Summary: My entry for BoNaNo 2018 as well as the Crossover Challenge. After a chance encounter in his youth, Joe meets up with the man again, many years later, under trying circumstances.
Rating: T Word Count: 14,878
Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
This was written for the Crossover Challenge with the idea of taking another show and merging it together with Bonanza. For those of you who don’t know Paradise or The Guns of Paradise as it was renamed, you don’t need to know a whole lot. Ethan (played by Lee Horsley) was a gunslinger who inherited his sister’s four children when she died and had to make drastic changes to raise them. He had a complicated romantic interest in Amelia Lawson, an independent-minded woman who ran the local bank.
Summer of 1864
Joe pushed his horse on towards home, but every so often he turned in the saddle and looked behind him. It was ridiculous and he knew it, but he couldn’t shake the thought that he should have looked harder. He should have found the two children he’d made promises to. The road behind him was as empty as it had been the time before and the time before that and finally he stopped the useless exercise. Not that he felt any better for doing so. In fact, it felt like the final admission that he had failed to follow through on something significant.
“I looked everywhere, Cooch.”
The horse flicked an ear as if responding to the comment, but otherwise he kept plodding along on the dusty road.
“I looked under the hotel stairs … and the livery … and I asked the girls in the saloon … and nobody had seen them.” Joe shook his head as he considered each of the people he had spoken to and the general lack of concern over two children that nobody wanted around anyway. It still angered him to think on some of the heartless responses he had received and the downright lies that he couldn’t prove. Like the hotel manager who told him the children had just up and left. As if they preferred running off again to staying in a safe place. He knew there was no way Ethan would have left his horse behind by choice. Joe felt his jaw tighten in anger as emotion clawed its way back up from his gut.
“I asked the doc of he’d been back to see Lucy and he almost laughed at me!” Cochise seemed to feel the tension in his rider’s hands and he tossed his head against the reins.
“Sorry, Cooch. It’s just … I promised them and I …” Joe sighed as he looked one last time behind him.
It would be almost another week before Joe shared the story of his otherwise uneventful trip to Hangtown. He probably would have kept it to himself if not for the horse.
“Whatcha got there?”
Joe jumped as he heard Hoss’ voice, but missed the question. He shoved the horse back into his pocket and stood up off the hay bale and headed towards the door.
“Wait up, Little Joe. Didn’t mean to scare ya off.”
“You didn’t scare me. Just didn’t hear you comin’, that’s all.” Joe reached to push the door and would have kept going if his brother hadn’t grasped his arm.
“Joe, somethin’ has been buggin’ you since you got home. Somethin’ happen in Hangtown that we should know about?”
Joe shook his brother’s hand off as he shook his head. “Nope. Everything was just fine. I got the contract signed just like Pa wanted.”
Hoss narrowed his gaze as he watched his little brother’s face crease into a frown. He knew that face and knew something wasn’t adding up. “Well you sure did take your time gettin’ home.”
“I already told you, I got caught up in riding with that posse. It wasn’t like the sheriff gave me much say in the matter since I was the only one who could identify the bank robber.”
“I know that Joe. I’m not accusin’ ya of anything.”
Hoss knew he was treading on thin ice as Joe was still young enough to make his pa think twice before sending him on an errand such as that contract signing by himself. It rankled with the youngest son and Hoss knew it. Still, something was amiss and he had no idea what.
Joe turned once more for the door and Hoss tried again. “Joe, I dunno what happened, but something ain’t sittin’ right with ya since ya got back. I just wanted to help, that’s all, little brother.”
He thought for a moment that Joe was going to walk right out of the barn, until he pulled out whatever it was that he had stashed in his pocket. Hoss edged closer to see Joe’s hand slowly unfurl to reveal a scrappy little stick horse tied together with tufts of wool. He would have laughed under normal circumstances, but something told him to hold it in.
“I couldn’t find them.”
“Find who?” Hoss frowned as Joe scowled at the horse.
“Ethan and Lucy. I told them I’d be back … but when I got back, they were both gone. The hotel manager said they’d run off.”
“Who’s Ethan and Lucy?”
Joe ran a finger across the tufted mane of the tiny horse before looking up at his brother. “Two little kids who needed me to come back instead of chasing a bank robber half way across California.”
Before he could say anything further, Joe shoved the horse back in his pocket and turned for the door. “Too late now. They’re gone and that’s that.”
“Joe!” Hoss hurried after his brother, but wasn’t quick enough to stop him from vaulting onto his horse and disappearing out of the yard.
Hoss was left standing in the empty yard, hands on hips, with an unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach. He’d try again when his brother decided to come back home.
Ethan twisted the edge of the blanket between his thumb and forefinger as he watched George and Ben sleeping. He wanted to simultaneously gather them into his arms and run from this nightmare as well as tearing the blanket to shreds. It was almost threadbare already and it drew his mind back to a day he’d rather forget. He couldn’t help himself as he stared at the blue and red checked pattern woven into the woollen blanket and the fever-reddened faces of his two youngest nephews. He had wondered if George was even going to make it to see his seventh birthday.
Lucy had lain under a blanket such as this one, only it had moth holes right across it. He’d barely turned eight, the same age as Ben and he’d prayed with every fibre of his being that she would come back to him. Apparently, God had seen fit to take his parents and now it seemed that he was also planning on taking his sister. George fidgeted in his sleep and Ethan had to close his eyes to stop the tears that threatened. It had been so many years and he couldn’t think why it was coming back now.
Lucy had been restless under that blanket as her fever grew and became all-consuming. He’d put the dirty cloth in the small pot of trough water and wiped at her face as he’d seen Lucy do when their mama got sick. He wasn’t sure what it was supposed to do, but one of the women from the saloon had said it helped. If nothing else, it gave him something to do. Something to keep his hands steady and his feet from running away into the night. He’d seen enough in his short life to know that folks died when they got fevers and Lucy wasn’t making any sense as she babbled at him and waved her hand at something only she could see.
Ethan felt Claire’s hand on his shoulder and he scrubbed his hand across his face before looking up at her.
“Uncle Ethan, you need to sleep.”
“I will. Later.”
Claire tilted her head at him in that same way that Lucy used to and it almost brought him undone. He’d wanted nothing more than for his sister to live that day and now it seemed that history was repeating itself. He reminded himself that Lucy had survived that fever, but only because of the kindness of a stranger.
Once again, Ethan felt his hands brushing across George and Ben’s hair and he sighed as he stood up. She was far too young to be burdened with caring for her brothers, but Claire was right – he desperately needed to sleep.
“I’ll sit with them for a while. You really do need to get some rest.”
Ethan nodded as he stretched the crick out of his back.
“Asleep. As you should be.”
“Yes ma’am!” Ethan barely managed a smile at his niece as he headed for his bed.
“Wake me if you need to.”
Claire just nodded at him, barely holding her exasperation in check. Of course she would wake him.
Ethan stumbled across to his bed and sank onto the edge of it. He was beyond exhausted and he fumbled as he pulled his boots off. A vague face floated before him as he thought back on that long-past day.
That name rose up in his mind once again and he wondered where that Joseph had ended up. The man who had saved his sister from the fever all those years ago. The man his nephew was named for.
It had been a long time since Ethan had allowed himself to dream. Usually he slept with one eye open and his hand on his pistol. It was a habit that had kept him alive over many years as a hired gun. The last few days had only allowed snatches of sleep as he had tended to the boys and tried to keep on top of the chores that needed doing. Firewood wasn’t going to chop itself and while Joseph was handy with an axe, at eleven, he simply didn’t have the strength to manage anywhere near what his uncle could.
The darkness claimed him almost the instant his head hit his pillow and Ethan sunk into the mattress as if he were dead. He had no idea when the dream began, but it was so vivid it could have been unfolding before his eyes.
Lucy faltered as she walked along the boardwalk. Her usual sunny smile had been missing for days and she was beginning to frighten him. Her words made no sense as she mumbled at him and she had refused to stay in the bed they had fashioned underneath the back stairs of the hotel. Her hand reached out for the railing and missed, sending her tumbling into the street. Ethan scrambled towards her and knelt in the dirt, pushing urgently at her to wake her up.
