Summary: When the abduction of one brother leads to injury for another, it seems that two Cartwrights may be about to meet their maker. But fraternal bonds aren’t easily severed, especially on Paiute land.
Word count: 12,596
On a balmy late summer’s afternoon, when the clouds were like dandelion puffs and a lake glowed the color of a bluebird’s wing, a hawk skimmed low over unbroken waters. A wingtip occasionally fractured the surface, but this did not disturb the hawk’s flight. His head moved from side to side; alert eyes constantly watching, hunting, searching. As he neared the end of the lake, he soared high, riding the earth’s heat as it rose. The hawk knew he was looking for something but for what he was unsure, not until he spied a man sitting on high ground above the lakeshore. The man was alone, a tiny figure on the edge of a body of water so vast the distant border of mountains looked like a low ridge of hills. The hawk flew lower and saw that the man wore a pair of olive pants and a shiny brown vest. With hope in his heart, he called out the man’s name. The lone figure looked up and the hawk knew those black, penetrating eyes; he had known them all his life. He sang out his joy at seeing that beloved face, and let the air lift him high to the heavens.
Something was eating at Older Brother. He was trying to hide it, but if anyone knew Adam’s reticent ways, it was Hoss; he had witnessed it more times than he could count. Affairs of the heart, the deaths of friends, even imprisonment and torture by a madman which left Adam a broken man, all were buried deep. He wouldn’t open up, that was his problem. And it was now Hoss’s.
Hoss hadn’t seen much of Adam since the posse had left Virginia City three days before, heading north on the trail of a gang of outlaws. Hoss’s natural ability to track animal or man meant he’d been positioned at the front of the riders. So, with his eyes constantly scanning the ground or looking ahead, he hadn’t seen much of Adam. And when he did, his brother wasn’t saying much. But Hoss had noticed a physical change in him, most noticeably when dismounting after a long stretch in the saddle. Adam would struggle to lift his leg over the horse’s rump and then pause a moment before releasing his other foot from the stirrup. Then, with a stiffness reminiscent of the time he’d wrenched his back whilst Hoss’s Uncle Gunnar was creating havoc on the Ponderosa, Adam would grimace as he gathered his saddlebags and tug his saddle from his sport. It was like watching an old man as he lowered himself cautiously to the ground. During Uncle Gunnar’s visit, Hoss had laughed at the strut Adam adopted, like a puffed-up rooster parading before a brood of hens. But this was different. He had tried approaching his brother, but Adam brushed him off with a banal excuse: he was tired; the jerky he’d consumed was disagreeing with him; you try riding that horse over this terrain. But now, after three days on the move, Hoss had had enough of his brother’s excuses.
As he secured Chubb to the picket line, Hoss sought out his brother. Adam was dismounting, but as his leg touched the ground his strength appeared to give away. His knee folded and he grabbed the saddle horn to stay upright. Hoss’s normally cheerful features darkened. He stomped over to Adam whose free hand was wrapped around his side, his eyes squeezed shut. Hoss grasped his arm to keep him upright, but Adam shook him off with a glare.
“Now Adam, don’t you be foolin’ no more, there’s something goin’ on and if you don’t tell me what it is, right now, I swear, Older Brother, I’m gonna…”
Adam looked up at Hoss. “You’re gonna what?” He straightened up. “It’s nothing—”
“It ain’t nothin’. You cain’t hardly stand up, you’re as white as Ol’ Charlie’s whiskers.” Hoss nodded his head towards a wizened old prospector who’d only joined the posse for the free grog. “And you’ve been favorin’ your left side since we left town.”
A look of defeat washed over Adam. He hung his head and sighed heavily.
“One of the gang nicked me in the side.”
The anger faded from Hoss’s face.
“Whaddya mean ‘nicked’ you?”
“During the hold-up. I was there before you and Pa, ran in when I heard the gunshots. I knew Joe was in there.” Adam glanced up at Hoss but quickly looked away again. “I ran in as they were running out. I tried to stop them–”
Adam’s hand tightened around his middle.
“I stood my ground but one of them pushed me up against the saloon door. He was only a boy.” Adam’s tone was bitter. “He had a knife.”
“It’s alright, it’s only a scratch. It just hurts like hell and every now and then I pull on it.”
“Let me see.” Hoss started to pluck at his brother’s shirt, but Adam pushed his hand away.
“Don’t fuss, Hoss.”
“I ain’t fussin’”. Hoss frowned. “Does Pa know?”
Adam’s face turned sharply to face his younger brother. “No! And you’re not going to tell him. He’s got enough to worry about, what with Joe…” His words trailed off. They both glanced to where their father was seated a short distance away, his gaze lost somewhere amongst the rocky hills.
“I’ll be fine. You just concentrate on finding those men.”
Hoss drew his gaze away from his pa and after a few moments nodded.
Adam’s features lightened. “Well, as you’re here, you can make yourself useful. Help me with this saddle.”
As Hoss undid the cinch and hauled the saddle from Sport’s back, he watched Adam walking rigidly to where he would settle for the night. He didn’t believe for one second Adam’s injury was merely a scratch, but what choice did he have but to trust him. At least he was here, where he could keep an eye on him. Unlike his little brother. Joe was out there, somewhere. And goodness knows what state he was in.
Little Joe was tied to a tree. In fact, he’d lost count of the number of trees he’d been tied to since he’d been hauled, kicking and fighting, off the floor of the Bucket of Blood, and then punched so hard he’d lost consciousness.
That was three days ago.
Being tied to a tree in the middle of the wilderness has given Joe plenty of time to think. He ran the events of that day in the Bucket of Blood over and over in his mind. Could he have done anything different to avoid getting into this predicament? His conclusion every time was no.
He had been enjoying the attentions of one of the saloon girls when the gang had burst through the doors. Firing their weapons over the patrons’ heads, they had demanded the day’s takings. Joe recognized the gang’s leader the moment he saw him: John Surgeon, leader of the eponymous—and infamous—Surgeon Gang. He’d been following the gang’s exploits for weeks; they’d robbed banks in Carson City and Genoa, targeted a stage shipment between Silver City and Franktown. Virginia City had been on edge; it was only a matter of time before they were hit.
The gang clearly knew the lay of the land – it was the miners’ pay-day; the day they spent their hard-earned dollars in the town’s many saloons. The Bucket of Blood was one of the most popular; a day’s takings could rival two month’s pickings on a miner’s diggings. One of the barmen drew a shotgun from beneath the bar, fired and missed. The retaliatory bullet hadn’t. In the moment of silence which followed, Joe launched himself at the nearest outlaw, expecting his fellow revelers to follow suit. But he had underestimated their courage. He battled alone; one wiry Cartwright against three felons. He was soon downed. And as the outlaws made their escape, he heard a gruff voice shout, “grab the kid.” He was hauled to his feet by a huge fellow, then Surgeon himself had hooked one arm around Joe’s neck, his gun pressed into Joe’s hair. Adam appeared, out of nowhere it seemed, and wore such a look of surprise on his face when he was knocked back against the open swing door.
They had erupted onto the street, stopping dead on the sidewalk. One ran for the horses, whilst the largest of the three mirrored his boss by pointing a gun at Joe’s head. The sound had died in the street.
“Don’t you make a move now,” said Surgeon, “or the kid’ll get it.”
Joe remembered scrabbling at the man’s arm held tight against his throat.
“Shoot me, and my man’ll kill the kid. Shoot either of my men, and I’ll kill the kid. Follow us, well, you get the drift.”
The gathering crowd backed away. The face of Joe’s father swam into his mind. He had barged through to the front of the crowd and frozen at the scene before him. Joe would always recall the shock in his father’s eyes. His was the last face Joe saw before a sharp pain slammed through his temple and everything turned black.
