Summary: Finding he’s become quite accomplished at the game of poker, Joe learns a lesson the hard way. Word Count 25,600. Rated: K+
Because We’re Brothers Series:
Because We’re Brothers
A Lesson Learned
“Joseph. Breakfast is on the table.”
To this day, I couldn’t figure out why Pa had to start the day so early. I’d just finished my schoolin’ and this was my first day on the job as a full-time ranch hand, something I’d dreamed about for the past few years and today it had finally come true. I had argued the point more than once, seeing how my brother Hoss got to leave school much earlier than I did, but bossy old Adam had to stick his nose in and push Pa into making me wait till I was sixteen years old. If Adam had his way completely, I’d probably be stuck in some college far from the Ponderosa and my family. Luckily, that wasn’t the case.
I rolled my legs over the side of the bed and scrubbed my hands over my face. “Comin’, Pa,” I yelled loudly through the closed door. I gazed in the mirror over the washstand, and felt my chin for any sign of whiskers now that I was a man, but again, disappointed, I shrugged my shoulders, splashed cold water on my face, dressed and headed down the stairs to breakfast, still buttoning my shirt and tucking it in before Pa had words to say about my inept appearance.
“Glad you could join us this morning, son. You do realize that just because you’re not attending school doesn’t mean you’re entitled to sleep in till all hours, right?” I smiled, but that was all I could muster this early in the morning. “Joseph?”
“Yessir,” I said, stifling a yawn. “I realize that.”
Everyone was overly cheery for this time of day, and as they all dished out bacon and eggs while passing platters around to each other, I couldn’t help from listening to gentle grumblings from across the table as Hoss muttered something about there never being enough food to go around, and as usual, no one paid him any mind.
Pa started his morning conversation directed at Adam and Hoss and explained what needed to be done today. But my name wasn’t mentioned and I wondered why I wasn’t heading out with my older brothers now that I was their equal, at least I assumed I was.
“What about me, Pa?”
“I have another job for you, son.”
I hoped Pa had saved an important job for me. My brothers were going to be stuck in the mud all day, cleaning out the blocked flow of the stream in the north pasture. I was relieved that I was going to have a decent job to do, one that didn’t include slimy mud and freezing cold water.
“Yeah?” I said with a little too much excitement. “What, Pa?”
“I need you to go over to the Allen’s and pick up the cheese. Hop Sing is busy and doesn’t have time to go.” Pa reached into his pocket and pulled out some coins for me to pay Mr. Allen, the goat farmer, who supplied half of Storey County with cheese.
Pa didn’t know how much Mr. Allen’s two sons, Harry and Jerome, hated the name Cartwright, me especially. I’d never told Pa the names they called my mother nearly every time they saw me, knowing how it would hurt him to know the awful language they used as if it was common knowledge and rightfully true.
Instead, I took the whippin’s, and even after the two of them had quit school, they always seemed to find me and leave me in worse shape than before I’d left the house. I gave back just as good as I could unless the two ganged up on me, but I never told Pa the reason for the sore ribs or the black eyes. I always gave another excuse. “Just a friendly scuffle,” I’d say, which usually got me in much more trouble than if I’d said what really happened. If the two of them were home today, though, I wasn’t sure how I would avoid a friendly scuffle or how I’d explain another beating.
“I’ll go right after I finish breakfast, Pa.” My voice was shaky, and as Adam held his fork of eggs halfway to his mouth while giving me a sideways glance, he must have noticed, but he kept his thoughts private and said nothing in front of Pa. I tried not to look at him so I glanced back at Pa. “Anything else you want me to do?”
“We’ll discuss that after you pick up the cheese, Little Joe.”
“Okay.” I was a man now and not about to argue over my job for the day, but I didn’t become a ranch hand just to be Pa’s errand boy. I would let it go for now.
“Look, Joe. Do you want Hoss and me to swing by and pick up the cheese?” Adam spoke quietly so Hoss wouldn’t overhear.
“I’ll do it, Adam. I’ll just ride in, see Mr. Allen then ride out but thanks.”
“Our little brother’s a genuine ranch hand, ain’t he?” Hoss said, clapping me on the back.
Yeah, I felt more like Pa’s errand boy than a ranch hand, and even though Adam already knew the dilemma I faced, he didn’t make a big deal and embarrass me in front of Hoss or Pa. For that, I was grateful.
The three of us saddled our horses. Hoss and Adam rode one way and I rode the other, to the Allen’s. “See ya later, little brother,” Hoss said before they took off.
“See ya later,” I replied.
The Allen’s house wasn’t far, just south of a place called Eagle’s Nest. I let Cochise set the pace. I was in no hurry today, but as I came over the rise, I saw Harry and Jerome, standing together in the yard. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, knowing this wasn’t going to be easy. They stood and stared as I rode up to the house, dismounted and thought I could walk past them and meet with their father before there was any kind of trouble.
“Well, Jerome, look who graces us with his presence.”
“I’ve come for the week’s cheese, Harry. Where’s your father?”
“He’s gone to town, boy. Permit me to serve you instead,” he said with a mock bow, his dark eyes boring right through me and his half-grin showing no warmth or friendliness whatsoever.
“Let’s just get this over with Harry and I’ll be on my way.”
Harry’s booted toe kicked out, a hard, bruising kick to my shin. Off balance, I swung my left hand, but he quickly ducked when a shadow to my right told me only one thing—Jerome was circling behind me.
Jerome grabbed my ears from behind then gave a swift kick to my backside. I rocked forward just as Harry’s knee drove into my groin. I yelped. Tears stung my eyes, and I doubled over as Jerome kicked me again from behind. The ground tilted . . .
I lay sprawled on my back, bringing my knees up to ward off the pain, until Harry knelt down beside me, pressing his knee into my stomach.
“The son of a whore—a New Orleans whore–wants some cheese, Jerome.”
I could barely breathe, much less defend my mother.
“Bet she spread her legs for every sailor who came into port.” The two of them giggled. “Your papa a sailor, Little Joe?” Again the snickers and laughs.
The point of Jerome’s boot plowed into my side, my shoulders, my legs. I swung my fists but missed until finally, I drove my left into Harry’s nose, and blood splattered my jacket; again, the filthy words came rushing out. Harry grabbed my ears and pounded the back of my head on the ground, but I didn’t cry out this time.
I could hear the distorted sound of goat bells in the distance and the heavy breathing of my two assailants as they battered away at my body. Harry reached deep in my pocket, taking the few coins Pa had given me. “I got the money and some of your hide, whore boy. Now get the hell outta here and don’t come back.”
Each of the brothers took an arm and hauled me to my feet. I stumbled as they half dragged me toward Cochise. How would I mount and how I would possibly sit a saddle afterward? But I did. I rode slowly away, empty-handed.
I lay on my bed, curled up in a ball, with my knees pulled close to my chest. I’d slipped Cooch into the barn with no one seeing me ride in, then quietly crept up the back stairs. I was sick to my stomach; I couldn’t stand up and face Pa until this unsettled feeling passed.
What would I say? What could I use as an excuse this time? Adam would know immediately what had happened. He’d found me sick like this in the barn a couple of months ago—same brothers—same awful words and somehow, he got me to talk, but he promised me then he wouldn’t tell Pa, but he also said if it ever happened again, he’d have no other choice.
This is the worst Harry and Jerome had hurt me. I could barely move; I couldn’t even sit up. My face didn’t look worse for wear; it was everything else, and if I rested here for a while, maybe I could pull it off and not give anything away except for the fact there was no cheese for Hop Sing. I could always fib a little and say no one was home. That might work. In fact, it would have to work, that is until Pa sent me back to the Allen’s tomorrow to try again.
“Hey Pa,” Hoss said, as he and Adam strolled in through the front door, hungry, and obvious to anyone they encountered, that they’d spent their morning knee deep in mud.
Ben sat at his desk, waiting for his sons to approach and tell him how their morning went, but he was also surprised Joe hadn’t made it home before lunch. It wasn’t that long of a ride to the Allen’s. “Hi, boys. Hop Sing has lunch about ready.”
“Good, I’m starved to death,” Hoss said.
“Looks like you need to wash up some before Hop Sing lets you close to his table, and you better not track mud all over the house if you want to live long enough to see that next meal.”
Adam and Hoss walked back toward the front door and kicked off their mud-caked boots before going upstairs to change. Ben hid a smile at the sight of his two tired, muddy sons, who hadn’t once complained about the job they’d been given. Now had it been Joseph, there would have been a whole explanation of how hard he worked and how stinky and muddy the whole morning had been. Ben pulled out his timepiece again. Joe really should have been home by now.
Quickly, Adam changed out of his wet clothes, saving his comments on ditch clearing until he was out of sight of his father, but before he headed back downstairs, he was curious about Joe’s whereabouts.
He hesitated in the hallway in front of his young brother’s room, listening, but hearing nothing. It was evident the boy had to be somewhere around; Cochise had been stabled, but not groomed, and Adam had a suspicious feeling he knew exactly what had happened.
He pushed the door open and saw Joe curled on his side, asleep. He walked softly toward the bed, then reached down and touched his little brother on the shoulder. Joe jerked away from the touch, then moaned, tightening the hold he had around his waist.
“Joe,” Adam whispered.
“I’m just resting, Adam.” Joe’s voice was shaky and weak. Adam knew better and prodded Joe for an answer.
“Sure you are. It was the Allen brothers wasn’t it?”
“Why? Why do they have to say those awful things about—”
Adam sat down easily on the edge of the bed. He handed his handkerchief to Joe after he heard the boy sniffing back tears. “They’re ignorant, Joe. They’re jealous of you and your life here on the ranch, and they’re just out looking for a fight, and at two against one, they always have the upper hand and you feel the brunt of their anger.”
“They hurt me bad this time, Adam.”
Joe wasn’t one to admit to any kind of pain, and since he had, Adam knew the boy was suffering worse than any time before. “Did you tell Pa?”
Adam could see the mud caked on the back of Joe’s head, but he needed to know more. “Can you straighten yourself out? Let me check you over?” Joe’s head moved slightly. “We have to tell Pa, Joe.”
“I know,” he said between sobs, but still facing away from his older brother. “I hurt, Adam.”
Adam stood from the bed and pulled the folded quilt over his youngest brother. “I’ll be back in a little while. You rest easy.”
“He’ll live, Ben, but he’s taken one heck of a beating.”
“He’ll need a few day’s rest, and then only light duties for at least week after that. His ribs are cracked, but not broken, although his shoulder may have taken the worst of the attack. It’s not dislocated and I don’t feel broken bones, but there could be a slight fracture, which is why I taped up his ribs and then wrapped his left arm to his body. I don’t want him using that arm for at least two weeks, understood?”
“I’ll leave these powders. He may need more later on so he can get a good night’s rest. He’ll sleep for a while now, but get Hop Sing up here to try to get him to eat and drink when he wakes up.” Paul Martin placed his instruments back in his bag and fastened the latch. “I’ll check back tomorrow to see how he’s doing.”
“Thanks, Paul. I’ll walk you out.”
Hoss and Adam remained in the room with Joe. The boy was asleep for now. The doc had done what he could, but Joe would feel every inch of the beating he’d taken as soon as he woke.
“Why, Adam? Why’d they do this to Little Joe?”
“I don’t know, Hoss, but it’s not the first time and it probably won’t be the last.”
“Them two boys is twice Joe’s size. What are they tryin’ to prove by beatin’ him like this?”
Adam shook his head. “I don’t know, Hoss.”
“Well, maybe I just have to take me a little ride over there and—”
Adam raised his hand, interrupting his big brother. “They may be built like men, Hoss, but they’re still just boys. There’d be more trouble than we could handle if you went riding into their place mad as you are right now.”
I woke to darkness and pain. My thoughts were fuzzy, but it all came rushing back—the beating—the Allen brothers. When I tried to move, I found my left arm tied to my waist and totally useless. Then I recalled the doc had been here and he must have been the culprit who’d bound me up like this, for my own good, of course. His famous last words, ones I’d heard a million times before.
I tried to shift my weight and found out immediately it was the wrong thing to do. My ribs were on fire, my leg was stiff and sore and the pain in my shoulder was almost unbearable.
“You awake, son?”
Quickly, I glanced at the open doorway, and winced silently to myself, as every inch of my body protested the sudden movement. “Yeah, Pa, just woke up.”
Pa walked toward my bed, lowering himself down on the edge, but when I squeezed my eyes shut tightly as the bed rocked below me, Pa quickly apologized and pulled up my desk chair instead.
“I’m sorry, son. I wasn’t thinking.”
“I’m okay, Pa.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
What could I say? No—I rather not? That wouldn’t fly with my father. I had to come clean this time, but not fully.
“Harry and Jerome are just mean, Pa. They’ve always had it in for me.”
“Why? Why you, son?”
“I don’t know, Pa. It’s—”
“It’s nothin’ really. They just like to beat people up.”
“Joseph—” I looked away. I couldn’t let Pa see the tears burning my eyes. “Son?”
“They—they say things about Mama. Untrue things. I—I didn’t even say anything back this time and they still beat me up.”
I rolled to my side, away from Pa. The physical pain was secondary to how I felt when I told Pa the truth. My father’s hand touched my shoulder, but there were no words. I wanted to say something, but what? I sobbed into my pillow like a baby and I couldn’t make myself stop. My mother—the best person I ever knew–was constantly attacked by the Allen boys and sometimes others—people I’d never mention to Pa, but did he already know? Is that why there were no words? Were any of their filthy words true?
When I felt I could say something without sobbing and carrying on like a child, I told Pa I was tired and wanted to sleep. I needed to think about this for a while, alone. He still didn’t speak. I heard my door gently close.
After three days in bed and another week of Pa watching my every move, the doc said I was fit enough to go back to work. I had to fib a little about my shoulder and tell him it was fine, but I couldn’t stand another day of confinement. I wasn’t sent back for cheese, Hop Sing made time to run the errand after my incident with the brothers.
Hop Sing apologized right and left and cared for me over and above what truly needed doing when Pa and my brothers had to be gone from the house. I tried to explain it wasn’t his fault; I even stumbled through the words in Cantonese, but he still felt to blame.
I was heading out with Hoss today for supplies. It was a job I could have handled myself, but Pa wasn’t ready to let me out alone just yet. Again, I chose not to argue the point. Riding into town with my big brother, joking and just talking easy the way only Hoss and I could, made for a fun day anyway.