His voice grew louder as she refused to open her eyes and the people passing along the boardwalk tutted at him, but none of them stopped long enough to do anything to help. He felt the hot sting of tears on his face as he tried desperately to wake her up. Suddenly he felt somebody beside him and he looked up towards a green jacket and almost matching green eyes. The stranger scooped his sister up out of the dirt and began to climb back up onto the boardwalk.
The stranger nodded his head and began to hurry along the boardwalk. People reluctantly stepped back out of the way and allowed him to pass. Ethan noted the looks on their faces and he couldn’t understand why they looked so angry. It would be years later that he would come to understand the kind of prejudice that says it’s alright for a child to die if they come from the wrong kind of place or family or have the wrong skin colour. For some reason, that stranger didn’t seem to care about that kind of thing as he pushed his way past each of the townsfolk who didn’t want to know about two vagabond children.
Ethan watched with horror as the stranger carried his sister into the place that had a shingle out the front. He couldn’t read it, but he knew it was the doctor and they couldn’t afford to pay for him. They couldn’t afford to eat, let alone pay for a doctor. There was gonna be trouble real soon when the doctor figured that out.
The stranger seemed to be having some kind of argument with the doctor before carrying his sister through another door. The man he assumed was the doctor glared at him and Ethan shrank back against the wall. It felt like forever as he waited there in the doctor’s front room, but finally the stranger came back out and sat beside him on the bench.
“That your sister in there?”
Ethan nodded and swallowed down the tears that threatened.
“The doc’s gonna take real good care of her. I promise.”
Ethan had no idea the stranger had threatened the doctor with his own pistol if he refused to attend to the grubby child lying on his examination table. Small towns could be the friendliest places or the worst for ignoring strangers in need. Ethan didn’t need to be told which one this was. He’d felt it in the stares and angry words that had been thrown at them at every turn. It wasn’t like they wanted to stay, but it had been hard to find a wagon to stow away in and they’d been stuck.
Finally the door opened and the doctor strode out. He said something to the stranger and he frowned as he pulled some coins from his pocket before walking in and picking Lucy up again. She looked just like that rag doll she used to have. Suzy had gotten lost somewhere while they were hiding one time and Lucy had cried the fiercest tears he’d ever seen. It wasn’t often that Lucy cried and it had scared him no end.
Ethan followed silently as the young man carried his sister out the door and up the street again. He didn’t stop until he came to the hotel and Ethan’s eyes grew wide again when he realised the stranger intended to go in. They would never let the likes of him or Lucy in that door and he cowered behind the man’s legs as he spoke to the manager at the desk and asked for things to be brought up to his room.
It felt like the longest staircase he had ever climbed as Ethan clambered up the stairs. Any minute now, he expected somebody to grab him from behind and turf him back out into the street. His kind, whatever that was, weren’t welcome in such places. Even at just eight years of age, he knew that already.
He hadn’t said a word as the stranger opened his door and marched into a room that was filled with so many things he’d never seen before. The man laid Lucy out on the bed and someone came in behind them with a pitcher of water and towels. Ethan longed to climb onto the bed and hold Lucy’s hand, just to make sure she was still there, but he didn’t dare. Instead, he hung back against the wall and watched as the stranger cleaned his sister with a gentleness he didn’t know any man possessed. Lucy mumbled as the cool water touched her skin, but she never once woke up. When he was done, the stranger tugged the blanket over Lucy and tucked it in around her.
“Your turn now.”
Ethan swallowed a gulp as the young man reached towards him.
“I can’t get a bath sent up, but this will do just fine. Come on.”
Ethan felt himself being tugged forward and the same hands that had cared for his sister began to wash the grime from his face and hands. He felt the tickle of the towel behind his ears and tears welled in his eyes once again.
“Did I hurt you?” The stranger pulled back and looked at him with concern.
Words wouldn’t come to explain his tears and Ethan simply shook his head. How could he tell this man that his mama used to tickle his ears when she washed him? His stomach ached for his mama and he felt the tears begin to roll down his cheeks. Without knowing what happened, he felt gentle hands cup his face and he looked up to see concern in the stranger’s eyes.
“Where’s your folks? Anybody looking for you two?”
Ethan shook his head. Nobody was looking for them. Leastways nobody that cared what happened to them. That shopkeeper down on the main street might still be looking for them since Ethan had stolen an apple from the barrel out the front, but he’d been fast enough to escape before the man even knew which alleyway he’d bolted down. He and Lucy had savoured that meal and he could still recall the sweet juice dribbling down his chin.
The stranger’s face twisted in that funny way that adults sometimes looked and he found himself staring at his feet. That look made his stomach flip itself into knots.
“Your sister is gonna be just fine. After some rest and some good food.”
Before Ethan could answer, there was a sharp rap at the door and the stranger stood up to open it.
“Speakin’ of food!”
Ethan huddled back against the bed and did his best not to be seen by whoever was at the door. He smelt some amazing aroma and his stomach growled in response and he watched in awe as the young man carried two trays across the room before laying them on the table. There was enough food to feed an entire town at least! His stomach growled again and the stranger pointed towards the seat at the table.
“You could challenge Hoss with a bear rumble like that. Now climb on up there and we’ll see if we can’t tame that grizzly.”
Ethan didn’t need to be told twice and clambered up onto the chair and watched as the young man piled food onto a plate in front of him. He was about to dive in with his fingers when he saw a fork being waved at him. Lucy would have slapped his hand and told him to mind his manners. She was always doin’ stuff like that. He gulped and looked down as he realised he’d let her down. Once again, the fork waved in front of him and he looked up to see the stranger smiling at him.
“I just realised we never introduced ourselves. Kinda busy out there before. My name’s Joseph, but I usually only get that when I’m in trouble with my pa. Most of the time it’s just Joe.”
Ethan looked up again to see Joe smiling at him. He couldn’t figure why a complete stranger would be so kind to him.
“Ethan … and my sister’s name is Lucy.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ethan. Now how about we eat some of this good stew before it goes cold.”
It would be a long two days before Lucy came back to him. For two days she slept fitfully and sometimes moaned in her sleep. Ethan found himself tucked up in Joe’s bedroll on the floor beside her and each time he awoke, Joe was either sitting next to the bed or bathing Lucy’s face with cool water or spooning something into her mouth. The fear that had chewed at his stomach was beginning to ease and when Lucy finally looked at him and knew who he was, he found tears rolling down his face that he simply couldn’t stop.
The sun was barely making its way over the horizon when Ethan felt a gentle tug on his arm. He bolted upright and Claire sprang back from him as they barely missed butting heads. He flung the blanket off his legs and was half way across the room before Claire caught his arm.
“Nothing’s wrong, Uncle Ethan! I came to tell you that Ben is awake.”
Ethan blinked at his niece and rubbed a hand across his face. He’d been so busy expecting the worst for the last few days that he was unprepared when she smiled at him.
“He said he’s hungry!”
Ethan managed the barest hint of a smile before striding across to where the two boys were still tucked in amongst the blankets. The room was warm and Ethan looked up to see Joseph coming through the door with an armful of firewood. Somehow he had slept straight through the boy’s wood chopping!
He looked down to see Ben rubbing at his eyes and trying not to yawn. Ethan dropped to the side of the bed and ran a hand across Ben’s forehead, assuring himself that the fever really was subsiding. He reached for George and did the same, but was dismayed to feel the skin under his hand was still too warm. Dried sweat had George’s fine hair plastered to his head and he pulled away as Ethan rubbed a hand through his hair.
Ben looked at his uncle and chewed on his lip as he frowned back at him. He was still too tired and muddled to understand the frown wasn’t for him and he felt his lip trembling. Ethan silently cursed his clumsiness as he reached a hand to reassure the child.
“Claire says you are hungry.”
“Well, that’s always a good thing.” Ethan smiled at him as Ben yawned again. “Guess we should get some food into you before you fall asleep again.”
Before he could ask, Claire was at his side with a bowl of warm porridge and a thick drizzle of honey. It was a luxury that John Taylor had brought them a few weeks back when he’d found a wild bees nest. It was early for them to be making honey, but the old Indian knew some secrets that others did not and nobody was objecting as Ben slurped the porridge off the spoon Claire held out to him.
“When’s George gonna wake up?”
