Greater Love (by BnzaGal)

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Summary:  When five friends head out on a hunting trip they have no idea of the horror that waits for them and will demand from them the ultimate sacrifice.

Rated: K+ (12,615 words)

Greater Love

The day was as bright as any day in March could be. The sun rose with all her splendour and chased away the shadows that had engulfed Virginia City, and yet, the streets were silent. Not a man, woman, or child ventured out. Even with the sun’s rays permeating into every corner and lighting up every alleyway, the town had an aura of darkness and a sense of fear so tangible that it appeared to have held people back behind their shuttered windows.  Almost as if the very city herself was mourning the happenings that had come to pass and taken two of her sons just days before.

Then as noon drew near the streets began to awaken. Black clad citizens began to walk, their eyes never meeting those of the others making the trek up the hill to where the cemetery stretched out his arms and opened his yawning mouth to receive two more of Virginia City’s children.

From the center of town to the very outskirts people came. Shops were closed, saloons were deserted, and black was donned. Several buggies and horses from those who came from out of town began to show at the livery stable. One such buggy came slowly; the older man at the reins appeared to want the buggy to almost float gently to avoid harming the already injured young man who had insisted vehemently on coming.

As soon as the buggy stopped at the foot of the hill where the cemetery stood, two other young men appeared and helped the youngest of the Cartwrights out of the buggy and held him upright as his brothers extracted a pair of crutches and handed them to the tallest of the young men who in turn arranged them under young Joe’s arms.

Not a word passed between them as the three friends cast meaningful glances among themselves then proceeded to slowly head up the hill. As the three neared the fresh holes carved into the earth, people stepped aside heads down, eyes averted, almost afraid. Afraid and yet curious, gazing briefly at the young backs that were once straight with pride and determination but were now stooped with sorrow and defeat.

Silence reined over the men and women gathered to pay their final respects to the two victims of something terrible. That was truly as much as many of them knew. Something terrible had taken place. Two were dead. Three remained. Those who peered briefly at the three who remained saw the emptiness and guilt in their once bright, flashing eyes.  Something dreadfully terrible must have taken place.

Details had been extremely rare, in fact, nonexistent. Guesses and speculations had run wild in the saloons and amongst the town gossips, better known as the Virginia City Ladies Society, many scenarios had been suggested, but the truth was unknown. Those who must know- the family of the five young men involved and the men themselves- had given no hints whatsoever. The sheriff, Roy Coffee, had admitted to knowing minimally himself.

As the service started, young Joe stood stiffly his back as straight as he could manage, his head and neck facing firmly ahead, his eyes staring forward at nothing in particular. His actions were nearly perfectly mirrored by the two men standing on either side of him.Ben and his other sons stood just behind this group of rigid young men, their hands clasped behind their backs for lack of a better thing to do with them.Each one attending the burial of the two young men that day wished for different things. Some longed for more time with the two who were only eighteen years old. Others wished they had been there when it had mattered and hadn’t arrived too late. Some wished to know just what had happened to take away these young lives. But for the three young men who stood in front of the open graves as the preacher spoke, each one almost wished it had been him…

———————–

Two weeks earlier…

“Well, then it’s settled!” Tall, lanky Seth Pruitt exclaimed happily heading for his horse.

“It’s not settled until Joe gets his Pa’s permission.” Jack Collins reminded with a wink of his nearly black eyes.

“Don’t you worry,” Joe swung up onto Cochise’s back and smiled. “I’ll get Pa’s permission as soon as I get home.

From atop their horses Charlie Turner and Mitch Devlin watched and smiled. “With any luck,” Mitch pushed his hat back off his light brown hair. “We’ll be out hunting this time next week!”

Joe nodded and turned his horse toward home, “Don’t worry about a thing,” He held up his little finger, “I don’t tell most people this- and don’t go and tell my brothers- but I’ve got Pa wrapped right around this finger.” He grinned broadly, “If it’s a reasonable request, then he always says yes.” Joe rolled his eyes, “Unfortunately he doesn’t view most of my requests as reasonable or practical!” With a final wave, Joe spurred Cochise onward.

It would have been hard to find closer friends than these five. Of course, they disagreed on a quite number of things and occasionally two or three of them would get into a scrap but in the end they were friends. The best of friends. And they swore up and down that nothing would ever or could ever change that.

They had met in the little schoolhouse where they had immediately formed a comradeship that, like cement, would only become more firm and set with time.

As they left boyhood behind them and became men, the friends were well known and liked among the ladies and the life of every party and dance they attended. When together there was that special something that always ended in good times and wonderful memories that they would carry with them to their graves.

Mitch’s idea for a hunting trip had Joe so excited that he flung his way through the door and into the main room of the Ponderosa ranch house. “Hey, Pa?” Joe called as he unbuckled his gun belt and tossed it on the credenza. “Pa?” Joe flipped his hat off and hung it on one of the pegs next to the door.

“I’m at my desk, Joseph, you don’t have to yell.” Ben Cartwright’s voice was obstructed slightly by the pipe in his mouth.

“Sorry, Pa.” Joe walked over to the desk where his father sat shifting through papers with a frown creasing his brow.

“You’ve been in Virginia City?” Ben plucked the pipe from his mouth and looked up from his work.

“Yes, sir,” Joe sat down on the corner of the desk and leaned toward his Pa.

“Did you pick up the mail?”

Joe reached into his inner coat pocket and pulled out a single envelope addressed to his father and tossed it atop the pile of papers Ben had been working on.

Ben gave a little grunt as he read the return address then turned it over and ripped it open, his eyes scanning through the contents.

“Pa,” Joe crossed his arms. “I met the guys in town,” he began watching his father’s reaction to his words out the corner of his eye.

Ben grunted as he continued reading the letter.

“Well, the fellas were hopin’ we could all make a trip up to that little lake Adam and I came across last time we went over Morgan’s Ridge. We were hopin’ to do a little hunting.” Joe turned fully toward his pa who appeared to be so engrossed in his letter that he hadn’t heard.

“Did you hear me, Pa?” Joe stood and dropped his arms down to his sides.

“Hmmm?” Ben stuck his pipe back into his mouth and let the letter drop from his hand. “Sorry, Joseph.” He leaned back in his chair and looked at his son. “I’m listening.”

“Could I go with the fellas on a hunting trip up Morgan’s Ridge next week?” Joe waited while his father tossed around the idea in his head.

“You’re due for a break soon.” He reasoned, “I suppose you can go as long as you get all your work done and you promise me you’ll behave yourself.” Ben smiled remembering what it was like to be young and free, and it was springtime after all. The young men were longing to shake off the last hold of winter.

“Thanks, Pa” Joe smiled the excitement shining in his eyes.

Thus, it was settled. The permission had been given. The plans of the five friends would be laid out and detailed over the following week. Supplies would be gathered and excitement would run high.

No one could have imagined how a simple hunting could go so wrong.

—————————-

It is unfortunate that men cannot foresee the future. If any of the five who embarked out on that accursed hunting trip had been given a glimpse, a mere peek, at what was to come, young and reckless albeit, he would have had sense enough to pull back the reins and turn back to the safety of home.

But as I said, man cannot look into the future. What was to happen was sealed with Fate’s stamp, and the five rode toward Destiny’s waiting plans and open arms.

Their laughter floated up over the still silence of the early morning. Laughter. If any of the people who heard it as the five rode out of town had known what would take place, perhaps they might have stopped, listened, and relished in it. For truly, it was the last time they would hear it.

