Summary: Written for the Cartwrighter’s magazine and edited to fit the 2012 January Chaps and Spurs challenge. One of the Cartwright boys finds himself in a tight spot.
Rated: T (3,050 words)
The trouble with Pa is that he worries too much, it’s what gave him all that grey hair in the first place. He worries about all of us boys, but Joe most of all. That kid always seems to get himself into the worst kinds of trouble without half trying. He comes home beaten up almost every time he goes to town. He gets shot more than the rest of us—although little brother would just blame that one on bad timing—gets sick more often than the rest of us, and he’s a terrible flirt which usually ends in a shootout with the girl’s father or brother or cousin. All in all, the kid’s trouble with a capital T! I remember reading in the Bible that his name means “He shall add”, well I can attest to that, Joe does add to the family, but what he adds is chaos. He should have been born with a warning label attached to his big toe. The thought makes me chuckle, but as my chest heaves with mirth the laugh turns into a groan as the movement pulls at my wounds—reminding me of the mess I’m in. Maybe this time I’ve given my pa a reason to worry. If only he were here….
Someone down there must have heard me moaning because the next thing I know bullets riddle the oak tree I’m leaning against, ricocheting off of the boulder to my right and I instinctively jerk away from the ugly sound. They miss their target, of course; shooting uphill isn’t any picnic and more often than not when doing so, a man aims too low or too high to strike what he’s shooting at. That knowledge would give me a sense of relief under ordinary circumstances, but in this case….
There are more of them than there are of me—about seven times more—and by now they’ve probably sent some of their number crawling up the mountainside to circle behind my hiding place.
Another twinge of agony zips through me and I force my gaze downward, taking in the damage done to me. For once I’m glad I’m not dressed wholly in black, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to see the wreck that my poor body has become. The white shirt I put on this morning to impress the lovely Miss Bonnie Ingram is now stained a deep crimson, but I can still make out the two bullet holes: one is just below my ribcage on the left side, the other higher in my chest. Both wounds leak my life’s blood into the ground around me. My brain feels fuzzy around the edges as I try to remember why I’m here on Lonesome Mountain. Lonesome Mountain…what an apt name; to be truthful, that’s not the real name of this place—for the name has somehow been lost in the passing of time—, but my brothers and I call it that because it’s the only mountain we pass on the way to and from Virginia City and it kinda stands out like a sore thumb in the middle of nowhere. It’s also not within the boundary lines of the Ponderosa which makes my predicament even worse. No one will know I’m in trouble until it is too late.
Why am I here? The question nags at me and the more I try to force the reason to the front of my mind the more it shunts away into the recesses of my brain. Frustration makes me want to scream, but I finally give up; I need to save my strength for what is to come not waste it on something that will probably show up when I’m no longer searching for it.
My head snaps upwards at the noise; I must have passed out there for a while, because the sun is no longer overhead, but on its way down towards the western horizon. Another rustle in the brush above me and my hands clasp the stock of my rifle in a death-grip. They’re all around me now just like I thought they’d be and I’m still no closer to finding a way out of this fix. Not that I’m looking too hard for one; I guess I’m still hoping that my family will show up to rescue me, but that mere flicker of hope in my heart is quickly dying…like I am. Sweat trickles down the side of my face and I raise my arm to wipe it away; the only problem is it’s not sweat. It’s blood. Ever so gently, I let my fingers probe my scalp until they find a raw furrow directly above my right ear. No wonder I’m having trouble remembering things.
The men below start another barrage of firing and I twist painfully around, lifting my rifle to my shoulder in one fluid movement. My finger begins to take in slack on the trigger when I hear a pistol cocking behind me.
“Hold it right there, Cartwright!” A gruff voice barks in my ear, making the headache I’m trying to ignore reach a crescendo. An icy shiver slides down my back as if someone stepped on my grave; the thought of my body lying in a six-foot hole in the ground is not a pleasant one. I freeze, knowing that my life will soon be over and with little to show for it—save a college degree in architecture that I almost never use. Odd, for as long as I can remember I’ve used a gun, but I never thought my life would be ended by a bullet at the age of twenty-nine. Then again, the Good Book does say, “for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword,”* and who am I to question the Word of God?
“Turn around slowly an’ don’t try anythin’ stupid! This here six-shooter ain’t too particular who she takes outta this world, ya hear?”
