Summary: Fifteen-year-old Joe Cartwright dropped his gaze to the vast forest before him with its tall pines, low bushes, and tangled undergrowth – all of them buried in three to four foot high drifts. He was alone. All around him was silence and snow. Winter was a whole different kind of desert.
Rated: PG-13 for mild language and Western violence and brutality
Word count: 20,913
A Different Kind of Desert
Fifteen-year-old Little Joe Cartwright halted where he was. The teenager drew a breath before looking up. The sky above his head was crisp with crystal stars that sparkled like diamonds in a sea of indigo blue. A steady snow was falling. As a little kid snowflakes had fascinated him with their infinite diversity. He’d spent hours trying to look at them; letting them land on his finger and then being disappointed when they all too quickly melted. Pa told him once – when he complained – that nature was a reflection of God and God was using those snowflakes to tell him something.
He just had to listen and learn.
Joe dropped his gaze to the vast forest before him with its tall pines, low bushes, and tangled undergrowth – all of them buried in three to four foot high drifts. Now that he was nearly a man, he’d come to understand what it was God was saying. Life was precious. You could hold it on the tip of your finger only so long before it vanished. The curly-haired youth turned to look behind him. His footprints were gone. There was nothing to show the way he had come – or to lead him back to the line shack where he’d left his beloved pa, bleeding and maybe dying.
All around him was silence and snow.
His pa and his brothers had taught him survival skills. Adam was the best at it. Both Pa and Hoss would go only so far, afraid he’d end up getting lost and die, whether in the desert or in the snow. Adam didn’t have any qualms about taking him out and leaving him to make it on his own. Oh, he always knew older brother was there in case he got into any real trouble, but Adam wouldn’t lift a finger unless he thought his life was in danger. He’d taken him out into the forest one night when the snow was knee-high. Pa, of course, was away from the ranch. He and Adam sat around the fire talking about everything from surviving an avalanche to how to find food when everything was buried under snow or ice. Then, Adam walked away. He’d never forget how quiet it was or how lonely he felt.
Kind of like he felt now.
Winter was a whole different kind of desert.
Joe raised the collar of his pa’s coat up around his cheeks. It had a nice warm sheepskin lining. His own plaid coat was under it. Brother Adam had chided him when he picked it out. Adam said cutting a dashing figure when you were freezing to death was ‘the height of stupidity’. He hated to admit older brother had been right. If he’d tried to do what he was trying to do with just his own coat, he would have been one more icicle by now. There’d been plenty of blankets in the line shack, so Pa had insisted he wear his coat too. Pa was sure unhappy about him leavin’ the shack, but there wasn’t anything else he could do.
Sitting in the shack watching his Pa bleed out and die was not on his list of ‘to dos’.
Before he left he’d eaten as much as his queasy stomach would allow. He had a couple of canteens filled with hot coffee on him and carried a leather satchel with jerky and such. There’d been a pair of snowshoes in the shack and he had them on his feet., plus Pa’s heavy leather, fleece-lined gloves on his hands. They were awful big, those gloves. His pa was a big man, just like Adam and Hoss were big men.
Big in size and in heart.
Pa’d actually tried to raise himself up off of the cot in the shack, sayin’ he’d be the one to go and get help. If things hadn’t been so desperate, he would’ve laughed. He’d heard someone sometime say that Ben Cartwright was ‘a force of nature.’ He kind of tended to agree. His pa’s anger was a storm movin’ in. When he was grieving, like he did after Mama died, his tears fell like rain. Pa’s laughter was the balm of a breeze in the desert. And his fear? When Ben Cartwright was afraid, the world stopped.
Just like it had now.
Nothing was moving. There was no sound other than the beat of his heart and the inhalation and exhalation of each frozen breath. The moon cast deep shadows that reached out for him, as if old man winter was angry that he was still living.
Most likely he wouldn’t be for long.
Joe sucked in his fear and started moving again. It was harder this time. The road was only a mile or so away from the shack, but it felt like he’d been walking for hours. At times his snow-shoes would sink in a soft spot and he’d have to work to get them up and onto the surface again. He’d done it a few times now and he was getting tired. The road was their only hope, Pa said. They’d have to pray someone was passing by. What he didn’t get – and he hadn’t told his pa this – was that if God was watching and was going to send someone to save them, then why hadn’t He stopped Pa getting’ hurt in the first place?
They’d been travelin’ down a side road in a wagon, comin’ back from one of the timber camps. Pa’d wanted to take the men who were still there some Christmas cheer and he’d begged to come along. They’d had some trouble at this particular camp, and a couple of Pa’s hands had volunteered to man it through the winter. Something spooked the horses along the way back and the team took off like the dickens, breaking their harnesses and disappearing into the night. The left rear wheel ran up over a boulder as they did and got bent. Pa was trying to fix it when the wagon shifted and came down on him. The jagged metal from the rim caught him in the shoulder and near sliced his arm off. It was a hard place to get a tourniquet on. They’d stood there in the snow with him tryin’ for the longest time, Pa’s blood painting the snow crimson red, before Pa said they should make for the line shack where, at least, they would be dry and warm.
Joe frowned at the sucking sound his snowshoe made as he lifted his right foot again. It had snowed the night before, and then the morning sun had come out and melted it. Then, it snowed again. There were patches where it was solid and others where it had icy pockets underneath. He had to choose carefully where he put his feet down. Sometimes a crust of ice would alert him, but other times there was no warning and he went in hip deep. His lower parts were soaked to the skin. He’d had a thought and then put it off to bein’ too tired.
Could a man’s privates freeze and he still become a father?
Joe snorted. At the moment he was lookin’ at dying and dead men couldn’t have kids, so he guessed it didn’t really matter in the end.
The exhausted young man looked forward. He wondered how far he had yet to go before he reached the road, just like he wondered what he was gonna do when he got there. Should he just wait in case anyone came by? Or should he start walking? He kept hoping and praying that Hoss and Adam were comin’ to look for them, but he doubted they were. Pa’d told his brothers they might stay overnight in the camp if the weather got worse.
Joe eyed the snow drifts again. It sure did get worse.
Putting one foot in front of the other, he started out again. As he walked through the silent world, Joe felt the need of another human voice and since his was the only one to be had, he started to sing. It wasn’t the best singing he’d ever done, not like in the settlement at the Christmas service a few nights back. The song was the same, though, and it was one Pa loved. As he walked the words rang with fresh meaning.
“O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.”
The shadows were coming closer and death felt near. Joe clung to his pa’s faith, ‘cause his was kind of shaky, and tried to believe that Emmanuel was watching as he continued on. He kept singing too. It warmed him up and made him feel less alone. It made him feel more hopeful that he would make it to the road.
Right up until the moment when he hit one of those icy pockets and disappeared into it.
Ben Cartwright tossed and turned in his bed. He felt smothered – hot – and icy cold at the same time. He was in his room. The window was closed against the winter chill and the fire in the hearth was blazing. He should have been comfortable but he wasn’t, and he couldn’t understand why. Beyond the closed door, in the hall, he could hear people speaking in low tones. He wanted to call out to them – wanted them to come into his room and do something to alleviate his suffering – but he had no voice and no strength to do so.
So when the door opened on its own, he was relieved. He managed to turn his head and look to see who it was that had entered. It was a tall woman with graying hair. She was dressed in a dark blue gown and had tossed an ivory shawl about her shoulders.
It startled him to realize she was crying.
There were more words, but he still couldn’t understand them. A cold hand touched his fevered brow even as he shivered. A tear fell on his cheek.
It was then he realized the woman was his mother and he was desperately ill.
They’d journeyed to Losantiville to visit relatives. It was on the Ohio River and he loved to go down to the harbor to watch the ships arrive and depart. He and a cousin had sneaked out while their parents slept and spent the night doing just that – and returned in the morning nearly frozen to the bone. His secret had remained safe until he began to sneeze and then, to run a fever. He developed a cold and the cold turned into pneumonia. That was why he was in bed.
He was fourteen-years-old and he was dying.
As he pitched from side to side, Ben had time to regret his actions. He wasn’t afraid of death, but he knew what his death would do to his parents. No parent should outlive their children. That wasn’t a law in the Good Book, but it should have been – would have been if it had been up to him. In his thrashing, Ben’s gaze fell on the Bible in his room.
Suddenly he was on his feet and holding it, licking his finger and paging through looking for a particular scripture. The room was as hot as before, but he no longer felt a chill. It was the small figure in the bed that was sick and not him; a slender boy with a head of bushy brown curls. The boy moaned as his fingers grasped the rumpled sheets and he turned his feverish eyes toward him. His blistered lips parted and he asked ‘why?’
Just before he went silent.
Ben Cartwright woke with a start to find himself lying on a somewhat unstable cot and buried under a mound of blankets, which explained why he was sweating. For a moment he was disoriented, and then he recognized the structure around him as one of his own line shacks. The room was dark and the air, growing chill. There was a fire burning in the stove near the foot of the bed, but it was low and close to going out. The rancher roused himself and grabbed the covers, intending to throw them back and rise, only to halt and suck in air as pain shot through his arm and shoulder.
He was injured.
When had that happened?
Ben shifted up slightly on the pillows that backed him and examined his wound. The bandages that covered it were crimson with fresh blood so, whatever had happened, it must have been bad as the injury had not yet begun to heal. He cast his mind back but couldn’t seem to remember what had occurred. He’d been in a wagon, on the way back from one of the timber camps. The horses had shied and run, dragging one of the wheels over a snow-covered boulder tossing both him and Joseph out.
Ben’s heart leapt into his throat. Little Joe had been with him!
With one hand on his shoulder, Ben managed to turn and place his stockinged feet on the floor. He cast his eyes about the line shack. It was small. Only two rooms and one was for storage. The floor was empty, as were the chairs. His son must be outside gathering firewood. The rancher’s gaze shifted to the single window in the shack. The moon was high and bright so he had no trouble seeing the steady fall of snow without. He vaguely remembered leaning heavily on his son as they made their way through the storm. Joseph had worn his winter coat, but it was the light stylish one he had bought for him in San Francisco and not the sturdy thick one the boy used when he was facing the elements to work alongside his older brothers. Ben’s gaze went to the accordion rack beside the door. The pegs were empty. Joseph must have worn his heavier coat.
But if he had, then where was the…boy’s….?
With sickening force, the choice he had been constrained to make came back to him. Rising slowly, Ben found his feet first and then used them to limp over to the window. He gazed out, but felt the need to do more than look, and so he opened the door and stepped outside. There was a beauty in danger. Just like fire, a snowfall was strangely compelling. Something within him wanted to stagger out into it; to stand with his face lifted to Heaven and wonder at God’s work. His youngest son loved snow.
His youngest son was out in it.
It had been over a day since the accident occurred. It had taken him and Little Joe several hours to reach the shack. Joe helped him to the cot, tended his wound, and then they’d both set about ensuring their survival. Joseph had brought in wood and got the fire going while he limped to the back to check on supplies. Fortunately, the line shack had been used sparingly since the last run to stock it. They had plenty of food and blankets, and there had even been a rudimentary medical kit.
He’d have to remember to thank Hop Sing for that when they got home!
His young son had been so brave. Joseph had paled as he cleaned out the wound, but he had persevered until the heinous task was done. The bandage he placed over it was quite professional. With a cock of his head and that smile he had, his boy reminded him of how many times Doc Martin had done the same thing for him.
‘I guess you didn’t notice, Pa,’ Little Joe said with a wink. ‘I was payin’ attention.’
Ben retreated a few steps and took hold of the door latch to steady himself. It had taken less than a half hour for the bandage his son had applied to soak through. The procedure was repeated two more times before the sun reached its zenith. Little Joe cooked lunch and brought it to him while he lay in the bed.
The boy watched him eat in silence and then said, ‘Pa, I gotta go for help. You’re losing too much blood. You ain’t gonna last the day without it.”
‘No,’ he’d replied, his tone adamant. “It’s too dangerous.’
‘But Pa, Adam and Hoss taught me what to do. I can make it to the road.’
