Summary: Created for a challenge to write a story set in the hottest time of year, summer. Twenty-one year old Hoss Cartwright has a problem. Older brother Adam just took off into the desert without a word and Little Joe wants to follow him. Pa will have his hide, he knows. But it’s awful hard to say ‘no’ to Little Joe…
Word count 21,317
A Cold Day in Hell
“You really think these are Adam’s tracks?”
After a quick glance at the burning sky overhead and a swipe of a white sleeve over his forehead to clear it of sweat, Hoss Cartwright used two fingers to trace the outline of a boot barely visible in the shifting sand.
“Yep. I’d know them anywhere.”
A slender shadow eclipsed the prints, bringing with it a whisper of relief from the heat. “How?”
The big man indicated the heel of the boot. “See that?”
The young man who had cast the shadow crouched beside him. “Yeah. So what?”
“Them ain’t no ordinary cowboy’s footwear. That there heel is too dang narrow,” Hoss replied. “Don’t you remember them fancy boots older brother bought last time he was in San Francisco?”
“Yeah. It’s a wonder he doesn’t tip over.” There was a pause and then his fourteen-year-old brother added, “Then again, it’d be hard for that Yankee blockhead to tip since he spends most of his days with a poker up his – ”
“Joseph!” the big man sighed. “You mind your manners.”
Little Joe ran a hand through his sweat-soaked curls and sniffed as he climbed to his feet. “Why? Pa ain’t here.”
Hoss Cartwright followed slowly. At twenty-one he was feeling the strain of the heat and the anxious ride from Virginia City, unlike the little jack rabbit he turned to face who was grinnin’ like a possum eatin’ a yellow jacket. The big man counted to five and then, leanin’ in and lowerin’ his voice, did a fair imitation of their pa when he got up on the wrong side of the bed.
“Oh? Ain’t he?”
Little Joe’s smile faded. He even turned and looked around.
“Joshin’ Adam is one thing, Little Joe, and I know sometimes – well – maybe most times older brother deserves what he gets. But I ain’t gonna stand here and have you disrespect your elders.” Hoss pursed his lips and scowled – for two heartbeats. Then he pushed a finger into his brother’s bony chest. “And don’t you go forgettin’ that includes me too!”
For a second Little Joe’s emerald green eyes blazed. Then that pert little nose of his wrinkled and he cackled, “Adam? My ‘elder’? Seems to me it’s older brother who’s acting like a kid. Who rides off into the desert without tellin’ anyone why?”
Hoss tipped his hat back and cleared the sweat away again before speaking. For once, Little Joe was right. “It sure don’t make no sense, ‘specially when it comes to our big brother.”
“So, what do we do?” Joe asked as he turned to stare at the endless vista of sand spread out before them.
Now that, as Adam would have put it, was a conundrum. He could sense Little Joe’s excitement, overridin’ the boy’s fear. Joe wanted to take off after Adam in spite of the danger. The trouble was, Pa didn’t let little brother go into the desert much – and never without him. Pa was afeared, and rightly so, that if something happened the boy didn’t have no fat to live off of.
“Sorry, Joe. I was thinkin’.”
The little squirt giggled. “Good thing! Somebody’s got to do it. Looks like older brother forgot to put on his thinkin’ cap today.”
That’s what bothered him. It just wasn’t like Adam to do somethin’ so, well, impulsive. Older brother didn’t run a comb through his hair without thinkin’ about just the right spot to start and stop so those black waves of his would be lined up straight as a column of bluecoats.
“Did he say anything when he lit out?” Joe asked.
Hoss sighed. They’d gone to the settlement to pick up supplies. For some reason Pa’d decided this summer was the one to make sure every building on the Ponderosa was up to snuff before winter came. It didn’t seem to matter how many shingles, planks, and nails they picked up, they was always runnin’ out. This summer was provin’ hot enough to wither a fence post, and him and his brothers had been plenty happy to take Pa up on his invitation to go to town. If the truth be known, he kind of suspected Pa was givin’ them all a break. They’d busted their butts the last few days and was ahead of schedule. When Pa’d first mentioned it, him and Adam had exchanged glances, their lips smackin’ as they thought of that first long tall glass of cold beer. They both knowed Joe’d be wantin’ one too and when they talked about it a little later, they’d decided maybe he was old enough at fourteen to join them. Pa’d skin them, of course, if he found out.
But then, that’s what brothers were for.
Due to the heat, they was all draggin’. About mid-way there, Adam’d leaned over and nudged him, rollin’ his eyes over toward Joe. He’d looked and found their little brother swayin’ in the saddle, plumb tuckered out. Older brother’d winked and smiled and then reined in the horses, pullin’ the supply wagon to a stop. He’d done the same to his big black and Joe’s horse, Cadfan, stopped too. Little brother jerked awake and looked at the pair of them like they was half or maybe all crazy.
Adam ignored him. He climbed out of the wagon and then stood beside it, pressin’ a hand to his achin’ back. “It’s time to rest these old bones for a bit,” he said as he reached for his canteen.
“Rest all you want, Adam, but remember,” Joe added with wink as he easily swung off his horse, “if you reach down and find your clothes are cold, you’ve overslept!”
There was a sharp reply on the tip of older brother’s tongue, he could tell, but Adam bit it back. ‘I’m going to fill the canteens,” he said as he reached for the others. “Hoss, you see to the horses. Little Joe, I want you to check the wagon bed. Make sure all the supplies are secure.’
“Secure? Just how do you think they’d be anything but secure?’ Joe protested. ‘You two’ve been travelin’ about as fast as a pair of old ladies on their way to a church social.’
‘No lip, Joe. Just do as I say,’ Adam growled.
Little Joe didn’t give older brother no lip, but the boy grumbled all the time he was climbin’ into the wagon bed about old men and stupid chores and hot, dusty days. Of course, once little brother found that pile of empty sacks in the wagon bed, he stopped grumblin’. Joe glanced after Adam and then laid right down on top of them.
Hoss chuckled. He’d grinned like a possum eatin’ cactus when Little Joe woke up. The boy was fit to be tied once he realized he’d slept all the way to Virginia City!
Once in town, they’d done their duty by their pa and the Ponderosa, pickin’ up the mail and gettin’ the supplies loaded and so on, and then they’d headed for the saloon. Little Joe was set to bust his buttons, he was so puffed up with thinkin’ he was all growed up and gonna have his first beer. While he ushered the little scamp to a table – past a gaggle of grinnin’ saloon gals near old enough to be Little Joe’s ma, who were eyeing him like a fresh cut of beef – Adam went to the counter. He watched as older brother spoke to the barkeep and saw him cross the man’s palm with a coin so’s he’d keep his mouth shut.
There were times when bein’ an older brother was a real pain. And then there were times when it was just about the best thing in the world. Joe drinkin’ his first beer was both. He got to watch his baby brother shine for a minute, thinkin’ he was all growed up, and then spent the next twenty minutes cleanin’ Little Joe up after he turned ten shades of green and lost not only the beer but his lunch and maybe some of his breakfast too.
To save the poor kid from bein’ embarrassed they’d let him rush outside before he puked. He and Adam left him to his own self for a few minutes, takin’ time to finish their beers before chasin’ him down. Adam guessed Joe would head for the alley and he was right. Funny thing was, Joe weren’t alone when they found him. One of their newer hands – a man by the name of Lark Miller – was in the alley bendin’ over their brother. Lark rose when he saw them and walked their way. As he passed, he tipped his hat and winked as if to say, ‘Ain’t nothin’ worth worryin’ about’. Then, without a word, he pushed past them and went into the street. Weren’t no more than two minutes later Roy Coffee appeared at the end of the alley and asked after Little Joe. The little scamp had been pale when they found him, but he went white as a windin’ sheet when he saw the lawman, afeared Deputy Roy would tell their pa about him drinkin’. Older brother looked down at Joe and smiled that funny little smile of his, and then went over and took Roy by the arm and walked him around the corner.
That was the last they’d seen of him.
“You better hope your face don’t freeze that way,” Little Joe said.
Hoss blinked. “What?”
“Like this.” Joe formed his face into a monstrous frown.
“You quit bein’ silly. This ain’t no time for tom-foolery. You was there, Little Joe. Adam didn’t say nothin’. He just walked off with Roy and didn’t come back.”
The frown disappeared. Joe started gnawin’ his lip. “Do you think he was…mad at me?”
“For gettin’ sick? Nah.” The big man chuckled. “Now, for pukin’ all over them expensive San Francisco boots of his? Well, that might be another matter.”
“Somebody had to rough up those old boots so they’d be worth wearin’,” Joe replied with a wink as his gaze returned to the desert. The boy sobered quickly. “Hoss, do you think Adam’s in trouble?”
It was plain as the nose on his face.
Little Joe was scared.
That was okay. So was he. Not so much about Adam, as about the choice he had to make – go home and leave older brother alone to face, well, whatever he was facing, or take Little Joe into the desert and go lookin’ for him.
Into the desert and danger.
“What’d Roy say when you talked to him?” Joe asked, like he hadn’t asked it ten times before.
“I done told you, Little Joe. He said Adam asked him not to say nothin’ to Pa about what he’d just see’d. Deputy Roy weren’t too happy about you drinkin’ beer, but he said ‘boys would be boys’ and he agreed.”
During the twenty minutes or so they’d waited for older brother to show, he’d cleaned Joe up, rinsin’ little brother’s shirt and face with water from the trough. Then, they went to find Adam. Instead they found Deputy Roy standin’ in front of the mercantile by their supply wagon. Roy’d asked the store-keep and he told him that Adam had been there. He’d gathered up a few things before heading for the livery, and then took off lickety-split without so much as a by-your-leave. Hoss’ gaze went to his little brother who was shiftin’ nervous-like from one foot to the other. He’d studied on the problem for a few minutes and considered leavin’ Little Joe behind with Deputy Roy where he’d be safe. Trouble was, one look at Joe’s face told him the boy wouldn’t stay put lessen he was hog-tied and hamstrung, and the idea of Joe followin’ him into the desert was scarier than the idea of Joe bein’ with him. So they’d taken off together.
And now here they was – a half-mile into the hottest place on earth with night comin’ on, with only the supplies they could stuff in their saddlebags, a quartet of canteens, and the clothes on their backs – flyin’ on a wing and a prayer.
Little Joe was practically dancin’ on the dune. “Something’s wrong, Hoss. I know it. Adam… Adam needs us. We gotta go after him.”
He knew it too and he was all right with that. What he wasn’t ‘all right’ with was leadin’ his baby brother into whatever that ‘something’ was.
“I promise I’ll do whatever you say,” Joe said as if readin’ his mind. Them big eyes of his were shinin’ like emeralds in the fadin’ light. “You can trust me, Hoss. Please.”
For all Adam and Little Joe acted like they’d as soon kill each other as claim one another as kin, there was a deep bond there – deeper in some ways, maybe, than the one he had with his little brother. Him and Joe, they was best friends. Joe and Adam? Well, for a time, Adam had been Little Joe’s rock. After Ma died, when Pa, well, when Pa just plain lost it, older brother made sure he was always there for the little tyke, so that Joe knew he had somethin’ and someone to hold onto. The big man shook his head. Their pa taught them that there was a reason for everythin’ and God knew what it was, but it sure seemed to him that it was pure bad luck that Mama died so close to the time Adam had to go away to college. Pa’d come back by then, but Adam leavin’ had done somethin’ to Little Joe that none of them liked to admit.
The boy was plain scared of bein’ left behind.
Reluctantly, Hoss nodded. He reached out and took his brother by the arm. “I want a promise, Little Joe. I know you don’t break your promises. Before we go any farther into the desert, you gotta promise me you won’t run off on your own for any reason. You stick by my side like glue, you hear?”
“That ain’t good enough.” Hoss leaned down so his eyes were on a level with his stubborn little brother’s. “You look me in the eye and you give me your word you won’t go runnin’ off or doin’ anythin’ stupid.”
“I ain’t stupid,” Joe growled.
“Prove it.” He held his brother’s gaze. “Prove you’re a man who gives a man’s word.”
Little Joe straightened up a bit at that. Dang! If he didn’t look cute.
“I promise, Hoss,” Joe said, and then added quietly. “I promise on Mama’s grave.”
That was as good as it got.
“All right then. You check Cadfan’s cinch and I’ll check Chubb’s.” Hoss eyed the sinking sun. “It’s been a long day and there ain’t a lot left of it. You tell me when you get tired and we’ll stop.”
“Hoss, I can ride….”
“I know you can. But we don’t know what tomorrow’s gonna hold, and you bein’ tired and bitin’ my head off ain’t somethin’ I need to worry about.” The big man sighed. “I’m gonna get enough of that when I get home and Pa finds out I let you talk me into goin’ into the desert.”