He was slapped awake to see three faces staring down at him, and a boy near his age playing with a knife a little too close to Joe’s face for his liking.
“How’s your head?” It was Surgeon who spoke.
Joe felt a trickle of blood on his temple, the throbbing tightness where he’d been hit. He said nothing, just twisted his legs under him and sat back on his heels, looking up at a man he’d seen a hundred times before on a wanted poster. There was the neatly trimmed beard, the large moustache hiding his top lip, the blank, passionless eyes. A cheroot was planted between his lips.
“You’re John Surgeon.”
The man blew a long stream of smoke into the air. “He knows who I am, boys.”
His two companions sniggered. “Big guy is Harry Hart. This here,” he nodded at the boy with the knife, “is Coby Hob.”
“What do you want from me, why am I here?”
“Take it easy, kid.”
The man stared down at him.
“My name’s Joe, not kid.”
Joe glared at him, his nostrils flaring. He wasn’t going to show any fear, no matter the knot twisting in his stomach. Surgeon smirked. “You’ve got fire in you, that’s for sure.”
He took another long draw on his cheroot and dropped to his haunches. “You’re going with us, kid.”
“You’re our ticket outta here. At the first sign of trouble, I’ll put you out in front for all to see. Anyone follows us, try’s anything, it’ll be your body they take home to mama.”
The boy casually let the tip of his blade hover near Joe’s eye. Joe tried his best to ignore him but couldn’t stop himself from shying away. He turned his attention back to Surgeon. “Where’s the sense in that? If you take me, you’re guaranteed they’ll send a posse after you.”
Surgeon grinned at the boy and gestured to him to leave Joe be. He stood and heaved Joe to his feet. “Kid, they’ll send a posse after us with or without you. We’re wanted in two states and two, or is it three, territories, I lose track. Got our very own U.S. Marshal on our tail. But at least with you here, they’ll be a bit more careful about where they shoot.” He pushed Joe in the direction of Harry Hart who shoved him towards a nearby tree and tied Joe’s arms around the trunk.
“Oh, and kid, don’t you be making any trouble for us, or I’ll let Coby here practice his knife skills on you.”
Joe’s eyes shifted to the boy who was running his fingers up and down the length of the blade, a grin blighting his face.
He had watched the camp being set up for the night, then turned to look down the trail in the direction they’d come. His pa and brothers would find him, and soon, of that he had no doubt.
And three days on, he still believed it.
The outlaws kept ahead of a posse they never saw, though Surgeon was convinced it was behind them. Joe endured days of stale jerky and hardtack, days of being tied to a tree or tied to a horse. Days at the mercy of Coby Hob and Harry Hart.
Coby’s hands were covered in scars; an adverse consequence of his pastime which, currently, was using Joe as target practice for his knife-throwing. He would stand a short distance away from where Joe was tied, stroking his blade as though it was a treasured family pet. He’d then raise the knife, holding it by the blade, squint and let it fly. It would slam into the bark above Joe’s head provoking a torrent of indignant language from Joe. Coby would simply ignore him, retrieve his knife, and start all over again. The knife seemed to strike lower and lower to where Joe was ducking and squirming and shouting for him to quit. The more Joe shouted; the more excited Coby became until finally Joe’s temper got the better of him. Coby was leaning over Joe, tugging his knife from the trunk when Joe kneed him between the legs. The boy had yelped, his hands gripping his groin. But then Coby had recovered, thrown himself on Joe, grabbed his fallen knife and drawn blood where he held it against Joe’s neck. It had taken both Surgeon and Hart to drag the boy off.
It didn’t stop him though. The next time, the next tree, the target practice began again.
The muscle of the group was Harry Hart. Built like a brick outhouse, solid and muscular, he was a mute. “Lost his tongue to the Apache,” was all Surgeon said. At first, Joe couldn’t tell whether the man didn’t know his own strength or simply didn’t care. After a while, he concluded it was the latter. Whenever they stopped, he’d haul Joe off the back of whichever horse he was sharing, let him drop to the hard ground, then drag Joe to a tree where he’d tie the knots, seemingly tighter each time. Joe was becoming battered and bruised simply from being moved from place to place. His shoulders and arms were in constant torment from being bound behind his back. But there was no point complaining. Hart simply pushed him harder or tied the rope tighter.
And then there was John Surgeon. Joe felt he knew more about him from his wanted poster than by observing the man himself. He inspired loyalty; Joe could see that. And he treated his men fairly. But as for Joe, well, he was nothing more than a means to an end – a safeguard against capture. What happened to Joe in the meantime was of no concern to him. He observed as Joe was manhandled, thrown about like a sack of grain, and kept in the same position for hours on end but did nothing about it. He simply didn’t care.
After three days on the run, John Surgeon came to a decision. He hunkered down in front of where Joe was still bound to the tree he’d been tied to overnight.
“We don’t need you no more, kid. The posse, if there is one, ain’t caught us. From here on in, we’ll make faster time without you.”
He rose and started to walk away.
“Wait! Aren’t you going to untie me?”
Surgeon carried on walking to his mount. “Can’t take the risk.”
Joe struggled against the ropes. “But I’ll die out here.”
Surgeon pulled himself up into his saddle and looked down at Joe. For a moment he looked as though he had something to say but then he merely shrugged and turned his horse away. Joe stared wide-eyed then began struggling against his bindings and shouting himself hoarse at the retreating riders. But they were soon out of sight and Joe was alone.
A steady refrain hammered to the rhythm of Ben’s heartbeat. Like a pulse, the words repeated over and over in his mind. Must find Joe. Got to find Joe. Must find Joe. He could think of nothing else but his lost boy. His one reason for living, right now, was to find Joe. There was nothing else. He grew cut off from everything around him. He ate, drank, and slept, but at night, when the posse had stopped for the day, he would sit alone, gazing out into the desert. But he would not see sand and rocks. He would see Joe.
His boy had been taken from him: dragged out of the Bucket of Blood, pistol-whipped, and thrown over the back of a horse. No one had followed as the gang high-tailed it down the main street. Joe was well-liked; no one dared risk it.
A dozen men had gathered, some eager for a fight, some for an adventure. A couple of old-timers came for the promise of free grog. It went without saying Ben and two oldest would join; they would have to tie Ben to the courthouse railings to stop him. But gathering the posse had taken time, what with deputizing the men, gathering provisions and packhorses. And then, just as they were about to mount up, a US Marshal had ridden into town, stopping the posse in their tracks, demanding to take control from the Deputy Sheriff leading the men. He’d been in pursuit of this gang for months, he said, thought they would strike Gold Hill next, he said, had picked up the gossip on the streets Virginia City had been hit, he said. He demanded control and the Deputy relented without a fight. Sheriff Coffee was out of town; he’d never have given in so easily.
US Marshal Uriah Bryce had let it be known from the start he wasn’t happy with the Cartwrights on the posse.
“I want these men taken alive,” he had shouted. “You’re too close, family get trigger-happy.”
“It’s my son those men have taken.”
“And that’s what’ll make you think with your gun rather than your head.”
Ben learned from the start Bryce was blunt with his words.
“We’ve not found one of their prisoners alive yet. You’d be better off waiting at your ranch. We’ll get ya boy.”
“What are you saying? You’ll bring me his body.”
And when the Marshal didn’t respond, it had Hoss’s strong arms to hold his father back. Bryce had merely snorted and then with a dismissive, “gahhh, do whatever you want,” Ben had shrugged free Hoss’s grip and mounted up.
Ben felt helpless from the start. The gang had a good head start and the posse was always a half-day behind, no matter how fast they travelled.