‘Joseph, you’ve just turned fifteen,” he countered. “You are far too inexperienced to venture out in a winter storm alone.’
His son’s jaw had set in that way he had. Marie told him often enough that it was a mirror of his own stubborn, determined will.
The pair of them squared off like two rams ready for a fight.
‘I been on my own in the snow before, Pa. I know what to do.’ The boy’d hesitated and then added, ‘Adam took me out. He left me on my own when I was twelve. I got home all right.’
‘Your brother did what?” The mountain lions in the nearby hills couldn’t have roared any louder. ‘Without my permission?!’
‘Adam knew you’d never give permission, Pa,’ his son stated flatly. ‘He wanted me to be prepared in case I ever ended up on my own in the snow.’
His eldest son had been right, of course.
He would be the first to admit that he coddled Marie’s boy. He didn’t pamper him or let him get by with things, but he did keep Little Joe close and feared for the boy’s safety more than his brothers. One of the reasons was Joseph’s nature. He tended to leap long before he looked.
The other was the loss of his mother.
‘It wasn’t necessary and it was not your brother’s decision to make,’ he’d said through teeth gritted against pain. ‘I would never allow you to be put in such a position – ’
‘Like the position I’m in now?’ his son had asked him quietly.
‘You are not going out into the snow on your own!’ he’d insisted. ‘Now or ever!’
The boy sat there, looking at him for several heartbeats, and then he’d thrust a knife into his heart.
‘I’m not Mama. I’m not gonna die. I’ll come back, I promise, but I got to get you help.’ A tear had trailed down his son’s cheek as he reached out and touched his face. ‘You’re the one who’s gonna die , Pa, if I don’t. I gotta try. Don’t you see?’
He’d protested and delayed and denied and refused for several more hours until it became apparent that his wound was not going to close on its own. He sat on the edge of the cot and watched as Joseph put on his light plaid coat and topped it with his heavier one; as the boy wrapped one scarf around his neck and tied another over his head, topping it with his hat. Last of all his son pulled on his thick winter gloves and took hold of the snowshoes that rested under the window. They’d said their goodbyes before, but Little Joe hesitated at the door and turned back.
‘I’ll be back as soon as I can,’ he said. ‘I love you, Pa.’
He loved his son too. That was why he let Little Joe go, so the boy might have a chance to live and so he wouldn’t have to watch him die.
Like he had his mother.
His head had begun to reel and so Ben returned to the cot. He dropped heavily onto it and leaned back against the pillows, resting his aching shoulder. He’d reared his boys well. He’d brought them up to know right from wrong and to know what mattered. He’d taught them everything he knew and brought in others who knew better than him to fill in the gaps. They were strong, capable, and competent men. Ben’s gaze returned to the door, now closed fast against the winter storm raging outside. He let out a sigh. Hoss and Adam were men. Joseph was a boy, no matter how loud he protested.
“God,” he whispered as he drifted off into a restive sleep, “protect my boy.”
Adam Cartwright was seated by the great stone fireplace. The logs were ablaze, radiating warmth on a cold and bitter night. He’d indulged himself by finishing off a bottle of his father’s French brandy and had just opened the first page of a fascinating new book on Roman architecture, when the door opened and Hoss blew in along with a tempest of snow and wind.
Adam waited a moment and then called out, “Close the door, will you?”
His brother turned to look at him. “What’s the matter, Adam? The weather a little too brisk for you?”
“It’s cold as iron out there,” he said as he rose and went to stoke the fire. “You’re letting the heat escape.”
“Sounds like you’re hot enough to keep both of us warm, older brother,” the big man replied as he closed the door and fastened the latch. “What’s got you riled?”
Adam thought a moment. “Sorry….sorry. I guess I was in my own world.” He looked at his brother and noted that he was covered in snow from the top of his ten gallon hat to the bottom of his size sixteen boot. “Do you want me to get you a brandy?”
Hoss was eyeing the empty bottle on the table in front of the fire. “Looks to me like you done a right good job of polishin’ it off, older brother.”
He shrugged. “There was only a glass…or three left in it.”
The big man snorted as he worked his way out of his coat and hung it on the peg by the door. Hoss looked down at the puddle of melting snow at his feet, and then up at him.
“Hop Sing’s gonna kill me.”
“Wipe it up. He’ll never know.”
Hoss gave him a look of pure astonishment. “You sure have been drinkin’ that brandy?”
“No,” Adam said, resuming his seat. “I just have inside knowledge. Hop Sing left before the storm hit. There was a knock on the door earlier and I opened it to find one of his countless cousins on the porch.”
“He went out in this weather?”
Adam leaned forward in imitation of a bow. “Cousin number eleven work on railroad in Wisconsin. Long time, no see. Humbly beg Hop Sing to attend party in his honor in Virginia City.”
Hoss chuckled, but sobered quickly. “I sure hope they got to town afore this last squall hit. It’s plain unpleasant out there.”
“Well, take off your wet boots and put your feet on the table and roast them.” Adam lifted his glass. “Pa isn’t here.”
Hoss had been in the field, checking on the stock, so he was unaware of Pa playing Father Christmas to the men.
“What do you mean, Pa ain’t here?” The big man paused. “Come to think of it, it’s too dang quiet. Did little brother go with him?”
Adam nodded. “You know how the Hawthorne brothers volunteered to stay in the timber camp due to the trouble we’ve had with trees being felled during the off-season? Pa got a burr under his saddle to take them some Christmas cheer.”
“In this weather?”
“It wasn’t so bad here. There was a break and that’s when he and Little Joe took off. Pa said they’d stay overnight in the camp if it got too bad.” He looked his brother up and down. The snow was just melting off of his eyebrows. “From the looks of it, I don’t expect them back before tomorrow, or maybe even the next day.”
“Old Charlie said the storm was gonna lay down another couple feet and then be over by morning.”
“He’s still alive then. When did you see him?”
Old Charlie was an ageless Paiute who lived on their land north of the house. They might go a year without seeing him but then, when they least expected it, he would show up.
“I was checking in on the herd and saw him riding past on that paint pony of his.” Hoss stretched his hands out toward the fire. “We talked a minute before he rode up the ridge and into the trees. You know, Adam? Sometimes he seems like more of a ghost than a man.”
“A substantial ghost.”
Not all that long ago – a couple of years, maybe – Old Charlie had taken out an outlaw on the run with a single shot of his bow. He’d been a formidable warrior at one time, before age and illness had leveled the playing field. They hadn’t known him then. He’d shown up on their land about the time Marie died and kept mostly to himself. Pa’d talked to him and decided to let him be even though he was trespassing. He said the white man had driven the red man off of this land and it was the least he could do to give a small piece of it back for as long as the aged warrior lived.
In the meantime, Old Charlie had become a bit of a legend.
Hoss had risen and turned his backside to the fire. That put him facing the door and his frown returned. “You don’t suppose something happened – to Pa and Little Joe, I mean?”
“Why would you think that? You know how it is. Delays happen.”
“I know, it’s just…well….”
He knew what his brother was going to say. Hoss and Little Joe were joined at the hip.
“Pa’s with him,” he said, stifling a sigh. “They’ll be fine.”
“I don’t know, Adam. Maybe it was meetin’ up with Old Charlie.” Hoss walked to the door and opened it and looked out. “I hate to think of them out there in this storm.”
“Come back and get dried off. There’s nothing you can do about it tonight and catching a cold isn’t going to help matters any.”
“I can’t go tonight,” the big man said as he closed the door. “But I sure enough can go at first light. And that’s what I’m gonna do, big brother, and don’t you try to stop me.”
He wasn’t worried, not really. Pa said they might not be back until tomorrow. Hopefully by the time the sun was up and Hoss was ready to go, he and Little Joe would have returned, safe and sound.
If not, well….
Hoss might be twenty-one, but he wasn’t so old he still didn’t need his big brother to look out for him.
Ben spent a few restless hours seeking sleep and finding precious little of it. Between his concern for his son and his throbbing wound, it was about all he could do to sit still. And yet, pacing was out of the question. He’d lost too much blood and his fever was on the rise. At times he felt like he was drifting away on the air and, at other times, like he was made of lead. He’d managed to get back on his feet and made it to the stove, where he tossed in another log to keep the fire going. Since he was up, he’d ferreted out some oats and put them on the top of the wood stove to cook. The scent of food put his stomach off, but he knew he had to eat if he had any chance of surviving long enough for Joseph to return.
And his son would return.
He kept telling himself that too little time had passed to be worried. That, with the snow as deep and as high as it was, it would take the boy several hours to make his way to the road – and then Joe would have to wait for some passerby. There was no way Little Joe could have made it back by now.
So he was doubly startled when he heard the nicker and answering blow of a pair of horses just outside the door.
He’d taken to using a broom he’d found in the storeroom as a cane. Hobbling, the wounded man made his way to the door. His sidearm was hanging on a chair-back by it and Ben caught it up as he passed, though he doubted he would have the strength to wield it. Still, the sight of a weapon might be enough to frighten whoever was out there should the need arise.
Ben drew a breath and called out, “I know you’re out there! Identify yourself!” Then he quickly whispered a prayer that it would be his son who answered.
It wasn’t. It was a man; his voice rough as hemp.
“The name’s Cato Becket. I’d open the door if I was you. I got something belongs to you. I might just have to toss it back in the snow and let it freeze to death if’n you don’t.”
The rancher’s whole frame stiffened. Ben considered looking out the window, but imagined his reward would be a bullet in the brain.
“What do you have?” he demanded.
“Maybe you don’t want it back,” the man drawled. “Don’t look like much, after all.”
“How do you know this thing belongs to me?”
“Well, now, ain’t you just full of questions? I know on account of it told me before it passed out.” There was a pause. “I could be wrong about that, though. It might have gone on to be with Jesus.”
The sick feeling in Ben’s stomach had grown to the point where bile rose into his throat. The rancher drew several deep breaths to steady himself and opened the door. Without, were two ragged figures – a tall broad man and a small, slender woman.
His son was in the man’s arms.
The stranger sneered. “You gonna let us in now, or you want I should throw it back?”
Ben exploded with anger. “That’s not an ‘it’, he’s my son!”
A sly smile curled the man’s upper lip toward the unruly mustache that topped it. “I told you, Emmy. I knew I’d see’d the boy before. This here is Ben Cartwright, owner of the Ponderosa.” His sneer widened into an avaricious grin.
“He’s one wealthy man.”
‘If looks could kill,’ Ben thought as he glared at the man. “Put the boy on the cot. I need to see to him!”
“Used to givin’ orders, ain’t you, Cartwright?” the stranger growled. “Well, I’m the one in control here. You’ll do what I say or I’ll take this boy and toss him out into the drifts where you won’t never find him.”
The woman touched his arm. “Cato, no. He’s just a child!”
“You keep quiet, woman!” Cato snapped as he shook her off. Then his eyes returned to him. “What’ll it be, Cartwright?”
Ben had been observing Joseph during their exchange. His son had not moved. The boy’s skin, where he could see it, was covered with a light coating of frost. Joseph was still in his coat and wore his gloves, but his hat had been lost somewhere along the way. Little Joe’s curls, long enough now to be a riverboat gambler’s, looked like the tips were frosted. He couldn’t see his son’s face, but he feared what he would find when he did.
“You’re in charge,” Ben said, masking his rage as fear. “Please, let me see to my son.”
Cato chuckled. “Now, that’s a sight better. Emmy, you go see if you can rustle up some grub – and a pot of coffee.” The woman was obviously intimidated. She scrambled to do the vile man’s bidding. Cato watched until she’d disappeared into the store room and then dropped Joseph on the spot.
His son made no sound as his limp body hit the floor.
“You had no call to do that!” Ben exclaimed as he dropped to his knees beside his boy. “Can’t you see he’s ill?”
“All I can see if the great Ben Cartwright kneelin’ at Cato Becket’s feet,” he sneered. “Sides, this way, it’s gonna take all your strength just to get him to the bed. The way I see it, that means you won’t have any left for causin’ trouble.”