As his brother went to mount his horse, Hoss turned his face toward the vast expanse of sand and scrub that lay before them. The only thing drivin’ him to venture out into it was the fact that older brother had taken off across it without givin’ them a reason why. He had to believe that Adam knew he would follow him. He’d leave a sign as soon as he could; somethin’ to tell him where he was goin’. He was sure of it.
Well, mostly sure.
As Hoss continued to stare at the barren land, somethin’ one of Pa’s old wranglers had said came back to him. He’d been just about Joe’s age and was lookin’ at crossin’ the desert for the first time.
‘A cactus don’t live in the desert because it likes the desert, boy. It lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet.’
Cadfan pulled up alongside him. “I’m ready, Hoss,” Joe announced. “Let’s go find Adam.”
Little brother sure enough was ready.
He didn’t know if he was.
He knew it would have been right smart to travel through the night, but seein’ as the full moon had decided to pull up its covers, at the moment there was just no way to do it. Finding tracks in the desert – where the wind shifted sand and sidewinders swept it like a broom – was near impossible enough without tryin’ to do it in the dark. Joe was all for pressin’ on, but he’d finally convinced him it was more likely they’d miss Adam as find him if they did. One second little brother had been all piss and vinegar – his hands forming fists and his chin jutting out like a butte – and the next he’d near dropped in place and fallen asleep, plain worn out by all of it. As he stirred the ashes of their small campfire and tossed a few sticks onto it, Hoss glanced at the sky, noting dawn was still an hour or two away. Catchin’ sight of baby brother’s bare shoulders, he put the stick down and reached over and pulled Joe’s blanket up, tuckin’ it under his chin to keep him from shiverin’. Though he’d lived all his days in this land, it never ceased to amaze him that the temperature in the desert could sky rocket to over one hundred durin’ the day and still come close to freezin’ at night. Somehow, it just didn’t seem right. Pa’d told him once that the desert was like a fickle woman. She’d as soon slap as kiss you.
Or as soon kill as slap.
The big man rested his hand on his little brother’s hip. He’d made Joe lay down right close to him so’s he could keep watch. He didn’t know what he was gonna do when the boy woke up and needed to do what was necessary.
Joe’d have a right fit if he insisted on goin’ with him.
Suddenly uneasy, Hoss rose to his feet. Staying close, but moving a short ways away, he rested one booted foot on a flat boulder and looked off into the desert. It could be beautiful at night with blue dunes that cast deep purple shadows and a black sky above studded with white diamond-hard stars. The trouble lay in what those shadows masked – rattlers, scorpions, feral horses and the like, as well as predators.
Both four and two footed.
Digging his cold fingers deep into his pockets, Hoss considered again what Adam could have been thinkin’ when he took off. He had to believe that older brother had done it without tellin’ them ‘cause he didn’t want them along. And yet, at the same time, Adam had to know one or both of them would follow. He couldn’t believe they’d just up and go back to the ranch and leave him alone to face whatever it was.
After all, they was brothers.
With a sigh, the big man turned so he was facing his little brother and sat down. As he did, the clouds parted just a bit and several beams of moonlight struck the area of scrub and gorse they had chosen for their camp. He’d been here before when he and big brother had made runs for their pa. It was why he’d picked it, knowing the scattered rocks offered about the best shelter for the next five miles. As the pale light walked the land, it passed over somethin’ funny. He couldn’t tell what it was, but it sure didn’t look like a rock or a clump of gorse. With an eye to not wakin’ his sleeping brother, Hoss rose and moved with a grace that belied his giant-like frame. You couldn’t rightly tiptoe in a cowboy’s boots, but he did his best, and managed to pass by the little squirt without him stirrin’. Kneeling, he reached out and touched what turned out to be a leather vest. It had a big rock weighing it down. Perplexed, he took it with him as he stood and was surprised to see a piece of paper flutter to the ground. Hoss stared at it for a moment before bending to retrieve it. Hastily, he opened it, but the moon chose just that moment to slip back under its covers and once again, the desert was plunged into near complete darkness.
There wouldn’t be any readin’ tonight.
As he stood there puzzlin’ about whether or not the note and vest was connected to Adam, Little Joe shifted and moaned. Weren’t more than ten heartbeats later the boy was shoutin’ to wake the dead. Without thinking, he placed the note in his shirt pocket and hurried over to his brother. Little Joe was yellin’ Adam’s name and cryin’ like he’d lost his best friend. Dropping to the sand beside him, the big man reached out and touched his shoulder.
“Joe! Little Joe! Wake up!” he ordered, his voice a sharp whisper. “You gotta stop yellin’. It ain’t safe.”
Combative. That’s what Adam called the boy when he was wakin’ up. Joe made a fist and struck out at him like his life depended on it. Hoss caught it in his fingers and held on tight.
“Little Joe! It’s old Hoss,” he said, placing his other hand on the boy’s face. “ Come on, punkin, wake up for me!”
Joe either didn’t hear him or didn’t believe him. His brother continued to struggle and shout. The big man hesitated to clamp a hand over the boy’s mouth for fear he would fight harder, but he sure wasn’t comfortable with the fact that Little Joe was lettin’ just about every predator in the desert know right where they was.
“Nooooo,” Joe wailed in that way men did when they was asleep, soundin’ like one of them banshees wailin’. “Nooooo! Adam, no! I’m…. don’t let him shoot…no….Adam….
Joe sat bolt upright, near scarin’ the livin’ daylights out of him. The boy was breathin’ hard and them great big green eyes of his were wide open. Hoss wasn’t sure if he was awake or not.
“Little Joe? You okay?”
For a moment Joe didn’t respond. Then he turned his head and looked at him as if he had never seen him before. After drawin’ another breath, the boy asked, his voice shaky, “H…Hoss?”
He cupped his brother’s tear-streaked chin in his hand. “Yeah, punkin, it’s me.”
Joe’s hand shot out and caught his shirt, twisting it tightly in his grip. “Oh, God, Hoss….”
“What is it, Joe? Tell me.”
His brother swallowed hard as he suddenly became aware of his surroundings. “We’re not in the settlement?” he asked, his voice robbed of strength.
“We left there. Don’t you remember?”
Joe blinked. He drew a deep breath and nodded. “To follow Adam. Right.” A shiver ran the length of his slight body. “Right. Did we…did we find him?”
Hoss ran a hand through his brother’s sodden curls. “No, we ain’t found him.”
“But I thought….” Little Joe shuddered and then looked around. For a moment he was confused. Then he said, “I was dreaming.”
“It sure weren’t a nice one,” Hoss admitted.
His brother’s grin was shaky. “Sorry. Sorry if I scared you.”
“You didn’t scare me,” he lied. “What was it you was dreamin’ about?”
Little Joe’s long lashes brushed against his wet cheeks. “I can’t…remember much. There was a man. He was with Adam. He was gonna…hurt him. I tried to help him. Honest, Hoss, I did! But I couldn’t. I couldn’t get there fast enough! There was somethin’ wrong with my legs. Somethin’….”
Joe was visibly shaking. Hoss circled his shoulders with one arm. “You just calm down, little brother. It was just a dream . There ain’t nothin’ to them.” Hoss paused and then grinned. “It was probably just them beans you whipped up for supper.”
His brother looked funny. “I do feel a little nauseous.” While he watched, Joe reached up and touched his right arm near the elbow. “It’s weird, you know?”
Hoss was frowning. “What’s weird?”
“In my dream, that guy who was tryin’ to hurt Adam shot me. Right here.” He pressed the flesh with his fingers. “It hurts like he did.”
“Let me see your arm.”
Joe frowned at him but did as he was told. The trouble was, it was so goldarned dark the boy might as well of refused. He couldn’t see anything.
“Maybe you hit it when you was thrashin’ around.”
Joe winced. “I was thrashing?”
“You ever seen your covers in the mornin’?”
His brother snorted. “Heck no. They’re always on the floor and I’m on the bed.”
“Buck naked half the time,” Hoss grinned. “And pretty as a baby jaybird.”
Joe’s saddlebag didn’t hurt much when it hit him in the chest.
Catching his blanket up off the ground, Joe rolled in it and turned the other way. “Yeah, well, it ain’t easy bein’ the only pretty Cartwright. So stop disturbin’ my beauty rest. Okay?”
“It’s hard work bein’ handsome, ain’t it?” the big man asked, hiding his smile.
“Mm..hmm. Told Pa…I’m the hardest…working…Cartwright….”
A minute later Little Joe’s breathing evened out and he knew he was asleep. Hoss turned his face to the east and noted the light was rising. He knew he had to get an hour or so’s sleep himself, so he picked up the other blanket they’d grabbed from the supply wagon and curled up in it.
Two minutes later he was snoring.
Several miles away, a bone-weary Adam Cartwright paused to take a sip of water from the canteen he had hastily filled before grabbing what supplies would fit in his saddlebag from their supply wagon and taking off. He knew it was foolish, heading into the desert alone and mostly unprepared.
Adam spit out a bit of the water and then ran the back of his sleeve over his lips.
No. Not foolish.
It was something his brother Joe would have done if not reined in by his older, wiser brothers. Little Joe wore not only his heart on his sleeve but just about every other emotion he felt, and there were times when he wondered if the kid had a brain. At fourteen Joe was, to put it plain and simple, a royal pain. As Adam capped the canteen and laced it back over his saddle horn, he grimaced, suddenly seeing himself at Joe’s age – brash, angry, self-serving and self-centered. Marie stood before him. She was trembling – not with fear, but from his words. He’d been hateful to her those first few months. Truly hateful. With a snort, he placed his foot in the stirrup and mounted. Joe might have a mouth on him and every now and then use it to hurt one of them on purpose, but for the most part his brother’s rage was directed inward where his own demons lay.
If anything ever happened to that ‘royal pain’ he didn’t know what he would do.
Which was why he had ridden into the desert without making adequate preparations.
His lips pursed, Adam took up the reins and stared into the distance, calculating how much farther he had to go. He’d been a fool to ignore what he knew. Still, how seriously did you take an off-hand remark made when – weary and exhausted – you had just climbed down off of the back of a bronco you’d busted? Closing his eyes, he relived the scene yet again. There was Little Joe, sitting on the top rail of the fence, whooping and hollering his support for the rider. Hoss hadn’t been there that day – he’d been busy elsewhere – and so it was one of the newer hands who stood closest to his brother. As he walked by, Joe leapt down from the rail to greet him and stumbled into the man, knocking him into the fence. The color rose in Joe’s cheeks instantly as he stuttered an apology. At first, it seemed the hand accepted it readily enough. Adam could recall the man’s gaze flicking to him and then back to Joe. Then he said –
‘Seems to me, boy, someone needs to teach you a thing or two,’ and then, with a grin, added – ‘Who knows? It might just be me. I bet I could find a use for you.’
He loved words. Words had power. Unfortunately, they also had various shades of meaning.
Today, after speaking to Roy, he’d come to realize what Lark Miller’s meant.
At first, he’d intended to go back and talk to Hoss – to get middle brother to make up some excuse to take Little Joe home. But then he’d spotted Miller seated on his black gelding near the supply wagon, almost like he was waiting for him. Lark’s lips had curled in a sneer as he reached up to tip his hat. With a wink, the blond man mouthed five words.
‘Curious? Follow me to Gable.’
Scared to death? Positively.
He’d had no choice but to follow.
Hoss glanced at the toe of his boot where it was dancin’ a jig on the sand. He’d considered countin’ the amount of times he’d been doin’ that same dance since Little Joe had done been born, but decided to forget it.
Weren’t enough fingers in all of the Nevada Territory, he supposed, to do it.
He and Joe was breakin’ camp. The sun was crestin’ on the horizon and they’d both done slept themselves out. Joe was already up and movin’ by the time he’d opened his eyes. The boy was restless, but then that was nothin’ new. Still, somehow his brother was – off. Seemed Little Joe couldn’t keep his mind on one thing long enough to remember it needed finishin’. Joe’d kicked some dirt on the fire but didn’t put it out. He’d thrown his saddle blanket over Cadfan’s back, but left the saddle layin’ on the sand. And now he was headin’ down to the water hole with nothin’ in his hands.
“Joe! Little Joe!” the big man shouted. “Where do you think you’re goin’ boy?”
At first it seemed his brother didn’t hear him. Finally Joe halted, but didn’t turn back. “What do you think I’m doin’, you big ox? Gettin’ water!”
Hoss stooped and picked up their canteens and held them out. “Without these?”
Joe pivoted on his heel. He wrinkled his nose, indicatin’ he knew he’d been caught out, and then snarled, “I got hands. I can drink out of them!”
“Well, I ain’t drinkin’ out of your hands, little brother. I seen ‘em last night and they’re as dirty as a flop-earred hound. You come here and get these.”
Sullenly, head down and shuffling his boots in the sand, baby brother made his way back to the camp. Without looking up, Joe grabbed the canteens and turned to go. Before he could, Hoss reached out and caught him by the shoulder.
“Boy, you look me in the eye.”