But alas, no one can see the future.

So off on their journey rode the five friends laughing, happy, and completely unaware of what lay ahead.

——————————–

The higher they climbed the colder the air became. It was, after all, only March and the snow had barely melted off the higher peeks.

Joe breathed deeply of the scent of pine and new growth, “You smell that?” He closed his eyes and breathed deeply again.

The other four followed suit. “Smells like spring,” Mitch opened his gleaming eyes just in time to spot the low hanging branch he was riding toward. He reached up to push the branch higher and ducked slightly.

“I thought winter was never gonna end.” Charlie sighed as he looked around in every direction. “There’s all sorts of colors just bustin’ out everywhere.”

“Kinda reminds me of the last barn dance.” Joe grinned broadly. “All them girls with new dresses made with all them bright colors.”

Charlie nodded, “Cindy wore a dress the color of moss.” He reached out and grabbed a handful of light colored moss off a tree close to the trail.

“You sure are stuck on that gal!” Seth chuckled.

“No more than you are on Linda.” Charlie looked back over his shoulder to where Seth brought up the rear of the precession and smirked as Seth’s face turned a bright shade of pink.

“You fellas reckon you’ll marry them girls?” Joe asked seriously.

“I hope so.” Charlie spoke softly his eyes gazed upward as he envisioned his beautiful girlfriend. He reckoned he had loved her since the first time he had laid eyes on her three years back.

“And you, Seth?” Jack called back from his place at the front of the line.

“No, sir!” Seth shook his head. “I don’t intend on settling down anytime soon. Besides I’m only eighteen. I’ve got time.”

“Wouldn’t you like to get married, Joe?” Charlie stood up a little in his saddle in order to grab the handkerchief in his back pocket and used it to wipe the back of his neck.

Joe’s smile softened. “Sure I would. When I find the right girl. Who knows maybe we’ll find her running wild up at the lake.” Joe nudged his horse on a little faster and tried to hold back the grin from his face.

“A wild woman?” Jack turned back to give his friend a strange look.

“Well, maybe not loco wild,” Joe let the mischievous grin play across his handsome face. “But who wants to marry someone you can’t wrassle with now and again?”

“You want to wrassle your wife?” Charlie sounded shocked.

“Sure!” Mitch took up for Joe. “A little hint of wild untameness!” Mitch winked at Joe. “Come on, Charlie, surely you don’t want to marry a porcelain doll that’d break the first time you gave her a hug.”

Charlie frowned in thought. “What about an in between?”

“In that case,” Joe laughed, “I guess Cindy is just about perfect for you!”

“I’m so glad you approve.” Charlie rolled his eyes, although, he meant ever word.

—————————–

The five friends came upon the spot where they would set up camp late in the day. The sun was already beginning to disappear behind the taller mountains. The lake, which as far as any of the young men knew, had no name provided many good fishing spots and Charlie, who was by far the best fisherman of the bunch, was able to catch enough fish for supper before darkness fell across the land.

The area where they camped was as surprising to come upon as any oasis in the desert. The trail they had ridden to get there was steep and rocky and provided no place to lay your head unless you wanted to wake up at the bottom of the mountain, having rolled or slid down it in the middle of the night.  Joe had been wondering if he had led them down a wrong path when they rounded a bend and found the flat stretch of land that bordered the pristine lake. It was almost as if God himself had reached down and scooped out this portion of the mountain and smoothed it with His fingertips. While all the other sides of the small lake were cliff like walls this side to which the trail had led the boys was flat. The mountain grass and brand new spring flowers swept out across the little meadow.

The friends rolled out their bedrolls and stretched out under the starry night sky, their bellies full and their bodies tired from the long ride.

They were quiet as nature’s symphony began with the wind in the grass then was joined by several crickets and a lonely frog.

“Who brought the coffee?” The relative quiet was shattered as Mitch sat straight up and startled everyone.

Joe, who was already asleep, was on his feet with gun in hand before he could truly be called awake.

“Don’t shoot!” Mitch rolled away from Joe’s aim and landed on Charlie, who was still asleep, causing him to let out a strangled yell.

Joe rubbed his eyes with his right hand and sat back down on his bedroll shoving his gun back into the holster under the jacket he had wadded up for a pillow. “What were you doing waking me up like that?” He grumbled.

Mitch crawled back over to his spot and detangled himself from his blankets. “I was worried about my morning coffee. How was I to know that you wake up as mean as a rattler and twice as deadly?”

“Well he didn’t shoot you did he?” Charlie mumbled already falling back asleep.

Seth’s eyes were wide and he laughed nervously. “Do me a favour and don’t wake Joe up like that again.” He took a deep breath. “I was sure someone was gonna end up shot.”

Joe shook his head embarrassedly, “I seldom shoot before I open my eyes.”

“Seldom?” Mitch nearly jumped. “Seldom? I could have been killed!”

“Lesson learned.” Jack settled back into his bedroll. “Don’t worry about the coffee until Joe is fully awake. Better yet don’t wake Joe up for any reason.” He grinned. “Unless, of course, you see that wild girl he’s been looking for.”

“Coffee,” Mitch sat back up, “Who brought the coffee?”

“I did.” Four annoyed voices answered.

“Good.” Mitch flopped back down and wrapped the blankets around him tightly. “G’night!”

In all the commotion the frog must have been scared away, for when the camp was quiet enough to hear the sounds of night again, the frog could not be heard.

——————————

Joe had coffee on the fire next to the pan he had washed the fish remnants out of and had filled with the slabs of bacon Hop Sing had sent along for their first breakfast.

The day was beginning and all around them the sun’s rays warmed the chill out of the air. The mist that shrouded the lake began to lift and from the safety of the forest a choir of birds began to raise their songs.

“Coffee?” Mitch inhaled deeply as he sat up, his hair askew and sleep still lingering in his eyes. His hands reached out palms out toward the warmth of the fire.

“Good morning to you too, Mitch.” Joe tapped the side of the coffee pot lightly to determine if it was warm enough. “Give it another minuet, and you’ll have the best coffee I’ve ever made.”

“Which isn’t saying much!” Jack yawned and rolled out of his blanket onto his knees then stood and stretched. “I’ve camped with Joe before and his coffee is little better than colored water.”

“And yours is nearer to the consistency of mud,” Charlie made a face as he gave Seth a gentle kick to wake him up.

“What?” Seth sat up immediately reaching for his hat and shoving on top of his unruly blonde hair.

“Rise and shine. We’ve got some hunting to do!” Mitch used the water that Charlie had carried over earlier to wet his face and slick down his light, close-cropped hair.

“Got some bacon here if anyone is hungry.” He took the pan off the fire and offered the still sizzling bacon to his friends, and just as Hop Sing had predicted, when Joe asked if he hadn’t packed too much, the bacon disappeared faster than a “fox-chased labbit”.

“Coffee?” Mitch asked again his eyes pleading.

Joe tapped the side of the pot again then lifted the lid to peek inside. “I guess it’s ready.” He grabbed the handle with a towel to keep from burning himself and waited for Mitch to find his cup.

The others in turn found their tin cups and Joe filled them with the steamy coffee, filling his own last.

“S’good.” Seth nodded blowing into his cup in an attempt to cool it down.

“Colored water.” Jack chuckled then drained the remnants of his cup and reached for more.

“Hey!” Mitch slapped his hand away. “Only those who appreciate it can have another cup.” He grabbed the pot and poured more into his cup. “And that would be me.”