Unfortunately, the brigand was right about that!
Stifling a groan, Ben reached out to touch his son’s face. Joseph’s skin was waxen; its color fish-belly white. His cheek felt tight beneath his fingers and he was cold – so cold. Pulling the boy’s gloves off, he discovered Joe’s fingers were blue-white as well as swollen. Desperate, he looked up at the man and pleaded, “Please, help me get Joseph to the cot. I have to warm him.”
“Don’t do it too fast, old man,” Cato said as he accepted a bowl of the oatmeal that had been cooking and walked heartlessly to the table where he sat down to consume it. “Or you may kill him.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Ben snarled, and then thought better of it. His late wife had told him his temper was every bit as volatile as hers. He had to appease this man, make him complacent – careless – and he wouldn’t do that by showing strength. “Forgive me,” he said, making his voice low and pitiful. “I just want to save my son. Would you please help me?”
Cato dug into his oats. “Do it yourself, Cartwright. You been makin’ others do your work far too long. It’s time you did a little yourself.”
Ben sensed something in the man’s tone – a personal grudge, either his or someone else’s.
That made him even more dangerous.
With a sigh Ben turned back to his son. He touched the boy’s cheek again and then gave it a little pat. “Joseph, it’s your pa. Can you hear me, boy?” When there was no response, he tried again, tapping a bit harder this time. “Little Joe. Please, give Pa a sign.”
“The naatse’e must be warmed. I will help you carry him to the bed,” a soft voice spoke close to his ear.
“Emmy, you get over here and bring me some more gruel.”
The woman looked over her shoulder. Ben saw something spark in the obsidian depths of her near-black eyes. “Get it for yourself,” she said. “You have two feet.”
So, perhaps, she hadn’t been intimidated.
Becket glared at her for several heartbeats and then threw his head back and bellowed. As the man rose to his feet and headed for the stove, he added, “That’s why I keep you around, woman. You’re always good for a laugh.”
Emmy ignored him. “You are hurt, Ben Cartwright,” she said. “Stand, and I will lift the boy up so you can take him.”
Ben did as she asked. As he waited, the rancher took a good look at the woman who had defied Becket. Emmy was around five-foot-six and rather tall for a woman. As he had already noted, she had black hair and blacker eyes. Up close it quickly became apparent that she was also native. Paiute, most likely, considering where they were. Her face had once been beautiful, but life had beaten it like rain on stone, leaving pits and scars. Her age was hard to guess. Thirty, or maybe forty.
He wondered if she was a mother.
The woman rose to her feet, supporting Joseph. It was a struggle since the boy was dead weight. Ben moved to his son’s other side and, together, they walked him to the cot. As Joseph’s silent form neared the mattress, Ben’s shoulder gave out and he lost his hold. Little Joe plummeted like a rock to the cot and lay there, just as still.
Emmy watched him pull the mountain of blankets up to his son’s chin. “I will gather some rocks and warm them,” she said. “You must place them at his feet and at his side. It will not do to warm him too quickly.”
“Joseph”, Ben said softly as he brushed a tangle of curls off his son’s forehead. “His name is Joseph.”
She knew what he was doing – making his son a real, living, breathing human being with a name. It was easier to be indifferent to someone who had no name.
Emmy nodded. She glanced at Cato as she said, “I will make some broth. You must get heat into him – into Joseph – as well.”
“Thank you,” he said simply, and meant it. “You’ve saved my son.”
Again, Emmy looked at Becket who had his feet propped on the table and had tipped his hat over his face to block out the light. A strange expression came over her face.
“We will see.”
“You’re up bright and early.”
Hoss Cartwright let out a little sigh. “I told you I was goin’ after them. Somethin’ ain’t right, Adam. I feel it in my bones.”
The oldest of the Cartwright sons remained in the open door of the stable. He watched his brother go about the routine check of equipment for a moment before speaking again. “And just what do you think has gone wrong?”
“I don’t know, Adam. I ain’t no soothsayer. All I know is, somethin’ ain’t right.” Hoss was tying on his bedroll. “Pa and Little Joe should have been home by now.”
“Even though Pa said they might stay overnight in the camp.” He stepped into the stable. “They could be on their way home right now.”
“Well, then, I’ll wish them a Happy New Year when I see them!” the big man all but shouted as he gave his cinch one last tug. A second later Hoss turned to look at him. “Dang it, Adam! I don’t see why you’re so goldarn set…that….”
He was wearing his winter coat and carrying his travel gear, of course.
Hoss shook his head. “What’re you doin’ all wrapped up like a snowman on a blustery day?”
“Going with you,” Adam replied as he headed for Sport. The gelding nickered a welcome as he came alongside.
“So, let me get this right. You think Pa and Little Joe is just fine, but you’re gonna go out in this here storm with me to look for them?”
Adam glanced over his shoulder. “Someone has to be there to tell you ‘I told you so’ when we find them safe and sound.”
“Brother, I’ll be right happy to suck up them sour grapes when we do.”
Adam had saddled his horse and was running through his own check. “I left some supplies outside the door. A couple of extra saddle bags and a load of blankets. You might want to get them before they disappear under the snow.”
And it was still snowing – and blowing. The storm had relented the night before, but seemed to come back full force with the morning. They were fools for going out in it.
Fools with a mission.
“I’ll get ‘em,” Hoss said as he moved toward the door. Once there, he turned back. “Did you…?”
“They’re in one of the saddlebags.”
Hoss nodded and stepped out the door.
‘They’, of course, were bandages, brandy, and other medical supplies.
Just in case it wasn’t a fool’s mission.
His brother returned in an instant. The shoulders of his coat and the brim of his hat were covered in snow.
“It ain’t nice out there, Adam. You sure you want a come?”
The black-haired man grinned as he finished his final check on saddle and supplies. “Someone’s got to look out for you, little brother.”
Hoss snorted. “I ain’t exactly ‘little’.”
Adam looked up at his six-foot-four brother. “You always will be to me. For a while you were my ‘Little Hoss’. You never got in as much trouble as Joe, but you had your days. Do you remember that winter when you thought it would be a good idea to take one of the shutters Pa had placed aside for the dining room window and use it as a sled?”
The big man laughed. “I sure do. Just like I remember Pa’s face when he had to pull both the shutter and me out of the lake ‘cause we’d done gone through the ice.”
It was funny now, but at the time the moment had been harrowing.
“You was right there too, fishin’ me out,” Hoss added quietly. “Thanks for bein’ such a good big brother, Adam. Ain’t no better.”
“You better not let Little Joe hear you say that,” he replied as he gripped his horse’s reins and started for the door. Their little brother had made it quite clear – on many occasions – that he was one of the ‘worst’ older brothers on the face of the Earth.
“Ah, Joe don’t mean nothin’ by it. That boy’s mouth works independent of his brain.”
Adam laughed. “Truer words have never been spoken.” He was at the door now. Hoss had caught up Chubb’s reins and was standing beside him. “Unto the breach?” he asked.
The big man had pushed the stable doors open. Outside them was a wild, woolly, dangerous world of white.
Hoss grinned. He knew the reference. After all, he’d read King Henry the Fifth to him ever since he’d been a little boy.
“God for Harry, England, St. George…and Pa and Little Joe!”
Ben Cartwright sat on the edge of the cot next to his son, warily watching the man who held them captive. Cato Becket had found several bottles of whiskey in the storeroom and managed to down all but one over the course of the night. It was morning and the man was hung over and mean as a snake. Emmy was fixing him breakfast. Her shoulder-length hair hung in her eyes and he knew why. In a one room shack there was no way to miss anything. Cato had grown angry with the Paiute woman for some minor indiscretion and struck her hard across the face. The eye beneath that cascade of black hair was the same color.
He’d been awake for some time. During the night, when Cato was unaware, Emmy had tended to his shoulder. She’d used some sort of herbal poultice on it that had taken out the sting and stopped the bleeding. His shoulder was sore and he had only limited use of his arm, but Ben felt much better – and much more capable of looking out for his own.
The rancher turned his attention back to his young son who lay silent and unmoving on the cot. Joseph had fought for consciousness during the night, as the sting of life returning to his frozen limbs bit into the painless state he’d remained in since Cato’d carried him into the shack. Little Joe never came fully awake but his son moaned and tossed and groaned and, in truth, he’d feared for his life. Becket had risen up in a rage, intent on silencing the boy’s cries, but God had been merciful. The man had been so drunk he ‘d fallen flat on his face before he could reach the cot. Gently, Ben brushed a few soft curls back from his son’s damp forehead. The boy was running a slight fever, which concerned him, but all in all seemed to have survived his ordeal in the snow without much residual harm. They’d spoken briefly. Joseph made little sense. He kept talking about snowflakes disappearing and God teaching him a lesson. It warmed his heart to know that his son had called on the Almighty in his need, but it frightened him just a little bit as well.
Little Joe could so easily have died.
A stirring beneath his hand brought Ben’s attention back to the present. Joe’s eyes were open and he was looking at him.
‘Pa?’ he mouthed.
“Yes, son, I’m here.”
Joe licked his lips. “Safe…?” he managed.
Ben glanced at Cato who was sitting at the table. Emmy was bringing his food.
“Do you remember how you got here?”
His son frowned. Joseph cast his eyes at the ceiling and the space around him. “Where’s…here?”
The boy’s response troubled him a bit. “We’re in the line shack, son. Don’t you remember? We came here after the horses spooked and ran.”
Little Joe frowned. He thought a moment and then his eyes shot open wide. “Pa! You’re hurt!”
“You two keep it down over there,” a rough voice snarled.
Joe’s frown deepened. “Who…?”
Ben shook his head. “Trust me?” he asked.
His son turned his head toward the table. Joseph stared at the stranger a moment and then looked back at him. “You know I do, Pa.”
“I’ll explain later. Suffice it to say, you do not want to rile that man.”
Joe was looking at Becket again. “He…seems familiar.”
The rancher let out a sigh. “He saved you, boy. He and Emmy found you in the snow.” Ben’s hand returned to his son’s brow. “You could have died.”
Little Jose shrugged as best he could. “I was afraid you…were going to.”
Ben nodded. He indicated his shoulder with a nod. “Emmy fixed me up. I’ll be all right. It’s you I’m worried about. How do you feel?”
“I’m fine, Pa.”
The older man laughed. “You certainly are not!” He sobered quickly. “Now, be honest with me, boy. I need to know.”
His son closed his eyes. For a moment, he thought he had fallen back asleep. Then Little Joe said, “My fingers feel kind of numb, and my…toes too.” His eyes shot open. There was fear in them. “I can’t move them, Pa!”
“Calm down. That’s normal,” he said, even though he too was frightened. “What else?”
Joe scowled. “Everything…hurts.”
That too was normal, but both taken together meant the boy either had frostbite or had come close to it. There were blisters forming on his son’s exposed skin. Another sure sign.
He covered his boy’s hand with his own. “You were very lucky, Little Joe. God was watching out for you.”
Joe’s eyes rolled over toward the table. “Did God send him?”
That stopped him cold. Could – would God use such a wicked man as an instrument of His mercy?
He was humbled by his Savior’s love.
“Yes, son, even a man such as Cato Becket is not outside of God’s providence.”
Unexpectedly, he found Becket standing at his side.
“How’s the kid?” Cato asked as if he had not heard Ben’s last statement.
Ben squeezed his son’s fingers. “Joseph will be fine with a little rest.”
The wicked man was staring at his son. Little Joe was staring back, defiant as his weak state would allow him to be.
“He’s got a lot of spunk, headin’ out into that storm by himself.”
The rancher wasn’t sure where this was going. “My son is a strong young man of deep feeling and conviction.”
“How old is he?”
“I’m…fifteen,” Little Joe answered through chattering teeth, obviously annoyed at being talked about and not to.
Cato reached out and placed a hand on his son’s forehead. He snorted as Joe shook his head to make it go away.
“He’s got a fever comin’ on. That’s too bad.”
