem unduly concerned.
I didn’t see much of my brothers. They were mingling and mixing, and they both had their own circle of friends. Hoss spent most of his time with his girl, Mary. I saw them dancing together in the late afternoon and, later, holding hands kinda shyly as the sun slid into the mountains. I wish those two would finally fix a date and get the knot tied. Joe has a more cosmopolitan taste in women and was rather playing the field; just about every time that I saw him, he had a different girl on his arm. He disappeared along towards evening. I don’t know where he went to, but I fancy Tom Hillier’s daughter went along with him, and they were gone for a while.
The Williams are a sizeable family. They have a large, moderately successful farm on the other side of Virginia City. We trade with them from time to time: beef for corn and sugar beet. There are four grown up sons in the family: Ted, Bob, Harry and John, and one lovely daughter whose name is Barbara-Anne. There are also a whole host of smaller Williams children – half a dozen or more – that were all dressed up in clean dungarees and floppy brimmed hats and running around drinking lemonade and eating Hop Sing’s home made sweetmeats and could have been either boys or girls until you looked closely.
Mark O’Sullivan had been courting Barbara-Anne for a year, ever since he moved into town. Mark in an Irishman who makes his living by various dubious means, but always stays on the right side of the law. He makes enough silver to keep his head above water, and he fancies himself as a lady’s man. Barbara-Anne had been flattered by his attentions and was playing him along. The rest of us had been watching with some amusement – except for Barbara-Anne’s Pa.
That afternoon, Barbara-Anne divided her attentions between several ardent admirers. She even danced with Joe. Mark was a man who took himself very seriously, but on that afternoon he behaved himself well. There were none of his petulant displays of Irish temper that sometimes characterised his behaviour. Everyone was relaxed and happy, and the party was going well. I wasn’t expecting any trouble. Of course, I’d reckoned without Pico Pete.
I’d forgotten about Pete. He hadn’t exactly been invited to the party – he’d been enlisted along with several other hired men to take care of the horses and mules – but we never mind if the hands take a drink with us and have a bite to eat. What I didn’t know was that Pete had spotted Barbara-Anne and decided to make a play for her.
I had gotten myself a cup of Pa’s patented punch and spiced it up with a little extra brandy. I took myself off to a quiet spot at the corner of the corral so that I could drink in peace before I put on my sociable face again and dived back into the melee. I was about half way through it when I felt a touch on my elbow. “I need ta talk ta you, Adam.”
It was Charlie and his sun-browned, weather-beaten face was creased with concern. Whatever it was, I knew that it was important. Charlie didn’t want to bother my Pa, what with all those people about. But since I grew into a man, Charlie had treated me with as much respect as my father. I gave him a nod. “Let’s find somewhere quieter to talk.” I left my half-empty cup balanced on top of the fence post and led the way to the back of the barn. “What is it Charlie?” If there was trouble, there was no point in beating about the bush.
Evidently Charlie felt just the same. “I have ta tell you, Adam I think yore bein’ robbed. Someone’s been rustlin’ them yearlin’ steer you bin grazin’ down by the fence line. There ain’t near as many as there ought ta be, an’ I found a couple o’ old brandin’ fires.”
I felt my face settle into a frown. Those steers were a valuable investment for two or three years in the future. “Someone’s been using a running iron on the stock?”
Charlie spat and looked up at me. “You ain’t stupid, Adam. You know what it means.”
I knew all right. I gave it some thought. “Tomorrow I’ll ride down with you and take a look. We might be able to pick up some tracks.”
Charlie gave a curt nod. “Right you are, Adam. I’ll be ready to ride out at first light.”
Charlie knew that this was serious business just as well as I did. Rustling cows was a serious offence. When Pa and I first settled this country, a man would be hung up by the neck if he got caught stealing another man’s stock, be it cattle or horses. These cow thieves wouldn’t be taken prisoner easily. If we caught up with them, there as going to be gunplay, and someone would very likely get killed. All of a sudden the noise of the party was muted and the warm afternoon became chilled.
It was around about then that the shouting started and Barbara-Anne shrieked. I left Charlie behind me and set off at a run, letting my long legs carry me quickly in the direction of whatever trouble was brewing.
The fight had started down by the duck pond where the old, stunted tree hangs out low over the water. Mark and Pete were trading blows with each other, wrestling back and forth. Barbara-Anna, in a real’ pretty, lime-green dress was backed up to the tree trunk looking scared. In my hurry to get there to break up the fight, I ran into Hoss who’d heard Barbara-Anna holler just as I had and had much the same idea. Then Joe arrived out of nowhere, and both of us tripped over him.