“Whom.” I mutter under my breath, hoping all the while that my captors don’t hear me; I hate it when people misuse the English language. What did he say? Turn around? Ha! From the messages my body keeps sending me, I’d say it will be nigh on impossible to obey him. The moment I try to move, a wave of excruciating pain takes hold of me and all I can do is lean my head against the bowl of the tree as the shotgun drops from my nerveless fingers. The man behind me must have grown impatient because he grabs the back of my shirt and yanks me around and to my feet, facing him. I almost black out again, my agonizing scream echoing off the nearby rocks.
“Well, Johnny, looks like one of the boys done hit him after all.” The black spots clear from my vision just in time for me to get a good look at the speaker—a stumpy, toe-headed stranger who looks more like a schoolboy than a full-grown man. The other one with his paws on me must be Johnny; he is taller than his cohort and is sporting a huge droopy mustache the color of mud. He ignores his partner, his eyes roving over me as if he is in the process of buying a horse.
Horse! The word sends my brain into action and a fragment of memory surfaces. I was on my way home from town when something struck me in the head, knocking me from Sport’s saddle to the dirt of the road right near this solitary peak. I had dragged myself into the brush, thinking no one would follow me up Lonesome. My mind is still a bit hazy, but I remember enough of what happened to know I can’t trust these two goons in front of me.
“Shorty, go tell Pete we got ’em.” Johnny growls, his black orbs never leaving mine. Shorty gives his boss a half-witted grin before climbing atop the boulder that had been part of my cover, and shouting the information to the other miscreants further down the slope, which earned him an irritated frown from Johnny.
“Alright, where is it?” Johnny shakes me slightly as if whatever he’s searching for will drop out of my pockets. He notices the blank look on my face and shoves his gun under my nose before repeating the question.
“Where is the money?”
Money? What money—Sport! Another bit of memory returns; the fool horse has it in his saddlebags and he ran off when I fell from his back. He must be home by now. Suddenly, Johnny slaps me across the face as his patience runs out.
“I said, where—” The rest of his sentence is drowned out by three gun-shots fired in rapid succession, fanning the embers of hope within me into a flame again. My family is here. Shock gives me the precious seconds I need and I grab for the gun, tearing myself from Johnny’s grasp in the process. Adrenaline floods through my veins as the outlaw finally snaps out of his trance and tugs on the firearm between us. Gunfire and smoke fill the air as the other men start firing, but I focus all my attention on the pistol I’m fighting for. Johnny gets a hand free and backhands me across the mouth; miraculously, I’m able to stay upright and even get a few punches in. Suddenly, Shorty drops from his perch on the boulder, knocking both of us to the ground; for a second all Johnny and I can do is stare in gruesome fascination at Shorty. He looks like he’s asleep…or he would if not for the blue hole in his forehead and the fact that the back of his skull is missing. This time Johnny acts first, rolling out from under the dead man’s cumbersome body and picking the Colt out of the dust. I’m not that far behind him in returning to my senses. I launch myself into the air and latch a hold of the gun’s muzzle. We throw a few punches at each other and then one of Johnny’s fists makes contact with my wounded side, making me cry out. One of my hands instinctively starts to claw at my attackers eyes, but then the gun we’re wresting over goes off.
Everything is silent now that the fight is finished; smoke drifts in billows on its way down the mountain. Shakily I make it to my feet and stare at the unmoving body before me. Johnny lays in a spreading pool of red, his eyes fixed in a horrified expression as he gazes on hell itself. In less than three minutes the fight is over. The weapon falls from my grip and I take only a few steps before the world swirls in front of me. I want to reach out to the nearest tree trunk for support, but my arms won’t obey.
“Adam!” The voice seems to be coming from far away even though I can see the man calling to me as he runs up the steep incline in my direction, his big white hat falls off in the process. Then the ground tilts, I’m lying on my face in the dirt and the light around me is fading into grey.
I’m floating in a sea of pain and for a while it’s all I can focus on until something pinches me in the thigh. The agony lessens and I hear muffled voices somewhere close by.
“…got the bullets out…lot of blood…fever…infection….”
“Is there…can do?”
…him cool…need anything…you know where…find me.”
“There’s coffee…stove if you want….”
“Thank you…I’ll do that….”
My brain starts to get cloudy again as the babble continues and I sink gratefully into the waiting arms of oblivion.
