Mule’s Crossing – Book 1 (by jfclover)

Summary: A story in two voices: Joe and Adam Cartwright.  A simple horse buying trip leads to unexpected events.  Can two brothers find the strength to survive an unbalanced man in a desolate land when hope for a future is lost?  Rated T –  Word Count 20,400.   

Mule’s Crossing Series:

Mule’s Crossing – Book 1

Mule’s Crossing – Book 2

Mule’s Crossing – Book 1

by jfclover

~

Joe

I jerked myself awake sometime after midnight.  I crossed the room and pushed my bedroom curtain aside so I could see the ground below. Although the moon shed only an inkling of light, I could hear the nervous whinnies and see the frenzied prancing of the three new mares in the corral alongside the barn.  Something had spooked them. I slipped on my pants and threw my arms through the sleeves of my shirt before heading downstairs.  I grabbed a rifle from the rack.

The closer I walked toward the corral, the wilder the mares seemed to become.  I scanned quickly for wolves or maybe a prowling cat but in the dark, the mustangs’ vision and sense of smell were considerably better than mine.  “Ouch—dammit,” I cried softly.  I kicked at the pebble and wished I’d taken time to slip on my boots, and that’s when I saw him; the most beautiful grey stallion in all of Nevada.

The mares had been wild only a few weeks ago, and now I couldn’t help but wonder if this magnificent animal was claiming them as his own.  Realizing there was no wolf or bobcat nearby, I relaxed, leaned the rifle against the corral and stared over the top rail at the gray.

The stallion kept his distance, charging back and forth, letting his presence be known. On occasion, he would rear up on his hind legs and paw the air, strutting smugly in front of the mares.  I turned my head and looked over my shoulder when I heard footsteps coming from behind.

“What’s goin’ on out here, Joseph?”

“Just watch.”

Hoss, still in his nightshirt, although smart enough to pull on his boots, leaned his elbows on the railing next to mine.  “What is it I’m s’pose to be watchin’?”

“Just wait.”

When the gray appeared once again, the mares circled the inside of the corral, voicing their objection over being separated from the stallion.  The gentle glow of moonlight reflected on his silvery coat, and a smile crossed my brother’s face.

“Now I understand.”

“Thought you would,” I said, winking at Hoss although his eyes were staring straight at the gray, and I’m sure he missed the gesture.

“Think you can catch him?”

“Maybe tomorrow,” I said, not wanting to wait another minute, but tomorrow morning was soon enough to head out.

“Ain’t gonna be easy.”

“I’ve got his womenfolk locked up.  Don’t think he’s gonna stray too far away.”

“Ya gotta point there, little brother.”

“Yep.”

~~~

All my life I’d fought to establish myself as an equal part of this family. Being the youngest, it wasn’t always easy to find my way, to be accepted or treated as an equal, but I won that right when Pa put me in charge of the horse operation.  I was my own boss; I would handle the buying and selling of all the new mounts for the Ponderosa.

I was proud the day Pa felt he could trust me with my new position on the ranch.  I would oversee the wranglers, and I would have the opportunity to gentle the mounts I felt needed special care.  I was in heaven, and I was constantly scouting new horseflesh to improve our herd.

Horses were needed for every aspect on a ranch.  We used cutting horses for herding cattle, horses with a gentle gait for riding long distances, horses to pull loaded wagons, the list went on and on.  And, when Pa mentioned his old friend, Abe Chandler, down in Arizona Territory, who had four cutting horses he thought we might be interested in, I was anxious to check them out.  “Can I take Hoss with me?” I asked.

“I guess I can spare two of you for a couple of weeks.”

“Good,” I said, trying to contain myself even though I was excited over the prospect since Mr. Chandler had never let us down when it came to fine horseflesh.  “I’ll go talk to Hoss.”

“One stipulation, Joseph.  I’d rather you took the stage down then you can ride the horses home.”

“But, Pa.”

It was decided.  Hoss and I would be traveling by stage to Arizona, a simple demand from my father that, unknowingly, would change our lives forever.

~~~

As always, business took precedence over playtime so catching the gray, whom I’d already named Strawberry—the name Paiutes give a June Moon—would have to come later.  He’d flooded my heart that night, and I knew he had to be mine. Although, as elusive as he’d become over the past couple of weeks as I rode through arroyos and grasslands, my names for him changed hourly, and they weren’t names I could use in front of my father.  Someday he’d make a mistake and I’d get a rope on him, but someday was still in the future.

Pa deemed my efforts to catch a wild mustang, which Hoss and I had seen only briefly that one night, unnecessary.  It was now July 1, and the trip to Abe Chandler’s took precedence over gallivanting—my father’s favorite word.

~~~

We waved to Pa and Adam after we boarded the coach.  I’d argued with Pa over our means of transportation, wanting to ride rather than take the stage, but I lost the battle as I usually did when it came to my father’s wishes or, as I often call it, Pa’s demands.  So, Hoss and I boarded the noon stage, leaving for Arizona in order to check out the mares.

As far as I was concerned, riding the stage was nearly unbearable and this time the coach was filled with five men and a woman.  Like the woman who sat across from me, we were wedged in the middle where there was very little air from open windows, and knees banged each of us from either side. I smiled, knowing she was no better off than I, and there was not a darn thing we could do about our situation.

As we rolled out of town, Hoss felt the need to make introductions.  “My name’s Hoss Cartwright,” he said, “and this is my little brother, Joseph.”

The woman smiled and was the next to speak.  “Where are you and your brother headed, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Arizona, ma’am.  Same as you, I ‘spect.”

She smiled again and nodded her head.  “My sister and her husband have invited me to visit their new home.  This is my first time seeing the west, and I’m not sure whether the trip was a wise decision on my part or not.”

“I didn’t catch your name,” I said.

“I’m sorry.  Martha Prescott.  It’s nice to meet you both.”

“Prescott?”

“Yes,” she said hesitantly.

“Ain’t that somethin’,” Hoss said, nudging my side.  That’s exactly where me and Joe are goin’.  Prescott, Arizona.”

A smartly dressed man rolled his eyes at my brother and stared out the window as if Hoss’ comment was beneath him.  The three of us chatted briefly while the other three men kept to themselves and ignored our friendly banter, not caring to participate in idle talk.  Fine with me.  The ride was long and chatting with Miss Prescott would give me something to think about other than someone’s knees pounding mine at every curve in the road.

We broke every two, two and a half hours, to change horses and stretch our legs. There was no time to eat; barely enough time to relieve ourselves if nature called. We were herded back on board and off we went.  I hated riding the stage.

At night, I dozed, resting my head rested on Hoss’ shoulder.  I was all talked out. Although Miss Prescott had told us of some of her experiences during her travels, I grew weary of listening to her voice and the voice of a young man who’d finally been drawn into our conversation.  An abrupt shove from my brother’s elbow woke me quickly.  “Trouble ahead,” he whispered so no one else could hear.  “Men riding fast, and I don’t like the look of ‘em.”

I blinked repeatedly.  Waking up wasn’t always easy for me, but Hoss wouldn’t have alerted me if he weren’t concerned about the riders.  “Who do you think they are?”

“Don’t know.”

The men carried torches since the sun had set at some point after I’d fallen asleep. The stage began to slow as rifle shots carried through the night air.  I thought about climbing up and helping Charlie, the driver, but Hoss must have read my mind.  He clamped his hand on my thigh and shook his head.  “Just wait,” he said softly.

Within minutes, a dozen men surrounded the coach.  Some white, some Mexican and two looked like Indians though I couldn’t tell what tribe.  They were dressed in white man’s clothes but their long, black hair was a definite sign.

“Everyone out.”

The shout came from one of the white men when Charlie pulled up rather than trying to outrun the bandits through the narrow canyon.  The leader didn’t carry a flame, but his rifle was aimed at straight at the driver.  Other men’s pistols and rifles were pointed at the stage windows and door.  Hoss was the first to step out.  He reached his hand up and helped Miss Prescott to the ground.  The rest of us followed and lined up outside the coach alongside Charlie, who’d climbed down from his seat up above.

“Throw down your weapons.”

We did as we were told.  Pistols hit the ground.  One of the Indians stepped forward, picked them all up and threw them in a leather satchel before hefting it over his shoulder and fading back into the darkness.  This whole operation had been planned out carefully and everyone had a specific job to carry out.

One of the passengers, Mr. Fancy Clothes, who thought he was better than Hoss and his silly jokes, stepped forward.  “This is an outrage,” he cried.  “I demand you let us go.  We’ve nothing you want.”

A shot rang out, and the man’s felt derby flew from his head before his body pitched backward and landed flat on the ground.  Martha gasped.  Her gloved hands flew to her mouth and I stepped toward her.  “It’s okay,” I whispered.  “Just do as they say, and we’ll be fine.”

“You.”  I looked toward the man who spoke.  “Yeah, you.  Step forward.”  My heart was in my throat.  Why was I being singled out?  I glanced up at Hoss before taking that initial step.  A man leaned over his horse and handed me a blazing torch.  “Burn it.”

I held the torch, but I didn’t moved.  The man pulled his gun and pointed it at my chest.  I took a step back and threw the burning branch inside the stage.  “What about the horses?”

“Back in line,” he said, giving no thought to my question.

The stage came alive with flames, blazing through its windows and doors as the six-horse team bolted into the night.  Most likely, the team would panic even more before they would succumb to a premature death.  None of us moved.  We all stood in line waiting for who knows what.  Death?  Stranded in the desert?  This wasn’t a typical robbery.  There was nothing at all typical about these men.  I feared our nightmare had only begun.