Ethan turned to see Joseph standing beside the kitchen table. He’d stepped up to a man’s duties over the last few days while Ethan had tried to hold onto Ben and George, but he was still really just a boy. A scared boy who still needed an adult’s assurance.
“He will soon. Ben’s fever broke first, remember?”
Joseph nodded at him and headed for the door once more. The wood box was full, but it wasn’t long before Ethan heard the distinctive sound of an axe. It was one way to work out the worry and fear and one he well understood. For the better part of a week, he had felt entirely useless as the boys had struggled to beat the fever that gripped them and it still rattled him just how much it had dragged up unwelcome memories. As Ethan poured himself a coffee, he wished he could put something a little stronger in the mug, but those days were over. He no longer had the luxury of drowning fears or drawing courage from a bottle. He had to face things head-on as Lucy would have expected him to. Stone, cold sober.
Ethan swirled the coffee in the mug and closed his eyes as a wave of grief washed over him. It had been almost six months since he’d brought four orphaned children back from St Louis and tried to build a life for them, but there were still days that he ached with the knowledge he would never see his sister again and the fear that he simply couldn’t do the overwhelming job she had left him.
Ethan sat on the porch and watched as the fireflies skipped across the ground before continuing their wild dance into the air. The half-empty mug of coffee in his hand had grown cold, but he had not noticed. It had been almost a week since both boys were out of bed and bouncing with their usual youthful enthusiasm. Claire made sure each of them was catching up on the meals they had missed, but both of them had still slipped into bed earlier than usual each night. It had been a tense few days where he had struggled to keep himself in check as he tended to them, not knowing if he would lose either or both of them before the next dawn. There had been three deaths in the surrounding area and many others who had been knocked down hard by the spring fever that seemed to have come out of nowhere. But then, that was often the way of fevers. Nobody could say for certain where they started or where they went.
Ethan scrubbed a hand across his face and scowled as he took a sip of the cold coffee. He’d lost track of time as he sat and watched the moon rise over the patch of dirt he dared call a ranch. He snorted in disgust as he stared at the horizon. It wasn’t a ranch. A ranch was what Joe had talked about. A place of endless boundaries that took days to cross – or so Joe had told him. A place that produced enough cattle to keep a young man in fine clothes and even finer pistols.
Ethan felt his hand drop to his hip without conscious thought. Joe had the most ornate pistol he’d ever seen, with ivory inlaid into the handle and silver scrollwork. He’d lifted it from the side table one night as Joe slept in the chair by his sister’s bed. His fingers traced the silver as it shone in the light of the lamp and he’d been so engrossed in it, he hadn’t heard Joe stir.
“Put that down.”
The words were soft, but firm and he’d gulped in fright as he looked up to see Joe staring at him.
“I wasn’t gonna take it!” He dropped the weapon on the table and his fingers jerked back from the metal as if it was hot.
“I know that, but it’s not a toy. A gun isn’t something to play with.”
Ethan felt his heart pounding as he barely dared look up again. Everybody else assumed he was a thief. Probably because he was. He felt the colour rising up his cheeks as his gaze dropped to his boots. For some reason he could not define, it mattered to him that Joe didn’t tar him with the same brush as others did.
“I just wanted to see it. I wasn’t gonna take it. Honest!”
Joe reached for the weapon and beckoned Ethan towards him. He held the gun so the boy could reach out once more and touch the fancy handle and he smiled as Ethan’s fingers traced the silver once more.
“My pa had it made for me. For my birthday.”
Ethan chewed on his bottom lip as he stared at it. Nobody had ever made anything for his birthday that he could remember, except Lucy. She’d made him a horse from twigs and pieces of wool that she had unravelled and used to hold the tiny twigs in shape as well as fashioning a mane and tail. He’d carried it everywhere in his pocket and reached a hand in to touch it every so often.
Joe had often talked about horses and he figured his friend might want to see Lucy’s horse so he pulled it from where he had stashed it under Joe’s bedroll and shyly held it out to be inspected.
“Lucy made it for me. For my birthday.”
Joe turned the tiny horse over in his hand and ran a finger down the scrawny mane. “He’s a beauty. What’s his name?”
“His name. Every horse has gotta have a name.”
Ethan frowned at the idea. He’d never had a horse so he hadn’t really ever thought about naming one. He looked up to see Joe watching him and he shook his head. “Don’t know. I never knew he needed a name.”
“Course he does! Well, let’s see, my horse’s name is Cochise and Pa’s horse is Buck and Adam’s …..”
“Can I use Cochise too?”
Joe laughed softly as he tousled the boy’s hair. “Sure you can! It’s a great name for a great horse.”
Ethan tossed the remains of the cold coffee and stood up to stretch his legs. The real Cochise had taken his owner out of their lives and left them hiding in a hotel room until the manager saw fit to throw them into the street where they belonged. There hadn’t been time to collect anything and he’d forgotten his horse was even under the bedroll until it was too late. They’d never seen Joe or his horse again and Ethan shook his head at his pointless thoughts. It was so long ago and no longer mattered why their benefactor had suddenly left them and never come back for them as he’d promised. It wasn’t like he was the first adult who had let them down and certainly not the last.
Joe poured another shot of the whiskey into his glass before setting the bottle back on the table. He ran a finger around the rim of the glass, but made no move to drink its contents. Suddenly a hand ran down over his shoulder while another tickled the nape of his neck.
“Want some company, cowboy?”
The voice was low and sultry and there was a time when he would have turned on the charm and had the woman sitting in his lap inside of two minutes. Instead, Joe wished fervently for the girl to just leave him alone. He shook her hand off his shoulder and frowned at her.
The girl wasn’t going to be deterred so easily and she began to run her nails up the sleeve of his shirt towards his shoulder.
“Oh, come on now. We could have us some fun, you and me.” She leaned in and pouted at him as if daring him to kiss her.
Joe stood up from the table and flicked the girl’s hands away from him. The pretty blonde looked no different than a thousand other saloon girls where her dress left little to the imagination and she moved ever so subtly to make sure her best assets were on show.
“I said I wasn’t interested.” Joe grasped at the shot of whiskey and gulped it down before grabbing the bottle and turning and walking out the door.
The girl shrugged at the stranger before setting her eye on another man sitting two tables away. At least this one seemed more interested as he winked at her and beckoned her over with his finger.
“His loss! I’ll have some fun with you, honey.”
All thoughts of the sad-eyed cowboy were pushed aside as she was swept into the man’s lap and she giggled as he whispered something in her ear.
Joe stalked along the length of the boardwalk, seething with pent up anger. All he’d wanted was the time to wish his brother a happy birthday and the stupid girl had sullied it with her obvious intent. Once, he would have lapped up the attention and made the most of the offer, but he had no need of a saloon girl to warm his bed when he had a good woman waiting for him at home. He snorted in disgust at himself and took another slug of the whiskey as her face floated before him. He’d left her behind and had no business calling himself a married man. Or a father. But the truth was he was both. And right now, he was a failure at both.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered into the night air, not entirely sure who he was apologising to this time. He lifted the bottle to his lips once again and felt the warmth of the whiskey slide down his throat. Joe glanced around as he took another slow drink. He hadn’t intended to be out drinking on the street and he figured it would be better to be back in his room before he got himself arrested for public drunkenness. Not that it wouldn’t be the first time in recent weeks.
It wasn’t far back to the hotel, or what passed as a hotel. In the tiny one-horse town, the dilapidated building had the grand name of the Palace Hotel and it had clearly seen better days. The whole town had an air of need about it, as if everything needed a new coat of paint. Joe scowled at his own thoughts as he climbed the stairs to his room. He needed a new coat of paint! Or something.
He dropped onto the bed and stared at his boots. He needed his brother. Hoss would have been ashamed of him if he could see the sorry wreck he’d made of himself in the last two hours. It wasn’t like this anniversary hadn’t rolled around before. Nineteen times it had come and gone already, so why was this one so painful that he needed to run from it? How had twenty years passed by without the big galoot? Joe lifted the bottle and raised a sloppy salute in the air.
“God, I miss you, brother!”
As he sprawled back onto the bed, Joe stared at the pressed tin ceiling and noted that some of the tin had worked its way loose. A piece directly above him looked as if it could fall right on top of him.
The sky is fawing. The sky is fawing.