Joe laughed as he stood to his full height and stamped his feet. “We should get moving if we want to find anything. We are here to hunt after all.”

Jack and Charlie stood up and started to gather their gear together. Joe watched his two friends. They were so different.

While Jack was dark with hair as black as midnight and his eyes so dark brown they were often mistaken for black, Charlie was fair skinned and the most likely of the bunch to spend the summer red with one sunburn after the other. His hair was a blonde as close to white as naturally could be and his eyes were a pale blue.

It wasn’t only their looks that were so different but their personalities were dissimilar as well.  Charlie was kind- not that Jack was unkind- and quiet, always listening and always thinking before he spoke. Joe reckoned he would make a fine husband and it wouldn’t be long now if Cindy had her way. Then there was Jack. Jack had talked Joe into getting into more scrapes then he could count. He was a daredevil and lived for the moment and the next laugh. He wasn’t heartless- just slightly immature. Serious was a hard thing for him to be and everyone loved him for it.

“Mitch, Seth, Joe you guys ready or are we gonna be waiting around for you while you drink all the coffee?” Jack called from the makeshift rope corral that they had constructed last night before heading to bed.

“Keep your shirt on,” Mitch lifted the lid off the coffeepot just to make sure it was empty before he set his cup down and began to ready himself and his gear for a day of hunting.

“How are we gonna split up?” Seth followed Joe and Mitch as they headed for the horses. “We can’t all go together. We’ll make enough noise to scare away all the game for miles around.”

“How about I take Joe and show him how to hunt.” Mitch grinned mischievously. “And I’ll bet that even with Joe as a handicap I’ll still out hunt the three of you.”

“You’re on!” Jack hauled his saddle off the ground and tossed it onto the back of his horse, Knight. “Hurry up Seth and we’ll even get a head start!”

Charlie shook his head. “Since when is Joe a handicap?”

“That’s what I would like to know!” Joe crossed his arms across his chest and frowned at his friend.

“Haven’t you noticed how loud this guy laughs?” Mitch spread his hands out, “That laugh will scare the game away for sure!”

“Thanks a lot!” Joe grunted as he hoisted his own saddle onto Cochise’s waiting back.

“He makes up for it in reflexes though,” Seth pointed out. “Did you see how fast he was up and shootin’ last night?”

“I didn’t shoot,” Joe argued.

“Good thing to.” Mitch frowned, “Maybe I don’t want him as my partner- he’s already tried to kill me once on this trip. I don’t want to push my luck!”

Truth was Mitch and Joe, while good friends with the other three, were best friends. Joe couldn’t remember ever having a friend he could trust or count on more- besides, of course his family. Mitch and he were much alike in temperament, although Mitch seemed to have a better control over his temper at times and had pulled Joe out of quite a few tight spots.

The two friends really didn’t do much hunting that afternoon- more talking than anything else. They spotted a doe and her new little fawn and watched them for a minuet before moving on. They saw foxes and pheasants and such but weren’t interested in them.

The others weren’t having much luck either all though they had spotted a giant buck that they later swore was the biggest they had ever laid eyes on but it had evaded them and gotten clean away.

———————————

I won’t go into great detail to describe the days that followed. They young men separated into different groups each morning and rode out and came back with nothing more than a few rabbits that they cooked into a stew to add variety to their otherwise steady diet of fish that Charlie was good enough to supply them with.

Each day one of the groups spotted the elusive buck that they nicknamed “the king.” By the last evening of their trip they were slightly discouraged and ashamed that, come morning, they would be heading back empty handed.

“Wish I could have another chance at that buck.” Jack grumbled as he spooned some of the rabbit stew into his mouth.

“The king was just too smart for us.” Seth sighed deciding on fish over rabbit and putting some on his plate. “But surely he isn’t the only buck in these mountains!”

“I’ve got one spud and two carrots left if you want to fight over them.” Joe brought over the vegetables and tossed them dejectedly into an empty pot sitting by the fire.

“Hey, how about we stay half the day tomorrow and go after that buck,” Jack looked at his friends eagerly.

“We haven’t been able to catch up with him and get a clean shot yet,” Charlie reasoned.

“We’ll all go together that way when we spot him we can split up and…”

“Men get shot doing that.” Joe interrupted.

“We’ll be careful,” Jack rolled his eyes. “As long as your reflexes don’t get ahead of your brain, we’ll be fine.”

“I don’t know,” Mitch stirred the pot of stew. “My pa’s expecting me back tomorrow and we’d have to spend the night on the trail.”

“They won’t worry if we’re only half a day late. They’ll probably be expecting it anyways.” Seth joined Jack’s side of the debate.

Joe weighed it all in his head. He sure didn’t want to go back empty-handed. Adam and Hoss would tease him for sure. “Well…” He looked at Seth and Jack’s eager faces. “I guess it can’t hurt anything- can it?”

—————————————–

Just as man can not see the future, neither can he turn back the clocks. The future is beyond his knowledge and when future becomes past it is forever barred from him. A decision, once made and carried out, cannot be reversed- no matter how much one might wish it to be.

They hadn’t done anything wrong other than staying out for an extra half day and none of their parents would hold that against them. They hadn’t crossed any boundaries; they weren’t there to stir up trouble. They only wanted to hunt the king as friends and return home with the king maybe as even closer friends. They wanted the bag that buck and show their families that they were indeed men.

There was pride involved, yes, and it is said that pride goeth before destruction, true. But you will never convince me that it was the pride of the five as they brought down the king and rushed toward their prize that brought what was to come down on their unsuspecting heads.

No, it was no fault of their- they hadn’t done anything wrong. One could spend hours pointing fingers- and trust me, many people did- only to come to this conclusion. It happened. And none of the five were to be blamed.

If blame had to be placed anywhere, I suppose we could put it on the shoulders of four Indian braves. No, we would have to go farther back then that. We could blame a peace treaty, but that would seem absurd. We could blame those who signed the peace treaty, but we should go back even farther and place the blame on a man named John Tyrone. Of course, if you feel that unfair you could blame the way John Tyrone was raised, but I don’t think that is necessary.

This man, this John Tyrone, had gone into a Piute camp one night and killed three Indian squaws while they slept, just to prove he could. A small skirmish broke out because of it and when the peace treaties were finally signed, many Piutes had died. Of the families of the three women murdered, only four braves remained. Enraged by the peace treaties signed by their chief and the white men, these four set off for the mountains vowing to kill any white man or woman who they happened to cross paths with.

But whoever you decide to place the blame on will not change the outcome.

For the five friends it would mean a nightmare that they would live in and be unable to change no matter how much they wished, prayed, and longed to.

——————————–

“Good shot, Joe!” Mitch slapped his friend on the back as the five jumped from their horses in the excitement of the moment not bothering to loop their reins around anything larger than thin branch, but they shouldn’t have had to. The horses were trained to stay put. “I knew those quick reflexes would come in handy!”

Rifles in hand the boy rushed toward the prize they had hunted after for the whole morning. They had almost given up when Charlie had spotted the massive creature. The king had led them on a merry chase finally ending here in the wooded area near a craggy rock incline leading up to the mountain’s crown.

Seth stopped long enough to scoop up his canteen and take a swig before following after the others. He hadn’t made it to the group when the first shots were fired.

Five bodies hit the ground at nearly the same moment as an immediate reaction to being fired upon. “Make for the rocks!” Jack cried pulling himself to his feet and running hard as more shots were fired.