Was this compassion? Ben stiffened as a rising fear twisted his gut. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“You think I don’t have any sympathy for your boy, eh? Well,” the outlaw scoffed, “you’re right. I need the kid well ‘cause he’s comin’ with me when I leave this place.”
It took a second for the threat to register. Ben shot to his feet and faced Cato down.
“You are not taking my son anywhere.” He pointed toward the window, outside of which the snow continued to fall. “You will kill him if you take him out in the cold!”
“Well, now, I wouldn’t want to do that,” Cato sneered. “He ain’t worth nothin’ to me dead.”
Ben’s heart was as cold as the out-of-doors. “You will be dead before I let you take Joseph,” he warned.
Quicker than he could blink, Cato had a pistol in his hand. He deliberately pointed it at Joseph’s head. “You boy can take his chances with me, or he can die now. Your choice, old man.”
“Why? Why take him?” Ben paused. “I’m a wealthy man. I will pay you anything you want.”
“I know you’re a wealthy man, Cartwright. That’s why I’m takin’ him. Emmy here, she’s gonna hold you until nightfall and then she’s gonna let you go. She knows where I’m goin’. You’re gonna go back to that high and mighty Ponderosa of yours and get all of the money out of your safe and put it in a bag. You bring it back up here and leave it. Once I got it, I’ll let the boy go.”
“Let me go and get it now,” Ben insisted.
“And set all them hands of yours on my tail along with those two older boys of yours? No way. I ain’t that stupid.”
Ben’s jaw was tight. “When do you mean to go?”
“Soon as the snow lets up. And listen to me, Cartwright,” Cato said as he swung the point of the gun toward his gut, “I can get the money whether you’re breathin’ or not. Those sons of yours will pay up for their brother. So you just keep your head and don’t do nothin’ stupid.”
He’d almost forgotten that the object of his fear was awake and listening. When he turned to Joseph, he saw the boy was reaching for him. Turning back to Cato, Ben asked, “May I speak to my son alone?”
The man’s gaze went from Little Joe to him and back. “Just so you don’t make any plans to escape. I’ll cut you down if you try. Both of you.”
Ben nodded as Becket moved away, and then sat on the cot by his son’s side. Both of them watched the outlaw head for the door. Cato donned his coat and hat and said a few words to Emmy, before he opened it and stepped out.
“Pa,” Joseph said, squeezing his hand, “you gotta let me go with him.”
“Joe, no.” He shook his head. “Son, you won’t make it.”
“I will, Pa,” he said, gritting his teeth. “I will. You know Hoss and Adam are on their way. They’ll get you free…and then the three of you can come lookin’ for me.”
Ever the optimist, Marie’s boy.
“Son,” he said as he touched his boy’s pale cheek, “your brothers most likely think we stayed in the timber camp overnight. There’s no reason they should come looking for us.”
“You don’t know Hoss like I do, Pa,” Little Joe asserted. “He’s gonna know somethin’ is wrong and he’s coming. I know it.”
Two peas in a pod. That was Joseph and his middle brother.
Ben fell silent as he stared into his son’s expressive green eyes. The boy would die, he knew it, if taken out of this warm place into the cold. There had to be some way to prevent it.
“Please, Pa,” his son pleaded as tears streaked down his pale cheeks. “I don’t want to see you…hurt. I…couldn’t live if you died.”
“Yes, you could, boy,” he replied with a sad smile.
At that moment, the door to the line shack opened. Ben rose and looked at Cato Becket, who was standing just inside it. Outside, the snow had fallen off to flurries.
It was time.
A pit opened up in his stomach. His younger brother had been right all along.
Hoss was kneeling in the snow, using his hands to plow through it and unearth their family’s wagon. As soon as they spied the disabled vehicle, the big man had taken off in search of their father and brother. He’d returned empty-handed.
Tears glistened on his brother’s face. “I told you, Adam,” Hoss declared. “I done told you somethin’ was wrong.”
“Yes, you did. I’m sorry….” He choked. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you.”
Hoss tossed him a look. “It’s okay, Adam. We couldn’t have started out any sooner, no matter what.”
He looked at the sky. It was true. It was approaching noon and they had been on the road for some six hours already. The snow laying on the land was nearly impassable, though they had been gifted with a reprieve as far as snowfall. For the moment it was no more than flurries. It was a good thing the timber camp their pa had chosen to visit was the closest one to the ranch.
Adam crossed over to the wagon and knelt beside his brother. “What have you found?”
“Looks like the horses spooked, just like that time when we was little and you and Joe got tossed down that hill. They musta broke loose and run. See here?” Hoss pointed to the metal rim of the right rear wheel. It was broken and bent out of shape. “They must of run up over that boulder back there.”
He could see it in his head. The horses rearing. The wagon bumping. The harnesses breaking and the vehicle running up over a massive stone.
His father and brother flying through the air.
“There’s somethin’ else, Adam,” the big man said, his voice shaking.
“Lookee here.” He pointed at the broken rim. There was a dark substance frozen to it. In the white and the pale light it had little color. Mostly, it appeared brown. At his puzzled look, his brother said, “Adam, it’s blood.”
“Good Lord! Pa or Little Joe, do you think?”
“I’m guessin’ Pa. Little brother wouldn’t have the strength or size to lift the wagon up.” Hoss considered it a minute. “Looks like the metal cut him.”
Adam rose to his feet and turned in a circle. There was nothing to indicate the path their father and brother had taken. He closed his eyes, trying to get his bearings. It was hard when there was nothing but an endless desert of white surrounding you. As he opened his eyes, black-haired man thought back to the trips he had taken up to the timber camp. Yes, there was the tree split by lightning. And, there, the tower of rocks that looked like a castle.
And between them, somewhere north of where they were….
“The line shack,” he said aloud. “Pa would’ve headed for the line shack.” It was about halfway between where they were and the timber camp if you headed north.
“Goldarnit! You’re right!” Hoss was on his feet in an instant. “Let’s go!”
Adam turned and looked up the mountain. It was going to be a hard climb and might well take them until nightfall.
He could only pray that what they found at the end was what they hoped for.
He had never felt so helpless in his life.
Ben’s angry gaze shot to Emmy where she stood holding a gun on him. It shouldn’t have surprised him, but it did. After all, she’d remained with Becket in spite of what he was. He found it hard to believe that her sympathy had been feigned, but now he had to wonder. Joseph was so weak. The boy could hardly stand on his own. Cato had taken his son by one arm and was dragging him over to the door, cursing and complaining all the way about the ‘damned hard’ things he had to do to make money.
If he could have killed Becket with his bare hands, at that instant, he would have.
“It’s okay, Pa,” Joseph huffed as the outlaw slammed him up against the front wall of the shack for support. Joseph’s coat and his own were hanging there. At least the man was going to dress the boy before he forced him out into the frigid cold. “I’ll…be okay.”
Joseph’s fever was higher. He shook from head to toe. Only a monster could consider doing what Cato Becket was doing. The man must have no love, no empathy, in his heart. Again, Ben wondered why a woman like Emmy stayed with him. There had to be a reason.
“Joseph, you mind yourself,” Ben called out from his position near the cot. “Keep yourself bundled up and don’t do anything foolish.”
Little Joe’s mobile brows climbed toward the curls dangling on his forehead as if to say, ‘Who? Me?”
He loved his youngest son with a love as deep as the oceans and as high as the stars. The boy, with his irrepressible spirit, dogged determination, and irritating but endearing cock-suredness was the joy of his old age. He couldn’t imagine going on without him.
“Joseph, you listen to me,” he started to say.
It was too late.
Little Joe had slipped to the floor. As Cato Becket turned with a growl and grabbed him under the arm, his son exploded into action. Joe caught hold of the outlaw’s other arm with both hands and bore down with his full-weight, throwing Cato off-balance and causing him to topple to the floor.
As he fell, the outlaw shouted, “Shoot! You damn bitch! Shoot!”
The gun in Emmy’s hand moved between him and his son, seemingly unsure of which ‘who’ Becket meant.
“Pa!” Joe screamed as he slammed his near frozen feet into the man’s chest, hurling Cato into the wall. “Pa! NO!”
A second later Joseph was scrambling toward him.
And still Emmy hesitated.
Then, there was a ‘click.’
Apparently Cato Becket had another gun.
Little Joe made it to him. Ben moved to step between him and Cato – to protect his son – but was stopped when the gun went off and a bullet passed through the fleshy part of his left side. Stunned, the rancher looked at the smoking black hole in his shirt for a moment and then fell back onto the cot.
Cato Becket walked slowly across the floor. He turned to look at Emmy and then, without a word, back-handed her with the pistol. As she fell to the floor unconscious, the outlaw placed the nozzle of the weapon on the top of Joseph’s head.
His son went white as the world outside.
“I ain’t sure that money of yours is worth the trouble, Cartwright,” Becket growled. “I think I’ll just blow this here boy’s brains out and leave you to bleed out lookin’ at his corpse.”
The world was fading, but he held on. “He’s a…boy. You can’t…blame him.”
“I can.” Cato looked down at Joe. He pushed the pistol into the boy’s curls a little farther. “And I do. How do I know if I take him on the trail that he won’t try the same thing?”
Little Joe was staring at him, tears in his eyes.
“Because the boy will promise me,” Ben said, holding his son’s pitiful gaze. “And Little Joe always keeps his promises. Don’t you, son?”
The boy nodded under the weight of the pistol’s barrel.
Cato didn’t remove it. “I don’t know…” he said.
“Mister,” Joe began, his voice tremulous, “please don’t hurt my…pa anymore. I won’t give you no trouble. I promise.”
“What do you promise on, boy?” the outlaw asked.
His son looked right at him as he said, “My mama’s grave.”
Tears entered Ben’s eyes as he stared at this child of his love; this precious son who was all he had left in the world of his beautiful, vivacious wife. It took all that was in him, but he tore his eyes away from his innocent boy and looked up into the face of evil.
To his surprise, Cato Becket looked…moved?
The outlaw remained as he was for a moment before lifting the gun from Joseph’s head. He hauled the boy up by one arm and then used the weapon to indicate Little Joe should return to the door.
“Get your coat on, kid. We’re taking off.”
When he saw Joe hesitate, Ben gave his son a nod. “I’ll be all right, boy,” he said softly. “You just look after yourself.”
“Now!” Cato ordered as the gun shifted in his direction.
Becket missed it, but Ben didn’t – the look of pure hatred in his young son’s eyes.
The boy blinked back his tears. “I’ll be okay, Pa. You just come get me quick as you can.” And with that, Little Joe headed for the door.
Fifteen years old and he was braver than most full grown men.
Ben sucked in a breath and held it as pain shuddered through him. He didn’t want the boy to know how bad off he was. As he did, his eyes fell on the native woman who lay unmoving on the floor.
“Aren’t you going to take care of Emmy?” he asked.
Cato glanced at her before following Joseph. “She’ll be all right. She always is,” the outlaw said as he turned away. “You just worry about your own.”
Joseph was standing by the door, bundled up as best he could. Cato came alongside him and stared down at Joe as if daring him to defy him. His son met the man’s gaze and then dropped his head. Little Joe nodded and then the boy put his hand to the latch and opened the door.
A second later, they were gone.
The shack was near silent as the fall of snow outside. There was nothing to be heard but the rapid beating of his heart and the sound of his labored breathing. Up until now Ben had had precious little time to look after himself. He knew, if he was going to help his son, that he had to take care of his own wounds first. His bleeding out in the snow would do Joseph little good. And then there was Emmy. He couldn’t in all good conscience abandon the Paiute woman, at least until he knew she would recover. Carefully, Ben shifted so he could get a better look at his injury. The bullet had gone through clean, which meant he was bleeding in both the front and back. From the look of it, the projectile had missed any major arteries or veins. Becket knew what he was doing. It was just enough to terrorize Joseph and incapacitate him, but not enough to kill.
The man wanted that money.
The sheets on the shack’s single cot were old and threadbare. Ripping them was easy enough. Ben did so and, with a great amount of effort, managed to plugs the holes on both sides and wrap a single strand around his waist to hold the linen in place. Just as he finished there was a noise.