He barely spoke to his two boys. Hoss was out in front, trailing the gang. His middle boy was always optimistic and tried to keep Ben’s hope alive, but Ben was deaf to his words. As for Adam, Ben seldom saw him. He had taken to riding at the rear of the posse. Ben was too consumed with finding Joe to wonder why.
By the morning of the fourth day they had turned north, arriving at the wide flat valley through which the Truckee River flowed up to Pyramid Lake. There was nowhere else the gang could be heading; the valley was bordered by low rocky ranges which led to nothing but miles of desert and certain death.
After a few hours following the river, Hoss raised his arm, drawing the posse to a stop. Ben rode up to where Hoss was leaning out of his saddle, studying the ground and valley beyond. The Marshal soon joined them.
“Why have we stopped?” There was never any preamble from Bryce.
Hoss pointed ahead. “The trail leads off that way.” His finger followed the old Indian route which veered away from the Truckee, a route which would cut several hours off the journey to the lake before rejoining the river farther down the valley.
“Good, let’s get moving.” The Marshal gathered his reins and made to move on.
“Wait, Marshal.” Hoss wheeled Chubb around to face the river and pointed. “There’s a trail leading down to the river too.”
“They were probably watering their horses.”
“Yessir. But there ain’t no trail headin’ away from the river, like each time before. There’s always been a trail goin’ down and then one leadin’ away. Not this time.”
Ben reined Buck around to Chubb’s side and peered down at the churned-up earth at the river’s edge. “What are you thinking, Hoss?”
“I don’t rightly know, Pa, but my gut’s tellin’ me they forded the river.”
“Your gut!” The Marshal expostulated so hard his animal side-tracked beneath him. “I’m not interested in your gut, boy.” His eyes flashed. “You’re telling me they could have gone either way, but isn’t it so that both ways lead to the lake?”
“And which is the shortest?”
Hoss pointed at the old Indian trail.
“Then that’s the way we go. We might make up some time.”
Ben twisted in his saddle to face Bryce. “We could split up, cover both routes.”
“No, sir, I want us all together when we take down this gang.” And without another word, he urged his horse on.
Ben didn’t move as the posse wove around him. Adam was the last rider and shrugged his shoulders as he passed, hunched over in his saddle. Ben stayed where he was for a few moments more, watching his son’s broad back retreat up the trail. Then, with a sigh, he urged Buck to follow.
Joe reckoned he’d been tied to the tree for twelve hours now.
He’d tried numerous, fruitless attempts to free his wrists, but Harry Hart had done a good job in securing him: the more he struggled, the tighter the knots became. He seemed to spend hours twisting his wrists and contorting his hands into unnatural angles, until he’d give up and collapse, dispirited, against the trunk.
And was it to taunt him that Surgeon had left him within hearing distance of running water? The sound of the river taunted him, tempted him, reminded him constantly of what he could not have. His thirst had been bearable at first, but now, as the sun was starting to dip towards the horizon, it was becoming an obsession. His mouth was dry and sore. It hurt to swallow. He stared up at the sky, praying for a cloud to pass over, a rain shower, anything which would alleviate the all-consuming thirst.
One small mercy was the shade of the tree. It kept the worst of the sun off him. And thankfully the nights weren’t overly cold.
But despite his increasingly sore body, Joe was hopeful. He was optimistic by nature and knew his pa and brothers would be looking for him. And they’d find him. He was as sure of that as he was certain the sun would forever rise and set. It was a belief so pure and unbreakable that any doubt they wouldn’t find him refused to cross his mind.
“Pa’ll find me.” He’d taken to talking out loud to himself for the company. After hours without water, though, his voice was beginning to croak. “Listen to me, I sound like that old man who’s always outside the Silver Dollar, begging for one more beer, one more beer.” He half-smiled but winced at a split in his top lip. He probed carefully with the tip of his dry tongue but regretted it immediately. It only made the smarting worse. After a desultory attempt to loosen his bindings, he leaned his head against the tree.
“Please, Pa, you gotta find me.”
Pyramid Lake’s black waters were streaked with vermillion from the setting sun, casting the low desert hills into blue shadow. A crescent moon shone silver against a dusk sky. The shoreline was flat, so the posse set up camp a short distance away on a flat elevation which overlooked the southern end of the black vastness of water. As the sun began its descent, a chill rose in this unsheltered land, and the men hurried to settle their animals, build fires, and cook a hot meal before climbing under their bedrolls.
Adam was on his guard. Hoss had already noticed his increasingly stiff gait, and Adam was finding it more and more difficult to hide the pain that no longer caused his wound to merely stab and burn. As the men around him pulled their jackets closer against the evening air, Adam wanted nothing more than to strip down to his bare skin. He was wet with sweat, so with his head down he stepped past the men as far as he could safely go without leaving the security of the camp, and gingerly sat down against a boulder, away from the warmth and light of the newly-lit fires.
Hoss appeared with Adam’s saddle and bags and dropped them on the ground next to him. Lowering himself to his haunches, he raised an eyebrow. Adam refused to meet his eye.
“I’m alright, Hoss. You don’t need worry about me.”
“We may be losin’ the light, Older Brother, but your face is shinin’ like a full moon in a rainstorm.”
He reached out his palm to Adam’s forehead, but Adam knocked it away. “I said I’m fine.”
Hoss shook his head. “You ain’t kiddin’ no one but yourself.” He stood. “I’ll get you some grub.”
The last thing Adam wanted was food, and he certainly didn’t want to draw any more attention to himself by having Hoss bring it over to him. He’d already picked up mutterings from some of the men: with Hoss taking care of his horse each night, they had begun calling him the Prince of the Ponderosa. What they thought of him was of no mind, however. And he was grateful for Hoss’s concern, he was. But all he wanted was to be left alone to sleep. No fuss, no nagging.
After a furtive glance around him, he lifted his coat and probed his side with one hand. His fingers came away red with the blood which had soaked into his shirt and he quickly wiped his hand down one thigh. It had been like this for a while, but he couldn’t let his pa or the Marshal find out; there were more important considerations at this time. And it was nothing more than a deep cut, it’d heal, if only Hoss would leave him be. He tugged his bedroll free from the saddle and with one arm tucked around his middle, his hand firmly pressed into his wound, lay down on the cold earth. Turning cautiously on to his good side, he drew his blanket over him as best he could, biting down on his bottom lip to stop a moan from escaping.
A short while later he heard footsteps drawing near, and a body sat down at Adam’s back.
Adam stayed still and silent. He couldn’t talk to his father. His father would realize in a heartbeat something was wrong.
“Adam, are you awake?”
His father sighed, then Adam heard other—heavier—footsteps approaching.
“He asleep, Pa?”
“Appears to be. I’m glad someone can get some rest.”
There was a shuffling sound and a grunt as Hoss sat.
“I brought him some beans, but you may as well have them.”
No one spoke as the quiet sound of chewing prevented chatter. Adam’s wound throbbed and he pressed his hand harder into his flesh, wincing as he did so.
There was a rustle of movement. “I’m on first watch, Pa.”
There was a pause. “You’ve done more than enough, Son. Can’t one of the other men—”
“Aw, I won’t sleep much anyhow. What with worryin’ about Joe and worryin’ about…well, jest plain worryin’.”
Adam heard puffing as his father stood up. “Well, let’s worry together. I’ll join you and let Adam sleep.”
He felt his blanket being tucked around his body and over his legs and a gentle hand rest on his shoulder.
And then Adam was alone in the growing darkness. Alone with the unceasing pain. All he needed was a good night’s sleep, that would do the trick. And closing his eyes, Adam tried to ignore the ache and the heat and the shivers starting to flutter through his limbs.