Joe’s muscles were tense. The boy felt kinda like a coiled spring, ready to pop. “Let me go,” he snarled.
Now, he knew his little brother. There was a few things made him madder’n a rained on rooster. Wakin’ up was one of them. Adam or him treatin’ him like a kid was another. But there was another reason, one he was hopin’ didn’t fill the bill this time.
Joe was right surly when he was ailin’.
His big fingers plowed through his brother’s shirt to his flesh. Hoss shook his head at what he found. The boy was skinny as a bed slat turned sideways.
He was also shakin’.
His brother sighed and then looked up. Tears streamed down Joe’s face, mixed with sand and sweat. He swallowed hard and then lifted a finger to wipe drool from his lip.
“Hoss…I don’t feel so good.”
The big man sucked in a sharp breath. The minister in Virginia City liked to talk about disasters of Biblical proportions. At that moment, he knew he was facin’ one.
Little Joe just done admitted he was sick.
Hoss moved his hand to the boy’s forehead and frowned when he didn’t feel any heat radiating from him. Weren’t no fever, so what…?
“What’d you do, Joe? How’s come you’re feelin’ bad?”
His brother batted his hand away and snapped, “What do you think, I went out in the middle of the night and ate somethin’ I shouldn’t have? Or, maybe, drank some poisoned water on purpose!” His brother swallowed again, going’ almost as green as he’d been after that beer. A sort of terror entered his eyes. “Hoss….?”
A second later they was both down on their knees and he was holdin’ Joe while he retched up everthin’ but his guts. By the time he was done, the boy was shiverin’ from head to toe; clutchin’ his stomach and moanin’.
If trouble didn’t follow Little Joe like a hound dog on a fresh scent.
Hoss reached out and covered one of his brother’s small hands with a big one of his own. “I’m sorry, Joe. I didn’t know you was ailin’ so. You got any idea what’s goin’ on?”
His brother bit his lip and shook his head.
Little Joe drew in a breath. “…got cramps. They’re…bad.” He let the breath out in little puffs and then drew in another and held it. Turning his face into the sand, his brother wheezed, “Feels like I’m…gonna…die.”
“Take it easy, Joe. You ain’t gonna die.” Hoss was using his tender voice. The one he reserved for frightened animals – and little boys. “Can you tell old Hoss where the cramps is?”
Joe swallowed – harder this time – and blinked, almost like rain was runnin’ in his eyes. “Stomach,” he gasped. “Back…chest.”
Good Lord! That didn’t leave much.
Flummoxed, Hoss shifted his hat back and let out a low whistle. “Listen here, Joe. I’m gonna get in back of you so’s I can hold you. Is that all right?”
Joe was bitin’ his lip so hard now it was bleedin’, but he managed to nod.
Careful, like he was handlin’ one of Marie’s china geegaws, the big man lifted his little brother and slipped in underneath him. He rested Joe’s back against his arm and cradled the boy’s head to his chest. Little Joe moaned again and shuddered. Then he sighed.
“Th…thanks, Hoss. That…feels…good.”
“You just rest, Joe, while’s I think of somethin’ to do.”
One of Joe’s hands found his shirt and gripped it. “Hoss…I want…Pa….”
He placed a hand on his brother’s curls. “I know you do,” he said kindly.
He did too.
“Do you think you can go back to sleep?”
Joe grunted. “When I close my..eyes…everything’s goin’ round.”
Hoss chuckled softly. “I got hold of you, Joe. You ain’t gonna fly off nowhere.”
It took a few minutes, but finally his little brother’s breathin’ evened out, indicatin’ Joe was asleep. This close he could hear the rattle in that breathin’, almost like Joe’d got croup or pneumonia. For the life of him he couldn’t think what could of caused it overnight. Little Joe might look like he didn’t have enough wind to blow out a candle, but he was a tough kid. Maybe tougher than him or Adam. The boy’s life had started with a fight and he’d been fightin’ ever since in one way or another. As he sat there, Hoss ticked off the symptoms he could count. Joe was wheezin’ and swallowin’ hard like his throat was swelled. He’d lost his supper and admitted to cramps, not only in his stomach, but his back and chest as well. If he didn’t know better, he’d have thought the boy’d been snake bit. But he did know better. Weren’t nothin’ like that had happened.
Suddenly he saw Joe, lookin’ all pale and puny, holdin’ onto his arm and saying, ‘In my dream, that guy who was tryin’ to hurt Adam shot me. Right here. It hurts like he did.’
Hoss dropped his hand to his brother’s arm. He noticed the boy was tremblin’ as he worked the blue fabric back to reveal first Little Joe’s wrist and then his upper arm. Streaks of red, like marblin’ in a cut of beef, ran along his brother’s flesh, radiatin’ out from two tiny little scratches no more than an eighth inch long, spaced about a quarter inch apart. The flesh around the marks was turnin’ black.
Hoss sucked air between his teeth and cursed.
Adam halted. He dismounted and led his mount into the only bit of shade for miles – a slim ribbon of shadow cast by a boulder thrust up from the desert floor like a fist. He knew the area and knew that Lark was indeed leading him toward the old Gable mine which, at one time, his pa had owned. It was one of those mines that had promised at first to be lucrative, but had soon petered out and been abandoned. There would be no one there but him, Lark, and the ghosts of the men whose lives it had claimed. There had been several cave-ins before it closed, and a half-dozen men had lost their lives in the last one. He and his father had been there. The mine’s foreman had insisted they come and take a look at Gable to see if it could be made safe. A quick inspection had shown him any such effort would prove futile. They’d been discussing it when a loud sound had rumbled up out of the cave mouth, followed by a rush of air and dust – and then the alarm sounded. When the dust cleared a group of them had gone down into the cave, traveling as far as they could in search of survivors. The solid rock wall they met told them, if anyone was alive, they were trapped inside.
Trapped in a living tomb.
Removing his canteen from the saddle horn, Adam filled his hand with water and let Sport drink his fill. Then he poured a little more for himself – even sparing a few drops for his neck as his ran his hand along the inside of his collar, dislodging sweat and sand. As he capped the canteen, the black-haired man leaned back and looked at the sky. It was high noon in the desert.
The heat was proving as deadly an opponent as any gunslinger.
Squinting, Adam looked back the way he’d come and breathed a sigh of relief that there was no sign of his brothers on the horizon. He’d left the note for Hoss in plain sight – and in a place where they had done so before. He knew his brother was worried about him, but when it came down to it, he was a man and could look out for himself. Middle brother knew that. If Hoss believed that Little Joe was in danger, he was sure he would hightail it for home.
Well, almost sure.
Adam blew out a breath as he leaned his head back against the stone. The thing was, he had no idea what trouble Joe might be in. He’d been racking his brain all morning, trying to remember any encounters between Lark Miller and his little brother. There wasn’t much and yet, when he thought about it, he’d realized that Lark had been, well, tailing Little Joe. It wasn’t so much that they’d had any interaction, as that Lark always seemed to be wherever Joe was. He had to admit it had bothered him when they came around the corner of the saloon and found Lark leaning over Joe. At first, only because the cowhand had beat them to it. If anyone was going to rescue their little brother from his first glass of beer, it should be them. But then, as Lark pushed past, there’d been…something. A twist to his lips. A look out of his eye. The language of his body.
He was pretty sure if they had arrived one minute later, Joe would have been gone.
And so, when Lark had mouthed those words – Curious? Follow me to Gable – he’d felt he had to. He was afraid to let the man go. Afraid, if he did, that somehow – at a time they least expected it – Lark would do something to Joe. Just what he wasn’t sure. Kidnap him? Hold him for ransom?
Or maybe kill him.
Adam shuddered, both with fear and fatigue. Sport snorted and he patted his horse on the nose. “I know, boy. I won’t do anyone any good if I fall out of the saddle.”
As his mount pawed the ground, Adam lifted his sidearm from its holster and made sure it was loaded. Then he sat down in the shade and propped his back against the fist-shaped stone. He placed the pistol within easy reach and then lowered his hat over his eyes. And then, with a whispered prayer that all would turn out right, allowed his eyes to close and fell asleep.
Hoss furrowed his brow, tryin’ to remember what his pa had taught him about spider bites. There weren’t too many predators in the desert wouldn’t run the other way when they seen you. The only time most fought back was when they felt they was in danger. It was just their bad luck that Little Joe’d pitched his bed on a Black Widder’s web. He’d only seen the bite one time before, but it was easy enough to recognize. Joe had a nice hole now where those little marks had been. It looked like a round circle of plum jelly. Joe’s arm was on fire and he was startin’ to feel hot. ‘Course, it was hard to tell whether that was from the bite or from the intense heat risin’ in a wave from the desert floor.
From what he knew, most times spider bites just made folks sick. The trouble was, they made some folks sicker than others. They was hardest on them what had other problems to begin with, but they was mighty hard on young’uns and people who had what the doc called a ‘delicate constitution’ too.
He still remembered the day Mama came in the door, lettin’ loose a long line of French, with Hop Sing followin’ in her wake, yellin’ in Chinese. Pa’d been sittin’ in his chair, readin’. He put his paper down and walked over to them and caught Mama by the arm and asked her what was wrong. She told him she was fine and that made Hop Sing start yellin’ again. It took Pa a couple of minutes to figure out that they’d been in the garden – Hop Sing workin’ the herbs and Mama cuttin’ flowers – when she’d cried out and swatted somethin’ off her arm. She was tryin’ to hide it, but Pa’d pushed her sleeve up and seen the bite. It weren’t near as angry as what Joe had now, as he remembered, but it sure enough got mad as a wet rattler as the night went on. Mama’s arm swoll up, and then her face, and then she started havin’ trouble breathin’. When mornin’ came, Pa sent for Doc Martin, afraid for her life. Seemed Mama was somethin’ called ‘sensitive’ to that there spider’s venom. He remembered standin’ at the door with Adam, watchin’ the Doc shake his head and hearin’ him say that if things didn’t get better, he’d have to open Mama’s windpipe. Pa was sure upset. When the Doc went downstairs to get his tools out of his buggy, Hop Sing stepped into the room and said somethin’ to Pa. He and Adam had watched their father think it through and then nod his head. Doc Martin wasn’t too happy when Pa said he wanted to try Hop Sing’s medicine first. It was somethin’ the Chinese knew about, and danged if it didn’t make the swellin’ go down and sure enough, Mama could breathe.
Hoss looked down at his brother. Joe’s eyelids were swollen. So was his face. His breath was comin’ hard.
He sure wished he had Hop Sing with him now.
Just about the time that thought crossed his mind, Little Joe started and his eyes flew open. “Adam!” he called out.
The big man moved his hand to his brother’s forehead. It was hot. “Adam’s okay, punkin. You worry about yourself.”
“No,” Joe batted at his hand. “Have to…help…Adam….”
“Joe, you ain’t in no fit shape to ride.”
His little brother blinked. He ran his tongue over his lips and then asked, “Water?”
Hoss reached for the canteen. “Sure, little brother. You drink what you want. Only slow.”
Joe nodded. His hands were shakin’, but he managed to take hold of the canteen. After a sip, he lowered it to his lap and looked up.
“Hoss, what’s…wrong with me?”
A sick kitten would have looked plumb robust next to his little brother right now.
“You remember gettin’ shot in that dream of yours?”
Joe frowned. Then he nodded. “Yeah….”
Hoss reached out and gently lifted his brother’s arm. He heard Joe gasp when he saw it. The hole full of jelly was larger. There were red streaks around it now, crawlin’ up his arm. Tears ran from his brother’s eyes as he asked, “What is it?”
“Spider bite, Joe. Probably a Black Widder. You must of pitched your blanket on her nest.”
Joe swallowed hard. His words were pushed out of a swollen throat. “How come…how come I feel so bad? Pa said…spiders can’t kill you.”
He remembered Marie. How close it had been. “Most folks just get a little sick,” he agreed.
Joe’s green eyes were wide. “Most? Not all?”
Hoss avoided lookin’ into them. He rose to his feet instead. “We need to get you home, little brother.”
He looked down at him. “Why not?”
“Adam.” Joe was breathing rapidly. “Adam…needs us.”
“Now, Joe, you cain’t know that for sure –”
His brother’s fingers feebly clawed at the leg of his pants. “I do. I…know for sure.”
Joe hesitated. “I just do,” he said, his voice quiet as a discarded feather duster. “Why else…would he have ridden…off without us?”
The sun was beatin’ down on his head, fryin’ his brains. It was hard to think. It was plain as the nose on his face that Adam was ridin’ into some kind of trouble, but he had to think of Joe.
Little Joe needed a doctor.
“Adam can take care of hisself,” he said.
“Hoss….” He looked down. Joe was pale as Hop Sing’s dough and about as limp as uncut noodles hangin’ over a ladder-back chair. “I don’t…I don’t think I can…make it to the settlement.”
The big man knelt. “Sure you can,” he said as he reached out and took his brother by the arm.