~~~

We were not tied or beaten or shot, but we were ordered to march through the dark of night surrounded by the dozen or so men who’d hauled us off the stage.  We walked forward in a straight line; no one made a sound, there were no complaints, and no worthless outbursts after what happened to Mr. Fancy Clothes.  The poor man was never buried.  He was left to rot, eaten by scavengers who prowled these parts in search of easy prey.

The ground was rocky and unsuitable for walking any distance, and Miss Prescott was having trouble keeping up with the rest of the group.  Charlie kept his bandana handy, wiping sweat from his face.  He also struggled with the pace the gunmen had set. Charlie, who we’d ridden with many times before, was an older man, maybe Pa’s age and heavyset, and this journey through the canyon was definitely hard on him. He had the spot in line in front of Miss Prescott, then me, and then Hoss brought up the rear.  I couldn’t really see to the front of the line but two more men led the way.

The tall peaks of the canyon blocked any moonlight we might have had, but the torches lit our path.  We kept to the road with a mountainside to our right and a steep drop-off to our left.  A fast-running stream crooked its way at the bottom of the cliff, but it was a long way down and certain death if anyone tried to escape.

By dawn, we had walked several miles in complete silence.  Boots were made for riding, not walking, and all of us were struggling to stay on our feet.  The first two men in line I thought might be brothers.  They looked more alike than Hoss and me ever would in fact, no one ever took us for kin.

When Miss Prescott suddenly fell forward, I reached out to help her back up.  A whip cracked unexpectedly, and I arched my back when sudden heat seared through my jacket and shirt, stinging the skin underneath.  “I’m just helping the lady,” I said in anger.

“No talkin’, boy.  Get back in line.”

“She’s hurt,” I said, not caring what these men said or did.

“I’m all right, Mr. Cartwright.”  Miss Prescott pushed herself up from the ground and limped forward to her place in line.

“Give me your boots, Cartwright.”

“What?  Why?”  The man carrying the whip let it go slack alongside his mount.  “You need a reminder?”

“Joe,” Hoss whispered urgently.

I peeled off my boots and a Mexican came forward, picked them up, and carried them away. Now, I was sock-footed, and I knew the soles of my feet would be scraped and bruised in no time.

“Move.”

These were men of few words, but they were on a mission.  There was an overall plan none of us were aware of just yet.  I was tired and most of all thirsty.  No one had been given water or rest.  We kept walking through the narrow canyon for what seemed like hours.  

Welcome to the west, Miss Prescott.

~~~

Charlie fell to his knees then steadied himself, forcing his hand to the ground while wiping his forehead with the other.  I held my position in line and glanced over my shoulder at Hoss. He shook his head slightly; I knew what he was trying to say. “Leave him be.  There’s nothing we can do for him so don’t even try.”

“Get movin’.”  The man with the whip shouted.  “You, you, you,” he pointed to Miss Prescott, Hoss and me.  “Go around him.  He’s as good as dead.”

Were we just gonna leave him there?  He wouldn’t last out the day without water.  I glared at the idiot who’d spoken, and I realized that Charlie—fat and old—was dispensable.  I knew that now, same as the fancy dude.  Two passengers eliminated, five of us left to carry out some kind of plan these men had previously orchestrated.

We’d come out of the canyon and onto a rocky plateau where a tall rock formation gleamed ahead—statuesque in its beauty—in the bright morning sun.  We were steered in that direction but how far it was; I had no idea.  Things were deceiving in this barren land, maybe five miles, maybe only one.  I couldn’t judge the distance. But as we drew closer, three men rode ahead, leaving the rest of our kidnappers to circle us like vultures and keep us in line.

By the time we reached the pillar of rocks, we were allowed to sit in the shade and a full canteen was passed between the five of us.  Although the water was warm, it soothed our throats and gave us hope we’d make it through the rest of the day.

The men I thought were brothers sat together a short distance away.  We’d never made introductions, but it seemed obvious to me they preferred being loners and not joining up with us three.  Miss Prescott chose to sit between Hoss and me.  She removed her bonnet and fanned her face—her bright, red face.  She was close to exhaustion.  We all were.  We’d walked for hours across rocks and through sage, one of us without the luxury of footwear.

“How’re your feet doin’?”  Hoss whispered.

“I’ll live.”  At least that was the plan.  No one had stepped out of line.  No one spoke or moved.  We sat in near silence, waiting for whatever came next.

I thought of the gray, who I’d use to service the mares we’d come to pick up from Mr. Chandler.  Three of them were four years old and one was five, perfect for breeding. I imagined their foals, high-spirited and strong, not a bad one in the bunch.  If we were lucky, and all the mares bred, I would have seven new mounts I could train and control and would become useful on the Ponderosa.

For now, the gray was still free to roam the countryside.  No bit, no saddle, and no rider to slow him down but given time, I would own him.  The Ponderosa would become his home.  I would call all the shots, and he would willingly obey my commands, at least that was my future intent.

“On your feet.”

The shouted command pulled me from my daydream, and I pushed up from the ground after only a ten-minute rest in the shade.  The sun was already blistering hot, and the day had just begun.  I glanced at Hoss; he didn’t look well at all.  Neither did Miss Prescott.  I suppose we were all worse for wear, hoping this was our final destination and then realizing we were steadily moving forward once again, single file, the five of us pushed forward.

We weren’t allowed water again until midday.  Hoss and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast yesterday, never thinking something like this might happen on a simple horse-buying trip. I’m sure the others were as hungry as me, but no one was as hungry as Hoss.

Suddenly, I was facedown on the ground.  My foot had rolled over a loose rock, and I’d fallen. I lifted my head and saw Miss Prescott had slowed but not stopped.  Her black skirt shimmered like lake water.  I licked my lips and heard a man shout out, “Keep movin’.”

“Come on, Joe,” Hoss said in his sternest voice.  “Get up.”  I rolled to my side and cupped my hands around my eyes to block the sun’s searing rays.  Hoss stood over me.  His voice was harsh and direct; I knew he meant business.  “Joe!  Now!”

I didn’t answer, but I pushed myself to my feet, feeling the earth burning through what was left of my socks.  “I’m comin’, Hoss.”  Our positions had changed.  I was riding drag now, following my brother and the line in front of him.  There had been no stopping on my account and without Hoss’ fierce words I might have given up. My brother only did what came natural.  He’d never let me die in the desert.

~~~

We were allowed a second break, another canteen and a handful of hardtack to share between us.  Hoss divvied out the hardtack to each person and no one complained. No one had the energy.  Although I hadn’t noticed and had barely looked up from the ground after I’d fallen, the terrain had changed.  We were nearing foothills now and would be climbing soon.  None of this made sense.  The gunmen didn’t talk and neither did we, and the silence was just as unnerving as the reason we all been taken hostage in the first place.

We rested for a while, but I was having trouble distinguishing time and distance.  We walked until the sun set, and then we walked some more.  I shivered in the cold night air.  The day had been so hot, so incredibly miserable, I expect the night air felt much colder than it actually was.

