Summary: An old friend teaches Hoss that the horizon is merely the limit of our sight.
Many thanks to lminzer for her comments and suggestions.
Word count: 5906
Let me tell you a story.
This all happened a long time ago in a time and place easy to imagine, but nearly impossible to understand. These days, it’s hard for folks accustomed to modern conveniences to grasp just how raw and indifferent to human suffering our old world really is. In those days, men and women struggled mightily to keep body and soul together. They weren’t nearly as surprised and bitter as we would be when they found out that doing the very best they could turn out to be not quite good enough.
And that’s how Hoss Cartwright found himself burying his old friend, Hermit Kelly. Before I tell you that story, I want to tell you about Hoss. You’ve probably been told before that people come in all shapes and sizes, and if you’ve lived long enough, you know that to be a fact. The thing about Hoss Cartwright was that when folks looked at him, the first thing they noticed about him was his shape and size.
Everything about Hoss was big. He was a good head taller than most men, and a good foot wider to boot. He usually wore a real big smile that only hinted at the depth of his love for humanity. When he laughed it came from a place so deep and sincere that everyone in earshot just had to laugh along with him.
On that particular hot summer day, Hoss had taken a notion to check up on his old friend, Hermit Kelly. The two men had been pals ever since Hoss was a little shaver, and his pa had taken him to meet the newest newcomer determined to pull treasure from rock.
When Hoss had ridden up on the tidy little cabin within spitting distance of the mine Hermit worked to earn his daily bread, he’d hollered out a “Howdy”, but got back nothing but silence. You couldn’t survive out there in that place in that time without having a notion when something wasn’t right. Hoss kept on calling out for his old friend even as he stepped up to the cabin door and opened it up a smidge (after all, you just don’t barge in on someone, even when you’re worried about them).
That smidge of an opening was enough to let Hoss see that old Hermit was still lying in bed. Hesitating only a minute, he stepped on inside and made sure of what he suspected: Hermit was dead.
What would you do if you found your friend cold in his bed? Hoss didn’t break down. That wasn’t the way folks were back then. Instead, he attended to the little things that made up the ritual of showing proper respect. He closed his friend’s eyes and washed the old man’s face and hands. He straightened Hermit’s clothes before wrapping the body inside the quilt he’d died upon. When the small courtesies were done, Hoss stepped back and pondered his final words to his old friend.
“Hermit,” Hoss said in quiet, regretful tones to the forlorn package on the cot. “I’m grateful for all the time we spent together over the years . . . the hunting, the fishing, the drinks we shared. Those are memories of the best kind. I’m grateful, and I’m sad that we ain’t gonna have those times again. There’s a lot to know about a man, and now that I think about it, I didn’t really know much about you at all. Heck, I don’t even know your real name.”
An icy draft, outlandish in the summer heat, tickled the back of Hoss’s neck.
“Thaddeus Sylvester. You can see why I’d rather answer to ‘Hermit.’”
In spite of the sort of teasing he was accustomed to hearing from his brothers, Hoss knew good and well that he wasn’t crazy. So, when he turned slowly away from the body of Hermit Kelly, only to come face to face with Hermit Kelly standing in front of him, Hoss didn’t doubt himself for a minute.
That’s not to say he wasn’t plenty shocked.
“Howdy, Hoss.” Yes, standing not three feet from his very own body stood the ghost of Hermit Kelly, grinning like a loon and not a bit ashamed of making a supernatural spectacle of himself.
“Hermit, what in tarnation are you doing?” Hoss spluttered.
“What else would I do? I ain’t even been dead for more than half the morning.”
Hermit always did think he was a whole lot funnier than he really was.
“Nah, I mean why are you here, you know, ‘here’ when you are supposed to have gone ‘on’.”
“It don’t seem polite to assume.”
“Ain’t you the funny one, Hoss Cartwright? As it so happens, I don’t know why I’m still hanging around. I just know . . . really know . . . for some reason . . . that I’m here for help.”
“Seems to me you’re beyond help.”
What was Hoss supposed to do? He’d heard ghost stories, of course. He didn’t like to admit it, but the very idea of ghosts had always scared him silly. He’d sure never expected to meet a ghost, and he figured that if he ever did meet one, he wouldn’t be standing around with it shootin’ the breeze. Luckily, Hoss was good with surprises, and if the ghost was willing, Hoss was willing to act like this was just a regular old day.