From what Joe could tell from what he heard was that there were at least three rifles and the arrow that hit a tree ahead and to the side of him told him that there was at least one bow. “Indians.” He didn’t know why he stated the obvious but it just slipped out through his lips.

They all ran harder than they ever had. The rocks had seemed so close a moment ago but now it was almost as if they were getting farther away the longer they ran. It was a miracle that no one had been hit so far.

Charlie managed a glance over his shoulder and saw one of the Indians aiming carefully with a rifle. He didn’t have time to think. He stopped his run and turned drawing the sidearm he always had strapped down to his side. His aim was faster and more accurate with it he had found, and seconds counted.

Joe had always been the fastest runner of the group and easily pulled ahead of the others in the mad dash toward safety. They were almost there, just a few more yards. Joe reached the rocks and turned around and counted as his friends dove into the momentary safety. One, two, three… Joe made four. He stood crouching and saw Charlie, slowed by the shot he had taken, go down.

Joe’s eyes stayed on his friend as he charged forward back into the range of the Indians’ rifles. He felt hands reach out and try to restrain him he heard Seth’s voice screaming for him to stop, but it all seemed so far away. His mind was focused on Charlie.

“Joe! Joe! Don’t! God, please, no!” Mitch nearly went out after him but Seth and Jack caught hold of his arm and held him back.

Eyes wide they watch bullets stir up dust and lodge in trees all around Joe. They had never seen him run as fast as he was now.

Joe was by his friend sliding the last few feet on his knees. Even before he came to a full stop his eyes told him what his heart did not want to believe. Charlie was already dead. His lifeless pale eyes stared up at Joe.

Joe felt his heart constrict and a sob caught in his throat. A bullet tore through the sleeve of his shirt, reminding him that now was not the time for mourning but for action. He scooped up the limp body of his friend a stood. Running back was twice as hard as he was already winded and now carried the deadweight of a body.

Back at the rocks the three friends screamed encouragements to Joe. He was nearly there. They reached out their arms ready to help him when he got close enough.

Joe lurched forward falling. A pained cry tore through his lips. He was down an arrow protruded out of the back of his right calf.

As he pulled himself up, Mitch, Seth, and Jack ran crouched as low as they could manage and grabbed both Joe and Charlie under the arms and pulled them the few yards to the rocks where they all collapsed in a heap. Shortly after, the shooting stopped.

“Joe, are you alright?” Mitch held his friend still to prevent him from hurting his leg further.

“I’ll be fine,” Joe said through clenched teeth. “Jack, keep watch, please.”

Jack nodded and poked his head just above the rocks to peer out, “I don’t see anything.”

“Keep looking,” Joe urged, “The last thing we need is another surprise.” Joe voice shook and nearly broke.

“Joe?” Mitch still looked at his friend.

“Charlie’s dead.” Seth’s words brought Mitch and Jack’s heads whipping around.

Joe let out a shuddering breath. “He was already dead when I got to him.” The tears blurred his vision and he wiped them away.

Jack’s breaths came in angry gasps, “It’s not fair!” angry tears spilled out of his eyes and he slammed his fist against the rock wall. “We didn’t do nothing wrong. Why are they after us? The dirty…”

Seth reached out and grasped his friend’s shoulder. Tears streaked down his dirt smudged face as well. “I don’t think he felt it.”

“Does that matter? He’s dead.” Jack was beginning to lose control. “He’s dead and he’s never going to get to laugh again. He wanted to get married, Seth! He didn’t want to die.”

“Jack,” Joe’s voice was steadier. “Jack, we’re in trouble and we need to keep our wits about us if we’re going to make it out alive.” Joe wondered if the others realized that he had sounded so much like Adam that it made him want to laugh for some stupid reason.

Mitch unsheathed his knife. “Joe, do you want me to get that arrow out?”

Joe looked at the shining blade and felt a cold shudder run down his back. Closing his eye and taking a few deep breaths, “Yah,” Joe clenched his teeth, “Yah, go ahead.”

Mitch swiped the tears from his eye and grabbed hold of the arrow shaft. “Hang on there, Joe, I’ll be as careful as possible.”

Joe nodded and closed his eyes, “Jack, you keep watching. We’re counting on your eyes.” Someone handed him a wad of cloth, torn from a shirt, and he bit down on it.

“Seth, look for a cave or something safer for us to move to.” Mitch said as he slid his blade into Joe’s leg and grimaced at his friends moan.

————————————–

“We aren’t leaving Charlie.” Jack looked down at Charlie’s body and set his jaw in determination. “Those savages aren’t going to get his scalp if I have to…”

“No one said we were going to leave him,” Mitch wiped the sweat that dripped down into his eyes. “Seth, where was that cave you spotted?”

Seth turned and pointed up the steep rocky slope. “It’s about halfway up and there’s little cover until we get there, and I don’t know how deep it will be when we get there. Joe won’t be able to climb it.” He looked down at his friend who lay resting at his feet.

“Don’t worry about Joe,” Mitch straightened. “I’ll get him up there.”

“I’ll carry Charlie,” Jack knelt and picked up the body, cradling it in his arms. “He ain’t heavy. He was always the scrawniest kid in school. Remember that time when we were kids and we got ourselves locked in that shed?”

Seth and Mitch nodded sadly.

“Charlie was the only one who could squeeze his way out between those broken boards.” Joe’s whispered words signalled that he was awake.

“You okay, Joe?” Seth knelt down and placed a hand on Joe’s forehead.

“Fine as frog’s hair.” Joe managed a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“Sure you are,” Mitch snorted and reached down to grab one of Joe’s shoulders. “Are you ready to run again?”

“Just get me to my feet.” Joe sat up slowly and allowed Mitch and Seth to pull him up. “You got a stick or something I could use to help me balance?”

“Got something better,” Mitch tried to sound light. “Me.”

“No, Mitch, I’ll slow you down and you might…” His words trailed off.

“Well,” Seth shrugged, still helping to hold Joe upright. “I reckon with both Mitch and me helping you we’ll make it out fine. You were always the fastest, Mitch has always been the best at climbing, and I’ve always been the smartest!” He winked, “We make a great team.”

“Hey, what about me?” Jack stepped towards the three and the grins slid away to sorrow at the sight of their fallen friend still resting in Jack’s arms.

“Jack,” Joe tried swallowed the lump in his throat. Guilt gripped his gut as he relized he had been smiling when his friend was dead. “You were always the gutsiest.”

“And the looniest.” Seth quipped.

“Not to mention, the one most likely to get us all in trouble!” Mitch smiled at the many memories. “I thought, for awhile, that Pa was going to forbid me to speak to you again after the time we tried to catch that baby puma and nearly got killed by its momma!”

“If Adam hadn’t have rode by just when he did…” Seth shook his head and whistled through his teeth.

“That wasn’t my idea!” Jack tried to defend himself.

“Yes, it was!” The three said as one.

“No, the poor little thing was hurt and Charlie wanted to…” Jack stopped and looked down.

“Charlie always was the softest.” Seth reached out and touched his friend, his eyes filling once again at the coldness of his skin.

“And the kindest.” Mitch too reached out and grasped his friend’s lifeless hand.

“I wish I knew I was going to wake up and find this all a terrible dream.” Joe’s voice caught in his throat.

“I’ve never had a nightmare before.” Jack said softly.

“You’re living in one.” Joe whispered just loud enough to be heard. “And I have a feeling that it’s only going to get worse.”