“It’s so…hot.” Joe’s swollen face lifted toward the sky. “Ain’t the old…Gable mine closer? Maybe there’d be…supplies….”
He hadn’t thought of that. There might just be somethin’ left in the shacks that he could use to wash out the wound and bind it. Plus, he could get the boy out of the sun.
Still, it meant takin’ Joe farther into the desert.
“It’s closer than Eagle..Station, ain’t…it?”
“And I bet…Adam’s there.”
Hoss frowned. “Now why would you think that, little brother? We don’t have no way of knowin’ where older brother went.”
Joe was fadin’. His eyes were openin’ and shuttin’ slowly, flutterin’ like a butterfly in a hard wind. “I saw it…in…my dream….”
He sure was feather-light, that little brother of his. He barely felt it as Joe collapsed against him.
As the sun moved past its zenith and started its slide down the sky toward night, Hoss sat there, holding his ailing brother. He had a hard decision to make. They was about three miles away from the mine and a good eight out of Eagle Station. He could have Joe sheltered and maybe find somethin’ to treat him with before dark if they made for Gable. They’d have to spend another night out in the open if they headed back to the settlement, and he wasn’t sure Joe was gonna make it that far. Another plus for Gable was the fact that they might run into Adam and Adam would know what to do. Joe seemed sure older brother was there.
He wasn’t sure about anythin’ anymore.
Shifting, Hoss laid his little brother down and went to Joe’s horse. He stood for a moment rubbin’ Cadfan’s velvety nose and then he pulled the saddle off his back. Next he removed the blanket. Then he filled his hat and let the horse drink his fill. After Cadfan was full, the big man capped the canteen, laid it aside, and then turned back and took the horse’s head between his hands.
“Cadfan,” he said softly, “I’m sendin’ you for Pa. You got your belly full of water. You take it easy, but don’t take too long gettin’ there, cause Little Joe needs help. You know the way home. Don’t you go takin’ any chances, cause I’m countin’ on you – Joe’s countin’ on you.” As he paused, Hoss had a sudden thought. He remembered the paper he’d picked up in the desert. He could use it to write a note to Pa, tellin’ him where they was and why they was there. As he removed it from his pocket, he turned it over. He could see words written in Adam’s distinctive handwriting, but they had faded from sweat. Weren’t nothin’ legible anymore other than his name and little brother’s. Walkin’ over to Chubb, he scrounged in his saddlebag for a pencil and hastily scribbled a note to their father on the other side, tellin’ him Joe was sick and he needed to come to Gable’s with the Doc.
He guessed that meant he’d made his choice.
Adam woke with a start and realized he had slept longer than he intended. The sun was close to the horizon and night was fast approaching. The slender ribbon of darkness he’d occupied earlier that day had become wider ocean, encompassing not only him but his mount. Rising stiffly, the black-haired man dusted off the seat of his pants and went to his horse. Once there, he opened his saddlebag and drew some jerky from it. As he chewed the leather-like meat, he added a bit of water from his canteen to soften it and engage his swallowing reflex, which allowed him to work it down his parched throat and into his belly. After repeating the procedure two more times, he went to relieve himself and then turned to Sport. Caring for his horse took a few minutes.
Then, he headed for the Gable mine.
As he rode, Adam once again went over what he could remember about Lark Miller. The man had come to them a few months back to work the spring cattle drive. He had a few references, but the truth was at that time Pa might not have even asked. They were five hands down and would have taken just about anyone so long as they could sit a horse and rope a steer. Lark was a tall man; near as tall as Hoss. Unlike middle brother, he was ‘slender’ tall – more like a pine than a cottonwood – and had hair and eyelashes the color of a pine tree’s wood. The light eyelashes, coupled with the fact that his skin didn’t tan but burned, had been rather startling the first time he saw him. Add to that a pair of cool blue eyes, pale as Banquo’s ghost, and you had a most unusual, impossible to miss man.
That was how he had spotted him so easily in town.
Lark had done his job well during the cattle drive, which had led to him being hired on as a regular hand afterwards. He hadn’t thought much about it at the time, but since Lark’s talents seem to lay more with horses than timber or steers, he’d spent a lot of time around the yard and the corrals – both of which were places where Little Joe also spent a lot of time. So far as he knew Joe had never mentioned him, so Lark must not have done anything untoward. Adam’s lips quirked with an affectionate smile.
At least nothing overt enough for his ‘I’m man enough to handle it’ fourteen-year-old brother to report.
Still, now that he considered it, it seemed that Lark had been…well…lingering around Joe. Maybe watching him. His mind turned over the last words he and the ranch hand had exchanged that day at the corral. ‘Seems to me, boy, someone needs to teach you a thing or two. Who knows? Might just be me. I bet I could find a use for you.’ Adam drew in a breath as he helped Sport avoid a low-lying and hard to see bed of cacti.
There was an encyclopedia of possibilities in those words.
He’d known cowhands before that were attracted to his baby brother. Joe was a handsome kid, just coming into manhood, who tended to be on sensitive side and was – to put it bluntly – pretty as a girl. The threat this posed was bad enough, but there were other ways in which boys such as Joe could be ‘used’. He’d seen it in San Francisco and the other big cities he and Pa visited in order to do business. Kids no older than Joe, hanging on street corners, waiting for someone to come along and give them a few dollars for the ‘service’ they would provide. These kids saw no other way. It was a choice they made to survive. The sad thing was, the kids themselves pocketed very little of the money they sold themselves for. Most all of it went to the men who owned them.
Adam shuddered as he imagined Joe on one of those corners.
Puffing a breath out, Adam shook the image away. It was possible Lark was planning nothing more than a simple kidnap and ransom demand. Pa was wealthy and everyone knew it, and no one was more vulnerable to that kind of thing than Little Joe. But if kidnapping Joe was the motive, why warn him? Why bait him into following and riding out into the desert?
Adam pulled Sport up so abruptly the horse protested.
God! He was a fool.
Lark Miller wasn’t at the Gable mine.
He was on his way to Little Joe.
Less than an hour into their ride to the Gable mine, Hoss was doubtin’ his choice. He was holdin’ Little Joe in front of him and the boy was near dead weight. Every so often the kid would open his eyes and give him a weak smile and offer some word of support – right before them emerald-green of his eyes closed again and his head lolled back against his chest and he went out like a light on a stormy night. ‘Course it made him happier when Joe went out. Otherwise little brother was shiverin’ from head to toe and groanin’ ‘cause of the pain. The poor kid’s eyelids was near swollen shut and his face looked like it used to, back when he had baby fat. There were tears streakin’ those chubby cheeks.
At least he hadn’t puked in a while.
As they rode on, the big man kept tellin’ himself that people didn’t die from spider bites. But then, into his ear would come Doc Martin’s words from all those years ago. ‘Ben,’ he’d told his Pa, ‘it’s come and go. If the reaction Marie is having causes her windpipe to swell shut so much she can’t breathe….’
Hoss shook the silent form in front of him as he leaned over and spoke into his brother’s ear. ‘You keep breathin’, Little Joe. You hear me, boy! Breathe.”
Joe shifted in his arms. His eyes opened again and he looked at him. There was a whole world of hurt and fear in them eyes. His brother’s hand caught his where it rested on his chest. Dang it, if Joe didn’t have tiny hands! Little Joe squeezed his fingers as he spoke, his voice thin as a reed.
“I’m…tryin’, Hoss. Promise….”
Hoss felt about as helpless as a steer in quicksand.
He weren’t normally one to play the ‘what if’ game, but that didn’t stop the words knockin’ around in his head. What if they hadn’t gone to town? What if Joe hadn’t had that beer or got sick? What if whatever thing that was so dang important hadn’t called older brother into the desert, and what if he had a brain in his head and had not given in to Little Joe and followed?
What if a blond man hadn’t ridden out of the shadows layin’ close to a outcrop of rock and parked himself right in their path with his gun drawn?
Yeah, Hoss thought as he drew his ailin’ brother closer to his massive chest and eyed the stranger.
It was a good thing the moon was high and the clouds of the evening before had failed to reappear. The night had fallen, but he couldn’t stop. Of course, traveling at night saved a man the baking heat of the day, but it put at risk both his life and his faithful horse’s. There were so many pitfalls that the darkness might conceal and, on top of that, it was cold as a card sharp’s smile. Adam shifted in the saddle and drew his jacket closer about his throat to stave off the chill of the desert night. Thank goodness he’d tied it to his saddle that morning! Jolted by the thought, he suddenly reined Sport in. His mount turned and looked at him and then blew air through his nose as if to say ‘about time!’. The black-haired man patted his friend’s neck as he allowed himself a moment of panic. In his mind’s eyes he could see his brothers’ laughing at him that morning, calling him an ‘old worry-wart’ for taking a jacket along on a blistering hot day.
Neither Hoss or Joe had a jacket.
Making a kissing noise, he started Sport moving again, much to his mount’s displeasure. He had to remember, Hoss was with Little Joe. The two of them would be home by now. There was no way middle brother would bring that little scamp farther into the desert after reading his note. It was far too dangerous and, on top of that, Hoss would know Pa would kill them both if anything happened to Joe.
Adam pursed his lips and blew air out of his nose in imitation of his mount. Who was he kidding? This was Joe he was talking about. His little brother could charm the skin off a snake. Hoss would be putty in his hands.
But would Joe have wanted to follow?
As Sport hesitated and then picked his way around an unseen object embedded in the sand, Adam considered the question. The answer hinged on one thing – whether or not his youngest brother perceived he was in danger. Little Joe might be exasperating and annoying, even infuriating at times, but there was one thing he was even more.
Casting his mind back, Adam thought about what he could have done differently – and realized there was nothing. If he had let Lark Miller get away, the man could have come back at any time. There was no way they could keep a watch on Little Joe twenty-four hours a day – even if he would have let them – and he was sure the blond man’s intentions where his brother was concerned were far from noble. There was just something about the image of Lark in town, mouthing those words, that set his hackles up. His little brother was tough. He was Ben Cartwright’s son, after all. If Lark tried something, Joe would take him on. Sadly, there was no way baby brother could win. He and Hoss had been horsing around just the other day and they’d hung Joe up like a steer to see what he weighed. The kid barely topped eighty pounds.
Little Joe was their Achilles heel and everyone in these parts knew it.
Lark Miller knew it.
Kneeing Sport, Adam urged his weary mount to move faster. The chestnut gelding blew out his frustration and shook his head, but picked the pace up just a bit. They were about halfway between the settlement and the point where he had turned back. It was probably around three in the morning. Pa was most likely still up and pacing in front of the fire, beside himself with worry. Or, maybe not. Maybe Pa had gone to bed. After all, his father counted on the fact that he was with Hoss and Little Joe. Pa knew he wouldn’t let anything happen to either of them.
Unexpectedly, Sport shied and took a few steps back, nearly throwing him off balance. After calming the animal, Adam narrowed his eyes and took in their surroundings, looking for anything out of place. It took a minute with the light as vague as a silver mist at morning, but then he saw it.
“Damn!” he exclaimed as he sucked air in-between his teeth.
It was a body.
Warily, careful not to spook his horse, Adam reined the animal in and dismounted. With his heart pounding as fast as the hooves of a stampeded herd, he crossed the short distance to the downed man and knelt by his side. The moon’s light was eclipsed for a moment, casting the man’s face into shadow. He was a big man. Very big.
And terribly familiar.
Adam drew in a breath and held it as he placed his hand on Hoss’ back and waited. The breath came out with a prayer of thanks when he felt his brother’s chest rise and fall. Hoss was alive.
But where was Little Joe?
Adam rose and turned in a frantic circle, his eyes searching for Joe’s slender form similarly laid out on the sand. As he did, Hoss groaned. The black-haired man turned back to find the big man using his elbow to lever himself up into a seated position. Middle brother’s hand reached up toward the back of his head. Hoss moaned again and then, realized he wasn’t alone. His fingers began to claw the sand. Probably looking for his gun.
“Hoss,” he said simply. “It’s me. Adam.”
He watched his brother tense and then the big man’s shoulders slumped. “Adam?” he said, his voice a whisper on the sand. “Adam, a man…. He…took Little Joe.”
Slightly light-headed, Adam dropped to his knees beside the wounded man. Even in the moonlight he could see the dark streak running from Hoss’ forehead, down onto his shirt. The moonlight painted the trail it left black, but he knew it was crimson red.
“How bad are you hurt?”
Hoss grunted. “I ain’t hurt and I don’t need no lookin’ after. You get out of here and get after Little Joe. I’ll come…soon as I can.”
Adam looked around. There were no horses in sight other than his own. “On foot?”
The look Hoss gave him told him he would walk to Hell and back to find their missing brother. “He done took the horse too.” Hoss attempted to stand up, but fell back to the sand winded. “Look, Adam, I ain’t important. Little Joe is. You gotta find him and find him fast! He’s…sick.”