Miss Prescott had been a trooper.  She’d only tripped up once and although none of us knew our fate, she stood to lose more than any man here.  She was a handsome woman, I’d say about ten years my senior, and she’d done a fine job, forcing one foot in front of the other across this uneven land with nary a complaint.  Given the opportunity, I would have congratulated her, but we’d be punished somehow if we spoke.  I kept my thoughts to myself.

~~~

By the second morning, the pace had slowed.  Between the heat and cold and the lack of food and water, it was a miracle we’d made it this far.  Dead ahead stood a wooden wall—strange to see any kind of structure in this barren landscape.  And, the closer we got, I realized it was indeed a four-sided barn.  One of the men opened the doors and we filed in one-by-one. There were four stalls along one side, bunks on the other, and it looked as though we’d be bedding down alongside the animals for the night.

But, I was wrong.

A Mexican kicked loose straw across the floor and pulled opened a trapdoor in the center of the room, leading down to a root cellar.  He went down first, carrying a torch and we were ordered to follow.  Hoss couldn’t stand up straight, making the room about six feet tall and maybe ten-by-ten at the most.  It had a dirt floor with walls of solid stone.  It was foul smelling and claustrophobic, with no windows and no way to escape.  A second man entered the pit behind us.

“Welcome to your new home.”  We all stared at the man, who held a rifle across his chest as he spoke.  “You will notice there are four buckets; one in each corner.  You will use them when needed.  You will be fed and watered once a day.  You are free to move around inside the cellar.  No one will be tied or chained unless disobedient in some way.  Your will to live will keep you alive.  Weakness will prove fatal.”  His stance altered slightly.  “Questions?”

“What’s this all about?”  One of the men asked.

“Can’t answer that one.  Any others?”

“How long you gonna keep us here like animals?” the younger man spoke but kept close to his probable brother.

“That depends.”

“On what?”  I said defiantly.  Hoss nudged my side.

“Watch that tone, boy.”

I looked up at Hoss, who was trying to keep me in line, but I was mad, and my blistered feet burned like fire.

“No more questions?  Sleep well.”

~~~

We were reduced to touch.  Not even the whites of a man’s eyes showed when the room went pitch black.  “Guess we might as well get comfortable,” I said, breaking the silence.  I felt for the wall and slid down to the ground.  Hoss sat down beside me while Miss Prescott eased herself down on the other.

Minutes later the door opened, and we all stared at the brightly lit torch as a man made his way down the stone steps.  He was an Indian, one who fetched and carried for the white men. He placed a bucket of water and a cloth bag in the middle of the room, and without a word he was gone, the trap door was closed and the room went black again.  All five of us scrambled to the center where I grabbed the bag and held it to my chest.  I pulled on the rope that secured the top.

“What’s in there, boy?”

“Don’t call me boy,” I said calmly, trying to loosen the knot.  “My name’s Joe.  The big guy next to me is my brother, Hoss.”

“Who the hell cares?  What’s in the bag?”

“Bet you’d like to know.”  Hoss move in closer beside me.

“You’re a smart mouth, ain’t ya?”

I heard movement.  “You wearing the red shirt?”  I asked, still without raising my voice.

“Yeah, what of it?”

“Just wondered who I was talking to.  You got a name?”

“Why?”

“Well, the way I see it, we stand a better chance as allies rather than enemies.”

“Give me the damn bag,” he said.

Before I knew what hit me, Redshirt lunged across the floor and knocked me on my back.  I threw the bag sideways, and rolled across the dirt floor with Redshirt in tow. When we hit a wall, he was on top of me, choking me with both hands as I tried desperately to suck in air.  There were other noises, but I couldn’t distinguish anything but Redshirt’s thumbs pressing against my neck.

“Hold it right there.”

Hoss to the rescue.  I sighed heavily and coughed from the bottom of my lungs as he yanked Redshirt off me, separating us before one of us was seriously injured.  But the door suddenly opened and a guard stood at the top of the stairs.  “You two.”  He pointed at redshirt and me. “Out.”  I glanced at Hoss then back at the guard.  “Now.” Redshirt and I made our way up the stairs, out of the barn and into the bright sunlight.  

“Take off your boots.”  The guard’s command was aimed at Redshirt, but Redshirt didn’t move.  “Take ‘em off.”

He removed his boots when the man cocked his rifle.  A chain with an iron cuff was attached to his right ankle; a second iron cuff was clamped and locked around mine. We stood only three feet apart, staring at each other.  He outweighed me by at least twenty or thirty pounds and was a few inches taller, but my brothers had taught me well.  

This process was an old Paiute trick; I knew what was coming, and I dreaded the guard’s next words.  I hope I had the strength to end a man’s live in order to stay alive myself.

“You will fight to the death,” the guard said, adjusting his rifle across his chest.

I glared at Redshirt, and he glared back at me.  I didn’t even know the man’s name, yet I’d been ordered to kill him.  One of us would die, and one of us would go back to the cellar.  I wasn’t sure which was worse, but the instinct to survive suddenly kicked in, and I knew what had to be done.

If anything, I knew how to fight and if need be, I could fight dirty.  I could grab unmentionables, bite, and scratch my way to the top, and if I wanted to stay alive, that’s exactly what I had to do.  This wasn’t a friendly barroom brawl.  This was life or death, and I was ready to take him on.

But he got the jump on me and took the first swing.  My head jerked sideways when his fist blasted across my jaw though I came back swinging.  I bashed my head into his midsection, but he rose up and struck me, double-fisted, on the back of the head. I hit his gut with my right fist then laid one across his face with my left.  Back and forth we went until neither of us could remain on our feet.  He’d learned to fight dirty, too.

I fell to knees then flopped to the ground; my breathing was rapid, and I reached up slowly and rubbed my swelling jaw.  Pain swam through my ribs and head, but I’d given Redshirt enough to keep him from coming back at me.  He lay flat on his back; our ankles still chained and the pull of the iron cuff against my foot caused my leg to cramp and my body to curl in on itself.

“Till the death,” the guard shouted.  Every guard carried a Sharps and his was cocked and pointed at me.

I couldn’t sit up and neither could Redshirt.  If either of us were going to die, the guard would have to shoot us.  Neither of us had the strength to continue.  I was still catching my breath when I was hauled to my feet along with my connected partner. With our backs against a tree, the guard attached a second set of cuffs to our free ankles, and we were forced to remain standing.  Our legs were spread enough that neither of us could sit down.  The sun was far from setting, and I was the one facing west.  The afternoon dragged on forever, and I wet my lips more than I should have, while the three guards laughed and made sadistic jokes regarding our predicament.

“My apologies,” said Redshirt.  “Didn’t have no call to act like that.  Name’s Matthew.  My brother Sammy’s inside.”

“Helluva way to get to know you, Matthew.”

“You were right all along,” he said, still breathing heavily.

I chuckled.  “That’s not usually the case, according to my eldest brother.”

“Silencio,” said one of the guards.

Matthew and I were quiet after that.  If either of us fell forward, it would probably snap the other man’s ankles.  I was glad we’d settled things for now.  Our positions were awkward. Neither of us could actually stand up straight, we were forced to lean back against the tree for support.  By the time the sun slid behind the mountaintops, my legs were shaking.  Unexpected tremors seized my calves and pulled at my thighs.

We stayed like that for hours.  I leaned my head back against the rough bark and raised my arms over my head, trying to stretch out the tightness in my back.  I heard Matthew moan, and I prayed he could stay on his feet for however long this punishment lasted.  He looked to be just a couple years older than me.  He was built well, strong enough to stay upright if he concentrated.

At some point during the night, we were set free.  Matthew fell to the ground while I turned and pressed the side of my face against the wide trunk.  We were ordered back inside the cellar, and when I stumbled and started to fall down the stairs, Hoss was there to catch me. He’d stayed awake, waiting for my return.

~~~

We couldn’t tell day from night.  I was cold and hungry and tired of the game these men played with our lives.  The Indian would bring food and water by torchlight. Sometimes I ate the cold jerky and hardtack and other times, I couldn’t force a bite. Hoss groused at me constantly.  “Eat, ya dang fool.  Ya gotta eat.”

“You eat it,” I’d return wildly, throwing my portion on his lap.  I knew he was trying to keep me alive but as days wore on, I didn’t much care whether I lived or died.  I was too tired to care; my mind was working overtime.  I was imprisoned by nightmares if I fell asleep so I tried to remain awake as I heard gentle snores coming from the other captives.  I wanted out of this damn hole in the ground.  One day led to two; a week passed, and then I lost count.

Although Matthew and I had made peace, the days were long, living in total darkness. We’d all become restless and irritable, and I may have been the worst of the group.  I lacked patience and at times my temper flared for no reason although we’d learned to keep our arguments comprised of just a few angry words, nothing that would bring the guards or another round of punishment.

“They’re tryin’ to break us, Joe,” Hoss said, after one of my restless periods.  “Don’t know why, but ya gotta keep your head on straight.”

“Straight?  Living his this damn hole in the ground?”

“Yep.  Now quit your fussin’.  They ain’t gonna keep us here forever.”