Emmy was moaning.
The rancher was about done in, but he managed to turn and look. The Paiute woman had worked herself up onto one elbow. Her other hand was pressed against her cheek, which was bleeding. She closed her eyes, as if seeking to steady herself, and then looked at him.
“He did not kill you,” she said.
“Cato wants my money.”
Emmy looked around the small space. She winced with pain. He thought it was due to her injuries, but it wasn’t.
“He took Joseph?” she asked.
“Yes, he took my son.” Ben started to shift, as if he meant to rise. “I have to go after them.”
The woman was on her feet in a heartbeat – which was a good thing since he nearly toppled over. “You cannot,” Emmy said as she steadied him. “You are hurt. I must see to this new wound.”
“Why would you care?!” he snapped as he slapped her hand away. “You held a gun on me! Why save me now if you meant to kill me before?”
Emmy stared at him for several heartbeats. “You do not know him.”
“No. And I am sorry I ever made his acquaintance!” Ben sucked in air as the world began to reel. “Good Lord! He took my boy out into the cold. It will kill him!”
“Cato had a son once,” she said, so softly he almost missed it.
“He had a wife and a son. Both are dead.”
Ben blinked away the sweat in his eyes. “Why…? What happened?”
Emmy wrapped her arms around her chest and walked over to the window, where she looked out. “He was not always as he is now. Cato left his wife and son in Ohio and followed the trail west to find gold. What he found was stolen by another and so, he turned to wrangling. One day, as he worked, he saw the man who had taken his gold and he pursued him and…killed him.” The woman turned to look at him. “The man whose ranch he worked on had him arrested. Cato went to prison. While he was in prison, great snows came in Ohio. His wife and son had no money, since he could not send any. They both became sick and died.”
Ben had grown very still. His hardships had been no less and he had not become a criminal. Still, he knew that it was only by the grace of God that he overcame instead of being overcome.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “So you are his second wife.”
Her smile was rueful. “I am not Cato’s wife.”
She shook her head as she returned to his side. “I am Paiute. Cato Becket bought me to cook and clean and care for him.”
“Yes.” Emmy met his astounded gaze. “Now, will you let me care for you so you can go after your son?”
“Do you know where Joseph is?” he asked.
It took a second, but she nodded.
Emmy went into the storeroom and returned with a bottle of alcohol and a stack of bandages. She also brought the leather pouch that contained the herbs she’d used to make the poultice for his shoulder. As she set to work, Ben fell to thinking.
When she’d finished tying the last knot, he said, “I have a question, if you don’t mind my asking.”
The woman sat back and looked at him. “Ask,” she replied.
“What is the name of the rancher Cato worked for? The one who turned him into the law.”
Her eyes were black as the Apache tears that dotted the desert; deep as a well without an end – and filled with sympathy.
Little Joe collapsed on the floor of the ramshackle cabin, half in and half out of the door. Cato Becket was right behind him. The outlaw kicked his legs out of the way and then slammed and locked it behind them. It was snowing again, though not nearly as hard as before. Still, Joe knew it was already too late for anyone to follow the tracks they’d left behind.
Cato knew it too.
Becket had taken off his coat and was just tossing it over the back of one of the rough-hewn chairs in the cabin. As his hat followed, the outlaw looked at him and said, “You can lay there all night if you want, kid, but it’s gonna be warmer next to the fire.”
With that, Cato turned and began to build one.
Joe had no idea where they were, but he knew it wasn’t all that far from where they’d been. They’d traveled a couple of hours, but since they were sloggin’ through snow, he guessed it might have been a mile or less. If he could get away, he could cover it easily. The trouble was, he didn’t know which direction to run. He’d tried to note landmarks as they traveled, but every time he lifted his head to look around Cato would order him to keep his eyes down – and then watch him closely to make sure he did. He’d put a lot of thought into whether freezin’ to death or being shot was the best way to go, but couldn’t make up his mind. One was quick and the other was slow. Joe lifted his head and looked at his captor. Becket had the fire going and was taking a seat at the table. Freezing to death was a certainty. If he played his cards right, he could keep from getting shot.
Joe closed his eyes. He knew he should get up and move closer to the fire, but he wasn’t sure he could. His double layer of coats weighed him down. They’d kept him warm and dry on the forced march, but it had taken just about every ounce of strength he had to carry both garments that mile. They’d had no snowshoes, so they’d had to push through the white dunes. By the time they reached the cabin he’d been trembling like a foal newly born. And then, there was the fever. His body was payin’ him back for his foolish attempt to make it to the road. He should have stayed with his pa. Then he wouldn’t have….
Joe sucked in air. Pa.
Pa had been shot, and all on account of him.
He could hear Adam’s voice in his ear telling him to think things through; to count to ten before he made a move. He’d made it to about three when he thought Cato Becket was gonna take him outside and leave his pa behind. Pa was hurt.
Pa was hurt even more now.
Cato was sitting, staring at his boots. The outlaw looked at him. He rolled his eyes and let out a sigh, and then rose and came to his side.
“You better not die on me, kid,” he said. “I want that money. Your old man owes me.”
Joe blinked. For the first time it occurred to him that, when Becket had fished him out of that hole in the snow, the man had known he was a Cartwright.
“What do you mean….” Joe coughed and sucked in air. “What do you mean Pa owes you?”
“Behave and I might tell you,” Cato snapped even as he reached down and caught him under the arm. It was almost more than he could do to get his legs to respond as the outlaw lifted him and half-dragged him across the floor. When they reached the other side of the cabin, Becket tossed him onto a low bed that was nestled up against a wall. “You stay put,” he ordered. “You get up off that bed and I’ll shoot you. I ain’t got time or temper for your nonsense. You understand that, boy?”
Joe feebly nodded his head. At the moment, getting up was the last thing on his mind.
Cato continued to stare at him for a moment. Then he walked over to the fire. “You hungry?” he asked as he swung a pot over it.
Joe swallowed as his mouth watered. Cato was going to feed him?
So, maybe the man wasn’t going to kill him after all?
It felt funny to say, but his pa had reared him right. “No, thank you. I’m not hungry.”
Cato turned back to him, a puzzled look on his face. He strode over and laid a hand on his forehead. “You got a right good fever goin’ there, kid.”
‘Probably because you took me out in the cold!’
“I know,” he said.
The outlaw snorted. “I guess that old man of yours better get on his feet fast or he’ll be payin’ that ransom for nothin’.”
“Why do you hate my pa?” The words were out before he could stop them. Joe winced.
The man’s entire demeanor changed. Cato’s body went rigid. His eyes narrowed and sparked like flint on steel. “I got my reasons,” he said, his jaw tight, and then turned and walked into the kitchen. Once there Becket opened a cupboard and drew something out. When Joe saw what it was, he knew he was in trouble.
“You get some sleep, kid,” the outlaw said as he lifted the nearly full whiskey bottle to his lips. “I got me all the company I need.”
Ben woke in a fevered sweat, unsure of where he was. He opened his eyes and shifted up onto his elbow and looked around. Nothing was familiar. Dragging his body out from under the covers and placing his feet on the floor, the rancher was suddenly overcome by a sense of déjà vu. He’d been here before, hadn’t he? Waking like this? Feeling ill? Closing his eyes, Ben counted to ten and then tried again. This time the room sat still. He could see it clearly now. He was in one of his line shacks.
With that memory came all the rest.
Pain shot through him, but not a physical pain. It was one soul deep. Ben’s gaze went to the window. He could see the snow falling, heavily again. His youngest son was out in it. His child who hadn’t had time yet to recover from nearly freezing to death.
His child who needed him.
Gritting his teeth, Ben rose and made his way to the table. He gripped the back of one of the chairs and stood there a moment, breathing deep and steeling himself for the next brief journey to the door. Joseph was wearing his coat, but there was a spare one by the door and he was determined to put it on and go outside and find his boy.
The snow be damned!
As he remained still, gathering strength, the door opened and Emmy stepped in carrying a load of wood. The woman’s black hair was nearly white. She wore a deerskin coat, common to the Paiutes in winter, and a knitted hat, scarf, and gloves. Her look was as incongruent as the woman herself.
“You should not be out of bed,” she said as she dropped the wood near the stove.
“I’m going after my son,” he replied.
Emmy looked him up and down. “You will die. How will that help your son?”
She was probably right.
“I can’t simply sit here while Joseph’s life is in danger. I have to try,” he insisted. Ben paused. He feared the answer, but he asked anyway. “Will Cato…kill my son?”
“He has killed before,” she said. “There is much grief in him. When Cato grieves, he uses the white man’s firewater to forget. It is then he is dangerous.”
“Is there liquor where he is taking Joseph?”
“Where are they?”
Emmy frowned. “It is the house of my father.”
“Is your father there? Does he conscience – ”
“He lives there no longer.”
“Can you tell me why?”
Her jaw tightened. “Because I shamed him. I loved a white man more than him and the white man betrayed me. He killed my father’s people and my own.”
“Is that why you were with the trader? The one who sold you to Cato?”
“I ran. I did not come back for many years. When I did, my father was gone and our house was empty.”
Ben shifted his grip on the chair. In truth, he wanted nothing more than to sit down on it, but he knew he couldn’t. He would use up his last breath looking for his son if that was what God demanded.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Sorry to ask you to return there. Will you take me?”
“I have vowed never to return.”
“And I have vowed to save my child.” His tone softened. “I need your help to do that.”
Emmy stared at him the longest time. She was a strong capable woman who had made bad choices, the result of which had been a difficult life.
“Your preachers speak of atonement,” she said at last. “If I help you, is that what I do? Make right my sin?”
The God he believed in moved in mysterious ways – none more so than now.
“Yes,” Ben replied.
Emmy stared at him a moment longer before saying, “I will get my coat and what supplies we need. Cato’s other coat and spare hat are by the door. You must put them on. The way is not far, but it will be long in the snow.”
“What did you find?” Adam asked his brother. Hoss was hip-deep in snow and puzzling over something. They were on their way to the line shack – nearly there, in fact. They’d been forced to dismount and lead their horses as the drifts had grown so deep they nearly reached the animal’s withers. Both of them were tired, cold, and determined.
“You ain’t gonna like it,” the big man said as he stood up.
His question went unspoken. Hoss had Little Joe’s black hat in his hands.
Adam swallowed over the fear rising in his throat. “Any sign of…Joe?”
Hoss shook his head. “Ain’t no tracks neither. It’s like a bird just dropped little brother’s hat in that hole over there.”
“He could have lost it as he and pa headed for the shed.”
“Could have. But if Pa’s hurt, most like he lost it headed toward the road for help.” Hoss cleared the brim of snow. “You know Little Joe. He ain’t good at sittin’ still.”
Adam looked out across the expanse of snow, lit now by the rising sun. It put him in mind again of the desert, with its vast expanses of golden dunes, difficult, if not impossible to cross.
Was their fifteen-year-old brother buried under one of those dunes? Would they find Joe’s…body come spring?
“I’m sure he’s with pa in the shack.”
Hoss took hold of Chubb’s reins. “There’s nothin’ to do, but find out.”
It took them another quarter hour or so of slogging through the snow to reach the shack. As they drew near, they were heartened by the fact that smoke was pouring out of the chimney.
“Someone’s there for sure!” Hoss declared, brightening.
Adam pursed his lips and nodded.
He forced a smile. “Just a little concerned that there’s no light in the windows.”
Every the optimist, his brother replied, “It’s morning. They probably don’t need no lamp no more.”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
A second later, they were both speeding toward the shack. Hoss reached it first and looked back at him before he opened the door and stepped in. Adam followed shortly, noting as he entered that the structure had recently been occupied.
Had been. It was empty.
Hoss spun to look at him. “Goldangit! Where do you think they went?”
Adam was walking around, examining everything. He noted the empty whiskey bottles as well as the dirty dishes in the dry sink. A woman’s shawl lay on the floor near the supply room door. When he came to the cot, he stopped.
Hoss didn’t miss it. “What’d you find?”