Adam frowned. God. No.
Not something else.
“What’s wrong?” He rephrased it. “What happened to Joe? Besides this man, I mean?”
Hoss seemed to shudder. “He was spider bit, Adam. Maybe a Black Widder. It’s bad.”
Adam’s hand went involuntarily to his throat. “Like Marie?”
Middle brother nodded. “Maybe worse. His eyes is near swollen shut. I ain’t sure if he can even see.” The big man’s eyes sought his and held his gaze. “Adam, he was havin’ a lot of trouble breathin’.”
“And Lark still took him?” He was aghast.
Hoss scowled. “Lark Miller?” He thought a moment. “So that’s who it was. I only see’d him for a second. I could tell he was big and blond, but didn’t see nothin’ else before he hit me.”
Adam reached out to check the head wound. “Pistol?” he asked, grimacing.
“Yeah, but I’m all right. Look Adam, you gotta go! I heard Lark tell Joe they was headin’ for the Gable mine.”
Adam rocked back on his heels. The Gable mine – again. What was it with that place?
Reaching up, he pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. It just didn’t make sense. “Hoss, if that’s where Miller was headed, I should have seen him. I just came from that direction.” He paused and then, had to ask, “Why did you disregard the note I left?”
For a moment middle brother looks nonplused. Then his eyes lit with understanding and he sighed. “Joe got bit just after I found it. By the time I remembered and got to readin’ it, it was sweat-soaked and there weren’t nothin’ to read. What’d it say?”
Adam rose to his feet and looked in the direction Lark Miller had taken their baby brother. There was something going on here he didn’t understand – a lot going on he didn’t understand. Unfortunately, the only way he was going to find out what he needed to know was to leave Hoss alone…at night…in the desert…and go after Little Joe.
“Don’t you worry none about me,” his brother said, knowing him too well. “Little Joe needs you.” Hoss rose shakily to his feet. He refused a hand to help him. After a moment’s hesitation, he added in a voice quiet as the night. “He could be dyin’, Adam.”
As a fist of fear closed around his heart, the black-haired man asked, “Did Miller actually take off in the direction of the mine?”
Hoss nodded. “I come around for a minute and saw him ridin’ that way for I went out.”
And there was the rub. Had Lark let Hoss see where he was going so they would follow, or so they would be misdirected? From what Hoss said about Joe’s condition, every minute counted.
What if he made the wrong choice?
“You know what Pa would do,” Hoss said quietly.
Yes, he did. His father would pray and then take action. He was a believer, but his faith was, well, more pragmatic than Pa’s. In his life he’d watched his father offer up prayers and seen them both answered and denied. To him it seemed God did what He wanted to do no matter what a man might desire.
He was God, after all.
A heartbeat later, he nodded. “Faith and works,” he said gently, laying a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “You stay here and pray while I take action.” A little smile made his mouth quirk. “That way we’ll have all fronts covered.”
“I cain’t stay put, Adam. You know that. Little Joe….”
“Yes, you can and you will! I don’t want to have to worry about two brothers.” His tight smile broadened just a bit before dying. “Keeping up with Little Joe is more than enough.” Adam took a step toward his mount and then turned back, curious. “What happened to the horses?”
Hoss shrugged. “I sent Cadfan home and Lark Miller took Chubby.”
So their father would know something was wrong. He might even be coming to their rescue right now.
Maybe Hoss had already been praying.
Moving to Sport, the black-haired man reached into his saddlebag and removed some food, one of several small bags, and a roll of bandages. As he handed the supplies to his brother, he said, “Here. Set your camp up again. Joe is going to need looking after when I bring him back.”
Hoss’ face was filled with wonder as he opened the bag and sniffed its contents. “How’d you come by some of Hop Sing’s herbs?”
“Just being an old ‘worry-wart.” At Hoss’ contrite look, he added, “I’ve learned to always carry some with me for treating infection and in case of snake bite.” He grinned. “After all, I usually have Little Joe with me.”
The two brothers shared an apprehensive laugh.
“You go now, Adam. I’ll be fine. You go find Little Joe.” Hoss blinked back tears. “If anythin’ happens to that little ornery cuss….”
He squeezed his brother’s massive shoulder. “I will. And you see to that cut.” He nodded toward his head. “It’s still bleeding.”
“Sure enough, Adam.”
The black-haired man went to his horse and mounted. From the saddle, he looked down. “And Hoss?
“You’d better include me in those prayers too. I have a gut feeling I’m going to need all the help I can get.”
When Joe woke, he expected it to be on a bed of sand with Hoss bending over him. Instead, after a moment’s disorientation, he realized he was inside a building. There was no light other than what fell through one small curtained window above where he lay, and it did little to illuminate anything. Still, from the supplies and tools laying around, it looked like he was in a line shack or some other such place. He lay there for a moment trying to remember what had happened. When he couldn’t – Joe being Joe – he decided he would just get up and find out. He’d managed to raise up on one elbow before an intense wave of pain slammed him back down onto the thin mattress. He tried not to, but he let out a groan.
A second later he heard the sound of chair legs scraping across the floor.
“You just lay right where you are, boy. You ain’t goin’ nowhere. Leastwise, not until that uppity big brother of yours gets here.”
Joe licked his lips and then realized they felt funny. His face felt funny too. Numb, like someone had punched it. In fact his whole body felt like it had been pummeled.
Had he been in a fight?
Without warning, the man who had spoken grabbed his head and roughly forced his mouth open. “Bright as a berry patch,” he said as he let go and Joe’s teeth snapped shut. The man gripped his wrist next – hard. “Heart’s hammerin’.” As he released him, he said – almost as if it was Joe’s fault – “Now don’t you go dyin’ on me ‘fore I can kill you.”
Joe blinked and pried his eyes open. They were swollen too and crusted. “Why..?” He coughed, swallowed over what felt like a mountain, and tried again. “Why…do you want to …kill me?”
The man patted his head. Almost like Hoss did. “Ain’t nothin’ to do with you, son. You’re just a means to an end.”
Little Joe closed his puffed up eyes and leaned back, worn out. Well, physically worn out. He still had energy for thinkin’. He had to do something to get away. He wasn’t sure if the man meant Hoss or Adam, but either way he was not going to just lay there and be bait in a trap for either of his brothers. The minute the man moved away, he was gonna…
“Don’t you go gettin’ no fancy notions. I know you, boy. You ain’t to be trusted. Lightnin’ hangs fire next to you.” The fingers brushed his wrist and it was only then that Joe realized he was tied to the bed frame – both his hands and feet.
Instantly angry, he began to struggle. “You let…me go!”
The man’s grip intensified, his fingers pressing into his flesh and bruising it. “You tell that to that high-and-mighty brother of yours!” he hissed. “You tell him why you’re dyin’. ‘Cause he wouldn’t let go all them years ago, on account of he thought he was God!”
Joe quieted before the man’s rage and with the sudden knowledge of who it was that held him.
He’d noticed in the last month or so since Miller had been hired that everywhere Adam went, Lark was there too. He’d catch the hand watchin’ his older brother, chewin’ on a piece of straw; those cold blue eyes of his narrowed and his mouth a thin line. The pale blond man made him feel uncomfortable. But even more than that, he’d sensed something about him. Lark Miller hated his oldest brother. He’d wanted to go to Pa about it, but he knew Pa wouldn’t listen. Neither would Hoss or Adam. After all, he was just a kid.
What did he know?
Joe drew in a breath and heard it rattle in his chest. Gathering what strength he had, he put it into a question. “What’d Adam…ever do to you?”
Lark was moving through the room. He stopped and then a second later, there was a scratching noise. A moment later a pale light began to fill the room. The man caught the lamp he’d lit up from a table and came to stand over him. In the lamp’s glow, Miller’s face leered like a demon’s – savage, sick, and twisted with hate.
“It ain’t what he did, kid. It’s what the almighty Adam Cartwright didn’t do.” For a moment something flickered in the blond man’s eyes – past the evil that claimed them.
It might have been pity.
Joe’s gaze went to Lark’s other hand. In it was a metal can with a spout. A thick, clear liquid dripped from it. He knew the smell.
It was oil.
Lark sneered. “I remember me, back then, the hands called Adam Cartwright your ‘Pa’, since your own was a yellow-bellied coward what had run away from home and kin. Well, boy, the sins of the father done caught up with you.”
And with that, Lark turned and walked out of the shack, trailing the thick clear liquid across the floor behind him.
Adam dismounted at the edge of the Gable mine. Before him lay the yard, the manager’s shack, and a few other dilapidated buildings. He led his horse forward by hand and tethered him behind a brace of trees. Then, gun in hand, he moved forward until he crouched behind an empty water trough. Curiously, there was a light in the shack and he could see someone moving about. The figure was too tall for Joe, so it had to be Lark Miller.
Most likely was Lark Miller.
He couldn’t know for certain that this was where Miller had brought his brother. The man might have deliberately misdirected Hoss. This might be some crony of the villain’s, or even an innocent squatter. Lark and Joe – if his baby brother was still breathing – could be halfway to Reno by now.
Adam closed his eyes. His father’s voice boomed in his head.
‘Son, don’t borrow trouble. Each day has enough of its own.’
After watching for several minutes, Adam left the security of the trough behind. Clinging to the shadows that lined a small barn, he moved closer to the shack. As he passed the barn, he heard a horse snort and pound the earth with its hoof. Now, a city slicker might have called him crazy, but he was pretty sure he knew that snort. Rising up a bit, Adam peered through a filthy broken window to find a big black looking right at him.
It was Chubb.
Adam sucked in air. Little Joe was here.
“Adam Cartwright! I know you’re out there! I can smell you!”
The black-haired man stiffened. Chubb’s snort must have given him away.
“You step into the light right now, Cartwright. Otherwise your little brother’s gonna lose somethin’ you can’t replace!” There was a pause. “Come out with your hands up and drop your gun where I can see it!”
Adam closed his eyes.
Joe was alive.
After whispering a brief prayer of thanks, he opened them and called back, “Lark? What is this? Why are you doing this?”
There was a short pause. Then, “I got me a knife, Cartwright. If you ain’t out in the light in ten seconds, you’re gonna get a trophy, maybe a finger or toe, maybe something more important. In twenty, nineteen, eighteen….”
“All right!” he shouted as he did what he was told, dropping his sidearm and moving into the growing light. “Here! I’m here! Leave Little Joe alone.”
There was a pause – an interminable pause – and then the door of the shack slowly opened inward. A moment later a tall man with pale blond hair stepped out.
“How the mighty have fallen,” Lark snorted.
“Where’s my brother?” Adam demanded. “Let me see him.”
The blond man glanced into the shack and then turned to face him, his eyes lit with a cruel smile. “I’m afraid Little Joe is all tied up right now.”
“Is he…” Adam swallowed over his fear. “Is he all right?”
“Stupid kid sat his ass down on a spider.” He scoffed. “He ain’t lookin’ too good.”
“Let me see him!”
Lark stepped off the porch, oil lamp in hand. It was growing light and he briefly wondered briefly why he carried it.
“No,” his brother’s kidnapper said.
Both Joe and Pa were known for their short tempers. It took next to nothing to ignite them. The truth was, he was no different. His candle just had a longer wick.
“Lark, listen,” he said, containing his temper. “Joe is sick. You must know that! Stop playing games and let me see him. I need to help my brother!”
The tall blond man stared at him. “Ain’t nothin gonna help that kid. He’s gonna die – and you’re gonna watch. Just like I had to.”
Adam’s head was spinning. How stupid could he have been? He’d thought Lark wanted Joe for Joe, but now he was beginning to wonder if he had been blinded by his love for his baby brother.
Could it be Lark’s target had been him all along?
The black-haired man licked his lips. He ran a sleeve over his face to wipe the sweat from his eyes. “Like you had to?” he echoed.
“You don’t remember me, do you, Cartwright? I don’t know why I’m surprised. Me and my brother weren’t worth spit in your eyes before.”
Lark and his brother? Adam wracked his brain. It was clear now that ‘Lark Miller’ was an alias. Adam looked at the man – thought about how he walked and talked – but there was nothing.
Who was he?
“I’m…sorry,” he stammered.
“Sorry. Yeah, sorry. Like you were ‘sorry’ when you said that mine wasn’t safe. When you kept me from goin’ in ‘cause it didn’t meet your specifications. Like you were ‘sorry’ when they pulled my little brother’s bones out of the rubble a year later when they finally broke through. He was right behind the wall, Cartwright! You could have saved him!” The man was seething. “I had to stand by while my brother died a living death, and you sure as hell are gonna do the same!”
His mind was awhirl. What was the man talking about? What mine? What collapse? What….
And then enlightenment – like the devastating cave-in he had witnessed all those years ago – exploded before his eyes.
“Levings McNaughton,” he breathed.
The blond man sneered.
“That’s right stupid of you, Cartwright,” he said. “A man ain’t supposed to know the name of his executioner.”