~~~

The stagecoach had been burned and the horses were probably dead, and whether we’d died in the fire or jumped from the burning coach would be anyone’s guess. Search parties would have given up by now, knowing none of us could have survived this long in the desert without food and water.  It was up to us to decide our fate, but I was quickly losing my desire to care whether we were set free or not.

Thinking about Pa and Adam only brought tears to my eyes.  Neither Hoss nor I bought up the subject of home; it was much too painful to carry on about another time, another life where we were free to come and go as we pleased.  I had no idea how long it had been since Hoss and I boarded the stage and waved goodbye.  We’d planned to ride the mares home, alternating between the four.  Our saddles had been loaded on top with our luggage, which wasn’t much more than a change of clothes, but I could sure use that change now.

Sammy had become sick; the stench was overwhelming and we all paid the price. Food and water was still being delivered daily, but we all agreed to let Sammy have whatever he needed before the rest of us took part in our one meal a day.  If I never had to eat hardtack and jerky again, I’d be a very happy man.

“My brother needs a doctor,” Matthew begged one night when the Mexican brought our food.

“Only the strong survive, señor.  Boss’ rules.”

“Who the hell is this boss?”  I asked, “And when the hell do we get outta here?”

“Silencio, señor.  No make trouble, comprende?”  The Mexican left the room, and the door was locked behind him.  The routine always remained the same.

~~~

The air smelled of sickness.  Sammy’s bowels had given way, and the stench had caused most of us—me first and then the others—to vomit without moving toward the remaining buckets. The air was heavy and foul, and there’d been no way to escape, no way to breath without becoming ill once again.

So as my mind drifted off, I often dreamed of catching the gray, of keeping him as my own, but he was not a horse that could be confined to paddock or barn.  He needed his freedom more than he needed me, and even if I held up his womenfolk as ransom, as bait, he’d never be content in just one place.  He’d always need to run free.

This hadn’t been a kidnapping for ransom or Hoss and I would be free by now just like the gray.  Even though we were pinned up like the stallion’s mares, this seemed different somehow.  But was it?  We were confined.  We had no choices.  We had to obey orders, and in the darkness of the cellar, I was seeing many things in a different light.

Rusted hinges generally announced the arrival of food and drink.  The Mexican with his blazing torch would set the necessary items in the middle of the room, but none of us scrambled anymore to tear open the bag, no one cared who ate or when.  We were all dying a slow, insane death, and no one knew why.  No one asked questions or tried to maintain optimism of a future outside the stone walls.

“You awake?”  The voice was deep and familiar . . . Hoss?  Pa?  “Somethin’s up.”  I couldn’t think past my own misery; my mind was playing games, but the voice was real, and instead of the torch, blinding our eyes for that brief moment once a day, a new command was given.  

“Everyone out.”  The guards voice echoed through the cellar; the words floating through the dank pit like a forgotten dream.  There was movement, shadows bounced against the walls, and I was being pulled up from the ground.  

“No, I can’t,” I pleaded.  The thought of iron cuffs was more than I could take.  That day had haunted me endlessly; they’d have to drag me out if they wanted to chain me back to that tree.

“Come on, Joseph.  Time to go.”

It was Hoss; I knew that now and although I missed Pa, I didn’t want him to see me like this. I didn’t want anyone to see me.  I was sick and dirty and when Hoss pulled me to my feet, I felt light-headed and all mixed up inside.

My head swam and my vision blurred as I looked up toward the light flowing down the steep set of stairs, leading to freedom.  I was guided across the pit and forced to climb.  I fell forward on my hands, but Hoss continued to push me up the steps until I reached the top where a different man grabbed under my arm and dragged me out of the barn.

I lay on my belly, unmoving, letting the sun’s warm rays beat down on me, healing, bringing me back to life.  I dug my fingers into the hot, dry sand, cupping the earth with my palms and feeling the sudden rush of heat against my cheek.  My eyes remained closed to the bright sunlight.  Maybe it was all a dream.  I dug my fingers deeper into the sand.

“Look at this one.”  Something heavy pressed against my back.  “I think he a crazy man now.”

I tried to crawl away, but I was trapped in place by the heavy weight.  I only wanted to cover myself with the warmth, bury myself in the sand.

“Some are never right again.  You seen that before, Miguel?

”Si, I seen it happen.”

“Get your foot off my brother.”  I was pulled to my feet, and Hoss wrapped his arm tightly around my waist, keeping me away from the guards.  “Come on, Joe.  Snap out of it.”

I started to laugh.  I snapped my fingers, both hands worked just fine.  I showed my brother.  “See?”

“That’s good, Joe.  Let’s walk some.”

“Okay.”

“You ain’t eaten enough to feed a bird, ya dadblamed fool.  Why’d ya go and give all your food to Matthew?”

“Sammy—“

Hoss didn’t say anything more; he forced me to walk.  I pressed my hands to the sides my head, trying to remember why I hadn’t eaten.  Sammy . . . sick . . .my mind was so clouded and rushing with various thoughts, dreams, memories of weeks in the cellar. Maybe it was the heat, the blessed heat.  I’d been cold for so long.

“Sammy’s dead and you ain’t . . . so keep walkin’.”

I did as I was told.  Hoss held me to one side; he held Miss Prescott to the other.  He made us walk away from the barn.  My vision was clear now, and it was all coming back, the stage, the kidnapping, the walking, and the pit.  What now?  More walking? I wanted to laugh.  Miss Prescott beat me to it, laughing and crying in unison.

Hoss let go of me and tried to keep her on her feet.  Her hair clips were gone, and her reddish-brown tresses were matted with God only knows what from lying on the damp floor. Her entire appearance was disturbing; her pristine traveling suit was ruined, and her awareness of the situation was lacking strength.

I took her other arm; Hoss and I guided her slowly back and forth across a wide area outside the barn.  She continued to cry.  I glanced up at Hoss, who had never been comfortable around womenfolk.  I pulled her to my chest and, after she laid her head against my shoulder, I rubbed her back gently.  “It’s okay,” I said before realizing how foolish my words sounded. “Stay with us, Martha.”  I hugged her tight as silent tears continued.

~~~

“Time to go.”  One of the guards said.  It seemed we’d be walking again.  “Let the woman go,” he said.

“It’s okay,” I repeated to Martha.  “You can do this.”

Hoss, Martha and I lined up together, waiting for the next command.  Hoss’ initial words filtered through my head.  “Sammy’s dead.”  I looked down at the prone body, and Matthew, buttoning the top button of the boy’s shirt.  He must have carried him up the steps while we were attending to Martha.  They were family, just like Hoss and I, and my heart ached.

“At least let me bury my brother,” Matthew said.

My knees felt weak, and Hoss reached around my waist to steady me on my feet. Sammy had died in the cellar, and I didn’t even know when it happened.  No loving words to remember a brother.  No stone at all.  I rubbed my eyes.  I needed to get my head straight or I would end up just like the dead boy.

“You know the rules,” the guard said, aiming his rifle at Matthew.  “Now get movin’.”

“Come on, Matt,” Hoss said.  “You gotta leave ‘im behind.”

“Listen to the big hombre.  He’s the only one with any sense in his head.  If the smaller one cannot walk, he stays behind.”

“Stand up, Joe.  We gotta get movin’.  You gotta walk by yourself.”

“Hoss?”

“That’s good, Joe.”

“I’m okay.  I can walk.”

“See that you do.”  Again, Hoss’ voice was stern and unyielding.