“Fine,” Hoss said. “Since you’re here and able to state an opinion, where would you like to be buried?’
The ghost, who was the spittin’ image of old Hermit except for the fact that his feet weren’t quite touching the ground and that you could sort of see through him, rocked back on its heels and gave the question due consideration.
“At the end of every day of digging and breaking rocks in my mine, I’d sit on a little stool near the entrance. I’d eat my evening meal, and watch the sun go down and the stars come out. Haul me up there and cover me with rocks. I reckon that’ll be as good a place as any.”
Unfortunately, Hermit was not the only poor soul Hoss had buried in his young life. It’s a fair amount of work, you know. You have to carry the body to its resting place (and Hermit really should’ve layed off the flapjacks), you’ve got to gather enough stones to cover the body so the animals won’t get to it, and you’ve got to make a marker. Yep, Hoss was experienced with all of that. He wasn’t experienced with a bunch of supervision from the dearly departed. It’s was a little irritating to tell the truth, but Hoss decided to show patience. The man had just died, after all.
When the chore was done to both men’s satisfaction, Hoss stood back and wiped his sweaty brow.
“There you go, Hermit. Your final resting place.” Hoss wasn’t sure what to expect, but he was hoping that Hermit would take the hint, say good-bye, and get started on his journey to . . . wherever.
“Reckon we oughta get started back to the ranch, don’t you think?” the old man/new ghost replied.
“We oughta . . . ain’t you stayin’ here?”
“Nope, I told you. I know I’m here for help, and ‘til that’s done, I ain’t moving on.”
Well. No amount of argument put a dent in Hermit’s resolve. Until they figured it out, Hermit was sticking with Hoss. So, the two moseyed back to the cabin, where Hoss gathered up Hermit’s personal items and his old family Bible. Everything was packed up safe and tied up on Hermit’s old mule. With the mule’s reins in his big hands, Hoss mounted his horse and started down the trail to his family’s ranch, the Ponderosa. He hadn’t got very far when he was stopped by a piercing whistle.
Hermit was standing there on the trail, hands on his hips, looking disgusted.
“Ain’t you forgot something?”
Hoss thought about it. Nope, the cabin was cleared out.
“I mean me, you big galoot! I ain’t gonna walk all the way to the Ponderosa.”
A ghost that had to be carried. Didn’t that beat all? By this time, Hoss has nursing a headache, and all he wanted was to get back home.
“Well, climb on the mule, Hermit. Daylight’s wasting.”
Now you need to know that Hoss lived in a household composed solely of men: his father, two brothers, and housekeeper. There was no woman of the house, but that’s a story for another time.
The Cartwright family lived in a big log house overlooking one of the prettiest views a person could pay to see. Like Hoss, the Cartwrights were virtuous, noble, and kind. His pa, Ben Cartwright, had dreamed of making a home in the wilderness, and he’d purchased and traded for an enormous amount of land—over a thousand square miles. Old Ben never let that wealth go to his head, though. He was righteous without being judgmental, compassionate without being weak, and proud without being arrogant. He raised his sons in love and thoughtfulness, and the family was well-regarded by everyone who wasn’t soaked in jealousy or just a scoundrel at heart.
Hoss had two brothers, Adam and Little Joe, both of them good men, honest and true. Of course, everyone carries their burden of flaws and little quirks. As it happened, Adam and Little Joe were both burdened with quick wits and good looks. Hoss’s brothers were about the most important people in the world to him; especially, Little Joe. That rascally younger brother tried his patience and warmed his heart on a daily basis. If you didn’t believe Hoss would do just about anything for Little Joe, Adam and his Pa, you didn’t know Hoss Cartwright at all.
When Hoss and Hermit finally made it to the ranch, they unloaded and cared for the animals before cleaning up at the pump (to be fair, it was Hoss doing all the work since Hermit wasn’t able to do much more than float around and fuss), Hoss was ready for a good meal and a little relaxation. Hoss had a nose for food, and he was sure that a big plate full of roast pork was being set out on the dining table. The thought of a hot meal cheered him so much he even forgot that he’d brought home a guest and shut the front door right in Hermit’s face. Turned out that Hermit had figured out how to float through walls and such, so it was all right.