Of all the reckless, irresponsible, and idiotic things!
What could Adam have been thinking?
Ben Cartwright was a furious man. He rode like a demon into the desert dawn, pressing his mount for more speed and distance than was reasonable. He’d been sitting at home, attempting to keep his mind on the newspaper, while Hop Sing bustled around the great room muttering under his breath, straightening things that didn’t need straightened. The man from China would dust something, stop, sigh – look at the door as if expecting it to open – and then dust the same space again. Hop Sing was worried.
So was he.
Of course, he’d told himself all evening to stop worrying. Adam was with his brothers – Adam, his rock. The eldest son who had a good head on his shoulders and who would see to it that his younger brothers did as they were told so they could get home at a reasonable hour.
Adam who, this time, had failed him.
He’d just folded his paper with a snap and was ready to do the same thing to Hop Sing when they heard hooves pounding into the yard. Two horses, by the sound of it.
He and his cook had exchanged a look and then rushed for the door, nearly colliding as they got there. Hop Sing quickly retreated and let him open it. He’d almost wished he hadn’t. As he’d surmised there was no wagon. There was no Chubb. No Hoss. No Little Joe or Adam.
Only a ranch hand leading Joe’s horse, Cadfan.
The day was drawing to a close, but there had been enough light to see that the horse’s sides glistened with sweat. Her hooves were covered in sand. By God’s grace, there was no blood on Cadfan or on Little Joe’s saddle, but that was about the only dispensation Providence allowed him. Before he could ask, the ranch hand – Jim Wheats – reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. The note was written in Hoss’ hand.
‘Pa. Adam took off. Joe and I was worried so we followed him. Joe got spider bit and he’s real sick. We’re heading for Gable’s. Bring Doc Martin and come quick.’
Bring Doc Martin and come quick.
Gable’s was at least ten miles into the desert, maybe more. The boys had been dressed and prepared for a day in town. He doubted if they had their jackets with them.
What was Adam thinking?
Reluctantly, Ben slowed his horse to a walk to let the animal cool down for a moment. As he did, he glanced over his shoulder. Doc Martin had been in bed when he arrived in the settlement. He’d pounded on the older man’s door, waking his friend and half of the neighborhood. The physician wasn’t used to traveling in the desert at night, even with the moon so bright it looked like a night on a San Francisco boardwalk. He’d had to dress and then rent a horse since his buggy with its rail-thin wheels would be practically useless. Paul wasn’t used to riding either.
He hoped, now that the light was up, that the physician wasn’t too far behind.
As he nudged Buck and began to move forward, Ben couldn’t keep his mind from turning back to the time Marie had been bitten by a spider. His beautiful wife had been enamored of an array of wildflowers growing between two boulders in the house garden and, as a woman from the Crescent city, quite unaware of the dangers that lurked therein. At first he hadn’t thought much about it. Marie said she was fine. But later that night, after she put Little Joe to bed, she’d begun to feel sick and had quickly developed a rash – and then, her throat began to swell.
Paul was sure they would lose her then.
After Marie came through, Paul had felt it important to remind him that Joseph might have inherited his mother’s sensitivity to spider venom. They’d played that scene out a number of times, whenever the boy had been bitten. Most often, Little Joe had grumbled and grouched his way through a few days of feeling bad and was up and on his feet before Paul gave the A-Okay.
But, there had been that one time.
The spider bite had become infected and Joe’s fever soared. Between Doc Martin’s medicine and Hop Sing’s herbs, things were put to right.
He hoped everything was all right now.
Pressing harder, the older man urged his mount to canter and then to run. They were old friends and Buck did as he asked, but he knew the horse could only hold out so long. The temperature was rising with the sun and Gables was still several miles away. With each hoof-beat that struck the desert floor, Ben grew more alarmed, as if – somehow – he knew every minute, each second was precious.
As precious as the life of one of his boys.
He’d been twenty-three when it happened. Hoss had been seventeen, and Joe, almost eleven. He’d just returned from college and been eager to take up his role as his father’s right hand man. Since he’d just graduated with a degree in engineering and architecture, he had looked forward the most to helping with the Ponderosa’s nascent mining operations. Pa’s focus had been mostly cattle and timber when he left, but since then his father had done as he suggested in his letters and diversified their interests, venturing out into mining as well.
The thousand acres of Heaven his father owned were as bountiful as Eden under the soil as well as on top.
He’d arrived home one day after busting broncos to find his father in a heated discussion with another man. He’d barely hung his hat on the peg and dropped his gun on the credenza before Pa called him over. The sounds he heard drifting from the kitchen told him Hop Sing had Little Joe busy cutting and chopping. It was more than amusing to hear the two of them arguing in Cantonese. He didn’t know where Hoss was but figured his giant of a teenage brother was out in the barn somewhere.
When he arrived at the desk he saw Pa had a map of one of the older mines they owned opened on the desk. It was been worked before and closed down when the owner was stricken with apoplexy and ended up in a wheel chair. Pa originally bought it as much to help the man out as for the silver it might yield. He’d only gotten around to hiring a crew and opening it up in the last few months. Drawing up a chair, Pa sat down and listened. The angry man was the mine’s foreman and he was insisting that the mine wasn’t safe to work. Pa argued that he’d had it looked at and been told it was. Back in those days, Pa had as quick a temper as Little Joe and the two strong-willed men were sharpening their horns like a pair of randy mountain goats ready to go at it.
As he arrived, Pa introduced him to the foreman. Then he boasted how his oldest some had just graduated from college with a degree in engineering and knew all about mines. Adam would take a look, Pa said.
He remembered swallowing over his surprise.
All about mines?
He’d bluffed his way through, of course, not wanting to let his father down. He knew enough about beams and the pressure on them to take a look at the shorings and figure out if they posed a threat. Pa’d smiled at him when he agreed, like he’d just lifted the weight of the world off his shoulders.
Of course, that placed it squarely it on his.
He couldn’t be wrong.
The trip to the mine had been fairly pleasant. The mine’s foreman, name of Gavin, was friendly enough once he knew they’d paid attention to what he said. As they rode, he explained what he’d seen and, from the sound of it, he had a right to be concerned.
They arrived near the end of the first shift. He remembered as he dismounted that he’d seen a few men rising out of the mine, like a phoenix from the ashes, covered in dust and debris. It was immediately clear that the timbers holding up the tunnels were shedding rock and dirt. That was what had alerted Gavin in the first place. Together, he and his father went in. After a cursory inspection, he’d decided the beams were holding well enough that they could bring in a more experienced engineer to make the final call.
It had been a fatal mistake.
He and Pa, along with Gavin, had no sooner sat down in the mine office to talk when the alarm went off and the ground rolled under their feet. Before they had cleared the door, fire belched up out of the mine, vomiting ash and debris and littering the yard. Most of the miners were running from it toward safety, but there was one man – a tall, ash and soot covered man – who was running toward the entrance. Coming to a quick decision, he bolted forward and leapt, catching the man about his knees and dragging him to the ground. The miner fought him like a maniac, hammering his chest and face with blows, all the while shouting curses and blaming him for what had happened. No more than twenty seconds after he caught hold of him, there was a second explosion and the front of the mine collapsed, sealing in the remainder of the men who had worked the first shift.
Including, apparently, Levings McNaughton’s little brother.
Adam’s jaw tightened. His gaze went to Levings’ and then rose to meet the man’s hatred head on.
“Kill me,” he said. “It’s what you want.”
“No, it ain’t.” Levings didn’t yell this time. The quiet even tone he employed was far more terrifying. “I want to make you suffer like I suffered that day – like I been sufferin’ for three years. Like I’ll suffer the rest of my life! You took somethin’ from me, Cartwright.” Leving’s lips curled in a sneer. “Now I aim to take somethin’ from you.”
As he watched, McNaughton lifted his free hand. When he recognized what it held, the sight caused him to tremble. He hadn’t noticed it before, but now he did – a thin black line of death running from where Levings stood back to the place where his baby brother was being held.
Levings held his gaze as he pulled the glass chimney off the lamp he’d brought with him.
“Oops!” he said as he let it fall and then added as the oil trail caught fire, “Welcome to hell, Adam Cartwright.”
He’d fallen asleep, but the sound of voices had pulled Joe back to the surface of his predicament. He felt horrible. He could hardly swallow and was both hot and cold, burning up and shiverin’ at the same time, so he knew he had a fever. Even so, he wasn’t about to take whatever that crazy McNaughton meant to dish out layin’ down! Sucking in a breath and holding it against the pain, Joe lifted up his shoulders and then his hips and scooted back as far as he could until he was almost sitting up. It hurt like hell to do it, but at least he wouldn’t die in his sleep should the worst happen! His eyesight was murky at best with his eyes swollen and all crusted over. Now that the lamp was gone, he could hardly see anything – except the bed he was lying on. There was a window just above the bed and the dawning light streamed through it. The glimpse of the desert beyond made his eyes tear. He remembered seeing Hoss fall and the cry of pain his brother had let out when Lark Miller grabbed him and threw him over his saddle and rode away.
Hoss needn’t have worried. He’d passed out quick enough.
The silvery moonlight let Joe see that the top sheet had been pulled out near the end of the bed and a part of it had been roughly torn away. By squinting, he could just make out his hands and feet. The same cloth bound him to the bed. Lark must have used it to make the strips that held him. Using the heel of his boot, Joe pushed at the dirty white fabric and was satisfied to hear it rip. Pa’d decided, after the accident, to abandon Gable’s mine. That had been a good while back when he was a kid. No one other than a squatter or someone desperate to escape the desert sun should have lived here in all that time. With the hot days and colder nights, cloth was likely to grow thin as a shadow with holes in it.
Maybe, just maybe, he could tear it and escape.
Glancing up was hard. It made his head hurt and his eyes water, but Joe did it with determination and fastened his gaze on his wrist. Putting every ounce of spit and fire he had left into it, he began to wriggle and pull, and when that didn’t work, he cussed and prayed. Just about the time he was beyond any of it, Joe heard a shredding sound and he was free.
Well, one hand was free.
Encouraged, using his free hand, he began to work on the second tie. The sound of two voices outside – raised in pitch and mad enough to kick a hog barefoot – stopped him less than a minute later. One was Lark’s. The other, well, he couldn’t tell. His hearing was about as muddled as his sight. He thought – he hoped – that it was Hoss or Adam, or maybe even his Pa. He didn’t want any of them to be in danger, but he sure could use some help.
Joe wiggled and pulled for another minute or so. He almost let out a ‘Yippee!’ when the second hand came free, but remembered in time that it probably wasn’t a smart thing to do.
For another whole minute he sat there, drawing deep breaths and listening to the men outside, before he attempted to free his feet. His stomach hurt from layin’ over the saddle, and takin’ a normal breath came just as hard as stayin’ awake through one of Miss Jones’ lectures. As he sat there in silence, breathing hard, one of the voices penetrated the fog he found himself in.
‘That’s right stupid of you, Cartwright. A man ain’t supposed to know the name of his executioner.’
Joe blinked back tears.
A member of his family was in trouble!
Ignoring the pain, Joe doubled over and reached for his ankles. His head was swimming by the time they were free, but the strips came away easier, since he had both hands to use. Once free, the curly-haired boy pivoted on the bed, placed his feet on the floor, and stood up – only to fall right back onto his butt. Joe sat there with his fingers formed into fists, riding the wave of pain, before he tried again. This time he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled toward the door.
He’d almost reached it when there was a funny sound – a rushing noise like a sudden wind and then a ‘whoosh!’ Almost instantly his skin began to burn and he had to back off. Outside the window he could see flames rising. Above them he caught a glimpse of his brother Adam. Older brother was struggling with Lark Miller while screaming his name over and over. Adam was fighting for all he was worth to reach him. Joe’s eyes went back to the flames.
He couldn’t. Not in time.
He had to save himself.
Catching hold of the table to steady himself, Joe turned frantically from one side of the shack to the other. There had to be something – some way! Then, when he saw it, he felt like an idiot.
The window above the bed!
Moving as fast as his feet would take him, the fourteen-year-old went back to the bed and climbed on it and reached for the window –
Only to find it nailed shut.
Ben heard it before he saw it – an explosion of sorts and then orange flames rising up into the sky to become one with the pale fire of the morning. It was just about where he guessed the Gable mine to be. If he hadn’t known better, he would have wondered at the silence, at the lack of the alarm sounding to alert the men to a collapse. But the Gable mine was a working mine no longer. He had closed it down years before. In fact, no one should be there unless it was some poor lost soul who had taken up residence in one of the vacant buildings. As his horse brought him closer to the mine, the fear that had ridden with him from Eagle Station outpaced him.
If Adam and Little Joe were there….