—————————————

God must have sent his angel of mercy to protect the young men as they began their desperate climb to reach a safer place to hole up in. Joe was half carried half dragged by Seth and Mitch and Jack ended up carrying Charlie slung over his shoulders. The enemy below couldn’t get off a good shot due to the unusually bright sun and the fact that Seth spotted a path that went  up to the cave and offered more shelter than he had expected.

The cave was reached without casualty, although it was later found that, slug over Jack’s shoulder, Charlie had taken another bullet that might have ended the life of his friend who carried him.

The friends collapsed on the cave’s floor in a quivering heap. The rush of adrenalin deserted them and left them gasping for air after the uphill run.

The cave was deep and cold and offered excellent shelter with loose rock above that would warn of anyone trying to climb down to them and a full sweeping view of below.

Looking around Joe wondered who else might have holed up in the cave. Remnants of a fire burnt out many years ago lay off to the right of the entrance and a blanket faded and nearly shredded apart, probably by rats, lay spread out near the fire as if someone had gotten up in the morning and never returned.

Jack, with his adventurous nature, wished he could explore the depths of the cave, but settled on what he could see without lighting a match. He soon discovered what looked like a prospector’s kit, along with a heavy pot and rusted out kettle.

“Wonder what happened to the guy who stayed here.” Jack carried the pot over to the blackened ashes of where the fire had been.

“Now all we need is some wood and game and I can cook some supper.”

“To bad we don’t have either.” Mitch started to pace. “We need food and water.”

Seth held up his canteen that luckily he hadn’t dropped when they were first attacked. “There’s only about a forth left.” He swished it around and listened to make sure. “I was going to fill it at that little stream that runs down this peek.”

“I have some jerky in my pocket.” Joe offered pulling out two pieces of the dried meat.

“I’ve got a whole bunch…” Jack sighed. “In my saddle bag.”

“The horses.” Seth moaned. “We don’t even have a way of getting home even if we do make it out of this mess alive.”

“Cochise will head for home.” Joe moved to lean his back against the cave wall. “I know he will and when Pa sees him…”

“We were supposed to be home tonight anyway.” Mitch kicked at the ashes from the old fire. “So our families will be out looking for us soon.”

“Hoss is the best tracker in these parts.” Seth said, more to assure himself than the others. “He’ll find us.”

“Not before the jerky and water runs out.” It wasn’t like Joe to discourage the hopeful thoughts of anyone, but he couldn’t seem to stop the dooming words from slipping through his lips.

“You don’t think we’ll make it out of here alive?” Seth sank down to sit by Joe.

“We’re still here aren’t we?” Jack said firmly. “We’ve got a fighting chance.”

“Joe?” Mitch saw the hopeless expression on his friend’s face.

Joe looked up and looked between each of his friends finally settling his gaze on Mitch. “It’s just something I’ve noticed about nightmares.” He dropped his gaze down to his swelling, wounded leg. “They never end happy.”

———————————

Darkness crept its way across the mountain, slowly at first adding shadows here and there then eventually pulling them together to engulf the land into itself. The moon was just a sliver and might as well have stayed where it disappears at dawn for all the light it gave. The stars seemed almost afraid to show themselves but did, in time, blink their soft light down to where four friends sat near the entrance of a dark cave and stared up at them trying to draw strength from their light.

Staying in the shadows, yet venturing as far out into the starlight as they dared the four waited and listened. The occasional hoot of an owl drifted up to them and they all wondered if it was truly owls calling in the night or their enemies signalling to each other.

The dampness of the cave seeped into their very bones and caused them to move closer to each other in hopes of staying warm. The old blanket, or rather what was left of it, was spread across their backs in an effort to hold in whatever body heat they had left.

With their blankets and the fire going strong on the previous nights the boys had not noticed how much the temperature dropped at night, especially up here in the mountains. Huddled together, shivering, they realized first hand the bite the night had as the cold gnawed at every part of exposed skin.

Joe’s fevered skin provided the most warmth to the group as he shivered in the cold spring night. Mitch, whose shirt had been torn and used to bandage Joe’s leg, took off his light jacket and tried to wrap it around Joe’s shoulders.

“No, Mitch, I’m fine.” Joe protested weakly.

“Sure you are.” Mitch smiled.

“Mitch you already gave me your shirt.” Joe pushed the jacket away.

“But you’re the one who’s sweating and shivering at the same time.” He pointed out.

“Keep your jacket, Mitch.” Seth began to peel his off. “I’ll give him mine.”

“I have my own,” Joe pulled his own green coat closer to his body. “It’s enough.”

“Just get closer to each other.” Jack scooted closer. “It may not be ideal, but it is better than freezing.”

“I wonder if the horses made it out okay.” Seth thought out loud.

Joe shuddered, this time not from cold. “I hope they didn’t get Cooch.”

Each friend nodded in agreement praying their favourite mounts would make it home.

“If we do…die,” Seth stumbled over his words. “Do you suppose our families will ever find us and know what happened?”

“Indians aren’t known to cover up massacres.” Jack said depressed.

“My hair,” Joe moaned and patted the thick dark locks on top of his head. “I don’t want to loose my hair.”

“I’m not to keen on the idea either,” Mitch snorted.

Unconsciously, the friends all reached up and ran their fingers through their hair.

Jack smiled mischievously. “Look on the bright side, Joe. You’ve always spent a lot of time on that hair of yours. I bet that if you don’t get to keep it then whichever Indian lifts it from you will keep it forever and wear it proudly. After all, I’ve lots of girls comment on how it is such nice hair.”

Now it was Joe’s turn to snort. “I feel so much better now.”

————————————

Joe’s fever got worse as the night drew on, as fever have a tendency to do, and his friends laid him back and tried to keep him warm while trying to cool his burning fever at the same time.

“What are we gonna do?” Jack looked almost panicked. “His shaking like a leaf and burning at the same time.”

“Here give him some water.” Seth took the canteen and passed it to Mitch.

Mitch lifted Joe by the shoulders and tried not to spill any of the precious liquid as he gently poured it into Joe

Joe’s immediately began to cough and sputter and Mitch lifted his head higher handing back the canteen. “Easy, Joe, easy,” he spoke in a calming tone.

Joe opened his fever bright eyes briefly as he breathed deep gasping breaths.

Seth placed a hand lightly on Joe’s chest and felt  the dampness of his sweat soaked shirt. “Should we take his shirt off?” Seth unbuttoned the green jacket. “It’s soaked through and that won’t help him stay warm.”

Jack and Mitch nodded and helped Seth remove Joe’s jacket and unbutton his damp shirt.

“Hold him up while I take his shirt off,” Seth waited for his friends to obey then slid Joe’s arms out of his shirt. Joe’s eyes slid closed again.

After they wrapped him back in his coat and laid him back down and rolled him to the side, Jack began to unwrap Mitch’s shirt from Joe’s leg. “I think we need to clean this out better.”

Seth picked up the canteen that held so little water. “I don’t want to sound selfish but this is all we have.”

“I’ll get more.” Mitch reached for the canteen.

“You’ll what?” Seth pulled the canteen back just out of Mitch’s reach.

“I’ll go out and get more.” Mitch looked deeply into both of his friend’s eyes. “It’s dark. I can sneak out and get back before too long.”

“If you think you can get out, then why don’t you go for help?” Jack grabbed Mitch’s forearm. “You’re a good climber you could follow that ridge and be out of here…Safe.”

“And leave you here with no water?” Mitch shook his head. “Never.”

“You’ll be careful?” Seth handed him the canteen knowing that nothing would ever convince any of them to abandon the others.