The Mexican threw my boots down in front of me.  I slipped them on over my bare feet.

~~~

In the distance, I saw a trail of dust, a stagecoach?  Hoss saw it too.  We were all lined up, and our hands had been tied in front of us.  The coach stopped in front of the broken-down barn.  It wasn’t a normal coach; it sat lower to the ground, square, with sides built of iron, an iron hatch was lowered at the rear of the strange looking metal box.

“All aboard.”

Hoss gently pulled at Matthew’s arm.  Sammy was dead; nothing could be done for him now. Brothers, separated by death; I couldn’t imagine how Matt felt, leaving his young brother behind.  I could never do that to Hoss.

Hot, cold, hot cold.

The iron box was sweltering, and we were crammed together like matchsticks.  We were prisoners, but why?  Why had this ragtag team of men chosen us, picked us off that stage and eliminated who they deemed worthless?  Although I’d barely eaten in days, my stomach was upset by the constant jostling between Hoss and the unforgiving rear end of the coach.  My brother had to duck his head forward in the tiny space we were allowed.  Mile after mile, with a small back window where swirls of dust made my head pound as though a pickaxe was splitting right through the middle.

The ride was rough, and it seemed the trail was seldom used for passenger travel. Our heads hit the roof when we’d come off our seats, bouncing over bumps and dipping into ruts in the road.  I leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees and laying my head in my hands.  What kind of hell was this?

When we exited the coach, we were lined up; only four out of seven had survived the trip, and the odds were against any of us enduring more days like this.  The coach pulled away, leaving a cloud of dust and three guards to watch over four confused and exhausted hostages.  Miss Prescott was barely hanging on; Matthew was at a loss without Sammy.  Hoss and I stood together; we found strength in each other.

By now, we were accustomed to the rules.  We’d only been fed and watered enough to keep us alive.  We’d been educated in such a way we were grateful for any kindness given.  Food and drink had been necessary, but when the cuffs came off my ankles, I thanked God.  And when I’d felt the hot sand against my face after countless days, lying in a cold, dark pit, I felt relieved and thankful.  Small pleasures I justified as gifts from my captors.

My thoughts were still muddled; we’d all met our limit after so many days in the cellar.  Although it was brutally hot outside, not fall or winter but still summer, nothing made sense.  It seemed we been imprisoned a lifetime already.  I tried to clear my head, but it was no use.  The numbers didn’t add up.  I was hot and tired, I wanted a hot meal and a soft bed although I didn’t think that was the plan.

The four of us had dark circles under our eyes, and our faces were sallow and drawn from lack of a normal existence.  We all smelled like the devil, wearing the clothes we’d left home in, and forgoing the obvious lack of proper hygiene known to modern man.  I wanted to lean on Hoss, but that was against the rules.  He was no better off than I and could barely keep upright himself.

~~~

“Welcome.”

The voice was unfamiliar but the man spoke with authority.  Maybe he was the boss we’d all heard about for so long.  After being held prisoner all this time, I didn’t much care who he was or what he had to say.

“Welcome to Mule’s Crossing.”  A man dressed in light-colored clothing stood on a step, looking down at the four of us as if we were guests in his home.  “Like the rest of my sons and daughters, you may call me father.  You will abide by the guidelines I set, and you will learn from experience what needs to be accomplished in a day’s time.

“We are family here at Mule’s Crossing, and we will have no problems whatsoever if you choose to obey the rules.  We have a job to do here, and your utmost cooperation is essential for this operation to succeed.  You will be given decent quarters and generous helpings of food if your work is completed on time and without disruption.

“I’m told there were seven of you taken from the stage, and I regret only four of you have made the trip to your new home.  If a man is weak in body and mind, he is worthless to me. So, I welcome you with open arms.  Consider yourselves part of my family, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.  Again, welcome.”

Even if we’d been allowed to speak, I think we were all in shock.  Who the hell was this guy?  Family?  Ha!  That was a joke, and he was the biggest joke of all.

“Miss?” he continued.  “I’ve been informed your name is Martha.  You will follow me. The rest of you will be placed in the cabin I have designated for new arrivals. Mr. Montoya will escort the three gentlemen now.”

Like sheep to the slaughter, we followed Montoya and of course, another man followed with rifle in hand.  Again, Hoss had to duck his head to get inside, but he could stand up straight thereafter.  There were four bunks, bunk beds actually.  Hoss and I walked one side of the room, and Matthew the other.  I took the top bunk.

On top of each mattress, lay a pillow, a blanket and a new set of clothes, Mexican peasant clothes; a white pullover shirt and white pants with a drawstring waist, and a rope we would use for a belt.  On a wooden table sat a bucket of water.  Next to the bucket was a bar of soap and a towel.  It seemed we would all have to share.  I glanced at Hoss then turned to Montoya.  He stood in the doorway, watching our faces as we scanned our new surroundings.

“You will wash and change into new clothes and you have the rest of the evening to get settled.  Someone will bring food later.  Tomorrow is a workday.”

“What kind of work,” I asked.

“You will see tomorrow.”  The door was closed and braced with a heavy slat of wood. The only window in the cabin had no glass panes, but iron bars like a jail cell.  There was no easy means of escape.

“Well, what do you think?”  I plopped down on Hoss’ bed.  He took a seat next to me while Matthew remained standing, pacing the tiny room.

“Hell, I don’t know, Joe, but I’ll tell you one thing.  I ain’t callin’ that man father.”

In all my days, I’d never hear Hoss say a curse word, and it proved to me how disgusted he was with this whole thing.  “Hello, Father.  How are you this lovely morning,” I said, mockingly.  I got a rise out of Hoss and even a smile from Matthew. “What would you have us do today, Father?  Maybe beat the hell out of you for starters?”  By now, both roommates were laughing for the first time in a long time.

~~~

Dressed in our white peasant clothes, we were ordered out of the cabin and were marched back to the large, wooden house with a stone chimney and a wooden front porch.  This is where we’d first met the man, who called himself Father.  Again, the three of us were lined up, shoulder-to-shoulder, in the front yard.  There were actually trees growing on either side of the house, but how they survived in this dry, arid land, I wasn’t really sure.

“Good morning, my sons.”  The man stood on the porch with his hands behind his back and his feet spread widely apart.  He wore a floppy white hat on his head. “Okay.  Now it’s your turn, gentlemen.  Good morning, Father.”

None of us spoke.  I wanted to laugh.

“I see these men need a little convincing.  Mr. Montoya?”

“Take off your boots.”  Montoya wasted no time and in his dull, monotone voice, he got right to the heart of the matter.  The three of us looked at each other and simply did as the man asked.  Montoya picked them up, carried them to the front steps of the porch, and placed them in front of the idiot called Father.

“Let’s try this again.  Good morning, Father.”

Still, no one spoke.

“Mr. Montoya?”

“Remove your shirts.”

“What?”  I said softly.  “You’re kidding, right?”

“No, señor.  I no make joke.”

We pulled our shirts up over our heads, and they were folded and carried to the front porch along with the rope we’d used as a belt.

“I assume you get the picture now, gentlemen.  Should we try again?”

I wasn’t about to stand naked in front of this bastard.  Hoss nodded his head and in unison, we offered the greeting.  “Good morning, Father.”

“Now you understand how things work.  Your clothes will be returned at the end of the workday.  Mr. Montoya, will you escort my sons to their designated jobs?”

I didn’t know what day it was or even what month, but I knew it was hot and by day’s end, we’d wish we’d been dressed appropriately.  Heck, it was just a word.  Father, father, father.  It meant nothing at all.

Hoss and I were soon separated.  I’d hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but it had. Matthew and I were taken to a large, circular pit—an aboveground mine—and given over to a man named Ricardo.  Montoya would collect us later and take us back to our cabin.  I’d only been aware of underground mines in Virginia City; I’d never seen anything quite like this.  The pit was enormous and without boots, Matthew and I would struggle for the next twelve hours, nearly sunup to sundown.

“Welcome to Mule’s Crossing,” Ricardo said.  “We extract copper here for shipment east and as you can see, the family is already working.  The days are long and Father expects you to pull your weight or there are consequences you don’t want to face.  I expect you’ll want to keep up with your brothers and sisters and finish out the day in good standing.”

I missed Hoss already.  Maybe I was in shock, but this was the craziest mess we’d ever gotten ourselves into.  All this father and family business was ridiculous. Tonight, Hoss and I would figure some way out of this place.  None of us would last much longer, day in and day out, under the harsh rays of the sun.  The cellar had taken a lot out of us, but we weren’t totally broken.  We were thin and weak, and I had trouble concentrating on what needed to be accomplished by the end of the day. Matt was in the same boat.  We tried to set our minds on work, but it was a difficult process.

Even after the steak and potatoes, we’d had for supper last night, Matthew and I were still not up to par physically.  It was our first decent meal in weeks, but our bodies had become fragile without exercise and proper nutrition.  I wondered how Martha was making out.  What was her job in this so-called family?  Had she been reduced to wearing these Mexican clothes too, or had something else been planned for the womenfolk who’d been captured and brought to this godforsaken part of the country?