Hoss had put a name to the terror this night held. Lark Miller. A man he’d hired on and shook hands with, but paid little attention to. Miller was just another cowboy who stayed on after a drive, and just as likely to drift away without a word when the mood took him. He’d seen dozens of them in the time it took to build the Ponderosa. Now, from what Hoss had told him, this particular drifter had some sinister motive for taking the job, one that involved not only Little Joe, but Adam. The rancher cast his mind back, trying to remember if the man had done anything unseemly – anything that might have pointed him out as something other than what he claimed to be.
He could think of nothing.
Lark Miller seemed affable enough. Tough and gruff like most cowboys, he remained a bit of a loner, but not so much that the other men worried about it. He was an excellent horseman and had appeared to fit in. His talents lay with the horses. Of course, that had put Miller within Adam’s scope and Joe was often at the corral. Had the man been watching his sons all along, making plans?
Ben’s gaze returned to the orange glow on the horizon. The closer Buck brought him, the larger the fire became. He could feel the heat of it as he rode, pushing aside the cool morning air. As they approached, his mount grew uneasy. The buckskin snorted and reared, stamping his feet, and then turned in a tight circle.
He had no time. He was close enough.
Without a thought, Ben leapt from the saddle and began to run.
His energy spent, his heart in ruin, Adam fell to his knees. He fought back the urge to retch and denied his tears, but they came anyway, bringing insane joy to the man who stood watching him.
The man who had just killed his baby brother.
The shack was ablaze.
Lark Miller…no…Levings McNaughton stood before him, with his head thrown back, laughing. No. Laughing was what…Little Joe did. This man’s laugh was an insane cackle, such as a witch made while dancing around a hellish fire.
Adam’s jaw grew tight.
Hell’s fires would be to good for him!
Striking the tears from his cheeks, Adam rose slowly to his feet. His gun lay a few feet away where he had dropped it when Levings ordered him out of the shadows. For a moment he couldn’t move – not because he feared Levings, or because he knew what he was about to do was wrong – but because his gaze had fallen on the shack. Sickened, he watched the roof cave and fall in. Voracious flames leapt high into the night sky as they greedily consumed the rotten wood. It was as if they were reaching for the stars.
His baby brother’s spirit was reaching for those stars too.
Little Joe was dead.
A shudder ran through him, nearly unmanning him. It took everything that was left in him to take the first step and then the second – everything he had to tear his eyes away from his young brother’s funeral pyre. But he did it. He took a third step and then he ran. As he neared the barn, Adam dropped and rolled and came up holding the gun. Levings had turned to watch him. The blond man stood there, backlit by the flames.
He just…stood there.
“Go ahead, Cartwright,” he said, as tears ran down his cheeks. “Go ahead and kill me.”
That was what he had been about to do – with premeditation, cold-blooded, taking the law into his own hands. Now, he hesitated.
“You want me to.” It wasn’t a question.
“You shoot me down or I hang. Makes no difference to me.” The blond man shrugged. “Might to you, I guess.”
“It does to me. Son, put the gun down.”
The voice was both a bullet and a balm.
He turned toward it. “Pa….?”
“Yes, son. It’s me,” his father said as he appeared out of the shadows that lined the yard. “Put your gun down.”
Adam remained as he was, his hand shaking. He considered carefully what he had been ready to do. Levings was right. Even if he ran, the wrath of Benjamin Cartwright would not let him live. Pa would hunt him down, bring him to justice…
Justice. It was a bad taste in his mouth.
“Pa, I can’t. He….” Adam swallowed hard. Could he say it? Could he be the one to do…that to his father? He sucked in air as he blinked back tears. “Pa, Joe…. He was in….” The sound of his own voice startled him. It was breathless, lost.
He wasn’t lost. He knew what he had to do.
A second later his father was beside him. Pa placed a hand on his shoulder and then stepped in front of him, putting his large frame between Levings and his blind fury. Pa’s dark eyes blazed with both compassion and pain.
“Adam, you are not a murderer.”
His teeth clenched. He could barely spit it out. “I may not be, but he is!”
“If you take justice into your own hands, you will be.” His father’s voice was impossibly calm. “Son, do you think Little Joe would want you to throw your life away?”
Adam’s eyes were locked on Levings. The man hadn’t moved. He just stood there, like a casual observer.
It infuriated him.
As his finger closed on the trigger, his father reached out to take hold of his gun hand. “Adam, I don’t know what drove this man to do what…he did. But he will have won two times over if you do this.”
The black-haired man blinked. He met his father’s even stare and then looked down. “It was…me, Pa. I’m what drove him to it. I let his….” He drew in a shuddering breath. “I killed his little brother that day at the mine.”
“His little brother?” His father pivoted and then gasped. “Levings? No!”
His eyes were clouded with tears. Adam swept them away with a filthy sleeve so he could look. It took a moment for his mind to accept what it was seeing.
Levings McNaughton was walking straight into the fire.
His father started for him. That was Pa all over. The man had just killed his baby and he was going to risk his own life to save him. Adam looked at the gun and then dropped it. A second later he was running. His father was going to hate him, he knew it. He did it anyhow. He tackled his pa and took him to the ground with him.
By the time they looked up, Levings was immersed in flame.
For several minutes, the two of them just sat there, numb beyond shock and belief. Before them the funeral pyre’s flames licked high into the night sky, sending his irascible, irritating, devil-may-care brother off like the hero he was. Neither of them stirred until they heard the sound of horse’s hooves striking the desert floor.
“That will be Paul,” his father said. “I don’t know…how I’m going to tell him. Paul loves that…boy….”
Pa’s words were soft as the cool breeze that had resurfaced. He watched as his father turned and looked at the ruins.
Then, he shattered.
When Paul came on them several minutes later they were holding onto each other and sobbing.
“Ben, I came on Hoss in the desert. He sent word that he’s all right and will be waiting.” The older man lost his voice when he saw them; saw the fire. “Dear Lord!” he cried out, finding it at last. “What happened here? Where’s Little Joe?”
Adam caught the doctor’s eye and shook his head.
“Joe…Joe didn’t make it out.”
Paul, of course, had brought Joe into the world. He had a lot invested in that boy. He loved him. Plain and simple. For a moment the physician was too stunned to say anything. Finally, he managed to cough up, “Are you sure?”
His father’s hand braced him as he instead replied. “A man – he worked for us – he took Little Joe. Joseph was…in the shack.”
Paul’s gaze went to the ruin. He shook his head slowly. Then, after touching Pa’s shoulder, he walked toward the haphazard collection of blackened beams as if mesmerized.
“What….” His father drew in a gulp of air. “How…how can we go on? Your brother –”
It was Paul. Both he and his father turned toward the shack, but it seemed the older man had disappeared. Then he found him. Paul was crouching near the remnants of a small tool shed that had been blackened on the side facing the fire. He was absurdly riffling through a stack of debris.
When they didn’t move, Paul looked right at them. “Ben, get over here! It’s Little Joe!”
One of his favorite writers had once said, ‘Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tunes without words and never stops at all.’
Pa’s fingers gripped his shoulder. He felt it to.
Still, Paul hadn’t said whether Joe was alive.
Shaky feet took Ben to his old friend’s side. The light was rising. The new day was at hand. Still, the sun’s beams did little to illuminate the patch of sandy ground his youngest son occupied. Paul was in the way. His old friend’s shadow all but swallowed Joe. All that was visible of his boy was one pale arm thrust out to the side. The rancher’s gaze fixed on it for a moment, noticing the chafed wrists; the red rings written in his baby’s blood. He’d been brave before. He’d had to stop Adam from making a mistake that would ruin his life. Even as he feared he’d lost his youngest, he’d continued to fight to save his older brother.
The fight was out of him now.
Falling to his knees, Ben reached out to touch the boy’s pallid arm. It was bloodied and slightly singed. Ash and soot covered it more than the tattered cloth that remained. Paul was saying something to Little Joe. He couldn’t hear it. All he could hear was the blood rushing through his veins; the pounding of fear in his heart. Joseph hadn’t moved. Joseph, his blithe, beautiful boy, bouncing boy hadn’t moved at all. Joseph was….
“He’s alive, Ben. Do you hear me!”
Paul’s shout awakened him like a prince’s kiss. “Alive…?”
Someone was beside him. A hand clasped his shoulder. Then he heard Adam speak. One word. One word with a thousand questions in it.
The physician straightened up and shook his head. “I don’t know how he did it, but he did it, Ben. Little Joe’s escaped being burnt for the most part…”
Adam voiced the question before he could. “But?”
Paul sighed. “But, he’s one sick boy.”
Ben couldn’t tear his eyes off his son. It felt ridiculous to ask, after all Joe was his boy, but he did. “Is it all right if I…hold him?”
“Gently, old friend.” Paul said as he moved to help him, carefully lifting Joe so he could slip in under him. Then the physician rose and turned to Adam. “Let’s you and me see if we can find somewhere clean and safe to take your brother. Little Joe’s in need of care and I don’t want to do it out here and risk the chance of further infection.”
It took Adam a moment. His oldest looked up at Paul and then at his brother. Leaning in, Adam drew close. As tears slipped from his hazel eyes, he caught his brother’s hand and squeezed it. Then he rose to his feet and followed Paul.
Joe never moved.
As he sat there, holding Little Joe and waiting for Paul’s return, Ben noticed his son’s hands. He reached down and caught hold of the left one and sucked in air when he saw how the skin was torn and bleeding, both on the top and bottom. Joseph’s nails were broken; blood and dirt were caked beneath them. It looked like the boy had clawed his way out. At that thought, the older man’s gaze returned to the burnt-out shack. No doubt its boards had become brittle with age.
Ben shivered as he imagined his young son trapped in the shack, desperately seeking a way out. From what Adam told him, Levings had set the shack ablaze from the front, lighting a trail of oil that led to the porch, which he must have soaked thoroughly beforehand. Joe would have been forced back by the flames and billowing smoke. He’d taught his boys to keep close to the ground. He could see Joseph dropping to all fours, crawling along the floor, seeking a loose board in the wall.
The image took his breath away.
It returned when he felt the tentative touch of fingers on his chin.
Ben caught his young son’s fingers in his own. They were cold and Joseph was shivering. Drawing him closer, he opened the sides of his jacket, using it both to warm and shield the boy from the rising sun. It pained him to look at him. Beyond the ash and soot, past the crimson cheeks and neck that looked like the boy had been left to bake in the sun, Joe’s face was swollen. It was a struggle just to open his eyes.
“Shh. Joseph, don’t fight it. I’m here now. You’re safe and you need rest.”
Little Joe scowled. He shifted, almost as if he would get up. “Adam…have to help…Adam.”
“Adam’s fine, son, He’s okay. You’re the one we need to – ”
“No!” His son’s voice was weak but insistent. “Gonna…hurt him….”
He’d opened his mouth to say something more, but closed it as a shadow eclipsed them both. A second later Adam knelt before them. He reached out to place a hand on his brother’s curly head.
“I’m here, Joe. I’m all right. You worry about yourself.”
It seemed agony, but the boy shifted his head so he could look at his brother. There was a pause and then Little Joe said, “You look…funny.”
Adam glanced at him and then laughed. “Well, that makes two of us.”
“You…didn’t kill…him? Did you?”
Joe must have seen something before he collapsed. Perhaps his brother pointing the gun at Levings.
“No, buddy, I wanted to, but I didn’t.”
Joe closed his eyes and for a moment. They both thought he had fallen asleep or unconscious. Then his eyes shot open.
“Hoss is fine, Joe. Paul checked on him on his way here,” Ben answered. “He’ll be wanting to see you. One of us will ride out to fetch him.”
The outburst seemed to have tired the boy out. Tears ran down his cheeks, mingling with the ash and soot.
“Ben. We need to get Joe inside. I found a fairly clean sheet and cobbled together a kind of bed,” Paul Martin said as he appeared. “Fortunately, I found some medical supplies as well. They’re old, but there’s salve and pain powders. Along with what I brought in my bag, they should prove enough to get us through until we can get this young man stabilized and home.”
Joe had been listening. He rolled his eyes over as a shade of the familiar grin they all knew and loved touched his lips.
Paul crouched beside them. “Hey, yourself, young man. Now what do you mean getting me out of my nice comfortable bed to come all the way out here to treat you?”
The boy was fading. “…day in…” he mumbled.
He and Paul exchanged a glance.
“What was that, Joseph?” he asked his son.
Little Joe’s hand snaked up toward his chin, gripping his shirt collar and holding onto it for all he was worth “…told Doc…last time I…saw him…it’d be a cold day in Hell before he…worked me over again….”
Leave it to Little Joe to have the last word.
Ben sat watching his sons, an amused look hidden behind the hand he leaned against his chin. Today was the first day Paul had let Little Joe out of his bed and you would have thought the boy was a prince come to call. Hoss had carried Joe downstairs. In spite of his protests, the boy was still too weak to take them on his own. Adam had been waiting with a blanket that he tucked around his brother with military precision, making sure there was no opening for the cold air to work its way into. Summer was gone at last with its scathing heat and hot, arid winds. It was October now and, though the changing leaves with their fiery oranges and golds were a painful reminder of what had almost happened, he welcomed them. Little Joe would soon turn fifteen.