“I will.” He uncorked the container and took a small swallow. “Might as well finish it off.” He passed it to Jack who copied his actions then handed it to Seth. “When I get back it will be full again.” He stood and strode toward the cave entrance. “I’ll be back… I promise.”

“Wait.” Jack began to shrug out of his jacket. “My jacket’s a darker color… maybe it will help.”

Mitch nodded and switched jacket with his friend. “I promise,” his words were little more than a whisper. Then with a final look at each of his friends, he disappeared out into the darkness.

——————————–

“Morning, Joe.” Seth’s words caused Joe to turn his head and focus on where Seth knelt next to him.

“Morning,” Joe whispered hoarsely. He looked around him and noticed the light that flooded in from the cave entrance. Turning back he noticed the dark circles under Seth’s eyes. “Rough night?” Joe tired to clear his throat of the huskiness that accompanied his words.

“I’ll say,” Seth sighed but smiled. “But it looks like we made it through all right. How’s the leg?”

Joe frowned and looked down at his torn pant leg and wrapped up leg. “Well, it’s still there.” He propped himself up on his elbows and his frown deepened. “Where’s my shirt?”

“We figured it wasn’t helping you last night so we took it off.” Jack held up Joe’s discarded shirt. “Mitch is still asleep.” Jack changed the conversation. “He a… was out kinda late.”

Joe cocked his head to one side. “He was ‘out’? Out where?”

“He went to fill the canteen.” Jack smiled knowing what Joe’s reaction would be.

“He Did What!?” Joe was sitting fully upright now.

“Coffee?” Joe’s cry had woken Mitch and he sat up wearily, his hands searching for the coffee cup that he had kept beside him the last few nights.

“No coffee this morning.” Seth stood and stepped back from Joe.

“Why did you leave the cave?” Joe frowned.

“Good morning to you too” Mitch muttered as he stood and stretched.

“Why did you…”

“To get water,” Mitch answered grumpily.

“You could have been killed!” Joe waved an arm in the air for emphasis.

“You needed it!” Mitch’s voice rose to match Joe’s.

“But you could have been killed!”

“You are my friend and we needed to clean up that leg or you might have been killed by a preventable infection!” Mitch stomped toward the cave entrance. Being yelled at before his morning coffee made him especially angry. “And I’d do it again!” he turned with a defiant look on his face.

Joe lay back on his elbows. “If you had been killed getting water for me…”

“But he wasn’t” Seth said softly. “We’re all okay. Sure we’re all starving and there’s a band of crazy Indians looking to raise hair, but…” Seth held up his hands when Joe opened his mouth. “We’re all together and safe… what’s left of us that is.”

A single gunshot was fired followed by the sound of a bullet ricocheting of the walls of the cave

“Everybody down!” Jack cried as he dove down. More shots followed.

“How is this happening,” Seth moaned.

“They must have found a vantage point where they could shoot into the cave.” Joe closed his eyes as the twanging sound of a ricocheting bullet sounded close to his head.

“Sounds like just one of them.” Jack corrected. “If there was more than one the bullets would be flying at us faster.”

“You think they’re trying to get us to come out?” Mitch lay on his belly with his chin resting on his folded hands.

“Good guess.” Jack rolled his eyes and gave an exaggerated sigh.

“We’re all gonna die,” Seth shook his head sadly.

“We’ve made it this far haven’t we?” Joe tried to sound sure of himself. “I don’t think God would allow us to come so far only to let them kill us. That doesn’t seem fair.”

“Since when is life fair?” Seth pointed out then groaned. “Great, all this near death excitement has made me start to sound like my Pa.”

“Being a pa must be hard work.” Mitch said almost wistfully.

“I’ve thought about that before.” Joe admitted. “Makes you kinda appreciate your Pa more when you really think about it.”

“My poor Pa,” Seth’s voice sounded choked. “And Ma too. I hope it ain’t my Pa who finds us. He thinks I don’t know how much he loves me.” Seth shook his head. “But I think it’d nearly kill him to find me all scalped and dead.”

Joe could almost see his own Pa’s face. It floated through his vision as another bullet bounced around the cave walls. He wondered how long it would be before his family was out looking for them, and if all they would find was what was left of them after the birds and the beasts had there fill. Joe shuddered at the vision his thought created.

—————————-

“Joe should have been home before now,” Ben Cartwright frowned as he stared out the open door.

Adam and Hoss busily gulped down their breakfast and chatted about their plans for the day. Neither, of which, contained time to go out and look for a brother who was only half a day late from a long hunting trip. Maybe tomorrow they would worry a little. Maybe. But they both knew that sometimes hunts could last longer than planned. It had happened many times. Nothing to worry about, right?

“Come finish your breakfast, Pa,” Adam urged. “Staring out at the yard won’t make Joe get there any quicker. That boy does have an uncanny knack for getting out of chores, doesn’t he Hoss?”

“He sure does dadburnit.” Hoss reached for the stack of toast that Hop Sing had just replenished and plopped them onto his plate smearing them liberally with jam.

Ben wandered back over to the table and sat back down stirring his coffee aimlessly. “What are your plans for today, boys? Anything pressing?”

“Not really,” Hoss answered hesitantly.

“Adam?”

“Nothing big. Why?”

“How would you boys like to take the day off and go for a little ride?” Ben looked up from his coffee cup.

“I bet I could guess which direction we’d be riding,” Adam wiped his mouth with his red chequered napkin and wadded it onto his plate.

“I’m probably being overprotective.” Ben raised both his hands in a stopping gesture before either of his sons could speak. “But,” he continued. “I’ve got a bad feeling and it would make me happy to have some company on this little trip- a fool’s errand though it may be.”

“Did you think you had to ask, Pa?” Hoss smiled. “Sure we’ll go with ya!”

“Thanks Hoss.” Ben stood back up and hurried toward the door. “I’ll saddle us up so we can leave as soon as you’re finished.”

Adam sighed, “There goes my lunch date with Megan.” He stood and frowned. “I hope this isn’t just a fool’s errand.” Adam stepped away then realized what he had said. “On second thought, I hope that is just what it is.” He smiled briefly at Hoss then went to help his Pa saddle their mounts. The sooner they left the sooner they got back.

————————————

“Any ideas?” Jack was itching for action but every movement they made simply brought more bullets whizzing through the cave and bouncing off the walls at dangerous angles.

“You mean besides running straight at there guns?” Mitch rolled onto his side and looked back at Jack who lay several feet behind him.

“What about the cave?” Joe squinted trying to peer back into its depths. “Could there be another way out?”

“There is a tunnel at the back but I can’t see much,” Jack crawled on his stomach toward the dark hole in the cave wall. “It’s pretty short- height wise- and sort of narrow.” Jack pulled himself to his knees and began to crawl forward. “Does anyone have a match?”

“I have some.” Mitch reached in his pocket. “But I don’t have anything to serve as a torch of any sort.”

“Here is something.” Seth picked up a dusty stick then dropped it. “N-never mind. It was just an old bone.”

“Jack stop it!” Joe sat up bringing another shot echoing through the cave, causing the friends to press themselves against the hard floor again. “Don’t go any farther until we get you a light.”

Jack sighed and scooted back toward his friends. “How about wrapping some of Mitch’s soiled shirt around this bone good and tight and lighting that?”

“It won’t last long.” Seth was already moving to where they had discarded the bandages.

“I’ll be able to look around a little.” Jack sounded eager. “I won’t go too far. Just far enough to see if it leads anywhere. Then I’ll come back.”

