Summary: A friend of Ben’s comes for a visit, bringing with him his three daughters and a dark secret from his past. At first it appears the greatest danger the visit presents lies in the insanity of a trio of young females in the Cartwright household. All too soon it becomes apparent that Gil Jenkins’ demons have not been laid to rest and threaten not only him, but the Cartwrights as well.
Rated: PG-13 WC 79,400
All known and public characters belong to those who created them. All new characters belong to the author. There is no intent to infringe on copyright and no money is being made – just friends and warm hearts hopefully!
One Little Two Little Three Little Thunderbirds
Little Joe Cartwright reined his horse, Cochise, in and stopped where he was. He removed his black hat, wiped moisture from his face with his sleeve, and then replaced the hat on his head, making sure to anchor it against the rising wind. The late September day was chilly and wet. Glancing up he noted the sun was past its zenith but still riding high in the sky, so it was probably around one to two o’clock in the afternoon. Their Pa had made it very clear that he and Hoss were expected back at the house by five at the latest so they’d have time to clean up before their company arrived. They’d been sent to the high hilly portion of the Ponderosa that lay closest to Lake Tahoe to round up strays and had been at it since early the morning before. Joe was more than ready to quit. There was only one problem.
His older brother was missing.
Joe twisted his lips and scrunched up his nose as he scratched the back of his head. He wasn’t really sure what‘d happened. He’d seen Hoss heading south about an hour before, chasing down a sprightly steer. He’d laughed when the frightened animal made a sharp turn and the big man had tipped sideways in his saddle, nearly falling off. At the time he’d had his own ornery pair of steers to deal with. They were caged now a short ways back in the temporary corral their hired hands had erected several weeks before. He’d left the animals there and returned to look for Hoss and found –
Joe glanced behind and ahead. He listened, but heard only the wind. It was howling through the tall pines like a hungry wolf. Something was brewing. Most likely a storm. Joe pulled the collar of his gray jacket closer about his throat. There was a cold, clammy mist riding the wind that made a man long for home and hearth – that or his arm around a pretty girl’s waist. One of Pa’s widowed friends was coming in tonight from back East, bringing his three daughters with him. They were just about the same ages as him, Hoss, and Adam. When he’d asked if the girls were pretty, his father had reminded him first that beauty was only skin deep – and then winked and added that the Jenkins’ girls had mighty thick skin.
Joe snorted. One of the great, deep, and powerful wishes of his young life was that he could go back in time and see his pa when he was twenty or so, sailing on the seas, having great adventures, and leaving a string of pretty island girls with broken hearts behind him.
“Wild and misspent youth,” the handsome man with curly brown hair snorted.
Dismounting, Joe tethered his horse to a tree and began to walk, searching the ground for signs of his brother’s passage. There weren’t too many tracks this high in the hills. Not much of anyone came this way other than contrary cattle and the hands looking for them. He knew both his brother’s boots and the pitch of Chubb’s iron shoes, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find them.
The funny thing was, there didn’t seem to be any tracks to find.
Puzzled, Joe halted and anchored his hands on his slender hips. He looked about again and then, on a whim, decided to climb to the top of the tall moss-covered rock triangular-shaped tower in front of him and see what he could see. It was a tougher climb than he’d anticipated and he was breathing hard by the time he stepped onto the naturally flat surface. Standing there, with the wind whipping his hair, he cupped his hands around his mouth and called as loudly as he could.
“Hoss! Hoss, it’s Joe! Where are you, big brother?”
The words echoed back to him, but there was no reply. Joe listened for a dozen heartbeats and then tried again with the same result.
Up until that moment there had been no shadow of fear found in his lack of a brother. He’d figured Hoss was simply out of earshot. As Joe looked out over the empty expanse before him that suddenly changed and, like the wind that was picking up, his concern increased to a point where it became unpleasant. Joe’s stomach lurched as he contemplated for the first time the possibility that something had happened to his brother. The country they were in was unpredictable as a woman, with sharp drops and natural ha-has, as well as a population of dangerous reptiles, animals, and people. The ranch hands had complained recently about an Indian they’d seen wandering around near the lake and believed he was part of a band. Pa thought the man posed no harm and said that, most likely, he and his people were peaceful natives heading for their tribe’s lands to the north. Pa said people always panicked when they saw Indians, due to the fact that the wars had gone on so long and so many had lost kin to them. He said as well that the heart had gone out of a lot of the Indians and, sad as it was, they would probably disappear before too long.
Joe shivered. The temperature was dropping and the mist had begun to sting, like it had ice in it. Personally, he’d met both good and bad Indians, the ones who just wanted to live, and the ones filled with so much hate they’d kill a white man soon as look at him. It was always a roll of the dice as to which kind you would find when you were wandering alone on a stretch of land or out hunting something that was lost.
Like he was now.
Joe raised a hand to shield his eyes from the wind and what remained of the sunlight. Dark clouds were rolling in, drawing a curtain of blackness across the early afternoon sky. Shadows filled the hills and valleys, making the land that lay before him appear to rise and fall like dark swells on a violent sea. He called out again, adding a little unspoken prayer to wing the words along.
“Hoss! Hoss, where are you? Can you hear me? Hoss!”
This time there was something – an indefinable sound that rose from within the undulating darkness below. It wasn’t quite an answer, but there were definite words.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t make them out.
“Hoss! You gotta yell. Loud! I can’t find you!”
Joe stood on the top of the rocky tower, trembling with the wind and anticipation, waiting. Waiting. Then he heard it. Weak, but it was there.
Much as he wanted to descend and run into the darkness in search of his brother, Joe held himself in place. “Hoss, I need you to yell again,” he called. “There’s too many echoes. I don’t know where you are!”
That gave him a bearing. As the brown-haired man scrambled down the side of the tower it began to rain, making hand and footholds precarious. In the distance there was a flash of lightning and a low long rumble of thunder, heralding the storm that was soon to come. Once on the ground Joe took off running, plunging headlong into the sea of shadows. He had to find Hoss. If his brother was hurt, a thorough soaking was the last thing he needed. Neither of them had come equipped for a storm. They both wore fairly light clothing and, while they had blankets and such, their provisions were back at the camp, which was about a half-hour away by horse.
Joe paused as he came to a running rivulet of water and jumped over it. It must be near three o’clock by now. At home, Pa would be opening the door and looking out every few minutes, wondering where they were. By four the older man would be hopping mad and champing at the bit to come after them. With the storm, it would take him and Adam at least two hours to make the trip.
Two times two equaled four, and four hours was an awful long time for an injured man to be exposed to the elements. On top of that, he didn’t know how bad the injury was.
Or where his brother was.
Cupping his hands around his mouth again, Joe called into the wind. “Hoss! Can you hear me?”
“Joe. Down here….”
The brown-haired man frowned. Here? Where was ‘here’? And ‘down’?
As a boy he and his brothers had played along the lakeside, darting in and out of a series of linked caves that the natives thought were holy and magic. They’d had the most fun entering one and then exiting out another, keeping each other – and their pa – guessing. As a man he’d hunted strays here more times than he could remember. He should have some kind of mental map of the land. Joe closed his eyes. He saw Hoss on Chubb again, rounding the tall stack of rocks he had just left behind, pursuing the steer and heading south into a hilly area slashed by rises and ravines. If his brother had fallen it all depended on whether he had fallen to the left or the right. To the right was a short flat piece of land that led to a fairly sheer drop-off. To the left was a hilly area that contained a shallow gully.
He had to make a choice.
As Joe stood there considering his options, the rain grew in strength and the storm pounced like a mountain cat. The wind struck him so hard it nearly knocked him off his feet even as a hard rain began to fall. At the same instant there was a crack of lightning directly overhead, followed by a deep rumble of thunder. Joe felt it rock the land through the soles of his boots. The drop-off was pretty sheer. If Hoss had tumbled over there, the odds were he would have been killed when he struck bottom. That made the gully his best choice.
He only prayed it was the right one.
His boots slipping on the wet ground, Joe began to inch forward, pausing from time to time for the lightning to strike and illuminate the land. From what he remembered the gully wasn’t very far away – maybe a hundred feet or so. As he neared the place where he thought it was, he called out again.
“Here…. Keep comin’. I’m…here, Joe.”
He was relieved to hear that his brother’s voice was not only closer, but stronger.
“Where’s here?” he shouted back.
The answer came that he had half-expected and wholly hoped for. “In…the gully…Joe.”
He’d reached the edge of it. Joe sat and threw his feet over and waited for the next lightning strike. The light only lasted a second, but was enough to illuminate the figure lying at the bottom of the old stream bed. As he began to scramble down, Joe heard a nicker of fear not that far off. Chubb was out there somewhere. He prayed his brother’s horse was smart enough to seek shelter. If he had to get Hoss back to the Ponderosa, he was going to need Chubb. He could only hope the animal didn’t spook and run away.
“Hang on, Hoss!” Joe called out as he slipped into the gully, riding the mud to the bottom of the natural ditch. As he landed, the lightning cracked again and the thunder boomed, almost directly overhead.