And as the sun fell beneath the horizon, searing the clouds in a streak of auburn fire; and while his father and brother sat side by side in a silence heavy with unspoken anxiety, Adam drifted deep into dreamless oblivion.
His body lay still. But his soul had taken flight.
Joe came to wakefulness gradually and painfully, rolling his head up to rest against the trunk of the tree, his eyes closed against the world. He wiggled his fingers; they felt like bloated sausages. But he could feel them, thank God he could feel them.
A reddish light breached his eyelids and he opened them to a sky the color of dying embers. A blaze of brilliance had dipped below the distant hills and only a dying glow revealed what had been. Joe had slept for a couple of hours, long enough for the light to fade and he realized it was the chill seeping into his bones which had woken him. That and the now desperate thirst which made his brain feel like it had shrunk in his skull. All he could hear was the river, constantly rushing, gallons and gallons of water, speeding past. It was torture.
Joe had never felt so alone. His optimism was starting to bleed away like the water in his body. Surely, surely, they would have found him by now. They couldn’t have been more than half a day behind, and he’d been stranded here since sun-up.
The piercing cry of a bird high overhead drew his gaze up to the mottled sky. The call, so singular and wild, made him feel even more desolate.
He looked away, his eyes unblinking, staring at nothing. Then, with a sudden burst of energy, he twisted his legs beneath him, hauled his body up, and with a furious tug, yanked his torso forward away from the tree. Pumping his arms up and down, he tried frantically to fray the rope against the bark. But Joe only succeeded in breaking open the wounds on his wrists from where the rope had cut into his flesh and chafing away more skin. A trickle of wetness into his palms made him cry out in frustration. He collapsed—all energy spent—back against the tree.
With the last of his strength, he shouted out into the darkness. “Help me! Somebody! Anybody!” His voice choked. “Pl…please.”
But no one came and with eyes wet with tears he didn’t know he’d shed, Joe’s head lolled forward.
“Pa!” Hoss woke with such a start that the watchman, dozing in the pre-dawn light, jumped to his feet and whirled around, his gun wavering as he aimed at the sudden noise.
Hoss threw back his bedroll, ignoring the disgruntled moans of the men stirring around him and reached for his father.
“Pa, wake up! I know where Joe is. Pa!”
He shook his father’s shoulder. Ben was getting little sleep and had fallen into a rare deep slumber. He gazed, blinking, at Hoss.
“Pa, I know where Joe is.”
Ben was instantly wide awake. He sat up sharply and grabbed Hoss’s arm. “What do you mean you know where Joe is?”
Hoss licked his lips. “I don’t rightly know how I know. I think I…” he paused, suddenly aware of the stir of men around him who had woken in the commotion. They lay under their bedrolls and one man was feeding wood to the fire, but they were all listening, their heads turned towards Hoss and his father. Hoss lowered his voice. “I think I dreamed it.”
“You dreamed it?” Ben’s voice rang around the camp. There were groans amongst the men, and a few turned away, drawing their blankets back around their shoulders.
Hoss nodded towards the lake and together he and Ben walked out of earshot of the posse.
“I know what it sounds like, Pa, but it weren’t like no dream I ever had before.”
Ben folded his arms, his mouth curling around the edges. “Go on.”
“Joe was tied to a tree, there was a river—the Truckee, I’m sure of it—and I recognized one of the hills behind him. And he was alone. Pa, don’t ask me to explain it. We gotta go get him, he’s all alone out there. We gotta go before it’s too late.”
Hoss’s blue eyes were piercing in the misty light and his expression so guileless and honest, so convinced of his story, that Ben nodded an agreement.
“Wake your brother, we’ll all go.”
Hoss grinned and without a pause ran over to where Adam was still curled under his blanket. Hoss tapped him on the shoulder. “Wake up, Adam, we’ve got a kid brother to rescue.” There was no response. “Adam?” He shook his brother’s shoulder, but Adam still stayed curled on his side, his brow against the hard ground. Hoss gripped his shoulder and rolled Adam on to his back. His head flopped to one side.
“Pa!” His shout brought Ben running. Adam was white and wet with sweat, his lips shivering. Hoss lay his palm on his brother’s brow. “He’s burning up, Pa.”
Ben’s lips were moving wordlessly. “He was fine last night—”
“No,” Hoss sighed. “He’s not been okay since we left Virginia City.”
Ben’s mouth fell open. “What?”
Hoss unbuttoned Adam’s jacket and gently rolled his brother onto his side. He pulled the blood-soaked shirt from where it was tucked into his brother’s pants to reveal an angry seeping slash in Adam’s side. Red streaks bled into the swollen flesh.
Ben dropped to his knees, one hand hovering over Adam’s wound, the other gently pushing wet hair back from his son’s clammy forehead.
“I had no idea. How…when did this happen? I didn’t even notice he was in trouble. Why didn’t he tell me?”
Hoss carefully placed Adam’s shirt back over the wound. “You had enough to worry about, what with Little Joe—”
“That’s no reason to…” Ben dropped his head. “I have three sons.”
“It’s not all down to you, Pa. He didn’t let on it was this bad.”
They both starred at the unconscious, shivering form of Adam who, in a private world of pain and fever, seemed to be trying to vanish into the ground.
“What’s going on here?” The Marshal’s strident tones were loud in the dawn’s quiet.
Hoss rose to his feet. “It’s Adam. He’s real sick.”
The Marshal leaned over to look. “What’s wrong with him?”
Hoss glanced over at his pa before answering. “He got cut during the hold-up. It’s infected. He’s got a fever.”
“Goddamn! If I’d have known he was injured, I’d have stopped him joining this posse.”
Ben jumped to his feet. “And that’s exactly why he didn’t let on, not even to me. That’s his younger brother out there—”
“Yeah, and now it looks like you’ve got another son who won’t make it through the day.”
Ben dark eyes glowered but it was Hoss who acted. His fist clenched and his arm pulled back ready to fly as he took a step towards Bryce. Ben jumped between the two men; his arms outstretched. Bryce retreated a few steps, but it took Ben’s palms on his son’s chest to stop him.
Hoss was staring hard at the Marshal, his nostrils flaring with barely suppressed anger. After several barely contained breaths, he dragged his eyes back to his father. Under his breath, Ben spoke. “Go find Joe. I’ll look after Adam.” After a moment’s hesitation, and one last fierce look at Bryce, Hoss nodded. With a final glance at his ailing brother, he strode purposely away towards the horses.
“And where does he think he’s going?”
Ben took a long breath. “He’s gone to find Joe.”
“Whaddya you mean, gone to find…? We need him here, for Pete’s sake. He’s the best tracker we’ve got.” Bryce started after Hoss. “He’s not going anywhere.”
Ben grabbed his arm, twisting him around. “You’re not going to stop him. I won’t let you.”
“Oh yeah, you and whose—”
“Marshal!” One of the men was pointing towards the lake. Ben and Bryce, and the rest of the posse, looked to where the watchman was pointing. One by one the men rose to their feet. Because there, riding out of the early morning mist was a large party of Paiute. As they reached the southern lakeshore, the Paiute stopped, looking up at the dozen men in the camp.
“Now what?” said Bryce.
Ben gazed down at the Paiute, noting their prominent spears, bows and blowpipes.
“Now, we wait,” replied Ben.
A voice spoke.
Joe blinked his eyes open and rocked his head up.
The voice spoke again. A whisper in the grey mist. Was he still asleep, dreaming perhaps? Joe had no clue what time of day it was. All he knew was that on waking, his thirst had announced itself with a vengeance. He leaned his head back against the tree and saw the sky lightening on the eastern horizon. It was dawn. Joe had made it through the night.
Once again, the voice said his name.