The black-haired man bent over and fingered the stain on the cot’s mattress. Adam stood up and showed his brother his hand.
“Pa’s, you think?”
“I imagine so. Did you find any sign of Little Joe?” he asked in return.
“Not hide nor hair. But he had to be here if’n Pa was. Ain’t that right?”
“We’ll work on that theory.” Adam returned to the door and opened it and looked out on the cold wintry day. “Where do you suppose they would have gone? Why not stay here?”
“I’ll go see if I can find any tracks.”
As Hoss pushed past him and headed out the door, Adam turned back into the cabin. He hadn’t said much, but if it was Pa who’d been on that bed, he’d lost a fair amount of blood. He had to be weak. The thought of something dire enough to drive the older man and their little brother back out into the snow was chilling.
He turned toward the door. “You find something?”
Hoss held up his glove. The fingertips were red.
“Can the horses make it?” he asked as he headed for the door.
“Nope. We’ll have to do it on foot. Looks like they was too. There’s a pair of horses tethered out back.” The big man paused. “Adam….”
“Yes?” he asked as he pulled the door closed behind him.
“I been thinkin’. There’s a cabin up this way. It’s about a mile from here.”
He frowned. “A cabin?”
“Yeah, you know. It’s abandoned now. Used to be a family lived there.”
“That was over a decade ago.” Adam shook his head. “Why would Pa and Joe have headed there when they had everything they needed here? They couldn’t expect to find any help.”
Hoss shrugged his giant shoulders, knocking snow off in the action. “Ain’t no good you and me speculatin’. I say, let’s go ask ‘em.”
Adam looked up at the sky. The snow continued to fall. At times, it seemed it might never end.
Just like this nightmare they found themselves in.
Emmy rose to her feet. She had kindled a fire in the snow as her father taught her, and used it to turn snow into water. Balancing the tin cup, she made her way across the rough terrain to the white man’s side. They were a little less than halfway to the cabin. She had not failed to notice his blood on the white waves as they made their way. The two colors made her think of the Paiute tale of beginning, when the Great Father separated his white children from his red ones. All they did was squabble and fight. Great Father grew tired of it and he sent his white children away to live in another place, while her people remained. She had been told as a child that the whites would return one day and they had. Her people met them with joy, considering them their long lost brothers and sisters. All too soon their joy turned to sorrow as the white men began to hunt the People down and kill them with their thundering fire sticks. She learned this at her father’s knee. He told her the tale so she would be wary, but told her as well that not all white men were evil.
Many years after that, when the tribe was moving through the high country in winter, they came upon a man who was cold as ice. At first they thought he was dead, but his breath showed against the blade of a knife and so they bundled him up in furs and took him with them. His name as Cassidy but he went by Kay, since Cassidy was his father’s name too. Kay was a trapper and interpreter. He was known to her grandfather and believed to be a good man. In time they learned Kay was a liar and thief, but not before she jumped the broom with him and became his wife. The white man used her to betray their tribe – the old men, the women and their children. Kay did it for the price of five piles of fur, a dozen blankets, and the silver they wore about their throats and arms. She had been little more than a child, but she had learned her lesson well.
Her father had been wrong.
White men were evil.
Her mother and brother and sisters died when the white men attacked. They were the fortunate ones. She was exiled from the tribe; her father driven out with her. They left the camp together and rode for many miles before her father told her to stop. He touched her face and stared into her eyes and then, without words, walked away.
She wanted to die and nearly did. She was near death when the white trader found her lying beside a swollen stream. He took her in and gave her food and drink and a new name. She thought he cared for her, but she had forgotten what she’d learned. When spring came, he sold her to Cato Becket for a few dollars and a brand new hunting knife.
Since that day, those things were her worth.
Emmy halted as she arrived at the tree underneath which Ben Cartwright sat. He was white as the snow that sought to bury them; pale with loss of blood. She’d managed to stop the bleeding from his second wound, but he would have to rest and gather strength before he could go on.
“I have brought you water,” she said as she knelt at his side.
Ben Cartwright opened his eyes slowly. Briefly, they were without a focus. “Thank you,” he said as he reached for it.
The Paiute woman nodded. She rocked back on her heels, squatting in the snow. This white man confused her. He did not seem like the others. But then she had thought that of Kay as well. Rummaging in the pouch at her side, she produced a thick piece of jerky.
“You must eat.”
He pushed it away. “I couldn’t. My stomach doesn’t want food.”
“What your stomach denies, your heart knows,” she said as she offered it again. “You will not save your son if you do not have the strength to make it to the cabin.”
The white man’s eyes flicked to her face and then returned to the jerky. As he took it, he thanked her again.
“What is it you thank me for?” she asked. “If it was not for me you would not be here, and your son would not be in danger.”
“For your kindness. You could have refused to come with me,” Ben Cartwright said.
“I should have refused for you to go,” she said with a frown. “You are not strong enough.”
“I am plenty strong enough!” the white man insisted as he fought to rise. “My son is in the hands of a madman who has a personal vendetta against me. I need to go now!”
She placed a hand on his shoulder. “Eat your jerky and then we will go, if you are able.”
The rancher struggled and then slumped against the tree’s trunk. “I’m useless!” Ben Cartwright growled in frustration. “My son needs me and I am as useless as a gun without a trigger!”
The Paiute woman observed him a moment. “I am sorry,” she said.
“That I am a part of this. I wish you and your son no harm. I only wish to live in peace.”
“With Cato?” One silvery brow arched. “The man is in torment. You will find no peace with him.”
It was true and she knew it, but she also knew they were of the same spirit – broken, angry…lost. Each of them was but half a person. It had been her hope that together, they could become a whole.
“Cato does not hate without reason,” she said softly.
Her words stung him. He jerked. “If the man had come to me and told me why he did what he did, I would have helped him.”
“He is proud, like a warrior.”
“Yes and, as the Good Book says, ‘Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
She did not understand this. She puzzled about it before she replied. “Is that why my father rode away? Was he…proud?”
The white man nodded. “Yes. A warrior is one who does what has to be done no matter the cost to themselves. Your father feared what his tribe would say about and do to him. He ran.”
“Ont Padooa fears nothing.”
The man thought a moment. “Black bear,” he said. It surprised her that he knew her language. “I haven’t heard of him.”
“Our tribe came from over the mountains. Black Bear haunts their foothills now like a ghost.” The woman paused. “Eat your jerky.”
Ben Cartwright watched her a moment and then took a bite of jerky and swallowed it down with the water. “Your name isn’t Emmy, is it?” he asked. “What should I call you?”
It had been many years. So many perhaps she had forgotten. Both Kay and Cato forbid her to use her birth name.
“Atsa,” she said at last. “I was born when the moon was red.”
“Atsa, that’s lovely,” the white man said as he shifted and began to work himself to his feet. “I’ve eaten your jerky. It’s time to go.”
It was not. He knew it as well as she. Atsa sighed as she placed an arm around Ben Cartwright’s waist and helped him to his feet. It seemed there was one thing she and her white brother shared; their love of family. Ben Cartwrights’ son was alive. All but her father were bones and buried beneath the ground. If it was in her power, she would spare him the ceremony of mourning. He would not have to cut his hair and slash his arms until his blood flowed red.
If it was within her power.
Several hours had passed. Cato Becket had emptied one bottle of whiskey and was working on the second. As the outlaw drank, his agitation grew. Joe lay on the bed, keeping as still as possible, and watched him from under lidded eyes. He’d decided to play ‘dead’ so to speak, hoping that in his inebriated state Becket would forget about him.
All the while he was drinking, Becket kept mumblin’. Joe thought he heard ‘Ohio’ and the names ‘Billy’ and ‘Grace’. He heard his pa’s name as well. ‘Ben Cartwright’ was always followed by a curse and sometimes an action – like kickin’ a chair over and shovin’ it clear across the floor. The outlaw had been churnin’ like a paddle wheeler for the last five minutes, building up a head of steam big enough to power that ship across the ocean. It was bound to blow.
Joe didn’t know what he’d do when it did.
Adam had taught him about kidnappers. He and Pa were always worried that someone would make off with him ‘cause he was the most ‘vulnerable’. That word had made him learn to fight dirty at an early age. He knew how to take care of himself when he was himself. The trouble was, right now he felt weak as a day old kitten. Big brother had taught him another thing – if he was ever taken, he should try to escape at all costs. Even though kidnappers always promised to return whoever they took, they seldom did. Most often they put a bullet through their head just like Becket had threatened to do with him. At the moment, he wasn’t tied up. He’d pretended – well, partially pretended – that he was so weak there was nothin’ to worry about. Of course, he’d tried that trick with Cato before, but this time he knew he looked like he meant it. His fever was high. There were livid spots on his cheeks along with the growing blisters. He had a headache and couldn’t stop shivering. The outlaw had checked him a short time ago, so Becket knew all of that. Joe was hoping it would make him drop his guard, just a little bit, so he could take him. When he made the attempt, he needed to hit Cato hard enough he didn’t get back up.
If the outlaw found his feet too soon, it wasn’t gonna be pretty.
Joe closed his eyes and turned his face to the wall as Becket placed the bottle on the table and then continued on to his side. He moaned slightly and curled into himself as the man leaned over him – and then exploded out of the bed. Joe managed to catch Cato off-guard and knocked him on his ass, but his advantage didn’t last long. Within seconds the outlaw was climbing to his feet. The curly-headed youth glanced around. His action wasn’t planned like older brother Adam would have wanted it to be, but he figured it would do. Joe caught the metal water pitcher off the stand by the bed and brought it down on Cato’s skull with a resounding ‘clunk’.
He went down like a punch-drunk prize fighter.
Joe wanted to go down too. Stars surrounded him, twinkling and falling fast and furious as the snow outside. He shook them away as he stumbled toward the door. He’d made it into his blue coat and was reachin’ for his pa’s when Cato came up off of the floor and lunged at him. The outlaw missed and lay moaning where he fell – for about three heartbeats – and then was on his feet again. Joe eyed the coat on the rack, Cato, and then, the latched door behind him. He only had a few seconds. It was gonna take him that long to get the door open.
Pa was sure gonna be mad when he found out he didn’t take his coat!
“Someone stopped here, Adam. By the look of what’s left of the fire, they ain’t too far ahead of us.” His brother was bent over, searching the snow for fresh signs near the bottom of a tall pine tree. When he stood up and turned toward him, Hoss’ beefy face was troubled. “It’s funny though. Don’t look little brother’s boot prints at all. More like a woman’s traveling with Pa.”
“A woman!” he exclaimed.
“Small foot. Narrow. Looks like she might be wearing swamp boots. Rabbit fur, maybe.”
“How far ahead?”
“Depends on how fast they’s walkin’. Ten minutes, maybe twenty.”
“And Pa’s wounded. That will slow them down.”
They stood a moment, contemplating what chance their wounded father had of making it to shelter, before Hoss turned and started off again. The snow was coming down harder. They needed to find their father and their little brother. Now. Not in fifteen minutes. Not in an hour. Now.
Before it was too late.
Hoss was a gray shadow on a wall of white. There were times when he lost sight of him as they traveled, the snow had grown so heavy. They’d been on the move, perhaps, ten minutes when his brother drew up so short he ran into him.
“Did you see something?” Adam asked as he removed his hat, shook it, and then returned it to his head. The exercise was pointless. It was covered again almost instantly.
“I heard somethin’.”
They stood there in silence, listening. Then he heard it too. A woman’s voice.
“You think it’s coming from the cabin?” Adam asked.
“Could be. I can see a light up ahead – sort of.”
Hoss started to move, but he caught his arm and held him back. “Wait. Can you hear it? There’s a man too. Sounds like they’re arguing.”
They moved quickly with little thought to concealment, knowing the snow would mask them right up until the time they reached the cabin. Since Pa was traveling with a woman, they assumed he was the one speaking, but there was no way they could be sure. Their father might have met up with someone else. Since he was injured, he could be sleeping or unconscious…
“I sure hope Pa and Little Joe is together,” Hoss breathed, his soft words appearing as white vapor. “I’d hate to think of little brother out in this storm all on his lonesome….”