This time it was so close it made him jump.
The man with the curly brown hair squinted into the darkness, just making out the white of his brother’s sleeve as Hoss raised an arm.
Sliding more than walking, Joe made his way along the bottom of the gully. In the end he found the big man not by sight, but by stubbing the toe of his boot on Hoss’s knee. The contact almost pitched him over. Joe managed to catch himself and turn it into a less-than-graceful descent into a seated position at his brother’s side.
Hoss was laying there, soaked to the skin and covered with mud, looking at him.
“What…took you so…dag-burned long…little brother?” the big man asked between teeth gritted against pain.
“Well, you know,” Joe answered, squinting in the rain, “it was find you or head back to meet the Jenkins girls and, I hate to say it, older brother, but it was a close call.”
Hoss snorted and then drew in a sharp breath. “Dad…blame it, Joe. I think…my leg’s broke.”
Joe waited for another flash of lightning. He winced when it came, but used it to see his brother better. After it had gone, he reached out to touch his leg. “This one?”
Hoss didn’t cuss much, but he let out one or two colorful words. “That’s it.”
Carefully as he could, Joe felt along his brother’s leg. “I don’t think it’s broken,” he reassured him. “I don’t feel the bone. Maybe it’s just sprained.”
“Well, it…sure enough…feels like it’s broke!”
Joe rose up on his knees and looked around. The bank he had come down wasn’t very high, but getting Hoss up it with an injured leg was going to take more than his brother leaning on him for support. The injury would have been a fairly simple thing to deal with – on a warm sunny day, with no wind, or rain, or cold – or mud.
As it was, it was a matter of life and death.
“I gotta get you out of here,” he said.
Hoss snorted. “Not meaning…no disrespect, little brother, but…you ain’t big enough…or strong enough to get me up that there bank… Not when it’s raining mud.”
Joe shook his head and made a clicking sound with his tongue. “I told Hop Sing he shoulda stopped feeding you when you were fifteen. I could’ve picked you up then.”
“You was nine and nigh on the size of a jack rabbit. You couldn’t have got me from the settee to the table!”
“Not then, now – now I could’ve picked you up when you were fifteen.” The brown-haired man scowled. “Did you break your head as well as your leg when you fell?”
Hoss made a disgruntled noise. “I was…twice your size at…fifteen, little brother.”
“See,” Joe said as he began to explore the gully’s wall with his hands. “He shoulda stopped feeding you. What’d I say?”
“Joe…what are you….doing?”
Hoss was putting up a brave front, but his voice was weakening. Joe paused with his hands buried in mud. “I heard Chubb nearby. I’m gonna go find him. He can pull you out.”
“Joe…he’s gonna be spooked. He…could kill ya!”
Raising a hand, Joe shoved the sodden brown curls back from his forehead. All he succeeded in doing was replacing the rainwater with mud. He thought of another rejoinder, but worry stopped it before it came out of his mouth. “Hoss,” he said, all business, “I gotta get you out of the rain.”
His temper flared. “If the boot was on the other foot and it was me laying here all busted up, what do you think you’d do, big brother?”
“That ain’t…fair, Joe,” his brother said softly.
“Yeah, well, life ain’t fair, is it?” he snapped as he pressed the toe of his boot into the muddy wall. “Now, you stay put, you hear? I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Hoss was still protesting, but Joe ignored him. There was a danger in going after the horse, but it was less of a danger than leaving Hoss, injured, laying in two inches of water at the bottom of the gully. He had to get his brother somewhere dry and warm as soon as possible. The big man was probably already in shock.
The worst could be yet to come.
It took Joe a good five minutes to make his way out of the shallow gully. He started up the mud wall and fell back to the bottom a half-dozen times before he made it to the top. The wind and the rain had not lessened, but had intensified as the storm moved overhead. It was hard to see and harder to move, but he pressed on in the direction Chubb’s frightened snort had come from. Another strike of lightning revealed the animal. The thoroughbred’s reins had become caught in the outstretched branches of a straggly bush. The horse squealed and strained against the leads, his eyes wide and wild. Joe started to talk to him as he approached, assuring Chubb that he was okay, that the lightning couldn’t hurt him, and that Hoss needed him. His brother’s horse knew his voice and it had a calming effect – until the next strike of lightning.
Chubb reared up and struck out at him, his hooves dealing death if they made contact. Joe sidestepped and slipped and found himself at the bottom of a rise face down in the mud. Righting himself, he freed the viscous stuff from his airways and worked his way back up to the top. Chubb was still there. The horse took one look at him and backed away as if he was the devil himself. Joe began to talk again, soothingly, gently, reaching for the reins as he did, hoping to snare the animal before it struck out again or bolted, breaking the reins that held it to the bush.
Joe had just about managed to catch the bridle near the bit when something happened that caused him to look up. The dark day had gone black as coal. A rush of air struck him, carrying with it an odd nauseating stench. He heard something – a hiss and a snort – and then found himself on the ground looking up. A shadow loomed above him, blocking the sky. From its depths came twin flashes of light. As Chubb screamed and broke free of the bush, Joe scrambled backward. Pressing into the crevice between two rocks, he tried to make himself as small as possible. For several seconds the shadow hung there above him, as if whatever it was sought to commune with him, and then it rose and became one with the pendulous clouds.
Joe didn’t move for several hard-pounding seconds. Then he shook himself and rose unsteadily to his feet. The scent of something burning lingered in the air, telling him he hadn’t fallen and cracked his head and dreamed what he had seen. It had been real.
But what had he seen?
Ben Cartwright paced the ground before the ranch house, wearing the rut thirty years of raising three headstrong sons had created even deeper. It was quarter after four in the afternoon and there was no sign of Hoss or Joe, and while Joseph had a reputation for running late, his middle son was usually more responsible.
It was a fact that had softened his ‘mad’ into ‘worry’.
“Any sign, Pa?” Adam asked as he stepped off of the porch and joined him.
The older man stopped pacing. “No.”
As his eldest drew alongside him, he noted his frown. Adam indicated the area to the south of the house with a nod. “Seems awfully dark. Could be a storm came up and Joe and Hoss had to take shelter.”
There had been a hint of rain in the air earlier, but it had moved on leaving the land dry. Still, he knew from experience that had nothing to do with the weather ten, or even one mile away. The boys were near the lake and it had a tendency to attract storms – some of them vicious.
“I see it,” he said.
Adam’s brows peaked toward his black hair. “But you don’t think that’s what’s holding them up?”
It was hard to explain. Hoss at twenty-six and Joe at nearly twenty, were grown men. He’d taught them well, pounding common sense and survival skills into both from the time they could walk. Hoss was ferocious in his protectiveness of and love for his younger sibling. Joe, on the other hand, loved and looked up to his gentle giant of a brother all while thinking that Hoss was not quite a sharp as him and needed taking care of. Neither of them would let anything happen to the other one – if they could help it. That was why he often sent them out together. Usually, when they were together he could relax and let his guard down just a bit.
But not today.
He had remained quiet so long, Adam suggested gently, “Parent’s intuition?”
Ben pursed his lips and nodded. “Something like that.”
“I’ll saddle up Sport and head out.”
“Thank you, Adam. I wish I could come with you, but – ”
“Someone’s got to be here when the Jenkins arrive,” Adam smiled.
“Those poor girls,” Ben mused. “Expecting to find three handsome young men here waiting to fight over them, when all they’re going to get is one tired and worried old man.”
“You’ve still got a few good years in you, Pa,” Adam said with a grin. “Who knows, maybe one of Gil’s girls likes older men.”
Ben scoffed and shook his head. Then he dismissed his son with a wave. “You better get going.”
Adam glanced at the sky again down toward the lake where his brothers were. It was even blacker.
“Those two are going to owe me, ending the day drowned as a rat looking for them instead of sitting by the fire sipping brandy and visiting with a trio of beauties.”
The older man looked at the darkening sky as well. There were flashes of lightning now and he could hear distant thunder.
“It’s a debt I’m sure they will be happy to pay.”
As soon as he stopped shaking, Joe headed for his own horse since Chubb had bolted. Cochise was farther back along the path he had taken and up what was now a slippery, muddy hill, but he had no choice. He had to get Hoss out of the gully and, never minding his bravado, there was no way he could lift his middle brother out on his own.
As he fought his way forward, facing into the wind and driving rain, Joe thought about what had just happened. If he hadn’t known better, he’d think he was the one at the bottom of the gully and was out of his head with pain and seeing things. But he did know better. There had been something there, hanging in the sky over his head, blocking out what was left of the sun – something looking directly at him. The stench of it still clung to his clothes and smelled somewhere in-between pitch and sulfur. Every so often he glanced up, expecting to see it again. When he didn’t, he assured himself it couldn’t have been real.
Then he’d look again.