By the time we had disentangled ourselves and arrived on the scene, the fight had degenerated into little more than pushing and shoving – both men had drunk rather more than was good for them, and I guess their co-ordination was off. I left sorting them out to my brothers and went to rescue Barbara-Anne. She was sort of trapped up against that tree trunk and couldn’t see her way past the two tussling men. I edged around and made a grab for her arm, aiming to pull her towards me and get her to safety. I missed. Barbara-Anne went into the duck pond.
Bob, Harry and John weren’t far away and were coming to help out their sister. From their point of view, I’ll admit, it might have looked like I’d pushed her. They came after me, and Hoss and Joe came to help me. By then, everyone was all riled up and fists were flying in all directions. Before very long, all of us were up to our thighs in the water, stirring up mud.
Pa wasn’t pleased. Pa is always a gentleman and a perfect host. That night he saw off the last of our guests with a wave and a rather worn smile. Only my brothers and I could see how stretched that smile was, and that the wave was more than weary. The moment the last of the wagons was out of sight, he marched the three of us into the house, closed the front door with a remarkable amount of restraint and demanded an explanation.
I sat down heavily in the red leather armchair and pulled my string tie undone. If I was in for a rollicking I might as well make myself comfortable. I wasn’t disappointed. To say Pa was angry is to understate the fact. He was as mad as a cat in a rain barrel. He did hear us out before he started to shout.
He dealt with each of us in turn, listing our various shortcomings in detail. By the time he had finished, he was very pink in the face, and all our ears had turned red. In the end, he had to stop to draw breath. “Pete goes in the morning,” he said with finality. “He’s just too much trouble to have around. We’ll lend him a horse to get himself into town.”
Hoss shot me a glance and gulped loudly. “But, Pa, he’s only bin here two days. He ain’t earned near enough yet ta pay off his share o’ the damage ta the Silver Dollar.” I guess my face was a mirror of his concern. I’d already figured out what was coming.
Pa filled up his chest and planted his hands on his hips in an attitude that we knew well. “I’ll pay for the damage to the saloon,” he growled, looking at the pair of us sternly. “And I’ll dock each of you ten dollars from your pay at the end of the month.”
It was Joe’s tense giggle that spoiled the whole effect. Pa turned the angry glare in his direction, and I heaved a sigh. I was sore, and my good clothes were muddy, and I was still a bit damp. I knew that arguing with the inevitable wouldn’t do any good, and there was still a lot of clearing up to do before bedtime and work to do in the morning.
As good as his word, Charlie was outside the house at sun-up next morning with his shaggy, short-legged bay horse. The horse is almost as crooked as Charlie; the two make a pair. I had told my brothers about our problems with rustlers, and we had talked it over with Pa. We were agreed that the three of us should ride to the fence line with Charlie. None of us were feeling too bright. It had been two o’clock in the morning before we had crawled into bed, and each of us has slept for just three hours. Charlie eyed us all sceptically as we climbed into our saddles, but he kept his thoughts to himself.
There was a haze of mist on the distant, blue hills and feather-light, fine weather clouds high up in a silver-blue sky. In single file, we rode into a dazzling sunrise, following the deep-cut course of the creek as it meandered downhill. The pastures were rich, lowland grazing. Long, tasselled grasses, browned by the sun, bowed their heads to the wind; clumps of cottonwoods grew close to the water, and solitary oaks added their touch of dark green to a landscape of brown and umber, purple and gold.
The Ponderosa encompasses a thousand square miles of lowland grazing, thick pine forests and high, dry pastures. It’s impossible to fence it all the way ‘round. Its boundaries exist in the records of the Land Office and, perhaps more precisely, in the minds of the men who own it. The edge of the property, what we all know as ‘the fence line’ even though there’s no physical barrier to keep our livestock in and men who might like to steal it out, crosses the spot where the creek turns abruptly away to the left and continues to irrigate our land for a mile or two more before it turns again and loses itself in the poorer, dryer lands away to the east. To us, that line is as clear as an ink mark on paper.
Charlie led us unerringly to the place where he’s found the signs of a branding fire. I didn’t want to destroy any tracks that the rustlers might have left behind them, so we left our horses some way back with their reins trailing and walked down on foot. Hoss and I agreed that Charlie was right. The fire had been small and well contained, but it had burned hot for several hours. It was just the sort of fire a man would need to heat up running irons and, not far away, were the signs on the ground where steers had been thrown and tied for the branding. I looked up at Charlie. “You say you’ve found several fires like this in the area?”