It didn’t bear thinking about. If Joe had headed out earlier and been caught in that sink hole, and then stumbled away into the driven snow, there was little hope they would find him alive – if they ever found him.
“We taught him well,” Adam said, since he had to say something. “Joe knows what to do.”
Hoss nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. He’s a tough kid. If anyone can make it, he will.”
He caught his brother’s elbow. “Hoss. Look.”
The old cabin was right in front of them. A meager light shone through the windows, as if there was a fire within but it had been allowed to burn low. A man and woman stood on the porch. They were shouting. The man wanted out and the woman was trying to keep him in.
They exchanged a glance and then started shouting themselves.
“Pa, it’s us! Hoss and Adam! Pa!”
The shouting ceased as their father turned his head toward them. Pa lifted a hand and waved. When they reached the porch, he gave them each a weak smile.
Just before he collapsed.
“He is not well. He will not rest,” the woman said. “Help me get him inside.”
Even semiconscious, their father was fighting. “No…” he moaned. “No…have to go….”
“Let me, little lady,” Hoss said as he scooped their pa up and carried him into the cabin.
“There is a bed in the corner,” the woman said. “I will get some blankets.”
They were both covered in snow – the woman and their pa. Adam wondered once again what in the world could have compelled Pa to make such a choice; to come to this place when he was safe and warm back at the shack? The same answer kept coming to him and, even though he wanted to push it aside, he feared it was the right one.
The woman returned with the blankets and gave them to Hoss. Adam reached out and caught her arm as she turned to go.
“Where’s my brother?” he asked. “Is Little Joe here?”
He hadn’t missed it. Pa was moaning again, this time calling out Joe’s name.
“He was,” she said. “He is no more.”
Adam eyed her. She was attractive, dark, and obviously native – at least in part – with a kind but weary face.
“What do you mean Joe ‘was’, but ‘isn’t’?”
Her black eyes looked beyond him to the door, which remained open. She nodded. “He is out there.”
Adam turned to look. The storm was howling. Swinging back, he confronted her. “Joe is out in that? Whatever possessed you to allow him to do that? He’s just a kid!”
It was Pa. He was sitting up against the pillows on the bed, looking at him. Without another word, the black-haired man left the woman behind and went to join his family.
“Adam, there was a man…an evil man who kidnapped…your brother and brought him here. Little Joe…is gone.” The older man sucked in air and paled. Pa dug his teeth into his lip, fighting back pain. “I don’t know…what happened. Atsa…thinks Joe got must have escaped.”
“Cato has gone after him,” Atsa said as she joined them.
“Cato?” Adam asked.
“Cato Becket. He’s an…outlaw,” Pa said. “Cato found your brother…in the snow and…brought him to…shack. Thought…” Pa closed his eyes, gathering strength. “I thought he was going to help, but…he turned. He left the shack. Took your…brother for ransom and brought Joe here.” A tear trailed down their father’s cheek as he finished. “Go after him. He’s…just a boy.”
Adam was staring at his pa. The older man’s shoulder was clearly bandaged, but he seemed to be holding his side.
He turned to the woman and asked, “What’s wrong with him?”
“Cato shot Ben Cartwright to control the boy,” she replied.
“Shot?” Hoss asked, looking at their father.
“The boy was too weak to go into the snow.” Atsa pointed to the table, the top of which held two empty whiskey bottles. “Cato has been drinking. He is angry. He will kill the boy when he finds him. Your father is right. You must go now!”
Adam had a thousand questions whirling in his brain, but not one of them mattered. What mattered was that their little brother was alone, in the middle of a winter storm, with a man in pursuit who was both drunk and very, very angry.
“Go, both of you,” Atsa said. “I will look after your father.”
“Go,” Pa whispered as more tears fell. “Find your brother.”
He and Hoss looked at each other. Dusk was approaching. The slanted light that filtered through the trees painted stripes of gold on the blue-white snow dunes. They had an hour, maybe two before it was too late.
Too late for Little Joe.
“I can hear you breathin’, boy. You’re slowin’ down. Maybe dyin’. Why don’t you just show yourself? Old Cato will take away all the pain.”
Becket never stopped talking. All the time he’d been pushin’ his way through the snow, the outlaw kept taunting him. Joe knew Cato was trying to get him to lose his temper. If he lost his temper, he’d do something stupid and wind up dead. So he ignored his own voice and listened to the other ones in his head; to his pa and to his brothers. ‘Keep calm,’ they kept tellin’ him. ‘Count to ten’. ‘Think.’ ‘Look before you leap’.
It was mighty hard, but he was doin’ his best to do what they said.
“You know you’re pa’s probably dead by now,” Cato jeered, his voice closer than it was before. The outlaw was right on the other side of the trees he was hiding behind. “You’re gonna be dead too, kid, if you don’t show yourself. I got hot coffee and that warm coat of yours. I want you alive. If you die, I don’t get my money. Think about it, kid? Why would I want to hurt you?”
‘Because you’re mad as a rattler on a spit’, Joe thought even as he fought to keep his teeth from chattering. The sound was so loud, he was afraid Becket would hear it.
As he hugged his arms around his torso, Joe raised up to peer over the snow-covered brush that hid him from Becket. The forest was in front of him. Behind him there was a dangerous drop. He knew this land. He’d traveled it since he was old enough to sit in a wagon beside his father or brothers. Since a lot of the timber had been cleared hereabouts, this was one of the few places along the road where a fellow could hide. As Cato halted right in front of him, Joe scowled. The sight of his war, winter coat in the outlaws hand brought tears to his eyes. Of course, they froze before they could fall. So far runnin’ had kept him pretty warm. Well, except for his toes and his nose. He couldn’t really feel them anymore. He had his fingers inside his shirt and under his arm pits. He was awful scared of freezing his fingers again. He knew a man who had done that and the doctor had lopped the tips right off!
Still, living without fingers would be better than not living at all.
Joe ducked down. He held still for a moment, stifling a sneeze, and then began to crawl along the brush that lined the trees. He’d gone straight up and then doubled back and was steadily working his way back to the cabin where his pa was. Becket had guessed what he was doing, but with the heavy snow falling the outlaw was just about as blind as him. He needed to keep moving and move as fast as he could, ‘cause he had to be the first one to get to it. If Pa was still alive…. Joe shivered from head to his toe. No. Pa was alive. He waiting for him. So he had to be the first to get to the cabin. He had to slam that door in Cato Becket’s face and secure it, otherwise the outlaw would use his father against him again.
This time he was sure Becket would kill Pa.
“I know you’re out there, boy, and I know where you’re goin’!” Cato called from just to his left. “You set foot in that cabin, you better look behind you, ‘cause I’ll be right on your heels!”
Becket sounded a whole lot more sober now. Joe supposed nearly freezin’ to death would do that to a man. Pa’d told him that men thought drinking liquor would keep ‘em warm, but it actually made them colder. He was kind of hoping Cato would just up and turn into an icicle, kind of like Lot’s wife turned into that pillar of salt.
Joe laughed at the image in his mind.
That was, until he heard the ‘click’.
“I got you in my sights, kid. You stay right where you are.”
Joe froze. He sucked in a breath as he looked around, seeking a way out. There was nothing – nothing but snow and more snow and shadows on the snow lit by a snowy light. It was a weird and beautiful wasteland, but that’s all it was – a waste. The curly headed youth turned his head toward the only sound he could hear: Cato Becket’s boots crushing the icy skin of the white dunes. The outlaw’s footsteps grew closer with each thudding heartbeat.
He had ten seconds, maybe less, to make a choice.
Joe stood up and turned, ready to run, but at that moment a rough hand caught his arm and hauled him back. The barrel of a pistol was pushed up under his chin.
“You’re more trouble than you’re worth, Cartwright,” Cato snarled. The outlaw dragged him over to the precipice. “Take a look, kid,” he sneered as he shoved him toward the sea of shadows that lay at the bottom of a twenty foot drop. “God even provided a grave.”
Adam and Hoss were halfway up the ridge when they heard it. The single shot rang out like a clarion bell, signaling disaster. There could be no reason for anyone other than Cato Becket and their brother to be in this place, and out in this storm. Adam felt sick. He had to stop – had to strike out with his hand against a tree to find balance.
How were they going to tell Pa?
“Adam,” Hoss said quietly. “It don’t mean Little Joe’s…dead. You know Joe. He’s got spunk. Maybe he got the gun away from Cato.”
It was a slim hope, but it was…hope.
He drew in a breath and nodded.
And they continued on.
The landscape they traveled was tough to navigate even in the warmer months. Just behind the old cabin was a field and, beyond that field, there were foothills. There was a path that ran into them, buried now in snow, leading up to a ridge – a cliff really – that lay along one side. If you could have seen the land as a crow did, the trail would have looked roughly like a question mark. They were at the point where the path began to climb, which meant the bottom of the ridge was to their left. It was eerie how silent the night had become. The shot had echoed for a good half-minute. Since then, there had been nothing. No shout of triumph. No cry of terror. No little brother calling out for help.
A hand on his arm stopped him. Adam blinked snow from his eyes and looked at his brother.
“What?” he asked.
Hoss was looking at the top of the ridge. He did the same and noted the incongruity immediately. The edge of the cliff crested like a white-capped swell on the sea. Except where it didn’t. There was one place – big enough for a man to have passed through – where the snow was missing.
Hoss had lowered his gaze to sea of shadows at its bottom.
“Adam, you don’t think…?”
Like two swimmers desperate to reach a drowning man, they plunged into that sea.
It was pitch-black under the ridge. They couldn’t see anything. All they could do was bend and crouch and crawl through the snow. It was frigid work and, in no time at all, they were both soaked to the skin.
“Anything?” Adam shouted as he reached out again and clawed more of the white stuff away.
“Nothin’,” Hoss called back, his voice hopeless but determined. “I’m goin’ in deeper.”
Adam watched Hoss plunge into the white stuff close to the cliff face before starting in again. He was moving out, winding back and forth, figuring if someone had toppled off of the ridge they would have fallen at least a dozen feet out from –
He sucked in air.
“Hoss! Hoss! I found him!”
Or at least he hoped it was Little Joe. What he’d found was a hand.
A very cold hand.
Adam clawed with desperation, seeking a face, and was both elated and horrified when he found it.
“Is it…Joe?” Hoss puffed as he came alongside him.
The black-haired man nodded, at a loss for words. He’d unearthed Joe’s silent form and was running his hands along his baby brother’s body, trying to determine where he’d been shot.
“Is he…okay?” Hoss asked.
What Little Joe was, was alive – thank God! Leaning over him as he was, Adam could feel his brother’s breath on his cheek. He could also feel the heat radiating off of Joe’s slender body. The kid had a fever. Not a surprise considering what he’d been through in the last twenty-four hours or so.
“I can’t seem to find a wound,” he replied as he straightened up with their little brother in his arms. “But it doesn’t matter. Joe’s cold, Hoss, really cold. We need to get him back to the cabin as quickly as we can.”
Hoss shimmied out of his coat. “What do you suppose happened? I mean, if Little Joe ain’t shot – who is?” the big man asked as he came toward him carrying it.
“I don’t know,” Adam replied as the big man draped the heavy garment over their brother’s silent form. “All I know is we have to get him some place warm.”
Hoss was staring at Joe. He touched his forehead. “Goldarnit, Adam! He’s hot as a firecracker!”
The war wasn’t over yet.
As the two brothers moved away, bearing their precious cargo like a hero from the battlefield, a tall, rangy figure appeared at the top of the rise, rifle in hand. It stood, watching them as they moved away, and then began its slow descent down the hill.
Ben Cartwright was out of bed. Atsa chided him for rising, but the nervous energy he felt made it impossible to lie still. The Paiute woman was a good nurse. She’d tended to his injuries and he felt much better. The poultices she’d placed on his wounds had kept infection at bay and his pain was diminishing.
His physical pain, that was.