It took near half an hour to reach Cochise. The horse was snorting and squealing, but was still tethered where he’d left him. The Paint actually calmed down when he heard his voice and didn’t fight him as he freed the reins from the branches and began to lead him forward. It was still storming, but the fury of the tempest had passed from raging to plain old angry. The lightning and thunder had moved on and the dark clouds that bred them were hanging over the lake.
As he approached the place where he’d left Hoss, he heard his brother calling his name. Joe tried to quicken his pace, but it was impossible. All he could do was slog through the mud until he got there. After tethering Cochise to a tree, he leaned over the side and shouted.
“Hoss! I’m here!”
His older brother’s face shone pale and wan in the veiled sunlight that was beginning to peek through the clouds. “Tarnation, Joe! I thought…you was…dead.”
“Sorry. Chubb ran away. I had to get Cochise.” He straightened up. “I’ll get the rope off the saddle and be down in a minute.”
Cochise was a little skittish when he approached. Joe wondered why since the animal hadn’t been before. Taking the rope off of the saddle, he looped it over his shoulder and then broke a couple of sturdy branches off of the tree to take with him in order to fashion a makeshift splint for his brother’s leg. Moving Hoss without one was probably not wise.
With both in hand, Joe slid over the edge and into the gully.
His boots splashed when he hit bottom, which was not what he wanted to hear. It meant Hoss was laying in more water. Crossing over to the big man, he knelt by his side and placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
Hoss was shaking.
Sitting in the muck, Joe began to work on the splint. “You all right?” he asked as he placed a branch to each side of his brother’s injured leg.
“I been a…sight better,” Hoss confessed.
The fact that Hoss made no attempt at humor increased Joe’s concern. When he had completed the splint, he caught the rope up from the ground. “Well, you just lay there, big brother, and don’t you worry about a thing. I’ll get the rope tied around you and get you out of here in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
As he set to work again, Joe watched his brother closely. Hoss hadn’t said much as he moved his wounded leg, laying the branches alongside it and wrapping it with scraps of cloth taken from the tail of his shirt. It seemed to him that his brother was weakening. Concerned, he moved as quickly as he could to tie the rope around the big man’s chest and secure it under his arms. Then Joe scrambled back up the slope. At the top he looked around for a suitable anchor and ended up winding the rope around a thick tree trunk before tying it to Cochise’s saddle horn. Once that was done he went back to the edge of the gully and called down.
“Brace yourself, Hoss! Cochise is gonna start hauling you up!”
There was no reply.
Joe peered into the darkness and then decided that getting Hoss out of the gully was more important than going back down to find out if he was conscious. Returning to Cochise, he began to slowly back the animal up. His horse protested as the weight increased, but Joe spoke to him softly, telling him he was a good boy and that he needed him and that there would be a reward at the end for his hard work.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Hoss began to rise out of the gully.
It took several minutes before his brother’s head crested over the edge. Joe walked back a few more feet, making sure Hoss’ large form was on firm ground before he dropped the reins and ran over to him.
“Hoss?” he prodded as he gripped his brother’s collar and pulled him further out of the gully. “Hoss? Can you hear me?”
The big man was unconscious.
Joe swallowed over a lump the size of Texas in his throat. He had to get Hoss out of the rain and to some place dry. Those childhood caves were here. He just didn’t know exactly where. For a moment he stood over his brother’s quiet form, looking in every direction, trying to recall paths taken more than a decade before. Unbidden, a wave of hopelessness washed over him, nearly unmanning him. He wasn’t normally prone to panic, but that was when his own life was in danger. This was different.
This was Hoss.
Coming to a decision, Joe crossed over to his brother and released him from the rope. Then he locked his arms around the big man’s chest and began to pull. If nothing else, at least he’d get him secured behind some boulders or in a clump of trees. Anything had to be better than him laying out in the open.
Hoss was a large man and it was all Joe could do to move him what with the mud clinging to his clothes and his brother being dead weight. He fell several times while doing so. Determined, he persevered, shivering himself and staggering with fatigue, but unwilling to stop until at last they arrived at a sort of natural arch. It wasn’t much, but he pulled Hoss under it and then fell down beside him and sat there numb and unable for the moment to go on.
It was then he heard it again. The sound of wings flapping. Joe looked, but saw nothing this time – well, no, there was something. Not a giant bird but a man. Whoever it was emerged from the shadows and falling rain and came to rest before him.
Joe blinked away mud and sweat. Night had fallen and it was hard to see, but he thought the stranger was an Indian. At least the rain-washed figure seemed to be wearing buckskins and beads.
“Who are you?” he asked.
The native stared at him, unmoving, for several seconds. Then he turned and pointed toward the lake. When Joe didn’t respond, the man approached and took him by the shoulder. Shaking him, he urged him to rise and follow.
Joe shook his head. “I can’t. I won’t leave my brother. He’s hurt.”
The native knelt by Hoss’ side, whispering a few words as he touched his forehead. His brother stirred in response and, while he was groggy, came awake. Then, to Joe’s surprise, the stranger took hold of one of Hoss’ arms and, with a nod, indicated he should do the same. Joe didn’t argue. Together he and the Indian lifted Hoss from the ground.
Before they began to move, he told his horse, “Cooch, you stay put. I’ll be back.”
It took them a good ten minutes to cover about a hundred feet of ground. At the end of the long walk was a cave and, thank God, within it, a blazing fire. Along with the native, he carried Hoss in and placed him beside it. There were several blankets laying there that he grabbed and wrapped around his brother’s large frame before turning to thank the Indian.
Who was gone.
Joe blinked, confused. He ran a short distance to the cave mouth and out into the night. Standing in the pouring rain, he looked in every direction. It was no use.
Their rescuer had vanished.
Returning to the cave, Joe went to his brother’s side and knelt by him. He noted Hoss was unconscious again. A sheen of sweat covered his full face and his skin was hot to the touch. In spite of that, the big man was shivering. Somewhere beyond exhausted himself, Joe began to pull his wet clothes off but found, all too quickly, that he didn’t have the strength to complete the task. Instead he laid down beside Hoss and pressed his back up against his brother in what was probably a futile effort to lend him warmth.
In truth, he barely had enough for himself.
Joe turned his face toward the cave mouth. He lay there, teeth chattering, wondering who the native was who had brought them here and where he had come from. He thought too about what he had seen up there in the sky, considering what it could have been that had blotted out most of it. He did all of this to keep his mind busy, so he wouldn’t fall asleep in case Hoss needed him.
Joe needn’t have worried about falling asleep.
He passed out instead.
A mile or two shy of the area where his brothers had been chasing strays, Adam gave up and decided to wait out the storm. The strong winds, the driving rain, and the blackness of the falling night had made any kind of search impossible. He’d found the temporary corral their ranch hands had erected the week before with several cattle in it, which confirmed his suspicions that this was the route Joe and Hoss had taken. When he saw no sign of recent occupation at the camp they’d erected, he hadn’t been too concerned. He figured the two of them had holed up somewhere in the hills to wait out the bad weather.
That changed when he found Chubb.
Adam had taken shelter himself in a deep depression in the rocks close by his brothers’ camp. He looked out of it now through the pounding rain at Hoss’ horse, which he had tethered in a clump of trees nearby. The fiercest part of the storm had passed but the animal was still skittish. Tossing his coffee onto the small fire he had kindled at the back of the crevice, Adam made sure it was out and then crossed over to Chubb. He stood for a moment, soothing the animal, speaking kind words to him and offering him a treat. As he patted the horse’s wet neck and rubbed his nose, the black-haired man permitted himself a momentary diversion. He imagined himself asking Chubb where Joe and Hoss had gone.
“Well, boy,” he said a moment later, “since you are not much of a conversationalist, I suppose I will just have to go out and look for those two myself.”
After making sure Chubb was securely tethered, Adam returned to the crevice to gather his things. Once he had, he mounted Sport and turned the animal’s nose toward the south. He sat there, thinking, considering his next move. The storm had been ferocious. It was unlikely there would be any tracks left to find. That was all right. He’d worked this land before and knew the common pathways across it. The problem was, there were a half-dozen paths and he had no way of knowing which one Joe and Hoss had chosen. Adam worked his lower lip for a moment with his teeth. Since it was Hoss and Joe, knowing his little brother he had taken the lead – whether Hoss agreed or not – and that meant the pair had probably taken the path least traveled and the most dangerous. That one would take them close to the lake and the myriad caves located there, as well as into a rocky country that undulated like a snake rolling over sand. On one hand, the presence of the caves meant they could have easily found shelter. He might well find the two of them sitting pretty, drinking coffee and chewing jerky, ready and raring for the new day to come. On the other hand the land around the caves, irregular as it was, presented an unending possibility of missteps. If Chubb had spooked Hoss could well be laying somewhere out in the open, or in a gully or ravine that could hold enough water to drown a man.
Coming to a decision, Adam pressed his heels into Sport’s side. “Come on, boy,” he said, clicking his tongue and shaking the horse’s reins to indicate they needed to move. “Let’s see what Joe’s gotten himself and Hoss into this time.”