~~~

Matthew and I were put to work as drillers.  We hammered spikes into rock, deep enough to hold dynamite and blow away the side of the mountain.  There were about twenty other drillers working our area, all with boots on their feet.  This was the second time I’d lost my footwear.  Matthew and I stood on the smoothest rocks we could find, drilling one hole after the other with the sun, blazing against our backs and the top of our heads.  An old woman came by once an hour, carrying a bucket and dipper and offered us water to drink.  And yes, she was dressed just like the men.

I didn’t know what had happened to Hoss; I hoped he was safe, but I wouldn’t see him until we returned to our cabin for the night.  The heated rocks blistered our feet, and it was a challenge to remain steady and pound the hammer when neither of us were used to this type of work.

“My arm’s about to fall off, Joe.”

“I know what you mean, but don’t let anyone know you’re wearing down.  I imagine there’s some kind of punishment for that too.”

We broke for lunch, some kind of meatless stew, but filling all the same.  I was almost too tired to eat though I managed the entire plate and washed it down with a cup of tepid water. Matthew was near exhaustion.  His face was red and his right hand was blistered, as was my left.  I saved some of my water and poured it over both of our hands.  For moments, we were relieved of the soreness, but it only masked the pain temporarily.  Soon, we were back to work.

When the first day ended, I noticed, in the distance, an outbuilding I hadn’t seen on the way in this morning.  There was music, a guitar, playing some Spanish melody. Maybe that’s where some of the workers lived.  Hell, what did I know?  Everyone seemed so damn obedient; there was no one I could trust but Hoss and Matthew if the three of us attempted an escape.

Matthew and I returned to the cabin before my brother.  I flopped down on Hoss’ bunk, knowing he would wake me when he came in.  I didn’t have the strength to climb up to my own bed.  But I was still awake when the door opened and Montoya brought in a young man I’d never seen before.  I pushed myself up and sat on the edge of the bunk.

“New man,” Montoya said before closing the door behind him.  I wanted to ask about Hoss but he’d already gone.

The poor kid just stood there, unmoving.  “I’m Joe,” I said.

“I’m Matthew.”

“What is this place?” the boy asked.

I started to laugh.  “Hell.”  He was younger than me, maybe late teens, maybe younger than that.

“They shot my pa.  Shot him in the chest and left him on the road to die.”

I shook my head.  “I’m sorry.”

“Why?  Pa didn’t do nothin’ to those men.”

“I don’t know.”  The kid didn’t look well at all.  His eyes were red and swollen, and he was fighting the pain of his father’s death.  “Here,” I said.  “Lie down here for a while. We should get supper soon.”  He hadn’t told us his name, but he walked to Hoss’ bunk and laid face down.  I slid down the cabin wall, down to the dirt floor.  The boy cried himself to sleep.

Supper for three was brought to the cabin.  “Where’s my brother?  Where’s Hoss?”

“Do not know.”

“Yes, you do.  Where is he?  Why hasn’t he come back?”

“Do not know,” said the Mexican.  “Do not want trouble either.”

“There’s gonna be plenty of trouble if I don’t get an answer.”

The man glanced over his shoulder at the guard who stood outside the cabin door.  “He disobey order,” he whispered.

“So?  Where is he now?”  I kept my voice low too.

“Father punish him.”

“Punish him how?”

“Do not know.  Please, señor.  No more questions.”

The Mexican left, and I had no answers that made any sense.  Of all people, Hoss wouldn’t cause a ruckus.  I knew him better than that.  I glanced at Matthew, who’d already lost his brother.  He knew what I was feeling and, without either of us commenting, I slid back down the wall, covered my head with my hands, and rested my face on my knees.

Hoss never arrived that night.  I climbed to my bunk, but sleep didn’t come until early dawn, just before Matthew shook my shoulder to wake me.  “Time to get up,” he said.

“Hoss?”

“No.  It’s Matt.”

I jumped down to the dirt floor and looked at both men standing in front of me when the door opened and Montoya stepped in.  “Where’s my brother?”  I turned to face the man.  “Why isn’t he here?”

“He’s being held over.”

“Held over?  What the hell does that mean?”

“Time to go,” he said, waving his rifle toward the door.

Matthew and the new boy started outside.  I stared at Montoya.  “Is he hurt?  Is my brother hurt?”

“Time to go.”

We were lined up again in front of the big house.  “Good morning, my sons.”

Matthew was the only one to answer.  “Good morning, Father.”

“Welcome to the family, Solomon.  Your new brothers, Matthew and Joseph will be instructing you through your day’s work.  You adhere to the rules and there’ll be no need for discipline.  As you can see, my son Matthew has addressed me with proper respect.  My son Joseph has forgotten his manners this morning.”

Now I knew the kid’s name, and I looked up when my own name was spoken.  Only my immediate family had the right to call me Joseph, not this . . . this animal, who made my skin crawl with his stupid demands.

“Joseph?  Have you forgotten your manners?”

“Where’s my brother?”

A smile crossed the boss’ face.  “Manners first, Joseph.”

“Good morning, Father.  What have you done with my brother?”

“The big one?”

“Yeah—the big one.”

“I hate to inform you, son, but the big one disobeyed an order and therefore, he was in dire need of correction.  I’m afraid he is unable to work today, which means he will also have to go without meals or water since he can’t put in a full workday. Those are the rules that must be followed if we want to maintain a family atmosphere here at Mule’s Crossing.”

“Hoss would never . . . I know my brother.”

“You’re trying my patience, son.  Mr. Montoya, will you feed and water my boys and get their day started?”

“Yessir.”

Although Matthew’s shirt and boots were returned to him, mine were not.  My back was already on fire from yesterday and by tonight, it would be blistered, and there was nothing I could do to remedy the situation.  God only knew what Hoss was going through.  I prayed he was still alive.

~~~

It was five long days before my brother returned to our cabin.  He stood inside the doorway and just stared.  He didn’t acknowledge my presence when I went up and touched his arm. “Hoss?”  He said nothing.  He crawled onto his bunk and turned his head to face to the wall.  I followed him and sat down on the edge of his bed.  “Hoss? Talk to me.  Tell me what happened.”

There was only silence.  I glanced at Matthew and our new roommate, Solomon, who stood next to their own bunks, staring back at me.  “Let him rest, Joe.  No telling what they’ve put him through.”

Over the next several days, I obeyed every order given.  My boots and shirt had been returned after I learned my manners.  Hoss had never said a word.  When he’d returned that first night, his face was bruised and his knuckles were swollen and raw. There’d been some kind of altercation although he wouldn’t talk.  Again, we went our separate ways.  Hoss went one way, and the three of us continued our work with the drilling crew.  I had no idea what my brother’s job was or what punishment he’d endured.

Hoss never spoke of his time away.  Never a word, never a complaint passed his lips. We walked separately to our assigned jobs.  Matthew, Solomon and I hammered with no end in sight while Hoss took off in another direction.  My brother had changed overnight.  The cellar had nearly done me in, but the five days away had damaged Hoss in a different way. No longer would he confide in me.  No longer was there idle chitchat.  Gone was the brother I’d always known.

~~~

After what I thought had been about three months time, a selected few were marched in front of the big house after our workday at the mine.  The man with no name, the man we were forced to call Father, stood on the front steps and addressed us all.  “You have done well, my sons, and you are to be rewarded.”

My sons.  Damn this man.  I wasn’t his son.

“I’m allowing you all a trip to the cantina.  You’ve proved yourselves worthy, at least this particular group, and you’ve earned yourself a night on the town.”

A night on the town?  This was our chance.  I wanted to glance at Matthew, but I didn’t dare. We’d make our plans later, along with Hoss, maybe even Solomon, who was struggling to keep up the steady pace of a long workday.  I’d made peace with Matthew.  Somehow, now that we were working together, we appreciated each other more, but my worst fear concerned my brother.  He wasn’t part of this chosen group.

By chance or by luck or whatever it might be called, we’d become a select group of men. There were five of us, young, healthy and strong.  We followed the rules and kept our comments to ourselves.  I learned quickly how to survive the camp and keep a low profile, especially after what they’d done to Hoss.