Hoss’s pa and brothers were more than ready to sit and down and eat. They’d waited for him to come home because that was the kind of family they were. They didn’t have to encourage him to put up his gun and hat quick and join them at the table. Hoss had been through a lot that day, and his stomach was so hollow it was stickin’ to his backbone.
All of us have our little family rituals, and the Cartwrights weren’t any different. Everyone sat in their favorite chair, bowed their head for the blessing over the food, and commenced to share stories. Right away, though, old Ben Cartwright noticed somethin’ different about Hoss.
“Is everything all right, son?” Ben asked. “You seem tense.”
That was perfectly true. Hoss was tense ‘cause it was unnerving to see Hermit flit around the table and walk through walls. At the moment, Hermit was set right in the middle of the table, or it might be better said, the table was set right in Hermit’s middle. The sight of Hermit’s top half leaning over the bowl of butter beans, and his bottom half hidden by the table legs was puttin’ Hoss off his meal. Hoss couldn’t figure out why then entire family could see that a spectral visitor had an elbow in the mashed potatoes.
“Ummm . . . I went by Hermit’s place today and found that he . . . um . . . . died.” Hoss figured he’d ease into the subject. “You know, it made me sort of think about ghosts. Like . . . if they’re real and if they are real, if everyone in the vicinity can see them. You know, stuff like that.”
Adam’s left eyebrow shot up so high, it nearly touched his hairline — but not in an “ah, that explains why there’s a spirit doing a dance on the dining room table.” No, Adam’s look was more like, “hmmm, Hoss has been in the sun too long.”
Adam cleared his throat. “well, literary references abound. For instance, in ‘Macbeth,’ the king murdered his best friend, Banquo, who showed up for the feast and took a seat at the banquet table, dripping in blood. No one else saw the ghost. There are other examples. For instance . . .”
Before Adam could work up a full head of steam on the subject, Hoss’s brother, Little Joe, piped up. “Hermit was a nice old feller. Sorry to hear he’s passed on.”
Hoss muttered not quite under his breath, “I wish.”
Hermit’s belly laugh shook the table, rattling the water glasses and tableware. Hoss sent a fierce glare in the direction of the soup tureen until Hermit snickered himself under control.
Ben Cartwright and the boys had hold of the table like they were afraid it might take flight. When everything was peaceful again, they murmured thanks to the Almighty for sparing them a more destructive earthquake and commenced eating again. It was a lot harder to wind folks up back then.
“Well, I’m sorry to hear about Hermit. Do you want to talk about it?”
Boy, howdy, yes Hoss wanted to talk about it. But he knew better. His family was more loving and understanding than most, but trying to explain the ghost they couldn’t see that he’d brought home as a house guest was just askin’ for trouble.
“Thanks, pa. I’m all right. Hermit’s buried next to his mine, and I brought his mule and stuff home with me.” Hoss kept his eyes on his plate and his fork moving. With any luck, the family would let it ride.
“Hoss,” Adam asked, “do you think it’d be all right to take Hermit’s mule to the timber camp in the morning? We could use it.”
Force of habit made Hoss turn in his chair to look at Hermit sitting on the fireplace mantel before answering. Hermit just shrugged in reply and said, “Everything is yours now, boy. Do what you think best.”
Force of habit had Hoss saying, “Thanks, Hermit” out loud before he remembered that he was the only one who could see Hermit.
“Why you thankin’ Hermit?” Little Joe was talkin’ around a mouthful of biscuit and grinning at Hoss.
Hoss thought fast. “I ain’t thankin’ Hermit. I was just thankful for Hermit’s mule. Pull the wool outta your ears, boy. Sure, go ahead and take the mule in the morning.”
Little Joe’s eyes nearly rolled out of his head at the scoldin’, but he kept his peace. For a long while, the only sounds were the scrapes of knives and forks against the fancy red and white plates. Finally, Hoss had a full belly and a better frame of mind. He wiped his hands and mouth before shovin’ the chair back from the dining table.
“Hop Sing!” That was the name of their cook; he was a Chinese feller. “That was another fine meal.”
“You want a game of checkers?” Little Joe and Hoss usually played checkers every night before goin’ to bed. Little Joe liked playin’ checkers with Hoss because he liked to cheat (just to tease, mind you), and Hoss liked playin’ checkers with Little Joe ‘cause he thought it was funny that Joe didn’t think Hoss knew he was cheatin’.
You followin’ this?