Ben Cartwright stirred and looked back toward the ranch house. His old friend Gilchrist Jenkins was just stepping out of the front door. It was early morning and he was a bit surprised to see the other man up. After they’d finished supper with Gil’s three charming girls and sent them off to bed, he and his old friend had remained in the Great Room and talked until the night turned into day. When Gil asked, he had tried to make light of his three missing sons, explaining that the range was a harsh mistress and often demanded a man’s time and full attention. The boys would be back in the morning, he assured his friend and his three girls. He’d told himself the same thing.
They weren’t back.
As Gil came abreast where he sat in the chair on the porch, he started to rise. “Did you get some of that fresh coffee Hop Sing left on the table?” he asked him as he did.
Gil laid a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t get up, Ben.” As he took a seat on the table beside him, his friend looked him in the eye. “Tell me what’s on your mind – and don’t give me any of this nonsense about your not being worried.”
Ben smiled. “I never could keep anything from you.”
Gil, who was a few years younger than him and who still retained his dark brown hair, though it was liberally peppered with silver, smiled back and answered in his charming Scottish accent, “That’s what you get for choosing an Army man as a friend.”
He nodded. “That was long ago.”
“When we were young and foolish.” Gil looked out over the yard and beyond it to the wide open spaces surrounding the ranch. “It’s like an untamed beauty, Nevada, and in some ways not unlike the Hebrides. That storm last night was a wicked one. I imagine you are worried one or all of the them was caught in it.”
Ben rose to his feet. He stepped off the porch and looked to the south where he knew his boys had gone. “They’re men, Gil. They can take care of themselves – in ordinary circumstances.”
“I’m not saying otherwise, it’s just that the storm last night was anything but ‘ordinary’. I’ve been a city slicker so long now, I’d forgotten how violent one can be as it moves over the wide open spaces.”
The silver-haired man pursed his lips and blew his concern out in a sigh. “I have to admit that has me worried. Though I am probably borrowing trouble like a woman. Most likely Adam holed up in a cave somewhere to pass the night and he’ll find Joe and Hoss did the same thing.”
“‘Borrowing trouble like a woman’,” his old friend snorted. “I know you’ve been married before, Ben, but you really can’t know anything about women or trouble until you’ve reared three girls!” Gil shook his head. “And I thought dealing with the Mexicans was tough.”
He and Gil had met back in his army days. The Scotsman had been a surgeon’s assistant then. Unlike him, his friend remained in the service, becoming a full doctor and serving in the Mexican War. It was at that time that he met and fell in love with a stunning English woman named Lydia. Eventually he left the army and opened a practice. He and Lydia had three beautiful girls in eight years, and from Gil’s letters everything seemed to be as near to perfect as life in this imperfect world could get.
Then Lydia died.
Gil returned to Scotland then and lived there for a few years, but in time decided to pull up stakes and return to the States where he set up a medical practice. His old friend chose to live in the East so his girls could attend some of the nation’s finest schools. Gil had been in Philadelphia now for something over ten years. They’d kept up a correspondence throughout it all and had met a few times – once when he traveled back East on business – but this was the first opportunity they had had to spend any length of time together.
Ben clapped his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We’ll have plenty of time to trade war stories, old friend. Though the battles may be different, I’ll match my three boys against your three girls for trouble any day!”
“And for treasure,” Gil said softly.
The silver-haired man opened his mouth to speak, but stopped as the door to the house opened and a lithe form wrapped in rose-colored silk emerged.
“Papa. There you are!”
It was Gil’s eldest. Ainslee was a ray of sunshine on a rainy morning. She looked like her late mother, with brilliant blue eyes, skin white as milk, and hair golden as a stalk of wheat at harvest time. Like her father, Ainslee was tall – just about as tall as Joe, actually. She was small-boned too and thin as a reed though, from what her father said, that reed was made of steel. After her mother’s death Ainslee, though only thirteen at the time, had become the mistress of her father’s house. She was just about Hoss’ age now.
Gil crossed over to her and took her by the hand and then leaned in to plant a kiss on his daughter’s rosy cheek. “Good morning, Aine.”
“I hope you slept well,” Ben said as he went to join them.
Ainslee, like her father and sister’s, had a Scottish lilt. She answered in her charming low voice. “That is a feather bed such as I have never known, Mister Cartwright!” she replied. “Not even in Scotland where the geese are fat and sassy.”
“These are Nevada goose feathers,” Ben teased. “Everything in the states is fatter and sassier.”
The young woman smiled. “Even the men?” she countered.
“Ah, you see where her mind turns?” Gil sighed. “And so early in the morning.”
Ainslee smiled at her father and then sobered. “I went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Hop Sing seems quite worried about your sons.”
Ben dismissed it. “Hop Sing always worries.” He glanced at Gil. “He’s been my able lieutenant in all the wars,” he said with a smile.
“Aine! There you are.”
Ben looked beyond the pair to see Gil’s middle daughter stepping through the open door. Her name was Deirdre. She was as dark as her sister was light, taking after her father, with near black hair but the same pale skin and blue eyes. Deid, as the family called her, was as boisterous as her sister was restrained. From what he remembered of their mother, it had been Lydia who shared this personality. Gil had always been a fairly quiet man.
“Where’s Fiona?” Ainslee asked as her sister blew out of the house in a lovely dress of dark green cloth, the color of the hills of their father’s native land.
Deirdre shrugged. “Still abed. Where else?”
“It seems our youngests have something in common, if I remember right from your letters,” Gil mused.
The comment turned Ben’s mind back to Joe and Hoss…and Adam.
All three of whom were still missing.
Gil noted his silence. “Would you like me to ride out with you, Ben, to look for your boys?”
He shook his head. “No, no. Hop Sing will never forgive me if I make you miss that fine breakfast he’s preparing.” He looked at the pair of girls. “Now, you two – along with your sister – have to promise to eat as much as my boys, otherwise Hop Sing will go on strike and you’ll have to eat my cooking!”
“Or you, ours,” Deirdre answered with a dazzling smile.
“The girls are amazing cooks, Ben. Maybe some night we can treat you and Hop Sing.” Gil made a shooing motion with his hands. “Now you girls go in and wake you sister. When she’s ready, come back down. I’ll meet you at the table.”
With a small curtsey both girls turned – well, Deirdre whirled – and went back into the house.
Gil remained behind, staring hard at him. His dark brows rose, asking the question. “The truth, Ben,” his friend demanded.
The silver-haired man drew a deep breath and held it. If he said it aloud, he had to finally admit it to himself.
“Gil, I’m worried. Something’s wrong.”
Joe swam up through of a hazy sea of pain and fatigue. It seemed he’d done it before, but he wasn’t sure. If he had, it hadn’t lasted. He had to squint his eyes, which meant the night was over and the sun was up, even though the light filtering in through the cave mouth was pale and puny as if the rain hadn’t quite moved on. Shifting, Joe stifled a groan as he righted himself. It was then he felt his brother’s form pressed up against his own and everything that had happened the night before piled in on top of him like a load of hay tossed into the bed of a wagon. He pivoted to look at Hoss. His brother’s chest was rising and falling; his breathing rapid and shallow. Hoss’ coloring was bad. Joe shifted, intending to rise, and then looked down.
Half of his clothes were missing. He still had his pants on but his chest was bare.
Puzzled, he remained on his knees, blinking and frowning. It was during this time that he noticed the scent of smoke. Joe remembered the fire the native had kindled the night before, but it couldn’t still be burning – and yet, there it was, blazing away in a corner, warming the cave and drying his dark gray jacket and light gray shirt that were slung over a rack nearby. Hoss’s white shirt was there too and his vest, and even what was left of his ruined brown pants. All the clothes had been brushed clean of mud as much as possible. Turning back to his brother, Joe peeled the blankets back just a bit.
Yep, Hoss was close to buck-naked inside the cocoon of thick wool that was three or four covers deep.
Curious, Joe stood up – and nearly tumbled right back down. He was startled to find just how worn out he was. Of course, there had been the physical strain of pulling his brother out of the gully – and the fact that he hadn’t eaten anything since noon the day before. Adding worry for his big brother to all of that, he guessed that was enough to make a man weak in the knees. Joe remained still for a minute, letting his body find a level, and then moved slowly toward the fire. The warmth radiating from it, striking his chilled skin, was as delicious as anything Hop Sing had ever cooked. Even though it had been a warm September, the rain of the night before seemed to have ushered a cold October in. Joe glanced back at his brother and then at the cave mouth. Whoever had helped them – and he supposed it was the Indian – was gone.
It was up to him now to save them.
Reaching out, Joe caught his dry shirt from the rack and pulled it on, relishing the added warmth it lent him. His pants and boots were still wet, so it helped to stave off the chill. His jacket did even more as it was a thick fabric and retained the heat longer than his thin cotton shirt. Crossing back over to Hoss, he knelt and touched his brother’s shoulder and called him gently.