“How ‘bout you treat me to a beer, Hoss,” I said after we dropped the buckboard off at Jake’s Mercantile and handed him Hop Sing’s list of supplies.
“Right, little brother. That’ll be the day.”
I found it to be a reasonable request even though Hoss didn’t. We needed to pick up the mail and stop in the bank while we were in town, so I decided it best not to press. Maybe next time my big brother could see I was doing a man’s work and that I was old enough to enjoy some of the benefits that went along with the job.
Hoss could tell I wasn’t quite pulling my weight. I couldn’t lift anything worthwhile when we’d returned to load up the wagon. He didn’t say anything. I think he knew why. “Don’t say anything to Pa,” I said.
“Still hurtin’, ain’t ya.”
“Some,” I said. A lot, I should have said.
Hoss headed back in the Mercantile in order to pay Jake while I waited in the buckboard. I was thinking about other things when suddenly, I was jerked from my seat and thrown on the ground. I rolled to my right after hitting my sore shoulder on the hard-packed street. Pain shot up so quickly, I had to catch my breath while listening to Harry and Jerome’s laughter. I started to stand when Harry’s boot caught my ankle, forcing me flat on my back.
I kicked and swung my good arm until Jerome lost his balance and stumbled back long enough for me to get steady on my feet. “Ya wanna fight me? Do ya?” The laughter continued. “Come on—”
Suddenly, Hoss was at my side. “I don’t need you, Hoss.”
“Yeah ya do, Little Joe. This is gonna be a fair fight. One at a time, boys, only one at a time makes it a fair fight.”
“Fine,” I said. “Harry? I’ll take you first if’n ya ain’t too scared to go it alone.”
Harry and I circled each other. He lunged at me and I swung myself to the left so he landed flat in the dirt. Within seconds, he was back on his feet and madder’n heck. He charged me again and we rolled on the ground, punching and scratching each other until I nailed him with a final blow straight across his jaw.
I stood over Harry, breathing hard, but ready to go again. I nodded to Hoss to let go of Jerome’s arm. He was the smaller and younger of the two and I figured I could take him, even though it would take everything I had to leave him in the same shape his brother was in.
I waited for him to charge, but he stood his ground, waiting for me. It was a fool’s errand, trying to beat them both up, but it was also a matter of pride. I took a deep breath and moved in closer. Jerome swung, but I was quicker. I ducked and came up swinging.
Everything my brother’s had taught me—clean and dirty–was falling into place. Jerome was tiring but not ready to give up. I, on the other hand, was nearly finished. I could taste blood in my mouth and I could feel it running down my face, but I’d be damned if I was going to quit now. It was time to play dirty.
I found my mark when I kneed Jerome in the groin and sent him falling to the ground, cradling himself like a baby. I stood over him with my hands planted on my knees, trying to catch my breath enough to stand up straight.
I glanced at Hoss. He winked and smiled. I’d taken on the two Allen brothers in a fair fight and won. I felt pretty proud, although almost ready to pass out right in the middle of C Street and in front of the crowd that had gathered to watch and cheer.
Hoss dragged both boys to the side of the street before he took hold of my arm and helped me into the buckboard. He chucked the reins and we drove out of town, leaving the Allen brothers propped up against the boardwalk, beaten and bruised.
At some point on the way home, I leaned against Hoss and fell asleep, but I began to stir when he stopped the buckboard in front of Hop Sing’s kitchen door. I heard footsteps on the front porch; Pa was coming toward us.
“What’s this all about?” he said, directing his question to Hoss rather than me.
“Little brother done showed them Allen boys who’s the best man, Pa. He took them both on and half the town was watchin’ him. Shoulda seen him. He’s one tough little guy.”
“Brawling? In the middle of the street?” I heard the tone of Pa’s voice and determined he wasn’t quite as happy about my victory as me and Hoss were. “Haven’t I raised you better than to act like a ruffian in the middle of town?”
“Get in the house and get yourself cleaned up, Joseph.”
I started to climb off the seat and slumped forward when Pa reached out, catching me in his arms. “Son?”
I recovered quickly from my fight with Harry and Jerome and Pa even apologized for the things he’d said after the fight. He came to realize, after talking with my brothers, that it had to be done or I’d have come home a beat up mess again and again. Deep down, I think Pa was proud.
It was Saturday night, and even though I’d only put in a partial week’s work due to my body needing some time to recover, Adam and Hoss invited me to go to town with them for a couple of beers. I think they were proud of the way I’d handled myself and they wanted to treat me to a night out on the town.
“Only two, young man,” Pa said. “I don’t want a son of mine staggering in here drunk on Saturday night after too much celebrating. Do you hear me, boy?”
“Yessir, I hear.”
It was hard to contain my excitement, but I felt like a little kid at Christmas, finally able to do man type things with my older brothers. I was still small for my age and if I’d walked into a saloon by myself, I’d probably never get served, but tonight we would celebrate my working full time, and also, celebrate the much-deserved pounding I gave the two brothers.
It would be a short night for my brothers, but tonight, they didn’t seem to mind. We were all in a great mood and I couldn’t wait to be part of what real men did on Saturday night after a long week’s work.
“Three beers, Cosmo,” Hoss hollered as we approached the bar in the Silver Dollar Saloon. The room was crowded and loud—smoke filled the air and a funny little man, wearing a derby hat and garters holding up his shirt sleeves, sat, clearly bouncing on the seat as he played a familiar tune on the tinny piano.
I knew this is where I belonged on Saturday nights. Ladies of seedier reputation swung their hips, swishing their satin skirts—their bare shoulders, dipping toward cowboys and miners, and with forced smiles on their faces, they carried mugs of beer and bottles of whiskey.
I leaned back against the bar just like my brothers and hooked my boot heel on the brass railing, touching my lips to the foam, which had settled on the top of my beer. The taste was a little strong at first and almost made my eyes water, but I quickly got used to the golden ale—a man’s drink. I drank slowly, wanting to savor every aspect of the night out and not be dragged home too early because I’d had my limit, of which I knew my brothers would stick to, not wanting to be reamed out by Pa the minute we got back home.
I didn’t mind standing at the bar rather than sitting at a table. This way I could take in the entire room—the poker tables and the fast women, trying to lure men upstairs for a little behind closed doors entertainment and a handful of cash.
“Crowded tonight,” Hoss said.
“It’s payday, Hoss,” Adam said. “No one will leave here with a penny left in their pocket tonight.”
“Think I could play a hand of poker, Adam? I’ve got a little money with me.”
My brothers glanced at each other and Hoss laid his big old hand on my shoulder. “Now Little Joe, what would Adam and I do, standin’ here all by ourselves if you left us to play poker? I kinda thought we’d all hang around together tonight.”
“You’re right, big brother. Not tonight.”
I knew I’d be back. The excitement of it all made my blood run hot. I couldn’t wait to sit with the rest of the men in a friendly game of poker, besides, maybe one of them fancy girls would take kindly to me and bring me good luck. Tonight I would stay here with my brothers and just see how things worked. But next time, I’d be ready for anything and everything.
“Who’s this, Adam?”
A pretty blonde lady stood beside Adam, and as she rested her hand on his arm, she looked straight at me. I swallowed hard, taking in her low-cut dress and the rounded white tops of her breasts, which seemed to draw me in like a moth to a flame. My blood ran hot and my throat went dry; I felt more like a boy than a man.
“This is my younger brother, Little Joe, Miss Sally, and may I say that for the next few years he’s off limits to you.”
“My—what a handsome young man,” she said, still gazing in my direction. The lump in my throat kept me from speaking, but I did manage a smile for the lady. When she leaned toward me, I kept my eyes on hers, not daring to glance at any other part of her scantily dressed body. “Next time, don’t bring your brothers,” she whispered in my ear.
She ran the tips of her fingers down the side of my face. I flushed immediately and I tried hard to keep from trembling. “Don’t be a stranger, Joe Cartwright.”
“Yes, ma’am—I mean no ma’am—I mean—”
She smiled a sweet smile. I’d made a fool of myself and I looked away. My heart raced, and even though she’d already walked away, I could still feel her gentle touch against my face. I finished my beer and set the empty mug on the bar.
“Let’s get outta here,” I said to my brothers.
It would be nearly four months before I stepped inside another saloon. Next week I would celebrate seventeen years, and although my brothers continued going into town on Saturday nights, I declined their offer each time.
Working the ranch had become second nature by now. I felt my body changing from that embarrassed, skinny boy who’d walked into the saloon with my brothers, to more of a man although I still wasn’t filled out like Adam, but I was on my way. My arms and shoulders were beginning to show signs of hard work. My hands were calloused and I could finally take a razor to my face. It wasn’t much, but to me it was everything.
I was more confident now and I was considering that maybe next time Adam or Hoss asked me to go with them, I would. I remembered the excitement of the saloon and how I stood in awe of it all, so when Adam asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I told him.
“A night out on the town, big brother.”
“All right. You got your wish, Little Joe.”
“Um, Adam? Would you skip the little part when we’re—you know—”
A smile crossed my brother’s face as he wrapped his hand around my shoulder. “I’ll try.”
After a fine meal and Hop Sing’s famous chocolate cake with seventeen brightly lit candles, Hoss and Adam and I rode into town. Pa didn’t limit me this time, although I knew my brothers would. I carried my week’s wages in my pocket, hoping I could quickly double my money. Hoss and I’d been practicing a little poker at home even though we had to do it behind Pa’s back. Pa doesn’t take to gambling, and if he knew what I had in mind, he’d skin me alive and never let me off the ranch till I was an old man.
Again, the saloon was noisy and crowded, but I had different goals this time and it wasn’t hanging out at the bar with my brothers. I would be a part of the action—poker, women, and beer. So, after we ordered our drinks, and I took a minute to scan the room, I bid farewell to my brothers and found a seat at a poker table across the smoke-filled room.
“Mind if I sit in?” I asked as I stood, holding my beer in one hand and fingering the coins in my pocket with the other.
“Got any money on ya, cowboy?”
“Of course, I have money.”
“Take a seat, young man.”
I stared at the man who was holding the cards, trying to intimidate me with his fancy shuffling and narrowed eyes. He wore a derby hat and had waxed the end of his mustache so it curled like a C on the ends. He reminded me some of the piano player with his garters, his pressed white shirt.
I sat my beer on the table, pulled out all my cash and sat across from the dealer. Two other men sat on either side of me—men I didn’t recognize as neighbors or friends. I glanced up quickly at my brothers and nodded my head. They each shook their heads and smiled.
The dealer shuffled the cards again and again, knowing it made me nervous, but I was able to keep a straight face and not let it show. Could he tell it was my first time at a poker table? He sure made me feel that way.
I jerked suddenly when a lady’s hand tenderly caressed my shoulder. I saw the dealer smile and wink at the barmaid. Was she part of his plan to unnerve me? If so, he’d succeeded. I felt my pants tighten across my lap and I was glad the table was covering my discomfort. Was I in over my head? Adam and Hoss hadn’t warned me about a woman’s touch and what it would do to me, especially in public.
I took a drink of my beer and turned to the lady, hoping it was Sally, the lady I’d met last time. If so, I could relax and play cards, but before I knew it, this lady I’d never seen before pulled a chair up next to me, then rested her hand on my leg.
“Buy a lady a drink, Cowboy?”
“Um, sure, ma’am,” I said, removing her hand from my leg before something really unpleasant happened.
She signaled Sam, holding up two fingers and I assumed she’d ordered me another beer, but after she strolled to the bar to pick up the drinks, she returned with two shots of whiskey. “Here you go, Cowboy.”
I’d never even tasted whiskey before and I knew if Pa caught wind of this I’d be dead meat and promptly dragged out to the barn for a necessary talk. I downed it quickly, hoping my brothers wouldn’t take notice and feel the urge to drag me out of the saloon before I played my first hand.
The mustached gentleman started dealing the cards. He dealt me a pair and I felt the lady squeeze my leg—for luck? I wasn’t sure. I kept a straight face, but it took everything I could muster to concentrate on the cards and ignore what she was doing to me.
I placed my bet and he dealt another round. A throwaway card for me, but I raised the stakes anyway. A pair of queens was nothing to sneer at. The third round was dealt and I pulled another queen. I was set, but I didn’t want to let on, so I kept my modest bid as her hand moved higher up my leg.
The final card, another throwaway, but I was still in good shape, at least card-wise. The lady was pushing the limit of my ability to concentrate, and before I knew it, between all the raises, my whole week’s wages depended on this one hand.
“I call,” I said, after pushing in my final notes. The dealer laid down 2 pairs and I fanned my three queens in front of me across the rough gouges of the table. The two men on either side of me threw their cards on the table, slid their chairs back and left in a huff.
The dealer nodded and started gathering the cards as I pulled my winnings toward me. I gave the lady a silver dollar. Maybe she had brought me luck after all. “Thanks, Cowboy,” she said, tucking the coin down the bodice of her dress. Again, I glanced at my brothers. They were shaking their heads and laughing.
Dumb luck? Or maybe I was just lucky at cards. I’d have to find out another time. I’d doubled my money tonight and I was anxious to show Adam and Hoss.
“Thanks for the game, Mister, but my brothers are ready to leave.”
“Not staying?” he said with eyebrows lifted.
I stood from my chair, kissed the lady on the cheek and made my way across the saloon to my brothers, still leaning against the bar where I’d left them earlier.
“Well, Little Joe, looks like you made out pretty good.”
“Sure did, Hoss, doubled this week’s pay.”
“Well, you was mighty smart to walk away.”
“Yep. I sure was.”
It had been a long winter and even though the days and nights were still cold enough to freeze fingers and toes if one didn’t take care while out checking steers or chopping ice from frozen streams, life during these few months was quite tedious and moved at a much slower pace.
Pa, never one to sit idle, always found something for the three of us to do, whether it was sorting and repairing tack or helping Hop Sing with some of his household chores. On warmer days, we chopped enough wood to keep the fires burning, but during blizzard type days like today, we found ourselves searching for any type of indoor entertainment.
I grabbed a box of matchsticks and a deck of cards and challenged everyone to a game of poker. Pa was a little surprised at my request, but he was as bored as the rest of us and as we all gathered close to the fireplace, I acted as dealer and the games began. Hop Sing brought out hot chocolate and fresh cookies instead of a cold beer and a barmaid, but we were all content to enjoy each other’s company for the long, cold afternoon.