“Nope,” Hoss told them. “Not in the mood. Think I’m gonna to take Hermit’s stuff upstairs and try to figure out what to do with it.”
Soon, Hoss had nearly all of Hermit’s earthly possessions sorted into a few neat little piles around his bedroom. Once Hermit was done exploring the fireplace and chimney, Hoss thought he’d clear the air.
“I’m thinkin’ when we buy the mule, I’ll add the money to the package and send all of this stuff to that nephew you always talked about.”
“Didn’t you hear me earlier? All of this stuff, and the mule, and the cabin and the mine . . . all of it is yours, Hoss.”
“Now, there ain’t no need of that. Anyone would have taken care of you, you know, finding you cold in your bed like that”
“You’re a hard man to convince. I left all of my possession to you in my will. It’s all perfectly legal. Take a look inside that Bible.”
Sure enough, when Hoss opened the Good Book, a couple of envelopes fell out. Inside the first envelope was Hermit Kelly’s (excuse me, Thaddeus Sylvester Kelly’s) last will and testament leaving everything to Eric Cartwright. Eric was Hoss’s birth name.
The second envelope was issued by the Virginia City Assay Office. An assay office was the place miners took samples of the rock they dug up to see if there was any point to keep digging. That report said the Hermit’s mine was worth a fair amount. Said the samples showed evidence of a promising vein of gold.
“Doggone it, Hermit. Have you read this? You coulda been a rich man.”
Hermit set his ghostly self in the rocking chair. “Well, I’d worked a lot of years before hitting that vein. I seen enough to know that my little hole in the ground would be crawling with men and machines, and the blasting would have ruined the land. I took what I needed.”
“I’ll bet your nephew would be grateful to have this claim.”
“Well, my nephew ain’t here, and he never was here. I left the place to you.”
Hermit was a stubborn man, but Hoss could just about match him. They argued for some time until Hoss’s brother, Adam, started pounding on the door demanding to know just who Hoss was shouting at. They hushed up real quick then and decided to call it a night.
Ordinarily, on a warm summer night, Hoss would have crawled into bed without a worry in his head or a stitch of clothing on his body. But with Hermit floating around the room, it didn’t feel respectful to strip down, so with a sigh, Hoss collected a floor length night shirt from the dresser.
“Turn your back for a minute, Hermit, while I change clothes.”
“Oooh,’turn yer back, Hermit’! When’d you get so modest? I’ve knowed since you was little, and we’ve even swum in the lake.”
Hermit was tellin’ the truth. Back then, people didn’t worry so much about swimmin’ in the altogether. But, see, this was different to Hoss. For one thing, Hermit was dead, not splashin’ in the lake, and for another thing, this was Hoss trying to get a good night’s sleep in his own room. A room, by the way, that was holdin’ one ghost too many.
“Doggone it, Hermit! Just go haunt the bunkhouse. I’ll see you in the morning.”
As requested, Hermit haunted the bunkhouse all night, and Hoss was feeling more himself come breakfast time. Hop Sing made the best flapjacks in the territory and kept Hoss’s plate full until our hero shouted “enough.” Good food always put Hoss in a good mood, and it was fun watching Hermit tickle the back of Adam’s neck. His brother kept swatting at the “blasted fly” and getting madder with every miss. By the time the boys were fixin’ to leave for the timber camp, Adam was so cross that he decided to stay home instead and invent the perfect fly swatter.
People nowadays don’t think about how long it would take to get from place to place if your only transportation is a horse or your own two feet. That timber camp Ben Cartwright owned was way up in the hills, and Hoss and Little Joe planned on at least a half day getting to the place, probably another half day taking care of their business there, and the last half day getting back home again. Don’t worry about the math, you know what I mean.
One of the problems with livin’ back then was everyone knew your business. Think about it, knowin’ as much as you could about your neighbor’s comings and goings was practically all the entertainment some folks had. If you wanted privacy, you had to be cagey about your plans. You might have already figured this out, but the Cartwrights weren’t cagey people. So, it wasn’t all that tough for the wrong sort of person to figure out Hoss Cartwright’s whereabouts that day.
This all came out later, but it turned out to be a good thing that Hoss had checked in on Hermit. See, Hoss visited Hermit because he cared about the old man. Earl Shively visited Hermit because he cared about the gold.