Joe flung his arm across his face as if he could somehow blot out the memory of Candy mocking him as he read Chicken Little to the group of children he’d been pressed into teaching while their real teacher recovered from a fall.
Candy would never laugh with him or at him again. Joe screwed his eyes shut and clenched his fists in impotent rage at the loss of one more brother. He was a failure as a brother as well.
The sun was well into the sky before Joe made it out to begin the day. He squinted at the brightness of the sky and pulled his hat a little lower to protect his eyes. He frowned as he ran a hand across the thick stubble on his cheeks as he had a fair idea of just how rough he looked, given the way he felt. His tongue felt like wool in his mouth and he stumbled towards what passed as a café. The coffee was hot and strong, if a little odd tasting. Memories arose unbidden as he recalled the constant comments about his own coffee-making skills over the years. As Joe fumbled in his pocket for some coins to pay for his meal, he realised he was growing low on funds. Time to look for some work to pay his way to … to wherever it was that he was going. He knew that Paradise was north of him and Sacramento was south. South took him closer to the pain he could not yet deal with, so north it would be.
Ethan sat astride his horse and watched as Morris waved at him.
“Got us another couple of guns, Ethan.” The man looked pleased with himself as he pointed at the two men. “This is Hank and he’s Joe. I tested ‘em out, Ethan and both could shoot an eyelash off a jackrabbit.”
Ethan didn’t answer the overconfident description, but he sized up the two men standing before him. Hank looked like he was maybe ex-army with his stance and Joe was staring back at him with a look of almost defiance, as if daring him to reject him. It struck him as odd, but he didn’t have time to waste if they were going to make the run on time. He needed hired guns and if Morris said they were good, then he’d take the man’s word.
He nodded at the two strangers and turned back towards Morris. “We need to get on the road in the next half hour. You two good to go?”
It was less than the required half hour before all four men rode out of town, flanking a wagon being driven by an older man and his son. The two new recruits had simply been told the wagon needed to make it to Redding without issue and they would be paid when they all got there. Joe hadn’t asked what was so all-important about that wagon, but he noted the covert glances between Ethan and Morris. Those two were tight and he felt an ache rising up into his chest as he observed them. He and Candy could convey a lot with a glance or a wink or a concealed hand signal. He quickly shoved the thought back down and focused on their surroundings. He had a job to do and he would need the money once he reached Redding.
Ethan leaned back against his upturned saddle and watched the man seated across from him. The glow of the fire lit up his face and something about it niggled at him. He knew many of the local guns for hire, but there was something different about this one. Ethan had spent almost his entire life living on his instincts and he could not reconcile what little he knew of the man and what his gut told him. Not that there had been any time for casual conversation since their hasty departure, but he was deliberately evasive or gave the barest of answers when questioned. Ethan figured he could respect that. After all, he could count on one hand the number of people who really knew him and his real history, not the exaggerated nonsense he had allowed to circulate unchecked for years. If even half the rumours were true, he had shot and killed at least a hundred men.
Still, he could have sworn the man was running from something and he aimed to find out what that was in case it was going to be a problem for them. Before he could ask another question and prod a little more, Morris sauntered back into the camp.
“Ethan, Hank’s on first watch and Jacob and Matt are bunking in the wagon for good measure.” Morris snatched a mug and poured himself a coffee before turning back to Joe. “You can take second watch, Cartwright and I’ll take the third. Ethan, old man, you get a good night’s sleep tonight and we’ll put you on tomorrow’s rotation.”
Cartwright. How had he missed the man’s last name until now? He must be slipping.
Ethan leaned forward and poured himself another coffee as he tried to look closer at the man again.
“Somethin’ wrong, Ethan?’
He glanced up to see Morris watching him.
“You okay with the watch rotations?”
“Uh, yeah. They’re fine.”
Ethan looked again and tried to call up a memory from so long ago to see if it matched the scruffy face reflecting the firelight. Despite the fact Morris had assigned him a full night’s sleep, it would be a long time coming as he lay in his bedroll and trawled through every memory he could muster from so many years ago. Time had muddied some of them, but he’d never forgotten that name. The name of the man who had saved his sister’s life and then run out on them when he’d promised to come back.
Claire watched as Becky counted out the coins before handing them across the counter.
“I’m glad your chickens are still laying so well. A couple of foxes got into some of the coops on the west side of town and we’ve been in short supply for our customers. I don’t suppose you could bring any more next time, could you?”
It would have been very helpful to make the extra money, but Claire shook her head. “The way Ben and George are eating at the moment, it’s a wonder I have any left at all to bring you!”
Becky was only a few years older than Claire and had been allowed to leave school to work in her family’s mercantile, but that didn’t mean she missed any of the gossip from the school. “I heard the boys were off school with that nasty fever. I do hope they are both getting better.”
“They’ll be fine. Thank you for …” Before she could finish, Joseph came hurrying through the door and grasped at her arm.
“Claire, I gotta talk to you.”
Becky looked at the younger boy with an air of annoyance. He was still a little rough around the edges, but then Mama did say that had a lot to do with living with an uncle who knew next to nothing about raising God-fearing children.
“Joseph!” Claire began to chide her brother before really looking at him. He was scared. Perhaps petrified would be a better word. She quickly made her apologies to Becky and hurried her younger brother outside.
“Joseph, what’s wrong?”
“It’s Uncle Ethan,” Joseph whispered to her.
Claire felt the unwanted sense of panic rising up her throat and she tried to force it back down.
“What about Uncle Ethan?”
Joseph grasped her arm and pulled her away from the mercantile door. He had no idea who could be listening.
“I was just down at the livery and I heard two men talking. They were at the back of the livery and I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I heard them talking about Ethan Cord and how he’d be dealt with before the end of the week!”
Claire tried to allow her rational mind to settle her brother’s panic and struggled to find a logical answer.
“You must have misunderstood. Uncle Ethan can’t be back from Redding by then.”
“They don’t intend to wait for him to get back. One of them said they had somebody travelling with him who would kill him on the road and make it look like they got bushwhacked. He said they knew all about the decoys and it didn’t fool them.”
Claire frowned at her brother. Joseph had an active imagination and had been known to get things wrong before, but this wasn’t a schoolyard misunderstanding. This could mean the difference between them having a guardian and a home or being left to fend for themselves. Claire shook her head to clear the ugly thoughts that rose up to frighten her. Mrs Lawson would know what to do. That was it. She always knew what to do.
Amelia sat at her desk and signed off on the last of the ledgers for the day. It always felt satisfying to finish up the columns and see that everything was in its place and added up correctly. It was a skill that had been underestimated by her husband when he’d bought the bank, but it had proven to be her saving grace when others had also underestimated her. Being a woman, especially an independent and vocal woman, had proven challenging, but she had never backed down from a challenge in her life.
As she stood up to place the ledger back on the shelf, she heard somebody rapping on the door. The bank was closed already but that didn’t stop some of the townsfolk thinking they could ask for out of hours service, especially since she was a woman and some of them thought she still needed to be put in her place. Amelia frowned as she headed for the door and was about to give somebody a piece of her mind when she realised it was Claire and Joseph hammering on her door.
“What’s wrong?” It was an obvious conclusion since she knew Ethan had ridden out two days ago, but not before dropping in and asking her to keep an eye out for the children in his absence. She knew it tugged at him to be leaving so soon after the boys were so ill and yet she also knew he needed to take the jobs that paid when they came along.
“Sorry to bother you, but Uncle Ethan said we could come to you if we needed to.”
Amelia swung the door open and gestured for them to come inside.
“Is something wrong with the boys? Are they sick again.”
“No,” Claire rushed to explain. “It’s Uncle Ethan!”
“He’s back already?” Amelia looked confused, as he wasn’t due back well into the next week.
“No. He’s not going to make it back unless we help him!” Joseph clenched his fists in frustration as he tried to explain what he’d overheard.
Amelia listened as Joseph talked and tried to think of a way to calm him down.
“Your uncle is a very experienced …” She was about to say gunslinger and barely managed to stop herself. “He is well able to look after himself. And he …”
“But he …”
“And he is not travelling alone. He has five men with him. They will be doing what they need to do to be safe.”
At least she hoped they would be.