“Hoss. Hoss. Hey big brother, can you hear me?”
For a moment there was nothing. Then he moaned.
One of the big man’s bright blue eyes opened. “What horse…done…fell on me?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
Joe stifled his sigh of relief. He didn’t want Hoss to know how worried he’d been – and still was. “It didn’t fall on you, you big ox. You fell off of it – at least I think that’s what happened.”
The eye closed. For a moment he thought his brother had lost consciousness again. Then both of Hoss’ eyes opened with better focus. “There was this strong wind…something passed overhead. Chubb smelled something…scared him….” Hoss drew a rough breath. “Something like…sulfur….”
He stiffened. “Sulfur?”
“Yeah…funny…ain’t it? He done reared up and…tossed me off.” Hoss’ eyes closed in concentration. “I…got me…a broken leg, don’t I…little brother?”
“Nothing’s poking through the skin if that makes you feel any better,” he answered.
Hoss looked at him. “Sorry to say…it don’t.”
Joe patted him on the shoulder and rose to his feet.
His middle brother’s eyes followed him. “If..you don’t look like a pup…come fresh out of…a mud bath.”
Joe hadn’t thought about it. Whoever had cleaned their clothes had not cleaned them. His arms and chest were covered in dried mud and, now that Hoss mentioned it, he could feel it caking the skin around his eyes and nose. Wrinkling the later, Joe tried to break free of some of it.
“I’ll get a mirror,” Joe said. “You look worse.”
Hoss snorted. “How…much trouble are…we in, Joe?”
There were a half-dozen trails blazed through the land where they’d been chasing strays. No one knew which one they’d taken. Most if not all of their tracks would have washed away with the rain. Both Cochise and Chubb were probably halfway home by now. Hoss was injured, so badly Joe doubted his brother could sit a horse, so that meant he would have to rig a travois to transport him – which would be nigh onto impossible without one of the horses to pull it. He might be able to drag Hoss once the ground dried out, but that meant waiting for the sun to do its work and from the look of his brother – though the big man was putting on a brave front – that wasn’t something he wanted to do.
Thank God for the man who had rescued them from the storm. Without him, he wasn’t sure Hoss would have made it. The big man would probably be wracked with fever right now as infection set in.
It still could. That’s why they had to go.
He ran a hand over his face, brushing off some of the dried mud, and then knelt again by his brother.
“Trouble? You call this trouble? This ain’t nothing.” Joe grinned. “You and me, we’ve been in worse spots before. It’ll come out all right.”
Hoss frowned at him. “Yeah, but…them times it was...you laying here on the…ground, and me up there…where you are.”
Joe patted him on the shoulder. “Much as it pains me to say this, older brother, you’re more than making up for all the trouble I’ve caused you.” He paused. “You gonna be okay while I’m away?”
“Where you…going, Joe?”
He rose again. “First I gotta find one of the horses if they’re still around. Then, I gotta get us some grub. Then, I gotta figure out how to get your carcass back to the ranch.”
“You just…go. You can…bring a wagon back.”
To find a dead brother? He thought not. “I thought I’d test my survival skills,” he said as he turned toward the cave mouth, “you know, build me a travois.”
“Joe…dad-blame it! You cain’t…haul me all the way…back to the Ponderosa. You ain’t…strong enough.” Hoss was stirring, trying to sit up. “I can tell by lookin’ at you. It’ll kill you!”
“Hey, hey, hey!” Joe was at his side in a minute. “Don’t you try to get up!”
“I will if you…walk out of this…cave. You hear me?” the big man warned.
Joe wrinkled his nose. He stood for a second at his brother’s side and then walked over and pulled Hoss’ shirt, vest, and pants from the rack. Returning with them, he held them out for his brother to see. “I’d think twice about that if I were you. Without these, you’re gonna look mighty funny when those blankets fall away.”
Faster than he thought possible, Hoss’ hand shot out. It almost caught him.
“Joe, you hand those over!”
“I think I’ll just take them with me,” he said with a wink as he headed for the cave mouth. “You know how older brothers are.
“You just can’t trust them to do what they’re told.”
On a high rise, within a brace of trees and silhouetted against the rising sun, stood a frail, bent but unbroken figure. The old man had deeply tanned skin and white hair, and was dressed in buckskins as had been his custom from his younger days when he walked the pastures and prairies east of the Mississippi. Twenty-five years before, as the white man counted them, he had been a healer and followed the white path among the Shawanoes. He had a family. A wife. Children. They were dead now.
And it was his fault.
Though they were gone from the world, they were with him still. They walked the land, never leaving his side. He saw them in his dreams and, sometimes, with his waking eyes as he had on the day when he found the injured man and the one Nenimkee had chosen who fought so hard to save him. His sons had come, showing him the way.
The white men did not look like brothers, but he knew that was what they were, just as Red Leaf and Yellow Bear were brothers.
The young slender pale face with the curly brown hair was full of thunder and fire. He burned so brightly even the storm could not put out the flame. It was fitting that he had been the one to encounter Nenimkee. The great spirit had called out and the fiery one answered.
Now, justice would be done.
The old man turned his face toward the south and looked at the lake beside which Nenimkee’s home lay. The rising sun painted it’s surface red as blood. Its waters were still now. Later, as the light faded and this new day drew to a close, the spirit bird would rise once again to soar across the sky. Nenimkee was restless. His anger, great. The cry for justice had awakened him and called him to punish those responsible.
Leaving the vision of the lake behind, the Shawanoe wise man began his descent. He could not put his full weight on the leg the white man’s bullet had torn through long ago and so his journey was slow and painful. When he reached the bottom, he paused to catch his breath. As he waited, he heard in the distance the voice of a man calling out a name. ‘Joe’, he called as if his life depended on it. “Joe!”
‘Joe’ was the fiery one. In time Nenimkee would call him as well.
In time, they would meet again.
Adam opened his canteen and took a swig from it, and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He was standing on the flat surface of a rocky tower on the top of a low rise, looking out over a broken landscape of rocks and gorse. With the dawning of the day had come an end to the storm. A pale light washed the rocky ridges and hills before him. So far it had done him little good. He had seen nothing of his brothers. Of course, that in itself could be a good thing. It could mean that Hoss and Joe had found shelter in one of the caves by the lake and holed up there to pass the storm. As he stood there, scanning right and left, Adam thought about his brothers and the love they all possessed for one another and the harsh land they occupied. Perhaps it was that very risk of daily death that made their love so fierce.
All it would take was a mistake and in the space of a heartbeat, one of them could be gone.
“And on that cheery note,” Adam snorted as he capped the canteen and slung it over his shoulder. A second later, cupping his hands around his mouth, the black-haired man called out again.
“Joe! Hoss! Are you here?” He waited. “Joe…Hoss?”
The black-haired man didn’t really see anything, but he had a sense of movement in the near distance – as if someone he had just missed seeing had slipped out of sight. Adam narrowed his eyes as his hand went to the gun anchored on his hip.
“Joe? Hoss?” he called again, though why either of them would have chosen to move out of sight was beyond him.
It was no more than three seconds later that a bone-thin figure appeared a little ways below him, standing close by a tall stack of rocks. The morning light was vague at best and mist moved through the gullies in the land before him, but from what Adam could see it was a man and the man was an Indian. At first fear struck him as he thought of all of the possible scenarios that might have placed a warrior in the same space as his brothers, but then he realized – though the native might have been a warrior once upon a time – warfare and glory-seeking were far behind him. Even though the morning mist impaired his vision, he could tell the man was old. The native’s hair was snow white and his back was bent with age. In one hand the old man held a staff topped with feathers. On his head was a fur cap. Adam had been with his pa often enough when he visited the Indian villages to know that both of these were sigils of the office of a medicine man or peace chief.
As he continued to study the native, the man in black became aware that the Indian was studying him. The man lifted a hand to beckon him and then disappeared around the pile rocks. Adam frowned. There was no reason to think that the man or his gesture had anything to do with him or his missing brothers.
So why was he sure that they did?
Scrambling down from his rocky perch, Adam crossed to his horse, mounted, and then headed in the direction the Indian had taken. It took him ten minutes or so to find safe footing for the animal and to work his way down to the base of the rise. Once there he dismounted and, leading his horse by the reins, first located the pile of rocks he had seen the native standing by and then followed in his footsteps.
Of course he drew his pistol before he did.
On the other side, tucked into a crevice with a blanket tossed over him, was Joe. Beside him on the ground, tied to a crude travois that had obviously been hastily fashioned, lay Hoss. Adam glanced about for the Indian. When he failed to find him, he advanced cautiously toward his brothers. He checked Hoss first and was relieved to find him breathing – even if that breathing was ragged and showed he was obviously in pain. Crossing to Joe, Adam knelt and considered the best way to wake him. Joe’s pearl-handled pistol was on his hip and his hand was resting on it. His brother was a quick draw and he had no desire to find himself on the wrong end his gun.
Standing to the side, Adam said softly, “Joe. It’s Adam. Joe, wake up.”