Earl Shively was the assistant to the assistant clerk in the assay office. He knew perfectly well that Hermit’s mine was worth plenty. Earl had decided that mine would set him up real pretty so he hit on a scheme to get the place for himself. He started visiting Hermit, bringing him little gifts from town, hanging on his every word, flattering the old man. He figured Hermit wasn’t long for the world, and if he could just get Hermit to bequeath the mine to Earl . . . maybe Hermit would get helped out of the world sooner than later.
Hermit was no one’s fool. He played along with the varmint for a while until Earl got too obnoxious to bear. Then Hermit let him know that Hoss Cartwright has goin’ to inherit the mine. Harsh words were spoken by both men. In the end, Earl rode away with a heart full of resentment.
Back in town, Earl decided to drown his sorrows in whiskey and forget his troubles over poker. He found out that he was about as good at poker as he was at being the assistant to the assistant assay clerk. In other words, he lost his shirt. When he couldn’t pay up, a couple of cowboys took the debt outta his hide. Old Earl was so discouraged by life, he thought he’d go back to Hermit and try again at talking him around to Earl’s way of thinking.
The morning after Hermit’s death, Earl rode up to the cabin with his hat in his hands and a mouthful of lies. Imagine how upset he was finding Hoss’s note stuck to the door suggesting that all callers wander up the path to pay their respects at Hermit’s grave.
Remember how I told you everyone who wasn’t jealous, or a scoundrel liked the Cartwrights? Earl happened to be both jealous and a scoundrel at heart. When he saw that note, he vowed he’d get the mine and make sure Hoss Cartwright got what was comin’ to him.
A person couldn’t have asked for a prettier day. The air was fresh and cool under the towering trees, Little Joe had a pocket full of funny stories from the last church social, and Hoss almost forgot about the ghost riding on the mule behind them.
Just as the three of them were ridin’ up the steepest, narrowest part of the trail, a little flash of light caught the corner of Hoss’s eye. He was about to rein his horse in to take a careful look around when Hermit, who’d been as silent as a grave ‘til then gave an unearthly whoop and holler. That yell nearly split open Hoss’s ear drums, and it startled those animals so bad, they took it in their heads to bolt up that trail as fast as they could run. It was a good thing. They hadn’t gone fifty feet when a cascade of rocks came crashing and rolling down the hillside, landing smack on the spot they’d just been riding. If they’d tarried even a moment longer, Hoss and Little Joe would have been joining Hermit on his journey to the hereafter.
No sooner had the dust settled than the fellows saw the reason for the rockslide stick his head up to see if the ambush had succeeded.
This wasn’t Hoss and Little Joe’s first rodeo. They’d been in tight spots before, and they didn’t need to discuss what to do next, they just did it. They slid off their horses and tiptoed into the undergrowth, guns drawn. Hoss made a few hand signals, and his little brother slipped away, crawlin’ under bushes and clingin’ to the shadows so as to circle around the galoot they’d spotted up top.
Hoss wasn’t built for crawlin’ under bushes and clingin’ to shadows, but he could move as quiet and stealthy as a mountain lion when he wanted to. He didn’t give much thought to what their ghost was doin’. It wasn’t like anything was gonna hurt Hermit, anyway.
Whoever had planned that rockslide must have cut through the brush just like Hoss was doing. The varmint left a trail of broken branches and flattened grass a blind man could’ve followed, and Hoss was just about the best tracker in the territory. He figured the hombre had to be close to Hideaway Canyon, so that’s where he headed.
“Hoss! Hoss Cartwright!’ A voice called him. “We’re waiting for you.”
Not good. A couple more minutes climbing the steep trail, and Hoss saw what he dreaded. Some mealy-mouthed no-good had a rifle pointed at a furious Little Joe.
“Earl Shively? What in tarnation is goin’ on?” Hoss sputtered.
“Throw down your gun, Cartwright.” Hoss threw his gun into the dirt right quick.
“Shively wants my mine.” Hoss hadn’t even noticed Hermit sitting on the boulder a few feet away. “He tried to snake it out of me when I was still breathin’, and he knows I gave it to you.”
“Is this about Hermit’s mine?” Hoss asked the sullen outlaw
Earl snarled. “I couldn’t believe it when Hermit said he left it to you in his will. As if a Cartwright needed more gold.”
“Fair enough,” Hoss thought he might be able to talk the man down a bit. “What say you and I come to an agreement so that nobody get hurts?”