“Ben, can you go and wake Joseph please? He should have been up already!” Claire kept filling the lunch pails while keeping an eye out to see that George was eating his breakfast.
A minute later, Ben stuck his head around the corner and pointed back over his shoulder. “He’s not in there. Maybe he’s outside.”
Claire frowned at him as she hadn’t heard Joseph get up or leave the house and she’d been up for at least an hour.
“Boys, finish up getting ready for school. I’m sure Joseph must be in the barn.”
Ben shrugged at his little brother as he began to pull on his boots and reached for his school satchel. Claire tried to keep a calm face as she headed outside, but her stomach was clenched into a knot. Joseph had argued with Mrs Lawson the night before that she needed to do something to warn their uncle and she had agreed to send out some wires, but it wasn’t like Paradise had a bunch of deputies the marshal could send out after them. He’d lost patience with her and said that he’d go himself if need be while Mrs Lawson had told him to leave it to the adults to take care of.
“Please don’t tell me you were that stupid, Joseph!”
Claire stalked into the barn and stared at the empty stalls. She expected her uncle’s horse would not be there, but she fully expected to see the only other horse they owned and needed for the wagon.
“Joseph!” Fear clutched at her as she stared at the place where the saddles usually hung. “What were you thinking?”
She didn’t hear the footsteps behind her until George tried again. “Claire … what’s wrong?”
George frowned at her as Ben piped up. “Then where’s the horse? And Joseph?”
Claire swallowed down the lump in her throat and smiled at her little brothers.
“He’s gone to take a message to Uncle Ethan. He’ll be back soon. Now finish getting yourselves ready for school as we’ll need to walk today.”
“Awwww. I don’t wanna walk to school.”
“I know. But we need to get to school.”
Claire waited until the boys had headed back to the house before unfolding the note nailed to the railing.
I know you are going to be real mad at me but I have to go. You didn’t hear those men. I did and they aim to kill Uncle Ethan. I won’t let that happen.
Claire sucked in a sob and straightened up before folding the paper closed again. She needed to see Mrs Lawson and maybe this time she would do something more than send a wire.
The first two days out of Paradise had been fairly uneventful which was just the way Ethan liked it. Not that he expected it was going to be smooth sailing all the way to Redding and his senses were on high alert. The marshal from Redding had suggested they arranged another two wagons as decoys and he hoped the three teams would not cross paths. It was one of the reasons he’d been so anxious to leave on time so the three were separated by enough miles to make it look plausible. He’d asked Morris to only bring in two hired guns instead of the bigger team he would have preferred and made it look like just another regular job. The father and son driving the wagon were unknown to him, but the marshal had assured him they were the best. He assumed that meant he knew what was riding in that wagon buried inside the kegs and boxes of supplies.
Ethan glanced across at Cartwright who was riding on the far side of the wagon. Over the course of the two days, he was now firmly convinced that he was the same man who had stopped and scooped Lucy out of the dirt all those years ago. Joe had confirmed he was from Virginia City and had family there, but not much more. He’d clammed up at the questions asked around the campfire each night and snapped at Matt’s nosiness more than once. What had happened to the young man with the ready smile and tender hands that had tickled his ears as he cleaned behind them? Ethan tried to shove the thoughts aside as he focussed on the job at hand, but he couldn’t help being drawn back.
Joe felt the man’s gaze on him and it irked him. It felt like he was being measured somehow and he chafed at the thought. Truth be told, he didn’t measure up. If Cord knew the truth, he never would have taken him on as a hired gun. Oh sure, the shooting skills were still there when he was aiming at a tin can, but he stared at his gun nestled in its holster and was once again reminded that he’d failed when it really mattered. And Candy had paid the price for his failure.
Joe felt his gut twist into a knot as he recalled how much blood had pooled on the ground beneath them. He’d watched as Candy tried to muster one last grin for him and almost managed to pull it off. He’d gripped onto his friend’s hand as it went slack and he was sure his own heart had stopped beating too. He pulled up with a jerk and tried to focus once more on what he was supposed to be doing. Reliving that nightmare moment was not helping anybody and was a distraction he didn’t need if he was going to do his job.
Morris was riding drag along behind the wagon and he noted the strange reaction. There was something odd about the man and he wondered if they were going to have some trouble with him. He needed to talk with Ethan, but it would have to wait until they stopped.
Joseph pushed the horse as fast as he dared. It wasn’t like Uncle Ethan’s horse that could sustain a long gallop. She was a good wagon horse and well suited in temperament to allowing the boys to climb up on her back, but she simply wasn’t up to what Joseph needed her to do. Still, he kicked at her sides again and urged her to a faster pace. He didn’t care what his sister or Mrs Lawson said. He’d heard those two men as they discussed their plan and he couldn’t afford to waste time.
The first part of the ride had brought him down out of the foothills, but for the last two days, the road had been fairly flat and he’d been able to push harder. It still wasn’t fast enough since he hadn’t caught up to the wagon yet. Joseph felt the horse slowing her pace and he reluctantly allowed her to as he led her towards the nearby creek. He slid from the saddle and watched her take her fill as he topped up his own canteen and took a deep drink. His stomach rumbled in response and he rummaged in the saddlebags for something to eat. His hand wrapped around some jerky and he pulled out a couple of pieces from the calico wrapping. It wasn’t something he generally ate by choice, but it wasn’t as if he’d been able to get Claire to help pack his travel rations.
Joseph looked up at the sun and noted it was already dipping close to the horizon. He had maybe another two hours of daylight left if he was lucky and he tugged at the horse’s reins, eager to get moving again.
Morris heard the approaching rider before anybody else since he was riding well back from the wagon. He shifted his rifle across his lap and pulled his horse to a stop on the edge of the road. It wasn’t as if the rider was trying to sneak up on them, but it paid to be alert and it had saved his life more than once.
He almost swore aloud as he saw who the rider was before nudging his horse into the road, blocking the other horse’s path. Joseph recognised the man his uncle often travelled with and heaved a sigh of relief.
“Where’s Uncle Ethan?”
Morris narrowed his gaze at the kid. “Just what in tarnation are you doing here?”
“Please, I’ve gotta warn Uncle Ethan.”
Joseph began to push his horse around the obstacle before Morris grasped at his reins.
“Warn him about what?”
Joseph was exhausted and in no mood to be compliant. “Let me go! I need to speak to him, now! He’s in danger!”
Morris held the rein tightly and leaned closer to the boy. “You know who I am, don’tcha?”
Joseph nodded and was about to speak when Morris cut him off.
“Good. Then you tell me what’s going on and be quick about it.”
Reluctantly, Joseph began to relay all that had happened since he’d overheard the threats back in the livery. He was surprised to see the man taking him seriously and even more surprised when he tugged at the reins and started up the road.
“Well c’mon! We’ve gotta catch up to them.”
Ethan was almost ready to head back looking for Morris when he rode into view. The fact there was another rider with him unsettled him and he squinted in the late afternoon sun to make out who it was. He called the wagon to a halt as he waited for them. It took a few minutes for the two horses to get close enough and he felt his heart drop into his stomach as he realised who was riding alongside his friend. Something had to have happened to one of the boys and he silently cursed himself at leaving so soon after they had been so sick. He kicked his horse into a trot and quickly pulled alongside his nephew.
“Joseph! What are you doing here?” He tried to keep the worry out of his voice and failed miserably as he barked the question.
“Uncle Ethan, I’ve gotta talk to you. Privately.” Joseph looked over his uncle’s shoulder at the men on horseback and the other two in the wagon and he swallowed down the fear that one or more of them could mean to kill his uncle.
“I had to come and warn you.”
“Joseph, what are you talking about?”
The story tumbled out in a whispered rush and Ethan stared at the boy as if he’d lost his mind.
“You rode all the way out here to tell me this job might be dangerous!”
“No! Uncle Ethan, those men said they had somebody travelling with you who was going to kill you and make it look like you’d been bushwhacked. They said you’d never make it into Redding alive!”
Ethan heard the fear in the boy’s voice and fumbled over how to allay it. There were days he had no idea how to be a parent and this was turning into one of them.