My focus was on the game and Hoss’ was on the cookies. He lost the first hand, grumbled some, with cookie crumbs sprinkling about the table, but Hoss was Hoss—always a good sport—and was ready for me to deal again.
Pa looked my way more often than not as I raked in my winnings—my wooden matchsticks—and smiled at him after most every hand.
“Am I missing something here, son?”
“What’s that, Pa?”
“When did you learn to play poker?”
“Just dumb luck, I guess, Pa. Just dumb luck.”
Spring finally arrived and with it came hard, backbreaking work. The cattle drive wasn’t far off and we would all go this time—my first. Even during the winter months, I’d found I’d gained some weight and grown a little taller. Catching up with my two brothers was never going to happen and I gave up thinking I’d ever be as tall as Adam, and Hoss, never. But I’d grown into manhood this past year, even Pa and my brothers noticed the small, but ever thankful spurt, during these past few months.
My confidence as a ranch hand was growing too. I’d learned a lot since leaving school. I had no idea what really went on while I was sitting in class every day. It took much more work than I’d ever thought possible to keep the ranch running like Pa expected us to. But I was in my element. I loved every minute.
During the past couple of weeks, my brothers and I kept busy rounding up steers for the drive. Pa was finishing paperwork and settling accounts so we could be gone from home for a couple of weeks or more. Pa had already set me down and explained this wasn’t a vacation, but a hard two weeks and he asked if I was up for the job.
“Of course, I am, Pa. I’ve been ready forever.”
“I just want you to realize the seriousness of the job, Joe. Men get hurt—men have gotten killed on cattle drives.”
“I know that, Pa, but—”
“But nothing, Joe,” Pa interrupted before I could say anymore. “Just promise me you’ll be careful and listen to your brothers and me when we tell you what needs to be done.”
“Don’t you worry about a thing, Pa. I’ll make you proud.”
The day started before sunrise and this was one morning I was anxious to get up and get moving. I was the first one downstairs and sitting at the breakfast table.
“Joe?” Pa called out from the top of the stairs in disbelief.
“Looks like you’re ready to go.”
“Sure am, Pa. I’ll saddle the horses while you all eat your breakfast.
“That sounds fine, son. Thank you.”
The four of us rode out, along with the four drovers Adam had hired for the drive. I was the youngest, but I knew I could easily hold up my end. Pa had made Adam trail boss, and even though he knew how accomplished I was on a horse; he had me riding drag behind close to 700 head of cattle. It was a job for beginners—men who weren’t experienced or smart enough to do anything else. And that, apparently, was me.
Sandy Thomas was pulling up the rear with me He was old and slow to react in case of a stampede or anything else that might spook the cattle and send them off running. How could I possibly prove I was a worthwhile hand when I was stuck riding drag with an old man like Sandy?
By the end of the first day, I was beat as was everyone else. A twelve-hour day in the saddle tired a man through to his bones. I’d eaten a pound or two of dust and I sure wasn’t looking forward to the same job tomorrow. To my surprise, Adam moved the men around every day and I wouldn’t be stuck riding drag during the entire trip. I was grateful, and maybe because I didn’t complain, he saw fit to let me move too.
The drive’s cook, Mr. Caruthers, better known as Cookie, made plenty of stew for eight weary men. I could barely get the spoon to my mouth, and it wasn’t too long after supper, I fell into my bedroll and slept without stirring until Pa shook my shoulder at sunrise.
A new day, and as tired as I was, I knew Pa must have been worse off than me. He wasn’t a young man, but he’d never let on if he had an ache or pain, so I followed his lead—got up and got movin’ as quick as I could. I’d made it through one night without standing watch, but it wouldn’t happen again.
I realized Adam’s plan. We’d all rotated one position clockwise. It would be a week before I had to ride drag again, so I took up my new position and felt relieved I hadn’t been left to pull up the rear.
By the time we were three days in, I was used to riding all day. Maybe it was like that for everyone on a drive. I didn’t want to ask—I didn’t want anyone to think I was still just a boy and couldn’t handle the work.
There were hours upon hours to do pretty much nothin’, and I was anxious to try my new skills at the poker tables. I had been practicing all winter long and I knew I was good, meaning, I could handle the big boys now. I would be ready to find out after the drive was over and we headed to town. If we were lucky and brought the herd in on time, Pa always handed out a bonus to each and every man, and if I could double that too . . .
Tonight, I had second duty, the worst of the three. I felt the tap on my shoulder and Sandy was letting me know it was my turn to get up in the middle of the night to stand watch. I crawled out from under my warm bedroll, and after grabbing my hat and gunbelt, I saddled a mount from the remuda. I let Cooch sleep. We’d have another hard day tomorrow.
As I rode away from camp, I could hear Adam singing to the cattle, a trick that kept them calm under most conditions. I let him know I was on duty then veered to the opposite side of the herd. After taking a long swig from my canteen, and wishing it was coffee rather than just water, I thought I heard a noise to the left of me. It must be some ornery stray, making his way off into the bushes rather than sleeping with every other dumb steer like he’s supposed to.
I turned the bay toward the noise and pulled my rope from the saddle. If I could guide him back to the herd without disturbing the rest, I’d done my job correctly. If not, there would be hell to pay.
As I listened carefully, the noise I thought I’d heard was gone. I crept forward in the black of night, when suddenly, I was roped and pulled from my saddle. I could feel hands on me, but I couldn’t turn enough to see faces.
Before I could make a sound, a man’s hand covered my mouth and a gag was shoved halfway down my throat. Another piece of cloth was wrapped around my eyes, making it impossible to identify my captors. My ankles were tied, and my hands, behind my back. They were quick and smart and they had me rendered helpless in a matter of seconds.
The gag was removed, and before I could scream for help, my mouth was pried open and a bottle of whiskey, quickly upturned, the vile liquid ran down my throat. I tried not to swallow, but I felt like I was drowning as I gulped down the liquid, choking and sputtering, but not cutting off the flow.
I couldn’t breathe. I was petrified—scared to death—as the amber liquid flowed into me. Feeling helpless to their sick prank, or whatever it was they wanted to accomplish, I was already feeling the effects. My throat burned as the remainder of the bottle emptied into my mouth and was then poured over my neck and chest.
The two men made no sounds whatsoever. Were they professional rustlers? Didn’t they know there were seven other people out here and they couldn’t steal an entire herd?
I all but passed out as whiskey not only filled my mouth but ran down either side of my face until the bottle was pulled away. I gulped in as much air as I could, but it was forced back once again. As much as I tried to kick or move away, I was held down on the ground with my arms tied behind me. I knew I wouldn’t last much longer. The whiskey was still being forced and there was nothing I could do to end this nightmare.
“Joseph—wake up, son. Joe—wake up.”
“Little Joe. Wake up, little buddy.”
I heard voices, but they were distant and unclear. Someone was slapping my face, and even though I tried to move away, the voices kept coming.
I tried to open my eyes, but they felt like lead weights. When I started to move, I knew immediately I was going to be sick—and I was. Not only once, but more times than I could count until I was spitting up blood and holding my stomach in a fevered attempt to make it all stop.
My pleas for the constant retching to end were futile. Pa held me in his arms as my body violently cried out for relief. I was exhausted, but my body wouldn’t let me rest. I could feel the sweat, dripping down my face even though I was freezing and my teeth were chattering uncontrollably.
“Oh God,” I cried, barely finding the strength to speak.
“It’s over, son. It’s over now.”
Pa lifted the canteen to my lips, but I turned my head away. Just the thought made me lean forward and hurl once again. My heart was pounding and every breath was a struggle. I sat back up and leaned into Pa. I wished I were dead.
I woke, lying inside Cookie’s wagon—the rocking motion did nothing to help the continuous hammering inside my head. I’d been stripped down to my long johns and placed on this cot. A canteen hung nearby. I ran my tongue over my parched lips and thought maybe now I could stand a drink. I reached for the canteen and quickly found that any type of movement, other than the rocking wagon, wasn’t a smart thing. I lay back down.
The wagon stopped. It was time to come back to the living. I eased my legs over the side of the cot, set my elbows on my knees and cradled my head in my hands. I’d never felt this bad before, even after the beatings I’d taken from Harry and Jerome. I didn’t care about the drive or anything else. I just wanted to be home in my own bed, not out here on the trail.
My stomach protested every move I made, and as soon as I climbed out of the wagon, I fell to my knees and began to heave. There was nothing left, but my gut kept cramping. I held myself up with one hand and wrapped the other around my waist. Cookie was the first to find me—to hear my moans and my pleas for relief.
I fell to the ground and when Cookie saw the shape I was in, he grabbed a blanket out of the wagon and covered me. “You stay here, Little Joe. I’ll get Mr. Cartwright to come and tend ya.” Within minutes, Pa was by my side.
“What’s got into you, boy? Why would you do this to yourself? I don’t under—”
“Pa, I didn’t—” My words were barely audible. What the heck was Pa thinking? I didn’t do this, but he obviously thought I did. “I—”
“Joseph, you stampeded a whole herd of cattle with your irresponsible behavior. We’ve lost an entire day, rounding up frightened steers while you lay back here, sleeping it off.”
“But, Pa, I—”
“No buts, young man. It’s obvious to me you’re not ready to take on the role of—”
“Pa, you don’t understa—”
“I understand more than you think I do, young man.” Pa held the canteen for me and I took only a small sip of the tepid water. “See if you can at least get yourself dressed. We’ll talk about this later.”
Why would anyone believe my story now that they thought I was the cause of a stampede? Who would lie in wait for me to stand watch only to stampede our cattle? Pa didn’t trust me to do the job. That’s what it all boils down to—the lack of trust in his baby son. How could I prove any different?
I managed to dress myself but the sun’s rays beating down on my head didn’t help matters. The crew had stopped for lunch now. Cook had everything laid out for my family and the extra drovers. The smell of stew simmering was surely going to make me sick again if I didn’t distance myself from his wagon, so I walked over to the remuda where Cochise was tied up. I leaned my head against his velvety neck and prayed for relief as my empty stomach still churned.
I heard footsteps behind me, then unkind words from my eldest brother. “We were counting on you to hold up your end, Joe. I guess we were wrong.” That’s all he said before he walked away. I said nothing in return.
I was considered an outcast—a troublemaker—and I dreaded the talk my father had planned for later. Should I even try to convince him it wasn’t my doing? I had no proof and we were miles from the site where it happened. No one would want to, or have time to go back and look for clues as to what really took place.
I was starting to feel human again. My stomach growled, but I didn’t dare put food in this soon. I did need more water though and I made my way back to Cookie’s wagon.
Hoss was sitting on the tailgate, close to the cook’s pot, which still hung over the fire. Everyone, including my father and Adam, was standing a distance away. “Ya okay, boy?”
“I’m fine, Hoss.”
“Gonna eat somethin’?”
“Not just yet.”
I was waiting for Hoss to comment on my behavior; instead, he just dug into his stew and left well enough alone. He probably knew Pa and Adam had already had words with me and let it go at that.
“I overheard Pa talkin’, Little Joe.”
“Think he’s gonna send ya back home.”
“Home? You’re sure?”
The lump in my throat made it hard to swallow. Tears filled my eyes and quickly, I turned away. It wasn’t fair. I did nothing wrong. He would never have thought this of Hoss or Adam, only me, the baby—the one who couldn’t be trusted to do the job.
“I’ll save him the trouble, Hoss.”
I walked toward the remuda. I’d be long gone before Pa sent me away.
I threw the blanket on Cochise’s back and picked up the saddle. Before I could lift it up, Pa was standing right there beside me. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Home. That’s where you’re sending me, isn’t it?”
“I thought we’d talk first.”
“Don’t need to talk, Pa. It’s all been said.” I dropped the saddle on Cooch’s back and reached for the cinch.
“What’s that supposed to mean, Joseph?”
I pulled hard on the cinch then turned to look at Pa. “It means I have nothing to say. You believe whatever you want.”
Pa was angry. With his hands placed firmly on his hips, he glared at me with eyes black as coal. “You watch your tongue, boy.”
I turned back to my horse, and using the stirrup rather than making any sudden moves that would make me sick again, I said to Pa, “You’ve already decided what happened out there. You never gave me a chance to explain, so I’ll ride out and not be any more bother to you or to anyone else.”
With those words said, I turned Cochise and rode back to the ranch. It would be another week or more before I saw my family again, or so I thought.
Hop Sing had left for San Francisco for a much-needed vacation while we were gone on the drive so I was on my own, fending for meals or clean clothes. That was fine with me. I could handle that nicely without anyone hanging around telling me how worthless I was.
I’d made it home by nightfall, and after I stabled Cochise, I knew I had to eat something before I keeled over. I was famished and I wondered if this is how Hoss felt before every meal he ate—starving.
I rummaged through the kitchen and made myself a sandwich and coffee. That was about all I could do. I was still weak in the knees and needed to sit down real soon. There were a couple of hands left to do the regular chores while we were gone, but I could busy myself somehow. There was always plenty to do.
After eating my supper, I laid back on the settee. I should have made a fire, but I was too tired to do much of anything. Sleep came quickly.
When I woke from the chill in the room, I got up off the settee to see the sun peeking over the horizon, showing a red, cloudy sky out the dining room window. A cup of coffee and maybe some eggs, then I could start my day.
I finished an entire pot of coffee before leaving the dining room table. I could always fill wood boxes, knowing I wasn’t up to riding again anytime soon, and decided that sticking around the house would be the wise thing to do at least for today. My body still ached from the cramping and retching and I wasn’t quite sure if my stomach would give out or something even less desirable might drag me down at some point today.
The axe was leaning against the side of the house next to a pile of logs that were waiting to be split. I started the never-ending job, figuring I might as well do something productive although I was tempted to go back in the house and lay back down on the settee. Maybe this would help burn the remnants of alcohol out of my system. One could only hope.
By noontime, I was hot and hungry. I’d shed my shirt and jacket a couple of hours ago, but I needed to stop and grab something to eat. I plunged the axe in the chopping block and went in through the kitchen door, but as I was making a cheese sandwich, I heard the front door open. Knowing I was the only one around this morning, I listened carefully. No one spoke—no greeting of any kind.
I picked up one of Hop Sing’s butcher knives and stood just inside the kitchen door. Boot steps were coming my way. I held the knife up close to my shoulder, ready to pounce on the unexpected intruder.
First a shadow and then—
“Sheeze, Pa, you scared the life outta me.”