“You can start by reaching into your pocket for that Bible, Cartwright. You give me that will and assay report, and I’ll think about letting you and your brother live.”
Little Joe interrupted to throw his two cents into the conversation. “Don’t listen to him, brother. He already told me that he’s gonna shoot us both and kick our bodies over the cliff.”
“How’s killing us gonna help you, Earl? The mine still won’t belong to you.”
“Hermit’s dead. And, if his heir is dead, that means the property goes back to the county. All I have to do is buy the claim for a song. Do you think I recorded that assay report? No one but me knows what the place is worth.”
“You thought it all out,” Hoss said. He was figurin’ that if he could stall Earl a bit longer and distract him, then maybe him and Little Joe would get a chance to take him down. “But, I don’t have the report with me. It’s locked up tight in the safe at home. You kill us, and all you get in return is a last swing on a short rope. But if you come back to the ranch with us . . .”
“I believe you’re a liar, Hoss. I bet you have it on you right now. Give it here, or I’m gonna put a bullet in Little Joe’s gut.”
Stalemate. Hoss nodded slowly and reached into the pocket of his vest. He’d give anything to keep Little Joe from gettin’ hurt.
Hermit spoke up again. “I know what you’re thinking, Hoss Cartwright, and I won’t have it.”
He stepped right up to Hoss then, and put an ice-cold hand on Hoss’s arm. “I gave you that mine for a reason, Hoss. Some men are forces of nature, they shake people up like they was an earthquake, or knock ‘em down like they had the power of a hurricane. When those men pass on, people remember them and talk about them. I wasn’t no force of nature, Hoss. I was just a whisper in a dark place compared to men like that.”
“What you waitin’ for, Cartwright? Throw it out onto the ground there, or so help me, I’ll shoot your brother.”
“Hoss, I wasn’t as good as I should have been, but I wasn’t as bad as some. I know it ain’t humble, but I want to be remembered. The only thing this galoot will remember about me is that I was some damn fool he got the better of in the end. I know that with you . . . It’ll be different.”
Poor Hoss was torn. He did understand what Hermit was tellin’ him. He also understood that he was about to watch his beloved little brother be gut shot.
“I can’t let him shoot Little Joe!”
All of a sudden, Hermit started looking more solid, more powerful, somehow. “Hoss, I know why I’m still here. Trust me. All you gotta do is ask for help.”
It was a leap of faith, but Hoss had always trusted Hermit.
“Help me save Joe’s life.”
The words were barely out of Hoss’s mouth when that nasty piece of work, Earl Shively, shrugged and took aim at Little Joe.
Hermit vanished, and before Hoss could take another breath, he reappeared smack in front of Earl Shively. Up to then, Hoss was the only one who could see Hermit. Now it was plain that Earl could see him, too. And this time, Hermit didn’t look just like he had when he walked the earth. No sir, that ghost looked like a nightmare come to life. His eyes was all hollowed out from his skull, the grave worms was eatin’ away at his face, and his clothes were nothin’ but dusty rags billowin’ around bones. It scared Hoss, believe me.
Yep, Hermit scared Hoss, but he terrified Earl Shively. Earl was just frozen standing there, shaking in his boots and gasping for air, still holding the gun on Little Joe.
Hermit’s voice wasn’t the pleasant drawl Hoss had known most of his life. Now, it was an awful terrible howling noise of righteous condemnation.
“Earl Shively, you know me?” Poor old Earl was too scared even to nod. “You shoulda listened to your ma, Earl, when she told you that your sins would come back to haunt you. If you don’t drop that rifle right now and promise to come clean to the sheriff about this whole business, I’m gonna follow you for the rest of your miserable life. I’ll be the first face you see when you wake up, and the last face you see when you dare to close your eyes. And I’ll be waiting for you when you draw your last breath to make sure you’re held to account.” Hermit flew in real close to Earl’s face. “So, what’s it gonna be, boy?”
Earl dropped his rifle and fell to the ground himself sobbing and babbling in terror and remorse.
“What the heck?” Little Joe was the picture of astonishment. He hadn’t seen or heard a thing. He grabbed at the rifle and pointed it quick at Earl, but there was no need. Earl was done fighting.
Before Hoss could even answer Little Joe, Hermit was back to his old self— I mean, his ghostly old self.
Hoss ran up to his brother. “You all right, Joe?”
“Fine as frog hair. What in tarnation just happened?”