Joe squinted out into the mist. “Who’s there?” His voice was a sore croak. There was no reply. He cocked his head, straining to hear the voice again, but all he could hear was the constant rush of the flowing river. Oh, brother, he was hearing things now.
The voice whispered his name.
“Who’s out there?” His voice was louder this time. “Whoever you are, please, help me.” His chin dropped to his chest but summoning his strength he looked up once more. And there, in the morning mist stood a figure. Joe found his voice.
The figure moved towards him. Joe blinked several times for the figure seemed ill-defined, out of focus. He snorted. Was he now losing his eyesight? Was this one of the things that went as death approached? He squinted again into the morning mist. It was a man, darkly clothed. Maybe this was Death, he thought, come to claim him and take him to the next world.
But Death didn’t wear a black silver-studded hat.
The man moved out of the mist and crouched before Joe.
“Adam, thank God, oh thank God, you found me.”
Adam didn’t move or respond, simply stayed in a crouch, looking at Joe. A flicker of a frown crossed Joe’s brow.
“Don’t just sit there, Adam, untie me.”
But Adam didn’t move to the back of the tree to untie Joe’s hands or put out a hand to check the bruises and cuts on Joe’s face, or grip Joe’s shoulders in relief. Instead, he rose out of his crouch and moved to sit next to Joe.
“I’ll stay with you, Little Joe, until he comes.”
“Adam, what’s going on, until who…” But then he saw his brother, truly saw him. His eyes had not been playing tricks on him. There was an indistinctness to Adam, an intangibility to his form. He seemed to glow in the growing light. His expression was one of serenity, of deep peace.
Joe stared at his brother. “You’re not really here, are you, Adam?”
The vision or spirit, or whatever it was, turned to Joe. “I’m always with you, Little Joe.” And Adam leaned back against the tree, to watch the mountains as a streak of pink began to creep into the sky.
Joe took a gulpy breath. “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” His lip trembled as wet eyes gazed at the man next to him.
Adam turned to Joe, his eyes crinkling as a gentle smile dimpled his face. “I’ll stay with you, Joe,” he turned towards the pink horizon, “until he comes.”
Joe felt comforted and protected with the presence of Adam by his side. He wasn’t alone anymore. He leaned back against the tree, but his eyes weren’t on the distant sunrise, his eyes were on his brother.
One of the Paiute urged his animal ahead. Ben recognized the adornments of a chief: a sheaf of woven cloth flowed across his body, decorated with fur trim and feathers. His horse, a sprightly animal which held its head high, mirrored the proud pose of its master. The man stopped halfway across the shoreline, looking up towards the posse.
“They want to parley,” said Ben.
Bryce squared his shoulders and jutted out his chin. “They wanna talk, I’ll talk.”
Ben started to remove his gun belt. “No, I’ll go.”
“You’re not the leader of this troop, Cartwright.”
Ben’s fingers curled his belt into a ball. “With all due respect, Marshal, I want to get out of this alive. I want these men to go home to their wives and families. I’ve dealt with the Paiute before; I know their ways.” He thrust the belt into Bryce’s chest. “And it’s my son lying there, sick with fever. They may be able to help.” He began to stride towards the Paiute chief.
“You’d trust their hocus pocus over a doctor?” The Marshal’s voice was mocking.
Ben stopped in his tracks. “Their hocus pocus may be all that keeps my boy alive.”
He walked to where the lone horseman was standing. As he drew near, Ben held out his hands, palms towards the rider and slowed his pace. The chief stayed on horseback; black eyes staring down at Ben. I can see who has the upper hand here, he thought.
“You are on Paiute land, Ben Cartwright.”
Ben frowned. “You know me?”
“You are friend to the Paiute, you are known. I am Tocho.”
Tocho was tall for a Paiute, broad and muscular. His long hair spilled loosely down his back, braided with beads and a lone hawk’s feather.
“Tocho,” Ben inclined his head towards the chief. “I would ask after the health of Chief Winnemucca.”
Tocho stared unblinking at Ben. “His heart is strong; he does not yet walk with the Creator.”
“My heart feels joy in your words.” Ben tugged his jacket closer. “Though I would wish that this unseasonably cold morning does not make his bones ache like it does mine.” Ben smiled but Tocho remained stony-faced.
“You bring white men to our land.”
Ben looked around at the posse in the distance, still standing and watching. He was heartened to see a figure crouched over Adam, wiping his brow with a cloth.
“We do not come out of choice, Tocho. We are in pursuit of three men, bad men, killers.” They have robbed and murdered, and we have come to take them back.”
“You are troubled, Ben Cartwright, there is more to why are you here.”
Ben met Tocho’s eyes. The man was perceptive. “They took my youngest son as a prisoner, and my oldest, Adam, lies in our camp, desperately sick from a knife wound.”
Tocho looked past Ben to the men on the distant slope. “You will stay here; you will not travel farther onto Paiute land.” And turning his horse, Tocho rode back to his men. Together the troop headed back the way they’d come, along the eastern shore of the lake.
Ben watched them leave. The sun had burned off the worst of the mist, and as he returned to the posse, he let his jacket slide from his back.
“Well? What did they want?”
Ben ignored the Marshal, instead carried on to where Adam lay. As he approached, the man who had been sitting with him rose, relinquishing his place to Ben. Adam was becoming delirious, his mouth murmuring words no one could understand, his head rocking slightly from side to side. Ben folded his jacket into a bundle and placed it gently under Adam’s head.
“He told us we couldn’t go any farther. To stay here.”
“Stay here? And wait for what? He’s got no right to tell me, a federal officer, where I can and can’t go. I have a job to do—”
Ben jumped to his feet. “If we don’t do as they ask, you’ll get us all killed. This is Paiute land—”
“This ain’t been Paiute land since the scuffle back in ’60.”
“That scuffle nearly killed my son and left one hundred and sixty Paiute dead. We are sitting on a powder keg. One mistake and we could start another war. Is that what you want?” He glared at Bryce. “We do nothing until we are told otherwise.” Ben raised his voice looking around at each man in the posse. “Do you hear me?”
Ben knew he could trust the men here. Most of them had been in Virginia City at the time of the so-called war that had rocked the foundations of the town so violently. They remembered the panic and fear that had fueled the massacre; the lies and misinformation that had turned a skirmish into a battle. These men nodded and returned to their places in the camp, laying down against their saddles to wait.
The Marshal, however, was not a man of the Comstock. He had only one purpose and that was the apprehension of Surgeon and his cronies. He watched as the Virginia City men turned from him, found their whittling knives or tugged their hats over their eyes to doze. With a slow shake of his head, he hurled Ben’s gun belt at Ben’s feet but when he spoke, it was on a whisper. “I’ve been trailing Surgeon and his gang for nearly a year. If I lose him now, because of you, you’ll live to regret this day.” And turning, he stomped out of the camp.
The Marshal’s temper was of no consequence to Ben right now. He had other concerns. He was anxious for Hoss, out there alone in country where the Paiute had proven themselves active. Joe was a constant agonizing fear in his heart. And now there was Adam.
A low moan from his oldest roused him from his distraction. He dropped to his knees to see Adam’s lips mouthing soft, indistinct words. Lowering his ear to his son’s lips, the words took form. “Pa…Pa…he’s okay. He’s okay, Pa. I’m with him.” Adam was lost in another world. Ben took his son’s hand and squeezed it. “Don’t you worry, Son, you just get yourself better.” He dipped a cloth into a bowl of water and wiped the sweat from Adam’s face. There was nothing he could do to help Hoss and Joe, but he could help Adam. And with that thought in his mind, he settled himself beside his eldest boy. He’d not been there for him; but now, he wasn’t going anywhere.