Nothing. So much for caution.
Bending over he reached out and touched his brother’s shoulder. “Joe?”
The brown-haired man was off the ground in a shot, his hand gripping the pistol. The look out of Joe’s green eyes was wild and fiercely protective.
“Joe. Joe! It’s me. Adam.” He paused. “It’s Adam. Joe!”
His brother blinked and it seemed everything came into focus. Joe looked at him and saw him and then seemed to melt.
“Adam…” he breathed even as he swayed.
He caught him and lowered him to the ground. “Joe. Are you okay?”
His brother ignored that. “Hoss. Adam, you gotta help Hoss. He’s hurt.”
Adam glanced at his middle brother and back. “I can see that,” he sighed. Frowning, he examined the younger one in front of him. Joe was covered in mud from head to toe though, oddly, his shirt and jacket were fairly clean. His curly brown hair was matted with, not only mud and leaves but bracken, and there were various small cuts and bruises on his exposed skin. Most of all, though, he looked exhausted.
“You don’t look so good yourself,” he said, reaching toward him.
“I’m fine!” Joe insisted, shoving his hand away and attempting to rise. “We gotta get Hoss out of here. He needs a doctor.”
“Yes, he does. So do you.”
Joe was on his feet again. “I don’t need any….” he began and then, abruptly, went white as a sheet. His brother’s green eyes met his hazel ones and then he was headed for the ground.
Adam caught his arms and lowered him to it. “What do I always tell you, Joe? Older brother knows best.”
“You stay here.” Adam held his brother’s gaze. “Stay here. I mean it.”
Pivoting on his heel, the black-haired man went to his middle brother’s side and knelt to examine him. Hoss was wearing his battered pants and shirt and the same coat of mud as Joe, as well as sharing many of the same cuts and bruises. The big man also had an injured leg that had been efficiently splinted with two pieces of wood wound about with young willow branches. Adam felt his brother’s forehead. Hoss had a fever, but it was mild. As he continued his examination, he found a few odd things tucked into the creases of his clothing – tiny feathers, ash, and bits of bark.
Adam turned back to Joe, who was sitting with his head in his hands. “Joe, did you do this?”
His brother’s curly brown head came up. “What?”
“Splint Hoss’ leg with willow branches?”
Joe rose shakily and came to his side. Dropping on the ground beside Hoss, he said, “I used a couple of broken branches and strips of my shirt to bind it.” He indicated the current splint with a nod. “That’s not my doing.”
It was as he suspected. “I saw an old Indian. In fact, he led me to you. He must have done it.” He looked at Joe. “Did you see him too?”
“Yeah,” he answered quietly, “he saved us.” His brother’s eyes sought his. In them was a mixture of gratitude and confusion. “He just showed up Adam, about the same time as….”
“The same time as what?”
Joe had that look – the ornery little boy one that meant he was definitely keeping something back. “The same time as Cochise bolted. Say, did you see him?”
Adam played along. “No, but I have Chubb. Cochise is probably back at the ranch by now.”
“I came looking for him so he could pull the travois,” his brother said wearily.
Suddenly he understood. “You were pulling Hoss by hand? Through this landscape?”
Joe shrugged as if it was no big deal.
Adam eyed his baby brother – all one hundred and thirty-odd pounds of him – and then looked at Hoss who weighed more than half-again that much and was, at the moment, dead weight.
No wonder Joe was exhausted.
The black-haired man shook his head. He laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Determined doesn’t begin to describe you, does it?”
Joe grinned. “I think you can add plumb tuckered out to that.”
Adam let his hand remain a moment longer and then lifted it and rose to his feet.
“Well, we have Chubb and Sport now. Let’s get the travois hitched up and get the two of you home.”
Ben Cartwright tugged on the strap that held Buck’s saddle in place, making certain it was secure. He paused with his hand on the smooth leather and looked toward the stable. Around noon Joseph’s horse, covered with mud and stung by needles and brambles, had come into the yard alone. That made his decision.
His sons had been missing for nearly twenty-four hours and he was going to find them.
As he finished buckling the strap, the older man heard a noise. Leaving Buck, he crossed to the center of the yard and waited. He had already assembled and sent out a half-dozen men. They were headed for the area around the lake where Joe and Hoss had gone, and had been instructed to begin the search. He imagined it was one of them coming back for more instructions.
He imagined wrong.
The small entourage that came around the corner of the stable was one of the most beautiful sights he had ever seen. A weary Adam was in the lead, riding Sport. Behind him came a muddy and bedraggled Joseph, mounted on Chubb. There was a travois hitched to the back of his middle son’s horse and someone laying on it.
Instantly alert, the older man rushed to their side.
“It’s Hoss, Pa,” Adam said as he dismounted. “He’s hurt.”
Ben glanced up at Joe where he sat on his brother’s horse. His youngest was wan and weary and swaying in the saddle. He placed a hand on his leg and asked, “What about you, son?”
Joe’s answer was a pale imitation of his usual smile and a quiet, “I’m okay, Pa.”
Looking at the boy, he seriously doubted that.
“Adam, see to Joe,” the older man ordered as he knelt beside the travois. “And send one of the men for the doctor.”
“We ran into the ranch hands that were heading out for the lake on the road, Pa,” his eldest replied. “I already sent one for Doc Martin.”
Ben was checking his middle son’s pulse. It was fairly strong, though not as strong as he would have liked. As his hand touched Hoss’, the big man stirred. His son winced and then his eyes opened and he looked at him.
“If you ain’t…a sight for sore eyes, Pa,” he breathed.
Ben glanced at Joe, who had left the saddle and was standing beside Chubb talking quietly to Adam, and then back to Hoss. “This is a switch,” he said, nodding toward Joe.
The big man frowned and then snorted. “You mean me…laid up instead of little brother?”
The older man nodded. “What happened?”
“My dag-burned horse…spooked, Pa. Threw me…clean off and into…a gully.”
“Did you run into a rattlesnake?”
Hoss frowned. “It’s funny, Pa. It…weren’t no rattler. If’n I didn’t know better…I’d a said it was…some kind of giant bird.”
“A…big one, Pa.” Hoss blinked with fatigue and his eyes almost closed. “Big as a horse…maybe bigger…if’n you ask me….”
Ben looked up to find Joe standing beside them. The look on his youngest son’s face was hard to read.
The boy started. “Yeah, Pa?”
“Did you see this…giant bird your brother thinks he saw?”
Joe’s face scrunched up and he winced. “Giant bird? Who? Me?” he squeaked. “No, I didn’t see any giant bird. Hoss’ fever was pretty high for a while. He probably imagined it.”
It made sense.
Still, there was something in Joe’s voice.
Ben rose to his feet and turned toward Adam. He didn’t get a chance to ask the question that had formed on his tongue because, at that moment, the door to the ranch house flew open and all three of Gil’s daughters blew out in a flurry of petticoats and feminine concern.
“Oh! Oh my!” each one exclaimed as they descended on his three weary boys.
His eldest son tipped his hat as Ainslee approached, ready to be the gentleman and acknowledge her presence. It only took Adam a second to realize that he was not her intended victim.
That was Joe.
Ever the little mother, Gil’s oldest caught his youngest’s hand and began to draw him toward the porch. “You need to sit down before you fall down,” she ordered, her tone brooking no disagreement.
Joe shot him a look – a helpless look.
Ben hid his smile. His boys were well-trained and tough. He’d spent years preparing them for the demanding work of a ranch and the harsh realities of the life they would lead.
He probably had not prepared them well enough for women.
“Ainslee’s right, Joe. Why don’t you go in the house. And Ainslee?”
Joe still in her clutches, Gil’s oldest swung toward him, her golden brows arched and ready for a fight.
“Hop Sing is in the kitchen. Ask him to rustle up some grub. Joe looks like he needs it.”
That brought a smile.
“Certainly!” she responded – and then began to drag Joe again. “Come on, Little Joe. You do look like you could use some meat on your bones.”
Joe’s heels left scuff marks on the beaten-down ground before the porch.
“Mister Cartwright?” a light voice asked. “If you would move out of the way….”
Ben started and turned. To his surprise Gil’s other girls – Deidre and Fiona – had Hoss on his feet and were holding him up between them.
His middle son grinned. “Ain’t these two the prettiest…crutches a man ever had, Pa?”
The older man nodded and then asked, amused, “Would you two young ladies like any help?” Both girls had a small-build, like their mother, and were bending like saplings in a wind under his son’s considerable height and weight.
“We’re just fine,” Fiona replied, shifting and straightening up – and hiding the look of mild distress he had caught on her face only a moment before.
“You men!” Deirdre added, “Always thinking women are weak and need looking after. I would advise you look to your own sons.” The brunette eyed Adam who had lingered by the horse and done his best to stay out of the proceedings. “Look at them. Worn, weary, and mud from head to toe! It looks like they could have used a woman on the trail.”
She might be the middle girl, but Deirdre was definitely the most opinionated and vocal of the trio.