They both took a long look at Earl Shively. It was clear he wasn’t a threat anymore.
“Guess you’d better ask Earl.” Hoss patted his brother’s shoulder.
“Hoss, I want to go back to my mine.” Hermit started walkin’ down the trail.
Poor Hoss, he’d come within seconds of watchin’ his little brother shot to pieces, but it looked like he had an obligation to fulfill.
“Joe, you think you can herd this galoot to jail?”
“Yeah, I got him.”
Hoss followed Hermit back down the trail, climbed up on his big black horse, and grabbed the reins of the loyal mule. If he noticed any strange looks from Joe, or even Earl, he paid them no mind. He was going to Hermit’s place.
They sat, in peaceful companionship outside the entrance to Hermit’s treasure cave. The late afternoon light dimmed, softening into twilight. The setting sun threw a patchwork quilt of colors onto the horizon. Neither of them had said much since they left the timber camp.
“My mother had a beautiful voice.” Hermit’s voice was full of wistful reverence. “She was the pride of her church choir. She used to take care of it so she could sing joyfully unto the Lord every Sunday.
When I was a little guy, our farm was a child’s paradise . . . trees to climb, creeks to follow, frogs to catch . . . an adventure just waitin’ for me every day. Me and my brothers, see, we’d finish our chores good and fast, stick a couple of biscuits in our pockets, and race away to explore. You’ve got brothers, you know how it is.
Every day, when the sun got low, just like it is right now, Mama would step out of the house, and she would ring this big hand bell to call us home. You could hear that bell for miles, Hoss. She didn’t want to holler ‘cause she wanted to save her voice for church. She’d ring that bell, and we’d hear it wherever we was, whatever we was doing, and we’d stop because we knew it was her, and it was time to go home. Sometimes, it was a little disappointing . . . you know, we was havin’ a good time. But, we knew that when we got home, she’d be there to greet us, to feed us, to love us. So . . . going home was all right
I hear Mama’s bell right now, Hoss. She’s calling me home.”
An errant breeze caught at the dust and dried grass around Hoss’s feet. That breeze wasn’t just a breeze, it was something . . . more. It rose gently and tugged at the incorporeal remnant of Hermit Kelly. His essence shimmered, drew tight and flat as a pane of glass before disintegrating into a multitude of tiny, brilliant orbs that hovered, twinkling in front of Hoss. They shimmered and vibrated like they was dancing to some tune, and then suddenly all those beautiful shining pieces that were once Hermit Kelly were swept up in a swift, warm gale that sent those orbs on a path to the distant horizon. As Hoss watched them go, he was sure that he could hear the ringing of a distant bell.
Hermit had gone on.
Now, can you imagine being privileged enough to witness that? Words don’t do it justice. Hoss just sat still for the longest time, his hands clasped together on his knees. He hardly knew what to do with himself. He didn’t understand what happened, not really. He wasn’t sad because Hermit was gone, not really. He did feel just a little sad that he couldn’t follow him just yet on that shining path to the sun.
When he’d gathered his wits and strength again, he looked around him. There at his side was Hermit’s Bible with the will and assay report tucked into the pages. The breeze that had blown Hermit home had flipped open the Good Book, and Hoss’s eyes went straight to these lines.
He said, ‘Go out, and stand on the mount before the Lord.’ And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, the sound of a low whisper.1
Hoss had always been sensitive to the sound of a low whisper. He gathered up the Bible and carefully placed the will and report back inside the delicate pages. He tucked it inside his vest close to his heart. Hoss Cartwright kept Hermit’s mine as a remembrance for the rest of his days, and when he was weary or sick at heart, he’d visit Hermit’s grave and watch the sun go down and stars come out.
Knowing that all men are mortal, Hoss found someone he could trust, me, a little boy just like he had been once– someone who could hear a low whisper. He told me Hermit’s stories and loads of stories about himself and his family. I’ve carried those stories for many years, and I want you to hear them now. For remembrance.
Written for the 2020 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament. The game was Five Card Draw and the words and/or phrases I was dealt were:
and I was dealt a Joker.
 1 Kings 19:9, 11-12 Bible, English Standard Version
Other Stories by this Author
- Turmoil (by Belle)
- Spirit Canyon (by Belle)
- Repercussions (by Belle)
- Comeuppance (by Belle)
- Competition (by Belle)