Hoss rode hard. He rode until Chubb was in danger of giving out under him. When Chubb stumbled, Hoss reined to a halt and led the exhausted animal to the river to let him drink. After a rest to let them both get their strength back, he took it slower. It would help no one if he disabled his treasured horse in the middle of nowhere.
Hoss was convinced they’d taken the wrong trail at the head of the valley. Two tracks leading to the same destination and they’d taken the short-cut, assuming the gang were not going to detour down to the river and lose several hours of their advantage. Knowing he had to cross the river before the track veered away from the fast-flowing waters, he rode down to the riverbank and followed the river until he spotted what he’d been looking for: a wide shallow ford.
“Come on boy, looks like you’re gonna get your feet wet.”
And leaving the established trail behind, Hoss crossed the river. Somehow, he knew that the Truckee would lead him to his little brother.
Adam was still there. A quiet figure sitting beside him in the heat of the afternoon. He didn’t say a word, only sat, staring out at the desert. Joe hadn’t moved in hours. He was hungry, but that was nothing next to the thirst. His last drink of water had been yesterday morning. Swallowing had become an ordeal, his tongue dry and swollen. His over-riding obsession with water had abated a little with the arrival of his brother, but it was starting to overtake him once more. There was no strength left in his legs and his head now hung loosely from his neck. Even resting it against the tree trunk was too much of an effort. He wanted it over, to lie down and sleep, with no pain, and no torment.
“I’m going to leave you now.”
Joe forced his head up, blinking his dry eyes open to look at his brother. Adam was watching him, a smile on his lips. He stood up.
“N…no. Adam, no, don’t go.” His tongue struggled to make words.
Adam was gazing along the river. He turned and looked at Joe. “Don’t be frightened, Little Joe.” He took a step away.
“No, Adam, don’t leave me here alone.” The words tumbled from his lips; his face screwed up as though to cry but he could not make tears. His head dropped on his neck. “Please, don’t leave me, I don’t want to die alone, please…” But when he forced his head up Adam was gone. His mouth contorted into one of anguish as he crumpled against the tree.
It was a new voice. It sounded like Hoss. Oh, now what was happening to him?
He could hear feet running towards him, and a body dropped to his side. Arms gripped his shoulders. “Joe, don’t be dead, please God, Joe, look at me, please Joe.”
A hand lifted his face. He opened his eyes and stared into a pair of familiar blue eyes. A gap-toothed smile greeted him.
“Dadburnit, Joe, I thought you were… Drink this.” Water. Cool, wet, foul-tasting water, but it was the most delicious drink Joe had ever tasted. Hoss pulled the canteen back from his lips. “Not too fast Little Brother. Let me get you free of this rope.” He disappeared out of sight. Joe heard a curse and then excruciating pain coursed through his shoulders as his wrists were freed from their bindings. He cried out. But then Hoss was in front of him, holding him up as gradually, inch by inch, Joe moved his arms forward.
“Your hands, Joe, they don’t look good.”
Joe looked at his swollen fingers, his flesh the color of a ripe plum. There was no feeling when he tried to move them. But he didn’t care. Not at that moment. He was alive and Hoss had found him. “More water,” he whispered.
Hoss held the canteen to his lips once more and let Joe drink deeply.
“Can you stand?”
“I can try.”
Hoss placed his hands in Joe’s armpits and raised him to his feet. Joe groaned but stayed upright, resting back against the tree. He looked into his big brother’s face and grinned through cracked lips. “You’re a beautiful sight, you know that.”
Hoss returned the grin. “Let’s get you back to Pa. The posse is up at Pyramid Lake. We can ride double on Chubb for a time.”
Joe’s smiled faded. “Adam.” He gripped Hoss’s vest. “Adam’s dead, isn’t he?”
Hoss frowned. “Why d’ya say that?”
“He was here. He was here, by my side, until you came.”
A look of surprise crossed Hoss’s face. “I don’t rightly know. He’s sick, real sick. But he was alive when I came lookin’ for you.”
They exchanged a look, care and worry creasing their eyes. Hoss snaked an arm around Joe’s waist. “Let’s get you back to Pa, we can talk later.”
And after hoisting Joe onto the back of Chubb, Joe and Hoss began the long and slow walk back to the lake.
Adam was lost somewhere Ben could not bring him back from. He lay shivering as though his blood ran with ice water, and yet he was wet with perspiration. His eyes were closed, yet Ben could see his pupils flickering behind his heavy eyelids. He was in a dream world, a world not of his choosing. The old prospector, Charlie Pitts, provided a constant supply of cool water. As the water heated from the sun or warm sweat soaked the cloth, Charlie would clamber to his feet and troop down to the lake, returning with a pan full of fresh cold water. And when Ben’s hand would drop, his shoulders drooping as his mind wandered in shame and weariness, Charlie would ease the cloth from Ben’s fingers and wash down Adam’s neck and torso.
Ben was disturbed from his lethargy when the Marshal’s voice cut through the dozing camp. “They’re back.”
Ben roused himself and after nodding to Charlie to stay with Adam, navigated through the cautiously rising men to stand next to Bryce.
The Paiute rode as one to the lake’s head. Most of the riders stopped, but Ben watched as three horsemen continued their way towards the camp. The three Paiute each held a rope, and at the end of the rope was tied a battered and stumbling captive. Barefoot and bleeding, their shirts gaping to reveal bloody cuts and bruises, Ben gasped at their appearance. They had clearly been brutalized at the hands of the Indians.
The Marshal started. “It’s them. It’s Surgeon and his men.”
They watched as the three outlaws floundered as they were dragged along. At the halfway point, the Paiute released their ropes and the three fell to the ground. One, a boy, attempted to run. He scrambled to his feet, his hands tied in front of him, and began to scurry down the shoreline. He didn’t get far. He was pursued by his erstwhile captor, who simply ran his horse into the boy’s fleeing figure, sending him sprawling into the sand. He rolled over on to his back, panting hard, but didn’t attempt to escape again.
As the Paiute horsemen retreated to where the rest of their party waited, the three outlaws spotted the posse at the top of the bank and started to scrabble towards them. As they neared the top of the bank, one fell prostrate. “Please, help us,” he begged, holding his tied hands up to Ben and Bryce, “don’t let them take us again. Please.”
Ben grabbed the man’s arm, half pulling him up the bank. “What did you do with my boy? Where’s Joe?”
The man looked Ben up and down, his eyes narrowed.
“Answer him, Surgeon.” Bryce helped Ben haul the outlaw to his feet.
Surgeon’s eyes darted to Bryce. “You.”
“Yes, me. Now answer him. Where is Joe Cartwright?”
Surgeon gazed off into the distance. “I don’t know anyone called Joe Cartwright.”
Ben dragged him from Bryce’s grip and shook him violently. “You took him. You tied him to a tree and left him to die. Where is my son? Tell me.”
A questioning frown crossed Surgeon’s face. “Now how would you know that?” He laughed—though it was more of a sneer—and his head lolled forward.
Bryce jerked him away. “You ain’t gonna get a straight answer out of this son of a…” He pushed him towards his men. “Take this filthy, yellow-bellied dog and tie him up.”
A voice suddenly rang across the shoreline. It was the Paiute chief, Tocho.
Ben turned to see the chief had left his comrades and stood alone looking up to the bank. He scrambled down to meet him.
“Tocho, I thank you for bringing those men to us. They will be returned to Virginia City and punished for their crimes.”
The chief looked down at Ben. “Tell your people that the Paiute captured them. Show them what happens to the white man who comes to our lands without respect for the Kuyuidokado.”
Ben bowed his head. When he looked up, the chief was staring over at the camp.