The girl’s dark brown brows peaked and she waited.
Ben pursed his lips. “Is there something I can do for you?”
“I think she wants you to get out of the way, Pa,” Hoss offered, his own voice lit with a smile.
The older man stepped back. He had to stop himself twice from running after them as the girls slowly walked Hoss to the house. His son’s leg was injured and it was all Gil’s daughters could do to hold him up. Still, from the look on his face he thought his middle boy would have gladly taken a spill in order to remain in their company.
As the trio entered the house Adam came to his side.
“Gil’s girls?” he asked.
The black-haired man pursed his lips. “And just how long are they staying?”
Everything was topsy-turvy that day and the next. After the Doc examined them, Joe and Hoss hit their beds hard and slept the day through. Joe was up the next morning, but returned to bed within a few hours. Hoss, of course, would be confined to his for a few days. Adam decided at the last minute to go back with several of the hands to the area his brothers had been searching, hoping to locate the steers that remained missing. All of which left him in charge of the ranch and their house guests. For the entirety of two days Gil’s girls had flitted about the house, rushing up and retreating down the stairs, carrying fresh linens and trays of food to Hoss and Joe, all the while fretting that there were men in need and they weren’t doing enough.
It was nearly more than their maternal instincts could bear.
Ben glanced toward the front door remembering the scene that had played out in the foyer earlier in the day. There was going to be hell to pay tonight. Hop Sing had come out of the kitchen to announce that he was headed to town for supplies. It had taken calling in every favor their Chinese cook owed him, but he had persuaded – well, he supposed compelled was a better word – the Asian man to take the girls with him. With their departure a silence had come over the house that was the nectar of the gods.
Ben looked up from his paper. He couldn’t see anyone. “Joseph, is that you?”
Joe’s curly head peered around the corner of the wall. “Are you alone?”
“If you mean are the Jenkins girls gone? For the moment, yes.”
His youngest son headed down the stairs. As he reached the bottom, Joe shook his head. “They sure are a handful, aren’t they, Pa?”
“It was my understanding from your brothers, Joseph, that a ‘handful’ of a girl was something you rather enjoyed.”
His tone was so dry Joe missed it for a second. Then he blushed.
Ben shifted and put the paper down on the settee table. “They are lovely girls. They’re just….”
“Girls,” Joe replied, dropping into the big blue chair and anchoring his boots on the table.
The older man’s eyes went from the table to his feet to the floor. “Ahem.”
His son frowned. “Oh.” Joe shifted and straightened up. “Sorry, Pa.”
“That’s one thing you wouldn’t find a young lady doing. I’m certain Gil’s furniture is in much better condition than mine.”
“They sure are something, Pa. I mean, you know, when you court a girl it’s one thing. It’s all about spooning and taking walks and then taking them home.” Joe shook his head. “Living with them is sure different.”
The older man hid his smile. He paused, thinking of the three women he had loved. While they had brought chaos into his life, they had carried along with it beauty and joy. Of all his sons, Joseph had had his mother the longest. Maybe that was why he was the one of his boys who – even though he was the youngest – seemed the most likely to marry first.
“What do you remember of your mother, Joseph?”
The question took his son by surprise. A wistful look crossed the boy’s face; a mixture of a child’s gain and loss. He thought a moment and then shook his head. “There’s not much, Pa. At least not much I can remember in the way of what she did with me. I remember feeling safe when I was with her – and happy. I remember she smelled like a walk in a summer meadow full of flowers.” He laughed. “I remember flowers in the house and…. It’s silly.” Joe drew in a breath and let it out slowly, fighting back tears. “If I close my eyes, I can hear the swish of her skirts moving up and down the stairs.”
Ben was a little choked up himself. “God knew what he was doing, son, when he took that rib from Adam and made him a mate. Male and female are parts of a whole. The woman’s nature is to nurture and to take care, to protect in her own way by guarding against harm with caution and wise words. Her love for her man is fierce, but for her children, it is the fiercest of all.”
“Just like those old mama grizzlies,” Joe said softly.
Ben nodded. “A man, on the other hand, is all about pushing out and moving on, about trying himself and proving what he’s worth. He wants – no needs – a woman beside him to temper him and to give him something to protect. Something that needs looking after that reminds him what is the most important of all.”
“How come you never married again, Pa?” his son asked innocently.
He’d asked himself that question a thousand times. Hoss and Joe had been so young when Marie died, they really needed a woman’s touch. Still, the loss – three women loved and three laid in the grave – had been enough. And they’d gotten by.
All he had to do was look at his sons to know the choice had been right.
“I’m not entirely sure, Joseph. I guess, in the end, I’ve never met a woman who could measure up to the memories.”
Joe glanced toward the door. “What was Gil’s wife like?”
“She was a lovely woman. Ainslee looks the most like her, though from the little I have seen, it’s Deirdre who has her personality.”
Joe’s eyebrows peaked. “She’s a spitfire that one. You know what she did? She caught me in the hall this morning and asked me if I needed help getting dressed!”
His son nodded, his young face serious.
Ben’s cheek twitched. “And did you?”
Joe’s green eyes went wide. “Pa!”
This time he laughed out loud. It felt good. Rising to his feet, he crossed to his son and laid a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve survived being shot, taken prisoner, and walking the desert with little or no water, boy. I think you can handle three women in the house for a few weeks. Give them a chance. You might be surprised to find that they are just as nervous about being in a house full of men.”
His son’s face scrunched up like a little boy’s trying to figure a sum. “I hadn’t thought about that, Pa.”
“Well, do think about it. Try to ease their stay and make them feel welcome. I think once they settle in, you’ll find some of their forwardness is just nervousness.” He patted Joe’s shoulder and then lifted his hand. “Now, why don’t you go up and see if your brother needs anything.”
“I doubt it, Pa,” Joe said as he rose. “That Deidre, she sure seems smitten with middle brother.”
“Oh?” This was the first he had heard of it.
“She won’t let Fiona or Ainslee anywhere near him. She’s been sitting, reading to him when he’s awake and hovering in the hall when he’s asleep.” Joe shook his head and shrugged. “She’s been bringing him food too.” He laughed. “I think half of Hop Sing’s larder is in Hoss’ stomach right now.”
“And what does your brother think about this?”
Joe smirked. “Older brother is in high hog heaven.”
“Well, in that case, it’s probably even more important you check on him. He might starve to death since Deirdre’s away.”
“I think he’s got enough laid up for the winter, Pa,” Joe replied with a wink. He turned then and headed for the stair. At the bottom, he looked back. “Fair warning, Pa? When the hurricane blows back in?”
Ben nodded. “Fair warning, Joseph.”
Joe arrived outside his brother’s room seconds later. He took hold of the doorknob and then paused. He’d checked in on Hoss a few times to make sure he was healing, but with Deidre’s presence had been able to avoid his middle brother for the most part. Their Pa had no idea what he was asking. He knew Hoss was going to want to talk about what he didn’t want to talk about – whatever it was that had swooped overhead with a mighty wind blocking out the moon and the rain and knocking the big man from his horse.
Joe sighed and released the knob. He’d almost convinced himself that what he saw was just a trick of the night and the lack of light, and of his own exhausted condition. After all, he couldn’t have seen what he thought he’d seen. There were no gargantuan birds residing in the desert or in the caves along the lake. Oh, he’d heard of the natives’ weather spirits called the Thunderbirds. They caused storms by fighting with the Great Horned Spirit, and lightning was said to be made by the blinking of their great eyes. One of the transplanted tribes, the Shawnee, actually believed that the great birds were justice bringers and guarded the entrance to Heaven against the unworthy. Others considered them to be the patrons of war. The Apache called them the Big Owl. The Pawnee, Hu-Huk.
White men called them myth.
The trouble was that Hoss was well, gullible and easy to fool, and would believe just about anything if it had a connection to tall tales and legend. His middle brother had dragged him into more trouble than he cared to remember while trying to find things that didn’t exist. Usually he went along with it, as much to keep the big man out of danger as anything else, but this time – well – this time it was different. He knew it wasn’t a Thunderbird he had seen, but something had been out there. Something that had scared not only Hoss’ horse – but him.
And Joseph Francis Cartwright did not like admitting he was scared.
The problem was, he couldn’t fight it, couldn’t take hold of whatever it had been and whup it, or draw fast and drop it in its tracks. It was like a nightmare where something appeared so real but when you reached out to touch it, it turned out to be nothing but vapor.
Burning, acrid, sulfur-laden vapor.
Joe closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath – said a quick prayer that Hoss would be sound asleep – and then turned the knob. Hoss was, of course, wide awake.
Sometimes he just figured God plain didn’t like him.
“Hey, big brother,” he said as he poked his head in. “Just checking to see if you needed anything. If not, I’ll – ”
“Joe, come here,” Hoss said in what he could best describe as a stage whisper. “Close the door. I got something I gotta show you.”
He didn’t like the conspiratorial sound of that. “Uh…I think I should get back downstairs, what with Adam gone….”