For the hundredth time Ben walked to the door and opened it. Every time he did, Atsa scolded him for letting the heat escape. He knew she was right, but he couldn’t help it. The snow-covered desert beyond the door haunted him. His sons were lost in it – all three of them. Even if Cato Becket and the threat he presented hadn’t existed, the weather was just as dangerous. A man could get turned around so easily.
He’d never forgotten the first time he’d had to assist in burying a man who had frozen to death in the snow and not been found until the following spring thaw.
“Ben,” Atsa said softly from behind him. “You sons will need warmth. You must close the door.”
He lowered his head and then turned to look at her. Atsa was not a bad woman. She had just made bad choices. The sympathy that shone out of her eyes and the way she had tended to him, told him everything he needed to know about her. He wondered where her father was and if the pair would ever reconcile. Ben couldn’t imagine being estranged from one of his children. They were such a precious gift, to be treasured and never thrown away.
“I know,’ the rancher replied with a half-smile as he started to push the door to. Then, something stopped him. It was dark outside. The snow was a white wall. And yet, there had been…something. Ben glanced Atsa before stepping out to peer into the night.
There it was. Something. Or rather, someone. Someone was coming. Two men.
Ben’s heart constricted with terror.
Two. Only two.
Hoss was in front, plowing a path through the thigh-high white waves. Adam followed. His older boy was moving more slowly, bringing up the rear. Ben let out a little cry when he realized Adam was carrying something. The rancher held his breath as his sons drew closer, afraid to hope and to have those hopes crushed.
It would have been like finding a needle in a stack of silver hay.
“Hoss?” he asked as the big man made it to the door.
His son gave him a shy smile. “We got him, Pa. We got Little Joe,” he said.
“Alive?” Ben asked as Adam drew near. There was precious little he could see of his youngest boy. Hoss’ coat engulfed him. Only Joseph’s brown curls showed.
The big man placed a hand on his shoulder. “Joe’s alive, Pa, but little brother’s in a bad way.”
The rancher closed his eyes and whispered a quick, silent prayer. God had been good. He had brought his boy back to him.
Now, it was up to him to keep him alive.
Hoss Cartwright looked over his shoulder at the scene on the other side of the cabin. Adam was sittin’ in a chair propped up against the wall, sound asleep. Older brother had been keepin’ vigil and just drifted off. Pa was there too by Little Joe’s side leanin’ over him and talkin’, all the while holdin’ baby brother’s hand. Joe’d done been unconscious since they brought him in. His fever was high and for a while, he’d been near to seizin’ up. All the time Joe kept beggin’ Cato Becket not to shoot him and kept yellin’ out ‘No!’. From what Joe said it seemed Cato had pointed his gun right at little brother and fired.
But little brother didn’t have no hole in him.
The big man shook his head. Him and Adam, they’d heard the shot.
It didn’t make no sense at all.
The big man grabbed his coat from the peg by the door and began to draw it on. He was going out to get more snow so they could melt it both for drinkin’ and for tendin’ little brother. The Paiute woman – Atsa – was doin’ her best, but you could tell whatever was wrong with Little Joe was just about beyond her skill. Joe’d been through a lot; the wagon crashin’ and Pa getting’ hurt, makin’ it to the line shack and then bein’ kidnapped by Cato, and then havin’ Cato drag him out into the cold. And then there was fallin’ off the edge of the ridge. Sometimes it seemed God had it out for his little brother. Pa kept sayin’ these kind of things were what made a man, what honed him and made him stronger. Dang it if little brother wasn’t gonna be just about the strongest man in the world by the time he turned sixteen!
Hoss glanced at the bed again and the sick boy tossin’ and turnin’ in it.
If he made it to sixteen.
With a sigh, the big man placed his hand on the latch and opened the door – and then sucked in surprise at what he found on the other side.
It were an Indian.
“Hoss?” he heard Pa ask as he stumbled back into the cabin. The Indian followed him in. He was tall – not quite as tall as him – but taller than brother Adam. The stranger was wrapped from head to toe in furs and carried a rifle. As his father joined him and Adam stirred, waking from sleep to realize something was happenin’, the Indian rested his rifle against the wall and began to disrobe.
As the layers fell away, Hoss let out a low whistle.
“Well, hey there, Charlie,” he said in greeting.
Old Charlie as they called him didn’t talk much, but that was the way with a lot of Indians. They was deeper thinkers than white men and didn’t say nothin’ unless they had somethin’ to say. Charlie met his gaze and nodded. He did the same with Pa and Adam before moving across the cabin and comin’ to rest at Little Joe’s side. Atsa was sittin’ with little brother, moppin’ the sweat off his forehead.
She looked up and gasped.
The pair of them Indians eyeballed each other for about ten heartbeats before Atsa rose to her feet and exchanged places with the old warrior. Charlie placed his rough, dark hand on Little Joe’s forehead and waited until baby brother’s feverish eyes found him. Then he said somethin’ in Paiute. You couldn’t understand what he said, but you sure could understand what he meant. Joe gave him a weary smile before he drifted off again.
Old Charlie sat for several heartbeats with his hand on little brother’s head before he stood up and went over to Atsa. She was kind of hunkerin’ in the corner by the door. The old Indian went right up to her. He placed a hand on her shoulder and began to speak in that funny language of his. When he stopped, he nodded toward the door. Atsa nodded too and then she opened it and stepped outside.
Charlie remained where he was for a moment and then went to talk to Pa.
“The spirit of the bad man still seeks to kill your son, Ben Cartwright,” he said. “Cato’s spirit is strong. Your son’s is weak. I do not know if he can win the battle. Still, if you choose, I will do what I can.”
That was as much English as he’d ever heard Charlie speak.
Pa glanced at Little Joe. “And what is it you can do?”
Charlie nodded. “I have medicine. It will strengthen his body, but he must choose to live. It will be easier to choose to die.”
Adam came up beside Pa. “Little Joe is a fighter. He won’t give up.”
“Neither will we,” Pa said. “What can we do to aid you?”
Atsa had returned. She was carrying a hand painted leather satchel, most likely filled with Charlie’s medicine. She went to the table to the left of Little Joe’s bed and began to empty it.
“Do you believe in the Great Father, Benjamin Cartwright?” Old Charlie asked.
Pa nodded. “I do.”
The Indian placed his hand on Pa’s shoulder. “I will fight for your son’s life. You, Benjamin Cartwright, will fight for his soul.”
Adam lifted his head and looked at his baby brother. Joe was sleeping quietly at last. The black haired man rubbed his red-rimmed eyes before rising and heading over to the kitchen. He could smell fresh coffee and he wanted some. Pa was seated at the table. The older man had a mug in his hands and was turning it this way and that. Hoss had pitched a bunch of blankets in a far corner and was happily snoring away.
Atsa and Old Charlie were nowhere to be found.
Adam walked to the window and looked out. The light was dawning and, for once, there was no snow falling. The world was silent. Nothing stirred other than what few leaves clung to the bare branches of the trees. The sky was a brilliant blue and held the promise of better, warmer days. As he blinked in the light, Adam suddenly yawned.
It had been a long night.
“Did you manage to get any sleep?” Pa asked quietly.
He grinned as he turned and headed back toward the stove where the coffee pot rested. “Some.” His eyes went to his baby brother. “How is Little Joe?”
Pa blew out a little breath. “Alive. Thank God.”
Charlie had been with Joe, casting smoke over him and feeding him sips of some homemade concoction most of the night. He spoke quiet words and every once in a while, little brother would answer him. They all knew Joe knew some Paiute. He had friends who were Indian, Sharp Tongue and Sarah Winnemucca among them. It was funny that he considered himself the man of the world, but his little brother could already speak three languages – English, Cantonese, and Indian! Pa had been there every minute, watching while Charlie worked his magic. The crisis came about three in the morning. Joe’s fever rose dramatically. He stopped sweating and went deathly still. He’d laid his hand on his brother’s chest to check his heart and been amazed that it didn’t leap out, it was beating so fast. Charlie quietly changed his position and held Joe down as he started to seize. There was no room for Pa, so he fell to his knees and started praying. And then, just as quickly as it began, it was over. Little Joe’s fever broke, soaking the poor kid from head to toe. Pa went off to talk to Charlie, while he and Hoss cleaned their brother up and redressed him using spare clothes they’d found in the back room. It was odd. The clothing had a native flare to it – bright colors, lively patterns and such. Little brother’s hands and face looked very pale against all that color.
Adam picked up the pot and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Where’s Old Charlie?” he asked as he sat down with his father.
“Gone,” Pa said. “So is Atsa.”
Adam blinked. He was really hoping he could question the Indian about what had happened. They still had no idea where Cato Becket was. “Did you talk to him before he left? Did Charlie tell you what happened?”
His father put his cup down on the table top and pushed his chair back. He ran his hands over his face and let out a sigh before speaking. “Yes. We talked. Apparently Cato Becket was about to kill your brother when Charlie found them.”
“Good Lord!” he breathed.
“Cato had backed Joseph up to the edge of the ridge. He had….” Pa paused. “He had the barrel of his pistol under your brother’s chin. It’s God’s providence that the gun misfired.”
“There was nothing else Charlie could do. He shot Becket in the back. When Cato released your brother, Joseph…fell off the edge. Charlie was headed down to find him when he heard you and Hoss. He held back, waiting to see if you found him.”
Adam grinned. “I suppose the sight of an Indian rising up out of the snow, with a rifle in hand, might have prompted me or Hoss to make a hasty decision.”
“Precisely. Charlie watched as you found and brought your brother to the cabin, and then gave us some time before making an appearance. He…hesitated to do so because Atsa was here.”
“Really?” He was surprised. “Is there bad blood between them?”
His father looked at him for the longest time. “You might say that. There is blood between them. Atsa is Charlie’s daughter.”
“You ain’t foolin’, Pa?” Hoss asked as he joined them.
Pa looked at him. “Sorry we woke you, son.”
“It’s okay. I wanted to check on shortshanks. I had this dream….” He shook his head as he pulled out a chair and sat down. “Now, what’s this about Old Charlie and Atsa?”
“They used to live here, in this cabin. Charlie’s wife died and he was left alone to rear a girl.” Pa laughed. “God truly blessed me when he gave me only boys. A girl is whole different country.” Sobering, the older man went on. “Atsa made bad choices. She married a white man who, in time, betrayed her and their tribe. Lives were lost. Atsa told me her father disowned her. He didn’t. She ran and he hunted her, but he couldn’t find her. By then she had been found by a trader and taken far away. It was only recently that he located her again. She was with Cato.” Pa looked at each of them in turn. “I don’t know if either of you remember Becket. He worked for me a short time and I had to let him go. It seems he came back here to make me pay for that ‘sin’.” Ben paused as he considered again the hand of the Almighty. “There are those who would say that Cato Becket finding your brother, lost in the snow, was a sign that there is no God. I see it differently. If Becket hadn’t found Joseph, your brother would have died, a father and daughter would have never had a chance to reconcile, and the world would not be rid of Cato’s evil.”
“Hey…what’s a feller…got to…do…to get some…coffee around here?” a weak voice asked, startling them all.
They were up and on their feet in a second.
Pa beat them there, of course, and sat down at Little Joe’s side. “It’s good to see you awake, boy,” he said.
Joe looked confused. “When did..you two…get here?”
“Your brothers found you in the snow, Joseph. They saved your life,” the older man said, his tone hushed. Pa ran his hand along Joe’s forehead, brushing the curls away. “You need a haircut, young man,” he said, his tone mock-stern.
Joe smiled lazily. “Maybe it…can…wait ‘til…tomorrow….”
“Oh, I think I can take a few more days with you looking like a riverboat gambler.” Their father cupped Little Joe’s chin in his hand. “The only thing that matters is that you are alive.”
Joe lifted his hand. The gesture was feeble, but Pa saw it and reached out immediately. “You’re…okay…Pa?”
Baby brother looked puzzled.
“What is it, Joseph?” their father asked.
Joe gave them all a bright smile.
“Ain’t that my line?”
Other Stories by this Author
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- The Devil’s In the Details (by McFair)