“Ben Cartwright, bring your son to where the water greets the land.”
Ben shook his head. “My boy is sick, Tocho, he can’t be moved. If you have medicine I could give him—”
“No medicine.” Tocho looked down at Ben. “Bring him.”
And Tocho wheeled his horse around leaving Ben standing alone on the grey rocky shore.
Ben knelt beside his son. Adam was still, his breathing so slow that Ben’s heart had lurched, and if it hadn’t been for Charlie shaking his head and wiping the moisture from Adam’s brow, Ben would have believed the worst. Charlie climbed to his feet, picking up the pan of lukewarm water, and Ben watched him walk away towards the lake. After a few moments he turned back to Adam.
“What do I do, Adam. You might die if I move you. But you’ll die if I don’t.”
He looked towards the lake where the Paiute stood, waiting, and sat heavily on the ground. Ben Cartwright, normally so strong, so resolute, so sure of his decisions, had no idea what to do. There was a twitch of movement. Adam’s head had turned slightly towards his father. Ben raised himself to his knees and saw Adam’s hand slowly rise. Ben grabbed it with both of his and as he did so, Adam’s eyes flickered open briefly. And in the brief moment before he closed them again, Ben saw such pain and bewilderment that it was all the spur he needed.
He gathered a handful of men and, together, they began to move Adam to the shore.
Adam was dreaming. There was no pain, only weightlessness. His dream world looked like the real one and he could see himself, which was odd. He was hovering above his own body in a smoky wikiup. He wasn’t alone, though. A woman sat against the wall, resting back on her heels, her hands tucked into her lap. Adam’s body was balanced on its side; one arm tucked beneath him, the other stretched out, his hand curled like a talon clawing at the earth floor. He was stripped down to his pants, and Adam saw that a dark green mulchy concoction had been pressed into his wound. Somehow he knew it was the woman’s work.
Dancing around Adam was a shaman. He spun and twisted, raising his knees high and swooping low as he wove to the sound of a drum that Adam couldn’t see but could feel like the blood beating in his veins. The shaman was naked to his waist, his skin painted in stripes of green and purple. The man chanted words and incantations over Adam’s body, his hands gathering the smoke from the burning sagebrush and sending it swirling through the air. He danced to the beat of the earth, to a rhythm that only he and Adam could feel. He spun faster and faster, his words vibrating through Adam like the rumble of thunder, until he suddenly stopped and looked up and straight into the eyes of the floating Adam.
And then Adam was flying free. He flew above the Paiute village, looking down at the tiny people oblivious to his presence.
The lake stretched out before him and he flew to where strange limestone rocks broke free of the water in a myriad of curious and inviting shapes. The largest one, a pyramid, called to Adam and he glided through the air towards the fantastically-shaped rock and perched on the top, looking down at the dark waters shimmering below.
But he felt a calling; the pyramid rock wasn’t where he needed to be and swooping low over the rippling water he headed towards the south end of the lake. He glanced down and saw a wavering shadow in the water of a bird with outstretched wings. Adam looked from side to side to see his avian companion, but he was alone.
He thought no more of it, for ahead of him he could see a lone figure in a camp above the lakeshore. It was his father. He was sitting on the ground with his legs bent in front of him, his arms wrapped around his knees. He sat where if he looked to his left, he could see the lake, and if he looked to his right, his gaze could follow the Truckee as it began its meandering journey to Tahoe. For now, though, his head craned neither left nor right. He stared straight ahead of him, unmoving.
Adam dived down and as he grew close, he called out to his father. His pa looked up, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the sun. But then he looked away towards the river and despite Adam’s calls, he took no more notice. Adam paid it no mind, his pa was safe and well, and loved. He would see him again.
He continued his journey, following the glistening snake of the river as it cut its way through the valley. He flew at such height and speed that it wasn’t long before he encountered two more people that he realized then he’d been searching for. He spiraled in circles on the thermals, feeling great joy at the sight of his brothers. Little Joe looked beaten and bloodied but even from his bird’s eye view, Adam could see the determined set in Joe’s shoulders. He swooped low, and as he had done with his father, called out their names. They both looked up, stopping in their tracks, charting Adam’s path as he flew above them. Adam soared high on the air, crying out in relief: Joe was safe, and his father would soon be reunited with his youngest son and free of his worries.
He looked down to see his brothers had resumed their slow and steady journey up the valley. He wanted to go to them, to walk the trail by their side and see their father’s face when he saw them all together again.
But all of a sudden he felt a tug, as though he was tied at the end of a long rope and someone had given it a sharp yank. He tried to fight it, to drive on towards his brothers, but it was like trying to push head-first into a gale-force wind. He was trapped, unable to move onwards and unwilling to be drawn back; the feeling of lightness and release too wonderful to give up. But this wasn’t real. How could it be? It was only a dream, wasn’t it? He glanced once more at his brothers, and then with heavy reluctance, he gave up his fight. With a rush of speed, he was pulled up, up, up, away from the earth, away from his family. The air was sucked out of his lungs. And then there was nothing.
There was a savage beauty to Pyramid Lake. It was a world which teemed with life: from the trout in the waters, through the pelicans that colonized the lake’s solitary island, to the coyotes that yipped and howled in the dark of night. But it made Ben feel lonesome. There was a stillness to the land. No great pines whispered in the summer breeze, no dappled forest glades where one could sit amongst the swaying lupins and breath in the warm alpine scents. Here the stubbled scrub that covered the hills offered no protection from the white-bright light that bounced off the earth.
Ben had spent the night alone at the lake, the posse having left earlier that day.
“We’re going back.”
He had been standing on the top of the bank, watching helplessly as the Paiute strapped Adam onto a travois when Bryce had interrupted his thoughts.
“There’s no point us all hanging around out here.”
Bryce started to walk away, gesturing to the men to break camp and saddle up, but then he paused, one hand beating against his thigh, and returned to Ben’s side. “Look, Cartwright, about your boys. I’m sorry about what happened to them.”
But Ben could only watch as the Paiute dragged the lifeless body of Adam away along the lakeshore, watching until the party of Indians was out of sight. And when he turned back to the camp, he found he was alone.
Now, mid-morning, he was sitting in what had become his customary spot. He could watch the lake in one direction and the river valley in the other. But his thoughts would consume him, and his vision turn inwards as he imagined all the worst possible outcomes. In one such rumination, his thoughts were interrupted by the plaintive cry of a red-tailed hawk and he looked up to see the bird circling high above him. It was a forlorn call, and he longed to hear in its place his boys’ boisterous teasing and laughter. Without them, the world was cold and empty.
He gazed down the river valley to where Hoss was on the search for Joe and wondered how he would live if Hoss returned alone. Spring rivers would still rise, wind brush the treetops, bees buzz around meadow penstemon. Life would go on. But a third of Ben’s heart would wither and die. And if Adam were to die too… Ben looked down at the ground, blinking away the wetness from his eyes.
The sound of Hoss’s voice rocked Ben from his lethargy. He struggled to his feet and there, climbing out of a dip and into his view was Hoss leading Chubb up towards him. And on the back of Hoss’s big black horse sat Little Joe.
He picked up speed as he ran to meet them, his emotions jumping from joy to concern with every step. Hoss was helping Joe down from the saddle when he reached them, and as Joe sought to find his balance, Ben caught him by his shoulders and stared, shaking his head at his youngest son.
“What did they do to you, Son?”
Joe’s lips curved into a smile. “I’m alright, Pa. Though I could do with some of Hop Sing’s beef stew about now.”
Ben’s eyes scanned over Joe’s body. He inhaled at the sight of Joe’s bloody wrists and swollen fingers. “Your hands.”
Joe raised them. “Looks worse than it is. At least I got the feeling back.”
Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulders, but it wasn’t enough. Curving a hand around Joe’s neck, he drew him close.
“Pa?” Hoss was standing next to Adam’s up-turned saddle. “Where’s Adam? We passed the posse yesterday headin’ back to Virginia City, but he weren’t with ‘em.”
Ben heard the fear in Hoss’s voice and led Joe over to where Adam’s sweat-stained blanket still lay crumpled on the ground.
“He’s with the Paiute.”
Hoss’s nose crinkled. “With the Paiute? What’s he doin’—”
Ben gathered his boys close, his arms enfolding them both. “Your brother’s very sick. They are helping him. All we can do is wait.”
Joe was staring at his feet as Hoss nodded. “Yessir. Well, I’ll…I’ll see to Chubb. And then I’ll rustle up some breakfast for us all. No point waitin’ on an empty stomach.” He looked from Ben to Joe. “Adam’ll be jest right, I know it.” And he stomped off towards the horses.
Ben smiled as he watched him go. Hoss, always solid, always dependable. But he wasn’t fooling his father. He recognized Hoss’s need to stay busy to keep his mind from worrying.
He squeezed Joe’s shoulder. “Let’s take a look at those wrists.” And leading him to where they could watch the lakeshore, he settled his youngest on the ground, grabbed a pan and headed down to the water’s edge.
Waiting. Waiting and not knowing. Was there anything more disheartening? For over twenty-four hours the three Cartwrights had been watching the lakeshore. After a restless night under the stars, they had resumed their unceasing vigil, but the endless, wearisome waiting was beginning to affect their tempers.
Joe, in particular, was on edge. He would pace up and down, his eyes on his feet before stopping to stare out over the lake. Then the pacing would resume, back and forth, back and forth, until an irritated admonishment from his father would make him drop to the ground where he would sit with one outstretched knee beating against the ground. After what seemed like the hundredth sharp word from Ben, Joe leaped to his feet.
“Pa, what if…what if Adam doesn’t come back?” He rubbed the heel of one bound hand into his brow.
“Joe, you can’t—”
“It’ll be my fault. If I hadn’t gone in the Bucket of Blood, he wouldn’t have come in after me, and he wouldn’t have been…” His voice cracked.
Ben was on his feet, grasping Joe by the arms.
“Joe, it wasn’t your fault. You can’t blame yourself for something those men did.”
Joe wouldn’t meet his eye. “You said he was bad, Pa, that he was barely breathing when the Paiute took him.”
Ben sighed and tried to find the right words of comfort, but nothing was forthcoming. He glanced over at Hoss whose head was bowed, his expression hidden beneath the brim of his hat.
He squeezed Joe’s arms. “Your brother was alive when he left, don’t you forget that.”
Joe met his gaze and after a moment he nodded.
Ben smiled. “Adam’ll need a lot of care and help for a few weeks, as will you, so sit down and try not to think about—”
“Adam’ll be jest fine.” Hoss sounded so sure that Ben and Joe both looked over to him. He was rising to his feet, a smile growing on his face. He pointed.
There, riding along the edge of the lake beside a Paiute Indian, was Adam.
Exchanging grins, the three remaining Cartwrights skidded down the bank and began to run across the shoreline. They waited until he drew near, dismounted with a bound, and handed the reins of his pony back to his companion. Without a word, the Paiute wheeled his horse about and rode away leaving Adam looking curiously at his family who could do nothing but stand and stare at him.
“Well, aren’t you going to welcome me back.”
Ben took a tentative step closer. Adam looked, if anything, healthier than ever before. The color had returned to his skin; his eyes shining clear and white. He stood tall, displaying no apparent stiffness or pain in his movement.
“How…how are you standing here? Two days ago you were knocking on death’s door.”
Adam’s mouth quirked. “Two days? I haven’t been gone for two days. Look.” And he plucked his shirt from out his pants and showed them a thin white line where his angry wound had once been.
Hoss ran a finger gently over the scar. “This looks weeks old, but you’ve only been gone… Dadburnit, Adam, no one heals that fast.”
Adam looked down at his scar. “I don’t understand.”
“Neither do we, son.” Ben scratched his head. “What did they do?”
Adam shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, I was out of it the whole time. The last thing I remember was going to sleep in the camp. When I woke up yesterday, I had no idea where I was, or why an Indian woman was sitting next to me. But I feel better than I have done in weeks.”
Ben shook his head. “I guess we’ll never know, but I’m in their debt.” He squeezed Adam’s arms. “Welcome back, Son. But the next time you get cut in a saloon hold-up, please tell your old pa.”
Adam grinned then his eyes settled on Joe. “It’s good to see you, Little Brother, you look a lot better now you’re no longer tied to a tree.”
Three faces looked at Adam.
“Adam, you’ve not seen me since the Bucket of Blood,” said Joe.
Adam frowned, unsettled by the incredulous looks aimed his way. “Well, I must have done, I remember sitting next to you, I… Why are you all looking at me like that?”
Joe took a few steps towards the lapping water, his head down as though deliberating on what to say. He turned back to face Adam. “Adam I was all alone out there, until Hoss came. Only…”
“Only when I was my lowest, and I thought I was going to die, you appeared and stayed with me. But it wasn’t you, not really. The whole time you were here, with Pa.”
Adam shook his head. “What are you talking about, I can’t be in two places at once.”
“I can’t explain it. But you kept me alive.”
“There’s more, Adam.” Hoss glanced at Ben and Joe before looking back to Adam. “We didn’t know where Joe was—turned out we’d ridden right passed him. But then, the night you got real sick, I had a dream.”
Adam’s brows scrunched even closer together.
“I dreamed I was flyin’ real high like, lookin’ down and, I saw Little Joe tied to a tree and, when I woke up, I knew where I’d find him.”
Adam stared at his two brothers, in turn, a single eyebrow creasing his brow. “You’re telling me that you had a…a… prophetic dream, and Joe, you’re saying that I was with you when I wasn’t.” His hands found his waist. “Do you know how this sounds? It’s crazy.”
Ben wrapped an arm around Adam’s back. “How do you explain your wound?”
Adam opened his mouth to reply but quickly closed it again.
“Son, it should take weeks to recover from an injury like that, and yet here you are acting as though you had nothing more than a splinter.”
“Adam, sometimes the world can’t be explained by logic or reasoning. Sometimes you simply have to believe.”
Adam’s arms curled around his body. Ben smiled. “Whether it’s Paiute ‘hocus-pocus’ or a bond that connects you boys when you need it the most, or perhaps a bit of both, the important thing is that you’re healed, and Hoss found Joe and brought him back to us. That’s all we need to know.” He patted Adam on the back. “Let’s go home, boys.”
Ben and Hoss moved away towards the bank. Joe watched Adam for a few moments then patting his brother on the shoulder as he passed, followed on behind.
Adam’s hands crept into the back pockets of his pants as he stood watching them clambering up the bank. Everything was so… unexplainable.
As he stood on the shore, a shadow passed over him and looking up he saw a bird circling on the air currents above. And as Adam watched, he remembered: he recalled a bird’s reflection in rippling waters and a pyramid-shaped rock. His mouth dropped open.
And with a wide-eyed shake of the head, he smiled and followed his family to the camp.
Written for the 2020 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament. The game was Five Card Draw. The words and/or phrases I was dealt were:
Bucket of Blood
During a Hold Up
Other Stories by this Author
- Little Joe Cartwright, Indian Fighter (by Sierra Girl)
- Sunrise (by Sierra Girl)
- Dead Moon Rising (by Sierra Girl)
- The Gingerbread Man (by Sierra Girl)
- Wagon Tracks (by Sierra Girl)