Little Joe was still with them.
It had been a hard ride for the boy. Infection had proven inevitable. Joe had struggled with not one but two strong fevers that seemed bound and determined to take him where Levings McNaughton had intended. But Joseph was tough as the land that birthed him. He had been a fighter from the very beginning and he fought this as well, overcoming not only the infections that came from getting dirt and sand into his wounds, but the one that had come as a result of the spider bite. It was a funny thing, spider bites. He, Hoss, and Adam had had plenty of them, and with little ill effect. But Joseph was like his dear, beautiful, mother. Marie had reminded him of a piece of fine porcelain. She’d been put through the fire – at temperatures that would have destroyed many a man or woman – and had emerged a strong and capable woman. But porcelain had another property. Strike it too hard and it shattered.
He’d have to watch out for Joseph – without the boy knowing he was doing it, of course. Joe was like his mother in another way.
His temper was just about as hot as the fire in that kiln!
Shifting forward, the rancher closed the newspaper he’d been reading and laid it on the table before the fire. As he made to get up, Adam raised a finger to his lips and inclined his head toward his brother. Little Joe was sound asleep.
Good. The boy needed that. He needed to heal.
Glancing around, he looked for Hoss, but failed to find him. Adam seemed to sense what he was about and said, “I think he went to the barn.”
They exchanged looks. No words were needed.
Hoss was spending an inordinate amount of time in the barn.
Joseph was well on the way to being healed. His giant of a brother was still in pain. Over the last few days it hadn’t been Little Joe who had awakened them with nightmares, but his twenty-one-year old brother. Hoss could not escape what he had not witnessed with his own eyes. For him, Little Joe was still in that shack, being burnt alive.
“Do you want me to talk to him, Pa?” Adam asked softly as he came to his side.
“No, I’ll –”
“Mistah Adam, Mistah Ben stay put. Hop Sing go talk to number two son. Sometimes father, brother, too close.”
Ben noted Adam’s look.
Somehow he had a feeling number one son had already had his talking to.
“Mistah Hoss need not let yesterday use too much of today. You wallow like pig, you end up dirty.”
Hoss turned sharply, nearly tossin’ the brush he’d been curryin’ Cadfan’s coat with. He blew out a slow breath to steady himself. “Hop Sing, you oughta know better than to sneak up on a man like that!”
“Hop Sing no sneak!” the man from China replied indignantly. “He open door and walk in. It number two son who not in room. He let birds of sadness make nest in his hair.”
The big man went back to curryin’ the horse. It was somethin’ he could do for Joe. He felt like he’d danged failed his little brother in just about everythin’ else!
“Ain’t you got somethin’ to cook?” he snarled.
“Working on recipe right now,” Hop Sing replied. “Need three ingredients. Only have two. One refuse to be with others.”
Hoss scowled. “I ain’t refusin’ to be with my brothers. I’m just…busy.”
“Mistah Hoss been busy every day, every night since Little Joe’s fever break. Boy ask for him and he not there. Birds of sadness nest in Little Joe’s curls as well.”
Hoss looked at the little man over his shoulder. “Pa said Joe’s gettin’ along fine.”
“Brother’s body heels. But here,” he touched his heart, ‘he sick.”
He turned toward the other man. Had their Pa not told him the truth? “How is Joe sick? You tell me!”
The man from China walked to the end of the stall. They had a rogue hen who liked to lay her eggs in the corner of Chubby’s. Hop Sing picked one out of the nest. Crossing back to his side, he held it out to him.
“What’s that got to do with Joe?” he asked.
“Egg have three parts. Hard outer shell to protect. Yolk for strength. White holds both together.”
He caught himself before he could scratch his head. “So?”
“Like brothers. Mistah Adam strong. He protect younger brothers. Little Joe, he full of life; nourishes us all. And Mistah Hoss,” Hop Sing paused. “Mistah Hoss hold all Cartwrights together.” Without warning, the little man turned his hand over and dropped the egg. The shell shattered on the barn floor and the white and yolk separated. Their cook waited until he met his gaze and then, without a word, turned and left the barn.
Hoss stared after him a moment and then he snorted.
It was a warm summer’s day, not hot, but warm enough for swimmin’ and maybe a little spoonin’. Joe was sittin’ under a willow tree with his best girl. The long trails of leaves dangling down from the bows pretty much hid them from view. Her name was Kathy and she’d come to Miss Jones’ school late in the year. Sittin’ and watchin’ her toss her red hair was about the only thing that held his attention. He’d told her once that she’d saved him a trip to the woodshed more than once ‘cause Miss Jones thought he was lookin’ at and listenin’ to her.
Kathy sat in front of him.
He was leanin’ back against the willow’s trunk, as pleased as a little heifer with a new fence post. Kathy shifted. She whispered something in his ear and then went to do what nature called her to do. He would never think of followin’ her, though he was mighty curious what girls had under all them petticoats of theirs. Of course, Pa would skin him alive if he did anything ‘ungentlemanly’.
Joe lay there for a few minutes, lazily dreamin’ about what life might be with Kathy at his side for all of it. Then, suddenly, he realized too much time had passed. He stood up, dusted off his dungarees, and ducked under the bower of leaves. Standing with his hands on his hips, he turned in a tight circle. Now just where would a girl go to do her business? Somewhere private. Out of sight.
Maybe like behind that clump of rocks and trees about a hundred feet away?
Walking slowly, Joe whistled as he approached, hoping to warn her. As he drew near, he thought he heard her call his name. Then, there was nothing – nothing but the sound of shoes scufflin’ on the ground and one little whimper that let him know there was trouble.
Pa didn’t let him carry a sidearm, but he had a rifle. It was back in the buggy he’d used to bring Kathy out to the lake. As he turned, ready to run for it, something made him stop. Whirling, Joe saw two figures emerge from behind the boulders and trees. One was Kathy. The other was a giant of a man with short-cropped pale hair, near-white eyebrows, and blue eyes cold as a witch’s caress. The sight made his blood curdle. Something, Joe didn’t know what, happened and suddenly he couldn’t breath. He couldn’t see either. It was like someone had tied a thick wet bandana around his head, cuttin’ off his sight. Then he felt hands – they weren’t Kathy’s – take hold of his hands and feet and start to bind them, pulling the ragged strips so tight it cut off any feeling, any hope –
Joe sat straight up and let out a scream loud enough to wake the dead.
Instantly, a pair of strong hands caught him. As one hand held him tightly, the other wrapped protectively around his chest.
“Hush, Little Joe. You’re fine. No one can hurt you, boy. No one ever will again.”
He’d expected his father. Unbelievably, it was Hoss.
Hoss whom he hadn’t seen for more than a few hours in the week since he’d started to get well.
Rearing back on the settee, Joe looked at his brother, only half-believing he was there. He reached up a hand and touched the beefy face.
“About as real as they come, little brother.”
Joe sank back into his brother’s strength. “Where’ve you been?”
“Oh, I been busy.” Joe watched a parade of emotions pass on his brother’s face. “No. I ain’t gonna lie. I have been avoidin’ you, boy.”
Joe sucked in air. He knew it! Hoss was mad at him for gettin’ spider bit and sick. “Hoss, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have –”
Big brother was shaking his head. “It’s me who’s sorry, Joe. I….” He paused to clear his throat of the emotion that choked it. “I nearly got you killed out there.”
The curly-headed youth scowled. “You? Get me killed? I’m the dumb one who went and sat on a spider!”
Hoss released his brother, careful to make sure he was propped on the arm of the settee where he’d been sleepin’ before lettin’ go. “I never should have taken you out into the desert, Little Joe.” Pa had done let him know what he thought about that particular choice. “It’s too dangerous.”
Joe’s lips twitched. “And I suppose workin’ with horses and ridin’ drag in a cattle drive is safe as escortin’ Miss Jones to a cotillion?”
Hoss chuckled but sobered quick enough. “I should of brought you home and then gone after Adam.”
“I would have followed you.”
“Not if I turned you over to Pa.”
Joe was shaking his head. “Still would have. Pa has to sleep sometime.” He shifted his body carefully and leaned forward to place a hand on his brother’s arm. “Look, Adam needed us. In the end it was him Levings McNaughton wanted to hurt, not me.”
“No. He just wanted to kill you,” Hoss said softly.
“Yeah, well, he didn’t,” he said as his eyes began to close and he slid down toward the pillow. Just before sleep claimed him, Joe realized his brother hadn’t replied. Opening one eye he looked. Yep, Hoss was still there, staring at him.
“What else do you want, you big galoot?” Joe asked, his own voice breathy with fatigue. His lungs were better, but they still weren’t clear. “I need my beauty sleep.”
Hoss remained silent a moment. Then he grinned. “Well, we can’t go disturbin’ that, now can we? I mean, it’s the ugly ones who need it the most.”
“Hey!” Joe protested, coming awake.
“What’s the matter, sleeping beauty, can’t take the truth?” Adam asked with a wry grin as he descended the stair with their father at his heels.
“It ain’t fair, Pa! They’re gangin’ up on me!” Joe whined.
“ ‘Isn’t’, Joseph,” their father sighed as he moved toward the settee. “I won’t have the people of Eagle Station thinking my boys were raised in a barn.”
“But we were, Pa,” Hoss protested. “At least, a good part of the time.”
“You two may have been. I, for one, was reared in the elegance and refinery of Marie’s sterling silver and china palace.”
The mention of his mother made Joe frown.
Adam saw it. “Sorry, little brother, I didn’t mean to –”
“It’s okay, Adam,” he said, meaning it. “If I don’t talk about her, well, it’s like mama never existed.”
His father sat down on the table beside him and reached out a hand – first to check his temperature, and second, to ruffle his curls. “There will never be any doubt that your mother existed, Joseph. She’s here with me every day in you.”
Joe nodded but remained sober. “Pa, I…well…I kind of feel sorry for Mr. McNaughton.”
There was a collective gasp. “How, Joseph? After what that man tried to do to you.”
Joe looked at his family surrounding him. He knew they loved him and would do anything for him. He couldn’t imagine life without his brothers.
“I don’t know. I guess ‘cause he lost his little brother. I don’t know what I’d do if I lost one of mine.”
“Well, I know what you would not do. You most certainly would not kidnap a young boy and hold him hostage against the man who had hurt your brother, or threaten to kill him.”
Joe’s lips were pursed. He nodded, but deep down inside he wondered what would happen when that day came – when it was him who had to defend Adam or Hoss instead of the other way around, even if it meant taking a life.
“Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir.”
“Thankfully this time none of us had to make that choice, between defending our own and the law. Levings McNaughton died by his own hand and God will be his judge.”
“Mistah Cartwright, numbers one, two, and three sons, come to table. Supper ready.”
Joe blinked. He wanted to eat with his family – it had been about a week since he had – but he was awful tired.
“I think I’ll just stay here, Pa,” he said, his voice soft.
A glance, unseen by Joe, passed between the older men in the room. A moment later his father turned toward the dining room and called out, “Hop Sing, I think in honor of Joe’s first night downstairs, we’ll eat in the great room.”
“Yes, sir, Mistah Cartwright. I bring plates to you.”
“Thank you, Hop Sing.”
Though he was tired, Joe inched up a bit and looked at their cook. “Hey, Hop Sing!”
“Yes, Little Joe?”
“What’d you fix?”
The man from China answered him, but was looking from Adam to Hoss.
“Eggs and humble pie.”
Tags: Adam Cartwright, Ben Cartwright, desert, ESA, ESH, Grief, Hoss Cartwright, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, JPM, kidnap
16 thoughts on “A Cold Day in Hell (by McFair_58)”
I can’t believe I’ve missed reading this story for so long!!
What a great one! Lots of adventure and suspense and – as always – very well-written!
Thank you! I appreciate you taking time to comment.
This was a real nice teenage Joe story. Loved it. Thanks
Enjoyed the suspense. Nice drawing of a young teenage Joe.
Second, maybe third time I’ve read this story, and I love it so much! Great action, great presentation of what would go on in each of the Cartwright heads.. you bring their voices to life beautifully.
I always, always, always will love this bond between these three brothers, and the father the rock that they built on. You encompassed their personalities so well.
I loved it! So much happening, so much action, what could possibly happen next?
Great understanding of all the characters.
Oh this was so so good !
Had everything, all the feels and I couldn’t read it quick enough to find out what happened next !
Oh my this was so good. Well done!
What a great story!
Loved it especially hop sings words of wisdom
I found this riveting and was compelled to read to the end, despite the ridiculous hour at which I was doing so. Suspenseful throughout with excellent use of Hoss’s voice in particular.
Thank you for your kind compliments! I appreciate you taking a moment to let me know that you enjoyed the tale!
Great story! Really enjoyed it!
Thank you, Elizabeth!