I often thought of my father, and the anguish he and Adam must be suffering since our disappearance.  With no communication at all, had they lost all hope of our return?  My brother was a changed man.  He seldom spoke; there wasn’t much life left in him.  Never a smile crossed his face, and never a comment about wanting to escape or return home.  Had he lost all faith?  

~~~

The five of us were taken to a nearby stream where we could actually wash properly.  It had been months since I’d felt this good.  Time passed, but time was irrelevant. We worked seven days a week, never a day of rest.  Blisters had calloused over and my hands were no longer sore.  My body had become lean and sinewy. There was not an ounce of fat, just a tough layer of skin, dark and leathery, from twelve-hour days in the sun.  Hoss, too, had lost that round, baby-faced look that was his trademark.  His cheeks were hollow, and his belly was as flat as Adam’s.  My brother was not the same man he’d been when we left home.  Like a hobbled horse, carrying a heavy weight on his back, they’d broken his spirit.

Montoya escorted us to the cantina where I’d heard the guitar music every night on our way home.  I never realized this was basically a saloon right on the property.  We were served nonstop cold beer and thick steaks with fried potatoes.  Although I drank to excess, I couldn’t eat my supper, knowing Hoss was doing without and unable to enjoy our first night designated for entertainment and relaxation.

“Eat up, Joe,” Matthew said, encouraging me when he’d nearly finished his own meal.  Even Solomon, who was only sixteen-years-old, was urging me to sit back and enjoy.

I shook my head.  “I can’t.  Not without my brother.  I don’t even know where he is or what they’re doing to him.  Why isn’t he with us?  Why do we get privileges and he does not?”

“Wish I could answer that, Joe,” Matthew said, “but I can’t.  There ain’t no rhyme or reason in this place.”

“That’s what I don’t understand.  Why Hoss?”

We stayed at the cantina until sometime around midnight and then we were ushered back to our cabin.  Hoss was asleep on his bunk, facing the wall, not wanting to be disturbed but I woke him anyway.  “Brother?”  I said, touching his shoulder.

“Joe?”

“Yeah, it’s me.  You okay?”

Hoss rolled over to face me.  “Where ya been?”

“Montoya took us . . . we went somewhere else for supper.”

“You been drinkin’?”

I suppose he smelled my breath.  “Well, yeah.”

“Nite, Joe,” he said, turning his head to the wall.

“Nite, Hoss.”

I climbed to my top bunk as quietly as possible and stretched out on my back with my fingers locked behind my head.  I didn’t tell my brother I couldn’t eat.  I didn’t tell him I drank more than I should have because he wasn’t there with me.  I’d kept all that to myself, so what could he possibly think—that I’d betrayed him; that I cared nothing about him?  “Hoss?”  There was only silence below.

~~~

Winter had set in.  The temperature had cooled and made life almost bearable. There was no snow like at home, just balmy weather, enabling us to accomplish more during the workday. Over the past few weeks, I’d been asked to join Father for supper.  Not on a regular basis, but occasionally.  I wanted to ask about my brother, and why he was being treated so poorly, but the right time never seemed to come up. Hoss knew about the special dinners although he never said a word.  I wasn’t the only one.  The five of us, who’d been selected as “special” were given privileges others were not.

On Saturday nights, our select group went to the cantina, listened to music, drank beer and ate thick steaks.  Soon, I was offered the job of overseer.  I would have a section of around twenty men working under me, and I would report to Father at the end of each day.  I’d be a fool to turn down a promotion so I agreed to take the job.

At first, I oversaw the drillers.  Some men were experienced like me; some men were new and had to be instructed on the necessity of how to keep working even though their bodies were suffering from exhaustion.  I carried a whip though I’d never once used it on another human being.  I had become a trusted member of the family.

~~~

“Come to dinner tonight, son, six o’clock sharp.  I’ll have Dorothy whip up something special.”

“Yessir.”  

I made sure I was on time.  I knocked on the front door at precisely 6:00 p.m.  “Come in, Joseph.  Care for a drink?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Brandy?”

“Yessir.”  Although my stomach seized, thinking about my own father, and how many times he’d poured us all a brandy on special occasions, nothing showed externally.  I played the game well, but I’d always be true to my first and only family.

Dorothy was silent as she served dinner to Father and me.  At some point I winked at her, knowing she was not a willing participant, none of us were.  She probably thought I had been taken in by Father, that I was a turncoat, but it wasn’t true.  I was only paying the game.

“I have speculative news, Joseph.  There’s word the army has been seen only miles from here,” Father said after our dinner had been placed on the table, chicken and dumplings, one of Hoss’ favorites.

“What does that mean, the army?  Why are they snooping around here?”

“Not here, precisely.  It’s the ongoing Indian situation.  Apaches are gathering strength, forming bands together to establish raiding parties.”

“What does that have to do with this operation?”

“Nothing, Joseph.  We’re fine.  In fact, the mine supports the troops and pays their salaries here in the New Mexico Territory.

“I see.”

My hopes rose for the first time in months.  I wanted to tell Hoss of our location—New Mexico—and there was a good chance for escape if the army was close by.  I didn’t want him to give up completely.  This could prove interesting if soldiers somehow veered off course and raided a camp run exclusively by slave labor.  My heart beat faster, and I wondered if Father knew what his statement had roused inside me.  Could he tell I was excited?  Did it show on my face?

“The supper was delightful,” I said when Dorothy walked out from the kitchen carrying plates of hot apple pie.

“Your sister did a fine job, didn’t she, Joseph.”

“Yessir, a fine job.”

Father and I moved into the parlor for another brandy and a game of chess and, after an hour hovering over the board, I moved accordingly into check then checkmate, letting the pompous man win, hoping he’d invite me back for a rematch.  “You’re a fine player, Father.  I hope to play you again someday.”

“You did your best, son.  That all a father asks in this world.”  When I stood to leave, the man reached out and put his arm around my shoulders.  “Let’s see, Joseph. Today is Wednesday. How about you come for dinner Friday night, and I’ll challenge you to another game.”

“I’d like that very much,” I replied, giving Father my most winning smile.

“Good.  I’ll be expecting you promptly at six.”

“Thank you.  Goodnight.”

I returned to the cabin, knowing I’d made progress, but I told Matthew and Solomon we’d only discussed the mine, nothing more.  Too many ears, hearing and knowing my plan may prove disastrous.  This would be my secret.  Mine only.  I wouldn’t even tell Hoss until the time was right.

~~~

Even with my new job as overseer, I never saw my brother working until early this morning, down by the loading dock.  Although he would never tell me on his own, I now knew what his job had been over these past few months.  Father was using him as a pack mule.  A man with a strong back was ideal for hauling canvas bags of ore down the mountainside whereas Matt, Solomon and I were too small, too frail some would say, to maintain the pace that had been set for my brother.  The job was grueling and backbreaking, but he never stopped moving. Up and down the mountain, day after day, for months.

Now I understood the magnitude of Hoss’ hatred toward me.  I’d been given a comfortable job.  I sat a horse; I carried a whip; I was a man of power over others.The constant silence, the camaraderie we once shared had been lost.  The ease and familiarity was no more.  Hoss despised me, and I didn’t know how to rectify our relationship without Father becoming suspicious.  I couldn’t show favoritism.  I couldn’t help my brother.

I’d managed the drillers until springtime when it became my job to oversee the loading of wagons for cross-country shipments.  My world changed that day; I would have to supervise my own brother.  I had different work clothes now; similar to what I’d worn when we’d first arrived.  Hoss was still clothed in whites although they were a dingy shade of gray after all this time.  There was a clear sense of status revealed by how a man was dressed.  I’d been one of father’s chosen men.  Hoss had not.  I dressed the part.  Hoss did not.