Charlie shifted the tobacco around in his mouth and spat. “Three or four of ‘em. You want me ta show you where the others are at?”
I straightened up and gazed around at the surrounding country. Generally, the ground sloped away from the mountains. There were humps and hollows in all directions, mostly concealed in the grass. A line of trees marked the edge of the creek. In the distance was a scatter of grazing cattle. “I don’t see the point in it,” I said, “If this was the most recently used.”
“It was still warm when I found it,” Charlie assured me.
Joe had been scouting the area. Now, he came back to join us. “It looks like they drove the steers off to the south: ten, maybe fifteen head.” Not a lot, but a low, steady trickle. Over a period of time, the life’s blood of the Ponderosa running into the sand. What made me mad was, we never turn away a man who is hungry or has a wife and a family that he can’t feed.
Hoss took off his hat and ran a hand through his pale, thinning hair. “Dad-burn it, there ain’t nothin’ but dry gulches and gullies out in that direction. A man could hide a whole herd if he’d got a mind to.” His voice was rough with frustration.
I knew he was right. We’d ridden out that way together often enough, chasing strays out of the badlands. All of us stood and squinted into the east. Over twenty miles the land became drier and turned, imperceptibly, into desert.
“What d’you want ta do Adam?” Asked Charlie. We didn’t have a choice and he knew it. Whoever these men might have been, we couldn’t sit back and watch while they robbed us blind; we had to go chase them down. As the eldest Cartwright around, it was my decision to make. But before I could draw breath, six mounted men rode over the hill.
I think that, at first, they were just as surprised to see us as we were to see them. They had the advantage of being on horseback, and they reacted faster than we did. They came at us shooting and yelling, and we had to dive for whatever cover we could find. I guess we were made to look foolish. Our long guns were on our saddles, and the last I saw of our horses, they were high-tailing it over the hill. I knew they wouldn’t stop running ‘til they got back to their stalls in the barn.
In all that expanse of grassland, there weren’t many places to hide. The horsemen rode around us like Apaches circling a wagon train, taking pot shots over out heads. We hunkered down behind the hillocks and kept our heads down, poking our noses out now and then to shoot back at them as they rode by. I didn’t know their names or their faces, but I knew who they were fairly well. I saw running irons hung from their saddles and they carried extra ropes and lassos. I was willing to bet six-month’s worth of beers that they were the men who’d been stealing our cattle, and they were taking advantage of their opportunity – however unexpected – to wipe out the opposition.
They might have succeeded as well – they were drawing the circle tighter and tighter and bullets were whining around our ears – when the cavalry, in the form of one little man on an ugly, hammer-headed gelding that I knew well, came galloping over the hill. Pico Pete was yelling and firing his rifle from the saddle – a difficult thing to do from the back of a galloping horse. I think he took our attackers entirely by surprise. They found themselves caught in a confusing crossfire and they didn’t much like it. They fired a few more miss-aimed shots in our general direction and then rode away towards the desert, kicking their horses as hard as they could. Not far away, I could see Hoss’s big body, hunkered down in the grass, and, beyond him Charlie and Joe. They signalled to me that was no one was hurt.
Pete chased after the rustlers to make sure they weren’t coming back – I don’t think I would have turned around and faced him – then he rode back to us. By then we’d all had a chance to recover our composure and reload our guns. I can’t say we weren’t pleased to see him. Always impulsive, Joe asked the question I’d been thinking, “Pete, what in heck are you doin’ all the way out here? This isn’t anywhere near the road to Virginia City.”
Pete, now out of his saddle, glared up at him fiercely from under the brim of his hat. “You want to make something of it, Cartwright? Why don’t you mind your own business?”
I threw up my hands in despair. This was about where I had come in, and I didn’t want any part of it. I had enough bumps and bruises as it was, and, from the way he backed off, Hoss thought the same.
The rustlers had left a trail behind them a child could have followed. I knew it would be east to track them down and, perhaps, get back some of our cows. First, we had a long walk home. We had to pick up fresh horses, men and supplies, and we had to explain to our Pa how a little man with a very quick temper and a foolish name had just saved all of our lives.
Potter’s Bar 2002.
Other Stories by this Author
- Fourth Wife #4 – The Measure of a Man (by Jenny G)
- Fourth Wife #1 – In the Dark of the Night (by Jenny G)
- The Artist – A Missing Scene (by Jenny G)
- Mary Knox’s Christmas (by Jenny G)
- The Red Stallion (by Jenny G)