Joe sat easy in the saddle and watched the strange scenario unfolding. He felt his gut churning in warning that something was wrong. He couldn’t define what was causing the prickle on his scalp, but he glanced at the other men and noted that Jacob had his rifle in his hand. It seemed an odd thing to do given it was just a boy and he automatically rested his hand on his thigh near his holster.
Soon enough, Ethan turned and rode up towards them with the youngster in tow.
“This is Joseph. He’ll be camping with us tonight and heading back home in the morning.”
Joseph scowled at his uncle and barely managed to keep his mouth in check. He had no intention of turning tail for home, but his uncle rarely changed his mind once he’d given an order.
Joe kept his thoughts to himself as they began to set up camp for the night. He soon figured who the boy was when he said something to his uncle. What he couldn’t figure was why the boy was there at all. He buried down thoughts of his own boy and what he would be doing. His mama would have things well in hand as she always did. Joe felt himself tensing as he tried to shove aside the voice that nagged at him and told him he should be home with them instead of guarding something he had no idea about for a man he barely knew.
Joe paced the perimeter of the camp with his rifle at the ready. He’d drawn the second watch, which suited him just fine. It wasn’t like he was going to sleep much anyway. Nagging thoughts kept chewing at him as he had tried to rest and finally he’d gotten up and poured himself yet another mug of coffee. He’d relieved Hank forty minutes earlier than he needed to and the man had grinned at him with a nod of thanks as he headed for his bedroll.
Joe rubbed a hand across his face as he walked. He’d always been light on his feet, but Candy had taught him to move in a manner that was almost soundless. It was how they had first met, all those years ago when Candy walked into their camp and asked for a can of peaches. Joe allowed himself a small smile as he recalled the surprised faces and quick accusations. The fact Candy was an army brat gave him an edge of irreverence that had stirred the beginnings of their friendship.
He paused and looked up at the clouds as they scudded across the moon. He felt a shiver run the length of his spine and he shook himself as if he could shake off the memory of another night under another moon. A dark night that had concealed the men who crept into their camp, aiming to steal from them.
They were so close to home that first night and he’d given in to his children’s pleas to ride out with them and camp for the night before the herd moved on to the railhead. He knew he was getting past the point of needing or wanting to ride with the herd, but he also knew how he’d yearned to go when he was a kid and his father and brothers rode out. If only he’d been stronger and said no. Then Candy would still be alive and he wouldn’t be running from the guilt that threatened to overwhelm him.
Joe was scouting out the area when he heard a single shot ring out in the darkness followed by a strangled cry. He thought for a moment that he had imagined it, but he heard shouts as he raced towards the camp and could make out men wrestling and trading punches, but against the glare of the fire, he couldn’t clearly see who it was. Suddenly a smaller figure sprang up from the ground and he knew without thinking that it had to be Joseph. The boy was kicking at the leg of one of the men while his uncle wrestled against his attacker’s grasp around his shoulders, pinning his arms to his side.
Joe surged forward and pulled the boy clear of the fray before turning to help Ethan. He lifted the butt of his rifle to knock the other man down and was satisfied to see him stay down. Across the other side of the fire, Morris had dropped to the ground and was staring into the barrel of a gun when Ethan charged. He threw the other man sideways and slammed him into the wagon before delivering a knockout punch. Morris began to scramble to his feet and rushed to see that Ethan had the man under control.
As Joe turned back to find where Joseph had got to, he noted the first man raising an arm and pointing his pistol towards the boy.
“Damn you, kid.”
Joe reacted without thinking and pushed the stunned boy sideways. He felt the bite as a bullet ploughed into his thigh and he stumbled to the ground while trying to swing his rifle into a firing position. Before he could line up for a shot, somebody beat him to it and his attacker dropped like a stone.
Joe nodded as he tried to pull himself into a more upright position. He felt Morris grasp his shirt and pull him to his feet and his leg almost buckled under him. Morris wrapped an arm under his shoulder and pulled him closer to the fire before settling him on his bedroll.
Joe looked around and for the first time, realised who had attacked them. It made no sense as both Jacob and Matt were sprawled in the dirt. Matt was clearly dead and his father was tied to the wagon wheel by his wrists. Just across from where he was sitting, Joe saw Hank was still in his bedroll. He shuffled across to reach out towards him and was stunned to feel the blanket was wet with blood.
Joe looked up at the sound of his name before realising it wasn’t him being spoken to.
“Joseph!” Ethan grasped the boy by the shoulders and shook him again.
“Uncle Ethan, I tried to …” His words stuck as he stared at the bodies lying across the camp.
Ethan cupped the side of his face and pulled the boy’s gaze back towards him. “It’s alright. You’re alright, Joseph.”
Without warning, Joseph flung himself at his uncle and wrapped his arms around his waist. Ethan leaned down and pulled the boy towards him, acutely aware of just how close he had come to losing him. Finally, he pushed the boy back from him and ran his hands along his arms.
“Are you hurt? Did he hurt you?”
Joseph shook his head and pointed at the body lying on the ground. “He was gonna shoot me, but …”
“But Cartwright here stopped him.” Morris was crouched in front of Joe examining his leg. “And took a bullet for his troubles.”
Ethan turned back towards them with Joseph tucked against his side. “Thank you.”
He pulled the boy away from the body behind them and settled him on his bedroll. Joseph was shaking and Ethan pushed him down and smoothed his hair from his eyes. “Get some sleep. Everything’s going to be alright.”
Joe clamped his mouth shut as Morris cut away the blood-soaked cloth from his leg and prodded at the hole. He hoped there was another hole to match on the other side, but he saw Morris shake his head.
“That slug needs to come out.”
“Figured that already.”
“Sorry we haven’t got any whiskey for you, but Ethan said this was a dry run. No drinking on the job.”
Joe grasped at the man’s wrist and nodded towards where Ethan was still crouched over his nephew. “You leave this ‘til morning. And you get the kid away from here before you start.”
Morris shook his head again. “That bullet needs to come out.”
Joe squeezed his wrist harder. “You can’t see what you’re digging for and this is gonna get messy. The kid doesn’t need to see it. Or hear it.”
Morris saw the clenched jaw and nodded in begrudging admiration. He was right. The kid had dealt with enough for one night, but the cost was going to be high.
“This could get a whole lot worse for you if we don’t dig it out tonight.”
“Worse than it could be with you diggin’ a hole in the dark?” Joe glared at him as if daring him to try.
By the next morning, Joe was beginning to regret his decision. He’d slept on and off and each time he’d woken, he’d had to clamp down on his glove to keep himself quiet. His leg throbbed as he tried to sit up in his bedroll and he groaned as a hand clamped down on his shoulder. A mug of coffee waved in front of his face and he gratefully took a gulp.
“All right. Ethan’s gonna take the kid out of sight and you and me are gonna have a go at that leg.”
Joe looked around the camp and noted that Hank and his bedroll were gone. Morris saw where he was looking and he thumbed over his shoulder. “Ethan buried him last night. Didn’t want the kid waking up to two dead bodies.”
As he looked across the fire, Joe saw Ethan crouched down in front of Jacob who was still firmly tied to the wagon wheel. Even from that distance, Joe could see the side of the man’s face was a mass of swollen and bruised flesh and he winced.
“Easy there. Ethan sent me looking for some flowers at first light. Says he made some kind of Indian brew he reckons will take the edge off when we get started on this leg. Not a proper anaesthetic, mind you, but it will help. John Taylor’s full of useful remedies like that.”
“John Taylor?” Joe’s head was just catching up with the rest of him as he swirled the remains of his coffee in the mug before ditching the dregs in the dirt.
“Indian friend of Ethan’s. Lives up the hills above Paradise. At least, I think he does.”
Joe watched as Morris pushed the blade of a knife into the flames and laid some strips of bandaging on a rock beside him. He heard Ethan say something to Morris about the need to get moving and he closed his eyes against what he knew was coming.
Joseph’s feet felt like lead as his uncle directed him away from the camp. Ethan had his rifle laid across his arm in a way that looked casual enough to an observer, but Joseph knew better. His uncle was tensed, ready for action and he wondered if there was another threat.
Before he could ask any questions, he heard the man’s muffled scream and then silence. Ethan had a firm grasp on his shoulder and he flinched as the sound carried again.
“Uncle Ethan.” Joseph sucked in a sharp breath as he paused.