I couldn’t be lax with the workers, and when Hoss stood his ground and openly defied me, I had no other choice.  It was him or me.  One of us would be punished; one of us would pay the price.  I’d found freedom from drudgery and now had to decide who would be disciplined—Hoss for disobeying or me for not carrying through and correcting a worker when needed.  I did the unthinkable.

~~~

Three days in the sweatbox with only small sips of water twice a day, was my brother’s punishment.  Although I cried myself to sleep at night, I couldn’t give up my position, my status or my budding relationship with Father.  We were growing closer.  Father was beginning to trust me with every aspect of the operation and soon, I hoped to become his right-hand man, taking Montoya’s place and becoming second in charge of Mule’s Crossing.

Hoss’ three-day sentence paved the way for my promotion.  Equality for all workers was key to success.  Father suggested I come for supper.  It wasn’t our regular night, and I was a bit apprehensive, but I dressed for the occasion in the new set of clothes he’d purchased for me just this week.  I walked down to the big house and was welcomed, greeted like royalty on this auspicious occasion.  “Come in, my son.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Father poured us a cordial and we sat down in the parlor before supper.  He began the speech I’d waited weeks to hear.  “You’ve made me very proud, Joseph.  I can’t tell you how long I’ve wished for a son like you to come along.  You’ve proven yourself loyal and worthy in every way possible.  I think you know what I mean.”

“Yessir.”  Hoss had paid the price for my loyalty.

“You’ve earned the honor of becoming my second in command.  You will be granted privileges you didn’t know existed, but you will keep a quiet tongue.  No sense upsetting the workers who won’t partake in the sweet pleasures of life.”

“Sir?”

“Oh, Joseph.  Have you lost your way?  Have you forgotten the simple pleasures only a man can appreciate?”

“Oh, maybe I just put that part of my life on hold.”

Father laughed.  “No longer, son.  Tonight, I’ll treat you to an evening you won’t forget for quite some time.”

“Thank you, Father.  May I ask you a question, sir?”

“By all means, son.”

“I . . . I’ve often wondered whatever happened to Martha, the woman who was on the stage with me.”

“Martha is a fine woman, Joseph.”

“Yessir.”

“She’s brought me many hours of pleasure.”

“Sir?”

“Well, son, without explaining the obvious, she had become quite subservient without too much difficulty.”

“I see.”  My heart jumped to my throat, and I swallowed back the acidic bile that arose.

“Do you?”

“I believe I do, sir.”

“One might call me greedy, but Martha is a very lovely woman.  She’s no little girl, like some of the young women you will visit this evening.  I’ve kept her all to myself,” he said, smiling.  “I don’t relish sharing those chosen few with anyone else.  Do you understand my meaning, Joseph?”

“Yessir.  Of course, I do.”

I wish I’d never asked.  The man wasn’t just greedy; he was an animal.  He was a crazed wolf, who manipulated people by breaking them, crushing their spirit until they gave him what he wanted with nothing in return.  What would my punishment be if I were caught now, disobeying an order or not following through with his sick demands?  He would expect me to violate one of his prisoners.  Rape?  Did he know the meaning of the word?  Did he relish the fact I’d turned on my own brother?

~~~

After dinner, Father led me down a narrow path behind the big house to another outbuilding similar in size to the cantina, plain and unassuming.  He unlocked the front door and handed me the key.  “This is yours now, son.”

“Thank you, Father.”

The walls were plain with low-burning lamps next to each doorway throughout the small interior.  I counted six rooms total.  I wasn’t sure how to proceed but I didn’t have to worry; Father was still in charge.  “Ladies?” he called out.

A small group of beautiful young women, one still a child, stepped out from behind closed doors.  There were four in all, and they slowly came into the front parlor to greet Father.  “I want you to meet my son, Joseph.  He will be enjoying the company of one of you lucky ladies this evening, and I trust whoever is chosen will meet the demands of this young man.”

“Yes, Father,” they replied in unison.

“Good.  I’ll say goodnight.”  Father clapped me on the back and took leave.  I stood in the parlor, wondering what to do next.  None of these young women had chosen this life, and I was hesitant to proceed, but I was afraid not to carry out Father’s wishes.

“Good evening,” I said to all four.

They were all mute although no one turned away.  They’d been instructed to comply. I almost wished Martha were here.  At least I could explain myself to her and not take advantage.  But these women were strangers, and I was afraid to confide in any of them.

I picked the oldest in the group, who was probably my age, no older, and maybe not used for this purpose as much as the younger girls.  Hell, I didn’t know what to do. “Miss?”  I said, softly, reaching out for her hand.  The other three girls quickly scampered back to their rooms, and the woman I’d chosen led me to hers.

I slowly walked back to my cabin when the ordeal was over.  I’d been so worried about violating her; I couldn’t force an erection if I tried.  That was a godsend for her, but I was slightly embarrassed when I couldn’t perform.  I doubt she’d tell Father what happened behind closed doors but in any case, she was no worse off because of me.  I’d be expected to return, but I’d deal with that later.

~~~

As weeks passed, we’d been informed of more Apache raids, which meant soldiers were still in the general area.  I could tell Father was concerned.  We discussed the matter after supper almost every evening.  “The army is becoming a nuisance, Joseph, always stopping our wagons, always asking questions of the drivers.”

“I don’t really understand why you’re worried, Father.”

“They’re becoming much too friendly with our operation.”

“Why don’t you let me scout the area, see how close the soldiers really are and what their concerns might be?”  I could almost see the wheels turning in Father’s mind. He’d once said this place was secure but if anyone talked, the mine would be shut down and he’d go to prison.  “Who else can you trust, Father?  Any other man you send might give away secrets, and you don’t want that to happen.  We need to keep this operation secure at any cost.”

“You’re right, Joseph.  I’m just not sure—“

“You still don’t trust me, do you?”

“I trust you more than anyone else, it’s just—“

“Just what, Father?  You think I’ll run?  You really think I’d leave you after all you’ve done for me?”

“It’s not that, Joseph.  What if the Apache captured you?  You’d be dead before sunset. What if the army took you in for questioning?  They have ways, you know.  I don’t want to lose you, son.”

I was so close.  Now, all I had to do was add a little Cartwright charm.  I stood from the sofa, knelt down in front of Father, and placed my hands on his knee.  “I’ve grown very fond of you too, sir.  Believe me, I’m the only man you can send on this type of mission.  You have to have faith.  We were meant to run this business together—you and me—father and son forever.”

Father’s hands covered mine.  “I trust you, Joseph, and I do have faith.  You will be careful, won’t you?  You’ll come back safe and sound?”

“Yessir.  You needn’t worry.”

“I hope someday you’ll take over the mine, my son.  I’m not as young as I used to be; my time is drawing near.”

“Are you unwell, Father?”  I played my role as a loyal and loving son to the hilt.

“Let’s just say, I’m not a young man any longer.”

“Oh, Father.”  Tears slipped from my eyes.

“My, son.”  Father leaned forward in his chair and rested his cheek on the top of my head before pulling me to his chest.  I wrapped my arms tightly around the man who’d set the wheels in motion, who’d finally set me free.  I couldn’t help but smile.

~~~

The following morning my horse was saddled, I was holstered with my own Colt, and ready to ride away from camp.  I had two days supplies, and Father came to bid me farewell.  “You’ll be careful.”

“Yessir, I will.  I’ll be back sometime tomorrow, hopefully with news of the soldier’s departure from the area.”

“Godspeed, son.”

“Thank you, sir.”

I rode down toward the wagons that were constantly filling with ore.  In the past, I could always find my brother by just looking for his oversized hat, but Hoss didn’t wear a hat these days; it had been taken away from him.  He blended in with the rest of the mules, carrying ore down the mountain.  I looked into the morning sun, trying to find him, but he was nowhere in sight.  I couldn’t hesitate any longer; I took off at a gallop.  I had two days to find the soldiers.

Freedom—as though I was riding the gray stallion—I rode like the wind, first north, and then west.  I had to pace the horse, not really knowing his endurance level, but the first few hours I saw no one, white man or red.  This was desolate country, but I could see for miles.  I scanned the horizon for any sign of rising dust, signaling troops of soldiers . . .

 

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Author: jfclover

I fell in love with Joe Cartwright when I was ten years old and over the years, nothing's changed, In 2010, I was goaded into writing my first fanfic, which has become a hobby I thoroughly enjoy. I hope you enjoy my stories.

10 thoughts on “Mule’s Crossing – Book 1 (by jfclover)

  1. I am anxious to read the next!!!! What a tension you created!!!!! I am in terrified with everything!!! You got it!!!!

  2. Fabulous story ! I could picture every scene as i read this exciting book !
    Starting book 2 straight away , another night of reading lol

    1. Hi Dido. Glad to see you again. Thanks so much for reading and commenting on Mule’s Crossing. I’m glad you enjoyed the story and I hope you like reading the sequel just as much!

  3. You have crafted a character who is an evil megalomaniac man but who can seem so in control. What happens by his orders is horrendous. The descriptions of what happened and the environment are so vivid that I can picture every scene.

    1. Thanks for reading my story, Betty. I hope you’ll read the conclusion – Book 2. Thanks for taking time to comment. Much appreciated!

  4. Been awhile since I read this. I thought then the march through the desert was chilling and I still do. The sons each taking on the attributes of another brother in an epic role reversal. On to book 2 . . .

    1. Thanks for the reread and the comments, Dee. Much appreciated since all the reviews for Mule’s Crossing were left back in the old library.

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