The next time I surface from the deep waters of unconsciousness, someone is screaming bloody murder. I wish they would stop shouting in my ear, I’m already uncomfortable as it is. The room is closing in on me and I’m too hot. No, I’m not just hot, I’m burning alive! Flames surround me, smoke fills the air clogging my eyes and lungs making it too hard for me to breathe. Suddenly, the haze parts as a familiar figure stalks towards me. My heart lodges in my throat as I realize who it is: Johnny and he has a gun in his hands. Shocked, I try to back up, but someone is holding me in place. I peer around, I finally see the other man—Shorty–a wolfish smile twisting his once normal features into a grotesque mask. My eyes skitter back to the hell in front of me. Johnny takes a step closer and then another until the mouth of the pistol presses against my flesh, searing it like an iron.
“N-no! You’re not real!” I gasp, thrashing around as I try to break Shorty’s hold on my arms. The man in front of me leers and tongues of red fire reflect back at me in his obsidian gaze.
“Welcome to hell.” He grates and then pulls the trigger. The bullet tears into me and I’m falling into the raging inferno—screaming all the way down.
My eyelids are heavy. Peace surrounds me and the nightmare is over. Just as I breathe a sigh of relief, an awful sound rumbles through the room, stops, then repeats itself. With an effort I open my eyes and the plank ceiling is a welcomed sight. Fingers of light play upon the rough wood and I follow the beams over to the window that they are streaming through. My father sits slumped in a chair beside me and then it hits me. I’m home…I’m safe. I let my eyes close, but the annoying noise—which my brain has finally put a name to—begins again. My arm won’t move so I try to speak, but it comes out as a soft moan instead of anything intelligible. It’s enough though. Pa leans over me, touching my forehead with the back of his calloused hand and offering me a drink from a cup sitting on my bedside table.
“Better?” He whispers.
“Mmmm…Pa?” He strokes the hair back from my face in a gesture he normally uses on my kid brother.
“Will you tell Hoss to stop snoring, that racket is giving me a headache.” A huge smile spreads over his features, making him look ten years younger. A chuckle escapes his lips.
“I’ll do that, Son.” He says and exits the room for a few short minutes to turn Hoss onto his side.
I almost manage to drift off to sleep when a thumping down the hall rouses me and there’s Little Joe leaning on a crutch in the doorway to my room. When he sees that I’m awake, he grins at me.
“Boy am I glad to see you, Adam, you nearly gave me a heart attack!”
“What?” He asks as he limps into the room and settles himself on the end of my bed.
“This is all your fault!” I retort hotly. Joe tilts his head, his face screwing up in confusion.
“If you hadn’t allowed that bay to stomp on your foot, I’d be in one piece right now.” I glare at him, hoping all the while that he sees the humor glinting in my eyes. He wrinkles his nose at me.
“Hey! I can’t help the fact that Doc Martin decided to plaster my foot up. A hairline fracture is what he called it and you know Pa’s the one who put me on light duty around here.”
“Oh sure, blame it on extenuating circumstances all you want, I still think you used your “injury” just to weasel your way out of picking up the payroll.” Joe gives me a wounded glance.
“Like I would do something like that to my own brother!” I would smack the innocent look off of his face if I had the energy, but Pa chooses this exact moment to reappear in the room.
“How did you find me?” I change the subject, asking the question that keeps bouncing around in my skull.
“We backtracked the trail Sport made until we found the bloodstain you left on the ground. The gunshots made it easy to locate you. Oh, and you better thank Hoss when he wakes up, he was the one who spotted you and gave us the signal.” Pa explains.
“Yeah, and while you’re thanking Hoss for saving your sorry hide, you might want to make an apology to Hop Sing. He’s sure mad about all the tears and spots you left on that white shirt of yours.” Joe inserted.
“Joseph, let your brother rest.” Pa ruffles the youth’s unruly curls, eliciting a groan of irritation from him before the teen forces himself into a standing position. He makes it all the way to the door then he throws me one of his famous grins before he disappears into the hallway.
“Pa?” The fog is starting to roll in on me again.
“Thanks.” It’s all I can manage, but my father seems to understand what I mean; he bends down and kisses my forehead lightly. Then I relax into my pillow and fall deep into a healing sleep, knowing all the while that my family will be here when I wake up.
*Matthew 26:52 NASB version (which obviously didn’t exist at the time of this story, but this version expresses the verse the way I so desired.)
I’d like to thank one of my reviewers for noticing a very important word that was missing; Puchi Ann, I added “grin” back in! 😀 As to the question of how Doc Martin would know that Joe had a hairline fracture, I have no clue. Call it the 21st century meets the Old West; I’ll see if I can come up with some way to fix it later. 😉
Thanks, everyone for reading and reviewing!
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