“I’d feel a lot more welcome if you put down that knife.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled, feeling my heart in my throat. I lowered the weapon, although I found myself shaking at what could have been a horrible accident, or worse. “I wasn’t expecting anyone and when I—”
“It’s all right now, son.”
I let out a long, heavy breath and placed the knife on the block. I’d lost any appetite I’d worked up and offered the sandwich to Pa. He lifted his eyebrows at the gesture. “We’ll each eat half. How does that sound?”
“I see you’ve been working,” Pa said.
“Yeah.” I wasn’t sure where this was leading. I’d simmered down once I got home and I suppose Pa had too.
“I thought maybe we could talk about the other night.”
“It’s up to you.” I wasn’t too thrilled about rehashing my so-called childlike behavior. Pa already had his version so why bother telling him anything different.
“You mentioned another side to the story. I’m ready to listen.”
“You weren’t before,” I said roughly.
Pa stood still for a minute before he spoke. “Maybe I was wrong.”
“Well—” I was nearly tongue-tied. “There’s a whole ‘nother version of this story. Whether you choose to believe me is a whole different story.”
“Is there a reason I shouldn’t believe you?”
“Then why don’t you tell me.”
I realized I was half naked and could tell my story better if I got dressed first. “I’m gonna get my shirt. I’ll be right back.”
Pa ended up meeting me on the front porch with two tall glasses of lemonade. After tucking my shirt into my pants, I sat down beside my father.
“I know this will sound strange, but I swear on my ma’s grave, this is what really happened.”
I quickly explained: two men, a bottle of whiskey and at some point I passed out. I never even knew about the stampede until it was over. Pa listened without interruption. His eyebrows rose during parts of the story, but he kept his thoughts to himself until I was finished.
“And that’s exactly what happened, Pa.”
“Who? Who would do that to you—to us?” I could tell his mind was full of confusion and I had to admit, it was an unlikely story, but…
“I couldn’t see their faces, Pa; I don’t have a clue whatsoever.”
“They didn’t say anything, do anything you might recognize?”
“They laughed some—that’s about all.”
“You’re lucky to be alive, Joseph.”
“Tell me about it,” I said, remembering the frightening ordeal.
“I’m sorry I accused you of being—“
“No need, Pa,” I said, raising my hand and cutting him off.
“Yes, there is, son. I was wrong not to listen and I apologize.”
“It’s an unlikely story. I understand why you thought what you did.”
“Again, son, I’m sorry.”
Over the following week while my brothers were still on the drive, Pa and I patched things up as best we could. I’d brought up the trust thing with him and he realized why I was so upset, and again, more apologies. Yes, the story I told was a bit outrageous and still, I didn’t know who or why it had happened. Someday, someone would slip up, bragging or boasting in the local saloon, and I’d know the men who’d done this to me.
Hoss and Adam returned and seemed to manage quite nicely without Pa or me to help with the drive. Things were back to normal now and they, too, had accepted my story. Adam was skeptical at first and Hoss was ready to take revenge on the culprits, but after all was said and done, things returned to normal.
It was summer now and we worked hard six days a week but when Saturday night came, the three of us, and sometimes Pa, rode into Virginia City for well-deserved entertainment.
My normal routine was to grab a beer, and then search for the nearest card table while my father would generally shake his head and pretend not to notice. Only a few weeks ago we had a discussion about the length of my hair, and he’d accused me of looking like a riverboat gambler. Maybe I was. I was just a long way off from any riverboats, but I sure liked to gamble. The fact that I was good at cards, and could have made it my life’s profession if not for Pa’s genuine hate for that particular line of work, made me settle for friendly games on Saturday night and that was fine with me.
Tonight was the same as always. Lose a few hands, but win out in the end. I was up twenty dollars when I saw Pa wave; I knew it was time to go. “Thanks for the game, gentlemen.”
“Why don’t you stay home next Saturday night, Cartwright?”
“You know that ain’t gonna happen, Carl,” I smiled, even though I’d taken half his week’s pay. “See ya next week.”
On Sunday, Pa and Hoss were packing for a trip to Placerville. Pa had business and he wanted my big brother along not only for company, but mainly to teach him the ropes. Mr. Cross was a tough cookie and Pa would have to negotiate well for us to come out ahead on our future timber contracts with the old man.
That meant Adam and I were left to run the ranch—not the best decision Pa ever made, but we’d both promised to try and keep civil with each other though in most cases, that was easier said than done. They’d be gone for more than a week and considering the way the two of us tended to butt heads, it was way too long for Adam and me to keep control over things we said in anger or haste.
After Pa and Hoss left early Monday morning, Adam was my boss for the week and everything started out fine. James, one of our ranch hands, and I were sent to the south pasture to repair fencing and look for any other breaks in the line. Adam was smart to separate him and me—a week together was a long time.
James and I accomplished what we could and knew we’d have to come back tomorrow to finish. I went ahead and loaded up the wagon for tomorrow’s job when we got back. James was tired and I sent him on to the bunkhouse.
“You’re late,” Adam said when I waltzed into the house.
“We tried to finish, Adam, but we’ll have to go back tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” He seemed put out with me, but for what reason?
“Yes, tomorrow. There’s more to be done and I’ve already loaded up the wagon so James and I can finish.”
“We don’t have time tomorrow, Joe. We’ve got to move the herd.”
“Fine by me.”
“You might as well unload the wagon.”
“Why can’t it stay put till I can go?”
“Just unload the wagon, Joe.”
I knew better than to argue. I just didn’t know why he had such a burr up his—well, you know what I mean. Maybe it had something to do with Deborah Lehman, his current love, but it still wasn’t fair for him to take it out on me, so I played it smart and left the room before I said something I shouldn’t.
I pulled the barbed wire from the back of the wagon and set it up close to the back wall. Cochise whinnied and I went over to have a chat with my only friend tonight. “Miss me today, big fella?” I rubbed his muzzle and said silly nothings to my best boy.
Unexpectedly, I was knocked on the back of the head from the adjacent stall and I fell to the ground, but I was still conscious. I rolled away from Cooch as he started to prance and tried to stand up. I was grabbed and pulled into the open area of the barn, and again, blindfolded and tied. When I started to scream for Adam, a gag was shoved in my mouth. I knew what to expect next—
It had to be the same two men who’d done this before, but why? I heard the cork pulled from the bottle. The gag was removed and once again, whiskey poured down my throat. I jerked and kicked until someone’s knee came crashing down on my stomach.
The bottle was pulled away and someone’s fist drove hard across my face, causing me to gag and almost cry out on the taste of whiskey and blood. Another full on blow to my cheek and it was all I could do to keep from choking when the bottle was forced into my mouth.
I was hauled to my feet and kicked from behind. Lying face down, I couldn’t move. My hands were tied behind me, and again, I was hauled back to my feet. My head hung listlessly as I tried to catch my breath. Fists, one after another, rammed into my gut until I crumpled into a heap on the barn floor.
I woke in my bed. Adam was sitting next to me in my room. “What happened?”
“You tell me,” he said.
I felt like hell and it didn’t take long for it to all come back—the men—the whiskey. I looked at my brother. His face was covered with pitch and his clothes were filthy. “Why—why are you—Adam!”
He knew to grab the bowl by my bed as I raised myself up on one elbow. My stomach gave way in a violent manner. I flopped back on the bed, knowing it was only the beginning. After nearly an hour of heaving and getting everything out, I was exhausted and lay motionless, afraid it would start all over again.
My brother placed a wet cloth on my forehead, but I felt no better than I had before, maybe even worse. “Think you can talk?” he said.
I opened my eyes, but my lids were heavy. My sides ached from the constant cramping, but I remembered wanting to know why Adam was so dirty and my room smelled like smoke.
“What happened, Adam?”
“Fire, Joe. We lost the barn.”
“The barn?” My brother nodded his head. “The horses—Cochise?”
“They’re all safe in the corral,” he said. “Why don’t you rest for a while,” which was more of a statement than a question. He poured me a glass of water, but I shook my head.
“Not right now.”
“I’ll be up later then.” Adam left my bedroom door open and I heard footfalls going down the stairs. The barn? Had I? No. It was them—the two men. What would be next? Who would be next? What the hell was happening?
I slept through the night and the sun was well up in the sky before I stirred the following morning. My stomach churned and my head pounded, but I wasn’t hurt too bad physically, at least no worse than last time. The familiar tune played in my mind; filled with whiskey then some kind of disaster following, while I lay there unconscious.
Would Adam believe me—believe I didn’t start the fire? Neither Pa nor Adam believed me after the stampede, but would my brother believe me this time? He had to know I’d never do anything remotely close to starting a fire.
I eased my legs over the side of the bed and ended up cradling my head in my hands. “Damn,” I mumbled, and when I looked up to see Adam standing in my doorway, I apologized as if it was Pa rather than my brother entering my room. He handed me a cup of coffee. “Thanks.” I sipped slowly, hoping it would stay down and I wouldn’t have to make a mad dash for the china bowl.
Adam grabbed the chair in my room and pulled it out from under the desk. He sipped his coffee before he spoke. “Well?”
“Wanna tell me what happened?”
“I wish I knew.” I started to stand, but thought otherwise, and sat back down on the edge of my bed. I wanted to look out my window and see the destruction Adam had talked about, but it would have to wait.
“We managed to save the bunkhouse,” Adam said, almost accusing.
“I didn’t start the fire if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“That’s not what I said, or implied.”
I hated when Adam talked that way—like I was a ten-year-old kid without a brain in my head. I looked up at my brother, who held his cup with both hands, blowing across the steaming brew. “I think it was the same men who started the stampede.”
“I don’t know, Adam,” I said with too much force.
“All right—” Still accusing and making one word sound like an entire sentence—Adam had perfected that skill perfectly.
“They knocked me over the head and filled me with whiskey. Next thing I knew, I was here in bed.” Adam stared at me like I had two heads then sipped at his coffee. “I don’t care what you believe, Adam, but why would I start the fire? Tell me? Why—what would it prove?”
He didn’t speak right off. He set his cup on the table and walked toward my bedroom window. Standing with arms crossed, he stared at the ruins below. I pulled myself together and joined him.
Siding, blackened by fire, was the only remains—crumpled in a mangled heap on the ground. Only weeks ago, Hoss and I had put up new shingles, covering leaks now that summer was here and the heavy snows of winter had passed. It was a stark reality and it was also a wonder I’d survived the blazing inferno it must have been.
My pounding head only got worse as I stood next to my brother. I reached for my hairline at the nape of my neck and felt the lump left by the goons who’d attacked me. Adam noticed the movement and brushed my hand away. I felt him part my hair and study the bump. “Doesn’t look like you need stitches.”
“I’ll live,” I said. I walked back and sat down on my bed. “What now?”
“Well, if you’re up to it, we need to load up the remnants and move them off site.”
“I’m up to it. Just let me get dressed.”
Adam picked up his cup and mine before I’d had a chance to finish. “See you downstairs.”
Together, we cleared the rubble. Adam said he’d ride up to the sawmill with the measurements needed tomorrow since there wasn’t enough daylight left today. We were both dog-tired and my body ached after the brutal beating, but the hangover was nearly gone and forgotten. Pa always said, “hard work made a man forget.” Well, I was more than eager to forget.
Hop Sing had supper waiting, and after we ate, without many words between us, I headed to bed. I was restless though and came back downstairs only to find my brother sitting in his blue chair with a leather-bound book in his hands. He closed the book, marking the page with his index finger and looked up. “Not tired?”
“Stumped, Adam.” I gazed into the fire rather than look in his direction. “Who would keep doing this to me? What did I ever do to make anyone—”
“Make anyone what?” Adam said after my words stopped suddenly.
“The Allens—Harry and Jerome!”
“It has to be, Adam. I embarrassed both of them in the street—in front of everyone—their friends, others.”
Adam sat up straighter in the chair then shook his head back and forth. “They may want to settle a grudge, but I can’t imagine they’d go this far.”
“Who else? Who else would do such a thing? Who?”
“I don’t know, Joe, but you can’t go accusing anyone without proof.”
I slumped back on the settee. Adam was right. I had no proof whatsoever, but if it was indeed them, I needed to find out before something unforeseen happened to me or someone in my family. Right now, I was the only target, but everything that had happened up till now was actually targeted at the entire family.
“You’re right. I’m going back to bed—you comin’?”
“I’ll be up later.”
By the end of the week, the lumber for the new barn was ready to be picked up, so Adam and I took the wagon and hauled down the first of many loads. Hoss and Pa would be home soon and they’d have to be told what had happened although it wasn’t like they could ride up to the house and not be aware the barn was clearly missing from the ranch.
Adam had sketched out plans, a better design for the new structure while I kept up with the daily chores. As the week wore on, we managed to be more civil than normal with each other. It was far from 100%, but I was able to handle enough of the workload, leaving my brother enough time for other things.
We started off digging post holes, and that was about all we’d accomplished by the time Pa and Hoss rode in. The looks on their faces said it all. After they dismounted, and their mounts were corralled, Adam and I set our shovels aside and the four of us walked into the house together.
“Did you report this to Roy Coffee?” Pa asked.
What had we been thinking? Neither of us had been to town or even thought to inform the sheriff. “No,” I said.
“You’re both all right?”
Hoss just sat there staring at me with a disturbed look on his face.
“What’s up with you?” I said.
He seemed to stumble over his own words. “Why?”
I shrugged my shoulders. I hadn’t mentioned the Allen brothers, and I wondered if Hoss would think along the same lines as I had. If he was thinking that way, he didn’t say anything, but it seemed he was mulling things around in that big ol’ head of his.
“I’ll have to ride in and tell Roy tomorrow,” Pa said. “You’ll come with me, Joseph.”
“Right now I’m tired and I’m hungry and I need a good night’s rest.”
Hop Sing called us for supper so the four of us stood and walked toward the dining room table. As soon as we’d all filled our plates, Hoss, whose fork only made it halfway to his mouth, spoke. “Harry and Jerome!” he blurted. I half-smiled and nodded my head without looking up at my brother. “You think that too, don’t ya, Little Joe?”
“The thought’s crossed my mind.”
“The Allen brothers?” Pa said. “I don’t think—”
“Pa, it has to be,” I said, pounding my hand on the table. “There’s no one else it could be.”
“Joseph, there’s no call for acting rash at the table.”
“Then if you don’t believe me, at least believe Hoss.”