The torch was lit and Jack moved back into the tunnel. He had to duck and turn sideways when he stood to his feet and began to inch his way into the unknown. His eyes scanned tensely about for snakes and pits that were characteristic of old caverns.

The others waited anxiously for Jack to return, uneasy as soon as they could no longer see the light from his torch.

The tunnel only got tighter and lower as it progressed and Jack nearly tuned back when it suddenly turned sharply and he began to climb a steep incline. Then he spotted a pinprick of light in the distance. Getting closer, Jack realized the opening was barely large enough to squeeze through and he slid his head up through the opening.

To his surprise he saw a lone Indian on a ridge across from him staring intently at a point in the mountain. Jack looked and realized that this was the Indian that had kept them pinned down in the cave a quick search and he spotted two other Indians waiting for their prey to leave the cave.

Jack pulled himself back into the cave, his mind already forming a plan to save, if not himself, then at least the rest of them. His torch was beginning to flicker and as Jack hurried back toward his friends he resolved himself to his plan and decided there would be no time for a goodbye or good luck.

As he drew nearer to the cave’s large room he could here his friends calling his name. “I’m here,” He yelled back his words echoing back and forth against the close walls.

“Jack!” Seth cried out, “What did you find?”

Jack stopped his progress and took deep breaths. He was ready. His light was fading and he knew if he stopped to think it would weaken his determination.

“God,” he whispered as he turned himself around. “Let this work.”

———————————

“Jack!” Seth sighed with relief at his friend’s distant words. “What did you find?”  His words were met with silence.

“Jack?” Joe called nervously.

“It leads out,” Jack sounded farther away then he had a second ago. “I’m going out to create a distraction. You guys make a break for it when the shooting starts!” His voice was growing smaller as he spoke.

Eyes wide, the three friends began to yell at the same time. “No! Jack, stop!”

“Are you insane?” Joe nearly screamed.

“There’s no time…the torch,” They could barely make out his words.

“No, no, this can’t be happening.” Mitch started to crawl toward the tunnel.

A shot was fired and the friend’s again pressed themselves against the floor. Only, this time, no bullet whizzed through the cave. More shot were fired and the friends realized Jack was already outside.

“Jack,” the single word tore from Seth’s throat as he stood to his feet and ran toward the daylight of the cave opening. Scooping up his rifle as he passed it and cocking it as he ran, Seth burst out into the open.

Mitch too, ran his sidearm drawn and at the ready.

Joe pulled him self on his feet and grabbed a discarded rifle to use more as a crutch then a weapon. His left hand flew to his side and removed the thong that had kept his pistol in its holster. The gun whipped out and Joe exited the cave at a limping run.

Jack had exited the hole and taken out the one Indian with his first shot, drawing the attention of the other remaining Indians. He had seen Seth charge through the cave opening followed closely by Mitch. Unless he missed his guess, Joe would be limping out any second.

Seth and Mitch began a charge with Seth leading the way and the startled Indians didn’t know which way to shoot.

Jack ran down the incline with a whoop as Joe made it out the cave and added his bullets to the mix.

Another Indian fell and Jack’s heart leapt. They were going to make it! They were going to make it!

He let out another whoop, or at least, he opened his mouth to do so when something slammed into his chest. For a moment he thought he must have been clubbed by a tree branch, or maybe the whole tree. He found himself staring up at the blue, cloudless sky. The sun was warm on his face, but not overly so. There was a gentle breeze that carried the sound of gunshots that suddenly sounded so far away and cooled the perspiration that beaded his brow.Jack gasped at the pain like a fire attempting to consume him. He tried to sit up and saw the crimson rivulets that soaked through his shirt at an alarming rate. With a shaking hand he covered the wound and tried to stop his life from draining out of him.

He laid back his eyes half closed. So this was what death felt like.

—————————

“I’m surprised we haven’t met up with them.” Ben turned in the saddle to try and work out some of the kinks that had made their way into his back.

“They must have slept in.” Adam sighed, wishing he had brought along his book so he could read while he rode.

Hoss squinted up at the sun. “It seems to me, that we should be braking for lunch about now.” He smacked his lips. “And ol’ Hop Sing sure outdid himself this time!”

“Pa,” Adam’s voice had gone from bored to tense.

Ben and Hoss turned and looked at where Adam had reined in his horse and pointed off to their right.

“Cooch,” Hoss breathed as he slid down from the saddle.

Joe’s horse, fully saddled, stood amongst the brush on the side of the trail.

“Joe!” Ben cupped his hands to his mouth and called hoping for his youngest to reply. His words echoed against the mountainous terrain and then faded out to silence.

“Maybe Cooch just got away from him.” Hoss grabbed the horse’s reins and with one hand and stroked the horse’s neck with the other. “It happens to the best of us.”

Ben nodded then yelled again. Looking around for any signs of his son and his four friends, he stood in his stirrups. “Joe!”

Adam’s heart began to sink. Maybe Cochise had given Joe the slip, but he doubted it. His hopes that this was nothing but a fool’s errand were rapidly fading, and he silently lifted his eyes toward heaven and sent up a quick prayer for his brother.

——————————-

“Jack,” anguish seeped into Seth’s spoken word. He was the first to reach the fallen young man with Mitch close on his heels and Joe not far behind the pain in his leg all but forgotten.

Jack’s eyes fluttered open and he smile played on his lips, “You made it out.” His words brought on painful coughing that caused blood to trickle from the corner of his mouth.

Joe fell to his knees and reached out a hand clasping Jack’s arm. “Hang in there, buddy, we’ll get you help.”

Jack grinned through the haze of pain, “I’m sure one of these trees will be a splendid doctor.” He tried to keep the brave front on his face, but he was dying, and he knew it. “It doesn’t hurt much anymore,” He tried to convince his friends. “It won’t be much longer.”

“No, Jack,” Mitch took hold of one of his hands as if he could anchor him to this world. “You’ll be fine.” He tried to sound confident but tears were already blurring his vision and choking his voice.

“It’s alright,” Jack closed his eyes. “What better way to go than surrounded by the best friends a man could ever have?” He opened his dark eyes again and looked into the distressed faces of his friends.

Seth reached out and touched his friend as Joe and Mitch were. “You’re been a wonderful friend, Jack. The best.”

“What was it that I was again?” Jack’s eyes began to lose their focus. “The gutsiest…”

“The looniest,” Joe said as the tears coursed down his checks and he didn’t bother to wipe them away.

“And the most likely to get us in trouble.” Mitch squeezed Jack’s hand.

“Don’t you forget it.” They had to lean forward to catch the breathy words.

“Jack?” Joe cried as Jack’s eyes closed and his body stilled. “Jack?”

The battle was over. Death had claimed another victory.

—————————–

Quietly the friends knelt there, hands still grasping their friend. There faces slowly became vacant as shock crept over them.

They didn’t know how long they sat there staring at nothing in particular.

“It was just supposed to be a simple hunting trip.” Joe whispered as shadows began to lengthen around them.

“We should have gone home without the king.” Seth’s words sounded almost bitter. “I should have made us go back.”

“Why you more than me?” Joe argued. “I could have put my foot down…”

“I should have known what Jack was going to do. I should have stopped him.” Mitch released his hold on Jack’s body and used his hands to cover his face.

“Charlie,” Seth looked up at the cave. “He’s all alone up there.” His lower lip quivered and he caught it between his teeth as more tears welled up in his eyes.