“Is he gonna be okay?” Joseph felt tears welling in his eyes as he wondered if the man who’d saved his life was going to pay for it with his own.
“He’ll be fine. Morris just needs to get that bullet out and he’ll be fine.”
“Have you … have you ever been shot?” It wasn’t like the boy didn’t know his uncle’s former profession, but he stared up at the man who seemed invincible.
Ethan nodded at him and then looked back towards the camp. Too many times to want to recall.
It would be another twenty minutes before Ethan deemed it was safe to return to camp and he was relieved to see Morris give him a tight smile when he spotted them. Joe was out cold, but that didn’t surprise him. Morris wasn’t a doctor and that knife wasn’t a scalpel. Still, the bandage wrapped tightly around Joe’s leg only had a small bloodstain where it had seeped through already and he hoped that would be good news.
Morris stood up and glanced at Joseph as if weighing his words. “He should be okay to travel if we lay him out in the back of the wagon. You can put Jacob on a horse and I’ll drive the wagon.”
Ethan nodded in agreement. He didn’t want to be moving the injured man so soon, but they couldn’t afford to delay by sitting in the middle of the valley floor. Based on what Jacob had told him, the marshal in Redding was waiting for them and could easily send out men to find them and finish the job he’d started. He needed to get them there before that happened.
Joe barely stirred as the two men lifted him into the bed of the wagon and wrapped a blanket over him. It would be another couple of hours before he woke up and felt the raw ache in his leg. He looked up at the cloudless sky overhead and felt the sway of the wagon beneath him and groaned as he tried to sit up.
“Stay still.” The voice floated over his head and Joe frowned as he tried to figure who was driving the wagon. It took a few minutes before Morris pulled up the team and climbed over into the wagon towards him. “How are you doin’ there?”
“Seen better days,” Joe winced as he tried again to sit up. His leg screamed at him in protest and before he knew it, Morris pressed a mug filled with some more of the foul-smelling liquid towards his mouth.
“Drink this. Trust me, it stinks, but it works.”
Joe eyed him suspiciously as he nodded in encouragement. He swallowed the liquid and burped as it almost came back up on him.
“Yep. It does that to me too.”
“Smells like something Hop Sing would have once made up to punish me with.”
Joe closed his eyes as a wave of nausea rushed over him. He wasn’t sure if it was the foul brew or the depth of memory that threatened to engulf him. He felt Morris’ hand on his shoulder as he pushed it all back down.
Ethan pulled his horse in alongside the wagon and studied Joe’s face. He’d once talked of a Chinese man who cared for him and his family. Almost as if he was family. So how did he end up out here, so far from that family he’d talked so much about?
Morris eased Joe back down and climbed back over into the driver’s seat. Ethan pulled around next to him as they began to move out again. “How’s he doing?”
“He’ll live. Not sure we’ve got enough of that stuff of John Taylor’s to last us to Redding, but I can ration it out.”
Ethan frowned as he looked at the road ahead. They were still a long way from where he wanted to be, having lost so much time the day before.
It was a long two days as the group made their way into Redding. Joe slept fitfully in the back of the wagon and at times seemed out of it as he mumbled various things. Ethan knew his friend’s concoction could bring on strange dreams and even cause hallucinations if the brain was already fevered and he kept a close watch on the back of the wagon. Joe seemed lucid for the most part, but his face couldn’t hide the pain as the wagon jolted over the rough terrain. He was thankful they weren’t travelling into the mountains or it would be so much worse.
The second afternoon, Ethan stopped them by the river and watered the horses while Morris pulled back the bandage on Joe’s leg. He frowned at what he saw. The wound was reddening and swelling and pus was beginning to ooze from it.
“What’s wrong?” Joe leaned back again the sack of flour and tried to focus on what was happening. His leg felt like it was on fire and he couldn’t quite concentrate on what the man was saying.
“Nothin’! Just need to clean this out, that’s all.”
“He’s gonna die from that, you know.” Jacob laughed as he stood next to the wagon where Ethan had tied him after removing him from his horse.
“Shut up!” Morris glared at him as he continued what he was doing.
“I have no problem tying you face down over that horse, you know.” Ethan growled at Jacob as he led the horses back to the wagon.
Jacob stared at him defiantly, but wisely said nothing further. He’d already said enough.
Ethan sat with his boots propped up on the edge of the bed, reading the local newspaper from the day before. The front page ran a story about a local marshal who had been arrested on conspiracy to murder charges along with other serious pending charges. It said the sheriff was carrying out a full investigation and several witnesses were yet to be interviewed. He stared at the man lying on the bed and wondered when he would be fit to give a statement. What the paper didn’t carry was why the marshal had thrown an honest career to the wind and was now facing the gallows or at least a long stint in prison.
It didn’t tell the story of two men who had dug up the biggest gold nugget seen in California since the Fricot nugget had been unearthed. They didn’t want anybody catching on to where they had pulled it out of the ground or even that it existed at all so they had called in a favour with a friend who turned out to be just as susceptible to gold fever as the next man.
Ethan was glad to be well rid of the wagon and its contents and had happily handed Jacob over to the authorities along with co-ordinates of where they had buried the two bodies. He’d wired Hank’s family and then tried to find Joe’s family. It wasn’t hard to get a response from Virginia City with the Cartwright name.
Before Ethan could read any further, the door swung open and Joseph walked in with a tray laden with food. He smiled at his uncle before unloading the tray onto the nearby table.
“I got us some breakfast.”
Ethan nodded his appreciation and reached for a cup to pour himself a coffee as he went back to reading the paper.
Early morning light filtered through the window as Joe slowly opened his eyes. The ache in his leg had subsided to a dull roar, but his head still pounded as if he’d been out drinking all night. He groaned as he shifted on the bed and felt a hand push against his shoulder as he tried to sit up.
“Take it easy.”
Joe blinked and looked up to see Ethan’s face hovering over him while holding out a glass of water. “Good to see you back in the land of the living.”
“What?” Joe asked in between gulps of the water.
“You gave the doc a run for his money there for a bit.”
“Where are we?” Joe pushed himself up against the bedhead and looked around. He knew a hotel room when he saw one, but this was not one he recognised.
“Redding. We’ve been here a few days.”
“What?” Joe shook his head at the idea. Last thing he remembered, they were out on the road and Morris was digging yet another hole in his leg.
“You’ve been pretty out of it for a while. Doc says the infection is clearing up though and you aren’t going to lose that leg.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Bullet wound. Your leg got infected and Morris tried his best, but the doc says it was closer than he would have liked. He says you’re gonna be fine, but you can’t travel for a bit yet. I wired your family and told them where you were.”
“My family? Joe frowned at the man. “How would you even know who my family is?”
“I know more about you than you think I do.”
Joe’s gaze narrowed with suspicion as he sized up the man again. “I only just met you and I didn’t tell you anything!”
“Wrong. I met you a long time ago and you told me enough this week to put the pieces together.”
“You won’t remember, but it was a two-bit town outside of Placerville … well, it was Hangtown then, but anyway, you saved my sister and me. You kept Lucy alive when she had a fever. If she had died, I would have too. Most probably would have starved.”
Joe stared at him as the weight of the words sunk in.
“Yeah, Lucy. My sister and Joseph’s mother. She named him after you.”
Joseph was sitting on the window ledge, staring out the window at the busy street below, but he jumped to his feet at his uncle’s comment. He’d heard the story before from his mother, but never once guessed the man in the bed could possibly be one and the same person. That part of his mother’s and uncle’s life was so long ago.
Joe stared at Ethan as the memories welled up from within him. “She had blonde hair. Real pretty little thing.”
Ethan nodded, but held his tongue.
“I came back to the hotel and you were both gone. I tried to find you, but nobody knew where you had gone.”
“The manager threw us out the day you left. Said that our kind wasn’t welcome there.”
Joe shook his head as he tried to clear it from the dull pounding behind his eyes.
“I told them to tell you I was coming back. It was a couple of days and they were supposed to send up food and anything else you needed.”
Ethan rubbed a hand along his jawline. At the time, it had simply felt like they’d been abandoned again.
Joe looked directly at him as he spoke. “I swear to you, I wasn’t given any choice by the sheriff but to ride with the posse after the bank was robbed and I told them to take care of you. I got back and you were both gone. That damn manager told me you’d just up and left in the night.”