“Son,” Pa said. “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but you will need proof and that’s something you’re lacking, unless—”
I shook my head; the fight was gone. “I never saw their faces.”
Pa and I rode in to see the sheriff the following morning, but Pa warned me about bringing up any names since I was only guessing and had no real proof it was them. Roy asked all the proper questions—who, what, why, but I’d listened to my father and only gave him the facts as I knew them, nothing more. Roy seemed doubtful he could do anything about the situation, and after saying he’d keep a lookout for any strangers or odd behavior from the people in town, he cautioned me to stay alert, and I told him I planned to.
When Pa and I left Roy’s office and walked out into the bright sunlight, my father offered to buy me a beer. “Sounds good to me, Pa, thanks.”
The saloon was already booming. It was the end of the month and payday for some, although it seemed to me a bit early in the day for men to be giving away all their hard earned money. Even though I would have loved to sit and play a hand or two of poker while we were in town, I didn’t dare sit down at a table when I was with Pa, so we stood at the bar and enjoyed a beer, then a second, together.
I nodded to a couple of friends across the room but stayed put at the bar, hanging out with Pa. This was our time together. There’d be time for friends and cards on Saturday night.
But this week, my brother’s were tired and neither one was interested in going into town. I figured I’d have trouble convincing Pa to let me go alone and I was right. No way was he letting me out of his sight after all that had happened over the past few weeks.
I argued the point but my words were wasted on Pa, so flopped down on the settee and pouted the rest of the night. I was old enough for a trail drive and anything else on the ranch, but not allowed to fend for myself in Virginia City where I had friends my own age who would be at the saloon, not sitting at home with their families.
Seemed to me I was paying the price for something I hadn’t done. It certainly wasn’t my fault the cattle stampeded or the barn burned to the ground, but here I sat, telling Hoss for the hundredth time I didn’t want to play checkers or anything else.
“I’m going to bed,” I said. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, son,” Pa said without looking up.
“Night, Little Brother.”
I stood at my window looking out at the nothingness. The moon showed bright and I could see the white markings on Cochise, asleep in the corral. Maybe he could sleep, but not me. I was being robbed of a good time and it wasn’t fair.
But maybe—maybe after everyone had gone to bed . . .
The saloon was overflowing with men and music, fancy ladies and games of cards. I smiled to myself as I sauntered up to the bar and ordered a beer. I was a man now and Saturday nights were meant for men like me. I loved the noise—the excitement. Women and cards—smoke and drink. Saturday nights were all part of being a man. I lifted the beer to my lips and leaned back against the bar. I spotted Jimmy and Chad, two ranch hands from the Circle C. Jimmy waved me over.
“Hey, Joe, wanna sit in?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” I said, pulling out the empty chair, but after about four hands, Jimmy and Chad said they had to go and that left me sitting alone. There were other games, but all the tables were full. The night was still young, and since my friendly game of poker had just ended, I decided to head on home before anyone realized I had left.
As I stood from my chair, and right before my eyes, I saw them—Harry and Jerome Allen. They both looked up at me from a table across the room and I saw Harry nudge Jerome with his elbow. “Over here, Cartwright.” If I’d had any sense at all, I would have left the saloon and gone home, but I was eager to stay and have some fun—maybe take all their money, leaving them penniless for the following month. How much could goat farmers have to lose? I was anxious to find out.
I made my way across the room and sat down at their table. A man I wasn’t familiar with was dealing the cards, and after I threw in my ante, I was in for the long haul. Harry and Jerome lost one hand after another—to me. I was feeling rather cocky by now and they were looking rather miserable, which only added to the pleasure it gave me to scoop up their hard-earned money and stack it neatly on my side of the table. By the time I left the saloon, I was nearly a hundred dollars richer than when I’d walked in.
Just the thrill of knowing that I’d gotten the better of the Allens almost made it hard for me to contain myself and walk away without adding insult to injury. I tipped my hat to the dealer before I left the table and walked out of the saloon.
I’d be back—sooner than later—I’d be back.
I’d slipped back inside the house and no one was the wiser, but now, Hoss was up and dressed and shaking my shoulder, trying to wake me up. I pushed him away but it did no good. “Time to rise and shine, little brother.” I might rise, but there’d be no shine this morning.
“I’m up,” I said, hoping he’d go away and leave me alone.
“Pa’s already at the table. Better get a move on.”
Three pairs of eyes stared at me as I came down the stairs and crossed to the dining room table. I took my seat and reached for the eggs in front of Pa when he stopped me by placing his hand on my wrist.
“Care to explain where you snuck out to last night, young man?”
“Yes, Joseph, last night.”
“I—I wasn’t real tired, Pa. I—I just went for a ride.”
Pa released my arm, but the discussion was far from over. “I don’t like to be lied to, boy.”
I jerked my face toward my father. “I’m not a boy, Pa.”
“You certainly aren’t a man if you can’t answer my question with the truth instead of a lie.
“Okay. I went to town. I went to the saloon and played a few hands of poker. Then I came home. I didn’t do nothin’ wrong, Pa.”
A loud sigh from my father was the only sound in the room. I was starving when I came down to breakfast, but now the thought of sitting here listening to Pa took my appetite completely away.
Pa excused my brothers from the table, but not me. I hoped I was too old for a tannin’ even though I knew the lecture I was about to receive might be worse than a trip to the barn—the barn that was no longer there. Maybe Pa blamed me for that too.
“Joseph,” Pa said, pushing his plate forward and resting his elbows on the table. “I trust when you go up to bed, you’ll stay there the entire night. There was a reason I didn’t want you to go to town alone, and I think you know what that reason was.”
“But—” Pa held up his hand. It wasn’t my turn to talk.
“You are seventeen years old, Joseph, and until you’re twenty-one, and you live in this house, you will do as I say. Do I make myself clear?”
I leaned back in my chair, defeated. I nodded.
“No more of this childish behavior, understood?”
“If you’re not going to eat your breakfast you may go help your brothers.”
By week’s end, we had a new and more efficient barn—more stalls which also meant a larger loft. I thought back to the times I’d hidden in the old loft, afraid of my father and the much-deserved tanning for some childish prank. Sometimes I was scared, and Hoss or Adam would find me, hold me, cry with me, talk me into coming down, and tell me things would be okay. Sometimes I’d been beaten up in school over filthy names the other boys called my ma or rotten things they said about my pa because he’d married someone like her. Sometimes I’d made a fool of myself in front of a young lady. Sometimes, those same young ladies laughed in my face when I’d asked them to a Saturday night dance or a Sunday picnic. But my childhood memories ended suddenly when Pa walked up behind us.
“It’s a beauty, boys,” Pa said, admiring our handiwork after completing the final touches on the barn.
“I must admit, Pa, it’s a grand piece of work,” Adam said, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Quite grand,” Hoss said, trying to keep a straight face, but chuckling at his attempt at a British accent.
I couldn’t help but smile and shake my head. “You two are enough to make me wanna throw up.”
“I think you’ve done quite enough of that lately, little brother,” Adam said, remembering how many times he was stuck emptying my china basin after the fire.
“Yeah—guess you’re right.”
“That’s enough, boys. We’ve got work to do.”
Hoss and I looked at each other. Hadn’t we just finished building a barn? Didn’t we deserve a little rest?
“What work?” I said, hearing my voice crack.
“Well, you and Hoss can get the first coat of paint on the barn. I believe there are a few hours of daylight left.”
“Today?” My voice cracked again.
“Come on, Joe, Hoss said. “Might as well get started.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw a grin creep across my father’s face. As demanding as he tried to be, there was always a softer side underneath that harsh exterior. I think, like Adam, he just liked to get a rise out of me, and as you can see, it wasn’t that hard to do.
Three weeks passed since the barn burned to the ground, and there’d been no further incidents. It was still unknown if the Allen brothers were guilty or not. Roy Coffee had ridden out to the ranch a couple of times, but he’d found nothing—no talk in town—no clues whatsoever. He’d spread the word around Virginia City about the fire, but still, nothing.
I knew the two events were related and I knew there’d be more. I didn’t know when or where, or even why, but Pa was probably more scared than I was and he kept me close at hand. I was never allowed out alone, and after the night I’d snuck out and gone to town, I’d been watched like a hawk by at least one member of my family every time I walked out the door. It was a miracle I was allowed at the outhouse by myself.
I tried to argue the fact with Pa. Whoever was after me had made his point, and if there were going to be any more incidents, they would’ve happened by now. I didn’t believe the words I’d said and neither did Pa. So the watch continued indefinitely.
By Saturday night, my brothers were finally in the mood to go to town and I was allowed to go with them, but only if they didn’t let me out of their sight. The hundred dollars I’d won off the Allens was wearing a hole in my pocket, and even though my brothers would think it odd if I sat down at a table with Harry and Jerome, I knew they were easy targets. It wasn’t just the money I’d win, but taking their money gave me added pleasure. If I’d been a decent son, I’d give my winnings to Pa to pay for the barn, but as you see, I didn’t go that far.
After entering the Silver Dollar—not Adam’s favorite saloon due to the boisterous behavior by cowboys and miners alike–I stood and had a beer with my brothers while I scanned the room. There they sat—the Allen boys, playing with the same dealer as before and one other man at the table. As soon as they spotted me, they were quick to get rid of the fourth player so I could sit in.
“Cartwright,” Harry yelled over the noise in the bar. He raised his hand and motioned me over.
Adam and Hoss gave me a questioning look when I walked away, heading for their table. “Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing.”
I threw in my ante before I sat down. “You boys ready to lose some more money?” I said as I lowered myself into the chair.
“Not tonight, Cartwright. You’re goin’ down.”
Five hands—five losses. I couldn’t get the right cards; my bluffs weren’t working. I’d already lost the hundred dollars I’d won the other night, and I was playing my own money now. A smart man would have walked away but, I was anything but smart.
I sat rather calmly, holding a pair of tens. Could be worse, could have been a heck of a lot better. I felt a rivulet of sweat run down the side of my face as I moved my cards from one side to the other in my hand. I had twenty in the pot—gone.
I sat taller in the chair, my relaxed posture was gone. I tried to draw to an inside flush. Twenty-five—gone.
I leaned back in the chair again, my left leg, nervously shaking under the table. A pair of threes, my last chance. I bluffed. Twenty—gone. That was my last bit of cash. Nothing had gone right all night. I couldn’t win a hand if the Almighty was sitting on my shoulder guiding me along.
“Looks like it’s time for this young Cartwright boy to head home to Papa, don’t it Jerome?” I glared across the table at the two of them. “Boy’s spent all his Papa’s money.”
“It ain’t my Pa’s money, it’s mine.”
“I might consider floating you a loan if these two boys will vouch for you, young man,” the dealer said.
I looked at Harry and Jerome then back to the dealer. I glanced toward my brothers, who, lucky for me, were busy with their own friends and not paying any attention to what I was up to.
“Fine, where do I sign?”
I took the hundred dollars off the dealer, knowing my luck had to change. I’d just had a bad run. Within a half hour, I’d borrowed another hundred. Before the night was over, and my brothers were ready to leave, I was $500 in debt to a man I didn’t know. “I’m good for the money, sir. I’ll pay you back as soon as I—”
“Name’s McDonald, son, and you have forty-eight hours. I’m sorry if that’s an inconvenience, but that’s how I do business.”
“All right,” I said, shakily. “Forty-eight hours.”
The ride home was nothing but a blur of trees, passing on either side of me until we pulled up to the new barn and stabled our horses. My hands were shaking and my mouth was as dry as cotton as I curried Cochise. Once or twice I glanced at my unusually silent brothers, hoping they didn’t notice how quiet I’d become.
“Ready?” I said.
I took a deep breath, hoping to steady my thumping heart, and then closed the barn doors after Hoss and Adam made their way out. Hoss threw his arm across my shoulder as we walked toward the house, but there was no talking, no funnin’ each other like we normally did after a couple of beers on Saturday night.
Could they possibly know what I’d done? I thought I’d hidden my actions from both of them. Were they waiting till we got inside and blab everything to Pa? I sucked in more air than needed as we walked through the front door.
A light burned on Pa’s desk and I could feel my anxiety rise to the point where I felt my stomach tighten up on me. But Pa wasn’t at his desk; he’d only left the lamp burning for the three of us. Nothing would happen tonight, but what about tomorrow morning? I was more than just nervous, and if sleep came, it would be a godsend tonight.
“Up and at ‘em, boy,” Hoss called from my doorway. Even though I’d fallen asleep at some point, nothing could settle my nerves when I woke with a start at Hoss’ commanding voice.
So much of my 48 hours had passed already, and by tomorrow night, I had to come up with $500. I had a savings account at the bank, but I would have to wait till Monday morning to check the balance. I’m sure my brother, Adam, knew to the penny what monies he had in the bank but me; I had no clue.
After the morning chores were finished and we’d eaten breakfast, Pa told us to get changed quickly or we’d be late for church. How could I possibly sit still while the preacher droned on about whatever sermon he’d prepared for morning services?
“Debt is a burden on our souls and we ask God to forgive our debts,” the preacher started. “Let me quote Proverbs 22:7,” he continued. “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender—”
That’s all I heard before I excused myself and darted down the center aisle and out the church door to the fresh air outside. I gulped in quick breaths as I cradled my head in my hands on the front steps of the church.
When the sermon was over and I heard singing, I stood and walked toward our buggy. I knew there’d be questions. What could I tell Pa? I had too much to drink last night? No way in the world could I bring up the debt I owed. He’d never let me enter another saloon if . . .
“Oh God,” I mumbled to myself, when suddenly I shuddered and glanced behind me. Adam had slid his hand across my shoulder.
“You in trouble?”
I stared at my brother. “I’m fine, Adam. Just—just that my stomach’s not quite right this morning. Not sure why, just kind of upset is all.”
“There’s more to this than just an upset stomach, Joe.”
“I said I’m fine.” I gave Adam a hard, glaring look and walked away, leaving him standing next to the buggy. I dug my hands deep in my pockets and kicked at clods of dirt as I moved farther away from a conversation I didn’t want to have.
By the time services were over and people came down the steps of the church, I’d calmed myself somewhat. I hadn’t let on to Adam, but he knew something was up. I had to figure out a way to get the money without anyone finding out what a fool I’d been to sit there and sign markers, one after the other.