“We can’t burry them up here.” Joe shook his head. “After all they did for us, we can’t just leave them in an unmarked grave up here for the wolves to dig up.”

Seth stood and began to walk toward the cave that had sheltered them the night before. “I’ll get Charlie.” He said as he had many times before in better days.

“I’ll gather poles for a travois.” Mitch stood and wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. “We can pull them home.”

“Home,” Joe whispered, a deep longing laced the word. He wished to have his Pa’s strong arms around him. He had felt like such a man when he had left. Now he felt so small but more than that he felt guilt twist his gut. Two of his friends were dead. If only he had…

———————————–

Ben would never be able to describe how he felt the moment that he spotted the procession that walked slowly toward him. With each mile they had ridden, dread had increased and tightened its hold. Cold fear had urged the father and his two sons onward.

Then when he finally spotted his son, the fear and dread didn’t dissipate. Rather, it increased. “Dear, God,” Ben kicked Buck forward.

Hoss and Adam looked at each other and a silent message of alarm passed between them.

Mitch and Seth pulled a travois wearily their heads bowed with effort while Joe limped next to it, his eyes watching the two motionless bodies that lay on it.

The three on horseback were off there mounts and running toward the three young men.

“What happened?” Adam reached them first. His eyes worriedly taking in Joe’s tear streaked face.

“They’re dead, Adam.” Joe stated solemnly. “First Charlie, them Jack. Both shot down dead.”

“Shot?” Hoss clenched his jaw. “Shot by who? Why?”

Seth shook his head and set down his side of the travois, “It was just supposed to be a simple hunting trip.” He looked at Ben wishing for his own father’s presence.

Mitch set his pole from the travois down and both he and Seth turned simultaneously and walked over to Joe. Each taking an arm, they helped him over to a fallen log where they all sat down together, their arms still intertwined.

Ben saw the look of shock on their faces and it broke his heart. He looked at the two dead. He knew these boys well. They had grown up with his son. He knew their parents. His heart tightened at the thought of the news he would have to bring to them. A son dead… he looked at Joe quickly spotting his own injury. What if he had lost him?  He sent up a urgent prayer to his maker for the parents and family of the dead.

What had taken place to claim the lives of Charlie and Jack would come out later. Right now these three who still lived needed him.  He wanted nothing more than to cradle Joe in his arms and assure him that everything would be okay.

Ben knelt in front of the young men and noticed sadly that they didn’t turn to look at him but rather stared off at nothing and everything. He turned and looked back at his other sons and saw they worry in their eyes.

“What’s wrong with them, Pa?” Hoss asked softly.

“They must have gone through some kind of nightmare,” Adam answered. “They must be in shock.”

Joe’s green eyes found Ben’s, “They’re dead, Pa.” He wanted to fling himself into the arms that he knew would hold him and keep him. Safe. “They didn’t deserve that.”

“They saved our lives.” Mitch closed his eyes and bowed his head.

“And we couldn’t save theirs,” Seth mumbled guiltily.

Three pairs of eyes moved to where their two friends lay face down.

Joe shook his head, “They didn’t deserve that.”  He wanted now more than ever to collapse into his Pa’s arms and have him whisper comforts in his ear, but his friends held his arms. They didn’t have their fathers here to give them comfort. So he tightened his grip on his friends as if letting go meant loosing them and whispered again, “They didn’t deserve that.”

———————————

It took a lot of coaxing to get the boys to tell the story of what had taken place. The mothers and fathers of the three survivors wondered if they hadn’t lost their sons as well. The sparkle had been extinguished from their eyes and the music from their voices. Slowly the story came out and was pieced together.

After they had gotten home, Joe had finally turned to his father and fallen into the strong arms that had never failed him. “I didn’t get to say goodbye to Charlie,” He cried. “He was dead by the time I got there. It’s not fair. You should be given the chance to tell your friends all they meant to you.” Joe buried his face in his father’s shoulder for a time and let his tears soak through Ben’s shirt.

Ben too had tears streaming down his face as he wrapped his arms tighter around his child. “They knew, son.” He tenderly rubbed the hair on the back of Joe’s head, “You risked your life as well, you all did. That just shows the love you had for your friends.”

“But, Pa, they gave their lives, and I can never repay that debt.”

“Son, live your life in a way that will make them proud. I’m proud of you, Joe, and I love you so much.”

———————————–

Joe stood stiffly his back as straight as he could manage, his head and neck facing firmly ahead, his eyes staring forward at nothing in particular. His actions were nearly perfectly mirrored by the two men standing on either side of him.

The minister read the verses that he had read many times before on this very hill. He finished with a prayer and looked up at the faces of the three men who stood rigidly across from him. “And now as we lay these, Charles Turner and Jackson Collins, to their final resting place, we look forward to the hope we have in the resurrection.” The minister turned to Ben. “I believe you have something you wanted to say, Mr Cartwright?”

Ben stepped forward and took the Bible from the minister. “I would like to read a verse that I believe is true not only for Jackson and Charles, but also for Seth, Mitchell, and Joseph.” Ben thumbed through the well worn pages until he found what he was searching for. Glancing up to see if he had the attention he wanted and clearing his throat he read the verse. “Greater lover hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Ben handed the Bible back to the minister. “These two sons that we lay to rest here, were not the only ones who showed great love.” Ben looked at the families of Jack and Charlie then continued. “You all were willing to give your lives for each other. As a parent I can say that sometimes we don’t realize how grown up our children really are.” Ben clasped his hands together behind his back, “A wise man once said: ‘Friendship is held to be the severest test of character. It is easy, we think, to be loyal to a family and clan, whose blood is in your own veins…’” Ben looked at each of his sons but let his gaze rest on Joe as he continued. “‘But to have a friend and to be true under any and all trials is the mark of a man.’ We are proud of our sons.”

Joe was the first to turn away as the graves where filled in. Mitch and Seth turned and flanked either side of his as they went to Charlie and Jack’s parents and gave them hugs and handshakes then made there way back from the cemetery. When they reached the Cartwright buggy they stopped and looked at each other. Tears escaped their eyes and they were quick to wipe them away.

Joe reached out and grabbed one of each of his friends’ hands and looked between them. “My friends,” he whispered. “Thank you.”

Mitch and Seth nodded and left to join their families.

They would always regret that hunting trip. They would forever look back on it with sorrow and loathing. They would never forget their friends who died up on that mountain; their memories would live on forever in hearts of those they left behind.

Every spring after, if one was to ride by the cemetery on a March day, he would see a dazzling display of flowers. No one ever truly knew how the flowers got there year after year that too was speculated on by the town gossips.

The story would never fully get out, although, bits and pieces over the years have been told. The three survivors decided it best to have the hatred stop with them. The Indians had attacked them in retaliation to John Tyrone’s actions, and although there was a time when they discussed a retaliation of their own, they decided to bring to an end the killing thus hopefully preventing further innocent men from dying.

It would be a long time before any of the friends could be persuaded to go on a hunting trip. None of them ever returned to the pretty lake in the mountains where they had shared such a good time.  For they would never be able to remember the fun without the horror, nor the laughter without the tears.

End Notes:

*Quote on friendship by: C. Eastman*

Thank you for reading! This was my first Bonanza Fanfic and I enjoyed writing it for everyone on the WIP forum of another site. I hope you enjoyed it and feel free to leave a review and tell me what you thought.

Special thanks to all who encouraged me throughout the writing process.

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.

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Author: BnzaGal

I'm a member on the forums here at BB and have written a few Fanfics that I hope you will read and enjoy!

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