“Little Joe, this is dang important. Come in here.” Hoss was shifting in the bed, sitting up, reaching for the bedside table and a book that lay there.
No, for a piece of newsprint that lay under the book.
He hated it when his voice squeaked. “What’s this about?”
Hoss patted the edge of his bed. “You just sit here, little brother, and I’ll explain it all.”
Seldom did he want to hear his father’s bellow calling him downstairs. Now would have been a good time.
Obediently, he sat down. “Okay.”
Hoss glanced at the door into the hallway. “I bet you don’t know that Miss Deirdre’s been visiting me on a regular basis.”
Of course not. He’d only seen her going in and out of Hoss’ door at all hours of the day and night. “Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
“She sure has been. We’ve been talkin’.” Hoss paused and his chest puffed out like a turkey in spring. He winked. “Her and me, we got it all figured out.”
Joe’s face s scrunched up. He swallowed over a lump. “Got what figured out?”
“Why, what you and me saw that night out there by the lake.”
He shook his head. “I never said I saw anything.”
The big man scowled. “Now you ain’t gonna back out on me, is you, little brother? You had ‘a of seen it, Joe. It knocked me right off my horse and you was close by.”
The scrunch deepened. “Well, I might’a seen something, but I ain’t saying what. It could of just been a low flying cloud – ”
“That smelled like a sulfur pit?”
Joe shrugged. “Could’a passed through a mess of rotten eggs somewhere.”
Hoss was giving him that look – the one that meant trouble. “Now you ain’t…afraid…is you, little brother?”
He straightened his spine. “I ain’t afraid of nothing.”
“’Cept maybe fire breathing dragons?”
It was worse than he thought.
“Dragons? Really?” He couldn’t scrunch his nose anymore without it hurting. “Hoss, there ain’t no such things as dragons.”
His brother’s brilliant blue eyes narrowed. He waggled the piece of newsprint in front of him like a free ticket to the Palace. “What if’n you read in the paper that there was?”
Joe rose to his feet. “Well, since there ain’t no such thing, I won’t be reading about it in the paper. I…oh…”
Hoss handed him the slip of newsprint. The title on the front of it was: WINGED MONSTER FOUND IN DESERT.
There was even a picture.
Joe dropped into the chair beside the bed. He looked at his brother. “Where’d you get this?”
“Miss – ”
“Deidre,” Joe finished for him. “I should of known.”
“Read it, Joe, and then tell me that ain’t what you and me seen.”
He glanced at his brother, whose eager and excited face was almost more than he could bear, and then back at the article. With a sigh he read the whole thing.
A winged monster, resembling a huge alligator with an extremely elongated tail and an immense pair of wings, was found on the desert last Sunday by two ranchers who were returning home from the mountains. The creature was evidently greatly exhausted by a long flight and when discovered was able to fly but a short distance at a time. After the first shock of wild amazement had passed the two men, who were on horseback and armed with Winchester rifles, they regained sufficient courage to pursue the monster and after an exciting chase of several miles succeeded in getting near enough to open fire with their rifles and wounding it.
The creature then turned on the men, but owing to its exhausted condition they were able to keep out of its way and after a few well directed shots the monster partly rolled over and remained motionless. The men cautiously approached, their horses snorting with terror, and found that the creature was dead. They then proceeded to make an examination and found that it measured about ninety-two feet in length and the greatest diameter was about fifty inches. The monster had only two feet, these being situated a short distance in front of where the wings were joined to the body. The head, as near as they could judge, was about eight feet long, the jaws being thickly set with strong, sharp teeth. Its eyes were as large as a dinner plate and protruded about halfway from the head. They had some difficulty in measuring the wings as they were partly folded under the body, but finally got one straightened out sufficiently to get a measurement of seventy-eight feet, making the total length from tip to tip about 160 feet. The wings were composed of a thick and nearly transparent membrane and were devoid of feathers or hair, as was the entire body. The skin of the body was comparatively smooth and easily penetrated by a bullet.
The men cut off a small portion of the tip of one wing and took it home with them. Late last night one of them arrived in this city for supplies and to make the necessary preparations to skin the creature, when the hide will be sent east for examination by the eminent scientists of the day.
The finder returned early this morning accompanied by several prominent men who will endeavor to bring the strange creature to this city before it is mutilated.
“Now tell me that ain’t what we seen,” Hoss repeated.
Joe folded the paper. “It ain’t what we seen.”
His brother made a face like he’d eaten a lemon. “What do you mean, it ain’t what we seen?”
He tossed the paper at him. “I mean, it ain’t what we seen! This is obviously a hoax. I bet when they got there to skin the ‘creature’ it was gone.”
“What about the picture?”
“Hoss! It’s a drawing. Anybody can draw anything! I could draw a twenty foot tall horse with a horn coming out of its forehead and claim I just found the unicorn mentioned in the Bible. It doesn’t mean anything.”
Hoss’s eyes were huge. “There’s unicorns in the Bible?”
Joe ran a hand across his eyes. He leaned forward and took his brother’s wrist in his hand. “Hoss, look at me.”
He indicated his eyes with two fingers. “Just look at me, okay?”
His brother leaned in close. “What?”
“Repeat after me, ‘There ain’t no such thing as dragons’.”
“Joe, how do you know that? The Pawnee believe in them.”
“For goodness sake, Hoss!” he said, jumping to his feet. “The Pawnee believe in Red Woman, an ogress that eats people!”
His brother looked thoughtful. “You think maybe she rides on one of them there dragons?”
“You know what I think? I think that Deirdre’s turned your head, big brother. You ain’t thinking straight.” Joe shook his head. “Blind-sided by a pretty girl!”
“Like you ain’t never been before,” Hoss shot back.
Joe pointed at him. “Aha! There, you see! You admit it! You’re makin’ it up to impress her.”
“I ain’t admittin’ nothin’, little brother, other than the fact that if I could get off of this here bed, I’d teach you some manners! Don’t you go makin’ fun of Miss Deirdre!”
Joe made a face. “I’m not making fun of Deirdre. I’m making fun of you.”
“Dag-burn it! That does it!”
Joe backed up as Hoss tossed off his covers and rose from the bed like the leviathan of legend.
“I thought your leg was…b…broke,” he stammered, backing up even further.
Hoss was on his feet. “Just strained, little brother. And I ain’t about to let a strain stop me from taking hold of your skinny little neck and wringing it!”
His brother lumbered toward him, looking for all the world like an irate pirate with a peg leg as he dragged his splinted one behind him. Joe threw his hands up. “Now, Hoss. I didn’t mean any disrespect. I’m sure Deirdre’s a lovely girl, if a bit…fanciful.”
As he approached Hoss reached out. “I’ll just fanciful you….”
Joe’s eyebrows shot up as he ducked under his brother’s arm and headed for the door. “I think I heard Pa calling. I’ll…go…see…what…he…wants….”
With that, he darted out the door.
And ran into Pa.
Their father staggered back, striking the wall. They both froze as he did. Joe looked at Hoss. His brother knew what he was thinking.
They didn’t need to find a dragon. They already had one.
Pa was snorting fire.
“BOYS! WHAT IN THE NAME OF SAM HILL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?”
They exchanged desperate glances. “I was…we was…were…coming down for some grub.” He winced. “Hoss was tired of looking at the same four walls. I promised to show him a fifth one.”
Pa was not smiling. He held his gaze and then turned his near-black eyes on Hoss. “And what are you doing out of bed, young man? You know what Doc Martin said.”
Hoss screwed up his face. “It’s like Little Joe said, Pa. I’m sure plumb tired of lying in that bed.”
“Well, you are going to be even more tired of it when I confine you to your room for a month!”
“Pa,” Joe started hesitantly, “you can’t do that. We’re not little boys anymore.”
The older man pinned him first, and then Hoss. Sometimes after their pa yelled, he went real quiet – just like a storm did when birthing a twister.
“Really?” he said. “I would never have guessed.”
“Pa, I….” Joe’s voice trailed off. The front door had opened.
Rescue was at hand.
“Sounds like we got company, Pa. I’ll just go down and see who it is.” He edged toward the staircase but halted near the top. “Shall I?”
His father shot him a look that told him to stay where he was. Then he turned to Hoss. “Young man, you get back in that bed.”
One thick eyebrow arched in warning.
As Hoss returned to his bedroom and bed, the silver-haired man came alongside him. He shot him a look, sighed deeply, and then headed down the stairs. Halfway down, he turned back. “Joseph!”
“The girls are back. I can hear them on the porch. Why don’t you go out and help them with their packages.”
He moved down the stair, passing the older man. “Sure, Pa.”
As he reached the floor, his father spoke again. “Oh, Joe?”
“Ainslee went into town to get fabric. It seems she’s going to make dresses for her sisters for that party we’re going to have. She’s looking for a dressmaker’s dummy.”
Joe swallowed hard. “And?”
His father came to his side and locked eyes with him.
“Guess who just volunteered?”
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