Pa had cautioned me over and over about the vile and seductive ways of a hardcore gambler and how there were never winners, only losers. But I’d done so well over the past few weeks. I’d never lost—never—until last night, and when those Allen brothers said those things about it being Pa’s money, knowing it would make my blood boil, I fell; hook, line and sinker, and now I was in more trouble than I knew how to get out of.
I didn’t know what Pa had planned for Monday, work wise, all I knew was that at some point, I had to escape my brothers and head into town. I would withdraw all the money I had in the bank, and then plead with Mr. McDonald to give me a little more time.
I spent most of Sunday afternoon in the barn, polishing my saddle and cleaning tack, mine and everyone else’s. Rain fell all afternoon and everyone else stayed inside the house until Adam decided to pay me a visit. He was the last person I wanted to look up and see walking into the barn.
“Brought you a cup of coffee,” he said, then handed me the mug.
“Wondered if you were planning on staying out here all day?”
“Nothin’ else to do, is there?”
‘No. I guess not.”
I was too scared to make conversation, but I knew Adam didn’t just come out to bring me coffee. He sat on a bale across from me. He wanted to talk—I didn’t.
“How much did you lose last night, Joe?”
“What makes you think I lost anything?”
Adam shrugged his shoulders. “Just an observation.”
“Well, you’re wrong,” I said as I kept my polishing rag moving over my saddle. I tried to calm my nerves. “I don’t know what you think you know, or what you think you saw, but everything’s fine, so drop it, will ya?”
He cupped his hands around his mug and stared down at it as if trying to figure out his next question. But more questions didn’t come. He stood and walked toward the barn doors, then stopped and turned back for one final comment. “Remember, Joe, we’re family. We’re all here to help.”
I didn’t answer my brother. He walked back through the rain toward the house.
Awake most of the night, I sat at my window for what seemed like hours, trying to come up with a plan, but no plan came. I got paid thirty dollars a week. It would take months to cover my debt and I knew McDonald wasn’t the waiting type. Did I dare tell Adam what I’d done? He seemed to already know I’d gotten myself in hot water. “No,” I said out loud. This was my problem and I needed to handle it by myself.
When Hoss banged on my bedroom door, it felt like I’d just fallen asleep, which, maybe I had. “I’m up,” I said.
I dressed and I hauled myself downstairs to breakfast. “Adam and I have work to do here at the house, so Joseph; I want you and Hoss to go into town for supplies. Hop Sing has a list and so do I.”
“To town?” I said, relieved at the prospect of not having to sneak off.
“Yes, son, for supplies.”
“Right.” I’d sounded a bit over anxious and I needed to watch myself before I gave away anything about my current situation. I could ditch Hoss, tell him I had an errand to run, and he’d think nothing of it. “I’ll get the team hitched up while you finish, Hoss.”
“You don’t need to leave this instant, son.”
I’d barely touched my breakfast. I was a bit over-eager to get this matter settled and I laughed, nervously. “You’re right, Pa. Not sure what I was thinking.”
Adam looked my way, but he didn’t say a word. I kept my eyes focused only on my plate while I shoveled in my food and gulped my coffee. I was nothing but a bundle of nerves ready to explode. Finally, I settled down, but my mind wandered, not realizing Hoss was standing next to me calling my name.
“I said, you ready?”
“Yeah, I’m ready.”
“I’ll head down to the bank while you check on them new boots you want. I’ll meet you back at the mercantile in about an hour, okay?”
“Sounds good, Little Joe. Maybe we’ll have time for a quick beer.” Hoss’ face lit up, and I couldn’t help but smile at the overgrown kid my big brother resembled.
“See ya,” I said, then marched myself to the bank.
On the way, I had a thought. Maybe I could secure a loan. Mr. Grant, the bank manager, was good friends with Pa; he had to know I’d be good for the money. I walked into the bank with a smile on my face, thinking maybe my problems were solved.
After I’d done Pa’s banking and tucked the cash in my pocket for safekeeping, I withdrew my own savings—$148.50. I asked Cindy, the pretty blonde teller, if I could have a word with Mr. Grant.
“Let me see if he’s busy, Little Joe.”
I watched her walk away. She was a cute little thing and I wondered why I hadn’t pursued her in the past, other than the fact that Hoss had made some comment months ago, but knowing my brother, she’d be old and gray before he ever asked her to a Saturday night dance.
She waved her hand, motioning me to come back to Mr. Grant’s office. This was it. It was a good plan and I had to make it work. “Mr. Grant?”
“Joseph Cartwright, won’t you come in? Take a seat, son,” he said after he shook my hand and walked behind his desk to sit down. “What can I do for you, Little Joe?”
“Well, sir, it’s about a loan.”
“Yessir. I need to borrow $360, sir.”
“All right,” he said. He reached in his desk and pulled out a piece of white paper and wrote down something at the top. “What’s the loan for, Joseph?”
“Well, Mr. Grant, it’s personal. I mean—it’s just for me, but I’m good for it. You know I’ll pay back every cent.”
“How old are you, Joseph?”
“Seventeen, sir. But I’m very responsible and I’ll pay back the loan. I won’t spend a penny until you’re paid back, sir.”
“Well, son, at seventeen, I’ll need a cosigner for a personal loan—maybe your Pa, Adam perhaps?”
“No, sir, that won’t do. This is my responsibility, sir. I can’t—I mean I want to do this on my own. I’d rather my family didn’t know about the loan.”
Mr. Grant sat back in his chair. “Son,” he said. “I’m sorry, but it’s bank policy that I have a cosigner for a loan such as this.”
“But couldn’t you make an exception this time. You know my Pa and Adam and—and you know I’ll pay you back.”
“I’m sorry, Joe.” He stood up from his chair and I knew the meeting was over.
“Thanks anyway, Mr. Grant. I’m sorry I wasted your time.”
I walked out of the bank and into the stark sunlit day. My only hope now was that McDonald was the kind of man who would listen to reason. When I entered the Silver Dollar early on a Monday morning, the saloon was quiet. What was I thinking? McDonald was still sound asleep. He was a night person who probably slept till noon. I’d have to slip out of the house tonight and try to reason with him for a little more time.
I met Hoss at the mercantile and when I didn’t notice his brand new boots, he clobbered me on the shoulder. “Ain’t ya gonna say nothin’?”
“About what?” I said, sharply.
He pointed to the toe of his new boot so I could see what I’d obviously missed before. “They’re nice, Hoss.”
“Cost me two weeks wages. Had them special made, Little Joe.”
“Of course, you did. They don’t keep your size anywhere in the whole country, Hoss.”
“Well, them’s nice lookin’ anyway, ain’t they.”
“Yeah, real nice lookin’.” I couldn’t bring myself to the height of joy my brother felt over a new pair of boots.
“We still got time for a beer, Little Joe.”
“Two beers, Sam,” Hoss said to the bartender after we’d made our way inside.
If my day wasn’t bad enough already, there sat Harry and Jerome at a table in the back of the saloon. I turned my back to the brothers and took a long pull at my beer. As soon as I downed the first, I asked Sam for two more.
“Better watch it, little brother. Two’s plenty ‘fore we head home.”
“What? Are you my keeper?”
“What’s got into you? Ya ain’t been actin’ yourself all mornin’.”
“Maybe I have things on my mind that don’t concern you, okay?”
“Just wonder about something else, will ya?” I was acting like an ass, but I couldn’t deal with Hoss or boots or counting beers at the bar.
“Fine, little brother. I’ll do just that.”
We rode home in silence, unloaded the buckboard, and I handed Pa the cash he’d sent me to get at the bank. I watched him put it in the safe. It was enough money to get us through the coming month; it was more than enough to pay off my loan.
After lunch, Pa sent the three of us out to check the herd and make sure there was still plenty of green grass for the cattle to graze and get fat. My mind was on the money Pa had put in the safe, not on steers, not on the color of grass.
Tonight I’d have to sneak out, pay McDonald what I could, and sneak back in without being seen. I was already dead from lack of sleep, but I had no choice. I had to go to town before McDonald showed up at our front door and told my father all the sordid details and demand payment for the markers I’d signed.
The saloon was crowded, and amid the smoke and noise, sat Mr. McDonald. He looked up; he caught my eye. I tipped the brim of my hat, but I waited for him to come to me, and before I could order a beer, McDonald was standing next to me at the bar.
“What’ll you have, son?”
I let out a deep breath, “A beer.”
“A beer and a bottle, Sam.” After our drinks arrived, he continued the conversation. “I like a man who’s prompt, Mr. Cartwright.”
“I presume you have the sum required to pay off the markers.”
“Only part of it, sir.” I pulled out $148.50 and laid it on the bar. “I assure you I’m good for the rest if you’ll just give me a little time.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright. A deal’s a deal and you have till midnight tonight to hand over the remainder that’s owed.”
“But I can’t get the money tonight, Mr. McDonald. If you give me a—”
He pushed the $148.50 back across the bar. “Partial payment won’t do, Mr. Cartwright. I forwarded you money in good faith and I intend to be paid in full.” He swallowed his glass of whiskey. “Midnight, Mr. Cartwright.”
I’d made mistakes before, but nothing quite like this. The stale smell of smoke and whiskey filled the saloon and the loud, grating noise of men yelling and laughing annoyed me like never before. I had frightening visions of what might happen to me or maybe even my family if I didn’t do as the man asked. My only choice was the money Pa had put in the safe.
“I’ll be back tonight, Mr. McDonald,” I said after walking over to his table. He didn’t look up. He wouldn’t acknowledge me at all unless I had cash in my hand.
I vaulted onto Cochise and rode like the devil. The house was dark, and as I moved quietly across the room and bent down in front of the safe, a light suddenly shone at the top of the stairs. I jerked my head around—Adam.
Fully dressed and carrying his small bedside lamp, he crept down the stairs and across the room like a cat. I stood back up and swallowed the lump in my throat. I couldn’t form any words; I just stared at my brother.
He sat the lamp on top of Pa’s desk. “How much,” he said.
“And you need it tonight?”
I nodded. I kept my head lowered. I was mortified I’d been caught, so ashamed I couldn’t meet my brother’s eyes. Adam pulled his wallet from his pants pocket and handed me the money.
“We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Again, I nodded. I took the money. “Thanks—”
I rode fast, in and out of shadows left by the crescent moon. Adam had saved me but at what cost? I needed to concentrate on the road. I’d worry about Adam and what he planned to tell Pa after the money was paid to McDonald.
It had been more than two hours before I made it back to town, but I had the full amount this time and could even the score with McDonald. I tied Cochise to the rail and hopped up on the boardwalk in front of the saloon. I was anxious to be done with this whole ordeal.
An arm wrapped tightly around my neck from behind, and my gun was lifted from my holster. I was hauled backward into the alley next to the saloon. Boot tips kicked at my shins; the butt of my own pistol plowed across my face. Someone yanked my hair from behind, and pulled back so hard, I thought my neck would snap. Fists rammed my gut, a knee jammed my groin, bending me in half and sending me sprawling to the ground. Kicks to my ribs, kicks to my shoulders and back. I was hauled to my feet by one man while the other slammed my face with my gun, over and over, until my head hung down to my chest. I sunk to the ground and when I started to move, an empty whiskey barrel came crashing down on my legs.
“He’s in pretty bad shape, Ben, but I’ll do all I can to put him back together.”
Noises—voices. There was a ringing sensation in my ears, but there were definitely voices though far, far away . . .
“Who would beat the boy like this, Paul? Who in their right mind would hurt a child?”
I couldn’t make out the words, but there were two voices, distant, mumbling, unclear . . .
“We still have his shoulder to contend with, but we’ll wait for Hoss to get back before we attempt to maneuver it back in place.”
Hoss . . .
“Sheriff? Did you find anyone?”
“Not a clue, Ben, but I’m not stopping till I find out who done this to Little Joe.”
Little Joe—that’s me! I’m here. Movement, boot heels, voices . . .
“Ok, Hoss, you ready?”
Hoss . . .
Violent pain. No, Hoss, No! I rose from the bed, arching, crying . . .
“I done hurt him bad, Doc.”
“I thought he was out, Hoss. I’m sorry.”
Hoss . . .
“Do you think you can carry him over to the bed? We need to get him off this table.”
“Will it hurt him more?”
“I don’t think so. son. Just be easy with him.”
Oh God. The pain. Hoss! Stop the pain . . .
“He’ll have to stay here, Ben. He can’t be moved again.”
Silence, dead silence . . .
“Why hasn’t he opened his eyes, Paul? It’s been two days.”
“Time, Ben. It takes time for the body to heal.”
I rode like the wind, floating across the meadow. Not a care in the world . . .
“I could always contact a specialist in San Francisco or St. Louis, but I don’t think there’d be any way they could make a definite diagnosis without seeing the boy, and you know he can’t be moved in his current condition.”
“But it’s been days now, Paul, and he’s barely moved a muscle or tried to open his eyes, plus, we’ve only been able to get small amounts of water and broth down him with that glass straw. How can he survive this way?”
“I’m sorry, Ben, I wish I could do more. Only time will tell.”
“I want to take him home. Is that possible?”
A spoon touched my lips; I opened my mouth. Words were spoken, and I listened . . . The voice, like music, someone reading a story, one of my favorites . . . A spoon to my lips . . .
“Roll him on the count of three, boys.”
“There you go, little buddy.”
“That should hold him for a while.”
Voices. Words. I lay on my side now. Pillows propped back and front. Thank you . . .
I opened my eyes, but it was dark, only the glow of the moon slipped through my bedroom window. I heard a faint snore and turned my head. Pa was sleeping in a chair next to my bed. I wouldn’t wake him; I fell back asleep.
I woke again. The sun was shining brightly now and the strong smell of coffee filled the room. I heard a page of the newspaper turn and without seeing his face, I knew it was my father.
The paper crashed loudly to his lap and I caught sight of my father’s face and the tears that threatened to spill.
The paper fell to the floor and Pa took two steps closer. He bent over the bed; he laid his hand on my shoulder. His eyes showed the strain he’d been under and the tears he’d held for so long finally fell. When he knelt down on his knees, he pressed his cheek against my hand, and I listened as he soft words of prayer.
“Son,” he said, after raising his head.
I smiled a tight-lipped smile. Pa stood, then dashed to the doorway and hollered to my brothers, who, in turn, came racing up the stairs and into my room. Hoss rushed to stand next to the bed while Adam hung back in the doorway. They all stared at me strangely, like I had horns growing out of my head. I stared right back until someone finally spoke.