Joe sagged back against the pillows and closed his eyes.
“I’m sorry. I should have looked harder.”
“Not your fault.”
Joe slowly opened his eyes and tried again. “So, where did you go if you didn’t just run off?”
“Lucy was still sick, but we managed to convince an old tinker to give us a ride to Hangtown. We just … well we just did what we always did after that.”
Joe swallowed down the sick feeling in his throat and nodded. “You survived.”
Joseph stared at his uncle as he got his first real glimpse of just how hard life had been for his mother when she was a child. She had rarely let on anything about her past other than how much she loved her brother and how close they were. He had been too young to really understand, but he certainly knew what it had meant to him when he feared losing his own guardian and what could happen to them from there. Ben and George were young enough and cute enough that somebody might want to adopt them, but he and Claire were simply the wrong age. Too old to be moulded into a new family and too young to earn their way in the world.
“I meant to take you both back with me. To Virginia City.”
Ethan couldn’t bring himself to speak as he allowed himself to wonder how different life could have turned out. But then, Lucy would never have married that no-account husband of hers and he could not imagine life without his niece and nephews. It wasn’t the first time he had wondered about the changes in his life since they had come to stay with him. As Lucy would have said herself, good can often come from bad if we just allow it to.
“Speaking of Virginia City … just what are you doing up this way?”
Joe dropped his gaze to his hands and tried to find an answer to that. When he didn’t answer, Ethan pulled a telegram from his pocket and handed it to Joe. He skimmed across the paper and sucked in a breath as he did so.
Thank you for letting us know he is safe. Tell him to come home. Tell him we love him, including Griff.
Joe crumpled the paper in his hand as he closed his eyes. Griff had every right to hate him. He could see the young man’s glare as he spat angry words of accusation at him. He deserved every one of them.
Ethan stayed silent as he watched Joe’s face contort with pain. It wasn’t physical pain and he knew only too well how the other kind could be far worse.
Claire stood at the bench, kneading bread dough while listening to Ben recite his times tables. He was stuck on the six times and was trying to count on his fingers without letting on that was what he was doing. Suddenly the door flung open and George burst in.
“They’re coming! Uncle Ethan and Joseph are coming!”
Claire hastily wiped her hands on her apron and followed her brothers to the front porch. True enough, her uncle and brother were dismounting in the front yard, along with a stranger with a bay horse. She held back for a moment before flinging herself at her uncle while reaching a hand for her brother.
The stranger stood and watched the family reunion with the two youngest ones competing to tell everything that had happened in their absence. He stared at Claire as memories of her mother filled his thoughts. She was the spitting image of a child he had never forgotten. Ethan caught him staring and smiled at him.
“She’s her mother all over.”
Joe nodded and smiled at the girl as Ethan introduced him.
“This is Mister Cartwright and he’ll be needing a hot meal.”
Soon enough Claire had the family seated at the table with their guest squeezed in at the end opposite to her uncle.
“If I’d known you were coming tonight I’d have had something better ready. I was just guessing the days based on your telegram.”
“I know and this is just fine.” Ethan smiled at the girl as she looked flustered at having a guest and needing to spread the meal further.
“Do you have any boys Mister Cartwright?” George tilted his head at the man as he waited for an answer.
“I have a son called Eric. He’s about the same age as Joseph. And I have a daughter called Marie. She’ll be turning nine very soon.”
“Then you’d better get home for her birthday. Birthdays are real important!”
Joe nodded as he pushed a biscuit into his mouth since he didn’t trust himself to answer.
Ethan stepped out of the doorway and into the circle of light shed by the lantern. Joe had been quiet through the meal, but the children had more than made up for it by peppering their uncle and brother with questions. Joseph skimmed over much of what had happened and gave vague enough answers, but Claire had picked up on the fact he wasn’t giving details. After the two younger boys had been put to bed, he’d heard Claire and Joseph whispering together and he figured they needed some time to speak. He’d gone out to the porch, expecting to bring their guest a coffee and found him in the barn instead. He was brushing down his horse even though the job had been thoroughly done hours ago.
“No.” Joe reached to take the coffee Ethan waved at him and shook his head. “How long ago did your sister pass away?”
It was an odd question, but Ethan answered anyway. “Almost seven months.”
Joe took a swallow of his coffee and closed his eyes.
“Who did you lose?”
“My brother. Six weeks ago.”
Ethan felt his stomach clench into that all too familiar knot.
“Candy wasn’t a blood brother, but … but that didn’t change anything. He laughed at me and argued with me and … and he was everything a brother could be. He always had my back when I needed him to and I …” Joe gripped at the railing and tried to steady himself. “I should have had his.”
When it was clear that Joe wasn’t going to elaborate, Ethan tried another tack.
Joe frowned as he looked up at him.
“The telegram. Telling you to come home.”
“Oh, yeah, that.” Joe ran a hand through his hair as he considered how to answer. “Griff thought Candy could just about walk on water. Candy was the only one he’d listen to when he first came to the Ponderosa. He was so angry and mouthy and Candy would pull him into line. Got him all straightened out. Griff looked at Candy as the older brother he never had.”
“He blamed you?”
“He was right.”
Ethan wondered if that could be the truth, given what he knew of the man in front of him. He’d stepped in front of a bullet to save a boy he barely knew. How much more would he have done for a brother? He frowned at Joe across the horse’s back and shook his head.
“I find that hard to believe.”
Joe fixed the younger man with a glare.
“You don’t know! You weren’t there!”
Ethan leaned against the railing, crossed his arms and waited.
Joe’s hands were shaking as he gripped onto the railing and tried to steady himself. Finally he stepped back and scrubbed a hand across his jaw.
“I should never have let them be there. Cassie didn’t want me to take them, but I wouldn’t listen to her. I knew better than my wife and it almost cost us both our children.”
Ethan stood silently as Joe began to pace across the small stable. His horse seemed to sense his agitation and shifted in the stall.
Joe stared at the open door as if seeing something beyond the worn timber. “Candy died saving my children from rustlers.”
Ethan felt the man’s agony as he clenched his fists against the pain.
“I was too slow and … and …” Joe stumbled across to a grain sack and slumped down on it.
Ethan didn’t need any more details. He’d been too slow to save his nephew and the man in front of him had paid the price to protect the boy. It could have been a higher price if not for Morris and the skills of a doctor. He stepped forward until Joe was staring at his boots.
“Sometimes the price isn’t fair. But I imagine your brother would have done it anyway.”
Joe nodded slowly as he knew the truth of that. Candy wouldn’t have hesitated.
“It seems my whole life my brothers have been digging me outta trouble!”
“I remember you talking about your older brothers.”
Joe refused to look up and shrugged as he stood up to start brushing his horse again. “Well, Adam lives in Boston and Hoss … Hoss died.” He gripped onto his horse’s mane as a fresh wave of grief crashed over him and he brushed the horse’s flank even harder.
“I couldn’t save my sister.”
Joe stopped brushing and turned back at the comment.
“She kept me alive and taught me to survive and then eventually she married Robert. She seemed happy enough, but he was shiftless. Money always slipped through his fingers and he would go off looking for the next big dream and leave her to feed those children on her own. He didn’t even know about George when he left for the last time. Nobody has seen him since. By the time I knew Lucy was sick, it was too late.”
Joe nodded as he heard what wasn’t being said.
“I need to go home.”
“Yeah, I reckon you do.”
Ethan walked out of the mercantile with a sack of flour and a sack of potatoes. He was about to place them in the wagon when Ben and George came barrelling towards him.
“Uncle Ethan! You got a package!”
Ben waved the package towards him and he flipped it over to see the return address scrawled on the back.
J Cartwright, The Ponderosa, Virginia City, Nevada.
He slid a hand under the string and pulled out a letter along with something small, wrapped in calico.
“What is it, Uncle Ethan?” George fairly bounced on the boardwalk in front of him.
He slipped the letter into his pocket to be read later before unwrapping the calico and pulling away the straw wadding. Sitting in the palm of his hand was a tiny stick horse with a tufted woollen mane and tail.
“What’s that?” Ben and George peered into his hand.
“His name is Cochise.”
“Like the Indian chief?”
“Like the horse.”