Hoss knelt down next to me; he leaned in close, making sure I could hear. “I’m sorry I had to hurt you, Little Joe. I sure didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
I was confused. Hoss would never hurt me? My body ached, but I didn’t know why and now, Hoss was apologizing. “It’s okay, Hoss. I’m fine.”
Three grown men started laughing, but why? I felt a little scared. I was so confused. My thoughts couldn’t keep up with what was happening around me. I started to raise myself up, but I couldn’t move. I was bandaged from the neck down, and pain, pain like I’d never known before.
“Paul said you might need some laudanum when you first woke up, Joseph. Are you hurting?”
“Yes.” The words barely made it through my lips. I gritted my teeth and closed my eyes.
“You’ll have to eat something first. I’ll tell Hop Sing. You boys stay here with your brother.”
Pa scurried out the room. Everything seemed disconnected; things weren’t right. I knew these were my brothers and I knew I should feel safe, but they scared me. They were big. Their sudden movements and deep voices made me hesitate to say anything more.
“You think you can sit up some?” Adam said.
I stared at each of them. With a brother on either side of me, they started to lift my back up off the bed.
“No, no more,” I cried.
I gasped for air. I needed to lie back down where the pain was less of a distraction. My entire body trembled. I closed my eyes, praying the misery would end and no one would try to move me again.
Pa came rushing back into the room, shouting. I kept my eyes closed. “What’s going on in here?” He hollered.
“We was just trying to sit him up some, Pa, but it hurt him too bad.”
Pa leaned over the bed. “Are you all right, son?”
I tried to answer the question, but I couldn’t form any words. God—what happened? Why was I in so much pain?
“Would one of you ride in and bring Paul out here to check him over.”
“I’ll go,” Adam said.
I still hadn’t opened my eyes. I tried everything to stay the pain until I heard the soft padding of Hop Sing, entering my room. “Hop Sing bring chicken soup for Little Joe. Make heal fast.”
“Thank you, Hop Sing. I’ll see what I can get in him before we give him the medicine Paul left.”
The last thing I wanted was soup, but I needed the doc’s medicine, so I had no choice but to eat. “Here you go, son.” The spoon touched my lips. I had no choice; I opened my mouth and let Pa spoon feed me like I was a small child.
Dreams drifted through my mind, sweet dreams of soft, tender ladies, smiling, touching, a hand on my thigh . . .
Again, I was forced to eat something before Pa poured a spoonful of medicine. He’d told me the doctor had been by earlier and was pleased to know that I’d finally woken up. I asked Pa how long I’d been asleep. He looked toward my window and then back at me before he answered.
“Nearly a week, son. We thought you were never—”
Tears formed in my father’s eyes, and I knew right away, I’d put my family through something terrible but what? I’d either been drugged or unconscious for a long time and now I was left with no memory except Hoss’ apology, but why?
Hoss would never hurt me like this, would he? What could I have done to make him that mad, mad enough to crush almost every bone in my body? I could remember pain—horrible pain—and Hoss’ voice, Hoss causing the pain.
Pa fed me soup; he gave medicine.
Hoss tugging, ripping me apart. Why, Hoss? Why? The dream was relentless. Hoss towered over me, grinning. Tears slipped down my cheeks. He came toward me. I cried out for help . . .
I screamed, loud enough to warrant my father, crashing through the doorway of my bedroom and gathering my hands in his. Soothing words calmed the dream, and I fell back asleep.
The routine continued. I ate Hop Sing’s soup so I could have the medicine. The doc said I needed to sit up some but just for a short while and in bed. So this time when my brothers lifted me, I’d already taken my medicine. I could sit up fine for a while although I didn’t last long and when I woke I was laying back down again.
Sometimes I was smiling when I woke; sometimes I was frightened. The dreams were irrational, and I never knew which dream would wake me. Though the medicine was a godsend, Pa was giving me less and less during the days and nights that followed. I didn’t understand why, and I begged him to break Doc’s rules, but my father stayed firm and wouldn’t give into my pleas. My mood and my behavior varied from one hour to the next and when Pa said I had to wait, that he couldn’t give me more, I screamed or I cried. I hated Pa. I hated what he put me through.
When Adam sat with me, he opened my favorite book, but I was in no mood for a stupid story about whales and sea captains. I told him to get out and leave me alone.
“All right,” he said and started for the door.
“Adam? I’m sorry, I didn’t . . . I can’t . . .”
I looked to the ceiling. I tried to stop the tears from falling. No one understood. I knew Pa cared; I could see the hurt in his eyes when I begged him for just one spoonful of medicine, but he wouldn’t give an inch. He told me what would happen if I continued taking the laudanum, but he didn’t understand, he didn’t care that I was in pain.
Adam gave me time to settle myself. Maybe he knew what I was going through, maybe he could talk to Pa, convince him. “Adam?” But Adam would never go against Pa. “Never mind. It’s nothing.”
He might have already known what I wanted to ask because he started talking to me about the drug, not that I cared to listen. “I don’t think it’s the pain anymore, Joe, it’s the need you have for the drug.”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“I think you know what I mean. You’re well enough to manage the pain now. You’ve let the laudanum take over and thank God it was here for you when you needed it, but now—”
“What do you know, Adam?”
“I know I want my brother back and not just a ghost of what he once was.”
“You don’t understand. It didn’t happen to you, Adam.”
“You’re right, Joe. It didn’t happen to me. I don’t know the exact pain you’re in, but what I’m sure of is that you can deal with it now and get well without the help of laudanum.”
I didn’t know why we were having this conversation. Adam didn’t know anything about the pain I was in, but there is sat, preaching to me about what he thought I should do. “Can we talk about something else?”
Adam sat back down on the chair by my bed. I don’t know if he knew how confused I was and that I didn’t even remember how I got here. This was a hard question to ask, but it was time to get it out in the open. “Who did this to me, Adam?” I had to know whether or not it was Hoss.
“Do you remember the gambling debt you owed a man named McDonald?”
Sitting up in bed, I leaned back against the headboard. I looked down at my bedclothes, running the scenario though my mind, but nothing was clear. “I’m not sure, Adam. What was it all about?”
“Apparently, you signed markers to Mr. McDonald during a poker game at the Silver Dollar. You owed him $500.”
“You borrowed some money from me to pay him off and from what Roy Coffee told us—”
“Us? Pa knows?”
“I’m afraid so, Joe.”
Oh God, no. I closed my eyes and looked away from my brother. “Everyone knows?”
“Yes, Joe,” he said with a sigh in his voice. “Anyway, before you entered the saloon to pay off the loan, you were beaten and left for dead in the alleyway. The five-hundred you had on you was taken and given to McDonald”
“So—so who beat me up?” Not Hoss?
“My best guess is that it might have been the Allen brothers, but there were no witnesses, no proof.”
My head swam. Bile rose in my throat as the whole event came crashing back. Adam was right. They lured me into that game, and then somehow— “Is McDonald still around?”
“Seems he left town right after he was handed the five-hundred dollars, Joe.”
They suckered me into their game, a setup all along. They cheated me out of seven-hundred dollars they knew I couldn’t pay then beat me within an inch of my life. That was the plan all along, just because I humiliated them in the streets of Virginia City. They would pay. By God, they would pay.
I was forced out of bed, no magic drug to kill the pain, but now I had a reason to get my body in shape. The Allen brothers would pay. With Hoss on one side of me and Adam on the other, I took my first steps in over a month. They’d placed my chair by the window so I could see out, but the walk across the room tired me so, I would have been happy to just crawl back under the covers. Instead, I sat, I stared at nothing, and I planned my revenge.
I didn’t know what form of punishment I would use to deal with the likes of Harry and Jerome, but something they’d never forget. Together, they outnumbered me, and each one outweighed me by nearly fifty pounds. I couldn’t take them both at once and if Pa had any idea what I was thinking, he’d send me back to bed and never let me out of this room again.
Both of my legs were cast in plaster, and Doc said the casts would come off soon. My ribs were still taped and my right shoulder was useless for the time being. It would take more time to heal. The cuts and bruises were fading, and even Hoss joked about what a mess I’d been when they first brought me home. “You’re sure a better sight now than you was a month ago, little brother. Could hardly recognize you under all them bruises.”
“You wanna hear somethin’ funny, Hoss?”
“Sure, Little Joe, what?”
“For a time, I thought it was you who beat me up and I couldn’t figure out what I’d done to make you so mad.”
My voice faded as I watched my brother’s face fall, a look of shock and sadness. Tears filled his eyes. He stood from the chair he’d brought in from his room to sit with me. “I got things need doin’, Joe,” he said before he lumbered through my bedroom door.
“Hoss? Hoss wait—” He stopped for a minute then continued away.
The routine of hauling me out of bed continued for the next couple of days, but there was no sign of Hoss. Pa and Adam would help me across the room and gently ease me into the chair, propping my feet up on a footstool until doc would come to remove the heavy casts from my legs.
I’d asked after Hoss, but Pa said he’d been keeping himself busy doing extra chores so Adam and I would have more time to take care of you. “Why? Is there something I should know?”
“Yeah, and it’s my fault, Pa. I hurt him; I hurt him deep down inside, but I didn’t mean to at all. We were joking and I said something I shouldn’t have.”
“Well, the sooner you straighten things out the better.”
“And just how am I supposed to do that when he won’t come to my room?” I said, cutting off my father’s preaching attitude with an edge to my voice. “I’m sorry, Pa. I don’t feel; I’m just a tired, that’s all.”
I knew, and so did Pa, that without the laudanum I was sharp with everyone. I couldn’t really blame them for not wanting to be around me. Every word, every time I said something, I knew it was the wrong thing to say but I didn’t care. Other times an apology was necessary, but rarely did I bother. The doc said this might happen and he was right on the mark. It didn’t take much to set me off, to bring out the worst.
One minute I was fine and the next, I flared like a lit firecracker, ready to attack anyone who might say or do something I didn’t much like. I’ve always had a temper but now, it was out of control. I didn’t care whose toes I stepped on until I thought about Hoss. It was just a silly comment, but I’d hurt my brother. I was wrong to think such a thing much less say it out loud. By the time I was ready to get back in bed, it was Hoss who came to my room. I looked up, unbelieving.
“Pa send you?”
“Sorta, he said it was time we worked this out.”
“Wanna help me back in bed first? My back’s killin’ me.”
Hoss could have picked me up and carried me, casts and all, but he held my good arm while I waddled like a duck across the room. After I was settled, I told him to pull up a chair and we’d talk.
“I’m sorry I said what I said, Hoss, but you didn’t stay long enough to hear the whole story.”
“Why’d ya ever think I’d hurt ya, Little Joe. Why?” His voice was strained; he’d thought of nothing else except that stupid comment I’d made.
“I didn’t Hoss. It was a dream, a bad dream I had while I was on that medicine the doc left. That’s what I wanted to tell you, but you’d already left my room.”
“That’s not what ya said that day, Joe.” I could see the hurt in his eyes, the way he used such caution by not looking me in the eye while he sat only two feet away.
“Okay, that’s not exactly it.” Guess I’d have to tell him the truth. “I was confused, you know, the medicine and all, and I only remembered the pain. Somehow, your name was associated with the pain. I don’t know why, but for a time I—I guess I thought maybe—well, maybe we’d had some sort of fight or—I just couldn’t get my mind straight. And then when you apologized for hurting me, I had to wonder. Does that make any sense?”
Hoss shook his head. “I did cause you pain, Little Joe, and I’m sorry for that.”
“What do you mean you—”
“The doc made me wrestle your shoulder back into place then carry you off the surgery table and onto the bed. You was crying tears and I knew I’d hurt ya real bad.”
I nodded my head slowly. “Now I get it. It was only sort of a dream.” I tried to sit up straighter in the bed, but with only one hand to push myself up, it was quite a challenge. “I’m not blaming you, Hoss. It had to be done and you’re the only one doc trusts to do those things.”
Hoss still studied the floor. “Hoss! Are you listening to me?”
“What?” he said, just as loud as I’d spoken to him. When he finally looked up, I looked deep into his weary eyes.
“You’re my best friend, Hoss. I know you’d never hurt me intentionally. I’m just sorry I hurt you.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry I ever said anything about it.” At least now he was nodding his head and I think I’d finally gotten through. “Friends?”
A big ol’ smile crossed my big brother’s face. “Best friends.”
Hoss jumped up from his chair. “Be right back,” he said. When he returned, he sat up the checkerboard across my casted legs and we played game after game until I couldn’t hold my head up any longer. I think my big brother would have played till dawn. We were back to being brothers and for that, I was truly grateful.
Paul Martin decided it would be easiest if I crawled inside a hot tub of water and soaked both casts before he took his shears and tried to cut off the plaster, so that’s what we did. Hoss carried the tub upstairs and Hop Sing filled it with steaming hot water.
Since day one I’d only been dressed in a nightshirt and so after pulling that over my head, and with Hoss carrying me buck-naked in front of everyone; Pa, the doc, and himself, he settled me into the big, brass tub.
I started to soak. The water was heaven, but with my legs straight as sticks, I couldn’t dunk my head. Pa had to wash my hair and the rest of me like I was a little kid cleaning up on Saturday night for Sunday morning church.
After about an hour in the tub, the water had grown cold and Doc called Hoss back in to haul me out, and with my arm still useless, Hoss had to dry me off the best he could. With any sort of modesty thrown right out the window, I stood there with Doc and Pa holding me up while Hoss took more time than I thought necessary for the job at hand then helped me back to the bed.
Out came the shears and the casts were finally gone. Paul left a set of crutches and told me more than once they were just for support for the next week or so. I promised to use them all the time. “And don’t try coming downstairs without help, you hear?”
I’d been nodding my head for the past ten minutes as he drilled more instructions than I could begin to remember. He’d already removed the wrapping from my ribs and my shoulder, but he told me not to use that arm.
“You have all that, Joe?”
“Just take it easy for the next couple of weeks and you’ll be good as new.”
My head was still bobbing up and down even as he packed away all his tools and headed out the door. The bath had made me tired but there was no pain, that is until I tried to lift my right arm. My shoulder was stiff and sore and a sharp twinge ran clear up the side of my neck. My legs looked like shriveled up prunes, but at least they worked. I was on my way back.
After weeks in bed or at least stuck in my room, I begged Pa to let Hoss help me out to the front porch for a while. Pa finally relented and left Hoss to help me dress and descend the stairs. If Pa knew how tired I was after just that much activity, he’d have sent me right back to my room. But I didn’t let on and eventually I was settled on the front porch with Hoss by my side.
The fresh mountain air and the sun on my face lifted my spirits like nothing else could. I leaned back in the rocker and closed my eyes. This was heaven.
I took my dinner in bed that night and Pa brought up his own plate and sat with me, leading me to believe we could enjoy each other’s company, but Pa had other things on his mind and when supper was finished he was ready to talk about certain unpleasant matters we had yet to discuss.
“I’ve put this off long enough, Joseph, and it’s time we talked about what you were doing in town the night you were beaten.”
I gulped down the lump in my throat and studied my bedcovers before looking up at Pa. “I was made a fool of, Pa.”
“You were made a fool of? Or is it that you acted foolishly?” These weren’t really questions even though he’d phrased them that way. I knew Pa wanted answers, the right answers.
“Both,” I said.
“I know what you’re gonna say, Pa. I was wrong to sneak out of the house and I was wrong to gamble away money I didn’t have. It was my own fault I signed those markers. There’s no one to blame but me.”
Pa nodded his head then folded his arms across his chest. “Anything else?”
I looked up. “I think that’s about it.”
“Well, I think you’re about right, son, so we’ll leave it at that. It’s my belief that you’ve seen what can happen when someone else owns you like this McDonald character did. It’s a hard lesson to learn and I won’t go on and on. I will ask you one question though.”
“What’s that, Pa?”
“When you signed those markers, where did you think you’d get the money to pay back the loan?”
“I thought my luck would change. I—I was a fool to think that, Pa. I tried asking Mr. Grant at the bank for a loan and he said no. I got scared. I had Monday only to come up with the money.” Could I dare tell Pa what Adam caught me doing? Robbing my own father?
I covered my face with my hands, feeling my shoulder pull at the movement. I needed to feel the pain. I deserved to feel the pain after what I’d done to my family.
“I was—I was going to take the house money out of the safe, but Adam saw me from the top of the stairs.” I looked up quickly, trying to stay the tears that filled my eyes. “Adam loaned me the money, Pa.”
I swallowed hard and looked away. I’d never felt so ashamed before. I waited for Pa to speak; his words were soft and filled with sadness. “I’ll leave it to you to settle up with your brother.”
I nodded, but I couldn’t look at my father.
“See you in the morning, Joseph.”
Adam had done something special for me, trusted me without question, the night I planned to rob Pa’s safe. I could never have replaced the money and I don’t know what lies I would have told my father when he discovered the missing cash. As it stood now, I owed Adam a large amount of money, and it would be months before I could ever repay him for the kindness he showed me that night.
But it was the way he placed the money in my hand, wrapping my fingers around what I thought was my only chance of keeping the secret from Pa and somehow, I needed to repay that kindness with more than just the money owed.
I’d straightened things out with Hoss, and now Pa and I’d had the discussion I’d feared all week. I just needed to talk with Adam and, as Pa said, “settle up.”
I took hold of my crutch and hauled myself out of bed. Every time I stood up, every time I put weight on my legs I felt the effects of the barrel that had come crashing down and how I’d get back at Harry and Jerome for nearly crippling me for life.
My right leg felt almost normal, but there was still pain in my left. Doc said it would take longer for the left to strengthen. He’d said, along with his list of instructions that the leg was probably bent different or maybe my knee was raised up off the ground. I couldn’t recall but the left gave out at unexpected times, so I still used the one crutch for that leg.
I was on my own now. No more helping me down the stairs or out to the front porch to soak up the sun, which was about all I was capable of doing. So I made my way down to breakfast, finding everyone except Pa had already left the house.
I glanced at the grandfather clock—8:30. “Morning, Pa.”
“How do you feel this morning, son?”
“Good. Slept late though.”
Pa smiled and reached for the coffee pot, filling us each a cup. “Your brothers already left to get supplies. They should be back by lunchtime.”
Hop Sing scurried into the room with fresh eggs and bacon and I filled my plate. “That was quite a storm in the night, wasn’t it? The lightning woke me up a couple of times and the thunder made it sound like the Fourth of July.”
“You boys did a good job on the barn—it’s still standing.”
“Of course, it is—” I started to blurt out then realized Pa was only kidding. “Your eldest son designed it. What did you expect? Did you think it would crash to the ground during the first real storm?”
“No, not at all, son.” There was no joking now. Adam had done a fine job and Hoss and I just followed orders given by the commander in charge, Adam Cartwright.
“It’s solid as a rock, Pa. Built to last a lifetime or more.”
“I was thinking, son—” Pa said, propping his elbows on the table and studying me while I ate.
“What, Pa?” I said, shoving a piece of bacon into my mouth.
“Maybe while you’re sunning yourself on the front porch, you might do some bookwork rather than just sitting idle doing nothing.”
My face fell, the dreaded bookwork. “Sure, Pa.”
“Why, Joseph,” Pa said in a cunning voice, “you don’t seem too excited about having to use your brain and keep it sharp.”
“My brain would survive just fine without bookwork, Pa, but I’ll do it anyway.”
“That’s my boy.” Pa stood from his chair, patted my back and walked to his desk to gather up the project. I can’t say I was thrilled, and if I ever owned my own ranch, I’d definitely hire a bookkeeper.
Pa had a silly grin on his face the whole time he was setting me up on the front porch with a massive amount of paperwork and ledgers. “Try to make it legible, Joseph so the rest of us can read your script when you’re finished.”
“I’ll do my best, Pa.”
Again, Pa’s hand clapped me on the back. “I know you will, son.”
Pa left me alone and walked back inside the house. I hated nothing worse than paperwork. By the time I’d filled in column after column, until my hand was beginning to cramp from transferring so many numbers, my brothers pulled up in the buckboard. Hoss was waving at me like he’d been gone for a month. I waved back and smiled at my big brother. I hadn’t realized how long I’d been working and I was relieved to have a break. Adam left Hoss to unload the supplies and he walked toward me then pulled up a chair, turned it backward, and sat down.
“I heard talk in town this morning, Joe. I thought you might be interested.”
“Apparently, lightning struck the Allen’s barn last night. They’d already herded the majority of their goats inside when the storm hit and most of them died when the barn went up in flames.”
I thought about what Adam had said. I usually wasn’t thrilled over someone else’s misfortune but, in this case, I could hardly contain my excitement over their loss.
“Jerome has burns covering most of his torso and his face and Doc doesn’t think he’ll make it through the rest of the day.”
My excitement over the loss quickly drained with Adam’s last words. I wouldn’t wish that kind of pain on anyone, not even an enemy.
“No one seems to know where he is.”
I nodded. I’d known those boys half my life, and as much as I hated both of them after what they’d put me through, my heart still ached. Jerome was the younger of the two brothers and continually followed his big brother’s lead, no matter what Harry asked him to do.
“Is Jerome at the doc’s?”
“I think Paul’s tending him at home, Joe.”
“Would you take me there?”
A pained look crossed my brother’s face. “That may not be a good idea.”
Adam pulled the buckboard up in front of the Allen’s small, uncared-for home. Smoke still rose from the ashes of the fallen barn; the bitter stench of burnt wood and animal remains filled the air. After my brother helped me down to the ground, I grabbed my crutch and we climbed the two steps to the front door. I knocked.
Old man Allen answered the door. He held a jug of whiskey in his left hand, and he stared at us like he was trying to remember who we were, but couldn’t quite come up with a final decision.
“Joe Cartwright, Mr. Allen,” I said.
“Joe Cartwright,” he said, scratching his filthy head of hair. “Ben’s boy?”
“Yessir. And my brother, Adam, sir.”
“Sure, I remember Adam. Come in, boys.”
I glanced at my brother before we stepped through the threshold. Inside the house reeked far worse than the air outside. Rotten food and dirty dishes were piled next to the kitchen pump. A mangy old dog passed through the doorway as we entered the home.
“How’s Jerome doing, Mr. Allen?”
“Boy’s bad off. Doc’s in there with him now.”
“Mind if I go in?”
“Don’t mind me none, boy. Adam and I’ll just have ourselves a drink while you’re visitin’ with Jerome.”
I didn’t dare look at Adam for fear I might crack a smile at his discomfort. Having to sit with Mr. Allen for any length of time, much less, share a drink with the old man, was pure torture.
I walked across the room to a bedroom, the thump of my crutch the only sound as I crossed the plank floor. I peeked through the doorway and Paul Martin motioned me in.
“How is he, Doc?”
Paul just shook his head.
“I’m afraid so, Joe. I’m just trying to control the pain until—”
I nodded my head. “So he’s asleep now?”
It wasn’t really a question and I didn’t expect an answer. I couldn’t help staring at Jerome’s face. Paul had covered the rest of his body with a wet sheet, trying to cool him down, I guess. Most of the hair on his head was gone, his left ear, nearly gone, and his face was a strange tangled pattern of deep, red ridges. I had to look away.
“Where’s Harry?” I asked.
Paul shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t know, Joe. He took off several hours ago. According to Angus, he and Harry were sitting out there sharing the jug when Harry told Jerome to tend the animals, to get them in the barn when the storm started. Jerome must have been the one trying to get the goats back out to safety when the barn caught fire.”
“Maybe I should try and find him before—”
Paul smiled and placed his hand on my shoulder. “Where will you look?”
“I have an idea, Doc. I’ll be back with Harry as soon as I can.”
I limped awkwardly out of the room, the crutch still the only sound. Adam stood in the doorway looking out at the ruined barn. “Do you know where Harry might be, Mr. Allen?”
Angus looked up, and I was aware of tears in his eyes. He sat at their only table, both hands cradling his jug. He stared at his shaking hands. He shook his head.
“I’m gonna find him and bring him home, Mr. Allen.” Adam turned suddenly in the doorway, glaring in my direction, a look of confusion in his dark, hooded eyes. “He needs to be here for Jerome,” I said.
Adam nodded, “Let go then.” Adam helped me back in the buckboard and set my crutch in the back. “Where to?”
“The Silver Dollar.”
It seemed like forever since I’d been into town or to a saloon. The last time I was here was to pay off the debt to McDonald. I’d had weeks to think about what I’d done, how I’d been waylaid by the Allen boys and set up with a professional gambler, a man, who, more than likely cheated me out of my $700 and then hired his two goons, Harry and Jerome, to teach me a lesson about markers owed.
I’d learned a hard lesson and my father knew that actions spoke louder than words so he’d kept his opinion of my behavior to a minimum after what I’d been through. The fact was I still I owed Adam. But today wasn’t about our family; it was about what was right for Jerome.
It didn’t take long to spot Harry sitting at a back table with a bottle of whiskey. I hobbled over and stood directly in front of him. “Hello, Harry.”
His head came up slowly, eyes glazed, red-faced. “What do you want, Cartwright?”
“You, Harry. You need to be home with Jerome.”
“Not yet, he’s not, and you need to be there with him.”
Harry leaned back in his chair and stared up at me. “What business is it of yours?”
“It’s the right thing to do, Harry. Your brother needs you.”
“I killed him, Joe. I sent him—” His head dropped. He poured another drink and downed it quickly.
“Come on, Harry. Adam and I will drive you home.” I reached for his arm. He quickly pulled it away. “Please, Harry, for Jerome.”
Paul Martin stopped by the house on his way back to town to tell us the news. Jerome died an hour ago. Harry was by his side to hear his brother’s final words. Pa offered the doctor a drink and Paul declined.
“It’s a long ride back to town, Ben. I just stopped by to let you know, to let Joe know.”
“You’re welcome to stay here, Paul. Hop Sing keeps the spare room clean and ready,” Pa said.
Paul shook his head. “I wanted to talk to Joe before I drove back to town.”
“Me?” I said, a bit surprised. “I’m fine, Doc.”
Paul smiled at my comment. “I’m sure you are, son, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about.”
“No, Little Joe. It’s how you reacted to the situation today.” I dipped my head, but I couldn’t help but listen. “I know almost every scrape you’ve been in with the Allen boys, especially these last few months.”
I looked up at Doc. What he was getting at? I didn’t say anything, neither did Pa or my brothers.
“You were man enough to turn the other cheek, Joe. It’s not just how you were raised although I’ll give Ben some of the credit, but it’s what’s deep down inside you; it’s how you react to the world around you and how you feel about doing what’s right for your fellow man.” Paul placed his hand on my shoulder then gave a slight squeeze. “It’s an honor and a privilege to know someone like you, Joe Cartwright.”
Fall was in the air, and Hoss had stayed home with a birthing stray dog he’d found bedded down in the barn while Adam and I rode out to check the herd. I had given up the crutch and was back to normal duties. My leg still gave me fits on occasion, but the doc only response was, “Take it slow; let it heal.” I figured it could heal whether I was sitting on the porch doing bookwork or on the back of Cochise. It really didn’t matter.
It was one of the first times I’d been alone with my eldest brother since he’d loaned me the money in the middle of the night. I needed to set up a payment schedule with him now that I was back earning wages again.
“Adam,” I said, after we’d ridden out to the herd and were sitting together atop a ridge. “I’m making money again, so I want to pay you back as soon as I can. I figure I can live on about $5 a month and that leaves $25 for you. It will take me over a year to pay you back in full, but I want to promise you that amount each month. Will that work?”
Adam sat unmoving; his hands crossed over the pommel as he stared out over the herd. “Twenty-five a month?” he finally said. “That won’t do, Joe.”
“I don’t know what else I can do, Adam. You want all thirty?”
He let out a long breath. “I was thinking more on the lines of you working off the debt.”
“Doing what? I already work for Pa.”
“You could take my turn at morning chores,” he said, “for one full year and we’ll call it even.”
“Adam, that doesn’t even begin to pay back what I owe.”
“Is it a deal?” He stared at me, unblinking, unmoving, cheating himself out of the hard earned money he’d saved, not squandered like me.
Adam smiled before he spoke. “We may only be half brothers, Joe, but the fact is we are brothers. Through good time and bad, we’re here for each other, and for the simple fact that I’m proud to call you my brother.”
Many thanks to my beta reader, Cheaux.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
Next Story in the Because We’re Brothers Series:
Other Stories by this Author
- Because We’re Brothers – Book 5 (by jfclover)
- Because We’re Brothers – Book 2 (by jfclover)
- Because We’re Brothers – Book 4 (by jfclover)